It had been ten years since its last appearance, but now the mysterious carnival had returned. Somehow it had flown in and sprang up by night, for no-one in the nearby towns had seen it arrive. Yet there was no mistaking its presence; everyone could see the dreamlike yet very real place. During the day it lay dormant. There were no carnival workers of any sort to be found-no ride operators, no costumed dancers, no sideshow freaks, no vendors of the bizarre bazaar. The rides, steam-powered marvels of invention, stood still and silent.
But at night, the story changed. Curious townsfolk would run onto the greens, stopping just shy of the grounds, and watch in wonder as the carnival came to life. Strings of golden lights flickered on, casting light on the gravel walkways that snaked through the grounds. Jovial music cranked out of calliopes and carried on the wind. The steam engines powering the Ferris wheel, swings, and merry-go-round roared into action. The peculiar machines, constructed from copper and bronze and brass, became the place's namesake. People dubbed it the "Copper Carnival."
At last, the people's curiosity overtook their caution and they huddled into a group outside the gates, eager to give the Copper Carnival a try. They made for a mixed and mismatched crowd just bizarre enough to belong in the wacky circus-fair: high-class men, proper ladies, spunky children, a teenager or two on a dare posed by their friends, and the rag-clad rabble. The gatekeepers, a pair of silent sentries in hooded cloaks, wrenched open the gates. The awaiting crowd filed in awkwardly, not sure what to expect.
They were so absorbed in getting their first impression of the Copper Carnival that no-one saw Crow sneak in amongst them. The slight youth, a known trickster and troublemaker, slipped through the crowd easily. Quick as a cat and nimble as a monkey, he evaded their elbows and feet as he slithered through the masses to the front of the line. This was a risk. Thanks to Crow's troublemaking, he wasn't allowed to go to public events without permission, and he definitely hadn't asked for anyone's approval for this. Thus, he had to be sneaky, but that was no problem at all for him. He had three other ways to sneak in, but he wasn't sure about the scheme where he got in by hiding under a woman's hoop skirt.
As the crowd flowed through the gates, Crow let their current carry him into the carnival grounds. When they settled down and started to disperse, gravitating to rides and vendor stalls and other points of interest, Crow ducked into the shadows. He relaxed a little, knowing that he had successfully infiltrated the Copper Carnival. Now, he just had to make sure to stay out of sight of anyone who would recognize him and get him sent home. He had a few personal enemies who would be all too happy to drag him into trouble for breaking his house arrest.
Crow crouched in the shadow behind a vendor stall, thinking about it. He ran a hand over his nose and cheeks. Walking out in the open was out of the question. His sneaky rat face was all too familiar to the fairgoers, and they'd catch him in an instant. What he needed was a disguise, but his thoughts were too distracted to come up with an idea. What with the shouts of the vendors and peddlers hawking their wares, it was hard for Crow to hear himself think.
"Make tonight a masquerade party!" yelped one merchant. "Get yer mask 'ere! I've got all kinds. Ya wanna be an animal, I got those, but if yeh wanna be a villain or a king or an anythin' at all, I got those too!"
Initially, Crow hissed in frustration from the shadows, annoyed with the loudmouthed merchant. Then he realized what the seller was saying and perked up. Masks! Of course! That could work. No-one would recognize Crow if his face was covered by a mask. He stuck his hand in his pocket, checking to make sure his coin pouch was still there. It was. Good.
Crow peered out into the road, still crouching in the shade between two stalls. He glanced down one end of the street and then the other. No-one he recognized was walking there. Now he just needed to figure out where the mask seller was. Crow listened for the guy to shout again.
"Whatever yeh need a mask for, I 'ave just the right one for yeh!" the merchant cried out again.
Crow nodded, then dashed out of the shadows and somersaulted into the street. The sudden appearance of Crow startled the vendors.
"What the-Where did you come from?" one demanded.
"How long was he hiding there?" asked another.
Crow ignored them and took off down the street, running down the line of stalls. He almost passed the mask stand by in his haste. He shot past it, then backpedaled until he was in front of it again. He stumbled over to it and leaned on the counter, panting like a dog.
The vendor looked down at him, slightly concerned. "Are you all right? What's the hurry?"
