A Tale of Two Trolls

Marcus Spiegelby Marcus Spiegel

Here come the frogs. The hooded clerics of the meme. Long have they uploaded their darkness to the virtual realm. It falls on them now to bring their crypto-anarchy to the world. 

Yuri and Winch are zipping their way through the tower-shaded streets, just another rain-rinsed car in the traffic gauntlet. “We’re making fine time,” Yuri says, cracking a window to dispel some of the fermented cabbage odor Winch carries on his clothes. “Keep speeding when you can. Quick, cut this guy off.” 

Winch grinds the pedal and makes a lane change to the left. “Too many normies leaving their slave posts for the day,” he says. “It’s like Warcraft level three out here. You’d need a flamethrower to clear a path.” 

Yuri is snickering as he consults his reflection in the flip-down mirror only to find his fear confirmed: for the third consecutive time he’s neglected to shave the right hemisphere of his face. Even if he’s merely sprouted some whiskers there, the omission is disheartening. 

“Do we have any stims?” Winch asks. 

“My ADD meds? Left them back at the Bunker.” 

The Bunker is their cute name for the basement apartment they rent, the two friends and collaborators sleeping in twin bunk beds, both of them on top, like gods floating on clouds. They reserve the bottoms for storage — it’s easier to keep a laundry bag on a spare mattress than to go to the trouble of folding up clothes and tucking them away in a dresser. Lately, they’ve abandoned the drudgery of laundry altogether, preferring to wear the same uniform without fail. It’s these kinds of rituals that proliferate order in the world. And order is what’s missing. Order über alles. 

“From now on I’m not depending on you and your stupid doctor,” says Winch. “I don’t see what purpose there is in putting myself through this anymore.” 

“Yes, right, such a crucifixion.” 

Winch transmits his irritation to the cars in his vicinity, honking, even cutting off a Volkswagen, which theoretically ought to be an ally. “I’ve got one of those evil headaches again.”

“Hang in there. We can snort some guarana powder in the university parking lot.” 

“I want real stims, damnit. I’ve already had caffeine.” 

“Maybe you’re forgetting that the guarana vine is the most caffeinated substance known to exist?” 

“I don’t like it,” says Winch. 

“Try to be more stoical. This movement is bigger than your subjective needs, mein Kind. Besides, we need to save that medication for when we go live.” 

* * *

Since the world is increasingly the battleground of propaganda, practical wisdom seems to require that everyone become her own Leni Riefenstahl. It’s either that or become somebody else’s dupe. 

Yuri and Winch, for their part, have taken measures to adapt to the new counterpunching regime. Their most significant attempt at persuasion is the YouTube show and podcast Tadpole Island. They’ve recorded six episodes thus far, most of which feature their only other friend in the flesh, Olaf Norquist, the self-styled black magician and alt-right political commentator. But they have yet to offer up their golden ball to strangers perusing the net. 

Tadpole Island is hosted by Yuri’s alter-ego, Zepé — basically Yuri in a frog suit, speaking in an invented accent that Norquist has described as a cross between Jamaican, Aussie, and Martian. The frog character, of course, is modeled on Pepe, crude demiurge of the meme, though somehow Yuri’s Zepé suit calls to mind Kermit or Super Mario similarly clad. Either way, Zepé is destined to be a mammoth success. 

As Zepé, Yuri would interview controversial pundits and thinkers whom the normies would be all too quick to label crackpots and cranks. Not that they were about to be cowed by such slander, but as the show garnered prestige, Yuri and Winch would replace their obscure guests with right-wing-leaning celebrities, all two of them, before moving on from there to their more glamorous political rivals. They would lure stars onto the show only for Zepé to vanquish them with his scary reservoir of arguments and facts. 

Who says they didn’t have a brutal purpose in mind? 

* * *

As soon as the gaps in the traffic begin to stretch out, Winch zigs and zags in full beast mode, like he’s racing a Batmobile down the Autobahn. He wails something unintelligible. One of the reasons Yuri lets Winch drive his Honda Accord is that driving has proven to be one of the most responsive treatments for soothing Winch’s hyperactivity. Yet it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect today. Winch is especially vulnerable to a flare-up after slugging back an extra large Mountain Dew slushie in five minutes flat, no regard for the brain freeze. 

