Carnival by Julie Reece

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

narrated by Bob Eccles

At one in the morning, Jancis Macleod finished escorting the last few guests to the park exit. Officially off duty, her steps hastened as she slipped between the folds of the green and white striped tent. She jogged to the near wall of her favorite exhibit and slid down the Plexiglas divider to the floor. Fresh straw and sawdust replaced scents of bratwurst and cotton candy from outside.

A grizzly lumbered over to the window, his brown eyes hooded by drooping lids. Pushing his great bulk against the barrier, the bear settled himself next to her.

“Hey, buddy.” Her fingers touched the glass near the animal’s face. “I missed you. Man, tonight was awful. My relief didn’t show so I never got dinner, and some kid barfed in cart three of the ferris wheel. One guess who got stuck with the clean-up.”

Jancis sighed and looked into the bear’s soulful eyes.

She would never admit the bond she felt with a holographic creature. The confession would have cemented her image with the other carnies as inescapably weird. On the inside, however, separation from him on the carnival’s last night in town threatened to break her heart.

“Will you miss us, Jancis?” Dr. Nightshade’s reflection loomed on the glass.

She’d been so absorbed in her visit with the bear, she hadn’t heard him approach. Red tails, white ruffled shirt, and black pants gave him the look of circus ringmaster. A silver, handlebar moustache sat beneath a roman nose. He removed his top hat, exposing shoulder length gray hair.

She nodded. “I will, yes. I’m sure that seems silly to you—”

“On the contrary, I’ve been thinking how well you fit in with our little family.”

Jancis shifted, craned her neck to meet his eyes, ice blue under a fringe of gray lash. “Really?”

“My, yes.” Nightshade walked a few steps to the pole at the center of the tent. “I’ve been all over the world, Ms. Macleod, seen everything there is to see. I am a student of people, a purveyor of art . . . a collector of sorts.”

“Collector?”

“Indeed.” He held out his hands, palms upward. His feet moved round, arms swept in a dramatic circle. “Do you not enjoy the benefits of my labor? I see you, Ms. Macleod, night after night, loathe to leave them as I am—” His voice rose to a crescendo then plummeted—“because you have nowhere better to go.”

Muscles in Jancis’ stomach clenched as she tried in vain to quell the butterflies his words disturbed. Does everyone know how pathetic I am?

Her eyes burned even as his speech pierced her heart. She pushed to her feet; her peripheral vision showed the bear rising alongside her. She slid her hand along the slick glass as if to steady herself with his presence.

Dr. Nightshade glanced at her hand. His eyes trailed to her face, and he smiled wide. “You need not be ashamed, my dear. Carnival folk are no strangers to the bitter sting of loneliness.”

Jancis looked over her shoulder to the animals behind the barricade.

“I notice you favor the bear.”

“Yes, I…” How could she explain what he meant to her when she didn’t understand it herself?

“Would you like me to demonstrate how the illusion operates?”

A thunderous crash reverberated off the glass walls. Jancis jumped, unsure the lump in her throat wasn’t her heart. She swallowed, putting a hand against her neck. Hollow thuds continued.

She scanned the curved walls of the exhibit, watching several animals hurl themselves against the glass. Four quick steps took her to the center of the room beside Dr. Nightshade. Her beloved bear stood eight feet on his hind legs. Mouth agape, his lips curled back to expose impressive canines.

“What’s going on? Something’s wrong with them.”

“Pish posh, it’s the most exciting part of the illusion, wouldn’t you say? Now come along. I’ll show you how everything is achieved.”

Dr. Nightshade circled a hand in the air, indicating which way to go. He ran his hands over the glass and knocked until a hollow sound echoed on the other side.

Jancis glanced behind her, sure she heard a woman giggle.

“This way, child, hurry, hurry, haven’t got all night, you know?”

