05 July 2011

Carnivale Mechaniste

Chapter 2: Opened

He'd ridden three buses, walked several miles, and was waiting for yet another bus, one that would take him out of suburbia to the city center. Jax hadn't ever ridden a Smartbus before. They gave him the creeps, and made him nervous. The drivers were nuts and the people that rode them were weird. The bus finally appeared in a swirl of exhaust and squealing brakes; Jax paid his fare and sat down near the back, turned his iPod up louder. He closed his eyes, scrooched down further in the seat and let himself drift. He was approaching that warm, muzzy, heavy-headed feeling that comes just before you fall asleep from pure exhaustion, when he felt a finger tap his shoulder. He opened one eye, pulled an earbud out.

“Can't sleep yet, sonny-boy,” came a rasping, lilting voice. The speaker was an old woman wearing several layers of moth-eaten sweaters that smelled of patchouli and lavender, a crinkling plastic bag was tied beneath her chin, and she held a huge, old-looking bag on her lap. Carpetbag, he thought it might called. It was like a doctor's bag from the old black-and-white movies, but covered in faded purple flower-print carpet, with tattered, peeling leather around the opening, and on the handles and seams. The woman, who looked like she might be at least 500 years old, peered at him with eyes that were bright, piercing blue, like chips taken from a clear sky at midday. “Ain't safe yet, young'un, no ya ain't. Best keep alert, watch for what ya don't expect, were I you. You shine like the brightest beacon, to those what have the right eyes to see. I'm a harmless old Flash, me, can't do nothin', but if I can sees that what you got in you, then there's those that can see as would hurt you, as would strip you clean of your very soul, could they but get their claws on you.” She was jabbering on in her odd accent as if he knew who she was, or what she was talking about.

“Lady...I don't know what you're talking about,” he said, trying not to sound too rude.

“I can see that, young'un. I can see that right enough. And that's what makes it all the more dangerous for you. I'll tell you what. Take this,” she pushed a greasy, much-folded rectangle of paper into his hands, a flier of some sort. “Find the carnival, boy. It's the best bet for a new one as young and innocent as you.” Jax looked at the flier. It announced something called “Carnivale Machaniste,” which seemed to be a traveling carnival of some sort.

“A carnival? I hate carnivals.”

“Heh. Shows how much you know. This ain't no normal carnival. For one thing, you're saying it wrong. It's a European-soundin' thing. You gotta say it right, even in your own head, or you'll never find it. It's part of the magic. It's like this: Carni-VAHL Mecka-NEEST.”

“Part of the magic?”

“Oh don't act stupid, son. I can tell plain as elephant noses that you've got magic. You've just opened it up, and you're all confused and discombobulated and such-like. An' mebbe you didn't even know you was magic, but you are, all the same. Now you just listen to ole Gramma Lucy. I been around a few blocks in my life, and I know what I'm talking about.” Jax's disbelief and confusion must have shown on his face. “Look, boy. I'll start at the beginning, make it as easy as I can in the short time we got. Magic is real. That's first. It ain't things like sawing no hussies in half or makin' the Statue of Liberty disappear or none o' that nonsense. It's bone and flesh magic, blood and guts and steel and silk magic, rhythm and music and beauty and terror magic. The Carnivale is a carnival, a marketplace, a whole city that travels everywhere, and everywhen. Don't look at me with that sass, boy. Yes, I said everywhen. It goes back and forth in time, and I don't even know what or where else. Like I said, I'm just a Flash, a person what can see magic, but can't do none at all. A between sort. It ain't all roses and unicorns, though, I should tell you. I've heard stories about the Carnivale Mechaniste that would make your short and curlies shrivel, but I can't say as they're true. I hope not, but you never know. Now, here's your stop comin' up, son. Get off, turn right, go down about three blocks, and you'll see the Carnivale, can't miss it. It might be tricky at first, you gotta look at it with magic eyes. You gotta really see it. Now go! Remember old Lucy in your prayers at night, son.” Jax felt himself getting off the bus, his head whirling and and his thoughts running at warp speed. Magic? Well, that was pretty much undeniable, considering what had happened with his dad. Unless this was a dream? It all seemed so real, so...not a dream. If he started question his sanity now, he might never stop, and that just wasn't an option.

