THE GRAND FAIRE OF ALHAMBRY - PART ONE

By Jonathon Burgess

 

Hristomarth Rofolio rejoiced in the crowd before him. He bowed low and doffed his hat, the gesture practiced a thousand times before. Flourishes were an important part of any proper performance. Now, at last, he had an assemblage worthy of the effort.

“Gathered worthies,” he cried. “Far wanderers and local ruffians of dubious parentage. Stop a moment to lend your senses. Before you is a wondrous rarity, one that can only serve to improve your ruthlessly banal lives.”

The snap of his fingers summoned two wyrmlings from the grass, tottering over to stand beside the thoroughfare. Each goggled at the crowd, one end of an oversized banner stuffed into their jaws. So far, so good. Hristomarth straightened and spread his arms. “Here in the Sideshow Alley,” he cried, “at the Grand Fair of Alhambry. I am pleased to bring you Rofolio’s Scaled Circus!”

Breaktooth and Jitterclaw thankfully remembered their cue, spreading apart and stretching the banner to reveal this title in gaudy golden paint. Their fumbling gave only gave the briefest glimpse of the other side, which recalled a harvest festival in some small town they’d passed last week.

The crowd watched with indifference. They fidgeted. A few spent their attention on the jam-seller in the booth nearby, or the other attractions lining the thoroughfare. A fat merchant in a sea-green tunic sighed loudly and turned to leave.

A less accomplished entertainer might have despaired. Hristomarth knew better. Any proper performance was a contest between audience and entertainer. So long as their feet kept them in place, his scheme was proceeding just fine.

Hristomarth made another flourish with his hat. “Be amazed,” he continued, “at the dreaded fire-breathing wyrms of the Cinderpeaks!”

Coalbelly crawled out from behind the banner. He peered suspiciously at the crowd. But just like they rehearsed, he sat back on his haunches and took a deep breath. Flame erupted from his maw in a great red-gold gout that wilted the grass a dozen paces away.

The crowd wasn’t much impressed. “Is that all they do?” asked a woman. “There’s a man on the midway who swallows swords and breathes fire.”

“Of course not,” replied Hristomarth confidently. “Wyrmlings are flying monsters, as well! Consider their grace and aerial agility.”

Another snap of his fingers brought Greasetrap and Idleheart out from behind the banner. The fat wyrmling gripped a wide wooden hoop in his maw, stolen along with the banner. Idleheart yawned sleepily, muttering to himself as he walked. Behind them both came Splaywing, with her head held like an actress about to take the stage.

As they passed, Greasetrap trod obliviously on Coalbelly’s tail. The pyromaniacal wyrmling yowled and whirled, breathing a gout of flame at his siblings. They scrambled aside to avoid the blast. The wooden ring wasn’t quite so lucky. Its top burned merrily now, and Greasetrap the watched the flames crawl down the sides as he chewed on it apprehensively.

Weak chuckles rippled through the crowd. Hristomarth snapped his fingers. Greasetrap lowered the hoop for Idleheart to gingerly grab in his maw. Splaywing took up position between the two of them with enough space for a running start. Her earlier, haughty expression now seemed uneasy.

“Come on,” coaxed Hristomarth. “Just like we’d practiced. Your audience is watching.”

Splaywing glanced at the crowd, eyes going a little wide. She chirped and turned back to the ring, puffing herself up. Then she bounded forward and leaped into the air. Her wings snapped wide—far too wide to clear the hoop.

The little wyrmling hit the burning ring with a startled squawk. She fell, taking it with her. Idleheart ducked away, but Greasetrap refused to open his maw. They landed in a snarling, burning tangle, rolling right into the banner as the others fled.

Peals of laughter erupted from the crowd. Hristomarth smiled. Perfect.

The wyrmlings proceeded through act after act. Each ended in chaos and confusion, not so much rehearsed as well-managed. Hristomarth knew enough about the little monsters by now to guess how pretty much anything involving them would go.

