He awoke in pain. His skin was stretched too tight and tried to smother his poor bones. His veins wouldn't stop pulsating. It was too hot for his cloak. No, this wasn't a cloak. This was heavier and clung closer to him... maybe a tunic? Too hot for a tunic, then. Why was he wearing something so hot? Summertime wasn't the time for bearskins... wait, when did he ever kill a bear?
The human tried getting rid of it to let his claustrophobic skin get some air, but to his horror discovered his arms were dead.
A traveling stranger passed through his city once, back when he was shorter than most windowsills. The man was nice and told him stories but the next morning the stranger said something about not feeling his left arm. Then he fell, dead as a power line.
Was this what it was? Was he dying? Was that why his feet couldn't move either? Was that why his head throbbed and his tongue felt too big for his mouth?
Oh. No, wait, there they were.
He could feel his feet and arms after all, they just couldn't move much. The fingers and toes still wiggled, they must be alright too. Perhaps he was not dying after all. Good to know.
The human squeezed his eyes shut and waiting for his breath to stop being jagged and rapid and hard to hold. But even when the air in his lungs moved smooth and even his head still throbbed, it was still too hot, and the light hurt his eyes. He supposed he should be grateful it was only from a candle and not the merciless glare of the sun, but even so—wait. Candles? And where was that annoying clinking sound coming from?
It was then the man realized he was no longer lying upon the soft grasses, nor did it feel like silt, mud, or even simple compact dirt. This felt… solid. It felt like a floor but he couldn't have been indoors, for there was a breeze that carried along the scent of trees. There was a low rumble of voices in the distance, and something walking in the grass. Curiosity overpowered the headache and he opened his eyes in full. There wasn't much to see, just grey floorboard.
Whatever kept his arms pulled back also kept him from standing, so he tried rolling over only to have a thousand evil sharp little somethings claw deep into his shoulder. Even through the bear hide he could feel them biting into his skin, into muscle and bone. He couldn't see, but he was sure he must be bleeding. He rolled over in the other direction, gritting his teeth down to the root to keep from crying out.
The human chewed his lip and looked up carefully. There were rows on rows of spiteful black thorns winking in the candlelight, shiny with his blood. His eye followed the thorns up and up as they arched above and around him in a wide spherical cage. It put him in the mind of some ugly parody of Cinderella's carriage. A lovely red rose blossomed on several vines for a touch of elegant irony.
The cage looked almost tall enough to stand in, but not quite. The man doubted it mattered, now that he saw the reason why he was barely able to move. His ankles were in fetters and lengths of silver chain held his arms tight against his back, threatening to pop his injured shoulder. A larger, fatter chain circled around his neck, rooted to the floor. It looked long enough to get around the enclosure, but he was sure if he somehow managed to stand up straight he'd be strangled.
"I'd keep away from the bars if I were you."
A unicorn crouched at eye level just beyond the thorns. He was the cornflower blue of a midday sky, and the shades of pink in his frazzled mane resembled the quiet dawn. The pony seemed broader than the mares the human had seen earlier, with a stouter muzzle and looking altogether less delicate, despite the gangly legs. The horn was unusually long and almost too big for his head, not unlike a pup that hadn't grown into its ears and paws. The unicorn gazed at him with dark and solemn eyes, but the little pink beard fluffing out of his chin made it hard to take them seriously. A thin black cape draped over his shoulders did its best to seem mysterious but the brass bell cheerfully jingling at the clasp diluted the effect.
"I'm sorry," he said. "That advice is a little late, isn't it? I'd have warned you earlier of the cage but I thought you were still asleep. You've been out all day and I was starting to worry. I don't know how many of those berries you ate, but for your size, I expect it was too many."
The human just frowned and blinked slowly at him. "Where am I? Are you the one that put me in here?"
"We are in show business, my friend. Pyrite the Bold's Carnival of Carnivores. Otherwise known as Pyrite the Fearless' Fantastic Festival of Fangs, or Pyrite's Terrible Tent of Terrors, or Pyrite's Magnificent Medley of Marvelous Monsters, or whatever else title the crowbait cob's been using lately." He averted his eyes and continued, "And yes, I helped detain you. I hope you can forgive me for that, but it was no idea of mine. I tried my best to coax him into getting something different, I really did, but he'd have none of it."
The human looked to the small array of wagons where he heard the voices before and could vaguely see two figures in the window of the largest one.
"Who? The long eared fellow?"
"Cozen? No, he wants nothing to do with you. He argued more against your capture than I did, though for more foolish reasons. Showmaster Pyrite's the one you want, the fellow in the jerkin and the feathered cap. You'll get more love from a boiled cabbage heart than from his."
