Carniepunk: The Demon Barker of Wheat Street
“The Demon Barker of Wheat Street” An Iron Druid Chronicles Short Story Kevin Hearne
(This story takes place six years after Tricked, the fourth book of the Iron Druid Chronicles, and two weeks after the events of the novella Two Ravens and One Crow.)
I fear Kansas.
It’s not a toe-curling type of fear, where shoulders tense with an incipient cringe; it’s more of a vague apprehension, an expectation that something will go pear shaped and cause me great inconvenience. It’s like the dread you feel when going to meet a girl’s father: Though it’s probably going to be just fine, you’re aware that no matter how broadly he smiles, part of him wants you to be a eunuch and he wouldn’t mind performing the operation himself. Kansas is like that for me. But I hear lots of nice things about it from other people.
My anxiety stems from impolitic thinking a long time ago. I am usually quite careful to shield my thoughts and think strictly
business in my Latin headspace, because that’s the one I use to talk with the elementals who grant me my powers as a Druid. But once—and all it takes is once—I let slip the opinion that I thought the American central plains were a bit boring. The elemental—whom I’ve thought of as “Amber” since the early twentieth century, thanks to the “amber waves of grain” thing—heard me and I’ve been paying for it ever since. The magic doesn’t flow as well for me there anymore. Sometimes my bindings fizzle for no apparent reason, and I know it’s just Amber messing with me. As a result, I look uncomfortable whenever I visit and people wonder if I’m suffering from dyspepsia. Or maybe they stare because I don’t look like a local. I’d fit right in on a beach in California with my surfer dude façade, but at the Kansas Wheat Festival, not so much.
Said Wheat Festival was in Wellington, Kansas, the hometown of my apprentice, Granuaile MacTiernan. We were visiting in disguise because she wanted to check up on her mother. We’d faked Granuaile’s death a few years ago—for very good reasons—but now she was worried about how her mom was coping. For the past few years she’d been satisfied by updates from private investigators willing to do some long-distance stalking, but an overwhelming urge to lay eyes on her mother in person had overtaken her. I hadn’t been able to fully persuade her that it was a bad idea to visit people who thought you were dead, so I tagged along in case she managed to get into trouble. Granuaile said I could look at it as a vacation from the rigors of training her, and since I’d recently escaped death in Oslo by the breadth of a whisker, I hadn’t needed much convincing to take a break for my mental health. We brought my Irish wolfhound, Oberon, along with us and promised him that we’d go hunting.
he told me.
Sure, buddy, I replied through our mental link. But that’s going to be quite a run. Hard to sneak up on anything in flat land like this.
I’m not sure it works like that.
Red hair dyed black and shoved underneath a Colorado Rockies cap pulled low, Granuaile had already taken care of her most distinguishable feature in one go. She had on a pair of those ridiculously oversized sunglasses, too, which hid her green eyes and the freckles high up on her cheeks. A shirt from Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora, a pair of khaki shorts, and sandals suggested that she was a crunchy hippie type from the Denver area. I was dressed similarly, but I wore my Rockies cap backward because Granuaile said it made me look clueless, and that’s precisely what I wanted. If I was a clueless crunchy guy, then I couldn’t be a Druid more than two thousand years old who was also supposed to have died in the Arizona desert six years before.
Everybody in Wellington knew Granuaile’s mom because everyone knew her stepfather. Beau Thatcher was something of an oil baron and employed a large percentage of those locals who weren’t wheat farmers. A few inquiries here and there with the right gossips—we posed as friends of her late daughter—and small-town nosiness did most of the work for us. According to reports, her mother was properly mournful without having locked herself in her house with pills and booze. She was taking it all about as well as could be expected, and once we expressed an entirely fake interest in dropping by to pay her a visit, we were ruefully informed by one of her “best friends” that she was off on a Caribbean cruise right now, or else she’d be at the festival.
I hoped my relief didn’t show too plainly. Though I’d wrung a promise from Granuaile that we wouldn’t visit her house, there
had still been a chance of an unfortunate meeting somewhere in town. Now I could relax a bit and bask in the success of our passive spying in the vein of Polonius: “And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, / With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out . . .”
Having satisfied her need to know that her mother was adjusting well, if not her need to see her in person, we enjoyed the festivities, which included chucking cow patties at a target for fabulous prizes. Oberon didn’t understand the attraction.
The town had invited an old-fashioned carnival to set up alongside the more bland wheat-related events. It had some rides that looked capable of triggering a rush of adrenaline, so once the sun set we passed through the rented fencing to see if we could be entertained. Sunglasses weren’t practical at night, so Granuaile just kept her hat pulled low.
Though health codes didn’t seem all that important to this particular operation, I cast camouflage on Oberon so that we wouldn’t get barred from the venue. The spell bound Oberon’s pigments to the ones of his surroundings, which rendered him invisible when motionless and as good as invisible at night, even when on the move.
It’s odd how a dog roaming around is a health code violation but serving fried death on a stick isn’t. The food vendors didn’t seem to rank using wholesome wheaty-wheat in their foodstuffs high in their priorities, despite the name of the festival to which they were catering. Salt and grease and sugar were the main offerings, tied together here and there with animal bits or highly processed starches.
Bright lights and garish painted colors on the rides and game booths did their best to distract patrons from the layer of grime coating everything. The metal parts on the rides groaned and squealed; they’d taken punishment for years and had been disassembled and assembled again with a minimum of care—and a minimum of lubricant.
