by Kagamino Kage (鏡乃 影)
illustrated by tongari
There was a seed deep within the earth, scorched and blackened. It pulsed with life, a deep throbbing he felt through the soles of his feet.
He found his tongue was made of clay and paper, and it was growing soft and dissolving in his mouth. Reaching into his mouth to rid himself of the foul substance, he found a string, sticky with saliva; he pulled at the string, and felt something bulging up his throat. He coughed, and out came a small broken clock, still ticking even though its hands had ceased to move long ago. He kept pulling: out came a beautiful egg, colored in delicate shades of peacock blue and green, a large crack running all the way down its side, oozing out the premature life inside. He kept pulling: out came a dusty, grey cocoon, hollow, its contents rotted out long before any fantastic transmogrification could occur. He kept pulling: out came a stillborn fetus, malformed and bloody, suffocated inside its placenta, the string (which, he saw now, was actually an umbilical cord) wrapped tightly about its neck.
From this last he recoiled in disgust and horror.
And that was when Joshua awoke with a jolt, his mouth full of dust and sand, the morning sunlight pouring into his eyes like boiling honey. Hay crinkled underneath him as he flung his arms over his face.
Hay? The smell was sharp in his nostrils, alarming. Why on earth would he be lying upon hay? Was he still dreaming?
Cautiously he peeked through a gap between his fingers – iron bars? He looked about, squinting. Bars on three sides, wooden slats above, beneath, and behind him. Strange, arcane-looking symbols were painted on the wood.
He sat up abruptly as though the floor had burned him, but his head swam sickly and he sank back down.
A chink of metal alerted him to the shackle around his ankle.
His heart fluttered weak and rapid as a bird’s. He could not remember how he had gotten here. He couldn’t remember anything.
Strange white robes were wrapped around him, of the sort he imagined a Chinaman might wear, with flowing sleeves and a wide sash. He didn’t know where they’d come from either.
There was a ruckus of workmen all around him – hammers beating, canvas unfurling, voices shouting to and fro. He tried to see beyond the bars of his cage, but the autumn sun bleached the world to an unintelligible blur.
Footsteps approached near his right, crunching in the dead grass. “I take it this is our new guest?” said a male voice; cultured and pleasant, almost musical. “Oh look, he’s awake.”
“Naw, Magician, we done thrown Grinder in there to shut him up,” another voice drawled – female, strangely thin and high-pitched. A familiar voice. “‘Course it’s the new kid, who the hell else would it be?”
No. No, surely not. Surely the image that voice conjured up had only been one of his strange dreams? But when he cupped his hands around his eyes to shield them from the light and peered out, she matched the memory perfectly: a tiny little caricature of a sour-faced woman, scarcely half the height of the man beside her. Not a child, no, not a child’s face, not a child’s body, her breasts pushed up plump above a laced leather corset – everything shrunken down and distorted, her head grotesquely large on her little body.
Joshua stared, slack-jawed.
“What, kid,” she said, “You ain’t never seen a midget before?”
“Ah, Madam Carmel,” said the man, drawing Joshua’s eyes to him, “I am sure that there is nothing quite so very fine as your sweet spleen first thing in the morning.” He was sharp-featured, tall and whipcord thin, elegantly dressed in a long tail coat of deep red and gold brocade. His black hair was exceedingly long, braided back in a queue that went down just past his hips; Joshua might have wondered if the man was an Indian, if not for his milk-pale skin. He held a long, slender black cane loosely between his spidery fingers.
“Who,” said Joshua, and did not get any farther, for his throat was so parched that his voice failed him, and he broke into a coughing fit.
“You’ll find a pail of clean water behind you, I believe,” the man said kindly. Joshua groped for it half-blind, and nearly spilled most of it down his front.
“Who are you?” he blustered hoarsely, once he could drink no more. Clumsily he wiped his mouth dry on his sleeve, his face flushing hot as he realized what a simpleton he must appear. “Where am I?”
“Well ain’t he just a fancy little lord,” muttered the little woman.
The man ignored her, tilting his head at Joshua. “You don’t remember how you got here?”
Joshua shook his head and found it made the world lurch unpleasantly.
“I reckon he don’t,” said the woman. “Lady that brought him had him doped to the gills. Probably thought he was on the moon, from the look of him.”
“Close enough to it, really,” the man remarked.
“Where am I?” said Joshua, panic rising.
The man’s slender lips curved into a teeth-baring smile. “My, my, how rude we have been. Dear boy, you are now a member of the infamous traveling caravan of her majesty the Queen of Spiders, home to wondrous feats of magic and marvels of the natural and unnatural world,” he said with a theatrical flourish. “I am the Magician, master alchemist, conjuror, and illusionist, at your service. This little bundle of sunshine here is our overseer; you may call her Madam Carmel.”
“I.” Joshua swallowed convulsively. “I don’t understand.”
“Boy,” said Madam Carmel with a smirk, “You been sold.”
When the Magician and the midget woman had left him, they’d told him the first showing would be in about an hour – by Joshua’s reckoning it had been nearly that long.
“Just sit there and look spooky and surly,” Madam Carmel had said. “That should come natural enough to you.” She’d laughed at her own joke.
Joshua didn’t know which to fear more – being put on display like some kind of animal, or being left here while the rest of the caravan milled about. As far as he could tell, they were all thoroughly insane.
“That morose wheel of time which rattles and whines upon its eternal axle, too heavy now to bear its own weight as it reels wildly around and around – soon to break free from the eternal and spin free through the stars!”
Joshua stared bemusedly at the fat man who waddled by his cage wheeling a barrel organ on a little trolley. A small gold-and-black monkey in a purple vest sat on the man’s shoulder, picking at the curls of his hair from beneath his too-small bowler hat. The man’s voice was booming, resonant, the words spoken in a rolling cadence, as though he were reciting poetry:
“And then, oh my brothers, then we might be freed from the shackles of the eternal as well, free as God on his throne as he dashes his own favored blue orb to pieces at his feet!”
The man came to an abrupt halt, and turned his head slowly toward Joshua. His face looked greasy and flushed; his lips, dark red and moist with spittle, oozed their way into a leering smile. He then shuffled his way to the center of the circle of wagons, and turned back around as if ready to address Joshua personally. As he cranked the handle of the barrel organ, an eerie, swaying, peculiarly green little tune began to spill out. It was very loud from such close quarters, but the man’s voice rang out still louder, matching its rhythm to the music:
“Look, my brothers, at that dripping maw, dark and dank, that mother-hole filled with all the rot and filth that has shaped our very beings; that most fertile pot, the reeking cesspit overflowing with life in its rawest form; ah, mother Earth…
“The filth that drips to the ground in great cloudy drops! Where so ever it falls great flowers sprouting in the wake – giant monstrous flowers of grotesque majesty and beauty! These flowers bring pilgrims from the four corners to gather in circles and worship, kneeling there beneath the wild petals, lapping at the sour reeking juices soaking through the dirt, praying, praying so fervently for this perverse magic to be worked upon their own treasured beings! And so -”
Madam Carmel’s impressive shriek cut him blessedly short. “Grinder,” she bellowed, “will you shut the hell up! There’s people lining up outside so quit your hollering and get the hell out there and play for ’em!”
The fat man bore all this impassively; then he turned and gave Joshua one last greasy smile before waddling on his way. The monkey stared at Joshua from over the man’s shoulder with great black eyes, unblinking, until they were out of sight.
Joshua shook his head slowly back and forth. They were all mad. Complete lunatics. All of them. Someone had just picked him up and plopped him down in the midst of a madhouse.
Before the organ grinder, he’d been approached by two young women, their arms around one another’s waists. Their gait had been odd, swaying them gently from side to side, and there was something strange about their skirts. As they neared him he realized they were joined at the hip – they shared three legs between them.
They stopped before his cage and clutched at the bars with one hand each, leaning in close like he was the most fascinating thing they had ever seen. The left sister’s eyes were wide and glazed over, the pupils dilated to enormous black pools, her mouth open in a silent cry of joy – like a painting of an enraptured saint. The other sister’s face was twisted into an expression of such excruciating longing that looking at her was like a blow to the chest.
Joshua sat transfixed, unable to speak or move.
The sister on the right let out a little strangled groan, and suddenly lurched forward, reaching through the bars.
Joshua threw himself back with a startled cry. The hand groped vainly, the girl’s eyes enormous and hollow and hungry. Suddenly her sister grabbed her face and kissed her. Their tongues twisted together as Joshua watched, unable to wrench his eyes away.
Finally, to his relief, Madam Carmel had come and shooed them away with her shrill voice, and they returned to their little stage. Painted on the side of their wagon in bright, scrolling letters, Joshua read: “Agony and Ecstasy, the Siamese Twins – Marvels of the natural world! Hear them sing with the voices of angels!”
