It was the first night of October when the circus came to town.
Route 16 was commonly known in Kalos as Omen Road to the superstitious. It was a rustic area, carpeted by eternal autumn grasses and peppered by patches of vibrant leaves. The weather here was mild yet crisp, producing scant weather patterns that preserved the golden fields and bright pumpkin branches along the scattered bushes.
It was home to a crumbling hotel nobody but vagrants and runaway teenagers liked to haunt, settled deep within an overgrown section of the grounds where ghost lights played. Murkrow often perched along the broken rooftop, snapping their beaks at moving trees among the tall grass.
So it was told that every year when the moon turned orange was when the old roads became littered with strange grooves and hoofprints. Among the clawing trees did the wagon riders set up their tents and strung up old flickering lights, waiting until the fog rolled in before starting up haunting wails of old calliope pipes. It was a familiar call to the locals; they always shuffled back.
Fresh eyes took up residence in the shadows among the branches. Skittering claws raked up the brambles and leaves along the forest floor. Some guests jumped at the feeling of icy breath panting against the backs of their necks. Through the tight footpaths and under gnarled branches did the curious walk, closer and closer to a menacing mountain of a tent half hidden among the woods and partly lit by stray lights. It was like approaching the open maw of some titanic beast, each soul filing one by one through the gaping flaps into the darkness within.
The seating was simple. The thrills of the atmosphere took precedence over the comfort of feeling safe. In place of cushioned seats with armrests were rows of old wood benches assembling the perimeter of the arena like church pews around a fairy circle. Rampant whispers and giggles among the guests ricocheted off of the walls of the tent as the troublemakers shoved each other into the spots up front while the more cautious settled into safety among numbers in the back. Aside from distant lights flickering along the ceiling, the interior was dark. Moving shadows with panther claws and jagged smiles floated up around the lights. The more keen eyed would make out the Haunters faster than their imaginations could, though the lone Chandelure floating peacefully among the bulbs was easier to pick out.
Louder did the calliopes cry, pumping their piping sounds and scattering dust higher up into the air. One by one, the bulbs dimmed as the theme climbed. The Chandelure swayed under the menacing wails of the haunted organs, giggling with a twirl before it too snuffed out its lights right at the dying shriek of the music. And then, the silence came.
Some onlookers whined and clung to their partners. Other snickered and whooped as the pitch silence excited their senses further. Under the shroud of darkness, the smiles of the lurking ghosts began to faintly take shape far above; some even started to stalk closer.
Finally, a light breached the darkness. Illuminating the scattering dust, a lone spotlight shone down on the stage that had been hiding. A plume of smoke no doubt was the first sight, wafting up like an angered serpent towards the heaven’s from the source of its conjuring. A dainty finger laced in black satin tapped the elongated holder which bit down on the dying stick. Its owner took a puff while basking in the soft croons, the wolfish whistles and startled applause from her audience.
Nobody really knew how old the Ringmaster was. Evidently old enough to smoke, the youthful disinterest along her pout struck relevance with the angsty teenagers in the crowd. Her hair hung far in its raven sheen, completely blocking out one eye entirely during the rest of its descent down to her shapely hips. A snug gothic dress clung to her form, matched perfectly with a lacy top hat. She was a mistress of the darkness. She was the idol of rebellious souls everywhere. She was the girl parents warned their children about.
She let the reactions linger as she took another drag of her smoke, flaring her nostrils to push the fumes out; the style reminded many of a bristling dragon. Her free hand rose to snap her fingers, striking a sound so simple and sharp that it killed the noise and echoed throughout the room. A smile graced her face, and with a proper curtsy she spoke with an eloquent croon to welcome her guests.
It was a night of thrills and chills, after all, for the night of all haunts was fast approaching.
The lights bursted into purple tones as kazoos and fanfare pierced the silence, drawing forth the arena in a glow of blacklight eeriness. The jolly tunes of the orchestra only added further contrast to the atmosphere at hand.
The first act upon the stage featured swords with souls and yet no masters. Four Honedge spun atop rival poles before they flipped and landed into the hands of two dueling Bisharp. The swordsmen juggled the haunted blades while they seized each other up in clockwork paces around the stage, eventually launching all four up into the air before they charged at one another. Sparks erupted from their own clashing arm blades as they hopped and spun around each other like acrobats. Near the end, the Honedge began to rain down upon them in synchronized patterns that drew shrieks and gasps from the audience as the fighting space drew smaller and smaller until the Bisharp were nearly stepping on each other’s toes. With a final strike against each other’s arm blades, the duelists pressed their fists against one another in a power struggle while the twinkling blades spun dangerously in place above their heads. The Bisharp let the stance linger for a few seconds for dramatic effect before they both pushed back, nodded to one another and then raised their arms to the audience while the Honedge bounced gleefully from the awestruck applause.
