NYX!

tagnone

16

16


Yesterday is but today's memory,
and tomorrow is today's dream.



THE SUN

January, 1984

A cold day. Rain pouring down. Rows of black tires like caterpillars churned the mud. Semi-trucks dragging trailers of sad, beleaguered beasts of burden into neat little rows alongside each other, in preparation for the coming attraction; the circus was in town. The fizzy thump of the cab radio made her happy to hear. When the driver opened the door, and music spilled into the open air. Rattled against the metal wall. The best kind had bumps and thumps in them, she thought. The girl turned a page, a gentle rustle of paper. Another splash of color unfolded before her, revealed by the glow of a cheap, toy flashlight. She was allowed to keep things that Sanford brought her. Comic books, mostly. Sometimes regular books, but Kitti didn't care much for them. She was still having trouble with the big words, and pictures were easier to make sense of. Doctor Darklight's2 the bad guy, Sanford had told her. You can tell because of how he looks. Which struck her as somewhat odd, given he was frequently associated with bats.

She tugged at her frizzy hair. "Am I the bad guy…?"

A faint giggle echoed to her left. Her big ear swiveled like a radar dish to catch the sound, but no image of the clown appeared in her mind. How Poppy could stay hidden even when she was hearing right at him made no sense. But then, it certainly explained why he was so good at hiding from everyone else. Nah, Kitti, you're not the bad guy! Why would anyone be friends with the badguy? That much made sense. Poppy was her friend, and clowns weren't gonna lie to you, unless they were aiming a pie at your face; and Kitti liked pie. Even in pieces, a pie still tastes good. Unless this was the mother of all pie gags, and-

Kitti's stomach rumbled.

"Awh, I'm so hungry," she murmured, setting the comic down and sitting up to hold her stomach in pain. Hunger was bad. Throwing up during an overly long and bumpy ride? Even worse. She glanced at the bucket in the corner of her straw-lined cage, pondering if she could maybe salvage the contents of her dinner last night. No. Even if she could, other things went in there…

"Poppy?"

Yeah? the jingling harlequin asked, popping his head through the bars of her cage. Popping was what he did best, hence the name.

"Can you tell me a story?"

Better than Doctor Darklight?!

"I already know the story. It hurts so bad, I just want it to go away," she groaned, curling up in the corner of her cell, still clutching her stomach, both arms wrapped about herself in some attempt to maybe squeeze the hunger away. That did work, sometimes.

Poppy honked his nose ponderingly. Hrmm



What a great dream, Poppy. What a cool name; Nyx. Maybe someday, Kitti thought, groggily waking to the sound of the lock rattling on the trailer door. That's right, the truck stopped. It must be nighttime! She stretched her little arms overhead, balled her fists and issued a little squeaking yawn. Her wings began to stretch in turn. Three long, flexible spines tensing and extending outward, stretching the fleshy, orange-pink membrane.

They slipped through the bars; clunk!

Poked the tarp covering her cage; bop!

And began pushing further.

Sssssss, went the the rough canvas against her appendages. Sssssss, went the sun on her skin. It only took a single ray to breach the clouds, directing a shaft of hazy, yellow light through the ventilation of her perforated trailer wall. Kitti yelped, jerking sharply away from the little beam of light as it singed her flesh. "Oooow-ow-ow-owow!" She craned her head aside and licked the wound, already in the process of fading away; as though it had never been. It always got better, but she couldn't help but pop a finger in her mouth whenever she cut herself. When she scraped a knee. An elbow. Maybe it was comforting. Maybe it was instinct, but her tongue always found blood.

Kitti turned her attention to the rolling door. It was still light out. If they opened the door- Kitti gasped and scrambled to tug the tarp down, careful of the slightest ounce of space that might send a ray of light cascading across the floor of her cage. Secure in her act, she scuttled back against the corner of the bars and drew her knees up. Sun was bad, Kitti thought; sun was very bad.

Through the muffled din of unloading trucks and hammering tent pegs, Kitti heard the murmur of voices, still fussing with the lock. …in a cage? Should I be worried about that?

Nah, she'll behave 'erself. Bellini made sure a' that, but ain't any accountin' for if she gets hurt. Gotta keep her locked up on long rides, now.

The lock clicked; the door rolled up.

"Hurt?" the man asked, as they climbed up into the trailer.

"Break enough bones? Catch on fire, that sorta deal. Need meat for that. She'll heal right up if it comes down to it, but it'll work an appetite somethin' fierce. Sanford forgot to feed her 'n wound up-" Poppy honked his horn right behind her, prompting her to clap her hands over her ears. "-n't suggest bringing it up. Even if she does rem-" HONK!

"Aw- stop that!" she whispered.

The trailer door rumbled shut again; that meant they were here for her. "Careful," said Sharks, following after the stranger. "S'overcast, but it'll still burn 'er." They carefully drew the tarp back. A tiny, gray-skinned girl with frizzy, black hair and bubblegum-pink eyes gazed up at them; couldn't have been more than eight or nine.

"Holy shit, you were serious?" the stranger gasped. He was different from Sanford. Younger. Chiseled. Kitti almost thought he looked like one of the superheroes in her comics. His costume only reinforced this, being the typical garb of an acrobat.

By contrast, Sharks loomed over his shoulder, his big, tattooed arms crossed over his hariy chest; tanned face red from drinking. "Well, what're you doing?" Sharks growled. "Introduce yerself, girl."

"He-" Kitti bumbled to her feet. "Hello-" Clunk! "Ow…" She bent slightly, rubbing her head where she'd bumped it. The girl had gotten bigger, though she wasn't quite aware that was the problem at hand. Her cage simply wasn't meant for things her size; certainly not standing on two legs.

"Hey." The stranger could only stare at her, bending his knees to get a closer look. "Jesus…"

"Di… did I do something bad?" she asked, directing her gaze aside.

"Uh- no-" He looked up at Sharks. "This's nuts, you want- you want me to teach this thing to do backflips?"

"Hell no. Bellini wants you to teach this thing t'do backflips, I wanted to put it back in the freakshow where it belongs," Sharks informed him, stepping away to crack open a nearby trunk. "Far's training goes y'already got a head start. So start makin' nice. You two're gonna be workin' together."

Kitti crouched, mimicking the stranger. They weren't eye-level with each other anymore, and that seemed wrong. But standing while he was like that also seemed wrong. This had to be the right idea, she thought. It seemed to be; the stranger smiled. "I'm Sam. What's your name?"

"Kitti…"

"Well, I'm… gonna teach you to do some tricks, I guess."

"Tricks? I thought Sanford was teaching me to do tricks." She looked to where Sharks was fishing an oversized, black raincoat from out of the trunk. "What happened to Sanford?"

"Uh…" Sam looked too. Sharks returned a glance over his shoulder and shook his head. Sam turned to her again. "He's not working here anymore."

"Oh." Kitti sat down, disappointment rang clear in her voice. "Okay…"

Sam dropped to a knee, one hand grasping the bars of the creature's cage. "What's wrong, kid?" As if to answer, her eyes drifted to the ragged collection of comics, ink smudged and pages torn. "You like comics?"

