The Thinking Man's Guide to Destroying the World
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February 16th, 2011 (10:51 AM).
Gone. May or may not return.
The Misspelled Cyrpt
Chapter Seventeen: The Unbearable Darkness of Seeing
, Puck whispered, in a passable imitation of a ghost.
We were in pitch darkness, the door having shut behind us as we entered. This had caused me to have some grave misgivings about the wisdom of entering Javier’s house.
“Sapphire,” I said hesitantly, “I’m no expert on exploring creepy old houses, but I
seen quite a lot of horror movies. And I know that when the heroes go into a dark room and the door shuts behind them, something bad invariably happens. So... can we get out again?”
“Don’t be such a coward,” came Sapphire’s voice, disembodied in the gloom. I could only work out where she was by the warm grip of her fingers on my wrist.
“Look, I’ve decided I’m not tired anymore,” I told her hopefully. “Also not bored, or hungry. I could walk for hours!”
Wasn’t there a Circle of Hell for cowards?
The sixth one? Oh. Wait. That was heretics. Er, never mind.
“Toro, make some light,” Sapphire said.
A confused chirrup came from my left; it seemed that Toro did not understand the concept being communicated.
“Fire, then,” amended Sapphire; a plume of orange flame erupted from the shadows, blinding me, and I heard, to my delight, a yelped curse from Sapphire.
” she shouted angrily, and the flame vanished in a flash of red light, leaving a bright afterimage burned into my eyes. Sapphire had recalled her.
“Are – are you OK?” I asked, doing my best to sound concerned.
“Yes. Fire is... a bad idea,” Sapphire said. “I don’t think Toro could see where she was Embering.”
I’d have thought our experience in the Calavera Tower would have taught her that if you play with fire, you get burne
d, remarked Puck.
Just use the Sableye, already.
“Puck says use the Sableye,” I said.
“Oh. That’s a good idea.” I wondered if Sapphire would have said the same thing if I had passed it off as my own idea. Probably, I decided, she would have rejected it out of hand.
There was a brief pulse of blue light, and suddenly two polygonal red lights appeared near the floor, casting long beams of crimson light across what I now saw was a wooden floor.
I raised my eyebrows.
“Convenient,” I said. “I didn’t know Sableye could do that.”
At the sound of my voice, the Sableye crouched down hurriedly and put his hands over his eyes, squeaking in terror. I sighed and rolled my eyes as the lights went out.
“Kester! Don’t scare him!” Sapphire admonished.
“How can I not? He’s scared of everything!”
At that moment, deep, booming laughter echoed around the room, impossibly loud, coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once:
Everyone stopped dead. Silence fell over the dark room, and I felt the Sableye trembling against my foot.
“What,” I said, very quietly, “was that?”
I don’t know
, Puck replied,
and I don’t particularly care to find out.
“I don’t know,” replied Sapphire. “But I think we ought to find out.”
For a moment, I was speechless; after fighting past my blocked throat, though, I managed a couple of words:
Very bad idea!
“Puck agrees!” I cried. “Let’s get out of here!”
do that,” agreed Sapphire, “if the door wasn’t locked.”
Instantly, that feeling you get in times of absolute horror, the one where it feels like your last heartbeat pumped a veinful of ice water through you, washed over me.
You should say ‘arteryful’
, Puck corrected.
Veins go back to the heart, arteries come out of it.
But I wasn’t listening; I had torn my hand away from Sapphire and was desperately feeling for the door handle behind me. I found it and twisted, then pulled, and pushed, and kicked and hammered – but to no avail. We were locked in.
I swore softly and turned back around. The red lights were on, and I could see that this room was longer than I’d thought; the beams shone out into the darkness for at least fifty feet, illuminating cracked plaster on the walls and rough-edged, bare floorboards.
“We’re trapped,” I said unnecessarily. “God damn it, we’re trapped.”
Rono and Sapphire’s leg came into the range of the Sableye’s eye-light.
“Well done,” Sapphire said. “Master of observation that you are. Come on, let’s see if we can find Javier. He can let us out.”
“How is it that you’re not scared witless?” I asked, as we started down the corridor, floorboards creaking with every step we took.
“The dark isn’t scary,” Sapphire replied. “It’s just the absence of light.”
, Puck said.
I’m not afraid of the dark, either. I
a little scared of what might be lurking in it, though.
“How reassuring,” I muttered.
Soon, the Sableye’s eyes cast their light upon a second door, this one battered and chipped, and lacking a handle. I hoped to God it was a push door, because otherwise we were going to be here a while.
