Bozolino slipped on the banana peel. Felt the heel of his big red shoe start to slide. Stared up into the lights of the big top. There was an art to falling, and already he knew something was wrong. A sharp pain hit right at the back of the skull. The lights of the big top burned bright white straight above him, but they seemed to be getting dim and farther away. Darkness crowded in on the edges of his vision.
And he fell.
Bozolino crashed into the gritty floor, sending up a small cloud of sawdust. Instinctively, he rolled with the impact, coming up with a flourish. The noise of the crowd was louder now as he blinked, tried to get his bearings. He could feel the other bodies moving around him, the frenetic energy of the circus. Sweat ran over the greasepaint circles over his eyes and mouth from the heat, but he instinctively avoided wiping at his face.
Then he heard the screams...
Reality clicked into sharp focus. Wide-eyed tumblers flipped and rolled in fields of broken glass, costumes shredded and bloody, driven on by white-faced, stilt-legged giants with black whips and smiles like two sets of gums stuff with razor blades. Jugglers traded knives, scalpels, broken bottles, and chainsaws in a frantic and deadly game of hot potato, arms and eyes on rhythmic autopilot as if the game was beyond their control, each of them bearing gaping wounds where they had missed a throw, blades still sticking out of them, harried by scarred white-faced midgets in black-striped jumpers that corralled the greaspainted mob, continually tossing new weapons into the mix.
Bozolino danced away from these maniacs, acrobatically scuttling away from the villainous whitefaces. He dodged knives and evaded slick patches of oil and broken glass, mad elephants covered in heavy gold brocade and lengths of rusty barbed wire that dug into the flesh of their legs, which caught at the costumes of anyone that got close and dragged them along, screaming, as the pachyderms smashed and stomped through the act, led along by thin whiteface drivers with bloodshot eyes limned in dark colors and black noses. In the madness and tumult he caught a glimpse of the edge of the ring and bolted for it, sidestepping a fleeing crush of brightly-colored flagellents being beaten along by another stilt-legged whiteface overseer, one hand occupied by an enormous dark brown lash, the other grasping the bell of an infernal horn that honked merrily as it chased after its prey.
The ring itself was a bare ledge of stone, pitted and scarred, but painted red with yellow stars, and higher than Bozolino had thought - ten feet high, and topped with a row of iron spikes on white old jesters in checkered rags groaned. Bozolino climbed with a will clambering up the wall like he was ascending a ladder. Propping himself between two dunce-capped fools, still alive and struggling despite the ropy guts spilling down from where they were impaled, he looked out...and saw the other Rings.
Brightly-painted cars crashed in roller-derby fashion, the overloaded vehicles spilling out their occupants with each impact, metal crumpling, glass smashing, leaving the ground behind them wet with brains. The air was a trapeze jungle without nets, tiny white-faced bastards cackling around in miniature messerschmitts, gunning down pale-faced men and women as they fought and tangled in the ropes. A single great melee of banana peels surrounded a lake of custard and foam, where painted bodies screamed and wallowed, the citric acid bleaching brightly-colored fabric and eating through the flesh beneath, the crowd struggling in waves to reach the shore, where there was no sure footing and each fall and slip sent them careening bloodily into one another, and then back into the pit. Stilt-legged whitefaces waded along the edges, throwing back anyone that got to close to escape with long, pointed hooks...
Bozolino lost track of how many Rings there were, could barely get a sense of the scale of this place. He felt that it was enclosed, like when he was in the big tent, but it was all too huge. Yet he could hear the roar as of a crowd, and he looked away from the Rings, to the poorly-lit spaces between.
It was a maze-like alley of small stages and venues, like all the seediest bits of the carnivals of the world crammed into one vast, endless twilight arcade, lit by torches and small strings of light. Sad-faced harlequins despondently went through tired gags and bits with stiff ritual, arms and legs puppeteered by long wires, the whitefaced marionettes leering down at them. Broken Pagliaccios sat numbly as snake-tongued women in long polka-dot gowns stitched them back together, both limbs and costumes, and freshened their paint, sometimes sewing two or more together to make garish freaks that were set on display for the punters to gawk at.
The punters themselves were dark shades, dressed in drab clothes washed of color which marked them out immediately from the bright clowns. Their faces were full of spite, who shouted abuse in between laughing at the paint-faced torture, and whitefaced-midgets moved among them, stirring up the rabble and directing their attention, but always keeping them back and away from the "performers"...except at the games, as Bozolino saw. A million variations of each old trick, none of which demanded a crowd; calliope-tunes chirping out old melodies as the punters laid in with wooden balls and air guns, trying to knock a bound clown down, or dunk them into a tank in which dark, slithering things moved; hammers rose and fell, with the loudness of the scream causing a little plungers to rise, trying to ring a bell. On cast-iron altars set over flaming pits, screaming Ronald McDonalds were churned in giant meat-grinders, the twitching meat pooling on the huge grills as the Punters clammored for the feast.
A bright heat fell on Bozolino, and he looked back to see the spotlight on him. A great figure with the tall hat of a ringmaster like a black halo towered over him, the details lost by the spotlight, but he thought he could make out the shadow of wings...