The Dance

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This post was originally published through Patreon on June 19, 2016.

They came from beyond the horizon, endless columns of armored soldiers backed by billowing plumes of dark gray soot. Rusted helmets and breast plates gleamed beneath a sky of blood, while moth-ridden flesh festered in great open wounds. Brandishing shield and sword, they pressed forward, forming an impenetrable wall.

Meanwhile, the last remnant of humanity stood atop a ledge of stone, an elderly man donning a flowing robe of dazzling white. His face was a warren of dried up lines where the tears had etched his skin. Blue eyes glistened when he spied the advancing army in the distance. There was some distance left for them to close, yet he could already feel their dead eyes upon him, eager for his own demise, eager for an end to the dominion of men.

The sound of marching boots boomed with increasing volume, and when they finally stopped, an eerie silence descended on the desert below. The man stood defiantly before them, and they glared back up at him with a hatred for everything that lived. He heaved a slow, weary sigh, peered into the heavens, and began to dance.

Hands outstretched, he pulled at unseen strings, arms swooping in and out, forward and back as he moved with agile grace along the ledge. Below, the land rose and fell in waves, undead soldiers scrambling out of formation as great pillars of stone rose and fell beneath their feet. Some were impaled. Others were tossed against the rocks.

He began to twirl, his robe gently stroking the ledge, and the air below began to moan, coalescing into a storm of sand and dust. He thrust his arms forward, and the billowing wind charged into the mass of remaining soldiers. Stones and debris pelted down on them, knocking them backward, their sun-bleached bones crashing into the walls and bursting into clouds of dust.

He leaped into the air, pushing down as he landed, and below the earth began to quake. He moved his arms up and out, and below the earth split in two, tearing open along a jagged seam. Bodies tipped and fell, smashing into the ground below.

He finished with a pirouette, swept his arms outward with his head held low, and below flames erupted from the ground, scorching everything that remained.

He opened his eyes, looked down, and gazed at the battered bones and smoldering flesh. Humanity was saved. He made a formal bow, spared the carnage below a final parting glance, and turned back the way he’d come.

The dance was done.

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Totem, Part 10

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

The question Jahi had asked himself in the boy’s chambers returned to him as he stalked through the empty hallway to his own room.

What am I supposed to do now?

The entire world had turned on its head, and Jahi no longer knew right from wrong. Hadn’t he taken an oath to serve the master, and hadn’t he accomplished spectacular things at his side? All of Egypt was now mostly under their control, with the Pharaoh its ruler more or less in name only, and Jahi had been an instrumental part of that success. Even some of the surrounding lands had begun to accede to the master’s will, at least in small matters. One of these other nations had even sent a dignitary as a show of good will: a young prince named Zane.

Was it good that the master had consolidated so much power? This was a question Jahi had asked himself before, and until today, he’d believed the answer was yes. A world united was a world in order, after all, and a world in order was a world that prospered.

Now he wondered.

If the way the master treated his servants and advisers when he was afraid—with cruelty and suspicion—was any indication of how he would treat humanity as a whole, then the world was headed for catastrophe. And to think, all those years of earned trust hadn’t saved him from the man’s suspicions.

“Would you betray me, too?” the master had asked a couple days ago, eyes wild, lips turned up in a vicious sneer. This, when only some months prior, he’d entrusted Jahi with his secret—that he could read minds—and had tasked him with helping discover who it was who shared this ability and was thus a rival to his power. Jahi had been harboring doubts already, and the master had surely sensed them in his thoughts. Yet he should have also been able to see that, even then, Jahi remained a loyal man. But the master had dismissed him without a second thought, as if he were nothing but a lowly slave, unworthy of the honor and dignity once shown to him. “Go!” the master spat. “Get out of my sight.” The curt dismissal had stung like a slap.

Jahi’s thoughts following the incident had turned almost mutinous. Yet still he’d hesitated. It wasn’t just that a part of him still felt he owed the master fealty. There was also the practical matter that was impossible to ignore: that the master held all the cards; that the master, as powerful as he was, could not be removed from power so easily.

And what of little Azibo? So young, yet Jahi saw in him a younger version of the same cruel leader. The same cunning, the same calculation. Crude, perhaps, and unrefined, but traits that might well bloom in his adult years. And the way the boy had seemed to anticipate everything Jahi was thinking…

“Keep your eyes open,” the master had told him when he revealed his hidden talent. “See if anyone appears unusually perceptive, if anyone seems to know what you’re going to say before you say it. I suspect the guilty party is close, maybe even one of my advisers.”

