"The air is hard to breathe here." Lucky said as they walked away from the train platform.
"I haven't noticed anything wrong with it." Lex said honestly.
Lucky moved to Lex's side, then cautiously said, "It's better over here by you."
"I don't know. Maybe you just passed through a cloud of foul air." Lex said uncertainly.
"If he did, the rest of us are still in it." Paul said frankly.
"Yeah. It's pretty rank." G added.
"What spell are you using, Lex? Can you teach it to me?" Lucky asked hopefully.
"I'm not using any spell, as far as I know." Lex said honestly.
"Purifying air might be part of his elemental thing, like Dex being able to dismiss tarnish. It's on until he turns it off." Paul said speculatively as they walked.
"Yeah. I guess it could be." Lex said uncertainly.
"Lucky, I can probably come up with an air cleaning spell for you, if you want." G said from ahead of them.
"Before you get too far into that, it looks like it's about to get dark. Should we bring some flashlights or lanterns or something with us, or is it going to be okay for us to light our way entirely with magic?" Paul asked cautiously.
"It never gets fully dark here... or fully light. This realm is in perpetual twilight." D carefully explained.
"How can anything live here like that?" G asked anxiously.
"Beings from outside are adapted to function here. Some become predators, many become prey. Regardless, when a vacancy comes open, the realm seeks to fill it." D said frankly.
"What are the chances that it's going to try to fill a vacancy with one of us?" Paul asked warily.
"I won't lie to you. It's possible that one of the residents, or perhaps even the realm itself, will take an interest in you. But if you'll follow the rules of the realm, you should be alright." D said seriously.
"Do you think it's going to be safe for Lucky?" Lex asked anxiously.
"I think that between us, we should be able to keep an eye on him." D said confidently.
"But we'll be free to go off on our own and explore the... carnival?" G asked uncertainly.
"Yes. For the most part. But I need to warn you that some of the 'temptations' available at the different booths are of an adult nature. I'm not bringing you here to experience those 'forbidden fruits'."
"What are you bringing us here to experience?" G asked cautiously.
"Horrors and delights, I suppose. I'm not so much bringing you here to indulge in those things as much as I am exposing you to the idea of them in the context of a foreign culture. I believe that this may help you to gain a perspective that you might not be able to adopt otherwise." D said carefully.
"What are you talking about? Sex? Drugs?" Paul asked curiously.
"I'm sure there will be some of that around, but those things are used to entrap the weakest of weak-minded individuals. I'm confident that you'll be able to avoid those snares. What I'm really talking about is ancient forbidden knowledge and bizarre magical practices that have been abandoned by polite society in recent centuries." D said quietly.
"That actually sounds kinda cool." Paul reluctantly admitted.
"If nothing else, it may expose you to new ways to express your magic. That alone would make the whole trip worth it." D finished with a smile.
"Is that it?" G asked as he pointed ahead of them.
"Yes. Although it looks like they've changed the name since the last time I was here. It appears that it's now known as the 'Sanguine Night' Carnival." D said as he struggled to read the banner at a distance.
"Why'd they change it?" Lucky asked curiously from D's side.
"Traditionally, the name changes when the leadership of the carnival changes. I suppose we'll find out about that in a few minutes." D said pleasantly.
"Lucky? Did you just do some kind of an air spell? The air feels different all of a sudden?" Lex asked curiously.
"Yeah. I just did what you're doing and made the air turn good before it gets to me." Lucky easily explained.
"Well, I'm glad you're able to do that." Lex said honestly.
"You'll have to show me that spell. That's really nice." G said appreciatively.
"I can do it for you right now, you and Paul both." Lucky said happily, and before anyone could question it, he started his spellcasting.
"Paul. If you're going to summon your demons, you might want to do that now to give them a few minutes to acclimate." D helpfully suggested.
"It'll take me a second to compensate for being in a different realm." Paul said slowly as he seemed to be concentrating on something distant.
"Is that going to be a problem?" G asked with concern.
"No. Not after meeting the avatars of the zodiac. Now I have a much better idea of where everything is." Paul said confidently.
"Lucky, you can summon Zah Zah whenever you're ready. Lex... you might want to see if there's anything you can do to make Zephyr look a little bit less adorable. I'm afraid the first person we meet might not be able to resist the temptation and just eat him right then and there." D said frankly.
