“Allow me to introduce myself — I am a magician and wizard who came from a distant land to demonstrate to you all the best wonders and give you an opportunity to participate in them. Who is tired of everyday hustle and bustle and wants something unusual? Be brave, this evening is specially for you! My name is…”
But the last word was drowned out by the roar of anticipation for the miracles eagerly awaited by many for a whole week. It was yet another spectacular performance, the tickets for which were sold out in the first ten minutes after the opening of sales. Many people travelled hundreds of kilometres in the hope of seeing that magical moment again, capable of thrilling even the most sceptical of viewers.
Alex, the owner of the travelling circus, had seen his fair share of magicians, stuntmen, wizards, and other personalities that formed the basis of his work, though what was happening now was the veritable pinnacle of his entertainment business. Considerably overweight, with long greasy hair, in a crumpled shirt, constantly chewing and humming something to himself, he did not look like the owner of a successful business that brought him large income. His stubby fingers that resembled sausages, would have seemed clumsy if not for their ability to draw bright advertising posters and quickly collect money from visitors bursting to see something unusual in their lives.
Now he stood behind the scenes, rubbing his hands in anticipation of another successful show and a lucrative contract with one of the richest sponsors who was supposed to change his whole life for the better. And all this thanks to one person who was now warming up the audience, preparing them for an unforgettable evening, another bright coin in the piggy bank of the fame and prosperity of his circus.
"Hey, Tim, what's up with the lighting? Yesterday the lamps were malfunctioning," he threw to the passing electrician.
"Yeah, strange, inexplicable things happened to electricity yesterday, sir. But we fixed everything. I'll check everything again now, but today everything is working as it should."
"Yeah, we can't afford to have confused and angry audience breaking everything around them in the dark."
The word strange was so ordinary in a world where mystery, uniqueness and sensationalism prevailed that Alex didn't attach much importance to it. He just nodded and continued to watch the performance, thinking about the golden rain and how luckily he happened to find the one who was now preparing for his first act on stage...
There was no long black box and a beautiful model preparing to be cut in half only to be painlessly reassembled to the applause of the audience... There were also no chains there that could be escaped from underwater or hanging upside down on a rope in two minutes — in fact, nothing that made up the standard or even the best acts of famous magicians. Everything was hands down more thrilling and entertaining.
A young girl in a green spring dress came out on stage and approached the host. Her flushed face betrayed a certain degree of nervousness and anticipation, which he understandingly nodded at. His lips, the colour of freshly spilled blood, began to move, filling the almost colourless eyes of the girl with their reflection.
"What's your name, miss?" he slowly asked in the quickly thickening darkness.
"Elizabeth Redfield, or simply Lisa," she exhaled in anticipation of something unusual, for which she had left work for a week and travelled more than two thousand kilometres.
"Please stand in front of the audience, right here," a voice sounded from afar, like a sudden wisp of smoke rising above something delicious being cooked over fire, teasing and tempting, not allowing one to refuse something long forgotten, but so delectable, warming with its heat and promising long-awaited rest and pleasure. The people around her ceased to exist, the arena began to gradually lose its outlines and blur, and only the figure in black opposite her remained unchanged, holding something shiny in the right hand.
Warmth spread through her body and the girl's long fingers instinctively reached up towards its source, which were immediately engulfed by a hot stream running swiftly down her firm breasts, perfectly flat stomach — the result of gruelling, persistent evening workouts and diets, and slender muscular legs, disappearing below and leaving a strange feeling of weightlessness. As she touched the severed artery, she was astounded to feel the ragged edges of a terrible wound and tried to say something to the man in the dark cloak opposite her. However, her tongue no longer obeyed her and remained motionless somewhere inside. Panic, which so effectively stimulated her survival instincts in critical situations and allowed her to escape from a flipped burning car, run away from a crowd of angry bikers, and cope with a drunken stepfather who tried to shoot her with a double-barrelled shotgun, came too late this time, displaced by trust and curiosity that this strange but very imposing man caused in her.
Something was happening around her very quickly, so quickly that she could not keep up with it, and with each passing second she felt that she was losing touch with this world with the flow of blood, which had already begun to weaken. Her strength was waning too quickly, but she still had time to turn her head and see how thick fog suddenly became pierced by a golden ray that headed right towards her. Expanding, it approached closer and closer, shimmering with gold in the light of something unimaginably large beyond her vision, rapidly fading consciousness and ability to move. After a minute, her legs, weakened by blood loss, gave way, and she fell to her knees, after which the ray, which had already reached her, began to expand and turn into something very familiar.
With her last bit of strength, she tried to rise to her feet and step onto the golden platform, to escape from the black nightmare that had unexpectedly pierced her with its blade, leaving her with no choice and time, taking away what the doctors had desperately tried to save for hours on the operating table. It was not a platform, rather a road that led upwards, beckoning her with its mellifluous music. Each step she took on it echoed with a soft chime, making unknown golden circles spread out from her feet like stones thrown into a pond at sunrise. She realised that she was somehow walking on the road and, obeying a sudden impulse, she looked back. Her lifeless body lay behind her, thrown to the ground in agony, with her favourite dress on, which she had sewn herself during the long winter, now soaked in scarlet and rendered unrecognizable. Her lush hair, the object of envy of her classmates, scattered in all directions, one of the locks resting against something black. Slowing down her pace, she looked closer and saw the man in the dark cloak, who had stepped on her hair with a heavy boot and was staring at her intently, holding a blood-stained blade in his hand. Behind the man, someone in blue uniform was running swiftly across the arena, trying to shorten the distance as quickly as possible, and in a few seconds, strong arms had already pinned him to the ground, throwing the terrible weapon aside.
A short, stocky man with a suitcase in hand rushed up with the others and leaned over her body, checking for a pulse. After some time, he sadly shook his head. It was over for her, and it was time for her to go. Her life and mission in this world were finished, and something awaited her ahead. With each step, the radiance grew stronger, and the world in which she lived, full of suffering and the struggle for survival, became increasingly blurred to disappear forever in a few minutes, consumed by the light that led her forward.
Circles still emanated from her feet in the unrelenting halo of radiance surrounding her silhouette. Brushing away a dark spot from her brow that hindered her view, she discovered a thin black thread in her hand and reflexively tossed it aside. Perhaps the air here was not so pure, and something dirty still remained from the world below. Be that as it may, she was being called and needed to go and forget everything that had happened to her before. She took a step forward and, strangely enough, felt something holding her back. Several long threads appeared from below her elbow, wrapping around her arms like strong black strings. In vain attempts to free herself, Lisa began to sway, shake and twist her arms, hoping to tear these unexpectedly appearing strings only to realise that what held them below had an iron grip. More black threads appeared, wrapping around her ankles, then her waist, effectively restricting her movement forward. Yielding to an unknown force, she was forced to retreat and saw how the beautiful radiance filling every cell of her soul, sparking hope for salvation, dimmed slightly. It became a little colder, and she felt her body slipping down the golden path, driven by invisible hands like a puppet on strings and vainly trying to stop to resume walking on it that she had begun so resolutely. She even thought that she heard the sound of a huge bell in the distance, which immediately faded after a multitude of thin tentacle-like threads made her descend rapidly down the narrowing and darkening road back into the misty world which she had already begun to become unaccustomed to...
"Who is the owner of this establishment?" a booming authoritative voice pierced through the silence of the hall, making the shocked audience flinch once again.
"It's mmmeee, sir," Alex bleated, deeply shaken by what he saw in the arena a few minutes ago.
"My name is Andy Norton, I'm the sheriff of this city, and now both of you seem to be in big trouble."
The girl's body had already been covered with a sheet, and Alex looked daggers at his protégé, the magician. The latter's face remained completely impassive and absent, as if he were not here at all, and handcuffs on his hands did not seem to perturb him in the slightest. How could he have trusted this crook! All his previous mesmeric scintillating performances flashed before his eyes, and the man's incandescent talent made him momentarily doubt the reality of what was happening. Albeit the blood was very real, he saw it himself. Such things cannot be faked or simulated in any way. He was ready to swear on the Bible that what he saw was genuine. Future humiliating scenes of the trial, prison life, and the stern condemning faces of jurors came to mind. Despair squeezed his heart with its cold paws, and Alex felt his familiar world bursting at the seams and beginning to crumble uncontrollably.
"We will now take you into custody and begin an investigation, but rest assured, you will never see anything except your cell again," the sheriff said slowly, deeply shaken by the brutality of the just committed public murder.
"Sir, I can explain everything..." Alex's mind feverishly searched for a way out of the situation but came up short, like a broken machine that now emitted only an incomprehensible squeak.
"Yes, yes, of course you can. You have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney, and..."
The last harsh words never reached Alex, who had already been on the verge of fainting, and his protégé, who was calmly examining the body right in front of him. His lips moved, uttering words in an unknown language that only he knew. All of a sudden, the sheet began to move and slowly slid down. Something underneath was making visible but clumsy attempts to push it aside, but to no avail. Utterly bewildered police officers stepped back, not understanding what was happening — they had not been told in the academy what to do in case of reanimated corpses. The sheet moved again, and the room exhaled the electrified air in one loud whistle. Now, after a few unsuccessful attempts, there seemed to be a bit more strength in her hands, and throwing the blanket off, the girl slowly stood up, looking around at the people, who had gathered around her, with an incomprehensible gaze.
"What's happening?" she said, rubbing her temples in confusion. "Haven't we started yet?" "What the hell?" the dumbfounded sheriff managed to utter, staring at the girl who had just lost several litters of blood and was supposed to be deader than dead. He quickly looked at the doctor who was as white as a sheet and slowly approached her, stuttering,
"I-I-I'm sorry, miss, may I m-m-measure your pulse?"
"My pulse? Hmm... okay, but why?" Lisa responded, genuinely puzzled. "Is this part of the performance?" "No, ma'am," the doctor nervously replied, looking at her hand as if it were a particularly deadly snake dangling from a tree. With great effort, he managed to steady his trembling fingers and began counting.
"Sheriff, this is the healthiest woman I've seen over the last few years," he finally exhaled.
