Once the sky-bridge was crossed, everything for the deception was set up– and quite expertly too, if one were to ask Anais. In fact, Anais, Finnen, and the group’s weapons were hidden inside the impossibly enormous and elegantly designed cake– occasionally the cake would shake and swear, but a light kick from Petka set them quiet and well mannered again.
Actually, Petka was having the time of his life. Dressed as a humble baker, apron covered appropriately with dusty flour and dried dough, he wheeled the giant, quivering cake down the forest-flanked winding path. Fearing that Chaim might attract too much attention, Raksha’s haunches were covered in gnome-goo, and set upon Chaim’s shoulders. She expertly wore the mustachioed costume of an Italian barber. It was the perfect camouflage.
It had been done a thousand times before (at least in our time) from cartoons to puppets. Of course, being an Otherworld knight and a Spirit of the Lonely Hollows respectively, without access to any sort of talking box, neither Chaim nor Anais could have known that by playing the lower-half of an Italian barber, he was fulfilling not one, but two classic cartoon tropes. All Chaim knew (and was none to happy about it) was that he was playing the ass of an Italian barber, and felt very much like an ass in playing one.
Where- or how– Anais could have come up with the Italian barber con, or even known that one would be allowed in the Kingdom (or how she knew what an Italian was) was a mystery to the Spirit of the Lonely Hollows, but like Petka, Chaim long ago learned to stop asking questions in relation to this world of dream. “How” and “Why” were not questions to be asked lightly in this world, as it was rather unfriendly, and he reasoned that curiosity killed more than the cat.
All Petka knew was that he was dressed as a baker from top to toes, and he looked pretty smart in his shiny black shoes, handsomely complicated by a pair of white socks and a button-up white shirt– a puffy baker’s hat donned his head, and of course his realistically flour and dough-mottled apron really brought the whole thing together.
“Very convincing,” whispered Petka to himself more than anyone else, though Anais took this time to inform the group that she had, in fact, been a theater major. Petka did not know what this was, Anais didn’t elaborate, and Petka didn’t ask. Meanwhile, as the gang was taking the dusty path in the warmth of the mid-morning sun, shaded gently by boughs of oak and maple leaves, it seemed that their ruse would need some…practice.
First, Chaim was endlessly complaining about being the lower half of the faux-barber, though Raksha (who, as stated, had her lower haunches painted with gnome blood) seemed endlessly pleased with herself, holding her head up high, ears pinned back and hidden under a perfectly combed wig of jet black hair; additionally, her pink nose twitched with joy, causing the fake mustache attached to her upper lip to twitch along with it. She regarded the mustache which she regarded a sign of the most distinguished of gentlemen, or most distinguished of “barbers”- whatever they were- and she hoped that they were paid in meat.
“Well, at least let me do the talking!” shouted Chaim from the lower half of the costume, “I’m one cool customer! Right…?”
It seemed to be more of a question than anything else.
“No!” shouted Anais from inside the cake, “You’ve been wandering the world for far too long- you’re too conspicuous– you would be recognized, and the alarm would be raised immediately. And Finnen, despite his insufferable sweating can back me up on this- Chaim, you’re super smart, very talented- but that silver tongue turns to clay under pressure- not a criticism! We just need to play it safe.”
“Wha-well- Why I!” stuttered Chaim.
“Exactly,” replied Anais.
Then, Finnen Chipped in.
“Look Canid, truth be told, we just felt like Raksha wore it better,” the sincerity in his voice (well, it was a faux-sincerity, as he had to bite his thumb to stifle his giggling) stung Chaim. Deeply.
“The unkindest cut of all,” replied Chaim in a tone of absolute dejection.
Anais sighed heavily, “Don’t bring the Bard into this.”
“Petka, are they right?” asked a dejected Chaim, grumbling in the lower half of the red and white-striped , clumsily undulating barber costume.
“Well, my good friend, you have to understand- I’m a bit biased here, I mean (now directing his speech to Raksha, the wolf) who’s my perfect princess girl, all mustachioed and professional and whatnot?” Petka kissed Raksha on her nose; she gave a little sneeze, then licked Petka on the forehead. Had anybody else attempted that, they would have lost an ear.
