The Faire by Kathryn Ann Kingsley

1

Tribalism is the true poison of human nature.

At some point in our lives, we choose somewhere to belong. Oftentimes it is whatever situation into which we were born. A family, a religion, a society, a country…it matters not. Tribalism, willing or unwilling, is a toxin that we all drink. One we actively seek out for ourselves. One that we will happily imbibe each time it is offered to us.

Why?

In the earliest years, this concept of “tribalism” was quite literal. Human society in its infancy was formed by the simple need to hunt and survive. We invented such constructs in order to protect ourselves against the predators—both human and otherwise—that skulked in the darkness and would take from us what we needed to live, breed, and persist.

It is simple to understand why, as early animals, humans clung to each other. Yet in most societies we no longer need to worry about roving packs of coyotes who would pick our bones clean in the night. We live comfortable, protected lives.

So why do we still find the need to divide ourselves? Why do we seek out ways to define our being in such a manner?

Because it is not enough to simply be human.

We must be important.

In the crowd that enumerates humanity we are small, insignificant, and unimportant. In our search for seity, for importance, we must narrow the lens and increase the magnification. We continue to do this again and again, over and over, smaller and smaller, until we find somewhere that we are special.

Where we matter.

Religion. Nation. Sports. Political affiliation. Sexual orientation. Entertainment preferences. The list goes on. We find ways to narrow our tribe until we find our niche. The place where our seity may be seen and appreciated. We carve out for ourselves a place to belong in the false hopes that it may leave an impact upon the world when we are gone.

But that is not the only reason. If it were simply that, it would be an unenlightened but utterly benign reminder of the evolution of the species. It would be the residue of all those frightened nights huddled together in a cave, afraid of the tigers in the dark.

There is another, far more insidious, far more dangerous impetus for the divisions in our nature in which we willfully engage. And it lies in the darkest recesses of the heart that society at large refuses to acknowledge. For if we were to look into the pit of our own nature and speak the truth, we are not the noble creatures we pretend to be.

But allow me to shed some light upon it for the purpose of this discussion.

Humans need hatred.

We need to despise others with every breath we take.

We survive off it. We revel in it. We wish to scream our disgust at our enemies. We want to exalt in our victories over our defeated foes. We want to crush them beneath us. For we are “us,” and we despise “them.”

Even when guns and armies are omitted, we find a reason to hate our neighbors. The immigrant who looks different from us. Those who defy our tribalistic rules of sexuality, love, and religion. Those who stand against our political beliefs. We look down our noses at them, call them fools and sinners. Hate them with the very core of our being. We wish them harm. We wish them ruin. We celebrate when they are brought low.

We languish when they are raised high, because to share our status with them is to devalue ourselves. There are only so many poker chips upon the table, and we hate to share. And we hate those with whom we must share our seity.

We seek our tribes.

Not merely to have an “us.”

But because we require a “them.”

We must hate.

We must destroy others.

That is what it means to be human.

-M. L. Harrow

* * *

Cora was falling.

She didn’t know to where. She didn’t know for how long. But as the darkness rushed by her, she could make out shapes that were barely discernible. They were just out of view and moving too quickly for her to make sense of what she was seeing. But it didn’t matter. She was falling.

So, she did the natural thing. She screamed.

She wondered if she would fall forever.

Right until the moment she stopped.

And the stopping was worse.

Pain. Searing and stabbing through every part of her body, she could do nothing about it except feel it. She couldn’t even scream anymore. Even that was taken from her. Everything else, including her thoughts, shattered—her mind was silent except for the agony. It was the kind of sensation that she knew would stay with her. Even if the pain itself went away, the memory would linger.

Somewhere, faintly, far overhead…she heard someone shout her name.

Metal jutted up out from her body in places it should not be. Her chest, her legs, her arms, her throat. She tried to breathe. Tried to cry out in response to the voice above her. But all she could do was taste the blood that flooded her mouth.

Darkness cloyed at the edges of her mind but came no closer. She knew there wouldn’t be any quiet relief from this.

She couldn’t die. Her body was trying to heal the damage, but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t climb off the structure that impaled her.

She was trapped.

Honestly, she preferred the falling.

* * *

Usually,Cora loved dreaming. All through her life, dreams had been fun. She had never really been bothered by nightmares. Not, at least, until Duncan had hurt her. In the years afterward, it seemed all she could do was relive that terrible moment in her dreams. But slowly, those nightmares had thinned out, became less frequent, and dreaming became a pleasant experience again.

Until she came to Harrow Faire.

