The Magician Child – Chapter 3: The Puppeteer

Oh, would you quit moping? It’s depressing.

Hrrrrr…

Yeah, well, I’ll find you another one. If you had waited like I told you.

Hrrrr…

Do you even understand the concept of bait? Well, see, I don’t that think you do.

Hrrrr…

You say that, but your face tells me otherwise.

Hrrrr…

The girl sat cross-legged on the doubled-over back of the giant, tapping her nail against a glass vial. Her attempt to console the giant’s broken heart was less than half-hearted.

Hrrrr…

The porter’s limp fingers dragged sonorously, ploughing, exposing musky, odorous soil in its wake. She sniffed the air. Then she lifted a fistful of the giant’s loose-fitting rags, and sniffed again.

Where is that awful smell coming from?

Hrrrr…

She tapped the glass vial and, at last, the crustacean-lizard trapped inside reacted, biting the air with such vicious animosity that the sonic blast it produced threatened to unstopper the vial.

Yikes!

Hrrrr…

The shelled reptile noticed its opportunity.

Hhhhhhhh. She held out a palm and breathed against it. Nope. Not. Me. What’s that sme…

Flailing its many limbs excitedly, the imprisoned creature seized its moment and unleashed a barrage of sonic pulses directly against the cork. Suffice it to say that, however conniving, one could never out-lizard a fox.

Ah-ha!, the girl yelped, shaking her hands in the air with detectivitous triumph. She had found the source of the odour. Inside the vial, the scheming creature lay curled into a ball, innards pummelled to a paste. She pocketed the vial and spun on her mount to face backwards.

Hey, baby. Laying propped on one side, she waved at the monstrous, nose-shaped brute that leaped after them. It was gorging on an outpour of slimy discharge that came oozing, at a surprising yield-per-minute, out from the grooves of tilled earth the giant left behind in its affable depression.

Thhhnooo. Thhhhhhnoooo. Thhhhhhhnooooo. The nose went, sympathetically sniffing up the slime as it went.

Aren’t you chipper! Not like this dreary old chap, she breathed, in a conspiratorial tone, with a flirtatious wink. The nasal brute, as it was, was bereft of sight.

At that, the giant unfolded with uncharacteristic velocity, sending its snarky passenger flying backwards. She recovered, catching herself deftly, requiring but one hand to absorb her impact with the ground and spring upwards again. She landed majestically upon the hopping nose, smiling, obviously pleased with herself. Then her feet lost their purchase on the greasy skin.

The giant didn’t as much as look back to savour the girl’s stumbling misadventures. When she caught up with him, catapulting a barrage of beratement its way, all that seemed appropriate for it to do was sigh and double over once more.

I.., her loudening screech went, lost a BOOT! She hobbled comedically in her cataclysmic fury.

Hrrrr…

The market faded into view around them.

Oh, we’re… here. When did we get here?

She shuffled to the giant’s side.

I lost, she whispered egregiously irate, my BOOT! That vile slime dissolved it whole. The giant lumbered on, splitting the bustling crowd into two rows of disgruntled market-goers. Oh, I’m sorry, she continued in a hushed shout. I don’t think you understand! My boot got SNIFFED! Then I thought it was going to sniff me! She tugged the giant into a side ally, mumbling insincere apologies to market-goers on all sides.

People these days, she declared when they were finally clear of the stalls, I ask you. She headed down the alley, hands in pockets, to the reverberating subsequent thud and slap of her one bare, one be-booted, feet.

This way. Keep up.

The will-less giant obeyed, its knuckles dragging on the muddy cobblestones, making an unnoteworthy sound.

Away from the daylight wares, fares, trinkets, and puppets, they immediately found themselves preyed upon by shady hawkers. Their ambivalent criminal airs of roguish thuggery revealed them to be utter small-fry. The pair carried on. They walked past many class acts of turpitude and general degeneracy, including a man, passed out in a puddle of his own spittle, enveloped in a dense fog of urine-evaporate, which clung stubbornly in the humid air around him.

She halted. Walked back a few steps.

Moe? I thought that was you. Just one second, she expertly slid the now subdued lizard-crustacean from the vial into her hand and drove a finger unashamedly under its shell. Come on, little friend. Spit it out. Be a frie… OUCH! Ouch, good one, nice one, nice little… whatever you are. BITE me again and I’ll grind you into wet dust. Now, her probing finger slid deep into the shell, there, that wasn’t so bad? At the opposite end, a reptile’s head surfaced, rosy-cheeked, if such an attribute was bestowable on one of its kind, and proceeded to cough up a crimson sludge.

Thaaaaank you!, she said, obviously satisfied by her act of vengeful emasculation. It’s all yours. Upon speaking these last words of dismissal, she chucked the embarrassed lizard-crustacean unto the unsavoury character, who only just awoke upon impact.

***

Morris Frelabn… ich.

Uh, yes.., she said with her best smile, obviously relieved at not having to try her hand at enunciating the word herself. That’s… I am he.

The guard, a third-generation idiot, was still trying to gather his mouth around the name when she swiped the id badge from its paw.

And you? She eyed the guard with authoritative suspicion.

Yes… uh… sir. The guard, visibly thwarted by the edge in her voice, swallowed loudly as he spoke.

What.., she looked the guard up and down, exactly… are hhhhyou, she finished breathily. Something was coming over her. She dappled at her numb face with grotesquely overgrown fingers.

I am an Akrim, the guard muttered with rehearsed pride. Third ge… third generati…

I kne-ew IT, she barked like drunken royalty and walked right through the open portal. He’s… he’s with m…, came her last words spoken in that dimension.

