Alasdair Forsythe Alasdair Forsythe

This is a free sample of Pan's Labyrinth. Copyright © 2024 Alasdair Forsythe.


WHEN Elias was a child, he was friends with a little girl. He didn’t know the little girl’s name for he never thought to ask, presumably because it didn’t matter. They would hold hands, and dance and play, and fly between the clouds, and everything was easy and his heart was full of joy.

Each morning, the sun would rise, and Elias would awaken, all alone. Yet, the little girl would be there, waiting for him again when he went to bed that night.

When Elias went to school, he learned all about the world, and about science and history, and about the difference between what is real and what is not.

As the years crept by, the little girl, whose name he didn’t know, visited less and less. As Elias turned his attention to the real world, the nights grew shorter and shorter until one day, there was just a blank space between when he closed his eyes and when the sun came up the next morning.

The memories of the little girl faded, becoming memories of memories, and finally becoming only the dull ache of an absence where something once was. Without a thought, he would step over it, like stepping over a pothole on a familiar road. Habit having taught him to navigate around it with unconscious skill, such that its existence no longer registered in his mind. Its avoidance, so seamlessly woven into his routine, was such that if asked, he would claim with certainty that there was nothing there at all. Except perhaps a vague sense of having lost something but not being able to say what it was.

Chapter 1: The Enchanted Quill

CLOUDS loomed low, casting a grey pallor over empty streets. Rain tapping against windows and rooftops in a relentless, dreary rhythm — tap, tap, tap — as if to say, “Let me in.” Shadows writhed under the flickering lamplight and shifting clouds, seemingly like the cold laughter of one hiding an awful secret. It was unsettling, making people suspicious of one another and quick to cast blame. A dog barked somewhere far off.

✼ ✼ ✼

Elias sat alone in his grandfather’s study, surrounded by shelves filled with dusty old books. The room’s eerie stillness punctuated by the tap, tap of the rain. Elias’s grandfather had passed away three years prior, but at Elias’s request, his parents had left the room exactly as it was. Elias liked to come here. He would often spend an evening reading his grandfather’s old notes, or leafing through curious books at random, as if he were looking for something important, although he wasn't quite sure what it was he was looking for.

Today, Elias was sitting at the desk by the window, his grandfather’s journal open in front of him. The journal, bound in brown leather, was filled with page after page of stories, fairy tales, diligently collected and written in his grandfather’s hand.

Elias’s grandfather had explained to him how, for centuries, fairy tales were told and retold orally, passing down from parent to child as bedtime stories. Nowadays, with books having replaced this tradition, the final generation that still remembers the old stories was nearing its end. The Grimm brothers captured some of these tales, but many more exist solely in the minds of those who still recall them. Any tale not already captured in writing will vanish along with the last person to remember it. Many already have.

Elias shared his grandfather’s passion for fairy tales. They gave him a sense of something otherworldly. Each tale a spell, promising an escape into the mystery of a magical world.

It seemed to Elias that for thousands of years, perhaps millions, and up until fairly recent history, the world as known was utterly mysterious. The sun would set, and people would look up at the countless twinkling dots of light in the black canvas above their heads… and have absolutely no idea what it was. For people then, there was no telling how far the world extended. For all anyone knew, the world could go on in all directions, forever. For all anyone knew, there really were giants, and dragons, and magic spells.

Elias imagined himself living in those times. Perhaps he would have preferred it. Perhaps it was worth sacrificing knowledge in exchange for mystery. In exchange for believing that maybe somewhere, there really were fairies, and wizards, and grand adventures that meant something.

As his mind wandered, he absentmindedly leafed through the journal. Reaching the last page, Elias looked down and noticed something he’d not noticed before: faint pencil markings on the inside of the back cover, top-left. In his grandfather’s spidery handwriting, it read: ‘All stories are the same story,’ and just above that, ‘The Keepers’.

The words pierced through his meandering thoughts, jolting him into the present moment as he considered the implications of his grandfather’s note. He’d read every tale in this journal a dozen times over. It had not once crossed his mind that they could be connected. And what or who were “The Keepers”? There was a knock at the door, and then again. Knock, knock.