"Mm," was all Kitti said, giving a shy little nod.

"Well if you do good, I can get you some more. How's that sound?"

Her eyes lit up. "Really?!"

"Sure, kid. Anything's possible if you try hard enough."

Sharks tossed the raincoat through the bars at her. Flop! "Cover up," he growled, turning to Sam. "You got yer key. Got yer orders. Don't let her run loose in the trailer when we're movin', and for god's sake don't let her get too close to customers! Want 'em payin' to wonder if she's real. Don't want 'em gettin' close enough to prove it." Sharks took a swig from his flask and lumbered off.

Kitti pulled the hood up over her big ears, struggling with the floppy, extra length of her sleeves, coaxing a faint smile from her new trainer. "I'll take a chance on you," he muttered, unlocking the cage. The door creaked open. "Well?" He took her hand. "Let's get started."

Poppy lurked up on the ceiling of the trailer, creeping silently toward them until he loomed directly over their heads. His bulbous cartoon hands pressed against the metal like the digits of a pale tree frog, head twisting all the way around like an owl, to reveal that his button-black eyes had narrowed intensely with suspicion. She'd never seen him so angry. It left his perpetually cheerful features twisted; warped in unnatural ways, which disturbed Kitti on some unconscious level. In truth, some part of her… did not like clowns.

"What?" Sam asked.

Kitti bashfully directed her gaze elsewhere. "Poppy doesn't like you…"


nyxkid.png

STRENGTH

August, 1984

Hot august night. Sam watched her from the chair, a simple t-shirt and bell bottom jeans, the radio blaring a quiet, crackling ballad of a traveling show. Kitti bounced slightly to the music, balanced tip-toe on the long, low beam. Just a simple plank on two cinder blocks, but it was sturdy enough to support her, bending gently at the middle to each little bob of motion from her. "Sam, am I a alien?” she curiously inquired.

Her trainer gazed at her for a moment, watching as she tipped into a slow, backward handspring before returning upright once more. “Well that’s a weird question,” he remarked with a humorous little squint. Sam leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees, observing her intensely as she warmed up. The girl dropped into splits and stretched her body forward. She laid her chest over her left leg and brought her right arm over along, the delicate wing unfurling slowly like a fleshy, vein-riddled fan. "Why?"

Kitti looked up, eyes wide and innocent. “Well I dunno know what I am,” she simply informed him, reversing the position and stretching over her right leg. "I thought, maybe I came from space. Like, in a pod?" She sat up, legs still split, spine stiff, and upright, arched back slightly to account for her heavy rib cage. There was something deeply intimate about her own body. Years alone, either spent hanging from the bars of her cage, or idly contorting in a fit of boredom; solitude had been a good teacher. "From my home planet. Cuz it… blew up, maybe."

Sam chuckled and shook his head. "I- I don't think there's a bat-planet out there, Kitti. Might be, who knows, but uh… I don't think you're an alien."

"Oh…" Kitti rose up and adjusted her stance, then tipped into a slow, backward handspring. "Hup! Hup-hup!" she grunted, twirled and twisted.

"Good… Yeah. Yeah, that's alright!" Sam praised. "Might be ready sooner than we thought."

She was pretty nervous about performing in front of a crowd. Kitti was tiny. Still not agile enough for the high-wire acts. Those wings were still small. And though she'd never truly fly, it would be years before she could glide very far with them. They'd be strong one day; one day, for sure. Her heart rumbled at the prospect. But even with the rustling of the wind against her little tent, the distant roar of a cheering audience from the big top, the cry off the barker, and the sea of chirping crickets; Kitti could hear it. Thump-thump, went Sam's heart as she performed her routine by the moonlight.

"Hey, what made you wanna ask that?"

Kitti hopped to attention on the beam. "I don't look like everyone else. Even Alligator Man knows where he came from."

"That's a uh… s'a story, Kitti. You really don't have a clue?" Sam asked, tilting his head.

"Mm-mm," she murmured, balancing on her hands, wings closed, legs spread.

Sam shifted nervously in his chair and leaned against one arm. “Well, you’re a bat. I mean, obviously,” he said with a chuckle.

Kitti frowned and shook her head, dropping effortlessly into another cartwheel. “Mmm. No? I’m too big to be just a bat.”

“I dunno ‘bout that, you look like a squirt to me!” Sam pelted her with a balled up popcorn bag and snickered cheerfully.

Hey!” Kitti tumbled from the beam, scooped up the bag and-! peeled it open to nibble at the stray kernels. She did think to retaliate, yes, but a strange mixture of poor attention span and primal urge seized her; she was always hungry.

Instantly his smile faded. “Awh, Kitti, don’t eat that,” he said, and rose from his chair to claim the garbage from her.

But the girl clutched it to her chest with a little squeak of protest. “Aah! No! I-want-it-I’m-hungry!” she rattled off.

Sam paused, standing over her with his arms crossed. The girl hopped back and sat on the beam looking up at him, still grasping at the popcorn bag and picking at the contents within. “Hey.” He knelt and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, I’ll get you whatever you want, alright? Ain’t no reason to eat trash. Don’t just eat stuff off the ground like that.”

Kitti gazed mournfully at the kernels in her hand. "Can I get some?" she murmured, flinching instinctively, so her gaze fell sideways away from him.

But Sam only laughed, somehow pained to see her that way, if his heart said anything about it. He tousled her hair. "Sure, kid." Surrendered, Sam gently plucked the trash from her little hand and turned to leave.

“Where’re you going?” she asked.

“Get you some popcorn. What do you think?” Sam gave a nod to the strongman as he entered. “Almost showtime?”

"Miss Alitza needs your help with the rigging," Ivan said, a thick accent in his deep baritone. He stood well over six feet, a round gut, biceps like barrels, and a colorful mask obscuring his face.

Ah geez…” Sam sighed, glancing toward Kitti. “Just… stay put, stay cool,” he said, “You got this.”

I got this,” Kitti whispered.

"Ah?" Ivan stopped him, gently barring Sam's path. "The-" He grunted, frustrated as he searched for the right words. "The girl, ah- not alone. No. Not alone," he said, shaking his head.

"What, you can't watch her for five freakin' minutes, are you serious?!" Sam snapped. "Keep an eye on her, I'll be right back!"

The strongman grabbed Sam's arm and pulled him close, whispering: "She killed a man. You know this." You know this; it wasn't a question.

Still, "She's eight; you bend girders in half!" Sam growled, and shoved by.

Ivan stood by the flap of the tent, sparing an apprehensive glance toward the girl. He muttered something under his breath and shook his head. For all he did to avoid eye contact, her bright eyes seemed locked into him in an almost predatory gaze. There was something sinister about it, or so he thought. Innocent, but much like an animal would be.

"Are you in the act too?" Kitti asked.

"…no," Ivan replied after an awkward pause.

"I can do this!" Kitti hopped onto the beam and performed a little cartwheel. Her eyes returned, expecting some sort of praise. Praise wasn't so rare with her new trainer, which found her wanting more. But Ivan did not respond, if anything, more bothered by her presence than amused.

