“Welcome to the carnival city, most extraordinary of visitors, our highly distinguished patrons.”
The words reverberated from the house walls in a chorus of echoes, emanating from the gills of somber gargoyles and from murmuring water pipes. The city was a maze of fog and bridges, gondolas drifting over canals, their punting poles stirring up things deep below the surface.
“Everything has a price here, everything can be bought and sold. Look in your pockets: each coin is a flask, a vessel, a delicate, fluttering thing, waiting to be spent for something more worthwhile.”
Helfeind and the members of his expedition patted down their pockets and found little pouches that hadn’t been there before: and in each of them, a random number of heavy, unminted currency.
“Welcome to the carnival of transmutation, where you can find whatever you seek, where answers to the most sophisticated riddles both metaphysical and transcendental can be bought, where the jars of bread are lined up for you. Welcome: stay long enough, and you will feel that there is no other place.”
The voices faded away, and Helfeind watched his men and women, reassuring himself that they betrayed no hint of fear, that they were worthy and willing to follow him. Just like Helfeind, they were all renowned idea-seekers, conceptioneers and field philosophers; questadores, veteran epistemers and form-finders who raised their lanterns against the city’s fog.
“Gather round.” Helfeind addressed his lieutenants, while some of his followers stood watch against the brooding alleyways. “Latigamon, take a dozen men and explore the western side of the city. Molocca, take another dozen and see if you can reach the lagoon. The rest, with me. We know that the city surrounds the lagoon, and the lagoon surrounds the city. If we find the center of one, it will bring us to the other.”
“My brothers and sisters.” Latigamon studied his people while the other contingents of the expedition moved out. He had lost one of his eyes on a keyless plateau long ago, victim to globuli without name, and carried an axiometer with him at all times.
“We will enter the western streets, and we will store in our memories everything we perceive: everything we see, hear or smell, everything we touch or taste, every temperature, vibration or magnetism, every casket and every candle. We will explore this city with all our senses, and we will give account of everything at the end: for we are here to collect, to fill our lanterns to the brim. Let’s go.”
They followed small and crooked alleyways, swayed by the colorful shadows of strings of lights. The hooded inhabitants of the city parted before them like the fog, their movements weightless and their faces veiled with masks of parchment and birthstones.
“Do you really believe this city might be the place? That we can hit paydirt?”
“Helfeind has never steered us wrong. He led us here across all this distance, all those years.” Latigamon carefully calibrated the axiometer on his wrist. “Yes, I believe this might be the place.”
They approached a tall gate, stone arches adorned with chimerae, their pigeon-faces blinking with wide open beaks. Two guardians in mirror-smooth masks stepped into Latigamon’s way and raised fingers enmeshed in silvery wire.
“May we pass?”
“Behind this gate lies the city proper; behind this gate lies no city at all.”
“Ah.” Latigamon flashed a confident smile. “It is a city in form, but not in function: it has streets and buildings, but no people live here. May we pass?”
“The traveler is right; the traveler is wrong. There are buildings, but no houses; and people do live here, but not in them.”
“You are trying to confuse us, but this won’t work.” Latigamon pointed to his eyepatch: “I’m blind and sighted, sightless and sight-full: your paradoxes are harmless to me. May we pass?”
“Welcome to the carnival of perception.”
They crossed the gate and entered another maze of alleyways, with dusty shop windows nestled in nooks and corners, promising services Latigamon had never heard of before.
“Alter your world with these nodules of anxiety! Carved swans, the noble Rotten! Shackles for your knee and neck, bandages for your sightholes, nails for your skull! Drink these lotions, rub on these potions, try out our finest concoctions!”
The men and women in Latigamon’s retinue traded coins for some of the wares peddled along the streets, while Latigamon himself marched forward. Like the waters of that promised lagoon, their curiosity ran too deep. They had never seen such a cornucopia of entities and enigmas, and naturally they set their minds to work. But Latigamon knew that it was a distraction, that only one riddle truly mattered. He wouldn’t get sidelined by this.
“Masks! Buy wonderful masks!” A figure pulled a cart of disembodied faces before him and flashed a smile.
