Totem, Part 1

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Only after the humans left did the birds advance. It wasn’t that they were afraid—they’d lived among people for some time and had grown used to them long ago—only that it would be easier to find what they were looking for without having to dodge the many arms and legs in a crowd.

Now that the lunch hour was over, they fanned out, charged into the outdoor dining area of a nearby sandwich shop with a singularity of mind and purpose no mere birds would have been capable of.

It’s close, called one in a soundless thought that carried effortlessly across the intervening distance. I can feel it.

It’s companions chirped in reply.

Centuries of life bound to the cold blue sky, imprisoned in fragile yet frustratingly immortal bodies. Oh, how they longed for death, and because of their master’s cruelty, it was a luxury thus far denied them.

But no prison was ever foolproof. There were always ways to skirt the rules, if only one was willing to search hard enough and long enough for solutions.

Their leader, the one who’d first spoken, poked a tiny, jittering head between the legs of a shiny aluminum table.

Not here, it cried.

Not here either, said another, fluttering out of an open trash can.

They could all feel it, an irresistible pull toward the general area. Yet that was as far as their senses allowed, and all they could do now was continue scouring the city until they located the item they sought.

A totem. Every binding required one, a physical object linked by magic to another. It was a symbol of sorts, a contract that, once broken, released the binding. In their case, it was a bracelet, a deceptively simple piece of inlaid ivory with six avian figures carved into the surface, each corresponding to another of their number. Their human bodies and mortality had been bound to them, leaving them trapped in their blackbird forms.

Strange, their leader thought, that such a relic of the past—a relic of magic and mysticism—would find its way here, to one of the many concrete jungles erected as a monument to modern, rational ideals. Had their master passed it down through his family, or had it been lost to time, eventually finding its way to the city by accident? Did it currently have an owner, and if so, did that person understand the nature of the object they possessed? Most importantly, what would happen if they retrieved it? How would they destroy it? They were only birds, without the ability to wield tools.

So many uncertainties, yet they all believed freedom was possible. They had to, because the alternative to belief was madness.

There!

One of the six had stopped with its head slanted forward, twittering left and right as it beheld with dark, glassy eyes a woman through one of the sandwich shop’s windows. It sent the image to its companions, and a moment later they were all fluttering over to meet him.

The woman stood behind a counter, stacking racks into a large metal box. And there, on her wrist, an ivory bracelet with six masterfully crafted birds, carved into the bone-white surface.

She wears it like jewelry, exclaimed one.

How did she come to possess it, asked another.

They regarded her with their pointed beaks and dark button eyes and pondered their next move.

Due to popular request, I’ve decided to follow this up with Part 2. This second installment will not resolve the conflict introduced here in Part 1. Rather, I plan to continue expanding on this as more ideas come to me. I can’t guarantee I’ll finish this story, only that I’ll explore it in more depth in upcoming blogs.

Star Light, Star Bright

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Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight;
I wish I am, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

It was a nursery rhyme his grandmother had taught him when he was five, and he remembered it tonight, when the celestial canvas above spread itself before him like gold dust, when she, his beloved star, beamed down from the sky, a glistening pearl against a backdrop of jewel-encrusted black. So much larger than the other stars, she dominated the heavens, a goddess among angels.

“My love,” he called out after reciting his grandmother’s poem like an incantation, “come back for me.”

“Then you wish to return home?” came her reply.

Sam thought of where he’d come from; of the songs he and his siblings would sing, rippling through space and time without beginning or end; of the way the lights from colliding galaxies and stars would caper and dance against the looming silver spires and golden streets of his city in the sky; and, most importantly, of his queen, the star who addressed him now, garbed in shimmering robes so white, so bright that no earthly dye could reproduce them.

“Yes, I do.”

Long ago, he’d asked to become human. He’d wanted to be different, to experience the sort of corporeal life that was inaccessible to his kind. But as his earthly brethren were so fond of saying, the grass was always greener on the other side, and only after the ethereal wonders of his former life were far behind him had he realized his mistake.

“It’s lonely here,” he continued, choking back a sob. “Our minds are closed to each other. A person might say one thing and mean something else entirely. People are tiny islands of private thought surrounded by endless dark.”

“But do you not know,” said the star, “that what we are, so too shall they become? Were I not to bring you home now, you would still return to us at the end of your life, and by that time you would have learned much.”

