Monday, November 8, 2010

Dark Wood Circus No More?

Hello. This is Maldeus, head of the Dark Wood Circle, popping in to say that our little group may end up dissolving entirely. We've got the first two and a half chapters of Magician ready to go, but the odds the fourth will ever get written are pretty uncertain. On the off-chance someone discovers this thing and wanted to see it continue, or one of our old readers comes back hoping to see more, I wanted to offer this post as a psuedo-conclusion. If there's no more posts after this one, it's because the Dark Wood Circle fell apart over the weekend.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dark Wood Hiatus

A message from the Dark Wood Circle:

That's a wrap for part one of our twenty-two part epic which may or may not ever be completed. Personally, I think it's our best chapter yet, but it is rather disjointed, just like the rest of Fool.

Fortunately, we'll be fixing this in Magician. In fact, this is why we're taking a weeklong hiatus. We will be back on Monday the Eighth of November, and in the meantime we'll have had a chance to build up a buffer so that each individual chapter spends much more time in the editing queue, which should help with story flow.

Also, click the ads so that we get money, we'd appreciate it quite a bit.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chapter Thirteen

It had been too long since Ashen had had a good cup of tea. The east was much stronger on alcohol, perhaps because they had more troubles to forget, or perhaps because tea wasn't strong enough for the people out here. Ashen had to admit, in a fair fight, without weapons or ambushes or supernatural powers, he'd probably lose to nearly any of the well-built, resilient residents of the Shattered Kingdoms. Or at least, those of the Shattered Kingdoms he'd seen, and given they only got less civilized and more individually intimidating the further east one went, Ashen imagined it would remain that way.

The tea sloshed around a bit in the tin cup Ashen had been drinking it out of as a slight tremor went through the earth beneath him, accompanied by a loud thud. Ashen turned his head to see, but the deafening roar told him what he needed to know before his eyes got the chance. Someone had gotten on Damaskenos' nerves. He seemed to be very nervous in general, which made avoiding his nerves something of a tricky subject. With a sigh, Ashen set his cup down and began walking towards the commotion.

Ashen supposed Damaskenos was probably still scared of the world after what had happened to him in Sergeinov Circus, and his successful escape and the subsequent flight to Novakagrad with the Dark Wood Circus had done wonders for dealing with his tendency to overestimate an opponent's strength. Unfortunately, this dovetailed directly into an aggression problem, which was probably a bit better for Damaskenos, but was significantly worse for those around him.

"Oi!" said Ashen, arriving at the scene of the fight. Jenna was pulling Jaromil away from the fight, Jaromil looking back over his shoulder in a mix of excitement and horror. Vanagandr, Ceslav, and Nikolas had gathered around to watch the fight. Wilder was crouched low, battle-ready, and Damaskenos snap-kicked in his direction. Wilder leapt out of the way too slowly, the kick sending him sprawling. Ashen wasn't sure where Damaskenos had learned Karate, but he'd been getting a lot of practice in since they'd left Lanbrott, as if being nine feet tall and nigh-unto indestructible wasn't enough.

"I think maybe you've taken the concept of 'break a leg' a bit too literally," Ashen said. Damaskenos ignored him, advancing on Wilder. Ashen stepped in between them, and Damaskenos swung at him with one hand. Ashen took a quick step backward and fought the instinct to strike back while Damaskenos was off-balance. "Damaskenos, come on, I thought we were friends," Ashen said, opening his palms in a mock surrender. Damaskenos paused for a moment, glaring at Ashen. After a moment, he turned and pried a small tree from the ground. Ashen prepared to leap out of the way, but Damaskenos tossed it over one of the wagons and, letting out a massive roar, turned and walked away.

Ashen turned around and helped Wilder up. "Jenna, bring the water," Ashen called over his shoulder. Jenna ran over and handed the vial of water up to Wilder, who drank it down, his bruises instantly healing, and judging by the sounds, a rib or two snapping back into place. Immediately after he'd finished drinking, Jenna snatched the water and ran off. She was not fond of Wilder. "Are we speaking the same language?" Ashen asked, walking into an empty wagon, Wilder following just behind, "Because yours seems to have an entirely different effect on people."

"What do you mean?" Wilder asked.

"Listen," Ashen said, "I don't know what you're trying to accomplish by picking fights with everyone and their dog, but stop it. You're making all of us look that much weaker."

"And carting Jenna around doesn't?" Wilder said.

"Not 'us' the Circus, 'us' as in Devil's Hands!" Ashen said. Wilder was caught off-guard. After a moment, he opened his mouth to respond, but Ashen cut him off. "The only people who run around picking fights with every emotionally unstable misfit they can find are the people too weak to pick fights with anyone else, and everyone in power knows this. The only thing that shouts your weakness louder than picking fights with Jaromil is when you lose fights to Damaskenos thirty seconds after they begin!"

"We're not weak," Wilder said, "We don't have to hide!"

"Lying is what we do, Wilder," Ashen said, "Lying, and hiding, and scheming, and making sure the fight is never fair. You're never going to be stronger than everyone else, Wilder, because if nothing else there's always going to be other Devil's Hands who'd love to remove you as a threat to their personal cults, but you can make people think you're too powerful to risk fighting with if you'd just keep your damn mouth shut!"

"You don't have any idea what you're talking about!" Wilder shouted, "I'm above everyone else! Hell chose me to-"

"God, the 'chosen one' rant," Ashen said, rolling his eyes. "Every single Devil's Hand thinks they're the chosen one of Hell or Heaven or one prophecy or another. I killed three 'chosen ones' this year alone, four if you count both of the twins separately. One of them wasn't even hard to kill!"

"You kill Devil's Hands?" Wilder asked.

"Yes, and you will, too, if you don't want to be killed by one yourself," Ashen said, "We're not all on the same side, Wilder. If you take nothing else away from this, take this: You. Are. Alone. Every single Devil's Hand is ultimately an army of one. We might work together for a while, possibly even our whole lives, but only because circumstances make it profitable. You taste just as good as Jenna. Better, in fact, since no part of you is extra crispy."

Sighing in frustration, Ashen turned and left the wagon, leaving Wilder to try in vain to come up with some kind of pithy comeback.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Natural Philosophy I

Three years before Dark Wood Circus...

The Majestic City Academy of Natural Philosophy was more magnificent even than most of the palatial estates its students came from. The Academy was thronging with blue bloods spanning the entirety of the Imperial peerage. A collection of young men and women each told, from birth, that they were a higher class of person. Different. Better. Noble.

They strutted about through the halls, across the vast campus between the impressive, century-old buildings, constantly trying to act like they're more confident, more important, more noble than everyone else. It was entertaining, sometimes, to watch some lowly fifteen year old viscount who'd managed to pull himself to the top of a clique transform from a cocky, arrogant, controlling noble to a groveling servant the instant a mighty duke two years his junior walked past.

The idiotic, arbitrary social system was hilarious right up until it was horrifying.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Brothers in one

I am your brother
I am you
I will remain I
You will be you
Who am I if not you?
You are my brother
My brother in me
We are one in the same
We are brothers
Brothers of one
Brothers in one

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Creation of a Monster

A mothers scream
The fathers blood
Years of torment
the end of one
the creation of two
These all a monster make

Friday, October 22, 2010

Chapter Twelve

A bald man wearing a white apron was turning a whole pig over an open fire out side of a large stone house. A few moments later, he walked into the kitchen of the house where some rice was cooking on a large cast-iron stove and broccoli was being steamed. As Nickolas was tasting his food a large, fat, drunk man walked into the kitchen

“Where the hell is my food, Nikolas?!” The drunk man said

“It will be ready soon governor” Jack replied. The governor of Svetch stumbled over to the stove

“This stuff looks like shit!” The governor exclaimed.

“It's rice,” Nikolas explained, trying not to sound as agitated as he felt.

“Rice. Rice! Rice is poor people food! Make me chicken!” the governor yelled

“We have no chicken, but the pork is being made outside” Nikolas said trying to keep calm.

“I don’t want any damn pork!” the governor said as he accidentally spit on Nicolas’s face.

“That is it!” Nikolas said as he grabbed the large, hot cast-iron pot and swung it into the governor’s head. The governor fell to the ground with the front of his head gashed open and bleeding. Nicolas realized what he had done, and ran out of the house. It wasn't long after that he became a wanted man.

-------

Some time later, outside of a small tent, Nikolas was hacking away at some hogs feet with a cleaver. As he was cutting he accidentally cut off the top of his thumb off. He looked at the blood that was gushing out of what left of his thumb was there, mildly irritated. He grabbed a towel, covered his finger and put the blood covered pigs feet into a pot of boiling water. He then grabbed a small box and opened it. Inside where some medical tool. He grabbed his thumb and stitched it up.

It was after he'd fled from the governor's estate that Nikolas learned what medicine and surgery he knew, hiding with a doctor. Unfortunately, the doctor's wife did not share her husband's sympathy for Nikolas' position. He'd fled to Novakagrad, the capital city, far to the northwest of Svetch. He'd been able to find a job in a pub, there.

Nikolas was cleaning the mugs out for the night when a man came running in with three knifes stuck in his back. “Someone is after me! You need to help me” the man choked out before he fell to the ground. In shock Nikolas grabbed the man and began carefully removing the knives. He didn't know what else to do. He was patching up the wounds when a man in a long, red coat walked in the door.

“I think my friend's wandered in here,” he said to Nikolas.

“Who is your friend?” Nikolas asked.

"Dan, Dan is his name," the man said.

Nikolas had no idea what the wounded man's name was and wasn't sure he should let the man in the hat through, but ultimately he relented. After Nikolas let him past a blood curdling scream came from the wounded man, and the man in the coat walked out a moment later.

“What happened!?” Nicolas asked frantically.

“Well, I killed him” the man replied.

“Why did you do that?” Nikolas said, his eyes wide with shock.

“Was I not supposed to do that?” asked the man, with a slight smile on his face. “I really should be going,” he continued, Nikolas still gaping in shock. As the man in the red coat was walking out of the bar, he turned to Nicolas. “You know, I swear I've seen your face before...On a drawing, though” he said. For a moment he sat in silence, pondering, while Nikolas scanned the room for something usable as a weapon. All the good-sized knives were in the back, the only thing out here were chairs. Would this man notice if Nikolas slipped out back?

