The Blight

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Imagine: Green, all-encompassing, ever reaching. A place of endless spring. A place of fertile hopes and breathless wonders. A billowing canopy of shimmering translucent leaves, casting a bright and verdant glow over the forest floor below.

Such had been the nature of the world before the Blight.

Now the light that loomed over Angeline was faint, a sickly, mottled soup of barren browns and grays. A forest of dead things, covered from ground to canopy in a dark, cloying mold first discovered in their sacred woods almost three hundred years ago.

Angeline’s heart broke to see her home in such a state, for she was old enough to remember the Age before it. That’s why she was here now, to fight back, to reclaim what was hers and her people’s by birthright.

She cupped her hands to her mouth and called out to the trees. “Andre? Are you there?”

A branch snapped behind her, heralding his arrival.

The man who faced her when she turned was dark, skin festooned with mold and scabs. He wore no clothes. Clothes were an invention of civilization, and the forest had not seen civilization for quite some time.

“Angeline.” The man bowed.

“There’s no place for formalities here,” she said, but the corners of her mouth had already curled into the barest flicker of a smile.

Andre was a good man and loyal to a fault, so much so that he’d stayed behind to take care of the forest long after the rest of their people had fled into the mountains on the coast.

The Blight would, of course, extend even that far in time. Every year, the nauseating mold crept closer, penning them into an ever shrinking perimeter. But for now, at least, they were safe.

When Angeline had asked Andre why he’d chosen to remain, he’d only said, “The forest is my home. I can’t leave.”

Angeline admired the man’s courage, and it was the reason why she herself hadn’t given up, the reason why she’d returned every day to battle the Blight that had made their forest uninhabitable.

“Shall we go?” she asked. Her voice was just as regal, just as serene as it had been when she was queen.

Andre nodded, and together they set off into the thickening trees.

“So much death,” the man lamented, and Angeline placed a comforting hand over his weathered shoulders.

“That’s why we’re here,” she reminded him. “To reverse the damage so the forest might live again.”

The forest grew darker as they delved deeper into its heart. The light that filtered through the skeletal branches never changed. Rather, the darkness of the Blight itself radiated from the forest’s center like a fever.

“I hate coming here,” said Andre.

So did Angeline, but she didn’t say so. The man looked up to her. He’d never stopped seeing the queen she’d been centuries ago.

“You’re a hero,” she said. “Someday, our people will sing songs of your bravery.”

“I don’t care about that. I just want our home to be what it once was. I want future generations to know life and light, not this…” He gestured helplessly at the bare trees. “This nightmare.”

“And that is exactly why you’ll succeed—why both of us will succeed—because we don’t work for accolades but for a world we love and refuse to let die.”

They halted before a massive, world-sized trunk. It towered well above the other trees, its own leafless branches soaring high into the clouds. As thick as it was tall, the part closest to the ground resembled a wall more than a tree, its massive curves lost to the horizon.

There was almost no light left here, only a soupy, cloying black that covered every inch of the bark in thick ropy webs that held the entirety of the forest in a fatal chokehold.

“Disgusting,” Andre spat.

“And yet,” Angeline replied, “I sense life still. Faint, guttering, but stronger than the last time we were here. Our work has accomplished something. It has not been in vain.”

“Right.” Andre edged closer, repelled by the rot and corruption but determined to face it in battle. “Then I guess we’d better get started.”

Angeline and Andre placed their hands over the craggy surface of the bark. Both of them recoiled as the Blight reached out and tried to take hold of them, as the Blight tried to squeeze out their own lives as it had squeezed out the lives of the surrounding trees. But one warning glare from Angeline was all it took to send those dark feelers reeling back.

Closing her eyes, she focused on the soul she sensed inside the tree, the heart of their world and the source of their people’s strength. It hunkered against the dark, hanging on by only the faintest of breaths. Angeline called out to it and shared with it her ancient song.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

A moment later, Andre joined her.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:
Have strength.

The Blight wrapped itself tighter around the forest, dimming what little light remained. But Andre and Angeline refused to be intimidated, and instead sang even louder.

O Noble Soul,
O Gentle Spirit,
Source of Life
And source of Light:

Have strength.