No better plan presented itself, so Jax put Otep on his iPod and turned right as the bus rumbled off in a cloud of exhaust. Two blocks later the unmistakable sounds of a carnival began floating to him across the darkness and city sounds. Slowly and subtly, however, another sound crept up on his awareness. A scraping, sliding, slithering, a clicking and hissing. Not sounds that made him feel warm and fuzzy inside, in other words. Sounds that frightened him, that made his short and curlies shrivel, as the old woman had put it. He stopped, turned around in a circle, hunting for the origin of the sounds. He found it, a shadow within a shadow. He stared hard at it, like waking up from a dream and seeing leftover dream shapes in a corner of his room. Except he had no room anymore, and this was not leftover dream-shapes. His vision seemed to waver and his eyes burned momentarily, then he could make out the shape clearly, and wished he couldn't. It was low, long, six-legged, its mouth was a vertical slash in its face filled with jagged teeth, and it had reptilian eyes on either side of its head. The most bizarre and scary part of the creature in the shadows was the tail, or rather tails, plural. There were four of them, for one thing. Or maybe it was one tail split into four parts, it was hard to tell. Either way, there were four long, writhing, spike-tipped scorpion tails, each moving in its own serpentine pattern, each focused on him. It scuttled toward him in a movement like a cockroach vanishing under a refrigerator, tails whipping at him, teeth gnashing. Jax threw himself backward, panic and terror surging up into his throat like a trapped scream. Like with his father, barely two hours ago, something within him burst open; this time, however, he felt his entire being shake and shiver, felt himself curling in on himself, felt a tugging and draining within himself; something shifted, something primal and elemental in his core altered. He felt less afraid, suddenly. Everything was different, his smell, his sight, his tactile sensation, all seemed heightened and...alien. He took a step forward and his vision blurred as he shot forward a dozen feet in an instant. He looked sideways and saw three sets of legs, and he knew, somehow, what had happened. He had become that creature in front of him. He had the tails, and he understood them now, they were odd and powerful appendages, at once antennae and weapons. He wove them in a web pattern, sensing the world around him in a visual kind of smell, a comprehension of the world around him in a four-dimensional way that left Jax's human mind stunned and in awe. The creature facing him froze in confusion. It wasn't a brute beast, Jax understood. It was a cunning, intelligent, nearly-sentient being, and it was suddenly faced with a situation that it didn't understand at all. It had had prey before it, a delicious, ripe, soft thing to devour and suck dry, and now it had...itself. It was all too much for it, and the thing whirled around, stiffened its tail/antennae, flexed some internal muscle that Jax could only sense through his unfamiliar alien mind, and vanished. It had ripped a small hole in the fabric of the air, or of reality, or of time itself—Jax wasn't sure what—and darted through it, letting the seam close and seal behind it.

He couldn't change back. He hadn't turned into this weird, ugly, frightening thing on purpose, and now he couldn't figure out how to get back, and panic was beginning to boil in his head. The carnival, or Carnivale or whatever...that lady, Lucy, had said they could help him. He held an image of the flier in his head, of the circus-red background with the name, Carnivale Mechaniste, written in black dripping ink; he held the name in his head, as Lucy had said it. He oriented himself, heard the music and the ride sounds, calliope pipes skirling and people laughing and barkers calling, and he knew he was close. He followed the sounds, followed his instincts, or the instincts of the body he inhabited currently, holding to shadows and scrabbling up walls and back down like a spider, rushing with blinding speed, leaping in impossible bounds from rooftop to rooftop, silent as a serpent in knee-high grass. Then he was there, in an empty lot between houses, a fairground of some sort, the kind of place that would be deserted, a bare patch of flattened crabgrass and broken bottles and cigarette butts that suddenly overnight became a fair or a carnival or a two-bit circus. There were tents and trailers and ramshackle constructions like third world slums, there were hot dogs roasting and cotton candy machines spinning, there were beer tents and a Ferris wheel and a carousel playing eerie calliope music, rides of all sorts spinning and whirling...then his vision wavered again and his mind seemed to adjust in some minute but vital way and now he was seeing something totally different, yet still the same. It made no sense at all to Jax even as he tried to process it. He was seeing, at once, an average low-budget traveling carnival, the kind of thing that comes in for a few days with rickety rides and sullen, scruffy ticket-takers and food that gave you the runs for days afterward; but yet he was seeing as well a true carnival from some bygone age, a place of fantastic attractions and freakshows and bawdy tents and excited crowds, a traveling celebration of the weird and fantastic. He saw strange machines pumping and hissing like steam-powered contraptions from the Industrial Revolution, but these had no readily-apparent function. Woven all throughout these observations from a rooftop Jax felt...power....magic, if he dared call it that. It was palpable and undeniable, and some part of him hungered for it.

