The mummified and discolored skin around the glowing points of light that were the lich’s eyes softened, the great sloping brow beneath what long and stringly strands of white hair remained to him lifting in surprise. “Lady Syn,” he croaked in a voice that was tomb and sepulchre doors creaking on their hinges.

“Lord Verice.” Dessicated flesh about the other lich’s sunken cheeks and her own ember-bright eyes grew gentle, even compassionate–and expression they had not worn for countless years of sorcery and undeath. Tentatively, she reached out a hand that was alive with dark magicks and ran it over Verice’s face, recoiling not at all when it rustled across parchment-thin spots or the jagged hole where once had been a nose.

“It has been so long,” Lady Syn said with uncommon gentleness.

“So long.” What might have been a tear, watery and impregnated with vile preservatives, slid an oily path down Lord Verice’s cheek.

“I have…done things,” Syn said softly. “As you can see. Things that not all would be proud of.”

“You have done what you must,” said Verice, sadly but firmly. “As have I.”

“Do you think…that perhaps…we could…?”

Verice shook his head. “It has been too long hasn’t it? Do we even remember how to feel the way we once felt?”

“The memory will have to be enough,” Syn croaked sadly. “Or the memory of the memory.”

Inspired by this image.

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Paulsen, head of the Auctions Unlimited team that had hired me, thrust a pitted and flimsy set of keys at me. “Here. First key’s for the main door, second’s a skeleton for the bar and restaurant, third’s a skeleton for the upstairs. No key for the basement; there’s black mold and our liability won’t cover it.”

The Royal Tecumseh had been Deerton’s shining jewel in the boomtown days, lying as it did astride both the road and the rails, within spitting distance of the sawmills. The salad days of cutting and shipping wood south to be made into furniture gave way to a leaner but no less golden age as a rail transshipment point, and the thriving restaurant, bar, and hotel served as the community’s focal point.

“You’re to prepare a written inventory of the contents and photograph each item. Multiple views.” Paulsen took a fresh, deep drag from his cigarette and rubbed out the stub on one of the Royal Tecumseh’s old No Smoking signs. “You can combine them into lots within reason. Every item or lot gets a tag from the stack in your bag.”

It had all ended so subtly that I was scarce able to notice it at the time. The last trains had come through in 1985, and they’d torn up the rails in 1990. The demand for wood had withered away, with what little remained of the furniture industry further south now reliant on cheap foreign timber. In an attempt to remain relevant, the Royal Tecumseh had undergone renovations in 1980. They’d been a disaster, slathering stucco and paint over the intricate brickwork and aluminum siding over the ornate pediments that had been common to all buildings of the 1870s (to say nothing of slapping cheap pressboard panels and kitschy artwork over the old wallpaper and woodwork).

“The auctioneers arrive in two weeks and demolition starts in four. That’s your timetable. You can stay in one of the rooms upstairs if you want, but there’s no heat and no water and the place is lousy with rats.” Paulsen offered no alternatives; the Royal Tecumseh had been the only hotel in town, after all. I figured I could walk in from my parents’ old house, since I’d already arranged for the water and sewer to be temporarily reconnected.

A minor bribery scandal had been the end; it had come out that the proprietors, the sixth set of hands the Royal Tecumseh had been in since its inception, had been quietly avoiding inspections through payola. They’d lost their liquor license, and with it the last vestige of business. The doors had shut for good in 2002, with a few half-hearted attempts at revivals. A 2004 attempt to reopen the restaurant as a deli had folded in six months. A plan by a couple of out-of-towners, the Patels, to remodel a bed and breakfast out of the place had failed when the tax assessor had shown up with a $40,000 bill in arrears–a gift from the last owner they’d failed to mention when handing over the keys.

“Payment is expenses up front–keep your receipts–and then a lump sum afterwards, plus five percent of the auctioneer’s premium. You do a good job, there might be more work for you in Petoskey at our next job.” I forced a smile. With the Hopewell Tribune belly-up along with a lot of the other newspapers statewide, and an unemployment level closer to Gaza than anywhere else in the USA, I was lucky to have found a gig that allowed me to use my camera and pen at all. If nothing else, the job would delay the inevitable for a few months. Most people who limped back to Deerton wound up working at McDonald’s.

Looking around the dark and musty confines of the Royal Tecumseh as Paulsen finalized his paperwork, I wondered how someplace once so prosperous and still so historic could have been so mismanaged. The entire east part of town had all but withered away with it, and persistent rumors that the place was haunted hadn’t helped. There were ghosts there, all right. Just not of the sort that made the walls bleed.

They were the ghosts of wasted potential, of squandered history, of the Rust Belt still quietly oxidizing as people like me stood by and did nothing.

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“Harry, you really need to relax,” said Greg. “Stressing like this, missing sleep…it’s not good for anybody, let alone someone who’s…not well.”

