The Shop of Oddities
It all started as a dare. When Ayuda first arrived in the quaint and desolate neighborhood of the little Shop of Oddities she felt the wonderment of being stranded in a silent dreamland of architecture. She received none of the general inspirations of terror which had profusely laced the wild accounts told by her friends who had prodded her off on this strange visit. To be sure she found it all puzzling and surreal, but more so gaudy and artificial in the heavily ornamented flourishes of the old buildings. Collectively, they summoned up an excess of impressions from a bygone era, but with a zany flamboyance more imitative of an amusement park. The neighborhood had been all but forgotten and its remote location in the largely abandoned part of the city left it habitually void of life. The aura was vacant and still. It was an insular, carnivalesque world without vibrancy, varnished in dark colors of Gothic and Victorian sensibility. Yet tucked away in its’ own little hermitage, the Shop of Oddities surpassed all the other places in the neighborhood in the lavish pageantry of its design. She found no hint of charm or horror in the star-festooned wooden placard over the door inscribed with the shop name in an exuberant script, but rather fabulous plasticity. It was to this shop that Ayuda had been directed, the subject of this entire excursion that seemed only frivolous at the moment Ayuda approached the doorstep.
Her friends told her the shop had been there for over a hundred years and had emanated a curious trail of mysteries that would be inexplicably shocking to anyone who learned of their details. Ayuda looked with an almost obscene disbelief upon the ornate richness and flowery patterns carved into the stone of the wall. At first glance the old shop possessed the aspect of an outlandish mausoleum. Something dark and elusive lay hidden beneath the florid varnish. The fantastical character of the exterior suggested something between the Winchester House & a fun-house castle for children. Little cherubic figures chiselled into the pillars next to the doorway seemed to pop out from the stone with a fanciful cartoonishness. Alongside them, in profane contrast, a legion of bats and crows had been shaped out of ebony stone with lowering features. The predominating flavor of the atmosphere struck her as something absurdly whimsical.‘How can one take such a place seriously at all?’ she wondered.Over the door hung an engraving of rather pronounced morbidity in its dour features. It depicted a scene in the style of the medieval imagination, darkened by undertones of some fatal foreboding. There was a singular knight mounted solemnly on his steed within a dismal vale. A brutish, satyr-like devil with an impish snout flanked the knight on one side and on the other side was a gaunt personification of Death, hoary-faced and gnarled under a hooded white shroud riding a ghostly pale horse. Death held up an ominous hour-glass to the knight who seemed to pass by indifferently, despite even the human skull sitting in his path on the dirt road. The incongruent darkness of this single image against the palatial pomp of the building grossly distorted the current of the atmosphere. The combined effect of these elements produced a disorienting weirdness over Ayuda that she could not digest.An eerie feeling stung Ayuda when she saw that the door-knob had been shaped in the ghastly likeness of a death-head, just like the skull in the overhanging picture. She dismissed the feeling quicker than it had been conceived and she walked into the shop. She immediately inhaled a dank odor reeking like ancient decay.
The whole place whispered with subliminal messages. The thick air quivered under a cloudy spell. A tinge from an unknown realm seemed to pervade the whole atmosphere with a dreamy kind of vagueness.The source of the odor had no doubt been conveyed by a nearly imperceptible greenish-white vapor which floated through the shop. Ayuda saw it creeping like a spectral form around the withered shelves and felt it curdling the air in a tomb-like chill. The shop was apparently a cache for grimoires, codices and trinkets from antique obscurity. The shelves overflowed with grime, cobwebs and a king’s ransom of tattered old books. Little gargoyles and gnomes with grisly expressions rested along the edges. Rotting manuscripts and medieval maps stamped with the titan Atlas lay crumbled up in shadowy niches. From between certain volumes coated in dust, black candles burned with sinuous fumes over waxen skulls that glared at Ayuda with sunken eyes like jack-o-lanterns.The phantom light of the candles illuminated the grotesque and arabesque tracery carved flamboyantly along the wall between strange sculpted faces slung droopingly downward. There were also medieval mystic images, mathematical magic squares and charts of the constellations, tattered and torn, spattered like posters across parts of the wall.Ayuda treaded slowly between the shelves, paying cursory glances at the books upon them. Her curiosity dilated as a cadence of enigmatic rhythms trembled from the walls. A dusky horde of shadows gathered up and swallowed her. Everything was then imperviously dim and blurred. The mixture of feeble candlelight and the snaking vapor-plumes seen from the shadows transformed the scene into something of bewitching confusion. Everything took on the semblance of a haunting hallucination. Menacing serpents of darkness coiled up and knotted together in indefinite immensities of shadows that hovered all around. Bodies of light morphed around gigantic fiber-optic will-o-the wisp webs spread out by the distended strands of a fluorescent blue-green mist.Then Ayuda saw the old Chinese man under the sallow glow of candlelight. He was a brooding sphinx-- the lone figure in the shop, sitting behind the counter and puffing listlessly on a curved opium pipe.