Friday, June 23, 2017




The Beheading Video
at the End of This Story


by Chris Tannhauser



[Author's Note:

Dearest Reader,

I have something for you, but we only get one shot at this.  Let's imagine you've just stepped from a helicopter into an eerie green night-vision hamlet where the only barking dogs walk on two legs.  You and your team stride smooth as steadicam operators to the door where the breaching tech affixes an explosive frame.  On the other side, unknown atrocities are unfolding and you will be the wooden shoe in those gears.  On the count of three --

-- you suddenly realize your "gun" is just your forefinger and thumb, and you are buck-ass naked.

Let's freeze it right there.

If you want to go through the door like that, then by all means, do proceed.  If, however, you want to go through in full kit then gird your fucking loins thusly:

1. Get a knife.  Any knife will do, as long as you can hold it in your hand as you read.

2. Get a cherry pie.  No, really -- an honest-to-god physical cherry pie.  If you don't have one handy, I recommend you STOP HERE and take the time to pick one up when convenient for you, then return when you have it in hand.  I said we only get one shot at this and proceeding without the pie is like going through that door with your pants on your head.  Please note that any cherry pie will do -- the $50 artisanal handcrafted one and the thing Fruit Pie the Magician feeds to the children in his basement all become the same shit in the end.

Take the time, get the pie.  We'll wait.

*

*

*

Welcome back.  That pie looks good, doesn't it?  It should -- most people never get pie.

You're almost ready to breach:

3. Cue up the music video "Cherry Pie" by Warrant, but DO NOT PLAY it at this time.  Be sure to get on the other side of any stupid ads so that when the moment comes and you are instructed to play the music video you don't get whined at about penis pills instead.

4. Continue reading and be sure to follow the instructions at the end.  Godspeed and happy hunting.

*

*

*

BOOM]






*




In order to have a reader feel connected to a story, you must first and foremost establish the humanity of the protagonists:  So here is our hero, slapping a child; and, there, our heroine, taking an immensely satisfying shit behind a parked car.  While you would probably much rather see them kissing, or, if we’re going all PG-13, doing some implied, off-screen hand stuff, I can assure you you’d be far less happy if it happened all at once, like it is in your head right now:  slapping, shitting, kissing, and hand stuff.  Which didn’t happen in the story at all—it only happened inside your dirty, dirty head.

It’s not your fault; heads are naturally dirty.  How do we know this?  Because they make a goddamn mess when they come off.  There’s blood, sure—but the real problem is what’s unleashed and multiplied through screens to haunt a billion more heads, like xeroxing a spectral hermit crab, out of the one that’s done, and into the eye holes of all the rest turned its naked way.

Our hero says something about how “Rudeness is calling the social contract’s bluff,” to a stunned mother while our heroine, who learned to speak French in Haiti, hikes up her jeans and flies the bird at some gawking squares in a Benz.  The cops are coming, maybe a couple minutes out, but really, we need to be doing all we can where we are right now to avoid the beheading video at the end of this story.

How do we do that?  By thinking clean thoughts—like the pope dying of an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy.  I’m sorry, that’s not a clean way to go at all.  It would be uncomfortable for a good long while before it got all hot and sharp and slippery—remembering that “hemorrhage” is blood loss you can hear—so let’s try... an art design magazine spread of a pure, all-white living space where everything is the color of a just-scrubbed toilet inside a supermodel smile, maybe with a couple of ironic mannequins, you know, just hanging out in sassy eggshell bell-bottoms, milky-fringed vests and funky little snowdrift hats.  Like someone was about to say something pure white and mildly humorous and we’ve arrived just in time to be in on the joke, if you think the things that reverberate through perfectly empty heads might tickle you.

Because the cops are coming, and it would be great if our sufficiently human protagonists would just give up without a fight, or maybe get comically tased after a brief chase set to “Yakety Sax” because cops are people, too, and just want to go home at the end of the day to drink and beat their wives—I mean, hug their children.  But this is unlikely given that our hero has more than just a child-slapping boner in his pants—there’s an unregistered nine-mil, too—and our heroine is a cutter, and not in the young adult novel sense.

But we did it again, didn’t we?  We thought bad thoughts.  And every bad thought is a stepping stone to the—

DON’T THINK IT!

Don’t you think about the beheading video at the end of this story!

(You just did, didn’t you.)

It’s gonna be alright—just repeat after me:  kittens, kittens, kittens.

Deep breath in...





...deep breath out.

Remember, always, that breath is distance, each one another step away from the womb and toward that dark horizon only briefly glimpsed like red carpet side-boob.

Kittens.

Now, because I already implied what happens with the cops we can just skip it, even though—I hate to say it—skipping it will bring us two whole pages closer to—

Okay, so maybe we do actually want to take the time here. 

Our hero and heroine could do that trick where you get something more problematic than your current problem to out-problem that problem—like the way the whole “give a mouse a cookie” tesseract is truncated with a rat trap.  So what’s more powerful than cops?  Well, velociraptors, but only the movie ones, as the real ones were tiny, and even then the movie ones would only have the upper hand briefly—once the surprise of seeing Officer Anonymous (two days from retirement!) get his throat torn out it would all be falling back and tightly-grouped, aimed shots.  There’s a reason one specific ape dominated the globe, a symptom of which is automatic weapons.  And dinosaurs had feathers—which is stupid—because the scientifically accurate version of this scene would look like cops fighting a bunch of turkeys.  But you know what?  Thinking about a poofy T. Rex, like an out-of-scale baby chick, is waaay better than a beheading video.

