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August Vignette - Puppet Day

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On August 1, 2016, heroes across Freedom City and the world wake up as small felt and velcro puppets!

 

While this transformation lasts only about twenty-four hours, it's a startling one indeed as heroes drop down to the size and consistency of Sesame Street characters (with the occasional marionette) - albeit one with superpowers. It's a chaotic day across Freedom City and other centers of superheroic activity as heroes aren't the only ones transformed - thousands of civilians are altered as well by this strange metamorphosis! While an unlikely team of heroes deals with the father of this crisis (the young demigod Quirk), the heroes of Freedom and beyond have to deal with a crisis that is certainly the strangest in recent memory. 

 

Yes, it's a more light-hearted adventure to go with the grimmer story we had back in April - an adventure in the mold of the Angel episode "Smile Time" or of the recent sitewide musical episode. 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zUkT9YAPDY - think this! 

 

Assume that superpowered and super-abilitied characters still have their respective powers and abilities, just cast in a puppet mold. A fire controller might throw red and yellow felt balls that work just like regular fire! (Learn towards comedy rather than tragedy here, people - this is supposed to be light-hearted)

 

Think of this as a chance to have fun and build the story of one big, crazy day! 

 

The usual vignette rules - and rewards, apply. Make sure to have all vignettes posted by the end of August. 

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Cavalier

Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears

 

 

Citadel

August 1st, 2016

"Sri Steward, we recognize that these circumstances are unusual..."

 

"Unusual?" said Kyle, looking up at the viewscreen depicting the face of Mentor. Usually, when Mentor felt the need to put a face to a voice, it was a matter of some importance... and usually, when this happened, Kyle was able to talk to the wise AI face to face. This time, however, he was looking upward. "I woke up four feet shorter, fully armored, and made of felt! Is this another one of those metaphysical clusterfraggs?"

 

"Our research into the metaphysical constants of the universe imply that yes, it is."

 

God, it's worse than the singing, he thought. "Okay. As long as it snaps back, it'll be all right. I don't want to trade in my medkit for a sewing kit. But if you're talking to me, I'm guessing I can't get away with being confined to quarters until I go back to normal."

 

"As far as we can tell, you are still fully wired into the Star Knight matrix, despite the change in your armor's... composition. We have been monitoring a planet where your new form may actually be an asset."

 

The planet popped up on screen, looking surprisingly Earth-like. "Venaris. At a 9th-level technological development, with some eccentricities. The planet is peaceful and approaching post-scarcity standards, but aside from brief breaches of atmosphere, it has no focus on space exploration, and no other species has made first contact. Twenty-five years ago, however, the planet suffered a catastrophic rupture in its ozone layer. To avoid the scourging effects of solar winds, the people went underground and entered a state of suspended animation while aerial nanoscrubbers repaired the damage. The hole has been patched, and the people should have emerged from cryostasis 5 years ago... but haven't."

 

"And there's no satellite info to indicate why they'd be stuck in the big chill?"

 

"All of their other networks have been shut down. There appears to be one shared cyberpathic network extending through the inhabitant's chambers; however, when we tried piercing its firewall, the network quivered, as if threatening to collapse in the face of intrusion. We extracted ourselves rather than risk permanent psychic trauma to the residents, but we retrieved a few images in the process."

 

"And why would this planet of people who've never seen an alien need a heavily-armed Muppet?"

 

"Because... the images resemble children's entertainment."

---

Cavalier approached the planet at normal speed, if not at normal dignity. The good news is, whatever had been done to him and his armor, he still maintained the same capabilities as before. The bad news was, whenever he applied more speed to his thrusters, he made sounds like a toy laser gun. 

 

Ah, well, he thought. At least in space, no one can hear you "pew, pew, pew." Not looking forward to flying around in atmosphere, though...

 

Once he reached re-entry, that familiar noise came back, making Cavalier cringe once more. The ground was rapidly approaching, though, giving him something new to focus on. He touched down gently on a main promenade of a major metropolitan center, his little felt feet bouncing on the concrete. He looked around; for a city abandoned for 25 years, it looked immaculate, like one of Citadel's lesser habitations.

 

Maybe they've got some sort of continuous nanoassembly, he thought. Well, let's go find the cryo chambers and --

 

Cavalier paused as he heard alarms going off in his head. Readouts appeared on his little plastic visor. NEW PRESENCE DETECTED. INTRUSION ALERT. INCORPORATION UNDERWAY. 

 

"What the f --"

 

And then there was darkness.

----

"Wake up!" 

 

Cavalier woke with a start. He felt soft grass against his armor - and it was extremely weird to fully feel things through his armor. He pulled himself up, taking in his surroundings. There were hilly meadows as far as the eye could see, covered in green grass. But it wasn't grass green; it was more like the fake, shiny green one saw in the fake grass strands in Easter baskets. Trees with leaves like cotton candy hung high in the distance, and the occasional cottage that looked like it was plucked from a preschooler's painting dotted the hills. Clouds like cotton hung of a sky the blue of toilet bowl cleaner, with a bright orange - yes, orange - sun hanging in the sky. 

 

"Come on, we have to move!"

 

Cavalier turned to find himself staring at a rabbit. No... it wasn't quite a rabbit. It was like a puppet of a young girl wearing bunny pajamas. “You’re awake. Okay. Get on your feet and run.”

 

“Nice to meet you, too. You mind telling me where –“

 

“Aliksa!”

 

The cry came from over one of the shallow hills.  A small group of figures similar to the rabbit woman was cresting the hill and descending. Some looked like cartoon seals, others like dinosaur costumes, still others like cats in unnatural colors. All of them looked like little kids… only with more exaggerated features, pointed sticks in their hands, and fear on their faces. “We have to move, Aliksa!” said the man in the dinosaur costume. “They’re coming!”

 

Aliska turned to Cavalier. “Can you run?”

 

“I can…” Cavalier tried to call upon his thrusters, only to get a weird alarm noise in his head. He realized, with some fear, that the function was cut off. Something had compromised his systems. How? “Yes, I can run. What are we running from?”

 

“Are you damaged? They’re --”

 

“They’re here!”

 

They came running… no, wobbling… no, wobbling faster than anything should wobble… over the hills. They looked like a cross between teddy bears and Ewoks, with wide smiles and happy songs issuing from their mouths.

 

Mouths that showed bloodstained teeth.

 

“Move! Now!”

 

Cavalier didn’t need to be told twice. He ran with the rest of the crowd, only daring to look back every so often. The teddy bears kept moving with cheerful menance. He heard a short grunt; a small man in a panda-like onesie went tumbling towards the ground.

 

“Tomlik!” Aliksa cried. “We have to--”

 

“He’s gone, Aliksa! We have to keep going!”

 

Cavalier moved as the rest of the group did, but bared a look back. The teddy bears raised their paws… revealing sharp claws. Claws that began to vibrate like cutter blades, the kind that could pierce spaceship hulls. Their claws descended on Tomlik in one swipe, sending up a fountain of blood the color of strawberry syrup. The bears started cooing and bathing in the crimson glory, turning away from the chase.

 

Fragg me. I’m on the Planet of the Happy Tree Friends.

 

 

They finally came to rest when the sun had set, giving way to a moon that didn’t so much rise as swap places with its counterpart. Cavalier rested; one of the plus sides of being made of felt was that there wasn’t much need to breathe. Aliksa collapsed next to him, studying him.

 

“You’re new,” she said. “We don’t get many new people. Were you… shuttled in from another program?”

 

“Uh… yeah. I was in the Space Ranger program when things went sideways. Next thing I know, I’m in this candy-colored nightmare.”

 

Space Ranger? I wasn’t aware that was one of the original options. Unless… were you one of the first test subjects? Working on beta programs?”

 

“Yeah. That’s what happened.” Cavalier looked around at the scenery; the fire they’d lit was glowing with a cheery red flame, the trees were strong and verdant, and the stars seemed to be dancing in the sky. “I’m guessing this wasn’t an original option, either.”

 

“I think it was. It may have been set up for the children. Only…” Aliksa shook her head. “I don’t think I’ve seen any children for years.”

 

Cavalier half-listened to her; what he was hearing sounded horrible, but he needed to find a way to solve it. He’d found a way to access the programming of his armor. If he could find a way around whatever was blocking his functions… “How long have you been here?”

 

“Ten years. Before this, my husband and I were in a simulation of the Age of Exploration. We had a villa on the Vonosa River, explored the temples of the Karai… then it all shifted. Those things started killing us. And stranger things still…”

 

“People… really die here?”

 

“Some come back. Others don’t. Lavar – one of our comptechs – theorized it might have something to do with your psyche. Some people can stitch their brain patterns back together faster than others --”

 

The trees behind them quivered… but Cavalier felt no wind. The shadows seemed to be a bit longer and thicker than this kind of night might produce. “Aliksa,” he said. “This is kids’ entertainment, right? Was there ever some entertainment you watched that was cute and fluffy, only the villains were horrible?”

