I've been given gracious permission to reprint the winning entry on my site. The actual entry was just under my 2000 word limit, but there's a lot more to the story - so I've decided to print the entire piece, though only the first section was used in judging. So, without further ado, here is "M'hab". Links to the writer can be found at the end of the story.

(And here's the picture for it)

M'hab

The Baby ~

It had been a long, hard day of travel, but the chores were done and camp had been set for the night. The wagons encircled a cleared area, where many a brightly burning fire had been lit to chase away the night and give tired
bones a bit of welcome warmth. A stranger approaching that fire would probably run in fright if they weren't aware whose camp they was approaching. A circus tends to attract some . . . odd characters.

A strange voice rent the night air beyond the camp, startling the crowd gathered about the fire. Indistinct fluttering out in the dark, and a young voice chanting a refrain none understood, made everyone wary and many frightened. Suddenly, a babe toddled out of the darkness between two wagons, a dark blanket seemingly wrapped around her body. Seeing the gathered circusfolk huddled together near one of the fires, the young girl smiled happily and ran over to them, the blanket flaring behind her. As she reached the fire, everyone suddenly realized that it was no blanket that the babe had.

Standing by the fire, the babe appeared to be no older than a year or so. Hair blacker than soot hung loosely to her shoulders, and large luminous orange eyes regarded the circus folk with fearless curiosity. In most respects, she appeared to be a perfectly healthy and darling child, but for one small matter. Few normal babes have the black wings of a bat growing from their backs.

Standing slowly from a seated position, a female sylvan elf glanced down at the babe. She immediately swept the child up into her arms, wrapping a glittering shawl about her.

"Geez . . don't . . touch it!" A male dwarf exclaimed.

"It's a damned baby you fools!" The elf spat at those present, using the corner of the shawl to wipe some dirt away from the child's face.

"Yes I realize that, but what if the . . ." The dwarf glanced briefly to the sky before continuing, " . . . what if the mother is about, and wants it back?"

"Don't talk foolish. If there is a mother about, I'm sure she'll find the baby soon enough, but this little dear has to be cold." The elf held the baby away from her a bit, studying her intently.

The baby pointed to the sky, and again began her chant. "mmmbab . . mbab . .bbbbmm . . baabp."

The elf smiled, as she asked softly, "Is that your name? Is your name Mhab?" "Mmbaabp!!" The baby exclaimed, clapping her chubby little hands together. The dwarf moved closer, peering at the child. "I think it's saying bat,
actually. I mean, just look at those wings." The dwarf twitched noticeably in what appeared to be revulsion.

The elf glared warningly down at the dwarf, and said with a sharp tone, "She is not an IT. She is a baby. And I'd advise you to check yourself mister, before passing such judgment on others." Leaning down, she flicked at the dwarf's unnaturally short arms. "Have you learned nothing in all your years?" Glancing to the remainder of those present, she added, "Some of you gather torches . . search about, see if her mother is nearby. She may be wounded."

With a huff and flair of her multi-colored skirt, the elf whisked the baby away from the gathered crowd to sit on the steps of a wagon at the fringe of the firelight.

The Circus ~ (deleted for space)

The Attack ~

Huddled about one of several fires amidst the large camp, Rath and Thrian chatted amiably about the recent shows performed outside the city of Xanthi. In an attempt to wear out the energetic two-year-old Mhab, Thrian idly
played a game of fetch with the rambunctious child. Tossing an enchanted glowing ball for her to retrieve, Thrian smiled delightedly as he watched the toddler tear off into the surrounding darkness after the globe.

"But that's just my point Thrian, we can't keep running the same ole circles around Agiosdorea. We've got to branch out. These people are getting used to us. We need a fresh area - people who have never seen our show before. Or
better yet, we need fresh talent." Rath said, tapping out the remains of his pipe into the fire.

"I know Rath, I know . . I would like to see us sail over to Thorensguard - but it's up to Avin to make that call," Thrian agreed, nodding his head. "Aye, I'll speak with him in the morning."

