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.


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