The Turn of the Screw

"Oh, my," the young man said with concern, looking at Jason's stump, "what hap―"

"Don't ask." said Jason.

The man mumbled something and took a step towards the party. That single step somehow closed a significant distance and teleported the man to just a few feet in front of Jason's nose, though he'd been over twenty feet away a moment ago.

"You… how'd you do that?" Curtis asked. "Vulgar teleportation has a double-π gesture."

"What's a double-π gesture?" said the stranger.

"It's a term that an Emotion mage would never use," Roland said with sudden conviction, "and that I would've hoped an Imagination mage would never use, either, but the honest truth of it is that Curtis has a bit of a math fetish." The poor fellow just looked more confused.

"You didn't cast a spell?" said Curtis.

"No, I'm not a spellcaster!" said the man. "I just used these silly boots."

Everyone looked at his boots. They were the most worn and tattered of all his garments. Jason couldn't even tell what color they were under the soil and stains of so many ages gone by. Perhaps they had once been Pigpen's.

"These were seven-league boots in their day." said the man. "But now they're just seven-yard boots." (He didn't actually speak of leagues and yards, of course, but the lengths he mentioned were rather close to seven leagues and seven yards, respectively.)

"So the magic deteriorated along with the boots themselves?" said Jason. "It's a crying shame that they weren't well taken care of, then. Why weren't they?"

"Well… I suppose I should tell you my little history. Would you four like to hear it?"

Jason nodded without hesitation. Roland and Curtis glanced at each other, then gave their assent. Simon said he wanted to hear it too, though he seemed to be paying more attention to the clouds than to the young man.

"I was the youngest of a telemarketer's three sons."

<Though I may be in a television show,> thought Jason, <this guy is clearly in a postmodern fairy tale.>

"Our father was so kind to us, but he died so young, at the age of forty-two. He was using a free public phone one day—to save money, since we were going through hard times—when he caught some kind of infection from the receiver. It turned out to be very severe, and in a few weeks he sent for the three of us to gather by his deathbed. He had never written a will, so the question of how he would choose to distribute his meager wealth among us was on all of our minds.

"At the appointed time, each of us traveled to the hospital my father was staying in. Actually, only my brothers got there. I was going to take a train, but I arrived at the station half-a-minute too late. In Droydania, the trains are always right on time, you know. So I missed my train, and I had to take the next one, which arrived forty-five minutes later. By the time I finally appeared by my father's side, he was dead!"

"That's terrible!" Roland exclaimed.

"Tell me about it." said the youngest son. "What made it worse was what happened just before he died. He was greatly distressed that I hadn't shown up. He asked my brothers 'Where is my youngest son?'. They replied—though they've never admitted it to me; I learned it elsewhere—that I'd said I didn't feel like coming. That was a blatant lie, of course. I had always loved my father dearly, and I was his favorite. But in his ailing state, I guess, he didn't think to question what my brothers told him.

"My father said 'Doesn't care about the untimely death of his own poor father, eh? He'll regret it!' And on the spot, he bequeathed the house and half his money to my older brother, and the car and the other half of his money to my younger brother. 'And that last, ungrateful son of mine' he said 'can have the old pair of boots in the attic!'

"My brothers pretended to have no idea why my father had cut me off with a pair of boots, and to be very sorry for me. But when I begged them for help, they told me to fend for myself. And so I found myself homeless and penniless, without a friend in the world. I felt only a tiny bit better when I discovered that the boots were magical."

"You didn't know?" said Curtis.

"No, none of us had known. They'd just been collecting dust in the attic for generations. Long ago, I think, one of my ancestors used them, but over time, their purpose was gradually forgotten, until they became one of those household items that just sits in a corner unmolested for decades because nobody thinks to throw it away."

"Like an exercise machine." said Jason.

"Exactly." said the youngest son. "Well, the good thing, I thought, was that I was Droydanian. You know how effective Droydanian antipoverty programs are. With them, thousands of people go from far under the poverty line to securely above it every year. And Droydania's upper limit for legal poverty is twice Gyeeds's."