“No,” he whispered, and he could hold back his tears no longer. “Please, don’t make me wait.”

Her light grew so intense, so bright that Sam had to squint his eyes to narrow slits. She was descending now, becoming part of his world.

“This is not a punishment,” she sang, and he could feel her inside of him now, warming his heart, imparting love and life and light. “It is a journey. Take the good with the bad. Savor your brokenness and your imperfections, your sadness and your despair, for they will teach you far more than we ever could. There’s a reason you longed to be human. Your nature demanded it, and I would not rob you of it now.”

Sam wept like a child, tears pattering the grass beneath his feet like rain.

“Live your life, and when your time on Earth is complete, you will take your place beside me once more.”

“Yes, my love. I understand.” It came out a hoarse whisper.

She shot out of him then, and as her light receded into the distance, as his beloved star faded until she was indistinguishable from the rest of his brothers and sisters, he pondered the mysteries of time and death and wondered when he would be whole once more.

Tethered

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A world of infinite blue. A world of freedom, of endless possibilities. I stare into the sky, squint against the light of the sun, and think that if I could, I would spread my wings and fly.

But that isn’t possible, not anymore. Once I could have gone anywhere, could have been anyone I wanted. But now my wings have been clipped, and all I can do is flutter with these useless stubs, tethered to the ground, and dream about how life might have turned out different.

It’s during one of these futile daydreams that I first feel it, an electric tingle at the tips of my fingers. Soon it spreads, shoots up my arms and shoulders, crawls up my spine, accumulates inside my head.

The world around me grows dark, and another world behind my eyes unfolds.

My master, sitting in a high-backed chair behind a heavy oak desk. His hands are held to his temples as he concentrates, compiling the very message I’m viewing now.

Michael, I need you.

I feel the urgency of his call, the wild-eyed fear as his enemies close in around him. How have they found him, he wonders. He’s been careful. He’s never stayed in the same place twice. Yet here they are.

I am his only hope, the only one who can save him.

Michael, remember our arrangement.

The vision dissolves, and the world before my eyes brightens once more. I return my gaze to the sky and ponder my next move.

My master is cruel, a dark being of incredible power. I never wanted to serve him. Indeed, I was coerced. A binding was placed upon my heart, and I was told that if I did not obey, I would die.

I have served my master well, and in return, I have outlived my great grandchildren by more than thirty generations. But what good is life so far removed from one’s own time, from all the people and places and things one once loved?

Another sending, more forceful than the first.

My master, no longer sitting in the chair in his study, but running through a labyrinthine tangle of corridors deep beneath the Earth.

Michael, come!

In the end, I am little more than a faithful hound—and, at times, when my master’s mood is easygoing, an object of fleeting superficial affection.

“When I die,” he once warned me, wagging his finger as if scolding a child, “so will you.” It was his insurance that I would do as he said, that I would defend him to the last. Now, I wonder if my life has any remaining value, or if it might be better to let him pass, to let the world be rid of him as well as myself.

One last sending. No images this time, only a single word.

MICHAEL!

I imagine his enemies cornering him, defenseless without my help, and then I consider what it will feel like to finally be free.

A Theory

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Light beamed down from a bright vermilion sky, reflecting off the surface of the water like stained glass. Samantha paced across a small stone outcrop, a solitary island surrounded by endless sea. No sound but the serene lapping of water at the edges.

There had to be a way out, she thought. There had to be a way to return home. But in her heart, Samantha knew there was no going back.

No one in the history of magic had ever devised a working method of instantaneous travel, but a year ago, Samantha had come up with a theory. She’d seen something no one else had, something so obvious, she couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been tried before.

A temporary fusing of two places, a bleeding of one setting into another. Samantha had made her calculations, and when it was time to put those calculations to the test, she setup her equipment under the watchful gaze of her advisors, powering them up with only a small trickle of energy from her magically-charged fingertips.

The gathering grew tense when at first nothing happened. Then the space inside the machine darkened, and everyone held their breath. A moment later, there was light again, only now it was light from someplace else.

She’d done it! Samantha was overcome with joy. Her advisors clapped her on the back and congratulated her for a job well done.

She had no idea where the artificial portal led. Her instruments weren’t that precise, and the location was random, some alien vista from a far-off world. Samantha was an explorer at heart, and her desire to step through—to be the first human to set foot so far from home—got the best of her.

Without thinking, she walked forward. They could leave the machine on, she reasoned. She could set foot on the soil of another world, take a quick look around, then come back and be a hero.