“You want mask, am I wrong?” The cart was higher than the merchant, a frame laden over and over with grimaces of syrup or gnarled wood, of teeth strings or hollowed-out seashells, of liverwax, screams or jellyfish-flesh, of coalesced aurora borealis or leech-covered pulsars. “Try on mask, traveler with one eye and another, you will see world different.”
“Why? A mask is just for others, for how they see me: it doesn’t alter my perception.”
“Oh, but it does, it does. Look.” The merchant dug up a construct of wires and painted eyelashes. “This is fool’s mask–try on, it will lead you on paths that reason can’t follow. Or this!”
He presented a visage with stitched lips, its surface dry like ash: “Mask of grave, makes you speak to those without voice, to emptiness of earth.”
“No, thanks.” With hesitation, Latigamon walked away from the mask peddler, who picked up his cart and steered toward other customers.
“Come, come, into the hollow house … see the echoes, hear yourself in mirrors … explore the cardinal chambers with all your emotions.”
“Isn’t every house hollow?”
“Not like this, not like us.”
“Alright.” Latigamon stopped at a brightly lit portal opening into some kind of carnival sideshow. They had time to explore one of these places on the way, to see what the city had to offer. Molocca’s group would do the same, maybe even Helfeind’s.
“Admission is six coins. One time, as many group members as necessary.”
Latigamon only had three of the gently throbbing coins in his pouch, but with his brothers’ and sisters’ money, they could easily pay the fee. “You and you,” he pointed at two of them, “please stay outside and watch the street. The rest: let us investigate this hollow house, and let us be quick. We need to push forward.”
“Kindly take off your armor and write its name on these sheets of paper. You will get it back on exit. Please put your shoes, gloves, helmets and masks in this basket. You must enter the cardinal chambers willingly, and you must do so naked.”
“Do it.” Latigamon took off his eyepatch, weighed it in his hand and threw it in the basket. “Let’s go.”
They entered a rectangular room, walked a few steps and felt a pressure on their ears as the door closed.
“Look!” There was something dripping from the center of the ceiling, a droplet of glistening yellow, rappelling down on an elastic thread, hanging in the air for a second, then splashing on the floor. More droplets rained down, and suddenly the walls were covered in trails of melichrous fluid, a running wet carpet.
“Welcome. This chamber is called hunger, which is one of the nine primary emotions governing organic behavior: one of the five material fluids.”
Latigamon searched for the origin of the voice, dimly aware that his brothers and sisters hugged the walls, licked the running nectar blobs, even wallowed in the rivulets criss-crossing the ground. They didn’t have time for this. Latigamon conjured the image of Helfeind in front of his eye and blocked out all other sights, sounds and smells. Helfeind would lead them true, he had given them a task.
“Everything that is–every metabolism–hungers, and every hunger can be satisfied. What you see is the hunger previous visitors have left behind, their heartprints. When the hollow house was built, it was empty, like all the carnival city-–and when the first creatures came here, they filled it. The chambers with their emotions, the streets with their bodies, the coins with their souls.”
The voice suddenly became softer, more intimate, as if responding to Latigamon’s stoic stance, while the others disgorged torrents of viscous jelly. “Your men are participating. They drool and drip, they color the walls, the floor, the ceiling–and when the clock strikes midnight, when the fireworks reach their climax, some of them will be emptied, their jars drifting on the canals, their lanterns forever illuminating the alleyways.”
“Wait.” Latigamon stopped searching for the voice’s source and watched his axiometer deflect, showing him the exact truth behind this establishment: “What do you mean, some of them will be emptied?”
“Hunger. Fear. Pride. Revulsion. Acceptance. Five cardinal feelings. Contempt. Torment. Two more makes seven. Wonder. Shame. Nine. Organic things are easy to predict, easy to undo. Your people exhibit hunger. You exhibit fear. You have larvae buried in your face, eating you up under all your crinkles and wrinkles, until only the skin survives, stretched over a hollow tent of bones. At midnight, there will be great fireworks, and the clock tower will strike twelve times: and everyone who hasn’t spent their coins will be taken, their questions answered, their lives forfeit.”
