THE GRAND FAIRE OF ALHAMBRY - PART TWO
By Jonathon Burgess
Hristomarth pretended at nonchalance as he marched down the faire midway. It was easier said than done. Malevolent energies washed over him, filling his mouth with the taste of burning copper and setting his skin painfully a-tingle. Their source, the Hexalith, sat heavy in his coat pocket. The only thing protecting him was his amulet, held behind his back and almost scaldingly hot in his crippled hand.
The value of the sorcerous stone had gone from “priceless” to “worthless.” Its store of power was simply too volatile—no one would purchase a hex-stone that instantly afflicted the owner with cankerous boils, ill luck, or dried-up cows. Not to mention the cabal of angry sorcerers doubtlessly on the hunt.
No, Hristomarth realized. He would have to be satisfied with simply robbing those villains. And he was satisfied. Smug, even. Now he just had to find a way to dispose of the Hexalith where they would never find it. Destruction would have been preferable, but the few weaknesses of such relics were incredibly convoluted. Talasar had mentioned ‘inhospitable environments,’ but the region around Alhambry suffered from a lack of handy volcanos. That left just hiding the thing here in the faire proper.
Catchmaw trudged stoically along beside him. Her avaricious spirit was a little dampened by the Hexalith’s effects, but only a little. The wyrmling seemed to have recovered from the worst of the curses, appraising each potential victim they passed in the crowd, smacking her loose and sagging maw as she spied some particularly desirable bit of jewelry. Judging by how many teeth her siblings went through each week, hers would grow back soon enough.
The faire midway was bursting with activity. Barkers wheedled and enticed, directing passers-by into fanciful tents and colorful games of chance. At any other time Hristomarth would have considered the possibilities for a scheme. Not now, though. He had to get rid of this stone.
A crowd on the left hinted at opportunity. Hristomarth pushed through to find two struggling men on the other side. One was muscular and dressed in the furs of a northern bandit. The other was a gangly farmer. They clenched hands, straining to force the others’ wrist down to a tabletop.
Hristomarth grimaced. Arm wrestling. Was there a more simplistic contest? Though, maybe here was an answer. Perhaps the winner could be convinced to carry his burden away? Maybe as a ‘reward’ for his victory?
The Hexalith activated before he could finish plotting. It pulsed in his pocket and Hristomarth bit down on a cry of pain. His amulet grew painfully hot as it deflected the curse.
The bandit had no such protection. Gray streaked through his beard as the curse landed upon him. His impressive physique withered. His confident grin faded, replaced by a pained and confused grimace. The farmhand slammed his wrist against the table and cheered at the crowd.
“Let us move on,” whispered Hristomarth to Catchmaw.
The wyrmling nodded, eyes wide.
Bells clanged and barkers shouted as they fled down the midway. The games gave way to more competitions and general merriment. They passed a mud pit with two teams of hirsute men waging tug-of-war. Just beyond rose a maypole with a band of colorful bards playing for frenetic dancers. Laughter and jeering emanated from a fenced-in wallow, where young bravos took turns trying to wrestle a bewildered pig. A large, colorful sign pointed the way to the pie-eating contest.
Hristomarth paused for breath beside a small corral. What to do next?
The corral gave him pause. Faire-goers clustered thickly around the sturdy wooden fencing. They hooted at a mob of waist-high moa chicklets, who squawked their way around a track.
Moa races. Hristomarth considered. Could he stash the artifact here? If he didn’t get rid of it soon, his amulet was going to burn a hole through his palm.
The Hexalith pulsed malevolently in Hristomarth’s pocket. Out on the racetrack, the chicks all froze in mid-dash, as if suddenly turned to stone. Their momentum carried them forward, toppling them together in a tumbling mess.
Their shadows, however, kept running. The black outlines strained and heaved. They twisted and strived. One by one, they bent their beaks back to peck at where they met their owners, trying for their freedom.
A chorus of booing echoed among the crowd.
Hristomarth winced. “Let us move on from here, as well,” he said to Catchmaw.
The wyrmling nodded in weary agreement.
Fleeing, Hristomarth fumed. Curse it all to the Black Vault Below! He was still stuck with the Hexalith! Maybe he should just drop it into someone’s pocket. Or toss it into the nearest pile of manure.
The path twisted between narrowly pitched tents. Hristomarth realized he had wandered off the main thoroughfare, to where the faire-folk prepared their attractions. Rounding a colorful tent, he ran straight into a two-wheeled cart heaped full of moldy fruit and other garbage. Two men stood at the yoke, each trying to haul it in a different direction.
“…and I am telling you,” said one in a red cap, “to just stop for a moment!”