So far, the gamble appeared to be paying off. The crowd laughed a little louder with every new catastrophe, until their amusement roared up and down the lane, drawing others. Soon there was barely any room to watch.

Eventually the wyrmlings were finished. They laid down on the blackened grass, refusing to do anything else. Hristomarth stamped out the burning banner while the crowd dissipated, moving on up Sideshow Alley as they made their way on to the faire proper.

“That could have gone better.”

Hristomarth glanced up to see the jam-seller in the booth adjacent. Proprietor of “Borth’s Jellied Preserves” by his signage, Borth wore a gray beard and mustache that didn’t quite hide the old scars underneath. Smoke curled lazily from the richly-made pipe between his lips.

“Your pardon?” asked Hristomarth.

Borth jabbed his pipe-stem at the wyrmlings sulking beside him. “Your act is obviously in its nascent stages: the finale lacks force and more props would be helpful. Your crowd was decent, I will grant. But you didn’t even set aside your hat for tips! How will you derive financial stability?” Borth tapped the side of a jar. “These jams are always present to be sold.”

“My hat belongs firmly upon my head,” replied Hristomarth. “Except against the need of dramatic gesticulations or dire circumstance. There are planned improvements to my little circus, but the core features are quite well in place.”

What remained of the crowd departed, revealing a single remaining wyrmling hunkering in place. Catchmaw peered about warily before scuttling over to Hristomarth. Dozens of purses dangled from her jaws.

“Ah,” said Borth.

“Indeed,” replied Hristomarth.

He bent down and held out a hand to Catchmaw. The little wyrmling froze, glancing around for avenues of escape. This trick, Hristomarth had to admit, she was resistant to learn.

“A workable scheme,” admitted Borth. “If one is careful in its application.”

 Hristomarth grabbed for the purses. Catchmaw fought back, biting down and rearing her head away from him. “It has yet to fail,” he replied, scuttling closer. “These wyrmlings are more capable than they appear. How difficult is it to fleece some local rubes?”

“It is not the locals who should concern you.”

Hristomarth feinted, tricking the wyrmling just close enough to get a grip on the purses. He set his feet and only then looked back warily over his shoulder at Borth.

The jam-seller’s avuncular seeming had hardened. “You are not the only grifter in this faire to practice creative financial redistribution. Did you think yourself alone in recognizing the opportunity?”

“Of course not,” Hristomarth lied. The road from Darmx had been long and difficult enough. There simply hadn’t been time to consider competition.

“Avarice is unlimited,” replied Borth. “But the potential pool of victims is not.”

“Well I—” Hristomarth began, just as Catchmaw chose to whip her head back and forth in an effort to pull free. “I…would hate…to break with neighborly accord.” He continued. “Who…deserves my consideration…on this lane?”

Borth pointed with the stem of his pipe. “See the tent with the many flags in front? The owner presents them as painted silk, though they are really cheapest linen.” He paused thoughtfully. “I’m given to understand the banner with tripartite wolves howling at the moon is especially popular, though I do not know the origin.”

“It is a mystery,” agreed Hristomarth. He covered Catchmaw’s snout with his free hand. She tried to breath furiously for a moment, before going slack and playing dead. Hristomarth fought to stay upright against her weight and to break the vice-tight grip she retained on the clinking bundle of purses.

“There is also a decent scam running in the armorer’s tent,” continued Borth, “selling “authentic” Moon Folk blades to spot-faced youths. I myself am also not beyond a little entrepreneurial subterfuge. Consider these jams.”

Hristomarth risked a glance at the signage. “Fruitful, all-natural preserves.” He thought a moment. “Why wouldn’t they be natural to begin with?”

Borth knocked ash from his pipe. “The implication is the more important consideration. What does it matter, if they contain more than a modest amount of moa beak or rendered horse hoof? These are still naturally occurring ingredients.”

Desperate for breath, Catchmaw scrabbled suddenly to her feet. Caught off-guard, Hristomarth lost his grip on her snout. “Duly noted,” he grunted, fighting now for balance. “And how might I avoid conflict with your brotherhood of opportunists?”

