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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-five THE WATCHER



aseem sprinted through the corridors, robe billowing out behind him like pennants, his freshly-shined shoes slapping on the cobblestones. He shot into the fire chamber just in time. The fire roiled with the wind brought in from his approach.

Ranya made a show of looking at her watch. “Almost late.” Though she tried to make the words sound light-hearted, her voice shook.

Kaseem nodded, already overtaken by the awe of the room. Ranya said no more. She gulped down a breath with a final glance at the fire and ducked out as swiftly as Kaseem had rushed in.

Kaseem sat cross-legged on the cold stones of the floor, back against the wall, as far from the fire as he could get. Fire-watchers were free to do anything during their shift. There were only two rules: don’t let the fire go out, and don’t fall asleep. There were even comfortable chairs available in the fire chamber, but Kaseem – like most watchers – found the floor most suitable. And like all watchers, he found he was unable to do anything in this room but studiously watch the fire.

The base was perhaps four feet across. A breeze blowing through small airways cut high into the walls kept the fire leaping and turning, allowing offshoots to sprout and escape the main pillar. These sections wafted up the chimney, newly born ghosts on their way to their new haunts.

That’s what the fire was: a mother of spirits.

Kaseem watched them curl away from the pillar of fire and seem to fade, but he knew that only meant their journey was starting. There were hundreds of them created each shift. This was his fourth time watching the fire, and though he was tired from a night of little sleep, he was still amazed by the sight of it, of all the ghosts breaking free and going out into the world. He was a caretaker.

He yawned as he threw wood onto the pyre, sending sparks and fresh ripples of broken fire into the air. He watched the fire with its strange oily movements, curling around itself and twisting around nothing. And breaking free.

He wished for a moment that he could hear them. Then he fell asleep.

They didn’t leave the chamber then. They twirled and broke away and paused, sensing the sleeper, and turned to him. They rushed at him, first one with cries of lost dreams, then a second one with moans of lost love. More broke away, faster and faster, premature, spurred by the dreaming mind before them. One mourning for the lost spotlight of a stage, another remembering a fall of forty stories, another shrieking for vengeance and relief.

They came at him, and he screamed and tore at himself even as he slept, because the fire was inside him, burning the deepest parts of him, down to his heart, down to his soul.

When the next shift arrived, it was too late to save him. But the fire burned on.




Steppen Sawicki lives in Michigan, where she writes horror and science fiction stories and consumes caffeine. You can read more of her work at SteppenSawicki.com.

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