Sunday, February 11, 2024

Books I Would Like to Write (But Probably Never Will): Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2


I Play Both Hero and Villain

So, it’s not impossible that I’ll one day write this book—perhaps in serial format—but I’m not sure I could write it the best.  The idea behind it is in the spirit of Japanese light novels.  Many of these follow protagonists who become either the hero or the villain, and so it occurred to me that it would be nice to have a story that did both.

It could be hilarious.

We begin by seeing a cliché villain-hero end fight:

“Do you think, hero,” the dark lord demanded, “that because you killed a few piddling minions and overcame my traps, you are a match for me?  Hah!  I am ten thousand times greater than the greatest of these, and I will crush you under my heel.”  Unlike before, when his voice had seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, now it was definitely located at the top of the stairs—at the figure who stood there, swathed in shadows.

Except that the hero is strangely incompetent at heroing, so the villain has to keep covering for him, something that annoys the villain greatly:

The Shadowfiend currently fulfilling the role of dark lord in this second-rate backwater, was significantly less amused.  What was the multiverse coming to that he, Toloman Vraak, had to deal with such incompetence?  Yet it had been increasingly like this for years.  He, who had once played the best roles, the deepest darkness battling the most shining golden light . . . he who had gone up against Tom Griffin in the most epic battle ever recorded . . . how could he be pitted against mediocre hero after mediocre hero?

Toloman finishes up his villain role by “dying” whereupon he returns to his agency, fed up with this nonsense, only to be told he’s being retired:

The Fox puffed out his breath.  He was, in his own opinion, a good-natured and put-upon soul, and he wasn’t without sympathy for the villain before him.  But he was also a man with a job, and Toloman was making that job a lot more difficult.  “I’ve explained this,” he said.  “Old-fashioned villains are old-fashioned, Toloman.  They haven’t been in vogue for decades.  You have to move with the times if you want the big roles.”

“I,” said Toloman, “am classic.”

“Yes—exactly!  That’s the problem.”

In a fit of rage (he is a professional villain, and magically powerful), Toloman kills his boss and escapes into a world to which a hip, sexy villain-type has been sent.  There, he intends to replace his rival and live out his glory years with one final chance to be the perfect villain.  He even plans to sneakily train the hero to be a worthy adversary.  But when he disguises himself as a wise old hermit and meets the “hero,” he is disgusted by what he finds:

“If you want a puppet you can push into saving the world or some other nonsense, look somewhere else,” George said.  “I’m no hero, and I’d just as well this garbage world burn.”  He seized his shovel, surprised at how angry he had become, and for the third time turned to go.

 “You are right,” said the hermit, “when you say you are no hero.”  He threw his arms up and shadows poured forth.  George only had time to see blue flames burst through the blindfold before the shadows stripped the flesh from his bones like a sock.  It took him a little more time to die, but not much.

Toloman clutched the discarded skin in his hand, seized by the determination that had barely begun, back in the Fox’s office.  He was still crying, the tears evaporating in the heat of his eyes.  “You were not worthy to be a hero,” he snarled at the skin, ‘and I will not have you sullying the name of Tom Griffin or Alan Sun or Owen MacLeon.  A true hero is brave and self-sacrificing.  A true hero believes in people no matter what.  Are there no heroes left in the multiverse?”

There was only one possible answer, and it bloomed within him like magic, pulling him to his feet.  He threw back his head and laughed.  “If a villain is only as good as his hero,” he cried, “let the hero be as good as his villain!  Then let me play hero and villain both—as both roles ought to be played.  Let us have a story such as has not been seen since Tom Griffin fought Toloman Vraak!”  In one movement, Toloman pulled on the hero’s skin, letting it mold over his own and sticking up the holes with shadows. 

Half a minute later, George Moon stood there once more, alone, with such an expression on his face as had never appeared there before.  “For you, Tom,” he said, “and for Alan and Owen and Ben—and even for you, Fox.  Let the Game begin!”

For the rest of the story, Toloman goes back and forth, trying to juggle both roles.  Being a hero is harder than it looks, and he keeps getting it wrong, because he is acting as the villain perceives the hero to act, rather than how the hero actually acts.  After the Agency discovers the Fox dead and figures out what happened, it gets Tom Griffin (the hero Toloman admired most from back in the day, and now a retired king) in after him.  Tom Griffin decides to beat the evil overlord by mentoring “George,” who is really Toloman in disguise, to be a true hero . . .

Oh, I love this idea so much.  It is absolutely delightful and potentially hilarious.  Maybe I will write it someday, possibly as a serial novel; but it intimidates me.  Since I really would like to read this book, I AM MAKING THE CONCEPT AVAILABLE UNDER A CREATIVE COMMONS COPYRIGHT.  That means you are able to use the basic concept (though preferably not the same character names), including for commercial use, as long as you properly credit me as follows:

Original story concept by Deborah J. Natelson (, used under a Creative Commons license.  

Please also send me a copy!


