Something dreadfully noisy is afoot in the quiet gingerbread town of Cinnamon Meadows. I am awakened by the most awful screaming and I am pulled unwilling from my restful dream-within-dream of puppies playing gently with little baby ducks. I dash from my bed and run to the window of my floating castle that looks down upon Bumblechase Square.
"What goes on down there?" I shout with concern.
The mayor looks up and regards me with distress.
"Red Raccoon is on the loose again! He's tearing through kitchens and eating all the sugar!" The mayor cries.
Without hesitation I leap from the window and light atop a downy cloud that chuckles and shakes. I instruct the cumulous to convey me down to Bumblechase Square so that I might converse more fully with the mayor. The cloud coos like a tot but seems to understand. With the sound of a slide whistle it droops down into the square and I hop easily off amid the sighing tallgrass and vanilla-scented bumbleflowers.
I push my way politely through the crowd of concerned citizens and giggling children towards the mayor who has climbed on top of a wooden bench to make himself heard.
"Calm now citizens!" The mayor shouts with a forced smile. "All will be well in Cinnamon Meadows."
"Who is this Red Raccoon?" I ask.
"Ah, I forget myself! You are new to Cinnamon Meadows." The mayor doffs his velveteen cap. "Once per year Red Raccoon appears in our midst to raid our larders, tear apart our carefully arrange bedclothes, and generally run amok in the most unruly of fashions."
Just then a red shape streaks through the square knocking over townsfolk who curse distressingly with epithets as harsh as "dallywhipped!" and "bugaboo!" Truly Red Raccoon has created an uncommonly unpleasant situation in Cinnamon Meadows. Before any brave souls can grab onto his speed-blurred tail or smash in his head with a broom Red Raccoon disappears into the mayor's house and begins crashing around. The mayor's voluptuous wife emerges immediately, red-faced and clad only in bedpants and nightshirt. She spies the crowd who are guffawing at her expense and climbs inside a barrel for modesty's sake.
"Get that waddle-wicked raccoon out of my house!" She squeals with her head poking out of the barrel.
There is a gasp at such a strong curse word and parents clap their hands over the ears of their children as even worse is shouted by the mayor's wife.
"I will stop Red Raccoon!" I declare to the mayor.
"Your warriorly spirit is much appreciated young man, but Red Raccoon can only be frightened off with Tam O'Sham's Tambourine." The mayor strokes his chin. "Were it so simple I would jangle the tambourine myself, but long ago that particular tambourine was taken by the horrible ogre Rumplesniffs."
"I will get it from him then!"
Upon hearing this some of the nearby townsfolk laugh at my naïveté.
"Even if you were so bold that you could slay the ogre Rumplesniffs he lives inside a magical cave protected by barriers of impossible wizardry. No one even knows how to get there." The mayor explains without a hint of condescension. "No, it is a fool's errand. My boy, the best thing to do is go up to your castle and hope that Red Raccoon can discover no way to reach your pantry."
"I know the way to Rumplesniffs' cave." The declaration is made in a voice both deep and sleepy.
It is Realtor Lion, awakened from one of his many naps by the ruckus of Red Raccoon.
"I can lead the boy there, if I must."
"You must!" I reply. "Make ready noble lion, for we will put a stop to Red Raccoon's mayhem before the whole town is in shambles!"
Moments later the lion is ready. He has unfurled his umbrella to shade us as we walk south towards the foreboding candy-cane mountains of Noggoth-Shaar. They soar high into the sky on the horizon, their red and white stripes sprinkled with powdery sugarsnow and dotted by the giant ant-goats that scavenge there for food.
