He slipped inside the suit, folding his wings carefully against his back, and pulled it shut. There was plenty of room inside the round body. He had a little trouble with the short arms and legs, but after a little experimentation, he found himself controlling them fairly well.
Aodhan peered through the eye-holes and trundled forward until he realised that there was nothing under his leading foot. He rocked dangerously forward, getting a good look at the ground a long way down. Ordinarily this wouldn't alarm him, but his wings were shut up in the suit! Aodhan windmilled the clown-suit's stubby arms, but he teetered... tipped... and went over the edge!
He panicked inside the suit, struggling and battering it and trying to get it open so he could fly free instead of being dragged down and smashed. It was all to no avail. Down he went... he was going to land and the suit would smash; he'd be revealed and battered to pieces, and Poia would be stuck here....
Think sideways, Aodhan told himself desperately. Think outside the suit! This was a prankster's world, a joke world; he ought to be able to find his way out. What would be funny?
Aodhan pulled out his purple umbrella and opened it. It caught him, tugging him back upright, and he floated gently down to the street.
"Find him. Find him," droned several approaching clowns. "Find him. Annihilate. So speaks the Queen."
"Find him," Aodhan said, trying to imitate the clown-voice and being shocked when it came out perfectly. He could hear his own voice inside the suit, but the clown-ears carried in a perfect clown voice! How very interesting. And convenient.
"Have you seen him?" one of the Chia Clowns said, stopping to face him.
"Not yet," Aodhan replied, enjoying this, even though he was worried about Poia. "I have an idea," he invented. "Maybe he went back through the water."
"Back through the water," the clowns murmured thoughtfully. "Back through the water. Would he think that was funny?"
"Maybe," Aodhan said. "We should ask the Queen."
"We should ask the Queen," they agreed and began trundling back toward her, occasionally giggling.
Aodhan began to feel a wild urge to laugh himself. The weird gait of the clowns was beginning to feel more natural, and he was going to get back to Poia, but safely. He hoped.
As he approached her, however, another Chia Clown trundled up from behind, orange hair streaming with its speed. "Coronated One," it said. "It is not funny! The Coronation Suit is gone!"
"The Coronation Suit is gone!" echoed the other clowns, and then they suddenly began to laugh and cackle hysterically.
"SILENCE." Poia shouted the word, but in the same monotone as before. "The. First. One. Was. Right. It. Is. Not. Funny." The laughter died reluctantly away.
"He. Hides. Among. Us." The helmet sounded angry, however mechanically or electronically. "I. Command. Coronation. Suit. Come. Forward. Open!"
Aodhan trundled forward slightly and then realised, to his horror, that this wasn't in response to any motion of his. The suit was moving on its own. He struggled inside it and managed to slow its motions to a crawl by throwing all his strength against it, but it didn't get tired. Every time he eased up the tiniest bit, it continued its motions.
The other Chia Clowns stood waiting.
The suit responded to the commands of the helmet.
And it was going to give him away.
Deep inside the fog from the helmet, Poia had felt a leap of hope. Coronation Suit? Aodhan must have taken it.
The anger had slammed into her mind again, though, across the fog that kept trying to mute her thoughts. She couldn't remember what she'd been so happy about a moment ago.
Aodhan. The tiny voice was back. Poia considered the blank, foggy space in her head and unthinkingly relayed the helmet's commands while she drifted down, looking for the odd little voice. Perhaps she would annihilate it.
But when she moved toward it, reached for it, something snapped together and she remembered herself.
The fog was still there, and the anger, and the voice of the helmet. It controlled the motions of her body the way it had when the remote had first been activated, but she could think again, with difficulty, even though it was still on her head. Part of her still wanted to annihilate the little voice.
But she was the little voice.
And she knew that the orange Shoyru was Aodhan, her friend, and he was about to be in very serious trouble.
"I. Command. Coronation. Suit. Come. Forward. Open!"
She heard her own voice, felt her mouth and jaw move. Her mind whirled, even though the fog dragged at it. He was hiding among them? That meant the Coronation Suit looked like a Chia Clown.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one moving forward. Minutely, jerkily, but forward.
Think, Poia told herself.
No. Need. To. Think. The helmet sounded almost annoyed. Listen. To. Me. The fog grew heavier, like a smothering blanket.
The Coronation Suit, Poia thought painstakingly, looks like a Chia Clown. The crown, she remembered, was angry. The crown was thinking -- it had thought through her -- that its legacy would end.
The answer crystallised in her mind. There had been more than one Coronation Suit. There had been more than one captive. There would be more again, if she didn't find a way to do something about it.