The human was just barely listening. With no small effort he'd managed to sit up for a better look world beyond the thorns was all flat land dressed in tawny grasses and a lavender sky bleeding into early evening. The company of wagons sat out in the open, out of place and lonely as if someone had left their belongings behind with no intention to return. The largest wagon, sun-faded and creaking, lurked a fair distance away from it all, too proud to mingle with the rest of the collection.
The structure closest to the faded wagon was a circular platform on tall metal wheels directly across from the thorn cage. A she-wolf with dull sable fur curled in a tight ball in the middle of it, the gentle rise and fall of furry sides the only sign the only sign of life in her. Similar platforms were lined out in a wide semi-circle. Next to the wolf's area a weasel chased its tail, and after that, a blindfolded rooster neighboring with what the human would later know as a diamond dog. After them was a winged tawny animal several times bigger than the wolf, unidentifiable with its back turned, grumbling low to itself every now and then. Next to the human's own cage was a large platform where a cluster of swallowtails fluttered in the air, all of them a dark iridescent green, and he wondered why they didn't fly away instead of circling around themselves in a lazy whirlwind.
The human had the only area with actual bars, but something in the depths of his liver told the man the other creatures were no less caged. He looked at how closely the thorn vines wove around each other, hardly room for a shrew to squeeze in without a nasty scratch. He remembered a nameless pigeon cooing, a little heartbeat hammering against his palm before he gripped tighter and the heartbeat stopped. He knew what happened to creatures in a cage.
Despite the heat from the bearskin, the human shivered. "I don't like this place."
"No sane creature does," sighed the blue unicorn. He glanced up at the human and smiled gently. "Take heart and don't be afraid. You'll be free soon."
"Oh, I'm not afraid." The man's voice shivered like daisies in a frosty wind.
"I'll speak with Cozen and see to it those chains are loosed some. No point in showing off a human without some devilry of hands, is there?" The pony lowered his voice to a whisper. "What was in the bag you had?"
"Um, food and clothes, mostly. A few tools and things. Why?"
"Have you something to pick a lock? Do you know how?"
The human nodded.
"Good, that—" the unicorn froze at the sound of a closing door and tried to make himself smaller in the tall grass brushing against his chest. "I've not much time. Check your supper carefully before you eat it. I will be back later, just stay there in the meantime."
The human glanced at the thorns and lifted an eyebrow.
"Oh, you know what I mean. Just don't do anything to tip the trough, sit there quietly and do... human things. And try and get some sleep, the show starts in two hours."
"I've been sleeping for over a day."
"Then fake it. They won't adjust your bonds if you're awake." The unicorn looked up and around before ducking close to the earth like a prairie dog, tightening his haunches for a sprint. "Be still until you hear from me."
"Who is it I'm waiting for?"
He waited a moment before simply saying, "Star Swirl". Then he rushed away, a little black cloud billowing and jingling across a yellow field. The human watched until it vanished behind the wagons before he lay down again.
He didn't sleep, of course. Not with the extra sleep from the past day and certainly not with the frets and worries biting at his brain. Instead the human simply closed his eyes, listened to the breeze cut through the waving grass, keeping himself at ease thinking of the closed safety of brick walls. He drilled through memories of many doors, windows, drawers, gates, boxes and all other things that bore lock or latch, and he assured himself that he still knew how to coax or force all of them open. He concentrated on the feel of chilled silver and reminded himself he knew how to free himself with the right tools.
The human did not move at the sound of several sets of hooves moving about the cage. He was still at the sound of something twisting, falling and was still when he knew that the cage was open temptingly, achingly wide. He listened quietly to the voices argue logistics of how much slack the chain ought to have and still be practical, though one voice seemed more concerned about some sort of skin contact.
But when he felt his arms moving by themselves, he could not help but risk a peek.
Immediately he regretted it.
It wasn't as if the human was ignorant of magic. He'd heard lots of stories and read many books and seen several pictures that depicted magics of various sorts. He knew very well that there was magic in the world beyond his iron towers and asphalt knowledge did nothing to prepare him for the sight of his hands—his very own hands—floating in midair above him, the manacles and chain holding his wrists glowing a bright unearthly glow. There was no reason a chain ought to glow. There ought to be no way his limbs should move against his will. A sudden frost crept along the thin hairs of the base of his neck and there was a hitch in his throat.
The human made a very quiet mewl in the back of his throat and squeezed his eyes shut. He scarcely dared to breathe as he felt his arms move independently to and fro, hearing someone huff and strain the whole time. When his arms were gently dropped back to the floorboards, heard the twisty creaks of the cage closing up and the sound of hooves fading away, the human sat up and let himself exhale.
The human's wrists were now bound in front of him and he could stretch them to shoulder length but no further. He shuddered and pulled all his limbs in close for a self-embrace until he was reassured that that his body belonged to himself again.
It was then he noticed something new in the enclosure: a little pile of stones, twigs, and grasses awkwardly held a hen impaled on a stick. Not a bad setup for a fire, considering it had been made by ponies (though the human thought if they went through the trouble of making a spit they could have at least bothered to pluck the hen). In the stony pile something caught the light and stuck out at an odd angle, a long thin bit of iron that was slightly hooked at the end.
