Nineteen Thirty-Six, London.
“For my next trick, I will saw my hat in half and then pull a woman out of a rabbit.”
The great and powerful Nevil Dever stood incandescent and solitary upon the stage. A phantom and a devil, his crisp black clothes faded into the shadows and smoke behind him. His white shirt, perfectly starched ivory gloves, and ghostly pale skin almost appeared to float disembodied in the supernatural darkness.
The audience laughed together nervously.
The mysterious magician, the thin tall man with the fiery eyes, the kind smile, the sharply pointed eyebrows, and the long nimble fingers threw his hat in the air. He didn’t even watch as it slowly fell to the ground with a loud thunk, cleanly cut into two even pieces.
“Well, that’s one. I’ll need a volunteer from the audience for part two?”
The audience gasped. They applauded. There weren’t any immediate volunteers among the high society women.
“Oh come now, none of you want to experience birth again? To come into this world fresh and clean from the belly of an innocent animal? Imagine how everything might change… Imagine how liberated you would feel… Imagine what it could be to be truly and finally wild…”
As he spoke, the illusionist had walked out into the audience. Many of the spectators lowered their faces out of fear that if they caught his gaze he would choose them. They were, after all, good Christian men and women. No decent person would ever consent to be reborn from the belly of an animal, like some pagan monster.
But the timbre of his voice had them all enthralled. It was such a deep and rich sound. He held light and darkness in his mouth.
From behind the stage, young Edward Whistman watched. He was the magician’s assistant. Not the beautiful woman who helped him on stage - her name was Delilah. Edward was the one who made the great man’s coffee. He cleaned his shoes and prepared the complicated apparatus which allowed Dever to accomplish his impossible feats. He knew most of his secrets, even if he could duplicate only very few.
He was eighteen. His hair was cut short, blond, but refused to stay combed no matter what violent measures he subjected it to. His girlfriend, Jenny, used to joke that his hair was “levitating” when it stuck straight up into the air. She teased him, but young Edward fully intended to learn everything that his master knew, and to one day be the dark and fearsome magician strolling through the aisles delighting and terrifying hundreds of patrons every night.
His face was round and kind, a trait which he hoped to grow out of. Edward wanted to appear a fearsome sorcerer in league with devils and ghosts. As of yet, he did not. He looked like a good-hearted boy.
As he watched his master walking among the rich and well-bred, he imagined that the great man was a fearsome silver-backed gorilla strutting amidst a group of cowering monkeys, each afraid he might exert his right at any moment to throw them to the floor and publicly ravage them right there on the red and yellow velvet carpeting.
“Are we so very different than the animals? Perhaps we are simply various configurations of raw steak and red wine? Ah… but there’s more than that, isn’t there? When the Lord created the lamb, he said it was good. When the Lord created the lion, he said it was also good. The insect… he judged favorably. The bird, the reptile, the donkey, and the bear all earned his approval. But you and I he wasn’t so quick to love.”
Dark Nevil walked back towards the stage. He moved like a dancer, every movement planned. Edward knew that each turn of the ankle was indeed exactly as practiced. There was both grace and intentional awkwardness, exactly as designed.
“Let me tell you all a story.” He climbed back up the four steps which separated the aisle from the stage. Nonchalantly, he picked up the two halves of his hat. He took a moment to weigh them in his hands, picked the half he liked least, and threw it off stage. The preferred, he comically placed on his skull. He made a funny sad face as it tumbled forward and awkwardly dropped to the floor.
“It was towards the end of the sixteen century that a godless emperor came to rule of the Holy Roman Empire. From his seat of power in the mysterious Bohemian city of Prague, Rudolph II decided to abandon war, and even the task of caring for his people. Instead, he decided to spend all of the Empire’s considerable fortunes on… magic!
“He invited alchemists, astrologers, mediums, sorcerers, conjurers, men who could speak with the dead… men who could speak with angels! This strange foreign king hoped to unlock all the secrets of creation, become immortal, and then usher in a new golden age of reason… But the truth is that most of these men were no more than low confidence men come to take advantage of an idealistic fool. They didn’t bring any eldritch power to Rudolph. They brought sleight-of-hand, games of the mind, hypnosis, hokum, flim-flam - lies! They brought lies before their king!” The magician paused to shake his head at the shame of what he had said.
Daring Dever turned his head, acknowledging their skepticism, “But of course, you think I’m no different. Why would you think otherwise? You came here expecting a few card tricks, perhaps?”
He made a show out of comically dropping a deck from his left sleeve and then pretending to nervously bend down to pick it up. Just before getting to the floor he paused, looked up at the audience, and smiled. Pure confidence.