"How about a basset hound?" Lex asked as Zephyr turned into a blob of loose fur.
"You might want to try again. That is one seriously cuddly puppy." D said regretfully.
"Zephyr, can you go back to that scary form? The green one you used to express evil intent?" Lex asked his Nuggle curiously.
The tiny Basset Hound began to reform itself, returning to a generally horse-like shape, but not to the gentle little Nuggle that he had been before. Now Zephyr had severe dark green features and appeared to be draped with seaweed. His eyes glowed a faint, threatening red.
After a moment to get over the surprise, D cautiously said, "That looks a little too good. Is this another illusion or is he really a Kelpie?"
"What answer would make you feel better?" Lex reluctantly asked.
"Given the situation we're about to walk into, I'd say that him being an actual Kelpie would be in both your best interests." D said frankly.
"Don't ask me to explain, because I don't know, but I just have a feeling that the Nuggle and the Kelpie are both expressions of who and what Zephyr actually is." Lex said uncertainly.
Paul smiled at the statement, then made a slight swirly motion toward the ground.
When Mah Zah and Ginh Zah appeared, Paul told them, "You can see where Dad brought us. Don't ask me to explain the why, I'm still a little foggy on that part. Anyway, you can go ahead and change into your demon forms if you like or you can pick a form that's better suited to this realm. Dad said that puppies and kittens would be looked at as food here."
Ginh Zah, still in her kitten form, did a visual survey of their surroundings and sniffed the air before transforming into her demonic form, along with the bat wings to aid her mobility.
In a swift move, she took flight and made one quick circle over the group before landing on Paul's left shoulder, in her rightful place.
Meanwhile, Mah Zah, in her puppy form, scampered over to G then began yipping as she ran around his feet.
"Sure. If you like. I'm sure that whatever you choose will be fine." G said with a chuckle under his words.
A moment later, G was ready to eat those words when the solid black, heavily furred, nearly foot tall spider appeared at his feet. The spider appeared to have a faint patch of gray, almost-white fur around her left multifaceted eye.
"Yeah. No one's going to mistake you for food." G said reluctantly.
Faster than G would have thought possible, Mah Zah scaled his body and came to rest on his right shoulder.
G could barely hide his revulsion at the sensation of eight little stick legs keeping Mah Zah steady in place.
"Lucky? Would you like for Zah Zah to join us?" D asked encouragingly.
"I'm afraid that she'll do something to hurt someone or make someone mad." Lucky said honestly.
"She might." D admitted, then explained, "But I can't think of a better place for her to learn how to be around people. Everyone here will be able to relate to the experience of fighting to control a monster of their own making. I'm sure that if you'll do your best with her, it'll be enough."
"Zah Zah! It's okay! You can come out and play!" Lucky said excitedly as he opened the front of his coat.
The scribbled nightmare with the too-human eyes leaped out of the coat and landed on the ground in front of Lucky.
"Uncle D said that you'll probably like it here. It's a place where you can be yourself." Lucky said seriously.
Zah Zah responded with a raspy screeching meow, which could be taken to mean that she accepted Lucky's statement.
"Uncle D, would you like for me to do my air spell on you too? It works and you don't have to do anything to keep it going after I've cast it." Lucky asked hopefully.
"Thank you for the thought, Lucky. But there's no need. All I'll need to do is summon my companion to acclimate me." D said quietly.
"You have a companion too?" G asked with surprise.
"Of sorts." D said evasively, then explained, "I don't have the same attachment to Mr. Sticks that you have to your companions. He's more of an ally than a friend."
"If you're going to do it, you'd better do it. We're almost there." G said seriously.
"Simple emblem, valiant heart. Stick bones, vine sinew, rough-hewn skin. From the essence of this world, I summon you to come forth. Stand with me, Mr. Sticks." D said very clearly and deliberately.
"Nice one. Elegant." Paul said appreciatively.
In the dim twilight, they could register movement all around them, but couldn't identify what was moving.
A moment later, several sticks seemed to gather themselves together.
"How's this different from one of your regular animations?" G asked curiously as he continued to watch the little stick man form.
"My usual animations are of things which already exist in their final form before I enchant them. Mr. Sticks is made anew every time I summon him from whatever suitable debris happens to be lying about."