"I've got it!" The red-coated man said, "You're that cook who killed the governor of Svetch!" Nikolas cursed under his breath. The red-coated man was looking straight at him now, and that meant he wouldn't be able to slip to the back for a knife. The man looked fairly thin, though. Perhaps he could overpower him with just a chair...But could he risk fighting with the murderer at all?

In the distance, the sounds of booted feet and the shouts of the guards could be heard. Nikolas glanced out the window, sweat on his brow. The guards were coming for the man in red, no doubt, but they'd probably recognize Nikolas as the "assassin" from Svetch once they arrived. Even if they didn't, what was to stop the murderer from telling them himself? "Did you bandage that man up yourself?” the red-coated man asked.

“Yah” Nikolas replied automatically.

"Interesting," the man said, pulling a card out from his pocket. Nikolas squinted in the dim pub lights to make out the Three of Spades. "We really are short on time, so before I go I need to ask...When you were a little boy, did you ever wish you could run away and join the circus?"

"With you?" Nikolas asked, surprised. "You're a murderer!" Nikolas said, before he could stop himself.

"And that makes us...Different?" the man asked. The sounds of booted feet were growing louder. "I should note that the alternative is prison."

Nikolas hesitated only a moment before saying "Fine."

"Excellent," the man said, "I am Ashen, this is your card, let's run away."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Unseen

Beyond our sight
lies something more.
No one can see,
that invisible door.

Soaring high,
digging low,
you are blind,
wherever you go.

Knowledge untold,
wells of thought within,
the history undying,
records of human sin.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chapter Eleven

Lorelei shuffled the deck before her, practiced hands making up for her blindness. She smiled at the man on the other side of the table from her, who shifted nervously as she dealt three cards. She sighed and said, “Please tell me what the first card is.”

She heard the man shift in his seat as if to look forward, “The King of Spades.” He said warily. She nodded and gestured to the second card, and he said, “The Ace of Hearts.” Once again she nodded and gestured for him to read the next card. “The Five of Clubs.”

She took the cards back and said, “You will meet a very important person today, most probably a man, who will change your life for the better most likely. Also, it seems that he will make a favorable business deal with you and many of your problems shall vanish. But be warned, this man may very well have his own ends in mind and will most likely betray you.” She smiled, “That will be five rubles please.”

The man wordlessly dropped the money on the table and left the room. She sighed and put away her cards. She began to pack away the rest of her possessions and waited for the knock she knew would come. She placed her dried herbs in several pouched which hung on a belt that she strapped around her waist. She also placed her medicines and poisons in vials which she carefully set in a case that had cloth lined sections so the glass would not shatter.

What little else she had she packed into a back that she slung around her shoulder. Then a large boom echoed out of nowhere. She shook her head, the future was becoming ever more clouded of late. She waited as the smell of smoke permeated the air and the shouts of the Sergeinov performers rose up. The smell and noise drew nearer and a knock came at her door. She stood and opened it, knowing her way well enough to find the door handle.

A woman's voice said, “Come on, before they burn this whole place down.”

Lorelei frowned, “I do not understand, where is the Circus Leader?”

The woman seized her arm and said, “Ashen's busy at the moment, now come on!” The woman pulled Lorelei along and out of the inn. Lorelei heard the frightened gasps of the staff as they rushed out. She smelled horses and before she knew it the woman had her on a horse and they rode out of the circus.

When they came to a stop the woman said, “We'll be joining Ashen shortly, so let me explain your situation first. That explosion was part of one of Ashen's plans...I think. At any rate, the townsfolk will blame you for it on account of you being a 'witch' so I got you out of there as soon as I could. Ashen just said we'd find him somewhere along this road so we'll continue until he finds us.”

Lorelei frowned but said nothing as they continued down the road, then she said, “Which are you?”
“What?”

“Which card are you?” Lorelei asked frantically searching her memory of all the Spades so far. Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Ten, Eight, Seven, Six, Five, Four, Deuce. The Queen? No... She's-

“I'm the Ten of Spades. And my name is-”

“Scea.” Lorelei said, the future clearing a little as they continued down the road. She felt the woman nod and said, “My name is Lorelei.”

“Nice to meet you Lorelei. We're almost where Ashen said he'd be, don't worry about the others that will be with him. They won't hurt you.” Scea paused then continued, “Well, Wilder might, but that's just the way he is. Besides, he usually just makes threats.”

After about five more minutes they came to a stop and Scea dismounted and helped Lorelei off the horse. Lorelei heard the sounds of a small group walking toward them. She felt the ground tremble and frowned, she hadn't seen anything that large in her visions, it had to be at least twelve feet tall.

Scea gasped and said, “We need to get out of here now!” She seized Lorelei and shoved her back in the saddle, then jumped up herself. “Yah!” She shouted and kicked the horse into a gallop.

Shouts came from behind them and Lorelei had a sudden vision of bullets racing after them. She heard Scea scream in pain and felt one of the other woman's arms fall from the reins. They continued to race away from the men and eventually were surrounded by silence.

Then Lorelei heard more voices and Scea said, “Ashen? That you?”

A man's voice came back, “You've got our friend, Scea?”

“I got her alright, but that's the last time I ever go after a fortune teller when there's a giant metal thing walking around with canons on it's shoulders.”

“Twelve is more than nine.” Ashen said.

“What's that supposed to mean?” Scea asked irritatedly.

"It isn't," Ashen said, and Lorelei heard the others draw nearer and Scea slipped off the horse. Then Ashen said, “I see you got hit.”

Scea laughed, “I've had worse. I just need some -.”

“Henbane.” Lorelei interrupted, “To kill the pain. And Fox's Clote to prevent infection.”

"Fortune teller and an herbalist?" Ashen asked, "Are you sure you're not a witch?"

Lorelei smiled, “I never said I'm not a witch.”

"Well, there you go," Ashen said.

She heard the crunch of leaves as booted feet crossed the clearing and a man's hand grasped hers, a card pressed into her hand, “When you were a little girl, did you ever wish you could run away a join the circus?”

She smiled and slipped the Nine of Spades into a pocket, “All the time.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blood

Blood that flows
Blood that stays
What are you that is in me?
You are not normal
You do not leave
Knives may cut
Bullets may perce
But you stay inside
You are blood
My blood that stays inside

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chapter Ten

Wilder slipped back into the group next to Byelbog.

“We need to go.” Wilder whispered to Byelbog.

“K” Byelbog nodded.

Just as Byelbog was about to speak to Herr Braun Wilder cut in. “Well, it has been good talking business, but you have more pressing matters that need your attention.”

Herr Braun eyed Wilder suspiciously, “By all means you should stay we have many things you should see, and people you should meet.” Herr Braun’s smile

Byelbog searched for a way out of their declining situation. Things turned for the worse as he saw Herr Braun eye someone behind them and make a slight motion with his head. Byelbog positioned himself ready to move. A loud explosion provided the distraction he needed. Whipping around he brought up his elbow smashing the first man in the side of the face. He sent his knee into the second man’s groin and sent his heal onto his neck once he hit the ground snapping his neck like a twig. Wilder finished off his attacker, and looked around for Herr Braun.

Byelbog eyed a duster on one of their assailants smiling he removed it and put it on. He thanked the dead man, listened in to Wilders plan.

“We are going to head strait toward the explosion.” Wilder smiled. Before anyone could object he ran off in the direction of the explosion.

Byelbog whispered “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Members of the Sergeinov Circus ran in the opposite direction as the group traveled. Byelbog spotted the cause for the chaos before Wilder did. Grabbing Wilder by the collar Byelbog yanked him backward a spray of bullets drilled their way into the ground where he had been a second ago.

A twelve foot metal walker stepped into full view of their party. The Gatling gun in the torso started to slow its rotating smoke from the gunpowder began to clear. The walker reverse jointed legs stepped so the torso faced them. Byelbog felt someone watching them from a slit above the center gun. The two cannons built into the shoulders angled toward the party. Sounds of metal sliding against metal echoed out of the barrels. Byelbog gritted his teeth reminding himself if they get out of this alive to ring Wilders neck.

If we could blind it long enough to get behind it, we could get away... Byelbog thought to himself as a massive round from one of the cannons blew up a pack of flying Segeinov performers, their bodies flying through the air like ragdolls. The slits are the only way to see out! Byelbog realized. No peripheral vision, no way to look down. The safest place would literally be right under its nose. Pushing Wilder forward he motioned for everyone to move, “Go between the legs.” Running between the legs threw the pilot off for a moment. When Byelbog looked back the walker was already turning its gun towards another target.

Safely away from the Sergeinov Circus Byelbog grabbed Wilder by the neck, “if you ever try something so stupid again I will kill you.”

“Well I was trying-” Wilder started.

Byelbog cut in, “To get everyone killed? Next time you come up with one of your idiotic plans you might want to use that atrophied organ between your ears.”

Wilders scowled, but right as he was about to speak Ashen cut in, limping a bit, and with a massive bear-person just behind him. “I see everyone made it out alive, and someone got a new coat," he said.

“Yeah, we did.” Byelbog glared at Wilder one more time, “The coat was donated by a member of the Sergeinov Circus.”

"They are a notoriously generous organization," Ashen said.

Byelbog eyed the giant. “We successfully added to the family I see.”

Ashen glanced at the bear-person accompanying him, “Ah, yes, this is...I didn't catch your name, actually.”

"Damaskenos," the man said.

"There you go," Ashen said.

Byelbog kept his jaw from dropping, “He is larger than I would have expected. But not as large as the friend we just got away from.”