The carnies working the game booths were universally afflicted with rotting teeth and gingivitis, a dire warning of what would happen if one ate the carnival food and failed to find a toothbrush afterward. They made no effort to be charming; sneers and leers were all they could manage for the people they had been trained to see as marks instead of humans. Granuaile wanted to chuck softballs at steel milk bottles.
“You go ahead. I can’t,” I said.
“Because the carnie will mock me for not winning his rigged game, and then I’ll be tempted to cheat and unbind the bottles a bit so that they all fall over, which would mean I’d receive something enormous and fluffy.”
“If the game’s rigged, then you’re not cheating. You’re leveling the playing field. And if you decided to reward your apprentice with something enormous and fluffy for all of her hard work, then there’s really no downside.”
“The downside is I’m not on good terms with the elemental here. Using the earth’s magic for something trivial like that would hardly improve matters. Camouflaging Oberon so he can walk around with us is bad enough.”
You might scare the children.
Granuaile went a few rounds with the milk bottles and the carnie tried to chivvy me into “rescuing” her. My apprentice nearly assaulted him for that but showed admirable restraint.
“Whatsa matter, can’t hit the ground if you fell out of a plane?” he called to me.
“Whatsa matter, employers don’t provide a dental plan?” I responded.
He didn’t want to open his mouth after that, and Granuaile finished her game play scowling.
“It’s funny,” she said as we walked away. “People come here to be happy but I bet they wind up in a fouler mood than when they walked in. Kids want plushies and rides and sugar, and parents want to hang on to their money and their kids. And everybody wants to go away without digestive problems, but that’s not gonna happen.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
“So why do people come here?”
I shrugged. “Because we pursue happiness even when it runs away from us.”
We passed several booths, ignored the pitches of more carnies with alarming hygiene issues, and examined the faces of people walking by. There were no smiles, only stress and anger and frustration.
“See, there’s no happiness here,” Granuaile pointed out.
Distant screams of terror reached us from the rides. “Maybe you would find it amusing to experience the joys of centrifugal force.” I waved toward the flashing lights of the carnival’s midway. “Allow the machinery to jostle the fluid in your inner ear.”
“Oh.” She grinned at me. “Well, if you put it like that.”
“Step right here!” a voice cut into our conversation. “Priceless entertainment for only three dollars! Gape at the Impossibly Whiskered Woman! Thrill at the Three-Armed Man and watch those hands! Chunder with the force of thunder at the Conjoined Quintuplets! Guaranteed to harrow your soul for only three dollars!”
The barker hawking hyperbole was a dwarf on stilts. Dark pin-striped pants and oversized clown shoes masked his wooden limbs and remained very still while his torso gesticulated and waved wee, chubby, white-sleeved arms at potential spectators. A red paisley waistcoat flashed and caught lights from the midway, giving his torso the appearance of flickering flames. His eyes were shadowed by a bowler hat, but his mouth never stopped moving, and it was working. A line of people queued outside a yellow pavilion tent, drawn there as much by the barker as by curiosity over the stunned people coming out the other side.
“Amazin’,” one mumbled as he staggered past me. His eyes seemed unfocused and his mouth hung slack in disturbing fashion. He didn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular. “Incredible. Whadda trip. Sirsley. I mean rilly. Nothin’ like it.”
My first, somewhat cynical thought was that he was a plant by the management. But then I noticed that more and more people kept coming out of the tent with their minds clearly boggled, too many to be in on the shill. The barker kept fishing with his verbal bait and was hooking plenty of people.
“It’s not a House of Horror! It’s a Tent of Terror! Add thrills and add chills and you get adventure! Only three bucks to reap what you sow!”
The last line struck me as a non sequitur and I looked around to see if anyone else had been bothered by it. It was an odd pitch to make for a carnival amusement, but people were forking over their cash to a muscle-bound hulk at the entrance and walking inside as the barker continued to weave together rhymes and alliterative phrases in a tapestry of bombast.
“Two tumescent tumors on either side of her nose! Face cancer ain’t for the faint of heart! We have the freaks but you can’t get freaky—all you get is a peekie! See the sights that can’t be unseen for only three dollars!”
“Huh,” Granuaile said. “That sounds interesting. What do you think they have in there? A woman who let someone draw on her face with a Sharpie?”
“Only one way to find out.”
Sure, if you can keep close and sneak past the bouncer.
We joined the queue and observed a profound lack of excitement in my fellow entrants. The mood was one of passive resignation to the coming rip-off, albeit garnished with a wedge of hope, sort of like stinky beer graced with a slice of orange.
Oberon easily slipped through into the tent with us once we paid the mountain of beef manning the door. We were immediately confronted with a slab of painted plywood serving as a wall and a lurid sign that shouted at us: LAST CHANCE: CHOOSE HEAVEN (left) or HELL (right).
“Is it the same either way?” Granuaile wondered aloud.
“No idea,” I said. There was a bit of a backup going to the hell side, so I suggested we go left.
“Well, in case it’s different, I’d like to see what’s going on in hell,” she said. “Let’s split up and compare notes outside.”
I shrugged. “Okay. See you soon.” Then I asked Oberon, Which way do you want to go, buddy?
All right, keep talking to me and let me know what you see.
