From somewhere far away flowed the music of a scream, long and distended, echoing, at first sounding like the howling of a dog, but then the wail opened up, and could only be produced by a mouth fully open, fully wide, with the tongue withdrawn in pain—definitely human, and while first the scream of a man or a woman sounds the same, this, toward the end, became the certain scream of horror and pain, produced by a man. The scream descended, the tone sinking lower and lower, into the bass range. And then it was over, the scream cut off. The squatting man cocked his head, listening. He expected the scream to pick up again, because it seemed as if the scream had been going on forever. This place, this dark place, seemed somehow empty without that terrible scream.
“Really nice place you have here, Jack,” Stacey said to the shape huddled in the corner of the cage. He did not know how he had come here, or where they were, but he understood, almost immediately, that he and Jack were together. This must be a dream, he thought. But then again, he knew this was not a dream, not exactly, because he had been here, and often. This was a real place, not something just happening in his mind.
“Is that you, Stacey?” the huddled shape in the corner whispered.
“It’s me, Jack. Are you okay?” Stacey said, peering, desiring to go to him, the boy he thought of as his son. His limbs would not move. He was stuck in this squatting position, but at least it was not an uncomfortable position, because he could not really feel anything, not temperature, not fatigue, not fear—it was the Dream Place, again, and as only once before, it was the Deep of the Dream Place. This was not just a dream or a nightmare. This was a very real place, and while you might not travel to it in any conventional sense, you were actually here, while your sleeping body was where it physically slept.
“I don’t know, I can’t feel anything,” Jack replied after several moments.
Stacey could tell that the young man was drifting in and out consciousness, talking in his sleep. It was not that, sleep talking, not exactly, but it seemed a piece of Jack’s mind was drifting, and speaking, detached from reality, or at least from the reality of this dark place. If he could only go to him, put his arms about the kid—this was not fair, why was he stuck, unable to move?
“Have you been to the puppet show?” Jack said, smiling, Stacey could feel the smile in the dark—that was nice, he could actually feel the emanations of the smile. A smile was seemingly something more than just the flexing of certain muscles around the mouth. Some kind of power generated and flowed, an energy, as alive and as real as electricity.
Stacey smiled, thinking of Jack. Was there ever a time the kid wasn’t smiling? And he almost laughed, thinking of Jack’s smile, and suddenly he felt that he could move. He flexed his hands. He was wearing his fingerless snake gloves, and he had his shillelagh in his left hand—Stacey remembered something about that, a dark monk gifting him with dream versions of his High Vale gear. Or was that just a dream? It didn’t matter, because suddenly he could move, and he crept toward the dim shape of Jack, huddled in the corner.
“Puppet show?” Stacey said, trying to draw Jack out in his sleep talking, as everyone always does when someone starts spouting off in their sleep, finding it intensely amusing. Come on, what was so funny about it, talking in your sleep? But Stacey wished to keep Jack in that smiling state, which somehow enabled Stacey to move in the dark.
This was a very dark place. Now, Stacey felt the fear swirling about, slowly, like fog, suffusing the atmosphere.
“Stupid Punch,” Jack mumbled, “his head was on the ground, and his eyes were rolling up, terrified, you should have seen it, and Judy was going to sit on his head like it was a stool. It was very gross. Judy lifted up her skirt, like a lady, and that head gaped, terrified—you should have heard the people! They laughed, and laughed. I don’t think I was laughing, not then, but now, thinking about it, it’s funny!”
Stacey reached out, half afraid to touch Jack—what if the figure collapsed into an empty pile of clothes? But then he did, he reached out and tentatively prodded what felt like a shoulder, and then he relaxed a bit and moved his hand up and around and felt the back of Jack’s neck, such a young neck, alive and strong, and he felt warmth flood up from that hand, and only then did he realize how cold it was in this place.
“Weird, I can feel something on my neck, it’s like something is touching me. I know I’m only dreaming, but it feels like the hand of my son,” Jack said, murmuring, voice strange and drifting. “It will probably turn out to be a spider, one of the big ones, all hairy.”
“It’s me, Jack, it’s Stacey,” Stacey said, moving in close. It felt like he was moving under dark waters, slow, clouded, drifting, but the closer he came to Jack, getting his arm around behind his neck, cuddling his body in close to the boy’s body, the more he felt a flood of comfort, a wash of peace, and there was real warmth made between them. Stacey cuddled in, clasping Jack in his arms, and Jack turned in his sleep, cuddling in close, burying his face in Stacey’s chest.
“Are we dead?” Jack breathed.
Those words—are we dead—the room grew increasingly frigid, Stacey was certain ice particles drifted in the air. A dread force of coldness pressed into them, bearing down, and only their clutching heat kept them attached, they were the small campfire in the blizzard.