Besides the twins and the organ grinder, he had also seen a puppeteer wandering around aimlessly with an absent, confused look on his face; he would occasionally set down one of the two puppets slung under his arm and make it dance but for a moment, after which he would mutter to himself and pick the puppet back up, and go back to wandering aimlessly. After that there had been a young man with kohl-lined eyes, dark as a gypsy, wrapped in all manner of brightly colored scarves; he had stopped and looked at Joshua with the most profound and utter lack of expression he had ever seen on a human face, and then walked on without a word.
The only member of the caravan who did not make Joshua exceedingly uneasy was the two-headed goat in the cage next to him; the goat, at least, left him well alone, although the smell was unpleasant to say the least.
The goat was also, Joshua noted sourly, the only other creature in the caravan kept in a cage, as far as he could see.
He had one thing to be thankful for, at least – the Magician had insisted Madam Carmel have Joshua’s cage covered with a tarp to shield him from the burning sun. She had protested, of course: “Hell, Magician, what am I gonna do that for? We ain’t no five-star hotel!”
“Well,” he had said reasonably, “if you would rather we display a live lobster boy – ‘skin as red as a tomato!’ – that is entirely up to you, my dear; but I’m not sure the Crone will approve.”
At that she had grumblingly acquiesced.
A ruckus at the front gate alerted him to the entering crowd. Joshua saw the Magician greeting them, his voice mostly lost in the din. They quieted as he lined them up in a queue, directing them to walk though a wagon painted with all manner of ghastly illustrations – mostly things such as fetuses with two heads or faces distorted into the semblance of a fish, and animals with too few limbs or limbs where they did not belong.
“…natural and unnatural marvels for your elucidation and education,” the Magician was saying, “preserved in a variety of manners alchemic and scientific.”
Joshua heard one man let out a shout from inside, which was followed by gales of laughter.
Next came the strongman, a colored gentleman with a shaven head and severe features – accompanied, to Joshua’s surprise, by Madam Carmel, who was the midget strongwoman. After they preformed rivaling feats of strength to the Magician’s sensational narration, the crowd was amused to see the midget lift sandbags three times her own weight over her head, and then get lifted over the head of the strongman in turn.
“Damnit, boy,” she said, “what you been eatin’?”
The crowd laughed, and moved on.
Next were the Siamese twins, Agony and Ecstasy. The Magician traced his hand over their joined flesh for the spectators with a sharp-toothed smile. “Such beautiful faces you find before you, yet these sisters are afflicted with a most unusual condition; they are joined at the hip, sharing three legs between them.” He lifted the girls’ skirts just high enough to show the three feet peeking out underneath.
There was a strange, magnetic quality to his voice, Joshua noticed, and in his graceful movements; and his words seemed to weave a spell around the crowd, riveting their attention in whatever direction he pointed it.
“You may find their condition gruesome, ladies and gentleman, but I assure you that they have the voices of angels…”
He trailed off with a wave of his hand, and the two girls began to sing.
Joshua felt himself go cold. It was the most haunting melody he had ever heard – and though he was sure he had never heard it before, it somehow seemed deeply familiar. One sister would start the thread of the music; then the other sister would pick it up; then the first would join back in again, and their voices would swell into one, inseparable. An ache bloomed in Joshua’s chest, sharp and bright and gnawing.
The lyrics were incomprehensible, sung in some starkly beautiful language he could not recognize.
When they finally trailed off, the last note quavering on the air, Joshua gasped with relief, clutching at his chest. It ached so badly he could barely stand it, and yet somehow he never wanted the pain to go away. The audience also reeled a bit as they moved on to the next act, but they did not seem quite so shaken as Joshua felt.
Next came the two-headed goat, which turned out to be, in the end, just a two-headed goat. It could not sing or lift heavy weights or do anything in particular; it was only interesting because it had two heads. One head seemed to be sleeping, while the other bleated balefully at the crowd. Several people giggled.
The Magician led them on.
With an unpleasant jolt, Joshua realized that he was next. Quickly he huddled into the back corner of the cage and tried to make himself as small as possible.
“This creature you see before you here, ladies and gentleman,” said the Magician as they all milled in front, “is currently the only ghostly spirit existing in captivity.”
Joshua sat bolt upright. The man and woman standing nearest his cage both jerked back with a start; the man then cleared his throat awkwardly, embarrassed at his own show of nerves.
“Regretfully I cannot claim he is the first,” the Magician went on, “as the methods of spirit capture have been laid down by many a past master before me – but these methods have long been forgotten by the rest of modern man, and thus he is certainly the only one of his kind today.”
Joshua stared at the Magician in mute fury. A ghost? A ghost? What ridiculous – he couldn’t possibly expect – no one would believe such a stupid thing!
“That ain’t no ghost,” said one of the spectators, and spat tobacco juice upon the ground.
Joshua nearly blurted out some sour note of congratulations on stating the obvious, but restrained himself.
“Come now, sir,” said the Magician, his pale gray eyes aglitter with mischief, “and what makes you take my word for a lie?”
“That there’s an albino,” said the man, jutting his chin at Joshua. “I got a cousin with a little girl looks just like that.”
The Magician gave the man a little bow. “Right you are to notice the similarity of features – the white skin and hair and the pale eyes are indeed very much like an albino’s. However, I think if you all look closely, you will perceive the truth of the matter…” The Magician gestured broadly at the cage as he trailed off.
The whole group leaned forward all as one. There was a pause in the air itself, a lowering of pressure, as if the whole world had briefly ceased in its respirations. Joshua wondered what the Magician was up to.
A gasp and a ripple suddenly swept through the audience as they all pulled back. One woman let out a strangled scream and stepped on the skirts of the woman behind her; they both tripped and nearly fell, and it took a few moments for them to get sorted out. Baffled, Joshua tried to find the reason for it written on their faces, but he could only find awe and fear – and, in one or two, anger.
“What’s the meaning of this trickery!” demanded one man.
“Oh, there’s no trickery, I can assure you,” said the Magician serenely.
“Ah,” moaned the woman who had screamed, fanning herself furiously. “Ah, the poor thing…”
At that Joshua blinked, surprised.
“It’s very well for the creature to have your sympathies now, madam,” said the Magician, “but you would do well not to think him only some helpless victim innocent of wrongdoing. All that prevents him from passing right through the bars of that cage are the spells which keep him bound to that location – and while you have my assurances that those spells are solid, should any of you gentle ladies fall to his… enchantments, I’m afraid we can’t guarantee your safety.”
A general murmur of protest went up at that. The Magician raised his hand to hold them off. “Now, now – consider the romantic ideal of a love extending beyond death. Take a good look at him; can you truly find yourselves unmoved by the prospect of such a handsome young gentleman whispering endearments at your window?”
He gave the crowd a licentious smirk, and they understood it for a joke – but not a few of the women were blushing scarlet as they tittered behind their handkerchiefs, and not a few of the young men at their sides looked surly at the prospect.
Joshua looked away from them and crossed his arms over his chest, his face also burning. He had never been called handsome before, but he found it wasn’t much better than being called a freak, when it was for the entertainment of a crowd at his expense.
But then it was over, and the Magician was saying step this way, right this way, and they were all gone. His nerves felt devastated, and he slumped limply against the bars. He managed to work up the energy to pull himself to the front of the cage so that he could see.
The Magician directed them to stand in a circle around the bonfire in the center of the clearing. He stepped up to the edge of it, cautioning the others to keep their distance. Then he waved his hand up through the air, and out of the fire rose the strange black orb Joshua had seen earlier, and hovered there just over the flames.
Joshua gripped the bars, staring. There was nothing overtop of the fire for it to hang from. The audience echoed his amazement in excited murmurs.
Its surface was crackled and flaking, some sections shiny as glass, bubbling up with the heat. “This object you see before you,” said the Magician, still holding his hand in the air as if that were supporting the thing, “has been hypothesized to be many different things: it has been said to be a seed, dropped from the world tree in ancient times; others have claimed it to be the lost pearl of an eastern dragon, imbued with its magical powers; others still have argued that it is only some mutant species of plant seed – grotesque, granted, but of mundane origins. One thing is certain, however -”
An odd ripple passed along the thing’s surface, near the base; abruptly a curling white tendril burst through it, reaching down. Then another burst through, and another; and then more tendrils began to branch off from the originals, forking outward.
Roots. They were roots.
“It cannot be destroyed,” finished the Magician. “It resists every attempt to crush it, no poison or corrosive substance has been shown to harm it in any fashion, and burning serves only to keep it dormant. Once removed from fire…”
Pale green stems began to burst out of the top of the orb, small leaves jutting outward.