“Simple enough,” replied Borth. “Your technique is too blatant! Success lies in avoiding repeat performances in any one place. More specifically, here again in Sideshow Alley. The midway is likewise too conspicuous for such attempts, but that is of little concern to me. Perhaps the field where the pie-eating contest is held?”

Greasetrap sprung up from his siblings with an eager, questioning chirp.

"Oh,” continued Borth. “You should also refrain from troubling the sorcerers.”

Hristomarth froze. “What?”

The jam-seller looked at him pityingly, pointing with his pipe out beyond Sideshow Alley. In the midway beyond rose a large black tent, ominous and dark as night. “They have gathered from across Hegres,” continued Borth, “to wage their annual Contest of Curses. Antagonizing them is…not wise. For anyone in the nearby vicinity.”

Hristomarth was speechless. He only kept in the fight with Catchmaw reflexively. “They gather so?” he finally said. “In broad daylight?”

Borth shrugged. “Who would stop them? The Illuminates are long gone. And not even the maddest band of adventurers would confront them all at once.”

A bolt of indignation broke through Hristomarth’s shock. Nothing was so noxious as the sorcerer. Their hexes and maledictions were cast for the pettiest of reasons, sowing chaos long after they had gone. That they schemed from their far-flung towers was galling. But to gather in public? For such a malevolent reason?

 Unconscionable. Someone should do something about it. Maybe that someone was him. Every oath he’d made had been shattered, but confounding those cantrip-addled villains was always a worthwhile goal. He still had his amulet, wrapped in a cloth and hidden inside his boot. Besides. Borth had made it clear that his act was played out along this thoroughfare—and it was common knowledge that arcane relics and priceless gewgaws accumulated within the grasp of a sorcerer.

Catchmaw heaved while he was distracted, ripping the clinking purses from his grasp. Enough. Hristomarth grabbed her around the throat with both hands, hoisting her up into the air. Perhaps she could be useful. “My thanks for the advice,” he said, standing. “I will take it to heart immediately. For now, I shall take a break, and consider where best to move my act away from Sideshow Alley.”

A quick glance revealed the rest of the wyrmlings all but comatose. He hefted the struggling Catchmaw up under one arm. “If you could do me a favor? I suspect I’ll only need this one. Please watch the others for me until I return.”

Borth sputtered as the remaining wyrmlings turned their beady, malevolent gazes upon the jam-seller. Greasetrap licked his chops. Hristomarth left them to become acquainted as he moved out into the faire.

* * *

Shadows reigned within the sorcerer’s tent. The fabric Hristomarth peered beneath blocked everything from outside, leaving a somber room perfectly suited for its macabre inhabitants. Here blood-red candles burned atop strange skulls, their light twisted by mirrors engraved with malevolent sigils. There was also a lavish buffet.

Catchmaw poked her head in beneath Hrisotmarth’s. The wyrmling took one look and began chirping to herself, doubtlessly judging the value of the decorations as well as the jewelry worn by the inhabitants.

Those villains gathered in the center of the tent. There were thirteen in their cabal, all men, clad in extravagant robes, skull caps, and oversized amulets. Hristomarth doubted there was a finer collection of taloned finger-sheaths anywhere in the wide continent of Hegres.

One sorcerer stood out from the rest. Tall and gaunt, he wore a black mustache and goatee that must have been the envy of everyone attending. He wore few accessories beyond his artfully-tailored robes. But then again, he didn’t need to. Hristomarth’s breath caught in his throat at recognizing the infamy of Talasar the Black.

“Please remember to hold on to your tickets,” said Talasar, in a voice like poisoned silk. “The door prize raffle will be held immediately after the contest. Also, a round of applause if you please. To Sustander, who oversaw logistics again this year, acquiring us this wonderful venue. I’m sure I speak for all of us in thanking you for your services.”

There was a smattering of polite applause. Sustander, a jovial-looking fellow with greasy black ringlets of hair, beamed. “I am pleased to be of service,” he said. “Ah, has anyone seen an extra raffle ticket laying about? I seem to have misplaced mine.”