He snatched the lockpick and gripped it so tightly it made an impression in his palm. It didn't have the clever finesse of the picks from home, not specially made for breaking into fallout shelters or lock-boxes, but from the look of these locks he suspected that it would do just fine. The silver fetter locks were somewhat different than what he was used to. Not very complicated, though it could take some time to figure out and the human suspected there wasn't much time to borrow.
The man's thoughts were interrupted by the gurgling growl of his stomach. He looked to the hen and frowned. The blue unicorn (Star Swirl, wasn't it?) was intent that any escape attempts should wait until later. First things first, then. He carefully hid the lockpick in the folds of the bearskin, resting it securely against his chest, then went to work plucking the hen.
Something in the air had changed. It was less of terror and more of anticipation. The human wondered why... and then he saw them. An assembly of ponies—all unicorns, it seemed—had gathered in the field not far from the semicircle of cages. They huddled together, a pastel rainbow of a crowd murmuring amongst themselves. A few stood to the side, where they spoke to Star Swirl, his shock of pink mane plainly visible even from a distance. He was hunched over a table concentrating on flipping a set of cards, pausing every now and again to consult some sort of map or chart, then exchanged words with the little crowd at his table.
He went back to the hen. Now fully plucked, the man saw that it really didn't have much in muscle tone or fat; very disappointing for a bird this size. It still would do for a small supper though, he'd eaten far worse before and besides it wasn't as if he was in any position to pick and choose. Now, if only the flint would cooperate. It took several tries to even get a spark, and at least ten attempts to make those sparks bloom into a healthy flame. It was during the seventh of these attempts the human heard a voice.
The donkey stood amongst the unicorn crowd calling out into the field, a sound dry, coarse and crackling. An antagonistic drought wind, eager to whip a thirsty field into a frenzied brush fire. "Move in, move in. Move in an' keep well to guard yer faint hearts an' sensibilities. The sun leaves an' the moon's not yet show 'erhelf. You an' I, we're in the in-between time now. Tis the hour when creatures of blood an' fangs stir in the shadows. The nightmares are a-wakin'. Fillies and gentlecolts, welcome to Showmaster Pyrite's Carnival of Carnivores. " The donkey bowed his head, lowering his long ears as a noblecolt might remove his hat. "I am Cozen, yer guide for th' evenin'."
The human glanced up from the fire for a look around. It seemed a poor exhibit of nightmares in his opinion, save for perhaps the hulking animal with the leather wings a few cages away. But perhaps the little herbivorous ponies were just easier to spook. As Cozen's dry voice droned on the man went back to more important matters. The little flames licked the hen, but stubbornly refused to become a proper fire. The warmth from the embers were likely enough to cook a tiny hen, if just barely, assuming he gave it enough air and turned the bird properly.
But in the distance there was something odd about Cozen's speech. Something stranger than a simple exaggeration, something that seemed to conjure nightmares from newts. "Here is th' timberwolf. Often 'eard in the depths of forests in the east singin' creaky wooden howls deep in the dark. They don't stick to any one area in particular, usually movin' from area to area in packs of fiveish or so. This one, she came upon us one moonless spring night with 'er eyes glowin' bright on us, just as they glow on you folks right now. She's all branches, twig, an' leaf. As much tree as wolf, pro'lly more. A real creature of the wood, this one."
The human frowned in confusion and stretched his neck to see through the crowd. For a moment he thought that he'd not seen that particular cage correctly. But no, it was just the same she-wolf from before standing in the cage. She blinked slowly and coughed a wet phlegmy cough. Certainly she was a fearsome animal (or would be had she been healthier) but nothing at all like what the donkey was describing.
"It will run a pony to exhaustion. Ye won't see 'er comin—blendin' in as she does with the trees an' such—until you feel fangs lodged in yer leg. She'll let ye go after she bites ye, she knows ye'll not be gettin' far. Them wooden fangs'll drive deep an' set splinters in the bone. She don't 'ave to chase very hard, ye'll run yerself ragged before too long. Ev'ry step is agony, ev'ry step drives all them little splinters in deeper and ye'll get slower an' slower until the timberwolf an' her friends don't got to do more than walk up calm as you please. 'Tis not unusual for the wolf to eat its prey alive."
The crowd huddled tighter, bubbling with nervous murmurs. One mare jumped back screaming when the sable wolf sat on her haunches and yawned with a mouth of ordinary yellow teeth. Were they all blind?
Cozen smiled with tombstone teeth. "I s'pose it could be said the timberwolf's bark is worse than 'er bite."
A few ponies giggled nervously at the joke. Very few. The crowd moved on to the weasel, still dashing about in mad little circles. Every now and then it stopped to fruitlessly dig at the floor.
