by M.D Schultz
In a world of dreams exists a circus that entertains not the fair but the grotesque.
|Samuel tore open a small paper bag and poured the contents into the open pan of his half-cocked pistol. Like sand draining from an hourglass, the heavy black powder fell in a stream that stained even tarnished metal. It took only a quarter of the bag to fill the pan, and the rest he emptied into the pistol barrel. Flattened and smoothed, he placed the empty white paper over the open end of his pistol and drew a lead pebble from his right pouch. The metal stone was rough and had images of an ornate cross scrawled upon it, not the heretical power of the ouroborus but symbols of ecclesiastic authority. He placed the metal round into the paper and pushed both down into the barrel with a small metal rod.
"Are you ready?" The inquisitor asked, pulling a red scarf close to his neck, breath visible in the night air.
Samuel nodded, cocking the pistol to full with an audible click. He pressed himself firmly against the stone wall; the misshapen mortar felt like ice against his exposed cheek. This wasn't to be his first kill, but his hands trembled all the same.
His partner wrapped on the shoddy wooden door, flickering lights visible below the frame. "Hello! Is anybody home?" He called. "Do you know how to get into town? I'm lost, and I haven't had anything to eat for days." There was a shudder to his voice, a weakness that most predators found irresistible.
"You're not far, just follow the dugout road south of here." Called the voice of a woman.
"Can you open the door? It's cold out here, and I am hungry." The inquisitor asked, wrapping his arms around his chest and rocking his shadow back and forth.
"Leave me alone; I have nothing more for you here." She pleaded, stepping away from the door. Then again, some predators were just too clever.
Again, Samuel looked to his partner, and both nodded to each other as the inquisitor kicked in the door. The wood gave way with little effort splinters flying through the air like fireflies darting about a mountain spring. On the other side was a horrific sight. Hanging from the rafters of that small stone cottage were goats that leaked blood from deep neck wounds. It was like walking in a crimson rainstorm where every drop was thick and smelled of rusting metal. The witch stood over an iron cauldron as big as a bathtub with flames licking the base fed by an old oak that snapped with delight from the fresh air. She was a middle-aged woman who was dressed in a bloody apron and carried a strange crooked dagger. It was about the size of a kitchen knife and was as black as a starless night but smooth and clear like a bedroom mirror.
"Put your hands in the air." The inquisitor raised his voice as Samuel leveled the pistol barrel at her chest.
"How?!" She blurted out eyes as wide as saucers and mouth hanging open. "This can't be! I am too close!"
"Drop the knife! Now!" Again the inquisitor ordered, and the woman stepped back, raising her hands above her head, the dagger catching the light of the flames which danced to a silent tune.
"By order of the high inquisitor, you have been charged with heresy," Samuel said the tip of his finger, bouncing off the trigger of his pistol.
Everything was in place; this last shot was all he needed to begin his new career. Yet, when the goal was in sight, he hesitated. In that stone hut, with a knife in hand, was not the same woman as before but a younger one with long brown hair and a missing pinky on her left hand. He knew her well; she was his sister, after all.
"Why, brother?" She asked with tears in her eyes, her figure shimmering, a mirage in a foreign land.
He choked, words catching in his throat like flies in a web, and his hands shook, the pistol barrel dancing around without a target in sight.
The inquisitor had to take the first shot, but by then, it was too late. The witch brought her knife down in a forward motion that launched a wave of pressurized air so sharp it cut the cottage in two. As the force crashed against the roof, flesh, wood, and rock parted like the sea before a ship's bow. Samuel launched himself just in time as the razor's edge split a goat into bloody chunks, but the resulting blast threw both him and the inquisitor through open walls in the crumbling cottage. He landed on his back in a bank of snow the air forced from his lungs as rocks crashed around him with a thud. Yet, even with ringing ears and the sky circling like a buzzard eager to feed, Samuel didn't drop his pistol. With the illusion broken, he rose to his feet, pushing himself from the snow searching for that woman. He found her not far from the collapsed hut; she was caught in the snow, a trail of blood leading to her like bread crumbs to a prize. There was a splinter of wood sticking from her shoulder, but she was ignorant of the pain and pushed herself through heavy snow. Samuel didn't hesitate a second time; there wasn't a creature within ten miles that didn't hear the shot.
They told him the second kill would be easier, but they lied. It was all the same. The witch looked up at him with eyes as wide as saucers, her plea only heard as a sick gurgling noise, the bullet had passed clean through her neck.
"Ple..ase." even as a distant memory, he could still hear his sister choke out the words when he held that choker tight around her neck.
"I'm doing this for you." He whispered, kneeling to pick up the obsidian blade that leveled a house. "This is the only way your soul will be saved." Without another word, he plunged the dagger deep into the woman's chest. She let out one final gasp, her arms going limp and eyes rolling to the back of her head as the pitch-black blade turned gray and crumbled into dust like sand in the wind.
"Is it done?" The inquisitor asked rounding a bank of snow and brushing debris from his coat.
Samuel nodded, but before he could utter a single word, the inquisitor struck him across the cheek, a mixture of blood and spit flying through the air.