"She has a perfect pulse and..." he quickly glanced at her flawlessly smooth neck, which had almost been cut in half just a moment ago, "she's in perfect condition."
"Can someone explain to me what happened here?" Lisa stared at the host, who was gazing intensely at her with his piercing green eyes. "Is this the part of our performance? Why don't I understand anything? I think I should..."
Her last words were drowned out by the ecstatic roar of the audience, who began applauding frantically for the person who had stopped everyone's hearts and then started them up again with twice the intensity. Alex was still rubbing her eyes in confusion, and even the sheriff, accustomed to unexpected occurrences in the criminal world, was bewilderedly watching the host, who slowly bowed to the audience amid the hurricane of applause. Turning to the sheriff, he extended his arms and grinned ominously.
"It has indeed been a pleasure to liven up your evening with my act," he said, watching as the sheriff's assistant awkwardly tried to remove the handcuffs. "I hope you got what you wanted. But this is not the end. We have a lot of thrilling things ahead of us..."
Being a down-to-earth realist and hardened cynic, Alex never showed any sentimentality in life, but the snort of approval that escaped from his lips at the outcome of the first act was the highest form of praise he was capable of. Now his stocks would skyrocket. This was amazing! No one had ever entertained his audience like this before, and it seemed no one ever would. He himself almost had a coronary from the unexpected trick that the man, now without handcuffs on his hands, had just managed to pull off. The most bizarre thing was that he, the most jaded person who had seen it all in the world of illusions and trickery, believed like a child in what he had previously had no cogent reason whatsoever to take as gospel. Still clutching his heart, he remembered how he had found this magician or wizard — he still could not decide on the right word that described precisely what was happening within the walls of his establishment.
This happened in the first part of January, a period when there was a lull in show business and the white snow began to silver the lonely dome under which acrobats, stunt performers, and anybody who wanted to entertain the public and earn some money performed. A solitary figure appeared on the frozen road, a dark spot in worn-out trousers, a khaki-coloured jacket, and a pair of worn-out boots that crunched on freshly fallen snow. This person could have been around 30 years old if it weren't for the high forehead and piercing green eyes that caused a desire to look into them and see how deep the well was and where it led, which sometimes unexpectedly opened to a surprised gaze.
At the moment the eyes seemed to be the only part of his body unaffected by a high degree of exhaustion: his face looked gaunt and haggard as though he had spent a good amount of time fighting off insomnia or a more serious disease, whereas his body was beginning to look emaciated because of possible malnutrition and was in the obvious need of a proper substantial dinner. After a while, a gleaming sign appeared ahead that read: Arino — your best meal ever. The tantalising smell of cooking dishes hit his nostrils, making him halt for a second and resolutely turn the copper handle. An attentive waiter in a starched white shirt approached him immediately and, having carefully inspected the newcomer from head to toe, cautiously offered him a table near the door.
"I want to speak with the owner of your establishment," he briefly said to the waiter. "I am looking for work and was told that you have a vacancy."
After giving the newcomer another disapproving glance, the waiter hesitated briefly before slowly nodding his head and reluctantly saying, "Yes, you came to the right place. Leave your coat here and follow me."
Casting a quick glance at the woman putting sliced bread into a small basket on a table, he followed the waiter into the kitchen, where something simmered, boiled and sizzled in dozens of shiny pots emitting mouth-watering smells.
"The owner of this establishment is very fond of order and discipline. You look….hmm.... starving hungry. Have you ever worked as a cook?" the waiter asked with obvious doubt.
"Yes, I know how to cook," he replied, the words slowly slipping from his wind-chapped lips.
Looking at him, the waiter shrugged and began to speak quickly.
"His name is Dmitry Cort, and I think you're in luck. We usually don't have any vacancies — the place, you know, is excellent, the salary is higher than in other similar establishments, and each of us holds onto the job. And then you can eat here at the expense of the establishment. In general, our owner is a generous person. But..."
Suddenly, the kitchen door opened and a short, rotund man appeared in the doorway. His face was devoid of any vegetation on his head and resembled a round cheese head, organically combining with round shoulders and a large girth, faintly discernible under the thin fabric of his shirt. A smile played on his face, creating the impression of a man content with life and his profession.
"Larry, please bring me the bills that I left in my office. And who is this person with you?"
"He wants to work as a cook here, Mr. Cort. He says he has the necessary experience."
"Ah, I see. Yes, yes, we need experienced workers. What can you do?" His beady-eyed locked onto strong muscles that even his weakened condition could not affect.
"Hmm...a very detailed description of your abilities," the owner of the establishment said playfully. It was obvious that his cheerful mood had overcome his distrust of the stranger, turning it into something positive, which of course did not happen every day. Having carefully inspected the candidate from head to toe, Cort muttered something unintelligible to himself and, after a little thought, said, "I have a good day today. And if you can prove equal to the task that my head chef will charge you with, not only will I give you the opportunity to feed yourself but also to earn something. Mind you, the task will be anything but a walk in the park — it's an elite restaurant in the city. It's not too late to back out."
"I can handle anything you want."
"Uh-huh. Our establishment is known for its quality in the city, so you'll have to work your butt off to impress our head chef. He's a very demanding person. And you will only have one chance. If you can't cut it, you're out the door, no further discussions or delays. Now, give your documents and references to Michael, our head chef, and start working. Is everything clear to you?"
"Yes, more than clear."
Without waiting for a more detailed response, Cort signalled to the waiter and scurried up the stairs at the end of the dining room, surprisingly quickly for his portly figure.
After a few minutes, footsteps were heard and a tall man in a white coat and cap appeared in the corridor. Without any greetings or introductory phrases, he said:
"You will work in this place and strictly follow my instructions. Are you familiar with our kitchen?"
"Yes," replied the man.
"Hmm..." The head chef met the man's unblinking green eyes and flinched slightly. There was something special about this guy, something he had never seen before. For some reason, a fairy tale he had read as a child about a girl who kept falling into a bottomless pit came to mind. It was insane... With a visible effort, he forced himself to look away and said, "I want you to prepare your best dish using various food scraps in that large black box, your signature soup, and a delicious chocolate dessert with incompatible ingredients, for each of which you must find the right place in the recipe. I must feel like I'm at the centre of the action, and my taste buds must ignite with pleasure and tell me at least two pleasant stories that I know very well."
"That won't be difficult," the chef said.
"Not difficult?" Michael frowned and looked again at the man who caused an inexplicably strange feeling in him. After a few moments of deliberation, he decided to deal with all of this a little later and relaxed a bit.
"Excellent. I'll bring the ingredients for the dessert, your table will be over there in the corner," the chef said, pointing to a large stainless steel table shining in the light of kitchen lamps.
"You'll have two and a half hours to do everything you need. Change into these clothes here and get started."
In a few minutes, the sound of vegetables being chopped could be heard, and the work began. The chef sat down on a chair near the test subject and once again looked at the man who seemed so inexplicably strange to him. But no matter how closely he scrutinised him, the first unusual feeling vanished without a trace, and now there was just an ordinary kitchen worker next to him who was using his kitchen tools quickly and professionally, slicing meat, mincing vegetables, and doing everything that he was supposed to do as somebody who claimed a place in his beloved kitchen. Well, he won’t let him pass so easily. The owner might need a worker, but he certainly had no use for incompetent and talentless slackers. And if he doesn’t like even the slightest detail in the dish, he will be the twenty-sixth unsuccessful cook sent home. Or rather, falling off the porch from a strong kick up his arse so generously given by Michael, who loved to show off his special status and delighted in doing such things. They had time to choose a worthy one, so there was no need to rush the decision, which even allowed time for some lecturing and mockery while no one was watching before giving a hapless worker his due portion of embarrassment. He loved life for these moments in which he could savour the sense of his own superiority and the failure of people around him to respond to him adequately. This guy clearly didn't know where he had come and the sweetest moments of humiliation lay ahead. In anticipation of this moment, he decided to leave for the hallway and chat with a very pretty and cute waitress who had recently started working at their restaurant.
He had already begun to imagine how he would invite her to his place, treat her to his signature dish, which was much better than what many tried to cook here, hug her, captivated by his undeniable culinary talent and assertiveness, and find out if she was as good in bed as she was at her job.
Lost in his thoughts, he pushed the door and turned away, and at that moment several carrots flew up into the air, performing a few pirouettes, and hovered there, waiting for the metal door to close to resume their aerial dance...
Despite being in his mid-sixties, Dmitry Cort was surprisingly sprightly and not averse to entertainment. Every month, his restaurant hosted large events where wine flowed like a river, tables were groaning with sumptuous dishes, and a multitude of beautiful women surrounded men like ravishing muses from a fairy tale country. These were some of the most pleasant moments of his work, and Cort clearly had no intention of missing out on the upcoming evening's portion of entertainment. But before that, he had to deal with a number of organisational issues, which somewhat darkened his excellent mood. Hunched over documents, he concentrated on studying his expenses, periodically noting something in a ledger, holding a pencil in his teeth and occasionally muttering something to himself.
A loud knock on the door caused him to divert his attention from his pressing matters. With a grunt of slight annoyance, he sighed and closed the ledger. Rising from the desk, he went to open the door, hoping to return to work in just a few minutes. But already in a moment, his face, clouded by financial calculations, lit up with a broad smile, and, opening the door with a sweeping gesture, he invited his guest to enter the room.
"Greetings, Alex! Am I glad to see you! Come in, my old friend. Where have you been?" asked Dmitry.
"Good day, Dmitry. Unfortunately, too many problems have fallen on me in the past month. My show business is going through a torrid time," replied Alex. He sat down in a spacious chair, which protested with a loud creak under his weight, and took the offered glass of whiskey. After downing it in one gulp, he stared intently at his friend. His circus business had been on the brink of financial catastrophe for several days, and only Cort, with his connections, could help him solve the problem.
"Something like an evil fate is pursuing me. Recently, I had a big fire in one of my buildings. Many animals died, and several of my good workers suffered severe burns. On top of that, many unique and rare things that I’d shelled out for were destroyed in the fire. The firefighters arrived too late to save anything," Alex continued.
