03 August 2011

Carnivale Mechaniste

Chapter 6: The Corsairs of Carth

The Dreadnaught soared out of the thunderheads and banked left to circle around the Carnivale, four masts with sails bellied out in the wind from the storm that had brought her. In addition to the sails, the ship also had four screws at her tail spinning in unison, each with its own rudder; the Dreadnaught seemed to be a bizarre but effective mix of sailing vessel and iron ship from the modern age that Jax was familiar with. Jax flew towards the scene of the impending battle with all possible speed, all the while examining the airborne ship with the powerful vision of the eagle he currently embodied. The Dreadnaught had to be nearly eight hundred feet long by a hundred and fifty feet wide and sixty feet high, Jax estimated, and it looked to be made of iron or steel, except the masts, which were wooden. To Jax, it looked like someone had taken an old pirate ship and a battleship from the U.S. Navy, put them together and grown them to an improbable size. It had cannons poking their noses out of portholes in the sides as well as long deck guns on the fore and aft decks; now, as the aerial battleship descended upon Carnivale Mechaniste, ropes were thrown over the sides and small figures slid down them to drop to the ground, firing weapons as soon as they hit the earth. Meanwhile, all of the cannons on the ship opened fire, belching fire and smoke and concussive reports. None of the projectiles hit a vehicle however, ricocheting instead off of some invisible field. The guns on the fore and aft decks didn't fire traditional cannonballs or shells or anything Jax understood, rather, they spewed glowing red and orange balls that shimmered and wavered like liquid lit from within, and when these globules of magical energy hit the force field that was protecting the caravan, they splatted like paint and spread out to drip slowly down, and even from where he was Jax could hear a loud hissing, sizzling noise as if the globs were eating away at the protective field.

The Corsairs that had rappelled to the ground weren't stopped by the force field, Jax saw. They were in among the carnies, running in tight formation like highly-trained storm troopers. The carnies were ready for them, and were fighting back with astonishing success, using weaponry of all sorts: handguns, assault rifles, swords, axes, hammers, destructive spells, as well as the short, bent silver tubes Jax had seen which fired magical projectiles similar to the larger ones from the Dreadnaught. Jax was still too far away to help, and he felt helpless as he watched his friends fight and die; however ready the carnies were, they were no match for the Corsairs. For every black-and-red armored pirate that was felled, two more dropped from the ropes and joined the fight, and with every second that passed Jax could see the force field weakening perceptibly. Even as he watched, the force field failed in one spot and let through a cannonball to smash a truck into shards, and then a second ball hurtled through to explode in the dirt, blowing carnies into body parts. Jax heard a piercing cry ring out, realized it was himself, screaming his rage and horror in eagle-voice.

At long last he was mere feet above the scene of the melee, feeling a cold electric buzz wash over him as he passed through the force field, and there beneath him was a knot of Corsairs with flashing blades, their guns thrown aside, ganging up on a huge bellowing figure swinging two massive hammers with deadly efficiency: Helfdane, alone, fighting off a dozen, and losing. The smith was bleeding from a dozen places, but didn't seem fazed, each wound seemed to only increase his rage further till he was a frenzied berserker, screaming incoherently, smashing wildly with his hammers. Jax dove, wings folded for maximum speed, screeching, then at the last second he belled his wings and extended his claws to rip out the throat of the nearest Corsair. As the pirate fell, bleeding, Jax pushed off and took to the air, turned on a wing and descended again. This time, when he was about a dozen feet up, Jax phased into human form, short swords drawn. He landed full force on an unsuspecting pirate, felt bones crunch beneath his feet; Jax plunged a sword into the felled foe's back, just for good measure.

As he stood up, he saw himself surrounded by the remaining Corsairs. They were clad in armor made of overlapping metal scales painted a deep blood-red, affixed to black leather; black helmets with long, curving, twisting horns like an African Kudu, their faces were covered by red masks with with eye and mouth cut-outs painted into awful grimaces and angry scowls. They wielded sabers in one hand and tomahawk-like handaxes in the other, their gauntlets were covered with long, wicked spikes from elbow to finger, each spike tipped crimson.

