His trials were many and sometimes painful, Vinsah cum Elvmere considered with a wince as he took another step. His quest, his pilgrimage, both one and the same, was duly made afoot as She, his Mistress, had bade him. A bright, shining angel in his dreams, she had given him his nom de guerre, presented him his mask long before he had been graced with the black mask of a raccoon, and even put him upon the holy journey he found himself making, paw after sore paw upon the long road from Metamor, his new home, to Yesulam, his old.
Yet there were times he truly regretted her geas that, upon the track of his journey, he not ride horse nor carriage nor cart but bore himself on his own two paws. Now was one such time of painful regret. An hour before he had trod upon one of those long, distressingly sharp thorns that unlucky travelers are wont to find with their feet while out walking. It had pierced the stout leather of the simple sandals he wore and sunk deep into one of the likewise travel-toughened paw pads with sudden, sharp agony. Malger, the lecherous minstrel who served as guide and master to Vinsah's guise of apprentice minstrel, had called it the Thorn of the Accursed, or Torturer, tree as he removed it. None of them knew the name sages or herbalists gave it, but Malger's title was apt enough. The puncture did not bleed, or swell overmuch, as it was not deep, but it made continued walking extremely painful.
But he did continue, in dogged perseverance to his quest and Her geas, on foot. Only one summer ago, only a mere six months ago, he would not have been able to take another step. Soft, he had been, pampered by his place and power. Now, no longer Bishop, nor Patriarch's right hand, nor even fully human despite the illusion disguising him, he had toughened up like the pads of his pained paws. And so he continued. For Her, his enigmatic dreamtime apparition, and Hum, Eli, whose holy house Vinsah feared was in a truly sad condition following Akabieth's assassination.
For Her, but who or what was she to receive his adoration and almost-worship? An angel, one of Eli's servants sent to guide him from his despair after his friend and mentor's untimely death? She had come to him before that event, she had revealed his mask and name weeks before the disaster that trapped him at Metamor, turning him from elderly, balding Bishop Vinsah to the much younger, furred creature he was now. A raccoon.
Egland had not received any such dream guardians or prophecies, so he explained when Vinsah asked him through oblique conversation. Poor tortured Bryonoth, now a woman, had stalwartly refused to speak of her dreams. Thinking of Egland, and what he had learned of the once quiet, taciturn Knight, Vinsah found himself looking toward Malger who walked alongside his mount a short distance ahead, talking quietly to Murikeer. The illusion guised pine marten was a freely admitted hedonist with no regard as to the gender of his paramours. He had taken Egland under his wing for a time, ostensibly to help him learn anew how to play his viola with the changed hands his manifestation of the curse had given him. But what else, Vinsah mused disturbingly, had they shared?
Malger, that confounding and shockingly blasphemous (at least from Vinsah's Paltidor viewpoint) creature, who journeyed with him despite having such radically different ideology, who owed heart and soul to his own dream mistress, Nocturna. Was that Vinsah's dream guardian, something not entirely of Eli's providence, if at all?
Something else, even?
He remembered that he had asked once, but he could not precisely recall when. Time, or his perception of it, was mutable in his dreams of Her. His first question, some short time after she had first revealed herself to him, had been, "Are you an angel?" She offered only a calm negative shake of her head then, and a brief answer.
"Ah'wei." She had said. I Am. Nothing more, no elucidation upon that simple statement, leaving him reeling and confused, lost and not understanding what she meant. She Was, but what then was she?
Much later he had asked anew, "Are you a being of the Pantheon, of the Lightbringers?" Diffidently he had faced her, fearing an answer that might shake the very foundations of his Faith. "Are you Nocturna?" A goddess of dreams, nightmares, and omens. An apt simile, once he had learned more of what Nocturna's ethos was from the jocular Malger Sutt. She had offered laughter at that question, but not condescending in its tone or regard, and a shake of her head. A sense that he was a child again, having asked an adult a particularly exasperating question.
And once more, her answer. "Ah'wei." I Am.
That simple statement of its own, without admission of being Angel or Daedra, had still given Vinsah's lifelong faith a solid shake.
Ah'wei, an ancient phrase in the language of the Sondesh. When Muhaam had climbed the lost mountain of fire, Dai'shul, and witnessed the veiled presence of Eli he had asked, Who are you? What are you? He had received only that answer; I Am. Ah'wei. And nothing more.
When Muhaam led the freed slaves of Sondesh into their exile across the sea they had adopted a new tongue, divesting themselves of any lingering traces of their oppressors in all but the oldest of texts and histories. In that new tongue His proclamation Ah'wei became El'ai, eventually Eli. Only in the Cantacle of Exiles, and then only in the most ancient of archival texts, was Ah'wei still penned.
And She Was, yet there was nothing about her that gave him a sense of Eli's indwelling aura. She Was, but altogether different from his presence, yet Vinsah felt no conflict of faith, for Eli was still the center of his Faith and belief, a Faith she never questioned, countered, or gainsaid.
"Ah, you are in luck my good apprentice." Malger called out, distracting Vinsah from his thoughts and pain. He limped to a halt and the dapple gray mare, Hedda, carrying their supplies drew up to a stop with her nose at the back of his neck. "Our travels for the day will be shorter." With one hand he beckoned Vinsah forward as he and Murikeer turned to look ahead down the trade road once again. Favoring his pained paw he strode forward until he stood between them.