"What did I tell you about hesitating?!" He shouted as Samuel tumbled to the ground the blow leaving a red mark on his face. "You could have gotten us both killed!" The inquisitor spat. "Dammit Sam, I have to report this. If it were up to me, you would be out. I cannot work with any inquisitor I don't trust."
"I know… I'm sorry." Samuel picked himself up, rubbing his cheek as the wind swirled around him; the scent of blood so thick you could choke on it.
The inquisitor sighed, dropping to his knees and pushing the deceased woman's hair to one side. "Look, I know life hasn't been fair to you. However, you need to separate yourself from your emotions. They made deals with fallen gods; the only way their souls will reach the gates of paradise is death by our hands." The inquisitor gave him a look as cold and barren as the snow around him. "Don't forget, you are saving them." He turned his attention back to the woman. "At least you were lucky her catalyst was a knife. It's not always so easy to kill them."
Once more, Samuel saw his sister; choker held taught against her neck as her skin turned purple and her hands waved frantically clawing at the air. "Yes, I was lucky. This time."
Together they burned the witch's body setting the remains of that hut ablaze until only charred mortar and stone remained.
"Which Ouroborous do you think she made a deal with?" Samuel asked, stepping away from the black smoke dense with smells of burnt flesh and hair.
"The Crimson Prince is the most likely culprit. I don't know any other that demands this much blood in sacrifice."
Samuel knew that name. The Crimson Prince was also known as Vesica-gayzu and is an Ouroborous with strong ties to feral instinct. They say it rides atop thunderous war beasts and is worshipped by half-men driven mad by the teachings of the Cosmic Arc. Even vile ravens from the tower of babel, who crave the stale blood of a stiff corpse, find comfort beneath its mantel. It is a cousin to material desire, father to the spurned and mother to the deformed.
Furthermore, Vesica-gayzu is part of the upper pantheon commanding unimaginable power and influence. Those who get too close court death and are coerced into bargains for their soul. This was a fact that Samuel himself would soon learn, for he had drawn the attention of the Ouroboros.
Perhaps it was the pain he suffered or the ties he once had to a carnival witch; who can say for sure what drives the whims of a god? But that night, while he waited for judgment from the high inquisitor, Samuel was summoned to the scarlet realm. While dreaming, he found a circus that entertained not the whims of the fair but provided for the grotesque and catered to the mad.
Unlike most dreams, he knew something was off as he stood next to a crowd of a thousand strong cheering at the ongoing activities in the sands center stage. Wooden bleachers were positioned like a colosseum row after row stacked high into the air. He rubbed shoulder to shoulder with beings who wore the faces of beasts, Bulls and goats, bears, and wolves their words as foreign to him as braying cattle or barking dogs. In the center, standing tall in glistening sands was a man covered from head to toe in scales like a carp out of water. He was dressed in finery and spurred the crowd with a crack of a scarlet nine-tailed whip. Yet, the most unsettling sight was not the hoard of half-men nor the devilish tool used to excite them; it was the tamed animals brought to heel by pain and scraps of food. There were no lions or elephants, no zebra or giraffe; there were people down there. As naked as the day they were born, men and women lined up like dogs to a whistle jumping through flaming hoops and spinning at the sight of a tightened lash whatever thoughts of rebellion they once had were long replaced with the desire to please.
Samuel felt sick and stumbled away from the crowd bumping into beasts as he made his way out. Even amongst thousands, he was like a moth trying to hide in a window, the only mortal not chained and salivating at a masters whim. By all accounts, they should have tied him up and tossed him with the rest, but they did not. The half beasts paid him no mind and simply pushed him away as a minor nuisance, a fly buzzing about the tail of a bull.
Finally, able to squeeze through the crowd, he pushed himself out of the colosseum and met a terrible sight. As far as the eye could see, animal wagons were lined up and stacked atop each other like books without a bookshelf; their wooden frames badly chipped and red paint peeling away like a snakes skin. It was no coincidence that his sister was in the first carriage he stumbled upon.
There behind iron bars spaced wide enough to see but close enough to imprison was a woman covered in mud with hair tangled like the branches of an untended tree. The skin about her neck was a bluish color, and she was missing her pinky finger on her right hand.
"Sarah?" He called, and her head shot up, body trembling as if unclothed in a bitter storm. "This is not right! Why are you here?!" he asked as she lunged at the iron bars reaching through with an arm so thin he thought it might snap off in the wind.
"Help me! Help me, please!" She cried out, grabbing hold of his coat, tears streaming down her face.
"This is not right!" He shouted again, slapping her hand away. "You were supposed to be saved! God was supposed to take you back! I saved you!"
"No, brother…" She sobbed. "You condemned me! I only had a year left! Why did you have to kill me! Why couldn't you leave me alone!" Sarah spat reaching out to him again, her shoulders lined with scars but none deeper than those across her wrists.
"What do you mean? What difference would a year have made?"
