Nightmare

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Sleep. It weighs her down, muddles her thoughts. She can’t let it drag her under. If she falls asleep now, she’ll die.

She can feel the creature salivating in the shadows, waiting for her to tumble into its toothy maw. It’s hungry and wants to feed.

Sleep. It sings of peace, promises solace and renewal even as it threatens obliteration. The world tilts as she turns her head. She can sense the creature in every corner, hiding just beyond the range of her perception, an ambassador from the underworld who will steal her life the moment she departs from the waking world.

But her eyes are heavy. So heavy. Like tiny iron curtains, closing over the final act of her life.

Consciousness gutters like a dying flame.

She can hear its voice.

You are mine.

Yes, she thinks, too drowsy to resist. I am yours. And she finds herself drifting toward the dark, drifting toward death, heedless of the annihilation that awaits.

Come to me.

She closes her eyes.

You are mine.

A cold embrace. Then darkness.

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Dying Breath

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“Time to sleep, little one.”

Jerome’s eyes began to droop.

“Mommy loves you very much.” She bent down to kiss his forehead, then walked back to the doorway, where she paused for a moment before turning off the light and closing the door.

Jerome stared up at the ceiling, watching the shadows change shape. Too young to form cohesive thoughts, all he could do was feel the lingering love of Mommy like a warm blanket as he drifted to sleep.

For a moment, he teetered on the edge of the waking world. Then he plummeted and all was dark.

* * *

Jerome woke on a bed of straw. He was not an infant but a man, elderly and gray, with an off-white beard that stuck out of his face like a clump of weeds. It was here, in the space between time, that he could remember who he was once again.

In a far off realm, in his true body, he lay dying in a hospital bed. But a woman, a young doctor he’d been sure he knew from somewhere but whose face he couldn’t place, had given him a special gift.

“A life for every dream,” she whispered so only he could hear.

He asked her what she meant, but she only shushed him and told him to go back to sleep.

She whispered something else, a baritone rumble that swallowed the world in a primordial language he felt more than understood. He closed his eyes. When he awoke, he found himself here, on this very same bed of straw.

Now, every time he closed his eyes, he woke someplace new. He would be a different age, exist in a different year. Each step on his sojourn through the cosmos was a flicker, a snapshot in time. Yet a billion snapshots later he was still drifting, with only these brief interludes in his bed of hay to remember who he was.

Someday, it would all come to an end, for a dying breath could only be stretched so far and so thin. But for now he would linger, unsure if what he’d been given was a gift or a curse.

Who would he be the next time? Jerome lay down and closed his eyes.

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Roots

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The universe was weakening.

Betty could feel it fraying around the edges, the evil beyond pounding against the celestial gates. The cosmos wouldn’t hold for long, and when its defenses fell, it wouldn’t just be this universe that would suffer. Hers was the cornerstone, the center of all existence, the universe in which all other universes derived their being. If she didn’t do something soon, all would be lost.

She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Let her soul slip from her body. The cosmos absorbed her into itself, until she was sailing across space and time. The fabric of existence quaked and shuddered with the force of the Darkness’s attacks, and she felt herself falter, gutter like a flame caught in a strong wind. But she would not let the world she loved die with her.

She pressed on.

She let the Darkness draw her, let it tug her along the macrocosm’s star spangled surface like a lure. It was hungry, eager to consume, and she would use its hunger against it.

One rumbling quake after another, each like a mountain hurled at her from a world-sized sling shot. Soon enough she found herself at the source, a bulge in the cosmic substrate, a festering pustule that was growing like cancer just beneath the surface.

I can’t do this. The thought skittered along the membrane of her mind, but she ignored it. She could, and she would. All of reality depended on it.

She let the Darkness pull her in further, until the g-forces from that supernatural black hole threatened to pull her apart. Then she reached out it was like sticking the arms that were back with her body in tar took hold, slowly peeled back the layers of empty space.

The darkness shuddered, reeled.

WHAT IS THIS?

It was aware of what she was doing now. She had to work quickly. She inserted herself into the place between, felt for the roots of this deadly celestial blight and pulled.

Another rumbling shudder.

I WILL CONSUME YOU.

Waves of despair crashed over her, and she faltered once more. She could feel those poor souls who were trapped on the other side, wailing in eternal despair. It was catching, and like a hook those dark emotions began to reel her in.

