God help me it's over. Last night I found the first flat place I've seen since I entered this strange and eldrich realm and I slept for what feels like the first time in ages - which can't be true, I did sleep while I was stuck in Shady Lawn. I awoke this morning to that voice booming from the sky again.
"James Phillip Carlson. You have overcome every obstacle placed in your path. You have been found to possess courage and determination. You are strong. You have proven yourself WORTHY. What do you desire?"
It was unnerving to hear this speech delivered in the same cold emotionless tone that the voice used when condemning another man to death for smoking a cigaret but I replied. "I want to save Janice. I want her to be safe from these monsters, that's what this whole journey was for. It's why I put myself through this hell. Her safety is the only thing that matters." The voice boomed from the sky once last time. "It is done. Prepare yourself James Phillip Carlson." With that a hole tore in reality, or what passes for reality in this place. Through it I saw a tower ascending to the heavens, so tall I could not see the top. It was wrapped in wire and string and cloth. Corpses hung on the wall. Many of them I recognized. I should after all, I was the one who hacked them to pieces in the lobby of their office building. From somewhere high in the tower I heard the screams of someone being tortured. I drew my sword and stepped through that gaping wound in space to find myself at the gate of the tower. It was guarded by a Puppet, this one dressed like Mr. Punch from the Punch and Judy puppet shows. He was surprised to see me, tried to tell me no one could enter because they were filming the new episode of Candle Cove, "Prisoner of the Skin-Taker". I cut him down where he stood and took the keys dangling from his belt.
The outside of the tower didn't prepare me for what I found inside. If you've ever seen a site where a TV show or movie is being filmed you probably know there are usually cables everywhere, hooking up the sound equipment, the video cameras, the lights, and everything else a film crew needs. Here the cables were made of flesh. The boom mics dangled from the ceiling on marionette wire and sinew and each had an ear grafted to it's end instead of a microphone. One of the camera men, well camera Puppets, swiveled towards me when he heard the disturbance and his camera blinked at me. The camera's eye was green. I saw the "manufacturers" logo on the side of the camera as he turned, "Newborn Technologies Incorporated". In the middle of the room at the end of a leather leash held by Horace Horrible was Janice. She looked terrified but her mouth was forced into a hideous grin as if the corners were being pulled up by strings. She was kneeling at the feet of the Skin-Taker and Pirate Percy was waiting off camera apparently for his cue to come rescue her. Janice was dirty and bruised and I doubt any of it was makeup. When I came in she turned her head to look at me but it was quickly, and probably painfully, twisted back by the being pulling her strings. The Wooden Girl. She was sitting in the directors chair, the body of a young girl carved from wood and wrapped in tangles of string and wire her face painted on with a perfection pageant contestants can only dream of. She turned slowly and looked at me. "The teacher actually made it. Skin-Taker, kill him and get back to work. The show must go on." While I had everyone else distracted Percy, God bless him, took advantage of the situation and did something I think he's wanted to do for a long time. He rushed on set and cut the leash that Horace was holding Janice by, in the same fluid motion he reversed the stroke of his blade and took Horace's head off at his buck teeth. Blood mixed with cotton stuffing as Horace went down, and for some reason the Wooden Girls control of Janice seemed to slip. Percy shouted at her to run and she started fighting her way to her feet. I barely had time to cut down the camera Puppet before the Skin-Taker was on me slashing and thrusting with his own blade. For all his bragging to Percy on the show about being the better swordsman he fights with more rage and brute strength than skill and I found his blows easier to parry than the Skin-Taker doppelganger in that strange realm. I quickly disarmed him and took his head off just like I had the duplicate yesterday. He dropped his weapon and began what would have under other circumstances been a comical scramble for his head. I kicked it away like a soccer ball and let him scramble for it, I had more important things to worry about.
