...Wallace tried to keep the hopeful tremor out of his voice. "What do I need to do?"
"You need to convince the Plumpy that the correct answer to your question was no."
Wallace looked confused.
"You see," the Draik explained, "when you were asked to come up with a yes or no question, you were, in fact, being asked to sign on to a magical contract. If you thought of a yes question, then you would have had the word 'yes' floating inside your mind. The magic grabs onto that word and turns it into an expression of consent, without you knowing. So, you were effectively saying yes to a lifetime of clownhood. If the answer to your question had been no, then you would have walked free."
"That's ridiculous! I thought it was just a show!"
The old clown nodded gravely. "As we all did, young one. As we all did. It's very devious magic."
"So, to reverse it," the Lutari said, "all I have to do is convince the Plumpy that the correct answer to my question was no?"
"If it's that simple, though, then why haven't you freed yourself?"
The Draik's eyes became misty with remembrance. "Unfortunately, the question I asked was 'Is Neopia round?' and the answer to that is undoubtedly yes. I've beaten myself up so often over these past decades, wishing I'd asked a different question... but you, young one, you have a chance."
"How do you know?"
"We were all backstage listening when you voiced your question. I'll admit, I was listening for selfish reasons. As the oldest clown in the group, I knew that I would be free if you voiced a yes question. However, the question you voiced -- well, it's not a guaranteed yes question."
Wallace thought back to his fateful words. "I asked, 'Are you really a mystical Plumpy?'"
The Draik's eyes crinkled again. "You have a chance. The one who escaped before, his question was 'Is this a real circus?' He managed to get away with the interpretation that no, it was not a real circus -- it's a fraudulent circus."
Wallace nodded. "I see."
The smell of bacon grew stronger. An expression of serenity crossed the Draik's face. "Goodbye, young one, and good luck. My freedom beckons."
"No, wait!" Panic beat in Wallace's chest. "How do I get back to the Mystical Plumpy? How do I-- please, help me!"
However, the Draik had already vanished.
The young Lutari whirled and looked all around himself, but there was no one and nothing to be found.
Wallace felt ready to cry.
There came a tap on his shoulder. "What are you doing back here?" the Scorchio announcer asked sharply. "It's almost showtime."
"You can go ahead and put those in that box," the seasoned Gelert clown said, pointing toward to the oversized pocket containing the balls that Wallace had been juggling earlier. "You'll be juggling flaming batons onstage."
"Join your brothers," said the Techo clown, who had also appeared.
"We're not brothers!" Wallace protested.
"We shook hands," the Techo said.
Wallace felt as though he were walking in a dream. He followed the Gelert and the Techo to a scraggly line of clowns, who were all getting ready to go onstage.
Somewhere beyond the pounding in his ears, he could hear the Scorchio announcer booming, "Ladies and gentlemen! The ultimate final act!"
He then felt the light come on. Warm, bright light. He looked down and blinked. Somehow, he was now riding a unicycle. There were flaming batons in his hands, and he was tossing them, effortlessly, just like all the other clowns parading around onstage.
Whump-whump-whump went the hot, flaming batons up and down in his hands. Shiny, so shiny. Whump-whump-whump.
No! no! his inner voice cried. I am not a clown! This is not a real circus.
"Oh but sure it is." Whump-whump-whump. "Don't you hear the cheering and the applause? Don't you feel the unicycle beneath your feet? You're performing, young clown, and the audience loves you."
I did not say yes to any of this.
"Certainly you did." Whump-whump-whump. "When you voiced your yes question."
It was not a yes question! Wallace struggled to keep his thought-stream intact, free from this strange, intruding force that was robbing him of himself. He had already lost control of his body. Whump-whump-whump. He would not lose control of his mind. The Mystical Plumpy has no power over me, he thought fiercely. I did not say yes to any of this. The Mystical Plumpy has no power over me.
Whump-whump-whump. That noise was getting on his nerves. He screamed to make himself heard.
"THE MYSTICAL PLUMPY IS NOT A MYSTICAL PLUMPY!"
Gasps burst forth from the audience.
Suddenly, it seemed as though Wallace's ears had popped. He fell off of his unicycle. "The Mystical Plumpy is not a Mystical Plumpy!" he cried, over and over. "The Mystical Plumpy has no power over me!"
The rhythm was broken. The rods fell with a clatter to the stage, where -- oddly -- they did not catch fire. They turned into ordinary wooden rods.
More gasps came from the audience.
Wallace struggled to get back onto his feet, and then he reached for the Scorchio's microphone. Stunned, the Scorchio handed it to him.
"Don't you see?" Wallace shouted. "This is not real entertainment. These aren't real clowns. You've all been fooled!"
One by one, each clown seemed to wake from a trance. They, too, fell off their unicycles. They, too, dropped their batons. Their gazes fell on Wallace and their eyes filled with gratitude.
The audience was displeased.
"That was no fun to watch!" a large Chomby complained. "I want my money back!"
"Now, just hold on a minute," said the Scorchio announcer, who was flailing for the mic but it was too late. They were all upon him.
Wallace walked out of the tent and felt the cool breeze in his face. He then caught sight of the old Draik sitting under a nearby tree, happily sipping a smoothie.
The Draik smiled at him. "Well done."