There Are No Strings On Me
rating: +19+x

“Now remember, you can’t drink this stuff. Just soak a rag in it, wring it back out into the bottle, and then huff the rag. If you drink it, it will kill you.”

As Lolly went over the risks and benefits of Clown’s Milk with her customer, Victor examined the odd paper bills of the Utterly Bazaar. For convenience sake, all the merchants at the Bazaar accepted the same currency, which the money changers would provide in exchange for almost anything. Curiously though, they had valued Lolly’s Fuller Funbucks higher than Victor’s US dollars.

The legal tender of the Bazaar was a living ink, printed upon slips of parchment. The ink was in a constant state of motion, gracefully forming a never-ending series of abstract shapes, lazily pulsing and shifting in colour in an almost hypnotic display. The slips came in seven denominations, determined by how much ink had been printed on them. That made Victor think that despite being paper money it was a commodity currency and not fiat, but he had no idea why the ink was so valuable.

“Believe me, I don’t want anyone getting hurt. Dead customers aren’t repeat customers,” the Milk buyer nodded as he counted out a stack of nearly a hundred ink slips. “Thanks for doing this by the way. I usually buy Bloom from the Babylon Whore's Corner Store, but I’m boycotting them because they changed their name to Supernatural Corner-store Plus. Apparently, biblical references and ‘sex negative’ terms for prostitutes can’t get past the PC thought police these days. Fuckin’ SJWs.”

“Uh-huh,” Lolly said with a nervous nod. “Ah, I’m actually on the rainbow side of the spectrum myself, so I’m probably more closely aligned with social justice warriors than angry white guys, but I’m…sorry you're upset?”

The man glared at her for a moment as if pondering a retort, but seemingly thought better of it and finished counting out the slips.

“Nine thousand eight hundred, nine thousand nine hundred, ten thousand inky-dinks. Pleasure doing business with you,” he said, setting the cash down and rolling the dolly of Milk crates away.

“Come back anytime,” she said with an enthusiastic wave, though discreetly sighing with relief that that encounter hadn’t escalated. She picked up the bills and briefly flipped through them. “Bailey was right. We have so much more Milk since we started ultra-pasteurizing it. We’re going to make a butt load selling all the surplus, and it will make so many people happier. It will save lives too since you can’t O.D. just by huffing it. Are you sure you don’t want to try some? It’s so good!”

“I’m sure Lolly,” Victor nodded. “MC&D has a surprisingly strict drug policy for its employees. No matter how good your Milk is, it’s not worth losing my job over.”

“Narc,” Lolly teased. “Now that that’s out of the way we can take a look around the Bazaar. I’ve been here a hundred times and I never get used to it. You never know what you’re going to find here.”

The Utterly Bazaar was, needless to say, utterly bizarre. The sky was nothing but a grey haze and the Bazaar itself was permeated by an eerie mist. The wooden stalls and cobblestone shops looked like something from an age long past, but many of the wares and denizens of the Bazaar looked like they were from an age yet to come, or an age that never was and never would be. It also had Wi-Fi, obviously.

The bathrooms were best left undescribed, which was likely why the side alleys stunk of ammonia.

Victor tried his best to ignore the oddities of the environment and focus on the vendors and their wares for anything MC&D might be interested in acquiring.

“Monopoles! Get your magnetic monopoles here! Great for quantum and nano tech of all kinds! Use them as a catalyst for proton decay to get perfect energy conversion, or toss them into a particle accelerator to make a baby universe! Also good for trick compasses!”

“Sign up today for our course on epsilon wave lucid dreaming, and become the master of both the waking and unwaking worlds! Our comprehensive three-hour course will unleash the type Green literally sleeping within you! That’s epsilon wave lucid dreaming; make your dreams come true!”

“Springwater! I’ve got Water from the Astrakhan Spring! Cures all ills and restores youth! Got it from a reality where the O5 council is corrupt as fuck!”

“That sounds like something we could move,” Victor said, approaching the stall and examining the glass bottles. “Tell me, what effect would this have an individual who, due to multiple mishaps with experimental life extension, now ages about fifty times faster than normal and has to continuously siphon the elan vital energy from young donors to keep himself alive?”

The woman who was renting the stall stared at him blankly for a moment.

“What?”