“No, we are not dead,” Stacey said, his mind feeling clearer. It was always like thinking through mud, in this place, in this dark, deep place, the Dream Place. He blinked about, eyes rolling, trying to see. He thought he saw shapes emerging in the dark, but could not discern if they were in his mind, or were really there, taking on definition, becoming clear. He thought he saw an old-fashioned rocking horse, the big kind, on springs. And some kind of doll stood in the corner, was it a clown? A toy soldier? Stacey experimented, closing his eyes, and he could still just barely see those shapes, so they must be only in his imagination. They were there, the clown doll, creepy, and the toy soldier, standing on one leg, and the ragged little teddy bear with one eye.
“Alive,” Jack said, murmuring, barely awake. “That’s good. Because I have to stop Punch. Took Anne, Stacey, he took Anne. Stole her away from me. Anne is gone. Stacey is gone.”
“Anne?” Stacey said. Did he know an Anne? It sounded familiar.
Jack smiled again, big, Stacey felt it like a pine cone alighting, a small, intense fire flaring between them.
“Is Anne your girlfriend?” Stacey asked, desiring to keep Jack smiling, as the pleasant mood seemed to push back the coldness, and the darkness too, because as he spoke about Anne, those dark, somehow threatening shapes in the darkness retreated—or at least it seemed like the toy soldier was less real, the rocking horse on springs, the teddy bear, the broken ballerina, the bouncy ball that looked like a human head.
“Yes, Anne is my love, my Beloved, but we had so little time together, she waited for me for so long, and then Punch took her. I think Punch took everything. He took Stacey, and Michael, and Joshua, and Six, Varra—I think he took Seven, I thought I felt her move past this cage. Is Seven out there, I was sure I heard her voice, like an echo. Did you hear that?”
“Jack, Jack, I’m here, it’s Stacey, Papa’s here,” Stacey said, his eyes blossoming with moisture. He squeezed Jack in his arms.
“You’re not here, not really,” Jack said.
“Can you feel me? These are my arms. I’m hugging you, Jack,” Stacey said, tears trickling down his cheeks.
“Yes, I’m dreaming, you are here, I wish you were here, Stacey, I don’t know where everyone is. I wanted an adventure, and I ended up completely leaving High Vale. I didn’t mean to. Kronoss, and Old Ben. Manda, too. And then Anne. I guess I’m happy, otherwise I wouldn’t have found Anne, or she found me. We found each other, finally, for the first time, all over again, you know about the cycles? The Grand Cycles, the scrolls, have they told you about them, the repeating. Anne. Oh, clenching, I never knew about that, I never even thought about it, you know. Should I feel guilty about that? There’s no one to talk to. I guess it’s kind of embarrassing, although that’s how she pulled me in, she said it would take too long if we left it up to me, and boy is that true.”
As Jack babbled, this place seemed less dark, and Stacey could not catch sight of any of those insidious toys—now that they were not here, Stacey realized just how threatening they had been, the toys, the angry, creepy toys, creeping forward, every time you looked away they got a little closer. He saw uprights, some kind of pillars, or poles, and slowly he discerned that they were in a large cage, with bars, thick bars. It looked like an old-fashioned iron cage, something big enough to hold several people.
Stacey startled, as he perceived the shape lying near them. Someone was huddled into a fetal ball, someone that looked beaten, battered, sleeping a deep and desperate sleep.
“You would have been proud of me, Stacey. I did learn, those things you showed me, the bam, and the boom. Left hand, bam, and then right hand, boom. You should have seen me, Stacey, bam bam BOOM. I knocked down that thug. I was blocking punches and everything. You should have seen me, Stacey, I was protecting my woman, and it felt good. Those knuckles helped, of course, Anne showed me. They were like bionic, or something. But I could box, just like you showed me. I wish Stacey had been there.”
“I’m here with you, Jack,” Stacey said, soothing, squeezing the kid, but his eyes kept straying back to that battered figure, sleeping on the floor.
“I know, I know, what a rip-off, you’re here, right, like in my heart, you know, how they always say. He’s dead, but he will always live in my heart. A memory, like that’s real or something. I gotta say, that really pisses me off! That’s just so cheap, it’s what everyone says, and it’s just not fair. I just met my son, and I found the girl of my dreams, and now I’m in a cage, and Punchinello is going to turn me into a freaking puppet.”
Stacey laughed. It was just so funny, to witness Jack grow angry in his sleep. It was like a drunk, making a speech!
“You laughing at me?” Jack said, and for a moment, it seemed to him that he had come awake, he was lying here, on the cold floor, dreaming about his son, Stacey. He was sure that Stacey was dead, somewhere in High Vale, probably killed by those leopard shadows, the gray shapes, with the dark shadowy spots. Was that real, or something he had dreamed? A window, opening up, and seeing Stacey running through the trees? That had happened, in that outdoor restaurant, right? Old Ben was there, and Manda, and they had encouraged him. Wasn’t there something else? Hadn’t Old Ben touched him, or was that a different dream? Hadn’t Old Ben reached across the shoulder and touched him on the elbow, making a little spark there? He seemed to remember a shock, or a pinch, and then his arm had tingled.
