This is the eighth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Cursebrand burst from the passageway, excited to be free of the claustrophobic oppression of Vegjuvet, but the brave new wilderness found on the far side of the pass was not at all what he had hoped. Instead of rolling hills and open spaces, he found himself entangled in a city of canvas and color. There was music and dancing, torches and light. In his desperation to be free of the stone prison of Vegjuvet, he hadn’t paused to investigate from where the echoes of music and laughter throughout the city had really been coming. Now he was in the thick of it. More people than he had ever seen surrounded him as they danced and drank their way through a massive festival.
Terror gripped him. He looked back at the gate from which he had come but a sizeable group had casually barred his way with their fervent merrymaking. His only hope was to press forward through the mob of pleasant smiles and drunken laughter and hope he didn’t hurt anyone. The crowd seemed to flow through itself effortlessly as if carefully choreographed. He felt rather like a panicked goat in a barn dance: out of place, underfoot, and in very real danger of doing considerable damage. He desperately dodged oncoming couples and stray drunks. He fled the calls of vendors offering food, jewelry and music. Forward progress was being made, but he could feel the panic rising in his chest. The growing wish for silence and solitude grew within him and he struggled to escape the throng before his demon turned the wish into a violent reality.
Through the swirl of strangers, he caught sight of the silver-haired wizard. This offered some comfort as he renewed the chase, but the man, despite his slow shuffling steps, seemed to float through the mass of humanity as though it wasn’t even there. Cursebrand marveled at this as he crashed into wall after wall of dancers, drinkers and loitering lovers, all oblivious to the danger in their midst.
Cursebrand forced away the fear and dragged some rational thought, kicking and biting, from the dark corner of his mind to which it had retreated. These people didn’t know to fear him because his demon was hidden, buried within, and he certainly wanted to keep it that way. Speculating that an angry, filthy, armed trapper was something that these carousers might avoid, he unstrapped his spear and, standing proudly, thumped the butt on the ground with a deep and displeased “Harrumph!”
The crowd parted, not so much out of individual fear, but more as a collective decision to continue carousing slightly to one side, so as not to be interrupted. Cursebrand suppressed a self-satisfied giggle and walked with what he imagined to be confident disdain through the neatly divided mob.
Cursebrand neared the edge of the vibrant tent-city, which was no small relief. The crowd was thinning and beyond he could see endless rocky hills rolling off into the distance. He had escaped unscathed and was grateful. The cool air filled his lungs. The din of the festival seemed immediately distant as he took his first step into a new world. As that foot landed, though, a noise like the crack of thunder shattered the night and he threw himself to the ground. The ear splitting bang was bafflingly followed by an eruption of applause from a massive tent to his left.
“Silence!” boomed a voice from within the tent. The clamorous applause halted abruptly. “Apologies for my sudden appearance. I sincerely hope that I did not startle anyone.” The apology was somewhat tainted, by Cursebrand’s reckoning, by the deep malice oozing from the man’s voice. Cursebrand rather suspected that the man was keen to have startled the denizens of the large crimson pavilion. He, himself, had been utterly terrified and would have been quite happy to have fled into the night had the voice not been so familiar.
The voice was much louder and clearer, but it had the same cruel confidence that the man in black had displayed earlier to the thieves, his Southern accent seemed to punctuate the malice in his words.
Cursebrand’s curiosity overtook him and he crept to the side of the tent to peek under. The man inside continued. “I hear you all have paid for a show. You are keen to see some acts of uncanny skill: some miraculous feats of strength, unfathomable bravery in the face of a ferocious beast and perhaps, if you’re very lucky, a display of the dark arts?” Applause erupted but was quickly cut off with a sharp censure from the wizard. “Are you certain?”
Brandon lifted the edge of the tent and tried to make out the happenings within. He was staring at the backs of people on benches, dimly lit in fluttering torchlight, made darker, still by the deep crimson of the marquee. The wizard shuffled through the hushed audience as he lectured. “There is a reason this performance is held so far from town and so late at night, my friends.” That word rang false; nothing about his voice implied a feeling of kinship with those in attendance. “It can be wild, unpredictable…. dangerous.” The wizard stalked between the benches staring down each guest in turn. He threw an arm around a particularly nervous looking gentleman. “No one will think you foolish should you choose to leave now. The doorman will return your coin and you can depart, safe in the knowledge that while you may have left without exploring mysteries and spectacle gathered from distant shores and arcane times, you have made the wiser choice.”
