The Asclepius Pact poured over the hills, arriving amid a clamor of drums and trumpets. The air trembled with the beating wings of many strange flying species. Brightly colored exotic birds, winged reptiles and winged monkeys careened in grand procession. The flying creatures were followed by trailing vines, fluttering in the wind, festooned with purple flowers. A pale parade of hounds loped behind. There were swaying red lanterns, and burning censors of honeyed incense. Wagons trundled over the shell craters. Photos of heroic surgeries adorned the sides of the wagons, along with souvenirs of many amputations– limbs preserved with taxidermy, femurs and scapulas polished and carved, and brown severed human ears sun-dried to leather. The wagons were manned by warped individuals, deformed survivors of horrific wounds, alive, but disconnected from themselves, like ghosts imprisoned in flesh. Harnessed teams of racing lizards, swift as cheetahs, pulled the wagons over the battlefield. The lizards had tough skin which seemed impervious to the surrounding coils of barbed wire. Here and there, they would bound over the places where the wire had been piled too high, pulling their wagons through the air to land with a jolting thud.
She threw back her head and laughed, tears or serum drooling from her bandaged eyes. “You’re wise, sir. And deep. But you have much to learn, still. You’ve seen perfect beauty, but yet you don’t understand what an awful thing beauty can be.” She shuddered briefly and then shook off what had been a deep revulsion, obviously recalling some by-gone personal tragedy involving beauty and its consequences. Wootin could only imagine. She seized upon a tangled heap of necklaces and hung them around Wootin’s neck, adorning him with shattered opals and tarnished empty silver sconces. Adjusting the golden chains and knotted strands like a hangman tightening a noose, she slid her clenched fist toward Wootin’s neck. “Let me give you a lesson in magic, sir. Imagine these treasures as they once were, glittering pinnacles of the jeweler’s art, perfection itself rendered through gold, pearls, and diamonds. Suppose I were to tell you that I removed these very items from a corpse that had died of the plague. They would still be just a beautiful, yes? Nothing in your immediate experience would have changed, but you’d be terrified none the less.”