A short distance ahead the forest opened into a broad clearing and on the far side Vinsah saw three huge, gaily painted wagons. One was in the process of unhitching its team of eight huge cart horses as they watched. "A traveling carnival?" he asked as he lifted his sore paw and rubbed the pad with his fingers.
"A menagerie, by the looks." Malger said as he resumed walking. "I'm sure they won't mind some company on the road for a night. We're not, after all, murderers and highwaymen." Murikeer kept pace, the reins of his black mare loosely draped over his shoulder. Vinsah rearranged his sandal and limped along with them, three horses jostling together in their wake. "A warm fire, decent food we won't have to hunt, skin, or cook, and some news about the south road will do us quite well for a night."
"For the price of a song." Murikeer quipped humorously. Vinsah felt the illusion-clad youth's unseen tail brush his arm and paid it no heed. They had all, to include the horses, grown quite used to the occasional invisible touch of a tail when they walked close together.
"Ah, many of them, don't you doubt." Malger laughed as they crossed from the forest shadows and into the slanting sunshine of mid afternoon. They were half way across the glade before one of the wagon tenders noticed them. After a few moments of study the man gave a short whistle and returned to his work.
Marvelous Maxamillian's Magical Menagerie of Magnificent Monsters was painted in brilliant blue lettering across a field of yellow scrollwork. All around it were depictions of rare and fantastic beasts and Vinsah noticed that no few of them had the appearance of humanoid traits. A bipedal fox, a bear wearing glasses and holding a great book, a striped horse holding a violin and dressed in dancing veils. He noticed Murikeer's long look at the paintings as well while Malger's attention was taken by two armed and armoured men who appeared between the wagons. One, a young muscular man, carried a spear with a long, tapered blade almost as long as the shaft itself. The clean, polished metal gleamed brightly in the sunlight. The other, older and black bearded, held a sword in his beefy hand, its well honed edge gleaming as brightly as the spear.
"Is the hospitality of the road so far gone?" Malger asked pleasantly with a nod of greetings and a pointed stare at the sword. "We're but weary travelers on our way to Silvassa, and the Festival of Song. Malger, I am, and these two louts are my apprentices, Elvmere and Murikeer."
The swordsman sheathed his sword with an efficient motion and shrugged. "Lotta strife in the air, minstrel, talk o' war and bloody raiders across from Pyralia." Beside him the youthful spearman couched his lance skyward as the trio drew nearer. "Yer boy has the look o' a Yesul." Dark, heavy browed eyes glanced toward Vinsah from a face masked by a heavy, though neatly trimmed, black beard.
"Indeed he does, soldier, an exotic face to draw the rubes. Parents were merchant types from some city named Abeef in the Holy Land. They were put up in some dandy fine homes in the trade district of Isenport, but fell down on their prosperity and now you see where their heir ends up." Malger explained as he stopped before the two guards.
"Abaef." Vinsah supplied blandly.
"Ah, you see? Strange tongue, those Yesulites, very strange. Now, the one-eyed lad's all Midland stock, from up north. He were an apprentice mage 'til he drunk himself out of grace with his sorcerous master." Malger snorted derisively. "And now I've got him, just so long as I can keep him sober."
The older guard grunted. Turning, he led them between the wagons. "Scars on 'is face'r pretty fresh. Old master take a bit o' justice from his drunken arse?"
Malger carefully lead his mount over and around the tangle of guy ropes and wagon yokes while the spearman fell in behind them. "Oh, no, that he lost killing the man who murdered his intended."
"To bad fer 'im. 'Orses'r picketed over there under the trees if ye care t' mix yers int' the lot. Keeps 'em upwind 'r they're like to spook at wot they smell or 'ear. Lot o' strange noises'n smells comin' from the beasts 'ere." Indeed, the redolent reek of caged animals was sufficiently potent to cause their noses to wrinkle and whiskers to lie flat as they passed between the wagons and across the center of the circle they made. The guard smacked the side of one wagon as they passed and a growling moan responded from the other side. A wooden awning was lowered down on the side of the wagon, denying them a view of the beast within.
There were thirteen wagons in all, nine which held the creatures of the menagerie, two carrying supplies and pavilions, and one for the master of the show, Maxamillian. The guard led them between two more wagons on the far side of the circle and once more into the forest. Another camp was being erected in the shadows of the trees, consisting of the common laborers of the troupe. Soldiers, wagon tenders, grooms, and the half hundred other laborers of the menagerie were gathered there tending to the needs of the wagons, horses, men, and yet to be seen beasts.
After seeing the various artistic depictions of strange beasts Vinsah found himself most curious to see them.
"'Is magnificence'll be about a bit later, 'im and 'is 're up in 'is wheel'ouse enjoyin' their day an' a meal with th' Lightbriner priestess come from Asi'el." Explained the gruff guard as he watched the trio unsaddle their mounts and prepare a small portion of the commoner's camp for themselves. Asi'el was the name of the town a short distance further south that Malger had first set as their goal for that night's stay.