Crow looked past the seller, to the racks of masks hanging from the ceiling of the stall. He saw masks made in the images of birds, pigs, bears, demons, wolves, lions, kings, mice, and imaginary creatures Crow couldn't recognize. At last the boy's gaze fell on a bird mask; it was orange and red, with a curling black beak and a feather trim. It sparkled with glitter and tiny gemstones. Having made his decision, Crow pointed at it.
"That one, eh?" asked the merchant. "Good choice."
Crow got out his money pouch and started putting coins on the counter. He kept placing them on the counter, one after another, until the merchant finally made him stop.
"All right, that'll be enough for it. Sheesh, kid. Don't yeh talk?" The vendor swept the coins into a jar, took the bird mask off its hook, and handed it to Crow. Crow immediately strapped it on and gave the vendor a thumbs-up of approval.
"...Good to know. Yeh know, that's no regular bird. That's a phoenix. 'Ave yeh ever heard of a phoenix?"
"Yeh know, magical bird? Sets itself on fire and resurrects from the ashes?"
Crow shrugged again.
"People say it's just a legend, but yeh never know. There are magical critters out there. Yeh just need to 'ave an imagination strong enough to believe it."
Crow pranced away, happily concealed behind his bird-err, phoenix mask. Now he could run wherever he pleased. No-one could know who he was. The broken soles of his shoes flopped as he ran down the gravel path, a skip in his step. He stuck out his arms at his sides, as if pretending they were great soaring wings.
People wove into long lines for the clanking, whirring rides. Crow ran past them. The night was young, but it was still too short of a night to waste hours waiting in line. Thrill could not wait. He had one chance to catch excitement for tonight, and he would not waste it standing in a line. He ignored the lines and sought out thrills elsewhere.
Not having many options, he stopped by a small area shaded by elm trees. A wooden stage was there, and a trio of gypsy women danced upon it. Their gauzy scarves swirled around them as they dipped, woved, and rattled tambourines. The audience applauded and requested songs. It was amusing for a time, but Crow quickly grew bored and moved on.
He glanced to his right. An old man with a rotund belly stood by a clanking steam engine, doffing his hat to passing ladies and boasting about how steam power would make the horse obsolete in a year. A few people listened, intrigued, but most folks ignored him. A couple hecklers called him crazy. Crow paid him little mind.
Crow looked to his left. A sideshow barker claimed that he had a baby unicorn inside his tent, demanding an exorbitant sum to see it. Crow knew that scheme too well to fall for it. Why, he'd used the same trick years ago when he needed extra money. He claimed to some of his fellow villagers that he'd caught a dragon hatchling, when in reality, he had only caught a lizard and tied paper wings to its back. By the time they realized that, it was too late; Crow had already made off with their money.
That was the day Crow learned how important it is to be able to run faster than one's enemies.
Besides the too-long lines and vendors hawking baubles Crow had no desire for, this carnival seemed to offer little else. Crow leaned against a wall and people-watched for a short while. He silently judged people for their fashion choices as they passed him by.
The wind picked up, ruffling Crow's dirty hair. It also ruffled an unsecured tent flap. Crow caught a glimpse of the inside of the tent, and it piqued his interest. He glanced over his shoulder to check if anyone was watching, confirmed no-one would see him, and slipped through the Crow-sized opening in the tent. He rubbed his hands eagerly, excited to be in a place where he knew he shouldn't.
Inside the tent was dark, the golden lights outside muted by the heavy canvas, and it smelled strongly of hay. Which was not surprising, given that an ankle-deep carpet of straw littered the ground underfoot. The ropes used to hold the tent erect dangled down from the support poles, looking suspiciously like hangman's nooses. A few rolled-up whips rested against a wooden trunk of supplies. But none of that stuff interested Crow.
He was drawn to the bizarre sight in the midst of the tent. A tall, box-shaped thing loomed above him. A great sheet of white cloth hid whatever it was. Now of course it would not stay hidden for long, however, if Crow had anything to do about it. He grasped a fistful of fabric and pulled with all his might. With a mighty ruffling sound, the sheet fluttered to the floor and revealed what it had been hiding. Crow didn't gasp at the sight, but his jaw did drop right open.
