Totem, Part 11

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I always thought you would have been a better leader, said Jahi after stopping his part of the story to rest. I wish you’d had the chance.

It was late, and the birds who’d once been advisers to a cruel and powerful ruler gazed at the distant horizon in anticipation of a dawn that wasn’t far in coming.

What makes you think I would have replaced the master? Rashidi glanced in Azibo’s direction. I can think of others who might have wanted to take control.

Azibo didn’t acknowledge him, only flicked his eyes downward.

Anyway, that kind of responsibility never appealed to me. I’d rule if necessary, but only if duty required it.

And that, Jahi said, is precisely why you would have been a better ruler.

I should have had more faith in you, said Azibo at last, changing the subject. He turned to address Jahi, but his eyes never lifted from the ground. I was certain you would turn me in. I should have known better.

If Jahi were still a man, he might have smiled. Those were uncertain times. You had every right to be afraid.

All that silence that passed between us after I told you what I thought about the master. It made me uneasy, and then that night you finally returned to my door with the others, I thought for certain…

Azibo stopped to consider his words.

With the exception of Zane, who came into the picture a little later, none of the others needed to hear the rest. They’d all been there. But there was something sacred about hearing the tale unfold, as if the experience allowed them to travel back in time to live through it all again. Here, in the semi-darkness of the nascent dawn, they could almost feel their human bodies, and none of them wanted to let that feeling go.

So Azibo considered how best to pick up where Jahi left off, and when the others had gathered around him like a village elder, he recounted the fateful meeting during which most of their paths finally crossed.

*               *               *

When the knock at the door came, Azibo jumped. The hour was late, and he hadn’t been expecting visitors. Could it be Jahi? The two had exchanged glances earlier that evening. The man’s dark eyes had appeared troubled, and before he turned away, Azibo had wondered if he’d be ready to talk again.

Has he come to arrest me?

The thought made Azibo’s body grow cold, and when he opened the door and beheld not only Jahi, but also three of the master’s guards, he thought, just as Jahi had when Rashidi first came to his chambers, that he’d been betrayed. Then he reached out to the men’s minds, listened to their thoughts, and realized the truth.

They were on his side.

A tsunami of emotions raced through his mind—gratitude, guilt, relief—an oceanic wave that slammed hard into the back of his eyes so that he had to fight to hold back tears.

One of the guards must have noticed the struggle, because the first words out of his mouth were, “This is the sniveling brat who can help us overthrow the master?”

Though Azibo’s face was flushed and he was certain some of his tears had broken through, he drew himself up to his full height, turned to Jahi, and asked, “Who are these men?”

“Friends.” Jahi shot the guard a murderous glare. “I trust them, Azibo, and you can trust them too.”

Azibo eyed them all warily.

“I thought— Never mind.”

He’d been about to say he thought Jahi was going to turn him in, but instead said, “If these men are friends, then we should be introduced.”

“Yes, of course.” Azibo felt some of the tension in the man unwind. “This is Rashidi,” he said, pointing to the oldest looking guard. “He’s the master’s head guard. And these two,” he said, pointing to the men next to him, “are Chibale and Kasim. They’re under his command.”

Kasim. So, that was the name of the man who’d spoken out against him.

Jahi turned toward the others. “Rashidi, Chibale, Kasim: this is Azibo.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Chibale, and both he and Rashidi shook his hand by way of introduction.

Kasim, on the other hand, said nothing, only stared at Azibo with open contempt.

Azibo’s first instinct was to take the emotional pulse of the room. Jahi, for his part, felt more sure of himself than he had the first time they spoke. He was less doubtful now, and possessed both clarity of mind and purpose.

As for Rashidi, there seemed to be little room in his heart for ambition, only a deep and abiding sense of duty and an unquenchable demand for justice. Rashidi wasn’t the sort to claim victory for himself or to blame others for his defeats. He had his doubts about Azibo, yet he nevertheless maintained an open mind. He desired only what was best and what was right, and he held little regard for what others might think of him should his moral or strategic senses deviate from commonly held assumptions. The man was not above selfishness, but that selfishness centered not around petty jealousies or a coward’s desire to save his own life, but the all-consuming need to be the best possible version of himself and to be a capable leader. Azibo decided then and there that he liked the man, even looked up to him, and he would be honored to serve alongside him.