“I’m asking for one of my bosses,” Victor replied.

“I don’t know about any of that, I only know how it works on vanilla humans,” she replied. “I sell it in 10 ml vials and 500 ml bottles. The vials will kill all pathogens, parasites, and cancer cells, plus supercharge your regenerative abilities to heal any damage, up to and including severed limbs. The vials will have a mild rejuvenating effect, but each bottle will take twenty to thirty years off. That cleans out plaque, senescent cells, and any other garbage that makes you grow old. It corrects mutations in both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, plus restores telomeres to a youthful length. Each vial is five thousand inklings, and a bottle’s a quarter mill.”

“Still cheaper than American healthcare, right?” Victor smirked. “I’ll take a vial for now. We’ll have our lab run some tests on it, and if it does what you say it does we’ll be back for more. Do you have a business card?”

“Mind if I save you some time, young man?” a voice from behind them suddenly spoke up. “I can personally attest to the effectiveness of that particularly potent product. I've used a number of methods to reach my current count of one and three-quarter centuries, and none has been as efficacious or as benign as water from the Astrakhan Spring. I highly recommend it, especially when compared to more invasive methods, like wrangling the White Worm. That Karcist told me I wouldn't be able to control the little blighter, but did I listen? No. Story for another time though.”

Victor and Lolly both turned to see who the talkative interloper was. It was a short, skinny, middle-aged man. His dark brown hair and beard were overgrown, and he was dressed in a weather-worn long coat and squashed top hat.

“You look familiar,” Lolly said, squinting slightly. “Are you a regular here at the Bazaar?”

“As of late, Miss, as of late,” he replied with a curt nod. “I’ve been hoping to cross paths with some old friends of mine whom I’ve sadly lost contact with. This is the busiest extra-dimensional hotspot in the multiverse, after the Library of course, and I’m not allowed in there anymore. Too many rules, too little table service. Honestly, those spider people are running the length of the Library all day. Would it kill them to bring me a Monte Cristo while they were at it?
“Tell me though Miss, was that Clown’s Milk you were selling a few moments ago?”

“Yes, and I’m fresh out I’m afraid,” Lolly replied. “Except for my personal stash, but I need that obviously.”

“That’s quite all right Miss. I was merely curious as to whether you were a True Clown, from the Circus of the Disquieting?”

“I am, actually. Have you been to our Circus?”

“Oh yes, though it was many years ago, and I don’t recall seeing you there.”

“Well, the Circus is super old. It’s over a hundred years older than I am. I bet you saw Manny when you were there though. Hard to miss a guy with an upside-down face; plus he’s been with the Circus forever, like since the very beginning.”

“Well, not quite,” the man said. “Do forgive me for being nosy, but I happened to overhear the end of your conversation with the other gentleman and I couldn’t help but wonder if you might be the paramour of a Clown by the name of Icky?”

Lolly beamed a proud smile.

“Why yes, I’m the Ringmaster’s playmate. Do you know Icky?”

The man’s cheek twitched at the naming of Icky as Ringmaster.

“Indeed I do. Better than you do even. For longer, at least. In fact, you could even say she wouldn’t be where she is today without me.”

Lolly’s face suddenly froze in horror as she realized why this man looked so familiar. She had seen his image every day since she was seven years old. The moustache of his beard was still slightly curled, the squashed hat on his head bore the crumpled monogram of HF, and the back of his faded red coat had the tails of a Ringmaster’s costume.

“Fuller,” she whispered softly. The man smiled widely at her, chuckling. “Victor, run! Get out of here!”

“Now now now Miss Lollipop there’s no cause for alarm,” Herman said. “It is Lollipop, isn’t it? Oh, I’ve heard about you too. Icky’s lovely and beloved assistant. I’m sure you two put on quite a show. I really do just want to catch up and get to know the new additions like yourself. Perhaps over some Clown’s Milk and animal crackers at my place? I’ve got the howler monkey crackers: quite the delicacy.”

“Get away from me!” Lolly screamed as she backed away, unwilling to take her eyes off him.

“Sir, you’re upsetting her. You need to leave,” Victor said, placing his hand on Herman’s shoulder. Herman snarled at him, and then blew a stream of air as cold as liquid nitrogen onto Victor's hand. It instantly froze solid, and Victor fell to the ground screaming in agony.