Had the master come to suspect Azibo? In light of their discussion, Jahi had his own suspicions.

He came to a stop before the entrance to his room, the flickering light of a nearby torch projecting furtive shadows on the night-darkened walls.

What am I supposed to do now?

Jahi entered his room, the question heavy in the air around him, and closed the door.

*               *               *

Rashidi.

It was Jahi’s first thought when he awoke the following morning, just as Jahi had been Azibo’s first thought a day prior. The man was a friend. They’d journeyed many times together at the master’s behest and had gotten to know each other well over the years. He was an honorable man—a good man—and Jahi believed that even in times of great distress, if push came to shove, he would pursue the most noble path. He was someone Jahi felt he could confide in, and that was important right now, because his head was spinning so fast he couldn’t make heads or tails of anything.

And there was another reason Rashidi might be the ideal person to speak to right now: He was in charge of the master’s guards. Once he’d been a soldier, but the master had offered him better pay and more luxurious accommodations in exchange for his allegiance. If Rashidi was the kind of man Jahi thought him to be, then he might be an ally should Jahi choose to join forces with Azibo.

But he couldn’t come right out and say so. To do so—to acknowledge any doubt about the master whatsoever without first having a clear insight into Rashidi’s intentions—would be to court disaster. These were uncertain times, and who knew how he might react? Hadn’t Jahi himself considered reporting Azibo, and might not Rashidi consider the same? If Azibo could indeed read minds, then Jahi envied him.

No, he couldn’t afford to lay all his cards on the table just yet. He shook his head, as if doing so might clear the fog that clouded his mind. He would proceed cautiously, and if the matter did come up—if Jahi had an opportunity to speak his mind—he would have to pray the man was as honorable and upright as he believed.

*               *               *

For the next two days, Jahi did exactly that: proceeded cautiously. He would sit with the man for a drink, or stop to greet him whenever they passed each other in the halls. Each time they had a chance to talk, he would say little things to try and gauge his reaction, to try and anticipate how Rashidi might respond if he were to ask the man for his help. It felt as if he were already conspiring with Azibo, even though, strictly speaking, he hadn’t yet decided.

Only he realized, after further reflection, that this wasn’t precisely true. In fact, he’d decided the moment he chose not to turn in Azibo, which already placed him at odds with the master’s command that he report any suspicious activity immediately. Though the master was away for the time being and wouldn’t yet know of Jahi’s treachery, he would certainly peer into his mind and learn of it when he returned.

Rashidi, for his part, sensed that something was wrong at once, and he seemed keen to uncover Jahi’s true intentions. There was a reason the master had placed him in charge. He was perceptive, and whenever Jahi let something slip, he could feel Rashidi weighing his words, searching for the hidden meaning behind them. Their frequent encounters had become almost a dance, a back and forth exchange of small talk and idle ramblings that never quite hinted at deeper motives but never quite ruled them out. A vague curiosity here, a mildly troubling statement there. Until the third day, when the two sat down over a drink to unwind.

Things moved quickly after that.

*               *               *

“Something’s troubling you, and I want you to tell me what it is.”

Jahi and Rashidi were sitting on the steps of the main house’s back entrance, passing a wineskin filled with beer back and forth as the sun crept closer to the horizon. The statement had been so direct that Jahi didn’t understand its meaning right away.

“What do you mean?” He lifted the wineskin to his lips and took a long, deep swig.

Rashidi peered at him sideways. “We’ve worked together a long time. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Just like that, Jahi’s heart jumped into his throat. This was the conversation he’d been working up his courage for, the conversation he’d been waiting for. Why wasn’t he relieved it was finally happening? Because he wasn’t ready, that was why.

Oh Rashidi, don’t ask me about this yet.

But if they didn’t talk now, then when? Tomorrow? Next week? The longer they waited, the more likely it was that the master would return, and then it would be too late. He had to be strong and get through this. Still, he couldn’t come right out and say it. He had to be cautious.

“I’m fine.”

Another swig of beer.

The patronizing gaze Rashidi turned on him in reply—as if Jahi were a child trying to convince his parents he hadn’t just broken all the dishes in the kitchen, even though he was standing on the shelf with busted pottery shards at his feet—made Jahi’s cheeks redden.

