Ben Hawkins sat in the cab of a Carnivale truck, preparing to turn the key in the ignition.
He couldn't do it.
Shit. I can't let myself be used this way, jerked around by that deceitful Management.
Shuddering, he reviewed the horrific events of the last forty-eight hours.
A terrified Gabriel had brought him the news that Ruthie had been bitten by a poisonous snake. Ben tried to heal her. But by the time he got her a safe distance away from the carnival - to assure that all the life-force needed for healing would come from plants - it was too late. Ruthie was dead.
He understood now that he'd refused to acknowledge something he really knew: that he could only restore a dead person to life by killing someone else. He'd turned for help to Lodz, hoping that self-styled "expert" on supernatural powers would know of a less drastic alternative. But Lodz took him to talk to Management, and Management - Lucius Belyakov, he reminded himself - told him the only way was to kill someone. Belyakov urged him to do it.
After agonizing over his dilemma for hours, he'd decided he couldn't do it. Then Belyakov told him Ruthie's death was no "act of God": Lodz had murdered her. When Ben's own intuition confirmed that Lodz was guilty, he strangled the man. Ruthie was restored to life.
But after he'd killed Lodz, he'd realized Belyakov had gone along with Lodz's plan - approved the murder of Ruthie - as a means of forcing him, Ben, to use his powers. The point, apparently, was to accustom him to killing, so he wouldn't balk at the prospect of killing someone else: a preacher he'd seen in dreams, a man he already knew was evil. Belyakov showed him a hellish vision, in which the preacher was somehow connected with the development of a monstrous weapon that might claim millions of lives.
Finally, Belyakov demanded that Ben go in search of his father, Hack Scudder, and bring him back to meet with Belyakov - his lifelong enemy. Why? Because Scudder was supposedly the only one who could tell them the preacher's name.
After Ben had stewed over that for more hours, he'd decided he had to talk to Belyakov again. Samson had run interference, saying curtly, "No can do." The dwarf carny boss went on to inform him that any future communication with Belyakov would have to be through him. "Management's orders."
At the time, Ben had been at a loss for ideas as to how to go about finding Scudder. But when he was forced to think the problem through on his own, he'd realized that the place to start was the Templar Hall in nearby Loving.
Scudder undoubtedly had some connection with the Templars. Samson and Ben had already visited the Hall, and Samson had questioned the head man - who said he'd never heard of a Henry Scudder. Ben had been so exhausted that day that he could barely keep his eyes open. But later, he'd reflected that "Commodore" Frank Mooney's having misheard the name Scudder as "Stutter" seemed phony. As if the man was acting, and overdid it.
Yeah, I know how to start searchin' for Scudder. Break into that place an' go through its records.
What I ain't sure of is why I should do it.
I need a better explanation. Damn it, I deserve a better explanation!
With that, he leapt out of the truck and strode toward the Management trailer.
This time I ain't takin' "no" for an answer.
He gave several sharp knocks, a bit louder than necessary.
From behind the closed door, Samson called out in a guarded voice, "Yeah?"
"You know who this is, Samson. Lemme in, or I swear I'll make a ruckus so loud the whole troupe will come runnin' to see what's goin' on!"
There was a long pause, during which he imagined Samson conferring with Belyakov.
Then the door opened on a crack, and Samson peered out. Apparently, he was sublimely confident that Ben wouldn't bowl him over and force his way in. "Management has good reason for not wantin' you in here, kid. If you need advice on where to start lookin' for Scudder -"
"No, that ain't what I need. You tell Belyakov I refuse to do what he wants less'n he answers some questions. An' I don't think he'd like havin' the whole conversation routed through you."
The door was closed and presumably locked again while Samson passed that on to Belyakov. Just as Ben was beginning to wish he had forced his way in, it opened - wide.
"Okay," Samson said grudgingly, "just this once. I'll stay close enough to see when you leave, so you won't hafta waste time lookin' for me."