What had he been dreaming? That Stacey had visited him. Wasn’t that Stacey that he had just been talking to? Wasn’t that Stacey, hugging him, keeping him warm? That would be nice, to dream about Stacey, he missed him so much. But no, he was still here, in this cage. Alone, cold, and bloody. Jack groaned, and huddled closer into a ball, and slept.
Stacey drifted, lost for a few moments, the air growing cold, and it felt like he was twisting and turning up into the air, all gravity gone, and for a few terrible moments he forgot Jack, he forgot the cage, and he shivered, terribly cold. Someone moved near him. Jack?
“You are fine, Stacey, it is just a fever,” a woman said, close to his ear—who was that? Seven? No, Mom? Mom! He was sick, home from school, and Mom was close, reading him a story.
“He is in the other world right now, and we might lose him, if he cannot find his way back,” a little voice chittered, and Stacey thought he remembered that little voice, it was a cartoon, or no, what was it, a little animal man, was it Michael? That couldn’t be real, not if he was a little boy, in bed, not going to school today because of pneumonia, or did Mom call it ammonia? Yes, she always got those two words wrong, and she thought her kid had ammonia. She even said it to people, and Stacey was always so embarrassed.
“Give him more light,” the female voice said—was it Mom, or Seven? No, Emily? Was he dreaming about Wuthering Heights? That would be weird. Cathy! Cathy! He was running through the snow, searching for Cathy. She was just at the window. Her ghost. Or was that Seven, the Ghost Lady? She opened a window in the back of Joshua’s truck, and it looked like she was doing sign language, her hands moving about on an invisible tablet.
“I cannot produce more light, not until morning when I can absorb the sunlight, I fed him all the light.”
“He is not the Pugilist,” a new voice said, a sneering voice. “Let him die. He is just a pretender.”
“Would you get out of here, Whitey? We do not need your stupidity,” the female voice said. It was Emily. Yes, Emily.
“I agree with Whitey—I am sorry, I mean I agree with the White Pugilist, this is the pretender. Whether he survives or not is not important. Because if he lives, we will have to kill him, as there is not room enough for three of us.”
“One of us, Black Pugilist, one of us, for after we kill him, I must kill you. There can be only one.”
“Knock it off,” chittered the angry little voice of the meerkat man, Michael. “Go back by the fire, both of you. Leave us be.”
“You obey little man!” a new gruff voice exploded, a voice that sounded too high up, too deep, it was the giant, the crooden warrior.
“We will comply,” two identical voices said as one. Then they said, together: “Stop copying me! Stop that! No, you stop that.” The voices, twins, continued, but drifted away, still arguing.
It was like a comedy routine. Stacey did not understand what any of it meant. Emily Brontë, and Cathy in the snow somewhere, and Michael chittering angrily, and the giant he had clobbered in the forehead, and two of his own voices arguing—this must be a wicked fever dream. He always experienced these when he was sick with a hot fever. But where were the bells? Usually he heard bells. Ah, here they came, bells everywhere, damn it, he hated those bells, but at least they were familiar, unlike all the rest of the nightmare.
Jack turned on the cold floor. He was only half awake. He was still dreaming. He could see a campfire, and a beautiful woman wrapped about someone huddled in blankets—for a second he thought it was Anne, and he almost cried out to her, but then he saw that it was not his Anne, but only a young woman—another automaton like Anne—but she certainly resembled Anne, but with long hair, and she was thinner, longer, or taller. There was Michael, dear little Michael in his meerkat body, gripping his little animal fists. And there was another man, for a startling moment he thought it was one of the Men from Mars, except this guy had a big honking nose, and the beginnings of a beard. And the giant was there, only he looked different, he looked somehow...kindly. He was crouching low, looking over Michael’s shoulder.
Jack opened his eyes. The campfire and the strange group, all of it, was gone. He was alone, here in the iron cage, his body scabbed and seeping blood. He moaned. He wished he could remain in the dreams, for at least they were not here. He tightened, someone else was close, right now, here, someone else was really here, he felt the arms about him. Weird, he was lying on the floor, huddled into a ball, and yet he was sitting against someone, their arms about him. He was split in two. And he felt both realities at the same time.
“Who is it?” Jack murmured.
“Me,” a voice said, a deep voice—he recognized it, that voice. Stacey!
“Stacey!” he said.
“Jack,” the voice returned.
“I was just dreaming about you. You were with Michael, and someone that looked like Anne. And there was a little man, like one of the Men from Mars, only not. And the giant was there.”
“The girl. That’s Emily, her sister.”
“Awesome. Emily and Anne. I wonder if Charlotte figures in somewhere too?”
“We are back again, in the Dream Place,” Stacey said.
“I feel you,” Jack said.
“Yes, we are here, together,” Stacey said. “We slipped out, I saw the people around the campfire.”
“I saw them, too.”
“But we’re back, Jack. We’re back.”
“I don’t understand,” Jack murmured, keeping his voice low. He did not want to wake himself. That would be terrible. To be alone, again, in the iron cage, huddled on the cold floor.