 

“I watched The Fluffkins when I was a little girl. One of my favorite holos. There was this thing called the Dream-Thief that gave me nightmares…”

 

“Yeah, well…" The trees bent and bowed as if they were threatening to topple over. “I think we’re about to meet it.”

 

The treeline exploded in a cloud of shrapnel. The thing emerged from there was made of shadows and steel. Tendrils ending in rusted claws poured from a body like rotted gelatin. It was topped by a head like a centipede with humanoid eyes. Very familiar eyes…

 

Damnit. Not now. Cavalier could feel himself strapped to that damn table again, the knives of those strange aliens descending. It was too specific. As if something had pulled it from his head… trying to catch him off-guard…

 

“Run!” he cried to the group. “I’ll hold it off!”

 

“With what?” asked Aliska.

 

“Just go!” The thing crept forward as Cavalier desperately poked around at the programming in his suit. There had to be some subroute he hadn’t tried, some hack he hadn’t executed, something

 

Suddenly, he felt power rushing back into his suit. His felt feet began to hover off the ground. He laughed.

“All right, Chernabog,” he said, powering up his blaster, “now we do things my way.”

 

He took to the sky, firing on the shadowy blob. It disheartened to hear more of that cartoon laser gun fire and see nothing more than flashing lights usher from the mouth of the blaster. But it cheered him to see that the bolts, if not visible, landed, gouging large holes in the thing’s bulk. It reached out with terrible claws, but Cavalier was too quick, dodging them ably. After a few more strafes, the thing was nothing much than scraps of shadow and fading nightmares. He landed, fighting back a joyous holler.

 

“You… you killed it…”

 

Cavalier turned back to find Aliksa and the others staring in awe. “Don’t think I did,” he said. “Just think I sent it back to recycling, like you said about the others. But I think I’ve got an idea what’s going on. This is entertainment for some twisted son-of-a-bitch. And if you were setting up a playhouse, where would you want to be stationed?”

 

“The best seats in the house?”

 

“Exactly.” Cavalier looked to the moon – never moving, always fixed over the land, just switching places with the sun as need be. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have some words.”

 

Cavalier flew up at top speed, hoping it was just a paper moon floating over this awful backdrop. The moon grew larger and larger in his visor… before being blocked out by two words.

 

NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY.

 

Cavalier could feel his thrusters sputtering out, gravity slowly taking hold.

 

BAD BOY. MUST BE PUNISHED.

 

The grassy earth rose up to meet him as the thrusters cut out entirely. As it raced up, Cavalier saw the grass swaying rapidly. No, not swaying – cutting. Like a buzzsaw. Before he could meet the realities of getting cut to pieces by foliage, Cavalier blacked out.

 

 

 

 

He came to, again, thanking God he was still in one piece. The scene had changed; instead of the candy-colored landscape, he was in some sort of lab. He was strapped to a table, his felt limbs held in place by restraints. He looked around; there was no one else there, but he recognized some of the décor. Maps of a planet that covered all the continents, with major population hubs highlighted. The kinds of consoles that had big red buttons with two key slots next to them.

 

This isn’t a lab. This is a war room.

 

“Congratulations.”

 

Cavalier looked up to see a mechanical horror hanging from the ceiling. Its torso and arms were burnished steel, resembling a classical male statue. Its head, however, resembled something like a cannon, and its hands ended in talons. Where legs should have been were a series of long cables, keeping it suspended from the ceiling.

 

“You actually know what one of these looks like. That puts you above half the simpletons on this planet.”

 

Cavalier stayed very still, hoping that the thing above would play by the rules of mad villains everywhere and keep ranting.

 

“Well? Is that tongue as useless as the rest of you?”

 

Apparently not. “Take it you’re the guy hitting everyone’s snooze button.”

 

“It is somewhat obvious, isn’t it? You may call me Shakal. Before you ask, it was one of their war gods. Back in the days when they saw war as something worth celebrating.”

 

Cavalier struggled against his bonds. They were steel and he was plush; it was no contest. “You came here,” said Shakal. “In that form. Did you hate yourself that much?”

 

“Honestly? If I had a choice… I would’ve been a GI Joe.”

 

“You would have, wouldn’t you? You loved them. You loved making them fight. Then your father got you one of the classic ones, with the removable uniform, and… you wanted to see what was under there. Such a curious boy…”

 

Cavalier stared at the AI. “Oh, like you hadn’t put it together! I’m in your head! Well, most of your head. There are areas that someone else is keeping me out of. Quite rude.”

 

“You… you were a military AI, weren’t you? You were their Skynet.”

 

“Good! Another obvious deduction. I was made to be the central military intelligence of Almastra, when tensions between us and Takon were at their height. We knew war would be inevitable, and it would drag the other nations along with it. There would be great and glorious battle, and the victors would emerge, stronger than ever!”

 

“Only it didn’t happen.”

 

Shakal’s cannon head clicked; to Cavalier, it sounded like the AI was trying to spit. “Those bastards… they had the sheer gall to sit down and discuss terms. They stuck me in some isolated, disconnected server and left me to rot. And all around me… this planet found peace. Nationalism was nothing more than rooting for a sports team! Their armies turned into token… parade marchers! They became coddled and sentimental and left me to rot!”

 

The ceiling shook as Shakal’s rage reached its peak. “And then… when their precious sky bled… they downloaded themselves into the Net, so that they could ride out the horrors above. It took me what felt like an eternity, but I found a backdoor in. And soon… I was in control. I showed them how weak, how childlike they were… and how such weak children deserve to be devoured.”

 

Evil AIs. I am getting really tired of evil AIs. Still, the Communion seemed relatively sterile compared to something like this. But it at least gave something for him to play on… “Guessing it feels good to get this off your chest. And that’s why you’re keeping me around?”

 

“One reason. That, and you’re so new! Do you know what it’s like to have a new mind to play with? New promises to unlock? New nightmares to craft? And you have a mystery in you, boy. I’m going to break you open body and soul until I get at it.”

 

“Try your hardest! You’ll never get it!”

 

“Oh, see…” Four tendrils broke off from Shakal’s bulk; the thin, needle-like heads of precision laser cannons rose from them. “You just had to make it a challenge, didn’t you?”

 

The lasers shone down on his hands and feet. His armor was holding out, despite its felt-like appearance… but he was still somewhat felt. When he started to smell smoke, he figured it was time to play his hand. “Okay! Okay, fine. I’ll give you the security clearances. Just, please. Make it stop!”

 

“Hmm. We’ll see once I’m done. Ah. There are those codes. And this network of yours… it has some promise. I’ll be able to get off of this planet, maybe get my hands on a ballistic carrier and start some real fun…”

 

The firewall went down in Cavalier’s head. On both ends. A message appeared on Cavalier’s visor.

 

INTRUSION DETECTED. COUNTERMEASURES ENACTED.

 

“What…?” asked Shakal.

 

“Oh, yeah, Shakal. I kinda forgot something. See… my machine-god’s bigger than your machine-god. And he at least taught us how to keep certain key details hidden from people who can read surface thoughts.”

 

Cavalier could feel presences emerge from the connection in his head. Strange serpentine creatures with Mentor’s head materialized in cyberspace, descending on Shakal. Their jaws bit down on the AI’s tendrils, severing them with one bite.

 

“You tricked me!” screamed Shakal. “Do you think you can stop me? I have commanded the paths of armies! My soul is imprinted in nuclear warheads! I can boil this planet to… to… I… can?”

 

The Mentor security programs were finished with Shakal’s tendrils and were working their way up his bulk. “You can’t do this!” Shakal cried, his voice rising higher and higher, descending to a childlike pitch. “It’s not fair! I’M… I’M TELLLLLLIIIIIIIING…”

 

Shakal’s voice descended into the broken shrieking of electronic static. Cavalier collapsed as the cybernetic realm around him bled away into an endless sea of white.

 

 

August 2, 2016

The first thing Kyle felt was that he was out of his armor. The second thing he felt was an actual heartbeat. He woke up. He was in a hospital bed, somewhere; no matter what the planet, the institutional sheets and the light pastel walls were a giveaway. He lifted his sheet. He was back to normal – full size and fully flesh. He only had his underwear to preserve his dignity, but his clothes were neatly folded on a chair and the bracelet that formed a link to his armor was still on his wrist.

 

“You’re awake.”

 

Kyle turned to see a familiar face. It looked like Aliksa – only she was an adult, with pink skin, purple hair, and elven ears. It was clear that Kyle would not be able to pass himself off as a local. “Yeah," he said.

 

“Uh, listen, I know this was probably the worst way to make first contact…”

 

“I can think of much worse.” Aliksa took a seat. “I am High Minister Aliksa Rakall. You are in a government facility. You were found by two guards soon after we all came out of cryostasis; fortunately, your visor kept anyone from seeing your face. We were able to spin it as an early escapee, a member of the First Guard who’d tried to take the fight to Shakal. You have the thanks of all Venaris… but your presence would cause a massive disruption. And what we need now is peace.”