"I made a deal, Sam. Ten years of service alive or an eternity in death. It was a bargain for power, and I lost…" She trailed off, hands curling away, and her head resting against the iron cage. "You and your inquisition are just puppets to the red prince. Always tipped off at just the right moment, just before our contracts are up. Who the hell do you think you work for!"
"This can't be right…" Samuel stepped away, hands trembling, and head throbbing from an invisible corkscrew that spun deeper and deeper. "I saved you!" he shouted, dropping to his knees. "What have I done?"
It was at that moment that the sound of drums rang out, deep and thunderous like the cracking of a terrible storm. The carriages began to move to the beat without a horse in sight. Even so, you could hear the sounds of hooves kicking up gravel and the grunting of beasts that strained against the weight of a stacked load.
"He's here!" Sarah shouted, backing away from the iron bars as if they were snakes. "Please save me! Please brother! Don't make me go back!" She pleaded, the carriage wheels spinning into action.
"Wait!" Samuel called out, trying to give chase, but his body was sluggish as if caught in tar or quicksand. "Don't go!" He forced his feet forward, straining against an invisible current as the carriage flowed away like a receding tide until both it and the cries of his sister faded into the distance. In no time at all, the field once filled with hundreds of thousands of cages was barren. You see, space had to be made for the lord of the crimson carnival.
Just as the stories said, it came atop two giant beasts. They lumbered forward their feet, pounding the ground to a rhythm that shook Samuel to his core. They stood as tall as mountains, had tusks of golden ivory that shone like stars and snouts that rolled out like the petals of a flower before the morning sun. Together they were bound by fabric weaving them into a carnival tent that towered above the rest. This was nothing like the pure silk of striped yellow and red made by entertainers, but rather the material flowed like water swaying in complement, not protest to the movement of the beasts below. So lifelike was the fabric that the woven eyes would blink, and the material swelled and contracted with breath; the air growing humid before the tents opening. His instincts screamed at him to run, but Samuel was frozen in place as a long red carpet unraveled from the maw of that structure wrapping around his legs and pulling him in with such strength it ripped the earth up. In an instant, he was taken from that empty field and brought to the throne of Vesica-gayzu.
Inside the tent were hundreds of stairs that led high into the atrium to a throne occupied by a small child; a child concealed beneath a robe more than one hundred times his size. The garment flowed over the gilded seat and across each stair, making up the walls and the carpet beneath. When Samuel approached, the robe quivered as if a thousand serpents spun beneath it, and he felt the edges of his mind crack, the flowing silk turning a glistening yellow mass like eels skin. He recoiled from the sight, and as he stepped away, the robe settled returning to a much simpler form, or rather one his mind could grasp.
"I know you, murderer." Came a voice that drew his eyes to the far corner of the tent. It was there he found a middle-aged woman chained to the floor unable to face towards the throne but instead forced to see the exit. "I know your face, what cruelty is this that I'm forced to look upon you again." Samuel recognized the scar across her chest, where he once nestled an obsidian blade to stop her heart.
"This is a nightmare!" he cried out. "I only wanted to save you! They told me I was saving you!"
"Look upon your work, hero." She dripped venom. "We are all thralls to the crimson lord's will, even you and your twisted order."
"What have I done! What can I do to make this right? Oh god… What have I done?"
"How ironic it is for you of all people to stand here now. My lord is prepared to make you an offer. An offer to set your sisters soul free."
Samuel's head shot up. "What must I do." He asked, and the woman laughed, coughing up dust as she convulsed.
"You will serve him for one year. Should you succeed, your sister's soul will be free. Should you fail, both of you shall remain here for an eternity." She looked at him with eyes apple red and as sharp as daggers. "Be warned, hero. Should you accept this deal, your soul will be his no matter the outcome. He wins either way, for there is more value in a soul of regret than sorrow."
"What must I do?" He asked again, pleading as the woman stood the sound of chains in protest ringing in his ears. She appeared before him like a phantom, and in her outstretched hands was a pistol with an ornate rune carved in a winding pattern down the barrel.
"If you accept his power, you will be bound to the crimson carnival. Though you may walk a slave here, you will be a wolf among sheep in your world." She pushed the pistol into his chest, and he took the weapon a sudden spark traveling through his spine. "Serve him well, boy, but remember he only ever makes bargains that are in his favor." She spoke with a devilish smile and pushed him from the tent. Samuel fell for what felt an eternity until, finally, the impact shook him awake.
He shot up from his bed, covered in sweat, a wave of relief passing over him until he found the rune carved pistol still in his hands; unmistakable proof of his bargain and a new position as a sorcerer. With barely a moment to collect his thoughts, he heard a knock at his door. Samuel quickly hid the pistol beneath his pillow and cloaked himself in a heavy coat before opening the door of his issued dormitory. Standing outside in full regalia was a man decorated with medals of sparkling silver and gold.
"My lord." Samuel dropped to his knees as was customary when addressing the high inquisitor.
"Please stand." The man said, ushering him to his feet as beads of sweat lined his forehead and his tongue when slack. "Congratulations…" He took Samuel's wet clammy hand into his own. "You're promoted, inquisitor."