The Greatest Trick the World Has Ever Seen
It was, as the banner put it, the 6th Annual Little Babinny Halloween Festival, a time of tricking, treating, and all manner of spooking. Little Babinny, a humble village on the outskirts of the Haunted Woods, was not remarkable in its celebration of the 31st of Collecting; villages from there to Mystery Island celebrated the haunting holiday every year. Little Babinny, however, was exceptional in one distinct way: no other village, city, or island had one Mr. Jebediah Pratt.
Mr. Pratt was what one might call a jokester. Throughout the year, it would not be uncommon to see him wearing a garish flower pinned to his suspenders which would squirt passersby when they least expected. He would shake hands with his neighbors only to reveal that they were now stuck together due to a quick-acting glue he had lathered on his palm. On one rare occasion, Mr. Pratt had even cobbled together clothes fit for a giant, clambered onto a pair of rickety stilts, and sauntered around town bemoaning how he had grown ten feet overnight.
But Halloween was special. Mr. Pratt was never happier than during the days leading up to Halloween when he would begin work on the most ingenious, bizarre, scary, or downright hilarious trick Little Babinny had ever seen. The children of the village had not cared for this peculiarity at first; when they barraged the owners of the houses with a chorus of "trick or treat!"s, they expected an immediate reward of candy. Mr. Pratt took the statement literally. When first he started on his tricky path, Mr. Pratt had only slipped fake Spyders or Cobralls into their goodie bags, but this soon evolved into posing as a scarecrow in his front lawn and creating the illusion of being nothing but a disembodied head.
It was on one particularly grandiose occasion, when Mr. Pratt rigged a ghostly Korbat to fly down from a nearby and snatch him up into the night, that the people of Little Babinny became acutely aware of just how delightful the Kau's pranks really were. The mayor of the village, a giddy Elephante by the name of Sister Hatchett, proclaimed that beginning that very year, Little Babinny would hold an annual Halloween Festival to showcase all the glories that that fair holiday had to offer. Apples would be bobbed for, pumpkins would be carved, and baking competitions would indubitably be held. Trick-or-treating would, of course, be had by all participants before one final congregation in the town square for the crowning glory of the festival: Mr. Pratt's trick.
The First Annual trick was simply another performance of Mr. Pratt's ghostly Korbat, but from then on, the tricks became ever more fantastical. Mr. Pratt would pose as the mayor and pretend to set fire to town hall, only to reveal that the fire was no more than a clever use of smoke and mirrors and that he himself had gone to great lengths to impersonate that worthy Elephante. Mr. Pratt would give notice of his own demise a week before Halloween only to rise up out of the grave and stalk the poor children of Little Babinny. Mr. Pratt would even, during his Fifth Annual trick, go so far as decorate his house in the style of the Meepit Oaks Sanitorium and hire a cast of actors to provide thrills and chills to all who dared enter those rusted doors.
And here at last was the much-anticipated Sixth Annual Little Babinny Halloween Festival. Mr. Pratt had not been seen in some days, and there was much excited chatter that this trick would be his best yet. The formalities of the Festival were attended to, and the joyous townsfolk enjoyed bobbing for apples in the strange Gnorbu's barrel, telling scary stories around the bonfire in the middle of the square, and digesting Mrs. Goodbody's award-winning pumpkin spice cookies. Anyone present would be hard-pressed to say that a more enjoyable time had ever been had.
The children were sent out for tricks and treats and returned some hours later with bulging tummies and sacks of sugary sweets. Parents chided outwardly and smiled inwardly and rounded everyone up to sit and watch as Mr. Pratt revealed to them the greatest trick Little Babinny had ever seen. There was a stage this time, humble and wooden with nothing to remark it. Mr. Pratt was nowhere to be seen.
Then, a clap of thunder! Lights flickered across the square as smoke began to creep up from hitherto unsuspected vents. The young pets shuffled closer to their parents and even those who were used to Mr. Pratt's antics seemed concerned at this ominous display.
The thunderclaps died and a new sound was heard, deep and booming throughout the square. It was a voice. "Ah... I see you mere mortals have come to see what this... 'Mr. Pratt' has come to offer you. Well, I can assure you of one thing. Mr. Pratt will not be giving you a trick tonight."
A small, quivering voice cried out, "W-why not?"
The booming voice chuckled. "He requested my help as a wizard to perform a truly scary trick tonight, but... I thought I could do better by myself. And I certainly didn't need the help of a silly little Kau."
Another voice interrupted the chilling monologue. "Where's Mr. Pratt, you b-big bully!"
The adults in the crowd held back a snicker, but the omnipresent voice laughed more heartily than all assembled. "Why, he's right here among you! Oh, what's that? You don't see him? Ah, silly me. I suppose the smoke must be blocking your view. Here, let me blow it away for you."
