Juniper Castel Has Guests Over For Tea
rating: +28+x

Juniper Castel is having a tea party with Wump and Mrs. Jilimee.

"Wow, Miss Castel! I love what you've done with the place!" says Juniper, in Mrs. Jilimee's voice. Wump nods.

"Oh, you're too kind! It's nothing really," Juniper says, smiling as she watches her subjects through the castle window. Happy little puppets scurry to and fro along broad streets between happy little houses, all coloured in shades of soothing pastel orange and purple and pink under a swirling lavender sky.

Wump picks up Juniper's cup of tea using his mouth and lets her sip from it.

"Thank you, Wump! You are such a gentleman, helping out a young lady while her hands are occupied."

Wump looks at her and wiggles his round little nose in happy embarrassment. He's a very quiet fellow.

"Hard to believe it's only been a month and a half!" says Juniper, in Mrs. Jilimee's voice. None of them look at the tally of days crudely scratched into the side of a nearby tree-stump Juniper's majestic throne. "Do you ever miss your old home, Miss Castel? It must have been hard, leaving your human friends to come rule Puppetland. The puppets are all very grateful to you!"

"Why, Mrs. Jilimee," Juniper replies, smiling broadly, "it was no trouble at all! Mom and Dad needed me to go so they didn't have to pretend to like one another anymore, you see, and it was hard being around them. And I never had any friends over there, really. You puppets have been a much better family for me!"

"But Miss Castel, what about Liam?" says Juniper, in Mrs. Jilimee's voice. "What's going to happen to him now that you're gone?"

"With all due respect Mrs. Jilimee, I have no idea who that is!" Juniper says. Wump kindly helps her have another sip of her tea. It tastes delicate and sweet, with only the faintest undertones of muddy water.

Mrs. Jilimee looks away, her cloth features rumpling with concern, but she does not say anything more. Nor does Juniper.

Suddenly, Wump turns toward the window, wrinkling his nose and glaring at something in the sky.

"Oh my! There is something strange out there! Such keen eyes you have, Wump," Juniper says. A little buzzing thing, the size of a particularly large bird, is floating through the cotton-candy clouds of her kingdom. She moves it to the throne room to get a better look, keeping it frozen in place above the table.

It is a little grey flying machine with a sleek yet bland design, like a remote control helicopter for a child with no imagination. A round symbol with three inward-pointing arrows is printed in black on one side.

"What a strange toy. Could it be a gift? It's not my birthday yet, you know," Juniper muses.

"Miss Castel, it seems to be carrying something!" Juniper announces, in Mrs. Jilimee's voice. "See, it's attached underneath!" Mrs. Jilimee points with her snout to a small claw-like device under the flying machine, which is clutching an envelope.

"Oh my!" Juniper smiles broadly. "My first letter as Queen of Puppetland! Could it be an invitation to a ball? Or a love-letter from one of my many admirers? Let's see…"

The flying machine releases the envelope. As it drifts down to the table, it opens on its own and the letter within unfolds to land neatly in front of Juniper, next to her teacup. Wump and Mrs. Jilimee lean in to get a better look.

The letter reads:

Dear Juniper,

This is Sammy. Please don't worry about me and Liam and mom and dad, we're okay. I called 911 because they weren't moving or talking right, and the ambulance took us all to a special hospital where special doctors are taking care of us. They say we have "Cut-Strings Acute Motive Atrophy Syndrome" (I got the doctor to spell that for me) and mom and dad have it worse but we'll all get better after some special therapy.

I'm not mad at you, Juniper, okay? I'm really scared still and I don't think we should be around one another anymore for a while but I know you didn't mean to do… that. It's just cause you're special, so it's hard for you to tell when you're doing things to people.

Dr. Dwight says you're sick with something called "rampant," but they know how to cure you and teach you how to help people instead of hurting them. They're sending some people to pick you up, so please don't be afraid or upset and go with them and maybe we can be friends again when you're better. I would like to play board games and argue about cartoons with you again, I just need to know I won't stop being me.

Your Friend,
Sammy Lee

"Well isn't it nice to hear from old friends!" Juniper says, smiling pleasantly. Tears are streaming down her face, dampening the page. "And you know, Mrs. Jilimee, I do remember Liam now! How could I have forgotten. I'm so glad to hear he's going to be," Juniper sobs, "going to be okay."


"Will you be leaving, Miss Castel?" asks Juniper, in Mrs. Jilimee's voice. "Puppetland will miss you dearly, but if you are indeed sick, your health is the most impor-"

Wump leans all the way across the table to headbutt Mrs. Jillimee rather hard, cutting her off. Juniper does not notice.

"No, no, no," Juniper says, "The doctors are quite mistaken, Mrs. Jilimee, I am in fine health and high spirits! And I'm afraid Puppetland is really the only place for me. I shall, however, pen a reply at once to dear Sammy! Wump, would you be so kind?"

Wump nods obligingly and picks up a deep purple gel-pen in his mouth. He begins to write on a fresh sheet of paper.

