The Travelling Show
"Step right up, ladies and gents! The Greatest Wonders In The Worlds, assembled for your delectation! Lose your worries, win a prize, 'maze your friends, feast your eyes!"
- One-Eyed Otic
Around the Great Road there ain't much as passes for amusement and what there is ain't free. The weight of the world is on their backs, y'see, whether it's the Kriegstanz, the Blood War, godbotherers and swordsingers, or just local politics. You think I'm kidding? Try seeing red in Ecstasy or spending a quiet night with a good book in Sylvania; everything means something on the Wheel, even if it's just trying to have a good time.
Nonetheless "folks is folks", as they say, and where there's demand there's inevitably supply. Itinerant bards ply the Outlands singing bubsongs to make the night pass quicker. Wandering troupes of actors butcher the greatest works of literature "For One Night ONLY!!", taking care to strip the plays down to their most insipid, and thus least meaningful, bones. It's a strange thought that the most highly-prized commodity in the Outlands is innocent amusement... but given what the planes do to innocence, perhaps it's not so surprising after all.
The most famous of these -- both for better and for worse -- is the legendary Travelling Show.
When on the road, the Travelling Show looks much like any other caravan, a dozen dusty wagons hauling ordinary cages and tents. Males and females of various races mill about, tending to the pack animals, while younglings squeal about excitedly; all perfectly normal, but even out on the Wheel where the bizarre is commonplace there's something slightly odd about these folks. Not so you can put your finger on it, but there's a word would never occur to a Cager that springs to mind unbidden: freaks.
The last wagon, a huge black thing with fanciful paintings all over it, is as ornate as the Plane of Radiance, as cheap as the Glitterhell, and as tacky as the Festhall after a three-day bender. It has such a bombastic, ludicrously overwrought allure that not even the canniest of fiends would suspect a peel, on the grounds that no self-respecting power would associate themselves with something so superficially tawdry. Various signs draped from the carriage suggest that "The Greatest Wonders In The Worlds!" may be found within, along with "Such Delights As To Make Grown Men Weep!" and "All The Splendour Of Celestia For All The Gold In Bedlam!!!", all evidence to the contrary.
If encountered on the road, the carnie folk will be polite but wary. The spokesman is usually a giant half-kelubar tiefling called Tiny Tim, all seven feet of blubbery blackness, but the one "running the ride" is a slender child-woman called Raphaella. Chant is she's a renegade kitchen drudge run away from some fool priest, though some swear she's the rarest of the rare: a centuries-old vacuum genasi so enchanted by the everchanging mysteries of the world that she felt compelled to join the one troupe that would see (and bring) them all. They'll exchange small-talk for a while and some of the carnie folk will trade cheap coin for small essentials, but they'll grow restless before long and keep moving to their next show.
Upon arriving at some village -- any village anywhere in the Outlands, the Show ain't picky -- they'll make talk with the local leaders and set up camp. The wagons will be unloaded, tents pitched, and by nightfall (or whatever passes for eventide in that locale) the Travelling Show will be under way.
Each tent has a specific theme. One is the Tower Of Might, wherein Tiny Tim amazes with feats of strength beyond even what a normal tiefling can do; another is The Land Of Illusion, where His Ephemeral Majesty, the wraithlike Alabanathinion The Magnificent, bedazzles and amazes with his Subtle Arts. Each tent charges too, but different prices. The Hourglass, under the expert guidance of Tormo Salvastieri, a heavily-tattooed elven sage, lets people see and experience the joys of youth and age for the merest chink o' jink, while the Courts Of Love, bedecked by the sinuous children of Ylystra, charges the highest price of all for "Discerning Gentlemen And Curious Ladyfolk".
Twelve wagons in all, each selling some "Delight Beyond All Reckoning!!". It's all cant, of course, all smoke and mirrors and flimflam and lies, but that's why it sells. To those unfamiliar with the Civic Festhall, the Feast For The Senses is a joy, while even the most jaded blood would smile at the sheer kitschiness of it all. And central to the whole experience is the ringmaster, a man (or possibly several) who summons the townsfolk, exhorts them valiantly and, for a few hours at least, makes them forget their troubles.