Complicating matters further is the fact that Winch, like Yuri, is an incel — an involuntary celibate. Monks and fakirs of ancient times have long understood that celibacy is the most potent form of Red Bull on the market. Although Yuri and Winch haven’t chosen their lot, they’re nevertheless profiting from the alchemy, particularly now that they’ve made a pact to quit beating off to the sleek goddesses of porn. No fapping for these two. They shook on it with gobs of spit on their hands. No matter the degree or the intensity of their sexual appetites, they hold their breath, they take shivering showers, they do whatever they must to resist. 

“How about turning up that Shadilay?” Winch says. He can listen to the Kekistani anthem once an hour and still not tire of its mellow funkiness.

“Enough of your silly frog beats,” says Yuri, scrolling on his Droid. “It’s time for more crushing themes. Black metal is what we want.” 

Winch dries the glassy film of sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. His hair is chestnut, though lightened by a heavy snow of dandruff that flakes onto his clothes whenever he brushes a hand through it, as he often does, his bangs being just long enough to turret his eyes. Eyes that are not blue, by the way, but a burnished copper color, like pennies gilded by the sun. 

As for Yuri’s eyes, they’re pretty freaky these days. He’s one of those who have converted myopia into an advantage: ever since his Amazon order came in the mail, some weeks ago, he’s been in the habit of wearing contact lenses in the mode of a predatory cat. Always been a cat person. He alternates between Bengal tiger and jaguar mainly, throwing in mongoose once in a while to keep things from becoming rote. 

Today is a Jaguar Friday. Yuri’s irises blaze yellow and are shaped like crescent moons. 

Winch charges through a red light on Yonge Street, inciting a tide of honking hate. “Fuck you too,” he says to no one in particular. All that rage though is soon in the rearview as they cruise along through the pastoral scenes of the University of Toronto campus. The rain has stopped, or at least thinned to a patter, but there’s still something Sturm und Drang in the weather. Typhoon winds snapping at the trees. 

On the stereo the hammer clank of guitars and synthesizers pulses through the car with a supersonic ferocity. The screeching voice that comes in after the intro doesn’t sound anthropomorphic in the least, let alone like the voice of a Swede. 

Winch has a way of doing a modified mosh while he drives. “You think we could red-pill that goof?” 

“Professor Badendorf? He seems pretty committed to staying a cuck.” 

* * *

Seven years back, Yuri took a course with Professor Badendorf in German. Never mind that the professor’s hair — or what he had left of it — was fluffy and staticky and that stooping near the chalkboard in his cardigan he looked like a scarecrow that had failed to keep away the crows, Badendorf had some genuine charisma to draw on. He was a fountain of anecdotes; his jokes were rich in schadenfreude; his memory was as vast and quick as an algorithm. It was impossible not to be impressed with Badendorf’s rabbinical learning when it came to Goethe and Schiller. 

Unfortunately, Yuri was prevented from completing his course with Badendorf because of illness. Who knew whooping cough could be so crippling? Even more tragic was that, since it was too late to withdraw without academic penalty, he was forced to metabolize an F. To have appealed to the records department he would have to have obtained a doctor’s letter, but, feverish and dizzy, it would have been unthinkable to rise from bed and denude himself of his blankets and pyjamas long enough to dress in his shabby winter coat and face the burning winds while he waited for the bus. 

Naturally, once he got well, he expected Badendorf to spearhead his vindication. Surely, it would have cost the professor very little to have championed Yuri’s cause. And yet, astonishingly, in spite of being cozily ensconced at the university — a tenured prof with a cascade of publications to his credit — Badendorf could not be coaxed into assisting Yuri’s attempts to have the injustice overturned. Yuri even visited the professor every day for a time in order to ask what he might do to heal the damage until the professor said he would not speak to him about it anymore. The old master had given out the last of his instructions. It didn’t seem to matter if his former student perished from the elements now that he was out of the professor’s sight. 

Badendorf, of course, didn’t exactly score points for heroism in the way he handled Yuri’s struggle, but that’s quite in the past. Chalk it all up to youthful sorrow. It’s because of a new list of sins that Badendorf must now atone. 

Which sins basically come down to the professor’s politics of malice. Several months ago, Badendorf was on a CBC news show when he prophesized that far-right political groups would soon be sneaking up in Canada. A general decency in the Canadian character may not be enough to thwart the onslaught once it achieved a certain allure. 

If this remark wasn’t sufficiently perverse, he followed it with an even more vigorous masochism, writing a series of op-eds that were published in fake news outlets all across the bleeding lands of the West. Don’t be taken in by the newfangled rhetoric, the grim professor advised. The same bitter specter is about to spit fire once again. 

