You're driving down the highway on a warm July evening, the car radio barely audible above the drone of the engine and the hum of air conditioning.
You had gone out for an errand, but for some inexplicable reason cannot remember what it was: To get a quart of ice cream? No. Milk? That's not it, either. Return a video rental? Perhaps.
Whatever the reason, you are unconcerned by your failing memory... It's a nice night for a drive. Even though the highway is lined on either side by high-powered street lights, the stars are still visible, dusting the sky before you like sequins on a Las Vegas jumpsuit.
Just then, the sound of laughter and friendly chatter break into your reverie, and you discover that you've driven past the shopping center with the supermarket and video store, and ended up instead in a rather peculiar cul-de-sac. The houses in this place all seem normal enough: single family homes with two door garages and manicured lawns, and the cars that go into those garages are also quite normal.
But it's obvious that this is not a normal neighborhood. For neatly "parked" around the circle of asphalt is the strangest collection of objects you have ever seen: Several old-fashioned British police boxes, free standing doors (that's free-standing not leaning against anything), grandfather clocks, Italianate wardrobes, black metallic cubes, and (could it be?) a submarine on wheels?!!
At the epicenter of all this weirdness, at the very center of the cul-de-sac's arc, is the smallest and least assuming of the houses. Small, with gray siding, and slate blue fake shutters, it is the only one storey house on the lot. Only two things set it apart from its neighbors: the bushes planted at the foundation are not as neatly trimmed, at on the lamppost at the bottom of its driveway is taped the following sign (In purple and pink lettering, with gold and silver foil stars pasted around the edge):
"Pro-Fun Troll ?!?" you think, "What the ??"
In any case, this is definitely the source of the laughter and music you heard. Though (as curiosity overrides your natural born common sense and you get out of the car to investigate), it now strikes you as very odd indeed that you heard anything at all, considering that your own car radio was barely audible. What's more, the neighbors seem completely oblivious to the strangeness going on just outside their doors?
Still, whatever's going on, it sounds like fun, and the sign does say "All Welcome!"
So you add your car to the odd assemblage, cautiously go up to the front door, and peek inside.
What you see is impossible. For what appears to be a simple suburban ranch on the outside is a massive barn, inside (One that, for sheer size, would give an industrial dairy barn a decent run for its money, but that seems, by construction technique, to belong to the 19th century).
Nearly every inch of the massive oak timbers is festooned with balloons and streamers. Large tables made from planks laid across sawhorses are scattered throughout the space, each one laden with platters of every kind of food, from sweet to spicy, vegan to carnivore.
And it is clear to see why. This is the most diverse group of partygoers you have ever seen. A great number of them don't even seem human, but rather, short creatures with pot bellies, long noses, huge feet, big ears, and skin colors that seem to have come right out of a box of crayons. And all of them are wearing birthday hats.
Suddenly, the crowd begins to coalesce and the chatter stops. All eyes now turn to a small circular stage in the center of the floor.
One of the odd creatures, with avacado green skin, and dressed in a fishing vest, hops up before the microphone, opens her arms wide, and announces simply: "Welcome!" Her broad grin lingers awhile, then she continues: "This party started a little bit later than we expected this year, but that just may mean it'll be better than ever. We will try our darnednest to make sure you get home tonight without risking life or limb, but... Based on precedent set by our earlier hoedowns, I can not make any guarantees. But come hell or high water, we will have fun!"
She then pulls a full-sized fiddle out from one of the fishing vest's pockets, and begins to play as she sings:
"Pro-fun trolls, won't you come out tonight,
Come out tonight, come out tonight?
Pro-fun trolls, won't you come out tonight,
And dance by the light of the mo-o-on?
"Yes, fanboys, we'll come out tonight,
"As I was walking down the street
"I danced with a companion with a hole in her stockin',
"Pro-fun trolls, won't you come out tonight,
In answer to this last question, as if on cue, the crowd answers: "Yes! Let's!" And a wild cheer goes up.