"Alex, I'm sorry to hear that! When did it happen?" asked Dmitry sympathetically.
"Last week, on Friday. I was woken up in the middle of the night and rushed there as fast as I could. Although when I arrived, I couldn’t see anything but blackened walls and firefighters," Alex replied. He wanted to add that he had seen something else, namely a golden card with a joker on it, which had been proudly displayed by a well-known archaeologist in his last lecture. The archaeologist had recently discovered a small, cleverly hidden treasure trove in Tutankhamun's tomb, many years after its sensational discovery by Howard Carter. The contents of this trove had caused quite a stir, but unfortunately, the hero of the discovery had not been able to bask in the rays of fame and died suddenly from a stroke, falling from the podium onto the stage while deciphering the symbols of his discovery. Being a doctor by education, Alex had rushed to the stage to help, but despite his efforts, it was too late — the life had left the body of the brilliant specialist, leaving behind many unsolved mysteries and questions, to which he definitely knew the answers.
This card, which somehow ended up in the pocket of the jacket he had been wearing at that lecture, trying to save the archaeologist, suddenly fell on his knees when he was sitting near the charred ruins of his circus covered in soot and crying like a five-year-old child.
Taking the card in his hand, in spite of his nervous shock, he marvelled at its very unusual embossing and design. Strangely enough, the card had not suffered from the fire, and in the light of the flames, the joker's garment momentarily gleamed gold, staring at him with its insane laughing face. But then everything disappeared just as quickly, hidden by the shadow of a police officer who approached him to ask a few questions. When he regained his ability to think, deciding to take a closer look at the unusual card, it was gone. Most likely, it fell to the ground when the police officer covered him with a blanket and led him to the ambulance, or maybe it remained in that blanket. But now, putting his hands into his pockets once again, Alex felt shivers down his spine feeling the embossed corner of the card that so miraculously reappeared there where he could swear had been absolutely nothing before.
It was a good thing he hadn't told Cort about seeing big creepy eyes in the sky, watching him closely after the blaze. He definitely needed to heal his shaken nerves, and if he didn't stop thinking about nonsense and hallucinating, not only would he create the impression of a person whose mind had been indelibly affected by the tragedy, but also would not receive any help, which he so desperately needed now. Taking a deep breath, he looked at Cort once again who, to his relief, didn't notice anything. Cort understandingly poured him another glass of whiskey and called the manager to order something.
"I hope you’ve insured your property, Alex?"
"It was insured, but it will take me many months to find and buy some rare things again, let alone replacing some of my specialists and trained animals."
"Don't worry, my old friend. Remember how you saved me from the clutches of blackmailers? I will never forget that and I feel obliged to repay you this debt. I have a couple of ideas on this matter," said Dmitry.
"I would be grateful for any help," Alex replied, looking hopefully at him.
"No one discusses business on an empty stomach, so let's have lunch in my office upstairs first and then we'll discuss the details," Dmitry slyly winked at him and invited him to follow.
They went through a large yet still empty hall that was being carefully prepared for the grand evening. Several waiters in immaculately clean uniforms were setting tables that perfectly matched the rest of the expensive furniture and luxurious decor, impressing not only connoisseurs of art and design but also anyone who appreciated the feeling of harmony and beauty. The establishment was rightfully considered to be one of the most elite in the city, and Alex momentarily forgot about what brought him here, feeling a sweet, tantalising anticipation of the upcoming meal.
In a few minutes they came to the sumptuously decorated lunch-cum-business room, where most important meetings usually took place. Dmitry opened a fancy wooden door that must have cost a small fortune and ushered Alex in. Shortly afterwards a waiter appeared with a shining silver tray in his hands. Both men were silent, one pondering his unpleasant and precarious situation, the other trying to guess what unusual dish his chef had prepared for them.
"Alex, my friend, food is one of life's greatest pleasures, and well-prepared food is double the pleasure," Dmitry said expressively. "We cannot let any unpleasantness deprive us of such joyful moments, even if they are trying very hard to take them away from us."
"I have nothing to object to you, Dmitry. You are a guru in your business, and you know everything about food."
Alex knew that Dmitry wouldn't get down to business until he leisurely completed his ritual of pleasure, so he decided to be patient and reached for the cutlery.
"And then, my mother once said..." Dmitry took the first spoonful of soup, swallowed the hot liquid, and suddenly his face began to change. His eyes widened and bulged out of their sockets, while his bushy eyebrows rose up in an emotional outburst that began to overwhelm him.
"That, that... Ronnie..." he croaked. "Who... prepared this food?"
Upon seeing the unnaturally distorted face, the waiter wisely retreated, ready to dodge a heavy glass or dish in case Mr. Cont decided to hurl something heavy at him. Glancing at the plates, he suddenly paled and stammered:
"Excuse me, sir. Someone upstairs must have mixed up the trays. We have a new guy in the kitchen, an apprentice, and it's entirely possible that..."
"Bring him here, pronto!!!" yelled Cort, vigorously shaking his chubby hands in front of the waiter's face.
"Yes, sir, right away," the waiter replied promptly and was gone in double quick time behind the oak door and beyond the reach of both heavy dishes and the unpredictable temper of his boss.
Recovering from the shock of his friend's unusual behaviour, Alex looked at the soup tureen with apprehension. Despite his innate sense of caution that accompanied him throughout his life, he suddenly felt an inexplicable surge of boyish mischief and said, "Ah, screw it, why not?" Scooping up a full spoonful, he quickly swallowed the soup. Almost immediately, an inexplicable feeling engulfed him, momentarily paralysing his tongue and vocal cords and even causing the figure of Cort and the rich decor around him to blur. Unable to resist, he felt it rising higher and higher in his brain, swiftly conquering it with its arrival and sweeping away all barriers in its path, rushing towards its centre to make it capitulate immediately.
Several seconds, or perhaps minutes, passed, and the sudden sound of footsteps brought Alex back to reality. A man in worn-out trousers entered the room, accompanied by the waiter, who cautiously peeked out from behind his back and said:
"Sir, I brought the man who prepared this meal. For God's sake, forgive us for this oversight... Shall I bring you another one?"
"Go to hell, Roni. Close the door behind you and don't dare bother us," Cort threw at him. The waiter reacted and retreated as quickly as his short legs would carry him.
Rising from his chair, Cort looked intently at the person who he had summoned. Recognising the man who he had spoken to earlier, he again noted his tired pale face, and eagerly said:
"Young man..." A pause hung in the air, broken only by the methodical ticking of the large clock in the corner of the room.
"What you prepared for us today is the best soup I have ever eaten in my life, damn me! And I've tried thousands of different dishes from around the world, but nothing comes close to this. Where did you learn to cook like this, kid?"
"In my father's tavern. We had our own little business, and I helped out in the evenings when there weren't enough hands in the kitchen."
"A family business, huh? Hmm... I guess your father graduated from some culinary school with a household name?"
"No, he taught himself by listening to the voices by the stream."
Cort would have laughed if it hadn’t been for the soup, whose sweet aftertaste still made his palate and tongue vibrate in time with some unknown, perfect culinary composition. Something didn't add up with this young man. Even the most famous names in the world's best restaurants couldn't have prepared such a dish, and yet there was something in him that reminded Cort of those who lost their jobs and started living on the streets, starving, in need or... This shabby appearance and exhausted look made the sharp-witted jester and wastrel that often appeared in public disappear, giving way to a deep thinker who once elevated him to the top of the culinary business.
"Perhaps it was some kind of programme for chefs?"
"No, we don't have television," the bright emerald green eyes looked at him innocently, without a trace of self-satisfaction."
"Perhaps, the young man has some meaning in his native language that we don't understand," Alex quipped. Indeed, his speech had an unusual accent that he had never heard before, but which betrayed him as a person from distant lands. Very distant lands.
"There's only one question the answer to which is more important to me right now than where you come from and where you’ve learnt all this," Cort said thoughtfully, reaching out and taking a plate of veal, green peas, and sauce. This time he wasn’t in a state of stupefaction, his eyes did not widen, they simply closed slowly, eliciting a warm genuine smile that immediately made him look twenty years younger. It was the most ordinary meat that literally melted away in his mouth, complementing the perfect taste composition with crispy peas and a delicate sauce of some unknown but pungent enough herbs.
"But that's impossible," Alex said, trying his portion of the dish and then staring at the meat with his fork. Veal, like any other meat, doesn't melt like this in the mouth, it simply can't be cooked like this."
"Impossible has been my favourite word since childhood and a companion in many undertakings," the man replied.
Alex could have sworn that he caught a faint glimpse of a bizarre ethereal glow lighting the man’s face from the inside. He blinked and the next second everything went back to normal.
There was a long silence in the office. The sun that had peeked out from under the gloomy leaden clouds for a few minutes quickly disappeared, plunging the room into semi-darkness. The wall clock suddenly stopped ticking and stopped, throwing its hands in different directions like the hands of a dying person in a last convulsive movement.
"What's your name, kid?" Cort finally asked.
"My name is very long, just call me….. Jack."
"Okay, Jack. I don't know where you learnt all this, but I think you'll make a damn great cook. You can go to have lunch in the kitchen now, and then start working right away."
"Thank you. A good rest is just what I need right now."
"Cort definitely needed time to ponder over this strange matter. The young man had a very large talent, too large to behave recklessly. With such a wealth of talent, this stranger could earn very good money, open a restaurant, and live comfortably, but instead he had to seek work for quite a modest pay and looked needy, starving. Something didn't quite add up here. He will act step by step and over time will learn the answers to all the questions and his secrets, which his business always desperately needed, but for now, he needed to have a break.
"Come with me, young man. I'll talk to the guys and they'll show you your workplace," said Cort and headed towards the door.
"And I'll come with you," Alex said unexpectedly. The unpleasant oppressive feeling that someone was watching him returned. And it was better not to give himself the opportunity to think or even God forbid, see again what made his heart, generously supplied with cholesterol, stress, and cheap coffee, ready to jump out of his chest at any moment."