It was spectacular—that crimson sky, that endless ocean. The air smelled like nothing she’d encountered before, not the salty tang of an Earthly shore but something different. She wished she had more time to explore. But she had to go back before the machine powered down. No matter. There would be other places. She only hoped they would all be as beautiful as this one.

A faint hum caught her attention. She turned, ready to go back, and that was when she realized with horror that the portal had started to fade.

“No!” She lunged, watching the faces of her horrified advisors darken, but it was too late. She fell to the dusty ground where a portal had once stood.

Stupid! She should have realized what would happen. She’d been powering the machine, so of course, as soon as she traveled, the flow of energy would be cut off. How could she have been so short sighted?

Now, there was no way back, and all Samantha could do was watch the alien sun set—watch the sky fade, first to a dull copper, then to a dusky purple.

When at last the stars came up in the sky—a vast array of constellations that were not her own—she looked up in despair and wondered which one was home.

A Proposal, Part 3

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This is the third installment of a seven part series.

If you’re looking for part 1, you can find it here.
If you’re looking for part 2, you can find it here.

“Hurt you, Miss? Now, whatever gave you that idea?”

“Please,” she repeated. “Don’t hurt me.”

Jill wanted to screw her eyes shut, but she couldn’t look away from his terrifying visage. Lit by the lantern that stood between them, she thought back to carving jack-o-lanterns with her daughter for Halloween, to the jagged teeth and the wicked smile, and the smoldering light behind the eyes.

“I already told you, Miss, I only want to talk. I never said anything about hurting you.”

On his knees, Mr. Jacobs reached for her. But Jill yelped and he pulled back.

“Leave me alone.”

“Okay,” said Mr. Jacobs, settling now into a sitting position. “Then how about we talk from here.”

All the muscles in Jill’s body had bunched up tight, and sweat poured down her neck and back. She thought if her heart didn’t slow down soon, it might explode.

He held her there with his eyes, a steady level gaze that spoke of patience and need. The look was calm, almost weary, yet it possessed an urgency that Jill didn’t trust. She said nothing, only waited for Mr. Jacobs to make his next move.

“Well,” he announced at last, “This is awkward.” He shifted in the flickering light, shadows writhing like snakes, contorting into strange shapes on the stone walls. “You spend a few hundred years thinking about what you’re going to say, and then the time finally comes and you make a mess of it.” He shook his head and Jill thought he looked genuinely abashed.

A few hundred years? So he was crazy. Jill tried not to think about how he’d appeared inside her house after she’d closed the door behind him.

“Well, Miss, I suppose the only way to go is forward. I know you don’t trust me. I wouldn’t if our situations were reversed. All I ask is that you listen.”

Jill didn’t see what choice she had.

“I’ve lived a long life, Miss. A wondrous life, an exotic life, an adventurous life, but nevertheless a long life. Too long. I’ve witnessed history first hand, and if you don’t mind me saying so, quite the spectacle it’s been. But I’m tired, Miss. This mortal mind of mine wasn’t made for immortality.”

Mr. Jacobs sighed, a slow dusty rattle that stirred strange visions and haunting notions. Nobody could live forever, thought Jill, that was a fact, but what he’d said had moved her just the same. Perhaps it was the way the light had gone out of his eyes when he started to tell his story. Jill didn’t know how or why his words effected her, but despite the fantastical nature of his claim, she had the chilling feeling they held the ring of truth.

“That can’t be,” she said in a creaky whisper.

“I assure you,” said Mr. Jacobs, “It is.”

And God help her, Jill believed him.

Silence filled the space between them, until finally Jill asked, “What does this have to do with me?”

The light blazed in his eyes once more. Mr. Jacobs smiled, and Jill didn’t think the gesture was particularly friendly.

“As to that, Miss, I have a proposal.”

Once again, that atavistic shiver surged down the length of Jill’s spine. A proposal. A dreadful word, coming from his mouth. What sort of dark agreement would Mr. Jacobs try to wring out of her?

“Don’t you want to hear about it?”

Jill was silent.

“What if I told you I could offer you everlasting life? Would that pique your interest?”

