Of all the advice that Godfrey Gallant had given Daelus over the last year he had been in the carnival master’s service, two particular pieces often stuck with him. The first was "all roads lead somewhere", which was a sentiment that the twelve-year old had invariably interpreted as commentary on the life of a traveling showman. After all, they had been from one side of the Eastern Kingdom to the other, playing everything from large arenas to tiny villas and they never took the same route twice. The second piece of advice was "good people sometimes make very bad decisions". It wasn’t until this particular day that those words would ring truer than any other words exchanged between the boy and his mentor.
Godfrey’s carnival caravan was passing through what everyone called the "Fringes", a stretch of disconnected communities and trading posts that bordered a no-man’s land often referred to as the "Ghostlands". Over a century ago, a series of decisive conflicts were fought across this particular swath of land that cut across the continent like a large ugly scar. It was left contaminated and mostly uninhabited, haunted by the "ghosts" of its past, thus the moniker. Rarely did anyone ever venture too far into the Ghostlands, save for the occasional treasure hunter looking to loot the remains of the war machines that were left to rust deep within the land’s cursed expanse. It was even rarer for any of these hunters to return and those who did told stories about nightmarish creatures twisted by years of exposure to the contamination that had rendered the Ghostlands mostly dead so many years ago.
Godfrey often spoke about wanting to find safe passage across or around the Ghostlands so his show could reach the Western Empire on the other side. Unlike the traditionalists of the East who clung to a more archaic way of life that involved swords, pistols and steam, the West were machinists and technologists who had harnessed the powers of diesel and expanded on the uses of gunpowder. They were inventors and innovators, but to many they were also barbaric warmongers. Stories had reached the East about how the central Western Empire had created new war machines, not unlike the ones that were left rusting in the Ghostlands, and were mounting a campaign against the tribes in the frozen north because they dare not violate the treaty they had signed with the East over a century ago. Naturally, everyone from the strongman to the trapeze artists were more than a little wary of the idea of traveling across a haunted no-man’s land to reach an Empire of warriors who probably had little patience for circus antics and carnival sideshows.
It was on this day, while the caravan was stopped at a trading post in the fringes, that Godfrey was approached by a group of treasure hunters that promised the showman safe passage in exchange for a percentage of the show’s profits. It was rare for any of the circus folk to question Godfrey’s business decisions since the outcome to said decisions were hardly ever harmful to any of them. In fact, the traveling show often made enough profits to justify the constant travel for the most part allowing every performer to live with a certain amount of comfort and contentment. However, this was a decision that no one agreed with, with only the fortune teller and Daelus keeping their mouths shut. It was true that when Dae joined the show he brought along the sideshow’s biggest attraction, a curiously reanimated War Golem whom the boy had named Balder. Unlike the stories everyone had heard about the Empire’s hulking monstrosities, Balder was no such thing. He was benevolent, soft-spoken and when not needed he stood like a statue and bothered no one. Although a large part of the show’s revenue came from those who just wanted a peek at the “monster”, Dae was just the boy who somehow brought the monster to life and had learned not to open his mouth when big decisions were being made.
For the most part, Dae he was merely Godfrey’s assistant and not a trusted advisor. He helped set up the tents, cleaned up before and after the shows and fetched the showmaster his tea and biscuits in the morning. Besides other various oddjobs, that was the extent of Dae’s involvement in the running of the traveling show. Balder needed very little upkeep. He didn’t need food, water or fuel and other than standing still like a statue between shows, he apparently also didn’t need rest. He was a thing of magic, a word that had become disused and treated with much taboo in the years since the wars that created the Ghostlands. Therefore, he fit perfectly alongside the other freaks, geeks and curiosities of Godfrey’s traveling circus and sideshow. Dae had no place in the show, but after spending his first few years on the planet as a homeless orphan in the slums of the Eastern capital, and then almost becoming a slave, he was grateful that Godfrey had asked him and Balder to tag along. He could have left the boy and taken just the metal titan, but he didn’t. The showmaster was a lot of things; flamboyant, boisterous and even a little absent-minded, but he was never cruel. He treated everyone in the carnival equally, as family and for Daelus this was home. It was all he ever knew as such.
The fortune teller was another story. Her name was Heloise and she only left her caravan carriage when it was dark out. She always kept her face hooded and when the carnival was set up in a new town, the outside of her carriage was turned into a welcoming, if not foreboding display that promised palm readings and crystal ball predictions. Daelus had never personally spoken to the woman and the eerie way in which she kept to herself always unsettled him. The feeling seemed to be common among the other performers, who rarely spoke about her and quickly changed the subject if her name came up in conversation. It was not uncommon for her to abstain from any decision making, no matter how weighty the decision, thus it was not a surprise that she did not immediately voice any opinion on the matter of traveling into the Ghostlands.
Godfrey always took the performers into consideration when making any kind of decision. The trapeze artists, a married couple from a tiny village in the East were the most vocal in any decision, mainly because they had a baby to consider. The strongman, a brutish hulk from the north rarely said much, except to grunt approval or disapproval. The clowns, a trio whose native tongue was from some distant shore, seemed to go with whatever everyone else agreed upon. The rest of the various performers, sword swallowers, jugglers and stage magicians rarely seemed to care much about where the caravan was headed. As Godfrey often said, "all roads lead somewhere" and that somewhere always seemed to turn out for the best. It certainly wasn’t all perfect and there were definitely "dry" seasons, but they always persevered.
This time, however, was completely different.
The trapeze artists, being the unofficial spokespeople for the collective performers had staunchly refused to travel through the Ghostlands, instead urging Godfrey to consider traveling south to go around or even charter a ship from the southern shore. Absent-minded, but never cruel Godfrey weighed these options, but could see that the acrobatic couple spoke for everyone. No one sided with the showmaster and he was about to concede that traveling south was the better option...when the fortune teller finally intervened.
She appeared, like a wraith, behind the mismatched group of performers, cloaked and hooded and beckoned Godfrey with a pale, crooked finger. The magicians, jugglers and clowns parted and Godfrey stepped between them, advancing towards the silent figure. She turned and led the way back to her caravan carriage while Daelus trailed along. He was the showmaster’s assistant after all and his place was by Godfrey’s side. As they left the crowd behind them, Heloise stopped and held a hand up to the boy. He tried to look beyond the shadows of her hood, trying to discern any semblance of features, but could see nothing. He took a cautious step backwards and saw Godfrey raising a hand to signal he was fine. They disappeared into the carriage and Dae let out a loud sigh, crossing his arms and leaning up against one of the carriage wheels. He kicked at the dirt and looked around, seeing the performers talking amongst themselves, their voices lowered. After several tense minutes, the carriage door swung open and Godfrey marched out, beckoning the boy to follow.
"I want you to get my horses ready to ride," he said.
"Ride?" Dae asked, "Ride where?"
"Get Barlow to help you hitch Heloise’s carriage to mine," he said, rubbing his hands together, "Make sure all four horses are fed and rested."
"Where are we going?"Dae’s voice trembled.
"We? Well, I suppose..." the showmaster trailed off, looking over at the other performers, "I suppose you can come along, but everyone else must stay here for now. They wouldn’t want to come."
"We’re going into the Ghostlands?" Dae said, stopping in place, "Alone?"
"We won’t be alone!" Godfrey grunted loudly, "Those treasure hunters will watch over us! I’ll show everyone that there is nothing to fear...we’ll ride out for a day and turn around. We’ll come back safe and sound and everyone will once again praise me for my sound judgment!"
"Godfrey," Dae said, "You’re going to pay those...strangers to take us out for a day and then back...then pay them again to take us all the way across?"
"I admit it is going to cost me a bit more than I anticipated," Godfrey replied, "but, it will be money well spent to prove my point! Besides, the fortune teller said very plainly that I have to go out there and she has to come with. Fortune teller! It’s...it’s..."
"Right," Godfrey said, walking up into his carriage, "Something like that. Now fetch me some water for my tea and get those horses fed. We leave in the morning!"
“What about Balder?” Dae called out, “I can’t…can’t we just take him with us?”
“Are you out of your damn head, boy?” Godfrey spun around, “we can’t take that clunking, heavy-footed monstrosity out in the Ghostlands! It will be a short trip, your beast will be here when we return!”
Daelus stood for a moment longer in the moonlight as Godfrey closed his carriage door. His heart was racing a bit and he balled his hands into fists, letting out another sigh. The treasure hunters were off to one side talking amongst themselves around a small campfire. They were mismatched patches of leather armor with rusty looking swords and crossbows slung over their shoulders. Nothing about them looked particularly trustworthy or friendly, but who knows what horrors they had seen beyond the Fringes. Dae was walking and looking towards them, not looking where he was going when a hand suddenly stopped him in place. Startled he jumped back seeing the fortune teller’s wraithlike figure ahead of him.
"You’re coming with us," her voice was cold, but somewhat melodic.
"Yes, I am," Dae said, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
She said nothing for a moment and again, Dae tried to look into the shadows of her hood. He thought for a moment he could see the twinkling of eyes buried in that darkness.
"I want you to keep some things in mind," she said at last, "keep your eyes open, know when to stay silent...and know when to run."
"Fetch your master’s water," she said, turning away.
"Run? Why run?" Daelus called after her.
Heloise said nothing more, disappearing into her carriage, leaving the boy with his hands outstretched to his sides. He shook his head and turned towards the treasure hunters again. Two of them were eying him, their conversation paused for the moment. Dae looked away and rubbed a shiver away from his arms as he walked towards the well, where Balder stood, statue-like and solemn. The shadow of the nine-foot tall golem loomed over him as he dipped the pail into the water. The crystal globes set into Balder’s bronze, cylindrical head glimmered.
“Where are we going?” the titan’s voice had a metallic echo to it. It bothered most, but to Dae it was a comforting sound.
“I can’t take you,” the boy didn’t look up.
“Something strange is going on,” Dae looked up, “It doesn’t make sense to just ride out for a day and then turn back.”
“Something strange?” the titan knelt and as he did his rusty joints creaked, “then I should go with you.”
“I wish you could,” Dae shook his head, “but, you should stay here and watch over the rest of the performers. I don’t like this place.”
“Neither do I,” Balder’s joints creaked again as he stood up straight again, “It isn’t very green here. I miss the green parts.”
Dae sighed as he adjusted to the weight of the pail, “So do I. If we’re not back by the day after tomorrow, come find us.”
“I will” with that, the golem’s eyes dimmed and he became completely still again.
"Good people," Dae chanted to himself, "good people sometimes make bad decisions...good people sometimes make bad decisions..."
He continued that mantra to himself all the way back to Godfrey’s carriage, pail in hand to deliver the water and then continued to repeat it in his head well into the night...up until he finally fell asleep.