Dear Sammy,

I'm so pleased to hear that you and Liam and your family are alright!! Really, terribly sorry about what happened. I'm afraid I have many important responsibilities now as Queen of Puppetland and couldn't possibly leave. The poor puppets would be lost without my guidance, you see. Your letter, however, brought me great joy! I hope that you do not forget about me and that we can continue to correspond.

Your Friend,
Juniper Castel

Wump rolls up the letter and ties it with a little bow, then attaches it carefully to the leg of the grey owl with the strange logo on one wing, which has been waiting patiently on the table.

"Carry this back to the people who sent you, please," Juniper instructs. The owl coos in affirmative and flies off, its wings making an unusual buzzing noise as it goes.

"Now," Juniper says, after finishing the remainder of her tea. "It seems we will have our very first guests in Puppetland!" She springs from her chair and marches toward the door. "I must go and make preparations. A grand parade, perhaps! Won't that be fun?"

Womp and Mrs. Jilimee, lying limp and discarded on the table, do not say anything.

Moon, a 13 year old boy with platinum blond hair and no surname, is sprawled out on the couch in his quarters/containment cell. He's watching the Pokemon anime. He doesn't like it very much. Not the worst, but overall really boring. It's possible he would have enjoyed it more if he didn't have to marathon like three seasons in less than a week.

His phone buzzes. It's not a real phone, it's a small Foundation-issued tablet used for limited communication that happens to run some phone-like apps. He likes to think of it as a phone anyway. He pauses the anime on a frame of pikachu filling the screen with yellow zigzags and answers the call. The cartoon mouse on the TV is replaced by Dr. Dwight's head. He doesn't look happy.

"Bad news?" Moon asks. The doctor nods.

"We got a response from Juniper. Sending it to you now."

Moon reads the message on his phone. "Queen of Puppetland, huh? Sounds like trouble."

"It's been edited out," Dwight says, "But the words 'forget about me' had an alarmingly powerful cognitohazard that would have wiped all Juniper Castel-related memories from anyone who read it."

Moon nods. "So she's trying to keep everyone out. Wants to stay in her messed-up puppet world forever so she won't hurt anyone. Relatable."

"This means our gambit has probably failed. The target has no intention of coming willingly and will be expecting us. This mission is going to be considerably more dangerous that we'd hoped it would."

Moon shrugs. "Still probably better this way. She'll be more stable knowing her family's going to be okay. Uh… just between you and me, doc, is that true?"

"About her family? There's no 'just between you and me' here, but yes, it's true." Dwight says, "The adults took the brunt of it and it'll be months before they're fully independent, but they will recover. Juniper's puppeteering is very subtle. That's good news for people who escape from her puppet show, but bad news for your team. It's going to be hard to keep her strings off of you."

"Whatever," Moon says. "Kyoko can handle it. I'm just glad Juniper's people are gonna make it. One less thing she'll have to carry around once we get her out of there."

Dr. Dwight nods, but looks troubled. "Okay, one more thing."


"Nooooope!" Moon answers preemptively, making a show of laying back and putting his feet up on the couch.

Dwight rolls his eyes. "Brat. Look, I've been through your dream journals for the last week, Moon, and the counselling session too. You don't have to do this one. We'll send in Meg or Corey and you can have some time off to focus on meditation. Maybe do some schoolwork for a change."

"Please refer to my previous statement. I'm already like fifty episodes into our target's favourite mediocre anime, I'm not letting all that important research time go to waste."

Dwight gives him an extremely specific 'young man if you do not give me a serious answer right now you are grounded' sort of look. Moon sits back up.

"Okay. Look, Kyoko said she'd feel safer if it was me, right? The dreams are… they're always like that. On and off. Meditation doesn't do shit. Seal is as strong as ever, my handler can vouch for that. The older kids are busy, and they haven't worked with Joselyn before and they don't know Kyoko. And Meg has a habit of bringing people back in several pieces. I'm the best option."

Dwight nods, apparently satisfied. "Your determination is appreciated, Operative Moon. Be ready for transit to the Perimeter Site at 9 o'clock tomorrow. And make sure to get some sleep before then, alright?"

Moon rolls his eyes. The TV switches back to an image of pikachu. Moon unpauses it and resumes the marathon. Less than an hour later, he falls asleep in front of the flickering screen.

Moon dreams of an endless ocean. There are no stars in the sky; instead, strange lights gaze up from the murky depths of the waters. The waves are choppy, stirred by an icy breeze. Faint trails of smoke rise from beyond the horizon.

Ontokinetic Rampancy Zone R-585

Risk Class: Danger

Disruption Class: Ekhi

Containment Measures: A Dwight-Scranton Ontostatic Fence is to be maintained around the perimeter of the R-585 distortion zone to minimize further expansion. Satellite footage of the area is to be continuously monitored and any notable changes to the situation must be reported to Dr. Dwight.

As ongoing containment of a Rampancy Event is not considered sustainable, MTF-Lambda-5 (White Rabbits), led by Captain Joselyn Sanchez, is to infiltrate the area and attempt to subdue and apprehend PoI-585. Operatives Moon and Kawasaki will provide support. Containment procedures will be updated or aborted depending on the outcome of this mission.

