Having made it to Malifaux at last, Anna Mae, Bal, Bernard, Providence, Zai, and the escaped convict Cesar (who is posing as the dead puppeteer, Vito Sessa) have been detained by the Guild for questioning about what happened to the other passengers on their train from Earth. As they wait, hot and irritated, Malifaux City shimmers like a mirage to the south, and a northbound train belches to a halt at their feet. Out pops another group of Guild guards and a corpulent man in a uniform that stinks of stew and beer. “I’m Captain Dashel,” he says, punctuating his self-introduction with a burp. “You’re coming with me to the Guild Enclave.” Dashel leers at Zai, up and down, and smirks. “The boss is going to love you.” Though she is masked, and therefore expressionless, Zai lifts her chin and turns, a phantom ignoring a turd.
The train bound for Malifaux City passes through the fortified city center on its way to Industry Station on the other side. The Governor-General’s palace is the tallest building in the Guild Enclave, and directly across from its spiked gates, a hanged man dangles from a twisted black tree. Out the other side of the fortified city center, Industry Station squats among warehouses and factories, but a small, elegant café, Le Chat Blanc, sits just across the street. Bernard lurches toward the smell of coffee, a green, caffeine-wantin’ tornado. Between the thumping rifle butts of the Guild guards, and Dashel’s hasty promise of refreshments at the Governor’s palace, Bernard is reined in, but with much resentful muttering. Seated al fresco at Le Chat Blanc is a huge, broadly built blond man in clockwork armor, sipping at one of nine espresso cups arrayed before him as though drinking from a thimble. Propped by his leg is a backpack-mounted flamethrower. He watches the detainees with interest over the rim of the tiny cup.
Dashel leads the grumpy group back through the massive fortification of the Guild Enclave, into a well-heeled Downtown district, and finally into the Governor-General’s palace, where he places them in a gilt and velvet drawing room. Bernard has had enough of this boring, snackless existence and, exasperated, Dashel resorts to the lazy man’s solution to everything; a bribe. If Bernard calms down, Dashel will send in a coffee cart. Dashel is horrified when Bernard insists they spit-shake on the agreement. When coffee arrives, Bernard, Providence, Anna Mae, and Cesar help themselves. Zai, having arrayed herself on a silk divan, turns up her nose, while Bal watches the others for signs of poisoning before taking a cup.
Soon a tall, imposing man in a splendid red frock coat and an ornate gold mask enters the room. He gives the group the once-over, taking a particular interest in Zai, and pompously introduces himself as Lucius Mattheson, Viceroy to the Governor-General. According to Lucius, train disappearances are rare, but passengers have never vanished from a train before. Normally, persons of interest would be sent straight to the Soulstone mines in irons. However, says Lucius, if they all agree to a probationary period of employment in Malifaux City (under close Guild supervision), and keep their noses clean, they will be released to pursue their own agendas. Immediately, not having a nose himself, Bernard wants to know why these conditions include noses; always with the noses! When Lucius asks about their occupations, Bernard identifies himself as a showman. When she doesn’t speak, Lucius asks Zai if she is a performer as well, and Zai is insulted in two parts: (1) that he has not heard of her; and (2) that he has lumped her in with the Gremlin.
Cesar studies his fingernails. His Vito Sessa disguise will end the moment he picks up a puppet.
“Not one, but TWO performers,” Lucius says. “Excellent. Have you by chance heard of the Star Theatre?”
“Of course,” Zai snaps before anyone else can speak. “We’re not idiots.”
Lucius nods. “We will proceed there at once. The owner and I have an…understanding, and I believe I can convince her to employ your whole group for your probationary period.”
Bal, silent over his coffee until now, interjects, “We are NOT a group.” Bernard complains that the shows at the Star Theatre will probably be too boring for his act. Anna Mae protests: she’s here on a research grant, not to sell tickets to the circus. Providence insists that she’s also there on a research grant, but less convincingly, because she isn’t.
But, all in all, the choice between the Star Theatre and the Soulstone mines is not a hard one.
Unlike the smoky, foul-smelling Industrial Zone, Downtown is well-tended and clean. Zai lags behind for a moment to whisper at Lucius, but only Providence notices. The Star Theater is an imposing and elegant building, sitting atop a flight of marble steps in a splendid fantasy of stained glass, teardrop crystals, and Belle Epoch filigree. Standing in the opulent lobby as though at home, Lucius dispatches Dashel to find the owner, Colette DuBois. Bernard has gone suddenly rabid with hunger: someone, somewhere in the theater is barbecuing pork.