Ben responded with a nod, and an equally grudging, "Thanks."
A moment later he was, to all appearances, alone in the dimly lit trailer. Once again he faced a slightly parted red curtain, behind which he saw nothing at all.
But he remembered Belyakov's grabbing his arm and drawing him into that soul-shattering vision. This time, he stayed far enough from the curtain to be out of the Russian's reach.
I wonder if he thinks I'm gonna demand to see him?
He'd decided he wouldn't ask that. He knew that when Belyakov had been mauled by a bear during the War, he'd lost both legs, an arm, even part of his face.
I'm guessin' that's beyond what our kind can self-heal. So he may want to stay hid 'cuz his looks don't match the powerful Being he pretends to be.
But on the other hand, maybe he was able to self-heal, an' he just wants to keep me off balance, not knowin' exactly what powers he's got.
Either way, what he looks like ain't none o' my business.
From behind the curtain, Belyakov's eerie voice asked, "What questions do you have? Depending on what they are, I may or may not answer them."
Ben replied calmly, "An' dependin' on whether you answer them, I may or may not do what you want.
"Samson just said somethin' 'bout not wastin' time. I agree that if I'm gonna wind up searchin' for my father, we shouldn't waste time. So I won't.
"I'll tell you right off that I know the preacher is evil. I can even accept that it's my job to find an' destroy him. I don't understand why it's my job. But I know I'm somethin' more than a normal carnival roustie, so I'm willin' to believe there's a reason why I keep seein' that preacher in my dreams.
"Here's the part I got problems with. The preacher is evil, an' I'm the one supposed to stop him. I reckon that makes me 'good.' You're tellin' me that you're also one o' the good guys - an' my father is your enemy, a bad guy? Why the hell should I believe that, just on your say-so?"
Belyakov said icily, "I was under the impression you barely knew your father, and had a low opinion of him."
"True," Ben acknowledged. "Until last night. He'd been messin' with my dreams, an' I imagined he wanted to kill me."
"What happened last night?"
" 'What happened?' What happened was that I tried to kill myself, to save Ruthie - an' he stopped me! Stopped me from killin' myself, told me I was 'meant for greater things.' An' somehow, he made me believe it.
"But if you're wonderin', he warn't nowhere near me, physically. It was more like a vision, 'cept I could feel him touchin' me."
Belyakov was silent so long that Ben realized he'd been genuinely shaken by this news. At last he said, "I never dreamed you might try to sacrifice yourself."
No. Because you never woulda thought o' sacrificin' yourself for anyone else, would you? Leastways not when you were young an' healthy.
I'd ask if you've ever loved anyone - 'cept I don't need to ask. I already know.
Instead, he said, "My pa told me it 'doesn't work that way.' Was he right? I couldn't o' saved Ruthie that way?"
"He was right." Belyakov seemed chastened now. "The woman would not have come back to life, because your death would have removed the person seeking to revive her before the process was complete.
"However, if that had happened, I would have killed Lodz and restored the woman. I always planned to do that as a last resort if you refused to kill anyone, even Lodz.
"But your death could not have been so easily remedied. And it would have been a tragedy for the world."
He said that so bleakly that Ben couldn't suppress a shudder. With a healthy reluctance to dwell on the subject of his own death, he hastened to say, "Anyway, I found out last night that my pa cares for me. So why should I believe you're good an' he's evil? It could be the other way 'round, an' you could be aimin' to have me bring him here so you can kill him!"
Belyakov pondered that for a few seconds, then said, "Very well, I'll attempt to explain. The terms 'good' and 'evil' may not be exactly right. Beings like ourselves -"
"Avatars," Ben cut in. I won't have you talkin' down to me. "My pa taught me the word."
"Avatars like ourselves are born with a natural bent toward either Light or Darkness. We have no control over that. You and I are Light, your father and the preacher Dark."