She faced him. Legs moved forward as if tethered to tent poles. Once, she’d have leapt at the chance to see her bear up close, but now a warning sounded in her heart. “You know, sir, I think I’m actually good.”

The animals continued to ram against the Plexiglas.

She wrung her hands together. “It might ruin the magic to know how it’s done, after all. I guess I’ve . . . rethought the idea.”

Dr. Nightshade turned to her, his face in shadows.

“Sorry,” she continued. “It’s really nice of you to offer. Maybe another time would be better?” Her eyes veered away to catch the bear’s four-inch claws scrape the length of the divider.

Dr. Nightshade motioned for her to come closer. In his fist, he held a hand mirror. Jancis squinted for a better look.

Lights strung on the ceiling of the tent reflected off the gilt frame of the looking glass. The relief on the back depicted three intertwined fairies. They appeared to move—swaying playfully on the sculpted metal. One pointed at the shimmering door, her tiny hand rising completely off the gilded surface.

Jancis gasped.

The other fairies burst into laughter, covering their beautiful mouths. Dr. Nightshade’s eyes darkened. He lunged for her. She dodged, but his fingers caught in her hair.

“Stop it, let me go!” She wrestled, but he held her fast with a tug of her locks. Wrapping her hair around his wrist like a leash, he dragged her toward the door. She clenched her teeth against the pain.

“I’m afraid . . . that won’t . . . happen now, my dear.” He grunted as he fought to gain control.

She twisted toward him and kicked. Connecting with his shin, she heard him exhale a curse under his breath. Her fists flew out, beating against his chest and face.

He slapped her. Pain exploded in her head. His palm connected again, once, twice more. Stars erupted on the back of her closed lids. Her hand sought to soothe the sting on her cheek as she sunk to the floor.

“Why?” Her question melted to sobs, a quiet tenor to the roars of the animals.

Nightshade bent to lift the mirror where it had fallen in the straw. He stuffed it inside his pocket, muffling the fairies’ shrieks of glee. His fingers grasped the collar of her shirt, and a sharp tug brought Jancis to her feet. His foot lifted, and he kicked the door open.

Her eyes tried to focus, but only pitch lay beyond. She whimpered as her hands grasped the frame on either side of the door. She dug her toes into the threshold to keep from moving forward.

His fingers pinched her flesh as he clutched the fabric at the back of her shirt. “Welcome, Jancis. Congratulations.” His winded words blew hot into her ear. “You are the latest addition to my fantastical menagerie.”

***

“Jancis?” said a woman’s voice from the shadows.

Jancis lifted her head. She rubbed the water from her lashes with the heel of her hand. As she lowered it, her hand transformed into a great spotted paw. How can this be happening?

 

“I am Natalie. We have not had much chance to talk. I know you are frightened. We have tried to give you time, but you have been here days now.”

Jancis hiccupped and wiped her nose on the front of her red t-shirt. Through her tears, she saw elaborately designed trees, hues of green and brown that made up the wooded scenery for the animals.

She pressed backwards, away from the voice, until her back met with the sharp, sculpted bark of the tree. “Go away, please,” she whispered.

A ghost-like figure in white stepped from the shadows. “We won’t hurt you.”

Close to Jancis in age, the girl’s willowy form glided through a small clearing. Her image shimmered, transforming into what Jancis recognized as the swan from the exhibit. Her form flickered again in the light. With every subtle move, her body shifted between that of human and bird.

“We know who you are. You’ve spent enough time with us, haven’t you—even if it was on the other side of the glass?”

Heat rose from Jancis’ chest, up her neck and face as she remembered her long confessionals. Back when she believed the exhibit animals were all smoke and mirrors. A parlor trick of Dr. Nightshade’s, to confound and dazzle—and she had been dazzled.

Kneeling, Natalie smiled a sad, tired-looking smile before her expression sobered again. “We are sorry this has happened to you, but we can help. Will you talk to Lane? He is worried sick about you.”

