– Chapter: Shadowed Ground (2)
The whole village plans to be gathered to see it. It is to take place in a small patch of ceremonial ground, twenty feet off the beaten path that runs through the village and surrounded by trees and vines of all shapes, sizes and purposes. People have already started to prepare, but Mesdan is not with them.
Mesdan is in Kesta’s quarters, with Eliss.
It’s just beyond second twilight, with neither moon nor sun in the sky. Eliss’s family– which consists almost entirely of brothers now, those who had been away hunting when the shapeshifter struck, on month-long excursions– is either missing or dead. Eliss is arguing with Mesdan, scribbling with charcoal on a long, dry leaf.
Her throat has healed, yes, but she still cannot speak. Kesta worries that perhaps she never will again, but neither he nor Mesdan wishes to tell Eliss that. She rests on Kesta’s bedroll, surrounded by gifts of stone or spice, condolences on her family and blessings for her survival.
“Let me watch!”
Even the way she writes now is furious, scrawled angrily rather than written with care. It isn’t so much a want as a demand.
She hands him the leaf, fuming. Her whole body is weak from her ordeal. The fates only know when she’ll recover, Mesdan thinks. But she will recover. Even if it means missing out on my initiation.
“You’re still weak,” Mesdan observes. “You know how grueling the initiation is. I will not allow you to be present, let alone stand– rather, lie– vigil and wait for me to return.”
Elissa scrawls something on the leaf as he hands it back to her. Her writing is agitated and shaky.
“If you were a man you would let me do as I please.”
Mesdan reads it, sighs, and shakes his head wordlessly. Eliss herself knows it isn’t true. What can he say to that? Besides that he is a man. He’s gone through the Change rite and everything.
He slips the leaf back to her when she reaches out for it. It seems she might already regret those words, but no amount of rubbing them out will rub them from Mesdan’s mind now. Eliss doesn’t consider him a true man. The knowledge makes him burn.
“It’s selfish! Let me watch! You didn’t let me watch the witch one either!”
Mesdan arches an eyebrow quizzically as he reads her latest message. “I wasn’t even here for that, Eliss. You’re being too impulsive-”
And that isn’t fair. Mesdan regrets the words as soon as they come out, and bites back the rest of the sentence. He turns away, handing the leaf to her and heaving another sigh.
The next reply is written carefully and she places it against his half-curled fingertips with a certain delicate hopefulness he finds heartbreaking. It hurts even to read it. As a shaman, his duty should be to keep the villagers happy and to defend their souls. As a witch, his duty should be to keep the villagers safe and protect their bodies. Mesdan is being torn to pieces between the two– or at the least stretched. But this is to be his shaman initiation, after all.
Eliss is his friend. He wrestles for a moment, with himself, with his witch training.
“Fine,” Mesdan says quietly. “But Kesta won’t be able to watch you. He’ll be busy administering initiation.”
“Actually,” Kesta interjects from directly behind Mesdan’s left ear. “That’s not true. I’ll be watching over Eliss.”
Mesdan stops himself whirling around through sheer will alone, stops the witch response bursting from him, and pulls his calm together as only a shaman should. “Oh.”
He forces himself to turn his head slowly.
Kesta smiles at him apologetically. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Mesdan replies dully. “I expected it.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
Mesdan glances up to find Thaneen staring back at him. The freckled, pale white skin is recognizable all throughout the village– and the short, bright red hair is easily the most conspicuous. Thanee is one of– well, had been one of– Danni’s best friends. Mesdan, however, having just completed his rite, turns his head, hot shame creeps from somewhere down near his chest all the way up to his cheeks. He feels nearly naked– and really, he is.
“Than–” Mesdan starts, and for a split second it’s like the Change rite meant nothing. Thanee bowls his sentence right over.
“I was okay with the Change rite, you know that, it’s just– aren’t you still feeling– weak from that? Wouldn’t it make sense to give it time?”
Mesdan gazes at Thanee steadily, meeting the boy’s eyes. “Yes. It would make sense. But this village can’t survive another month without another Shaman to watch over it. When Feskun fell to the charm of the Queen, I knew that I needed to take the Change rite and take his place. I have taken the Change rite– though I know it hurts you to see me this way. Now I have only to become Shaman through this initiation.”
Thanee puts a hand on Mesdan’s shoulder, and for a moment Mesdan feels a horrible wrenching indecision. It vanishes as Thanee’s next words fall out in a rush.
