Old Business
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The boy scrambled down the hillside, bare feet scraping on soil. His name wasn't Ugg, but it might as well have been — he, like everyone else he'd ever known, was a resident of a small village where the primary food source was a kind of hard, bitter root vegetable, and the leading cause of death was Terminal Nature. Ordinarily he spent his days hunting, gathering, tying sticks to rocks, and tending to the campfire. Life was simple, and soul-crushingly dull.

Not today, though. Today he'd seen the sign, two valleys over; a plume of dark purple-black smoke, twisting and warping in tiny, intricate strands. If he stood on the roof of his hut — not a cave, mind you, though (again) it might as well have been — he could see an intermittent flash of light at the base, in colours he didn't even have words for. It meant only one thing, and that thing was something he'd seen only once before.

Leaves and tree branches cracked under his feet as he trampled through the vegetation, weaving through the tracks made by hunters and animals alike. He vaulted a stream, laughing as he landed with a splash in the mud on the opposite bank, and took off again, clambering over rocks to poke his head above the low canopy and breathe in the faint, acrid fumes. The journey took hours, but he didn't mind. His village would be angry that he had abandoned his duties, but he didn't mind that either. Let them be angry. He had more important things to do right now than poke flames.

The edge of the forest, surprisingly abrupt for something so untamed, loomed ahead of him. He'd reach it in three steps, two steps, one step and a leap

…and with a crash he landed sprawling in the clearing. Pulling air through his lungs in long, deep, powerful breaths, he rolled over, grinning as a shadow fell over him. Above him was a painted face, upside-down but still unmistakably the same one that had been etched into his mind all those years below. The figure extended its hand, and the boy reached up and took it.



Three days, the boy-who-was-not-named-Ugg spent with the Wondermaker. On the first, they wove things: patterns that moved and tricked the mind, robes that shed the eye like water on oilskin. He kept one for himself (a light shawl that burned with a faint, untouchable fire) and the rest were thrown to the wind for others to find.

The second day was spent carving. First wood, then clay, then stone. Again, there were patterns that moved, but now the figures moved too — tiny people that staggered about, fighting imagined battles and invisible beasts. Three hours alone were spent constructing a life-sized dummy from wood and straw, into which the Wondermaker blew a blue breath of life. True life, with a mind, and a will to live. The thing called itself Mister, which gave the Wondermaker cause to laugh. The boy did not ask why. As the night grew harsh and cold, he asked if he might keep one of the miniatures too, but the Wondermaker raised a hand and denied him, in a harsh voice not used to the soft tones of the boy's native dialect. "It is not for you to possess life", it said. "That power belongs to the Gods." And then it smiled, and added, in a low whisper, "And to me." And the figures too were scattered on the wind.

On the third day, the boy was woken early, well before sunrise. Guided by the light from his shawl, he followed the Wondermaker along a spiral path, winding upwards anticlockwise until the pair arrived at a peak, overlooking an ocean. The boy, who had never seen a body of water larger than a river before, was taken aback, but calmed when the Wondermaker gestured for him to sit next to it on the edge.

They sat there for several minutes before the giant finally spoke.

"I have… visions."

The boy was silent.

"Visions of greatness. Of towering pillars of metal and glass, of bright colours and decadence. It is so close to me. I can hear bells, a long way off, ringing in my name."

Again, the boy was silent.

"I have been a toymaker since the beginning. Ever since the world was hot and molten. But recently, I've been given a taste of something more. And I cannot do it alone."

It placed a gnarled hand on the boy's shoulder, staring off at the star-studded waves.

"I would like you to… join me. You and the others who find me. It would please me to have a following, and not merely be followed. I… feel this is the right thing to do. It will lead to great things." A pause, broken only by the lapping of the ocean on the cliff. "Will you come with me?"

The boy opened his mouth to speak, and the world exploded.



The Wondermaker spat blood from its mouth, and climbed to its feet. "Who", it growled, "are you?"

The man who now stood in front of them on the edge of the cliff shrugged, and adjusted his hat. He was a tallish man with a face full of angles, with a body-shape that was clearly once gaunt, but had been bloated slightly by age and too much rich food. When he opened his mouth, he spoke with a rounded accent from faraway lands, in a language that — in this day and age — still languished in the primordial linguistic ooze.

"Nobody important."

The Wondermaker responded in the same tongue, clipping vowels and dropping consonants like monoliths. "Oh good," it said. "It pains me to break important things."

With a lunge, the Wondermaker was upon him, fists and blades, red in tooth and claw. When it climbed to its feet, it was annoyed — though not particularly surprised — to find itself holding only a few strips of tattered purple silk.

"I liked that jacket".

It whipped its head around, smoke streaming from the holes in its mask. "Is that supposed to be a joke? Do you think this is funny? Do you find this amusing!?"

"No. It's just a fact." The man rubbed his neck, and sighed. "I'm sorry. I really am. There's a lot going on right now. I'm not coherent. Particularly speaking. Duality, you see."

The Wondermaker climbed to its feet for a second time, and took a step forward.