Ashen smiled, “Twelve is more than nine.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Black and White

Black eye shines brightly
White eye gleams no longer
Black as night can see all light
White sees nothing but black
Black was too
Until the knife
now black is white
Two is now one and one
still brothers but no longer the same
Black is black
White is white
thats how they will remain

Friday, October 15, 2010

Chapter Nine

Damaskenos, the half-bear, sat glowering in his cage, rain pattering down from above. The head of the Sergeinov Circus was having one of his meetings with the head of another circus, the Dark Wood Circus. Ringmaster Sergeinov had sent Herr Braun to discuss things. The ringmaster of the Dark Wood Circus was wearing a long red coat, a tophat, and gloves. He was thin, and moving with a quick pace, pausing every now and again to allow Herr Braun to catch up. With him were four people, a young man dressed in a black and white suit who looked like he might be a clown, a man with short, black hair wearing leather gloves for some reason, a man dressed in a white-tie suit with a top hat and a masquerade mask, and a young girl wearing a leotard following just behind him.

"Herr Ashen, this town cannot suffer two circuses," Herr Braun said, "You
must leave and let the bigger show have its place in the bigger cities. I'm sure you can make what living you need from smaller towns."

"We can't leave," Ashen said, "We promised a performance to the people of this town, and I always keep my promises."

"You promised me you would be reasonable when we began this conversation," Herr Braun said, "I don't find you've kept that promise."

"Alright, so I
almost always keep my promises," Ashen responded, glancing at the various attractions and acts the Sergeinov Circus was setting up. Damaskenos got the eerie feeling for a moment that Ashen was looking directly at him, and he quickly looked away. Ashen, who was looking at his watch now, continued speaking, "Oh, my, I'm late, we need to start packing up," he said, "Wilder, come with me, we must go immediately, Byelbog, see if we can come to an agreement with Mister Brown."

"Herr Braun," the manager corrected, but Ashen ignored him while he and Wilder ran off away from the large, open field where Sergeinov Circus was setting up. The two passed quickly by Damaskenos without so much as a glance, and Herr Braun and the other four circus members slowly walked out of earshot, still discussing business. Herr Braun certainly seemed to like Byelbog better than Ashen.

A few moments after, Damaskenos had shut his eyes and was trying to sleep, but a clanging noise as someone climbed up onto the cage bars in front of him stirred him. He opened one eye and saw Ashen there, holding onto the bars at the front of the cage. "Bear-person, what are you doing in a bear cage? You do not belong there. You are a person," Ashen said. Damaskeons sat up and looked at Ashen, scrutinizing him, wondering why he was here and afraid it might have something to do with tormenting him...Or killing him. One less act for Dark Wood Circus to compete with.

"You can understand me, can't you?" Ashen asked. Damaskenos nodded. "And can you speak?" Ashen asked.

"Yes," Damaskenos responded, his voice deep and growly and already a bit sore from speaking words meant for human throats.

"Excellent. When you were a little boy, did you ever wish you could run away and join an entirely different circus?" Ashen asked.

"What?" Damaskenos asked.

"No cages, and we'll find you an act as something other than 'is a bear-person, rawr,'" Ashen said, "That, or I can leave you here, we're kind of squeezed for time, so you're going to have to make your choice
now."

"Get me out," Damaskenos said.

Ashen nodded and turned to Wilder, saying "Help me bend these bars, you push, I'll pull." Wilder nodded and jumped up onto the cage with Ashen, the two of them slowly bending one bar after another out of shape. In a few minutes, they had enough bars bent up that Damaskenos could fit his arm and head through them, but not quite the second shoulder. "Just three more inches," Ashen said, when a group of circus performers for Sergeinov turned the corner. "Or we could go with plan B," Ashen said, turning to Damaskenos and saying "Break the whole thing, now!" Damaskenos nodded and threw himself against the bars of the cage while Ashen and Wilder turned to face the thugs. The thugs shouted an alarm and one of them rushed towards Ashen, who brought him down with a knife in the throat from fifteen feet away. The other thugs froze as Ashen pulled out another knife, and then dove for cover as he threw it towards one of them, narrowly missing as the thug dived out of the way. A pack of thugs, one pulling out a pistol, arrived, scowling. Just then, Damaskenos broke free, the cage exploding into debris as he tore through it. He sat there for a moment, panting. "We should leave," Ashen said, running behind a stack of crates for cover, Wilder and Damaskenos close behind.

The three of them ran to the end of the stack of crates and turned a corner, hiding behind one of the large tents. "Where do we go?" Wilder asked.

"I'll get back to you on that," Ashen responded, peering around the edge of the tent.

"We don't have a plan? How are we going to sneak out of here with a nine foot bear-person if we don't have a plan?" Wilder asked.

"Twelve is more than nine," Ashen said as the three of them ran from behind one tent to another.

"What?" Wilder asked, confused.

"Just wait here," Ashen said, slipping under the tent wall. Damaskenos and Wilder tilted their heads to one side, listening. Ashen was speaking with another man, and Damaskenos wasn't sure if he should stay or run. Adrenaline had carried him through the past three minutes, but now he was out of his cage, he wasn't sure if he wanted to trust Ashen. He was a circus ringleader, so how did that make him different from Sergeinov? Sergeinov always said that any business that wanted to stay in business had to step on people in order to do it, and that freaks like him would always be the first ones to be stepped on. It was the natural order of things, and Damaskenos couldn't change it. All he could do was run away from it. And if he wanted to run, now was the time.

"My men are still talking with the manager, with Herr Braun," Ashen was saying inside, "But if you're going to shut this circus down before the freaks escape, you're going to have to act now."

"I understand," a man said from inside. His accent was from the Empire on the western edge of the continent, like Ashen's and Wilder's. "We'll need five minutes to get it ready regardless, so you've got that long to find your men and get them clear."

"That should be more than enough time," Ashen said. When he stepped back outside the tent, Damaskenos was gone. "Where's the bear?" Ashen asked.

"He ran off while you were talking inside," Wilder said, "I didn't want to draw any attention. Who is that in there?"

"Where'd the bear go?" Ashen asked, ignoring Wilder.

"That way," Wilder said, pointing.

"Great, I'll find him, you find Byelbog and the others and get them out of here, we've got four and a half minutes before everything burns!" Ashen said, running in the direction Wilder had pointed.

Damaskenos knew he couldn't keep himself hidden for long, and he also knew that he was much faster than the average human. Ignoring stealth, he barreled down towards the road in the distance, Sergeinov performers diving out of his way or chasing after him with muskets and ropes. Hot lead stung at his chest as a musket ball dug its way into him, and he raised his arm to protect himself as two more balls tore into him. A chain thrown by one of the men wrapped itself around his arm, and Damaskenos yanked his arm away, sending the man flying on the end of the chain. Another chain wrapped itself around his neck, this one held by three men, slowly pulling him towards them. Damaskenos fought against them as another chain caught his wounded arm, this held by two men and pulling him in the opposite direction. A crossbow bolt with a rope attached dug into his back, pulling him in a third direction.

Despair began to take hold of Damaskenos as he realized he'd just lost his only chance to get out, that he'd probably never be free again. Rage boiled up inside of him and he managed to toss another man free as he attempted to further chain him, but his rage was useless as now the men were beginning to pile up on the chains, four or five on each one, and another ball dug into his flesh, cutting and burning through him. Slowly, they dragged him to the ground, the pressure from each chain growing heavier and heavier, his bleeding wounds sapping his strength. His rage grew more desperate, but he could not coax any more power from his body.

Suddenly, one of the men dropped to the ground, blood pouring out from a wound in his throat. The men began to shout in anger and pain, and a few fired their guns at the new combatant. In a few seconds, one of the chains holding Damaskenos went slack, and he immediately pushed himself off the ground, pulling at the other two, trying to get a way. "Don't pull away!" Ashen shouted from the middle of a fight with several of the thugs. "Go tow-" he was cut off by one of the thugs putting a right hook across his jaw, knocking him to the ground. Ashen rolled to his feet and flung a knife into the thug's gut, and shouted "Go towards them! Make
them run from you!"

Damaskenos turned towards the eight or so men holding the two remaining chains that bound him, fear slowly creeping into their eyes as they realized there was nothing but ten feet of empty space standing between them and an enraged, nine-foot tall bear-person. Damaskenos charged towards them and they ran in a panic. One of them pulled his musket from the ground and hastily tried to reload it, but Damaskenos swatted him away, sending him flying through the air, before he could even get close to finishing it. Ashen was staggering away from his group of thugs, clutching a wound where one of the men had managed to cut him with a dagger. Five of them were dead or dying on the ground, the rest had fled.

"What part of 'wait outside the tent' didn't register?" Ashen asked irritably. Damaskenos just looked back at him, thoughts and emotions tumbling through his head. Could he trust Ashen? Could he get away without him, now that he was halfway there? Ashen didn't seem to have any knives left, but he didn't seem to have any knives at all before the fight started. If Damaskenos tried to run, would Ashen stop him? "Why did you run?" Ashen asked.

"You don't hate freaks?" Damaskenos asked.

"I
am a freak," Ashen said, sliding a glove off to reveal a skeletal hand, "Damn near everyone in my circus is a freak."

"But you said to kill freaks," Damaskenos said.

"In the tent? I'm an incredible liar," Ashen said, replacing his glove. Both of them were now stained with blood.

"Are you hurt?" Damaskenos asked.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Ashen said, "I'll be fine once we get back to Jenna. We need to leave now, are you coming or not?" Damaskenos thought for a moment, then nodded. Ashen began walking away from the circus, into the fields.

"What if we get caught?" Damaskenos asked. Ashen's wound was forcing him to move a lot slower.

"We've got a distraction on the way," Ashen said. An explosion sounded off on the other end of the circus, accompanied by the sound of furious gunfire and panicked shouts. Ashen smirked and said "Twelve is more than nine. Just as planned."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Laugh So You Don't Have To Cry

It's most unfortunate to sit and watch every day while your friends bleed and die,
That's the reason that we're always smiles, sometimes you laugh you don't have to cry.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chapter Eight

(Note: Though published under my name due to technical difficulties on his end, this chapter is actually from EJDutcher)

Blood ran down the walls as two children helplessly watched their mother get slaughtered by their father. Their mother’s blood-covered corpse fell to the ground as their father turned for them, gore running down his knife. The little girl screamed as the blade came thrusting down.

At that moment Jared almost jumped out of his seat in the horse drawn carriage.

