“Fetch your parents, kiddos,” said Nik’s brother, barely finishing his sentence before Liz and Ed had vanished – disappearing through a gap in the tents that looked too small to fit through, even for them.
[Hmm. I Did Not Expect There To Be A Single Eunice Lamia In The Carnival,] said Twelfth, looking down at the squirming vampire. [You Can Probably Let Her Up Now. Eunice Are Not Notably Strong. Well. Not Compared To Me.]
Red snorted at that, but he snapped his fingers – a ringing sound from his crystal hand – and the vampire, the Eunice lamia, sprung to her feet. The five-petalled maw folded back up, slotting into the shape of a face while, with a series of horrible cracks and squelching sounds, claws retracted, limbs straightened and flesh knit back into a semblance of the strange lady.
“You didn’t let me eat her,” she said matter-of-factly, pouting at Red.
He glanced at Twelfth. “These vampires aren’t very bright, are they?”
[It Is Rare For Them To Interact With Non-Mesmerised Creatures. I Suspect She Is Not Used To Making Conversation.]
The petulance in the vampire’s voice was increasing. “You’re not thinking the right things!”
“It’s a pain when that happens,” the fortune teller said, “especially when someone’s keeping a lid on your ability to affect minds.”
“That’s you?” The vampire blinked oddly, eyes out of sync with each other. “You’re quieting my thinks?”
“Well, Red thinks he’s helping, but it’s mostly me.”
Red was half a syllable through a sarcastic retort when the vampire struck, lunging for Nik’s brother so fast, she was a blur.
But Twelfth was faster. Before Alice even flinched from the strange woman’s lunge there was a whipcrack as the Bookbinder darted forwards, wrenching the vampire backwards and away from the group, hissing and growling.
“Doesn’t know when to quit, does she?” said the fortune teller, showing an astounding level of sangfroid for someone who had just barely avoided having his head being bitten off.
Oh right, precognition, Alice thought.
“I’d only have bitten him a little,” the vampire protested, wriggling feebly in an attempt to dislodge herself from Twelfth, who was holding her by each limb – a benefit of having four arms.
[I Am Letting You Go Now. Please Do Not Try Anything.]
The vampire nodded huffily as she was returned to her feet, folding her arms in an exaggerated gesture. Alice was almost surprised that she didn’t stamp her feet.
“So,” Alice said, “what do we do with her now? Are we citizen’s arresting her? Do we have to hand her in at the nearest police station or something?”
Nik’s brother sounded fakely crestfallen. “You mean we can’t have her join our little wandering gang?”
“She tried to kill you. She tried to kill me!”
“You’ve gotta stop judging people before you’ve got to know them, Alice.”
“I know,” she retorted, “now I’ve got to know you, you’re far dumber and more annoying.”
“Yeah! And you wouldn’t have known that from first impressions.”
Red interrupted her next retort. “Hush, children,” he said wearily, “now, vampire… wait, do you have a name? It feels kinda weird to call you ‘vampire’ all the time.”
The vampire looked first startled, then confused. “No-one’s asked me that before. My name was Heidi, ages and ages ago.”
“Well, Heidi,” said Red, “the nice Bookbinder – who I also didn’t catch the name of – and I are going to take you to visit a friend of mine who’s about. He can set you up with an, er, vampire support group.”
[My Name Is Twelfth Zephyr To You, Of The Red Right Hand.] The Bookbinder’s ‘voice’ carried a tone on the polite side of frosty.
Red turned from Heidi to Twelfth. “Er. You know of me?”
[It Is Possible. I Am Sure We Can Discuss It At Length While Finding This Friend Of Yours.]
Twelfth had drawn herself up to her full height, so Red had to crane his neck to look her in the eyeless mask.
He swallowed nervously. “Ah. Well, Heidi, c’mon. We can’t have you hanging around here eating the Carnival’s customers. I think Lord Kairon has a representative or two holding stall around here somewhere.”