Harry was ensconced in a hospital-style bed, surrounded by crumpled pieces of looseleaf paper, open composition notebooks, and three laptops (his current model and the two previous ones) on the tray that was supposed to hold his food. “You need to call a spade a spade, Greg,” he said without looking up. “End-stage pancreatic cancer isn’t ‘not well.’ It’s ‘dying.'”

“You know, they say that a positive mental attitude helps,” Greg said. He shuffled through a few of his old friends’ papers, which seemed to date all the way back to their high school days. Reams of faded pencil told of the stories Harry was always scribbling in class when he should have been paying attention.

“They don’t say anything about a realistic attitude, though,” Harry replied, his eye still riveted to his computer screen. “This is a hospice, Greg, not a hospital. The most positive mental attitude in the world isn’t going to change six to eight weeks left into anything but six to eight weeks and seventeen seconds left.”

Greg sighed. The nurses had told him that Harry had been at his computers and in his notebooks constantly since he had them shipped in the day after he had arrived. He’d barely slept, ate only enough to keep from starving, and refused to partake in any of the activities or painkillers that had been proffered.

“Marilyn says her prayers are with you,” Greg said. “I ran into her in the supermarket the other day. Perhaps she’ll come to visit.”

“Well, that’s more than most people get from their ex-wife, so be sure to thank her for me.” Harry’s fingers were flying over his keyboard. “Maybe if she’d managed to crank our a kid or two with me, instead of McPherson, there’d be a better reason for a visit.”

Greg pulled up a chair. “Is this really how you want it to end, Harry? Cut off from everybody, with me as your only visitor? I’ve seen the logbook.”

“Everybody was cut off from me long ago,” said Harry. “My own doing, so caught up in that goddamn firm that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I made my bed, and now I’m quite literally sleeping in it. Wailing and gnashing my teeth aren’t going to help.”

Greg glanced at the computer screen; it looked like Harry was writing prose fiction with a separate window open for an outline. “Well, at least one thing hasn’t changed,” he said, trying to force a smile. “Still writing your stories.”

“After a fashion, yes.” Harry hadn’t shifted his gaze from the monitor since Greg had come in, the glow making his wan features, ravaged by disease, seem even more drawn and angular.

“Goddamn it, Harry, will you stop that?” Greg cried, fed up with being all but ignored.

“Don’t you see that I can’t, Greg?” Harry shouted back. He met his friend’s gaze for the first time, and Greg could see that his eyes were teary.

“Why not?”

“Every day for fifty years I wrote a little of this and a little of that,” Harry said miserably, indicating the accumulated papers and laptops with a sweep of his hand. “Hardly finished anything, never published anything, because I told myself that there would be time later on. The firm or Marilyn or some other little bit of life always came first.”

“It’s natural to think that, looking back with 20/20 hindsight,” said Greg. “That doesn’t mean that you have to bear yourself up over it now.”

“No,” Harry said. “No, no, no, no. I have to finish them, Greg. I have to finish them all: every novel I ever abandoned, every story I left half-finished, every poem that needed the right rhyme, every play that could use a better ending! I have to finish them all, and there’s not much time!”

“Why? Why do you need to finish them so badly?” Greg said. “Why is it more important than living what’s left of your life, Harry?”

“Because when I die, every piece of information that’s up here,” Harry tapped the crown of his head, “dies with me. All the endings, all the plots, all the characters, dead as a doornail. Unfinished forever. It’s like burning a library full of books that have never been written, and it’s my own damn fault for putting it off for so long.”

“So what?” Greg continued. “People leave unfinished stuff all the time.”

“You don’t understand,” Harry said desperately, plaintively. “The life I led, the choices I made…these stories are all that will be left of me after I die, Greg. They’re the only thing I have left to give the world, and the only part of me that has any chance of living on. I can’t let it end with them all unfinished. I just can’t.”

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Near the edge of the canvas that is our world, the Creator’s brushstrokes grow thin, and there are places where the sketched lines that underlie all we see and feel might be seen and felt.

The hushed whispers of poets and madmen tell of one such place, beyond the unfathomable waters with no bottom and the sky-piercing mountains of infinite slope where travelers grow old and die climbing their whole lives away. It has many names in meany tongues: vicārōṁ kā samudra, shikō no umi, okean vdokhnoveniya, ámmo tou idanikoú.

To many, though, it is simply the Sea of Ideas.

The concept is at once simple and profound: what if creativity were a desert, each grain an idea? Endless dunes and windswept grit embody both the beauty and the horror of unspeakable creativity and creation for those daring or foolish enough to seek it out. For to come into contact with a single grain of sand from that impossible expanse is to experience the truest, purest form of an idea that is, was, or someday might be.

That is the reason that many a starstuck loner or struggling creator has sought out the Sea and its sands; to those for whom inspiration and ideas seem like arid wells, it is as a siren song that shakes the heavens. But when has the sand and dust of our world even gone singly? Those who trod those wastes unprepared are overwhelmed from the start, bombarded with ideas that shriek out for release. Many are so alien that they simply cannot be comprehended; the mind crumbles under such an assault. Others are more banal but shatter consciousness with sheer force of numbers.