Whether there's one ringmaster or several is open to dispute; they're all different, yet all the same. Faunel was once promised "A Myriad Of Delights!" by One-Eyed Otic, while Garandula was exhorted to "A World Of Wonder!" by One-Armed Oris. Olryk One-Hand belittled the denizens of Jovusheim-Out-Of-Ysgard, much to their delight, while Opirius Of The One Ear entertained the Roman legions with his quick wit on the Via Romana near Fortitude. Always different, always the same: a man of indeterminate age and race, scarred and disfigured, handsome and exuberant, calling the rubes to play. He travels in the great black tent, only emerging when it's show time and returning there at sunrise. A host of rumors attend him, all of which are gleefully confirmed by Tiny Tim and all denied by Raphaella; if any blood knows the truth of it, he ain't telling.
Come sun-up, the camp is struck and the wagons packed. Once all is together there's a cheery bellow from Tiny Tim and, at Raphaella's word, they move out. The wagons rumble slowly by; the townsfolk press near to catch one last glimpse of Chargod Ingersdottir's great beard or His Ephemeral Majesty Alabanathinion The Magnificent (now decidedly less magnificent in a warm woollen cap and tippling from a battered pewter hipflask); Ylystra appears at the window of her carriage, blowing sweet kisses to all the men in the crowd (especially those who enjoyed her favors during the night) while her daughters continue their dreamy undulation; Tiny Tim tells bawdy jokes while Raphaella scowls in affectionate disapproval; the great black wagon, now tawdry and diminished in the light, creaks wearily towards the next destination; and slowly, slowly, the caravan disappears into the distance and the townsfolk return to their daily lives.
Until they find that something has gone missing.
After the Show
It ain't exactly clear what happens, or when. Some times it happens the next mornin', sometimes not for a week, or a month, or a year and a day. But sooner or later, them what makes kip in the burg find there's something missing. It might be a laugh or a smile; it might be a worry or a care; it might be a locket of gold or a lock of gold hair; it might be the life of an enemy or the life of a child. Whatever it was, it's gone. And it ain't comin' back.
Sometimes, rarely, it ain't just small things gone missing. Greybeards tell of the time the Travelling Show came to Hamlijnken, how One-Foot Olmyr so delighted the children of that burg that they all ran off the next morning and left their parents broken and destitute. Gurielle, the dryad saltatrix of Kapostella, was left mute and dumb by what she saw when the Show came town and demanded in furious sign language to be taken with them to learn their trade. One by one, all over the Road, individuals leave their homes, their families, their lives and take up the joyous peripateticism of the Travelling Show. Maybe they're looking for something they lost. Maybe they're lost themselves. Who knows?
It ain't right to say Sigil's rife with rumors 'bout the Show, but there's screed there if you know where to look. Some bubbers will tell you loud as day how the Travelling Show is clearly a fiendish plot designed to nibble away at the Outlands until there ain't nothing left but grief and misery. (Bleakers are especially fond of this one, being as it's suitably undramatically melodramatic.) Wiser berks will tell you that ain't it; the Show takes both rich and poor, both sorrow and joy, for its own inscrutable reasons. If indeed there's reason there at all.
The most common chant from those in the know is that the Show is run by a being nicknamed The Incomplete, one of them old-timey Outlands types, who's trying to jackknife himself into our modern reality. Rule-Of-Three champions this theory at every available opportunity, leastaways to them what's important enough for him to talk to in the first place. That old fiend'd be the first to admit, though, that he don't know squat about the Show any more than anyone else; he just likes the theory because it appeals to his sense of immortal nature.
The other major theory was put forth not three years ago by Anhambril Toquillon, a Guvner of some note. Toquillon's spent long years charting the Great Road and he claims there's a burg being built in the Hinterlands out of all that's been lost, a great and mighty city of forgotten dreams. The barmy's gone as far as to claim that this burg, which he dubbed Lanthaneis, is not just stabilizing the amorphousness of the Hinterlands, it's actively drawing in the reality of the Outlands and the Great Ring itself. Ain't no-one's ever found this mythical city but some planewalkers do tell of adventures out in the Beyond where reality breaks down, of compasses that suddenly point in a direction not found on any map, where substance decoheres and recoheres in ways not even the canniest blood can understand... and there, off in the distance, a glittering spire that supposedly looks like the Chapel Of The Sun from long-lost Eritrius. Them that want to know more about Lanthaneis are advised to talk to Briissa Toquillar, Anhambril's sister, seeing as how the former spends half his time in the Gatehouse recovering from his trips "beyond reality".
Of course, if you could just find the Travelling Show, you could ask The Incomplete yourself. If'n you didn't mind waking up to find something -- anything -- anything at all -- missing.