Petpet Adventures: Mistress Maxie's Marvellous Circus - Part Nine
They made good time after that. Max loped along with easy strides, which, coupled with his enormous size and aid of his fluttering faerie wings, took them more than half a dozen metres with each step. Eva and Harro each held on tightly to one of his broad shoulders, while Mistress Maxie crouched on his head, claws gripping his spindly horns. Labez had the best spot, in the crook of one of the Grarrl's arms, as his legs weren't made for clinging on.
Eva's claws dug tightly into Max's shoulder, and she felt a bit faint as the land went past below them with alarming speed. Every time Max leapt into the air she felt her stomach drop as he relied on his tiny wings to propel them. It didn't seem safe at all.
But at least they might just make the performance. Max had left immediately; all he had needed was his magic staff, and the sky had still been light. Now the first stars were beginning to show, but Eva could see the blazing light that could only be the Grand Tent up ahead.
In less than twenty minutes the Grarrl skidded to a stop at the edge of the wagons, eyes wary. He wasn't even puffing, despite travelling half a day's distance for a normal pet in about two hours. All was still. Up ahead Eva could faintly hear the sound of the full orchestra playing the smooth waltz that was the introduction to the show.
"We're not too late then," Max muttered in Pet. He strode forward, then quickly stopped as two Uni wandered past.
But they didn't even glance at him. Eva took it for some sort of magic Max had cast, but the Grarrl looked perplexed. He watched them pass a metre in front of him, under his looming shadow cast by the faintly glowing lanterns around them, but they were looking at a point in the distance and ignored him.
"Let's get down," Labez said. "We got Max back, as we wanted, but now we have to tell everyone else. Oscar will want to know."
He leapt out of Max's arms while Harro and Eva followed. Mistress Maxie stayed resolutely on her pet's head.
"I'm staying with Max," she said. "I'll see you in the Grand Tent."
"Yes, Mistress Maxie," Eva chanted in reflex to her years in the circus. She paused and shook her head sharply, then padded away from the Grarrl, who was still watching the Uni, growling to himself.
As they moved towards the Grand Tent Eva changed their path so they circled around towards the back, where all the performers would be waiting. The music grew louder, and she frowned. There was not an incorrect note being played, which wasn't really strange – after all the musicians were very good at what they did – but the music sounded dull and forced. Maybe the conductor had gotten ill.
She reached a place cleared behind the grand tent and saw the silhouettes of the waiting pets and petpets. In particular, she could see the giant bulk of Oscar, towering over everyone else.
She turned to her companions and realised that Harro had disappeared.
"Where did he go?" she asked Labez.
The Magmut was staring back along the way they had come. "I told him to go to Kaulisa's wagon and bring back a potion. It protects against magic. I thought we might need it, but I'm too exhausted to fetch it myself."
Eva stared at him. "Why would we need that? We have Max back now."
"Just in case," Labez said. "I mean, if William could best Max once, he may be able to do it again."
Eva didn't like that thought. "Let's go say hi," she said. "I'm surprised no one has noticed us already."
But it soon became apparent, as they walked towards the Oscar, why no one had noticed them. Usually there would be fidgeting and last minute practising as the music rose to a crescendo. There would be some whispering, and surely they would have been hailed by another petpet by now? But Eva stopped in front of Oscar, and the Turtum stared serenely over her head, while the Maraquan Lupe on his back balanced a ball on his nose in silence.
"There's something wrong," Eva whispered.
Labez was staring gravely up at Oscar. He reached up a hot paw and placed it on Oscar's cheek. The Turtum barely flinched, only lifted his head up out of reach without looking at them.
"Oscar?" Labez asked. "Hello?"
The Turtum's eyes flickered towards them briefly, then away again. Eva turned around, trying to find another friendly face. Armac stood nearby, holding a dozen clubs in his arms, ready to be lit with his fiery breath. But the Cyodrake, who was always practicing his juggling before the show to calm his nerves, was just standing there with his eye closed.
A high-pitched whistle filled the air, and Eva jumped, twirling around at the same moment. Labez still had his paw against his mouth as he looked up at the sky expectantly.
A few seconds later Tarla was above them, wings frantically beating. But there was no greeting, no welcoming back after they had been gone for almost two days. The Beekadoodle hovered with one claw outstretched, waiting for a note to carry.
Labez exchanged a helpless look with Eva. Obviously William had enchanted everyone in the circus. But why? Maybe the petpets had tried to reveal that he wasn't Max, and this is what he had done, Eva thought. Labez had moved over to the Gnorbu clerk that helped the show run like clockwork, and was now tearing off the bottom of his scroll. Eva watched as he delicately traced over the paper with one claw, and where it touched, the paper turned black, leaving words burnt there.
