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Firetale

 

Firetale

By Dante E. Graves

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the author/publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Text copyright © 2015 Dante E. Graves

All rights reserved

To Marina.

 

Table of contents

Table of contents

Chapter 1: The Tower & The Hermit

Chapter 2: The Magician

Chapter 3: Death

Chapter 4: The Magician

The Beauty & the Goat-man

Chapter 5: The Star

Chapter 6: The Hermit & the Devil

Chapter 7: The Tower

Chapter 8: The Magician & the Star

Lost At Sea

Chapter 9: The Moon

Chapter 10: The Devil & the Moon

Chapter 11: Judgment

Chapter 12: Justice

Another February

Chapter 13: The Tower

Chapter 14: The Hermit & Justice & the Devil

Chapter 15: The Magician & the Star

The Roach & the Giants

Chapter 16: The Magician & the Hermit

Chapter 17: The Moon & the Devil

Chapter 18: The Magician & the Hermit

Chapter 19: The Star, the Moon & Justice

Chapter 20: The Magician

Bad Seed

Chapter 21: The Magician & the Star

Chapter 22: The Magician & the Tower

Heart of Stone

Chapter 23: The Tower

Chapter 24: The Magician & the Star

Chapter 1: The Tower & The Hermit

“And all my friends are skeletons,

They beat the rhythm with their bones.”

Soundgarden, “Spoonman”

The U.S., some town. Present days.

As the last sound of the charivari died away, the big top arena plunged into darkness. A spotlight flicked on, its beam illuminating a magician standing in the center. He was no glossy TV illusionist type. Short and broad-shouldered, he wore frayed jeans, a simple T-shirt, and worn high boots. The audience murmured its disappointment. On the table next to the magician lay a crystal ball, like one a medium in a movie might use to communicate with ghosts. The table also held a top hat and a candle.

With his eyes fixed on the audience, the man picked up his top hat and held it out, showing the crowd that it was empty. He put his hand into the hat and pulled out a live dove, which sat on his palm. The bird moved its head, as if the light in the center of the arena blinded it, and tried to fly away, but the magician held it by its feet. Someone in the odeum shouted approval, but a chorus of boos overwhelmed the brief expression of praise. The spectators in the auditorium were people of the tullies, hard workers or unemployed, but certainly not simpletons who would be fooled by a trite trick. The magician smiled and threw his top hat beyond the illuminated circle.

Holding the bird in his left hand, the magician reached his right hand into his jeans pocket and pulled out a lighter. He raised it above his head, showing the audience, and then lit the candle on the table, indicating that the flame was real. The magician brought his still-flaming lighter toward the dove.

People in the grandstands were the first to smell the odor of singed feathers. Muttering and shouting rose up, and people jumped from their seats, shouting insults and threats. “Kick the freak’s ass,” someone yelled. Unfazed, the magician held the bird as if the flame couldn’t hurt it. As a trio of hotheads headed from the seats toward the arena, the bird flapped its wings, once, twice, thrice. The dove threw its head back and made a sound, not like a cry of pain, not like the sound one would expect from such a small bird. It was like the cry of a predator, meant to paralyze its prey with fear.

The magician opened his left hand, and the dove flew to the top of the tent, sixty feet up, under the center pole. The bird began to increase in size. Now it was the size of a child, then an adult, then two adults. The light coming from the bird’s body lit up the whole tent. The roar of the flame, like the sound of a forest fire, deafened people, paralyzed them. The firebird froze for a moment at the highest point under the big top and looked down. People jumped up but couldn’t make a move to the exit in stampede. It was impossible to make out the bird’s features in the fire, but a giant predatory beak and a high caruncle were clearly visible. Its lurid silhouette looked like an unearthly crossbreed between an eagle and a pterodactyl.

“Calm yourselves,” the magician called out, his voice loud enough for all to hear yet still composed, almost relaxed, and filled with confidence and a hint of mockery. “Hold your seats. You’re safe. It’s just a trick. This dicky will not hurt you. Besides, you haven’t seen the most interesting part.”

The bird, which no longer looked like a dove, spread its wings and plunged. Halfway down, it made another thunderous cry, momentarily drowning out the roar of the flame and the screams of the crowd, and then began flying in a circle over the auditorium. The audience screamed. Some people fainted. Others recoiled and covered their faces with their arms or sought protection from their companions. A full minute passed. People uncovered their faces and watched the bird fly in its circle. The magician’s words were true. The beast made of fire couldn’t harm people. Its feathers exuded warmth but not heat. The bird slowed its circling and glided lower, so low that the most daring spectators could touch it. The shouting died away, replaced with laughter, and the huge creature continued its flight over the auditorium.

Once, when the creature flew over a balding middle-aged man, the crystal ball on the magician’s table flashed red, setting the stranger’s face deep in the sphere. The audience, swept along with the performance, did not notice this.

The magician snapped his fingers, and the bird, uttering a predatory call, darted up again, to the top of the tent. It paused there, hovering, and then exploded into a hundred little lights that slowly dissolved in the air, like snowflakes that melt before they touch the ground. But the biggest spark fell on the magician’s palm, where it continued to glow. The man covered it with his other hand, brought his hands to his mouth, and breathed on the spark. The last flake of fire went out, and only a banjo light remained. The magician opened his palms, and the white dove sprang upward and flew right under the dome of the big top. The auditorium exploded in applause and cheers.

Mr. Lazarus Bernardius watched the spectators channeling off. He stood in the shadow of a cage with a wyvern in thirty feet away from the big top entrance. After half a century of life in a cave, the old lizard was not accustomed to light, and when performances ended, lights went out around its cage. Mr. Bernardius loved to come here to watch the audience unnoticed. He had been the circus tentmaster for many years but never got used to the crowd. The way he looked gave evidence of how uncomfortable he felt there. Spectators took his appearance for an artificial image that suited the circus’s freaks and monsters. He wore a black frockcoat with a red collar and long flaps, which gave his figure a lanky look, and a worn vest that was once the color of emerald. The vest was almost invisible because of a long and thick gray beard descending to his waist. Mr. Bernardius didn’t only dress like this when his circus came to another city; these were his regular clothes. The only elements of his dress that conformed to his image were a top hat and a cane with a handle in the shape of the head of the devil. The audience, of course, didn’t know that.

The performance went well and the audience liked it. This was evident by the way people discussed it as they left the arena. Mr. Bernardius was so satisfied with this that he almost smiled. But this did not happen. He hadn’t smiled for one hundred and forty years, since his second death. Twice he had seen only darkness, which would discourage anyone from smiling, even those less inclined to melancholy than he was.

The only thing that bothered Bernardius was Greg’s disturbing trick with a dove. The tentmaster did not like the magician’s willfulness—the man constantly repeated the trick despite all prohibitions. Lazarus was watching Greg’s performance and caught sight of the crystal ball turning red when the fiery bird flew across the odeum. This alarmed the tentmaster. Every night the ball turned red, and every night the conjurer disappeared mysteriously. This had almost never happened during Greg’s first year with the circus, but over the next couple of years, when he did the trick with the bird, the magician vanished until the next day.

Greg didn’t need the crystal ball for the trick with the bird of fire, and Bernardius assumed that the magician used it to catch some kind of signal. Greg was looking for something he could not share with anyone, and for this he was ready to break the rules of the circus.

The magician was one of the few inhabitants of the circus with normal human appearance, which allowed him to leave the camp freely, unlike the others. Greg never explained where he was when he was gone, and over time, Mr. Bernardius stopped questioning him.

But, even if the magic of fire made Greg one of the most dangerous of Bernardius’s fosterlings, and even if all his tricks were pure, real magic, there were old, proven ways to find out where the illusionist spent his nights.

Lazarus turned and headed for the yard behind the big top, where props, animals, and performers were readied for a circus and where trailers were parked away from public view. The grounds were dark; the lights in the trailers and campers would flash on when the last spectator left the circus. Only the spot near the entrance to the site was lighted.

Brothers Blanche and Black were playing cards, sitting on hay bales and using an upside-down barrel as their card table. An oil lamp sat in the middle of the makeshift table. In their huge green and gray paws, the cards seemed like small scraps of paper. Hearing footsteps, the brothers grunted and stood up, but, seeing Lazarus, sat back down and doffed their bowlers in greeting. Bernardius nodded to them and went to the outermost trailer on the site, which stood apart from the others. The encampment behind the big top was almost silent, and by the time Bernardius reached the trailer, even Blanche’s and Black’s grumbles and wrangles were barely audible. The tentmaster sighed and knocked on the door of the trailer. From inside came the sounds of breaking glass or mirrors, hurried steps, mumbling, and cursing. Footsteps approached the door.

Lazarus tried not to look at the person who opened the door and was glad it was so dark. “Master?” The person looked puzzled. He did not invite Lazarus in, and Bernardius never expressed a desire to enter, although it was the tentmaster’s right to enter any premises of the circus.

“I asked you not to call me that, Zinno,” said Lazarus.

“Yes, yes, Mr. Bernardius, sorry,” the creature replied. His voice was pleasant, as if he sang every word. Lazarus stifled the urge to glance at him.

“Are you alone, Zinno?” asked the tentmaster.

“Yes, mas … Mr. Bernardius.”

“You’re telling the truth? You know you must be alone, Zinnober,” Lazarus said gently.

“Yes, yes, Mr. Bernardius. I am alone. There is no one but me in the trailer.” Zinnober’s voice was so bashful and plaintive, that Lazarus, once again, had to suppress a desire to look into the eyes of the creature.

“Good. I need your help, Zinno.”

“Mine, sir?” The creature’s voice was full of genuine surprise.

“I want you to follow Greg. I think he’s going to leave the circus tonight.”

“Leave, sir?” Lazarus heard a barely concealed joy in Zinno’s voice, but he chose to ignore it.

“He’s not going to run. He’ll be back. But I need to know where he goes and what he does. I want to know everything about his every move, Zinnober. Do you understand me? I do not want him to endanger us all. Got it?”

“Yes, sir. You can count on me.”

“Good,” said Bernardius. He sighed and went straight to the backyard without saying goodbye.

Only four people from the circus, including Lazarus, could sneak away to follow Greg, wherever he went. All the other inhabitants looked far too frightening to laymen. Of the four, the archivist would never leave his books and scrolls, Lazarus was needed to supervise the dismantling of the big top, and as for Martha, Bernardius just could not send her after Greg. That left only Zinnober. No one who saw him would remember his face. More to the point, they would remember too many faces …

Chapter 2: The Magician

“Crying slowly and sucking on a gun.”

Danzig, “Do You Wear the Mark”

Once the applause died down and the audience was out the door, the magician went backstage. The night was dark and close, a proper night for an execution. Greg did not care that Lazarus, this whiner, this Mr. Play-It-Safe, was unhappy with his tricks with fire. Tonight the bird saw a bad guy, and the ball showed his face. Fire cleanses. You can’t hide your filth from the flames. The firebird was like radar that detected sinister and wicked souls, and the crystal ball was the display on which Greg could see them. Lately, the ball had not shown Greg what he wanted to see, and his tension had been rising. He was nervous, and only Martha’s company gave him peace. But when Martha was not there, a strange hunger devoured him from the inside. But tonight, at last, was the night.

Greg had to see the malefactor’s face in the ball to spot him in the crowd of spectators leaving the circus. The image in the ball had already started to fade, but it was still possible to discern some facial features. A balding middle-aged man, square chin, glasses on a hooked nose, a face that seemed to belong to a professor or a doctor, not a murderer. But appearances can be deceiving, a fact Greg knew better than anyone. The ball was never mistaken. So many towns, so many shows, and the ball had never pointed him to the wrong man. Greg had little time; he needed to find the man with glasses. The magician set the crystal ball aside and went to a marquee. He was lucky. A part of the audience had lingered, as if expecting the show to continue. Children asked their parents to let them see the cages with the freaks—a fire-breathing monkey or a Cyclops woman.

Greg spotted the man from the ball. He was standing alone, feigning interest in the proceedings. He began to wander among people and went to examine the tent area. But his eyes kept returning to the same thing, a little girl no more than eight years old who was begging her parents to stay for a while at the circus. They explained to her that it was late and time to go home, but they seemed in no hurry to leave. The girl was wearing a white dress with red polka dots and red patent leather shoes. The clothes were well worn, though clean. By the standards of the town, in which the appearance of the traveling circus was the main event of the year, the girl’s dress was almost ceremonial.

The man with glasses was dressed in a boiler suit and greasy oversized pants. A hired auto mechanic. Not the most enviable job for someone his age, but for people like him, career and money were not the most important things in life. He stood a few meters away from the girl, his gaze sliding over her, razor-sharp and dark as a dry well, but he did not dare approach. Greg had seen that gaze before. It was the gaze of a man who does ugly things to pretty girls.

“Hey, mister,” Greg called to him. “Mister, wanna see a trick? Absolutely free.”

Greg moved through the sparse crowd toward the man with glasses. Someone in the crowd recognized the magician, and he heard cheers. A few people even slapped him on the shoulder. Greg did not care for such chumminess, but he forced himself to smile. He didn’t want to frighten the man in the boiler suit. He needn’t have worried. The man was so entranced by the little girl that he did not realize the magician had addressed him. By the time the penny dropped, Greg was standing next to him. “Mister, you’re a little hard of hearing,” Greg said, smiling. He heard a few twitters of laughter. “I want to show you a trick. I’ll do it in a split second.”

“No, don’t bother,” the man said. “I must go home.”

“What’s up, mister? It’s fast. I just want to show you a trick, not all the Guiding Light episodes at one go,” Greg continued. The laughter increased.

“Honestly, it’s time for me to go home,” the man replied, clearly not happy with the attention or the laughter from the crowd.

He started to walk away, but a bearded, burly jasper in the crowd put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, stop acting up! Don’t be prim. Everybody wants a free ride.”

The man with glasses raised his hands apologetically, and the bearded man, looking pleased, nodded to Greg. The magician nodded back.

“What’s your name?” Greg asked the man with glasses.

“Mr. Berry,” the man replied.

“Hmm, Berry. Well, Mr. Berry, please check the pockets of your trousers, but please be careful.” Berry rooted around in his pockets, and his face took on a puzzled expression. When he pulled his hands out of the pockets, they were holding large red strawberries. A smattering of applause followed.

“Mr. Berry, let’s convince the audience that you didn’t put the berries there in advance,” Greg said. “Check your pockets one more time.” The man with glasses did as Greg asked. This time he pulled out raspberries. The applause was louder.

“Please, Mr. Berry, don’t stop.”

Berry put hands in his pockets several times, and each time he took out some berries, which he gave away. He looked a little woozy. He was obviously not used to being in the spotlight. He became distraught, his face paled, and his movements became awkward. The children and adults were happy about the free berries, and Greg forced Berry to check his pockets until everyone had some.

“Perhaps that’s enough,” Greg said at last. “Let’s not misuse Mr. Berry’s time, because I promised the trick would be short. In fact, Mr. Berry, I want to pay you for this inconvenience.” Greg held up his hand, put it over the man’s balding head and over his left ear, and showed the crowd and Mr. Berry a five-dollar bill, clenched in his fist. “For your pains, Mr. Berry.”

Mr. Berry hesitated a moment, and then hurried away, followed by the envious glances of the crowd. Greg took his leave and went to his trailer. Now he could take his time and wait until everyone else in the circus fell asleep. He would have a few hours before morning, when they would start to disassemble the main tent and load the cages. The trick with the banknote had gone smoothly. Berry was so confused and scared that he had not noticed Greg plucking a hair from his head. The hair was a bit short, but it would be enough.

Greg crossed the backyard and walked past the brothers Blanche and Black, who barely paid any attention to him. He hoped Martha was in a pad room brushing up after the performance, so he would be able to stay in the trailer alone. He was lucky. There was no one there. At the rear of the trailer was a chest that contained supplies for tricks. The chest was small because Greg relied more on his inner magic, his instincts, the fire in his blood. Normal magicians only pretended they had magic, and their tricks were carefully planned stunts, the execution of which required a ton of stage props, boxes, mirrors, barrels, mechanisms of all kinds, and mechanisms masking mechanisms. In other traveling circuses, illusionists needed more space for rehearsals and a truck to carry all their equipment. That was not necessary for Greg. His magic was real, even though he did not fully understand how he was able to manipulate it. Because of his abilities, Lazarus Bernardius had picked Greg off the streets and found a new home for him among the circus freaks and renegades. Greg quickly realized that everything in this circus that seemed like an illusion or like expensive makeup to fool the audience was real. These monsters and whackos were real. Lazarus crisscrossed the country to find them and give them shelter. To be called a real circus, Bernardius needed only a magician.

Or a real mage. Lazarus insisted that Greg not use magic outside the circus and forbade him from harming anyone. Greg had agreed, although the prohibition annoyed him. What was the sense of fire magic if it couldn’t be used for real benefit? It was like having a million dollars and not daring to spend a dime. Greg had obeyed at first, but eventually he learned to circumvent the ban. He did not try to negotiate with Bernardius. The craggy old man wouldn’t have approved killing people. His philosophy was that the circus inhabitants should communicate with ordinary people as little as possible. They should mix with normals only to buy food, sell tickets, repair cars, and find out if they had heard about any strange things in their neighborhoods.

Greg pulled an oiled bag out of the chest. There were black candles in the bag, each one as thick as a grown man’s forearm. In the dim light of the trailer, the candles gleamed strangely, as if made of polished black steel instead of wax. If someone stared at one for a while, it would appear to be alive, its butyraceous glow pulsating, its surface similar to the carapace of a huge insect. Greg took one of the candles and Mr. Berry’s strand of hair. He carefully wrapped it around the wick, which was much longer and thicker than the wick of a normal candle. With a slight hiss, the hair grew into the wick, issuing a greenish glow. Greg took the candle with Berry’s hair, put the rest of the candles back in the bag, and left the trailer.

The circus was on a vacant lot on the outskirts of a town. Greg had to go around the encampment perimeter, choosing the darkest spots, trying not to make any noise. He soon disappeared into the night. When he had gone a good distance from the circus and was walking down the poorly illuminated streets of the town, he lit a candle. Its flame was weak, more like a smoldering. Holding the candle at arm’s length, Greg checked to his right and his left, in front of him and behind him, all around. Candle flames flickered and twitched when Greg chose the wrong side, but grew brighter when the magician headed in the right direction. The candle burned most vividly when it was pointed northeast, so Greg went in that direction. A night action was not pleasant or fast, but it was the easiest way to track down the killer, and Greg did not complain.

The magician was so focused on the candle flame that pointed the way to Mr. Berry that he did not notice the short stooped figure following him in the shadows. Small Zaches, bynamed Zinnober, could be very stealthy in the dark.

Chapter 3: Death

“You’re the cutest girl I’ve ever seen in my life

Now, louder now and with my knife.”

Husker Du, “Diane”

Mr. Berry was angry and confused. That uncouth punk of a magician had brought too much attention to him. Mr. Berry did not like to be in the spotlight, and the magician’s shenanigans had infringed on his first rule—keeping his head down. His safety depended on strictly abiding by the rules, and he did his best not to step out of line. He would have to stay in town for a couple of months more, another rule. He had been at it for fourteen years, and his current town was his twentieth. He had been Mr. Lock, Mr. White, Mr. Stamp, Mr. Glass, Mr. Bone, and fourteen other misters. Moving frequently was necessitated by his other main rule: one city, one killing. He never killed immediately upon arrival and did not leave a city immediately after the murder.

He knew that people in small towns were too concerned about strangers, so he needed to make himself familiar. It could take a month or two, maybe half a year. The people must become accustomed to him, stop talking about him as a newcomer. And no matter how desirable it was to escape from a city right after the kiss-off, he had to pull himself together and sit tight. Otherwise, it would be too suspicious, and suspicion causes excessive scrutiny. During the months of waiting, he could plan and prepare. Only an idiot kills spontaneously, succumbing to lust.

This implied two more rules: be patient and prepare in advance.

Sometimes Mr. Berry watched a movie on TV. Now and then, movies about serial killers and maniacs came up. Mr. Berry never drew a parallel between himself and the villains of these films. Filmmakers had always been interested in killers who challenged society. Movie maniacs were too sociable, teasing detectives and tossing them puzzles pointing to the next murder. They behaved like men who dreamed of recognition. Such killers Berry did not understand. He tried not to leave any trace, avoiding police, and he did not care about society.

Mr. Berry was quite satisfied that nobody had taken notice of him. He might have been just another loser whose career and personal life had not worked. To avoid being considered a weirdo, Mr. Berry sometimes told people about his imaginary family, offering as proof a photograph of a woman with two children that he had stolen from a frame in a supermarket a dozen towns ago. Sometimes he said the family had died in a car accident and he left his hometown because he could no longer live in a house once filled with his children’s laughter. Sometimes he liked to add a little drama, claiming that his wife learned he had cancer, divorced him, and put him out of the house to avoid paying the bills for his treatment. Then his listeners’ eyes filled with tears, and they muttered words filled with righteous anger. Mr. Berry was always amazed that people so easily believed such nonsense.

Mr. Berry was lucky with his professorial face. People looked into his big sad eyes behind the glasses and believed his every word. Outside of work, he tried to be clean and tidy, and he avoided controversy and arguments.

Until the age of thirty-two, Mr. Berry’s life had been as in a fog. He worked as a manager, selling used cars. He even had a girlfriend. But Mr. Berry’s head was always muddled, and he could not concentrate on his work nor on his romantic relationship. He was a mediocre employee and a boring boyfriend.

And then he killed a hooker. It happened four months after Mr. Berry had been dumped by his girlfriend, who had found a more interesting man. It was the first and last time Berry paid for sex. It made him confused. He was overwhelmed with doubt and shame. The prostitute started to taunt him because of his meager manhood. Berry was a timid man, but he could not tolerate such insults. The fact that the woman was drunk was even more offensive. The murder occurred by chance. He shoved her, and she fell, hitting her neck on the edge of the bathtub. To his surprise, Berry was not afraid. He was excited, and the fog in his mind had cleared. Ever since then, he’d had a goal.

He never again paid attention to whores. Their filth, their lust, their flabby thighs and painted faces disgusted him. He realized what he was once afraid to admit. Sex with older women did not clear the fog in his head, but only made it less thick. They had too much rot, too many lies, too much hatred. Children, on the other hand, were innocent and trusting. Their skin was clean, and their scars healed with incredible speed.

Berry had to leave the big city. In big cities, everybody was much too concerned about children’s safety. The schedules of some children looked like those of top managers in big corporations. If a child was an hour late from school, parents would call the police and every friend and relative in town. The bigger the city, the more dangerous for a child, they claimed.

In small towns, everything was easier. Children knew who and what they needed to keep away from. Who could harm a kid in a town where everyone knew each other? Police in small towns dealt with domestic quarrels, shooed teenagers holed up in their father’s car at the roadside, and booted out long hitters from bars. When a child was lost, they interviewed the parents, friends, and teachers and checked the lakes, rivers, and forests. Mr. Berry was unconcerned. By the time the fruitless, wasteful search was over and panic had begun to spread, Mr. Berry would have hidden all the evidence.

In this town, Mr. Berry noticed too late the girl in the white dress with red polka dots. By the time he saw her among the other children walking with their parents to a traveling circus, he had already chained another girl to the floor in the basement of his house. Her name was Julia. He had stalked her for more than two months. He had watched, learning her daily routine so that he could calculate when she would be alone and not at home. He wrote nothing down, lest documents incriminate him if something went wrong. Now that his life had a meaning, his brain worked much better, and it was easy to memorize all the necessary details. On Fridays, Julia left school before her girlfriends. Mr. Berry kidnapped her when she went to pee in the bushes on the way home.

Still, the girl in the polka dress was so pretty that Mr. Berry had followed her to the circus to enjoy watching her a little more. But he reproached himself for it. He was late for the show because he hadn’t bought tickets in advance, and he couldn’t see the girl in the polka dress from his seat.

He didn’t watch the show until the appearance of the trapeze artist. He remembered her name—Martha. He had long been indifferent to women, but this one caught his attention. He thought about her pure childlike skin, her innocent eyes. No, Mr. Berry did not feel the excitement. Looking at the gymnast he felt shame, and for a moment it seemed that someone in the audience would look at him and recognize him as a maniac. He wanted to stand up and confess right there, under the big top, to all the terrible deeds he had done. Later, when he thought about it at home, shivers ran down his spine. He forced himself to calm down. He knew how to get rid of the anxiety. No, he was not going to do anything to the girl in the dotted dress and patent leather shoes, he would not break his “one city, one killing” rule. He just wanted to dream a little. Though he would not be with her, he could turn his dreams into reality with Julia.

Chapter 4: The Magician

“You’ve been burned by my lighter.”

Kyuss, “Thumb”

Greg’s life in the circus had its advantages. No documents, no credit cards, no insurance. No address, no office. To the world outside the circus, Greg existed only during performances. That world did not entice him; it was too predictable, too gray and cruel. Lazarus would have never believed it, but Greg liked it in the circus much more. He had Martha. Since he had met her, it was easier to restrain his dark passion. He did not know why Martha had that effect on him. Martha gave him the peace that had eluded him his entire life. As far as he could judge, in Martha’s presence everybody could be a little bit better than they were.

Greg could not remember his parents. He remembered very little of his childhood. When he tried to force himself to remember something about his distant past, the wall of fire rose before his eyes. He was a teenager the first time he released his inner fire. Some hobos bothered him in the bunkhouse. He did not know what they needed. It might have been his clothes or money, which he did not have, or his body. They hit him. When he realized that this could be the last night of his life, fear and rage overtook him. They hit him a few more times before the flame grasped them. What happened then, that first time of the fire fury, Greg remembered only vaguely. He woke up on the other side of town in an abandoned building, naked, covered in ash and soot, but in one piece. He tried to examine himself by looking at his reflection in a pool of water, but the water started boiling at his approach and steamed away.

After a couple of days, Greg saw the news story about some hobos who had been burnt alive. The press assumed something unnatural, even supernatural, in their deaths, as in Stephen King’s Fire Starter. But the police swept the investigation under the carpet, attributing it to an accident.

As he grew older, Greg’s flashes occurred more often. If you’re a teenager living on the street, you have reason enough to be angry. Greg spent many years learning to control the flames. He eventually understood how to use his abilities, but he did not understand why they had been given to him. He vowed never to use them to harm people. He firmly kept the promise, hopscotching around the country. And then one day, in some small town, he witnessed a group of men beating a girl. They told him to fuck off. And first, he obeyed, but then a thought came into his mind and devoured him. I’m stronger than they are. I can fix it. And he fixed it the only way he knew. He burned them alive. The girl did not thank her savior. In a panic, she ran away before Greg could tell her she had nothing to fear.

Greg tried to lead a normal life, but the thought I’m stronger than they are allowed him no peace. A normal job was not for him, and he could not stay long in one place. Something inside him made him move constantly, as if he were searching for something. When he ran out of money, Greg arranged for street performances. He breathed fire, melted coins, made harmless levitating flames that kids could touch.

In one of the towns, he encountered Lazarus and his circus. The townsfolk were whispering about some strange guy who knew how to do different “things” with fire, and Mr. Bernardius had no trouble finding him.

The tentmaster told Greg that the circus wasn’t only touring with freak shows and circus performers, but also was looking for unusual people and creatures, to whom Lazarus gave shelter. Bernardius invited the magician to join the troupe, and he agreed. Greg immediately realized the tentmaster knew that all his fiery wonders were not mere tricks, but Greg’s unusual abilities did not frighten the circus manager, and this impressed the magician.

Greg’s life took its course. New towns, new shows, new tricks. Slowly, the fire inside Greg calmed. One day, while working on a trick, he found black candles and a crystal ball among the props. He checked the records of the archivist Pietro and learned that no such props were mentioned in them. Greg kept the candles and the ball to himself, not saying a word to Lazarus. After a while, the magician discovered their true purpose. The memory of his own strength returned to him, and he thought about it more and more.

The candle was burning in Greg’s hand. The night was chilly, and the few passersby on the outskirts of the small town threw suspicious glances at the stranger wearing a T-shirt and jeans in such weather and carrying a candle in his hand. Greg did not care. At this hour, the streets held only loners who preferred not to mess with strangers, and a drunkard who would wake up tomorrow and barely remember his own name. Besides, Greg didn’t need any more clothing. The inner fire warmed him. The street was dark, half its lights out. And of those that gave some light, most were dim, and one flickered and hissed as if it was ready to blink off at any moment. A cheap area on the outskirts of a sleepy town.

It’s just like my old damn life, thought Greg. But he chased away that thought. I’m not like Berry. I don’t kill good people. At the end of a row of houses was an old but well-kept one-story building, gray. The candle flame flared up to the size of a fist and abruptly extinguished. Only the smooth oily black candle continued to shine in the unsteady light of the street lamps.

In one of the windows was a light, but the house was quiet as a grave. Nearby buildings were slightly more bustling. The magician heard the sounds of gunfire and hoofbeats from a house next to him. Someone was trying to appease his insomnia with midnight westerns. From across the street Greg heard muffled curses.

“Excellent. Someone watching TV too loud, someone else keen to fight,” Greg murmured to himself. The magician made sure there were no dogs or other animals that might suddenly make a fuss. Not surprisingly, the area was quite poor, and pets were reckoned as a waste of money.

Greg walked around the building, checking if Berry was home. The candles never lied, but the house was strangely quiet. Greg walked quietly onto the porch and tried to open the door. Locked. It was unlikely that someone like Berry would have left the key under the mat, but Greg had his own way to open doors. The magician tensed for a moment, concentrating on what he called his inner flame. The forefinger and middle finger of his right hand turned into flames, burning blue, as if from a blowpipe. His fingers touched the wooden surface above the lock and it instantly turned black with smoke. Greg began to slowly sink his fingers in the wood, burning it until his fingers had passed through the door. He started to make a circle around the lock with his right hand. When the circle was complete, he pulled the lock out of the door with his left hand and carefully placed it near the entrance.

Greg opened the door and entered. The hall light was off. But even in the darkness it was obvious that the house, which from the outside was indistinguishable from others on the block, bore little resemblance to a normal person’s home. There were no pictures on the walls, no books or magazines on shelves, no vases or figurines. It contained only the most necessary items, a table, a sofa, a TV set. The house was clean, tidy, and empty. It was as if the old tenants had just moved out, and new ones had not yet had time to bring in their belongings.

A light was on in the kitchen. Greg moved there, trying to make as little noise as possible. Now his entire right forearm was covered with a blue flame. There was no one in the kitchen or in any of the other rooms. Greg was sure Berry was in the house. The magician decided to go back to the entrance and start exploring again.

He heard a clanging sound coming from below the floor.

There was a basement, but Greg had missed the door to it. He was angry at himself for such carelessness. The flame burning inside became stronger. It seemed that if he did not give it a way out, it would burn him alive. In his anger, he momentarily lost his concentration, and the flame on his right hand gripped his arm up to the shoulder, scorching the sleeve of his shirt. Greg forced himself to calm down and regained his self-possession. “Do not be distracted,” he whispered to himself. “You need to find the door to the basement.”

He found the cellar door behind the kitchen. It was locked.

Calmly and silently, Greg burned the lock the way he had on the front door. The magician went down the concrete stairs. There was a wall on one side of the stairway and a high bookcase holding various implements on the other side, which hid him from view. When he had not quite reached the bottom of the stairs, Greg sat on a step and peered around the bookcase.

In a corner of the basement, a girl of seven or eight was chained to the floor. She was lying on an air mattress and was either asleep or unconscious. Her mouth was gagged, and the gag had traces of blood on it. Beside her lay a bowl of food. Berry towered over the girl. He was completely naked. In the weak yellow light of a single bulb illuminating the cellar, his flabby body seemed made of wax. He stood in a winner’s stance, with his legs apart and his hands on his hips. He shifted his gaze from the girl to the wall, humming quietly and cheerfully. On the wall hung a case for tools. It held hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and wrenches.

Berry went to the stand and picked up a hammer. He turned it over and then put it aside. Returning to the body of the girl, he stood over her and touched his flesh. His breathing became deep and frequent.

Greg had killed many people. The ball had always shown him only killers. Maybe there were other sins in their souls—robbery, violence, drugs, who knew? But his victims all shared one trait: they were murderers. They took people’s lives, and Greg took theirs. He believed he was doing good deeds, using his strength to fight these abominations. He never thought about what pushed these men to commit murder. Quarrels? Gambling debts? Mafia orders? To Greg, murder was murder. Seeing Mr. Berry, Greg thought that some murderers were more heinous than others. Greg had no doubt that the girl on the floor wasn’t Berry’s first victim. Among those whose lives the magician had taken, perhaps there were other such maniacs, but Greg had never had evidence of it. Looking at Berry, he lost his concentration again.

The wave of heat hit Berry in the back with a loud noise. He fell face down, and before he could scream, someone turned him over and sat astride him. It was not a man. It was a devil, a fiend from the belly of hell, wrought by fire. The demon raised his fiery hand and slid it into Mr. Berry’s mouth.

The maniac did not have time to scream. Greg closed his fingers around Berry’s tongue and burned it. Instead of a mouth, there was a gaping hole with scorched edges. Berry’s eyes filled with tears. He could smell burning flesh and feel a wild pain. He tried to shake off the fire monster, but his hands clutched only flames, sending more pain shooting through him.

Berry’s resistance annoyed Greg. The magician grabbed the maniac’s shoulders, pressed them to the floor, and squeezed hard. Berry’s moaning became louder. He tried to move his hands, but couldn’t. The maniac shook his head, trying to figure out what was wrong with his hands, finally realizing that they were no longer attached to his arms. The inner flames were devouring Greg. He wrapped his arms around Berry’s head. The magician dug his thumbs into the killer’s tear-filled eyes and pressed. Berry’s eyeballs melted and began to sink into his skull. Berry was thrashing around under Greg, trying, in a last desperate attempt, to throw him off. The magician pushed harder, and his fiery fingers broke through the last resistance and entered the maniac’s brain.

It was over. Greg’s inner fire began to subside. He got off Berry’s body and lay on the concrete floor of the basement, utterly drained. Greg’s clothes had burned off him, and the floor was cooling down against his back and hips. “Bastard, scum,” Greg muttered. He wondered when he had last had such a flash. Only his first time, he realized. He knew he had to stand up, reminding himself that not everything was done. He approached the girl. She was still unconscious, but she was alive. Greg melted the chain and removed it from the girl’s neck. The magician examined Julia. There were no wounds on her body, and her clothes were still intact. It seemed the blood on the gag was Berry’s. The girl had most likely bitten his hand as he tried to shove the gag in.

He didn’t do it, Greg thought. Gently, he took the girl’s tiny body in his arms, carried her upstairs, and set her on the sofa.

Greg considered burning the house down but dropped the idea. It would be too big an event for such a small town. Local wags would make jokes about a fire magician from a traveling circus who had performed a trick with a man whose house had subsequently burned down. It would be safer not to leave any traces. Greg knelt over the body of the killer. The magician’s hands turned into fire again. He knew that physical contact of the body with the heat would be more devastating, but he could not overcome his disgust. He passed his hands over the body, taking care not to touch the skin, heating it up and burning it to ashes. When Mr. Berry had become a pile of ashes, Greg swept them into a garbage bag and went upstairs.

He took some clothes from Berry’s closet. The idea of wearing the maniac’s clothes was revolting, but there was little choice. It was either that or leave the house naked. And he still had a couple more things to do before returning to the circus. After he got dressed, he wrapped the girl in a blanket, took the bag containing Berry’s ashes, and left the house. He threw the bag into a trashcan near a house a few blocks away from Berry’s. Then he put the girl on the porch of a house a couple of streets away, rang the doorbell, and disappeared. He did not know where the local hospital was, and he did not have time to look for it. But he was sure that the people in the house where he had left the girl would take her to a hospital or to a doctor. Now there was only emptiness in Greg’s head. He felt lousy. All he could think of was that he wanted to see Martha.

Zinnober followed Greg from the circus. He had to prowl through the town, but Zinno did not care. His gut told him that something was very odd. Whatever Greg did during his absences apparently ran counter to the rules established by Mr. Bernardius, otherwise the tentmaster would not have allowed Zinno to leave the circus. Yes, it was very, very serious. Perhaps Zinnober could use it to benefit himself.

When Greg went into the house, Zinno hid in the shadows on the other side of the street, just below the building where people were quarrelling, and watched. What Greg did in the house was unclear, but when he came out, he was dressed differently and was carrying something. Zinnober followed the magician, hiding his stooped figure in the shadows, until Greg got back to the circus. Then the dwarf walked back the same way he had come and found the trash bag Greg had dropped a few blocks from Mr. Berry’s house. Many, especially the magician, underestimated Zaches, and he knew it. Greg sometimes called him an asshead right to his face. But Zaches was, in his own way, clever and cunning, and he was clever enough to understand what had happened at Berry’s. Oh yes, it would certainly disappoint Mr. Bernardius. If, of course, Zinnober decided to tell him.

 

The Beauty & the Goat-man

Record made 03/04/1877

Archivist: Faulkner

Tonight after the show, some drunken loggers offered us information about a strange creature in exchange for a few dollars. One of them said it was a demon, the other that it was a ghost, and a third even called it a demon ghost. This creature, like an ungodly cross between a goat and a man, lived under a railway bridge somewhere in Louisville and by night attacked tramps, young couples looking for privacy, and daredevils who wanted to debunk the myth of the deadly ghost. The loggers promised to say in what city and under what bridge the monster lurked.

Mr. Bernardius did not give them a penny. We already knew about the goat-man but were not planning to go after him. Unhappy, distraught Derek. He will never set foot over the threshold of our circus and, I’m afraid, will finish his days at the hands of some village ruffian or a Judge’s silver bullet. I had no doubt that the monster under the bridge, which pushed people onto the rails, was Derek. Once he was a fine demionis, intelligent, open, and responsive. But a year ago, everything changed.

Derek was a satyr, and when he came to us, I immediately warned Mr. Bernardius that the boy would not be easy to deal with. Satyrs are conscious demionis; they think and talk. But at the same time, their half-bestial mind causes them many problems. Wild satyrs, devoid of communication with humans, quickly degrade to the animal state, in which they are guided by instinct rather than reason. Derek came to us very young and was more receptive to learning. Thanks to Mr. Bernardius’s custody and my lessons, he soon was little different from a human child. Externally, today’s satyrs have not changed since the days of ancient Greece, when they were portrayed as goat-hoofed creatures with horns that grew bigger as they aged, sometimes reaching impressive sizes.

Derek was agile and strong. He was probably twice as strong as an adult, despite his young age. He was indispensable during the installation and dismantling of the tents. Even better, the young satyr played the flute and danced. I think it is no exaggeration to say that our entire circus adored Derek. What can brighten up a long day or a tiring journey better than a good song? The satyr knew a lot of them. Audiences also were crazy about his performances. They especially liked sikkinis, the dance of the satyrs. In this dance was something unusual, something available only to a demionis with an amazing flexible body, a move that combined high jumping on goat legs with smooth, soft hand movements. No man could dance the sikkinis.

Dancing Derek and his songs always amused audiences, but before the show in Kentucky, I never thought about exactly how. After that show, a man with a girl approached Mr. Bernardius. The man, who introduced himself as Mr. Ridby, was terribly flustered, crushing his wide-brimmed straw hat in his hands. He began to talk about how much his daughter had enjoyed the performance. The girl’s name was Eleanor, and, as Mr. Ridby explained to us, she had suffered from melancholia for more than a year, ever since her mother died. Eleanor was eleven years old but did not like to play with other children. She never smiled and spent most of her day in silence. Poor Ridby was terribly upset by his daughter’s condition. To treat Eleanor’s melancholy, doctors had recommended that Ridby beat the girl more often, deprive her of sleep at night, and wash her in ice-cold water. But Mr. Ridby was a gentle man and could not do such things to his daughter.

On the day of the show, Ridby told us, a genuine miracle happened. Watching Derek perform, Eleanor had smiled. Almost in tears, her father asked us to stay in the city a little while longer so that Ellie might speak with Derek. Mr. Ridby expressed the hope that talking with our boy would once again give Eleanor her zest for life. In any other situation, Mr. Bernardius would have adamantly refused. But Ridby’s heartfelt pleas so touched the ringmaster that he could not deny him. I can testify that I had never seen such somberness and detachment from the world as I had seen in Eleanor that day. Meanwhile, it had long been reported that there was information about the new demionis from Astaroth, information we had to find.

Mr. Bernardius agreed to stay in town for a few extra days, and he told Mr. Ridby that the girl could come to the circus and play with Derek. Lazarus’s only condition was that Eleanor come alone, because our circus seeks to preserve our trade secrets from outsiders. I was not worried that a human child would be in the camp for several days in a row. I like children. I believe that in some sense, their minds are much more open to everything unusual. The rarities of our circus would be a miracle for Eleanor, but for an adult, a dangerous deviation, an anomaly. On the other hand, who would believe the girl when she discovered that Derek’s legs and horns were no makeup?

The news that Eleanor would visit him for a few days filled Derek with excitement and joy. He was a teenager, and though he liked to entertain us with his pranks, the satyr clearly had been missing the society of age mates. We told Mr. Ridby that we would allow Eleanor to come to the circus in the afternoon every day for five days, and Derek would entertain the girl. Mr. Bernardius promised Ellie’s father that the children would be supervised, because the circus, although it looks from the outside like a place of entertainment, contains many dangerous pieces of equipment and decorations behind the scenes. Mr. Ridby agreed, and the next day at the appointed time Eleanor came to us.

Derek entertained the girl as he could. The satyr clearly felt like the emperor of a country in which a lovely guest had mysteriously appeared, whom he tried to impress in every way. He talked in detail about the circus, explained how to raise the tents, listed all the cities he had visited on tour, and, of course, also danced and sang. The young satyr’s efforts were not in vain. Between the tents could be heard a ringing girlish giggling and Derek’s loud laughter. The two teens obviously got along, and their first day was a breeze. When Mr. Ridby came for his daughter at sunset, she did not want to leave.

Impressed with the changes in Eleanor’s mood, her father could barely choke back his tears. Before he left the circus, he thanked Mr. Bernardius and young Derek profusely. Ellie’s first day at the circus was great. So were the second, third, and fourth days. Each evening the father took home a cheerful and lively Eleanor, and on the way, she sang the songs Derek had sung for her and tried to demonstrate the satyr’s dashing dancing capers. On the evening of the fourth day, the two youngsters reluctantly parted. They had only one day left, and the faces of both showed the sadness of their upcoming farewell, which overshadowed the joy of that day’s adventures. That night, Derek was not himself. I saw him sitting, illuminated by moonlight, on a barrel in the backyard playing an unfamiliar sad melody on his flute. I felt for him. Only then did I get the idea that he might be more attached to Eleanor than she was to him. Having recovered from her melancholy, she would be able to find friends among her peers. But Derek would remain a lonely teenager.

Ellie’s fifth day at the circus began as usual. Holding hands, the children ran to the backyard, discussing how they might have some fun. Their exemplary behavior, I must admit, had dulled our vigilance. We were punished for our carelessness. Mr. Bernardius began looking for the girl before sunset, when her father would come to pick her up. When he could not immediately find her, we enlisted the entire circus to help, but we did not find Ellie. When Mr. Ridby came, we were forced to admit that we had lost his daughter. The distraught man thought it was some trick meant to surprise him. When we heard Ellie’s voice coming from the backyard, he was even more convinced that her disappearance was some prank. But when we saw Eleanor, her hair was disheveled and her clothing was stained with grass and earth. Her dress was torn and missing a sleeve, and her hands were covered with bruises and scratches. Ellie told us what happened.

She played with Derek as always. The satyr told her that their last day had to be special. Derek invited Ellie to climb onto his back, and when she did, he galloped away from the circus. The satyr promised her it wouldn’t take long, and no one would even notice their absence. At first the girl loved being carried at a tremendous speed on the back of the satyr. She felt like a princess from a fairy tale but became worried when she could no longer see the big top on the horizon. The girl realized with horror that she had never been so far away from the town. Derek began to calm her, stroking her head and cheeks, saying there was nothing to fear. The satyr hugged her and soothed her, but his palms were strange, not like her father’s when he calmed Ellie after a nightmare. Derek’s hands were hot, and they were trying to penetrate Ellie’s clothing. The girl demanded that he stop, but the satyr did not listen. He hit Eleanor so hard that she fell to the ground. Derek tried to rip off her dress, but she resisted as best she could. She was screaming and scratching, biting and calling for help. She felt a stone on the ground and hit Derek with it. The blow sobered him. He wiped away Ellie’s tears, and asked for forgiveness, begging her not to say anything to Mr. Bernardius. Ellie ran back to the circus. She did not know what happened to Derek, but as she ran, she heard him crying and bleating.