She stepped down, suddenly asking: "Am I a monster?" Kitti wasn't an alien, after all, and monsters were usual enough in her comics to be a good second guess; not all of them were bad, either.

The question was benign, but it seemed to catch Ivan off guard. He frowned, eyes drifting aside in search of some answer. Either one that might placate her to silence, or perhaps, the truth was ideal. "No one in this circus… is not monster," he eventually replied.

"Oh…" Kitti looked down at the ground. "But, not bad ones, right?" she asked, looking up at him again.

Ivan exhaled. It was a deep, grumbling, thoughtful sigh. "Hrmm… You are… strong? Dangerous. Like a small lion, maybe? A lion is not bad. But his teeth still cut you the same." The girl looked down at her hands. For a moment she fancied they'd become red, only to be distracted from her thoughts by Poppy. She caught him out of the corner of her eye, creeping up behind Ivan and making silly faces. Kitti giggled, quite suddenly, given the conversation. "You… laugh at me?" he asked, a genuine look of confusion more than anything.

"No, Poppy!" she said, pointing behind him. Ivan turned around, but Poppy was just too quick for him to see. "He's hiding," she informed him. "Poppy's the best at hiding."

Ivan furrowed his brow. "Who is Poppy?"

"He's my friend!" Kitti replied. The strongman shook his head. She really was eight. "I'm Kitti!" she stated without any provocation.

"Can you fly away, Kitti?"

She giggled. "No, no I can't fly."

"Ah… that is a shame. Maybe you would be happier, if you could." Ivan braved a close encounter, kneeling before her and reaching toward her face. The girl never flinched. Good training. Just like an animal, Ivan thought, as he pulled back her upper lip and examined one of her fangs. "You are a beast, Kitti. But not as strong as you could be. Boss Bellini would like a flying lion, I think," he said with a deep, bassy chuckle.

"I'm a bat!"

"Mm. That you are," Ivan agreed, as Sam returned with a small, paper bag. Kitti tore practically tore it open when she found chocolate covered peanuts and an assortment of treats. "You spoil her."

"Nah, ain't gonna make a habit of this. Kitti you know you got this cuz you're doin' good, right?"

"Mm-hm!" she replied, already gorging herself on junk food.

"So you two get along?"

"You have an interesting apprentice. I think she is lacking something."

Sam crossed his arms. "Yeah? What's that?"


SEVEN OF SWORDS

March, 1985

Clank! Kitti dropped the heavy dumbell and sighed, taking a little stroll around the inside of her trailer to stretch her muscles. The wireless radio hissed and crackled. ♪-can't rewind-♪ She worked the knob and adjusted the antenna until a faint whine escaped the speaker. Clearer, now. ♪-can't go back-♪ The argument raged on behind the thin, yellow walls of Sam's camper. ♪-we've gone too-♪ Creeping up, she peered through the holes of the animal trailer, before pressing an ear against the ventilation…

"…answer is no," Bellini growled. "You were given a task, and I expect you to perform to the utmost of your abilities. Beyond that, your sentimentalities are of no worthy consideration."

"Look, you wanted me to show her the ropes, I'm doin' that! But you can't keep a moving body cooped up like that! She's gonna go nuts!"

"She is nuts, as you've so aptly described, Mr. Simon."

"She's a freakin' kid. This ain't natural!"

"Look around you. What do you see. A beacon for the unnatural. This is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the greatest show on earth. Such quality comes at the cost of certain sacrifices. You know full well the value of sacrifice, don't you…"

"…fine," Sam decided. "Fine then, I'll stay with her! I'll watch her nonstop, then you won't have to-"

"Do you not think I'd find your request rather suspicious? Given your- past indulgences, shall we say."

"It-!" Sam fell quiet. "It's not like that."

"You are aware of her previous trainer's… unfortunate demise?"

"Yeah…"

"It would be most poetic, for you to meet the same end. Given, your past indulgences…"

Poppy poked an eye through the trailer vent beside her. I don't like him, Kitti.

Kitti glanced at him. "You're just jealous cuz he's my friend too," she muttered before peeking through the hole again.

Poppy's eyes suddenly appeared before her on the other side of the trailer. But think about it! Kitti jerked back from the trailer vent. He smushed and squeezed himself through, squeaking like a wet, rubber chew toy as he struggled to fit himself back into the trailer. Who-?! Hhrrgnn! Who's that nice?! Has anyone ever been that nice to you?!

Kitti looked away, strangely caught between a sea of memory and blissful ignorance. "You," she quietly retorted.

Poppy froze, hands planted on the trailer wall, half-stuck from the waist in the little hole. I- I'm yer friend, Kitti. Course I'd be-

"Lots of people," Kitti muttered. She crawled into her cage and curled up in the blanket. "Everyone is," she insisted.

Oh… Poppy hung silently for a while before stammering: Y- yeah! Yeah, you're right! Everyone loves you!

"Everyone is…"

They sat there in silence, a time passing before the harlequin spoke. Kitti? She barely looked at him. Poppy seemed to wheeze. A pained sound, as if he were breaking. The diminutive little jester melted through the ventilation hole and pooled across the floor like a painted slug, rising from the colorful ichor in the cage before her. Quick, come play with me! he hissed. Kitti lifted her chin, head wreathed in the makeshift hood that her gaudy, ragged quilt provided. Look! Poppy pointed to where a faint procession of shadows marched along the wall of her trailer. A gaggle of happy clowns and twirling batons. Even now the faint music whispered from that dark mirror. That world where things that made too much sense could make a little less; where things that made no sense at all, never really mattered. Her eyes followed the procession to the gate of her trailer. The bolt rattled faintly to the rhythm of the marching tune. Hurry, the parade's coming!

No. Not the parade. Kitti squashed herself against the bars of the cage, hoping to somehow disappear into the wall like Poppy had done countless times before. She didn't understand. If anything she should've been ecstatic, but all she could feel in those encroaching moments was absolute dread. Please, anything but the parade, she begged. And Poppy cackled, drowning the world in his pained screeching.

It must've been quite the joke…



The door rattled shut. Kitti's mind swam in the abyss, only drifting back to the surface of reality when she began to realize they were finally gone. The bucket in her cage beckoned, the girl scrambling toward the corner to vomit, as the footsteps and voices faded away from her trailer. Kitti, what happened?! "I-" Again. Poppy only looked on with concern and confusion, as she finally came up for air; a thing so precious these days. "I don't know!" Kitti collapsed, aching from every end. Sleep already beckoned, another precious thing, as her added years had brought with them so much unwanted attention, and the need to perform for a crowd had consumed every ounce of her waking life; every ounce, but this… this was…

"So tired…" Kitti whimpered.

Her stomach rumbled, forcing her to sit up and quickly avert her eyes from her friend. She couldn't bear to look at Poppy after what happened. The pain was already fading, the wounds healing. Kitti crawled over to the pie tin, filled with select bits of raw meat and grasped a large, hefty piece in both hands, gnawing hungrily on the bloody strip. Do… do ya think maybe… we should tell Sam- "NO!" Kitti screamed, nearly spitting out her food. She sniffed and balled the meat up until it was thick enough to sink her little fangs into and muffle the sobs that began to pour out of her.