He scritched down the brick wall scuttled to the ten-foot high chainlink fence that forced visitors to the ticket booth, scaled it and leaped from the top into a shadow behind a low tent. There were people passing just on the other side of the tent, so Jax edged around the corner to peer out at them. His antennae-stingers stretched out towards the people, absorbed the air and the myriad sensations coming at him. Some of the people passing by him seemed to glow gently, a greenish-golden luminescence, and it was these that glowed that made that alien, bestial part of him salivate, tense his muscles like a tiger in the brake. He found himself actually doing exactly that, crouching and about to spring forward with all his strength at a particularly bright-glowing young girl. Maybe she sensed him, maybe he made a sound, but she stopped and whirled to face him, shouting: “Thresher!” Her voice seemed unnaturally loud, echoing in a way that was certainly magic, if Jax had any way to judge such things. Thresher? What was a thresher? He turned to look behind him, then realized that she was talking about him. Before he could react, a dozen men were facing him, pointing long, thin, bent silver tubes at him like weapons. He tried to tell them that he wasn't a thresher, but the only sound that emerged was a gurgling growl, and that just made them retreat a step, cursing and brandishing their tubes.

“STOP!” The voice that called out the order was a deep, rich, commanding baritone. Its owner came into view, a massive man with thick, wavy black hair that was oiled and carefully combed, long mustaches that drooped past his chin. He was dressed in quintessential gypsy clothes, loose-fitting bright red pants, a yellow sash wrapped twice around his waist, an orange vest and knee-high black boots polished to a shine. He had a sword thrust through his sash on the left side, hilt tilted for a cross-body draw. His powerfully muscled arms were covered in green ink tattoos, and his broad, hard face had a scar running down one side, pulling his right eye down. The man approached him fearlessly, his sword in its scabbard and his hands swinging loosely at his sides.

“This thing is not a Thresher,” the gypsy said in a deep, thickly-accented voice. “I do not explain it easy, but is not a Thresher, this I am knowing.”

“What are you talking about, Harman?” The man who asked the question was tall and thin with greasy hair and a furtive look about him. “Of course it's a Thresher. You can see that plain enough. It oughta be killed, right now.” He stepped forward and raised his tube, but the gypsy, whose name seemed to be Harman, stopped him.

“Is not a Thresher, I tell you. I am seeing past the skin of appearances to the truth beneath. Do nothing, any of you.” Harman stepped closer, reached out a hand, whispered under his breath. His hand glowed with what Jax knew now to be magic, and it made him growl in hunger. Harman didn't seem to even notice. He continued to whisper, and Jax felt something in his chest being pulled out of him, expanding and burgeoning and overtaking him and running all throughout him. He felt himself unfolding and twisting, felt his brain and senses returning to normal, felt his thoughts slam back into his head with abrupt clarity. He was himself again, all at once, and he was on his knees, vomiting, weeping, coughing and retching, shaking and cursing.

“See? I tell you. Now, you all go. Miss Thyra, you must go fetch your father to my stall, tell him we have a newcomer, newly opened.” Harman unwrapped his sash from his waist and wound it around Jax's, prompting the realization that he was naked. “Can you stand, boy? Try to stand. There you go ,is okay now.” Jax tried to walk, stumbled and fell to his knees and was caught by Harman. The gypsy scooped Jax up under an arm and carried him as easily as a rag doll. The jouncing and jostling prompted another wave of nausea and vomiting, followed quickly by unconsciousness.