Badendorf’s intellect had surely eroded over the years since Yuri’s course with him. His political fears seemed like the ravings of a geriatric mind. Still, he had delivered a swift kick to Yuri and Winch’s movement and he deserved to be challenged. 

It’s high time Badendorf became a special guest on Tadpole Island

* * *

“Are we double sure this is his sedan?” Winch looking ahead to the baby blue car. 

Yuri flicks a dark smile in the direction of his compatriot. “Don’t you remember the combination of I, P, and G in his license plate? Unscramble those letters, Winch?” 

“Uh, gip?” 

“Keep at it. Pattern recognition is a mark of intelligence. If you don’t start leveling up soon, you’re sure to be replaced by AI.” 

At that moment the Pitchfork into Shit album they’re listening to ends with its much-celebrated soundbites of detonating missiles while the lead vocalist holds his killing howl for a duration that borders on supernatural. Afterwards, the silence that descends quickly becomes claustrophobic. Yuri copes — he can still read print media in snatches — but Winch is soon approaching a low-level panic. His eyes take on a desperate quality, like a dog’s in a thunderstorm. 

“Well, should we give episode six of Tadpole another listen?” Yuri wonders out loud. 

“Put it on,” Winch turning quickly, spraying Yuri with dandruff, “only screw the intro. I want to hear the part where Norquist debunks the so-called debunkers of Pizzagate, proving that Podesta was as big a perv as Wiener.” 

“Glad to hear you’re cultivating your mind, Winchester,” Yuri says, though secretly he’s hurt that Winch doesn’t want to listen to Zepé’s opening monologue, clearly the highlight of the show. In any case, it doesn’t take long before he’s feeling restless. “I’m going to wander around campus to see if I can track down Badendorf,” he says, sliding out into the chilled evening air. “You stay here. You may have to perform the kidnapping yourself.” 

* * *

Yuri ambles up the dark lawn of the campus, taking meditative puffs from his vape. His exhalations materialize as a wispy genie, thinly visible and redolent of mango before fading away. He carries a briefcase to help him pass as a student — and, well, it’s a convenient place to stash the taser he will need should he become involved in a contretemps with the professor. Sure, some people die from being stunned with a taser, but Yuri’s learned to live with the burden of all his cumulative risks. 

Ducking beneath a contorted maple tree in the quad, he takes one last suck of the mango-flavored tobacco from his electronic device before climbing the staircase to the old castle of Brennan Hall. He threads through the snaky interior, passing small libraries of rare books for specialists. Various humanities departments unfurl before him. He can’t help but notice there is something dingy and slapdash about Germanic Studies. The lighting is bad, the floor overrun with a garish orange carpet. 

He knocks on Badendorf’s door, calling out the professor’s name, “Helmut, oh Helmut.” The professor though — let’s give our Mephisto his due — is too clever to be taken in by the tender bait. 

Outside the office is a little slot filled with graded papers and Yuri amuses himself by skimming the student drivel. In the margins of the pages he recognizes Badendorf’s distinctive script — the lean sexiness of his j’s and h’s, the round cheeriness of his o’s, the lit menorah of his capital w. The arguments are so weak in logic they smack of conspiracy theories. But as he reads on his mirth mutates to rage. 

He digs up a pen from a pocket of his briefcase and proceeds to shade out one of Badendorf’s flattering appraisals. Doing his best to mimic the professor’s fancy graffiti, he writes above it: “Total confusion! This paper is a marvel of idiocy! You should be whipped for writing such trash!” 

* * * 

Winch has often noticed a strange effect after he’s snorted a lot of guarana powder: he begins to crave gaming in the worst kind of way. Not just any kind of gaming either — retro gaming. He wants to drop back into the primitive cosmos of the original Zelda or Castlevania. RPGs in their infancy. He wants his avatar to explore medieval towns and hamlets, calling on smiths and potion brewers to guide him along on his chivalrous path. 

Above all, he wants to heat up a Pillsbury Toaster Strudel and play Metroid. The feeling he gets from Metroid is indescribable — it’s almost mystical. He saves Metroid for when he’s in a very special mood. 

