Bifurcation

“The strangest sorts of dreams,” said Clara. She spoke slowly with her diction slurred as if she was drunk. “Of all things, I’m a maid. But not your typical drudge kind of maid; I get to wear this blisteringly hot mashup of scarlet fluff and I work for a magician – though he seems sort of useless and he doesn’t do magic shows. Always the same beginning and then it falls apart and you have the usual nightmare of running through endless hallways with horrible creatures in pursuit.”

“That’s nice,” said Aleister. He was watching the last spiraling tendril of light issue forth from the mirror. It hadn’t quite settled upon Clara’s shoulders and leached into her form.

“No, no it isn’t nice,” Clara said. “And I’m really cold.”

“I did not foresee this,” Aleister said with a frustrated twitch of an eyebrow. Clara’s body was cocooned in sculpted folds of translucent marble of the purest white. “These sheets will turn to silk when you are fully in Presence. They transmigrated upon your departure from me the last time. Be patient, my love.

“You talk just like that magician,” complained Clara. Her eyelids hung heavy, giving her a sultry appearance – at least Aleister considered it so. “Though he hates being called a magician, he has some weird term for what he does; Praxodorkology, something stupid. Is this some weird type of bondage? I’ve heard of some people getting off on mummification and the sort, but I’m not really into such stuff. But, as I was saying about my dreams…”

“What, oh yes – about them…”

“Even when I’m awake, it’s like a dream. I’m nothing but a shadow. Peter Pan’s shadow cast aside to run free in the world. As if I’m split apart and a part of me isn’t what I’m supposed to be.”

“Which is why you’re here,” said Aleister. He stood up, and pulled the suddenly motile silk away. The sheets slid with a rustle to the floor. “There, that’s better.”

“Take me,” breathed Clara. And he did.

But as they lay together after long breathless minutes, Aleister felt her twitch and her fingernails suddenly dug into his shoulderblades.

“This is no dream either, what the hell is going on?” She began to struggle. “Get off me!”

“I can explain everything, my love,” Aleister assured her and made to hold her down. He tried to stare commandingly into her sudden focused eyes “Calm yourself, and we’ll talk about your dreams later…. EEEI! …CKLUGFRK!”

Aleister considered himself a connoisseur of sensation. Over the centuries he had made a desultory hobby of inflicting pleasure… and torment in the most clinical manner upon uncounted men, women, and assorted mystical beings. But having a knee connect with his very own privates was an undiscovered country from whose bourn he devoutly wished to recover from. He toppled off the bed and curled into a foetal position. His hands flapped limply.

“I should run,” declared Clara, peering over the edge.. “But I don’t see a door which convinces me this is sort of a dream, but not an ordinary one. Calling 911 is out of the question, I don’t have my cell phone and I tried pulling it out of thin air, proving my point this ain’t ordinary. However, I am holding this bust which appears to be of you, and I think things are normal enough here that if I drop it, your head will go squish. Or maybe your splattered brains will turn into some nefarious tentacle thingie. I hope not.”

“Please,” gasped Aleister. “A moment – perhaps a minute. Say ten or so, and I will explain now that Lucidity has arrived.”

“Who says nefarious?” Clara said and turned her head about. She let drop the bust and ran her fingers through her short cropped hair. “I’ve been around Dominic too much for my own good. Who’s Lucidity? Why is my hair brown again? I just did the dye job a week ago.”

“By Meklar that really hurt,” said Aleister. He was finally able to look up. Clara peered down; she was sitting cross-legged on the mattress. “What’s gotten into you? Lucidity is a condition, not a person and its onset should not have produced such a violent reaction. I thought you of all people would have been delighted.”

“Delighted?” Clara’s brow furrowed. “Confused is more like it. Sorry about the Rochambeau. I hope you don’t bleed for the next week when you pee, but it was sort of deserved; even if it’s only a dream.”

“I knew Rochambeau,” said Aleister stiffly. He pulled himself up and collapsed face first beside her. “And this is no dream, my love. That really hurt.”

“Aleister Crow,” Clara said with a triumphant jab into his midsection eliciting a miserable yelp from the man. “You were in Vermont, with the rest of them. I remember now, you were a houseguest of some sort. While I was laid up at the Sanctum, you read me stories. You were nice.”