Talasar ignored him, clapping his hands at the assembled sorcerers. “Now! Let us begin our twelfth annual Contest of Curses!”

Hristomarth crouched low, eliciting an aggrieved squawk from Catchmaw. The old days were obviously long gone. These sorcerers never would have dared a thing like this, even without an Illuminate about. He patted his jacket, feeling for the now-retrieved amulet. Even as different as his circumstances were, it should provide some protection. Falling victim to a stray hex seemed entirely too possible.

The cabal parted to reveal a captive bound to a chair. He was fat, wearing a sea-green tunic that strained to hold his bulk. He was also gagged. Sweat dripped past eyes so wide the whites were clear even from across the tent. Hristomarth recognized him—it was the merchant who had turned his nose up at the wyrmling’s earlier show.

Behind the captive rose an altar. Carved out of dark black stone, the candle-light flickered over insidious runes and graven malevolent imagery. Far more interesting was the stone resting upon it. Supported by a witchwood frame, the stone had six flat, unadorned surfaces. It was simple, no bigger than a strawberry. In spite of this, Hristomarth felt waves of eldritch power radiating from it.

“Behold the Hexalith!” cried Talasar. “The very linchpin of our contest. Priceless. Proof against all but the most hostile environments. It is an object of the very most potent thaumaturgies. And—oh. But we mustn’t forget our volunteer. A round of applause for …” Talasar trailed off with a frown. He glanced at the cabal. “Did anyone get his name?”

Sustandar produced a small ledger. “He is Gwentin, a seller of tallow and champion of regional eating competitions.”

“Indeed,” said Talasar thoughtfully. He bent low to look their victim in the eyes. “Worthy Gwentin, we thank you for your assistance in this matter. Please note that the maledictions you are about to experience will be only temporary, until the Hexalith draws them from you. The goose-egg on the back of your skull and its accompanying headache will unfortunately take longer to diminish. But know that it was administered by only the finest of quality blackjacks.”

Gwentin quavered, dripping sweat from his brow. He gave a muffled moan of fear.

“Quite.” Talasar turned to his fellows. “Sustander? If you please?”

Sustander waved his ledger. “As always, each curse shall be judged on effect, duration, quality, and panache. Voting will follow after all curses have been executed. The winner will obtain guardianship of the Hexalith until next year’s contest, along with its store of curses to use as they see fit. And has anyone seen my raffle ticket? I’m sure I had it over near the buffet.”

Talasar coughed meaningfully.

“Moving along,” continued Sustander. “If everyone could take their places in accordance with the register and this schedule I have generated…”

Hristomarth glowered as the sorcerers jostled about. This was as odious an event as he had suspected. How to thwart it? More, how to profit by it? Theft of the Hexalith itself was obvious—without it, there could be no contest. That would be a good deed by any measure, and the artifact had to be worth a fortune as well.

Warm dampness spread across one elbow. Hristomarth glanced down to see Catchmaw drooling like her fat brother in front of a harvest feast. The little wyrmling was overwhelmed by the expensive jewelry spread around the room, now catalogued to local market conditions.

“Enemy?” she asked hopefully, upon noticing Hristomarth’s attention.

 “Most definitively,” he replied. “But do not be disrupted by amethyst baubles and onyx rings. See the stone at the far end of the room? Consider it our prize. Can you say “fortune?””

“Fortune,” replied the wyrmling, her eyes glazing over. She shook her head and charged into the room, only restrained at the last second by Hristomarth.

“Wait! An opportunity will present itself. When stealing from any assemblage, patience is key.”

Catchmaw hissed, but sat. “Victim?” she whispered, pointing her snout at the bound merchant Gwentin.

Hristomarth considered a moment before shrugging. “His fate is as the Ministers decreed. He wouldn’t be in this mess if he’d stayed at our show to get fleeced. The impending discomfort have been clarified to be only temporary. I’m sure he can endure until we steal the stone and bring this event to its end.”