She splashed into a bathtub.

Oh, she exclaimed in shock. Ooooh, she moaned. Blhis iss blice. Her voice rose in gurgling bubbles. This Moe is a princely chap, she thought. A lost lizard-pet against one of his executive suites in, she flipped the badge, two and forty-four. Not a bad bargain.

The giant sat outside the room. Barely had it even noticed having crossed a portal. It dragged itself to hunker down in the corner of a dome-ceilinged hall. Its bulging head crested the sil of the many ample windows of her suite so that it resembled a leathery hillock through the swaying curtains. The crimson sludge came floating out of her sleeve. She eyed it curiously for a moment.

Blhat… aaare you?, she uttered mistrustfully. The sludge, oddly, maintained its homogeneity. But then again, she could breathe normally in the warm comforting bath and her clothes did not seem to imbibe the mysterious liquid. Remembering where the sludge had been, she pinched it disdainfully and flung it out of the bath, through the open window, and into the despondent giant’s lap.

You’re blelcoble.

Her eyes shut on their hinges for the briefest instant, but then she gathered herself. There would be no savouring this exulting sickly sweet relief in sleep. So she chased away leaden slumber to brave wakefulness a while longer.

***

I am Moe, I am. Moe, I am, I am. Moe. MOE. Moe. MOE. I am I am. Huh?

Her jolly singsong strut came to an abrupt halt.

Moe? Moe! Moe Furslasnitch, you come back here right this instant!

Regal in her bathrobe draped over clothes, she stood her ground and waited upon the result of her summons. Of course she scolded. Royals always act like everyone’s parents. Ap-p-propri-ATE, she declared out of the blue, deepening her scowl to cover up the fact that she had accidentally spoken this aloud. Eccentricity, she thought, also a royal attribute. Attribu-TE! Stop that!, she thought with a mental slap on her wrist. Her wrist reddened. Mental and physical slap, she corrected, trying to cover up her tracks. Hehehe. Smooth cat. Smoooo…

Top of the morning.

Yikes! What had made her think that this was Moe. I am Moe, she thought. Yes, but there is also a real Moe. Is this also Moe?

Terribly sorry, miss, but did I hear you call my name?

At ease. His address was unbelievably suave. So formal. It swept her regal-impersonations rug right from under her feet. So she improvised with the next best authoritative thing, military jargon. She stepped forth to stand mere inches from the man’s face, pretending to chew three gums at once. When this got too distracting, she spoke into the man’s face.

Permission to speak freely sir!

Of course, miss.

So far so good, she thought, I am Moe. I am Moe.

I… ahem, I AM.., she declared imperiously, losing a slight bit of momentum near the end Moe?

The stately gentlemen seemed to consider this.

Y.., the man glanced about, eeees..?

She considered his answer. Had it been sufficiently conspiratorial? She squinted. He squinted.

I am… Moe.

Y…ees.

I am Moe.

Yes.

Good. Great. As you were then.

Miss Moe.

Sir Moe.

They split paths. She counted her steps as in a duel. Once she reached nine, she booked it around the corner and darted towards her suite. And thus, the meeting of impostors came to an end.

Pi-fiouf, she exclaimed, slamming the door behind her. She walked towards the bathtub, threw off her bathrobe, swivelled drunkenly and fell back-first into the mysterious comforting liquid.

Cblose one!

Her mind entangled itself, trying to reconsolidate the depraved invertebrate Moe she had met in the alley with the dignified gentleman Moe of most recent acquaintance. The latter more closely embodied the image of luxury befitting the suite in which she now squatted. However, the former was the one with whom she had made the arrangements. And somehow, it felt more natural to call decadence Moe the real Moe. More natural to attribute humanity to the imperfect, to the lowly, to the vicious, rather than the perfect, noble and virtuous.

Cblurious inbleebl, she whispered. The rock chickens, she thought, mysteriously. She catalogued the thought then, and busied herself with the convoluted multi-tasking enterprise of uttermost relaxation.

A school of Mactolean Wraglers like a fractal murmuration of starlings, billowed and dispersed in cycles before her, and she wondered whether they were born of her imaginings. Mind waves seemed to infuse themselves throughout the soft-matter of the bath in ways she could not yet claim to grasp or control. She thought she could perceive their wake, a certain tensing in areas of higher synaptic concentration which transformed the bath-liquid into a jelly of sorts. Only their wake. As though by the externalisation of her mind waves into the liquid, by the inversion of a mind-born idea into a mind-processed idea, she was necessarily catapulted into the past, by a non-negligible factor of a hundred milliseconds or so. This seemed a design flaw to her. She found consciousness to be a grossly inadequate instrument to analyse the phenomenon, like harnessing a solar flare to examine the nature of a fog. These were the theatrics of sub-conscious activity, of dreams, the workings of which were, after all, not all that foreign to her. So she tampered the acuteness of her wakefulness to a diffused and permeable substrate.

A pulsating mellifluous music came to her as the orchestration of the delicate swishing sway of her loose strands of hair, while from her clothes came pouring a grungy lava-noise conglomeration, punctured with crystalline single note reverberations. Inspired, she followed each of these reverberating notes as guides to the precise location of a relic, and proceeded to place them between her fingers and toes. This little, she giggled maniacally in bubbles, piggy was a sloth. This little piggy was a vain little piggy. This little piggy was hubristic, and this one was a… She listened to the two eclectic overlaid melodies—of hair and clothes—somehow appreciating them both individually, and in synchronous dissonant concert.

