12 July 2011
Chapter 3: Portents
The days passed in a blur of endless highway miles between cities, hours in the back of an RV with Thyra, sharing iPod earbuds and playing Xbox. It seemed like a surprisingly mundane thing to do in a carnival of magicians, or as they preferred to be called, mages. People like him, with unusual abilities or natures, they called 'other-natured'. Jax was beginning to understand himself, slowly, with Aric's impatient but effective instruction. It started with a housecat, a calico named Helix. Aric sat him down in his office—a booth in an expensive, tricked-out RV that Aric called 'the command center'—and put the cat in front him.
“All you have to do,” Aric told him, “is look at the cat, and focus on it. Feel, in your chest, in your gut, in your core, the change. Feel the pool of energy inside, reach for it, grab it, connect it to that image of the cat in front of you.” Jax put his head down, rested his chin on his fist, stared at the cat, which watched him right back with that inscrutable, aloof gaze that is so unique to felines. Jax felt the now-familiar sensation, the tightening in his chest, the slight buzz in his head, the curling inward of his being.
“Good,” Aric's voice was in his ear, but Jax had no attention for anything but Helix. “Now, envision yourself morphing, slowly and intentionally, into Helix. Not into a cat, but into Helix, into that very cat in front of you. It is absolutely vital that you envision yourself as you are, clothed, with all of items upon your person, when you shift, otherwise you will end up naked, as you discovered.”
It happened suddenly. One moment he was himself, and then the next, Jax was crouching on the table, his tail curled around his body, ears pricked to catch every least sound around him, his whiskers twitching, nose smelling. The real Helix was tensed, coiled, growling low in his chest, and Jax heard it as a warning, a message that Helix wasn't happy with what was happening, and wouldn't stand for any funny business. Jax leaped down from the table, felt light and powerful, balanced and precise. He landed, stretched, flexed his claws and held his tail rigid. He felt eyes on him, turned to see Thyra watching him from the back of the RV. He moved towards her, each step slow and deliberate, reached her feet, crouched on his haunches and jumped up into her lap. She giggled, set her paperback aside and scratched behind Jax's ears, a sensation that made him wriggle and purr in ecstasy. He was aware, in the human remnant of his mind, that he was lying in her lap, on her lithe, pale legs, and it made that human portion of himself realize how much he wished he could do this as himself, that he could be this close to her, this intimate with her. He looked with his feline eyes at Aric, still sitting at the table, and the look in the carnival master's eyes made Jax, cat and human, take pause. It was a look of anger and disapproval, and it scared Jax with its intensity. He looked up at Thyra, then leaped down and returned to the table.
“Now,” Aric's voice was cold, commanding. “Hold an image of yourself, as a human, in your mind. Reach for that pool of power and see yourself, will yourself, to return to that shape. See yourself stand up, clothed and calm. It's important that you have an image of how you want to appear when you phase back into human form.” Jax conjured an image of himself in his borrowed Romani outfit, reached into himself for that tightening, curling, humming bolt of energy, and then he was standing up, boots firmly on the floor, head spinning slightly. Aric grabbed his elbow, pulled him down to the bench forcefully. He leaned forward, his eyes narrowed and glittering like ice chips, fingers digging painfully into Jax's arm. Stay away from my daughter, boy. Jax heard the words in his head, tolling like a bell, echoing and reverberating on the walls of his mind. Stay away, or no force on this earth or any other can save you. She's not meant for the likes of you. Aric released his painful, vise-like grip on Jax's elbow, Aric's face showing a side Jax hadn't seen yet, an arrogance, an assurance of superiority, cold derision and condescension. Thyra was watching like she could either hear what her father was saying to Jax, or could guess. Her features showed resignation and sadness. She lifted a hand, waved it limply, a gesture of farewell. Jax looked back at Aric, met his gaze, feeling anger welling up within him.
