Part 12, and the conclusion of this tale. See the rest here if you haven’t.

His voice rang out clear in the vast, open room, echoing off of distant walls. There was not a soul in the small crowd that had gathered who could not hear every word, who could not hear the trace of empathy beneath its cold detachment; it wasn’t a cruelty, but a defense mechanism. It was important to tend to your own wellbeing when delivering these speeches.

“Daniel Willis was a bright young man. Troubled, yes, but who among us has not struggled? That we toil every day, both in our labors and in our thoughts, is testament to our tenacity. So it was with Daniel. I am certain all here recall his trials, the struggles he faced after an accident nearly took his hands from him and changed the course of his life. This struggle, though, did not define him. He did not allow it that power.

“Daniel — or Dani, as he liked to be called — instead found himself in a different battle. Ever sure that he had been cast into the wrong role, given a life and body that was not his own, he fought against his own existence. Those who knew him well will never forget his unique perspective, his insistence that this world in which we live is not all there is. It was more than a fascination with the yarns we spin of the time before; it was a true, deeply rooted belief in something greater. Something different and fresh.”

The gathered observers remained still, their silence punctuated only by the occasional cough and the deep sighs of Dani’s mother, seated in the front. She would not allow the pain of a lost child to break her in front of the assembled; no, that would be for later, in private. Here and now was a time for strength and resolve as the words of their elder fell flatly against her ears.

“Today, we remember Daniel not for his struggles, but for his optimism and strength. With all odds stacked against him and what he felt was right, he still stood tall in his own beliefs. He refused to allow the limits of his body to define how he looked at the world. Some might accuse him of being a dreamer, of being lost in some fantasy, but to Daniel, it was more than that. He was never lost in his mind, but rather, his mind was the one place he could be found.”

The words went on, more touching recollections of how Dani had lived. There were very few words about how she had died; the malnourished husk found sealed away in the trappings of a forgotten experiment. Secreted off in an abandoned sensory deprivation chamber, she’d found the one place she could be herself, free of judgment and half-cocked grins. It was hard to talk about this without speaking negatively. The speech concluded, and the attendees made their final pass by the remains, hidden beneath the stone casket, to pay their last respects.

Dani’s mother was the last to leave. As the room emptied, she could no longer bite back tears. Her mind raced across every argument, every assertion that her son — no. That wasn’t the word, not anymore. Every time she had sparred words with her daughter flooded her memory. Every single battle she thought she’d won was just another push towards this ledge, and every word hung on her like a steel weight attached to her skin. The elder looked on in solemn silence as she collapsed onto the casket, desperate for a conversation that, now, would never come.


A warm breeze drifted across the field, each blade of grass bending to its gentle push. The air here smelled of something sweet and undefinable. A new lightness carried Dani’s feet across the emerald expanse, as though she’d been freed from chains that had once held her captive to something that she could not define, and she knew that the echoes of that awful dream would never again encroach on her existence.

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Part 11. Previous entries here.

Joshua hated this part of the job. Sure, most of the time, janitorial wasn’t so bad. People kept things tidy, by and large, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do. Yeah, the backed-up plumbing was a pain in the ass, but it didn’t come up often enough to be unbearable. Mopping up after the drifting masses, that was an easy life. Just pushing a broom, nodding at folks passing by, and earning your keep without hardly a sweat. Wasn’t glamorous, but hell — glamor was just in books and plays, splayed out in the films with lavish costumes and other dreams.

This part, though. This was the worst of it. Tracing pathways through old tunnels, the places people didn’t go now. Chasing down some idiot’s report of some noise echoing through a damn air vent, like that wasn’t something that they all dealt with. It was never anything. Some moles or ugly rodents, maybe a snake. Down here, though, shadows played with your eyes and dust was a thick layer that covered everything but those footprints.

Footprints. Joshua stopped. These weren’t the scatterd, tiny paws of a miniscule pest. There were human footprints, full-formed in the dirt that spread across the floor. Not even boots, but bare feet — he could make out the toes in the glow of his shoulder lamp. He traced them back with his eyes, wondering how they’d even gotten to where they were. There. Just beyond a nearby curve in the walls — why hadn’t these corridors been built straight, anyway? — a line scraped across the base of the hall. They’d used a damn maintenance hatch.