"The snow wasset," said the donkey "Can be found in the northern mountains huntin' little creatures of various sorts. This one in particular's a runt—only twice the length of a stallion like you, sir, don't touch the cage—but they're usually twice this size at least. As you can see, he's green now. Ordinarily, he'd be dozin' the summertime away in a cranberry swamp somewhere waitin' on winter. Ye see, when the air gets chilled an' the snows fall the wasset sheds its legs just as a serpent sheds skin and he dives deep in the snow banks and vanishes, for by that time he'll 'ave a coat just as white. There he'll wait until he 'ears the pit-pat of little paws and SNAP! Breeches up like a shark, great maw open t'snap up any unsuspectin' soul."
An orange filly with a messy green mane waved her hoof about. "Does it eat ponies?" she asked in a loud voice.
Cozen cast her an annoyed glance and waved a lazy hoof. "It usually prefers things that'll fit whole in 'is mouth. Lil' rabbits an' such. Wolverines are their favorite. But, yes. More than one unfortunate pony's been dragged under the snow by the likes of this one when it runs out of wolverines. Pyrite discovered this 'un layin' on the rocks, red-muzzled with a stomach swole to boulder size. All about him was the remains of some unlucky party of earth pony travelers. Naught but a pile of hooves an' scarves."
The weasel reached it sinewy body around to gnaw a flea on its haunch. It was hardly big enough to be a scarf itself. Not even a good pair of mittens.
"'Course the good news is a fat snow wasset's a slow snow wasset. If not for them earth ponies Pyrite might never 'ave caught it and you fine folks would've lost a grand opportunity to see him for yerselves. Always a use for an earther, eh?"
This time more than a few laughed at the joke and Cozen smiled.
An ember popped and the human suddenly remembered his fire. He huffed and puffed and blew it, teasing the grasses to persuade the flames to live just a little longer. Too much time wasted wondering about ponies and too little on important things. He carefully felt the sides of the hen; it wouldn't be long now, but it was cooking a little uneven. The man adjusted the spit carefully, paying attention to his own matters, but still listening to the donkey's brushfire voice.
"The cockatrice. Body of a serpent, head of a chicken, but all of him foul. With but a cold stare he petrifies, so for your safety an' mine he wears a blindfold over them bewitchin' eyes. Good news for us, but it's no comfort to his little friend, that's for sure."
Cozen paused to clear his throat. "Kin of the mountain, Crunch the Rockdog and he's a rarity bein' only Rockdog that ever was. Like 'is evil little feathered fiend of a friend he's a petrifying beast, though for our good fortune tis by touch an not sight. Look fer yerself, the very floor he stands on is granite from the touch of them paws. Dragons turn to statues, forests become barren wastelands. He hates softness, both in texture and in character. The sight of fluff or the scent of love drives him into a rampage, barrelin' all over up an' down the place turnin' everything he spies to granite. Mayhap he's only jealous. No heart of his own, ye see. Th' ol' mountain what sired Crunch made a heart fer him—a fire ruby—and once upon a time it rested right there in the collar 'anging from his neck."
The man looked up a moment, making sure to keep the spit turning. A rooster sat looking a little silly with a spotted blindfold around its head. A young doggish creature with an ape-like build and skin like an elephant sat next to it. He blinked at the unicorns with eyes bright and green as a traffic light, lacking anything even close to hatred in them. A little blue tongue lolled out in the night air. It moved its mouth at the crowd, but no sound came out.
"Crunch and the cockatrice: brothers of boulder, pals in petrification." Cozen seemed to take more time to stretch out the Rockdog's speech. When he led the crowd to the fifth animal his long ears stretched flat out behind his head. The nervous air was contagious, moving along the unicorns in waves of wide darting eyes, rapid hearts, and frightened nickers.
"The manticore." The donkey's voice wavered, a flame petering out under a cold breeze. "It prowls the dark woodland of the Unicorn Kingdom, stalks the laborious villages of the Earth Pony Nation, and has even been known to feast in lower clouds of the Pegasus Hegemony in search of prey."
"The... the clouds?" asked a mare. "How?"
"Well, just see fer yerself, mum! Take a look at them strong dragonish wings. Not strong enough to get that bulk any long distance but perfect for a surprise assault on low fliers. He can jump the whole length of this carnival here, can propel himself with his wings even farther. No trouble for that paw to throw a pegasus down." Cozen shuddered. "No trouble at all. It likes the ground better, though. Less effort. Claws are longer than your horn and impossible sharp. Behold the tail, long as the manticore's whole body and if the fangs or claws don' end you that tail will. Trust old Cozen, between the claws an' tail you'll be wantin' the claws."