There was a noise like the blowing out of birthday candles, and the smoke cleared from the square almost at once, revealing a slumped form on the stage where before there had been nothing.
"Behold! Your glorious Mr. Pratt, laid low before your very eyes, Little Babinny! From now on, you receive your tricks from me, The Great Grundini!"
As this last pronouncement was made, the street lights flickered to life and shone their light on the figure on the stage. It was Mr. Pratt, staring into the crowd with dull eyes and appearing, for all intents and purposes, to be quite dead.
"You killed him!" wailed the children. "You killed Mr. Pratt!"
"No, not dead," intoned The Great Grundini. "I've simply taken his soul. He lives, but only barely. He is my willing servant now. Speak, Jebediah Pratt."
The body of Mr. Pratt rose from its slump on the stage and turned its face towards the sky. "Yes, Master."
"Now tell me, Jebediah Pratt... will you do anything I ask of you?"
The dialogue might have gone on for any amount of time had it not been for the timely arrival of a young Yurble on the stage. He had gotten away from his parents somehow and stormed the stage in a fit of tears and howls.
"Mr. Pratt, don't do it! You can't listen to that stupid Grundooni! We don't want him to give us tricks! We want you, Mr. Pratt! Please don't do it, we don't want you to!"
For a moment, the Kau's bottom lip quivered as he continued to stare blankly at the stars slowly revolving above. Then, the mouth broke into a broad smile and he bent to scoop the little Yurble up in his arms. "It's all a trick, scamp! I'm not going anywhere. The Great Grundini was just a silly monster I made up to scare you guys!"
The crowd erupted in cheers and whistles as the remainder of the smoke was blown away and last few streetlights turned back on.
The Yurble wiped his eyes with his paws and kicked his stubby legs against Mr. Pratt's broad sides. "I knew you were just joking, Mr. Pratt. You'd h-have to be a baby to fall for something as silly as that Grundooni."
Mr. Pratt gave the boy an affectionate rub on the head before setting him gently on the ground and watching him run back to his parents, who wasted no time in scolding him for ruining the trick. He watched the happy family walk off, a faint smile upon his lips. His enchantment was broken as a heavy weight thumped him on the back.
"You've done it again, Pratt! Another successful Halloween." The weight and the voice both belonged to Sister Hatchett. She made a habit of speaking to Mr. Pratt at the end of every trick and alerting him of what could perhaps be done better next year. As the voice of the people, she liked to think she had some sway over the great trickster's ideas.
"I should think so, Sister Hatchett. I didn't get to finish the whole thing, but... well, who could keep going in the face of little Timmy's tears? I just didn't have the heart!"
"Yes, well, you were as good as ever, Pratt." Sister Hatchett clapped the Kau on the shoulder absentmindedly and seemed to be struggling with a thought. "Ah, Pratt... there's something I feel you should know. And you should hear it from me. And you should certainly hear it before next Halloween. The people are starting to think you're... too phony."
Mr. Pratt looked blankly into Sister Hatchett's pleading eyes. "Too... phony? I create tricks, Mayor Hatchett. The whole point is that they aren't real at the end."
"Oh, well, I know that, and you know that, Pratt, but the townspeople... they want something more real from you. They say that you're good at scaring the children, but the older folks want some scares as well. They want the same feeling they got years ago."
"But my tricks are for the children, Mayor." Mr. Pratt was struggling to understand what was being asked of him. "They're very elaborate, and I don't see how any kid could-"
"It's not about the children, Pratt." Sister Hatchett's voice whipped across Mr. Pratt's soft drone. "Our Halloween Festival is beginning to attract attention from other villages, and I've been receiving requests to allow others to share in Little Babinny's festivities. Things are bigger than they used to be, Pratt. Your tricks were good a few years ago, and I'll be the first to admit that the young ones are still delighted as ever at your smoke and shadows. But if we have mayors from Harper's Crest, Black Forest, or even Glendale coming to the Festival next year, I can't have our biggest attraction playing dress-up for a bunch of two-year-olds."
"I'm... playing dress-up?"
"It's fake, Pratt. Elaborate, showy, wonderfully done farce. If you want to continue your tricks at the Festivals, you're going to need to put together something real for next year. Something to do with magic or science or anything that isn't props and a bit of jiggery-pokery. Do you understand, Pratt?"
Mr. Pratt understood all too well. "I'm no longer good enough."
Sister Hatchett sighed in relief. "Yes, that's precisely it. I trust you won't let me down, Pratt." The Elephante patted Mr. Pratt on the shoulder again before turning and wandering off across the square. "You've got a whole year! I'm sure a tricky Kau such as yourself can cobble something together that doesn't involve any flimflammery."