Our journey takes us first through the flatlands of Manachem's Mirth and we follow the well-worn trail of the friendly orange sorghum snakes that live there. From time to time the helpful snakes emerge from their warrens to offer us food and drink, but the lion turns them away. I ask him why and he politely explains that all the things sorghum snakes eat and drink taste very bad and some are even poisonous. They are trying to be helpful but they do not understand the dangers of their offerings. I say that perhaps we should accept what they offer so as not to hurt their feelings and the lion sighs and agrees. By the time we have left Manachem's Mirth I am carrying a satchel full to bursting with stingberry pastries, whiptree rootbeer, and black toad jerky.
These poisonous treats become more and more attractive as our journey takes us through the barren desert of Ghost Indian Plaza. For miles and miles we walk through the trackless waste of sun-bleached salt clay. Great lakes of fresh water shimmer in the distance only to be revealed as yet another baked clay expanse as we draw near. Just when I feel certain I will die in this inhospitable place I spy an oasis on the horizon that can only be real. Brightly colored tents are shaded by soaring palm trees and a beautiful burbling fountain sprays glittery water high into the sky. I veer our course towards this respite and though the lion objects I am too weary and footsore to hear what he says.
"Hello there!" I call as we approach the tents.
No one answers. I head to the largest of the tents and peer inside.
The interior of the tent seems much larger than would be possible and it is resplendent with hanging frills and bundles of dreamy incense. Guttering sweetoil lamps hooded with brass-stamped patterns make glowing starry shapes on the walls and ceiling. The floor is absolutely covered with all shapes and sizes of silken pillows embroidered with comforting symbols in gold thread. In the middle of the tent is a strange apparatus consisting of a circular trough of flowing fresh water, bins and dishes filled with fruits, savory meats, bite-sized exotic pastries and sandwiches, and carafes of honey-colored wine. At the center of this apparatus is a bulging asymmetrical cylinder-shape. Eight thick golden hoses tipped with narrow mouthpieces emerge from this.
"It is a hookah." The lion shakes the dust from his umbrella and ducks inside the tent. "We should leave. This place is bad."
"Nonsense!" I reply.
Before the lion can stop me I set upon the device, tearing up great handfuls of succulent delights and cramming them into my mouth. Three whole carafes of chilled mead disappear down my gullet. It is all so wonderful and delicious that I do not even notice the lion leave the tent. I am lost in gluttony, packing my belly full and then willing even more food into my stomach. By the time I take up one of the hoses of the hookah I am nearly in a daze of hedonism. The spicy smoke fills my lungs and my already half-forgotten troubles drift away. I sleepily fall back onto the pillows with a contented smile on my face.
Sonorous music begins to fill the air and I am dimly aware of three beautiful women clad in the glittering and revealing dress of belly dancers undulate their way into the tent. Their rolling hips and bejeweled bellies are mesmeric and I do not think to question their arrival. Their rhythmic dance brings them closer and closer and I am tingling with anticipation of a fleeting kiss from their veiled lips. I detect a strange earthy musk but I put it aside. One of them sways to within a few feet of me and I can smell her like a field after a rain storm.
The trance is only broken when Realtor Lion steps into the tent and with boredom that borders on mania, lazily swings a tree branch at one of them. All three beautiful women are instantly transformed into hideous giant worms with grotesque shimmering chitin heads and fleshy pale yellow segment. They hiss and spit at Realtor Lion but he drives them out of the tent with the tree branch.
"Nightmare worms," he explains as he lifts me to my feet. "A dream of pleasure becomes an endless inescapable nightmare."
"Were they going to eat me?" I ask as we hurry away from the camp.
"Not exactly." He sighs as he realizes that he has to explain them to me. "They cocoon you and then feed on your nightmares. I found their burrow nearby and I ate all of their children so that I am fed and full as well."
"You ate their children?!"
"Yes, horrible things, but quite delicious."
The happy smile and wink of the sun high above us seems incongruous as we make our way into the dreary Foothills of Unfriendliness. Fog begins to gather and conceal the benevolent gaze of the unsetting sun and the lion repeatedly pulls me away from moats of tar concealed in the scratchgrass. He tut-tuts when I lose a shoe to one of these tarry traps but I simply imagine another shoe to replace it. I would imagine a means to convey us but here, so far from my happy subconscious, my abilities to control the dream are all but lost.