“…It grows at the unsettlingly rapid pace you see here.” He lowered his hand, and the seed descended back into the flames. The newly sprouted roots and stems curled and browned and fell to ash. “We keep it bedded in fire at all times – otherwise, who can say what might become of the world?” He gave them a wicked smile.
The crowd murmured amongst themselves in hushed tones. Joshua struggled to fathom how it could have been done, but he hadn’t a clue. He did not, of course, imagine for a moment that it was real; he was not a ghost, obviously, so why would that thing be any more supernatural than he was?
Yet he remembered his dream of a blackened, pulsing seed, and started to chew absently at the tip of his thumb.
The crowd filed away from the fire. The Magician led them to a stage at the back of a green wagon that was stationed right next to the front gate. The wagon was emblazoned with a large, Egyptian-styled eye, and many smaller symbols, most of which Joshua did not recognize, were arranged in a circular pattern around it. On the stage stood the dark-skinned man in the many-colored scarves.
Ah, Joshua realized – a fortune teller. The Magician lead the crowd in asking various inane questions of the man – who gave whom this silver pocket watch, from where did this necklace come from, what number is this man thinking of – and his answers were given as flat and devoid of expression as his face. It served, Joshua realized, to give him a more profound air of mystery and wisdom; but this probably would not have worked half so well without the Magician’s manipulation of the crowd. The fortune teller spoke softly, and so it was hard for Joshua to make out exactly what he was saying from this distance, but the audience all oohed and ahhed their amazement and chattered excitedly at his answers.
The Magician left them queuing up for ‘personal consultations’ – for a token fee, of course – and headed toward Joshua’s cage. Joshua’s awe over the seed fell away, and he remembered that he was angry.
“What was the meaning of that?!” he demanded, before the Magician had even fully reached him.
The Magician lifted his brows. “The meaning of what, might I ask?”
“Of calling me a ghost, of all things!”
“Ah,” he chuckled. He leaned against the side of the cage, retrieving a tin of cigarettes from his pocket. “Very well, I shall tell you. It’s quite simple, really: you can find an albino at any half-penny gathering of misfits from one side of the country to the other – but very few claim any sort of supernatural spirit. You’re not worth terribly much if you’re only uncommonly pale.” He held out the open tin. “Cigarette?” he asked.
“I don’t smoke,” said Joshua sourly.
The Magician shrugged and took one for himself. “Suit yourself,” he said. Joshua wanted, more than anything, to punch the man right in his smug, grinning face.
Just then Madam Carmel came by, looking fair pleased with herself. “Hey Ghost,” she said as she passed, “I reckon they liked you.”
“My name isn’t Ghost!” Joshua protested.
“Well it sure as hell is now!” A spill of raucous laughter trailed behind her as she walked on.
Joshua glared after her for a moment before turning it back on the Magician. “What did you do?”
The Magician blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“They – when they looked at me, they – saw something. What did you do?”
“Oh, that.” The Magician struck a match and paused to light his cigarette. An acrid scent of phosphorous drifted as he shook out the flame; Joshua wrinkled his nose. “I only showed them a little of the truth.”
Joshua made an impatient sound. “What does that mean? And what on earth is that – that thing over there?” He pointed at the fire.
“You can’t possibly expect,” said the Magician, looking amused, “that I would actually tell you that?”
Joshua felt his face color, and his mouth worked uselessly for a moment before he turned away, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring a hole through the floor.
“In any event,” the Magician said, breathing smoke like a well-dressed dragon, “I came over here to make you an offer.”
“I could get you out of that cage,” said the Magician. “If.”
Refusing to play along, Joshua silently waited. “Fine, fine,” the Magician conceded. “I need an assistant. You’ll do, if you’re willing.”
“No,” said Joshua automatically.
The Magician quirked an eyebrow.
“I don’t trust you,” Joshua explained.
The Magician laughed at him. “My dear boy, I should have a rather low estimation of your intellect if I thought you did,” he said. “But I don’t see as you have many other options at present – unless you’re feeling well at home in your current, ah, place of residence?” He gestured with his cigarette at the cage.
“I,” said Joshua. His throat felt tight, and his tongue seemed heavy and clumsy in his mouth. “I don’t -”
“You don’t have to make a choice now. Consider it a standing offer,” said the Magician. “I do sympathize with your situation, but there’s little else I can do for it.”
“You could let me go,” Joshua snapped.
“No,” the Magician said, “I couldn’t. There are certain… arrangements that must be met, you must understand. My sister would have my head if I simply let you go.”
“The Crone,” said the Magician. “Otherwise known as the Queen of Spiders. She owns this whole caravan.” He waved in the direction of a wagon emblazoned with bright red lettering and stylized cobwebs. It read: “Her Majesty, the Queen of Spiders! The most terrifying beauty you will ever behold!”
“Oh,” said Joshua. “Oh!” he said again, fragments of memory returning. “I saw her! Last night. She was the one… that bought me.”
“She would have been, yes.”
“But… Why do you call her ‘Crone’?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well – she isn’t old, obviously,” said Joshua. In fact, the woman in his memory was staggeringly beautiful, all shining dark hair and youthful pale skin, sweet scent and silk, plump breasts showing over top of her scandalously low-cut robe.
“Ah,” said the Magician, “but appearances can be deceiving.” He gave Joshua a measured look. “Tell me, boy. If it were possible for me to simply set you free – where would you go?”
“I -” said Joshua, and then fell silent.
“Who sold you?” the Magician pressed.
“My mother,” Joshua muttered.
“I thought as much. My, my, such fine maternal instincts.”
“It’s not her fault!”
The Magician’s eyes widened a little at Joshua’s outburst.
“It’s not her fault,” Joshua repeated, more softly. “She’s not… well.”
“In my experience, when one says that a person is ‘not well’ in that particular tone of voice, what they actually mean to say is ‘stark raving mad’.”
Joshua’s lips pursed sullenly, but it wasn’t as though he could deny it. “She thought I was… something unnatural. That I was possessed or – or something like that. She thought that was why I was born looking like this.”
“After father died, she got worse. She thought I had – I don’t know, that I’d cursed him, maybe. She thought it was my fault. So I guess she decided to get rid of me.”
“Tell me,” said the Magician, “how old are you?”
“Seventeen,” Joshua answered. “I’ll be eighteen end of next month. Why?”
“Why did you not simply leave?”
“Your mother’s house,” the Magician specified. “Why did you not leave it?”
Joshua stared at the man. It wasn’t something that had ever even occurred to him. “I – I’d never left home in my life,” he said. “Where could I go?”
The Magician stood silently finishing the remnants of his cigarette; slowly it dawned on Joshua what the purpose of this little exercise had been. Joshua felt his stomach turn.
Of course. Of course. It wasn’t as though he had anywhere he could go. Obviously he couldn’t go home.
The Magician threw the stub of the cigarette to the ground and crushed it under his heel. “Think on it,” he said. “I’ll wait.”
And he walked off, leaving Joshua gasping in the void left behind.
The day passed like molasses oozing through a sieve.
There was the matter of the cage. The cage was about as deep as he was tall, and as wide as that by half again. He could not stand without ducking his head – and though Joshua wasn’t particularly tall, he wasn’t particularly short, either. His back was starting to cramp.
The shackle seemed rather redundant; did they expect he really would slip right through the bars? It was starting to chafe.
With some effort, he found, he could pull the tarp so that it covered most of the front of the cage, allowing him some little privacy to attend to his personal needs. He supposed he should be thankful for small favors. He wondered what the midget woman had expected him to do – just go in full view of the rest of the world?
Well. She probably had.
By midday he was so restless he could hardly stand it. His robe, though of a fairly soft cotton, itched at him. The dust kept making him sneeze. He tried to pace his cage but it gave him a crick in his neck and made him feel silly besides.
Soon, he thought, he would be driven as mad as the rest of them.
Everyone was busy enough that they left Joshua mostly alone. It should have been a blessing; but he was so bored he would almost take the organ grinder’s gibbering by now. When the Magician finally appeared again in the afternoon, he grasped desperately at the prospect of conversation before it occurred to him that he should not appear too eager. “What do you do?” he blurted, before the Magician had even said anything.
The man looked a bit taken aback. “Your pardon?” he said.
“You – I mean -” Joshua floundered. “If I’m supposed to – consider what you said, I mean. I can’t if I don’t even know what you do.”
“What I do? Why, like any other magician, I perform magic, of course. You’ve seen it already.”
“But that’s only -” Joshua shook his head. “I mean, don’t you do a show or something?”
“Yes, I do. This evening, along with my sister.”
“Then do something,” Joshua said, feeling foolish. “Do some magic, like what you would do in a show.”
The Magician’s lips curled. “All right,” he said, and reached between the bars of the cage. His gloved hand brushed the side of Joshua’s face; it took all of Joshua’s will not to flinch away. From Joshua’s ear the Magician produced a single silver coin, and held it out for inspection.
