This cover was drawn by VOSHON KENDRICK
This episode is PART TWO of FIVE of our OCTOBER SPOOKY-LINE
I hung from the balcony in the alleyway. I pressed myself against the wall, directly beside the open window. The nightly wind scurried through the lantern light. Not a soul stirred below. A board creaked inside the room. I looked up, and the moon hung between two constellations. The priest said this was the hour.
The board creaked again. And again. Footsteps.
The girl within the room, Atunda, hadn’t turned eight. Her mind still wove myths into truth. She woke from slumber with a quiet, “Hello?”
A voice slithered back, “Child. . .”
“Polly. I was worried the robed man was back.”
The robed man referred to the priest, for sure. Atunda’s parents had both acknowledged their daughter’s hesitation for the church. The more these nightmares persisted, the more reliant Atunda became on this “creature” rather than the church.
It was whispering in her ears in her sleep, slipping in through the shadows in the room. Her parents were mortified. She wouldn’t speak to them, anymore. Only this “Polly.”
“I’m scared. . .” Atunda’s voice shook.
I set my jaw. I needed to burst through the window to protect. . . but I had to wait. We still weren’t sure what was going on. I needed to hear it for myself, and not the parents’ accounts.
I couldn’t stop what I didn’t understand.
I had my theory. . . but needed confirmation.
“I keep seeing shadows,” Atunda said. “I hear the scary things outside.”
Polly’s voice chortled in a reassuring laugh. The sort of derogatory choke that some pedant may direct in anyone’s way. Polly’s voice whispered just loud enough for me to hear.
My hair stood up with his words,
“Don’t be scared. Tonight we take the nightmares away, little one. Are you ready to tell me about your friends? I see them all nestled in the corner. Let go of your fear. . . show me how you play.”
From where I hung, I could see a small pile of dolls in the corner of the room. A half dozen of varying sizes and shapes. One of the dolls—a porcelain piece, obviously exquisite in make and expense—began to glow.
Theory, dreary, little dearie,
Wonder not, dwell on the cheery,
Bump in the night, forget the fright.
Think only of the coming light.
My, oh my, no need to cry,
I'll rock you slow, ’til down you lie.
I am your friend, I’ll come again,
My little song will never end.
Promise? Honest. I’ll admonish,
Any tears, don’t be astonished.
Hold them in! No fear to give.
My warning, then, will settle in.
Child, oh child, your fear will mild,
In yours dreams shall come the wild—
Imagination, oh sensation, thousand thoughts,
Who is this, here? Oh child, dear.
This wicked face of porcelain, clear.
I see them now, name and all.
Your friend, she is, but just a doll.
Mommy calls her just a doll.
Daddy says “the toy,”
But don’t you worry, I won’t hurry,
Any thoughts which may be blurry.
Doll? Think not. Your mind shows truth!
Let go, let go. Let loose, let loose!
I hear the name. . . I see your mind. . .
Give in, give in.
Yes. . . Now, she’s mine.
I swung through the open window and rolled into the room. My tail whipped out against Polly. I drew my saber and slid onto Atunda’s bed. The girl’s eyes glowed bright blue. Her mouth foamed.
Polly smashed into the wall. Brick crumpled over him like a rain of dust. His silhouette rose through the moonlit dust and stumbled forward, sparkling with a sky-blue magic. He was shorter than me. Half a meter, actually—only up to my hip.
“Pitter, patter, went the rat,” Polly giggled. His face sliced through the dust. Jarring, absurdist features. Rosey cheekbones defined enough to be shelves. A nose sharp as a dagger. A smile plastered in permanence, teeth stained black. His face was made-up like a clown, in the shadow of a black fedora.
“My, oh my. . .” his voice smoothed over, “I’ve wondered when this would come to pass.” The dust cleared in wake of his minuscule shadow.
Jingling joints stumbled forward. No coat. No pants. Wooden legs and painted arms. A single bow-tie adorned his oaken body.
Polly was a doll.
My tail wiped Atunda’s foaming lips. My saber pointed to the doll.
“Whatever you’re doing,” I said, “it ends now.”
“I don’t think so.” Polly lurched his fingers like a piano-player. Atunda flew into the air and screamed at the top of her lungs. Foam spewed from her mouth, her legs twitched and flailed. Her parents—hiding outside the room—burst through the door. Polly said, “NO.”
The door slammed shut. Atunda’s parents were thrown through a wall from the force.
I pounced with saber and tail.
Polly slid beneath my legs and leapt onto Atunda’s stomach. His fingers criss crossed, and magical puppet strings glistened along the dolls and the child. His eyes burned bright and the web of puppet strings shone bright. The dolls across the room levitated and shot towards him like magnetized bullets.
All of their faces came together, like a lion’s mane of stale smiles.