“Alright, you heard Helfeind.” Molocca studied her charts and her compass. “We are to find the lagoon around which this city has been built, and we will do so by taking to the water.” She would have wished that Helfeind had given them a choice, but the man was obsessed with his mission. “If we follow the canals, we are bound to get there eventually.”
Molocca and her fellow searchers exchanged the carnival’s heavy coins for three lacquered gondolas and slowly punted out. The current was very slight, carrying them along at walking speed, their bow barely rippling the water’s surface.
As they glided over motionless reservoirs, it wasn’t always obvious where they should go: but smaller canals fed into wider ones, tributaries into swelling rivers that led the water north and east.
Marble arches spanned over a confluence of two streams, and beyond them, the way was blocked: boats thronged the water, tiny coracles and collections of rafts, skiffs and barges of solid salt.
Molocca and her fellow searchers used their poles to slowly steer toward the edges of the floating bazar, where little goods seemed to be traded: just hooded strangers speaking to each other in hushed voices and exchanging urns of sealed paper.
“Which way to the lagoon?”
They pulled up next to a raft with a bird workshop on it, and shrouded faces stared at them. The masks were contraptions of iridescent scales and pearly eyes, resembling aquatic creatures with silk fins and dangling tentacles, with beaks and bejeweled shell segments.
“This is the carnival of cognition. We do not know the lagoon. We do not care for it.”
“But this whole city is built around the lagoon, isn’t it? How can you not know?”
“There might be a lagoon, or there might not be: we have never seen it. Why do you seek it? What do you hope to find?”
Molocca exchanged looks with her fellow searchers. “We want to find it for itself alone, to verify its existence and map the way there. The canals lead to it, do they not? Just point us in the right direction, and we will be on our way.”
“The canals only lead into other canals, into basins and mud banks and finally themselves again. There is no way to the lagoon, no current that will take you there.”
“The water has to flow somewhere. Is there anyone else we can speak to?”
“There are those who study the sacred geometry of the canals, who divine the tides and secrete the aqua alter. Maybe they know about the lagoon. You can find them to the east, where the canals are teeming with life–but beware of the human-swimmers.”
Molocca didn’t know what the masked voices were talking about, but the hyphen was most disturbing.
“Alright.” She looked at her compass, which finally stopped spinning to point in one direction. “We are going east.”
Their gondolas took off from the market and steered away, updating their charts with a branching network of lines, a pattern of waterways expanding in all directions.
Swarms of white fish filled the canals, like drops of milk sprinkled into darkness. Molocca’s company was floating through a steep valley of houses, bent forward just enough to wrap them in twilight, covered in ivy and blossoming young flowers.
“You there, travelers!” People sat at open windows, and on balconies, their masks so lifelike as to appear non-existent. “You wanna buy something? Goods brought in from afar?”
“Don’t stop.” Molocca spoke quietly to her fellow searchers, then louder to the strangers above: “What do you sell?”
“Everything you’ll ever need, and lots more. There are always merchant ships drifting into the lagoon, lumbering with foreign goods and manned by unfeeling crews.”
Algae began creeping up the gondolas’ hulls in green tendrils, and Molocca’s companions pushed their poles hard into the ground to propel them forward. The channel around them was turning into a marshland, and sometimes, naked human meat could be glimpsed stirring the shallows.
“Into the lagoon? You know where it is?”
“No one knows that, our travelling friend, no one visits it directly: but no one needs to, as long as wonderful things are brought in by the ships.”
The people on the window sills and balconies were slowly left behind, so Molocca had to raise her voice even louder: “One more thing, what’s with the coins? Why do you use them? To pay the merchant ships?”
“Every coin’s an amphora, every amphora’s worth something. But you gotta spend them all before the clock strikes twelve, you know? Spend them all, or they will crack you open, carve you up like a block of wood.”
Molocca looked up to the sky, where the sun descended toward dusk. They needed to warn Helfeind, Latigamon and the others. “Thank you.”
As they navigated the canals, Molocca saw many of her fellow searchers check their pockets, counting their coins again and again. One man threw his purse in the current, another emptied his coins over the gondola’s side–but both found their unsolicited gifts returned to their pockets through unnatural means.
“Don’t worry. I will not let anything happen to you, you have my word. Stay with me, and we will leave this place together.”
