Transcript – Return to Sender

[The Pensive Tower theme plays]

Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Twenty Three: Return to Sender

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Seera T’lan. Raekn, aged forty-three, identified as female. Memory regards an unsettling experience beneath the Lakeside Ward of Elalton City and was donated on the thirtieth of the month of Stillsky in the year 718. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the twenty-sixth of Highmoon, 730.

We Begin.

It’s tough being a postal officer sometimes, even on the best of days. When the sun’s shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky, you’re still waking up at the crack of dawn to do a job that everyone needs but no one appreciates.

But the pay is decent and, as long as you don’t drag your feet, you can usually get your round done quickly enough leaving you a good chunk of your day.

I’d been working in Lakeside for… I’d say about eleven months by the time all this happened, walking the route between Merritt’s Ford and the Farrow Field Estate. It’s a nice area, not exactly what you might call fancy but the people are usually friendly.

I’ve looked back over the day that this all happened so many times, trying to remember if there’d been some sign or warning of it. Something someone said, maybe a simple greeting said differently than usual. Or else, maybe I’d seen something that, at the time I’d dismissed but was actually a warning. Though, I don’t know what there could have been that might have been considered a warning.

I’ve been a devout believer in the Three all my life. I go to the trokosh three times a week, say my prayers and listen to the sermons given by Witness Calleon. I was raised in the faith and I heard all the old stories, so I know that, in the ancient days, the Chained Goddess would speak to those in need and would give advice and warning to those who needed it.

Granted she hasn’t been very vocal in recent years, you don’t hear many people claiming to have heard her – certainly no one you’d be comfortable walking on the same side of the street as – but I’d like to think she’s still out there, giving help to those in need, warning folk of danger. But maybe that’s just a hopeful delusion. Maybe the coming of the Kurillion is upon us…

Sorry. I suppose none of that is particularly relevant, I guess. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that there was no warning. At least, none that I could see. Or, if I did see it, I don’t remember it.

It just happened. Out of nowhere. For no reason at all. And no one believes me. I suppose I can’t blame them. No one but me saw it, and I haven’t been able to find it since and, as far as I can tell, no one else knows about it.

Apart from whoever it was who wrote that letter.

That, I suppose, should have been my first warning that something was off. When I was packing my bags for that day’s route and I saw an address I had never seen before; 321 Nasilian Way. Now, like I said, I had been working in that area of Lakeside for nearly a year by that point, and thought I’d gotten a pretty good idea of where everything was. I won’t pretend I knew the name of every side-street and alley in the place by heart, but I’d remember it if I heard it or read it.

And I was sure I’d never been to any road called Nasilian Way. And for it to have a number three hundred and twenty-one, it must mean it was a decent sized street. If it was on my route, surely I’d have been there before. But the postage code was definitely my area.

At the time, I put it down to a clerical error. Whoever had sent the letter had written the address wrong or something and I’d gotten the letter intended for someone else’s route by mistake. So I tucked it away in my bag and gave no more thought to it. The way the system works is, if you are unable to deliver a letter or package on your route, you bring it back to the office where you can register it and give the reason why the delivery was failed.

So, I thought, I’ll bring it back when I finish my route, log the failed delivery due to the address not being on my route, and it would then be sorted out and I would get on with my day. Easy and simple.

Or… so I thought.

I was making my way along the waterfront. That’s one of my favourite parts of the route, it’s nice and quiet, especially at that time of the morning. Most people are only just waking up and I can just stroll along with just the sound of the tide. On a clear morning, I can even see this place in the distance.

So, I’m about a third of the way done of my route by this time and I know now’s when I turn up Elview Boulevard. You’ll know it, it’s one of the city’s main roads, most of the ground floor buildings are stores and shopfronts but they each have two or three residential apartments on top.

But, as I’m turning, I catch sight of the street sign. And then I did a double take. It did not read Elview Boulevard. Which was ridiculous, I knew where I was and this was definitely Elview Boulevard. But the sign said Nasilian Way.

I hadn’t taken a wrong turn. I’d followed the same route I’d been walking for months. I hadn’t gone a different way or walked any longer than normal. I knew exactly where I was. That sign should have read Elview Boulevard!

And yet, it didn’t.

I must have been staring at that sign for a good few minutes, trying to figure out just what was going on, when I remembered the letter I’d found in my bags that morning. I went digging around until I found it.

The road name was the same.

I looked around. The street was quiet, very quiet, there was no sign of anyone, which was odd for what was one of the city’s main streets, even if it wasn’t Elview.