Catchmaw only snorted.

The sorcerers finished lining up. One by one, they took their turn before the victim and the Hexalith. Each of their awful maledictions seemed to fill the tent before they struck home, an intangible presence given a mayfly existence. The candles dimmed down to almost nothing, or flared up to cast ghostly pale illumination. The air curdled with the scents of sour milk and the dusty dryness of an ancient tomb. A chorus of inhuman hissing, moans, and wailing resounded throughout the space, intermingling with harshly spoken incantations. Hristomarth’s amulet grew warm in his hand, just from proximity of such works.

If it was unpleasant to watch, Gwentin’s involvement seemed downright uncomfortable. He suffered lesions, cankers, and swellings. He was struck blind, deaf, and dumb. One sorcerer cursed his cows to dry up and give no more milk, which was visually unimpressive but caused much approving commentary on traditional values. Another freed and animated his shadow, which immediately fled the tent. Each time, the effects disappeared after a violet crackling flare from the Hexalith, which drew forth the curse like a sliver from a thumb.

The queue of contestants dwindled. Eventually it came to its end. Talasar the Black was the last remaining sorcerer and Hristomarth despaired at a chance for the stone. How was he going to wound these snobby spellcasters now?

“I must commend the endeavors of my competitors,” said Talasar with a sweeping bow at the rest of the cabal. The gesture was almost respectful. “We have seen subtlety and brute force. Curses both traditional and excitingly new. But how many of you have truly taken the subject himself into account?”

Talasar let his query hang unanswered, meeting the gaze of each of the others and holding it in turn. Hristomarth felt a begrudging respect—the sorcerer’s reputation for flair was deservedly earned.

Wait. A monologue. Hristomarth startled. This was the perfect opportunity.

“Behold!” cried Talasar. “The Curse of Gnawing Hunger!” He whirled, both hands held up like claws. The air went suddenly dry. Gwentin made a muffled scream, spasming violently. His eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed to sag against his bonds.

Silence reigned within the tent. Hristomarth cursed them all to the Black Vault Below. Couldn’t sorcerers these days be counted on for a monologue of decent length?

“Is that it?” asked one of the cabal.

“Why isn’t the Hexalith drawing away the curse?” asked another.

Talasar turned on them, exasperated. “Is that all you have to say?”

The first sorcerer shuffled uncomfortably. “It’s just. I think we were all expecting something a little more impressive.”

Talasar jabbed a finger at Gwentin, while never breaking eye contact with the critic. “You’ll not see anything more impressive unless you crawl between my sheets,” he snapped. “Consider the application. The Hexalith has not activated because the curse has not yet run its course. It worms its way within the victim as we speak, not merely ‘making him hungry,’ but filling him with a ravenous, all-encompassing need to consume. Look! Look at him already!”

All eyes went to Gwentin. He still sagged in his chair, but his skin was a little more flabby now, his clothes a little less tight.

Talasar eyed his handiwork with professional pride. “No matter how much he eats, he would never be sated. He will never be full. This is quality, bespoke hexery. Not only is our subject a merchant, but he is here at the faire for a pie-eating contest. My curse has taken away a core component of his existence!”

Cheers and applause broke out among the cabal. Talasar appeared suitably smug.

“Well,” he continued after a moment. “I trust that I have secured yet another magnificent victory. Let us commence with the formalities of the voting.”

“Hold.”

The cabal parted with a gasp. A new sorcerer stepped into view. He wore emerald robes and a shining skullcap. His hands were clasped before him to better display the talon-rings he wore. A mocking smirk seemed permanently etched into his features. Hristomarth stared. He knew this man, had contended with him frequently in days long past.

“I have not yet taken my turn,” said Vadmaral, the Emerald Theurge of Twilight.

The sneer that crawled across Talasar’s face was perfect. Several sorcerers murmured in envy at it. “You are too late,” he snapped, in a tone that had been honed on a hundred heroic encounters.