The gondolas drifted into a dead end, a lake heavy with lilyweed and water aconium, a patchwork of purple and toxiferous violet. From stone pillars rising out of the murky pond, weeping mystics observed the expedition’s approach, their hands turned into pots, escae lolling out of their mouths.
“The signs have foretold your arrival. The canals have swiveled and twined to lead you to us, so you may speak.” A dozen mystics squatted on a dozen algae-green capitals, frogs in human clothing, tongue-louses crawling over their arms. “Speak to us, oh visitors: what do you seek?”
“Thank you.” Molocca bowed curtly. “We seek the lagoon at this city’s heart, and we have been told that you know the way.”
“The way to the lagoon …” The mystics croaked and crowed disdainfully. “The lagoon isn’t there at all … it is a fertile nothingness, a great empty space around which this city is wheeling, which it orbits, whose gravity keeps it in place.”
“No.” Molocca shook her head. “The lagoon must be there. There are ships coming in and unloading goods, and the canals have to feed into something … there must be a way to reach the lagoon, I’m sure of it.”
“There is not, oh no: and even if there were, you wouldn’t have the time and perseverance.” The mystics’ escae gleamed like mirror-shards even though the sun was setting quickly. “This is not an undertaking for a day, it’s something you dedicate your life to. But you don’t have a life, do you? You only have until midnight, when the great clock begins striking and fireworks fill the sky.”
Helfeind advanced into the city along the central streets, his followers forming a wedge and pushing through the hooded passersby.
“Stay close, and don’t let yourselves be distraught. We are here to extract something, not to be extracted.”
They marched onto a plaza in the shade of crippled gallows trees, surrounded by small shops and services. Helfeind surveyed the area and focused on one establishment, proclaiming “The Incomparable Puppeteer” in leathery letters.
A porch sheltered an assortment of woven vases as well as silent men and women, denuded, burly and with dull eyes. They made no motion as Helfeind came closer, and he saw that they were covered thick in flies. Pasty maggots crawled in the corners of their mouths, but not one muscle moved in response.
“Anyone there?” Helfeind hammered against the door with his cane, ignoring the towering zombies. When he stood still, his muscles tensed and pulled, trying to force him forward. He had made a promise to himself to find the heart of this city, and he would.
“Visssitorsss …” The door swung open, and Helfeind ducked in under the frame. “Welcome to this most humble of shopsss. You want to buy a thrall? A wiedergänger, a revenant, a zombie?”
“I don’t. But answer me this: how do you control these … people?”
“Easssy.” The shopkeeper had a bald head and something vaguely aphidic in his hunched stature. “There isss a tiny part of the heart, a delicate little gland, that separatesss men from monkeys, persons from plants. Everything is driven by desiresss of the most captivatingly diverse kinds–longing, horror, ambition–, and thisss heart-gland allows creatures to suspend their desires, to enact moderation and delay gratification.”
The shopkeeper brandished arms in chitinous plating, drops of hemolymph leaking out in iridescent streaks. “I cut thisss thing out with gossamer-fine scalpels, I marinate it in preserving kratersss, where I can discipline it, suspend wantsss and desiresss indefinitely, because I am not subject to them, because I am ssseparate, not affected.” He paused. “Many clients come to me willingly, give me their hearts without hesitation.”
“Why? What do they gain?”
“They gain what the people following you gain: Freedom. They turn their decisions, their ssself-reign over to me, and I grant them their true needsss: Apathy. Balance. Purpose.”
A cranefly landed on Helfeind’s arm, and he swatted it away. The air inside the gloomy shop buzzed with insects, although none of them seemed to come close to the shopkeeper or the neatly arranged shelves.
“If you want, I will cut open your followersss and extract their heart-glandsss, and you will govern their lives for them, directly and without fail. They already surrendered their will to you, why not thisss last step? You are their monarch, their queen, and they are drones, ro-langs of the most basic order. Isn’t that what you want? What they want? Wouldn’t it be easssier?”
“This is not the answer for which I came here.” How could Helfeind find his answer without free will? How could he solve the riddle if it was tampered with?