“Hello miss. May I help you with something?”Ayuda stopped in her tracks and answered deadpan, “No. Thank you. I’m just having a look around.”At that moment Ayuda felt regret for ever making ingress to this decrepit, cursed den. She made a clever attempt to slip gradually toward the doorway as she concealed herself from the view of the old man behind a towering bookshelf. She heard the hypnotic rhythm of wind-chimes and a bizarre humming intonation.Then the old man said to her, “Miss please come here. I wish to show you something.”Ayuda paused and reflected for a moment. Then suddenly a voice from somewhere nearby shocked her with a whisper. “No! Don’t wisten to him! You must weave immediatewy!” Ayuda’s puzzled eyes searched eagerly in her proximity for the source of the warning. She noticed a plain-faced figure of a snowman standing on one of the shelves that appeared to have his two black beady eyes fixed directly on her. Were it not for his self-evident status as an inanimate doll, Ayuda would have concluded that the urgent words had rushed from it.She studied him closer. She detected something in his simpering visage that exuded an inexplicable life force. Then he winked at her. Ayuda gasped and staggered back.“Angung, angung. You must wisten to me. You are in gweat danger here. You must weave…”The opium stench thickened around Ayuda’s head in a greenish-white fog that cast a twinkling gloss all around. She nearly swooned out of consciousness. Her senses briefly lapsed into utter darkness. She stumbled away from the Snowman and found herself face to face with the wizened Chinese man.His sage-like eyes examined her closely while he puffed strenuously on his pipe. A cloud of fumes surged over him and took on the chimerical form of a dragon playing with its milky white pearl. Through the smoke screen Ayuda saw the old man’s face mutate into something even less human-like, his features abstracted in the fog, looking nearly immaterial.A droning rhythm rang staccato and echoed faintly in her ears.“You like my little shop miss?” the Chinese man finally inquired. The smell spewed from his breath exceeded any measure of offensive and objectionable. “This is my shop of Oddities, and a very special place it is indeed. You won’t find anything else like it—anywhere.”“I don’t get what’s so special about it,” Ayuda muttered.The Chinese man smiled, now revealing his slimy green teeth and single shimmering gold tooth. He turned to his counter for a moment and lifted some object from the other side. Then looking back at Ayuda he said, “Try these glasses on.” He held out for her an oddly diamond-shaped pair of spectacles glistening with an iridescent tint. Ayuda had no idea how to react in that moment. After hesitating, she accepted them from the shopkeeper and placed them over her eyes.Everything in her field of vision was warped in the wildest extremes of caprice. She saw a dazzling kaleidoscope of flowery colors. Mosaic patterns drifted on a nebula of fog light. Oozes of emerald and diamond scattered in mazy contortions. Ayuda saw hieroglyphs written in neon hues along the walls. The substance of the shop melted into stained-glass gossamer gauzed over a distant tableau of imagery. The images receded in a fleeting flurry. All was lost to reverie.
“It’s all shadows and reflections in here,” the shopkeeper said from somewhere out of sight.A whirlwind of phantasms orbited dizzyingly around her like a magic lantern. Roseate pink and crimson clouds spread in exaggerated enormities. Shadows expanded and blanketed over the queer collection heaped up around her. Skull faces popped out of dark corners and glowed mischieviously for but a moment before vanishing. Through the mystical lens of the glasses, she saw the place frenzied in the disorder of an occult spell. Then a raven death-shroud of shadows draped over her and all the lights faded into obscurity.“I see nothing but darkness now,” Ayuda said. Ayuda heard the Chinese man whisper cryptically, “The more there is of it, the less you can see.”“The more there is of what?”“Darkness.”Amidst the pandemonium cloud raging around her, Ayuda removed the glasses. Instantly the shadowy mass fled and the shape-shifting storm dissipated at once. In a dreamlike transition, the particulars of the shop reemerged with faultless clarity.She turned back to the old shopkeeper. A sybilline flame flashed from his eyes like a torch. He motioned for Ayuda to step closer to the counter as he walked around to the other side. Ayuda noticed the sickly green wax skull resting on the top with a candle placed inside it. The scarlet flame danced inside and exhaled streams of vapory embers through the hollow eye-sockets. Something in the lurid glow of the skull’s eyes pierced Ayuda with the venomous tincture of a nightmare.Behind the counter Ayuda looked at old dusty shelves littered in cobwebs where bottles and vials in all shapes and sizes were stored. It was like an alchemist’s stockpile of philters and potions. Pungent incense burned in swaths of fumes that swelled over little gilded Chinese dragons and lion sentinels. She saw that some of the bottles contained bright green, syrupy soda-like liquids frothing with bubbles alongside black flasks marked with the gloomy warnings of skull and crossbones that suggested the contents of poison inside. She noticed one bottle that sparkled with what appeared to be a liquid gold elixir hermetically sealed inside the brilliant Venetian glass.The shopkeeper presented to Ayuda the splendor of a sacred object christened in pure gold. It was a golden bull. There was something beyond words about it, something so remarkable, wondrous, and intoxicating. It coruscated fantastically, blazing rays of gold outward like a heavenly aura. Something in that fiery gold halo worked a power over Ayuda, excited an insatiable urge within her bosom that had no direction and no material end.