“Perhaps a small dishonesty, as I manipulate common objects between my practiced fingers?” His hands made a great show of dancing around each other in an exaggerated manner, as if casting a spell. Edward always thought it looked like he was tickling somebody.
The cards around his feet then visibly rose up into the air. They paused for a moment before rushing over the audience’s heads and disappearing into the darkness behind them. In a single motion more than a hundred necks turned back sharply together and failed to keep up with the blur.
“But, my beloved friends, I would never lie to you. Now, into the court of this strange ruler there came an honest friend of the pit. A real magician arrived, not with a trick to fool the Emperor, but a word of true Pagan magic which he wanted to present before his honorable, if foolish, liege.
“He never had the opportunity to perform the feat.
“As the sorcerer waited outside of the Emperor’s hall, every fireplace in the palace began to burn without requirement of wood nor kindling. The servants threw water on it, but these flames wouldn’t be extinguished thusly. Ladies and gentlemen, they were not earthly flames…”
The magician paused for an uncomfortably long time. He looked deep in thought, as if uncertain whether to go on, or how to say what he was next to say… or, as more than a few audience members found themselves thinking, as if he were not sure if the audience deserved to know the end of the story.
Not a soul in the entire audience made a sound until the dashing Nevil Dever continued. Many ceased, for a time, to even breathe.
“When the hundreds of devils straight from the nethers of Hell began pouring through the fires and into the hallways of Prague Castle – The Castle Hrad, as the locals call it - the Imperial guard tried, of course, to fight back, but there were hundreds, maybe thousands of unholy red imps – naked as you please - pouring through the fires, searching the castle for the magician.
“He was alert! He ran from the waiting room, out a window and down into the streets of the town. Everyone watched as Hell itself was on his tail. The bakers, the butchers, even chaste candlestick makers all saw it clear as day. By the time the unholy, unclean devils finally caught him and dragged the magician kicking and screaming into the back of one of the fireplaces, hundreds of ordinary people had seen them.
“A fairy tale? Perhaps. A grisly one, to be sure. I can’t imagine many mothers would want their little precious cherubs to spend too much time thinking about the flames savaging that magician’s skin… But it is not a fairy tale if you ask the Bohemians. For them, this is history. The devils stole that Pagan magician away to Hell to keep him from sharing his secret with the Emperor. What they did not guess was that this magician had already shared the secret… with his apprentice!
“His boy, for fear of the devils, kept it a secret his whole life long, until in his old age he eventually passed it on to his own son. And that son years later passed the secret along to a lover. So the secret has passed down through the generations until tonight. Tonight… I will demonstrate real magic for the considerable pleasure of you ladies and gentlemen!”
Now, neither the great and wise magician Nevil Dever, nor young Edward, nor even the many good souls in their audience were aware, but it was at this point that the aliens landed. Their bright flying saucers descended between the buildings and the smoke of the English city. They looked clean and miraculous against the backdrop of the old brick buildings.
The silver men disembarked from the circles of light they used to cross the universe. They walked through the streets of London calmly, orderly, as if they owned our Earth. They made no attempt to disguise themselves or to hide. Women screamed. One constable attacked with only his fists and his bravery. There was a report that he in fact killed an alien, but this isn’t clear.
More than twenty of the silver men walked through the theatre entrance. They pushed their way inside, without tickets. They didn’t use their hands to move the heavy curtain aside and enter the back of the theatre. It was as if they didn’t quite understand curtains. They allowed the fabric to roll over their faces and giant-sized heads.
The great Nevil Dever was in the middle of demonstrating the true magic spell when they came for him. He held in his left hand a cigarette. Out of the end of which had grown a long and thin leafy branch. He stood there and smiled, while more than two dozen other men in the audience slowly discovered that their own ashen cigars were undergoing similar growth spurts.
Green sprouted from ash.
The audience gasped audibly in shock, and then a few of the braver souls began to clap and even laugh at the impossible trick.
As the silver men moved through the audience, their inhumanity was obvious to everyone. Their shapes were wrong. There couldn’t be men in the suits. They couldn’t be children, or women. They were wrong. They were impossible. No one thought they were a part of the act, or frankly, a part of our world. Some wondered if they might be angels. Others pondered if they could be the very same devils who spirited the magician out of Prague’s great Castle Hrad, for the evil scent about them was obvious. They had no charity, or kindness, or gentleness to their souls. In truth, the men from the sky seemed more likely to be the kin of knives, axes, and swords than of men.
Most of the audience failed to notice that the fancy red and yellow carpet beneath their feet was ever-so slightly singed wherever the silver men stepped, as if their skin were so hot that its mere touch damaged the fabric.
One woman later commented they looked less like men or angels than dolphins or some unknown fish. But most agreed that it was the fearsome Host of Heaven itself come to drag the magician away for consorting with the Devil and unknown other evil spirits besides.
