I stood just inside the door of the Circus staring at the wave of costumes and glittering humanity. I'd never seen the place so crowded. Edward stood beside me in a long black cloak with a death's-head mask. Death dressed up as death; funny, huh? He also had a flamethrower strapped to his back, an Uzi pistol, and heaven knew how many other weapons secreted about his person. Larry looked pale but determined. He had my derringer in his pocket. He knew nothing about guns. The derringer was an emergency measure only, but he wouldn't stay in the car. Next week, if we were still alive, I'd take him out to the shooting range.
A woman in a bird costume passed us in a scent of feathers and perfume. I had to look twice to make sure that it was just a costume. Tonight was the night when all shapeshifters could be out and people would just say, "Neat costume."
It was Halloween night at the Circus of the Damned. Anything was possible.
A slender black woman stepped up to us wearing nothing but a bikini and an elaborate mask. She had to step close to me to be heard over the murmur of the crowd. "Jean-Claude sent me to bring you."
"Who are you?"
I shook my head. "Rashida had her arm torn off two days ago." I stared at the perfect flesh of her arm. "You can't be her."
She raised her mask so I could see her face, then smiled. "We heal fast."
I had known lycanthropes healed fast, but not that fast, not that much damage. Live and learn.
We followed her swaying hips into the crowd. I grabbed hold of Larry's hand with my left hand. "Stay right with me tonight."
He nodded. I threaded through the crowd holding his hand like a child or a lover. I couldn't stand the thought of him getting hurt. No, that wasn't true. I couldn't stand the thought of him getting killed. Death was the big boogeyman tonight.
Edward followed at our heels. Silent as his namesake, trusting that he'd get to kill something soon.
Rashida led us towards the big, striped circus tent. Back to Jean-Claude's office, I supposed. A man in a straw hat and striped coat said, "Sorry, the show's sold out."
"It's me, Perry. These are the ones the Master's been waiting for." She hiked her thumb in our direction.
The man drew aside the tent flap and motioned us through. There was a line of sweat on his upper lip. It was warm, but I had the feeling it wasn't that kind of sweat. What was happening inside the tent? It couldn't be too bad if they were letting the crowd in to watch. Could it?
The lights were bright and hot. I started to sweat under the sweatshirt, but if I took it off, people would stare at my gun. I hated that.
Circular curtains had been rigged to the ceiling, creating two curtained-off areas in the large circus ring. Spotlights surrounded the two hidden areas. The curtains were like prisms. With every step we took, the colors changed and flowed over the cloth. I wasn't sure if it was the cloth or some trick of the lights. Whatever, it was a nifty effect.
Rashida stopped just short of the rail that kept the crowd back. "Jean-Claude wanted everybody to be in costume, but we're out of time." She pulled at my sweater. "Lose the jacket and it'll have to do."
I pulled my sweater out of her hand. "What are you talking about, costumes?"
"You're holding up the show. Drop the jacket and come on." She did a long, lazy leap over the railing and strode barefoot and beautiful across the white floor. She looked back at us, motioning for us to follow.
I stayed where I was. I wasn't going anywhere until somebody explained things. Larry and Edward waited with me. The audience near us was staring intently, waiting for us to do something interesting.
We stood there.
Rashida disappeared into one of the curtained circles. "Anita."
I turned, but Larry was staring at the ring. "Did you say something?"
He shook his head.
I glanced at Edward, but it hadn't been his voice. I whispered, "Jean-Claude?"
"Yes, ma petite, it is I."
"Where are you?"
"Behind the curtain where Rashida went."
I shook my head. His voice had resonance, a slight echo, but otherwise it was as normal as his voice ever got. I could probably talk to him without moving my lips, but if so, I didn't want to know. I whispered, "What's going on?"
"Mr. Oliver and I have a gentleman's agreement."
"I don't understand."
"Who are you talking to?" Edward asked.
I shook my head. "I'll explain later."
"Come into my circle, Anita, and I will explain everything to you at the same time I explain it to our audience."
"What have you done?"
"I have done the best I could to spare lives, ma petite, but some will die tonight. But it will be in the circle with only the soldiers called to task. No innocents will die tonight, whoever wins. We have given our words."
"You're going to fight it out in the ring like a show?"
"It was the best I could do on such short notice. If you had warned me days ago, perhaps something else could have been arranged."
I ignored that. Besides, I was feeling guilty.
I took off the sweatshirt and laid it across the railing. There were gasps from the people near enough to see my gun.
"The fight's going to take place out in the ring."