“What better answer than the strings of a puppeteer, steering his marionettes however he pleases?”
“We don’t have anything more to talk about.” Helfeind turned around and left the humming twilight of the shop. “People, get moving: find me someone with answers.”
His followers swarmed through the cobbled streets and over high-arched bridges, passing alabaster lions and a multitude of exotic attractions: “The Luminous Mists of Lewdness”, “The Illimitable Panoptic Oracle”, “The Anamnesis Theatre”, another zombie maker, a golem engineer (hulking monstrosities of clay and iron-cast pipes standing outside), “The Carver of Luring Flutes”, “The Marked Empresses’ Mirrors”, and so forth.
“There!” Someone returned to Helfeind and pointed down a wide promenade. “In this direction lies a scarecrow vendor.”
Helfeind changed direction without slowing down, his cane hammering onto the stone. “Let’s go.”
“Greetings.” The figure behind the counter wore a maniacal visage with horns and bright vermilion eyes, its neck obscured by a mane of fur and feathers. “Welcome, prospective customer: welcome to the world of straw. Do you want to buy a scarecrow? A hay man? An empty suit? A hollow servant, a placeman, a front, a stalking-horse?”
“These sound like the same thing.”
“And they are, in principle: but there is more to things than their class, their category, their classification: there is individuality in everything, even the most indistinguishable of copies.”
“You can command these straw men? They do what you order?”
“There is no free will in a bale of hay, just like there is no free will in wood or the oil filling your lanterns. If you want to steer a thing, there must be naught inside: it has to be blank, an object and not a person, an extension of yourself like any other tool.”
“I’m not interested. My quest concerns human beings, not mere men of straw.”
“Mere? Mere? You are not superior to them … stay here till midnight, till the great clock strikes for the twelfth time, and you will find the answer to your questions.” The mask-face opened its porcelain mouth, baring teeth and more teeth, rows of shimmering fangs. “And all of you … will break to pieces.”
Helfeind’s followers drew their thought-latchers, but he signaled them to stand down. He opened his pouch and placed its content of coins on the counter. This was actual knowledge, this was valuable information. “Tell me why.”
“Very well.” The mask’s snout closed, the eyes glowed softer. “Reach the clock tower before they take you there, and you might be in luck–but you need to act fast and decisive. The people in your employ are capable, but they have their limitations: you will need more than them.”
“Thank you.” Helfeind left the shop and gathered his followers to continue the march toward the city’s center.
They entered a small plaza with raffle booths and globule vendors, as well as a colorfully lighted portal, the entrance into the placenta maze. The clock tower rose into the nocturnal sky in the distance, its face illuminated just enough to read the hands–and from the east and west, the contingents of Latigamon and Molocca arrived at the plaza.
“So.” Helfeind watched them impatiently. Latigamon was slow, Molocca lacked resolve: and yet, they were among the only few that had made the journey with him. “What have you extracted?”
The path leading into the maze curved down, and the dark hedge walls towered up over the heads of the expedition members.
“We have to be careful. When the last strike of the clock tower fades away at midnight, we are in danger.” Latigamon walked next to Helfeind, with Molocca at the other side: “If we don’t spend our coins till then, we will be trapped here.”
They both looked at Helfeind: “How do we proceed?”
“We already have part of the answer we came here for, our quest three-fifths completed: Perception. Cognition. Agency.” Helfeind’s mind raced. “Somewhere in this maternal labyrinth, the missing flinders can be found, as well as a solution to the problem of coins. Follow me.”
The corridors narrowed and twisted, connecting to more corridors in crossroads and junctions, navigated by Molocca with her maps and compass. They reached a dead end, turned back below moss-furred archways, then traversed a tunnel of vines.
The fog billowed around them, leaving the sky clear but obfuscating the walls. It seemed impossible to reach the tower: they followed the byzantine corridors but never came closer, even if they walked directly in its direction.
Shops were sealed in clearings all over the labyrinth, money lenders and auction tents, pawnbrokers and various kinds of exchanges. Some clayworker smoothed fresh jars, a stonecutter finished a sphinx with human-candles, radiating the glow of burned flesh across a lawn.
“I think we should follow this path.” Molocca watched the gyrating needle of her compass, then studied her charts again.
