Fantasy Horror

Imagination Thief

By Daniel Ausema
Oct 9, 2020 · 2,827 words · 11 minutes

Midnight. We were on the way back from Piazza San Marco. As we zig zagged through the endless maze of bridges that is Venice, I looked across and everything lined up. The moon was aligned right at the centre of the canal. Just as I pressed the shutter, a speedboat buzzed down the lane. I hesitated for a moment before pushing down on the button.

Photo by Leonardo Yip via Unsplash.

From the author: What if a vampire does not drink the blood, but their imaginations? And how might a corrupt ruler make use of such a creature, once discovered?

Lair climbed along the face of the wall. A dark shadow, he told himself. A spider. But he could picture himself as nothing besides a person in silly dark clothing hurrying before the mortar of the wall began to burn his palms. The wall itself was easy to traverse, made of a thousand years of dune reeds, torn up by their roots and gathered together. But it was the glue that bound it all that was the city center’s real protection. Already his fingers tingled with the first hints of pain.

He couldn’t believe he was stooping to such skulking, but prey had become scarce. The wind picked up sand and tossed it at his back, as if the darkness itself wasn’t enough of an insult. His arms ached from the strain of pulling himself along the wall, but finally he reached the point he’d wanted. Beneath him the dune fell away, sloping slightly to the distant sea. But above...that was what mattered.

One glance down set his hands sweating, driving the sting of pain deeper, but as long as he looked up he wasn’t afraid. One benefit, he supposed, of his condition. With his gaze turned away, he couldn’t imagine falling except in the most distant, factual manner of recognizing it as possible. He climbed for the unprotected stretch of wall. Or unguarded by humans anyway--if it took him much longer, the caustic glue would do the guarding just fine.

A shout came over the wall, but it said nothing to Lair. What caused such a shout among the nobility who lived within the wall? He couldn’t really imagine.

At the crest of the wall, the reeds curved into fantastic shapes, twists that he thought should evoke something--wild beasts or distant lands. To him, though, they were simply holds, convenient at times and deceptive at others. Once, he reached a bulge he couldn’t get past and had to descend and try again to the right. But soon he was on top and drifting down into the city center.

The city was not where he wanted to be, not a safe place for his kind. At the sight of all those lights, all those houses where the people were surely watchful, he was tempted to turn around. Sleep for the night and pray that he could find a victim in the daylight. A merchant perhaps. They had tales of distant cities and the wild lands in between. A merchant’s daughter, maybe even more so, with her wild fancies that rose up around the true tales.

But no. Merchants were too wary in these days of war. Too few and too protective, and especially of their daughters. It had to be the rich. The lazy wealthy with their inherited houses here in the center.

Lair entered a house at random. A stairway led him up to what seemed to be bedrooms. The first bed was empty. He eased aside the curtain on the second room and stole to the sleeping form. Heavy breathing easily masked his light footsteps.

It was a man, middle-aged and alone in his bed. What dreams would such a one have? What imaginations? Lair reached out and touched the man’s forehead, and images flew toward him, crashing against his mind.

Shapes rose from uncertain ground, wails and sobs clashed with mad laughter. Words that meant nothing joined with smells that lingered at the edge of memory, as if once he’d known what those scents meant as well.

Lair stumbled away. These were not images to nourish him. Stray figures remained, dancing in his head, but not solid imaginings. Too wild to be the type of story that fed his hunger.

Crawling out, he knocked something over with a crash. The man woke, and Lair fled. Like a shadow, he tried again to picture himself, but no image of a shadow rose in his mind. Shouts followed him as lamps were turned up in nearby bedrooms. He ran through dark streets until the lights and voices were far behind.

Again he chose a house at random. A bedroom opened on the main floor beside the kitchen. A servant, perhaps. The woman sleeping here would have safer imaginations, he hoped. He touched her cheek, and more strange images flooded his mind. Animals known in no mythology ran across shifting grasses. People with heads of cattle chased him, and he--or was he a she?--kept stumbling, tumbling over dry brush that moved into his path.

Dolphins wearing masks that were grotesque imitations of human faces ran on their flippers to intercept him. Her. He knew, in the way people knew things in dreams, that the dolphins believed they could pass as human. The cattle-headed pursuers were more frightening than the dolphins though, and Lair angled to meet the sea animals, the ground changing to a mountain path beneath his feet.

Sometime amid all these images, a voice said, “My dreams...they’re gone.” But Lair couldn’t spare any attention to wonder who had spoken. Landscapes changed and changed again, and the strange scenes held him captive until hands grabbed his shoulders.