Entering the hall, they saw gradually arriving guests. Almost every one of them exuded wealth and belonging to the upper echelons of society. The scent of expensive perfume, perfectly ironed and starched shirts, clothing from the country's top designers whose cost equalled several salaries of ordinary employees, and a confident gait revealed them as the most successful representatives of society.
After greeting a few guests, Cort cracked some of his usual jokes, which elicited satisfied laughter among the arrivals. A tall woman in a scarf made of mountain fox fur fixed a fallen lock of hair with a light hand gesture and smiled dazzlingly. Two black holes instead of eyes stared at Alex as if studying him intently, causing the hapless businessman to quickly turn away and huddle closer to Cort and a few lively conversing guests.
At the end of the hall, a tall man slowly approached the guests.
Michael was very puzzled — the food prepared by the newcomer, which he thought would be second-rate at best and would allow him (with pleasure, of course) to throw his weight around, amazed him like never before. Trying to understand what it was and failing to come to any specific opinion, he approached Cort and looked at him questioningly.
"Michael, you will take this young man to the kitchen and give him free rein. Tonight, I want to be unforgettable for everyone who comes here. Provide him with everything he asks for, and for God's sake, don't misbehave. This is not the case. Do you understand me?"
"Of course, sir," the head chef replied reluctantly. "As you wish. Will there be any further instructions?"
"For today, your task is to accompany the entire dinner and help our new employee make it just as..." Cort paused for a moment, searching for a word that would accurately describe what he and Alex had just experienced. Seeing questioning looks from those present, he forced a laugh and continued, "unforgettable..."
"Yes, sir," replied Michael through greeted teeth, looking jealously at the person who had so quickly, effortlessly, and irreversibly made his boss's favour switch to another side. However, despite everything, he couldn't help feeling growing curiosity and, deep down, something akin to respect, which he would never admit, of course.
Everyone turned and looked at the newly minted chef. With a light smile, he bowed and, before following Michael, asked:
Can I have a short rest for ten minutes first, sir? — asked Jack.
"Can he have a short rest?" You wanted to say – eat my fill of anything I can lay my hands on! Of course — bellowed Cort, slapping him on the back with his pudgy hand. "I like this kid more and more. By all means! But after the first 10 dishes, have a break and prepare something for us. Now, go, you do look very hungry!"
After the next explosion of laughter, Alex looked at him and silently agreed with Cort. The man looked somewhat exhausted, but who wouldn't be after such a strain in the kitchen?
"Well, that's great," said Cort, rubbing his hands together, looking at those present and preparing another of his favourite jokes, which he loved to insert, as he later said, at the right time in the right place.
What happened next, Alex remembered very vaguely, like information on film with a lot of bad fogging, giving him a mere glimpse of the rapidly unfolding events only in a few small areas of the film miraculously untouched by light. Everything else was a grey haze.
A passing waiter looked with interest at the pretty brunette, or perhaps at her sparkling necklace, which surely cost an arm and a leg. Something distracted him, and the hand holding eight plates suddenly twitched, and the next moment the prepared dishes with their contents flew in different directions, threatening to permanently ruin prohibitive dresses made of high-quality silk, hairstyles, over which the best hairdressers had been toiling for so long, and bespoke ties, and jackets, purchased for astronomically high prices. Oddly enough, this didn't happen, even though according to all laws of physics it should have happened.
Jack, who was about to follow Michael to the kitchen, where he was waiting for a well-deserved lunch and his first serious job, quickly turned around and grabbed one of the falling plates, which threatened to shatter against Alex's head, just a couple of centimetres from his forehead. Something blurred appeared in the air over the stranger's hands, some strange oscillation in the air, similar to a ripple, which made Alex instinctively close his eyes, and when he opened them, all the dishes had already been caught and neatly arranged on all possible points of support on his body, like in an advert for a local cafe, during the filming of which he was present. However, unlike those many long minutes required for the members of the film crew to arrange and fix these plates in the right places, these plates lay in the right places in... um... a few seconds? How on earth was that possible?
Cort, who had opened his mouth to start telling something funny, shut it abruptly, almost biting off the tip of his tongue in the process.
"How did you manage to do that?" exclaimed one of the regulars of the restaurant, nervously touching his face that was supposed to be badly cut by flying pieces of crockery.
"What was that?" said the blonde on the right, still trying to work out whether she needed to run to the bathroom to change her ruined clothes or not.
A ringing silence descended upon the hall, and for several seconds everybody processed what had transpired, gradually returning to reality. Finally, everyone looked questioningly at the person who saved everyone from harm, doctors and an unpleasant evening with a lot of wasted nerves.
For a moment, a queer satisfied smile creased Jack's face in marked contrast to cadaverous faces and shivering bodies around.
"My father was a performer and taught me a few things," Jack said with satisfaction. "The love for such tricks runs in our blood. I am hoping you liked my little show." His strange, tired face acquired a healthy ruddy colour, and even his green eyes warmed up.
"Wow!" the blonde exclaimed, and her eyes sparkled in time with the necklace adorned with numerous diamonds. "This is so cool, I have to admit I've never seen anything like it."
She clapped her little hands and everybody soon joined her in applause, momentarily turning into children, eagerly watching the performance they happened to have been providentially invited to.
"How long have you been doing this?" Alex asked. Everything that was happening made him forget about his own problems and the vague queasy feeling of being watched.
"Unfortunately, not as long as I would like," he replied. "Training started quite late due to my father's constant absence, but I learnt quickly." Carefully placing the plates on the table, he straightened up and took a deep breath.
"Oh, boy, did you surprise me twice today," Cort finally spoke up. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"I came from the neighbouring city to the west of here, worked there for some time, and then decided to try myself in another place."
"To the west, there's only a great wasteland, there's nothing there. You probably mean Cape Town, which is to the south?"
"Yes... that's exactly what it's called."
"Hmm... I haven't heard of you before. I have a lot of acquaintances from that city and even one of our cafes is located there," Cort slowly said the last sentence and started to muse about something.
"You're a very nice young man, Mr...?" said the tall woman, looking at him interestedly.
But at that moment, a gust of winter wind blew with force, opened a large window and burst into the brightly lit room, sweeping everything in its path and trying to reach the standing people with its icy fingers.
"Close that damn window!" Cort shouted at two waiters.
Alex stood and watched as he ran over to them and began to hurriedly give instructions. What he wouldn’t give to have his business problems limited to opening windows and confronting wind, even as unusually cold and piercing as this one. Unfortunately, his trials and tribulations were far from over, and something needed to be done about the black streak he was currently in. He was counting on his friend and hoped he would be able to find a solution to his predicament...
Meanwhile Michael remembered that they had work to do in the kitchen, shrugged and headed towards large chrome doors, gesturing for Jack to follow him.
"Quite the trickster," he muttered, squeezing the rag in his hand until his fingertips turned white. "In just a few hours he became the boss's favourite, and now he's turned the restaurant into a circus. I wonder what will happen next — an elephant prancing on a plate?"
Within a minute they were gone, and everyone began to disperse, with only the oddly placed plates in various locations on the table reminding them of the recent incident.
"Please, tell me who is this young man?" the tall woman asked Alex, who was still standing and thoughtfully watching the waiters who finally closed the window and listened to Cort's final instructions.
"I wish I knew myself," he replied. "All I know about him is that he cooks damn well, and now this.
"It seems to me that he once worked in a circus. I saw a quick reaction from acrobats in one of the shows," the woman said, fiddling with her fox's tail. "But how..."
Trying not to look at her, or rather at the hypnotising gaps instead of eyes among the red fur, Alex muttered something unintelligible and turned away. He wanted to move away from her, but something kept him in place, a strange feeling, a fear of what might happen very soon. As if he became a little boy again, preparing to venture out and meet his friends to descend into a dark dank well for a bet, where...
"But it was something special. Did you see how he caught all the plates at once?"
"No, it all happened too quickly," Alex answered, barely hearing the question.
"That's why I think it was a special performance ordered by Cort to entertain us."
"Well, I don't know..."
"And then, did you see how quickly he left us? He must be working in some circus and getting paid for his mind-boggling act now."
Alex froze and, struggling with himself, looked at the woman. A bright idea came to his mind, so bright that the adrenaline rush made him take a deep breath several times to quell the rising excitement. His bladder, successfully ignored until now, responded with a sharp spasm, and Alex decided to postpone the consideration of such an unusual idea for a while. Right now, he needed to relieve himself, and then he would return and talk to Cort, and who knows, maybe something will work out.
"People like Cort always know how to entertain. What a sweetheart he is," the woman said, finally heading towards a large table and leaving behind the smell of some spicy perfume.
Alex let out a sigh of relief, approached the bathroom and pulled the handle. The door was locked. Well, he will stand here for a few minutes, wait for the visitor to finish his business and then leave satisfied, giving off the fresh aroma of hand soap. However, after a couple of minutes, he felt that the person inside was in no hurry to finish, and turned his head back to where he came from. On the first floor, not far from Cort's office, there was another toilet, though he certainly didn't intend to go there. Why should he venture there again, experiencing an incomprehensible oppressive feeling, if he stood here surrounded by people in safety and had to wait for just a little longer to do what he wanted? The next minute, a bright pain flared up in his groin. Alex had to grit his teeth and think about that beckoning unoccupied toilet again...
The heavy metal door creaked lightly, letting him into the dark and cool corridor. Here complete silence reigned, interrupted only by his laboured breathing — he had ceased his athletic activity twenty years ago and since then gained a considerable amount of excess weight. His bad habits which he couldn't break, however hard he tried, also made a contribution to his current condition. Only very strong black coffee, drunk in large amounts every day, was worth it. Sometimes, watching his classmate's performances on TV, who had become an NBA star, he blamed himself for what he had become and who he could have been if he had gone to work as a doctor in Canada at the invitation of his best friend instead of becoming the owner of the circus that was about to bankrupt him.
The burnt-out light bulb hung lonely from above, looking at him with its cloudy eye from the darkness. Pressing the switch several times in vain, he muttered a series of imprecations and hurried to the spiral staircase.