The other, wearing a black felt vest, sighed in exasperation. “Very well—I have heard you. What is so important you interrupt my task? The Association will have my head if I do not complete it.”
“You’re bearing a cart of rotten fruit to the pig pens.”
Felt-vest nodded sagely. “Just so.”
“Well turn around and go back!” cried Red-cap. “Time is short. The Pig Farmer’s Association need filling for their donations to the pie-eating contest.”
Felt-vest raised an eyebrow. “This is pig slop.”
“The orchardists are ransoming their fruits,” sighed Red-cap. “The Association will not pay. A substitute must be found, and this will have to do.” He brightened. “Besides! Pigs are wise creatures. Anything they can stomach is certainly good enough for the average faire-goer. The eaters of the contest focus on quantity, not quality.”
“I suspect you missed your calling as a philosopher.”
“The robes were unaffordable.”
“They are unaffordable to the philosophers as well. Hey! What are you doing?”
Hristomarth froze, wrist deep in the garbage, where a sickly-sweet pile of rotting strawberries now hid the Hexalith. The amulet in his other hand was cool as stone. “I am…feeding my wyrmling,” he improvised, pulling up a handful of moldy, rotting fruit. “I’d overheard this was destined for the wallows. I didn’t think anyone would mind.”
He held the muck out at Catchmaw. The wyrmling reared back in horror. Hristomarth jerked his head at the pig farmers and stared at her meaningfully.
The trip back through the midway was both quick and pleasant. Relief buoyed Hristomarth’s spirits. Catchmaw, however, seemed uncharacteristically subdued. She paused occasionally to spit beside the lane and glare up at Hristomarth.
“Release these feelings of pent-up ill will,” he advised. “Sometimes drastic action is needed, to hoodwink the foolhardy. Consider; we have dealt a severe blow to a significant percentage of sorcerers who plague these lands. What wickedness would they have achieved, had we remained inactive? A significant amount, it must be assumed. Their insufferable perfidy has been soundly frustrated.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together gleefully.
“True,” admitted Hristomarth with a sigh. “No profit was to be had. As I have often said, our profession is highly vulnerable to vagaries. At least we incurred no permanent harm!”
Catchmaw looked at him flatly. A line of stinking blue spittle dripped from her toothless maw.
“Yes,” continued Hristomarth. “The Hexalith is bound for pig slop. Or, if good and common sense fails to win out, to be buried within a pie. Either way, I am confident it will never trouble anyone else again.”
His humor remained high as they followed the crowd past crooked games of chance and barely-glimpsed oddities made marvelous by the confines of a darkened tent. The path led them back past the moa track, where the barker had hastily converted his race into an attraction of sorts, calling all nearby to view the shadows strutting around. They also passed the arm wrestling contest, where the northern bandit was being strong-armed by a gang of angry sorcerers. Hristomarth lowered his hat and led Catchmaw quickly past them.
At last they returned to Sideshow Alley, where Borth the jam-seller knelt before the wreckage of his booth. The jars of his preserves were broken and emptied. A column of gray smoke trailed up from the charred remains of one side. The rest of the wyrmlings milled about, bored.
“Diverse greetings appropriate to your philosophy,” said Hristomarth. “My most effusive thanks for watching after these little monsters. It is simply impossible to maintain the appropriate levels of attention they require when tending to delicate work.”
Borth stared up at him. “They drove off my customers. Ransacked my stock. Burned down my booth.”
Hristomarth gestured dismissively. “Trifling concerns to a man of your skill. Now I will take them down to the midway to begin a new act—”
Something was wrong. Hristomarth quickly counted wyrmlings. “Where is Greasetrap?”
Borth sagged, defeated. “The fat green one? It ate twelve pounds of rawest honeycomb, as well as most of my signage. There was a crowd watching while I tried to stop him. Thankfully, someone mentioned the pie-eating contest was beginning. The little monster waddled off to find it.”
A bolt of pure horror shot through Hristomarth. A vision struck him, of being forced to care for an obese, accursed, violently ill wyrmling. He turned on his heels, shouted at the wyrmlings to follow, and ran off.
* * *
Pushing through the crowd of people was like trying to swim upstream. Hristomarth shoved between them, aiming for the pie-eating contest on the other side. A few cursed him. Most only spared the barest of glances, their faces masks of shock and disgust. Mounting dread washed over Hristomarth. What had Greasetrap done now?
The crowd thinned enough to let him steal his way through onto the green beyond. Here, three rows of benches sat before a low stage. They were only half-full now, the audience leaving in ones and twos. The rest sat fixed in place, staring in fascination at the contestants waging battle before them.