Behind the Corsairs, Helfdane had crumpled to his knees, coughing blood. The sight of the mighty smith so reduced sent Jax over the edge. He took a lunging step forward and struck outward in opposite directions with each sword, kicking forward with a heel, striking three pirates at once, buying Jax enough space to bring his swords back to a defensive position just in time to parry and riposte an attack. It was that moment in which Jax realized how outmatched he was. Each attack he made, from each opponent he faced was expertly deflected and it took every ounce of skill acquired through his endless hours of practice with Harman just to stay alive; when one Corsair chuckled under his breath at a particularly clumsy lunge, Jax realized further that these warriors were simply toying with him, amused at his bravado and naivete, playing cat and mouse with him. Panic set in then, at the awful realization that any one of these pirates could easily have done with him at any moment, and he had taken on an even dozen. His first combat experience with the bandits had given Jax a false impression of his own skill, but those bandits weren't warriors, Jax now knew, they were starving, desperate men, whereas the Corsairs facing him were seasoned, trained warriors whose entire life was battle.

Around him, the sounds of battle rang loud, but Jax barely heard it...at least until a familiar voice became audible to him, wailed cry for help from Thyra. Jax slewed his head around to see Thyra struggling in the arms of a Corsair, kicking and biting and scratching, a silver collar around her neck. The pirate flung her over his shoulder, wrapped the butt of the guy-rope around his foot several times, jerked the rope twice, and hung on as he was hauled upwards towards the ship. Below her, Aric was bellowing in rage, furiously trying to bash his way through a knot of Corsairs blocking his way. All around, other Corsairs were similarly ascending to the ship with captives in their grips, male and female taken in even numbers, while the rest of the pirates defended their ascension.

Jax, caught now in the thrall of desperation—not for himself now, but for Thyra—threw himself into a wild offensive, unleashing a barrage of cuts and thrusts so wild, so fierce, so vicious and unpredictable that even the three pirates facing him were forced to back up several steps. Those steps were the room Jax was looking for: he threw himself backwards into the air, wrenched his body over face-down and phased into the first animal that presented in his thoughts, the tiger. As soon as paws met dirt he was tearing across the battlefield, deaf and blind to any plight around him, focused only on getting within a leap of Thyra. Sabers and axes flashed out at him, creasing his hide and drawing blood, but Jax was unfeeling, heedless of pain or enemy or friend, seeing only Thyra in the pirate's brawny, armor-clad grip, screaming, helpless, drawn inexorably to the ship's deck.

Within seconds, he was less than a dozen feet away from the dangling ropes, which were maddeningly out of reach now—even for a tiger's prodigious leap—as the ship floated slowly upwards and turned away. No. They weren't going to get her, Jax swore. He took several long, springing bounds and leapt skyward with all his strength, roaring and snarling all the while; at the apex of his leap, Jax phased yet again—the first time he'd changed from one animal directly into another—assuming the body of a swallow, a quick, darting bird that Jax had often watched from his bedroom window. A few dozen frenetic wing-beats brought him soaring and banking over the deck of the ship, twisting and swooping in quick currents, watching as the deck crew hauled at the handles of winches to draw the last Corsairs up to the deck. In the center of the deck, between two masts the size of redwood trees with flapping square sails big enough to drape over a house, stood a huddled gaggle of captives, cowering and staring around them in fear. They seemed unmolested for the moment, guarded but left alone.

Jax swooped down towards the deck, finding that he had now to labor to keep up with the vessel, which was picking up speed quickly. Jax watched as the deck hands—sailors, Jax thought of them—trimmed the sails, coiled the guy-ropes that the Corsairs had descended upon, tied off lines and secured cannons and their respective portholes. He could hear the screws pick up speed and the engines begin to churn and now Jax was losing pace—he had to find a way on deck, and now, or he would lose them. The black piles of storm clouds were still hovering in place, dumping a torrent of rain and clashing thunder, and it was for this that the Dreadnaught was making, circling wide and putting on speed.