The wizard stopped. His eyes scanned the audience, warning them to leave, daring them to stay. The entire room seemed on the edge of retreat but were unable to move from their seats. “Very well, then,” he continued with calm condemnation in his voice. “Remember that you had a choice.” He grabbed a handkerchief from the hand of a stunned woman and began to fold and fidget with it as he began to speak again, this time with slightly less disdain for the woeful judgment of his audience. “To begin, I present for your education the skills of the beguiling western assassin.” As he absently fidgeted with the stolen cloth it began to take the shape of a flower. “Trained ceaselessly since childhood in the art of the blade by the unscrupulous warriors from the Dark Country.” Without warning the handkerchief burst into brilliant white flames and was left transformed into a living rose. “Felisia!” He tossed the rose into the air behind him and it landed in the hand of a young woman striding in from a side entrance.
Cursebrand had never encountered another human like her. He even questioned if she was, indeed, human. Her pale eyes were wild, wide and darting. Her hair was a furious dark bramble. She wore a mottled grey bodysuit that clung to her lithe figure and was strapped down by dozens of belts, each armed with myriad sheathed knives. Cursebrand couldn’t shake the feeling that she was part feline; she moved like a cat, but not like the cold stalking hunters he had met in the mountains, more like the strange little ones from the alleys of Vegjuvet. She was agile but scrawny, graceful and yet tense. Her careful steps spoke of dangerous intent, but her darting glances said that at any moment she might pounce or flee and that she, herself, was curious as to which it would be.
There was a long pause as she surveyed the audience. She slowly chose a knife from her myriad bandoliers and admired it for a moment before grinning wickedly, licking her teeth, and launching the blade end-over-end into a slab of wood hanging, until now unregarded, behind the audience. It landed with a startling “thok” and evoked a half-gasp from the audience. The initial applause was somewhat stifled by the crowd scanning the tent for more targets. Impressive as the display of skill was, the audience had become collectively hesitant to take full breaths as the movement may put them in the line of fire.
An unseen chorus of instruments erupted and Felisia began to move in a fluid, captivating, and terrifying dance. She swayed like smoke caught on a gentle breeze, her arms whipping like tendrils caught in unseen eddies, whipping out sparks that punctuated the music as they landed unerringly on their target. Cursebrand was transfixed.
Very much too transfixed.
The dance ended and Felisia bowed gracefully to rousing applause though she did not take her apprehensive stare off the crowd. The old wizard returned with a slow, measured clap, as if to insult the audience for their exaltation of such a mundane performance. As the cheering died, a cruel grin crossed his face. “For her final demonstration, Felisia would normally ask for a volunteer from the audience. But this evening we have a special guest that has graced us with his presence and has elected to be her brave assistant.”
Cursebrand joined the audience in a brief moment of anticipatory confusion before the canvas of the tent was pulled up and he was dragged bodily into the tent by the largest man he had ever seen. He was hauled to his feet as easily as if he were a fallen toddler and escorted roughly to the performance area. Too shocked to be frightened and too confused to be angry, he stood dumbly where he was placed, a state that he clung to, for he very much doubted that his demon would abide this sort of treatment were it allowed to get any purchase on his psyche.
He was slammed against a large wooden board and instructed, politely, by the giant to remain very, very still as the wizard explained a bit of what Cursebrand was in for.
“This fine trapper thought it wise to spy on our little engagement without dropping the coin.” He smiled wickedly across the audience. “What do you all say we levy the fee in service to you?”
The wizard doused a torch with wave of his hand and, from the smoldering wick, carefully plucked out a wisp of the black smoke which he shook out into a silky scarf. As the torch relit itself, he strode over the skittish assassin. “Normally we’d just have him stand there while Felisia filled the board around him with knives.” He began to tie the scarf around her head. “But for a situation like this, I say we add something special.”
The wizard tightened the knot and waved his hand in front of her eyes to be certain of her blindness. Then, leaning casually upon the side of the board against which Cursebrand had been planted, he grinned. “Pray that your god likes you boy.”
Cursebrand clenched his eyes shut and prayed. He prayed and he let loose his demon. Allowing the fear and panic to wash over him, he tried desperately to push the knives aside. They started to hammer into the board around him: one by his knee, one under his arm, one above his head, one between his legs. And then a sudden gasp from the audience and a damp spray hitting his face forced him to open his eyes. The man in black was gripping a knife by the blade, inches from his face. A glowing green ichor bled from where he had caught it and dripped gently to the dirt floor.
The wizard looked up at his outstretched arm, almost surprised to have done it. He shot a scowl at Felisia and then a placating, insincere smile to the increasingly uncomfortable crowd. “Execution seems a bit much for unpaid admission, don’t you think?”