THE HANGED MAN

Halloween, 1986

Common men think no further than their common lives; a strange realm beholds the strange. They accept for sake of belief. They believe for sake of upholding the common. A religion, forced upon us from the time we are born, and solidified in adulthood. If one should wish to behold the strange, they must in turn reject the common. If one should desire a ticket, they must step right up.

"Step right up!" the barker shouted, swinging his cane with a loud crack! He pointed to the colorful poster. "The angel of the night awaits! With a voice like silk, and the grace of a crane, she soars and twirls above a perilous pits of tempestuous torment, torture, and terror! Undying! High-flying, razzle-dazzling Nyx! Daughter of danger! You! You! YOU SON OF A BITCH!" The barker suddenly flung himself from off the platform and into the crowd, his top hat tumbling away as he tackled a bystander, pinning him to the ground.

"OH FUCK MAN DON'T HURT ME!" he screamed, as a nearby bouncer dragged him to his feet and confiscated his camera.

"Absolutely NO flash photography allowed on the premises!" the barker snarled.

The man staggered back as the bouncer released him. "Jesus! Alright! I didn't know!"

"There are signs everywhere; pay more attention. Russel!" he growled, with a nod to the bouncer. "Take this to the lost and found…"

The bouncer took the camera and lumbered away from the big top entrance. Past the crowd, the lines and the stands. Past the howling freakshow; one of many side tents, jutting from the big top. And one in particular, like a purple, star-spangled growth on a greater tumor; a banner above the entrance read:

Magdala the Mystic

Kitti sat at the table, fidgeting with the strap of her padded bra. Bellini thought she'd draw more customers if she looked older, but it chaffed uncomfortably, and she hated it to no end. Kitti preferred loose or, at best, minimal clothing. Her skin was sensitive, at times so much she thought maybe she could hear with it. Every nerve tingled with a strange intensity that set her mind tumbling. She could feel every breath of air, tiny hairs bristling from slightest disturbance, to the billowing current from the heavy fans that gave an updraft during her high-flying routine. "It's itchy…" she grumbled.

The fortune teller gazed into the crystal ball, a deep, fleshy orange glow emanating from within. Chanting murmurs, hands poised above as if ready to pluck secrets from the ether; weighted by the shackles that lashed her wrists to the table. "You say these shadows have been watching you?"

"Yeah. Sometimes," Kitti said. "Sometimes they-mm… I see them more. Closer. I see them really good," she stammered.

The old woman's pencil-thin eyebrow perked up, her gaze lifted slightly at those words, past the wide brim of her pointy, lopsided hat. "I see," she muttered. "And you don't think it to be a prank of any sort?"

"Well… it could be," the girl admitted, worming her shoulders about and grunting softly. "Hrrrmf-! Hey, why can't I do magic yet?" she asked suddenly.

Magdala shook her head. "One does not learn magic by desire. For magic has no desire of which to speak! All men crave the power of magic!" she hissed. "But what they don't know, is that to reject the course of destiny is to deny the very threads of magic. To impose? That, is not magic. The true magician knows better. For man is weak, of his own accord. And whether there is honor or power in his own right? Such a state is without a shred of magic!"4

Kitti sighed. "I knooow- I don't-" The girl blinked, perplexed. "I don't know! So to do magic I just do nothing?"

"You oversimplify, but yes, one does not harness magic. They are possessed by it. In as much as the cards reveal your destiny, a magician is not made. They are born."

"Oh…"

"The cards, child?" Kitti handed the deck to her. The fortune teller laid the cards. "Some men say destiny is fickle. I believe it is the most reliable counter for the course of events, as they unfold." Another card. Another card. "Each action causing reaction, until the final domino falls."

Kitti stared ponderingly at the cards, lips pouting as she considered this. "Well how do you do anything?"

"You don't," Magdala said, laying the final card.

"Well I don't wanna do nothing," the girl protested.

"Child, we are prisoners of this show. Did you really believe you ever had a choice?" The girl could only stare blankly. The old woman sighed. "I envy you." Magdala's eyes fell to the cards. She opened her mouth to speak, only to pause mid-breath. "Did he put you up to this?"

"What?"

"Some slight of hand? I suppose immortal players must find some way to entertain themselves. Where are the cards?"

Kitti stammered, face growing flushed, heart shuddering. "I- I- what are you talking about?!"

"THE CARDS!" Magdala growled, thrusting her hand across the table. Her chains rattled harshly against the edge. "RETURN THE CARDS!"

But Kitti persisted, terror in her eyes. "I- I didn't- I didn't take anything! I'm sorry! I don't- I don't wanna be in trouble!"

The fortune teller quickly snatched up the deck and began counting the cards, a long, gnarled finger jabbing out toward those laid upon the table, one after the other until she'd finally counted: "-seventy-eight- how?" How could an entire fortune change in the blink of an eye?

The back of the tent flew open, Sam nodded. "Kitti! You're up!"

"But-!"

"No buts, get yer butt out there!"

From the dark, smoke filled tent into the bright, open big top. The moon hung low at the apex of the fat, red stripes. Technicolor madness in the eyes of the roaring crowd. There was something strangely addicting about living in the limelight. How her nerves shot to the roof of her mouth and made metal in her gums. They want a show, Sam said, only you can bring it to 'em. Kitti scampered past the table.

Nyx stepped into the spotlight…

Rule one of surviving Bellini's Gauntlet: never fly in a straight line. Second rule: anything goes, period. As soon as the barker introduced her, she hurled a zip-spike into the air, a long cord unfurling from her belt. The canon sounded, and blades flew; Nyx evacuated that spot as soon as the timer began, a quick flip to the left as shrapnel pelted the platform where she stood. A whirling blade caught her spike and yanked the girl off her feet, dragging her into the jaws of an improbable death machine in the center of the ring; throw another spike. Both cords in play, the acrobat alternated between the two to keep herself airborne, wings directing her tumbling course, this way and that-

Thump!

-she landed on the flat edge of the blade, the rubber soles of her shoes squeaking against the steel as it threatened to launch her away with each lumbering rotation. Can't get too close to the stands, she thought; the audience was prone to throw things. Even now she could hear incoming rocks. Sailing through the air, clinking off the cages. The occasional crack of a ricochet, the smash of a glass bottle. The announcer's voice rang out over the speakers:

"IN THE HOUR OF THE WOLF,"

"COMES THE HUNTER OF MONSTERS!"

That was his cue; Nyx scrambled for relative safety. Ironically deeper into the metal jaws of the gauntlet. After all: anything goes, period. Worse, Jonah would often drag out the encounter to the glee of her audience. They came for a show, after all, and he had no reservations in toying with his prey. The stakes raised, Nyx readied her smoke bombs and relaunched her right spike, anchoring herself toward the center of the gauntlet.

"FROM THE DARKEST JUNGLES OF AFRICA!"