Blizzard, she exclaimed, thinking wizard, but at peace with the end result.

She reached a hand over the rim of the tub, upsetting a few empty cans and wrappers on an adjacent stool to find a small glass jar. She spun the lid and sprinkled a few of the flakes it contained into the bathwater. Dried meat, dried meat, dried meat, she thought, hopeful. The flakes soaked up the liquid and morphed into crow cookies. Sure, she thought, and snatched them into her mouth as they fell.

Delec-Table, she mouthed, and although the word was accordingly altered by the liquid, she still thought of a table, and what it must be like to own one. She watched a chase develop on her knees wherein she, with a snark moustache and a table on her back, was fleeing an outraged merchant with a stick. The whole affair was grotesque and can-can and she dove into it whole-heartedly. She jumped and ducked, climbed ladders and eventually outran her pursuers, who had, by then, amassed into a veritable army of stick-wielding wild-eyed merchants. Once at home, she put the table down and slid a turkey from the oven.

Kid’s dinner time! We’re eating on a table tonight!

A taa-ble?, her kids exclaimed in disbelieving unison.

And so they ate as a family, standing for lack of chairs on which to sit. Eventually, the children’s legs ached and so they sat on the ground. The sight made her feel like a failure. She was almost about to give in and join them on the floor, when a knock came at the door. She immediately gathered her children in her arms and dashed out the back door just as the front door gave way to an inpouring of red-faced irate merchants brandishing sticks. And so on, the game went. Table, children, table, children, until she came to the progressive realisation that the prospect of acquiring chairs was evidently not written into the game, at which point she quit playing altogether. Game over. The game left her feeling restless. She willed the tub transparent and peered through the glass at the giant’s bald head through the open windows.

She poked her head out of the bath. It was a usual occurrence for her to lose sight of the giant upon entering towns where they chose to rest and resupply, to later find him again upon their departure. She had never thought much of the phenomenon and rather enjoyed their temporary disbanding. This time, however, the giant had not budged an inch since their arrival. And its presence felt unnatural. It was as though it grounded her, as though it disabled her from being someone else, whomever she wished, even herself. The sight of the giant’s cranium tethered her, and the string chafed around her ankle.

Yuk, she thought, it’s fine.

Beside the tub, she noticed a silver tray of room service food. She stepped out of the tub like a gregarious Clox or a Rafton Biss to a trough, and wondered whether she had inadvertently placed the food order while in the synaptic liquid of the bath. Safer to presume limitlessness than attribute random rules to an unknown entity.

Smartly, she whispered, with a self-satisfied straight face.

The cloches gave way to expulsions of pent-up steam, and she ate mercilessly, sitting as she was on the rim of the tub, facing the giant’s immobile skull, shaking her head as she periodically came up for air between mouthfuls. She, for one, would not waste this opportunity to ruthlessly smother the memory of scarcity with excess. She felt past repletion before the food had entirely vanished, and when the silver plates were at last empty, she rested the cloche lids on each and lifted them anew. Like an inverted vanishing act, steam rushed out and there was food again. There was a forcefulness to her mouthfuls now. The corners of her mouth became overflowing gutters, sporadically dispensing crumbs and sauces. Where the food went, there was no telling. Silos, warehouses, wastelands, a forsaken world. It seemed that the vacuum it was meant to fill could never be satiated. That no manner of amassing, of consumption, of abundance could ward off the looming threat of being alone, abandoned, forsaken on the world of bones. She sobbed and swallowed and reached for more. A stuffing trying to fill up with bird.

***

One must look no farther than to oneself for improvement.

She had found herself to a cocktail party and was now nodding dumbly to an endless slew of wisdom and empathy. Surrounded on all sides by a syndicate of exemplary folk, she felt mildly like a charity case. She excused herself and waltzed over to a window, seeking a clear sky to clear her mind. She found herself secretly appalled if not merely flabbergasted by the sheer authenticity of virtue on display in the room. Was there truly such a place in the cosmos where high society was a meritocracy? This would certainly be its closest iteration. The window gave way onto other rooms.

Shucks, she said, disappointed. Oddly she wondered what the weather was like. She shook herself at the absurd notion. Weather fit precisely in the genus of worries that she fought to banish from her mind.

From the corner of her ear, she caught sounds of Moe. Sophistocrat Moe. Moe the impostor. She would see eye to eye with this man. He was the key that could debunk this idealistic conundrum.

A few minutes later, she was back at her window to nowhere, further puzzled and confused. Not even in the creases of Moe’s eyes had she glimpsed traces of his vice. A vice to which she was privy! From which there should not be a return and least of all one so complete as this one. Her olfactory sense alone carried sufficient evidence of the poison of the man’s vices, and yet…

A waiter sped past her and she swiped an ornate paper box from his tray. She unfolded its sides, unveiling a crumpled lump that bore suspicious resemblance to a chewed piece of gum, if it had been chewed by the tiny serrated teeth of a pocket snitch-fairy. She hoped no one in this world was aware of the existence and, most of all, the use of the vile creatures. Then she wondered whether she had one still, dissimulated in the maze of her clothes. Some worlds were unnavigable without the use of at least one snitch-fairy to insure utter accountability in the face of crippling disingenuity and corruption. Entire shape-shifter worlds had been torn asunder by their implementation by governing bodies, to say nothing of the havoc it wrought on unsuspecting populations where they are employed as a means of surveillance. The vicious cycle of snitching slowly shredding the fabric of society until the parasitical creatures become a natural extension of the body, which, in the end, ensures their perpetuation as a species.