Description: R-585 is an area of heavy ontological distortion generated by the Rampant Class-3 reality-bender PoI-585 (Juniper Castel). The area within R-585 currently resembles the setting of Funderland Stories, an ongoing children's television show in which the subject's father puppeteers several characters. Entities which resemble hand puppets (R-585-1) and full-body puppet suits (R-585-2) inhabit the area, resembling background cast from the show. R-585-1 entities are operated by extremely long, multi-jointed humanoid arms which disappear into holes in the ground or into buildings. The setting's human characters are notably absent. Elements of other fictional works, including Alice in Wonderland, various works of Dr. Seuss, and the Pokémon anime have also been observed.

Addendum R-585-a: Recon Report and Threat Assessment

The R-585 setting is clearly centered on Funderland Stories, with the other influences playing a comparatively minor role. The most obvious deviation from the Funderland setting is a large castle with moderately surreal architecture in the approximate center of the distortion. This is likely the subject's primary living space.

The narrative mechanics of Funderland Stories are very simple with an emphasis on didactic stories about social situations. Children are meant to learn about sharing and taking turns and telling the truth and so on. It is not yet known how much these narrative mechanics are able to affect events within the distortion. The other incorporated works have more complex and unpredictable structures.

Of the involved works, only Pokémon and Alice in Wonderland contain significant depictions or suggestions of violence. The threat of violence within the space should therefore be low; however, both Alice in Wonderland and puppet-based media in general have a tendency toward much darker subversions. Any overtly disturbing content encountered should be considered a sign that the level of physical danger may abruptly spike.

None of the foundational works in R-585 include realistic firearms. Use of such firearms is likely to induce a subversion event which would greatly increase the danger to the infiltration team, therefore firearms should not be used unless such a subversion has already been observed. Otherwise, the team will rely on blunt weapons and ontokinetic attacks.

- Vincent McAllister, MTF Lambda-5 Narrative Specialist

"Welcome to the White Rabbits, Kawasaki Kyoko!"

That's what the banner in the Perimeter Site-R-585 Cafeteria said when Kyoko arrived, just a couple weeks ago. They gave her an unofficial White Rabbits patch for her Operative uniform. A few people were wearing rabbit ears. It was all a little silly.

There wasn't much of a party. The Perimeter Site was just a bunch of tents and modular housing, the food was mostly field rations and canned whatever, and nobody had the time to hang around and chat for long. Still, somehow, it meant a lot.

Kawasaki Kyoko is a 14 year old girl with magenta highlights in her short hair and a fathomless darkness in her eyes. For the past year and a half, she's been living in a well-furnished but inescapable cell while a mysterious organization studied her and adjusted her brain to its liking. It's a marked improvement over her previous living situation.

Before she got to R-585, Kyoko didn't really want to do the mission. She went along with it because she knew it was important, that it was her duty, everyone was counting on her etc. etc., but she was so damn scared. Somehow, though, seeing that goofy banner with the rabbit emblem and having Joselyn ceremoniously stick a similar emblem on her grey-and-black combat uniform made the knot in her stomach loosen a bit. Lambda-5 saw her as a teammate and not a contracted devil--or at least they were very good at pretending.

It was at this welcome party that she first met Vincent, the fourth member of the infiltration squad. The first thing he said to her was that he didn't approve of sending children into combat. From this point, the conversation somehow veered off on a tangent about dystopian YA novels from the 2010s. He was just getting started on movie adaptations when someone called him away. Kyoko was a little awestruck, honestly; such a serious-looking man and yet so much deep knowledge about staggeringly nerdy stuff. She decided she liked him.


The following days went by in a blur of briefings and prep work. It was overwhelming, but also it left little time to dwell on her fears or feelings of inadequacy, and, gradually she started to feel like she actually could do this. Then it was time for the first recon mission, and she could do it. It was easy, actually. She could have done it all day.

The thing that's special about Kyoko is that she can make other things less special. She used to have other powers, but they've been sealed away behind layers of conditioning till she barely remembers what they were. Her job is to be an anchor.

The Foundation's Scranton Reality Anchors have a number of flaws. They bend reality into its proper shape, but they don't have a strong sense of what that shape should be. Carry an SRA into a Rampancy Zone and it'll quickly forget what reality it's supposed to be enforcing. It isn't pretty. Kyoko is the latest solution to this problem. A specially trained, tamed reality bender who can suppress ontokinetic effects more flexibly and consistently than any machine.

Right now she stands beside the rest of the infiltration team at the boundary of the Ontostatic Fence, preparing to cross for the second time. She's ready. Joselyn gives the signal to advance.

She passes through the Fence and into the distortion proper and winces. The distorted reality is much more dense than last time. Joselyn's Kant Counter beeps a dire warning about the ambient hume flux.

"Kawasaki, report: is our anchoring stable?" Joselyn asks.

Kyoko takes a moment to focus. She's walking confidently on its surface of smooth, clear water. "Yes ma'am," she reports. "Apologies, the difference in pressure caught me off guard. She's paying attention to us this time."