Joshua sighed. As if the idea of walking alone through these forgotten depths wasn’t enough, now he was chasing some brain-fried moron scampering in the dark without any shoes, and they probably had a goddamned blueprint to boot. He thought about getting back to report in, but — well, damnit. Gotta know what exactly you’re reporting. Storming back to Crawford with some half-cocked idea that the closed-down district was playing home to some delusional kid without proof wasn’t likely to fly.

Time to do some searching, then. Somewhere in this long-abandoned maze, he’d find something that could prove there was someone living here, or at least visiting. People don’t go anywhere without leaving parts of themselves, especially not if they’re certain nobody knows they’re there. The things men do in secret are — well, you learn things, being a part of cleanup. Most people follow the rules well, but when certain folk think that nobody knows what they’re up to, rules aren’t really a consideration. It’s only bad if you get caught, or so they tell themselves in their brief and inconsequential fits of lucidity.

He followed what he could of tracks in the dust, using his lamp to light the way. Joshua wasn’t about to start squeezing through the much narrower shafts that the feet followed through the walls, but sticking his head through an access panel or two allowed more than enough to keep on tracking. He had to turn back once, realizing that he’d wound his way almost back to civilization, but the delay only fueled his determination. He had one end of the path; finding the other was only a matter of time. There were only so many tunnels.

Joshua grinned broadly when he found it. A wide steel door that led into an old lab — one that wouldn’t have any direct access through the walls. This had to be the place. Footprints and scrapes across the ground confirmed his convictions. He pulled the doors open with both hands, opening up into a wide room scattered with derelict equipment. Tables, desks, and weird-looking metal cylinders; he approached these, still letting the path of the one who’d been here first guide him.

Joshua froze. He was standing an arm’s length from the dull metal of one of these bizarre contraptions. Through a small glass window, he could see a face.

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Carry On

Part 10 of probably 12 or so. The collected set, in order, is here.

Several more days passed in similar fashion. The shop was busy, the tales were tall, and the village was abuzz with excitement. Dani made more than her share of the cut as the knight’s men and would-be adventurers stocked up on everything they imagined they could need. She’d made sure to spread the coins, too, keeping supplies stocked and the necessities on the shelves. She was well fed and content.

Between these moments of ease, Dani felt something else beneath her own thoughts. Like fragments of a dark dream or memories of the vivid imaginings of youth amid the wild tales of beasts and monsters lurking in the wild, a growing heaviness weighed on her shoulders, fading in and out of conscious thought. At times, she felt like she had been somewhere else, as though her happy life was the dreaming of some unfortunate urchin scraping by on the streets of a large city. At other times, the sensation was a distant thought that pulled at the edges of her existence, a dim grief that flickered on the borders of her mind to distract her from the world that needed her attention.

As the days went on, the crowds thinned, and life returned to its normal cycles. Most of Dani’s days were spent in her backyard laboratory or the shop, and the slow wind-down to familiar faces filled her with a sense of security. The flurry of activity had been nice enough, as the weight of her coin purse could testify, but she maintained that business as usual was usual for a reason. The comfort of a life well lived rarely allowed time for too much excitement; adventure, she’d decided long ago, was probably overrated.

The stories always told of the great trials and tribulations that heroes faced, the monstrous creatures that tried to end their chance at glory. Sure, there were riches and princesses sung about as rewards, but Dani had more than enough money to live well and had never met a girl, princess or otherwise, who seemed worth the trouble of being put through all that. Maybe they did exist, but — well, maybe the stories were only that, anyway.

With life returning to normal, Dani allowed herself to imagine. Imagine that she’d been born in the right place, or blessed by some omnipotent being, or imbued with magic, or otherwise extraordinary. Imagine that she was an adventurer, buying up the balms and potions for a journey to distant lands. Imagined that she wasn’t grinding leaves and mushrooms in a ramshackle lean-to. Imagine that her name would be on the lips of bards, her face carved into monuments by great sculptors.