Now resigned, Chaim remained mostly quiet save for the occasional grumble, and the ragtag crew approached the gate, Anais and Finnen still jostling for space inside the six-tiered wooden wedding cake, along with with the crew’s armaments. Raksha was both literally and figuratively walking on air, or rather air (or whatever aether substance that comprised Chaim) was literally carrying her. And all the while, Petka, whose heart raced with the wild ecstasy of real life adventure pushed the convincing, yet quite fake confection, to the entrance of the kingdom’s gate.
The gate which was no doubt once a sterling example of splendor and artistry, replete with twisting, vertical bars, dotted with elaborate wrought-iron reliefs of seductive nymphs and dryads, as well as what had likely been quite the impressive battle between two warring groups of centaurs. The pigs, however, in their zeal to conquer the city, had bent and twisted not only the bars but also the once resplendent iron-works into creatures that now (though most assuredly by accent) into lizard looking horrors, though even in its current state it betrayed just a hint of something that was once well loved and quite beautiful. Those who would have normally cared for (and indeed, repaired the gate) had been enslaved by the upright pig-things, who neither had the appropriate appendages nor the proper amount of interest to restore such a thing to its former beauty- they were swine after all, and had little need for pearls.
The pig warriors themselves were actually quite unimpressive to Petka’s eyes. Petka, the eternal traveler, had quite the imagination- it is almost a requirement for one in his somewhat exclusive “occupation”- that of an adventurer. Petka, in fact, could close his eyes and see fantastic things and peoples; far-off, coral-built sea-side kingdoms populated by strange, bipedal- semi-aquatic pocketed fish-cats (not catfish– an important distinction) that carried their belongings (all manner of sparkling, and likely cursed, abyssal coins and jewelry) in their marsupial’s pouch. And it was this ability of Petka’s, and the subsequent, impossible-to-ignore need to find these things incredible that drove all the wanderings on his two feet. To be fair, of course, it was highly-improbable that some strange race of marsupial cats ran a spice trade over unknown oceans, amassing vaults of gold and riches in their pink-coral castles. Truth be told, the adventurer usually found nothing so incredible, but did clear the fog of the unknown from the map, and prepared him to trek ever-deeper into the unknown.
When Petka wheeled the quivering cake in his expertly crafted baker’s outfit, his imagination had run wild- he expected deep-green, heavily-muscled, wild hogs; mucous dripping from their flat, stocky noses, and rows of sharp teeth protruding several inches above their upper lips. Petka further imagined bulky, solid steel armor, enormous axes and clubs topped with iron-dipped skulls. What he found was, to be kind, uniquely underwhelming. Though they carried weapons, their armor was composed of tin and rusted, and they resembled a light, pea-green, regular pig- the only thing truly remarkable about them was their height, and though their musculature left much to be desired, and it seemed that their power to overwhelm the kingdom came through their thick, leathery flesh, sheer size, and of course, overwhelming numbers.
All this being said, and considering the current state of what once was most assuredly a grand and regal kingdom, these pigs (no matter how visually underwhelming) were nothing to take lightly. Aside from peaking at around seven foot in height, the porcine monstrosities carried six foot long halberds- rusty, pointed, and likely waiting- just waiting to infect somebody with tetanus. Clearly, the two guards who stood by the ruins of the entrance had a great deal of skill with their weapons of choice, as Petka had to tiptoe carefully around the dozens of decapitated bodies of solicitors who had decided to defy the “no soliciting” sign. It was almost sad to see the mounds of discarded briefcases– some containing wonder-knives and others with magical potions which promised to “Rock Your ‘Love Bone’” which had all been crushed under hoof.
It was with a slight shiver that Petka took full stock of what lie before him- seven foot tall, slightly paunchy, light green piggy things snorting and holding a conversation driven by what was apparently a hive mind. At first, it seemed like something more of Orwell than Orc, but the more Petka Fawcett scrutinized the scene, the more nervous he became. These things were smart. They were solid meat and armored! And while this thought originally filled him with terror, he realized the armor was actually little more that a sort of flexible, under-cooked gingerbread dough, riveted with marzipan plates- not as scary as the iron bulwarks he believed had originally saw them adorned in, but still more than capable of taking a hit or two.
Petka, nervous almost to the point of shaking, cleared his throat and approached the guards.
But he was immediately cut-off by a low, grunting voice from the paunchier of the two porcine creatures.
