"Excuse me, but are you showing us a real thing, or an illusionary fantasy that you've constructed?" An elderly Huell gentleman asked Paul cautiously.
"I don't have a talent for illusions. I'm just showing off a few of the magic tricks that I've learned." Paul said honestly.
Since he had stopped performing his 'amazing' feats, the few people surrounding him began to turn their attention toward other, more exciting, attractions.
"Who has taught you such things? What mastery is this?" The old man asked seriously.
"Honestly, I take a lot of different magic classes, so there are bits and pieces of all of them here. Along with that, I figured out some things on my own. I'd say that most of what I've been showing off here is a mix of Wizardry and Alchemy." Paul said seriously.
"Alchemy? Can you turn lead into gold?" The old man asked with a mischievous grin.
"No. I'm still a long way from that." Paul immediately answered, then added, "But if gold is what you're looking for, I have a feeling that there are a few places around the carnival that would be happy to help you out with that."
"From what I've heard about this place, I think that you may be right. But such things tend to come at a very dear cost." The elderly man chuckled, then thought to add, "By the way, my name is Tisthmus. I am one of the elders of Castor."
"It's nice to meet you Elder Tisthmus, my name is Paul... at the moment, anyway. If I'm going to be doing things like this very often, I might have to come up with some bizarre new name for myself with lots of R's and K's in it." Paul quietly explained.
"Why would you have to do that?" Elder Tisthmus asked curiously.
"I think a big demony guy like me is supposed to have a rough, growly name." Paul said seriously.
"Perhaps, but if you'd care to hear an outside opinion on the matter, I believe that I'd actually prefer that you had a name that I could both remember and pronounce." Elder Tisthmus said frankly.
"Okay. I guess I can see that. I tell you what, if I do decide to change it, you can still call me Paul."
"Thank you, Paul. I would appreciate that." Elder Tisthmus said with a smile, then leaned forward to confide, "To be honest, I'm here so that I can warn my people away from the dangers of this place."
"That's funny, I think that I'm here to discover the dangers of it." Paul said frankly, then explained, "My dad brought me and my brothers here to experience stuff like this so that when we're out in the world on our own, we'll be able to recognize it for what it is. I think he wants for us to do this when he's around to keep an eye on us and so that he can help us out if we start doing anything monumentally stupid."
"So rather than insulate you from the temptations and snares of this place, he's attempting to teach you and your brothers how to recognize and face such things for yourselves." Elder Tisthmus said speculatively, then added, "I had only been looking at this as a nest of vipers, trying to lure in the innocents for their own enrichment. I didn't consider that it might have value in making our precious and vulnerable innocents slightly less naive."
"Yeah. Dad seems to think that people can't learn to resist temptation if they're never exposed to it. I don't know if he's right about that or not, but I can tell you that this is a lot more fun than being someplace 'safe' and being told about the danger." Paul said honestly.
"Your father sounds like a very wise man." Elder Tisthmus said warmly.
"I think he is. If you want to ask him what he thinks about things, he's right over there, standing beside the stick man." Paul said as he pointed.
"Your father is of the Huell people?" Elder Tisthmus asked curiously.
"No. He just looks like one of your people so that he can do his job helping out the carnival. I really don't know exactly what he does, but I'm guessing it'd be harder for him to do it if he looked different from everyone around him." Paul said seriously.
"But still, he brought you here to perform?" Elder Tisthmus asked in a leading tone.
"Where we're from, we're not allowed to show off our magic in public except when we're around the right people and even then, only on special occasions. Dad brought us here and said that we can perform if we want to. But we can stop and enjoy the carnival whenever we feel like it, too." Paul explained.
"Show me again, what you were doing before." Elder Tisthmus said with interest.
"I was just playing around with some simple states of matter. This time, why don't I show you some of my better tricks?" Paul asked as he made a vaguely circular motion with one hand. As he did, a spell diagram formed on the ground between them.
"Is this a manifestation of the Wizard's Light spell?" Elder Tisthmus asked curiously.