Now her dreams fucking sucked.

She couldn’t sleep. The last one had woken her up, and then she tossed and turned for a while, trying to get comfortable. She stared at the wood-panel ceiling of the boxcar for an hour before she finally slipped out from under Simon’s arm. He made a grumbly, whiny noise, but rolled over and began softly snoring again.

She smiled and watched him for a long moment. He was evil. Pure, unadulterated evil. But man, he was adorable at the same time. That said more about her than it probably did about him. She reached out and gently stroked her hand over his dark, curly hair.

Evil. But…not, at the same time. He was oddly considerate in the strangest of ways. He was sweet to her. He was funny. He made her laugh and smile more than anyone else ever had in her life.

And he had helped her commit murder. What said “I care about you” more than that?

She cringed at the memory of what she had done to Duncan. She didn’t regret it. But it lingered in a weird way. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable realization—finding out that she was capable of killing someone.

Climbing from the bed, she got dressed. She could hear the rain pattering on the roof of the car and tapping along the windows. It’d be nice to walk in the rain, regardless of whether she got soaked. After just a few weeks stuck in the Inversion with its disturbing lack of weather, she had been very much over the whole situation and was happy to have the simple thing called “a sky” back in her life.

A hundred-and-one fun things she never thought she’d take for granted. A sky. Live and learn. Or un-live and learn. I still don’t know if we count as being alive or not.

Pulling on a coat, she quietly opened the door and shut it behind her. She waited a beat. When the lights in the boxcar didn’t flick on and Simon didn’t come after her, she stepped out from the awning over the stairs and headed into the park.

The rain was chilly. It was September. It was just about to officially be fall. She hoped she was around long enough to watch the leaves turn. Halloween at Harrow Faire must be one hell of a party. She tucked her hands into her pockets as she walked the path through the closed midway games and deactivated rides. Only the lampposts were lit.

Well, the lampposts and the giant, glowing observation tower.

Looking up at the structure, she sighed. It was the Heart of Harrow Faire. And Ringmaster had the Key. The Key she was supposed to pry from his cold, dead hands. But she hadn’t wanted to commit murder.

I didn’t want to commit murder right up until the moment that I did.

I’m such a fucking hypocrite.

But she didn’t kill Duncan. Not really. He left on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance. But she had things to pay attention to other than people’s new-looking cellphones and their jump ahead in time. Because Duncan was breathing. He was gaping at the world around him.

She hadn’t killed him.

She had done something far worse. Far, far worse.

She had destroyed him.

The lights were on, but no one was home. She had ripped the driver out of the proverbial vehicle that was his body. Then, she had shoved him through a woodchipper. Sure, the car was fine, and the engine was still running, but the driver was reduced to mincemeat.

And she was the one who had done it. Not Simon. She knew that if Simon had just ripped him to pieces, it probably would have been a kinder fate. Duncan had felt himself dissolve in proverbial acid, feet first. And there was nothing left of him to go on to any kind of afterlife—if there even was one. Simon’s method would have been more violent, but in the end…more merciful.

She looked down at her palms. She was soaked now, but she didn’t care. The chill wasn’t going to kill her or make her sick. And it felt cathartic.

I destroyed a man to protect someone I love.

She winced at the memory of seeing Duncan slam Emily up against the back of the midway game. He was going to hurt her. It was clear he had done it many times before.

Cora did it to stop him.

But that wasn’t entirely true, was it?

Because if that was the case, then she would have agreed to kill Ringmaster because of her love for Simon. Combing her hands through her wet hair, she sighed. There was one difference between the two scenarios. One thing that stood out as to why she would destroy Duncan but not Turk.

I destroyed Duncan because I hated him.

It was hatred that had inspired her. Not love.

It was that simple.

She walked into her tent and, flipping on the power switch, headed to the stage in the center. She had no intention of practicing, but she hadn’t known where else to go. Sitting on the edge of the stage, she lay down on her back and stared up at the blue and black stripes that converged overhead.

She had seen little Jane. Tommy. Her friends…she was almost grateful for it. To know they had all gone on okay. They don’t remember me. I’m not some loss to them. I never existed.

“It’s better that way, you know.”

Cora screamed.

She jolted up to sitting and quickly found the source of the voice. Clown. Lazarus. The Faire. Whatever. He was sitting on the stairs of the stage next to her. “For fuck’s sake, don’t do that!” She shoved his shoulder and flopped back down onto her back.

