27 July 2011

Carnivale Mechaniste

Months blurred by, for Jax. Seventeen came and went and he and Thyra had been seeing each other in secret for nearly a year without Aric finding out. Jax had just begun to settle into a groove when Aric called an all-hands meeting that changed everything.

“We've been touring this continent for over two years now, and it is time for a shift. For most of you, the realm-shift is old news. For some few of you, however—” and here Aric looked at Jax, “—this will be the first such experience. If you are not used to it, it is a bizarre, and for some, frightening, experience. Once you are accustomed to the sensation, however, it is quite an amazing thing. I have been shifting from one realm to another my entire life, and I still never get tired of it. We have one last stop here on the Earth-realm, and then we will immediately shift to the Pleurian realm.” At that name, Jax found himself meeting Thyra's eyes, and saw there the pain of memory. Aric, too, seemed to be suppressing a tumult of emotions, even as he made the announcement. After a moment, Aric spoke up once more. “I know that realm holds difficult memories for many of us. None more so than Thyra and myself, for it was there that we lost Thyra's mother to a Corsair attack. We haven't been back there since, for I simply couldn't face the memory. Now, it is time to return. The past is past, and we are far stronger now than we were then. We are ready, should those blood-thirsty pirates make their presence known once more. Be ready. We depart for Pleuria in one week.”
The last show seemed to drag for Jax. He was more than ready to see somewhere new. He was tired of seeing the same sights, he realized. Every stop was the same, the people always seemed to have the same glassy-eyed, dazed, bored expression on their faces. He had no idea what Pleuria was like, but he didn't care, as long as it wasn't here. The farther away he traveled from his childhood, the better he felt about himself.

After the fair was over, Aric instructed the drivers to circle up. Once they had all done so, the circle was nearly half a mile in diameter, with Aric standing in the center. Jax was sitting next to Harman in the Romani's RV, watching intently as Aric dipped his fingers into a pouch of some kind and sprinkled a silvery powder in wide circle around himself. Next, he pricked his finger with the tip of dagger and squeezed three drops of blood in the grass around him in a triangular pattern; Aric began to chant a sibilant spell, moving his hands and fingers in an intricate webbed pattern, moving in a dance around the circle. As he moved, bright blue lines appeared behind him, conjured by his spell. The lines, which Harman called ley-lines, described a complex, intricate series of circles, arcs, and parallel lines. When the pattern seemed to meet Aric's requirements, the carnival-master mage resumed his place in the center of the spell-circle, held his arms aloft like an orchestra conductor. At this signal, everyone in the circle began humming, each person at a different pitch. It began low at first, from one or two people, and then spread around the circle swiftly. When it got to Jax, he found himself humming as well, unconsciously, instinctively, at a pitch that harmonized with everyone else. When the entire circle was humming, Aric lowered his arms to waist height and slowly lifted them back up, as if raising above his head something held in his hands. As Aric did this, the members of Carnivale each began to increase the tempo and volume at which they were vocalizing. Simultaneous to this, the ley-lines began to glow more brightly until the lines were indistinguishable from each other. By the time Aric's hands were lifted above his head once more, the humming had reached a deafening volume, so loud now that bones shook in flesh, teeth rattled, skin crawled and tickled; the ley-lines were so bright now that to stare at Aric in the center of the circle was impossible, it was like staring at the midday sun; what had been a cool blue glow was now supernova brilliance, angel-fire and star-heat.

The light eradicated vision, caused eyes to shut involuntarily. Aric was chanting, a rhythmic wordless incantation that completed and united the harmonizing hum of the hundreds of individuals. Sound and sight, earth and sky and ground and self, all seemed to twist and merge and mesh and sculpt into a jumbled, fragmented conglomeration of particles, ideas, memories; the thing that had been Jackson Magnus was a diffuse point of light floating amidst a million other similar points of light, each one pulling at him like gravity, causing him to orbit in dizzy, irregular patterns. After what might have been a single instant, or an endless epoch, the slurry of whirling identities congealed and separated and solidified, each into the person he or she had been, turning from points of light into people, arranged in the circle yet again, or still, just as they had been.

Jax sat in the RV next to Harman, blinking in an abnormally bright sunlight. He peered out the windows at the new world around him, unsure what to expect of a different realm. He found himself disappointed. Pleuria looked like Colorado, stands of tall Aspen-like trees waving their brilliant fall leaves in a cool wind surrounded by a wide plain of tall green grass. The weirdly-bright sun was pierced by a spike-tooth mountain, impossibly high, snow-capped near the top and tree-blanketed. The Carnivale was parked in the grass about half a mile away from a wide, hard-packed dirt road. Aric seemed to recognize where they were, for within seconds of arrival he waved his arm in a circle above his head and pointed down the road, northward, if Jax's sense of compass points were at all correct here. They traveled nonstop until dusk, when Aric called a halt and guided the caravan off the road and had them circle up again. This time, the circle was small and tight, Aric's RV in the center.
“This is not Earth, as you will soon find out,” Harman told him as they prepared dinner over a campfire. “This is a much different place, for all that it looks the same. There are many dangers, and our carefree, high-speed, freeway journeys are over. Now we travel as a true caravan, relying upon each other for defense.” Setting up evening camp involved, it turned out, placing the strange generator-type machines that Jax had noticed when he first came to the Carnivale. Since then, being unable to figure out their use, Jax had dismissed them as unimportant, at least to him. Each vehicle had one, he discovered, and as he followed Harman's instructions in setting it up, he finally asked what it was.