The stunning woman who greets them is tall and slender, wearing an elaborate Marie Antoinette-style wig with an inset birdcage. From its perch in the cage, a crow squawks a barker’s patter: Step Right Up! Don’t Be Shy! Come See the Most Beautiful, Magical, and FLEX-ible Women in Malifaux! Colette’s knee-length frock is a maroon satin that shimmers above petticoats, back-lined stockings, and crimson boots. Gesturing at Zai and Bernard, she says “Captain Dashel tells me you’re performers. It’s too late to add you to tonight’s show, but you can audition tomorrow.” She assigns Providence and Cesar to the stage crew, Anna Mae to the ticket booth, and Bal to security, suggesting they might switch jobs later, if they end up permanently employed. Released at last, Bernard charges the concession stand to gobble BBQ ribs, chasing bites with shots of whiskey. Providence peppers Bernard with questions about Gremlins. Providence can ask questions nonstop, seemingly without breaking for air; it’s pretty impressive.
Insulted, Zai goes head to head with Colette and insists on auditioning immediately. Counter-insisting that tonight’s show is special and can’t be altered, Colette allows Zai to audition on the spot, hoping to appease her. Taking the stage with a mixture of ownership and reverence, Zai launches into her routine. She juggles real knives, adding illusory knives as her act progresses. Making every move seem effortless, Zai leaps through rings of flaming knives, and sends her flute-voiced blades into impressive formations that she dodges with a graceful yet athletic series of contortions. When she takes her bows, she pauses at the end to lift her mask and reveal her face. Only Anna Mae notices that Zai’s ethereally beautiful face looks slightly different than it did on the train. Colette, clapping politely, suggests that she and Zai may have some things in common, after all, they are both illusionists. But Zai slips her mask back into place and turns away, dismissing the praise as beneath her.
The crow in Colette’s wig shouts, “COME SEE OUR MIRACLES AND WONDERS!”
While the Star Theatre prepares itself for the evening show, Anna Mae searches for someone interesting to talk to, settling on the head usher. In vain, she tries to diplomatically ask if any Neverborn or Gremlin people come to see the show. The head usher burbles cluelessly on about the famous various people of Malifaux who attend. When Anna Mae finally makes it clear what she’s asking, the usher casts a grim eye at the small green omnivore devouring BBQ at the concession stand and spews a bunch of ugliness about the Bayou People, how crude, stupid, and inferior they are, and how they rarely come to Malifaux City. On the subject of Neverborn, the usher just shrugs, bored, and bustles away. Anna Mae is left with her mouth open, which she clamps shut into a tight line. This is nothing more than she expected, but it’s still disappointing.
Dragging along his faithful old rifle, Bal cases the area for good vantage points and power positions. The theater has three types of viewing areas; the open floor area for standing-room audiences, two galleries of bench seats flanking, and the mezzanines and balconies above, the prime box seats reserved for the Governor-General and his guests, where Lucius now sits talking quietly with Colette. Having made note of the exits, Bal settles in by the main entrance to the lobby, seeming to nap, but watching everything.
It takes a while to fill the seats, but soon the house is buzzing with guests. The lights dim, the noise settles, and then the show begins. The first act is a dark and strange ballet, where a dozen ballerinas float on novel toe shoes: some on wrought iron fence spikes, others on chrome six-shooters, golf clubs, marlin spikes, and even a set of old-fashioned clothing irons. In the finale, a ballerina with knives on her feet carves a crackling roast into slices that she flings via pirouette into the audience. Bernard, standing in the “splash zone”, leaps into the air, catching and gobbling as many slices as he can.
Next, a series of musicians play unrecognizable instruments made of bone, brass, skin, animal hair, and other strange materials. A harpsichordist plucks at mother of pearl keys, each of which is attached by a thread to the leg of a bird; when signaled, each bird chirps its note in a twittering Chopin impromptu. With a saucy grin at the audience, the harpsichordist occasionally punctuates the piece with a magpie, which jolts upright and screams, “THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!” After the musicians, a purple creature (more likely a human in costume) tells jokes that sends the audience slapping their knees and howling, but the heroes sit confused; every punchline is a Malifaux City in-joke–AM I RIGHT? AM I RIGHT? During this act, Anna Mae takes copious notes, intending to understand every single pop culture reference.