Thankfully, it was, and we passed through to find ourselves in another coal-black room; at Puck’s suggestion, I held up the Sableye and waved him around to try and get a more detailed look at our surroundings. Getting the Sableye to overcome his apparent fear of heights (even mere six-foot ones) necessitated about five minutes of coaxing and encouragement, but eventually I got him up in the air without him screaming and shutting his eyes. The only consolation was that he wouldn’t let Sapphire so much as touch him: the little gremlin seemed, if not to like me exactly, then at least to be less terrified of me.
We found that we were in a circular room, its circumference punctuated by battered doors just like the one we’d come through; as I looked, I found myself getting steadily dizzier, and realised after about five seconds that the room was rotating on its axis, and steadily gaining speed as well.
“What the hell is this place?” I cried, putting down the Sableye, who, upon finding that the floor was moving, tried fruitlessly to hide in my shoe.
Javier’s got some strange taste in interior design, that’s for sure
, Puck said.
Whatever would Phil and Kirstie have to say about this place?
“Let’s get out of here!” Sapphire said, but by this point that was easier said than done: the room was spinning at faster than walking pace, making standing difficult. Rono, with his toeless feet, was sliding around helplessly, and he crashed straight into my legs, cutting them from under me. The next five seconds were quite like falling down the fire escape at the Calavera Tower: I rolled around and banged my head four times on the wall before managing to grab hold of a door handle and haul myself to my feet. As soon as I’d done so, I fell over again, but this time through the door and into another dark room, which was, mercifully, unmoving.
I lay there in the dark for a moment, breathing heavily and suffering from motion sickness, then got to my feet and looked around. This was when I discovered that the Sableye, in his attempt to climb into my shoe, had become entwined in both my laces and my jeans; I pulled him free and, using him as a torch, examined my surroundings.
, breathed Puck.
Is that what I think it is...?
“Yeah,” I replied in tones of awe. “I think – I think it might be...”
Before us, rising tall and proud into the shadowy recesses of the ceiling, was the biggest house of cards I’d ever seen. There must have been hundreds of decks in there, the individual cards balanced delicately in ways I’d never even known were possible; together, they formed effortless spires and great arching vaults, veritable
of blocky terraces, and even a fountain, its waters forever frozen in time, a spray of hearts bursting prettily from the top.
But without a shadow of a doubt, the highlight was the centre: there rose a colossal castle, its walls borrowed from Troy and its spires from the northwest tower of Chartres Cathedral. It was vast, it was beautiful – and it was completely and utterly breath-taking. I was reminded of that business from last year – but for once, it was in a
, Puck said.
Is this what Javier spends his time doing? Building cities of cards?
“Maybe. If it is, he’s incredible.”
“Muahahahahahahahaha!” The laughter from before reverberated around the room like it was trying to break down the walls. I yelped, and the Sableye screamed a thin, high note that seemed to rip my ears apart; he leaped forwards and tried to take refuge in the card castle.
The next few moments are all preserved in slow motion for me; I completely forgot about that terrible, unearthly voice, and just watched, horrified, as the cards fell.
A blizzard of pips; patterned backs flashed like butterflies, and the great citadel simply exploded. One moment there was a castle, the next a storm; the whole mess hung in midair, sojourning in nothing as easily as the stars. It was a players’ tableau of a sandstorm, a volcanic eruption executed in paper and frozen in time; I had never seen anything so beautiful, or so sad. A thousand paper cuts opened up all over my outstretched arms as I desperately tried to halt the destruction, but I didn’t care. I only wanted to save the card city.
It was too late, though. It always is. Time sped up and I fell forwards into a pile of cards, sinking knee-deep into a cardboard sea.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. “Oh my God, you stupid Sableye. What have you done?”
The Sableye seemed to realise that I was angry at him, or possibly was just scared anyway, and burrowed deep under the cards. I didn’t try to retrieve him, despite the dark. I was too angry.
Puck tailed off, fuming.
If he wasn’t such a ridiculously high level, I’d suggest we administer a sound beating, but as it is he won’t even feel it.
“What am I going to say to Javier?” I wondered. “How can I explain this?”
, Puck said. There was a long pause, during which we gave vent to our feelings by cooperatively producing a mental image involving the Sableye that was so horrible I had to forget it as soon as it appeared in my head. Then, Puck spoke again:
Hey, where’s Sapphire?
“Sapphire?” I asked. “I guess she fell through a different door.” I stood up and brushed a few stray playing cards from my hoodie.
No, don’t do that
, Puck said.
