Axel wasn’t his real name. He’d wanted a name that echoed in the big top, and something that sounded good in front of “Amazing Aviary.” So now he was Axel, of Axel’s Amazing Aviary, and no one knew who he’d been before he came to the Circus of Wayward Wonders. He was certain his new name would lead to his first real, actual performance.
Except it hadn’t.
The ringmaster and circus manager went by the name “Thunder” and, like his namesake, he could silence the largest crowd, rolling over them as they hung on his every word. He was like that in person as well, pronouncing all his words deliberately and forcefully. Axel thought the Thunder was the most intense, serious, forthright person he’d ever met. This made it especially frustrating that Axel hadn’t been able to get a straight answer from the man in five days. Would Axel be able to perform on opening night? Could he practice in one of the three rings beneath the big top? Could he see the order of the acts, to find out where his bird act would best fit?
Yes, but also no, and also perhaps yes.
Axel left every discussion feeling that he’d finally received the ringmaster’s answers, but as soon as the Thunder had moved on to talk to someone else, Axel realized he hadn’t gotten any answers at all.
With little else to do, Axel turned back to his doves. He’d set up a lightweight stand in a corner of the darkened big top, out of the way of the genuine performers practicing their circus tricks. He gave a low whistle, and one of the doves darted from its perch to take a wrapped pebble from his hand, swooping around Axel’s head with it.
“Is that candy?”
Axel turned at the question, following the bird with his gaze as it swooped to drop the pebble into the outstretched hand of a young girl wearing a tight white leotard. She was no older than twelve—not much younger than Axel himself—but she held herself with the confidence of one with two, three times that many years behind her.
“No, sorry. It’s just a rock,” said Axel quickly. Then, as if the warning were necessary, he added, “Please don’t eat it.” He quickly glanced over her shoulder where her parents and two older siblings practiced their high-wire acrobatics routine. They didn’t seem to notice him or his young friend.
The girl—Odvi Kanbali, Axel remembered—looked curiously at the prize that the dove had delivered. “Why would you wrap a rock up to look like candy?”
“It’ll be actual candy during a performance, but candy’s expensive to use during training,” Axel explained. “I taught the doves to give them to children in the audience.”
“I’m not in the audience,” Odvi huffed, “and I’m not a child. I’m a performer. One of the Flying Kanbalis…although that was our name back in Escadar. We’re the Feather-Fall Five now. Papa says it’s because we won’t have to risk a hard fall ever again.”
“You were in Escadar?” Axel asked enthusiastically, wholly forgetting to maintain his facade of jaded professionalism. He saw Odvi’s face twist in a grimace and regretted sounding excited about it. “Then you worked for… her,” Axel finished flatly.
“Mistress Dusklight,” Odvi said slowly, nodding. The rest of her words came in a rush, as though they’d been bottled up for a long time. “She’s beautiful and graceful, and she knows more about the circus than even Professor K does, and he’s ancient. But she’s really a monster! Her circus isn’t ‘The Delights of the Heavens,’ it’s a prison. Or worse, an executioner’s block. Nobody in the audience realizes she doesn’t care if her performers are hurt or worse, so long as she keeps up the sparkly illusion she’s selling her crowds. I hated it. I hated her. Papa always said we’d get away, and when a bunch of us decided to leave Dusklight’s circus, we came here to start up our own. Wayward wonders, all of us. Now my family never has to perform without a safety net. I think it’s very exciting—there are lots of new people joining, too, and it feels like…I don’t know. Like the start of something really important.”
Axel stepped toward her to collect his bird and his wrapped pebble, wincing as his weight fell awkwardly on his left foot.
Odvi frowned. “You’re hurt.”
“I bumped my leg last night. I’m fine.”
“It’s a stake bite.”
Axel looked over where Mistress Elizia, the snake charmer, was poking around in the mouth of her enormous anaconda. “A snakebite?”