Jax beat his wings until the muscles burned, caught up to the very stern of the vessel, just above the madly-spinning screws. There was a small deck there, at the very top of the superstructure that crowned the stern of the vessel, and it was for this empty scrap of deck that Jax angled, hoping he was unseen, as yet. Or at least, unsuspected. Strength waning now, Jax knew he had to make his move or lose the opportunity: he sent himself into a dive, wings tucked, feet extended, and then, less than three feet above the tiny deck, he shifted into human form and thumped painfully onto the deck, his ankle twisted by the fall. As he lay catching his breath and hoping his throbbing ankle wasn't sprained or broken, Jax heard a step on the ladder that led to the deck. His loud, awkward landing had attracted attention, he realized. This was where things would get interesting.

A black-haired head cleared the deck, followed by the armored body of a Corsair with his sword clenched between his teeth. The second the pirate's booted feet hit the deck, he had his boarding-axe drawn and saber swinging. He was of the strike-first-and-skip-the-questions variety, it seemed. Jax rolled to the side, avoiding the downward stroke of the saber, and scrambled to his feet behind the Corsair. Desperation to rescue Thyra overrode his instinct to thrust his sword into the opening left by the over-extended pirate; instead, he lunged forward and brought the edge of his sword to the Corsair's throat, stilling him.

“Turn around slowly,” Jax ordered, “and drop your weapons.” The Corsair did so, and as soon as Jax had a full view of his opponent's face, he shifted forms yet again. The sensation that accompanied this shift was startling and unique: instead of a twisting and folding in on himself, Jax felt as if he were expanding, and unfolding, changing, yes, but not so drastically as he was used to...this was a more subtle change.

The look on the Corsair's face told Jax all he needed to know. For a split second he hesitated, swallowed hard past the lump in his throat, then, before he could think about it any further, Jax dragged the blade through the soft throat tissue, loosing a deluge of hot blood. The pirate gurgled, grasped his throat as if to hold in his life's blood, slumped down to the deck, surprised eyes wide. Jax threw down his own short swords and took the saber and boarding-axe from the dead pirate and searched the body for anything else of use or value, finding nothing. Jax grasped the body and hefted it up to the railing with ease, surprised at the strength in the body he had stolen. Pushing the lifeless corpse over the railing, Jax watched as it tumbled down and was churned into pink fragments by the spinning propellers. Sick to his stomach, Jax climbed down the ladder and onto the balcony of the superstructure, holding back rising bile.

“What was up there, Braegus?” A gravelly voice asked, behind him.

Jax didn't answer immediately, then, turning around and realizing he was alone except for the speaker, he decided that he must be Breagus. “Nothin', sir,” Jax said. His voice was deep and slow and drawling now. He wasn't sure if the person in front of him ranked higher than him, but figured it never hurt to address someone as sir. The person who'd spoken to him was taller than he by several inches, thin, gray-haired with a weather-lined face, wearing a military-looking black outfit with gold-thread loops at his shoulders and crimson piping along the seams. His bearing was stiff and erect, his eyes constantly searching the horizon, even when he spoke. He looked every inch a man accustomed to command and obedience. Jax was intimidated by him, but tried to not show it.

“Musta been a bird, or somethin', I guess,” Jax added, unsure what else the commander expected from him.

“Very well, Braegus. Dismissed.” Jax realized how far in over his head he was when the commander looked at him coolly, expectantly. Jax was supposed to bow, or salute, or something. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the tail end of an exchange between two armored Corsairs, with one of them thumping his chest with a closed fist and bowing over it. Jax imitated this salute, which seemed to satisfy the officer. Jax turned and descended to the deck proper where the prisoners were milling around idly in an enclosure made of ropes looped around the two center masts. The ropes provided no hindrance, physically, to leaving the enclosure, but the guards ranged every few feet did, as well as the knowledge that beyond the deck lay only empty space. The rest of the Corsairs were lining up to a door that evidently led below-decks.