"You don't say." Moon gestures vaguely ahead.

Kyoko looks up. She's been so inwardly focused she somehow failed to register the giant banner suspended between two huge wooden poles carried by the full-body puppet entities, just a little way ahead of her.

The banner reads "Welcome to Puppetland, SCP Foundation!" Beyond it, a single long road leads all the way to the castle at the center of the area. A crowd of hand and full-body puppets lines the road on both sides all the way to its destination. This welcome feels distinctly less welcoming than the last one Kyoko received.

"I don't like this," Joselyn says. "McAllister, assessment?"

Vincent has been rubbing his temples and scowling since he first saw the scene. "Yes, it's troubling… A very large number of entities which could turn on us abruptly. On the other hand, this is a clear invitation right to where we want to be, and Funderland Stories supports very simple narratives. Our target has stated she doesn't want to come with us, so we'll have to contend with that at some point, but it possible she's willing to meet us." Vincent looks over over the scene one more time. "Ultimately, the entities surrounding us don't really matter. We are effectively surrounded at all times while in the target's domain and should play along for as long as she wishes to cooperate."

Joselyn swears. "Yeah, I was afraid you'd say something like that. Alright kids, looks like we're friends with the scary puppets for now."

"However," Vincent clarifies. "If we are attacked at some point, it could signal a genre shift where playing along would mean forcing our way through the enemies by violence. Keep an eye out for 'creepy' imagery. That's an early warning of a shift."

Joselyn signals the team to move forward. Together, they approach the crowd of puppets. Kyoko tries not to look or think about the long arms operating the hand puppets (which apparently aren't supposed to count as creepy).

A full-body puppet steps forward to greet them.

"Honoured guests from the SCP Foundation! Welcome to Puppetland on behalf of our new Queen and Ruler, Juniper Castel! Her lady wishes to throw a parade in celebration of this momentous occasion. Please, your carriage awaits!"

Reality swirls and bends. Kyoko recites her mantra quietly. Then, as if it was there all along, a rather grand-looking carriage stands open just ahead of them. It seems to be made mostly of cardboard and paper mâché and drawn by horses with flaming blue manes (probably some kind of pokemon).

With some reluctance, the whole group climbs into the anomalous transport. It's considerably more sturdy than the material would suggest. The seating area is near the top of the carriage, which is open, providing a clear view of the town, the crowd, and the parade.

For as soon as the guests are seated and the carriage begins to roll, a parade springs into existence around them. Ahead, a marching band of body-puppets plays a lively tune, behind them, a long train of floats and balloons follow. All around the crowd cheers and sings, streamers fly, it's magnificent. Dreamlike, indistinct, like the essence of a parade was carefully extracted and distilled into its purest form. Kyoko finds herself smiling and waving to the crowd.

"Lovely day for a parade, isn't it just?" Juniper asks, from the carriage seat next to her.

"Lovely!" Kyoko agrees. "I particularly like the balloons. And the band! What is that song? It's familiar, but I somehow can't remember the name. Which isn't that surprising, actually. There's a lot of stuff I can't remember."

"I'm sorry to hear that! I'm Juniper Castel, by the way, nice to meet you. What's your name?"

"Oh!" Kyoko isn't sure why she hasn't already introduced herself. "I'm Kyoko Kawasaki! I'm a special operative with the Foundation, my job is anchor the squad, keep them from getting mind-controlled or transformed."

"Oooh," says Juniper. "That's so cool! I had no idea such awesome abilities existed. What brings you all to Puppetland, anyway?"

"We're trying to find Juniper," Kyoko explains. "Um, hopefully once we explain everything, she'll realize it's okay to come back to the Foundation with us. Otherwise we're supposed to try to sedate her… Joselyn has special tranquilizer rounds that work on reality benders."

"This Juniper person sounds kind of scary," says Juniper. "Does the Foundation have a lot of people like you, who can keep her from messing with people?" She sounds a bit hopeful.

"Not many like me, really," Kyoko admits. "I'm kind of unusual. But they have reality anchors and all this sci-fi stuff, and they have ways of teaching your brain not to do, uh, bad stuff, like mind controlling people and breaking the universe. They're kind of mean sometimes, but there are nice people there too."

Juniper leans over the side of the carriage, waving absently to the cheering mobs of puppets as they pass. "Do you think this Juniper would be better off, with the Foundation?" she asks.

"Yeah," Kyoko says, more confidently. "I mean… they'll put her in a cell like mine, probably, and it gets lonely sometimes, but I can talk with other people on site remotely and Grace gives me therapy sessions along with the conditioning. And soon I'll be able to move around the Site more freely. This place, it's a prison as well and it's so much lonelier."

"Kyoko, what on earth are you saying? This is a happy land full of friends living together in harmony!"

"They're puppets. They don't do anything except exactly what Juniper wants them to do. It's the same as if she was all alone, and she's planning to stay here forever. And maybe she's strong enough, mentally, to do that, I don't know, but it sounds so miserable," Kyoko says, giving a melancholy wave to the cheering crowds.