An uncomfortable Red, a mildly reluctant Heidi and an impassive Twelfth had barely turned the corner when the fortune teller doubled over, laughing his head off.
“Oh, merciful gods, Red’s in troub-le,” he wheezed in between bursts of cackling.
Alice snorted. “How am I not surprised.”
Any further questions she had were cut short when Liz and Ed reappeared, their parents trailing behind them.
– – –
“And then you showed up,” Nik’s brother said, “and then you asked us for an explanation, so we came here to this café to have a sit-down and Alice started by saying that she’d just visited the b-”
Alan held up a hand. “Thank you. I was here for that bit.”
“The readers weren’t! They had to get the whole thing a measly first-hand!
“I think you can safely ignore him, now,” said Alice.
“Certainly,” said A Librarian, “I’ve met him before, you know. In any case, Alice, I’m sorry that happened to you – we should have been more attentive to a newcomer, especially in a place like this.”
“Sorry mum, sorry Alice,” Liz said, “me and Ed should have kept better watch. She was just going to the loo!”
“Elizabeth,” her mother replied, “what happened was absolutely not your fault, but you do need to keep a better eye on people. Not everyone has the… affinity with the Carnival that you and your brother do. That goes for you too, Edward.”
Liz and Ed nodded ruefully.
Alan, who had been looking pensive since Alice and Nik’s brother had finished telling their story, leaned forwards. “You’ve met Red before, Alice?”
“Erm, yeah. He offered to take me back home the first time. It didn’t work, and because he’d Vowed to help me, he’s kinda… stuck around.”
“Hmm.” Alan looked perturbed. “The fact that he did that is… troubling. I’ve only met him a few times, but some stuff an acquaintance of mine said about him – it paints a rather worrying picture.”
“What kind of picture?”
Alan pulled a face. “I don’t really like repeating the speculation – you can read the notes my friend gave me when we get back to my home, and I’ll make you a copy if you want – but there’s stuff in there about demonic cults, conspiracy to corrupt the core concepts of entire Realms and a bunch of other stuff that’s equally serious. Understand, Alice, that these are just mostly unsourced allegations, and could well be paranoid speculation on the part of my friend.”
“Does your friend have a name?”
“Er, actually, no. They never really did. I haven’t seen them for a very long time, not since Liz was small.”
“Demon cults sound kinda serious.”
“Yeah, well,” he said, “I’m not sure if I believe that bit myself. Now I’ve said it all out loud, it sounds very far-fetched.”
“I don’t know him too well, but none of this really sounds plausible,” she said, shrugging.
Nik’s brother piped up. “Says the girl talking to a monster hunter in a living Carnival.”
“Touché. And, I mean, I don’t exactly trust Red – but he’s not really done anything to break what little trust I’ve put in him. I’d still like to read those notes, though.”
“They’re really boring.” The fortune teller was folding his napkin into some kind of origami octopus.
“No-one asked you.”
“Well, that’s because… oh hey, it’s a distraction!” He pointed over Alice’s shoulder, wide-eyed.
“Seriously? Like I’m gonna fall for th-” she began, before she heard a familiar voice.
“Oh hey, there you are! I hope you haven’t been causing trouble, brother.”
It was Nik, accompanied by A Librarian – the one who wasn’t Liz and Ed’s mother.
“Haha, who, me? I’d never,” said the fortune teller, in the what was surely the least effective reassurance in living memory.
“Hmm. I’ll believe that when I see it. How’s the Carnival been treating you?”
“I nearly got my head bitten off,” she said.
Nik was, briefly, at a loss for words.
“What?” demanded A Librarian, “wh- who? How? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Alice replied. “Look, I can explain what happened, just – ah, dangit, I’ve just told Alan and A Librarian, here, and I feel like I’m repeating myself.”
Nik’s brother sounded supernaturally smug. “Toldya you should have waited until the gang was back together before going Full Exposition.”