Once the two dark pokemon took leave of the stage, the next act oozed onto the stage. Four Swalot inflated themselves to show off their clownish diamond pelts and then proceeded to open their mouths for a classic sword swallowing (and spitting) act.
The Ringmaster watched from the sidelines, absently petting along the soft ear tufts of her Mr. Mime. Audiences were so easy to entertain; that alone made up for all the efforts it took to train her cast. From behind, she could hear the familiar stamping of feet as her family of Donphan stretched in preparation for their iconic elephant ball routine.
She may have been running a haunted circus, but the mistress was no shrewd to the conventional. To keep guests in their seats, she also relied on traditional acts to keep the spirit of the carnival alive in between the more fearsome rounds; the freshness of fear stagnated from oversaturation.
She accepted a cocktail from her jester pokemon as the audience pointed and erupted with cheer as the elephant trio lumbered out with their snazzy frills and clown paint. They trudged up old wood ramps to reach the innocent balls for their routines, but the twist came once all three were up on their mounts- Donphan were ground types. What had started off as a simple balancing act for heavyweights instigated a battle royale once her Mime put up barriers around the stage perimeter. Summoning elemental fury, the ground beneath the stage trembled and bounced the balls off of the ground with their riders included. The trio rammed into each other to gain momentum before launching into the second act. Donphan were known to curl up into destructive balls with the power of steel behind their momentum: once they reached a dizzying height did they begin to bounce off of their balls and into each other in a bumper rally with all the noise of cannon blasts. It was enough to startle the audience in a kickback of surprise.
Fortunately, the next performance was a bit more mellow on the ears. She inherited an Alakazam from an old acquaintance that had provided her the equipment for her calling. She was fortunate enough to have bonded with the wise old beast, as they are shrewd and fickle mediums. Case in point, the sagely pokemon enthralled the audience with a rare instance of publicly viewed Mega Evolution. It wove its many spoons into intricate patterns while the air around it blended and rippled under psychic whims; it was like watching an oil spill of colors set to a scratching record from the orchestra. Haunting, mystical and beautiful.
She kept her acts mostly safe for the youth. Despite the placement in these woods, her circus was rather well known to the locals, and that often meant children coming to these things as well. The Donphans were one of the reasons circuses in general fared so well, and she had a few other cutesy acts as well. Perhaps the Bisharps and the Honedge were too intense for young eyes and the psychedelic appeal of Alakazam was too surreal, but kids certainly loved the Donphan. They loved her Mimikyu and Mime. But her theme was still dark and gritty, and for that the Ringmaster gave a nod for the next act to proceed. The lights died again, plunging the arena into another bout of cold, dark, staggering silence once again…
Until violet flames took care of that.
Like Volbeats and Illumise under summer twilight, the flickering lights of a Litwick swarm began to flicker into effect. They floated serenely up from the stage and over the heads of the audience, singing their haunting little songs while doing slow spins and little hops. Their giggles brought out the childish wonder in even the most stone hearted adults. They all hushed, snuffed like the wind through their flames, when a burst of green fire erupted from the center stage like hot lava.
Mean and scowling, the ghostly Marowak brandished a combusted club and took on a proud warrior’s stance. Like a pyromancer it swung the long bone around in a series of complicated dances that were nearly blinding to watch; the swatches of bright flame painted streaks of flickering light among patches of the audience as tribal drums began to pound like racing hearts. It danced across the ashes of burning earth; it bellowed out howls of ancient ancestors. Soon, the stamping of feet matched the bursting of the drums. The audience barked in tandem. They whooped with every burst of flame.
The Ringmaster smiled from her spot. The Alolan Marowak was a new addition, and people always craved the exotic. It was foolproof. She twirled a string of hair around her finger while she smoked from the darkness, and glanced down at her Mime when he tugged on her elbow. There had been an agreement between them when it came to the language barrier: she had trained him beyond his already exceptional pantomiming to connect visuals with human terms. He frantically gestured like a madman, imitating a waddling Piplup, the jaws of a Sharpedo and what looked to be a dive upwards. She widened her eyes.
Her Gourgeist was missing.
A billow of air knocked the clown pokemon back onto his heels as she turned forcibly in her dress. The smoke followed her like the stack on a train.
The pumpkin pokemon had been one of her oldest; she had raised him since he was a little Pumpkaboo. He wasn’t a flighty fellow by any means. The Ringmaster slipped through the flaps into the prop tent, squinting around in the darkness for any signs of stray lighting. The room was silent beyond the grave and just as bright. Huffing, she whipped around and left.
