Mr. Aramate's Wonderous Emporium of the Soul: Part Seven
Peter ran as fast as his little legs could carry him. The path back to the town had been blocked by angry townsfolk, and after Esther Fastbelly’s reaction, the little Gelert wasn’t in a rush to encounter any more of them.
Outside Halfcastle Forge there was a small forest. Nothing compared to the Haunted Woods not far away, but still big enough for people to get lost in if they tried hard enough. The town council had once made a big show of making the place a Protected Area - mostly meaning people who littered there got a sterner look than usual from the locals. That night though, the place was dark and spooky. After Peter stepped through the first layer of tree trunks, he might as well have been in the Haunted Woods for all it mattered.
The trees suddenly seemed to move with more than the wind. There were Whoots hooting in the darkness and twigs snapping in the distance. Peter was scared, not sure how much was real or his imagination, but he kept on running.
That was, until he heard the noise. At first, it was like a childish little giggle, somewhere behind him. Peter stopped, looking back into the trees, but he saw nothing.
A moment later, the same giggle came, from somewhere behind him. Again, he saw nothing.
“Mary?” Peter called out. “Mary, is that you?”
He started edging away. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he caught sight of something yellow ducking between the trees, but it was gone before he realised he'd seen it.
“Mary, this isn't funny!” Peter said, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up.
Another giggle, this one sounded like it was right next to Peter's ear.
Then, he saw one - moving out from behind a tree. Peter had never seen a clown in the flesh before that night, but he'd seen plenty in story books. The Chia clown is yellow, with clumps of bright orange hair and a pair of brightly coloured trousers held up by braces. A big wide grin had been painted on its face in white and red, and in the moonlight it shone with an unsettling malice.
The clown giggled. Never saying anything, just laughing.
Peter backed away, but then another appeared from behind a different tree. And another. And another. Peter was quickly surrounded. Each of the clowns looked identical, and all were laughing, giggling and shrieking. Peter had no way out, and the circle of clowns gradually grew smaller as they closed around him.***
Annie sat patiently and listened as Charlie explained what happened the night he disappeared, while Mary worriedly looked out from between the curtains every now and again.
He had found himself awoken in the middle of the night, and had felt himself drawn out into the street as if his feet were walking by themselves. Sure enough, he had been walking towards the circus ground. There, inside the Big Top, the ringmaster had been waiting for them. There must have been dozens of them, Charlie said. And only he remained.
“Some were left in their beds though,” Annie supplied. “I left early, I remember. Others had stayed away due to illness or age. Only those who stayed for the entire show disappeared.”
After that, Charlie said, the carnival folk packed up their tents quickly and took them aboard their carriages. As they rode out of town, Charlie felt the flash of magic and suddenly - all the circus was set up, somewhere else. Somewhere they couldn’t leave. Days would pass, but Charlie knew in his soul at the same time that days weren’t passing.
“They are ghosts, I think,” Charlie said at last. “At least, they talk as if they are. There are mutterings about a time they were run out of Halfcastle Forge. Before the time they were banned, of course.”
At that, Annie gasped.
“Grandma told me about that, a few years after you disappeared,” she said. “Children had gone missing and the carnival was blamed. An angry mob drove them out of town, never to be seen again. The children turned up well a few days later - they had been hiding in the forest. Could it be, these are vengeful spirits?”
“But Annie, how do we stop them?” Mary asked.
“I'm not a witch,” Annie said. “Though I know the stories people tell, believe me. I think there are people who hunt ghosts? The Ghoul Catchers, I hear tell they’re called. Probably wouldn't get here tonight though - and we need this sorting before any more children are taken. How to stop them? I honestly have no idea.”
“They’ll have to leave by dawn if they can't get any children, now they don't have me,” Charlie said. “They can only exist by drawing on the energy of others. If they don't have anyone, I think they’ll just fade away with the rising sun.”
“Well the show is over for the night,” Mary said with relief. “We just have to hide here and it will all be sorted!”
“What about the others on the county field?” Annie asked.
“Most will make their way back to their homes,” Charlie said. “The show's over for tonight. I think Mary may be right.”
Suddenly, Mary gasped.
“Peter!” she said. “He was caught when we got out of the Big Top! It was Mrs. Fastbelly who had him but there's no telling who has him now. What if they gave him back to the ringmaster? What if they have him?”
“Then they’ll have enough power to survive,” Charlie said. “Only for a few years, but it will be enough that they can return to try again at a later date.”
“We can’t let it happen again,” she said. “Ninety years ago I thought I lost you, Charlie. I won’t let Mary spend the next ninety years wondering if the same has happened to Peter. We have to get him back from them, somehow. We have to save him.”