“Please. I’m not stupid.”

“No,” Jahi agreed. “You’re certainly not that.”

So, this was it: a test, both of their friendship and of Rashidi’s good nature. Please, thought Jahi. Please, be a good man. For all our sakes, be a good man.

Jahi took one last swig of beer, then sat for a moment in silence beside his friend as the dusky orange light of the setting sun ushered in the night.

“You’re a good man,” Jahi said, hoping his words had the power to make it true. “I trust you. Do you trust me?”

Rashidi’s brows furrowed.

“Trust you? Of course, Jahi. How many years have we served together? I’ve always known you to be truthful and honorable. I would trust you with my life.”

Jahi nodded. He wanted to believe it was safe to pour his heart out to Rashidi, that he could unburden himself without fear of reprisal. If Jahi told him he no longer trusted the master, would Rashidi still trust him?

“You see…” Jahi paused to weigh his words before continuing. “Do you trust the master?” There it was. He was laying all the cards on the table, regardless of the consequences.

Even by torchlight, it seemed Rashidi’s face paled, and for a moment, Jahi was sure he’d miscalculated, that the man would clap him in irons at once. The two sat beneath the rapidly darkening sky, both afraid to speak for some time after.

Finally, Rashidi broke the silence.

“Elaborate.”

And elaborate Jahi did. He told Rashidi everything, or almost everything. He left out the part about the master’s ability to read minds—absurdly, he was still afraid to violate that secret, never mind that he was openly plotting against the master now. But he spoke at length of how Azibo had approached him, and of how he himself had already harbored his own doubts, not just of the master’s intentions but also of his sanity. He was terrified to reveal this to Rashidi without knowing how the man would react, but once it started coming out, it all surged out of his mouth in a rush. Like the Nile river after a catastrophic flood, the words flowed out of him so fast, he scarcely had time to think about what he was saying.

Finally, he got to the part where he’d considered talking to Rashidi. Jahi pointed out that while he trusted him, he was still afraid to voice his concerns for fear that Rashidi might do his duty and turn him in. A slow, thin smile bloomed across the man’s mouth: a grim, conspiratorial gesture that told Jahi even before Rashidi spoke that the man was on his side.

“You were smart to be afraid,” Rashidi said when Jahi finished his story. “But I’m glad you told me.”

“And what do you think now that you know?” The empty wineskin began to tremble in Jahi’s hands, and no amount of steadying could keep it still.

The man glanced back to see if anyone was listening, then replied, “You said the master’s away?”

Jahi nodded.

“Then We’ll talk tonight in your chambers after everyone’s asleep.”

Jahi didn’t know how to feel—if he should be reassured or terrified now that things were set in motion that could no longer be stopped. Rashidi clapped him on the shoulder as he so often did at the end of a shared mission, then disappeared inside, leaving Jahi alone to brood in the blossoming darkness.

*               *               *

Jahi sat atop his bed that night, propped at an angle and carved in the same feline style of Azibo’s. Speaking of the boy, he’d spotted him that evening. The two had been avoiding each other since Azibo’s plea for an alliance, and when they made eye contact across the hall, the awkward silence that followed made them each turn their separate ways. Jahi would have to talk to him soon and make things right. But first, he had to meet with Rashidi.

As if the thought were a summons, there came a muffled knock at the door. Jahi’s heart climbed into his throat once more. What if Rashidi had just been humoring him so he could make a quiet arrest later when no one was around to witness it? He didn’t think Rashidi would lie, but even now, he couldn’t say for sure.

When he opened the door and saw not only Rashidi, but two other men beside him, each holding shining shields and spears, he was certain this was precisely what would happen.

Rashidi, how could you betray me?

But then the man in question nodded, and when Jahi threw him a questioning look, Rashidi turned to each of the two men and said, “They’re with us. You can trust them.”

And trust them Jahi did, because he trusted Rashidi, and Rashidi was not a man for whom trust came easily.

Jahi invited them to take a seat on the bed, then paced across the dark stone floor. A torch flickered in an iron sconce embedded in the far wall, and in its dim penumbra of light, Jahi discerned the two men’s features.

“This,” said Rashidi, pointing to the one on his left, “is Kasim. And this,” he continued, now gesturing to the one on his right, “is Chibale. Both are excellent guards as well as soldiers. They’ve expressed similar reservations to the ones you and I share, and I’ve asked them to be a part of this.”