Joshua scoffed. “I’ve spent my entire life at home, and even I’ve seen that done before.” His skin burned where the Magician had touched him.
“Fair enough.” The Magician covered the coin with his other hand for but a moment. When he removed it, the coin had become a pretty little egg colored in delicate shades of peacock blue and green.
Recognition made Joshua’s breath catch in his throat. That egg – he’d dreamed that egg. Just like the seed.
But he schooled himself. “You had that hidden up your sleeve,” he said.
“Perhaps I did,” said the Magician with a shrug. “Here, take it.” The egg sat brightly on his outstretched palm.
Joshua lifted it gingerly – and then froze, staring at the egg still sitting there in the man’s hand. Confused, Joshua looked at the egg in his own hand, wondering if he’d somehow imagined picking it up; but no, it was there – there were two of them, now. It felt warm and heavy in his palm, the shell strangely soft and pliant. He looked back and forth between the two eggs. They were identical.
“How -” he said, looking up.
The Magician smiled serenely, and then clenched his hand into a fist. Joshua flinched and made an involuntary sound of dismay – surely the egg had been crushed? But as the Magician uncurled his fingers one by one, he revealed a tiny, coiled green serpent, newly hatched, upon his palm. The snake unraveled itself and began to twine its way around the Magician’s fingers, long tongue flickering out to taste the air.
Joshua gaped at it. “Is it – is it real?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s quite real,” the Magician chuckled. “Here.” He held the snake out for Joshua to examine. It seemed an impossibly brilliant shade of green. Joshua stroked the little diamond-shaped head, felt the tickle of its tongue against his skin. His fingers brushed against the Magician’s briefly.
Joshua looked up into the man’s face; it was, he suddenly realized, just as pale as his own. He wondered at that – with such white skin, the man might well be an albino like Joshua, but his hair was black as coal. The man’s features were startlingly alien, almost fae – and there was a certain air of mischief about them that could not be absolved even when, like now, the man wore no expression whatsoever.
His gray eyes were so pale they were almost colorless. They reminded Joshua of a winter sky.
“What do you want with me?” he blurted.
The Magician looked at him strangely. “What do I want with you?” he echoed. “I’ve already told you; I need an assistant. It’s more traditional for a woman to fill the role, but you’ll do. In fact, you’ll do nicely – that complexion of yours will make fools think you capable of all manner of supernatural feats.” He smirked. “And it’s lucky you’ve a pretty face, as well. I suppose if you were truly hideous, that would also work, but we have plenty enough of the grotesque on display here as it is.”
Without warning, the man reached forward and pulled a piece of hay from where it had tangled in Joshua’s long white-blonde hair. Perhaps it was only Joshua’s imagination, but his hand seemed to linger there longer than necessary.
Joshua pulled back a little. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath.
“Magician!” Madam Carmel’s voice screeched from across the clearing. “We’re waitin’ for you, here!”
The Magician grimaced. Twining the little snake around his wrist like a bracelet, he adjusted his cuff so the creature was covered. “Well,” he said. “Duty calls, et cetera.” He turned to leave.
“Wait,” said Joshua. “Your egg…”
“Keep it?” Joshua looked down at the thing in his hand, and then back at the Magician. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Why, you may do whatever you like with it,” the Magician replied. “It’s yours, after all.” And with that, the man gave a little bow and walked away.
Joshua put the egg in the corner behind his water pail and hoped he didn’t end up crushing it.
The Magician did not come to speak to him again that day, and the performance in the evening was in the tent at the back of the camp, so he could not watch it. The world gradually went dark and still, as the audience left, as the performers and the workmen bedded down for the night. Joshua, wrapped in a thin blanket, curled up and tried to make himself forget where he was and sleep, but sleep did not come. He shivered in the chill autumn night.
A murmuring voice drew his attention. It came from the direction of the fortune teller’s wagon. Joshua peered out and saw the fortune teller there, standing outside, the Magician standing behind him.
The Magician’s arms were wrapped around the fortune teller’s body, one hand reaching down between the dark man’s legs. The fortune teller was arching against it, his lips parted, his eyes heavy-lidded with lust.
Joshua could not turn away.
Suddenly the Magician looked up, his eyes cutting straight to Joshua’s, their gazes locking. The man’s mouth curved salaciously, and he pushed up the fortune teller’s tunic to expose the expanse of firm golden flesh beneath it, as if especially for Joshua’s benefit.
Joshua whipped around and hid himself as best he could behind the curtain, his heart in his throat and a pulsing in his loins.
After that he thought he would never sleep, but he must have; because at some point a smell woke him, a sweetly piercing smell, like little bells ringing. He opened his eyes to find the fire in the clearing burning high, the flames made all of emerald, casting a green pallor upon everything the light touched.
A few yards before the flame, the Magician reclined upon a red and gold throne. His hair was unbound, flowing down his slender frame and over the arms of the throne, shining green-black in the glow. There was something different here from the Magician that Joshua knew; there was an indescribable rawness, something dangerous and wild.
Directly before the flames crouched a naked boy on all fours, bathed in the strange light. He wore a leather harness over his body as though he were a dog. His hair was short and dark, his skin fair and smooth; he did not look older than thirteen or fourteen.
The Magician watched him, waiting, as the boy turned over cards in the dust with his mouth. The cards were arranged in an elaborate circular formation, framing two central cards. Joshua wished he could see what was on them.
No sooner had he thought it than his perception seemed to move out through the bars of his cage, as if his eyes had just crawled out of their sockets and flown forward to look. Though the rest of the cards seemed all a blur, he saw the two cards in the center clearly:
One depicted an androgynous angel standing with one foot on land, and one foot on water; the angel poured water back and fourth between two vessels. The caption beneath the image read, “Temperance.” The other depicted the moon with a stream running beneath, and a crab crawling out of the water amidst howling dogs to take a path that led between two tall towers. Its caption read, “The Moon.”
There was a shift, like the earth had tilted on its axis. Sensing something near, Joshua looked up, and then sucked a breath in through his teeth.
The moon hung there, near indeed, almost close enough to touch. It loomed huge and heavy, almost swallowing the sky. All but a sliver of the orb was in shadow, but it was so close Joshua could see all the details of it, could see all the hills and craters that pocked its surface.
From the base of the moon sprouted a myriad of fleshy roots, long and pale, reaching down, down, like they’d tether the moon to the earth if they could. There were vines twirling downward, too – luminescent green tendrils and leaves curling like feathers, hung with bell-shaped flowers in blue and purple.
Was the moon a seed, like the black kernel that roasted in the fire below it?
A crack shattered the air as the Magician snapped his fingers. The boy in the harness turned at the sound, one remaining card held in his mouth. He crawled obediently over to the Magician’s feet and sat back on his haunches, for all the world like a master’s favored hound. The Magician ruffled the boy’s hair, briefly; then he took the card from the boy’s mouth and stood.
He held the card up at his side between his index and middle fingers. Again Joshua wished to know what was on it; and again his perception surged out of his cage and over to see. The card depicted a young man before a table; on the table rested a sword, a cup, a wand and a pentacle, and over his head floated a figure eight. One hand reached toward the sky, holding a candle lit at both ends, while the other hand pointed at the ground. The caption read, “The Magician.”
Of course. Joshua felt like laughing.
Almost idly, he noted that the Magician’s hands were not gloved, and that his fingers were tipped with thick claws.
A flick of the Magician’s wrist sent the card cutting through the air. It halted beneath the moon, spinning in the air as it hovered just above the green flames; then, abruptly, it burst into a shower of sparks.
Something deep inside the earth turned over with a great flop; something deep inside Joshua did the same. Joshua clung to the bars of his cage. He was full of liquid stone, heaving, reshaping, flowing. The ground was moving; he was moving.
There was a sound that he recognized for his own voice, crying out in terror.
He awoke with a jolt.
It was morning. Joshua laid there, gasping and confused. He rubbed at his face and looked around. It was daylight, and there was no throne, and no boy in a harness, and the moon was way up in the sky where it belonged, a dim sliver in the bright blue.
A dream. Of course it was a dream – a very ridiculous dream.
He rolled over and buried his face in his arms, trying to blot out the sun.
A rap-rap-rapping came sharp and sudden as a pistol firing. Joshua shot up with his heart in his throat.
The Magician stood there before him, a disgustingly satisfied look on his face, cane in hand, its tip resting against the bars of the cage. His eyes were twinkling with amusement.
Where had the man come from, anyway? Joshua had been looking out just a moment before and hadn’t seen him coming.
The Magician jangled a ring of keys around his finger. “Come on,” he said. “We’re going to the river.”
“What for?” Joshua ran his fingers through his hair, pulling hay out of the tangles.