“I am in High Vale, with Emily,” Stacey said. “I think I’m dying. My wife, Maully, tried to kill me, if you can believe it. I was going to be with her, and she smashed me in the head with a door.”
“That makes no sense, whatsoever,” Jack said, grinning.
“I know, right?” Stacey said, and Jack could feel his smile. It was warm in the dark.
“Oh Stacey, I’ve missed you,” Jack said. “I went on an adventure, and now I’m in a different world.”
“I’ve missed you, too,” Stacey said, and Jack could feel him hugging him about the chest.
“Stacey, this might come as a surprise to you, but I found out, Old Ben told me, you are actually my son,” Jack said, not even thinking about the shock he was delivering.
“I think you’re confused,” Stacey said. “You are my son. I think that’s what you mean. It’s dream logic, everything gets tumbled about.”
“No, they explained it to me. You are from a long time in the future. You died when you were a little boy, and I was a very old man, I had you through some kind of test tube or something, and someone, they don’t know who, put you in Seven’s simulation of my childhood.”
“Talk about not making sense,” Stacey said.
“I know, right? It’s crazy. I thought you were my father, but someone, it’s okay, I don’t care which way it is, whatever is real, just so we can be together.”
“I’ll find you, don’t worry about that, wherever you are, I’ll find you,” Stacey swore.
“Anne and I were going to come and find you, but then Punchinello caught us.”
“What the hell is that?”
“He’s a puppet show guy. He’s the puppet master. Very nasty guy.”
“I’ll get better, on High Vale, and I’ll come for you. Where are you, exactly?”
“It’s the Honey Moon, the big one we see in High Vale. The big moon, the blue one. It’s called the Honey Moon, and it is a whole world full of Steampunk, very weird, they’ve merged a whole bunch of book characters with steam technology. Bizarre. Punchinello is working with Frankenstein, if you can believe it—”
“—you mean Frankenstein, like from the book? Mary Shelley? The doctor, or the monster?”
“The doctor, Victor Frankenstein, he’s at war with Tesla.”
“Tesla, the electric car? You mean Elon Musk?”
Jack burst into laughter, but then remembered to suppress his voice. He didn’t want to wake that blob on the floor.
“No, the actual guy, I mean, you know, some kind of simulated version of him, Nikola Tesla. Tesla and Frankenstein are fighting each other, with technology. Frankenstein kept stealing all Tesla’s inventions, and now he has the monopoly on both steam and electric energy. But Tesla is the smarter guy, and he has Sherlock Holmes on his side, with Mycroft.”
“Oh come on! Good night, even in a dream, it needs to make better sense than that!”
“I know! I know! It gets weirder and weirder. I’ve seen Professor Moriarty. They’ve got a mix of everybody here, I mean everyone from the Victorian time, except they don’t seem to be keeping track too well. But they’ve got Conan Doyle working with Sherlock Holmes, and Mary Shelley trying to stop Frankenstein. Barry is on the side with Doyle, and Henry Haggard! I love that guy, I’m glad he’s not with Punchinello. Punch has Dracula, or it might be a puppet, but I’ve seen him, and let me tell you, much creepier than in any of the movies. I don’t know what all, but people have been going past my cage for a couple of days, and I hear them talking about so and so, and this guy, and that guy. It’s crazy. Half the time I don’t know if I’m dreaming or not. There’s this witch that comes through and reaches in with her bony fingers and feels my arms, and I haven’t figured out if she’s real, or just something I dreamed when I was a little boy after my Mom read me Hansel and Gretel. You should see her, a real freak show.”
“Do you know how I can get from High Vale to the Honey Moon?”
“They have a way,” Jack said, “at least I think, you have to go from High Vale to the Story Moon, that’s the small one, the green moon. They have a base there called the Looking Glass. You have to get there, and find Mr. Dodgson, he is kind of the head, or administrative boss, or at least the creative guy overlooking High Vale. He’s very proud of his scorpions, let me tell you. But to get from the Looking Glass to Olde London, you have to jump, and then fall, and you end up flying on these crazy wings through the fog, down into the city. It’s awesome. I want to do that again.”
“I guess I’ll have to figure out everything you’ve just said, later, when I’m awake, hopefully it will make better sense,” Stacey said, sighing.
“I know, right? I have no idea what I’m talking about. But they have Anne somewhere, Punchinello is fascinated with her, because she’s an automaton, and he figures he should be able to figure out what makes her tick, because he’s the Puppet Master, and I’m very worried about her. He already hinted that he is going to take her apart, cut her into pieces.”
“Whoa, do you feel that?” Stacey said in wonder.
Jack inhaled, feeling a fresh, warm breeze, it reminded him of Spring, and it flooded his eyes with tears. Both of them felt warm, and lighter—things did not seem so dark. Minty, like peppermint, and spicy, like ginger. Oh, it made him want to have a coffee.
“Seven,” Jack and Stacey said as one. Then they were quiet, just luxuriating in the few, good moments of peace.
“What was that?” Stacey said, when the wonderful moments of respite were passed, too quickly.
