It was well into the small hours of the morning before Leland Meeks managed to doff the top hat of 'Mr. Macabre' and duck outside the show tent once more. The midway was quietening down at last, most of the games closing up and the rides either on their last runs or already being wound down. Only reasonable, really. They'd passed the hungry hours of business and pleasure a while ago. There were only a few of the show tents still open, catering to those last few stragglers too drunk or too lonely to go home before the last drop of dizzy distraction was bled dry.
Bled dry. Heh. Yes, he did need a sup or two, didn't he? His thoughts were tending in certain directions. Understandably, of course. He'd put in quite a lot of work tonight. Eight shows, twenty minutes apiece. A nice bit of profit, but it did work up an appetite. He took a more careful look around, nominating a likely target or two for himself. He'd had a little something earlier, snagging a snooping townie behind the tents between shows, but another little draught most certainly wouldn't hurt. It was thirsty work, dazzling the masses.
Ah, there. That fellow there. One of the lonely, not the drunk. He did so despise the taste of alcohol in the blood. Yes, that one would do. So then. A little slip down between the tents, like so, and a flicker inside himself to gather shadows, like this, just to deepen the darkness and blend himself back a little, and then a minute or two to wait for opportunity. A quick tug of a passing arm, a fold of shadow to blind and confuse, and then a kiss ...
Ah. Ah yes. That was the stuff. Not the finest vintage in the world, of course, but when your staple diet was carnival suckers you didn't exactly have a lot of options. Still. Not bad. Not bad at all. He'd needed that, oh yes.
He licked the wound neatly to close it, leaning back and mopping his lips delicately with a dark handkerchief. The mark blinked dazedly before him, blinded by shadows, lost in ecstasy and bewildered as to what had just happened. Carnivals were such unusual, unreal places to start with, especially in the small hours. It was so easy to get lost, confused. Preyed upon. Leland smiled crookedly. Took a few steps back, dismissed the shadows, and walked up as though approaching for the first time.
"Are you all right, sir?" he asked, projecting amiability and concern. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid you can't come back here. The midway's behind you. Have you lost something?"
The man reached up, touched a hand dreamily to a now-immaculate throat. He stared at his clean fingers for a moment, bewildered, and then, bemusedly, shook his head. Leland came up to him, took him gently by the arm, and steered him back out onto the midway.
"You look like you ought to go home, sir," he advised, guiding the poor idiot a few steps in the direction of the gate. "Perhaps you should call someone? You look a little dizzy. Are you sure you're all right?"
The man nodded vaguely, still staring at his conspicuously unbloodied fingers. Eventually, when Leland let go of his arm and nudged him lightly onwards, he seemed to shake himself a little bit, mutter absent thanks and stagger off, presumably in the vague direction of home. Poor bastard. It was such an experience, the Midnight Marvels of Mr. Macabre. You couldn't blame a poor fellow for being a little overcome, could you? Tired and confused and in the strange hours of a carnival's closing? Why, it'd be enough to stagger anyone!
Heh. Oh dear. He really should be more careful. Still. All's well that ends well, hmm? And it wasn't that much of a risk. They wouldn't be in town much longer anyway. They had a route to fill, after all. So long as nobody left any bodies lying around, everything should turn out fine. One of the joys of a travelling show. Sup lightly and often, keep it clean for the few days, and then you just moved on with nobody any the wiser.
Now. What was it he'd been doing, again?
"You know, every time I watch that, I don't know if I should curse you for a bastard or admire you for a bamboozler."
The voice was low, rough and disgruntled, and it drew a broad grin to Leland's lips from the first word. He turned towards the shadowed entryway of a nearby tent, and grinned into Arthur's sour expression. The Nosferatu grimaced back, unimpressed, and waved a hairy-knuckled hand to beckon Leland into the tent after him. Leland stooped and followed willingly. He hadn't planned on wandering through the Horror Show tonight, but if Arthur was in the mood for company, well, who was he to refuse?
"It's been a long night, Art," he explained mildly, weaving his way through the frozen tableaus and sculpted wax horrors behind the bandy-legged figure of their creator. "I had eight shows earlier. I needed a drink in the worst way, you have no idea."
Arthur snorted contemptuously. It was an impressive sound, with a nose his size. "Wasn't knocking that," he shot back over his shoulder, determinedly pressing back through the displays towards the back. "It's just the way you smooth 'em over after. All that bullshit and bamboozlin'. If you're gonna bleed 'em, just bleed 'em. Knock 'em over the head from behind, drink 'em, and leave 'em to wake up in an alley like a normal monster, will ya?"