Atunda dropped limp in her sheets. The dolls did no such thing. One by one they stood up around her. A henge of companions for their playmaster.
Polly stepped onto Atunda’s chest and tapped his feet. He cocked his head to the side, “Too late.” He inhaled deep, an obvious charge for a breath weapon.
I drew my crystalline buckler and flipped the switch. Gemstones clicked into place, forming a half-sphere around me. Polly unleashed a wave of laughter which vibrated the room. Brick’s shattered from the echo and toys flung across the space.
“What did you do to her?” I growled. Polly’s laughter ended.
Polly lurched his fingers. The dolls posed. Their wooden faces cracked paint as they forced smiles. Three posed on either side of Polly. He breathed deep, and unleashed another wicked laugh.
The sound waves tore the room apart. Paintings ripped from the walls, glass fixtures shattered and electricity sparked with the shredded wires. Stuffed animals imploded and were smashed into pulp against my shield. The roof peeled back and smashed into the wall behind me. Dust cleared.
I did not move an inch.
Polly caught his breath, ending his chuckle. He managed through choppy breaths, “You. . . are a tough one. . . they speak truths. . . the rat is a tough one.”
I rose an eyebrow, “Who speaks truths?” I leapt onto the edge of the bed and withdrew the shield. I pressed my saber against his neck. The move was swift. His eyes spoke in shock.
Below us, Atunda stirred. The dolls around me frowned. Flakes of paint fell from their faces onto the unconscious girl.
“What did you do?” I growled, “And how do you know who I am?”
Polly shrugged, “What any good toymaker does—injected a little life into them. Every doll is already alive. It’s only a matter of getting it out. . .”
“I want specifics—none of this cryptic fluff,” I dug the saber’s edge into his wooden chest. He groaned.
“Every child gives a doll their life!” He raised his hands in surrender, “In a child’s mind, the shadows in the corners of the room are monsters. In the same eye, they see dolls as friends, companions, or even themselves. All I do is walk into their dreams and take out the life they built, and I give that to their rightful owner.”
His fingers flickered, and the dolls around him all waved.
“You steal a child’s version of a doll, and give the doll that ‘life’. . . then why is she half dead?” I slipped the blade against his chest and left a slice in the wood. He stumbled back and fell against the headboard of the bed.
“Its not easy giving up memories. . . they don’t exactly make a person, just a shell. A doll needs a little soul, too.” Polly cocked his head, “Bye, bye, ratman. She won’t last an hour.” He leapt onto the ceiling and ran upside down to the window. His dolls followed with spider-like speed. I jumped to the windowsill but from the other side of the alleyway, Polly let loose another laughter wave. The wall beat in, curtains whipped against my body, and I flew across the room, through the hole in the door, and landed in the sky blue hallway. Lights flickered.
Fringing wires from broken bulbs caught fire to the carpet below.
I spit stonefire on the flames, smothering the heat.
“Atunda!” The girl’s mother cried. Both parents climbed over the rubble into the room. The ceiling frayed and splintered onto the floor, but the girl was safe from the destruction.
“Get her to the church!” I cried and burst from the shattered brick. I scurried through the ruined hall and doorway to the broken window. I turned to her parents, whose eyes were as determined as possible, “Get her there quick. I’ll meet you there.”
I leapt into the alley, and followed the faint blue glow of Polly’s strings in the street.
Wet brick streets lifted to the curb, where weeds shifted to grass littered in monumental stones. In the light the dank headstones shone. Strange how totems for the dead were given life by the light. My paws stepped careful across the slippery grass, and I crawled through a space in the iron gate.
The city’s cemetery stood in the middle of a block. Half monument, half park. After generations, these dead weren’t “dead” to anyone living. They were history, and in turn, decoration.
Polly’s puppet strings went out somewhere behind the hedges. He was in the cemetery. As were his little wooden friends.
“Good choice,” I said, lighting my eyes to spotlight the way. “Eerie, skin-crawling, even. Impressive luring me to a cemetery.”
Wind kicked up crisped leaves. A dankness lie in the air, but not a humidity. A clean, fresh smell from new rain, chilled and fine. But a wicked illness rode the wind, for fallen leaves were dead leaves, and they piled beneath the tombs of the rotten.
A set of white eyes peered from above a grave marker. Two tiny wood hands lifted a pink dressed body onto the stone. The doll wore a bonnet and carried a sparkling pink cane.
A youthful voice whispered from her lips, which now moved—free of the gloss and paint which restricted her. She said, “We are not going back. We are not slaves to her happiness.”
“You’re a toy,” I said, “not a slave. That monster has convinced you otherwise.”
“Are you so sure?” said another doll. This time, a larger, stuffed toy. She peeked from behind one of the four trees in any corner of the cemetery. “We feel it all, know it all, remember it all.”
Squinting, I could recognize Polly’s strings. Thin, nearly imperceptible traces of blue magic tied to the dolls. I peered to both, and traced the angles.