We were all shocked by Ellie’s story. Lazarus apologized, but Mr. Ridby would not be mollified. His expression, usually a bit confused and miserable, changed. Ridby was angry and threatened that none of us would get away with this crime. I realized we couldn’t parley with this man. He left the circus, promising us a proper punishment. I knew what he meant. Within a few hours, the news about a circus freak attacking a local girl would fly around the town, and we would have to deal with an angry, bloodthirsty mob. We had no choice. We began to dismantle the tents and hoped Derek would return before we left town.

The satyr did come back, dirty and tearful, with clotted blood in his hair and on his face. In my heart, I hoped that the incident was not quite as Ellie had told. But I knew too well the unbridled nature of satyrs, and, to my great regret, Derek repeated the girl’s story almost word for word. The wailing satyr asked us to forgive him and give him one last chance to see Eleanor, to explain himself. Of course, this could not be considered. We hid him in one of the vans, under rags and bits of baggage, and began to break down the circus. Our circus was still very small, and without Derek’s help, dismantling the tents could take a long time. We almost made it. We were about to leave when the mob arrived.

It was headed by Mr. Ridby and the local priest, Father McKenzie. Behind them, it seemed, were all the men of the town, armed not with pitchforks and scythes, but guns. I was more worried about their torches. A devilish spell makes our equipment impervious to breaking, but I didn’t know if it could survive fire. Ridby and Father McKenzie could not decide who they wanted. Ellie’s father demanded that we hand over Derek and then leave town, but the priest called our circus a devil’s den that must be put to the torch. They would have bickered all night, if not for Derek appearing. The satyr said he was the only one to blame for the incident, and to punish others for his offense would be unfair. The crowd was thrilled. People were screaming, and someone fired a shot into the air. This shot was the signal. Derek pulled away from the angry mob and took off on his goat legs at an incredible speed. The locals were confused, not sure which prey they wanted more, us or the fleeing satyr. Mr. Ridby, unexpectedly, was more persuasive than the priest, and the crowd rushed after Derek. Father McKenzie, left alone, looked at us contemptuously, spat on the ground, and then turned and followed the others.

Mr. Bernardius wanted to try to catch up with Derek, and I had to use all my eloquence to dissuade him from this idea. Derek’s run gave us a chance to save the circus, and we could not miss that chance. The ringmaster reluctantly agreed with me, and we left town and soon left Kentucky, a state we long shunned. Poor Derek remained there, becoming a local legend.

Chapter 5: The Star

“She stripped to the beat but her clothes stay on.”

INXS, “Suicide Blonde”

The U.S., some town. A year and a half ago.

“I can’t believe I let you drag me into this place,” Bernardius said, his voice full of nobility, regret, and paternal feeling.

“I agree, this place lacks class, but from time to time even you should peep into such a hole, if you get my meaning, Mr. Bernardius,” Greg said. “I’m sure these places didn’t exist in your time.”

“You have no idea what places existed in my time,” said Bernardius.

They sat at a table in a roadside strip bar in another new town, not far from where the circus was set up. The cramped, smoky room was illuminated with red, yellow, and blue lights and smelled of alcohol, unwashed bodies, and cheap vanilla perfume. The dancers were apathetic, and more than a few looked as if they could have had grandchildren. The blue light gave a ghastly hue to their bodies, producing the illusion of corpses dancing around the poles.

Greg didn’t like the place. It was the kind of place where bad things tended to happen. Greg occasionally went to strip clubs in cities where the circus performed. Not that he was a fan of such places. In fact, they reminded him of his former life, his life outside the circus, an ordinary life. Eighteen months ago he had hated that life, but now he sometimes missed it. Greg wondered if Bernardius missed his former life. The old man was more than one hundred and eighty years old, although he looked no older than sixty, and that was mostly because of his long beard. Lazarus had spent most of his life in the circus, and Greg sometimes thought the old man had lost all human emotions. Looking at his companion, Greg wondered if he would ever be like him.

The old man abandoned the top hat and cane whenever he went out in public, and draped an old-fashioned cloak over his constant frockcoat. It was the kind of cloak that Greg had seen only in cheap vampire movies. According to Bernardius, the outfit helped him blend in with the crowd. According to Greg, an old man with long gray hair and a beard who wore a black cloak down to the ankles looked like Count Dracula on vacation. The magician was glad that the other bar patrons were mostly truckers looking for fun and loners who missed the company of women. These men were so enthralled by the girls that they paid no attention to the tentmaster.

“Greg, we’re just wasting time here,” Bernardius said, his usually calm voice filled with aggravation. “You were here yesterday. We have to go.”

“Wasting time? The advance team hasn’t even gone to another city,” Greg said. “Please, Mr. Bernardius, wait. I didn’t bring you here to admire saggy breasts and flabby asses.”

“Then why did you bring me?”

The thundering music stopped and the bar patrons fell silent. The bright lights went out. On the stage, bathed in a pure white spotlight, stood a young woman.

“For her,” Greg murmured, his eyes fixed on the stage.

The girl was not very tall. Short blond hair framed her pale face. She wore blue tights that matched the color of her eyes. Her eyes … her eyes were pensive and sad. The music began to play. It was not the familiar rumbling hair-metal, but a quiet melody, some eastern-like tune. The girl on the stage began to move. It was a slow dance. Her movements were smooth and soft, with no hint of lust or seduction. Her hands didn’t slip along her body, her legs didn’t wrap around a pole. She didn’t grind or thrust her hips, didn’t toss playful looks to the audience. While dancing, the girl didn’t take off any clothing, yet no one in the bar complained. The men at their tables looked as if they were in a trance, mesmerized by the girl’s dance. Their eyes were glued to the blonde, as if there had been no other girls before her.

Greg felt calm. It seemed to him that his body was light, almost weightless. He forgot about everything that annoyed him. Even his inner fire died down, and the magician was relaxed for the first time in a good while. Greg looked at Bernardius. The old man seemed to be feeling the same way. His face expressed awe. The magician glanced at the other visitors. Their faces, usually hard, tired, irritated, disgruntled, now looked like the faces of children. Someone’s eyes sparkled as if they were full of tears.

She continued to dance. Her eyes weren’t so sad anymore, and a barely perceptible smile appeared on her face. Her movements became faster, but no less smooth. Suddenly she fell to her knees, lifting her face and arms up, not as if to the ceiling of a dirty club, but as if to the sky, high and azure. The light slowly faded, plunging the hall into darkness. Applause and cheering rose up from the crowd. When the colored lights came on again and loud music began to play, the girl was gone. In her place, a mulatto dressed like a cowgirl with a lasso was dancing.

“Did you feel it? Did you?” Greg asked Lazarus in the tone of a boy seeking approval from an adult.

“Yes,” Lazarus said, but he wore a perplexed expression on his face.

“I don’t know what it is. But it is definitely what we’re looking for in every town, asking around about all sorts of oddities and supernatural stuff.”

“Maybe.”

“Look, Mr. Bernardius. You said yourself that our shows aren’t the most important thing. What’s important is finding people like you, like me. Like her!”

“I remember what I said, Greg.” Bernardius’s calm had returned. “But we must be careful. First, you need to learn something about her. Come on.” Bernardius rose from the table and went to the bar. Greg hurried after him.

“Good evening, sir,” Bernardius said to the man behind the counter. The bartender’s piggy eyes glared at the tentmaster with distrust. Few visitors ever wished him a nice evening, and even fewer addressed him as “sir.” Without changing his wary expression, he nodded to Bernardius.

“We would like to ask you about the girl who performed right before the dancer with the lasso,” Bernardius said.

“Martha? Sorry, but she is not doing private dances. Especially for two customers at once. Pick yourself another girl.” The bartender shot Bernardius a grin. “We have older dancers,” he said.

The ringmaster didn’t move a muscle. “Sir, we are not interested in private dances with any of your girls. We need information.”

“And who the hell are you?” the bartender asked. “Her husband?” He looked at Greg and then back at Mr. Bernardius. “Her father?”

“Not at all. But I find it odd that your first assumption was that we are her family,” Bernardius said without changing his calm tone. The bartender blushed as if realizing he had blurted out too much.

“What makes you think we are not cops?” Greg said.

The bartender put his hands on the counter and leaned forward menacingly. “Go back to your table, or get out of here.”

“Pity. We just wanted to know about the girl,” Greg said, and felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and saw a man who seemed to be a bouncer. He was taller than Bernardius, with huge arms, a prominent square jaw, and a mullet. The bouncer came close to Greg, but the magician did not retreat a single step. The bouncer was not surprised. He had come across such folks before. Some people were too drunk or stupid or proud to get out in an amicable way. He looked down at Greg. The magician only smiled.

The bouncer looked Greg in the eye and thought for a moment that he saw in them not just a shine, but an actual flame gleaming somewhere deep. The goon suddenly felt a wave of heat, and took a step back, dazed and confused. Noticing how the bouncer hesitated, the bartender reached under the bar.

“Please, sir, don’t. Leave your weapon where it is. We do not want any trouble,” said Bernardius. “We have to go,” he whispered to Greg. The magician tried to protest, but Lazarus took him by the arm and led him to the door.

“What are you doing?” Greg said. “I can beat the shit out of them both.”

“I know. But I won’t let you. I do not need you to burn everything in sight, Greg. They are unwilling to negotiate peacefully, so they leave us no choice. But the fire is not what we need. Sometimes an easy fistfight is enough.” Bernardius spoke quietly, as if he were explaining a problem to a student. “This is a job for the brothers,” he added.

Lazarus and Greg returned to the club later that night, in the company of Blanche and Black. The ogre brothers’ huge figures were hidden under long cloaks similar to the one Lazarus wore, and their heads were covered with hoods large enough to hide the wheel of a truck.

“The vampire king returns,” said the bartender through clenched teeth.

“I told you that cloak makes you look creepy,” Greg whispered to Bernardius. But the old man only raised an eyebrow and said nothing. The ringmaster made a small gesture, and Blanche and Black moved forward. In the shadowy room, the bartender at first could not see the size of the brothers, but by the time they were in front of him, he had pulled a shotgun from under the bar and pointed it at the ogres. A discontented grumbling, more like a growl, sounded from under the brothers’ hoods. One of the cloaked figures threw out his hand, grabbed the shotgun barrel right before the barkeep could pull the trigger, and crushed the steel weapon as if it were a cardboard tube. The bartender was amazed at the speed at which this lunker moved.

A moment later, a chair crashed against the back of the second cloaked figure, showering splinters all over the floor. The ogre seemed not to notice the blow. He turned lazily, as if giving the attacker time to escape. The bouncer stood there, the look on his face a mixture of shock and regret.

“Not on the head. We do not need victims,” Lazarus said to the ogre. The giant uttered a disappointed sigh and hit a bouncer in the stomach. During his long career in bars and clubs, the bouncer had taken part in many skirmishes. Most often it was cold cocking an opponent with a few punches. Now and then, he took a hard and painful blow. But the punch from the huge cloaked figure seemed to paralyze his lungs. He could not even cry out in pain or even whimper. His whole body was seized by intense agony. The brute doubled over and noticed that his feet had come off the floor. In that moment, he thought that this simply could not be like the blows he had seen in movies. The bouncer flew several meters through the air. Dirty floor, tables, spotlights on the ceiling, frightened faces of the girls on the stage—everything mixed in a moving blur before his eyes. He landed backwards on a table occupied by some bulky truckers, breaking it in half. The truckers jumped up, a shocked expression on their beefy faces.

The girls on the stage screamed and ran off to the dressing room and then through the back door, losing parts of their costumes on the way, which filled them with a sense of shame. The bartender, seeing the bouncer lying unconscious, pulled a bat from under the counter but then changed his mind. He started throwing bottles at the ogres. Glass shattered against their bodies, showering fragments all around. A group of truckers, unhappy that their entertainment had been interrupted, attacked the two fellows in black cloaks.

Blanche and Black fought back. The bottle-bombing didn’t concern them. They ignored the bursting glass and threw punches at their attackers. Their discontented grumbling quickly gave way to a satisfied chug. For them, this fight was fun. They had been spending all their preternatural force on setting up or dismantling the big top and the stands, and they were delighted at the chance to stretch their muscles. They were upset that Lazarus had told them not to punch their opponents in the head, but the fight was better than nothing. The brothers never attacked first, always making sure they were acting in self-defense, as Lazarus had insisted ever since accepting them into the circus. But whenever they took a blow, they answered it with a harder one, and the fight ended quickly. The patrons that hadn’t fled were soon lying on the floor.

Greg and Lazarus found the bartender hiding behind the counter. The brothers blocked the front and back doors, and the magician and the ringmaster invited the poor man to sit down at one of the few undamaged tables left in the hall. The bartender had little to tell about Martha.

“I don’t know who she is,” he told them. “Honestly, I don’t know. Came to us one night, all soaked to the skin, frozen to the bone. Said she was lost and did not know where to go.”

“Where did she come from?” Greg asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe some trucker dropped her. They do so with the girls sometimes. Well, you know. But I guess she’s not that kind. She looked as if she had traveled a long way before she came here.”

“And you didn’t ask where she came from?”

“Of course, I did. She said she didn’t remember a thing. Didn’t even know her name. Only muttered something like Martha. Well, I decided that was her name. She agreed. She had no ID, so …”

“And nobody asked after her?” Lazarus asked. “Not even the police?”

“No one. There are cops among our clients. They come here when they’re off work. They notice her. Ask her name. But nobody ever said there was BOLO on her, that she was wanted or missing. No one was interested until you showed up!” Judging by his terrified eyes, the bartender was telling the truth.

“Have you … done anything with her?” Greg asked, his voice dry and angry.

“No! You saw her, saw her dancing. I’ve never laid a finger on her, no one has. I don’t know what her trick is, but everybody seems to change when they see her. When she performs, we don’t have any problems. No drunken fights, no nothing. Customers constantly leave her more money than the other dancers, and the other girls don’t even mind.”

“Do you remember anything about the night she arrived?” asked Mr. Bernardius.

“Yes, yes. There was a very heavy rain. Thunderstorm, full deal. Real bad weather. The place was crammed. No one could leave the town, ’cause the rain turned the road into a river. I still wonder how she managed to get to us in that weather.”

“Maybe it’s somehow connected,” Lazarus murmured.

“Where is she now? We’re gonna take her with us,” Greg said, getting up.

“What? Hey, guys, that will not do!” protested the bartender.

“Look, sir, you, your bouncer, and your patrons attacked us,” Bernardius said. “Granted, because of the actions of my fellows, your place incurred significant losses. But they acted in self-defense. Also, to the best of my recollection, you’ve been holding a female with no ID, suffering from memory loss. And you did not report it to the police or take her to the hospital, taking advantage of her state. I’m sure if we report this to the cops, the story will seem as interesting to them as it is to us.” Bernardius signaled the brothers, and they uttered a brutish roar, forcing the bartender to shiver. Bernardius turned back to the barkeep. “I think we understand each other, don’t we?”

“Yes, everything is clear,” the barman said.

“And now, if you don’t mind, we need her address,” said Lazarus.

 

Chapter 6: The Hermit & the Devil

“Leaving the life you led before we met.”

Black Sabbath, “N.I.B.”

The U.S., New Orleans. 19th century.

Lazarus Bernardius was born in 1827. His father was Jerome Bernardius, a large-scale planter and a descendant of French settlers. Lazarus’s mother, Margaret, came from the once glorious Stevenson family, which had been through difficult times at the beginning of the 19th century and was on the brink of financial collapse. Margaret’s mother, Elizabeth Stevenson, after the early death of her husband, raised her four daughters in rigor and piety. The girls had grown up to be beauties, and all married early and successfully. The youngest, Margaret, thought she had some time before she needed to be married, but Elizabeth, feeling that her days were numbered and wanting to arrange the future of her daughter as soon as possible, insisted on Margaret’s marriage to Jerome, who had been captivated by the girl’s beauty and modesty.

Jerome and Margaret’s marriage was unhappy. Bernardius was a practical man, concerned only about his plantation, and his work was a greater passion than his young wife. Deprived of her husband’s attention, young Margaret spent her days reading books and attending church. She was kind to the slaves, helped them in sickness, and prayed to the Lord for them. But her husband did not share her views. Soon it became obvious to Margaret that Jerome was a violent man who treated black workers as tools for personal gain. Meanwhile, his wife’s attitude toward the slaves often infuriated Jerome. Eventually, he forbade her to communicate with the workers in the field, allowing her to chat only with the domestic servants. Only books and church were left in Margaret’s life.

When on the night of October 17, 1827, Margaret gave birth to a son, she named him after Lazarus of Bethany, who had been resurrected by Christ on the fourth day after death. But, in an ironic twist of fate, Lazarus was a weak child, prone to ailments, and he had twice been on the verge of death. In those days, Margaret took him to church and prayed to God for the salvation of her son. His son’s poor health irritated and depressed Jerome. He had hoped for a strong successor who would help him manage the cotton plantation. But the child’s weakness did not allow him to be in the field with his father. Instead, like his mother, little Lazarus spent all his time reading books on religion. At the insistence of his wife, Jerome invited a priest from New Orleans, Roger Abernathy, to teach his son. The young clergyman was a man of the gentry and had a gift for education. He became a friend and a mentor to the boy, something Lazarus’s father would never be.

Abernathy also became friends with Margaret. They were the same age, with similar traits of character, and they quickly hit it off. When Roger wasn’t spending time with Lazarus or preaching in the church, he could often be seen in Margaret’s company.

At first, Jerome Bernardius paid no attention to his wife’s new friendship, but when it was whispered about even among the slaves in the cotton fields, the seeds of anger were sown in the planter’s heart. He became suspicious and angry. At last, he announced to Roger Abernathy that the Bernardius family no longer needed his services, and he was free to return to New Orleans. The priest was shocked. He knew people were whispering behind his back, but the simple-hearted young man believed it was obvious that his relationship with Mrs. Bernardius was just friendship. Abernathy tried to explain this to Jerome, but the planter did not want to listen. When Abernathy persisted, Jerome beat him, tore off his Roman collar, and threw the priest out of his home.

Abernathy went back to New Orleans, and no one in the Bernardius estate ever saw him again. Jerome, however, couldn’t move past the quarrel. His confidence in his wife, despite the innocence of her relationship with Abernathy, was shaken. He became an anxious and nervous man, and soon had a stroke from which he never fully recovered. With his health compromised, his involvement in his business decreased, and the plantation suffered. In 1842, he decided to hand over the responsibilities of the estate and the plantation to his wife and son, and a year later he died quietly. Until the Civil War, Lazarus tried to manage the business, but with no experience, no real desire, and no support from his mother, who had become a closed and inhospitable woman since Roger Abernathy had been banished from the Bernardius home, he was doomed to fail. Before Lazarus turned thirty, his mother died, and he finally lost all interest in his father’s plantation, which had become a burden to him.

After the war, the estate was all that remained of the once thriving business of Jerome Bernardius. The slaves were freed by Lazarus or escaped. Eventually, Lazarus sold the house for a pittance and went to New Orleans. He saw the city as a place where he could start a career unrelated to the plantation business, perhaps a career as a journalist, or, if he was lucky, as a writer. But Lazarus never had the chance to use the money from the sale of the house. Immediately upon arrival, Bernardius was careless enough to venture into a dark alley, where he was hit on the head with a baton and stabbed in the back. He came to his senses at night, as his body was loaded onto the stretcher of a police carriage. He was scared, he felt giddy, but otherwise he was unhurt. The police clearly took Lazarus for a dead man and did not expect the corpse to come to life. When he did, they figured he was a tramp, filled to the eyeballs with alcohol, so they let him go to the four winds. Bernardius lingered in New Orleans for two weeks, with no money or shoes, in a vain attempt to restore his father’s old connections. Barefoot and disheveled, smelling of sewage, he was not allowed to set foot in the noble houses. Exhausted, Lazarus trusted in God, hoping He would send him salvation from misery and suffering. But in the end, he was stabbed again, this time, right in the heart.

When Lazarus Bernardius came to life, the first thing he saw was light. It was so bright and blinding that he had to squint. He tried to cover his eyes with his hands, but he could not move. Lazarus blinked, trying to clear the tears from his eyes. When his vision cleared, he saw that the light was not a supernatural phenomenon proclaiming that his earthly sorrows were finished and Heaven waited. The light came from a lamp on a white ceiling. The feeling of weightlessness that had filled his body when Lazarus woke up began to fade. He felt a sense of his own body weight. He also felt tingling in his fingers and toes and warmth in his chest. Suddenly, the feelings that had been coming on gradually, hit him like a wave, flooding into his consciousness. The heat in his chest turned into a fire, as if a torch was burning in the very heart of him. For a moment, Lazarus thought he heard a devilish laugh. He put his hand to his chest and heard a melodious clink.

“Oh, you finally woke up, Mr. Bernardius,” a voice said. Lazarus turned his head to the right and saw a strange metal table on thin legs, on which lay something formless, covered with a white sheet.

“I’m here, Mr. Bernardius,” the voice said. Bernardius turned his head to the left and saw the man who was talking to him. He was tall, had blond hair, and was dressed in a black coat over a white suit. Curly hair fell over the stranger’s quaint face, a face that could be described as beautiful, except for its sharp features, which were slightly longer than they should have been. Bernardius, who had not yet recovered himself, strained his eyes to have a better look at the stranger. The face of the man curved a bit to the left, like a half moon, and one eye was twice as big as the other. His mouth, splayed from ear to ear, was full of small triangular teeth. Lazarus shook his head and the face of a man again became normal.

“Where am I?” asked Lazarus.

“You are in a waiting mortuary,” said the stranger. The man was holding an apple, which he cut into pieces with a small knife and ate. The fruit seemed weird to Lazarus, but, because of his shock and poor health, he considered this a hallucination and did not look closely.

“Waiting mortuary?” Lazarus looked around and saw tables on which lay bodies covered with sheets. For a moment he felt sick. His memories returned. “I was attacked. I was stabbed in the chest.” With his memories came renewed energy. He sat up abruptly on the table, pushing away the sheet, under which he was uncovered. The bell rang again.

“What is it?” he asked the stranger. The man silently pointed to a knife on a string tied to Lazarus’s hand. It was strapped around the bell on a stand next to the table on which Bernardius lay. Lazarus looked at his chest. There was a just small scar right above his heart, a trace of the wound.

“I’m alive! I am alive by the grace of the Lord,” Lazarus said. He was so excited by this fact that for a moment he forgot his manners, which normally were very important to him. “Pardon my look, sir.” Mr. Bernardius sat up and dangled his legs from the bed, covering his private parts with the sheet. “However, this might be habitual to you, because you work here.” Only when the words slipped out did Lazarus realize his stupidity. The strange gentleman was too well dressed for a man whose job was to watch and see if someone in the morgue rose from the dead.

“No, Mr. Bernardius, I don’t think that God has something to do with the fact that you continue to breathe, and no, I don’t work here,” the stranger replied. A perpetual smirk seemed to be attached to the face of the stranger. “To be honest, I never heard of anyone in the waiting mortuary watching corpses. As far as I know, the bell has never rung in places like this.” The stranger continued to eat his apple.

“Then who are you?” The mocking tone of the black-and-white-clad man bewildered Lazarus. What was this strange man doing in this place? Was it possible that he was one of those rich perverts who paid the guards in the morgue to let them take a closer look at a dead body, still warm or already touched by corruption? As if reading Bernardius’s thoughts, the man raised his eyebrows emphatically, and Lazarus’s face flushed with shame.

“Mr. Bernardius …”

“How do you know my name?” Lazarus interrupted the stranger.

“I have my sources,” the blond stranger said in a low voice. But noticing Bernardius’s frightened look, he hastened to dispel the mystery. “The tag on your foot. Your name is written on it.”

Lazarus checked it, feeling stupid. The tag was tied around the big toe of his right foot.

“Mr. Bernardius, I’m here on behalf of a gentleman who wants to offer you a job,” said the stranger, slicing off a piece of the apple. Lazarus looked closer at the apple. It was red, almost black, and in some places it was covered with dark spots of rot. Lazarus winced.

“You’re a friend of my father?” he asked.

“No. Look, Mr. Bernardius, I realize you are lost. Not many have found themselves in this place. No one, to be honest. So you probably have many questions. The man I work for can answer all of them. And he wants to invite you to work for him. The decision will be yours. But, in any case, if you want to learn how you got here and why you were attacked twice in one week, you’d better come with me.”

“Come with you? When?”

“The person who wants to talk to you does not usually have a lot of time. We have to go today.”

“But my stuff. I’ve been living for two weeks like a vagabond, without changing my clothes.”

“Nothing to worry about,” the stranger said. He pulled a bundle out from somewhere behind him and threw it on the table next to Lazarus. “Here is your suit. Shall we go?”

“Yes, I agree,” Lazarus said. He was confused, but he reasoned that if the stranger wanted to harm him, a more convenient location than the morgue was hard to imagine.

“Fine,” said the stranger. He pulled the apple open with his fingers and pulled out a worm. He held it up to the light, as if admiring it, and then he put it in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. He licked his fingers and smiled at Lazarus.

“What are you waiting for, Mr. Bernardius? Get dressed.”

Lazarus Bernardius was accustomed to living simply. After the death of his father, who wasn’t shy about showing how wealthy he was, and after the affairs of the cotton plantation had gone awry, Lazarus and his mother, humble and pious people, led a very unpretentious life.

The carriage of the black-and-white gentleman, whose name Lazarus hadn’t asked, took them to the door of a pompous-looking building in the Greek Revival style. The building was huge, and its opulence made it clear that commoners were not allowed to enter. Obviously, anything hiding behind its heavy doors was available only to the richest citizens.

“We are at St. Charles Avenue?” asked Lazarus. He tried to look around. When Mr. Bernardius and the black-and-white stranger had left the waiting mortuary, it was early evening. It had taken some time to get here, but the street was already dead-of-night dark, and Lazarus could barely see the houses around the mansion.

“Come on.” Lazarus’s companion ignored the question and gently took him by the arm, leading him up steps to the entrance of the building.

The inside of the house struck Mr. Bernardius even more than the outside. A room with an incredibly high ceiling was filled with tables at which people, old and very rich, were dining. The suit the stranger had given Lazarus in the morgue at first seemed too snazzy. It may have been unwise to appear on the streets wearing it, but in this place to dress differently would be unacceptable. Ladies were bedecked with jewels, and their companions wore suits that would have cost an entire library of the Bernardius estate.

“What is this place?” Lazarus asked the black-and-white stranger.

“A restaurant,” came the reply.

“What’s it called? It must be famous throughout the city!”

The stranger pointed to a gilded sign above the entrance. It depicted tongues of flame, with twisted horns above them and flaunting hooves underneath.

“It serves only meat?” asked Bernardius.

“It serves anything you can afford to order,” the black-and-white stranger said with a smile. “We have to go, Mr. Bernardius.”

The stranger led Lazarus between tables. The waiters seemed not to notice the two guests, nor did the other diners. Bernardius was turning his head left and right, stunned by the wealthy and snobby restaurant. He saw golden bas-reliefs, high marble columns holding up the ceiling, and a bright, almost fluorescent, light pouring down.

Lazarus saw a man sitting at the central table, watching them. The black-and-white-clad gentleman went toward him.

“Mr. Bernardius, I’m glad you agreed to meet with me,” the man at the table said. He smiled at Lazarus but didn’t extend his hand for a handshake. He turned to the black-and-white-clad stranger. “Mr. Star, thank you for taking the trouble to deliver Mr. Bernardius here.” The man from the morgue nodded without saying a word and walked away.

“Please, sit down, Mr. Bernardius,” said the man at the table. He was dressed much simpler than the other people in the room. He had a broad face, which could be taken for the face of a commoner, except for his clever and mocking eyes. The stranger was smiling, but Lazarus felt uncomfortable. It seemed to him that those eyes saw right through him. The stranger’s hair, long, heavy, and black, was drawn back into a simple ponytail.

“Who are you?” asked Lazarus, ashamed of the weakness of his own voice. “You know my name, but I do not know yours.”

“Say, my name is Louie Louis,” said the long-haired man. His voice suggested mockery, even more so than Mr. Star’s. In their behavior and in their ridiculous names was something similar. Bernardius wondered if they might be siblings. Star looked younger, although it was difficult to determine either of their ages. Lazarus guessed that Star was about thirty, Louis in his forties.

“Are you French?” asked Lazarus.

“No, Mr. Bernardius. Although, in some sense, we do share a common blood with you. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You look tired. I heard about your misadventures in New Orleans. You should recuperate before we continue.” A moment later, three waiters arrived and began to serve dishes.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Bernardius. To avoid you having to spend time studying the menu, I chose for you in advance. I assure you that I ordered only the best of what they serve here.”

“Do you own this place?”

“I own many things, Mr. Bernardius. In the meantime, please eat.”

Lazarus did not argue with Louis. The dishes were luxurious, and Mr. Bernardius had been hungry for almost two weeks. Keeping up with the dishes on the table was not easy. When he finished, the waiters quickly cleared the table, leaving Bernardius alone with Louie Louis.

“Mr. Bernardius, as you know, you’re here because I want to offer you a job,” Louis began.

“Yes, Mr. Louis. And this, I must confess, confuses me. As far as I can tell, you know more about me than I can imagine. And you must know that my only job in life I haven’t managed very well. My father’s business has folded.”

“I know, Mr. Bernardius. But the work that I want to offer you doesn’t involve money. You won’t have to clutter your mind with figures, you won’t have to worry about costs and profits. You have special talents that make you a unique candidate for this position.” There was no mockery in Louis’s voice.

“I’m flattered, Mr. Louis. But I’m not sure I have any outstanding talents. I’m good at English, my French is tolerable, and I love to read, that’s probably it.”

“And you cannot be killed,” Louis said cheerfully.

Lazarus went cold inside. His companion’s tone was playful, but he didn’t seem to be joking.

“My presence in that morgue was some absurdity. The doctor who examined me must have been an amateur. In a city like New Orleans, any accident can happen.”

“You are right, Mr. Bernardius. And the first attack on you was accidental indeed. But I had to arrange the second one.”

For a moment, Lazarus thought he had misheard. His head was spinning. He was fighting fear, distrust, and resentment. He stood up from the table.

“I do not know why you called me and gave me clothes. Your jokes are bad, and you are a swindler, Mr. Louis. I’m not going to tolerate your bullying,” Lazarus said loudly, but he was surprised to note that none of the other diners turned their heads in his direction.

“Sit down, Mr. Bernardius. If I don’t want to let you go, you will not get out of here. Sit down and listen to me.”

Something in Louis’s voice made Lazarus change his mind. He suddenly felt like a fractious child with whom an adult was talking in a strict and confident tone. He sat down.

“Mr. Bernardius, when you came to New Orleans, you were attacked. Some backstreet boy saw the robbers hit you on the head with a bat and stick a knife in your back. This boy stole your shoes, making sure you were dead. But he had the decency to report the attack to the police. However, when the coppers arrived, you suddenly returned from the dead, scaring the blazes out of them.”

“Returned from the dead? You speak as if I was really dead,” protested Bernardius.

“That’s right, Mr. Bernardius. But I still had to verify this. That’s why I organized the second assault on you.”

“What? Why?”

“My goal was to ascertain if there was any chance your first resurrection was the fantasy of an urchin or the daydream of a copper wearied by his service. I had to know for sure, so the blow was aimed to the heart, Mr. Bernardius.”

Lazarus winced. He recalled how only a few hours ago, his chest had been on fire, his head had been in a whirl, and his lungs had been ready to explode with a single breath. Yet when he came to life, only a small strange-looking scar reminded him of the assault.

“You would kill a man,” muttered Lazarus. “Just to prove some stupid theory?”

“Mr. Bernardius. The city is rife with tales generated by dreamers, people who are crazy or just too sensitive. If it hadn’t been you, my people would not have paid attention.”

“Your people? What do you mean?”

“A lot of people work for me. They watch all the oddities that take place. Some they discard as nonsense, some they check.”

“And why did they pay attention to me?”

“I’m sure you know that you weren’t the healthiest child. A couple of times your father hastily ordered a small coffin. But you survived. And when the man who had escaped death as a child befooled it again, my people told me. And I told them to check on you.”

“Check on me? To kill me! You ordered them to kill me.” Lazarus felt as if he were on the edge of hysteria.

“Mr. Bernardius, as we can see, you are alive. You even dined.” Louie Louis’s derisive tone had returned.

“Only a dastard can joke like this. I was lucky to survive. But what if your people were wrong? What if someone else had been in my place? You’re not just a dastard, Louis! You’re a fiend!”

Louis laughed. “Come now. History knows no ifs.”

“If I had not survived, you would have just shrugged and your sleep would have been undisturbed.”

“Mr. Bernardius, everything has ended up in the most beautiful way for both of us. Do not find problems where there are none,” said Louis in a weary tone. “I want to offer you a job, and your immortality is the very quality you need for it. If you are still interested in my offer, follow me. Don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt you. Besides, we both know it is impossible to kill you, so you don’t need to worry about anything.” With these words, Louis stood up and left the table. Lazarus was so amazed by Louis’s aplomb, which bordered on arrogance, that he wanted to show his backbone and remained seated. Thoughts swarmed in Mr. Bernardius’s head. Louie Louis had ordered him killed, but had also revealed his extraordinary abilities. Immortality, a gift available only to gods. But he didn’t know if he could trust Louis. On the other hand, Mr. Bernardius told himself, Louis treated everyone and everything with a grin, but something in the way he acted implied that he was not a charlatan. Perhaps his affairs took place in the shade, but Lazarus felt no lies in what Louis had said. New Orleans had been rejecting him, he had no way back, and his father’s business partners had turned away. The only person interested in Mr. Bernardius was Louis.

Mr. Bernardius jumped up and ran to catch up with Louie Louis, who was slowly walking toward the exit of the restaurant. Lazarus thought his musings had lasted only a few moments, but during this time Louis had almost reached the door. Bernardius had to run to catch up with him, dashing among the tables. He ran into a waiter, apologized for his awkwardness, and caught up with Louis as he was getting into the carriage that Mr. Star had used to take him to the Horns & Hooves.

“Wait a minute, Mr. Louis,” Lazarus called. “I changed my mind, I’m going with you.”

“Changed your mind, huh? I thought that you agreed ab ovo,” said Louis with a smile, and he gestured for Bernardius to climb into the carriage.

There were three of them in the carriage, Lazarus, Louie Louis, and Mr. Star. The windows were curtained, and when Mr. Bernardius pushed the curtain aside to see where they were going, he saw only darkness. It seemed a long time since the carriage had left New Orleans. Lazarus was delighted by the comfort of the carriage, which rode smoothly down a country road, as if there were no rises or dips or holes. The doors of the carriage protected them from the sounds of the outside world. For a moment, Mr. Bernardius thought they were in the womb of the stars, flying through the universe. The whole world had shrunk to the limits of his equipage, and he felt his head clearing. For the first time since moving to New Orleans, he was strangely calm, his thoughts streamlined and easy. He lost his sense of time. Sometimes it seemed to him that the equipage was rushing through the darkness for only a minute, other times it seemed as if they had been riding for several days. Lazarus was surprised to find that it did not bother him at all.

“Let’s get back to our conversation, Mr. Bernardius,” said Louie Louis. “I chose you because you have a very rare gift. But the fact that you do believe in God, and you have read dozens of books on religion, also has meaning for me. You believe in God, don’t you?”

“Of course,” said Lazarus.

“And the Devil?”

“I think he exists. But to believe means to trust, and I never trusted the Devil.” What Lazarus said somehow amused Louie Louis, and Mr. Star chuckled condescendingly.

“It seems as if your mind is saturated with books, but lacking discernment,” Louis said. “Give me your hand.”

Lazarus held out his hand, thinking that this would be his first, if belated, handshake with Louis.

Barely touching Louis’s skin, Lazarus felt the world changing around him. The carriage began to fade, and there was nothing beyond it: no roads, no trees, no stars, no sky. Only darkness. It was as if the world was woven from the finest fabrics, and now some invisible monster of unimaginable proportions had ripped it to pieces in a fit of madness, crumpling the torn shreds and throwing them into the darkness. The darkness beyond the world was alive, Lazarus could sense it. There were no visible signs of its life, but he felt it watching him.

The world kept disappearing piece by piece. Only the lower part of Mr. Star’s face was left, with the eternal smile on it, and in next moment even it had gone. Everything vanished with a deafening roar. Lazarus felt something trying to break him and pull him back into the darkness. But Louie Louis held his hand, and he was safe. Louis stood in the darkness, clearly visible, smiling, proud, and full of strength. Finally, the last piece of reality had been destroyed, and the two were surrounded by the darkness. The humming abated, and in the next moment Lazarus was blinded and deafened by a flame that superseded the darkness. In exhaustion, he fell to his knees. Fear seized them, but Louie Louis still gripped his arm. Fire engulfed Lazarus’s body, and he felt his hair and muscles burning and melting, but after a moment he realized that the fire seemed to be waltzing around him, without penetrating his skin, not burning him from the inside. In horror and awe, Lazarus looked up at Louis. He should have known before. Louie Louis. What a ridiculous name. A jest about people who were not accustomed to seeing beyond their own noses and believing what their books claimed.

Lucifer. Lightbringer.

The flames began to subside. Fire retreated from Lazarus’s body. Lucifer was still holding his hand. Lazarus looked around. Behind the diminishing flames, he saw thin gray spires of towers that seemed to be piercing the gray sky. The towers looked like melted candles. Lazarus tried to see what they were made of but couldn’t. Something weightless touched his cheek. He put his hand to his face, and it slipped on something soft, destroyed by a single touch. Lazarus looked at his fingers, which were black. Ash. The buildings were covered with ash, making it impossible to figure out what they were made of.

The ash rain increased. Gray and black flakes fell to the ground, covering it with a layer that grew thicker with each passing minute. Ash had reached to Lazarus’s mid-thigh. He was kneeling, and when he tried to get up, he couldn’t. The ash assumed extraordinary weight, and Lazarus couldn’t move his legs. Mr. Bernardius panicked. The ash grew so thick that he could see neither the sky nor the spires. With every moment, black and gray flakes covered Lazarus, first up to his waist, then his chest. When the ash reached his neck, Lazarus screamed. The flakes flew at him, flew into his mouth, and impeded his breathing. It sealed his eyes. Mr. Bernardius began to choke. He tried to swallow the ash, but it was useless. The ash rain grew stronger, and Lazarus did not have enough time. He could not see a thing, but felt the weight of the ash on his face. The weight would not let him rise from his knees, would not even let him clean his face and mouth. I’m dying, thought Lazarus.

Louie Louis, who was holding Lazarus’s hand, yanked it. Lazarus thought he was rising abruptly from the depths of the sea or from a very deep grave. The weight pressing on him became lighter, and he saw in the distance a spot of light that was coming to him at incredible speed, developing from a tiny point into the whole world. He flew into the source of light, and the air instantly filled Mr. Bernardius’s lungs and cleared his eyes so he could see again.

Lazarus sat in the carriage racing through the dark. Louis no longer held his hand. Mr. Star was still grinning. And for a moment it seemed to Lazarus that his face was the same as it had been in the morgue, curved, with a huge mouth full of sharp teeth.

“I could have introduced myself in another manner, but I’m afraid you’d have thought I was crazy,” Louis said. Bernardius looked at him with eyes full of fear. Lazarus knew what he had seen, knew it was not a dream.

“Mr. Bernardius, I understand your shock, but I hope that the knowledge you acquired in your father’s library and Mr. Abernathy’s schooling will help you cope with it.”

“You know about Abernathy?”

“I thought that after the things you have just seen, such details would not surprise you, Mr. Bernardius.” Louie Louis seemed almost annoyed. “You do realize who I am and what kind of things are subject to me?”

“You are Lucifer, the highest of the demons of Hell. A fallen angel.”

“It is true, Mr. Bernardius.”

“All the more, I don’t understand why you need me.” Lazarus was baffled. But his training, the hours and days spent in the library, helped him cope with his feelings. At heart, he had always been sure that everything he had read was true.

“Mr. Bernardius, you haven’t just read the Bible and theologists’ work. You lived among slaves, who trusted God much less than the Devil. You studied the books on which the official church prefers to remain silent or deny their existence. Goetia grimoires, scientific works of apostates. From these books, you should know that the structure of Hell is much more complicated than it might seem to an unenlightened mortal. We have enough trouble outside of your world, despite what your churchmen say and do. Mr. Star and I are rarely out of Hell. But on the ground, things happen that require our observations and sometimes interference. So I need you.”

“For what?”

“Mr. Bernardius, do you know the big difference between angels and demons, other than that referred to in the Bible?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Lazarus.

“Angels cannot have offspring. Demons can. We were expelled from paradise and lost the privileges that angels have, but some limitations of our nature have fallen. Have you ever wondered why the victims of so-called demonic possession are almost always women? And mostly young ones.” Lazarus’s face turned white with a terrible guess.

“At the time of possession, a woman can conceive a demon? But this is absurd!” shouted Lazarus.

“Not at all. The results of such a coupling are demionis, or mongrels. Mankind calls them evil spirits. In some of the demionis, people see humans with amazing abilities. Unfortunately, not all demionis retain a human form. Some are more like beasts or monsters.”

“Demionis? You’re saying that all the vampires, werewolves, monsters of fairy tales, they’re all the offspring of the possession of women by demons?” Lazarus refused to believe such things.

“Yes, Mr. Bernardius. All the monsters that are considered to be of the devil are, in fact, half-human offspring. Many women are forced to accept demons, it’s true. But some voluntarily desire the spawn of Hell. What would come to light as a result of demon possession is unknown to anyone. This comes from the demon and its position in the hierarchy of Hell. We only know that the blood of demons can manifest itself for generations with very different effects. One child may have incredible power or control the weather, and another may grow to become an ogre or mermaid.”

“And my …”

“Your immortality, Bernardius? A very curious case. It was not necessary for your mother to be possessed. As I said, the blood of demons can manifest itself through several generations. But immortality is a gift available only to a very few lucky ones, even among demons. And almost never to a mortal. It makes you a very special person. You do realize this, don’t you, Lazarus?”

Lazarus did realize it. In his heart he believed in his own immortality, but his consciousness and common sense had resisted this idea. He was lost.

“Due to certain reasons, the number of such creatures—demionis—is diminishing. They have no shelter and protection; they are poorly adapted to the modern world. Almost all of those whom you call evil spirits, from dragons to vampires, remained only in fairy tales. Few survived. I’m interested in finding them and helping them. With your assistance, Mr. Bernardius,” Louis said with a smile.

“Why should I help you?”

“Because, in some way, all of them are your family. Because you will discover many of the mysteries of the universe. And your immortality will make you an excellent teacher and an advocate for these unfortunate creatures. You will collect and transmit knowledge to them, protect them. You will become their leader. You do not need to think about earnings or hide your gift, because you will be surrounded by the likes of yourself.”

Something in this speech made Lazarus’s heart beat faster. Since childhood, he had been a loner, and sometimes it seemed to him as if he did not belong to this world. But he could never have imagined how true it really was. And now he had the opportunity to do something special to help those like him.

“Helping the Devil. It’s too much,” muttered Lazarus.

“Look, Lazarus. Think about it this way. You won’t be helping me. You’ll be helping those who cannot survive without you. People do not like oddities. They do not like what does not fit in their heads. Encountering something unusual, they are likely to erase it from the face of the earth. Normality, ordinariness, these are the protective mechanisms of humanity, a form of security. You can help demionis. You can protect them from the human world, and protect people from them. Because, I’ll be honest with you, not all of them are harmless and friendly. But you can reach out to everyone. After all, you are not limited by time, Mr. Bernardius.”

“Here we are,” said Mr. Star, looking out of the window of the carriage. The announcement interrupted Lazarus’s thoughts. The driver, clad from head to toe in a black cloak, jumped from the box and lit a torch.

The light of the torch penetrated the darkness. They were in a silent forest far from the city. The only sounds were a crackling fire and rustling leaves. The driver went on a wide circle around the equipage, using a torch to ignite lanterns mounted on high poles. It was getting brighter. Before he lit all the lanterns in the center of the circle, outlines of carts loaded with bales and chests, wooden columns, and bright patches of fabric became visible.

