The Dark Carnival

The campfire crackled in the still air, the light from it illuminating the two men sitting near it and the clearing they sat in. The dark seemed to hang back near the trees, almost oppressive. One of the men, a human, stirred a pot full of stew while the other, a dwarf, sat and smoked a pipe. The pungent pipe smoke hung in the air, casting a hazy pall over the grove where they two sat. After a few moments, the human spoke. “So, Gungrier was it? We have been traveling together now for a few days. What brings you to these parts if you do not mind me asking?”

Gungrier put his pipe down and looked into the fire, the light reflecting in his grey eyes. “I don’t think you will believe me lad.”

The man smiled slightly and used his free hand to push his black hair out of his face. “My name is Argoth remember? And try me, I might surprise you.”

The dwarf nodded, and motioned with one stubby hand towards the pot. “What are ya cookin lad?”

“Oh just some stew. Beans, carrots, salt pork, potatoes. That sort of thing.” Argoth stirred the pot and took a sip. “Its almost ready. How about this: You tell me your story, and I will tell ya mine?” The smell of the pot began to fill the glade, and Gungrier felt his mouth begin to water.

“Alright laddie.” Gungrier got his waterskin out and took a drink, and then began. “I believe I already told ya that I come from the northern mountain tribes, aye?” Argoth nodded. “Well, about three months ago or thereabouts, a strange carnival came to town.”

“What made it strange?” Argoth asked as he tasted the stew, and then took out two bowls and began to spoon the hearty meal into them. He offered one to Gungrier, who took the bowl and continued. “It was the workers lad. Most of the time when a carnival comes to town, its a time for celebration and the people who work them tend to be happy folk. These people seemed to have a sort of forced happiness. I didn’t get a good look at them though as I was on my way out of town to visit the nearby trading post.”

Argoth nodded and re-adjusted his seat on the ground, and as Gungrier continued he got his bedroll out and layed it down.

“As I was saying, I was leaving just as the carnival was setting up. It took me 4 days to go out to the traders post with my wares and come back. When I got back I found that my wife and son where missing. Now I was right mad I tell you, but the worst part of it was that no one remembered them, or the carnival. In fact, my own clansmen began to think I was crazy.”

Argoth nodded as he finished laying out his bedroll. He then began to eat his stew in silence as he contemplated the dwarfs story. Both men sat quietly, the sound of chewing and the crackling and snapping of the campfire the only noises. Finally, after he had finished his stew, Argoth spoke. “I believe you Gungrier.” The dwarf’s head snapped up suddenly, his red hair flying back behind his head.

“Why lad?”

“Cause your story is very similar to mine, thats why.” Gungrier stared at the young man. To him, Argoth seemed too young to be married, but Gungrier was never very good at judging the age of humans. “You seem a bit young to be married lad, no offense.”

Argoth laughed, a deep vibrant sound. “No no, I’m not married. In fact, I was a soldier in the kings army and not a bad one at that if I may say so. I was home on leave and a carnival appeared. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, and I had to leave town as well. I was asked to go grab some supplies from a neighboring town. It took me 3 days to return and when I did, a found that my sister was missing, and no one had any memory of her, even my own mother. And just like you, no one but me remembered the carnival.”

The fire continued to crackle as Gungrier sat in silence, absently refilling his pipe. Argoth took stock of the dwarf, carefully noticing the axe, shield, and plate armor that he kept close to him. Finally Gungrier spoke. “Well lad, thats the first I have heard. So why are you out here?”

“I was on my way to the town of Aldaern. Its the nearest town in this region and if anyone else has the same situation we have, I figured that they would be there.”

“Would ya mind if I continued traveling with ya? I don’t believe in fate but meeting out here has to mean something.”

Argoth smiled. “I would be honored.” Then Argoth pointed at Gungrier’s axe and said “You any good with that?”

The dwarf gave Argoth a level gaze that spoke volumes, and the human laughed. “Alright, alright. Forget I asked. Lets get some sleep, we should be at the town by midday tomorrow.”

The next morning the two men awoke to the sound of birds chirping. The morning air was cool and there was a light breeze. Argoth stood and stretched, letting the wind caress his face. It had taking some doing to get an honorable discharge from the his division, but Argoth had shown exceptional service in the last war and they were willing to let the young man go. He glanced down at the sleeping form of Gungrier, and pondered. The dwarf seemed so sincere, but Argoth found that the two of them meeting just a little suspect. Time would tell of the dwarf’s true intentions. Argoth grabbed his waterskin and the pot then walked a little ways into the forest, where he knew from his travels that a stream was. He then washed the pot and filled his waterskin, and splashed a little water on his face. He felt the growth of stubble and sighed. It was going to be time to shave again.

“You really should pay more attention lad.” A voice said from behind.

Argoth stood and turned to find Gungrier standing behind him. “How did you sneak up on me?”

Gungrier grinned. “We dwarves are a lot stealthier then you folk give us credit for.” Argoth smiled, and began to walk back to camp. He called out behind him “Lets hurry up and get walking. We need to make good time if we want to reach Aldaern by midday.”

The dwarf grunted and filled his waterskin. Then he too splashed some water on his face and washed his beard quickly, then returned to camp to find Argoth was already packed and ready to go. He packed his kit and shouldered his bag. “Ready when you are lad.” Argoth nodded, and the two tromped their way east, towards the quaint town of Aldaern.

It took the better part of the day, but by midday the two slightly winded travelers found themselves outside the gates to the town of Aldaern. It had been a long time since Argoth had visited the town, and Gungrier had confessed to never having left his mountain home save to visit the trader outpost. As they entered, Gungrier seemed fascinated by most of the things that Argoth found mundane. Argoth watched his new friend with barely concealed amusement as the dwarf openly stared at the people who walked around them. Finally Gungrier spoke.

“Lad, how can ya stand the smell of this place?”