Other Books

There are a couple of other books floating about in my head, which I may or may not write; and, since this is getting pretty long, I’m not going to include here.  Ultimately, what I decide to write and not write isn’t entirely up to me: as demonstrated by the number of half-books I’ve written (including, alas, the sequel to Bargaining Power—which, when I write it, will be entirely different from the tens of thousands of words I’ve already put to paper), it’s what I’m able to write.  How strange, wonderful, terrible . . . and human.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Books I Would Like to Write (But Probably Never Will): Part 2

Read Part 1 HERE


The World of Magic and Faerie

Swallowgate and Logic’s Emporium of Stolen Memories are in the same universe as each other, along with two others. One is Underground Highway 51, where you can find anything you’re looking for.  I never even started this book, but you can see a reference to it in Swallowgate: it’s where Mort’s mother came from.


The other book, The Nightmare Children of Faerie, is finished.  It’s just not good.  I couldn’t make it be what I wanted it to be, and it’s in some ways derivative of other books.  Since I created a proof copy to use to completely rewrite it, though, I do have a back cover summary:

“In the Land of Faerie, in the Kingdom of Nightmare . . .

“Something has gone very wrong.  The entire country is fraying at the edges, and nightmares aren’t just being sent to Earth anymore; they’re also invading the land. 

“In order to save not only the countries of Nightmare and Dream but all of Faerie, four siblings must discover first what’s happening and then how to fix it.”

The third country of Sleep, by the way, was the Sleep Sands: a massive desert where the sand men lived.  I had thoughts at one point of writing another book in this country, about a sand man who fell in love with a human woman and kept coming to visit her as she slept, inadvertently sprinkling too much sand on her so that she was always sleepy.  This final concept will be incorporated in some form into a sequel to The Land of the Purple Ring (if I ever write a sequel, which I don’t know).


The Merlinmobile

A man buys an old van, which is painted in wizardly swirls and stars, from a circus.  He soon finds that when he drives it, he ends up driving into other worlds, where people come to him with their bizarre problems.  He calls himself Merlin to these people, which he thinks is hilarious (and which his son thinks is “horribly embarrassing, Dad”).


Unsympathetic Magic

I wrote a short story with this title in my collection, The Day the Exclamation Marks Came, and I thought it had real potential.  Ernest is an insurance collector in a world that is half-magical, half-not.  He himself isn’t magical, except for the ability to see magical things.  He is middle-aged, overweight, and not impressed by anyone and especially not by his partner (who is a comic foil, not a romantic interest).  He is such a fun character to write.  My plan was to have him get wrapped up in a murder mystery.  But again, the story never got off the ground.


Night Castle

This is another book I wrote several quite solid chapters on, only to get stuck.  It takes place in the Night Castle, a huge and extremely magical pyramid-like structure with a beating heart. 

The corridor lay empty and silent when they returned to it.  As with all corridors in the Night Castle’s outer later, this one was dotted with windows tall enough to climb out of but no wider than a hand.  When the sun angled just right, long narrow strips of light illuminated the hall and kept the opposite wall bathed in light.  Between, above, and beneath each window twisted ivy, vibrant green and pulsing with life.  That ivy didn’t grow in full sunlight, but one could find it everywhere else in the Night Castle, growing voraciously.  Once in a while, it would become tangled and choke itself, and the Great Sorcerer or his apprentice would cut it back; but otherwise, they let it grow.

Increasingly, magical monsters (based on viruses and bacteria) invade and have to be fought back in various epic action sequences by The Great Sorcerer.  After his master is slain before him and he goes to extremes to save the Night Castle, Ezra becomes the new Great Sorcerer. 

The pain receded in an instant, and with it that deep knowledge.  But he knew he could call upon it at any time—that he could call upon the Night Castle, and she would respond.

The old Great Sorcerer was dead.  He was Great Sorcerer now.

And Vashti was coming for him.

He succeeds, but in doing so becomes trapped and unable to help the Night Castle for a long time.  When he escapes, he’s damaged and the Night Castle is overrun.  Desperate for help, Ezra goes to find an apprentice, only to find that the overrunning of the Night Castle has bled out into the land, which is also having trouble with monsters that have evolved from the ones in the Night Castle.

One apprentice clearly won’t be enough, so Ezra brings in an entire class full, including our other protagonist, Asher.  The Great Sorcerer’s special ability is to split himself into multiple selves (an ability somewhat damaged by his imprisonment), whereas Asher has some precognitive ability and ability to answer questions—which he sometimes has trouble expressing due to a stutter. 

“I heard he sees visions,” Tevye went on.  “That he can answer any question and can see past close doors.”

“I hope,” Zephaniah threatened, “you aren't attempting to blame my son for anything.”

“Who's blaming him?  I just want to know why he didn't warn someone that this was going to happen.”

“He did warn someone,” Yiskah said, standing on his chair.  “He warned us.  It's our fault we didn't understand until it was too late.  And we got there in time to help.”

“You got there in time to nearly get yourselves killed along with the rest of us!”

“Peace,” said Rabbi Henschel.  He was the sort of person people listened to, and everyone turned to him.  “Instead of blaming Asher, we should use his abilities.  Asher, come here.”

Zephaniah pushed him forward, and he had no choice but to obey.

Henschel laid a companionable hand on the boy's shoulder.  “Tell us, Asher.  That man who saved us.  Is he really the Great Sorcerer?”

Asher looked around him, at the adults staring, waiting for his reply.  His fingers felt numb.  “I d-don't know,” he whispered.

“You're doing it wrong,” Benaiah said.

“You have to ask him where something is,” said Zephaniah's head shop assistant, who often asked just such questions.  “Asher, where is the Great Sorcerer?”