"Lightbriner? Why'd you not set up closer to town?"
"Hin Osrin, I think were her surname. Great fat old gal, but a good face. Lord o' Asi'el say 'e not want the beasts withina league o' 'is manor 'r folk. Got no love fer th' show, 'r 'is magnificence, one'r th' other." The man shrugged, "I be Grimmarn, by th' by, these be me men." One hand waved toward the soldiers milling about. He hooked a thumb at the young spearman. "An' me boy, Trei."
Malger gave the young man a nod of greetings. "His magnificence? Hardly complimentary."
Grimmarn shrugged again. Down among the wagons a chorus of loud, coughing roars, bellows, shrieks, and other sounds less identifiable began as handlers went about doling out food. "Ye'll see when 'e comes out t' show the Lightbriner 'is collection. Struts like a cock in a 'en'ouse 'e do. 'Im an' 'at coterie o' lickboots as follow 'im everywhere." The burly guard turned and spat into the dirt.
"Such love." Malger said, watching as Vinsah and Murikeer unloaded the pack mare. Though they performed the same menial tasks every day Malger always watched them. His instruments were fragile and precious, after all.
"Ain't there? Ah, 'e pays damned well, as not much 'ere fer bandits t' sack so they usually jus' let us be. But ol' Max, well, 'e treats 'is common smallfolk like most nobles do; rough when 'e take note o' 'em, ignores 'em like vermin elsewise."
"He employ you long?"
"Nae." Grimmarn looked up as a whip thin ranger trotted up. They exchanged words briefly and then the ranger wandered away. "'E 'ires new swords each year, from up Ellcaran way and therebouts. One year 'e 'eads down along th' coast, th' next along th' mountains. To Tournemire an' likely Whitestone Tower this year, an back t' Ellcaran sometime come spring. One year, all 'round."
"Long journey." Malger took the flute in its sleeved case as Murikeer unpacked it and handed it across to him. He tucked it in the loop of his belt where he most commonly carried it, like a third sword on his hip.
"Aye, twice's long's a caravan down'n back, but four times the pay." Grimmarn grinned, brown teeth flashing amidst the thick black thatch of his beard. "Food, hai? An' song. Fellows be glad t' 'ear music as made by a minstrel wot not be havin' fur."
Malger blinked while Murikeer and Vinsah looked up on surprise, briefly arrested in the middle of preparing their camp. "Without fur?"
Grimmarn hooked a thumb toward the wagons. "Ye'll see." The three travelers looked at each other dubiously as the bearded guard commander led them back toward the thick of the commoners' camp and introduced them. Their questions and curiosity were very shortly thereafter buried in performing for their bread and ale.
Two hours swept by in a seeming eye blink and the sun was still in the sky, a hand span above the western tree line, when Grimmarn announced that Max was to show the menagerie to his visitors. Malger and his troupe were ushered away from the raucous gaiety they had raised in the commoners' camp and led over to the wagons. Grimmarn pointed across toward the huge wheelhouse where a knot of people, peasants and minor aristocrats by their look, were gathered. "Over there, 'e'll be comin' out in a bit. Dun like fer us road swords t' be 'angin in the eaves, so to speak, so I'll jes' stay back 'ere wit' me folk while ye join th' show. Don' worry, 'e only asks a penny from towners, this camp a road camp, not a show."
Malger laughed and nodded as he made his way between the wagons, dodging ropes and yokes, and led his two 'apprentices' across toward Maxamillian's wheelhouse. They discovered that he was already out, baiting the crowd with a great speech about the trials in securing the unique monsters of his menagerie. The three stopped at the back of the crowd, not wishing to test Murikeer's illusion spell too closely by actually trying to mingle. They were shorter than most of the people present, as a result of the curse. They seldom were terribly conscious of that fact, until they found themselves in crowds as now. The tallest of them was Malger, at almost five and a half feet of wirty acrobatic flexability. Malger and Vinsah were almost of a same height, just shy of five feet not counting the ears which were not visible under their illusions.
So they waited at the back of the crowd and merely listened for they could not see the showman himself. He was a powerful speaker, that much was immediately and readily apparent. His audience was rapt and drawn in close about him, so far that while only numbering a score plus a few they served to completely prevent those orbiting the crowd from getting very close. As Malger and his retinue approached the crowd moved, shifting and flowing away from the wheelhouse to trail the speaker's moving voice toward the first of the huge wagons. Two men stood nearby, ready to raise the heavy wooden awning at the proper time.
"Lords, ladies, commoners of all ages, listen and discern the nature of humanity. In this, my most marvelous menagerie of magical monsters I, the master of beasts, shall reveal to you the great lengths to which man will attempt to improve upon himself, and in the end utterly fail. What I have gathered here to be witnessed by your eyes, unseen by but those most brave souls not fearful of caged beasts, are the monuments of avarice and pride, of power used to the point of corruption. I offer you beasts such as you have seen before, but in ways that you have never before seen them, touched by magic or other practices too base to bear mentioning."
Malger chuckled quietly and shook his head, prompting an inquisitive glance from Vinsah who stood closest. Murikeer was looking off toward one of the other wagons. "He's a showman, this fellow. I can sense the lineage of a True Bard in his voice."
