“He was a scientist to the end. Even as a paranoid schizophrenic he tried to catalog every little pink elephant he saw and scientifically evaluate it.”

Angela ran her hands over the stack of field notebooks, many yellow with intense age and loving wear. “These?”

“Yeah. Not just his own hallucinations, either; he spent the last few years haunting every internet kookspace he could worm into, trying to get corroboration of what he was seeing and to record things that others had experienced but he hadn’t.” Jacobs tapped one of the books. “Field and collector notes, even a set of nomenclature…it would be a crowning work of scholarship if it weren’t completely insane.”

“Please don’t use that word. He was my grandfather even if he was just another kook to you.” Angela picked up one of the more recent books. “Can I read it?”

“I’m not sure if I would,” said Jacobs. “If you’re worried about preserving any sort of conception you have of him from the past.”

Angela brushed him off and opened to a random page. “Kellisande Lume. Appears as a worm building tunnels out of light in he sky above buildings that face to the southwest. Causes people to look at the pavement when they walk and gradually lose the ability to appreciate natural beauty. Driven away by strong odors of olives, clocks running backwards, and people with a vague sense of empowerment. Collects dried leaves and is 90% constructed therefrom aside from its skin. Only visible to .0001% of the population naturally as well as those who have been blind from birth and recently gained their sight.”

“It goes on like that for 127 volumes,” said Jacobs. “There’s one that lures people to their deaths by painting pictures that can’t be described out of dust motes, and one that lives in melancholy beams of sunlight grazing on the sighs of the brokenhearted.”

“Are…are you sure he was crazy?” Angela said. “Things like that really could exist, if no one could see them.”

“Listen to yourself,” Jacobs said. “Look, we brought you here for insight into your grandfather’s disappearance, not to talk metaphysics. There’s more in here, come on.

He led Angela into the adjacent library, passing through a beam of wintery midday light from an attic window above and shuddering with an involuntary sigh.

Inspired by this page.

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Many times, investigators have arrived from whatever empire, kingdom, or republic happened to control the area. Rumors bring them hence, or disappearances, or simple curiosity. The simple farmers and villagers who live nearby always tell them the same thing: do not enter the Vale.

When pressed, they avow that the Vale contains a power that molds flesh and bone, root and bark, stone and earth as if each were so much clay on a potter’s wheel. Whether the power is some sort of spirit, a natural force, or something entirely different is of no concern to those near the Vale; they see the nature of that place as unknowable and capriciously so.

They evince a belief that the Vale reshapes anything that enters it into a form that best suits its deepest and innermost nature. A record compiled by the Imperial Guard mentions a farmer claiming that every tree of the Vale was once a lazy and dissolute creature, for instance. A later document prepared by a Directorate Investigator mentions a cooper that claimed people would occasionally stumble out of the vale with no memory or identity; beings that had begun as something else that the power behind the Vale had reshaped.

Without fail, the interviewees treat the Vale in a resigned matter: they are not disturbed by their fantastic tales, and give their warnings without judgement or passion. It was a part of their lives, and if a local refused to abide by the local wisdom, their inevitable disappearance–or purported reappearance in another wildly different form–was enough to ensure that few would follow.

It is also worth noting that, also without fail, the reports of the various investigative agencies are incomplete. For even as the investigators universally dismiss the reports as superstition, they are always compelled to see for themselves. The discovery of their effects in birds’ nests and bear dens is always held up as evidence that they were waylaid and murdered by brigands and left to rot in the vale.

They never return.

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I have the sense that this has all happened before, to my father, who died in bed as a result. I’m flipping through a catalog, a mail-order catalog of dark and forbidden things, offhandedly looking for a certain item, even though I know it’s dangerous, it’s what’s caused my father’s misfortune and untimely death.

I see the item, a bracelet in the catalog, and then it’s there, I’m wearing it. The act of looking, the act of wanting–it’s the same as the act of owning, the act of having. I talk with my family, begging them for advice now that I’ve unleashed a force I couldn’t understand. A sense of dread fills me, which is borne out when I see small letters begin to appear on a piece of scrap paper on the kitchen table, written by a small and invisible hand.

“This is it, this is what happened to my father, it’s starting all over again!” I scream–a really long and drawn-out scream. My mother comforts me–maybe I should read what’s being written, maybe things won’t be the same this time. I look at the page; “aleg” is written over and over again in a sloppy hand. It’s my name, I realize with horror, or at least how my name might sound to someone eavesdropping or with a speech impediment.

