Sunday, 7 July 2013

The House of Masks Revealed

"I suppose," said the owl, "that I should tell you to be careful. Not that it will do much good."

"Why won't it do much good?" Frederick asked.

"I told Lester and James to be careful," the owl said, "they are still missing, unlike the rest of them they haven't been gone long. Maybe they'll come back."

"I don't like this," Phoebe said. "Not one little bit."

"Six people disappear and you're concerned that there may be some kind of a problem?" Frederick said. "Full marks for observation."

"I was expressing my concern," Phoebe snapped. "It was a heartfelt comment, not a clever one."

"Are you going to look for them?" the owl asked. "Because there's really no one else left to, Felix has to guard the wagon, he's been told and I can't leave the castle."

"Castle?" Frederick asked, looking around and up for the usual tall, grey structure sprouting from a nearby hill. There wasn't one that he could see.

"It's a replica," the owl said. "A ghost can haunt anything domestic, scale isn't really an issue."

"You're a ghost?" Phoebe asked. "Fascinating."

"Usually I'd agree," the owl replied. "At the moment it's no more than an inconvenience. I can stay and I can watch, otherwise I am powerless to intervene."

"So where did they go?" Frederick asked looking about the nearby streets. It was near enough dead centre in the period between noon bell and the day bell, the streets of Steephill Fell were bustling.

"They went into the first small alley arcade on the left hand side of the street to the West," the owl said. "Actually they combed the area poking around everywhere. That arcade is the last place that they went. They investigated but then they never came back."

"I guess we'll have to be careful then," Frederick said.

"I'll swear I just made a comment to that effect not thirty seconds ago," the owl said but Phoebe and Frederick were already halfway down the street. "Oh, yes, and goodbye. Hope you find them. Not least because this street corner is really rather tedious."

Frederick was doing a little better now. There was a sense of menace and mystery, nobody had tried to beat him up in just over an hour and he had plenty to think about besides the way Phoebe's hair fell when she tilted her head over to the right in thought. He was most definitely too busy with the disappearances and what-have-you to think about the latter item much at all, and that was definitely a good thing.

"You don't need to stamp about the place looking so serious," Phoebe said from about half a step behind him. "It's not like you're in charge or anything."

The sudden tweak of annoyance in Frederick's gut cleared almost all other thoughts out of his head in an instant.

"I'm just worried," he said. "I don't want to get disappeared like the others."

"Do you not?" Phoebe asked. "Then how do you propose that we find them all?"

"Fine," Frederick said. "We can follow them, but we don't want to get lost like them."

"How do you know?" Phoebe asked. "They might have all gone somewhere so nice they just don't want to come back."

Frederick had to stop and think about that for a second and in that time Phoebe swanned past him and into the arcade. The small ginger tom cat, Harvey, plodded along behind. As they disappeared into the covered passageway Harvey looked back to give Frederick a narrow-eyed grin.

Now it was Frederick's turn to come bustling up the small cobbled passageway behind Phoebe, striding past fishmongers' stalls. The arcade smelled of fish that was on the point of turning ripe, most of the merchants were adjusting their prices downwards, trying to move on whatever it was they had left to get rid of.

"What about these people?" Frederick said as Phoebe studiously ignored the fish traders. Harvey was paying more attention, at least to the merchandise, but he looked as if he hated himself for it.

"They don't know anything," Phoebe announced airily.

"How do you know?" Frederick asked.

"If people disappear the last thing they will have done before they vanished is talk to your common or garden fishmonger or trader in seafood," Phoebe said with the ring of certainty evident in her voice.

"So what will they have done?" Frederick asked.

"Talked to the unusual, shady, creepy or otherwise darkly mysterious purveyor of briny goods, like him," Phoebe said pointing out a dark stall displaying jars of pickled seafood at the very end of the arcade.

"So they talked to him," Frederick said. "What about?"

"Let's find out," Phoebe said and marched over to the stall. "Where are they?" she asked without preamble.

The merchant gave Phoebe a look that indicated that he had seen it all before, even if 'it' was abrupt witches bluntly assuming that you would know what they were talking about, and pointed at the wall opposite his stall.

"You play patty cake with the bricks," he said. "Door opens. Will take you where you need to go."

"Where we need to go?" Phoebe said, looking at the wall. "So it's a different destination for everyone?"

"Don't know," the merchant said. "I just sell pickled seaweed, and other refinements."

"So, what?" Frederick asked, looking at the rather grimy looking wall of dark stone bricks that had been indicated. "We play patty cake? We don't play patty cake?"

"I think we need more information," Phoebe said. "Harvey dear?"

The ginger tom looked up from its activity, sniffing around an unpleasantly wet looking sack to one side of a stall further down the arcade. Harvey came slinking up to Phoebe before transforming back into a rakish red-haired youth.

"What's up, feebs?" Harvey asked.

"There's a portal, in that wall," she said. "What can you tell me about it?"

Harvey went over to the wall and sniffed about.

"Pure mischief," he said. "Not one of the boss's little side doors. This one's from the source. Nobody can control it, not even the boss."

"So if we go through it we won't follow the last people to go through it?" Phoebe asked.