"Uh-buh-bup. Sorry." The man reached into his jacket pocket and pulled something out; something long, slim, and brightly-coloured. "It's not personal, really. I don't mean any offence. I just need to kill you and everything you stand for."

The Wondermaker took another step forward, the air around it flickering scarlet. The man felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and the bandages around his neck began to fizzle and char. "You've still got time to try and run."

His adversary almost laughed. "We both know that isn't going to happen." It stepped forward again, letting its robe fall to the floor. It hurt to look at, now, a writhing mass of jagged, knotted shapes. From one angle, it seemed almost human; from another, serpentine. It would be inaccurate to call it large — rather, everything else seemed suddenly small.

The man shrugged again. "It's your choice. But there's a reason I'm going to win this fight."

"Your confidence will be your downfall."

"Indeed." He extended his free hand, and revealed a small, white bubble floating above it. "You see this?"

"I see it. You won't trap me with cheap tricks.".

"I don't really want to. But this bubble? This bubble has a world in it. Not a complicated one, just a little something I whipped up. An old family recipe."

The scenery wobbled, flickering yellow and brown. The Wondermaker grinned, striding with confidence through its newfound desert. "And now you're in mine. My world. There's nothing you can do that I cannot."

"You don't understand. You don't get it. Look in the bubble."

The Wondermaker bent over, dwarfing the man, and the desert, and the world. In the bubble, it saw a single figure, curled up and sleeping. "The boy."

"Yep. You didn't care. Now? He's mine. I saved him." The man closed his hand, palming the bubble out of view. "Bam. Force of good, just like that."

For a moment, the world was silent. A shivering mass of violet, violent energy, tipped with a simple wooden facepiece, hunched in a crescent over a man in a badly damaged silk suit who, incidentally, continued to smile faintly as the rim of his top hat caught alight. With the raw momentum of a tectonic plate, the Wondermaker began to laugh. In the distance, the sky tore.

"Goodbye, fool. It's been… educational."

And then several things happened at once, too fast to be recounted by even the most reliable third-person narrator. And then silence reigned again, and the world was back (the real world; not the desert, not the cliff, not the spiral path) and the man stood with a NERF-brand toy gun levelled at the twitching corpse of the Wondermaker. He fired a few more plastic bullets into it, waited until it stopped moving, threw the gun onto the body, and collapsed to the ground.



The boy's village was quiet, as was to be expected from a place frozen in time. Some people were caught mid-milling-about, questioning a certain individual's whereabouts, while others were completely unaware. The man in the silk suit had long ago realised that, when you're messing about with things, there's no point in doing it by half-measures. You either make full use of the tools at your disposal, or you fail. Go big, as they say, or go home.

He strode down what could charitably be called a track, emerging into a small circle of huts arranged around what could charitably be called a fire pit. With a nod to the freezeframe tribesmen and women who stood about in ignorance, he took off his hat, emptying out a single white bubble. It expanded slowly at first, then quickly, growing fainter and fainter until it dissipated entirely.

With shaking arms, he laid the boy down gently, ran his fingers through his hair, and turned away.

As an afterthought, before he restored the causality people had come to know and love, he re-lit the fire. The boy would be facing some harsh questioning on the topic of dreams, and it wouldn't do to add to his worries. Not any more than he had already, anyway.

The man strode off, and the world was was the normal amount of abnormal again.



In a glade, several kilometres from the clearing where the Wondermaker's body now seeped back into the fabric of the universe, a figure sat in a tree listening to birdsong.

"Hello."

The figure smiled, and opened an eye.

"Hi", it said. "Can't say I wasn't expecting ya. This is it, huh?"

"I'm afraid so. I can't leave any loose ends"

Mister smiled, and shrugged. "No biggie, I get it. I didn't expect to get this far, t'be honest. I do gotta ask though. If you'd let me stay… would I — that is, we — have been, y'know… good?"

The man thought back. "Eh. Fifty-fifty. There were some pretty good moments, but I personally didn't care for it overall. Too dark for my tastes, and there wasn't really enough consistency to be engaging."

"Fair comment. To each their own, I guess." He gestured around. "Good luck with whatever this turns out to be."

"Thanks." The man hesitated a moment, shook his head, clicked his fingers, and the strawman dissolved.



And now, an ending suitable for a beginning. With a sense of bittersweet remorse, the man (whose silk suit was becoming less of a suit by the day) loaded his NERF-brand toy gun, and fired it into the ground. As he stepped into the resultant crater, he couldn't help but smile. One bullet left.

His fingers were still trembling as he slid the plastic rod into the barrel. He'd wanted the one with the magazine attachment, but they'd been out of stock. Just as well, really. This made it feel more personal, somehow. Which is weird, come to think of it. You can't get much more personal than suicide.

He held the gun up to his head, hovering over a point just in front of his ear. He touched it to his head, and slid it further in, wincing as the barrel brushed up against his psyche. Got to get the aim right here. He'd only got the one shot. Didn't want to miss and end up hitting his id.

Three…

The dirt was cool, and soft, and the sky was blue. He sank lower into the mud.

Two…

As the Earth closed up above him, he felt an odd sense of calm. This wasn't so bad. He could wait here a while.

One…

It'd be worth it in the end.

Pop.



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