He chuckled. “Sorry.” She felt him lean casually up against her knee. At least he hadn’t worn the bizarre skull makeup since Clown had died and become part of the Faire. She also knew he was just wearing that body because it gave her something somewhat familiar to talk to.

All things considered, she appreciated talking to the Faire via the dead face of Clown. The other options were weirder. Like if he were a giant, squiggly sea monster or something like that.

“It is better,” he reiterated. “That they forget you. Do you really want people to mourn you? Miss you? Come looking for you and find out that you can’t leave?”

“No. I guess not. It’s just a hard thing to get used to—the idea that I don’t really exist.”

“You exist. Just…not as you were. But as something better.”

“Better? Or worse? I killed a man last night.” She paused. “And worse yet, I enjoyed it.” She winced. “I liked it a lot. Like…in a really fucked-up way.”

“I know.” He kissed her knee. “There’s a reason I picked you.”

“Because I get turned on by killing people?” She lifted her head to glare at him incredulously.

He laughed. “No. I picked you because you’re strong enough to carry the burden for a long time. That maybe, just maybe, you might not hate being my keeper.”

He shook his head and leaned back on his elbows, kicking his legs out in front of him and looking out at the fairgrounds and the driving rain. It was coming down harder now, pattering on the fabric roof of the tent. “I’ve always settled for the strong ones. The ones resilient enough to survive for a few hundred years. But I’ve never found one who might…not see it as a burden in the first place. I’ve never had a keeper who might want it for more than just power. That said…” He snickered. “I didn’t think you’d react that way.”

She kicked him in the shoulder. Not hard. But enough to make her point. “You’re fucked-up.”

He laughed loudly, grinning over at her. “I’ve never denied that. Not once. Well, at least you have Simon, eh?”

“Yeah.” Cora laid her head back down and looked up at the tent. “I guess so.”

“What’s wrong? I thought you’d be happy after destroying Duncan. You had your revenge.”

“I did. I guess that’s what’s bothering me.” She shut her eyes. “I didn’t kill because of love. I killed because of hate.”

“Anyone who thinks they kill for love is a self-aggrandizing fool. Everyone kills because of hate. That’s what killing means.”

“I suppose.”

They fell into silence for a long moment before she realized something. “Hey, Lazarus?”

“Is that my name now?” He hummed. “I deserve it for appearing to you in this body. I suppose it’s as good as any. Yes, Cora?”

She nudged him with her foot. “How can I touch you?”

“I’m not a ghost, you know. I’m real.”

“If someone came in here and saw me, would you be here? Or would I look totally insane?”

“Reality is subjective.” He sniffed. “What you see is just light bouncing off of objects and being perceived by a flawed and inherently biased mind. And one that is prone to defects and defaults.”

“Answer my question.”

“Yes, you’d look crazy. Our bond isn’t strong enough for me to appear in physical form.”

She let out a sad laugh and put her hands over her eyes. “Great.” They fell silent for a long time. “How much time did I give you by feeding you Duncan, Laz?”

“A few years at most. I still don’t have the strength for another Inversion. I’m hoping we won’t have to worry about that.” He sighed. “But a few years to me is nothing. I am still dying.”

“Why can’t you survive off what the Dark Path gives you?”

“There’s a big difference between eating a single bite of a hamburger or eating the whole cow in one sitting.” He grunted. “Let alone when you feel guilty for the bit of the hamburger and you share it with your starving children instead.”

“That’s why you’re still feeding seity to the Family?”

“If I survive, I don’t want to do it alone. What is eternal life without anyone to share it with?” He glanced over at her. “Cora…Ringmaster still needs to be stopped. You need to kill him.”

“I know.” She paused. “How do I know you’re not just playing to my sympathies? And you’re not secretly some terrible, evil monster?”

“I suppose you don’t.”

“Great.” She put her head back down.

“Will you do it?”

She swallowed the rock in her throat. “Yeah. Yeah. I guess I will. If I’ll kill for Emily, why won’t I kill for Simon and everyone else?”

“Because the threat isn’t real enough to you yet. You don’t hate Ringmaster in the same way you hated Duncan. I’m worried that before this is all over, you very well might.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Raising her head, she looked at him. He was gazing off out of the tent, the expressive lines of his face drawn into a look of pure dread. “Laz, what’s going to happen?”

“I can’t say for certain. But if I’m right, then…you should know that I can’t save you. That I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. But I can’t. I’m weak and dying. I’m small. And in that place, I have no power.”

She sat up then and moved closer to him. “Laz…what’s going to happen?”