The human glanced up, half expecting to see a shabby catamount with thinning fur, one tooth, and an ear infection. But to his amazement, every word the donkey spoke was true. Undoubtedly, absolutely, horribly true. A lion of incredible size crouched before the donkey and his unicorn herd, lashing a long, deadly scorpion tail, the spur on the end like a dollop of blood dripping in the air. The leathery wings snapped pointlessly in the air and the human could feel the rumbles from the manticore's throat soak through skin and into the marrow of his bones. For a short moment he was a little grateful of the thorn cage.
In a golden blur the creature threw itself at the frightened crowd, only to ricochet against the air and was thrown back in a thundering crash. He stood a moment later with nothing to show for the effort but a squashed nose and rumpled whiskers sticking out of his face. The area around the manticore took on a dull silvery sheen, a glistening soap bubble with the familiar silver-white aura the man saw before on the chains. A barrier. The other predators must have had similar bubbles around them as well, invisible until reality bumped against it. In the cage next door the butterflies fluttering in midair, pressed against the sky but unable to fly away. The human watched them and blinked in wonder. Yet, his own cage wasn't invisible at all but painfully, physically real. He wondered why.
The audience shrieked and cowered as the manticore snarled and clawed at the air. Great golden eyes held the crowd captive. The crowd took a collective step back. But Cozen calmly stood where he was and said, "Calm down folks, that barrier's held against meaner creatures than him. But if that's not enough t'calm yer soul, then look! Look above us."
They looked. There, atop the roof of the tallest wagon, stood the taut figure of a unicorn with all the softness of a spur angled downward and looming like a gargoyle. From a distance he was difficult to make out, excepting for the brilliant copper of his coat, the feathered cap tilted on the side of his head and the black eye patch that seemed to consume half his face. The array of lanterns surrounding him threw a shadow across the audience, the donkey, and the great menagerie of predators. A single green eye stared down and deep at all of them.
"Pyrite the Bold, our Showmaster. The breaker of beasts when nopony dares," Cozen said. "So long as he is with us we'll come to no harm. In this place only creatures long in tooth and dark of hearts need fear. Be thankful he guards us, for the creatures that await us are worst of all."
The human saw the sharp spike of Pyrite's horn bathed in a familiar silver-white glow and instinctively drew in his arms. He turned his eyes away to more a welcome sight of embers under a chicken.
Putting distance between himself and the manticore, confidence swelled back into Cozen's voice. "The stratadon, mayhap the oldest of any monster here. Forged by th' bitter cold darkness and birthed from hatred. Ever loyal servant to Tirek, the Master of Darkness hisself. The mighty reptile what dragged away at least a third of ponies from the ancestral Dream Valley across the dark skies—for his very presence frightened the unicorns so badly that they dropped the sun—to his home, the dreadful Castle Midnight. To untrained eyes the old thing looks somethin' like a dragon, but he's far littler and stupider than the likes of them. I'd be more eager to meet a dragon atop a mountain though, if ye want to know to truth. A dragon 'art may be swathed in flames but it's still made of blood and flesh just like us. But the stratadon? Tis all hollow in that scaly chest, nothin' but shadows of shadows an' blackness."
Alright, that was just ridiculous.
The human could understand the business with the wolf or maybe even the rooster, those things were at least resembled their descriptions, but there was just no way anyone could mistake that swarm of butterflies for...
And then he looked. Just as he expected there were five and twenty swallowtails in the air, a dandelion inspired more fear than they. But he noticed the awestruck faces of the audience clinging together in the night ready to faint or flee in sheer terror and looked again. For half a heartbeat, perhaps through his eyelashes when he blinked, the human saw it.
A great wyrm of hard scales and fire colder than cold. Everything around it, everything about it was dark, dark, dark and the man was suddenly convinced the sun would never rise and the night would go on forever. A long serpentine neck stretched to a sky suddenly bereft of stars and screeched like iron towers collapsing into themselves. The human saw the translucent silver bubble of a cage and in the corner of his eye, a forgotten subsection of his heart he saw the wolf made of wood, a great green wasset, the stony hulk of the Rockdog. He saw them all.
Then he blinked and the world was as it had always been. The human saw a cluster of ponies ready to eat their own tongues in fright, a donkey, and a cluster of green swallowtails twisting in the empty air. He waited to see if it would happen again, but it never did. He shook off the shadow of the stratadon and tended to his supper.
At the foot of the cage, the donkey was shuffling his hooves. "Friends, ol' Cozen owes you and apology. We advertised an Ursa Minor earlier and a pair cockatrice instead of just one. I'm sorry to say that's no longer true. Tisn't any fault of ours! We 'ad both these creatures but half a fortnight ago - ask around the Kingdom, they'll affirm it I bet – but y'see friends, we had a…incident."
The hen was finally finished - as finished as he could manage with such a weak fire - with the skin cooked golden as the rising sun and twice as welcome.