Vadmaral made a cutting gesture. “Not so. I am on the register.”

Talasar whirled on Sustander, who had moved over to the banquet. “What is the meaning of this?”

Sustander froze with a handful of cold-cuts. “Well, Vadmaral applied to the contest in the usual manner, but requested his entrance be kept secret.”

Vadmaral nodded smugly. “Your downfall is finally at hand.”

“Impossible!”

This was their chance. Hristomarth jabbed a finger at the altar. “Go get that stone!”

Catchmaw took off like a ballista bolt. She ran to the nearest end of the buffet table, creeping along the low-hanging tablecloth on the side opposite from the gathering of sorcerers. Her siblings would have stopped there, distracted to destruction. Not Catchmaw. Not with loot in sight. She moved with single-minded focus, creeping to the far end, almost stumbling right into Sustander as he came around the buffet to reach a selection of fruit.

Catchmaw dropped and rolled beneath the tablecloth, Sustander’s boot coming down where here tail had been just moments before. Fortunately, the sorcerer hadn’t seemed to notice. Unfortunately, her way was blocked—she couldn’t get any closer to the Hexalith.

Not good. Hristomarth weighed varying distractions. Catchmaw, though, acted before he could decide on any. She spotted something on the ground and pushed it out further into the open. Then she clicked her talons together and withdrew back underneath the tablecloth.

The sorcerer bent over at the noise, peering suspiciously at the ground. He gave a small cry of surprise and snatched the object up into the air. “My raffle ticket!” he cried.

Catchmaw used his distraction to run for it. She darted from underneath the buffet, out into the open, and dove behind the questionable cover of Gwentin’s chair. The victim was noticeably thinner—apparently the curse still wasn’t quite done. He gnawed at the cloth gag and his eyes followed Catchmaw hungrily, as she crept past around behind the black stone altar.

Talasar and Vadmaral were shouting, now. The air was fraught with menace. All the other sorcerers in the cabal had backed away, readying wards and counter-curses. None seemed to notice the reptilian claws that slipped up behind the altar to snatch the Hexalith from its cradle.

“Enough!” roared Talasar. “Your attempts to unseat me have always been insufficient. This base procedural trickery will not matter.” He steepled his fingers, grinning malevolently. “Take your place, then. I will enjoy watching your failure and humiliation.”

Vadmaral held his head higher than Hristomarth thought possible, seeming to look down his nose at his opponent and everything else in the room. “Your time is over, Talasar. Soon, all those across Hegres will tremble in fear of my name, not yours. With the power of the Hexalith at my command, I will be unstoppable!”

Talasar rolled his eyes. “Oh Black Vault Below, just get on with it.”

“I shall,” replied Vadmaral. “I shall indeed. Once this poor fool feels the brunt of the malediction I have wrought, none of you will be able to deny—wait. Where is the Hexalith?”

Every sorcerer turned to face the altar, just as Catchmaw slid up beside Hristomarth. The wyrmling was panting heavily past the cursed stone gripped in her haws, but she grinned triumphantly.

“Excellent,” he whispered to her. “Now give it here.”

Catchmaw jerked her head away. He made to grab at her, then paused. The scales around her maw were turning old and withered. Her shoulders were already hunched as if sapped of strength. The amulet warmed in his hand.

“The Hexalith is gone!” cried Sustander.

“Stolen?” asked another. “Who would dare?”

“Does someone seek to destroy it?” asked a third. “How would we hold our contests? I have plans for that stone!”

“Cease your pointless dithering,” cried Talasar. “The Hexalith is proof against all but the most inhospitable environments. Now spread out! Find the artifact. If any thief has dared to test us so, they will rue their decision for the rest of their miserable lives!”

Hristomarth cursed wordlessly. Now was not the time for this. He steeled himself and grabbed the stone between his already-crippled thumb and forefinger. No sense in wasting his good hand, if he didn’t have to. The amulet grew instantly grew hot.

Catchmaw fought him, digging in her forefeet and narrowing her eyes. Then all her teeth fell out.