The question hit her hard. It was a strange hope, the sort she’d never dared to consider. In Sunday school, she’d learned this life was temporary, that humans were made for communion with God in the life to come and nothing else. She’d always accepted that, and when she grew old she hadn’t complained. She’d said her daily prayers, done her best to make peace with her creator and resolved to wait patiently for the day Death would draw her number. But to hear someone say that they could change this ultimate fate, that perhaps immortality was possible after all, that changed her perspective. Now she doubted the beliefs of her childhood. Now, she pondered what the concept of eternal life could mean in the context of an otherwise mortal existence.

Yes, she thought, Mr. Jacobs had piqued her interest, all right.

“I thought it might,” said the man, staring as if he’d read her mind. The flame of the lantern reflected back at her in the pupils of his dark, wet eyes.

Jill tried to clear her throat along with her mind. “You said you were tired, Mr. Jacobs. And didn’t you also say…” She licked her lips. “…didn’t you also say, This mortal mind of mine wasn’t made for immortality? If you’re trying to sell me something, you’re doing a poor job.”

Mr. Jacobs chuckled. “You’re sharp, Miss. Sharp as a tack. Yes, I suppose my words don’t make for a ringing endorsement. But what in life is ever perfect? Are there not drawbacks to every reward?”

Jill considered.

“It’s not such a bad deal, you know, all things considered. Think of all the things you’ll witness. You’ll get to watch your daughter grow old. You’ll get to watch your grandchildren grow old. Your great grandchildren. On and on, down through the generations. You’ll get to see how history unfolds, how the decisions you made in life rippled out through time, magnifying, how they shaped society, nations, the world. So much to see. So much to learn. No longer will you feel the burden of time weighing down on your shoulders. Think of it, Miss. Think of it!”

Jill pondered the way the light played upon his face and wondered if he really believed that.

“What about the weariness? How do you live with that? How does it weigh on your shoulders, Mr. Jacobs?”

“It’s a heavy burden,” he conceded. “At times, unbearable. But you can live with it for as long as you’d like, and when the burden becomes too great you can pass it on to someone else, just as I’m offering to pass it on to you.”

“So that’s it,” said Jill. “That’s your proposal. You want to die, and somehow, by passing immortality on to me, that becomes possible for you.”

“Right as rain, Miss. Right as rain. Everlasting life for you, and in exchange I can finally end my own. We both get what we want. Everyone wins.”

But Jill wasn’t sure she wanted it. Even now, as that forbidden hope churned within, she thought of the faith that had sustained her for so many years, the faith that had seen her through so many excruciating trials.

“I don’t know,” said Jill from her hiding place beneath the bed. “Honestly, Mr. Jacobs, I don’t know what I want.”

“All I ask is that you think about it.”

“And what if I decide not to accept your offer? Will you force me to take it anyway?”

“That’s not how it works, Miss. If I could imprison you here until you said yes, if I could force your consent by kidnapping your daughter, by torturing her, by killing her, I would. But that’s not how it works, Miss, that’s not how it’s ever worked. It’s a state that must be freely given and freely accepted. All I want is for you to consider my offer.”

The man’s words horrified her, not only for their cruel and inhuman honesty, but for the fact that, as terrible as making a deal with Mr. Jacobs might be, she was still, after everything that had passed between them, tempted by the offer.

“Go home,” said Mr. Jacobs. “Live what life you have left. Enjoy it to the fullest. I’ll send you reminders from time to time, and when your life draws to a close, I’ll be around again.”

And in the very next breath she was in her kitchen once again, laying on her mattress with the TV on, just as she’d left it when she got up to answer the door. Late afternoon light burst through the sliding glass door, piercing her eyes.

A dream? How fortunate that would be, to get off so easy. But when she looked down at her hands, when she noted the scrapes and bruises that ran along her palms and forearms, souvenirs from her futile attempt to flee that mysterious room and the man who’d brought her there, she knew the rest of her life wouldn’t be so simple.

Someday, she was certain, Mr. Jacobs would return.

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A Proposal, Part 2

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This is the second installment in a seven part series. Parts 1–3 will be posted for free on the blog. Parts 4–7 will be posted exclusively on Patreon in exchange for a small monthly pledge.

If you’re looking for part 1, you can find it here.

It was dark when Jill opened her eyes. What time was it? The lights were off. She must have fallen asleep, only when her eyes started to adjust, she found the shapes in the room to be unfamiliar. Instead of the simple cubic dimensions of her kitchen, she was faced with broad high-reaching curves, with columns and formations that resembled stone and masonry rather than drywall and wood.