He woke up surrounded by the smell of incense and leather and hot metal, with an image of the girl he'd seen inscribed in his mind, her platinum-blond hair and pale skin, nubile body, her fearless blue eyes. His head throbbed and every nerve ending seemed to be on fire. “Don't try to move, boy,” came Harman's voice. “To use magic at the beginning is very difficult. Shifting of shapes is even more sick-making.” Jax nodded, kept his eyes closed.

“Thank you,” he said. His voice was hoarse and sore. “I...I don't know how it happened. One second I was me, the next there was this...thing..in front of me, and suddenly everything was weird and I felt different.” Jax opened his eyes, finally. The walls were brightly-colored fabric in every color imaginable, pieced together in an eye-bending patchwork. At one end, Jax could see the accoutrements of a smithy, bellows, forge, anvil, hammers and tongs and bits of metal and various items in different stages of completion. Between the bed where Jax lay and the smithy was an area that seemed to be part alchemist's chamber and part mechanic's workbench. There were modern tools like wrenches and vises and screwdrivers, there were things Jax had only seen in old history text books, and other things that he simply couldn't make heads or tails of, intricate Rube Goldberg-type contraptions that seemed to run on steam. The room where Jax lay was the living quarters in between smithy and...whatever that other place was. The whole seemed to be contained in a retro-fitted, jury-rigged RV, for Jax saw a modern kitchenette in one corner, and a table and a small flat-screen TV.

“Is very unusual, I must say.” Harman was sitting at the table, a steaming mug in his hand. “Most shapeshifters, they cannot change into magical creatures, only natural animals and people. You never knew of yourself?”

“Never knew of myself?” It took Jax a few moments to understand what Harman was asking. “Did I grow up knowing I was some sort of wizard? No. It just sort of happened.”

Harman laughed, a slow rumble. “Wizard, he says. Heh. You have no ideas of what you are saying. Wizards are from storybooks. Was that Thresher a storybook unicorn? Is the magic of shifting shapes fun and adventuresome? No, is not. You are knowing nothing.” His words were harsh and sarcastic, but seemed to come from a place of kindness. “What is your name, boy?”

“ Jax...Jackson Magnus.”

“I am Harman Luca. I am the weapons master and mage-smith of the Carnivale Mechaniste.”

“I don't know what that means, but okay. Sounds bad-ass, at any rate. Are you a—”

“If you say 'gypsy', Jackson Magnus,” Harman interrupted, “I will throw you back to the Threshers. I am Romani. 'Gypsy' is a term of insult.”

“Romani. Got it. But Romani is the real name for what people call gypsies?”

“Yes, you have the truth of it. And you...you are not a normal American teenager.”

“I'm not?” This would have been news about three hours ago, but now...not so much.

“Normal American teenagers cannot transform into Threshers.”

“I guess not. What are Threshers anyway?” Jax slowly sat up, felt nausea ripple through him and slowly fade. He stood up, a little unsteady on his feet, made his way to the table and sat down. Harman pushed a mug at him. Jax took a sip, tasted thick black coffee and the tang of whiskey.

“Is this spiked?” He asked.

“A little whiskey is in it, yes. It will help, I promise you.”

“I'm only fifteen, you know that, right? Not that I'm complaining.”

“I know the rules of this country, but I give it to you for medicinal purposes. And besides, we are not residents of this place. Their rules do not apply to us. Not really.” Harman pointed to a pile of clothes on a counter. “You should put on those. You do not want to go around wearing only my sash.” Jax looked down, aware suddenly that he was still naked except for the sash. Underneath the pile of clothes was Jax's iPod. “Someone went back to the alley where you first shifted and found your music device underneath a dumpster. Your clothes were gone, but this remained, hidden as it was.”