Not meant for the likes of him? What was that supposed to mean? What was he, that she was too good for him? He didn't need Aric. Jax looked out the window, saw a hawk wheeling in the distance. Somehow, his vision telescoped and he could see the hawk in perfect detail. Jax focused his energies, and this time the shift came even faster, more naturally. In an instant, he was the hawk, standing on the table, spreading his wings out and bursting out through the open RV window into the clear sunlit air. He beat his wings furiously, rose up and up and up, thought briefly about just winging away into the distance and making his own way yet again...but instead he spotted Harman's distinctive RV and turned on a wing towards it, half a mile back down the caravan. He wasn't ready for the world at large yet. Aric was possessive of Thyra. So what. Thyra was beautiful, a talented mage, from all accounts. Maybe she was too good for a nobody shapeshifter with no real family. He was finally able to admit it to himself, in his own mind, as he sped through the air with the wings of a red-tailed hawk: the man and woman with whom he'd grown up, whom he had called 'mom' and 'dad' weren't his parents. There had always been a niggling little shred of doubt in his gut, his whole life. He'd never listened to it, of course. They never said anything, so why would he? But the words his dad had said, that day, they stuck in his head. When they placed you with me, he'd said. He never had fit in. He didn't look at all like either of them. Even his mom had been distant in the way she loved him. It all made sense, to an extent. He wasn't sure who had 'placed' him, or why, but he could at least admit that Jim and Debbie weren't his real parents. They'd raised him, so he still thought of them as Mom and Dad. Well, maybe at some point he'd find out the rest. For now, just figuring out how to survive and make good in this bizarre new world was hard enough.
He floated in through the open passenger-side window of Harman's RV, thinking of Thyra. He didn't want to cross Aric, but he couldn't get Thyra out of his head. She should be able to make her own decisions about who was right for her. He sat on the cracked leather of the passenger seat, fuming internally and preening his feathers.
“Troubles, Jax? Perhaps you would care to speak of them?” Harman didn't take his eyes off the wheel, didn't seem at all perturbed by the intrusion. Jax phased back into his body, propped his feet up on the dashboard.
“I don't know, Harman. It's...”
“Well, yes, and no. The girl isn't the trouble, I mean. It's her dad. He's just...not what I thought.” Harman glanced sidelong at Jax, weighing what he would say.
“Aric is like that,” he finally said. “Thyra is all he is having for family, I should say in his defense, but that is not changing his basic nature, and the difficulty of getting along with him. He is not a nice man, for all that he is charming. He is a powerful mage, it must be admitted, and for that he is very proud. He has run this Carnival for many, many years, and he is much accustomed to getting his way, in all things. Thyra, she is the apple of his eye, as they say. You have chosen the most unobtainable of prizes, set for yourself the loftiest of goals in putting your eyes upon Thyra. He would not allow such a match, especially at such a young age. Were I to be you, young Jackson, I would perhaps put it aside. I know you will not do so, but I must say this, at least. And I must warn you. If Aric were to catch you with her...in any fashion...I fear what vicious things he might do to you. He is not a gentle man...as you will find out, eventually.” The talk turned to other things, then, but in the back of Jax's mind, he still saw Thyra's face, felt her fingers in his fur.
When they stopped, finally, it was in a small, one-stoplight town in Nebraska. They set up at the edge of town, the RV's and pickup trucks hauling trailers, all skidding to a stop in the gravel on the side of the road, men and women swarming out of vehicles, unloading, unpacking, hammering stakes and slipping awning poles together. It was a frenzy of organized chaos that swirled around Jax like water eddying around a rock in a stream.
“You, boy,” said a stocky, swarthy man covered in swirling, color-changing tattoos, grabbing Jax by the shoulder, “what are you doing, standing there? There's work to be done!”
“I...I'm new...” Jax stammered. “I'm not sure what to do.”
“Well then come with me, I've got plenty for you to have at.” So many of the people Jax encountered in the carnival had such odd patterns of speech, Jax had noticed. The tattooed man, Uric, as he introduced himself, put Jax to work setting up folding tables and arranging the man's merchandise, hand-crafted figurines wrought from metal, glass, tin, paperclips, clay; any and every material one could think of, Uric had used to make delicate, exquisite figurines of animals and people and other things Jax couldn't name.
“Did you make all these?” He asked Uric, finding it odd to think that such a hardened, tattooed, muscled man like Uric could make anything so delicate as these. He held in his hand a swan made from porcelain, small enough to fit in the palm of Jax's hand. The swan was utterly real, to look at it, as if a living swan had been frozen and shrunk.
“Of course,” Uric said, looking at Jax, baffled at the question. “I make them while my woman, she drives. I make them from whatever I can find.” He cast a glance around him, saw a rusted soda can lying some distance away. Uric retrieved it, set it on the table, stared at it for few moments, thinking, then proceeded to rip the can open with his fingers, as if it were a napkin. Within seconds, the aluminum can was flattened, lying inner side up. Uric placed his hand over it, palm flat, and whispered a few sibilant sentences, passing his hand back and forth over the aluminum. Next, Uric took the erstwhile soda can in his hands and began folding it and bending it, exactly as if Uric was using the metal for origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. Suddenly, Uric swore, dropping the half-made figure. Apparently, whatever magic he did to make the metal more pliable didn't make the edges any less sharp, as Uric's thumb was bleeding profusely. Uric gripped his thumb with his opposite hand, gritting out words that seemed like curses, but in some foreign language that Jax didn't recognize...only when Uric said them, his hand glowed red, like Jax's hand used to do when, as a kid, he would press a flashlight to his palm in a dark room. When Uric took his hand away, his thumb was healed.