Only the wisest, the luckiest, the most resourceful and open-minded, avoid the fate of babbling incoherence shared by so many who have sought the Sea and stumbled back from its berms broken and blasted. Wrapped tight against the wind and the scouring force of the Creator’s gifts at their most profuse and elemental, the wisest select only a handful of grains to bear hence; few are their numbers.

Fewer still are those–be they the wisest of the wise or the most foolish of the fools–who realize the deeper secret of that place. For as grains of sand are but the rocks of our world broken apart and worn by the keen edges of eternity, so too are the idea-grains shards from something bigger.

At the furthest and most ragged edge of the Creator’s artwork, the deepest fastness of the Sea, they lie: great stony pillars of creation, from which the sands of ideas, inspiration, and creativity are hewn. To behold them is to feel the inconceivable claw at the ribs like a death rattle. To approach them is to be beset on all sides by the most crystalline of thoughts, thoughts so profound and simple that falsehood and self wither away as tinder in a blaze.

To touch them is to touch the original inspiration that led to the creation of our world, of all worlds. To touch them is to touch the Creator’s brush and palette.

To touch them is to Know, and in all of the wonder and horror that represents, to Cease.

From an idea by breylee.

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In time, the few who knew how to operate the ancient machines of old became pariahs. Their skills, once so useful to the builders of empires, now shunned by those who lived in their weed-choked ruins.

Some tried to use their machines, their great engines of war, to carve new empires for themselves. But they could never extend their authority beyond the reach of their vehicles’ steel arms, and there was no more fuel to replace that which they burned, and no stores of missiles and bullets to reload their emptying racks and magazines. Such petty hedge-empires fell as quickly as they arose; even working in concert, the pilots who had been behind the ruin of their world needed just what they had destroyed too much.

Then there was Hobb.

Hobb’s machine was still functional, if battle-scarred. Its legs had been shot off at the Tombs, and it had lost its right arm holding back the 83rd from the gates of Helion. All but two of its external missiles had been fired, and its countermeasure flares were limited to a single fresh magazine of six–all the techs at Ouroboros had been able to load before the city fell. The pilot’s station was unarmored and exposed, its composite and multiplex stripped off to keep other units running during the Long Retreat.

Still, Hobb might have carved himself out a minor fiefdom with his machine and a little skill, and brought him something greater than his rude shack on the outskirts of what had once been Helion. If only for a bit.

Not Hobb.

He used his machine’s repulsordrive sparingly, to carry him on clear nights to heights undreamt-of by the people below. There, he’d watch the moon rise and the city slumber.

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It wasn’t just that summer vacation was coming to an end, and that life would soon be classrooms and textbooks and waking up early to get dressed. This was Tara’s twelfth summer, and she could see childhood’s end bearing down upon her not far off.

There would be school dances, growth spurts, algebra, and other distasteful things to contend with, combined with the pressures she’d seen unleashed on her older sister. The obsessive desire to act older, to cast off childish aspects and habits…it didn’t excite a dreamy girl who preferred to stomp around the yard and scribble down stories in worn-out notebooks.

Tara’s family had a house on the literal edge of their tiny town, with houses across the street and a relative wilderness to the back, bounded on one side by a farm. The highway, sometimes audible through the trees, had brought development to the east: an ugly mini-mall and fast food joints fused with gas stations. But if she walked in the other direction, Tara could find excitement and stories to be told in the woods.

She set out one day, feeling a strong urge to be outside and muddy among the trees. Her older sister and ostensible babysitter was on the phone with her boyfriend–another accoutrement of growing up that Tara was less than enthusiastic about–so with their parents at work the wold was free and fair even though Tara was theoretically forbidden from going in. But rules were made to be broken, and broken especially in the service of squeezing out a few more honey-yellow drops of summer from the dying light of August.

It was, after all, Tara’s last summer.

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I used to come here as a child, but not to appreciate it. This park was my playground, site of pirate adventures and long-winded fantasy stories that never existed anywhere but between my ears. While the other kids preferred the swings or slides or sports field, for me it was always the trail, the bridge, the river bubbling merrily past.

When a person reaches a certain age, they find themselves returning more and more often to these places of memory. I’ve been back in person, but more often than not I return solely in my memory. The sunlight is stronger, the shadows darker, and the possibilities broader. I can be any age, any person, anywhere, so long as it is through the lens of an eight-year-old wearing an old blazer like a pirate coat.

It’s sad, devastatingly sad, that those days are now fixed like graven statues in the past. At the time, it seemed like that world was there, always there, forever for the asking and the taking. At times it seems almost unfair that those days nearly twenty years ago have cast such a long and deep shadow over the rest of my life, that all my years since are like a faded daguerreotype beside their brilliance.

As we age, it’s only natural to look back with regret; regret is in many ways the most human of emotions, the longing tug that connects us to our pasts. There are times when I feel I’d trade anything to go back and do it over again, do it right this time.

And then there are times when I just wish I could live it over again, the riverside trails and my childish games unchanged for all the time I’ve mulled them over.

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