Aw, crap.  There it is again.

Okay, so what’s more powerful than cops...  The military!  At least they used to be until the professional constabulary up-armored themselves at the AFG-IRQ war surplus rummage sale, so I’m actually gonna say...

 “Illuminati mercenaries.”

I know what you’re thinking:  If they’re mercs, they wouldn’t necessarily know they were working for the Illuminati—that’s like part of the definition.  But, I counter, you don’t really know how the Illuminati works—that’s also part of the definition, and even if it doesn’t make sense I’m telling you that “not making sense” is the direction you need to go to have any hope of figuring all of this out.

So let’s fast-forward to where the cop cars form a flashing ring and the radii of drawn pistols indicate our heroes in the middle who have adopted kung fu stances (Tiger and Honey Badger, respectively) that will trend viral a couple minutes from now.  And for some reason there’s a man down, but it’s a brown one, so it only elicits three-fifths of the outrage a normal one would.

Predictably, everyone within visual range reorients their government-approved personal surveillance devices and, compelled by the yawning pit of meaninglessness we’re all spawned from, begins recording, allowing for a full 3D reconstruction of every balled fist and bullet trajectory later.

The cops are shouting things, things that sound like the lowing of foghorns to our hero and heroine in their accelerated battle-trance.

(It’s important to note here that a lone sheet of newsprint does not blow slowly across the scene.)

Now, this is that promised moment when some greater, darker torpedo lances out of the moon-hazed fog of the situation and detonates against the side of the destroyer, blowing chunks of crew and girlie mags and perfumed letters from home up through the hatches on pillars of fire.  Those Illuminati mercs, riding fluffy dinosaurs out of an unimaginably expensive time portal—but that would be ludicrous because it’s only ever happened in billionaire dreams—and once in real life—never to be repeated again.  You’d be far more likely to believe they materialize in silent black helicopters that decloak thirty feet off the deck, perfectly stealthy, unheard and unfelt due to their rotor wash being directed upwards from their weird, flickering blades.  The truth is that looking up is the totally wrong direction—you should be looking in, inside the heads of the cops who went to that all-expenses-paid United Nations Law Enforcement retreat in Turkmenistan, the one where they sat through an entire day of droning meetings in anticipation of the strange trim who would surely do the things that red-blooded, All-American girls would leave you for even suggesting.  And when they thought back on that trip (which they never did) there was only that one day, and then the beginning of a night where the girls came in with non-standard liquor and then... nothing.  Nothing until the plane trip back three days later.

This is what Illuminati mercs know:  a great blank, and somewhere deep in the dreaming meat a code phrase that turns them on like sunsets and long walks on the beach.

As our heroine draws one foot back in the Eight-Ways pattern—said to connect the lower chakras to the nearest available ley line—and swirls her hands in what translates loosely as “The Rending of the Sensitive Bits” the code phrase is revealed:  the words


stretched across her braless, C-cup tits in a curvy, 1970s font.

Everyone sees it, it’s in everyone’s head, but those who’ve seen it before pivot and put bullets into the brains of those who haven’t.  Half the cops drop, the other half holster their guns and charge the center, knowing full well that while they have to take their quarry alive most of them won’t survive the experience.  The cops hurdle their cars, sliding across hoods and trunks, or getting one foot in an open window and vaulting over the flashing roof, converging as our heroine does things that red-blooded, All-American girls would leave you for even suggesting, like bursting a man into ribbons of hot meat with a lightning bolt.  A thing where the sight is only rivaled by the smell.

It’s a furious thing, the stopping of hearts with a breath, the inversion of eyes and brains, bones being made to go into briefly surprising places, but really it’s that smell—the smell of boiled blood and ruptured guts, hot half-shit heavy with stomach acid—

Okay, okay, waitaminit—STOP!

Let’s take a break before we remember that the awful thing we’re bending toward here is only held in abeyance by not thinking about it, which you’re doing RIGHT NOW.

So—let’s go on a picnic:

The sky above the park was the color of an ironic lowbrow sofa-sized painting.  Searing gold just above the trees, with orange shading into the pink undersides of clouds, then various blues swatching ever darker into the utter black of the zenith.  It had been such a wonderful day, this picnic—and goddammit if we didn’t just miss it, coming in all late like this.  It’s almost over, and by over I mean OVER, so we better suck up as much of what’s left as we can.

Our hero sits splay-legged on a checkerboard blanket, propped up on his elbows; our heroine is slotted neatly into the V, leaning back against his chest, her hands absentmindedly massaging his shins.  No picnic is complete without ants, so she rubs a couple off of one perfectly bare foot with the other, flashing her chipped rainbow toenails.

The kids finish their Kool-Aid and lope off after a distant dog that’s scribing golden beelines back and forth across the sward for a tennis ball.  She follows them with eyes and ears as they recede on ribbons of laughter, then flops her head back onto his shoulder and marvels at his profile against the setting sun.

“We should get a puppy.”

He reaches up and curls the hair behind her ear, surreptitiously inhaling her scent.  Her warmth, with a hint of perspiration, suffuses him from crotch to neck.

“Did you hear me?”

“Mmmm,” he says.