“No solicitin’! Can’t yous read?”
“Sir!” replied Petka, panic rising in his voice, as the porker grasped his deadly halberd in his weird piggy-finger-hooves, “We are not selling anything! We are from a neighboring kingdom with a gift of cake, and a superior barber to style Her Majesties’-”
But before Petka could utter the word “hair”, he saw the gleam of the poleaxe, and shut his eyes tightly, waiting for swift decapitation, when he heard a voice from behind- a reedy, oil-slicked snake’s cadence. Opening one eye, he saw a man in a stetson cap, sharp suit, who spoke at a fevered pace.
“Gentle-pigs, I’m no ordinary salesman! My name is Heavens Stanley, as in ‘Heavens, Stanley, what a bargain!’ Top of my district twelve years running!”
A sharp whine pierced the air as a halberd was swung with such power that the salesman’s head was separated from his body so quickly that his wide smile didn’t have time to leave his face- it rolled a few feet, sporting the same vapid smile it had in life.
“Should Colg eat his head?” asked Colg.
The other pig-guard simply sighed.
“Yes Colg, you may as well eat his head- and, not to put to fine a point on it, but we’ve had this conversation several times before. His head, now lacking any sort of attachment to his body, makes it impossible for him to speak, let alone sell you a vacuum, or Tupperware, or the like. So go ahead Colg, and revel in your charnel feast.”
“A s-salesman, huh?” asked a trembling Petka, fearing a similar fate, “No good, I tell ya! I hear they spook quite easily, but come back in greater numbers.”
“Wonderful.” said the pig thing that wasn’t Colg quite facetiously.
“Wonderful!” said the pig thing that was Colg with unbridled enthusiasm– it was with this that he noisily spat a chewed up, saliva covered fedora upon the ground.
“Oh, please do forgive Colg’s lack of manners. He’s all function, and no form- a tactless beast, really. I’m called snowball, and I believe you said you bear a gift for our Queen?”
“Indeed, good Sir!” replied Petka, hoping his enthusiasm and renewed confidence would help perpetuate the ruse, “We are here to deliver unto your majesty a splendiferous, downright deli-cerous cake for Her Majesty, as well as the services of one of our finest Italian barbers- a veritable master of his craft, should Her Highness wish either a simple trim, or a full beauty treatment.”
“Thoughtful gifts, both!” said snowball, clapping his hoof-fingers together, “I am sure that our over-pig- ahem – lovely Queen will enjoy both… though I have but one question- how are we to be sure that your companion is a true Italian barber? I mean, he’s certainly got the look- the mustache is magnificent, if I do say so- and the muttering from his nether regions is all above board, as far as I’m concerned– but we really need to make sure only the most skilled barbers trim our ladies bountiful whiskers and coif; also, the hair on her palms could use some styling. So what say you barber and baker?”
Petka froze, and he was scared that not only his head, but also the heads of his companions would soon be eaten by the thing known as Colg. Raksha, however, in the true spirit of a fearless wolf, stepped in without hesitation.
“Woof,” woofed Raksha calmly.
“A joke you say? How splendid!” Snowball clapped his long arms giddily.
“Y-yes, of course!” interjected said Petka, wiping the sweat accumulating on his brow, “Why if Italians are known for anything, it’s their sense of humor, and superior storytelling. Please Fredo, regale us with your humor- joke.”
Raksha’s nose twitched nonchalantly, and along with it, her press-on mustache.
“Woof,” she began, “Woof, woof, bark, growl.”
“Colg don’t speak no lang’gages,” said Colg with a look of sadness on his face.
“Oh, don’t worry Colg,” said Snowball, patting his partner gently on the shoulder, “I will be more than happy to translate; Fredo- and I do apologize, but would you kindly restart your joke?”
Raksha nodded clumsily. The joke, it seemed, proceeded like this.
Raksha: Woof, Woof, Woof. Bark. Growl.
Snowball: OK, so it seems that a gentleman of the Irish persuasion…
Raksha: Whine, woof, woof, growl, BARK!
Snowball: Oh, that’s simply too much! It seems as if this particular gentleman had some trouble choosing between potatoes and cabbage for his supper.
