Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Tale of The Exile--The Third Night: Le Cirque d'Aberrations (Part 5)

Part 5: Helter Skelter

Light fills the theatre as the shutters are removed from the lanterns. I stand, stretch, and lean over to pick up my cap. Below, chatter rises from the crowd as it streams back out into the night.

“Wasn't that simply marvelous?” Jereth gushes.

“It was entertaining, I suppose.” I mutter back. “I did like the act with the singing skulls.”

Jereth raises an eyebrow. “Singing skulls?”

“You know. The necromancer.” I say. “Between the candle man and the small folk.” I feel cold. I know I saw that.

Jereth shakes his head and gifts me with a hatefully pitying smile. I really want to take a rock to his head.

Dragon take it. I'm going for a walk.

I step through the curtain. Jereth nods to the larger of the two bodyguards, the burly one I remember from last night, and he follows behind me just close enough to catch me if I try to run anywhere. There are lines in front of the privies, so I don't bother. I head out of the building to get air.

The great houses of the nobility loom over me. Specks of light from fireglass lanterns raise strange shadows on the basalt buildings. The pools of light are weak and tiny. Even here, where the richest of Miirians dwell. The Tower is there, glaring down at the city.

I stare at it, and it stares back. I can almost hear it speak, picking up words from the crowd directed only at me, stitched together from the echoes of the crowd's chatter.

Submit, Exile, the echoes growl. Surrender to your fate, and perhaps the Shadows will grant you a less horrible death. Fight me, and I will inflict upon you agonies pulled from the depths of your soul.

Dragon take you, Miir.

A pair of large hands clamp on my right shoulder. “Hello again.”

I twist to look at my assailant. It's the four-armed giant, Dmitri. Oh, sod me sideways.

“I just wanted to ask if you're a fast runner.” he says. “It will make the chase much more fun when I come for you after the show.”

“Excuse me,” says a voice nearby. I think it's Jereth's bodyguard. “Unhand him. The truce is still in effect, and he is Lord Jereth's guest.”

“As long as the show goes.” The man mountain rumbles. “That long and no longer.” He shoves me to the ground. “Enjoy it while it lasts.” He stomps back into the theatre, leaving us alone.

“Well, that was rude.” I grunt. The guard offers me a hand up. I take it...and suddenly he's slamming me against the wall. OW! The stitches in my side protest as my breath is knocked out of me.

“Let's get one thing straight between us, murderer,” he snarls. Flecks of spittle hit my face. I stare into his bloodshot eyes. “I'd help him if I could. It's no more than you deserve.” His hand tightens around my throat.

“Hey! What...” I gasp, pulling at his fingers. What now?

“Remember Cobb? He didn't make it through the day, thanks to that tear you made in his breath bag. But he lingered. Oh yes, he lingered. For hours I had to stand there, watching him gulp down air until he drowned in his own blood.”

“Who...Broke-Nose?” I gasp. Losing...air...can't think...his breath is really foul...

“GRAH!” He screams, shaking me like a rag doll. “You swine! Cobb was my friend! I'm going to feed you your own entrails!”

He tears my shirt off, then yanks the stitches from my side. I howl in pain as his hand digs into the wound and he starts pulling out strings of guts. The hand around my throat moves to my jaw, forcing it open, and he starts shoving the gut strings into my mouth. It's like being force-fed a long, hollow sausage...

I gag, and he drops me. I spit and grab for my side, to shove my stomach back in. My fingers brush linen. My shirt is intact. The stitches are whole. What?

While I'm trying to figure out just what is going on, the bodyguard kicks me over. Looming over me, he pulls something from his coin pouch. It's some kind of wooden gaming chit.

“But not yet.” he says, as if he didn't just spend a minute pulling my liver out. “No. Lord Jereth wants you for something, so I have to keep you alive. But this...this is a token. I'm in on the bet, put myself down for four nights. This chit is worth four hundred umbras to me if you don't live past tomorrow night.”

He puts the token away. “I'll keep the giant away from you if I must. But I hope that whatever it is Lord Jereth has in mind for you is fatal. If it's not, then know that I'll pop you like a blister.” He steps away, giving me space to stand but not to run. “So watch yourself.”

“I'm so sorry for your loss.” I cough, pulling myself up the wall into something resembling an upright position. “How many legs have you two smashed collecting debts for the gambling halls? How many women did you two steal from their parents to turn into whores? How many of them did you rape first.” I glare back at the bodyguard. “I know your kind, bullyboy. You're thugs, cowards, and murderers. Your friend knew the job was dangerous when he took it. Don't expect any pity from me because that stain was cleaned off the world and swallowed by the Dragon to burn for eternity.”

I don't wait for the bully boy to react. I duck back into the building, and climb the stairs back up to the balcony where Jereth sits.

"So, what's next?" I ask the elf.

"Oh, this next part will be a wonder!” Jereth says. “It's a series of acts sponsored by the nobles of various houses for the purpose of, shall we say, moral instruction."

Sounds dull to me. The nobles are all settling back into their seats. I notice empty chairs peppering the balcony. It's not as crowded now.

Someone takes a seat beside me. "Taking in a show, I see,” says a too-familiar voice. “Excellent. We should always take opportunities to expand the mind."

“Naros.” I groan. I was wondering when he'd turn up. "What do you want now? More threats? More deals? Have you come to express your disappointment in me for screwing you over last night?"

"I'm flattered that you seem to trust in my reality, even as the dreamlily makes all your other senses unreliable," the figure chuckles, "but no. No threats, no deals. I'm not even disappointed in you. You did exactly what I predicted you would. No, I came for the show."

"So you expected me to save Eric, then?"

"You made your intentions clear the first night! I would be a great fool to expect otherwise."

"So why the smoke and mirrors?"

"Just because you did what I expected does not mean you may have done otherwise. I wanted to make sure."

"Make sure of what?" I ask. I'm getting nervous. Jereth hasn't noticed us speaking yet. Could I be hallucinating this whole conversation?