“You do not know?” Harman laughed. The Romani found this uproariously funny for some reason. “You have been with the Carnivale for nearly two years, and you have never asked the purpose of the amplifiers? Only a teenaged boy. Well, I suppose I must demystify you, then. Consider: have you not noticed that we never refill the gasoline, no matter how far we travel? Or that all of the mechanical devices run by themselves, unplugged, without a power source? Or that no one ever seems to cast a spell of any kind other than that used for their show, or other mundane uses? This is all made possible through the amplifiers, and Aric's ingenuity. I am no friend of the man, but he is a genius, and a powerful mage, as I have said before. In the community of magical peoples, magic is a way of life. This seems an obvious statement, but it requires explanation. We use magic for everything, and we did so for centuries, for millenniums. Then, a little over a hundred and fifty years ago, some enterprising mage invented a process whereby raw magical power could be withdrawn, or drained as we call it, from a person containing magic. This process, draining, would tire the person and require rest to restore them to full capacity, but would leave him no worse for wear, provided the person was not over-drained. This was a long process of trial and error that I am explaining, mind you, and many people were irreparably burned out or killed. Eventually, another tinkerer invented a machine to do this automatically. Then it was just a matter of course that this was applied to all kinds of things. However far this technology has progressed, it must be admitted, it still requires mages to be drained to provide the power that runs it all. These amplifiers are a recent invention of Aric's that minimize the need to drain quite as much as previously. They distribute the drained power from the drain chamber and supply tanks and amplify it tenfold, allowing a small amount of energy to be used for more purpose. They also magnify spells. So when Aric ensorcells normals to see an average carnival, the spell becomes ten times more potent and effective. ”

“What is the drain chamber? And the supply tank?”

“Ah...well...they are an unpleasant but necessary business. The drain chamber is where magic is drained, and it is stored in the supply tanks.”

“Well...obviously. But why is unpleasant?”

“It does not have to be, but the way in which Aric carries out the business is what is unpleasant. In most other communities, the people take turns donating energy, draining themselves voluntarily on a rotational system. With us, it is different. Aric uses the drain chamber as punishment.”

“Punishment?” That sounded about right for Aric, Jax thought.

“Yes...I had hoped to spare you the details, but I see that I cannot. When someone upsets Aric, by breaking the rules or otherwise crossing his will, Aric confines them to the drain chamber, for a duration matching the offense. Just before you came to us, we had a fire-breather named Haroun. He was a man who matched his element, hot-headed and impatient...well, being a virile young man who thought himself irresistibly attractive and charming, he set his sights upon Thyra. Thyra did not return the feelings, and this angered Haroun. One night, when all were asleep, Haroun found Thyra alone and attempted to force his attentions upon her. This was a grave mistake on Haroun's part, he soon discovered. She is not a helpless little girl-child. She paralyzed him telepathically and inflicted upon him the agony of the head with which you are familiar. She was so angry and frightened, however, that she did not take care to restrain herself, and Haroun was...how do I say it?...destroyed in his mind, but not killed. He was alive in his body but that was all. Aric, not being one waste a resource, attached him to the drain apparatus, and he has supplied our energy needs since then. He is nearing the end of his usefulness, I have heard, and will soon die. I have hope that Aric will be prevailed upon to return to a voluntary system, but I fear he will not.” Harman fell silent, thinking. “I have realized, just now, how similar his arrival to the Carnivale was to yours, and that, I believe, is the reason for Aric's inexplicable dislike of you. Haroun came to us alone, young, and inexperienced, orphaned and in trouble. We helped him, taught him a trade, and made him one of us. We became his family, as we have you. He repaid us by trying to rape Thyra, who is beloved by all of us. We were all shocked and angry to hear what he had done. If some of the others may be seeming reticent to make your acquaintance, it is because of the similarity of situations, I am thinking.” Harman's explanations made sense of a lot of things for Jax, especially as regarded Thyra and Aric. He understood the motivation that caused Aric to react so vehemently to Jax's proximity to Thyra. He understood it, but it didn't make it all any easier to deal with. And it most certainly didn't erase the danger that he and Thyra faced every time they saw each other in their midnight trysts.
Thereafter, Jax started going out of his way to befriend the other carnies, to show them that he wasn't like Haroun. Uric introduced him to the “outer folk,” as the artisans of the exterior-most ring called themselves. They were a funny, odd lot, the outer folk. Self-deprecating yet proud, kind and generous, they quickly became favorites of Jax's. He could always find something to do among them, and always found somewhere to stay. They lent him clothes, fed him, got him tipsy, taught him bits of their trade, all in return for conversation and an afternoon's work at their stalls spent selling and soldering, painting, arranging, cleaning, organizing. Jax quickly acquired a large range of basic skills this way, learning to paint miniatures as well as solder delicate joints, casting fabrication spells like Uric used...Jax found himself to be a jack-of-all-trades, able to do many things tolerably well, but not a master of much of anything.

Pleuria was a fascinating place, it turned out. The terrain was much like Earth: ever-changing, as full of wonder and beauty as danger. They were often attacked by bandits, which took Jax by surprise, the first time. One moment they were rumbling along the dirt road, a little after midday, and then the next the shufra sounding furiously, blast after blast and Harman was leaping out of the RV, a giant sword appearing from nowhere it seemed. The entire caravan had stopped and people were pouring out of the vehicles brandishing weapons of all sorts. Jax caught up the pair of short swords Helfdane had helped him make and rushed after Harman, buckling on the scabbard-belt as he ran. Just off the road, a battle was raging, dozens of ragged dirty men in tattered leather were rushing down the hills from both sides of the road, swinging battered hand-axes and rusty longswords and makeshift morningstars. Jax found Harman standing in a knot of bandits, laying about him with his claymore in deadly swaths. For a split second, Jax was frozen by the awful tableau before him, the sight of blood dripping from wounds, a dismembered arm tumbling to the dirt, a bandit screaming as he lay eviscerated, an outer-folk artisan with a sword through his chest...