The creature in the cage looked like something out of a dream or a nightmare (it would depend on one's perspective and general opinion of unusual animals.) It flouted the rules of biology that segregate reptiles from birds and mammals from fish and insects from "real" animals. Its body was lean and lithe, robed in both iridescent fur and silver-colored scales. Swirling black stripes formed a pattern across its body, consistent in both the fur and the scales. The creature had, against all logic, an octopus's tentacle for a tail, with butterfly wings as fins on the end of the tail. The creature had feathered wings to fly, but they were pinioned in irons secured with gears and clamps. It walked on four feet, the hind feet being raven's talons and the forefeet being wolf paws. Its head was like a snake, but with a bird's beak and four catlike eyes. Instead of a musty "animal" odor, the beast smelled strongly of jasmine.
Crow stared in awe of it, unsure if he dreamed or if he woke. He feared reaching out to touch the beast, yet also desperately wanted to do it. The creature purred softly and turned its head to gaze at Crow with two of those four eyes. It blinked slowly and pensively.
With a shaking hand, Crow reached through the bars and gently ran his fingers across the side of the creature's head, under its eyes. He couldn't tell where fur ended and scales began. The creature closed its eyes blissfully and purred again. It shifted its great form inside the cage, struggling to stretch its wings. But of course it couldn't, because of the irons clamping the wings shut. Crow wondered why the amazing creature was here.
Someone was suddenly standing behind him. He or she placed their hand on his shoulders. Fearfully Crow turned, seeing the tall and dour form of a man behind him. The man wore a stained suit, and a brimmed hat cast a shadow over his face.
"What are you doing, masked child?" the man rumbled. "I would exercise more care if I were you. This exotic beauty is not a housecat to embrace and stroke. This creature is capable of more danger than you could imagine."
Crow wrestled out of his grip.
"I should know, as I am this creature's owner. My methods of acquiring this beast are my own, so you dare not ask. I hope that its performance may allow me to accumulate the wealth I need. Eventually I will earn back my investment on this rare marvel."
He stroked the creature's face as Crow had, but this time the animal shied away from his touch. It flicked out its tongue distastefully and shrank to the back of its cage. The beastmaster sighed.
"This relationship between beast and master is a tad strained, I fear. Perhaps that is because I train the creature by fear. I see you are interested in my monster. Now of course she is not for sale, but perhaps you would like to see her in action later tonight? I will have her perform many stunts for me. Hopefully she will not need special motivation."
Crow looked past the ringmaster, towards the whips leaning against the trunk. His eyes narrowed. When he looked back at the beast in the cage, he noticed something he had not before.
The creature bore whip scars on its ankles and shoulders.
Crow's lip curled up. He shrank away from the beastmaster
"Mind where you wander, child," said the beastmaster. "You strange, masked, silent child. Get you gone, now. Your presence is no longer tolerated."
Crow ducked out of the tent. Behind his colorful mask, he was plotting. He still had many questions (and for that reason he decided to nickname the creature Query) but one or two things he knew for certain. So, in that tent, there was a beautiful, exotic, impossible creature and its cruel master. Query hated that man. And because of that, so did Crow.
She would be free by dawn. Crow would guarantee that, even if it meant he had to spend the next fifteen years staring at prison bars. The show was later tonight; Crow would have to have a plan by then. It would require some bravery, a skill Crow sorely lacked. After all, con men are rather cowardly. They're brave enough to overcome their inhibitions and cheat innocent people out of their money, but not brave enough to face the consequences of their actions. Crow feared that he lacked the skill to pull off a desperate rescue mission.
Well, he could fret...or he could plot. What was another scheme, right? The only difference for this one was that his intentions were actually selfless for once. He wanted to help a creature in need. He didn't stray far from the circus tent that night. He spent much time pacing around it, his hands in his pockets and the wind whipping his scarf about his shoulders.
In those tense hours, he dug deep into his mind and found an underground spring of courage. He'd make a brave, bold, and (admittedly) ill-prepared confrontation against the Showman. Then he would break open Query's cage and let her escape to freedom. At least, that was what he hoped would happen.
At long last, some lanterns were lit outside the circus tent. The Showman bellowed at carnival patrons to "come on, come all, and see a thing you will not believe! A mysterious and impossible beast captured from a faraway land…"
Crow snuck into the tent, hiding behind a woman's hoop skirt. He adjusted his mask. He would be the masked terror to release an innocent creature from its cage and put an end to a cruel Showman's schemes. He silently entered the tent with the crowd, but dodged to the side before the people took their seats. He crouched behind the stands, waiting for the right time to pounce.