"Him being made from this world but also sharing your magical bond would make you native to this realm to some degree. That would make it so that the air here wouldn't bother you." Paul said uncertainly.
"Exactly right. That's another very good reason that I summon Mr. Sticks when I'm travelling outside the Earth realm." D confirmed, then offered his hand to the little stick man who was lying on the ground.
Mr. Sticks took his hand and used it to pull himself to standing.
"Why doesn't he have a face?" Lucky asked in a disturbed tone.
"The more detailed I make his appearance, the more time and magic it takes to form him each time I summon him." D easily explained.
"Is there anything else we need to know about this place that we're going to?" Paul asked anxiously.
"According to the rules of this world, no one here can hurt you if you don't give your consent. They can tempt you or torment you, but they don't have any claim to keep you here or do anything to you unless you give your permission or enter into some type of a relationship with them and incur an obligation."
"What do you mean by 'obligation'?" Paul asked cautiously.
"If they give you something and you accept it, that can be taken as a quid pro quo. You have accepted a thing of value and are indebted to repay it with another thing of similar value." D said carefully.
"So basically, don't take gifts from strangers." Paul said firmly.
"Yes. But also be aware that not all gifts are tangible. A gift of affection or a service of some sort can obligate you just as easily." D said frankly.
"But you gave us these bags of money so we don't have to worry about that, right?" G asked cautiously.
"Sort of. You can use the money in those pouches to purchase goods and services. Once both parties are satisfied with the transaction, the obligation is ended."
"Is this a test or a trap?" Paul cautiously asked.
"Yes." D answered simply.
"Then why are we doing it?" Paul asked reasonably.
"I want for you to be able to judge worth and know how to barter so that you can engage in equitable trade when you're on your own. I want you to learn those lessons here because you'll see so many flagrant examples of lures and scams that are more subtle and insidious in our realm." D said frankly.
"But we could have learned that anywhere. There's another reason for us to be here, not just this realm, but at this carnival in particular." Paul said speculatively.
"Partly, for the spectacle of it. The rides are dangerous fun, the attractions are fascinating entertainment, and the trinkets can provide you with hours and days of delight." D said with a smile.
"So, it's like a regular carnival, but taken to the next level for witches?" Paul guessed.
"It's not just for witches. You might find any number of creatures here, both natural and otherwise. The only time you'll ever see very many witches here is when this realm naturally intersects with one where witches live. Those who know about the carnival will sometimes go on a pilgrimage so that they can attend." D said with a distant smile.
"Does that mean that someone who follows astrology might be able to keep track of where and when this realm would open into ours?" G asked uncertainly.
"Yes. Exactly. Even a few of the mundane people have managed to figure it out, although it's infrequent enough that it's almost unheard of for a mundane person to encounter it twice in one lifetime." D said frankly.
Zah Zah looked up at D and impatiently hissed at him.
"Alright. Alright. I'll stop yapping so that you can get to your fun." D said with a good-natured chuckle.
* * * * *
"Welcome to the Sanguine Night Carnival!" A comical portly clown said as he flawlessly juggled five juggling clubs.
"Thank you." D said firmly, then asked a little more quietly, "I was wondering what happened to Mr. Never. Last I heard, he was the one in charge of this carnival."
"It is believed that he finally found what he was looking for and set off on a new adventure. Whether it be his redemption or damnation, who can say? I honestly couldn't tell you the difference, assuming that there is one. Regardless, he has moved on. Sanguine Night is the new carnival manager and master of ceremonies."
"I'll look forward to meeting... her?" D guessed.
The clown nodded, then asked, "Did you have some business with her? I could introduce you."
"Actually, yes. I'm primarily here to let my sons enjoy the festivities of your wonderful carnival, but I'm also the guardian of the second gate. If it's not an inconvenience, I would like to have a short meeting with Ms. Night in that capacity, whenever she has a free moment to speak with me." D said carefully.
"Are you the one known to us as 'D'?" The clown asked cautiously.
"I am. And who might you be?" D asked curiously.
"The Prince, Maltese." The clown said as he threw his clubs forcefully into the air, before gracefully bowing to D with respect.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Prince. These are my sons, G, Paul, Lex, and Lucky." D said formally.