"You should turn back now," says Juniper. She isn't smiling. "I'm serious. You're too… I don't know. If you… if you don't leave now, I don't think I'll be able to let you go."

Kyoko is confused. "We can't turn back, we haven't even spoken to her yet!"

Juniper is smiling again. "Do you really think that Juniper will go with you willingly?"

Kyoko shrugs. "I don't know? It'd be nice, I guess. The briefing people didn't think she would. Captain Sanchez, what do you… Captain…"

There's no one else in the carriage with them. No, that can't be true. That's not allowed to be true. Kawasaki Kyoko takes a deep breath, recites her mantra silently, and stops that from being true. Reality shifts and untangles itself.

"Ohh! You can even do that, huh? Okay! It's been fun talking to you, Kyoko, I'll see you at the castle." Juniper winks, swings herself over the side of the carriage, and vanishes.

"…rative, do you read, we have lost signal on all--wait, they're back, do you--"

"Command, this is Operative Kawasaki, I read you! Uh…" Kyoko scans the carriage. Moon, Joselyn and Vincent are all present, looking dazed and confused. "All team members accounted for. Likely recovering from Cut-Strings symptoms. Not… not completely sure what just happened but I was able to dispel it."

"Understood. Good job, we thought we'd lost you for a minute," says Command, in Kyoko's headset. "Provisionally upgrading the target to Class-4. Focus on deep anchor meditation till we get you out of there and let the others guide you."

"Roger that," Kyoko says. The other team members have fully woken up now. She bows her head to them in apology. "Extremely sorry, she got to me somehow. Switching to deep anchor mode now to prevent further issues. Please look out for me."

Joselyn, now occupying the seat where… someone… had been, a minute ago, puts a hand on her shoulder. The Captain's expression is grim, but confident. "It's alright, Operative. You pulled us back, and that's what counts. We'll get Juniper and get us all out of here, just focus on keeping her out of her heads from here on out."

Kyoko nods. She closes her eyes for a moment, focuses on her breathing, and sinks deep into herself. The real world fades and the ripples and twists of distorted reality around her come into sharp focus. When her eyes open, they burn with a strange inner light from her completely expressionless face.

Juniper Castel lounges in a smaller version of her throne near the front gate of her castle and waits for her guests to arrive. She's rather excited! They're all so interesting, especially the two who are about her age. She loves all her puppet subjects dearly, but she has to admit they aren't much for conversation.

The four guests climb out of the carriage and stand before her. Two men and two women, two adults and two children. The girl, Kyoko, is moving strangely. The boy steps forward.

"Juniper Castel, I'm here on behalf of the SCP Foundation to offer you an opport--"

"Yes yes yes of course," Juniper says, laughing. "We can talk about all that over tea! But it isn't quite tea time yet, you know, so we'll have to wait just a little."

Moon looks rather miffed. He'd spent quite a while rehearsing that invitation. "Why don't we talk while wai--"

"In the meantime, I'd like to give you all a tour of my castle! I made it all myself, mostly out of paper mâché with some hopes and fears mixed in of course to hold it together. Please do follow along, it won't be long at all, I promise."

The great wooden gates of the castle swing open as she speaks, then Juniper vanishes through them with a grandiose twirl.

Moon turns to the group and shrugs. "I tried!"

Joselyn signals an advance. "Play along, look for openings," she instructs, quietly. "And try not to upset our host too much, we might still convince her to come willingly."

Juniper skips a little as she leads them through the castle's strange halls and stairways. The walls and floor within the castle are greyish-purple with the texture of paper mâché and hardness only a little lower than actual stone. Vibrant tapestries of pink and orange decorate the walls, depicting puppets acting out scenes from Funderland Stories and occasionally Alice in Wonderland.

The tour is a strange and dreamlike experience. In one room, puppets carefully reassemble smashed pots with special glue, only to smash them again and start the process all over. In another, a troupe of hand-puppets puts on a single endless nonsense show for an absent audience, with characters spouting word salad and attacking one another at random, evoking a burst of sourceless children's laugher with each strike. Yet another is vast far beyond its external dimensions and contains only a distant yellow and blue curtain and the sound of a girl crying from behind it. No matter how far one travels in this room, it is impossible to move more than a few feet from the entrance.

The team makes several attempts to incapacitate Juniper, but to no avail. Vincent's thaumaturgical sleep spell only leads to their host taking a five minute nap under the protection of her puppet subjects. Joselyn's tranquilizer darts veer just wide of her over and over. Moon passes enough electrical current to paralyze a horse through her body with no effect whatsoever.

At last, as the group approaches the throne room, the watch in Juniper's vest pocket rings once. Immediately, she spins on one heel to face her guests. Her expression is uncharacteristically stern.

"Now," she says, "It is tea time at last, but I'm afraid that some of you," she leans against the wall. The section of wall her hand touches gives way, pushing inward with a loud click. A section of floor drops away, taking Moon, Vincent and Joselyn with it to somewhere far, far below. "have broken the rules. Trying to kidnap your host is not allowed!"