The way he prepares the strudel is not trivial either. It has to be smeared with icing to the point where you’d almost think it overdone, that it’s going to be way too gooey and sweet. But that’s where you want to be when it comes to the icing, that’s the — haha — sweet spot. The upshot is that Winch’s icing preferences place him in a double bind. He can limit himself to a single icing packet per strudel — a situation that is far from ideal — or he can choose to glaze his strudels with the amount of icing that matches his desires, in which case his taste buds reach a transcendent plane but then he’s left with half a box of dry strudels that end up going to waste. 

His phone vibrates in his jeans pocket so close to his dick it makes him hard. “So,” says Winch. “You got that cuck by the collar?” 

“I can’t find him,” Yuri says. “He was supposed to be done his lectures by now, and he’s not in his office. We might have to modify our approach.” 

“Yuri? After we kidnap Badendorf and get him set up in his cage could I maybe game for a while? I’m really jonesing to draw the curtains, turn on the toaster oven, and curl up in front of the — ” 

“Winch. Focus, okay?” 

“ — for three solid hours of Metroid.” 

“This is bigger than gaming, alright?” 

Winch always gets nervous whenever Yuri says anything is bigger than gaming because he’s already been traumatized by a mother who routinely punished him by restricting his gaming rights, even going so far as to confiscate his controller for entire weekends, which, of course, is especially cruel — that being the time when he’d be needing it most. 

“Did you hear me, Winch? This might be the most crucial thing you hear in your life. Sehr wichtig, you read me?” 

“Go on.” 

“I want you to put on the frog suit.” 

Well, when Winch hears this he just about flips out, hopping up and down on the seat like he’s being electrocuted. “But that suit is sacred. You’re the only one who can wear it, Yuri. There’s no way I can even pretend to be Zepé.” 

“Just get in the suit.” 

Winch can hardly breathe he feels so honored. 

* * * 

Yuri and Winch had long ago decided that it was not enough to launch Tadpole Island on the Light Web. They had to employ a double strategy; they would simultaneously infiltrate and transgress. 

To this second end they would have to kidnap the venerable professor of Germanic Studies. They would intimidate him with death threats — and other nightmare suggestions — before drugging him and trapping him inside a burlap sack. 

Once Badendorf was loaded into the Honda’s trunk, they would drive to the Bunker and transfer him into what they were calling his “cage” — which actually looked more like an igloo made out of cardboard boxes that they’d spent much of the night constructing. 

The days would creep along for Badendorf. He would have little to hope for apart from his two meals of frozen corn nibblets served to him in a doggie bowl. 

At some point during the professor’s imprisonment they would haul him from his cage and force him to do the show. Badendorf and Zepé would have a dialogue. Zepé would quash him with his superior intellect. Zepé and Winch would then subject him to some light torture on camera, afterwards returning him to his cage. 

Those Dark Web episodes of Tadpole would be legendary in no time. Zepé would be elevated to a great figure in the theater of cruelty, on par with De Sade. Oh, they could taste their numbers growing already. In a matter of days, or even hours, their subscriber list would bloom. 

Nothing clickbaits like suffering. 

Yuri/Zepé would soon be christened as the highest minister of the alt-right. Perhaps even its darling and prince. He would soon have an ensemble of subordinates working under him, coordinating his appointments and interviews with the media, leaving him free to calculate his next set of moves in the war of memetics. 

* * * 

The hunt for Badendorf is very much on. Having glimpsed on a poster that a celebrity academic is giving a talk at an auditorium in another building, Yuri decides to attend in hopes of spotting the apostate professor pontificating to the crowd. If Badendorf doesn’t have a chair on the panel he’s sure to be injecting himself into the discussion with those typical verbose rants disguised as questions. Pompous fool that he is. 

But by the time Yuri makes his way to the auditorium it’s nothing more than a deserted banquet. A few nasally-voiced stragglers lurk about, chitchatting, nibbling black grapes, cubes of marbled cheese. Yuri scrutinizes every cardigan. No sign of the professor. 

Yuri’s ready to about-face — he’s already chafing with remorse for ordering Winch to don the frog suit — when he notices a smile and a fluttering hand. Has to assume the gesture is not meant for him. When was the last time he stirred any stranger to spontaneous joy? 

That’s no stranger though — it’s Hannah from European Mythology. Yuri sat beside her, three rows behind the blackboard, at a little kidney-shaped desk carved up with obscenities. They used to meet in the cafeteria to talk Ovid over cinnamon buns. Hannah always dressed in flagrantly wanton colors. She had a predilection for silky fabrics; she was perpetually rereading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

Today Hannah is modeling an updo, swirling honey brown hair constrained at intervals with silvery clips. Her clothes — dark jeans, knitted sweater, a scarf coiled about her throat — are in a more downbeat register than in the past, though her smile is in the puckish range, somewhat tentative and confined to one side of her mouth. No makeup either. Won’t get any argument from Yuri there. He resents the chicanery of lipstick and mascara. 