Argoth took a deep breath. “What smell? I don’t smell anything.”

Gungrier sighed. “Nevermind lad. I think maybe I am not used to being around so many humans.” Argoth nodded, and then led the way to an inn he remembered from his last visit, a small place called The Iron Dragon. He was happy to see that the inn still stood, as it had been five years since his last visit. He motioned for Gungrier to enter, and then walked in himself.

The taproom was fairly empty despite it being midday, but it was light and warmed by a merry fire that sat in the hearth. Gungrier quickly found himself a seat and ordered an ale. Argoth shook his head and muttered under his breath “Dwarves and their ale. I guess some things are true.” As Gungrier took his ale from the maid and drank noisily, Argoth walked over to the barkeep.

“Excuse me sir, mind if I ask you a few questions?”

The barkeep, a fairly clean fellow who was missing a few teeth, gave a grin. “Depends on what kind of questions young sir.”

Argoth sighed and took out a single gold piece. It was probably more then the barkeep would make in a day. He watched as the man’s eyes widened and a look of unbridled greed appeared in them.

“Answer my questions, and I will give you this. Agreed?”

The man simply nodded. Argoth quickly glanced back and found that Gungrier was flirting with a barmaid. He then turned back to the barkeep.

“First question, has a carnival been in town recently?”

The man shook his head, his eyes still on the coin. Argoth frowned, and then paused before speaking again.

“Ok, any strange happenings?” The barman shook his head and Argoth began to hand over the coin when the barmaid that Gungrier had been flirting with walked over. “There was that guy who went raving that his wife had vanished.” she said brightly.

Argoth turned to face her, taking the coin back away from the barkeep. “Excuse me miss?”

The barmaid, a freckle faced woman with a large bosom laughed. “I was just telling yer friend there about old Horace.”

Argoth smiled and handed the barmaid the coin He then walked over to Gungrier, who was just finishing up his fourth tankard of ale. “Putting it away eh Gungrier?”

The dwarf let out a loud belch and grinned. “Aye lad. All in a days work for a dwarf!” Argoth took a seat and ordered a plate of cold beef and cheese from the barmaid. Gungrier ordered yet another tankard of ale. As the food and drink came out, Argoth thanked the barmaid who winked at him. He blushed slightly and glanced down.

“So lad, find anything out?” Gungrier asked with a tone of voice that suggested that he knew something.

“Just that a man named Horace claims to have a missing wife but no one seems to remember him being married.”

Gungrier’s face fell. “Now why did ya go and ruin the surprise?” Argoth laughed and began to eat. Between mouthfuls of the tasty beef he said “Did you find out where Horace lives in town?” Gungrier nodded and ordered a plate of beef and cheese. The two men finished their meals, and left, heading north towards the farmsteads.

It took a few hours once they reached the farmsteads to find the home of Horace. The farm itself looked well tended, the crops apparently rows of fruit trees. “Peaches.”, Gungrier said as they approached the fields. Argoth pointed to the farm house, where a man sat on the porch. Gungrier nodded and the two men walked towards the porch. “Who is there?!” the man said. Argoth stopped and put his hand on Gungrier’s shoulder. The dwarf stopped as Argoth yelled “Two travelers who would like to have a word with Horace!”

The man stood up and walked towards the pair, a knife in his hand. “Come to have a look at ‘Mad Horace’ have you? I bet the townspeople are laughing at me behind my back!” The man brandished the knife at the two of them, and Argoth felt Gungrier tense under his hand. “Calm down Gungrier.” Then Argoth addressed the man. “No sir, in fact, we were hoping to hear your story. Not to laugh at you.”

Horace sighed. “You won’t believe me. No one else does. Why should I bother telling you?”

“Because we have had something similar happen to us sir.” Gungrier finally said.

“Really?” The man arched an eyebrow at this. “Well then, why don’t you gentlemen come inside and have some tea.”

Argoth smiled and thanked the man, while Gungrier grunted out “Got any ale?”

The kitchen of Horace’s home was well kept and clean. Argoth found this odd considering the man looked like he was more at home in the fields then doing housework. Argoth studied his host, noticing the calloused hands and sunburned skin. Horace also appeared to be in his late fifties from Argoth’s estimation. Horace walked over to the stove and grabbed a teapot and then filled it, setting it on the stove to heat. “So, you lads want to hear my story eh? My ‘crazy’ story as they say?”

“Thats right sir.” Gungrier said. “Although if its like ours I doubt its crazy. Unless all three of us fine folk are crazy!” Horace let out a harsh laugh at this. “I guess you are right.” Argoth simply kept silent, watching the two men. After a few moments Horace mixed the tea into the pot and brought it over. “Sorry master dwarf, but no ale. I haven’t drank a thing since…that night.”

Argoth accepted his tea, and then explained his situation. Gungrier then explained his, taking a cup of tea as well and sipping it. “This is good tea sir. Where did you get it?”

“My wife grew it.” Tears formed in the corners of Horace’s eyes at this, and Argoth reached over and patted the man. “Its alright friend, let it out. What happened?”

Horace sniffed once, and then began. “I had gone out that night, alone to the woods nearby. I had got into an argument with Marrisa, and decided to sleep out in the woods and get drunk. We had a fight over me helping clean around the house you see. I said I shouldn’t have to since I worked in the fields.” Gungrier nodded. “Seems like a fine argument to me lad.” Horace laughed. “Me, a lad?”

Gungrier smiled. “Compared to me, you both are young lads.” Argoth laughed, and even Horace let out a chuckle. “Anyway, I took a bottle of wine that I had been saving out to the woods, to drown my sorrows and anger ya see. I never liked being angry around the wife. I don’t abide men who strike women.” Argoth smiled. “Good man” he said. Horace nodded and continued.

