Center Ring is a dark paranormal fantasy with elements that are only suitable for those 17 years of age and older, so please no kids! I don't want to give them nightmares!
I've had a lot of fun writing this, and breaking into my even darker side. With those of you familiar with my previous works you already know I like my stories dark, so I can only imagine your shock when I show you how dark I can be!
Well, without further ado or continued babbling, here is the first two chapters of Center Ring (along with the cover and the blurb). I hope you enjoy!
Fear runs rampant, horror comes alive, and an ancient curse comes to light in the Dark Circus.
As the star of the show, Candace is trapped between what she knows and what her mind demands her heart to see.
She was raised knowing that when it comes to the Circus, nothing is what it seemed, but even some things were too terrifying for her to believe.
The cards are stacked against her, and the stage is set. As time begins to run out a new show arises, one that brings evil to life.
When she steps into the Center Ring, Candace understands that she'll never be able to turn back. The only certainty she holds is that she will die, but how is what the Tarot cards refuse to show.
Thrust into solving the mystery of her impending death she knows that only The Fool would wait for someone else to save her. But when you don't know who she can trust, how can she hope to save herself?
High-pitched screaming echoed throughout the tent as ghostly forms swooped down above the crowd, terrifying the patrons who sat shivering in their seats as a chilling mist weaved its way from beneath their benches into the rafters that rose high above them. A brilliant shot of light pierced the center ring, highlighting the shadowy figure that hadn’t stood there just moments before. Men chuckled nervously as they pulled their loved ones closer. Comforting, or taking comfort in their touch none could tell. The brilliant light flashed out only to be replaced by a single spotlight, illuminating him, but not fully. His hand clasped the brim of his top hat, hiding every feature of his face except for his sinister smile.
“Have you enjoyed your evening of terror?” he called out to the audience, his voice echoing around all facets of the tents without any help from a microphone.
His smile broadened, sharp white teeth glistening in the dim lighting as he bowed before them, his silver hair falling carelessly over his shoulders in the sweeping, elegant gesture. “I have fed from your screams,” he said as he slowly raised, lowering the rim of his hat further over his eyes, “delighted in the increasing tempo of your heart beat. But it’s not over, not yet.”
With the flick of his hand a single, illuminated tarot card appeared, glowing brighter as the lights began to fade until there was nothing but it left to cast light upon the ring. “The Fool.” Gasps erupted from the deadly silence as his voice broke out once more. The card grew steadily in size, its colors vibrant, shockingly so until everyone in the furthest reaches of the tent could see each vivid detail for themselves.
“A carefree wonderer. Enthusiastic. Full of hope. Life.” With each word, the card began to flash, pulsing steadily until it began to strobe, highlighting the enraptured faces of the audience. “It speaks of traveling, as The Fool journeys with his dog among the land, letting his feet take him wherever they will. Many of you wish for such freedom.” His voice caressed the senses, ensnaring the audience further.
“But at what cost?” he bellowed, drawing startled screams from the seduced gathering. “With his eyes constantly towards the heavens, will he ever see what’s before him? Will he ever hear his dog as it barks out its warning? For surely if you’re too busy looking at what you want, nothing but death awaits you.” With one final, brilliant flash the card vanished, shrouding the tent into darkness. But not just any darkness, but a complete darkness that sent the remaining senses into the depths of insanity.
Candace took a steadying breath as she wrapped her hands tighter around the drapes of fabric as she looked down to where she knew the center ring to be. Breathing out slowly, she arched her back, her muscles locked as she waited for her cue. With the sound of cannon fire, all spotlights turned on, centuring on her. A small smile graced her face. It was time. Straining her chest forward, she let the movement take the remainder of her body with it. Wind whipped through her hair as she fell, the air hissing past her ears louder than the screams of the audience as soon as her feet left the steel cable that she had been balanced on.
Faster and faster the circus floor sped toward her. Thirty feet. Twenty. She could barely breathe at the speed that her body was plummeting. Ten feet, five and her body jarred to a stop, the fabric straining above her. The screaming died down as soon as her fall ceased, though whimpers could still be heard from the crowd.
She smiled slightly as a pink curl escaped her updo, her own smaller top hat pinned carefully and firmly into place had somehow managed to survive the downfall. Taking a much-needed breath, she arched her body, angling it until she was almost sideways to the ground before switching positions quickly and twisting herself into the fabric, her muscles pulling herself back up the distance that she had fallen to the delight of the audience. Once at the proper height, she paused before shifting her feet, pressing against one length of fabric and stretching it out, forcing her body to become horizontal to the ground. The ringmaster stood below her, grabbing the ends of the fabric where they rested upon the floor.