"'Ere's a tale for you: that half fortnight ago, the Showmaster played a game of backgammon with our young fortune teller with the silly beard with yours truly waitin' to play the winner—t'was Pyrite, if ye want to know—when we all 'erd a calamity of roars and screaming."
The trifling meat was rough and dryer than sarcasm, but the smell of it woke the man's stomach and made him instantly forgive any and all faults of the hen. This was a beautiful, glorious hen, finest in the world.
"Well, we all went in a mad dash t'see the cause and wouldn't ye know somethin' had raided our cages. Yes, these very cages, preyin' upon our monsters as if they were no more than a bunch of helpless piglets in a pen. T'was with no small amount of fortune and bravery from the Showmaster we stopped the rampage and captured it."
The hunger he'd ignored all day threatened to gnaw right through him when the soothing warmth of the bird blossomed in his cheeks. The human didn't think anything could have stolen his attention.
"Remember this night, friends. For the first time in eons, witness the most dangerous being to ever walk the earth. Fillies and gentlecolts: the contradiction creature!"
The familiar phrase caught his ear, somehow rising above through the blissful call of food. The human looked up as he tore off a second hen leg, then flinched as though stuck. They had snuck upon him with quiet footsteps hidden behind overzealous donkey brays and snapping of hen bones.
A long row of unicorns crowded shoulder to shoulder around the cage of black thorns. The light from the dying fire gave the rainbow of coats the same slight reddish tinge, and with the tight bars partially blocking his view it was hard to tell when one pony stopped and another began. Except for their many many many many eyes. Their already huge eyes more enormous with awe and terror filling them up.
The human had never seen such a number of any sapient creatures before—the greatest number before now was a party of griffin fledglings that stopped to rest in the iron bones of a tower some years ago, and even then there were only six of them and a fair distance away. He'd certainly never seen this many ponies before and until now Star Swirl was the only pony he'd seen up close.
There couldn't have been more than thirty ponies, but they might as well have numbered in thousands. A universe of staring eyes met him at all sides, the chain around his neck suddenly felt tighter, the thorns around him crept closer. He wanted to move away to the back of his cage, but the eyes waited for him there as well. Instead, he tried to shrink into his bearskin, longing for his cloak, and tried to concentrate on his supper.
"The Ursa Minor and the cockatrice are still here... in a way," croaked Cozen's brushfire voice somewhere outside the unending wall of eyes. "Ye can see the fur peeled off the bones of the Ursa's shoulders now cloakin' around 'im. No fur of his own, of course. Has to steal them from other creatures, it's death what keeps that one warm. As for the cockatrice, well... it's halfway here at least."
The human spared a glance to the broken rib cage jutting out of the hen.
"But why would Pyrite help him burn it?" asked a mare's voice.
"Pyrite's many things, but a firemaker's not one of 'em. The creature called up that flame all on 'is own this very night. From the look of his it's cowerin' in the rocks like that, it's plenty frightened too. Can't say I blame it. The other beasts here, they're only wantin' a simple meal or they're goin' by some basic want or instinct they can't much 'elp. Ah, but this one. This one's never satisfied. It kills one thing and then it kills again, and it just goes on killing even after it stops bein' hungry. Tis slower than the timberwolf or manticore, but if ye manage to outrun a timberwolf t'willl eventually see sense and go home. But once the contradiction creature sets those tiny eyes on you they'll never forget. It doesn't care if it's stilted legs got to go over mountains or boat across oceans, sometimes callin' in the aid of other predators t'help track you down. They can bend other predators to their will and their alliance with wolves are th' stuff of legend. When it runs out of things to hunt, the contradiction creature is known to turn upon its own kind. How awful, the only one that murder one of your own, can you possibly imagine?"
The mare from before spoke up again, "But what about the griffon conflict in the purple mountains? And don't dragons fight to the death sometimes? And come to think of it, when the Hegemony started hovering of the Earth Pony Nation weren't there reports of—"
"Completely different things and I'll thank the audience for holding questions until after the tour. Perhaps this creature has a reason, some backwards bit of monster logic that calls for blood but more often 'tis for no reason at all. It looks somethin' slight compared to the might of the manticore, but make no mistake, it—"
"I think it's got tears in its eyes." It was the orange filly that asked earlier about snow wassets.
The donkey's speech stumbled for a moment. "It does?"
The human rubbed an eye and to his surprise his hand came away wet. When did that start happening? The firelight must have been bothering his eyes. Surely it was nothing more. Regardless, his cheeks burned as he felt the unending mass of eyes stronger than ever before. The human took his hen and turned to face the other way. But of course there were eyes there, too. There was nowhere to go.
Cozen cleared his throat. "Don't be foolish, child. Above all else the contradiction creature's known for cunning. It knew how to kill an Ursa Minor, I'd not be surprised if it knew how to coax the 'art of a foolish young filly that like to interrupt. Besides, if you were a lord of the world caught by 'is own prey you'd have tears of frustration too."