“Doesn’t the magical glint of its precious coating simply tantalize you?” The shopkeeper asked with a wry grin while he took a deep drag from his pipe and then exhaled a large balloon of fumes. The smoke concentrated into the shape of a freakish death-head for a moment that glowered at Ayuda with sinister eyes before it diffused into nothingness.The frightening mirage only exacerbated the furnace blistering through Ayuda’s chest. It spread all over her blood-stream like a wildfire. Ayuda tried to ignore it, tried to subdue the pulsing ferment—but the force was unyielding. She could feel her temperature rising feverishly. Hysteria set her blood aflame. Something in the golden bull was driving her positively out of her wits. She jolted her head away, almost with panic. The shopkeeper could easily recognize the aching onslaught his golden bull unleashed in her.He whispered somewhat devilishly to her, “It says, ‘I drive men mad for love of me, easily beaten, never free.’”“What are you talking about?” Ayuda asked saucily.“Gold.”Ayuda glanced at the shopkeeper with bewildered eyes. She tried to ignore the bull. The grip that its magnetic luster exerted on her began to drive frightening thoughts into her mind. She looked around at the other random baubles in the store’s collection of anomalies. “All that glisters is not gold... This here is by far my most precious goldie in the shop. It has a certain—allure that is unfathomably captivating and impossible to escape.”“What is a goldie?” Ayuda asked with annoyance.“Why, there are goldies and there are manjies. They are the two distinct kinds of precious objects within the treasure trove of my shop. They have all been molded with perfection and whittled into the most majestic jewels. Look around you.”The shopkeeper pointed behind him to the rows of shelves towering over them on the gigantic display cases. A profusion of riches fluoresced in enchanting crystal-light and ethereal colors like a hoard of Christmas tree ornaments. There were glittering gold-encrusted eggs, moon-faced orbs of sterling silver, scarabs of jade, roses and carnations carved out of rubies and diamonds, along with amulets, pendants, crowns, scepters, and rings forged out of priceless minerals in the most brilliant rainbow-hues.A sonorous rapture of music took sudden possession of Ayuda. She realized it was music that chimed from a quaint and intricate cuckoo clock on the wall. A gold mechanical-bird on the clock crooned away in a strange rhapsody by a decorated window inside the archaic clock face. The music severed her senses from the yoke of the golden bull’s curse. The cuckoo clock was richly festooned with the elements of a whimsical woodland. The miniature figure of a deer’s head with large antlers hung over the intricate gilded-metallic clock-face. The numbers of the clock were very fancifully designed, flanked by detailed oak fixtures of cherubs crowning Time. Ayuda quivered with a most enchanting impression as she looked at the clock. The marvel she felt then leaped beyond bounds as the gold bird warbled the song of the hour. With that, a league of miniature characters waltzed out of the tiny doors of the cuckoo clock. Ayuda saw a most quaint little troupe. First there were the little centaurs and nymphs who pranced out with vivacious charm. Then a group of forest animals followed behind with what seemed to be a somber and ceremonial aplomb. Alas the song of the bird descended into a brooding elegy. Ayuda heard weird echoes. The forest animals had assembled in a funeral march—apparently the funeral of a hunter whose golden coffin they carried. The coffin glistened beside a pair of deer and a bulky, brown bear with a round honey-yellow snout. The bear grunted in strange sounds like “Agin gin gin gin...” A final, solitary figure slowly treaded behind the procession around the clock: a figure of grim Death carrying his scythe.Ayuda swerved her eyes away from the funereal figure and looked exclusively at the face of the clock. The shopkeeper uttered slyly, “Until I am measured I am not known, yet how you miss me when I have flown.”“Huh?” Ayuda stammered, now with an audible annoyance in her tone.“Why, Time, of course. The riddle of Time.”“Oh geez,” Ayuda muttered as she rolled her eyes, fed up with the shopkeeper’s arcane antics. She walked away from the cuckoo clock and noticed a small, confined section of the shop where a row of masks were emblazoned along the wall. A befuddling array of faces stared at her with all kinds of bizarre expressions from the sunken eyes to the mischievous grins to the sour grimaces to the outrageous and the terrifying. She saw Mardi Gras masks smothered in glitter, elongated bird-beaked faces, kabuki and samurai masks, masks of the Chinese opera, golden burial masks of Egyptian sarcophagi and a lone death-head mask. Ayuda detected something dark, something shrouded in mystery that wafted from the waxen faces. Something in it induced a subliminal reaction that Ayuda wasn’t sure how to decipher. It slowly crept through her as a faceless figment of terror.“These are freaky masks,” Ayuda mumbled.“Would you like to try one on?” the shopkeeper asked, breaking into an inscrutable smile.