“I don’t know. I feel a little better, there’s not so much pressure. It’s not so...heavy, is it?”
“Right. Yes. I feel better. Lighter.”
Jack could think a little clearer. It was almost like being awake. He remembered.
“Hey, how did you do that? When Anne and I were fighting the Men from Mars, you...popped in, and saved us!”
Stacey didn’t know what he was talking about, and told him so.
“It was you, Stacey, I know it was you. Except you looked different. You had an eyepatch. Dummy, still not protecting your left eye!”
Stacey reached and felt his eyes. They were both present and accounted for. But something Jack said, it rang a bell. He half-remembered.
“I think when Maully’s doors hit me in the face, it destroyed my eye. You’re right, I lost my left eye, although it feels fine here. But I think in High Vale, where I’m having a fever dream, my left eye is gone. I might be dying.”
“Well, don’t do that, idiot. Don’t leave me. We need to be together. Don’t leave me, Stacey.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be okay. I’ve had worse. Apparently, I’ve died, several times—you’d think by now I might get it right, but then again, about some things, I’m a very slow learner.”
There was something about that, fighting the Men from Mars—Stacey felt a twinge of half-baked déjà vu—what was it? It seemed he could remember it, or something close, fighting in a dark alley, knocking down the Martians, and turning back, seeing Jack, and a girl—was he imagining it? Or did he feel it, in his bones? Had Jack just planted the idea, and now he could imagine it? Something. A rapier spinning, poetry, crossing swords, moving through a theatre.
“Cyrano,” he said.
“What?” Jack queried.
“I don’t know, just...something, Cyrano,” Stacey said. As I end the refrain, thrust home. Bring me giants. At the end of my refrain...thrust home. Thrust home.
“He’s here! At least a puppet version of him. He’s a heavy. Punchinello made him. Although, there’s...something, deep in his eyes. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. He looks at me sometimes, and seems so sad. They have to wind him up to make him do anything. Yes, they actually put a big honking key in Cyrano’s back and wind it several times.”
“I don’t know,” Stacey said. “It’s like déjà vu—as if I lived it before.”
Something else. The caw of seagulls above him, a bottle of pale beer in his hand, the sound of the surf—and she is there. She is there. Who is...she? He cannot make her out, she’s nothing more than a blur, but they are together, finally, Drinking beer at the seaside, lying upon the beach. Seagulls. Déjà vu. Did it mean anything? No, come on, it was ridiculous, but it was an overwhelming feeling, eerie, haunting. His heart hurt, there was feeling, he could almost reach out and touch her. But who was she?
“He has powers,” Jack said in a low voice. “I know, I mean I realize, obviously, it is technology of some sort. He is able to manipulate things, the way that Kronoss does, the way that Old Ben can do. Yes, it’s technology, but I gotta tell ya, Stacey, it feels like magic. It really does. It seems like magic.”
“I hate magic,” Stacey sighed. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Then Jack worried at a thought, he remembered Old Ben touching him upon the arm. A tingle. He felt his shoulder, but could feel nothing beyond a vague sense of touch, and realized again that they were in another place—Stacey called it the Dream Place. He glanced over at the sleeping body, and could realize, at least hypothetically, that the body on the floor was him, it was Jack, it is me—but it did not seem real. It was an idea. And he did not wish to prove the idea, because he did not desire for that grim shape on the floor to be him, his self, his being, his very soul, right there, apart from himself, and here he was, in his father’s arms, his consciousness, separated from his soul, his body, because he knew that breath and body made soul, that was the mechanics of the thing. And his consciousness was something...different. Perhaps it was something always separate from his body and breath, his soul, perhaps it was the soul that created the consciousness, like a figurative light bulb above the head. But wait, Stacey was not his father. He blinked. Right? Hadn’t they explained it to him, that he was the father, and Stacey was his son? But it didn’t feel like that, no it felt like his father held him. His father comforted him.
“Is he—this Punchinello character, the Puppet Master—is he like Kronoss and Old Ben?”
“Like them? I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think so.”
“But he’s not like us.”
“No. He’s more like the devil. As I understand things, Kronoss and Aajeel—that’s Old Ben—they are creations, made to protect us. They are shepherds. Whereas I think that Punchinello is a creation, I mean a character created by people, that somehow figured everything out. He’s a character that has become more real than the people that created him. And he’s kind of pissed off about all that. Kind of like atheists, they are so pissed off at God for not existing.”
They sat in silence, pondering, enjoying the warmth of their connection.
“I had a dream, before Punchinello, I think it was before Punch, but you were there, and Seven. We were, I don’t know, like little puffy dolls,” Jack said, dreamily.
“Yes, and God was there—or not God, not exactly, but the little girl, we were her dolls,” Stacey said, joining the recollection, for he remembered that. He had been jostling in the back of a wagon, with animal smells, and a girl, was it Emily? Or Maully? Or was it Seven?
“She said that you were her favorite,” Jack whispered.