I’m sure you do, I replied as I turned left and followed a couple of switchbacks.
Yeah. I know.
I wasn’t soliciting your fantasies, Oberon. I was rather hoping you’d tell me what you see in the present.
I sighed and dropped my eyes to the bare ground over which the tent had been erected. What grass remained was well trampled and forlorn, perhaps wondering why it, of all grass, had to suffer a herd of bipeds to crush it into the earth. Rounding another plywood barrier, I was confronted with a large woman wearing a costume beard, Grizzly Adams–style. The elastic band keeping it in place was plainly visible over her ears. Next to her stood a man with a cheap, old-fashioned prosthetic arm attached to his chest via a clever arrangement of suspenders and bungee cords. He grabbed the forearm with his left hand and raised it a bit, then wiggled it to make the plastic hand flap at me. I shook my head in disgust and moved on, hoping something more inventive would be around the next sheet of plywood.
I spun around and searched for trapdoors or anything else that might indicate a trip down below on my side. Nothing. No wood flooring, either. The idiot three-armed man flapped his prosthetic hand again, figuring I wanted additional proof of his dexterity.
Have you seen anything stupid posing as a thrill?
That’s weird. It’s completely different on this side. Seems more elaborate than all their costuming.
Maybe it was a thematic thing. Their side was supposed to be hell, after all. If my side was heaven, though, where was the stairway to it? I hurried around the next corner and saw the woman with two “tumors”—they were red gumdrops attached to her cheeks with adhesive. And the conjoined quintuplets were there too: “They” were one guy with two shrunken plastic heads resting on either shoulder.
How could anyone walk out of here and praise this farce? It made no sense, especially since the few other people who’d chosen this side with me were obviously annoyed by the extent of the swindle. I didn’t know what to expect around the next wall, most likely the exit, so I was surprised by a little blond girl, maybe eight years old, in a pretty pink dress and shiny black shoes. She would have been adorable had her eyes not been glowing orange. The smile she smiled was decidedly un-girlish—more like inhuman—and her voice was one of those low basso frequencies that shiver your bones.
“You came alone and it was the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen,” she rumbled, and a wave of her power—or perhaps I should say its power—did its best to slap me upside the head. Since my aura was bound to the cold iron of my amulet, the mojo fizzled and delivered a small thump to my chest, like someone had poked me right on the amulet. She was standing on a square of plywood. I blinked as I realized that the deception going on here was much grander than a three-dollar fraud.
I kicked off my sandals and stopped hiding from Amber the elemental. I’d been powering Oberon’s camouflage with stored magic in my bear charm, but it was running low and the orange-eyed girl demanded more resources, seeing as how she was casually slinging around hoodoo and speaking like she had a giant pair of balls that dropped two feet after puberty. I drew energy through the tattoos that bound me to the earth and watched as the girl repeated the ensorceling phrase for the person behind me. It was a young man in a white cowboy hat, and he rocked back visibly under the little girl’s greeting before his expression assumed a thousand-mile stare and he became a mouth breather.
No kidding. I activated the charm on my necklace that allowed me to see in the magical spectrum and discovered that wee miss was an imp crammed into a human shell. That shell was the same thing as taking a hostage: If I attacked it and it couldn’t bamboozle people anymore, those same people would think I was assaulting a child.
I frowned. Stop. Don’t go any farther. I’m coming to join you. In fact, go back.
She couldn’t hear Oberon’s thoughts yet, since she was still about six years away from getting bound to the earth. Grab her by the shirt or something. Pull her back. Don’t let her go.
I spent a few seconds trying to think of how to beat the imp without a kerfuffle until I realized it wasn’t trying to prevent my escape. All I had to do was act dumb and walk out. Picking up my sandals, I did precisely that, vowing to return later. Once safely outside, I sprinted around to the front of the tent to have another go.
Don’t let her go! I’m on my way.
The line at the front of the tent was just as long as when we entered—perhaps longer. The barker, I saw through magical sight, was actually a full-fledged demon. The huge man at the door taking money was an imp, so the barker was the boss. His words came back to me: Guaranteed to harrow your soul. Reap what you sow. And then, in writing, an offer to choose hell. I couldn’t afford to wait in line again.
Can’t you stop her?
That didn’t sound like Granuaile at all. She loved Oberon every bit as much as I did. Only one thing could explain her behavior. Oberon, she’s under a spell. These are demons at work. You have to stop her. Knock her down and sit on her if you have to.
Oberon weighed more than she did. He could keep her pinned.
Normally demons smell so bad that it takes a herculean effort to keep your lunch down. I shot another look at the demon barker but saw no one violently ill in his vicinity. Neither the man at the entrance nor the girl at the exit had set my nose twitching.
They’ve sewn themselves up tight in human bodies. Have you got her?
I’m going to dissolve your camouflage and hope the sight of you helps. You have to stop her, Oberon.
I dissolved his spell and then triggered camouflage for myself, which would allow me to slip past the imp at the door.
However, nothing happened.
“Oh, no, not now, Amber,” I said, and then reached through my tattoos to speak directly to the elemental of the central Great Plains. Speaking was a relative term; elementals don’t speak any human language but rather communicate via emotions and images. My recollections of such conversations are always approximations.