From the darkness, perhaps a few dozen feet beyond the light of the fire, Mhab's terrified cry sliced though the air.

Rath bolted upright, his fur standing on end. The light from the ball Mhab carried illuminated just enough of the scene to terrify those in witness to the events unfolding so close to their camp. Not ten feet from Mhab stalked
a vicious wolf-like beast, a worg, it's ferocious jaws snapping in anticipation. Mhab dropped her ball and, eyes wide with fear, began to run clumsily toward the dubious safety of the fire.

Frequently, in times of great stress, it appears as if time slows down. Movement became sluggish for Thrian, colors became sharper and sounds more clear, and Thrian assessed the situation in a split second; neither he nor
Rath could reach the child in time, and neither of them possessed a weapon that could slay the encroaching worg. Shouts for help from those that wielded sufficient weapons or magic were of no use to poor Mhab - by the
time they could arrive, it would be too late. They could do nothing to save the child, but that didn't stop them from trying.

Mhab ran, and as she ran she screamed. The more she screamed, the more high-pitched and almost ear-shattering the cries became.

Thrian had never heard such a pitch come from a person. Thrian could only stare in horror as the worg raced forward a few paces to close the gap between itself and Mhab. Glinting dully in the minimal light, the claws and teeth of the beast appeared magnified beyond proportion as it leapt into the air, aimed unwaveringly at the seemingly defenseless girl.

As hearts and minds quailed at the impending scene, watchers were stunned into immobility by something totally unexpected and awe-inspiring. Bats. Hundreds of bats . . . a dark mass of the night-flying creatures appearing as if from nowhere, the sound of so many wings almost deafening. The mass of bats blasted head-on into the worg, knocking it out of the air and sending it sprawling backwards, tumbling end over end. The great mass of bats split
in two, one half rallied between Mhab and the worg, masking her position and creating a virtual wall behind her, ushering her towards the safety of the fire and her campmates. The other half continued to belabor and batter the
worg until the bewildered beast turned tail and fled howling piteously back into the hills, streaming a dark tail of harrying bats.

As she neared the fire, Rath snapped out of his paralytic state and ran to her, scooping Mhab up protectively into his arms. Thrian could only stare at the bats, which seemed to effortlessly melt back into the darkness as quickly as they arrived. By this time, most of the encampment had responded to the screams and cries for help, but everyone stood there in stunned silence, trying to absorb what had happened.

Lhoris pushed her way through the assembled crowd and took the sobbing Mhab in her arms. "What in blazes happened?!?!?!!" she snapped at Rath, her eyes wild with fear.

As stunned as any other, Rath shrugged helplessly and glanced at Thrian. Lhoris looked to Thrian as well, her flinty stare demanding an answer. "I . . I don't know, Lhoris," Thrian stammered, his eyes a bit glazed over.

Slowly turning his head, Rath looked at Lhoris and Mhab. "It was a worg, it had her." Rath blinked a few times, the dancing flames of the campfire reflecting on his red mane so it appeared to blaze up like the setting sun. "And . .," he looked closely at Mhab, and slowly reached out to wipe a tear from the child's cheek, "she called them. They came. They protected her."

"They WHO Rath . . . Thrian? What came?" Lhoris now barked at the men, evidently losing patience with the stunned pair. Mhab leaned her head against Lhoris' shoulder, as a tiny finger pointed into the air. Staring at the child, Thrian mimicked her movement ever so slightly as he said, "The bats."

The Debut ~

The majority of the torches that lit the main tent were extinguished, providing just enough light for one to see, shadows lying deep in the corners and casting strange shapes throughout the enclosure. An eerie lute began to play, almost hauntingly, as a solitary drum began to beat a steady languid cadence.

As the watchers' eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, they could see a figure, seemingly garbed in an overlarge black cloak, circling the center ring. Hood drawn up over her face, 17 year-old Mhab strode tauntingly to the center of
the ring. The lute stopped suddenly, followed shortly thereafter by the drum.