The sight of the slain carny shook Jax out of his paralysis. He took three leaping steps and plunged his short sword into the bandit standing over the dying artisan. Two more bandits sprung up as the one fell, and Jax found himself desperately parrying their combined onslaught. He knew he couldn't defend against two at once for long, so Jax tried to separate the pair. He feinted to the left, a ruse that one of the bandits—a scarred, greasy, starving beggar of a man—immediately fell for, lunging towards the pretended opening. Jax leapt in the opposite direction, hacking sidearm as he did so, opening a long, deep gash in the bandit's side. Having slowed down one, Jax focused on the other, who proved more wary and less gullible, not falling for the same trick as his friend. Holding his sword vertically in front of him, the bandit circled Jax warily, trying to herd him towards his wounded friend. Jax wasn't falling for anything that apparent, engaging the bandit's sword with an obvious and easily-parried lunge, then used the opening to stab his off-hand blade into the exposed chest. The first bandit wasn't out of the fight yet, however, and had sneaked up behind Jax; sensing something, Jax whirled just in time to block a clumsy overhead blow, following immediately with a shoulder-high horizontal strike that decapitated his opponent. The sight of the fountaining blood sent Jax to dry-heaving, leaving an after-image that he knew would remain for the rest of his life.

“Jax! Behind you!” Harman's voice called out from off to the left. Jax, bent over as he vomited, stumbled around clumsily. A giant of a man was bearing down upon him, swinging a massive, razor-edged axe. So swift was the giant's charge that Jax only had time to tip over onto his back and blindly lift both swords, crossed, in a panicked block. The impact shook Jax to the core, jarred him senseless, but he managed, by a matter of inches, to stop the axe-blade from cleaving his skull. The giant—a grizzled, grinning, foul-smelling hulk—bore down, forcing the axe down towards Jax with inexorable strength. The blade was touching the tip of Jax's nose and he realized the brute was toying with him, that he could smash it down with one hand if he wished. That feeling, being toyed with, angered Jax, and triggered something. Jax expected a flash of light or an explosion or time to stop; what he didn't expect was to have a flashback. For an instant, Jax was six again, standing with his father at the zoo. It was one of Jax's few pleasant memories of his dad, that day at the zoo. In some distant part of himself, Jax wondered what this memory had to do with the axe that was about to split his face open. With the suddenness of a dream, Jax was standing three feet away from a tiger. The animal was pacing in front of the glass of its enclosure, its eyes impatient, feral, and hungry, staring at Jax malevolently. The image of the tiger stuck in his head, a clear vision of a beast ten feet from tooth to tail, four feet high at the shoulders, with claws like daggers and sleek, powerful muscles rippling beneath its silky fur as it padded restlessly back and forth in its cage. That was all it took. This time there was no sensation of magic, no tightening muscles or twisting bones, just an instantaneous shift from human to animal.

He was all claws and teeth, then, ripping, snarling fury. A bare ten seconds after the change, the sweating, blood-spattere ogre that had been above him was a shredded lump of pulp bleeding into the dirt and Jax was scrambling across the battlefield toward a skirmish centered around Helfdane. The smith had his two heaviest hammers in hand and was smashing about him recklessly, but Jax could smell a hint of fear coming from Helfdane as he desperately and vainly tried to fend off more than a dozen enemies by himself. As Jax leaped into the air and landed on the back of a bandit, he watched as the smith landed a blow that tossed a man a full three feet in the air; when he landed, Helfdane smashed his head with a hammer, leaving a shapeless smear of gore. At the same moment, Helfdane roared in pain, whirled around to crush his attacker, a dagger protruding from his back, inches from his spine. Jax sprang away from his most recent kill, swiping with a paw to eviscerate one, ripping out the throat of another with his teeth, leaving a sweet tang of blood in his mouth.

Things blurred after that, and Jax's ability to sort human-self from tiger-self seemed to fade slightly. The taste of blood in his mouth was less revolting, the sensation of a crushed jugular in his powerful jaws, soft flesh crumpling under jack-hammer paws more thrilling. When Jax woke, so to speak, from his reverie, he was crouched over a dead bandit, a hunk of chewed meat in his teeth, half-swallowed. The battle around him was over, and the other carnies were standing and staring at him in horror and fear.

Thyra was the first to step forward, hesitantly, arms outstretched, saying his name softly, sweetly. Jax heard himself growl, low in his throat, and Thyra froze in place. In his mind, Jax was fighting an internal battle for control of himself. The feral part of him wanted to stay in place, to fill his belly with fresh flesh, the human part of himself was revolted and horrified at his behavior, and mortified that he had growled at Thyra. She was still frozen in place, and he realized he was creeping forward on his belly, muscles coiled to spring. Jax struggled to bring an image of himself to mind, succeeded, but barely. He was flying through the air, claws extended when, concentrating all of his mental powers, he managed to bring himself back to human form at the last second, thudding to the ground and bashing his head against a rock near Thyra's feet. He looked up at her, whispered mentally I'm sorry as he faded from consciousness.

He woke up in throbbing agony. His torso was wrapped in bandages, as his was his head; he was lying in the back of what seemed to be a horse-drawn covered wagon. He sat up gingerly.

“Take it easy, boy-o. You may not remember, but you took some pretty hard knocks back there, in your...other state.” The speaker was an elderly man that Jax didn't recognize. He was silver-haired, hunched and thin, but his frame spoke of a man once powerful and active. He turned to look at Jax, a pipe between his teeth chugging smoke like a train's chimney stack. His face was angular, thin papery skin stretched tight over thick, prominent bones, his eyes gray and rheumy, piercing and intelligent.

“Who...who are you? Where am I? Where's the Carnivale?”

“Whoa, now, boy-o. One question at a time, heh? I'm Gregor, now, ain't I?” Gregor's accent was vaguely Irish, a lilting brogue. “You were sore wounded, weren't you, and you couldna very well be moved without you'd worsen your wounds. My old wife and I nursed you, being old friends of Aric's and owing that worthy much by way of favors. The caravan hadda go on without you, but there's only one place they could be going, and that's where I'm taking you now, in a slow but steady way. You just lay there and rest up and don't you worry about nothing.”

“Did I...did I hurt anyone?”

