The Game

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Anya Returns

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

She stares at me with eyes of purple fire, a blazing phantom in the dark. My breath catches in my throat, and when I finally speak, it comes out a hoarse whisper.

“What happened, Anya?”

The woman I had known so many years ago grins.

“My eyes were opened.”

I wait for her to say more, but that’s all she offers in reply.

We grew up together, Anya and I. We were best friends, inseparable from the start. Our relationship turned intimate, and by the time we neared our college graduation we were already contemplating marriage.

That was when she disappeared.

Now, she rolls onto her side, pressing her body against mine, and I instantly grow hard with years of pent up longing. I have never felt an urge so strong. It overloads my synapses, drives me to the brink of madness.

This is a dream, I think. Any minute I’ll wake up. This close, I can see myself reflected in her spectral eyes.

Her family and I spent years looking for her. The police gave up in a matter of weeks for lack of evidence, but we kept searching, scouring her apartment, interviewing her friends, calling the numbers in the phone she left beside her bed.

Now, here she is again, lying in my bed as if the intervening years were nothing.

“You loved me once,” she whispers. Her breath tickles my ear. I detect the familiar smell of lavender and lilac. Her favorite scent, at odds with the feral untamed fire in her eyes.

Those flaming pupils bore into my own, extract my deepest secrets.

“I don’t understand,” I say, because there’s nothing else to say.

“Then let me help you understand.”

Her mouth opens, joins with my own. Another fire kindles, erupting to life inside my body. She leaps on top of me, hot to the touch, and I have no choice but to offer up my heart as an immolation.

“Love me now,” she says, and as our bodies become one, as the embers of an old love ignite once more, I glimpse the possessing spirit within and welcome it into myself.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Read My Next Novella For Free

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

On August 5, I’m going to release an entire novella to my mailing list for free, one chapter every two weeks. I’ve never done this before, and I haven’t decided if I’m going to do it again. If you want to read one of my longer works but don’t have an e-reader or aren’t able to purchase anything, now’s your chance.

If you’re already a subscriber, you don’t have to do anything except wait 🙂 If you’re not, all you have to do is join the mailing list by entering your email address at the bottom of this blog post and clicking the “Subscribe” button (if you do, you’ll also receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.) To complete your subscription, you might have to check your spam folder for the confirmation email.

Here’s a back of the book blurb to whet your appetite:

Giles has always felt different, like he’s never truly belonged, and it isn’t until he meets others of his kind that he discovers his true nature. As an Earthbound, he’s both human and Immortal, born to protect the world from an ancient race that has the collective power to destroy the universe.

He embraces his mission, devotes his life to imprisoning every malevolent creature he encounters. But when a routine binding goes awry and one escapes before he can capture it, Giles, who has never been outside California, must travel halfway across the world to the Philippines, where the runaway phantom has taken up residence.

Shaken by his inability to capture it and afraid of failing again, he must venture far beyond his comfort zone to confront the evil creature once and for all. But this time it knows Giles is coming, and it will do anything in its power to stop him…

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Leaves in the Wind

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

A special shout out to this month’s newest patrons, Susan, Amy, Caitlin, Anna and Christyne! If you want to read early drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write, as well as receive free copies of all my books in the digital format of your choice, become a patron by clicking here.

A dry rustle makes Nicholson turn. Leaves, caught up in a breeze, gliding lazily across the sidewalk before settling back to the ground. The muscles in his neck and shoulders tense.

Just leaves. Relax.

He turns and continues down the street.

Not a big deal, he thinks, though he’s started to walk faster. It happens every October. The leaves fall, dry like shed snakeskins, and are blown about by the wind along the street.

Once more, he can hear them behind him, skidding across the concrete, a hollow rattling whisper.

Nicholson turns again. The wind is still gusting, and the leaves, suspended in the air, twirl and dance as if alive.

As if alive.

Nicholson bolts. This is silly, he thinks even as he picks up speed. The spirit he encountered all those years ago is long gone, a forgotten phantom that Nicholson escaped decades ago.

Only it isn’t silly. He has too much experience with his old nemesis to think it’s a coincidence.

The leaves stop and he glances back. It’s toying with him, playing on his fears. He slows, then stops, gasping as he catches his breath. Running, he decides, won’t do him any good. His only defense all these years has been to keep a low profile, and now that defense has been shot to Hell. Nothing left to do but face it head on.