“Yuri, what are you doing here? You recognize me, I hope?” 

“Of course, Hannah.” Yuri scans the room. How does he know he’s not being manipulated? Badendorf deploying a saucy girl to distract him. “I suppose you haven’t changed very much. Maybe you dress a little differently, more like a — ” he swallows hard to avoid saying normie, “adult, I guess. Like one of those Sex in the City chicks.” 

Hannah laughs, showing her methodical, straight teeth. In their undergrad days those teeth were bound in purple braces. All that oral conditioning has turned her smile into an orthodontist ad. “Well, you look different too,” she says. “What kind of hairstyle is that? And those combat boots you’re wearing. I’d say you look a bit more like a punk if it wasn’t for those contacts. Bright yellow eyes look good on you, actually.” 

Should he tell her that they glow at night? You can discern him from a distance, a fit mate in the jungle. Sexual selection requires eyes that leap past one’s inherited genes into the transhuman domain. Well, Yuri doesn’t mind being ahead of the curve, Übermensch already, Winch still needs to catch up. 

Yuri is suddenly conscious of being an incel. His virginity weighs on him like an armor he’s forced to wear. He is rigid inside it, barely animate. Proving dangerous to talk to Hannah — it’s always been dangerous. They’d gone on a couple of dates together and it had all been so hopelessly rom-com. When he kissed her on a terrace — champagne, stars out, a balmy windless night — she told him she didn’t see him like that, for her he would always remain a friend. In a script they would have been one-third of the way to a boy-gets-girl denouement. Yuri would still have had plenty of scenes left to establish himself as the ideal arrangement of rugged pirate and domesticated eunuch. Gradually, though, he saw that their romance would not play out like Hollywood. He had not been cast as Hannah’s male counterpart but instead as a victim in a low-budget horror film. His death would be unforgettable, harrowing to the extreme. He had not figured out if he would be stabbed, strangled, or thrown into a pool of lava, but he knew that it would be an exquisite end. 

“Not a punk,” he says. “It’s just that I get to wear whatever I want. Being that I’m self-employed.” 

“You’re not a programmer, are you?” 

“No, I host a show.”

“Like… for television?” 

Yuri can’t stop himself from sneering. “I would have to be pretty stupid to chain myself to the carcass of that dying elephant. Television is deader than God. My show will be for the internet. I’m about to release the first episode in a couple of weeks.” 

Hannah takes a small step back as if she wants to see him anew. “You seem very much the same, only somehow edgier. Maybe even angrier? Am I allowed to say that?” 

“I’m not the censorship police,” Yuri says, casting a sour look at the celery stalks and raw cauliflower trees arrayed on the table beside him. With the token exception of lettuce, which he could tolerate in sandwiches, anything plucked out of the soil, pigmented by lycopenes and beta-carotenes, brings on a form of nausea that reminds him of the spins. And yet he must struggle against his sense of loathing because he suddenly feels lightheaded to the point where it’s even conceivable that he could faint. He picks up a round slice of cucumber — a relatively inoffensive vegetable all things considering — and dunks it into a parsley-dusted dip. Then he stands there wincing for a few seconds before he commits to the necessary evil. “You can judge me as you like,” he says, risking the bite. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ve already bought into the rumors you’ve no doubt heard.” 

Hannah adjusts the strap of her leather handbag so that it’s slung across the opposite arm. Like an arrow quiver, Yuri thinks. She’d make a hot Amazonian shit-kicker. Or would she be more at home in an enchanted land of horse-riding mages and elves? 

“I’m not sure I’ve heard much of anything about you,” Hannah says. “It seemed to me that at some point you disappeared.” 

“I was sick. I’d rather not go into it.” 

Hannah nods. “Well, I’d give your show a listen.” 

Yuri feels a tide of tension ray through the core of his being. Should he tempt himself with the possibility? That Hannah is the one who has been foretold? The heroine who, with a kiss, could break the spell of his inceldom? 

Yuri, captive on a fire-wreathed altar, cries out to his saviour. Free me from these shackles! His cheeks flush to a rosé, lurid with expectation. 