Ten men and women dressed in outfits from all over Hegres still competed in the Grand Faire of Alhambry all-comers pie-eating contest. They chewed, chomped, and slurped at the pies mounded in a once-massive pyramid at the center of the table. The wreckage of their efforts lay like corpses in a charnel house. Crumbs were scattered across the stage. Fruit filling mixed with whipped cream, smeared across the table and the maws of the contestants themselves. Savory meat gravy spattered their clothes. And everywhere there were empty crusts.
Most of the contestants had reached their limits. A proud Suuthi man wheezed and clutched at his belly. A woman from the shadow-clad city of Phlogos demurely belched through the mess caking her mask. Two large peasant twins stared at the half-eaten pies on the table before them, unable to go any further. Others lay back in their chairs or down across the stage, either unconscious or praying for it.
Only two figures still ate with any vigor. Gwentin the Accursed appeared to have escaped the sorcerer’s tent, but the Curse of Gnawing Hunger still retained its hold. He gobbled away like he was starving, the bones of his cheeks standing sharp against his skin. All his hair had fallen out. And his filthy, food-caked tunic hung like sackcloth on his gaunt frame. Gwentin ate with his hands, all table manners abandoned as he shoveled fistfuls of pie into his mouth, gravy and fruit compote dripping down his chin. He didn’t chew. He barely swallowed, instead just pushed more pie past his cracked lips, forcing earlier mouthfuls deeper into his throat. How he took any breath was a mystery.
Lastly, there was Greasetrap. The wyrmling ate like one born for that task alone. His bulk was seated in one of the chairs, surrounded by a mountain of hollowed-out crusts. Greasetrap clutched the table with his chubby forepaws, stretching his neck out to gorge himself on the desserts before him. Great hunks of pie were sucked up into his maw to be chewed once, decisively, before being swallowed into his ravenous gullet. Stray crumbs were quickly recovered. Spatters of pie-filling, both sweet and savory, were licked clean. Neither food nor effort went to waste. Greasetrap ate like a warrior poet.
The rest of the wyrmlings ran into Hristomarth, shaking him out of his stupor. Horrible. He had to get Greasetrap down from that stage, somehow. The wyrmling was going to be sick enough already.
“It’s here somewhere!”
Villains in dark robes appeared out of the crowd beside Hristomarth. The sorcerers, led by Talasar the Black with Vadmaral close on his heels. They peered about the contest, on the hunt for their missing relic, oblivious to Hristomarth and the wyrmlings beside them.
“The Hexalith is close,” whispered Talasar. “I can sense it.”
“Is it now?” asked Vadmaral, voice dripping with condescension. “This is what you said back upon the midway.”
Talasar whirled, almost stepping on Splaywing. “And it was there. If you had eyes to notice. Or did you not recognize the Curse of Infirmity? And the Curse of the Shadow Unbound?”
“Of course I—”
“Then shut up and find the Hexalith! It’s here somewhere. I know it!”
Hristomarth lowered his hat as they spread out among the benches. Madness. The Pig Farmer’s Association had actually gone through with their plan. Well, he’d done what he could to foil the sorcerers. Now his only concern was getting Greasetrap off that stage before he ate himself truly sick. Or worse.
A belch like a thunderclap echoed across the space. Greasetrap sat back from the now-empty table and looked around for more to eat. Gwentin did the same, whining piteously.
The contest host appeared to one side, accompanied by an assistant manhandling a small, cloth-covered cart onto the stage. Both stared at the remaining contestants and the table in front of them. “In all my years,” muttered the host. Then he shook his head and spread his arms wide to address what remained of the audience. “We have come to our final round!” he cried. “Contestants, are you ready for more?”
A chorus of groans in the negative echoed from about the stage. Gwentin gnawed on his hand, eyes never wavering from the cart. Greasetrap nodded vigorously, slinging streamers of stinking dragon spittle into the audience.
At a gesture, the host’s assistant yanked the cloth free from the cart. Beneath lay a stack of pies as terrible as Hristomarth had ever seen. The crusts were overcooked, charred black in places by the haste with which they’d been made. The filling had bubbled out elsewhere, glistening like grease under a hot sun. Their scent wafted out over the benches—a stinking bouquet of rotting fruit and charcoal.
There was something else, something that stopped Hristomarth in his tracks. Malevolence. Not so strong that it stood out against the general awfulness of the pies, but enough that the attendant and the host drew back in more than just disgust. Hristomarth fumbled for his amulet. The Hexalith was there, baked into one of the pies.