"A True Bard?" Vinsah asked as they followed the crowd. Through the throng he spied the Lightbringer priestess and could not help but blink in amazement. She was a great, immense woman who may have stood close to seven feet tall had she been on her feet. As it was her great size was comfortably ensconced in a huge wheeled divan being drawn by a single heavily muscled man garbed in little more than sandals and a breechclout. Four guards paced along beside the divan, keeping the peasants at a safe distance. There was a small group of aristocrats, by their dress, likewise gathered around some ancient nobility in their midst, creating three completely distinct groupings around the barking showman. All three little knots of humanity gathered closer as they approached the first wagon, stealing what little view there was from the shorter travelers behind them.
"There's power in his voice, magic. Instead of spells, though, they use their tales and music." Malger explained as he listened for the first introduction. With such a small collection the barker would have to draw things out if he expected his crowd to linger overlong. Since they were not a paying group, though, he might be moved to hasten things. "Not great, earth moving magic like our young friend's, but powerful nonetheless."
"To the south of this land there are others, and across the vast sea beyond the journey of many months lies yet another entire land of strange and wondrous creatures. There are peoples in this distant place who have lost their grasp on civilization, which they once held before your ancestors put stone upon stone in these fair, temperate forests." The showman spoke, hardly above a conversational tone but his voice traveled easily to every ear. "In their long slide into barbarous ignorance they turned to the once lost worship of the qualities of beasts, turning to the creatures of their own land to find merits greater than their own, strengths free of human flaws, and a feral oneness with Nature that they had put aside during their long rise to dominance. They've been called Skinwalkers, tribes that don the skins of their prey as totems, but who've been said to actually become the creature that their tribes venerate. In that southern land there are many chimaeric tribes, embracing bits and pieces of this creature or that creature, taking on their furs like you or I would don cloaks or leggings. Yet do you consider that some of these peoples may go too far? Might try to slip into the skin of some beast or another a little too much in mind and heart until one day they awaken to find that they're stuck somewhere in between?"
At the speaker's cue the two wagon tenders hefted stout poles, fitted them into recessed pits on the underside of the awning, and with practiced ease lifted it up and propped the side of the wagon open to reveal the creatures within. The crowd gasped and surged back, pushing Malger's little group a little further away from the wagon even though they had yet to see what manner of creature was captured within.
"Behold! He is but a creature, a great lazy beast that you might find among any menagerie. Perfectly normal though truly fearful to look upon, and more so to hear give voice to the roar that proclaims him King of his domain. But look, now, at the female of this handsome pair. Truly, a monster! Vicious as any of her kind, a hunter of beasts as large as the wagon within which she resides. See how she paces, how deadly those eyes. Don't look too closely now, she is a temperamental beast." A susurrus of uneasy sound percolated through the crowd as the showman carried on. Malger studied one of his fingernails, digging under it with the tip of his dagger while Murikeer and Vinsah listened on, and waited. "What say you, kind folk of the world? Is this monstrous looking chimera of man and beast something that was once man, or was upraised from its humble beginnings as a beast? Or is it something else, something progenitored by much less wholesome acts by the barbaric tribes of the south?"
Max left that question hanging as he stepped aside and just let his audience ogle. From behind the crowd Vinsah could just make out the head and shoulders of some tall, scarily feline beast that looked remarkably humanoid. He blinked and frowned as the lioness looked over the heads of the assembled, snarling and baring great teeth. Her upper fangs dropped below her lower jaw by a good handspan, giving her a look of savagery that quailed Vinsah a good thirty feet away. He was starkly amazed, and beside him Murikeer looked likewise amazed. Malger merely gave the fearsome lioness a quizzical look.
"What in all the hells is she?" the minstrel asked in surprise.
"A saber-tooth lion, from the southern continent." Vinsah breathed in awe. "I've seen one, when a great circus came through Abaef and Yesulam some years ago. They're reportedly far more dangerous than the eastern lion that you more traditionally see in these traveling menageries. Those are bigger, but they don't have those teeth." The crowd began to thin and move on, following the showman once again as he resumed his speech.
As the people moved on Malger and his retinue approached the wagon. The lioness still paced, back and forth, back and forth, from one end of the huge rolling prison to the other. Her pelt was striped, black on a silvery gray, in the manner of a tiger, and her eyes were an arresting bronze that bored right into them when she looked down at them. She stopped as they neared the wagon, turning to grasp the heavy iron bars with hands easily large enough to grab their heads like melons. For a moment the foursome stared at each other while the huge male saber-toothed lion in the cage languorously rolled over and yawned lazily. He was likewise striped gray and black, but probably weighed a good two hundred pounds more than the bipedal female.
Then she shook the bars of her wagon and let out a screaming, full throated roar that sent the three of them back in hasty retreat and caused the gaggle of onlookers moving toward the other wagon to start in fear and whip their heads around so quickly that many staggered. The peasants cried out in surprise and clustered together fearfully while the better dressed aristocratic youths gathered closer to the old noble in their midst. The Lightbringer, visible only as a face among the crowd and her own retinue, looked back over the side of her divan curiously.
