Rain splattered down on the massive multicoloured tent.
The large wrought iron gate about 50 metres from the tent had twisted words worked into the metal.
‘Circus Maximus’ it read.
Most people recognized the name as that of the great Roman stadium where chariots raced, gladiators fought and the audience had their breath taken away from them.
But no one who had seen this Circus’ final act could deny that it had earned the right to name itself after the legendry roman Circus Maximus.
Because the final act not only left you breathless, it burned itself into your mind.
That was why, even on a rainy and depressing day such as this, the Circus Maximus was filled to bursting.
On the ground, right in front of the audience, clowns made faces, pulled things out of each other’s noses and behinds and had the people in splits.
Far above, trapeze artists and acrobats performed impossible feats of flexibility and agility and the people gasped, ooh’ed and aah’ed.
Blindfolded men flicked knives at each other and caught them just as deftly. A small asian twisted his body into grotesque shapes and a magician pulled himself out of his hat.
Fierce jungle cats twice as big as the biggest man in the tent, giant gorillas, trumpeting elephants and roiling snakes all controlled by a single man as the people could only watch in macabre fascination half hoping the animals attack.
This was the Circus Maximus.
But this was nothing. Not yet. The final act. It was almost time.
As the performers bowed their way out of the tent to tumultuous applause, a portly man in a velvet top hat walked onto the massive stage in the middle of the tent.
“And now ladies and gentlemen ! For the final act ! I give you…”
She waited under the stage with her head in her hands.
The pain was almost unbearable.
The cheers from the people above were only making it worse.
She rubbed her head again.
“It will be over soon. I can do this.” She thought.
“Ten minutes. I can control it I have done it for so many years I can do it again.”
But she knew something was wrong. Something had been wrong for the past few weeks. The headaches, the pain and the never-ending feeling that something was closing in.
She had talked to Carlos the ring master and head of the circus. Explained to him that she had almost lost control during the last act.
“Nonsense! You are just getting nervous that’s all ! You’ll do fine !” He said, twirling his enormous moustache.
“I’ve been doing this act for eight years Carlos. Do you think I will be nervous?” She asked testily.
Carlos backed away. There was something about her eyes which burnt into you.
“I..I only meant….Look. There are important people coming tonight. Some politicians I hear. Do they come for me? Or the silly acrobats? No ! They come for you! For your act ! The great final act of Circus Maximus! Do it tonight I beg you. Then take a week off.”
She sighed his drawl only worsening headache.
“Fine. But this is my last act for a week.”
No more. For a week. She had thought about this whenever the pain got too harsh. But now, just before the act, it was beyond anything she could imagine. It was all she could do to not fall. She would have to finish this quickly.
Then, from above her she heard Carlos’ voice.
“And now ladies and gentlemen ! For the final act ! I give you… La Reina del Fuego ! The Queen of Fire !”
The crowd screamed with delight.
This was what they had come here to see. Not the clowns, animals, performers or magicians. But this. The final act of Circus Maximus. The Queen of Fire.
The podium beneath her feet rose slowly as a rectangular portion of the performers arena slid apart.
“Now !” She thought and raised her hands above her head.
She felt the heat rush up her arms and erupt from her fingers in massive roiling waves shooting right out of the empty portion of the arena.
The audience gasped as an enormous pillar of fire erupted from the centre of the arena and rose high above stopping just short of the roof of the tent.
Several children screamed and covered their eyes. So did several adults.
The flames were still far enough to avoid burning the tents roof.
The audience gazed at the pillar of flames feeling the heat scorching the air. But the most amazing thing was, the pillar of fire was rectangular. Exactly the shape of the panel of floor that had slid away.
And then, it disappeared.
For a moment, no one moved.
Then somewhere in the audience a child yelled.
“Look mommy !”
And mommy looked. And so did everyone else. For now, where the massive pillar of fire had stood, stood a beautiful woman with her arms raised.
The Queen of Fire.
Her head was spinning as she tried to stand still. The pain in her skull was killing her. It had taken a lot of effort to maintain the shape of the fire. And that was nothing compared to the act. The final act.
She was weak and wanted to collapse.
But she would not. She would do the act.
She would stand tall and beautiful for these people.
She would show them The Queen of Fire.
The crowd cheered madly. Most of the men were speechless. The woman was beautiful beyond anything they had seen. Her long burgundy hair shone in the light of the flames and her body was sculpted to such perfection that she could have been a goddess.
But there was something about her. Her eyes.
Even at this distance, every member of the audience could see the wild flames in them. Beautiful and dangerous.This was not a woman you wanted to get angry.
She raised her head and looked at the people.
There was instant silence.