“Guilty as charged,” said Aleister.

“I have the oddest feeling I’m not really me,” said Clara. “Tell me what’s going on?”

“Mutual desires, my love,” said Aleister. “But I think our time at an end.”

“Am I waking up?” Clara said and raised an arm which turned white.

When he touched the outstretched fingers, they were cold and hard. As hard as a marble statue

“Wants and desires,” Aleister said softly. “We’re so very close, you and I. Who would have thought after all these years I would find one so deserving. But you will have to come to a reckoning within yourself. A house divided cannot stand.”

II

“We have to clear up these matters now,” snapped Hop. “I don’t understand this all together human notion of workmen’s comp – but the events which we shall henceforth refer to as the Vermont Vacation were entirely due to your own negligence and have no bearing upon any work performed in the service of Dominic Thule, Paraxegnostic of the Highest Degree. If anything, a heavy surcharge should be levied upon your wages for the rescue that had to be done on your behalf.”

“What rescue?” Clara said distracted. She tapped her fingers together in her lap until she could come up with a response “My recollection is that Dominic made an appearance and promptly walked his head into a two by four. Laura didn’t help at all, she was too busy shooting the gooey people I hadn’t taken care of myself.”

Clara was referring to the events of three months past when her relatives in Vermont had proven to be unnatural in the worst way. She had settled the business by demolishing their backswood residence with a Dragon Torch.

“The two by four was wielded by your cousin,” said Hop. The mouse peered over his bifocals. As usual, he was dressed in an ornate little major domo coat and nothing else. It appeared he had waxed his long whiskets as they curled about his upright ears in an ornate spiral.

“Not my fault,” replied Clara with a yawn. “Son of a bitch got what was coming to him. Have some fire, moron! Not you Hop, I meant my cousin.”

“Then there’s the matter of the ‘temporary’ temporal displacement of the sanctum plus the medical expenses incurred,” continued Hop. “We had to make arrangements so your reality wouldn’t make inquiries into your prolonged absence., Second and third degree burns of that magnitude takes some serious medical thaumaturgy to repair. Are you listening Ms. Sunday?”

“You’ve gotten fat,” said Clara. “I bet it was the Vermont Cheddar.”

“And you could have been left permanently scarred!” Hop’s voice rose to a squeak. “Really, please pay attention? Excuse me, Ms. Sunday! Ms. Sunday!”

Clara had stood up and drifted out of the room with a languorous stride, carried away by currents unseen

III

“Here I am again,” said Clara. Then it seemed as if every muscle she had decided to cramp at once and she went into a violent spasm. Her limbs thrashed wildly and Aleister had to leap away to prevent being hit. The mirror was struck and toppled over. It broke into a thousand pieces with a crash of trumpets and cymbals.

“Damnation!” shouted Aleister over the clamor. He covered his ears. “Look what you’ve done! Now it can’t be undone easily. What a conundrum.”

“What I’ve done?” said Clara once the echoes had stopped. “Maybe you shouldn’t have had a free standing mirror right next to a bed? All this hopping back and forth between places really gives one the cramps.”

“Hopping back and forth between bodies,” corrected Aleister. He stooped over and waved a shard of the mirror at her. “The mirror was an essential part of the transfer. “I had hoped with the completion of Lucidity I could present you with a choice. But now…”

“Did you ever see a movie called Austin Powers?” Clara asked, rubbing her calves. “No? You magical types need to get out more often, I know it’s not a new one. But anyway there’s a character in the movie called Basil Exposition – and guess what he does? For the longest time I thought these… uhm… meetings we were having were nothing more than really hot dreams. But I don’t feel hot at all, I feel cold inside, here, where my heart should be.”

“I don’t know where to start,” said Aleister.

“Start with what can’t be undone easily,” said Clara. “Keep it short, no mystical terms. I get violent when I hear too much of that mumbo jumbo, I might have another muscle spasm and I can’t tell you what I’ll break next, but it will hurt.”

“My love,” babbled Aleister, covering his crotch in the same manner as soccer players due when guarding against a penalty kick. “What I’ve done is wrong, but I could not deny myself, would not consider such an option. It is such a rarity, as I make my way through these ages, to find a woman as strong as you. From Dominic’s own lips I heard how you handled his misadventure with the Slooches. Your bravery when confronted by the goblin realm. And then above all, the clever and ruthless way you dealt with – was it your cousin?”