Jax stared in amazement. “Can you teach me to do that?” He asked.
Uric looked at him for a long moment before responding. “I suppose I might try. I cannot guarantee that you will succeed in the learning of it. You are a shifter?” Jax nodded, watching intently as Uric finished the figure, turning the aluminum into a deer, complete with a spread of antlers. “Many shifters have difficulty in performing magic other than the shifting, so do not be angering yourself at me if you can't learn. But first, finish this set up.”
A few hours later, after the awning and tables had been set up and the merchandise arranged to Uric's satisfaction, the two sat down on folding chairs Uric tried to teach Jax the healing spell. As Uric had warned, however, Jax found it incomprehensible and nearly impossible.
“It comes from inside of you,” Uric told him. “It comes from your gut, your brain, your balls. It's inside you all the time, you just have to pull it out. Don't think. Don't understand. Just do. Use your imagination, as well. See it. Feel it.”
They had been working for over an hour when Uric trailed off mid-sentence, and slapped his palm against his forehead and laughed uproariously. “I am an idiot, Jax! An idiot!”
“Because you cannot perform a healing spell if you do not require healing! The magic must have an object upon which to operate.” Uric reached out and dragged the nail of his index finger along Jax's forearm, emitting a strange guttural hiss as he did so. Jax felt a hot deep cutting pain slicing into the flesh of his arm. Where Uric's fingernail touched the flesh, it opened up a pink gash an inch deep. It didn't bleed, strangely.
“Now, boy, heal yourself.”
Jax focused all of his attention on the gash in his forearm, pulled deeply from the well of energy that sat in his gut. He pronounced the words, touching his palm to the wound, and visualized as clearly as he could the skin knitting back together. This time, Jax felt a cool sizzling buzz in his arm and hum of power running through his body. When he pulled his hand away, Jax's arm was healed, as if it had never been injured.
“Good! Very good, Jax-boy. Now, I think there are other people in this place that could use your assistance. Try Helfdane, the smith.”
“Where is Helfdane? How do I find him?” Jax had't been able to discern any pattern to the booths, as yet.
Uric looked at Jax, puzzled. “Boy, the booths are always the same, always. Have you not noticed?”
“No, this is the first time I've been around for a setup.”
“Oh, well then I guess you can be forgiven for not understanding. It is like this,” Uric knelt and drew three concentric circles in the dirt with his finger, “the outside edge of the circle is always food and beverage vendors, trinket sellers like me, tourist items like Carnivale t-shirts and keychains, things like this. Always, the exact appearance of such things is altered to suit the desires of the local non-magicals.”
Jax was puzzled. “Altered?”
Uric rubbed his forehead. “Boy, you know nothing at all about this place you are in, do you?”
“No, I guess I don't.”
“Well, I can't stop and explain it all to you, but I'll give you the basics. The Carnivale is an ancient, complex thing, it's half-alive, I sometimes think, almost sentient. It's always changing, altering, expanding, shifting, absorbing. That's the magic of it. The most basic thing you have to understand, Jackson Magnus, is that the Carnivale Mechaniste is a magical thing, in its very essence. It operates on magic, the attractions are magic, and all this magic comes from the people who run it. The carnival is the people. It is too many things to name in this tongue. But, people who possess magic are few, and those without, many. So, part of Aric's job, and his real talent, is creating a spell that surrounds us and travels with us that, persuading gently and subtly and insistently those who cannot see magic that our Carnivale is nothing but a quaint, cheap, traveling carnival.” Uric paused, thought, and asked: “Do you even know about the realm-shift?”
“I didn't think so.” Uric went into his RV and re-emerged with two cold bottles of beer. “Sit and drink, Jax, while I give you a brief explanation of the Carnivale Mechaniste.” Jax was getting used to the blasé way the carnies treated underage drinking. There was no one to say he couldn't, so why not? Jax took the bottle and tried to twist off the red cap, but only managed to cut his hand open. He used the spell he'd just learned to heal his hand and held the bottle to Uric with a look of embarrassment. Uric took the bottle and opened it with an opener on a key chain, chuckling.
