Liz had assured her that the ‘candyfloss’ wasn’t dangerous, poisonous or otherwise strange, but Alice still approached the blue-and-pink confection onna stick she was handed with a degree of trepidation.
In a pleasant surprise, it was absolutely delicious and remarkably sticky, the second property realised only too late, as it affixed to her hands and cheeks in a tacky mess. Attempting to lick it off her fingers managed to transfer some more of it to her face, whereupon she gave up and asked Nik’s brother.
“Hey, where’re the bathrooms?”
“Well, oh sticky miss, they’re just behind yonder blue and yellow spotted tent. The middle tap on the sinks dispenses water at a comfortable temperature for you.”
– – –
The bathrooms had been exactly where he said they were, although they were mounted on lots of little legs, so who knew how long they’d stay there. Newly rinsed, she started making her way back to where she’d last seen the candyfloss stand, got turned around in the psychedelic canvas maze that was the Carnival and came face to face with a dead end.
“Aw piss, I could’ve swore that this was the right way…” she trailed off as she realised that she wasn’t alone. The strange un-realness that had come to her via the noise and smells of the Carnival was peaking, and she stared blankly at the other person for an uncomfortable period until the fog cleared and she realised what, or who, she was looking at.
“Hello. Are you a human being?”
“Er,” said Alice, “yes I am. Are you alright?”
The woman was gaunt and slightly-crazed looking, in a battered coat far too big for her along with a multi-layer collection of patched and threadbare clothes. Her feet were bare, and she shivered as she slowly closed the distance between her and Alice.
“You smell of food.”
“Um… oh! I don’t have any candyfloss on me at the moment, but I’m sure my friends could spare some.”
“You will feed me.”
Alice squinted at the strange woman. “What’re you doing in the Carnival?”
Her face lit up. “A story! I know these things, because they happened.”
Alice began to say something in reply, but the words caught in her throat, and before she’d had time to think about it, she’d forgotten what she was going to say.
The strange woman kept talking as her words faltered. “I got lost, mother said I’d always get lost. I stepped through a door that wasn’t there yesterday and found a place full of flowers. Then the door disappeared, so I ran from the flowers until I found the Carnival.
“They said the Carnival went anywhere, so I decided to wait until they went to home. I think it was… fifty summers ago? I don’t remember.”
A buzzing whine filled Alice’s ears, her mouth, her eyes, her mind, choking out all thought, all sensation. The only thing remaining was the strange woman, chattering away, and that was strangely comforting. It seemed an island of normalcy in a blur of strange movement and unknown things.
“Then a tall man caught me. His hands were very cold. He opened his mouths too wide.” She paused a moment, before resuming in a sombre tone. “That was how I died.”
Alice would have thought that was an odd turn of phrase, but the thought didn’t quite… connect. The vagueness and confusion, the buzzing had mostly lifted, and now everything was exactly as expected. Apart from a slight niggle at the edge of her perception, things were clear.
The reddish glint in her new friend’s eyes was normal. The icy hands that gripped her by the shoulders were like the usual, although her friend had a grip like a steel trap. Then, as she expected, her friend’s eyes rolled back into her head as her face opened like a five-petalled flower filled with pointed teeth. Something still bothered her, in the back of her mind, and Alice thought she might mention that. Her new friend must not have noticed that something wasn’t quite right with this situation, because she continued to open her face, rows and rows of fangs glistening in the lights of the Carnival.
Alice glanced around again, trying to see if anything was amiss, the niggling feeling that something was wrong refusing to leave her brain. The tents all looked fine and there was no-one else around, apart from something being wrong, but her search was cut off as her new friend gently grabbed her chin, and pulled her head over to the side. In a friendly gesture, the strange woman leaned towards her, opening that gigantic fivefold mouth even wider into what Alice was sure was a friendly smile. She couldn’t, however, shake the feeling that something was very wrong.
Just as the jaws of her new friend lined up with her exposed neck, something red darted out from behind the woman, wrapping itself around her neck. With a creak, the tendril went taught, yanking Alice’s new friend off her feet and into the air, and backwards. She went flying down the alley between the tents, over the head of a figure standing halfway down the alleyway. They were holding, Alice realised, the other end of the tendril wrapped around her new friend, who was still hurtling backwards.