“Nicholson.” The voice comes out a dry dusty whisper. “I told you you couldn’t avoid me forever.”

The wind kicks up around him, forming an invisible wall, tugging at his shirt sleeves, tousling his short sandy hair.

“How did you find me?” Nicholson asks.

Leaves dance around him in delighted autumnal laughter.

“I am the wind. I am everywhere.” The breeze grows louder, stronger. “You are free because I let you go, not because you could have escaped me on your own.”

“Then why did you let me go?” Nicholson tries to sound defiant, but can only manage a strangled croak.

The wind has become a tornado.

“Because I enjoyed watching you run, because you were always looking over your shoulder, terrified of every breeze, every rustling leaf. But I’m tired now, and hungry, and in the end, even amusing prey is just prey.”

Nicholson’s shirt brushes against that spinning wall of air and the fabric tears, yanked away to become part of the raging tempest.

Nicholson’s eyes open in wide, preternatural terror.

“Goodbye, Nicholson.”

The wall closes in.

Nicholson screams.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

The Dokash

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

I am not a madman.

The doctors all say the same thing, those small minded men and women in their white lab coats and sterile, condescending smiles. They assert that I’m delusional, that I’m a danger to myself and others. Do not believe them. I’ve come not to do violence, but to warn of the violence yet to come.

I am their emissary. I herald their arrival, the rightful heirs of your world, the Great Masters who were here long before you were even a dollop of goo in the primordial soup. To you, I issue fair warning. Turn from me all you like. Your refusal to listen will not save you when they come.

You, who mill about in your suits and ties like ants before a mound of sand; you, who believe yourselves the sole sovereign masters of nature; you, who gaze up at the vastness of the universe and conclude that all of it was made for you; prepare yourselves.

They’re coming. From beyond the cosmos, from beyond space and time, they’re coming. They’ll remake the Earth in their image. Oceans will boil. Fields will blaze. Heaven and Hell will pass away. Skin will burn. Flesh will melt. And your souls, stripped of their mortal coils, will serve the Dokash.

Mind your place, do them homage and you will be rewarded. But do not obey, do not pay tribute and you’ll be punished, made to crawl on all fours like dogs, tongues lolling, while the Dokash regard you as children who delight in pouring salt on worms and snails, so that you would prefer the kind of death in which there is nothing at all.

Hear my words and prepare yourselves. The life you know is coming to an end.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

The Magician’s Heir

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

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.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

King of the Crows

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Max dumped the contents of his lunch onto an outdoor wrought iron table—a six-inch turkey on wheat with lettuce, onion, bell pepper and olives—and gazed out into the parking lot, watching strangers as they wandered off toward shops and restaurants.

Among them stood a solitary crow, hopping from one spot to the next as it avoided the humans who surrounded it in that not quite trusting, not quite frightened manner that was so common in urban environments. It trundled up to his table, paused, and sounded a shrill cry before hopping up and perching on the chair across from him.

Max sighed, glanced down at his sandwich, then back up at the bird. A moment later, he tore off a piece of bread and threw it on the ground. The crow dove after it, head twitching from side to side like a junkie going through withdrawals, and on a whim, Max tossed more tiny morsels of bread, taking small bites in-between.

Two other crows followed, and when there were no more crumbs they perched once more, staring at Max with glass beads for eyes.

With a childish smirk, Max fancied himself a king. He imagined the birds were his loyal subjects, that they could hear his thoughts and awaited his orders.

Fly, he ordered the crow in the middle, and to Max’s amusement it jerked its head sideways and took off as if heeding his command.

Max turned his attention toward the others.

Perch on the chair next to me. They sidled right a step, then fluttered across the table in unison and landed on the chair next to him.

That took him aback. He tried to think what the odds might be that the crows would do his bidding twice in a row. Anyway, no matter how unlikely, it was only a coincidence. Still, it was fun to pretend.

Look at me. I’m King of the Crows.

Max decided to up the ante. He closed his eyes, and in his mind he visualized dozens of birds descending from the sky like an Old Testament plague, dive bombing the people around him.

Attack, boomed the voice of his imagination. Show no mercy! Max smirked. A ridiculous idea.