Grasping the edges of her cloak, Mhab swirled the cloak back and forth, the crisp satin fabric snapping with the movement. Momentary glimpses of her dark gown could be seen as the cloak swirled mesmerizingly back and forth.
After only a few moments, Mhab drew the cloak tightly about her, and waited, her eyes challenging and a slight smile hovering about her lush lips.

With a blinding suddenness, a spotlight was focused on Mhab from somewhere above and in back of the spectators. After giving eyes time to adjust, she lowered the hood of the cloak and gave a mischievous grin to the audience as
she slowly unhooked the glittering onyx clasp at her throat. Throwing the cloak back, Mhab revealed to the audience her gown; a tight fitting bodice atop an extremely full skirt, a pair of gloves that reached to her bicep completed the ensemble. In the bright illumination of the spotlight, the gown and gloves glinted with the sheen of black and brown fur. Audible gasps from all points of the audience broke the silence as Mhab extended her wings, heretofore pinned tightly against her back.

Mhab raised her arms and face to the ceiling in a pose of entreaty, the drum began to beat softly, and the spotlight dimmed. The beat of the drum increased in tempo until the tent resounded with an almost deafening pounding, and many in the audience felt their own hearts trying to keep up with the persistent beat. Suddenly, with startling surprise, an entire orchestra joined in, filling the enclosure with a wild and soaring song, inciting the crowd to fever pitch. At the very peak of the music, Mhab's gown came alive and the music stopped suddenly. Arising from her body itself, close to two hundred bats took flight, swirling about her in a tight spiral as they slowly rose towards the ceiling of the tent, the thrumming of their wings seeming as loud the earlier pounding of drums. . . . .

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Second part:

Circling the tent, the bats swooped dangerously close to the closely packed heads amidst the assembly. A few members of the audience fled precipitously towards the exit, unable to control their fright, and screams and squeaks of
shock and alarm filled the tent. Once the initial surprise had sunk in, many in the crowd focused in fascination on the mass of bats, which had now split into two smaller masses, performing precision maneuvers throughout the tent.
Smiling softly, unnoticed by the majority of spectators, Mhab slipped out of the now velvet gown to expose more provocative attire - a leather bikini shaped like a bat and a matching "winged" bra.

The orchestra, taking their cue from Mhab, struck up lively and airy tunes as Mhab commanded the bats to perform amazing aerial feats in perfect time and harmony with the orchestral music. Eventually, after what seemed an awe-inspiring and enthralling eternity, the music came to a sharp stop, with the bats swirling about Mhab in an endless spiral. Throwing her hands up to the sky, Mhab gave out an ear-piercing call, higher pitched than any normal
throat could hope to manage. The bats, obeying the call, swooped once quickly about the tent, and streamed up towards the center of the ceiling and out through a small opening. After a stunned silence, the audience erupted into wild applause, and Mhab gave a fluid and languid bow, wings fluttering slowly as the spotlight slowly dimmed and extinguished, enshrouding the center circle in darkness once again.

Mhab hurried out of the darkness which had descended upon the ring, and made her way backstage, where she was greeted with applause every bit as enthusiastic as that of the audience which continued unabated. Her compatriots and fellow performers vied good-naturedly to be the first to give her hugs and congratulate her on a stunning performance. Though smaller by far than the majority vying for Mhab's attention, the Flying Bhadama brothers were one of the first to descend upon her. A quintet of Halflings, the Bhadama brothers performed the most amazing aerial acrobats in the entire realm, if not the entire continent itself. The way they were able to flit about in the air from swing to swing, always without a safety net, always astonished an audience. Being a set of identical quintuplets, they seemed to have an uncanny ability to sense each others thoughts, knowing each other's exact moves and even words before executed. Though quite an advantage for the precise timing their art entailed, it sometimes proved a detriment when one of the brothers became ill or injured, for that meant the entire team would feel echoes of that ailment and their timing would be significantly off. During such times, their act had to be removed from the troupe's repertoire.

