Monday, February 26, 758 BC
Akkik, Alyonka, Boudica, Gus, Jezzy, Khatun Javach, Saka, Torbjorn, Xevok, and the bear are wary of the carnival, so they approach Suria attempting to avoid the collection of tents. (They are aware that they will still be spotted on the flat terrain, but they might get more warning of an impending assault if they are farther away.) As they get closer, they notice additional features about the abandoned settlement: the outer walls appear to have been crudely painted over in spots, the paint splotches evidently covering something — the travelers surmise that someone painted over images of the Idea of Thorns — and the whole assemblage is plastered with handbills. Although most of the travelers find the handbills to be strange artwork that resolve into adverts for the carnival only after extensive study, discussion indicates they don’t all see the same thing. (Alyonka seems to think her kin are there, both Vistani and tieflings, while Boudica sees images of nature-loving dwarves. Xevok doesn’t reveal what he sees beyond the fact that it seems to disturb and upset him.)
The faint sounds of calliope music float through the abandoned town, wafting from the carnival.
The inside of the village is completely abandoned, and many of the buildings have been burned. (The buildings are also plastered with handbills for the carnival.) Some of the buildings have also been painted, likely to cover artwork depicting the Idea of Thorns. In the center of town is freshly-disturbed earth where a mass grave has been dug. A few wild animals roam the town — the occasional wild dog or wolf or rat or raven — although they flee before the travelers as one might expect of wild animals. Boudica takes the opportunity to spend some time trying to attract a rat, and after feeding it, casts speak with animals. She learns that the chaos occurred some days ago, and that people fled in all directions. The rat notes that the fighting stopped around the time the music started, no doubt referencing the calliope music. The rat also notes that a group of people with painted faces came and buried the bodies. (The travelers suspect these might have been clowns?)
Now reasonably confident that the carnival does not represent a threat, the travelers decide to enter. The barker at the entrance, a tall human man in monochromatic garb named Tindal, gives greeting, introducing them to their “festival of freaks” and announcing that entry is 2cp. Although the travelers initially consider leaving, they reconsider when they learn that the survivors from Suria have taken refuge in here. (Tindal notes that the skurra — the carnival’s equivalent of clowns — buried the bodies and painted over the iconography relating to the Idea of Thorns. He also offhandedly mentions the carnival’s leader, a mysterious woman named Isolde.) Paying their fee and stepping inside, they are about to take the tour of the midway when they spot the unnamed raven shapeshifter who met Torbjorn several days ago. She is among some of the refugees here, apparently trying to comfort them. Torbjorn excuses himself from Tindal’s tour to speak to her, and the others follow suit.
Everyone makes introductions, and she introduces herself as Kartu. She explains that she arrived here a few days ago and found the village in this state. She doesn’t know where her family who normally run The Dress and Lamp would have gone, only that she expects they would have fled rather than being caught in whatever happened here. (They might have gone to Golova? She honestly doesn’t know; Suria was their fallback location, so she has no idea where they might have gone in an emergency.) They likely have valuables buried here, but until she can find them again, she cannot retrieve them.
As Kartu and the villagers know little about their predicament, they ask Tindal if they can speak with Isolde. He leaves to ask as the travelers continue to discuss their current predicament with Kartu. When he returns, he says that Isolde is actually expecting them, and leads them to her tent.
On the way, Boudica picks up Tindal’s scent, and notes that he smells wrong somehow, almost like he’s not really there. When she mentions this, he winks and tells her to not spoil the surprise, as he is the attraction known as “the Amazing Soul-Less Man.”
They are led to a cozy tent filled with cushions and a single short desk. A muscular, raven-haired, pale-skinned human woman sits behind the desk, introducing herself as Isolde. Before speaking to the others, she sends Akkik and Saka away, telling them they may seek sanctuary in the carnival. She also seems to silently communicate something to the bear, prompting the beast to trundle outside.
Once alone, she covers the troubles regarding Suria, although she notes that they were not present for whatever initial chaos overran the village. But from what they’ve been able to piece together from the survivors, some of the villagers started attacking the others, clearly indulging in some manner of proselytizing. It is unclear where the problem originated or where the “infected” went — they likely fled the village in every direction after the carnival arrived. The carnival will not stay here much longer, moving on within a couple of days. They will likely leave this domain and take the refugees with them, although it is not safe for the travelers to accompany them. (Isolde does not elaborate further on the rationale, nor does she indicate where they are headed next, possibly because she does not know: she indicates that their travels take them far and wide on an erratic schedule.)
Turning to other matters, she asks Alyonka about her father. She thinks he might be in the area, and she asks if anyone made contact with Alyonka who might match his description. Any strange men who breezed into her life? The others make note of Thomas, whom they have long suspected of being the mysterious demonic man who is also implicated as Alyonka’s father. Isolde says it is possible, although she cannot say for certain. But it might be worth investigating. (Alyonka, for her part, is quiet for the rest of the conversation as she contemplates this possibility.)