//Demons on earth / Druid requires aid//
Amber replied immediately, not even pretending that she didn’t know I was around. //Query: Demon location? / None sensed//
//Demons here// I replied. //My location / Demons using wood to mask presence//
The bloody barker hadn’t been insecure about his height; he needed the stilts to make sure the earth never twigged to his presence.
Demons were usually the responsibility of their angelic opposites, but I’ve run into them more often than I would care to. The problem with them from a Druidic perspective was that they kept trying to hijack the earth’s power to open and maintain portals to hell, draining life in the process and endangering the elementals. Aenghus Óg’s giant suckhole to the fifth circle, for example, had destroyed fifty square miles in Arizona. If there was a gateway underground here, Amber should have felt it.
//Query: Power drain in this area?// I asked.
//Yes / Intermittent//
//Demons responsible// I said.
Amber’s judgment and sentence took no time at all. Her anger boiled through me as she said, //Slay them / Full power restored//
//Gratitude / Harmony//
Had I the time, I might have shed a tear at that—or celebrated with a shot of whiskey. It had been far too long since I’d shared a sense of harmony with Amber—because these were feelings, after all, not mere translated words, and it was impossible for either Amber or me to lie about feeling harmony. But I had an apprentice and a hound in danger of going through a mysterious unholy orifice, as well as another mystery to solve: since the demons obviously had some kind of portal down there, how were they hiding it?
You’re a good hound. We are totally getting you some gourmet sausages for this. Keep her down. She’ll apologize later.
I cast camouflage successfully this time and melted from view. It didn’t make me completely invisible when I moved, but it was good enough; no one would be able to see me in time to react well.
Except perhaps the demon barker.
“You, sir! What do you think you’re doing?” He was staring right at me, even though I was camouflaged and still. Damn it. I didn’t have a weapon, either. Since stealth didn’t seem to be an option, my only hope lay in speed and some martial arts. I bolted for the entrance and the barker shouted, “Gobnob! I mean George! Stop that man!”
The imp’s name was Gobnob?
“What man?” the hulk said as I whisked past him. Apparently only the demon could pierce my camouflage. Advantage: Druid.
Indiscreet shoving was necessary to get past the line of people and down the stairs. I heard lots of “Heys” and “What the (bleep)s” as I endangered ankles and hips.
“Sorry,” I called. “It’s an emergency.”
Grab her pants leg in your teeth and pull back hard. Don’t let her get traction!
Go after her and protect her!
The first bizarre “orifice” was ahead. An imp in a human suit was stationed there and charming people much the way the little girl imp was at the exit on the “heaven” side, except that this fellow was telling people, “You can’t wait to get through the next doorway after this one.” That’s why Granuaile and the rest of them kept going even when they heard and smelled something awful ahead.
It was time to put a stick in their spokes.
There wasn’t any need to think about it: Amber had ordered me to slay the demons, so I was going to do it. Before I passed through the gross doorway, I placed one hand on top of the imp’s head and the other underneath his chin and jerked it violently to the side, snapping his neck.
As he crumpled I yelled, “Go back! They’re killing people in here!” The “What the (bleep)s” multiplied, and I hoped for their sakes that their sense of self-preservation would win out over curiosity. They were quite confused because they hadn’t precisely seen me kill the imp, but they did know that something had gone horribly wrong and someone had been severely injured. Some of them pulled out cell phones and dialed 911, and at least a couple expressed a loud desire to get out of there and headed back up the stairs.
The orifice was wet and smelled fishy and I had to sort of slither through it, since it was a slit cut into a quivering wall of protoplasm; I felt squeezed out through a pastry chef’s frosting gun. Dubbing it the Anchovy Gate due to its odor, I decided, for my own sanity, not to dwell on whether its substance had been secreted or shat or otherwise spawned from unsavory origins. It was a kind of gelatinous, semitranslucent slab of dead lavender sludge that filled the space completely from floor to ceiling, a tight sphincter sealing one environment off from another. Its function was clear: Without the protections it provided against smells and sound, nobody would want to continue onward, for the stench on the other side of it made me gag and the howls of people dying ahead filled me with fear for Granuaile and Oberon.
What’s happening? I asked my hound.
Nonsense. I can still hear you.
Everyone ahead of me had been charmed. Their need to get through that next gate was the call of a siren. If the first one had been the Anchovy Gate, this was the Needle Gate, I suppose. It was designed like those tire-shredding devices; you were fine to go through it one way, but try to back up and you’d be punctured with slivers of steel.
Still, whatever was happening on the other side, people were opting for the needles and trying to push backward through the needles, getting cut up in the process. Pelting through the charmed victims until I reached the gateway, I drew on the earth’s power for enhanced speed and strength—bindings that essentially improved the efficiency of my neuromuscular system and prevented fatigue.
The Needle Gate was a mass of hinged, bloody steel spikes, doubtless constructed in chunks and then assembled here like the tent and the rides and everything else. The metal didn’t burn my skin—in fact, it was quite cool, as one might expect metal underground to be. The fabled temperature of hell wasn’t in play here; the horror of it was.