A tremendous sound reverberated through the maze, the first strike of the tower’s great clock, announcing midnight and the end of the day.
“Hurry! We have to reach the tower.” Helfeind accelerated his steps almost to a run, and the people behind him followed suit. He would leave behind anyone who didn’t keep up, even if it was Latigamon or Molocca. Crackling explosions bloomed in the sky, raining down in colored strands and a complex choreography of glitter.
The clock chimed a second time, drawn-out and much longer than Helfeind had expected, as if time itself were slowing down for the carnival’s final minutes. Tarsiers with luminescent eyes gawked at them from the hedges, and the expedition members hurried into another dead end at the third strike.
The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh chimes brought them no closer to the tower, and the fireworks populated the walls with strange shadows, much more than the expedition members could cast, following them in whispering trails.
“We are not getting closer, Helfeind. My maps are confused in this maze of the subconscious.” Molocca stopped at a confluence of identical alleys while the eighth strike echoed above them.
“I am sorry, but I can’t see the way either, not with my living and not with my dead eye.” Latigamon flapped down his eyepatch and shook his head. “There must be a passage, but it’s not to be found with sight alone.”
“We will find it.” Helfeind clenched his fingers around the cane. Why had he brought these people if they were to fail him now? “We must. We need–”
Specters with garish clown masks scurried through openings in the hedges or from earth-holes, their legs turning and bending at impossible angles. They seized Helfeind’s followers and carried them off, too fast for resistance, too fast for the thought-latchers or even Helfeind’s cane.
Helfeind turned around and saw the spidery wraiths drag Molocca away, as well as almost everyone else in the expedition. Latigamon produced his pouch and turned it inside out, showing Helfeind its emptiness, holding it up to the hellishly swarming contortionists.
“We have to do something!” Latigamon threw the pouch away and picked up a thought-latcher, swinging it at the horrors around him–but there was nothing to latch onto.
“They don’t have jars! They don’t have lanterns! My axiometer shows nothing.” A creature jumped on a woman next to Latigamon, and he threw himself against it with honey-damp fists.
“Help us! Helfeind, help us! We are your people! You led us here! Help us!”
Helfeind closed his eyes and listened, not for the screams, not for the fireworks, not even for the elongated chimes. He listened for the ticking of the tower’s clockwork, nothing else, and he started to walk in its direction, like a blind man through a storm.
He heard the tenth strike of the great clock, and hazy lights colored the inside of his eyelids. He felt no obstacles in his way, nothing stopping his march toward the clockwork sounds. It grew darker and warmer around him, and placenta-leaves rustled on all sides. He entered a fetal space and opened his eyes again.
He was in the tower, and the tower’s interior was monstrous: hundreds of bodies chained to the walls, their chests opened, skin peeled back, hearts exposed. They still pumped, and tiny trickles of blood ran out and into the convoluted machinery between them.
Iron gutters channeled red lines into a system of gears and cogs, into tangled apparatuses and spiraling tubes, much larger than the outline of the tower could provide for.
The only sound except for distant fireworks was the machinery’s ticking and the chained bodies’ feeble breath, forged to the walls, their lanterns leaking oil. Helfeind stood on the ground floor and saw the arachnoid creatures climb up with his followers, whetting their knives on the tower’s stones.
One of them turned its clown-face backward and at Helfeind, cackling and spitting out showers of bread crumbs: “It’s seldom that someone finds a way here by himself, that someone comes to challenge the carnival on his own terms. You have one wish, oh trader: make it short.”
“My name is Helfeind, and I have led an expedition here to find out one thing: what is …”
High above him, the tower trembled with the final strike of the great clock, and the fireworks fell silent as the last explosions fulminated over the sky outside.
“I can answer your question, but your friends’ jars will be stored here, bound to coins, bound to the city: for this is the carnival of choices, of moneres, where everything is unique and has its price.” The breadcrumbs turned into globuli on the floor and scurried away. “This is the worth of things, oh trader: the price you pay for them. Do you want your answer, or do you want to leave with your friends?”
Helfeind hesitated only for a single heartbeat, shared with all the bodies chained to the tower: and then, he answered.