Kyoko, deep in anchor trance, feels her heart drop along with her teammates. The trap is cartoonish but completely mechanical, with no ontokinetic manipulation for her to suppress. There's nothing she can do but fight to maintain her connection as they fall further and further out of her effective range. Something breaks under the strain, and her vision goes dark.

Kyoko wakes up at the tea table with Juniper, Wump and Mrs. Jilimee. Joselyn and Vincent are serving tea and cake. Moon is nowhere to be seen. Juniper beams at her.

"Ah, Kyoko! Glad to see you're awake! I'm sorry, I didn't realize punishing your friends would affect you so badly. Still, it had to be done: people can't just go around breaking the rules like that, you know?" Juniper says. Wump and Mrs. Jilimee both nod.

Kyoko's mind races as the fuzz of unconsciousness falls away. She can feel Juniper's invisible strings, thin as spider silk and a thousand times as strong, connected to her and her friends and everyone else. They pull at Kyoko's body, making her sit up straight and smile pleasantly. They pull at her mind as well: isn't this nice, actually? they say. Wouldn't you rather stay here than with the mean old Foundation?

She tries to free her teammates but it's useless. Juniper's control is firmly established. She isn't even sure where Moon is right now.

"I must say, Miss Castel," Juniper says, in Mrs. Jilimee's voice, "It's good to see you making friends your own age! I've been a little worried about you, it isn't healthy for a young girl to have only puppets to play with."

"With all due respect, Mrs. Jilimee," Juniper replies, "I think I was doing just fine on my own! Still, having some company from time to time is good for the spirit. Kyoko, dear, would you like any sugar with your tea?"

Kyoko can resist the strings that pull on her, but she can't break them. She doesn't know how long she'll be able to fight. She tries to fight back waves of despair and inadequacy. There's got to be a way out. She's only failed everyone if she gives up here. Focus! Think! You can at least talk to her! Convince her to give up on this and come back, before you don't have the strength to fight! You've got to at least try!

Instead, Kyoko buries her head in her arms and cries. Juniper is visibly taken aback. Wump shakes his head and scowls, Mrs. Jilimee looks aghast.

"Kyoko?" says Juniper, in a somehow smaller voice than usual. "I'm sorry, are you okay? I'll, um. I can let the normal ones go, I think? Would that make you feel better?"

"It's always like this," Kyoko sobs. "I'm never any good. Every time someone thinks I might be good for something, I just disappoint them."

"Miss Castel, your guest is acting very strangely!" says Juniper, in Mrs. Jillimee's voice. "Do you think she might be ill?"

Juniper hushes the puppet. "But you didn't… you're the only one who didn't break the rules! You passed the test, so you get to have tea and cake! That's…" Juniper frowns. "Was there something else that happens?" Wump taps her firmly on the shoulder. "No, you're right, Wump, that was all. Anyway, I don't think you're disappointing at all! Don't you want some cake?"

"Oh, you will," Kyoko says, still crying but a little more softly. "You want to be friends or something, but in a week I'll run out of strength then I'll be the same as any other puppet, and you'll be alone again."

"N-no…" Juniper says. Her mouth and head are moving strangely. "I'll… I'll come up with a way to… you said there was a way to control it, right, can you teach--no, of course not." Juniper smiles brightly. "Everything will be fine, don't worry! Even if that does happen, you'll be a very special puppet and I won't be disappointed at all!"

"I DON'T WANT TO BE A FUCKING PUPPET," Kyoko yells. Juniper shrinks back. The whole castle trembles.

"Wump, dear, I do think that Miss Kawasaki must be ill!" says Juniper, in Mrs. Jilimee's voice. "I think we had better keep her away from our dear Miss Castel for the moment, don't you think?" Wump nods. A group of hand puppets emerge from the throne-room door and start reaching for Kyoko.

"N-no, wait, I wanted to, I wanted…" Juniper says, moving jerkily again. At that moment, Kyoko notices something strange, something that cuts right through her fear and despair.

"Juniper!" she says. "You're the same as them! The strings are pulling on you too! What… what did you do to yourself?"

Juniper looks frightened and moves as if struggling for a moment, then jerks back into an upright position and smiles vacantly.

"Haven't you ever heard of self-control?" says Juniper, in Juniper's voice. "Honestly, Mrs. Jilimee has spoiled me far too much. I should never have humoured the idea of having guests. You'll all be sent back shortly. Tell the Foundation to leave this place well alone."

The hand puppets grab onto Kyoko and try to drag her back. It's difficult to fight both them and the strings, but she refuses to give up. "Juniper! Didn't you want to see Sammy again? She's still at Site-17, you know! I've spoken to her, she's scared but she misses you and she wouldn't want this!"

The puppets let go of her for a moment. Juniper starts to say something but is interrupted when Wump headbutts her in the cheek. Kyoko puts all her strength into a lunge forward, trying to pull the Wump puppet off Juniper's left hand. It lashes out, flinging Kyoko across the room with ontokinetic force. Her head glances hard against the castle wall.