Jancis peered around Natalie’s ever-changing form. The other inmates milled about in the trees on the other side of a grassy lawn. The meadow was well constructed. Picture perfect in its falseness, like an arranged vase of expensive silk flowers, pretty, but not real. A white stallion vacillated between a young man and a horse. The gazelle became a raven-haired girl no more than eighteen. Jancis counted seven animal-people in all.

She took a shuddering breath.

The swan-girl followed Jancis’ line of sight. Natalie said, “We’re just people. The rest is illusion. We’re trapped here as you are, collected by Dr. Nightmare, as Lane calls him.

“I can’t talk to Lane, Natalie.”

“Why?”

Because.” Jancis waved her hand in the air. “Because I said stuff . . . told him personal things. I didn’t know what you . . . he was.”

Natalie shrugged and glanced away.

“Oh, God. You heard me, too, didn’t you? Perfect. I just want to go home.” Salt stung her eyes and she swallowed.

“I know. I’m sorry. But you’ve got to learn to trust us. It’s time to get to know your new family.” Natalie stood, motioned to the others who approached, fanning out on either side of the beautiful blond.

New family? Jancis’ lungs constricted. She wished they’d stop moving. When still, her cellmates held to one form. Animated, the strobe effect of their changing from man to beast brought a throb to the base of her neck.

“Lane?” Natalie called.

The gazelle giggled and burst into the dark-haired girl again.

“Oh, hush, Lizzy!” Natalie hissed over shoulder. “Don’t tease, it is hard enough for them.” She turned to Jancis once again, and her gentle tone returned. “Of course, another introduction is needed. Forgive me.” She pointed them out one by one. “You remember Elizabeth,” she said, “our stunning gazelle.”

Elizabeth bowed. “Bonjour.”

Jancis pushed off the ground to meet them again. She made a mental note of their names and animal counterparts: Michael-horse, Mei Ling-crane, Aleksandr-dragon, Carlos-tiger, and Lane. . . .

The group parted as another stepped forward. His image morphed between that of a bear and a tall, muscular young man with shaggy brown hair and chocolate eyes.

Lane. Jancis bit her lip harder than she meant to as he neared. She couldn’t help staring at the striking boy she’d only known as a hulking grizzly.

Lane stood before her, his hand outstretched. “Hullo again,” he said with an unmistakable Australian accent. “The effects of entering The Door will pass.” His brow creased. He stretched out a hand, ran the pad of his thumb under her lip. He held the crimson mark up for her to see. “You’re bleeding.”

Jancis’ knees weakened.

“Will you come and sit awhile with me?”

He took her hand. Jancis watched her nails stretch and curl into the claws of a big cat. She followed, too exhausted to protest. Her body folded and reclined against the trunk of a large knotted pine. She wasn’t surprised when Lane did likewise. They’d sat together before, hadn’t they?

Lane in human form changed their relationship. While he knew her deepest thoughts, she didn’t know him at all.

The other inhabitants of the menagerie melded into the surrounding forest like spirits, the gossamer wings of the swan the last to fade.

Silence blanketed the remaining two. Lane stared at her as if watching every subtle move. He seemed completely unabashed in his regard. When Jancis couldn’t take anymore she blurted out, “I’m Jancis.”

One side of Lane’s mouth tugged upward in a smile, revealing straight white teeth. “Yes. I know.”

Of course you know. A bout of vertigo swept over her. She put a hand to her forehead. “Whoa.”

“I remember that feeling,” Lane said, leaning toward her, his tone low and gravelly. “It happened to me when I first came.”

“Yeah? When was that?”

“1952. I was seventeen, am seventeen, or seventy-two. I don’t know. I came here with my parents to visit my aunt. We went to see the circus where Dr. Nightshade ran one of the sideshows. I never left.” His gaze dropped, a muscle twitched in his jaw.

“My God, Lane, how awful.”