“I remember,” Stacey said, thinking, remembering. “Is she real? She seemed familiar, like déjà vu, again and again, and again, like looking into two mirrors and seeing into infinity, that’s what she is like, the little girl. She goes on and on, and yet I keep seeing her, or the opposite of her, and I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Manda,” Jack said. “We are her. Or we are a part of her. Or, I don’t know, really, I think we live inside of her, that she is the program, that she is...everything, all of reality. I forget what Old Ben called it, or her, Virtual Reality, no, Virtual Surreality. No, wait, it was something...Vestigial Surreality. Oh, I remember, in the Sentinel—Mind Awakened Neural Directed Ascension. Manda. I can’t believe that I remembered that, I can almost see it glowing in the stone of the tower. That’s when I really met the little girl, Manda, that day.”
“She called us together into a place like this, only full of light—it was like white, all white, a formless fog, somehow she called us into representational things, dolls, and she held us!” Stacey said, remembering the dream that was much more than a dream.
“Yeah, it was like being called into God’s bedroom, if God was a little girl. I remember that too, it was nice, safe, and warm, and we were back together again, you, and me, and Sandy!”
“Sandy,” Stacey said, savoring the word. “Yes, that is Seven. She was there.”
“And weird as it sounds, Manda is like a little-girl version of Seven,” Jack said.
“He is coming, prepare yourself, Colton,” someone said from just outside the cage.
Stacey jerked, clutching Jack and moving him out of the way, pushing the kid back behind himself. Jack looked about lazily.
“What is it, Stacey? Why did you let go? It’s cold,” Jack murmured, feeling incredibly drowsy.
“Kronoss,” Stacey breathed, getting to his feet, leaning heavily upon his shillelagh, the heaviness pressing down upon him again.
“We do not have time, for the dark one approaches. Do not let him catch you here, Colton. It will all be over for you, do you understand? Do not try to fight him. You cannot fight him. I cannot fight him, not even with a full contingent of businessmen. Wake up, Colton, now, wake up!”
Stacey could see the dark monk outlined in blue moonlight, a ghostly apparition just outside of the iron bars, pointing his staff in at him.
“Who is coming?” Stacey said.
“What is it, Stacey?” Jack murmured.
“What is going on in here!” a gruff voice demanded.
Kronoss was gone, as if he had never been there.
Jack snapped—he flung into himself and pushed himself into a crouch, blinking. He was alone in the cage, staring at a dark shape just outside of the bars. What was he dreaming about, was that Stacey? They had been talking about Manda, and it had been warm, and nice, and now suddenly the cold invaded, and he was sure he was dying. He missed Stacey. His eyes welled with tears. If it had only been real. But dreams were like that, they faded away and you were left with nothing. Still, you had to love those fleeting dreams.
Punchinello stood just outside of the bars of the cage, with Cyrano behind him, looking in.
“Cuh-cuh-cold,” Jack chattered.
“My little biological,” Punchinello crooned in his deep, mellow voice. He sounded like a saint. No, he sounded like a movie star. No, he sounded like a jazz DJ, crooning out his message of love and death. “You must be kept cold, so that you are fresh, fresh as a daisy, right as rain, clean as dew upon the grass.”
“Let me give the child some fire,” Cyrano said, his sad eyes watching Jack shiver upon the floor in his half-crouch. “A little warmth should not excite your ire.”
“Terrible rhyme! You are slipping, Nose, oh but you are slipping,” Punchinello said, smiling his pleasant smile. He truly did not look like a bad guy. He was quite handsome, save for that bizarre window of face that did not quite match the rest of his head.
“Where is Anne?” Jack queried, getting himself onto his feet, but remaining in his huddled posture. He knew if he stood up he would bang his head on the bars at the top of the cage, as he had experienced that particular thrill several times in the last couple of days.
“Do not worry about the puppet,” Punchinello said. “But tell me. Who created her?”
“I don’t know,” Jack repeated, as he had been pummeled with this question endlessly. How did she work? What was her power source? What was her purpose?
Thankfully, Jack did not know any of the answers, so he could not betray her. They had so little time together. He never had the chance to learn her secrets, thank goodness.
“Tell me something true about her, and I shall allow our friend Cyrano here to give you a...blankie, wouldn’t that be nice? A nice, warm, fuzzy blankie.”
Jack smiled. “She’s great at karate. I’ve never seen anyone move like that. I saw her kick your face off, that was pretty cool.”
“Yes,” Punchinello said, not put out at all by Jack’s very powerless taunt. “I too witnessed her skills in the martial arts. Very impressive. But you just told me something I already knew. As you say, she practiced those arts upon my face. I was impressed, as I was at your own fisticuffs, young Jack, my biological. Apparently, you had a significant teacher. Tell me about your teacher.”
“Well,” Jack said, concentrating, keeping his teeth from chattering in the cold. “I wasn’t a very good student. But he was a pretty good boxer.”
