The Black Circus is a Cult of the Sacrosanct Branch of the Ark, devoted to Mortuel, the Laughing God, a local deity of the people of south-west Zuud.
Mortuel's origins are dubious, as there is evidence that the area surrounding the Zuudi city-state of Sanpare has a history that cites the existence of a "Laughing One" or "Smiling Master" though no names are ever given. Because of the somewhat suspect nature of Mortuel, the Sacrosanct have discussed putting the Black Circus' "Cult" status up for review. However, these reviews are inevitably shelved - because whenever one such review comes up, important people unavoidably go missing, only to be found months or years later in a ditch, grinning wickedly through a wide smile and wild eyes, though the flicker of life and happiness have long since faded.
All this considered, the Laughing God and it's status as a God tends to be a subject best left alone, the truth only known to the smiling followers of Mortuel, and his "Angels."
Mortuel himself/herself is often depicted as many faced, all smiling, but in different ways. Mortuel represents everything from jovial happiness, to drunken merriness, to the more sinister and psychotically blissful. Thus, his many faces of glee are often summarized by two jester masks - one smiling broadly and one smiling wickedly. Apart from disembodied masks, Mortuel boasts no other physical form, though he is sometimes portrayed as a nondescript humanoid Jester-like figure, with two heads in his Tarot cards.
While the veneration of Mortuel is limited to a small area around Sanpare in southwestern Zuud, his followers spread his message throughout the land. No one is quite certain what the message of Mortuel is, except that it comes accompanied with a circus - yes, a circus.
The Black Circus of Mortuel is a traveling circus that traverses across Greatland, complete with Sandlion Tamers, Mastodons that can juggle rings with it's trunk, trained Scutaceph lizards that hop through rings of fire, and many more attractions, completely staffed by the members of the Cult. They travel with Priests of the laughing God, who attend all events, bidding everyone to smile - for a smile is a small veneration to Mortuel. The circus attracts villagers from miles, who come and pay a very small fee to see wonders from across the seas, and the brave men and women who perform all manners of gut-wrenching, death-defying stunts.
But then of course, the Circus also attracts a very different kind of clientele.
Because anyone that's in the business of "Being in the Know" is well aware that the Laughing God, is also a fair businessman.
Smiles can solve problems - or that's what the Priests of Mortuel will say, and always with a smile. If a problem arises, usually one dealing with individuals or small groups, one might confide with a Priest of the Laughing God. The Priest will undoubtedly, and cheerfully, tell them to keep their head up, and greet each new day with a smile. He might also say that with a substantial donation, he might be able to pray to Mortuel to send his "Angels" to see to the problem, and see if some sort of amicable situation can't be worked out with a little divine intervention.
Often times, a simple donation can solve a surprisingly pesky or complex problem.
The Mantra of the Mortuelians
Destinius simperanii a uvis; hon simperakaiasi res destinis.
Woa dius Simpius as dius connius Mortuelae.
Fate smiles at us; so smile back at fate.
For smiles are the currency of Mortuel.
The Mission of the Mortuelians is mostly to create smiles for the laughing God. It's a fairly altruistic statement, and most Mortuelians reflect this by being humerous, bubbly and fun individuals, who 'always go the extra mile to create a smile.' This explanation is evident in the services they provide by hosting a travelling circus. Considering not many others take on such a massive endeavor means that Circuses, at least in Greatland, are few and far between. As it explicitly says in their chant - 'smiles are the currency of the laughing god' insinuating that those who create smiles, are it's masters of mint - veritable dignitaries and magnates of Mortuel himself.
However, this honorable motto gets sufficiently twisted as one begins to look into the higher ranks of the Cult, specifically when confronted with the paradox that is the Danse Macabre. The Danse Macabre (see below) are the warriors of Mortuel. The Black Circus, so named because of the Black Tents in which the events are held, is also a reflection of the Laughing God himself. All the worshippers are aware, that the Smiling One has a somewhat... dark sense of humor. While the Circus represents "Dius Simpius Gratius" the "Smile of Gratitude" - which is a smile someone wears when they recieve something worthy of smiling at, the Assassins of the Danse Macabre represent the other side of Mortuel; "Dius Simpius Insanius" or "The Psychotic Smile" which embraces the small part of our humanity that wants to smile at things we really shouldn't smile at. Whether it's the smile we get when we see a school-yard bully recieve just punishment, or a hated enemy be slain by our own sword, that very smile that the sinister side of the Laughing God embraces.
The Danse Macabre operates under the pretenses that, those who make a "Donation" are entitled to smile just a little bit more for the generous temporal aid - and they really do 'Go the extra mile, to make a smile.' And theres nothing quite as psychotic, or as gratifying to a generous donar, as hearing that his latest problem, has just laughed itself away.
The Angels are none other than the Harlequins of the "Danse Macabre" - the warriors of the Laughing God - though warriors may be a misplaced word, as they are more "Assassins" than anything else. They are usually orphans or unwanted foster children from Sanpare, picked up by the Priests of the Laughing God, and allowed to live under the roof of their holy Temple. Nothing is free though, and these miscreants, these unwanted children, will have to work for their food, with a smile, of course.
The Harlequins are exposed to certain plant extracts and herbs, to make them faster and stronger. The chilling side effect is, of course, uncontrollable bouts of laughter and an overactive, often juvenile, sense of humor. They are trained to fight with exotic, foreign weaponry, are constantly run through vicious gauntlets and training exercises and are subjected to merciless teasing and ridicule, all the while being expected to smile, or optimally, laugh the entire way through. They spend years building up immunities to a number of poisons and toxins, notably Haliconin, their poison of choice. They are also taught to dance, juggle, tumble, read, write, sing and do all other manners of courtly procedures one might need as a jester or entertainer.