The Showman had replaced the cloth cover on Query's cage. He strutted about the sand pit, holding a neatly-rolled whip in his hand. He had changed from his street clothes to a ridiculous show costume: a sparkling jacket, slim white pants, and a stupid top hat. He reminded Crow of an arrogant peacock. Crow tuned out his bellowing voice as he babbled on about how "exquisite" and "marvelous" Query was.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment for which you have waited! Behold! BEHOLD!" Showman ripped the cloth sheet off the cage, exposing Query to the audience. The creature yelped and meowed in alarm at the sight of the swarm of people. She bashed her head against the bars a couple of times in her panic. The crowd gasped and gawked at the sight of the impossible creature, totally oblivious to her fear.
"It's so ugly," someone yelled. "It looks like a mishmash of everything!"
"Hideous! It shouldn't even exist."
Fed on crowd mentality, soon everyone was babbling about how misshapen Query was. Crow felt his back stiffen. Misshapen? Hardly! How could those philistines think she was ugly? Query was a beautiful blend of creatures!
"Ugly she may be, she can give a masterful performance," Showman purred. He unlocked the cage and opened the door. Query balked at leaving. The cage was a cage, but at least it protected her from the crowd.
"Get out of the cage," he growled at Query. "Don't make me drag you out of there."
Query narrowed her eyes and hissed, sticking her tongue out of her beak.
"Why, you…" Showman threw a lasso of rope around Query's neck and dragged her out of the cage. Her tail whipped from side to side in her agitation. He pulled off the rope and unrolled the whip.
"You've been trained for this, so do it," he commanded her, flicking the whip. Query didn't do the flips and other stunts he'd trained her to do. She arched her back and kept her feet planted on the ground.
"Insolent animal…" he said. "I'll get you to obey."
Showman raised the whip and struck Query on the shoulder. The audience was a little taken aback, but assumed this to be necessary. Query hissed again and shrank away.
And Crow acted.
He ran out of his hiding place and shot straight for the performance pit. Everyone was too stunned by the rash action to react as he vaulted over the barrier and somersaulted across the sand. Query meowed happily at his arrival, and the Showman quickly went from startled to enraged.
"You…" was all he managed to say.
Crow dodged as Showman tried to grab him and then swung up on Query's back. The creature allowed him to climb on, then leapt gracefully. She landed atop the cage, glancing around the room at the confused crowds.
"Get down from there," Showman snarled at Crow. "Don't make me ask twice, masked child."
Crow disobeyed, deftly seating himself between Query's shoulder blades as if he was the king of monsters. He reached for the irons pinioning Query's wings.
Showman gasped. "Don't. You. Dare."
The masked kid's response was quick. "My name is Crow, and I dare you to try me."
Crow desperately clawed at the clamps on the irons, scratching his fingers as he did so. He gritted his teeth and wrestled with the latch. With enough finagling, he forced it open. Then he whipped around and did the same for the clamp on the other wing. When both shackles were unlocked, Query suddenly lifted her wings. The crowd cried out in surprise as the huge, beautiful wings unfolded. They were like that of an eagle, but with the glittering colors of butterfly thrust her wings up and down, gaining air. She was going to take flight.
"Uh...Ah...Never fear, patrons!" Showman stammered, trying to keep a brave face for his audience. "This is, uh, part of the show! Yes!"
The people didn't look so convinced. They huddled in fear in their seats. Now that the creature was completely unrestrained, it looked wild. Query's fur stood on end and she posed her wings menacingly. Her pupils had shrunk to slits. Some kind of hiss escaped her throat. She pounced off the top of the cage and hovered over her former master.
"Stand down, you freak!" Showman barked. He raised the whip and snapped it at Query. She dodged the blow, locked a hard glare with him, and screeched loudly. The sound made Crow's ears ring. He clung desperately to a ruff of fur on the back of her neck. Her wings pumped around him, and the gusts they created beat on him from all angles. He moaned and pressed his face into her fur, struggling to stay on. Query rose higher above the crowd, her wingtips starting to brush against the ceiling of the tent.
"I said stand down!" Showman cracked the whip again, but now the cruel leather strip couldn't get anywhere near Query. She had flown out of its reach, and now she circled about the tent, screeching madly. She was looking for an escape. Crow wrapped his arms around her sturdy neck and rested his cheek against the warm roughness of her fur-scales. As her heart beat, he could feel its pulse course through his body as well.