He shut his eyes and shook his head. “Believe me or not, I care about you. I care about you all a great deal. You are my children. My family. It’s my role to provide for you. To ensure that you are all happy. I have done a terrible job. I still don’t understand you creatures. I give you all the comforts that you request. But happiness is so much more than that, isn’t it?”

She reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. He felt warm beneath her hand—he felt alive. She could feel the slightly scratchy fabric of his old-style cotton jerkin. He was staring down at his hands now, picking at his fingernails, and his expression was one of…grief. She frowned. He was about to cry. She could see the moisture in his eyes.

The giant, ancient, evil, man-eating murder-circus was sad. And that somehow broke her heart. Things like that shouldn’t feel. They should just be terrible, nightmarish, eldritch creatures who transcended such little, petty things as emotions. But she wondered if love and sadness weren’t so small after all. She shifted and, reaching out, hugged him. Pulled him against her and squeezed. “Hey. It’s all right.”

“I don’t believe it is, Cora. There are terrible things to come. Monstrous things that neither of us might survive.” He leaned into her embrace, grasping her arms, holding on to her. “I don’t want you to come to harm. And when you do…I won’t be able to save you.”

“Then I won’t ask you to try. I’ll whine at someone else.” She tried to cheer him up and clearly failed.

“The problem is not that I can’t help you. The problem is I don’t know if anyone can.” He nudged away from her and stood, pacing a few steps away. “If my fears are correct—if my predictions hold true—then there is nothing anyone can do, Cora.”

She felt a cold settle over her. “The tower.”

He nodded weakly. “Inside that place, no one has power save the holder of the Key. If he doesn’t want to let anyone in…or anyone out…that is his right. And no one can challenge him.”

“And the only one who can kill him is me. So, if he puts me in that place, then, he’s safe.”

“Yes.”

“Then why hasn’t he done it already? Why didn’t he do it the moment he knew I was a threat?”

Lazarus smiled. It wasn’t kind. It was a deathly cold smile. “Because the thing you must realize…is that he still believes himself to be the hero.” He turned to look at her, and all the warmth in his expression was gone. “He still cannot accept that there are no heroes and villains in this world. There is merely us…and them.”

* * *

Simon awoke in bed alone.

It was how he had woken up for a hundred and thirty-five years. It was how he had woken up for thirty-one years before that. A veritable male spinster he had been at his age. But an artist with a loose attachment to sanity did not make much of a desirable bachelor, even rich and connected as he had been.

But in the past few weeks, he had become accustomed to the warmth of a body against his. The smell of her shampoo. Of lilac and the sweetness of her. And when she was gone, when she was missing, he found something ached inside him.

Last night had been glorious. He had never wanted, nor had he ever adored, anyone quite as much as he had wanted Cora as he watched her drain the life from the cretin Duncan. The whole scene before him had been decidedly erotic. And when she sat atop Simon’s hips in her bed and mimicked the pose she had done with her abuser so perfectly, he wondered if he was about to die.

He honestly hadn’t cared.

Because she was a creature of pure artistry. Pure majesty. And he had shared in the ecstasy of the moment. He couldn’t have picked a way in which he would rather die.

I love her.

I shouldn’t. And I hate it. But I do.

I love her. Even if it destroys what’s left of my mind.

He reached out for her without opening his eyes and found the bed empty. He didn’t hear her bustling about. All he could hear was the rain against the roof and windows. He didn’t smell cooking food. He didn’t even smell coffee. It was very unlike Cora to be up and about without her dose of caffeine.

It meant something was wrong.

Or was soon to be wrong.

He flew from the bed. He checked the bathroom and found it empty. Snarling, he threw on his clothing. They were in a precarious scenario, and now was not the time to go wandering off on her own! She should know the danger they were in! No, she has no reason to know. She’s still a child here.

And now I’m going to ruin my nice coat!

He flung open the door to the boxcar, intending on racing out into the Faire to find her. She couldn’t have gone far. They were trapped.

He pulled up short.

He wasn’t alone.

Sodden from the rain, a small pack of the Family stood at the base of the stairs. Led, in no small part, by Turk. Simon sneered. “You look like a wet dog.”

“Get him.” It was a simple order. And no one hesitated.

Simon fought. He took off Bruce’s hand. He fought hard, and he fought well…but a hard punch to the temple from Jack sent him staggering to the ground. And then it was over. Ringmaster lifted his boot and stepped down on his neck.

There was a crunch, and it all went black.

But not before he realized—with no small amount of loathing and horror—that his last thought before the darkness took him was not of his own safety.

It was of Cora’s.