Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Invisible Kingdom

Here's a creepy little piece I wrote about a year ago. It was right after I started reading White Wolf's Mage: the Awakening, and I'm sure those of you who are familiar with that game will note the similarities. That's part of why I'm comfortable posting it here, even though doing so would make it harder to ever get this story published: I'm not sure I want this story published. It's good, it's creepy, it's evocative, and it showcases my strengths, but I think it's a little too derivative for me to want to make money from it.

Maybe I'm being picky, but that's where I stand right now.

* * *

The Invisible Kingdom
By Mark Simmons

“Master!” the dirty little man shouted, throwing himself on the ground at my feet. “Tell me, please, when will you return to us? When will you take up the Unseen Crown and the Lucent Blade? When will you return in triumph to the Invisible Kingdom?”

I swear, I could hear the capital letters.

I said the only reasonable thing I could say, under the circumstances, which was “What?”

“The Invisible Kingdom,” the man replied patiently. “The Mists of the Chasm have clouded your thoughts, but you are the Uncrowned King of the Invisible Kingdom, Bearer of the Lucent Blade, Magister of the Verdant Flame!”

During this little speech, I got a good luck at the guy. He was dirty, but more in a ‘too cool for hygiene’ way than in a ‘raving lunatic’ way. You know what I mean: a little ripe, a little dusty, stained clothing, eyeglasses held together with tape. He was little, too, skinny and only about five feet tall. His eyes... I wouldn’t have been able to describe them to you then, though by now I’m used to the look. There was something different about his eyes, something that didn’t match the rest of him. They were sharp and clear, but also distant, unworldly, or maybe otherworldly. He was sad, hopeful, and intense, but he didn’t look crazy.

“I’m sorry,” I said, pushing past him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He called something after me, something about the Prince of Doors and the Pact of the Silent Falls, but I was already thinking about other things.

Seriously, how long could I be expected to dwell on the ranting of one obviously crazy bum who had accosted me on the street? It was an isolated incident, a random occurrence; it could have happened to anyone, and it probably wasn’t going to happen to me again, right? I’m an ordinary guy. I have an ordinary life. I work at the Barnes and Nobles, I like Asian food and books and football, and I once tried pot in college. I have friends who care about me, and a girlfriend who loves me. My life doesn’t just turn itself upside down like this, for no good reason.

Boy, was I wrong.

It happened again the next day. I was on the train, and the guy next to me, a respectable-looking, balding, blue-suited businessman with a bit of a pot belly to him, put down his pen and the newspaper – he had been playing Sudoku – looked at me, and said “Good morning, my Lord.”

I popped one of my headphones out of my ear and turned to face him. “Excuse me?”

“I couldn’t help but notice you, Master. Your radiance fills the compartment. You are the as-yet Uncrowned King, Guardian of the Ineffable Gate, Lord of the Invisible Kingdom.” He inclined his head, a jaunty little half-bow, but his eyes were serious and hopeful. “You know, Master, if I may be so bold as to advise one such as yourself, this might be a good year to claim your throne, so to speak. Make the Unseen Seen, the Invisible Visible, open the Gates, Reveal the Secret Fire, take up your Crown and your Blade, return in triumph to the Invisible Kingdom, and so on.” He leaned in close and winked at me. “We have seen certain signs, in the Shining Mirror and the Pool of Mists. This will be a very good year.”

I stared at him in abject shock for a long moment. “Who are you people?” I finally sputtered. “What the hell are you going on about?”

“Ah,” the guy said sadly, “the Chasm. I should have known. I will do my best to explain, Master. We are your humble servants, the surviving Exiles of the Invisible Kingdom. You are our Master, the Uncrowned King, Bearer of the Lucent Blade, and owner of a great many other titles besides those. We await your glorious return, and strive to hasten it.”

What does someone say to that? Fortunately, I didn’t have to figure it out, because that was when the train stopped. I grabbed my stuff and ran for it. I didn’t look, but I could feel his sad eyes burning holes in my back as I fled.