✼ ✼ ✼

The door opened inward.

“There you are,” Mia said, closing the door gently behind her with a click, “I’ve been looking for you.”

Despite the day’s somber mood, Mia’s appearance offered a semblance of comfort. Her blonde hair presented a muted warmth, framing her face like an aura. It wasn’t an actual aura, but the way her hair fell created that impression. She had blue eyes, a round nose, and a slight gap between her front teeth. When she smiled, faint dimples appeared on her cheeks.

Elias and Mia had been friends since the first term of high school, when they were the only two people to show up in costume for ‘World Book Day’: Mia, in a haunting ‘Ophelia’ outfit from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ complete with a flowing white dress, floral crown, and smudged makeup, and Elias, in a detective trench coat. Elias was so embarrassed he thought he might die. Mia, unfazed, had simply laughed off the stares and suggested they stick together that day. They’d been inseparable ever since.

“Did you hear the news?” asked Mia, as she began pacing up and down the room. Elias made a sound that indicated he had.

The news in question concerned a local celebrity, a renowned children’s entertainer and clown, Johnny Waddle, who had been widely beloved and had passed away of natural causes six months prior. In his will, he’d bequeathed to the local children’s hospital a substantial sum of money, along with his trademark pantomime masks. The hospital, as per his request, had the masks on display in the children’s ward for two months before one of the nurses became suspicious, had secretly taken a sample, and had it analyzed. The masks, it turns out, were made from human skin.

A higher than average rate of missing children in the area had been a cause of concern for as long as anyone could remember. Internet conspiracy theorists had already determined that each of the nine masks’ first appearances coincided almost to the day with the one-year anniversary of a child’s disappearance. The eldest being fifteen years old, the youngest, only three.

“How do you think he got away with it for so long?” Mia asked, stopping her pacing to look directly at Elias.

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. With the town reeling from the revelations about Johnny Waddle, the atmosphere was charged with a mix of disbelief and morbid curiosity. It had been the main topic of conversation for days as everyone grappled with the same haunting question: if this could happen right under their noses, what other horrors were lurking in plain sight?

Of everyone Mia knew, Elias was most likely to have an answer. Elias’s knack for knowing things he had no right to know was almost uncanny.

“Evil, by itself, is a disguise,” explained Elias. “The more unbelievable the crime, the less likely people are to believe it,” he continued, adjusting his posture to sit up straighter in the chair. “It follows that it’s to their advantage to be so vile that even if you witnessed it yourself, you wouldn’t believe your own eyes.”

Mia was startled by the unsettling precision of Elias’s theory, explaining the situation with a terrible clarity. She grasped his reasoning intellectually yet emotionally struggled against a rising wave of nausea.

“How could they do that to an innocent child?”

“Surely you can see that the innocence you want to protect is the very same thing they’re looking to steal?” He paused, then added, “That’s why you feel it requires protection.”

“But you can’t take innocence from someone, only destroy it,” argued Mia.

Elias considered this. “Perhaps,” he said slowly, “but it makes much more sense if you assume they can do exactly that.”

Mia was quiet for a while.

“I knew one of those girls that went missing,” she said. “We were nine years old; that was a decade ago now. She was my best friend. She just disappeared one day.”

She paused. “Her name was Jessica.”

Elias gave her a sympathetic, awkward smile. After giving some thought to what to say next, he decided it best to not say anything.

✼ ✼ ✼

“What’s this?” Mia, who had resumed pacing, abruptly halted as her foot encountered something lying on the floor. Looking down, she saw a plain white envelope, crisp against the faded floral Persian rug.

“Nothing,” replied Elias casually, without looking up, his attention having returned to the cryptic message in his grandfather’s journal. As if by staring at it for longer it would reveal its secrets to him. It was worth a try.

Mia picked up the envelope and opened it, pulling out a single piece of artificially aged parchment. The laser-printed text swirled in an elaborate and unrealistic imitation of calligraphy. It was a bit too much, really, though Mia suspected that ‘a bit too much’ was precisely the look they were aiming for.