Something clicked softly upstairs. Although Alex was in terrible physical shape, suffering from shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and many other illnesses, his hearing was excellent. He made a few steps and, despite the burning sensation in his groin, listened carefully. The sound did not repeat itself, which was probably something in the pipes or perhaps the frame of some window. Although it came from Court's office upstairs, where they had recently been talking, and could well have been something else, such as the sound of an opening door.
Hearing nothing, he moved forward and approached the stairs, tentatively climbed a few steps, and looked up. Nothing, just darkness and a distant ticking coming from an expensive wall clock in the hallway. The room was around the corner and up the spiral staircase, at the very end of the corridor, where he and Court sometimes played cards or just passed the time drinking his favourite cognac.
A barely audible creak was heard, and everything fell silent. Despite the growing sense of anxiety, he climbed a few more steps and glanced sideways into the darkness of the corridor. And saw nothing. He shouldn’t have come back here alone; something inexplicable was happening around him, something that made him feel really uneasy and uncomfortable. Probably, stress caused by recent events was to blame. Given his invidious situation anything could come to mind, where falling into madness, let alone hallucinations might not be impossible.
Trying to calm himself down, he quickly walked to the bathroom, pressed the switch near the stairs on the second floor and the corridor miraculously lit up with such familiar and soothing yellow light. "It's all your shaky nerves," he told himself. "If you don’t put a curb on your rattled nerves, you will soon start seeing pink elephants."
There was nobody around, and only the barely audible humming of the bulbs above luxurious marble floors announced that everything was in order here. The hall, as always, amazed with its splendour and decoration — expensive oak panels, lofty ceilings emphasised by columns, and elite furniture with elegant decorative elements transported a person to another era and atmosphere — Cort was a real lover of luxury and comfort. Needless to say, he had the best taste of all his acquaintances, which appealed to so many of his visitors and for which he deserved such a decent salary.
Relaxing a little, Alex opened the door and quickly walked in. He opened one of the stalls and felt a pleasant vanilla smell – everything in Cort’s restaurant was thought out to the smallest detail, and the bathroom was no exception. Letting out a satisfied groan, he closed his eyes and stood there for a minute, enjoying the relief. However, something was amiss. Approaching the sink, he put his hands under the pleasant stream of cold water and looked at his reflection in the mirror. An overweight man with a pale face, a lot of grey hair and an anxious gaze looked back at him. Of course, after such losses in business, anybody would inevitably feel out of sorts. It was amazing that he managed to hold himself together — after all, he had self-control. He just needed to do everything right, and with Cort’s help, everything would gradually come back to normal.
The perfect cleanliness was soothing, fancy marble panels and the sound of the gently flowing water created an atmosphere of cosiness, relaxing him. Nevertheless, Alex couldn't put his finger on what was bothering him. He treated illusions and everyone who created them as a way to earn money, and wasn't too concerned about the details as long as there were pleasant numbers in his account. He would often just shrug and, inwardly closing his eyes, automatically nodded to the complaints of employees, annoying advertisers, and everyone else who troubled him, creating the impression of an attentive listener, only to deliver a pre-prepared phrase and banish such a nuisance from his head for good. It always worked, but today there was some other feeling that couldn't be locked away in one of the many cabinets in his mind, securely protecting his well-being from unfavourable external influences. Something was not right...
Shrugging his shoulders, he thoroughly washed his hands and hung the towel on a hook with a small bronze lion. Absent-mindedly he looked at it and suddenly grew cold at one unexpected thought which pierced his consciousness like lightning. Slowly approaching the door, he opened it and peeked into the hallway. The lamps still burned soothingly bright, and very comfortable seats invited you to sit and relax while waiting for a conversation, and everything seemed in order. Except for one thing... On unsteady legs, he approached Cort's office and looked at the massive oak door, which was custom-made and brought from another part of the world. The carved handle, made from a piece of rare solid red wood, harmonised with the rest of the door, but now the large bronze lion head that had so majestically towered above the door was missing.
"This can't be," Alex said quietly. "I definitely saw it today when we were leaving the office." There were no visible dents, cracks, or marks of attachment or removal on the wall, and it seemed as if it didn't exist at all.
"You're getting old, buddy. Of course, there is some refurbishment going on here, just like everywhere else, and you just remember what you always liked. Someone is just cleaning up in this hallway at Cort's request and simply doesn't want to disturb the owner of the establishment." But he knew that wasn't the case. He would have never built his business if it weren't for his keen eyesight and ability to notice important details. A vivid picture of their recent departure from the office, Cort's muttered satisfaction, and the shimmering bronze mane that always amazed Alex with the work of the master appeared before his eyes. Feeling some barely perceptible movement, he abruptly turned around and saw nothing.
Only the lamps evenly illuminated the corridor and a barely audible humming announced the operation of the electrical circuits. The sound of heavy footsteps behind him made him interrupt his thoughts. He recalled the time when he had to bring meals to his long-deceased father who was working at a smelter trying to make ends meet. The place was incredibly noisy and when he passed the food, he always wondered how his father managed to keep his sense of hearing. Something was banging deafeningly in the distance, reverberating through the whole place and making his teeth judder. All of a sudden, his dad looked at him and said something. He strained to hear his words drowned out by the noise and even though he failed to do it after the third time, he managed to read his lips that cried: Save yourself!
He flinched and came back to reality. Someone very large was hurrying towards him from the other end of the corridor, accompanied by heavy, intermittent breathing, coming from a powerful chest. The corridor filled with an indescribable stench of rotten fish, instantly causing him to gag and nearly fall on the floor that began to tremble from the immense force of muscular legs, which stomped on the tiles and created a sensation of a rapidly approaching earthquake.
Alex didn’t dare to turn around and look, because deep within his inflamed mind, his talent, capable of finding strange and unusual things in his surroundings, already knew what he would see. His eyes dilated with primeval horror, and he felt his consciousness slipping away. Overwhelming panic nailed him to the spot and his heart skipped its usual beat only to start pounding fiercely the next second.
With an incredible effort of will, he shook off the paralysing numbness and rushed towards the stairs, into the saving darkness that had genuinely frightened him just a few minutes ago. The sound of heavy stomping footsteps became unbearably close, and something very sharp and heavy whistled through the air just a few centimetres from his jacket, ruffling his hair and overpowering him with the stench of mustiness, making all his insides contract into a tight knot. His weakening legs buckled, though to his surprise he exerted himself and on instinct made his best jump in life forward, grabbing the railings with his hands and tumbling down the iron steps like a big sack of potatoes. A sharp pain instantly pierced his side and bloomed before his eyes with a bright flower. To add insult to injury a hammer started working in his head and with each increasingly strong blow his tortured consciousness drifted further and further away from him. It was abundantly clear that if he didn’t manage to escape from this place in the next minute or so, it would be the end for him.
Quickly springing to his feet, he leant his whole body against the door, praying that it would not be closed, pushed it with all his might and flew like a bullet into the brightly lit hall, where there was light and relaxed atmosphere. It all ended as quickly as it began. No sound came from behind the metal door, which he pushed back into its place with his bulky body, and now he was surrounded by the appetising smells of a freshly cooked duck, vegetables, and pastry. No one noticed him, and that was probably for the best. He crawled to the table in the corner of the hall , squeezed himself into the narrow passage between the table and the seat and then grabbed a bottle of water and greedily drank half of it.
His body was shaking and aching as if the entire national football team had run over him, but at least he was alive. Closing his eyes, he crashed out for some time and didn't notice the rotund figure of Cort open the infamous metal door ten minutes later and disappear into the darkness.
"Sir, are you okay?" A sudden voice next to his ear made Alex come to his senses. Rubbing his painfully throbbing left side, which was already turning into a large, disgusting bruise, he winced and looked into the concerned eyes of the waitress.
"I wouldn't say so," the words came out of his inflamed throat with difficulty.
"Maybe you need a doctor?" she asked.
"No, honey, a doctor won't help here. Bring me the strongest coffee you have and a lot of aspirin."
"Are you sure? You look like you've seen a ghost."
Despite the growing pain in his side, Alex managed to say with effort, "I don't think you should worry. Where...is Cort?"
"He's somewhere around here. We have important guests today, so he has a lot of work to do."
"Find him immediately and tell him," he swallowed convulsively and tried to get up, but instantly a sharp pain made him fall back into the seat.
"Tell him not to go upstairs to his office. Under no circumstances!" – he shouted.
For a moment, anxiety flickered in the waitress's blue eyes, but a second later, she relaxed and said in a professional tone:
"Don't worry, I'll still call a doctor for you."
Alex wanted to say something, but at that moment, a red-hot needle pierced his side, and he just slowly nodded his head, trying not to let the crimson haze completely overwhelm him. Watching the slim figure of the pretty girl receding, he felt growing agitation, as if before a storm. Something bad was going to happen, and he could no longer prevent it.
Struggling to open his tired eyes, Alex glanced at his watch — about an hour had passed and the waitress still hadn't appeared. Alex had to stand up to ask someone else for help, but he didn't have the chance.
Suddenly the doors of the main hall opened wide, letting in a few gloomy policemen and a focused doctor, who quickly passed him and disappeared behind the wretched iron door at the end of the hall. All guests in the hall fell silent and then went on to discuss the latest event with renewed vigour.
"What happened? Was it a robbery?"
"At this hour? Come on. This is the most respectable place."
"I hope so. But..."
Alex just helplessly watched as the iron door opened and a person covered with a sheet was carried out of it. Something inside him snapped and he felt despair take hold of him. When the policemen caught up with him, he somehow rose from the table and said:
"Wait. I'm Mr. Cort's friend. What happened here?"
The policeman looked at him with his cold grey eyes and gave a curt reply:
"Mr. Cort died of a heart attack. Please stay in your seats. My colleagues will ask you a few questions shortly."
With these words, he walked forward and disappeared behind the backs of the gathered guests. One of the waiters handed him his warm coat, which he had left in Cort's office before. Thanking him, he mechanically put it on and felt how cold he actually was. How on earth could such horrific and bizarre things happen?