Her heart seized in a bright flare of panic, and for one terrifying moment she thought it would stop for good. The man at the door had been in her house (how was that even possible when she’d just closed the door on him?) and then she’d passed out. Where had he taken her while she was unconscious?

She was still lying on the bed from her kitchen, but now it stood against a wall, with a large Gothic window that let in the flat monochromatic light of the moon. Like a castle, thought Jill, like something she would have seen in a black and white vampire movie when she was much younger. Only this was real, this was actually happening.

The room was quiet, dead, like a tomb, which was why, even with her hearing as bad as it was, she picked out the dusty sound of distant footsteps.

The man, Mr. Jacobs, was coming for her. She had to hide.

She tried to get up, but all too quickly she remembered her rapidly deteriorating body. She had to work herself to the point of exhaustion just to reach a sitting position, and a quick test of shifting her weight onto her legs told her she wouldn’t get anywhere without her walker. When had she gotten so old, so feeble? In her head, she was still that nineteen year old girl she’d once spied in the mirror almost a quarter of a century ago.

Nevermind. Her body might be failing her, but she still had a few tricks up her sleeve, and determination if nothing else would see her through this nightmare. There was no way her legs were going to save her. Instead, she tipped forward, leaning out until she was caught by gravity’s jealous grip. Falling toward the ground, Jill held her hands out, praying with fervent devotion that she could catch herself when she hit the floor, that she wouldn’t break an arm or a hip.

The ground was stone, and the landing hurt more than she’d anticipated. But she’d braced herself, and the mattress wasn’t so high that the fall was catastrophic. She rested for a moment, waiting for the pain to subside, and all the while those footsteps grew closer, louder, echoing now in spaces as of yet unseen.

“You can do this, old girl,” she whispered to herself as she reached forward with one shaking hand at a time, dragging herself across the floor, looking for a place to hide.

Left. Right. On her belly, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden (“On your belly you will go, and dust will you eat all the days of your life.”) She crawled across the stone in small incremental stretches. Mr. Jacobs was close now; surely it was he who approached. A rational interior voice warned that fleeing was no use, that hiding was impossible, that there was no way she could outrun him once he saw her. But while her body might have succumbed to age, her spirit and her determination to survive had not. She was happy to die in the Good Lord’s time, but not Mr. Jacobs’s.

The room was barren, with only an empty high backed chair propped beside the bed. Nowhere to go, so she did the only thing she could think to do. She crawled back, clawing at the cold stone beneath her fingertips, brittle bones creaking, dry joints cracking. Sweat beaded across her forehead like tiny moonlit diamonds. She grabbed the smooth black poles beneath the bed, hid herself beneath its looming shadow and took several moments to catch her breath before falling silent.

The view under the mattress was all at once familiar and strange, a bizarre vantage overlooking life from a more preternatural angle. How odd that so many ordinary events in an otherwise normal life should ultimately converge on a moment so otherworldly and terrifying.

The footsteps came to a thundering crescendo, like gunshots, or the pounding of primeval drums, then stopped. Perhaps he would move on. Perhaps he would give her time enough to find a way out.

No such luck.

Another sound, a booming metallic rattle, then a crack. A moment later, a door swung open. She peered into the dark. There, standing on the threshold, the dim light of a lantern seeming to set his features on fire, was Mr. Jacobs.

Dracula, she thought, thinking back to her old movies once more, and Jill suppressed a shudder. The man lifted his feeble wellspring of light into the dark, revealing more of the elaborate Gothic architecture.

He started toward the bed.

“Miss?”

Farther he pressed into the dark, the circle of light coming closer, eager to announce her presence. She’s over there! she could almost hear it scream. Over there, beneath the bed!

“Miss?”

Mr. Jacobs stood beside her now. He saw that the mattress was empty, and that was when he lowered the lantern to the floor, where the treacherous light betrayed her at last.

“What are you doing under there, Miss?”

No answer.

Jill had never known such paralyzing fear. The same electric shock she’d felt the first time she saw him standing on her doorstep shot through her again. This was how she would die, not in her sleep in front of the TV, a painless exhalation of her spirit that would propel her into the arms of her Lord at last, but in feral, abject terror.

“Please,” she croaked, and then she started to cry. “Please, don’t hurt me.”

Mr. Jacobs stared at her, and the moment was reduced to a timeless pocket of eternity. Then he knelt before her and grinned.

Click here to read Part 3.