Jax knew he it would be impossible to affect a rescue right at that moment, however desperately he wanted to. The deck was swarming with soldiers, sailors, and officers, and the prisoners were closely guarded. As he took a place at the end of the line, Jax surreptitiously examined the prisoners. There! In the very center of the group of captives stood Thyra, standing tall and unafraid, head erect and gaze stony. She alone stood so, the rest of the captives were huddled around her, cowering and struggling to get as close to her as they could, as if she provided warmth and courage against cold and fear. Jax was proud of her, just then. She was acting every inch the daughter of Norse kings, every inch a princess. His heart swelled and soared, and he felt that whatever risks he faced, whatever injury he sustained would be worth it. She was worth it. His hand tightened on his sword hilt, and he had to force himself to take step after step down the stairs into the dimly-lit interior of the ship, rather than bolting into the crowd, blade hewing a path to his damsel in distress. Once he was out of sight of her, his thoughts drifted. She really was a princess, he realized, and here he was, a knight-errant on a daring mission to rescue her from the clutches of blood-thirsty pirates. Crazy. He wasn't a knight-errant, though. He was a 17-year old kid from 21st century Detroit—a shapeshifter, albeit, and with a little training in swordwork, but nowhere near enough to fight his way out of this predicament. He was alone on a flying pirate ship the size of an aircraft carrier, surrounded by an army of trained killers that were feared in dozens—if not hundreds or thousands—of realms. How in the world was he going to get Thyra off of this ship? As the line of Corsairs ahead of him tromped single file through endless corridors to a barracks room, he racked his brain for ideas...and came up blank. Well, he'd just have to take it one step at a time, he figured. It was going to be hard enough to just fit in without anyone realizing he wasn't actually Braegus. Hopefully when night came, which it quickly was, some opening would present itself. He was operating without any clear plan or destination, without any real idea of what was going to happen next...just like always. Ever since he'd “opened” his abilities, nothing had been predictable. He was getting used to it by this point, but still...it kind of sucked, never knowing what to expect.

Devoid of armor and fearsome helmets and masks, the Corsairs were surprisingly normal. They slapped shoulders and told dirty jokes and laughed raucously at them, they shared stories of the raid and griped about officers, they wrote letters and read books. Jax tried to hold the burning hatred for them he'd felt during the raid, but now...they were just men, some he could like and get along with, some that rubbed him wrong and set him on edge.

The bunks, fortunately, were numbered and tagged with names. Each bunk had a cabinet built into it wherein armor was stored, so Jax doffed his, not without some difficulty, and collapsed into the hard bed. He knew his fumbling with the straps and buckles of the body armor had drawn some looks, but he tried to ignore them and pretend he was sleeping. Those in the bunks nearest him tried to engage him in conversation. He grunted out a curse and rolled to face the wall, hoping this wasn't completely out of character for this Braegus person he'd inhabited. Apparently it was, for he drew odd looks and shaking heads. Jax lay as still as he could and evened out his breathing, like he used to do when his mom would come in hoping to talk...Jax pushed that line of thought down deep and focused on Thyra, up on the deck in the cold air, afraid and without hope. Jax only had to avoid notice for a couple hours, until the ship was asleep. Eventually, the jokes stopped and the laughter quieted and the men rolled themselves in their blankets. Jax, meaning to pretend to sleep, found himself drifting off in reality. He shook himself awake, pinched himself under the blanket...but his eyes grew heavy, his thoughts floated and faded and then he knew no more.

He was abruptly awoken by a squeaking door and a light bootstep, a harsh whispering voice nearby. An officer, identifiable by the stripes sewn on the shoulders of his uniform, was saying to the man in the bunk next to him, “My third watch is sick. I need you to finish the shift. Won't be no trouble, the prisoners are a quiet lot, just now. Draw some hot brew from the canteen on the way up.” The officer gave a quick, sloppy salute and left the barracks. Jax breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that this was his opportunity.