I pressed through the clacking hiss of needles and came through low onto a killing floor, rolling out of the way of a desperate middle-aged man whose face was streaked with snot and tears and spattered with blood. He tried to stick his arm into the gap in the gate I’d just vacated and wound up puncturing it on all sides. The needles must have had wee barbs on the outer sides so that as one passed through the gate they wouldn’t snag; but once you tried to back up, you’d be not only stabbed but hooked. There were at least a dozen other people crowding the gate, trying to get out as I was trying to get in, and some of them had caught their hands and arms on needles in their desperate attempts to escape, so now they could either tear free or remain stuck, but either way they had pain to deal with on top of their terror. Two people—a man and a woman—had been pushed into the needles by accident or design and were now wailing in agony, unable to win free. It looked like others, in the frenzy of their fear, might be more than willing to tear them lose forcibly or even use their bodies to wedge the gate open if it meant escape. Thankfully, Granuaile wasn’t one of those crowding around the gate.
Oberon? I’m through the door.
I squeezed through a couple more rows of panicked citizens and emerged into an abattoir. The floor was cheap, splintery wood laid over the earth. The ceiling was surprisingly high—we had descended deeper than I thought. The reason for the height lay at the far end of the room, which was about the length of a high school cafeteria: ghouls had stacked bodies nearly to the top and were adding more rows of fresh kills, presumably for later consumption. A demon with a scythe was supplying the freshness, and right then he was after Granuaile.
He wasn’t the actual grim reaper but a demon that had assumed the likeness; enough people associated a robed skeletal figure with hell that it made sense for a demon to take that form. It was certainly working on the psychological front.
The reaper had on the iconic long black robe but had pulled back the cowl, exposing the rictus of a merciless white skull. Tiny fires blazed in his eye sockets, and he appeared competent with the scythe, whirling it around by the little handle halfway down the shaft. Granuaile was leaping over or ducking under his swings, and losing steam, but she would have been dispatched long ago if she hadn’t trained the last six years with me in tumbling and martial arts.
Oberon had quite rightly concluded he couldn’t be a dog in this fight; he was barking and trying to distract the demon but otherwise staying out of range of the scythe.
Like many long weapons, scythes are fearsome if you’re right at the arc of their swing. But they’re slow and cumbersome to wield, and if you can get inside that arc, you have a decent chance to deal a debilitating blow to an ill-guarded opponent.
Back me up, buddy.
I charged the demon and went for a slide tackle that would have made Manchester United proud. I dissolved my camouflage as I moved so that Oberon could see me, but unfortunately the demon also caught this in his peripheral vision. If he was anything like the barker he probably could have seen through it anyway, but my abrupt pop into view triggered a reflex action. He leapt over my slide and landed astride me, raising the scythe high above his head to harvest my dumb ass. With his eye sockets cast down at me, he didn’t see Oberon coming.
My hound—a buck-fifty and all muscle—hit the demon square in the chest, bowling him over. Oberon’s momentum caused him to trample the demon and keep going, which was just as well, because the reaper rolled and regained his feet with a backward somersault, still holding on to his weapon and facing me.
Well done, Oberon. Stay behind him but don’t charge. He knows you’re back there. Growl and keep him nervous.
The reaper advanced on me, swinging his weapon in a weaving pattern that forced me to backpedal. But once I had the timing of it down, I lunged inside the blade following a backswing and turned my right forearm to block the shaft, continuing to spin around to the left so that I could ram my left elbow into his teeth. Seeing that stagger him, I followed up, shoving the heel of my right palm as hard as I could underneath the reaper’s jaw. The skull, bereft of convenient muscles and tendons to anchor it firmly to the neck and shoulders, popped clean off, and the flames died in the sockets.
This isn’t done.
I checked on Granuaile. She was breathing heavily and looked exhausted but didn’t look wounded.
“You okay?” I asked. She nodded in the affirmative right as a chorus of roars erupted from the far side of the abattoir. The ghouls had just realized I’d killed the reaper, and their rage was answered by a new wave of screams from the carnival goers. A few stragglers had poured in during the fight and the nightmare set before their suddenly cleared minds was of the brick-shitting sort.
Ghouls are unclean, since they feast on the dead or on bits of the dead and get exposed to all sorts of filth and disease. Conveniently, they’re immune to infection and poison, but wild ones like these weren’t terribly worried about spreading such things around. Their fingernails—which should probably be classified as claws—are coated with all sorts of virulent shit. One scratch would probably spell a death sentence without a source of high-powered antibiotics nearby. Of course, if a ghoul is trying to open you up with its claws, the likelihood of you living long enough to die by disease is small.
Back in Arizona, there was a small group—or I should say a shroud—of ghouls that had learned how to blend in well with the population. They were incredibly handy lads to have around because they made bodies disappear and cleaned up scenes that would be difficult to explain to local authorities. Most paranormal communities rely upon such shrouds, for obvious reasons—they were key to keeping humans oblivious and believing that the only predators out there were other humans. Antoine and his boys drove around a refrigerated truck and were able to pass for human so long as they didn’t get too hungry. They were also quite scrupulous about waiting for people to die on their own before eating their bodies.
These ghouls weren’t in Antoine’s class, however. If Antoine’s shroud went to Harvard, this shroud was illiterate. Savage, gray-skinned, black-toothed, and covered in viscera, they looked only too willing to kill their food if the reaper couldn’t do it for them.
“Take the scythe,” I told Granuaile. “I will throw them to you off balance. Finish them or else get out of the way.”
“Ready,” she puffed, and nodded at me. She looked ready to hurl; the smell of death and sulfur was inescapable. But she could handle the scythe; I’d been training her primarily in the quarter-staff, and she could adapt some of those moves.
