Welcome back to Wednesday Fiction! I’m in the process of ramping work back up after a very intense three week period of finishing up Room 3. You can expect to see a lot more posts on this site in the near future, including my final entry in the Christopher Nolan review series. For now, enjoy the third part of “I Was Born For the Stage”. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Elsbeth sat forward at the sight of her puppy. She tried to scream – if she could only make enough noise, maybe the audience would take note and stop the magician. She also hoped that he might realize that puppy belonged to a very upset girl, but that one didn’t seem quite as likely. When she tried to scream, however, she found that something invisible kept her jaws and lips shut. Panicking, she tried to pull her lips apart, but they might as well have been sealed with glue. She could feel the outline of her teeth just beyond, but nothing she did could open those lips.
Up on stage, Cantu removed his top hat and directed it toward the audience with a flourish. “Consider this hat. Crafted by a master milliner from the East, a dedicated student of the magic arts, educated in the Orientas Templa. This hat passed into my hands after his unfortunate death at the hands of a mysterious illness.” He turned it over in one hand, showing the unseen audience the empty bottom of the hat. “As you can see, there is nothing inside and yet this hat has the ability to send material possessions – and even animals – to dimensions unimaginable. Tonight we’ll find out what happens when innocence,” he said, and held the puppy up, “meets the mysticism of the East.”
Elsbeth doubled her efforts to free her mouth. This had to stop now. She could feel the scream behind her lips – hear it – but couldn’t free herself. Without a voice, she thought to race to the stage and smack the puppy from his hand, so she tried to stand.
Nothing. Impossible. Something unseen force had grafted her bottom to the seat.
Now she really began to panic.
Cantu looked right at her as he held the puppy aloft. “Observe.” He moved Eustice toward the hat, slow, deliberate. The puppy didn’t struggle; in fact, he seemed almost excited by the development, going limp as the man dropped him into the hat. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, we activate the hat.” The magician made one motion around the hat’s brim and then snapped his fingers. He watched the audience for a moment, drawing it out, before he turned the hat upside down.
A gasp from the unseen audience as Eustice did not fall out of the hat. Nothing fell out. Cantu turned the hat toward them, and Elsbeth saw that it was as empty as her first view of the interior.
Thunderous applause from the audience around her, but she wanted to cry. What had he done to Eustice?
Think, Elsbeth, her father said in her head. It’s a simple teleportation spell. He can’t have harmed him.
Simple to Cantu or her father, perhaps. She’d never been able to get a teleportation spell to move anything more than a few inches. If he had truly pulled it off, it meant that Cantu had at least the same level of skill as her father, which made him very powerful indeed. Still, her increasing terror at being trapped by such a skilled magician balanced out with the comfort that even the most powerful magicians had difficulty teleporting anything more than a few yards. Eustice could be just off-stage, being held by some invisible assistant.
She wanted to believe that could be true, but her gut told her otherwise.
Cantu smiled and planted the hat back on his head before he bowed to the audience, soaking in their adulation. As the applause finally began to slow, the magician straightened himself, silencing the stragglers with one finger. “Now I’ll need someone from the audience. Preferably a smaller person. Perhaps a child?”
Oh no. Elsbeth didn’t like where this was going at all.
He scanned the crowd, his eyes settling at last on her.
The glue on her butt loosened and she found that she could climb out of the seat, though any other movement had been restricted by invisible walls on either side of her. Cantu must be a very powerful magician, indeed. It made her stomach clench to think of facing him.
He offered her a benevolent smile. “Why yes. I think you’ll do just fine. Please. Come on up,” he said, and motioned with one hand. As he did so, invisible strings pulled at her, as if she were his personal marionette and not her own agent.
She staggered into the aisle and stumbled toward the stage, trying to fight his power over her but unable to do much. Oh, no. She didn’t like this at all.
At last he had her climb the stairs onto the stage, and she stood across from the man. Up close, the man appeared much older than he projected onto the audience. Clever use of makeup and dyed hair made him look younger, but she suspected some other illusion might be in use, as well.
Still plenty spry enough to take care of you, he said. Oh, he was in her head. She hated the feel of that. Very icky.
He raised a wicked eyebrow. More where that came from, no doubt. “Tell us, dear, what is your name?”
At last the force holding her lips closed released, and she said, “I want my puppy back.”
He laughed and shared a conspiratorial look with the unseen audience. Laughter greeted him, and he raised an eyebrow. “I can always send you to join him, if you’d like.”
She stomped a foot. “No. I want him back here.”
He shrugged. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, dear, but if you’d be so kind as to tell me your name, I can send you where he went. No fear. It’s an amazing place, and you’ll be quite safe.” He sold this as an exciting prospect, a rare treat for one such as her, but she knew the unspoken threat. She’d seen enough nasty old men in her time.
In the meantime, his hooks dug into her head. Speak. Speak or I kill the dog.
She couldn’t bear to think about that, so she blurted out her name.
“Ah hah! Very good. See, the girl can be reasonable,” he said, and gave the audience a grin. “Isn’t that a wonderful name?” The audience applauded, and his voice spoke in her head again. You’re an intruder here, Elsbeth. And you’ll get what’s coming to you.
Not if I can help it, she thought back, and he might have been a bit surprised, for his eyebrows shot up, for just a moment, before the mask of the professional illusionist dropped once again.
He clapped his hands and a part of the stage burst open behind them. The displaced planks of wood flew through the air, landing on either side of them with a great crash. She jumped and would have run off the stage if his invisible hands hadn’t reasserted themselves.
A lacquered maple box slowly ascended to the stage from some unseen compartment beneath them.
He turned back to the audience. “Consider this one, built by a carpenter who ascended the Gaunges Mountains seeking enlightenment. Before his death, he consolidated all of his learning into a box that could convey such knowledge to its occupants. Some say it can even convey everlasting life. I can’t speak to such legends, but I can say that those who enter are granted a certain bliss of nirvana. Today, I want to give that gift to this child.”
The audience applauded, though she thought she heard a bit of hesitation there.
“I don’t want to,” she said. A hush fell across the audience.
He frowned at her, and then smiled at the audience. “Just a little stage fright. Nothing to worry about, folks.”
She felt the invisible force closing her lips. I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, he thought at her. Now come, time to die.
Her legs began to move of their own accord.
Read Part 4 here.