More words being to appear in the same hand, all over the available space on the paper. I put out fresh sheets to help it along. Mom calls the unseen writier a “Liliputian,” though I disagree–but I haven’t any better name, so it sticks. The rest of the writing is vary vague, but it seems to be a cry for help against some sort of danger–a danger which, I realize, killed my father. I’m terrified but determined to help, to avoid his fate. I set a sketchbook in the path of the invisible writer, and suddenly it’s filled with text and brightly colored images.

I have a fleeting glimpse of a dragon in flight before I slam the book closed, fearful of what I might find.

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Some say she is the exiled princess of a kingdom beyond the veil of the day-to-day world, some that she is the illusory form assumed by a creature or consciousness beyond human comprehension. Perhaps the most parsimonious explanation is that she is a sorceress of the Old Order who has carefully struck deals with Time and Space to be exempt from both in exchange for some long-ago service.

When encountered, she is always dressed in foreign or exotic clothes; a Perytion shayshmyr robe in Uldar, Uldarian peasant culottes and dress in Peryt. She is always accompanied by two small figures in similar clothing but with concealed faces; they appear at first to be children but may be dwarves or even marionettes depending on the observer, the season, or the angle of the sun.

Of the travelers, farmers, and others that she meets on the road, a single question is asked: what is most precious in the world? Refusing to answer or giving an answer which displeases the asker seems to have no effect; she will pass by with a cutting remark or in total silence. An answer which intrigues her, though…that will bring the offer of a boon in exchange for a service. Someone who answers that their family is precious may be offered a larger farm; a person who favors gold may be offered a sack of it.

The boon will always turn out to cost the supplicant exactly what it was they valued. The farm will be infertile; the gold will lead to poor and bankrupting investments or be seized by highwaymen. And the boon? One year and one day after the service is rendered, the person who received it will vanish, never to be seen again.

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I was thrust into a back room, illuminated only by a single overhead bulb. I think Œ sat casually slouched on a folding chair directly beneath it; I’m not sure because the figure there was clad in baggy cargo jeans, an oversized hoodie, a ragged baseball cap, big dark Ray-Bans, and a drawn bandana with a skeletal grin printed on it. It was impossible to tell their age, gender, or anything else about them, other than the fact that some kind of flesh filled those tattered raiments.

“A little theatrical, don’t you think?” I said. One of the others, dressed similarly to Œ, set out a folded chair for me and I took a seat. “If you really wanted to be anonymous we could have talked more on the phone.”

“But you want theatricality, Mr. Cummings,” Œ said. Their voice was distorted by one of those vox boxes you sometimes hear in cheap horror movies, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disconcerted by it. “You’re enough of a narcissist that you have to see your little investigation as a titanic struggle between you, the hero, and us, the blackest evil. If I were sitting here, ordinary and unmasked, you’d be devastated.”

I stung a little from that observation. “I just want the truth. What is this ‘Project’ you’re working on, and how do all these little bits and pieces fit together?”

“The truth?” Œ’s laughter was modified into an ominous chuckle. “It’s never been about the truth. It’s been you tilting at windmills from the start, sacrificing what little journalistic integrity you had for the sake of bad puns. The fact that you can’t see the bigger picture is indicative of your failings as a person: petty, narcissistic, lazy, with a latent but distinct fascist bent.”

Who was that rag-clad hobo to call me all that? I was trembling by now, the way I always do during any kind of a confrontation. “If you wanted to insult me you could have just sent a letter to the editor. Now either give me something about your ‘Project’ or crawl back into whatever hole you came out of and go back to sharpening your hammer and sickle.”

Œ laughed again. “The Project is the perfect small-scale experiment. What is a university but an ironclad despotism, with a vast disenfranchised population at the whims of a privileged few, just like any other system? Those people have the power to be awakened and moved to action. That’s what we’re doing, and it’s just the start.”

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“That’s right. This peninsula–this island–was designed as a massive conductor of spirit energy. It attracts, traps, harnesses. Murder births the power, makes it grow, taints living souls to spread death and destruction.” The Cajun tightened the noose around his own neck.

“But why?” Vincent cried. His words should have been drowned out by the storm, but somehow they carried. “What could you possibly hope to gain?”

“Immortality,” the Cajun said. “That was the plan, at least at first. But things have reached a tipping point, now. The massacre, the bombings, the war…it was too much. The ritual, if performed now, would result in soulstorm, in annihilation! The only hope is to join the flow and hope to direct it.”