"Come away, come away. She's a nasty beast with a temperament to match. She gets angry because such easy prey stands before her and she can't reach it." Max called out through the crowd as the three travelers moved with steps a little quicker than earlier to catch up with the crowd. "Don't you have any fear, these wagons, each and every one, have been blessed by the most powerful of Lothanasi priests, a handful of great wizards, and the best metalsmiths that gold can find between Kelewair and Silvassa."
With many uneasy glances back at the raging lioness rattling the stout bars of her prison, and rocking the entire mass of the wagon with her energetic anger, they caught up with the crowd as it gathered around the side of the second wagon. The same two wagon tenders came with their poles and took up positions at either end of the wagon. It was then that Vinsah noticed the two tall, barrel-chested men that drifted along in the wake of the showman. Two others had preceded him and were already in position near the wagon. All four of them wore long, heavy looking swords and had heavy chain mail hauberks draped over their broad frames. Bodyguards, and confident fighters by their look, with hard expressions on their faces. Just looking at them gave him a queasy, uneasy feeling in his gut.
"As you saw with the singing she-cat over there," Max was saying over the uneasy mumbling of the crowd and the angry, bellowing roars of the lioness, "the excesses of mankind's zealotry can create dangerous, feral monstrosities such as she. Among the skinchangers none are more feared than those who were granted, by some means or another, perhaps by the touch of some insane god or the machinations of a wizard with evil ends, the ability to adopt for a time the form of their tribal totem. The ideal of the beast overwhelms the fallibility of the human embracing their gifts, banishing mind from soul, and soul from humanity, and leaving behind a shell that is ferocious beyond the measure of mortal beasts, furious at the trap that is its flesh, and wholly insane." Poles thunked into sockets and with a great, protesting squeak of wood and metal hinges, the awning on the second wagon rose. This time the ohhs and awws of the crowd were not as fearful.
"This sad sample of mindless carnage was captured along the forests south of the Whitestone Tower, and not even the mages who restrained her could tell us whether she was once as human as you or I, or the failed experiment of some twisted sorcerer. What function anyone would make of such a species, other than as a mindless killing machine, I could not tell you. Do not let her momentary state of calm beguile you, there lad, don't step so close now, she's as ferocious as the fanged one you've already seen. But she's also more cunning, there's more between those ugly ears than the eyes portray, an animal cunning that makes this displeasing looking beast as dangerous as any that I have mastered in this menagerie. Lucky for us this evening she's already had her feast, so is at least calm enough to reveal." Max turned and walked on, the crowd following him with a few curious and uneasy glances at the unmoving tenant of the second wagon. "You should consider, if you would, enlightened folk, why that one's cage is not quite so clean as the others. She has the nature of the beast, and cares not at all in the filth of her condition." Indeed, the wagon, once the awning was raised, reeked like a barn in which too many pigs had been kept in far too close quarters, and the people moved on with willing haste.
After months and years spent among the commingled scents of hundreds of animorphed creatures residing within the walls of Metamor the three travelers were much less affected by the stench of effluence that spilled from the soiled interior of the wagon. Vinsah could not help but place a paw over his sensitive nose, whiskers and ears lying flat under the guise of Murikeer's powerful illusion. Malger stepped up beside Murikeer after a long look toward the crowd as it moved on. "Are these beasts illusions, lad? Can you see?"
Murikeer shook his head, "They're not illusions, but what they are beyond that I cannot see." He was rubbing his good eye with a hand, his face drawn in a pinched expression of pain. "These wagons are so tangled and enwrapped in prisoning magics that I can see little through it all. I don't sense any illusory patterns, but I could be missing a lot, I'm sorry."
Vinsah moved up beside him as the hyena bitch within looked at them from the corner of one dark brown eye. She was a sad specimen even for her species, her fur matted with filth and straw, missing in some places. One ear was little more than a ragged ruin and the clear marks of ringworm fouled the fur of the leg nearest. She was sitting with her back against the rear wall of the wagon, her short, stout legs chained at the ankles to a huge spike in the middle of the floor. Thick arms were draped over her knees, hands dangling between them, wrists manacled to a heavy chain that ran around her waist. "Is she cursed, Muri?" the priest asked quietly, looking at the pitiable creature. He met her gaze and she held his, head turning slightly in a motion of curiosity though she did not otherwise move.
Apparently perturbed by their continued expressions of profound stupidity, the hyena made a single gesture with her nearer hand, waving toward them an incredibly vulgure gesture with her fingers. Vinsah felt his jaw drop and he gasped, covering his open muzzle, and Murikeer missed it entirely. Malger let out a short chuff of amusement, then frowned and looked toward the crowd once more. Abruptly he turned and strode toward them, leaving his charges to follow more slowly in his wake. Vinsah put an arm around Murikeer's shoulder as the young mage put a hand over his eyes, good and bad alike, in a gesture of pain.
"Muri, what's wrong? What did you see?"
"Have you ever stepped from a dimly lit cloister and into the brightness of noon, and find yourself accidentally looking up directly into the sun? That is what I saw. There is so much magic concentrated into the spells that keep those wagons in one piece, moving, and keep the prisoners contained that I felt I was trying to pick out an individual flame on the surface of the sun." He gave his head a shake and gently pushed Vinsah away. "If they're Keepers, I can't see the curse under all that mess."