But I thought if this was Nasilian Way, I might as well deliver the letter while I was here and then go back to trying to figure things out.

So, I began walking down the road claiming to be Nasilian Way, glancing at the house numbers as I went past. The first I saw was number three hundred and ninety-nine, the next was three ninety-seven, so at least I’m looking at the right side of the road and I shouldn’t have far to walk.

Two things occurred to me as I made my way down the street. The first was how similar all the houses were. They were all almost identical. Tall but narrow buildings with three identical windows facing the street above a narrow wooden door.

The second was how quiet the street was. I know I said before how few people I’d seen but I really started noticing then that it wasn’t just that the street was quiet, there was nobody out. None at all. Not a single person but also no animals. That time of the morning, there are usually still foxes, rats and raccoons out and about, with rock doves coming to peck at the garbage bins. But there was not a single sign of life.

I kept going. I think I somehow managed to rationalise it in my head that it was still very early. And I didn’t normally go up this street, maybe the folks living here had jobs that started later in the day. And maybe they kept their bins secured which would mean less scavengers.

I know, looking back, there are a few holes in that logic, but you don’t realise it at the time. You don’t see how strange a situation is until you look back on it.

Even if I had been suspicious, I would have forgotten about it when I arrived at three hundred twenty-one. Or, rather, where it should have been.

There was no number three hundred and twenty-one. The line of houses went from three hundred and twenty-three on the right side, to three hundred and nineteen on the left. Between the two was an alleyway that led behind the row of buildings, though it looked more like a narrow tunnel than an alleyway.

Looking at it, I remember having the feeling of being pulled into it. Not like it was dragging me in, more like a gentle tug in that direction.

I assumed that number three hundred twenty-one was through there. You might wonder why, at this point, I didn’t just refuse to carry on. Why didn’t I just turn around and go back?

But, honestly, this wasn’t the strangest road layout I’d ever come across. I’ve actually come across a few back roads and street bottoms where the houses weren’t even numbered in order. So if this one building was round the back, it wasn’t that strange, at least not to me.

So, that’s why I didn’t even hesitate before heading straight into the alley.

It was very dark in there. I didn’t think much of it at first, figuring I’d come out the other end in just a moment. So, I kept going, and going, and going. And the passageway got darker, and darker, until finally I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.

I’d been walking for well over a minute when I stopped. And I realised that the echoes of my footsteps on the stone floor had gotten gradually louder the further along the alley I went.

I reached out to touch the brick wall and my hand passed through empty air.

That was enough to have me reaching into my back pouch.

All mail officers are issued a green glass candle as part of our equipment, for use in emergency situations.

I didn’t yet know if this was, strictly speaking, an emergency. But, it was enough to make it nervous. So, I pulled out the narrow rod of twisted glass and lit it, blinking against the sudden flare.

The field of light cast by the candle wasn’t particularly wide, but it was wide enough to see that I wasn’t in the passageway anymore.

From what I could tell, I was in some sort of cave. The ceiling was too far away to make out by the light of the candle.

Now, suffice to say, I was a little confused by this. To my knowledge, there were no caves or caverns around Elalton, certainly not inside the city. There are the sewers, obviously, but nothing like what I was seeing.

I think that was the point I decided that this was too much and I was just going to turn around and go back. Never mind the letter and the road, I was getting out of there and getting back to my usual route.

So, I turned around. And I froze. Behind me was a ledge. An overhang overlooking what appeared to be a deep cavern. There was no sign of the passageway I’d come in by. No sign of anything at all. Just… blank stone.

I was getting scared now. I didn’t know what was happening or why. I started looking around, desperately searching for something, anything, that might point to a way out of there.

My eyes were getting accustomed to the gloom by now and I saw what looked like another faint light in the distance, though this one was a pale blueish-white light rather than the green hue of my candle.

It wasn’t much, and obviously normally I wouldn’t go chasing after strange lights but it was all I had to go on.

So I started walking.

I went carefully, making sure I could see what was in front of me at all times. The sight of that crevasse right behind me had me shaken and I didn’t want to risk falling into a similar drop. So I went, step by step, glancing up only occasionally to make sure I was still heading towards the light.

I was so focussed on watching where I was putting my feet that I almost didn’t notice when I came upon the first house.

At first I thought I’d finally reached the edge of the cavern, but then I saw there was more space behind it so then I got thinking maybe it was a boulder, or a large stalagmite.

But then, as I got a bit closer, I saw it for what it was. A large, circular, stone building.