“See how she does nothing but look up? How she see’s nothing but what she wishes life to be?” Uneasily the audience’s eyes went back and forth between her and the ringmaster as he began to slowly twirl the fabric. The slight movement below sent up repercussions to where she hung in the air, turning her slowly at first, but then faster and faster until the black of her dress and the pink of her hair bled into one another, creating a staggering display of color. “How long do you think she’ll be able to last?” He called out to the audience before twisting the fabric violently.
Whimpers could be heard from the crowd, mumbling by those who didn’t have enough courage to call out to stop him. Again and again he turned her until, even after he let go, she still spun. She curled into herself, pulling the fabric around her until nothing could be seen of her. Nothing but white silk, spinning perpetually underneath the hot lights.
A whoosh sounded in the ring, drawing the petrified eyes of the crowd to where the ringmaster walked, flaming torch aloft in his hands. He paused once again below the fabric, the torch swaying precariously close to the precious material. “How long do you think it would take for The Fool to realize her mistake? How long, ladies and gentleman, until she will heed the dog’s warning?” He smiled again, showing no mercy in the flashing of teeth and stretching of lips. “Let’s see, shall we?”
He ignored the screams and cries of the audience as he tipped the torch to the fabric. Flame sprouted easily, eating its way up the silk almost faster than the human eye could track. An ear piercing, shattering scream cried out over the terrified sounds of the audience as the white cocoon that Candace had put herself in went up in flames, the red and orange tongues licking outward as still it spun. Ash began to fall, blanketing the air like snow.
With a final whoosh, the last of the fabric was burned away, leaving nothing but tendrils of smoke in its place. Some began to cry, others still screaming as people rose to their feet, their eyes constantly searching for the girl.
In the midst of their terror, a soft, joyous laugh rang out. One by one the audience stilled, listening to the sound as it got louder and louder. “There! There she is!” someone cried out, pointing to the very top of the circus tent. High above the crowd she sat, swinging joyfully from a giant leash, her pink hair streaming out behind her as she pushed her legs forward for more momentum.
“Well, it looks like The Fool didn’t learn her lesson… yet.” The ringmaster stepped forward, drawing eyes away from Candace. He held his gloved hands almost pleadingly before him.
“Ladies and gentlemen! I’d like to tell you another story, if I may. This will be the last of the night, and surely the best for we always save the best for last. Or would that be the worst?” Uneasy chuckles rang out from his words. He walked slowly around the ring, drawing the last of the attention away from her. As he moved, the lights dimmed until they only showcased him once again. Sighing, Candace grabbed the suspension cables above her and checked her belt to make sure that the safety wire was in place before beginning the arduous trek of climbing her way back to safety.
She kept a half ear to the ringmaster as she made her way slowly across the cable, making sure not to move too fast in case she would draw anyone’s attention. Pausing to catch her breath, she reached forward with her hand, only to clutch back to the cable as her heart beat sporadically in her chest.
“No, not now.” She whispered as her pale green eyes flashed with panic. She could feel it, could feel the unsteady beating of her heart as it tried to catch up with her exertion. Her breath shuddered in her lungs, her body spasming, almost causing her to let go of the cable as the pain built in her chest. Breathing through the pain and the panic, she curled herself against the metal, not caring that the hard surface dug into her fishnet-clad thighs. A part of her knew that she was bleeding, that she was holding on too tightly and surely someone down below would notice the steady stream of blood drops that fell to the circus floor, but she didn’t care. Couldn’t care as she willed her damaged heart to keep beating, to jump back in sync and not kill her. It couldn’t stop, not yet.
She blinked her eyes open as her body began to warm. But not just her body, the cable that she was gripping to with all of her might was heating beneath her fingers as well. Startled out of her panic, she frowned at the light that seemed to be coming from the other side of the tent. But there shouldn’t be any light there. They were at the end of the nights show, and no one messed up the lighting during the shows, no one. Steadily, the light got brighter, closer, as did the heat.
Her grip faltered as sweat gathered on her palms, her irregular heart beat pounding furiously in her throat. She couldn’t hold on, not if she wanted to survive the heat. Biting back her own scream, she let go, letting her body go pliant as she fell, the safety cable making her belt cut into her side as it jerked her to a stop not even twenty feet below where she was dangling. Her eyes stayed glued to the top of the tent and the light that keep growing. Without even time to react a flaming ball of fire crashed through the top of the tent, whipping past her and sending her spinning as it crashed to the circus floor. The crowd screamed again, and even the ringmaster fell backwards as dirt flew up from the impact.
Dust floated all around the arena, clouding it as the ball of light slowly winked itself out. Spotlights moved between the ringmaster and whatever had crashed to the floor, the attendants not knowing what to focus their attention on. The ringmaster stood, mindlessly dusting off his normally impeccable clothes as he strode cautiously forward toward the figure that was slowly rising out of the settling dust. The spotlights merged, each shining on the other until the shadows of the two men emerged, each reaching out until they blurred into one another.