“Everybody does that at least once, boy. Now, attend me. The basic shape of the Carnivale, to continue," Uric pointed at the circles he'd drawn in the dirt. "It is concentric rings, like nesting dolls. As I have said, the outside ring is people like me, who use a specialized form of a spell to create some sort of art object, the food and drink sellers, the like, as well as some normal, unmagical carnival rides and games. Next ring to the inside are the attractions, or, in old circus parlance, the midway: mindreaders, telekinetics, fire-breathers, animal tamers, tight-rope walkers...most of 'em would be right at home in a normal carnival or circus, except they use magic, though you probably couldn't tell, honestly. They just use their magic to do the tricks more safely. Inside that is the really special stuff, Gretto's House of Many Mirrors—which I hear you discovered the hard way—the Carousel of Moments, Madame Hassan's Tent of Fortunes, The Sway Sisters, and Herath and Borath's Illusionary Dreamshow. At the very center, where you can only go if you have magic, is the Altar of Angels, Aric's show, and the Bawdy Tent. In that same interior is the drain chamber and the generator room. You'll have to see each of them to believe what they are, so I won't explain them.” There a sudden, startling blast of sound just as Uric finished speaking. It was a primitive, tribal sound, and it sent shivers down Jax's spine.
“What the hell was that?” He asked.
“That was the shufra, an instrument made out of an animal's horn. Morgrath the sword-swallower sounds it when the ticket-takers begin letting in customers. It marks the official beginning of the Carnivale Mechaniste. He will blow it again at the end, in three day's time.”
* * *
Helfdane the smith was a storybook image of a blacksmith, huge, burly, massive arms like tree-trunks, iron-hard skin, fists like granite boulders, a thick blond beard braided and tucked into a leather apron. He spoke rarely, Jax would find out. He communicated in grunts, gestures, and glares, and this seemed to be all he needed to make himself understood. When Jax showed up at Helfdane's stall looking for work, the smith stared at him for a long awkward moment, sizing him up, then pointed at an apron hanging from a peg. Jax donned it, found it big enough to wrap twice around him and trail on the ground. Helfdane seemed to have difficulty suppressing a hint of amusement from tipping up the corners of his lips. The smith then directed Jax, by way of demonstration, to hold a white-hot rod of metal with a pair of tongs, turning it slowly as Helfdane worked it with a hammer, tapping it here and there, turn, tap-tap-tap, turn, tap-tap-tap, turn...all the while the forge was blasting heat and the sun was beating down and the leather apron was heavy and the tongs were heavy. Soon Jax became light-headed and asked if he could stop for a moment.
“No stop, sissy-boy. Strong grows from pain like tree from soil. Shut mouth and hold tongs.” And that was Jax's experience of the Carnivale for that stop, three days of heat and exhaustion and burning muscles. But, he found, it was satisfying work, and he was learning something, so he kept at it. He realized he was free to go whenever he wanted, but Jax was finding comfort in the absence of worry and thought, he just worked, pumping bellows, carrying loads of metal rods and ingots, anything and everything Helfdane asked him to do. The brutally-hard work of the smithy helped keep Jax's thoughts in safe territory, away from wondering about himself, his parents, away from Aric's threat, and especially away from Thyra. He found himself working like a madman, some days, sweating and muscles burning, just to keep from thinking about her. She was always there though, in his thoughts and around the Carnivale. He'd see her in the distance, their gazes would meet briefly, then she would swirl away in a flourish of skirts. She almost always wore skirts, brightly-colored and of all kinds. He wondered, while pounding an ingot of metal into a sheet, how many skirts she had, and if any of them were just plain black, or gray. He tried desperately not to wonder what she looked like without the skirt, and failed. Just like that, he was daydreaming, the hammer slack in his hands and the metal cooling.
“Work, Jax!” Helfdane's booming voice made him jump nearly out of his skin. “The metal will not be flattening itself, and the girl will not be any closer for all the awake dreaming.” So Jax tried to clear away images of pale skin and blond hair and threw himself into his work with all the more frenzy.
Weeks, months passed this way, for Jax, and he barely noticed. He turned sixteen, celebrated it with Helfdane and Harman and a twelve-pack. The Carnivale Mechaniste was making its way slowly across the country, town by town, three days at a time. Jax divided his time between Helfdane's smithy stall—the transportation of which gave Jax some trouble, as the trailer that held it all was far too small for the amount of actual equipment that was set up at every stop—and Harman Luca's RV. When he was with Harman, he also found himself put to work. The Romani was in his own words, “a mage-smith” but it wasn't immediately clear to Jax what exactly that meant. He crafted objects using heat and hammers and tongs, but he also spent a lot of time humming and chanting and carving runes. One day, while helping Harman make a hammer out of some silvery metal, Jax finally asked outright what it was that Harman actually did.