The roar dies away, and you consider heading to the door, before risk to life or limb comes to you, when you feel a tug on your pant leg.
Looking down, you see a little turquoise colored troll (for such she must be). She's wearing a child's play cowboy costume, complete with a deputy's big silver star, and she's holding up a bag of sweets in your direction.
"Would you like a jelly-baby?" she asks.
Not wanting to offend, you reach in and take one. It just happens to be your favorite flavor. Popping into your mouth, you think: "This could be a very interesting night."
A mobile pile of boxes staggers in through the door, and over to one of the tables.
This table is slightly different from most of the others: where they're laden with various types of food, this one has bottles, cartons, containers, teapots, caffienators, soda cans... virtually every type of drink container imaginable.
Set behind the table, for no readily apparent reason, is a bubbling cauldron.
Sitting next to the cauldron is a young woman, her long brown hair framing an oval face, with her large grey eyes and small mouth and nose combining with a slim build and slight stature to give her the appearance of a cute anime girl.
The dress she wears, though, is not standard anime a deep maroon velvet, with a low-cut bodice and shoulder straps, something that wouldn't look out of place at an Edwardian debutante ball or here, for that matter.
She looks up at the pile, grins and waves. "Hey, Imran!"
A muffled voice from the boxes grumbles "Allie... A little help here?"
Allie stifles her smile, gets up, and lifts some of the boxes off the pile, setting them down by the cauldron.
Revealed underneath, once the boxes have been set down, is a young man in his mid-twenties, with short, straight black hair, somewhat bloodshot brown eyes, with the left eye offset, and pale brown, almost sallow, skin, in casual trousers and a T-shirt which says 'I Visited The Underworld, And All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt'.
"That the last of it?" Allie asks.
Imran nods. "Yep, that's it. All ready for Gordon's party."
He looks around, an apprehensive look crossing his features. "Er... Allie, where're Xeffy and Ayna?"
Allie scans the barn. "Can't see them... can't see the typo gremlins, either."
Imran covers his eyes. "Oh... wonderful. And I promised Eloise they wouldn't cause too much damage..."
Allie raises an eyebrow. "You do know who you're talking about, right?"
Imran nods. "I know. I know..."
Meanwhile, somewhere amidst the tables...
...two young girls are casting about, apparently looking for something.
One of them is a gawky teenager, short about five foot high but still taller than most of the trolls bustling around. Her blue-grey eyes are twinkling with a sense of mischief - and with the sight of all this food. Some of her long brown hair is tied in a braid, letting the rest of it flow free.
She's apparently decided to go for the "casual teenager" look jeans, blouse, sunglasses and trainers but even with the differences in age and dress sense, the family resemblance to Allie is marked.
The other girl is also a rather gangly teen, about the same height as her partner, sharing her slim build. She's in a T-shirt, jeans, and hiking boots.
There are certain differences, though.
Her skin is grey, and her eyes are a slitted white. Her brown hair trails down her back, and under her T-shirt a mane of hair, following her spine.
After all that, the two great wings, not quite birdlike or batlike, that run nearly the whole length of her body, are almost ridiculously easy to accept.
Somehow, though, her T-shirt manages to fit over them snugly.
#See them yet?# she trills and it is a musical trill. Her voice is sing-song, musical she seems to sing every word she says.
The other girl shakes her head. "Uh-uh. They're around here somewhere..."
The winged girl looks around, makes sure her partner isn't looking, and snaffles several chocolate chip cookies off the nearest table.
The troll behind the table chuckles, and nods her head in understanding.
The winged girl blushes, puts up her hand in thanks, and skitters after the other girl.
#Xeffy?# she asks.
"They're here somewhere..." Xeffy mutters.
#Why don't we just... well, call them?#
Xeffy sighs. "'Cause that's no fun. I mean, we can hardly have a food fight if the other side's trapped by our voices, can we? It'd be more of a food massacre."