“These, ah . . . pies . . . are donated by the courtesy of the Greater Alhambry Pig Farmer’s Association.” The host shook his head again. “Who are apparently still feuding with the League of Orchardists. One would think they would just make pork pies. Now! Contestants—”
But he didn’t have time to finish. Greasetrap and Gwentin launched themselves out of their chairs. They slammed into the cart, knocking it over and spilling the mound of pies. Neither seemed to care, each focused solely on devouring all before them. The other contestants scrabbled of the stage, pelted with blackened crumbs and globs of rancid filling as they went.
The sorcerers all froze among the benches, annoying the spectators who remained. They held still, sensitive to the same unnatural aura that Hristomarth felt. “There!” cried Talasar. “The Hexalith is there, within those pies.” He jabbed a finger at the contestants. “Stop! Don’t eat anything further! We will sort through your guts to find our property, should we have to!”
The sorcerers scrambled to reach the stage. Hristomarth cursed them all to the Black Vault Below. He shoved his way forward, eschewing the aisles to clamber over benches. Most were easy enough to cross, but circumstances forced him past the occasional large peasant or wide hat. A woman with a squalling baby proved particularly troublesome, tripping him as he moved past. Thrown off balance, Hristomarth grabbed the nearest person to steady himself.
“My apologies. I—”
The words died on his lips as he met the permanent glowering sneer of Vadmaral, Emerald Theurge of Twilight.
The sorcerer’s eyes widened in recognition. “You!”
Hristomarth pretended at innocence. “Sorry, have we met? I must be going. Diverse and benevolent wishes for your day.”
Vadmaral grabbed at him, but Hristomarth fought him off and scrambled for the stage. Heat emanated from the amulet he clutched tightly as it fought off a sudden curse.
“An Illuminate!” cried Vadmaral. “There is an Illuminate here!”
“What?” cried one of his fellows.
“But they’re all gone!” said another.
“He must be after the Hexalith!” cried Talasar. “Get to the stage!”
Pandemonium erupted all around Hristomarth as people stood in alarm and confusion. The host shouted for order. Frustrated sorcerers called down numerous threats against everyone impeding them. Up on the stage, Greasetrap and his opponent remained unaware, locked in their own conflict.
Hristomarth reached the stage, pelted by crumbs that fell like hail. He ducked down, taking what cover he could from the rain of empty crusts, gelatin, grease, small bones, and other garbage meant for the pig-pens. “Greasetrap!” he cried, waving his hands. “Don’t eat any of that!”
Neither seemed to have heard him. Gwentin continued his high-pitched moaning, muffled now by his mastications. Greasetrap was a ravenous, devouring whirlwind. Each seemed evenly matched; Gwentin’s curse against the chubby wyrmling’s inhuman gluttony. The stack of pies between them dwindled away until just one remained.
Sheer malevolence radiated off the crust. The Hexalith hid within, Hristomarth was certain of it. A dreadful future full of awful effluvia, eructations, and terrible eruptions loomed over him.
The sorcerers reached the stage. A few grabbed for Hristomarth, but most were focused on the pie and the two contestants about to fall upon it. “Stop them!” cried Talasar.
“Hold the Illuminate,” cried another. “Keep him away from the Hexalith!”
“Greasetrap!” shouted Hristomarth, reaching desperately. “Don’t eat that!”
Greasetrap and Gwentin grabbed the pie at the same time. Each tried to pull it away from the other, with Greasetrap losing the impromptu tug-of-war. His diminutive forelegs were no match for the strength of a grown and desperate man. The fat green wyrmling yowled aloud in frustration, then paused as if remembering something. Greasetrap opened his maw as wide as he could and craned his much longer neck, devouring the pie in one great swallow. Gwentin wailed piteously, clawing at the closed vault of Greasetrap’s jaws.
“No!” cried Hristomarth. The sorcerers pulled on him as he scrabbled up onto the stage on hands and knees. There had to be something he could do.
It was too late. The bulge of the pie distended Greasetrap’s neck as it was digested down. It disappeared into the round barrel of the wyrmling’s trunk. The malevolent aura disappeared. Suddenly, Greasetrap’s eyes bulged. His stomach, already tight as a drum, rumbled ominously. Smoke erupted from his nostrils.
Hristomarth’s instincts screamed at him. He threw himself flat, hugging the stage as much as possible, clutching his amulet tightly with both hands and hoping his hat would survive.
“Of all the damned foolish things,” snapped Talasar. “Now we have to cut the Hexalith out of this lizard.” He looked around at the rest of the sorcerers standing above Hristomarth. “Does anyone have their sacrificial knife on them?”
Vadmaral stepped forward, brandishing a cruel, wavy-bladed dagger. “Of course you came unprepared,” he sneered.