"Quiet," he replies. "The show begins. You may find it instructional. And you did your friend Eric no favors last night, as you'll soon see."

The lanterns are almost all out now. Candles and fireglass gleam. Voices quiet, and an aura of suspense and anticipation falls on the crowd. The lights on the stage light. FWOOMP! The Jester stands in the center, arms outstretched to encompass us. His face rips into a grin. I notice new stage props: a long slab, fitted with leather restraints. A small table, set with gleaming saws, blades, and other implements.

"Ladies and gentlefolk," The Jester begins, "Two goals intertwined inform all our performances for you. We wish to entertain, of course, showcasing the talent of freaks and oddities from all over Demurra, Ivthia, and even beyond. But, important as that is, it pales in comparison to the lessons we wish to impart. A spectacle without substance is worthless indulgence. And what lesson may you learn? Well, we hope that you will take away the knowledge that even the twisted ones have useful talents. But as I am afraid such enlightenment may be lost to those born of privilege, several of your peers have generously provided alternatives. So, I welcome you to this, our second act--The Grand Guignol! Theatre of the Grotesque! A transfiguring look at the human condition!"

There is a commotion at the back. The audience applauds as someone is dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the stage. The Vampiress and The Living Doll take the man and fix him to the slab with the restraints, while the Jester juggles little balls which change from dark to light as they fly through the air. The crowd laughs.

"Tonight's first act is brought to you courtesy of House Von Hastur." He booms.

Several Caliban take the stage. Jester narrates as they act. "And what have we here? A pair of thieves, slinking through the darkness, mischief on their minds! Watch as they slink past the guards!" There's something very sick about all of this. Wait...No. It can't be. This all looks familiar. TOO familiar. The man on the table screams. "And here they are, about to claim their prize! But wait! The villains have been incautious, for the guards come to investigate some noise!"

Beside me, Naros chuckles. "The best part is to come.”

The Jester leaps onto the table, baring his flayed grin at the man writhing on the slab “Tell me, Gaven--” he calls to the crowd. What? “How does it feel to see yourself center stage as your crimes repeat?"

I freeze.

"Oh no! Perfidies!” The Jester says, clapping his hands to his cheeks. As the guards come, one thief turns to the other and makes a blowing motion...as if extinguishing a candle. Oh, fuck no. I grip the arms of my chair. I'm beginning to shiver. “In his haste to hide his crimes, he has blown out his partner's flame! He consigns his ally to the cold embrace of the Shadows, a monstrous crime indeed!"

I recognize the man strapped to the table now. It's my lowlife partner. I'm sweating in the chair, wondering if anyone is looking my way. I take a look around. No one seems to be staring at me...but there are more people now than there were earlier. Dozens of empty chairs are now filled. The nobles in the once empty chairs sit expectantly, like ravens around a dying man.

None of them have lights.

I sink into the chair. Naros slouches and grins that hateful smile. "Ah. The others have arrived. The Shadows of Miir have come to feast."

Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck.

"Jereth." I whisper. "I need a light. I think they're coming for me."

"It's just the Dreamlily, Gaven. Be quiet!"

What am I going to do? Oh god, I'm going to die...The actors on the stage have finished with a humorous courtroom scene. I've missed most of it. They wheel the man on the slab back to center stage, now with a ridiculously large, lit red candle jammed in his mouth to gag him. The Jester and his crew bow and soak up applause. I'm nauseous.

"Now, we have a dilemma. What will we do with our wayward citizen, hmm?" The Jester says as he walks around my partner. "How should he be punished?"

My partner shrieks something, muffled by the wax. "Ah as he one oo ot his andle uffed! Ee! On't oo his oo eeee!" He sobs.

The Jester ignores him. "Well, if I remember correctly, the old Miirian punishment for thieves was to remove the hand that had offended." He picks up a cleaver.


The Jester continues to ignore him. Instead, he removes my partner's arm from the restraints. He ties it to a board with deep cuts, aims...I wince as the cleaver comes down. There's a sickening thud. He brings out a few implements and begins to juggle them. Every time he gets to the mallet, he strikes it down on the cleaver. Once. Twice. Three times. Four. The shrieks get shriller. My gorge rises. Finally, the Jester raises the severed hand and waves it at the crowd. "And thus is the lesser crime of theft dealt with." Applause. Some cruel laughter. "But what of the greater crime? Of coldly attemping to save himself at the expense of his friend?" He pauses. "Well, he has two hands, doesn't he?"

Oh, not again!

I can't watch. The man screams are hoarser this time, but it takes five whacks to remove his other hand, along with a twang from something, and gales of laughter. I'm staring at the floor between my knees. I don't want to know what that was. I'm desperately trying to hold my sick in.

"Watch, Gaven!" Jereth says, yanking my head up. I can't stand the glee in his voice. "House Von Hastur must have been extremely displeased with your attempt at larceny. If you had not been made Exile, that would be you up there. Watch and be thankful it's not!"

The Jester gives that rip-faced grin to the audience again. There is surprisingly little blood. I would expect him to be gushing buckets. "Well, I would say he's been properly chastised. But what're we to do with the poor man? We can't leave him like this! Let's give the poor sinner a hand!”

The audience howls. The Jester picks up the severed limbs, and then pulls out a needle and gut from among his implements. He can't be seriously considering...He turns to the man, who has by now stopped screaming. He places a hand to a stump, and begins to stitch. Could he be any crueler? He's sewing a useless limb to a crippled stump! It's not even the right hand!

"There we are!" The Jester says. "Now, try it out. And let this be a lesson, now and forever, of keeping your hands where they belong!" The man raises the stump with the wrong hand stitched on....and the fingers twitch. I can't keep it in any more. I lower my head and heave.

Either that was a Dreamlily Delirium dream, or the Jester has just turned my former partner into a Caliban.

I spend the rest of the act throwing up the dinner I ate earlier. Several of the nobles make disparaging comments about my conduct. Dragon take the sodding lot of them. They're entertained by this horror show. I can hear the applause. I've met the real monsters of Miir.