“B-behind the walls of the Night Castle,” Asher said.  “In a roomm without ceiling or floor.”

The townsfolk gasped at this and began to wonder.  Many of them had not heard of Asher's abilities, because they did not associate closely with day laborers or shop assistants.  They had their pride.

“Now,” said the head shop assistant, “where is the man who saved us Wednesday from the ahemaitwu?”

“B-behind the walls of the Night Castle,” Asher said, knowing this was true.  “In a roomm without ceiling or floor but with floating sparks like stars.”

Due to some misunderstandings and miscommunications, their relationship is initially awful; but through their mutual work on behalf of the Night Castle, they come to respect each other.

Several of the parts I’ve written could be easily turned into standalone short stories, so I might do that for a future collection of short stories.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Books I Would Like to Write (But Probably Never Will): Part 1

 This is somewhat of a hard post for me, because these are stories that are dear to me and terribly clever (or have seemed that way to me, at various times), and mostly that I spent a lot of effort on but that never coalesced into books.  I’ll go chronologically.


Wisdom University

My book The Fifth Tunnel existed in a universe with many other books, called Wisdom University.  The premise of the universe was that every story took place in and around this mysterious huge building called (at varying times) Wisdom Safehouse, Wisdom School, Wisdom University, etc.; and which had been there for “as long as anyone knew”:

“No one knew quite why Wisdom was so big, or even how big it was, but when used as a safe house, it could hold literally thousands of people in relative comfort.  Days’ travel from the closest town (a journey that could only be made by foot), Wisdom was impenetrable, constant, and so isolated that the outside world often forgot about it entirely until it was needed once more. . . .

“To the east of Wisdom lay craggy, perilous red mountains known as the East Hills (for from this side, they appeared no more than hills).  Once one crossed their ridge, however, the “hills” plummeted down several thousand feet.  Many travelers had perished trying to traverse the East Hills, and the only known safe passage was built into Wisdom itself.

“For those who did manage to make it across, it was seldom worth the trouble: red dirt stretched in every direction for as far as the eye could see, but not flat.  Wisdom Plain was not precisely a plain at all, any more than the East Hills were gently sloping rises.  Wisdom Plain was harsh, dangerous, and utterly lacking in known resources.  (It did, in fact, have more unknown resources of incredible value than any could have guessed . . . but no one would find them for many centuries, and even then, the most incredible of these would be passed by.)” (From Protector by the Green Light)

Basically, there are impassable mountains curving around two sides: one close to Wisdom, one with a dangerous forest in between; there is a lake to the south (which connects under Wisdom to the Waste Pit and thus has unusual properties of its own), and a terrible desert to the east.  The Waste Pit in The Fifth Tunnel would be on the north side, near the safe path out between the mountains.

Here is my timeline:


Protector by the Green Light (partially written and briefly referenced in The Fifth Tunnel)

Daniel is a boy of 8 to 12 who lives in Wisdom Safehouse with his mother, an archeologist.  One day, he follows his mother and her friends into the desert, which is full of the white bones of ancient, eldritch creatures.  In the middle of the desert, they come to a strange and evil acid-green sludge, and Daniel’s mom’s friends betray her to it, killing her.  Then they themselves are taken over by the sludge.  Meanwhile, Daniel flees back to Wisdom.  He tries to hide, but no matter where he goes, Wisdom keeps presenting him with a green light (kind of like a flat nightlight in an outlet).  By doing this, it is choosing him as its “protector,” which gives him certain rights within the building—but also means he must be the one to defeat the terrible evil.

The Fifth Tunnel takes place several hundred years later.  In it, there is the following paragraph:

“At least, some part of my mind whispered, she didn’t contact law enforcement and convince them, too.  Not that any Protectors had been seen for decades, but one never knew.”


Memory Collectors was about a young man named Lasin Logic who got a job going into people’s minds and collecting their memories to resell.  It eventually turned into Logic’s Emporium of Stolen Memories and is 99% unrecognizable from the original.  I did actually write about the first half of this book when I was 15, but it wasn’t working.  It would have had a sequel called Adventures in My Head, following the little girl Susan, who after having a lot of her memories removed has many gaps into which “people” crawl, giving her essentially multiple personalities—except that they are actually different people.


The Art of Subliminal Messaging was meant to be a novella in the spirit of Orwell:

“At a time when the government took over Wisdom for its own purposes and training, the University lost what was once its primary area of learning and replaced it with a very different one: politics.

“No, I do not speak here of the petty, pathetic thing that politics are on our world, with average people running for president, or men with nothing special about them aside from a name inheriting the throne, although that also existed, of course.  Some things can never be stopped.

“Here, at Wisdom, it was not that kind of student who was trained.  It wasn’t the future figurehead of a country, elected by a fair and just ballot, every so many years.  It was the kind who is not elected but appointed for life, often by people who wonder afterwards why they did it, for surely they had never really liked their appointee before that day.  And besides, they were of an odd sort.  And from that University, too!

“Some people called that strange way of getting exactly what they wanted charm, others charisma. Realistically, it was nothing more than expert manipulation of the kind Wisdom University turned out.