“Blowing up a house while I’m still in it was hardly clever,” Clara said. She cocked her head. “What about Laura? She’s done a hundred times more heroics than I ever have. I thought something was going on between the two of you.”

“Too religious,” said Aleister promptly. “And by all Essentiality, Calvinistic Elder God worship is not something I want to partake of. The severity and flagellatory rituals…”

“So… what did you do that was wrong?” Clara said. “And what’s with the mirror?”

“I was so enamored I made a simulacra,” said Aleister. “I wanted to look upon your fair form at all times…”

“Sort of creepy,” Clara said. “In other words, you’re a creeper.

Aleister uncharacteristically began to stammer. “…that’s hardly fair. Don’t the normals who are enamored of each other dote on photos and such? I’m a sorcerer, I can do so much more but it wasn’t enough. So I took off the cloth on one of the magical mirrors I have, so I could see the real object of my love…”

“A stalker,” said Clara.

“Aha, but don’t deny what followed next. I did not summon your spirit across the void. As I stared longingly across the distance at every move you took – it began! The cheeks of the simulacra grew warm, the heart began to beat – the limbs to move. With each night, of your own choice – deny it not! The simulacra grew in life and vitality and in the last two occasion came to full lucidity. Your soul and spirit began to inhabit this vessel.”

So,” said Clara. She ran her hands down her flanks and then peered carefully at her arms. “This isn’t me. Is this why I don’t feel like me? But.. alright, you got me. I can’t deny I enjoyed these nocturnal visits when I thought they were nothing but nighttime fantasies. But now that I know this has all been real, I admit it: I like you. There, I said it.”

“Ah,” said Aleister and smiled. He made to take Clara in his arms, but she ducked away with a frown.

“Why didn’t you just ask me out instead of playing about with magic?” she said. “Can we make this short? I need to get back to work. All the maids have been called up for a special meeting. Master Thule has some mission he’s all psyched to do.”

“Dominic Thule is a fool,” thundered Aleister, regaining his aplomb. He drew himself up to his full height and let his black cloak unfurl to dramatic effect. “Over the centuries I’ve watched him heedlessly trample about, suffered his airs, cleaned up his mistakes. For what misbegotten reason he was granted the Sanctum has been forgotten by even the oldest members of the Mystery Club – but he most assuredly would be a menace to all Essentiality if he wasn’t so insipidly incompetent. But it’s the servants who suffer the consequences. He leaves a trail of bodies wherever he goes, mostly those who are foolish enough to take up with the man.”

“I was thinking about quitting,” said Clara. “I sort of noticed. There have been at least three replacements in the time I’ve been working. Makes one think — Was sort of thinking about going off on my own, maybe tarots… or candles.”

“It would be too late,” said Aleister said ominously. “And you can’t go back. You broke the mirror. There has been a bifurcation.”

IV

“Oh no, Toto! I can’t go back to Kansas!” Clara shouted and burst into laughter.

The piece of rolled paper in Dominic Thule’s grasp began to quiver. Clara’s interruption had come upon him right at the moment he was going to release the posture he had held for several minutes before the assembled maids. With one hand tucked in his frock coat, the other raised high he had felt quite Napoleonic – though taller. She had spoiled the paraxegnostic’s moment.

“Glory is the goddess I behold, one can worship glory or one can become glorious,” Dominic launched into his prepared speech after a hasty look at the unrolled parchment. “For too long have I held to the Sanctum, a necessary anchor for all Essentiality and let the gusty winds of time blow down the meaningless achievements of others. Am I not greater than Ozymandias? Khufu? Sen Grigogoch, the Termite King of Ten Spires?”

“Seriously,” guffawed Clara. “The measure of a man is a termite? Bwahahaha!”

She was the only one laughing. The rest of the maids stirred uneasily in their seats, but not a one turned to look to at Clara. She had been swaying back and forth on her feet behind them all in the back of the room.

“Sen Grigogoch reigned for ten thousand years in ancient Mu before the Primal Deluge!” snapped Dominic. “Humans didn’t possess bicameral consciousness back then, so of course they possessed termitlike tendencies! Ms. Sunday, have a seat now with your fellow maids so I may continue with my prepared statements.