“It is hard to explain this, young one. You are not from a magical upbringing, so you will have difficulties with comprehending the details, but I will attempt. I make normal things, like hammers, cups, swords, mirrors, figurines, a little of everything, as you have noticed, but I compress into them...no, not compress, is not the right word...imbue, that is it. I imbue them with magical properties.” Harman took a cup from a shelf, showed it to Jax. “This cup, you see, after I have finished with it, will never empty, once filled. A sword can be made to never lose its edge, a figurine of a lion can be a sentinel, alive and aware and watchful for intruders, or a raven could be a messenger...it is all based upon what one could imagine. I can also take normal things, such as radios or iPods, and make them never again need to be plugged in or charged. That is my gift, to put magic into normal things. Here, I show you.” Harman took Jax's iPod, which was lying on a table, its earbuds wrapped around it. Harman held it between his flattened palms and chanted a spell. A glow surrounded his hands, and he pulled his hands apart as the glow intensified, the iPod hovering in place. A few moments of this, and Harman plucked the iPod from the air and handed it to Jax. “Now,” he said, “it will never lose its charge again. For a customer, this would be a service costing a hundred dollars, but for you, I do it free, because you help me. Now, however, I have delicate workings to do, so you must leave me. Stay with Helfdane this evening, if you please.” Jax, not having a place of his own, had been bunking wherever there was room, usually with Harman or Helfdane. Tonight, it seemed, it would be with Helfdane, on the little fold-out army cot behind the forge.
He set out around the outer ring until he came to a cross-channel that led from the outer ring to the interior. On the way, he passed through the midway, and as usual, found himself distracted and drawn by shifting, wild chaotic jumble of people, the music that seemed to pulse from everywhere and nowhere at once, the lights of stalls and a myriad chattering laughing yelling voices. Here, in the midway, time and reality seemed to come unglued, slightly. Fantasy crept in at the edges, truth wavered and distorted. It could be a bazaar from 1001 Arabian Nights, scenes from ancient Rome or the Far East. Jax stopped to watch as Morgrath held aloft in one hand a shimmering, glittering, razor-edged sword, a length of gauzy silk in the other, the silk so light and fine that it floated and wafted in the slightest breeze. He never spoke, Morgrath, but his mannerisms were so extravagant and showy that he didn't need to. Small, lithe, swarthy, shaven-headed, ears studded with gold rings and hoops, wearing loose colorful clothes much like Harman's and his own, Morgrath was a caricature of a man, larger than life. He gave the silk to a woman to feel, admire its softness, lightness, and beauty. Then, he tossed it in the air, to float and hover and sink slowly downwards. As it descended, Morgrath made a show of examining the blade of his sword, touched his thumb to the edge, yanked it away and sucked at the line of blood, showed the cut to the audience; when the length of silk reached waist-height, Morgrath flicked the sword out, caught the silk on the edge, and at the moment of contact the silk parted to fall in two pieces. The audience ooh-ed and aaah-ed at the display. Then, when Morgrath lifted the sword and reversed his grip, so the point faced downwards, they collectively gasped, and one woman even whimpered slightly. Jax watched Morgrath carefully, noticed that the performer, wily and experienced, waited for several beats until the tension had reached critical mass. At last, Morgrath slowly, gingerly, delicately slid the sword into his mouth, inch by inch, completely focused now, the audience blocked out. When the cross-bars of the hilt were at his nose, Morgrath released the handle, turned in a slow circle so the audience could see that there was no optical illusion involved, then withdrew the sword, just as slowly and carefully as he had inserted. When it was out, he flourished the blade and bowed over it to the applause of the dumbfounded crowd. By the time the knot of watchers had dispersed, Morgrath had a tidy pile of bills heaped upon the scabbard at his feet.
“How do you do that?” Jax asked. Morgrath stared at Jax, then opened his mouth and pointed at the empty space where his tongue should have been.
“He had his tongue cut out, a long time ago in a far away place, he says.” Thyra's voice came from behind him. “He says that just before he swallows the sword, he casts a spell to render his throat impervious to harm. All sword-swallowers from Carth learn the spell before anything else.”
“If he can't talk, how do you know what he's saying?” Jax asked. Morgrath was nodding at Thyra's words, affirming them.
“I'm a telepath, like my father...among other things.” Jax's thoughts instantly flashed back to the trailer.
“Then, did you hear what your father said to me...or thought to me...or whatever? When I turned into a cat?”
Thyra tilted her head down, upset or embarrassed. “No, but I can guess. My father is really good at directing and shielding his thoughts, so I can't hear him. And it doesn't work like that anyway. You have to sort of...point your telepathy at the person you want to hear, otherwise all you get is a jumble of noise and thoughts from all over.”