The shock of seeing a house, an actual house, down there was enough to make me momentarily forget how freaked out I was. I approached the house, thinking to get a closer look. Maybe there’d be someone I could ask for help, though the Three only know the kind of people who would build their home in an enormous cave.

I cautiously walked around the building until I found a doorway. There wasn’t an actual door so I gingerly poked my head in, holding up my candle to illuminate whatever was inside.

As it turned out, there wasn’t anything inside. The building was completely bare. No people, no furniture, no anything. Which, to be honest, was a bit of a relief.

But it did give me the chance to examine the building itself more closely. I’d thought, at first, that it was a house much like any other I’d seen in my life, mortared brick and stone. But now I saw that the building was one solid construct. Nothing had been put together or fit, it was just one solid piece.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Hollowing out a giant rock seemed to me a strange way to make a house. But before I could look any further, I noticed a flickering light near to what I think was the fireplace.

For an instant, I thought they were the cinders of a fire that had been hurriedly put out and that maybe I wasn’t alone after all. That there was someone else in that house but they’d taken fright of me and were now hiding.

But then I saw that the light was not the embers of an extinguished hearth fire, for one thing the light was not coming from the fireplace but a few feet away from it. In the middle of the air.

It was the same as the light I’d seen in the distance, that same pale blue, so pale it was almost white. It was small and very faint, so faint that it almost wasn’t there at all… but there could be no denying what I was seeing.

It didn’t do anything, not at first. It just hovered there, maybe a foot off the floor, like a candle flame but without a candle.

I just stood there, staring at it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Needless to say, I’d never seen anything like that before in my life. I was so transfixed by it that I almost dropped my candle, though thank the Three that I didn’t. If it had smashed, I don’t know what I would have done, I’d have been left alone in the dark with that strange light.

I don’t know how long I stood there staring at that… whatever it was, but I finally pulled myself together and started backing away.

I didn’t know if this was a hallucination or just something that happens in underground caves but I decided I didn’t want anything to do with it. I had enough to deal with trying to find a way out of that place.

As I moved back towards the door, the little white light moved too. Towards me, as if to follow after me.

I froze. As I stopped moving, so too did the light. I stood there staring at it, hardly daring to breathe.

I took another experimental step backwards.

The light moved again.

Looking back, I might have said that its movements seemed hesitant, like it was unsure whether or not it should be following.

There and then, though, this was enough to drive me into a real panic. I turned and fled. I only looked back when I’d left the house behind me.

As far as I could tell, the light hadn’t followed, so I came to a stop and leaned against a stone wall, breathing hard. That’s when I realised I’d come upon another of those stone houses. Then I looked about, the light of my glass candle revealing my surroundings, and I realised I’d not just found another one, I was in the middle of what seemed to be a whole village’s worth of those houses.

As far as I could tell, they were all the same as the first one I’d found. Solid stone structures, clearly not built or crafted. Like they’d been conjured whole and fully made out of nothing.

The wall I was leaning against, as it turned out, was not just a simple wall. As I looked up at it, I saw the outline of a person.

I nearly had a heart attack at first, my imagination conjuring stone giants looming down on me from out of the darkness. But no, it turned out to be a carving, like one of those reliefs they have in the trinlian.

I thought at first it was something exactly like that, because this carving showed three figures so, naturally, I thought it was showing the three gods. The first one I looked at didn’t have a face so, I assumed this is a depiction of the Faceless One, though they’re wearing some very weird clothes, not like anything I’ve seen before.

But the Faceless One must be honoured so I knelt, said a quick prayer and stood up again. And that’s when I properly looked at the other two figures.

If this had been a picture of the Three, then the other two would have been the Horned God and the Chained Goddess. And, one did look like it had had horns at one point, and the middle figure did look like it was wrapped in chains. But neither of them had faces either.

Now, it could have been vandalism. Kids today have no respect and I’ve seen holy and sacred places messed up by no good brats who think it’s funny to do things like that. But, I don’t think this was that. It didn’t look like the faces had been chiselled off or anything, the faces were smooth, like they’d always been like that.

The only thing that I could tell about them was that they were both wearing the same weird clothes as the figure I’d taken for the Faceless One. They looked almost like dresses but they were tied at the waist with thick belts and their necks were hung with lots of necklaces, each one incredibly detailed, as were all their other features. The more I looked at them, the more I realised that the blank faces wasn’t any kind of vandalism. They’d been left blank on purpose. And, for some reason, that fact terrified me.

