No copyright infringement intended etc. I am rewriting this story. A link to its previous incarnation can be found on my profile.
Stone does not warp. Hit hard enough it will crack, maybe shatter. Left alone long enough it turns to sand. Heated long enough it melts and liquefies. But you can never bend it. Until Saulxures, these were plain unbreakable truths for me.
In Saulxures was an old, dead château. 'Château' is a french word which translates as 'castle', but not every château is a castle. The place I visited was basically an enormous and (formerly) beautiful house for rural aristocrats, with a good acre or more of property.
The assignment came in late autumn of 1994. For at least a few weeks Southern Meuse promised a welcome break from work compared to the more populous departments in Lorraine. And then one afternoon this utterly threadbare file dropped through my letterbox. There were no details, no hints of what might be wrong, just a name, the address and some old photos. These pictured the long-neglected ruin, with shots from when it was inhabited and some from after abandonment. Windows were smashed, the roof caved in and ornamental statues missing limbs. Everything was green from moss, and the garden had grown into a miniature jungle.
I phoned the boss immediately, but he knew little more. Geoffrey explained the job only fell on me because someone else backed out at the last minute. Every Watcher but me was busy.
Somebody was expected on site the following day, but I made no move to reschedule. Winter was due, and the long drive from my village to that small town deep in the Vosges would only get more nightmarish. Already a month's worth of rain was falling in one go. On sinuous and variably maintained country roads winding through both forests and mountains visibility became so bad I had tunnel vision at a crawl. The limbs of huge trees above drooped, weighed down by the water like great talons grasping blind at whatever passed under them.
The downpour was such that I didn't properly see the château until standing in front of the gate. Saulxures had ticked all my alarms bells. The town was void of activity, even at the target address. There were no media people, no gendarmes, and no foolhardy urbex amateurs. My 2CV was the only vehicle anywhere near the property. If anything remotely strange had happened, nobody cared. But all this paled into insignificance compared to the abomination before me. For ruined the château was, but nothing like in the pictures. It resembled the aftermath of suddenly creating a vacuum inside a Coca-Cola can, except the implosion left curves like the reflection in a concave mirror rather than jagged crumpled folds. Also there was no overt sign of stress or damage to the building. Its stone blocks, windows and doors all perfectly followed this roiling bubble of chaos as if they had been moved within the very fabric of the ether.
Infinitesimal was the concentration needed of me to levitate my stuff, and the ignoble spectacle disrupted even that. I dropped my jaw, my portable phone, notebook and pencil, and my modified umbrella. This was terrible, because I usually carry all of those items (minus my jaw) telekinetically at eye level. My phone bounced off my shoulder, hit a rock in the gravel and gave a hollow crunch. My pencil lost its nib and my notebook drowned in a puddle. The umbrella, which had no handle settled directly on my head like an enormous canvas bat trying to pass as a Chinese paddy hat.
A human presence appeared just a few metres behind me on the edge of where my incorporeal body extended in its resting state. I turned. An old man stood there, utterly still. He wore heavy cover from the neck down, a coat reaching his ankles and bulging in the middle from many woolly layers, but nothing up top. His bare bald head took the brunt of the downpour in silent defiance.
Neither sound nor movement had announced his arrival, and the nearest vehicle around was still my old deudeuche. The apparition was suspicious, but failed to alarm me. In that moment, my first thoughts were of the impression I was making.
He must have seen me react, but there was evidence to how it affected him. The deep-set lines of his face were as stubbornly fixed as the château's contours wild. Still, my cheeks burned and I hurriedly banished the wreckage of my stuff. Each item would have appeared to fly on its own toward the 2CV, whose boot snapped open like a hungry mouth to swallow them all. I even sent the umbrella away. To keep it would only remind me of another unpleasant image. That ignominy was not worth keeping my pretty curls dry.
The owner, as it transpired he was, observed this display of my powers in silence. Then, very slowly, he held out his hand, although not moving an inch forwards. Perhaps he thought I might shake it without touching. Instead, I moved closer and took his frail sack of digits in mine, physically. The gesture did its work: somehow his petrified features relaxed, a tiny release in the aged cracks and folds.
"Mademoiselle Delamare isn't it?"
"That's right," I said, "And you must be Eugene De Fleurville?"