The deeper we go into the unusually boggy hills the more unfriendly they become. Swarms of titterflies emerge from the scratchgrass and swirl around us, mocking us with tiny pixie-like voices and laughing cruelly at each of our missteps. Stinking and corpulent whale frogs hunch up out of the bogs and vomit vast slicks of stinking ambergris in our path. Even the trees, usually so reliably friendly and helpful, begin singing horrible songs that become stuck in our heads like "Highway to the Danger Zone" or that "ma-na ma-na" Muppet song.
It is a relief when we finally reach the candy-cane mountains of Noggoth-Shaar, but our journey does not get easier. Though less dreary than the Foothills of Unfriendliness, the mountains alternate unpleasantly between slick and sticky as we climb. The lion attempts to use his magical umbrella to lift us to safety but the winds howling around the mountains are so powerful that we are nearly dashed upon their sweet rocks.
The giant ant-goats further complicate our climb. They emerge suddenly from their colonies, bleating and huge, with wild goat eyes and bearded red shovel-shaped mandibles that they use to scoop up the powdery sweet snow. The ant-goats are not hostile to us, in fact they do not even seem to notice and all we can do is cling to candy outcrops as they rumble past us in great stampeding masses.
Near the summit of the third peak we come upon a huge iron door sealed by a strange letter and number combination lock.
"The first of three barriers." The lion points to the door. "It appears to be a math question."
The equation that we must solve is hewn in the stone above the door. It consists of a dizzying number of letters and numbers with all manner of arcane mathematical symbols thrown in for good measure. I stare at it for several minutes and shake my head with dismay.
"I wouldn't even know where to begin." I say glumly.
"I thought you might not," says the lion as he reaches into his coat and draws out a tin whistle.
"Toot-toot," goes the whistle.
A strange unfolding cloud of letters and numbers appears in our midst, growing larger and larger, until finally a man emerges from it. He is clad in a jeweled robe fringed with ermine and his mustache and beard are immense and golden. On the top of his head he wears an ornate crown carved with thousands of tiny numbers.
"Greetings to thee, the King of Maths is me." The King effuses in awkward rhyme. "I am at your service, summoned by the whistle. Your tooting deserves this, no need for an epistle."
"The King of Maths?" I ask in disbelief
The king hums for a few seconds, taps his foot, and then launches into a particularly fast song.
"A cat, a rat, a hat, a tree,
But none can match the maths of me!
I am an expert of all things number,
A builder of answers not houses of lumber,
And sometimes I use,
A letter or two,
Because my maths,
Are better than you!
So direct me to your problem,
My royal mind must have the answer,
Like a grand ballet must have a dancer!"
The lion sighs and settles back on his haunches. The king grins at me, his shoulders heaving with exertion and his eyes wide and excited.
"Uh," I gesture toward the problem carved in stone, "that's the one."
The king strokes his golden beard, paces back and forth, and jots notes in a notebook for the better part of an hour. At last he mutters to himself and pushes back his crown to scratch his head.
"It is the right of royal blood,
To call upon the lowly crud,
Who live and work within my towns,
And dare not greet the king with frowns!
My royal scepter ready I call,
All mathmagicians with the gall,
To answer this problem in my place,
Or face eternal exile and disgrace!"
The King of Maths waves his scepter in the air and with a puff of expanding numbers a dozen mathmagicians, who look for all intents and purposes like certified accountants, emerge onto the wind-driven peak. They bow deferentially to the king and immediately set to work on the task of solving the equation.
Put the Dirt in there Pete, and turn it 'round real neat.
Good day. We are Hester and Karl, and we are something rare. We are a couple ... of Stock Photo Lifestylists! Lifestylers? We lead a Stock Photo Lifestyle.
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