Stupid ssnitchess, she whispered.

Excuse me?

She glanced up from her spiralling reveries and discovered herself in an intimate group of fashionable septuagenarians.

You heard me, she retorted curtly, improvising the role. She inserted the chewed lump of gum into her ear canal and rudely discarded the paper box at the woman’s feet. She set sail for solitudinous waters when her sight met with a comfortable looking wicker armchair. She eyed the piece of furniture wistfully, and thought of her children eating on the floor. Careful sailor, she warned herself, looking astern can lead one to confuse starboard from port. She was relatively sure that her sailing nomenclature was seaworthy.

On her way, she was dismayed to catch wind that her impetuous actions were being met with approving exclamations of: how refreshing and yes, of course.

Then, to further fertilise her bemusement, she noticed an up-draft of empathy rising within her too, for their reactions to her reaction.

What is THIS?, she exclaimed, wide-eyed and quite uncomfortable with the novel sensation. She glanced around, suspicious of sabotage agents lurking nearby, but, alas, her searches revealed nothing of note. She found herself unexpectedly nodding, and when she discovered the origin of her acquiescence—a sophisticated proclamation of grassroots engagement on the basis of idiosyncratic culture and values in order not to impose from without, but rather nourish the pre-existing societal harmony endemic to…—she, in a horror-stricken spasm, flicked the gum out of her ear and onto a passing gentleman’s shoe.

Gimme gimme gimme. On her hands and knees, she prowled like a panther through the forest of people’s legs. Then a new strategy occurred to her. I am a tree, she whispered, standing to camouflage herself anew amongst the party guests. She ambulated, supple as a wet noodle, towards the closest service door. Pretending to study a painting on the wall which portrayed a sort of Escher-stairs lithograph but with people shaking hands. She thought the piece blasphemous in its agenda and could not fathom why such desecration was condoned. She was half-way to wondering whether any art of interest could be generated with such blatant social commentary, when a waiter came out of the service door, tray in hand, pushing the swinging door with his back. She snuck her heel out with deliberate, malicious intent, but somehow found only air. The waiter had deftly avoided her foot and was already tending to some guests.

Are you kidding me!? Even the waiters? What is this place?

She pretended to study another painting. This one portraying a dirty poodle curled around an activated explosive, seemingly in a heroic attempt to shield a young family from… The door swung open again. In a flash, she swept a leg into the air, throwing a ruthless kick aimed at the passing waiter’s temple. The waiter dodged the blow smartly and was about to congratulate her on her form, when she smashed her forehead into the man’s nose. The man’s nasal cartilage and bone cracked like a closing door. She smoothed the folds of her clothes and bent low to the poor man’s bleeding face.

Now you listen to me you little sh.., she began, before noticing the canapes scattered across the ornate rug. Makes sense, I guess, she thought. The empathetic chewed gum devices only really needed to be distributed once. Now it was time for canapes. She regrouped, restrategised.

The chewed gum devices…

Embathaids, the waiter offered politely.

Empathaids… jeesh, what a bad name, she thought. Earmpath. Gumpathic Auriculumps. No. Sub-Text Extractor. No.

Fine empathaids, she conceded after a moment. I want as many as you can get me, in my room by the end of the day… the hour! She released the man’s collar. She was only vaguely aware of having gripped it. Method acting, she thought with a voluminous dash of unashamed self-love. Genius. Also, she sighed as she spoke, martial arts, they train you in do they? She could not be sure why her words came out so jumbled, but she followed where the role led her, and dimly pondered the backstory of her present character. Cryptic or dyslexic? Sage or fumbling halfwit? It seemed an important distinction. She scratched at her chafing ankle.

Just a hobby, miss, the man replied, humbly. She had forgotten about her question.

Figures, she whispered with disgust. She crouched to gather a few of the scattered canapes, cleared the fallen waiter and tramped out of the room.

***

Hey, people like me here!, she exclaimed happily from somewhere deep within the lair of sub-basement storeys. Moe, now returned to his usual debauchery-self, reciprocated her enthusiastic smile with a play of eyebrows of the sort she had never encountered before. She backhanded the sweat from her face to no desirable avail. Different parts of her body wanted to party in different ways and she gave them free rein. Her eyes sought to take in wildly different inputs, threatening to tear her face in two. Blinking profusely, the room conveyed itself to her in a watery strobe. Her stomach lurched, and she was partway into a stand-still tango when she exclaimed:

Pshiou! This is fun. Laughing she sang. A staccato moonjig, by her estimation.

Moe, she screamed over an nonexistent din. I need out. Two secs.

Out? The pale slippery man, who wasn’t Moe—had never been Moe?—stared dumbfounded as though at a talking Blamoforb, casting paranoid glances about, unsure if anyone else was seeing what he was seeing.

Out. Out-doors. Outdoors, she repeated emphatically, nature, sky, stars, wind. Shhhhh-hhhhhaaaa. She gazed around her at the multitudinous limp glistening bodies, slain by the mould-like slop that thrived in the humid micro-climate between tapestry and a certain chemical glue that was once used to patch walls on certain lower-level floors such as this one. The substance was not having nearly enough effect upon her. Did not possess nearly enough torque to cut the edge off the exacerbation of her claustrophobia. When her spanning glance returned to the man who wasn’t Moe—had never been Moe?— she noticed the frozen stupor that had not left his face. She loosed a swift bark which, given the man’s weakly constitution, was enough to wrap him in such a fainting spell as to render him indistinguishable from the orgyaic mob of bodies splattered across the room in various states of ecstasy or, interchangeably, momentary flirting with brain death.