“Well, it were a battle, weren't it? A rather nasty one, at that, so yes, I seem to recall a good dozen or so of those good-for-nothin' bandits being ripped to shreds by yourself, once you'd shifted. I think what you wanted to know was if you'd hurt any of your own. No, you didn't, but it were a close one. I was watchin' from afar off, and right at the end there, you seemed to forget yourself, it looked like. You weren't a shifter no more, you were an animal, real and true, and you jumped at Thyra. You turned back just at the last second, and knocked your senses out. You'd been struck with swords and clubs and all, but you didn't seem to even notice, when you were shifted, you just tore up whoever had hit you. You was bleedin' from a dozen places, deep gashes and arrows stickin' out and bruises. Took a good bit o' healin' to keep you 'mongst the livin', it did.” Jax lay back, trying to bring up a memory of the battle, after he'd shifted...all he could remember was a vague sense of primal hunger, of immense power and snarling rage, the taste of blood being like nectar...all he had were sensations, no distinct or lucid memories...except Thyra, tiptoeing towards him, saying his name, pleading with him silently, with her liquid blue eyes pleading with him.

Gregor turned at scrutinized Jax, deciding whether to speak or not. “Look here, Jack my boy, I'll tell you something I ain't told too many folks. Truth be, I worked the Carnivale Mechaniste for many a year, with my old wife. Many, many a year. Some good, some bad, but never dull, I'll say that for true. Miss Thyra, now, she's a special one, ain't she?” Jax wasn't all that surprised to find out Gregor had worked the Carnivale. He seemed the sort, and he had that same manner of speech that he'd noticed in everyone else.

“Yeah, she is.” Jax agreed. “She's amazing.”

Gregor seemed to see something in this answer, for he chuckled. “I thought as much. She's got an eye for you, she does. Came to visit you, late at night, like, all secret. Touched your forehead, whispered your name. She didn't know I was there, watchin', or I doubt she'd've been so...outright. You been steppin' out with her, lad?”

Jax felt panic. If Gregor knew Aric, and owed him favors, then doubtless Gregor knew how possessive the carnival-master was about his only daughter. “I...” He wasn't sure what to say in answer. 

“Don't you worry, boy, you don't have to answer.  I can see the answer writ on your face plain as noses, I can. Can't keep much from old Gregor, right enough.” The old man must have caught the panic on Jax's face. “I won't be tellin' Aric, if that's what you're worrit about. I know the man well enough to know how that'd go for you and the lass. I'd be careful there, Jack. Aric's a canny man and he don't go for no dilly-dally when it comes to his daughter.”

“I gathered as much. It just...kinda happened. You know? I know we shouldn't keep seeing each other, but I can't help it. Not seeing her...I just can't imagine that. I'd rather take the risk.” Jax found himself pouring out thoughts to his man he'd just met, thoughts he'd never spoken aloud before. “I know it's dangerous, for me, most of all. He's already threatened me, twice. I mean, I guess it's obvious that there's something there between us, but hopefully no one knows we've been sneaking out at night to see each other.”

Gregor sighed, blowing out his long gray mustaches. “I wonder if you know, if you really understand what it is you're biting off, steppin' out with Thyra Aricsdottir. I do wonder. If you did, you might not be so eager.”

“ 'Aricsdottir'?”

“Boy, you don't even know her last name?” Gregor laughed so hard he nearly fell off the wagon. “Oh, boy-o, boy-o, you're really in over your heard, ain't you? I had best disencumber you of your ignorance, hadn't I? Listen, think hard about that name, and see if you can figure out the import of that.”

“Well...” Jax couldn't make the connection. “I don't know. There's something there, but...god, this makes me wish I'd paid better attention in history class.”

“It's a Viking name, boy. It's a classic Norse name, that is. Ain't too many folks about these days with a name like it, but that's because there ain't too many people like Aric and Thyra. You know what Aric's last name is? Thorvaldson. Aric was born and lived the first eighteen years of his life as a Viking, a real, true Viking, in the 11th century A.D., Earth-realm. Aric lived as a Viking, fighting, looting, pillaging, and raping. That was his life, and it was all he knew. His grandfather was a king, and his father heir to the throne, which makes Thyra royalty. But then, Aric's father went on a raid to the southern parts and never came back, leavin' Aric, just a bairn then, to be raised by his mother in Iceland and never knowin' heads or tails of his father. Then, when Aric was eighteen Thorvald returned, tellin' wild tales none believed. He left again before long, this time takin' his son with him. Turns out, Thorvald had come across the Carnivale in his travels and fell in with them. Eventually became carnival-master, and a damn good one, however prone to violent outbursts he may have been.”

“So...” Jax was trying to process what Gregor was telling him. “Aric went from being an ancient Viking to wandering through time and space with a magical carnival?”

“Yep, you got the gist of it.”

Not long ago, Jax would have laughed at how silly that sounded; now...not so much.  “So how old is he, then?”

“Well, that's a hard question to answer. The Carnivale don't move through time normal-like. Time don't affect you the same way, when you go to and fro in time. It ain't like he's lived on Earth through all of the consecutive thousand years between his natural time and yours.  He's been in and out of time, in and out of realms, so you can't really name an age to him, as such. His body ages as a body will, so in that sense he's about middle aged, forty or so, but even that ain't predictable either because all of all the magic. It makes you age different, is all I can really say.”

“So what about Thyra?”

“What about her?”

“Well...I mean...how old is she then?”

“You must be dense, boy. I just said you can't really peg an age to us carny folks. Me? I'm even older than I look, is all I'll say, and that's sayin' plenty.”

“So you're a carny too?”

“Well o' course!  Didn't I say as much?  How do you think I know all this? I worked the Carnivale for my whole life, for a dozen lifetimes, it seems, and my wife with me. I'll tell you some o' my own story, but not right now. We got to make camp before dark.”

They were a week catching up with the Carnivale, and Jax spent most of that week sitting next to Gregor in the wagon, listening to the old carny's endless supply of stories about Carnivale Mechaniste. Despite his promise, however, Gregor never told Jax his own story, always shifting and sidestepping and sidetracking to other stories.