"TO THE TALLEST MOUNTAINS OF THE ORIENT!"

"NO BEAST CAN EVADE THE EYES OF THE STALKER!"

"JOHAH! VON ALMAR!"

The hunter strode forth, garbed in antiquated khaki; a steel helmet and a long rifle. Calmly stepping into the ring, he casually ducked a flying cleaver and slipped through the gauntlet untouched. A battle of reflexes. While she soared through the arena, the hunter merely walked. Nyx knew him well, by his work alone. Cold. Methodical. And though he seemed rather friendly, backstage, it only took one bullet for her to avoid him completely thereafter; she'd already taken several.

"CAN SHE ESCAPE THE HAND THAT THREATENS DOOM?"

Nyx swung around in a long, graceful arc, coaxing the hunter's sights to train upon her before letting a smoke bomb loose from her belt. The plastic pipe tumbled through the air toward him. Jonah quickly knelt, a wire whipping overhead and nearly decapitating him; the man never flinched. BANG! He fired, popping the smoke bomb before it reached him. A cloud of colorful smoke erupted. The audience howled with delight.

She had to stay up. While the floor was relatively safer, the wheels of chaos above provided quick cover. Jonah had five bullets. He'd already fired one, and he always used every single one, often in more spectacular fashion than the last. But Nyx was determined to escape. BANG! He clipped her anchor; the wire snapped! And she tumbled down toward the whirling metal jaws…



THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE

Deja Vu, 1986

She had to stay up. While the floor was relatively safer, the wheels of chaos above provided quick cover. Jonah had five bullets. He'd already fired one, and he always used every single one, often in more spectacular fashion than the last. But Nyx was determined to escape. And somehow- BANG! -she'd already retracted the cord. The bullet struck a beam and shattered the wood to splinters.

Jonah pulled away from his sights and lowered his rifle, eyes wide in disbelief. "What?!" It was impossible. It had to be coincidence. The hunter rose and paced himself, stalking the girl through the screeching deathtrap, eyes to the steel canopy as the pale, blue figure gracefully dodged between the blades, body twirling horizontally like a crazed spit through the air. He had three bullets left.

Nyx sent three more smoke bombs tumbling toward him and landed against a beam a good leap away from where she'd set them loose. Jonah took a step back and leaned his head aside as a blade came close to grazing his cheek, whipping his sights up in the same sequence; one fluid contraction of movement and poise. BANG! A single bullet tore through all three smoke bombs, sparked a hazy burst of rainbow colored fog that spread in an arc toward him and stopped just a few feet overhead.

Couldn't let one of those explode close to him. One blind moment and she might get away. He whipped his sights toward the beam Nyx was latched to, only to find she'd disappeared. "Another trick?" No… He swung the rifle back around just as a hazy shadow dove through the trail of smoke toward him. BANG! He heard a pained squeal within the fog and saw the girl drop to the floor a few yards away from him, shortly after, clutching her shoulder as blood pooled on the floor of the arena. Jonah leveled his sights on her, Nyx lifting her head, eyes wide, panting and struggling to her feet. "Yield, miss-"

Clank-clatter-clack…

It fell through the rainbow after her, still on course from where she'd thrown it, struck the ground at his feet and- POP! A cloud of bright blue smoke burst from the cylinder, engulfing the hunter. Take no chances! Jonah fired into the cloud at the phantom of his prey. BANG! No scream; he missed. Jonah dropped the gun and drew his saber. He could barely hear, over the roar of the crowd. The rumbling fans and shrieking blades. Something slammed into the back of him. That's new, he thought, as it sent him stumbling forward. The girl's arms clung tightly around him, ferociously struggling, tooth and nail, claws dug into his jacket as he pried her loose and threw her to the ground.

Nyx hit the floor with a squeak and rolled a little on her side, looking up to see the hunter's saber at her neck. She flinched, shut her eyes tight and and curled into a little ball. "I give up!" she squeaked.

Silence…

Or as far as quiet was concerned, amid the din of the arena. She opened her eyes, looked up, and saw him offering a hand.5 "Miss?" was all he said, a faint nod for Nyx to accept his aid. Jonah helped her to her feet and lifted her arm; a silent proclamation of her victory.

What a feeling…

Kitti nibbled on a raw steak backstage. "Bu'why?" she asked, still chewing a tough piece.

The fangs slicing through the meat should have answered well enough; Jonah gestured toward them, adjusting the strap of his rifle. "You could have very well torn my throat open if you had the nerve to do so. Nonetheless, I have my honor."

Kitti looked up from her food as Sam ran a magnet over her arm to check for the bullet. "Looks clean," he sighed.

"Sam, did I do good?"

"You were amazing," he said, patting her head.

"Yaaaay-popcorn!"

Jonah remained stoic. "Why did you choose to fight, this time? It's in my short experience that you normally flee…"

The girl shrugged. "Well I'unno," she said. "Oh! I saw a swirl? It was like, weeeeeooooorrrrhhh- and then I fell into the future? And, Sam was there! And I was in his dream!" Kitti explained, and Sam could only shrug.

The hunter only shook his head. "Mind you take good care of her, Mr. Simon," was all he said before walking away. "Animals can be quite unpredictable…"

There was something wrong with those words: animals can be unpredictable. Kitti didn't think much of them, at first. But as the night waned, as Sam took her hand, and walked her home, they echoed in the neon fog of hypnagogia. At first far away, but quite distinct; something she really should remember, but… the louder it got? The less discernible that something became, until it bled into spongy recesses of her numbing mind, like a nitrous haze.

He tucked her in, and kissed her goodnight. But Kitti didn't go to sleep. Her chains rattled against the headboard of her salvaged bed, given just enough slack for her to clamber across the little mattress and pluck her radio from the toy crate. Gone were the days of the little cage. The perforated walls now blanketed with dark blue curtains, bespeckled with pretty stars, and arcane symbols she didn't understand. How her tools and spare parts would rattle around the drawers of her work table, as the truck bumped, and bounced.

She slipped the radio under the edge of her pillow, tuned to a station that seemed likely to yield pleasant sounds, and let a string of fuzzy songs serenaded her dreams. Kitti found lately that her heart throbbed with a strange, yearning gratitude, though her mind refused to know just why. As far as she was concerned, Sanford was the beginning of time itself. Everything before that a was meaningless cloud of protean nothingness. Like drifting through radio static in search of a station. Planets of sound, lyrical cities, and merciful streets…



NINE OF SWORDS

September, 1987

A flash of light. CRACK! And thunder. Kitti awoke to the taste of blood. The sound of broken bone and the wet splatter of blood. The scent alone inflamed her senses, the taste ignited her. Her eyes shot open with a gasp, only to find she'd been sucking her thumb in her sleep; bitten down. The girl pulled away from the sweet taste; quietly whimpered: "Da-" Paused. Something wrong. The bed was wet again. Another bad dream. Another embarrassing accident. Another shadow looming over her-

Kitti gasped, slamming back against the headboard. The wormy clack of iron chains against wood. The shadow men were here. But this one was different. He was so close! So real that it nearly broke her heart to know she wasn't crazy; know, that she hadn't been imagining them. Kitti opened her mouth to speak, barely squeaked the name: "Sam…!"