When Colette takes the stage, the crowd, already jubilant and noisy, loses their collective mind. Colette accepts their fealty with regal nods and calls a stunningly beautiful blonde to the stage as a volunteer. Yanking a leather case from the blonde woman’s reluctant grasp, Colette demonstrates to the audience that the case is empty. The blonde woman turns a pasty, shocked white. Colette closes the case, sets it on the stage, and bends coquettishly over to open it, turning her rear end on the audience and showing them her frilly culottes and petticoats. When she crouches and opens the case, Colette herself showily climbs up out of it as though ascending stairs. The original crouching figure stands and turns around; the figure is now Colette’s mannikin, obviously a construct. The replacement between the real Colette and the mannikin Colette, executed right before the eager eyes of the audience, was flawless and the house erupts with applause. With a radiant smile, Colette hands the leather case back to the blonde woman, who looks inside, goes crimson in the cheeks, and rushes the case offstage.
The moment Bal laid eyes on the blonde woman, he left the lobby and stood outside the front exit, looking for trouble. Though he felt prepared for anything, he’s shocked enough to merely step aside when a wave of pale and greenish people shamble past him into the theater lobby; however, Bal doesn’t get off that easily. Two of the lurching zombies divert from the main mass to attack Bal with sharp claws, one scoring slashes across the veteran’s sturdy leather brigandine. Bal draws his revolver and dispatches both zombies, each with a quick shot to the skull.
The Malifaux crowd, clearly accustomed to strange happenings and dangerous events, slips out the Star Theatre through side and backstage exits like the ebbing tide. Most of the zombies storm out the rear exits after them, but a few are distracted by Anna Mae, Zai, and Bernard. Zai casts a cloud of smoke, flips into the balcony, and then leaps up into one of the Star’s many crystal chandeliers. Three zombies approach Bernard in the splash zone. Delighted, Bernard yells, “Time for the show!” Drawing back his mighty, rope-wrapped punching hand, Bernard punches a zombie in the head, knocking the skull clean off. Another zombie gets past Bernard’s defenses to claw through his lopsided but precious, Gremlin-modified doublet. Now entirely, verdantly enraged, Bernard wails, “My fancy outfit!”
Anna Mae stands by the usher’s station looking confused, wondering if this is all part of the show. When a zombie shambles up and claws at her, Anna Mae stutters, “C-can I help you?” Snarling, the creature rakes Anna Mae’s body, leaving long, bloody stripes in her blouse and the flesh beneath. Bernard yells, spontaneously adopting Anna Mae into his entourage (and under his protection): “And now I shall save my human assistant!” Bernard leaps to the usher’s station, confronts the zombie menacing Anna Mae, and punches the creature right through the chest, his rope-wrapped fist dripping gore down the back of the zombie’s legs. With the flourish of a true showman, Bernard yanks his fist out of the zombie’s torso, and shouts, “And thus, my human assistant is saved!”
Meanwhile, in the wings, Providence has taken up her shotgun and blasted two zombies into red and green mist. Sensing she’s urgently needed, Providence rushes over to Anna Mae and lays healing hands on her wounds, which immediately close up without a scar.
Having precisely planned a dramatic move, Zai drops from the chandelier onto the two remaining zombies, impaling one with a blade through the top of the skull, but only grazing the second. Drawn by the gunfire, Bal enters the theater, raises his pistol, and shoots the last zombie clean through the chest.
Zai glares at Bal. “You should at least have waited for me to get out of the way.”
Bal just gives her a look: Didn’t hitcha, did I, so quitcher bitchin.
The zombies vanquished, the sound of a slow clap echoes through the theater as Lucius descends from the Governor-General’s box. “Well done,” he drawls. “Best show I’ve seen in months!”
Colette emerges, unscathed, from the wings, and congratulates the crew, generously acknowledging that they might be more useful than initially anticipated. Cesar emerges from a hiding place under the stage, trying to look casual.
With the sound of bootheels clicking on the wooden floor, a figure strides into the orchestra section. His flowing leather greatcoat and broad-brimmed hat mark him as a Guild Marshall, but his face and hands, both of skeletal appearance, glow with blue-green flame. Chained to his back, the Marshall hauls a coffin wherever he goes, presenting an altogether alarming sight. Ignoring the gaping crowd, he kneels by the corpses, then relaxes, shedding the skeletal glamor to reveal a normal, wind-scorched, face. Appealing to Lucius, to the only authority figure in the room, he says, “Why, these creatures aren’t undead!”
Bernard, still hungry (always hungry), contemplates the newly established gastronomic value of the corpses. “Not undead? Hm. Might be good eatin’ after all.”
(Image property of Wyrd Games)