With a loud whistle, Fili leaped upon Mhab's back and gave her a kiss on the cheek before exclaiming, "That was great, did you . . "

"See how many people ran out of here?" Mali asked, hugging her leg. "You scared . . "

"The stuffing out of them, you really did!" Kali said, clapping heartily.

Mhab bent down and gave Rili a warm hug as he said, "See? See? We told you . . "

Vlee stood before Mhab, his hands on his hips as he smiled at her. "That you would be a hit!" Vlee stated, waiting for Rili to move aside so he could sneak in a hug. "You really were, Bat!!!"

"We told you time and time again - " Mali said, shaking a finger at her.

Vlee released her, and looking up at her said, "That there is no reason to be nervous!"

Mhab felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Avin. He smiled proudly at her before moving in to give a back-cracking hug. "Excellent job, little one! The crowd LOVED it!"

"Most definitely." Lhoris said, moving forward to kiss Mhab upon the cheek. "And the music was perfect! Thrian did a wonderful job with that, as always."

"The boys are right, the crowd wasn't expecting any of that - neither your wings nor the bats." Avin said, pointing to the Halflings. "Too bad that act can only be performed at night. Hey, have a chat with those furry little buggers of yours Mhab. Tell them I'll give them extra juicy bugs if they'll work daylight."

"Thank you, thank you all." Mhab said softly, her hands still trembling a bit with leftover nervousness. "But excuse me a moment, I want to get some air, and I have to change before the finale." With a wink she was gone, slipping out into the night through an opening in the tent flap.

Mhab tucked her wings against her back and threw the cloak about her shoulders. Making a quick dash for the wagon she shared with Sephida, another young female performer, she paused on the steps as the door opened abruptly, her wagon mate and dear friend bursting out from within.

The exotic human from Kem'Sedjet frowned, a look of visible pain upon her face. "Oh Bat . . honey . .I'm so sorry I missed it!" Sephida said as she let the door swing shut behind her. Looking down at herself, critically examining a heavily beaded costume, she continued, "The straps on this broke, and I had to fix it before . ." Her speech trailed off at the sound of trumpets bellowing from within the main tent. "Oh bloody hell! I gotta go!"

"Yes, you do . . you only have a few minutes before you are on!" Mhab said, giving her friend a quick hug before ushering her down the steps. "Go, go, go!"

Sephida walked only a few feet away before she stopped, turned, and asked anxiously, "Are you working tonight? The boys said they've handed out a LOT of flyers for the Sinalaire."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As the final show for the day came to a close, and the last of the patrons were ushered off of the circus grounds, the preparations for the Sinalaire began. A large tent was outfitted with a raised stage, tables, and chairs, and the most beautiful and exotic members of the circus staff would dress in provocative fineries, dab on scented perfume, and paint their faces in manners both exotic and alluring.

The Sinalaire was named for the person responsible for starting and maintaining the profitable enterprise, Lhoris. Too old to take part herself any longer, Lhoris oversaw the operation, which had come to provide both the troupe, and the individual girls, a good deal of money.

Throughout each day of the circus' stay in an area, flyers for the nighttime "show" were handed out to certain circus goers, inviting them back later that night to visit the Sinalaire. Many provocative acts were performed on the stage, some of them solo and others involving two or more lovely ladies, and the performances ranged from mildly sensuous to downright decadent as the evening drew on. Additionally, should a patron so choose, they could "gift" their favorite girl or girls in order to secure them for a more private and intimate encounter. The ladies who work in the Sinalaire are
widely respected by everyone in the troupe, for they all were well aware of the amount of income the Sinalaire and its entertainments generated for the circus. In Agiosdorea, prostitution was considered an eminent profession, and masters and mistresses of pleasure were held in high regard.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Yep, I sure am!" Mhab said with a coy smile, as she reached out to fix the elaborate headpiece that sat askew upon her friend's head. "What dance were you planning on doing, by the way?"