City guards stood in the room, and for a brief flash they had bulls’ heads, like in the dream. Then they were normal humans, binding his arms. The woman he’d found sleeping now sat on her bed, pressed against the far wall with her blankets wrapped around her. She seemed equally frightened by him and the guards, but others were in the room to comfort her. Her masters? Or was she a daughter of the house? He had no time to learn as he was pulled away, but he managed to touch some of the hands that grabbed him as he went.

The next hours were full of more visions, but these were not impossible dream images. He was with countless women and men, over and over with no loss of stamina. The most beautiful imaginable. He drank more than any man could possibly drink, carried to extremes of drunkenness without ever a hangover. He hunted wild beasts as fierce as any that roamed the surrounding lands, rode on horses or other mounts across the desert, faster than any horse had ever carried a rider, the hot wind twisting at his hair.

In between these imaginings, he knew that he was brought to a cell, knew that people talked at him, knew that he ate food. But it wasn’t real food he’d hungered for, and the stories he stole from the guards filled his real hunger. Waking stories, safe stories, stolen without their awareness.

Lair surfaced from one wild tale to find a middle-aged man seated on a chair that someone had brought into his cell. The man’s clothes were those of the prefects who ruled the city--fine but not as ostentatious as the clothes of the ceremonial monarch. His lips turned up in a slight smile when he saw that Lair was aware of the cell around him.

“The guards’ chambers have been especially quiet of late.”

Lair didn’t know how to answer. He looked out the barred window set in the door where he sometimes saw guards passing, but no one stood there now.

“They seem unable to tell stories. They don’t understand why, but it makes me wonder.”

Had he stolen the imaginations from so many? No wonder he felt full. And yet...not sated. His eyes fell to the prefect’s hand as he wondered what stories he might take from this man. The prefect pulled his hand back, and Lair looked back to his face.

“Dreams too. Those you touched while they slept no longer have dreams, though unlike the others they seem able to imagine stories when awake.”

Dreams. Of course. Lair felt foolish not to have put that together earlier. In the marketplace he’d always stolen the imagination of those who were awake. A sleeping imagination was a far different thing, and apparently dangerous for him, too strange for his anemic imagination.

“So that leaves us with some questions here. What creature are you that can steal something so personal? Or is it some arcane art you learned somewhere?”

What was the point of answering? If he didn’t, guards might rush him, and he could feast on whatever imaginations remained. But answering might keep this prefect here, and unlike the guards, he had not yet been drained. He leaned forward, smiling what he hoped was a pleasant smile, though even so the prefect pulled back from him.

“A creature no different from you, prefect. And no scholar of lost arts either. No sorcerer, no heretic. Just a man.”

“Yet no man I know steals dreams from people’s minds.”

Lair thought of the scholars he’d seen outside the walls and tried to mimic their way of speaking. “Do they not? I think they do, only in lesser degrees. Absorbing the stories of others, consuming them and making them their own.” He swallowed, thinking of what else he’d heard such people say. It was difficult, something that bordered on imagination, but as long as he kept a very specific, concrete memory of a philosopher talking, he could manage. Even the memory, though, was thin and in danger of slipping from his mind, replaced by the dreams of the guards. “Perhaps you have taken the stories of money and success, drawn such dreams away from those outside the gates and used them for yourself. I assure you that many there can no longer imagine wealth. Or even justice.”

The prefect did not answer immediately, and Lair leaned back again, confident he could keep the man long enough to feed on him.

“In a way, perhaps. But still what you do no one else does, not exactly. How did you learn such a thing?”

“Who can say?” He slid himself very slowly forward as he spoke, hoping the prefect would only watch his face. “On the streets outside these walls, so much is possible. Perhaps my childhood dreams were stolen so forcefully by a cruel soldier that I became like this. Perhaps my imagination leached away, like the blood and gold of those who surrounded me.” Only a little further and he could lunge, but he had to be patient. “I just don’t know.”

The prefect ran a hand over his opposite arm. Lair smothered a wince as the movement pulled his target farther away.

“I can leave you your mysteries then, if you insist. But how shall I make use of you?”

“Having trouble imagining how?”

The prefect’s look told him that he hadn’t missed the sarcasm. Instead of answering, though, he simply said, “I’ll find how. Expect to be put in my service shortly.”

Then before Lair could make any attempt at touching him, the prefect stood and stepped away. Lair stood, pulled at the chains which bound him loosely to his bed, but the guards opened the door and ushered his visitor out.

