The Twilight Circus (4 page)

BOOK: The Twilight Circus
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The rats squealed and fought until, inevitably, a young male was bitten clean through the neck. As its body twisted and turned in agonizing death throes, a single drop of hot, vibrant blood spilled from the doomed rat into the vampire's skeletal chest cavity, where it immediately started to swell. The vampire could feel the life-giving warmth spread through its ancient bones, and it flexed its gnarly old fingers as the rat's blood fizzed like a dark tide around its carcass. Blood filled the eyes and nose of the mummified flesh; muscle and sinew reformed over old bones; and veins and arteries burned with new blood. The crimson
tide reached the vampire's mouth, plumping out the lips; its scaly mottled scalp tingled maddeningly as new hair follicles began to sprout. The coffin was so engorged with fresh blood that it spewed rich-red from the cracks.

The ancient vampire drew its lips back in a savage grin of triumph, feeling the sharp incisors as it ran its tongue experimentally around its mouth. As the blood continued to flow, the vampire could feel its old strength and vigor return. It pushed away the coffin lid with a victorious cry, its body dripping and steaming with fresh gore. It rose up and, taking great gusting breaths, filled its lungs with the freezing night air. It reached for the hateful wooden stake still protruding from the hole in its heart and yanked it out with ease, throwing it to the floor with disdain; then it checked and flexed its body parts carefully until it was satisfied all was in order. Rings still shone dully on its fingers, and it was pleased to notice they hadn't been plundered by the human who had imprisoned it in that foul box for a hundred and fifty long years. The vampire stared down in pride and wonder at its female form, now looking as young and perfect as the day it had been slain. Thick black hair streamed from its scalp
and snaked down over its milky shoulders in a lustrous curtain. It listened to the low howl of the wind, feeling the old, familiar hunger, and sprang catlike up to the tiny window in the ancient mausoleum, its body now fluid like silver water. It poured itself out into the freezing night, eagerly sniffing the air for more blood.

Time to dig up the servants. There was much work to be done, and it was
starving
.

CHAPTER 5
T
HE
B
LACK
T
ENT

Del Underhill was no stranger to the ways of wolves, but he knew very well that the creature snoring outside his trailer door was not strictly a wolf at all. Real wolves were smaller: a
lot
smaller. He opened the door a tiny crack to get another look. Through the gap he saw it was still asleep, a silver thread of drool hanging from the corner of its mouth and twin plumes of condensed air rising dragonlike from its nostrils. Del pushed the door open just enough to insert a cloven hoof, then, as quietly as he could, he squeezed the rest of his body through the tiny space. Holding his breath and trying not to laugh at the same time was difficult, but he managed to step carefully over the threshold, taking care not to tread on the long white fur.

Ha! I'm away free
! Del thought triumphantly. He trotted briskly across the stiff grass to the black tent. Then
he dared a quick glance backward. Two topaz-colored eyes glowed like jewels through the misty evening gloom.


Aaaargh
!” shouted Del. He put his head down and ran as fast as he could, bouncing around like a demented springbok. He could feel the ground tremble and shake behind him, and hot breath steaming at the back of his neck. Before he could leap onto the roof of his neighbor's trailer, an enormous paw batted him on the shoulder and Del was knocked to the frozen ground with a painful, jarring thud.

“Ow, ow, get
off
, you're killin' me!” yelled Del, annoyed. The Wolven nipped at Del's trousers, threatening to rip the material.

“No, c'mon, Woody,” Del said breathlessly. “C'mon, really, that's enough now. I'm due in makeup in five minutes an' I need to change.” He brushed the frost from his furry legs and consulted his watch. “Talkin' of which,” he added, “you've got a train to meet, so y'have. Hadn't
you
better change an' all?”

The Eurostar slid to a halt at the Gare du Nord, and Nat and Jude jumped gratefully out onto the platform, eager
for the next step of their journey. Paris felt cold enough to freeze the marrow in their bones, and the railway station was stuffed with passengers stamping their feet and blowing into their hands in a vain effort to keep warm.

Nat wondered if he would see Quentin Crone again and made a surreptitious scan of the platform; he was disappointed when he didn't appear. Instead, he spied two figures waving at them. One was a tall, broad-shouldered person who appeared to be dressed as an Arctic explorer, the other a slightly wild-looking boy with a choppy mane of pale-blond hair.