“Well, as I left I noticed that there was a carnival in town. I hadn’t gone into the town proper for a few days as I had been working on bringing in the peaches. My wife had told me she was going to visit her sister in the city that night, and had asked me to clean. Thats what started the argument actually.”

Horace cleared his throat and took a sip of tea. “So there I was, in the woods. I started to drink and well…drunk myself into a stupor. It was not a pleasant morning let me tell you. It was made all the more unpleasant when I got home and found that my wife had not returned. So I went into town to find her sister, and when I asked where Marissa was the woman looked at me like I had lost my mind. She said she didn’t know anyone by that name.” Argoth nodded as Horace took another drink. “After I argued with her for a while I asked her if she knew who I was. She said ‘Sure, Horace the peach farmer.'”.

“Seems pretty similar to ours doesn’t it Argoth.”

“Indeed it does.”

“Well,” Horace continued, “to make a long story short, I kept asking around and no one remembered my wife. Not a single person. They all thought I had gone crazy, and figured that since I smelled of booze I must have drunk myself silly.”

Argoth leaned forward. “Did you ask anyone about the carnival Horace?”

Horace simply shook his head. “No lad, I was too busy trying to find my nonexistent wife. My wife did say she heard it was heading to Irigraed next.”

Argoth said “Do you happen to remember how long ago the carnival was here?”

“About four days ago.”

Gungrier let out a chuckle. “Well Argoth, it has all the same earmarks as our stories. Think we should go into town and ask about a carnival that probably no one remembers?” Argoth nodded, and then dropped two gold coins on the table. Horace stared at them. “Keep those, for when your wife comes home.”

As the two men stood up to leave, Horace said “What do ya mean, comes home?” Gungrier simply smiled. “Because lad, me and Argoth aim to get to the bottom of this, and when we do we shall tell your Marissa how much you miss her.” And with that, the two men left Horace sitting alone at his table, feeling hope for the first time in a month.

After Argoth and Gungrier reached town they came up with the idea to split up and ask around for information about the carnival. While they were sure that Horace’s information regarding its next destination was accurate, they wanted to make sure that no one else had any memory of the carnival. After a few hours of searching, when the sky began to darken from the setting sun, the two men rendezvoused at the Iron Dragon. Argoth found Gungrier already sitting at a table, drinking an ale.

“I gotta ask: how many have you had while you waited for me?”

“This is my first lad.” Gungrier smiled. “Find anything out?”

Argoth shook his head. “Nothing. As far as any of the people I asked, there hasn’t been a carnival around here in over a year.”

“Same here. Also, one kid asked me if I believed Horace. When I said I did he called me crazy.” Argoth laughed and spoke. “So, should we pay for rooms or sleep out in the woods?”

Gungrier stood and put a silver coin on the table. “Why waste the gold? We can sleep just as well outside as we can here.” Gungrier stood and then walked outside. The dwarf lit his pipe and stared at the sky, thoughts of his wife and son on his mind. After a few moments Argoth joined him and the two walked out of town into the pasture, intent on finding a good campsite.

*

A man in a robe ran up to a large fancy wagon. He stopped for a moment, as he always did, to admire the craftsmanship of the wagons design. Covered in carvings and paint, it was a riot of color. He stared at one image in particular and smiled. It was the image of a fire breathing demonic beast. The man knocked on the door, and after a few moments it opened. Standing in the doorway was a fairly nondescript man, wearing a bright red suit and top hat. In one hand he held a cane, and the other was propped on the door jam. He wore the expression of someone who knew more then he was letting on and he glanced down at the robed man.

“What is it Jurgen?” The man’s voice was soft, almost like velvet.

“Sir, we have been scrying as you have asked, and found two people who remember the carnival.”

The man waved his hand dismissively “And? What is so special about these two?”

“They are tracking us.”

“What?” The man in the suit suddenly stood straight. “What do you mean, tracking us?” The man stared at Jurgen, who fidgeted nervously. “They have just stopped in Aldaern and spoke to a man who apparently also remembers us, but is too weak minded to do anything. Thats how I found out in fact. He was so excited that someone believed him that his mind almost shouted it to the heavens. They have discovered our next destination from him and seek to find us. However, I was unable to scry them directly. Something was blocking me.” The man considered this. He knew that in order to block Jurgen, his best scryer, that powerful abjuration magics had to be involved. After a few moments, he spoke. “Send Davis, Micah, and Scarlette. Do not leave them alive.”

“As my lord commands.” The man closed the door, and Jurgen hurried off, intent on delivering his masters orders.

*

The sounds of birds chirping awoke Argoth from his slumber, and he sat up and stretched. It was a fine morning, the sun was brightly shining and the sky was clear. Then, Argoth heard a horrible sound. Like that of a giant monster, come to devour him. He glanced around and quickly came to the conclusion that it was Gungrier, snoring. He stood up, and gently prodded his friend with his foot.

“Wake up. You’re snoring loud enough to wake the dead!”

The dwarf simply mumbled and turned over on his side. Argoth grinned to himself and started a fire. He then got his pot out and filled it with some water and porridge. He sat the pot on the fire and then began to pack up his bedroll. As the smell of food filled the air, Gungrier stirred. “Hmmmm? Do I smell food?”

Argoth laughed. “Yes, yes you do.” He glanced quickly to the town, which was still nearby. “Come on. We need to eat and then get going. I think we should head out as soon as possible. If we hurry, we might be able to catch up to the carnival. I think we should by some horses. It can take four days to go to Irigraed by foot, and the carnival cannot be making good time given its size.”

Gungrier nodded as he stood up and began to pack his things. “So what about some supplies?”

“I bought some last night before we left, but just general food and such. How about this? I go get us a pair of horses, and you go get any specific supplies you think we need?”

“Sounds like a plan.” Gungrier said as he packed up his bedroll. “Meet back here before midday?”

Argoth nodded and began the walk back to town, intent on locating a horse dealer.

