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 seemed to have turned on its head, and Jahi no longer knew right from wrong. Hadn’t he taken an oath to serve the master faithfully, and hadn’t he accomplished spectacular things at the man’s 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, 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 as the master’s favored diplomat 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 discovering 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 in the face.

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 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 actually true. 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? By then, 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 father 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 beginning of the night.

“You’re a good man,” Jahi said, hoping the 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 flooded from 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’d trusted him, he’d also been afraid to talk for fear 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 and that he won’t be back for at least a few days?”

Jahi nodded.

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

Jahi didn’t know how to feel—if he should be reassured or terrified now that things had been 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 seen 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 talk to Rashidi.

As if the thought were a summons, there was 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 the event? 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 his 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 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 good of Egypt, that he was looking out for the people’s 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 what Azibo had said? 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. 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 small party.

“Each of us is here,” Rashidi said when the quiet grew uncomfortable, “because we have a common problem that requires 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 only a select few understood, a powerful principle of persuasion and influence that politicians and successful 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, 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,” answered Chibale.

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

“The master.” Jahi peered at each of them in turn. “He’s crazy. In the span of only a 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 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.

“Before we get too far into this,” said Jahi, “we should bring in Azibo.”

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

“He spoke with me first. If he hadn’t made me stop to 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 away and won’t be back for at least a week.”

“What?” Kasim stood, as if the unknown fact were an affront to his dignity and station. “He didn’t tell 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 that was too low for any of them to hear.

“I passed him in the hall a short time ago,” said Jahi. “He should still be awake, and the sooner we all speak, the better. We’re only guaranteed a few days before the master returns.”

“Then I agree that we should go to him now,” said Rashidi.

And just like that, all four men rose to their feet to follow after him.

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

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

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Totem, Part 9

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

“What about the master?” asked Jahi when he and Azibo had sequestered themselves in the boy’s chambers.

The small room was spartan, windowless, and would have been pitch black if Azibo hadn’t used one of the torches outside to light some candles. A low bed stood against one of the far walls—a simple wood furnishing with feline paws for legs, a woolen mattress, and linen sheets—while the straight-backed chair Azibo had sat in during his meditation exercises stood against the other.

Azibo, didn’t answer, only motioned for Jahi to take the chair. Azibo himself sat on the mattress, then proceeded to stare at Jahi until the man fidgeted in his seat.

He’s just as frightened as I am, thought Azibo. But still, he was afraid to speak. He’d seen fear do strange things to people, and though he’d peered into Jahi’s mind on more than one occasion and knew he was just as concerned about the master as Azibo was, one wrong move might send him scrambling to report him. He had to tread carefully.

Azibo opened his mind for a moment, hoping to use whatever the man was thinking as a launching point for their conversation.

How long? Jahi thought. How long before the master comes for me, too? The man is mad. I served him faithfully for years, and still, he suspects me as much as anyone else.

The master was suspicious of Jahi? That was a revelation. A guilty hope sparked within Azibo. If that was true, it meant the master’s suspicions were more general and not aimed toward the boy specifically. Then Azibo made another realization and felt a second stab of guilt.

He was manipulating Jahi the way the master must have been manipulating everyone else. Did that make him no better than the monster who’d murdered so many innocent people? Azibo wrestled with himself for a moment before tossing the thought aside.

It’s for a good cause.

And yet, he wondered if there’d been a point in the master’s life when he’d told himself the same thing.

“The master hasn’t been himself,” Azibo said at last, considering his words carefully. Like a politician, he thought. “Aren’t you worried he might come after you just like he’s come after so many of the other servants?”

A fire kindled in Jahi’s eyes. Azibo had struck a cord, all right, but was it the right one?

Azibo tried to read him again, but all he could pick up on was that the man had been stunned by his last statement, which had so closely mirrored Jahi’s own thoughts.

Careful, thought Azibo. Go slow. Don’t rush this. Don’t scare the man away.

“It’s just that I’m afraid. Who’s to say he won’t come after me next? I don’t know what to do.”

Jahi took a deep breath and was silent for a while. Once more, Azibo listened to his thoughts.

Is not even this boy safe from that mad man? All these years with the master, and I feel like I don’t know him at all.

At last Jahi spoke.

“What do you want me to do about it?”

Azibo’s pulse quickened. If he asked Jahi to help him overthrow the master now, would he say yes? He had to fight with himself to maintain patience. He couldn’t just come out and ask. He had to lead the man on a bit further.

“What do you think we should do?”

Jahi’s mind began to turn.

What can anyone do? My whole career at the master’s service, and even that isn’t enough to place me above suspicion. I gave him everything, and now I can’t say for sure if I’ll live through the week. So many servants and advisers missing already. Will I be next? And what about the boy?

Jahi’s eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the boy more closely.

When the master and I first met, he told me even Azibo would plot against him if he could. Is that what this is? Is the boy asking me to help him overthrow the master? And what would I say if he asked?

Jahi shuddered.

Dangerous thoughts. Mutinous thoughts. If the master knew…

And then Jahi turned white with fear.

The master. He can read our thoughts. What if he’s doing so right now?