“A pugilist,” Punchinello said, thoughtfully. “I have heard rumor of a pugilist, making the rounds in our little world next door. I wonder. Yes, I wonder, you see, I do not believe in coincidence. Just a short while ago we had a visit from a strange fellow, white hair, white eye patch, odd weapon—I believe it is called an Irish fighting stick?”
“Doesn’t sound like a boxer to me,” Jack said, shivering violently.
“Perhaps not, Jack, perhaps not,” Punchinello said, staring at the prisoner. Then he glanced sourly at Cyrano. “And this one, Nose, allowed the strange visitor to escape, from my theatre of all places, and apparently without any aeration. Nope. Not a single...bloody...poke.”
“As a fighter he was very quick, an artist with that knobby stick,” Cyrano said, an eyebrow cocking, as he glanced with disdain at his master. “Certain others were bested by a child, and two girls feminine and mild.”
“Fool! That was no child. She was our enemy—the enemy. She is the villain in this little piece,” Punchinello growled, looking as if he might cuff the puppet swordsman. “I had her, here, beyond all expectation, and you allowed her to escape. I blame you, Nose.”
Cyrano abruptly turned and glanced about the room, his gauntleted hand upon the hilt of his rapier. His keen eyes peered as he swept the room, turning in smooth circles.
“Yes,” Punchinello said, “I sense our visitor, as well,” Punchinello crooned, withdrawing a tiny pair of opera glasses from an interior pocket of his cloak. He placed the lenses to his eyes and glanced about. “Come out, come out, wherever you are! Olly olly oxen free!”
Jack, shivering, moved to the edge of the cage and climbed the bars. His fingers felt as if they might stick to the cold iron. He suppressed the very real and sudden urge to stick out his tongue and lick the bars—come on, he had heard stories, and you just never knew if they were true or not! But he refrained. With all his other problems, getting his tongue stuck to iron would make him look absolutely ridiculous.
Stacey stood, quietly, watching them. They had not sensed his presence, not until he had strolled through the bars of the cage. He was not quite in the world in which they existed, but yet he was here, and they could not see him. But they sensed his movement, Cyrano first, and then the Puppet Master.
He had been warned. Kronoss himself had briefly appeared and warned him out of this place, but he just could not bring himself to leave his Jack with these monsters, freezing to death in an iron cage. His fury was expanding in his chest. If a forest of little trees lived inside his breast, they would all be alight, burning bright. His teeth were on edge. He glowered at Punchinello.
“Ooh, yes, I sense his anger, and by my readings, this is the man, yes it is he, the Pugilist, come back for seconds,” Punchinello said, stepping away from the cage, and then he paused to rudely shove Cyrano in the small of the back, launching the puppet out a good five feet. “Yes, there is a connection. Dear, sweet Jack, our brave little biological, he has some form of connection to our High Vale Pugilist. What do you think, Nose?”
Cyrano lithely stuck the landing, coming down on his toes first, and then spinning about, drawing his rapier in one smooth and loud rasp of metal from metal. He darted about the room, knocking aside hanging puppets, searching in corners, moving aside large toys, opening chests. Suddenly the room was not quite so dark, as little Tesla coils appeared all about the periphery of the chamber. Correction, as here, in this time and place, the correct and proper name for the lights was Frankenstein coils. The lights sparked and flashed various colors, briefly, as they ignited, and then they hummed into a smooth flowing and steady light source.
“No, no, my dear Nose, I do not believe our visitor is here in any guise that you shall be able to discover,” Punchinello said, looking about the room with his opera glasses. His gaze swept right over Stacey, and for a terrible moment, Stacey thought it was all up, because it seemed that Punchinello looked directly at him, and saw him, but he continued without pause, glancing about the room. “At least not beyond your nose.”
Stacey grinned. Oh, he already knew this guy. Punchinello had seen him. Now he was acting. Stacey moved back into the iron cage, passing as easily through the bars as if through fog. Yes, he did feel something, but it was only a whisper of physicality. He wished he could reach out and comfort Jack, but the kid could not see him, they were now on different planes, and Jack was watching Cyrano and Punchinello as they searched through the chamber.
Punchinello suddenly leapt, his arms sweeping together, pouncing directly on the place where Stacey had stood, only one second before.
“Come out, little bird, olley olley oxen free!” called Punchinello in a child’s singsong voice, eerily looking about, scanning for Stacey.
Stacey crouched down, just behind Jack, who leaned against the bars, watching the searchers. He readied himself, his muscles coiling and tightening. He exhaled, his eyes boring into the back of Punchinello’s head, seeing him through Jack.
Punchinello whirled, peering through the opera glasses, looking directly at Jack, and his mouth fell open as he stared.
“What in the blazes am I looking at?” Punchinello breathed, staring. He could see Jack, but there was something more than Jack, something unlike anything he had ever seen before. It was like seeing two souls merged. A greater soul. Or that other myth, soul mates.