“You said you can guess?”
“Yeah...I know how my dad is. He thinks no one is good enough for me. He probably told you to stay away from me or something like that. Am I right?”
Jax nodded. “Do you agree?” Even as he asked the question that had been in the back of his mind, he almost didn't want to know the answer. If she did, it'd be easy to just forget about her, write her off as an arrogant snobby bitch. But something told him that that wasn't the case, which was almost worse. In a place as small as this, where everyone knows everyone, it would be pure hell knowing she liked him but was kept away from him. He'd see her, every day...just out of reach.
Thyra looked up at him through a curtain of golden hair, her ocean-colored eyes hesitant. “I...no, I don't, of course I don't. But...he's my father, and I can't...”
“Can't go against him?”
“I see.” Jax felt his heart contracting. He tried telling himself he was being ridiculous. He barely knew her. What did he expect?
Thrya must have heard the hurt in his voice. “No, Jax, I'm not sure you do understand. You don't know my father. You've only seen the nice, charming, great-leader side. There's another side of him...”
“I think I saw that, a little. When he spoke into my head...he wasn't nice. He told me that you weren't meant for the likes of me. He sounded...cold...deadly. Like he'd kill me if he caught me with you, even once. He didn't say that exactly, but he made it clear. 'Stay away, boy', he said, 'or no force on this earth or any other can save you.' I believed him.”
“He's dangerous, Jax. You don't understand. You haven't seen the...other aspects of this carnival. It's not all magic and sword-swallowers and stuff...and Daddy? He controls it all. He knows everything that happens.”
“But what if he didn't know...or...”
“I can't afford to play 'what if', Jax. And you can't, even more so.”
“If you can read minds, can't you see how I feel about you?”
“I don't need to be able to read minds to see that, Jax. I watch you at mooning idly at Helfdane's forge, staring in my direction, daydreaming. But yes, I can see it in your mind, too.”
“And do you—”
Thyra interrupted him, “It doesn't matter if I feel the same way. What can we do about it? Nothing at all.”
“What if I don't accept that answer?”
“I'm not sure that's an option. I wish it was, honestly I do. I really wish—” Thyra must have noticed something over Jax's shoulder that alarmed her, for she suddenly looked very frightened, turned and darted off into the crowds. Before she disappeared completely, however, she paused to look back, and Jax heard her voice in his head: meet me tonight, two miles east of Carnivale, an hour past midnight. Thyra's voice faded and was replaced by a creeping cold in his spine.
“I thought I told you to stay away from my daughter, shifter?” Aric's voice was low and hard, buzzing against his ear, sour breath against Jax's face. “You don't want to cross me, boy. There are many things worse than death, and I'm skilled at all of them.”
“I can't help talking to her sometimes, Aric. She was translating for Morgrath. That's it.”
Aric eyed him carefully, and Jax felt an odd pressure in his brain. Or...not his brain, Jax's realized, but in his mind, against his consciousness. It was Aric, he knew, using his telepathic powers to probe his thoughts. Jax got angry, suddenly, at the intrusion. He resented Aric for his interference, for his arrogance, and for the intrusion into Jax's private headspace. The sudden burst of anger prompted Jax to push against the intruding pressure, to focus on an image of high walls and guard towers. Stay out of my head, he projected as strongly as he could. He had no idea if Aric could hear him or not, but felt it was worth a try.
Aric looked amused. “Primitive, but effective, I suppose. But if I catch you near my daughter again, you'd better yourself into the smallest animal possible and disappear. This is your last warning.” Aric turned and vanished, but not without a parting shot. A sudden, piercing pain struck Jax's head like a lightning bolt. It was so sudden and so intense that Jax collapsed to the ground, writhing and unable to even emit a groan. Don't screw with me, boy. Pretend walls aren't going to help you any. Not against me. Jax blocked out Aric's voice with all his mental strength, but the agony in his head only increased until Jax was curled into a ball, in too much pain to even whimper. You can't keep me out. You can't fight me. You're no one, boy, and you're all alone in the world. No one will mourn you, if you disappear. Tread carefully Jackson Magnus, for you live in MY world.
The pain in his head vanished as suddenly as it had struck, leaving Jax breathless and immobile on the dirt ground of the midway. No one even noticed, it seemed, for the crowd continued to swirl around him. He struggled to get to his feet, but the pain had left him weak and woozy. He made it to his knees, but couldn't rise any further. He felt a pair of hands under his arms, lifting him gently.
