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Carnival Flame

This is the first in a series of short stories that have been pinging around my head for a while. Eventually I want to make them into an anthology, but first I have to get better at writing. :)
Criticism is welcome. Thank you.

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Drumbeats pound through the air, resonating in bone and mind. A steady beat echoes off the wall, thump thumping. The beat starts in the bones, working its way with careful steps to the stomach and below.

In the center of the firelight circle, a girl dances. She is young, perhaps in her twenties, certainly no older. Her limbs are rounded and smooth with youth, gleaming with a shimmer of sweat. The firelight casts feeble flickering highlights on her skin, darkness shrouding her more than her clothing.

Five men sit at points around the edges of the cleared circle, serving as the barrier which the crowd presses against. Their hands flash in the golden light as they hit their drums, dictating the girl's movements with each beat. Her eyes are closed as she moves, yet she seems to know instinctively where she is and her barefooted steps are sure on the dirty floor.

I push my way through the crowd to gain a good vantage spot on the very the border of the circle. No one notices me as they stare at the girl. Sweat beads on my forehead from the heat of the massed bodies packed into this small area. Looking around, I see the excitement glow in the eyes of the men around me. They watch in ill-concealed desire as the girl gyrates and sways unselfconsciously to the beat.

They came here, these men, to see her. Undoubtedly they heard the whispered, secret rumors. "There's a carnival in town tonight, deep in the underground. They have a girl..."

Whatever the rumors, the allure of a carnival has a strange drawing power to kindle the desires of the unwashed masses. I, on the other hand, had been sent here purposefully, to insure no laws were being broken. "Go to the carnival." They had instructed me, "See if the rumors are true."

I shift where I sit, impatient to leave. Annoyed, I try to move my shirt off my back where the sweat has stuck the expensive fabric to my skin. If this carnival was legal, as they claimed, then they should have had it outside, under the cool night. Instead they had to set up in the lowest safe levels of the underground, in a hovel lit by barrels even the destitute would decry for using to heat their meals.

Undoubtedly they thought the outré location would make it all the more mysterious, or at least would keep us from checking up on them. My lip curls as I gaze past the girl, past the inconstant flames to the old walls of the underground. I can barely make out the crude words and slogans painted on the walls by degenerates long dead. They're barbarians, the lot of them.

Overwhelmed by the filth and the warmth of too many bodies crammed into such a small space, I long for my cool, clean suites in the towers high above these levels. Such thoughts distract me so I almost fail to see it begin. A glint of something, perhaps an errant spark from the fire, catches my eyes and I remember my purpose here.

The pounding, echoing beat intensifies, becoming more akin to lust embodied in sound. Every man in the room leans forward, almost but not quite breaking the imaginary border of the circle. Sparks seem to fly more fiercely from the fires blazing in the old metal barrels arranged in the corners of this space.

The crowd presses closer about me and I notice the beginning tendrils of claustrophobia make their way into my consciousness. If they only knew who I was, they would keep a respectful distance. I take a deep breath to calm my umbrage and I turn my attention back to the girl.

The sparks that I had first thought were errant have begun to gather in the cleared space about her. They pulse and glow with the beat, moving with her with every step. I feel my mouth open in amazement. There had been rumors, but I had never thought that they could possibly be truth.

Lights spark faster and more frequently across my vision, small burning motes rushing to join the girl in her dance. Sweat makes her glow all the more and the sparks seem to warm her skin and highlight her dark hair.

Exotic and alluring, a small smile curves her lips. She opens her eyes, brown and dark, lit in the light of the motes. Reaching out her hands gracefully, softly, she welcomes the small motes that dance along her skin.

More and more come until it seems as if she is clothed in pure, dancing light. Her steps beat against the floor and with each step she leaves a trail of ash as her clothes disintegrate in the heat of the sparks. Soon nothing but light covers her naked, sensual form.

The beat of the drums changes, becoming faster. The sound takes on a different tone, a different quality, although I cannot say exactly how. Not missing a step, the girl's smile widens as she throws herself into the music, a frenzy of motion.

The sparks covering her body unite and burst into a unified flame that covers her and trails behind her with the swiftness of her movements. Clothed completely in living flame, she shows a well formed calf here, a delicate shoulder there.

Despite myself, I feel my heart beat in my chest as I become caught up in the girl's spell. Enthralled like the rest, I can only sit and stare in breathless amazement. The only sound is the beating of the drums and the slap of her feet on the floor as she continues her dangerous dance.