It took the better part of the morning, but after some haggling Argoth had purchased two fine horses. They were a pair of mares, who the owner insisted were as fast as the wind. Argoth doubted they were that fast, but after watching them run in the corral he was sure that they would be fast enough. He reached the gate to leave the city and found himself looking at the back of Gungrier. He snuck up and tapped the dwarf on the shoulder, watching as Gungrier jumped slightly.

“You should pay more attention Gungrier.”

The dwarf turned around and grimaced. “Nice one lad. I will remember ya doing this.” Argoth handed a set of reins over to the dwarf and grinned broadly. “I have no doubt that you will. So, get anything useful?”

Gungrier nodded. “Some stout rope, a grappling hook, and a pair of extra water skins, which I filled at the well.”

Argoth mounted his horse and checked his pack to make sure it was secure on his back. “Ready whenever you are.”

Gungrier laughed, lashed his pack to the saddle and vaulted up into it. “Lets go lad. Time to catch a carnival.” The two adventurers then put their heels to their mounts flanks and were off, racing into the distance.

The two men finally stopped and made camp for the evening in a small clearing in a wooded area. Argoth estimated that they were only a single day’s travel away from their next destination, Irigraed. If they kept up the pace, they would reach it just behind the carnival. Argoth chaffed at the delay. He was sure that this carnival had something to do with the disappearances. After searching for three months for an answer, and being so close, Argoth was starting to lose patience. He stood, thinking about his sister. “You alright lad?” Gungrier’s voice brought Argoth back to reality. “Sorry about that Gungrier. Just thinking about things.”

The two men were silent for a moment, and then Gungrier spoke. “How long has she been missing lad?”

“Three months. We’re close, aren’t we?”

Suddenly a new voice sounded into the clearing. “Close to what?” Gungrier and Argoth spun around quickly and found themselves looking at three nondescript travelers Two were male, average height, and of average build. The third was a female with bright red hair. They all shared brown eyes. Each carried a backpack and had no visible weapons. Argoth tensed slightly. “Excuse me, but who are you?”

One of the men spoke, one who had a crooked nose as if it had been broken. “We are simply travelers is all. My name is Micah.” He bowed.

“I am Davis.” The second man said with a smile.

The girl pushed her hair behind her ear. “And I am Scarlette.”

Gungrier eyed the newcomers. Something about them did not seem right. He grunted and said “I am Gungrier.” He glanced at Argoth who was staring intently at them.

“I am Argoth. What business do you have here?”

Scarlette smiled again, and pointed at the fire. “May we sit down? We have been walking all day.”

Argoth nodded, still not taking his eyes off them. Gungrier nudged his friend, who shook his head. “You were staring lad. Its rude.”

“Oh…right sorry.”

The three newcomers sat down, and Micah pulled out some rations and handed them out to his compatriots. Gungrier and Argoth sat opposite them near the fire.

“So,” Argoth began, “What brings you to these parts?”

Davis answered. “Oh we are heading to Aldaern. To visit a friend.” He took a bite of his food. Argoth nodded, and Gungrier took a drink. “Oh? Might we ask your friends name? We just came from there.”

“His name is Horace.” Scarlette said. Gungrier narrowed his eyes slightly, and then gave a half smile. “Ah yes, we have met him. Have you met his wife?”

Davis’ eyes widened. “He has a wife now? Thats news to me!”

“So where are you two heading?” Micah asked.

Argoth gave a half smile. “We are searching for a carnival. I believe someone who is a part of that group stole something very important to me.”

Gungrier nodded. “Aye, me too. Its a very important item.” The three travelers shared a look, and Argoth began to cook a stew of rabbit, carrots, and potatoes. The group then continued to eat, the three newcomers sharing some of the stew. After the meal was finished, Gungrier lit his pipe and began to smoke, and then suddenly the three travelers stood up. “Thank you for the meal!” Davis said.

“It was very tasty.” Scarlette added.

“Its a shame we have to kill you now.” Micah added, and then without warning the three suddenly began to change shape, and charged. Gungrier was taken by surprise, and was knocked back by what used to be Scarlette. He rolled backwards and came to his feet, taking stock. He quickly glanced over at Argoth, and found that the human had not only dodged the charge, but had ended up parallel to him with his sword drawn. Argoth then threw something to Gungrier, who caught it in mid air. It was his axe. Gungrier then studied his opponents. Where three humans once stood, now stood things that could only be described as living nightmares. Creatures of spikes, bones, and fangs. Gungrier quickly noticed that the hands on each creature had lengthened into giant claws, their arms had extended out, and their faces had grown into animalistic things. Long muzzles held huge fangs, and saliva dripped from them. Their skin was a deep, almost blood red as well. It was then that Gungrier noticed the pain in his shoulder, and he stole a quick glance to realize that the creature who struck him had torn into him and gave him three deep gashes.

“You shouldn’t have done that you…whatever you are.” Argoth said. Then, to Gungrier’s amazement, Argoth began to speak rapidly in dwarven. Gungrier recognized it. It was a rune cast. The creatures laughed, a harsh barking sound devoid of humor. The middle one spoke, a guttural grating sound that made Gungrier’s head feel like it was being pounded on by a hammer.

“What do you think you are doing human? You cannot hope to harm us!”

Argoth quickly finished the spell by writing on the blade of his broad sword, and then held it at the ready. Gungrier smiled. He had recognized the casting, and knew just how effective it might be against these creatures.

“So, who sent you?” Gungrier asked, his axe held in front of him.

“Our master, of course. He sends his regards, but regrets that you will not live to meet him yourself.” And with that, the one on the right leapt at Argoth with a display of speed that caused Gungrier to flinch. Argoth however, ducked under the leap and brought his sword directly up into the path of the creature. As the creature hit the blade, it shrieked in pain. The other two creatures shared a glance as the blade cleaved straight through the screaming creature as if it was made of paper. The blade began to glow white as it finished its path. Argoth stood up and smiled, half of the creature on each side of him. “A Holy Rune. Good against demons.”