“Slowly, now, son.” It was a small, grandmotherly old woman with wrinkled, leathery skin, iron-gray hair and glittering black eyes. “Let Madame Hassan help you. He is an evil man, Maester Aric is. He's talented and extremely powerful, however, and the Carnivale couldn't run without him, so we must bear up under his occasional tyranny. You will recover soon enough. Come to my tent, young one, come come. Some heartroot tea will help you.”
Madame Hassan's tent was a picturesque fortune teller's tent: tall and peaked, multi-colored patches, gold-tasseled ropes holding open the entrance, smelling of incense and lavender. Within, thick Persian rugs on the floors and hanging from the walls, a giant crystal ball on a wrought iron stand sitting on a small, round, low table of thick, intricately carved wood. Madame Hassan helped Jax down onto thick cushion, clucking and fussing and muttering in a foreign language. She produced a huge hand-crafted clay mug, filled it with water from a basin, filled it with crumbled leaves from a tin. She held her palm over it, whispering. When she handed Jax the mug, it was steaming hot, smelled of mint and jasmine and earth and sunlight. Taking a careful sip, Jax discovered that it tasted exactly the way it smelled, and with each sip he felt stronger and more lucid.
Madame Hassan sat next to him, staring at him intently. “You are destined for trouble and glory, young one. I can see this merely from your aura. Give me your hands...ah...it is as I thought. Come, come...to the ball for a telling of your fortune.” Jax sat down across from Madame Hassan, with the crystal ball between them. She moved her hands over the ball, nearly, but not quite, touching it, chanting and muttering under her breath. Jax wasn't sure what to expect, but he definitely wasn't expecting what did happen: the cloudy interior of the ball began to swirl and glow like wind-disturbed fog, eddying and roiling. Slowly, subtly, the clouds began to assume shapes and images, and Jax found himself unable to look away, pulled in to the churning, hypnotizing haze. He heard Madame Hassan, vaguely: “good, good, fall into it, let it pull you down, see into it, see, see, see, tell me, tell me what you see...” and then his awareness of the world beyond the crystal ball faded away and he was inside the ball, turning and tumbling within the vale of vignette scenes. Was this his life to come? Possibilities? Truth? He couldn't make sense of it, but he found himself mumbling descriptions of what he saw.
First, it was dark, cool, a breeze blowing smelling of grass, then there were stars in glittering millions and the moon high and full swathed chastely in shreds of cloud, then he saw two figures lying side by side on the grass, faces pressed together, arms and legs tangled, skin flashing pale in the dim silver light...it was himself, and it was odd to see himself there, from above like a dream, then he was descending into himself but still aware of his disembodied presence above, a bizarre multi-presence, a disparate awareness. It was Thyra there with him, he smelled her and knew her instinctively and he knew because he had memory of what hadn't yet actually happened, meeting her and coming together unavoidably and inevitably. He reveled in the sensation of her against him, it was like a cool drink of water in the desert, she was fire and passion made flesh, she was as desperate and hungry for him as he was for her; she pulled her head back to look into his eyes, and the welter of emotion writ there took his breath away. “Oh, Jax...” she breathed, barely audible...
Then he was abruptly pulled away from himself, and he tried to stay but couldn't, he couldn't resist and he was bodiless again and floating weightless and invisible and insensate in cloud, in a boiling bank of past, present and future. Then the haze parted and he was descending again, this time into a bright desert, oven-hot, sun-hot, and there he was again, now lying naked and spread eagle, silver stakes hammered through his palms and ankles and he was agony embodied, agony such as he had never experienced in his entire life, mental, physical, emotional, spiritual torment unequaled in all of human history, perhaps. So it seemed. And it lasted for an eternity. He was within himself again, staked there to the cracked ground. His memory was fogged this time, he couldn't remember how he got here, but he had the sense that it was punishment, it was the counterweight to some divine ecstasy previously experienced, some memory that he held in his mind, hoarded away like a precious jewel, buried in the deepest corner of his soul, a memory that he, the disembodied version, couldn't see, couldn't access, whose existence he could only sense as a vague presence. Agony, terror, heat, exhaustion, dehydration, despair...impending death...these were his existence, with no relief or rescue in sight.
Then, a shadow over the sun, moving swiftly just out of his view, bringing a sweet coolth washing over him. The shadow was accompanied by thunder, a huge sound that made the earth shake, made Jax's teeth chatter and his bones buzz against each other. The sound got swiftly closer, and the noises separated into engine sounds, rushing wind, voices, creaking ropes and squealing metal and snapping cloth...the shadow gave way to a ship floating improbably in the air, a metal behemoth like a horizontal skyscraper, propelled by four whirling screws each as big as houses and he could hear, but not see, sails snapping in the wind. The aerial monster floated gently to a stop over him and ropes were tossed over the side, figures descending them like monkeys down a tree, blurred shapes bending over him, jibbering in a foreign language, untying him and flinging him over a shoulder and scaling the side of the ship...