“They looked for me. I saw my dad come into the menagerie to search with the police. All they saw was an irate bear. I suppose you’ve realized outsiders can’t see our human half. It was the same for all of us, though the others came long before me. Mei Ling is here all the way from Japan, Carlos from Spain. I was the last.”

“Until me.”

“Until you.” He lifted his hand as if to touch her but drew it back.

In the quiet of the moment, Jancis shifted for a better view of his face.

He shrugged, keeping his eyes down. “You’ll get used to it here.” His tone lacked conviction. “We don’t eat or age. We can sleep, though. Watch people through the glass; it’s how we keep current with the times.”

The vertigo worsened and her vision clouded. She wondered if she was dreaming, or insane. The trees spun, dotted every so often with Lane’s image. She closed her eyes, head bobbing.

“I can’t see the sun anymore,” she murmured.

“Just sleep,” Lane said, his words distorted, as though he’d spoken under water.

Jancis settled against his broad chest, too tired to care.

A hand pushed her hair back from her face. “Forgive me.”

Shadows of spiders crawled across Jancis’ ebbing consciousness.

Another voice invaded her weary mind. “It’s not your fault, Lane.”

Natalie?

Firm muscles under Jancis’ cheek flexed. “Whose fault is it then?” Lane growled against her hair. “I knew better, never paid too much attention to any one girl, but . . .”

“But she was different?” Natalie whispered.

Me? He means me? Jancis fought to ask her question, but exhaustion tightened its web around her.

“Yes,” he answered, “she is different . . .”

All went dark as she drifted into the realm of dreams.

***

Nightshade’s hands clutched at her body. His mouth pressed against her ear, hot breaths panted across her skin as he spoke. “You belong to me now, my dear.”

Oh, God, no. “Don’t touch me!” Sinewy arms restrained her and she fought against them.

“Easy, Jancis, it’s just me, Lane.”

Warm brown eyes swam into view. She stopped thrashing as her dream faded away. She stood on shaky legs. The other inhabitants of the menagerie stood round her, their faces creased in concern.

Jancis brushed debris from her jeans and moved into the small clearing. “Sorry. Nightshade’s in my head again. All I could think about was getting away from him, escaping.”

“We can’t, lass,” said Michael, the horse. The way Natalie leaned on his shoulder led Jancis to see them as a couple. “We all went through the same things: thoughts of escape, failure to do it, anger, depression . . . acceptance. It’s the same for everyone that comes here.”

Jancis pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why is Nightshade doing this?”

“Why?” Lane snorted behind her. Jancis turned to face her friend, watched him fold his impressive arms across his chest. “Because he can. He’s not a real doctor, you know. Think of magician. or an infantile Greek god with more power than sense. We are fish in a bowl, an amusement.”

“Is more like terrarium,” corrected Aleksandr the dragon. “We are not really fish, you know.”

A laugh, born of threatening hysteria, boiled up inside Jancis. She fought the urge to fling herself against the glass barrier and pound until her fists bled.

“Ugh.” Lane threw his hands in the air. “You don’t always have to be so literal.”

Alek’s brow lifted. “I try to give accurate picture of situation. In Russia—”

“Ah, here we go again. We don’t care how they did things in Russia, mate.”

“Well, I have been here longest and—”

“That’s not true,” Lane countered, his finger poking the only chest bigger than his own. “Natalie has.”

“Why are you always such a heated head?”

“That’s hot head, you moron!”

“I think you can take him, Alek,” Carlos said, flashing his tiger stripes and grinning. “I’ll hold him while you punch.”

“Shut up, all of you,” Michael said. “Or I’ll knock yer heads together.”

Jancis stepped back alongside Natalie.

Michael pointed his finger at Jancis. “You won’t be leaving here and that’s for sure, me darlin’.”

“Don’t put that on her!” Lane’s bear image roared. “You’ve given up, Michael. Nightshade’s words have poisoned you. You’re scared.”

Michael balled his fists at his sides.