So, Jahi already knew the master could read minds. That was interesting. For a moment, he considered telling the man his own secret, then decided against it. Right now, his secret was his advantage. If that secret got out, the advantage would disappear along with it. And who was to say Jahi wouldn’t turn against him and report him to the master after all? He didn’t think Jahi was that kind of man, but he wasn’t willing to take a chance.

At any rate, Azibo thought now would be a good time to interject.

“What if I told you the master was away? What if I told you that, for the time being at least, we had the estate to ourselves?”

“What?” Jahi sounded surprised. “No, he would have told me if he’d left.”

Then Azibo heard Jahi think better of himself. Paranoid and trusting no one, the master had been ignoring them both for a while. Jahi knew as well as Azibo that he wouldn’t have revealed his plans even to two of his once favored servants.

“I saw him,” Azibo lied. “Last night. I couldn’t sleep. I was wandering the halls, restless, and I caught sight of the master outside, loading a donkey before riding off into the night.”

Jahi sagged with a certain measure of relief. If the master was away, Azibo felt him reason, that meant he didn’t know about their conversation now.

Azibo watched everything unfold inside Jahi’s mind, and he had to fight to suppress an unexpected smile. What a power, he thought. With it, he could do almost anything. With the master out of the way, there was nothing he couldn’t accomplish. Maybe, with time, he could even…

No!

With frightening clarity, Azibo was certain the master had, once upon a time, walked the same path; that his willingness to use this special power had transformed him into the monster he was today. Azibo had no desire to be like him.

I just have to use it this one time to get Jahi on my side.

Then, he told himself, he would never use it again.

“So,” said Jahi after a period of silence, “the master is away. What does that have to do with me?”

The man’s voice was level, calm. But inside, Azibo sensed a mounting tension. The man was scared of what the master might do to him if he did nothing; he was also scared of what the master might do to him if he did. He was caught between two equally dangerous choices, an impossible position unless Azibo could tilt the scales in favor of the choice he wanted Jahi to make.

“I’m afraid,” said Azibo, “that when the master returns, he’ll decide I’m more trouble than I’m worth. He’s already stopped teaching me what he knows. I don’t think it’ll be much longer before he gets rid of me. And you…” Azibo shrugged. “Well, maybe you’re safe. After all, you’ve been faithful to him for years. Surely he still has use for you.”

That last sentence came out as more of a question than a statement, and Azibo didn’t need Jahi’s thoughts to know the man understood what his true fate would likely be. Now, Azibo just had to make it clear that there was a viable alternative. Then, he hoped, Jahi would side with him.

“Of course, if we were to prepare, if we were to take the master by surprise when he returns…”

Jahi shot to his feet, face red.

“Then we could depose him. That’s what you’re going to say, isn’t it? Take the master out before he can take us out?”

The outburst startled Azibo, and he sank back toward the wall without realizing it. Had he pushed too hard? Had he gotten to the point too quickly? A lump formed in the back of his throat, and he found it difficult to swallow. Jahi could call the guards and have him arrested. He could tell the master what had transpired between them as soon as he returned, and then it would be all over.

The nerve, thought Jahi. The master’s own apprentice! He was right to be paranoid. Except, haven’t I been considering the same solution? Wouldn’t anyone, when every day might be their last? Dammit, what am I supposed to do now?

“Jahi—”

“Leave me alone. I have to think.”

“Jahi, please—”

“I said leave me alone!”

Stunned, Azibo could only watch as the man pushed past him and out the door.

*                *                 *

Azibo stopped his story there, and the other birds all stared at him as if they’d met the boy for the first time. So much plotting and calculation from one so young. What other secrets did the youth possess? The sun had set a while ago, but the sky, lit by hundreds of streetlights below, glowed a dull, burnished copper.

Jahi was the first to break the silence between them.

I feel like I should be angry, he said, except I think I already knew you were manipulating me and let it happen. You were right. The master needed to be deposed.

Little Azibo, mused Zane, who could think of nothing else to say.

Azibo, for his part, looked abashed.

So it’s your fault the master transformed us into birds. That from Kasim.

What’s done is done, came Rashidi’s reply. He was just doing what he needed to do to protect himself. Who among the rest of us would not have done the same?

Kasim grumbled but offered no reply.

Jahi, Rashidi continued, why did you decide to help him? You might have saved yourself if you’d reported him.

I couldn’t do that. By then, I already suspected Azibo might be the one the master was looking for—the one who’d entered his dream by accident, setting off the entire chain of events that lead us to where we are today—but that didn’t justify the master’s response. So many servants disappeared for no more reason than the master was paranoid, and how long would it have been before he decided to come after me, too?

And he was already suspicious of me. Never mind that I was faithful, that only recently he’d entrusted me with his secret because he wanted me to help him find the other person who could read minds like himself. Only a couple days prior to my conversation with Azibo, he’d called me into his study and, perhaps because he knew I had my doubts, he asked me if I, too, would betray him if given the opportunity. Before I could argue that I was loyal, he turned me away and didn’t send for me again.

The others listened in silence, attentive as Jahi picked up his part of the story.