A part of what? Mutiny, that’s what. Mutiny and rebellion. Jahi was so deep in it now—and to think that only a few days ago, he’d been nothing but a humble diplomat, with no more personal ambition than a moth. But this wasn’t about ambition. This was about survival.

Once he’d admitted to himself that he was headed down the path of betrayal, he’d tried to convince himself it was for the common good of Egypt, that he was looking out for the people’s best interests. But that wasn’t true, or at least it wasn’t Jahi’s primary motivation. It was the simple knowledge that, given enough time, he would succumb to the master’s suspicions. Better to take the master out before he could take them out. Wasn’t that the gist of Azibo’s argument? And while Rashidi himself was an unusually selfless individual, Jahi guessed that he, too, was influenced in no small part by the good old-fashioned instinct for survival.

Jahi offered each of the unfamiliar men an introductory nod.

“I’m Jahi. It’s good to meet you.”

That was it for a while. The gravity of what would soon unfold in the privacy of the room cast a somber pall over their tiny party.

“Each of us is here,” Rashidi said when the quiet grew exceedingly uncomfortable, “because we have a common problem in need of a solution.”

They all focused on him at once. Such a knack for leadership, thought Jahi. It was a skill that he, though not jealous, had always admired in the master. Now, here was plain and simple Rashidi, exercising a similar kind of charisma—a calm, authoritative countenance that turned both heads and minds. But unlike the master, he didn’t need to read their minds to know how to pull their strings. How would the world be different, Jahi wondered, if Rashidi were in charge instead?

“But before we continue, before we each take the grave risk of acknowledging this problem in the open, we must each swear that nothing of what we discuss tonight will make it outside this room, no matter the consequences.”

Jahi recognized Rashidi’s tactic and nodded his approval. Yes, the man was indeed a natural born leader. In the absence of any formal declarations, each of them would privately retain the right to change their mind at a later time. Surely, they still had doubts about what they were doing (even Jahi hadn’t rid himself of them entirely), and under such circumstances, a man undecided was a man who was dangerous.

But there was a secret all the world’s greatest leaders understood, a powerful principle of persuasion that politicians and businessmen alike had taken advantage of for centuries: To give voice to a promise or a pledge, no matter how tenuous or riddled with doubt, was to evoke an instant and lasting sense of commitment. Even if one didn’t have any intention of honoring it, the pressure to be consistent would weight heavily on their shoulders.

“I promise,” Jahi said at once, hoping to get the ball rolling, “that what we discuss tonight will stay between us.” A pause, and then he amended, “That is, between us and Azibo.”

Rashidi nodded. “Fair enough. And I promise the same.” He turned to the others. “How about you? Kasim? Chibale? Do you swear, too?”

“I do,” answered Kasim.

“And I as well.”

“Good. Then that’s settled.” Rashidi swiped a slick of sweat from his brow. “I suppose now it’s safe for us to name the reason for our gathering, before we make any specific plans.”

“The master.” Jahi peered at each of them in turn. “He’s crazy. In the span of just few weeks, I’ve gone from being his most favored adviser to an object of suspicion. If he doesn’t go, I don’t think any of us will live much longer.”

“Agreed,” Rashidi said.

The other two also nodded.

“We’ve dragged more than a dozen servants to face the master’s wrath in the past two weeks alone,” said Chibale, “some for no more reason than a hushed whisper or a nervous glance backward when they thought no one was looking.”

All four dropped their heads at that. They’d let this go on for too long, and people had died because of it.

We need to bring in Azibo,” said Jahi.

“Can we trust him?” Kasim narrowed his eyes.

“He was the one who spoke to me first. If he hadn’t made me stop and think about what was happening, I’m not sure any of us would be together now.”

“But what use can he be to us? He’s just a boy.”

“He knows things about the master, things I myself wouldn’t have had the means to find out otherwise. For instance, Azibo told me the master’s gone away.”

“What?” Kasim stood, as if the unknown fact were an affront to his dignity and station. “He didn’t tell any of us.”

“No,” Rashidi mused, “he didn’t. And with good reason, apparently. Jahi, what else does the boy know?”

Jahi shrugged. “Lots of things. The boy is…perceptive.” He thought back to the masterful way Azibo had played on his emotions.

Rashidi nodded. “Then I agree with Jahi that we should include him in our plans.”

“Fine.” Kasim grumbled something else, but it was too low for them to hear.