“How did you know we were demons human!” One of them asked. It had a more feminine sounding voice to Gungrier, and he assumed it was once the person called Scarlette. Argoth laughed. “I guessed. You know, big long claws, fangs, red skin? Seems like a demon to me.”

Gungrier smiled. He then hefted his axe and glanced at Argoth. “Well lad, there are two left standing. One for you, one for me?” The demons growled, and then in tandem charged.

The one charging Gungrier was the one who had spoken, whom he assumed was Scarlette. As he blocked her furious blows with his axe, he had a moment of hesitation. This was a female, and there was no honor in striking one. Then, while he was not paying full attention, she struck him across the stomach lightly, scratching him again and bringing him back to reality. “Alright lass, no more nice dwarf.” As she swung at him again, Gungrier ducked under the blow, and brought his axe up from below, slamming it into her stomach. He grunted as his axe struck her. It was like hitting iron. Thankfully, his axe had been made of mithril and was tougher then the hide of some demon. He pushed with all his strength and was rewarded with a scream of pain as his axe bit into her flesh. She tried to back off and he simply pulled back and brought it back up into her. She screeched again, and he stole a glance over at Argoth to see how he was doing.

Argoth and his demon faced off with each other. The demon not being stupid enough to charge the human with the glowing sword. “You know,” Argoth said, “You should realize do your research before jumping in like this.” The creature growled, and swung at Argoth, who easily ducked under the blow. “Please, you are all rage and anger. You won’t even touch me.”

Gungrier turned his focus back to his target, who had backed off and was bleeding profusely. The she demon, as Gungrier now thought of her, growled angrily. “Alright lass, now I am going to finish this.” He then charged forward, ducked under her claw as she swung it, and slammed his axe right between her eyes. Gungrier put all his strength behind the blow and was rewarded with the crunch of bone and then a quick scream. Then, the she-demon went limp. He pulled his axe out of her head and took a glance over at the fight between the remaining demon and Argoth.

Argoth took a stance, his sword held out in front of him level with his body like a spear, his right foot behind him, braced like a runner. The demon grunted, snarled, and then ran at him. To Gungrier’s amazement, Argoth leapt forward, using the braced leg to propel him at a speed that Gungrier thought impossible for a human to reach. There was a scream, and then the demon fell to the ground, twitching. Argoth was behind him, the sword still glowing. He then quickly spun and struck downward, finishing the beast. Argoth looked at his friend, and quickly went to his bag. “I got some bandages in here Gungrier.” The dwarf nodded and took a look at his wounds, then noticed that Argoth was untouched.

“How did you move so fast lad?”

“Training.” Argoth said as he rooted in his pack.

Gungrier walked over and sat down. “Thats not much of an answer.”

Argoth smiled and handed Gungrier a roll of cloth. “There, tend your wounds.”

As Gungrier bound his wounds with the cloth, he said “So, can you tell me how you got trained to move faster then most people I know?”

“You know how I said I was a soldier?” Gungrier nodded. “I was part of the Illtheium.” Gungrier raised an eyebrow at this. “You mean the kings special forces? The legendary Illtheium of Kenebori?”

Argoth smiled. “I was indeed. Each member of the Illtheium is chosen because of some unique ability. In my case, it was my speed. I simply can move faster then most people. Thats all.”

“But how did you learn rune magic?”

Argoth took out a water skin and handed it to Gungrier, who took a drink. “All of the Illtheium are taught a variety of skills. Some basic rune casting, stealth, thieving skills, and combat. We are also given endurance training. You never know what you will need. Thats our motto.”

Gungrier stood and pointed at the bodies. “We need to move these lad or there is going to be a horrible smell.” Argoth nodded, and added “And away from the campsite. Otherwise we are going to have wild animals here.”

The two men each grabbed a corpse and began the work of dragging them away from their site. As they walked through the woods, Argoth commented “You know, at least we know we are on the right path.”

“Oh? What makes you say that?”

Argoth grinned and tugged on the body as it got caught on the branch. “They didn’t attack us until we mentioned the carnival.”

They finally reached a point that they agreed was far away from the camp and dropped the bodies. As they walked back, Gungrier said “I will take first watch.” Argoth nodded and they finished cleaning up their camp, and then Argoth went to bed. Gungrier simply sat and kept an eye out.

The next morning they ate in silence, absorbed in their thoughts. Argoth and Gungrier then quickly packed up and mounted their horses, and began to ride. They talked a little while riding. “So Argoth, you think our best bet is to catch up to the carnival, and investigate it before attacking?”

“Yes. We need to keep the element of surprise, and besides, we are still not one hundred percent sure that the carnival is behind this or even connected. It could be a coincidence.”

Gungrier nodded, and they continued to ride hard.

After a half day of hard riding they came within site of Irigraed. The midday sun shone brightly in the sky, and Argoth thought it was a lovely day. As they rode up to the gate they heard people talking excitedly about a carnival. The two men shared a look.

“Looks like we got here right after it.” Gungrier said.

Argoth leaned over in the saddle and hailed a nearby gate guard. “Excuse me sir. We keep hearing some of the people here talking about a carnival. How long has it been here?”

The guard scratched the side of his nose. “Oh since this morning. They are setting up on the other side of town, in a clearing. They say they will be ready tonight.”

Argoth thanked the guard, and the two men rode into town, working their way through the midday crowd. All around them there was excited talk about the carnival. “It seems like this is a big event.”

Gungrier nodded. “I would guess it would be. Its not everyday a carnival comes to town.”

The two walked their horses further into town, and located a nearby inn. A decayed sign hung outside, and written in faded paint were the words “Hogird Tavern and Inn”.

“Lets rest for a while. I think our best course of action is to visit the carnival during the evening with everyone else, to see if we can find anything out. Then we can go from there.”

