Lester was not comfortable with the idea that he had become used to explosions and noise and confusion. If he was even close to being comfortable with any of those things he would have to opt for being comfortable with confusion. The only thing that prevented him from sinking into a protracted all-enveloping delirium was that confusion was so, well, befuddling. He hated being befuddled, wrong-footed, misdirected, at cross purposes and hence he hated being confused.
It was a shame that so much of his life was so confusing these days.
"I'm..." Lester said, staring at the piece of thick moulded card and leather in his hand, "I'm not Duke Morpazzo."
"You certainly aren't," James said from Lester's pocket. "You might, however, get fried by plasma if you make a wrong move."
The erstwhile identity of Duke Morpazzo was vigorously sinking into the corners of Lester's mind before draining away into his subconscious forever. Lester looked away from the mask that had subsumed his personality for an uncertain period of time at just the moment that a screaming ball of burning witch flew past the right side of his field of vision.
Not wishing to recover his identity only to be instantly set on fire, Lester ducked to the left, startling a crowd of bewildered strangers all staring down at masks. It only took their concentration to be refocused for a second before the screaming and shouting started.
In trying to avoid being burned to death Lester had preciptated a panic stampede that could well lead to him being crushed instead. Before things could get too far out of hand a massive explosion rocked the walls of the party venue accompanied by a bright flash of pink-purple light.
"Everybody!" screamed a voice that Lester only just recognised as belonging to Phoebe September, "Party time is over! Time to go home."
"You miserable little witch," came another voice from the far corner. "This party is mine and it's not over until I say it is."
A hush fell over the crowd as a scorched and ragged Lady Crimzona tramped out of the corner, wild-eyed and furious, to face the witch who had covered her in sooty plasmic discharge. Outside in the garden forks of lightning could be seen in the clouds above, a rumble of thunder sounded, only just more ominous than the sounds of Phoebe's magical workings.
"Ladies," a third voice that Lester didn't recognize cut in. "I think that we can all agree that it's been a long evening, and a splendid party, is this the way you want to send your guests home, Lady Crimzona?"
"Who are you?" Lady Crimzona demanded of the still masked guest, a rakish youth whose only visible physical feature was a wiry explosion of red hair poking over the top of his mask. "And what's this got to do with you?"
"Harvey," Phoebe said, her voice low and dangerous, "you have my full permission to show this evil bully exactly who you are..."
"You sure-" the youth, Harvey, said, a look of surprise evident even under the jocular facade of his party mask.
"...this," Phoebe intoned darkly. "I do command thee."
Harvey shrugged and turned his attention to Lady Crimzona.
"You heard the lady," he said apologetically. "She commanded me."
A tail appeared out of the back of the young man's breeches and whipped through the air switching first right and then hard left. It even appeared to make a cracking noise as it reached the end of its journey.
As the switch noise completed the crack noise overlapped seamlessly with a popping sound coming from the direction of Lady Crimzona.
"Oh dear," she said. "I don't feel at all... well... Oh!"
With that Lady Crimzona began to expand, bulking out and, at the same time, sprouting a thick red fur on her neck and the back of her arms. Her hands began to elongate, the tips of the nails sharpening into claws. At the same time her legs became shorter, stubbier while her face began to poke outwards, the flesh on her face darkening to be come a muddy reddish and wrinkled leather snout.
The Crimzona-thing tried to speak again but her voice had disappeared in a number of squawks, clicks and squeaks. Her arms began to broaden and flatten and she fell forward onto the floor.
Within a few moments the hostess of the world's longest, and least amusing, party had transformed from a sharp, pale-skinned young woman into a giant bloated red bat. The Crimzona bat picked up its head and squawked ay the assembled gathering. It flexed its clawed wings and pulled itself toward the window.
"Harvey," Phoebe said. "You appear to have changed her into a bat."
"Pure unfiltered mischief Feebs, I don't have any control over the effect," Harvey replied. "Usually it would turn her into something harmless, but there's too much sour mischief hanging over this house. Must have warped the effect."
"A giant bat," Phoebe said. "Is not much of an improvement over an insane sorceress."
"But can we both agree that it is an improvement?" Harvey asked as the bat pulled itself out of the window.
"Well, nice to see that after the party things quickly return to their usual state," James said from Lester's pocket.
"Not now!" Both Lester and Phoebe said to their respective companions simultaneously even as the bat spread its wings and took to the air.
Phoebe and Harvey both raced over to the window. Harvey reached the sill a few seconds ahead of Phoebe and swiftly vaulted through the window, to hit the path beyond, running. Wearing a ridiculous flouncy party frock Phoebe could not do the same. She resolved the problem by just blasting a hole in the wall and stomping off after the bat and Harvey.
"One thing I'll say for that girl," James remarked. "She'd save you a bunch of money if you ever came to need an extension."