Leland smiled faintly. "Anyone ever tell you you're crude as hell, maestro?" he asked, picking his way through to Arthur's 'office'. It was mostly just a small roped off section with some quick repair tools and spare waxworks, in case overly handsy customers damaged any of the displays. It rarely happened. Arthur seemed to have a sixth sense about that sort of thing. You could always tell when he'd taken exception to somebody when the whole group of suckers spilled screaming and brown-pantsed out of the Horror Show babbling about the 'waxwork' coming to life and scaring the hell out of them. Then they'd laugh it off a few minutes later as a bit of makeup and a great scare, and tease each other for having fallen for it. It was excellent publicity, really. He should terrify people more often.
And if anyone really offended him, of course, he'd get Tony to mind the horror show for a bit, stalk them back into town, knock them over the head and leave them to wake up in an alley a while later. If they were lucky. Crude monstrosity, perhaps, but no less craftsmanlike for that.
"Fuck you," the Nosferatu said now, dragging his stool out from under the workbench and plopping himself down onto it with defiant gracelessness while he rummaged around. "Not everyone's an artsy-fartsy shadow master, all right? Some of us like to do things the old-fashioned way. Now shut up. I want your opinion on something real quick. Nearly done. It'll be ready for display by Greenfield."
Leland blinked, but shuffled closer obligingly. It was always a pleasure to get the first look at Arthur's work. Well. Perhaps 'pleasure' wasn't quite the right word. Still. It was something special, every time. The other vampire put a lot of care into his craft. No cheap plastic horrors for him. Everything he made was both disgusting and eerily realistic, both tortured and anatomically correct. The Midnight Marvels had the finest waxwork horror show of any carnival in the country, and that was all Arthur's doing. The Nosferatu had a true and horrifying talent.
It was something Leland had always appreciated. They were dying arts, the old carnival horrors. It was his joy and his pleasure to continue working with those few genuine practitioners remaining. And Arthur, he might never say it, he might deride Leland's Ombres Chinoises as 'artsy-fartsy' lantern shows unto his final death, but Leland rather thought he felt the same as well.
He did, after all, always make sure to show his new work to Leland first.
"Here we go," the artisan muttered, holding a heavy, lumpen object in his lap, and turning precisely on his stool so that the desk light caught the glistening horror of it just right. A decaying head stared up at Leland, mouth open in a silent scream, lifelike maggots crawling over the burst eye and rotted left cheek. For a dizzying second, Leland thought the creatures were real, moving, before he realised that it was only Arthur tilting the thing ever-so-slightly in his hands, so that the light shifted across their backs. He'd set the display table to turn slightly, Leland thought, mechanically replicating the effect. Have the lights come up sudden as well. This one was a shock number. Oh. Very nice. Very nice indeed.
"Well damn, Arthur," he murmured admiringly. Keeping his hands very carefully to himself, for all that he wanted to prod the wax cheek and see if it would ooze. It was a small piece, Arthur's road works always were, but it was a hell of a thing regardless. "You know, there's times I really think you should have been a Tzimisce. You've a talent for physical horror that'd make any flesh crafter envious."
Arthur snorted again. He'd have hawked and spat, Leland thought, if he'd had the fluids for it. He looked pleased, though. He tucked a little smile under his beaky nose and sagging cheeks. "Yeah, well," he growled. "There's times I think you shoulda been a Toreador. So there. Now we're both insulted, huh?"
Leland chuckled. "If you say so," he agreed.
"Ah, piss off," Arthur grumbled, turning around to stow his latest horror back in its storage case. "Go talk to Aura, will ya? She was wandering around earlier, looking thoughtful and givin' half the midway the willies. Left her booth and all. I reckon she's seen something again. You might wanna go find out what."
Leland blinked at him, and then straightened up with a grimace. "And you couldn't have told me that earlier?" he groused. Arthur glared up at him, back to unimpressed once again. Leland sighed, and waved an apologetic hand. "Never mind, never mind. I know. We're all busy. The show must go on. Damn. I don't suppose you saw which way she went?"
The Nosferatu grimaced again, but slightly sympathetically this time. Leland felt his own expression stiffen and freeze. From Arthur's face alone, he knew where she'd gone. The words only confirmed it for him.