“Hell no nigga!” Ayuda answered with certain revulsion.The shopkeeper chuckled lightly to himself and then proceeded to lift one of the Chinese opera masks off the wall. He flashed it in front of Ayuda’s face. The mask had a bright coating of red with black stripes. Most striking of all were its curving demonic eyes. “Like everything else in this shop, the masks hold their own secrets. Allow me.”He placed the mask over his face. Ayuda stepped back, reluctant and yet curious at the same time to see whatever spectacle may unfold. The mask seemed to tighten over and completely envelop the shopkeeper’s countenance with its own magical power. A fiery glare began to churn from the paint on the mask. The shopkeeper froze stiffly, as though in a trance. Suddenly the shopkeeper began to convulse, seized by some unnatural force. He shrieked in a voice that was not at all like the one he had before, but entirely altered. “Uranus! Uranus! I hear you inside me. Don’t destroy me master!” Then he began droning in some disconnected garble. The delirious tone of the man that suggested his faculties had been abruptly unstrung and overthrown by some inexplicable power—the very same power which he channeled through his transformed voice.Ayuda flipped out and began to flee for the door. Yet suddenly her attention was distracted by the sickly slivers of candlelight that limped through the air from the waxen skull head. The candlelight pointed her in the direction of a disorienting spiral staircase. At first it had the impossible look of a Penrose staircase looping continuously without ever rising. As the candlelight brightened and Ayuda focused closer, her perspective or perhaps the staircase itself seemed to shift dramatically. The stairs winded upward in a dizzying and twisting ascent, leading into foggy gloom.Meanwhile the shopkeeper managed to remove the freakish mask from his face and break free of his raving hypnosis. He came to Ayuda’s side, finding her dazed in bewilderment over the mysterious stairway.All Ayuda’s thoughts of her previous shock had been eclipsed by the new marvel. She asked, “Where do these stairs go?”“Um, nowhere,” the shopkeeper answered with a stutter.“What do you mean—nowhere?”“I mean… nothing. There’s nothing up there!”“What do you mean, nothing?”“I mean… it’s my private room. No one is allowed up there.”Ayuda stared closely at the shopkeeper, baffled and speechless at the mounting bizarrerie of him and his shop, which seemed to have no bounds.He gently veered her away from the stairs with his hand and directed her to an antique mirror encompassed by an ornate frame of vermeil, densely wrought with cherubs, stars, and the sun and moon personified. “Look carefully into this mirror. It has many secrets stored inside. Beware the visions it may reveal, it may trick you and rob you of your soul.”The glass rippled with a spiraling vortex in a vision so fleeting that to Ayuda’s eye may have appeared imaginary. A deep voice resonated from the mirror.“You saw me where I never was and where I could not be. And yet within that very place, my face you often see.”The shopkeeper heard a muttered reply from Ayuda. “Enough with the damn riddles already.”“It’s your reflection, of course,” the shopkeeper said from behind her.Womp womp… Ayuda thought to herself. She saw her reflection slant and zigzag in a completely preposterous fashion. Then she watched the face of her reflection twist and squirm and then burst into obscene laughter. Ayuda nearly turned away with shock at the hideous perversion of her image. Her reflection magnified and diminished in ridiculous proportions. A portal seemed to open up from the vortex inside the glass. She stared with increasing attentiveness into the mirror-world. A sequence of apparitions floated around in a tunnel-like tomb of shades. They burgeoned and crowded together into an incoherent twilight mass. At one moment she saw something radiant with silver moonlight against an ashen backdrop. Then in the next moment the pale slivers vanished and the world behind the glass descended into a gulf, all dingy and subterranean. An opaque passageway loomed under sickly yellow candle-light from somewhere unseen. It snaked around in multiple curves and loops like an interminable labyrinth.In a foreboding voice he said, “The spirits within that mirror will devour your soul if you follow them. If you cross into that dimension you will be lost in the labyrinth forever. It is absolutely impossible to escape.” The darkness intensified and then out of its dense outgrowth a monstrous immensity cropped up. Ayuda faced in the mirror the macabre specter of the skull-headed grim reaper. It swung a scythe over its head and glared at her with sulfurous malice in his eyes. A numinous source of light emerged below the giant skull which soon revealed itself as a pile of gold coins. Ayuda went pale with fright and shrunk away from the glass. She could stomach no more of its infernal illusions.“The realm within the mirror harbors many of its own hobgoblins and bogeys. Don’t be deluded by the mists you see behind the glass of the mystical mirror. The ether of illusions can often be more fatal than the matter of reality.”The smoking chaos inside the mirror at last vanished into a pitch-black void. Ayuda was left staring back at her reflection which now looked oddly proportioned. “Indeed,” she muttered.Then the shopkeeper showed Ayuda his vast and colorful assortment of dolls. They were all flamboyantly designed with a diverse array of costumes and personalities, from the gorgeously royal to the hideously grotesque. There were nutcrackers and tin-soldiers. There was a droll trio of black gorillas with yellow faces. One of them covered his ears, the other covered his eyes, and the other covered his mouth. The most beautiful of all the dolls was without question the snow-princess. Her crystalline polish and sterling silver-white dress shimmered magically like starlight. The shopkeeper lifted up a zanily-garbed marionette and set him on the counter. The marionette had the likeness of a jester or a harlequin from the Italian theatre.Something in the feverish eyes and demented clownish expression of the marionette carried traces of the demonic. It stirred up a little feeling of disturbance in Ayuda.“This is none other than Arlecchino. He is my finest creation in the shop. My own craftsmanship that went into him is unparalleled. Not to mention the life-force within it...”