Ben scowled. "That ain't fair. An' I don't believe it, 'cuz it don't make no sense! Seems to me you're talkin' 'bout good an' evil, no matter what you call them. It ain't fair that someone could be born evil, an' have no control over it. Besides, my pa don't act evil."
"Hear me out, boy! Light and Dark may not correspond exactly to 'good' and 'evil' - but I admit those terms come close. The important point is that the natural bent is the only thing over which we have no control. An Avatar can resist being what his nature impels him to be."
"It still ain't fair! I can't see God allowin' somethin' like that!"
Belyakov sighed, then said, "I've encountered a theory that may make this easier for you to accept. Have you ever heard of the concept of reincarnation? The idea that humans may live more than once?"
Ben shook his head. "Live more'n once? I don't get it. How?"
"Let's approach it from a different angle. Do you believe you have a soul that will survive after the death of your body?"
"Sure. The soul goes to Heaven or Hell."
"Suppose it does not. At least, not right away. There is a widely held belief - more common in other parts of the world than in this one - that a single soul will live in many bodies, in different time periods. People seldom remember their previous lives. But they are still responsible for what they did in them.
"Some Avatars have speculated that our race had earlier lives as ordinary humans. And our conduct in those lives determines whether we are born with a bent toward Light or Darkness."
While Ben was trying to grasp that, Belyakov continued, "In any case, one Avatar of Light and one of Darkness - destined to be opponents - are born in each generation."
At that, Ben spoke up. "Wait a minute. How's the preacher supposed to be in my 'generation'? He's gotta be twenty years older'n me!"
"Yes, I can see that he is. But we believe that the first pair of opposing Light and Dark Avatars were brothers, mirror-image twins. After they died, the battle was taken up by first cousins, then by second cousins, and so on.
"The fight has been waged for thousands of years, so opponents' ages can easily be mismatched. But you and the preacher are the same number of generations removed from the original pair."
"Okay, let's say I accept that." Ben wasn't sure he did, but he had other pressing questions. "You were tryin' to kill my pa in the War - even though you were supposed to be fightin' on the same side - 'cuz you were opposin' Avatars. But he wasn't tryin' to kill you.
"Assumin' what he showed me in dreams was true, it looked like you were huntin' him. He didn't have either a gun or a helmet till he took them from corpses in that trench. An' then he got a gun that was empty - maybe they all were, 'cuz the soldiers hadn't been overrun an' killed till they ran outta ammo.
"I'm guessin' you only saved him from the bear 'cuz you wanted to kill him yourself. You've called him a coward for runnin' away. But it seems to me he didn't want to kill any more than he wanted to be killed. The bear hurt you so bad that my pa coulda come back later an' killed you easy, with your own gun. Instead...from his showin' me how you looked in the field hospital, I hafta think he was the one made sure you got there."
After a long pause - during which Ben imagined Belyakov squirming - the Russian said simply, "All true."
"So how does not wantin' to do evil make a man a coward?"
To his surprise, Belyakov had a ready answer. "There are rules, boy! If an Avatar of Darkness does not wish to be what he is, he should either allow his adversary to kill him, or kill himself. Your father did neither."
Then he said belligerently, "I still don't know why I should take your word that you're, uh, Light, an' he's Dark."
"Consider this. If I were Dark, I would not have urged you to kill the preacher, or helped you realize the importance of doing it by showing you that vision. I would be protecting your enemy, sharing his goals. In fact, I would not have allowed you to live this long!
"Scudder, on the other hand, can be Dark, and still be willing to oppose the preacher and aid you. Partly because he is - as I admit - a very reluctant Dark Avatar, and partly because you are his son. He undoubtedly cares for you. Last night proved that."
On a sudden impulse, Ben said, "Hey. Do you have children?"
"No. None who survived childhood." For a moment, Ben fancied the wintry voice actually was laced with regret.