Snowball: Oh, you tramp, you! So the gentleman says to his wife, “You may as well cook the cabbage…” Ah-ha-ha! The Missus asks why and…and…
Snowball: (Now laughing uncontrollably): Well, I will spare you the gory details, but let’s just say the potato made its way safely into the gentleman’s anus!
“Oh,” replied Colg, somewhat disappointed, “Butt-stuff. Colg don’t think you need to work blue.”
The cake began to quiver again, and had Anais not physically restrained Finnen, he very likely would have burst out of the fake confection, resulting in a blown disguise, three eaten human heads, and one eaten wolf. Chaim, being an immortal spirit would have had it worse and likely would have to, in his self imposed and perpetual state of embarrassment, clean the whole mess up.
“Roll with it Finnen,” whispered Anais, as she placed a long-fingered hand gently on his heaving chest. And despite Anais’ rough edges, amazonian stature, and slightly lazy left eye, Finnen found her words to be as sweet as her breath- apples, cinnamon, and a hint of wild honey. And that gentle hand on his chest seemed to radiate light and it soothed him greatly– as if on cue, Greeb, that fat-fire-bug spoke up, (and quite strangely) with words of encouragement.
“I may just be a fat firefly construct created by your brain-damaged interior monologue (here, Greeb scratched his dim, ample rear against the walls of Finnen’s mind), and granted, my job is to present you with the unfettered, immutable truth which- granted- is usually wrought with horror, as the result of a traumatic brain injury, but she may well fancy you, Finnen.
“I knew love once,” continued Greeb, gazing in disgust at his ill-fitting, marinara stained beater, “But then things took a turn somehow. Ah, fisk it.”
Finnen muttered, “A’right” and felt his angry shaking reduced to the level of the vibration of the strings of a guitar echoing a fading chord under Anais’ strangely gentle touch.
“Say Baker!” said Snowball, more curious than anything else, “I dare say, your cake is quivering!”
“Well of course it is,” replied Petka, thinking on his feet, “It”s an Alcacian Quiver Cake; special recipe… a secret recipe. I’d offer you a sample, but…”
“Ah Baker, no need. I doubt her double-wide porcine Majesty would appreciate a hoof print in the frosting- which looks scrum-diddly-umptious by the way. And Colg here has filled up on heads, so I am sure he will politely decline as well.” With this, Colg let lout a mighty belch, showering the ground with molars.
“Oh, the manners on this one? Colg, just what am I to do with you?” Snowball shook his head, smile never leaving his face, “In any event,” resumed Snowball, “Welcome Baker, Barber, and Alsatian Quiver Cake to the Kingdom of the Corkscrew tail, of the Mighty Oink and the Magnificent Munch, Porkbellia! Where cookies are currency, and humans are slaves.”
Snowball quickly became aware of the look of fear that crept across Petka’s face, and reassured him with a heavy hoof on the shoulder.
“Fear not, Baker! You and your hilarious Barber compatriot are guests here- emissaries from a foreign land- you have no fear of being enslaved– in fact, we have a fool-proof system to ensure your continued freedom.”
Snowball fumbled in a box behind him, then placed deceptively heavy gingerbread clapboards around the necks of Petka and Raksha that read, simply:
“Visiting Dignitaries: Do Not Enslave”
This did little to assuage Petka’s fears, but he and Raksha bowed out of respect, entered through the twisted, broken gate, and made their way along the cracked cobblestone streets, Petka pushing the quivering cake (“Why was it still quivering?” he wondered), and witnessed the ravages of decay dripping off a Kingdom that had to have been quite beautiful.
* * * * *
“Nice kids,” remarked snowball, leaning on his halberd– Colg only belched again, then sniffed the air and grunted.
“Aye, me,” said a dejected Snowball, “Another salesman?”
“No. Colg smell the make-up lady.”
“I swear, Colg, by the living Porcine god that made you, there will be no decapi-”
“Hey!” interrupted Colg, “Me no kill ladies, human or no!”
“Hmmm,” mused Snowball, putting his hoof to his whiskered, light-pea-green chin, “So under all that stupid, there is a conscience after all.”
“Colg not bad. Colg likes make-up lady. Colg likes to moisturize.”
“Well,” said Snowball in a low voice, “You do have exceptionally strong hands, and awfully strong arms…”
Colg grew visibly upset.
“We swore never on duty!”
“Ah, you’re a good man,” replied Snowball with affection, “That’s why I married ya.”