“So what do you think?  I mean, look at them—”

Distantly, the tiny shapes gambol, streak, and roll in chirps of mirth.

“—so much light and love.”

He closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly.  “Because we don’t have enough.”

She slaps his leg.  “That’s not what I meant!”

“You’re right,” he says, “we got it all so right.  Why not add more?”  He pauses.  “Besides, it’s been a while since anyone shit on the rug.”

The rejoinder devolves into play fighting, tickling, rolling, laughing.  They end face-to-face, panting.  He gazes down at her, lit from within, a stray lock of hair crossed between her eyes to the corner of her smile.  He feels something suddenly urgent rise unbidden in him.

“Promise me—” he says.

“Anything,” she breathes.

“Promise me if anything... happens... you’ll find someone else.”

Her face crinkles.  “What?”

“You should have someone,” he says very seriously, “you should always have someone.  Promise me.”

“Well, that went dark,” she says.

“It’s how we know there’s light and love.  Promise me.”

“Nothing’s going to happen,” she says, and moves to kiss him.

He pulls back, locks eyes with her.  “Something always happens.”  And then he kisses her, hard and deep, her redolence suffusing every empty space in him with her essence until he knows without thought that he would crush an ape’s skull to eat her pussy again.

Above them, sky writhing—the clouds twisting into knots of silent words louder than your soul—and below come the ants the size of a wizard’s hourglass, which she stomps, though the chitin lacerates her rainbow feet, as the kids and the corpse-sniffing dog race after a severed hand—

The ayahuasca in the Kool-Aid was starting to hit and the kids were about to meet the lizards that lived in their bones.

I’m sorry, but that’s the end of the nice stuff—we’ve only got a couple pages left, like that gutless sensation at the top of a rollercoaster—and we all know what happens at the bottom.  Some dude is down there pressing his neck against the track.

And here... we... go:

When the bags come off they’re taped to folding chairs in a too-small room somewhere underground, pipes overhead and a drain in the floor, rusted squares where the heavy machinery was removed.  A cheap tripod with a video camera—who has video cameras anymore?—its oversized doll’s eye trained on them expectantly.  Too many men in the room, some of them with obviously nothing to do, all dressed head-to-toe in mismatched black wannabe tactical gear, like hasty ninjas.  They confer softly via hand signs and throat mics.

Our heroine taps an experimental foot, feeling for that battery lick of a ley line—but they had her in closed-toed stilettos, which meant

1) These assholes knew what they’re doing, and

2) We’re all fucked.

Our hero comes around, hair matted with blood, face puffy with missing teeth.  He turns the whole mess toward her in a parody of a wan smile.  “I guess it’s too late for that puppy,” he burbles.

“It’s never too late for puppies,” she says, not sure she means it.

The red light on the camera winks, signaling self-consciousness, and there’s a man with a Qur’an, scribbling notes on the pages and tearing them off, handing them to a subordinate who reads the question with a propaganda snarl.  This goes on for a confusing amount of time, seemingly pointless.

And now there’s only one page left—I did all I could, I warned you, I asked you to breathe, to think of kittens, to go on a goddamn picnic—but you kept pushing it, thinking the worst things, broadcasting your fear at everyone around you, forgetting that as social animals we are the original internet, texting each other unconsciously and shitting all over each other’s face—book pages everywhere we go.  And now there’s no stopping it, the situation has amassed a gravity all its own and we’ve danced at the event horizon too long.

There’s a final statement, shouted, punctuated by fists in the air and the man who knows how to hold a knife pulls our hero’s chin back—

—and we wonder at that last good moment before the ayahuasca hit, before the trigger pull, before the wheels locked and screamed on wet asphalt, before an abstract notion like “cancer” took the only irreplaceable thing, when something that can’t be seen or stabbed came out of nowhere and irrevocably kinked the flow of your life.

We’re going to skip the part where everyone is crying—well, not everyone, but you get the point.

He held it blade away, pinprick tip at the side of the neck where it would plunge through the soft tissue just in front of the spine and out the other side, then extend forward to tear all the plumbing out in one go—none of that amateur-hour sawing bullshit that might work for the drama of the stage but is needlessly frustrating for everyone involved in real life.

She wants to scream that she loves him, she wants to scream them all dead, but she can’t because I make her say something else, something that would look cool in a comic book word balloon.

He strains against the hand on his chin, the point at his neck harder than Satan’s Job-bet boner, and through clenched and broken teeth he replies:

“Say it in French, baby.”

And you’re thinking to yourself, What the fuck does that have to do with anything?  But there was a small detail I dropped way back in the third paragraph like a shotgun shell rolled under a car seat in the first act of a cheap thriller, a fact that you’ve no doubt completely forgotten:

SHE LEARNED FRENCH IN HAITI

from a dead mouth answering the call from beyond that dark horizon, and when she speaks it the machinery beneath the world sits up and listens.

So she repeats herself:


And whatever it is that lies coiled inside of dice unfurls as the blade slips in—







5. Play video.

6. Enjoy pie.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016



While We Were Waiting 
to Be Cannibals


 by Chris Tannhauser



She left me when she found the secret baby that wasn't mine. And the morning had started out so well: woken up with a slow blowjob, a segue into straight-up fucking, the master/servant kind with hair pulling and less-than-gentle biting—because most people like stuff they claim to hate when the pants come off—and then a balls-deep, pain-face cumshot followed by “dutifully” pleasuring her (used here in an ironic fashion as it’s the secret pride of all men who can make their woman come with slow strokes and a firm tongue, face slick as a glazed donut).