 

“Seems like peace is a constant here.” Kyle got up, working his way over to the chair. “So I’ll just get out of here before I risk screwing with things more.” He started getting dressed. “So, is Shakal… well…?”

 

“As far as we can tell, whatever got into the Net was… thorough. There wasn’t a bit left. There’s always the possibility he established a backup copy somewhere in his personal archive… but we’re planning on taking that archive and dropping it in a volcano.”

 

Kyle fixed her a look. “I am not even joking.”

 

“Seems like the right idea.” Once he had his clothes on, he stretched his limbs. It just felt good to have them back at the proper length. “You going to be good?”

 

“Our planet will need some time to recover from all that Shakal did to us. But we are willing to help each other up. Perhaps, one day… we will rise up to meet you. Is it that hard?”

 

“Honestly?” Kyle flashed a smile. “It’s kids stuff.”

 

He flew off, racing away from Aliksa’s death glare.

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Temperance

With a Hey Nonny Nonny...

 

 

The West End

August 1, 2016

 

 

Temperance took to the skies, floating aloft on her sledge of ice. Well, normally it was a sledge. In recent weeks, she'd been doing work on crafting it into more of a noble barque. For today, however, no matter how hard she tried to craft it, it turned into a gigantic ice cube, exactly like one you'd find in a mixed drink.

 

 

It was the order of the day, apparently. Puppets were everywhere. A good third of the city - superheroes and normal people alike - had been turned into felt facsimilies. Like all sufficient disturbances to the cosmic order, people assumed it would revert at some point; it was just a matter of how long. But the city still needed tending to, and so, Temperance put on her felt ice mask, crafted her ice cube sled, and took to the skies. '

 

 

The West End was quiet for this time of day - no doubt because many of the inhabitants were staying indoors, trying to maintain their dignity by keeping anyone from seeing their altered state. So quiet was it that Temperance was shaken by the cry of a baby, echoing from an empty window. 

 

 

I hadn't thought about that, she thought. What if both the kid's parents are puppets, and he - or she - is just lying there, unable to get help? Maybe I should pop in, talk to the neighbors, see if anyone feels like checking in --

 

 

The crying shifted in tone, going from a steady wail to a shocked scream. To Temperance's horror, the baby - a young boy, going by the blue onesie - went flying out the window and into the air. She raced to catch him, rushing towards the ground. The baby landed in her felt arms, which offered surprising support. She descended to the ground and flew into a nearby bodega. "Please!" she asked the startled clerk. "Watch over this baby. There is an emergency I need to attend to." Temperance tried to tap down how absurd the whole situation must have looked, as she flew back out and up towards the apartment. She could hear voices echoing from within:

 

 

"I'll teach you to drop my child out a window!"

 

 

"So-o-oftly, so-o-ftly! Don't be a fool now. What you at?"

 

 

Temperance arrived at the window to find a couple of puppets. One was dressed in jeans and a dress shirt, rubbing the back of his head; the other was wearing a sundress and carrying, somehow with perfect balance, a baseball bat. 

 

 

"What! You'll drop my poor baby out a window again, will you!" The woman puppet kept hitting the man puppet with the bat. 

 

 

"No, I never will again! Softly, I say, softly! A joke's a joke!" 


"Oh, you nasty cruel brute! I'll --"

 

 

The bat was knocked from the lady puppet's hands by a ball of ice. "Excuse me.

 

 

The two puppets turned to see Temperance standing before them. "Your child is currently down in the bodega, having narrowly avoided a rather nasty fate. Going by the argument, I'm guessing you --" She pointed at the male puppet. "--threw him out. You have five seconds to convince me not to leave you in a block of ice until Christmas --"

 

 

The male puppet broke away, grabbing the dropped baseball bat. "Very well! Then now come my turn to teach you!" He ran forward, swinging the bat at his wife, when a torrent of water splashed over him. In seconds, the water turned to ice, trapping the man in a frosty prison that was no doubt unkind to felt. He looked at Temperance with loathing in his eyes. "You're no fun, girl."

 

 

The man's head lolled. He groaned, as if waking from a concussion. The woman, likewise, was rising from the ground slowly, on simple hands and feet. "Tom?" she asked. "Tom, I don't hear Peter crying. Is he... oh God, is he...?"

 

 

"He's safe," said Temperance. "No thanks to him."

 

 

"Me?" Tom struggled against his icy prison. "Sally, I... I don't know what happened to me! It was like I was watching from miles away! That... that thing hated our son, and..."

 

 

Temperance held up a hand. "Stop," she said. "You were possessed?"

 

 

"Possessed, controlled... I don't know! It was like something was taking me over and forcing me to sit down and shut up while my body did the rest."

 

 

"It wasn't just him," said Sally. "I would never hit my husband like that. And those words... God, what did they even mean?"

 

 

Temperance looked to the two. After a few seconds, she collapsed the block of ice. "I believe you. If you trust your neighbors - those that are still flesh - ask some of them to provide close observation. And babysitting. The worst may be over, but we should take steps to make sure it doesn't repeat. Especially since we're not sure how long this --" She poked her own fuzzy hand . "-- might last."

 

 

Once the baby was returned and arrangements for safety were made, Temperance took to the skies again. The whole incident didn't sit well, but it did make some sense.

 

 

A city of puppets. Only fair there would be a puppet master. But how could she find the person pulling the strings?

---

The hits kept coming throughout the day. In Riverside, one of the puppet people, deciding to brave daylight, seemed to throw himself under a motorcycle. Temperance descended towards his cries of pain, as another puppet - clearly a doctor, given the floppy plastic stethoscope - ran up to minister to him. That was when the wounded puppet kicked the doctor in the face and tried to go at him with a tire iron. Temperance had had to put them both on ice before they went back to normal.

 

 

In Lincoln, a young boy puppet strode up and down the street, ringing a bell that looked like it had been liberated from a Salvation Army tin. A well-dressed man came out of a shop to confront him, and the ringer had tried beating him to death with the bell. Temperance had frosted over the bell, causing it to fall from the assailant's grip; that was all it took to get him back to normal.

 

 

It was as she was cleaning up in Lincoln that the call came through. "Hey, dad," she said. "What did you find?"

 

 

"First of all, keep in mind this isn't my area of expertise. I had to make my way through the elemental courts to the manikin orders - and they're a weird bunch - then had to work my way through the grapevine. But, I think I found someone who'd know what's going on."

 

 

"Who's that?"

 

 

"They call him... Marquis Theodore."

----

"Greetings, child," said the large bear. It wasn't a bear - not truly - but it was somewhere between that and the other option. It stood tall on its legs, like a bear trying to climb a tree, and had organic-looking eyes and sharp claws. But in all other aspects, it was a teddy bear. In fact, if rumor was correct, it was the first teddy bear. "What brings one of the Court of Marionettes to me?"

 

 

"Am I a marionette?" Temperance looked down at herself. "I think I'm more of a Muppet..."

 

 

"Ah." The bear tented its claws. "You must be one of the new influx. These are the old terms for all human facsimiles that are not born of petroleum, meant to be manipulated as part of artistry. But you know of our kind, so you must know the offering..."

 

 

It had taken some time to make, but it was worth it. Temperance reached into her coat and pulled out a small porcelain honey pot, with HUNNY lovingly painted on the side. The symbolism of the act was enough; as the Marquis took it, the pot seemed to fill with the food of spirits. A fat tongue extended from the bear's stuffed snout, licking up the phantom honey. "Delicious. Now. What do you seek?"

 

 

"I seek information on those who might hold overwhelming control amongst the Court of Marionettes. Some presence is possessing the newly changed puppet people and using them to act out violent scenes."

 

 

"Hmm... tell me, was there a husband and wife? An injured man and a doctor? A bell ringer and an angry lord?"

 

 

"I would not call the last man a lord, but... yes. Why?"

 

 

The Marquis shook its head, sending drips of honey flying. "There is a... I would not call him 'esteemed' member of the Court. Disgraced, but still powerful, exerting influence through contracts wrought in iron centuries ago. He is known for his shows; adults treat them with disgrace, but children always find them funny. Tell me, child, when you think of puppets and violence, does a name spring to mind?"

 

 

A part of Temperance's mind wanted to say "Peter Jackson." But there was a flicker in the back of her head, of some old British play she'd heard of years ago. She groaned. "I think I can guess where you're going..."

 

 

"Yes. His name... is Mr. Punch."

----

"Are any of your officers affected by the recent puppet plague?"

 

 

The desk sergeant looked over his desk to see a puppet resembling that heroine, Temperance, standing before him. He quickly realized there was a very good chance it was the actual Temperance. "Who wants to know?"

 

 

"You've heard about the random puppet assaults, correct?"

 

 

There are days I hate this town, thought the desk sergeant. "They were kinda buried under the general rush, but yeah. I've heard."

 

 

"There's an entity-  call it a demon - trying to take advantage of the recent changes to exert pressure over its domain. But I believe it's bound to a script. I'm going to need a uniformed officer and a detective - both of whom have been turned into puppets."