Then a woman screamed. Max opened his eyes.

Behind him, an elderly woman had backed into a wall. “Shoo!” she cried, swinging at a crow with her purse. The bird landed on the ground, backed away, then launched into the air for a second assault. When it clamped onto her head with its talons and began to peck at her hair, she screamed and swatted at it again.

Others began shouting too, and in the span of a heartbeat the food court had erupted in a flurry of feathers and upturned tables. Some sought refuge in shops and restaurants, darting through doors and slamming them shut just as flying avian projectiles smashed into them.

Max observed the melee unscathed. A storm had kicked up in his head, battering against the invisible boundary between fantasy and reality. Immobilized, Max could only stare.

Two voices in his head shouted at the same time.

You made them do this. Now stop them, said one.

It’s just a coincidence. Birds don’t read minds, said the other.

The voices grew incrementally louder, each trying to subdue the other, and before long, they were hurling insults at each other like a couple of elderly senators. Max slapped his hands against his ears and closed his eyes.

Just stop, he cried inside his head. No more.

And then it was over. The few birds that still remained in the air, poised for attack, floated to the ground, puffing themselves up in a mass of ruffled jet-black feathers. Some pecked at crumbs and half-eaten food that had toppled over during the attack (to Max’s left, a pair of crows waged war over an abandoned doughnut.)

The people in the food court hesitated before slowly emerging from makeshift sanctuaries. They stared down at the birds on the ground, eyeing them like venomous snakes, and tiptoed around them as if the smallest misstep might rouse their ire once more.

A breeze stirred, followed by disbelieving whispers.

“Have you ever seen anything like—?”

“—just like The Birds! I—”

“—scared the shit out of me!”

“What was—”

“Are you okay?”

Max withdrew into himself.

What did I do?

He’d never wanted to hurt anyone.

If that was the case, why did you imagine hurting people?

Terror and self-revulsion wracked him in waves.

But how can any of this be my fault?

There was no way he could be responsible for what had happened. It’d only been an act of the imagination, unless birds could somehow read a person’s thoughts.

Could they?

Of course not, and he dared any crow to tell him otherwise.

One of the birds vaulted up onto the chair opposite him. It stared, piercing him with its dark glassy eyes. Max gazed at the creature for one breathless moment, then rose to his feet and bounded off into the parking lot.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Better Off Inside

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Light penetrates my eyes. For a moment I gaze up, squint through the bars of a prison abandoned for centuries, and consider my escape. Then the light begins to burn and I look away.

The bars have rusted through, have even crumbled to powder in places. Yet I remain.

All of us remain.

Part of the prison’s success was the way the guards got into our heads, the way they convinced us we deserved persecution, that we were better off inside.

The world is dangerous for a monster like you. We locked you away for your own good.

Humanity ultimately forgot us, as humanity forgets so many things. They were free, we were not. Out of sight, out of mind. I imagine our existence became the subject of legend, that once enough time had passed even the legend began to fade. I don’t remember how long we’ve been down here, nor do I remember when they stopped sending their guards. I only know they don’t hold power over us any longer.

But we won’t leave, because fear has become our new jailer.

Don’t you think I yearn to be free? Don’t you think I would give my soul to break out of this cage that binds me beneath the Earth, to crawl through the shaft that connects us to the surface and enjoy fresh sunshine once again?

Ask any of us and we’ll tell you the same thing: we fear what will happen if we leave, what you’ll do to us if we’re discovered again.

You enjoy your light above. We’ll make the darkness our own.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

Anathema

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

Arnold stopped to peer at the moon, glabrous and pale in the late night sky, then slipped through the broad cathedral doors. The church was silent except for the echo his shoes made when he walked across the marble floor, and he suppressed a shudder as he passed by flickering candles and confessionals, surrounded by leering statues of the saints.

He stopped beside the front row of pews, genuflected before the blessed sacrament and sat. It was a ritual he’d learned in his youth. A ritual he hadn’t practiced in years.

The domed ceiling rose to a spectacular height, covered in otherworldly frescoes depicting the cosmic struggle between God and Satan. He looked up and felt dwarfed by the vastness of eternity, a terrible awe of Heaven and Hell, and felt as if he might be crushed between the two.