Did I mention that she shot me?

I had kept the baby anesthetized but started tapering off in anticipation of the meal—you won’t believe the shit we put in our meat and how bad it is for us—and it peeped and she found it. I figured this out because she came back into the bedroom with a jittery gun at the end of her sweaty arm, the black O of the barrel wiggling between her wide, white eyes. It was a Smith & Wesson Airweight 642 double-action revolver, the one with the shaved hammer, a hunk of metal and possibility hovering between our naked, just-fucked selves.

“Baby,” I said, “I can explain.”

Her face kinked at that, a reflection of the discontinuous stresses in her mind as if the craziest thing possible had just somehow gone even crazier, and she pulled the trigger.

Stuff that’s not like in the movies: bottoming out in pussy, getting shot.

I didn’t hear it, but the flash seemed to painlessly dislocate my soul with a queasy kind of vertigo, mostly with the mantra OH GOD I’VE BEEN SHOT on autorepeat like it could melt the universe. 

Luckily for all of us it was just a weepy flesh wound, and I sincerely hope it made her feel better as neurology has shown that there’s no such thing as Free Will—there’s only Free Won’t. We are each of us hurtling full-speed through life—and man, Nature wants us to run all-out—so the gas pedal’s got a cinder block on it and all we got is the occasional hand on the wheel or the e-brake and there are times when you know you should pull it but for some reason you don’t, usually because it’s pretty awesome to go through a fruit stand at sixty miles an hour. Of course, pulling the trigger could’ve been her trying to put the brakes on something, exactly what we’ll never know. I didn’t hurt her if that’s what you’re thinking—that’s not who I am—but I did break some of kind of record getting my gunshot self out of there.

We made love on account of my business trip, and it turns out you can get through airport security with a gunshot wound if you patch it up first. I had the aisle seat next to a gregarious fence salesman, the kind who finds a way to engage you, shake hands and somehow give you his card before you’re really aware of what’s happening, level ground giving way gently to a sudden rollercoaster drop. At some point he said, “Well, that’s me—what about you?”

So I told him about inspecting meat packing plants, and the shit we put in our meat and how bad it is for us, but that the people at the plants are somehow taller and stronger and have clearer skin and eyes than the rest of us, they’re lighter on their feet and move with an animal grace that sneaks up and surprises you when you could’ve sworn you were paying attention. And they stand so close and smell so good, their breath is sweet and unrestrained. I told him about sneaking away—as difficult as that is given the nature of these magnificent creatures—and seeking the rooms only the initiated or the doomed may find, and that in so doing I hoped not to expose them but to become one of their number, with access to superior health, ancient racial memory, the power to make women cum with a whisper…

He seemed less interested than he should have been, but then making women cum with a whisper is one of those mundane superpowers that anyone can have if they just pay attention.

The zaftig middle-aged flight attendant with the thick, glossy braids and homemade beef jerky book warned us of turbulence over the mountains and bade us to strap in. I thought of her perfect teeth, plucked and sucked to get that little dangly bit of soft pulp at the end—was it worth the effort? Or just another dead end in the labyrinth of such things, an afternoon of anticipation struck down by an evening of disappointment? I didn’t need searching and discovery—what I needed was a goddamn map.

The turbulence had us by the guts and nuts when the door to the flight deck opened and the pilots stepped out smooth as bear fat. A wave of what-the-fuck rolled through the cabin and then the captain turned to his copilot and said, “Hail Xom, brother.”

“Hail Xom,” the copilot replied and they both pulled splash guards down over their faces.

“You will stay in your fucking seats,” the captain said in a mild German accent, a Smith & Wesson Airweight 642 double-action revolver, the one with the shaved hammer, held with casual flop-wristed menace.

The plane lurched, and then rolled smoothly onto its side and over as if driven by the rising screams of the passengers. The pilots walked on walls, transitioning to the ceiling with the ease of dancers who knew the tune as we hung upside-down from insufficient seat belts, heads dangling in the void below us.

“Hans, if you would be so kind,” said the captain.

The copilot produced two long, curved fillet knives, glistening with potential. “It would be an honor,” he said. He turned and spread his arms and sprinted down the cabin ceiling, four good steps ahead of a patter of red rain.

Several red-blooded Americans in the rear of the plane immediately unbuckled, crashed to the ceiling, rose—and were shot down one by one, lazy headshots from the hip, neatly missing Hans, like a goddamn movie.

I unbuckled, too, and the gun clicked but the captain was dry, or perhaps it was because I was pre-shot, in one of those recursive interfoldings of reality where I was meant to be shot, would always be shot, it just happened with a needle skip on a different groove but it’s all the same hunk of spinning vinyl after all.

Hans skidded into me as I stood, his twin blades angled for some of the best parts of me, but I am a motherfucking meat packing plant inspector and know my way around knives. We hit the ceiling and I thought about that baby as we wrestled, about how it just wasn’t fair that these people should have the best stuff while hiding it from the rest of us—not everyone would want it anyway, and there would always be plenty more to eat. I would prove myself worthy by being as unappetizing as possible.

Things were going inevitably bad—his strength was prodigious—when my knee found his groin and I turned a wrist in his surprise and opened him to the world.

It takes time to go like that, and when all the noise was out of him I staggered to unsteady feet.