“Wisdom taught the power behind the throne; the grand viziers and chief advisors.  Wisdom taught the people who eventually would rule the countries of the world without anyone actually knowing their names.  The people who told the rulers (without their being aware of it) what to think and do.  In other words, it taught the people who really made everything work—made the cogs spin and the economies thrive.

“As one might expect, this made the classes of Wisdom very . . . unique.  And difficult to get into, unless you had a certain mindset and were naturally cunning and ruthless.  Who else could excel at Propaganda 101, 33 Important Languages, Manipulation, Advertising, Economics (macro and micro), Handwriting and Forgery, Charisma, Public Speaking, and Facial Expressions or Lack Thereof?  It took a certain type of person who wanted to take psychology . . . not to help people recover, but to change them.

“Josep was one of those people.  He was strikingly handsome, for one thing (something very important in these circumstances, if one couldn’t be utterly unmemorable) and took voice lessons from the University music director to help his speaking.  He eagerly attended extra classes in Etiquette and took Manipulation up to the 300 level—he was planning to major in it, in fact.

“That is, until one day in his Propaganda class.”

In this class, Josep learns about “subliminal messaging,” which the teacher dismisses as fairly ineffective.  In private, however, Josep finds a way to make it work.  Disgusted by the way the university is training its students to use and manipulate others, Josep begins to utilize subliminal messaging to turn the university into what he thinks it ought to be—only to, in the process, himself become exactly what he was fighting against.


Mirror Mirror is a story about a time traveler who uses mirrors to go to different stages of Wisdom’s history—sort of a frame narrative for the above stories.


In any case, there were other stories also, many of them; most never written at all.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

A Christmas Poem; or, Justification for Murder

’Twas the night before Christmas, and in the North Pole,

Just one creature was stirring, with eyes dark as coal.

She was dressed all in crimson, the renowned Mrs. Claus,

Too aware that St. Nick was away in the stars.

The white candles were dimmed and the music was low

While she listened for footsteps and knocks in the snow.

Then the sound came at last: a faint tap in the night;

She responded by shrieking erotic delight.

Away to the window she ran like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Then what to her wondering eyes did appear

But an elf all in green with a lustful moist leer.

“Mrs. Claus,” he began, eyes upon her white breast,

“You’re a sight for sore eyes—now please show me the rest.”

At one end of the world, the adulteress agreed;

At the other, her husband gave gifts and helped need:

For this lively and quick saint seemed kindly and true—

But to think him a fool?  Oh, if only she knew.

For he guessed and he at grieved his wife’s greatest sin

And he hoped she’d refuse to allow that elf in.

But the proof, when it came, no one could deny,

And it meant just one thing: that the vixen must die.

Back to the Pole flew St. Nick in a bound

To catch both of them while the elf was around.

With some duct tape in hand, and armed to the teeth,

Nick was dressed all in plastic, his head to his feet.

A short minute of work, and he had them both tied—

Not long after they begged him—“Please, mercy!” they cried.

They had done it, they owned, but it was Christmas morn—

Shouldn’t Santa forgive, on the day Christ was born?

St. Nicholas would: this, the saint would allow;

But Old Nick? He was entirely different now.

With a grin full of needles and hands full of knives,

Bloody Nick cut their loins and he bled out their lives.

When the deed was complete, Santa cleaned up the place

Once again with a gentle and innocent face.

He disposed of the plastic a country away

And was back to the Pole by the break of the day.

As he entered, the elves told him, to his great grief,

That his wife had been murdered by a mysterious thief.

Yes, from that day to this, that’s the story that’s told,

And if anyone knows different, they are never so bold

As to call out Old Nick—for if any did try,

Then for certain would they be the next ones to die.


 (A little backstory.  At my work, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, an elf doll is brought out.  Every evening, whoever closes gets to position the elf as they choose.  Naturally, the elf dies a variety of humorously awful deaths in addition to its other hijinks.  The other day, such death was clearly linked to Santa.  But why? people wondered.  Santa is lovely!  Surely everything will be nice the next day!  And so I wrote why.  I was given no other prompt, but told I ought to use the words "moist" and "loins."  So here we are.

And in case anyone is wondering: I love Christmas and am actually fairly full of Christmas spirit this year.  Which is honestly probably how this poem happened.  Please see the original for actual Christmas fun, and note that a couple of lines come directly from it.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Forgotten Place

This is apparently a dream I had on 11/27/2007.  After waking, I immediately wrote it down.  I have included the entirety here, without changes.

Once a terror to the civilized world, determined to reap in power from all corners for her own pleasure and unkind purposes, Ursula Shal'ingra now stood alone -- or, rather, staggered on her feet, barely able to stay upright.  She didn't have more than a minute or two to live, and she knew it -- and, just as importantly, he knew it, the one who stood just across from her, not with her, but watching, to make sure she was wholly defeated and died as she should.

He didn't particularly want her to die; he had just wanted her to stop, and there was something of pity in his eyes, now that the fire of fury had faded.  But he didn't come forward to save her; she hadn't expected him to, not after what she had done.  Even if he had offered, Ursula would never have accepted, not knowing the alternative.

And not knowing what she knew about last possibilities, a last ability that even he knew nothing about.

She smiled.

"What are you thinking?" he asked.

"I am thinking," she replied, her smile growing, "that I know something you don't know.  And that in this, not even you can stop me."

"What are you doing?" he was alarmed now, and started forward -- as if that would help him!  "Listen to me, Ursula, please -- you're done here!  Just let it end!"