Jax didn't care about the clothes he had lost, so much, but he was grateful to have his iPod. Music was his comfort, the one familiar and stable thing in his life, even before all this had happened. The clothes Harman had provided were a little big on him, and they were Romani style clothes, but they were comfortable, and all he had. The pants, blue like the ocean seen from afar, were baggy and cut above the ankle. The sash was saffron in color, long enough to wrap three times around his waist and still hang to his knee on one side. A leaf-green vest and a pair of knee-high, supple leather boots completed the outfit.

“Are these your clothes?” Jax asked as he stuffed his bare feet into the boots, which were lined with silk, making socks unnecessary.

“No, they belonged to my brother, who was much younger and much smaller than I. He is dead now.”

“I...I'm sorry...” Jax wasn't sure what to say.

“Is okay. He died a long time ago, in a far away land.” Harman's averted eyes belied his easy dismissal. Jax sensed that questions were unwelcome.

“Well...thanks, again, for saving me and helping me. I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to turn back into myself.”

“You are welcome, Jackson. Ah. Here is Aric. He will help you learn to control what lies within you.” Boots clopped on a metal step and the fabric wall parted, admitting a man of average height and build with attractive Nordic features, fine blond hair swept back into a braid that hung down between his shoulder blades. His eyes were a clear, bright blue, penetrating and piercing, fixing Jax with a cold, hard stare that made some part of him shiver.

“I'm Aric Larsen,” he said in a crisp, unaccented voice, sliding next to Jax in the booth. “I'm the carnival master. That was quite an entrance you made, I must say.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. I'm sorry if I made any trouble for you. Things just kind of happened really fast, you know?”

“Yes, I do believe I understand. You are newly-opened, I am told?”

“Well, I guess so. I mean, I'm not really sure what that means.”

“It means your magical heritage made itself known for the first time. You were raised by normals?”

“Well, I thought so. But when everything happened, they both didn't seem surprised. And my dad—” Jax broke off when the memory of his dad's words slammed through him. When they put you with us, he'd said. You don't fit, he'd said. Put you with us? What did that mean? Jax tried to puzzle out what that meant, failed. He wasn't ready to understand it. There were other more pressing matters at hand. “Magical heritage?” He asked instead, changing the subject.

“People like you, the things you can do, they aren't little accidents of nature. You aren't a freak. You come from a strong lineage, I'm guessing. You have powerful potential. I can help you realize that potential, if you trust me and you listen to me.” Aric stood up to leave. “But that's for another day. For now, just get the feel of the place, figure things out.” With that, Aric left. Jax saw, out of the corner of his eye, Harman giving Aric a dark, angry glare as the carnival master left. There was bad blood there, Jax decided. Something to keep in mind.

* * *

Carnivale Mechaniste was a fascinating place, and Jax found himself fitting in perfectly—much to his surprise and for once in his life. His magical abilities, whatever they were, stayed silent and almost forgotten. Almost. It was impossible to forget them completely, as the Carnivale was a thing steeped in magic, tangible, material, oozing from fabric, shimmering in eyes, gleaming from skin. It was in everything, the food, the weapons, the performances, and especially the technology. Very little, if any, of the machinery and equipment that Jax encountered was normal, familiar, 21st century technology. It was amalgamations of old and new and foreign, normal and magical. The one thing that he was able to quickly discern about the machinery, in those first few days, was that it all ran on magic in some way, although where the magic came from, how the technology worked with the magic as a power source, he was unable to figure out. He also couldn't figure out what it all did, which was the weirder part. All these machines humming and whirring and clanking and groaning, all day and all night, without any obvious result. They had microwaves and refrigerators and engines, cell phones and TVs and flashlights, but even these things were altered in some way, running unplugged.

There was always, night and day, a feeling of power, of magic in the air around him. Jax felt his own body humming and vibrating, like a generator coming to life. There was a synchronicity, he discovered, in the magic around him. When a generator, as he called the ineffable machines around him, hummed, they all did so in perfect unison from one end of the carnival to together, and the tidal rumbling of magic within him began to subtly match the rhythm.