Sit down, draw your knees close to your chest and wrap your arms around them.
I obeyed, puzzled.
“What’s this in aid of?”
It’s a scene change
, Puck explained carelessly.
Now, say something like ‘I wonder where Sapphire ended up’.
“Uh... why? What scene change?”
For the sake of narrative convenience, just do it.
I sighed, and did it.
“I wonder what happened to Sapphire?”
At that moment, Sapphire was standing in a room very similar to that which Kester sat in: it was large, dark, and contained something very unexpected. However, she had ended up in there by design rather than accident.
This is what occurred. When the room began to spin, Sapphire had immediately latched onto the nearest door handle and begun to pull herself through; looking back, she had seen, in the intermittent flashes of light that marked the moments when the Sableye opened its eyes, that Rono was experiencing some difficulties in moving. To put him out of his misery, she had recalled him before stepping entirely through the doorway.
Thus, Sapphire was now alone in the new room. This had one important ramification: she had no Sableye to illuminate her path. Reluctantly, she had been forced to let Toro out again, and, after several finger-scorching attempts, the Combusken had succeeded in lighting a small flame around one fist, just enough to see by.
That had revealed the contents of the room, and Sapphire had gasped in wonder and not a little shock.
It was full of middle-aged men, all identical, and all staring fixedly ahead into space; they each had pale skin, from living inside so long, and their hairlines were all receding. Every one of them wore the same white shirt and dark trousers, and stood in the same straight-backed pose.
“Er... hello?” Sapphire said tentatively. No one responded to her.
Feeling slightly unnerved, she took a step forwards and looked directly into the eyes of the nearest man. They stared back glassily, and Sapphire had to look away, disturbed.
“Can any of you hear me?” she asked, but there was still no answer. Sapphire turned to Toro. “Are they hypnotised or something, do you think?”
The Combusken stared up at her blankly. Hypnosis, like light, was not a concept that she had the brainpower to comprehend.
Sapphire sighed, and poked the man in the chest, in the spirit of scientific endeavour; much to her surprise, this elicited a reaction. With the sound of clunking gears and whining flywheels, his whole body convulsed; then, his head slowly turned down so as to face hers, moving jerkily as if on a ratchet.
“Clickety-clack!” he said, in an obviously robotic voice. “Mechadoll Forty-Seven am I! If your answer quizzes correctly, you will go to Mechadoll Fifty. Then you can obtain the secret code.”
“What the hell...?” Sapphire stared at the man in bemusement. “A
? A secret code? What is this?”
“Mechadoll Forty-Seven quiz,” the robot man said. “One of these Pokémon is eaten as a delicacy in Visbu. Which one is it: Wurmple, Numel, or Teddiursa?”
Reflexively, Sapphire answered:
Visbu was a place best avoided, or so her father had always told her; some sort of legal error had made the country very, very strange, and so it was that there they sliced the honey-soaked paws from Teddiursa, deep fried them, and ate the resultant sweet, crispy snacks by the dozen, like crisps.
“Congratulations. Correct you are. Go through. Please.”
The sea of androids parted, and Mechadoll Forty-Seven ushered Sapphire down the path thus created. Toro followed, looking confused – but her bewilderment was nothing to Sapphire’s; the Trainer had no idea what was going on at all, or what would have happened had she answered incorrectly.
Mechadoll Forty-Seven stopped in front of another robot, which introduced itself as Mechadoll Forty-Eight. It would probably have asked a question, had not at that moment the laughter from before repeated itself.
At the sound of it, the middle-aged men shut down, heads pointing forwards and staring ahead vacantly; Sapphire herself gave a small cry of fright, before hitting her forearm crossly. She shouldn’t frighten that easily, she told herself.
Sapphire stared around the room for a moment, wondering what she was meant to do now. She didn’t particularly want to be confronted by another trivia-demanding android, so she avoided touching the androids; wandering down the room with Toro in tow, she eventually came to the rear wall. Here, there was a large, blank piece of paper hung across the wall.
“What is this place?” Sapphire wondered aloud, then decided to take a more aggressive line of action, and shout: “Javier!”
There was no response, but she tried again regardless:
Sapphire swore and jumped, startled. The laughter sounded close, very close. She shared a glance with Toro, and the Combusken looked just as worried as she did.
“Javier?” Sapphire said, more softly this time.
Much to her surprise, a vast plume of green smoke suddenly spewed up from beneath the floorboards in front of her with the
of a firecracker going off; Sapphire staggered back, coughing, and peered through streaming eyes at the figure cloaked within the smoke.