“You’re insane!” Schiller cried from below. He tried to train his machine pistol on the Cajun, but the church’s architecture prevented a clean shot.

“Remain among the living much longer and you’ll see exactly what I mean,” the Cajun cackled. “Only the act of self-sacrifice will-”

He was cut short. Two massive, red stains were blossoming out on his white shirt; the Cajun barely had time to regard them with shock before plummeting. Caught in the noose, he swung freely in the church atrium.

Cobh appeared behind him, revolver in hand. “…deliver the power to one who can use it,” he finished.

This post is part of the June 2011 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s challenge is a simple descriptive setting.

It was raining in Heden. This was evident in the way its citizens scuttled to and fro in the few open spaces, avoiding the heavy droplets as best they could.

It always rained in Heden. There was a faint shimmer to the bright, bizarre fabrics worn by the people that indicated waterproofing, and each person shed a wake of droplets that collected near thousands of drainage grates.

It would always rain in Heden. There was no way to be sure of this, but the water-worn and rusted surfaces of the Towers suggested it. Looming up into the ever-dark sky, they seemed resigned to an eternal pelting from the neverending storm.

The original design of Heden had called for six of the great Towers, forming the simple hexagon shape found on many of the great neon billboards and television screens that dotted each Tower much as lichens dotted the occasional real rock. The Towers had grown together, fused into one great shapeless mass by centuries of construction, destruction, rust, and rainwater. The simple glass walkways that had connected them had been long shorn of their panes, and hundreds of homegrown, rickety, winding paths of iron and steel had appeared to supplant them.

A monitor was suspended above one such improvised walkway, placed to ambush passersby with its message. Its bright, flashing image wasn’t an ad. Ad Boards were hard to afford, anymore; people who wanted to advertise just added more crumpled paper or laminate fliers to the mass that coated every surface reachable by human hands. This screen was an Info Board.

Info Boards were there to ‘illuminate possible interpretations of information for the purpose of educating the people’ according to the Boards themselves. This particular Board was playing the ‘History of Heden’, and everyone passing beneath had seen it before.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
dolores haze
Ralph Pines
Lyra Jean

Through the blackness, nothing was visible save the lights of Lanth’s dreadnought and the pinpoint of piercing white in the distance. The dreadnought’s crew hadn’t seen the pursuing glow of the Kite, but it was only a matter of time until their lookouts took note.

On the Kite‘s bridge, Othe stood with his hands on the wheel, surrounded by what was left of his crew: twelve men, five women, and two that could only be called children. Barely enough to steer and man the guns on one side.

Yet they were all that stood between Lanth and the nascant universe waiting to be born ahead.

“You want to say anything, skipper?” asked Visani, the navigator.

Othe looked at his assembled rabble, short so many of the faces that should have been among them. “We only get one chance at this,” he said. “This might be the last story anyone can ever tell. Let’s make sure it’s a good one.”

Her note continued:

“I never believed your routine about being a cynic. You believe in things. Not good things or worthy things, but things nonetheless. From my point of view, every position I’ve teased out of you is utterly repugnant, but in taking them you’ve set yourself apart from the others.

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. It’s a cruel world we live in when somebody has to hide their idealism behind a cynic’s mask, to feign apathy about something they care deeply about rather than confronting it head on. I’ve worn that mask many times in my life, and only recently have I had the courage to remove it for good. I think, in time, you will too.

This isn’t like the end of the book you told me you wanted to write–the one where everyone manages to live happily if not ever after without reeking of sickly-sweet sentiment. I don’t know if even such a qualified happiness can exist in this world of ours without a platform of lies to stand upon, much as we all desperately need to believe it can and does. But it is an ending.

I’ll go my own way–don’t worry. But whatever happens, I want you to be strengthened by it. Go out there and believe repulsive things, but believe them sincerely, just as I sincerely believe that you’ll get your happy ending–whether in real life or in a world of your own making on a manuscript page.”

Every child’s plaything knows that the interior of the playroom is as the interior of a child’s fondest dreams: warm, safe, and bursting with possibilities. It is a dreamworld, lush and fantastic and predictable in its unpredictability.

But outside…

Children see the world outside as dangerous, even frightening. The world outside their playroom is the world of a child’s nightmares, of shadows and monsters and things learned parents insist aren’t real but every child with a heartbeat believes in.

So by venturing outside the playroom without a child was to venture into the unknown, the dark, the dangerous.

Most that made the journey never returned.