The people who ran the Carnivale were a rough, interesting, complicated lot, all of them castoffs in some way, all of them with their own hard-luck stories, and they all radiated magic. He spent the first several days just getting to know the people around him. Gretto, a short, stocky, friendly man with blue hair and multiple piercings, seemed normal enough until Jax took a trip into his house of mirrors.

“Watch'er, Jax, m'boy.” Gretto was a fast talker, a smooth, syrup-voiced salesman. “This ain't no normal house of mirrors, this ain't. Ain't nothin' normal about this Carnivale, I oughta warn you, if you ain't figured that out for yourself. Y'ain't gonna get hurt as long as you stay on the path. I'll be watchin' o'course, just t'make sure nothin'...untoward happens.” Gretto slapped Jax on the back hard enough to take his breath away, and shoved him through the tent flaps. The tent, from the outside, seemed to be a normal circus-attraction tent, not overly-large, but once he stumbled through the entrance, everything changed. He found himself on stone footpath that meandered through a wide field of multicolored wildflowers, a sea of blue and red and orange and gold and yellow and pink, and other colors Jax didn't have names for, all nodding and bowing in some unseen wind; at the edges of the meadow, which Jax could just see, the rules of physics were further broken. There seemed to be a galaxy floating beyond the edges of the wildflower field. There were life-sized stars hovering and spinning, planets hanging god-sized and floating serene and mammoth in complex orbits. The path led him over a hill; when he reached the apex, the path flowed down and underneath in an eye-bending M.C. Escher-like curve. Jax kept walking, turned to look over his shoulder and saw only meadow and path and planets and stars and nebula, but no tent, no exit, no sly grinning Gretto with his blue hair that Jax suspected wasn't dyed. He kept walking, kept walking, followed the path through the mid-space meadow that made him feel as if he were in a Mario Galaxy game. He rounded another curve and things shifted again, now he was trudging on the bottom of the ocean, but this ocean-floor was a well-lit place, airy and mystical, full of wild shapes and silken shadows gliding in the hazy distance and bobbing seaweed and rippled sand beneath his feet. Gravity was awkward here, he was a heavy, unwieldy intruder here, clunky and lumbering, shuffling and drifting in slow bounds over hills and around rocks and beneath mountains, he was traversing here for hours, he saw shipwrecks with casks of spilled gold and gems and barnacle-crusted skulls; he wondered how time passed, here, under the sea within a carnival tent somewhere in Detroit. Then his heart began to pound, inexplicably and suddenly. He felt a prickling on the back of his neck, turned, and threw himself backward to the ground, scrabbling backward on his backside away from the nightmare that rushed toward him on too many legs, a thing with too many eyes and too many teeth. It was like a spider, a giant, mutant creature with at least eight legs around a small, oval body, long, many-jointed legs that dug into the sand with curved talons on the end. Its serpent-scaled body was long and thin, and unlike a spider it had a neck and a head, a long, sinuous neck and an avian head that was stretched toward him with an open, toothed mouth.

Jax felt a sensation run through him, a tightening, a falling inward and a subtle shifting of his mental balance. No, he thought, not again. Not this. He fought it. He steeled his core, tensed every muscle, focused every thought and fiber on his mental image of himself, of his teenager's body with sprouts of hair and his sharp-featured face, his straight, white teeth, his aquiline nose and black, spiked hair and green eyes. He felt the feelings fade, felt the creature in front of him watching, knew somehow inside himself that it understood his internal battle.

EAT? He heard a slow, jittery, alien voice in his mind. POKE AND SLURP AND TASTE? MAGICS? The thing in front of him lifted a leg and pointed it at him, took careful, non-threatening steps toward him. It stretched its foreleg to him, a motion that asked permission, somehow, while promising gentility. Jax held himself motionless, his head tipped up to watch the approach of the being in front of him. He couldn't think of it as a monster. Its claw touched his forehead, a whisper-soft brush, feather-light, and the world went black, and he was funneling upward and through microscopic holes in the universe, traveling with a silvery ghost that held his hand softly, a lovely floating wisp that Jax knew was the same as the spider-thing. It was showing him something, he realized. Communicating. He didn't know what it wanted, but he went along with it. It felt like hyperspace looked in Star Wars Episode VI, a twisting, multicolor tunnel of streaming universe-matter, it was cold and endless, and then without warning it was over and Jax was standing back on the ocean floor facing the spider-thing.