I turned away from the carving. I wanted to be out of there, right that minute. I quickly spotted the pale light I’d been heading for before and began following it again, praying that it would indeed be a way out.

I passed more of those solid-stone houses. I saw that they weren’t actually all the same, as I’d first thought. There were subtle differences. Most would probably dismiss them, but you learn a little something of architecture when you spend your days visiting house after house. You get a pretty good idea of which ones are the houses of the rich, which belong to the poor, the places that are homes and which are just buildings.

For example, I passed one that most might just call a big house, but I could tell just by looking at it that that hadn’t been a place where anyone had lived. I couldn’t tell you what it was, I’m no architect or archaeologist, but I know a home when I see one. It was wide and round with no upper levels.

I did think about looking in but decided against it.

No sense disturbing anything that might be hiding down here, I just wanted to get out.

The road I was following, if you could call it a road, ran up out of the village… or town or whatever it was. Soon there was nothing around me but barren stone.

My candle began flickering. I gulped. That meant it had only an hour’s worth of light left. I quickened my pace. My legs don’t care for running normally, I can walk all day but you try getting me to go for a jog and I’ll be having none of it. But when I saw that flickering, any thought of discomfort went right out the window.

It was a bit of a climb but I finally arrived at the place where I’d seen the light.

When I saw what was up there I stopped dead.

I suppose I’d been hoping for a tunnel or a doorway, something leading up to the surface. But no. I should have realised when I’d seen the glowing thing back in the stone village. It had been the same colour, the same glow. But I had ignored that, too focussed on the fact that it might have been a way out.

There were hundreds of them. Hundreds of small glowing, shapeless things, flitting and flickering around.

I thought for a moment that they wouldn’t have noticed me. But the moment I took a slow step backwards, they surged towards me and I was suddenly surrounded by softly glowing light.

I stood dead still. I thought this must be it. I didn’t know how or why they would, but I was sure that these things were going to kill me.

I could only watch as some of these… these things slowly rose into the air, like pollen being carried on the wind.

I had no idea what was about to happen so I prepared for the worst. But they didn’t swarm me or… or anything bad. They just hung there like little candles.

Then, as I watched, they started moving. Jerkily at first but then gradually their movements became smoother.

And they started forming shapes in the air, pictures I think. But I couldn’t tell you what they were. It all just looked like lines and squiggles to me.

What I did understand was that they were trying to speak to me.

So I told them, I said, “I can’t understand you!”

They stopped moving for a minute and just hovered there. Then one of them came up to me. Don’t ask me how I know, but I was sure that this one was the same one I had seen earlier, the one that had tried to approach to me.

It now did the same thing again, just as hesitant as the first time. This time, though, I didn’t back away. I mean, I couldn’t have even if I wanted to. So, soon it was right in front of me, hovering barely a foot away from my nose.

I’d expected it to be hot but instead, it was pleasantly cool. But I had barely a second to realise this before my head was suddenly filled with voices. They were all calling to me, all saying similar things. Stuff along the lines of; “help us!”, “remember us!”, “we are here!”, “tell them!”

It was all very overwhelming. I mean, imagine hundreds of voices all shouting at you at the same time.

I couldn’t take it. I think I must have passed out from it all because the next thing I knew, I was waking up.

I wasn’t in that cavern anymore. I was lying on the ground, on the sidewalk. It was late in the evening. A crowd of people had gathered around me, all asking if I was alright.

I didn’t know how to answer them.

I couldn’t find Nasilian Way again. And I looked hard for it. I asked my superiors about it and they gave me a weird look. There was no road called Nasilian Way, and it certainly was not one of the main roads in Lakeside.

I told a couple of my coworkers what had happened. They didn’t believe me but said it was a good story, told me I should come here and tell you, that maybe you’d understand what had happened. So, here I am.

Final notes; well, quite an interesting experience, I’m sure. Though, naturally, none of it can be confirmed. Ms T’lan was quite correct, there is no Nasilian Way. The name doesn’t appear on any roadmap of the Lakeside Ward, or of anywhere in Elalton.

I even went back to the original roadmaps, or at least the earliest ones we have on record. As far as I could tell, no road with that name has ever existed anywhere in this city.

However, Ms T’Lan’s story cannot be wholly discounted. Along with her memory, she also left the letter that she found in her bag and it is indeed addressed to this fictional road. The letter inside is written in a strange language, it appears to be some form of hieroglyphs, but no one has had any luck identifying what language it even is, never mind whether it can be translated. The return address simply reads “Find Us.”

Inscription Complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

Special thanks to Catherine Cadogan.

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]