A Proposal, Part 1

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This is the first installment in a seven part series. Parts 1–3 will be posted for free on the blog. Parts 4–7 will be posted exclusively on Patreon in exchange for a small monthly pledge.

It was the day the axis of Jill’s life forever shifted, the day she was swept away by the gravity of sinister forces, compelled to walk a dark and inexorable path. If only she hadn’t answered the door, she thought later, if only she’d stayed in the kitchen and watched TV. If only, she would think forever after, looking over her shoulder for the man hiding in the shadows, if only…

There were three things they didn’t tell you about getting old, as far as Jill was concerned. The first were the frequent bouts of insomnia, as if the mind, terrified of death looming on the horizon, had decided to stay awake and make up for lost time. The second was that most of your friends and family were dead, with more dying each year. Live long enough, and you might discover you’re the only one left, the unlucky winner of life’s wicked lottery. The third, and arguably the worst, was the lack of mobility. Everyone always said they couldn’t wait to retire, that they’d travel the world, build a workshop, or sit down to write that memoir. Trouble was the body refused to cooperate. It gave a sad new meaning to the expression, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Jill herself had had enough, and she’d be happy to go when the Good Lord called her home.

That last thought had just occurred to her when someone knocked on the door. Jill started. She wasn’t expecting company. Maybe it was the electricity man come to chase after another unpaid bill. It had happened last month, and her caretaker Rosalyn had warned her to be more careful (that was the fourth thing they didn’t tell you about getting old: your head had more holes than a pasta strainer.) She prayed even now that her daughter in Chicago wouldn’t find out. She’d already threatened to put Jill in a home, and only after hours of pleading for her independence had Jill secured the alternative of a part-time caretaker.

But as it happened, her visitor turned out to be someone else entirely.

Jill pushed herself up by her arms, body quivering. She grabbed the walker beside her bed, then shuffled toward the door.

She was greeted by a portly man in a black suit and a matching fedora hat. Odd, thought Jill, the summer being so hot.

“May I help you?”

“Actually,” said the man, removing his hat and inclining his head, “I was hoping I could help you.”

An atavistic shiver spasmed through her. Something about his eyes, she thought, and the way he talked. In some way she didn’t understand, the man represented all that was wrong with the world, a shining avatar of evil so bright, she wanted to slam the door and spend the next hour and a half on her knees in prayer.

“May I come in?” he asked. “It’s hot and I haven’t had anything to drink.”

Jill was always hospitable, even to strangers. She hadn’t been a part of the generation that was taught to fear the vagrant on the doorstep, and turning someone away without a good reason was rude. But this man was dangerous, she could feel it in her bones, and instinct trumped manners any day of the week.

“I’m sorry. My daughter’s sleeping on the couch and I don’t want to wake her.” She felt her face flush with the lie, but she didn’t want him to know she was alone.

The man smiled wide, revealing bone white teeth, and a strange thing occurred to her.

He knows I’m lying.

“I understand,” he said. “I don’t want to be a bother.”

If you don’t want to be a bother, why are you still here?

“I’ll come back at a more convenient time.”

“Thank you, Mr…”

“Jacobs, Miss. Mr. Jacobs. Good day.”

Jill shut the door behind him, shivering once more. Why had he triggered such a visceral reaction? Anyway, he was gone now, and she could return to her makeshift bed in the kitchen.

“Hello again, Miss,” said Mr. Jacobs when she’d turned back toward the living room. He was lounging on a cloth covered couch, looking as if he’d been relaxing there all afternoon.

Jill shrieked.

“Curious. I came back around for a second try and discovered your daughter wasn’t in.”

“She’s in the bathroom,” babbled Jill. “How did you—”

“A minor technicality. But I’m afraid I really must speak with you.”

“I’ll call the police.”

“There’s no need for that, Miss.” Mr. Jacobs was no longer on the couch, but standing right before her, obstructing her path to the kitchen. “I only want to talk.”

Jill’s pulse quickened and her heart pounded to an irregular rhythm. She tried to turn again, only she felt lightheaded. Like a ghost, she thought as the world blurred, as she tried to reach for the stairs beside her with insubstantial hands and lost her balance.

The world tilted. Slowed. Stopped.

Jill remained alert long enough to feel the man’s hand press into the small of her back. Then her vision faded to white and she saw no more.

Click here to read part 2.