The events of the past few hours refused to make any sense in his head. Suddenly, Alex heard that queer voice again, the owner of which had astounded him earlier today.
"Please, accept my condolences. Very unpleasant story," the voice said. He swivelled around and met the gaze of the new chef, who was looking intently into space. It was abundantly clear that the young man was just as upset as he was. No wonder, it all ended so unexpectedly for him, before it even had a chance to begin.
"Yes... Truly unpleasant," mumbled Alex. The words wouldn't come out. A bitter lump was stuck in his throat, and he was ready to tear his hair out in desperation. All his plans were thwarted and now he faced the unpleasant prospect of having to talk to creditors and undertaking the joyless task of devising another plan to save his business. One of the police officers detached himself from the crowd and headed towards them, and before Alex immersed in the atmosphere of questioning, statements, and God knows what else was in store for him, his hand involuntarily squeezed a business card that was lying in the depths of his jacket pocket and put it into the young man’s pocket.
"Call me tomorrow when things settle down. Perhaps I can help you with a job."
He had hardly finished talking when the doors of the restaurant swung open again, letting agitated reporters and other people inside. In the ensuing commotion, no one noticed how the back of the card flashed gold before it migrated to the pocket of the now-forgotten culinary maestro.
Dazzling applause brought him back to reality. Another successful act had just finished, causing the audience to roar with excitement and demand more of the magical performance. Everything he had ever possessed paled in comparison to what was happening now, both on stage and in his bank account. All of his troubles and misfortunes had ended abruptly since this young man had started working for him in the circus. The regular nightmares that had been relentlessly haunting him had disappeared, reminding him of their presence only through the sleeping pills and sedatives that he kept on his nightstand just in case. This new period in his life was truly the best he had ever experienced, and he wished it could last as long as possible.
Meanwhile, the audience was getting ready for the next act, anticipating another wonder. A burly man in his forties had just walked along an invisible path above a multitude of deadly razor sharp blades and spikes set between two high platforms, and returned to his place accompanied by astonished looks. Not understanding how it could have happened, he continued to gaze spellbound at the path he had been unable to see. He could have sworn that there was nothing between the platforms but air, though after climbing to the top at the request of the host and dangling his legs from one of the platforms to demonstrate the absence of any support or bridge, he was soon walking across an invisible bridge, looking down at the gleaming lethal steel below and praying that it wouldn't collapse in the middle and cause him to fall to a painful death. Most of all, he was thoroughly puzzled by the magical way in which he, a man who was afraid even of a simple cat in an alley and suffered from second-degree obesity and vertigo, had managed to climb up so easily and, most importantly, overcome all his childhood fears and fearlessly confront death, believing that there was something other than air under his feet as he walked over what made half the audience in the hall instinctively close their eyes in terror.
When he jumped back onto the arena, he saw how the head of the host momentarily lit up with eerie light, after which his crimson lips parted like the edges of a fresh wound and quietly said: "More..."
Stopping, he tried to get a better look at what he had seen, but the next second hundreds of hands were applauding him, and the host had already looked in another direction, preparing to announce his next act. Scratching his big head in a bemused wonder, the man reluctantly went back to his place to continue watching to prolong his very brief fling of excitement between the huge grey stripe of his past and no less bleak future.
Meanwhile, Jack waved his hand, and a few circus workers approached the platforms, preparing to remove them and free up space for the next act.
"And now I want to invite you to experience something that has never been possible for an ordinary person: victory over the imperfect work of the Creator," the deep voice said, making the audience freeze in anticipation of another extraordinary act. With a slight smirk, he looked at the sheriff, who was sitting in the front row this time, and, together with his assistants, was watching the performance very closely. His hand lay on a brand new colt, ready to draw it faster than the fastest cowboy in the Wild West. Something was wrong here, very wrong, and biting his moustache furiously, the sheriff desperately wanted to regain his lost authority and faith in his intuition, which had never failed him until now. No one had ever made him look like a complete buffoon in front of the public, and he was intent on settling the score with this fraudster by paying all his attention and finding something to help him do that. Although events unfolded very differently from what he expected.
Raising his hands, Jack whispered something in the ear of a young man and made a few steps back. A ringing silence fell in the hall, but nothing happened. One second, two, three – it seemed like the host had forgotten to do something.
The young man turned around to receive further instructions, and the audience gasped. Contrary to all laws of anatomical structure, his head rotated more than 270 degrees and looked back in bewilderment. His arms and legs acquired an unprecedented lightness and flexibility, bending at impossible angles only to easily straighten out again. Then his shoulder moved and completed a full rotation around its axis, like an independent being that had stopped obeying the usual limits of the body and had decided to find its own way of existence.
"The Creator lacked the skill to create a better human. Here and now, you will see something greater — not just some Homo sapiens, but a Perfectus homo — a perfect human, a perfect creation! And all this in just a few minutes!"
The green eyes of the presenter suddenly began to turn intense yellow and a mysterious halo of light appeared around his head again, but now it held steadily, gradually expanding and encompassing his entire figure.
"Yes..." exclaimed Jack in ecstasy. "More! Finally, I will finish what I’ve started!"
Surprisingly enough, the centre of attention of the amazed audience was not him and the changes that started to transmogrify him, whether accidentally or intentionally, went unnoticed.
The young man ceased to rotate his limbs and suddenly jumped. Expecting to land on the ground with a bright somersault or at least some new unusual movement, he felt nothing under his feet. His body was levitating a meter above the stage, awaiting further instructions. All the space around him took on a white hue, and the sounds became muffled, as if something was diligently wrapping him in a cocoon, and with each passing moment, the connection with the outside world grew weaker and weaker. A rumbling sound appeared in his ears, resembling the work of some unknown colossal mechanism, breaking the ground, smashing the walls to reach his consciousness.
In panic, he darted towards the fresh air and rose above the audience, causing a storm of applause. With closed eyelids, his eyes frantically searched for a way out, but met with a white veil that firmly bound him, holding him securely for something terrible that was about to happen. He heard someone or something slowly approaching him in the web of white fog and let out the most desperate and terrifying scream he was capable of. With incredible efforts, his body began to make chaotic and energetic manoeuvres in the air, causing the audience to roar with excitement once again.
"And now, I will show you the main event, the reason why you came here: your Creator," the words fell from Jack's bloody red lips like a predatory bird and made everyone freeze in ecstasy.
Extending his arms, Jack began to utter some ancient complex words, causing a bright orb of energy to appear between his palms that quickly began to grow in size. Everybody jumped from their seats, resembling a multitude of moths enchanted by the bright glow of a lantern at night, ready to swarm towards the light and merge with it as one, growing increasingly happy about the prospect of forever forgetting their wanderings in the darkness. Something was about to happen, but no one knew what, and this tension caused every heart to pound in unison with the others.
In an instant, something exploded and everything plunged into complete darkness. Jack, who was standing in the middle of the stage, was thrown with immense force against the wall like a rag doll, and the glowing white orb still gathering light between his palms began to fade away rapidly. Before there was any time to react, the body of the young man that was levitating above fell with a dull thud, which was followed by the agonising scream of a woman upon whom the now dead man had fallen. From the side where the sheriff was sitting, everybody sprang into action, and within a few seconds, several bright beams of light were quickly approaching the site of the explosion.
"What was that?" said the sheriff's assistant, rubbing his head after the unfortunate colliding with the shoulder of another policeman after the explosion.
"I don't know," quickly replied the sheriff, "but now I'll finally get that son of a bitch. There is no way he’s going to escape from us now!"
"Everyone spread out and start evacuating people. We have very little time."
Feeling that something very serious had happened, the sheriff cursed himself for allowing this crook to continue his performance. Perhaps this mistake would cost him his career. The thought of working at the factory without a pension at such an age made him break out into a cold sweat. Maybe it wasn't too late yet, and everything could still be fixed. Somewhere deep in his mind, a foolish hope flickered that this was just another prank, which of course would make a fool of him, but at least preserve his job and pension, together with his precious little house with roses, where he could peacefully drink beer every day in retirement and read a local newspaper, sighing with relief at the memories of this terrible episode at the circus.
When the light finally appeared, the sheriff's dreams of a house and roses dispersed as quickly as smoke in the strong wind. Dozens of dead bodies lay next to the scene, incredibly mutilated by the force of the explosion, so much so that even the sheriff, who had seen a lot in his life, was forced to turn away. Many people groaned, unable to get up. In the distance, the wails of ambulances and police cars could already be heard, but before their arrival, he would find the miscreant and make him pay for his actions with the full rigour of the law. He tightened his grip on his gun and rushed to the place where the one who had somehow managed to deceive them all was last seen. But just a few moments later, a cry of frustration escaped from his chest – the place where the host had previously been lying was empty, only a deep dent in the wall indicated that someone had crashed into it with a tremendous force. No one could survive such an impact; the blow should have broken most of his bones, crushed the skull and spine, and yet the chain of footprints eloquently spoke of somebody who contrived to raise to his feet effortlessly and hastily retreat as if no damage were ever sustained.
A gust of wind threw autumn leaves into the air around the figure, cloaked in black that rushed out of the building. Heavy footsteps echoed under the arena's dome, reverberating across the pavement as the figure quickly disappeared into the gathering gloom away from the police and everybody else who wanted to pursue him.
He was almost there. It all started with a tragic accident that had caught him off guard just as he was about to reach the powerful crystal ball known as the Eye of the Universe. He had been travelling from world to world for hundreds of years, developing his abilities and methodically stealing magical keys from their guardians in pursuit of the coveted artefact. The Eye was a dream of any mage or madman attempting to conquer entire worlds or even galaxies. It granted unimaginable abilities to its owner, including eternal life, the ability to be independent from matter and energy, and other unique powers. But even the Eye's incredible functions were of no interest to him. Among other things, the Eye theoretically held the key to the world around which billions of universes revolved. It was also part of something much more mysterious, which did not even exist in the oldest legends and ancient scrolls. Something that had existed before the beginning of the very first universe, the Pre-Beginning...