“You’d adore the show,” he says. “Yes, I could really see you getting into it.” 

“What’s it called?” 

Tadpole Island,” Yuri says gravely. “Think Dick Cavett without the commercials.” 

* * *

Camouflaged in the green quad, Winch squats froggishly some meters behind Badendorf’s sedan. For comfort he strokes the handle of his samurai sword in its holster. It was his idea to add a symbol of war to Zepé’s costume. Only two weeks ago, when he and Yuri came to the university to make notes on the professor’s arrival and exit times, they had seen a racoon clawing scraps out of a garbage can, and Winch had pursued it with a stick until it fled up a tree. If Winch could only find it again today — or at the very least a gopher or squirrel — he would be pleased to test out his swordplay on a living thing. 

Sometimes at the Bunker, when Yuri is still knocked out on dream tablets in the dawn, Winch would undertake some martial drills with the sword, lunging and thrusting in vintage Jedi style. He’s developed some scary abilities, to be sure. Yoda would have been impressed with all that his disciple has perfected. 

Winch secured the samurai sword on eBay six months ago for fifteen hundred American, squandering pretty much all the savings he’d built up from years of working at a call center, gathering statistics. Not that he regrets the purchase. How many people can say they own a collector’s item, worthy of a museum, from seventeenth-century Japan? 

The fact that a student has already called him a Ninja Turtle has not hurt his pride. Between a turtle and a frog there is a gaping chasm. But it was pointless to correct him. Winch knows who he is. 

Freeing his sword from the leather sheath, Winch observes a phenomenon he has often wondered at: the blade is so sharp he can see a soft halo rising off it. The shine seems to extend beyond its physical limit. He’s already tested the sword on pomelos, pineapple, watermelon. He’s applied it to the limbs of saplings. It only remains to see how it stands up in battle. 

* * *

In ten minutes, Yuri has managed to consume more vegetables than he has in the previous ten months. He is desperate for anything to cool his appetites, and the wedges of Gouda and Camembert seem oceans away. He dare not leave Hannah’s side. 

Leaning closer to her, he immerses himself in her intimate vanilla scent — the fragrant wraith of some hair product or conditioner she used. The more they talk, the more he fancies himself Tristan to her Isolde. What does it matter that somewhere at the periphery of his consciousness the problem of Badendorf still plagues him? He could simply slough it off the way one sloughs off the dawning awareness that one is dreaming so as to cherish an erotic dream. Why should he pass beyond the pleasure principle? Rarely has his Id felt so alive. 

Yuri can’t help but sniff wolfishly in Hannah’s direction. “Since you’re so interested, why don’t we have dinner? Afterwards, I could show you around my studio. I might even let you hear an episode we have in the works. The editing is nearly complete. Are you familiar with the black magician, Olaf Norquist?” 

“I can’t say I am.” Hannah sips her pale wine, her attention landing upon her own open-toed shoes. “I really wouldn’t have predicted this for you, Yuri. I might’ve guessed you’d become an academic like me.” 

So that’s what she was doing on campus. He’s become so fixated on wooing her that he can’t even finesse the small talk. Don’t come after me now, Superego. Can Yuri be blamed if he despised anything that would delay his and Hannah’s progress to the nearest bed? How is he supposed to play the part of a gentleman when his sole function is to propagate his DNA? He can actually feel the spermatozoa inside him — surging, replicating — as if his body is no more than an extension of his genitals, a one hundred and seventy pound testicular mass. 

“I wouldn’t become an academic if they offered me a truckload of money,” he says. “Not if they begged me. My internet show is sure to go viral in an instant. You’re meeting me, Hannah, in the last moments before the explosion of my fame.” 

* * *

Winch, more komodo dragon than frogman Zepé, crouch-walks through the castle’s shadow only to spring up from the darkness and draw his fearful blade. Lifting the cowl from where it droops over his eyes, he makes out a lanky bald man with an anorak jacket tossed over one shoulder and a red leather briefcase swaying at his hip. Although roughly the same height as Badendorf it doesn’t seem to be the man himself but a sort of decoy or impostor. Perhaps Badendorf has arranged for his colleague to pick him up in a nearby parking lot. The lookalike could easily be Badendorf’s chauffeur. 

Winch watches him halt on the path. “State your business,” he calls out. 

“What is it you’re holding there?” The man says, squinting through the fog. “What are you — nuts? I suggest you clear out of here immediately.” 