But Betty wasn’t having any of that. She sent out roots of her own, a blinding sprawl of interconnected fibers. They anchored her to space and time, where she stood fast and let the Darkness’s greedy tugging work against itself.

Sure enough, the more ardently it struggled to pull her in, the more the hold of its own roots weakened, unable to withstand the intense shearing forces.

There was one final shudder, one that nearly did her in, and then Betty felt the first root snap. One by one the others followed.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? the Darkness bellowed, its disbelieving howl rippling across the universe. I AM UNDONE.

The last of its roots disengaged and the Darkness was cast out at last, hurtling into the empty void beyond.

Exhausted, Betty surveyed the damage. It was extensive, she thought, but with time and help it would heal. She considered her body back home, an unfathomable number of miles and eons behind her, and let it go. She was part of the universe now, ageless and eternal.

She extended her roots as far as they would go, hooked into the wounded patch of space and time like a scab. Yes, she thought again, the cosmos would heal. Together they would grow into something stronger, something greater.

The Darkness would return, but with her and the cosmos joined, they would be ready.

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Lady of the Stars

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The Lady of the Stars found her when she was only an infant, an orphaned ball of molten rock hurtling through the cosmos. She adopted her. Nursed her. Nurtured her. She named her Earth. And in the eons that followed she thrived. Mountains sprang forth from her surface like newly germinated flowers. Water condensed, pooled, bulged into vast sprawling oceans.

And perhaps Earth’s most important accomplishment: life. First were born the amino acids. Then the single celled organisms. Then the plants and animals. Each form was more complex than the last, and each was assembled under the expectant gaze of The Lady of the Stars. Soon the planet teemed with life. And finally, Earth’s crowning achievement: humanity.

Humans. Her daughter’s children. The Lady swelled with pride. She loved them as her own, spoiled them with all they could ask for and more.

There was peace.

But the Lady had sisters, and they were jealous, for they were barren and could have no children of their own.

“I’m like you,” she protested when they confronted her. “Earth was not my own. I adopted her. Can you not scour the cosmos for your own adopted children?”

But they were too consumed by their hatred to hear her words. Instead they bound her, cast her outside the boundaries of space and time. Earth became distressed, torn by the competing interests of the Lady’s sisters. Humans mirrored their divisions and formed divisions of their own. There were wars. People died. Earth rumbled in pain.

The Lady, hearing her daughter’s distant cries, was overcome by grief. She broke the chains that bound her, and today she runs toward her child, toward her grandchildren.

Will she come too late?

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Rite of Passage

“His name is Gol. He is not an ogre or a troll, a gnome, a fairy or a centaur. There are no stories written of his kind. He was once human like the boy, but he is human no longer.”

Gol, a creature of the Earth yet apart from it, a creature of arcane powers with an ancient mission not even he fully understands. He cannot propagate, yet he must sire offspring to continue his life’s work.

James, a boy who lives in dreams and the imagination, a boy inebriated with the wonders and mysteries of life. He will learn too soon that the world harbors darker secrets.

A bittersweet tale of loss and regret, death and rebirth, growth and transformation, Rite of Passage will remind you why you were once afraid of the dark, and will call to mind the mystical innocence of childhood that was forever stolen from each of us.

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The Book

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There is a book. It is written not in English or Spanish, Greek or Latin, Hebrew or Arabic, but in the wordless language of Creation. It is a series of divine utterances, a wellspring of stars, energy and life.

Once, it was passed from one keeper to the next, an unbroken succession rooted not in blood or prestige, but honest merit. It was a cosmic secret to be guarded, and it was never to be opened. But thousands of years ago, the last keeper tried to violate this rule. He was slain, and the book went missing. Those who remembered it had children, grandchildren, then died. The book passed from memory to legend, and from legend it was forgotten.

Like an ocean swell, civilizations rose, civilizations fell. All the while, the book hid beyond the shadows, watching, waiting for its next keeper, someone worthy of its secrets, someone who would at last be allowed to open its dusty weather-worn pages, for it so longed to be read.

Now, it sits upon a humble library shelf.

Today it spies Garrett, a child of ten, who happens to be at the very same library. The book gazes down at him, peers into his soul, sees that he is worthy. It drops from the shelf into the boy’s backpack, and the boy, unknowing, carries it home with him. He does his homework. Watches TV. Eats dinner. Prepares for bed.