"An extension to what?" Lester asked.
"Rhetorical comment in a different cultural idiom," James replied. "Pretend I didn't say anything. Are you going to stand here all night then?"
"Uh, no, I guess not," Lester said. He picked his way through the crowd to reach the hole in the wall the same time as another freed party guest.
At first he didn't recognize the slim young woman who was also chasing after Phoebe into the garden. This was because the last time he'd seen her she was entirely surrounded by water and hadn't had any feet.
"Eos?" he said.
"Lester?" Eos responded.
"You have legs," Lester replied. He was caught in the throes of that awkwardness that can only really occur when one encounters someone for the second time and realises that on the first occasion that person had been in dire straits and you had done nothing to help them, in fact, you may even have contributed to their many troubles.
"I do," she said. She walked through the hole in the wall, using the legs that Lester had referenced and strode confidently off into the night after Phoebe's retreating form.
"You should try to monetize awkward," James said. "You produce so much of it."
Lester did not feel like telling the sarcastic rodent to be quiet again, he knew it would not be his last opportunity to do so. Instead he followed on after Eos, walking with that awkward half-skipping gait that signalled you were keen to catch up to someone but did not want to commit to actually running.
"I, uh, I would have probably released you," Lester said. "I don't think the man in the tall hat was coming back. Once I'd worked that out, well, uh..."
Eos didn't say anything or look at him, she just kept on walking after Phoebe.
"The words you're looking for," James whispered. "Are 'I'm sorry'."
"Oh, yes," Lester said a little too loud, "I'm really sorry. It was just all so... well it hasn't stopped really... I was confused. But I never wanted to keep anyone in a tank. I'm just... looking for my brother."
"We'll talk about it later," Eos grated. "If we have to talk about it at all. I personally would as soon forget all about it."
Further conversation was cut off as a giant red-furred bat flew out of the night sky to land heavily a few feet in front of them.
"I think we might have missed something," James said as the bat pulled itself up onto its feet with the spindly limbs that formed the outside frame of its wings.
The bat squawked groggily and then, upon seeing Lester, James and Eos in front of it bellowed again, a high pitched, furious shriek before launching itself at them. It didn't get very far, however, it fell again, knocked out of the air by an enthusiastic looking Sir Cobb who had kicked the bat down and was now swooping his sword in for a final blow.
In the last seconds before the bat met its doom at the point of Frederick's sword Lester had time to register Phoebe, Harvey, the gnome and a goblin that Lester had never met before frantically shouting at the knight to hold on. Frederick did not hold on. With a grim sense of purpose he ran the bat through with his sword and the giant monster, quivering, fell dead on the floor.
"Oh, criminy, no," Harvey said. "You really shouldn't be allowed to handle so much as a spoon without a safety cord."
Registering the people standing next to the newly expired giant bat a look of alarm came onto Harvey's face. The wiry young man ran forward waving his arms in the general direction of Lester and Eos.
"Get back!" he shouted. "You have to get back!"
Lester and Eos began to back away, before they had got too far, however a new complication arose.
"James!" shouted the little girl Lester remembered from the market, moments before the incident with the broom and the troll. "James! Is it you?"
Lester looked down at James, his head sticking out of Lester's breast pocket.
"Don't leave her," James said to Lester, his tone dark.
Lester had another opportunity to feel too slow as he felt Eos brush past him, running towards Rachel.
"Rachel!" Eos shouted. "Don't go near the bat!"
On the floor the body of the bat was beginning to glow with a bright pink-white light, a tone was rising, harmonic but sharp, the kind of noise that set your teeth on edge. Lester unfroze, following on after Eos just as Harvey launched himself at Frederick tackling him to get him off the top of the bat as the sharp tone rose to its crescendo.
In the last moments before the bat exploded Lester got a vague impression that he was right behind Eos, who was shielding Rachel whilst Harvey and Frederick had fallen to the opposite side of the fallen bat. Harvey was trying to do something magical, Lester didn't know what that might be.
Then there was a gigantic squeaking pop, a sound, rather like the universe burping, and everything went white.
There were a couple of moments of silence and then the quavering voice of a scared little girl said:
"I'm here Rachel," said James from Lester's pocket.
"But where is here?" said another female voice, Eos.
Lester's eyes were still dazzled by the light of the exploding bat. He blinked a couple of times but everything stayed dazzlingly bright. He turned his head to one side to see that he was lying a few feet away from the slumbering form of the gnome. Lester could feel the sun on his skin. Beyond the blurry form of the gnome were a number of standing structures, wooden poles emerging from holes in the surface of the enormous stone slab.
"That's a very good question," James said. "Where are we?"
It appeared that life was not going to get any less confusing for Lester any time soon. He would, at least, be able to get his bearings, but that will be in a story I tell another day.