Juniper yanks the Wump off her hand with her teeth and tosses him aside before running over to Kyoko. "I'm sorry," she says, "I'm so sorry. Do you see? This is it, this is why I can't leave. I can't lose control, I can't let myself break the rules, I'm the only one who can do this!"

Kyoko, her head spinning with pain and a probable concussion, just says the first thing that pops into her head. "How do you know that?"


Kyoko does not say anything else. She is already unconscious. From the other side of the room, there is an ominous rumbling. Wump has swollen from an empty hand-puppet into a monstrous worm-creature and is wriggling toward the two girls.

"Young lady," says Juniper, in Mrs. Jillimee's voice, "You need to reassume control right now. Return to your proper place in the show," Wump rears up above the unconscious Kyoko, "Or who knows what could happen to your new friend? You're the only one who can stop what's about to happen."

Juniper isn't sure how she knows that, so she decides to try something else first.

"SOMEONE, PLEASE HELP ME!" she screams, from the very bottom of her heart, till her throat is raw. A great number of strings snap. Wump opens his cavernous maw and leans down to devour Kyoko.

The deafening staccato of automatic gunfire fills the throne room. Wump is physically pushed backward by sustained fire until he lies shredded against the opposite wall in a pool of pastel blood and viscera. Captain Joselyn Sanchez reloads her weapon.

"Command! This is Captain Sanchez reporting," she barks. "Target has relinquished control of the puppet show. Discarded puppets likely still active and hostile." She glances at Kyoko's unconscious form. "Anchoring appears to be unneeded for the moment, please sent backup ASAP." One of the hand puppets tries to grab at her from behind; she casually severs it with her machete. "Operative Moon currently missing, likely alive, will regroup and retreat toward Site-R-585."

She walks over to where Juniper is still crouched over Kyoko's body, shaking with fear. "C'mon, kid," she says. "Let's get you out of here."

Moon wakes up on a cot in a dungeon cell. He can immediately tell that something has changed. The strings are gone. Juniper's puppets are feral.

He checks the door. Locked. Not a problem. He lays both palms flat against the locked door and turns it into a non-door that is not locked.

The body-puppets guarding the room have changed somewhat. They are about the same shape but their felt puppet mouths have become fleshy maws complete with long fangs, copious drool and unpleasantly long tongues. They are also extremely aggressive, possibly partly due to pieces of the former door which are now lodged in their abdomens. They charge at Moon, snarling with rage.

A minute later, as Moon steps carefully over the piles of steaming viscera, it occurs to him to check comms. No response. Dungeons, he supposes, do tend to be underground. He takes off at a run to search for a way back up to the surface

Juniper, hands bound in cuffs of beryllium bronze, follows the two White Rabbits through her own castle and tries to keep her fear under control. They've destroyed the Mrs. Jilimee puppet but she can still hear the nasally voice faintly from somewhere just behind her ear. Everyone is going to die, Miss Castel. These stupid humans can't save you, you have to take control again. It would be so easy.

"I can't do that anymore," she mutters under her breath as Vincent guns down another group of puppets. "The, uh, handcuffs suppress my powers." Juniper tries very hard to convince herself that this is true. "They captured me fair and square, s-so now I'm going with them. That's the rules."

"How're you on ammo," Joselyn asks Vincent. She's been carrying Kyoko while he does most of the fighting.

"Not great!" he says. "And this is clearly a zombie-slaughter type scenario, so typically the waves of mooks will be endless. Girl, can you kill them or call them off or something?" he asks Juniper.

Juniper whimpers. "Please don't ask me to do that. It's like a web… If I try to control anything it'll drag me back to the center and I don't think I can get back out. I'll go back to being the queen again."

"Okay! Definitely don't do that, then," he says, severing an attacking hand puppet at the wrist with a flourish. "If we just find Moon we should be okay. Captain, Moon doesn't run out of whatever that thing he does is, right?"

"Do not think so," Joselyn confirms.

"Um, I maybe possibly sent the boy to the deepest dungeon," Juniper says. "Really super sorry about that."

"How deep is the deepest dungeon?" Vincent asks.

"Ten floors underground."


Six floors up from his original position, Moon tries the comms again. Still nothing. Killing puppet monsters is easy, but the goopy bits they leave behind are slowing him down. If only his techniques were a little less messy.

"Oh yeah!" he says, to nobody in particular. "That might work, actually!"

He concentrates on his next attack, releasing it as a somewhat more interesting destructive idea. Yellow-white bolts crackle through the room, enveloping the puppet monsters. Not quite electricity, but the idea of an electric attack. Something that would only work in a world where the idea that this is possible is built in. This was the trick he had lined up for in case they had to do any PG-13 rated fights.

The monsters dropped to the floor, scorched and motionless. No blood to slip on or intestines to trip over. Much better. He dashes up the next flight of stairs at full tilt.

The White Rabbits, their ammo mostly exhausted, have taken up defensive positions in a small armoury room near the front gates. The single door is blocked with a knocked-over table. Joselyn is jabbing at enemies outside with a long spear while Vincent cuts up any hand-puppets that reach through.