They finished together, their voices a joyful alloy of faith and hope that they knew the Blight would find repulsive.

Now that their song was finished, the momentum that had been building between them surged into the tree like lightning. The Blight staggered, reeled, and for a moment the soul inside the tree flared with new light.

Together, they opened their eyes.

“Look,” said Angeline, pointing to a tiny shoot of green at the tree’s base. It was the first new growth either of them had seen since the Blight had first taken hold. The mold reached out and tried to smother it, but the scion only shook it off like a spot of dirt.

“Will it be enough?” Andre asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I believe it will. If not, then what are we doing here, and what else is there but despair?”

Andre nodded.

“Then I, too, believe.”

With those last words shared between them, they turned and made their way back to the forest’s perimeter.

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Totem, Part 8

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

During the next few months, the master grew cold and distant. Our lessons continued for a while, but it seemed that with each passing day, he lost interest. I could see in his mind that he didn’t trust me—that he didn’t trust anyone—and I was focusing every ounce of my will on keeping what I knew hidden from him. Finally, the day came when he no longer summoned me at all.

I was convinced it was because he’d discovered my secret. I knew from my vision while meditating that he could read minds, and I was sure I could feel him trying to read mine over and over again over the course of my studies. When servants and guards started disappearing, when people started whispering that the master had gone crazy and that it was only a matter of time before he took them too, I was sure he would come for me.

That was when he finally called me back into his study.

*               *               *

Azibo stared at the servant at his door, gaping like a fish.

“What?” he asked, even though he’d heard the man the first time.

“I said, the master requests your presence.”

Still Azibo stared, as if time had stood still, as if he now had an indefinite period to worry about the master’s summons and what it might mean. He peered first into the servant’s eyes, then down at the simple flax shenti wrapped around the servant’s waist. All he could think now was: Oh no, the master’s got me.

“Sir?”

Startled, Azibo reached into his mind to see if he could find out what the master wanted.

Nothing. This servant doesn’t know any more than I do.

A deep, shuddering breath. Whatever his fate, he decided, he had no choice but to face the man and hope his secret remained safe. Please, he thought, a hasty prayer offered to the gods. Then he allowed the servant to lead him away.

When the door to the master’s study opened and Azibo was announced, the boy immediately felt that itch at the back of his head.

He’s trying to read me again.

He could never be certain if it was just his imagination or if the sensation was real, but he immediately diverted his thoughts elsewhere: to his studies, which he’d been neglecting since the master had stopped teaching him; to his parents, whom he missed and would do anything to see again. He could feel the master’s thoughts, swirling about the room like a dark miasma, but he refrained from reaching for them. Only when he was sure the master’s guard was down would he attempt to listen.

They stared at each other for a while in silence. Finally, the master dismissed his servant, who closed the door behind him, and motioned for Azibo to sit.

“I must apologize,” he said, inclining his head. “I’ve neglected your studies.”

“It’s okay, sir.” Azibo hated how he couldn’t seem to catch his breath, how his palms remained slick with sweat, how his breath caught in the back of an arid throat whenever he opened his mouth to speak. Surely, the master must sense his hesitation—that itch at the back of his head was still there, vibrating now like a hoard of angry bees. But if the man knew what was worrying him, he didn’t let on.

“Have you been practicing your meditation exercises?”

“No,” said Azibo, who offered the truth without hesitation. Not since that terrifying vision had he dared to risk another unguarded encounter with the man’s mind.

The master nodded, as if he hadn’t expected any other answer.

“I suspected as much. My fault, I suppose.”

Still, that terrible itching. Azibo did everything in his power to throw up decoy thoughts like a shield, not knowing if such a trick would work but hoping and praying he could avert the master’s preternatural gaze.

“I’ve been busy,” the master continued, eyes fastened to Azibo’s. “Lots of work to do, you understand.” Still, his eyes remained fixed.

Azibo swallowed.

He doesn’t want to talk to me. He wants to read my mind. He wants to see if I’m the one he’s been looking for.

The thought bubbled into his mind before he could stop it, and as the itch at the back of his head intensified, he scrambled to recover his mental façade before he could give himself away.

