Fighting the Shadow

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It reaches out from the depths of space—creeping, feeling, groping for purchase. Like a poisonous vine, like a venomous serpent, it trawls the cosmic waters in search of prey.

Until today, my people were out of reach. Until today, the Builders protected us. Until today, all was well with our world.

Until today.

When the walls came down, when our once protected corner of the universe became contaminated by the darkness from the outside, panic reigned.

How could such a thing have happened, and why?

We sent our strongest warriors to petition the Builders for help in mending the breach. But once they passed beyond our borders, they were never seen again.

Now, I’m the only one of our people left, the sole surviving remnant of a once proud and sprawling civilization. Such tragedy. I cannot bear it.

My loved ones, dead.

My world, consumed.

Despair has taken root in the chaos that was once an able mind, and I can feel the Shadow’s tendrils reaching inside of me, eager to consume the last remaining crumb.

I cannot let it win.

No! I won’t let you have me!

Oh, no? comes its reply.

A war ensues, a battle that rages on as the universe tilts and tumbles, as time processes through an uncountable number of eons and epochs.

I am broken—easy prey, it must have thought on the eve of battle—and am always on the brink of annihilation. I am saved from tumbling off sanity’s bottomless ledge by sheer will power alone.

I am almost spent, and I can feel the Shadow’s laugh as it prepares to swallow my shattered soul and end our ageless struggle for good. But I hold, because I know something the Shadow does not.

The Builders are coming.

I can see them on the horizon, a resplendent light that rekindles my weary heart with hope. The Shadow cannot see them. Its focus is on me, and all I have to do is keep it occupied long enough for them to arrive.

So I hold.

And I hold.

And I hold.

My redemption is at hand, if only I can stand long enough to survive.

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Aftermath

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This is a companion piece to another story, “Fallen,” which you can read here.

When the Invaders were defeated, we thought the war was over. Once again, we were our own masters, capable of determining our own destiny. But now, here we are more than a decade later, and the world is just as cruel, just as barren as it was when our former conquerors remained in power.

I stare at a shimmering sky, the sun a blot of crimson fire, and dream of what life was like before the war. Before we learned of other worlds and the beings who inhabited them.

Before the Invaders.

I remember movies. TV. The Internet. I remember hamburgers and french fries. The ocean. The simple joys of leaving work before sunset or strolling by the courthouse in Downtown Long Beach after lunch. There are a million other things, all random creature comforts I never had the foresight to appreciate until the Invaders wiped them all away.

The sight of a bloated sun suspended over the horizon makes me sick, and I turn my back to it, my body casting a long, razor-sharp shadow across the crumbled, overgrown sidewalk. I try to think on happier times, but evidence of the Invaders surrounds me at every turn.

Ruined sky scrapers jut into the blood red sky like monster’s teeth, broken glass glittering, twisted support beams looming. In the movies, we used to imagine precisely this scenario, munching on our popcorn, our malt balls, and our Sour Patch Kids, secure in the belief that Armageddon was only a distant fantasy, that there was no way the universe could conspire against us in such a severe and irrevocable way.

We were like children: simple, naive, and oblivious to the horrors reality had yet to spring on us.

The sun begins to set; the world is on fire once more. The brackish light assaults me, unleashing a rapid-fire succession of memories, each more grisly than the last. I push them away with some effort, back into a dark corner of my mind where they’ll emerge later to haunt my dreams.

Our settlement is close, only a half mile. One of the few dilapidated apartment buildings that survived the war, it’s where my friends and I spend the night. It isn’t much, but shelter is hard to come by, and it’s a comfort just to have somewhere to call your home.

I hear a harsh gurgle below and recoil. Laying on the broken cement beside my feet is a creature, grasping at a splotched and bloated neck. My God! How could I have come so close to it without realizing?

Cast in the fiery light of sunset, the broken Invader still appears menacing, a looming specter ready to pounce the moment my back is turned. I shake my terror aside. It’s dying. It can’t possibly be a threat.

“Not so powerful now,” I say, and then I stop to stare.

Its misery conjures in my heart the tiniest pang of sympathy. But the emotion is short lived. This thing, along with the rest of its kind, stole the world from us, murdering hundreds of millions of people in the process. It deserves all of its anguish and more.

But the sight of its swollen, puffed up eyes reminds me of my mother, whose life was mercifully (or not so mercifully) cut short before the Invasion began by an aggressive form of breast cancer. During her last days, her eyes looked the same: red, swollen, and tear-streaked.

I cannot help myself. Pity blossoms in my heart like a sorrowful flower.