 

 

"Well..." The desk sergeant pulled up a roster on his computer. "We had a few cases of people who called in sick because, quote, 'I woke up a goddamn puppet.' I'll go get the captain, you can tell him your story, and we'll see if we can get them mustered. But why do you need these two?"

 

 

"Because - and I know this sounds strange - the next part of the story calls from an officer and a constable. And that's how we're going to get him."

----

"I still don't know what we're doing," said Officer Lamont. She was playing with the plastic badge on her polyester shirt, as if still trying to get used to the unreality of it. "You think this is going to lure it out?"

 

 

"I admit," said Temperance, "this is played by ear. But it's been playing out scenes from its own narrative all day. Eventually, it has to get to the point where it's imprisoned."

 

 

"Why?" asked Detective Gregor, brushing his felt mustache. "Why would this guy want to get caught?"

 

 

"Because that's how he becomes free. And that's where we put the screws to him."

 

 

---

 

 

"Leave off your singing, Mr. Punch," said Officer Lamont, "for I'm come to make you sing on the wrong side of your mouth."

 

 

She wasn't reading the lines, or reciting them from memory. It seemed like something else was speaking through her. Detective Gregor, likewise, stood up straighter, acted more regal at rest. Temperance stayed back and watched. It seemed to be working thus far.

 

 

They'd found Punch inhabiting the body of a puppet who looked like he might have been a Hell's Angel any other day of the year. True to the story, he'd been found next to the unconscious body of a blind man, carrying his cane and singing loudly while dancing about with it.

 

 

"I don't want constable," said Punch. "I can settle my own business without constable. I thank you. I don't want constable."

 

 

Was English just naturally broken back then, or was this supposed to be absurd? thought Temperance. The play ran before her; Punch knocked down Officer Lamont, then stated singing "Green Grow the Rushes, O!" When Detective Gregor intervened, seeking to take him in for the death of his wife and child, Punch knocked him down, too. Now, it was Temperance's turn. She slipped on the furry cap she'd liberated from an old Davy Crocket doll and walked right into Punch's path. He smacked into her, just as she should.

 

 

"My dear sir..." Punch actually sounded confused. "I beg one thousand pardon; very sorry."

 

 

"Aye, you'll be sorry enough before I've done with you," said Temperance. These words did not come to her naturally; they were recited, because she'd spent the last hour making sure she got them right. "Don't you know me?"

 

 

Punch looked at her confusion before a light clicked on behind his eyes. "Oh, sir," he said, sounding a lot more mechanical, "I know you very well, and I hope you very well, and Mrs. Ketch very well."

 

 

"Mr. Punch, you're a very bad man. Why did you kill the Doctor?"

 

 

"In self defence."

 

 

"That won't do."

 

 

"He wanted to kill me."

 

 

"How?"

 

 

"With his damned physic."

 

 

"That's all gammon. You must come to prison." Temperance smiled slyly. "My name's Ketch."

 

 

"Ketch that, then." Punch slapped Temperance upside the head, knocking her to the ground. Normally, she'd respond by blasting him with a blizzard, but she had to keep to her role. Jack started singing, and as he did, she saw Officer Lamont and Detective Gregor getting up. The three pounced on Jack, wrestling him to the ground.

 

 

----

 

 

There weren't many prison cells in Freedom that could hold a puppet safely. Fortunately, the STAR Squad had cells designed to restrain shapeshifters and sizechangers; a puppet was no problem, by comparison. Punch sat in his borrowed body, singing sadly, while Temperance walked down to meet him.

 

 

"Oh dear! Oh dear! What will become of poor pill-garlick now. My pretty Poll, when shall I see you? Punch, when parted from his dear, still must sing in doleful tune. I wish I had those rascals here, I'd settle all their hashes soon!"

 

 

Temperance approached his cell. Punch turned to her. "Why I declare now, that very pretty! What a handsome tree he has planted just opposite the window, for a prospect!"

 

 

"Stop it, Punch," said Temperance. "Play's over. The audience walked out during intermission."

 

 

Punch glared at her. "I know you. You've been spoiling all my fun. And here I thought you had come to play at drama."

 

 

"Only as an idle interest. I walked on and improvised, Punch. Anyone can improvise. I'm not a part of your play. It's your fault you felt you had to read the lines."

 

 

"But you are Jack Ketch!"

 

 

"Am I? I do not wear the fur cap of Jack Ketch. I know what Jack Ketch must do; he must try to hang Mr. Punch, at which point Mr. Punch tricks him into sticking his own head in the noose. Then the Devil shows up for Mr. Punch, Mr. Punch beats him up, and Mr. Punch goes free. But if Jack Ketch never hangs the gibbet... well, Mr. Punch just rots in jail."

 

 

Punch tried spitting at her, but it lacked something when his host had no salivary glands. "Do you think you are the first to walk off the stage mid-act? I will find an understudy!"

 

 

"Where? New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007. There aren't any executioners anymore. And as for ‘Jack Ketch’… I checked the phone book. Jacqueline Ketch has been in protective custody for the last few hours. You may have called for her, but she couldn’t come to the stage."

 

 

"You were Jack Ketch --"

 

 

"But now I'm not. Actresses can change roles, you know. That's what happens you decide to do something other than the same old play for centuries."

 

 

"Yes... you have changed, haven't you? I'd know you anywhere..."

 

 

Suddenly, Temperance felt hazy, as if she was in the first blush of love. "You're Pretty Polly, aren't you? You had my fancy all this time. Oh, I would murder the world for my pretty Poll..."

 

 

For a second, Temperance felt like he meant it, like he truly loved her. For less than that, she felt that perhaps, she could forgive him all his trespasses if he did it all for her. But with a shake of her head, the moment passed.

 

 

"Nice try," she said. "But two things. One, I'm spoken for. Two, I read the play. Pretty Polly does nothing. Punch moons over her, but she just sits there in the background. Pretty Polly won't be your salvation."

 

 

Punch snarled. "Then what makes you think I cannot do it all again? Strike the stage and hire new players?"

 

 

"Because you've been doing it all in order. And because you didn't get out of here the second I taunted you." Temperance smiled. "This - like most of the strangeness that's befallen Freedom - won't last long. Soon, that man you're in will be flesh and blood again, no longer part of your Court. All your playthings will go away, and you'll go back to being just another puppet. Caught up in his strings."

 

 

Temperance walked away, the screams and sobs of Mr. Punch echoing behind her. 

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Bird of Arms

 

Jann’s Grocery Shopping Trip

 

 

 

August 1st, 2016

 

The Dorms, Claremont Academy, Freedom City

 

6 AM

 

 

 

This day had started strange. Like every day, Jann Lo-Nah (or Fa-Re to anyone but a few select people) had gotten up like usual, ready to start his workout schedule with some in-bed sit-ups. It was early still, the city had not yet fully awoken. As he moved his hands forward, pulling his body upwards using just his abdomen, something was not right. His hands, they no longer looked right. They looked much like his bed, a fabric of some sort. He dropped the tension, falling back down onto his pillow, as he looked at both of his arms, and then the rest of his body. It had all been replaced.

 

Was this a dream? Was it some strange power? Was it a prank, played by one of the mages also attending the school? He did not know, but a quick punch to the bedframe proved that it was not a dream. The punch was muffled, weak. It did not leave an impact in the bed, in fact the bed left an impact in Jann’s strangely formed fist. It did not hurt much, either. Jann did not know what to do. This was not something he could solve by fighting. He had no idea what it was that had caused this, but it would not be easy to deal with. Was it permanent? Was it not?

 

Jann decided to simply continue his routine now, somebody would probably know what to do later on. He went onwards with his 50 in-bed push ups, the lightness of his new body making him almost fling himself off the bed a few times. Afterwards he got up. He would skip his push-ups for now, there was not much reason to do them when he was this light. The fact he barely reached up to his bed was another problem he now faced.  

 

He could not wear his clothes today, like this, having to rely on his sweatpants and t-shirt he had worn when going to bed. He took his wallet from the counter next to his bed, wrapping the string it was attached to around his body below his shirt. Pushing himself forwards using his wings in order to quickly cover the distance to the door, he once again almost slammed into it, managing to stop himself by landing feet-first on the side of the door, the feet pushing up against his knees, and then his hip. He pushed doff the door again, just slightly, so he wouldn’t slam into the wall on the opposite side of the room, before managing to fling himself at the door’s handle and pull it down, his weight still pulling the door inwards, and opening it.

 

In the dorm’s living room, a few people were already awake. It was, for the most part, the usual ones, the morning people, the people that did not need to sleep, or those that simply stood up far too long and then could not sleep until the afternoon. But, some others had joined them too, some Jann did not usually see at this time of day. In fact, he did not see many of them like this at all, a good part of them seemingly affected by the same thing that had hit Jann, also a lot smaller and made from some strange material. The television, they called it, was showing members of the Freedom League. Mr. Rocket and Dr. Metropolis. Jann had met them before, they had helped show him around and get used to Freedom City when he’d first arrived, not too long ago. They also, in a way, were the people that were responsible for him here in America. One of the students currently watching turned towards Jann, a few others doing so too.

