Knarc called for everyone to stop. They had journeyed for almost a day leaving the Weeds behind and were crossing through a nearby forest. The next weed bed was still another day beyond the forest followed by the Tarot.
In the road ahead of them stood an extremely short man with a just as extremely large head. He stood dressed in what looked like a white suit with tails reaching almost to the ground and as he moved the colors seemed to change and shift with the light. His hat, his shoes, even his hair, all reached out into long curls that spiked on the end. The thing was smiling with a sinister grin that reached up almost to his ears and showed all of his teeth, but his eyes had no humor in them at all. The moment the group saw him he bowed and began to dance and speak acting out the words as he spoke.
“Welcome travelers,” he said opening his arms. “To my road and all may pass if they can pay the toll.”
“We have urgent business with the Tarot in the bed beyond,” The Jack called.
The thing never stopped smiling and bowed as low as it could. “Understood dear heart, but so urgent this is,” he dropped to his short little knees and begged with the smile that made it seem even more untrusting and hellish. “Then why do you walk,” he turned to the side, stood and began to walk forward, but slid backward as he did so. He stopped and began to walk backwards, but moved forward. “And why do you not fly,” he made an impression of a bird taking long stretching strides as he walked flapping his arms slow in a great gesture. “For to pass you must pay, or to that end you will die here this day,” he finished and giggled sounding for all the world like an old lady with his head bobbling on top of his tiny frame.
Knarc stepped up and pulled one of his clubs off his back. “He is alone. We can…”
“Stop!” the Jack said.
Knarc looked annoyed at being halted. After what Khamet had learned he decided if there had been an Ace in their party, it probably would have already attacked.
“You’ve never encountered a Joker. That is a little one.” The Jack said scanning the line in both sides of the road. “Cat. Do you think you can send one of your…”
Khamet had stepped out of himself before the Jack was done talking. It ran into the forest and was gone.
The Jack pointed to the left side as he stepped forward. “Dear sir so agile,” he raised his arms. “So fine,” he held his face. “And welcoming,” he opened his arms wide. “These weary travelers and I, but fall upon your compassions this awesome and terrible time.”
The Joker’s smile faltered as if he had never been spoken to in this manner by a stranger. This was, in point of fact, his linguistic spoken timber and pitch, which usually brings confusion and frightens travelers to some extent.
“I beg thee, allow us passage,” the Jack walked with his fingers on his arm. “For we have information that could bring a severed end to this conflict,” he held his arms together. “That plagues us so.” The Jack finished and spun twice in an elegant pirouette on his last words and dropped into a low bow, breaking eye contact which was a sign of trust and respect.
The little joker’s smile was now lost in a straight line turning to a frown, even as the thick smile lines on his cheeks remained, “Nay, what is this say you? And how dare…” he faltered and did not dance. “Pay me and pass. I’ll have none of your trickssey trickeries to confuse. By deed, by depth, or by life you will pay or will find your lives reduced to the Origami. A final resting my charges and I are very good at creating, by Rublick. I am good,” he fluttered his fingers and pirouetted mocking what the Jack had done.
Khamet was unfamiliar with some of the terms the Joker used, but the cards all stiffened at the mention of Origami. The Joker laughed again, a riveting maniacal giggle that ripped through the forest and seemed to echo all around them.
“Not to worry. It will not come to that.” The Jack said to Megette, though Eldhan, Knarc and Naich were all visibly disturbed and angered at the threat.
There was a flash of white mist that shot through the forest and struck Khamet, and Khamet crept in the direction the Jack had indicated and made his way through the forest. He moved past the little Joker standing in the road and watching for… What was he watching for exactly? He had gone well past the little Joker when there was a sound all around him. The bushes moved and the trees began rustling. He was about to run when a large figure landed right in front of him. He wore black clothing tight against his skin with a white circle in the center of his chest. His face was lost beneath a mask that covered his eyes and nose with an extreme proboscis. He had red/orange hair that looked to be in flames swaying with the movement.
“Aha ha ha,” he called out. “Trying to creep past and get away are we?”
“No?” the smile turned into a sudden frown. It seemed Jokers didn’t like things going off script. “Yes you are,” he said the smile returning. “You were trying to sneak by and I caught you.”
The Joker in front of him was tall and fat. His bulk spilled all around the painted black clothing. “How many are you,” Khamet asked as politely as possible.
The smile faded again. Had anyone ever asked this question? “Why do you persist in avoidance and prattling over nonsense? You will pay now and no longer will we…”
“I have to know how many,” he interrupted. “Because that’s why I was sent here.”
The Joker’s teeth chattered in a frown. “I,” he considered. “Don’t interrupt me,” he yelled.
Khamet figured he had all he needed and shot back.
“No you can’t flee for its time to feed!”
“Jack,” Khamet said.
The trees began to rustle. The Jack was focused on the little Joker.
“Jack!” Khamet called.
The trees beside them shifted and the big joker came through. He had a large baton he was swinging. “Time to pay, time to eat,” he screamed.
The little Joker on the road seemed disturbed by this turn of events and took several steps back. The party scattered, all except the Jack of all Trades who whirled and produced a baton of his own. He struck the big black bulky thing with a heavy glancing blow across the circle as it approached. The big Joker coughed and stumbled by. The Jack leapt higher than one might imagine and landed on the big Jokers back. The big Joker swung his baton behind him clumsily off balance. The Jack blocked and twirled his baton and the big Joker’s weapon went flying.