What had caused him to stray? He had been one of the most relaxed pokemon she had ever raised. Nothing could cause that sweet little smile to lose its pointed serenity. She stomped around boxes and crates, through changing tents and kicked around props to see if he was hiding around in either of them. But there was no signs of a large haunted gourd. There was simply no other place to check besides anywhere outside. Ghost pokemon and forests seem to get along well.
The route in question was home to many Pumpkaboos too. Suddenly, the idea seemed a little more grounded. She removed the cigarette from its holder and placed it into her mouth while gripping one of the side flaps to the big top. It was flung open like mere paper to the breeze while she slinked out.
Scattered moonlight greeted her pale skin as she looked up among the canopies above her. In the pale twilight, the forest almost took on a peaceful tone. A Trevenant would be at home here...which wasn’t too unfounded either, as Phantumps were known to play among the branches with the Murkrow. She kept her eyes roaming, drifting from the trees to the shrubs that slept peacefully around their feet. At this point, the Ringmaster had almost forgotten about the stick of cancer bouncing between her pouting lips; she was only puffing at it out of distraction as her thoughts wandered.
She passed along the footpath leading to her attraction, and looked out again at the patches of wild grass swaying in the autumn breeze. That’s where she saw him, perched ahead atop one of the fence lines. The temperature was crisp, but not too cold to penetrate beyond the fat. But there he was, her sweet little pumpkin spice, shivering and whimpering as he looked down at his reflection in the passing brook before him. Timidly, the ghost pokemon glanced shyly to meet her one visible eye. He expected a clear scolding for fleeing before his act. Instead, he watched her remember the nicotine between her lips as she pinched the smoldering butt between the satin of her fingers while pulling it out. Any normal human should have winced at the searing heat piercing through the glove, but not the Ringmaster. She eyed the waters of the glittering stream, but decided against it. The snuffed cigarette instead found its way into one of the hidden pockets along her waistline.
The trainer instead crossed her arms carefully across the splintered wooden post and took to leaning on it like an old cowboy in a Western. She even crossed one leg behind the other while they watched the gentle current splashing by. Who knew where it led. Perhaps to another town. Perhaps to a whimsical little grove untainted by ghosts and spooks. The Gourgeist exhaled softly once he realized that he wasn’t going to be in trouble. His whimpering remained short and soft, betraying the stoic look he was giving off.
The biggest act of the evening was from him. It involved cannons, bursts of fire and a rocketing leap all the way up into the very peak of the stratosphere...or at least, towards the ceiling of the tent. For the longest time he had been delegated as a bit of dark comedic relief during the transitions, playing on stage with Mimikyu and Mr. Mime while occasionally spooking the audiences by appearing under their seats in bursts of laughter and hot air. Tonight, he had upgraded to the star position. He was plump enough, and just about the right amount of weight to constitute a good cannonball- none of her other ghosts could compare. The Donphan were clearly too large, and her Mime was more than unsettled by the contraption with its gaping Gyarados head. The honors fell to him, and he had played off his coolness up until thirty minutes ago.
A soft hand stroked along the curled vines covering his face, careful to not dabble too long in the sticky warmth of his waxy face. Gourgeist meekly looked to her again, finding his smile in the courage she imbued with the gentility of her own. Her family was spooky but playful. They thrilled and chilled, but in the end the love of the art was what brought them all together. She never would have bestowed the grand finale on him if she had any doubts of his ability. He was big, and he was eerie. He was powerful, and yet so dainty. The Ringmaster nodded to him and cupped his cheek. Her sweet little pumpkin spice…
It was settled.
Her mime nearly fell over himself in relief when the duo returned. And it was for good reason too: the intermission was coming up and time was precious in preparing the cannon. Gourgeist glanced over at the monstrous prop in the corner of their prep area, trembling as a duo of Haunters assisted in removing the tarp which covered the sleeping weapon’s head. He heard a small hum behind him, and remembered his importance. The ghost pumpkin chattered his fangs, inhaled deep and placed his corded hands upon those plump hips of his as he nodded. He couldn’t fail.
The rest of the show went off without a hitch. The Honedge quartet came back for an encore during the Cofagrigus act, bursting out of the seal to her door once it was flung open in a devilish squeal. Zoroark took on nightmarish illusions of different pokemon while Malamar sparked paranoia among the crowds with his hypnotic manipulations. The Ringmaster watched it all with crossed arms, only partly listening to the tinkering of claws tightening parts while oiled rags squeaked along the cannon’s features. She thought of her pokemon, and of new splendors she could provide for the future of her work. A circus was only as successful as the exotic wonders of its crew; audiences tired of the same old things. The workers did too. There was only so much heavy lifting and long rehearsals could do before the same acts felt stale and ancient.
Her Alolan Marowak sauntered by, sparking an added thought that had long slipped her mind.