“I passed him in the hall a short time ago,” said Jahi. “He should still be awake, and the sooner we speak, the better.”

“Then we should go now,” Rashidi answered.

And just like that, Jahi, Kasim, and Chibale rose to their feet to follow after him.

A wonderful leader, thought Jahi. Again, he compared him to the master. He would make a noble replacement.

Alas, Rashidi’s assumption to power was not to be.

Read part 11 here.

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Just Doing His Job

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 30, 2016.

He slipped inside the church, unseen; sat down in a nearby pew and waited.

It was an old stone cathedral, erected in the Philippines by Spanish Catholics during the 1600s. He paused to admire the architecture and took a mental snapshot. He’d never been to the Philippines before, and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be going back.

Every now and then he turned to peer at one of the three broad double doors. He was waiting for someone.

Ten or fifteen minutes of contemplative silence. Then he spotted an elderly woman in a faded blue blouse. He watched closely as she knelt to pray and, after a brief appraisal, his suspicions were confirmed.

It was subtle, something that most people either couldn’t see or didn’t bother to notice. A slight ripple, a liquid shimmer in the air, like a mirage in the distance on a hot summer day. In her presence, things would change in almost imperceptible ways, a brief tweaking of probabilities and outcomes. Some things would become a little more likely, others a little bit less.

Such individuals had effected profound changes in the course of human events, small alterations to reality that rippled outward into space and time, having an increasingly heavy impact on the world and beyond. Most had no idea what they were capable of and, of those who did, rarer still were those who could control it. It was simply a part of their nature, a manifestation of their existence.

Now that she was praying, her influence had grown strong. He could see it swirling all around her.

He got to his feet and quietly approached her from behind. It was best to avoid a confrontation, to avoid getting caught in her web of influence.

He reached into a coat pocket and produced a small pen-like object and pad of paper. Then he positioned the pen-like object so that it was pointed at the woman’s neck. Finally he pushed down on a spring-loaded button. An instant later, the woman swatted at her neck.

When she turned to investigate the source of the sting, he smiled and pretended to scribble words into his notebook. Confused, she returned his smile with one of her own and turned back to face the tabernacle and continue praying.

The sting would have been benign. She would have forgotten about it even before she turned back toward the front of the church. She would go home after mass, have dinner with her family, fall asleep at the end of the day, and, by morning, her family would be planning her funeral.

He punctuated an empty page, placed the pen-like object back into his pocket along with the notebook, and exited the church. The humid heat of Bacolod embraced him.

He had just been doing his job, and this one was done. Tomorrow, he would board a morning flight for Manila; an hour later, he would be flying out to California.

He had another job to do.

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Read Totem, Part 10 a week early!

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Totem, Part 10 isn’t going live on the blog until August 22. But on Tuesday, August 14 at 4:30 p.m. PST / 7:30 p.m. EST, I’m going to tweet the entire installment under the hashtag #TotemPartTen 🙂

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Fighting the Storm

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Backward.

The Storm was pulling Beth backward, and if she didn’t plant her feet in the ground and make her stand soon, she would die.

All around her, the cosmos spun and reeled, a fiery explosion that transformed the ordinarily calm night sky into an apocalyptic inferno. A tempest of such magnitude and strength had not visited the Earth for more than a thousand years, and Beth felt powerless beneath the weight of its world-shattering influence.

She reached into the void outside space—the staging ground of reality itself—not with her arms but with her mind. The damage was extensive, and Beth didn’t know if she could fix it.

What would Grandma do?

The woman had been the fiercest Guardian Beth had ever known, and she’d defended the Earth from the Storm for more than three centuries before passing the role on to her.

“You’re stronger than you believe,” Grandma had said on her deathbed. “You have to accept that, or the Storm will win.”

But how could she accept an idea that was so patently absurd? The Storm was cosmic in scale and all-consuming. How could a lowly human like herself, gifted though she was, stand against it?

The wind intensified, and Beth slipped further. Falling back, she was dragged through the ravaged street, asphalt tearing her windswept clothes and opening wounds along her arms and legs.

The Storm was winning, and it was going to be Beth’s fault when the world was swept away.

All at once, a silence fell before her. The Storm was still close, but in another dimension of sensation it was suddenly far away. Here, in this inner depth she’d never explored before, she felt an incredible source of power rooted to the very cosmos itself, humming to the rhythm of her beating heart. Here, she thought, was the power Grandma had passed on to her. It was immense, an entire celestial ocean, and in its awe-inducing presence, Beth knew for certain at last.