Gungrier smiled and nodded his agreement. “I think you are right. I hope that this wasn’t some wild goose chase. For all we know it could be all coincidence” Argoth nodded.

“Here Gungrier, you take the horses to the stable, and I will get us a room.” As Gungrier walked the horses over to the stable hand, Argoth entered the inn. He took a quick moment to survey the surroundings, noticing the fairly empty taproom to the left, and to the right a counter with a stout woman behind it. He approached the counter and smiled. “Hello miss.

She grunted and squinted at him. “What can I do fer ya?”

“I need a room with two beds. Do you by chance have one available?”

Reaching down, the woman pulled a large book out from under the counter. Argoth realized that this was the guest list. She quickly scanned it and said “I do indeed. I have two rooms that have two beds available. Its a gold a night, in advance.”

Argoth nodded. “I need it for two nights.” He reached into his pouch and handed the lady two coins as Gungrier walked in. “Horses are taken care of Argoth.”

Handing the innkeeper the two coins, Argoth smiled. “And now are the rooms.” The innkeeper held out a key which Gungrier took. “First door on the left, upstairs. Dinner served in the taproom.”

The two men thanked the innkeeper and then walked upstairs. They found their door and unlocked it, and entered. Gungrier quickly commented on how spartan it was. Argoth smiled. “It is indeed.”

Spartan was an understatement Two pallets layed on the floor, beaten and stained. There was only a wick floating in oil for a light source, and a dirty window overlooking a small alley. Argoth walked over to one of the pallets and layed his bedroll on top of it. “Might as well give myself a bit more padding.” Gungrier chucked and did the same, and then layed down.

“So, shall we take a quick nap lad?” Argoth nodded his agreement, layed down on his pallet, and quickly fell asleep.

A few hours later Gungrier awoke with a start. He sat up and found that Argoth was over near the window, head stuck out through it and staring at something. Gungrier walked over quietly, and then jabbed Argoth in the side sharply. Argoth yelped, jumped, and banged the back of his head against the top of the window. “Ow! By the gods Gungrier you startled me!”

“That just makes us even lad.” Argoth cursed slightly and moved back into the room. He then walked over and sat down on his pallet, rubbing his head.

“What where ya staring at lad?”

Argoth simply motioned to the window and continued to rub his head. Gungrier stuck his head out and glanced in the same direction that Argoth had been looking and found himself awestruck. In the distance, on the other side of town, he could see lights. A multitude of color. A breeze went by, and Gungrier could smell…something. He was unable to place it, but it was not the smell of a city. He also found that he could faintly hear music. He quickly glanced up in the sky and figured that it was not yet midnight. He pulled his head back in and look at Argoth. The two men said nothing. They both knew what it was time to do.

“Alright,” began Argoth, “lets get to the carnival. Its time for us to have a bit of a rest don’t you think?”

Gungrier smiled without mirth. “Aye lad. Lets go to the carnival.”

The air was filled with the sound of laughter, music, and the merriment that everyone at the carnival experienced. Argoth and Gungrier smiled, but the expression was their faces was forced. The lights and sounds swirled around them, and Argoth turned to Gungrier after they were inside the boundary of the carnival and spoke.

“Ok, here is what I think we should do. Split up, try to find our loved ones. Once we do, free them and then meet back up where we entered the carnival.”

Gungrier nodded, his head constantly turning this way and that, ever watchful. He then turned and walked away, disappearing into the crowd. Argoth sighed, and then focused. He looked around and then headed the opposite way that Gungrier went, which as best Argoth could tell was east. He passed several stalls, each hawking wares such as trinkets, food, and in one cause toy weapons. Argoth was impressed by the size of the carnival. After traveling for a while he paused to examine a few good luck charms at a stand when he heard a familiar voice. “Sir, would you like to purchase a leg of mutton? Only one silver piece!” He turned slowly and say a blond haired girl, carrying a heating box and holding out a massive hunk of mutton on a stick. She wore a ragged dress, and had grass and dirt stains over most of her. But Argoth didn’t see any of that. He saw his sister. He quickly walked over to her and said “Cassandra? Is that you?”

The girl turned to him and said “Hello sir, would you like to buy some mutton?” She smiled, but there was joy in that smile. Argoth shook his head.

“Cassie, its me, Argoth! Your brother!” The girl’s smile vanished and was replaced by something else.

“I think you have me mistaken sir for someone else.”

Argoth grabbed the girl who he knew to be his sister by the shoulders. “What have they done to you! Don’t you remember me? We used to play out in the fields near the farm! You have to remember!”

The girl screamed. It was ear splitting and Argoth let go of her. Suddenly he heard a voice shout “Hey! You there!” Argoth spun around to see two very large carnival workers heading his way. He wasted no time. He turned, and dashed as fast as he could through the crowd, heading back towards where he left Gungrier. It took him mere seconds to reach that point, and he turned and double checked that he had lost his pursuers. He paused to catch his breath and then went to find Gungrier, shaken by what he had found.

The moon was high in the sky by the time Argoth found Gungrier. The dwarf was leaned up against a nearby cart, sobbing quietly. Argoth had never seen the dwarf cry in the time he had known him. Argoth walked over and quietly said “Gungrier.”

The dwarf turned up to face him, and Argoth patted his friends shoulder. “Lad…I found them. I found them and they didn’t even remember me. Here they are, and I could do nothing.”

Argoth nodded, and the two men sat down against the cart. “The same thing happened to me my friend. I found my sister, Cassandra, selling mutton. What is going on here?”

Gungrier sniffed once, and then wiped his eyes. “Foul magic is my guess lad. And I aim to get revenge.”

“I am with you my friend. If we cannot save our loved ones, then lets make the ones who took them pay.”