In those sunny and tropical lands where she obtained the bone keeper, she had heard tales of a pokemon that rivaled all others when it came to haunts and thrills. A pokemon said to have danced in from another world, abiding by its own rules of physics while rejecting any means of studying. Not even the most esteemed of minds in the area could fathom as to what it was. Reports said it walked on air like a leaf along the wind, and that it made fireworks using its own head that could almost turn the night sky into daylight. It was a clown, and yet there was something so eerie, so...eldritch, about it, like a monster lurking beneath innocent colors. She had to have it one day.
The Ringmaster smiled as her thoughts brought her back to the present. There was more than enough wonders among the pokemon she worked hard to train, after all. It wasn’t fair to be greedy.
When the time came for the finale, she was nowhere to be seen. Mr. Mime scrambled to step in to give the cues as the Bisharp couple employed their strength, pushing the cannon out from the backstage while their heels flayed fresh divets into the dirt. The audience was restless by this point, chanting and knocking their shoes in tandem as excitement built up in a deafening roar. The noise was like a deep throb- a heartbeat of the earth. The Bisharp pushed in rhythm to the chants, pausing only once the menacing cannon was placed in the middle with its maw pointed to the heavens. They both assumed a fierce salute as the rest of the spotlights honed in. Somewhere in the pits of the big top, the real drums started to boom and bash in that same thundering pulse that quickened the blood of all who heard it. The Bisharp remained resolute, frozen like statues as the noises combatted each other, organic versus melodic until they bled into each other as one gigantic presence under the shivering tent that encased it.
The two swordsmen stepped back to make room for the Ringmaster. It was at that moment that the drumming stopped as fiercely as it started, and the cries of want died with it. The silence became just as all consuming, so tight and maddening that it must have sucked every breath out of the room and focused it into a black hole honed right in on the new cigarette she brandished. She had lit it backstage without even taking a puff- she could sacrifice a puff for the sake of a show. The Ringmaster turned the smoking stick around in her fingers, before leaning down to snuff it right at the tip of the fuse. It hissed to life as fresh embers dug into the fibers and sank their sparking teeth into the thick cording.
A pin could have dropped and made a more distracting noise, that was how transfixed the arena became. Every sense was flared and hot, pistoning fresh adrenaline through every heart and set of eyes from every soul, human and pokemon alike whom watched the timer of destruction eating its way down the reddened tail of the fuse. It gnawed its way down the cord, snapping threads and burning ends into sticky smolders while the fire gorged itself closer to the cast iron end of the cannon. The hissing slowed into a muffled simmer...and the silence fell again.
It lasted only a moment. The booming crush of the sound barrier came after, as the armored head of the iron Gyarados let loose a torrent of fire. Like a meteor reversing flight, Gourgeist was wreathed in ghostly pink flames as he rocketed up towards the limits of the enclosed space, closing his eyes when he became dangerously close to piercing the ceiling of the tent. The Haunter waited patiently on the roof, pulling apart the rigging keeping the center stitched to reveal a large hole. It opened up to the glittering twilight as the pumpkin rocketed up towards the grinning moon. The ghost panicked and remembered his cue a moment after: He ignited himself the moment he reached the cusp of his flight, where time seemed to halt movement and when his lit form became but a twinkle among the kindred stars. Gourgeist seized up, bursting into a plume of spiraling fireballs and zigzagging sparks that could put a handmade fireworks display to shape.
Not many souls knew that a pokemon like him naturally learned Explosion. It took many months of rigorous training and taming to raise a pokemon like him to that high of a level. But he performed his move flawlessly, disappearing into the smoke and rephasing right into the safety of the prep area. Out of sight, but fresh in the minds.
Once the blinding display finished, a few moments of merciful quiet lurked in while the room recovered. It hushed the ringing in the ears and swept gentle hands over eyelids to banish the dancing spots. The Ringmaster stood patiently beside the pumpkin beast as she marveled at the dying embers floating gracefully down to the earth with long serpent tails made of smoke. One hand rolled a thick black cigar along her fingers while the other flipped and snapped shut the head of a lighter. A sigh of bliss escaped her, and she placed the thick end between her teeth.
The applause rained down upon her like a refreshing crash of a waterfall. It was invigorating. It was detoxifying. If only these nights would last forever.
The head of the cigar flared hot and red as she lit it, nodding along to the whistles and cheers of her amped up crowd. They hungered for more. It was like a drug, that sweet adrenaline. But, as she began to exclaim to her audience, not every thrill was bound to last. After all, the witching day was soon to come, for this night was only a taste.
She quirked a brow and took a deep inhale, dipping light enough into a soft bow while the other pokemon took their own from wherever they lingered. Once she stood again, The Ringmaster exhaled a billow of smoke so thick it choked the air as it clawed its way from her lungs. It grew in growing plumes until it encased her completely, leaving nothing but an empty stage after it gasped and choked itself into nothingness.