The walls of Mr. Pratt's residence were bared, stripped naked of its designs for trapdoors, smoke machines, and pyrotechnic displays. The many and varied costumes were thrown to the curb along with blueprints, prototypes, and the remains of a half-eaten casserole. The only thing remaining on the once-vibrant walls of the Pratt household was a single sheet of paper upon which the word "REAL" was written at the top. A single, empty bullet point sat below this word.
Mr. Pratt thought about the words of the venerable mayor. He was no longer in the business of tricks; he had to perform real magic. He rose from his seat before the sheet of paper and scrawled "magic" next to the tiny black dot. He considered the sheet for another moment before writing "science." He followed this up with "NO costumes" and "legitimate change." This last scrawl came with a sudden realization. Mr. Pratt's tricks, it seemed, hinged mostly on one thing appearing to exist as another. Fake Spyders appeared as real ones. Fake fires appeared to exist as real ones. Mr. Pratt appeared as Sister Hatchett. Mr. Pratt appeared as a corpse. Mr. Pratt appeared as The Great Grundini's slave. For these tricks to become real, the deception of appearances would have to mutate into the revelation of facts.
Mr. Pratt sank into his chair, staring at those two words: legitimate change. He tapped his horns with his pencil. Legitimate change. Seen in that light, it would almost be an extension of his current tricks; he would move from an apprentice trickster only bringing about the appearance of change to a master of the art, actually changing things. Perhaps the mayor had done him a favor after all! Mr. Pratt smiled slightly; his craft was about to evolve beyond anything he had imagined.
The month of Storing came and went with many a failed experiment and bellowed oath. Mr. Pratt was no magician nor scientist. He understood only the fundamentals of physics and none of the intricacies of chemistry. Magic eluded him altogether, and he soon realized that that particular field of study was best left to the faeries in their clouds and the wizards in their secret societies. Science was all that was left to him, and Mr. Pratt soon became painfully aware that his skills were woefully inadequate. The past month had involved numerous attempts to change coffee into tea by a variety of inept methods, the most successful of which simply led to the coffee molding.
Mr. Pratt was in dire need of assistance.
In Little Babinny, the Day of Giving meant presents for everyone, both young and old. It was the village tradition to exchange gifts with everyone in town, even if the gift was nothing more than a package of homemade cookies. Townspeople gathered in the square amid the snow and ice to eat, drink, and be merry with one another before traveling to the homes of all those unable to attend. In this way, all of Little Babinny could be infected with good cheer.
Mr. Pratt, a staple of the gathering with his flamboyant, holly-sprigged top hat, was not present on the 25th. The word having got around that Mr. Pratt was being asked to create the greatest trick anyone had ever seen, the people of Little Babinny forgave him this absence and decided instead to visit him at his house and ply him with enough cookies and borovan to keep his spirits up as he toiled away in his workshop of japes. This their mission, the villagers took to the streets and found themselves before long in front of Mr. Pratt's humble abode.
A knock on the door elicited a long silence, a muffled shout, and a rapid pounding as of footsteps. Someone fumbled with a lock on the other side of the door, and suddenly Mr. Pratt's ruddy face appeared in the doorway.
"Happy Day of Giving, Mr. Pratt!" someone shouted from within the throng. "We figured you were working hard to give us the best trick ever, so we decided to bring you some treats to thank you!" Then there were many hearty cheers, and a wave of cookies, pastries, and drinks of all sorts made their way from the crowd into the arms of Mr. Pratt.
After several minutes, the hoard of goodies was assembled just inside Mr. Pratt's doorway, and the Kau himself was shaking hands with everyone he could find within arm's reach. His eyes glistened as he thanked his friends and neighbors over and over again. "I completely forgot what day it was! I'm afraid I haven't prepared anything in return for all these wonderful treats." Mr. Pratt's apologies were quickly hushed up by the crowd, and after exchanging pleasantries for a few moments more, the trickster bade them farewell and closed the door gently on their beaming faces.
As the crowd walked off and their carols faded into the snowy fog, a green Ixi withdrew his solemn face from the window of Mr. Pratt's house and drew the curtains sharply together.
The breakthrough came in the month of Running. There were three of them around the table: Mr. Pratt, the green Ixi with his inexorable mustache, and the yellow Scorchio, mad eyes blazing at the petpet situated on the table between them. It had once resembled a normal Spyder, black and with beady red eyes in all the right places. The Ixi had captured it in a corner of the house and suggested that it would make a good test subject for another run of the experiment.
Potion #9 was, in many respects, little different than the previous eight iterations. The Scorchio believed Krawkium was a key component of the chemical formula necessary to create changes, while the Ixi maintained that the element was far too dangerous to be allowed in the potion. Mr. Pratt, having no knowledge of Krawkium or the associated risks, let the two hired scientists argue it out until the ninth potion was finally created, without the addition of Krawkium. The subsequently liberal application of the concoction to the Spyder had produced effects none of the three could have ever predicted.