"Kitti!" the shadow dropped the baseball bat. It hit the floor with a noisy clatter and rolled against the grainy, wet floor as he rushed toward her.

But she knew better than to scream, now. "Th-there was a monster with all these hands! I- I had a accident, there was blood-!"

Sam wrapped her in his arms and held her so tightly he nearly smothered the girl. "Oh god, Kitti. Oh my god, I'm sorry!" Kitti didn't move. Didn't say anything. She'd never seen him so scared before. His heart never sounded like this.

When she fell off the high-wire.

When she tumbled from the trapeze.

Even when Jonah shot her.

Kitti never had to worry. She always came back from the dark. It was easy to put her parts back together. Painful. Scary. But easy enough, she'd been told. Far easier than a human; so much easier, so why was he scared?

"Sam?" Kitti murmured. But he didn't answer. He just held her, muttering sobs of never forget again and should have been there. "Sam?!" she whimpered, voice breaking. But he didn't answer.

A gang of voices rounded the trailer, sopping footsteps in the mud. A light shone up into the trailer, the two men in silhouetted against the pale rays that shed the darkness; Clowns. Three mangled clowns, dead on the trailer floor. Makeup run off from rain and sweat, reeking of blood and beer. Skulls caved, faces disfigured, jaws broken in a hanging scream. A stray, smoldering cigarette cast wreathes of smoke like filthy incense upon a desecrated shrine.

Sharks spoke up, alongside the other man, his gravely voice weary and dumbfounded. "Jesus, Sam, what've ya done…"

Kitti closed her eyes. Here was the end of that life; of the Kitti she knew. And though she scarce could grasp or understand, the girl felt that end encroaching. Another shout. Another voice. Another witness joined the fray; saw the labors of murder, in the quiet, rainy night. Maybe he never forgot. But Sam was never there, again…


THE DEVIL

January, 1988

Kitti warmed up backstage. The same routine she'd done every morning; before each and every show. The girl dropped into splits, twisting her back and arching over one leg. Her wing unfurled. A little gasp escaped her. Then she stretched the other way, muscles writhing, straining, the other wing unfolding, the other collapsing.

High on a catwalk, Bellini looked on with two other men. "Isn't she stunning," he said, nodding to the man with the pulsing, red mantle.

"You surprise me," the flesh man said, his cloak fluttering as it exhaled. "I didn't take you for a man of sentiment."

Bellini furrowed his brow at that. "How do you figure?" he demanded, adjusting his top hat.

"She seems- How would I put this gently? If I so cared to." The flesh man's claws clacked as he snatched at the words. "Common enough…"

Trapper sided with the flesh man. "I'm afraid I have to agree. Her intelligence is more than likely a side-effect of the conditioning program. Pattern recognition, a memory for complex commands. Unintended consequences in the code. I heard the Hokkaido6 lab's made good progress in that area; no more happy accidents like your girl, here."

"I see," Bellini said. He crossed his arms, a sense of sheepish reservation about him as he insisted otherwise. "And how she managed to escape so far north of the lab? Argentina's a far cry from Arkansas."

"Luck and coincidence," the flesh man concluded. "Every beast knows, to fear men…"

"And so I call hogwash, friend. Your presence here betrays your gibe."

"I tire of the pleasantries, friend." The flesh man coughed and growled. "We have our wager, Bellini. I'm quite eager to see your sentiments crushed."

Bellini chuckled. "Heartless as ever. It warms me to find another so appreciative of good entertainment."

"I was promised the greatest."

"And so you shall," Bellini said, adjusting his tie. "Your monster against my angel of the night. And winner takes all!"

"Let's get started, then," Trapper sighed, motioning for the two men to follow him.

"The show must go on," Kitti sighed, sitting up and crossing her legs to lace up her favorite sneakers. Didn't even see the three men pass overhead; shadows long upon the wall of the backstage tent.

The show must go on. That was the mantra Sam gave her. Without him, the world was a darker, sadder place. Kitti didn't know what loneliness was, before there was someone to lose. Poppy, she thought, and looked for him, perhaps hiding in her peripheral; but no harlequin could be found. She first knew nothing but the sanctum of her own imagination. Having had, having lost, a never ending blade of sorrow now slipped between her ribs; she bled forever.

"Here's yer shit." Sharks tossed her equipment to the ground before her.

Kitti picked up her belt and examined the contents, commenting: "There's more…"

"Rules're gonna be a bit different from what yer used to. No runnin' 'til the clock's up." Kitti looked up at him; something about her face made Sharks wanna belt her. "What?" he snarled.

"Are you happy?" Kitti asked.

The man was ready to kick her when he was taken quite physically aback by the question. Eyes darted left and right before he finally muttered, "Hell no."

"Me neither," Kitti sighed. "I wish Sam was here…"

"You even know what he did?" Sharks growled; Kitti could only offer a blank stare. "Yeah, ya forget, don't ya? Mighty convenient. Gots to wonder'f ya forgot anything else he did."

The girl looked down at her hands, nibbled on a nail and muttered: "He smashed them…"

So she did know. Sharks frowned and grumbled to himself before offering some words. "Sam could a' beat 'em all within'n incha a' their lives, girl. He didn't. The big boss ain't lettin' none off this ship without payin' their way fair. An' Sam robbed him a' three souls fer what he did. Could break all the teeth he wants. But take a man outta action?" He gave a grim shake of the head, unscrewing his flask. "Ain't nothin' Sam could pay that'd make right what he done."

"Boss… Bellini?"

The took a swig and pocketed his flask. "Nah. Bellini had to pay fer what Sam did. And that's why he ain't comin' back. Now get yer shit together." Sharks stalked off, with the final, parting words. "You'll die tonight. If yer lucky."

That didn't make sense, Kitti thought, fastening her belt as she trudged to the arena entrance; she always came back from the dark. She never understood the distance, that between herself and humanity, but it had little to do with being an animal. It was hard to tell which came first: whether insanity had opened some inexplicable door to eternity, or if her undying state had rent her mind in two, the fear of death no longer applied to her. It was natural to fear death. But there was no ticking clock for her, in this show or the next.

Cue spotlight.

Raise curtain…

Showtime…

Waves of sound flooded the arena from the stands, where the faceless masses looked on with a gleeful terror, behind the veil of chain link wire; painted the world in that fog of her mind's eye, though only for a moment. There came a hush, as Nyx stepped away from the curtain. A steel cage shuttered behind her, briefly drawing a glance as it closed with a snap!

No way out…

They dimmed the glaring lights. Revealed pretty strings of simple bulbs, like the unfinished homunculus of a star-speckled globe. They sat like fat, yellow fireflies stuck to the inside of the rippling, red canvas, casting silhouettes of the mannequin crowd upon each other, like overlapping scales of a serpent. A single, soft spotlight shone down from above, quickly understood to be the moon, which fell as a pale, translucent shaft in the cold, dusty air, illuminating a form which lay crumpled in the center of the ring. The vague shape of a woman. Wrong. Insides on the outside. The color red on glistening, white bone.