The travelers also inquire about the prophecy that follows them, and Isolde notes that they should probably inquire about such things with Madame Fortuna. She does answer some of their questions about the Domains of Dread, however: the Dark Powers prepare these places as prisons for especially wicked souls, of which it seems Khan Yemur is one. She doesn’t know what will happen if he dies; sometimes domains dissolve, but sometimes another wicked soul takes the darklord’s place. While darklords are not omniscient, they can intercept messages and divinations that would travel outside their domain, including spells such as commune or contact other plane.
With the travelers having no further questions, she notes that their admission fee for rides will be waived for the evening. (Although they will have to pay past their first use of any attraction.) With that, she lets them return to the carnival. Once they leave her tent, Jezzy feeds the bear a goodberry and uses speak with animals to communicate that it doesn’t have to stay. It indicates that it wishes to do so. The travelers then speak with Tindal to see the troupers — what others might call the “freaks.” He leads them through, showing them the Imp, whose malformed tumorous twin grows from his neck; the Brute, a muscular pig-like humanoid of savage proportions; the Illuminated Man, covered with his animated tattoos; the Snake Mistress, an exotic dancer who is said to have once been a snake herself; Wood’n-Head, who can harmessly drive nails and spikes through himself; the Living Skeleton, a woman of frighteningly gaunt proportions; the Hideous Man-Beast, a leopard who is currently in human form as it is the night of the full moon; the Vampiress, a pallid acrobat with bat wings; Mister ?, a faceless man whom Tindal warns Jezzy to not touch for her own safety; and finally, Tindal, “the Amazing Soul-Less Man,” who casts no reflection. (This is less impressive to the travelers, half of whom don’t cast reflections. It seems to steal Tindal’s thunder a bit.)
Having introduced them to the troupers, they wish to go to the arcade. Showing them the available games, they indulge in the following:
- Jezzy attempts the ring toss, a mechanical contraption with moving pegs. She manages to win a bottle of wine (listed as a 735 BC vintage), which she gives to Alyonka.
- Torbjorn wrestles two dimunitive creatures called darklings, both wearing plague doctor outfits. He wins a limited-use wand that acts as a wand of scowls.
- Boudica also attempts wrestling, although she shapeshifts into a bear first. Tindal notes this is technically allowable, and she handily wins, winning a wizard puppet that can cast minor illusion a handful of times.
- Alyonka enters the poetry contest against the resident poet. Although she makes a valiant effort, he proves more adept at improvisational poetry than she.
- Jezzy enters a staring contest and wins. The barker incongruously gives her a small painted portrait of a goblin child, clearly a toddler, alongside another similarly-dressed goblin. Jezzy recognizes the goblin as herself as a child — very strange as she never knew her parents, although it’s possible that she is of an age before she was orphaned.
Alyonka also notes to Tindal that she would like a tattoo from the Illuminated Man, but Tindal says she’ll have to wait until the morning.
After playing games at the midway, the travelers head to Madame Fortuna’s vardo to ask about their fortunes. Madame Fortuna, an eyeless Vistani raunie, is as cryptic as one might expect. Jezzy starts to ask about tarokka on Alyonka’s behalf, but then lets her ask the question. Madame Fortuna asks if she wishes to learn, and during the course of the conversation, the topic again arises of Thomas. Torbjorn tells Alyonka that she should ask Madame Fortuna if Thomas is her father, and she angrily leaves. Jezzy follows to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble.
After that awkward interlude, the travelers ask about the card reading they received. Although Madame Fortuna doesn’t know this area well, she expects they’re headed in the right direction, towards the work camp where they will find someone who can tell them secrets about the Khan. She also suspects they will leave this place, although she does not know what comes next for them. Torbjorn asks if he will return home in time to see his father before he passes, and Madame Fortuna says the future outside the domains is cloudy, but he has a chance.
When Jezzy returns, she asks if she and Boudica will have children, and Madame Fortuna says she cannot see. If that is something they wish to pursue, there are ways to make that work. Boudica asks what food Madame Fortuna likes, and while looking wistful, she names a confection called Vistani John. With nothing further to ask, the travelers take their leave, and proceed to find a quiet portion of the carnival to bed down for the night.
Meanwhile, Alyonka storms back to the poetry booth to try again. (Jezzy follows, but when she is certain that Alyonka looks like she’s just trying to be alone for a time, she returns to the others.) This time, she manages to keep up with the poet and wins a clockwork butterfly whose wings flap in the breeze. She pins it in her hair, and then takes the opportunity to speak to the poet, a human man by the name of Sterling Hawthorne. With few other participants entering, he has time to talk, so they sit and drink wine while discussing poetry. (She notes that the bottle of wine from the carnival plays a slow, calliope-like dirge when opened until it is drained.) Feeling lonely and hurt, Alyonka flirts with Sterling, but can’t get a good read on him to figure out if he’s receptive or not. Still, they have a fine time discussing things, and as Alyonka has little desire to return to the rest of the party at the moment, she asks him if he can recommend a spot where she might stay the night…