It wasn't until the third night of the journey with Gregor that the nightmares started. He typically slept soundly and rarely remembered his dreams. Then, one night, he woke up screaming, a scream that turned feral, that contained a hint of animal roar in it, his limbs starting the twinge-and-contract sensation that accompanied a shift, and Jax had to clench down to prevent it. Gregor, on the other side of the banked fire, lifted up on an elbow, “Are you alright, Jack my boy?”

“Bad dream...I'm fine,” Jax said. But he wasn't fine. He had been in the midst of the battle once more, hot and sweaty and bloodstained, crossing swords with the first two bandits he'd faced. He saw in slow motion the awkward way they'd swung their weapons, inexperienced and untrained, saw the blade descending as if through syrup or molasses, saw his own blade block it and the other arcing through the air to part his head from his shoulders. Jax watched as the head toppled from the body to fall topsy-turvy through the air to the blood-mud, a startled expression freezing on the face as life departed. Blood fountained in the air and sprayed everywhere (exactly like in Kill Bill, Jax thought, in the lucid manner of dreams), drenching Jax and turning the ground at his feet to slop, then to a puddle, then a lake, then an ocean in which Jax was drowning and flailing helplessly, splashing in the hot salty tangy crimson rolling tide of blood, a tsunami of blood, a universe of blood...but still the headless corpse came on, despite the ocean of blood hindering its movements, despite being dead, it came on with its sword hacking and chopping and when Jax looked closer the gaping ragged hole where the head had been now had teeth like a shark, row upon row of triangular teeth that chomped and gnashed and its arms, now free of the sword, were grasping at Jax and pulling him with inexorable strength into the gaping maw...

He never got back to sleep after that, and all of his dreams after that were filled with horror-flick dreams, terror-visions, and he found himself exhausted every morning as if he had fought the battle in real life. For days Gregor held his peace about the dreams, instead telling ever more lighthearted stories. Then, when Jax had woken screaming not once or twice in a night, but three times, Gregor sat up, poked the coals into life and produced a pipe from nowhere.

“Bad dreams, eh, Jack?” He puffed on his pipe, stuffed tobacco into it, lit it, and drew on it until it billowed thick clouds of sweet, cloying smoke.

Jax wiped his face with his hands, sat up and ran his hands through his hair. “Yeah. Horrible dreams, like I've never had before.”

“Tell me.” It was a command, unusual from the otherwise easy-going old man.

“I don't know if I can too well, but I'll try. It's always the battle. It starts out with me fighting, and then it just gets...crazy. Always just...so much blood, like all the blood ever shed was flooding my dreams. Sometimes I'm the tiger again, but I can't change back, and I can't stop...I'm an animal completely, I'm...wild and angry, all these people are around me and I'm ripping them to shreds and I can't stop. Some of them are people I know and love, people I would never hurt, ever, like Harman, in this last dream I pounced on him from behind and he just...fell apart and he looked at me, and he was, like, so afraid...of me. The worst one...” Jax took a deep breath, looked up at the stars above him winking, numberless, like salt sprinkled across a blue tablecloth. He spoke without thinking, struggling to contain the emotions that rioted inside.

“The worst one,” he began again, “is where I attack Thyra...but unlike what really happened, I can't stop, in the dream. I can't change back, and I hit her like a freight train, and I can feel my claws cut her open and I'm trapped inside this animal body that enjoys the kill, and I watch her die...oh god...I would never...” Jax was weeping openly now, and the words came in ragged bursts.

“I know son, I know.” Gregor was next to him, a thin strong arm around his shoulders, pipe clenched in his teeth, clipping his words.

“Tell me it's just a dream, Gregor...tell me!”

“It's just a dream, lad.  It be a dream, and no more.  Look at me, now, boy.” Gregor's voice was deep and strong, suddenly, smooth and hypnotic. His rheumy eyes were clear, and now they seemed to spark fire...not fire, some part of Jax whispered, but magic...Jax let himself spin and whirl like a windblown feather, heard Gregor speaking but hearing only the soft shush of the ocean in a sea-shell. Time passed, the stars twinkled, the moon rose and fell, and then suddenly Jax was awake and hearing Gregor's words wash over him, felt the warmth of the blazing fire, felt calm and at peace.

“Just breathe, Jack,” Gregor was all Irish now, no carny-speak at all, “just let it all slide awa' like so much muck and shite, just breathe, Jack my lad, just breathe and breathe, blow awa' all the nightmares and bad memories of bad times. It'll all pass, lad, it'll all pass, I promise ye that much. I remember the first time I kilt a man, aye, I remember that clear as day, and the nightmares didna stop for a long while after, I tell ye that. It was horrable, it was. But it passes, aye, it passes, with time. And it gets easier, killin' a man.”

Jax found himself without words, only able to nod sleepily as Gregor rambled on in a thick brogue. “When I was a lad, barely more'n a bairn it seems, now, I met a lovely young lass in an inn, on the road t'Dublin. She was with her mother, this lass, but all I could see was her pale and lovely face, her sweet body showin' round and soft in all the right places beneath her fine, expensive dress. She was a lady, she was, daughter of a wealthy English family. Too good for farmer lad like m'self, poor as the dirt he worked. She saw me starin' she did, and returned the look, saucy and fetching. I was caught, right then, Jack, tangled in her web, and I haven't got m'self free since. She reeled me in, she did. I snuck up to her family's estate and waited for her, till she went out ridin' all alone, and I followed her to the sea, runnin' till I was fair heavin' my breakfast. She knew I was followin' her, Claire did, but she didn't let on till we was out of sight and alone in the rain-wet grass. She dismounted and waited for me, and when I came up to her I suddenly had no words a'tall, not one. I just stood there blowin' like a winded horse. Well, Claire, she waited until it was clear I was tongue-tied, and then she said, 'Well, boy, are you going to kiss me or not?' Well, I hadn't even considered that, I just knew I had to follow her, but I didn't need no second tellin'. I kissed her, clumsy but passionate. Gods, that was a kiss to end all, that was.