"Oh no, what happened," Nyx gasped, jogging toward the gruesome scene. There was no deliberation; she moved. Fell to one knee beside the tortured husk and placed a hand on her forehead. "Are you okay?!" What a stupid question. Ribs splayed, skin oozing from bone; muscle writhing like worms beneath her stretched and ripping flesh; no, she was not okay! It made her sick. Her senses burned. "What is this?" Nyx looked up, hoping for some clue, perhaps an explanation for the accident before her. No blades. No wires. No fans? That means no flying, she thought, but what could've done this?!

"Molded from the flesh of our Church…"

Came a strange, ugly voice over the loudspeakers. It wasn't Bellini's famed barking that caught her attention, and sent a rattling chill down her spine. It was ragged; pained, almost. Dripping with boredom and disdain. Her eye shot up to the central shaft. Four big TV's arranged cardinally toward the stands. She couldn't see them from this angle, whatever grisly highlight had left the audience mute, but felt sure the presence of some unseen face.

"Her body is the temple of progress…"

Two wide, wretched eyes looked up at the girl, clouded and lifeless. They were blue, but nobody home. The woman's hair twitched and writhed like a hive of black, parasitic worms, creeping along Nyx's forearm; ticking, like tiny, probing feelers. Slipped through her pores. Slithered under the flesh prompting Nyx to scream. They cut subtly, left the feeling of needle-thin canals like a spiderweb beneath the surface of her skin. The girl scuttled backward, frantically brushing the wound, where pinheads of blood had bubbled to the surface and stained her palm and forearm with the sweet redness.

"Will you partake of communion, child?"

Picking herself up, Nyx's eyes shot to the speakers; was he speaking to her?! She drew the zip-spike from her belt, unfurling a length of cord and readying herself.

"Or will my gorgon violate that immortal body of yours?"

Eyes on the gorgon as the creature unwound in mad, crackling pain, encircling Nyx like a mutilated python. Elongated spine, wrapped in muscle, twisting behind her, dragging a row of sharp, pointed ribs that cut through her taught, abdominal flesh; dragged like the chattering legs of a crippled centipede. "I need it," the woman choked, her voice ragged and deep, waxen matter oozing from her eyes, running down her cheeks, and dripping onto the dirt floor. Drip… drip… drip… as the gorgon approached.

Pitter-patter…

Nyx forced her feet to stay planted on the ground, when the abomination spoke. "Wh-what is it?!" she asked. "What's wrong?!" Everything, Nyx thought; nothing about this was right. Heart pounding. Stomach churning. No roar of the crowd. No burst of technicolor madness. Only cursed moonlight, and the serpent-shadow mannequins watching in dead silence.

The gorgon's face loomed closer, now, suspended on a neck that was just a bit too long. Her thin lips parted; two rows of small, jagged teeth. "I need it," she whispered. Nyx relaxed a bit, lowering the zip-spike. The gorgon's hair crept toward her. Nyx slowly backed away. "Inside you."

Nyx dove back toward safety as the gorgon lurched toward her, a guttural, retching gag ripping through the inner canals of the monster's gut. Her gaping maw ejected long, sticky ropes of eviscerated intestine from her throat; lashed to the girl's arm. "NO!" Nyx screamed, frantically hacking away at the strands of wax-flesh with the spike on the end of her cord and tearing free of the last few strands.

She ran.

"I'm afraid there's no countdown to save you, this time…"

But the gorgon persisted like a reptile in the water, whipping across the arena after her with that long, mangled body toward the chain fence that encapsulated the hunt. Crash went the chain as Nyx latched on and began clambering up the fence. HRRaAaGgHKkk went the beast, spraying Nyx with incomplete flesh that splattered her against the fence. Wound tightly to her arms, to the chain. Bound again. Powerless to move; struggling. "Please, stop!" she begged, fearing something far worse than the darkness of an ill-fated fall, or the blood from a mere bullet wound.

The gorgon pressed her slick, mutilated body against hers; strange indecipherable murmurs rippling up from within her chest. She forced Nyx's chin upward, to look into the face looming over her. The girl screamed, only too be cut short by wax-flesh dripping into her mouth. Turning hard and worming down her throat; choking her. Still conscious, long enough to feel the hair worms slither down the corners of her eyes, under her eyelids, and into the sockets. Her vision blacked, her mind swallowed; the gorgon swallowed her from the inside out…



January, 1988

Nyx came alive as two bodies entwined, flesh rejecting the invasive worms that dug trenches through her. The canals healed just as soon as they burrowed, leaving the girl trapped in a limbo of unending pain. Eyes like golf balls, blood in the whites, she let out a scream, but no sound came out. How she wished she could return to that dark place. Even the grave was preferable. She longed for death, but death would not come. She longed to see without the creeping, black wires in her field of vision. She longed to breathe with her own lungs, but the gorgon breathed for her; wheezed in her ear: "Inside you… Inside you… inside you…!"

Nyx struggled to move, stab at the monster with her spike but her right arm wouldn't move, half-fused with the gorgon's own limb. Bone breaking bone. Her own skin ripping away from the gorgon's. She could feel every ounce of the creature's pain; hear trickles of her own thoughts intermingling with the monster's: kill me… kill me… I can't take it… the pain…

Nyx had to act. Had to tear away. Had to choose:

The never ending pain of the gorgon?

Or the pain of tearing herself away from it…

Nyx pulled. Her skin ripped. Blood spilled in the dirt. Half her body would have to be de-gloved, and she wasn't sure if she'd remain conscious long enough to fight. But she pulled anyway. Grasped the gorgon's neck with her left arm and pushed away, forcing a strange, cartilaginous tube from her throat. She'd have to bite. Drink the monster's blood to sate her constant hunger. Her fangs sank into the end of the gorgon's proboscis, she continued to fight. Flesh peeled off, and Nyx bit harder, a shrill, echoing screech rising up through the stands. Inside… inside… ins-

Neural link severed.

Flesh ripped away.

Nyx grit her teeth. Through tears and screams, she rent herself free of the gorgon and stumbled away; the serpentine aberration still tangled in the fence. Her arm burned hot. Half her face, her breast and torso skinned clean. Fingers arched and constricted, hands trembling, head bleary from the shock. Bare tendons and bone, sparkling nerves and slick muscle. Nyx coughed, struggled to keep the sour blood in her stomach, to stay conscious while her flesh mended itself, slowly creeping over her. Even now, it'd take minutes. Right wing? Utterly in ruins. Nothing but sinew and bone, and perforated, filmy skin. And as the gorgon slid free of the fence, leaving flaps and strands of herself behind, Nyx could only whimper a quiet apology; she'd have to- The monster clambered across the ring after her, breaking the girl's train of thought. Nyx almost froze on the spot, had to force her legs to move, sprinting for the opposite end of the arena. All the while, that cruel voice mocked her:

"Where will you go? There's nowhere to run."

Don't listen to him! You've got all the time in the universe to run!