“What is it?” asked Lazarus.

“A traveling circus,” said Mr. Star.

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s your job, Mr. Bernardius,” said Louie Louis. “Your disguise and your shelter. People hate abnormality. But only if it does not entertain them. The circus has always been a salvation for those who are not accepted by the society of normal people—cripples, freaks of nature, and, in the case of the demionis, a certain kind of mongrels. This is the only place where a group of strange creatures will not arouse suspicion. With a traveling circus, you can move around the country to look for the unusual and give it shelter and protection.”

Lazarus walked among the carts, looking at bales. As a child, he had seen circus performances. But he had never seen a circus not yet assembled. Now it seemed incredible that the stage, the cells, the main tent did not appear magically right before a show, but were collected and transported in carts.

“I don’t want to attract attention, Mr. Bernardius,” said Louie Louis, as Lazarus wandered among the carts. “Therefore, you have to use such gimmickry. There are forces that will be happy if people continue to destroy mongrels. And my demionis are too few. You won’t have to think about money or food. But you must be careful. Inhabitants of your circus will have to follow certain rules to guarantee their safety.”

“Inhabitants? But there is no one, only staff and equipment!” said Lazarus.

“And you have not said yes,” said Louis with a sly smile.

Lazarus caught himself thinking that he had already agreed to the proposal of the lord of Hell. “I agree.”

“Perfect. I was counting on that. Then I will give you a minute to satisfy your curiosity, and then we’ll go back.”

“That’s all? No contract signed in blood?” Lazarus thought he was talking nonsense. And judging by the reaction of Louis and Mr. Star, nonsense it was. Both laughed.

Louis smiled, but his eyes were serious. “You’re immortal, Mr. Bernardius. I will not get your soul. Your word is enough.”

Lazarus felt goose bumps on his back and said nothing. He again looked at the bales and carts, wondering how many were needed to transport the circus. He reminded himself what he had agreed to. To his surprise, he felt no guilt or anxiety, only excitement, like a child waiting for something new and interesting. He always thought he was needed for something more than keeping accounts on the plantation or in an office. The thought flashed in his head that maybe the blood-of-hell inhabitants had made him agree to such a venture.

“Mr. Louis,” said Lazarus. “Will I know my bloodline?”

“In time, Lazarus,” Louie said solemnly, and he disappeared into the carriage, making it clear that the time to explore the circus had expired. Lazarus followed the demon. He had so much to ask Louis and Mr. Star. But his thoughts were floundering, and he didn’t know where to begin. Before he was ready to ask the first question, they got to New Orleans. Dawn had already risen over the city.

The carriage moved through the unfamiliar streets, and Lazarus realized they were heading toward the most fashionable part of town. The lasher stopped the coach at an expensive hotel.

“Enjoy the pleasures of a big city while you can, Mr. Bernardius. Life in a traveling circus is interesting but lacks comfort,” said Louis. “The man who will lead you into the swing of things will contact you tomorrow morning. In the meantime, relax. Your room and amenities are paid for.”

The coach of demons left. In his room, Lazarus found clean clothes and money. Without changing clothes, he took the banknotes and went down to the street. He needed a coach that would deliver him to Horns & Hooves. He was sure the patrons of his expensive hotel often dined there. But to his surprise, nobody had heard of such a place. Nor did any driver in any other part of the city know where the restaurant was.

Bernardius had traveled the entire city before he met a driver at the port who agreed to take him to Horns & Hooves. The coach brought Lazarus to the door of a dilapidated shack that smelled of spoiled fish and exotic spices. Gathering his courage, Lazarus went inside. In the dim light he saw several low and dirty tables where visitors of the eatery had crowded, workers and blacks who looked with distrust and hostility at Mr. Bernardius’s expensive suit.

Lazarus tried to find out from the owner of the place, a small and ancient Chinese man with a long thin mustache, if he knew anything about Louie Louis, but the old man only listed the names of the dishes and their prices. Realizing that Lazarus was not going to order anything, he waved his hands, as if to dismiss him.

Lazarus returned to his hotel and collapsed onto the bed, immediately falling asleep. The next morning he was awakened by a short man in a funny embroidered hat who introduced himself as Faulkner. Chubby and smiling, with small spectacles on his nose, he smiled at Lazarus.

“I am from Mr. Louie Louis,” said Faulkner. “I’ll be working with you, taking care of all the paperwork. I’m your first archivist. It’s time to hit the road, Mr. Bernardius!”

Chapter 7: The Tower

“I’ll pull you and pill you, I’ll crueladeville you.”

Queen, “Let Me Entertain You”

Faulkner became the circus’s first archivist. Like those who succeeded him in the position, Faulkner was mortal. He did not have demon’s blood or abilities—no power, no disgusting appearance, no creepy habits. Usually archivists were advanced in years when they came to the circus. They dedicated their lives to studying the arcane arts, especially goetia—the art of demon summoning. They learned languages older than Latin, in which were written the most famous grimoires, and were able to create talismans of summoning. Basically, archivists were a communication device between the mortal world and the world of demons. Lucifer himself rarely found time to talk with Lazarus and the other circus inhabitants, so he appointed Mr. Star, or Astaroth, as a curator.

The archivists were people of many talents, and they served as a database, an encyclopedia, and a help desk for the circus. No one in the world knew better than they what demionis were, where they lived, and what approach and care they needed. They kept a single written diary. Each new archivist continued the previous diary, and every day they wrote about traveling, shows, expenses, and tickets sold. They also recorded on paper any event that in their opinion was out of the ordinary.

Lazarus initially tried to talk as little as possible to Faulkner, taking him for a spy, but as the circus grew, the little man’s help became apparent, and Lazarus, who had not dealt with supernatural beings, appreciated it.

On May 8, 1871, when Ezra Sutton made the first homerun in the history of baseball, in Cleveland, “Lazarus Bernardius’ Circus” hit the road. Around the same time, Phineas Taylor Barnum founded his circus, which ten years later would become The Greatest Show on Earth. Barnum’s circus performances drew full houses in large cities. Lazarus’s shows were in the small towns and backwoods, where half the people thought they were a cheap knock-off, and the other half was so poor that sometimes Lazarus had to paper the house to create some semblance of an audience under the big top. But money didn’t concern the tentmaster.

Lucifer kept his promise, and Lazarus’s circus was never in need of anything, even though the money from ticket sales covered only a small portion of the costs. Lazarus knew why the public was not in a hurry to see his shows. He himself lacked the manners of an entertainer; he was leaden and words got tangled on his tongue. The performances didn’t even look like a mud show. Most of the carts with equipment were not even used, and a few tents for housing were enough for the small troupe. Besides Lazarus and Faulkner, at first the circus included only a rougaru named Charles, the rarog Stepan, and a brainless joint snake.

Faulkner had brought Charles to the circus back in New Orleans. He was a middle-aged man, with good manners, who always tried to stay away from the usual hustle and bustle of life. When he was a teenager, his devilish blood had emerged, and sometimes at night pain tortured Charles throughout his body. Then he would be covered with hair and run into the woods, where he behaved like an animal. Unlike a werewolf, Charles never turned into a wolf, and he kept his human features. But only the flesh of an animal could satisfy his bestial hunger, and human flesh was best of all. These changes and cravings terrified Charles. Not wanting to harm anyone, he ran away from human society. Faulkner and Lazarus offered him help. With the knowledge gleaned from his books, Faulkner could ease Charles’s madness. The problem of rougaru hunger was solved when Stepan joined the circus. Now and then, he agreed to dig up bodies from fresh graves or rob morgues under the cover of night to provide human flesh for Charles.

Faulkner found Stepan when the circus, in which there were only three people, was about to leave New Orleans. Stepan was a Ukrainian immigrant who had fled his homeland because of some crimes. He wanted to try his fortune in the New World, where, he believed, any fugitive was given a second chance. Alas, the rarog’s violent temper failed him in every city where he stayed. Stepan was a dwarf who could turn into a vortex and become invulnerable in that form. He used his ability in many fights in cities across America, until he accidentally killed a man. Working in the circus allowed him to travel across the country, making it harder for coppers to catch him.

The joint snake had no back story. It was one of those unfortunate mongrels born as a beast. It lived in the swamps of New Orleans until it was caught by local blacks to be used in voodoo rituals. They hacked it to pieces as a sacrifice and were horrified when the remains of the creature started crawling in the sand, as if the pieces were looking for each other, until it coalesced again into a snake. The frightened blacks did not throw it away, however, but sold the creature to a white businessman, a rarities seeker, believing it would harm him. This businessman, in turn, sold the snake to the circus for a high price, and a month later he died unexpectedly at his home from some unknown cause.

Charles portrayed himself as a wendigo, a werewolf, grinning and covered with dense hair, but many years later, when he became old, he was just an incredibly hairy man. Stepan entertained people by transforming into a vortex into which someone would throw a knife, and then he turned back into his human form, holding the blade between his teeth. Unfortunately, at least to Mr. Bernardius, the most popular exhibit in his circus of freaks was the snake. Children loved to torment it, tearing it to pieces as they laughed, and then happily watched as the pieces fused again.

The “Lazarus Bernardius’ Circus” didn’t have such a limited troupe for long. Mr. Bernardius was surprised by how often in the early years of touring they attracted new demionis, both sane and bestial, which he took under his wing. Unlike the Barnum circus, the fame of which resounded throughout the country, Bernardius’s circus wasn’t popular. However, Barnum’s show served Lazarus well. After Barnum’s numerous scams, frauds, and swindles were exposed by the press, people stopped believing that the “artists” of Lazarus’s circus were real monsters and beasts and not subtle fakes.

Initially Lazarus was offended. His circus always traveled on the back roads of the country, but one day, after a pause in the tour and without warning anyone, Lazarus went to New York to witness the performance of The Greatest Show on Earth. Mr. Bernardius was impressed by the scale and magnificence of the spectacle. He feverishly took notes in a notebook he brought with him, planning to use them to make his circus performances better. With dreams and ideas hustling in his head, and building fantastic plans in his mind, Mr. Bernardius encountered the man in black and white robes at the exit of the circus. Astaroth jogged Lazarus’s memory. The circus was a home to supernatural beings rescued from the world of people and not an entertainment company whose purpose was to make money. In his usual sarcastic manner, the demon told Lazarus that the tentmaster should not draw too much attention to the demionis.

Disappointed, Lazarus returned to his circus. He didn’t even ask how Astaroth knew he had left, but he was sure that Faulkner had informed the demon about it. Faulkner’s attitude toward Lazarus had not changed, and the archivist was still friendly and good-natured, showing no signs of disrespect. The old man still didn’t look like an employee of the infernal forces, but like a kindly old uncle every kid dreamed about.

Astaroth’s instructions were not in vain. “Lazarus Bernardius’ Circus” never strove for glory, continuing to travel to small towns, some of which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not even on the map. The circus equipment from the first trip had not worn out. Tents and poles, props and pieces of the arena lost the luster of newness, but they were still strong and reliable. Lazarus wondered how this was possible. Faulkner told him that the spell of fortification had been cast upon the gear and props, making them virtually indestructible. Years passed, but the wonders of progress bypassed Mr. Bernardius’s troupe. Eventually Lazarus replaced the carts and horses with trucks, but telephones, computers, and other electronic devices were strictly prohibited. Even the posters and tickets were drawn manually, by archivists trained in calligraphy.

Progress was one of the reasons the circus avoided big cities. Progress went too fast there. The more that cameras, radio, TV, the Internet, and other technology conquered humanity, the more forbidden big cities were to the circus. High-tech cell phones, which any teenager could use to record video and post it to the Internet, were dangerous for demionis, the reality of which Mr. Bernardius tried to keep secret. Lazarus had heard that some demionis had perfectly adapted to the megalopolis. These were able to mix with millions of people and had found ways to survive. But most were forced to flee to places less subject to the influence of man. People cut down the forests and transformed the wastelands where demionis once lived, and built houses and factories there. The miserable creatures had no choice but to run and hide. Those whom people called monsters and beasts retreated from human settlements. At the request of Lazarus, the circus archivists checked local newspapers, and advance teams listened to conversations in bars. What they learned confirmed that demionis showed up rarely near the places where people lived, preferring to hide in the boondocks. That is, until they were found by Lazarus Bernardius.

The archaic appearance of the circus in the twenty-first century, to the surprise of Mr. Bernardius, did not turn audiences away, but actually attracted them. He often heard visitors wondering how the circus managed to achieve that “aged” look in the arena, the cells, and the props. After thirty years of back-breaking touring across the country, the circus drew complaints from some audience members that it lacked the luster comparable to Barnum’s, but for one hundred and thirty years, people had admired what they called its authenticity. This change of mood seemed almost stupid to Lazarus, but he loved his audiences.

Mr. Bernardius rarely chose a big city for a show, only in the case of extreme necessity, and did not spend more than a day there. He didn’t like big cities. In the tullies, people were more open; their emotions were clear and predictable. Lazarus sometimes thought that if the circus performed in big cities, people there would treat the artists with contempt and distrust. Mr. Bernardius had been in towns so small that the circus show would become the most discussed event for many years. The “Lazarus Bernardius’ Circus” returned to some towns decades later, and Lazarus met people whose parents or grandparents had told them about the fantastic circus full of freaks and monsters. Lazarus loved to bring joy to people, liked their responsiveness when the advance team asked them about strange local legends. But the demionis couldn’t reveal themselves. Therefore any footage of the show was strictly forbidden, and if anyone violated this rule, the brothers Blanche and Black would explain, as politely as they could, that cameras were not welcome. Sometimes the local press was pushy, wanting to report on the inhabitants of the circus. In that case, an archivist had to summon a few lesser demons that had no rank in the infernal hierarchy. The little imps could zap out any electronic device in a radius of several hundred meters. But this did not happen often.

Most of the residents of the circus thought of it as their home. There they were protected. People might scoff at them, but they could not harm them. In the circus were food, warmth, and the company of beings united by the same fate. Problems occurred, but Lazarus always found a solution. The main rule was to communicate with outsiders as little as possible. For some creatures, it was strictly forbidden, but others could leave the circus from time to time, as long as they observed certain restrictions. No one could leave the circus without Lazarus’s permission.

Demionis did not dare violate this rule. Until Greg appeared. The magician was endowed with a rare gift, as rare as Lazarus’s immortality. He was well aware of this. He broke the rules and sometimes behaved as if he was doing the circus a favor by staying. After Martha appeared, Greg became more compliant, but he still remained the most obstinate of Lazarus’s fosterlings. Mr. Bernardius had been running the circus a long time, and one thing he had learned was that demon blood needed to stay away from people. But Greg was drawn to them. Lazarus knew all too well how these things ended. Not well.

 

Chapter 8: The Magician & the Star

“She won`t let on what that will be.”

Temple of the Dog, “All Night Thing”

After the murder of Mr. Berry, Greg felt lousy. He felt as if he had squashed a cockroach, and its chitinous carapace had stuck to his thumb, and he couldn’t shake it off. He was in Berry’s clothes, and it felt like dirt covered him from head to toe, enveloped him, compressed him like a clutch, making movements awkward. Typically after a murder, Greg felt relieved, released from a burden, like he had done a good job. But this time the darkness within him had not dissipated; it circled in his chest near his heart, stabbed him with its sharp, crooked teeth, and laughed. Greg knew the only escape from this feeling was Martha. She could damp down the darkness, could help him. He craved only one thing—to get back to the circus and hug her. Next to her he would feel better.

When Greg got to the circus lot it was still early morning, but Blanche and Black had already started dismantling the main tent.

Using a block-and-tackle, the ogres lowered the bale ring, a metal ring of large diameter that was attached to the fabric of the tent. Once on the ground, the fabric was disconnected from the ring by several melonheads, and then rolled and packed in oiled bags. Greg was always amazed at how much strength and agility these little people with huge heads possessed. Their heads were so heavy that when they walked, they had to swing from side to side. They worked in the arena as dwarfs or clowns or entertained the audience in front of the circus as curious freaks, and after performances their assistance in dismantling the tents was indispensable.

Once the melonheads were finished, the ogres embarked on the most difficult part of the work, taking out the pillars. Huge wooden columns were embedded a few feet into the ground for greater stability, and secured at the base with grommets. In a normal circus, it would have taken three or four people to pull a pole out of the ground, but Black and Blanche handled each column by themselves. The ogres went to each pole, hugged it, and yanked it out of the ground. The two brothers could dismantle the main tent in less than an hour, rather than the three hours it took other circuses.

Lazarus was watching their work and talking about something with the archivist Pietro, possibly in what town the circus would make its next show. Greg tried to pass unnoticed, but Lazarus saw him, gestured for him to wait, and approached him. Greg knew what Bernardius wanted to talk about. Certainly the manager had noticed the magician’s absence the night before.

“Good morning, Greg. Your help here would be very useful.” Bernardius gestured toward the tent, which the two brothers were dismantling.

“Okay, Mr. Bernardius. Just let me to fix myself up,” Greg said. He liked the old man, but today the magician was angry and upset, and he turned and headed toward his trailer.

“Greg, I have not finished,” Lazarus called after him. “You look strange.”

“I didn’t sleep all night.”

“I think these clothes aren’t yours, Greg.” Bernardius’s voice was tense and upset.

“Mr. Bernardius, let me get changed and help the guys. The longer we talk …”

“Greg,” Lazarus said, interrupting the magician. Bernardius stared into Greg’s eyes from the top downward. At such moments, the old man seemed to the magician a truly otherworldly creature, ancient, observing life from a height where he could see everything, including small human joys and big fat sins.

“Greg, when I was young and lived in my father’s house, black workers told their children bedtime stories. Sometimes I tried to eavesdrop unnoticed as they told these tales.” Lazarus’s voice had softened, and Greg thought he saw a smile under the rugged ringmaster’s long beard.

“I really liked the fairy tale about Tro the Antelope and Kozo the Tree. Once they were inseparable friends. And this is how they had become friends. Tro often had to flee from her pursuers, hunters who preyed on animals. She was very noticeable because of her height and long horns. Once, the antelope stopped to rest under a tree and began to tell the tree—Kozo—about her troubles.

“ ‘Sister,” said Kozo. ‘I know how to save you. Once you feel in danger, hide quickly under my branches. They are wide and long, and hang down to the ground, and will securely hide you.’ Tro thanked the tree warmly. Afterwards, she often escaped from her enemies under the protection of her friend. Under his branches she felt completely safe, since neither man nor beast could see her here. One morning, the antelope suddenly began to eat Kozo’s leaves. ‘What are you doing, miserable creature?’ asked Kozo. ‘I gave you refuge, and this is how you repay me!’ ”

“Tro said nothing in reply and continued to eat the green branches. And so it was every day. She ate every day and ate off all the branches she could reach. Tro understood that with only the smaller leaves on Kozo’s branches, her shelter was becoming less secure. But the antelope liked the leaves so much that she could not help herself. A few days passed, and a hunter came by and immediately noticed the antelope. She slept soundly under the tree, but the leaves no longer covered her. The hunter took aim and killed the antelope. So Tro paid with her life for her ingratitude and carelessness.”

“I got the story, Mr. Bernardius,” said Greg.

“Greg, the circus was created to protect those like you, me, and Martha. Those you see every day. For things to remain exactly as they are, there are rules, my friend. Rules that you tend to break. Greg, I know about your absence. For now, everything goes smoothly, but if you continue, you will jeopardize all of us.”

“I won’t, Mr. Bernardius. No problems because of me. I swear.” In Lazarus’s eyes anxiety was replaced with hope. “You know me, I can solve all the problems,” added Greg before trudging off. Lazarus took a deep breath and didn’t try to catch the magician. The tentmaster looked longingly after Greg and then returned to work.

Greg’s trailer was a few dozen feet away, but he was so tired and devastated that he felt as if the walk took him an hour. When he went inside, Martha was cooking something. He looked at her, and his heart trembled. She wore a light floral midi-dress. His first gift to her. When she joined the circus, her entire wardrobe consisted of things given to her by the dancers she worked with. The girls showed compassion for the cute stranger with amnesia and collected some clothes for her. Greg did not like these ultra-short skirts with sequins, which looked as if they were for adolescents rather than adults, nor did he like the gaudy-colored cardigans. After Lazarus and Greg took in Martha, the magician bought a dress for her in the next town they visited, but for a long time he dared not dare give it to her, for fear of being misunderstood.

Martha saw Greg, and her carefree manner vanished. “You got lost again last night. What clothes are you wearing? Are you okay?”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine. You know, my fire will not let me down.” Greg was trying to be lighthearted, but Martha was not amused.

“I know you’re reckless, Greg.” She tried to maintain a strict look, but couldn’t.

“You know, I’m very tired,” said Greg and he sat down on a sofa. Martha sat down next to him and hugged him. Greg felt the darkness dissipating in his chest, as the fatigue of a sleepless night retreated. His thoughts became clear and devoid of anguish and pain. A moment later, he fell asleep.

Martha lived on the outskirts of a town populated with losers who barely made ends meet. The place was quiet but dirty, and, once there, Lazarus and Greg immediately knew in which shack they needed to look for the girl. Her house was cleaner than the others. The other houses’ lawns looked trampled, while hers was green and neat with some flowers randomly growing on it. To Greg the entire area looked like a black-and-white photograph in the center of which, where Martha lived, an artist had drawn a bright, colorful house.

Martha lived with a neighbor, a woman, also a dancer from the bar, who sheltered her when no one else would let a stranger without ID on their doorstep. The neighbor was delighted with Martha, and excitedly told the two men about how her life had changed since her friendship with her. She had quit using drugs, stopped dating with wrong guys, and began to save some money, which she hoped would allow her to move to another city, the farther away the better, where she would not have to make a living dancing half-naked around a pole.

To Greg’s surprise, Martha confided in Lazarus at once. And when the circus manager offered her a job, she accepted without hesitation. The moment she said yes, Greg’s heart almost broke in his chest, but he did not dare show his emotions. Martha’s neighbor begged Lazarus to take her as well, if not as an employee, then at least as far as their next destination, but Lazarus gently refused her. Greg knew why. The circus was not a place for ordinary people. He wondered if Martha had ever suspected that she was a demionis.

In the circus, the girl immediately became a universal favorite. Demionis felt no great love for each other, but Martha was accepted as if everybody had been waiting a long time for her to show up. After she joined the circus, everything mysteriously improved. Even the old wyvern stopped spitting fire when he was in a bad mood, and Blanche and Black had fewer quarrels with melonheads. The only one who shunned the girl was Greg. He did not realize it until the day she first spoke to him.

Lazarus had sent the regular advance team—Zinnober, Greg, and Martha—to some town, where they had to perform the usual tasks: tell the locals about the circus, paste up posters, hand out flyers. Greg attracted attention by performing free tricks on the street, which invariably drew many kids. No one could refuse to take a flyer from Zinnober, seeing him as the perfect man. Martha’s flyers were snapped up immediately, as soon as someone drew close to her. Usually, the three separated to reach more people, and did not meet while in a town. When the business was done, they met at the car and returned to the circus. But this time, while showing tricks to some students on their way home after school, Greg noticed Martha. While he was wondering how they came to be in the same part of town, the girl approached him.

“Hey, Greg!” said Martha.

“Hi.”

“I noticed that you’ve been kind of avoiding me.”

“Me? Why? You’re trying to fly away from me, like a butterfly from the flames,” Greg said, blowing a fiery cobweb out of his wrist Spider-Man style. The trick fascinated the children.

“Well, I’m not. I’m no more afraid of your fire than these children are. But you’re afraid of me.”

Greg realized she was right. He was afraid that he was too bad, too evil for her. It seemed that even Blanche and Black, whose eerie past he had learned about from the archivist, had more right to associate with her than he did. Greg tried to convince himself that these thoughts were pure nonsense, because he had never been ashamed of what he was doing. But the fear of being too wicked rose again, and he felt like a helpless pimpled boy too frightened to approach the queen of the ball.

Martha looked into his eyes for the first time since they met, and smiled. “Don’t be afraid of me, Greg.” Her smile defeated his fear. He realized that his interest in her was mutual. And since then they had been together.

Returning to the city, they had fun joking about this and that, and only Zinnober silently watched the dull landscape outside the Galaxie Skyliner.

Martha soon tired of just being part of the advance team. She was fascinated by the circus and begged Lazarus to give her the opportunity to perform. She considered flexibility to be her forte and decided to become an aerialist. So Martha became the first artist of the “Lazarus Bernardius’ Circus” who did not use the abilities or the appearance of a demionis for performances. Her trapeze acts under the dome, alone and without a safety wire, always thrilled crowds, and people watched the show with excitement and bated breath. Martha had always been confident in her skills, but Greg convinced her to improve her act. Ever since the magician had discovered his ability to manipulate fire, he ceased to be afraid of anything. But meeting Martha, he felt fear again—the fear of losing her. It was a new feeling for him. He was not used to being afraid for someone. Greg used fire to protect people, but never because of any affection for them.

The trick was called “Escape from the Fire Serpent.” Martha was a princess kidnapped by a dragon. The fire monster picked up the girl from the center of the arena and took her to the very dome of the circus, where it left her on a tiny platform on which it was only possible to stand or sit. A few meters from the platform began a maze of trapezes and ropes strung at different heights above the arena. Martha covered the distance between the platform and the first trapeze, swung on it, and jumped to the rope. And then, as if she were a character who had jumped from a computer game, she mastered all the obstacles and made it to the tapes of the dense fabric, which she unwound as she descended to the ground. During the “escape,” the fiery serpent, sent flying by Greg, circled around the girl. The monster rose from the arena and then tried to snatch the girl from the trapezes, then it circled around in impotent rage, making figure eights.

In fact, Greg had invented the “Fire Serpent” to protect Martha. Like the trick with the dove, the snake made of flames was harmless to humans, and if Martha fell from a trapeze, the fire monster would have easily caught her in the air and delivered her to the ground unharmed. Greg knew that Martha suspected his real intentions, although she never said so, and he was grateful for it.

Soon it became apparent to everyone in the circus that Greg and Martha were together. Both were happy, but Greg sometimes was tortured by doubts. Murders. He could not abandon them, though the desire to kill was not so strong when Martha was around. He felt that Martha not only gave him relief but also tied him to the circus. He had never thought of the circus as his home, only as a convenient refuge from which, if necessary, he could easily escape. But Martha’s appearance changed everything. They were attracted to each other like darkness and light. He had always considered the statement “opposites attract” absolute nonsense, but with Martha, he felt complete. Now escape from the circus meant tearing himself in half. And he did not dare take Martha with him. She loved the circus, and everybody in the circus loved her. Greg did not want to take from Martha everything she loved, dooming her to a life with a killer, wandering aimlessly.

Martha was sympathetic to Greg’s disappearances. He was amazed at her complete trust in him, but for her it was natural.

“I do not know what you’re doing when you leave. But when you come back, you’re full of darkness. I know that you can’t live without it, and I’ll protect you from the darkness, which brings only pain, but one day I’ll find a way to save you,” she told him once.

When Greg woke up, Martha was lying next to him, nestled against his shoulder, embracing him. Her breath was warm and serene. He tried to get up without waking her. Greg was surprised at how awkward he was as he tried not to disturb her sleep. He had slipped from Martha’s embrace and put his feet on the floor when the girl’s warm hand went up his back and ruffled his hair.

“You’re not sleeping?” he said.

“Of course not.” Martha turned on the bed, and her summer dress rode up, revealing her thighs. Greg did not deny himself the pleasure looking at them.

“Well, if you’re awake …” he drawled with a smile.

“I’m thinking the same,” she said, pulling him to her and kissing him.

 

Lost At Sea

Record made on 12/16/1923

Archivist: Luca

Today was truly a strange evening. Our circus stopped in a quiet California town, as small as the hairs on a gnat’s bollock. The people who came to the show were the usual denizens of such places—penniless, dimwitted, and unpretentious. Only one man stood out in the crowd. He was dressed in a suit that would have cost a local family a month’s earnings, and he avoided the other spectators, who looked at him with a mixture of envy and contempt. The man’s face seemed strangely familiar, but I thought little of it, figuring that he just looked a bit like a much older Rudolph Valentino.

The performance went well. As usual, I watched it from behind the scenes, serving my archivist duty, which tells me to enter on paper everything that deviates from the plan of the performance. As almost always, everything went off without a hitch. I was about to return to my records, when I heard voices from the arena. I moved from backstage and saw Mr. Bernardius talking to that Valentino gentleman.

The stranger waved his arms so desperately that he knocked off his own bowler hat. I could not make out the words, but his tone changed from pleading to threatening. Our tentmaster’s voice was sympathetic, but not warm. Unable to end the conversation, he had to call one of the ogres. To my surprise, the man was not afraid of the giant and even seemed delighted. He started to explain something to Bernardius with fervency. But Lazarus was adamant. I, however, was interested in the stranger’s reaction to the ogre, so I ventured out from behind the scenes.

I asked Bernardius what was happening, and he reluctantly told me that the man, whom the ogre had practically dragged out, had claimed to be linked to a demionis named Hevfra, who once had worked with us. I remembered her, a wonderful creature. Hevfra’s face popped into my mind, along with the face of the man she had chosen over the circus many years ago. The memory stunned me. I immediately understood why the unusual visitor seemed familiar to me. It was the young man with whom Hevfra had left the circus. Rather, he was a young man more than twenty years ago. I asked Bernardius why he had kicked out the man. I had no doubt that, like me, our ringmaster could not forget the history of Hevfra and her lover. Mr. Bernardius just looked at me sadly and said what he always tells us: our circus is not a place for mortals. Of course, he was right, and I had often found sad evidence of the ringmaster’s wisdom in the circus archives.

But I’m an archivist, and I couldn’t miss a chance to learn what happened to our former demionis after she left the circus. I came out of the big tent. The ogre was not around, and Hevfra’s former lover was walking slowly away from the circus. I caught up with him and offered to let him tell his story in my tent. He did not recognize me, but he was as eager to accept my invitation as a madman would be at the prospect of release from an asylum.

In the tent, he hesitated for a long while. His breath came out in pants, and tears welled in his eyes. I offered him a drink. He accepted. His hands shook as he took the glass. It was brighter in my tent than on the street, and I could see his face. His trembling hands, it seemed, were not the result of a sudden disturbance. Red veins on his nose and swollen eyelids revealed him as a longtime lover of drink. Finally, having quieted his alcoholic shiver, he was able to speak clearly.

I will tell his story in my own words, without distorting basic facts or adding anything of my own. In the hope of saving my successor from a long search in the archival books, first I’ll talk about Hevfra.

Hevfra was a mermaid. You must understand that neither she nor any other mermaid was anything like that hideous jackstraw exhibited in New York in 1842 by Dr. Griffin. Hevfra was beautiful. She was like a mermaid from a canvas of Howard Pyle—long dark hair, white skin and body, elegance that would have been the envy of every woman. When we found her, she had strayed from her flock. Mermaids are nomadic creatures, and her chances of finding her sisters were poor. All the flocks are extremely reluctant to accept outsiders, so she seemed doomed to remain alone. But a solitary mermaid has no chance to survive at sea, so we took Hevfra into our circus.

Despite its ridiculousness, Mr. Griffin’s scam had served us well. One result was that nobody believed in the reality of mermaids, so anyone looking at our Hevfra assumed she was just a lovely young woman whose legs were hidden by fake scales. Her beauty attracted viewers, especially, of course, men. Often they received a slap from their wives or girlfriends when they spent too much time in front of Hevfra’s aquarium trying to see how her lower part was connected to the upper. For most she was just an exotic beauty in a bright suit. Until David. Once David saw Hevfra, he began wandering through the boondocks after our circus, just so he could gaze upon her again.

Oh, no, David was not a prince from a fairy tale. At the time, his trade was not clear to me or Mr. Bernardius. But David always was in pocket, and in each new town, he appeared with a gift for Hevfra. Mr. Bernardius became indignant at the young man’s behavior, but the mermaid liked him. David was very good-looking. While husbands stared at Hevfra, their wives gazed hard at David. He was clearly the favorite of women, but he never took his eyes off the mermaid. A handsome young man, showering you with gifts! What woman could have resisted? One day, the show barely finished, the mermaid asked Mr. Bernardius to let David in. After much wrangling and disputation, the ringmaster conceded. To my surprise, the young man wasn’t terrified of a close acquaintance with the girl, and after a night together, David’s interest in the mermaid only grew. He continued to come to the circus, like a dog to its owner, for almost three months. Eventually, Hevfra told us she wanted to live with David and leave the circus. Of course, Bernardius was against it, but Hevfra asked and asked, and whenever the ogres didn’t let David enter the circus, she was not herself. Eventually, Mr. Bernardius conceded again, showing, in my opinion, too much softness. But he always believed that sane demionis have the right, like humans, to control their lives, and their participation in the circus must be voluntary, as long as they were not harmful to people. Hevfra was sane and harmless and therefore free to choose her own future.

On the day of her departure, when Blanche and Black loaded Hevfra’s aquarium into a truck hired by David, Mr. Bernardius explained to the lad in detail how mermaids are different from humans and told him how to take care of Hevfra. He showed him the technical features of the aquarium, which was eight feet by thirteen feet by seven feet high. David wrote down everything in a special notebook, looking like a diligent student struggling to catch every word from the teacher. And then they left, and for twenty-one years nobody in the circus heard any news of Hevfra or her lover.

Until today. David has appeared at the show, aged and sad, to tell his part of the story.

David was a player. Not the classiest, but better than most. He won more than he lost. But, unlike other gamblers, David was not going to play to the end of his days. He had ambition, and he had a plan. Cards were a way for him to raise money to invest in a business. Initially, Hevfra and David’s life was like a fairy tale. They lived in a small house on the beach and enjoyed life as only the young can. Thus it went, until one day David lost. He lost big. He had money, but making good on the big loss would mean saying goodbye to their dream of having their own business. The young man decided it would be cheaper to escape from the town. Escape was not cheap. Transporting the huge aquarium in secret and paying truckers and others for their silence drained David’s purse. To compensate, he played twice as much and sometimes did not come home for days. Left alone, the mermaid spent her days in anguish, dreaming that one day everything would be fine and David would spend more time with her than at the card table. During the times her beloved stayed home, she reached out to him, but deep down, David blamed her for his financial problems and began to think of her as a burden.

David’s run from his creditors lasted almost three years. During this time, he saved enough money to repay his debts and invest in a business. He started a fishing business not far from the town where he first had come to our circus, and his life became routine and secure. David bought a big house with a pool, and Hevfra, for the first time in many years, had the opportunity to swim not only in the aquarium but also outdoors. The mermaid was as happy as a child and believed such a gift was a sign that their relationship would bloom with renewed vigor. But it was not to be. David was no longer a drifter with questionable pursuits. He was a respected gentleman with a good income, still young and attractive. Of course, no one knew that David lived with a mermaid. Local beauties in search of a successful man considered him an eligible bachelor. David again began spending a lot of time away from home, not at the card table but in the beds of young mistresses.

Poor Hevfra knew nothing about David’s affairs. She never reproached her loved one, though she sensed that his love for her was waning. As more years passed, David became more distant from the mermaid, sometimes showing his irritation when she asked where he had been. He scolded her, saying that only a wife dares to ask a man such questions. Finally came the hour when Hevfra asked him to let her go. Sometimes David imagined their farewell, thinking he would feel relief, but he felt only guilt and shame. The mermaid convinced him that parting would be better for both of them, and the next night David went to the pier owned by his company, took a seiner, sailed away to sea, and released Hevfra from the aquarium. The mermaid smiled at him from the quiet waves, on which the moonlight played, and disappeared under the water. That was fourteen years ago.

David got over his guilt and chose a wife from the host of mistresses. She gave him two children, a boy and a girl, and they lived the life of the provincial wealthy. His existence was only occasionally marred by dreams. In them, he sailed across the sea in a tiny boat, surrounded by darkness, warm and inviting. It seemed he could touch it, and then it would embrace him. From the darkness, he heard the voice of Hevfra. When David dreamed such dreams, he did not want to wake up.

In the eleventh year of David’s marriage, he dreamed again about the sea and the darkness. Only this time the darkness was bitterly cold, and David tried to wake up but could not. The next day, a messenger from the pier came to his door with news of something strange and frightening, and David realized what had happened.

Examining the daily catch on the wharf, fishermen had found the body of a woman with a scaly tail instead of legs lying under hundreds of pounds of fish. This strange creature had become entangled in a net and, once on firm ground, she suffocated under the weight of the fish. When David arrived, he immediately recognized Hevfra. Only the presence of other people kept David from bursting into tears at the sight of the mermaid. She had not changed, and not even death could mar her beauty. David paid the fishermen for their silence and threatened to strangle anyone who revealed the discovery. He wrapped Hevfra’s body with burlap, tied a metal box full of old machinery parts to her tail, right above the fin, and loaded it onto a boat. Then, for the second time, he went to sea to release the mermaid, this time forever.

That day changed David. Estranged from his wife and children, he stopped going to the marina and tried to avoid the sea. Worst of all, David was drinking and seemed desperately suicidal.

“I’m sorry,” he told me in my tent. “Why was she at my marina? She was looking for me. She was looking for me.” I did not dissuade the poor fellow. I know that mermaids are too well versed in water to accidentally sail to the wrong place. David had learned about our circus performance from his son, who had seen the poster. Turns out this man has been looking for us all these years. Knowing that anywhere else he would be called a fool or a drunkard, he wanted to come to us and pour out his heart. I felt sorry for the man. I can’t blame him, because I know more than he does about people, and about demionis. I hate alcoholics, degraded creatures that allow one painful idea to poison their minds, but I decided to help David. Important note: I did it not because I had lost fortitude with age but because I did not want David’s drunken chatter to bring strangers to the circus.

Fortunately his mind was in such a state that deep hypnosis could create a miracle. When David left our circus and returned home, he remembered no more about Hevfra, did not remember what had happened in our circus, and did not remember his craving for alcohol. If he’s lucky, he will even forget the dreams of the sea and the cold, inviting darkness.

Chapter 9: The Moon

“Hey cut me, I am such a sick man.”

Paw, “Pansy”

Zinnober returned to the circus after Greg. He already knew what he would say to Lazarus. Greg liked to walk to local bars, perhaps to start a fight. At first, Zinno was tempted to tell some contrived story about Greg enjoying the strippers, figuring that Martha would hear about it and dump the magician. But he resisted the urge and gave up this idea. Everyone knew there was only Martha for Greg, and only Greg for Martha. Nobody would believe such absurdity, and if Greg learned who had invented the fable, even Bernardius would be unable to reason with him.

Zinno’s story seemed plausible to Lazarus, but apparently he was expecting to hear something more shocking. The old man asked Zaches what had happened to Greg’s clothes. Zinno replied that Greg had drunk too much and gone too far with some fire trick that he was performing in a local bar, and some compassionate member of the audience had lent him some clothes. After withstanding the old man’s interrogation, Zinno went to the archivist Pietro’s tent.

Most of the residents of the circus appreciated the benefits of civilization, and if conditions allowed, they moved into their own trailers. But not Pietro. The archivist’s tent was the second largest after the big top. No one trailer could contain all of Pietro’s archives, which included the records of his predecessors, grimoires, and directories, and it was the sacred duty of any archivist to maintain their archives, keep order, and help protect the denizens of the circus.

Zinno rang the bell that hung at the entrance of the tent, and the archivist pushed aside the heavy curtain of thick fabric that served as a door. Judging by Pietro’s astonished look, he was not expecting a guest, but he invited Zinno to enter, maintaining his usual joyful and benevolent appearance. Zaches went inside, and for a moment he felt as if he had fallen somewhere under the ground. The sun shone on the street, but not one beam penetrated through the thick layers of tent fabric into Pietro’s shelter and storage area. It was so dim in the archivist’s tent that for a moment Zinno was almost blinded by the darkness. The air was dry and cool. Entries had to be protected from light and heat, and the archivist had fanatically created all the necessary conditions for this. He didn’t use lamps or lanterns or anything that could cause a fire. He used special crystals that radiated light. He left them for a day in the sun or, on cloudy days, gave them to Greg, who imbued them with the light of his magical fire.

When Zinno’s eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he began to distinguish these crystals, which were spread out here and there on tables, offering unblinking white and yellow light. The inside of the tent was more like a medieval library such as Zinno had seen in low-budget fantasy films when he lived on his own. Rows of shelves bulged from the weight of books resting on them, and maps and anatomical charts of impossible creatures were lying on the tables.

“What brings you here, Zinno?” Pietro asked. There was no impatience in voice, only kindness. The archivist always astonished Zinno. He never got annoyed and was always ready to help with advice, though only his books and manuscripts held meaning for him. Even now, talking to Zaches, Pietro scurried from rack to rack, looking through various records, sometimes jotting something down. This short but extremely obese person was kind of floating in the space of his habitation. His battered gold-embroidered robe dragged behind him across the floor with a slight rustling sound. “I need a favor,” murmured Zaches.

“Of course, you do! You clearly did not come to talk about the weather.” Pietro wasn’t looking at Zaches. The dwarf always worried a bit about the archivist trying to avoid looking at Zinno in the eye. Pietro was the only human in the circus, and to him Zinnober looked like a handsome man. But now, talking to the archivist, he could stop thinking that he could see his real image. But Pietro did not look at him, and this unnerved Zinno.

“I need a talisman,” Zaches said, his voice almost hoarse with emotion.

Pietro looked at Zinno. The archivist’s gaze was fixed, but he did not express any suspicion. He thoughtfully readjusted his small round glasses on his small round nose. “For summoning?”

“Yes, for summoning.”

“As you know, I don’t craft such things for no reason. Only for Bernardius. I will have to report your request.”

“No need, Pietro. I want to call the person to whom you report everything.”

“Even so, Zinno, if something has happened, I need to put it in the archives. I need to know why you need it. And I have to tell Lazarus.”

“I suppose, he decides who should know.” The sharpness in his own voice surprised Zaches. But with the goal so close, he could not control his emotions. “I’m sorry. I hope this will help you cope with the need for silence.” From behind his shirt, Zaches took a handful of photos and set them on the table. The photographs were of women Zinnober had known before agreeing to a painful exile in the circus. They had allowed him to photograph them as he requested, and they boldly showed all that a woman can show. He had lusted after them, and it spurred their desire.

In the circus, money meant nothing, but other items had value. These photographs had value for Pietro, and Zinno paid the archivist for small favors with them. Zaches had already spent almost two-thirds of the photos. Spending the rest meant remaining without the pleasure of Pietro’s bliss-inducing concoctions, but it was surely worth it, he assured himself.

“Well, Zinno, I won’t say anything to Lazarus. But if he asks, I will not be silent.”

“Let it be so. I need a talisman.”

“Good. I’ll make you a crowned talisman.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you don’t have to prepare the ritual of summoning. Nothing to do but activate the talisman and report to a demon whatever you want. Only one thing is needed.” The archivist’s plump hand flicked out and pulled a knife from somewhere under his robe. “Do not worry, I will not hurt you.” Pietro’s chubby cheeks quivered as he laughed. “You’ll do it yourself.” The archivist’s smile grew wider.

“What? Why?”

“If you want to summon a demon voluntarily, you have to make a sacrifice with your own hand.”

“We need some special knife?”

“No, any will do.”

“Then I’ll do it with mine.” Zaches pulled a knife from behind his shirt. Its blade glistened even in the dim light of the archivist’s tent.

“I thought Lazarus forbade you to carry a weapon,” said Pietro.

“And Lazarus forbids you to provide any services,” retorted Zaches, and the archivist just shrugged.

“Blood should be collected here.” Pietro handed the dwarf a roughly processed small crock with signs and symbols carved on it.

“What is it?”

“A small copy of Solomon’s jar, a dolium for summoning.”

“And these signs—that’s Latin?”

The archivist sighed and shook his head. “No. It is an ancient language, or higher language, as we call it. A language spoken by people before the construction of the Tower of Babel. It is used in goetia. Only a few hundred people in the world know it. Now, if we’re done with your education, it’s time to start.”

Zaches cut his palm with a knife. His blood was as red as the artificial blood used in movies. The dwarf put the jar under his palm, and to his surprise, the blood did not spread over the entire palm but gathered in a trickle and began to flow into the jar’s mouth. It seemed to be sucking Zinno’s blood. Enchanted with the view, Zinnober removed his hand from the dolium, and the trickle of blood hung in the air horizontally, flowing from his hand and into the neck of the jug. The sight absorbed Zaches, until the world had shrunk to his palm, the jug, and the blood between them. All his senses, except one, left him. Zaches felt as if his whole being flowed into the dolium, not only his blood, but also his soul.