The chosen soldier was grumbling and cursing as he struggled to wake up. Jax leaned in close to him and whispered, “I'll take the watch. Can't sleep, anyway.” The other man looked pathetically grateful, mumbled his thanks, asleep before Jax had his boots on.

Armor on and tightened and weapons slung from his waist, Jax eased out into the corridor, swearing under his breath when he realized he had no idea which way to go. Left, maybe? He seemed to remember turning right into the barracks; all the corridors looked the same, causing Jax to wander aimlessly for far too long. Eventually he came to a wide, door-less entryway through which he could smell food and brewing coffee. Finally, something familiar. This must be the canteen, he assumed. The man behind the counter was huge and burly, tattooed and scarred, missing an eye and at least two fingers.

“Where's Halstan?” the cook growled.

“Uh...I took the shift for him. I couldn't sleep none.” Jax's heart was pounding. He hoped he sounded like Braegus. The cook shrugged, took a metal cup from a rack and poured thick black coffee into it from a pot. Jax hadn't expected to find anything like coffee on board this ship, but nothing here was as it seemed. The canteen looked weirdly like the cafeteria at his high school, wide tables with benches, assembly-line buffet...it seemed modern and familiar, not the archaic, old-world kind of place he was expecting. He sipped the coffee slowly, letting the hot, bitter taste wake him up, trying to suppress a million memories of drinking coffee at some ungodly hour with his mom before she left for her 5a.m. shift at the nursing home.

“You want somethin' to eat?” The cook asked.

“Yeah, that'd be great, thanks,” Jax answered, realizing he was ravenously hungry. He hadn't eaten real food in weeks, he realized. He'd been following the Carnivale for weeks before the raid, but always in animal form, and it was as a predator that he'd eaten, raw meat torn with a raptor's beak or cat's teeth, something that had taken him a long time to get used to. The cook had a griddle sizzling in no time and within minutes Jax was hungrily devouring a plate of eggs.

“Best get topside,” the cook rumbled, “afore the leftenant gets to wonderin' where ya'll are at.” Jax agreed, washing the last of the eggs down with the coffee, thanking the cook on the way out the door. Fortunately for Jax, the stairs that led to the deck weren't far from the canteen. When he emerged on-deck, he was immediately accosted by the officer.

“Where have you been, Halstan? You were supposed to be topside ten minutes ago!”

“Sorry sir,” Jax said, “It's me, Braegus. I took the shift for Halstan.”

“What's the problem with Halstan?” The officer demanded.

“Oh, nothin' sir. I just couldn't sleep, is all. Figured I might as well do somethin' since I was awake. Sorry I'm late, I stopped for a bite in the canteen. I hadn't eaten since before the raid.” Jax was extemporizing generously. He hoped the officer bought it and didn't ask too many more question. He didn't think his acting skills could handle much more.

“Very well then,” the officer muttered, walking away without a salute, “carry on, Braegus, carry on.” When the officer was below-decks, Jax breathed a sigh of relief.

Jax had to stand where he was for a few minutes, until his eyes adjusted to the thick, inky darkness around him. The moon and stars were covered by a patchwork blanket of fleecy, bulbous clouds, and there were no light anywhere on the deck. He could just make out the towering bulk of a mast nearby, easily ten feet around. Standing beneath the mast, Jax could just barely discern, far above his head, the outline of the crossbars with the sails tied away. Good thing he hadn't shifted into a sailor, Jax realized, or his complete ignorance of the technical details of a sailing vessel would have given him away in a heartbeat.