Through the rest of the day, others visited to stare at the curiosity, though Lair had to guess that the prefect cursed how widely the stories were spreading. Lair couldn’t be much of a secret weapon for any political maneuverings if everyone knew of him. Finally the visitors stopped late at night, and Lair looked out the high window at the starry sky.

If I had a true imagination, he thought, I’d imagine myself out of this cell. I’d soar away into the night. But the thoughts were only clinical, distant, with no true power. No amount of thinking conjured wings or dissolved the bars on the window.

The prefect returned the next day. Lair’s hunger was growing, and he felt the part of his brain that fed on stories growl at the sight of the undrained man. But he kept well away from Lair as two guards, each with long gloves that reached well into their sleeves, unhooked his chains from the bed and led him from the room.

“All I need of you this morning,” the prefect said as they walked through the interconnected houses toward the wall, “is to drink an imagination. Satisfy your thirst or hunger or whatever it is and prove your worth to me, and I may find continued use for you in the future. Perhaps even a room like this one for yourself someday.”

With that, the guards pulled back a bolt on the outside of a double door and brought him inside. A wide window looked out over the wall and to the towering dunes beyond. The grass of the wall gleamed, the early sun reflecting off the caustic material they used to seal it. Lair tried to remember what it had been like to climb on that surface, but the image no longer came to his mind. All he could see were the bawdy stories of the guards.

Within the room was a woman. At first glance she looked to be elderly, but a second look made him put her age younger, likely near her prime. Her clothes were fine but looked old and well worn, as did the furnishings of the room itself.

“Hello, aunt,” said the prefect, to which she answered, “Hello, cousin.”

This was a strange enough exchange that Lair looked at her more closely. There was a slight resemblance to the prefect in her face, especially her nose. They appeared to be more or less the same age, so he guessed she might be technically his aunt, but so close in age that they’d grown up more as cousins. He tried to think what that might mean politically, but he had no idea.

“I would like you to meet this intriguing man. Please,” he turned to Lair and gestured for the guards to push him forward, “take the lady’s hand.”

Lair didn’t especially want to help the prefect, but here was an easy victim, her imagination ripe. And he was hungry. He reached out and touched her hand eagerly.

The images came too fast to understand, images of the city, of the rulers including her nephew, of daggers and poisons and countless plots. He saw savage blond-haired apes and coiling serpents and arcane sorcerers working dark magics. He saw gleaming heroes coming to the rescue, idealistic youths fighting for justice, street-toughened children invading the dark hallways of the city center. Foreign armies. Wild beasts. Flood and fire. And every image ended with the woman before him ruling over the inner city and the run-down streets beyond the walls, even over the caravan lines that converged here from across the desert.

Lair looked at the woman’s face as the images came. He could always see the moment when his victims realized that their imagination was gone. A flash of uncertainty crossed their eyes, a strange dropping of their cheeks. But there was no such sign from the woman. Her eyes remained as bright and imagination-filled as ever. He gripped tighter, and the images continued, but it didn’t drain her dry.

He snatched his hand back. What was this woman? What bottomless imagination did she have? If he could just find a way to keep returning to her, to quench his hunger daily...

Lair turned to the prefect. “It is done,” he said, hoping the prefect would believe him.

He smiled a cold smile. “Excellent. Enjoy your pleasant lodging, aunt.”

She said nothing, but Lair caught her eyes as he left and was shocked with more visions, coming without even touch. He had never known how to imagine his own stories in any detail, never more than a vague shape that never gained resonance. Yet for a moment he had to wonder if this was just that despite the intricate details and the power with which they flooded him, simply his own imagination. He saw himself ruling the city at this woman’s side. He saw himself each day consuming dreams and imaginings without having to seek out new victims, simply by touching this woman’s skin as she guided the city to great glory. Was it a vision of justice? Of peace and prosperity even for those beyond the walls? He couldn’t tell, and in truth it didn’t seem important.

The guards led him away, and the prefect promised him something about finer accommodations if he continued to prove useful, but Lair hardly listened. He knew as they descended back to his dark cell that he would do whatever was necessary to help the woman overthrow this prefect and any others who stood in her way.

The door shut, and Lair closed his eyes to imagine what he could do to accomplish her vision. The images built themselves in his mind.


This story originally appeared in Hungur Magazine.

Daniel Ausema

Daniel Ausema writes lyrical tales of other worlds, stories of strangeness and wonder.