“‘What for?'” the Magician echoed. “Why, so you can bathe, of course. Unless, that is, you’d rather stay in there collecting your own filth, like your friend next door.” He nodded his head at the goat.
Joshua looked at it. One of the creature’s heads bleated mournfully, as though offended.
“Right,” he said, and got up.
He felt the flow of the current around him and thought: Take me with you.
The Magician did not replace the shackle around Joshua’s ankle when he returned him to his cage. There was a red band where it had chafed at his flesh.
He hesitated to tell the man about his dream; part of him feared the man would laugh at its absurdity, while another part feared… something else. That part him feared what he had seen in the Magician of his dream; he fancied he could see it now, lurking behind the man’s pale eyes.
But in the end he told him, without mentioning the boy in the harness, or the Magician’s part in it. “There were cards,” he said. “All these cards. One of them said ‘Temperance’, and another said ‘The Moon’. And the moon was there, really close, and it was – it was growing, like the seed in the fire.”
The Magician hummed thoughtfully, chewing on a stalk of dried grass. “I couldn’t tell you the meaning behind it,” he said. “However, there’s someone who might be of help…”
Before Joshua could stop him, he was calling out to the fortune teller, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground by his wagon. The fortune teller rose and made his way over like an automaton.
Joshua felt his insides squirm uncomfortably, facing them both at the same time. The thought that what he’d seen them doing might have been only a dream didn’t make him feel any better. He looked at the dark man with his unfeeling features, and could not help but remember how that face had been transformed, how those lips had parted and those eyes had gone heavy-lidded with lust.
“Give the boy a reading, won’t you?” said the Magician.
“No, I -” said Joshua.
“He has not paid for a reading,” said the fortune teller.
The Magician pinched the bridge of his nose with a look of long-suffering. “Teller -” he started, and then shook his head. “Never mind. Here.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out two copper coins, took the fortune teller’s hand and dropped the coins into his palm. Joshua’s gaze snagged on the Magician’s long, white-gloved fingers wrapped around the man’s brown wrist.
“There,” said the Magician. “Now he has paid for a reading.”
“As you wish,” said the fortune teller, and pulled a pack from his loose sleeve. He unwrapped it to reveal a deck of cards. Three times he rifled the cards in succession, and then cut the deck down the center; then he held them out to Joshua. “Choose two,” he said.
Joshua blinked. “Don’t you -” he started. “I mean – don’t you need to ask what it’s about?”
“That is unnecessary,” said the Fortune Teller. “Choose two.”
His fingers trembling a little, Joshua pulled one card from the top and one from the bottom, and handed them back to the Fortune Teller. The man flipped them over, laying them before Joshua on the floor of his cage.
Joshua saw the writing and the pictures and felt sick to his stomach, though he was not surprised.
“Temperance and the Moon,” the Fortune Teller intoned. His eyes took on a slightly glazed, far-away look, his voice droning. “Within you exists a passage between worlds. You exist in that space between, a part of neither, though each flows through you in turn. The gap between walls, between the land and the sea, between the Moon and the Earth; you are fated to haunt these spaces like an echo.”
“Um,” said Joshua. “What?”
“If you do not understand, I cannot help you,” said the Fortune Teller, neither irritated nor apologetic. “This truth exists within you, not within me. However, if you wish me to repeat myself -”
“No,” said Joshua, too quickly. “That’s – that’s fine. Thank you.”
The Fortune Teller nodded his head to Joshua, then to the Magician, and then scooped up his cards. He paused. “There will be a storm tonight,” he said; and then he returned to his wagon.
Joshua looked to the Magician, hoping for some clarification.
The man was lighting a cigarette. “Well,” he said, throwing down the match. “There you have it.” And he gave a little bow and walked away.
Some time in the afternoon, something crawled across his hand.
He had dozed off again, slumped inside the shadow of the red curtain. The skittering over his skin woke him with a start. He looked down.
He snatched his hand back with a jerk, and the spider fell into the pile of hay that served for his bed. “Ugh,” Joshua said, and leapt up from the floor. He had no fondness for spiders.
There was a scurrying over his other hand.
He shook the second spider off. There was another on his sleeve, and he shook that one off as well. A tiny one dropped down from a thread in front of his face; he looked up.
His mouth opened, but no sound came out. He stumbled backward until his back hit the bars on the far side of the cage. The rippling black mass at the corner of the ceiling surged, and several of the spiders dropped down to follow Joshua; the rest slowly followed behind, one after another.
He looked down and saw them all over the skirt of his robe. His chest wheezed as he swatted at them frantically. He heard a hissing and a rustling, and glanced up; a snake was burrowing out of the pile of hay across from him. It was about a foot and a half long once it had fully emerged, its scales bright and glistening green, a blue stripe running down the center of its body. Joshua watched, frozen motionless, as it swallowed the spiders one by one, darting about at an amazing speed. The spiders went scurrying in all directions.
The snake slithered toward Joshua. He could not move as he watched it curl itself around his feet, raising its head to snatch the spiders from his clothes. His mouth moved, forming a word without a voice:
His mouth kept moving.
And then the Magician was there, even though he could not possibly have heard Joshua’s call, and he was unlocking the door of the cage and snatching up the snake and brushing off the remaining spiders, stomping on several of them with muttered curses before they could scurry away.
Joshua slid to the floor, trembling, gulping at the air.
The Magician was saying something, kneeling in front of him, shaking his shoulder insistently. “Answer me, boy!” he said. “Are you all right?”
Joshua blinked up at him. The Magician held the snake well away from him, putting his body between Joshua and it. The snake looked to be curling around his arm comfortably, like a pet. A horrible notion formed in Joshua’s mind.
“Did you do this?” Joshua demanded, his voice hoarse.
“What?” The man looked honestly taken aback.
“Did you do this?!” Joshua said again. “I want to know if you put those things in here!”
“No,” said the Magician, his voice level and careful. “I didn’t. The snake is mine, but I didn’t put it here, and I have nothing at all to do with the spiders.”
Joshua stared hard at the man’s face and found no deceit. “Get me out of here,” he whispered. “Please.”
The Magician’s eyes widened subtly. He nodded. “All right,” he said. “All right. Give me until this evening.”
“No!” Joshua wheezed. “I want to get out of here now! Please!”
“Look,” said the Magician, giving Joshua another little shake. “Nothing like this will happen again. This evening is the best I can do.”
“This will not happen again. You have my word.” The Magician rose to leave. “After sundown, I’ll send someone for you. You won’t have to wait long.”
That last was a lie. At least, it felt like one; the minutes dripped by slowly, the sun inching its way down toward the horizon. Joshua stayed curled numbly in the corner, far away from the hay, jerking every time he felt an itch or a prickle over his skin. He kept staring up at where the mass of spiders had been. There was a sticky residue left in their wake.
At some point it occurred to him to check the egg behind the water pail. He half-expected it to be gone, or broken, or even hatched – but it was still there, unmoved and untouched.
At last the sun set, leaving a ruddy afterglow in the night sky. Clouds were gathering on the horizon; Joshua wondered if it was really going to storm, like the fortune teller said.
The last tour ended, and people filed into the tent for the Magician’s show. Everything fell as quiet and still, but for the muffled sounds of voices from inside the tent.
Suddenly Joshua noticed the flames of the bonfire had gone bright green.
The sounds from the tent fell away.
The Magician stood there in the green glow, waiting.
Joshua rubbed at his eyes and looked again; the man was still there. Where had he come from? Shouldn’t he be in the tent right now? The Magician stood motionless as a statue, a silver chalice held out before him.
An old woman hobbled into the clearing. Her back was bent, her hands curled into arthritic claws, her hair thin and white and wispy as spider webs.
She approached the Magician. Without a word he lifted the chalice to her lips. She drank long and deep; then, with a shudder, she fell to her knees, clutching at herself as her body jerked and heaved. Expressionless, the Magician watched her convulsing. Slowly he tipped the cup in the air, pouring out a thin red trickle.
As the contents coursed over the woman, shining black color washed through her hair like water, and her hair lengthened and thickened around her, flowing like a curtain; and her wrinkled skin unfolded, smoothed out to a porcelain perfection. Her back arched as she changed, her mouth open in a silent cry of either pain or ecstasy, her face streaked with the red contents of the chalice.
Blood, Joshua thought. It looked like blood.
The woman was young and whole again. Joshua recognized her now; the one they all called “Crone,” the Queen of Spiders.
She remained on her knees, catching her breath. The Magician took her chin in hand, tilting her face up. “Better?” he asked.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh, yes.”
“Good,” he said, smiling faintly; and then he wrapped his fingers around her slender throat and squeezed.
Her strangled cry cut short as his grip tightened; her hands flailed, grasping and clawing at his wrist. He leaned down near her red-streaked face, his lips still curled gently, almost drowsily.