From there, it got worse. I would run into two or three of these guys every day. The crazy people were everywhere: on the bus, on the train, on the streets, calling my cell phone, coming up to me at work. They came in all shapes and sizes, too, from the little girl who gave me a flower and asked when I was going to “open the Way to the Invisible City and lead the Exiles Home again” while two adults I took to be her parents looked on and beamed to the guy at the Quizno's who gave me my sandwich for free, saying “anything for the Uncrowned King, just open the Gates before my bitch of a landlord raises my rent on me again.” One woman started hitting on me at the local cafĂ©, but it turned out that she was just “aching for the touch of the Master, the One True Lord of the Unnamed Star, if it would not be too presumptuous to beg for such attention,” and so on, and so on, and so on.

Every time it happened, I did the same thing. I watched, and listened, and as soon as I found an opening, I ran for it. I just kept hoping it would stop, and sometimes it would, but only for a little while. The lulls were just teases. After a day or two of peace, it would start up again, worse than before.

My friends started to notice – especially my girlfriend – but that only made things worse. They kept on trying to drag me out of my apartment, get me to go out and do things. But my apartment was safe, and the trouble with going out was that it involved going out, and out was where the crazy people lived.

My friends are persistent, so I kept on going out, and it kept on happening.

It was on one such doomed outing that things finally hit a breaking point. I was out with my girlfriend at Amber India, this nice Indian place in town. Nothing crazy had happened so far, and thanks to that, and a few glasses of wine, I was finally beginning to relax. We were about to leave for the evening, and while I was handling the check, my girlfriend had to run to the bathroom. For the first time in a long time, the crazy people following me around were not the first thing on my mind.

Natalie came back – after longer than I’d expected her to take – with a red splotch on her face and a hurt and confused look in her eyes. I jumped up, put my arms around her, and said “Nat, what’s wrong?”

“This... this bitch hit me!” she said. “I was waiting for the lady’s room, and when the line was down to just she and I, she turned around and said ‘it’s all your fault he won’t return to us. The Invisible Kingdom’s misery is on your head. You’re the one who’s stolen the Master’s heart!’ And then she hit me, just like that, and ran off while I was still stunned.”

I helped her wrap some ice in a napkin. “What did she look like?”

“She was tall and thin, with dark hair frizzy hair pulled back in a big ponytail. She was wearing this black dress, kind of revealing, like she had come here hoping to seduce someone or something. She had this weird look in her eyes, too. I can’t describe it. It’s like she was crazy, but not.”

I went cold, and it wasn’t the ice. “Natalie, take a cab home. Ask the cabbie if he’s heard of the Invisible Kingdom, and if he acts like he knows what he’s talking about, take another cab.”

“Ben, what’s going on?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to stop it.”

“Did you know this woman?”

“No!” I insisted. I had no idea how to explain what was going on without sounding like some kind of paranoid. Natalie is a psychology student, and she’s always diagnosing people with mental disorders. The last thing I need is for her to decide I’m crazy. “I don’t know what’s going on, it’s just... some people, out to harass me. I don’t know why. But you have to go home, Nat, you have to keep safe.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m... I’m going to call the cops,” I lied. I’d tried that already. The police officer I spoke to had listened patiently, then said: “You can’t blame them, really, Master. They just want to go home.” I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it wasn’t going to involve running away.

Once I had gotten rid of Natalie, I stalked through the restaurant, looking for some crazy person. I had mental images of grabbing some guy by the lapels and throwing him up against the wall, not demanding to know what was going on, but instead, making sure he understood that he and his friends were going to leave me alone, and leave my girlfriend out of it, but for the first time in a long time, there weren’t any of them there, just a bunch of diners peering at the angry young man running around the restaurant with murder in his eyes.

When the host asked me to leave, saying I was disturbing the other customers and implying that I was drunk, I left.

I found what I was looking for at my apartment, of all places. To be precise, the first one I had ever met, the small, dirty man, the one who had started this whole thing. He was standing in my living room with pretty much everything I owned in a pile in front of him, and in his hand was a stick, on fire. He held it high over his head, leaving a scorched spot on the ceiling. I was standing by the open door, jacket in one hand, key in the other, with a stupefied expression on my face.

