The rhythmic clicks echoed in his mind, as if the space between his ears were but a hollow void and the mechanical tapping was the sounding of the hour by Notre Dame. His eyes idly followed the pendulum, the metronome of gears working in tandem to that swinging brass disc. It was almost hypnotic.
Then again, perhaps he had been hypnotized. He no longer could recall his name, or why he was here, sitting in that chair letting time pass with a whisper but for the purpose of observing the moving hands of a clock face. Hypnotic it may be, but he was growing tired of its futility.
With a sigh he altered his gaze, first shifting his eyes right, to the carved masonry of a drafty fireplace. The faint glimmering kiss of ember sat there sending a steady smoky tail skyward, up through the chimney, into the waiting embrace of its cousin clouds; the warm hearth that had born it nothing more than a fading memory. Now he changed to the left, where the first traces of deepening night were staring back at him through the dim weathered glass. A pair of glimmering stars sat like unblinking eyes, penetrating his own lenses engaging whatever lay hidden in that void between his ears.
Finally he returned to the center. Here he was met with a sudden shock. There, beneath the clock still antagonizing his mind, sat himself. What was going on? Surely this was impossible as he was here; he couldn’t possibly be over there as well. He opened his mouth, to call to this doppelganger, make him account for such a transgression; but he could not speak! He tried to move, but his limbs would not respond! Was he under some sort of spell? Had this nemesis bound him by some dark supernatural art and meant to replace him to some horrible end? But what end could it possibly be? He could not even recall his own name!
“Armand” he heard a voice call.
Armand, was that his name? Apparently this was so, as the caller suddenly emerged from the opposite side of the chair. It was an energetic young girl, her long hair an unnatural lime green hue knotted in a variety of coils and tails lacking all sense of reason. It rendered her with a comically maniacal sensibility, which would have caused Armand to burst out laughing if but not for a coupling of inhibitions. Firstly, he still could not seem to speak, and secondly, the girl was a giant! She now towered over him sporting an ironically pleasant smile as reaching down she lifted his helpless form from the chair.
“I found your key, now maybe we can get you working again!”
This confused him even more. Working? Was he broken? Just what exactly was he? Now at least from his taller vantage point in the arms of the pretty stranger he could make sense of the other mystery that had been haunting him. As the giant hands lifted him he noticed the carved brass frame surrounding the menacing doppelganger from before, and the sudden sheen of starlight on an otherwise unseen surface confirmed it; it had been nothing more than a reflection.
Then again, why was his reflection now staring up at him grinning? Only a moment to this notion was allowed, as he felt something prod against his back, trace along unseen contours, until finally it plunged its metallic form into his body. It was a bizarre sense of violation mixed with welcome purpose; a horribly confliction that at the same time left a pleasant after taste. The metal cone now lodged within his spine twisted, and as it did so something began to work within. He remembered.
His name was Armand. He had been the pride of his town in southern France; a prodigy gifted both musically and with the pen. He had won the love of the daughter of the Viscount, but his father was a poor toy maker and they had no wealth of their own. Thus her father hated him. They ran away together, but they were caught. He remembered her father, drunk and in a rage, his bloated form sitting upon an overburdened and exhausted steed as he grabbed his hair and raised his cutlass! He remembered a sudden gleam, and then…..cold.
The reflection was staring at him again, its black empty eyes seeping like tar, blackening the thoughts of his quickly filling mind. Black? No this wasn’t right, he remembered himself being a red head, so red that many in the town took to calling him cardinal. Yet what now stared up at him from the mirror was as pitch as ink save for a prismatic oily sheen that swam about. Was this really him? He had to know, slowly he lifted his hand. No, his feathers were red.
Wait, lifted? Somehow he could now move? Was this the work of strange device now churning in his spine? He opened his mouth to attempt again to speak, but still no words emerged.
Wait again! He had feathers!? Had the nature of his nickname somehow spirited him into the form of the very bird he shared the title with? His head was swimming with a tempest of revelations; he didn’t even know where to begin in sorting them all out. Finally there was an audible click and he turned his head back toward the still smiling figure of the giant.
“There, all done. Now then, what can you do? Probably some pre-conditioned action like other automatons I suppose…” she remarked as her mind absent mindedly released the intrusive piece of metal from Armand’s back letting it drop to the floor and settle before the mirror.
Automaton, is that what he was supposed to be? He tilted his head quizzically at her, paying no mind to the inky set of feather impossibly emerging from the glass of the mirror, creeping steadily toward the fallen key. His arms lifted up and pressed upon the digits of the girl’s hands, carefully helping him emerge from her astonished grip and perch like a bird upon her wrist.
“You are definitely not like the others” she finally uttered from her dangling lips as a delighted smile spread like a banner in its place. “Can you speak?”