"Yes. It's one of the first things that I learned how to do. I just made a few changes to it to make it useful in other spellings." Paul said before making a few short, precise gestures.
Elder Tisthmus watched with interest as four little flames sparked into being around the diagram.
"I didn't realize when you were doing that before that the flames had a use beyond the novelty of them." Elder Tisthmus admitted.
"Yeah. No one told me that I couldn't use them instead of candles, so I did. Everyone seemed really surprised when it worked." Paul said as he made a twisting gesture with one hand and one of the flames became a gurgling fountain.
"I saw you do that earlier. That's very interesting. I don't think I've seen anyone else do that." Elder Tisthmus said, this time in slow concentration.
"Yeah. It's another thing I did because I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be able to." Paul said seriously, then did a quick tweaking motion, causing another of the flames to twist itself into a tiny misty tornado.
"I think I can see what you're doing, although I can't see the usefulness in it." Elder Tisthmus said frankly.
"Not everything has a use. Some things just are." Paul said simply.
"Have you found a use for these strange manipulations of yours?" Elder Tisthmus asked curiously.
"Hold on." Paul said as he made an obviously uncomfortable gesture.
When he did so, one of the two remaining flames suddenly seemed to freeze in place and change from a flickering yellow-red flame into a shiny red crystal, sparkling with the light from the remaining flame glistening in it.
"For someone who knows nothing about magic, this probably wouldn't look like much. But someone who has an idea about spell dynamics and how to power them could probably see a way to use these in just about every spell." Paul explained.
"The four elements, yes. I can barely contemplate how having such custom-tailored elements to work with would impact the spell you're casting." Elder Tisthmus said in concentration as he watched.
"Well, to be honest, I haven't really tried to do much more than a healing charm with them. But I have a feeling that I'm going to be discovering all kinds of new ways to use the elemental flames. In fact, I just thought of something to try. It doesn't use all the elements, but this might actually be a better demonstration. For this wizardry I'll just use flames of water and air." Paul said frankly.
"Aren't most wizardries based in fire?" Elder Tisthmus asked cautiously.
"Yes. But not automatically using fire allows me to bypass some of fire's restrictions and use a lot fewer spell components to achieve the same result." Paul said seriously.
Paul slowly raised his hands and caused the circle on the ground to rise up on a pillar about two feet tall.
"This, what you're doing, goes far beyond the mastery of my people." Elder Tisthmus said as he took a step back.
"This is just sparkle and flash. It's not much more than Wizard's lights and basic magic put together to look like something impressive." Paul said simply.
Elder Tisthmus cautiously stood forward and touched the pillar before saying, "You've either created stone or drawn it up from deep underground. Either way, it's a skill my people would have to work for years to develop."
"Actually, this isn't stone, it's air. I've just turned it solid for a few minutes and made it look like stone. As soon as I stop feeding it magic, it will go back to being regular air again." Paul carefully explained.
"Still, it's very impressive." Elder Tisthmus said seriously.
"Do you think so? Let's see what you think of this." Paul said with a grin as the four-sided spell diagram reformed itself into a seven-pointed star inside a circle. Some of the points of the star had wind 'flames' and others had water.
"What type of spell design is this? I don't recall seeing anything like it before." Elder Tisthmus slowly asked.
"That's probably because I just made it up. I got this idea of something that I'd like to try, and I came up with this to see if I could make it work." Paul admitted.
"To my knowledge of such things, it is a rarity when a practitioner of the arts has an opportunity to experiment and develop new spells. Most work to increase their knowledge and power with spells that have already been written." Elder Tisthmus said frankly.
"Yeah. I've noticed the same thing back home. People are afraid of taking chances and of discovering new things. They're happy enough 'exploring' what's already been created and everybody already knows is safe." Paul said frankly.
"I would have to say that your people and mine seem to have that in common." Elder Tisthmus grudgingly admitted.
"Let's pour some magic into this thing and see what it does." Paul said with a grin as he turned his attention to the low pillar between them.
