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The Puppet's Dance

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Cabanela stalked Cabanela through the halls and warrens of Vector, Vanish spell ever at the ready and ever on the move. His quarry was never still, only to be expected from such a gauche copy of himself, and everything he did was all the more repugnant to the human version who traced the thing’s movements from the Doctor’s labs to the Emperor’s court. They danced together through the long days of Vector’s deep silence, first one leading, then the other, pursuing and fleeing all at once.

In some ways, it was seeing his old quarters that hurt the most. The copy had moved to an enormous suite higher in the palace, leaving his rooms with the Professor gutted and dark. All the little bits and pieces of the life Cabanela had been building, all his mementoes of Figaro, they were gone, lost to the copy’s greedy clutches. Nothing had been left sacred; all his secret spaces and tiny bolt holes were known, and nothing had been left save a few small gifts the Professor had once given him in his youth, surely all the more to taunt the man who’d raised him and whom the copy had disdained as trash.

Cabanela found them, deliberately laid out on the floor, and was grateful. A small monster-hide-bound pocket journal Cidgeon had tried to have him write in every day. The tiny carved stone ring, a Relic from Thamasa, with a small enchantment applied to warm cold fingers. A small blue flute in the shape of a bird, which Cidgeon had apparently seen in a shop in Vector and had thought Cabanela might like because it looked a little like Lovey-Dove. He hadn’t much at the time, he remembered. He hadn’t hated them, but none of these strange little thoughts were his style, his aesthetic. And it wasn’t like the man raising him was his father. Cidgeon had always purposefully stepped away from that role, so Cabanela had faked brief, polite gratitude he hadn’t particularly felt. He was grateful now. He hoped one day he might be able to tell the Professor so.

The temptation was strong to take them, to reclaim his life one small belonging at a time, but the other Cabanela was on high alert. He wouldn’t deign to do it himself, but he had a guard check the old rooms every day and report on anything different. If nothing else, Cabanela could and did come every night, long after most were sleeping, and take a few moments to plan the next day. It became part of his routine. Touch the notebook, let the ring warm his fingers for an instant, stroke the clay bird's head with one long finger. Remember when the Professor had been the only father he’d ever known. Tell Alma and Jowd how much he missed them, and how it would be when he saw them again. And then, sentiment given its due, continue planning.

Ideally, he would destroy his double, and in so doing, the Doctor who’d created him along with it. Both were well guarded and the double had all the spells, presumably, his captive Esper had had. Cabanela hadn’t yet learned half so many. Additionally, the other’s magic seemed stronger, or at least the destructive spells did, but Cabanela had noticed his cure spells were a weak wash at best, not the strong healing he himself seemed able to summon on command. That could be a strength, were it to come to a battle of attrition between them.

He’d tried to sneak in at night, but something, some force, seemed to protect the other Cabanela and the Doctor’s rooms, to mask them from Esper interference. Even Phantom had confessed themselves at a loss, and the Vanish spell had failed upon attempted entry, leaving Cabanela to make a hasty escape. Cabanela probably could have made it into the Emperor’s rooms, but to what end? Sith had sanctioned this whole mess, and from what Cabanela could tell, was either controlling or being controlled by Asbolus. Neither boded well.

Village after village, town after town, fell to the Magitek Army. It should have been horrible. It was horrible; the stories coming in were enough to make anyone sick, but being in the palace itself was tedious in the extreme. Stalk the other Cabanela. Glean information about his latest conquests. Run from the guards and the Emperor’s Guardian. Stalk. Run. Hide. Repeat…a repetitive dance that smacked too much of just another kind of puppetry for Cabanela’s taste.

It was past time to make his move or leave; if he couldn’t destroy the double, he needed to get the information to the Returners that a monster with his face danced in his place. It might be the thing that struck the decisive blow to the Empire…and yet, the Returners were gone, their sympathizers having fled the city. He heard the Ałma still howling sometimes, in the depths of the pit over which Vector rose. The soldiers whispered that it had become Beauty’s task to find and subdue or kill it, but she had failed again and again, accounting for both her frequent absences and her nasty mood. No one else was left.

No, his only choice was to follow, to gather information, and wait for his moment. Surely it would come. He’d come so far, sacrificed so much, to ensure Alma’s escape and to allow her, at least, to find Jowd. The world wouldn’t let this end anything but kindly for the three of them. The day would come when he would take it all back, not just the three gifts meant to taunt and trap him, but the rest of his life too. Cabanela wouldn’t allow anything else. The puppet would be destroyed, and only one would remain.