As she passes close, I feel the heat of her flames. I know why she is not burnt, but despite that knowledge, I still am overawed. One misstep, one second lacking concentration and she could go up in the very flames that cover her body.

She has to know how dangerous a game she plays, and not just because of the nature of her dance and her ability. If the government knew she existed, that she practiced her skill, she would be killed without question. And I, because of the Ministry I served, I would be the one to kill her for what she was.

It is with no small sorrow, then, that I watch her dance. I know in my mind what a dangerous creature she is, and why she has to die. Yet my heart mourns the loss of such beauty.

If only they hadn't... I shake my head. Wishing for the impossible was useless. And in this case seditious. Despite that, it had been so long since we had caught one of her kind in the act. Many people at the Ministry had even begun to think they were extinct.

The girl matches the beat of the drums as if it were a challenge. A wild, fierce joy radiates from her features and suffuses every motion. I can not help but mourn such a lovely creature.

Soon the girl's limbs are a blur. The sound builds closer and closer to a climax of heat and sweat with every movement. The flames caressing her body burn ever more brightly with every second, orange to yellow to blue. Tendrils of her hair come lose from their careful bindings and stick to her face, only further accentuating the delicacy of her features.

Finally, the drums reach a frenzy where they can go no further and the drummers have to stop. In the sudden silence there was a pause, then the girl falls to her knees, the flames rushing out to the very perimeter of the circle in a whoosh of air and heat. All that remains is the small girl in the very center of the circle, gracefully holding a modest genuflection.

There is a breathless pause, then the crowd breaks out into ecstatic applause. I watch silently as the drummers approach her, one carrying a robe. The five men form a curtain with their long, florid cloaks as she dresses. As soon as she is clothed, they drop as one to a knee in a circle about her.

Her face flushed and her hair disarrayed, she raises her eyes to her adoring crowd. Her eyes sparkle with the excitement of the crowd and her performance. Raising her hands triumphantly in the air above her, she glows in the adoration as the cheers and applause increase.

Finally, she turns in a circle and with a graceful bow, raises her attendants from their knees. They surround her protectively and in formation, they move toward the exit, making way through the crowd.

Attendants come and retrieve the drums as the crowd rushes to follow her, still cheering and shouting. I realize I will have to move quickly to catch up with the girl. Standing, I set my shoulders and push through the crowd, bumping a few but no one cares.

The crowd presses against me, pushing me even closer to the man in front of me. I take a calming breath against impending claustrophobia. Impatient to get out of the crowd, I forge onward.

At the exit more carnival men stand; ready to impede the crowd from following further. I assess them quickly, not wanting to tip my hand just yet. However, my planning becomes irrelevant as the men become distracted by a fight that breaks out to my left. They move from the exit to break up the disturbance and I slip through the door and into the cool corridor beyond.

"Did you like my dance, Ministry man?" A female voice askes, the inflections of her speech cool and foreign. Startled, I look up and see the girl standing a few feet away, surrounded by her dark skinned protectors.

Speechless, I can only nod, embarrassed to have been found out so easily. She smiles a small, secret smile and walks toward me, her hands holding her robe closed. As she nears, I catch a better look at her eyes and see therein age that belies her youthful features.

I try to plan, try to think as she comes nearer and reaches out a small hand to touch my face. I notice for the first time how short she is, barely coming up to my shoulder.
"I'm glad." She smiles softly, wistfully. Her hand is warm and soft on my cheek. "It has been far too long since I performed for someone of your rank."

I open my mouth to speak, but she shakes her head, her fingers moving to cover my lips. "No words, no more, Ministry man."

Aware of the crowd in the room behind me, I wonder how long I would have, what I could do to accomplish my mission. She would have to die, there was no way I could let one like her live.

As if she senses my thoughts, she smiles another small wistful smile and shakes her head again, her dark curls caressing her shoulders. She steps back from me, her fingers tracing lines of fire on my skin. "Goodbye Ministry man."

Torn between going after her and grabbing for my service revolver, I watch indecisively as she turns her back. My hand starts toward my holster, but before I can draw, she looks over her shoulder, her dark eyes glinting.

All I can do is scream as searing agony engulfs me.

Ooh, this is good! I, too,

Ooh, this is good!

I, too, want to know -- the Ministry of what? Why are they killing people? Just what _is_ she?

Thanks for sharing!