Jude gave a shriek of joy and ran toward them, arms outstretched, laughing and crying at the same time. Nat hesitated. He felt funny. He hadn't seen Woody for almost four months; his dad for a lot longer. It was weird to see them together and to think that his dad had known Woody longer than he himself had. Suddenly he felt unbearably shy.

Oh, you gert big soppy weirdo
!

Nat grinned in delight, his shyness evaporating. He wondered if he could still do the two-way thing. He sent back his thoughts to Woody:
On your bike, freak
!

Don'tcha mean
sur votre bicyclette,
weirdo
? came Woody's reply. It worked!

Nat ran to catch up with Jude. The four of them hugged so enthusiastically they drew smiles from their fellow passengers, despite the miserable conditions. Everyone was talking at once.

“Look at you!” Evan Carver beamed, holding Nat by the shoulders. “I almost didn't recognize you! You've grown so much you're nearly as tall as me!”

Nat was relieved to see his mum had removed the buckteeth she had worn as part of her disguise. She looked almost normal.

“C'mon!” said his dad, still beaming. “We can catch up on all our news in the car. The last show of the season starts in an hour and I don't want you to miss a
second!
.”

He whisked them off to an enormous black Daimler. Nat and Woody slid comfortably across the old leather seats in the back while Jude and Evan chatted and laughed loudly in the front.

“How's your froat?” asked Woody in a low voice.

“Throat's OK,” said Nat, “but I need to talk to you about the other stuff that's going on.”

Woody looked alarmed. “You haven't
shifted
?”

“Nearly,” said Nat. “But it's all the other stuff that freaks me out sometimes. I just need you to tell me how to turn it all off.”

John Carver's Twilight Circus of Illusion had been performing nightly for two weeks in Paris on the last leg of its European tour. The showground lay in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and Nat was well impressed before he even got inside.

Which is exactly what Nat's grandfather, John Carver, had intended. He wanted his paying customers to be enthralled and thrilled before they had set foot inside the big top. As they drove into the camp, Nat felt as if he were entering the set of a science-fiction film with a gazillion-dollar budget. The entire area seemed to be filled with silver capsules, which, when they got closer, Nat realized were trailers.

“Are we staying in one of those?” he asked his mum excitedly.

“Mmmm,” said his mum, in a slightly less enthusiastic voice than Nat had expected. He was surprised. Who on
earth wouldn't feel mega-excited about living in a caravan for the winter!

As Evan Carver parked the Daimler, Woody practically dragged Nat from the car in his eagerness to show him the enormous circus tent. When Nat and Jude set eyes on it for the first time, they gasped in utter amazement.

Nat had been expecting a traditional big white tent with a few Christmas decorations and maybe spotlights, but this tent was
black
and lit up by green and gold spotlights, which made the whole structure—the turrets and the enormous dome—look like an alien spaceship. If you looked up, it was impossible to see where the fabric of the tent ended and the night sky began.

“Well?” asked his dad, shivering slightly as Nat and Jude stared upward, their breath streaming out in the freezing air. “What's the verdict?”

Nat grinned, his face lit up eerily in the green and gold lights.

“It … it's …,” he spluttered, trying to get the words out, “it's … just …
brilliant
!”

His dad's smile was wide and relieved. He felt he had
a lot of making up to do to his little family. He had been away from them for too long.

“Jude?” he asked his wife nervously. “What do you think?”

Jude looked at him, her eyes shining with excitement.

“I … I never imagined this,” she gasped. “I've never seen anything like it in my life. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen!”

Hundreds of people were already lining up at the turnstiles, and music filtered out from the massive foyer of the tent. There was such a feeling of intense excitement in the air that Nat thought he could smell it—it reminded him of fireworks, the smoky sulfur smell of gunpowder. An immense noise like a foghorn blasted, making his chest vibrate.


Ahwhhhoooo
! There goes the signal,” howled Woody. “You don't wanna miss the start!”

Inside the foyer, great fiery torches burned brightly while people dressed in exotic colors and costumes juggled strange and dangerous items, ate fire, or contorted themselves into tiny boxes. There were some wearing
animal costumes so strange and realistic that Nat wasn't sure if they
were
costumes at all.