The ceiling between me and the captain was slick with blood.

“I just want to be one of you,” I said calmly.

“You fool!” he yelled, “Xom chooses the worthy!”

“Perhaps Xom has chosen me,” I replied, beginning to walk toward him.

“It doesn’t work that way!” he screamed.

“Maybe it does!” I yelled, running now.

“It really doesn’t!” he said as we collided and fell into the cockpit.

I lunged and seized the yoke overhead—I would right this plane and save us all, not to expose them but to become one of their number, with access to superior health, ancient racial memory, the power to make women cum with a whisper…

The captain pistol-whipped me furiously, cursing like a barbarian but I had reached a place where resolve trumps pain, on the edge of power, just around the corner from the face of God, and I would not be moved by normal means as I pulled and plane began to tilt. We grappled in slow motion, his hands over mine, a caress, resisting with the power of however many men he ate, and I reached up with my mouth and closed it on his hand, the flesh giving way beneath my teeth, the crunch of bone and the promise of marrow, a gush of blood like sunlight into a dark room, it tasted—

It tasted—

It tasted AWFUL.

Like a wet monkey that had shit on the Moon, a neglected pet that had somehow clung to life by eating garbage dump diapers. In my moment of absolute triumph, I gagged.

Stuff that’s not like in the movies: eating people, rolling an airliner.

They don’t tell you that it slides like a half-mile straight down when you turn it on its side.

“Oh sweet Christ you’ve ruined everything,” wept the captain as mountainside filled the windscreen.

Monday, September 19, 2016



Endnotes from the 
New Phrenology


by Chris Tannhauser



Three thousand feet beneath the North Pole, not even Santa can touch you.  Sure, he could send waves of elves into the deep, and he has in the past, in epic pointy-eared pile-ups that put the Great War to shame, but today he'd keep his dick in his pants if he knew what was good for him.  This deep-sea no man's land was about to become wizard country.

The Soviet-era nuclear sub Koldun creaked and dripped with the immense pressures from above, hovering uneasy in that icy black.  Even the long-dead crew—waterlogged bodies driven by ghosts the way you'd still use a ruined hand to drink a cup of milk—felt the remnants of dread stirring in their putrefied brains.  Being dead spared you no misery where wizards were concerned; the Ref made sure of that.  He had the crew gut the command center, originally designed to oversee a sliver of Armageddon, and put up arc lights and bleachers and a boxing ring complete with carved basalt turnbuckles and eerie ropes.  The canvas was the actual Shroud of Turin, more than big enough on account of what most people don't know is that Jesus was 12 feet tall and fat as fuck.  And above it all, dangling in a golden cage, the prize that men would do anything for:  The Fairy Queen.  She was shiny and mini-voluptuous and curvy with rainbow insect wings, inches high, sure, but only one shrink spell away from heaven.

The Ref smiled with his smiling mouth.  "You ready for this?  To be won by blood and rage?"

"Fuck off," she spat.

Satisfied, the Ref nodded to Prince—not a prince or the prince, but Prince Prince, who plugged in his electric purple guitar with a sound like sex and the hum of the æther and drew his fingers along the strings in a sotto voce note comprised of pure soul that rose into a face-shredding wail of a revenant, a sound that thrummed mind and metal and miles of seawater out into the heart of the sun and so into all suns that shine on all worlds where things creep and hop and bite.  This, this was the siren call heard by every last wizard, living and dead alike.  Come and fight, it said.

And come they did.

Like a nerd convention for psychopaths, cosplaying mini-Hitlers every one, in sumptuous robes and capes with enormous cowls and star-spangled pointy hats and skullcaps and thigh boots and even one in soiled tights.  Gripped in fists that had strangled things both fair and foul were crooked wands carved from the bones of impossible beasts, as well as soul-shearing staves dripping with baubles, trinkets and gewgaws like the charm bracelets of the damned.  Every last man was epically bearded, beards being the true measure of a wizard, for in the wizarding game "old" was a synonym for "seen some shit".  The longer the beard the deeper the tombs, the more glyphs in the True Names of demons, the greater the pyre of upstart barbarian thieves who had dared step across the threshold of your sanctum sanctorum.  An impressive beard was wizard for, "If I made it this far, what the fuck are you gonna do?"

As each one arrived he was announced by the Ref's announcing mouth, booming and inflected with drama:

"Fenris the Effulgent."

"Tchormium, Khan of the Ages!"

"Aktmnembitor, Wind in the Sails of the Turning of Worlds."

"Eeeviscerator Priiime!" (Who's actual name turned out to be Percy.)

And, after more than an hour of this:  "Toby—ah, okay, just... Toby."

The ones you really had to look out for, everyone knew, had the smallest names—like Ked or Zet or Om—or even had no name at all.  Those guys just didn't give a shit, and that translated into an outsized awfulness in the ring—biting, eye-gouging, genital mutilation.

"Hey, Toby," Fenris sneered, stroking his luxurious Fu Manchu with thumb and forefinger, an ensorcelled monkey glaring from his shoulder.  "Back for more, eh?"

Toby pulled his sumptuous robes closer about himself.  "We'll see, fuck-face."  He tried not to think about something that wasn't even a memory because that memory had been knocked clean out of his head—it was just a grainy instant-replay, Fenris punching the wind from Toby's guts and then taking his time to line up the shot that simultaneously removed parts of Toby's past and a decent chunk of his future.  Second grade was just plain gone and the inevitable pugilistic Parkinson's meant there would come a day, facing a barbarian thief in his own home, when, instead of a bone-roasting fireball he'd pull a rabbit out of a hat.  And that would be that.

