“Dear residents of the capital and guests of our city! We invite you to our festive circus show! Devilish cunning, demonic courage, abyssal enthusiasm! A brave new world, full of alluring temptations and unsolved mysteries, is already waiting for you right outside this threshold! Hurry up to see, hurry up to believe, hurry up to hurry! Only here and just now! We are not for an hour, we are forever!”

The tenacious gaze of the herald, clothed in all the colors of the rainbow, suddenly stopped on Artem Sergeyevich, who had barely managed to get out on Red Square and right at that moment was dumbfounded at the view that opened up to him. The entire square, as far as the eye could see, was filled with three dozen different high tents, between which circus actors, acrobats, or clowns, who were calling to “head straight and heedlessly plunge into this unique light show”, were running rapidly now and then. Citizens strolling around the square almost immediately became victims of this aggressive clowning. Small groups of visitors still managed, kicking and refusing, to avoid close contact with these annoying circus performers. No matter where you looked, there was no sign army, no officials, zero reporters, even no guides with tourists, so familiar to the capital at this time of year. Colorful tents covered almost the entire territory of the square, coming close to the walls of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral.

“Welcome to the show!” a jester with improvised small red horns on his head, who was dressed in a colorful hoodie, red kirza boots, and for some unknown reason a black sweatshirt, jumped up to Artem Sergeyevich and without unnecessary ado grabbed our hero, who was confused by surprise, and, continuing to persistently hold his hand, almost dragged him by force to one of the tents towering on the square.

“The best political acrobats and circus performers from all over the world!”, “thousands of beautiful naked camera-bearing maidens!”, “vaccine-carrying winners of talk show awards!”, “unholy martyrs of false belief!” the jester continued to babble hurriedly as if in a patter, dragging Artem Sergeyevich, who was still stunned by what he had just seen.

“…Completely free of charge for worthy people!” the last words of the circus performer who was expectantly staring at our hero with a smile stretched over his blue-painted lips, pushed through Artem Sergeevich’s clouded consciousness.

“And why… and where… everyone…” Artem Sergeyevich started to come to his senses after a merciless information tirade.

“At the performance, of course!” the clown burst out laughing with a kind of shrill, coughing laugh. “I’ll tell you even more,” he winked maliciously in response to a silent unspoken question, “some of those persons that you just thought of – they will even be in the role of actors! Isn’t that all great?!”

“It’s great… probably… and what is… your performance about?”

“A new brave world, sick humankind, the devil’s chord, and wasted mind!” the jester sang the rhymed lines, dancing slightly from the excitement. The rhythm and sound of his voice, lulling and shaking at the same time, enveloped Artyom Sergeevich’s sleepy consciousness like a dope as if demanding to pay attention, heed, and obey – with zero unnecessary questions, without needless doubts, never listening to his soul…”

“And why… the tents… are you… a touring circus?”

“I’ll say – in no way! We plan to stay here for a very long time!” the circus performer winked slyly in response, and red flames flashed in his eyes for a brief moment.

“You said… notable people take part in the performance?”

“Oh, indeed! Almost all the higher darkn… entire high society! Many of them were invited by us in advance and have already perfectly accepted their new roles after many previous rehearsals of our circus-like end of the world! Doctors, politicians, priests, and the press – everyone is happy to relieve your stress!” the jester sang in rhymes once more.

“And for how long… does this show of yours last?”

“It depends on the circumstances!” the clown said bluntly without another dancing. “The more of you – the longer the hour, the brighter the flame and greater the power! And most importantly…” and the jester bowed his head directly to Artem Sergeyevich’s ear, “for worthy people, the performance will be completely free of charge!”

“Free? This is such a… rare occasion in our times.”

“Exactly! And most often – there is a catch! And we don’t have a catch, as you may have already noticed, not a single one, nope. Our word is as honest as we are,” the clown laughed loudly with his painted blue lips.

“So… can I just come in?”

“Not quite!” the jester abruptly stopped Artem Sergeyevich, who was moving with an uncertain gait towards the entrance to the tent. “First and foremost, you need to measure your current weight on these karmic scales, see?” and he pointed to a strange-looking scale standing next to the entrance to the tent. “Go ahead, don’t be afraid, they won’t bite you!”

Under the massive weight of Artyom Sergeyevich’s heavy body, these scales, which for some reason had two arrows instead of one, started shaking and – or was it just his playful imagination? – as if moaned from someone’s unspoken unspeakable pain, and then one of the arrows stopped near the beginning of the scale, and the second shifted somewhere far away.