He didn't acknowledge, merely looked me up and down. Most people do. Maybe this was his first mutant encounter and he wanted to see some clear indication of my genetics. But my coat betrayed nothing of me, not that there was anything special underneath. I look entirely human.
Making eye contact again, he jerked his hairless bonce toward the house. "Can you see it?" he asked. Frowning, I spun round and returned my attention to the disaster zone. Mr. De Fleurville stepped forward just past me and raised an arm. His pointing finger roughly traced the squashed outline of the château. "You do see that?" he said.
Understanding rippled through me as this new problem was highlighted: here was a massive visual disturbance in plain view of anyone who cared to look. Going from the file, at least six days had gone by without visit or intervention by police or any agency but ours, thus there couldn't already be measures in place for a cover-up. It was inconceivable that the desecration, however improbable in form, of the community's cultural heritage should stir up so little. My heart sank. Every step this morning promised more layers of migraine fodder.
I answered De Fleurville with my own question, "If no one else could tell any different, how did you get through to us?"
He recounted to me his ill-fated quest for sympathetic eyes. None of his family and neighbours had detected any change in the property. Effectively all Saulxures was oblivious, stuck on the wrong side of what must be a powerful and selective cloaking system. Even the very person who ultimately contacted our department never perceived the truth on his own retinas.
Continuing the tale, Mr. De Fleurville unlocked a rusty padlock holding shut the old iron gate. We passed through and waded into thick grass and weeds growing messily where a fine gravel path previously bisected the lawn up to the front door. "The mayor came over," he said, "Not the best mind-reader around, I gather, but he saw I was telling no lie..."
In fact the owner was mutant-savvy, and his own neighbourhood's administration was run by a mild empath, but I glossed over this revelation. Straight ahead was another, more commanding source of frustration. With each step, the veil of falling water between us and the building thinned, revealing the next contradiction: totally absent from the mutilated stone structure was any shadow of the neglect and abandonment which had so fully transformed the surrounding vegetation. Not only was the house bent a hundred different ways out of shape, it looked fresh. There wasn't a single crack or break in the facade. The roof was whole and sealed up, and the windows likewise, with curtains visible beyond. All the green moss and rot was completely gone from the statues and reliefs carved against the walls. The mansion could have been built and furnished within the past few months, and rigidly set in this unliveable form as if the architect had always wanted it so.
A small curse escaped my lips in a long breath trying to compose myself. "Nothing can ever surprise me anymore," I muttered. "Sorry, you were saying?"
Mr. De Fleurville demonstrated what I had missed of his story. At the entrance of the house he climbed the steps and approached the wall beside the door. He placed his hand on a particularly conspicuous bulge. "I brought the mayor all the way here," he said, "And made him touch this. He still couldn't feel or see anything wrong."
I nodded. "What about the inside? If this is more than illusion then it should be near impossible to explore no matter what you see or feel."
He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket. "I haven't gone in yet," he said. "Thought it'd be wiser to wait."
The entrance of the château had great wooden double-doors, in perfect condition, finished a deep brown. Their locking mechanism was fine, but the warped hinges only allowed a finger-width gap to open either way. The owner suggested fetching a crowbar, but I bid him to merely stand clear, there was no need for delay. This obstacle called for my talents.
Using the wall around the doorway I anchored my flesh and bone. A little probing revealed which was the least warped door. Unto this one I slowly applied pressure outwards, driving tiny needles of force individually against its very atoms. The mass creaked, splinters flew and the gap grew an inch or two. Still the wood did not yield. Water from my hair trickled down my neck inside my clothes, I shivered and my patience waned. Minute pencils swelled to an irresistible rod of raw kinetic energy and the door burst from its frame. It came apart in the air, and the fragments flew several feet before the grass and bushes swallowed them up.
Following that exertion my knees wobbled, and a knot in my chest tightened just a little. I leaned against the wall panting, waiting for my body to behave.
We were still outside under the rain, and the owner was waiting for me to lead the way inside. His brow was furrowed, watching me catch my breath.
"I'm all right," I told him, "Just a bit trigger-happy," and walked through the opening.
Both of us had brought torches in case there was no light inside. For me, that was the one item that I'd had the good sense to keep in a pocket. We ventured into the darkness and slowly built a jigsaw of the building's mangled innards.