“I understand!” he shouted. “I have found the way. The Mists of the Chasm can only be cleared by fire. Fire, I tell you, the fire of the Verdant Flame! I will burn away the trappings of this world, and free the Uncrowned King to return to the Invisible Kingdom! The Exiles will hail me as their hero, and you, you, Master, you will thank me.” He lifted his torch even higher, and made to throw.

“Stop!” I shouted suddenly. To my surprise, he did. He looked at me expectantly.

“Um...” I stammered. “Don’t you, uh... don’t you understand anything?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you employ the Verdant Flame before the time is right, it will ruin everything!” I was thinking fast, pretty much saying the words as they came into my head. It was complete bullshit, but it seemed to slow him down.

“Master! Have you returned to us? Has the Verdant Flame removed the Mists from before your Imperishable Sight?”

“Only for a time. Listen, I must be... brief. If the Mists of the Chasm are cleared away before it is time, then the Invisible Kingdom will be lost to the Exiles forever. None of you will return home.”

“But, Master, then how-“

“When the time is right, you will know it by the signs. The Shining Mirror and the Pool of Mists speak truly, but they alone are not enough. The... Laughing Stone will throw off its silence, and the sounds of mirth will fill the Hall of Voices once more. The Circle of Trees on the Stargazing Hill, the Oak, the Ash, and the Rowan, will put forth first flowers, and then fruit. The Second Star will rise along with the First, and the Celestial Music will be heard from every shadow in the Forest of Night. The Invisible Kingdom is yet too far from this world for methods as crude as yours to be effective. You must have patience!”

The guy looked at me, stunned, then dropped to his knees, letting the brand fall to the ground. I stamped it out while he groveled. “Yes, Master, of course. It will be as you say. We will await your triumphant return.”

“Now go, before the smoke of the Verdant Brand leaves me and the Mists of the Chasm return.”

“Yes, Master, of course.” He scrambled through the door, then turned in the hallway to look at me one last time. “The Invisible Kingdom yet lives!” he declared in awe, then scurried away.

I sat on my couch with a sigh.

Over the next few days, things got better. The crazy people stopped bothering me, and every time I saw one of them, I just uttered a little more bullshit about Shining this and Invisible that and Unknowable other things, and they left me alone. Natalie eventually forgot about the incident in the restaurant, and never implied that there was anything wrong with me. I mean, my friends thought it was odd that I had started carrying a thesaurus around and flipping through it when there was nothing better to do, looking for new words to use on the crazies, but that was it. My life was finally getting back to normal.

And then, Natalie and I were watching movies in her apartment – mine still reeked of smoke – when she suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, Ben, I’ve been thinking.”

“Oh?” I replied.

“Yes,” she said, “I’ve been thinking, it really is time.”

I felt my heart beat a little faster. “Time for what?”

She touched the side of my face and turned my head, so I could look into her eyes. Her shining, loving, eyes, sad and intense at the same time, and not the least bit crazy. She kissed me, and then said, “It’s time for you to take up your Crown, Ben, and return to the Invisible Kingdom. It’s time to go home.”

I screamed, and jumped up and threw her out. I’m lucky she was in sweat pants, because she doesn’t have the key. The banging on the door is getting louder now, and I don’t know what to do. They’re shouting things through the door, saying that the signs are all assembled, that all the bullshit I said in my apartment has come true. The door isn’t going to last much longer.

They’re all here, and I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know what to do.

* * *

Now, I'm not terribly likely to change my stories left and right based on what my readers say, but that doesn't mean your comments aren't welcome. It's not that I don't want input, it's more that I like to think that what I'm posting is finished already. So basically, say whatever you want and rest assured that it won't upset me, but I make no promises about following your advice.

That being said, what do you think?

2 comments:

Alex said...

Just curious, how does one 'get a good luck' at someone?

lol, just kidding. This is solid man. Publish it! send it into a magazine or something, its funny!

Mark said...

You get a good luck at someone buy... uh... taking a lucky penny and chucking it at his head.

Thanks for noting that.

I'm glad you like The Invisible Kingdom. I'm proud of it myself.