Thaddeus turned away from the spectacle and pushed out of the Ten-In-One tent. It wasn't much cooler outside. October in Georgia was hellishly humid for his tastes. He much preferred spring and summer in the north circuit than the fall and winter one down south. He raked his hand through his hair, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the sweat. He'd bathed three days ago, and he'd need to bathe again tonight. He smelled. Thaddeus hated smelling because, around here, you smelled like fear and brimstone and smoke.
He stepped up into his trailer, shedding his boots and shirt almost instantly. Christ, the fabric even made a sopping slap as he dropped it to the floor. Thaddeus yanked on the button of his trousers as he made his way into the back of his trailer where a tin tub—small but useable—waited. He had his trousers down around his ankles when the scent of sulfur and ash almost bowled him over. Looking over his shoulder, he groaned. "You."
"I had to drop by. You made it to Macon a week early."
Thaddeus ignored the yellow-eyed gaze on his ass as he bent over to yank his trousers off his feet. "We didn't stop in Milledgeville. No reason to. More marks here than there, anyway." He didn't hear anything, but by the time he stood up, there was a hand around his throat, shoving him into the wall of his trailer. His hands immediately flew up to pry at the vise squeezing at him, his vision full of pale skin, handsome features, and smoldering amber eyes.
"It isn't your place to decide if the carnaval skips a stop or not, Thaddeus."
"Belial," Thaddeus rasped out, clawing at the hand around his throat. "Let me go!"
Belial's eyes flashed. "Don't skip another stop."
"All right!" The world was going dim at the periphery of his vision, and Thaddeus thought he would finally die. He was looking forward to that moment, but then Belial stepped back, released him, and Thaddeus fell to the wooden floor in a coughing heap.
"Now, you sent word that we needed to speak?" Belial smiled down at him. "Does this mean you're finally ready to go to your hands and knees for me?"
Thaddeus laughed, though it came out more like a croak. "I've told you, I bargained away my soul, not my body."
Craig cocked a leg back and kicked the wall with all of his might, and then winced at the pain. Okay, maybe this wasn't a dream after all. He gave out a tentative, "Hello?" He cocked his head as his voice echoed back to him, but other than that, no sounds came. His hands felt around him, to see if he could find a door in the darkness, one that would lead him, well, anywhere else.
Panic started to rise in Craig's throat as he realized he was trapped. Was he going to suffocate? Where was he? Just as Craig was going to let out a yell, a path lit up on the floor in front of him. For a moment, Craig was confused; he had tested all of the corners of the darkness he had found himself in, and there had definitely been no place to go. His mind began to circle back around to the dream theory.
After being stuck in the dark, he was grateful for somewhere else to go. Besides, he reasoned, maybe there was some moral at the end of this dream, or nightmare, that he was supposed to learn out of all of this. So, he followed the path until the end.
What he saw when the path ended were three impossibly tall, burly men. They towered over Craig's six-foot frame and had more muscle tone to them than Craig had ever known existed. All three of them had red skin, and as they shifted on their spots, the skin rippled in an almost fire-like way. As Craig's eyes traveled upward, he noticed that they all had two short horns on the top of their heads, sticking out of their hair.
Two of them looked to be very old, with long, white hair and beards that almost touched the floor. The other one, in Craig's opinion, was kind of handsome. He was younger than the others; in fact, he didn't look much older than Craig's own twenty-three years. He had long black hair, coal-black eyes, and a short goatee.
A sudden pull on Craig's body startled him from his staring. An unnatural force was tugging on Craig, giving him no choice but to follow. He was dragged before the trio. The three humans—or creatures, Craig wasn't sure which—looked him over. Craig tried to take a step back, suddenly intimidated by the weight of their gaze. He tried to will himself to wake up, but that didn't work, either. He let out an audible sigh when he realized he was trapped.
Lamplight illuminated the roads for trick-or-treaters, but in the shadows, something else lurked. Two pair of glowing red eyes streaked across the land. Their ghostly howls from the graveyard infiltrated the night air. The sound stretched on for miles.
The beasts were aware of their duties: seek out the lost souls and bring them back to Hell. But it was too exciting to tend to duty now that their leashes were severed. Too tempting to take the chance to prowl the night.
"This is awesome, Ryu," the black beast said as he weaved around trees, leaving behind a trail of hot dust and brimstone.
On four legs, they raced around the outskirts of the city and to the blocks where children happily skipped to each house.
"Tell me about it. I don't want to go back." Ryu had longed for this chance to be free, even if it was only for one night.
Watching as the tiny witch made her way up a long, shadowed driveway, Ryu heard the crinkle of the bag in her hand. Her parents had stayed behind, embracing each other as they watched their child disappear into the darkness.
Ryu stopped. His heavy breath created a puff of fog in the cold. Sniffing the sweet scent of tart in the air, he licked his lips. "Candy." Ryu flicked his eyes to his partner, Keir.
"What are you going to do with candy?"
"Have a snack." Ryu darted out as the child skipped down the driveway. He moved quickly, blending in with the shadows, and snatched the bag from the child's hand.
"Mommy!" The child's cries made him snicker as he dodged behind a house. "That doggy stole my candy!"
"What dog?" her mother's confused voice followed.
Ryu dropped the bag on the ground. It rustled as he pushed his snout through the pile of goodies. Everything smelled so wonderful. The delicious scent of chocolate and fruit filled him with excitement.
"I would have eaten the child," Keir said behind him.
The church of San Francisco lifted brown-gray walls above a cacophony of honking automobiles, bustling tourists, and colorfully dressed native women wearing bowler hats. Beltran Dorrantes de Altamira dodged people and taxis as he dashed across the cobblestone plaza. Reaching the sidewalk on the other side, he skirted the church's south wall and headed up Calle Sagarnara, thankful for the high wall that offered protection from the wind. Though from this vantage he couldn't see the snow-covered peaks of the Andes that ringed the city, he felt their cold desolation.
Beltran tugged the collar of his leather jacket higher and looked up the crowded street. Thank God he was adjusting to the altitude, because at least now, after a week, he could breathe more or less normally. At thirteen thousand feet above sea level, being in La Paz was like living atop the Alps.
As he climbed the steep street, Beltran enjoyed being able to see over nearly every other pedestrian's head. That didn't happen at home in Madrid or in Italy, where his family kept a summer home, because he wasn't that tall. Beltran's lean frame and classic European features made him stand out among the short and stocky indigenous population. It was strange to think some of his ancestors had lived and died in this country. Only an uncle still lived here, in a grand house on a tree-lined street, down where the oxygen was richer and the climate more temperate.
On the opposite side of the street, two black-haired, young men wearing jeans and stylish boots smiled and beckoned. Regretting having looked up, Beltran ducked his head and hurried on, hoping they had simply called out to him because they thought him a good-looking tourist. The last thing he wanted in Bolivia was to be singled out as gay. The police here saw homosexuals primarily as extortion marks.
Walking up another block, Beltran turned a corner onto Calle Linares and headed for the Witches' Market. He had promised his cousin Marisol he would help her get revenge on her asshole of a boyfriend. Preoccupation caused him to make a misstep on the rough paving, and he stopped to lean against the wall. He closed his eyes against the memory of Marisol lying in her bed, speaking to him through bandages and swollen, stitched lips. The bastard had sliced her with a razor. She had been so beautiful, and now... she would be beautiful still, he supposed, but never in quite the same way. She was a broadcast journalist. When Eduardo had attacked her face, he'd targeted her career. And the police had let him walk.
The only reason Beltran was in this country was to help Marisol. Drawing a deep breath, he resumed walking.