“No,” said Clara and resumed her swaying.

There was an uneasy pause.

“Perhaps, I’d better make this short,” said Dominic with a peevish tilt of his shoulders. “Apparently I don’t have EVERYONE’S attention as I should. To wit; there’s been a violation of Essentiality and the Queen of Ilbyon – one of the countries behind door number 6,523 in the great hallway – has beseeched me to come to the aid of her fair land. I had the most fantastic vacation there a while back; the beaches of Baghton have the most magnificent sunsets. And they make a fabulous crispie crumpet!”

“Crumpets are soggie English muffins,” interrupted Clara. “They suck.”

“Ms. Monday, please do something about Ms. Sunday,” hissed Dominic. “She’s not well. As I was saying, the Queen of Ilbyon has asked for my assistance, so it is my intent to deputize you all as Battle Maids and sally forth to the rescue. We go at once to the Isle of Nocturnis where Essentiality has been breached. Prepare for combat, my maids!”

“By the way, I’m really sorry it didn’t work out between you and Aleister,” said Clara to Laura, who had taken her aside. “I probably shouldna said anything and kept it a secret, but I can’t. We’re an item.”

All the maids gave up the pretense and either stood up or turned about as Laura made a choked noise.

“We’re all gonna die,” said Clara with a smile. She patted the stunned Battle Maid on the back.

V

“Ms. Sunday has been compromised,” whispered Dominic sotto voce to Laura. “A double agent, perhaps possession and I always fail at the exorcisms; all the vomiting turns my stomach. I fear the worst, perhaps the work of Necros – the damn boy must have escaped. A shame, she’s a good maid, but it would be best for us all if she doesn’t come back today: Ms. Monday: Do the dirty deed. I’ll come up with a justifiable epitath.”

Laura ground her teeth together in such a manner as to make Dominic wince. The sound was similar to a gun slide being racked

“She’s mine.”

VI

On the other side, Clara sat up and spit out a mouthful of sand. She was gratified to see Aleister’s legs kicking wildly above the rim of a low dune. Apparently his ‘transit’ through the mystical basket of transportation hadn’t worked out so well for him as it had for her. Without a doubt, travelling between places was far simpler at the Sanctum, one simply walked down the hall to the appropriate door and there you were without any stomach churning effects. She took stock of her surroundings.

They were on a low set of dunes above a beach. The puffy clouds scudded overhead in a dark blue sky without a sun and gathered at the edge of the horizon in a frothy mix. Wind blew among the broken reeds of the dunes setting up a low whistling hum. A look around revealed this was but a small stretch of island surrounded by the white-capped ocean.

She walked up the dune and helped Aleister sit up. He brushed the sand off.

“Nice coat,” Clara said with a smirk. He wore a striped candy cane blazer, a straw hat and cane lay nearby.

“Nice dress,” said Aleister.

Clara looked down and grimaced. She was dressed in a yellow dress with a Victorian flair. The only part of the outfit she approved of was the red corset with the black lacing. On the plus side her hair was now an appropriate shade scarlet – which was her preferred coloring

“Uh, oh – steampunk fashion. This is so not me,” she said. For a moment she contemplated ripping the skirt so she could move with greater ease but let it go. “I even have ahemm, an umbrella. So where’s the faun?”

“No fauns,” Aleister chuckled. “We’re not in C.S. Lewis land, though I’m sure you could get there from here, it’s been archived. This is Nocturnis, the Isle of Dreams.”

“Not sure I like where we are,” said Clara uneasily. “Dreams can lead to nightmares. Can we go back?”

“We have to go where Dominic goes in order to conclude this mess with the bifurcation,” Aleister said and lifted his hand to shade his eyes. He stared up the beach. “What do you see?”

Clara unfurled the umbrella with a snap and lifted it over her head. There was a large crowd of people further up the beach, with flags and balloons. And there was something else, two of them in fact, standing apart at the crowd’s periphery.

“Look at those two,” she exclaimed. “They’re freaking enormous. Humpty Dumpty Dumbos.”

Aleister looked alarmed. “And they’re wearing lederhosen. I believe those two are some rather nasty individuals known as Genzel and Uschel Hurt. The last name is not an exaggeration. Their method of dispatch is the wishbone.”