Apart from the Eye, there was nothing else around. Prepared for a fierce battle with its owner, he was ready to attack, but he was nowhere to be found. No astral defences or anything else protecting the crystal from uninvited guests, no guardians or keepers monitoring the balance of power should have set his alarm bells ringing. Only the cosmic emptiness of the Great Nothing and the bright waves emanating from the sphere. Looking at him with its unblinking stare, the Eye emitted a pleasant hum that soothed the strained energy strings of his body, relaxing and forcing them to follow the calming rhythm of the waves. Something was amiss, but he couldn't discern what exactly it could have been because a pleasant weariness started to spread throughout his body. He simply wanted to watch and listen, forget about everything that had come before, feeling the harmony of all his energy cells and thoughts, fall asleep with them, completely satisfied.
At the last moment, with a tremendous effort of will he activated a neutralising field with his weakening fingers and shuddered as he saw himself in his own ship right opposite him, directing a destructive beam that was meant to split him into atoms and send them off into the void of the universe. Instead, it only grazed his ship after he made a desperate manoeuvre to avoid it, completely draining all the energy batteries and tossing him back like a crumpled piece of paper into the deformed space down the corridor connecting the Eye with innumerable worlds, spaces, and dimensions.
Then he regained his consciousness on a waste ground, barely alive from the colossal loss of energy. His ship turned into a complete wreck, and he was ready to die from his multiple injuries and exhaustion. But somehow he didn’t. Something in his body had changed imperceptibly, giving him the ability to slowly rise to his feet and try to save himself. He wasn't human, and his cells were nourished by delicate energy generated only by special very rare crystals. Salvation was nearby, in the ship, and all he needed to do was find them and spend a few minutes restoring those cells.
Struggling to rise a few meters in the air, he barely made it to the wreckage of the ship, expecting to fall to the ground and never move again, but managed to reach the battered cabin and immediately growled with rage — all the crystals had been damaged beyond repair, and his inevitable death by starvation awaited him.
As he was about to collapse, he felt someone's gaze on him, slowly turned around, and saw a man with two children looking at him in surprise, mesmerised by the sight of his descending from the air to the ground. The little boy said something like "wow" and pointed to his crumpled energy helmet on his head, and the father, who usually didn't tolerate any comments and was very strict in raising his children, simply stood next to him, his mouth agape, unable to say anything.
Through the thickening heavy black veil, which threatened to completely close his eyes and disconnect his consciousness, he caught sight of three small energetic beams that detached from the children and their parent and quickly headed towards him, which then entered his body and instantly dissolved in him like a drop of water in parched soil. The darkness in front of his eyes receded for some time and now he was able to see them more clearly.
"Sir, are you from another planet?" the little girl asked quietly.
"Mmm...," he tried to answer, but the words wouldn't come.
"I'm sorry, sir," the father finally regained his composure. "My children don't behave quite right..." He was interrupted by the excited exclamation of the boy who had seen the ship start to disappear from view. Raising his hand to slap his son, he stared blankly at the spot where the ship had been just a minute before.
For the second time, he saw golden rays detach from the surprised people and quickly head towards him, merging together to run through his empty veins and settle in the centre of his chest.
"What's your name, sir?"
"Mmm... Jack... you can call me Jack." He was surprised to realise that something had transformed the part of the energy field of these creatures into a low-grade but still easily assimilated energy, which he could temporarily fill himself with until becoming able to open the door between this and his own world and find a spare set of energy crystals. It had been a long time since he had experienced something like this since no other biological species had ever given off such energy. Obviously, emotional surprise released a small part of a completely different substance from the unsuitable energy mass, which could temporarily nourish his body.
Thus began his forced stay on this planet. He was too weak to plan anything and his primary task became a mere survival. Having found the job of a cleaner in a scientific hall, Jack smiled as he watched how the theory of dark matter that he had corrected sent many scientists running around excitedly, which helped to gain strength to a minimal level and allowed to continue his journey to another city where he felt a high concentration of so needed energy.
But now everything has changed. Just as his energy replenishment was about to reach the necessary level, someone's presence showed itself. He had faintly felt it through the veil before, ever since he started working at the circus, but neglected to focus on it in order to avoid wasting precious energy intended for his recovery — these creatures and their world were at the lowest level of galactic development and posed no threat to him. Now he was forced to distract himself from his initial task because his last, most spectacular act, after which he intended to return to his world, was violently interrupted.
Something touched him in the darkness of the hall, and the energy he was giving out stopped abruptly as if someone had turned off the switch and him together with it. A second turned into a long minute during which he desperately tried to stabilise the now out-of-control reaction but despite all his frantic efforts failed. A powerful explosion that should have blown an ordinary person into small pieces only threw him aside, putting the thick brick wall to the test at the end of the stage. People with their primitive weapons, which they were so proud of, despite their emotional instability and passion for self-destruction, could not have done such a thing. Somebody was shouting in the distance, and the flow of sweet restorative energy ceased completely. With difficulty, he stood up and to his dismay felt that he had lost almost all accumulated strength to immediately understand what had happened. Unable to restore things to their previous state he hurried to the exit. It didn't matter what it was, he could no longer stay in the circus. Finding a new place to continue the recovery process became a top priority.
Having run along the waterfront for a while, he saw the park with wrought iron gates and hurried there. There was no one around, only a few statues in the light of street lamps looked at him with their pewter eyes, hiding behind the branches of trees. Bright unfamiliar stars in the clear sky flickered with a cold metallic light, as if hundreds of razor-sharp blades were ready to fall on the ground and take the lives of all those who had ventured out for a walk this night.
He definitely won’t stay in this world; a few more days or weeks will make no difference. Despite the annoying setback, it will still be possible to recover and return to his world to resume hunting for the Eye, though this time he will find the key to the most perplexing and cunning trap, the basis of which was he himself. For now, Jack had no idea where to find the answer, but had no doubts that it would eventually be found because luck and success always favoured him, and his bright talent was proof of that.
Lost in his thoughts, he accidentally kicked a stone with the toe of his boot, which flew off into a roadside ditch, breaking the silence with a dull splash. The road disappeared into the ink-black void of the night, and even his specialised but weakened eye receptors, damaged from the accident, could not fully adjust to the suddenly thickening darkness. Somewhere nearby in the dense treetop, an owl hooted several times, a dry branch snapped, and then everything fell silent again.
Slowing down a bit, he walked to the centre of the road. All options of teleporting, moving through space or time were out of the question, considering his drained energy store after the failed attempt to recover. Even simple levitation and flying would require a lot of strength, which he now needed to save for the most important thing — survival.
According to the map he had memorised many days ago, the park was very large and stretched for several kilometres. There was no one around, and it was just as well. Thoughtless behaviour could significantly complicate his situation on this planet in this weakened state, therefore the best thing he could do was to leave this city with its police forces, without attracting any more unnecessary attention to himself.
All the people who came in search of miracles had been left behind, but it was still quite strange to walk in complete darkness. This type of species did not particularly like it and tried to illuminate the dark places of their settlements with bright lanterns and lights.
Turning around, he saw the last lamps behind him go out and the drowning islands of light disappear into the dark abyss of night. He pulled out a worn crystal from his pocket, which lit up dimly with a red light. Fortunately, there were no invisible parasitic worms living between dimensions or huge life-energy devouring flying creatures drawn to the light here that could easily suck all life strengths in a minute and leave behind only a pile of motionless flesh. This was a harmless planet, where nothing could hurt or stop him.
The smell coming from the malodorous swamp intensified, brought by a sudden gust of wind. Something very large may have recently died here, but wouldn’t sink into the bog. The swamp seemed to reject what was even more horrific and ominous than itself. The overpowering stench was so strong that the air became thick and gelatinous, and only the light of the crystal kept it from enveloping the figure that was confidently walking forward.
Automatically blocking his olfactory receptors, he tried to identify the source of it, but only saw a vague silhouette of a withered tree that had been distorted by some unseen disease to such an extent that it started to resemble a terrifying creature in the rising mist, trying to reach him with its thin, garrotte-like branches through the swamp. The irony was that the accident had made him more vulnerable and similar to the primitive inhabitants of this planet and deprived of many supernatural abilities by forcing to descend the evolutionary ladder.
Feeling the mounting tension in the air, he looked up and saw the darkness gradually squeezing the circle of light emanating from the crystal with a firm grip. Under its powerful pressure, the crystal began to flicker and heat up, threatening to crack and plunge him into pitch black darkness, where something was lurking. Squelching sounds came from somewhere a few steps away, as if the tree or something else, which he couldn't see however hard he tried, had managed to find its way out of the swamp and was now trying to gain on him, dragging its long loop-like arms along the ground and making intermittent guttural sounds that turned into a hungry howl and then stopped. Jack felt something touch his hip, swivelled around but saw nothing in the flickering light, which seemed about to burn out and leave him alone with something following him in the complete darkness...
In the distance, a bird screamed in agony, caught by some very nimble and patient predator. After a few seconds, the struggle ceased just as quickly as it commenced, and suddenly the night became shattered by insane laughter that instantly reached him, relentlessly biting into his field and fiercely trying to penetrate inside to fill his consciousness with turmoil and chaos.
Since Jack was not human, but a physically and mentally perfect organism that could adapt to any conditions and live in extreme environments, his highly evolved sense of fear was under total control of his powerful intellect and in a situation in which a human would succumb to a paralysing fear or release a lot of adrenalin to survive, he would only feel some tension that progressively raised his body defensive system to respond swiftly and effectively to any hostile forms of life. Such as it was now.
Having made a decision, Jack stopped and had to spend some energy that had become so valuable for him to concentrate on what was happening. He slowed his pace a bit, and in the shimmering light his eyes became like two distant, cold, ancient white stars shining in the firmament. In the astral world, which seemed to be made up of countless bright, chaotically moving moths-like points of light in the endless ocean of pure energy with constantly rolling orange-white waves — he immediately saw a repulsive lump of veins pulsing in his pocket and a huge blurry black spot to the side, rapidly increasing in size. A thin but very strong umbilical cord stretched from the pocket to the spot, indicating an organic and psychokinetic connection between them. His extensive experience in this world immediately informed him that the collision was imminent and something urgent needed to be done to avert the oncoming disaster.