Instead of answering, Sephida simply let a sly grin form upon her face.

"Oh Seph!" Mhab whined, stomping her foot. "You're going to do the snake dance - I was going to do that. Now you're going to get all the best customers!" Mhab said in mock exasperation.

Sephida rolled her eyes a bit, and placed her hand upon Mhab's shoulder. "Do your scarf dance, Bat, it's a killer! You'll have all the men drooling - the women too for that matter," Sephida said with a wry chuckle.

Mhab crossed her arms and pouted, "Yes, it's good, but it's no comparison to your snake dance performance!"

Sephida gave a bit of a curtsey, grinning as she said, "Thank you, thank you . . ."

The girls' chatter was cut short by another blast of trumpets.

"Second fanfare - RUN!" Mhab said, giving Sephida a bit of a push.

"Eeeek! I'm going! And Bat, I really am sorry I missed your act." Tilting her head a bit, Sephida smiled, kissed Mhab softly, and tore off towards the main tent, calling back over her shoulder, "And you better get changed too . . . you don't have much time before finale!"

Mhab grinned after her friend a moment before heading into the wagon to change.


The Finale ~

Mhab looked despairingly over a scene of devastation and ruin, the hopelessness of their situation bringing heaviness to her heart. The tornados ripped through the encampment, and very little had been spared their destructive power. They had no warning. One moment, the sky overhead was clear and the stars shining brightly above; the next, the entire encampment was being tossed to and fro, wagons picked up and dashed back to the ground in splinters, screams of anguish and terror unheard over the intense howling of the wind. All told, over half the troupe had died in the disaster, and most of their animals and "amazing beasts" slaughtered. Days were spent burying their dead in the ground just outside of Silbineth and salvaging what little was spared from the storm's destruction. Eventually, bone weary and despairing, the survivors gathered together in wagons cobbled together from parts and remains, and started to roll away from the site of their undoing. Dashing away her tears, Mhab ran down the hill to join the last wagon. Taking one last look at the ruin of the circus as they slowly wended their way north, Mhab let one final pang of loss strike her heart before she steeled herself and looked determinedly away.

In the Freestate of Sindalia, the survivors pooled their coins and purchased a small chunk of land from a farmer who was a close cousin to Avin. Here they erected a few small homes for the humanoids and barns for the animals and equipment. Once the construction was completed, as if many couldn't stand to stay in this place of permanence built to replace their mobile home, the remaining members of Avin's Amazing World splintered, with many leaving in small groups or alone. Some headed back towards their native homes, while others entered the nearby cities in search of work. Some were never heard from again, while others would return to the commune on a regular basis to offer up whatever they could from their earnings. And there were those that stayed at the commune continuously, farming, breeding livestock, and working continuously to repair what had been recovered from the circus after the storm.

Mhab and Sephida rented modest rooms side by side above a small clothing shop in Sindalia, working whenever and however they could. Sephida easily found work as a seamstress for the building owner, while Mhab took up a position as a barmaid in a tavern that although it was quite a seedy establishment, the patrons where generally accepting of Mhab's appearance. Both girls continued to be courtesans on the side, as that had always been their main source of income. Mhab was even fortunate enough to meet a pair of aging, portly gnomish brothers who, in addition to being constant paying customers of hers, began to teach her a bit about jewelry crafting.

Once a month, the girls would take a week off and travel back to the commune to contribute to its rebirth, and to satiate their craving for their family. Life continued for the pair for a year or more, with very little of note during that time. Though it was never spoken aloud, few really expected they would be able to rebuild the circus, though many worked diligently toward that end. Most of their capital had been lost, and without sufficient funds, they could never afford the supplies and materials necessary to rebuild equipment and refit a troupe. Many never gave up the dream, however.


The Voyage ~

"Ya know, I'm shippin' out in the morn', I am." The man said as he twisted a lock of Mhab's hair about his finger. Smiling, he bent down to kiss her roughly.