The Prince flawlessly caught the clubs and went back to his juggling as he said, "It's a pleasure to meet you all. Please come in and experience what we have on offer. I know that everyone will be overjoyed to see you."
"We will. Thank you." Paul said on behalf of the group.
Without prompting, G brought his clown face fully forward and waited for the clown's acknowledgement before letting it go.
The Prince Maltese gave a subtle, almost imperceptible nod before going about his business.
* * * * *
As soon as the group stepped across the threshold of the carnival all the boys except Lucky suddenly stopped in their tracks.
"There's something seriously wrong here." Paul said as he looked around warily.
"I was curious to know if you'd be able to detect that." D said with a smile.
"It's like a sorcery, but it's not entirely illusion." G said slowly.
"It's not entirely real either." Lex said in a matching speculative tone.
"Uncle D? Can we go for a ride before you have to go to your meeting?" Lucky asked hopefully as he pointed at the carousel which delineated one side of the entrance.
"You know, that sounds like a fantastic idea. We'll let these three take a minute to get their bearings while we have some fun." D said happily.
Lucky had more than half expected D to decline for some reason or another.
The boy was so happy that he was nearly skipping as D walked away with him toward the entrance to the ride.
* * * * *
"If you bring Zah Zah with us, make sure that you keep hold of her." D cautioned.
"She's not completely real, so she can do things that might hurt a real cat." Lucky explained as D paid the attendant at the entrance to the ride.
"Well, this carnival isn't completely real either. There's a very good chance that it's one of the few things that actually could hurt her." D said frankly.
Before Lucky could react, D hoisted him off his feet with one arm and swung him onto the carousel, which was already in full motion.
* * * * *
Lucky giggled with delight at the sensation of the wind rushing past him as the lights of the carnival hypnotically sparkled all around them.
"Hop on up here, Lucky. Once you're settled in, I'll get a horse of my own and join you." D said as he helped Lucky onto one of the carved wooden horses.
"You're going to ride too? I thought you'd just stand beside me." Lucky said honestly.
"Nah. You don't need for me to prop you up. Even though it may not feel like it sometimes, I know that you're old enough to ride on your own. But even so, I'll be right here beside you if you do need me for anything." D assured him before climbing aboard the neighboring horse.
As the carousel spun around, Lucky was able to catch sight of his new brothers, seriously discussing the reality of the carnival, or lack thereof.
He then glanced beside him to see D riding one of the wooden horses as comfortably as if he rode them to work every day.
A movement in his arms drew his attention and he looked down into Zah Zah's eyes.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but maybe since this place is half-real like you are, they might know how to make it so you can be around people without wanting to hurt them all the time." Lucky gently explained.
A low, half-hearted growl was Zah Zah's only response.
* * * * *
"How are you enjoying the ride so far?" D asked Lucky loudly, to be heard over the hurly-burly music.
"This is like a dream. It feels like I'm flying. I could do this forever." Lucky said happily.
"Knowing how this place works, that could probably be arranged." D said frankly, then carefully asked, "But is that something that you'd really want?"
"No. I guess not." Lucky reluctantly admitted, then explained, "It's nice to be able to do stuff with you and have you paying attention to just me. But I guess it wouldn't be right to throw out all the good things I have just to try and get one thing that I'm missing."
"You don't have to be missing anything. You're living with us now. I can give you my time and attention whenever you need it. Besides, if we stayed on the carousel, then you'd miss out on doing things with your brothers. I'm betting that the four of you are going to have some incredible adventures together." D said with a warm smile at the thought.
"I think maybe we're having one right now." Lucky said frankly.
"I think maybe you're right." D said conspiratorially, then asked, "Are you ready to get off of this thing?"
"Yeah. It felt crazy and exciting at first, but now it feels like we're just going in circles." Lucky said as he climbed off his horse.
"Lots of things in life can feel like that. It's good to be able to recognize them and be willing to do something about it." D said seriously before stepping off the carousel, leaving Lucky on his own.
* * * * *
Lucky cuddled Zah Zah close to his chest as he waited for the carousel to make another revolution.
The world seemed to be whizzing by at a dizzying speed and he was actually a little bit afraid of jumping off. Lucky felt his heart beating rapidly as the anxiety grew within him.