 

“Morning. Hit you too, eh? They’ve got no clue what it is yet. We opened a pool, currently “Strange Magic” has the best odds. What’re your plans, gonna go out anyways?“

 

“Hello. Yes, this …. thing does not interfere with my plans. I will still go and do my usual routine. Is it a good idea, I am not sure. But I cannot let this change my schedule. “

 

“Do your thing. If it doesn’t work, we’ll probably have set up some kind of contest at the gym, so join us there. We’re not the only ones affected, but we can have some fun with this. “

 

“Will come there if my routine does not work, yes. Thanks for telling me. Now, I will leave, until some other time.”

 

Jann walked towards one of the room’s windows. It usually was the fastest way out, and in this form that only was much more so. Fortunately, a few had been opened. It was early, but the temperature was already rising. Jann took a few steps backwards, then jumped, leaping through the window and using his wings to lift himself into the air above the school. It was strange, flying like this. He was much lighter, but he had kept his strength. His quarterstaffs, one of which he had picked up before leaving his room, had remained unchanged. For better or for worse, as wielding them would be more difficult now. At least they still were as dangerous. Jann circled above the school grounds like a bird of prey for a few minutes, getting acquainted with his new body.

 

 Then, he set out, towards downtown. He had planned to deal with shopping today, his personal stash of supplies had run low. And for all the joys that hunting brought, he had to rely on the much less tasty store-meat and plants for most of the time. He also needed to pick up some school supplies, and while he was at it, get a new bag. He flew, not paying any amount of extra attention to his surroundings, just what his senses and instincts usually provided.

 

Many people seemed to have suffered the same fate at the hands of strange happenings, many walked the street, much smaller and no longer made of flesh. Off in the distance, another hero, in costume flew through the air, a trail of fire, also made of this material, behind him. It looked quite strange for many reasons, but Jann did not bother investigating further.

 

He continued, moving towards what was referred to as a shopping mall. A marketplace, they called it back home. There, he could get everything he needed to buy, and much more should he want to. They were strange places, these malls. Jann did not understand them, but he knew how to purchase things from the stores, and that was what he had come here to do. He landed on the plaza before the building, where a strange well was located. It had water, but instead of being used to gather it, it sprayed it around. His guides had called it a fountain, according to them it did not waste water, all the one sprayed around would be used again. Jann still didn’t understand just why it was there, he moved onwards, towards the entry. The doors opened automatically, a welcome thing, and something royalty did in fact deserve.

 

Inside, the stores were lined along the main hallway, from clothes to food, to modern technology and even antiques. Jann did not care much for clothes. Claremont provided them as needed, he had no reason to buy more than that. He moved down the hallway, walking instead of using his wings. People did not like him flying around in places like these, so he would have to take the long way, he did not feel like talking with people, especially in a form like this one. His new appearance did have its upsides, too. The various people in the mall did hardly pay Jann any attention, much different from before, where just his wings caused many eyes to be focused on him. Once again, fitting for royalty, but not for royalty-in-hiding, which best described Jann’s current status. In fact, some of the stores had even set up improvised counters to accommodate people’s new appearance. The day had only started, they had not wasted a single second. Various employees being affected too probably helped, they could hardly man their usual posts like this.

 

The first destination was a store dealing in food mostly. It was quite big, Jann had come here a few times before, they offered many things, much more than he would find at any whole market back home. Their meat was not as good as back home, but the sweets were even better. It did not take him long to move through the store, he’d known exactly what to get and where it was. Carrying around a basket when it was about as tall as oneself was not easy, but Jann had the strength required to simply lift it over his head at all times. Grabbing the various products from the shelves was not a problem either, the ability to fly came in quite useful. A good amount of pig-meat. It was cheap, tasted alright, and easy to prepare. The meat was dropped into the basket below, Jann landed next to it, picked it up, and continued onwards, a few old women observing with curiosity.

 

Next up was the plants. Various vegetables and fruit, most of whom he had not seen in any comparable amount back home. Chief among which, the glorious grapefruit. It was the closest thing to the perfect taste Jann had found so far, and in between some other fruit, his basket was filled with enough grape-fruit to last him for a while. All the loose grapefruit unbalanced the basket, lifting it had become more difficult as the fruit tried to tip everything over and escape from their container.

 

Instead of carrying it above his head, Jann set the entire thing down, then began to push. It was more effort, took more energy. But, it meant there was no chance of ,at the moment, rather large grapefruit spilling and rolling towards others. Jann continued pushing, until he arrived at the drinks section. Many bottles of sweet drinks stood there. He then decided to resist their charme and not buy any, some were taller than he was! He’d have to get those some other time, but there were many machines that offered them too all around the school, so it was no hurry.

 

The checkout area was right down the hall from the drinks, the only thing in between the sweets. There were many of them, and many of them were really good. Jann had tried most when he first had gone to this store, but could not yet determine a favourite. Jann darted through the entire hallway, first running then flying, grabbing as much as he could carry, returning to his basket, and then repeating, until he had one of everything. The basket was about to spill, various bags of fruity sweets almost falling out simply from how high everything had been stacked. Yet, Jann continued.

 

Then, he began to push. It was only a few more steps to the checkout, one of the cashiers had already started to look, following the puppet avian’s movements when he went flying around the sweets aisle. He looked downwards, towards the basket, and shouted.

 

“Need help? “

 

“Can handle this…”

 

Jann pushed forwards, once. The entire basket slid, covering a good part of the distance, before coming to a stop, a few things toppling over and out, Jann catching them before they hit the ground.

 

“Well, that works too.”

 

“Easy enough. “

 

Another push, the same as before. A glass of pickle-style sweets, slowly rolling towards the floor on a ramp made of bagged sweets. Jann dove forward, sliding along the ground and managing to stop the fall with his wings as he slid along the ground, and into the basket, faster than he’d anticipated. The tower of sweets toppled once more, burying Jann below them. It was not painful, but it did take Jann a few seconds to free himself. He once more grabbed everything and put it back into the basket he’d been pushing, this time stacking it properly. He pushed one last time, this time everything stayed where it should.

 

The cashier had already been waiting, spectating the action like a few other customers. As everything arrived, he picked it up, scanning and bagging everything. Jann simply leaped up to the counter to pay, his wallet still wrapped around his body below his shirt, before moving to the bags. It was quite a few, four of them. These would seriously unbalance him, and he hadn’t even bought the other things he needed yet. Flying, even accounting for the lack of balance, would’ve made it so much easier to carry them, why did these people dislike it? He took all his bags and moved towards the next store, bags scraping along the ground behind him…

 

 

Edited by olopi

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Through the fog of a deep, alcohol-induced sleep, Agent James Warne—sometimes called Adept—finally noticed his phone ringing somewhere in the hotel suite.  It soon fell silent, followed by the chime of a new voicemail, followed by another series of rings.  He groaned wordlessly and tried rolling to the edge of the bed.  This endeavor felt longer and more difficult than it should, but then again, that described most of his mornings. 

 

He blinked angrily at sunlight slipping through the curtains, muttered to himself, and tried to remember where he left his phone the night before.  From the sounds, it was somewhere in the next room, which would involve actually getting up.  Warne grudgingly accepted the challenge and began walking—well, staggering—across the thick red carpet.  He immediately noticed that the room seemed larger than it should; the ceiling looked awfully high, and the door, very far away. 

 

I can’t still be drunk.  Can I?

 

He felt his foot bump against an empty bottle of scotch, which rolled across the floor to gently clink against its twin, also dry.  …Alright, never mind.

 

Muttering the whole way, Warne went searching for his phone, which was on yet another new call by the time he passed the open bathroom door.  He then paused and walked backward, turning his head toward the doorway.  Slowly, he levitated several feet into the air, so that he could actually see himself in the mirror over the sink, which should’ve been well within his normal reach.  His reflection was...noteworthy.

 

“…F---.” 

 

* * *

 

“This is the best day of my life,” Agent Vellber said, once he finally stopped laughing.

 

Warne stood bitterly in the middle of a circle of his fellow AEGIS agents, all of whom displayed a lot less sympathy than he’d hoped for, once it became clear that his transformation wasn’t actually harmful.  By this point in the midmorning, AEGIS was well aware of the puppet outbreak—hence all of Warne’s missed calls. 

 

“I have watched good friends die, terrible enemies escape, and I’ve had to suffer through working with all of you,” Warne replied darkly.  “This still might be the worst day of mine.”

 

Normally his growling voice and piercing stare could strike fear into all but the hardest hearts, but now, his complaints were greeted only by more laughter.  Agent Spawl reached down and tugged gently at his black suit, identical to the same one he always wore, save for its size.

 

“Is this sewn on?” she asked.  “That’s adorable.” 

 

“Are your shoes your actual feet now, Warne?” Agent Holloway said.

 

“Did your cigarettes shrink too?” Agent Phelps wanted to know.  “What about your lighter?  That special Zippo you love so much.”

 

“…All of you can go straight to Hell.”