As it cleared, she got a better look: it was man, tall and broad in stature, and noble in visage; his jaw was strong and his eyebrows prominent, and his eyes looked wildly out from beneath a jutting brow. The crown of his head was shaven, giving him the look of a monk with tonsure – only the rest of his hair stood out around his head in seven-inch spikes, like a bizarre, circular Mohican.
“It is I!” he proclaimed loudly, in stentorian tones. “Javier!”
“Good,” snapped Sapphire, recovering. “Then perhaps I can get some answers.”
Javier gave a deep, booming laugh – the same one that Sapphire had heard before.
“My girl,” he said, “nothing is free in this house. Not answers, not safe passage out. You see, I require you to first solve a fiendish—”
“Here’s ten thousand dollars,” said Sapphire, fishing notes from her purse. “Now talk to me.”
Javier stared at the money, as if weighing it against some unknown variable, then shrugged and snatched it off her.
“Right,” he said, in a normal-pitched, business-like voice. “What was it you wanted to know?”
I got up and started scrabbling in the cards for the Sableye. By this point, I’d decided that, no matter how angry I was at him, I needed him in order to find a way out of here that didn’t lead back to the revolving room; thus, I risked yet more paper cuts and the (unlikely, but possible) danger of hidden mantraps to find my little living torch.
“Sableye,” I sang out, to that rising tune you use when calling for lost objects. “Sableye, come out!”
He needs a name
, Puck said authoritatively.
“He won’t respond to it, though,” I pointed out. “Not until he learns it.”
He’s not responding to ‘Sableye’, either.
This was true. I was not meeting with much success in my efforts to locate the Pokémon.
“I’ve found a really good hiding place,” I said, hoping this would work.
Kester, he doesn’t understand Hoennian. He’s a Sableye, for Azelf’s sake. He can barely remember who you are.
“Oh,” I said, feeling faintly foolish. “Er – what now?”
, said Puck.
Or Uproar, but Astonish won’t leave you stuck here for ages, shouting. He’s frightened of loud noises – so smoke him out. So to speak. Don’t actually smoke him out, or the cards’ll go up in flames and we’ll die.
“I know what you mean!” I snapped, then shouted out an overpowered Astonish; due to the Sableye’s high level, he didn’t seem to be hurt by it, but he gave a scream and I heard him scrabbling off to the left. A flash of red light from his eyes pinpointed his location, and I snatched him up with more speed than I knew I could muster. “Gotcha!”
The Sableye continued wriggling and shrieking for a moment, then realised it was me holding him and not some unknown demon, and consequently shut up.
I think he almost trusts you
, Puck commented.
Probably because of me. You know how it is – we’re a Ghost, he’s a Ghost. There’s some love there.
“Puck, shut up. Now is not the time for flippancy.”
time for flippancy.
“No, it isn’t—”
, kid,” said a grumpy disembodied voice. “Solve the damn puzzle already.”
“What?” I cried, swinging the Sableye left and right, searching for the source of the noise. It didn’t present itself, but it did give out a sigh.
“This is the Trick House,” it explained patiently. “I’m the trickiest man in all Hoenn, yada yada yada. You solve a puzzle, you get given a secret code as a reward, and then you write that on the paper at the other end of the room. Then you can leave, or ask any questions, or make a donation.”
“And if I get it wrong...?”
“Then you stay here a week, then try a different puzzle,” the ‘trickiest man in all Hoenn’ said. “And trust me, you won’t be getting the same one twice. I’ve got hundreds of the damn things, though the one you’re in is going to need some mending now.”
I stared around at the cards, squeezed the Sableye vindictively, and apologised.
“Uh... yeah, I’m sorry about that.”
“Nothing doing now,” replied the voice, somewhat enigmatically. “But look, I’ve been laughing eerily for ages now. Just do the puzzle, will you? It’s over to your right, by the wall. There’s a little spotlight you can turn on there.”
Feeling like I was in a dream, I got up and went over to where the voice indicated; it was something like a bizarre playground game, in that I’d take a step in a direction and would receive the reply ‘warmer’ or ‘colder’ depending on whether or not I was closer to the puzzle. After a while, I found my way there, felt around for the switch and turned on the spotlight. A blinding shaft of white light shot down from the ceiling, blinding me and causing the Sableye to wriggle free from my arms in fright; when I’d recovered, I could see that I was now standing in front of a small trestle table, completely covered in bottles.