“Very good, just fine!” said the clown, shifting from one foot to the other with satisfaction. “The amount of evil you have committed is many times greater than the number of good deeds, and that means that attending to our performance will be completely free of extra charge for you, Artem Sergeevich!”

“And how do you… know my name?” the hero had no time to be surprised, for the jester interrupted him.

“Please, stretch out your hands! It’s not a hard requirement to stretch your legs as of yet. Temperature measurement, you know the new rules,” he explained soothingly in response to a puzzled look.

“Ah… the new rules. Yes, I am aware of them, of course… this is all very correct, no doubt in that,” and Artem Sergeyevich stretched out his hands in a conciliatory manner.

With these words, the jester abruptly pulled something resembling a seal from somewhere in his bosom and pressed it hard against the stretched left palm. For a brief moment, there was a smell of burning in the air, a sharp flash of pain pierced Artem Sergeyevich’s hand, and then some mysterious runic symbol appeared on his palm as if burned by a laser.

“Entrance fee! Such are the rules!” the jester explained.

“But you have just said…”

“Come in already, you fool!” the jester abruptly forcefully pushed Artem Sergeyevich inside, closing the tent floors.

Reality has changed. The hall was completely filled with darkness. The floor had gone missing, it was impossible to see where the ceiling ended. The rows of seats floating in the void as if in weightlessness were fully filled with spectators who were shouting something into the hall. For some reason, Artem Sergeyevich did not hear the sounds of their voices. Waiters in black robes were walking back and forth between the rows, as if floating in the air, offering the audience some unknown cocktails. In the very center of the hall, where the eyes of millions were turned, there was some kind of stage, which was constantly illuminated by blinding lights of flashes that caused a sharp pain in the eyes.

Dressed in a black business suit, Artem Sergeyevich found himself sitting on one of the chairs in the upper-far row. Next to him, as far as the eye could see, in the same row, people in black tuxedos with briefcases in their hands just like him were sitting – some of them were sorting through their papers, others were counting cash. Artyom Sergeyevich stood up slightly, trying to recognize the rest of the visitors in the flashes that were hurting his eyes. Below him, judging by their appearance and pretentious gestures (he still did not hear their voices), there were actors and showmen – Artem Sergeyevich’s gaze, running over their faces, unexpectedly saw the familiar outlines of several famous business personalities and reporters among the distorted grimaces. A little lower down, in this endless darkness, there were chairs with people dressed in white clothes – Artyom Sergeyevich noticed with dread that their mouths were sewn up, and the pupils of their eyes, as if blinded, looked longingly at the stage, never closing for a single moment. In the lower rows closest to the stage, he was stunned to see a myriad of gilded heads with rods and crosses in their arms – from these crosses, depicting the tortured Christ, red blood was slowly dripping into the unknown blackness of the absent floor. Close to the stage, queens, and kings in spiked crowns were sitting impressively on gilded pillows – some kind of muddy liquid was constantly oozing from their crowns, and they eagerly gathered it in their hands, blackened by the marks that were imprinted on them, and drank, greedily sucking every sip, and then raising their empty hands to the black height as if in a sign of thanksgiving.

Lights were dancing on the stage. The fiery streams encircling it were lighting up and then extinguishing again. The light of the red spotlights was almost blinding. The music, thundering with deafening rhythms, made the seats in the lower rows vibrate and shudder in unison with it. The shadows, cast from the searchlights, stretched out and started looking like monsters from horror movies.

“At last!” an unfamiliar voice thundered from the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, we declare our performance open! Meet our king! Face him!”

Practically blinded by the flashes and deafened by the heart-rending music, Artem Sergeyevich rushed from his chair with the only all-consuming desire to run away, although he already had nowhere to run, but the shackles that appeared on the chair from out of nowhere suddenly closed on his hands and feet, condemning him to be an eternal spectator of this unearthly end of the world.

“Meet our king!” were the last sounds he heard moments before the whole scene was drowned in the roar of raging flames. And then his silent outcry came in their place…

* * *

“Dear residents of the capital and guests of our city! We invite you to our festive circus show! Devilish cunning, demonic courage, abyssal enthusiasm!” the jester continued to shout out on the street of the capital as if nothing had ever transpired.

“And what do you need me to do to attend your amazing event?” asked Pyotr Ivanovich, walking along the square with interest.

“Oh!” the jester, who had carefully looked into his eyes, replied with enthusiasm. “Just a small thing! You simply need to betray God!”