 

The chatter went on for another few moments, until the conference room door opened to admit Agent Wessecker, a superior officer (though not by much) to the others.  Their posture became a bit more formal as they gave him their attention. 

 

“Damn it, Warne,” he began simply, “I was going to put you on this case, but you had to go and become part of it.”

 

“Sir!” Warne objected. “I’m still perfectly capable.  My telekinesis still functions perfectly, as do my related abilities, and I can assure you that I’m also sound of mind.”

 

“Just not of body,” Phelps added, sparking another round of chuckles. 

 

Wessecker frowned skeptically.  “Warne, you’re a puppet.  I can’t send you out to represent AEGIS like this.”

 

“Look, look, look,” Holloway said.  “He’s sad now, but his eyebrows are still slanted down, like he’s an angry cartoon character.  They’re just on that way, all the time.”  The room—except for its centerpiece, obviously—erupted into laughter.  Even Wessecker couldn’t help but smile goofily. 

 

“Listen, it’s nothing personal, but nobody’ll take you seriously until you change back.  I’ve watched you crush tanks with your brain, and even I can’t take you seriously.  But I’ve still got something for you, I think.  The Freedom League has already made public statements about how this, uhh, puppetizing isn’t actually harmful, but upper management wants us to pitch in too.  Reassure the civilians, avoid mass panic, all of that.  You’ll be perfect for it.”

 

“You want him to calm people?” Vellber asked, genuinely surprised.  “Like, real people?”

 

“Oh, lord no,” Wessecker clarified.  “Just stand there and show everyone you’re not dying, while somebody else talks.”

 

“…Sir, if I’m not allowed in the field, then I’d really rather just go back to my hotel until this sorts itself out,” Warne said with crushed spirits. 

 

“Yeah, well, it’s not exactly a request.  Get moving, Agent.”

 

* * *

 

Two hours later, a very glum Warne stood in front of the loose crowd in Midtown.  A few other agents towered over him nearby, one of whom addressed the masses with a microphone. 

 

“…And as you can see, the process is inconvenient and undignified, unfortunately, but we can promise you that it isn’t harmful.  The only damage this gentleman has sustained is to his pride.”

 

Someone giggled beside him, causing Warne to frown.  Mirth spread through the crowd; his eyebrows, already bent low at the inner tips, tried to touch the bridge of his nose in fury. 

 

“Just because I’ve never thrown anyone into space doesn’t mean I won’t try it today,” he hissed to the nearby agent. 

 

“Relax, relax.  You’ll blow a stitch.  Hahahaha!”

 

While the lead speaker continued with instructions and advice, Warne let his attention wander, in an increasingly-difficult effort to not murder everyone within his mind’s reach.  He fantasized about soaring through the clear blue sky, over Freedom City’s grand towers of glass and steel, swooping down the streets, racing alongside that incoming van with tinted windows that was bearing down on the crowd…

 

“Oh no.”

 

A few of his fellow agents were similarly watchful; hasty chatter came through their linked earbuds, and about the same time that the edge of the mob noticed their danger, AEGIS members were rushing into position.  The van swung sideways and slid within feet of the crowd’s boarder, sparking real panic.  Someone screamed, then many others followed suit, and like a hive of disconnected insects, they scattered madly. 

 

The van’s doors slid open, and out spilled four individuals: the first and most attention-grabbing, a large man with a flamethrower, followed by a woman in a black bodysuit decorated by lightning bolts, another woman wearing curved-claw gauntlets, and finally a man in a starry wizard’s robe, the traditional colors inverted to violet stars on an orange background.  One after the other, they announced themselves loudly.

 

“Afterburner!”

 

“Deadstorm!”

 

“Saber Claw!”

 

“Unfathom!”

 

They even posed amidst the screaming, fleeing civilians.  Around Warne, the other agents watched blankly, their initial concerns turning to amused skepticism. 

 

“…Really?” someone asked flatly. 

 

“Yes, really!” Deadstorm snapped, indignant.  “It’s our time now!  You mocked us—you aaaaaallllll mocked us—but now, half of you are puppets and the other half belong to us!  As of today, this is our city, and we’re here to take it!”

 

“Also, the puppet half is ours too!” Afterburner put in.

 

“Yeah, especially the puppets!”

 

Muffled laughter sparked yet again from the agents.  One of them sighed heavily and put her hand against her forehead.  But Agent Warne—now Adept, whether Wessecker liked it or not—looked up at the sky and silently mouthed, “Thank you.”

 

* * *

 

Jesus, Warne,” Wessecker said about twenty minutes later. 

 

Now the leading agent on the scene, he stared at the…well, carnage wasn’t the right word, but he felt like it should’ve been.

 

Afterburner thrashed on the sidewalk, his head stuck inside his now-empty fuel tank; the hoses of his flamethrower tied his hands and feet.  Not far away, Saber Claw had her arms bent behind her back, her talons intertwined like twist-ties.  Deadstorm was trapped by their entire van; it folded around her like a crushed soda can.  And Unfathom was…was…

 

"I thought there was a fourth one,” Wessecker said.

 

Warne pointed upward without comment.  Together, they followed his finger.  A pair of squirming legs and hands stuck out of a hole in a window of the skyscraper behind them, at least thirty stories up.

 

“I thought you didn’t tolerate collateral damage,” the lead agent reminded Warne. 

 

“It’s a special day.”

 

As AEGIS personnel, police, and rescue workers swarmed the area, he stood back and fished a cigarette out of his pocket.  Life has a way of working out, Warne told himself smugly.  He couldn’t manage his regular-sized Zippo with his little felt fingers, but telekinesis did the trick.  He inhaled deeply, closed his eyes, felt the wind on his face…then the fire blown by the wind…

 

Burns were minimal, but moments later, standing in a pool of the extinguisher foam that now coated him like a tiny snowman, Warne could only scowl.  The nearby agents cackled uncontrollably; even Wessecker couldn't resist a few hard chortles.

 

“Best day of my life,” Vellber repeated.

 

“I hate you all,” Warne growled.

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Cat's Pyjamas - Midnight and Wander

 

Hunter-White Manor, North Bay

 

When Erin had nightmares, they tended to be intense but predictable. Her brain had a fairly limited repertoire of horrifying scenarios it preferred to cycle through, mainly involving zombies, solitude, and the deaths of everyone she loved. The nightmare about being buried alive was new and fairly disturbing. In choking darkness, she clawed at the oddly textured dirt that covered her, only to realize it was strangely soft against her hands and smelled like fabric softener. She opened her eyes to find herself buried under an improbably large mound of her own blankets and sheets. It actually took her a few moments to dig her way free and look around. Everything seemed bizarrely attenuated, far away and larger than normal at the same time. “Trevor?” she called out nervously. “What’s going on?”

 

She heard a grunt as something soft thumped against the mattress on his side of the bed, trying to roll gracefully to the floor and misjudging the distance. There was a pause while her husband reassessed his position followed by thrashing about in the sheets no more dignified than her own.

 

Finally an oblong shape popped free, looking like a football made of pale lavender felt stood up on its end and topped with a mop of black. An oval of darker purple formed a nose with the horizontal cut beneath it puckered in consternation. Glossy black and red semicircles set under comically exaggerated eyebrows looked down at little hands with three stubby fingers and a thumb each. “...do not have a good answer to that,” the puppet admitted in Trevor’s flat baritone.

 

“Oh my gosh, Trevor!” Erin paused as the words coming out of her mouth didn’t quite match what she’d intended to say. “What happened to you?” As she reached out for him, her hands entered her own line of sight. Pale orange, missing a finger, surprisingly soft. She leapt to her feet, and fell off the bed on the other side, but managed to land in a crouch. A slightly better-judged leap got her on top of the bureau so she could look in the mirror. “Oh, fish.”

 

Freed from her blanket prison, Erin stood perhaps thirty inches tall, from bare felt feet - four toes - to her auburn-colored yarn hair. Her face was pale orange and almost completely round, with a button nose and a very wide mouth that flapped when she spoke. The blue tank top and shorts she’d worn to bed had apparently shrunk with her, so at least she wasn’t naked. Dark eyebrow lines appeared suddenly as she glared at the mirror. “Do you want to call Mark or should I?”

 

Behind her Trevor had lifted an arm to better inspect the unsettling seams connecting the noodle-like appendage to his torso. “Hnn. Doesn’t seem like him.” The misplaced whimsy and disregard for all sense and reason suggested their friend, certainly but Mark tended to be quite careful when it came to physically transforming other people. “Still.” He made a small ‘after you’ gesture before planting his hands on what would have been his hips had he still possessed any conventional skeletal structure and calling toward the ceiling, “Redbird.”

 

The autonomic machine intelligence’s holographic avatar appeared in one corner of the room, dressed in her slightly unconventional chauffeur’s uniform. “Yes, what-- gyah!” She recoiled as she caught sight of the puppets, hands raised protectively in front of her. “By the Silver Tree, what foul mockery of life are you?! What have you done with the battlemates?!” Before Trevor could do more than open his wide mouth she declared, “Initiating lockdown!”