"Can't tell," Harvey said. "sometimes these things won't even take two people who follow one another to the same place, sometimes they switch destinations in the tween, sometimes they just randomly do whatever they feel like doing. They tunnel through time and space, they could send you to the moon in the future, or to the mortal world in the past."

"You're not being very helpful," Phoebe said. "Is there any way we could get more details?"

"If you open it," Harvey said, "I could probably pick up a scent from the other side. While it's closed I can smell the door, and the scent of the people who recently went through, even over the fish, but I can't tell you whether those scents continue on the other side."

"If we open it," Frederick asked. "How do we close it again?"

"Almost all of these things close after about ten minutes, or, in the worst case, in the tween," Harvey said, he spoke a little slower as if telling something to someone slightly backwards.

"What's a tween?" Frederick asked, not caring how dumb people thought he was.

"Magical concept," Phoebe said. "A tween is any place inbetween one thing and another. Doorways in and of themselves are tweens. Crossways are tweens. There are also well established major tweens in time such as midnight, the space between one day and the next. If midnight happens where you are then it tends to reset any non-persistent magical effects in the area."

"So the door will definitely close by itself at midnight?" Frederick asked.

"Nothing will definitely ever happen when it comes to magic, dimbo," Harvey said. "Particularly not when that magical something involves pure magic, straight from the source."

"But it would be highly unusual if it didn't," Phoebe cut in. "Right, Harvey?"

"Hey, he asked a big boy question," Harvey said. "Excuse me for giving him the big boy answer."

"There's a lot of chaos in magic, isn't there?" Frederick said.

"We call it mischief," Harvey said. "Chaos has too many negative connotations."

"This isn't a magical theory lecture," Phoebe said. "We need to find out what's on the other side of that door, and if it's our friends."

With that she stepped up to the wall and slapped out a quick game of patty cake. On the last hand slap her hand penetrated the wall appearing to disappear into the solid stone of the bricks.

"Open," she said. "Harvey, get sniffing."

"Um," Frederick said to the pickle seller. "You might want to make a sign or something, in case we don't go through." The pickle seller looked at Frederick like he was some sort of odd insect that he'd discovered under a rock in his garden. "You know," Frederick said. "Caution... advisory... of caution... no. Okay."

Frederick turned away to see Harvey sniffing around the doorway, in his cat form. The djinn transformed back into his other shape.

"We're in luck, sort of," Harvey said. "The way through still has a scent of the last couple of people to go through."

"Are you sure?" Phoebe asked.

"One of the things that went through this door," Harvey said. "Was very, very tasty, small, grey, furry, likes cheese, you follow my drift? I can't get the smell out of my nostrils."

"What about the others?" Frederick asked. "The little girl? The mermaid?"

"Too long ago," Harvey said. "So, are we going on a mouse hunt."

"Do I have to put you under an injunction, Harvey?" Phoebe asked sternly. The red-headed youth flinched.

"You are about as much fun as, well, you," Harvey complained. "And that is no fun at all. I wish nobody had ever touched that magic shovel. I was having a nice holiday."

"I can only imagine," Phoebe said. "But I won't because it will only make me cross. Come on Frederick, let's get on with it."

"Sir Cobb," Frederick said as Phoebe swished through the magic door. Now he was alone Frederick could not help the urge to further qualify himself. "My name is Sir Cobb, I'm a knight," he said to the pickle merchant.

"You might want to hurry," the merchant said, unimpressed. "Door don't open long."

Frederick gave up on trying to impress upon people his chivalric qualifications and walked through the door behind the others.

"You really need to be more assertive," said the sword at his waist. "As your manager I am concerned that you don't have a strong enough brand."

"A what now?" Frederick asked.

"I'm resident in metal," the sword said. "As such I occasionally receive transmissions of mortal information streams. They, the mortals, have this kind of magic called a brand. You put a brand on something, like a shoe, and its magic makes people want to buy it, well, to own it. They haven't ironed that exact distinction out, causes some problems, anyway...."

"Are you talking to your sword?" Harvey asked.

Frederick realised that Phoebe and Harvey were looking at him. They were stood in a small, bare stone cell on the other side of the door. Phoebe looked as if she was running out of patience. Harvey looked amused, but not in a good way.

"I wondered how you found a conversational companion to be your intellectual equal," Harvey said. "Now I know."

"If everybody's quite finished messing about," Phoebe said. "Harvey, follow the scent."

"I'm just a nose to you," Harvey said. "It's really quite insulting."

With that he turned into a cat and sniffed away along the floor, following the scent he had detected. Phoebe and Frederick followed along behind. They walked down a few musty corridors and up a set of steps to a hallway with many doors leading off it. Harvey sniffed around the edges for a bit before turning back into a boy.

"They walked back and forth here a few times," he said. "I can't tell where they went last, I'm not a dog."

After a short examination of the surrounding rooms all they could find was a broken window in one room and an hourglass on a shelf. Above the hourglass, engraved in a metal plate, was the legend:

Come, spend an hour and visit with us.

"This is it then?" Phoebe said. "We turn the glass?"