NOT EAT, it said. MAGICS UNGROWN. GO FLY AWAY, LARVA. And then it was gone, it turned around, lifted a claw and rent a hole in reality, as the Thresher had done. He saw it give him a last glance with its swan-neck one last time as the hole healed itself.

“That was somethin', boy, that was. Never seen nothin' as that, not never. You got somethin' interestin' in you, boy, you do. Revenants, they don't let their prey go like that, not never. You see one, you're dead. Jax boy...what are you?” Gretto was talking a mile a minute, pulling him from the house of mirrors and propping him up with an arm around his waist, which made him realize that he was limp and weak, suddenly, exhausted. “Drink this, boy, it'll do you good. That weren't no normal trip, I tell ya. That was deep magic.” He thrust a flask into Jax's hands, something that tasted like fire and cleared some of the buzz and haze in Jax's head, caused him to cough and splutter, and take another swig.

“What the hell is that?” He asked, when he could breathe again. “It hurt, and it was amazing.”

“Oh that's a little concoction we make where I come from. Its called necroot. You can't drink too much, it's mighty potent.”

“Where do you—”

“You don't ask that, son,” the smile was gone from Gretto's genial face. “That's a question you just don't ask in the Carnivale. People hereabouts are might sensitive about their time and place of origin. To that is rude, and dangerous. I'll warn you, for free, 'cause you're young, and new. Just don't ask that. There're other things, but that's the biggie, that is.” He tipped the flask up with a finger, pouring more necroot down Jax's throat.

“Now. Tell me, what was it like when that Revenant touched you?” Gretto was back to his bright-voiced self.

“God, I don't know if I can. It was weird, and that is saying something, considering what's happened the last couple days. It was...like being in hyperspace, a little, lots of twisting, flowing colors, and it was cold. The...Revenant, you called it? The Revenant was different, too, it was a like the a pool of mercury, but alive and thinking. It's not an evil thing, I don't think, just different. It talked to me, in my head. I...I almost turned into it, actually. I didn't want to, because the last time I did that—which was the first and only time so far—I couldn't turn back and almost got killed. This time I managed to not change, which I guess means I'm learning how to control this...whatever.”

“ 'This whatever?' ” Gretto laughed uproariously. “Boy, you're gonna have to learn how to talk if you're gonna fit in. First of all...” Gretto took the flask and swigged from it, “You are a shapeshifter. A shapechanger, some call it. You can become whatever you see that is alive and aware, animals and people...and magical beings as well, apparently. That's rare, from what I understand. Shapeshifters are rare, they are, and powerful ones without a bunch of limitations and such like, they're even rarer. You're one of those kinds, would be my guess. Aric's the one to tell you about all that stuff, though, as he's the real powerhouse, hereabouts. Most of us as work the Carnivale, we're specialists, you see. Me? I'm a visualist. My magic works as optical and sensory illusions, so when I send you through the 'house of mirrors' all I'm really doing is sending you into a locus of illusory spells. There ain't no mirrors in there a'tall, just an empty tent, for them as can perceive magic, you understand. You walk into the tent and into my spell and through the other side, that's it. To them as are normal, no magic, they see a house of mirrors right and true, but that's Aric's work, not mine.

“Well, boy,” Gretto gave Jax one last pull on the flask, took it back, made it vanish into a pocket, ushered the now-tipsy Jax away from his tent, “it's been right informative, it has. I got some customers a-comin', so I'm gonna have to catch up to you later on.”

Jax wove unsteadily through the Carnivale, watching the customers enter the attractions, exit pleased and baffled and eager. He followed the crowd, followed the pull of magic wherever it led, followed the music and the heady buzz of the necroot until he found himself standing outside of what seemed to be a teepee of sorts, but on a grand scale, dozens of feet in diameter and at least twenty feet high, constructed from thick smooth poles and blood-red fabric woven at the seams and edges with gold thread. From within came a low pulsing drum beat, a hypnotic rhythm that made Jax's head feel lighter, made his body seem to float and roll and try to escape heavenward. Incense wafted to his nose from the opening at the top, a smell of cedar and lavender and hashish. Jax found himself trying to part the opening of the teepee when a small, delicate white hand descended from behind him, took his and turned him around.