“Are you okay?” asked Thomas, his skinny comrade on the other side of the carriage.

“Yah, just a nightmare,” replied Jared as he wiped the sweat off of his brow. The carriage stopped “We are here,” said Anson, who was driving the carriage. He pulled out a sword and jumped out, with Jared following. When they got out they where standing in front of a large dock. About a quarter-mile away was a small house where a boat keeper lived with his wife and two daughters.

“Let's go,” said Anson as he loaded his flintlock rifle. They all ran towards the house. When they got there the man with the rifle kicked the door down and shot the boat keeper the first moment Anson saw him. The wife screamed as she saw blood gushing from her husband, and Thomas ran after the wife as Jared and Anson ran into the house. The men barged into a room with the two girls in it and tried to grab them as they screamed for their mother. Thomas and Jared got hold of the children and started to walk out of the room, but the girls’ mother came running in with a large bleeding wound coming from her abdomen.

“Mommy!” the two girls shrieked. The mother started to run to them, but before she could even take a step Anson shot her in the back of the head. The girls screamed hysterically.

“Let’s get them out of here!” Jared yelled, trying to talk over the children’s hysteria. As they were walking out of the door Jared got irritated from the constant noise. He set the girl down, grabbed a knife, pulled up his left sleeve, and cut his forearm. As the blood came out of his wound, he rubbed it on his right palm which had a tattoo of a pentagram on it. After a couple of seconds his eyes began to change. The blue became engulfed with bright green circles surrounded his irises. The green flashed with mystical writing. One of the girls made eye contact, and then she went dead silent.

“Go sit in the cart,” Jared demanded of the girl. The girl then quietly walked to the cart. The green rings around he eyes disappeared. As he started to walk out of the house he saw that the boat keeper was still alive. Jared walked over and could hear him muttering “My daughters, my daughters.” Jared grabbed a cutlass that was sheathed by his side, looked into his eyes, and hacked at his neck until he was completely decapitated. Jared walked out of the house and jumped into the carriage.

He arrived at a large abandoned stone fort with guards dressed in ratty clothing. After he got into the fort there where three entrances and in the middle of the courtyard was a large cage full of children standing calmly, staring into space. Thomas got out of the cart with the two little girls and started to walk towards the first entrance. Jared also walked out of the carriage and headed to the middle structure that was the most well guarded and tallest part of the building. When he got inside he came up to a large, bearded man sitting in an enormous chair drinking rum.
“Constantine,” Jared called.

“Oh Jared, I was wondering when you would get back,” Constantine replied in a deep scratchy voice. “How did it go?” he continued.

“We got two more little girls and we were unharmed,” Jared said with pride.

“Good, good. It is too bad you had to run a gatherers errand. The world has been killing us off lately, but that is why I sent my best breaker,” Constantine said as he stumbled out of his chair. “I need you to sell some of the children to a circus that is in town. I believe their dwarf died recently, so go see if they need a new one.” He and Jared started to walk. As they continued down the halls the shrieks of children echoed off the walls. "It is a good thing that we don’t have a shortage of trainers, or we would be out of a job,” Constantine chuckled to himself as he took anther swig from his rum bottle. “How many kids have you broken this week?” asked Constantine.

“Seven,” replied Jared.
“How many of them died?” asked Constantine.

“Two,” Jared said.
“That’s great,” Constantine said as he stumbled on his own feet.

“Perhaps you should get to bed,” Jared suggested.

“Perhaps,” Constantine agreed. After Constantine left, Jared went into a dark, damp room with a dead lamb in a bowl of blood. As Jared sat there men would bring half dead, disturbed and hysterical children, finally deformed to freakish levels. One by one he would put blood on his tattoo and stare into their eyes and one by one they would loose all emotions and slowly walk away to the large cage in the middle of the courtyard. The next day Jared woke up, got dressed, sharpened his knife, cleaned his flintlock, and left to talk to Constantine. On his way into meeting room Jared saw Constantine beating on one of the trainers.

“Hold out money on me again and I’ll kill you!” Constantine screamed into the man’s face. After he punched the guilty trainer a couple more times Constantine threw him to the ground. Jared walked in to the room, but before Jared could go further the beaten trainer stood up and pulled out a flintlock pistol.

“Die you son of a bitch!” the man yelled, but the next thing that he saw was Constantine’s three bright green rings around his irises and a pentagram in the middle of his eyes. The man seemed paralyzed and slowly started to point the gun at his own face.

“You shouldn’t have insulted my mother,” said Constantine as the man shot himself. Blood and pieces of brains splattered on the floor as the body came falling down. Jared walked over the dead body. “Sorry about the mess,” Constantine said as he put his gun away. “We have a another circus we were going to sell to, but I believe that this circus might be fake...If this is real and we are getting some of the other children to sell, they will meet up with you at the circus.” Constantine walked Jared to the door. “You leave at nightfall,” he said as he shut the door.

When nightfall came five people including Jared jumped into a carriage with crossbows, guns, and swords. When they arrived, Ashen was sitting there alone. Everyone got out of the carriages. Shortly another carriage came, which held four children inside. They walked out with bags over their heads. One of the trainers walked and introduced himself and started to introduce the children. “This is Dorothy” the man said as he pulled off the brown bag over her head. “She only has three fingers and one eye."

The man went over to the only boy there. “This is Alex.” The man took off the bag, He had dark long brown hair and brown eyes. “He is a dwarf.”

The man went to the third girl. “This is Olivia.” the man took off the bag she had short dirty blond hair, her legs seemed out of proportion and her elbows where bending out of place. “She is a contortionist.”

The man walked over to the last child. “This girl is also a contortionist, but this one is my favourite. This is Lynn.” The man pulled the bag off to reveal a timid ten year old girl with bright blond hair and ponytails. The minute that Jared saw Lynn he almost ran to her, but paused, knowing that he need to break the spell that was on her. The man walked away form the kids to talk to Ashen.

Jared quietly approached Lynn. “Lynn! Lynn!” Jared tried to get a response from her without seeming suspicious; she just sat there staring into space like a zombie. Jared pulled her behind one of the carts, grabbed his knife, cut his arm, and put the blood on his tattoo. Bright green circles surrounded his irises, after thirty seconds of staring into her eyes she seemed responsive “Lynn! Can you hear me?” Jared asked. Before he knew it. Lynn grabbed Jared’s knife and stabbed it into his leg. Jared almost yelled out in pain, but clamped his jaws shut and yanked the blade out of his flesh. Lynn scrambled away and ran back to the group of damaged children as Jared tried to stop the flow of blood and get to his feet. Back where the deal was being made Ashen handed money for Lynn

“Thank you very much,” said the man as he looked back at the children. “Where did she go?” the man asked. Lynn lunged at him and of the man fell to the ground with half of his neck hacked open. The rest of the men were shocked and confused by what had just happened and Lynn chuckled as she had the knife in her hand.

“What the hell?” The man negotiating for Lynn said to himself. Lynn raised her head with an insane look in her eyes as she started to laughed hysterically. She ran towards the nearest person. “Kill her!” the man yelled. She got close to the nearest Comprachico, but before he could draw his sword she sliced his stomach open, pieces of intestines spilling out. One of the men tried to shoot her but missed. She ran so fast that before the shooter had time to react, she stabbed him in the knee, turned around, grabbed an arrow, and stabbed him through the lung. Ashen saw his opportunity to start what he had been planning all along. Following Lynn’s lead, Ashen plunged a knife through the hand of the trainer that had been negotiating with him and was now pulling out a gun. The trainer started to turn when two more knives went through both his shoulders. He was spun towards Ashen by the force of the blow. Ashen threw two knives into the man’s feet. Six more entered his body in a veritical line until the last one went into the man’s throat. The man sat there stunned for a second before Ashen threw his last knife deep into the carpachico’s forehead. Ashen looked over at Lynn. She had killed three more people and was just finished pulling an arrow from a victim’s head.

She ran towards Ashen. "Oi! I'm on your side!" Ashen shouted, reaching for his knives, but realized that he had used all of them on that one man. “Oh, dear,” Ashen muttered to himself. He looked up and saw a blade flying at his face. Ashen hit Lynn’s hand away and tried to knock her out, but as his hand got closer to her face she bent backwards to the point where her head was between her legs in an inhuman way and slashed his shin. Her bizarre position shocked Ashen, and he tried to block her moves, but she was able to dart away from him. Jared came around from around the corner.

“Look out!” Jared yelled to Lynn as he fired at of the men that was about to shoot her with a crossbow. He stumbled towards her, holding his bleeding leg. Ashen quickly looked at Jared, then looked back to Lynn, and the next thing he knew, she was behind him, then in front of him. Ashen was getting attacked from all sides, but could never see Lynn for more then a second. After getting a blow to the head he winced and smiled. He looked behind him and punched Lynn straight in the face, knocking her unconcious. Jared ran to Lynn, but before he got there Ashen stood over her. “Finders, keepers,” Ashen said with a smirk. “Give her to me!” Jared demanded.

“No, I paid good money for her,” Ashen said.

"What?" Jared said, "You can have your money back. You're taking it back right now!"

"Yes, but I still paid good money for her in the first place," Ashen said. Jared opened his mouth to respond, but Ashen cut him off. "Listen, the romance is touching, but what exactly is your plan, here?"

"Romance? What?" Jared asked, "She's my sister!"

"Well, if that's what you're into," Ashen said, "You still haven't answered my question. What're you going to do, run back to Fort Blood 'N Guts and tell Constantine the Chupacabra killed all his men and he's not allowed to sell Lynn anymore? Learn to hypnotize wheat and take up farming?" Jared opened his mouth, closed it, and finally hung his head without speaking. Ashen smiled and pulled out his deck of cards, shuffling them in his hands. "When you were a little boy, did you ever wish you could run away and join the circus?" he asked, shuffling the six and seven of spades out of the deck.

"You're offering me a job?" Jared asked.

"Both of you, yes," Ashen said.

“Fine, but only if I get to kill the rest of the Comprachicos,” Jared said.