With those words, Ayuda watched as the Arlecchino marionette vibrated into full-fledged animation, inexplicably fermented at once with a surge of vitality. He came upon the snow-princess doll, his eyes burning with desire and his features riveted in a craze. He tried to seize her with his long wooden arms. She screamed and dodged him. Then she tried to bolt away, but he overtook her with fury. He steered her aggressively against the glass-surface of the china cupboard behind the counter. Arlecchino’s eyes sizzled with flames and a wicked smile crossed his face as the snow-princess began sinking helplessly.Ayuda noticed as the snowman doll she had seen earlier crept up to the counter. He was wearing a black theatre mask over his eyes with a protruding pointy nose. One of his eyes seemed to be pushed in. Trying to be stealthy, he snuck up behind Arlecchino. “The snowman... Clever one he is, and pure in heart. He fancies himself like a little Petrushka... Thinks he’s gonna play hero and rescue the snow princess.”“Angung ung angung!” the snowman cried out in attack-mode as he began beating Arlecchino with his little fists. Arlecchino snarled like a fiendish beast in response and fought back with rage against this interfering defender of the princess. He knocked the mask off from the snowman’s face. The snowman’s eye pushed in deeper and he punched Arlecchino hard in the face and yelled angrily, “Angung wangung fangung!”Arlecchino threw open the glass door of the cupboard and leaped inside. A moment later he jumped back out brandishing a courtly sword. He swung at the snowman but the snowman dodged and rolled across the floor. Arlecchino lunged forward and grabbed the snowman’s tag hanging from his bulbous buns. He yanked it violently and the snowman’s face wrinkled up as he let out a bellowing roar. “Imalow!!!” The snowman then howled like a poor puppy and turned quickly and bit Arlecchino’s hand like a rabid dog.The snowman floated up into the cupboard accompanied by a soft humming tune. He took a saber from inside and then vaulted back down and faced his adversary. “En garde sthutipid!” he yelled with his eye pushed further in. They began striking at each other and clashing the blades of their swords. The battle accelerated with ferocious heat and clamor. The snow princess watched from aside and Ayuda watched from above with complete disbelief at such a spectacle. Snowman cut Arlecchino with the sword and then wrenched his away from him. He then let out a fierce “Imalow!” and kicked him over the edge of the counter. The wooden marionette broke into several pieces on the floor.The snowman swung his arms in a brief gloating of triumph and then turned to the snow-princess. She was mesmerized by his tremendous display of valor. The snowman bounced gallantly over to her and took her hand. He placed a little peck on it and then gave a gracious bow. “Hangung tung wungung fungung,” he explained. She blushed and bashfully looked away for a moment. Her eyes then bulged with disbelief at something she saw.First the snow-princess saw it. Then the snowman. Then Ayuda. Something suddenly altered the entire ambiance of the shop. Vapors of bluish and violet light flooded the air. The skull candle on the counter seemed to be shrieking in laughter—diabolical laughter that echoed all around in thundering peals. As the blue and violet tempest of darkness conglomerated wildly around Ayuda, she detected a singular stream of magical light that pierced through the web of shade. It was a light of gold, pure and radiant gold.The mysterious gold-plated bull had suddenly appeared on the counter near them. Its surface of pure gold flashed so intensely and wondrously. Something about it gave rise to a vibrant wave that swarmed through the air. Ayuda heard the weird echoes again that she’d been hearing intermittently during the length of her visit. Now it seemed to trickle around her within a force field of powerfully magnetic suction. The wellspring of the inescapable energy could be nothing other than the golden bull. Every current in the air seemed to circulate directly from its brilliant nimbus of light. Ayuda sunk into a senseless spell, lost in the intoxicating lure of the bovine forged in gold.She snatched it up from the counter. She was starry-eyed with wonder as she leered over it. It fed her with a maddening paroxysm of delights that scorched through her blood in a violent fever. She had the hysterical illusions of King Midas, the power of gold had swept her into its snare and overpowered her. “It’s mine!” she screamed and then burst into ridiculous laughter. “BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It’s all mine!!!”The snowman’s white face grew paler. He shook his head and let out a number of protesting wails. “Angung wangung! No, you mustn’t! Bewawe da gwaven image of da bull! It’s gold wiww miswead you into a bottomwess pit—oowaaa!!!”Ayuda paid no attention. She was entirely enrapt by the fiery storm that engulfed her as the golden bull burned in her hands. She didn’t even notice when a long shadow fell over her. It was the shadow of the shopkeeper. His eyes glowered with a dark fury and his face had stiffened into a severe grimace.“What do you think you are doing little miss with my golden bull? With my precious golden bull?!” The booming snarl in his voice ruptured the net over Ayuda’s entranced faculties. She looked up and saw the shopkeeper reared over her, his eyes screwed into an implacable scowl. Ayuda receded from him, keeping her clutches tightly pressed around the golden bull.The shopkeeper advanced toward her threateningly, his eyes brooding with hostility. He had cornered her behind the counter and was beginning to raise his arm over her before his motion slowed down abruptly to a grinding halt. Like a robot running on battery he completely lost motive power. His eyes, while remaining open, drained of their vitality and his expression stagnated into lifelessness. It was a disturbing and unnatural sight that left Ayuda utterly more confounded than before. Nothing added up at all here.“Angung wangung!” the snowman pouted with horror.Ayuda felt the molten heat of the bull in her hand surge with power. The flaming bull seared through her hand and then leaped from her, electrified with a life force of its own. Once on the ground, the lustrous aura around the bull magnified into an enormous blaze of gold light. Then the bull, now animated, charged up the lone stairway.Ayuda hesitated for a moment. But the power the gold touch incited within her was exceedingly great. Ayuda rushed after the bull as it began climbing up the stairs. The snowman, feeling obliged to protect the visitor, threw a knight’s helmet on and picked the sword back up. Then he followed behind her at a short distance. “Da bull is like da minotaur! It will eat you awive! Angung angung!” the snowman cried to Ayuda with obvious panic. She didn’t seem to listen or to pay him any mind at all.Ayuda’s vision warped on all sides as she rounded up the stairs. Shadowy spaces compressed and condensed. Ghostly shapes oozed out among a cloudburst of swirling pastel-colors. The atmosphere zoomed in and out of focus. A witch’s brew of vagaries stormed all around in a helter-skelter torrent. It was a phantasmagoric topsy-turvy of holograms and shadows, churning out in all kinds of unimaginable figments. Ayuda was blown away by the colossal scale of distortions. The stairway shifted and shifted, seeming to unravel a series of alternate dimensions. Ayuda found herself in a monstrous painting of the Inferno’s ninth circle or a hyperactive nightmare house of horrors. She thought for a moment that she was crossing a dismal and desolate valley flanked by looming shadows forms. Spectral colors flickered around her in pale, gauzy candlelight that heightened the eeriness of the aura. Holographic behemoths of hornets and scorpions propagated and dissipated in all directions. Ayuda heard a rumbling dissonance—echoes of dire portent. She saw through a dense wilderness of shadows and cobwebs a line of skeletons hanging on a dungeon wall. These were all grotesque projections cast from some unknown machinery, stretched to the most horrifying extremes.Then the sepulchral illusions evaporated and all was utterly dark. Ayuda at last found herself at the summit of the stairway, surrounded by a cavernous vault of darkness. In front of her stood an imposing door of ebony with a brazen devil-head for the doorknocker and a sinister skull and crossbones emblem displayed over the front like a grim warning to visitors. The golden bull was nowhere to be seen.A malicious voice roared from all around: “Each morning I appear to lie at your feet, all day I will follow no matter how fast you run. Yet I nearly perish in the midday sun.”Ayuda didn’t know what to see. The hollow and sunken eyes of the skull on the door seemed to stare down at her with poisonous evil.“It’s a shadow!” the snowman answered, brandishing his sword with his shining silver knight helmet on his head.The same disembodied voice spoke again, with terrible echoes gurgling from the chasm of space below. “You heard me before, yet you hear me again, then I die, ‘till you call me again.”“Ung, ung, ung...” the snowman stuttered. Then with a burst of epiphany he shouted, “An echo!”The voice spoke once again, this time with an even more resounding tremor. “It is greater than God, worse than the devil and if you consume it, you shall die.”After a moment of silence, Ayuda stammered out the answer, “It’s nothing! Nothing!”A blast of wind suffused over Ayuda and the snowman, conjuring up little ghostly glows of candlelight that quickly disappeared. Then all was silent—ominously silent.After a few moments of unbreakable silence the door swung open on its open. Ayuda saw inside what appeared to be a small lair illuminated by sickly yellow candlelight. A tall hour-glass stood upon a wooden table filled with violet-silver sands with pillars on the side encrusted in demonic faces. There was a most peculiar man standing there, gazing at Ayuda with a devious smile. He wore a large black top hat, a purple cape decorated with moons, stars, and suns, a black tuxedo, and he held a tall cane topped by a silver crescent. He had a curling mustache and long, dark grey beard that tapered into a devilish point under his chin. His sallow eyes seethed with embers.“It’s Uranus the magician!” the snowman uttered.Uranus threw his head back and cackled malevolently. Then he furrowed his brow and fixed his eyes straight on Ayuda. “Is it gold-lust that brings you to my chamber? The sacred gold has fired up your blood? Hehee. Have a look yourself. Seek out the golden Taurus...”Ayuda looked all around the confined and dingy space of the lair. Aside from the table and the forbidding villainous character there did not appear to be anything except shadows and cobwebs. The ghoulish luster of the candle flickered and instilled a more chilling aspect to the bizarre chamber. The magician’s eyes glowed brazenly and his mouth curved into a perverse smile. “Perhaps what you are seeking is in here!” With that he threw his cape forward with dramatic flourish. After what seemed to be an ephemeral dust-cloud scattering away from the shadows, Ayuda saw that in the spot divulged by the magician’s cape was a giant chest of gold.The chest had an immaculate polish that shimmered in rays. The latch was a little hour-glass emblem with two scythe levers attached to it. Ayuda gravitated toward it, in awe of its radiance. The snowman followed behind her, lifting the faceguard of his helmet.Uranus snickered and then sneered at Ayuda, “Why don’t you slake that burning desire of yours? Take a peek inside that chest; glorify your eyes with the heaps of treasure stored within...” The tone of the magician’s voice did little to disguise the malice of his character.Ayuda lifted the two little scythe levers and threw open the heavy lid of the chest. A fiery emanation of gold light burst into the air and then scattered into the shadows. The sinister echoes and disturbing vibrations started up again and rattled from the dreary background.Ayuda saw inside the chest that there was nothing but some rusted gold coins and a single skull. The chest contained nothing more than emptiness and vanity. A thin wisp of golden light issued through the cavities of the skull’s eyes. Then it died off into the oppressive shadows lurking within-- the shadows of a void.“Oh dang,” Ayuda muttered in disappointment.The magician chuckled and hissed wickedly. “All that glisters is not gold,” he said with a twisted grin. “Often have you heard that told, many a man his life hath sold, but by my outside to behold, gilded tombs do worms enfold, had you been as wise as bold... Alas little miss, your hope is now cold.” His eyes then flashed with scarlet seething embers and he took an advancing step toward Ayuda, raising his cane like a weapon.“Angung angung!” the snowman moaned, staggering backwards. A looming shadow fell over the snowman’s white fluffy expression. It was too late before he noticed that the magician had entrapped him in a corner. Uranus snatched up the snowman and hurled him into the chest. “Hangung tangung wungung fungung wungung sungung!!!” the snowman screamed. Uranus then slammed the lid down and locked it with a golden key.Now Ayuda was alone against the matchless foe. He hovered over her and blocked her against the wall. He grated his teeth and lowered his face toward her with a self-satisfied look of contempt. He rasped, “What fate will you inherit now in the Shop of Oddities? Shall I stuff you like a doll? Maybe you’d like to be a little princess, hmm? Or perhaps you’d prefer that I dismantle you into separate parts and then piece them all together with wires so you can be another mechanical pawn of mine? Maybe you can be my new singing bird locked in a cage...”“Why don’t you go drink poison you old fogy,” Ayuda retorted insolently, heedless about any further risk she may incur.Uranus grabbed her tightly by the arm and wrested her around aggressively. “How would you like it if I plunge you into a smoldering cauldron? Even better, I would enjoy slowly choking the impudence out of that misfit head of yours by feeding you the vapors of mercury. You can swallow drafts of gas and fumes until you descend into raving madness!” The magician’s baleful eyes now flamed with an intense ferocity.The simpering, sarcastic ways of Ayuda could no longer ward off the trembling spasms of fear. She knew she was doomed.The magician yanked the collar around her neck and snarled, “Well, what will it be? How do you wish to spend your mindless eternity—stuffed as a doll, chirping nonsense as a cuckoo, or running on wheels as one of my mechanical slaves?”“Why don’t you just banish me into nothingness?” Ayuda asked. “Make me disappear or something. I’d rather that than ever be one of your dumb toys.”Uranus’ expression darkened under a thick pall of shadow. His eyes still glowed malignantly. He said in a low and grave voice, “Be careful what you wish for... So be it!”With that he clasped Ayuda’s arm and dragged her out of his lair. Pulling her behind him with unrelenting force, Uranus the magician stormed down the windy staircase. Down, down, down, they climbed together.The dissonance of echoes roared into a crescendo. The cuckoo bird crooned its dirge with unfettered delirium, splitting and sputtering madly through the air. The woodland animals marched around endlessly in their funeral procession, carrying the gilded coffin. The brown bear bellowed with a foreboding “Agin gin gin gin!!!” Cataracts of shadows grew into gigantic towers and menacing skull-like faces multiplied through the darkness.Uranus alighted from the mind-warping stairway and coerced Ayuda back to the mystical mirror. There she faced her distorted reflection once more. This time it was much ghastlier than before as she saw her image now pale with fear. She also saw in it the twisted face of the magician which had now assumed a most diabolical expression. A ghostly tide of mists began to billow up again inside the dark realm behind the glass. She witnessed the strange mirror-realm fall under the siege of nightmarish imagery.“Into the world behind the glass of the mirror you shall be banished forever,” Uranus whispered harshly to Ayuda. “I shall conjure up the vortex that will swallow you and immerse you into the inescapable labyrinth where you will be lost until the end of time. It will be a far worse exile than any nothingness you can imagine, for you will be ceaselessly tormented by riddles without answers-- delusions, illusions, smoke and mists that will twist you around and around the shadow passages without end!!!”As Uranus rang with shrill laughter and wielded his crescent-topped cane before the glass, Ayuda saw the deluge of shadows swell up inside the mirror, devouring the last specks of her reflection. The intense mass of darkness whipped up with monstrous energy, expanding all around and disfiguring the realm inside the mirror into infinite confusion. The labyrinth passages opened up and at the very center the black hole of a void emerged—the voracious vortex that would suck Ayuda into its mind-mangling circuitry...She could feel the powerful force of the vortex pulling at her as Uranus swayed his cane back and forth, commanding the gateway inside the mirror to open. Soon it would be too late for her. She was sweating, shaking and on the verge of tears as she stared into the gaping abyss of her soon-to-be everlasting limbo.Neither Ayuda nor Uranus the magician had noticed the snowman sneaking down the stairway with the golden bull. He had managed to break free from the chest with both his cunning and the power of the bull. He stealthily jumped off the last step, keeping the golden bull carefully wrapped under his arms. One of his eyes was deeply pushed in. He was more determined than ever to rescue Ayuda and save the day. His gaze shot rapidly across the entire Shop of Oddities. He had to quickly muster a scheme that he could pull off.“Open thy gates and receive thy new prisoner!” Uranus shouted before the mirror with deranged excitement. “May she be cast forever into the mouth of the mirror-maze!” Ghost-orbs and haunting trails of light leaped out from the magical glass. The mists and fumes within convulsed, quaked, and eddied into a cataclysmic whirlpool.Angung... Tangung... The snowman thought craftily, his eyes still scanning. He noticed the wax skull-head candle on the shop counter. He looked into the fiery gold eyes of the bull. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck inside his head. Hangung!!!In the next instant the snowman threw the golden bull across the shop with all his might. The bull smacked violently into the skull candle. Immediately an explosion of gold flame ignited and inflated into a massive fireball. The electric surge in the air created a violent collision between the vortex in the mirror and the raging conflagration that belched magic gold sparks in all directions. A riot of combustion spiraled out of control. The scene had all the bombastic illumination and soaring sound-waves of a firework show. From the cuckoo clock wild music chimed away again and the procession of woodland animals began circulating once more.Amidst the meltdown, snowman took a great leap and then a dive. He grabbed Ayuda’s arm and moved her out of the chaos zone that very quickly spread without bounds. A fuming cloud mushroomed up around the magician’s face and he was blinded by it. The snowman gave him a big kick that sent him into the glass of the mirror. “So long sthtupid!” the snowman yelled with baby-like wrath. In the next second the mystical glass shattered. The vortex devoured Uranus. He screamed helplessly as he was whisked away into the monstrous black hole.Then the storm ceased. All the mists and smoke vanished. The realm within the mirror had abruptly been extinguished into a void. There was nothing left of it but the vermeil frame and the broken pieces of glass. The flames from the skull-candle shrunk away in the shadows. The golden bull melted into a puddle of liquid gold; its power had all dissolved.Ayuda collapsed on the ground with the snowman at her side. She breathed heavily with relief. She was so stunned by the spectacular turn of events she could not even move. It took the passing of many long moments before Ayuda was finally able to gather up her senses again amidst the cluttered disarray. She looked up and saw the snowman standing proudly over her with a wide smile across his face.“Hangung tangung wungung fungung mungung tangie wangie woo!” he cried triumphantly. “Oh jeez,” Ayuda murmured, still blown away by the incredibly bizarre sequences that had just occurred. After that she summoned the strength to stand up off the ground again. She breathed another sign of relief and then said to the snowman, “I think I’m ready to get out of this place.” The snowman pointed to himself and said, “Wit me of course, wight?”Ayuda nodded and replied, “Indeed.” The snowman smiled brightly as though he had just been given his favorite ice cream. Ayuda scooped the snowman up off the ground and began heading toward the door.“But wait!” the snowman shouted. “We must bwing the snow pwincess as well.”“Oh yes, the snow princess.” Ayuda and the snowman went back to the counter where the snow princess had been left. She appeared to be in a frozen state of slumber. The snowman jumped down and approached her. The princess quickly revived and looked up at the snowman with rosy delight. She jumped up and laid a wet kiss on his cheek.“My hero!” she yelled. The snowman blushed, smiled and kicked his little foot around on the ground.“Wella, wella, hangung, hangung!”After that, Ayuda picked up both the snowman and the snow princess and they all parted from the shop. Ayuda returned happily home with her new plush toys. When her friends later asked about her adventure, Ayuda merely showed them the snowman and the snow princess. They were only things she would share from her strange visit. She never returned to, nor did she ever share any of her secrets of—the Shop of Oddities.