She watched, enraptured as the two men faced off. She couldn’t see their faces, and could barely make out discerning body parts from her spot at the top of the tent, but she knew something was wrong. How could it not be? No one, no matter how brave, would crash through the top of the tent, and they never deviated from their routines. There was no improv, no flashes of brilliance. In the Dark Circus, if you deviated, you died.
Ripping her attention away from them, she crawled up her safety cord until she could grab the cable once again. Thanking her lucky stars that whoever it was didn’t break the cord on his entry she made her way quickly across, not caring if anyone saw. She needed her feet to be on solid ground, and she needed it now.
“Phoenix…” She stilled at the ringmasters voice. It was flat. Dead and so cold that she wanted to lower her head in supplication. Shaking off the feeling she kept moving, gratefully getting onto the small platform attached to one of the circus poles before making her way quickly down the rope ladder, keeping her ears strained to what was going on hundreds of feet below her.
“You can’t be here…” Shock filled his tone before outright anger took its place. “You. Can’t. Be. Here!”
Her feet touched the earth, but she didn’t pay any attention to the overwhelming relief her body felt at that moment. Merging with the shadows, her eyes stayed trained on the two before her, spotlighted in the center ring.
A black shroud seemed to be behind the man, twitching ever so slightly as he stood still before the ringmaster. Regal and powerful, his broad shoulders underneath the black expanded as he took a deep, rumbling breath.
“The time of my punishment is over. You know that.”
The ringmaster laughed, the sound sending a chill down her spine, freezing her in place as he fingered the leather whip attached to his belt. “You are a fool for coming here, Phoenix. I will not forgive your betrayal.” Unsnapping the clip, he let the whip uncoil before him. The mass of blackness fluttered at the sight of it as Phoenix stood straighter, preparing himself. Snakelike, the whip swayed on the ground between them, the metal tips on the end gleaming brightly in the stage lights, drawing the eyes of everyone around and entrancing them as they watched in half horror, half fascination for what was to come.
Lighting fast, the silver blurred into a streak of light as the ringmaster lashed out, striking Phoenix across the chest. She held her breath as the whip found its mark, showing unmarked skin until a line of blood revealed itself, seeming out of sync with the strike entirely. Phoenix didn’t cry out as again and again the whip cut across his golden skin, spreading lines of crimson red that bled down in smooth streaks, blurring the color of his skin until you couldn’t see anything left of it besides the blood.
“Fight me, damn you!” The ringmaster cried out, his voice maniacal, eerie in the otherwise silent tent.
Phoenix dropped to the ground, his knees finally giving out on him as the last of his strength disappeared. “I cannot. You know I cannot fail the gods yet again.”
The ringmaster stilled at Phoenix’s words. “Then you really are a fool. If you didn’t come here to stop me, then why did you come so swiftly to meet your own death?”
A rumble built in Phoenix’s chest as he laughed before the sound cut off on a hiss as the blood flowed faster. “You know why.”
Slowly the ringmaster turned his head, locking his eyes onto where Candace stood in the shadows. Being on ground level with him, she could see his eyes, the pure blackness that fed into his pupils were startling in any situation, but in this they were horrifying. She took a step back from him as she met his gaze. Hate. His gaze was filled with such hate that she wanted to turn on her heels and flee, but she couldn’t. The circus as her home, Vincent, the ringmaster filled with so much hate and fury before her was her home.
She wrapped her arms around herself as an uncontrollable shiver coursed through her body, the feeling moving under her skin until she felt like she was going to shatter into a thousand pieces. Her knees weakened as Vincent turned away from her, a small smile firmly in place as he returned his gaze back to Phoenix.
“Then you are a greater fool than even I could have imagined, as are your gods.” He spat before bringing the whip up once again.
Crimson drops shone silver in the spotlights as Vincent kept up his brutal assault, bringing an eerie edge to the already darkened circus tent. The crowd waited in silence, their breaths abated as Phoenix took blow after blow, his body sinking lower to the dirt floor as each pass of the whip seemed to take the life out of him until he lay still in the middle of the center ring. Not breathing. Unmoving. Still, Vincent drew the whip back, starting to attack the shroud that spread in two large streaks down Phoenix’s back. Ebony feathers scattered out beside him, wet with his blood.
Panting from exertion Vincent lowered the brim of his top hat, shadowing his eyes from the harsh lights as he lowered the bloodied whip to his side, the iron studs attached to it harmless now as it coiled on the dirt floor beside him.