Juniper is cowering in a corner near the unconscious Kyoko, wishing once again she had any sort of ability to heal people. Or blow up puppets like this Moon guy apparently can. Or do anything useful at all, really. A nasally voice next to her ear reminds her: You're more powerful than any of them, Miss Castel. All you have to do is reach out and take control. "I can't," she insists, jingling the bronze cuffs and willing them to do what the White Rabbits and claimed they did.

One of the hand puppets grazes Vincent's arm with its long fangs, drawing blood. Joselyn lays down suppressing fire, expending more of their precious few remaining bullets to give Vincent time to bandage the wound.

Do you want to watch these people die in front of you?

"Not yet," Juniper says, in a very small voice. The thick table blocking the door is bending inward as countless puppets rake and snap at it. "I'll only do it if someone's definitely going to die. I'll only--"

There is a loud cracking noise. The table is surely about to give way. Juniper begins to reach for the strings of control.

Abruptly, the snapping monsters beyond the door are replaced by first a swirling vortex of orange and purple, then empty space.

"Holy shit, are you guys okay?" Moon calls out, nearly tripping on an organ of uncertain purpose. Joselyn calls back an affirmative.

"Oh thank god," he says. Then, "Damn, I should have said something cool."

Vincent, who can speak very fast when necessary, fills Moon in on the situation in about thirty seconds while Joselyn moves the table away from the door. Then the whole group rushes through the cleared-out entry chamber and out the castle gates.

To the great delight of all present, their ride home is waiting just outside. MTF Lambda-5 is in position outside the castle gates, keeping the monsters at bay with vehicle-mounted weapons. The White Rabbits hurry Juniper and the infiltration team into an armoured transport and the whole squad takes off back toward the Perimeter Site. As she collapses into her seat beside her so-called kidnappers, Juniper starts to think she might actually make it out.

There is a sickeningly loud rumble. Juniper stares in horror through the reenforced window as the entire castle falls over on its side, grows an enormous toothy maw and two deep swirling black eyes, and begins wriggling after her at alarming speed. It's enormous. There's nothing the human Foundationers can possibly do. Crying silently, Juniper prepares to seize total control of all these people trying to rescue her.

"Shit," says Joselyn. "Control, this is Captain Sanchez, we've got a small problem here."

Juniper pauses.

"I see it, Captain. You've got some kinda plan? Orbital strike?"

"Not reliable enough, thing's too big. Listen, I need you to deactivate the shielding system on all the SRAs in the Ontostatic Fence."


"Just do it! Also, can this thing go any faster?"

The driver reports that this thing cannot, in fact, go any faster.

What are you waiting for, says the voice next to Juniper's ear. Your precious humans are all going to DIE.

"The captain has a plan," she whispers. "It's going to be okay."

You have to do it NOW, says the voice. If you go any closer to that wretched fence, you won't be able to anymore and EVERYONE WILL DIE.

"NO," Juniper shouts, out loud. Everyone turns to stare at her. "S-sorry. I'm okay," she mutters.

And now it's too late. The anchors are too close, the puppet voice can no longer reach her. Juniper has placed her trust in the humans. She hopes they have a good plan.

The transport skids to a stop near one of the SRAs. Joselyn leans really close to Moon's ear and whispers something to him that makes his eyes go really wide and unsettlingly bright. Moon leaves the vehicle, walking strangely, as if slightly drunk. The pastel blood covering his uniform really stands out now that the whole world isn't those colours. He reaches the reality anchor and strokes it as if it were a beloved pet.

"Do you remember the pink light?" he whispers to it. The machine does remember the pink light. The troop transport turns to drive away from Moon and the SRA at full speed.

"Will you sing for me?" Moon asks. The machine will sing for him. All the machines in the Fence will sing, all in rapturous harmony. He touches the outer housing on the side facing toward the castle-monster, which is now maybe two-hundred feet away and closing fast.

He makes a hole. A light shines through the hole. Dreams are born in threes and die in fives. There ceases to be anything that could be called a castle, or a monster.

Joselyn triggers the emergency shutdown protocol for the entire Ontostatic Fence. The light disappears. Moon falls face-first in the dirt, unconscious. A few moments later, the distortion collapses completely, leaving only the trees of the forest and the stains of unnatural blood on the land. Juniper shudders, realizing for the first time that there could be things in this world more terrible than her own powers.

Then she realizes something even more astonishing: it's over. The Perimeter Site's anchor is still on, within range, and she cannot overcome it. For the first time in months, Juniper Castel is not in complete control. Unless…

She turns to Joselyn. "Could you hit me?" she asks.

"Excuse me?"

"Like smack me in the face. Hard enough so it really hurts. Please?"

"Why, exactly?"

"Because I deserve it. But also like, because I wouldn't have the guts to hit myself. When Wump hit me earlier it barely hurt at all. I just need to know for sure that I'm not still controlling everyone somehow. Please?"

Joselyn shrugs and slaps Juniper firmly on one cheek. It hurts like hell. Juniper starts crying again.

"Thank you," she says.

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