“I don’t think this is helpful.” Natalie turned to Jancis, putting a hand on her arm. “I was the first taken, in Austria. I’ve been here over one hundred years. Alek came soon after. We’ve exhausted the prospect of breaking out and the good doctor never comes in. I am sorry.”

Natalie’s gentle words did what the others could not—bury all hope in an open grave. She sank to the floor, her head in her hands.

A heavy arm came around her shoulders, lending warmth and support. A stab of despair threatened to shatter her mind. “There must be some way.”

“This is my fault.” Lane ran his finger along her jaw. “I’ll make it up to you, somehow.”

***

Days stretched into weeks. Time blended like the colors of the sky at sunset until Jancis no longer remembered how long she’d been trapped. Months? Years?

She lay in the soft grass and stared at the sky. It looked real enough. The sun rose, traveled across the blue heavens, and set. Wispy clouds replaced by stars. Yet it never rained, and colors appeared much brighter than she remembered them outside the exhibit. Unable to comprehend the physics of the place, she rolled to her side and let her eyelids close.

“These clothes are too tight,” said Mei Ling, plucking at the fabric of Jancis’ blue jeans. “But you have nice shape for Geisha.”

Opening her eyes, Jancis smiled.

“Yes, she does.” Lane stretched out beside her. His hand slid over her arm.

Jancis studied the trees. No squirrel disturbed their branches; no bird sang, not even a cricket. She lamented the absence of a breeze on her skin. “It’s so unnatural here. How do you stand it? I can’t smell anything anymore.”

“Ooh. I remember your perfume when you first came,” Elizabeth said. “It’s gone now, but it was like Mama’s bonbons. Vanille.”

“Nightmare doesn’t quite get the wholehuman, five senses thing, does he?” Lane shook the hair from his eyes. “There are big holes in his idea of paradise.”

“He spends all his free time watching us or admiring himself in that ridiculous mirror.” Elizabeth’s body shimmered as a sleek gazelle.

“His hand mirror?” asked Jancis. “It’s so creepy.”

Natalie settled herself in the grass across from Lane and Jancis. “Ugh, he is so vain. He is never without it, the strutting peacock.” She wrinkled her nose as she spoke.

“It’s not just vanity,” countered Jancis. “The freaky fairies sculpted on the back of the thing are his buddies.”

Mei Ling wove several reeds together, creating a flower. Her lovely Asian features changed to crane and back with each movement. “The tiny women may be trapped in the looking glass, as we are here.”

Jancis sat up, shaking her head. “I don’t think so. They laughed at me . . . at what was happening to me as I was taken.” She plucked a leaf from her shirt. “It was like they enjoyed my suffering. I think they were as much a part of it as the doctor.”

She glanced at the moon. Three thin clouds passed across its swollen width, swaying, swirling together like . . . “The mirror.”

The others stared.

“What if Nightshade has no power?” Jancis said, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear. “What if his magic comes from the fey in the mirror?”

“Aye, and so what if it does?” Michael’s hands found his hips. Feet spread wide, an immoveable wall.

 

Natalie straightened. “If we had control of his mirror—”

“Or destroyed it.” Lane got to his feet, his eyes focused and intense. “But how?”

Alek paced. “Nyet. Impossible. We will not survive in outside world. The doctor protects us.”

Lane waved him off. “Exactly, he protects us. He protects us from age, from harm, but why? So he can enjoy his pets, that’s why!” Lane started pacing. “We are mice in a cage, that’s all. What if that was threatened? What if we were to hurt one another?”

“What?” several asked in unison.

Michael raised his stallion head; when it shifted to human form, his face revealed a scowl.

“I’m sick of doing whatever he wants. I bought into the idea we had to.” Lane glanced at Jancis, then to his feet. He blew out a long breath. “Not anymore. I want to live my life.”

No one answered.