She could do this.

She touched it, hesitantly at first, like a child tasting something hot, then drew it into herself in a single draught. It was like ice. Like fire. Like liquid lightning. It surged and throbbed and thrummed inside her, so that the Storm now seemed an inconsequential thing.

When her eyes snapped open, she got to her feet at once, as if she hadn’t just been dragged across yards and yards of asphalt. She turned her gaze to the sky, and she felt the Storm quail against the fury of her newly discovered power.

“Go”, she commanded. “Go, and trouble the world no more.”

The Storm raged against her in reply, but Beth’s will now carried the force of a law older than the cosmos itself, and they both knew it was bound to obey.

“Go,” she repeated. “Leave this place now.”

And the Storm left.

One by one, the stars returned to the sky. Beth released the power only when she was sure the Storm was gone, and when she did, its energy drained from her body at once. She sank to her knees, exhausted. But she was no longer afraid, no longer worried she wasn’t capable like Grandma. She knew now that she had everything she would ever need and more, and she would be ready to defend the world when the Storm returned.

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Everyone Dies

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When Jill turned the corner and saw what was waiting for her in the street, she knew her life was over. Dread settled in the pit of her stomach, and she found herself backing away. Only she knew it wouldn’t do any good.

If she could see it, it could see her.

Indeed, the creature turned, and though it had no eyes—only a dark emptiness hidden inside a thick black cowl—she felt its gaze like a javelin through the heart.

Wide-eyed, she watched it approach, the dark fabric of its robes rippling languidly over asphalt as it crossed the street to meet her.

No, she thought. It isn’t supposed to end like this.

But in moments it was in front of her, and Jill knew she was going to die.

“You gave us quite a chase,” the Reaper mused. Its voice came out a haunting, otherworldly whisper, like wind funneling through a narrow tunnel.

Jill wanted to say something but couldn’t. She was too lost in the vistas of abject terror to open her mouth.

“Do you wish to end this now,” the Reaper asked, “or do you want some more exercise first?”

Jill prickled with a sudden flare of anger, and for a moment, her fear abated. The Reaper had a job to do, but it didn’t have to be so fucking condescending.

“So, this is it then? All this education and life experience, just so I can lose it all now?”

“My dear, sooner or later, everyone dies.”

“Then why not later? I have a lot going for me right now. There’s so much I can contribute to the world. Give me ten more years. Then you can take me.”

When the Reaper spoke again, there was no hint of its prior mocking. Its tone was serious, and if Jill didn’t know any better, she’d also say caring.

“You know that’s not how it works. Not even I’m allowed to decide who lives and dies. We Reapers receive our orders, and we carry them out.”

Yes, she had to concede that this was true. And why some people lived to a ripe old age while others expired young, she would never know. All anyone could say for certain was that one day, sooner or later, your number would be called.

“It’s really not so bad,” the Reaper continued. “Many die more slowly from terrible, debilitating diseases. Death by our hand is much quicker, much more humane.”

Jill snorted. “There’s nothing humane about you.”

“True enough. Would it help if I told you that the one who decides your fate isn’t as capricious as you make him out to be? That there’s a plan in the midst of all this madness?”

“Not really.”

The headless cowl nodded, as if the Reaper hadn’t expected any other answer.

“Come,” it said. “Take my hand, and see what awaits you in the life to come.”

Jill hesitated a moment longer, but there was no point resisting the inevitable. She nodded. Fine. Her time was up, and that was that. Goodbye, Earth. Hello, Great Unknown.

Its hand on her shoulder was like a dousing in arctic waters. She felt all the warmth—all the life—drain out of her body like a bucket with a hole in the bottom. But the Reaper was right. It really wasn’t so bad. And when everything went dark like the void beyond the Reaper’s cowl, Jill found herself contemplating her life, wondering if it had really been all that important to begin with.

After all, nothing in this world was permanent. As the Reaper itself had said, sooner or later, everyone dies.

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Elemental

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In the end, it was the wind that betrayed him. It had seen him make his way across the mountains, seen him hike for seven days and seven nights through the dark and the cold and the hail and the rain, and when he faced them down one by one and prevailed, the wind had swooped in to put a stop to what he was doing before it was too late.