Gungrier nodded. “Whats the plan then lad?” Argoth handed Gungrier a bit of cloth, and the dwarf thanked him. “Where did ya get this lad? Do all human shoulders carry around handkerchiefs?”

Argoth let out a laugh. “No. I keep that around in case I need to wipe my nose.” As Argoth said this, Gungrier had been in the process of wiping his face. He quickly took another look at it and put it down. “Uh huh.”

As the two men sat there, quietly thinking, a hush fell over the carnival. Gungrier quickly glanced around, and then looked up. His eyes widened and he nudged Argoth. “What?” Gungrier simply pointed up in the air, and Argoth followed his finger. He stared. There, on top of a high-dive platform in view of everyone, stood a man. He was dressed in what appeared to be a red suit, with a bright red top hat. He carried a cane, and began to speak. Argoth was surprised to find that he could clearly hear the man.

“Hello and good evening ladies and gentlemen! Thank you for joining us this evening for a night of merriment and pleasure! I am your Ringmaster, Bargul, and I heartily welcome you to explore all that our carnival has to offer. Perhaps you will find something…surprising!” He then dove off the high dive board and gently floating down as if a feather, disappearing into the carnival.

Argoth smiled grimly. “I say we pay the ringmaster there a visit. If anyone knows whats going on, it would be the man in charge don’t you think?” Gungrier nodded and then said “We are gonna want to make sure no one else is around when we come back.” The two men stood up and quickly left the carnival. They did not head back to the town however, but to a small group of trees they had seen on the way in. Once inside, they hunkered down to waited.

It had begun to rain lightly, a cold mist that covered the ground. Two dark shapes slowly worked their way into the carnival, ducking behind wagons and tents. The mist shrouded everything in a dampness, and Argoth shuddered as some condensation trickled down the back of his neck. The mist obscured vision, making it difficult to see. The two men had managed to sneak their way into the center of the carnival, and to one side they could see what appeared to be a lantern hung up on a door to a wagon. The wagon itself was ornate, and Gungrier whispered “I think thats the one.” Argoth nodded. Across from it, near the two, was a large tent. They could hear voices inside of it, and they quickly skulked their way over to it. Argoth put his finger to his lips, and then gently lifted the edge of the tent. Gungrier quickly peeked in, and then stood back up, his eyes wide.

“What did you see?” Argoth whispered.

“A large number of people lad, including my wife and son. It looks like a holding cell of some kind!”

Argoth nodded, and then pointed at the ornate wagon. “Lets go.” As the two men crossed the clearing between the tent and the wagon, a voice called out. “Now where do you think you are going?”

They quickly turned to voice the voice, weapons drawn. Argoth held his sword at the ready, and Gungrier put his shield in front of him. The speaker was a man in a robe, and with him stood two normal looking humans. Argoth assumed however that none of them were in fact human. “So,” the robed man said, “just who are you?”

“Lets just say we are a few concerned citizens.” Argoth said.

The man smiled. “Of course. Well, since you are trespassing, I will be forced to deal with you.” Suddenly the two men without robes shifted and changed, becoming red skinned horrors. They charged, and Argoth had no time to cast a rune. He dove to one side while Gungrier leapt at one of the demons. Argoth watched as the dwarf deftly brained the creature with a single axe stroke while blocking its strike with his shield. Argoth then turned his focus to the robed man. “Gungrier!” He called. “Deal with the other demon!” He noticed that the robed man began to incant something, and Argoth shot forward. The man stopped incanting as Argoth’s blade slammed home into his chest. The man gurgled, then went limp. Argoth yanked his blade free and turned to face the remaining demon, finding that Gungrier had hacked its neck open. It lay on the ground, bleeding. Gungrier had suffered a minor scratch on his face. Argoth smiled, and the went to the wagon. Gungrier followed.

“Here goes nothing.” Gungrier said. Argoth nodded and then opened the door. Their eyes went wide as they saw what appeared to be a normal wagon. Sparsely furnished and apparently empty. “Huh. Well we better search this place.” Gungrier nodded, and then two men entered. Once they crossed the threshold however their vision swam and everything went dark.

Gungrier was the first to wake. He quickly sat up and grabbed his axe, which he found lying next to him on the floor. He took stock of his surroundings. Next to him on the right was Argoth, still unconscious To his left was a door. The room was bare, made of a dull grey stone. There was the sound of water dripping in the distance. Gungrier stood and checked the walls. There was only the one door. He prodded Argoth with the toe of his boot. Argoth stirred and said “What…?”

“Looks like we are someone else lad.”

Argoth stood up and glanced around. He then grabbed his sword from the ground and walked to the door. “Well there is only one way in or out it looks like.”

“Think it might be trapped lad?”

Argoth shrugged. “Only one way to find out.” Then, much to Gungrier’s chagrin, he grabbed the doorknob. As he touched it however the door vanished, and appeared on the wall behind them.

“What the…” Argoth muttered. Gungrier was staring at the new door.

“I think there is magic afoot lad.”

Argoth swore. “Really? I wouldn’t have guessed.”

“Be nice.”

Argoth walked over to the door and tried to grab the handle and the door switched again, this time back to its original location. Argoth then had an idea.

“Ok Gungrier. You try to grab the door there, and when it shifts I will grab it here.”

Gungrier nodded and walked over. Then he quickly tried to grab the handle. As the door vanished and reappeared in front of Argoth, Gungrier spun to see Argoth quickly grab the handle. Then, with a click, he opened the door. Beyond was a hallway, which was lite by an unseen and unearthly white light. It was made of the same featureless grey stone that the room was, and seem to disappear into the distance.

Argoth stepped over the threshold before Gungrier could react, and disappeared from view. Gungrier ran over, and then Argoth reappeared.

“What is wrong with ya lad?!”

“Nothing.” Argoth said. “I had to see what would happen. It leads to another room. Not a hallway. And there is a stairway there.”