“Shit!” Clara dived behind the dune. “I don’t even want to know…”

“One takes a leg,” said Aleister getting down alongside her, “and the other takes a leg and then they pull. One of them always gets a wish.”

“Will you shut the fuck up,” whispered Clara. “They’re coming this way.”

“Then lower the damn parasol!”

Clara peered between the reeds as the two monstrosities made their way past them on the beach. Genzel and Uschel moved together with an odd coordinated waddle, as if they were merely two balloons floats being blown by the sea breeze. But the demonic, fixed grins and the unblinking orbs of their eyes made her shudder and duck out of site.

“Don’t move, don’t say a thing,” hissed Aleister. They cowered motionless against the slope of the dune till the Hurt duo turned and bounced back up the beach towards the crowd.

“This is all coming out of your dreams, isn’t it?” Clara asked accusingly.

“Someone’s dreams,” said Aleister. “Another sorcerer from some other part of Essentiality conjured them up and made them real – here – where they can do some meddling in the dreamland between the worlds. And that fraud of yours, one Dominic Thule has decided to meddle back because his vanity needs refreshing. His name escapes me at the moment, we have no need to take part in whatever farce Dominic has dreamed up to oppose him.”

“I have dreams also,” Clara said heatedly. “What about mine? Can I make something real? How about a giant brick in the sky? We could drop it on those two before they take notice of us. And they will, because that’s how dreams work. They’ll just know we’re here while we talk, and those giant eyeballs will rise over the sand dune we’re hiding behind… and then it’s splitsville.”

“The problem with Nocturnis,” said Aleister with something of a sigh. “Too many frequent the Isle and the substance of the region has, uhhh… become substantial. Lesser dreamers have no sway in this place, we would be at the mercy of the Hurt twins – if I was anyone else. I will take steps to prevent them from harming us. Meanwhile do you sense anything at all from yourself?”

“From myself?” said Clara. She frowned. A line appeared on her forehead as she scrunched her eyes. “You mean me?”

“The part of you still with Dominic Thule back at the Sanctum,” said Aleister impatiently. “The original, if you will, though lessened. Time grows short, even here. The longer you are bifurcated, the harder it will be to be put your spirit back together.”

“I’ll try,” said Clara. She closed her eyes. After a while she began to hum softly, in rhythm with the gusts of wind blowing across the dunes. And then…

“They’re coming,” she said.

VII

“Fair Ilbyon threatened once again by the evil Bochor,” said Dominic Thule. “Another foul pollution of cross-continuity such as I’ve ever seen. We must. This kind of technology should not be allowed to into the fair fields of that gentle land – and gentle queen.”

He lowered the spyglass.

The maids were arrayed behind the dune as the spectrum dictated: Clara, on the far left with a goofy grin and somewhat dishevelled appearance to her scarlet uniform. Laura, grim in her orange.

The maids yellow, green and blue were new and wide-eyed. The lamia was in indigo, next to the violet clad woman at the extreme right. All of them shouldered enormous blunderbusses – except for Laura who had two.

Dominic was dressed in his best long coat, whose tails flapped wildly about. The narrow bridge of his nose was pinched by a rose-tinted pince nez. The rising wind tore at the top hat which constrained his shaggy locks. He cut quite a fine figure, silhouetted on the top of the dune.

“What’s going on?” Clara asked. “Is something craptastic about to happen. It always does!”

Dominic raised the spyglass to the sky and then lowered it dramatically.

“There!”

Giant metallic submarines on spidered legs were rising out of the ocean spray and arraying themselves upon the beach. The long telescopic like smokestacks belched out a multicored array of smoke. The distant sound of cheering rose from the gathered crowd, shepherded by the watchful Hurt duo.

“We can’t see what you’re pointing out!’ Clara shouted. Laura shot her a look filled with cold daggers.

“He’s going to be seen by those two monstrosities,” said Clara to Aleister. The two had stayed hidden and unnoticed in the tall dune grass when Dominic and the maids had marched out of a doorway, which had appeared out of nowhere. “I’m right – she’s right – oh hell – we’re right. Any moment now this is going to all dark and shit. What’s up with Laura…. Ohhhhhh….”