It was nice to imagine, she thought. It was nicer, though, to know that a simple and well-lived life was here for her. For all the small inconveniences and petty drama she’d endured, none of it bore the gravity of these great deeds. Nobody would question her role in the tides of history, or set out to prove that she was not who she claimed to be. That was, somehow, her greatest comfort; she may not be praised in song, but she was herself.

Days sped by and the seasons changed around her. She tried new recipes, both in the kitchen and in the laboratory. She continued to hone her craft and tend to her garden. She allowed herself to live, and the world to live around her. It was a perfect serenity, broken only by flashes of dark dreams and feelings of something sinister that spread across her mind at times, only to blow away in the breeze.

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Part 9. The rest are here.

The mortar and pestle were still in her hands, the contents half-ground. She blinked. The sun was deep in the sky, red rays filtering in through the kitchen window. She smiled. Her fingers gripped the smooth stone, finishing the work she’d been doing before — what had just happened? Dani shook off the feeling. There was still a list of things that needed to be finished, and it would soon be time for supper.

Dani made quick work of the remaining tasks, and returned to the stew pot hanging in the stove. She added some last-minute herbs for flavor, stirred the contents, and was soon sitting near the window. She drank in the glitterinng night sky, contemplating a bizarre memory of some unpleasant meal served in a bizarre, shadowy chamber. Perhaps a dream she’d had — better, a nightmare.

Dani followed supper with a flurry of cleaning, putting away the utensils of the day’s work and returning her simple home to its natural state. There wasn’t much reason for it other than her own prefence, but she liked things to be tidy when she awoke in the morning. Leaving things out simply meant leaving bed before she’d like to get it done in the morning, when sleep still made her arms heavy. This was much better.

She fell into bed, and was soon asleep. In what seemed like a moment’s passage, the dawn’s light began to intrude. Rested yet groggy, Dani surrendered to the day’s beckoning and rose from her slumber. After a few bites of bread to break her fast, she gathered a collection of bottles into a wheeled cart, and headed to the shop. A day off tending to chores had been nice, but keeping the coins coming in was just as important as knowing what to use them for.

The town was still bustling; Dani guessed that some traveling group of performers was in the area, as these always drew crowds. Crowds, though, were good for business, and whether the faces coming through the door were familiar or not, their money spoke the same. Business had been steady recently, but a particularly good day always had its own special appeal. It wasn’t all about the profits, either; Dani loved to see the new customers, to guess to herself what each tincture and potable was purchased for. Some made it easy, but many of her clients pretended at discretion. She considered herself adept at seeing through it.

So the day passed by, a steady stream of bodies winding in and out of her small wooden home-away-from-home. Not everyone made a purchase, of course; an alchemist is only worth their stock at any given moment, so not every would-be buyer finds what they’re looking for. Enough, though, that by the time the sun had tilted toward the forest, she had more than sufficient funds to account for her recent relaxation.

With the parade of people came the rumors and talk of the town. She’d been close with her guess at a performing troupe; there was a well-renowned knight passing through not far from here, and his entourage was spread across the neighboring communities, spreading the wealth of the realm and securing their provisions for the journey ahead. She heard as many guesses at his destination or purpose as there were voices to speak them. She remembered a childhood fancy that she might one day travel the land as a hero to her people, but she’d had no knack for the great feats attributed to the adventurous.

With or without this spark of heroism, though, Dani was sure of many things about herself. She was more than adequate at her trade, she was an important piece in the village’s economy, and she was tired from a long day of serving the masses. The sun hung low over the green-flecked horizon of jagged treetops, and she returned home to rest again and gather her strength for tomorrow. The knight’s men would be around for another day or two, from the sounds of the village gossip, and that meant plenty more hands clutching coinpurses and dreaming of playing their role in whatever fantasy they’d indulged in.