Jax wandered as casually as he could over to where the prisoners were huddled. There, still in the center, sitting awake, hugging her knees, was Thyra. Jax's heart leaped into his throat at the forlorn sadness he could see in her posture. Now that the others were asleep, she was allowing herself to feel her own homesickness and fear, Jax realized. He wished he could duck under the rope and gather her in his arms, or just fly away with her...an idea struck Jax like a bolt of lightning. He leaned against the mast nearest Thyra, assuming nonchalant posture. She saw him, he knew, as he had seen her gaze flicker when he crossed her line of sight. Thyra! Can you hear me? Jax had no idea if telepathy worked that way or not, but it was all he could think of. He was gratified to see Thyra sit up straight and look around her, a shocked expression on her lovely face.

Who's there? Who is this? Thyra's voice came loud and clear in his mind.

It's me...It's Jax, he mentalized, I'm the guard in front of you...I just...don't look like myself. Thyra stood up silently and crossed over to stand in front of him. Jax had to grip the hilt of his weapons until his knuckles hurt to keep from taking her in his arms and giving the whole thing away to whoever might be watching. The deck seemed deserted except the sleeping prisoners and himself, but he couldn't take any risks, not this close to rescuing her. Thya gazed into his face, as if trying to see some hint of Jax in the Corsair whose body he had stolen.

Jax? Is it really you in there? Her mental voice was querulous, trembling. How do I know it's really you?

It's me, I promise...Jax searched his memory for something that would identify him. The first time we met, I was a thresher. We meet two miles east of the Carnivale, an hour past midnight. The first time we kissed, you tasted like vanilla.

Thyra suppressed a squeal of joy at realizing it was Jax in front of her. She threw her arms around his neck before he could react. Jax! How did you get here? How are you going to get all of us off this ship? All of us, she had said. Jax looked over her shoulder at the captives, recognizing some faces as carnies, while others were strangers. There were at least a hundred people there, he realized, and Thyra thought he was planning on rescuing them all. He felt a pang bite into his heart. There was just no way. His idea, which was a desperate bid that could get both him and Thyra killed, would only work for himself and her. She must have seen something of his thoughts. No, Jax...we can't just leave them here! We can't!

Thyra, listen...how did he tell her? There's just no way...it's impossible. I'm not even sure I can get the two of us off this thing alive.

Thyra shook her head in denial, backed up a few steps, No...no...I can't leave them here...I won't go...Jax felt something inside him break at the palpable sorrow he saw in her. Guilt washed over him, even then, as he felt within himself his own callousness, his absolute willingness to take Thyra and escape with her, leaving these unfortunates to their own fates. He would save them too, if he could, but he'd come here for her, and he wasn't leaving without her. Jax took a long, deep breath, steeled himself, pushed all emotion down, deep down, subsumed it into the roiling pool of turbulent magic within.

Jax grabbed Thyra's wrist, lifted the rope and pulled her to him, kissed her quickly, crossed the deck to the railing at the side, dragging her with him, ignoring her now-verbal protests. The other prisoners, awoken by Thyra's struggling, stood up, shouting. All they saw was a Corsair dragging a violently-thrashing Thyra across the ship, screaming, “No! I won't leave them! No! No! I can't!”

A door opened and a dozen Corsairs trooped out onto the deck. No orders were given, none were needed. The warriors spread out in a half-circle around Jax, weapons drawn. The center-most Corsair stepped forward, saying, “Let her go, Braegus. Let her go, now. I don't know what's gotten into you, but there's nowhere to go from here.” Jax's stomach was throbbing in his throat, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He pushed Thyra in front of him, wrapped his arms around her, held her close and tight...her hair smelled of shampoo and woodsmoke, her skin was cold and clammy...she was silent, her breast heaving under his arms...the Corsairs were closing in now, sword tips weaving silver webs in the air...it was now or never...