“Beauregard, Beauregard.” the little Joker was screaming. “Beauregard, no, we need help!”
The Jack jumped down and swung his baton low. He struck the big Joker on the back of his legs, several blows that landed with heavy ‘thwacks’ that resounded through the trees. The big black Joker went down, hurt and out of breath.
All the trees along the road began to rustle. Shouts and hollers, whistles and songs began to sound and from the forest Jokers began emerging.
“What’s all this now brothers? What has called this into being?” a voice said from behind them.
The entire party turned, the Jack stood with his baton on the big Jokers O as it lay in the road out of breath. The Joker behind them was even bigger than the other, but not fat. He was tall and lean, dressed in red and stood in the center of a large cadre of Jokers. The Jack seemed to question this in his mind.
“Was there cause for attack, for violence, for evil between us?” the voice called.
“You attacked us.” The Jack said.
“Rightly so and this is our land is it not, this is you trespassing are you not? We have a right to charge for passage, do we not?” Said the tall Joker.
“We weren’t being charged, we were being threatened.”
“Well now we all have methods for charging.” The tall Joker’s smile never wavered, but it was sincere. He wore red with many colors, but his face had the most intricate paintings on it and did not display any emotion. His tone was practiced and even. “But now the game has changed and we shall endeavor to pick clean the bones of that,” he motioned to Khamet. “I think I will feed you to the Jubjub for he does enjoy flesh.”
Khamet did not speak.
“No matter, the Fool will decide.”
At this the Jack seemed to perk up. “The Fool, is that your leader? Have you heard of a Joker called Bautus?”
The tall Joker’s smile never wavered. “Why do you wish…?”
“I seek and audience with Bautus.”
“No you do not, you seek passage and she cannot grant this for you.”
A very small Joker approached from the group and tugged at the tassel of the giant Joker who leaned down and nodded. It stepped up and spoke in a monotone voice to the Jack of all Trades. “Who are you?”
“I am the Jack.”
The little Joker behind them wasn’t moving and was getting impatient. The big Joker said something and the small one who had spoken to him turned and ran off.
“This is my capture and if I am not…” the little Joker with the big head began.
“Hold” the tall Joker said. “There seems to be more to this Jack.”
It wasn’t long before a small group stepped out of the forest. Between them was an extremely voluptuous woman. She looked lithe and wore white skin tight clothing with a flowing robe of many colors.
The Jack of all Trades made a gesture with his hands and bowed as low as he could. He broke eye contact and brought his head near the ground and held it. The woman smiled and let out a giggle. She said something to the tall Joker. The look in the tall Jokers face was extremely put off, but the woman stopped any rebuttal with another look. He bowed low and backed away. He waved his hands in the air and all the other Jokers disappeared with the lady into the woods.
The giant made a gesturer over their heads and the little Joker became instantly upset, “No! I caught them square and fair. They are mine.” he rushed forward, his big head bobbling.” He was extremely agile for one who looked so off balance. He began to summersault then leapt high turning in the air.
“No,” the tall Joker cried out, but the little Joker was already coming down on the Jack of all Trades.
The Jack stood and parried, but the little Joker was very fast. He blocked the Jack’s baton as he came down and struck with his own. The Jack was thrown across the road into the tree. The cards all reacted, but the little Joker was faster. His baton shot out to become a pole and in one sweeping gesture scooped the cards up like so much paper and flung them away behind him. All except Megette.
“You will be my prize,” he mumbled.
A great ball of fur, sort of striped came soaring over Megette at the little bobble headed Joker. It had four legs and at the end of them were five black claws. Something possessed its green eyes and as the Joker swung his baton the cat used it as leverage to draw himself towards the large head. All four paws landed on the Joker, two on his cheeks two on his chest.
The Joker screamed in shock and pain.
Khamet had an idea, but wasn’t sure if he could do it. He reached out with one paw and swatted the air. It opened like a rip. The Joker continued to wale and scream as Khamet reached inside the hole and suddenly he and the Joker were gone and the rip closed.
Khamet rolled on the branches of the floor and released the Joker. The Roadscholar jumped up as Khamet concentrated and vanished.
Everyone was looking around when Khamet reappeared.
“What have you done with him?” The big Joker asked stepping forward.
“I put him away. He needs to calm down.” Khamet said.
“You killed him.”
“No I didn’t, I…”
Everyone was staring impressed and interested.
“I dropped him in the Bandersnatch nest.” Khamet said.
The giant Joker looked puzzled for a moment, then he began to chuckle. The chuckling went on to become an uproarious laugh that was fun and maniacal and frightening all at the same time. “Well done little one, very well done.”
Khamet looked confused.
The Jack suddenly realized why it was funny and he too started laughing.
“What is it?” Megette asked.
“That is little more than a great inconvenience.” The tall Joker laughed.
“The Bandersnatch has been known to take Jokers.” the Jack said. “But they have learned to ride the Jubjub out. Probably the only ones that can?” he asked this to the tall Joker who nodded.
“That is correct as far as I have been told. Farewell travelers,” he said turning serious. “I cannot guarantee other tribes you encounter will be so forgiving in this place, so you better move on quickly.” He poked the fat Joker who was still on the ground and had begun to stir. He helped him up and the two moved into the trees and were lost.