The house was fully furnished as if still actively inhabited: there was an occupied coat rack on the landing, and a low cupboard full of footwear. Pots, pans and decorative plates of every shape and size hung from the walls in the kitchen and living room. All the furniture, chairs dressers and closets were perfectly intact except for following the same unusual curves in space. The warping was such that we were only able to examine the ground floor. In the front hall, the upward stairway spiralled into an impassable bottleneck, the hole barely an inch wide. Even without that obstruction I doubt we could have explored what lay beyond. The house appeared most squashed-in towards the middle of the second floor.
Welcome to me was any pretext to at least truncate the investigation. This assignment stank of an impenetrable basket of mental torment, and I wanted to get away, save my energy for more straightforward and ostensibly productive problem-solving. My report would amount to a strong recommendation that this jinxed relic be carefully catalogued, and promptly demolished.
By another cruel twist of fate, there was a secret room. It was well hidden, in that you could only see it if you knew it existed. Mr. De Fleurville knew.
He didn't know from the beginning. That would be too easy. I had to allow for his age; after all he appeared as ancient and withered as the château, at least in the pictures of its neglect. But he couldn't have timed his recollection worse.
We had examined all of the property that remained accessible, including two small outbuildings, formerly used for stables and storage. On the way back from the depths of the jungle, we passed through the house again. Drenched, shivering, and sorely regretting my umbrella, I was at the peak of my desire to get away. It was then that the owner had his epiphany.
De Fleurville halted dead-centre of the front hall, slowly rotating on the spot as if he'd lost his sense of direction. To my bark for an explanation he responded by mumbling to himself. Fortunately before my restraint frayed too much, the old man found his way, walked across the room to an empty wall, and transformed reality before my eyes. In his outstretched hand a doorknob materialised, and the blank in front of him unfolded, revealing a door, tight shut but relatively straight with its hinges more or less aligned. As I approached, the owner fumbled with his keys, and successfully opened it wide enough for immediate passage.
In the secret room it was pitch black, and I grew sick of dim torches. A little probing ahead revealed a single window, shuttered up and curtains drawn. I ripped the whole frame out in a mighty telekinetic shove. Instantly there was light, there was the pitter-patter of rainfall, and a crash as the ruined window hit the ground outside.
"Oh, my..." the owner gasped as we both gawped at the sight. Here the warping and bending was the most extreme, with nearly every sharp angle and corner rounded so that the walls curved like the inside of a balloon. There was no furniture aside from the curtains, although you could see where a shelf or a desk would have been because of discolorations in the wallpaper. But the most perplexing object lay sprawled on the floor. It was the husk of a body, long ago skeletonised with dried up sinew holding the bones together, in the middle of a chalky white pentagram. Where the heart would be was a gaping hole full of bone shards.
"What's that he's holding?" De Fleurville murmured. He pushed past me into the secret room, shoving me against the doorway. I ignored his sudden aggression, myself also drawn to the corpse's outstretched arm. In a tightly curled grip fixed since the moment of death, was a thin wooden stick.
A small eternity went by, lasting several seconds. The artefact protruding from lifeless fingers entranced its visitors, and nearly succeeded in bending us both completely to its will. But I snapped out free of its influence when a live hand appeared in my shrinking vision.
"Keep back," I said, and uttered a warning not quite consistent with my feelings. "You'll spoil the forensics..."
The owner hovered above the bounty, but insisted "He's holding something," and turned to look me in the eye, "I know what it is."
Stepping closer, I began to apply force on his body, ostensibly to gently nudge him away. But the urge was growing in me to act more decisively, once again succumbing to the spell. We both knew in our every living fibre that only one would claim the prize.
"What are you talking about?" The words dropped from my mouth in spite of me. Meanwhile, I tightened the pressure on my enemy, returning his unblinking stare. He swallowed, but remained silent.
Tiny shreds of doubt clouded my concentration, and I squeezed just a bit too hard and too suddenly the old man's throat. He snarled, realizing my attack, and launched the scuffle.
Eugene De Fleurville wriggled violently on the floor trying to shake me off him. When my grip only tightened in response he lunged at the skeleton, arms shooting out like striking snakes. He fumbled frantically with its hand until the bones and dried flesh shattered. The wooden object fell free, but I changed tactics. Clear of his reach it flew in the air to meet its new mistress. My arm rose to make the final grab.