"Get me out of here." I gasp at Jereth.

He leans over. "Are you not entertained? That's too bad. I don't think the lesson has sunk in yet."

"Get me the fuck out of here. Or I'll go on my own."

He sighs. "No, Gaven. Not yet. There is one more act you simply must see before we go. Watch!"

They've wheeled my partner away. The Jester must have sewn his other hand back on while I was vomiting, because he's got two now, both facing the wrong way and on the wrong arms. There's a new, clean table now.

"Now, wasn't that fun?" The Jester crows to the crowd. "And now, we come to our next act of the evening, sponsored by House Dythanus." The Caliban lead another man to the stage. This one is paunchy and middle-aged, with a generous mustache beneath his nose but little hair on the top of his head.

It's Eric.

The Tale of The Exile--The Third Night: Le Cirque d'Aberrations (Part 4)

Part 4—Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite

Jereth leads me out of the mansion, handing me a woolen cloak while wrapping his slender frame in a fine white fur. I appreciate that—there's a chill crawling its way through my spine and raising the hairs on my arm, and I have no idea how much of it is from the night and how much is from the Dreamlily. I watch him pick up a golden disk shaped like a sun and pin it to his furs. A shard of fireglass gleams from its center. A light and religious icon in one. Clever.

“I don't suppose I can borrow a candle from you for the evening?” I ask.

“Oh, I can't do that Gaven,” he favors me with a pointy, catlike smile. “Part of your sentence is that you're not allowed to carry light, remember? No arms, nor armor, nor candle. But not to worry, I have light enough for the pair of us!”
“Sodding elf.” I mutter. Depending on Jereth chafes like cheap leather breaches but I trot to keep up. The shadows seem thicker around his small circle of light. I shiver and rub my arms to keep the chill down.

We pass a garden, and I notice vines slithering, alive and hungry. It's just the Dreamlily delirium. Not sodding real. I clench my burned hand to focus myself on reality and ignore the fleshy bloom hanging from a vine that's split open and smiling at me. Once through the garden, we're at the gate. Jereth snaps his fingers at the roughnecks guarding it, and they fall into step behind us. I don't feel particularly safe with them around—I recognize the burly one from our battle last night, and he's recognized me too. His eye promise me murder. I suppose he's still upset that I knifed his friend. Tough. I wouldn't have had to stab anyone if they'd let us alone.

The Bastion district is busy tonight. People move through the streets chatting while carriages drawn by horses or unfortunate servants roll along the cobbles. Flecks of light from lanterns and candles flutter through the crowd like little angels to ward the dark away. Behind us the Tower rises, and I can feel it brooding. I have the urge to turn and look but I'm afraid I'll see it breathing.

“Why are so many people out?” I ask Jereth. I've seen city folk scurry like rats to get their ships closed before the sun goes down. Taverns close and bolt their doors at the first hint of dusk. But it's an hour past sunset now, and the streets are filled to bursting. “Are the gentry exempt from the curfew? Or is this a special occasion?”

“The curfew isn't enforced until ten bells,” Jereth replies, “but tonight is a most special occasion!”

“What's the big deal with this circus, anyhow?”

“That's hard to explain. Le Crique d'Aberrations is so very many things. A social event, an entertainment, a chance for lessons...”


“Oh yes! Le Cirque is full of lessons to be learned and messages to be sent, which is why I've invited you. Tonight will be instructive!”

I don't like the sound of that.

We've walked some distance by now and the stitches in my side are beginning to complain. I try breathing lighter to lessen the pain, but my vision goes blurry for a moment and everything goes light and far away. Oog. The lightheadness passes, but my side still hurts.

“Where's our sodding carriage?” I grumble.

“We aren’t taking one.” Jereth says airily, his hand flickering about as he moves. I see the crowd part away from the bright-eyed, laughing elf like a wave. “The theatre is not much farther, and it's good to have exercise. Aren't you glad you won't be out walking all night?”

I'm not giving him the satisfaction of a reply. Instead, I grab a rock, slide up behind him, and throw all my strength into a blow that cracks open his skull like an egg. I watch bits of bone tumble to the pavement, sparkling with strangely golden blood.

The dead noble turns to me, a cascade of glittering blood spewing from his hollow head as he moves. “Gaven?” he asks, faintly annoyed. More flecks of skull fall away, turn into butterflies, and take wing. “You've stopped. Why?” I stare, fascinated, as his whole head dissolves into flights of wings like mirrors that flutter like bubbles rising to the surface of a black pond...

I close my eyes. Opening them again, I see Jereth's head is still whole and the only thing in my clenched hand is pain. Dragon take it.

“Sorry.” I mutter and fall back into step behind him. The bodyguards behind us snicker. We travel in silence until we reach the theatre.

The theatre is a round, domed cathedral built to worship the arts. Black basalt buttresses hold the domed edifice together, adorned with leering wolf-headed gargoyles hung with green and violet lanterns. People are gathered around the entrance, talking, laughing, chattering on about nothing. From inside come the faint strains of music played on horns, concertinas, and an off-key harpsichord, a tune that flutters to heaven and back between slow, somber chords and rapid babbling ones. It reminds me of something I heard in church back in Calisapas once.

We near the door and are waved inside. I look at the usher; he is tall and spindly, made up in whiteface with an ugly red smile. His teeth are yellow and peglike. His arms are far too long. His knuckles scrape the ground. Caliban!
I leap back, startling the bodyguards, and mutter a prayer to God or The Dragon, whichever will listen. Please don't let that thing touch me!

Jereth turns and looks at me, puzzled, as the roughnecks grab hold of me to keep me from bolting away like a rabbit. I try to slip away, but the larger one tightens his grip and twists my arm painfully behind my back.

“Gaven? Is there a problem?” he asks.

“Caliban!” I point with my free arm at the mockery, who shuffles back and forth as all eyes turn to us. “There's a Caliban right there! Can’t you see it?”