"Wind and water, lend your essence to this, my spell. Give us sight beyond sight. Allow us to transcend barriers and see into forbidden places. That which permeates all and that which is omnipresent, grant unto us the gift of omniscient gaze." Paul said dramatically while performing high-level hand manipulations to craft and guide the magic far beyond the scope of his words.
"What have you done here?" Elder Tisthmus cautiously asked as fog formed over the spell diagram.
As the fog began to clear, an intricate labyrinthine structure was revealed beneath. It appeared to be delicate and incredibly detailed, but at the first sign of movement within the maze, the true wonder of Paul's spell became apparent.
"I created a bird's eye view of the carnival. That part's actually not too hard to do, but after that, I made it so that we could see through roofs and see where all the people are and what they're doing inside the different tents and buildings. Don't worry about their privacy, they're too small for us to see who's who or exactly what they're doing." Paul said seriously.
"Is this some sort of augury?" Elder Tisthmus asked uncertainly.
"I guess there could be an augury like this. At least, I don't know of any reason why there couldn't be. But the way I made it, this is actually a deep Wizardry." Paul said frankly, then explained, "Using my 'elemental flames' makes it so I don't need a ton of supplies to manipulate the magical forces feeding the spell."
"Yes. I believe I can see how that works. But this spell... what do you call it?" Elder Tisthmus asked uncertainly as he looked at the tiny representation of the carnival.
"It doesn't have a name. I kind of came up with it on the fly. I think I'll call it the 'Oculus Supra' until I can come up with something better."
"I can't deny that your Oculus Supra has the potential to be useful. But witnessing you create a new spell has been incredibly informative and inspirational for me. I would very much like to be able to share this experience with the young practitioners among my people." Elder Tisthmus said honestly.
"I never really thought about me inspiring anyone. I got a late start with magic, so I always feel like I'm trying to catch up." Paul quietly admitted.
"I can't speak for your people, but among the Huell, I feel safe in assuring you that you are caught up." Elder Tisthmus said warmly.
"Even though I can do some flashy things to impress people, I know that I still have a lot to learn." Paul said sincerely.
"Perhaps, but it is my hope that in your learning, you don't lose the sense of wonder and enthusiasm that drives you to try new things." Elder Tisthmus said seriously.
"Yeah, I guess I can see how that could happen, but fortunately I ended up in a pretty good place. I've got people around me who encourage me to do great things. But those same people will also tell me when I'm being too uptight and when my jokes aren't funny. I think I'm right where I need to be. I'll be alright." Paul assured him.
* * * * *
"Ready for a break?" Grief asked G casually.
"I don't know if I should. After seeing the way you put on a show, I feel like I have too much to learn to be goofing off. I need to step up my game." G said honestly.
"You're doing fine. You're exactly where you should be at this stage of your life. Just follow the mood of the crowd and see to it that everyone is having a good time. If you can manage to do that much, you'll already be matching my goal, you'll just be going about it your own way." Grief called to G before performing a complicated move with his top hat and umbrella which was dignified, elaborate, and ended up being absolutely charming.
G looked around the crowd that had gathered and thought about what it was that they really wanted to see. He had the ability to make any number of things appear before them, looking completely real... But the people surrounding them weren't looking for reality. They were there to indulge their taste for fantasy. Their hunger was for something that they couldn't get in their day-to-day lives.
"How about this? I'll make a move and you see if you can match it and maybe even improve on it. We can do that for a while and see where it takes us." Grief said a bit manically.
"Okay. But just so you know, I can do high sorcery and channel an extreme amount of elemental air. I can't promise that I won't overreact if I'm pushed too far." G cautioned him.
"It's all in good fun. We should be fine. Don't do anything to endanger our audience and don't expect me to copy you exactly. If I can't do something identical, then I'll try to do something equivalent." Grief said as he flipped his top hat high into the air and easily caught it on top of his head.
Seeing that they had begun, G quickly visualized a simple fedora in his hands, then gave it the most rudimentary level of rigging and physics. When he flipped it into the air, he had complete control over it and it landed exactly where he wanted it to.