“But how?” Mary asked.
Annie didn't have an answer for that. Charlie was about to say something when suddenly someone knocked on the door.
Charlie went to the window to look between the curtain, but turned back in terror when he saw who it was.
“It’s him!” he hissed.
“Who?” Annie asked.
The door burst open in answer, the lock giving way under the force of the Lutari ringmaster ramming against it. Mr. Aramate stepped into the lounge looking every bit as sinister as he had done in Annie's dreams for the last ninety years.
“Well, well, well,” he sneered. “Ze girl and ze wastrel. And look here, an old woman, too. Just as ze boy said.”
“The boy?” Mary asked.
She looked through the curtains, outside in the street, Peter was being held by a pair of Chia clowns.
“You,” Annie said, with hatred burning in her eyes.
“Do I know you, madam?” Aramate asked.
“No,” Annie said. “But I know you. Every night for ninety years I have dreamed of meeting you again. Of what I would say. You stole my brother from me. And so many others. And now you’ve returned.”
Aramate’s eyes drift to Charlie.
“Ah,” he says. “Ze sister, of course.”
With difficulty, Annie gets to her feet, clutching at her stick with her knees trembling.
“What are you going you?” Aramate laughed. “Hit me wiz zat ridiculous stick? Sit down, woman, you are old and done. I am here for ze children, not you.”
“Old and done?” Annie said, her voice brimming with rage. “I am Old Annie. I’ve lived my life a hundred and one years and I've stared down worse things than you. They say that if he got on the wrong side of me, Dr. Sloth himself would tremble. So I’m going to give you one chance. Give me back the boy and leave.”
Aramate merely laughed at that.
“Fine, don’t say I didn't warn you,” Annie said. “Charlie, there's an orange button on a wire next to the Neovision set. Be a dear and push it, would you?”
Charlie did as he was asked.
“What was zat?” Aramate asks.
“That was a panic button,” Annie said. “It is hooked up to bells in all of my children and grandchildren's houses, and a few more besides. All of them will be ringing. And all of them will be heading here, thinking I've had a fall. Only they’ll find you, holding Peter. They’ll find Charlie, and he’ll tell them just what you are. And then what do you think they’ll do, eh?”
The Lutari’s smile falters at that. But he's wasn't done yet. In one last act, he reached forwards and grabbed Marry by the scruff of her neck. He dragged the kicking Wocky out into the street with him, where he shouted at the waiting carnival folk that it was time for them to leave.
“Mary!” Peter shouted from between his captors. “I'm so sorry, they caught me!”
Annie was far too slow to follow Aramate, but Charlie was grabbing at his feet, trying to trip him. One solid kick sent the little Cybunny flying back inside Annie's front door.
Mary could see people coming down the street - most of them family but a few others who had been drawn out by the noise. A wash of relief spread over Mary as she noticed her parents in the crowd.
“Hey, you!” her father shouted. “Get away from them, what do you think you are doing?”
The carnival folk had been busy since Mary left the Big Top. Everything had been packed up into the carriages, which were waiting nearby. Mary caught a sight of the horizon - it might have been her imagination, but the first few streaks of red seemed to be coming up over the hills.
“Peter!” she called. “Fight!”
She didn't know if it would have much effect, given that he was a ghost, but she bit down hard on Aramate’s arm regardless. The Lutari recoiled in pain, releasing Mary for an instant. But it was all she needed. She was already running back towards her parents. Peter, meanwhile, stamped on the feet of one of the clowns that were holding him and hit the other in the face, breaking free. But by then Aramate had recovered and Peter found himself once more surrounded.
Then, suddenly Charlie was back, barreling into Aramate and taking his legs out from under him. Peter ran, straight into the waiting arms of his parents.
“It’s over!” Annie shouted, having made it to her front door.
“It’s never over!” Aramate screamed, holding up the captured Charlie.
“Oh yes,” Annie said with a smirk. “It is.”
She looked behind him, to the sky. Aramate turned and when he saw it, his face dropped into a picture of horror. He dropped Charlie, too, hardly realising. The young Cybunny bounded back to Annie as the sun finally came up over the horizon.
“No...” was all Aramate could manage as the rays of sunlight hit him.
It was like he and the other carnival folk, their carriages, all of it, were made of dust in the breeze. They froze, and then gradually they began to fall apart, specs of whatever magic that was holding them together disappearing up into the early morning sky.***
A week later, the town council decided to put the county faire on again. This time, the townspeople themselves took up the stalls. Annie attended the party, with her brother. Peter and Mary had pride of place in the festivities.
Halfcastle Forge was a boring old place after that, as it had been before.
But as they say, it is those sorts of places that you have to watch the most.