"I'm sorry 'bout that," he said softly. And meant it. "I see your point 'bout you an' Scudder. Ain't sure I agree he's a coward. But I can accept you bein' Light an' him Dark, an' him still bein' willin' to help us.
"But that brings me to another question. Why are you insistin' I bring him back here? The man's my pa. Why can't I find him an' just have him tell me the preacher's name - if he really knows it?"
"He knows it," Belyakov said flatly. "As soon as you reached young adulthood - about a year ago - your name was revealed to me, because I am the senior Avatar of the House of Light. The preacher is close to Scudder's age, so Scudder must have known his name for decades. Since they were both in their teens.
"The reason I do not want Scudder simply to tell you? Because he cares so deeply for you that he might give you false information, to protect you. He might deem a few more years of life for you worth the sacrifice, at the end of those years, of all of humanity." Dryly, Belyakov added, "I do not."
Ben managed to choke out, "Um, me neither!" But seconds later he'd recovered sufficiently to say, "I won't have you doin' nothin' to hurt him, though."
"I am old now. I have no intention of harming Scudder - especially since you have feelings for him, and I believe he can be won to our cause. That vision I showed you...do you believe you could show it to your father?"
"No. No way." Even the memory made Ben go weak in the knees.
"I thought not. My powers are more developed than yours.
"I may be able to win Scudder over by letting him see what is at stake. But if I cannot do that, I will be better able than you to determine - without harming him - whether any information he gives us is genuine. If he gives a false name for the preacher, I will at least be able to tell you that and spare you wasted effort."
"Sounds reasonable," Ben murmured.
I'd feel better if I could see the man I'm talkin' to. Read his face, look into his eyes. But I made up my mind I wouldn't press him 'bout that. For all I know, he ain't got a face. Or eyes.
"So you will do it?" Belyakov asked sharply. "You will find him and bring him back?"
Ben sighed. "Yeah, I'll do it. I won't force him to come with me, but I'll try to persuade him." As he headed for the door, he grumbled, "I just wish there was another way."
Six hours later he was behind the wheel of his Carnivale truck, headed for a place whose strangely evocative name he had never heard before that night.
I'll find it, just don't ask me to spell it!
That thought only amused him for a moment. He couldn't forget why he was going there. To talk to a man - a Catholic priest, Devin Kerrigan - whose association with Hack Scudder had apparently driven him mad.
But maybe it warn't Scudder's fault. Kerrigan put that creepy Tattooed Man in the mural he painted, an' I got a hunch the Tattooed Man is the Darkest o' the Dark. If my pa an' his friends were givin' a lot o' thought to him, it may be pure luck that my pa didn't go crazy too.
Still, he was troubled by the memory of Frank Mooney's fear of Scudder...and not particularly proud of the way he himself had terrorized the man who'd blundered into the Hall while he was ransacking it.
In his mind, he heard a succession of voices.
The gentle, concerned voice of Scudder: "You must make your choice. I'm sorry."
The pathetic, pleading voice of Mooney: "Please, kid, if you find Scudder, for God's sake, don't tell him you talked to me. Don't tell him I told you nothin'. He ain't human! He ain't human!"
The unfeeling, truly almost nonhuman voice of Belyakov: "Lodz was a traitor. His life meant nothing to me."
Is the real Scudder the one who spoke to me, or the one Mooney thinks he knew? Is that Scudder more like Belyakov?
Are we all gonna end up like him, with our humanity drained out of us?
In truth, the voice he found most disturbing was one that was still human - a rich, compelling baritone. "Ye offspring of serpents, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
I'd know that voice anywhere. It...broadcasts power!
But I'm still young, an' I don't scare easy. I ain't gonna be no slouch myself.
He'd had the radio on for the last half hour, hoping it would distract him from his problems. But it wasn't doing any good. Sighing, he turned it off.
Turned it off moments before he would have heard a rich, compelling baritone voice say: "Good evening, brothers and sisters, and welcome to the Church of the Air. I am Brother Justin."