“He is mine,” the Magician hissed softly. “He always has been, and always will be. Do you understand? Lay one finger on him again and I will devour you whole.”
He flung her down into the dirt. She lay curled there at his feet for several moments, clutching at her throat as she wheezed for air. The Magician waited, ever patient. Gradually she caught her breath, and pushed herself up from the ground, and proceeded to brush the dust from her robe calmly, slowly.
“There are boundaries one should not cross, Magician,” she said, her voice husky. “You are nearing them.”
He bowed as she turned to leave. “I could say the same to you, madam,” he said; and then he walked off in the opposite direction.
They were gone.
The fire had returned to its normal state. Sudden gales of laughter drifted out of the tent; Joshua could hear the Magician’s voice speaking as it subsided.
Joshua stared at the empty clearing. Had he just been dreaming again? No, impossible. He couldn’t have fallen asleep, not after the spiders – could he?
Keys jangled at the door of his cage. Joshua shot up from the floor, startled. Madam Carmel was there, opening the door.
“All right, kid, Crone says you can come out now,” she said. “You’re lucky Magician likes you. Damn limp-wristed bugger-fuck.”
Joshua stood at the threshold of the cage and looked at the clearing again, mute with confusion. “You comin’, or you wanna stay in there?” said Madam Carmel. Joshua hopped down, wobbling a little as he hit the ground. He looked back at the cage as the midget shut its door. He expected to feel relief; but he only felt numb.
“You can catch most of the Crone’s act, if you hurry,” said the woman. “Come on, I’ll take you. Just make sure you ain’t seen.”
“He’s just finished,” she said.
Despite himself, Joshua felt a little disappointed. He followed the woman around to the side of the tent, where she opened a flap and ushered him in; for a moment he could see almost nothing, until his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting.
He was met with a nightmare.
A row of kerosene torches lined the front of the stage, lighting the scene. The Queen of Spiders stood in the center, her arms outstretched, her eyes closed peacefully, her rose-bud lips parted. Her body was entirely covered in spiders. They were of every variety and size conceivable, darting out from under her heavy robe to cover it in a roiling dark mass, scurrying over her shoulders and down her arms and up her neck, slipping in and out of her mouth as they covered her face. Sticky white webbing already covered most of the bottom half of her body, and patches of it were rapidly expanding over her torso. There was a dry, empty rustling sound.
Joshua stood dumbstruck. Stifled cries and exclamations of horror drifted from the audience. He thought he heard someone retching.
Gradually the woman was completely enveloped by the spiders’ weaving, the contours of her body and face showing beneath the white cocoon. A hush fell over the audience as the spiders went still, their work finished; Joshua held his breath.
Her hands twitched.
The spiders scurried off of her in a rippling stream, headed across the stage and under the tarp. One went stray, darting over in Joshua’s direction. He jerked back from it violently, nearly falling through the banner he hid behind. Madam Carmel stomped on it with a look of vicious glee.
The woman’s hands stretched wide, breaking free of the web. They grasped blindly, tearing the stuff from her body and face with jerky motions, and as she pulled wads of it from her mouth she took great wheezing gulps of the air.
Joshua stared. The woman emerging was not the same as the woman who had stood there before.
She’d grown old.
This new face was wizened and spotted with age, the hair as wispy and white as the webbing still clinging to its strands. Her hands trembled with palsy, her breasts shriveled and sagging beneath the robe, her back bent like the years were a sudden weight on her shoulders.
Joshua felt a disconnect, as though his head were floating away from his body.
A piercing scream tore through the tent. Joshua peeked around the banner; a woman had fainted. The Magician rushed down the aisle to help her up. He put an arm around her shoulder and guided her out of the tent, his head down, murmuring in her ear.
“Time,” said the old woman, her voice quavering and cracking. “We are all caught in its hold; it is so subtle, so light and insubstantial, yet every moment it weaves layer upon layer over our beings. Sweep aside the curtain, and one finds oneself changed… irrevocably.”
She bowed, and the motion was jerky and labored. There was no applause. By the utter silence in the room Joshua knew the act had been successful. It had not been designed to titillate or amuse, or even amaze – it had been designed to horrify.
The Crone made her way painfully across the stage and down the steps to where Joshua stood. She lifted her gnarled hand, trailing sticky white wisps, and stroked Joshua’s cheek. He stood frozen to his spot, not breathing.
“Yes…” she hissed softly. “You’ve got what you wanted, boy. But are you prepared to face the desires in your heart?”
She gave him a horrible smile and hobbled away.
“Kid?” Madam Carmel’s voice seemed to reach him from a long distance. “You okay?”
He made his head turn toward her, made his mouth move. “I’m… fine,” he said, mechanically.
“Look, don’t pay her no mind. She’s creepy as hell, but she won’t bother you long as you don’t cause no trouble.”
“I’m fine,” he said again. “Really.”
“Well then,” she said, and gave him a pat on his backside, “you just haunt back here like a good little ghost while I get rid of these rubes, right? Magician’ll be back for ya in a few minutes.”
Joshua sat down on the bottom step of the stairs, trying to calm himself. Had the encounter he’d seen between the Magician and the Crone earlier been real? But no, no, that didn’t make any sense – she’d only grown old just now. She would have had to have gone back in time for that to be possible.
He sat in a stupor as the sounds of shuffling feet and subdued voices poured away, and he did not move until the Magician returned for him.
“There you are,” the man said, pulling back the banner. “And did you see the Crone’s performance?”
“It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” said Joshua honestly.
“Ah, yes,” said the Magician. “Just delightful, isn’t it?”
Joshua briefly considered asking him about what he’d seen just before he came, but he looked at the man’s ghoulish grin and thought better of it. “I would have liked to have seen yours,” he said instead.
“My apologies for that. It was the Crone’s stipulation – you could go free, but not until after my performance.”
“That woman’s reasoning is a mystery to us all, I assure you,” said the Magician. “But I believe she feared I’d use you in the show, and she did not want that to happen yet. She won that much, but no matter.”
“Would you have?” asked Joshua. “Used me in the show, I mean.”
“Oh, yes. Certainly.”
“But how – I don’t even -”
“You wouldn’t have had to do anything,” the Magician assured him. “Here, I’ll show you.”
There was a large disc-shaped object on a wheeled stand, covered in black velvet, nestled in the back corner of the stage. The Magician rolled it to the center and whipped off the cover – it was an enormous round mirror.
“Come here,” said the Magician, and positioned Joshua in front of it.
Joshua let out a cry of surprise as he looked into its surface; the chairs behind them, the Magician beside him, and everything else reflected in the mirror normally – but Joshua did not. Joshua was not there at all. No, that wasn’t quite true; his outline was there, thin and ghostly.
“‘This mirror reflects only the truth of things…’ I would say,” said the Magician. “Your hands would be bound before you, like so.” Joshua’s breath came up short as the Magician took his hands and held them together. “And then I would move you in front of the mirror, as I have already done, and the audience would see your reflection – or rather, lack thereof. While they are busy being amazed and dumbfounded, I would spin some nonsense about ghosts on the wrong side of the mirror – to give some context for the illusion, you see. And then…”
The Magician took Joshua’s chin in his hand; his index finger brushed against Joshua’s bottom lip. Joshua went hot and cold at the same time, and held himself very still, gaze fixed on the mirror.
“I would reach up like so, and you would open your mouth…” Gently he pulled Joshua’s mouth open; his hand lingered there for just a moment longer. His reflection revealed nothing of his thoughts, his eyes shadowed and inscrutable.
The hand released him, and moved before his face as if tugging at something invisible. Unable to make a sound, Joshua watched as a nebulous mist emerged from his own mouth, writhing like a worm made of dark smoke. The Magician pulled back farther, waving his hand toward the mirror, and the darkness coiled outward and entered its silvered surface.
Suddenly, Joshua was staring at his own reflection.
“And now, our audience cannot see you – but they can see your reflection,” said the Magician. “After that you would simply walk off the stage with none the wiser.”
Joshua’s mouth worked to find words. “But – but how?”
“I can’t very well tell you that,” chuckled the Magician. “Not yet, in any event.”
A distant clap of thunder rumbled softly. The Magician laid a hand on Joshua’s shoulder. “Come help me pack these things before that storm gets here. We’re leaving in the morning.”
“We’re leaving? Already? To where?”
“To a town called Everywhere,” said the Magician, his teeth glinting in the dark.
“Everywhere?” said Joshua, incredulous. “I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“Oh, it’s not far from here. It’s not very far from anywhere, in fact.”
Joshua made a face. “Do you have to be so cryptic about everything?”
“There’s nothing cryptic about it, my boy,” the Magician said, clapping Joshua on the back. “Nothing cryptic at all.”