"You might not remember me," Fenris chortled, "but my balls remember your mouth."

Something inside Toby popped and he snapped into the air, pre-cast spells lighting off in a blinding swirl of arcane energies, roaring and seeking even as Fenris did the same, the two of them rising toward the ceiling like a neon dogfight.

"ENOUGH!" bellowed the Ref with his bellowing mouth, a sound that sucked the magic from the room.  The two wizards fell like cats, Toby catching himself neatly on both feet even as Fenris staggered and needed a hand on a bleacher to steady himself.  

Toby grinned and cracked his knuckles.  Save it for the ring, he thought-pushed into Fenris' startled mind.

"SAVE IT FOR THE RING!" bellowed the Ref with his bellowing mouth.

The crowd chanted along half-heartedly:  "Sa-save it for the ring."

"Now," said the Ref with his saying mouth, "you know the rules.  Nude.  Bare-knuckles.  No magic items!  Powers to be held in escrow by demons, stripped as you pass through the ropes.  Do we all understand?"

The crowd murmured assent.

"Because misunderstandings can end you."

That was an understatement.  Toby had seen with his own eyes, in years past, wizards so invested in their powers that they had forgotten how much they leaned on them, like Zarius the Unclean who's rune-etched skeleton was deemed illegal as he crossed the ropes, causing him to collapse into an undulating sack of organs as the bell rang.  The other wizard, being a wizard, acted before the Ref could call it and stomped Zarius' brains out his mouth-hole.  Then there was the time that The Forgotten One forgot he'd been dead for seven thousand years and poofed to dust in the ring; his foe, Kletsch the Something-or-other, gleefully declared himself the winner by default even as he choked on that dust cloud, though the last laugh would be had nine months later when that wicked cough Kletsch could never seem to shake metastasized into a vicious lung cancer that turned out to be the magnificent rebirth of The Forgotten One, whose fetus seized Kletsch's heart and ate it before birthing himself through the death-spasming asshole.

The Ref nodded solemnly.  "Then we can begin."

The dead sailors unveiled the tournament bracket, etched on rusty deckplate and spread like a Class IV Mothman's wings, the outer edges decaying toward the final match in the center.  Toby noted with a warm feeling in his groin that he and Fenris were on opposite sides of the bracket...

And so they began.

Two-by-two came these beings of raw intellect and will, will that could bend the very fabric of space-time and make even demigods kneel, their bodies clothed in the skins of mythic beasts or the stolen veils of alien goddesses, heads and necks and wrists and fingers bespangled with objects forged in hell, or the guts of dying worlds, or the minds of sleeping children—in a word, wizards—they came and stood before the ropes and mugged for the crowd, waving arms or crossing them like petty dictators, nodding with overweening faces, a smugness that begged to be slapped if only you were that strong.  These Great Men who had enslaved nations, made pets of demons and spelunked the sunspots of yet-unseen stars became something else entirely when they passed through the boundary of the ropes—

Toothless old men.

Stooped and gnarled, rebel flesh hanging in body-wide wattles, skin pocked with scars that scribed outdated maps of depravity as well as more than one mole that someone should really take a look at.  Genitals either shriveled into dirty gray-tufted lairs or hideously distended to flap between knobby knees.  As for hair—those who still had it—it was greasy and stringy and made you feel like taking a shower because photons that had bounced off of it ended up somewhere inside your eyes.  Beards that were once the fragrantly-oiled man-fur surrounding a literal Pit of Doom were rendered as stinking, mangy pelts, speaking more of alcohol and schizophrenia and dumpster fires than Ultimate Power.

The ship's bell rang the first round.

We're not going to waste any more time here—the truth of the matter is that these hateful old men had quite a bit of trouble putting each other down.  What should have been a brutal rendering of the "sweet science" was more often a slap-fight where someone ended up crying uncle over an accidental finger in the eye. Rounds never went past the first one before someone quit, as evidenced by the bored ring girls in their milkshake bikinis and high heels, and the lonely cut-men who would never be asked to staunch a bleeding eyebrow while muttering encouragements.  Mostly the fun was in watching Lurïed the Sky-Slayer close his eyes and turn his face away as he windmilled ineffectually at Noltch of God-Skull Mountain who was doing the same until one of them fell down and cried.

And the crowd goes wild.

Every now and then there were fights that became legend when they flipped the script—while everyone enjoys a good comeuppance, there's something to be said for the outré, and brain damage.  This year's crop did not disappoint; nestled among the usual suspects there was a wizard who turned up with his familiar—a homunculus of himself—that did not vanish upon stepping into the ring, but instead flanked him as he closed on his rival who squeaked, "Wait—that can't be fair!"  The rival tried to get the Ref's attention but the Ref was busy chatting up a ring girl with his chatting up mouth and so the mini-wizard bit the rival's rancid nuts as the big one slapped the scream out of his mouth, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Then there was the wizard in a filth-crusted My Little Pony sleeping bag with duct-tape for shoes, speaking in tongues—someone in the crowd did the math and began shouting, "Hey, hey, hey!  Dude's not actually a wizard!"  And boy, was he right.  The dude crossed the ropes, still clad as above, and closed on his opponent with a viciousness that spoke not of sundered Laws of Nature but of the promise of a half-eaten burrito and a forty of malt liquor five minutes from now.  It turns out you can be strangled with a sleeping bag, and it's apparently within the rules—at least it was today.