“She never went home again, my girl Claire. The kiss...well it turned to a tumble, right there in the grass, wet as it was, and I still hadn't said a word, and she not knowin' my name, even. Wet with rain and wet with sweat, cold and shivering, I looked at her and told I loved her. 'You're my wife now,' I told her, for I had my words and my courage back by then. Claire looked at me, cool as clay, and said, 'Oh am I, Gregor Cligane?' Aye, I told her, she was. Then it occurred to me that she knew my name, without me tellin' her. 'How did you know my name?' I asked her. 'I surely haven't told you.' Claire smiled, and her smile lit up the whole world. 'I know things, Gregor. If I'm to be your wife, then you'd better understand that. I've got the second sight, strongest in three generations.' She was mighty proud of that, Claire was.

“Well, her family wasn't about to let her go, easy as all that. Her father was powerful man, and he wasn't to be trifled with. A dozen men he sent after us, regular thugs, hard-knuckled and heavily armed. They tracked us to a barn on the road to Dublin, a lonely place, where none could hear us scream, or so the thugs thought. We was there in the barn, sharin' a bite of bread we'd stolen, and then they were in the door, comin' towards us, spread apart, knives and pistols in hand, one with a wicked lookin' club, one with a rusty mattock. 'You best come wi' us, Miss Claire. Leave us t'deal w'this dirty farm boy.' Claire wasn't havin' none o' that. Cursed 'em out right sharp, salty words what would curdle her poor mother's ears to hear. All's I had by way o' weapons was a bit o knife, a dull thing fit only for eatin', but that was better than my bare fists, if it came to that. And it did come to it, sure enough. Claire stood behind me, waiting. Well, they came at me, and it was right proper ruckus, that was. I had the worst of it, but they hadn't planned on what a cornered Irish lad would do if he were love-struck enough. And they hadn't planned on magic, neither. It just happened...they had me down, piled on top o' me and were kickin' me and crackin' my ribs...then something inside just...popped...exploded like a cannonball, and the thugs were just a spatter of blood on the barn walls, all over me and Claire and everythin'. I was near dead, it seems, broke and bleedin' from a dozen places, but Claire helped me up, hobbled with me down the road, held me up, strong lass that she was. And then, in the middle of an empty road, there was Thorvald, just standin' there, waitin' for us. He put his hand to me, muttered somethin' I didn't understand nothin' of, and then I was all healed up. Coulda knocked me over with a feather, just then, and Claire too. 'You best come with me,' Thorvald said. He was dressed like a Viking, fur cloak, broadsword, helmet and ringmail, blond braid and beard. Well, we didn't have no better plan, just then, so we went with him. He led us down the road a ways, then he did somethin' to the air, like he was partin' a curtain, and we walked through a cold bright space and then of a sudden we was in a snowy camp made of things like wagons but with no horses, and we didn't know what else. It was Carnivale Mechaniste, and that was how we became carnies.” Gregor fell silent, lost in thought, or in memory, and Jax was grateful for the silence.
                                                             *               *              *

When they came upon the Carnivale, it felt oddly like a homecoming for Jax. When he thought about it, though, it wasn't so odd: he'd lived and worked in the Carnivale for two years, and it was his home. Home...Jax rolled the word in his mind, savored the sense of it. He saw the RV's and trailers and battered pickups with tall campers, and he was glad to be home. But...home also meant Thyra, he realized. Carnivale Mechaniste meant Thyra. Was she mad at him? Did she understand that he had never meant to jump at her? Jax wasn't sure, and that was the worst part. He kept seeing the sudden terror on her face as she watched him leap through the air at her, forepaws extended for the kill. All he could do was hope and pray she understood.

As Gregor's wagon rumbled through the evening camp, it drew a crowd with it. Several people called out Gregor's name, seeming to be shocked and excited to see him; others seemed just as happy to see Jax, which made him feel some better. At length, they drew abreast of Aric's RV, and Gregor slowly climbed down from his seat, pipe clenched between his teeth and puffing clouds of smoke furiously. He had a thick, gnarled staff in one hand that Jax hadn't seen before, and the old man had a look in his eyes that starled Jax with the furious intensity of it.

“Gregor Cligane!” Aric stepped out of his RV and strode over to Gregor, embracing him heartily, clapping his back. “We all thought you were dead, man! It's a miracle to see you alive! And how's Claire? Is she well too?” Aric seemed genuinely happy to see him, but every word he spoke, Gregor seemed to get angrier and angrier. Finally, Gregor couldn't contain himself any longer. He threw Aric's arm off and stood tall and straight, giving Jax a brief glimpse of the intimidating man he must have been in his youth.

“Bollocks!” He shouted, thumping his staff hard against Aric's chest, making the carnival-master stumble backwards in surprise. “Don't play no games with me, boy. I know you better than that, and I know the truth. You abandoned me and Claire here, you did, you left us for dead. You did it a'purpose, and I knows it!” Gregor was in a rage, and Jax was as shocked as everyone else.

“Gregor,” Aric spoke calmly, soothingly, “I assure you, my old friend, that I did not, would not, abandon you. Please listen to me and listen well: I would not tolerate such an accusation from anyone else but you.”

“Blarney and bullshite, Aric Thorvaldson.” Gregor wasn't about to be threatened or intimidated.

“Watch yourself, old man. I respect you, as my father respected you, but that will only protect you so far.” Aric drew himself up, his icy blue eyes seemed to glint and shimmer, refracting some inner fire. “I will say this once again, I did not abandon you. If you wish, use the powers I know you still possess and divine the truth from me. Come, I invite you: read me. I will allow it, only from you, and only this once. I am a hard man, and I am an unforgiving one, and I am a merciless one, but I am not guilty of this.” Gregor considered briefly, then stepped close to Aric, noses almost touching, lifted two fingers and touched them to Aric's forehead, his gray eyes rolling up into his head. A few moments sufficed, and then Gregor stepped back, bowed low over his staff.

“You spoke the truth, it seems, Aric Thorvaldson.”