A barely audible hiss was heard, and he returned to his body. His eyes regained their familiar green light and immediately darted towards the source of the danger. Something was approaching him from the enveloping viscous darkness. Only now it was a different being, much more massive and dangerous. He heard the chomping sounds of huge legs pulling out of deep muck and inexorably shortening the distance. For a moment, the moon peeked out from behind heavy clouds the colour of black blood and caught the outlines of a powerful chest hovering three meters above the ground and a sharp axe-like weapon clenched in long, perfect claws capable of destroying and perfectly disembowelling even the most dangerous predator on the ground in a matter of seconds. Escaping breath surrounded the giant figure with white clouds of smoke, whose two bright orange eyes seemed like the first eruptions of lava before the catastrophic explosion that promised to destroy everything in its path.
A sight that would drive an ordinary person insane with horror only made the former master of the kitchen and circus performances quicken his pace. His hand, clutching the crystal, whitened with tension. Something mixed with the red colour, adding a golden hue to it. Slowly, he pulled out a card with a drawn joker from his pocket, which, reflecting the light of the crystal, played with red gold, smiling at him with the bloody smile of a madman. Alex, the circus owner, gave him this card after the events in the restaurant, and now, after a minute's stay in the astral world, he instantly understood what it was.
He cast a glance backwards so that he could assess the shrinking distance between himself and the enemy and understood that there was still sufficient time to attempt some manoeuvre. Gradually accelerating, Jack tried to make a giant leap forward, but unfortunately, one leg became caught on a protruding stone, as a result of which he lost his balance and fell to the ground like a clumsy bug. A crunch was heard, and something in his leg suddenly burst with a loud, dry sound. However serious the injury might have been, it didn’t stop Jack from instinctively trying to escape from what was rapidly and inexorably approaching from the swamp. A painful limp retarded his movement and made him attempt to lean on his healthy leg and find the best position for his injured leg to keep moving forward more or less quickly, but despite all his perseverance, he could not. Finally, finding the least painful position, he slowly limped forward.
Less than a kilometre remained until the end of the park, after which the forest and lake began, where he could possibly move a little faster.
After a few minutes, the asphalt road shuddered under the immense weight, and footsteps broke the night with two powerful hammers behind him. The creature was already about a hundred metres away, rapidly closing the distance and focusing its two brightly burning fiery eyes on his back, not willing to give any opportunity to hide or escape. The pursued had a map of the chosen one, and whoever owned it had to die. This had been going on for centuries, and every time it found and killed the one who became a hostage to its curse, sooner or later. Sometimes, when it fully fed on the unlucky owner of the card, it fell into slumber and let its next victim live until it woke up feeling hungry again. Now it awoke from its sleep and saw the unfortunate situation that befell the figure ahead. Having decided against a lethal mental attack, it gripped the handle of its axe and prepared to strike its target with one quick and sharp dissecting blow, to split the limping figure in two and give it no chance of survival. It never thought about its victim, because death and the impossibility of avoiding it were invariably the end result, no matter how hard the victim tried to escape it. But somewhere beyond the rows of teeth as long as daggers and very thick armour, a strange feeling of unease appeared, which it had never felt before. There was something wrong with this figure, something different from what it was used to dealing with. The huge paw holding the deadly weapon froze for a moment, its body poised for attack while the thing was trying to ruminate about what it perceived in its victim. However, in a few seconds, the dense red fog of the desire for destruction and killing engulfed the barely noticeable alarming feeling, and it rushed forward with doubled energy.
Now he knew exactly what was following him, leaving huge cracks and dents in the road, threatening to unleash its deadly weapon on him at any moment. His energy level had reached a dangerously low level but there still was enough of it to keep moving forward. It was very frustrating that he hadn't noticed this circumstance before, completely absorbed in his search for the vital force he needed for the recovery. He didn’t pay attention to the curse of the black choking thread, stretching from another dimension, coiling around him with its deadly bonds, or to what was about to happen to him in a few seconds. His path to the Gates of the Pre-Dawn was so long and his natural talent so great that even such dark formidable forces and weakened condition could only delay him for some time.
Several tense minutes passed, and his limp noticeably worsened, complicating any movement forward on the road. Something in his leg crunched painfully like a seriously damaged mechanism that was working its final hours and could give out at any minute. Leaning on a stick, he noticed that the thing had come perilously close, and its foul breath had already covered him with its poisonous cloud. He tried to move aside to gain a little more time but stepped on something again, lost his footing and fell into a puddle with a splash. A grimace of pain showed on his face, but the next second he quickly raised from the ground, and continued moving through the pain. There was almost no time left, he had to fight.
Choosing the moment to strike, the thing already regretted that the end of its victim was coming so soon. It saw that its prey had suffered a serious injury and could no longer move quickly to escape it to prolong the sweet moment of the hunt and, finding him again, give the opportunity to experience the pleasure of his fear and difficult capture over and over again. Everything was already too easy. Next time it would not act so quickly and would give its next victim a chance before delivering a deadly blow. Raising the axe, it swung the hundreds of kilograms of insanely sharp steel and brought it down on the badly limping figure. But before the axe struck, something unimaginable happened. The man suddenly regained full mobility in his seriously injured leg and, shifting slightly to the side, darted towards the creature like lightning. The inertia and weight of the weapon prevented it from stopping, and the deadly blade fell where its prey had been a second ago, while another one, unexpectedly appeared from the stick that Jack had been walking with and pierced its huge heart with a bright silvery arrow, making his insides explode with thousands of fragments, tearing apart tissues, organs, vessels, and arteries through which the blood of the night flowed.
Utterly astonished to see the man who, as it realised too late, had never been his victim and had so cleverly outwitted him, the thing felt that despite the feeling of omnipotence and immortality that had lasted for many centuries it was actually dying. A deafening roar burst from its throat, causing residents of nearby houses to cower in terror and quickly close their windows. Taking a few steps in agony, it tried to grab its victor with its weakening long claws, but it was too late. Everything inside its huge repulsive body, which had horrified all its victims, turned into pulp from an unknown lethal weapon that penetrated deeper and deeper and by now had begun splitting his flesh into atoms, not giving a single chance for this creature to heal itself and survive.
Jack watched as it spread out on the ground and began to evaporate. The huge instrument of death, which had functioned flawlessly for centuries, fell and clattered on the ground at his feet, gradually becoming covered in ash and disappearing along with its owner. One of the bright orange eyes went dark, while the other glared at him with impotent rage for a few more seconds before flaring brightly and then going out forever. A column of crimson flame burst out of his maw, shooting high into the sky before disappearing in the infinite expanse of space, doomed to wander forever in the vacuum.
After watching the vanishing remnants for a moment longer, Jack smiled weakly and, tucking his weapon away deep into the folds of his dark cloak, continued his way. This world was truly an amazing place. Despite its very primitive level of development, it had become home to a bloodthirsty monster and a serious adversary from another dimension, who for some unknown reason took a liking to it many centuries ago, feeding on its people and their terror. Now he had to start all over again, before he could return to his world and resume the search. He had come too far to stop now and surrender. Next time would be different — he will analyse his failure, determine its cause, and avoid making the same mistake twice. What he was destined to find beyond those doors would be the apotheosis of his life, for no one in all the universes and anti-universes had ever opened them, and when he finally entered that place, he would see...
Somewhere near him, something shone brightly and immediately went out, remaining completely unnoticed. The darkness began to retreat swiftly, and a wide road to the west opened before him, glittering in the silver light of the moon that broke through the thick black clouds. All his failures remained behind, and only victory awaited him ahead. Putting the crystal into a deep pocket, he quickened his pace, planning the next part of his journey, once again ready to amaze and stagger all those he met on his way. The stars that appeared in the sky shone brightly in the night sky, promising, enticing, and filling him with their cold brilliance of many millions of years.
"Eeeeeeend ooooooof the roooooaaaad, Jaaaaaack."
A voice that seemed to be coming from all directions abruptly stopped his thoughts and made him turn around. His hand instinctively gripped the weapon that had so reliably and quickly destroyed his redoubtable adversary just a few minutes ago. He attempted to ascend to the astral plane to ascertain who was opposing him this time, but was instantly thrown back into his body. Another more powerful attempt could cost him his remaining life force, so he was forced to cease his endeavours.
"The eeeeeeeeeend of the rooooooooad... Heeeeeeeere."
The moonlight vanished as quickly as it appeared, and the road plunged back into darkness, ending abruptly like a finished reel of film. For a few more seconds, stars peeked through the sepulchral-coloured clouds, and then they disappeared too, leaving only emptiness behind.
"Who are you? Identify yourself," he stalled for time, quickly trying to work out what to do, feeling his way through the space, analysing, probing and feeling tension utilising his powerful intellect to the fullest.
"There iiiiiis no moooooore roooooaaaaad to the begiiiiiinning. You haaaaaave gone tooooooo faaaaaar and haaaaave to be stooooped," came the reply.
"Stop hiding and show yourself!"
But there was only a ringing silence in response. Everything stopped for a moment, the leaves of the sprawling trees that sheltered the predatory owls, the rushing stream nearby, even the wind that had risen from the lake. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack managed to see a sexless figure in the halo of light, hovering above the ground, which seemed to be everywhere, even in his stomach, throat, and head. It immediately became clear what tampered with his final act in the circus.
He tried to dodge its encompassing presence again, unsuccessfully attempting to block access to the centre of his energy system only to feel an absolutely immense and hitherto unknown power of many of universes directed upon him which instantly rendered each atom in his body immobile and unresponsive to his commands. The next moment, all the ink-black darkness that had stopped the world around lunged at him, cutting off any path of escaping.
The next second Jack realised that he would never be able to perform again, because he himself had become a key part of some unimaginable magical act, transformed into something like a white rabbit that was about to be pulled from a hat to dazzle the audience with unparalleled mastery. And the darkness that the rabbit saw was an internal and integral part of the magician's hat. It was not difficult for him to guess this, since he himself had once been such a performer...
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