Branwin

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A bright rectangle of light fell on the cold stone floor, and Branwin blinked. How long had it been since he’d seen light? He squinted up at an iron door that hadn’t opened for centuries.

“Branwin.” A hooded figure stepped over the threshold.

Branwin tried to use his lips, but they were like rusty hinges and he could only manage an inarticulate squeal.

“Not mad yet, I hope.” The figure chuckled, pulling back the hood to reveal the face of a man. Branwin scurried like a spider into a dark corner.

Branwin didn’t like him. There was something about the man that touched on uncomfortable memories. If only he’d go away and close the door behind him. But instead he came closer, until he loomed over Branwin, teeth gleaming like knives. Branwin’s inhuman eyes flitted back and forth between him and the walls.

“I need your help, Branwin.”

A flare of strange memories, bursting in Branwin’s head. Shards like stained glass. Memories of a life before the dark, before he’d been transformed into this creature of the shadows in exchange for immortality.

“I see I have your attention,” said the man, and he knelt beside Branwin, as if he were a dog who needed to be reminded that his master still loved him. “I know it’s difficult to talk, so just listen.”

Branwin’s eyes locked on the man’s, so human, so unlike his own. He squatted on all fours, braced to run.

“You made a foolish bargain,” the man continued, “The choice was yours, of course, and if I could have left you here alone I would have. But times have changed. The Republic is crumbling. Old barriers are failing, and people of your power and skill have become valuable.”

A spark in Branwin ignited, a furious hatred that erupted like an active volcano.

“This form you assumed shouldn’t have been possible. The most powerful mages of our time believe you are only a legend. You not only changed your shape, you changed your essence, your soul. Not a change for the better, I would say, but I digress.”

The man set a hand on Branwin’s disfigured shoulder, and an internal spring uncoiled. Branwin pounced, slamming him into the moldering wall.

“I could kill you,” Branwin hissed, the first words he’d uttered in over seven hundred years. It was all coming back to him now.

Surprisingly, the man laughed. “Yes, my old friend, I have no doubt you could. But don’t you wonder, dear Branwin, how it is that I still live?”

Branwin blinked. His humanity was coming back to him, and with it his curiosity.

“I’m not immortal, alas, but I’ve lived for centuries so far and will live for many more, all while retaining that which is essential to my humanity. I could teach you how. There are other ways to prolong life, most not nearly as…unfortunate as the path you chose.”

Something reminiscent of hope surged through Branwin. His inhuman state seemed on the verge of shattering, and he wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

“Come,” said the man, holding out his hand. “Let me fix you.”

Branwin gazed up at him with slitted eyes. He considered the possibilities, his forgotten humanity blossoming at long last, and after a timeless moment of silence in the dark, he took the man’s hand and let him pull him to his feet.

The Game

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Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

The Magician’s Heir

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I sit outside, take a bite of my club supreme on white, and gaze out over the contours of my life from the other side of time. So much has happened in the intervening years, so many terrible, unimaginable things. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was a character from a novel, the dark protagonist caught up in a strange, otherworldly fantasy.

I squint up at the sun, turn my gaze toward the tops of towering downtown office buildings, and size up the world around me, no longer big enough or important enough to hold my interest. I moved on long ago, and the hollow half-life of humanity means nothing to me now.

I was thirty-three the year the magician took me. Thirty-three. The number felt old then. I could already see the threat of death looming in the distance, peering at me from the shadows when it thought my back was turned. But now, in the context of eternity, it is nothing, only a mote of dust against the backdrop of the cosmos.

“You will be my heir,” the magician said. It was not a question. This after having been the man’s hostage for more than six months.

“There will come a time when you’ll have no choice but to accept me,” he said. “You’ll see.”

And with time, I did.

He changed me. Not all at once, not in a blinding flash of brilliant neon light, but incrementally, a hardening of the heart here, a withering of the soul there. I thought I could resist him, that I could resist becoming like him.

But I was wrong.

He took all that was dear to me, all that I loved and valued, all that I held close to my heart, and burned it to ash.

“Are you beginning to understand?” he asked one day as he stepped over the remains of my mother’s charred and tortured body, a glowing demon haloed by fire.

By this time, there were no tears left for me to shed. I said that I did, and as the flames cooled to smoldering embers he grinned, showing all of his razor-sharp teeth.

“Then come,” he said, taking my hand and leading me into the dark. “I have much to teach you.”

It was in the ashes of my old life that my new life began.