I see, in this filthy creature’s eyes, something like remorse. I want to insult it. I want to make it feel hated in its final moment of life. But I cannot. My weary, war-torn heart won’t allow it.

I kneel beside the creature, cautious. Pity doesn’t make me stupid. I know what it’s kind inflicted on the world and I maintain a safe distance. But I cannot leave it alone any more than I could leave a human stranger.

When our scientists released into the atmosphere the gas that ended the war for good—an otherwise harmless compound that was lethal to the Invaders—we celebrated.

The world was broken, but for the next few nights, at least, people lined the streets, shooting fireworks into a bruised and swollen sky, while one by one, the Invaders fell, clutching at their useless, air-starved throats.

At the time, I rejoiced with everyone else. Now, faced with this pitiful creature, I find in my heart only a dull and weary ache. The world has known enough war for a hundred generations, and if our species is to survive, we’ll have to embrace love and forgiveness going forward.

At this pivotal point in human history, Earth teeters on a precipice.  So I stay, long into the night, and I clutch its withered hand in my own and wait with the Invader in silence until it breathes no more.

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Fallen

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I cannot move any longer.

I slow.

Stumble.

Fall.

My eyes droop, and darkness seeps into my vision like moldering water. I try to look up, but I have so little energy left, and all I manage to do is scrape my too-pale skin against the sidewalk.

People pass by all around me. Like a dammed up river, they flow to either side, unwilling to acknowledge me as I lay on the ground, gasping for breath.

I don’t blame them. If our roles were reversed—if I were human instead of them—I would do the same.

My kind arrived on Earth almost two decades ago. We didn’t mean to stay. It was only supposed to be a stop during the long exile from our own world. We were malnourished, weak, and near death, and Earth was an unexpected paradise.

It was not our world, and we always told ourselves that when we were better, we would leave. But days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. We came to view Earth as our salvation, a gift from the gods of our ancestors and therefore ours by birthright.

We began to resent humanity. We were stronger, we reasoned, and more intelligent. Meanwhile, humans only ever seemed to take the Earth for granted. We decided to seize control. We told ourselves it was for their own good, but in truth, we were jealous—jealous of their abundance, jealous of the relative comfort and security they inherited by virtue of being born.

I crack my eyes open long enough to spy a woman standing over me, staring. I beg her with my eyes to have pity, but the hatred that blazes beneath her stern features is all too clear. She makes a grating sound in the back of her throat, then spits on me before moving on.

We were so confident, so sure we could win. But the humans were a proud race, and they refused to be ruled by outsiders. Hundreds of millions died, but in the end, victory was theirs. Those of us who survived fled deep underground, where the majority were hunted down like dogs and executed.

I myself survived for almost five years. But the humans, in their desire to root out every last one of us, released a toxin into the atmosphere: harmless for them, fatal for us.

That very poison flows through my veins, depriving me of the ability to breathe. I want to be angry at them, but I cannot. They were only defending themselves, and I’m unable to find fault with their actions.

We could have been better. Our own world had been conquered by an outside race, turning us into cosmic refugees. The ordeal should have made us more compassionate. Instead, we tried to do the same to Earth.

I consider the commandments of our people’s gods and how far we strayed from them before losing the war, and as my vision narrows and my heart stammers to an increasingly irregular rhythm, a wild terror grips me.

Soon, I will stand before those very same gods for judgement. And with the faces of all the humans I murdered flashing before my dying eyes, their horrifying verdict seems all too clear.

I wrote a companion piece to this called “Aftermath.” You can read it here.

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The Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dance was done.

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Elemental

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

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

Only now, Simon stood up to challenge their authority.

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

But Simon maintained hope.

“Did you actually think you could win?”

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

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

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

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

His answer to the wind’s statement came slowly.

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

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

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

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

Don’t let my sacrifice be in vain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buried Alive

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

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

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

It was necessary.

It was for the common good.

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

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

They’re coming, and they want revenge.

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Blue

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Because I attended the ConDFW in Texas this past week, I didn’t have time to prepare a new piece of flash fiction. Instead, I’ve reposted one of my Patreon shorts from last year. It should be new for most of you. I’ll have an original story for you guys next week 🙂

The stone had always been blue. Since time unremembered it had sat, polished and round, mounted in the center of the city. The people would go out in the middle of the night when it shone most brightly, and in the presence of that otherworldly glow, they would kneel and pay it homage.

It was their bedrock, the binding force that kept them civilized. A covenant between man and the infinite. So when the stone stopped giving its light, when the city’s streets went dark for the first time in recorded history, chaos loomed.

“It’s the end of the world!” they wailed. “The Gods have abandoned us.”

The priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said, taking up defensive positions around the stone. “It is only a test. We must be steadfast in our faith. Then the Gods will show us their favor once more.”

The people grumbled, restless and uneasy, but, one by one, they returned to their homes, some to pray, others to brood in silent worry.

The following night, they approached the center of the city. Once more, they saw the stone was dark.

They turned to the priests and asked, “What explanation will you offer us now?” They were wild-eyed, terrified, and half out of their minds.

Once more, the priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said. “The test has not ended. Be strong and keep the faith of our ancestors.”

“The Gods have abandoned us!” they cried. “What use are you now?”

“Be still,” the priests admonished. “The Gods have done no such thing. Return tomorrow, and you will see for yourselves that the stone gives light once more.”

Again the people grumbled. Some challenged them further, some even threatened violence if the stone was not restored to its former state as had been promised.

The priests watched them turn back, watched them disappear like apparitions, and, inwardly, they trembled. They had not a clue why the stone went dark, nor when it would share its light again.

“Please,” they implored together through a formal rite of prayer that hadn’t been invoked for more than a thousand years. “We beseech thee, the Gods of our ancestors, return to us thy divine light so that order might be restored.”

Exhausted and afraid, they retired to their quarters to sleep.

That night, the children of the city dreamed. They saw the pillars of their civilization crumble, saw their elders perish in an all-consuming fire that seemed to rise from the bowels of the Earth. An ancient cycle was nearing its end, and in that dream, a voice urged them to run if they would be a part of the next.

They each woke in a cold sweat, eyes lit with terror. But none spoke of the strange vision until much later.

The third night approached. The priests went out ahead of the crowd and observed with growing terror that the stone was still dark. They held the people back with exhortations of prayer, but, in the end, they could delay them no longer.

When the people beheld that infernal darkness, the priests tried once more to pacify them. But the citizens of the city were enraged. They were certain now the Gods had abandoned them, and all their priests could do was offer empty promises of salvation.

“The Gods have defied your predictions,” one man cried, “yet you would stand here and assure us all is well. We’re through with your lies!”

The people attacked.

The children, left behind by parents who’d already feared the streets would grow violent, heard a whisper ride in on the coattails of the wind.

Get out. Find safety outside the city walls and don’t return until the next full moon.

One by one, they filtered out into the dark.

Meanwhile, the people, having sacrificed their priests, turned on each other. A frantic, desperate bloodlust had filled their eyes and they were overtaken by an urgent need to destroy. They swept through the city like a plague, looting, murdering, burning buildings to the ground, so that in the end only a single person remained. In his final moments, he gazed up at the moon, mad with lunatic understanding, and ran himself through with his sword.

*               *               *

On the next full moon, the children crept back to the ruins of their city as the voice had told them. They passed the skeletal remains of their homes, the stinking, bloated bodies of their dead parents. The younger ones threw up. The older ones took them into their arms and led them away.

They found the stone, standing in the center as it always had. They gathered around it and lifted their voices in prayer. For a moment, there was only the wind, which whistled through broken archways and windows like a ghost. Then there was a flicker and a flash. They opened their eyes. The stone was blue once more. The children offered thanks.

In the morning, the older ones started to rebuild.

The land’s thirst for blood had been sated.

The new cycle had begun.

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Adam and Eve

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A tear.

Sparkling. Pristine. Pure.

Another follows, then another.

Like rain, those first bitter drops precipitate into a storm. Soon, dual rivers flow along the age worn contours of Adam’s and Eve’s windswept cheeks.

A village once stood where Adam and Eve now kneel, but a village stands no more. For before the water from their eyes, there came a fire, a monster forged in the crucible of hate and destruction. It started abroad, caught like kindling in the hearts of their people, and spread, until their small civilization collapsed, until the people picked up their grievances along with their weapons and bled into the dry, dusty ground.

Magic.

It was a menace, some had argued. It had to be suppressed. It was dangerous to wield, and what good it could effect was far outweighed by the devastation that resulted whenever it was summoned by wicked hands.

It was an important tool, others had countered. Not only could it summon the rains to water the fields or heal those who were beyond the aid of a doctor, it could be used to defend against those who chose to pursue a darker path.

They argued.

Whenever magic was used for evil, those who were against it would point to what had been done as an example of why it should be suppressed. Whenever magic was used for good, those who were for it would point to what had been done as an example of why it must be saved.

And they argued.

In their hearts, a transformation had begun. Their love for each other died; their hatred for each other grew. Each side argued that their only interest was the common good, and each side used what means they had to destroy the other, until the drums of war could be heard over the horizon. Until someone started the fire. Until the world began to burn.