And then he was rising up like a dandelion seed in a long wind, gone away from the ship and himself and the desert...up...up...up...among the stars and the moon and out past Jupiter past all the familiar planets and galaxies like a wayward spirit wandering free and homeless...and then he was slamming back down through clouds and endless blue sky and the earth beneath did not conform to the map shapes he knew, the continents were strange and not Earth's, not North and South America, not Europe and Russia and Japan and Australia...this was a different world, an earth, but not Earth, not home, and he was streaming down into the rarefied atmosphere above a forested land of mountains and rivers and glacier lakes and green pastures, and then down down into a valley long and narrow, widening out into a vast expanse of grassy plains dotted with things like horses and cows, tents and smoke-plumes and riders wearing armor and carrying long wicked-pointed spears, and then a high-walled castle rose into view from beneath the horizon, perched on the only hill for miles and it was to this that the spirit that was Jax flew invisible and silent and unobserved. Down into the center court of the castle he descended, an open ring with tiered seats surrounding the raked-sand interior. Upon the sand stood two figures, men with weapons in hand, helmets and greaves and gauntlets and metal-plate kilts, circling each other warily in the attitude of men facing off in a duel to the death. The stands were filled with a screaming, wine-guzzling mob, watching and waiting for the first blow to be struck.
He was within himself again, a visored helmet narrowing his vision to a strip of bright sand and the stands behind and the man facing him, leather glove-lining making his hands sweat as they gripped two curved, double-bladed swords, one held point-up, the other point-down. His opponent wielded a straight longsword and a shield, the sword held loosely, inexpertly, the shield drooping too low, and then he struck out with a blade, a feint that tricked his opponent into swinging wildly with his sword, creating an opening for a razor-tip to plunge into soft dark skin, spilling hot blood onto hot sand and sending the crowd into paroxysms of bloodlust. His opponent staggered back and the crowd went even more wild and he knew what they wanted, they wanted the death-blow, so he gave it to them, a spin on his heel with a blade extended, sending the gore-dripping head flying up, spiked on the other blade and held aloft in victory...but it wasn't over, by no means...a grate crunched open and a dozen men poured out and charged him and he was dancing a graceful pattern of death, pirouettes and lunges and parries and ripostes...
And when it was over and he was left standing alone in the center of the arena, blood-caked and sweat-sheened and heaving for breath and heaving disgust at the cost of survival...he was chained and shackled and led down into a cold, torchlit dungeon, left with a ragged blanket and a plate of food. But it wasn't long before a guard returned, with three small, hooded figures in tow. The guard unlocked the door, left it open, and posted himself at the far end of the hall, out of earshot but visible. The three figures stepped into the cell, threw back their hood to reveal lovely faces and intricate coiffures and expensive jewelry of wealthy noblewomen. In his detached spirit-self, he was aware of a sense of resentment, hostility, and resignation at the sight of these women, who were, in all other respects, so desirable....especially when they unclasped their robes and let them fall to the ground, revealing naked bodies that undulated towards him, pushed him down upon the hard stone flags and touched him all over, licked the blood from his chest and thighs and cheeks...he lay there all the while, feeling empty and helpless and violated...
And then, mercy of mercies, his spirit withdrew again, left the dungeon cell with his other self chained to a wall while three beautiful women took ragged portions of his soul into themselves, left the castle and the unfamiliar world and flew back through the stars and down down down with blinding speed into himself, his real self in Madame Hassan's tent.
Madame Hassan was staring at him, fearful and awestruck. “Never, never, have I seen such a vision before. I cannot understand this. You...you will be living many lives, I think so. I cannot word it any more truthfully.” Madame Hassan seemed suddenly unable to remember her English properly. “You, Jackson, must decide your choosings with care and caution. These visions you have seeing just then, they are not firm written, stone-carved. They are maybe-futures. Probably-futures. I see many lines of life that lead to this, and I think you will not avoid it. Gather to yourself, in this time before, strength and knowledge, build up in your heart-chambers a store of courage, a wealth of endurance, for in years to come...you will press through many hells. I cannot say more, cannot see more...cannot alter this or help in any other ways but to say that I will pray to all the gods I know for you.”
Jax was speechless. It was all too much to absorb, to understand. His heartroot tea was still hot, so he drank it, drew deep of its calming effect. Madame Hassan pressed a cool palm to his forehead, whispered a gentle word, and Jax felt his head spin and he fell back in a pile of cushions, asleep and dreamless.