“Don’t you see? His pleasure comes from us, his creation, his collection of beautiful things. We live here peaceably, but what if we attacked each other?”

Natalie nodded. “Yes. Good, I see.”

Michael glared at her. “Forget it, lass. We are not so desperate we should start killing each other. My life is nothing without yours.” His snort of laughter held no mirth. “You’d be crazy to try.”

“That’s what he’s counting on,” Lane said. “Besides, we’re not actually going to hurt—”

“Hello, my lovelies,” a voice boomed overhead.

Jancis lifted her head as the face of their captor replaced the yellow moon. His silhouette loomed a thousand times larger, King Kong peering over a football stadium to take in the game.

As always, she stumbled back under the shadows of the trees.

“And how are my children this evening?” said Dr. Nightshade. “Are we all playing nice? Heh, heh, heh. My dear Lane, how do you like your playmate? You know you never thanked me.”

Jancis gasped. She shot a questioning glance at Lane who glowered up at the doctor.

“You know I never wanted this for her, Nightmare.”

“Tsk tsk, such ingratitude. You were the only one alone; I only want you to be happy.” Dr. Nightshade’s elbow rested against the rim of the enclosure, the mirror dangling carelessly in his hand. “And we waited so long for just the right woman.”

Lane glanced at Jancis over his shoulder. No, he mouthed.

She understood. Nightshade was the liar. Though she didn’t have the others’ approval, she decided to act on Lane’s fake fight plan. Scanning the low lying branches, Jancis tugged on one, surprised when it snapped off like a piece of old concrete.

“Psst, pssss!” she called to Mei Ling and Natalie who hid near her in the shadows.

“Hurry.” She motioned with her hand. “Can you act?”

“What?” Mei Ling whispered. “What do you mean?”

Jancis poised the end of the stick above her wrist. “We need to draw some attention. Act like you’ve been attacked, or dying. Make it look good.” She squeezed Natalie’s hand. “I’m not living here a hundred years.”

Jancis scraped plastic bark from the stick, sharpening the end as much as possible.

“Yes, yes,” said Natalie. “We have to try.”

Mei Ling held out her arm and squeezed her eyes shut. “Me too. Do it!”

Jancis held her breath. She raised the stick over her arm.

“Where is our newest edition?” Dr. Nightshade’s voice traveled down from the overlook. “Fetch her, Lane. I want to see my pretty leopard.”

Heavy footfalls had the three girls looking up. Michael was closing fast. “Stop! What are ye doing?”

“You will come when summoned, Jancis.” The doctor demanded, his patience evidently wearing thin.

There wasn’t much time. Three quick stabs punctured deep into the forearm of each girl. Jancis muffled a cry as blood pumped from her veins. She and her co-conspirators covered each other in crimson stains.

Michael burst into their midst. “Damnit, woman!” He pulled Natalie to him while shoving Jancis away. She fell to the ground, struggled to stand, lifted her head in time to see Lane charge Michael.

“Don’t you touch her!” The bear’s enormous paw connected with Michael’s jaw, sending him flying into the clearing. Lane ran after him, threw himself over his friend only to receive Michael’s foot in his gut.

Natalie took a step toward the struggle, but Jancis grabbed her arm. Their eyes met, and she said, “No. Let’s fight.”

Natalie nodded.

Jancis turned and ran screaming from the trees into the clearing. The shriek came out as much cat as girl. The others followed.

From nowhere, Carlos overtook her and knocked her legs from underneath her body. They rolled several times as he roared, pretending to maul her. Everywhere Jancis turned, battles raged.

“My babies, what are you doing?” Nightshade ranted like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “Stop, children. Stop it, I say!”

Alek’s dragon voice roared as he snapped at the crane trapped under his talons.

The doctor’s visage disappeared from the sky, and Jancis knew they had only moments before he would reappear.

Carlos ran toward The Door.

“No!” Lane ordered. “Get down. Play dead. We’ll only have one chance.”