“Ah?” Jereth raises an eyebrow and looks at the usher with mild curiosity. “Oh. Yes. Of course. I should have mentioned that earlier. I forgot how familiarity breeds apathy. Yes, this gentleman is a Caliban, but you have nothing to fear.”

“Don't fear?” I sputter. “it's a sodding Caliban! A twist child! Spawn of foul magic!”

“You tell me nothing I do not know, Gaven.” Jereth says. “Please. Calm down. You're making a terrible scene.”

“Begging your pardon, sirs.” the inhuman user bobs his head, and I flinch, afraid he'll move, close his hands around my neck, mold my flesh like clay...”I be a twist child, true, but my twistin' be through and I can't pass it on to you.” His spider fingers grip the door and pull it open while his too-large hand waves us inside again. His painted face is still smiling, but it's only the paint.

I hesitate, but angry shouts from down the line and Jereth's faintly amused smirking spur me forward. I head through the door quickly, giving the freak as wide a berth as I can manage. He wiggles his fingers to get me me as I pass and favors me with a spiteful smile when I flinch.

We mill about for a while. Jereth makes small talk with some of the other nobles while I shiver. I've seen a lot of dangerous things since coming to Miir, but that's not what bothers me. Caliban aren't just dangerous—they're wrong. They were men once, until they came too close to dark magic that twisted and warped them, breaking them in body and mind, making them bitter, spiteful monsters that look just close enough to human to let you know they aren't. Worse, the rumor is that they can do the same to others, molding them into more creatures like themselves. They would never be suffered to live in Calisapas. Why, by God and the Dragon, do the nobles tolerate them here?

“So.” Jereth says as he pulls away from his conversation and leads me up stone stairs to a curtain. “This is tonight's first lesson! I don't know what sort of lies they tell you about these folk where you come from, but in Miir we know how to treat our unfortunates. It's a rare caliban that can twist others after their own twisting ends, and many acquire singular and useful magical talents in the process. Where a normal cripple loses much, a caliban gains!”

He pulls aside the curtain and passes through, leaving me to catch my breath and follow. The trip up the stairs didn't do my aching stitches much good. I follow him, then catch my breath for a different reason. The theater is just as grand on the inside. We're on the middle tier of three balconies rising over rows of benches on the ground. A vaulted ceiling supported by stone arches carries chatter and echoes of music from across the theater to us. More colored lanterns have been hung, speckling the crowd below every color of the rainbow. The balcony rows remain dark.
I settle into my seat, a high-backed wooden chair lined with velvet cushions. It's one of the more comfortable seats I've ever had. Jereth takes the seat to my left, leaving an empty one at my right. The two bodyguards remain standing next to the curtain, probably as much to keep me from bolting away as to keep others out.

“Well hello, hello, hello.” A well-dressed man with sallow skin and long black hair tied into a ponytail sidles up to us. “Are you the Exile?” he asks me, but doesn't wait for a reply. “Of course you are! A pleasure to meet you sir, a pleasure. Of course, I had you down for two nights, so I'm out a few coins, but no matter.” He chuckles to himself. “Did you know the odds go up tenfold if you survive four? I can see why House Dythanus might take you under it's wing...they'll make a killing if they can protect you that long!”

“Ah.” Jereth says with an off-hand wave. “Gaven Morren, may I introduce Viggo Von Kreguer, third son of Lady Vanessa. He oversees his house's trade with the desert tribes.”

“The pleasure is all yours.” I say absently, watching his hands bonelessly wobble and flop about. “You people are placing bets on my survival?”

“Of course!” The man nods so vigorously that his neck stretches like a thick pudding. His head rolls off his shoulders and lands into my lap, where it continues to speak. “It's not often anyone is foolish enough to test themselves against the Shadows, and even fewer who've made it as many nights as you have. Why, I dare say you're the most interesting Exile we've had in years! Of course, the night's still young...I could be talking to a dead man!” The head laughs. I don't. I really hope this is just delirium.

“Well, I should get to my seat before the show begins. I hear we have a couple of very interesting acts up later tonight. You know, if you do happen to survive, perhaps we can meet later...get to know each other better, you know.” He licks his lips, picks up his head, and moves down the aisle. I shudder and try to sink through the seat into the floor. I'm very relieved he doesn't take the empty seat next to me. He makes my skin crawl. Jereth seems faintly amused at my discomfort, showing off those unnervingly pointed teeth of his with a smirk.

Suddenly there is a presence behind me. A very large hand clamps down on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze that makes my bones grind.

“Did I hear you insult my friend the ticket-taker?” rumbles a very large voice. I turn and look up. And up. The man behind me is huge, bald, bearded...and has four arms, the upper two folded across his chest. I cry out and try to wiggle out of his grasp. I am shoved roughly back into my seat by his meaty grip. “I really hope I didn't,” he continues conversationally, a second hand landing on my shoulder while a third knocks my cap off my head and ruffles my hair. I want him off me. I want him off me now. “It would be such a shame to have to pull off your arms.”

Oh shit.

My stomach roils. I start plotting a desperate escape. Just as I'm contemplating how willing I am to dislocate my shoulder Jereth speaks up.

“Dmitri! What a pleasure to see you!” Jereth says with a smile that shows far more teeth than cheer. His slitted eyes narrow into slashes in the light from the open curtain. The giant lifts his hand from my shoulders, though he continues to fondle my head. “Gaven, this is Lord Dmitri Von Jeggett, one of Miir's finest wrestlers.”

Lord Von Jeggett?” I stammer. “Y-you're a noble?”

“That's right, friend.” He grins. Why does nobody here mean it when they smile? “And I don't like hearing people insult my kin.” I'm not imagining the arms...he's a sodding caliban! “You should be lucky my twisting happened so long ago...I'd love to give you a taste of what it's like.” He raises his arms – all four of them – over me, making me cringe down into my seat with a whimper. “Of course, I could still twist you into all sorts of interesting shapes even without...”

“Dmitri!” a voice calls. “Stop this!” An old man, also bald, with gray muttonchops and heavy bulldog jowls appears, leaning on a cane. I've seen happier wolverines.