I approached the shroud, wagering that since dead bodies rarely fought back, they’d be rather unskilled fighters that depended largely on their strength and claws to win the day. There were eight of them, though, and I doubted they would politely wait their turn to take me on one at a time. The wood flooring that concealed the demons from Amber also cut me off from drawing any more power; I had to fuel everything on what I had left in my bear charm. Perhaps a gambit was in order.
The laws of Druidry tend to frown on binding animated creatures, and it’s impossible to bind synthetics and difficult to mess with iron. But apart from that, anything goes. The flooring wasn’t nailed down—they were simply plywood sheets atop the dirt. I created a binding between the middle of one sheet and the denim jeans of a body halfway up the stack on the far wall. Normally this would make both the jeans and the plywood fly to meet each other, but since the body wearing the jeans was crushed underneath so many others and couldn’t budge, it was only the plywood that was free to move. Once I energized the binding, the plywood flew up and back to the wall and, functioning like a giant bookend, mowed down a couple of ghouls on the way, though without doing them much harm. More importantly, it left some exposed earth where I could access more energy.
I stepped into the space, felt the earth replenish me, and set myself in an aikido stance. The shroud of ghouls saw the challenge and charged me.
Not for the first time, I wished ghouls were truly undead like zombies or vampires. If that were the case, I could simply unbind them back to their component elements. But ghouls were living creatures, a human variant now mutated into a dead end, har de har har. Back when I was a much younger man—in the second century or so—an idiot wizard somewhere in Arabia had created the first ghul by summoning a demon to possess a poor young man. The demon had a taste for necrotic flesh and grew stronger by it, forcing the host to gorge himself on bodies that the wizard provided. Eventually the wizard realized he’d made a horrible mistake—perhaps because he was getting tired of procuring bodies—and exorcised the demon. He didn’t realize that the man was forever changed, despite the exorcism. When the wizard went to kill the man—for dead men tell no tales—he presumed him as weak as any human, only to discover that the man was quite strong indeed. Said man instead killed the wizard and escaped. Continuing to hunger for dead flesh, he noticed that his skin was turning gray. He soon realized that if he fed that hunger on a steady basis—defiled graves and feasted on what he found—he could maintain a normal appearance and even enjoy strength beyond that of ordinary humans. His abilities—and his curse—got passed down once he married and had children. Perfectly normal until they hit puberty, when his kids began wasting away and turning gray, Daddy took them to a cemetery and said, “Here, kids—what you need is a nice corpse snack. Clotted blood! Om nom nom!”
All ghouls were descended from that common ancestor, but this particular branch of the family had clearly decided to throw in their lot with the demons that created them. They weren’t making any effort to appear human. Or to charge me with a modicum of respect, considering that I’d just taken out a reaper. Their tactics seemed confined to run, leap at my throat, and roar at me.
Aikido is a discipline ideally suited to redirecting energy and using the opponent’s momentum in your favor, and it includes a training set, called taninzudori, in which one practices against multiple attackers. I’d found it a refreshing twentieth-century adaptation of older styles. The ghouls, therefore, found themselves thrown or spun awkwardly behind me, where Granuaile was waiting with the scythe. Though the weapon is somewhat unwieldy, it tends to deliver mortal blows, which Granuaile distributed quickly. The last three, seeing what had happened to the rest of the shroud, reconsidered their charge and slowed down. They began to spread out in a half circle.
Meanwhile, behind me, the unbridled panic of the other carnival goers was subsiding just enough for them to start shouting questions, since they had seen us kill some bad guys and assumed we must have all the answers.
“What’s going on? Can you get us out of here? What are those things? Don’t you have a gun?”
I didn’t know how any of this would be explained to the survivors—somehow I doubted they’d believe it was a pocket of swamp gas—but first I had to ensure that there would be survivors. And I also needed to find the portal that the demons had used to get here. So far I hadn’t spotted it, but I hadn’t had the luxury of time to look around, either.
I didn’t want to go on the attack because it would leave my back open and they were set now, so I hawked up something juicy and spit at the one on my right. It landed right on his forehead, and he promptly lost his ghoulish composure. It wasn’t that he was grossed out; ghouls find far fouler substances than sputum to be quite tasty. He simply knew an insult when it smacked wetly on his face. Enraged, he lunged at me, and I tossed him at the one on the left, sending them both tumbling. That left the ghoul in the center all alone for a few seconds with no backup. I charged him and shoved my fingers into his eyes. He scratched me deeply on either side of my rib cage, burning cuts I’d have to work hard to heal, but he backed off and would never see the coup de grâce coming. I grabbed one of his arms and whipped him around so that my back was to the wall of bodies, then kicked him in the chest so that he was staggering backward where Granuaile could easily finish him. I backpedaled at the approach of the other two, who had disentangled and were coming now.
Peripherally, I saw that Granuaile had dispatched the blinded ghoul and was also advancing, coming up behind the others as Oberon bounded forward to take advantage. He nipped at the heels of the one on my left, which sent him sprawling and allowed Granuaile to catch up and end him. The last one leapt at me and I dropped onto my back and tucked my knees against my chest, catching him on my feet and then kicking him up and over my head. It threw him into the pile of bodies against the wall. He made a wet impact noise and then crunched down headfirst onto the blood-soaked floorboards. Not a killshot, but it dazed him to the point where Granuaile could hustle over and eviscerate him. Then she dropped the scythe, exhausted.