"Hey, don't worry, Ayna. How hard can it be?"
Behind them, just out of earshot, a chorus of giggles can be heard...
Ruthie, the little turquoise troll, bustled among the guests, handing out jelly babies to the new arrivals to entice them to stay.
This particular bag was the contribution of Walter Duncun, her cousin. He was older and wilder than she, and was less shy about using troll magic to cause mischief, and this made Ruthie just a little nervous. But Walter had a good heart, and he was an excellent cook... and whatever magic he put on them, the jelly babies were a big hit.
Just then she heard a tapping sound from the stage, Our Hostess Eloise, their fishing-vested leader, was perched high on a stool, surveying the action on the floor (though Ruthie was certain she'd be in the thick of things any moment). She was tapping her violin bow against the edge of her seat to get Ruthie's attention.
Ruthie stood up on tiptoe and craned her neck to try and see where Eloise was indicating. All she could see was a dwarm of typo gremlins jovering in the air, and giggling maniacally...
Uh-oh... That could only mean...
She bounded over there as quickly as she could (luckily, the crowd parted around her... or was it luck? Walter said something about "crowd control" when he handed her the jelly babies).
"Ladies, Gentlemen!" she said a little breathlessly, "s-so glad you could make it." She grinned broadly as she gazed at the more-human looking of the two teens. "I remember you!" she said. "You came in the middle of the circus, last year." She turned to Xeffy's companion... "You must be Ayna," she said. "... Our Hostess mentioned you might be coming... Anyway, follow me. We have something very special set up for you... all of you," she added, eyeing the typo gremlins sharply. And she led them away from the main room and down a hallway.
At the end of that hallway was a large room, entirely draped in clear plastic tarps, and set up like a playing field a strange mix of baseball and football, perhaps, and a little basketball thrown in. Goal posts and hoops were scattered around the large space, as were bases marked "Home" "Start" "Penalty" and "Free Zone", without any apparent order. At either end of the large room were two electronic scoreboards, with the teams "Gremlins" and "Sirens" spelled out in grids of lights.
Most important, however, were the tables under each scoreboard each piled high with a wide variety of messy, sticky, gooey foods, from mashed potatos and ketchup to the classic banana cream pie.
"Have fun," Ruthie said. "Make up your own rules.... But please try your best to keep in this room." She motioned to Xeffy to bend down so she could whisper in her ear. "Be careful," she warned. You know how easy it is to turn a banana cream pie into a banana cream pit."
And she returned to her duties as deputy hostess for the party.
[Outside, two figures looked at the place.]
Varne: "You are sure this is the place?"
Magnus: "Well it is the address Ken gave us, and the sign is there."
[Magnus produced a silver hip flask and was about to drink, when Varne tripped and knocked it out of his hand.]
Varne: "Sorry, Lord."
Magnus: "Not to worry, it does have a non spill device. Now, shall we go in?"
[Magnus picked up the flask on the way to the door and this time managed a swig.]
Cameron enters the barn, followed by a woman.
There are a few remarkable things about this woman. Firstly, she is asleep; secondly, she is floating off the ground vertically.
Cameron speaks: "This is my muse, Cassie. This is the most aware she's been in a long while"
Cassie murmers in her sleep: "Today was one of those nice days, where there was enough cloud cover to diffuse the light from Etros Major and Etros Minor, but not enough to cause any worry about rain."
"I've been working on a story for Mag's summer challenge, which is good for a muse; but now that I have no time to write, the snatches of prose I think of writing she murmers in her sleep." Cameron explains.
Ruthie was busy taking Xeffy, Ayna and the typo gremlins to the "Food Fight Zone", so it was Eloise who greeted Cameron with a hearty handshake.
"Cameron!" she exclaimed. "So glad you could make it! And what a pleasure it is to meet your muse!" She considered shaking the sleeper's hand, but as Cassie seemed engaged with a story detail at the moment, thought better of it. Best not to distract a working muse.