"What do you think I'm going to do?  Blow up the world as a last stand?  Unleash a plague the likes of with these pathetic people have never seen?  How would I do that?"

"Tell me what you're doing!"

The smile broke into a laugh as a rush of emotion surged through Ursula, even as tears streamed down her face.  She could feel everything fading, moving away.  But he had defeated her, so she would give him one last hint: "Look for me in the Forgotten Place," she gasped in between laughs and then crumpled, the last of her breath leaving her, and was dead.

The lone man stood and looked down at the corpse, no more powerful or beautiful or memorable than any other corpse, then leaned down and closed the eyes.  "What did you do?" he whispered to it, and then turned and strode swiftly out of the hall, his heels clicking delicately on the marble floor and echoing hollowly about the facades and pillars along the wall.  He did not look back, and when he left, there was no sound in the hall for a long time.

There was a mysterious fire in the palace that night, and the ancient structure burned until it was nothing more than a husk.  No one had bothered to put out the fire until it began to threaten to spread.  As the people living near said, they didn't know who had started the fire, but it was a good job, and the site would be perfect for a new cemetery, because none but the dead would go there.

-- -- -- -- -- --

Time passed, as it does, oblivious to the pain and joy it causes, and some of the wounds that Ursula had scored were healed and faded with hardly a scar, and other emergencies rose and fell and rose again, and life went on, and what had happened was merely History.

But one man did not forget, and even as he traveled from one place to another to help and heal and save, he kept his eyes open and searched and listened and made careful inquiries about something known as the Forgotten Place.  And eventually, as Ursula had known he would, he found it.

While not the most unlikely of places, the town of Mossag was not exactly exciting.  It was home to about a thousand people and crouched humbly next to the sea, often cold and windy but always with the lonely sort of stark beauty which can be so frequently found in such places.  The people of the town were of two sorts: those who kept the town going -- the merchants and fishermen and shopkeepers, a hard-working, steady bunch with no imagination and no romantic notions; the other sorts were precisely the opposite -- poets and writers and historians and musicians who came to the out-of-the-way Mossag for peace and inspiration as they toiled.  No one came to this place for vacation or built houses along the sea for pleasure -- or if they did, they abandoned those houses within a few days and never ventured back.  This was not a place for leisure or careless pleasures or parties.

He walked along the beach, the wind and waves so loud against his ears that any lesser sounds emanating from the sounds were blanked out as thoroughly as if they had never existed at all.  There was no else on the beach, and therefore no one to see him take a slender vial of clear liquid out of his pocket as he reached the edge of the water.  Not bothering to shed even his boots or the heavy coat which protected him from the wind, the man walked out into the waves, carefully bracing himself so that he was not knocked over, and swam out until his feet no longer touched the sand and he bobbed helplessly in the waves, his head barely above water, and completely numb from cold.  It was a wonder that he hadn't already been pulled until and drowned; he must have been amazingly strong swimmer.  Still, even he couldn't possibly last much longer.

Carefully holding the vial above water, the man uncorked it and swallowed the contents in one gulp before careful replacing the vial in his coat pocket and letting the waves push him down.

Under the water, the waves were much less violent, and the spray didn't hurt his eyes when he opened them to look around.  There wasn't much to see as yet; sand, some small, distant creatures, shells.  Glancing all about him to make sure he was alone, he carefully inhaled, slowly, filling his lungs with oxygen even as his nose sucked in water.  A very strange feeling, he decided, but not an entirely bad one.  As long as he breathed long and slow breaths, and didn't descend into greater pressure too quickly, he should be fine.

Slowly circling down – and sorting out his twisted coat as he went – he continued to concentrate on his breathing.  The vial’s liquid had not been to allow him to breathe but to warm him, and it would only last a few hours, and was so strong that if he had been anything but freezing when he had taken it, he would have ended up as so much burnt roast.  The breathing underwater . . . that was just a knack.  Anyone could do that, so long as he knew how.

He swam steadily away from shore and down until he had reached the sand again, still curiously devoid of life although the water around him held the occasional fish, little more dared venture in these parts.  And he was here to find out why.

It had been just a hint, the story which had lead him here.  The native people weren't ones for telling stories, but their fishermen had fallen upon hard times these last two decades, as if the fish were afraid to come in these parts.  Conversely, sharks were uncommonly common and it was dangerous for anyone to enter the water within two miles of the town.  People had disappeared, children and adults alike, and very, very few had made it back.  Daniel Magram's boy had returned, had been rescued by his uncle.  But the uncle had drowned, and the boy . . . well, there was always a boy like that, wherever you went.  Thirty years old, and he hadn't spoken a word for fourteen years.  And Lisa Hawkin had come back, only to run away at sixteen and marry a traveling salesman and never return.  Things happened.

He recognized the touch.

He didn't know exactly what he was looking for, only that it would be obvious when he found it, as such things so often are.

It was getting darker now, as the day moved into late afternoon and he swam deeper into the sea, but even so, the black rectangle caught and held his eye and he moved swiftly towards it, still breathing in the careful, steady way that allowed him to stay alive down here.  It wasn't long before he had drawn level with the spot and could see it clearly.  It was very odd indeed: in the sand a black triangle fifteen inches by twenty.  It was a hole -- or not solid -- but the hole seemed to lead to nothing; it was a rectangle of nothing.