Ragged cheers and cries of relief rose up from the Needle Gate. There were perhaps twenty people there, crying and clasping hands while thanking me and their gods for deliverance. I smiled and waved at them once before they all died; the Needle Gate exploded and perforated them in at least a hundred different places.
Many of the needles passed completely through the people who had been stuck on the barbs of the gate and went on to sink into the flesh of people in the next rank. None of the needles reached us on the far end of the room; they’d either shot off to either side or punctured the body of some hapless victim. We flinched and gasped and only then saw the cause of the explosion: It was the demon barker, now free of his stilts and stalking toward us dramatically to imbue his wee stature with menace. He still wore his bowler hat but it was pushed back enough now to see that his eyes were glowing orange.
“You two stay back here,” I murmured. “He’s going to have hellfire.”
Oberon and Granuaile agreed, and I ran forward to close the distance between us and get to that bare patch of earth. There was no time to remove any more boards with bindings, and I needed to engage him a safe distance away from my vulnerable companions.
He saw what I intended and rushed to prevent it, acting on the premise that you deny your opponents what they want. With a roar, he shed his human skin. The red waistcoat, the bowler hat, the entire wee man turned to bloody mist as the demon’s preferred form burst out. What we then had was a tall, pale, skinny monstrosity with bony thorns all over it, like something out of a Bosch painting. But the lack of muscle tone did not correlate to a lack of strength or an inability to throw a punch. I ducked under the first one, thinking I’d scramble on my hands and knees if necessary, when a sharp thorn from its wrist shot over my back and gashed a deep groove there. It seared my flesh, and when I reared back in agony, the demon connected with a left, the spikes on its knuckles tearing holes in my cheek, sending me spinning.
Hellfire bloomed and shot forth from the barker’s hands and he laughed, thinking he was finishing me. But his punches had been more effective. My cold iron aura shrugged off hellfire, but I screamed and rolled anyway, right toward the open patch of earth. He let me do so but followed close, just as I had hoped. Once I felt the earth underneath me and saw that he touched the earth, too, I pointed my right hand at him and said, “Dóigh!”—Irish for “Burn!”
Had I been standing I would have collapsed, because that’s what casting Cold Fire does to a guy. It kills demons one hundred percent of the time, but the trade-off is that it takes some time to work and weakens the caster, no matter how much magic is flowing through the earth. Brighid of the Tuatha Dé Danann—a fire goddess, among other things—had given it to me some years ago to aid my fight against her brother, Aenghus Óg, who had allied himself with hell. For the next few hours, I’d have trouble fighting off a hamster, much less a greater demon.
“So what’s all this, then?” I asked, twitching a hand to indicate the room. “Upward mobility for you?”
The demon bent and wrapped long, sticklike fingers with too many joints entirely around my neck. He began to crush my windpipe, and all I could manage by way of defense was a feeble Muppet flail. I hoped the Cold Fire spell would take hold sooner rather than later. Its delay could well kill me. The demon grinned at my weakness.
“Yesss. Months have I prepared. Small harvests in small towns.”
I couldn’t breathe and my vision was going black at the edges as his fingers continued to constrict my throat. Why wouldn’t he die already?
“But now I provide a bounty for hell. I will harvest more souls than—” He broke off and his eyes widened. He released me and I sucked in a desperate breath of foul air. He clutched at his chest and said, “What—” before he convulsed, coughed blue flames, then sizzled to a sort of frosty ash and crumbled on top of me, burned from within by Cold Fire.
Seeing that there were no more immediate threats to her person, Granuaile vomited.
Oberon trotted over and licked the side of my head.
Yeah, so a wet willy was exactly what I needed, thanks.
The way was clear through the Needle Gate. I didn’t know if the Anchovy Gate was one-way or not. I had to believe that police would be arriving soon; there had to be some response from all the spectators that had fled after I’d killed the imp in the hallway. While I might have welcomed their help earlier in getting people to safety, now there was no one left to save. All they would do was get in the way of the work I still had to do.
Not yet, Oberon.
I sent a message to Amber through my bond to the earth: //Demons slain below / Two imps remain above / Search for portal beginning//
//Harmony// was the only reply.
//Query: Collapse tunnel between this chamber and surface if it is clear of people?//
Amber’s answer was to cave in the hallway. That would buy us some time.
“We need to find the portal to hell,” I said. “There has to be one around here somewhere. I don’t care how dodgy carnivals are, reapers don’t travel with them.”
Granuaile, looking up, said, “It’s not on the ceiling. It’s probably underneath one of these boards.”
I didn’t have the energy to lift them all up, and I wanted this over as soon as possible, so I bound each sheet to one of the side walls and sent them flying. We found the portal close to the Needle Gate, near the spot where Granuaile had played dodge-the-scythe with the reaper.
Hellish arcane symbols traced in salt formed a circle a bit bigger than a standard manhole. Inside of this circle was nested an iron disc, which was itself etched with symbols similar to those on the ground, but it covered up the inner halves of the salt symbols, neatly bisecting them.
“Clever,” I said, leaning on Granuaile a bit for support as I inspected the setup. “It’s still active, but dormant while the iron shorts out the spell. Remove the iron cover and the portal flares open. Drop it back down and the mojo fades. They can get their people in and out in seconds. No wonder they were able to keep this on the down low.”