I examined them closely. Virtually every drink under the sun was here: milks from a thousand different mammals; colas of myriad obscure brands; squashes, cordials and juices from virtually all fruits that had ever grown on earth; whiskies, vodkas, wines, tequilas and even something that claimed to be the product of fermented Petaya Berries. There was a whole lot of other stuff, too, but most of it seemed to have fallen off the back of the table and smashed on the floor.
“You found the puzzle!” cried the voice. “Now...
“But what am I doing?” I asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? Observe the glass there!”
I did. There was a dusty glass sitting near the front of the ranks of bottles.
“You must choose the correct drink to drink out of that glass,” the voice told me. “The right one has the secret code in the bottom of it!”
“Can’t I just look at the bottom of the bottles?” I pleaded. “I really don’t want to have to drink a whole bottle of cherry liqueur, or, God forbid, Dr. Pepper.”
“No. That would be cheating. Take your time, make a wise decision. And don’t even
about cheating, because I’m watching you on CCTV.”
With that, the voice seemed to leave, and I was left alone to decide which drink was the right one.
I sighed and picked up a bottle of blackcurrant squash.
“Is it even possible to drink off a whole bottle of undiluted squash?” I wondered.
, said Puck.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Anyway, we’ve got a puzzle to solve. It seems to have been adapted from that bit at the end of
The Last Crusade
, but never mind. What do you think the right bottle is?
“I have absolutely no idea,” I replied. “And I’m starting to think I don’t care.”
Don’t you want to get out?
“This is insane! Why should I participate in this weird trick?”
This is what Trainers do
, Kester, Puck explained, in a voice that I imagine he used to talk to foreigners.
They do crazy stuff, for no adequately-explained reason, and travel together in little groups of people who are bound together only by their mutual shared values of sharing and kindness.
Actually, forget that last bit. That only applies to this freakishly pleasant kid called Ash I met once.
“Shut up,” I moaned, “unless, of course, you’ve got any helpful ideas.”
It’s the tequila
, Puck said immediately.
Definitely the tequila.
I stared at the bottle in question. It easily held a litre of the stuff.
“I’m not drinking a litre of tequila,” I said flatly.
The legal drinking age in Hoenn was eighteen, but the law has never stopped rebellious teenagers; in my case, it hadn’t stopped me becoming somewhat inebriated at a party and attempting to juggle a pair of microwave ovens. This had had the triple effect of losing my then girlfriend through embarrassment (when I picked up the ovens), earning me the undying enmity of the person whose ovens they were (when I threw them in the air) and breaking my foot (when they fell down to shatter on the floor). Since then, I had stayed away from booze at parties in case I ruined my bones and/or social life again.
And now Puck wanted me to drink a litre of tequila.
“What’s your evidence for it being the tequila?” I asked.
Puck thought for a moment.
It would be funny to see you drunk
, he admitted at last.
“Would it be funny to be trapped in my body while I’m drunk?”
Oh. Um, yeah, it’s probably not the tequila.
“You know I said take your time?” said the voice of the trickiest man in all Hoenn.
was, hurry up because I’m bored and your friend already solved her puzzle and wants to go.”
I threw up my hands in exasperation.
“Oh, of course
solved hers already,” I said, shovelling sarcasm onto my words with a spade. “Because Sapphire’s just
“Shut up and do the puzzle, Kester,” came Sapphire’s disembodied voice. I groaned.
“You’re there with him?”
“Yes. Get on with it. I want to leave.”
I turned back to the table, and thought for a moment. Then I grinned.
“It’s a trick,” I said.
Well, yeah, we know that
— Puck broke off, reading my thoughts.
Oh. Oh my, that is a good trick.
“Yeah, I think he might well really be the trickiest man in all of Hoenn,” I agreed. “It’s a good trick. But I’ve seen through it.”
I picked up a small bottle from near the middle of the table. It was filled with ruby-red liquid, and I knew exactly what it was.
You see, in Hoenn very few people drink alcohol on its own. Mostly, we have it in the form of cocktails. And this particular cocktail was the one that had caused me to attempt to emulate the Flying Karamazov Brothers with a pair of microwave ovens.
You don’t know who the Flying Karamazov Brothers are, do you?
“Shut up,” I said. “I’m feeling triumphant.”
You do realise it’s a coincidence that you happened to know the name of that cocktail, not a reflection of your genius?
“I’m feeling triumphant,” I repeated.
With that, I tipped the little bottle’s contents down my throat, not bothering with the glass, and as I choked on the piece of paper at the bottom, I had the satisfaction of knowing that I was drinking the remnants of a very old, very ruined Queen of Hearts: the ruler of the sea of cards around us.
A sea composed entirely of hearts.
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