Or, more likely, it just looked like one.  He reached back in his coat and pulled out the vial which he floated gently in the direction of the hole so that it slowly sunk through.

Nothing happened for several minutes and then the vial was pushed back up through with a note attached to it on peculiar, brown paper.  Come in, the note said.  You will not be harmed.  I have been waiting. -- U.S'i

Come in.  Well, he remembered Ursula, didn't he?  A note was a contract and could not be broken, but that didn't mean that it didn't have a trick behind it.  And much as he didn't like the idea of his legs sticking out for any shark to come by and snack on, it was better than leaving his luck to Ursula.  Lying on the sand -- or floating as close as he could to it -- he touched the black rectangle with two fingers and the reached through and gripped the rock behind to steady himself as he pulled his head and shoulders down into the hole.  This is what he saw:

The blackness was no thicker than light and gave way to a greyish cavern about twenty feet deep which spread out as it went so, although the top was no bigger than the rectangle, the base diameter was about ten feet.  Creatures lined the sides, far too large to fit in the tiny spaces they inhabited, although they did so without apparent difficulty, and some seemed to have even become part of the rock as the years passed – far more, apparently, than had passed elsewhere.  But with Ursula, that wasn’t really surprising, nor were the strange mutations which almost all the creatures seemed to have suffered; very few now bore any resemblance to their original state, human or non.  There were two exceptions to this: one was Ursula herself, the other a girl of eleven or twelve dressed in attire that hadn’t been in fashion for more than a century, even in such a put-away place as Mossag who looked up at him with wide, curious eyes.

“Hello, Ursula,” the man said; “you’re looking transparent today.”  And she was.  A shadow – ah, ha – of her former self, Ursula sat wraithlike on a twisted stone creation at the very base of the cavern, so stubbornly rooted to it that it was doubtful she could leave it.

“Pleased to see me again?”

“Enlightened.  I had so wondered what you meant by your last words.  Very mysterious, I must say.  ‘Forgotten Place.’  Clever.”

“I told you that you couldn’t stop me.  Look at you – you don’t even dare enter my domain!”

“No, I don’t.  Putting myself in your power, being forever trapped here, no doubt – not my idea of fun.”

Ursula laughed.  “As I said, clever.  You always were clever.  You know the laws of this place, then?”

He shook his head: “No.  Would you care to tell me?”

Ursula considered this carefully for a moment.  “I will tell you the answer to your question in return.”


“I don’t suppose you would accept total submission and slavery to me?  No?  Very well.  Tell me about the sunlight above, then.”

He stared at her for a moment, and narrowed his eyes, thinking.  “You must have been down here a very long time.”  He watched her reaction carefully.  “Very well, I accept your bargain.  This is what I tell you about the sunlight above: the day is a cold, crisp one with clouds obscuring much of the sky, but even the shadows have some warmth and when one finds a spot where they break and turns one’s face to the sky, a tingling warm flush hits one’s face and a freshness touches the nose with a pure warmth.  Bright light strikes the eyes, whitish yellow light filtered through many levels of cloud and air and atmosphere, but it too burns where it hits, a clean, almost pleasant burning.  The light is never just light but heals and greets and is beautiful and of a kind unlike another.  It is uplifting and cheerful and washes away pains, if only one lets it, and is thing foreign to anything of this world – for it is not of this world, but travels far to get here.  This is the sun today and the sunlight above us now.”

A curious change had flowed over Ursula as he spoke, an almost tangible wistfulness which cooled the water and tingled the arms and for a moment, it almost looked like sunlight struck her upturned face.  The effect faded with his words, but not quite all of the peace left Ursula’s face.  She nodded at him.

“Yes,” she said; “that is what it is like.  And now I will fulfill my part.  Here are the rules: none who come in may leave unassisted.  Another may pull they out from the outside so long as they themselves do not enter fully, but only within twenty-four hours.  After twenty-four hours here, none may leave without my permission as per the balance of power.”

“And you?”

“I do not leave.”

“And she?” he looked directly at the little girl crouched by Ursula’s side.

“This?  This is Jane.  Do you like her?  You can’t have her; she’s been here with me far too long.  Say hello, Jane.”

“Hello, sir.”

“Hello, Jane.  Do you like it down here?”

Jane turned her gaze downward but did not speak again.

“Don’t even try it,” Ursula warned.  “She’s mine and you know it.  This is my domain – my demesne – and my rules.  She is mine.  You see?  You cannot kill me after all.  You dare not even enter.”

“Yes,” he agreed.  “You’re right.  I can’t touch you, not in here.  But I’ll remember.”

“I’m sure you will.”  Ursula laughed at him and continued laughing even when he had withdrawn entirely from the cavern and swum away.  “I’ve won.”

But she hadn’t, not really; it was only a matter of time.

-- -- -- -- -- --

The next time the man visited Mossag was nearly two years later, and the town was an uproar of fear and worry and hopelessness.  When he inquired why, the answer was simple: a girl had gone missing, one Sally Lee.  She was six years old and had last been seen fifteen hours ago, but had a nasty tendency of homing in on the sea.  And worse, she had been seen to develop the early stages of under-water breathing and might decide to try it out. . . .