"With the pale walls of Yesulam, looking at anything in the light of noon after being in a library is like stepping out onto the sun itself." Vinsah offered blandly as they trailed in the wake of the crowd a little more slowly.
"Often there are those who, in their arrogance, believe that they can make a thing better than the gods of creation did themselves. Mages and powerful scholars, wizards and alchemists, powerful priests and angry followers of dark gods. They bend their wills to some goal that even the most sane mind cannot fully comprehend, seeking to accomplish a task that to them is so blindly mundane that they would rather leave it to the hands of someone else, some thing else, than to do it themselves. To this end they find some luckless victim, some creature that they believe can perform this task, day in and day out, without ever growing tired of its tedium, but who would never ask for a penny of copper for their labors. Nay, they seek to create of the beasts of the land a servant who asks only for a warm pile of straw upon which to rest, and a bucket of something that their own creators would never contemplate eating.
"To this end they try to twist form and mind, attempting in their prideful arrogance to give a beast something that was not given to them by the Gods themselves on the day of their creation. Very, very seldom are they successful in their maniacal efforts, resulting in unmentionable creations, twisted parodies of man in the flesh of beasts that you've seen already. Sometimes they cannot change the form, but instill within an ability to think, an almost human cognizance of self and situation. But even that falls short of the ideal they seek, and these unfortunates are either slain out of hand, or left to fend for themselves."
The awning creaked quietly, the hinges on this wagon well oiled and maintained. "What did a hunter understand when he chanced upon this monstrous beast, sitting beside a spring in the forest reading a book?"
"In very short order the hunter knew nothing." Replied a slow, deep voice that sounded like bottled thunder. "But oh, he was tasty."
The showman seemed unphazed by the humorous remark that nonetheless sounded like a thin veil across barely contained rage. "What pitiable beast of the forest was this, grabbed and twisted by a mad wizard, to what end?" Max continued to the crowd as the denizen of the cage stood to a full, amazing twelve feet and glowered down at the pitiful gathering of humans before her prison. The grizzly looked very much like one would expect a grizzly bear to look. Except for the huge paws that looked like stunted hands, and the outsized frames of well used spectacles perched precariously upon her broad snout. She glared over the gold rims down at the showman so very far below.
"What about your legs, master showman? You don't need them." She sat down with a heavy thump that made the wagon creak and groan, batting through the bars at the human who stood safely just out of reach. "Riding around like you do in that great bloody mansion on wheels." The bruin licked her lips with a huge pink tongue, an image of savagery commuted by the heavy book clasped in her other huge paw, one claw stuck between the pages to mark her place. "Oh, they look tasty."
"Granting thought to the mind of a beast does nothing to curtail that which makes them a beast, as you can plainly see. Though she can speak, and most seductively if you have the key to her wagon in your hand, there is nothing behind those eyes but a desire to destroy, to wreak bloody havoc, and shamble off into some dark hole to sleep it off." The showman was saying as Murikeer and Vinsah rejoined the crowd just to one side of the wagon's tail end where they could finally see both showman and specimen at the same time.
Maxamillian was an impressive man, Vinsah noted quite swiftly. Physically his presence was arresting, a middle aged man not yet gone soft with age, with a charismatic face and an easy poise that hinted at much careful study of physical prowess. He was dressed in impeccable velvets in hues of blue and midnight, stitched with silver threaded embroidery and trimmed with white sable. There was a plethora of lace about the cuffs of his wrists and neck, with a high collar reminiscent of fashions new to regions around Yesulam when Vinsah left the previous summer. As he spoke he flourished his hands in intricate, grand motions, always staying an easy length from the wagon and the reach of the occupant within. At each corner of the wagon stood one of those hard, cold looking body guards who were dressed quite differently than Grimmarn's soldiers.
"Sleep it off is what you do best, after a long night in the bottle, showman." The grizzly replied flatly with that bottled thunder voice. Lazily she reached up and adjusted the spectacles her snout, a motion that spoke of long habit, and looked across the crowd. Her gaze quickly picked out the Lightbringer priestess and the gaily clad fop standing next to her. "Now you, you great heathen wench, would keep me going all winter long with just one meal."
The priestess glanced down from the bear to Max, "She speaks rather well despite her bluntness."
"Who can understand the wants and designs of wizards, mistress of the Light. She is how the baron's trappers captured her, and just as belligerent as the day they hauled her in to the market to be gaped at by the locals." The showmaster said with a smile and a shrug, turning and walking toward the next wagon in the circle.
"How typical of your order, pagan. Fat and sassy, but not a whit of compassion." The bear snarled.
The Lightbringer said something softly and the heavily muscled man pulling her divan paused. Peasants broke around her conveyance with abrupt awkwardness and milled about for a moment before moving on to follow Maxamillian. "What do you know, beast, of my order to make claims?" she challenged with a hard stare, but no anger.
"What do you know of beasts? Of beasts that read, witch? Do they, often, in your experience?" The grizzly sow waved the oversized book as if to emphasize the strange dichotomy of beast and man. Vinsah noted with some surprise that it was a much dog eared copy of the canticles, from an ancient collection if the binding was any indication. The priestess quirked one corner of her mouth in a condescending manner and shook he head, waving for her alert bearer to continue.