The music seemed as though it was becoming more of a seductive melody, drawing Lucky in to sway to the rhythm. The lights were becoming a bit softer as he waited for the carousel to complete a revolution so that he could jump off.
As the carousel continued to turn, the world outside appeared to be fading and becoming less real as the melody invited him to stay and sing along.
A low threatening growl snapped Lucky out of his thoughts and he looked down to find Zah Zah looking back at him impatiently.
"I guess forever like this wouldn't be something that you'd enjoy, would it?" Lucky quietly asked.
Zah Zah sniffed at him disgustedly as she shook her head violently, almost like a sneeze.
"Yeah. Me neither." Lucky admitted, then looked upward and said, "Thanks for the offer, but I can't. I have too much to do."
As soon as he said the words, the music returned to its discordant blaring and the world reformed to be as sharp and stark as it ever had been.
Lucky stepped off the carousel and directly to his beloved uncle's side, where he was promptly hugged around the shoulders.
"Pity that. He had the most joyous vision I've seen in decades. He would've made an excellent carousel operator. Kept them entertained for years, he would."
* * * * *
"Have you boys come to any conclusions about the state of reality of this place, or are you going to be willing to accept it the way it is and enjoy it?" D asked as he kept an arm protectively around Lucky.
"I don't get why it's like this. The dynamics of the spell are insane." Paul said frankly.
"I should have known better than to ask." D said down to Lucky, then looked at Paul and asked, "Which part is giving you trouble?"
"I can get enough of the 'how' just by looking at it. The part I really can't get is the 'why'." Paul said frankly.
"You know that jacket project that you were all working on earlier? Think of this in comparison to that and see if you can find any similarities." D said frankly.
After a moment to consider, Paul reluctantly admitted, "I don't know what you're getting at."
"Just keep it in mind and hopefully it will begin to make sense as we go along." D said as he motioned for the boys to walk with him down the midway.
"Too bad we can't eat anything. That looks good." G said as he pointed at a booth of sweet treats.
"If there's something you really want, you can buy some and take it back to the train with us and eat it there. The spell will be nullified if you eat it in our realm." D said frankly.
"Knowing that there's a spell on it makes me not want it quite as much." G reluctantly admitted.
"So we brought our own realm with us?" Paul asked curiously.
"That's one of the reasons that I prefer to come here by train. After an exciting evening at the carnival, we can go back to a place where it's safe for us to relax and let down our guard for a while." D said seriously.
"What about that one? Can we go in there?" Lucky asked hopefully as he pointed at one of the attractions.
"I don't have any interest in going, but you might be able to talk your brothers into it." D said honestly.
"Lex? Do you want to?" Lucky asked hopefully.
"Sure. I guess so." Lex said uncertainly.
"What about you, G? Do you want to go with me?" Lucky asked pleadingly.
"Yeah. Why not?" G said easily.
"Do you want to go with us, Paul? It'll be fun!" Lucky asked with a hopeful smile, turned up full blast.
"I think I'll hang back with Dad. You guys go ahead and enjoy." Paul said with a sincere, tranquil smile.
"Uncle D, do you think it's okay for Zah Zah, Mah Zah and Zephyr to go in there too?" Lucky asked curiously.
"Since I know that all three of them will fight to defend you, I think it's probably a good idea." D said seriously.
Having received his answer, Lucky prodded and cajoled his brothers forward.
* * * * *
"It's an illusion trap, isn't it?" Paul asked his father curiously.
"Of course it is." D said simply.
"Do you think they'll fall for it?" Paul asked as he watched Lucky paying his entry fee.
"No. Not really. But I think it may cause them to see a use for illusions that they may not have considered before."
"I can see that with G, but what about Lex and Lucky?" Paul asked curiously.
"They both have access to Sorcery, so they'll have the capacity to make some discoveries of their own. I get the sense that this adventure could turn out to be valuable for any or all of them." D said frankly.
"Okay. I guess I can get that but... a hall of mirrors? Seriously?" Paul asked with a pained look at his father.
"I did say something earlier about them being flagrant, didn't I?" D asked in his defense.
* * * * *
"Okay. This isn't as fun as I thought it would be. I keep running into the glass." Lucky said frustratedly.
Zah Zah meowed up at him impatiently in response.