Chibale was also decent enough, though his thoughts were more aligned with pragmatic concerns. He, too, harbored doubts About Azibo, a fact that stung his ego. But he had to admit those doubts were reasonable, and he could find no fault in this man either. Like Jahi and Rashidi, he was loyal and wanted only what was right, and so Azibo decided he could trust him, too.

Kasim, however, was a more difficult subject. Unlike Rashidi or Chibale, his thoughts were both contradictory and erratic, a violent tug of war between his fear of the master and the trust he’d placed in his comrades. The man was brash and quick to judge, but paradoxically, he was less sure of himself and his decisions than the others. He seemed secure enough in his choice to follow Rashidi, and Azibo didn’t think he’d intentionally compromise their mission, but his belligerence and tendency to second guess the decisions of others gave him great pause. Would Kasim be an asset or a liability? He would have to get to know the man better before he could decide.

If only they knew what I can do, that I’m reading their minds even as we speak. But that was a secret he couldn’t share lest he risk giving up his greatest advantage, and so he would have to find another way to convince them of his worth.

“As I was telling you,” Jahi continued, “Azibo made me realize what we had to do.”

You could have come back to me first before consulting with others, Azibo thought. But he held his tongue. In their eyes, he was just a boy, and he couldn’t afford to reinforce that image by throwing a tantrum.

Fortunately, Azibo didn’t have to work very hard to convince Jahi. Since their first talk, the man had come to hold for him a certain level of respect.

“Yes,” Azibo said, working hard to maintain his composure and to exude what he imagined was a sufficiently adult serenity. “He and I discussed the master a few days ago, and though Jahi was uncertain at the time, it appears we both now believe the same thing: that unless we stop him, he’ll eventually come for all of us.”

Rashidi nodded.

“That is the conclusion we have reached as well.”

“Well then,” said Azibo, “I suppose all that’s left for us to discuss is how best to proceed.”

Kasim jumped into the conversation.

“And you can contribute to this discussion how?”

Before Azibo could answer, Rashidi spoke over him.

“Jahi tells us you saw the master depart in secret.”

“Yes.” Azibo sat on his bed, trying to appear relaxed. “He loaded a donkey with supplies. From what he took with him, it seemed he intended to be gone for a while.”

“But you’re not sure for how long.”

Azibo pondered his last encounter with the master. At the time, he’d learned from reading the man’s mind that he was considering an absence of one or two weeks, perhaps even three. He could relay that back to them, but then he would have to explain how he knew. Doing so would almost certainly lead to uncomfortable questions that Azibo preferred not to answer, so instead, he said, “A few days at the least, a week or two at the most.”

“Are we really going to take him seriously?” Kasim started to pace across the room, wide-eyed and angry. “We can’t base our strategy on the testimony of a child. It’s madness. It’s—”

“Kasim, be silent.” Rashidi’s exhortation was a whispered whipcrack in the torch-lit chamber, and Azibo didn’t need to read Kasim’s mind to know the man had just been humiliated.

I’m going to have problems with him, Azibo thought. He would have to be strong enough to rise above him. His young age meant there was a strong prejudice for him to overcome, and that in turn meant he had to be more of an adult than the adults.

“I understand your concerns,” Azibo said, trying hard to be the consummate diplomat. “But I saw him with my own two eyes, and as his apprentice, I’ve gotten to know the master well enough to be a reliable judge of his behavior.”

The master’s apprentice. The reference to his privileged station was intended to remind Kasim of his authority in this matter, and it seemed his words had had the desired effect. He could feel Kasim’s mind wrap itself around the fact, and after a moment or two of silent fury, he reluctantly came to appreciate Azibo’s value, even if he would never admit it out loud.

“As I was saying,” Azibo continued, “I believe we have some time to plan before we have to worry about the master returning.”

Rashidi nodded.

“Thank you, Azibo. Your observation is most valuable.”

“We shouldn’t allow ourselves to grow comfortable,” Jahi warned. “We don’t know how long he’ll be gone. He could decide to return tomorrow.”

“Agreed.”

“The question is,” Jahi continued, “how do we fight someone so powerful? We don’t even know what he’s capable of.”

“Azibo,” Rashidi asked, “you’re his apprentice. You know him better than anyone else. Can you tell us anything that will help?”