“Yes, uncle.” Dmitri says, folding his lower arms behind his back, then turns to me. “I hope to see you later. After the show.” He grins again, squeezes my shoulder hard enough to bring tears to my eyes, and clomps off. The balcony shakes as he moves.

“–and this,” Jereth says, “is Lord Oswald, patriarch of House Von Jeggett.”

“Save your breath, Exile.” the man growls as I start to stammer out thanks. “I respect the truce, but I have you down for three nights. I will not stop him again. My advice is to swiftly find a hiding place when the show ends.” He moves to follow his monstrous nephew while I sit and shiver.

A servant walks up the Jereth, bows, and asks if he would like any refreshments. He orders something called a “fairy nest” for the pair of us. I'm still too shaken from my encounter with the giant to ask what that is, and I just hope that it doesn't contain any real faeries. After the servant leaves, Jereth nudges me.

“Look there,” he says while pointing to an elaborate box jutting out of the balcony above us. “See the most important man in Miir!”

The man he's pointing at, barely visible from this angle, slouches in his chair, regarding the theater with one finger tapping his chiseled jaw restlessly.

“That,” Jereth says, “is Lord Damien Von Kaje, patriarch of his house, Grandmaster of the Mason's Guild, and our current Keeper of the Tower, which makes him Miir's ruler. You hear all sorts of interesting things about him—that he can lift as much as three men, that he has no fear of the Shadows, that he personally beheaded four assassins, that he wings through the night to feast on the blood of the innocent...”

“A vampire?” I scoff. “Seriously?”

“That's what they say,” Jereth shrugs. “I don't believe half of it, and the rumors I do believe have been greatly exaggerated. But he's lasted twenty years as the Lord of the Tower, which is a position the entire gentry covet, so one wonders sometimes.”

“I think I'll keep wondering. I've had my fill of speaking to Miir's nobles.”

Jereth claps his hands with glee. “You hate them too! How splendid! That will come in handy when I call in my favor.”

“Yes, I've been wondering about that favor...”

“Shush. All in due time, Gaven. Tonight is for you to rest, relax, and learn a thing or two.”

I would ask him what he means, but it grows dark as the lanterns are shuttered one by one, leaving only the glow of people's candles to see by. It occurs to me that I'm the only one here without a warding light. Even Jereth has his shard of fireglass. There's a loud FWOOP! as the gaslights surrounding the stage flare to life, revealing a jester in blue motley, a high collared coat with puffy sleeves, and a three-belled cap jingling merrily as he takes a bow. The jester smiles at the audience; his inhumanly wide grin rips through his cheeks to his ears.

“Welcome, ladies and gentlefolk, to our humble production!” The jester says, waving his hands to encompass the crowd. His voice, bearing a hint of Garamondi accent, flows throughout the theater, carried by the walls to the ear. “The cirque of the strange! The theatre of the grotesque! The festival of phantasms! Witness wonders and terrors as the cruel oddities of nature prance and play upon the stage, expressly for your entertainment and education!”
As he speaks, more Caliban take the stage behind him. Two, six, ten...by the Dragon, there has to be nearly a score of them!

“Welcome, friends, to Le Cirque d'Aberrations!” the Jester says, taking another bow and then moving off to the side to introduce the acts.

The first act up is the Living Doll, a hairless woman with skin like china dressed in a lacy white dress that bares her arms and legs and a modest portion of her chest. She has stitches all over her joints; neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles. She looks like she's been hacked apart and sewn back together. She takes a bow, and pauses, stock-still, staring at the ground. The jester runs over, and from off stage there's a loud CRA-A-ANK! CRA-A-ANK! CRA-A-ANK! as he pantomimes turning a key in her back. And then, she dances. A melancholy chime tinkles as she does, her movements graceful but not fluid. Like a dancer from a music box, every step is precise and mechanical as she spins, kicks, twirls, kneels, and leaps in time to the music. Off to the side, the jester mimes pulling on puppet strings.

Up next is the Candle Man, dressed in red and yellow. His skin has a waxy shine, and his cornsilk hair flickers like a flame. He produces three batons, and begins to juggle them. The jester stands to the side, occasionally tossing new batons to the Candle man. There are four batons in the air now, five, six, seven...then he dips one end of the batons through his hair, and it catches. The crowd coos in wonder. One flame, two, three...seven blazing torches fill the air. The candle man tosses a flaming brand to the jester, who easily sends it back. More flames fly between the two caliban before the Candle Man takes one of the brands and sticks it down his throat! In the very same motion, he pulls it out again, now extinguished, then grabs the next flame and eats it as well. Each torch is swallowed down and dropped until a single one remains. The Candle Man takes a bow...then stands straight, looks to the ceiling, and puts the last torch to his lips. He breathes a stream of fire into the air, sending gasps through the crowd.

Then comes the Necromancer in long black robes, who lays out eight skulls in a row. He waves his hands and the skulls begin to sing in a sprightly tune in grave voices:

“Bumbum, bumbum, bumbum, bumbum...
bumbum, bumbum, bum...
Bumbum, bumbum, bumbum, bumbum...
bumbum, bumbum, bum...
Necromancer, we're so alone...
don't have no bodies to call our own...
avenge our deaths so we have closure...
then let us know our cursed lives are over...”

I sit entranced as the acts continue. A band of a dozen midgets flip on wires high above the stage with no nets to catch them, then pile on each other in intricate human towers. The jester calls a man to the stage and reads him a fortune, predicting he will lose a precious thing but gain wisdom in the process. A tanned man claiming to be a Western Islander stretches his flesh like rubber, then walks across coals to lie on a bed of nails.

Dmitri Von Jeggett, the four armed giant, makes a special appearance. He bends iron, then asks for volunteers from the audience. The young man who joins him on stage seems deliriously happy to have the huge caliban throw him around like a rag doll, twist his arms into vicious and painful-looking arm locks, then turn him upside down and drive his head into the stage. I wince as his limp body is lifted from the stage and carted to a physician. The giant then promises to bring similar agony to his opponent at his next match, just one week away. He is booed off the stage, but the boos seem like a staged response, insincere and melodramatic like a practiced ritual.