"A figure approaches, their past an enigma..."
"That's not a part of my story..."
A shadow enters the doorway, and its owner walks into the barn.
"But that sounds like mine..."
"Greetings. I take it the lovely lady levitating beside you is your muse?"
Magnus smiles, and bows. "A pleasure to meet you. You will, I hope, forgive the melodrama..."
"Some of us can't," the redhaired woman next to him observes. "Hello there. This is Lord Magnus "
Magnus sighs. "Just Magnus here, please, Varne."
"And, as my Lord has graciously pointed out, I am his associate Varne." Varne finishes. "A pleasure to be here."
[Cameron's attention returns to Eloise.]
"Hello again Eloise. This time I shouldn't be turning into any animals." Cameron chuckles at the memory of what happened at the last Hoedown.
Cassie stirs, and speaks: "The Doctor could feel the pressure building up in his head again; another memory was about to reveal itself to him."
Cameron sighs. "I really need to find time to type this all up, otherwise she'll give away the whole story..."
"What our guests need," Eloise said with a theatrical bow and a wink, "we provide. The Writers' room is third door down the second hallway on the left. There you will find everything from parchment and quill pens to 37th Century Thought recorders (one of the advantages of traveling in a timeship)."
"Great. I'll use one of the Thought recorders, so that I can get back to the party ASAP, and Cassie will be more aware of our surroundings."
Cameron whispers in Eloise's ear.
"Cassie picked and wrapped Gordon's present, and I don't know where she put it!" Cameron walks of to the Writer's room, followed by Cassie.
"We're gonna be laaaaaaaaaaaaate!"
"I know that Yokoi, but the last thing I expected was for the shop to fall through a transtemporaltranferencethingy when I pressed that big, shiny, red button on the till I'd never pressed before. One minute I'm serving a customer, the next "Oooooh, dinosaurs!"
"Mrs. Smith was a bit surprised."
"Yeah, but she just poked that velociraptor with her brolly..."
"And you looked like you were enjoying yourself..."
"Er, yes, well..."
"Especially when those cavewomen said you were their god come back to save them from the lizardmen."
Gordon blushed in the darkness of the car. He and Yokoi were driving along through the sadly typical Scottish summer weather (rain, wind, thunder and lightning) in a small, blue Mini Cooper.
Gordon was, well, average looking. about 5' 11", untidy, short hair a goatee and glasses. As was usual, he wore his travelling coat, the big black one with the shiny buttons.
Yokoi sat in the passenger seat, still with her wayward, dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards hair and dark, technicoloured patchwork coat. She had a small brown, calico kitten curled up in her lap, snoozing. This was Oscar. She didn't know where Gordon and Yokoi were off to, but her natural curiosity got the better of her and she had followed them into the car along with Rory. Rory sat in the backseat, looking out the front window with interest, a cuddly golden retriever who's mission in life was to make friends with the entire universe. Jones (who was sadly, no longer with them) had told him about last year's hoedown, and he'd decided he wanted to see this one.
Finally, the rain and clouds and wind and thnder and lightning faded, and they found themselves on a familiar road, entering a familiar car-park. Gordon smiled as he saw the Pro-Fun U-boat on its monster truck wheels parked there. Igor had obviously made it here before them.
Gordon neatly parked the car and he and Yokoi got out, Oscar now perched on Yokoi's shoulder and Rory trotting along beside them. "You go on ahead," Gordon said, "I've something to do first."
Gordon walked up to the stalls, where a few tributes went up last year. He saw tributes for Chuck Jones and Spike Milligan, two founding fathers of pro-fun. He smiled sadly. He put his own little plaque up beside the others. The writing was small, but somehow easily readable by anyone. It read...
"On the 16th of May this year, my best friend Jones went to sleep for the last time. It was a short, sudden illness and thankfully he didn't suffer, but that doesn't really make it any better.