Azibo considered the question at some length. He knew the master could read minds, but he didn’t want to reveal that ability for fear he might also give away his own advantage. What else could he contribute to the discussion? The master had not yet taught him any magic, only worthless meditation exercises.

What about the dream?

Azibo thought of the scene that’d unfolded the day he’d first stumbled into the master’s mind: the invocation of Isis and Osiris, followed by a vision of the master’s sacrificial altar underground. One conclusion that might have saved them all escaped him until it was too late, but he did think of something else.

Because of what he’d observed in the dream, Azibo knew the nature of the master’s immortality. He was aware of his growing need for human sacrifice, along with the weakness that resulted from not being able to fully meet that demand, and he also knew from their last encounter that the master was agitated and afraid.

The two conditions made for a dangerous and potentially fatal combination, and if they could take advantage of them somehow, if perhaps they could catch the master by surprise…

“The master,” Azibo began, and then he paused to consider what he should say next. A lie, he decided, would be in his best interest. “He told me a secret. This was before he was so paranoid that he refused to speak with me. He said something was wrong, that he was weak and sick and that he needed time to rest and recuperate. I believe this weakness could make him vulnerable if we were to take him by surprise.”

Azibo saw Jahi furrow his brow, and he opened his mind for a moment to listen to the man’s thoughts.

What if the master reads our minds when he returns? How can we take him by surprise if he knows what we’re thinking even before he arrives at the front gate?

Azibo felt the man wrestle with himself over whether or not to reveal the master’s secret, and he realized he needed to alleviate Jahi’s fears before this discussion could take an unwelcome turn.

“The master,” Azibo continued, “has certain abilities, certain ways to sense the people around him.” There. That was close enough to reference the master’s secret without actually revealing it. He hoped Jahi’s mind would make the connection to mind reading on its own. “Whatever weakness has overcome him has also dulled this ability.” That second claim was a bald faced lie, but Azibo knew, from personal experience, how the master’s secret talent worked, and he was confident it didn’t pose them any danger as long as they were careful.

Like himself, Azibo reasoned, the master wouldn’t be able to hear the thoughts of those around him without first reaching for them specifically. They might leave an emotional trace that could be sensed without effort, but only when he focused in on someone could he read them in any detail. If he didn’t know anyone was there until it was too late—if they could hide until they were ready to strike him down—then their chances were good.

Azibo let Jahi mull this information over.

We can do this, thought Azibo, silently urging him to be strong. Don’t worry, Jahi. I know we can do this.

“If the master is as weak as you say he is,” Rashidi said, “then I agree, a surprise is likely our best option. A swift, clean cut. But there’s a complication. We can’t murder him in the open. Our rebellion has to remain a secret, even after we’ve killed him. If any of his other advisers catch on, they’ll have us arrested, then fight over who among their number has the right to take his place. I’ve seen the chaos that results from a powerful leader’s execution, and no matter how many crimes they were guilty of, the power vacuum that replaced them was almost always worse.”

That gave Azibo pause. He realized there was still so much he didn’t understand about politics. Kasim’s concerns, though irritating, suddenly seemed painfully valid. Could they do this without making things worse?

But after a moment’s consideration, Azibo decided anything was preferable to the master remaining in power—even the risk of a bloody struggle over who would get to take his place when he was gone. None of the master’s other advisers were capable of the magic or supernatural cruelty the man so dangerous, and as long as they could take him out before they were caught, that would be enough.

“We should let him arrive,” Azibo said when none of the others offered a solution. “He left in secret, so he can return in secret. Only, we’ll be watching for his return, and when he’s tucked away in the privacy of his study, then we strike.”

Azibo could feel their emotions and realized this last statement had startled them. That such a cold-blooded thought could come from someone so young gave them all pause.

Well, thought Azibo, let them be scared. Maybe now, they’ll understand that I’m more than just a child.

“I think,” said Rashidi, his voice just the tinniest bit unsteady, “that what Azibo proposes is a good idea. Kasim, Chibale and I can wait for his arrival, and Jahi can keep watch and signal when he’s close. Azibo, you’ll have to look out for his signal and warn us when the master approaches.”