Pietro shouted something in a strange language, the trickle of blood trailed off, and consciousness returned to Zaches. For a moment it seemed to him as if he had returned to his body from somewhere far away, and while he was gone, his body had shrunk so that now he could barely fit in it. He felt as if his elbows, knees, and nose couldn’t squeeze into his physical form, that his back was bent even more as it tried to get back to its original place. Pietro’s voice spoke to him, returning him to reality.

“Solomon’s jar is a dangerous thing. Watching him, some fall into a trance. And many of these unlucky fellows can’t return. I’m sorry, I forgot to warn you.” The archivist’s voice was full of sincere repentance. While Zaches rolled his shoulders and stretched his arms and legs, as if trying to get used to his body again, Pietro made a strange manipulation with the jar. He threw into it some rotten, sallow threads and poured in some powder, every action accompanied by a throaty murmur. The archivist’s voice surprised Zaches. He was accustomed to the soft, melodic intonations of this fat bookworm, but now his voice was low and rough, more like barking or croaking. When he was finished, Pietro corked the jug with a visible effort. Sweat beaded on his flushed forehead.

“Here you go. Do not break it, and do not give it to anyone.”

Zaches wanted to say that the warnings were unnecessary, but he stopped when he saw how serious Pietro was. Zinnober took the jar from the archivist’s hands and was surprised at how heavy it was. The jar had a little blood inside, and whatever Pietro had put in it wasn’t that heavy, yet it was difficult for Zinno to hold the dolium in his crooked hands.

“How should I use this?”

“Just open it in a convenient location at a convenient time and add your fresh blood. A few drops is enough, you don’t have to cut your hand open again”

“That’s all?”

“Yes. I would advise you to do it rather far from the circus. Summoning a demon is a very, you know, noisy process, and I don’t think you want to attract any attention.”

“And if something goes wrong? How can I protect myself from a demon?”

“From that one?” Pietro seemed perplexed. “You can’t. You have to trust him. But believe me, he’s not some petty demon who escaped from the underworld to kill nuns and poison the water with gucks. If you’re polite, you’ll save your life.”

Zinnober left the archivist excited and scared. If all went according to his plan, he would be able to get rid of his ugliness. And Greg. And then Martha would be his. Zinno held the jar with both hands, and sometimes it seemed that the dolium pulsated. The dwarf even felt a wave coming from his hands to his shoulders. Whenever Zaches looked at the jar, he saw only its clay surface, speckled with marks. But when he tried to discern them, the strange symbols suddenly turned into insults, filthy and humiliating. These words told him he was wretched and narrow-souled, called him to Hell, and promised eternal punishment.

Zaches preferred not to look at the jar. Tonight, he would summon Astaroth and tell him about Greg’s murder. And then … then the demon would reward him.

 

Chapter 10: The Devil & the Moon

“But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.”

Radiohead, “Creep”

When Zaches appeared in the arena in a circle of light, each spectator saw his or her ideal man. Tall or of medium height, with long hair or short, a firm chin or soft lips, elegant or strong. His voice was sonorous and melodic, his intonations affable or seductive. Every word seemed true. Everyone saw him as their ideal. Women saw him as a perfect lover, men as their best friend, children as a hero from fairy tales. After the show, people discussed him, and although they might disagree about his hair color or whether he was clean-shaven or bearded, all agreed that he was incredibly handsome. The fact that everyone had seen something different was assumed to have been just another trick of this circus of freaks.

But the truth was that Zaches, also named Zinnober, was not good-looking. His head was too big for his body. One shoulder was higher than the other, as if invisible forces had torn the dwarf’s body in half, one force pulling him up to Heaven, the other trying to drag him under the ground, to worms and damp graves. One of his eyes was almost completely covered by a heavy eyelid wart, and his other eye, as if to compensate for the ugliness of the first, was large, with long beautiful eyelashes.

People saw in Little Zaches only beauty, but he knew the truth. Mirrors reflected a beautiful face, but in stagnant water Zinnober saw his true face. And every time he saw his own ugliness, he suffered. In his trailer, the dwarf had collected various mirrors, large and small, some in huge twisted bronze frames, others no bigger than a matchbox. When Zinno entered his trailer after a show, hundreds of beautiful faces, full of generosity and joy, smiled pleasantly at him from the walls. He touched the reflections, dreaming that someday, instead of hundreds of different individuals, the mirrors would show him only one face, and it wouldn’t be the ugly face reflected in water.

Whenever Zaches thought about his true form, fury would consume him. Overcome by anguish and anger, he would smash some of the mirrors, littering the trailer with broken shards. When the rage passed and his strength had left him, he would collapse in exhaustion on the floor and fall asleep on top of the shards. In the morning, Zinno would come to his senses and begin the tedious process of pulling himself together. He removed the shards and fragments from under his legs and arms, debrided his wounds, and bandaged his cuts. Sometimes this could drag on for hours. He hated himself for it. He knew that after each seizure, the wounds he received made him even uglier, but he could not help himself. Besides, for others he remained as attractive as before. And in each new town he bought a new mirror to replace the old one, and then broke it. This went on again and again. And again.

People saw him as beautiful, but demionis saw the real Zaches. Among them was Greg. The magician came to the circus after Zinnober, but immediately began bullying him. He made up insulting nicknames for Zaches. One-eyed Mess, Cyclops, Swamp Thing, Mirror Breaker. Only Lazarus’s intervention cooled Greg’s imagination, but even then their relationship did not improve. The worst was that both worked in the advance team, visiting towns ahead of the circus to tell people about the show and paste up posters. Zaches’s life was awful, until Martha appeared.

Whenever he was near her, he did not think so much about his ugliness. In addition, she was the only one who saw his true face and did not feel disgust. She always looked at him and smiled. Sometimes she would touch him, patting his head or cheek, and on those days Zaches felt happy and did not smash mirrors. He would do anything for Martha. But she had chosen Greg, the narcissistic fire mage with the manners of a troubled teen.

Before he joined the circus, Zinno knew women. He did not even have to make an effort to win them. They were fascinated by his beauty, his voice, his eyes and body. He could easily get the most beautiful girl in a bar, leave in the morning without saying goodbye, and she would be still happy. But it did not give him satisfaction. Sometimes after sex, he thought about what would happen if a woman saw his true face. Would she love him? Or would she just turn away in disgust and take a dig at him? Lying in bed, he got worked up more and more, until he was convinced that all these girls who wanted intimacy with him were just mindless meat carcasses with beautiful shapes, stupid and incapable of feeling. He was terrified to the core. What if the girl woke up in the middle of the night and saw him like this? That never happened, but the fear of being uncovered firmly settled in Zaches’s soul. He feared and hated all these women who were seduced by his beauty. Fog shrouded his mind, his heart was ready to break in his chest, and his hands would frantically look for something.

Most often it was a pillow. He would cover some girl’s face with it and wait until she stopped moving. Then he was overwhelmed with pity for the victim, feeling guilty that he had deprived the world of a little beauty. Then he took his camera and photographed the girl. In his gallery, which he exchanged for Pietro’s services, were girls both dead and alive, but the archivist had no clue, believing the dead girls were sleeping. Sometimes guilt did not come, only rage. And then Zaches used his knife. Those girls he did not photograph.

The police could never find Zinnober. Even if somebody had seen him with the dead girl, the witnesses gave conflicting descriptions of the killer—tall but short, young but mature, white but black—and Zaches continued to live his life, hanging out at bars and enjoying the girls’ attention. This lasted until Mr. Bernardius found him. Or rather came for him, sent by Astaroth. Zaches did not know whether Lazarus was aware of the murders, but the fact that he came with Blanche and Black meant the tentmaster was ready for trouble. Lazarus could see Zaches’s true nature, and so could the brother ogres.

Bernardius offered Zinnober a job in the circus. And in return, protection. Not from the police, who would be unlikely to find Zinno, but from people far more terrible. From people who roamed the world in search of creatures like him and like the ogres, and even like Lazarus. They found them and killed them. These hunters were much smarter than the police and were not burdened by the need to comply with laws. Of course, said Bernardius, the dwarf would have to forget about any relations with the outside world, and any movement outside of the circus Zinnober would perform under supervision. Tiny Zaches was scared. The dwarf always killed without hesitation, not covering his tracks, but he was not afraid of the police because no one could identify him. But in the circus he met beings who knew his true nature and his crimes. He looked at the giants, who had come with Lazarus, and could not imagine any other creature more frightening than them anywhere in the world. If these men had found him, they would not go to the police but would decide the business on their own. Zinnober agreed to Mr. Bernardius’s terms.

Life in the circus was like an exile, only in a small space and with constant monitoring. Even when scouting some town ahead of the circus, Zaches was under Greg’s supervision. Greg eventually stopped insulting him but otherwise did not treat him any better. The dwarf missed the girls. Whenever he saw their eyes, either during a show or working as part of the advance team, he was full of desire. But he knew that his past was now known not only to him, and if he made a mistake, Lazarus or those from whom Bernardius harbored him, would punish him. Life was crap. Until Martha showed up. For her he’d be brave and ask Astaroth to give him a normal appearance. Then he’d convince her to run away from the circus with him, away from Greg, away from Lazarus, away from Astaroth, away from those mysterious assassins.

When everyone in the circus was asleep, Zaches peeked out of his trailer and hobbled away from the encampment. The dwarf walked along the road, his short crooked legs quickly becoming tired and tangled. He had not brought a flashlight, for fear that the light could expose him, and he now regretted it. He walked more than an hour, his goal an out-of-the-way cornfield where he would open the jar. He pressed the dolium to his chest, and he felt as if it could sense his desire to open it. It radiated heat, burning the dwarf’s skin and making him sweat.

After reaching the field, Zinno went as deep as possible into the rows of corn, which rose above him to the height of two adult men. He knelt down, took out the jar, and looked at it. The ancient signs again began to turn into insults. He read them, and every word crawled into his very soul and began to torment him, to nibble at him, poison him, and tear him to pieces. Zaches blinked, took a breath, and opened the lid.

There was a roar, and then a burning smell, and then the stench of rot and decay. He heard heavy, evil breathing. When he opened his eyes, he saw that he was in the middle of a scorched circle with a radius of five meters. The corn that had been there was burned at the root, as if it had been cut with a huge fiery knife. Standing before Zinno was a huge figure. The demon’s body was incredibly gaunt and covered with sores. Only the demon’s enormous genitals were unaffected by rot. Instead of a human head, the fiend had the head of a black donkey, and its face wore a menacing grin. From his back, huge wings extended, like the wings of a dragon or a bat, and his clawlike hands were covered with feathers.

“Why do you summon me?” thundered the demon. He spoke as if thousands of screams, groans, and growls in different tones were mixed up in his voice. “I come when I wish.”

“I know, my master. But you told me to keep an eye on everything that happens in the circus. And I learned something.”

The demon’s tail, made of three snakes, impatiently beat on the ground. The snakes hissed and reared their heads towards Zaches. Astaroth bent his face to Zinno’s. The demon’s eyes were full of anger and impatience, and his breath was so foul that Zaches barely mustered the courage to not look away.

“I know Greg’s secret! The magician. He violated the Pactum, violated the Pactum!” In his fear, Zaches thought that he whispered, but in fact he almost cried. The snakes from the demon’s tail dropped to the ground and crawled to the dwarf. One slithered onto his chest, the other onto his face, and the third wrapped around his neck. Their cold touch frightened Zinno, and their hissing terrified him. The snake on his face twirled around his neck in a tight coil, and the dwarf began to gasp.

“Tell me,” ordered Astaroth.

“He … he … Greg uses magic against mortals. He not only shows tricks, he kills people!” Zaches voice had risen to a thin squeal. The snakes hissed and crawled all over him. “I saw it with my own eyes, saw Greg burn a man. He burned him alive!”

The snake around his neck loosened its grip. The demon looked pensive, almost human. Zaches decided that his moment had arrived.

“I have served you, master. I deserve a reward.” Zinno tried to steel himself, but his voice was timid and scared. “As you promised.”

Astaroth’s roar stunned Zaches. The demon’s leg twitched, and before the dwarf knew what was happening, it pinned him to the ground. A weight pressed on his chest, crushing his ribs, making it difficult to breathe. Zaches thought he was going to die. The demon’s huge genitals hung above him, and its stench enveloped him. He wet his pants and thought that such an ugly death would match his ugly life.

“Do not dare ever to ask me anything, dwarf,” growled the demon in a thousand voices. “I’m your master. I have saved you. You’re alive only because you’re useful sometimes. What you saw is of no value without evidence. But despite the fact that you insulted me with your requests, I will spare your life.”

“Yes, master,” croaked Zaches in response.

“As if you have a choice, scum. I will choose the next town for a performance of your damned circus. And you, when you go to glue the posters, will find a man there and give him an invitation to the show. I hope your pathetic brains are enough to do such a thing. And remember, alraun, you’re one of only a few of your kind. One in ten of your kind makes it through childhood, and one of those ten survivors does not go crazy. If you think you’re exceptional and no one else can be my eyes and ears in Bernardius’s circus, think again, and don’t overestimate yourself, mongrel. I can kill you at any moment.” The demon pressed harder on Zaches’s chest, and when the dwarf thought he heard the sound of his own ribs crunching, the silence around him stunned him.

He was lying on the field in the center of the burned circle. The demon was gone, there was no more stench, no more snakes. Only his pants, stuck to his hips, reminded him of the meeting with Astaroth. He felt his ribs and found a note on his chest with instructions from his master.

In the chambers of his infernal palace, Astaroth pondered what Zaches had said. He did not like to take the form of a monster, but those were the rules. If a mortal summoned a demon, then the hell dweller had to show up in his most disgusting appearance. This was a divine curse to turn people away from the inhabitants of Hell.

Hell. Astaroth was weary of this place without time and space. He looked out the window, and the dull gray landscape added anguish and pain to his heavy thoughts. He knew that mortals imagined Hell as nothing but fire. Many years ago, it was so, and it did not matter what the flames burned, the flesh of man or his soul. But Hell was so old that there was more ash than fire in it now. Black and gray ash covered everything outside the palace, the towers, the spires, the roads, even the skin of small demons lacking permanent shelter.

Astaroth’s apartments were clean and spacious. High white walls shone like polished black furniture, as if made of darkness itself. His favorite colors. Black and white chambers and a gray landscape outside the window. How ironic, thought Astaroth. Once his world had been far more vivid. He went to his desk and opened a silver casket. He stroked what was inside. Feathers. Feathers of the wings of angels. They might even have once belonged to him. He didn’t know. He just picked them up after the Fall.

The Fall. It had been many years, but the memories of it were still unpleasant. Because of Lucifer’s pride, they were expelled from Paradise. Then they, all the angels who had rejected God, supported their rebellious leader. Lightbringer they called him. They were with him now. Except one. Astaroth grew tired of Hell. He had repented. He wanted to go home. God had banished them, but if Astaroth could prove his repentance, God would take him back.

He stroked the feathers again. He thought about the never-ending flight through the darkness, occasionally split by bolts of lightning, and filled with the desperate cries of his expelled brothers. Feather by feather, he lost his wings, white and delicate, till there were only the bones. Like the others, he eventually grew a new pair of wings, black and gray as the ash that covered everything, and leathery, like a dragon’s wings. But they could not compare to what he had had long ago. Perhaps the feathers in the box were not from his wings, but they served to remind him of his long-lost home. His home, where he was going to return, even if he had to betray Lucifer.

The magician from the circus had violated the Pactum, had killed a man with magic. If Astaroth could prove it, and also prove that Lucifer had given protection to a mongrel such as this fire mage, perhaps God would forgive the repentant demon. Astaroth closed the casket. It was not the time to indulge in dreams.

Chapter 11: Judgment

“Who’ll love the devil, who’ll sing his song?”

Eagles of the Death Metal, “Kiss the Devil”

Somewhere in Medieval Europe.

Historians believe that the Inquisition, which began in 1184, was merely a tool of the state and the Church in the struggle for power over the minds of mortals and a way to eliminate the unwanted. That is the truth, but not the whole truth. The Inquisition officially fought against heretics and infidels until the nineteenth century, but those who suffered from its actions included not only mere mortals but also the devil’s seed, mongrels born of demons’ coition with mortal women. Over the centuries, with fire, sword, and cross, the Inquisition turned demionis into creatures of legend, mythical and incorporeal.

The Church’s fight with mongrels began in France in the 12th century. The beginning of the war of the Lord’s servants against the devil’s spawn was quite mundane. In 1631, a priest named Urbain Grandier arrived in the town of Loudun. He was a well-known man but had not made a successful career. Grandier was educated, smart, and had good connections, but, alas, had two major drawbacks for a church minister: he loved young girls and openly criticized the authorities. The Church could turn a blind eye to priests’ venery as long as they did not flaunt their sins, but Grandier felt no need to hide his love affairs. Of course, it was difficult for a priest with the reputation of a fornicator to rise in the Church hierarchy. The monastery of Loudun was the last chance for Grandier to get out from under.

The monastery was small, but two dozen nuns, Ursulines, were from noble families that at first generously donated to the church, and also had some political influence in France. Grandier hoped to persuade Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges to give him the position of canon, but it was too late. By the time Urbain arrived, she had already chosen Father Mignon, known for his piety. Grandier decided to get Mignon to resign, by telling the public about his sins.

Urbain began to preach, and his words were full of stinging criticism of the clergy. The locals were thrilled with such bold speeches. Commoners loved Grandier, and people came from villages near Loudun to listen to him. Urbain gladly enjoyed the fruits of his popularity, charming local beauties, who were enthralled by the freethinker’s graceful speeches and sharp mind.

Mignon and des Anges complained about Grandier to the ecclesiastical court, accusing him of debauchery and disrespect for the rules of the clergy, arguing that “in the church, he only gets down on one knee.” The churchmen sentenced Grandier to banishment from Loudun. But the priest appealed to the civil courts, and ultimately Urbain was freed from the charges. Believing that now nothing threatened his position in Loudun, the priest, who wanted revenge on des Anges and Mignon, went further in his preachings. Starting with the exposure of Mignon’s imaginary piety, Grandier finished with a pasquil on Armand de Richelieu, the Secretary of State and Head of Government.

On hearing this, the cardinal was furious. Instigated by Richelieu, des Anges and Mignon accused Grandier of one of the worst crimes of the time: practicing witchcraft. In the monastery of the Ursulines, an epidemic of obsessions began, initiated, the nuns claimed, by Urbain, who had thrown a bouquet with a diabolical spell on it over the monastery fence. Day and night, from behind the walls of the monastery, came wild laughter and howling, and blasphemy and threats to the city were heard. When Mother Superior appeared in the town, there were stigmata on her hands. Des Anges told the townsfolk about terrible things, how nuns were rolling on the floor in fits of madness, growling like animals, and tearing their clothes as they prayed to Satan, not God. It was as if they had turned into sleepwalkers, and in a state of unconsciousness had called Grandier’s name.

It got to the point that the Louvre became seriously worried. Events in Loudun, which had served before as a curious topic for idle chatter, began troubling the king and the court. Richelieu, acting as a true champion of the faith and with the support of the king, sent to Loudun the investigator Jean de Laubardemont, some exorcists to perform needed rituals, and doctors to help the nuns, who were physically exhausted by the epidemic. The Ursulines had begun to imitate possession even when des Anges permitted them to rest. Sometimes they did things that Mignon had not discussed with them—crawling on their stomachs, defecating in a residential area, reading passages from the Bible backwards.

The moment they arrived in the town, the exorcists said that the Ursulines had reached such an extreme level of possession that driving out the demons of each nun individually was pointless. Instead, they needed to look for the person who had cursed them. Collecting evidence against Urbain, the exorcists interviewed the Ursulines who behaved strangely. After providing answers to all the questions, which they had memorized in advance, they suddenly began spitting and barking. The doctors diagnosed this as nervous stress associated with a long-term need to portray insanity. After a short investigation, de Laubardemont unmasked a devil worshiper to whom all the evidence pointed—Urbain Grandier. By order of the investigator, Grandier was arrested and thrown into prison.

While Urbain was in prison, the townspeople, who had been so captivated by his preachings, sent a petition to the king asking for his release. But the commoners’ love, which Urbain liked to brag about, could not save him. Subjecting Grandier to torture, de Laubardemont found irrefutable proof of the priest’s guilt. A tiny barred window in his cell was laid with stones so Grandier could never get enough air. Ordinary people, according to the investigator, had suffocated, but the Devil was supporting the apostate’s life. One member of the commission sent by Richelieu held a red-hot iron crucifix against Grandier’s lips, forcing the priest to jerk his head back. In his records, de Laubardemont indicated that Urbain did not dare venerate the cross. This removed all doubt that Grandier was a sorcerer. Richelieu’s exorcists claimed that the weaker the apostate became in prison, the less the demons would manifest themselves in the nuns’ bodies. However, the girls, despite all entreaties, continued to simulate the attacks, much to the chagrin of de Laubardemont, who did not know how to calm the townsfolk. To pacify the people, the investigator sentenced Grandier to be burned at the stake, but without Urbain’s confession, which was required in cases of witchcraft and deals with the Devil.

Urbain was provided the possibility of reconciliation with the Church. He needed to repent of his sins, and if he did, he would first be strangled with a garrote and then burned, but the nuns would not let him use this opportunity. Every time he tried to speak, they splashed water from a bucket into his face. Choking, Grandier could not say a word, and the investigator announced that the devil-worshipper had abandoned reconciliation. On August 18, 1634, Urban Grandier was burned alive.

However, the nuns’ seizures did not end with the death of Grandier, as the exorcists had promised. Moreover, the epidemic had spread to the citizens of Loudun, and then to the surrounding villages. The newly possessed exhibited the same symptoms as the nuns. They sometimes spoke not with their own voices but with the voices of the demons inside them, who called Richelieu a fool who had bought into Lucifer’s lie, cursed the churchmen as hypocrites, and prophesied the torments of hell.

Inspired by internecine intrigues, Richelieu, a practical man and a politician more than a servant of the Church, completely excluded the possibility that the Loudun events might have had a supernatural cause. It was important to the Cardinal to eliminate the arrogant priest, who had maligned him before the laity, and the charade of demonic possessions gave him the opportunity to legally use his power against Grandier.

Epidemic possessions after the Grandier case surprised the entire European Church. Its servants could only guess if the Devil had been behind the Loudun events from the very beginning or intervened when opponents of the disgraced priest had celebrated their victory. Whatever it was, the story of Grandier, combined with his diatribes, seriously spoiled the reputation of the Church.

To combat devilish mockery, the churchmen declared a real war on everything supernatural. To strike the enemy even harder, Cardinal Antonio Marcello Barberini Seniore, Secretary of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, suggested the use of those whom the Inquisition hunted—mediums and psychics. In the Middle Ages they also erroneously believed in the seed of the devil, though the people they burned at the stake along with witches, werewolves, and forest monsters were not demionis.

Cardinal Barberini found psychics who could feel the supernatural to find monsters and beasts, even where they were hiding from angry Inquisitors, and demanded that they use their abilities to serve the Church. To save their own lives, almost all the psychics agreed. Many later regretted it. Helping the Church did not make their lives better. The Dominican monks, the most ardent of the inquisitors, called themselves the Lord’s dogs, and people who felt the magic, their bloodhounds. And, indeed, they treated the mediums like dogs. The psychics and mediums who worked for the Church spent the rest of their days in chains and dirt. They were tortured and humiliated. Many were blinded with a hot iron or had their tongues cut out, the Inquisitors believing that the loss of some physical senses would reinforce the sense of supernatural.

Enchained and crippled, they went from town to town with the Inquisitors, finding more and more new victims. They did it only to save their own lives. The “bloodhounds” played a decisive role in the witch hunt across Europe, and in America they were secretly used during the Salem witch trials.

The more efficiently the psychics worked and the more evil they helped to destroy, the less important they became to the Church. In 1782, in Switzerland, Anna Göldi, the last witch in Europe, was executed, and by the end of the 18th century, leprechauns and demons, werewolves and ghouls had finally turned into fairy tales to frighten naughty children. When the Inquisition had completed its task, its services were no longer needed, and by the middle of the 19th century, a formidable force that once had frightened even monarchs had become a relic of antiquity. The number of mongrels, which had once inhabited towns and forests by the thousands, decreased. And then Hell agreed to a deal.

In an attempt to save the lives of the few surviving demionis, Lucifer made the Pactum with the Church, according to which he was obliged to shepherd everyone with even a drop of devil’s blood in their veins, and prevent them from harming people. Those who violated this agreement willingly, stupidly, or by order, would be destroyed. After the Pactum, the number of reported cases of possessions decreased. Now, most demionis are the descendants of those who survived the raids of the Holy Inquisition.

The Church appointed Judges to oversee compliance with the Pactum. Judges were the descendants of the bloodhounds who once worked for the Inquisition. Many of the psychics died, unable to endure life in shackles. The Church treated those who survived cruelly. Among them were powerful mediums who could clearly sense the presence of the supernatural. These were bred like cattle, the Church hoping their offspring would have special talents. Most of the children were born without powers, but some had abilities that exceeded the previous generation’s. They still could not use magic, but their sense of the supernatural was heightened, and with these children, the Church created Judges.

The Judges’ upbringing was harsh. They were raised to be physically and mentally prepared to murder ungodly creatures. Judges knew how to destroy virunas, find a cuegle, exhaust a genie. From childhood, they were like sponges soaking up hatred for the creatures of the Devil. They were taught to kill without regret or hesitation. Judges replaced those inquisitors who had chosen to fight the creatures of Hell as the best way to struggle for the purity of the faith. They became wanderers, moving from country to country, from town to town, in search of demionis. They ruthlessly hunted down and exterminated those who had broken the Pactum. They didn’t care if a mongrel had a mind or knew of the existence of the Pactum; a shred of evidence of guilt was enough to execute the sentence. If they found a mongrel, they watched it, and if they determined its guilt, they killed it. And then they moved on, by order or by their psychic senses.

Hunting is still their purpose in life, and the number of their “trophies” is the main subject of their rare talks. They are educated, know languages and sciences, but best of all, they know the art of the hunt and how to kill. Some bloodhound descendants received not only heightened abilities, but also a bit of madness. Such are the most difficult to control, and these are the most dangerous Judges.

Chapter 12: Justice

“Your narrow escape has wiped the smile right from your face.”

Soundgarden, “Hunted Down”

The U.S., some town. Present days.

Judge Caius easily picked up the trail of the werewolves. They openly walked through the thicket, leaving traces of urine and hair. It looked as if they had taken to the mountains. Both monsters, still young and inexperienced, moved heedlessly, clearly in a hurry. Caius inspected the werewolves’ traces and concluded that they were not simple lycanthropes. Periodically he saw footprints of four wolf paws, then two paws and two human hands. Sometimes he saw only human footprints. It was a cloudy morning, and the Judge deduced that these two could transform at will in the daylight. But, judging by the messy traces, the transformation was easy only for one of them, probably the older one. The second was not yet able to control its shape and was changing into a wolf, and then back into a man. Using his sense of smell, Caius determined that something was wrong with one of them. The werewolf was injured or sick, and the second was helping him through the woods, away from people.

This alarmed the Judge. Werewolves were not hostile to each other, but they did not live in packs like wolves. Despite all the legends, these animals were similar to each other only in appearance and preferred to settle in solitude in the wilderness, where people rarely visited. Sometimes madness struck werewolves, and then they became mardagyle, wild creatures that had lost the ability to regain their human form, indiscriminately devouring livestock and attacking people. But Caius rarely heard of cases of this disease, and it had never occurred in North America. Here werewolves hardly ever crossed the borders of each other’s territories and almost never made their way through the woods together. Perhaps, the Judge thought with satisfaction, this case would be more interesting than he had first imagined.

He had been sent to a town, a rare occurrence. Usually Judges of his age and experience determined for themselves the route of their movements across the country. If a Judge received an assignment, the matter allowed no delay. Caius had been given an assignment for the first time in a year and a half, which surprised him, and he was disappointed when he arrived in the town. A local boy named Danny Bright had gone hunting alone, and, he said, was attacked by a huge bear, sustaining severe injuries. A group of hunters heard his screams and found him. They took him to the hospital, despite his protests. His wounds were serious, and the doctors thought he would not live through the night. But to their surprise, Danny’s condition improved during the evening, and he even asked the nurses to let him go home. That night, he disappeared from the hospital. No one was surprised that Danny went hunting alone and did not want to go to the hospital. The people in town thought Danny was quiet and polite, but not the brightest bulb in the shed, and nobody kept company with him. His only relative was his Uncle Caleb, an old drunkard, deaf in one ear, who, according to the townspeople, did not like Danny, but rather tolerated him. When the police went to Caleb’s house looking for Danny, Caleb told them that the boy had not come home, had not called, and that he, Caleb, did not know his nephew’s whereabouts and was too old and too busy to find out. The police kept watch at Caleb’s house for a couple of nights, but there was no sign of Danny, and after a few days they ended the surveillance. They figured that if the lad was strong enough to leave the hospital and the town, it was unlikely he was dying somewhere.

The townsfolk discussed the disappearance of Danny Bright, the police faked some vigorous search activities, and a young newspaper journalist from a nearby town arrived to cover the story, so excited that she couldn’t say a pair of words without blushing. But two days later, the town had a new topic for gossip. On local farms closest to the forest, chickens and rabbits began to disappear. Sometimes the animals were found mauled. The townsfolk concluded that it was the same bear that had attacked Danny. But Caius knew that for the last thirty years, local hunters were wounded only when they shot themselves, usually because they were drunk, and no wild animal had ever attacked livestock.

Hunters went out in force to shoot the bear but were unable to find it. When Judge Caius arrived, the bear hunt petered out. Soon Caius himself became the main topic of discussion. Everything associated with him sparked interest, especially among the children. They discussed his long, shabby brown leather coat and his old minivan, a Stout Scarab with painted windows and extra lights on the roof. The main topic of conversation was the stranger’s inquiries about the disappearance of Danny. The police asked Caius why he had come to the city, but he put them off. They weren’t sure how to behave with a stranger who looked as if he might be a retired police officer—or perhaps an undertaker—so they left him alone. The hunters looked at him in disbelief and kept their distance. Only the children were interested, telling each other stories about the stranger with the long coat and strange car. The most popular tale was a horror story that said that Caius was a demon in human form that stole children, hid them under his coat, and took them in his car to a land of nightmares. Caius did not like the attention, but eventually he got used to it. As long as it did not impede his mission, there was no problem.

The Judge checked his weapons. For hunting werewolves, he took two harpoons with silver arrows. There were different ways to kill a werewolf: blow it up, chop it into pieces, inflict so many wounds that it would be powerless to heal them all at once. Or just wait for him to die of old age. Silver was still the most terrible plague for werewolves, but it had to stay in a werewolf’s body for a certain amount of time to kill it. The closer to the heart or brain the wound was, the faster the creature died. Bullets were not ideal. Bullets could pass through the body of a werewolf, resulting in an injury as serious as a mosquito bite. A bullet would, however, provoke the werewolf to attack the shooter. Arrows were similarly ineffective. You could cover the shaft with silver, but this would not be enough to send a mature werewolf to kingdom come. Besides, the monster could pull out an arrow that struck him and escape. That’s why Judge Caius chose harpoons.

Harpoons for hunting werewolves were different from those used for spear fishing. They were much heavier, used gunpowder instead of compressed air, and had reinforced arrow bracings to prevent the monster from escaping. A harpoon that found its mark never passed through. When it entered the body, steel clutches attached to a silvered tip burst open inside, making it impossible to pull out the arrow. Similar clutches were hidden in the butt-end of the harpoon, and after a successful shot, the hunter could remove the cover from the butt-end and plug it into the ground. The arrow and the harpoon were linked with a chain, limiting a werewolf’s movements. The werewolf could not escape, and a Judge could wait until the monster died in agony, unable to flee or remove the arrow from its body, or finish the beast with one shot to the head or heart from another harpoon. Carrying two harpoons was not easy, but after learning that there were two werewolves, the Judge was glad he had brought both.

Caius followed the traces out of the woods. As the Judge expected, the werewolves had moved to the mountains, probably hoping to hide in caves. The Judge found traces of fresh blood on soil and rocks. The scent was neither human nor werewolf. Apparently, on the way to find shelter, they had decided to hunt. For Caius everything was going as well as possible; if the monsters had eaten recently, they would have to sleep, and the blood of their prey would show him the way to their lair.

The blood trail soon led the Judge to a cave. Observing the utmost caution, Caius approached the entrance. His shoes and arms were wrapped in thick cloth so he wouldn’t make noise while walking. The Judge uncovered one of the harpoons, leaving the second one behind. There was no sound from the cave, but the traces of blood left no doubt that the monsters were in there. The entrance was wide, and it was impossible to enter unnoticed. Caius pondered his options and decided that appearing in the open could be dangerous, but the werewolves were young and inexperienced. Even if they did notice him, they might hesitate and give him the few moments he needed.

The wide entrance allowed gray daylight to fall into the cave. It was surprisingly clean and seemed as if it might have been inhabited. A fire burned in the center of the cave, near which a naked girl slept. The Judge was momentarily surprised. It obviously was not Danny Bright. The girl was young, eighteen or nineteen years old, with short brown hair and a slightly upturned nose. Her body had not lost all of its girlish fragility, but had begun to assume feminine curves. The girl slept uneasily, as if dreaming, and as she tossed and turned and moaned in her sleep, a wave swept through her body, and fur of the same chestnut color as her hair covered her skin. From her mouth, which was smeared with blood, came growls instead of groans.

The second werewolf, thought the Judge. He had assumed that the one who turned Bright was older, but the girl was younger than Danny and very pretty. The sight of her body, periodically covered with fur, mesmerized Caius. She lay on her side and he could not see her breasts, but he saw enough to arouse him. His lust rose, and the Judge barely resisted the urge to touch the sleeping girl. He knew he should not be tempted, especially by monsters. He hated himself. He would have to punish himself. But that would come later. Now he must deal with the girl, and then find Danny. Lust poisoned the body and the soul, the Judge was sure of that. It was sent to us by the Devil to test our faith in God. Lust enervated him and made him lose concentration.

“Who are you?” said a frightened voice behind him. Cursing himself for staring at the girl and exposing himself to danger, the Judge turned. At the entrance of the cave was a naked young man, tall and thin, jug-eared, and with a big nose—Danny Bright. His frightened eyes looked sadly at Caius, and then at the girl. In his blood-smeared hands, he held the carcass of some small animal.

“Who are you?” Danny repeated, his voice sounding even more frightened than before. The Judge heard a rustle behind him. He quickly turned back while lifting the harpoon. The girl had awakened and was now standing. She looked a little sleepy, but obviously was not as frightened as Danny.

“I came for you, Danny,” the Judge said over his shoulder without dropping the harpoon.

“Look, I know the whole city is looking for me, but I’m not going back,” Danny replied. “We—me and Jill—will get out of here, and we won’t be anyone’s problem.”

Jill. The judge had heard about this girl in the town. She was one of the most popular school beauties. She had gone to visit her cousin a couple of days after Danny’s disappearance. Or so she had told her parents.

“Whose idea was it to turn you, Danny?” asked the Judge, turning to the boy.

The boy was surprised at first, as if he saw the face of the Lord, but then his shoulders slumped. He looked like a naughty schoolboy who had just realized it was stupid to deny his guilt.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Bright said without much conviction.

“Mine,” said Jill. The Judge turned to her.

“It was my idea. I wanted to escape from this damn city. And I needed a helper. Someone who would understand me and never give up.” The girl’s every word was like a bullet, as if she was firing back, defending her position.

“And why did you choose Danny, babe?” Caius asked.

“Because he was willing to follow me. Everyone else wants only my beauty and sex. nothing more. They did not want to be with me, did not want to get out of here, and did not want to lead a life like mine. Danny is the only one who agreed.” With the last sentence, Jill’s voice became warmer.

“And you agreed, Danny? Agreed to be bitten?”

The boy hesitated before answering. “Yes, I … I was … For us it was the first time. Jill was hurt, and she bit me a little harder than necessary,” mumbled Bright. The girl looked guilty.

“A little harder? Man, she nearly tore you apart. Are you aware of that?” Caius pointed his harpoon at Danny.

“It’s not her fault,” Danny said.

“She attacked you.”

“Not on purpose!” cried Jill.

“She didn’t want it!” Danny protested. “Please let us go. There will be no more problems because of us. We stole from the farm to help me heal. I’m okay, and we are ready to go. We do not want to do evil. We never harm people.” Danny’s voice was pleading. Someone else might have been affected by the boy’s sincerity, but not Judge Caius. The girl was a mongrel and had violated the Pactum and attacked a man, even though the man was not opposed to it. As for Danny, the Judge could not find him guilty of anything except that he was in league with the mongrel. But in the end, there were only him and the two werewolves, and the Judge could pass sentence and give it effect on the spot.

Caius shot. At the same moment, Jill rushed him from behind. The shot was clumsy because of the blow. The arrow went lower than the Judge expected and struck Danny in the thigh. The boy cried out, and his cry turned into a roar. Jill hadn’t transformed yet, so Caius easily dropped her and stuck the butt of the harpoon between some large stones, fixing the chain to its shortest length. A mighty blow sent Caius flying into the far corner of the cave. He tumbled head over heels over sharp stones, cutting his hands and bruising his elbows and knees.

Jill had turned into a wolf, and Danny was desperately trying to pull the arrow from his hip. Blood, shock, and inexperience prevented him from choosing which form he should take, human or wolf, and he changed rapidly from one to the other, screaming and howling, the cave filled with the sound of his bones crackling as they reconstructed after each transformation. Jill rushed the judge. In wolf form she was smaller than the Judge thought. Her chestnut hair was standing on end on the back of her neck, and her eyes were full of human malice. Her chaps were aiming for the Judge’s throat, but Caius covered his face with his arms, and Jill’s teeth snapped on his forearm. Howling in pain, the werewolf jumped aside. Under his cloak, Caius wore steel bracers. Jill had not expected it and now stood between the Judge and Danny, pondering her next move, growling and making false lunges every time Caius reached toward the second harpoon on his back.

Whining and squealing came from behind Jill. Danny had finally decided which shape to take, and had dug his fangs into his leg, trying to bite it off and escape. His blood gushed to the cave floor. When Jill heard Danny’s screams and turned to him, an incredible howl of horror and despair came out of her mouth. That was enough for the Judge to grab the second harpoon and take a shot. The arrow hit Jill in the back, near the heart. From this distance Caius never missed. Almost instantly, Jill began to change shape, trying to escape, but the Judge had secured the harpoon, and Jill jerked against the taught chain and fell to the ground. She rolled onto her side and tried to crawl to Danny, whose howling was becoming crazier. But the Judge began to reel in the chain, and despite all her efforts, Jill couldn’t reach Danny. Caius pulled her close. Her body was still trying to take the wolf form, but her strength was not enough, and just a touch of fur, which prompted another surge of lust in the Judge, covered her skin before disappearing again.

Danny’s leg was nearly detached from his body, only skin and bits of sinew holding it. The werewolf tore his leg off and launched himself at the Judge. Danny was a young werewolf, but larger than Jill, and the weight of his body, even without one leg, was enough to knock the Judge down. But he made the same mistake as Jill and went for Caius’s throat. The Judge covered his face and neck with his hands, and Danny’s chaps bit the steel bracers. However, unlike Jill, Danny did not unclench his teeth. He began to wrench his opponent’s arm from side to side, his paws pounding the Judge’s chest and slipping on his leather coat. A sharp pain shot through Caius’s shoulder, and he thought it might be dislocated. But he felt no fear. Monsters prompted his disgust and contempt, but not fear. One hand was useless, but with the second he tried to unbutton his cloak, even as werewolf claws struck it. The beast had become weaker from loss of blood but was still dangerous, so the Judge had to act quickly. He knew that if he undid his cloak, Danny’s blows would be much more dangerous, but it was worth the risk. The pain from his scratches and dislocated shoulder was getting stronger. White spots swam before his eyes, but Caius ordered himself not to pass out.

On his chest he found what he was looking for—a huge silver cross. Tearing off his crucifix, he held it like a blade and stabbed. The longest part of the cross hit Danny’s eye and went in as far as the crossbar. The werewolf jumped aside and tried to pull the cross out with his paws. He howled and thrashed on the ground while silver poisoned his brain and blood. Danny realized that it would be easier to pull the cross out with his hands and changed into human form. Leaning against the wall of the cave, extending his only remaining leg, Danny grabbed the cross. He managed to pull it out an inch or two, but then his strength drained away.

The Judge examined his wounds. His left shoulder was dislocated, his chest and right hand were slashed, but the cuts were not deep. It was unpleasant and very painful, but not life-threatening. Monster saliva had not entered his bloodstream, and this was most important. Two werewolves on one hunt was a high achievement. His gaze lingered on Jill. He turned her face up to look again. Her body was still warm, and lustful images blurred Caius’s vision for a moment. But he repressed them.

He burned the bodies, and whatever fire couldn’t consume, he gathered in a backpack and put in his minivan. He would hide them on his next hunt, somewhere in another state, and even if the police found them, they would puzzle over how they got there. He would change his blood-stained clothes, get back to the hotel, and get some rest.

At the entrance to the hotel, the young woman at the reception desk addressed him. “Mr. Edwards? An invitation for you,” she said, handing Caius an envelope. Inside was a ticket to the circus. The ticket had clowns, flames, and strange animals painted on it. On the reverse was written “Come and see tomorrow. It’ll be very interesting.”

“Are you sure it’s for me?” asked Caius, fiddling with the invitation.

“Oh, yes, sir. He asked me to give it to you personally.”

“Who asked?”

“Some very nice guy. Not from around here, obviously. We’ve never had such hot guys. He said he works in a circus.” The girl behind the counter was blushing.

The Judge thanked her and went to his room. The invitation was hardly a mistake. He wasn’t a man who could be mistaken for someone else. But before cluttering his mind with this mystery, he had to clean up.

In the bathroom Caius washed the cross that killed Danny, washed his and the werewolves’ blood from his forearm, kissed the crucifix thrice, and set it upright on the tub. Then the Judge undressed and knelt in the tub before the cross. He said a prayer of repentance, full of remorse for what he had felt toward Jill, for the lust that had intoxicated him. Caius took a knife to his groin, carved three crosses, and watched as blood trickled between his thighs. It was bad blood, which had distracted him from his focus on the hunt. Except for his face and hands, his entire body, even his back, was covered with scars in the form of crosses. He gently touched them with his hands. They were a reminder of his sin and his struggle with it. Each cross meant a battle, but each also meant a victory.

 

Another February

Record made on 02/24/2001

Archivist: Jacob

This is my last entry. An archivist’s duty is to capture on paper the importance of what happens in the circus, and, in my opinion, it’s important to explain the reasons for my action. I joined Mr. Bernardius’s troupe three and a half years ago, when I was 29 years old. However, joined is not quite the right word. When people join something, they decide on their own. I was appointed, and had nothing to argue. I’ve checked the records. I became, and remain, the youngest archivist in the 130-year history of the circus. Perhaps this is the reason. Maybe I was not ready for this. All the other archivists were in their late fifties or sixties when they became part of the circus. They knew twice as much as me and were already wise, emotionless people.

My appointment was a surprise to everyone. The former archivist, Enzo, died, and I was the quickest possible replacement. I was told that this would be temporary, that once the circus found a more experienced archivist, I could go back to my studies. But this did not happen. Of course, the first six months I lived in hope that it would be over soon. Then I began to convince myself that my job had some positive aspects that, because of my constant whining, I hadn’t noticed. I came to terms with the situation. But humility eventually turned into despair. Work for the Devil is unlike any other. Once you agree to it, you can’t change your mind later. You cannot quit or go to a competitor. Especially if you’re an archivist.

We, the chroniclers of Hell, preserve and increase the knowledge of all that happens on earth. We are constantly learning. The first thing for a young archivist to learn is that he’s not in school, where the main task is to hold out for a few years and get a diploma. An archivist shall be improved to his last breath and share his knowledge with others; this is his main task. Each of us begins our journey at different ages, one a child, someone else an adult. I have not figured out how the right people for the job are chosen. I only remember that my parents, a pair of dead duck alcoholics, sold me to some smiling old people for a few hundred bucks. I was at the age when children, especially those growing up in lousy families, already know that sometimes adults use them in the most terrible ways.