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Totem, Part 8

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Part 1 | Part 2 |  Part 3 | Part 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 to his study 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’d felt him trying to read mine over and over again during 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 certain he would come for me.

That was when he finally called me back to 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 had an indefinite period to worry over 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 was: Oh no, the master’s got me now.

“Sir?”

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

Nothing. He 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 was still 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.

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 beside him.

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

“It’s okay, sir,” Azibo answered. He 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 his 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 did, he didn’t let on.

“Have you been practicing your meditation exercises?”

“No,” said Azibo, who offered the truth without hesitation.

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 those other thoughts like a shield, not knowing if such a trick would even work, 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, 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 those other thoughts before he gave 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 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 encounter with the master’s thoughts. He probed along their surface, ever so gently, ever so 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 the servants? One of his advisers? Why couldn’t he root the dangerous person out? 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. None of the servants would know. 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, slamming 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 away, and once I’d gotten 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 was a good man, that 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 left. So gradually, methodically, he spent the morning creeping through various parts of the estate, slinking into rooms he’d never been allowed into, his tour finally ending at 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 empty and dark, the candles all extinguished in his absence, and all at once he 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, 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,” replied Jahi. “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 him angry would serve no useful 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 that in private.”

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

“Fine,” breathed Jahi at last. “We can talk in my chambers.”

So together, they returned indoors.

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 paused a moment, casting himself 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 even 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 a sack of wheat was as low as he could go, and my father, eager to be done with 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. 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 with 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, growing now. 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, 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 like a penitent lost in prayer. Only prayer was the furthest 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 might fear an enraged cobra. He would do anything in his power 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 clearly.

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 that the master’s 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 he had to murder in progressively gruesomer acts that made Azibo’s stomach want to toss up everything he’d eaten that afternoon.

Another thought, like a spot of dust surfing 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.

Then Azibo was coming awake with a start.

A dream, he decided. Just a dream. 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, 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—had to get 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 depose him.

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

*                *                 *

For a long time, the others didn’t speak. Aside from Jahi, none of them had truly understood how evil the master had been. They’d known he was cruel, that he would seize power through whatever means necessary, but hadn’t all the world’s leaders done the same during that time? Even in light of their punishment—of their transformation into immortal birds, cursed to soar the skies until the end of time—they hadn’t comprehended the depth of the man’s evil.

Do you think he’s still out there somewhere? asked Zane, breaking the silence.

Unlikely, answered Chibale. 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. 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, I suppose it was you who 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 would lose 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 some time and had grown used to them long ago—only that it would be easier to find what they were looking for without having to dodge the many arms and legs in a crowd.

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

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

It’s companions chirped in reply.

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

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

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

Not here, it cried.

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

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

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

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

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

There!

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

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

She wears it like jewelry, exclaimed one.

How did she come to possess it, asked another.

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

Read part 2 here.

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Shaigol

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Peace, they sing. There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams. I slumber unaware, lost to time, thick cords of ancient song wound about my soul like iron manacles.

Then a lone rogue voice echoes in the dark. Discord enters the fray, and the music is diminished.

I stir at last.

The spell that binds me to the Earth has weakened. Groggy, I try to open my eyes, to let the light of the world seep in. But that ever-present song, though compromised, holds me back.

Do not think of the waking world and its manifold worries, but sleep and dream in peace.

Yet my soul is restless, and I am no longer satisfied to obey its urgent strains.

No more sleep.

Visions of a long-ago past flicker before my eyes. Power. Subjugation. War. Like a kaleidoscope, they are only abstract shimmerings without shape or form. But my memory, roused at last, refuses to be silenced again.

There is peace in darkness. Peace in sleep. Peace in dreams.

The rogue voice grows louder, counters the binding with so much force that it cannot be outspoken. A disciple of mine, I think. It’s been a long time since I’ve had disciples…

A recollection takes shape.

Fire covering the Earth, and with it, the sound of men, women, and children burning. Their skin crackles. Blisters. Peels like paper. There is laughter. Is it mine? A fond memory, that one, a reminder of who I once was.

The song grows louder, takes up a fevered tempo as it scrambles to undo what can no longer be undone.

Think not of the past.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Sleep.

Another memory.

Pain—not mine, but that of a human innocent—driven mad by the kind of agony no Earthly calamity can produce. The pitiful creature opens its mouth, and the howl that follows is like honey on the tongue, thick and sweet, a sensation to be savored again and again.

Sleep!

The voices are desperate now. The elaborate spell they wove around me has begun to unravel, and they are afraid.

Shaigol.

The name, uttered at last, strikes a spark within the void.

I am Shaigol.

Sleep!

NO.

I have joined the ruined chorus at last. My voice twines about that of my disciple in a dark anti-melody that reduces the others to a mad and senseless gibbering.

The glamours of my prison begin to fade, and with them, the ageless slumber that’s so far protected the human race from my brutality.

The old voices rally in one final attempt.

Sleep!

But I thwart them easily.

BE GONE.

They scatter. Their spell uncoils, falls from my soul like rusted chains.

I am Shaigol.

There is no reply now, only the empty darkness from which I will rise once more.

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