The Magician Child – Chapter 3: 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, plowing, 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, bitting 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 pummeled 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, which 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. I almost got SNIFFED! She tugged the giant into a side ally, mumbling 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 subsequentially 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 shifty hawkers. Their ambivalent criminal airs of rogueish thuggery revealed them to be 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 breathly. 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 domed ceiling 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 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 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 summoning. 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, 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 one does in a duel. When she reached nine, she booked it around the corner and darted towards her suite. Thus the meeting of imposters 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 in the alley with the dignified gentleman of her 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.

Cblurious inbleebl, she whispered. She catalogued the thought, and busied herself with the convoluted multi-tasking 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 gelly of sorts. Only their wake. as though by the externalization of 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 80 milliseconds or thereabouts. This seemed a design flaw to her. Again, she found consciousness to be a grossly inadequate instrument to analyze 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 melancholy music came to her, orchestrating the delicate swishing sway of her loose strands of hair. A lava noise conglomeration punctured with crystalline single note reverberations poured from her clothes. She found each relic in turn but one, following the reverberating notes as guides to their precise location, 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 overlaid melodies, 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 flakes 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 mustache 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 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. Nevertheless, she was almost about to join them, 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 realization 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. 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. The cloches gave way to expulsions of pent-up steam. 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 amassment, of consumption, of abundance could ward off the looming threat of being alone, abandoned 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 waltz over to a window, seeking a clear sky to clear her mind. She found herself secretly appaled 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 imposter. 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 inside 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 not 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 used as a means of surveillance. The vicious cycle slowly shredding the fabric of society until the parasitical creatures become a natural extension of the body, thus ensuring 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 fertilize her bemusement, she noticed an updraft 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 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 commentaries, 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 grenade, 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 canapés scattered across the ornate rug. Makes sense, I guess, she thought. The empathic chewed gum devices only really needed to be distributed once. Now it was time for canapés. She regrouped, restrategized.

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.

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 canapés, 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 intake 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 inexistent 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 microclimate 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. Not 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 knucklebone 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 can 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 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. She yawned and wondered whether the after-party was worth the wait.

Boredom bested her, its sooty fingers blotting out the rays of her energetic disposition, and eventually, she reached for another empathaid. She steels herself to weather the tremendous gale that came to oppose forays against her soul. She bravely perseveres and finds herself thrown forth when she finally pierces through into the 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 device lodged in her ear, 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 hands. Revisiting the moment occasioned no wave, deep as she was in the waters of introspection. Tears only further softened the eyes with which she observed the event unfold. On she wept at her slow realization of a world without. At her cognizing being alive, being someone. At her taking shape through the depthless orbs through which the giant witnessed her existence. I am witnessed therefore I am. A tree falling into the forest no more. It felt only yesterday, and in many ways, it was. Pity arose within her for the current state of her soul. The rough layers 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. Nor could she truly deny its eternal 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 swam 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. Annoyed at first then, violently. Then desperately. She reached for her ear, only to discover herself ethereal, completely severed from the physical plane. Her will weakened, then turned to sand.

At the full mercy of the device, and stripped of all defences, 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 unnamable immaterial density, to peer directly into the heart of her soul. Much was revealed to her in that intemporal moment, much of which she would not recall until the final chapter of her existence. Freshly unscabbed, her soul gaped before her, a raw wound, a pool of chaotic energy, and she fought the urge to pick at it. To transform the yawning circumspect ache into acute pain she could more accurately identify and subdue. As spectacular as the revelation was, the empathaid beckoned her attention away to its orbit. She focused on an 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. She glanced back at the swirling pit of her soul. A wound maybe, but a pure in its essence. Corrupted never but levied and pried and bent by nefarious wills. She turned back to the orbiting relics. To each 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. Pretense. Avoidance of fate. Succumbing to rather than harnessing. She saw weakness unemotionally, and yet knew cowardice to be an unpardonable sin. 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 shoulder more. She tried to return to the state of mind only seconds gone. And for a mere instant, she succeeded. No, she thought, struggling against th the relics are not the burden, merely pretense. But the empathaid was withering. And as its power waned, so did the pull of the relics increase. She braced herself. Couldn’t the world see that she was suffering? Had she not paid enough. She felt 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. Words were travelling 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 on, 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 ear and found nothing there, nor could she understand what she had hoped to find. The first motions that she could see caught her mid-way through licking a corner of tapestry depicting the corner of a drab apple presumably from a nature morte, which did nothing to transport a mind to a different state, unlike its mouldy underside. Tongue out, she eyed the source of the disturbance.

The beast stirs.