She hopped off a stool she was not sitting on and travelled the room. Princely, she walked amongst her many subjects. Cheshire, she grinned. Her reign was absolute. The palms of her hand glid outstretched at her sides, above the lumps of inanimate flesh lost in an invisible embrace with pleasurable nothingness. She revelled in her power, not an inch of which she would leave unclaimed.

Lumps, lumps, lumps. Yeeeeeesssss.

Now she was careful, treading lithely twixt the massacre of intoxication. She reached the bar and reached over, her thieving hands encountering effortlessly the jar she coveted.

The basement. Debasement. The basement. Debasement. The curious homophone, having cycled through her mind enough times, at last, spoke itself through her lips, and yet, simultaneously, never quite pierced through to her awareness. She made her rounds, dispensing the secret fruit of her dishonourable mind. From the jar, she withdrew the knuckle-bone shaped antagonist to the mild overdose brought on by the mould-like intoxicant, and methodically placed it under each tongue present. The shape of the pill promoting a slow release from the plane of oblivion which these lost souls travelled.

Awareness, she knew, could be quite the jolt to the unsuspecting mind.

From an undisclosed inner pocket, she unspooled a string dotted with tiny intricate knots from which dangled many ornate paper boxes. Then she completed her rounds again, this time inserting the empathaid—still, the name stuck unpleasantly to her pallet—into one of every two ears present. Her work completed, she took a sweeping step back and examined the scene where awaited a sleeping calamity. She felt as though she had poked the slumbering hide of a furry Rakast Femonger and now awaited to savour its ravaging fury. If such a fearsome creature existed outside her fictive imagination, that is. She marvelled at her masterpiece with jittery anticipation.

When multiple yawns came to pass, and still her magnus opus slept, she grew restless. She slid an empathaid into her own ear just for thrills. Terror struck her immediately. Then dread. Then repentance. And when treacherous thoughts of remediating the pending disaster she had orchestrated, before she could even glean at the shape it would take, she thrust the empathaid to the far wall and regained her right mind. Lest the evil device turn its voodoo towards the examination of her own soul. She shuddered at the thought. Bored anew, she yawned and wondered whether the after-party was worth the wait.

Restlessness bested her, its sooty fingers blotting out the rays of her energetic disposition, and eventually, she reached for two more paper boxes and stuck an empathaid in each of her ears. She steeled herself to weather the tremendous gale that forayed her soul. She bravely persevered and found herself thrown forth to finally pierce through into the past and deathly peace of the world of bones.

Neither in body nor in mind had she made the journey back since that fateful day when the giant had come to her salvation. Mere fragments survived in her memory of a time before then. And so, guided by the devices lodged in her ears, she explored this most unlikely meeting of paths. The giant, gathering her levitating body like a feather rotating softly, suspended eternally on an invisible breeze, into its enormous hands. Revisiting the moment occasioned nor ripple nor wave, deep as she was in the waters of introspection. Tears only further softened the eyes with which she observed the event unfold anew. On she wept as she revisited her, then, burgeoning realisation of a world without. At her cognizing being alive, being someone. At her taking shape through the depthless orbs with which the giant witnessed for the first time her existence.

A tree falling into the forest no more, she had thought then. I am witnessed therefore I am.

It felt only yesterday, and in many ways, it was. Pity arose within her for the current state of her soul. The rough layer upon layer of defences smothering her soul, born as a response to the abrasion of being.

She had never pursued the sinker upon the line of inquiry which saw the pre-giant era in a more favourable light than her present existence. Peaceful as it had been to exist solely within. Nor could she truly deny its shiny presence. An unnatural ripple travelled her thoughts as the empathaid seemed to manifest an agency all of its own. No longer as a guide but an inquisitor, it led her upstream of its own accord to a destination she felt sure did not contain anything of interest. Having used the device as a means to escape boredom, she resisted the driving impulse to follow suit. Out of annoyance at first, then violently as she realised the extent of her powerlessness, violently. Then desperately. She reached for her ear, only to discover herself ethereal, completely severed from the physical plane.

At the full mercy of the device, and stripped of all defences, her will weakened, then turned to sand. Her mind’s eye attained a prodigious level of clarity, serrated and double-edged. When she figured out how to wield it without impaling herself, she pierced the fog of unnameable immaterial density, to peer directly into that which the device wanted to reveal. They had reached the heart of her soul. Much was revealed to her in that atemporal moment, much of which she would not recall until the final chapter of her existence. Piercing the fog, she had unwittingly unscabbed the raw wound of her soul, which now gaped before her, a pool of chaotic energy. She fought the urge to pick at it, to transform the yawning circumspect ache into an acute pain she could more accurately identify and subdue. As spectacular as the revelation was, the empathaid beckoned her attention away from her soul, to its orbit. She obeyed, focusing now on the asteroidal ring revolving there.

Of course, she whispered, inaudibly. She could perceive them now. Circling there like vultures around a carcass, like flies around blood. Vices. Glowing, throbbing. She glanced back at the swirling pit of her soul. A wound maybe, but pure in its essence. Corrupted never, but levied and pried and bent by nefarious wills. She turned back to the orbiting relics. To every Atlas, her burden, she thought. No, the stark clarity of her mind would not allow so facile a dismissal. Never had she truly shouldered the burden. Where she saw vices, she also saw crutches. Pretence. Avoidance of fate. Succumbing to, rather than harnessing. She assessed her own weakness unemotionally, and yet knew her cowardice to be unpardonable. She saw escape with understanding but never forgiveness.