“Straight from my icy, icy heart,” Herman said, brushing the frost off his shoulder. “Also, I smoke menthols.”

"Guards!" the water merchant cried, running off for help.

Lolly gritted her teeth, her eyes burning a fiery red, and pulled out a war hammer sized wooden mallet from her pockets and charged at Fuller, swinging wildly. Herman effortlessly dodged each blow, ducking and bobbing like a champion boxer.

“Move like a butterfly, sting like a bee, if you’re going to fight dirty you should swing for the knees!” Herman slipped behind her and then knocked her down with a kick to the back of her knees. She fell to the ground and dropped the mallet. When she looked up she saw Herman towering over her, holding the enormous hammer over his shoulder like he was playing crochet. “Last chance for those animal crackers.”

Lolly sprinted off down the alley as quickly as she could.

“Worth a shot,” Herman said, pulling out a walkie-talkie and speaking into it. “Looks like we’re doing this the hard way, Tom. I’ll drive her to you.”

“Understood,” Tom radioed back.

"There, that's him!" the water merchant shouted, pointing at Fuller. She was now accompanied by a pair of masked guards in leather armour and hooded cloaks. Fuller glanced around for potential weapons or distractions, and saw that a nearby produce merchant was selling critical tomatoes.

"Hey, did you hear about the Sarkist who lost his copy of the Valkzaron? " he asked loudly. "He should've kept a better Ion it."

The tomatoes immediately shot towards Fuller at a dangerous velocity. He rolled out of the way at lightning speed, leaving the guards, merchant and Victor to be mercilessly pelted for his pun.

Herman slipped off in the chaos and sped off after Lolly, zigzagging around stalls and merchants as he raced down the winding alley. It didn't take long to catch up with his quarry, and when she saw him she ducked into the food court to try to lose him. She dropped to her knees and crawled between rows and under tables to avoid his gaze.

Herman immediately starting knocking over tables and chairs with the mallet. The diners screamed and shouted, and he knocked over several cans of Diet Ghost so that spirits were flying around like swarms of flies, driving most everyone else away in terror.

This quickly attracted the attention of the food court’s judge, leaping from atop its pedestal of the Starbuck’s sign and descending upon Fuller. The blindfolded being, in its damask robes and powdered wig, towered over Fuller and unleashed a deafening, unholy howl that signified that he should clean up his mess and reimburse the other patrons whose meals he had destroyed, roughly translated.

“Hey, if you’re the judge, then how come I’ve got the gavel?” Fuller asked as he brought the mallet down upon the judge’s head, smashing it like a watermelon. The rest of the body fell limp and showed no signs of regeneration. “Yes! In your face Gallagher! Wait, what was I doing? Crap, Lolly!”

Lolly had already vanished from the food court in the confusion, having run down a stray, deserted alleyway. Not daring to stop, she pulled out her phone and speed dialled Gary.

“Hey hey, you’ve reached Herman Fuller’s…”

“Gary, it’s Lolly! I’m in trouble! I’m at the Utterly Bazaar and so is Fuller! He’s after me!”

“What?”

“I know there’s a Way into the Library here somewhere, I’m going to try to get to it. Tell Icky and Manny or anyone that I need help now! Tell Icky I love her, tell everyone I love them!”

Lolly screamed as she was hoisted up into a net, dropping her phone to the ground.

“Lolly? Lolly? Zoltan, go find Icky and Manny and tell them that Fuller’s at the Bazaar and he’s after Lolly!”

Gary could hear Fuller’s laughter over the phone as he skipped towards his prize.

“Child, oh child, now don’t you fret.
There is no need for curses and threats.
I wouldn’t dream of hurting you - yet.
Not ’til you’re my merry, merry marionette.
Oh, my merry, merry, marionette,”

Herman sang, bending down to pick up the phone. “Gary old pal, is that you? Listen, I’m sorry about the last time we talked. I was under a lot of stress at the time, but I’m in a much better place now. No hard feelings?”

“Are you out of your mind? Do you know who you’ve got? Icky will send the whole Circus after you to get her back!”

Herman only chuckled, tapping a red phone icon on the screen.

“I’m counting on it,” he said as he went to put the phone in his pocket.

“What?” he heard Gary ask.