Ashen glanced at one of the dead Comprachicos, still pinned against a tree by his thirteen knives, then looked back at Jared, smiling ruefully and saying "Sir, you drive a hard bargain, but I'll accept your terms. Welcome to the Dark Wood Circus!"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lanterns

Oh by day the sun is shining,
The children do play and the maids are pining,
after the men do work and shout,
while some of us do stand without.

Then the night comes, the moon is glowing,
The children do sleep and the maids are sewing,
For the men who laugh and jest,
Away from we whom they detest.

As they sleep, their lanterns fail,
the light fading and releasing us from our jail,
We move swift and quiet, spectres of doom,
And on their warm flesh, we will dine soon.

The Jester stands alone among them all,
laughing his merry song and standing tall,
The one card fate has to play,
Is that the Jester will laugh, night and day.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Chapter Seven

Scea moved fluidly, arms outstretched and long sleeves dragging along the floor. She spun and the long trails swept up into the air, two loops of fabric swirling around her. She ducked and swirled, the beat of the drums throbbing though the air of the room.

As she danced in the flickering firelight she searched for her target. She found him at one of the tables near the raised platform upon which she was dancing. Scea continued her dance, whirling and flowing from position to position flawlessly. The trails of fabric spun and whirled, almost as if they were dancing on their own.

The drums began to slow and she slowed with them finally coming to a stop on her knees with her arms outstretched before her. She stepped off the platform as the audience applauded and the target approached her, eyes unfocused and a slack grin on his face, apparently the information about his more... unsavory habits had been correct. She smelled the alcohol on his breath as he drew closer.

She turned her back and walked away, swiftly going through a door and locking it behind her. She changed out of her dancer's clothing and waited. She didn't have to wait long, a knock came at her door. When she opened it it was the drunk merchant.

She walked straight past him, knowing that doing so would aggravate him in his drunken state and cause him to pursue. She swiftly exited the building and started down the street, the man stumbling after her. Then she turned down an alleyway and stopped.

The merchant soon arrived and approached, his breathing labored from running. He grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around. She smiled at the look of shock on his face and stepped back as he began to cough blood, her knife protruding from his neck.

She left the dying man there and walked out the other end of the alley. She threw a cloak over her shoulders and raised the hood. She walked swiftly up the street and around the back of the tavern she had just left. Before she could reenter the building, however, she was waylaid by six men.

She didn't move as one of them tore her cloak off and, after looking her up and down, said, “Look, she's got those red scars on her arms. You're one of those freaks, aren't you?”

She said nothing and the man shook her, “Well, aren't you?” He slapped her, hard, “Can't freaks speak?” He slapped her again, this time so hard her shirt tore out of the man's grip and she fell to the ground.

She raised her self up on her hands and knees, still not making a sound. The man seized her collar and raised her into the air, “Well, freak? Scream. If you won't do it when I slap you, what will happen if I take you?” She said nothing.

He grinned and took out a jagged knife, “Let's see then shall we?” He began to cut her clothes off but before he could finish one of his fellows screamed in pain.

The man whirled around just as another man had his shoulder broken by a stranger. Scea immediately saw her chance and kicked the man holding her between the legs. He dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. She stooped and seized his knife just as one of his compatriots turned to her and the other two rounded on the newcomer.

She spun fluidly, as if she was once again on the platform dancing, and stabbed the man in the thigh. She wrenched the knife from his leg and let him fall, screaming, to the ground. She turned and saw the stranger fending off the other two men. She quickly ran behind the first one and stabbed him in the back, while the stranger, taking advantage of the other man's distraction, dispatched him with a knife nine inches below the throat and four inches the the left of the man's sternum.

Scea walked over to the last one and gave him back his knife, then hit him between the eyes with the knuckle of her index finger, knocking him out cold. She picked up her cloak and turned to the stranger, “What are you doing here?”

He smirked and said, “Killing rapists seems to be kind of a thing for me, these days, it's a nasty habit, I know,” He looked at her consideringly, “You left him in a most unbecoming position for a man of his stature, dead in a back alley, it's very demeaning.”

She turned to him, fastening the cloak, “Why help me though? And who are you?”

“My name is Ashen," the man said, "And I helped you because I have a business proposition for you.”

Scea looked at him coolly, “What?”

Ashen grinned, pulled the Ten of Spades from his pocket, and said “When you were a little girl, did you ever wish you could run away and join the circus?"

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Don't Worry Too Much

Don't worry too much about being on time,
Don't worry too much about making things rhyme,
Don't worry too much about climbing up high,
Because in the end we're all going to die.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Chapter Six

Byelbog stood before the curtain waiting for his act to proceed. Ashen’s voice signaled for him to enter on stage. Taking a deep breath he moved behind the curtain where his hidden choir would perform, out of sight of the audience. After Ashen’s short introduction everything sat in silence for several moments. A soft and gentle voice began to sing. Slowly the woman’s beautiful voice grew louder a choir joining in. The song caressed the eardrums of all who listened. Jaromil behind stage closed his eyes letting it engulf him in it lovely grasp. The song dying off sent his mind grasping for the last note. The world around him seemed to have a revered silence about it. Slowly the crowd's clapping rose to a cheering from the audience. Byelbog entered the backstage, and moved back to his seat.

Ashen handed everyone their cut. Than headed off for some of his personal business. Byelbog stretched out closing his eyes to rest.

Jaromil smiled at Byelbog and said “That song was wonderful!”

“Thanks,” Byelbog said, smiling and leaving his eyes closed.

A bitter whisper from Jenna got Byelbog out of his seat. “Jaromil stay here.”

Slipping around the tent he spotted Wilder standing over a furious Jenna, her eyes wet with tears.

“It's true, whatever's beneath that mask must look terrible if you're so desperate to hide it,” Wilder chuckled.

"Shut up," Jenna hissed in return.

“Ashen’s going to have your head for this.” Byelbog said standing behind Wilder.

“Stay out of this Byel,” Wilder scowled.

“He’d be very disappointed,” Byelbog sighed

“Shut up,” Wilder growled.

“If I were you I’d get out of sight before Ashen comes back,” Byelbog said.

“I told you to shut up!” Wilder said turning on Byelbog.

“If we're going to fight, I’m not going to play around,” Byelbog said, removing one of his gloves.

Wilder's eyes widened, and he turned and walked off grumbling. Byelbog kept his eyes on Wilder as he walked off. Returning his glove to its rightful place he started to walk off.

Jenna’s voice stopped him. “Thanks.”

“You're welcome,” Byelbog smiled at her.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Doomed Man's Only Mercy

I had never thought of myself as someone incredible, I always viewed myself as something of a specialized tool. An instrument to be used for its own purpose, the same way mortar and trowels are used to lay bricks, or ink and paper are used for keeping records and sending messages. Something useful, but not special. I liked to get lost, I admit, despite who I am and what I do, that small part of my mind that knows something more than I do terrifies me. I hide from it, sometimes I hide behind blood, sometimes I hide behind night, sometimes I hide within my own self pity. Someday, I'm sure, I won't be able to hind anymore, and neither will I be able to run. But that day is not today, nor has it come.

It's strange, to think about that part of yourself. The part that is right about things that the rest of you doesn't care to even think about, let alone form ideas about. For myself at least, I often end up in a maelstrom of rhetoric; I know that somehow I know, but I don’t know how to know where to look in what I know for what I need to know about things I don’t know I know about. Needless to say, it becomes confusing after a time.

That’s the part of me that reassures me that being a soldier is okay. That being someone whose main job is destruction is right. The other parts of me question it, sometimes more and sometimes less, but constantly. Sometimes a passerby will make a comment glorifying what I do. It bothers me. It’s not that they are right or wrong about that they are saying, it’s that they simply don’t understand. I’ve never shot anyone, I’ve never seen anyone die because of me, but people do die. Sometimes I’m the person who presses the button, sometimes I’m the one who measures the amount of explosives in a demolitions charge. Sometimes I’m the one who decides what chemical agent to use, sometimes I’m just watching from an airplane as the bombs I dropped destroy hundreds of square acres. People die because of what I do, I just don’t see it. Sometimes that makes it easier, sometimes that makes it harder. I can trick myself into thinking that maybe no one will get hurt, that perhaps the buildings are empty, or that the people inside will get adequate medical attention. Other times, it makes it harder. Not that I want to see anyone die, no, that’s not it. I image these people sitting in building that they have no other choice but to be in. Sometimes their families are in danger, sometimes they see no other political choice, sometimes they have been tricked, some of them might just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They all have one thing in common though, they never see me. They never get the chance to hate me, they never get that slightest satisfaction. The people I kill never even know the face that they can never forgive. I know how foolish it is, but I feel as though I am denying them a doomed man’s only mercy, his opportunity to loath and despise the cause of his fate. It would make it less painful, I think, if they could see me, see the man who does this to them. Then I could provide them that mercy! They could embody in me all their pain and anger, instead of dying confused and terrified. Or even, perhaps, it would ease my burden if they had the satisfaction of knowing how much it sometimes tortures me.

That part of my mind though, it knows that just as some of them have no choice but to be where they are, and function as they function, so am I where I need to be, and that because I am trying to do what is right, I am justified. This thought alone makes me uncomfortable, it seems to be a shadow of a larger truth that I am not ready to accept.
That part of my mind is also the part of my that noticed it. It was clear and concise and seemed to last for hours, but only seconds at the same time! Forgive my cliché, for indeed I cannot think of a better way to describe the sensation. It was as if everything in my head stopped for a moment, and put all worry aside, completely forgotten, as if the thought was a paper that had been laid aside on a desk while everyone in a building turned and looked out the window at a spectacle that could not be described or repeated. Sadly, though, all of me knew that I did not love it, for I did not know love. I longed for it, I would sacrifice all else just for the opportunity to… be it. If that happened, it wouldn’t be enough still.

Submitted by Tyler Christiansen

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chapter Five

The performance had been over for nearly half an hour, but Wilder was still in costume, a shirt split down the middle between black and white with sleeves of the opposite color to the half of the shirt they were attached to, and a large spade dominating the torso, each side of the opposite color of the shirt behind it. The pants were also split between black and white, reversed so that the top of the white half of the pants met the bottom of the black half of the shirt, and the shoes and gloves followed the same pattern.