Meanwhile, the crowd below panicked. Many people were already jumping out of the stands and fleeing the tent. Needless to say, the show was quite over.
"You wicked child!" Showman growled at Crow. "How dare you make a fool of me before my audience and turn my own monster against me. I'll see to it you spend the rest of your days in a prison cell! Get down from there!"
Now who obeys the man making useless death threats against them? Crow shook his head fiercely and clung to Query. The creature swooped low over the stands, claws outstretched. She didn't, of course, have any intention to actually harm anyone. She only wanted to scare them away. It was successful. The claws and cries of a wild animal scared off the rest of the people. Soon Crow and Showman were the only people left therein. The circus master's face was red with his fury. He threw his whip on the ground in a flurry of shouted obscenities. Crow smiled wide, proud of himself.
But the grin dropped off Crow's face when he saw Showman pull a sheet of cloth off a pile of baggage. Sitting atop the crates was a crossbow and several fresh arrows. Crow's eyes went wide and he tried to hide behind Query's wings.
"If I can't beat this creature into submission, I guess I'll just have to use the ultimate method." Showman loaded a bolt onto the crossbow. He raised the weapon and took aim at Query. But Query was quick-eyed and saw the arrow long before it came. She squawked and dove out of the way as it ripped through the air, just missing Crow's head. The arrow tore through the tent fabric and was gone.
Somehow, that made Query realize that the tent wasn't indestructible. With a panicking Crow hanging on for dear life, she circled about the tent again. The Showman shot at her twice, but she dodged both arrows. She reached out a claw and tore a long gash in the tent fabric, before another arrow forced her to pull away and circle again.
"You conniving weasel," Showman yelled. "Crow, after I've killed this beast, I'm coming after you! This is all your fault."
Crow shrank back again. Suddenly he felt a jolt, and his heart went in his throat when he almost fell off Query. He wrestled to hold on again, then glanced around to see what had happened. He saw a damaged tent pole in their wake. Query had misjudged a turn and collided with a tent pole, breaking it. The creature gurgled, having made another new discovery. She made a sudden inward turn and swooped down. Crow panicked again; she flew so close to Showman that Crow could see the fury in the man's blue eyes. He lifted the crossbow and got ready to shoot again, but Query knocked him down with a bash of her tail. The arrow shot went wild. Query lifted up again and bodyslammed another tent pole, breaking it. The whole tent shifted.
Showman got back on his feet. "You idiot! A blind bear can steer better than that. Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
Crow had no control over where Query flew. She had an agenda of her own, one of which her master was unaware. Query ripped the tent fabric, dodged another round of arrows, and then circled to smash another tent pole. The roof of the tent leaned left.
"Crooooooow!" Showman bellowed. "I'll get you if it's the last thing I do!"
Tempting fate. Showman took aim right at Crow. The arrow missed Query, but raked across Crow's shoulder. It tore his shirt and cut his skin. Crow winced in pain and clapped his hand over the wound. Meanwhile, he hooked his arm around Query's neck and prayed that he could hold on. Query made one last lap around the tent, breaking a fourth tent pole with her tail. Crow, with no small amount of dismay, saw the tent ceiling begin to collapse in on itself.
But that was nothing compared to the look of horror on Showman's face as he realized what was happening. He only had enough time to cry out for help as Query flew through the hole she had torn in the tent fabric. One second later, the tent completely collapsed, throwing debris and dust. Query landed a bowshot or two away and flicked her tail. Crow was frozen in place, still gripping her neck for dear life. He gasped and panted; his heart hammered against his ribs.
Query turned to look at him and cooed. Crow stroked her neck, feeling the scales and fur under his hand. A lopsided smile grew on his face. He tilted his head a little. It was as if they were having a secret conversation. Query unfolded her wings again, Crow settled in comfortably on her back, and she alighted. Up they went, over the tents and rides and swarming crowds. The noise of the Copper Carnival faded into the distance as Query and Crow flew away. The sun rose in the east, painting the sky salmon pink. Crow didn't know where Query was going, but he did know that she was headed somewhere where no-one would abuse her again. Crow promised himself that he'd help her with that, however he could. He wanted to get away from abuse as well.
Onwards, towards freedom.