"Sorry, Leland," the Nosferatu said gruffly. "Looked like the Fun House. I reckon you're going for a wander in the Hall of Mirrors again."
"... Fuck," Leland muttered. Much more crassly than he generally liked, but it was warranted. Damn her, why did she always do this to him?
"You know, I don't know what you're complaining about," Arthur groused, his shoulders hunching over. "It's not like mine would be any better. At least yours is just the reflection." Leland blinked, startled out of his self-pity by the truth of that. He opened his mouth to apologise, but Arthur waved him off disgruntledly. "Fuck it, never mind. Go talk to our mad oracle, Leland. Find out what shitshow's comin' down the pipe. I'm gonna go feed myself and start packin', in case we gotta move. Swing by on your way back, let me know what's up before dawn, right?"
"... Right," Leland agreed. Softly, a little subdued. And then, as he lost patience with himself, he straightened up again, and reached out to squeeze Arthur's shoulder. "I mean, of course. It's probably not an emergency, though. She didn't come and get me right away. I don't think you'll have to rush."
Arthur snorted, but he'd softened up again. "I know that," he muttered. "Wouldn't have asked for your art critic impression if it was, would I? Now piss off, Leland. I gotta go crack a body over the head already."
Leland smiled at him, properly this time, a flash of teeth and amusement. "Crude as ever, Art. Crude as ever." He bowed low over his arm as Arthur flashed him a vulgar gesture, and ducked out the back of the tent before anything could be thrown at him. Not that Arthur would. He had more respect for his tools than that, and there didn't tend to be much else lying around his workstations. Still. One never knew when a misplaced bucket might find itself sailing at one's head.
Nothing came tumbling through the gap after him, though, and Leland straightened up in the warm night air outside the tent. Humour ebbed, flowing inexorably away from him, and he took a long moment to stand in shadow and steady his nerves before turning back towards the midway and the fading lights of the amusements beyond it.
The Fun House loomed almost directly across the midway from the Horror Show. A deliberate placing, that, and the reason Arthur tended to be the one to catch most of Aura's meanderings. They loomed across from each other on the tail end of the midway's horseshoe, with only the line of games and food stalls back to the gate after them. After all the darkness, mystery and enchantment of the earlier shows and features, the Fun House and the Horror Show were for those last, more daring and courageous suckers. While Aura's own booth was up closer to Leland's tent, Les Ombres Chinoises holding pride of place with Madame Midnight's Fortunes on the apex of the horseshoe, she spent a significant portion of her time down here as well, and some of her eeriness had rubbed off on the place. For kine, the Fun House tended to match the Horror Show beat for beat in terms of terror, though most of them would be hard pressed to explain why.
And for him, too, it held its horrors. If for different, more concrete reasons.
She did it on purpose. She always did. She liked to challenge him, to tease him. Arthur cared only for his work, for the chance to put his skills to proper use in the surroundings they'd been designed for. He looked on Leland mostly as a fellow craftsman, an artist taking pride in his work and the continuance of tradition. Crude and horrifying as he was, he was a simple creature at heart, and he and Leland shared simple goals. Aura, though. Aura was another matter.
She saw things. It was more than madness, more than the play-acting of a midway fortune teller. She had the true Sight, Aura DeLaude. She had great and terrifying visions.
And she had the malice and the whimsy to go with them as well.
She’d kept them out of the wolf’s mouth more than once, though. Literal as well as metaphorical wolves. They were vulnerable out here, three vampires and a carnival all alone between the cities. Aura had kept them one step ahead of all the myriad other monsters of the world. Malice or no malice, that demanded its respect.
And as well, dithering around on the midway wasn’t going to make the Fun House any easier.
Leland squared his shoulders. He lifted his chin, one hand reaching up to smooth compulsively over his waistcoat. The entrance to the Fun House was a gaping maw of bright colours and uneven steps. Squashing a lingering human instinct to take a deep breath, he straightened his spine and strode forwards into it.
He heard her before he saw her. Of course he did. That was often the way, and probably one of the reasons the Fun House had the reputation it did. Disembodied voices humming eerily to themselves did tend to enhance the ambiance a bit. Just a touch. He knew the melody, too. Blue Danube. It was one of Aura’s favourites, and one of his least. The Blue Danube meant she’d want to dance with him.
There was a flash of silver ahead of him, through a low, twisted doorway. A familiar doorway. He didn’t let himself pause. He stooped under the lintel, braced, already braced, but never enough. He’d never truly had enough spine for this.