Once they have mastered all of these things, from card throwing and fire breathing to Caspernian-style fencing and Dahenn-Nairi style martial arts, they can call themselves a member of the Danse Macabre.
The Danse Macabre are an elite corps of assassins, who are hidden from the rest of the Black Circus. Most of the cultists don't even know they exist, or if they do, they vehemently deny their actuality, discarding them as mythical or fake (though they will not deny the existence of "Mortuel's Smiling Angels.") They usually wear some sort of carnival mask, both to hide their identities and their scars. The drugs and poisons that they are subjected to during training twist their face into a perpetual and inalterable grin, which looks more than a little unnatural.
They are no regular court performers though - they only show themselves when someone has a "problem."
One might appear in a nobles court, claiming to be a traveling entertainer from a far off land - only to disappear days later, leaving a trail of smiling corpses in his wake.
One might appear in the tavern of a crowded in, sing a song, weave through the crowd, and leave just as two or three of the patrons drop dead incredulously.
One might appear as a camp follower, tailing the army of a victorious general, who is found grinning in his tent, with a dagger plunged into his heart.
The situations are many, and there seems to be few problems an angel of the Smiling God cannot solve.
They owe no allegiance to anyone save for Mortuel. No task is too daunting to wipe the smile from their face. No joke is too bad to laugh at. They wear a smile all their lives, and in that respect, they are the most righteous men in the world, in the eyes of Mortuel.
The Cult of Mortuel has a steady income from the thousands of hefty donations they receive every year, and the revenue gained from their circus. As such, the Danse Macabre is outfitted in some of the best gear available.
Jester's Bodyglove - A single, skin tight piece made of Koton, this garb offers ample protection from slashing weapons and even Archenbusse fire. It comes complete in a motley color scheme, with frilled cuffs, slashed over-breeches, and a wide cartwheel ruff. There is of course, also a matching fools cap, minus the jingling buttons (for stealth reasons, of course.)
Harlequin's Mask - The mask serves as more than just a veil to their identity, it also contains a hefty amount of technology. A voice augmenter, to make the voice shrill and high pitched, as well as a target finder, much like the ones found in a Knight's suit of Powered Armor, come complete with the mask. Such an item would draw a fine price on the black market.
Tarot Cards - The Tarot Cards are both functional fortune telling devices and deadly weapons. Though they appear to be made of flexible card stock, they are actually made of a light-weight carbon fiber, with razor sharp edges. They are weighted to be thrown at high speed, and they have been known to cleave through multiple people when used by a properly trained thrower.
Haliconin Toxin - Made from similar herbs that strengthen the Harlequin during his years of training the Haliconin poison is a potent neurotoxin. It causes near immediate brain hemorrhaging and cardiac arrest, but perhaps it's most notable event is the after-effect. The body goes into a very quick rigor, within seconds of death, which particularly affects the muscles around the mouth and eyes, invariably causing the sides of the mouth to turn upwards, and the sides of the eyes to pull downwards, causing the face to appear to be smiling happily, albeit, sickly. Usually this toxin is administered orally, but the same effect can be just as easily achieved with a subdural application.
Jester's Nail - A dirk that collapses neatly into the folds of a sleeve, the Jester's Nail is a spring loaded punching dagger, that is released with an elaborate flick of the wrist upward. The motion must be quick and precise, since the dirk nearly automatically retracts to conceal itself once more. The incision is very small, no more than half an inch, and with proper technique, the wielder could easily connect with a target as he is casually walking by. The item is deadly when it hits arteries, and can be made more so when coated in Haliconin.
The Last Laugh - When things go terribly bad, the Last Laugh is employed. It looks very similar to a normal dagger, with the exception of two very large curved barbs at the middle of the blade. There is no hilt, and the pommel is flat, allowing the user to slam it home using his palm, either through a kink in the armor or between ribs or other bones. Once the dagger is lodged in, the wielder twists the grip, which sends a small electric charge down the inside of the weapon to an inferno powder explosive embedded in the blade. Within seconds the charge detonates, resulting in a shockwave of blood, guts and gore.
Marionette Strings and the Puppeteer Glove- Perhaps the most sinister and dreadful of all the frightful weapons that the Danse Macabre Harlequins have access to, is the Marionette Strings. Five thin, metal strings, about the width of fishing lines, are connected to each finger on the mitt of an oversized metal "Glove" (which is actually more of a gauntlet.) The lines of the strings recoil into the fingers of the glove, and are tipped in vicious, barbed hooks, which makes the glove itself a very effective close quarters weapon. With careful practice, and through dexterious mastery of the glove, the wires can be shot forth from the fingertips at a range of as far as fifteen meters, and planet themselves in the limbs of a target - optimally one to each arm and leg, and then one to the neck or spine. This is no small task either - the fingers must be manipulated in such a way that each barb will make contact with a limb.
The barbed wires can be recoiled at different rates, with trained gestures with the gloves, forcing the victim to either move with the barbs, or painfully against them. Optimally though, the barbs will be covered in the Scintrilla toxin; which lowers the victim's conscious ability to struggle, by heightening the pain felt when resisting the pull of the barbs.. When the Marionette strings are used in conjunction with Scintrilla, the victim, in the hands of the right puppeteer, becomes a disposable weapon - or hostage.