"I'll miss him. He'd been my friend for twelve years. I'll miss the snuggly headbutts. the fights with pens. The way if you skritched the side of his head the right way he'd lean over and lean over until eventually he'd fall over and just lie there purring contentedly. I'll miss the way he pounced on empty Pepperami wrappers, the way he'd suddenly turn up at my window wanting back in, the uncanny ability he had of avoiding being captured on camera (which failed at times, see http:/www.bhfh.fsnet.co.uk/jones1.jpg for what can only be captioned "Bwa-hah! Chair is mine!"), the way he used to chase the dogs around, the way you'd sometimes, not often, but sometimes, find Jones and Rory or Bobby snuggled up together. I'll miss the way he used to always try and make off with my spectacles whenever I put them down somewhere, the way he used to walk over/on my hands and keyboard when I was trying to type. Or when he'd snuggle into my hands when trying to play videogames.
But most of all, I'll miss not having someone I can just go up to, sit beside and skritch or stroke or cuddle whenever things were bad and I'd always feel better.
He was a small cat, but he thought big. We always expected he'd go out one day and not come back, being the daft, fearless little bugger he was. But in the end, it was something from inside that got him. It was so sudden, a matter of days.
Goodbye old friend, wherever you are now, I hope your having fun..."
Just as she was finishing her greeting of Cameron and Cassie, Eloise saw Gordon and Yokoi (and their fur-people friends) enter.
Gordon hung back at the memorial table, a placed a plaque of his own there, while Yokoi, the golden retriever, and the kitten went into the crowd to mingle.
High Five, the dog-who-used-to-be-a-robot in The Gods' of Ragnarok Circus (and who had been with Eloise for a little over a year) tore her attention away from the container of Pringles on the dip table when she heard the sound of nails clicking on the barn floor.
In a flash, she and the golden retriever were dancing around each other, sniffing and wagging tails, while the little brown calico kitten jumped off Yokoi's shoulder, and tried to get some attention in sideways... Then, like the consummate hostess she was, led her two new friends down the hall to Sweetheart's garden where they could run, and chase and play hide and seek in the bushes.
Gordon bowed his head and slowly walked back.
He entered the main barn, just in time to catch Eloise's introductory song. He cheered and applauded with everyone else and gladly took the jelly baby a small troll in a cowboy outfit offered him.
He trotted up to ELoise. "Hiyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa"
"Do you mind if i take the stage for a bit? I actually have a song of my own this year."
"Of course! As if you needed to ask" she smiled.
He walked meekly onto the stage, followed by Igor, Yokoi and a few random U-Boat crewmen. With musical instruments.
"I have a little song of my own this time, adapted from a piece of work by the late, great, Ian Dury. Hopefully he won't mind. :)"
As the band started playing some very funky riffs, Gordon started to, well, not sing as much, but talk.
"Reasons to be cheerful, part 3.
"Watching Horns Of Nimon, my younger brother Simon,
"Reasons to be cheerful, part 3.
"Reasons to be cheerful. 1. 2. 3.
"A cute wiccan called Willow, fighting friends with pillows,
"Reasons to be cheerful, part 3.
"Reasons to be cheerful, part 3.
"Reasons to be cheerful, part 3.
"Reasons to be cheerful. 1. 2. 3.
Gordon bowed and leaped off the stage. Time to see who else is here this year.
Allie nudges Imran. "Hey, check out who's on stage."
A slow grin spreads across Imran's face as he watches Gordon finish his performance. "Finally made it, I see..."
"Yokoi, too." Allie says, pointing out a familiar face in the backing band.
Her eyes widen as she sees Cameron and Cassie.
Imran glances at her. "Another university friend?"
Allie shakes her head. "Cassie's a dreamer. A dreaming Muse. The more Cameron works on a story, the closer she comes to consciousness. I didn't think it happened anymore..."
Allie jumps. "Dad? Where've you been?"