A thousand skulls sprang up to leer at him as he straightened. A thousand mirrors and a thousand skulls. He wrenched down the urge to throw out a wall of shadow, a wave of comforting blackness to hide them all away. It wouldn’t help. He made himself look at them. Made himself face it. A thousand skulls. A thousand brown, moldering visages, stray wisps of brittle hair sprouting like wires, shreds of flesh gracing bone here or there. Gaping pits where once there had been eyes. Beneath them, gleaming all the more darkly, a garnet tie-pin in a maroon cravat. The gleaming gold threads of a fine waistcoat. A stained, skeletal hand, clutched tight around a watch-chain.
They were distorted, all of them. It was a Fun House, after all. They were bent and twisted by glass, louring at him from every angle, squat and spindly and everything in between, and it did not help. None of it helped. No aspect of any of his thousand death’s head reflections brought even a shred of peace. His death looked out at him from every glass. His truth, no matter how it might be shaped.
She always waited in the Hall of Mirrors. Every time. She always brought him here.
And there she was, finally. The lady herself. She turned in the centre of the maze. Flitted a bit, from passage to passage, but she circled around to him eventually. A floating silver figure, silk and gauze, vacant almond eyes in a smooth brown face. Beautiful. Always beautiful. Except the madness. Except the malice. Madame Midnight. Aura DeLaude.
“Come,” she said, an airy demand the moment she saw him, holding out a hand without so much as a by-your-leave. “Come, my lord Saint-Saëns. Won’t you dance with me?”
Leland grimaced, mouth twisting sharply. It didn’t translate to his reflections. The skull in the mirror had not enough flesh remaining for expression. He’d expected this. From the first strains of the Blue Danube, he’d expected it. That didn’t mean he was any more in the mood to play along.
“It’s Meeks,” he said flatly. “Leland Meeks, Aura. I’m not interested in a danse macabre tonight.”
She found it amusing. To watch herself, spinning in the centre of a hall of mirrors, wrapped in skeletal arms. Death and the maiden. His curse had always been so amusing to her. She couldn’t even get the music right. She name-dropped Saint-Saëns, but it was always Strauss she actually turned to. He couldn’t bear it. He indulged her when he had to, but he couldn’t stand it.
She laughed. Light and airy. “But how can you refuse?” she asked. “Mr. Macabre, with his truths in the mirrors and his shadows close behind. How can he say no, when a lady asks him to the dance?”
Leland grimaced again. He’d set himself up for that, he knew. Years ago. Of all stage names he could have chosen, he’d picked that. Maybe he should have gone with ‘Mr. Dark’. It would have fit just as well. But he hadn’t, in the end. And in his defense, he hadn’t anticipated that one day a madwoman would use his name and his curse to try and torture him with dancing.
She wouldn’t talk until he agreed. He knew that. He took a step backwards anyway. Wished, fiercely, for the waxen terrors of the Horror Show instead. False faces, not the true mirror of his own. He took a step back, and wished for anything but this farce. This pantomime she always made him go through. Arthur was a horror, but he was a kindly horror. By comparison.
The worst Archbishop of the Sabbat was a kindly horror by comparison. Which made it all the funnier, maybe, that he’d abandoned them for her company.
Well. Arthur’s company, mostly. But Aura had come along with.
“What did you see?” he asked, flat and toneless and tight. “For once, can’t you just tell me, Aura? Can’t we skip the pleasantries and go straight to the meat? What did you see?”
She looked at him. Her head tilted to one side, almost lying on her shoulder, her dark curls tumbling across her face. Her eyes, bright and silver, shone unimpeded in the middle of them. As merciless as the mirrors. As terrible and as true.
And then … she answered. He almost startled. He hadn’t expected her to. But she did.
“We ride into the storm,” she murmured softly. Thoughtfully, more curious than concerned, but with something dreadful about it. A toneless dispassion, veiling a glee. “The tower circles the green field. Two knights ride towards us. The knight of swords, with the hierophant on his shoulder. The knight of wands, with the devil at his back. They seek us, both of them. They seek each other. We cannot keep them both from finding us. And from there, all the cards fall into place.”
Leland stared at her. The links of his watch-chain cut into his palm. He only distantly noticed. Madness. Madness and tarot cards. A mummer’s pantomime. But Aura was always more than that.