And then she spoke. The words were not screamed. Just spoken. Yet they could be heard by each and every person in the tent.
“I am the Queen of Fire ! Fear me! Revere me ! For even the guardian of the gates of hell is but my pet ! Behold ! Cerberus ! The three headed dog of hell !”
The speech was useless. And she knew it.
But the people ate it up.
But that didn’t concern her at the moment. What did concern her was the blinding pain in her head which like the audience cheers had risen to a deafening crescendo in her head.
She held on.
“Have to… finish…”
Even as all this crossed her mind, she finished her declaration and held up her arms again feeling the heat rise up her arms.
The Queen raised her arms to the heavens and closed her eyes.
The audience waited with bated breath.
Then suddenly, thick ribbons of flame burst out of each hand.
She was sweating now.
“I won’t be able to control this…have to….stop..” She thought desperately as the pain consumed her.
But she knew it was too late.
She was too far gone.
The snake like flames twisted and twirled over the audiences head forming a massive ball which hung above the Queens head like the sun.
The audience stared at the ball. Mesmerised.
But her arms worked on their own. Manipulating the fire.
The ball suddenly twisted and bloated forming a shape. Then a nose. No. A snout.
Teeth, paws and then…eyes. Red eyes.
Three pairs of them.
Her eyes rolled into her head. She had lost all control now. Her muscles were tense against her sweat drenched clothes.
But she had to stop. Or else…
The ball had transformed. Into a three headed dog.
Cerberus. The watchdog of hell.
The audience gasped trying to move further behind in their seats as the massive hound roared at them.
It was easily as big as 10 elephants.
It roared and howled and the flames that were its body blazed hot enough to scorch the hair off some eyebrows.
Most of the children were crying. Some men and women were so terrified; they couldn’t even look at the flaming beast. But many could only stare in what could only be called a combination of horror and reverence at the gigantic beast of hell.
She lost control.
Her mind went blank and her fingers went limp.
And the fire went unchecked still rushing through her veins and out of her fingers.
Suddenly, the dog’s body was twisting and contorting. Flames shot out in every direction. The massive shape was disappearing as flames shot everywhere.
Some of the smarter people rushed towards the exit. But most of the audience sat entranced still thinking it was a part of the show.
Until one of the snakelike ribbons of fire flew straight into a woman in the third row.
Then the screaming began.
She heard the screams. Heard it as if in a dream. The pain was not there anymore. But something was wrong.
Why was everyone screaming?
Was everything ok?
She opened her eyes.
And saw hell.
The fiery arrows shot everywhere. And burning bodies surrounded the arena. A child wailed alone in a corner, a burning pillar falling dangerously close. A woman ran past her thrashing her arms and covered in flames screeching so hard her throat might tear.
Old men fell to their knees praying for forgiveness and a man ran around screaming his lovers name.
The tent was aflame. And everyone inside it was trapped like a rat. A rat in a volcano.
The heat was unbearable.
They were all going to die.
And it was all her fault.
She stood there, mortified at the scene in front of her eyes.
“What have I done?”
But then, instinct took over.
“I have to stop this. Pain or no pain.”
She closed her eyes and raised her palms and breathed the smoke filled air deeply. In her mind, she sang to the flames like she would, a lover and slowly, the roiling coils of fire moved together forming the same ball.
In a moment, she stood again with the massive ball of light above her. And then, it all seeped into her fingers in one furious second.
She looked around her. The crying child was safe. Alone, but safe. Someone would find him. The old man was crying out prayers of thanks at surviving and the man and his woman embraced each ther with tear stained faces.
But the burning woman lay dead. Charred beyond recognition not more than a few feet away.
“Dead.” She thought.
“And so many more…..I am a murderer.”
The blaring sirens of police vans and fire engines ripped the night air.
The officer in charge surveyed the burning bodies as his partner threw up on the ground.
He looked around and noticed a man sitting in a corner. His clothes, or what was left of them, suggested he was the ring master of the circus. His enormous moustache hung limp and he looked into nothingness.
The officer walked up to him.
“Are you Mr.Carlos?”
“Sir, I am very sorry for your loss. But could you tell me how this happened? And how such a huge fire suddenly went out?”
The man was silent.
“Sir. I asked…”
“She did it.” He said abruptly.
“She?” Asked the officer interestedly.
“Yes. She did it. She burned my circus.”
“Who? Who is ‘She’ ?” The officer was getting impatient.
“The witch. The fire witch.”
The officer lost his patience. He took Carlos by the shoulders and shook him.
“Who? Who is she? Give me a name man !”
And Carlos looked at him with eyes filled with darkness as black as the smoke in the air.
The thick black smoke swirled in the air.