After he leaves, I'm startled out of my seat by an unholy shriek as something swoops from the arches. I cringe as it files past. A woman with red hair and leathery bat wings lands next to the jester and takes a bow. The jester introduces her as the Vampiress. She begins to swoop and twirl, launching herself into the air again. The wings are real, but the flight is not—I spy a cunning wire on her.

The jester returns to center stage and looks to the crowd.

“You there!” he points. “Please, could you come up to the stage?”

“Uh, me?” The man says, looking around. The ring of people in the seats around him lean away, leaving him exposed to the jester's too-wide grin.

“Indeed, sir! Come, and have your fortune read!”

After a minute of hesitation, the portly man slides his way through the crowd and pulls himself up to the stage. Some of the caliban have brought out a table and a couple of chairs. The jester and the man take seats at opposite ends. The man is sweating in the heat of the gaslights.

“Tell me a bit about yourself, sir,” the jester says, shuffling a deck of cards.

“Well, er, I'm Matthias Grell...” the man starts.

“Fat cheating whoreson!” someone heckles.

“And...and I own a modest dry goods store in the Pen...” he stammers out.

“Shadows take you, pig!” another voice in the crowd shouts.

“You don't seem very popular,” the jester says, handing the deck to the man.

“There are some,” the man glares at the crowd, “who resent hard work and success.”

“True, true.” The jester gives the man an uncomfortably wide grin. “Please cut the deck, then draw the top three cards.”

The man starts to do so, but the jester suddenly grabs his hands. “Stop!” he says, eyes wide.

The fat man sucks in a breath. “What! What is it?”

The jester cocks his head to the side. “You have something in your ear.” he says, reaching up. He pulls a large gold coin from behind the man's head, getting scattered chuckles from the audience. The fat man frowns. The jester places the coin aside. “Please. Continue.”

The fat man cuts the deck and pulls three cards, but as he does something drops from his sleeve and clinks on the the table. He looks down, eyes wide, mouth open in a little 'o' of shock. The jester picks it up and shows it to the crowd. It's another coin.

“Why, you must be successful indeed, to have such expensive lint,” the jester says. There's much more laughter from the crowd as the fat man fumes. “But let us begin the reading.” The Jester takes the cards and lays them in a row before him. “Now then. This one,” he indicates the middle card, “represents you. It's the King of Cups, who represent a fair man, a man of business, responsible, a man of equity.” The man smiles. but the smile fades as the jester continues. “However, this card is reversed, which changes the meaning to indicate a man who is dishonest, double-dealing, who engages in roguery, exaction, and injustice.”

“Now wait just a Shadow-taken minute...” he begins, but the jester cuts him off.

“This card,” he indicates the card to the left, “is your past. It is the Eight of Coins, representing work, employment, skill in craft in business. However, it is also reversed, and now signifies poisoned ambitions, vanity, wealth obtained through dishonest means, extortion.”

“You son of a whore!” the fat man's face goes an unhealthy beet red. “You turned them around when you took them from me! I ought to...” he stands, and as he does there's a RIIIIIP and dozens of coins plunk down and roll across the stage. Gales of laughter explode from the crowd. The fat man swings a clumsy punch at the jester, who snatches his arm from the air and holds it disdainfully to the side. The jester picks up the last card and slowly lifts it to the the fat man's eyes.

“This card is your future.” The jester says. “It is The Star. It signifies loss, theft, deprivation, abandonment. As you can see, it is not revered, so the meaning stands. I predict a downturn in your business. My advice is that you find a new livelihood now, strive to be a better person, and keep your thumbs off the scales.” He tightens his grip, and the fat man winces. “Now, kindly remove yourself from my stage.”

The fat man growls, then spits in the jester's face and clambers down to boos and catcalls. He tries to return to his seat, but none of the crowd will let him pass, so he storms out of the theater. The jester wipes his face tolerantly and gathers up the coins.

“Well. What an unpleasant person.” He says. “But every cloud has a golden shine in the sunset. At least now I can return a portion of what his dishonesty took!” So saying, the jester flings the coins into the crowd, which writhes as the it turns in on itself, trying to snatch up the tiny glittering points of precious in the darkness.

“There's hardly any magic in that.” I grumble. “Of course the man's business is doomed...the jester just implied he was a cheat.”

“I wonder how he did that business with the coins.” Jereth muses, his long fingers flicking the man's fate away with disinterest, gaze fixed on the scrabbling mob.

“That's simple.” I say. “He had the first coin hidden in his palm when he reached behind the guy's head. He planted the second when he grabbed the guy's sleeve. While he was doing the reading he had one hand under the table...probably had a knife to the guy's belt pouch, just waiting for him to get upset and make a sudden movement.” I've never seen anyone so thoroughly humiliated by some simple pickpocket tricks. “Is this a normal act?”

“Yes, indeed.” Jereth says with a dismissive wave. “The jester does this sort of thing every show. He likes to humble the proud.”

The jester is still taking in the applause from the crowd. “And now, ladies and gentlemen” he says, “we break.” The caliban return to the stage and take bows. “It was good of you all to come, but for those of you on the ground the show is over. Those in the balconies have decreed that the sights to come are for their eyes alone. Worry not, though, for there will be another, grander show for you, and sooner than you ever thought possible! Au revoir!”

He bows again, and the gaslights go out.

The Tale of The Exile--The Third Night: Le Cirque d'Aberrations (Part 3)

Part 3: Play Me Backwards

I sit back down and stare at my plate. I don't have an appetite now...well, that's a lie. I'm still hungry, I just don't feel like eating. The elves are still staring at me occasionally. I can feel their gaze on my skin, little pinpricks of curiosity and wonder and irritation. I ignore them and stare at the bird leg on my plate.

I've never been on a Dreamlily delirium high before. Heard too many scary things about it to really be interested. I excuse myself and wander back towards the room I woke in. Perhaps I can save myself from going mad. The painkiller may still be there.