Joshua was a little light-headed with wine. The sound of the rain pouring in sheets against the ceiling made him very glad he was not still in the cage. He stood poking at a queer silver ball hanging from a post; it chimed every time he touched it. Maybe it would not be so bad, he mused, to belong to a group of people all stranger than he was. Ghost or not, when it came down to it, he was the normal one. He giggled a little at the thought.
The Magician had just prepared himself a pipe filled with god-knew-what; Joshua smelled opium, among other, stranger things he could not name. It was not unpleasant, though it made him feel drowsy.
Looking at the ball in front of him, Joshua suddenly remembered the egg. “Ah!” he cried. “The egg! It’s still in the cage…”
The Magician suddenly slid up behind him, the length of their bodies brushing together. Joshua bit back a cry of surprise at the feel of him there.
“It will keep ’till morning,” the man murmured. He reached around in front of Joshua, offering the pipe. It was long and slender and ornate, painted red and green like the wagon.
“I,” Joshua said, and swallowed. “I don’t…”
“Smoke?” said the Magician, his voice teasing. “Surely you can make an exception for special occasions.”
The Magician pulled away from Joshua and draped his long body languidly over the bench against the wall, that wicked grin Joshua had come to recognize spreading across his features. He tapped the space beside him with still-gloved fingers. “Come,” he said.
Hesitantly, Joshua obeyed.
“Here,” the Magician said, and lifted Joshua’s hands, placing the pipe in it. When Joshua only stared at it, the man guided the pipe up to Joshua’s mouth. Ignoring all his misgivings, Joshua let the mouthpiece slip between his lips and drew in a breath.
The Magician laughed, not unkindly, and held Joshua’s hand steady so that the pipe did not fall as he coughed. “Easy,” he said. Embarrassed, Joshua tried again and managed not to choke, but the smoke burned like acid and tasted of ashes. Why anyone would do this for enjoyment, he could not fathom.
But then a delicate warmth began to spread through his limbs; the dim light of the oil lamp seemed to burn brighter, and all the colors around him deepened. His body began to go lax. The Magician took the pipe from his limp hands and drank from it, a slow spill of smoke trickling from him, like water falling upwards.
Joshua felt an ache inside as he looked at him. It was difficult to think. “I still don’t understand,” he said, mindful that it was a stupid thing to say but unable to stop the flow of words, “what you could want with me. I’m only pale.”
The Magician crooked an eyebrow at him. “Many things,” he murmured. His gaze trailed over Joshua in a way that made his breath come up short. “I want many things.” Leaning in close, he traced the line of Joshua’s jaw with a fingertip. Joshua found he could not move a muscle.
The Magician bent his head and brushed their lips together. Joshua sucked in a surprised breath, and the man’s tongue traced the space between his lips. Slowly the Magician coaxed Joshua’s mouth open and kissed him deeply.
Joshua had never been kissed before at all, much less like this. For a few moments he was inclined to feel disgusted; but the way the Magician’s tongue stroked the inside of his mouth started to make him feel strange, made his stomach muscles tighten, made it feel almost like it was something else the man’s tongue was stroking. Something lower.
Joshua pulled back. “I,” he said. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
The Magician took the opportunity to nuzzle Joshua’s neck. “And why not?” he said. His tongue darted behind Joshua’s ear.
“Because,” he said. Because this is a perversion, he thought; but he knew that to be a lie. He did not care that it was a perversion, and he knew it.
The Magician inhaled from the pipe still in his hand. Then he tilted Joshua’s face up, and sealed their mouths together. Joshua groaned softly as the smoke forced its way into his lungs, feeling his bones turning soft inside his body. He imagined an ancient dust flowing into him with the smoke, with the Magician’s breath, settling into the far reaches of his being.
Joshua felt the Magician’s hand trailing down his waist, and fancied he felt claws pressing through the gloves.
Because I am afraid of you, he thought; and that was the truth of it.
There was a crash as the door flew open and something spilled inside. Joshua nearly bit his own tongue – or maybe it was the Magician’s – and the Magician shot up from his seat, absently handing the pipe to Joshua as he moved toward the thing.
“No, don’t -” the Magician was scolding. “You’ll have mud over everything, stay there!”
There was a naked boy in a leather harness on his hands and knees in front of the door.
The Magician was cursing, grabbing towels off of a shelf and wiping the boy down. The boy endured the treatment silently, but tried to pull his head away as the Magician scrubbed hard at his hair. The door flapped in the wind; the Magician reached out and closed it.
Joshua stared at the boy, and felt sick to his stomach.
The crisis of mud averted, the Magician came and stretched back out upon the bench, taking the pipe from Joshua’s loose fingers. Joshua’s hands hung there in the air like forgotten things.
“Something the matter?” the Magician asked, his eyes much too bright in the dark.
Joshua wrenched himself up from the bench and made for the door.
He had to step over the boy on the floor. As he passed the boy looked up and growled at him, a bestial sound, a wrong sort of sound, no sound that ought to come out of a human’s throat. Joshua stumbled back into a shelf. There was a tinkling of breaking glass.
The boy’s eyes met his, and Joshua knew suddenly that this was no half-wit simpleton the Magician had trained as a cruel amusement. There was a deep and fathomless intelligence there, alien and terrifying. Joshua tore himself from the boy’s gaze and fumbled at the latch on the door.
The Magician watched him, amused. “You’ll only get soaked and dirty if you go out there, you know,” he said, making no move to stop him.
The door gave way and Joshua spilled out into the torrent.
He ran blindly, his mind blank with terror. The rain was frigid, cutting into him like a million tiny daggers. The clouds had turned the sky to black velvet, and it was new moon besides – the world was dark as pitch, lit only by streaks of lightning that punctuated the night. He stumbled over rocks and brambles and tree roots, mindless of how long he ran. Eventually he tripped over something oddly soft and fell down, his forearms scraping through the mud. He struggled to his knees, and felt for the thing that had tripped him; he felt wet cloth, and something cold and slick and fleshy.
Realization dawning, Joshua jerked his hand back.
A flash of lightning illuminated the body. Joshua thought it looked like the woman who had fainted back in the tent. Of course there was no way of knowing; the light was too brief to make anything out clearly; and the tent had been dark besides. A weaker flash of lightning followed the first, and Joshua saw – or maybe only imagined – patches of white here and there over the expanse of her body.
Joshua felt his way away from the body, and found himself sliding through the mud into knee-deep rushing water. The river. He’d hit the river.
Joshua threw his head back and screamed.
Lightning ripped open the sky, tearing it right along some invisible seam; Joshua watched, no longer able to differentiate between the real and imagined, and no longer caring. The hole tore the sky open wider and wider, a silver light glowing behind; and then it tore right down the sides of the world and swallowed Joshua whole.
Joshua opened his eyes.
The world was made of steel. He sat up, slowly. A bright, grayish light shone in front of him, diffused by a thin mist. The sharp chemical smell of ozone filled the air.
Someone was there, standing a ways in front of him, reduced to a silhouette by the intensity of the light. There was a great sigh in the atmosphere itself, a hissing all around him, ticklish as a snake’s tongue in his ears. The silhouette came nearer. Joshua squinted, his eyes slowly adjusting to the light, and the shape resolved itself into recognizable features –
And yet it was not the Magician.
The man – the creature that stood before him, naked body formed of wire and sinew and white, white skin, hair unbound and flowing free in the sighing air, his pale eyes backlit by some unearthly glow – this thing bore only a passing resemblance to anything human. This thing could be nothing less than a god. Or –
Joshua knew himself to be worse than dead.
His lips and fingers and toes had all gone numb and tingling. He slid himself back along the metal-slick ground. “No.” His mouth formed the word as he shook his head back and forth, back and forth, but no voice came to fill it, leaving only a bare, hoarse whisper. “No, no, no, no…”
The creature came still nearer, slow, lazy, its shadow stretching out long and sharp before it.
Joshua’s mind went white. He turned, scrabbling for purchase, his legs nearly giving way as he pushed himself from the ground. But before he could even attempt to run, before he had even fully risen, something grabbed hold of his foot and tripped him. He fell, landing hard upon his forearms.
Chest heaving, he looked back over his shoulder – shadow. The creature’s shadow had reached out and wrapped itself tightly about his ankle. A low keening welled up in Joshua’s throat.
Vainly he tried to shake himself free of the dark tendril, but the shadow only curled further up his calf, cool and dry as a snake’s skin. And the thing that had been the Magician kept coming.
And then it was there, towering over him, the harsh planes of its body all thrown into sharp relief by the strange light: bone, muscle, sinew, skin. The creature knelt. The motion was an animal’s, a flowing smooth as water. Its hair came down around Joshua like a curtain, carrying a scent of sweet, rich earth.