“A moment please,” said Aleister who had pulled a small pocket grimoire out of his coat pocket and was flipping rapidly through the pages. “I agree we must prepare a contingency – I have no faith — hahahah — faith, whatsoever in dear Dominic.”

“Laura looks pissed,” said Clara. “I think the part of me that got left behind didn’t keep her mouth shut. In fact, I wish I’d shut my mouth – looks like the flies could fly in. I mean her, not me. This is so confusing.”

“Complete and total Lucidity would have meant the transfer of the lower functions,” muttered Aleister. “Wait, here it is, the passage concerning the Hurt brothers…”

“And what would have been left of me in the end?” Clara demanded. “Would my original body have been left behind all brain dead and vegetable? Seriously, why can’t you magical types do thing the simple way? A date, a dinner – it would have worked. Tall, dark and handsome works.”

“A moment please,” said Aleister. “I almost have it.”

“Come, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – oh, damm the decrepit deities!” Dominic turned to face the assembled maids. “There’s too many for me to bother with. Take your positions! “What concerns are those abominable subsipedes swarming up from the depths of the deep. Think of how they will drive the terrified and panic stricken inhabitants of Ilbyon like hounds on the hunt. The fair cities will fall, the forests will burn. We simply can’t have cross-technological or magical violations violating Essentiality. They don’t belong here, so we must do our duty – though I seek no reward, no recognition from those who will call me savior.”

“That cut’s it,” said Clara. “They’ve seen him and here they come! He goes into blah, blah mode and, oh crap…”

She was referring to the ominous guardians of the Bochor: Genzel and Uschel Hurt. From afar they had taken note of the all too visible Paraxegnostic and were proceeding down the beach with enormous leaps, faces twisted by maddened grins. The large, brass buttons on their lederhosen bounced. The ground shook underneath. In each puffy hand was held a giant mace, which not surprisingly, resembled an iron lollilop.

The troop of multicolored maids swarmed up the dune with blunderbusses at the ready. But once they saw the two rotund monstrosities bearing down on them the new maids; Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday shrieked in unison, threw down their weapons and showed their heels.

“They’ve seen us,” announced Laura, stating the obvious. “Permission to violently deflate the gruel pots before they get any closer?”

“Hold your ground,” shrieked Dominic. He attempted to strike a heroic pose and failed. “You three – fired! The rest of you, concentrate all your shots on those subsipedes!”

“Look, they’re having a party,” giggled Clara. She propped the barrel of her large gun into the sand and leaned upon it. “Those must be the balloons!”

“Oh, god – I’m totally clueless,” Clara exclaimed. She wrung her hands and turned to Aleister “I’m going to die. What happens if she dies? Do I die also?”

“Yes,” said Aleister.

Maids Monday, Friday and Saturday – who still held fast, let loose a thunderous volley. The projectiles made a twisting trail of smoke in the air as they shot past the Hurt brothers towards the subsipedes. There was an enormous crash and boom and the nearest subsipedes began to blow up. The cheers of the gathered crowd turned to screams of horror as the mechanical monsters toppled slowly over like a row of dominoes, crushing many underneath.

“We need to run – both of us,” said Clara. She pulled at Aleister’s hand. He swatted her away. “They’re not stopping and I don’t want to be wishboned. I can’t let myself be torn apart. Oh no! – that bitch!”

The remaining maids scrambled in all directions, except for Laura and Clara and this was the cause of Clara’s outrage, for as she spoke, Laura pushed Clara sprawling into the path of the oncoming Hurt brothers.

Clara rushed out of hiding and sprang onto Laura. In a moment the two were down in a tangle, hitting and kicking.

“Retreat!” shouted Dominic, only now seemingly aware of the Hurt brothers. “Every man and woman for themselves!”

He turned to flee, and tripped.

It was too late, Genzel swung a great iron lollipop and the violet clad maid, Ms. Saturday, went sailing into the surf. She didn’t scream. Ms. Friday hissed, her form contorted and a giant snake slithered forth from the pile of clothes. In a moment, Urschel was himself screaming in as the lamia darted up his leg and into his shorts. The ground shook as Urschel hopped about clutching at his groin.

“Time to end this foolishness,” said Aleister Crow. He stood up and straightened his coat. He waved his hands about like a epileptic conductor and stomped on the ground several times. “There. I’ve unleashed the Freudian Fallaciax.”