Jax tightened his grip on Thyra until she grunted from the pain; he stepped up onto the railing, first one foot, then the other, bending slightly to pull Thyra up with him, her feet scrabbling and finally finding purchase on the railing between his legs, her thoughts screaming painfully loud in his head:


They balanced there on railing, precarious and wobbling for a moment, then Jax leaped with all his strength backwards, propelling them away from the Dreadnaught, several thousand feet up in the freezing, rarified air and now they were falling, falling, falling and the ship was shrinking above them and Jax could make out faces peering down at him, mouths wide, eyes unbelieving. Thyra was screaming now, but it was ragged and hoarse; Jax pulled in a breath past the rushing air and told her to shut up and breathe before she passed out, repeated the message mentally. He wrenched their bodies over to face downwards, and wished he hadn't: even in the darkness the earth was stretched out beneath them, wide and endless and growing by the second.

Thyra, Jax mentalized, do you remember when your father almost caught us?

Yesyesyes, she responded, nearly insensible with panic.

Do you remember what happened when I shifted?

Thyra didn't answer for several long seconds, then: Yes...yes...I shifted too, for a second, but what does that...OH MY GOD I GET IT!

Thank God, she understood his plan. When we shift, he told her, focus all of your mind on holding the shape as long as you can, okay? Thyra didn't answer, but he could feel her tensing, knew that she was as ready as she was going to get, but it wasn't time yet, they were still falling, the ground was still far below them, too far for her to hold the shape. He had no idea exactly how long she would be able to hold it, but didn't think it would be more than a few short seconds. He waited as long as he could, until the ground was maybe only a thousand feet away, and then he conjured an image of a falcon, projected it as clearly as he could to Thyra...

He phased, and she did too, they were two falcons diving together like feathered bullets; Thyra spread her wings wide open with an audible pop, beat them desperately against the air to slow her descent, but she was still going too fast and Jax could sense that she was about to phase back, so he poured on as much speed as he could, straining to go faster, faster, trying to get underneath her; the earth was less than ten feet away now and Thyra couldn't hold it any longer, her falcon screech morphing into the helpless wail of a human girl. Jax phased too, now—back into the stolen Corsair body, for some odd reason—falling a few feet beneath her, arms stretched out towards her, stretching for her, just out of reach. Jax slammed into the ground on his back, landing with such force that he felt ribs cracks, the breath exploded from him and his vision faded, and then Thyra landed on top of him, shattering the cracked ribs and forcing him into unconsciousness.

* * *

He awoke to crushing agony in his chest, spikes of pain lancing through him with each inhale, each exhale. Thyra was lying next to him, pale and naked and shivering in the chill of the night, curled into a ball, sobbing uncontrollably. Jax rolled over, wincing and gritting his teeth past the pain, and slipped his arm around her bare, trembling waist.

“Thyra? Look at me,” he pleaded, “please...just look at me.” She shook her head, drew her knees up tighter against her face.

“I'm sorry...I'm so sorry. There just wasn't any other choice, I wasn't even sure I could save you, much less a hundred other people...”

“I should've stayed with them...You should have just left me there,” her voice was a barely-audible whisper in the darkness.

“I couldn't...I just couldn't leave that ship without you. I would've died first.”

“Why?” Thyra uncurled slowly, stiffly, and rolled over to face him.

“Why? Thyra...” Jax wiped away the tears streaking her face, “I love you...that's why.” Thyra gave a choked half-sob, half-laugh, put her head on his chest, eliciting a grunt of pain from him.

“You're hurt!” Thyra knelt above him and gently unbuckled the cuirass and slipped it off of Jax as carefully as she could. She gasped when she saw the bruising flesh; she put her palms to his chest, a bare brushed touch. “Uric taught me a healing spell. It may not heal you completely, not with an injury this bad, but it should help.” When she began the same spell that Uric had taught him, he laid his hands over hers and joined her in the incantation. He felt the pool of magic inside him swell and rise up and boil over, felt a jolt—mentally and physically—as his spell merged with Thyra's and expanded exponentially. Slowly, excruciatingly, his bones knit back together, shattered ribs puzzling back together in an agonizing process of reversal; when it was over, he was left panting and sweating and exhausted, but healed.