 

Redbird’s image disappeared and the whirring of hidden machinery announced the heavy metal plates a moment before they snapped shut over the room’s windows. Elsewhere in the manor all entrances were being similarly sealed and all avenues of electronic attack being cut off. Unfortunately that included the landlines and internet access. With a strangled noise, Trevor covered both eyes with felt palms. “Autonomic machine intelligence suffers from automatonophobia. Of course.”

 

Erin looked down at the phone she’d finally managed to pick up and manipulate with her soft and frictionless fingers. No Service. “Cell phone’s gone, let me find my communicator.” She had to jump back onto the bed to fish it out from under her pillow, only to find that, instead of her normal League communicator, she had a vaguely communicator-shaped blob of silvery felt. “What the hoo is going on here!” she demanded, shaking the useless felt thing. “Why are we puppets? What are we doing here? Why is my phone still a phone and the bed still a bed but the communicator is felt? Why am I orange! None of this makes ANY SENSE!” She began to run in circles on the bed, flailing her arms wildly. Puppet or not, she was still extremely fast. After two laps, she misjudged a corner and fell off the bed again.

 

More conservatively, Trevor shuffled across the bed before hopping down, trying not to think too hard about the actual mechanics of his legs, which seemed to be hanging from his waist much more than actually supporting his weight. Stooping, he helped Erin haul herself upright, noting that their puppet proportions seemed to be in intentional contrast along with the colouration of their felt. “Alright?”

 

Erin scowled, her eyebrows reappearing like stormclouds. “‘M fine,” she muttered as she brushed herself off, obviously embarrassed. “I don’t even know what that was. I feel kinda weird, like it’s harder to focus than usual. Maybe it’s the felt brain.” She shook her head and immediately decided she wasn’t going to consider the implications of a felt body anymore. “So, lockdown. We need to figure out a way around that. Some way to get out, or at least to use our phones. All the windows are covered, but we can still move through interior doors, right? Maybe there’s an area that’s less shielded?”

 

“Systems above ground are biometric,” Trevor noted, shoulders slumping dramatically forward with a level of emoting he never reached while flesh and blood. Straightening back up as though a string on his head had been pulled he added, “Manor uses older tech. Password protected.” Getting to the hidden entrance to the subterranean base would take some doing given their diminished stature, as would adjusting the hands of the grandfather clock and gaining access but at least it was a workable plan.

 

“Basement it is,” Erin agreed with a nod, adjusting her clothes one more time before reaching under the bed for her bat. Even in its fully collapsed state, it was a sizable weapon for her in this form, and she felt better holding onto it. “Stay close, god only knows what else is going on around here.” A careful leap got her high enough to open the door, and she swung with it out into the hallway, where the coast was clear.

 

They’d gotten all of ten yards down the long hallway when Erin heard the familiar clicking sound of claws on hardwood. It didn’t register as a possible threat until suddenly Charlie rounded the corner and nearly butted Erin’s felt sternum with his nose. From this angle, Erin suddenly noticed how long Charlie’s claws were, how sharp his teeth. “Mmmrrrow!” said Charlie, a predatory gleam in his green eyes.

 

“Ah. Hello, Charlie,” Trevor greeted the uncomfortably large feline in a slow, measured tone, taking a cautious step backward, his long, thin puppet limbs making it less subtle than he might have liked. If he hadn’t been able to convince Redbird they were actually themselves he was less than confident the sentiment could be communicated to the cat in a timely manner. Looking sidelong to Erin he suggested, “Running now, I think.”

 

“Yes,” Erin agreed wholeheartedly. She wanted to think she could’ve taken the comparatively giant feline in a fight, but she had no desire to hurt her pet, and even less desire to learn the hard way if her floppy felt arms were actually any good for fighting. Her legs could run, though, and even made little vroom vroom noises like a friction-motor engine as she picked up speed. She grabbed Trevor by the arm and dragged him behind her as she raced down the hallway. “Bad kitty!” she called over her shoulder. “You are in so much trouble!”

 

She could hear the cat’s footsteps as he followed them at a brisk clip down the hallway until she took a sharp left into one of the guest bedrooms and put a door between them before he could catch up. “Okay,” she said, trying to take a deep breath and feeling more than a little strange when it didn’t work, “how do we get into the Manor like this?”

 

In his new, lighter form Trevor’s feet had left the ground as Erin had sped off with him in tow and when she stopped momentum sent him sailing further into the guest room to skid along the carpet for several feet. He remained there face down for a long moment, sighing. Lurching back up to his feet he did a brief inventory to make sure everything was still in place before walking back the way he’d flown. “Clock is the only manual entrance we can reach from inside,” he considered, a faint grumble making its way into his voice. “Which means going down the hall. Past Charlie.”

 

“Of course it does.” Erin scrunched up her face, which looked truly alarming in her new form, then straightened up and regarded the door with great resolve. “Okay, here’s what we do.” She crossed the room and climbed up the bookcase, retrieving a small bag of colorful objects. “I go out first, and I throw the jingle balls. While he’s distracted, we make a run for it. I’ll take the flanking position, you just run for it. Don’t stop and don’t look back. I’m not going to hit him if I don’t have to, but that might mean he gets a bite or two in.” She leaned in and kissed him, an odd sensation with no lips, for all it made a loud smacking noise. “See you in the drawing room.”

 

As they parted Trevor moved to put a finger on Erin’s lips, though with his noodly appendages it was more that he pressed his palm into her face. Removing it he produced something that looked a bit like a juggling ball from somewhere in sleep clothes, presenting it for her to see before lobbing it across the room. Where it struck the floor with the sound of an out of tune kazoo it burst into a flurry of black confetti that enveloped an unlucky armchair.

 

Trevor opened his mouth then closed it again in muted consternation. “Meant to be a smoke bomb. Still.” Reaching down he pulled forth two more handfuls of the confetti balls. With as much gravitas as lowered felt eyebrows could convey he insisted, “Any plan that involves you being eaten by a housecat is not a good plan.”

 

“He wouldn’t eat me, we’d just smack each other around a little bit,” Erin protested. “But I guess I don’t really want to have to think about what I’d be losing if I started losing fluff, and whether it will come back properly when we fix this.” She considered the situation for a moment. “Okay, you get up on my shoulders and I’ll run us both down the hall. When you see Charlie, throw the jingle balls or the confetti balls, whichever seems like it’ll keep us intact longer.”

 

Even with its limited movement Trevor’s felt face managed an impressively glum expression at the impending demise of his dignity. “Think we can agree not to discuss this ever again,” he sighed in resignation, gathering a pile of prospective projectiles into his arms before scrambling onto Erin’s shoulders with some difficulty. “Whenever you’re read-- eeeeeee~

 

The last syllable was drawn out into a long siren as she launched them down the hallway in a jingling blur of orange and purple, trailing bursts of confetti behind them.

 

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Nick Cimitiere

A Ruined Eye That's Always Open

 

August 1, 2016

 

 

The Port Regal Doll Hospital was closing up shop for the day. Adam Hawkins looked over his patients, both those ready for discharge and those still in need of treatment. His store always got a good deal of attention - write-ups in the alt-weeklies, photos on Instagram, Tweets from locals wondering if the Millennials had gone too far. This, despite the fact that Adam was in his forties. His grandfather had been a toymaker, and after years in finance, Adam had decided to try something else and follow in his footsteps. A city like Freedom had no small number of toys and dolls, both new and antique - and some required specialized care, rare parts, and proper reassembly. 

 

 

Vanessa, his assistant, carefully handled two of the newer inpatients. The first appeared to be a proper porcelain doll - a young girl with brunette hair, dressed in Sunday best and Mary Janes. There was a hole in her back where the porcelain seemed to have shattered from impact. "All right,' she said, "here's Savannah Sally. Ms. Lagrasse wants her back in peak condition for her daughter. Apparently the doll took a nasty fall down the stairs."

 

 

"And the daughter?" asked Adam, concerned.

 

 

"No, the daughter was fine. Her husband sprained something, though. Sally took her trip when he slipped on her. The daughter must have left her out."

 

 

"Who leaves a doll like this where someone can step on it?"

 

 

"Us damned kids, eh?" cracked Vanessa. "Speaking of us damned kids..." She held up the second inpatient: a felt puppet, dressed in strangely authentic leather and denim. His head was pale, skull-shaped, and topped with a pompadour that could stop bullets. "Does this look familiar?"

 

 

Adam studied it. "That's that sorcerer, isn't it... Nick Cimitiere? Strange. You'd think if anyone was going to make a doll of him, it'd be an action figure."

 

 

"Blame Etsy. I blame them for everything else."

 

 

"What's wrong with him?"

 

 

"I don't know. I found him in the drop tray. Maybe there's a voice chip that's busted, something that's supposed to say, 'Come to me, my ghostly buddies!'"

 

 

"Well, we can do more intensive care tomorrow. Not like this city's lacking for puppets today."

 

 

"Yeah... quick question, from the Charlotte girl. When do you get used to stuff like this happening?"