Thank you :)

I posted a reply to a comment below to explain some of that. I'm hoping it'll become increasingly clear as the series goes on, so here's to hoping :)
The Ministry deals with unhuman agents in the world who perform acts of "magic" and who supposedly wreck havoc on the world and human populations. I think there was a war of some sort at one point too (this necessitating the creation of the Ministry).
She's an interdimensional being and the carnival is made up of such types of critters. Think a cross between aliens and elves. :)

Really good

Hey :) That's really good, very visceral. You built a nice ammount of suspense.... why did he need to kill her? I just new she would get away, but how? What is the Ministry?

mmmm... WHERE IS THE BOOK? :) I really would like to read more.

Only two suggestoins.

1) The first paragraph could be a bit better - "thump thumping" is a bit clumsy.

2) The word 'ministry' is to reminicent of the 'Harry Potter' series. As in 'The Ministry of Magic'. Perhapse chose another name?

Hee

Thank you very much. I guess it would probably behoove me to mention my overall plan for this story and others like it.

My concept for this is a book filled with these little snippets (under 4k) where I use each to reveal a little more and a little more about this world and what's going on.

As for some background, this is set at some point in the future (maybe 100 years?). The Ministry is in charge of keeping non-humans from interfering with humans or even existing, actually. The carnival that the girl works for travels interdimensionally and they pop in and out on Earth occassionally, spreading mischief and entertainment (sometimes breeding with humans and generally pissing off people like those who work for the Ministry).

So far that's about as far as I've gotten. I very much want to give the entire series thing a distopian feel, and I know that doesn't come out as much in this one, but I'm hoping the next one will be more so.

Do you have any good ideas for re-naming the Ministry? You're right, I do want to try to keep it as far from Harry Potter as possible, but I'm simply awful at coming up with names ><.

A very evocative piece. The

A very evocative piece. The previous commenters said it all. Excellent work.

The only thing I'd change (and it's of course quite minor) is in the opening line. "Drumbeats pound through the air, resonating in bone and mind." I'd change 'mind' to 'brain', partly to keep with the physicality of the story, and partly because I've got a terrible weakness for alliteration.

Hee

Actually, I think I originally had it as "bone and brain" but one of my friends threatened to beat me until I got rid of most of the alliteration in my stories. I have this awful habit of it and it drives her up the wall.
I might just change it back to annoy her tho :p

Oh no, please, I love that

Oh no, please, I love that line! Haha :)

Very evocative, I was right there!

I loved how physical this story was. The precision of the imagery, and the authenticity of the observations really pulls the reader in, and it has a wonderful sense of place and time.

I don't really know why, but it made me think of Graham Greene, of one of his disillusioned characters despairing in a hot country. It had a real style and voice and I cannot praise those aspects enough.

I also can't wait to find out what (if anything) happens next. You've really drawn me into this world, and it's somewhere I'd like to spend more time...

There is one sentence I'm not overly keen on: "There had been rumors, but I had never thought that they could possibly be truth." I think it's the unintentional alliteration that makes it feel a little clumsy. Or maybe it just draws attention to a sentence that's a little more editorial in tone than the rest. Or maybe it's just me.

I really liked this, and can't wait to see some more...

I'm really glad everyone

I'm really glad everyone loves this one so much. It was my first attempt at writing in present tense (is that right? "I have an itch on my nose" vs. "I had an itch on my nose"... buh brain dead today) that didn't completely annoy me. I'm thinking I might try to keep it like that throughout, and since they're gonna be little and hopefully the present tense won't get annoying.
Yeah, there's good alliteration and bad. I'm glad you caught that one, especially since when I read it my brain went "ow". :)

From the very first line, I

From the very first line, I loved the style of this piece. The way the sentences are put together is elegant, beautiful, and slightly odd. I love it. The story itself is excellent, although I almost wish the narrator was another crowd-member so we readers could enjoy the event even more.

With that said, time to get to the critiques. Nothing major, I love this piece.
First, "unselfconsciously" seemed awkward. Just too long a word for the sentence it's in, too many syllables. Is there a shorter synonym you could use?
Second, I don't like "barbarians, the lot of them." Seems too cliche.
Third, the line "...the beginning tendrils of claustrophobia make their way into my consciousness" seems a tad too wordy. I'd change "consciousness" to "mind".
I think there were a few other similar issues I had, but nothing that was enough to lower my opinion of the story. Great piece, I look forward to your next post.

Thank you. I really

Thank you. I really appreciate the feedback. I've been trying to tame the uncouth beast of unnecessary verbosity, so any little bit helps. :)