Elias had recently published his essay ‘On the Preservation of Indo-European Folktales.’ The essay had caught the attention of ‘The Enchanted Quill,’ a literary society known for crafting immersive experiences based on stories. The letter in Mia’s hand was an invitation to their annual treasure hunt whereby participants could live out a fairy tale adventure, complete with puzzles, challenges, and a storyline that intertwined real places and people with the magical world of fairy tales.

Mia read the letter aloud: “You have been chosen to embark on a unique journey with The Enchanted Quill. Your love for the mystical and the fantastical has opened the door to an adventure where fairy tales come to life. Prepare to step into a world where magic is real, and every turn holds an unexpected surprise.”

“That’s the third invitation they’ve sent me,” said Elias.

“Are you going?”

“Of course not. It’s for children,” said Elias dismissively. “They must have put me on their mailing list.”

Elias resumed his silent consideration of his grandfather’s words: ‘all stories are the same story.’ Did his grandfather mean it metaphorically… or literally?

Mia flipped the letter over. Printed on the reverse side in black and white was a photograph of the Enchanted Quill’s founding members. In the photo, five women of varying ages stood together, smiling and posing formally. Her attention was captured immediately by an elderly woman in the center.

“Elias, I know this woman... it’s Mrs. Rowan. She’s the grandmother of my friend Jessica, the one who disappeared,” Mia said, walking over to Elias and thrusting it in front of him.

As Elias leaned in to get a better look at the photograph, Mia’s finger moved to the name under the image. “And look, it says here ‘Martha Rowan, Keeper’. Does that mean anything to you?”

“Keeper…” Elias echoed. “The Keepers.

“My grandfather wrote, ‘All stories are the same story.’ He referred to it as ‘The Keepers.’” Elias placed the journal next to the letter on the desk for comparison. “If she’s a member of The Enchanted Quill, and considering my grandfather’s note,” Elias reasoned, “it’s possible she might understand what he meant by this.”

“I haven’t seen Mrs. Rowan in years. She did always love to have visitors,” said Mia. “Perhaps, now I can find out what really happened to Jessica. Let’s pay her a visit. You can ask her about The Keepers, and I can ask her about Jessica.”

✼ ✼ ✼

The rain had stopped. The former gloom retired, leaving a relaxed and welcome calm, as if the whole town had been holding its breath and finally released. The sun was setting; the moon had already risen. Elias and Mia, feeling hopeful for their shared plan and optimistic for the path ahead, chatted and joked casually for the remainder of the evening, as friends do. Mia begged him, yet again, to read her favorite fairy tale from his grandfather’s journal.

✼ ✼ ✼

Fairyland and the Mystery of the Missing Socks

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. In the back of her garden was a secret entrance to fairyland. The girl would often visit fairyland and have all kinds of adventures. One day, her parents sent her off to boarding school, and when she returned for the summer holidays, the entrance to fairyland had become overgrown with thorns and thistles, and she could no longer find it. She began to suspect that it had never been real in the first place.

As the girl grew up and became a woman, she forgot about the fairies. However, the fairies did not forget about her. When she did not come back, they came looking for the girl, but she had since grown up. The fairies tried and tried to get her attention, but because the girl no longer believed in fairies, she couldn’t see them. To grab her attention, the fairies resorted to hitting her over the head until she got a headache. When that didn’t work, they hid her left socks. They painted inspirational messages like “believe in yourself” and “remember who you are” on mugs and carts. Having tried everything they could think of, the fairies eventually gave up trying to communicate with their friend, but would still follow her around and play the occasional practical joke.

With no one to believe in them, the fairies grew thinner and thinner, and lost their color, until they became as thin as paper and could no longer return to fairyland. A fairy cannot die, but without a human to believe in them, they lose all their color, substance, and form until they become thin like a leaf, in black and white, waiting for someone to believe in them once again.

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Pan's Labyrinth
by Alasdair Forsythe

Pan's Labyrinth is a mind-bending fantasy novel, blending folklore, fantasy, sci-fi, and mystical philosophy. Follow Elias as he embarks on a quest to reassemble the fragments of truth hidden within fairy tales.


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