"Roll this up and give it to Tarla," he muttered, and Eva obeyed as wisps of smoke coiled from the paper.
Tarla took it obediently and waited expectantly.
"What are you doing?" Eva asked Labez at last.
"An experiment," he muttered. He turned to Tarla. "Take this message to Max," he instructed.
Immediately the Beekadoodle whizzed off. Eva stared after her, finally seeing what Labez had done. "There's no way Tarla would interrupt the show if she was in her right mind," she said. "Unless she's actually going to find the real Max. What did the message say anyway? I didn't know you could write Pet."
"I just wrote some random squiggly lines," the Magmut admitted.
There was a panting behind them, and Harro jogged up with a vial clamped in his jaws. He looked nervous as he passed through the forest of frozen performers, and seemed relieved when he reached them.
"I got it," he said to Labez after he had spat the vial onto the ground.
"Good," the Magmut said. He quickly burnt through the cork that was the lid and poured a silvery liquid onto his paws. It was almost the same colour as the anti-magic pearl. Then he turned to Harro and carefully traced a line over his forehead from ear to ear. He finished with a few dabs on his eyelids. He did the same for Eva, and then himself.
"Are you sure that's enough?" Eva asked, but she noticed that the vial was empty anyway, so it didn't really make a different.
Labez nodded. "It should be enough to prevent that from happening to us, anyway," he said, pointing towards the still Turtum next to them.
"Then let's go into the tent."
Eva poked her head through the flap and looked around, body tense. The light was dim, but strangely multicoloured, and she could just make out the faces of the expectant crowd. They, at least, were still animated. She saw green Ixi lean over to her companion, a green Zafara, to whisper something. They both wore witches hats, so Eva guessed that was the Haunted Woods side of the audience.
The other side of the tent was where the multicoloured light was coming from. Dispersed among the mostly faerie pets were the glowing bodies of faeries. The brightest was in a cluster of faeries, and was a light pink-purple. It could only be the Faerie Queen, Fyora.
As Labez and Harro followed her inside, the last strains of music faded. Eva glanced at the musicians, who were all sitting unnaturally still, instruments still raised. Then a voice cut through the expectant silence.
"Welcome, one and all," came the unmistakably rich voice of Max. Except it wasn't Max. It was William; Eva could see the goatee on his chin. So where then was Max?
"My name is Max Maxwilliam," William continued, and Eva hissed in outrage as she saw a Floobix sitting on his shoulder. William had obviously renewed his illusion of Mistress Maxie. "And now, ladies and gentleman, you are about to see the most spectacular things," William continued. Eva understood every word, as it was the same words Max spoke every time. "The most daring acts in Neopia. Skills you would never dream to have."
"I think the faeries would dream to have greater skills," Labez whispered.
At that moment William paused and looked up in annoyance, his top hat almost toppling off his head. Eva realised that Tarla must have been hovering above him all this time, waiting to deliver her message. But now her sense of duty must have overwhelmed her patience, and she flew down in front of William's face, thrusting her claw out.
William's mouth bared into a snarl, displaying the many rows of teeth Grarrls possessed, and raised his black staff. Tarla was blown back into the audience by a strong wind. Eva could see the Beekadoodle trying to fly back towards William, but something held her back.
William cleared his throat, cutting through the mutters of the audience. "Now where were we?" he asked, smiling again now.
There was a fluttering sound above Eva's head, and then Mistress Maxie alighted softly beside them.
"Max told me to wait here," she whispered. "I don't know what he's doing."
They watched as William continued to talk, and the audience settled down. Eva felt suddenly sleepy, and yawned, but she shook her head was alert again. Mistress Maxie began to slump down beside her, eyes closing, and she saw that all the audience was also falling asleep as William spoke, his staff glowing a gentle green as he spun in a circle.
Labez cursed and moved over to Mistress Maxie, rubbing the last of the mixture on his paws onto her forehead. She jerked awake.
"W-what happened?" she stuttered.
Labez was eyeing William and his staff. "I think he's hypnotising the entire audience," he said. "We have to do something to stop him."
"But what?" Eva asked, as the two witches she had seen before slumped in their seats. Even the faeries didn't seem able to resist whatever magic William was casting.
"Those pearl thingies!" Harro said suddenly. "You said they exploded, didn't you? Let's use them to distract him."
Eva eyed the string of red beads on her friend's back as Labez nodded.
"It could work," he said.
Then there was a loud ripping noise. A huge hole had been torn in the roof of the Grand Tent, and now a faerie Grarrl flew down, staff raised in front of him as he roared a battle cry. Eva was surprised the noise itself didn't suddenly wake the hundreds of pets and faeries in the tent, but they remained prone.
William looked up, surprise on his face. Then with a roar of his own he leapt up to meet his brother, and battle was joined.
To be continued...