"Considering your taste in books, bruin, I leave you to your ignorance."
Vinsah stepped up closer to the wagon but the passing bodyguard that stepped across his path gave him a hard look and motioned for him to step back and he did with haste. The man then turned and moved to follow his master. Noticing his proximity the bear ducked her muzzle to her furred breast and looked over the gold rims of her age worn spectacles to glower down at him.
"And what do you want, snack?" she growled. Her dark brown eyes flicked to Murikeer as the young mage stepped up beside Vinsah.
"Who are you?" the bishop asked quietly, shooting a momentary glance toward the back of the bodyguard taking up his post near the next wagon. Malger was no where to be seen, lost among the spectators. The bear blinked once, reached up and readjusted her spectacles though she was not looking through them, and blinked a second time when Vinsah remained where he was.
"Who're you, snack?" she countered with a heavy growl, the thunder of her voice softened with her curiosity that some unknown peasant should ask her questions.
She glowered, head cocked slightly. The powerful musk of unwashed bear, and other animals, assailed Vinsah's nose, but he ignored it. While Metamor had many ways to clean ones' self, and it was preached quite often and openly to everyone about the great importance of personal hygiene, the smells of Metamor were still often quite amazingly potent. Luckily for the two of them, and anyone they happened to encounter, Murikeer had a powerful masking smell to counter his likewise acridly potent natural scent. "I am sister Sho Rosewain from Midtown."
Murikeer, watching the crowd around the next wagon, and then looking back toward the now quiet lioness, looked up at the bear seated in the wagon. The floor of the wagon was perhaps chest level on them, a good four feet from the ground, but the bear even sitting down was another six feet above that. "Northern Midlands?"
"Aye." Sho seemed tentative, untrusting, as she stared down at them. Her expression had gone from annoyed consideration to one of grudging curiosity and caution. "Cursed, you understand." She added after a moment.
"Like all the rest." Not a question but a statement of fact, as Murikeer looked back toward the lioness' wagon, then the hyena. He frowned deeply and rubbed his eyepatch. He looked toward the crowd that was now moving on once more. In the newly revealed wagon a long-limbed simian was juggling several small brightly colored balls while hanging up-side-down from a bar mounted in the ceiling of his wagon.
"Some are far more interested in art and pleasure, and they seek to capture the easy grace of animals into some form that they can admire for themselves in a private way." Maxamillian explained as he moved on from the circus ape who spouted drunken poetry while he juggled whatever he happened to have lying around his wagon. The showman was quite perturbed, but tried very gamely not to show it though Malger spied it as easily as he spied the man's true identity, that this was the day that the orangutan had chosen a dozen wooden balls, the skulls of two small animals, and the partially eaten corpse of a kitten for his show. Malger once more tried to insinuate himself through the crowd to get close to the Lightbringer's divan while the crowd was waiting for the next prisoners to be revealed. "Some merely want to isolate those things that make these animals graceful, and capture them as traits that they themselves can steal away and in turn work upon themselves. There are mages the world over who desire to look upon beauty, just as much as you or I, for its simple sake. Others have less benign goals and desires, but they, too, are inspired by the beauty that surrounds us every day in the creatures we husband on our farms, stalk through the forests and riddle with arrows, or curse because of their natural cunningness of getting into places we don't want them to be."
Malger listened with half of his attention as he slipped lithely through the throng of peasants up to the rear of the Lightbringer's divan between two of her men at arms. They both gave him hard stares and he smiled back at them winningly. "Cuialye lothan." He said smoothly with a nod of his head. The awning on the wagon was going up, silently, lifted easily by two burly wagon tenders dressed in garish clothing. Each had an instrument strapped to their backs, a tambour and lute, and as the awning went up the sweet cry of a violin drifted forth to silence the crowd.
"Grace, there is no more simple a name. So innocent and fragile is such an ephermeral and rare gift as grace. In the act of merely existing we see grace in the world's creatures around us, and we stand in awe of them that we have been given dominion over." Maxamillian spoke, his voice blending seamlessly with the sweet strains issued forth by the violin. The wagon tenders socketed the poles and took up their instruments, accompanying the light, sweet waltz offered by the violinist. Even Malger was completely taken aback by what he witnessed, blinking with his jaw hanging as he clutched the back of the lightbringer's divan.
A striped woman that resembled some sort of gazelle in form and line, but who was stripped striking black and white from head to hooves. She had four broad stripes, and the two slender arms that held her viola easily nestled under her long chin were banded with three. Her hands had five slender, dextrous fingers that ended in narrow claws rather than the hooves that graced her slender legs. She stood near the front of the wagon, and played for the two that dominated its center.
Two graceful deer, a buck with a full rack of fourteen points, and a doe, both gracefully waltzing in the confines of their prison, hooves thunking quietly in time to the stately rhythm of the waltz. Malger blinked, closing his jaw with a purposeful click, and reached forward to tap the lightbringer's shoulder. One of her men at arms glowered at him and made to reach out and grasp his arm, but the lightbringer raised a single finger and forstalled him as she looked back.