It's not. It's gone. My heart falls a little. Boil and damn.

There's my cap though, laying on the bed, leaving a bloody smear. I put the cap on. Ick.

What's that sound? I think I hear weeping. It's coming from one of the adjoining rooms. I cautiously head over and peek in. There's a girl. She's one of the elves. She sobs quietly on the bed, dressed in a loose robe. I come close, then immediately regret it. There is a trail of blood from her lowers, staining the bedsheet crimson.

"Hey, to you need me to get help?" I ask. she whispers something.

"I'm sorry?"

She says it again. It sounds like "Please...my baby..."

I start backing away "Um...I'll just go get someone to help."

She looks at me. She has no eyes--they've been gouged out. Blood rolls like tears.

"Please don't let them kill my baby," She whimpers.

I don't know if there's a scream in my body frantic enough to convey my shock and horror. So I let them all out, just to be safe.

It doesn't take long for someone to come running to find out what's going on. By then I've gone cowering in a corner. She asks what's wrong. I try to tell her about the bleeding, eyeless elf on the bed, but it comes out as gibberish. I point, but the girl's vanished. So, after several dozen deep breaths, I calm down and begin cursing Lord Dythanus. The woman who came at my screams tries to calm me down.

I AM calm. Perfectly fine! Just boiling mad. But that's all just the Dreamlily, right? I look at the elf woman. She seems distracted and sad. And familiar. She was the girl who brought me the painkiller before. If she had no eyes...an unholy chill settles in my spine.

"Hey...you don't happen to have kids, do you?" She looks startled.

"Why do you ask?" she says, quietly.

"Just...making conversation. To calm my nerves. You know."

"Oh.” She's quiet for a while, then she actually meets my eyes. She hesitates. “No.” she says finally.

She doesn't seem to want to talk about it further, so I don't push. I'm not sure I really want to know. The hallucination said...No. The dreamlily is kicking in. And maybe the Shadows are hijacking my drug trip to show me nightmares.

Tonight is going to suck.

I think about trying to escape, but Lord Dythanus is right. I really DON'T want to be out in the streets tonight, not like this. I won't know what dangers are real, which are fabricated by The Shadows, and which are just in my head. I remember Eric said that the last exile was found dead after scrawling strange runes on a wall in his blood. Someone high on dreamlily would do that. That means Lord Dythanus has done this before, to other Exiles. I wonder what he wants with me that would have him go to all this trouble.

Another servant enters. I suddenly realize the elf nurse left, and I never noticed. "Lord Dythanus requests your presence in the grand hall, sir." he says. Great. I follow the servant back to the hall of glass and porcelain.

Lord Dythanus is standing now, juggling three colorful balls. "Why, hello there, Gaven! A pleasure to see you again. Do you juggle?" He grins and tosses one of the balls at me.

I let it fall. "I'm not playing your games, Dythanus. Let's get this over with. What do you want with me? I'm not in the mood for clowns.”

"Ever to the point.” he sighs. “ Tomorrow, I will have a job for you. But tonight? I want you to relax tonight. Enjoy yourself. We are off to Le Cirque!"

A circus? In Miir?

"And if I decide not to attend?"

"Oh, I'm afraid that's out of the question. Unless you prefer the night air?"

Boil him.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Rising Phoenix--An Eberron Idea

So, ever since I got the Eberron Player's Guide for my birthday (Thank you again, Lari and Rod), I've been getting the itch to dust off an old campaign idea, one I've had pretty much since I got the Eberron book years ago during my 3.5 days.

The idea was that the players would be the crew of a privateer airship, sailing around Khorviare doing jobs for shady people.

The problem is that I don't have an overarching storyline--just a bunch of random ideas and a lot of sourcebooks. I've never really been good at the "travel to new locations" style of gaming. I prefer to have a central "city of adventure" where most of the plots happen, like most of the TV shows I watch. I prefer to create a stable of NPCs and use them to fuel the various plotlines. I like recurring characters.

But it's just so tempting an idea. I'd love to run it. But, as always, it would conflict with the current game I'm getting back to, the one that we as a group have the most invested in.


Perhaps someday.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

New stuff on Obsidian Portal

I'm taking a bit of a break from Gaven's tale to figure out where I want to go from here. I have some other ideas that have been boiling up, so I've been posting stuff on my Campaign Wiki at Obsidian Portal (http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/the-rise-of-the-fallen) for my Rise of The Fallen campaign. Most of the new stuff has been focusing on the Empire of Avaleron, the villainous Eladrin kingdom that's caused about half the major problems (directly or indirectly) for the players. I've also created a page on Warlocks, including stuff about their various pacts and the organizations of the world that make use of them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Random Musing

Just some random thoughts. I turned 28 on Sunday. My life is currently on a downward sort of spiral, which is depressing, though the bad times can't last forever. I have a new printer, which makes me eager to write again...the knowledge that I can actually get good ink cartridges that aren't at highway robbery prices is a boost to my creativity, especially my game stuff. With luck I'll get all this crap squared away and get functioning again. It's just been a tough time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Tale of The Exile--The Third Night: Le Cirque d'Aberrations (Part 2)

Part 2: Ziggy Stardust

I'm led from my room through another delicate, polished hallway. It's hard to walk, though it gets easier as the stiffness leaves my legs.

The two elf girls keep their distance from me, unspeaking. Can't say I blame them after my outburst. As a rule I don't casually threaten to skin people.

I consider running from them. They move like servants, and they aren't dressed in much more than gowns. They're not even armed. But then what? I have no idea where I'd go. I should at least meet this Lord Dythanus, know who I'm dealing with.

The halls are rounded, almost tube-like. It reminds me of the tunnels of the Belly. We come to a large, domed hall. The ceiling is festooned with colorful stained glass mosaics in geometric patterns that remind me of flowers. Impressive. Some of the glass glows. It's fireglass, tinted various shades of violet and green as well as orange, red, and yellow. Lovely.