But these two old men were not like those. They took me to an old mansion many kilometers from any settlement. There was not even a filling station or roadside diner anywhere to be seen. There, far from the world of ordinary people, I met a few more lonely children, kids like me. The old men—there were a lot more than two, and they changed all the time—began to teach us. Initially, the training did not differ from school. Mathematics, English, geography. But over time, courses appeared in our program that modern schools never heard of. Latin and other dead languages, ancient grimoires, demonology. Other courses, such as world history, were strikingly different from the usual. We learned the true nature of things, learned how and why events that determined people’s lives occur in the world.

Students proceeded at their own pace, not as a class. I was a good student, one of the best and quickest. Soon I got a call to start my Path. His own Path is the dream of every boy archivist. It’s a kind of deployment period. Starting one’s own Path, an archivist tours the world, meets with his brothers, and learns from their experience. Each of us has our own Path, which determines what each individual archivist will study. We never knew which of the brothers would meet us next or where it would happen. It might be in Guatemala or Russia, Poland or Bhutan. After completing the archivist Path, one receives an appointment. Whatever it was, the brother cannot refuse it. Some work in large corporations or government structures, some get a place in the media, and a few become priests, spies in the enemy camp, climbing the ladder of the Church hierarchy. Whatever their place, archivists gather information, analyze it, and work on important decisions. They pull the levers, as one of my teachers used to say.

Lazarus Bernardius’s circus was always considered a special place among my brothers. Of course, many yearn for an important position and the accompanying benefits and privileges. Only the best could get such positions. But appointment to the circus is special. It’s for those who believe service to the Devil is something more than a way to have a life. It’s for those who believe that touching the underside of our world is more important than anything else. I was not one of them, yet I got the appointment—archivist to the Lazarus Bernardius circus.

When news of my appointment spread among the brothers, many sent me letters with sincere congratulations. Some admitted they envied me a little. Two, much older than me, claimed that they should have received the honor. I felt strange and ridiculous. People around me treated me almost as a living legend, the youngest archivist in the history of the Bernardius circus. But I did not share my brothers’ enthusiasm. Perhaps it was because I never thought the choice would fall to me. In the world, there are about two thousand archivists, and their number is gradually increasing. I always thought that someone else from among this number would be assigned to the circus. I did not even finish my Path. In my opinion, it was like making a fifth-grader the president of the United States.

It seems to me that my relationship with Mr. Bernardius did not work from day one. My age, it seemed, unpleasantly surprised him. I have studied the archives and realized why. Before me, all archivists were elderly, the only creatures in the circus whose knowledge and experience were comparable to Lazarus’s. As I understand from the records, every archivist for Mr. Bernardius was not merely an adviser and helper, but came close to being a friend. With me the ringmaster was mostly cold. However, it would be perfect folly to blame Mr. Bernardius for my not becoming a part of the circus.

I did not like it here, from the complexities of the nomadic life to the daily coexistence with demionis. During training and passing the Path, each archivist practices calling demons and engages in monster studies: their classification, anatomy, habits. Each of us, before getting an appointment, checks his theoretical knowledge in practice. So I can’t say that I had never encountered demionis. But a rare meeting is one thing, living with them under the same roof is quite another. Many of them are smart, but even in these, the animal instincts are sharpened. They feel your fear, your hostility. It’s been impossible for me to get on the inside. This is not what I wanted.

I wanted to do something important, to live in a big city. I believed that I had all the qualifications for this, and not just for traveling the dusty outback in an old truck in a company of disgusting creatures that despised me. My life seemed pointless to me, my hopes shattered. For a long time, I’ve put up with my existence with the help of, shall we say, potions. They relax me, immerse me in dreams of another life. I knew there was a risk of getting too used to them, becoming too dependent on potions and dreams. But it happened faster than I expected. One thing calmed me—the old man did not seem to notice my condition. Although looking at his impassive face one could never be sure.

I admit that sometimes I was overwhelmed with the hope that Mr. Bernardius would learn about my addiction and report it. Then I would be punished. I would be removed from the circus. Or eliminated. Anything. Then, when my mind cleared, I knew fear would never let me reveal myself. But now I’m not afraid. Fear has devastated me, ruined me. I have no strength to fight fear anymore. I reached the point where the regrets of my broken dreams outweigh the desire to live. I haven’t taken potions for three weeks. I’m cleaner than I’ve been for more than a year and a half. My mind is clear and sharp, and I am conscious of my actions. I thought about the reasons that could stop me, but I found only one. What if my sudden death ruins someone’s life? Is it possible that some young, untrained archivist, unable to cope with his desires, could end up in the same sorry state as me?

But the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that this would not be possible for a second time. I don’t comfort myself, but I know my masters would not allow the same mistake twice. And so I say goodbye with a light heart. I know where to find myself after death. I hope that this entry will explain my motives. And I hope that where I am going, they will be less strict.

Eternally yours, Jacob.

Chapter 13: The Tower

“Tongue tied, nerves as big as boulders.”

Blind Melon, “Car Seat (God’s Present)”

The Judge’s senses gave a jingle even before his Scarab Stout reached the circus encampment. The spectators, gathered for the show, stared at his car and, judging by their exclamations, took him for an artist who was running late for the show. Some onlookers even tried to talk to him, but Caius ignored them. He confidently walked to the main tent. Never in his life had his sense for mongrels screamed so loud inside his head, like a banshee predicting death.

In a bright, old-fashioned, and a bit cartoonish jump-stand stood a charming dark-haired woman with huge eyes and a sensual scarlet mouth. Caius showed her his invitation. He saw a human, but knew she was a mongrel. He was one of the best Judges, and his sense never failed. Yet his thoughts were confused. One mongrel should not cause such feelings. Feelings interfered with clear thinking. Caius wanted to get back in his car, take a harpoon, and turn this show into a bloodbath, but he decided to behave calmly and wait for the beginning of the spectacle before taking the next step.

The size of the main tent did not surprise him, but he was struck by its oddness. Caius was not a big fan of entertainment, knew little about fun, and a traveling circus seemed to him a relic of the days when there was neither TV nor radio. Therefore the Judge was not surprised when it turned out that the “Lazarus Bernardius’ Circus,” as it was called on the bill, exactly matched his archaic ideas. Coming into the tent, the Judge took his seat in the grandstand and looked around. The other spectators were definitely people. In none of them, neither adult nor child, did Caius sense a mongrel. The audience was whispering excitedly. Someone next to the Judge boasted that he had been in an actual traveling circus, and there had been a constantly unpleasant smell of damp, old age, and animals, but this place was nothing like that. Therefore, the circus expert doubted that this circus was real and that the show would be worth the couple of bucks he had paid for a ticket. The expert’s friend told him to shut up, but his words about smells in the circus alerted Caius. It did smell of wood, iron, dust, and spectators, but not of animals.

The Judge’s thoughts were interrupted when the arena was plunged into darkness. A deep voice from the darkness greeted the audience, and when the light appeared again, a tall old gentleman was standing in the center of the arena. He wore a suit from the 19th century, a top hat, and a gray beard down to his waist. The old man introduced himself as Lazarus Bernardius and said that his circus had been traveling around the country for almost one hundred and fifty years, and claimed he had been with it from the very first show. In the auditorium, children gasped, and adults snorted. The old man promised a good show, and as his final words faded, darkness engulfed the arena again.

A cheerful little tinkling tune began, and when the tent was once again illuminated, Caius and the viewers saw a little man with a street organ standing in the center of the arena. The musician was very short; his head would barely reach the knee of an adult and looked like a melon, a little flattened on top and bottom and too big for his tiny body. His face was a light orange color. Caius sensed a melonhead in the little man. On the continent, such were relatively recent, and those who saw them often mistook them for victims of genetic mutations, products of mad scientists or government experiments. Like all Judges, Caius knew about melonheads, one of the most senseless and helpless mongrels, though their weakness did not make them more easygoing.

While the man was playing, more shorties jumped out from behind the scenes in the arena. They looked like a dozen twins. They sputtered and sang something in their high-pitched voices, galloping around the musician and turning handsprings. During the dance, one of the melonheads stumbled and fell. Another one tripped on him, couldn’t keep his balance, and ran into a third. The latter comically slapped the second’s face, and when the first one tried to disengage them, he was beaten by both. The orange men fought with each other, yelling something thick with their thin voices. Some used techniques from wrestling, grasping each other and throwing opponents around the arena. Only the musician remained untouched, and he continued to play a fast, ringing melody.

Suddenly the men stopped fighting and rolling around the arena, and began pointing up. The shrill cry of an animal sounded, and an unimaginable cross between a bird and a lizard flew from under the dome, right at the orange men, its wings spread wide. The creature had only a rear pair of limbs, and instead of front limbs, it had broad membranous wings covered with scales. It had a long snake-like neck and the head of a lizard, and its thin tail bore a stinger that looked like an arrowhead. A wyvern, thought the Judge. He was boiling inside, and his suspicions about the circus were strengthened.

The serpent spewed flames. They were bright, but more like harmless fireworks than terrifying dragon fire, and they landed in the center of the arena. The melonheads scattered in every direction. Two of them dragged away the unwary musician, who blinked, pretending surprise. When he came his to senses, he changed the roller in his street piano, which began to play a heroic tune. Upon hearing it, the orange men surrounded the wyvern. He hissed menacingly at them, flew low, and produced whirls of sparks, scaring the melonheads. Sometimes the serpent dived and grabbed one of the men, and his fellows would try to catch him and pull him down. During one of the dips, two melonheads caught the wyvern’s tail. The serpent tried to shake them off and breathe fire on them, but did not succeed.

The other orange men clutched the legs of their brother, which dangled from the monster, and dragged him to the ground. When the wyvern was quite low, a few men pounced on his long, flexible neck and finally pinned him to the arena. The musician played a triumphant melody, and the others shouted a victory cry. They hoisted the defeated “dragon” onto their shoulders, waved to the audience, and then dragged him behind the scenes.

Then an incredibly handsome man appeared on the scene. Judge Caius had never considered himself a connoisseur of male beauty, but something about this man attracted him. He thought perhaps he might like to have a friend like him, maybe even a brother. But his sharp senses told him that a mongrel was on the stage, although he could not guess his secret. The man bowed, winking playfully at some of the girls in the hall, the smile never leaving his face. While he was engaged with the audience, a monster appeared behind him. How beautiful was the artist, so ugly was the monster. Judging by the breasts and rounded hips, this creature was a female. Her legs were fused into one, tangled hair concealed most of her face, which was mottled with wrinkles, but it couldn’t hide the single big eye in the middle of her forehead, bloodshot and covered with a fleshy eyelid. In some places, the monster-woman’s skin looked more like the bark of a tree, and her hands were like crooked branches. Caius remembered the name of the monster. Patasol. They once lived on the border with Mexico, but they had not been heard of in a long time.

The spectators shouted at the handsome man to turn around. He put a hand to his ear, pretending he could not hear what was said to him, and joked with the people in the hall. The monster was approaching him in short hops, and when it seemed she was ready to grab him with her hand-branches, the artist, without turning to her, moved to another location to entertain the audience. This went on several times until finally the man did turn around as the audience shouted at him. Horror filled his face, but did not make it ugly. Hand-branches seized the man by the shoulders; the beastly woman drew him to her and opened a mouth full of crooked yellow and black teeth. But instead of biting the victim’s head off, she kissed him, and in the same moment the monster began to change. She decreased in size, her single leg was divided into two, and the bark fell from them onto stage, exposing girlish legs, slender and tanned. The leaves and branches disappeared from her hair, and her face no longer had only one eye but two, and her red mouth was full of beautiful white teeth. The Judge recognized the girl from the jump stand.

Then a mimi appeared on the scene, an incredibly tall mongrel with bronzed skin covered with white tattoos. The mimi was ten feet tall, and thin beyond belief. He entertained the audience by turning to the side and becoming invisible. If too many people in the audience clapped and sighed at the same time, the mimi trembled like a piece of fabric in the wind and uttered a sad and lingering moan. When his act ended, the mongrel lay on the arena, becoming a living drawing on the floor before crawling behind the scenes.

The sad mimi was exchanged for two ogres, very similar in appearance, except that one was gray and the other green. Both had the same gloomy muzzles and heavy jaws, wore shabby bowler hats, and were dressed like longshoremen of the 30s. Frowning and harrumphing, the ogres performed stunts with weights; they bent iron bars, raised a wrecking ball over their heads, and crushed bricks with their bare hands or sometimes against each other’s heads. To do this, one of the ogres took off his ridiculous bowler, showing the audience two short horns, while the second one hit the top of his head with a brick, crumbling it to dust.

The more the Judge watched the show, the fewer doubts he had. This circus consisted entirely of mongrels, from the old ringmaster to the melonheads. So maybe when Bernardius said he’d been managing the circus for nearly one hundred and fifty years, it wasn’t a joke. The Judge felt incredible excitement, as always, when an interesting case loomed before him. A beam of light under the dome caught a girl on a trapeze. Caius’s sense for mongrels raged within him, and pain was bursting inside him, as if his whole being was ready to explode. For a moment, he forgot how to breathe. It seemed to him that if he sighed, his lungs would explode, unable to withstand the pressure, and if he did not breathe, the rush of blood in his veins would stop. Caius felt divided. While one part of him tried to remember how to breathe, painfully trying to cope with the senses raging inside him, the second was calm and pacified. He was contemplating his life, confessing what he had done. He thought about all the sentences he had passed just to amuse himself or brag to the other Judges. He thought of Danny and the werewolf girl, and was ashamed of the feelings he had experienced over her dead body. But he did not have pity for himself. He believed he could change, that life would get better, that there was hope even for him. While the aerialist girl hovered under the big top, he felt incredibly good. Recognizing his own sins had helped him recover spiritually.

The girl’s straps folded and unfolded, raising her to the top of the dome, and then dropping her to the floor. She had a surprisingly good body, but looking at her the Judge felt no lust or passion, only admiration and gratitude.

And then a fiery serpent was flying around the girl, shining, bursting with warmth, blinding the eyes with the brightness of its flaming scales. The first Caius, the one whose sense for mongrels had nearly finished him off on the spot, got the chance to crush the other Caius, the false Caius dwelling in dreams of hope and redemption. The first Caius, the prime Caius, trampled down the second Caius somewhere deep in the hell of the subconscious, and then, not celebrating victory, switched his attention to the magician who had created the fire snake.

Fire magic. So strong. Judge Caius had never heard of it during his long career, which had lasted more than thirty years.

 

Chapter 14: The Hermit & Justice & the Devil

“They’ve got to kill what we’ve found.”

Nine Inch Nails, “We’re In This Together”

Evening turned into night, and the audience broke up. The circus scheduled its shows late for two reasons, to generate greater mystery and to intrigue the audience. It also helped to hustle people away from the circus after a performance, lest they try to take pictures of the artists and monsters. Lazarus Bernardius watched from a distance as the crowd dispersed, and then he noticed someone approaching him. The tentmaster had seen the man in the stands, but the stranger didn’t look like a gawker who wanted to talk after the show. He was alone, and most spectators had come as families or couples. Besides, he didn’t resemble a local. He wore heavy boots and a dusty leather coat with two rows of buttons—who would wear that for a show?

His face expressed no joy from a meeting with the manager of the circus, nor the perplexity of someone who had lost his way. Instead, it reflected the kind of interest and triumph that a scientist who had discovered a new chemical element or a new species might have felt. The stranger was not young. His long hair, pulled back, was almost gray, and a stubble of the same color bespoke his age. The stranger’s eyes were hidden behind round sunglasses, and as the man obviously was not blind, Lazarus thought it was odd that he wore them in such darkness.

“Mr. Bernardius, I presume,” the stranger said to the circus manager.

“I am. And you?”

“Judge Caius. I hope you understand that I’m not working in the district court, Mr. Bernardius.”

Lazarus tried not to show his concern, though inside he felt a cold stab. Judge? In the circus? Lazarus knew who the Judges were, although the last time he had encountered one was over a hundred years ago, when he had not been experienced in the management of the affairs of the circus, and the Judges had been much more.

“To what do we owe the honor, Judge?”

“Oh, funny question, isn’t it? You surely know what Judges do. The man running this circus should know. But if you have forgotten, I will remind you. I’m looking for mongrels, and if they’re harming people, I will have them.” the Judge made a gesture like crushing something.

“I can assure you, Judge Caius, that we here honor the Pactum, and our inhabitants are totally harmless. As you can see, even the patasola has renounced her murderous habits.”

“Oh, it’s really impressive, Mr. Bernardius. I came across one patasola twenty years ago. This creature had ripped three house builders to shreds. She lured them into the desert, pretending to be a nice little girl, fascinated them, and killed them. I hope yours is not that type. There was a lot of blood, along with hands and legs in different places, and what she did with their heads …”

“You saw everything,” Lazarus said, interrupting the Judge. “Our artists do not cause harm to anyone, they only entertain the public.”

“I’m sure you will want to talk about this with the three widows and seven children of those poor wretches, if you ever go to Albuquerque.” The Judge smiled. “You have here a very beautiful reserve of cute and good-natured mongrels. Yes, sorry, I didn’t say it earlier, but you have a great show, just amazing. It’s a shame there weren’t any such during my childhood.”

“Judge Caius, what do you want?” Lazarus did not like this man or the conversation they were having.

“You know, my first thought when I got to the circus was why, why, for heaven’s sake, had I and every other Judge gone so many years without noticing you?”

“We have never violated the Pactum.”

“That’s it, Mr. Bernardius.” There was a gleam of triumph in Caius’s eyes. “The universe, I believe, is similar to jelly. Poke a finger in one place, and the wave gets going anywhere. One of your mongrels has violated the Pactum, and one of my people learned of it. Simple as that.”

“It’s just an assumption, Judge,” retorted Lazarus.

“The truth is yours. But you know the rules. A Judge may render a verdict based on the evidence as he deems sufficient. We are the court and the jury. And, to my delight, the executioners.”

Lazarus stepped forward and leaned toward the man in the cloak. “Judge Caius, your threats are meaningless. You must understand that the long and successful existence of our circus would not be possible without some patrons.”

“Of course. However, those patrons eventually couldn’t conceal you from me, and, hence, from all other Judges. So you are now under supervision, Mr. Bernardius.”

“Let me see you to the door, Judge Caius.”

Lazarus pointed, and the Judge shrugged and went with Bernardius. As they passed the main tent, they noticed Martha and Greg coming out of it.

“Mongrel love,” said the Judge. “How nice. During the show I saw how he looked at this gymnast girl. Interesting specimen. Fire mage. Handles fire like a demon from hell. You keep an eye on him. With this capability, he could mess around a lot.” The Judge raised his glasses and winked at Lazarus. “And what is the secret of this beauty, this flying trapeze girl. Who is she? I can name every kind of mongrel in your circus, but not her. Something new?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer any of your questions, Judge Caius,” Lazarus said.

“Well, Mr. Bernardius. To your regret, I won’t say goodbye. I’ll look after you.”

Lazarus showed the Judge to his car and watched silently as Caius got into it. He didn’t move until the Judge’s strange car had disappeared. The situation was unpleasant, but Lazarus was calm. If his immortality had taught him anything, it was patience. Mr. Bernardius and his circus had remained outside the purview of the Judges for so long that these people had become only a ghostly threat, but deep inside he knew that one day some Judge would come for him or his fosterlings.

He must have made a mistake somewhere, lost sight of something, been lulled by how many decades the plan devised by Louie Louis had worked so smoothly. Lucifer. Lazarus would have to tell Pietro about the visit of the Judge, and the archivist would report to Lucifer. The demon wouldn’t be pleased, but he might offer a solution.

The doors of Astaroth’s chamber sprang open as the walls shook from the loud, rumbling voice of the supreme demon.

“Astaroth!” Lucifer barely kept his human form. Tongues of flames, like sprouts, penetrated the skin on his face, and his wings flapped wildly. The demon practically flew into Astaroth’s chambers.

“Traitor!” Lucifer shouted, snatching Astaroth out of a huge carved chair and elevating him toward the ceiling.

My plan failed, Astaroth thought, but he did not try to resist. He knew the forces were unequal, and he would rather just endure until Lucifer, his brother and mentor, vented his anger on him. Meanwhile, the supreme demon broke through the chamber’s ceiling using Astaroth’s body as a ram. Two demons, two brothers, broke through every floor until they reached a small ruined room that crowned the main tower of the palace of Astaroth.

The room offered a view of the dull gray landscape, infernal plains occasionally crossed by fiery red rivers, and of the city in the center of the plain, which opened now beneath the two demons. The thin spires of the city’s towers were like needles piercing an almost-black sky, from which ash showered continually. If not for the strong winds, the towers of Hell would have long since collapsed under the weight of ash covering them.

“Damned traitor!” roared Lucifer. The supreme demon pressed his face close to Astaroth’s. Lucifer’s face was furious, Astaroth’s was sad.

“Why did you do that? Why did you tell His servants?” Lucifer’s voice brimmed with anger. Equivocating was pointless, and Astaroth did not deny what he had done.

“I miss it.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“I miss home.”

“What home? Here is your home, ungrateful scum.”

“Here?” Apathy instantly disappeared from Astaroth’s face. “Our home is not here, Lucifer. Here is our prison. Look around you.” Astaroth threw his hands up, pointing at the landscape below. “I’m tired of this place. This is not our home. Not mine. You came here and made this place a headquarters of your holy war against Him. You haven’t asked any of us!”

The expression of rage on Lucifer’s face changed to bewilderment, and then pity. He loosened his grip.

“Missed? Tired? Did you really think that if you blow upon several mongrels, He will forgive you and let you come back?”

“Not just mongrels, but those whom you hid from Him. Among them are those who have broken the Pactum. You knew about this and kept silent. It will give him an excuse to start a war with you.”

“War.” The flames on Lucifer’s face went out. Now his face was more like a cracked clay mask, with smoke belching through the crevices. “War on your brothers, Astaroth.”

“I wanted to go home.” The demon’s voice was weak and broken.

“So what? You got there? To Heaven? To Him? You told him, you betrayed us, and you’re still here. If he appreciated your offering, then why are you still here? Why do you not flutter in the little white pastures of Heaven with Him? Did you think he would forgive you? Think He would take you back? You wanted to buy a ticket back? He is not like you, Astaroth. I am like you. Our brothers who will remain here are like you.”

“Who will remain here?”

“Yes, brother. I cannot kill you, you know that. But here I stand and you will not. I cast you out. From now on, you have no place in His palace or in Hell. And you will never be like humans. But if you want to do something stupid, something to get back at me, to get into Lazarus’s affairs, seek a meeting with him. I’ll find you. Just give me a reason to regret the fact that I’ve saved your life.”

For the first time in ages, Astaroth was frightened. He had lost everything. He felt as if his body was melting. His arms and legs were like jelly, as the gray world became whitish, and the red rivers lost their brightness. He tried to cling to Lucifer as an anchor, joining him on this plane of reality, but he failed. Astaroth was powerless. He wanted to scream. He was ready to beg for Lucifer’s mercy, but he knew that he would not back down.

So Astaroth lost a second home. Thus began his second exile.

 

Chapter 15: The Magician & the Star

“The shadows purr, murmuring me away from you.”

The Cure, “Burn”

Lazarus, Greg, Martha, and the archivist gathered in the big top immediately after the show. Greg tried to remain cheerful, but he guessed that such a meeting clearly did not bode well. Lazarus was thoughtful and almost angry, something the magician had rarely seen.

“Tonight a Judge was at the show,” Lazarus began, looking around the company. Only Pietro acknowledged the significance of these words.

Greg tried to laugh it off. “A Judge? Are we in trouble with the law?”

“In a certain sense. Pietro?” Lazarus looked at the archivist. The chubby man started, and the folds of his embroidered robe came to life.

“The Judges are special people in the Church. Once they helped the Holy Inquisition in its fight against what it called evil spirits. Judges can feel the presence of people like you. They, uh, call you mongrels. Judges themselves are ordinary people and have no magical abilities. After the abolition of the Inquisition, they were gathered in a special division of the Church, whose task is to ensure that demionis do not violate the Pactum. The Judges have special authority …”

Greg interrupted him. “Enough, we all know who these Judges are. You and Lazarus tell us about them as soon as we join the circus. I thought it was a myth to make us follow the rules.”

“Myth, Greg?” Bernardius began to lose his temper.” Just because you’ve been lucky enough not to meet them does not mean they do not exist. You’re still as naive as our audience, who looks at us and sees only tricks and hoaxes!”

“Is this Judge a threat to us?” asked Martha. Hearing the sound of her voice, all the men immediately calmed down.

“I don’t know. Judges are free to decide what to do with mongrels whom they suspect of violating the Pactum. This Caius promised to follow us, and I think he will keep his word.”

“And if, during the surveillance, he accidentally fell asleep in his car with a cigarette?” Greg said. “And a spark happened to find its way into the gas tank.”

“Are you insane?” Lazarus said through clenched teeth. “Are you proposing to violate the Pactum and become a target for all those working with Caius? Judges communicate, reporting all their movements to each other. If one of them disappears, the rest will give up their hunt and go on a search. We would be pursued by every Judge on the continent.”

“Doesn’t mean they would find who made their friend disappear,” Greg said.

The air was strained to the limit, and Pietro tried to be the voice of reason.

“He said he suspects one of ours?” asked the archivist.

“No, but Martha and Greg caught his attention. Greg has the magic of demons, and Martha …” Lazarus shrugged. “It looks like Caius is an experienced Judge. He knows all kinds of demionis, but not her.”

“If we can’t get rid of him, let’s just live our lives as before,” suggested Martha. “I’m sure it is a mistake. If we allow the Judge to observe us, he will realize that no one broke the law and he’ll leave us be.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple, Martha. Our circus is a gift for these”—Lazarus hesitated before choosing his word—“for these thugs. They call themselves Judges, but no one knows on what they base their verdicts.”

“I still say there’s an obvious way to get rid of his annoying attention,” Greg said. There was fervor in his eyes, and crackling sparks, barely audible, flew between his fingers.

“Greg, before you tell us the details of the ‘obvious way,’ I would like to talk to you alone.” The tentmaster’s voice expressed no emotion, but his eyes were cold and tense. Pietro quickly realized what it meant. Preventing even the possibility of protest, the archivist gently took Martha’s arm and walked to the door, trying to draw her attention with an awkward conversation. Martha turned to look back at the magician and the ringmaster. Greg nodded to her reassuringly and smiled.

“Wow, looks like I’m in trouble,” Greg said as soon Pietro and the girl left the tent. There were notes of alarm in his light-hearted tone, no matter how the magician tried to disguise them.

“Greg, I beg you to be serious,” Mr. Bernardius said. He looked disappointed and tired, as if all the years of his long life had hit him in an instant, demanding that he repay debts.

“Okay,” Greg said.

“I need to tell you something,” Lazarus said, nervously tapping his cane on the floor of the arena. “When you disappeared the last time, I sent Zinno to keep an eye on you.”

“You what?”

“Calm down. When Zaches returned, he told me that you were hanging around in bars and had got into a drunken brawl. But now this Judge appears on the threshold of our circus, and, among all our demionis, he’s only interested in you. From this I can draw two conclusions. First, Zinno lied to me. My fault, it was stupid to trust him. Second, you have broken the Pactum. I can see no other reason why the Judge would show up today.”

“Mr. Bernardius …”

“Greg, let me finish. I do not want to know what you’ve done. There is no need to have a bright imagination to understand how to break the Pactum.”

“If I broke it.”

“Did you? Is the Judge so interested in you for no reason? Tell me, Greg.”

The magician frowned. There was darkness behind his eyes.

“Imagine that Martha is asking you these questions. Would you lie to her, Greg? Now you’re going to your room, and there she will probably ask you about the Judge and about our conversation. She’s a smart girl, she will understand what was happening. Will you lie to her?”

“No.”

Mr. Bernardius nodded. “Good. I don’t want to know what you did or with whom you did it. I want to know why.”

“I don’t understand, Mr. Bernardius.”

“Any demionis that has consciousness, well, maybe except Zaches, would agree to live here under my protection, without knowing specific details. Even the ogres are satisfied. But not you. And I can’t understand why.” Lazarus looked straight into Greg’s eyes. Hope, despair, and confusion mingled on the face of the ringmaster.

Greg seemed like a volcano before an eruption. “Well, Mr. Bernardius, I did what I did, because it could change the world for the better.”

“What world, Greg?”

“The world outside the circus, the one from which we are all running without looking back!”

“Greg, my boy, that world is not ours,” Bernardius said, his voice full of sympathy. “We do not belong to the world of people.”

“Actually, we sell them tickets, and they come to our shows!”

“And that’s all. For the people there”—Lazarus pointed to the tent’s canvas walls with his cane—“we are just monsters, entertainment for a song, a snake without poison, a boar without fangs. We exist for them for only one and a half hours, as long as our show lasts.” Bernardius again pointed his cane to the walls of the tent. “Our roots are not here, but there.” Lazarus tapped on the arena floor with his cane. “There is something human in us, Greg. But what sets us apart from the people is not skin color or habits. It’s our blood, which in this world has always been considered a curse. We do not belong to this world, my boy.”

“Funny, Mr. Bernardius. But unlike the others in this circus, I can use the power that I have been given to …”

“To what? Help people by violating the Pactum?”

“Yes, even if it were so!” Greg roared. “You have no idea what scum I’ve had to deal with!”

“Greg, I have lived a lot longer than you. I do not think any abominations of people can surprise me.”

“The fewer of these abominations there are …”

“Greg, listen to me. You’re not a hero from some comic book, Superman from another planet who saves humanity. Let the people themselves cope with their sins.”

“But why? Why do I have to stand aside?”

“You’re breaking the Pactum. This is not a good deed.”

Greg wanted to protest, but he restrained himself. His fists were in flames. Lazarus looked at them and sighed. Noticing that his hands were on fire, the magician was embarrassed and forced himself to extinguish the flames.

“What now?” Greg said hoarsely.

“You know what now. You must have already guessed. You’ll leave the circus. You may not admit it, Greg, but I think your actions have led to something that has never happened before. For the first time ever, the path of the circus and the path of one of the Judges have crossed.”

Greg gave Bernardius a look of despair and anger. His fists were again in flames. But pulling himself together, the magician found the strength to nod.

“Well then, I’ll take Martha and we’ll leave.”

“Martha stays here.”

“It’s not for you to decide!”

“You’re right, it’s not. But since you’re Caius’s main object, you have to admit that she will be safer here, not with you.”

The magician stood with his head down. His body shook as if he was ready to explode and burn everything in sight. When Lazarus thought an explosion was inevitable, the fire mage fell to his knees and put his head in his hands. Bernardius approached him and put his hand on Greg’s shoulder.

“I’m still responsible for you. And I can’t send you back to the normal world without offering help. Pietro came up with an idea.”

Martha was waiting for Greg in the camper. She was tense, but smiled encouragingly at him when he entered. She never blamed, never accused, never interrogated. At such moments, she thought only of him, and for a moment the magician was ashamed. When he killed people, had he thought about how it might affect Martha or had he just selfishly given in to his dark desires?

“What did Lazarus say?” she asked.

“In short,” Greg said, sitting down on the couch next to Martha,” he wants me to leave the circus.” The magician could not find the strength to utter these words while looking into Martha’s eyes.

“You won’t go alone,” she said. Greg was surprised. He had never heard so much determination in Martha’s soft voice.

“Listen to me, dear. Mister B. is right. I deserve it for what I have done.”

“Good Lord, Greg.” Martha’s voice had become even harder. There was something in it that made Greg feel weaker than this fragile girl. “I’m not an idiot. I know why there are Judges. I don’t condemn Lazarus’s decision. I’m just telling you that when you go, I’ll go with you.” She took Greg’s head in her hands and looked into his eyes.

Greg felt gratified that she would say so, but he could not let her go with him. No matter how determined Martha was, he could not let her.

“You know about the Judges, honey. And you know that they pass only one sentence for demionis considered guilty. And you know that I will run until I find myself as far away from the circus as possible. And then … then everything will be easy. One of us will find the other. And when that happens, when I meet Caius, I don’t want you to be near. It would be easier …” Greg paused, choosing his words. “It will be easier to deal with him, if I know that you’re not around. If I know that you are protected by Lazarus. In the end, Mr. B is immortal, he can protect you forever.” Greg tried to smile. “The Judge needs only me. Not you and not the others. When it’s over, I’ll be back. Until then, you’ll be here. I love you, Martha. But if I have to force you to stay in the circus, I’ll do it.”

Greg stopped. She still looked him in the eye. In her eyes, Greg saw rage, humility, and despair fighting. Finally she turned away. The magician thought the silence lasted an eternity.

“I know I should’ve told you everything a long time ago, but I was afraid.”

“Afraid I wouldn’t understand?” Martha again looked at Greg. Under her gaze, he felt confused.

“Yes. And afraid you’d leave me.”

“Greg, I’m not immortal, and I can’t control fire. But I see people. I see what’s inside. I know that you have not harmed the innocent.”

It felt to Greg as if an electric charge had gone down his spine. He was thrown into a fever, feeling as if he had been creeping through a dark alley and was suddenly struck blind by the light of a powerful lantern.

“You … you know?”

“Of course I know. Well, I figured it out. And when the Judge showed up, I realized that the darkness I saw in you and your night disappearances are somehow connected.”

“Why didn’t you do anything?”

“What was I supposed to do? Share this? With whom? The police? Lazarus, to let him exile you even faster? You?”

“Me,” Greg whispered, his voice weak and uncertain.

“And what would it change? Could you abandon it?”

“For you, yes.”

“Greg, don’t lie to yourself,” Marta said, speaking to him like a trainer trying to reason with a puppy. “This darkness is too deep inside you. You can’t get rid of it by snapping your fingers. It can dissipate only with time. And with my help. I thought I could save you from it. I thought you would start to appreciate us more than it. And I almost made it, but …”

“But now Caius comes for me,” Greg finished for Martha.

“Yes, now he comes for you.”

Greg was ashamed that he had failed Martha, that he had canceled all her efforts, and he regretted it deeply. Until he had returned to the trailer, he was ready to blame his upcoming exile on anyone—Lazarus, Zaches, bad luck—but now he was resigned to the fact that he himself had ruined everything.

“Forgive me, Martha. I’m so sorry.”

“I know, Greg, I know.”

Martha hugged and kissed the magician. And that kiss immediately ousted from his head the killer’s face, which the ball had showed at that night’s performance—Judge Caius’s face.

 

The Roach & the Giants

Record made on 12/29/1919

Archivist: Luca

It has been more than a month since our second departure from New Orleans, but I’m still peeved when I remember what we experienced in that city. Lazarus did not want to come back here because, I suspect, too many ambiguous memories were associated with the place. But Astaroth insisted, hinting that in New Orleans we would find a couple of new, and rather unusual, demionis for our circus.

We arrived in the city on November 3, 1919, just a week after the infamous Axe Man’s last murder. Mike Pepitone was the twelfth victim over a year and a half, and the city rustled anxiously, discussing suspects and listening to jazz. On March 13, 1919, three days after the attack on an entire family, a mysterious killer had sent a letter to the newspaper, in which he threatened to kill after midnight everyone who would not listen to jazz. That night, the dance clubs and bars of The Big Easy were crammed with people, and the Axe Man did not kill or cripple anybody. Since then the city listened to jazz, discussed jazz, breathed jazz. Moneylenders and newsboys, stevedores and idle playboys, poachers and street performers all believed that music would save them from the killer, whose victims did not have an obvious connection. The Axe Man could come for anyone. For a time, social distinctions blurred. Death and Music were seated at the same table of the rich and the poor.

Mr. Bernardius decided not to perform. We arrived to pick up demionis and move on to some smaller and simpler city. But before that, we had to meet Domenico Scarafaggio, who would lead us to demionis. I was not sure that this gentleman could be trusted. His name was like a nickname, and I could hardly imagine why a man could be nicknamed “the cockroach.” A couple of decades ago, New Orleans was a transit point for thousands of Italians who had fled from Sicily to South America. Many of the refugees hadn’t had the strength or money to continue their journey, and they settled on the banks of the Mississippi. And now New Orleans was as Italian as it had once been French.

I suspected that Domenico Scarafaggio was somehow connected with the Black Hand, a criminal organization of Italian immigrants that held the entire city in thrall. Members of the “Hand” extorted money from wealthy citizens, mostly Sicilian descendants of refugees. Those who refused to pay were killed, kidnapped, or tortured. Of course, there were some in the city who rebuffed the bandits, and on the streets and in the bars there was fighting that battered not only members of the Black Hand but also Italians who had nothing to do with criminals. When the Axe Man began his attacks, people began to whisper that a “good citizen” was seeking revenge against the “wops,” because most of the killer’s victims were Sicilians.

The meeting with Scarafaggio was scheduled in one of the best restaurants in the city. Mr. Bernardius was clearly disturbed by the upcoming little journey to the human world. He was worried that he had forgotten what it was like to be among ordinary people doing ordinary things: walking the streets, talking to waiters, choosing dishes, listening to music, and making conversation. I was glad to be able to eat normal food instead of our camp cooking. At the appointed time, Scarafaggio had not arrived. We had been waiting more than an hour before the waiter handed us a note saying that we needed to go out and walk a couple of blocks, where we would meet someone who would drive us to Domenico. We did as we were told and met four men who brusquely put black headscarves over our eyes and literally pushed us into a HAL Touring car and drove off like mad. The car was clearly not designed for six adult men, and it shook and rolled from side to side, thanks largely to our driver’s wild style of driving. A couple of times I was very close to parting with the dinner I had dreamt about for so long.

When the car stopped, we were taken out of it and made to walk along the street. Several times I heard a door open before us, and our guards spoke to someone in English and Italian in hushed voices. Then we started to descend. When the black scarves were taken off, we stood in an illuminated low brick corridor with a forged door at the far end. On the door was a picture of a black hand, casually daubed. I had no doubt that the scarves could have been removed sooner, but our companions obviously wanted to inspire fear in us, to demonstrate their power. In another situation I might be frightened, but after a good meal, such showing off just amused me. As for Mr. Bernardius, his look was unreadable.

Behind the door was a room that was twelve feet by twelve feet. Mr. Domenico Scarafaggio sat behind a large table covered with expensive leather. Frankly, I had imagined it would be like this. He was short, frail, with greasy hair and the eyes of a person prone to hysteria. At his desk, Scarafaggio seemed even smaller and more ridiculous. In the corner of the room stood a table with a small gramophone that was playing “Clarinet Marmalade.” Domenico tried to impress us as a connoisseur of jazz, and instead of greeting us, he told us that, in his opinion, this tune would soon be a real hit.

He stood and walked around the table. The short man sat on the edge of it and began to introduce himself, but not without ostentation. Radiating self-importance, Scarafaggio told us that he was a caporegime of the Matranga family, to which everyone in New Orleans paid, from sailors and whores to businessmen and politicians. Even the Provenzano family had been forced out of town, unable to cope with the pressure of Matranga. His speech was accompanied by vigorous gestures, most of which depicted a pistol shot or a knife stab, as well as some amazing expressions on his weasel face.

Mr. Bernardius listened patiently to the criminal underground history of New Orleans to the accompaniment of the jazz tunes. When the capo realized that his stories did not impress his guests, his expression became so sour that even the guards behind us grunted anxiously. He gave up on us and pressed some pedal under the table, which slowly began to move toward the back wall. Under the floor was a passage illuminated by electric lights. Scarafaggio invited us down with him. After descending a couple of dozen feet, we heard horrifying screams of rage and pain, half human and half animal. I had heard about the brutality and ruthlessness of the Black Hand. The Sicilians cut off snitches’ tongues, hacked off the hands of those who left to join another gang, and did not hesitate to slay entire families. It seemed to me that the press was exaggerating these stories, trying to raise circulation, but those screams gave me the creeps, although I, like any archivist, had heard and seen the most gruesome things.

The tortuous underground corridor ended in a huge hemispherical room. In its center, on huge X-shaped crucifixes, two giant naked bodies were tied. One’s skin was gray, and the other’s green. Ogres. The captives were as tall as Mr. Bernardius, but much broader in the shoulders. Their skin, by the standards of ogres, was still fresh, not covered with hard growths and warts. An ogre’s skin is like tree rings or the wrinkles on a woman’s neck, a way to determine the age of the creatures. These, apparently, were still quite young. Creatures of that kind like swamps and privacy, and I could not remember the last time anyone in Louisiana had met an ogre. Both creatures were covered with wounds and dark red blood, almost black, and thick. A few men with bats and chains were circling the ogres, laughing. The men egged each other on, discussing which of them would be lucky enough to be the first to kill one of the creatures. The thugs taunted the ogres, who, immobilized, could only growl in response.

Mr. Bernardius told Scarafaggio that with every blow, the price he would pay for the ogres would drop a thousand dollars. Clearly not used to people talking to him that way, the shorty’s eyes flashed hatred. Domenico glared at Lazarus, pouring out threats. The ringmaster just reminded “the roach” about Mr. Star. I do not know what Scarafaggio knew about Astaroth, but on hearing the earthly name of the demon, the capo of the Matranga family stepped back and ordered his men to leave. I asked him to bring food for the ogres and to add some sleeping pills, which I had brought with me, to it. The feeding process was unusual. We had to fasten pieces of meat stuffed with sleeping pills to the end of a long pole. The guards who had escorted us from the restaurant put the poles close to the ogres’ muzzles, and the monsters eagerly tore off chunks of flesh and devoured them. The sight of the monsters eating apparently frightened Scarafaggio’s people. When the ogres fell asleep, the Sicilians warily unfastened them from the crucifixes.

The capo had to call several henchmen to remove the ogres from the wooden crosses and transfer them to large wooden boxes, iron-bound, in which we would move the monsters from the city. While his people worked, Domenico Scarafaggio told us how the ogres came to him. A few years earlier, the Matranga people had found the ogres in the marshes near the town while trying to get rid of the body of some unlucky debtor. The Black Hand thugs did not kill the sleeping monsters but brought them to the boss as a gift. The head of the family, Charles Matranga, was delighted. The ogres became something like favorite dogs. He created a new diversion, which he called “hunting with hounds.” Debtors, competitors, or simply people who dared to talk back to the boss of the family were taken to the swamp, where Charles unleashed his “doggies.” Sometimes the boss used the ogres to impress and intimidate people with whom he was negotiating. For a more striking effect, he dressed up the ogres in expensive black suits and bowler hats.

The details of how Matranga had been treating these poor creatures horrified me. All those qualities that are attributed to ogres in fairy tales—bloodlust, aggressiveness, ruthlessness—are true. But these creatures are conscious. Maybe they aren’t as smart as humans, but with proper care and upbringing, they can be true and strong companions. Charles Matranga kept them like dogs, cultivating in them only the most disgusting features. Not surprisingly, over time, the ogres were out of control. And so the Axe Man appeared in New Orleans.

The big city frightened and excited the ogres. They grew up, became stronger, and their behavior became increasingly irrational. In fits of aggression, they began to attack people. That explained the Axe Man’s lack of a system. The Axe Man, it seemed, never chose his victims in advance and sometimes did not follow through, leaving the unconscious victim lying in his own blood. Most of the survivors were so shocked by the attacks that they refused to believe they had been assaulted by something unhuman, blaming each other or the dead. But there were those who confessed they had seen an incredibly huge man, and sometimes two, dressed in black suits and bowler hats. The ogres’ behavior created a lot of problems for Matranga, but they had once served Charles well. When his consigliere was due to come to the city, the boss heard rumors that the lawmen and the Provenzano family were going to intercept him. That’s when Matranga’s people wrote the cops a letter written on behalf of the Axe Man. Instantly, the streets became deserted, the police appointed guards at pubs and reduced the number of patrols to a minimum, and even Joseph Provenzano did not dare come out of his lair. And Matranga’s consigliere quietly and comfortably reached his destination.

But there were too many problems with the ogres, and when they attacked Mike Pepitone, the boss decided to get rid of the brothers. Pepitone was an associate of the Matrangas, not a family member but a man who works for it. And one of the rules of the Sicilians is that there can be no fights in the family.

Charles requested that Scarafaggio take care of the ogres. But Mr. Star came to Domenico and convinced him that there were many ways to get rid of unnecessary things. For example, to sell. Thirty thousand dollars impressed the caporegime, and he agreed.

We came to his lair that night to buy his ogres.