Our brave Nevil Dever, on the other hand, had no intention of being taken to any place where he did not choose to go. As he saw the approaching fiends, he quickly dashed back into the black and smokey recesses of the stage. Just as before, he seemed to vanish into the darkness except for his face, hands, and the sliver of white shirt which showed between the buttons of his jacket. All the same, the moment was very different. Nevil Dever no longer appeared graceful or confident, or in charge. The illusionist was panicking and desperately struggling to figure out how to escape.
One audience member began to applaud, thinking the whole scene to be a part of the show. There was only one.
On the stage appeared a large man who worked for the great Nevil Dever. His name was Wallace “Walls” Carpenter. He was part bodyguard, and part laborer. He often worked with young Edward and the magician himself building whatever needed to be created for the show. Walls was an honest man who was quite proud that his name and profession matched up so well. He liked to brag that he was doing the same kind of work as his remote ancestors. He fully believed that so many generations of practice added up and that his skill did not simply reflect his shallow nine years of experience, but that of his father, grandfather, and their distant predecessors.
Walls bravely did exactly what he was paid to do in a situation like this. He helped his employer through the trap door and stood threateningly in the way of his attackers.
Edward, who still stood unmoved from his vantage point, watched the big brave man stand up to the silver, shining, unreal men. The muscle-man made a big show of rolling up his sleeves and flexing his arms, doggedly expecting that his might would be enough to cause a score of invaders from the sky to back down.
Two of the silver men brandished blue torches. They were not guns. They did not fire. They simply shone the light on the bruiser and he gently folded down upon the stage to sleep. It was as if all the strength within him disappeared in a moment.
As several of the audience members began to rise and panic, the strangers treated those closest to them the same as they did the builder. The blue light caused them to fall straight asleep where they stood. They dropped right down to the ground. In a few cases this looked like it could be quite dangerous. One woman appeared to hit her head on the arm of her chair as she collapsed.
Two of the silver men rushed forward and stood over the spot where Dever had descended into the floor. They seemed confused as they attempted to discover how to open the trap. This struck young Edward as strange. The trap door was simple enough, if one knew where it was – and the invaders clearly did know.
After a few moments, one of the silver men pushed the other aside and shone a red light upon the opening. It burst into an instant flame so hot as to render the wood ash in only two or three seconds. That man and his friend then leapt down into the opening, pursuing the magician.
Of the other silver men still about the theatre, one was examining a cigar which Nevil Dever had wizarded into a yard-long sapling. He held it up close to his face, as if he were sniffing it or considering eating it. It appeared to still be slowly growing. As Edward watched the strange silver fellow, he noticed at last that he could see the reflection of his own eyes floating in the sheen upon the being’s back and neck.
They wore no clothes, but all the same didn’t appear to be naked. Whatever it was that coated their forms did not seem to be best described as “skin.” Their eyes were great black teardrops, wide and deep black, larger than a man’s hand. He could see no evidence of sex about them. All the same, they radiated cruelty. He couldn’t imagine one laughing or smiling. He couldn’t fathom such a creature being aware of the existence of joy. As young Edward watched them, he felt like just their presence was dangerous.
Slowly, the one he had seen his reflection in seemed to feel his eyes. It turned around angrily and looked right at him. The mouth opened and clenched rectangular teeth which radiated hatred. It raised an impossibly thin silver arm and spread strange fingers. Edward could see a small round grey device in its hand. The device began to glow red.
The young assistant magician began to run, and he did so barely in time. The ground he had stood on suddenly burst into a terrible flame. He felt the heat on the back of his neck, as if he were sitting too close to the fireplace. He ran out onto the stage where another one of the invaders wrapped a shining hand around his wrist.
Then, from above, there was the sound of a great crash. The illusionist, Nevil Dever, came falling mysteriously down from the ceiling. He was caught in a series of thin white strings. As he fell, the cords pulled toward the stage and all of the cards that he had so recently sent flying into the back of the theatre came flying forward again and wrapped themselves around him. There was a Jack of Diamonds visible against his forehead.
Three or four of them shone blue lights upon the magician and the young assistant who both fell asleep right where they were. The abduction was successful.
The frightened crowd stood helpless as the group of foreign gentlemen lifted up Nevil Dever, Walls Carpenter, and young Edward Whistman. The three men were carried out into the cold London air, down the street as many people watched, and lifted unconscious into the buzzing and whirring flying saucers, ready to traverse the stars.
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Artwork by Dana Black and Noah K. Mullette-Gillman. Brontosaurus Pluto and The Brontosaurus Pluto Society are copyright 2011 Noah K. Mullette-Gillman.