The filly wrinkled her nose like an upset blanket and stared at the human as if she was going to argue further. But she didn't.
"'Tis unknown," said a somewhat rumpled donkey, "How many of these are left in the world. Last report was a hundred years ago at least, someplace near the griffin territories. Might be none at all roamin' the world now that this one lives with us. Folks, let's hope so."
With that, the show was over. The human's fire had gone out and with the orange tint gone the colors of the unicorns' coats returned and amorphous mass of ponies became individuals once more. They wandered off in sets of twos and threes back into the fields with a greater sense of dangers waiting for them out in the night. The orange filly was the last to leave. She sat on her haunches watching him quietly through a veil of stringy green mane, looking more carrot than pony.
The human ate the rest of his meal in relative peace. The creeping ordeal of the carnival still loomed over him and robbed the hen of the satisfaction it had before. The meat was cold and tough and only the burned parts had any taste at all.
The filly watched until he was finished. Then she stood and walked away by herself.
As the human began putting aside the chicken bones in a farther corner of the cage, he heard the sound of hooves and for a moment thought the little one had returned. He knew better than that even before he looked up.
Pyrite and the human watched each other through the bars for a few moments; both parties guarding their airs close to them as if players in game of cards.
The unicorn gave a polite nod of the head. "Evening. Did you enjoy your cockatrice dinner?"
"I've had better," the man said evenly. "Would have been nice to have more time to cook it and you didn't give me a very strong flame, either. And the hen was gamey."
"So sorry to hear that. I'll be sure to accommodate you better next time if you agree to be better behaved."
The human blinked and looked about him, as if he could find the point he'd missed flying in the open air. "Pardon me?"
"Just what was that supposed to be, earlier? That melodramatic business with the tears? 'Tis fortunate old Cozen's faster with his wits than his legs or the whole act would have gone sour." Pyrite shrugged his bony shoulders with a huff. "But I can understand first night jitters, I suppose. I shall find it in my heart forgive you."
The human's mouth slowly opened to respond, but then closed when it could find nothing reasonable to say. Instead, he shrugged innocently and shifted position so that his thin lock pick was better hidden in the folds of bear skin. The last thing he needed was for it to slip out.
The copper unicorn smiled without mirth and passively shook his head. A strict father ashamed of his rebellious son's wild ways and outlandish outfits, but positive he could get him back on the righteous path. "For a supposed lord of the world, you're not very smart. What could you possibly have been thinking? Wandering out into the world by yourself where any random rockslide or scheduled ice storm or marauding hydra could kill you? A rare, breakable thing like yourself should have stayed cloistered up where you were and you know it. So you can just stop giving me that woebegone face you've been putting on this instant. It's your own fault you got caught, so just live with it."
"I cannot stay here," the human replied, trying to ignore the fair point about staying in his city. "I was searching for something when you picked me up. I cannot find it if you keep me here. I'm needed by someone... or something. I think."
Pyrite's smirk eased on his face like a weasel winding out of a tunnel. "Oh, you're quite right on that point. Indeed, you are desperately needed. I have been waiting for something like you for a very long time, human. Does your heart not gaily leap to know you are so useful?"
The chains clinked against each other as the man fidgeted against them and quietly wondered to himself what a smug unicorn's throat would feel like in his hands.
"Ah, yes!" The candlelight danced in Pyrite's one green eye. He did a little excited stamp with a fore hoof. "Yes, yes, yes! There it is! That's exactly the look I was waiting on. Oh, it's even better than I imagined! If only you'd had it while there was still a crowd. Such ferocity, such hard and pitiless determination! Truly, truly the paragon of predators. I'll bet there is no end to the horrible things you imagine doing to me, am I right? One of those cruel steel knives carving into my belly, or perhaps an arrow sticking out of my eye socket? Perhaps you can already hear the crunch of my skull under your boot. Not that you have boots or arrows or knifes, nor shall you ever. It's still a pleasant thought though, isn't it?"
Pyrite did a little jig in the grass as if he were a colt with a new toy. Behind the wall of thorns, the human's previous ire quickly congealed into nausea.
Wishing to change the subject from bloodthirsty fantasies, he offered, "You know, I'm really not that good of a catch. Why not something fiercer? You could catch yourself a dragon or a big colony of attercop. I would imagine a web filled with dozens of hissing attercop with shining little red eyes would be much more impressive than I." His manacled hands gestured apathetically. "All I've to offer is a cross face and a half eaten, err… 'cockatrice'. I'm not much. Honestly, I'm not. Only a slender little thing who never killed anything meaner than a drooling coyote with an attitude problem."
Pyrite squinted at him for a moment, then blinked in disbelief. "You're serious. You're truly are serious." When the star of his show only frowned in confusion, the unicorn came closer. The thorns were a sneeze away from putting out his other eye. He was close enough for the human to notice the strange mark on his flank: three links of chain that seemed to have no beginning or end, twisting into each other forever and always.