Several of the Huell applauded G's successful completion of the challenge. Others gathered around with interest to watch.
Seeing that G had matched him, Grief casually flipped his top hat into the air slightly ahead of him, then fell into a quick tumble. When he rolled back to his feet, he easily caught the top hat and put it back on his head.
"Excuse me, Mah Zah, but I've been challenged. I'm sure you understand." G said with his clownish smirk excessively evident.
In response, Mah Zah climbed down G's body and settled into a spot a few feet away from him.
The wall of Huell spectators backed away from her, more out of fear than respect.
Mah Zah was satisfied with their choice as she watched her chosen companion, the mate of her sworn charge, defending his honor.
G mimicked Grief's throw of the hat and tumble, move for move, then once he was back on his feet with his hat on his head, he took hold of his hat and threw it high into the air, this time slightly behind him and as he did, he fell into a backward tumble. He easily sprang back to his feet and caught his hat in one lithe move.
The spectators voiced their approval of the move, along with their belief that G had successfully 'one-upped' Grief in their competition.
Grief got a determined look, then picked up his closed umbrella and dramatically thrust the tip of it into the ground.
As Grief walked around in a circle, keeping the tip of the umbrella in place, trace images of him seemed to be following him, lagging a step behind.
In the end, there were four identical instances of Grief moving in the perfect synchronization of a rhythmic dance in a circle.
G's first instinct was to duplicate Grief's performance, move for move. He knew without a doubt that he could recreate it easily enough. But before he could go so far as to cast his spell, he realized that he was capable of doing one better.
With a little of the dramatic flourish that his clownish appearance demanded, G crafted a creature on the fly. Taking more than a little inspiration from Mah Zah, he made a big fluffy spider, but rather than being an exact duplicate of her, his creation also had large leathery bat wings, not unlike Mah Zah in another of her incarnations.
As soon as the minimally crafted and rigged figure was complete, G set it loose on a direct course to attack one of Grief's reflections.
The mechanics of the constructs was such that when the flying spider made contact with the reflection, the minimally constructed clone collapsed in upon itself.
"Hey! I thought you were going to copy me!" Grief said playfully.
"You don't win the race by following. To have a chance at winning you have to get a step ahead." G said as he directed his winged spider to attack the next reflection clone of Grief.
As the second clone burst like a soap bubble, Grief drew up his umbrella and quickly opened it.
As soon as the umbrella lost contact with the ground, the last clone faded away, his spell having been broken.
When the open umbrella dropped to the ground, Grief was nowhere to be seen.
"Invisibility? That's a pretty good trick. You'll have to teach it to me one of these days." G said, sounding properly impressed.
Before anyone could think that G was admitting defeat, the winged version of Mah Zah began flying low over the clearing and spewing forth a fine mist of webbing.
It took a moment, but enough of the webbing finally gathered to identify where the invisible person was hiding.
"I see you." G said with his actual smirk being outrageously amplified by his clown makeup.
"I didn't think you'd be able to improvise like that. Most kids your age can't do anything that they weren't taught in a class." Grief said frankly as he stood.
"Yeah. Well, you can thank Dad for that; he sent me to a really good school. I've learned about reacting to unexpected attacks for years in my gym class. Besides that, I've also had a few work-study adventures that have helped me to think even further outside the box." G said proudly.
"What do you say we give these nice folks a spectacular show-stopper, then take a few minutes to talk?" Grief asked hopefully.
"Sure. What did you have in mind?" G asked curiously.
"In case you hadn't made the association, I have a great appreciation for the debonair silver screen stars of ages past, not just the comedians, but also the romantic leads." Grief said honestly.
"I really didn't have any clue what you were trying to do. I could see that you're cool and have a lot of style, but I didn't know what the style was." G hesitantly admitted.
"That's okay. The Huell don't even know what movies are. I'm used to people not getting it. I just wanted to tell you so that I could explain why I would like for us to do a big musical number to close out our first performance together."