Arnold took a deep breath and gazed toward the altar, where a large wooden crucifix loomed over the empty congregation, hidden beneath a dark shadowy veil. He imagined the figure of Christ within, face frozen in perpetual agony.

It was Holy Week, a time of penance and reflection, and Arnold had a lot to think about.

The cathedral was a special place. Time was thin here, and if he focused hard enough he was sure he could peer through it, into the past, where he’d spent so many formative years in the Church, into the future, where he searched for answers to questions that had almost destroyed him once and threatened to destroy him still.

What was he? He was no closer to figuring that out than he’d been fifteen years ago when his terrible transformation began.

Life had been simple as a child. He’d done as his parents had told him, had believed as the priests had taught him. He’d gone to mass and confession, learned his prayers, absorbed himself fully in the truth that was presented to him.

Now, he was a stranger in his old place of worship, a stranger to his family, a stranger to himself.

He waited, as if God might glance down from Heaven and notice him at last. But there was only the quiet and the dark.

A faint buzz emanated from the stone walls, as if a tension was mounding in the cathedral’s foundation. Arnold closed his eyes to pray.

“Hail Mary,” he began, voice husky and dry. He stopped to clear his throat, then started again. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Was there a Lord? If so, how did Arnold fit into his plans? The buzz grew louder, and Arnold could feel the pew begin to vibrate beneath him.

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

What did it mean to be blessed? Arnold had been taught that to be saved, one must remain in a state of grace. Was Arnold in a state of grace, or was he now anathema? Did he have a place in Heaven, or a place in Hell? The buzz transfigured, became a loud shuddering rumble.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

A thunderous crack exploded like a cannon, and Arnold’s eyes popped open.

The veil had torn along a jagged seam that ran down its center like a fault line in the earth. The heavy wooden cross beneath trembled, leaned forward as if in prayer, then came crashing down, destroying the tabernacle, scattering consecrated hosts like confetti.

The earth shook with such violence that Arnold imagined the gates of Hell were opening, ready to swallow him whole.

“Please, God, make it stop!”

Arnold rocked back and forth like a toddler, holding his hands over his ears as if the gesture could protect him.

Then just like that it was over. The Earth stopped moving. The cathedral fell silent once more.

Face hot, Arnold’s neck bulged as he beheld the ruined altar, veins popping through his skin like thick cords.

“What am I?” he shouted at the painting on the ceiling. “Why are you doing this to me?”

A man emerged through the open doorway behind the altar, a silhouette wreathed in moonlight. He stepped forward until the pallid illumination revealed a pair of wide, disbelieving eyes.

The parish priest.

Arnold leaped to his feet and bolted.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.

We Are You

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

The creature shrieked. Diane ran.

Rain fell, pattering the street, while above in the clouds, thunder exploded like aboriginal drums. The rain had soaked through her clothes, and a chill was settling into her chest. But she kept running, blood pounding, side aching, because something dangerous was behind her, and if she let her guard down for even a moment she was dead.

Another shriek, a war cry that drained the blood from her already pallid face.

Have to go. Have to get away.

The streets had been abandoned years ago and Diane was alone. Buildings slumped in abandoned lots, while empty cars tilted into gutters and signs hung from rusted posts like ancient monuments to forgotten gods.

No one left but Diane, which meant no one left to help.

She remembered a time before the invasion, before the world had been reduced to broken structures and shattered dreams. The image most prominent in her mind was that of her mother, cradling her in her arms when she was only three. Nobody would have believed her if she said she could remember such a young age, but Diane recalled every word that passed from her mother’s lips as she sang Diane’s favorite song, every stroke through her hair as she leaned in to whisper that she loved her, that no harm would come to her as long as she remained in her mother’s arms. The potent memory of what she’d had and what she lost made her chest ache.

I miss you, Mom.

Then pain shot through Diane’s leg, and the world rose to meet her, knocking the air from her lungs.

The gutter. She’d tripped over the gutter. Diane staggered to her feet, eyes wide.

“No,” she breathed. “No.”

But it was too late. By the time she found her balance she’d already seen its eyes, staring at her from across the street.

Diane’s eyes.

Her dark double’s thoughts immediately burst inside her mind.

We are you, now. The time for running is over.

It was the last thing Diane heard.

Subscribe to receive a free copy of my short story The Sign.