The master peered at him for almost five minutes, as if Azibo were a puzzle that might solve itself if only he stared at it long enough. Finally, the man sighed and looked away.

“Go,” he said, waving a curt dismissal. “I have things to attend to. Practice your meditation exercises. We’ll continue our lessons soon.”

“Yes, sir.” All at once, the itch was gone.

He doesn’t know! He tried to read my mind, but I blocked him, and he doesn’t know!

Azibo had to fight to suppress the stupid, goofball grin that threatened to erupt from his suddenly relaxed features. Safe. For now, at least, he was safe.

Still, he could feel the master’s thoughts. So close. So accessible. So many dark and powerful secrets, there for the taking. Azibo finally risked a peek. He reached out, a skill he’d started honing since his first unexpected encounter with the workings of the master’s mind. He probed along their surface, gently, carefully…

Irritation. The master was annoyed. Talking to the boy had been a waste of time. He’d learned nothing, nothing! He’d thought maybe, perhaps… No, not the boy. Someone else. Someone in his midst surely, but not this simpering, mewling, homesick excuse for a boy. One of his servants? Or one of his advisers? Why couldn’t he ferret out the rogue individual? Why?

Rage. Then terror. A rival, the first in over a century, someone who might stand up to him and strike him down at the height of his power. He had to go someplace else. Had to flee the estate. Had to spend time meditating in the presence of Isis and Osiris. Had to clear his mind. Had to develop the calm clarity necessary to discover who his rival was so he could kill him…

Tomorrow. He would leave tomorrow. He wouldn’t tell any of his servants. A week. No, two. Three. He wouldn’t even tell Jahi. A secret for him alone. Yes, tomorrow. He would leave tomorrow.

“Why are you still here?” the master snapped.

Startled, Azibo’s connection to his mind evaporated like steam.

“Sorry, sir. I was just thinking…wondering…”

“Get out!” the master bellowed.

Azibo bolted and slammed the door behind him.

*               *               *

I returned to my room that night, Azibo continued, addressing Rashidi, Jahi, Zane, Chibale, and Kasim, each in their turn. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stay calm. I was the only one who knew the master would be going away. Once I got over my relief that he hadn’t discovered my secret, I realized it was a perfect opportunity, maybe my only opportunity, to take him down before he could do the same to me.

I thought, “I need to talk to Jahi.” He was the only person who still saw the master regularly after our lessons had stopped, and I would pry into his mind as often as I could, hoping to tease out some secret, some advantage I might be able to leverage against the master later. That was how I discovered he had doubts of his own about what the master was up to. I thought, maybe together, in the master’s absence, we could come up with a plan, some way to take the master by surprise when he returned.

I lay awake the rest of the night, pondering how I might approach him in the morning.

*               *               *

The first thing Azibo did the following day was to confirm that the master had truly gone. So gradually, methodically, he spent the morning creeping through various parts of the estate, slinking into rooms he’d never been allowed into before, his tour finally ending in the master’s study. That last door he opened with some trepidation, for if the man was still there and caught him, he would be in a lot of trouble. But the room was dark and empty, the candles all extinguished in the master’s absence, and all at once Azibo was overtaken by an ocean of adrenaline.

Jahi. I have to find Jahi.

Azibo found him outside, leaning against a colorfully striped column overlooking a small pond. The man’s gaze was fixed on the tranquil waters, and Azibo could feel that his thoughts were troubled and distant.

“Jahi?”

The man whirled.

“Sorry,” said Azibo. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The man looked at him for a moment, then returned his eyes to the water.

“What do you want?” Jahi asked.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Not now. I’m busy.”

Frustration blossomed. But tapping into a slow breathing technique the master had showed him, Azibo worked hard to keep the emotion under control. He needed Jahi, and making the man angry would undermine his purpose.

“Please, Jahi. It’s about the master.”

Once more, the man turned.

“What about the master?”

“I think it’s better if we discuss in private.”

Jahi’s eyes narrowed, forming a silent question, but Azibo refused to elaborate. This was not something to talk about in the open.

“Fine,” Jahi breathed at last. “We’ll talk in your chambers.”