To my surprise, Mr. Bernardius told Scarafaggio he would pay only twenty thousand. The other ten thousand was a fine for the bad condition of the “product.” I understood that it was an attempt to punish Domenico for abusing the ogres, but I was afraid Lazarus’s confidence would lead us into trouble. However, before Scarafaggio could object, Mr. Bernardius asked if it was true that the boss always got a share of any transaction, even if it was made outside the family. And if that were true, then what would happen to those who didn’t share? Mr. Bernardius said that he heard that in Chicago one of the members of the Black Hand had withheld money from the boss. The boss’s men found him and shoved twenty bucks up in his ass. But the poor man did not resist. Dead people do not resist. Scarafaggio was humiliated and angry, but he found the strength to smile, to praise Mr. Bernardius’s awareness, and guide us to the exit.

The next morning we left town. The young ogres slept so soundly on two piles of straw in the van that even road bumps could not wake them.

 

Chapter 16: The Magician & the Hermit

“Show me the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh, don’t ask why.”

The Doors, “Alabama Song”

Greg did not need much time to collect his things. He threw his crystal ball, black candles, some food, and a couple of T-shirts into a backpack and was ready to leave. Mr. Bernardius had asked him not to make long goodbyes, so the magician kissed Martha and hopped into the Galaxie, where the tentmaster was waiting for him in the front passenger seat.

“Well, where are we going?” Greg said as he started the car. Lazarus had never learned to drive, so Greg would be doing the driving. Lazarus didn’t like cars and tolerated them only because they were incomparably more useful than horsed wagons. Of course, his nomadic life forced him to spend much time on the road. Most of the towns where the circus performed had only one road in and out, and the road usually connected the town with the circus’s next destination. Lazarus had little interest in what lay beyond them. He did not like to leave his circus. But now the situation was exceptional.

“We are going to see an old friend,” said Mr. Bernardius.

“Is that so? Didn’t know you had friends,” Greg said with a grin, receiving Lazarus’s cold gaze in response. “I mean, outside of the circus.”

“Just drive. I’ll show you how to get to the place,” said Bernardius.

“No maps? No names? You just say, ‘Turn left, turn right’, like that?”

“Exactly.”

Greg wanted to protest, but he changed his mind, realizing that the tentmaster was not in the mood for long conversations. The magician put the car into gear, and they were off. One road led out of the town, and they went through it heading south. The first half hour, Lazarus was silent, staring intently at the landscape outside the window, as if seeking some guidance. A couple of times he started to say something to Greg but thought better of it, and they kept going straight. Several times when Lazarus asked Greg to branch off, they either ended up in the forest at a dead end, or Mr. Bernardius swore, cursing himself for the mistake before asking Greg to turn around and go back the way they had come. After half an hour, Greg’s patience had run out.

“Maybe you’ll tell me what we’re looking for,” he said irritably.

“Signs.”

“There are road signs everywhere!” Greg almost yelled.

“Not just road signs. Special signs to show us the way to my friend.”

“Maybe you could just recall where he lives and tell me,” Greg said to Lazarus as to a grandfather who had difficulty with memory.

“I do not know the address,” Lazarus replied as if it were obvious.

Greg gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles went white. “You’re telling me you don’t know the address of your friend?”

“We have not seen one another in a long time.”

“How long?”

“About thirty years or more,” replied Bernardius.

Greg thought he sounded sad, a rare emotion for Lazarus, so the magician decided to remain silent and concentrate on the road.

Lazarus was grateful for the silence and continued to keep watch from the car window. They had not spotted any signs, and that frightened him. He reproached himself for his carelessness. Why had he hoped to find signs or pointers? Why here? Why not elsewhere in the country? Or in another country? How could he promise to help Greg without the absolute certainty that he could do so?

They had driven for more than three hours when Lazarus finally noticed a sign. It was a tree, different from the others. The other trees grew straight and tall, but one was shorter, and its trunk was bent in the middle, as if it had changed its mind about rising up toward the sun and decided to grow down toward its roots. Lazarus asked Greg to turn left and go slowly, and ten minutes later he found another sign. Among the rocks on the shoulder of the road, one rock caught his attention. Greg stopped the car, and Lazarus went to check the stone. It was as gray as the other stones, but had a different shape. Lazarus examined it and noticed a strange deepening on its surface. He scraped off dried mud with his finger, and knew what it was—a large stone with the letter R carved on it. It was a gravestone.

He saw more signs. The skeleton of a mole, six flowers growing together in the rocky soil, an abandoned but not destroyed anthill, an old piece of charred cloth, a puddle with an artificial green eye in the bottom of it.

These signs could not be mere coincidence, and Lazarus was sure they were heading the right way. His friend had left traces, as they had agreed more than thirty years ago. Noticing that Mr. Bernardius had become more cheerful, fidgeting in his seat because of some excitement, Greg decided it was time to ask the big question.

“I want to know how the Judge found me,” Greg said. Lazarus seemed to be deep in thought, and the magician’s words fell on deaf ears. But a moment later, the expression of joy on Lazarus’s face disappeared.

“I already told you—apparently Zinno told Caius about you,” replied Mr. Bernardius.

“How could that damn little bastard do that? How could he find a Judge?”

“I don’t know.”

“We need to find out.”

“It’s late. After the Judge’s visit, Zinno escaped. I checked his camper—he was not there at night or in the morning.”

“Mr. Bernardius, I hope you understand that this runt could never find a Judge himself. If someone helped him, then perhaps other lives are at stake, not just mine. Maybe even Martha’s.”

“I’ve been thinking about this, Greg. I’ll deal with it, I promise.”

They rode again in silence, interrupted only by Mr. Bernardius telling Greg where to turn.

The magician finally broke the silence. “I do not blame you, Mr. Bernardius. If you hadn’t sent Zaches after me, everything would be as before. But I do not blame you.”

Lazarus was about to say something when they heard sounds coming from beyond a turn in the forest road, loud music mixed with laughter and roaring engines.

“Seems we’ve made it,” Lazarus said.

When they got out of the car, they saw a hut in the forest, a one-storey wooden building with a porch. It was old but sturdy, and could have used a facelift. It was a bar in the woods. Choppers were parked in front, and their owners, hairy and bearded and dressed in leather pants and jackets, were talking and laughing and spilling beer from bottles. The old Galaxie did not go unnoticed. The people standing in front of the shack quieted down, and their looks made it clear that strangers were not welcome.

“Great! Your friend is hanging out with bikers,” Greg said. “How long is it that you haven’t seen him? More than thirty years? His life is in full swing!” Greg gave Lazarus a thumbs-up, but his smile clearly lacked sincerity. “Well, time to meet.”

When they got out of the car, some of the hostile looks changed to expressions of puzzlement. Greg, who wore a leather jacket and jeans tucked into heavy unlaced boots, didn’t draw much attention. But in his 19th-century suit and with his top hat in his hand, Lazarus riveted the onlookers. Lazarus and Greg exchanged glances and proceeded to the entrance of the bar. They reached the porch. Lazarus was calm, and Greg was looking around at the locals with interest. They were about to enter the bar when their way was blocked by a couple of two-meter-tall huskies.

“Where are you going?” one of them growled under his mustache. Greg thought the local bikers looked exactly like the ones in the B-movies from his childhood, like Angel Unchained. Leather, jeans, chains, mustaches and beards, weird hats. Someone had a helmet with a spike on top. Someone else had a top hat that looked exactly like Bernardius’s.

“To see an old friend,” Lazarus said calmly. Despite the size of the questioner, the circus manager still looked down at him.

“You have no friends here,” said the second biker blocking the entrance. He was shorter than the first, but much more massive. His greasy shirt, once black and now gray, barely covered his belly.

“You have exactly one minute to get in that rattletrap of yours and knock the hell out of here,” the first biker said. “A minute later, you’ll still disappear from here, but not in one piece. The clock is ticking, whitebeard.”

“Gentlemen, it would be easier for everyone if you let us enter and not make empty threats,” Lazarus said, his tone still placid. He was not pleading nor trying to sooth. He was cool and calm. The growling biker frowned, and his massive companion wrapped a chain around his fist. The others behind Lazarus and Greg put their bottles down and reached for tire irons, brass knuckles, and knives. A few just clenched their fists.

“Mr. Bernardius, you know, it seems to me that this trick is not gonna work here,” said Greg. “You will always be against it, but honestly, I’m exhausted driving through the boondocks without a map, and I just don’t have the energy to negotiate with people who understand only brute force. Hide somewhere.”

Greg palm’s blazed up and turned into tongues of flame. One grazed the snarling biker’s beard, and the man screamed, a fire under his nose. The other whirled his chain and aimed a blow at Greg’s head. The iron instantly became white-hot, causing the biker to jerk back his hand and leave the chain with Greg. He turned to the crowd behind him, threw the chain at it, aiming nowhere in particular, and was pleased to hear a muffled crackle. The magician had no need of chains. He had something better. The flames from Greg’s hands grew longer, taking the form of whips as thick as a grown man’s forearm. They writhed through the air, aiming for victims, and blazed heat. Wherever the fire whips touched the wooden porch, the boards turned black.

Greg waved the flames and whipped the crowd. Most backed away, but the fire caught some beards and hit some chests. The air filled with the smell of singed hair. Bikers in leather jackets were not harmed by the fire strikes, but others were desperately flapping their arms against their chests to extinguish the flames.

Greg continued to randomly strike with his whips. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, just scare them. He suppressed the idea to hit the motorcycles; explosions in such a small space might do more damage than he desired, even kill someone. Greg’s flame whips scalped the earth, not allowing the bikers to the porch. A few produced guns, but Greg struck their hands with the flame, and the guns were quickly dropped. Knives were heated to red-hot, and bats instantly flashed like matchsticks. In short order, almost all of the attackers had been disarmed.

While Greg worked his magic in front of the bar, the fat man who had blocked the way to the bar came around and tried to attack the fire mage from behind. He was about to strike the magician with his fist when Mr. Bernardius hit him with his cane, and the man went down, unconscious. By now, people in the bar who had heard the commotion in the yard were rushing out. Lazarus stopped the first two with precise cane blows, one in the nose, the other in the stomach. Seeing the failure of their comrades, more patrons hurried from the bar to help. Greg grabbed Lazarus by the arm and dragged him from the porch.

Mr. Bernardius and the magician stood back to back, surrounded by angry bikers who were blocking both the path to the car and the entrance to the bar. The ringmaster held his cane like a club, ready to repel any and all, and Greg tirelessly snapped his fiery whips, keeping the attackers at bay. The fire mage felt tired. Sooner or later, his strikes would begin to peter out, emboldening the bikers, who would have a chance to attack. If that happened, Greg would have to stop thinking about how to avoid killing them.

“Wrap it up, boys,” came a commanding shout. The bikers stopped dead and ceased their attacks. “Let these two assholes inside the bar.”

The voice belonged to a young black woman who stood on the porch, hands on hips. Her posture and her voice revealed that she was in charge, and the bikers’ reaction to her order only confirmed this. She looked like an angry panther. She wore tight-fitting black leather pants, emphasizing her strong thighs, and a black shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Her hair was short, and her face was graceful but angry. Only her playful eyes suggested that her expression was more histrionic than genuine.

“What the hell do you think you are doing, Mr. Bernardius!” shouted the young woman. “I’ve saved your ass. But if you do not compensate me for all this damage, I’ll turn you over to the tender mercies of my boys before you know it.” She paused, and then laughed and ran down the steps to embrace Lazarus.

 

Chapter 17: The Moon & the Devil

“Take off your skin and dance around your bones.”

Tom Waits, “The Black Rider”

Everything had gone wrong. And Zaches ran, leaving immediately after the show. Luckily for him, Lazarus, Martha, Greg, and Pietro had gathered in the big top, and Blanche and Black were on the lookout for anyone trying to enter the circus, not for someone trying to escape from it. Zaches’s preparations were quick; he just grabbed his knife and slipped out of the trailer, trying hard not to step on the mirror shards, lest the noise give him away. Fortunately, his camper was always the farthest away, not because Zaches had ever thought about escaping but because he enjoyed being away from the others.

Blanche and Black were on duty but killing time, playing cards, swearing, and calling each other’s bluff. Zaches waited for them to reach the peak of their dispute. When they were railing at each other determinedly, he ran. Only when he had traveled some distance from the circus, did he realize that his anxiety was unnecessary. He recalled that he had recently disappeared from the circus to summon Astaroth, and no one had noticed his absence. But now, he reminded himself, he was running not for one night, but forever, and fear again seized him. He didn’t know where to go, but he knew that it had to be away from the town. Away from Lazarus and his bloody circus, and away from these terrible Judges.

The Judge. What had he expected passing an invitation to a stranger? He had foolishly expected that this stranger would be his savior, clear out the circus, catch Greg, and leave Zinno alone with Martha to live together happily ever after as in a fairy tale. Had Zinnober known he would have to deal with the Judge, he would have abandoned his plan. Zaches had violated the Pactum, and not once, although he had only learned of the existence of the Pactum from Lazarus. It was foolish to hope that the Judge would spare him just because he had ratted out Greg.

Zaches had imagined things differently. He had thought that whoever received the invitation would make Greg vanish from the circus quickly and inexplicably. Instead, one man in a leather coat appeared, talked with Lazarus, and disappeared. Old Bernardius wasn’t a fool, and even if Pietro said nothing, he would be able to understand why the Judge had unexpectedly attended the performance. Zinno felt trapped. One the one hand, he had betrayed Mr. Bernardius, and on the other, he had betrayed the Judge. The only solution was to escape, even if it meant parting with Martha.

He ran through the woods all the way to the highway that led out of town. His short crooked legs carried him awkwardly, and he often tripped on tree roots and fell. His grazed hands were bloody and his pants were shredded. Every fall wasted time, time he didn’t have. He knew Lazarus would chase him. Who would be his pursuers? The ogres? Greg? If Blanche and Black found him, he would suffer only a couple of head knocks, but who knew what would happen if Greg got to him first? They would be alone in the woods, without witnesses, and Zaches had no illusions about how long he would last with a knife against Greg’s magic. After his fifth fall, Zaches had no doubt that escape was a stupid idea. He needed to stop and turn back before his disappearance was noticed. He could concoct a story for Mr. Bernardius, talk himself out of trouble. But then Zinno imagined Greg and began running again.

The forest was thick, and at every step, branches lashed Zaches in the face. Tree roots crawled between his feet like evil snakes in search of prey. He was tired of running and falling, tired of the pain in his hands and knees. It seemed sometimes as if his lungs were filled with sharp icicles trying to break out. Sometimes his lungs burned, and sometimes they seemed to be compressed to the size of a walnut. And then it started to rain. Suddenly the sky poured a wall of water, as if someone had turned the switch to maximum. It rained so hard that for a moment Zaches thought he had died and woken up in another place. But the pain throughout his body reminded him that he was still alive. Realizing that the rain was not the end of his torment, but only a new test, Zaches wept. The tears meant he would be running blind, but he was unable to hold back his sobs. He stopped and sat down under a tree, right on the muddy ground. His sparse hair was soaked, water was dripping from it into his eyes, mixing with his tears, and it almost stopped Zaches from seeing anything in front of him. The thought of returning to the circus visited him again, but he told himself that he had gone too far and there was no way back for him.

Through the rain, Zaches heard sounds. For a moment it seemed to him that it was the sounds of a chase through the forest, breaking branches and small trees in its path. Perhaps it was Blanche and Black coming for him. Then Zinno realized that it was the sound of a car on wet asphalt, splashing water. He must be very close to the highway. Gathering his strength, Zaches ran, guided by the sounds. After a couple of minutes, he climbed up to the side of the road. It was narrow and covered with cracks. In the distance, headlights loomed, and Zinno waved his hand, hoping a random driver would pick him up. But no one paid any attention to him. A car passed without slowing down. Another slowed, as if it might stop, but then accelerated and sped away. Zaches walked along the side of the road, waving his hand, but few drivers even slowed, and no one stopped. It was like a mockery, and Zaches cried again. It was dark and scary, he was soaked to the bone, and his teeth were chattering from the cold. Zinnober was afraid he might die right there on the roadside.

A black car slowed down and stopped not far from him. When the passenger door opened, Zinnober ran to the car and got inside.

“Thank you,” the dwarf said in a weak voice to the driver.

“Don’t mention it. It’s a sin not to help a stranger in such weather,” the driver said cheerfully. He was a blond of indeterminate age, wearing a black jacket over a plain white T-shirt.

“You hungry?” the blond asked, and he handed Zaches an apple covered with traces of rot. Noticing the embarrassment of his passenger, the man added: “I have only these.” Zaches refused. It was warm inside the car, and Zinnober felt safe. The seat was comfortable; he gradually warmed, and thoughts of cold rain, darkness, and Lazarus Bernardius’s damned circus faded away.

“Where are you going?” the driver asked.

“I don’t know. Drop me wherever you’re going,” said Zinnober.

The blond laughed. “Well, then, we drive the same way.” He drove with one hand holding the rotten apple that Zaches had refused, biting off pieces and chewing them with obvious pleasure. The dwarf thought he saw a worm in the apple. He frowned and turned away and stared out the window, but it was too dark to see anything.

“Who would have thought you were such a sissy?” the driver said.

“What?”

“I say I didn’t think you were such a sissy, Zaches, also known as Zinnober,” the driver said, and he turned to the dwarf. His face was strange. As Zinnober stared at him, it seemed that his face was curved into a crescent, one eye was larger than the other, and his mouth was stretched in an incredibly broad smile.

Zaches was scared to death. “Who are you?”

The driver laughed. “I did not think you would recognize me. Not in this guise. We met recently. In a cornfield.”

“Astaroth?”

“At least you don’t have memory problems.”

“Why, why do you look like that?”

“You’d rather see a donkey driving a car? My look is disgusting and horrible only when a person summons me himself. It’s to make the summoner shit his pants in fear, and force him to stop learning demonology henceforth. So God decided. But when I am in this world ad libitum, I can choose my appearance.”

“How did you find me? I did not summon you!”

“I see Pietro neglected to tell you one detail about the summoning. One summoning is enough to let a demon, let us say, remember you. After the call, you are connected. A demon’s summoner becomes a beacon that stands out among all the other people. Henceforth, the demon will always know the location of the person who summoned him. Well, until the summoner dies.” The driver laughed. “After that, they are likely to meet in Hell. But enough digression into demonology. I have come for you.”

“For me? I have to give my soul because I summoned you once?”

“What an idiot! Your soul is worth pennies. I want you.”

“Why? What did I do?”

“For some reason, I temporarily lost all my servants and assistants. So I need to recruit new ones. And you’ll be the first of them, Zaches, also known as Zinnober.”

“And what are the reasons?”

“All in good time, dwarf.”

“And if I do not want to?”

“Oh, you’re stubborn! But whether you want to or not does not matter to me. I’m not going to argue with you.” The passenger door suddenly opened, and Astaroth pushed Zaches outward. The dwarf screamed, closed his eyes, and cringed, expecting to hit the asphalt, but instead he felt the wind shaking him like a reed. The car was not riding on the road; it was rushing at an insane speed through the night air. Zaches could see the lights of houses and a few cars in the darkness below. Astaroth was holding his pant leg. Zaches hung upside down and watched as people’s lifetimes flowed peacefully a few hundred meters below. These people did not care about what was happening at this moment over their heads. A cold wind whipped his cheeks and climbed into his ears. Its whistling sound was deafening, and raindrops hurt his face and hands. Astaroth yanked his hand, and Zaches cried out, afraid the demon would open his hand and drop him.

“Okay, okay! I agree! I’ll be your servant,” Zaches screamed into the howling wind. Astaroth yanked his hand again, listened to the frightened Zinnober yelp, and pulled him back into the car. Awkwardly sitting on the seat, Zinno tried to fight off his fear. He would not be able to cope with an immortal demon who always knew where he was. He was a toy in Astaroth’s hands. But for some reason he needed this toy.

“How should I serve you, master?” asked Zinno.

“You see, this circus of Lazarus Bernardius … my brother is too worried about its welfare. Believe me, he’s not sentimental, even though people like to think otherwise, so I think something is wrong there. Perhaps somewhere in this circus is my ticket home. And I’m going to use you, my little Zaches, to find it without drawing unwanted attention. And if you serve me well, you will get what you want. For example, you won’t see this ugly face in the mirror, and even demionis won’t see your real face.”

“Is it true, master?” Zinnober asked hopefully.

Astaroth laughed. “Of course, little Zaches! But be careful, because I sometimes give false promises.”

 

Chapter 18: The Magician & the Hermit

“Fan the flames with a little lie.”

Queens of the Stone Age, “Burn The Witch”

Lazarus, Greg, and their savior sat at an old table in the back of the bar. The room was quite common. Greg had expected a biker bar run by an immortal girlfriend of the cirque de freaks ringmaster would be … unusual. Instead, it was ordinary, littered with the detritus of food and alcohol, piled up chairs, and old tables.

The woman smiled at Bernardius. “Glad to see you’re still alive, Lazarus. So many years have passed.”

“Thirty or so,” said Bernardius, his eyes on the floor.

“Thirty-eight, to be precise.” The woman continued to smile, but her smile became colder.

“Excuse me,” interjected Greg. “You two met when you were …”

“We met when I was twenty-four years old, my boy,” the owner of the bar said, interrupting the magician. Greg couldn’t understand how it was possible to look around thirty when you’re sixty-two. In his mind, to look half one’s age was affordable only to Hollywood stars. “I have my secrets,” she said, and winked playfully at Greg when she noticed his look of confusion.

“Ino is a witch,” said Mr. Bernardius, as if explaining the obvious.

“Oh, I’m surprised you still remember my name, Lazarus. Let me introduce myself, handsome. I’m Ino, part-time witch, part-time bar owner.”

Greg was surprised. “A witch? So you’re a demionis, too.”

“Lazarus, I see you haven’t expatiated upon me.” Her tone was playfully indignant, but for a moment Greg thought the tentmaster and the witch were a little tense. “No, baby, I, like every other witch, am not a mongrel. I’m not immortal like Lazarus, and I can’t turn a hand into a flame whip like you. I’m not a wizard or a werewolf, but I can do a thing or two.”

“Stop calling me baby or boy. My name is Greg.”

“Look at you! You have not only fiery arms, but also a fiery temper! I’ll try, but do not forget that I’m old enough to be your mother, baby. Anyway, nice to meet you.” Ino winked again.

Greg decided to abandon the topic of how to address him.

“It is strange that Mr. Bernardius never talked about his friends,” said Greg.

“Well, maybe it’s because we were not just friends,” Ino replied to Greg, but her eyes were fixed on Lazarus. The tentmaster was sitting on an old stool, his shoulders down, and he seemed to be trying to squeeze into a ball like a hedgehog. Anyone looking at him now would not imagine how tall he really was.

“You and Mr. Bernardius?”

“So what? I was a young witch, and he was an immortal who communicated with demons. We were made for each other.” With every word from her mouth, it seemed as if a bullet hit Lazarus. Ino’s playful mood was gone.

“Enough!” Mr. Bernardius said. “Now is not the time to remember it, Ino.”

“Not the time? When will it be, Lazarus? After another thirty-eight years? Or when I die and you are continuing to enjoy your eternal life?” Ino’s voice rang with fury.

“Look, it’s none of my business. I can wait outside until you discuss what’s happened to you.” Greg got up from his chair, but Ino was unstoppable.

“Love happened, my boy. I wanted to be with him, with this asshole, traveling with the circus. But he refused. Then we agreed that we would see each other, at least occasionally. I would find him by the circus posters, and he would find me by secret signs that I would leave as I moved from place to place.”

“I’m grateful you left them, Ino,” Lazarus said. “We were able to find you.”

“Only because you suddenly needed something from me! Thirty-eight years! Have you never wanted to see me?”

“Every fucking day, Ino! Every fucking day!” Lazarus was out of his chair like a straightened spring. Bernardius almost cried, and even Greg leaned back a little, so striking was the change in the always calm and reasonable tentmaster. “But I told you that the circus is not a place for humans. And I cannot be with you.”

“But why, Lazarus?”

“Because I’m demionis. If we were together, if we ever had children, I do not know what they would have been, Ino.” Mr. Bernardius’s shoulders drooped again and his eyes sparkled. Greg realized that he had never thought about the children he and Martha might have had. A horrible thought that they might not have a human form made him shudder. Ino turned away for a moment, and there was silence in the room. Music, laughter, and girls’ giggles came from the bar. When Ino turned to Lazarus and Greg, her expression was almost the same as when they had seen her the first time, cheerful and playful.

“So, what brings you here, boys?” Ino asked.

“We need your help,” Lazarus said. “Recently, a Judge came to the circus. He said nothing specific, but it looks like he was particularly interested in Greg.”

“Greg? So this cutie violated the Pactum? And just how serious was your violation, Greg?” The magician exchanged glances with Lazarus.

“Serious,” said Greg.

Lazarus sighed and Ino’s playfulness vanished again.

“I need you to hide him,” said Bernardius.

“Well, stand up, guys, and then slide the table,” the witch said. Lazarus and Greg did as she asked. In the floor was a small hatch. Ino opened it with a jerk and started down the dark stairs, gesturing for her guests to follow.

The descent was longer than Greg expected. The underground tunnel led down almost twenty feet. Its round arches, reinforced with wooden beams, were dimly lit with lamps. The trio came to a square room, which had a ceiling supported by columns made of sanded tree trunks. Lamps hung from the ceiling, making the room brighter than the tunnel, though the illumination was still poor.

On the walls of the room hung bunches of flowers and roots, the bones of some small animals, and whole skeletons. At the opposite wall from the entrance stood a rack on whose shelves rested jars with colored liquids and ointments, bags of powder, and bundles of grass. On the ground near the entrance were piles of books, old and new, but with no names or illustrations on their covers. In one corner stood a huge barrel containing a thick, dark liquid. In another corner, a fire pit had been dug into the ground. In the center of the room were two broad tables with witches’ tools. There were sickles of different shapes, made of metal or bone, knives and needles, some as long as a man’s forearm, bottles and skeins of yarn and leather strips, mortar and scales, and some notes and drawings.

“Welcome to my workroom,” Ino said proudly.

“Nice,” Lazarus said.

“And what do you do here? I don’t see any ovens for roasting children,” Greg said, aiming for a joke.

“I cook potions, prepare ointments,” Ino said.

“For whom?”

“For the guys from the bar.”

“The bikers? Why would they need it?”

“Someone has to stay awake at night on the road and feel fresh. Someone needs a cure for a hangover. Someone gets old and becomes weak in the eyes or the legs, so it’s more difficult to ride a bike. I provide them with whatever solves their problems,” Ino said.

Greg shrugged. “But why them?”

“They do not ask questions. They do not care how or what I’m doing. If it works—and it does—that’s all they want to know.”

“And can you make something, well, stronger than herbal potions for sore muscles?”

“Of course. I can make it so that your penis will be no larger than an earthworm.” Ino held a finger right under Greg’s nose. “Relax, sweetie. With you I will not do this. But I could. It’s an excellent tool to hasten payment from guys who like to drink on credit and forget to pay their bills on time.” Ino laughed. “But if the customer pays, I can make an ointment that will allow him to fuck a dozen girls in a row.”

“So, the bar is just a cover?” Lazarus asked.

“Not really. Mostly a spot to gather my clientele. Well, it also brings profit.”

“How long you have you been doing this?” Lazarus asked, with a hint of condemnation.

“This is my ninth bar.”

“Ninth?”

“I have to move constantly. I tried to work at home, opening bars by the road or in the city. But not everyone likes a strange girl who sells strange substances to strange guys. When too much attention comes, you have to make a change,” Ino explained with a shrug.

“Interesting. But I don’t understand how all these things of yours can help me,” Greg said.

“Ino can hide you from the Judges,” said Lazarus.

“Hide? I’ll drink one of her potions and become an invisible man?”

“No, Greg, all Judges are able to feel demionis,” explained Lazarus. “But some, the most gifted, can be tuned to specific mongrels, like a receiver tuned to a radio station. Ino can make a potion that jams the station’s signal. Your signal. So, in a sense, yes, you will be invisible to Judges.”

“It sounds fantastic,” Greg said. “If Ino had prepared such potions for our circus, no Judge could have found us. Isn’t that right, Mr. Bernardius?”

“Ino is not demionis,” Lazarus reminded him.

“Yeah, okay. But wouldn’t the Devil stand up for the woman who helps his children?”

“My boy, witches do not serve the Devil, despite what you might have heard about them,” Ino explained calmly. “Nor do we serve God. There is nothing magical about our knowledge. Well, maybe a little bit. And so we are not loved the same in Heaven and in Hell. Even if a witch carries on with the Devil, his protection is not guaranteed.”

Greg laughed. “Oh, well, of course. So, I’ll get an exclusive potion. What do you need from me?”

“Undress,” said Ino.

“Excuse me?”

“Take off your clothes, baby. We will wash you,” Ino said, waving toward the corner that had the barrels filled with a strange dark liquid. “And you, too,” she said, nodding to Lazarus.

Bernardius looked confused. “Me? Why?”

“I want you to help me deliver the boy to a secluded place, and I don’t want a Judge to be able to track you.”

Lazarus nodded reluctantly, and both men, embarrassed, began to undress. Greg felt guilty, realizing that a woman besides Martha would see him naked. Lazarus obviously did not want his feelings for Ino to betray him. After undressing, both flopped into barrels. They stooped down so that the liquid reached Greg’s neck and Lazarus’s shoulders. With a cheeky smile, the witch watched the men’s faces redden with embarrassment. She decided to wash Greg first. She took a rough washcloth and went to the magician’s barrel.

Greg turned pale. “Excuse me, ma’am, I mean Ino, are you going to wash me yourself?”

“And you expected what?”

“I don’t know, it’s just a bit …”

“Embarrassing? Don’t worry. Imagine you are at the doctor’s office. That’s my job, and I am a professional.” Ino plunged a washcloth into the liquid. To the magician’s surprise , the witch did not start at his shoulders or back, but immediately went south, which made Greg nearly jump out of the tight barrel. But the witch’s gaze was not directed at him. She was looking at Lazarus, on whose face mingled anger, confusion, frustration, and a bit of envy. To defuse the situation, Greg decided to speak with Ino.

“And what is the liquid in the barrel?”

“A decoction of various herbs. I need to scrub you good so your skin particles can mix with it. Then I’ll make a potion that will hide you from the Judges.”

Greg looked horrified. “We’ll have to drink it?”

“I will add some berries to make it taste sweet,” Ino said. “And something more.”

“What?”

“You know, some of what they say about witches is true. All of these powders from the wings of bats and soil from fresh graves, ceremonies at midnight at the crossroads—we use something of this in our work.”

“What will go into the potion?” Greg asked.

“Your blood, boys.” Ino pressed a rough washcloth hard against Greg’s shoulder.

“That hurts!”

“Some magnetic dust, my blood, extract of owl eye, and a couple of my secret ingredients,” Ino said, ignoring Greg’s cry.

“Secret ingredients?”

“I can’t reveal them to you! Each witch has her own; it’s like the unique style of an artist. And though we share knowledge with each other, a potion that can hide a mongrel from Judges is rare. No more than two or three of us, as far as I know, can do it. So do not expect me to reveal their secrets to you.” Ino continued to scour Greg’s back. When the magician had come to terms with the fact that the torture in the cramped barrel had made his feet and arms numb and would last forever, Ino stopped.

“You can go,” she said and then went to Lazarus’s barrel.

“Where to?”

“Upstairs. Don’t worry, the guys will not touch you. You can pour yourself something. I’m buying. You’re a big boy, you can go up to the bar unsupervised.”

“And you?”

“I still have to wash Lazarus, have you forgotten?”

“Ah, yes. Right.” Greg began hurriedly dressing, turning his back to Ino. To his surprise, Mr. Bernardius did not protest when the witch asked Greg to leave. After pulling his dirty clothes onto his wet body, Greg walked to the stairs. He glanced back once and saw that Ino was silently washing a beetle-browed Lazarus. Seeing the ringmaster without his hat and with his beard half in the water was pretty funny, but Ino looked slightly angry. But as soon as Greg stepped into the tunnel leading up to the back room of the bar, he heard a loud splash and a woman’s giggle.

 

Chapter 19: The Star, the Moon & Justice

“I’ve never seen a night so long

When time goes crawling by.”

Hank Williams, “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry”

After Greg left, Martha’s days and nights were full of loneliness. At first she found things to do, little things she had put off. But when everything was done and redone, Martha was alone in her trailer. The circus was still moving from town to town, but not performing. Tents lay folded, poles remained dismantled and packed. If a curious teenager or a tramp wandered into the camp, Pietro politely explained to them that the circus was closed, and no one could steal a glance at the monsters for free. Martha had always enjoyed participating in the advance team, traveling to towns where she could see how people there lived. She would discuss the towns and the people with Greg, but with no performances, there was no need for posters or persuasion, and Martha, as well as the other mongrels, did not go beyond the circus lot.

Greg and Lazarus had not come back, and there was no one to talk to. Pietro was in charge while Mr. Bernardius was away, but the archivist was always busy with something, and doing two jobs was difficult for him. The invariably good-natured Pietro was still smiling, but his smile had grown tired.

Blanche and Black became even gloomier than usual. The ogres slept during the day, and at night they patrolled the camp with oil lamps, which in their huge hands seemed no bigger than fireflies. Martha knew they were not just scaring away onlookers and vagrants, but were expecting the Judge to spring a surprise. But Caius seemed only to tease them. Sometimes he did not reveal himself, and sometimes he stopped his van about a hundred meters from the camp, leaving it clearly visible. Most inhabitants of the circus were indifferent to the Judge’s tricks, but Pietro and the ogres were exhausted and irritated. In one of his rare conversations with Martha, the archivist even admitted that he feared that if Caius continued to unnerve the brothers, they would fly off the handle and give the Judge an excuse to deliver a verdict. Martha began spending more time in the company of the two ogres to calm them down.

Days became anxious and, because of that, even longer. Martha thought about Greg. She worried about Lazarus and pondered what had prompted Zinno’s betrayal. She remembered how the dwarf had always looked for opportunities to talk to her, coming around when Greg was not there. It always seemed that he was looking to find a friend in her, a person who would not laugh at his ugliness, and she was always affable and genuinely nice to him. But what if he had seen more than a friend in Martha, and so had betrayed Greg? The thought saddened Martha, but she did not feel hatred toward Zinno, only sympathy. She knew that if Zinnober repented and came back, she would forgive him. She knew that the real power was not in Lazarus’s immortality and not in Greg’s fire. The real power was in forgiveness. If you can forgive, then you are stronger than those who hurt you. Recalling Zinno, Martha did not know that the dwarf was much closer than she could have imagined.

Like the Judge, Zaches relentlessly followed the circus. Astaroth sent him to watch and wait for the return of Lazarus and not to reveal his presence. But even without his master’s order, Zaches would not meddle in the circus. The Pactum forbids demionis causing any harm to humans but does not regulate their relationships with each other. Nothing would prevent Blanche or Black from unscrewing the dwarf’s head if they wanted to. Especially now, since Lazarus was not around.

It was difficult to follow the circus without revealing himself, especially if Pietro chose some vacant lot for the encampment without a single tree or hillock. Sometimes Zaches found boys who wanted to have a look at a traveling circus. He would tell them where it was and ask them to tell him everything they saw there. He told them to look carefully to make sure there was no tall old man with a long gray beard and top hat. The most high-spirited boys managed to see some of the monsters, which they excitedly told Zaches about, but most were chased off by two giants in bowler hats, one gray giant, and one green. Sometimes boys told him about seeing a strange car with a creepy man in it near the circus, and that bothered Zaches. The Judge was pushy and unpredictable, and this scared Zinno so much that he sometimes arranged an observation point much farther from the camp than usual. He had no doubt that the Judge felt his presence, but for some reason Caius showed no interest in him.

The Judge didn’t care about Zaches because he was pursuing a much larger prey. Lazarus and the fire magician had disappeared, and no matter how hard Caius tried to use his sense, he couldn’t find them. They were obviously too far away. But Lazarus would come back, the Judge had no doubt. The circus did not perform without its ringmaster, which meant the mongrels were waiting for their leader. The Judge was sure the ringmaster would come back without the mage. And he had no doubt that he would force Lazarus to confess that he had hidden Greg. The Judge did not book hotel rooms; he lived, slept, and ate in his van, spending most of his time watching. Caius liked to get in the hair of the circus inhabitants. What could be better than a persecuted victim whose mind had become clouded from stress? Once it seemed as if the two ogres were ready to break, but at the next night shift they were calm and quiet. Caius was sure the gymnast girl had a hand in this. He did not understand her secret. He checked the books he had in the van and recalled his years of training, but soon resigned himself to the fact that he did not know what kind of mongrel she was. However, the Judge sensed her in a special way, as if she wasn’t like others. Usually he felt a mongrel the same way a bloodhound smells a trail, with his senses, instincts, and intuition. But he felt the girl with … his soul? Such thoughts made him weak, and he drove them away. Sometimes he took a knife in his hands and repented before God for the thought that his soul could belong to some mongrel. Thus, Caius passed his days in surveillance, doubt, and repentance, until Lazarus Bernardius returned to the circus.

To the Judge’s surprise, the old man did not come back alone. He brought a beauty in black, and with one glance at her, Caius remembered that he was not only a servant of God but also a man. To his even greater surprise and relief, the woman was not a mongrel. He tried to listen to his feelings, but they were silent. The Judge had understood that humans were not allowed in the circus except for the fat archivist, and so he was intrigued by the appearance of the stranger. Almost all the inhabitants of the “Lazarus Bernardius’ Circus” were intrigued. Only Pietro turned his nose up at Ino. Like all archivists, he believed witches were uneducated autodidacts, disrespecting equally the ancient divine and diabolical rituals, which they knew only by hearsay. Martha assailed Ino with questions. Where is Greg? How is he? Why didn’t he come back? When would he return? Would she be able to see him? Did he say hello?

Stunned, Ino asked Lazarus to answer all the questions and was going to leave, but Bernardius insisted that she stay, brushing aside Pietro’s timid attempts to express his discontent. Ino stayed, and she and Lazarus gave Martha all the details. The girl listened carefully and said, “Sounds good. For now.”

“For now?” Ino asked.

“A few days ago it seemed to me that I could no longer feel Greg. Now I know that you gave him a potion. I will feel him again when it ceases to act, or if … if something happens.”

“You can feel Greg? Only him or someone else too?” asked Ino.

“Only him. I didn’t know about it before, because he was always here, but when he left, I knew I could always find him. It’s as if he’s a burning match in a dark room.”

“I wonder if he can do the same,” said Lazarus.

“I’m not sure,” Ino said. “He, of course, is a powerful magician. But this girl, she is something special. I tell you, even I can perceive this, though there is no magic in me. Next to her I feel like I have wings.”

With the return of Mr. Bernardius, everyone’s days returned to normal, except Martha’s. The circus started giving performances again, although, to the dismay of the public, without magic tricks. Fortunately for Lazarus, Ino was in no hurry to leave. The witch was very interested in Martha and spent most of her time with the girl. Martha still missed Greg, but now at least she had someone to talk to.

The Judge and Zaches still tailed the circus, watching and waiting. Caius once even went to a show but failed to meet Lazarus. Mr. Bernardius, to his great embarrassment, felt some relief that Greg was no longer in the circus. Ino was close, and the object of the Judge’s interest was away. The presence of Caius, sometimes invisible, sometimes obvious, occasionally clouded Lazarus’s mood, but over his long life the ringmaster had learned how to bear difficulties.

Everything was going well.

Until one night Martha woke up in pain. She felt she was twisted, stretched, pierced, and hammered. Drowned and suffocated. Shot and burned. Stomped and rubbed into powder. She could not identify the source of her pain. It hurt so much that for a moment it seemed as if she had passed the limit of sensibility and could no longer feel anything. It was almost as if she was watching someone else. But then the pain came back. Martha could not scream. Her muscles cramped in a single spasm, and only a faint rattle came out of her throat. She could not move. Her body was so paralyzed that she couldn’t even blink.

And then the pain started to recede, but was not extinguished. Her body relaxed, and Martha could examine herself. There was not a drop of blood, not a single scratch or abrasion. Her skin was still smooth and light, but covered with a cold sweat.

The pain surged again.

And then diminished.

Almost extinguished.

And again surged.

And even more.

And more.

And more.

And then began to fade.

And fade.

Fade …

Pain seized her in jerks, like blood spurting from a wound. Blood. Wound. Something had happened to Greg, Martha realized. Something really bad. She jumped out of bed, opened the door of the trailer, and ran to where the thread of pain led, becoming quiet with each passing minute. Quieter and quieter.

Martha fled, hoping the pain would stay with her until she got to Greg.

 

Chapter 20: The Magician

“She calls me Goliath and I wear the David mask.”

Seven Mary Three, “Cumbersome”

Ino brought Greg and Lazarus to an abandoned building, almost a twin of the one that housed her bar. Greg was trying to watch the road, but he finally ceased this pursuit and quietly fell asleep to the accompaniment of soft chatter between Lazarus and the witch. When he woke up, Ino’s black pickup was parked near the front porch of an old one-story building somewhere in the backwoods.

Greg woke up and glanced around, still half asleep. “Where are we? Did we come back?”

“No, my boy. This is one of my old bars. I left it ten or eleven years ago. Now none of my clients have any memory of it. Only I know how to find it.”

“What about me and Mr. Bernardius?”

“You’ve been sleeping the whole way, and Lazarus was not watching the road.” Ino winked playfully at the ringmaster. He had stopped blushing at the witch’s every word, and he gave her a faint smile under his mustache. “Besides, I know how to trip up my fellow travelers.”

Greg gazed at the house. It was old, but looked quite strong and surprisingly tidy, as if a crew of janitor bikers had cleaned it every couple of weeks.

“Do not forget that I’m a witch, boys,” Ino said, noting the amazement of both men. “I know how to scare away rodents and insects from a house. You will only have to dust, Greg.”

“Nice. But no cable TV, eh?”

“You’d think Lazarus’s big top was the Waldorf-Astoria,” the witch answered with a mock sigh.

“Fair enough,” agreed Greg. “Well, maybe someone grabbed a stack of comics at least, no?” A pregnant silence was his answer.

“If you want something to do to kill time, you can chop wood for the fireplace. The generator wasn’t enough for heating even ten years ago,” advised Ino.

“How long will I be here?” Judging by his voice, Greg had already realized the gloomy prospect of his upcoming habitation in a remote cabin in the woods.

“Until everything blows over and the Judge is no longer interested in you,” Mr. Bernardius said, his voice dark and brooding.

“There are a few bottles of the potion that hides you from the Judges in the pickup truck,” Ino said. “It should be sufficient for a couple of weeks. Take one bottle a day at the same time. Then I’ll come around. To replenish your stocks or take you away. We’ll see.”

“Back to the circus?” Greg wanted to sound confident, but he could not hide the doubt in his voice.

Mr. Bernardius gave a heavy sigh. “Greg, you have brought trouble on the circus. Your presence would be dangerous for the rest …”

Ino interrupted just as Greg was about to do the same. “I think you still have to meet again, boys. You’ll decide then. In the meantime, let’s not waste time. Greg, take provisions from the truck. No delicacies there, but you won’t die of hunger.”

The magician unloaded the car, and Lazarus and Ino quickly said goodbye and got back into the pickup. Greg turned and went to inspect his temporary shelter.

Bernardius looked depressed, and when they got onto the highway, Ino asked him what the matter was.

“I’m worried about Greg,” Lazarus admitted.

“He’s a good guy, and if he doesn’t do anything stupid, no one will find him here. I barely remembered how to get here.” Ino exuded confidence, but it was not enough for Lazarus.

“That’s the thing. He relies too much on his magic. He is too attached to it, and if he decides to use it while we are not looking, the Judge may find him.”

Ino waved aside the ringmaster’s doubts. “Oh, honey, that’s not going to happen.”

Lazarus snorted. “You don’t know Greg, Ino.”

“But I know myself and what I can do. The potions I gave you and Greg are a bit different from one another.”

“Different? What do you mean? They react differently?”

“They are the same. But the potion Greg drank has a small additional effect. It not only hides the traces of magic from Judges but also prevents mongrels from using their magical abilities. Not forever, only as long as the potion works.”

The ringmaster almost jumped in the passenger seat. “Greg will not be able to use his magic?”

“That’s what I said, my dear. You understand correctly.”

“Why did you not tell him?”