He had more than a nasty suspicion; he had a nasty almost-certainty.  “Fifteen hours?  Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!  Do you think anybody doesn’t know the story by now?”

He shrugged.  “I just asked because I think I might be able to get her back.”  At the man’s dubious look: “No promises.  But I, too, have a certain talent for breathing underwater and believe I know where Sally went.  But I need a few things if I am to bring her back – and quickly; there isn’t much time.” The other looked him over suspiciously for a moment, then nodded.  “I’ll take you to the Lees and they can decide.  Come along, then.”

He was lead to the Lee cottage and left there to deal with the family alone, but he didn’t really mind.  He had far too much practice with this sort of thing and knew how to go about it – and a child’s safety was far more important than his personal discomfort.  He knocked without hesitating and smiled at the dumpy blond woman whose otherwise pleasant face was strained into worry lines.  “Good morning,” he greeted her.  “I think I might be able to find your daughter, and soon – but there are a couple of things I need first, to bring her back safely.  May I come in?”

Forty-five long minutes later, several hundred townsfolk were crowded on the narrow beach, shivering together against the wind, to watch the crazy man walk into the sea in the middle of winter with only two vials of clear liquid to protect him.  The man ignored them, except to politely refuse any offers to hold his coat, and waded into the sea, just as he had done two years previously.  He had also refused any offers of help, especially in the form of alcohol, claiming that it only gave the illusion of warming one while it did the opposite.  No one had really believed him, but he had been steady.

Now the townsfolk watched, but not for very long.  The stranger was as good as dead, walking into the sea like that.  Brave, though.  He would be toasted later in the local pub and no doubt talked about in fireside stories for a month or two. . . .

Unless he came back, of course.  With the Lee girl.  But that was hardly likely, even for mysterious travelers, and he hadn’t looked like a wizard.

Meanwhile, the man was swimming to where he remembered the black rectangle of nothing to be.  The water currents pushed him off course a bit, but even so, he found the place with minimum of fuss.  He hesitated only a moment – would Ursula know he was here? – before pushing his head down into the cavern.

There was no time for caution; quite the opposite, when Ursula had the balance of power in her own demesne.  Almost before she had turned her head up to see who had disturbed the water, he had reached down and grabbed the arm of a young girl with her mother’s golden curls, and pulled her out into the freezing ocean.

“Sally,” he said in a calming tone, holding her struggling – just as she had been taught to do, if ever a strange man grabbed her.  “Sally Lee, listen to me!  You need to drink this, all right?  Or else you’ll freeze to death.  And keep breathing, slowly.  You know how, Sally.

Sally opened her mouth to answer and he took the opportunity to uncork the vial and, his finger keeping the contents inside when in the open water, shove it in her mouth and force her to swallow.  When he took his hand away, Sally opened her mouth again, this time to scream, but before she had even started, she blinked and the open mouth expression turned into one of surprise.  “I’m warm,” she said – or as close she could, underwater.  It had quite a few more “glugs” in it, but wasn’t incomprehensible.  It was a knack.

“Yes.  Now, why don’t we swim back to see your parents?  They’re very worried about you, Sally.”

“All right,” Sally agreed, although she ended up clinging to him far more than swimming on her own, and was falling asleep in his arms by the time they reached the beach.

Little more than twenty minutes had passed when they arrived, and at least half the townsfolk were still there – gaping in amazement, save for the thankful parents who rushed up to him gushing their gratitude.

“Take good care of her,” he told them.  “Your daughter has a great deal of talent, and should be trained.”

Trained?  But by whom?

“I’ll speak to you more later, but I have some unfinished business – the reason why I came back to Mossag in the first place.  Please excuse me.”  And, to the shock of all present, he turned and walked back into the sea and disappeared beneath the waves.

“I should have known,” Ursula snarled, crossing her withered arms.  “Why is it always you?  Don’t you have anything better to do than come down and bother me?  I’m not doing much harm here – don’t you have bigger fish to fry?”

“Yes,” he answered honestly.  “That’s why I came back.  I need to borrow Jane.”

Ursula stared at him incredulously.  “You think I’m going to do you a favor after you steal my property?  I’ve thought you many things, but never a fool.”

“She wasn’t yours; by your own rules you had no claim on her for another eight hours.  In any case, it’s not a favor I’m asking you for.  My quest benefits you as much as it does me.”


“Do you remember Ossic Ringe?”


“So he’s back, and looking for revenge – against you as much as me.”

Ursula frowned and then, in a habit of days long passed, flipped her hair and shook her head.  “I’m not helping.”

“But he hates you!”

“Lots of people hate me.  Sometimes I’ve even thought you did.  But he can’t touch me in here, and I have no plans to leave.  In any case, I quite fancy the idea of him killing you.  Poetic justice, you might say.”

“Ossic’s work isn’t exactly what I would call poetry.”

Ursula shrugged.  “It was creative, though, you have to admit that.  Very clever.”

“If you like that sort of thing.”

Ursula grinned at him – or at least, showed her teeth.  “Well, I’m not helping you.  And you can’t have Jane.”

“I just want to borrow her.  What do you think, Jane?” he turned to the girl, who now must have been about fourteen years old, and looked surprisingly healthy.  “A little break, get to see some of the world?”

“She can’t go without my permission, and I’m not giving it.”