She was about to say something, yell at the figure to leave her friend alone, when the strange woman, still on the end of the tendril, smacked into the tent at the end of the alley with a crunch, and suddenly the gaps in Alice’s perception filled – a single burst of shocking realisation.
“Wh… what the hell?” she whispered, collapsing to her knees. That… that thing had been about to tear her throat out, and she hadn’t noticed. She’d pretty much sleepwalked into being eaten alive, until that person with the red – wait.
“Are you okay?” Red sounded wary as he approached her. The translucent tendril had retracted back to his right hand and evaporated in a puff of scarlet smoke.
“Yes. This is important, Alice. Do you know where you are? Who you are? Heck, who I am?”
She blinked at him for a second. “Er. Yes?”
He sighed, suddenly relieved. “Right, that’s great. Now, let’s get you out of here, before your new friend-”
He was cut off by an ear-splitting, shrill scream, as the strange woman burst from the tent she’d crashed into, giant fanged mouthparts clacking and slavering as she turned towards the two of them.
“Yeesh, Alice,” said Red, “you sure know how to pick ‘em.”
“I did not pick her.”
Red splayed the floating fingers on his right hand, translucent tentacles shooting from his palm, spearing towards the strange woman as she ran towards them. With alarming speed, she dodged, weaving between the strikes so fast Alice could barely see her move.
“I hate-” Red said, a series of hand motions sending the tentacles of crimson smoke whirling through the air, desperately grabbing for the woman – “vampires.”
“She’s a vampire?” Alice asked, incredulous despite herself. “I thought those were, you know, sexier.”
“There’s no accounting for taste,” he replied, “but this is not one of the sexy types of vampire.”
The vampire, for all Red’s attempts to stymie its progress, was advancing, and the red smoke constructs he was using to keep it away were getting hazier and hazier as she batted the tendrils of coalescing mist aside. She was striding, as if through dense undergrowth, towards them, hissing and growling.
“███ ██████ █████!” Red shouted, his words solidifying as they left his lips, impressions of sharpness, ripples of pointed air that leapt at the strange woman, piercing her in the torso, head and limbs. Despite the teeth-shakingly loud and angry shriek she made in response, whatever Red had done didn’t seem to have worked. That was until he said something else, another phrase in the not-language that fizzed in Alice’s ears, and the creature stopped short as the words embedded in her hide froze in place.
Red sagged, a few gestures from his right hand clearing the smoke from the alleyway.
“Er,” said Alice, watching as the strange woman struggled frenziedly, pinned like a mosquito on a corkboard, “she’s gonna get out of that, I think.”
“Mmm-hmm.” was Red’s response. He was drawing a complicated sigil in the air with streamers of light that flared crimson when he finished.
“You wish to trade favours?” a voice issued from the burning symbol like a slab of cold lead hitting Alice in the brain.
“Yup. Squish that vampire.”
“A single favour.”
The symbol vanished in a burst of dark crimson flame that looked briefly like a skull, and the vampire crumpled to the ground, tearing free of Red’s sharp words. She struggled weakly, but gave every impression of being stuck under a huge invisible anvil. Around her, in a perfect circle, grass was flattened and a depression in the ground started to form, like she was pinned under the thumb of a giant.
Alice gawked. “How? How did you do that?”
“Friend owed me a favour.”
“Okay, but how?”
“A magician nev- ow! What the hell?”
“You were about to be unnecessarily mysterious with me again,” she explained, “so I kicked you in the shin.”
Red snapped his fingers, and a tentacle of smoke whisked her feet from under her, sending her sprawling.
“Are we done being childish yet?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she replied, taking his offered left hand to help herself up. “But I’m still interested in how you did that.”
“Firstly; my friend did that, not me. Secondly, it’s gravity magic. Don’t touch that.”
Alice stopped looking at the vampire. “I wasn’t going to,” she said unconvincingly.
“You’d probably break your hand on the tides if you tried that.”
“Okay,” she squeaked. “No touchy. I get that.”
“Now, some Carnival people must have heard the shrieking,” he said, glancing down the alley, “I’m surprised they haven’t turned up y-”
“Red!” boomed a familiar voice, echoing improbably about the tents.
Red froze. “Oh no,” he said under his breath.
Nik’s brother rounded the corner, trailed by Liz, Ed and Twelfth.
“Red, Red, Red! Long time, no see! I was almost thinking you’d been avoiding me!”
Red’s response to that was unprintable*.