Ashen had already washed his makeup off from the night's performance, so he was probably going to disappear into town for a while, the way he had the night before. Right now he was counting up the money they'd gotten from the performance and storing it in the locked chest where he kept the money. Of course, last night he'd dragged back some fire-breathing freak, which meant each of their share of the performance profits was going to get cut again. Wilder just hoped he wouldn't bring someone else back.

Jaromil was still doing handstands for a few of the customers who were still lurking about the field where the circus had set up shop. Wilder walked over and leaned against one of the wagons nearby, watching while he tumbled and cartwheeled for the crowd. "Y'know the performance is over, right?" Wilder asked spitefully. Jaromil, in the middle of doing as many simultaneous back handsprings as he could manage, ignored him. Finally, Jaromil misplaced one of his hands and spilled himself over the floor. The audience laughed briefly and started to applaud as he picked himself up and dusted himself off. "You trying to make everyone love you by doing handsprings for free? Is it because you can't do anything good?"

Jaromil scowled at him and said "Leave me alone, Wilder."

"No," Wilder said, "That wasn't even that many. How many was it?"

"I lost track," Jaromil said.

"It was, like, three," Wilder said, "That's hardly any at all. Anyone can do that."

Suddenly a gloved hand grabbed him by the back of his head and yanked his chin upward, a cold, metal knife pressing itself against the skin of his neck. "It was six, actually," Ashen whispered into his ear. Wilder hadn't even noticed him walk up behind him, but now his body was tensing up for a fight. He just wasn't sure how he could win it, seeing as how Ashen was one errant twitch away from slitting his jugular open at the moment. A moment later Ashen removed the knife and shoved Wilder forward by his head. Wilder stumbled to avoid falling face first in the dirt and, when he regained his footing, spun around to face Ashen, his body tensed for battle again. Ashen was already sliding the knife back into his long, red coat, his body completely at ease. "Wilder, making fun of others is the easiest kind of comedy there is. If that's the best you can do with insults, I'm afraid I may roll my eyes so hard that one of them pops out of its socket, so I might have to cut your tongue out pre-emptively if you don't get some better material."

Wilder opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, Ashen had pulled a knife out and lunged forward, jabbing a small cut into his cheek. Wilder took a step back and fell back into a battle stance, one hand reaching up to cover the stinging cut on his face. "I wasn't joking, Wilder," Ashen said, sliding the knife back into his coat and turning to walk away.



Alright, you can do this, Jenna said to herself as she stepped tentatively out of the safety of the fields and onto the street. Lanbrott was only a hundred yards away, now. A few people were still walking past her on the road, but this far out and this close to nightfall, the crowd was still pretty thin. You used to go into town all the time. Nothing's changed since then. Towns aren't any more dangerous and you aren't helpless. She looked into the town, alive with activity, a dull roar coming from the throngs of people hurrying to finish up their business before nightfall. "I'm not helpless," Jenna muttered to herself as she set off into town.

In just a few minutes, she was beginning to think of turning back. Every time someone started walking near her she got nervous that they'd spontaneously form a mob and try to run her out of town. Their glares constantly remind her that things were different, that now she wasn't just a normal, if short, girl, but one concealed by a mask. And what was beneath the mask was...

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and shook the thought from her head before moving on. The eyelid on the right half of her face couldn't quite shut all the way anymore, so her eyes were never fully shut. Another reminder of what had happened to her. Every time she tried to close her eyes, or saw one of the frightened looks on the faces of the people around her, she was reminded of the dull, aching pain of flesh pressed against porcelain that was never meant to be, and wondered for the millionth time if she'd made the right choice in Solisacrum.

Her thoughts were scattered again when she realized she was standing in front of the market, now, thronging with people. Just a few more steps and she'd be in the crowd, unable to avoid being jostled and bumped around by them. Any one of them able to pick her up and carry her off, and no one near would care to answer her cries for help if they did. Jenna shook her head and plunged into the crowd, determined to stop being afraid of everything, and to stop mourning her scars. Slowly, she went from one stall to the next, looking for the paints she'd come into town to buy. She'd had to paint Ashen's and Wilder's faces using nothing but the scrapings at the bottom of the jars they'd found in the wagons after saving Wilder, but with the profits they'd made off of the past two performances, she'd be able to buy a new set. Lanbrott seemed desperately in need of a good show. Everywhere she went, the people looked downtrodden and resigned, or else not quite resigned, but instead worried and scared of something. She wasn't sure which was worse.

Jenna couldn't find a painter to buy paint from, though, and she realized that it would take her much too long to search the entire market to find one. The local painters might not even be in the market. There might be only a very small number of them, and they might all operate out of their homes or in the same building in some other part of town. They might work out of the backrooms of a shops which sold something else entirely, and she might pass them by without knowing. She might have done so already. The only way she could find what she was looking for would be to ask someone. And the best way to get someone to talk to you was to buy something from them first.

She took a deep breath and walked up to a merchant selling apples and put a few kopeks on the stalls counter, saying "Can I get an apple for this?" The words spilled out of her so quickly she wasn't sure if she'd be understood. The shopkeeper, who had been stacking apples at the other end of the stall, turned to look at her and glared suspiciously at Jenna's mask. The shopkeeper glanced down at the coins on the stall. Jenna had intentionally put down enough to reasonably pay for an apple and a half, so that she wouldn't have to waste time haggling and so the shopkeeper would be in a good mood.

The shopkeeper glared at her and said "No."

"What?" Jenna asked, "How much do you want, then?"

"Two rubles," the shopkeeper said.

"What?" Jenna asked, unable to stop herself. "No, fine," Jenna said, pulling out enough kopeks to make two rubles, with some to spare, and putting them down on the stall's counter. The shopkeeper counted them up and then pulled an apple out from below, wormy and spoiled, and handed it to Jenna. Jenna shoved it into her dress pocket, trying to keep her voice friendly and calm as she asked "Do you know if any painters work here in town?"

"No, go away," the shopkeeper said.

"No," Jenna said, angry tears beginning to sting at her eyes, "I won't go away, not until you tell me where I can find a painter."

"Over there!" the shopkeeper said, pointing at a nearby butcher's shop, "Now leave before you scare off my customers."

"Thank you," Jenna said bitterly and turned towards the shop, muttering to herself about how the shopkeepers decrepit features and poor manners were probably scaring away more customers a masked girl spending thirty seconds to buy an apple were. She stepped into the butcher's shop and waited in line behind a young woman for a few moments while the butcher brought out a slab of meat for her. She grabbed it and ran off to cook it up before it went bad, and the butcher looked down at her.

"Well," the butcher said, "Yours is a new face. Traveler, celebrating a special occasion while you're in town?"

"Sorry, no," Jenna said. Meat was far too expensive to waste money on, especially when the painter's shopmate would probably be willing to help bring him business anyway. "Is there a painter here?"

"No," the butcher said, looking a bit confused. Jenna looked around the shop for a moment, at a loss. She'd been in cities before. She'd grown up in one. She knew she should've expected someone to lie to her to get rid of her, that there were spiteful people in the city, but now that just being around so many strange people alone was so unsettling, even something so small and common seemed like a slap across the face. She squeezed her eyes shut again, or as far shut as they would go, and took a deep breath, determined not to cry over something so small and insignificant. Trying to be the tough city girl she used to be. "There's a painter not far from here, though," the butcher said helpfully, "Just down Sven Street, fourth house on the right, say you're there for Dimitri."

"Really?" Jenna asked, looking up at the butcher, trying to discern whether he was telling the truth or if he was just as spiteful as the hag who'd sent her here.

"Of course," the butcher said, grinning, "Now go get him some business so I can get to mine." He smiled and gestured to the line behind her, two people impatiently waiting for their meat.

"Oh, sorry, and thank you!" Jenna said, rushing out the door. She worked her way out of the crowd and onto Sven Street, glad to be out of the thronging markets, and counted the houses down until she reached the fourth one on the right, and then she turned and knocked on the door.

A few moments later a man opened the door, stuck his head out, and asked "What do you want?"

"I'm here to see Dimitri," Jenna said, "I'm told he's a painter?"

"Ya, ya," the man said, then turned back to the house and shouted "Dimitri, some freak is here to see you!"

Jenna nearly flinched when he said the word "freak." A much skinnier man appeared at the top of some stairs just inside the house a moment later and asked "For me?"

"Ya, she says she's here for you," the man at the door said as Dimitri walked down the stairs.

His puzzled look turned apologetic when he reached the bottom and saw Jenna's face, scarred and hurt, and he turned to face the man at the door and said "Pietrov, do learn to tell the difference between a freak and an eccentric." Pietrov scowled and muttered something under his breath as he walked away inside the house. "You'll have to excuse him, he's taken the new taxes harder than the rest of us," Dimitri said, "How can I help you?"

"I hear you're a painter," Jenna said.

"Yes, do you need something commissioned?" Dimitri asked, his eyes lighting up.

"Um, no," Jenna said, "I was just wondering if I could buy some of your paints? I'm just passing through and don't have time to make my own." This was technically true, but in truth she didn't know how to make her own. The painter who'd sold paints to her back in Redpool had never given the recipe to anyone but his own apprentices. She had to save up money for weeks to just buy a jar of one color. Getting a full set took her nearly a year. When she'd married Erastus, he'd bought entire sets for her. She hadn't even been to see the painter he'd bought them from. She wasn't even sure if they came from a painter.

"Oh, another painter? Come in, come in, what's your name?" Dimitri asked.

"I'm Jenna," Jenna said as she stepped into the house.

"I admit I don't often have people buying paints from me," Dimitri said. Jenna wasn't sure how to respond. She'd gotten much worse at conversation since falling out of practice recently. "Are you buying the whole set, or just stocking up on one color in particular?"

"The whole set," Jenna said as Dimitri led her upstairs to his room, which was cluttered and messy.

"All ten colors is a hundred rubles," Dimitri said, and Jenna realized that she actually had no idea how many colors came in one of Dimitri's sets.

"I haven't got that much," Jenna said.