"In front of the audience?" Edward said.
"I don't get it," Larry said.
"I want you to stay here, Larry."
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Larry, you don't have any weapons. You don't know how to use a gun. You're just cannon fodder until you get some training. Stay here."
He shook his head.
I touched his arm. "Please, Larry."
Maybe it was the please, or the look in my eyes–whatever, he nodded. I could breathe a little easier. Whatever happened tonight, Larry wouldn't die because I'd brought him into it. It wouldn't be my fault.
I climbed over the railing and dropped to the ring. Edward followed me with a swish of black cape. I glanced back once. Larry stood gripping the rail. There was something forlorn about him standing there alone, but he was safe; that was what counted.
I touched the shimmering curtain, and it was the lights. The cloth was white up close. I lifted it to one side, and entered, Edward at my back.
There was a multilayered dais complete with throne in the center of the circle. Rashida stood with Stephen near the foot of the dais. I recognized Richard's hair and his naked chest before he lifted the mask off his face. It was a white mask with a blue star on one cheek. He was wearing glittering blue harem pants with a matching vest and shoes. Everyone was in costume but me.
"I was hoping you wouldn't make it in time," Richard said.
"What, and miss the Halloween blowout of all time?"
"Who's that with you?" Stephen asked.
"Death," I said.
"Trust you to bring death to the ball, ma petite."
I looked up the dais, to the very top. Jean-Claude stood in front of the throne. He was finally wearing what his shirts hinted at, but this was the real thing. The real French courtier. I didn't know what to call half of the costume. The coat was black with tasteful silver here and there. A short half-cloak was worn over one shoulder only. The pants were billowy and tucked into calf-high boots. Lace edged the foldover tops of the boots. A wide white collar lay at his throat. Lace spilled out of the coat sleeves. It was topped off by a wide, almost floppy hat with a curving arch of black and white feathers.
The costumed throng moved to either side, clearing the stairs up to the throne for me. I somehow didn't want to go. There were sounds outside the curtains. Heavy things being moved around. More scenery and props being moved up.
I glanced at Edward. He was staring at the crowd, eyes taking in everything. Hunting for victims, or for familiar faces?
Everyone was in costume, but very few people were actually wearing masks. Yasmeen and Marguerite stood about halfway up the stairs. Yasmeen was in a scarlet sari, all veils and sequins. Her dark face looked very natural in the red silk. Marguerite was in a long dress with puffed sleeves and a wide lace collar. The dress was of some dark blue cloth. It was simple, unadorned. Her blond hair was in complicated curls with one large mass over each ear and a small bun atop her head. Hers, like Jean-Claude's, looked less like a costume and more like antique clothing.
I walked up the stairs towards them. Yasmeen dropped her veils enough to expose the cross-shaped scar I'd given her. "Someone will pay you back for this tonight."
"Not you personally?" I asked.
"You don't care who wins, do you?"
She smiled. "I am loyal to Jean-Claude, of course."
"As loyal as you were, ma petite." She drew out each syllable, biting each sound off.
I left her to laugh at my back. I guess I wasn't the one to complain about loyalties.
There were a pair of wolves sitting at Jean-Claude's feet. They stared at me with strange pale eyes. There was nothing human in the gaze. Real wolves. Where had he gotten real wolves?
I stood two steps down from him and his pet wolves. His face was unreadable, empty and perfect.
"You look like something out of The Three Musketeers," I said.
"Accurate, ma petite."
"Is it your original century?"
He smiled a smile that could have meant anything, or nothing.
"What's going to happen tonight, Jean-Claude?"
"Come, stand beside me, where my human servant belongs." He extended a pale hand.
I ignored the hand and stepped up. He'd talked inside my head. It was getting silly to argue. Arguing didn't make it not true.
One of the wolves growled low in its chest. I hesitated.
"They will not harm you. They are my creatures."
Like me, I thought.
Jean-Claude put his hand down towards the wolf. It cringed and licked his hand. I stepped carefully around the wolf. But it ignored me, all its attention on Jean-Claude. It was sorry it had growled at me. It would do anything to make up for it. It groveled like a dog.
I stood at his right side, a little behind the wolf.
"I had picked out a lovely costume for you."
"If it was anything that would have matched yours, I wouldn't have worn it."
He laughed, soft and low. The sound tugged at something low in my gut. "Stay here by the throne with the wolves while I make my speech."
"We really are going to fight in front of the crowd."
He stood. "Of course. This is the Circus of the Damned, and tonight is Halloween. We will show them a spectacle the likes of which they have never seen."