They led behind a monument.
“You’re wondering,” Polly’s voice latched to the wind, “how I know you?” He levitated on top of the mausoleum. His strings thickened, and his fingers played his dolls like an instrument.
I said, “I’ve deduced your knowing.”
“To think, how long have you been a part of our little gang, and still we never met? The others all speak so passionately about you—for good or for ill. You are an impertinent little rodent, always meddling.”
“I help. You meddle.” I Channeled a Force sorcery—counterbalancing Polly’s weight with my own sorcery—and slammed him into the roof of the mausoleum. The ability was similar to telekinesis, though rooted in my Aura and not the mind like telepaths. I imagined the doll’s weight—a few kilos, at the most—and yanked my arm back.
Polly flew off the roof and slammed into the dirt. His strings faded with the impact. I caught a glimpse of the other six dolls he’d animated. With his strings broken, they grew aloof.
“Your bond isn’t connected,” I stepped to the prone Polly and set my claws over his arm. “Return whatever piece of Atunda’s soul you stole.”
“It is done. Finished!” He giggled, and took a choppy inhalation. Before he could unleash another shock wave of laughter, I pushed with my sorcery and the Forces at work countered his attack. He was imprinted in the ground, wood splintering the longer he tried at his magic.
The effort was futile. He gave in.
“It is not finished,” I said, and pointed to the other dolls. One of them collapsed. “Without your strings they’re prone. How does the magic work—a spell, a hex, a sorcery? You have to transfer the soul over time or something? We’re going to the church and you’ll give in there.”
“I. Don’t. Think. So.” Polly roared. He rose his chin.
I couldn’t move.
I could twitch my paws, and shift my legs. My face was paralyzed.
Polly cocked his chin to the side. My foot slid off his arm. He stood and dusted himself off. He cracked his wooden knuckles and opened his palms. Strings glistened in the lantern light, connected all across my body.
“It does take time to give my dolls life. . . most don’t survive.” He circled me. More strings were drawn between I and the dollmaster. He continued, “Memories fade, and so with my extraction, they warp. There’s little chance they are free when I am finished with them. So for a time, my strings keep them upright. The way a parent raises a child, I must puppet my friends.”
He steadied his fingers and rose them above his head.
His strings carried me off the ground. Slowly. Toe by toe, and then my tail. My body was compressed. As if every inch of my skin were held in place by the thickest rubber suit. I could move—but only centimeters—and it required everything I had to shift. Fighting was futile.
How could I break this?
“Peridot’s favorite little WorldWalker. . .” Polly groaned. “Opaline, the Ratman. Finally we come face to face. Thousands, upon thousands of new worlds, and times, and you catch me in the middle of my act. . . pathetic. Give up, now. The girl will be fine. Sure, she’ll never feel joy again—as all that joy is mine, now—but nobody needs to be happy. Especially children. They have their entire lives to see the universe for what it truly is: this failure of cosmic architecture, an experiment gone wrong. You and I? We deserve happiness. We’re the beaten, the battered, the cursed. Just like dolls in a child’s hand—we’re playthings for darkness and light.” He motioned down and I knelt in the grass. My knees dug into the dirt. My head bowed. Polly growled, “I am not a toy.”
My lips squeezed open.
My eyes alit, my Aura burst, and my whiskers singed.
Stonefire flared from my lips, blasting Polly and the entire cemetery-center in blue and red flame. Smoke and steam flew through the tombstones. Fallen leaves were incinerated and frozen at once. When the smoke cleared, six dolls, four trees and a hundred headstones were frozen as a metal statue from my sorcery.
Polly disappeared. But so did his strings.
I shook off his freakish puppet-magic, and ran down the street to the church. Inside, Atunda and her parents were being seen by the priest. Unsure of what else to do, the city-watch sawed off the six dolls from my stonefire statue, and the priest attempted several rituals. All failed.
I spent three nights searching the streets. I didn’t see Polly again. But each time I passed a window, or a toyshop, or skittered by a pile of trash, in every doll’s face I saw his own. In every child’s room I saw his shadow.
The sensation of being trapped, and forced to move. . . it haunted me. That doll had incredible abilities. I wanted to know who he was, and where he came from. Like the other Agglomerates, his story was likely unfathomable. But somewhere in his history would lie the key. The key to killing him.
When I blipped, Atunda was in a coma—no hope in sight. I failed her.
Every world, there was a chance I would see Polly again. I kept my eyes on the dolls and the toys for that clownish face, and black bow tie. Because when I saw him again—he’d be the one haunted by rats in the gutters. He’d see my shadow in the corners, and the streets, and the bedroom walls. And by the time I was finished he’d never take another child’s soul again.
I wished that would have happened.
But I suppose I am getting ahead of myself.
END, to be continued. . .