“Camarilla,” he growled softly. She had a few consistent symbols. The hierophant. The devil. Those could mean almost nothing else. “Camarilla and Sabbat? Both together. Is Greenfield really that big?”
Because it was Greenfield, of course. Some parts of her prophecies did tend to be that blunt. A tiny little nowhere town of a few thousand people. What could possibly be there?
Except for them, obviously. Or soon to be. Well then. Maybe Arthur wouldn’t get to display his latest horror there, after all.
Aura smiled slyly. “It’s not where they are,” she reproved. “It’s what they seek. Naturally. We’re running, Leland. One or other had to catch up eventually. But they seek more than us. The tower looms. The green field shall be its base.”
Leland barked a laugh. Harsh and sharp. “Well then,” he said. “We’ll be picking a different route, won’t we? Not easy this late in the year, but it won’t disturb the show that much. Let’s leave them to it, hmm? The knights can have their tourney all to themselves!”
It wouldn’t work. He knew it wouldn’t work. Every leering skull that stared at him as he turned told him that, before ever she opened her mouth. Darkness and death dogged his shadow. All he’d ever wanted was that simpler thing. The dying carnival arts. The play of light and shadow on a tent wall entrancing the world. The taste of blood in his mouth. All he’d ever want was to be a carnival showman.
But death lurked in his reflection, and the devil at his back. Her hand was soft and warm on his arm as she drifted close. Her madness, sweet and dreadful against his chest.
“We can’t run forever, Leland,” she whispered, almost gently. “We’re a dying breed, you know. The carnival can only keep us safe for so long. The devil waits, with his cup of knives and his ten swords. We can’t escape forever.”
A prophecy, maybe. From her mouth, maybe fate. Or just likelihood, either. Autarkis never lasted long. A carnival was a poor shield to hold up in face of the night. He’d always known it.
But every time he thought it, he pictured Arthur. The maestro in his tent. Sitting on his stool, bandy-legged and evil, his skin sloughing off his face, a waxen monstrosity in his lap. A kindly horror. An old-fashioned monster, a craftsman to his last. Saying those same, immortal words, that would probably be the last things on his lips ...
“… Fuck the devil,” Leland echoed flatly. “Fuck the devil, fuck the night. And fuck the hierophant along with them. I’ve got a route to fill, Aura. The Midnight Marvels wait for no man or monster. We’re a dying breed, all right. But until the moment we’re finally dead, we’ve got a job to do, and the devil has nothing to do with it. He’s a sad little peon. A townie sucker. I’ll have nothing to do with that.”
Her laugh sent a shiver up his spine. Her low chuckle, her arms wrapped tight around his waist, her forehead pressed against his breastbone. She squeezed him, only for a second, a moment of horrifying strength. Her laugh licked fear along his innards.
Then she let go.
“All right,” she said, laughing pointlessly to herself. “Let’s run a little longer then. The devil can wait. He always does. Let’s play the fools a little longer.”
He had to snort at that. He had to show it the proper appreciation.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Aura,” he said lightly, “but I doubt there’s much we play better. I’ll pull the hands tomorrow, let them know we’re making for White Pines instead. If anyone grumbles, Arthur’ll sort them. Let the princes and the archbishops fight over Greenfield, and whatever else takes their fancy. There’ll be greener pastures somewhere else.”
Her laugh followed him as he stalked stiffly from the Fun House. Light and silvery, and full of malice. But maybe a friendly enough malice, for all that. She’d warned them, after all. Every time. She might laugh at every flinch they made from their shadows and reflections, but she warned them every time.
And that was enough, he thought, to occasionally murder for her sake.
God, he needed Arthur. He tilted his head up, out on a graveyard midway, into a sky blearily heading for dawn. He needed Arthur. He needed a drink. He wouldn’t get one, not with an hour or so at best before he needed to be sealed in the dark room, but oh, did he need one. He needed a lot of things. He needed to be a bastard bamboozler painting shadows on a wall. He needed to be anyone but who he was. Mr. Macabre, not Leland Meeks.
There were moments when he wondered if Arthur didn’t have the right of it, if maybe he should have been a Toreador. It had to be simpler, didn’t it? A posing pretender for a rude prince. Surely that was an easier fate.
But not his. Never his. He wasn’t a Toreador. He was a Lasombra, a servant of shadows with death for a face. Mr. Macabre, a magician with a magic lantern. The last of a dying breed of carnival showmen. And the Midnight Marvels waited for no man or monster.
The show, as they said, must go on.