“You said yourself that he is too attached to his magic. I don’t think he would have voluntarily agreed to such a thing. I’m telling you now because we are far enough from the cabin that you won’t be tempted to go back and tell him. Do not worry. I will visit him in a few weeks. Everything will be fine.”

Everything was going well.

There were no surprises. Greg’s days were tiring in their lonely monotony. Dusting took a few hours. On the second day, out of excessive zeal, Greg chopped enough wood for a couple of weeks. The days that followed consisted of cooking canned food, walking in the woods, and thinking about Martha. He recalled their conversations, their sex, their shows. He had watched with admiration how easily she performed all her stunts, remembered her breath on his shoulder when they fell asleep. At first, the memories brought comfort, but the dark forest and empty house reminded Greg that he had been deprived of Martha’s companionship for days, and might be for weeks or months longer, which made him unbearably sad. Sometimes his longing became physically tangible. Greg felt it somewhere in his chest, and then a devastating wave moved from it in all directions, reaching and sticking in his throat, arms, and legs. He wanted to escape from it. He wanted to break all the taboos, and go to Martha. But the wave was unnerving, making his arms and legs weak, and he was unable move. Greg reminded himself that he could not endanger Martha by appearing in the circus, and he became reconciled to his existence.

Eventually Greg began to feel as if he had disappeared into the quiet forest, into its leaves, roots, and branches, its majestic and deceptive silence. At the end of one day, the sound of a sapling cracking snatched the magician from his heavy thoughts. The cracking sound was followed by another and then another and was getting closer and louder. He didn’t think it was Ino, could not imagine that she had taken a wrong turn in the twilight and was now blasting through trees in her pickup. The long days in the hut in the forest had merged into one for Greg, but he knew that the witch would not return soon. And it was unlikely a lumberjack crew, drunk and lost. No lumberman could cut down trees this fast.

Wasting no time, Greg jumped up from his chair and ran out onto the porch. Twilight was rapidly turning into darkness. Greg stared, trying to determine the source of the noise, but he saw only trees standing close to each other. The mage circled the house, going toward the sound that was still becoming louder. Now he could hear not only cracking, but also … what? Groaning, sighing, sniffing, a quiet growl? Whatever was headed to the house and Greg, it was clearly alive. Realizing this, the magician became confused. What creature could sigh so noisily and fell trees with such speed?

Greg looked up to the tops of the trees and noticed that some of them shook from side to side, as if hit by a storm coming from several directions. Except that the weather was calm, and there was no wind. Whatever “storm” was approaching, it was accompanied by sighs instead of howling winds. Greg had never considered that sighs could be furious, but that’s what he was hearing. Whatever was approaching the house, it did not scare Greg. He was sure of his magic and would not run.

A tree was falling where the backyard met the forest, pushing aside branches and the trunks of neighboring trees. Greg thought it was going to land directly on him. He jumped back, but the tree stood up, its trunk once again straight. And then Greg heard a furious breath. The tree had taken a step forward, into the backyard of the cabin.

What Greg had taken for a tree wasn’t a tree. It was a woodwose. The mage had never seen one, but he’d heard about them from Pietro. The creature in front of the magician stood the height of two humans, and, at such a distance or in the dark, it could be mistaken for a tree. Lumps grew from the woodwose’s back and shoulders like branches, gnarled and covered with leaves and moss, forming something of a crown. The monster’s head and torso were covered with thick matted hair, in which twigs, dead leaves, dirt, and animal excrement were stuck. Its arms and legs resembled old tree branches, and its skin was thick, cracked, and covered with growths, making it almost indistinguishable from tree bark. The creature had a face like a human but it was almost completely hidden by tufts of brown fur falling down over it. Only its round eyes, of a blazing red color, were clearly visible. Suddenly the wool under its eyes moved up and down, revealing a dark dip under it. A sigh came from it. This time it was full of rage and triumph.

The huge creature threw one of his long arms at Greg, but its size made the woodwose slow, and the mage easily dodged the blow, leaping to the side and rolling over. The woodwose released a long, irritated sigh and began to turn his whole body to the magician to strike another blow. Greg scrambled back up. He was ready to prepare his attack. He called the inner fire … and felt nothing. There was no response, no spark. The flame did not come out of his fingers, his hands did not turn into flaming whips. Greg just stood there, his hands outstretched ridiculously, fingers spread, like a LARP player pretending to be a wizard. He was shocked. It was like waking up in the morning and discovering that you have no arms or legs. The magician couldn’t believe that the fire refused to obey him. He tried again, and again, but the magic did not answer him. Stunned, he looked at his hands. And missed the jab.

As Greg tried and failed to summon his magic, the monster had enough time to turn around and attack again. The magician was lucky the woodwose couldn’t calculate the distance to the target, and the blow was glancing. The monster’s long, branchlike fingers barely reached the magician, but it was enough to knock him down. The monster’s fingers ripped Greg’s shirt, slightly scraping his skin, but falling to the ground knocked the air out of the fire mage’s chest. White flashes clouded the magician’s eyes, and his lungs seemed to have decreased in size, like a balloon pierced with needle. To the woodwose, the small man lying on his back, gasping for breath, looked like a cockroach that couldn’t roll over onto his stomach and escape. The monster raised its hands and struck downwards, wanting either to flay Greg or nail him to the ground with its long, sharp fingers.

The mage rolled, and the woodwose’s branches sank a few inches into the ground, just missing the fire mage. The monster again let out a furious sigh and pulled its hands out of the ground. Greg jumped up and ran around the house to the porch. The woodwose was much slower, but it took a long step and waved its hand, aiming at the feet of the running man. The blow struck Greg’s running legs, and he fell headfirst. The impact made him woozy, but the magician told himself to stand up and continue to run. Behind him, the woodwose let out a triumphant sigh.

Greg again tried to call the inner fire, but there was only silence inside. It was like pounding a wall where none had existed before. But he wasn’t going to stop pounding. The more hits to the wall, he encouraged himself, the faster it would fall. Meanwhile, the monster chasing Greg changed its tactics. It picked up a stone the size of an adult human head and threw it at Greg. A sharp pain shot through Greg’s left thigh. He thought he heard a crack, and the next moment his left leg buckled under him, and he fell again. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t move his left leg. He could no longer run or walk. He could only crawl.

Greg spotted the ax he used for chopping wood a few yards away, lying on the ground. It was a pitiful weapon, but at least something. Crawling on his elbows and pushing with his right foot, Greg crawled to it. The monster picked up handfuls of earth and threw them at Greg. Most of the stones and branches were too small to cause serious pain, but when a pointed branch stuck into his left thigh, Greg’s whole body started shaking. Finally, his fingers closed around the handle of the ax. Only then did the magician realize how pathetic his weapon was. It would be foolhardy to fight such a big monster with this small ax. The woodwose was approaching. Trusting in luck, Greg threw the ax, aiming for the creature’s gleaming red eyes.

At first, the magician did not understand what had happened. For the first time, the woodwose let out something other than a sigh. It was a hoarse howl, full of pain. The ax had stuck in the body of the monster somewhere between its mouth and shoulder. The creature thrashed, trying to get at the ax. But his clawed fingers became tangled in its wool, and its hands were too big and clumsy to grab the handle. The woodwose stamped and shook its head, trying to shake off the ax like an annoying rodent. It was Greg’s best chance. Fire could still save him, even if it wouldn’t be in the way he had thought. Greg crawled to the house.

It was difficult to climb the stairs. His left foot was unbendable, and it knocked against every step, causing so much pain that Greg almost passed out. He dripped with sweat, and when it got into his eyes, they burned. When he reached the open door, he turned. The woodwose stopped trying to get the ax. The monster bent down, lowered his head, and charged like a bull.

The blow hit Greg in the back and literally threw him into the house through the door. The magician landed in front of the fireplace in a cloud of moss, leaves, and small slivers of wood. The woodwose smashed at the doorway but could get no further. His body was in the house only to its shoulders, and he was stuck. The creature fought furiously, trying to get free. One hand remained almost entirely outside, obstructed by part of the wall, the second was inside the house. The woodwose was furiously waving it, trying to get to Greg. His claws scraped the floor, leaving deep marks in it, but they were a few feet away from the magician.

Next to the fireplace lay chips for kindling. Greg put them into the flames, and when they caught fire, he threw them at the woodwose with his bare hands. The inner fire did not answer him, but open flames still did not cause him harm. Seeing the fire so close, the monster stopped trying to get to the magician. With his free hand, he started pushing the wall that pressed him down, reaching outside. The less this monster was interested in Greg, the closer to the woodwose the fire mage could get. Flaming chips fell around the monster. Some of them got on his dirty, matted fur.

The woodwose’s hand stopped trying to push the wall. Instead, the creature attempted to beat the fire out, but flames engulfed its barklike skin almost instantly, and the monster’s hectic moves only made it flare brighter. Within moments, the woodwose’s body had turned into a huge living fire. The monster fought and wept but could not free itself from the doorway. Fire spread to the walls and furniture. Half of the house was overtaken by flames. The deed was done. The woodwose was trapped. But there was no time for Greg to enjoy his triumph. Fire and heat would not cause him any harm, but the smoke made it hard to breathe, and the magician hurried to get out.

He crawled to the window on the far wall. He put one hand on the windowsill, used his other hand to open the window, and climbed out. Halfway out, Greg got stuck. He glanced over his shoulder and saw one of the branches from the “crown” of the monster sticking out of his back and coming up against the wall above the window. Gathering his strength, he broke the branch off, threw it aside, and rolled through the window. The landing was hard. His leg and back responded in pain.

Greg crawled away from the house, every movement causing excruciating pain, making it harder and harder to get away from the burning house. He felt coldness flowing throughout his body from the wound in his back.

The house was in flames. The sighs of the woodwose turned into screams, and then the monster fell silent forever. Wooden walls cracked and collapsed, and sparks flew all around. Fire devoured the remnants of Ino’s former bar. The fire burned brightly, but it could not warm up Greg. The mage stopped crawling. His strength left him, and the inner fire still did not answer. For a moment he thought about returning to the burning house, hoping that the fire would give him strength, but he could not move.

He no longer felt pain, only anger and resentment. But he did not want to die like this, in bitterness and regret. So he thought about Martha. It is a pity that she’s not here, Greg thought. It would be easier.

He remembered her smile and closed his eyes.

 

Bad Seed

Record made on 07/19/1996

Archivist: Enzo

I’m not the first archivist of our circus, and, I feel, I’ll soon be replaced by someone younger. Only Mr. Bernardius is irreplaceable and eternal. I’ve read in the archives and saw for myself how the ringmaster had to make difficult decisions, which is why the circus has been operating for so long. He is smart and knows how to handle matters. But sometimes I still doubt if he has the stiffness of a true leader. Consider his rule that every conscious demionis has the right to decide whether it wants to stay in the circus or not. For my taste, everyone who gets in the circus should remain here until the last breath. But Mr. Bernardius believes that would be no different from prison. I don’t know why he insists on it, but I wonder if, perhaps, he once had to do something against his will, and now he thinks that everyone should have a choice.

However, each decision has its consequences.

Someone named Klaus once performed in our circus. He was no intellectual giant, but he had his virtues: honesty, friendliness, a winning simplicity of character. Klaus was an unusual demionis, one of those who, like Mr. Bernardius, did not fit into a certain type. As he aged, Klaus’s skin turned into metal, impossible for a bullet or a knife to break through. He was tall, almost seven feet, broad-shouldered, and incredibly strong. His steel skin and his size gave him a menacing look, but as I said, he was a nice guy. Klaus loved children. They were constantly calling him names of comic book characters—The Man of Steel, Iron Man, Colossus. So we began to write on our posters: “Today in the arena – the true Man of Steel!”

Klaus performed feats of strength. He could bend a length of scrap-iron or lift over his head a platform with fifteen to twenty children standing on it, all squealing with delight. But his most popular trick was called “Bullet in the Heart.” Klaus performed it with Mr. Bernardius. The ringmaster entered the arena, loaded a Colt 1851 Navy Model, and shot it from thirty feet into a barrel of water, which had previously been examined by a volunteer from the audience. When the bullet pierced the barrel and the public was convinced that the gun was real and loaded with no blanks, Klaus stepped in. The giant bared his steel chest, put his arms out to the side, and Lazarus pulled the trigger. Ringing from the impact of metal on metal resounded, and Klaus ripped a flattened bullet from his chest. The demionis proudly showed it, and then threw it into the auditorium, like a baseball player throwing a ball into the stands.

I think Klaus was one of the few demionis who really enjoyed performing. He liked to be the center of attention, to be some kind of star. If some kids wanted to play with the man of steel after shows, and they always did, he never refused. In general, Klaus liked living in the circus. Until Melissa appeared.

Right off, I didn’t like her. It is said that it is impossible to judge a person by their face. But in my lifetime I’ve seen so many faces of people and demionis that I’m rarely wrong. Melissa was pretty. But her beauty was of the unkind sort. With such a face, she could have played a villainous empress in some fantasy movie for teenagers. She had long, thick black hair, big dark eyes expressing only contempt, and high cheekbones. I could never tell how old Melissa was. Sometimes it seemed to me that she was twenty-five, other times slightly over forty. In any case, she always tried to look younger and strongly emphasized the “values” of her body. This woman always had a cigarette. She tried smoking as Marlene Dietrich, but it didn’t work. I think any men who had some experience with women instantly saw through Melissa and tried to stay away from her, but among the circus inhabitants, women have always been in the minority. And Klaus lost his head.

He accidentally met Melissa at one of the shows, and he spent that night outside the circus. The next morning he returned, woozy and happy, and we moved to the next town. We didn’t know that Melissa had followed us. To Mr. Bernardius’s dismay, the woman became a regular at our shows. At first, she tried to go backstage, claiming that her boyfriend lived in the circus, and she had a right to visit him. When we politely refused her, she tried to put pressure on Klaus, who attempted to bring her into his trailer by force. But Blanche and Black quickly brought the giant to reason. Even the invulnerable Klaus couldn’t manage two ogre brothers. Unable to enter the circus, Melissa decided to lure Klaus out. The giant started to spend his nights not in the trailer, but in cheap motels, where his sweetheart stayed, traveling behind us. Of course, this couldn’t last long. After a time, Klaus came to Mr. Bernardius, and, stuttering with excitement, asked the ringmaster to give him money for his performances. Klaus needed it to get out of the circus.

All Lazarus’s attempts to reason with Klaus failed. The giant kept saying that he was an independent man and that there were things in his life more important than the circus. Eventually, Mr. Bernardius relented and gave Klaus money. For the first time, I saw the tentmaster give one of his black candles to a demionis. With this candle Klaus could find his way back to the circus after he finished his business in the human world. It was a risky move. If the candle got in wrong hands—for example, a Judge’s—it all could have ended badly.

So Klaus became the first demionis for whom the circus was not a home but a workplace, where he returned when he found himself low on funds. At first he was embarrassed to ask for money, but then he did it with confidence, sometimes even showing dissatisfaction if, in his opinion, Mr. Bernardius did not pay enough. Klaus always showed up on a huge black motorcycle. He said that he had always dreamed of owning one, and his outfit—leather jacket, gloves, and helmet—hid his appearance in the human world. Klaus tried to look like a confident man who controls his life, but the change in him was obvious. He became nervous and abrupt, and sometimes he smelled of alcohol, though the former Klaus, as we knew, had never touched the bottle. The steel giant always came to the circus with Melissa. Each time we saw her, she was wearing more expensive and tawdry dresses and jewels. Mr. Bernardius and I agreed that Melissa could not afford such spectacular outfits, nor Klaus his motorcycle, with the money he received for performing in the circus.

We finally learned how Klaus made his living away from the arena when the police arrived for the first time. They accused him of robbing a bank, read him his rights, and handcuffed him. To everyone’s surprise, Klaus did not resist the cops and just smiled. Later, he explained to us that he did not want to make a scene and alarm the audience. He said no handcuffs could restrain him. His strength allowed him to break them like a thread at any time, and he could push aside the bars of a cell and leave whenever he wanted. He wasn’t afraid of police batons and bullets. Of course, we explained to him that his actions violated the Pactum, and sooner or later he would have to pay for it. But he justified himself by saying that no one had ever been killed or even injured during his robberies or shootouts, just knocked out. Mr. Bernardius threatened to take away his candle so that he could never go back to the circus. However, these threats were empty. Out of pity, the ringmaster let the “Man of Steel” back into the circus again and again. Klaus’s visits were infrequent but regular. And then they abruptly stopped.

Seven months after our last meeting with Klaus, Melissa came to the circus. She looked as beguiling as ever, only more tired, and her thick head of hair was shot with gray. She said that Klaus could not come and refused to tell us when we would see him again. It seemed to me that she had been ready to tell us more, but abandoned the idea. Instead, she handed me a black candle and gave Mr. Bernardius a hefty package. Not waiting for him to unwrap it, she got into her used silver Mercedes and left.

In the package lay a demionis, a baby. It was a strange creature. It was not like Klaus or Melissa. It was proof of what unpredictable forms devilish blood can take. The child’s body was covered with rare wiry fur, all four fingers of its hands ended in soft claws, and its round mouth was paved with small teeth in several rows. The baby was very weak, and despite all my efforts, it survived less than a week. We never heard from Klaus again.

A couple of years later, I read in one of the newspapers that a bank robber had been shot by police during a raid on a bank. The news article mentioned a 43-year-old woman, identified with the letter M. The woman’s mug shot remotely resembled Melissa, although without makeup it was difficult to judge for sure. Upon reflection, I decided not to tell Mr. Bernardius about the article.

 

Chapter 21: The Magician & the Star

“Swallow me whole, I will live in your soul.”

Eleven, “Flow Like A River”

When Judge Caius and little Zaches, bynamed Zinnober, noticed from their different positions how a car, its headlights off, left the circus encampment at high speed, wobbling from side to side, they did not doubt for a second that Martha was at the wheel. At the same time, though in different places, they got into their own cars and followed her. The thrill of the hunt gripped Caius, and he had to hold back so as not to put his foot to the floor and catch Martha. She would lead him to his goal, he told himself. He must not frighten her away.

Martha did not care about her pursuers. The pain turned into a thread of light that would lead her to Greg, and she focused on it. She was driving almost unconsciously, without paying attention to the road or road signs. She hadn’t remembered to turn on the car’s headlights, and did so only when another car suddenly appeared as she rounded a curve. The driver in the oncoming car had to wrench the wheel to avoid a collision, but managed to maintain control after a long skid. Martha drove on, led by the thread of pain.

Zaches was horrified. His task was to follow the circus, and he liked doing it. He saw Martha every day, even though she had no idea he was there. Caius paid no attention to him. But this headlong rush to nowhere, for hours, was too much for him. His palms were sweating so much they often slipped off the wheel. He was afraid of speed, had fear of the unknown and fear of Caius, who was driving between him and Martha. Martha. For her, he suppressed his fear.

Martha was trying not to lose the thread leading to Greg. It strove to escape, like a snake from the hands of a fakir, and sometimes broke off for a few moments. But invariably Martha would find it again, even though every time she was afraid that her luck had run out. What frightened her most was that she did not know how far away Greg was. Ten miles? A couple of hundred miles? Would she get to him that night? These thoughts were like blood-sucking mosquitoes, they dug into her, and it was impossible to drive them away. Cracks in the asphalt looked like mocking grins in the beam of the headlights. The very road was making fun of her. Several times the car jumped dangerously on the asphalt, forcing an occasional oncoming driver to veer away suddenly. The road was difficult and endless. The night was dark and starless. And that night, three different cars followed each other to their common destination. Destiny is a part of destination. Destination is where your destiny leads you.

Martha lost track of time. It seemed to her that the night stretched forever, and when she was ready to give in to her despair, the pain thread linking her with Greg eluded her again. It was weak, but there was no need to look for it. Something had changed. Something was reaching for Martha. She saw the dawn behind the treetops, but the sun didn’t rise. She realized that the light was not coming from the sun, but from the glare of a fire somewhere in the woods. She turned onto a bumpy road that led into the trees.

Caius followed Martha, and after a few minutes he saw the dying fire. Martha’s car was near, with the driver door open, but the girl was not there. The Judge took the harpoon and slowly walked in an arc around the yard in front of the house. In the backyard, in the light of the fire, he noticed a trail of blood leading to a thin strip of wood and stripes on the ground, as if someone had crawled there to escape the fire. Raising his harpoon to his shoulder, Caius went down the trail. Fire reflections barely penetrated through the branches and leaves, but almost immediately he saw two silhouettes on the ground. Martha and Greg.

The mage was lying on his side, the back of his T-shirt was soaked with blood, but his chest was still moving. Next to him was Martha. Her face was turned to the sky. She lay motionless, as if asleep, her chest heaving easily and quietly, and her fingers were sunk into the ground, as if before losing consciousness, she had struggled against it. Greg groaned, and his body shook as if he had been hit with a defibrillator. The Judge lifted the harpoon, but Greg twitched again and then was still. His limbs went limp, and his head jerked in a last fight with death and then quietly sank down onto the grass. During his years of service, Caius had learned what death looked like, but he still went to check Greg’s pulse. There was no pulse. The Judge had been waiting for something different. A battle, a hunt. And now the two most unusual mongrels of his career lay before him, one dead, the other seemingly sleeping. The man obviously had received fatal injuries in a fight, and, judging by his position on the ground, had tried to crawl away from the fire, but had not lasted long. But what had happened to the girl? Who could have knocked her out? Caius felt no one near except Zaches. And the Judge could not imagine that Martha, reaching the one she had been looking for all night, had simply fallen unconscious.

Martha was in a dark tunnel, narrow and low. The walls were covered with something black and gray. She touched them, and they left a liquid ooze on her fingers. Behind her, the tunnel ended at the boundless darkness, where there was nothing, no bottom, no walls, no ceiling, no light, no boundaries. Ahead was a twist. The path was obvious. Martha went ahead. The farther she went, the steeper and narrower the tunnel became. A few minutes later she had to get down on all fours to continue down the path. Martha’s arms and legs slid through mud. She had to push her back into the arch of the tunnel to avoid slipping down it. Then the tunnel became so narrow that Martha had to use all her strength to move forward a few inches. She felt something sharp under the mud, and when she pulled herself up, her arms, shoulders, and knees were covered with deep scratches, and her skin was red with blood, which dripped and was absorbed by the dirt of the tunnel.

She felt trapped, but after drinking her blood, the tunnel seemed to change direction. It expanded, its incline decreased, and more rocks and less dirt covered its walls. Feeling a firm surface underfoot, Martha stood. The light was still gray, but more vivid, as on a cloudy day. Martha pressed ahead, the tunnel rapidly expanding with every step. Its walls were covered with large, strange flowers growing in the cracks in the stone. Their fleshy succulent petals looked like a flower blooming inside itself, as if the bud was going to burst inside itself. Martha touched one of the flowers. At first it tried to hide in the crack, but then it reached for her and clung to her hand, like a puppy going to its owner. After hesitating a moment, as if trying something for the first time, the flower petals opened slowly toward Martha’s palm. Inside, they were bright as butterfly wings, and she froze for a moment, struck with their design and beauty. Silky flower petals gently touched her fingers, soaking up the blood on them and becoming brighter. The girl reminded herself why she was here and went forward again, and the flowers on the walls turned their heads after her.

Martha was in a cave with strange patterns and markings on the walls. Looking closer, she realized that the black markings were traces of fire, and the patterns were raw bas-reliefs of human faces. The patterns moved, as if trying to say something. On the stone faces was discontent, pleading, anger, despair. Martha thought they were silently arguing with each other, using stony rustling instead of words. The sound was something sinister, denying life itself.

“They will not harm you.” The faint voice had come from behind. She turned. Greg stood there. She recognized him, although here he looked different. His skin was a sickly pale, and lumps of gray mud filled his eye sockets instead of eyes. It was the same mud as in the tunnel through which Martha had just crept.

“I know. They are just ghosts, Greg.”

“You know me?” With every movement of his jaw, dirt poured from Greg’s mouth. It ran down his chin onto his chest, and then to the floor, before crawling away like a huge worm.

“I’m Martha. Don’t you remember me?” she asked.

“Martha? I remember her. But you are not her.” Greg’s voice was full of confidence. “I feel something in you, but you’re not her.”

“Maybe because of the blood?” She began to wipe the blood off her face. Her hands were covered with deep bleeding scratches, which made it hard, but she continued to wipe away blood.

“Yes,” said Greg.” Now I see you are not Martha.”

Martha was confused. There was no time left, and she had not expected Greg to reject her.

“Listen to me. It doesn’t matter if you recognize me or not. I need you to go with me,” she said.

“Go where? I belong here.”

“Go back. I want you to live again.”

“I live here,” he said.

“No, Greg. This is not life. This is its last stir, which will soon disappear. This is not the world of the living. That world is outside. You’ve just crossed the border, but you’re not far from it. You still have a chance.”

“Chance? Live?”

“Greg. You were mortally wounded, and I … I went into you, to bring you back. I am in you, Greg. If you do not agree to go back, I will die, too.”

“You’re not Martha,” insisted Greg and mud dripped from his mouth. “I do not care.”

Martha took a step forward, and the faces on the walls rustled.

“What is it?” the girl asked.

“You’re lying to me,” Greg said, and he sprang back away from her. “You’re lying. The faces warn me.”

“They are lying to you, Greg. These are the faces of those you’ve killed. They want to keep you here, they want you to die and stay here. They want to get back at you.” Martha took one step further, and the faces murmured. The stony rustles became a rumble, and the walls of the cave shook.

“Come with me, before it’s too late.” Martha’s voice had risen to a shriek.

“I’m staying here,” Greg said, but his voice now seemed uncertain.

“Maybe I’m not Martha, but you will never meet her here.” Martha continued to go forward. Greg retreated, but hesitantly. The stone faces now portrayed anger. Their stone mouths and eyes, nostrils and eyebrows moved, causing the cave walls to shudder and crack. Stones began to fall from the ceiling, quickly increasing in intensity. Soon the girl and the fire mage were in the middle of a storm of stones. Fleeing from it, Greg fell to his knees and covered his head with his hands.

“Stop it!” he shouted. “You’re killing us!”

“You’re already dead, Greg!” Martha shouted above the noise of the collapsing cave. “And I’m your only chance to go back and see Martha. If these faces wanted to save you, would they make all this?”

Greg hesitated for a moment, as if the truth had finally struck him, and Martha rushed to him. She kneeled before him and grabbed his shoulders. She shook him, forcing Greg to look at her with his eye sockets full of mud. Greg was afraid of her, she could see this.

“You’re not Martha,” he muttered.

“Now I know who I am,” she said.

Her bloodied lips pressed his mud-covered lips. As in the tunnel, dirt absorbed Martha’s blood. Her blood flowed into Greg. He choked and tried to pull away, but she held him and forced him to take a little more of her blood. Greg obeyed, and a moment later, he and Martha joined in a kiss.

The walls continued to crumble, but could not harm Greg and Martha. The stones fell more and more, and then the rumbling ceased. Greg’s eyes clouded over, and then a whiteout enveloped him. The last thing he saw before his resurrection was a perfect face.

And then the world of the living fell on him.

Zaches immediately realized what had happened. Astaroth had assigned him to spy on Lazarus Bernardius’s circus, and some other mongrels in the country were ordered to find the fire mage’s refuge. The demon had several pawns at hand, which he had hidden from Lucifer and Bernardius to use them whenever he liked. Most of them were capable only of unquestioningly following orders but were too stupid to do their tasks properly. Obviously, one of these mongrels had found the magician’s refuge, but had been overzealous.

Zinnober went some distance away from the Judge, hiding behind the trees. He knew that the Judge did not have to see him to sense his presence, but his fear made the dwarf choose the shadiest shelter even in a dark forest at night. Zinno was confused and frightened. He held his knife to his chest, but he knew that if it came to a battle with Caius, he had no chance. He followed the Judge, subtly looming ahead among the trees, and was frantically thinking about what to do. But soon a wave of burning rage swept away all the thoughts in his head.

The Judge had found them. Martha and Greg lay on the ground, as if asleep. The Judge checked Greg’s pulse and grinned triumphantly. And then he leaned over Martha. Caius put away his heavy harpoon and took off his gloves. Then he had a knife in his hand. He played with the blade for a few seconds, as if it were a harmless toy, and then slowly ripped Martha’s dress with it. In the silent forest, the crackle of fabric sounded like a broken bone crunching and easily drowned out the crackling of the burning house. Zinnober wanted to jump up and rush Caius, but he knew the Judge would kill him easily, so he remained under the shelter of the branches.

The Judge touched Martha’s body. Then he stuck the knife into the ground so that both hands were free. His hands eagerly wandered around the pale skin of her body, which stood out in the dark. The Judge let out a groan full of frustration and anger, audible even in Zinno’s shelter. Tears rolled down the dwarf’s face. He hated himself for his cowardice and fear of death. He covered his mouth with his hand so the Judge wouldn’t hear his sobbing. The lump in his throat made it difficult to breath. Zaches gasped. His tears made the world blurred and twisted. So when the Judge raised his hand over Martha, the dwarf didn’t see the knife in it. And when he realized what had happened, an eerie cry burst from his lungs. Wild with anger, he jumped out of his hiding and ran, holding his knife in front of him. The Judge paid no attention to him.

Greg was obviously dead. But Caius wanted the last hit to be his. He turned the fire mage over on his back, and with the same knife he had used to stab Martha, he hit the magician’s chest. The blade snapped, and Caius lost his balance and fell forward. A wave of flame hit him, throwing him up to the treetops. As he flew, the Judge wondered why the world to the right had suddenly disappeared and the world on his left had turned into a sickening kaleidoscope. Then darkness engulfed him.

Zaches ran, tripped over a root, and fell. An explosive wave, the epicenter of which was Greg, passed over Zinno and left him unharmed. Not realizing how lucky he was, the dwarf jumped up and ran on. He needed to get to Martha. The girl lay on the ground. Blood flowed from a wound in her side and had already formed a puddle. Greg lay nearby and did not move, but, much to Zaches’s surprise, he was alive though unconscious. But the dwarf had no interest in the magician. Zinno pulled off his jacket and tried to cover Martha’s wound and her torn dress with it. He must tell Astaroth he had found Greg, but just then he had better things to do. First he needed to help Martha. He gently lifted her into his arms. His stooped back and his short, crooked arms and legs strained with the effort. With every step, his weak body burned with pain. Still, he walked toward his car. Stumbling and quietly weeping, Zaches walked through the forest.

He would take her to the hospital, thought little Zinnober. The doctor would ask for his papers, but he would come up with a story. They would believe him. Beautiful people are always easier to believe. When he got out, he would say something plausible to Astaroth, explain his disobedience. The main thing was that Martha would live. Adrenalin and dreams gave him strength. He would save her.

Once in the car, however, he realized he did not know which way the nearest hospital was. Overcoming a sense of panic, he decided to just drive and hope for the best. He put the girl on the back seat and kissed her on the forehead, feeling her feeble breath. For some reason, Zaches took the coming of dawn for a good sign.

When Greg came to life after his resurrection, the car was miles away from the forest.

Zaches stopped along the side of the highway and sobbed. His had lost his race with death. the girl’s last breath had left her body hours before. The dwarf wept bitterly, plagued by grievance and anger. He was mad at the Judge, Greg, himself, and the damned dawn, which had given him false hope. And now, as if nothing had happened, it had turned into a beautiful sunny day.

 

Chapter 22: The Magician & the Tower

“I’ll be the moon when the sun goes down.”

Otis Redding, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”

When Zaches, in tears, stopped his car many miles away from the woods, Greg came to life. The body of the fire mage was full of unprecedented lightness, as if he’d just woken up from a sound and pleasant sleep. He felt no pain, although Greg was sure that the woodwose had given him a drubbing. He thought of the wound in his back and tried to feel it, but he felt strange. His muscles obeyed reluctantly, as if Greg were only a passenger in his own body. It seemed to him that his body, which used to be his own, was now a shell, separating him from the world. He wondered if this was a continuation of the nightmare he’d had when Martha was trying to save him from death. Or was the vision of Martha a hallucination?

“It was not a nightmare, Greg,” said a female voice, interrupting the magician’s thoughts. He tried to determine from where the sound came, but the echo in his head got in the way.

“Show yourself!” Greg demanded.

“Alas, I can’t,” came again the melodious voice, calm, ancient, and wise. “Greg, calm down, let me go, and I’ll show you.”

“Let you go?” The world before Greg’s eyes trembled and became dead, like a TV picture. The mage tensed, trying to regain control of his body, but some power gently and confidently stood in his way. Greg was not going to tolerate this, and his fingertips flashed with sparks. Flashed and went out. The same power that was crushing Greg in his own body damped them. Easily, without resistance, like a man extinguishing a candle.

“Let me go, Greg.” The ancient voice was strangely familiar. Greg had heard it in a vision long ago. “Martha?”

“I am no longer Martha, Greg,” the voice said softly. “I never was. But I did not remember. Now I am free. Relatively.”

“What are you talking about?” Greg asked. “Where’s Martha?”

“I was Martha. I held her body but did not remember who I really am. Let me go and I’ll show you.” The same mysterious force gently but firmly pressed on Greg’s mind, and he became a prisoner in his own body.

“I am in you, Greg. I entered you, to chase away death. But the way back is closed for me now, because … because now I know who I am, and Martha”—the voice sighed—“Martha’s body disappeared. For a time, I’ll have to share your body with you, Greg. I do not like it as much as you, but I need a human shell. For a while. Until I find another. I will not hurt you.”

During his life, Greg had rarely been afraid of anything or anyone. Ever since he had learned to use his abilities, his self-confidence bordered on arrogance. He had even met death with no fear—disappointment, perhaps, but not fear. Now the magician was frightened. Martha had disappeared, perhaps was dead. And he was a prisoner in his own body, because it had been taken by … by whom?

“You’re not a prisoner, Greg,” the voice said with some emotion. “Martha has disappeared, you’re right. But part of her is still with me.”

“I don’t understand. Tell me everything.”

“Everything is good in its season. We need to return to the circus and find Pietro. He will help you understand everything. I will tell you everything I remember.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“For the same reason you always believed. I love you, Greg. So I’ve come for you. That’s why I freed myself.”

Greg was stunned. Surprise, disgust, and hope mingled on his face.

Greg longed to talk to her, but the only words he could squeeze out were, “We need to find a car.”

When the magician sat in the car, his first impulse was not to go to the circus, but to find Martha.

“Why are we going to the circus?” he asked. “Why not find Martha first? You also need her body.”

“I do not feel it,” the voice said wistfully. “I’m sorry.”

Greg did not respond, he just started the car and drove out of the woods and onto the highway.

“How do I find the way back?”

“I’ll show you. I remember, and I know everything Martha knew.”

The road was silent. The voice seemed to be giving Greg time to get used to the thought of losing Martha, at least the way the magician had known her. The unexpected neighbor inside Greg’s head did not, however, merely talk. It directed the fire mage’s hands at turns in the road. Initially, it took Greg by surprise, and he instinctively wrenched the steering wheel, trying to regain control over his body and the car, but he soon got used to it and allowed his “neighbor” to take control. This allowed the mage to clear his head. He found that although his new neighbor might, if necessary, take away his control over his own body by force, in his mind there was always a corner that the voice could not reach. In this corner the outside world seemed very far away, a memory so distant that it could not be distinguished from illusion. But it was possible to think there without fear that his thoughts would be an open book.

Greg wondered about the voice saying that part of Martha was still with it. The voice was strange, not human, but Greg felt no lies in it. He still hoped he would be able to find Martha. That hope rose in him and he nearly steered the car off the road. Only his new neighbor’s intervention saved the car from disaster.

At the circus encampment, Blanche and Black, who hadn’t slept a wink since Martha’s disappearance, were the first to noticed a rapidly approaching car. They called Mr. Bernardius, and went to meet the guests. They were very surprised when they saw Greg in the car that had disappeared along with Martha. He was alone. The magician braked within thirty meters of the perimeter of the circus lot, got out of the car, and almost ran to meet the ogres. Greg had never imagined he could be so happy to see their sullen, warty faces. The ogres did not experience a similar joy from the meeting. Greg had to stop running, so as not to bump into Blanche’s big hand extended in a warning gesture.

“Hey, Black, I am glad to see you.”

“I’m Blanche,” growled the ogre.

“Well, that’s exactly what I said!” Greg tried to make a joke, but the faces of the brothers just grew more sullen.

“Are you alone?”

“Yes. No. Technically I’m alone. But not alone. It’s hard to explain.”

The ogres’ faces became puzzled. Seeing how hard they were thinking, Greg tried to explain.

“Guys, I need to see Pietro. He will explain everything.”

“Let them in,” called Lazarus, quickly approaching. “What’s happened, Greg? Have you seen Martha?”

“She’s with me. In some sense,” Greg’s explanation bewildered Mr. Bernardius. “Lord, let me talk to Pietro already!”

Greg, Mr. Bernardius, Pietro, and Ino gathered in the big top. They all waited for the magician to begin his story, but Greg just opened and closed his mouth, not saying a word, as if the story he wanted to tell was so fantastic and confused that he did not know where to begin.

“Martha found me at Ino’s shelter. But it was too late.” Greg spoke slowly and carefully, as if the fate of the entire world depended on it.

“Go on,” Mr. Bernardius said gently.

“I was dead,” Greg said, and before anyone could interrupt him, he added, “But she saved me. I do not know how. She has somehow entered my mind and”—he shrugged—“restarted me? But when I woke up, she was not there.” Greg did not look up from the floor the whole time he told his story, and his arms and shoulders were tense.

“Do you know where she is?” asked Lazarus.

“I know that her body, her physical being …” Greg took a breath as if he were about to jump into deep waters. “Her body is dead.”

Questions rained down on Greg. All the words that they had kept inside gushed over Greg. He did not even try to answer their questions, listen to their assumptions, or accept their condolences. He was exhausted by his new neighborhood and his gloomy thoughts.

“Shut up!” Greg snapped. The others were stunned by his anger and the sharpness of his cry.

“Part of Martha is in me. Or what was in Martha. Heck, I don’t know. She said that she wants Pietro to tell you.”

“Why Pietro?” wondered Ino.

For a moment, Greg turned away from the conversation; he looked like he was listening to something in the distance, not paying attention to what was happening around him. Then he turned back to the others. “She says only he can understand and translate what she would say.” Greg seemed like a student uncertain about a hint from his teacher. “So, Pietro, son of a bitch, listen carefully.”

Something in Greg’s face subtly changed. It was relaxed, and his facial muscles seemed to have forgotten how to portray emotions. His eyes closed, and Greg looked like a deep sleeper or a corpse. When his eyes opened, there was no Greg anymore. From the mouth of the one who a moment ago had been the fire mage poured words in a strange language, ancient, like the sands of Babylon, incomprehensible to everyone except Pietro. It was a woman’s voice, deep, calming, and holding out hope, the voice of mother and defender. It spoke in a powerful monotone flow that made the listeners congeal and dissolve into it. Pietro’s face bore an expression of wonder as the voice spoke of things unprecedented, even for a highly experienced archivist who had studied ancient grimoires and served Lucifer. If Lazarus or Ino could have torn their eyes away from Greg’s transfigured face and looked at the chubby archivist, they would have noticed how his usually good-natured face, for the first time ever, expressed awe. The words were meant for Pietro, but Lazarus and Ino were captured by the rhythm of the ancient language and were desperately trying to understand what that part of Martha, now inside Greg, was saying. The ancient language made them forget about time. The world had become a deceptive fantasy, and at the center of it, and the source of truth, was the voice.

After the final echo of the ancient words slipped away, and Greg’s face had lost the look of a man who had just visited someplace beyond the familiar world, Pietro needed time to regain his composure.

“What did she say?” asked Lazarus. The tentmaster and the witch were shocked, and the meaning of what had happened was still not clear to them. Greg and Pietro looked at each other, as if to make sure that they had heard the same thing and correctly understood the meaning of what was said.

“I do not know where to start,” the archivist murmured. “I need to check my records. I have heard about it, but never seen it.”

“Martha isn’t a demionis,” Greg said grimly. “She is a goddess.”

By the time Lazarus and Ino realized that what Greg had said was not a vulgar expression of admiration, Blanche and Black’s angry voices resounded outside, and then another voice, filled with rage and madness, rose up. Greg recognized the voice, although he had been sure he would never hear it again.

 

Heart of Stone

Record made on 06/05/1934

Archivist: Aldred

My old heart sank when we entered Arapahoe. It was a mining town, half extinct, grubby and somewhat black and gray, as if coal dust had seeped into every nook and cranny when the miners returned from the pit. We rode the short main street slowly, as the locals gazed upon us with incredulous and bleak looks. I’m old, so old that I sometimes think death forgot about me and might never remember. But there, in that town, I thought I had died and my soul had gone to Hell under the supervision of a mournful ghost, ancient and indifferent.

We were not going to perform in this town. The destination was changed when we heard rumors that a spirit raged in the Arapahoe mine, at least according to the mine workers. Almost everyone had heard howls and growls, some even swore they saw red eyes and yellow fangs glowing in the dark. Some believed that the spirit looked like a beast. Others thought it looked like an Indian chief who once owned the land on which the city stands. Others argued that the spirit did not have flesh but looked like fog.

We camped on the border of the city. I could not shake the feeling that the local people had shielded their town from the influence of time. A dim sun stood in the gray sky so long that I constantly checked my watch to make sure that sooner or later evening would come, we would perform, and then get the hell out of town. I talked Bernardius out of going to the mine—all my amulets were silent about the presence of any spirits nearby. I suspected that the mysterious spook was a local yarn that folks could retell each other, now and then embellishing or changing parts of the story, over a beer in the only bar in town.

Yet I had a constant sense of foreboding. I did not share my worry with anyone in the circus, because I saw that the others behaved as usual. I went into my tent to make my regular records about how the day had gone, and did not leave until the beginning of the show later that evening.

As far as I could tell from looking at the audience, the circus had attracted the entire town, a couple of hundred people. Mr. Bernardius decided to distribute free tickets, just to please the miners’ families. It was hard times, and I couldn’t blame him for wanting to brighten the lives of the local folks. In the light of artificial lamps under the tent, amidst the colorful fabrics of the canvas, their faces looked alive. I saw how interest and curiosity had replaced distrust, especially among the children.

The show went well, although it was not outstanding. The spectators, to my surprise, clapped enthusiastically, even whistled appreciatively. I did not think that these locals would be capable of such a strong expression of feeling. In short, everything went as usual, so well that I slightly reproached myself for my silly misgivings earlier. With a light heart, I made a couple of records on the show and went to sleep.

Sleeping in our circus is a real treasure, which anyone can lose at any time. Some demionis are active only at night. Sometimes our peace is violated by locals who want to sneak in to have another look at the monsters and freaks. From time to time on the busiest roads, we travel only when the moon rises, so as not to attract undue attention. So I was not surprised when that night in my tent Mr. Bernardius showed up. His look, however, was strange. Instead of the usual concentration on his face, I read puzzlement and something like joy. The ringmaster asked me to take pen and paper and follow him to the big top.

In the big top, I discovered an amazing sight. Blanche and Black, grunting beamishly, were bent over a boy who was doing some hand gestures that enraptured the ogres. When Mr. Bernardius and I came closer, I realized the reason for the unusual behavior of the eternally gloomy brothers. The boy was showing them tricks. Blanche and Black could not see how the child managed to guess the cards they chose from the deck after shuffling it themselves. The little magician was amused by his unusual audience’s bewilderment, but with the diligence that only a child has, he tried to pose as a real illusionist.

As we approached, the boy interrupted his own trick, and Lazarus asked him to explain again, this time for my benefit, how and why he was in the circus at this late hour. The boy introduced himself as Zack and announced that he wanted to offer his services as a magician to our circus. He loved our show, but Zack and his buddies all regretted the lack of magic tricks. There must be a magician in any circus, the boy asserted confidently. He was special, it was immediately evident. He was dressed modestly, almost poorly, like all the children I had seen at the show that evening. His clothes were the same gray and black colors as everything else in this city, with traces of dirt and grass on the elbows and knees. His straw-colored hair was cut short in the manner of most of the local men. But his face and eyes—those blue eyes reflected a lively mind and much confidence. Zack said he was nine, but for his age, he clearly lacked several kilograms.