The short, bearded man who's just arrived by the table takes a seat. "Looking around. This Ship's fascinating, isn't she?"
Allie and Imran double-take. "You know?!"
"I can... feel her presence, perhaps? Yes. I'm... attuned to her presence." Dominic smiles quietly, almost sadly. "I think it's something to do with her nature as a time ship. History muses are usually more susceptible to things like that. Her history remains her own... it's the history she's seen, and shares with our hostess there... that is what I sense.
"As I was saying, though: Dreamer muses do happen. It usually tends to happen more among Urania's or Clio's... but it does still happen."
Eloise applauded loudly.... So nice to be in the audience, sometimes, instead of having to be "on" especially when the talent is as good as this...
She beamed at Gordon as he stepped down from the stage. "So what will it be first? Vanilla Ice cream, or the mega delux bouncy castle?"
"Oh, definitely the ice cream, since there's the bouncy castle won't melt if left long enough."
"Well, that kind of depends..." muttered Yokoi with a grin.
"That wasn't my fault! I didn't know the Martians were holidaying next door and I certainly didn't expect them to fire up one of their war machines because we woke them all up with an impromptu rendition of "Can U Dig It?" by Pop Will Eat Itself."
"Ah, that was fun..."
"The heat rays worked lovely on those cocktail weenies. Granted Igor still jumps six feet into the air if you sneak up behind him and go "Oolaa!" but that's only to be expected."
"But yes, definitely ice..."
Gordon looked down to find a bowl of vanilla ice cream in his hand, with a Cadbury's Flake stuck sticking out of the middle. He decided not to ask who'd put it in his hands or how they knew he liked Flakes, because he didn't want to know and all that really mattered was the end result.
"There you are!"
Ayna and Xeffy froze.
Slowly, the two of them turned around.
Standing behind them was a young woman who could almost be Allie's twin.
The fact she was translucent and floating a few inches off the ground did nothing to dispel the impression. Neither did the clothes she wore, which looked like Calamity Jane's handmedowns.
"Err... Hi, Sandra." Xeffy finally settled on. "Err... what're you doing here?"
"Watching you two. The Steel Cage Food Fight of the Year. Two teams enter, only one leaves... ungooped." Sandra's grin was broad enough to use as a bridge. "Hey, where's the fun in a food fight without spectators?"
"Oh, Zeus..." Xeffy moaned.
"Now..." Sandra concentrated, levitating a pie into the air, "who wants to call the toss? Tin or splat?"
Allie raises an eyebrow when she notices Varne shoot a glance at them. "Oops. Looks like I've been found out..."
"Found out?" Dominic inquires, mirroring Allie's eyebrow.
"Shapeshifters tend to recognise each other for what they are." Allie explains. "Varne's a shapeshifter and a seer. Her associate, Magnus..." She hesitates. "is something other. Something very, very dangerous. Something he does not want to return to. In their stories, they usually work as mercenaries.
"They're not here on business, though, not if I guess them right." She chuckles dryly. "Everyone needs fun sometimes..."
Magnus: "Well, Ken said take some time off and gave me the tickets."
Varne: "Oh, and the address. He does not get out much."
"They're both adwc characters," Imran explains to Dominic's questioning look. "That's how we know them."
"Hmm..." Dominic considers this.
Allie and Imran, meanwhile, share a mischievous look.
"Gordon." Allie says.
"Yokoi." Imran says. "Ready?"
"As ever." Allie replies. "Let's do it."
"Hum!" said Merlin. "I didn't know they made cheese jelly babies."
"Vanilla," Nimue smiled.
Lancelot peered around for other forms of refreshment. "I wouldn't mind a cup of something."
"Is there a pool?" Morgan wondered, but Calamity Jane had moved on to other new arrivals.
"There's only one way to find out," Arthur suggested.
Guenevere hefted a package, about half the size of a breadbox, giftwrapped. "Merlin, didn't you say it's someone's birthday?"