"This is crazy."
"Probably, but it keeps Oliver from bringing the building down around us."
"Could he do that?"
"That and much more, ma petite, if we had not agreed to limit our use of such powers."
"Could you bring the building down?"
He smiled, and for once gave me a straight answer. "No, but Oliver does not know that."
I had to smile.
He draped himself over the throne, one leg thrown over a chair arm. He tucked his hat low until all I could see was his mouth. "I still cannot believe that you betrayed me, Anita."
"You gave me no choice."
"You would really see me dead rather than have the fourth mark."
He whispered, "Showtime, Anita."
The lights suddenly went off. There were screams from the audience as it sat in the sudden dark. The curtain pulled back on either side. I was suddenly on the edge of the spotlight. The light shone like a star in the dark. Jean-Claude and his wolves were bathed in a soft light. I had to agree that my pumpkin sweater didn't exactly fit the motif.
Jean-Claude stood in one boneless movement. He swept his hat off and gave a low, sweeping bow. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you will witness a great battle." He began to move slowly down the steps. The spotlight moved with him. He kept the hat off, using it for emphasis in his hand. "The battle for the soul of this city."
He stopped, and the light spread wider to include two blond vampires. The two women were dressed as 1920s flappers, one in blue, the other in red. The women flashed fangs, and there were gasps from the audience. "Tonight you will see vampires, werewolves, gods, devils." He filled each word with something. When he said "vampires," there was a ruffling at your neck. "Werewolves" slashed from the dark, and there were screams. "Gods" breathed along the skin. "Devils" were a hot wind that scalded your face.
Gasps and stifled screams filled the dark.
"Some of what you see tonight will be real, some illusion; which is which will be for you to decide." "Illusion" echoed in the mind like a vision through glass, repeating over and over. The last sound died away with a whisper that sounded like a different word altogether. "Real," the voice whispered.
"The monsters of this city fight for control of it this Halloween. If we win, then all goes peaceful as before. If our enemies win…" A second spotlight picked out the top of a second dais. There was no throne. Oliver stood at the top with the lamia in full serpent glory. Oliver was dressed in a baggy white jump suit with large polka dots on it. His face was white with a sad smile drawn on it. One heavily lined eye dropped a sparkling tear. A tiny pointed hat with a bright blue pom-pom topped his head.
A clown? He had chosen to be a clown? It wasn't what I had pictured him in. But the lamia was impressive with her striped coils curled around him, her naked breasts caressed by his gloved hand.
"If our enemies win, then tomorrow night will see a bloodbath such as no city in the world has ever seen. They will feed upon the flesh and blood of this city until it is drained dry and lifeless." He had stopped about halfway down. Now he began to come back up the stairs. "We fight for your lives, your very souls. Pray that we win, dear humans; pray very, very hard."
He sat in the throne. One of the wolves put a paw on his leg. He stroked its head absently.
"Death comes to all humans," Oliver said.
The spotlight died on Jean-Claude, leaving Oliver as the only light in the darkness. Symbolism at its best.
"You will all die someday. In some small accident, or long disease. Pain and agony await you." The audience rustled uneasily in their seats.
"Are you protecting me from his voice?" I asked.
"The marks are," Jean-Claude said.
"What is the audience feeling?"
"A sharp pain over the heart. Age slowing their bodies. The quick horror of some remembered accident."
Gasps, screams, cries filled the dark as Oliver's words sought out each person and made them feel their mortality.
It was obscene. Something that had seen a million years was reminding mere humans how very fragile life was.
"If you must die, would it not be better to die in our glorious embrace?" The lamia crawled around the dais to show herself to all the audience. "She could take you, oh, so sweetly, soft, gentle into that dark night. We make death a celebration, a joyful passing. No lingering doubts. You will want her hands upon you in the end. She will show you joys that few mortals ever dream of. Is death such a high price to pay, when you will die anyway? Wouldn't it be better to die with our lips upon your skin than by time's slowly ticking clock?"
There were a few cries of "Yes… Please…"
"Stop him," I said.
"This is his moment, ma petite. I cannot stop him."
"I offer you all your darkest dreams come true in our arms, my friends. Come to us now."
The darkness rustled with movement. The lights came up, and there were people coming out of the seats. People climbing over the railing. People coming to embrace death.
They all froze in the light. They stared around like sleepers waking from a dream. Some looked embarrassed, but one man close to the rail looked near tears, as if some bright vision had been ripped away. He collapsed to his knees, shoulders shaking. He was sobbing. What had he seen in Oliver's words? What had he felt in the air? God, save us from it.