Right . . and I'm supposed to miss you, no? Mhab chuckled inwardly to herself. It always amazed her that the customer could never understand that there was no emotional attachment for her - a job was a job, and if she could get rid of this one, she could head back down and possibly pick up another customer before this night was completely through.

"Oh really? For how long?" She asked in a soft voice. She peered up at the male, a false look of concern upon her face, as her head rested upon his broad chest.

You know,Bat, it might not be a bad idea to be nice to this one. Perhaps you'll have a steady customer each time he returns to port, and after all, he's actually quite good looking.

Shrugging a bit, the male stated a bit flatly, "Not sure, really. Takin' a bunch o' people to the Lost Continent. Got no idears how long it's gonna take ta get there and come back," The man continued blithely, in an apparent attempt to impress her. Little did he know, he would, but not for the reasons he assumed. "Ya see, there is a whole, virgin world out there, just over the horizon. Those goin' are kinda like settlers, ya know? But here's the scary part - it's a long way away, over treacherous waters. Only the most seaworthy can carry folk safely over there." The man puffed his chest
out proudly, grinning at Mhab, who found herself hanging on his every word in spite of herself.

"Oh, I've no doubts you're the bravest and most capable sailor in Sindalia. Now tell me, dear . . . you say it's a brand new world?" She inquired, raising herself up a bit upon her elbows. "How can that be? Why is there no one living there? Is it hospitable?"

"Well, from what they was a sayin', it's downright gorgeous over there, darlin', much like you," the sailor continued, nuzzling Mhab's ear in renewed interest. "Somethin' happened a long time ago, I heard tell, though not sure what . . . . ." Mhab heard little that the man was babbling by this point, his words drowned out by the possibilities racing in her mind.

Tossing her hair back from her shoulders and arching her back gracefully, Mhab sat up, peering at the man as seductively as she could. "Dearest Randin . . ." she whispered softly, her lips quivering.

The man raised an eyebrow as he dully stated, "Travin."

Right . . whatever . . .

Mhab didn't even care to try and cover her mistake. "Travin . ." she cooed, "I would be . . in your deepest, deepest debt . . ." Mhab leaned forward to lightly brush the man's brown hair from his brow, knowingly brushing her
bare breasts against his face as she did so. "I would be truly appreciative if you could get me on that ship tomorrow."

Travin sat up a bit, peering at her almost distrustfully. "Like I could . . you know, like . . get it for free?"

Mhab smiled genuinely, nodding her head as she said, "You pay the cost of my passage, and you'll get your money's worth. And if you want more, I'll be readily available on that ship. I hear those long sea voyages can be rough on a virile man, and there's no where else to spend your pay, is there?" Mhab smiled to herself as she saw the possibilities race through the seaman, knowing she'd hooked her fish.

Sephida never came home that night, which meant she had scored extra money to spend the entire night with a customer. This was just as well, for Mhab was sure that Seph would have talked her out of going. She spent the
remainder of the night packing, and was out the door with the rising of the sun, sprinting towards the docks.

A note was left upon Sephida's bed:

Seph,

I know this is going to come as a shock, but I'm leaving the city. I'm sailing out at dawn - to that New Continent! Think about it, Seph, a NEW place - somewhere where I can establish a new pleasure palace, one that will rival the greatest palaces in Agiosdorea.

I'm sorry it's short notice, but I secured free passage, and it was an opportunity that just came up, one I couldn't pass on. I'll send messages back to you, let you know how it's going. When you are ready, you can join me. Oh, and I took a bit of your savings, figuring I'm going to need it. And some of your clothes too - but come on! You can sew more!

This is how we are going to make the money to rebuild the circus, Seph! It will work out, I know it will. Avin smiles upon us everyday, and I think this is his way of giving us the path we need.

I love you Seph, and I'm going to miss you, but I'll see you soon. Tell the family we're going to make it - I promise.

Forever,
Bat


To be continued, on the New Continent . . .


Thanks to nico21@earthlink.net