The Game

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Life surrounds me. Thousands of spectators, crammed into seats stacked ten stories high, encircling a field of green where two teams engage in a sport the humans call baseball. A player swings a heavy wooden bat, which smacks into a tiny white ball, producing a loud crack. The ball sails somewhere into the third level. The crowd cheers.

Seated on the second floor, I watch it pass overhead and smile.

I can feel the heat of living blood, throbbing all around me like sonorous African drums. With a crowd this large, I can do anything.

Some people think the greatest magic lies in words, that if they recite a certain combination of sounds a certain number of times, they’ll compel the cosmos to give up its secrets. But words are weak, crude expressions whose meanings invariably drift with time. Magicians skilled in the art of spelling might amass small scraps of power, but their deeds rarely amount to more than parlor tricks.

Life, on the other hand, is the great untapped reservoir, a fount of limitless energies. One must only possess the secret of its use, and in all my thousands of years, I can count such knowledge among my achievements.

I send out tiny tendrils, like runners from a creeping vine, and probe my closest neighbors. When they make contact, a warm power flows into me. Ecstasy. I’m careful not to draw too much at once, feeding only on the surplus energies that this game has so conveniently produced. Then, using my neighbors as proxies, I send out more tendrils, until they’re slithering through the stadium like snakes, harvesting energy in a vast, intricate network that feeds back to me.

The people cheer once more, and this time a wave of power washes over me. I bask in its brilliance. I channel it, weave the individual flows around themselves until they form a rope-like column that towers toward the sky.

What I accomplish today will fundamentally and irrevocably change the world. I lick my lips, savor the captivating notion of a world on the brink.

I close my eyes and unleash my magic.

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We Are You

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The creature shrieked. Diane ran.

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

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

Have to go. Have to get away.

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

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

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

I miss you, Mom.

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

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

“No,” she breathed. “No.”

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

Diane’s eyes.

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

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

It was the last thing Diane heard.

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End of Days

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I tried to stop them.

I failed.

An entire world reduced to ash. The memory haunts me still. I would pray for death, but I’m immortal and cannot die.

I saw them coming when the universe was only a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth. Once, they’d been my companions. But when I tired of death I turned my back on them. I was troubled that they’d followed me and knew someday I’d have to stop them. But they were still far, and as the cosmos matured, I was caught up in caring for it, in helping it to thrive.

I was most fond of Earth. The humans, though quick to anger and capable of great evil, were nevertheless a noble race. Quirky and extravagant, yet I fell for them just the same. If I could have, I would have forfeited eternal life in exchange for theirs.

Again, I saw them coming, those demons of ice and fire, the Old Gods I thought I’d shaken so long ago, and again I did nothing. They were still a long ways off, and there was still so much left for me to do here. Humanity was evolving, and I had to help them grow, had to steer them clear of the path that would otherwise lead to their self-destruction.

Millennia passed. The universe ripened. Humanity reached its apex. I couldn’t have been more proud. Then I heard their raging shouts echo across space and time, the war cries of the Old Gods, and I knew I would have to stand up to them at last.

They came brandishing weapons and armor, the lust for death and chaos burning in their eyes. I stepped between them and the universe and said, “You will not pass.”

They looked first to me, then from one to the other, sneering as if enjoying a private joke at my expense.

“What are you doing?” their leader asked. His voice rolled across the stars like distant thunder. “You were once one of us. Why would you stop us now?”

“I’ve cared for this world since it was an infant. Please, leave us in peace.”

Centuries passed as we gazed into each other’s eyes. Then their leader threw back his head and laughed.

“You are a coward,” he said. “It is well that you left us.”

They advanced.

“Stop!” I shouted. “I won’t let you pass!”

Teeth bared, I flung myself at them. But they were too strong and numerous, and I was easily overpowered. They tossed me aside like a piece of flotsam, and that was when I heard their leader shout, “Burn it all!”

Men, women and children wailed as the End of Days arrived, as Earth was transformed into a celestial funeral pyre. And my former companions didn’t stop there. They marched through the universe, tearing everything down. I shouted after them, begged them to spare what little was left. But by the time they’d gone nothing remained, only a barren wasteland and I, its single surviving inhabitant.

I hung my head and wept. They’d salted everything, so that nothing like humanity would spring up again.

My children. My purpose.

Gone.

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London Bridge Is Falling Down

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He boarded the train from Brighton Station at two forty-five, clutching a black leather briefcase. The car was crowded, but he found a seat at the back and made his way toward it. He sat down next to an elderly woman, who glanced up and smiled. He returned the gesture, and idly wondered if she would be alive tomorrow.

An artificial female voice came over the loudspeaker, notifying the passengers that they were on the Southern service to London Bridge and that their next stop would be Preston Park. It would take an hour for him to reach the last station. He settled into his seat, gazing outside as the train pulled away from the platform with a dull electric hum.

He could remember when the trains had run on steam and not electricity. They’d been much louder then, always hissing like angry spirits just before leaving the station. But that was a long time ago.

He heard the voice of a child and turned. It was a boy of six or seven, telling his mother what he’d done in school. The woman beside him smiled listlessly in most of the right places. He wondered if she would have appreciated the moment more if she knew it might be their last.

Humans were curious creatures. They always took what they had for granted, until it was snatched away. They were like spoiled children, capricious and short sighted, and every so often they needed a catastrophe to wake them up and remind them of how fragile “ordinary” life truly was.

He and his companions had been working in the shadows since the Earth was a flaming ball of molten rock. Always they would wait for humanity to reach a certain level of sophistication, then tear civilization down and watch as they scattered like frightened ants, scrambling to rebuild.

Sometimes they directly intervened, sparking natural disasters like the one that cast Atlantis into the sea. More often they would simply plant seeds of discord during brittle moments in history and let nature take its course. Such had been the case during the Fall of Rome, the Sacking of Constantinople, the Holocaust, even the rise of ISIS in the Middle East.

He glanced at the suitcase by his feet. If only the passengers in the car with him could see what it contained. The item inside would raze civilization to the ground, plunging the world into a second Dark Age.

When at last he reached the station, he caught himself humming the tune of London Bridge Is Falling Down. He smiled when he considered just how true that was going to be.

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Can You See Me?

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Can you see me? I’m standing right in front of you.

I’m the guy with the soiled, unkempt beard, the haunted eyes, the mouth that hangs slightly agape in an expression of permanent disbelief. I don’t bother trying to get your attention. I know you’ll just look past me, that you’ll either be unable or unwilling to acknowledge me for who and what I am.

The world, once hospitable to my kind, has shunned me. I was cast into the streets like a dog banished from the pack, left to forage for myself in the dim shadow of the forgotten.

I cannot die, not unless the world dies with me. And oh, how I wait with bitter anticipation, how I labor for that day.

There are advantages to a life unseen.

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