With the lights I could see what they had moved in while we waited behind the curtains. It looked like a marble altar with steps leading up to it. It sat between the two daises, waiting. For what? I turned to ask Jean-Claude, but something was happening.
Rashida walked away from the dais, putting herself close to the railing, and the people. Stephen, wearing what looked like a thong bathing suit, stalked to the other side of the ring. His nearly naked body was just as smooth and flawless as Rashida's "We heal fast," she'd said.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we will give you a few moments to recover yourselves from the first magic of the evening. Then we will show you some of our secrets."
The crowd settled back into their seats. An usher helped the crying man back to his seat. A hush fell over the people. I had never heard so large a crowd be so silent. You could have dropped a pin.
"Vampires are able to call animals to their aid. My animal is the wolf." He walked around the top of the dais displaying the wolves. I stood there in the spotlight and wasn't sure what to do. I wasn't on display. I was just visible.
"But I can also call the wolf's human cousin. The werewolf." He made a wide, sweeping gesture with his arm. Music began. Soft and low at first, then rising in a shimmering crescendo.
Stephen fell to his knees. I turned, and Rashida was on the ground as well. They were going to change right here in front of the crowd. I'd never seen a shapeshifter shift before. I had to admit a certain… curiosity.
Stephen was on all fours. His bare back was bowed with pain. His long yellow hair trailed on the ground. The skin on his back rippled like water, his spine standing like a ridge in the middle. He stretched out his hands as if he were bowing, face pressed to the ground. Bones broke through his hands. He groaned. Things moved under his skin like crawling animals. His spine bowed upward as if rising like a tent all on its own. Fur started to flow out of the skin on his back, spreading impossibly fast like a timelapse photo. Bones and some heavy, clear liquid poured out of his skin. Shapes strained and ripped through his skin. Muscles writhed like snakes. Heavy, wet sounds came as bone shifted in and out of flesh. It was as if the wolf's shape was punching its way out of the man's body. Fur flowed fast and faster, the color of dark honey. The fur hid some of the changes, and I was glad.
Something between a howl and a scream tore from his throat. Finally, there was that same manwolf form as the night we fought the giant cobra. The wolfman threw his muzzle skyward and howled. The sound raised the hairs on my body.
A second howl echoed from the other side. I whirled, and there was a second wolfman form, but this one was as black as pitch. Rashida?
The audience applauded wildly, stamping and shouting.
The werewolves crept back to the dais. They crouched at the bottom, one on each side.
"I have nothing so showy to offer you." The lights were back on Oliver. "The snake is my creature." The lamia twined around him, hissing loud enough to carry to the audience. She flicked a forked tongue to lick his white-coated ear.
He motioned to the foot of the dais. Two black-cloaked figures stood on either side, hoods hiding their faces. "These are my creatures, but let us keep them for a surprise." He looked across at us. "Let it begin."
The lights went out again. I fought the urge to reach for Jean-Claude in the thick dark. "What's happening?"
"The battle begins," he said.
"We have not planned the rest of the evening, Anita. It will be like every battle, chaotic, violent, bloody."
The lights came up gradually until the tent was bathed in a dim glow, like dusk or twilight. "It begins," Jean-Claude whispered.
The lamia flowed down the steps, and each side ran for the other. It wasn't a battle. It was a free-for-all, more like a bar brawl than a war.
The cloaked things ran forward. I had a glimpse of something vaguely snakelike but not. A spatter of machine-gun fire and the thing staggered back. Edward.
I started down the steps, gun in hand. Jean-Claude never moved. "Aren't you coming down?"
"The real battle will happen up here, ma petite. Do what you can, but in the end it will come down to Oliver's power and mine."
"He's a million years old. You can't beat him."
We stared at each other for a moment. "I'm sorry," I said.
"So am I, ma petite, Anita, so am I."
I ran down the steps to join the fight. The snake-thing had collapsed, bisected by the machine-gun fire. Edward was standing back to back with Richard, who had a revolver in his hands. He was shooting it into one of the cloaked things and wasn't even slowing it down. I sighted down my arm and fired at the cloaked head. The thing stumbled and turned towards me. The hood fell backwards, revealing a cobra's head the size of a horse's. From the neck down it was a woman, but from the neck up… Neither my shot nor Richard's had made a dent. The thing came up the steps towards me. I didn't know what it was, or how to stop it. Happy Halloween.