“Oh crap, did I not hang up? Curse these modern phones. The red button’s ‘end call’ right?”

“You can’t just tap it, I have it set so you have to hold it for a second so I can’t hang up by accident,” Lolly replied, bobbing up and down in her net.

“Ah, thank you,” Herman said, successfully disconnecting the call this time. “Excellent work Mr. Brenneman.”

Herman’s accomplice emerged from the shadows. Even in the dim light, he was not pleasant to look upon. He was skinny, but unevenly so, as if parts of him were missing. His cheeks and eyes were deeply sunken, and his face was heavily and randomly scarred. His grey hair was limp, and his eyes looked like they had seen far too many horrible things.

“Wait, Brenneman? Tom Brenneman? Manny told me about you! You’re the one who tried to kidnap Elisa, aren’t you?” Lolly asked.

“I tried to save Elisa!” Tom shouted, coming right up to her face. “And do you know what The Man with the Upside-Down Face did to me for that? He tossed me to your kind! I…I can still hear them laughing, do you know that? I barely sleep, and when I do I wake up screaming. Do you want to know something else? Your Icky was there too, as monstrous as the rest of them. I wonder if you would still think she's so wonderful if you knew what she did to people who get on her bad side, what she did to me.”

“I know exactly what Icky does to freak killers and traitors,” Lolly assured him. She blew a bubble of spit out like it was bubble gum; bigger and bigger until it finally popped like a balloon, showering her abductors in spittle. “You obviously weren’t inflated, so you got off easy.”

“You think so? That wasn’t even the end of it. I obviously wasn’t too happy with Icky or Manny after that, so when they turned against Fuller I took his side, and they tossed us both into the Darkness Between Dimensions! We were there for years! In the Darkness, I could see the faces of all the vicious Clowns Manny sicced on me!”

He pulled the net closer to him and cocked his fist.

“Easy Tom! Easy,” Fuller said. “Remember: she’s bait. We get her back to the Matinee, then the Circus comes to us and we can have our revenge. Alright?”

“Right boss,” Tom nodded, releasing the net.

“Lower the net. We’ve got to get moving.”

“What the hell is this net made of anyways?” Lolly asked as she struggled against it, noting that it seemed to be suppressing her magic.

“Oh, just some electro-thaumic conductive alloy. Ed & Al's sold me a 60-mile reel for 99 thousand inklings. It’s amazing what you can buy in bulk.”

“I know, right? Just like a week ago I got a huge tub of Antabuse. I used it on an elephant!”

The net was carelessly dropped to the ground, and Tom picked it up and slung it over his back.

“Lead the way, Fuller.”

“Where are you taking me? And how did you even get here without a Kaleidoscope?” Lolly asked as they hustled through the alleys.

“Who do you think made the Kaleidoscope my dear? I know everything there is to know about Ways, and a Kaleidoscope is just a device to create temporary Ways to any door you want. That’s why it needs calliope music. That’s the Knock that lets you through. Of course, I also put other security measures into it, like making it impossible to accept incoming Ways unless you had a valid key, which I don’t anymore, and charmed the whole Circus to prevent anyone outside creating Ways in through ordinary doors, so it seems I was too prudent for my own good.
“No matter, no matter. I can still create Ways on my own, which is how I got here. It’s also how we’ll get back to the Matinee, assuming I can find it. All these alleys look alike.”

“What is this Matinee you keep talking about?” Lolly asked.

“I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, but I assure you it is the most…”

“LOLLY!” Icky’s panicked scream echoed through the Bazaar.

“…that ain’t good.”

“ICKY! ICKY I’M HERE!” Lolly screamed back.

“Goddammit, move Tom, move!”

The pair of Clown-nappers sped down alleyways more or less at random, but always away from the sound of Icky’s enraged screams.

“LOLLY! LOLLY WHERE ARE YOU?”

“IN THE ALLEYS! FOLLOW MY VOICE!”

“Boss, we aren’t going to be able to outrun her. We should drop the girl and get out while we can,” Tom said.

“The hell we should! I’m not giving up now, not when I’m this close to getting my Circus back!” Fuller snapped. “Just duck into a building. The stone walls are thick enough to be soundproof, so she won’t find us no matter how much her little urchin screams.”

Tom grabbed the knob of the first door he saw, but it was locked. As was the next one, and the one after that.