Read part 9 here.

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Totem, Part 7

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

It started long before the master’s dream, before he even took me on as his apprentice. Azibo stopped for a moment to step back into the past.

I could never actually read another’s thoughts, but there was always a sense of what the people around me were feeling. Sometimes, if someone thought about something hard enough, I might even catch a glimpse of it in my head—like a vision out of the corner of my eye, there and gone before you knew it was there. Growing up, I thought it was just intuition, the sort of thing everyone’s capable of to one degree or another. If I could tell that my parents were worried about their crops during the season of Shemu, or that my brothers and sisters were angry because they’d been caught doing something they were told not to do, what was so unusual about that?

Then as I got older, my talent started to grow. No longer would I catch just fleeting glimpses from those who spent a lot of time with me and my family. Soon, I could discern actual thoughts. The day I first remember being sure, I was with my parents at the market. They’d been haggling with a merchant over the price of a young goat. The man had told them two sacks of wheat was as low as he could go, and my father, eager to conclude the day’s business, was about to agree. But I could sense the merchant was willing to go lower, that he was banking on my father’s weariness to reap a substantial profit. Though I thought it had to be my imagination, a part of me was convinced I should say something, and after a moment of awkward silence, I did.

“Father,” I said, “Let’s go. There are still other merchants left who’re willing to trade, and I’m certain we can get a better price.”

While most parents would have balked at such an outburst from a child in public, mine received my words with patience. They wanted their children to learn the ways of the world, and what better way to do so than to be a part of the world’s business?

“My son makes a good point,” my father said, and I could see the panic in the merchant’s eyes as he saw a profitable sale about to walk away. In the end, we got the goat for only a double barrel. That was the day I knew my talent was real.

The others stared at Azibo with almost reverential wonder. How could little Azibo, the youngest of their number, harbor such a startling secret?

But how did you go on for so long without the master catching on? asked Rashidi. If you could read his mind, surely he could read yours.

I don’t know. If Azibo were still a human boy, he would have hunched his shoulders. I’m certain I could feel him trying, like an itch at the back of my head that’s impossible to scratch. He must have been able to read something, because if I’d been a blank slate to him, he probably would have suspected me straight away. But whenever I didn’t want him to know something, I’d just turn my thoughts in another direction and hope he couldn’t hear it all. I guess it worked.

Only one day, ventured Jahi, you discovered an unexpected aspect to your talent and found yourself inside the master’s head while he was asleep.

Azibo nodded.

Yes. A terrible day. For all of us, I think, at least in the end.

*               *               *

Calm. Dark. Quiet.

Azibo floated through the infinite space behind closed eyelids, lost in meditation. His master had taught him the technique almost nine months ago, only a week and a half after he’d taken the boy under his wing with assurances to both his parents that, in time, he would mature into a cunning and powerful ruler.

“A still mind is a sharp mind,” his master had said, followed by the command that he practice at least three times each day for at least two hours per session.

“But I want to learn real magic,” Azibo had whined, “not relaxation techniques.”

“Focus first. The magic will follow.”

“Focus my ass.”

Three days had passed before Azibo could sit again.

He still didn’t see what was so important about meditation—So what if he could clear his mind? So what if he could concentrate? So what if he could control his emotions?—but it was a habit now, a state he could slip into almost immediately, and he hoped that once he demonstrated he was ready, he would learn the same arcane secrets that had made the master so powerful.

Now, Azibo drifted across a sea of endless black, detached from the world around him, deep in the waters of oblivion. There was peace here, a cosmic stillness of thought that Azibo would have a hard time letting go of when his meditation session was over.

Just dark and oblivion.

Dark and oblivion.

Dark and—

A flash of light. There and gone. Azibo would have been startled had he not detached himself so thoroughly.

There it was again. The light was back, and it was growing. Larger. Brighter. It caught Azibo in its gravity and pulled him in.

Brighter.

Brighter.

Flash.

Azibo stood inside the arched entrance of a broad walled-off garden. The sun was bright overhead, casting its late afternoon light over a pond filled with purple lotus and papyrus. Across the water, against the far wall, stood two white marble statues: one a woman garbed in flowing, loose fitting robes, with wings that fell from her arms like sails, head angled toward the sky; the other a man, with a crown atop a narrow, regal head, dressed in a luxuriant style of clothing Azibo didn’t recognize, gripping the handles of a crook and a flail.