“I don’t think that’s a lizard,” said a sorcerer. “I…I think it’s a Darmxian mountain dragon. It’s small…but wouldn’t its gullet qualify as ‘inhospitable?’ Can the Hexalith withstand dragonfire?”
Talasar suddenly blanched. “Your knife!” he cried, reaching desperately for the blade Vadmaral kept back from him. “Give me your knife!”
“Why is the Illuminate hiding?” asked Sustander.
The assembled sorcerers looked down at Hristomarth, then over at Greasetrap. Fire flared out from the fat wyrmling’s nostrils. He also seemed to be vibrating.
The wyrmling opened his mouth and unleashed a sound like the end of the world. A dark miasma erupted from Greasetrap’s maw, edged in fire and oily smoke. It washed over the assembled sorcerers. Hristomarth’s amulet grew scaldingly hot, even on the edge of the blast as he was.
After the noise, chaos, and flame had died away, Hristomarth risked a glance at his surroundings. The benches below the stage were completely empty. Talasar, Vadmaral, and all the other sorcerers lay crumpled, each moaning in misery at the host of maledictions now afflicting them. Gwentin, the contest host, and the assistant were nowhere to be found. Greasetrap sat back on his haunches, looking around hopefully. He saw Hristomarth and chirped.
“More?” asked the wyrmling.
* * *
Hristomarth Rofolio adjusted the clothes-peg on his nose, cursing his fate to the Black Vault Below. The small, two-wheeled cart he hauled was rolling along, but only barely. One wheel was misaligned, so that it wobbled on the old cobbled roadway. The other had so many chips and scuffs that it could barely be called round. It was also burdened by the rolled-up remnants of Hristomarth’s circus banner, the charred wooden hoop, and the few props Hristomarth could quickly steal. It held Greasetrap too, of course.
The wyrmling took up most of the space in the cart, his appendages appearing vestigial against the swollen green boulder of his belly. He cried and moaned as the cart rolled along, pausing only to crane his maw over the side of the cart and be noisily sick.
His siblings did their best to avoid him. They crawled along the roadway at the maximum range of their leashes, which Hristomarth had tied firmly to the shafts he pulled the cart by. Sensing his mood, they kept their shenanigans to a minimum. They also seemed united in their disgust and avoidance of their brother.
One wheel hit a loose cobble, jolting the cart badly. Greasetrap cried out and released a flatulent thunderclap, accompanied moments later by an evil stench that melted Hristomarth’s earwax. Thankfully, the clothes-peg held fast. Hristomarth muttered a wordless complaint about his fate.
“This circumstance is exceedingly unfortunate,” said Borth the jam-seller. He walked alongside Hristomarth, though a good fifteen paces away. Over his shoulder he carried a pole with an impromptu satchel at one end; all that remained of his belongings from the booth.
Hristomarth muttered another wordless imprecation.
“One would think you had offended the very Ministers of Fate themselves.”
Hristomarth swore again.
“Nonetheless, I shall persevere. There is safety in numbers along the road.”
Hristomarth glanced over at the jam-seller. “Why are you even here?” he demanded waspishly. A piteous moan from the cart punctuated his inquiry.
Borth shrugged nonchalantly. “You are a cheat and a confidence trickster. Your reptiles? A menace who destroyed my livelihood. I am owed restitution!”
“You are welcome to your pick of the wyrmlings behind me,” said Hristomarth. He gestured back to the cart. “I suggest the fat green one. May it bring you much joy.”
Greasetrap belched for a good seven seconds. The cart shook with the efforts of his siblings suddenly trying to escape the stench.
Borth waved a hand dismissively. “It would be unwise of me to accept. For a diverse multitude of reasons. Thus, I must insist upon accompanying you until adequate recompense may be derived.”
Hristomarth cursed him to the Black Vault Below.
“No,” continued Borth. “One is forced to admit that despite your troupe’s numerous flaws, intriguing opportunities do exist. The purse at your side which your wyrmling is attempting to steal? It is heavy with purloined coinage.”
Catchmaw squawked as Hristomarth swatted her away.
“It also occurs to me that any proper circus must provide victuals. Popped corn, candy-floss, sweetmeats. All cut with a minimum of sawdust to maintain profit margins, of course.”
Borth jabbered on about his proposal. To the rear, Greasetrap grew sick again. The other wyrmlings fought to escape, promptly spawning a hissing, snarling ruckus which made pulling the cart that much harder. A chill breeze picked up, smelling of rain.
Hristomarth pondered. Where next to take his circus? How could he improve it? The thought was interrupted as Catchmaw launched herself at the purse hanging from his waist with a tiny roar.