“FULLER!”

“We don’t have time for this!” Tom shouted, growing increasingly panicked by the growing proximity of Icky’s psychotic screams of fury.

“Stand back!” Fuller ordered. He took a running start at the door, slamming it multiple times with the mallet, but to no avail. “Oh, the tragic irony! Herman Fuller; master of interdimensional doorways, barred by a mundane one. No matter. This moment was inevitable anyway, that the once and future Ringmaster should have to duel his usurper to reclaim his Circus. Icky! Let us battle! Let our skills of spectacle be put to the test! Let nothing less than the fate of the Circus be decided by the pitting of our two great…”

While he was talking Icky ran up from behind and snapped his neck 180 degrees. She shoved the body out of the way and stared down Tom with murderous intent. Tom immediately dropped Lolly to the ground and raised his hands in surrender.

“Icky, it was all Herman. I didn’t want to help, I had no choice, I…”

Icky grabbed the mallet and swung it upwards, knocking Tom’s head clean off and sending it flying into the nearest building. His head struck the wall with so much force it splattered, leaving a Rorschach test of blood and brains stained upon it.

Icky dropped to her knees and untied the net, then clutched Lolly as hard as she could without hurting her. She broke down into unrestrained sobbing.

“Lolly. Lolly,” she whimpered.

“It’s okay. I’m okay. They didn’t hurt me. They didn’t have a chance. You got here so fast! You saved me! You were incredible! I’m safe, thanks to you. Icky, you’re shaking. It’s over now, try to calm down. Deep breaths, okay?”

As Icky attempted to regain a modicum of composure, Manny finally caught up with her. He came to a stop over the body of Fuller, bending over to examine it.

He jumped backwards when Fuller started laughing.

“Why didn’t I think of this sooner? The Man with the Upside-Down Face and Backwards Head Guy! What a duo we’d make!” Herman said, rising to his feet.

“Fuller!” Icky screeched, charging at him to tear him limb from limb. He somersaulted into the air to avoid her, landing on his feet and then snapping his head into its proper position.

“I’m going to have a hell of a time explaining that one to my chiropractor,” he said.

“If I have to cut you into a thousand different pieces and bury them in a thousand different universes to keep you dead, I will Fuller!” Icky shouted. “Manny, don’t just stand there, grab him!”

Herman beamed a mocking smile towards Manny, who made no move to attack.

“…Veronica, I think we should fall back. We don’t know what he’s capable of, it’s too risky.”

“We can’t let him get away!” Icky screamed, charging at Fuller once more. Her nails extended into monstrous claws and she took multiple swipes at him, all of which he ducked.

“Veronica, that’s not working! I want him dead too, but we need a strategy!”

Icky growled in frustration, but conceded his point. She retracted her claws and stepped back towards Lolly to better protect her.

“You know Herman, you’re shorter than I remember,” she mocked.

“Lost about a foot to the Darkness,” he sneered. He took Lolly’s phone out of his pocket and tossed it back to her. “You can have that back. It would be more of an annoyance than anything. My invitation for animal crackers still stands.”

“Buzz off,” Lolly replied.

“Ah, for the best. You murdered my valet. I may be a rat, but I would never stoop so low as to serve my own guests,” he said. “I’ll be seeing you all again real soon.”

He placed his hands in his pockets and ran off down another side alley. Icky sighed with relief and hugged Lolly to her, kissing her lovingly on the forehead.

“Victor! We’ve got to help Victor! Herman froze his hand!” Lolly remembered.

“I ran across Victor on the way in. He’s fine. He's covered in tomatoes, but he's fine. He drank that vial of Springwater he bought. I directed him to the Door we opened,” Manny told her.

“Manny, did you see anything in Herman’s mind? Anything that might help us find him?” Icky asked.

“I did,” he replied solemnly. “He’s at the Matinee, Veronica.”

“Yeah, he mentioned a Matinee a couple of times. What is it?” Lolly asked.

“It was a theatre he used to own. He used to…well, you don’t need to know the specifics right now but it was a way to punish those who defied him,” Icky replied. “But Manny made him close it down in the sixties.”

“He closed it, but he still owns it. He must have gone back there after he escaped from the Darkness,” Manny speculated. “He’s been killing people Veronica. Dozens of innocent people, maybe more, all hooked up to that infernal machine!”