I was glad Mr. Bernardius had called me. Zack was not the first boy who had sneaked in after closing to look at our miracles. Blanche and Black packed off such types neatly and without regret. But Zack was the first who wanted to join our company. Of course, he was still a child and could not even imagine what our circus really was, and he had no chance. I planned to make Zack’s appearance comical in my archives, but, alas, it would be quite different. I understood why Mr. Bernardius had not immediately kicked the boy out. Our circus had always lacked a spectacular magician. I’ve read in the archivist Faulkner’s records that there was a time when Lazarus himself tried to conjure. He diligently studied the illusionist craft, observed the performances of some other circuses’ magicians, but never achieved great success and soon abandoned the idea. Mr. Bernardius can do a trick or two. For example, he could pilfer my pocket watch, picking my pockets easily, but such skills were not enough for a stage.

But Zack definitely had skills. The boy tried hard to convince us that he was worthy of being a magician in the circus. He showed a trick with a coin, which he threw from hand to hand until it was lost from sight, and then took it out of his nose. He showed us tricks with cards, mixing the deck so that it was divided by suits, then tore one of the cards into pieces and then put it back together. His tricks, of course, were not impressive. But a boy of his age, especially one who was small, was usually not able to cope with cards of the standard size—their fingers are too short and inflexible. Zack’s hands were unusually agile, and it was forgivable that his tricks lacked originality. After all, how many card tricks had a child in a remote mining town ever seen?

Mr. Bernardius was adamant, but he was so touched by the boy’s naiveté and so impressed with his skills that he decided to give Zack a gift: a tour of the part of the circus that is hidden from the eyes of the audience. There, in the back of the big top, the artists prepare to enter the arena. It’s also where the demionis devoid of human appearance live. We all went together. Lazarus told our little magician about the demionis, among whom the boy was most impressed by the winged monkey, as if it was descended from the pages of the novels by Frank Baum. There were places in the back of the tent where Zack was not allowed, but we didn’t know that what is not allowed attracts children all the more.

Next to the cage with the cactus cat, Zack asked us to tell him more about the creature, which was no surprise. A green-skinned cat the size of a large dog and covered with spikes is always popular with viewers. But as Mr. Bernardius and I were talking, the boy jumped up and ran into the darkest part of the backstage area, the entrance that we had warned him away from. We ran after him, but his size helped him glide like a shadow between boxes with props and cages with demionis.

And when we heard a loud predatory hissing, I broke out into a cold sweat. At the end of the rows of cages, in the darkest corner, which we had specially fenced with boxes so that very little light penetrated there, was a cage with a medusa. As every archivist knows, it is not like the creature from Greek mythology; it has no snakes on its head and its legs are not joined at the tail. This creature remotely resembles a woman. But its body is hairless, its gray matte skin is like pearly scales, and its eyes have no pupils and are black as night. Oh, those eyes. Medusa is not like that in the myths, but it has a similar feature: its eyes are lethiferous. There is a gland in her eyes that secretes a poison that the medusa, sensing danger, squirts at the enemy. For demionis, medusa venom is not dangerous because it has no effect on the devil’s blood that runs in their veins. But the poison turns a man into stone; this legend does not lie.

In the circus, the medusa’s head was covered with a thick leather bag with a hole for breathing just below the nose, and her hands were tied so that it could not rip the bag from its head. The medusa never enters the arena, and her bag is removed only during transfers and sometimes at night, when there are no people around. Zack did not see the medusa at the performance. Perhaps the unusual creature intrigued him. Probably the bag and shackles struck a deep chord in his heart, and he desired to help the creature in the cage.

When we saw Zack, he was a stone statue, frozen in motion. In the statue’s hands was a crumpled leather bag, and his face expressed surprise and compassion. Poor boy, he had not even a moment to understand what had happened. I don’t think you will need detailed descriptions to understand the emotions that Mr. Bernardius and I felt at the sight of the petrified Zack. But we could not let grief cloud our minds. Sooner or later, they would begin to look for the boy, so it was necessary to get rid of any traces of his presence in the circus. With a sore heart, Mr. Bernardius ordered Blanche and Blake to take huge hammers and destroy the statue of Zack. The ogres crushed the stone with heavy blows, and when the pieces had become so small that they could be mistaken for small natural stones, the brothers shoveled them into bags and carried the bags to the local mine, where they poured them into the pit.

The next morning, Zack’s father showed up at the circus, along with several local stalwarts. Someone had seen the boy running toward the circus the night before. Mr. Bernardius allowed these men to inspect the circus, and not finding any traces of the kid, the miners left. We left town a few hours later, having heard that the locals blamed the boy’s disappearance on the machinations of the spirit of the mine. Supposedly, on the night Zack disappeared, the mine was unusually noisy. Someone even heard loud but unintelligible grunts and growls, followed by the sound of falling stones.

Chapter 23: The Tower

“Deed is done, again we won. Ain’t talking no tall tales, friend.”

Pantera, “Cowboys from Hell”

Judges always acted alone. That made it easier to avoid attention. One strange fruit is just a weirdo, but two strange fruits together signal trouble. Besides, there were few Judges, so pairing them would waste scant resources. But a Judge was supposed to inform his colleagues of his movements and verdicts, so that the others, wherever they were, could always find him. But Judges rarely met in person, and did so only for the most serious matters. They did not invite each other to a barbecue or get together in a bar to remember the good old days, bragging about who had sent the most mongrels home to Hell. No, Judges rarely called on each other.

So when Lazarus Bernardius left the tent and saw eight vans lined up on the circus encampment, a man standing in front of each of them, he was surprised. Eight Judges in one place—he doubted that anyone had ever seen such a thing. The Judges were like their cars—old, worn, dusty, scarred—they had endured. All were men and all were armed, and in the eyes of each were hatred, contempt, and the desire to kill. Lazarus took note of the one standing in the middle. The right side of his face was hidden, but his left eye reflected not only the moonlight and the headlights but also pure insanity. He took a step forward, but the shadow on his face did not change. He took another step, and it became clear that the right side of his face was not hidden by a shadow or an optical illusion.

The right side of Judge Caius’s face and neck resembled steak that had been burned to char. Underneath the cracked black skin were red streaks, bits of muscle not consumed by fire, and there were white spots where the fire had penetrated to the bones of his skull. In place of his right eye was a gaping red and black hole. During his long life, Lazarus Bernardius had seen people die from such wounds, and he wondered what mysterious force was supporting the Judge’s life, as if he were not an ordinary man, but a comic book character.

Caius pointed at Greg with his harpoon.“Him,” the Judge cried in a hoarse voice. “Bernardius, give him to me! Give me this asshole, and I’ll think about telling my boys here not to kill every last one of yours.”

As if showing their disagreement with Caius, the seven other Judges loudly and purposefully adjusted their weapons in their hands. In the silence of the night, the rattling of their those weapons sounded grotesque and ominous.

“We both know what would happen if any of my fosterlings are hurt …” Lazarus began, but the Judge did not let him finish.

“Fuck you, mongrel! Screw you and your ‘you know what would happen.’ If the Devil himself rolled up here, me and my guys would shoot off his balls to take this bastard. And no matter how you like to talk, we both know what would happen if just one of your circus freaks touched one of my people.” The Judge’s eye glittered with triumph, and he spread his hands in a theatrical gesture. “I don’t know why we haven’t already shot off the heads of your rotten little freaks.”

“Demionis are not allowed to attack people, as you correctly noted,” Ino said. “But your problem is that you’ll have to deal not with them, but with some others.” Ino grinned as the surviving muscles on Caius’s face twitched.

“What are you talking about, whore? And who the fuck are you?”

Lazarus tried to respond to the insult, but the witch put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Boys,” Ino called loudly.

Behind Ino and Lazarus came a mechanical roar, and one after another, spots of light began to appear. The lights approached, hovering above the ground, one, two, three, finally a dozen lights joining the witch and the other inhabitants of the circus. The lights gathered in a line behind Ino, and merged into one. The bright line a few feet above the ground became blindingly white and then faded, and the source of the lights was at last discerned. They were the headlights of a dozen motorcycles, revving and rattling like steel horses impatient for an attack. Among the riders, Greg recognized a few that had been in Ino’s bar when he first met the witch. The bikers’ look had not changed—leather, chains, and fancy hats, all remarkably like the bikers in movies. Only their facial expressions were different. When these guys had met Greg, they just wanted to kick some arrogant stranger’s ass. Now he saw determination on their faces. To kill or to die.

“Bravo, Lazarus, I see you’re prepared,” the Judge said. “Your friend has decided to help you.” The Judge sounded anything but frightened. “I’m sure it was her idea. But for me, women are just troublemakers.” He looked around the circus. “By the way, speaking of women, I do not see the tiny blonde. The lad is here, though, but I swear to God, he was as dead as yesterday during our last meeting. Surely, magician, you could not have saved her, eh?” Caius looked at Greg. The magician was ready to burn the Judge alive. But a voice inside told him that this was not the time, and Greg calmed the flames.

“Well, both sides are armed and very dangerous,” the Judge said, his voice full of mockery. “We can play war games, if you so desire. It will be fun.” Caius gave an exaggerated wink with his surviving eye. “I confess that I was counting on it. But I’m afraid that losses on both sides are inevitable. My friends and I are not against it, but you, Mr. Bernardius, something tells me you’re a pacifist and it is unlikely you would agree to leave one half of your circus here to save the other. “So my proposal is this: give me the boy, and my friends and I will forget about your circus forever.” Caius turned to Ino and leered at her. “Although this lady will long remain in my memory.”

“Judge Caius, I run this circus, and everything that happens in it is my responsibility,” said Bernardius proudly, firmly, and loudly, as befits a real ringmaster. “I offer myself as your prisoner if you let the others go.”

“You’re crazy,” Ino hissed at Lazarus.

“Honey, I know what I’m doing,” the tentmaster replied, staring at Caius. “They can’t hurt me.”

Caius began to applaud slowly. “Oh, very generous of you, Mr. Bernardius. Please, please, come to us.” The Judge made an inviting gesture. Lazarus did not play for time. Sighing, he moved toward the Judges, holding his cane. When the ringmaster came up to Caius, the Judge smiled an almost sincere smile and patted him on the shoulder. “How honorable. I did not expect this from a mongrel. Alas, prudence is not your thing.” Caius pushed Lazarus behind him, toward the other Judges, two of whom instantly grabbed Bernardius by the arms.

Caius turned to the rest of the circus performers. “However that may be, I’m still waiting for you to give me the magician, too.”

“What?” shouted Ino and Pietro at the same time.

“We agreed, Caius,” Lazarus growled from behind the Judge.

“I do not recall, Mr. Bernardius,” the Judge said without turning to the ringmaster. “You offered yourself, and I agreed. But I haven’t canceled my previous condition.” Mr. Bernardius could see only part of Caius’s burned face, but he knew the Judge was smiling.

“Well,” came the voice of Greg. “I’ll go with you.”

“Attaboy.” Caius could hardly restrain himself from not crying with joy. Greg moved toward the Judges, sparks flashing between his fingers, a smile on his face.

“Whoa!” cried Caius, putting up a hand to stop Greg halfway. “Not so fast, fuckhead.” The Judge pointed a finger at the magician, like a teacher rebuking a bully.

“Now!” Caius shouted. Behind him, the door of one of the vans slid aside, and two Judges came out, holding a hose. “Charge, boys!” Caius’s cry bore little resemblance to a human voice, sounding more like a predator’s roar at the sight of his prey. A stream of water thick as a human leg shot out of the hose with a loud hissing sound and hit Greg in the chest, knocking him to the ground. The Judges continued to shoot water out of the hose, nailing Greg to the ground, making it impossible to stand up.

“So, gentleman, leave not a single dry square inch on this bastard!” Caius said. “Let’s see how he will do his fire tricks now.”

Greg rolled on the ground, trying to avoid the powerful jet. It felt like an elephant was trampling on him. The pressure was so intense that he couldn’t breathe, and his lungs felt as if they were on fire. Greg tried to get up, but the ground beneath him had turned to mud, and he slipped and slid and fell face down. The magician could not have imagined how much pain water could cause. The world had turned into mud splashes, angry cries, ogres’ growling, and Judges’ laughter.

Finally, the water pressure slackened and then turned to a trickle. Greg lay on his belly in a mud puddle, unable to rise. His whole body hurt, and his mouth and nostrils were stuffed with mud. Two Judges grabbed his legs and dragged him along the ground as the other Judges laughed.

“Damned bastard!” Ino screamed. The water in Greg’s eyes made it difficult to see what was happening, but he could hear the bikers’ motorcycles roaring, and the Judges’ weapons rattling.

“Ino, no!” Lazarus’ shouted. “No, we can handle it. Take the rest away.”

Greg heard the voice of Caius whispering in his ear. “Simple precautions. To equalize our chances.”

Greg felt the Judge’s boot on his head.

“Now I am satisfied,” shouted Caius to the circus performers. “I got even more than I wanted. You all can get out of here. Fast. Before my boys decide they also want trophies.”

Greg was dragged to the big top and made to kneel in the center of the arena. Mr. Bernardius entered behind him, driven by a shotgun in his lower back. To the ringmaster’s astonishment, Caius had kept his promise. He and the other Judges had watched as the ogre brothers hustled the demionis into vehicles. Ino had spat curses and threats at the Judges, who responded with bawdy jokes directed at her. The lights of the vehicles had finally disappeared over the horizon, accompanied by the bikers. Caius left a pair of Judges on guard and went with the rest in the main tent.

Greg’s body ached, and he was soaking wet and cold in the night air, but he tried to calm the trembling, not wanting to appear weak. He attempted several times to call the inner fire, but the water that covered his body and soaked his clothes was a reliable barrier. He needed at least a spark to turn into flame. One of the Judges near Bernardius, bald and incredibly tall, took out a cigarette and held it to his lighter.

“Hey, shit, drop that!” Caius shouted a moment before his fellow Judge threw open the lighter cover. “I don’t want to give that bastard a chance. No open fire here!”

That’s for sure, cowards, thought Greg. He was kneeling, with his hands tied behind his back. Two Judges stood beside him, their crossbows a few inches from his head. Next to Greg’s overseers were water canisters. Two more Judges were next to Lazarus. Caius walked about the arena, his hands clasped behind his back, smiling. His lips moved slightly, as if he were practicing a prepared speech. He finally stopped abruptly and looked at Greg.

“You know, when I recovered my senses, I was so angry I thought I would kill you as soon as possible. I thought the only thing I wanted was your death. It didn’t matter how you died. I was not going to talk to you before I killed you, like the villain in some shitty movie. I just wanted to put a bullet or arrow in you. Cut your head off. Kill you quickly. It didn’t even have to be face to face. But then …” The judge paused and sighed, his arms out to the side. After glancing at the gathered Judges, he went to Greg, grabbed him by the hair, and threw his head back. Caius leaned toward the fire mage so closely that their faces were separated by barely an inch. The magician smelled a whiff of burnt flesh. Perhaps the Judge wanted to scare him, but Greg had seen worse sights, and he had often been the cause of them. So he just smiled, and for a moment, the confident expression on Caius’s half-face cracked. Greg could almost hear the gnashing of the Judge’s teeth, but Caius pulled himself together.

“Then I thought that I needed not just your death, but also vengeance.” The Judge released Greg’s head and stood over him, looking down. “You gave me too much trouble to get off so easy.”

The Judge smiled, and in the next moment the toe of his boot hit the magician’s chin, sending Greg reeling. White flashes exploded and died before his eyes. His lower jaw was numb, as if immersed in cold snow. Greg rolled over and took two more blows, in the groin and abdomen, and found himself on his back again. The Judge stood over him on one knee, one hand grabbing Greg’s hair, the other hand raining blows. To Greg’s surprise, the first few hits hurt, but then he seemed to lose sensitivity. He just saw a small bloodied fist, a big bloodied fist, white flashes, a small bloodied fist, a big bloodied fist, white flashes, over and over again, but he felt no pain.

I’m sorry, but that’s all I can do now. Kill the pain.

“Thank you,” croaked Greg. Caius raised his hand for the next stroke, and froze.

“You talking to me, Greggy?” The Judge smiled, but his eyes expressed bewilderment. “So, you’re a masochist bastard. Well, I’ll be generous and give you a bit of fun.”

“Enough!” Lazarus shouted. Greg had never heard such anger in Mr. Bernardius’s voice. Caius stopped beating Greg and laughed.

“You want to take the place of this magician, old man? Wait, I’ve been on your show, and now you’re a guest on mine.” The Judge theatrically shook blood off his fist.

Lazarus moved forward, toward Caius and Greg, who still lay on the ground. The bald Judge tried to stop him. Lazarus whipped his cane through the air and knocked the shotgun out of the Judge’s hands. The bald Judge rushed the ringmaster. The two men, both lanky and lean, grappled, looking like praying mantises, and after a short exchange of blows, fell to the ground. Lazarus landed on top of his enemy and pressed his cane against the Judge’s throat. The second of Bernardius’s guards slammed the old man in the head and threw him to the ground. As Lazarus tried to regain consciousness, the two men pushed him to the ground and held him there.

Caius approached Mr. Bernardius. “Nice, old man. I could kill you, but I’ll let you watch the show to the end.” The Judge pushed the cane away with his boot, turned around, and went back to Greg.

Though his eyes were filled with blood and sweat, Greg clearly saw Lazarus smile at him. It was the smile of a poker player holding cards that would let him drop the mask of equanimity.

I may need your help.”

Anything.”

“Who are you talking to, Greggy?” Caius was amused and almost danced with excitement. He was two steps away from Greg when something flew past him and fell in front of the magician with a faint clang.

The cigarette lighter.

For Judge Caius, time stood still for a moment. Behind him, Lazarus was grinning, and the bald Judge, stunned, was checking his pockets. In front of him on the ground was that damned magician, laughing raucously and spitting blood and about to flick the lighter. Caius rushed toward him, intending to kick the lighter away. He almost reached it, but it suddenly sparked, and just as quickly, the spark grew into a huge flame, as if the lighter had turned into a dragon spewing fire. Caius recoiled from the flame.

“Shoot!” the Judge screamed to his colleagues, who were staring in horror at Greg. But instead of shots, he heard heart-rending screams as a thick flame rose around the magician and streamed toward the Judges. Caius did not see Greg behind the veil of fire, did not see how his fellow judges were burning alive.

“Get the old man!” ordered Caius. Lazarus was their only chance for salvation.

Give me some of your power.

Greg stepped out of the fiery wall with his clothes on fire. The sight sent the surviving Judges reeling back. Greg felt no pain, did not feel fear, felt only his inner fire, stronger than ever before. Usually the flame was just a tool, but now he himself was the fire element.

“It is not over, fire boy!” exclaimed the Judge. Caius held his harpoon against Lazarus’s head, and two more Judges had wrung the ringmaster’s hands behind his back. “Just try any of your tricks, and I will shoot an arrow through his head,” said Caius, and he poked Bernardius’s temple with a tip of an arrow.

“Let me ask you, Judge,” Lazarus said quietly, so that only Caius could hear him. “You were able to identify almost all the mongrels in my circus. Do you know my secret?”

“I only know that you talk too much, old man,” muttered Caius.

“I am immortal,” said Mr. Bernardius. “I cannot be killed.”

Greg couldn’t hear what Lazarus said to the Judge, but he saw the anger in Caius’s eyes replaced by panic and fear.

Greg hoped. Hoped that the power of the new Martha, or what used to be Martha, would unite with his. He had not tried this. They had not tried. And if this didn’t work out …

Greg gathered his inner fire to the last bit, the last spark. But he did not direct it at the Judge. Instead, without letting the fire go, he gave it to Martha. She took it and boosted it, heightened it with her divine powers, and only then did Greg and Martha release the fire.

The flame knew no barriers, no mercy. Greg’s body became the epicenter of the fiery wave, swift and unnaturally dense and hot. It was alive and full of vengeance. The wave scattered hundreds of feet from Greg, destroying everything in its path, glass and iron, rubber and steel, flesh and bone. The wave swept Lazarus, Caius, and the other Judges. The flash was so bright that it was visible for several miles, to people in houses on the outskirts of the nearby town, and to the ogre brothers and the bikers who accompanied them. The flash was so bright that when Ino saw it, she insisted that they turn back.

When they returned, the night was as dark as when they had left. The flame had disappeared as rapidly as it had come crashing down, burning everything to the ground, leaving no spark behind. In the middle of a huge scorched circle, Greg lay naked. His skin was as clean as a baby’s. His chest was heaving, as if he slept. Around the magician, where the fire had raged, the earth was as smooth as a mirror, with no truck’s wheels or motorcycle’s tracks, no signs of armed men, no remains of the circus encampment. Not far from him, an incomprehensible figure crouched on the ground and sighed. Burnt almost to a skeleton, Lazarus Bernardius, the ringmaster, was difficult to recognize.

 

Chapter 24: The Magician & the Star

“Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best.”

Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”

“What’s next?” Pietro’s excited voice echoed in the empty section of an abandoned factory. After the fight with the Judges, the circus had only a couple of trucks, the Galaxie Skyliner, and Ino’s pickup to transport all the mongrels as well as Pietro’s archives. No hotel, not even the most disreputable and avaricious, would agree to provide rooms for such a disheveled group of circus monsters. So they had to choose alternatives, mostly abandoned buildings, preferably big ones. The lack of amenities wasn’t a deal breaker. If they came across something like a neglected factory with a strong roof to shelter them from the rain and walls to protect them from the wind, it was considered good luck. If such a building could be found in less than a day’s journey, it would count as a miracle. The Lazarus Bernardius Circus was like a homeless tramp that had been running around for just a few days, but some of its residents were already exhausted.

“They’ll come after us,” the archivist said.

“They haven’t yet,” Greg said. “And the longer they can’t find our trail, the less they are likely to find us.” Greg did not look up from the fire in a barrel over which tried, in vain, to warm his trembling hands. The weather was warm, but the magician felt frozen. His body, torn by two coexisting minds, suffered new failures every day. They were mostly minor, such as shaking hands, dizziness and headaches, nausea and fatigue. But every morning, Greg woke up feeling weaker than the day before, and he was horrified by what might happen next.

“Eight judges disappeared overnight,” Ino said, her tone of voice cold. “It is unlikely their bosses will not notice. As for the townsfolk, that flash was so bright, the dead could have seen it from their graves.”

“I asked to take care of this,” said Mr. Bernardius. The ringmaster looked like a mummy, wrapped in bandages that had turned pink from the blood that soaked them. Only his eyes, thoughtful and sad, could be seen under the rags. Lazarus still needed the support of one of the ogres to move, but every day, he claimed, more muscle grew. Here and there, new skin already showed through the bandages. Mr. Bernardius applied his own dressings, occasionally requesting assistance from Blanche and Black, but apart from them, no one was admitted to the process, especially Ino, who felt an impulse to help him.

“There won’t be any hype,” Greg said. “We have no Judges on our tail. It’s time to separate me … us.” Greg could not hide the impatience in his voice. “It’s time to find a new body for Martha.”

Greg still called the one who had been Martha by that name, but her real name was Demeter. Demeter, Damate, Ceres, Prthivi, Earth Mother. She’d had dozens of names over the centuries, different names in different cultures. Names that over time people began to forget. The less they remembered her, the less they believed, the more her power waned. And so came the moment when the goddess had to live among mortals. As she continued to lose divinity over time, she needed an avatar—a physical shell—to exist among people.

For centuries she walked the Earth, indistinguishable from a human, and then something happened. Something that Demeter could not remember until now. She did not remember how she became trapped in the body of Martha, or where she was before. She did not remember hundreds of years of her life. Only when she had awakened inside Greg did she realize who she was and who she had been inside Martha. Now she needed a new avatar, a new physical shell. Greg grew weaker every day, and no one knew what would happen to her if he died.

“I have already said that it will not be easy,” Pietro said. He was exhausted. “Finding the right avatar is very difficult. Demeter can take any body. But it’s like with clothes, you know? You can put on any clothes, but you won’t feel comfortable in just anything. It could be too loose or too tight. But you can get rid of clothes that don’t fit. But with an avatar, no.”

“I don’t chase fashion,” growled Greg.

“There’s a problem,” Pietro said. “You’re not a wearer, Greg, you’re a jacket.”

“There must be a way!”

“I didn’t say there wasn’t. I just said that it is not easy to find the appropriate avatar. Not every shell is suitable to instill the goddess into. Albeit, she is not as strong …” said Pietro and then added sheepishly, “as before.”

Lazarus’s voice came from under his bandages. “It’s time to tell us, Pietro.”

“Well,” sighed the archivist. “As I said, not all bodies are suitable for a goddess. Each may have its limitations. It is possible that in the wrong body, she would not be able to use all her strength. Or she could lose a portion of her memory. Or behave differently. I do not know what the consequences might be.”

“Isn’t it written in your books?” Ino asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No, it is not written,” admitted Pietro with irritation. Close proximity with the witch had unnerved the archivist. What unnerved him even more was that she was always looking for any reason to doubt his and his brothers’ knowledge. “In any case, as far as an avatar suitable for Demeter, it depends on many factors. For example, the susceptibility of the physical shell.”

“What does that mean?” Greg asked.

“It means it is impossible to enter some people. They are just not suitable for it. But others are like a ready-made vessel, waiting to be filled.”

“I don’t think Demeter wants to take an appropriate body from just anyone. She does not want to suppress his mind,” Greg muttered.

“That’s clear. I’ve already thought about where to find an avatar in case Demeter wants to show the kind of humanity that’s uncharacteristic of gods,” the archivist said.

“Sounds like you know where to find people who voluntarily give up their minds,” said Lazarus.

“Actually, yes, I do know.” Pietro looked at Ino. “In the nuthouse.”

There was a puzzled silence.

“Where?” Greg asked, disbelief in his voice.

Pietro looked embarrassed. “In hospitals for the mentally ill. As you know, some people in such places complain that they hear voices in their heads, as if someone is talking to them. Not all of them are crazy. Some really talk to … different creatures. For example, to the spirits of the dead lusting for their bodies. But these spirits or ghosts are too weak, so they are only manifested in the form of voices.”

“It’s like a demonic possession,” Lazarus said thoughtfully.

“Overall, it amounts to the same thing. Demon, spirit, goddess—they can all dwell in a man. But not completely. The human personality is always trying to oust its new neighbor. Only very powerful gods and demons can completely suppress the former consciousness. Ghosts and spirits just make it go crazy but are too stupid to realize it. Demons, as we all know, possess people just to have fun. And gods need an avatar—a physical shell—to exist on Earth.”

“So we need to find any mental hospital?” Greg asked. “And we’ll have a lot of options?”

“Oh, no. We need a hospital with the most severe patients. You see, not all doctors believe voices in the head is a serious disease. Almost every twentieth person on the planet sometimes hears voices, but not all of them are clapped in psychiatric hospitals. Only the most seriously ill patients. If the cause of the disease is a ghost or demon, then there is nothing the doctors can do to help, and over the years the patient’s consciousness, exhausted by constant struggles for independence, becomes decrepit. Sooner or later the person loses it and degrades to a vegetable state.” Pietro looked around. “We can borrow the body of one of these patients for Martha.”

“And what about the ghost that lives in it?” Ino asked, clearly wanting to find shortcomings in the archivist’s plan.

“Oh, it’s not a problem!” said the tubby man. “As an archivist, I know how to banish ghosts and demons. But I think that Demeter herself can handle the displacing of the former oppressor.”

“And what will happen to the person?” Greg asked.

“Nothing. If you choose an avatar of a worst-case patient, he or she won’t feel anything—not the exorcism, not Demeter. His mind, so to speak, has died. It would be like moving into a house that didn’t belong to anyone,” explained the archivist.

“Where do we find the right person?” Ino asked doubtfully.

“It’s not far,” the archivist said. He brightened, feeling everyone’s attention riveted to him. “On my map there is one hospital a few hours away from our temporary, as I hope, home.”

“Will we really find … what we need there?” Greg said, a faint hope in his voice.

“This hospital has been famous for many years for its, shall we say, unusual patients. I think finding a suitable body there will be easy.”

“Then it’s decided,” croaked Bernardius. “Pietro, tomorrow you will hit the road with Greg and Ino. I’ll stay here to look after the rest.”

“Why do we need her?” the archivist said.

“You need someone to take you there. You do not know how to drive, and Greg …” Lazarus paused, and everyone looked at the magician, whose body was trembling, especially his hands. Assessing the state of the fire mage, Pietro said no more.

“Go tomorrow at dawn. Ino, I hope you don’t mind if you go in your car. It is less noticeable on the road.” Lazarus’s voice was dry, and in the dim light, and because of the bandages, Ino could not see Bernardius looking at her.

“Of course,” agreed the witch with a sigh.

Greg was afraid to fall asleep. Since sharing his body with Martha, strange dreams had been hammering him. He dreamed of Martha, about how they made love, and then she would dissolve into his arms and he would be left alone, clutching emptiness. He dreamed about the murders, but he did not see his victims’ faces, but instead looked at himself with their eyes, seeing only anger and darkness. And then the fire would corrode his face from the inside and span the entire world. The most terrible dreams were memories of his own death, with the creepy cave with faces on the walls. That would have become his universe, if she had not saved him.

Martha or Demeter? He struggled to recognize the girl in his dreams, and when he realized, with horror, that he couldn’t, he woke up with heaviness in his chest. Greg was afraid to fall asleep.

Dreams torment you?

“You know they do.”

Soon all will end.

“Yes.”

Are you happy?

“I don’t know.”

Why?

“I don’t know if you will stay.”

I have nowhere to go.

“I do not know if I want you to stay.”

Why?

“Because of you, I think Martha is still around. That she’s not dead, and will return one day.”

She’s not dead, she lives in me.

“Sounds like a line from a cheap romantic comedy.”

Her memories, her emotions—all of them are in me.

“This is the problem. She is you. But you’re not her. Every day I speak with you and don’t know who I’m talking to. It’s driving me crazy.”

Greg, her love for you has set me free.

“Hers?”

I do not understand.

“Martha wasn’t demionis. She was a human. And when you took her body, she became something more. And I loved her, what she was with you. And now she’s dead, and all I have left of her is you. And I don’t know what part of you I loved as Martha, and if there’s still a part of you that loves me.”

You don’t want me to leave you?

“Devil’s fuck, I don’t know! While you’re inside, it seems to me that she is there, she’s with me. But what happens when you get a new body?”

You can live a normal life, control your own body.

“Yes, yes, but I will no longer have her. All her memories, her emotions, they will be with you in another body.”

If I remain in you, Greg, you will die. And what will happen to me is unknown. Perhaps I will disappear. I’m not as strong as I was a thousand years ago.

“I understand.”

Then we both have only one hope.

When the sun rose, almost all the members of the circus slept under the roof of an abandoned factory. Only Lazarus, relying on help from one of the ogre brothers, came to say goodbye to Greg, Pietro, and Ino.

“I don’t like long goodbyes. Especially because I hope to see you again within one day, maybe two. Four of you.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Bernardius. Everything will be fine,” Pietro promised.

“I have no doubt, my friend.” He turned to Ino. “Please do not tease him. Safe trip.”

During the first hour on the road, a heavy silence hung over the car. The archivist was studying a folio he had brought with him, and Greg looked gloomily out the window. They rode to some lonely spot that, with drizzle and the gray light of an overcast morning, seemed even more forbidding. Ino, sitting behind the wheel, decided to break the silence.

“I always knew the girl was special,” said the witch, looking at Greg in the front mirror. “Everyone felt close to her in a special way.”

Greg looked at Ino and said nothing.

“Demeter, as a witch, I always believed in you—in nature, in the Earth, the planet itself, more than in God or the Devil,” Ino said with fervor, for which she got an indignant look from Pietro. The archivist looked like an old lady, in front of which there was something obscene.

“She is grateful to you,” said Greg for the goddess. “Thanks to those like you, she’s still alive. Albeit weak.”

The witch looked back at Greg in the mirror, her eyes shining like those of a girl who admired an elder sister or a close friend.

“I wanted to ask you something else,” Ino began hesitantly. “I’ve always believed, if not in Demeter herself, but in all that she represents—the ground, trees, nature. And if you’re looking for a new body for her …”

The witch did not have time to finish. Greg’s face ceased to express any emotion, and when he spoke, his mouth poured out a deep and melodic female voice in the ancient language. The witch listened attentively, in a vain attempt to understand the words of the goddess.

“What did she say?” she reluctantly asked a giggling Pietro.

“I must say, I would not refuse to look at it!” chuckled the archivist until Ino punched him in the shoulder.

“Oh!” Pietro exclaimed in surprise.

“Just translate it,” Ino hissed.

“She said she would not take your body.”

“But I give it voluntarily!”

“That’s not the reason. For a god to feel comfortable in an avatar, he must oust the old personality. Only your physical body would remain. For your friends, relatives, and loved ones, you would be dead, and your personality would not come back to you, even if the god decides to leave the avatar. So, according to Demeter, to my regret, what you suggest is not a gift but your own suicide. So she must decline your offer.” Pietro looked amused.

“Maybe it’s better just to watch the road,” suggested Greg irritably. And Ino and Pietro shamefacedly hushed up.

They continued to drive in almost complete silence till evening. The landscape outside the window was so dull, plain, and monotonous that Greg began to think they were on another planet, where even the trees and oncoming cars were considered a curiosity. They drove according to Pietro’s instructions, and the archivist swore as he checked an old crumpled map covered with creases.

“How old is that shit?” snapped Ino. “We’re already lost.”

“This was issued in 1947,” Pietro, stung, had to admit. “Perhaps there are no new roads. But we only need the old ones.”

The archivist and the witch continued debating the need for new maps, until Greg, who was paying more attention to the road than to his squabbling friends, tapped on the window.

“There,” the magician said, pointing to a silhouette away from the road. Against the evening sky above the thick trees, two tall spires were clearly visible.

“This is it!” the archivist squealed happily, and Ino, with relief, drove to where Greg pointed.

“At one time, this hospital was one of the most advanced,” Pietro said. “Here experimental and sometimes extreme methods of treatment were used—hydrotherapy, insulin therapy, lobotomies, and LSD.”

Ino looked horrified. “Treatment? Some would call it torture!”

Turning off the road, they moved onto a wide dirt track that looped through the trees. Greg frowned at the litter covering the road. Here and there lay empty bags of chips, beer cans, paper, and plastic bags.

“They don’t try hard to impress new guests,” Ino said with a smile, glancing at the archivist.

“Pietro, are you sure this is the place we’re looking for?” Greg asked.

“Yes,” the tubby man drawled, but he seemed uncertain. “This is it.”

When the car rounded the last turn, all doubts were dispelled.

A cinder path led through a wide lawn with flowerbeds and rickety benches to a long five-story building with two wings crowned with the spires Greg had noticed from the road. The third spire, shorter than the other two, towered above the arch in the middle of the main entrance, decorated with a clock with twisted hands. Piles of garbage spotted the lawn even more frequently than on the driveway to the building. Red brick walls were covered with obscenities and the names of bands, and some of the building’s wide rectangular windows were completely devoid of glass.

“It doesn’t appear that the hospital is still operating,” Greg murmured. In his voice were fatigue, disappointment, and shock.

“Damn it, if not for Lazarus’s ban on all electrical devices, we could have Googled it first,” Ino lamented.

Pietro looked like a child whose Christmas gift had been snatched away from under his nose. “This can’t be,” he whispered.

“We can at least inspect the building,” suggested Greg.

“And what’re you gonna find in this dump?” Ino snapped.

From inside the building, they heard voices, glass crunching, and the sound of crashing. A moment later, a company of teens tumbled onto the porch, choking with laughter. They did not immediately notice Greg and the others, and when Ino got their attention by loudly clearing her throat, the teens almost jumped.

“Hi,” the witch said cheerfully and waved.

“Ahem, hello,” said a shaggy boy about 19 years old, the eldest in the company.

“What are you doing here?” Ino asked, maintaining her cheerful tone.

A ginger-haired girl standing behind the boy was about to reply, but the shaggy hair spoke first.

“We don’t have to answer them, they’re not cops,” hissed shaggy to his girlfriend. Three other teenagers, two boys and a girl, heard the eldest’s whisper and relaxed a bit.

“No, we’re not cops,” said Ino. “We were just driving past and wanted to see the house.”

One of the guys nodded toward Greg, who was pale and kept his hands under his armpits to stop shivering. “Yeah, yeah. A lot of guys like him strolling around.”

Ino did not understand. “Like him?”

“What’s wrong with you, mumsie? Like this doper.” The teen nodded again and pointed to Greg. “Since the hospital closed, they gather here. Come here to shoot up, so no one sees.”

“It was closed a long time ago?” asked Pietro.

The shaggy hair looked at the archivist as if trying to decide if he was worthy of a response.

“Fourteen years ago,” said the girl behind the shaggy one, and got a disapproving look from her boyfriend.

“What did they do with the patients?” Greg asked.

“Some were discharged, others were sent to other psychiatric hospitals,” said the second girl.

“There’s one left,” mumbled the redhead.

“Left? Here?” Greg asked doubtfully.

“Yes, some crazy Indian,” said one of the guys, grinning. “They say he was discharged, but he kept coming back here.”

“Right here, in the ruins?” Ino asked.

“Yeah,” said the shaggy one. “He says that the voices in his head told him to come back.”

Pietro brightened like a child who was promised to get his Christmas gift back. “Voices?”

“Yes, he’s crazy. They say there were a lot like him here, crazy people hearing voices.”

“A dime a dozen,” confirmed the second girl.

“You said the Indian says—not said—that he had a voice in his head. So is he still alive?” Greg asked the eldest kid.

“And kicking. We see him every time we come here.”

Greg and Ino tried not to show their surprise, and Pietro turned his head, looking from the witch to the magician and back, as if expecting that they would embrace him and thank him profusely.

“You probably have to go home, kids,” said Ino playfully.

“You’re not our mother,” shaggy said defiantly.

The five teenagers remained on the porch for a few moments, as if implying that they would go home when they saw fit, and then hesitantly went down the porch steps.

“Hey, guys. Anyone else here?” Ino asked them.

“No one. Only that Indian,” said the redheaded girl.

“Well, nice,” Ino said. “Here’s something for you to brighten the way home.” The witch found a bottle with bright red liquid and threw it to the shaggy, who caught it on the fly. The teens surrounded their leader, whispering, trying to figure out what the stranger had given him, and then they went away, occasionally turning back to look at Ino and the others.

“Not sure they’re allowed to drink alcohol,” said Greg, after the teens disappeared around the bend of the road.

“It’s not alcohol, my boy. But tomorrow they will not remember anything about tonight. We do not want them to gab, eh?” retorted Ino.

“Let’s just find this Indian,” said Pietro.

On the inside, the abandoned asylum looked as unwelcome as it did from the outside. Graffiti adorned even the lofty ceilings, and Greg could not imagine what tricks teenagers used to climb so high. The wide ground floor lobby was covered with fragments of leather chairs, and in the center was an old piano, the keys of which were stuck to each other. In general, the inside of the asylum was more like an expensive hotel of the early 40s than an ugly place for using experimental treatment techniques on humans.

“Yes, looks can be deceptive,” mused Pietro, as if reading Greg’s thoughts.

Grim silence reigned in the building, except for broken tiles and shards of glass crunching underfoot. Greg and the others inspected several single wards that resembled rooms in a hotel, with a separate shower, bed, and table and even a mirror. The also checked the rows of general wards, decorated with tiles and looking more like a morgue than a living space for people. Some of the beds in those wards had wide leather straps for restraining particularly violent patients. Some had been cut off, and Ino mused that local teenagers had taken them as souvenirs.

“I thought these kinds of beds only existed in horror films,” muttered Greg. His condition was deteriorating faster than anyone expected.

“Okay, enough enjoying the sights, let’s find this Indian,” Ino said, her voice full of determination.

They had examined more than half of the asylum when Petro stepped on a pile of newspapers and was not able to pull his leg back.

“Seems someone’s holding me,” the archivist whispered to Greg and Ino.

“She has come,” a voice croaked in a hoarse whisper. “She has come.”

“Did you hear that?” Pietro asked, looking as if he was on the verge of death. “That otherworldly voice!”

“Drunk voice,” Greg said, exchanging glances with Ino.

The witch went to where the archivist stood and kicked the pile of newspapers. The voice uttered a groan, and the one to whom it belonged was forced to release Pietro’s leg. The archivist hurried away.

Ino scattered the newspapers, revealing a ragged old man in tattered denim jacket lined with artificial fur. He had long matted gray hair and a scruffy beard of the same color, and the parts of his face that were visible bore a network of deep wrinkles. He stared at them from dark, deep-set, crazy eyes. “Looks like we found him,” the witch said. She and Pietro looked at Greg.

“She has come,” the graybeard said in a gravelly voice.

“Exactly what we need,” Pietro said. His fear seemed to have evaporated, and the archivist was as jolly as usual.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” said Ino, disgustedly looking at the man under the newspapers.

“He’s not just crazy. Look! What is inside this man reaches for Greg, I mean Demeter. He can feel it!”

“Are you suggesting that Demeter has to take this body?” Greg said, clearly at a loss.

“Is there a choice? In any case, we will save you, and Demeter will have a new avatar,” said Pietro. “Then we will find a more suitable option.”

“Are you sure that his mind …”

“I’m sure,” the archivist said, interrupting Greg. “Look at him. This is just a shell, in which lives some vicarious spirit.”

“Well, OK,” Greg said. “Let’s bring him into a room.”

“Why?” wondered Pietro.

“I think the change of bodies is a rather intimate process, is it not? Could you leave us alone at this time?” Greg almost hissed the words in the face of the stunned archivist.

“Yes, perhaps you’re right,” said Pietro. “Let’s find a cleaner ward.”

A cleaner chamber was not easy to find, but they finally found one that was less messy than the others. The room had probably been something like a suite in a hotel. The walls still had wood paneling in some places, and the floor was decorated with carpet worn to tatters. In the center was a large bed with a greasy mattress too small for the frame and box spring.

“I think I know why the local teens did not break this bed,” said Pietro with a chuckle as he led the madman to the bed. Ino nudged him in the ribs, and Greg shot him an angry glance.

“Wait outside,” Greg said, sitting down on a chair next to the bed.

“Are you ready?”

You know I am.

“This body…”

This is temporary.

Standing outside the ward, Ino and Pietro were waiting to hear the sound of screaming, expecting to see some kind of magnificent radiance (the archivist argued that it should be blue, the witch thought gold). But in the end everything was far less spectacular than both had imagined. There was a clap, a sound like a gust of wind, another clap, and then they heard two male voices behind the door. One belonged to Greg, and it was sad. The second was the hoarse voice of the Indian, trying to console him. The archivist could not wait to see how it had gone, but Ino did not let him inside, catching his hand as he reached for the door handle. They waited for half an hour, hearing two quiet voices, sad and consoling.

And then the door opened.

Greg left the room with the Indian. The Indian stood straight, without slouching, and they saw that he was almost as tall as Bernardius, but much broader in the shoulders. His eyes were no longer crazy, but reflected a clear mind. Standing near the Indian, Ino and Pietro felt the same way they had when they stood close to Martha. They felt peace, forgiveness, hope. He spoke, and although his voice was hoarse, it had confidence and strength. And relief.

“I swallowed the memories of that man,” said Demeter. “He knew where I could find a proper avatar.”

To be continued …

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Firetale

Lazarus Bernardius is immortal, but he had to die twice to discover it. The Devil has made Lazarus the ringmaster of a traveling circus of demionis, creatures with supernatural powers that are descendants of demons from Hell. For 140 years, the troupe of mermaids and ogres, medusas and wyverns, satyrs and alrauns has been touring the U.S. tullies, masquerading as just another mud show. Lazarus's task of giving shelter to unusual creatures requires that he not draw the attention of the Judges, modern inquisitors hunting down the supernatural. Lazarus manages this until Greg, a magician who can control fire, joins the circus. Greg seems like a decent sort, but over time, the magician’s behavior becomes suspicious. When Lazarus learns that Greg uses his magic to fight villains after performances, it is too late. Soon, the first of the Judges arrives. To save his fosterlings and get out of trouble, Lazarus must seek help from a long-abandoned lover who is still angry with him. What the ringmaster doesn’t know is that some of the inhabitants of the circus have secrets of their own. FIRETALE is a cocktail of mythology and historical facts, folklore creatures and demons, witches, bikers, and rock ’n’ roll. It is the first novel in a planned tetralogy, which will include the novels Sandtale, Deeptale, and Timetale.

  • ISBN: 9781310719721
  • Author: Dante Graves
  • Published: 2016-01-27 16:20:19
  • Words: 77242
Firetale Firetale