Within the split second before impact I glimpsed the owner freeze, looking up at me with panic twisting his face. The same confused terror knotted my insides as a sliver of sanity returned to me. But it was too late. Momentum carried the malicious entity to my open palm. Searing heat washed through me like the burning breath of a dragon. A sharp stabbing pain flared behind my eyes, and I tumbled backwards into the abyss.
For too long Auguste De Fleurville had languished inside ill-fitting golems constructed by beings who knew nothing of human anatomy. At last he returned unto traditional mortal shackles, achieving the ultimate triumph. Now, unlike many other pioneers death truly was meaningless to him. And to think immortality had never been his prime ambition. Exultant, he sucked in fresh earthly air, the first gulp of physical life in years — only to find that yet again his luck had run out.
Consciousness flooded with pain he crumbled into a retching, choking heap. He writhed on the floor unable to breathe, every nerve screaming agony from below the shoulders. Nearly a minute passed. All the work of decades flashed incoherent before his eyes. On the edge of suffocation he finally managed to take in oxygen safely. Through a monumental effort of will he lay back and learned, ignoring the continuing overload of sensation from elsewhere. The tenuous lifeline of gas flowing in and out became his sole focus.
Rudimentary diagnostic spells (after a powerful numbing curse) confirmed what a dire host Auguste had hijacked. Occupying a woman was fine, he welcomed the experience. But this body was a veritable travesty. She had one working lung. There were two dislocated vertebrae in her spine. He even felt problems in her face while grimacing. With all the careful filters, that a cripple should be the first to walk into his trap was the height of misfortune.
Hands grabbed the host's arms and Auguste suddenly became aware of the other person present. They were trying to gently raise him up, and spewing a verbal vomit-stream of apologies as if guilty of some unspeakable crime. Although movement was still uncomfortable, he allowed himself to be helped off the ground, gazing at the old man. Once standing face to face the puzzle clicked into place, lines of age and wear fading as he recognized the likeness.
Eugene took a while to run out of steam, mumbling ceaselessly about the wand and the skeleton, asking if Mademoiselle Delamare was all right. Auguste remained utterly silent, letting his emotions run wild. Pure hatred at the living representation of the family's steady decline cascaded from the depths. Reckoning came at a precisely calculated tipping point, just as his younger brother realized that the entity in front of him wasn't listening. A low female voice sang vile words of death. Jade green flashed from the former spirit anchor and the runt dropped.
Later Auguste found a mirror, one just flat enough to serve its intended function. Even with the expectation of horror, the reflection was not charitable on his temper. She could be anywhere between twenty-five and forty. Her skin was sickly pale and there were purple rings under each eye. Half her face didn't work, and the other side was permanently pulled sideways by a scar going down her cheek and behind the jaw. Only one side betrayed the new rising wave of rage, lips twisting open into a lopsided snarl.
"Merde," her stolen voice said. The mirror shattered.
Surviving telepathic attacks is learnable by anyone, but only those innately empowered in that domain can fight back. Thus I was able to observe parts of my own hijacking, hidden from the usurper but unable to act against him. He never considered that the host personality might endure instead of melt down, and so did not guard his thoughts. His experience was carried to me in flashes by strong bursts of emotion, leaving empty blanks while he was calm. I watched helpless his desperate struggle for control upon taking me over, nearly driving us both towards the grave.
That close call with the grim reaper was equally bewildering for me as him. The punctured lung, damaged spine and facial paralysis were ancient injuries suffered from my late teens to early twenties. I had always assumed them to be healed, albeit badly. My body was reasonably functional most of the time, but very susceptible to fatigue and stress. Never had a total reversal back to such a broken state occurred before.
Birds passed through me several dozen feet above. It was still raining, and the cold wet kiss embraced my every pore. Even my boots were soaked through. The wandering spirit was gone. Enough time had elapsed to fade his abuse of me into dull aches and stiffness. The gap in my memory felt like hours, and given the climate that could well be true.
My hand touched rubble as I rolled over trying to get off the ground. Where walls should press on me was void, except for the falling water. Shock was beyond me after the morning's ordeal. My eyes stayed shut on the way up to my knees in order to turn away from the downpour rather than for fear of what would be seen.
Everywhere was debris. Rocks, concrete, tiles, wooden beams, glass shards and mounds of disturbed earth were all that remained of the De Fleurville château.