"What do you think will happen?" Frederick asked.

"It's an area effect magic, low level, druidic," Harvey said. "Anyone in the room will be caught within the field when it's turned."

"So what will it do?" Frederick asked.

"It's not a door, dimbo," Harvey said. "So I have no idea, something magic."

"Maybe they didn't turn it over," Frederick said.

"Their scent trail says otherwise," Harvey replied. "They went across the hall a couple of times, upstairs for a bit and outside but there's no sign of them further than the sun dial in the back garden."

"Maybe you just can't smell it," Frederick suggested. "After all you're not a dog."

"Hey, whatever makes you comfy, Sir Clueless," Harvey said. "I personally don't really care what you do. I'm just behaving so I don't get any major mojo slapped on me by my burden."

Phoebe glared at Harvey who grinned and then turned back into a cat.

"We've got to go on," Phoebe said. "We don't have a choice, we've come too far."

Frederick shrugged.

"Alright then," he said. "Turn the glass."

Phoebe picked up the hourglass on its little shelf, reversed it and put it back down. The sand began to run through the pinch in the centre. Instantly Frederick felt like the bottom had fallen out of his stomach. His head felt dizzy and his breath caught in his throat.

"Oh wow!" said an excited voice behind him. "Even more visitors!"

Things had changed. The sound of jaunty folk music stuttered through the air forming a bed to a murmur of conversation, the odd shout or scream of delight and the occasional eruption of laughter, or applause, or both. As Frederick inhaled he caught the scent of roasted meats in competition with the sharp sweetness of sugary things, probably cakes.

Frederick had not eaten a proper meal in a long time. Being a travelling knight and an incompetent cook he had neither the money nor the skill to find good food for himself. He subsisted on energy-providing stodge with a side order of telling yourself that it was all for the greater good.

Suddenly finding himself at a party, the air itself changed from cool and still to warm and vibrant, Frederick didn't really know what to do next. A small, bearded man wearing a long nosed mask and with a brightly coloured conical cardboard hat perched upon his head came round to study Frederick. Cheerful eyes twinkled as they looked him up and down.

"A beautiful girl, a handsome knight and..." the little man looked at Harvey sat on the floor and surveying the scene half-hungry, half-suspicious, "...and an animal, all guests at the party now!"

"What party?" Phoebe asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

"You've arrived at the House of Mirth, my dear," the little man said. "Where the party continues through the day and the night."

"What's the party for?" Phoebe asked.

"For?" the little man said. "Who said a party had to be 'for' something? At the House of Mirth laughter and levity are more than occasional, they are the very stuff of life. Come, let me show you the buffet, let me show you the musicians, the dancing, the entertainment. At midnight will be the great unmasking and then the festivities will be over for today. You can stay until then? Of course you can! Oh, but you will need masks."

"Uh," Frederick said. The smell of the food was making his belly growl, the evident jollity was enticing, at the same time Frederick could tell that something was off here.

"Excuse my silly friend," Phoebe cut across Frederick before he could rouse himself to a sensible response. "He has few wits and even fewer manners. I will certainly need to give him a firm talking to prior to entering the party. Particularly if he is to be masked. Who knows what he will get up to otherwise?"

"I am sure that he will get into the swing of things," the little man said. "Now is not the time for blame or recriminations. Fear and sadness have no place in the House of Mirth."

"I understand," Phoebe said, an edge to her voice. "However we must confess that we did not know that we would be coming to a party, so we are ill prepared for the party mood. A few moments and we will be ready to pull on our masks and join in the fun."

"Ah, but fun flows like a river throughout the House..."


The little man keeled over and fell to the floor unconscious. Harvey stood behind him holding a piece of wood with a jewel at one end, possibly a magic wand.

"That," he said. "Is how you deal with trouble like that."

"Trouble?" Frederick said. "I don't understand."

"Why am I not surprised?" Harvey said.

"This isn't a party, Frederick," Phoebe said. "It's a trap."

"A trap?" Frederick asked. "A trap with a buffet, dancing, entertainment and masks?"

"The worst kind," Harvey said. "I can smell the mischief in this place, and it's curdled. Mischief turned this bad is like poison."

"Party poopers!" declared a voice at the door to the room. "New arrivals! And they're party poopers!"

Frederick turned around to see the owner of this new voice, high-pitched and ringing, the kind of voice that was used to obedience. The voice came from a tall, slim woman in a sparkling party frock, on her finger she wore an enormous ruby set into a ring and the rest of her outfit appeared to follow on from that key feature. Currently she was pointing the ring in the direction of Phoebe, Harvey and Frederick. The ruby was glowing with a dangerous red light.

"Party poopers must become the life and soul, because this is my day, my sweet sixteen and nobody is going to ruin it for me," the young woman said.

The last thing that Frederick remembered before being swallowed by the bright red light was Harvey, shifting to cat form and dodging past the woman. Then Frederick stopped worrying and wondered whether there were any prawns on the buffet. He liked prawns.

Frederick and Phoebe were in trouble, but they escaped from the House of Mirth and with them they brought James, Lester, the gnome and all their other friends. How they did it is a story for another time.

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