Finally, it was Toby's turn.  He faced off against * the Unpronounceable, resplendent in his unicorn-fur belly shirt and Pantaloons of Scrying.  * was one of the good guys, nodding appreciably toward Toby from outside the ropes before stepping in—

The crowd hushed as if struck dumb.  In one corner, weighing a buck-twenty soaking wet was the emaciated, dissipated form of *—and in the other stood Toby, his old-man head atop the gleaming, bulging Adonis of a forty-year-old gym rat.  Toby was easily 240, and could bench twice that.  He returned the appreciable nod as the bell rang and threw a punch as sure as a knife that has tasted meat, an uppercut that clacked *'s gums and rolled his eyes white with permanent stupidity even as it took him off his feet.

This was the drumbeat of Toby's day.  Step in, knock out.  Soon, his hideously-forewarned competitors tried running from him, to quit the ring before he could lay his terrible hands upon them—but always he was one step ahead, and the only way they left the ring was on a hasty stretcher one of the ring girls had dug up somewhere.

The only difficulty he encountered on his steady march toward the center of that dread bracket was from a random sorcerer from an uncataloged plane who turned out to have been long-ago de-souled and repossessed by something that got stripped out at the ropes—rendering him a slack-eyed, drooling, unrelenting meat-machine.  There was nothing in his skull but the hiss of hunger, he felt no pain, and standard boxing practice did nothing but keep him momentarily at bay.  Toby looked to the Ref, who shrugged his many shoulders, and so Toby seized the thing—careful to avoid the snapping jaws that still had enough teeth to be dangerous—and set to the work of manually dislocating as many large joints as possible.  The Ref called it in Toby's favor twenty wince-inducing minutes later.

And so the hate of ancient feuds withered until only two remained:  Toby... and Fenris.  The Ref hyped the crowd with his hyping mouth for this final match and then bid the combatants to step into the ring.  

Toby ducked under, and the Fenris who stepped through the ropes somehow retained his youthful aspect, unnaturally lithesome and tan, muscles corded like a diagram, magnificent cock and balls heavy with genetic superiority.  His ensorcelled monkey was still perched on his shoulder, glaring.  Surprise flashed through Toby, then grim determination followed in its wake.  Cheating motherfucker, he thought, careful to keep it to himself.  He's in cahoots with the rope-demons—promised them half a Fairy Queen, no doubt.  The monkey smiled a terrible little smile that normal monkeys don't know, eyes flickering with recognition and a sophisticated, anticipatory hunger.

"Cheater," said Toby.

"And the kettle's smoking pot," Fenris rejoined, "What sorcery is this?"  He indicated Toby's man-mansion with a snide wave of his hand.

Toby flexed and thought he saw Fenris retract his chin a fraction of an inch.  "Nothing but a steady diet of stallion blood and iron," he grunted.

"Be sure to send me the recipe," Fenris laughed, "Or I can always get it from your next of kin at my funeral."

Toby smiled with his mouth.

"Uh, your funeral, I mean," stumbled Fenris.

The bell rang and the crowd filled the metal tube of the sub with the reverberations of raw, unfiltered loathing that pushed back against the frustrated ocean, making the entire hulk creak and ping.  Even the Fairy Queen was on her perfect feet, wee fists pumping the stale air.

Fenris held himself loose, twitching his skeleton like a restless whip.  Toby raised his leg-like arms and one of his eyebrows.

"Jeet Kune Do—trained by the bound shade of Bruce Lee himself!" exulted Fenris, wiping the thumb of a curled hand across the tip of his nose.

Toby shrugged, a geologic gesture, and stepped forward.

Fenris danced backward, feet blurring in an intricate weave, then reversed suddenly, his body twisting the way you'd throw a right, but he conjured a left out of it somehow.  Toby arched backwards, turning his head to the side beneath the blow, the breeze of it caressing his cheek.

Fenris uncoiled from the feint to throw the real deal and Toby turned, elbows in, fists tucked against his face like a mantis, and the shot skidded off his forearms.

Then came a loopy hook in surprised follow-up, which Toby ducked, coming up the other side into a half-assed open-hand slap, the kind you'd give to a hysterical celebrity.  Fenris staggered back, eyes burning, Fu Manchu bristling.  He immediately launched a confusing and mutable flurry of Wing Chun foot- and handwork, the stuff you'd subject a wooden dummy to in a misty mountain temple courtyard.  Toby rolled and faded and slid his head away from every motion like a superior dance partner accepting a lazy lead—nothing but pure choreography.  After a full minute of this Fenris was wheezing, arms dropped that imperceptible inch that puts the brain at risk.  "Motherfucker hold still!" he shouted.  "Who the fuck you train with, Michael Jackson?"

"No one in particular," Toby said and popped Fenris clean in the nose, bloodying it magnificently.