"I am not a dumbass! It's just hard for me to see what's a mirror and what's a doorway and what's a glass wall in this dim light." Lucky said as he fought to navigate the maze.
"And this is supposed to be... fun?" G asked uncertainly.
"I could show you the way out. Then everyone would know that you're the smartest." A low voice said close to Lex's ear, causing him to turn suddenly.
Lex was surprised to see another version of himself that wasn't G.
He experimentally raised a hand and wasn't surprised to see his mirror image do the same.
"Lucky, you know how to make a light, don't you?" G asked casually.
"Yeah. But I don't think you're supposed to in here. It might spoil someone else's fun." Lucky carefully explained.
"G, hold on for a second. There's someone in here with us who looks like me and I don't think it's you."
"I'm the one with the ginormous spider on his shoulder. It's kinda hard to miss me." G said frankly.
"You don't have to tell anyone. I can help you prove that you're faster, stronger and smarter than all of them. The others never need to know." His reflected self said in a coaxing tone.
"This definitely isn't you... and it's not me." Lex slowly reasoned.
"Lucky, you didn't make a copy of Lex just now, did you?" G asked curiously.
"No. Why would I?" Lucky asked reasonably.
"Then I guess it must be someone else." G said slowly.
"Is it an exact copy of you?" Lucky asked curiously.
"The light's not very good in here. I guess it looks like me." Lex said uncertainly.
"We can make some more light if you need us to." Lucky cautiously offered.
Just then some fireballs appeared around G, but just as suddenly as they were created, they were extinguished.
"Mah Zah's fireballs didn't work and I tried doing some Wizard's Lights, but something about the mirror's in here just seems to eat up their light." G said frankly.
"Zah Zah can make good light! Let her help you!" Lucky said excitedly.
"Sure. Go ahead. We're not too proud to accept help." Lex automatically said as he also attempted to make a cloud of Wizard's Lights with no better result than G.
"Come on Zah Zah! Do like you did in the train engine. Show them that you've got the best light power of anybody here." Lucky said encouragingly.
"You'd better hurry. I think I just saw another me and I don't think he's the same one as the last me." Lex said cautiously.
A strange flickering, fluttering glow began to rise up from the floor by Lucky's feet, where Zah Zah was located.
All around them, a flurry of glowing white moths began to fly up in leaps and bounds.
As the moths spread out over the ceiling, the lighting became reasonably bright and more or less steady all around them.
"Now, let's have a good look at you." G said as he moved to block a person from moving away from Lex.
"I guess he doesn't look like me once you look at him in a good light. The illusion is fading." Lex admitted.
"I think she was just trying to freak you out while you were stumbling around in the dark, probably trying to get you to agree to ask for her help." G said frankly.
"It's not fair. I didn't stand a chance. You already had a doppelganger." The poor facsimile of Lex pouted.
"How fair is this?" G asked as he went through the short form version of his self-portrait spell.
When Lex saw what he was doing, he decided to do the same.
Not to be outdone, Lucky did his own unique variation of their self-portrait casting.
The three identical clones didn't move, but each of them were a testament to the skill level of their caster.
"So, what do you guys think? Did we out-mirror the mirror?" G asked as his clown smirk covered his face.
"You're a clown too? Of course you are! Stupid clowns think they're better than everyone else." The poor imitation of Lex pouted.
"That's only because we are." G said teasingly.
"You're no fun!" The would-be copy of Lex said indignantly as she shouldered past them and stomped away.
After a moment to be sure that she was gone, Lucky cautiously asked, "Do you want to go back now?"
"No. We can keep going. I'd like to see what's at the center of this thing, and besides, I'm beginning to see the fun in it."
To Be Continued...
A carnival? Or is it a carnivore?
I guess we will have to wait for the next chapter to find out.
Actually, I am pretty sure that each of the boys and their companions are more than capable of taking care of themselves and anyone who might really need their help.
They each possess their own individual strengths and abilities, and they also are quite capable of combining their separate skills into a whole that is certainly more powerful than the sum of their individual parts. All of these people and their helpers, young and old, are more than a match for anything or anyone who might try to tempt them into doing something they shouldn't do.
Just call me an optimist. As always, I am ready for more.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. This is not a cliff hanger.
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher