When the young woman extinguished the flames from her body and leapt to the edge of the stage to take a bow, the only member of the audience who did not rise and clap was Keizen. He remained in his seat, arms crossed and a detached expression on his face that could have passed for boredom. No one else seemed to notice. The mage beamed and withdrew a bright red handkerchief from some mysterious hiding spot on her skimpy outfit and wiped her dark forehead. A male assistant, also dressed in a flashy version of the traditional garb of one of the southern countries, appeared onstage with a glass of water. The crowd broke up, some drifting off to watch the next act, others to approach the stage. The woman sipped her drink and chatted with her fans in a voice as full of sunshine as her smile.
Keizen retraced his steps to the wooden post near the entrance of the sideshow which listed the day's events. After that performance he was seriously considering leaving early. Mages and daredevils were hardly what he had expected, given the rumors surrounding this place. His own psionic powers were more rare and impressive. If these people did not have anything new to show him, they hardly deserved more of his time.
He adjusted his glasses and ran his eyes down the planks bearing the names of events. They rested on one act, painted in sharp blue lettering that suggested shards of ice.
WENDIGO THE MAN MIMIC: TERROR OF THE NORTH!!!!!
Keizen pondered the word choice with cautious hope. He had seen plenty of monsters in his travels, but none of the beasts had been particularly human looking. Then again, most of what he knew of the northern countries came from what little he could find in books. Some had vast expanses of unexplored territory and were said to be inhabited by strange and seldom seen animals. Though he wondered if he was giving this run-down operation too much credit, the possibility that they could have something that unique on display was something he could not pass up on. They could be allowed one last chance to redeem themselves.
According to the sign there was a show starting soon. Keizen followed the direction of the arrow until he came upon a large cage that looked like it had been designed to hold a bear. Posts with rope strung between them encircled it, and the only person permitted inside was a burly man dressed to look like a northern hunter. The man leaned forward on his stool, a gun cradled in his lap, and snored.
Keizen stopped in front of the rope, noting the white sign with red letters hanging from it.
WARNING: I BITE!!!!!
He took his first good look at the "terror of the north" and felt like drawing a hand down his face. The wendigo looked just like a man, and a very sick one at that. He was paler and thinner than any person Keizen had seen, though the severe nature of his condition may have been exaggerated by the thick fur coat he wore, which was a size too large. The only other abnormal things Keizen could make out about him were his eyes, which appeared to have no color save for the black pinpoints of pupils, and his nails, which looked like they had been trimmed in the shape of claws. He paced the length of his cage, back and forth, back and forth, seemingly oblivious to the gathering crowd.
Keizen had heard of this sort of thing. Some places, too cheap to hire real acts, took ordinary people and put them in costume to pass off as freaks, or used optical illusions in place of a real mage's talent. He had just about made up his mind to leave when the wendigo stopped pacing and stared right at him.
Right beside him, he corrected himself. A boy had raced up to the rope and leaned against it, waving a bag of popcorn. The wendigo approached and pressed his nose between the bars. The boy grabbed a handful of popcorn and held it out, a mischievous smile crossing his face.
The wendigo smiled back and passed a slender hand between the bars. "Hello. Share please? Nice people share."
The boy threw the popcorn. Kernels littered the space between the rope and the off-limits zone, but none landed very close to the cage. The wendigo crouched and stuck his arm through as far as it would go, up to the elbow. His claws raked deep gouges in the dirt, but his efforts didn't earn him a single kernel. The boy laughed, and he answered by peeling his lips back with a growl. The sign on the rope suddenly made a lot more sense to Keizen. Maybe the show wasn't a scam after all.
The man with the gun woke and pushed himself drowsily off his seat. He clenched the gun in one hand and waved at the boy with the other. "Away from the rope!" He turned to the wendigo and glared. "And you, behave yourself!"
The wendigo flashed his pointed teeth again and made a sound that was quieter, but no less chilling than the one he had directed at the boy. He lowered his eyes, stalked to the far corner of the cage, and curled up on a pile of blankets. With a final huff of indignation he pulled one over his head and lay still.
The man announced that the show would be starting soon and the stragglers made their way to the benches. Keizen pushed past the boy to snag a choice spot near the front. The boy began whining to his mother in tones that hurt Keizen's head, but before either could disturb his peace further he lifted his hand and waved ever so slightly. The bag of popcorn in the boy's hand burst, sending its contents spilling over his shoes. Color drained from the woman's face and she gripped the boy's shoulders, steering him to a spot in the back.
A man approached from the opposite side, stepping around the cage with a warm smile on his face. He too was dressed like a northern hunter, but he carried a whip instead of a gun. With broad shoulders, graying hair, and a slight limp he offered a commanding presence. He stopped at the right side of the cage while his assistant laid props out on a small table. "Welcome to the show," he greeted in a loud, clear voice. "I am the Great Anwe. Let me see a raise of hands, who here has been to the far north? I am talking so far north if you spit it freeze on your lips before it leave your mouth."
A few of the younger children giggled, but no one raised their hands. The Great Anwe nodded. "Thought so. Well, I was born there. Thing you have to know about living up there is survival. Much danger up there. Danger like wendigo. I catch this one, bring him here to show you southern folks. I call him Diego. Wendigo speak, but they do not have names, so I call him that. Say hello to everyone, Diego!"
The bundle of blankets didn't stir. Keizen smirked at the flustered look that passed over the man's face. He was clearly used to getting what he wanted, and wasn't good at hiding his disappointment.
The Great Anwe prodded the blankets with the butt of the whip. He spoke in a low voice that Keizen assumed was supposed to be a whisper. "You are making me look bad."
Nothing happened. The Great Anwe stepped back and brought the whip down, cracking it between the bars over the blankets. Diego shot straight up and slammed his head into the roof of the cage, then bounced off the opposite wall and raced around the enclosed space. When he calmed down enough to stop he stared into the Great Anwe's eyes and flashed his teeth. The man cracked the whip again and Diego lowered to a crouch, then tilted his head back as if to allow him to examine his throat.
The Great Anwe stepped beside the table again and nodded at a stool in the cage. Diego perched like a gargoyle on its edge, hands and feet both gripping it. The man attempted to mask his frustration with a grin and addressed the audience again. "Diego get cranky when he is hungry. Anyone want to guess what wendigo eat?"
The boy with the busted popcorn bag pointed at a younger girl seated beside him and yelled, "They eat little girls, like the monsters under your bed!"
The girl started crying and their mother shushed him. The Great Anwe chuckled. "They eat everybody and everything. Want to see what would happen if you ignore the signs?"
The man grabbed an enormous bone off the table, and Keizen pictured the loudmouthed boy in its place. He passed the smaller end through the bars, and Diego grabbed it. Unable to pull the whole thing through, he bit hold of what he could and shook his head. The crowd fell silent enough to hear it cracking between his teeth. When he had eaten everything within reach he let the rest drop on the other side and stared forlornly at it.
The Great Anwe picked it up and tossed it to a man in the crowd, who confirmed that it was real. "Many things that make wendigo dangerous. They are fast and strong. They look like us. Maybe, if you are not paying attention, they trick you. One other thing that is very special about them. Show them, Diego."
Diego crossed his arms and scowled. "No. You do it."
Several people laughed and the Great Anwe's mask of professionalism slipped further. He shook the whip. "How dare you speak that way after I feed you! You ever want to eat again?"
Diego looked into the crowd and shrugged. "Stupid man is mean. What can I do?"
This brought more laughter, which put a smile on Diego's face. The Great Anwe fumed, but said nothing. Diego held out a hand, then stuck a finger between his teeth and bit down. Blood seeped between his lips. A woman seated behind Keizen screamed, causing him to grit his teeth in irritation.
Diego spat the finger into his uninjured hand and held the bleeding one up. New tissue reformed out of the stump and the bleeding died down, until a red stain was all that was left of the wound. He tossed the finger into his mouth and crunched on it.
From his seat in the back Popcorn Boy yelled, "Eewww!"
The Great Anwe took a step toward the crowd. "What did I say? They eat everything. For his final trick, Diego need someone to be a volunteer. How about you, Sir?"
He pointed to a man built like a bear with human skin stretched over its muscles. The man grinned stupidly and stepped over the rope. The Great Anwe pointed to where he should stand and handed him a thick metal chain. "You look like a strong man, yes? You have the job to show everyone that Diego is stronger than he look. Think you can beat him?"
The bear-man nodded. The Great Anwe took the other end of the chain and threw it between the bars. Diego picked it up and put it in his mouth, then backed away until it was taut. The man pulled back and started dragging him, but when he crouched down on all fours and dug his claws in he stopped. The man tried in vain until beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. He dropped the chain and stomped away without saying a word. People applauded and the Great Anwe bowed.
Diego pulled the chain in and threw it at the Great Anwe, who seemed to be expecting it and jumped aside just in time. He shrugged and forced a grin. "What can you expect from wild animals? They never grateful no matter how much you feed them. I hope you enjoyed the show, everyone! Diego, say goodbye."
Diego stuck a hand between the bars. "I made you laugh. Give me food!"
The Great Anwe poked him with the whip. "Shameless beggar."
He turned his back on his audience without another word and headed north, into the outskirts of the sideshow camp on the border it shared with a forest.
Keizen followed him to a small, hastily erected building he assumed was his living quarters. He spoke up before the man could disappear inside it. "Excuse me, Sir. That was a fascinating performance. Would you mind telling me how you came to be in possession of that creature? How do you catch them? Where do you find them?"
The Great Anwe turned and gave him a critical look. "Why should I tell you? That is my secret. Act is only one of its kind. It will stay that way."
He slammed the door in Keizen's face before the psion could come up with a retort.
Keizen sulked toward the entrance, but stopped before he got too far. An idea was forming in his mind. Surely such a rare creature was valuable. If he could capture some for himself, or at least sell the secret to catching them, it could make him rich. He left the sideshow grounds and waited until it grew late and most of the lights were out, then snuck back in.
Diego remained in the cage, pacing once more. Back and forth, back and forth. He stopped when Keizen was still some distance away and pressed his face against the bars.
Keizen stepped over the rope and strode up to the cage. "Tell me how that man captured you."
Diego rolled his eyes. "I not trust humans. Will not say anything."
"What can I do to prove you can trust me so you will tell me?"
Diego grabbed a bar in each hand and stared back with wide, hopeful eyes. "Let me out? Will not hurt you. I promise!"
"It is a deal. Step back so I can destroy the lock."
Keizen concentrated his psionic power into a blast that would be powerful enough to break the lock. Red symbols painted on it warned of additional magical protection, but he had yet to encounter a magic shield that could block a psion's power. The lock shattered and the door swung open.
He half expected the creature to come rushing out, but Diego seemed mesmerized by the display of power and did not budge. Keizen gave him a superior look. "That is only the smallest taste of a psion's abilities. If you try to attack me, I will throw you back in there and bend the bars shut."
Diego cowered and tilted his head back to show his throat. "Will not hurt you. I promise."
Keizen stepped back and he crept through the door. Every muscle was tense, and he whipped his head around as if distracted by distant noises. He leaned toward the psion and sniffed, then turned his back on him and leapt on top of the cage.
Keizen shook his fist up at him. "Where are you going? Tell me how you were captured!"
Diego appeared not to hear him. He turned around a few times, sniffing at the air, before stopping and staring north. Without a moment of hesitation he sprang off and sprinted out of sight.
Keizen cursed under his breath and hurried after him. He had been focusing all his concentration on preparing for an attack. Capturing a fleeing target required a completely different set of tactics, and Diego melted into the darkness before he could lock onto him. He stumbled blindly along what he assumed to be his trail.
A pounding sound in the near distance cleared things up a bit. Keizen hurried toward it, but before he could reach the spot a familiar voice howled with terror. "Diego, no!"
He reached what he assumed to be the Great Anwe's living quarters, though it was hard to be sure with such poor light, and saw two figures in the doorway. He hurtled a blast of invisible energy at them, but the thinner of the two disappeared and he was sure he had missed it. The blast flew through the entrance and punched a hole in the wall, and it was only when he reached the shelter that he could see the door had already been broken off its hinges. The Great Anwe's body lay sprawled across it. His head and a large chunk of his neck were missing in action.
Before Keizen could decide what to do next the scene was lit in more detail than he cared to see by an intense red glow. He turned and found the mage with the fire dancing act beside him, a larger group gathering behind her. Though she was dressed in warmer sleepwear, flames danced over the arm she held up and did not spread. She chewed at a nail and grimaced. "I told him he should have put that thing down. Did you see which way it went?"
Several men with guns did not give Keizen time to answer before they shoved past him and disappeared into the darkness outside the mage's glow. He brushed himself off and adjusted his glasses. "No one could have. It was too dark. Good night."
He tried to step past her, but she grabbed his arm with her non-flaming hand. "You can't leave! You must help us!"
The camp was alive by now with shouts and people rushing past. Many carried lanterns into the forest that lay beyond the flimsy shelters, so that it looked like giant fireflies were pouring into it. Something roared far out of sight, followed by a scream Keizen could not be sure was that of a human or a dying rabbit.
He jerked his sleeve from her grip. "It is none of my concern. Your people captured him once before. You can do it again."
As alarming as the rising yells and gunshots from the forest were, Keizen found himself more concerned with avoiding the sideshow workers. He was too tired to be dealing with so many people, and surely just as many were shooting each other in the darkness as their intended target. There was no way he was setting foot in that mess.
The mage grabbed him again before he could slip away and spoke with bared teeth. "Anwe spent a month tracking that creature and setting a trap for it, and he was the only one there to see how it was done. We need all the help we can get. I know you are the one who somehow got past my lock. You owe us!"
Keizen narrowed his eyes. If there was anything that aggravated him more, it was commoners insisting a psion like him owed them anything. He spoke with an even voice. "A month is a long time to do something about it, if you do not take care of him tonight. What can you pay me?"
Her eyes flared red, and for a moment he wondered if she would explode. She let go and ground her teeth. "You are a despicable person. You must have great power to be able to break my lock, but maybe it would be best for you to just leave. For all I know you are aligned with that horrid maneater."
Someone called off to the side and she held her flaming arm out. "He's killin' us out there Cellia! Why don't ya go teach him what happens when ya play with fire?"
The speaker was propping a second man up, half dragging him deeper into the camp. The man stared ahead with glazed eyes and held a hand to his torn throat in a feeble attempt to staunch the blood bubbling from it. Keizen shuddered.
The mage met Keizen's eyes one last time. "If I ever catch you making trouble for us again, I will burn you in an effigy for all the people that thing has killed!"
She turned her back on him and charged into the forest. A morbid part of him wanted to wait and see if she fried the creature or got eaten, but he decided it was not worth it to find out.
He retraced his steps through the camp, which was now full of moaning people and others tending to an assortment of bite marks, scratches, broken bones, and friendly fire. Just as he expected, these people had no idea what they were doing. He would be glad to rid himself of their company.
Keizen moved on, saw more interesting towns and visited places that offered more valuable information. He rarely thought of the events of that night, unless one of the rumors made their way to his ear. They say people sometimes turn up ripped to pieces, or just outright go missing. It can happen in the countryside or the biggest city, but one thing is for certain; each new attack forms a trail leading farther northward.