Fenris rebounded off the shot and swung into the attack as Toby fake-stumbled back, making everything miss by inches.  The monkey-demon screeched pure rage, tiny hands hugging Fenris' head, buried in his Fu Manchu as he tried to Ratatouille him into something that would actually land.  Toby fell back against the ropes, fists over his face, elbows covering liver and spleen and the crowd sighed.  Fenris' stance flickered through an encyclopedia of kung fu, an effortless zoetrope of puissance, to find just the thing to unlock Toby's cage of meat and bone.  The monkey-demon twisted and Fenris' blur settled into a mode of attack:  The Pantomime of Hands-Like-Water.  

The assault began as a gentle rain, rain that fell in larger and larger drops until it was the deluge of a rising waterfall, a hundred feet, a thousand, and then miles high into the clouds where thunder lives.  The monkey-demon screamed and screamed, exhorting Fenris to find that elusive thunderclap.  Toby held under the onslaught at first, letting the ropes cushion the blows from the back while resting just as he had been taught, but that sky-high shit was starting to hurt.    

Through his sheltering arms Toby saw the monkey-demon's eyes wide and slavering, fangs glistening at the thought of eating an entire Fairy Queen, for it had no intention of suffering the indignity of merely half.  It was then that Toby heard the distant rumble of thunder and thought a thought transmitted mere days ago, while doing bongs with the helpful spirit of Mohammad Ali:  "Float like Edgar Allen Poe on laudanum and sting like a critic.  But mostly, make 'em taste the gutter."

Toby bunched his right hand into the Akkadian sign for Throne of God and threw the punch straight at Fenris' stupid face, which slid to the left to make it pass over his shoulder—just like Toby knew it would—putting the screaming monkey-demon right in the path of that meat and bone locomotive.  With a wet smuck the punch peeled the monkey-demon clean off, stripping away half of Fenris' Fu Manchu with it.  The split-second dilated into a day and Fenris turned his head in super slo-mo to look after the missing monkey, angling his chin perfectly to catch the Number Two train to Sleepy Town—a cruel left driven by Toby's mass entire.  Toby lanced Fenris through the skull a good three feet, the drastic change in momentum rippling through brain tissue, different densities making shorelines of breaking waves, tearing tiny bleeds like lightning traces through the meat, shorn axons releasing a whitewash of neurotransmitters straight into the hardware of the soul.  If brains give rise to minds, then kicking the meat out from under the ghost makes being like trying to change a lightbulb while standing on a two-legged stool:  Gravity gonna do its thing.

Insensate, Fenris consigned himself to the planet's embrace, kissing the Lord's canvas with the back of his head, arms already curled in the "fencer's pose", the crude hand-jive of deep brainstem injuries.  The crowd surged to its feet, howling, even as Fenris' impressive cock stiffened in angry, defiant pulses and began to spit thick ropes of jizz all over his curled and twitching form.  Never the same again, it spelled out in pearly glyphs.

\*/

The inevitable riot was put down by the rope-demons who corralled the whipped-dog wizards into a single-file line past the glittering loot pile of abandoned artifacts the demons had no use for—everyone was encouraged to take one as a memento before being unceremoniously hurled into a crackling, eye-watering rift in space and time that led back to whatever transdimensional bolt-hole they called home.  At least one hoped.

Toby sat, quiet, on the edge of the ring while the demons cleaned up, their spindly bulks darting to and fro from the edges of vision, the unsettling motion accompanied by the soft sounds of weeping children and masonry falling from great heights.  Above, the Fairy Queen let herself out of her cage and fluttered down in a lazy spiral, hovering briefly before alighting on her bifurcated feet next to Toby, where she dropped cross-legged and began smoking a grain-of-rice cigarette.

"We gotta be clear, you and me," she exhaled.

Toby nodded.  "You're not coming with me."

She grinned like they were sharing a secret.  "Nope."

"That's okay," he said with a frown, "I did this to save you anyway."

She pulled a face and blew a wisp of smoke.  "No, I'm pretty sure you did it 'cuz you hated that guy."

Fenris rolled by in a demon-swept pile of bodies, jittering with seizure and loudly shitting himself as he went.

"No love lost, certainly," Toby sighed, "but I always thought it would end differently—you know, all-or-nothing atop some impossible mountain, or with... armies of... plasma golems... on the surface of the sun, something cool like that." 

She smiled.  "Worked for me."

Toby regarded her.

"What I mean is, I like watching men fight."

He nodded.  "And here I thought I was doing something awesome for you."

She giggled.  "Well, you were, just not the way you thought.  Sorry."  She shrugged her tiny, rounded shoulders and flicked her cigarette two inches away.  "Besides," she said, pointing at him and narrowing her compound eyes, "you cheated.  How did you get sorcery past the demons?"

Biological telepath, he thought-pushed into her.  No magic to it—just sympathetic vibrations in the æther.

She clicked her fingers.  "I knew it!  So—" she put a hand to her temple in mock-concentration "—are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

He blinked.  "Pancakes?"

"Don't mind if we do!  We'll go to my place—I have kitchen staff.  You'll need about a million pancakes, but they'll do whatever I say or get pulled apart like bugs."  She tittered at that and rose on buzzing wings, pinching the end of Toby's thumbnail in her hand to pull him along.

Toby looked back one last time before that blazing portal as the mortal remains of Fenris the Effulgent, Sword of the Lunar Dawn, Prolocutor of Bespoke Hells, danced the final stanza of his saga that had been so damn good for so damn long, only to end with a dull, wet splat no bard would dare curl his lips around.

Because while "head-fakes" rhymes with "pancakes" no one's going to ever pay for that shit.

~