“Please,” said Joshua. It sounded like someone else’s voice. A child’s, maybe. “Please, please, no -”
The creature lifted a hand – clawed fingertips, claws, just as in his dream – and gently pressed its thumb to Joshua’s lips, silencing him. It leaned forward, mouth hovering near Joshua’s ear.
“Shhh,” it shushed him softly. “This is all just as you have wished.”
“No,” said Joshua, against the thing’s thumb.
“Yes,” said the creature. Its voice, though barely louder than a whisper, seemed to echo down deep in the marrow of Joshua’s bones, as though it were everywhere at once, within and without him. “You summoned me as surely as I summoned you. You know this to be true.”
“No.” Joshua shook his head, eyes stinging, vision blurring. “No!”
“Yesss,” said the creature again, turning its head to brush its lips along the shell of Joshua’s ear.
Joshua choked, his tears spilling over to burn tracks down his face. The creature moved to catch the moisture, tongue flicking out delicately against Joshua’s cheeks. Its thumb caressed Joshua’s lips, tracing the shape of them, before its hand moved down to cup his jaw. The tips of its claws rested lightly against his flesh.
Joshua felt something slithering along his hand, and looked down to see shadow crawling over it like a live thing; he jerked back, but it clung to him, pulled his hand back down and around behind his back. As he struggled against it, the hand on his jaw gently forced his face back up. An eternity of winter looked down at him through cold gray eyes.
And then the thing that had been the Magician sealed its lips overtop of his.
Joshua fell utterly still, his eyes open wide. Again, he felt that ancient dust flowing into him with the creature’s breath, felt it scattering into the depths of his being, collecting in all the nooks and crannies – changing him. The creature’s tongue worked its way between Joshua’s slack lips, delving deep into his mouth, warm and wet. Joshua whimpered.
The creature’s hand trailed from Joshua’s jaw and down to his shoulder, sliding beneath the fabric of the robe. Knowing it would be useless, Joshua mechanically moved to stop him; there was a slap of skin as the creature grabbed his wrist without looking, and wrenched it around behind his back to pin it there with his other hand. Joshua felt the shadows slithering, tightening around him.
He kicked out with his legs, trying to fling himself back. The creature only slipped one hand behind Joshua’s neck and held him fast, tongue probing so deep into his mouth that Joshua couldn’t breathe.
Mindlessly, he bit down hard.
A bloom of coppery sweetness. The creature’s hand convulsed on his neck but otherwise it did not react. It moved to stroke Joshua’s throat, tongue working, coaxing him to swallow the blood. Joshua choked it down, felt it spreading through his body, curling outward in all directions like roots. The creature’s lips form a smile against his mouth.
And then it finally pulled back, leaving Joshua gasping and dizzy. Its smile was stained bright with red, garish against the white of his skin. The creature nuzzled at Joshua’s neck. “This,” it murmured for the second time, “is all just as you wished…”
With a soft wail Joshua fell limp in its arms.
The creature pulled open the sash of Joshua’s robe. Cool air chilled his body as it slid low on his shoulders and fell open. The creature pushed his legs apart and moved between them, one hand brushing the insides of his thighs.
Joshua felt his own cock hardening, throbbing, and shut his mind against the horror of it. He could not want this. No one would want this.
He felt the claws brush lightly over the tender flesh, an unfilled threat, teasing. The creature moved his mouth down over Joshua’s chest, over his abdomen, and down lower, tongue darting out to lick his cock from root to tip. Joshua’s hips jerked, and he cried out, remembering the Magician’s tongue in his mouth, remembering how it had left a ghost of this sensation aching between his legs.
“Stop it,” he sobbed, not knowing whether he spoke to the creature or himself. “Stop…”
The shadows were encircling him, a whisper-dry brush over his chest and waist, between his thighs, around his neck. He twitched in their hold, gasping. The creature reached up and shoved two fingers deep into Joshua’s mouth; he fell still, not fighting it, fearful of the claws. They withdrew, and moved down between his legs to circle at his entrance. Joshua stiffened – surely those claws would rend him.
But they pressed into him slowly, carefully, and though there was a burning like fire the claws did not cut into his flesh. They coaxed him gently, and Joshua hissed, trembling as he held himself still; and he felt his legs falling open wider of their own accord.
The fingers pulled free, and the creature reached up again and grabbed Joshua by the hair, yanking him up. Joshua cried out, wincing. The creature rose up on its knees, and forced Joshua’s face close to its cock.
“No,” said Joshua, trying to pull back. The shadows around his neck tightened, strangling off his air. Joshua choked. He knew it for a threat, and let the creature force open his mouth; the shadows loosened, and Joshua could breathe again. The creature’s cock slid across his tongue, hard flesh and salt, nearly gagging him as it fucked his mouth.
Once it was slick with saliva the creature pulled away and pushed Joshua down onto his back. His own weight pressed on his bound hands, and Joshua grimaced. The creature grabbed him by his legs, hands beneath his knees, and yanked him forward, sliding his hips up onto its thighs.
Joshua watched with wild eyes, his mouth forming “no” like a mantra without a voice, as the creature forced his legs open wide and pressed its cock down into him.
“Ah,” he cried, burning, stretching, filling; “Ah!” His body trembled rigidly, sweat beading on his cold skin. The creature moved, pulling back, thrusting in, and Joshua gritted his teeth in pain.
The shadow around his neck slithered upward, feeling over his lips, making its way between them. Joshua shook his head, trying to escape it, but it only followed the motion and pushed inside; and as it forced his mouth open wide, Joshua felt his body go lax against his will, felt himself opening.
The creature took hold of Joshua’s hips and fucked him, thrusting hard and deep and fast. The shadows licked at him, wrapped about his cock with a feather light caress. Joshua shut his eyes tight against the onslaught, whimpering.
There was a searing in Joshua’s skull, high-pitched and bright. He struggled to breathe around the thing in his mouth, struggled to reject the blinding pleasure that struck him at every thrust; but his toes were curling, his hips were jerking upward to meet the creature’s, his back arching to let the cock slide deeper inside –
And he screamed against the shadow as every muscle in his body pulled tight and shuddering, as he spilled himself scalding over his abdomen, a black void descending behind his eyelids. He was falling into nothing, endless nothing. He felt the creature that had been the Magician – that was the Magician, now and always – filling him and filling him until there was nothing left there but his shadow.
A voice whispered from somewhere, the Magician’s voice: “You were mine from the beginning. You know it to be true.”
Joshua lay gasping in the mud by the river, staring up at the sky.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle, though the lightning still raged on above and the ground rumbled with thunder. Joshua sat up painfully. His whole body ached. There was a sticky mess beneath his robes; he dragged himself into the water and rinsed off as best he could, shaking weakly. He pushed himself to his feet.
Peering through the darkness, he made out a faint green glow. He headed toward it, not bothering to wonder how the fire could have kept burning through such a downpour. Not more than ten minutes (though it felt like ten hours) had passed by the time he found his way back to the Magician’s wagon, the lamp within glowing warmly through the little window in the door.
He pulled himself up into the wagon.
The Magician smirked at him lazily as he entered, swaying where he stood. “I told you,” the Magician said, “that you’d only end up drenched and muddy.”
The bench had been unfolded into a small bed. The Magician reclined across it in shirtsleeves, drinking wine straight from the bottle with an air of profound serenity. His head tilted back against the wall with an exaggerated slowness. The dog-boy was asleep on a pile of blankets in the back of the wagon.
“For god’s sake, man, close the door,” he said. His words did not slur, but they stretched out thick and syrupy, as if made of a denser substance than normal. “You’re letting in the damp.”
Joshua did as he was told. The Magician threw several towels at him from a pile on the bed. “Get out of those muddy clothes and dry yourself,” he ordered.
His arms moved numbly, mechanically. He felt the Magician’s eyes on him as the robe dropped to the floor, as he wiped the mud and rain from his skin and hair as best as he could. Exhaustion stole over him with the weight of all the water in the ocean.
“Come here,” said the Magician. “Put out the light and come to bed.”
Joshua nodded. He would sleep. He would sleep here in this bed, with this man who was a murderer, with this man who was not human, with the creature that would devour him whole. Despair twisted with relief in equal measures.
He went to the bed, and leaned over to put out the light; then hesitated. “My name,” he said, and found his voice so hoarse he barely recognized it. “Will I forget my name?”
“…Nevermind.” Joshua blew out the light. Blindly, he fell back onto the blankets.
All was still for a moment but for the pattering of rain against the roof; then the blankets rustled, and Joshua felt the heat of the man leaning over him, smelled the wine and opium clinging like a perfume. Warm breath trickled over the shell of his ear, and clawed fingertips, hot against his rain-chilled skin, traced over his cheekbone.
“You have only one name,” the Magician murmured. “From the beginning, only the one. You know this to be true.”
“Yes,” Ghost sighed. “Yes.”