The Elementals were cruel, wicked masters, and they lorded their dominion of the world over humanity with a singularly vicious resolve. Stretching across land and sea, these incorporeal entities of Fire, Earth, Water and Air punished any who defied them. Their message was clear: The world belonged to them.

Only now, Simon stood up to challenge their authority.

The entrance to the Eiolin Cave stood not a hundred feet away, yet the wind rose up all around him in a deadly column of air to cut off access. Now that it had him in its grip, it would never let him go.

But Simon maintained hope.

“Did you actually think you could win?”

The wind’s thunderous voice boomed through him, swirling, howling, whistling as it let him feel the full force of its apocalyptic power.

“Stupid human. You’ve forgotten your place, and now I’ll have to teach you what happens when you cross an Elemental.”

The wind transformed, taking on the form of a massive tornado.

Simon had never before felt his limitations so keenly. It was like being swallowed by the Earth itself. But he held himself from the brink of despair by that single, silent thread of hope that continued to burn in his mind like a solar flare. He understood that he himself would never witness mankind’s deliverance, but what did that matter? He was old and tired, and as long as he accomplished what he’d set out to do, it would be enough.

His answer to the wind’s statement came slowly.

“I don’t know about winning,” said Simon. “All I intended was to do my best.”

He thought the gale around him changed in some imperceptible way. Now, it seemed tinged with a malicious, bloodlusty mirth.

“Your best?” the wind replied. “Your best couldn’t possibly be good enough.”

He stole a look at the cave’s entrance. Inside, deep underground, was the source of the Elementals’ power. Even now, surrounded by the wind, he prayed he wasn’t too late.

Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain.

“Maybe not,” Simon said and shrugged his shoulders. “But we humans are a stubborn lot. We value freedom over life itself. Better to die free than to live in servitude.”

A piercing flute of air slapped his back, and he bit back a strangled cry. No, he would not give this wretched being the pleasure of watching him sob like a child. He would go out a man, tall, proud, and one hundred percent in control of himself.

The wind drew more injuries. It wouldn’t let him die quickly, oh no, but that was all right—all for the better, in fact. With each blow, with each letting of fresh, cherry-hued blood, Simon snuck more furtive glances at the cave’s entrance.

Just a moment or two longer, he hoped. And as if the prayer were a cue, the wind stopped beating him.

“What are you looking at?” It was curious now, and there was something else in the tone of its voice, too, something Simon had never heard from its kind before. “I feel strange, weak, like—” And then it fell silent, and Simon, understanding now that his mission had been a success, angled his head toward the clouds and uttered his thanks to the Good Steward above.

Jerome had made it! Simon was never meant to go inside, of course. But Jerome, silent and invisible Jerome (made so by a glamour Simon devised himself) had shadowed him the entire journey.

Alone, the Elementals might have seen through the glamour, invisibility or no invisibility. But because Simon had gone along with the boy in plain sight, the Elementals would have only seen him, a foolish old man on a suicidal journey to the fabled Eiolin Cave.

If the wind had had eyes, Simon was sure they would have gone wide with realization.

“You weren’t alone,” it bellowed. “You weren’t alone!”

The shriek  that followed made Simon’s ears ring until the terrible ghost sense was so loud, so Earth-shatteringly complete, that he knew he’d gone deaf.

That was all right. Once more, he remembered that he’d never intended to complete the journey. The world belonged to Jerome’s generation now, as well as their descendants. Would they build a better place for themselves when the Elementals were gone? He didn’t know—the wind had been right about one thing: humans were stupid—but he could hope.

“Freedom,” Simon muttered, not hearing the sound of his voice, only feeling the shapes of the word on his lips.

As the wind used the rest of its waning power to usher him into the next life, Simon turned his head upward once more and asked the Good Steward to guide him home.

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Sand Castle

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This post was originally published through Patreon on July 12, 2016.

Cindy sat on the beach, her back to the ocean. She was digging, extracting large scoops of dark wet sand with her hands to form the gate towers of a lopsided castle.

She’d been alone for almost two days. Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes, but she continued working, first sculpting the basic structure, then patting it down so that it was smooth and seamless. Beyond, the waves crashed into the rocks piled along the shore.

Her parents had died in that ocean, victims of a devastating shipwreck, and Cindy was the only survivor. The tears that breached her eyes threatened to usher in massive racking sobs, but she held them back.

She had to be strong if she wanted to get home.