“Indeed I did. I am guilty of many things, but I do not abandon my own. Now, are we finished with this? Let us fill our horns and drink to old times!” Aric spoke easily, lightly, as if he'd forgotten it all, but Jax could see a gleam of anger in his eyes still. Jax resolved to watch over Gregor until the old carny returned to his wife. Jax had grown fond of Gregor, and would hate to see Aric do anything to harm him.

As Aric turned and strode away to make preparations for a reunion celebration, he glanced over his shoulder and pinned Jax with a hard, searching stare. Jax had a feeling he'd only made things harder for himself between him and Aric. Wonderful.

Crickets chirruped, bats squeaked overhead, the stars glittered and the full moon shone brilliant and luminous in the midnight sky. Jax slithered through the grass ever eastward, long forked tongue flicking out to taste the air. There was still a wild party going on in the center of the camp, but Jax had slipped out unnoticed and made his way to the pre-established meeting spot, shifting into a twenty-foot long Anaconda he'd seen at the zoo the summer he turned twelve. He wasn't sure if Thyra would be coming, or if she'd be able to get away unseen, but he had to try. If she didn't show, he'd have to risk meeting her in camp sometime, and that was a risk he was hoping to avoid. If she didn't want to see him anymore...

He couldn't consider that possibility. His keen serpent senses detected a rustling in the grass nearby and he froze, coiled his long body into a spring and tensed; a large rat skittered into view, stopping to sniff the air on hind legs, nose and whiskers twitching. Before he knew what was happening, Jax was wrapping himself around the rat and squeezing it until its squirms and squeaks ceased. The instinct to eat it was so overpowering that he had to phase back into human form. He knew enough about constrictors to know that it took days to digest their food, and he had no wish to be hacking up rat bones in human form.

He'd been waiting for over two hours and was about to change forms and return to camp when he saw her coming. She ascended the hill slowly, looking around, saw him step out from behind a tree and made her way over to him. Jax ran to her, apologies sputtering out of his mouth before she was even within arm's reach.

“Thyra...I'm so sorry about what happened, honestly...it just kind of happened before I knew what was going on...I lost myself for awhile and...please, understand I'd never hurt you...”

Thyra had to put her hand over his mouth to silence him, kissed him gently. “Jax, I know. I know. I saw the look on your face just before you passed out, and I heard you. It's okay. I mean, yeah, it was scary, but you didn't hurt me.” Jax felt relief rush through him like a tidal wave at her words.

“So...what did happen, when those outlaws attacked us? One second you were fighting some hulking giant, the next you were a tiger or something and you were just...wild...”

“I don't know. That huge guy was so much stronger than me, and he was forcing his axe down on me and I couldn't do anything, and then all of a sudden I had this crazy flashback to when I was at the zoo as a kid, and there was this tiger in front me...next thing I know I am the tiger, and the guy is dead, just...shredded...After that, I guess I got lost in the tiger, or something. I don't know, I can't really explain it. I have no memory of what I did, beyond a few blurry images and...like, taste-memories, if you know what I mean. I remember, like, having blood in my mouth, and the taste of it was just so good, and the feeling of having prey beneath my claws...

“And then I came to, and you were in front of me, saying my name, but all I heard was a voice, kind of like the adult in Charlie Brown movies, you know, wah-wah,wah-wah-wah, wah-wah...no? Well I saw you, and part of me knew you, but my body acting by itself, I heard myself growling at you, felt myself leap at you. It took everything I had to turn back before I got to you.”

Thyra looked at him tenderly. “But you did it. And you know, if you hadn't...turned like that, the battle would have gone on a lot longer than it did. You turned the tide of it, you know. You were terrifying, just everywhere, you must have killed, like, a dozen outlaws in less than a minute. As it was, we lost ten people, and we can ill-afford the loss, at this point. But we could all see that you weren't yourself. When they were all dead and you were...eating...one of them, that's when we really knew that it wasn't you in there anymore. I was the only one who could even get within thirty feet of you, right then. Even Harman tried and you swiped a paw at him and snarled. Everyone saw how you didn't mind me getting near you, Jax. Everyone saw...how you looked at me when you were back in human form. And I know Harman saw how I looked at you. Things are going to get even more difficult, now. Daddy is suspicious I think.”

They were sitting cross-legged facing each other, hands joined. “I wondered. Your dad looked at me weird, earlier.” Jax couldn't hold back anymore. He leaned over and kissed her, more deeply than he ever had before, and he felt her shock, felt her stiffen in resistance for a brief moment before she melted into him, leaned against him, pushed him down to the grass on his back, straddling him, one hand propping herself up, the other wrapped underneath his head, fingers in his hair. In the back of his mind, Jax knew they were entering dangerous territory, going this far. He knew, somehow, that if they went any father, physically, the visions he'd seen would come true. The first vision he welcomed, eagerly, but he knew that that one led inextricably to the second, and the second, in some way, to the third, and the third vision frightened him the most. But yet, he couldn't pull away. The faint taste of vanilla chapstick on her lips, her hands on his skin under his shirt, feeling his ribs and hipbones...he was losing himself in her as he'd lost himself in the tiger, but this was safe and comforting, it was an upwelling of ecstasy, a breathless fantasy that he'd dreamt of every night he didn't see her, and now it was real and perfect, her flesh was so smooth and warm and now she arched her back and ground her hips against him and their kiss deepened even further...

A stick cracked nearby, a sharp, starling sound that was accompanied by Aric's voice floating to them through the still air. With Thyra still astride him, Jax shot to his feet and phased into the first shape that occurred to him: a bat. He felt a shriek of surprise echo in his mind and looked back as he fluttered up and away: Thyra was a bat suddenly as well, somehow she'd shifted with him and was fluttering after him. Jax could see Aric below, making his way through the trees, obviously searching. As he watched, Thyra shifted back to her normal form and landed heavily, shaking her head to clear it of bat-thoughts, looking up to where she could just make out Jax's form in the distance. She seemed unhurt but confused, as Jax was. He hadn't realized that was possible, but then he'd never tried phasing while touching another person. Wanting to see what would happen with Thyra and Aric, Jax found a nearby tree and perched in it, hanging upside down. 