"What?!" Her gaze shot to the stands. The shades of the audience indistinct, but for one figure.

Future self watched past self, a bag of popcorn in hand. Future Nyx giggled. If I know something, then time's definitely a place you can run.

"Run to… time?"

Do it, Nyx! Future-Nyx stood up and tossed something in the air, it slipped through the narrow chain link. Past-Nyx raised her hand eyes to the moon, to the pinpoint shadow of the radio as it tumbled through the air toward her. Caught it; a burst of smoke from her belt obscuring her flight. Run…8



⅃IVƎႧ ƎHT

January, 1988

Bellini was dumbfounded. The men looked on from the private viewing box, a stunned, awkward silence between them. A shadow crept up behind the barker, tendrils wrapping around his throat. "Were you always planning to betray me, Bellini?"

"Sir, I-! I don't know how she-hhrg!"

The flesh man clamped tighter; cut off his air as his feet lifted off the floor. "No, you're smarter than that. You must think this is a condition of victory, but I'm afraid you're mistaken."

Trapper rose from his seat. "Gentlemen, if I could direct your attention to the ring…"

Nyx appeared in a burst of smoke and snapped a spike at the gorgon; she juked the projectile and slithered toward her prey as the spike slammed into the central pillar. Blood sprayed from the cord as it thrashed and grew tense. She vaulted over the monster as it shot after her, wrapping the first cord around the creature's neck. Crack! The second spike hit the pillar. Nyx jumped back, lacing the gorgon in her cords. "Give up!" she growled, pulling them tight and winding around the pillar. The gorgon's wax flesh squelched and dripped through her bindings. Nyx quickly tied them off and jumped back.

"My creation is not bound by such meager-."

The gorgon thrashed in her binds, the cords remained tight to the creature as it howled at the girl. She backed off quickly, turning an eye aloft. "I figured out pretty quick she'd just stick to me! Luckily I had some, uh-" Nyx fidgeted. "Extra blood lying around?!"

"And how long will those bonds last?"

"Long enough," she smirked, crossing her arms. "Looks like I'm choosing communion!" Nyx paused, frowned, and raised a finger in realization. "I just realized I don't know what that means…"

A shadow sailed over the ring. Nyx squinted against the spotlight as he fell, a writhing, caped, silhouette. He struck the earth with a heavy thud, rose up before her before her, towering over the girl; the Fleshmancer. "Allow me to welcome you to the fold, then" he replied with a grin.

"Is it too late to take it bac-!"

He clutched her throat with his tendrils and hoisted her off the ground. "Discarded or not, you are my property. You will tell me your secrets." Nyx struggled to scream; only a tortured wheeze escaped her. The flesh man leaned closer, the horror beneath that hood revealed only to her; the girl's eyes wide with fear. "Or I will probe every last inch of your mind for what you're hiding…"

"Hold it right there! We had a DEAL!"

"You of all men should know possession is nine tenths of the law, Bellini!" The flesh man tightened his grip on the girl. Probing tendrils slithered across her face; crept toward her mouth and eyes. "Unless you'd like to come and get her that is…"

BANG!

A gunshot rang out, the bullet whizzed by, striking the earth at his feet. He scoffed, turning his eyes to the viewing box. "Didn't think you'd have the nerve to take a shot at me."

"He didn't," called a hunter from the stands.

The flesh man's gaze shot toward Jonah's voice, before a ragged scream drew him back. The bullet snapped the gorgon's binds. She lurched toward him. Flesh. Flesh, it was all flesh the same! The waxen freak poured into the man, fusing with his tendrils, his mantle, his body, forcing him to drop the girl and pry the monster away. "GET OFF ME!"

Nyx coughed and gasped, staggering away from the scene as the flesh man ripped the woman apart with his bare hands. What now? What now?! She reached for her belt- no zip-spikes left. One bomb. The girl gripped the makeshift pipe bomb and looked on in horror as the man finally wrangled the gorgon's skull in both hands and crushed it flat between his palms.

Pop!

The skull collapsed. Her brain spewed through his fingers, spattering against his face. "To disobey me." The gorgon slumped lifelessly to the ground. The flesh man set his eyes on Nyx; standing there, ready to lob the smoke bomb. "You are my creation…"

The girl's arm fell limp at her side. The smoke bomb clanked to the dirt beside her. "No…"

He stalked toward her. "And my creations do not disobey9 me."

The bomb burst, smoke enveloping the girl. She swept the bomb up with her foot and kicked it in the man's face. Nyx dove through the flurry of tentacles; twirled, trailing a corkscrew of smoke in her wake. The rafters! She couldn't fly, but the fence didn't go all the way up. You're really gonna leave the tent!? "I don't have a choice!" she yelped, sprinting for the central pillar.

Whip-CRACK!10

The flesh man's tendrils snapped at her legs, but Nyx felt them coming before she even heard them. Skin tingling. Adrenaline pumping. She heard everything; saw everything.11 Nyx vaulted over the tentacles as they attempted to snatch her by the ankles, hit the ground rolling, and broke the roll sprinting. One clean spread of movement. Her body was paint; the ring was her canvas. "Run, run, run, run, run!" she panted; thundering footfalls hot on her heels. Nyx bent her knees and launched herself at the central pillar, aiming for a clean, vertical run, wings spread, angled to keep her against the pillar as she ascended.

Thud!

The pillar shook; the flesh man's claws driven into the wood like stakes. Nyx kept climbing. Sprinting toward the moon, and that starry patch of sky above. Strange, the girl mused, how her heartbeat faded like her worries behind her. How the panic seemed to melt away. How the pale disc in the heavens seemed to grow wider12 the closer she got…



You dropped the cards, dummy…

February, 1988

Was she charmed by the moon? Nyx awoke from her dream; fell back to reality. Back. Away from the moon! Away from the starry patch of sky. She gave a little grunt and twisted her spine, whipping around to face the ground as she plummeted. Nyx spread her wings, jerked to a slow descent. Darkness. Silence. She drifted down the shaft of light, gliding a moonbeam and touching down in the center of the ring; dirt crunched softly on the soles of her sneakers.

…darkness?

…silence??

"Hello?" Her voice rang out in the cold, abandoned circus tent; she was alone. "Is anybody theeere?" But no answer came. "Jonah?" Nyx took a few steps toward the fence and froze; suddenly afraid to leave the safety of the moon's aura. Even in the dark, she could tell the stands loomed emptily before her. "Boss?" No one replied. The girl crouched in the pale, moonlit circle and curled up, hugging her knees to her chest. A desperate squeak of a whimper escaped her: "Poppy?!" But not a soul to be found. "Please someone answer me…"

The radio came to life. She almost ignored it. Almost switched off, when strange waves of cascading warmth emanated from within. An Ending, they almost said, prompting the girl to pluck the radio from her belt and cradle it to her chest, slumped on her side in the middle of the abandoned circus tent. "Am I dead?" she whispered. "I'm in the dark again." That was it. "I'll wait here. Someone'll come get me. I'll wait right here. I'll wait here. Someone come get me… someone… please…

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