Janice was screaming in pain. As I watched the strings implanted in her by the Wooden Girl writhed to the surface of her skin and fell to the ground. I don't know how it happened but she was free! The Wooden Girl was shocked as well she shouted at Percy to behave himself at once and stop Janice from escaping. He, as he put it was "Disinclined to acquiesce to her request." Unfortunately, his strings were still functioning. With a gesture from the Wooden Girl he jerked into action moving to block Janice's escape as the Wooden Girl conjured more strings from the air and sent them streaking towards Janice . . . where they simply fell to the floor millimeters away from her skin unable to touch her. She screamed at Percy to kill Janice rather than let her escape. He tried to fight the pull of her strings but I could see that he was he losing so I rushed down and got between him and Janice. I locked blades with him and leaned in close enough to speak to him without the Wooden Girl overhearing. I told him "Stop fighting Her Percy, and fight me. It might be the distraction Janice needs to escape." He nodded that he understood and we began to duel. For some reason the Wooden Girl actually seemed to enjoy this, she relaxed her control over him so he could fight with his own skill, much more skill than the Skin-Taker (still scrabbling after his head) had mustered. If I'd been in better condition I would have almost been a match for him but I was tired and still in pain. Even though I could tell he was holding back to make the fight last long enough for Janice to make her escape I knew he was going to kill me in the end.
Then I remembered the episode where he and the Skin-Taker fought, how they would occasionally slash for each others strings rather than their bodies. She wasn't pulling his strings at the time but I could still see them extending up towards the ceiling and trailing off into space, or possibly just moving in a direction that humans aren't aware of. My first strike at his strings missed and I was distracted enough that he got in a solid blow, I felt a pain in my left wrist and my hand went numb but I ignored it and fought on. I saw something slowly taking shape near Janice. A door. No, a Door, the kind that leads to the Empty City. I swallowed and hoped that when I said I wanted her to be safe from the monsters ALL of them were included, not just the Wooden Girl and her minions. My attention shifted back to Percy quickly as he scored a light wound on my right cheek, just under the eye. Nearly blinded me completely. Another attack at his strings severed the one connected to his left arm and the arm went limp, hanging by his side as if dead. I redoubled my effort then and brought him to one knee by severing the string to a leg. As he went down I saw the Door open and Janice fled through with tears in her eyes, but at least she didn't have to watch me and Percy cut each other up anymore. I hope she's somehow safe even in that place and I hope that against all odds she finds her way out. Percy looked up at me with his porcelain face and said "Finish it Mr. Carlson. I've been trapped like this too long. For every time I disobeyed Her the Queen made me cut off part of myself and She replaced it with a part from a doll. There is nothing left now of who I used to be and if you let me live She will hang me from the Tower still alive for the cloth birds to peck at with their needle beaks."
Regretfully I severed the strings connected to his torso and his head, and if he hadn't needed to change heads to change his expression I think he would have smiled as he died finally free of Her. I only wish I had gotten the same mercy. As I dealt the final blow I felt strings dig into MY flesh and felt my limbs move under Her command as She turned me to face Her. Her painted face couldn't change it's expression anymore than Percy's could but I could see she was furious. "You cost me a Janice!" she shrieked at me. "Not only that the Skin-Taker will take weeks to repair after you cut his head off and kicked it across the room. But worst of all you cost me a Percy. That Percy was relatively new, it had only served me for three years you bastard! I hate it when someone breaks my toys." She actually stamped her Goddamned foot there like a petulant child throwing a tantrum. "You owe me a new Percy, Carlson. And we need to clean up this mess so we can get back to filming again as soon as possible. Now lets deal with that little problem with your hand before we get started."
Damn, this took me forever to type. Understandable I suppose trying to type with this hook. I hope Janice is able to escape the City somehow and get home at last. I hope I find the new Janice before the Skin-Taker does. Thanks to him needing repairs I get a head start. I wish I didn't have to do this but She has my strings and if I disobey She has promised me a peg leg to go with the eye patch and the hook. James Carlson is dead, only Pirate Percy remains now and the show must go on.
Hopefully the Wooden Girl won't read this and notice my disobedience with these final words. Parents, if you're reading this, don't let your children watch Candle Cove. I know most of you can only see static and it seems odd if harmless to let them "watch static and make up pirate stories" but it is anything but. And watch over your daughters carefully. She wants a new Janice and I must bring Her one. I have no choice in the matter. Don't let it be your little girl.