“Keep what, exactly?” Granuaile asked. “What was this all about?”
“Souls. The demon barker wanted to move up in the underworld and this was his scheme. Make people willingly choose hell and then kill them.”
“But how could they possibly get away with it? I mean, look at all those poor people. Nobody noticed?”
“This was likely the first time they tried it on a large scale. On the heaven side of the tent they have an imp slapping a memory charm on people as they walk out. Keeps them from searching for their friends when they don’t come out, and when they finally realize they’ve lost their friends, their memories will tell them they couldn’t possibly have lost them here. By the time Missing Persons Reports actually get filed, the carnival is on its way out of town. The ghouls would have stayed in this chamber and eaten until all the evidence was gone, and you know how it goes—no body, no crime. The mass disappearance would get explained as an alien abduction before somebody suspected a mass murder underground.”
“Well, we’re not just going to leave them all here, are we?”
I surveyed the ruin and shook my head. “No. Their families deserve closure. The elemental can move their bodies to the surface for us when the coast is clear.”
“Okay.” Granuaile returned her attention back to the portal. “So if you lifted that cover right now, we could jump into hell?”
“Or something could jump out, yes. And it would drain a lot of power from the earth while it was open. We can destroy it pretty easily, though.”
Binding like to like using the energy of the earth, I bound all the salt crystals together so that they lifted from the ground and met above the iron cover, forming a ball. I let it go and it dropped onto the cover. The salt had rested in shallow troughs traced by a finger, so I erased those as well by smoothing out the ground. I checked the circle in the magical spectrum to make sure it was safe before moving the cover. There was no telltale glow of magic anywhere around it, and the cover could be broken down and reabsorbed into the earth.
“Kick the cover a bit for me?” I asked. I doubted I could make it budge in my condition. Binding spells, by comparison, were simple, since they used Amber’s energy, not my own. Granuaile pushed the iron disc a few inches with her foot and the ground underneath remained satisfyingly solid. The ball of bound salt on top rolled off. Satisfied that the situation couldn’t get any worse, I informed Amber that the portal was destroyed and asked her to create a path to the surface for us. As we watched, the earth itself created a stairway leading up from the base of the nearest wall.
I cast camouflage on all three of us, since appearing in the midst of a carnival dressed in blood might excite some comment. We emerged behind a row of gaming booths and the stairway closed behind us. We took a moment to reacquaint ourselves with what fresh air smelled like. The voice of the carnie running the milk bottle booth was taunting new marks.
“Be right back,” I said, and left them to check on the tent, though I couldn’t muster much of a pace. Still, I saw that the hulk at the entrance was gone and someone had called the police. The exit was manned by officers, too, and there was no trace of the little imp girl or the people inside who’d served as the bearded lady, the three-armed man, and so on. The police clearly hadn’t found any bodies yet or they would have been doing more than simply closing the exhibit. Any report the police received would have been for the imp whose neck I’d snapped—a mundane affair as far as they knew. No one who had seen the supernatural had survived except for us. The imps who’d escaped would have to be hunted down as a matter of principle, but they didn’t have the power to reopen a portal by themselves. We could afford time to recuperate and think of how best to proceed.
I returned to Granuaile and Oberon behind the game booths and dissolved our camouflage, since we were alone, and if someone spied us, they wouldn’t see the blood right away in the dark. Granuaile was squatting down and staring at the ground, arms resting on her thighs and hands clasped between her knees. All around us, oblivious carnival goers continued to seek entertainment. The lights and sounds of the midway, bright and alluring before, now grated on my nerves. We couldn’t be amused by those rides anymore. I squatted next to her in the same position.
“I told you once what choosing this life could mean for you personally, but those were just words,” I said. “Now you know.”
Granuaile nodded jerkily. “Yes, I do.” She was trembling all over, coming down from the adrenaline and perhaps entering shock now that the enormity of what had happened was settling in.
“But you did well in there,” I said. “Thanks for the assist.”
“Same to you.” Granuaile’s lip shook and a tear leaked out of her eye. “I didn’t have time to think. My mom could have been in that room.”
“Yes. I’m relieved she wasn’t. Great time to go on a cruise.”
She wiped at her cheek and sniffed. “But somebody’s mom is in there. Probably some people I know too.”
“That’s most likely true. But we couldn’t have saved any more than we did. You do realize that we definitely saved some people tonight?”
“Yeah. But I can’t feel good about that now.”
Oberon moved closer to Granuaile, dipped his head under her hand, and flipped it up, inviting her to pet him. She hugged him around the neck and cried on him a little bit, and he bore it in silence—or at least silent as far as my apprentice was concerned.
I don’t think so. Probably best not to bring it up. You can see that she loves you. And so do I.
You know it is. But to erase any doubts, I’m going to see if we can arrange a liaison. An amorous rendezvous.
Oberon’s tail began to wag.
We will call her Noche. There will be sausage and occasion to frolic.
Oberon got so excited about this news that he barked, startling Granuaile. She reared back and he turned his head, licking her face.
“What! Oberon!” She toppled backward and hit her head on the back of the gaming booth. “Ow!” Then she laughed as Oberon swooped in and slobbered on her some more.
Dogs make everything better.
Except my fear of Kansas. I still have that.