“I can’t allow you to pass this way. Going any further is your death.” 

* * *

Yuri reaches for a trunk of broccoli and flings it into his crocodilian mouth. “What do you say, Hannah? Will it be dinner and a tour of the studio?” He chews, grinning a gap-toothed grin, his gums lubed in vegetal slime. “We can call this the appetizer course and jump straight to the entrees.” 

Hannah crosses her arms, making a very faint humming sound. With her long lean neck and her soft sweet features, she could have made a model Madonna to a painter. Her tinkling bracelets produce a tiny music like the ringing of the celestial spheres. Yuri’s chieftain posture has been thawed. His body has become an ashram at the center of which stands a lingam devoted to Hannah. 

She touches his hand, merely grazes it, but it’s almost enough. He must clench up, fight off the urge to release. Oh, don’t touch me again. The slightest mingling of flesh on flesh would make him sing out and shudder, heaving like a Niagara of exuberant, teeming life. 

“I don’t think that will be possible,” Hannah says. “I have plans already. But it was good to see you.” 

“Cancel! Cancel your plans! How often do we run into each other? These kinds of synchronicities might never recur.” 

“Yuri,” she reproaches him, backing away, some of her charm already withheld. “No, I can’t. I’m seeing someone. And, besides, don’t be silly.” 

Yuri staggers. His face is hot. “What did I do to deserve this legacy of rejection? Am I really so foul to the feminine eye?” 

“Stop this, Yuri.” 

“You’re only a C minus yourself, yet you act as if you’ve never looked on a rodent so repulsive.” 

“I’m leaving.” 

Yuri contemplates the remnants of the veggie platter as Hannah makes her escape. Will you accept defeat again? Everything that’s on offer, just stand back and let it pass, right? No. 

He rushes through the auditorium, knocking over a couple of empty wine glasses in his violence. He finds Hannah in a stairwell. “I have a right to ask,” he says, breathing heavy, not exactly in the best cardiovascular form. “Tell me the reason you have to deny me.” 

“Go away, Yuri!” 

“Is it the way I look at you? Is it something about my body that I’m not aware of? Is it this mole that looks like a weird zit on my cheek?” 

“Leave me alone.” 

“Is it my teeth? Is it my breath? Is it my hair?” 

“Get away!” 

“Do my armpits stink? Is it because of the dirt underneath my — ” 

Yuri, too intent on Hannah, trips down the final three stairs, and, while he recovers his balance in time to keep from being upended entirely — with one hand he steadies himself on the rails — by then Hannah has already run through the doors into the quad. He follows her outside but can’t figure out which way she went. He stands still, trying to detect movement through the trees. His eyes might be yellow and feline, but they can’t pierce the dark. The wind is making the conifers dance with a strange artificial life. 

“That’s the last time I’ll be made into a fool because of lust,” Yuri soliloquizes. “You did this to me, Professor. I could have had status! You robbed me of that.” 

He reaches inside his briefcase for his taser gun and presses its cold tip to his chest. “I suppose I’ll remain a virgin forever then. An angry virgin. Deadly to the touch.” 

And with that he fades off — screaming, shrieking — into a sleep. 

* * *

Belly in the grass, Winch is hiding in a sort of leafy trench. He lies there watching as the Badendorf double returns to the spot of their confrontation, this time accompanied by a security guard, a young heavyset man with a crew cut whose pants are freighted down with tools. 

The men converse in the insect-swirling glow of the castle’s lamps. Winch clutches his sword. He could ambush these normies if necessary — even if he was partly blinded by the cowl. He could slaughter eyeless if he had to. Kek would marshal him to his prey.

Having slain so many normies and cucks in his Doom-inspired dreams, he feels initiated for the task. These people have no interiority anyway, as Yuri often says. Cattle on the conveyor. They’re all AI-controlled, small-fry villains, who once annihilated will leave behind a stream of jewels in their wake. 

Lord Kek would decide. 

O Kek. Lead us not into cuckoldry. But deliver us from the shills. For thine is the memetic kingdom, and the shitposting, and the winning, forever and ever.

He slithers further into the shadows, before rising up in the dirt, where he remains, watching, squatting on his hams. 

They might even contain life points or magic icons. Those indispensable magic icons. You’d never know until you destroyed them what kind of gifts their deaths would yield. 

Ravening, shadow-haunted, a joke to the world but a hero to the trolls, Winch marches into the lamplight like a knight.