Meanwhile, the book finds its way onto Garrett’s mattress, and there it waits beneath the covers.

After Garrett climbs into bed, after the winds of sleep have begun to carry him away to secret lands, the book nudges his shoulder.

Garrett wakes.

Half asleep, he reaches out, taps the ancient leather spine with his fingers. He opens his eyes. Fully awake, he rises to a sitting position, reaches into the sheets and pulls the book out into the open. Where did this come from, he wonders. He opens it. A warm light shines on his face.

Garrett flips through empty weathered pages, and a universe springs to life.

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Labyrinth

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A thick fog surrounded Gerald, billowing like smoke. The world beyond the Labyrinth lay bare before him, pale and insubstantial, faded like an old photograph. He’d navigated the Labyrinth’s perilous depths for centuries, a towering ancient structure of stone, iron, and magic. All the while he’d labored under the promise that someday, when he’d reached the end, he would be released.

Now he knew the truth.

He could see the world outside, only it was a mute shadow of the place he’d known before he was captured. It would be forever out of reach.

His conquerors had said the Labyrinth was a Purgatory, that at the end he would find pardon and peace. But the Labyrinth was not a Purgatory, it was a Hell. Its purpose had not been to redeem him but to break him.

Head hung low, shoulders hunched in defeat, he turned to go back the way he’d come.

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Life in Reverse

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It was happening again. A cosmic hiccup. A moment in time, repeated.

The world moved around her, but in reverse. How many times had Stacy been through the same series of events? She might have been through a single iteration, or she might have been through a thousand. Forward. Then backward.

Water rose from the shag carpet like Jell-O, streamed back into a glass that reflected sharp needles of light as it fell upward, arcing through the air and finally righting itself on Mary Anne’s serving tray. The woman back-stepped from pale and mortified to warm and boisterous.

In an insane corner of her mind, the part of her that was convinced she’d done this long enough for the sun to burn out, Stacy wondered if God had found some particular event in the world so funny that he’d had to hit the rewind button to watch it again.

Then she wondered if this was Hell.

Mark’s shoulder disconnected from Mary Anne’s, just as his foot parted ways from the table leg that had tripped him. His head came up like an Olympic swimmer rising from the water. All of this in a world without sound.

How could that be? Shouldn’t she hear everything, but backwards? Did it have to do with waves of sound traveling backward instead of forward, toward instead of away from the source? Maybe, though she suspected that wasn’t quite right.

During all of this she was frozen, like the ice sculpture mounted beside the chocolate fountain, dripping backwards as it spontaneously refroze. Like the T-1000 in the Second Terminator movie, she thought, and a mad giggle would have escaped her lips if she could have opened them.

Lucy stepped back into her field of vision, approached her in a strange backwards walk as she undismissed herself from Stacy’s company. She had no idea how far back time would go before things righted themselves, but a sense of certainty was mounting that the stage was nearly set for the next iteration. She thought of the movie Groundhog Day. Was there a lesson in this? If so, why couldn’t she remember any of her previous experiences? She suspected, much to her horror, that this was pure accident, that the universe wasn’t so neat and orderly after all. That, more than anything else, scared her.

If this was immortality, she wanted to die.

Lucy’s mouth opened. The arm she’d withdrawn from Stacy’s shoulder returned. And that was when she felt it, a tug, an instant of hopeless disorientation as the universe stopped, tilted, began to spin in the opposite direction once more. In one infinitesimal moment she felt she was on the precipice of something, that she existed outside space and time, that she was nearly a god. Then memory drained from her head like water down a sink.

“Stacy,” said Lucy, a hand on her shoulder. “It was so good of you to come. Let me see if I can find Steve so he can say hello.” She left Stacy, gone in search of her boyfriend.

Then there was a shocked cry, a mortified apology and the dull thud of a glass landing on the carpet. Stacy’s eyes went to the wet spot, and she could swear that just beyond that darkened halo of shag carpet there was some cosmic secret, a hidden trap that was about to spring.

Another tug, then a pull. The muscles in Stacy’s body froze, and a knowledge that wasn’t quite memory returned to her. It was happening again.

A moment in time, repeated.

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Choices

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Janelle stood before a network of interconnected roads, celestial paths across space and time that fanned out into the horizon and beyond, forking and dividing in an increasingly complex and unforeseeable set of possible futures. So many choices. It was dizzying, thinking of all the places she might go, all the things she might see. Some were good. Others were not.