“You don't want to go in there, Jackson Magnus,” it was the girl he'd first seen when he was a Thresher. Thrya, Harman had called her. “Just please trust me, you don't want to.”

“But I think I do,” Jax heard himself say in a thick and slurred voice. “It's pulling me in, Miss Thyra.”

“You're drunk,” she said, a note of derision in her voice. She leaned forward and sniffed at him. “Ah, necroot. You've been with Gretto. Well that explains it. Necroot is dangerous stuff. It creeps up on you. One sip had me loopy for hours. How much did you have?”

Jax tried to remember how many times he'd sipped from the flask. He tried to count on his fingers, but found them multiplying when he tried to focus on them. “Three?”

“Three what? Dear god, Jax. You are positively wasted, aren't you?” She sighed, put her arm through his and led him away gently but insistently. As they got farther away from the red tent, the feeling of hypnotic pulling desire faded.

“What's in that tent?” He asked.

Thyra blushed, ducked her head. “It's...we call it the Bawdy Tent.”

“So it's like a strip joint?”

“Sort of. It's complicated. Don't worry about it.” Even in his current state, he could tell that Thyra was obviously uncomfortable talking about it.

“Where're we going?”

“You need food. We're going to the grub hut.”

“Grub hut?”

“Yeah, that's what they call it. It's where the carnies eat. I hate the name, but it just kind of stuck, I guess.”

“ 'M I a carnie, now?” Jax found that funny, for some reason.

“I guess so. You've got to find a job to do, though. Daddy doesn't let anyone in for free. Pull your weight or go your own way, he says. What can you do?”

“I dunno. Guess I'm a shapeshifter, or something. I'll find something to do. Don't got nowhere else to go.”

“That's the case with most everyone here, so you're in good company.”

The grub hut was a massive awning, a tent without walls, filled from edge to edge with folding picnic tables. Along one wall was an assembly-line buffet, like a high school cafeteria. The food, Jax discovered, was uniformly exotic. There was shawarma and hummus and tabbouleh, pasta puttanesca and alfredo, wood-fired pizza, a dozen different types of Asian food, American burgers and fries, as well as a myriad of foods Jax didn't recognize. The smell of the food made him realize how hungry he was. Thyra pushed him down onto a bench and told him to wait. She returned in moments with a comfortingly-familiar Styrofoam plate piled with a thick cheeseburger and fries and sweating can of Coke.

“I figured you'd want something you know, to start with. Some of that weirder food from the other realms can be tough to get used to.” Other realms? Jax wasn't ready to ask what that meant. He devoured the food, finding his head clearing as he ate. By the time he'd finished his second burger Jax felt relatively sober, although he still had that jangling, buzzing feeling in his head that came with getting drunk midday, a feeling with which he'd become all too acquainted, skipping school with Danny.

He felt a hand pinch his shoulder painfully, craned his neck to see Aric standing above him. “Better watch out for the necroot of Gretto's. He's mighty fond of it, and if you're around him for more than five minutes, he's got you swilling it too, and then all of a sudden you're hammered and it's barely noon.”

“So it's happened to you?” Now that he was sober, Jax felt embarrassment creeping up on him.

“Oh, more than once. It's happened to everyone, so if you were feeling bad about it, don't. No one will think any less of you around here for getting a bit of a drunk on, especially if Gretto's involved. Now that you've sobered up a bit, thanks to my daughter, I'd say you and I have some business to attend to.” Aric put a hand to Jax's head, muttered something, and Jax felt the rest of his residual hangover slither away. “Thyra, I believe Joffrey would like your help with the livestock, if you would be so kind. Jax, follow me.” Aric strode off without looking back, the attitude of a man used to authority, and used be obeyed without question. Jax cast a last glance back at Thyra, then trotted after Aric.

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