"That's a government statistic, isn't it?" said Jason. "This is a dictatorship. I'm sure the government lies about statistics all the time."

"No, Jason," said Roland, "the Droydanian government often censors the truth, but it never lies."

The youngest son nodded. "It's true that our exponentially progressive income tax doesn't go to waste. So I got temporary shelter and applied for Ascension Assistance, as it's called. But I never got anywhere! I don't know why, but my luck was always rotten. Everything went wrong during the application process. Someone would tell me where to go and later I'd learn that they'd given me the wrong directions. Or, someone I'd have to talk to would be in a crabby mood the day I met them. Or, I'd fall ill just in time to miss an appointment. After a year of futile struggle, I gave up.

"At that point, I guess I could've lived off the food and shelter the government was providing. But what can I say, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life like that. I wanted a home and a place in society of my own. I needed some money in order to secure either, so I decided―" here he looked very penitent—"to steal. That was the one way I could think of to put these old boots to good use."

"I made a simple mask for myself and I began pilfering cash registers. I would choose a store and wait until business was slow, but the store was still open, since I had no idea how to open a locked cash register. Then, I'd teleport inside, through a wall nearby the cashier. I could very quickly push aside the cashier, stuff a few notes into my pockets, and get away, especially since I could cover seven yards with every step.

"Because I felt guilty about stealing, I always took only a portion of the money in a register, even when I could've easily taken more. Sometimes I left a store empty-handed, because I'd see a guard or an employee closing in on me, possibly with a stunning-spell, and I'd teleport away at once rather than risk the chance of being apprehended. I was cautious. I once thought of robbing a bank vault, but I feared that the serial numbers of the stolen bills might give me away later. I relied on the element of surprise, so I stole from random stores at unpredictable times.

"After ten weeks of slowly building up my nest-egg, I ran into trouble. One day, I knocked the cashier of a stationary shop to the floor only to discover he was my younger brother! He immediately recognized me through the mask, of course."

"Wow," said Jason, "you do have rotten luck."

"Don't I know it!" the youngest son cried despairingly. "I could imagine how foul my name would become after that. So I took my few possessions and my big bag of cash and settled in these woods."

"Huh." said Jason. "And then you were skipping stones when―"

"I killed an invisible man, yes! His father appeared out of nowhere and told me I had to die. I escaped to my hut easily enough, but then he got those wolves to form in a circle around my house, just the right size so that if I took one step, with these boots, in any direction, they'd catch me in their teeth in an instant. I asked for fifteen more minutes, so I could think of some way out of that mess. In fact, I didn't think of one in a whole hour, so if you hadn't killed the father, I would've been a goner. Thank you."

"You're very welcome." said Jason.

The man glanced at Jason's stump again. "You lost your hand getting the wolves away, you poor boy, didn't you?"

"Yeah." Jason admitted. "And for nothing, since you're not the Secret-Keeper." The man was somewhat offended by this; Jason paid no heed. "Actually, I gotta request for you. May I buy your boots?"

"Buy them? For how much?"

"Well, I wouldn't pay with cash, but with some jewelry that ought to be easily pawnable. Specifically, the stuff that the green guy was wearing. I killed him, so it's by all rights mine now."

"Half's mine," said Curtis loudly, then added, "but you can have it, Jay."

"Well…" said the man, thinking, "I hate to part with the only inherently useful thing I have. On the other hand, I do owe you my life."

"And with all that money," said Jason, "you could probably employ bribery to get yourself the 'place in society' you wanted from the beginning, while avoiding punishment for burglary."

"All right," said the man, "it's a deal."

There wasn't too much of the jewelry, and it was light enough, so Jason fetched it alone with his single hand. He thought of checking under the water of the lake to see if the invisible son of the green man had dropped any jewelry there. Then he figured that the jewelry might still be invisible, especially since he didn't see any clothing floating on the surface of the lake. Then Jason realized that the son might well have been nude if he'd been bathing or swimming and invisible besides. Then Jason remembered that he'd never learned how to swim, with or without his left hand. Then Jason thought that Roland could almost certainly swim, if Curtis and Simon couldn't, so he might do the jewelry-diving. Then Jason decided it wasn't worth the effort anyway, since money would be of little use to fugitives, so he went back to the hut.