When the castle was finished, she dug a shallow ring around the perimeter, followed by a jagged line that connected it to the shore. When the next wave washed in, it flooded the tiny rivulet, and when the mote around the castle was full she swiped her hand through the makeshift canal, cutting off the water’s path back to sea.

She rose to her feet to survey the structure with a critical eye. Close. It lacked only one thing. She bent down once more to carve her family’s crest into each of the four walls.

Finished.

Cindy touched the castle with her right hand and closed her eyes, waiting until the sand grew warm against her skin. Soon, her ears could resolve the clangs of blacksmiths at the forge, the clopping of horses’ hooves, the chatter of stable workers, soldiers and serfs. She smiled despite the tears that stung her eyes. It was working.

She reached farther, through the castle walls, through the keep, into where her aunt and uncle sat on the throne. She called out to them, and they heard her distant cry at once.

A breeze brushed back a strand of Cindy’s hair. There was a whoosh, a pull, and when Cindy opened her eyes again, she was home.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on an empty uncharted shore, there stood an abandoned sand castle. Elegant, intricate, a master work of magic and engineering. But like Cindy’s parents, it would soon be swept away by the sea.

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Putting On the Mask

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After three centuries of endless searching, his quest has reached its end.

The object he requires stands before him now, sparkling beneath a glass case atop a plain wooden stand that belies its incredible power. He glances about before returning his eyes to the display. He knows there are cameras recording every angle of the room—the world has advanced considerably over the course of his unnaturally long life—and though he’s sure the glamour he learned during his exile is still working, he’s paranoid. Things can’t go wrong now, not when he’s inches away from the thing that will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the world forever.

When the white men butchered his people, including, eventually, his wife and children; when they planted their flags in the blood-soaked fields and claimed their land in the name of a foreign crown and an equally foreign god; when they obliterated all traces of his once proud and affluent culture, leaving his homeland in ruins; he thought his life was over. But there was one thing that kept him going, one thing that kept the withered heart in his desiccated chest beating long after it should have stopped along with those of his people.

The mask.

The priests, having foretold their own destruction more than a thousand years before the invaders came, saw fit to pass it down from one generation to the next, not under heavy guard or behind the locked doors of a fortified structure, but through a secret succession of descendants that even he, as their king, was not allowed to know.

The priests, in their wisdom, had understood a vital truth: that the greatest security sometimes lies in obscurity. A guard or a temple would have advertised the mask’s importance and would have surely fallen. But a simple family heirloom? No matter how zealously or how violently the invaders sought to stamp out their heathen practices, there was no way for them to reach everyone—no way for them to know that somewhere, in a simple fisherman’s village, in a quiet bamboo beach house, the future restoration of their people abided in peace.

Unfortunately, the priests were slain, and with them their secret.

He searched long and hard, trudged through creeping rainforests and windswept mountains. But he never found it, and the history of his people soon faded and was lost.

Then a miracle: a report in the Los Angeles Times. An archaeological exhibit had come to the Getty Museum, and among the artifacts on display was a peculiar wooden mask.

The mask.

Now, he hesitates with arms outstretched. He knows the instant he lifts the glass, an alarm will ring. But, of course, once he puts on the mask, that won’t matter. Once he puts on the mask—once he dons the vengeful spirits of his people like a shield—nothing will be able to stop him.

He removes the glass.

An alarm bell rings.

When he places the mask over his face, a dark energy swirls before his eyes like motes of electrified dust.

The guards arrive a minute later, and he turns to greet them, face twisted in a rictus of supernatural ecstasy. Let them come, he thinks. Let them bear witness to his revenge.

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Buried Alive

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This post was originally published through Patreon on April 24, 2016.

They said it was for the common good. They said it had to be done, that there was no other way. Eventually, no justification was needed. They were too great a liability. It was too dangerous for them to live among society and there was nothing that could be done to improve their condition.

So in the end, thousands of men, women, and children were rounded up like cattle and buried alive. Polite society did its best to ignore their shocked and disbelieving cries, their futile pleas for mercy and redemption.

It was necessary.

It was for the common good.

When it was over, the truth was buried along with the victims. Thousands of years passed, and society almost forgot. But the truth refused to remain buried.

Now, in an open field far from the city, in a barren patch of earth that’s remained empty to this day, a dark energy stirs. The ground rumbles, a deep bellowing groan.

They’re coming, and they want revenge.

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