“It does sound interesting,” Jane said hesitantly, “but there would have to be a time limit, wouldn’t there?  And an equal trade?”

“I see you’ve been training her,” the man told Ursula wryly, looking Jane over thoughtfully.  “An equal trade?  What do you think, Ursula?  What is worth three weeks deprived of Jane worth to you?”

“Come down here, and I’ll whisper it to you.”

“Very funny.”  He snorted.  “It would be valuable to her education,” he offered.  “Another point of view, if you will.”

“You fool – you can’t mean that you would teach her during that time?  Teach her the kind of things I want her to know?”

“The kind of thing that would be useful.”


“Haven’t you conditioned her against that kind of thing, yet?”

Ursula beckoned Jane close and spoke softly to her for several minutes before turning and looking up at him.  “Do you agree to return her within fifteen days?”

“Fifteen!  Not twenty-one?”

“I prefer fifteen.  Do you agree?”

He barely hesitated: “I agree.”  The binding of the agreement settled about his temples loosely but weightily and he saw Ursula flinch slightly under the same.  “Well,” he said when the agreement was in line, “not to stay and chat.  Come along, Jane.  You won’t need anything.”

“I don’t have anything,” she informed him tartly, and swam up far enough that he could grasp her hand and pull her up.

“Keep her safe and remember – fifteen days,” Ursula reminded him one last time.  He nodded and disappeared back outside, Jane following closely.

It was close, but fifteen days later, Jane arrived back at the Forgotten Place.  She looked dubiously at it and then back at her companion.  “I don’t want to go in,” she told him.

“I must honor the agreement; you know that.”

She nodded.  “Yes, I do know.  But I don’t like it.  Couldn’t you just pull me out again after I go in?”

“You have been there more than twenty-four hours.  There’s nothing I can do . . .” he trailed off thoughtfully.  “Although . . . no.  Go back for now.  But I’ll come back to visit, all right?  I promise.”

“All right,” Jane whispered, then shot him a sharp look.  “I’ll hold you to that.  And no returning in fifty years.  Visit soon.”

“When I can.  There are many things that need doing.”

“I’m sure there are.”  Jane sighed and, without a backward glance, dove down into the Forgotten Place.

The man watched her go and returned to the town.  He quite liked the town.  If ever he were to settle down, this would be a nice place.  Maybe some day, when he was too old to do anything but sit and write his memoirs . . . but no; he would never live that long.  Ossic had been taken care of, but there were always plenty more who would kill him as soon as he slipped up, if not before.  He couldn’t afford to settle down – or, at least, not for more than a week or two before his death.  Still.

He stayed near Mossag, though, and trained little Sally when he could, and occasionally visited Jane who became more and less like Ursula the longer she stayed.  And often as he visited, he couldn’t help notice one very important fact: the sharks were around more and more these days, so much so that it became very dangerous for him to swim down to the Forgotten Place.

And then he had an idea – and what an idea it was.  ‘Balance of power,’ Ursula had said.  She had more power than anyone there, but by a balance of numbers . . .

And that was how he found himself treading water next to the Forgotten Place, dangling a raw steak over the hole, baiting shark after shark to dive in until there were none left above (except one rather useful one who seemed oddly intelligent and had wisely fled to less dangerous parts).  Then he waited twenty four hours and returned to stick his head into the cavern.

“Hello, Ursula,” he said.

“You!” she shrieked at him, and as she did, the sharks surrounding her, carefully kept at bay, began thrashing and upsetting their invisible bonds.  “You distracted me!” she gasped in horror.  “You’ve given control to the sharks – aah!” one of them snapped at her.

“Please,” Jane, who was by this time nineteen, begged.  “Please, Ursula, they’ll kill us!  We need to leave!  You’re permission – we can get out and they all the sharks will be stuck down here!”

“I can’t leave; you know that!”

“Yes you can – please!”

“I can help,” he offered, “and give you twenty-four hours head start to free Jane.”

Ursula glared at him.  “Did you plan this?  The two of you?”

“No,” he answered frankly.  “Just me.  But I think it was a rather good idea.”

“I –” but there was no time for Ursula to think it over or spin it her way.  “Twenty-four hours!  Now move, girl!”

“Was that wise?” Jane asked afterwards, when they had swum to shore.  “Letting her go free like that?  Won’t she just cause trouble again—and try to get back at you?”

“Sure,” he agreed; “along with everyone else.  But she’s weak for now and . . . well, what’s one more enemy?  It’ll be all right.”

“Oh.”  Then, “And what of me?”

“What do you want?”

“I want to stay with you.  I could be useful – Ursula really did teach me all those years; I know lots.”

“I already have an apprentice.”


“Don’t you have a home?  And original home?”

Jane shook her head.  “I’m an orphan – or so I’ve been told.  Anyway, Ursula took me out of my time; I can’t go back.”

He looked carefully at her.

“I could help with Ursula,” Jane offered, desperately.

“No.  Not if she was like a mother to you.  But we’ll see.”

“Is that a ‘yes’?”

“We’ll see.  That is all.”

The important thing was, to never get too grounded.  A young apprentice, an older hang-along?  Those two would do well together, learning from each other.  And Ursula was loose again and so many others.  When evening came and his coat had dried enough, he took it up again and moved on, carefully lighting a fire too close to the carpet before he closed the door behind him.