The Adams and Eves of the world did their best to broker peace. “Sit,” they said. “Let us settle our differences as brothers and sisters, not enemies.”

But those who were for magic and those who were against denounced them as one. “How can you remain neutral while the enemies of humanity would destroy us?”

And they argued.

The Adams and Eves looked on with mute horror as the lights went out in their neighbors’s eyes, and they watched, helpless, as their people went to war with themselves, as they killed those they’d broken bread with only months before.

In the name of love and peace, both sides had slaughtered with reckless abandon.

Now, this particular Adam and this particular Eve kneel before the ground, a world sized altar whose constant thirst for sacrifice has been slaked once more. They’ve buried the bodies. They’ve prayed for peace.

A tear falls.

Another follows, then another.

They water the ground. They make the barren earth fertile. Adam and Eve have faith that the fields will grow once more, that humanity will rise from the ashes of its ancestors to love and thrive again.

There are none left in whom the fire still burns, for only the Adams and the Eves remain.

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Best Friends

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A special shout out to my newest patron, Nick!

Don stood outside a pair of broad double doors, torches in iron scones along the walls casting a dim orange glow in the late night darkness. At his word, the doors would open, and then he would carry out his duty. But for now, he waited.

The night was cool, serene. The chirrups of crickets, the rustling of treetops, these spoke a comforting lie. They told the story of a world whole and intact, of a world untouched by the atrocities of a civil war that had almost destroyed humanity itself. Don wanted to steep in its sweet murmurs, to find what refuge he could in the all too brief illusion.

But Don had a job to do, one that shouldn’t wait any longer than necessary, and after a dusty bone weary sigh, he signaled to the guards.

The doors opened.

Light flooded out from a humongous palatial chamber, a coruscating electric blue. No illusions here. Tapestries lay in tatters on the floor alongside clotted blood and broken bodies, strewn about as if toys abandoned by a spoiled child.

At the center, where the light originated, was a man in a sword torn uniform, about the same age as Don, with snow capped hair and a permanent frown line, etched by time and turmoil into a face that could no longer move save for the lips. Presently, those lips were curled into a sour grimace of disgust.

Don could see that even now, the man fought against his restraints. It was a futile effort, of course, and the man knew it as well as he.

Don approached, the light beginning to thicken like gel around him. Not too close, his advisers had warned. The light was a trap. It was how they’d captured the man who stood before Don now. If he got too close, it would harden around him just like it had his prisoner.

“It’s been a while,” said Don after searching for words appropriate to the occasion and coming up short. A headache was blooming in his left temple, and his stomach had started to churn. The sight of his best friend Arnold bound by the light, no matter how evil he’d turned out to be, still rattled the cage around his weary soul with grief.

Arnold sneered but did not answer.

“You destroyed my kingdom. You destroyed the world. It will take centuries to rebuild.”

The sneer widened.

Don shivered, and the light around them turned a darker shade of blue. Who was this man? They’d grown up together in the castle, and though Don had been a prince destined for the throne and Arnold had been a servant destined for the stables, he’d loved the boy like a brother and had treated him likewise. But this man couldn’t be the same person he’d grown up with. Couldn’t be the same. Couldn’t be the same.

Yet here he was.

“Why?” It was not the question Don had meant to ask, but it bubbled out of him anyway, with all the force of an active volcano. “Why, Arnold? I trusted you. I loved you.” His voice cracked around the word love. “You were part of the family.”

When Arnold didn’t answer, Don raised his voice. “Do you not know I have the power to destroy you? Answer me!”

No reply. The light flared.

Don’s hands trembled at his sides. Love, he reflected, was a dangerous thing. Wonderful, exhilarating, at times liberating, but dangerous all the same. He had loved his friend Arnold, had welcomed him into the royal house as an equal, and a broken world had been the result.

The light’s shade darkened once more, and Don felt a love already starved by the horrors of war dwindle further like a guttering ember. It cried out in its death throes, interceding on his friend’s behalf, but ultimately fell on deaf ears.

“By order of the Crown and in defense of the Common Realm, I sentence you to death.”

Don snapped his fingers, and the light rushed inward, coalescing around Arnold, crystallizing around flesh and bone. Arnold’s mouth twisted into a final derisive grin, then opened wide as he let out a muffled agonized death cry. He arced his back, pulled taut by the matrix of light turned substance, then cried no more.

Why did you do this, old friend?

Don would live the rest of his life without the answer.

The light died, leaving behind a block of stone with Arnold’s body encased inside, and Don’s childhood heart died along with it.

Next week, I’ll kick off a seven part flash fiction series called, “A Proposal.” Don’t miss it!

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