The master was there, kneeling before them both like a penitent lost in prayer. Only prayer was the farthest thing from his mind. This Azibo knew, for the master’s thoughts permeated the air like fog rolling off the Nile River.

Power. Wealth. Immortality. Most importantly, immortality. The master did not know what awaited him on the other side of death, and he feared it like an ordinary person feared an enraged cobra. He would do whatever it took to extend his life.

“Isis,” the master invoked, directing his attention to the female statue. The Goddess of Magic.

“Osiris,” he continued, this time turning to face the female statue’s mate. The God of Death and the Afterlife.

Only they weren’t gods, an understanding that materialized almost immediately from the ether of the master’s thoughts. Beings of great power, perhaps, but ones susceptible to certain weaknesses like anyone else—beings who could be bound and used, whose immense powers could be channeled like lightning through a metal rod. The master addressed them as subordinates, issuing commands as if they were his personal slaves.

Azibo’s surroundings flickered, wavered like a candle flame in a breeze. He was underground now, in a cavern whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling in sacred symbols that would become known to the world outside thousands of years later as hieroglyphs. Though Azibo couldn’t read, he understood their meaning at once.

Death. The underground chamber was pregnant with the stink of it. Thousands of people—men, women, and children—brutalized, tortured, lives magically preserved at the brink of death in a horrendous ritual, only to be extinguished when their souls had nothing left to offer. The master was far older than any of his attendants and advisers had been lead to believe.

A sacrifice, Azibo understood, the lives of others exchanged so the master’s own life could continue. Only the longer he defied death—the longer he fed from the powers of Isis and Osiris to sustain the aging blood in his body—the more often he had to murder through progressively gruesomer methods that made Azibo’s stomach want to toss up everything he’d eaten that afternoon. The need for new blood was growing stronger and more frequent, and it was becoming more and more difficult for him to meet that demand without growing weaker.

Then another thought, like a speck of dust gliding on a current of air. Azibo, viewed by the master with little more affection than one might show a stray dog, an apprentice kept only as a contingency in the unlikely case the master succumbed to the sting of death and needed someone to resurrect him—a disposable apprentice who could be murdered and replaced if found incapable, unworthy, or unwilling.

All of this came to Azibo in the time it took for him to blink. Then he was back in the garden, the sun bright against his eyes, the lotus and papyrus swaying to the beat of a gentle wind, belying the torrential madness rampaging through the master’s mind.

“Isis, Osiris: Hear me. Heed me.”

Power, unseen, flowing from the two statues into the master.

Then fear, the sudden feeling one experiences when rounding a corner only to face an unseen enemy.

The master’s head whipped back in Azibo’s direction.

Terrified, the boy turned to flee.

There was that familiar flash of light.

Then the darkness of an empty mind.

Azibo came awake with a start.

Just a dream, he decided. He’d been meditating, had perhaps allowed himself to become a bit too comfortable, and had nodded off without realizing it. Only he knew that wasn’t true, knew the way one knows the sun is bright and the sky is blue. Not a dream at all, but a glimpse into the master’s cruel and dangerous mind.

And that was when Azibo realized there was only one thing he could do. He had to get away—far, far away. Only that wasn’t possible as long as the master was interested in him—and even less so if his interest waned.

I have to overthrow him.

There was no questioning the logic of the decision, only the how and when.

*               *               *

For a long time, the others didn’t speak. Then Zane broke the silence.

Do you think he’s still out there somewhere?

Unlikely, Chibale answered. You saw the condition of the master’s estate when we finally returned.

But he could have found a way. A man as powerful as that doesn’t just disappear.

Without frequent human sacrifice on a massive scale, said Jahi, I don’t think he could have survived for long.

What makes you think he didn’t establish himself somewhere else? Zane again. Just because the old estate was in ruins doesn’t mean he didn’t find someplace new to continue his former way of life.