"Well, how much have you got?" Dimitri asked, kneeling down beside a chest, unlocking it, and pulling out a few half-used paint jars before bringing out the full ones.

"Twenty rubles," Jenna said. Ashen had donated his spare cash to her, saying that he didn't think that a town as depressed as Lanbrott would have much to offer in terms of interesting decks or gamepieces, but Jenna wasn't sure that he wasn't just being nice.

"Well, how about this," Dimitri said, "I'll give you four of the paints for that much, but only if you'll let me draw you." Jenna tilted her head in confusion a bit. "I hate to pass up a chance to draw an angel like you," Dimitri said, "Have we got a deal?"

"Sure," Jenna said with a faint, uncertain smile.

"What colors do you need?" Dimitri asked.

"Well, red, yellow, and white aren't negotiable," Jenna said, looking at the ten full jars of paint Dimitri had gotten out. "And blue," Jenna said, "I like blue."

"Alright, now hold still," Dimitri said, pulling a piece of paper and a slat of wood off his cluttered desk and fishing around in the chest for a few moments until he came up with a piece of charcoal. Dimitri asked, "If Pietrov comes and tries to eat you, I'll protect you, alright?" Jenna smiled and laughed a little, and Dimitri smiled back and began drawing.

It was a bit more than ten minutes later that Dimitri said "Alright, finished," and Jenna let the tired tips of her mouth drop back down to their normal spot. Dimitri handed the piece of paper to her, and Jenna sucked in a bit of air when she saw it. He'd drawn her face unmasked, an astonishingly good representation of it, two perfect eyes beaming out at the viewer, the far tip of her smile unblemished by scars.

"She's beautiful," Jenna said.

"Only as much as her model," Dimitri said.

"Well..." Jenna said without finishing.

"Jenna, the most beautiful woman in the world will lose her beauty with age. But you're a painter. You can make beauty. And that will stay with you until the day you die," Dimitri said.

"Thanks," Jenna said, smiling. There was a pause for a few moments while Dimitri packed up the other paints into his chest, and Jenna pulled the twenty rubles from her pocket. Dimitri handed her the four small, unopened jars of paint in exchange for the money, and Jenna thanked him again on the way out.

Once outside, Jenna realized night had fallen. The streets were nearly deserted, now, and looking back into the market, she saw several young boys about fifteen or sixteen years old which experience told her weren't friendly. She headed off into an alleyway and began threading her way through the city's side roads, planning to get back onto a main road as soon as she was past the market. It was only a few minutes later, though, that she realized the difference between this city and Redpool. The difference being that she had no idea how to get back onto the main roads and, after a few minutes of attempted backtracking, she realized she was now hopelessly lost in the belly of the city.

After about twenty minutes of mounting panic, she finally managed to figure out enough of the city's layout that she knew the general direction towards the gate she'd come in, and once she hit a wall she could just follow it to the gate and then out into the farmland. The lanterns on the wagon would be visible from there.

Glancing over her shoulder, she thought she saw two men she was afraid might be following her. Looking back ahead, she saw someone round a corner, leering at her and slightly out of breath, like he'd been running to get there. Panicking, she took a turn down an alleyway on the side, only to find it was a dead end. The three men appeared at the mouth of the alleyway, leering at her and stepping closer. One of them called out "Hey, what's wrong? We're just a couple of friendly strangers is all." Jenna didn't answer, but just slowly backed down the alley. One of the men broke into a run and Jenna ran towards the other end of the alley.

She hadn't even reached the end of the alley before one of the men grabbed her by her arm, pulling her towards him. She tried to yank her arm away, and hit at his hand while calling for help, but his grip was like iron and he smacked her across the face, cutting her cries for help short and chipping off a piece of her mask. The man shoved her up against the wall, one of his cohorts grinning at her while the other looked down the alleyway, keeping watch. Jenna started to call for help again, but the man shoved a knife against her throat and hissed "Shut up" at her.

Jenna fell quiet, the cold knife pressed against her throat, breathing heavily and silently praying for someone to find her. "You think we should take the mask off?" one of them asked.

"No," the other said, "I like her better this way." The man with the knife grabbed her by the arm and shoved her towards the other, who held her roughly by the shoulders and pulled out a knife of his own, slipping it under the neck of her dress and slowly sliding it down, parting the fabric as he went. Jenna closed her eyes and started sobbing, muttering under her breath an inaudible plea for help. When the dress had been cut down to near her stomach, the man slipped hand beneath her dress, rubbing it against her bare skin. Jenna shrieked in panic and pushed herself away from the man, straight into the one standing behind her, who turned her around and hit her across the face again, more chips flying from her mask. Jenna fell to the ground from the blow, and curled up into a ball. The man knelt down beside her and, yanking her head up by her hair, hissed at her "You scream one more time, and we'll kill you once we're through."

"Please just leave me alone," Jenna said through her tears, but the man ignored her and dragged her to her feet, ripping her dress almost completely off. Jenna closed her eyes, her mind panicking and desperate. A moment later, her eyes popped open to find the source of the screams, a panicked warning soon turned to an incoherent scream of agony as one of the men's arm was snapped at the elbow by Ashen, who then grabbed it with his skeletal right hand and tore it off completely. The man holding Jenna let go of her and tried to run out of the alley while the man keeping watch bolted, but Ashen flung a pair of knives at the both of them, tearing through their legs and bringing them to the ground. The lookout and the man missing an arm both staggered away, clutching at their wounds and sobbing in terror, while Ashen turned on the man who'd been holding Jenna, breathing heavily.

Raising his skeletal fingers up, Ashen plunged one of them into the man's left eye and ripped it from its socket. The man collapsed at Ashen's feet, curling up into a ball and holding one shaking hand up to try and cover the bleeding wound. Ashen lifted the man back up to his feet, and the man shouted in a desperate panic "No, please! You can have her! Just please don't kill me!"

"Did she ask you to stop, when you attacked her? Did she ask you to leave her alone? Did she beg?" Ashen asked, still breathing heavily. The man was silent. "Did she?!" Ashen asked, slamming him against the wall of the alley.

"Yes!" the man shouted.

"And tell me, did you consider, even for a second, granting her mercy?" Ashen asked.

The man's one remaining eye widened in horror. "Please," he said, "Please, I swear I'll never touch her again, just let me go!"

"Or what?" Ashen asked. The man sobbed and looked away from Ashen.

Ashen raised his skeletal fingers, preparing to stab them through the man's eyes and through his skull, when Jenna called out "Ashen, stop!" Ashen, his eyes locked on the man's bleeding face, hesitated, his fingers twitching slightly. "Please, Ashen, don't kill him!" Jenna continued, "Not for me. I don't want his blood on my hands."

Ashen turned and looked towards Jenna, who'd reached her hand out towards Ashen, as though trying to pull him away from the sobbing, bleeding man who'd now fallen back to Ashen's feet. Ashen stared at Jenna a moment, the ripped dress exposing her soft flesh, her blood slowly dripping from the bottom of her mask, its metallic scent worming its way into Ashen's mind. He stalked towards Jenna, but two steps in he knelt down, clenching a bony fist tight and punching the cobblestone alley below him. One of the stones cracked. The man limped out of the alley, and Ashen stayed still and motionless, his eyes shut. Slowly, he opened them, staring at the shattered stone. Counting the split pieces. He started counting the tiny chips in addition to the bigger pieces, and it was nearly five minutes before he gave up trying to get an exact count. There were too many, and kept losing track. It would take him all night.

He looked back up to Jenna. She'd curled up into a ball, clutching the torn remains of her dress against her chest, terrified. "Jenna, come here," Ashen said, still a bit winded from the run here and calmly taking off his long, red coat. Jenna was motionless. "Jenna, have I ever hurt you before?" Ashen asked. Slowly, Jenna rose to her feet and then ran over to Ashen, who draped the coat over her shoulders and strapped it into place. "Let's head back to the wagons," Ashen said. Jenna smiled wordlessly while the two of them left the alley.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

One Lump or Two?

Would you care to stay for tea,
And have a quick chat with me?
Let me poor you some herbal brew,
And do you prefer one lump or two?

It's hot, now, so make sure you blow,
Just say "when" so I don't overflow,
Don't mind the sugar's odd little taste,
It's bothersome, but I just hate waste,

It does smell of almonds bitter,
But have you heard of Jack the Ripper?
He kills whores with knives, you see,
But I prefer to use poisoned tea.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Chapter Four

Byelbog kept his eyes on Lanbrott as the setting sun sent gashes of light across the sky Jaromil poked his head out of the tent, saying “Byelbog lets play Akhetian Speed again.”

Byelbog woke from his fixation on the town. “What?”

“I want to play Akhetian Speed,” Jaromil said.

“You’re not bored of it yet?” Byelbog asked.

“No! Come on, pleeeeeeeease?”

Byelbog sighed, “Alright.”

He climbed into the wagon, letting Wilder take over once more. Ceslav was already dealing the cards. “If he wins one more time I’m going to tie him to the back of the wagon,” Ceslav said pointing at the eager Jaromil. Byelbog simply shook his head, and took his seat.

That night, stopped near one of the many farms just outside of town, Byelbog sat off on his own, Jaromil played with a bug he found. Ashen was heading into town to try and draw a crowd for tomorrow's performance. Ceslav had disappeared shortly after they arrived.

In Lanbrott, a cloaked man darted into a side street hoping to avoid the rapidly growing crowd. He exited the other side of the ally right into a section of the mob. Their cries of alarm sent his feet into motion. As the screams fell behind him he peeked back. His escape stopped short when he slammed into Ashen. His cloak flew as they tumbled. Ashen quickly regained his footing. The man rolled away from Ashen. As he stood up he glared at the cloak now behind his new obstacle. Soon the crowd caught up with him. His red eyes broke contact with Ashen’s spinning around he pulled a torch from a nearby wall and took a swig from the skin at his side. Than he turned to the advancing crowd holding the torch in front of him sprayed forth a massive flame setting several people alight. When Ashen looked back the man was gone. He bent over and retrieved the well used cloak, examining it quickly before darting down the alley after him.