Genzel let out an enormous screech.

“MMMMMMMOOOOMMMMY!” Genzel bellowed and swung his iron lollilop into Uschel’s head with an enormous crack. “WAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaagh!”

Uschel toppled like a wave of blubber upon the beach. Genzel meanwhile spun about and stampeded away with an accompanying cascade of sobs and wails. The lamia slithered and transformed back to human shape. She sat down, with her long forked tongue hanging out.

“I knew there would be family issues,” said Aleister. He shook his head and walked over to where Laura had Clara in a leg choke.”

“A little help,” choked Clara. Her face was red. “She’s kicking my butt.”

Aleister bent and scooped up a handful of sand. He dashed it across Laura’s face. The battle maid relaxed her hold and rolled away with a snore.

“The sand of Nocturnis,” said Aleister. “If handled appropriately, will act as a soporific agent upon the most violent.”

Dominic Thule sat up. He reached for his top hat with a trembling grasp. But he was not trembling with fear, rather rage.

“Aleister Crow! How dare you!” sputtered the paraxegnostic. “This is my affair. I was to be the savior of Ilbyon from the foul Bochor. You, you – crackpot, tin horn shyster of a fraud!”

“One of your staff is dead,” said Aleister severely. “More would have died if I had not intervened when I did – not to mention those poor dreamers down the beach. How many people passed away unexpectedly in their sleep in so many other worlds because of you? What purpose did any of this serve?”

“Essentiality depends upon my constant vigilance,” said Dominic. He drew himself up. “I challenge you to a duel – here and now. I cann’t let this insult pass!”

“Accepted, but one moment,” Aleister turned to Clara. “My dear, I am engaged. But the challenge I present is a simple one. Go to yourself. Take care of yourself.”

Clara nodded. Coughed. She cleared her throat. “Right. I get it. Two women enter, one woman leave!

She slid down the dune towards herself. Behind her the fireworks started.

VIII

“You’re awake,” said Clara. She sat down next to Aleister and turned to page 59 of Modern Bride magazine, the fall edition. “I want you to take a look at these dresses.”

Aleister winced. But he was a helpless audience. Between the neckbrace and the cast on his leg, he was going nowhere.

“Why is that mouse here?” he asked. “How long was I unconscious?”

“The mouse’s name is Hop,” said Hop. “I am neutral as regards your past difficulties with Dominic Thule, esquire, paraxegnostic, master of the Sanctorum Sanctum, squeeek! Please do not twitch my tail Mistress Clara, I will get to the matter at hand. As a mouse, I can act as a notary public, secretary and justice of the peace.”

“Marriage?” said Aleister and tried to turn his head. He failed. “What exactly happened?”

“There was a big sorcerous battle,” explained Clara. “You and Dominic were throwing hexes, curses, spells, the whole works. Really, it makes one wonder why Dominic even had the maids get involved in the Botulism affair.”

“Bochor.”

“Whatever.” Clara continued. “Anyway it was getting serious, and the next thing I knew this guy came out of the heavens in a big gold ship called The Deus Ex Machina. I think it was Doctor Destiny, he seemed pretty pissed.”

“A battle between two sorcerers on the Isle of Nocturnis,” said Hop. “Of course the Doctor was pissed. He wasn’t getting any sleep.”

“Anyway, he put an end to it,” said Clara. She smiled. “You and Dominic were all bleeding and battered on the ground, and when you saw me – proposed marriage. I accepted.”

“A thousand years of bachelorhood gone,” moaned Aleister. He closed his eyes. “Then what happened?”

“Dominic fired me,” said Clara matter of factly. “I told him I quit. Hop said he’s been sulking back in the Sanctum. But I’m sure he’ll get over it. The Lamia will cheer him up in no time. Anyway, I’m done. Time to move on with my life.”

Aleister tried to shake his head. He winced.

“And who are you?”

“I’m me,” said Clara.

“But which one?” Aleister said. “How did it work out?

“She tried to fight, but once I touched her she sort of fell over,” said Clara. “She fell into a sleep of some kind. I couldn’t wake her. And then she began to fade and sort of sunk into the ground. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Which one I am is of no importance. What matters in the end is I am whole, and I am myself – again.”

Clara smiled.

The End

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