"You really don't know, do you? You honestly have no idea what you are capable of, even with your satchel full of iron teeth." He made an odd sound, something between the shadow of a sigh and the echo of laugh. "Well, no matter. You'll remember yourself in time, I'll be sure to see to that. It wouldn't be the first time Pyrite the Bold dealt with carnivores stingy with their claws."
The human spared a glance toward the growling manticore's transparent cage. For the first time he noticed how sharply its ribs poked out. The lines of faded scars along its back. The burn patches of missing fur.
Pyrite's copper coat shone penny bright. "Yes, there was a time once when the manticore also looked at me with sad eyes and gave off that same irritating doleful look. Didn't take that much to turn her around, though. Perhaps a month at most."
The Showmaster casually lifted an apple with a silver glow of magic and shone it against his jerkin. "Now, you. You, with your famous reputation for being stubborn, will no doubt be more work. At least thrice the time the manticore took, I'm sure."
He bit into the red gala. Spurts of apple juice dotted the man's cage. "But once Cozen gets over worrying about fur loss, we can turn you around, I'm sure of it. Soon your eyes will strike fear into the hearts of mares, just as if the Roc itself bore down on them. Foals will wake at the midnight hour clutching their blankets from nightmares of you. You'll be famous and won't that be simply delightful?"
The human leaned forward, ignoring the chain digging in his neck and sharp pricks against his skin. "The roc? Do you mean the White Roc?"
Pyrite chewed the last of his apple and swiveled an ear. "Ah, you're familiar with General Yarak's famed roc. Then surely you also know how fortunate you are to travel with a cultured unicorn of the world, rather than stuck with a mad old brute of a pegasus."
"Do you perhaps know where I can find it? Please?"
Pyrite only ignored him.
After a moment of thought the man offered, "You know, there are better things a cultured unicorn of the world could do with his talents."
"Oh?" Pyrite's voice had suddenly become dangerously soft. The breeze had frightened a candle flame away. "What would you propose I ought to do with my talents, then?"
"You could…" the human paused.
Nothing good could come of whatever he said next. His mouth contradicted his sense and spoke anyway. "You could treat your creatures better than this. A healthy wolf must make for a more frightening timberwolf than an ill one. Besides, I always heard that the little ponies were supposed to care for their fellow creatures. You could let me go. I don't belong here, and I know that you know it. It may be wise to release that poor manticore, too. Or feed the poor thing more often at the very least. Really, Pyrite, have you no—"
The human's voice was crushed out of him as the chains suddenly yanked him to the back of the cage. The floorboards rattled as he crashed on top of them.
Over the man's strangled coughing Pyrite's voice rose to a shout. "Arrogant beast, how dare you
presume to tell me what I ought or ought not do! Have you any notion of what I've been through to get here? Had I better prospects, do you think I would be trudging through the backwoods of the Kingdom with a filthy donkey, a hollow horn, and sideshow full of blunt fangs and empty threats? I ought to be in the court entertaining King Mohs and his nobles! I—"
The Showmaster paused to steady his breath. He magically brushed back the frazzled strands of yellow mane back into place. The candlelight dared to come out of hiding.
The coughing man tried to sit up, but a glowing chain slammed him back down and held him there. "Oh, no. You can just stay down there. I don't care if I crush your larynx, the show doesn't require you to speak. Made all the better for it, in fact."
Pyrite pawed the dirt and snorted. "You know what you are? Selfish. You are a selfish, inconsiderate cadge. You're the greatest attraction this carnival has seen in years. Tonight alone I made more than I have in the past two weeks, and that's even with little time to promote and with you spiting me with your stupid, frightened eyes. Think of how much I'll make in a month! Think of your young hollow friend and the softer bed he could afford with all the extra bits you'll rake in. Didn't even consider that, did you? No, do not answer that question, it was rhetorical.
"Wanting to leave, the very idea! Wanting to leave even after I gave you food and shelter, even after I spoke to you kindly and loosed your fetters. And for what? To get your idiot self impaled on the talons of Yarak's roc. I've never seen such thanklessness! And suggesting I let up on the manticore, too! Human, do you want me to end up in the poorhouse? Selfish, selfish, selfish, selfish!"
With that, Pyrite stuck his nose in the air and stomped off. Almost as an afterthought the thorn cage suddenly closed in on itself, shrinking by a foot.
A few wagons away the little diamond dog tossed restlessly in his sleep. The ill she-wolf lapped at her water and the rooster pecked blindly at his corn. The weasel chattered to himself and wound itself up in tight pointless circles. Five and twenty swallowtails beat their fierce stratadon wings. The manticore rumbled deep in the caverns of her stomach and stared into the night. The human curled his legs in to keep the thorns from pricking his feet and rubbed his bruised, aching throat.