After being fed the potion, the Spyder had, at first, simply scuttled about as usual. Gradually, however, and faster as time went on, the petpet began to change. Its many eyes slowly shifted across its head and melded together, creating a singular massive eye, bulging out of the creature's forehead. Two of its legs cracked and shifted towards the front, and each split at the end to reveal secondary eyes, blinking and watering in the dim light of the room. The Spyder's mandibles grew and sharpened, finally ceasing their expansion when they had almost tripled in length. Minor twinges and creaks accompanied a host of other, smaller changes, and when the last sounds had finally died away, the three onlookers were left with a beast that had once been a Spyder but was now... a mutant.
Mr. Pratt broke the stunned silence. "And now, gentleman... how do we do it to a Kau?"
It was two weeks before Halloween. The potion had been successfully made, to the best guesses of all involved. The ocher sludge sat in a small vial on Mr. Pratt's mantle, bubbling and churning as if heated by some unknown source. The Scorchio had departed directly the concoction was made, claiming he had left delicate machinery unattended for far too long. The Ixi, standing in Mr. Pratt's doorway as he was being shown out, had one last word of warning for the good Kau.
"You have something very powerful in your possession, Jebediah. I create for the science and the joy of creating, but I have given you something that I would not use in a thousand years."
"I understand your concerns, my friend, but I'm afraid this is my only shot!" Mr. Pratt was beginning to get chilly with the door open, and he was stepping ever closer to the Ixi in the hopes that he would take a hint and return to his own place of residence.
"You do not understand, Jebediah. That potion will change you... forever. You will no longer be Jebediah Pratt, the yellow Kau. You will be something else. Perhaps a monster. Perhaps a faerie. Perhaps you will transcend a body altogether. I do not know. But you will cease to be Mr. Pratt of Little Babinny."
Mr. Pratt only half-heard the cautionary words. "Yes, yes, I'm well aware of the effects of the potion. Now, if that's all, I believe you said you had somewhere to be?"
The Ixi stared up at the Kau for a moment before tugging gruffly at his mustache, straightening his dirty coat, and shuffling out into the street. Mr. Pratt shut the door behind him with a weary sigh.
And then he was alone with the potion. The Ixi had said it could allow him to transcend his body, as if a ghost. Mr. Pratt removed the vial from the shelf and gently rubbed between his hooves. He could be a true spectre... or the ghoul he had always pretended to be. He could mold his face like putty, becoming the mayor or little Timmy or Fyora or Hubrid Nox or... Or anybody. If the Ixi were right, the possibilities of the little vial were limitless.
Mr. Pratt's hand stole towards the cork in the mouth of the vial and played with its contours. It would be easy to drink it now, to change behind the curtain and appear onstage in two weeks, a beast or a faerie or something else entirely. Mr. Pratt licked his lips at the idea. He would have risen above all other tricksters, becoming that which they only pretended at. He would be the one they pretended to be after this Halloween. And all he had to do was drink the bubbling ooze within that little glass vial.
The Seventh Annual Little Babinny Halloween Festival arrived with much pomp and more than enough circumstance. The mayors of five neighboring villages had come to see what all the fuss was about, and they found the display much to their liking. Pumpkins and apples filled the confections, candy and cookies filled the bellies, and all manner of decorations filled the streets. The night was winding down, though, and it was time at last to see what Mr. Pratt, that celebrated Kau, was going to do for them.
The stage was simple, draped in black velvet with no other adornments. When all were gathered, Mr. Pratt rose and slowly ascended the few steps leading up to the stage. He was dressed well, in his best suit and tie with a ragged bowler hat on his head. He looked out over the audience, closed his eyes for longer than was necessary for a blink, and began to speak:
"Ladies and gentlemen of Little Babinny... honored mayors... boys and girls of all ages... my name is Jebediah Pratt. And today, I am going to perform for you the greatest trick the world has ever seen.
"Often it is said that a trick is the best in the world. I myself have made this claim on more than one occasion, but I am here tonight to tell you that these claims, my own included, are lacking. Not one of them is the greatest trick in the world, nor were they ever. For they were just that: tricks. They involved deception of all sorts, from costumes to distractions to props that would boggle even the most jaded carpenter. What I give you tonight involves none of that.
"You will see, my friends, what happens when science is allowed to run free, when creativity and imagination are without limits. Halloween is a special time for many reasons, but at its heart, it is a celebration of change. The seasons change from warm to cool. Our lives change from a time of plenty to a time of storing. And so too is this trick dedicated. Behold, ladies and gentleman, the transformation of Jebediah Pratt!"
The audience watched with bated breath as Mr. Pratt extended his arms to the heavens and held them there. A keen eye might have spotted the perspiration breaking out on his forehead, and an even keener eye would have noticed the Kau's throat bobbing and twitching as though considering swallowing. The throat heaved up, down, and settled.
And then... Mr. Pratt began to change.