She had one idea, but to carry it out, she would have to let her consciousness back out of this almost-sheltered corner of her brain and risk having the helmet take over her thoughts again as she fought it for control of the rest of her body.
Well, she would just have to risk it, then.
Poia swarmed out; she turned all her attention to making her jaw and tongue and lips move. The helmet smashed down on her thoughts, its mechanical voice so deafening it almost overwhelmed her essential idea. I. AM. RULER. OF. CHIA. CLOWNS.
The crown sent its own impulses down her nerves, making her mouth clumsy and slurring her speech, and it thundered in her head. I. AM. POWER.
I am Poia! she thought fiercely. And then, cunningly, You haven't gone far enough.
It hesitated. Poia wrested control and declared, as fast as she could, "All. Coronation. Suits. Open! Now!"
And they did.
Aodhan couldn't altogether stifle a yelp as his suit stopped trying to walk forward and simply sprang open instead, spilling him out onto the ground. He leapt up and looked around, expecting to be set upon by clockwork clowns at once.
Instead, he saw more than half the other Chia Clowns standing open like his own suit, with other Neopets flopping out of them onto the ground. Most of them looked terrible, tired and wasted and cramped from long captivity.
Aodhan looked wildly at them and then shouted, "Get the crown!"
A Mynci leapt up and grabbed two of the prongs, but he went limp and blank-eyed, and Aodhan realised in horror that he'd made a mistake. He rushed over and grabbed the Mynci, yanking him away. Something else, something....
"Water!" shouted a faerie Acara.
Aodhan nodded, eyes going wide. "Flyers," he yelled, "grab her! Grab the Lutari, get her to the water!"
He pounced. So did a Draik and a Darigan Lupe. Poia struggled, but they had her off the ground with no leverage and were racing for the barrier-bubble that kept the water out.
Aodhan glanced down and saw that most of the ground-bound Neopets were struggling with the Chia Clowns. Water pistol shots jetted back and forth, cream pies flew, and umbrellas poked, but the Neopets had seized weapons from the suits they'd been trapped in and seemed to be holding their own. Anyway, he had to get Poia -- and her crown -- to the water.
They hit the edge of the bubble and bounced.
"Uh," Aodhan said, "again, slower?"
They flew more slowly, despite their hurry, and hovered as best they could while thrusting Poia head first against the bubble. They watched it bend, dimpling against the three prongs of the crown.
They pierced it.
Lightning flashed in a triangle among the prongs, and Poia screamed.
NO. NO. NO. NO. NONONONONO.
Poia had never felt such pain, screaming down into her head; she tried to shut it out, tried to pretend it wasn't hers, but it was no good. The helmet's thoughts weren't her own, but it used her brain for them. Its pain wasn't hers, but she definitely felt it.
It was like lightning striking her brain. Then it went dark, and choking; she couldn't breathe and she couldn't claw at whatever had her mouth, and she couldn't think past the agony, as if every nerve was going off at once and then being pinched quiet.
But when she collapsed to the ground at last, and the grips on her arms and legs dropped away, she couldn't hear it anymore.
She opened her eyes, raising a paw to wipe away the tears from them, and then cautiously felt the top of her head.
"It came off," Aodhan said, sounding unusually subdued. "Eventually. It shorted out in the water, and once it stopped looking... electrical, we brought you up here. I was afraid to pick it up still, and we didn't want to leave it down there. So Vorgla--" He pointed to the Darigan Lupe. "She knocked it off your head and I kicked it into the fire."
Poia blinked blearily and looked around. They were up in the volcano's crater again, next to the lake and the bonfire. Several dripping-wet Neopets she didn't recognise were sitting around her, and more were climbing out of the lake, which was strewn with sodden wigs and floating shoes.
"I think," she said unsteadily, "we should put out the fire and go home. Can we?"
"Yeah. I'll give you a lift down." Aodhan kicked at the ground a little. "And maybe I'll think about what you said about pranks that really scare others."
"Well," Poia said, glancing over at the twisted, charred remains of the crown, "I can't complain that you had the fire here anymore."
She looked around as they began carefully dousing the fire, keeping it away from the remaining fuel. As they finally wetted down the last of it, she said, "I'm guessing we're going to have a lot of homecomings soon."
Aodhan grinned. "And that's no Eating Fool."
There was a low rumble, deep below their feet, a vibration and a growl. Aodhan looked down in alarm. Poia looked out across the water, which had shivered into ripples. "Down?" she said.
Aodhan nodded. "Definitely time to get out of here."
They didn't want to be too close if the volcano played a prank of its own, after all.
The Neopets departed, leaving behind a lot of ashes, a lovely lake, and a thoroughly charred, mangled, and shattered crown.
Deep below, there was a giggle.