There are rows of tables laid out, laid out with foods of all sorts, from exotic vegetable dishes to succulent roast birds. My stomach rumbles. Dozens of elves, and a few well-heeled humans, chatter as they eat. It must be dinner...no, elves are nocturnal. This is breakfast for them.

Presiding over it all, slouching on one of a pair of thrones in the center of the chamber, is someone who can only be The Silver Lord. He dresses in fine silks, all white with sky-blue highlights. His hair is white, as well, but his features are far from old. My head must still be fuzzy, because his skin almost seems to sparkle in the soft glow of the fireglass. I'm brought before him.

"Welcome!" He reclines on his chair like some large, languid cat, one leg hiked over the throne's arm, a glass of ruby wine in one hand. Not exactly how I'd picture one of the high nobles of Miir sitting, really.

The other elves glance at me. A few stare, some with the corners of their mouths upturned in smirks.

"Uh, right." I say. "Whatever. What do you want with me, and why am I not in jail?"

"Ah! Right to the point! I like that, Exile, I do. But introductions first.” He waves the wine glass in a slow, sloppy circle. “Must do this the proper way. Always the proper way. Everything has rules here, you know. So many blasted rules." He straightens. “I am Lord Jereth Dythanus, master of the Physicians Guild of Miir, and brother of Lady Sylvia, the Matriarch of House Dythanus itself. You are Gaven Morren, late of Calisapas, thief, Exile, sometimes called Gaven The Redcap for your ugly hat. Or your hair. Not sure which."

"My hair?" I'm confused.

"You didn't know? Perhaps you haven't seen yourself since your exile started. Strange things happen to Exiles. You there!" he points to a passing human servant. "Fetch a mirror for my guest!" The servant jumps, then moves like his rear was set on fire. He returns just as quickly with a nice, hand-held mirror. Very fast. Very efficient. Very terrified.

I look into the mirror. My hair is supposed to be brown. It isn't. It's changed somehow into a nasty rusty ginger color. I rub it to make sure it's real. It is.

How the Dragon's Boiling Belly!?

"Miir is changing you. It does that, occasionally." He says, taking a sip from his glass. "So. You're not in jail because I wished it so. I figure you must be having a series of absolutely awful evenings. Tonight, you get to rest from being in mortal peril."

"Uh-huh." I say absently. "And you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart, I assume?"

"Well, no. Not entirely. But we can discuss such things later, when you are rested. For now? Feast! Make merry! Rest! Enjoy my hospitality. Swive some of my lovely servants. Peruse the library and better your wisdom! In an hour, we go to the circus!" The human with the mirror backs off hastily, as if I might take Dythanus up on his offer right there. No worries, mate. Too ugly and wrong gender.

This is a lot to take in, so I decide to just go with it. I take a seat at one of the tables and begin filling my plate with food. The elves just stare at me and make more-than-polite room. This is a lot better than prison fare. I haven't eaten this well in months.

"Tell me, where's Eric?" I ask as I load up on roast and fruit. There's a subtle change in the air. Everyone in the immediate vicinity is looking at me with a mix of half-smiles and the occasional strained giggle. Uncomfortable. Lord Dythanus doesn't seem to mind the question.

"Your companion? Ah. We discussed his outstanding debt and reached an arrangement. Don't worry, you'll see him soon." Uh-oh. A shiver slips down my spine. I've heard too much noble doublespeak to get much comfort from that.

Why do I get the impression he's toying with me? I'm starting to lose my appetite. No. I'm not going to let this paranoia cripple me. Relax. I can't. There is something ever so slightly wrong here. Something off. It's all askew, and I can't help the cold down my back. Dragon take it. I'm going to enjoy myself. I take a bite from a nice, juicy red fruit. Mmmm...delicious. Too many seeds, though. I spit out...some bloody teeth. What?

Some nice, frantic shrieks escape me as I try to comprehend that. Yup. Those are teeth, alright. I scream again. Everyone is staring at me.

"Why, Gaven, what seems to be the matter?" Lord Dythanus asks, raising an eyebrow as he shifts in his chair. "Is the food not to your taste?"

"What the FUCK is THIS?" I yell, waving the fruit at him. "What kind of SICK SODDING JOKE is this, huh!? There are TEETH in my FOOD!"

He blinks, bewildered. "Well, I should hope there are. How would you eat, otherwise? Or are the teeth not your own teeth?"

“You utter bastard!”

"I urge you to calm, Gaven. Look at your plate again." I do. There are no teeth, just seeds in fruit pulp. "I'm afraid it's just delirium. It must be the Elisdee extract taking effect." His voice is one of mocking concern. "You didn't drink the painkiller I sent you, did you? tsk, tsk. We're never going to get along if you reject my hospitality like that."

I'm too busy being horrified to listen."Elisdee? Y-you gave me Dreamlily?" I gasp out. "You poisoned me!"

The bastard laughs. "Poison? Nonsense. Elisdee is perfectly non-toxic, and an excellent way to fight infection. Of course, it does bring on the delirium, but that will pass. And for some, dreamlily delirium is not unwanted. Indeed, it is much sought, and we make a comfortable profit from its sale to Dreamers."

I feel ill. I've seen what dreamlily does to people. It's not pretty. While the delirium lasts, a Dreamer is likely to do just about anything: speak to invisible people, tear off their flesh, attack best friends...

"Well. Let this be a lesson for you not to reject a gift. The painkiller I sent you would have dulled the Elisdee, had you partaken."

"You bastard sack of dragondung. You pox-infested git of a three-legged goat! You skag-licking jackal fucker! You spew-guzzling, log-sodding spawn of a whore! You..." He waits serenely until I run out of things to call him.

"Well. THAT was instructional. I'll need to remember a few of those." He croons. "If it helps any, consider the delirium extra incentive to enjoy my hospitality. You wouldn't want to face the night like this, would you? Imagine facing The Shadows not only sore and injured, but half out of your mind." He feigns a shudder. "Not a fate you'd enjoy, I'm sure."

The implication is clear.

And he seemed like such a nice guy.