Odvi giggled. “No, a stake bite. Circus talk. It comes from old stakes. We had to make do with parts we could scavenge, and that meant used tent stakes. When stakes get pounded into the dirt again and again, their tops eventually split. If you don’t step carefully when outside the tent at night, their frayed tops can cut your leg. Newcomers get stake bites all the time. Take off your shoe and I’ll wrap your ankle. I learned a lot about wrapping injuries in Mistress Dusklight’s circus.” The girl unwound one of her chalk-dusted handwraps to use as a makeshift bandage.
As Axel bent to roll up his trouser leg, Odvi glanced at his doves, clustered together on their perch. “Your bird rack is empty in the middle.”
“That’s where I go,” explained Axel. “The harness doesn’t stand on the ground like that during a performance. It goes over my shoulders, and under my cloak. That’s how I hide the birds before unveiling them for their tricks.”
“Your wire’s too thick,” interjected a flat-faced, simple-looking boy walking by with a metal spar over one shoulder.
“Hod can…talk?” gasped Odvi, surprised.
The boy scowled. “Don’t talk a lot. Doesn’t mean I don’t talk.”
Odvi leaned in to Axel, whispering. “Hod’s the assistant to the magician.”
Axel nodded. “I’ve seen her around. Mordaine the Magician, right? Apparently, she’s really, really good.”
The acrobat rolled her eyes. “Mordaine says that Mordaine is really good. And that we’re lucky to have her. And that she should be the big number in the center ring on opening night. And so on. The Thunder isn’t so sure.”
While Axel and Odvi spoke among themselves of his mistress, Hod set down his spar and picked up Axel’s cloak. He turned it inside out with a careful motion and pointed to several small tears. “Wire’s wrecking your lining. After a show or two, it’ll tear and spoil the illusion. Use thinner wire. And loop the ends.”
“Thanks, Hod,” Axel replied, genuinely grateful for the boy’s advice. “I’m lucky you stopped by.” He paused, unsure whether to speak his next thought aloud. “Is Mordaine all that she says?”
Hod considered, his brow furrowing. Then his face split into a smile. “At least she has a good assistant.”
Odvi laughed, slipping Axel’s shoe back on and helping him to his feet. Hod’s face grew suddenly solemn and he picked up his spar. “She told the Thunder that we already have a magician, and we already have animal acts, so there’s no place for you.”
Axel was torn between shock and outrage. “No place? How is it even her decision? She’s as new to this circus as I am! I thought the Thunder ran this show.”
Hod grinned again, “That’s what the Thunder told her. Said he was already considering a place for you.”
“Oh, that’s good news,” interjected Odvi, “I’d heard he was going to say no, because of how obvious it was that you’d never performed in front of a crowd before. But I think you’ll fit in well. We were all novices once. Except me. I’ve been on the high wire since before I can remember.”
“I’d better get back to training, then.” Axel said, preparing to run through his trick again. “I feel like this opening night is going to be the beginning of something wonderful.”
“Yes,” the children said in unison before returning to their own duties.
Hod turned back, smiling over his spar and looking intently at Axel’s outstretched hand. “Is that candy?”
About the Author
Ron Lundeen lives in the rural hinterlands outside of Seattle, Washington, where he finds the climate a pleasant change from his native Illinois. After a career as a corporate attorney, Ron took a full-time position with Paizo, Inc. as a developer, working with freelancers to create fabulous worlds and monstrous threats for the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games. He also designs games in his free time, creating a dizzying variety of perils, plots, and legends. Ron’s favorite RPG design work is adventure writing, to help others share exciting stories with their friends. Although his first game design credit came back in 1993, Ron has recently written for Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Ulisses Spiele, and many others. Ron also runs a gaming company and RPG writer advice blog, which you can visit at www.runamokgames.com.
About Extinction Curse
Kicking off in January, 2020 with Pathfinder Adventure Path #151: The Show Must Go On, Extinction Curse is the 26th Pathfinder Adventure Path from Paizo, Inc. and the second designed for use with the second edition of the bestselling Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. In Extinction Curse, the players take on the role of humble circus performers who uncover a sinister plot to exterminate life from the Starstone Isle. The dead god Aroden may be gone, but his legacy lives on, as do his old enemies who would destroy the wonders he raised from the sea. Spectacle meets savagery as the heroes strive to stop the Extinction Curse!