A life wasted in the avoidance of potential. In false pursuits. Such overwhelming odds. The switch was subtle. Existence is burden enough, not to need shoulder more. She had lost the energy to suffer nobly. She tried to return to the state of mind only seconds gone. And for a mere instant, she succeeded. No, she thought, struggling against the comfort of victimhood, the relics are not the burden, merely a pretence against the shouldering of the real burden of her existence. But the empathaid was withering. And as its power waned, so did the relics further their purchase on her will. She braced herself. Couldn’t the world see that she was suffering? Had she not paid enough. She was merely a child. Curled into a ball, purple-lipped in the shallow end of the pool.

And thus she found herself upon her return to the world without, curled, pitiful, whimpering softly. Words were travelling, faint like shivers across her lips.

Why is it covered in bones? Why is it covered in bones? On and on. Why is it covered in bones? Why is it covered in bones? On and forth, but she never heard it, the words remaining to her but shivers travelling her lips. Once again, she settled into the aches and sores particular to her existence and found nothing amiss. She wondered how much time had passed. The room had not stirred in her absence. She reached to her ears and found nothing there, nor could she understand what she had hoped to find. She uncurled and leaned against the foot of the bar.

The first motions caught her mid-way through licking a corner of tapestry depicting the corner of a drab apple presumably from a nature morte, the appreciation of which did nothing to transport the mind to a different state, unlike its mouldy underside. Tongue out, she eyed the source of the disturbance.

So the beast stirs.

From a stir, the room began to crawl, then clamber. The bodies were consolidating at the centre of the room, and, wherever she could, she facilitated this pilgrimage, moved chairs and tables to clear the way. Attuned, as they were, to the suffering of others they gravitated towards one another. Gradually, at first, then hectically, as the focus shifted from the relief of suffering of others to the pleasure of others, to the pleasure personally attained through the pleasure of others, a human pyramid of hedonistic abandonment formed at the centre of the room.

Hmm.

Sitting on the bar, feet swinging excitedly, she observed the devolution, quietly jubilant to have her assumptions proven right. Empathy is a hypocrites way of seeking personal gain. She cut the middle man. At least, she was honest about it. Why seek detours to self-centrism. If a poison needed drinking, she would drink it neat. Still, she thought, I have more respect for this behaviour, however decadent, then the game of guise and subterfuge on display in the upper-levels.

She hopped off the bar, waltzed over to the writhing human amalgamation, clambered up the interlocked embracing limbs, as one would the steps of a royal palace, and eased herself upon the orgyaic throne of her own conniving.

She reached down to scratch the rash ringing her ankle and found herself instantly sober. Was boredom a trait of the evolving character she was portraying or genuine?

Empath, empath, empath, she mumbled, the word a pebble in her shoe. There had to be a better word than stupid empathaid for a crummy device that puts you in other people’s…

ShoeSwap!, she exclaimed suddenly, in an epiphanous moment of laughter and triumph.

***

So how did you figure it out?

What? Oh. Her mind was elsewhere. She sat on the rim of the bathtub brushing her hair. The semblance was uncanny to her own hair. I guessed mostly.

Wizard guess.

Hmm, she mouthed distractedly. The brush tangled itself in her hair and she tugged at it somewhat indelicately, unconsciously awaiting feedback that never came.

Ouch!

Ouch! Quit it!

Oh! Sorry. She shook her head free of her reveries.

Well? Out. With. It.

Hahaha. Well… ok, it went like this, she reached low into the tub, filled a bucket with water—actual wet cleansing water—, tilted her head back and made her hair smooth with its flow, and got into the telling of the tale, so I met your puppet the other day, said I. Oh did you?, replied Moe, decadence Moe, real Moe. She mimicked Moe’s high-pitched quivering voice to near perfection. Yeah, said I. Did it look like I was having a good, you know, proper sophisticated time?, he asked. Quite, I answered. Oh good.

He didn’t know that you didn’t know?

Exactly. I had seen them in eight and eleven, you know in the market there, the puppets. Of course, the puppets there were of pedestrian calibre, nothing like, well… I had just not connected the dots yet.

Genius.

And so, I told him: maybe I want a puppet too. You know? Everyone else seems to have one.

Why not me?

Yeah, why not me? Exactly.

It’s funny how…

…how it cancels itself out?

Yeah.

Yeah. A puppet to maintain appearances, while the puppeteer indulges in the underbelly of the human experience, vice, excess, self-destruction, and the like.

Ironic really. That people should choose to outsource their better-selves.

That of the two, they chose, you know, they chose chaos over order, destructive over creative energy, vice over virtue, decadence over morality.

That the desirable end is not worth the means of its attainment in the case of achievement, whereas the reverse is true in the pursuit of hedonistic self-destructive pursuits.

Ah ok, yes. Yes! Ok, I’m with you now. That we only value the destination in case of achievement and only the journey in self-destruction. Haha, smart.

And after all this… this separation of pursuits, of puppeteer and puppet, what happens?

Status quo. They both burst into laughter at this. More or less identical to a world without puppets!

What do you know!, they shared some more laughter. It felt good to have a friend. She glanced over at the crest of the giant’s leathery skull. A friend who talked, anyway.