Yes, Azibo thought, that was a good plan. A sudden wave of giddiness washed over him as he considered the very real possibility that the master could soon be out of the picture. If they were successful, what challenges would await them next? With the ability to read minds, there was nothing Azibo couldn’t accomplish. A vague sense of guilt vexed him as he considered the prospect of using this secret ability to his advantage, but he chose not to let it bother him. He didn’t have to be like the master. He could find a way to use his talent for good.

He beheld the others, who were now, for better or for worst, his comrades in arms, and he swore he would do right by them when this was over and they were finally free. He didn’t allow himself to consider the possibility that they might fail. After all, he believed, their plan was foolproof.

Unfortunately for them all, it wasn’t.

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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.

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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 once sat in to meditate stood against the other.

Azibo didn’t answer, only motioned for Jahi to take the chair. Azibo himself sat on the mattress, and proceeded to stare at the diplomat 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 Jahi 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? He’s crazy. 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 in nature and not aimed toward himself. Then Azibo made another realization and felt a second stab of guilt.

He was manipulating Jahi the way the master manipulated everyone else. Did that make him no better than the monster who’d murdered all those 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. Don’t rush. Don’t scare the man away.

“It’s just that I’m afraid. Who’s to say he won’t take me prisoner 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 struggled to maintain patience. He couldn’t just come out and ask. He had to lead the man on a bit longer.

“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 Azibo 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 my thoughts. What if he’s doing so right now?

So, Jahi already knew the master could read minds. That was interesting. He considered telling the man his own secret, then decided against it. Right now, it was his only advantage. If the secret got out, his 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 have 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 ignored them both for a while. Jahi knew as well as Azibo that he wouldn’t have revealed his plans to anyone, not even to one of his most 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 and 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 couldn’t know about their conversation now.

Azibo watched everything unfold inside Jahi’s mind, and he fought to suppress an unexpected smile. What a power. 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, trod 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 that power this one time to get Jahi on my side. Then, he told himself, he would never use it again.

“So,” said Jahi after a prolonged 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; but 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 about magic. I don’t think it’ll be much longer before he decides to get 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 was 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 overthrow 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 all be 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, and with his heart lodged firmly in the back of his throat, Azibo watched the man push past him and out the door.

*               *               *

Azibo stopped his story there, and the other birds all stared at him as if they’d just met him 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, except I think I already knew you were manipulating me and I let it happen anyway. You were right. The master needed to be overthrown, and a part of me knew that even then.

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

Azibo, for his part, looked abashed.

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, Jahi replied. By then, I already suspected Azibo might be the one the master was looking for: the one who’d entered his dream by accident. 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 the rest of us?

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

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

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

*               *               *

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

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

“I said, the master requests your presence.”

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

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

He’s trying to read me again.

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

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

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

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

“Have you been practicing your meditation exercises?”

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

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

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

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

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

Azibo swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get out!” the master bellowed.

Azibo bolted and slammed the door behind him.

*               *               *

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

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

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

*               *               *

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

Jahi. I have to find Jahi.

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

“Jahi?”

The man whirled.

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

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

“What do you want?” Jahi asked.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Not now. I’m busy.”

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

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

Once more, the man turned.

“What about the master?”

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

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

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

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Totem, Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azibo nodded.

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

*               *               *

Calm. Dark. Quiet.

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

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

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

“Focus first. The magic will follow.”

“Focus my ass.”

Three days had passed before Azibo could sit again.

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

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

Just dark and oblivion.

Dark and oblivion.

Dark and—

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

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

Brighter.

Brighter.

Flash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isis, Osiris: Hear me. Heed me.”

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

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

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

Terrified, the boy turned to flee.

There was that familiar flash of light.

Then the darkness of an empty mind.

Azibo came awake with a start.

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

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

I have to overthrow him.

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

*               *               *

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

Do you think he’s still out there somewhere?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, Azibo continued his story.

Read part 8 here.

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Totem, Part 1

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Only after the humans left did the birds advance. It wasn’t that they were afraid—they’d lived among people for a while and had grown used to them long ago—only that it would be easier to find what they were looking for without having to dodge the many arms and legs in a crowd.

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

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

It’s companions chirped in reply.

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

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

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

Not here, it cried.

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

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

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

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

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

There!

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

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

She wears it like jewelry! exclaimed one.

How did she come to possess it? asked another.

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

Read part 2 here.

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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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