Jason handed over the jewelry and, with great difficulty due to his mutilation, fit the seven-yard boots over his shoes. The man pointed out that the magic word needed to toggle the boots' power on and off was written on the sole of the right boot. Jason spoke the word and tried the magic out. He took a step in one direction and poof—there he was, seven yards away, his nose nearly touching the bark of a tree. He ran off in another direction, and in a matter of seconds he was out of sight. He returned to the hut, spoke the magic word again, thanked the young man, and said one more thing before he set off for the Secret-Keeper with the mages close behind:

"You might want to relocate from these woods quickly. The green guy was very agitated about the possibility of someone skipping stones on the lake even after his son was dead. That makes me think there's at least one other similar creature out there that he wanted to protect, perhaps the mother of his son, or another child. The still-living relatives may thirst for vengeance as much as the father did. So, I'd be wary if I were you."

After they'd been walking for a bit, Jason asked no one in particular "What is a 'double-π gesture', anyway?"

"Let me put it this way." Roland said in English. "Shortly before you were born, quantum physicists as a whole seriously turned their attention to sorcery for the first time, and soon enough they'd constructed their own insane logic-defying probabilistic model of it, which gained increasing acceptance as the years went by, and it's all been downhill from there."

"Ah," said Jason in Common, "I guess that covers it." Very occasionally, in peculiar ways, Roland could be antiscientific.

A few more minutes passed. "Only now" said Simon at length "does it occur to me that we never thought to ask the thief his name."

Jason thought about that. "Well, of course we didn't. He's just like the narrator of "The Turn of the Screw" and Calvin's parents."

"What are you referring to?" Simon asked.

"American… uh… literature."

"And what do you mean by the reference?"

"That the guy we met doesn't have a name!" Jason declared triumphantly.

Simon paused a moment to take that in. Then he said "Do you think it would be worthwhile going back to ask him?"

"If we tried, the writers would stop us from ultimately getting to ask him, so there's no point."

"Now, I can believe that kinda stuff." said Curtis. "Guys, I'm… disturbed."

"Disturbed?" said Simon. "What about?"

"Mostly 'cause of the monsters." said Curtis. "I don't get how they're made. We fight weird monsters all the time, but how are they made? Y'know, I know how to make all kinds of animals, not all just like real animals. I can make some of 'em bigger or stronger. And I know how other mages can make some other things. But there's just no way to make, like, mole-men. Or the green guy. Or the gray things with tentacles—Gol n' Thorm, I mean. The shapes are totally different. And a mage can never make a smart monster—as smart as a human, I mean. And it's not just that I don't know the spell, or anything, 'cause it… doesn't make sense."

For several moments, Curtis was silent, concentrating intently. "What I'm trying to say" he continued "is that the weird monsters we've met weren't created with sorcery. Not what we call sorcery. That means that what we're really fighting, the Supernals, aren't just mages. They're beyond magic. They aren't the kind of god I know. They're something else, something alien. This whole thing is something totally, totally new."

They all thought about that for a while.

"Curtis," said Roland, "I think you may be onto something."

"I think that what you're saying is essentially correct." said Simon. "It doesn't tell us much, though. You've told us what the Supernals aren't, not what they are."

Everyone expected Jason to give his opinion then, but the boy was silent. "Jason?" Roland prompted.

"Sounds right," said Jason, "but the analysis is from an in-universe perspective, and at this point, I don't care too much for in-universe stuff. I mean, we're going to hear all the in-universe answers from Leela when we find her. In the meantime, there's no real point in trying to figure them out ourselves."

"Jason," said Roland in Common, "has your curiosity waned over time?"

Jason glared at his stump. "Yes. Yes. Very much so."