A smile spread slowly across his face, the muscles pulling, shadowed within the light, the single, slow act appearing sinister. Stuttering out a breath, Candace a single step forward, refusing to step fully into the light cast from the center of the ring, even though her heart was pounding inside of her chest, calling to her, screaming at her to hurry, to run. Something was wrong, deadly wrong. She knew every moment of the Circus, had lived within it since she was a child, and even though they would change and alter their ghastly entertainments, nothing ever went off without a hitch. This? This wasn’t anywhere in the script. It wasn’t rehearsed, and it wasn’t fake.
The audience broke out of their stunned trances. Some women sobbed, while the men laughed feebly, seeing the truth with their own eyes yet refusing to believe that it was real. But it was real, and as the blood seeped toward her she knew to the very bottom of her soul that things would never be the same.
Swallowing harshly, she forced her gaze to Vincent as she called out to him softly. “Vincent… the audience…”
He met her gaze and blinked, seeming to come out of his own rage-induced trance as he slowly moved his head around, gazing into the crowd as if he just realized that they were there. Without a pause, he smiled, his entertainers mask back in place as his booming laugh echoed hollowly around the arena. With a flourish he threw the whip aside, not caring where it landed as he raised his arms to his side, his face shining once more in the light except for his eyes that were still shadowed.
“Have no fear, ladies and gentlemen, for I have slain the fallen angel, denying his vengeance for blood that has sent him here!” He turned quickly, holding his hand out to the shadow where Candace waited, her body trembling in the aftermath of what she had seen.
She steeled herself, willing her heart to calm as she stepped forward on her platform heels, the sound silent as she moved across the barren dirt. Forcing a smile, her hand trembled as she took his hand within hers. He gripped hers tightly, painfully. Grimacing, she forced her smile again, willing it to reach her eyes as she met the gazes of the petrified audience.
“What’s going on?” She asked between clenched teeth, not even moving her lips.
He twisted her to him, embracing her for a moment to whisper “It’s nothing for you to worry about, Candy”, before twisting her back out in a well-practiced dance move.
Her heart beat in her throat, making it hard for her to swallow as he pulled her toward the fallen, bloody body before them. In the back of her mind she heard Vincent’s voice, grandly speaking to the audience as they stopped before Phoenix, but she couldn’t focus on his words as she stood before the prone figure. A part of her knew that the feathers were real, but another part of her just couldn’t bring herself to believe it. It had to be an act, had to be. Things weren’t what they seemed to be in the circus, but sometimes she could see the way the audience would view it, with half a mind wanting to believe it was real, while the other half kept them sane by whispering that it was just an act. All of it was an act.
Keeping her smile in place she knelt beside the ‘angel’, her fingers hovering over those ebony wings glistening with blood. She gently touched his shoulder, right above where the wings seemed to protrude from his back. A warm shock scorched up her arm, slamming into her heart the moment she touched him. A shudder racked his body at her touch, his breathing becoming steadier as he slowly, painfully lifted his head. Startling clear eyes, one blue, one green, slammed into her as the single braid of black hair swept gently over his shoulder, falling almost perfectly to rest in a gentle coil on the bloody ground.
Her breath lodged in her throat, her body immobile as she locked gazes with him, her crystal-clear blue eyes captured by his harrowing gaze. He smiled weakly, his full lips pulling enough to reveal dimples. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing but blood came out.
Phantom pain lashed through her as his body began to jerk violently. Clutching at her heart, she fell beside him, her corset and tooled skirt becoming slick with his blood as lash after lash marked across her skin, the pain matching that which was inflicted upon him. Unable to stand it anymore, she opened her mouth to scream, only to become silenced as his mouth pressed against hers, hot and open, swallowing the sound. Her body arched up, the clothing making a wet noise as it lifted from the puddle of blood that was congealing beneath her.
Black began to cloud her vision as her hearing faded in and out along with the beating of her heart.
“For the priest had fallen in love with a slave girl….” Beat. Beat. Beat. “Giving himself to her for all of eternity, he was cursed by the ancient God, Ra…” Beat. Beat. “For he had forsaken his maker, forsaken his destiny…” Beat. “And in return, he was cursed to watch her die for eons, while he lived… forever.”
Sooooo what did you think?
Leave a comment to let me know if you're now as excited about this release as I am!
It's publishing to all outlets on September 29th, BUT I have an added surprise for you.
Review copies are open to EVERYONE!
That's right. You don't have to be a blogger, or an author, or someone in the publishing community. Review copies are open to anyone who loves to read, and who will give an honest review of Dark Circus. That's all the qualifications you need.
Interested in signing up? You can do so HERE
Want to add it to your Goodreads TBR? You can do so HERE
Thank you so much for stopping by! My love and confetti to you always,