A worry for another day, said Rashidi, closing that line of inquiry for the time being. What I want to know more about is how this dovetails into Jahi’s story. Jahi, you were the one who got us all together and convinced us to take a stand against the master, and Azibo, we know it was you who first convinced him. But I want to know how you got to working together and why.

The two looked at each other, and the silent question of who should speak first passed between them. Finally, Azibo took the initiative.

I didn’t know what to do. With so little regard even for his apprentice’s life, I knew it was only a matter of time before I lost his favor. I’d like to say I was driven to avenge the people he murdered underground in secret, that I felt the uncontrollable urge to defend my homeland from that monster made flesh. But in truth, I had only fear and self interest at heart.

And with that, Azibo continued his story.

Read part 8 here.

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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 a while 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, charging 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 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 to scour 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 were bound to the bracelet, 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, rationalistic ideals. Had their master passed it down through his ancestral line, or had it been lost to time, eventually washing up on the shores of 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 called out 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, was 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, pondering their next move.

Read part 2 here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Proposal, Part 3

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This is the third installment of a seven part series. Parts 1–3 are available for free on my blog, while parts 4–7 are available exclusively on Patreon.

Part 1 | Part 2

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

Jill wanted to screw her eyes shut, but she couldn’t look away. 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, 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,” he said, 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 pinned her with his eyes, a steady, level gaze that spoke of infinite patience. 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, and the shadows on the wall writhed like snakes. “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 extract from her?

“Well, don’t you want to hear 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, had 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, suddenly, she doubted the beliefs instilled in her during childhood, and instead she pondered what the concept of eternal life could mean in the context of an otherwise mortal existence.

Yes, she thought, Mr. Jacobs had indeed piqued her interest.

“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 for every reward?”

Jill considered.

“It’s not such a bad deal, all things considered. Think of all 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 make ripple through time, how they shape 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, death for me. 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, even 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 tempted by his 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 come around again.”

And in the very next breath she was in her kitchen once more, laying on her mattress with the TV on, just as she’d left it when she’d gotten 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 of a seven part series. Parts 1–3 are available for free on my blog, while parts 4–7 are available exclusively on Patreon. If you’re looking for part 1, you can read it by clicking here.

It was dark when Jill opened her eyes.

What time is it?

The lights were off. She must have fallen asleep, only when her eyes started to adjust, she found the shapes in the room were 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 solar 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 the kitchen, but it now 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 young. 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 at once.

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

She tried to get up, but all too quickly she thought of her deteriorating body. She had to work herself to the point of exhaustion just to attain 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 half a century ago.

Never mind. 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. Then, falling to the ground, Jill thrust her hands out, praying with fervent devotion that she could catch herself when she hit the floor and that she wouldn’t break an arm or a hip in the process.

The ground was stone, and the landing hurt more than she 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, while the entire time, those footsteps grew closer, louder, echoing in spaces as of yet unseen.

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

Left. Right. On her belly, like the serpent from 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 in Mr. Jacobs’s.

The room was barren, with only an empty high backed chair propped beside the bed. With nowhere else to go, so she did the only thing she could. She crawled backward, 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 point overlooking life from a 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 for the bed.

“Miss?”

Farther he pressed into the dark, the circle of light closing in, 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 body 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 beside her and grinned.

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A Proposal, Part 1

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This is the first installment of a seven part series. Parts 1–3 are available for free on my blog, while parts 4–7 are available exclusively on Patreon.

It was the day the axis of Jill’s life forever shifted, the day she was swept away by the gravity of sinister forces and compelled to walk a dark, 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 nobody told 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 over the horizon, decided to stay awake to make up for lost time.

The second was that many of your family and friends 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. The 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 in it 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 hours of pleading for her independence had allowed her 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 fedora hat. Odd, thought Jill, with 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 body. 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 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 very good reason was rude. But this man was dangerous, she could feel it in her bones, and instinct trumped manners every 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 and shivered 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 to the living room. He was lounging on a cloth covered couch, looking as if he’d been relaxing there the entire 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 in front of her, obstructing her path to the kitchen. “I only want to talk.”

Jill’s pulse quickened and her heart began to tap out Morse code. She tried to turn again, only she was 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.

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