Several dropped to the floor, but Lane and Michael continued to battle.

Adrenaline pumped through Jancis’ veins as she faced The Door.

A dark spot appeared in the glass. Gray mist swirled at the entry. A black boot and pant leg penetrated the fog. Everyone froze. A gilded mirror clutched in a white hand, followed by a red coat sleeve, entered their domain.

“Nooo,” whined Nightshade, fully emerged. His gaze roamed over the landscape. His chest rose and fell with accelerated breaths.

“You!” Nightshade glared at Jancis, storming her direction. “You’ve ruined everything.”

Rage descended like a red cloud over Jancis’ mind as he approached. Come on, you bastard.

A scuffling noise came from the left. Someone must have made the decision to act. Footsteps pounded the ground from every direction. Alek shot up from the leaves like a geyser, grabbing for the doctor.

Jancis lunged for the mirror and wrested it from his hand.

Aleksandr and Carlos each took a shoulder and forced him down. Their jailor fell over Lane’s body, who had balled himself around Nightshade’s legs. They held fast while Mei Ling grabbed his neck from behind.

Jancis’ hands tightened on the mirror. She ran to the glass barrier and smashed it against the smooth surface. The fairies shrieked in protest. The scraping metal sound of their voices pierced Jancis’ eardrums. She gritted her teeth against the pain in her head.

Over and over she hit the hand mirror against the glass, but not a scratch marred the shining surface. “Elizabeth, Natalie, help me!” Jancis shouted. “Hold the mirror, here . . .”

The girls each held a side up to the barrier wall. Jancis glanced over at Nightshade. He hurled obscenities as he threw the others off with seeming ease, working his way free.

 

Jancis circled the area, searching the ground for the stick used to draw blood. She spied the stained weapon on the ground near the base of an oak. “I got it!” she yelled, racing back to the mirror. Aligning the makeshift spear with the center of the glass, Jancis thrust its jagged point deep within the center of the looking glass.

Light, bright as the sun, poured from the cracking golden reflector. Three ghost-like figures flew from the glass. Their tiny, iridescent bodies floated above the fray. The mirror dissolved into pieces as fine as sand. As the spray hit her face, Jancis spun away, shutting her eyes.

The magic walls that had held them so long splintered and fell in huge shards, revealing the true night’s sky. Like broken pieces of spun sugar, their former prison lifted from the ground. Caught up in a whirling tornado, debris from the ruined exhibit whirled about them, climbing hundreds of feet high in a multicolored vortex.

The fairy spirits hovered within the mouth of the churning funnel. A locomotive wind howled. Jancis covered her ears as the gale whipped at her hair and clothing. The ground shook beneath her feet. She sought the chaos for Lane and found the doctor instead. He bolted from the trees as the cyclone tore them from the ground by their roots. His arms extended upward, like a child asking to be picked up.

“Don’t leave me,” he cried. “I am nothing without you. . . .”

A translucent hand extended to the doctor’s through the dark cloud. Unnatural laughter bubbled from the vortex. The twister rose into the night, carrying the doctor away. Their captor grew ever smaller, disappearing beyond the glowing moon and sifting clouds on the horizon.

A hush fell. Eight people stood in the ruined space.

Strong arms encircled Jancis from behind. “Thank God you’re all right,” he whispered. Her head dropped back against Lane’s chest.

He turned her around to face him. His hand pulled a twig from her tangled hair.

“Lane?”

Jancis followed his gaze to Michael. His arm snaked around Natalie’s waist, crushing her to his side. “I’m sorry. I was wrong about—”

“Trapped one hundred years.” Aleksandr’s hulking frame shuffled toward them, his face a study in confusion. “What can Russian strongman do in new world?”

Mei Ling took his arm, his hefty bicep dwarfing hers.

Jancis faced Lane. Looking into his sable eyes, she answered. “That’s the beauty of it, Alek . . . anything we like.”