As she lay in the dark stillness of night, the faintest of echoes called out, and Dani could scarce tell if it was a distant cry or a fading memory. It sounded as though someone was in trouble, but surely the brave visitors were of better aid than she could offer. Unsettled by the noise but unconcerned, she drifted off to sleep.

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Author’s Note: I guess I don’t hava any other author’s notes, really. Please give me some feedback if you’re enjoying this string of stories, or if you’re not! Though if you aren’t, you probably haven’t made it to part 8. The whole series is available here.

Dani’s vision was bleary. A sense of total exhaustion hung on every muscle, every bone. Eyes that took their time adjusting to the yellowish light begged for something more; the warmth of the sun, the sparkling beauty of the night sky. None of that existed here, deep under the oppressive weight of the ever-present darkness. Here, there was only the dull uniformity of artificial light.

Dani felt a strange thought, like a memory of a dream, flitting around the outskirts of her conscious mind. There was a sense of peace, a calm that accompanied the sensation. Blinking. Adjusting to the light. It felt somehow wrong; after all, when the light was so manufactured, so perfectly controlled in every inhabited area, why would you ever need a moment to adjust? For all the slivers of recollection, Dani had known no such lights as those she imagined now for as long as she’d lived.

Just the stories of youth playing havoc with a mind under pressure, Dani decided. Everyone knew the legends. That, in what was now an eon ago, men had lived under vast, open skies. They had constructed communities, building with dirt and stone and wood, building with steel and glass. They had made nations, and they had fought over where the lines were defined. In time, their wars and irreverance for nature undid their world, and the new world — the real world — was born.

Dani rubbed her eyes. Why was she sitting in her chamber, dreaming about childhood fantasies? Why was this so vivid, and the world suddenly seemed so dim around her? She looked down. Her hands, locked in their mechanical exoskeletons, lay on her lap. At this point, they were more equipment than flesh. Atrophy had set in at a young age, and while she could perform simple tasks courtesy of modern medicine, they would never look or work like the hands of the healthy.

Still, Dani had a job to do. This wasn’t a free society like the one written about in the books, and every person had to perform their role to keep things moving. It took no fine grip to haul boxes, and Dani’s arms and legs were still those of — well, it was a matter of some debate. This wasn’t the time to be focusing on old arguments. It would only lead to some petty squabble at the warehouse, and these did little to reduce the strenuous nature of the task.

“Ah, Daniel! Feeling better then, are we?” Tom’s voice echoed in the open chamber.

“Hey. Yeah,” Dani said, trying to mask uncertainty. “You know how it goes.”

“Good. Lots to do. You’re not the only one’s been missing some time, so I sugggest you get to it.”

It wasn’t worth reminding Tom what name to use. He wasn’t so bad, but had a way of seeing things that he didn’t care to deviate from. It was probably a simpler way of living. Certainly less complicated, though Dani wondered at times if the old man was as single-minded as he seemed, or if he just put on a show for the others. Either way, he was a firm but kind overseer, and had always treated Dani the same as anyone else in the crew.

Dani kept focused on her work; Tom was right. Things were backed up, and there were deliveries that had missed their intended times already. Dani loaded up a cart with cargo, piling on food for three of the public kitchens, some ores for the smelters; the same deliveries as always. Dani had always preferred deliveries to intake. There were more faces to see, less time spent among the same small crew, less confrontation. Less Kim. Kim was such a —

Deep breath. Don’t get derailed. There’s too much to get through Dani had been missing time, and didn’t know where it had gone, but right now that only meant that it was time to dig in and make up for the work left undone. Circling back through the warehouse, winding through the tunnels to each destination, the day went by quickly and uneventfully. Dani didn’t cross paths with Kim even once.

Dani made her way through the day, ending with a simple meal at the nearest kitchen. Enough had been done to allow some time to savor the food, but tonight’s fare felt bland. Barely noticing what was on her plate, Dani dreamed of a fire under a wide pot of homemade stew until supper was done. Soon after, a determined stride took her away from the hungry masses, away from the warehouse, her path winding through several districts until she reached a nearly-unknown offshoot from an old repair tunnel. She slipped inside.

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