Jax took an experimental breath, laughing slightly when he could draw breath without pain. “Thank you,” he said, looking up at Thyra, who was still kneeling over him. The expenditure of magic had warmed her, stopped the shivering, left her skin pink and flushed. She bent down, touched her lips to his, lightly, tentatively, her hair falling down around his face. Jax tried to tell himself to pull away, to resist, to get to his feet...but he couldn't do it. He was the one trembling now, the adrenaline having worn off, replaced by a tingling anticipation, a sense of amazement that he had actually pulled it off, he had saved her from the Corsairs and they had come out alive...and now her lips were pressed against his, just slightly, a momentary pressure, a request of sorts. He felt a thought come to him from Thyra, she pulled back, just an inch, and met his gaze.

Kiss me, Jax, she said. Kiss me, please. There were other thoughts, other images wrapped up in those words, but they were faint and jumbled, a kaleidoscope of half-formed thoughts that he couldn't sort out...he was getting her thoughts as they flitted through her head: the connection formed by their combined spells was still there, he realized, and when she kissed him, when she spoke to him telepathically, that union was reformed and strengthened, deepened. She was looking at him expectantly, waiting, hoping. He thought of the visions briefly...the desert, the blood and sand of the arena, the small cold cell...but all he could see was her, hovering above him, a small smile touching the corners of lips, her breasts swaying slightly with her breathing; he couldn't resist any longer, he lifted up on an elbow, placed his hand on her neck and pulled her down to him and kissed her deeply, knowing there was no going back from here...

He understood, then, that he never had been resisting this, he had been putting it off, waiting for the right time, waiting for the moment to coincide with his vision of them together. It was a perverse notion, in a way: he had been attempting to bring about, perhaps unconsciously, those same portents that had so frightened him. He had succeeded, and he was drowning himself in her willingly, reveling in the taste of her lips, the soft pale gleam of her starlit skin. The clouds had rolled away to reveal a sky spattered with a swash of stars and a moon high and full and gleaming silver, illumining the night with silken layers of scintillant, sorcerous light. Her hands were exploring him, touching his cheek, his ribs, his waist, now unbuckling the sword belt and pushing away armor and clothes bit by bit until they were flesh to flesh and wrapped up, tangled and twined and twisted in languid luxurious limpid undulations of ecstasy; they were rolling in the grass, Thyra beneath him now with her fine golden hair spread in a halo. She wrapped herself around him, breathed his name against his neck, clutched him closer and whimpered low in her throat; in that instant he felt her mind reach out to his, felt her magic entangle with his, they were colliding and merging mentally and magically and physically and he felt even his breathing match hers, and he felt now the pull and twinge and buzz of magic coming from him, from her, from them together as she whispered a brief incantation, and for a moment he was seeing in multiple, seeing himself through her eyes, seeing her from his own, seeing them from above as he had in Madame Hassan's crystal ball; they neither of them had names anymore, had no identities separate each from the other, they were one soul split and re-combined in this moment, he knew her secrets from the inside out, knew her fears and pride and hopes and worries and deepest desires and her past and future...he thought could touch the fabric of her very soul with his hands as he caressed her body, he thought he could hold her bright glowing essence between cupped careful palms and cherish it with all of himself. They were floating inches above the ground, he realized—or rather, he had become weightless and she was atop him, clinging to him like shipwrecked castaway clings to a broken spar in the storm-tossed waves. A warm wind blew and they were pushed into a gentle spiraling drift above the ground, one foot trailing in the grass, the other wrapped around her calf.

Time itself warped around them, then. He forgot himself as a disparate mentality, subsumed in the plash of passion uniting them. There was a vague notion of sunrise and then bright brilliant day followed by slow, lowering twilight, all passing them by as the waters of a river skirl around a half-submerged rock.

They bumped gently against something solid, lowered delicately to the ground as Thyra's spell faded with her consciousness. She nestled against him and he felt sleep pulling him down as well...and then he knew no more.

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