Armand shook his head. It was one of several still lingering mysteries to the condition he now found himself. Even if basic motor skills seemed intact, the ability of speech yet eluded him, much to his frustration.
“Well that’s a shame, perhaps you can write? You seem to know what I’m saying so maybe if you can’t talk, that could be another way of, well, expressing yourself.”
He nodded, that was something he was certainly capable of. She carried him to a nearby desk, upon which he found a few leaves of paper as well as a quill and ink. The quill was, of course, rather large and unwieldy and it took some practice before he could spell out words, but when he finally had his bearings he managed to spell out the first inquiry that crossed his mind. “How do you know my name?”
“Your name, it was written on the tag on the box you were delivered in. Some old woman dropped it here; I think she was crying when she did.”
Armand nodded, and then he wrote out another question. “Who are you?”
The girl giggled in amusement at the rather predictable follow up. “You can call me Chai. I’m a magician! Or, at least I’m going to be. My teacher says I have a lot to learn yet.”
It was now Armand’s turn to smile pleasantly. At least now the giant seemed less something of terror and more the human she was meant to be. In fact, it was beginning to dawn on Armand that it was in fact himself that was the oddity of the pair. Still, it seemed this girl did not choose to see him as that, at least now that he appeared to exhibit some will of his own. In fact, it would have almost seemed by their smiles that they were two good friends sharing pleasantries and not a girl and some odd doll who had only just met. At least in this there was some small comfort for what otherwise had been one terrible shock after another.
Small comforts, though, too often prove brief, and so did this one. Stumbling over the oversized writing tool, Armand suddenly bumped the jar of ink, sending its contents toppling into a small black river. He turned nearly as red as his hair in embarrassment. Then he noticed something, a site that even unrecognized seemed to send a creeping sensation like a hundred spiders across the length of his spine. In the black depths of the ink there sat a pair of even blacker voids, peering endlessly. Beneath them was the tarnished glimmer of something metallic. It was a reflection, something sinister staring at them from above and behind! Quickly Armand spun about, the terror in his eyes sending Chai’s head turning as well.
In the banisters above it sat, as pitch as the most terrible of nightmares realized, but woven by some deceitful art into the shadow of a bird. In its bitter claws it clutched the key, the odd tool that seemed to have provided Armand with life. With menace it now loomed, as if all light and life from their bodies would be drawn in no more to exist in this reality, but the empty eyes were not settled on him, not anymore. For Armand recognized this hollow figure, it was the same that sat staring at him in the mirror. Sure enough, a brief glance to that dimensional window revealed it was now indeed empty, and that wicked doppelganger having managed to bring himself to this plane now seemed hell bent on the source of life and joy that had been filling the room. It was looking at Chai.
Like the shadow of a lightning bolt it lashed out, the chill of its claws slashing at the girl, grasping tightly onto her flailing limbs. The grip was akin to frostbite, rendering where it took hold numb; but no frost was to be found. Instead, a creeping petrification seemed now to be trying to consume her body, always where the villainous bird struck. Armand did his best to defend his new found friend, wielding his quill like a javelin, swatting with futility at their antagonist. Yet there was little he could do. This evil seemed beyond comprehension and gripped his soul in a corrosive terror that rendered him increasingly weaker and helpless, all the while he observed through distorting tears the affliction swallow his new found comrade.
For her part Chai’s reaction was not far from Armand’s, yet with added abnormalities to terrify with. Slowly she found it harder to move, as if a shell was closing about her body. Tears welled up in her panic and confusion, it crept all over, across her chest, and finally across her face, turning her once pleasant smile full of conversation into a silent ghost. Finally, the source of her anxiety, the wicked bird, flew behind, and with a jolt she suddenly understood what sensations befell Armand when his back had been victim of the key’s cold intrusions.
It was then her world went black, as with each turn something beyond her comprehension seemed to occur, something her already tormented mind proved unable to handle. She seemed to be shrinking. With each painful revolution the world about her grew in size as her body replied with the opposite.
It nearly broke Armand’s mind as well, watching as the once giant slowly slumped to a form more like his own, buried beneath what was once her clothes. Breaking the coma horror had stricken upon him, he bounded down to where the sunken form lay. The bird sat cackling, perched above along the rim of the chair. He leered mockingly down at Armand then, with what seemed like a sound born of a snake drowned in a chocked whisper, he spoke.
“This is what you wanted after all, is it not? Deep down the giant scared you, well now you don’t need to be afraid. Do not glare at me so! I am you, even if you deny it, I know your thoughts, even those you deny yourself. I am the part that will act when you lack the drive.”
Then he faded, lost in a haze that seemed like a cloud set upon Armand’s sight. When his eyes were again clear he could make out no sign of the menacing monster. He was gone, and so for now seemed all hopes of answers. He was alone again, lost in a strange room. The ticking clock again began to echo in his mind, which now again seemed empty.