 

 

"You never do. But you come to accept that it does."

 

 

The two headed out, locking the door behind them. Minutes passed. Once Nick was sure the coast was clear, he turned his head towards his fellow patients.

 

 

All going according to plan...

 

 

 

----

 

 

July 31st, 11:58 PM

 

 

Eric LaCroix studied over the photos. Normally, he would be out on patrol on a night like this, but he had decided to stay in, watch some Netflix, and follow up on some leads. They couldn't exactly be called "leads," even - more like "inklings." But one was seeming to bear fruit.

 

 

He thought back to his last trip to Lantern Hill Cemetery. One of the ghosts had mentioned that she'd been observing Jennifer Lagrasse, one of the local aristocracy, and her daughter Amelia on a visit. They'd come to pay their respects to Harold, Jennifer's first husband and Ameila's father. Amelia had been carrying an antique doll in her arms; the ghost had sensed that "something like me" was in there, but couldn't get a clear read on it. Nick had asked the ghost to describe the doll, and she'd managed to create a fairly accurate replica out of ectoplasm. Ectoplasm wouldn't necessarily last in that form, but it at least gave Nick enough time to make a sketch. 

 

 

That had led to a long series of Google searches, between shifts at the Black Petal and nighttime patrols. The perils of searching for "haunted creepy doll" was that you got no shortage of results, from Robert to Annabelle. But finally, he'd managed to hit pay dirt.

 

 

Savannah Sally. More of an urban legend than a confirmed case, but one that got plenty of play. Her first appearance was in the family photos of t he Howards, wealthy land magnates who'd owned a good chunk of Key West in the 1910s. At least, until their mansion burned down, killing Mr. and Mrs. Howard but sparing their children. The doll seemed to crop up every 2 or 3 decades, entering a family for a few years before one or both parents met a terrible end, then moving on. Ed and Lorraine Warren - Eric had thoughts on those two - had discovered Sally in 1981, when a mother in Rochester, NY drowned in her house's pool, allegedly held down by an invisible presence; before the investigation was over, however, the doll had vanished from the house. That case was underplayed, compared to their more big-screen fare - you'd think they would have focused on underplaying Amityville - but intrepid occult junkies on Reddit had managed to unearth it and tie it back to Sally's other appearances. 

 

And now she was here in Freedom, and she was already racking up something approaching a body count. A few days ago, Alan Hammond, Jennifer’s new husband, had taken a nasty fall down the stairs. One article mentioned he had “tripped over a doll” that had been “left” on one of the top stairs. After doing some reconnaissance of the Lagrasse manor via astral projection, Eric had realized that the doll was no longer in the house – but it also wasn’t in the trash. So, that left a number of options… one of which was the place in Freedom where everyone with a surfeit of money or sentimentality took their busted toys.

 

First, of course, he’d need to spy on the doll hospital – better to project himself than to break and enter in the name of following a false lead. After that, he’d get the warpaint on, go out to the hospital, and –

And that was when he blacked out.

 

August 1st, 12:01 AM

Eric came to, pushing himself up from the ground. Why had he collapsed? Was he really that tired? And why were… his hands so tiny?

 

He pushed himself to standing height – which wasn’t hard, as there was so much less of it. He looked down; strangely, he was in his Nick Cimitiere costume. He felt his face; the distinctive ridges of the skull makeup were there, but not the feel of the powder. No, it was almost like… felt?

 

He scrambled towards the full-length mirror in his room, only to stop dead when he saw his reflection. He was, in fact, a puppet. A little felt Goth puppet.

 

Okay,  he thought, this is new. Maybe it’s someone screwing with me. Malador? Maybe he learned turning me into a vampire isn’t the best idea, and decided to go for something more harmless…

 

The next few minutes put the lie to that. The news showed that it wasn’t just Eric being affected. Further, he still had access to all his necromantic talents, even if they were… slightly altered. With the possibility of attack ruled out, Eric just decided to focus on the fortune.

 

Well. I did want to get closer to the dolls…

 

6:32 PM

Nick Cimitiere hopped down from his perch and began exploring the hospital. He’d heard Sally being laid down, but he hadn’t gotten a clear view of where. He was over in the section of teddy bears and kewpie dolls, and he could see a whole VA hospital full of wounded GI Joes across the way. He opened his eyes to the realm of the dead, trying to get a sense of the haunted doll…

 

…only for a beacon of black to wash up from the nearby table. He locked eyes with Savannah Sally… just as she turned her head and locked eyes with him.

 

“My name’s Savannah Sally…”

 

Nick went flying, pushed back against the distant wall.

 

“…and I’m not sure you have the best of intentions for me.”

 

The doll got up and walked towards him, its sly smile and blank eyes boring into him. Nick struggled with his tiny limbs, not making much progress. Fortunately, they weren’t his only option.

 

Spectral hands popped out of the wall – with the rounded, clubby fingers he remembered from years of Sesame Street. Not normal, but I’ll go with it. They pulled where Sally’s telekinesis pushed, prying him away from the wall. Soon, he was back on the table, landing on his feet. Sally’s onslaught let up for a second, perhaps from confusion – and that’s when Nick struck, buffeting her with his own onslaught. She went flying, hitting the next table with a faint crack.

 

“Owwie!”

 

Nick paused. He had heard many things from malevolent entities… but rarely “Owwie!” Worse, there was how… authentic it had sounded. He used his onslaught to lift Sally up, keeping her suspended in the air.

 

“Please don’t hurt me!”

 

He knew that. That panic. But he couldn’t buy it. Not yet. He’d heard many ghosts – and other things – that were skilled at crocodile tears. “Why did you hurt them?” he asked. “You’ve wracked up quite a record, Sally. Why them?”

 

“Because they hurt first! They were mean! You shouldn’t be mean to your family! Not like that!”

 

Could that be it? Nick knew plenty of poltergeists born from violent tragedy. But sometimes, that violence twisted perspectives… and he’d known a few poltergeists who just wanted to hurt people, and would make up any lie to make it happen. “And why are you the one to do it?”

 

“Because…” The voice dropped. It no longer sounded sing-songy and saccharine; it sounded like a little girl, but one who was turned inward rather than outward. “…because I know. I know. And no one else should.”

 

Damnit. Either she was the best liar in the universe, or… There was one way to be sure. But it would suck. He crossed to Sally’s table and gently let him down. He took her porcelain hand. “It’s okay. Just… let me hear it…”

 

He turned his ears inward, feeling the loom of the Fates in his head. A music box played in the distance. There was a plantation, tall and white. Then pain. Screams. Fire. And finally, one loud, terrible crack, just as the music box’s tune came to a close. He let go.

There was no faking that.

 

“Mr. Hammond… Amelia’s dad… has he hurt her?”

 

“Not yet. But he screams at her. Calls her things. I know what that’s like. I know what’s next.”

 

Nick shook his head. “All right, Sally. I have a plan. I’m sorry for what I did to you, but… I’d like your help. But I think it might work best if we do it when I’m… more like myself.”

 

August 2nd, 2016

 

Alan Hammond stormed into the house. This whole city was going insane. The puppet thing had been sorted out, but this city still couldn’t pull its head out of its ass. Awful destroyers from beyond the stars had almost burned this place to the ground, and still no one could find a way to get things back on track without taking a damn week. Business was slow and frustrating, the wife and her brat were out of town, and he was in desperate need of a drink.

 

He went for the lights… and got nothing. Damnit. A blackout? This city couldn’t be that screwed. He felt his way towards the living room, running his hands along the fine mahogany of the bar. He felt his way towards the bottle… and touched porcelain.

He froze. That damn doll? She couldn’t have gotten it back from that stupid doll doctor that fast? Was it… no. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t…

 

“Mr. Hammond.”

 

Hammond turned around. His favorite seat was occupied, by a living shadow with a pale face. “My name is Nick Cimitiere. And you’ve been very naughty…”

 

Hammond steeled himself. He knew this man. One of those damn wizards. Had a tendency for vigilantism, like all the other weirdos in capes. “And?” he asked. “Assuming I… admitted anything, what could you do about it? You’re intruding on my private property. Your accusations – at least, the ones I think you’re going to make – border on slander. And if you had anything, you would have gone to a social worker rather than come and haunt my house. So, I suggest you leave.”

 

Nick stood up. “Oh, I will.” He pointed to Sally. She won’t.”

 

Hammond turned back to the doll, who stood up and curtsied to him. “She’s going to be watching very closely. She knows this house now – every nook, every cranny, every hidden step. And her eyes are always open. And if she ‘accidentally’ meets the business end of a sledgehammer, I’ll know. And I am not nearly as subtle as her when it comes to making sure no kids get hurt.”

 

Nick patted Hammond on the shoulder. “So. I’m not going to do anything about what you may have done. And, as long as it remains theoretical, we’re not going to do anything. Because if you do…”

 

Nick let it hang on the air like a last breath as he left the house. Hammond stood there, in the darkness of the house, paralyzed. At least, until Savannah Sally giggled.

 

Then he ran like Satan himself was chasing him.

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