Mr. Aramate's Wonderous Emporium of the Soul: Part Six
Carnival folk and townspeople were against them, but Mary and Charlie were small and fast, and the collapse of the Big Top had taken much of the field’s lighting down with it. The darkness was a shield. Peter, seizing an opportunity with the confusion, kicked Esther Fastbelly very firmly in the shin and made his own escape. With only Esther on his tail, he had a significantly easier time of it. A vault over the field wall and he was away into town.
Mary dodged and weaved, but gradually they were surrounded and the gate back to Halfcastle Forge was blocked by a pair of clowns.
“Here,” Charlie said, guiding Mary backwards into the house of mirrors.
Several of the townsfolk moved to follow, but Aramate moved in front of them to block their path.
“Leave this to me, gentlemen,” he said in his silky tones. “A house of mirrors can be a confusing place to the unwary. I’ll have them back in mere moments.”
With that, he strode into the house and closed the door firmly behind him. Mary was following Charlie, in the reflected depths of the place.
“There’s a back door,” Charlie said. “If we can find it, we can slip out and be away before they realise.”
He paused, as if sensing something.
“Oh no,” he added. “He’s here.”
“Who?” Mary asked.
“Mr. Aramate,” Charlie said. “We have to go! Now!”
He pulled Mary on, but ahead of them the path through the mirrors seemed to be twisting and turning out of view. Their own figures seemed to reflect back at them from all directions. No way forward, no way back. Mary traced her way back the way they had come but found another mirror in its place, her own terrified Wocky features reflected back at her an infinite number of times.
“That’s not possible, we just came through here,” she said.
“This place is magical,” Charlie said. “The entire place responds to his will.”
The terrible laughter of Mr. Aramate came from all around them.
“A poor little girl and a traitorous boy!” he cackled. “Caught in a trap! Tell me, little girl, how much has he told you of us?”
“Enough!” Mary shouted back defiantly. “You’re here to steal children!”
The Lutari's laughter came again.
“Then you know too much,” he said. “Your parents will miss you, I fear, but I cannot allow you to tell zem what you know. You will stay here, with me, and serve us as zis little wastrel has zese past decades.”
“I won't!” Mary shouted. “I refuse!”
The laughter came again.
“My dear, you do not have a choice, any more zan your new friend did.”
“We’re trapped,” Charlie said. “Best to give in - things never go well when you refuse him. It’s always worse for you in the end.”
But Mary wasn't listening to that. She wasn’t about to spend ninety years serving ghosts or monsters or whatever they were. She took off a shoe and threw it at the nearest mirror. It shattered, sending shards of glass spilling onto the floor. She recovered her shoe and stepped gingerly into a new row of mirrors, avoiding the shards of broken glass.
“Which way to the back exit?” Mary asked.
Charlie pointed, and Mary threw her shoe. Another mirror smashed, and further they went. Aramate’s magic was powerful, but it was based on solid rules - and that meant they had an escape. It wasn’t long before they came to a solid black wall - they had left the maze of mirrors. Groping with her hand, Mary found the door and flung it open, and they were away into the night. The last thing she heard behind them was a shout of rage from Aramate.
The townsfolk were around the front of the tent - they didn't see Mary and Charlie escape and before long they were out of the circle of firelight and masked in darkness. Then, they managed to bank round and Mary led them to the little cottage that faced the county field.
Old Annie was still awake, thankfully. The light was pouring from her lounge window as they made their way up her garden path. Mary only knocked once before she opened the door. This wasn't a time to wait for replies - they might be found at any moment.
“Mary, dear, is that you?” Annie's voice came from the lounge.
“Yes, Annie,” she answered.
“What are you doing back here?” she asked. “Has the show ended? I saw a lot of the lights go out a little while back.”
The pair of them went into her front room. Annie was still sat in the same old chair. Her Neovision set was off though - she'd obviously been staring out of her window all night, and worrying.
“You were right, Annie!” Mary gushed, running to the old woman in tears. “You were right about it all! We should have listened to you!”
Annie comforted the girl, but then she caught sight of the young Cybunny standing in the doorway and it was the old woman's turn to well up.
“Could it be...?” she gasped, recognising a face she hadn't seen in ninety years. “Charlie?”
“Annie?” Charlie said. “Is it really you?”
The pair just stared at each other for a few moments. Mary drew back from Annie, wiping away her tears.
“I found him at the circus, Annie,” she said. “He’s been there the whole time.”
Charlie ran forwards and gave Annie a deep hug.
“But how?” she asked through tears of joy. “How is this possible? Charlie... You’ve not aged a day. They said you were sold in the Lost Desert, or shipped to a pirate crew on Krawk Island.”
“I've been... Away,” Charlie said. “Hidden, waiting, in the Haunted Woods. Waiting for a chance to return here. The circus took all of us, but I'm the only one left. Oh, Annie, I've missed you! Every single day!”
“And I you,” Annie said. “But how?”
“We escaped,” Mary said. “They are looking for us.”
Annie nodded sharply at that.
“Mary, dear, close the curtains,” she said. “We need to find out exactly what's been going on. Charlie. I want you to tell us everything. Everything.”
“I only know what they’ve told me over the years, and what I've overheard,” Charlie said. “And that's not much. I don’t know if they are ghosts, but I think perhaps they are. Either way, they aren't normal Neopets. They take children to... Drain them, of magic. They use it to keep themselves alive, I think.”
“A circus doing that all over the Haunted Woods would have been driven out by now, surely?” Mary said.
“They aren't doing it all over the Haunted Woods. This is the first show they have put on since the one where we all disappeared,” Charlie said. “I can't quite explain it, where we went, it was part of the Haunted Woods - but also not. Time seemed to pass, but at the same time it seems as if we haven't really been away at all.”
“They are targeting Halfcastle Forge specifically, then,” Annie said.
“They hate this place,” Charlie said. “If they are really ghosts, I think the villagers must have driven them out of town when they were still alive, or something.”
“We have to stop them, Annie,” Mary said. “They are planning on taking more of us!”
“Their spell to bewitch the children was stopped this time,” Charlie said. “No one will disappear from their beds this time... But...”
“But?” Annie asked.
“We made them angry,” Charlie said. “I don't know what they might be planning now, but I was the only child they have left... And without me, they have no one. No power to drain. They can't leave the town when they are in that state - they’ll be too weak. They might not be able to come back. They are desperate.”
“And deperate creatures can do anything,” she said. “Mary, be a dear and lock my front door, will you? I can't say as I know a lot about ghosts and magic, but I'd feel better if it was locked.”***
Most of the townsfolk had gone home, leaving only the carnival ghosts at the county field.
“We’ve scoured the surrounding fields,” one of the Kyrii acrobats said. “There are tracks heading to the forest.”
“Ze forest?” Aramate asked. “Why not go back to town?”
“They wouldn't be believed,” the Grarrl strongman said. “And their parents would bring them straight back here. There's no one left who remembers last time, otherwise they wouldn't have let us come back in the first place.”
“The forest is big,” the Kyrii added. “It’ll take a lot of us to cover that much ground by morning.”
Aramate thought about this.
“We need zem by daybreak,” he said. “Ze longer we stay in zis wretched town, ze closer we are to being discovered. Zey leave me no choice.”
He turned to a carriage painted in flowers and bright colours. It was not something he would wish on even his worst enemies. But they could not afford to waste time. Not now, not after losing Charlie. They needed fresh souls. Otherwise... No, it didn't bare thinking about.
There was no other option. Aramate turned back to the carnival folk.
“Send in ze clowns.”
To be continued…