"I get the general idea of what you're saying, but I've never really watched those kinds of movies. I probably wouldn't be able to do a very good job of recreating one." G said hesitantly.
"From what I've just seen, you'll do fine contributing whatever you can think of." Grief said confidently.
"What are you planning to do for music?" G asked uncertainly.
"I know a few tricks, but before we do that, do you have any musical talents?"
"I can play the calliope."
"You don't happen to have one on you, do you?" Grief asked cautiously.
G smiled maniacally, both physically and via his clown make-up, then he made a show of pulling a small, folded piece of paper out of his pocket.
When he flipped it out on the ground, it unfolded dozens of times to finally reveal a full-sized calliope.
"We definitely need to talk." Grief said with a grin, then doing much as G had done, he pulled an entire wearable drum kit out of some unknown orifice and was somehow wearing it in less than two seconds.
"Any requests?" G asked as he placed his fingers on the illusionary keys of his calliope.
"Just play." Grief said as he spun his drumsticks in preparation.
G started playing a melody that was more of a dirge than what one would think of as 'carnival' music.
It took a moment for Grief to understand what he was doing, but soon enough he was able to pick up G's beat.
The swimming melody of the calliope didn't take all of G's attention, so once he was comfortable and somewhat confident in what he was doing, he started manifesting all manner of little creatures to whiz and scurry around in time to the music.
At one point, G was surprised to see some strange small animals and insects that weren't his creations. When he glanced at Grief with question, he understood that Grief was adding his own contribution to their performance.
G gave Grief a significant nod, then brought his song into its final refrain.
Grief caught onto what he was doing and changed the timbre of his drumming, making it somehow more vibrant, yet also more chilling.
When G's final note faded to silence, the calliope and all their other creations simultaneously vanished.
In the end, Grief and G were standing before their audience, awaiting their reactions.
As they waited for some sort of applause or other acknowledgement, all they received was a vast ocean of blank stares.
G was the first to catch on to the fact that none of the Huell were looking at them. It seemed that the entire crowd was looking past them.
When G turned, he was pleased to see a familiar young unicorn looking back at him.
"How are things going, Lex?" G asked with a grin, aware that they had an enormous audience watching their every move.
The unicorn's shape shifted quickly and easily into the unicorn centaur form of Lex.
"Lucky and I saw you two doing something over here and wanted to check it out." Lex said happily.
As Lex was talking, Lucky approached in his Pegasus form, followed by a respectable number of Huell children.
"We just finished, but we could probably do an encore performance if you really wanted to see what we were doing." G cautiously offered.
Lucky also transformed, then turned to face his Huell followers and asked, "Do you want them to do some more so we can see it?"
A resounding cheer erupted, not only from those who had been following Lex and Lucky, but also the group that had been watching G and Grief.
"Do you want to?" G asked Grief cautiously.
"One of the keys of showmanship is to give the people what they want." Grief said with a smile.
"Okay. But I think that this time, Lex and Lucky should help us out." G said with a smile at them.
"I don't know how to play any music." Lucky cautiously admitted.
"Then dance or sing or do magic. Maybe make a few magic ribbons or scatter some Wizard's lights around, if you feel like it. This is all about doing something that everyone can enjoy." G explained.
"I guess we can do that." Lucky said uncertainly, then looked at Lex quizzically.
"Where are Zephyr and Zah Zah?" G asked cautiously as he looked around.
"I don't think either one of them was having much fun with the kids, so we put them away when we fully transformed." Lex said honestly.
"Zah Zah can come out again when we're someplace less busy. She doesn't like crowds." Lucky helpfully added.
"What do you want to do, Grief? Any ideas?" G asked hopefully.
"You're all witches, right?" Grief asked cautiously.
"Yeah, close enough." G said cautiously, not wanting to explain further.
"Then let's make some magic!" Grief said happily as he started walking away, using his umbrella as a walking stick.
Every time the tip of his umbrella touched the ground, a clone of him 'freeze-framed' then continued walking, a step behind.
In the end, there were five reflection clones following behind him as he circled G.
With a grand lifting gesture, a calliope appeared to erupt from the ground in front of G. The manifestation was reminiscent of one of Paul's stone tables.
"If you can do some ribbons, I can do some wind." Lex told Lucky with a grin.
"I think I'll do better if I'm all the way changed." Lucky said honestly.
"You go ahead, and I'll jump in when you're ready." Lex assured him.
G took that as his cue to begin and started playing a lilting melody which spoke of dust motes flitting freely on the wind.
Needing no further bidding, Lucky transformed completely into his Pegasus form and spread his wings wide.
After a few huffs and neighs as he turned in a tight circle, little magical strands began to trail out after him, flicking and flowing, doing a dance.
True to his word, Lex also transformed, then used his command of the air element to cause a breeze to circulate not only around Lucky but also around their gathered audience. Lucky's delicate magical threads and strands were caught by the flow and began to lightly flutter higher into the air.
As the tempo of the music began to build, another figure wandered into their midst to join the performers.
The lone figure confidently stepped in front of Grief and G, then proceeded to show all in attendance just what rhythm was created for.
G was his band. Grief and his clones became his backup dancers. Lex and Lucky were providing fanfare, the perfect backdrop to herald his arrival.
Regardless of what anyone had originally intended, Mr. Sticks was well and truly the star of the show.
Rather than be put off by the unexpected development, G embraced it by increasing his tempo to give Mr. Sticks even more to work with.
Grief and his backup-dancer clones moved in perfect unison to help emphasize and enhance Mr. Sticks' dramatic and perfectly executed moves.
Lex and Lucky were inspired to increase their efforts, creating a flurry of confetti and streamers all around the entire audience.
* * * * *
"Dad, there's someone I'd like you to meet, if you've got a minute." Paul said as he walked up to his father.
"Mr. Sticks is stealing the show, as always." D said with amusement as he watched the performance a moment longer, then turned to Paul and continued, "I have plenty of time. Who do you have here?"
"Dad, this is Elder Tisthmus from the Oasis of Castor." Paul said in a reasonably formal tone.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Elder Tisthmus. I'm Aloysius Darroch, most people refer to me as D. I'm the Keeper of the Second Earth Gate to this realm." D said professionally.
"So, are you responsible for the abductions and ruined lives caused by this place?" Elder Tisthmus asked sternly.
"No. That's not my department." D said simply, then explained, "Actually, I see to it that the gate is functioning correctly so that no one gets trapped here who didn't make a choice."
Elder Tisthmus considered that for a moment, then his attention seemed to be drawn by the ebullient celebration.
"The danger's not in this, in moderation; it's in excess. The carnival redirects those whose passions rule them, to a less... destructive fate, from a societal perspective." D quietly explained.
"So you're saying that this realm of yours is actually a benefit to us by taking the most greedy and lustful out of our communities?" Elder Tisthmus asked cautiously.
"The carnival can make use of people who are so driven. In time, some of them may see past their passions and return to their societies, perhaps with some cautionary tales to tell. Others... are defined by one characteristic and end up becoming that thing to the exclusion of all else." D finished uncomfortably.
"So when they leave, the carnival has to recruit to replace the people who've gone back home or who have stopped being useful?" Paul asked uncertainly.
"Sanguine might be right. You do have a good mindset for this." D said with a note of pride under his words.
"I had always believed that the Autumn Carnival was a scourge that preyed on our weak and vulnerable." Elder Tisthmus said somewhat distantly.
"If by vulnerable you mean cowardly, selfish, and morally bankrupt, then I suppose that you were right."
It seems as though all of the boys have established that they have each performed well beyond any expectations, of the use of their magical skills.
The skill set that each one has brought forth has pleased the carnival goers and those who have studied their potential.
Each of them has used his own skills, and also combined his skills with those of others to produce almost unbelievable feats of magic.
They have all surpassed any preconceived notions of what they could do separately or together.
MM has once again brought us a delightful package of brilliant style, technique and stunning skill.
I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
Darryl AKA the Radio Rancher