“Why?” she asked aghast.

“Practice. He wants us, all of us, the entire Circus, all his again. Everyone connected to his machine, his puppets for all eternity.”

“He said I was bait,” Lolly said. “He knew you’d send the whole Circus in to get me back. It’s a trap Icky. What are we going to do?”

To both Lolly's and Manny’s surprise, Icky smirked.

“We’re going to spring his trap on him,” she said. “Come on, back to the Circus. We’ve got some planning to do.”


Icky stood in front of the Kaleidoscope Doors, gazing out at the posse she had assembled. Most of the Clowns, many of the Freaks, and even some of the Carnies had armed themselves and stood ready to defend their Circus. Lolly sat off to the side, with Mr. Noodles for protection and Yume and Ragamuffin there to console her.

“Twenty or so years ago, all of us banded together and overthrew Fuller, freeing us from his cruelty and greed, taking this Circus for ourselves and turning it into the sanctuary it always should have been,” Icky pontificated. “We showed Fuller mercy he did not deserve and let him live, and now he has returned to make us suffer for it! Manny has seen the twisted vision that fills Herman’s mind; all of us strung up as puppets in his Matinee. He tried to kidnap Lolly to lure us there! My Lolly! He tried to take my Lolly!”

She screamed in rage and pounded her fists into a clown-shaped punching bag by her side.

“Thanks Eugene,” she sighed when she was done.

“No problem boss,” the punching bag replied, shimmering back into his Clown form.

“As I was saying,” Icky resumed. “We’re not safe just because Herman failed this time. If he can’t lure us to the Matinee, he’ll come for us. He’ll snatch us up one by one if he has to. He’ll never stop until he takes this Circus back. I say we don’t wait for that! I say we take the fight to him, and end this now!”

The crowd of Clowns and Freaks and Carnies cheered. Manny stepped up beside Icky, brandishing a large machete.

“I don’t know exactly what’s waiting for us, but I know that Fuller already has dozens or more puppets ready to fight for him,” he announced. “Remember that they are puppets. Cut their strings, and they will fall. Don’t waste time attacking their bodies; they’re already dead.”

“Herman may have been born a normie, but over his very long life he acquired more powers than even Manny knows,” Icky add. “We don’t know all he’s capable of, but he doesn’t know we have this!”

She pulled out a small sphere of beryllium bronze and held it up for everyone to see.

“A little souvenir from my trip to the Essie P! A Scantron…”

“Scranton,” Manny corrected.

“…Scranton Reality Mini-Buoy! It should be enough to take some of the fight out of Fuller! Are you ready to defend our family from this menace? To make him pay for everything he’s ever done, everything he tried to do, and would do if we let him roam free?”

The crowd cheered wildly.

“I’m working on a swarm of Giant Asian Hornets just for Fuller!” Quincy shouted, hiccupping up a couple of them prematurely.

“If anyone needs a light for a torch or Molotov cocktail, I’ve got you covered!” Danny yelled, pointing to his flaming head.

“And we've got the bazooka!” Eugene cried, hoisting the weapon onto his shoulders.

“…Which, again, only shoots cream pies,” Pius reminded him.

“Still deadly, if used properly,” Eugene insisted.

“Spin her up Manny,” Icky ordered. Having already dialled the coordinates, Manny wound up the Kaleidoscope with an enormous key. Once it was fully wound, the largest pair of doors on the Kaleidoscope slid open, revealing the smoking white portal held open by the Circus's ever-present calliope music. “Fun-lovers first! Ripley, Bailey, all of you move out!”

The black, fluid-filled sacs ran through the crowd on their varying assortment of limbs and leapt through the portal. Icky blew a kiss to Lolly and then hopped to Manny’s side, both of them facing directly into the glowing white doorway.

“You ready buddy?” she asked, tossing the buoy up and down in her palm.

“We should’ve tracked him down a long time ago,” Manny nodded. He raised his machete in the air and then pointed it forward to direct the small army. “Everyone, move out!”

And with that command, the company of Clowns and Freaks and Carnies marched out of Herman Fuller’s Circus of the Disquieting, and marched into Herman Fuller’s Marvellously Macabre Mechanical Marionette Matinee.

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