She hesitated.

She’d spent her whole life preparing for this moment, taught by her tribe from birth that someday she would have to stand before the Great Road and walk toward her destiny.

They’d promised her a guide, someone who would travel beside her unseen and pick her up when she couldn’t go on by herself. But now, at the outset of her journey, she felt alone, and that made her afraid.

Faced with an infinite array of choices, how was she supposed to pick the right one? She could see one, perhaps two steps ahead, could calculate the probabilities and possible outcomes as she saw them, but beyond? Her journey might have promising beginnings, yet end in disaster only a few steps ahead. Every step forward, every fork in the road was another risk, and one way or the other, whether her travels were long or short, fortunate or unfortunate, no path continued forever. One day, at the end of her road, there would be a door, ready to take her to the other side. Not knowing where that door might be or where it would lead terrified her.

But she couldn’t stand here forever. Some had tried, had spent their entire lives paralyzed by indecision, too afraid to move. But they had eventually been escorted away in shame, forced through their own door before their journey had even begun. Janelle had no desire to pass over her journey.

The end, she realized, would come for her whether she was ready or not, so what was the point in stalling? She would have to go, hope she was headed in the right direction and trust that her unseen guide would catch her if she fell. Her tribe had said the first step would be the hardest, that once she got moving she wouldn’t want to stop. It was time to see if that was true.

She took a deep breath, her heart thumping in her chest like an overworked piston. She glanced down at her feet, swallowed a lump that had formed in the back of her throat. She lifted one foot, then the other.

There was a shift, an instant of double vision as the world changed, and then her surroundings resolved. She looked around, overcome by cosmic beauty such as she had never seen before. She was overcome with joy. Now she was hooked. The fear remained, but was superseded by a deeper desire, an inborn need to discover what else was out there. There was a whole road just for her. There would be joys and sorrows, conveniences and hardships, but in the end, it would all add up to one hell of an adventure.

Janelle found the next fork. Stepped. The world shifted.

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Journey’s End

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It was big. World-sized big. It towered over her, blocking her path. So, this was what her journey had come to. Centuries of trudging through deserts and mountains, seas and jungles, space and time, only so that minutes from her journey’s end, a stone wall could block her path. It shot up into the sky and out of sight, extended to the left and right as far as the eye could see.

She fell to the dusty ground, bowed her head and cried.

She could remember when she’d first set out, how young and beautiful she’d been, so full of ambition and drive. She cleaved to her mission with an almost childlike devotion. Then she aged. Her features weathered, until she was like many of the deserts she’d passed through on the way. Youthful optimism yielded first to caution, then to exhaustion. In the end, only gritty persistence and determination saw her come so close to the other side.

She’d faced many obstacles, pushed through quite a few toils, trials and dangers. There were times when she was convinced she couldn’t go on, when she thought in long bouts of despair that she might as well lay down to die, letting her bleached bones adorn her incomplete path, serving as a warning to others who might dare follow in her footsteps. Then she reconsidered, thinking that perhaps she should encourage rather than frighten her fellow explorers. After all, more were setting out every day for the same reason she had, to be a part of something bigger, something transcendent and everlasting. So instead she let her struggle bear witness to the fact that anything was possible, that if you wanted something badly enough you could seize it by sheer will-power alone.

And that’s all this was, she realized, another obstacle, one more test before she could finally indulge in the fruit of her labor. She only had to be strong, to pick herself up from the ground one last time.

She rose. Beat the dust out of her shirt, pants and boots. Wiped away her tears. She stared at the rock face before her, until a grim smile pushed past her ancient features.

“Okay,” she said to the wall. “Let’s do this.”

She launched herself at it, pried, picked and climbed for as long as she could. But the hard granite surface was unyielding. It dug into her skin, scratching, tearing, bleeding.

Then, just when she’d offered all her strength, when she felt she had no blood left to shed, a harsh baritone rumble swallowed the world. The wall moved down, sucked into the Earth. She watched, mesmerized, until first the sky, then the mountains beyond became visible. An entire vista opened before her eyes, a glittering otherworldly refuge of gold, silver and crystal. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

When the last of the wall had disappeared beneath the ground, she stepped forward. She’d done it. She was on the other side.

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