Stacey launched himself, through Jack, through the iron bars, leaping while simultaneously swinging his shillelagh, and Punchinello screamed, dropping his opera glasses, as Stacey came down upon him, slamming the twirling stick into the Puppet Master’s head. The head flew through the air, like a baseball slugged squarely by a bat. Cyrano, like a cat, snapped out a gauntleted hand and caught the head, in that one hand, a shortstop catching a line drive. Those were some incredible reflexes. Cyrano, with nary a thought, had snagged the head right out of its drive.
“What just happened?” Punchinello spat, his eyes twirling in his decapitated head.
“Calm and refrain your cryin’ and floggin’,” Cyrano said, smiling beneath his nose. “Our visitor just knocked off your freaking noggin’.”
Punchinello’s body did not fall down, but instead leaped to snatch at Stacey, who was ready, sidestepping the headless body, and extending a leg so that the body blundered right over and tripped. And Stacey slammed the knob of his shillelagh down into the neck of the body, crushing it over and over again. He didn’t know what was in there, but he was striking it hard, indeed. A spine? Some kind of socket?
“I can’t believe it,” declared Punchinello, watching from Cyrano’s upraised hand, who held up the head like the headless horseman waving a jack-o’-lantern. “Hitting a fellow when he is down!”
Stacey stood on the body and twirled his shillelagh.
“Open the cage, now,” Stacey growled, glaring into the Puppet Master’s eyes.
The door of the iron cage swung outward on screeching hinges. Jack stumbled out of the cage and sprawled across the floor, hardly able to move.
“Get up Jack,” Stacey commanded, but it was obvious, Jack could not hear him. The kid was oblivious to Stacey’s presence. To him, it must seem that Punchinello was putting on some new personal theatre.
“Jack, dear biological thing, your...boxing teacher wishes you to rise. Please, dear boy, get to your clumsy feet,” Punchinello said, very helpfully.
Jack climbed unsteadily to his feet and stood blinking at Cyrano and the grim jack-o’-lantern head upon his outstretched hand. He glanced to the side where the headless body sprawled. What in the world was going on?
“Open the door at the top of the stairs,” Stacey commanded.
Somehow the head managed to nod from its perch.
The door at the top of the stairs swung open, and lantern light shone into the room, illuminating the staircase.
“Run, Jack!” Stacey thundered, but again, Jack could not hear him.
“He would like you to run,” Punchinello said, smiling beatifically.
Jack began a slow and painful stagger toward the stairs, which were not far away, but then he stopped and looked back. He stood to his full height and squared his shoulders.
“I want Anne,” he stated, in as firm a voice as he could manage. “I’m not leaving without Anne.”
“I knew it!” Punchinello shouted, and the door at the top of the stairs banged shut.
Stacey never knew what hit him, but suddenly the world upended and he crashed head-over-heels into the floor, and tumbled. He was not hurt. It was like in a dream, you could get slammed all over the place and not feel anything. But he shouldn’t have allowed himself to lose sight of the Puppet Master. He looked up from where he lay sprawled
Punchinello stood above him, the body still and headless, but there was the head juggling between the hands. Punchinello’s body was throwing its own head back and forth, up into the air from the left hand, arching high into the air, down into the right hand, and then in reverse, Punchinello smiling all the while, apparently really, really enjoying the ride. The eerie eyes never lost contact, staring into Stacey’s own eyes.
“Why not stay awhile, my friend? Visit with Punchinello? I think you will love my puppets, and I can assure you, they will love you, and love you long.”
Stacey tried to get up, but an incredible weight pushed down upon him. He struggled, straining, pushing up against the force, but the harder he forced himself up, gritting his teeth, the stronger the force became, pushing him back down. It felt as if an elephant were sitting upon his back.
“I am afraid I cannot allow you to do this,” a stern voice said, and Stacey looked and saw Kronoss, swinging not a staff, but an umbrella, of all things!
The umbrella slammed into Punchinello’s face, stripping away the rectangle of face, and Stacey immediately felt the force that held him down melt away. He scrambled to his feet and punched the knob of his shillelagh into the Puppet Master’s chest, driving him back.
“No! Go!” shouted Kronoss, and he did a flying tackle, catching Stacey across the chest.
Stacey opened his eyes and stared up, disoriented into a gray sky, with what appeared to be lacey clumps of pink cotton candy floating in it, adrift. Where was he. He ached everywhere, and felt he might vomit at any second, and there was the lower pressure, and he feared diarrhea wanted out just as badly as the vomit, but for the life of him, he couldn’t think of where he could be. He glanced to the side in distress, and saw a woman’s face, too close.
What in the world?
He looked the other way and almost shrieked in terror, for a critter loomed close, peering into his eyes. It looked like a raccoon, or a large marsupial, a koala bear, no, it was a very large meerkat, only it wasn’t a meerkat, it was Michael, and then he remembered. He was in High Vale.
“So good to see you, Stacey Wolf,” Michael chittered, “welcome back!”
What just happened? Was he dreaming of Jack? He remembered there was something about moons, and Lewis Carroll, scorpions, and a puppet show. Something. A monk was there, and Cyrano de Bergerac. And then Stacey erupted, in innards suddenly becoming his outtards.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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