She was under no illusion, however. There always came a time when a poison needed to be called a poison. When the turning of more water into more wine rather devalued the miracle. The ritual, for her became bland and commonplace, yet rather than dissuade her from the pursuit, it only seemed to make it all the easier for her to simply ignore it. She did not care if the water temperature rose to a boil around her, as long as it did so beneath her notice. In the end, later was later. Her future self, someone else. And greater in number. Let them deal with the tidal bender swelling menacingly under her.

She had struck the rotten deal, stacked as the odds were against her, and created a puppet of herself. And for a time, her own faded appreciation was rekindled by this new friendship. Together, they went through the motions again, like threading the arms through a familiar sweater. Through her puppets experience, her inure needle travelled the same well-worn grooves of degeneracy with regained sensitivity.

She winced at just how threadbare the familiar sweater had become, at just how feeble that regain in sensitivity actually was. This is what she had bargained against herself for? For a sad second ride on the merry-go-round of diminishing returns?

She cashed her chips as they were. The thrill of mischief, the depths of hunger, the lacquer of luxury. Life revealed itself to her embalmed and grotesquely made up and she had the decency—the depravity—not to notice. Even her claustrophobia waned. She would not waste the opportunity. It was a lie to be sure, and at no time was she not aware of her cynicism biding its time, awaiting the pendulum’s inevitable swing back from mania, like a hang-over to an intoxication, like the periorbital dark circles belying the depth of the ecstatic energy with which she chased the headless snake. She escaped with heroic, glorious abandon. Alongside her puppet self, she travelled the soiled path anew.

Perhaps the foghorn of impending shoals rang sooner than the first time. Or perhaps the fog of decadence was just that much thinner this time around. The world quaked unnaturally with pent up antithetical energies, and again she struck the desperate bargain. And again until the familiar sweater was little more than tangle of moth-eaten woollen thread not fit to garb a feral bog-wraith.

When her nerve finally snapped, it snapped like an over-wound funicular cable.

The bender roared beneath her with villainous momentum. By then, there were no fewer than a baker’s dozen copies of herself, loosed to the world. The brim of the tidal wave was foaming, arching silently into a barrel above them. Laying as she was halfway between an armchair and the worn wooden slats of the floor, she wrestled herself to her feet. She saw her manifold selves stirring, moaning their way to wakefulness. She gazed through the window at the giant’s protruding head. She scratched at her ankle, and her fingers came away bloodied.

Too much of a good thing?, it seemed to suggest. She snarled in its direction.

No, she wasn’t in her room. She rubbed her eyes and the mirage of the giant was gone. Stupid giant, she thought, always ruining my fun. Why couldn’t it have disappeared as it always did? The room swayed most violently and her counter-balancing only made matters much worse.

Witch-pig!, she croak-whined, as the walls came screeching in. She crouched and ambled towards the bar. She could not afford for the others to wake and discover the non-proliferation of her ponzi-puppeteering. The vicious throbbing angst, that she only barely managed to suppress, threatened to erupt. Were it to do so, it would instantly be matched thirteen fold, and the perpetual motion machine, once halted, would devour all in its unravelling.

She woke the barman with a few sloppy-aimed slaps, and placed a used shoeswap in his ear for good measure.

I want out. Hey, psssst, listen to me. I want out. Her claustrophobic anxiety was morphing into molten rage. She adjusted her sweaty two-hand grip on the man’s pallid cheeks. The man gradually came around to grasping her meaning.

You mean another dimension?, the man managed to utter through pressed cheeks.

No, she breathed with seething patience. Out. In this dimension. She could not fathom the concept to need further explanation. Out!

Eeek, the man’s squealed, at a complete loss.

Excuse me?

This… uh dimension is completely… uh completely indoors.

Completely, she muttered to herself over the tinnitus of a full-fledged panic attack, indoors?

She released the man who just slopped onto the bar anew, and resumed his coma where he had left off. A sluggish tear wormed its wayward way down her face. When it reached her mouth, it reached howling laughter. Howling. Her puppets rose at the sound of her folly, as though guided by the invisible strings of her vocal chords.

***

Hey!

A few more rocks flew in the interval. She looked to a portly old man with a cane standing to the side, observing.

These your kids?

She turned to the kids still chucking rocks at the sulking giant.

Hey, e-nough! Psshhh, pisshhh, shooooo.

The kids glanced at her defiantly.

What you want lady?

Shooooo, she repeated.

The nerve of these kids, she thought. She turned again to the be-caned man.

These. Your. KIDS?

The old man swallowed drily, then wordlessly pointed to himself with a trembling finger.

Yeah YOU, cabbage head! The man did have a cabbage head. And probably cabbage meat for brains, she thought

Mm… mmm.. mE?

Cabbage meat. George, would you cancel my two o’clock, she thought.

Right-o, she barked rolling up her sleeves. She wished every atom of her body would stop screaming for one split-second. All eyes fell upon her left hand.

Oh this?, she said, affecting nonchalance, referring to the amethyst she now twirled at the end of a shoestring. The kids, mesmerised into some kind of hypnosis, suddenly raised their hands before them. She whistled and they hopped and skipped to her whim. She derived such delirious enjoyment from the air of stupefaction worn unanimously across their faces, that she almost lost concentration. Almost.

Toad, she said, and off they leapt. Little vermin.

We.. www… didddn… your ppp… uppet.., cabbage meat stuttered.

Puppet? Her eyes travelled from the man to the giant with genuine perplexity. Worlds, I need to get out of this loonie bin. When she turned to the man again, he was gone. Agile for a limping cabbage, she thought.