"I sensed you there, waiting, dreamwalker. Speak."
"Cuialye lothan, mistress. I have a request, a petitioner to matron."
"I am listening."
"Justice. Justice has been silenced for too long, it has come time for its voice to be heard. The song of vengeance sings, and I am answering its refrain."
"Here?" the lightbringer looked aghast.
"And now, for justice cries out for these men." Malger jerked his head at the showman and his retinue of personal guards.
"State their crime, I am sure the Lord of Asi'el will listen."
"Their victim is deceased, and cannot speak in her own defense. My voice has long been silenced of the words that might bring her final justice."
"You witnessed these crimes?"
"Personally, and very intimately."
"Accuse as you will, Dreamwalker." She waved her hand toward the showman with a small gesture.
"I beg only your restraint until I have finished the song, mistress, then justice is in your hands."
"I will witness."
Malger nodded solemly as he stepped around from behind her divan and bowed. She did not know the manner of his justice, the music of his song. She would, very soon, he knew. He had little time to make his accusations. Quickly he stepped past, out beyond the crowd, and caught the eye of the showman immediately.
"What manner of monsters are these, master of beasts? They sing and dance, and except for the lioness, they are hardly fearsome." He stepped forward another pace. Immediately two of the bodyguards stepped forward to interpose themselves between Malger and Max though a good twenty feet separated them yet.
"Not all monsters are fearsome, minstrel. Indeed, some are so comely that fear is the least of their dangers." Maxamillian countered with a languid wave back at the wagon of performers.
"What of mink?" Malger took two more paces and stopped, arms crossed over his chest. The two guards held their ground three paces before their master, hands on the hilts of their long, heavy swords.
"Of mink? Mayhap they are of my coterie of beasts. Have patience and all shall be revealed."
"All shall, indeed." Malger countered, taking one step sideways as Max moved to progress onward. Malger's swift equalling pace forstalled him and brought a scowl to his face. Sensing something was amiss the peasants began milling back, along with the aristocrats and their noble. Only the lightbringer remained unmoved, flanked by her men at arms. "Is she female?"
"What?" Annoyed, Max glared at Malger, who stood a good foot shorter and was outmassed by easily a hundred well muscled pounds.
Malger was not cowed. "The mink. Is this one female?"
The violin went silent.
"This one?" Max scowled, his voice confused and wary. "Why no, it happens that he is male."
"What of the female? You did have one, four years ago."
"Five, actually." Max crossed his arms over his chest, sensing finally where this was going. He widened his stance and glared, taking a slow breath. His bodyguards knew without looking that he was preparing for action. "She was quite a spitfire. She slipped her noose and escaped one evening."
"Ahh, but it was not Maxamillian the magnificent she was escaping from, was it?" Malger took a step forward, his body loose. The guards matched his forward step with one of their own, swords loosened in their scabbards. Peasants began to murmur and retreat in earnest. "Was it Moe, then? Or was it Lew?" Malger continued to stride forward confidently. Swords whispered from leather as the bodyguards closed, but Malger did not draw his steel. "Or don't you even remember anymore? One name was always the same, wasn't it, Sideshow?" Malger's gaze flicked to the two guards moving inexorably nearer with cold looks of deadly intent on their faces.
"Nor are you innocent, Boqu. You're the hands that held her down? You had yours, three times." Malger hissed with an angry, not very clearly human voice that the illusion's magic could not entirely compensate for. The bodyguard blinked and paused, unsure, glancing back at Max for a brief moment. "And you, Lessan the Fist. Four times for you, but she was never conscious for your drunken impotence." Malger's hands dropped to the hilts of his swords, his gaze flicking back to the two guards still standing back at Maxamillian's side. "Varek the hand, strangling the consciousness out of her even after your inept brother in arms beat her senseless. You were a randy buck in those days, I remember. I count nine." Then across to the last confused bodyguard. "You whose name I do not know, were not there. I give you this chance to leave, and let justice know its own. What of the other two?"
Max let out an incredulous grunt. "Anel and Fassad? They were with me then, too. Anel was a fool, and found a nest of bandits for us. Fassad… well, he's the mink I mentioned earlier. A fool as much as Anel."
Malger glanced to either side and nodded slowly. "All, then. Justice does not have to reach far." His swords, only half as long as the long blades carried by the bodyguards and single-edged to their double, whispered from their sheaths. The guards tensed, adopting ready stances. Malger paused, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and looked back to one side where he spied a nervous caravan guard standing with blade in hand watching him. Others were approaching at a swift trot, he could see, having been warned by the retreating peasants. "You tell Grimmarn that this is Justice, and not for you."
"Justice?" Max barked a surprised laugh. "Who are you, fop, to say anything of justice? What do you know of anything?"
"I know pain."
And so did Boqu, for he never saw Malger move. One instant the minstrel was standing ten feet away with his swords at his sides. The next he was right there, a pace away, swinging low and across with one blade while the other cut across and upward at Lessan. Then he was falling, and a blaze of pain the likes of which he had never before comprehended was racing upward from what little was left below his left knee. His blade fell from nerveless fingers, never raised, and Lessan was batted back by a flurry of blows he barely registered enough to parry.