He winced as he let go of the knife. As he handed it back to Felisia, he clenched the fist, closed his eyes and muttered to himself. With a flourish of renewed vigor he turned to the audience and showed them his unwounded hands. “See, no harm done. Let’s have some applause for our special guest for being such a good target, and for Felisia and her almost infallible aim.”
A slow clap grew through the audience as Cursebrand was escorted to the end of a bench and sat down by the giant of a man, who then handed him his belongings and informed him, rather severely, that his admission had now been paid and they expected him to stay for the show. Cursebrand wasn’t certain if it was a reward or a punishment, but he was desperate to speak with the wizard and hesitant to cross the giant, so he sat. He kept his matted tangles pulled down in front of his face to hide his scar and prayed that the shadows of the tent would hide him, protect him and the innocents around him, from any unfortunate encounters.
To his benefit, his aroma, cultivated by years of dressing in poorly tanned furs and bathing only by accident was having something of a clearing effect on those closest to him. He quickly found himself with several feet to spare and only sidelong glances of mild revulsion with which to contend. Secure in isolation, he was able to enjoy the rest of the show in relative obscurity.
The next performance was by the brothers Yan and Van, who engaged in astounding acrobatics. Something about their demonstrations of flexibility seemed to evoke rather positive reactions from the women of the audience, but Cursebrand paid them no mind, as he was too busy trying to comprehend what he was seeing. Cursebrand had never witnessed anyone perform anything much more acrobatic than an accidentally graceful tumble down a hill. These men, though, seemed disdainful of the rules to which normal earthbound mortals were beholden as they flipped and bounded effortlessly. They used one another as springboards and balance-beams. They spun, rolled, and flipped as though it were the natural means of getting about, and they spent entirely less time in contact with the ground than seemed rightly possible. Moreover, they managed to do it all with such a gentleness of touch and obvious joy that Cursebrand found himself longing for human contact. He considered that it well may be magic, but the wizard attested to the fact that it was, “strength, skill, and a long family line of acrobats that had been distilled into that evening’s display.”
What followed Yan and Van initially had Cursebrand diving for his spear in panic. A massive cat, twice the size of any cave lion he’d seen, padded arrogantly into the tent. It glared at the wizard and snarled at the audience. It seemed as though it was on fire as the torchlight flickered across its orange and black stripes. Briefly, it seemed about ready to pounce on a petrified audience member, but instead turned and bowed as a woman entered.
She was dressed in furs, in as much as one could say she was dressed in anything. Underclothes would have covered more than the scant patches of fur she wore, held precariously in place by braided leather. Cursebrand swallowed hard and started to sweat as the long bare legs, ending in elegant bare feet, padded into the center of the stage with the same arrogant strut as the cat. He dragged his eyes upwards over her exposed midriff, chest and neck to her dark grin and golden eyes which peeked out from behind untamed orange tangles. His heart started to pound and his demon grew hungry. He clenched his bench painfully and fought the feral need. He did not understand it but it was dark and unruly. The only other time he had felt it was back on the ridge when he had last seen Katarina. He was suddenly thankful for the massive animal in the room. The thought of fighting it for the woman had something of a chilling effect on the unsettled demon within.
The “elegant woman of the wilderness, Illea, and her firecat, Mitali” were finally introduced by the wizard before he retreated from view and the unseen band again began to play. Illea gestured and Mitali obeyed. Together they danced and rolled and roared. It was such an impressive display of control over a wild beast that Cursebrand was somewhat able to ignore the unholy terror of his inner tempest.
Following Illea was the giant that had earlier manhandled Cursebrand, apparently named Igor. His skill was, rather predictably, being extremely large and strong. He demonstrated this mostly through destruction. He punched through logs and smashed rocks on his head. Though unlike the other performers, he conversed with the audience. He joked and chatted through his strange, bouncy accent as he lifted benches full of people. The terrifying giant revealed himself to be a casually pleasant and amiable brute. He was also just serving to relax the audience before the wizard returned.
Callidus was his name, a mystic from the mysterious country across the southern sea. Fire flew from his hands and bent to his will. His wondrous walking-stick transformed from cane to sword to snake and back again. He summoned birds and bats and forced a conjured crow to speak. The tent filled with acrid smoke as he flirted callously with damnation through the dark arts. The crowd was transfixed as much by the sinister confidence and commanding voice of the sorcerer as the sorcery itself. He finished the show by hovering about and bursting into smoke and flame before vanishing.
The other attendees shuffled out muttering about their various states of shock and awe. Cursebrand, though, stayed put in his shadowy corner. He was going to speak to this wizard if it killed him, which, now that he’d bothered to consider it, seemed entirely possible.