“So, there's, like, no
real
animals in the circus, then?” asked Nat curiously.

Evan smiled mysteriously. “You wait,” he said.

“Hey!” said a voice in Nat's left ear. “You must be the famous Nat Carver!”

Nat spun around to see three identical bare-chested young men with pointy beards smiling at him expectantly, their straight white teeth showing. He was fascinated by their ears and tried not to stare too hard in case they thought he was rude, but they were like those of goats, or
sheep
, even! Intricate tattoos covered their entire upper bodies and little horns appeared to sprout from their curly-haired heads. Even more bizarre—and at this point, Nat had to do a double take—below the waist their legs were covered
in thick black fur
.

“H'lo,” said the middle one, who looked like the other two but had more of a space between his front teeth.

“Heard a lot about you,” said another.

“This is Del, Paddy, and Jerry Underhill,” said Woody happily. “And they're the coolest acrobats on the planet.”

Nat was well impressed. “Nice to meet you all,” he said, and shook hands with the three brothers.

“See y'after,” said Del or Paddy or Jerry. Nat watched them as they bounded away, jumping lightly over the barriers, clearing the heads of the stunned queue.

“That's brilliant,” he said. “They've got those Poweriser stilts, right?”

“Wrong,” laughed Woody. “They're the satyrs. They can do that by themselves.”

“Whatyrs?” asked Nat, puzzled.


Fauns
?” said Woody.

Nat still didn't get it. “Fauns?”

“Mr. Tumnus?” Woody grinned.


Nooooo
!” cried Nat, eyes bulging. “You're kidding me. I thought their ears were fake.”

Woody shook his head. “Nah, that's what everyone's s'posed to think.”

Nat was still trying to get his head around it when he became aware of a very small person by his side. The tiny man—or woman: Nat couldn't tell, as it was dressed in some kind of cowled garment that hid the face—pulled at Nat's sleeve as though he was supposed to follow. The
hand was black, skinny, and gnarled. Oddly, its middle finger was about four inches longer than the rest. Nat looked at his dad nervously.

“It's OK,” he assured Nat. “That's one of Maccabee's aye-ayes. Not sure which one, but all the performers here double up on floor duties. It's the aye-ayes' turn to show people to their seats. You better watch your loose change, though.”

Nat tried to take it all in. He looked at the small figure leading him to his ringside seat. He knew that aye-ayes were some sort of weird primate, but he didn't think he had ever seen one as big as this before. When the hood it wore slipped a bit to reveal its face, Nat flinched visibly. It looked like a very old, very wizened and shriveled alien. The aye-aye possessed a pair of luminous green eyes, a furry black face with disconcertingly vampirelike teeth, and hairless, batlike ears. Scant gray fur stuck up on top of its head and it was about three times the size of the one Nat had seen at Bristol Zoo. And it smelled funny, like musty old attics.

Woody read Nat's mind. “‘S part of a troupe of greater aye-ayes,” he explained. “They're s'posed to be eggstinked.”

Nat swallowed hard. “So this is a circus that has legendary creatures like satyrs and extinct animals like these aye-ayes?”

Woody nodded. “Cryp-tids,” he said carefully, concentrating on the word, “that's where—”

“A creature is thought to exist only in fiction or legend, or an
extinct
species claimed by some scientists to still exist,” interrupted Nat.

“You got it.” Woody grinned. “You are
so
gonna love this.”

As soon as they were shown to their seat, the musty aye-aye melted away and the lights dimmed. There wasn't a sound to be heard—not a cough or a fidget—as the audience waited with bated breath.

The foghorn noise sounded again, making everyone jump, and in the middle of the enormous ring there appeared a whirl of gray smoke. Nat gasped. A tall, broad-shouldered figure emerged from the smoke, wearing a black suit. He had wild brown curly hair to his shoulders and piercing gray eyes. It was Nat's paternal grandfather, John Carver.
Or was it
? Nat looked harder through the smoke and realized it
was
his grandfather, but not as
he had last seen him. This John Carver flickered slightly and floated upon the smoke a few feet above the ring.
It must be some sort of hologram
, Nat thought to himself as it shimmered and hovered. Then it spoke in the unmistakable voice of his grandfather. It said everything twice, in French and English, and then in a weird mixture of both.

BOOK: The Twilight Circus
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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