Gungrier nodded, took a breath and then stepped through. Argoth followed, and they found themselves in a room with a stairway leading down. Gungrier glanced down the stairwell, and found that the darkness was impenetrable. “I don’t suppose you have a light?”

Argoth shook his head. “I neglected to bring one. I mean, the moonlight was enough.” Gungrier sighed. “I guess we should be careful. Let me go first lad, I am a bit better armored.”

Argoth looked at his leather armor. “What? This protects me just fine.”

“I know, but my armor is made of mithril, and is nigh untouchable.” Argoth nodded, and the two men slowly made their way down the stairs.

The two men where not sure how long they had been walking, but it seemed like hours. The stairs seemed to go straight down, and there was soft dull glow that barely lit them up. However, several times Argoth looked behind him and found that he was looking at a curve. He was unsure as to how the stairs curved without him knowing, and it made him nervous. Gungrier kept his eyes forward, watching the staircase. After awhile Gungrier saw a light, and nudged Argoth. “Light.” The dwarf said simply. Argoth said nothing, but motioned to keep going. After a few more minutes the two men reached a door where the light was seeping out from around it. The door was unremarkable, and as Gungrier reached for the handle a voice sounded from behind it.

“No knocking? How rude!” The door suddenly swung open and the two men could see into the room. It was large, circular, and unadorned. There was a few bookshelves inside against the back of the room, along with a bed and table. Standing in the center stood a man in a bright red suit and top hat. His black hair was cut short, and he leaned on a cane.

“Come in, come in.” He said.

Argoth quickly recognized him. “You are the ringmaster, Bargul.” The man smiled, and there was no warmth in it.

“Indeed I am child. Indeed I am. And what has made you invade my humble home hmm?”

Gungrier frowned. “You are some sort of wizard aren’t you?”

Bargul laughed. “Indeed I am…some sort. You still have not answered my question.”

“Because your carnival has taken something from both of us and we want it back!” Argoth said loudly. He held his sword at the ready, prepared for anything. Bargul laughed, a cruel haughty sound. “Ah yes, you want your dear sister back I assume? And the dwarf wants his wife and child?” The two men shared a quick glance. “How do you know?”

“Because I watched you two. With the help of my scryer of course.”

Argoth laughed. “So, you were the one who sent the demons out for us then?”

“Indeed I was. Pity that they were unsuccessful. Ah well, I will have to get my hands dirty it seems.” Then Bargul began to change. Gungrier tensed up, gripping his axe tightly as he watched the ringmaster grow in height, his skin changing to match the color of his suit. The suit itself melded into Bargul’s body. Bargul’s face changed to something which could only be described as demonic. It held an expression of pure hate. Spikes covered the chin, and his hair became thin and bony. Two long horns grew backwards off his head, looking like long goat horns. Bargul’s hands grew into long claws, and he continued to grip his cane. The creature stretched and then spoke again, his voice sounding much like metal grating on stone.

“You will pay for this intrusion humans. You do not know whom you face. I am Bargul, the Ringmaster! Master of Illusion!”

Gungrier grunted and charged, Argoth quickly following. The two men split up, each heading for a flank. Then, suddenly the room swam and began to look like a field of roses. Argoth stopped short. He couldn’t see Gungrier. “Gungrier, you there?”

“Aye lad! Where are ya?”

Before Argoth could answer, the demon was upon him, rushing from behind a bush. The ringmaster swung his cane out at Argoth, trying to use it as a weapon. This made Argoth wonder what use the cane was, as he parried each blow. The demon was fast, nearly as fast as Argoth was. Then, the demon grunted and turned, and Argoth saw Gungrier. The dwarf had slammed his axe into the back of the creature. Argoth took the opportunity and swung his sword into the back of the knee of the demon, hoping to bring it down.

“Fools! You cannot hope to defeat me!” The room swam again, and suddenly there were four demons between the two men.

Argoth swore and got into a defensive position, and Gungrier did the same. The demons laughed in unison. “Which one which one?” One of them said. Gungrier growled and leapt at the speaker. His axe cleaved through it cleanly, and it disappeared in a puff of smoke. Argoth simply watched. He then noticed that one of the demons was limping slightly. He rushed forward as fast as he could, a blur to the human eye, and struck at the creatures leg again as hard as he could. He was rewarded with the snap of bone and a howl of pain. The images vanished and the demon fell to the ground, unable to hold his own weight up. The two men leapt on the fallen creature and with a fury hacked it apart, their blows raining upon it, a testament to their rage. Bargul spewed insults till the end and as the final blow fell from Gungrier’s axe, the room swam and changed. The two men found themselves back in the wagon, the demon dead at their feet.

Argoth sighed, and saw that the cane was sitting untouched near the demon. He reached down to touch it and felt a horrible shock run up his arm as his hand grabbed it. He fell to the ground convulsing, and Gungrier saw and quickly swung his axe at the cane. As the cane snapped, a shockwave hit them and threw them up against the sides of the wagon. The door blew out, and the morning sun shone into the space. As the sun’s rays touched the corpse it began to burn, and slowly turned to ash. Argoth picked himself up and began to hear voices outside. The two shared and look and rushed outside. The voices came from the tent where the captives were held. The two men ran over, and found the door and broke the lock off. The people inside ran outside, crying in joy. Argoth quickly found his sister and hugged her. “Cassie, do you remember me?” She cried, and hugged him back. “Oh Argoth, I knew you would find me!”

Gungrier walked over to the two, his wife and son with him. “Well lad, looks like whatever was wrong is fixed. My wife and son remember me now.” “The curse of the demon is lifted my friend.” Argoth said. He smiled, and then shouted to all those assembled. “Friends! You are free! Go home to your loved ones!” And with that, the two men and their charges walked off into the morning sun, back home.

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One thought on “The Dark Carnival

  1. Pingback: Creativity vs Motivation – What gets ya going? – Terminally Nerdy

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