After several minutes of wandering through the town, taking one educated guess as to the man's destination after another, he found a group of boys laughing. As he approached he realized they were laughing at one of the boys whose clothing was singed, still patting the singed bits down as though he wasn't quite sure the fire was really out. Several of the boys scurried off when Ashen moved from his alley to theirs, but the singed one was too distracted to escape.

Ashen grabbed the boy by his collar as he tried to run and asked “Where's our fire-breathing friend gone?”

The singed boy just shook his head no. Ashen rolled his eyes and pressed the boy against the wall by his throat, his skeletal right hand digging into his neck with his gloves. "I really don't have time for this, kid," he said, pushing him up off the ground.

"He went north, up towards the markets!" the boy said, panic creeping into his voice.

"Y'know," Ashen said, smiling and pulling a knife out of his long, red coat, "They say the reason that little boys lie is because they're unhappy with something. Are you unhappy?" he asked, pointing the knife at the boy's face. The boy was dead silent. Ashen smiled wider and slipped the knife into the boy's gaping mouth, pushing it up against the edge of his lips and tugging slightly against them without breaking the skin. "Let's put a smile on that face," Ashen said, grinning wickedly.

"No!" the boy shouted, his voice garbled a bit by the knife in his mouth. Ashen pulled the knife out and tilted his head towards the boy, listening intently. "He went east, out of town!" the boy said, "Please don't hurt me."

Ashen dropped the boy to the ground and turned east, glancing back over his shoulder to shout "Bearing false witness is a sin!" before disappearing down the alley.

Ashen found the man hidden behind a nearby barn. The man immediately took a defensive position and asked "Who are you?"

“Lost and found services. Is this yours?” Ashen tossed him the cloak, “Who're you?"

“My name's Vanagandr,” the man said.

“I'm Ashen, wonderful to meet you, mind telling me how you managed to get so popular around town?" Ashen asked.

"It wasn't my fault-" Vanagandr started, but Ashen cut him off, shuffling the four of spades out of his deck and saying "Of course not, when you were a little boy, did you ever wish you could run away and join the circus?"

***

He felt a bead of sweat roll down his brow. His hand gripped the hilt of the sword. The target stumbled down a nearby ally. The townsman was clearly drunk. He screamed for his legs to stop, but they wouldn’t listen. His heart started to pound against his chest when he spotted the man leaning over in the ally. Pleading for it to stop his body moved in for the kill. He begged his hands to listen to him. Refusing his wishes they slipped the blade into the townsman’s chest over and over. Warm blood ran down his arms the weight of the body slumping over on him. Crawling to the end of the alley the image of blood burned into his eyes. He couldn’t remember how long he sat there or if what had just happened really did happen. Eventually he managed to stand and shamble out of town. As he left Wilder passed him.

“Ceslav, what's wrong with you?”

All he managed to mumble was, “I'm fine.”

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Clean White Rooms

Rows of clean white rooms,
Stained with blood everyday,
Men in clean white shirts,
Who tear your soul away,

Ladies with clean white skirts,
Tell you that you are not pure,
Doctors in clean white coats,
Say you're a disease to be cured,

Sitting on a clean white couch,
Betrayed by your family dear,
Claiming they've clean white souls,
But blood's not as thick as fear.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chapter Three

The hooves of four strong horses clattered against the cobblestones as they pulled the weight of the Dark Wood Circus behind them. Two wagons and the cage that had once held Wilder rolled and bumped across the road, the ancient pavement having been half lost to nature in the two centuries since the collapse of the Norven Empire. As they bumped, the lanterns attached to the front and back of the caravan bumped with them, flickering and jumping up and down in the air. Ashen sat atop the lead wagon, holding the reins of the four horses and reigning them in as the caravan reached the three figures waiting for it in the dark.

"Jaromil, Byelbog, and..." Ashen paused a moment, searching his memory until, coming up blank, he ended with "The Deuce of Spades. Come in, come in!"

"My name's Ceslav," one of the figures said as he stepped into the light of the lantern, illuminating the half of his face that wasn't covered by his long hair.

"My apologies," Ashen said as Ceslav stepped into the wagon, soon followed by the other two. Ashen swung down from the top of the carriage and landed in front of the door, climbing in after them. "Wilder," Ashen said as he entered, causing Wilder to look up from some random scratches he'd been carving into one of the walls. His face had been painted black with a four-pointed red star on each of his eyes. The bottom points of the star reached down his cheeks before ending just below his chin, out of sight of anyone looking at him from eye-level. "I need you to take the reigns for a while, just pull the horses left or right if they start to go off the road and pull up hard if we're about to run into anything."

"Alright," Wilder said, stepping out of the wagon and closing the door. A moment later, the wagon jerked into motion again.

Ashen sat down in front of Jenna, saying "Alright, my turn." The edges of Jenna's face hinted at a smile, though the rest was covered by the perpetually neutral expression of her mask.

Ashen smiled back as Jenna took her brush and began to paint Ashen's face red, the smile disrupting Jenna's painting. "Hold still," Jenna said, her voice barely above a whisper.

"Sorry," Ashen said, his face moving again.

"Hold still!" Jenna said, slightly louder this time, and smiling as Ashen forced his face into neutrality so that Jenna could paint.

Byelbog, Ceslav, and young Jaromil sat at the other end of the wagon, just a few feet from Ashen and Jenna. The wagon walls were packed with food, clothes, and props tied into shelves to prevent them spilling. Along the sides of the floor, just below the shelves, were several blankets. The three of them were sitting on barrels or boxes or anything else that could be used as a makeshift chair. “So, where are we going?” Jaromil asked.

I'm not sure,” Byelbog said, “I've never been further south than Weirech before now.”

I've been in this area my whole life,” Ceslav said, “And I'm still not sure where we're going. Lanbrott, Novakagrad, Tanalhof, Tanaveni, Drezdzani...There's plenty of towns near the river.”

They sat in silence for a few moments before Jaromil asked “Where are you from, Byelbog?”

Up north,” Byelbog said, “In Sergelvich.”

Oh,” Jaromil said, “That's very far north.”

It is,” Byelbog said, “I've found it's best not to stay in one place for very long. What about you? Where are you from?”

Wagstdorf, originally,” Jaromil said.

Well, that's very far south,” Byelbog said.

It is...” Jaromil said, creasing his brow in a frown. For a moment, he felt the faint presence of a familiar ache slowly creeping into his bones, and he shook his head, saying “Let's talk about something else.”

Like what?” Ceslav asked.

Like...” Jaromil thought for a moment, putting his hands in his pockets. As he did so, he noticed the card Ashen had given him in the cave a few hours before and pulled it out. The Eight of Spades. “Let's play a game of cards,” Jaromil said, “Does anyone have a deck?”

Ceslav and Byelbog looked at each other and shrugged, and Ceslav looked over towards Ashen, who was still getting his face painted by Jenna. “Ashen,” Ceslav asked, “Is there a deck of cards in here?” Wordlessly, Ashen pulled a deck from one of the many pockets of his long, red coat and tossed it towards them. Ceslav caught it and opened it up, going through it until he found the deuce of spades in it. “It's a full deck,” Ceslav said, “Not the one he's been giving us our cards out of.”

Great, let's play a game,” Jaromil said.

What game?” Byelbog asked.

I don't know. I don't care, anything!” Jaromil said.

Do either of you know how to play Akhetian Speed?” Ceslav asked. Jaromil and Byelbog shook their heads. “I'll show you, then,” Ceslav said, dealing out the deck to each of them.


About twenty minutes later, Jenna had finished, and grabbed a fan from nearby, waving it in front of Ashen to cool the paint. Ashen grabbed a bronze mirror and polished it up a bit with his sleeve until he could see his reflection in it. His facepaint was the same as Wilder's but with a red face and yellow stars around the eyes. He smiled into his reflection and set the mirror back down. “I'm going to go get something to eat for me and Wilder,” Ashen said, heading for the door, “I'd suggest you have them deal you into the next round of that game of cards. Maybe you could make friends with someone who isn't me,” Ashen said. Jenna rolled her eyes at him as he opened the door and climbed to the top of the wagon, closing it shut a minute later.

Are you supposed to open the door while the wagon's going?” Jaromil asked. Jenna just shrugged and grabbed a piece of chalk and a slate to draw on, sitting down in a corner opposite to the other three.

Ashen casually hopped over the gap between the two wagons, and then walked over to and jumped onto the roof of the covered cage, pulling the cloth cover up to expose the section of the wooden roof he'd sawn away before leaving Novaharod three days earlier. He jumped down into the cage, the cloth cover falling loosely back into place above him. It was nearly pitch black, and he gave his eyes a few moments to adjust to the limited light that came from the moon's rays peering in between the gaps in the cover. In a few moments, he could see as clear as though the full moon were shining directly onto him. The bottom of the cage was strewn with bones, and in the center lay the corpse of the manager of the freak show, the bottom half gone but for a few broken thigh bones jutting from the skin above, bits of flesh still clinging to them.

Ashen found the butcher knife he'd stabbed into the wooden floor to prevent it from sliding out, and pulled it free, hacking off one of the manager's fingers and quickly popping it into his mouth before going to work on the rest of the body, cutting off fingers and slicing the meat away from the arms and chest. Using the blunt side of the knife, he cracked the ribs protecting the vital organs and carved out the intestines and the heart, shoving them all into a bag and leaving only the shoulders and the head untouched. Those would have to do for tomorrow morning, and they'd have to find more before nightfall.

Ashen licked the butcher knife clean of what little blood had coated it during the butchering of the pale corpse and then stabbed it back into the floor for safe keeping. He climbed out of the cage and back onto the wagon, taking the bag to where Wilder sat at the head of the wagons, guiding the horses with glazed eyes as they pulled the caravans through the night.

I've got a present from your ex-manager,” Ashen said, pulling a piece out of the bag and handing it to Wilder. “Eat his heart out,” Ashen said with a smirk before sitting down and pulling some of the meat from the bag and, holding it over his head, he dropped it into his mouth. Wilder grinned and took a bite out of the heart, the horses pulling the circus steadily west to Lanbrott.