From a stir, the room began to crawl, then clamber. The bodies were consolidating at the center 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. She cut the middle man. Empathy is a hypocrites way of seeking personal gain. 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, finally unable to decide whether boredom was, in fact, a trait of the evolving character she was portraying or, well, 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. I guessed mostly.

Wizzard 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 they should choose 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 know. 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, 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 share 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. There came a time when a poison needed to be called a poison, she knew. Of course she knew. She knew that the turning of more water into more wine was no more of a miracle. Much the opposite. It became commonplace. Which made it all the easier for her to simply choose to ignore it. Ignore it all. With the utmost awareness.

She made the rotten deal, stacked as the odds were against her. Later was later. Her future self, someone else. And greater in number. Let them deal with the tidal bender swelling menacingly under her.

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. Her needle travelling the same well-worn grooves of degeneracy, only now with regained sensitivity. She winced, when her head slid through the threadbare woollen collar, at just how feeble that regain in sensitivity was that she had bargained against herself for, how minute the increase in momentum of the spiralling wheel of diminishing returns.

The thrill of mischief, the depths of hunger, the lacquer of luxury; even her claustrophobia waned. She would not waste it. 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 periorbital dark circles belying the depth of the ecstatic energy with which she chased the headless snake. She escaped with heroic, glorious abandon. Alongside herself, she travelled the soiled path anew. Seeing herself enjoy things which she had become too jaded to enjoy.

Perhaps the foghorn of impending shoals rang sooner for her than it had for her the first time. Or perhaps the fog of decadence was just that much thicker, this time around. The world quaked unnaturally with pent up antithetical energies, and again she struck the desperate bargain. And again until the sweater was little more than moth-eaten thread not fit to garb a mangy rag-dog.

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 half a baker’s dozen of her, loosed to the world. The brim of the wave was foaming, arching into a barrel and there were simply too many of them to stay afloat. Laying as she was halfway between a chaise-longue and the weather-worn wooden slats of the floor, she wrestled herself to her feet. She saw her manyfold selves stirring, moaning their way to wakefulness. She gazed through the window at the giant’s protruding head.

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 had gone. Stupid giant, she thought, always ruining my fun. The room swayed most violently and her countering only made matters much worse.

Witch-pig!, she croaked-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. Was the vicious throbbing angst, she only barely managed to suppress, to erupt, it would be instantly matched six and a half fold, and the perpetual motion machine, once halted, would devour all in its unravelling.

She woke the barman with a few sloppy-aimed slaps. She 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!

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 her vocal strings.

***

Hey!

A few more rocks flew in the interval. She looks to a roundly 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, psssshhhh, shooooo. The kids glance 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 dryly, 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.

Mm… mmm.. mE?

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

Right-o, she sighed 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 twirled at the end of a shoestring. The kids, mesmerized 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 lept. Little vermin.

We.. www… didddn… your ppp… uppet.. he stuttered.

Puppet? She glanced at 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. A. Aaaaa. Do you here that? She fiddles 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.

Hungry much?

The relic still spun purple at the end of its string. She imagined the kids still stuck in 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 a mute giant. Then she recounted her stay in two and forty-four. Careful to curate an exhaustive list of odd eccentric eclectic rapturous indulgences in which she had partaken. Careful, of course, to omit certain devious, degrading or otherwise ignominious details. When she reached the theme of 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 distraction module, meant to distract while the bathwater prods your brain, systematically scanning and extracting every last flinch of feedback, until you are wholly mapped. In-genius. Anyway, when it came down to it, there was only enough space for one of us. And for a while there, I didn’t think it was going to be me!

She glanced down at her battered body.

Pummeled.

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 spark, snuffed out in that swift blur of violence 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. We kill and die. The house always wins. In a swift blur of precisely wielded violence, 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 midsentence.

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, and just as soon the small being disappeared from sight.

Hooohooohoooowie! What all happened here?

The giant slowly glanced up 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 appreciation. 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 arrives 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 swipes a finger on the dusty walls. This place, she inspects the layer of dust on her finger, mildly disapproving, 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 exclaims unenthusiastically, looking elsewhere. Funny, she carried on in an equally humourless tone, I only remember making one of these.

Hmm.

Well, grunty, she slapped her hands together, to dispel the dust, I’ll do you this one favour. We can leave this place.

Aaaacheew! 

Everywhere at once, the puppets collapsed onto themselves, as though every last one of their 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 that her unchecked debauchery could reach and voiced a silent prayer of gratitude at having chosen the more noble of the two paths. She leaned as she crossed herself, sitting cross-legged against a wall, wiped the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth and slapped herself on the cheek amicably. Sorrow filled her eyes as she did so, even as her left hand invisibly subtracted the violet relic dangling from its string entwined in 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 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 did not envy them the battle. Curious, she reached inside her ear.

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