Are you alright? The giant had withdrawn so deep within itself, she did not think her words reached sentience. Aaaaaalright, she repeated emphatically. A. Aaaaa. Do you here that? She fiddled a finger inside her ear. Ayayayaya. She limped towards the giant, trying to echolocate the reverberation. Marco? The giant’s torso seemed a resonance chamber for her voice. Eee. Ee. Eeeee. The giant did not stir.

When’s the last time you ate?

The relic still spun purple at the end of its string. She imagined the kids still performing their undead parade somewhere. Oh this?, she mused in lazy showmanship. She eased herself painfully to the ground. Funny you should ask, she replied in a mock interview with the mute giant. Then she recounted her stay in two and forty-four. Careful to curate an exhaustive list of the odd eccentric eclectic rapturous indulgences in which she had partaken. Careful, of course, to omit certain degrading, incriminating, or otherwise ignominious details. When she reached the theme of the puppets, of which only one was ever mentioned, she glanced over the use to which they had been employed and rather focused on the mechanisms of their inception.

Ingenious, right? Turns out it’s all just a facade, meant to distract while the bathwater prods your brain, systematically scanning and extracting every last flinch of feedback, until you are wholly, bodily and cerebrally, mapped. In-genius. Anyway, in the end, I got bored. There’s really only enough space in this universe for one of us. Of me. And for a while there, I didn’t think it was going to be me!

She glanced down at her pummelled body.

A shadow crept at the end of the alley.

Anyway, the brawl reached cosmic violence. And, you know how I always said, “I want out”, well you weren’t there but, well, we ended up punching a hole to the outside. You do not want to KNOW what’s out there!

A breeze travelled her white hair, darkened in spots by drying blood. Then it was over. She still sat with that self-same posture, at once tense with pain and limp with exhaustion. Only the slightest trickle of blood leaking from the corner of her mouth, marred the guise of life. That and the most discreet absence of a spark, snuffed out in that swift blur of death, so precise, it might as well not have happened. Standing before the giant now was a mirror-replica of the previous, now defunct, puppet.

Death makes a puppet of us all, she whispered with melancholic assuredness. Her tone implying a misrepresentation of the only true enemy: death. We kill, we die. The house always wins. In yet another swift blur of precisely wielded death, she was proven all too right. Another replica stood there, next to the now lifeless puppet of herself, who was left standing by the savage suddenness with which she had met her end.

Talk about ironic extrapolation of the concept of… Death claimed her too, mid-sentence.

Self-destruction, her assassin muttered, bringing the sentence to its logical conclusion.

A small being, taking advantage of the wanton distribution of death, weaved its way from a nearby doorway towards the giant. At last, the giant stirred from inanimacy, as though perturbed by this sudden motion about its person.

Hooohooohoooowie! What all happened here?

The giant slowly glanced up at the familiar voice’s exclamation.

Did you do this, beast? The young girl navigated the scene of grotesquely elaborate massacre, staged at the giant’s feet, as though for his enjoyment. She navigated the room with deliberate care, not wanting to perturb the artfully crafted mise-en-scene of deathly peace. Especially, perhaps, owing to the fact of its multiple instantiations of her own gruesome demises. She arrived at a pair of standing corpses of herself, whom, it would seem, had managed the incredible, if dubious, feat of simultaneous assassination and death.

A little… bleak, don’t you think? Walking towards her companion, she swiped a finger on the dusty walls. This place, she inspected the layer of dust on her finger, mildly disapprovingly, it’s just like a prison, isn’t it. Call me crazy, she yawned emphatically, but I’ve come to miss a night on the road.

Hmm, the giant grunted in a low gravely grumble.

He speaks!, she exclaimed unenthusiastically, looking elsewhere. Funny, she carried on in an equally humourless tone, I only remember making one of these… puppets. 

Hmm.

Well, grunty, she slapped her hands together, to dispel the dust, I’ll do you this one favour. What do you say we leave this place?

Aaaacheew! 

Everywhere at once, the puppets collapsed onto themselves, as though every last one of their remaining strings was severed at once. She leaped acrobatically back, and assumed a defensive crouch. Then she relaxed.

Woooops, she sniffled meekly.

In the corner of the hall, the giant, stretched its impossibly lengthy limbs, to the extent that the room could contain them, and rose to a hunched stance. The young girl led the way out, studying the disastrous proportions to which her unchecked debauchery could grow and voiced a silent prayer of gratitude at having chosen the more noble of the two paths. She leaned as she crossed paths with the first puppet, still sitting cross-legged against the wall, wiped the trickle of blood from the corner of its lifeless mouth and slapped it on the cheek amicably. Sorrow filled her eyes as she did so, even as her left hand invisibly subtracted the violet relic still dangling from its string at the end of her lifeless fingers. Despite consciously exercising extreme caution not to touch the amethyst, the stone somehow brushed the skin of her thumb as she dissimulated it into her clothes. In that briefest of instants, she knew that were her fingers to have been wrapped around the relic, she would never have been able to release it again. As it was, only her pupils reacted to the contact, dilating instantly, as though she were plunged abruptly into the deepest of darkness.

She needn’t have looked far to glean the result of such temptation.

She walked on, lost in thought. She could not fathom having missed the hunt. She usually had such a sense for these things. She wondered where the shaman had been. No, she corrected herself. The question was not where. She glanced about at the murderous exhibition.

Not where, she whispered. Which.

She felt keen empathy for her fallen selves and, for once, did not envy them the battle.

Curious, she reached a finger inside her ear.

© 2020 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.

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