Aric blundered into the clearing where Jax and Thyra had been.  “Where is he?” Aric demanded.

“Who?” Thyra returned, sounding innocent.

“Don't play games with me, daughter. You know who. I know you were here with that shifter-boy.”

Thyra stood tall and unafraid, unblinking. “Even if I was, it would be none of your business, father.” Jax had never heard her refer to Aric as anything but 'daddy' before, and obviously Aric hadn't either, for he looked shocked.

“Do not speak to me so, daughter,” Aric said, a sharp note of warning in his voice.

“You cannot control me any longer. You have driven away anyone I have ever liked, and I'm sick of it. You cannot and will not tell me who I can or cannot see. Jax is a good person, daddy. I don't know why you hate him so much.”

Aric seemed at least a little swayed by this sudden and unexpected outburst. “Thyra, darling...whatever I do, I do because I love you. That shifter-boy...it's not that I hate him, I just...don't trust him. He's not right for you. You are descended from Norse kings, my daughter, and no common boy from that age of liars and thieves and self-serving whores will ever be good enough for you. Never.” Well, now Jax new how he really felt. “You will not see him again. I will not allow it. If I have to banish him, or kill him, or drain him, I will. Let him go, Thyra. It will be best.”

“No!” Thyra slapped Aric across the face as hard as she could, knocking Aric back several steps. “You do not decide what's best for me. I do. I will see him as often as I wish and you cannot stop me. If you try to prevent it, you will lose me. I will go wherever he goes. If you banish him, you banish me.”

“So be it. You will not dishonor your memory of your ancestors by dallying with some shape-shifting gutter-rat. I will kill him with my own two hands first, and you can do what you wish thereafter.” Aric turned on his heel and stormed away.

“No! Daddy, please!” Thyra followed after Aric, catching at his arm. “Please, don't hurt him...please...I love him...” Aric stopped in his tracks, and even from a hundred feet away Jax could see the pale, trembling rage on his face. Jax himself was stunned at her words. He was overjoyed to hear say she loved him, but...he hadn't meant to cause this.

“You...what?” Aric demanded. The two words were spat out, each one a threat.

Thyra seemed shocked herself, but didn't retract her words; rather, she stiffened her back, and tilted her head up proud and resolved. “I said, I love him.”

Aric seemed at a loss for words. Finally: “Then you've just signed his death warrant. And your own, if you interfere.” Aric stomped away again, cursing in what Jax assumed was his native language. This time Thyra let him go, watching him with tears dripping from her chin. As soon as Aric was out of sight and earshot, Jax flew over to Thyra and phased mid-air, landing on his feet in front of her.

“Thyra...I'm so sorry, I never meant to come between you and your dad. I didn't want to cause this. What do we do now?”

Thyra looked up into Jax's eyes, searching for words. “I don't know, I honestly don't. He'll kill you if he sees you again. Kill you, or worse.”

“Then we'll leave together.”

“And go where? How will we survive? This place is unforgiving, Jax. Pleuria is dangerous. We wouldn't make it a month."  She was silent for a long time, thinking.  Finally:  "I think you have to stay away for awhile. I can work on Daddy, calm him down. Maybe you can stay with Gregor. He's like a grandfather to me, he would take you in.”

Jax wasn't sold. “I don't know, Thyra. I don't like it. He straight up said he'd kill you if you interfered. He's an evil bastard and I should just go confront him.”

Thyra grabbed his arms, pleading with him, “No, Jax, don't please. You don't know him, not really. He'd tear you apart. I don't mean to belittle you at all, I just...you haven't seen him really truly angry, you haven't seen him in action.”

“Okay, okay, I get it. Maybe I'll just turn into an animal or something and hang around the edges and wait.”

“That's not a bad idea,” Thyra admitted.

“I just have two worries: number one, if I stay an animal too long, I'm worried I won't be able to change back to human; second, what if Aric realm-shifts again?”

“I think you'd have to turn back to human regularly, just so you don't forget yourself. As for the realm-shifting, Daddy can't shift back so soon. It takes a lot of power, and I mean a whole lot, to perform that spell. We're stuck here for at least a month, I'd say.”

“You don't look too happy about that,” Jax remarked.

“I'm not,” Thyra answered. “None of us are. This place holds bad memories for all of us.”

Jax was puzzled. “I know why it's bad for you, but why everyone else?”

“I lost my mother here, but she wasn't the only one lost. We lost at least a hundred people in that raid. That was nearly half of our number, at that point. Everyone lost someone they loved. Just being here is terrifying for most of us. Pleuria is one of the Corsairs' favorite places to raid, so we're all just waiting to see that black storm cloud on the horizon...You can't imagine what that's like, you just can't. The Dreadnaught is so massive and frightening, and the Corsairs...” Thyra could only shudder.

Jax held her close, not knowing what to say. He just knew he couldn't stay away from her for long, Corsairs and Aric be damned.

He spent the next two weeks haunting the edges of the Carnivale as it traveled, shifting shapes constantly, always spending a few hours at night as a human. Every once in a while Thyra would find him and they'd spend an hour together, talking and holding each other.

It was the start of the third week when everything changed. The Carnivale was approaching a low line of hills, and Jax was floating above them on the wings of an eagle, soaring in lazy circles, watching and waiting. The sky was blue and clear of clouds for miles, the air was still and hot, the sun perched at its midday height. Then, without warning, a massive pile of black thunderheads appeared and covered the sun, throwing jagged bolts of lightning and cracking thunder. Below, the Carnivale ground to a sudden halt on the dirt road and formed into a tight, defensive circle. The sound of screams and yells and commands drifted up to Jax. It was just a thunderstorm, Jax thought, what was all the screaming about? Then he understood: from in the midst of the thunderhead a ship emerged, scudding through the black lowering clouds like a flying citadel.

The Corsairs of Carth were attacking.

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