“If you do this, Danni-”
“My name is Mesdan,” he replies quietly. “Or does the rite mean nothing to you either? How many times must I say it? I’m different. I’m not a witch anymore. I’m a shaman. I took the rite. I’ve diverged from that path and there’s no telling when I will return. This village needs no witch. I will be a shaman.”
He takes a deep, shuddering breath, trying to gather his wits again. He doesn’t shrug Thaneen’s hand away, but he doesn’t move to accept the gesture either. After a few more moments, Thanee drops his hand and sighs.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I meant no offense. I’m just not used to it yet, I guess.” He pauses, then shakes his head ruefully. “I never wanted to share you with anyone. Now I suppose I don’t need to worry about that, at least.”
Mesdan smiles weakly. Always right to the point, with Thanee. “Yeah. You can have me all you want once I’m shaman. I promise you won’t have to share at all. At least wait until I’m healed up though.”
Thanee punches his shoulder playfully. It still makes Mesdan wince. Seeing his expression Thaneen leans in close, enough that his forehead nearly touches Mesdan’s. “A tough man like you? You’ll be ready by tomorrow’s end,” he whispers. “Just wait and see.”
Mesdan feels acutely aware of how close Thanee’s fingers are to his hips and for a moment, he is literally left speechless. The closeness of his freckled friend takes him by surprise, and the heat between them is something to be savored in the chilling air. Mesdan’s eyes wander, taking in the curve of Thanee’s shoulder, the familiar fang-shaped birthmark on his right cheek, those warm brown eyes and the sturdy– though a little thin– frame. He’s close enough to kiss.
He comes back to himself. “Than-”
“Right,” his friend replies, voice choked, pulling back. He turns away, hiding his face. Mesdan catches a glimpse of Thaneen’s reddening cheeks before the boy stalks off and leans against a tree. Mesdan takes a calming breath, lets his heartbeat return to normal, and forces his attention back to his work.
Creating dream shells is hard enough without worrying about feelings for Thanee, or the reciprocation of those feelings BY Thanee. Mesdan can’t afford to split his attention now.
He rethreads the bone needle, and tries again. He’d been doing pretty well before Thanee had interrupted him. He retraces the heart-weave, taking another calming breath. When he finishes tracing out the intricate semi-circle triple pattern and the helix down the middle for support, he takes the shell fiber from the hole in the needle and, very carefully, snaps the needle in two. By the time he looks up, Thaneen is gone. He probably slipped away to find his relatives in the crowd of villagers gathering.
The shaman initiate glances back down at his dream shell and sighs heavily. His newest work, his grand pattern, spread right across the heart-weave, is Thaneen’s name in witch-rote. Well.
Mesdan makes a face, drops the old dream shell and picks up new fiber and a new bone needle. Closing his eyes and trying very hard not to think of Thanee again, he starts over.
Midnight comes far too fast for Mesdan’s comfort. The moon, rising into the sky through the forest canopy, shines down like a second sun. It won’t last. A shamanic initiation will require complete darkness. Kesta himself had spoken with the sky and asked it to cover the moon for the night. Mesdan shivers a little. The light is a comfort. Especially knowing that he will spend the remainder of the night- and the next- alone, outside, and in total blackness.
He can’t remember a time in his life when he’s enjoyed being in the dark. Not a single time. The darkness hides monsters, demons and otherwise. To enjoy it would go against every ounce of his witch training. To enjoy it would go against his very nature. Still, it seems a nonissue compared to the immense task before him. Initiation for shamanhood would require many things of Mesdan, things he isn’t sure even now he’s ready for. His dream shell is complete and he has the support of Kesta, Thaneen and Eliss to count on, but he still knows that it will be dreadfully difficult. With that knowledge haunting him, he tries his best to find his center now. He doesn’t know and won’t be told who will administer the initiation. Kesta only tells him things like that because the two of them are close. Much closer than they should be, to be frank. Thaneen would be jealous if he knew. But there are some things Thaneen can never understand.
Some things Thaneen shouldn’t understand. Mesdan’s relationship with Kesta is one such thing.
The crowd around him– the entire village, really– isn’t murmuring or talking at all. They simply stand and wait. At a witch’s initiation, jeers and catcalls are relatively commonplace– whistles of appreciation, perhaps, things meant to test the discipline of the girl who is to become a witch. Test it as hard as can be. This is necessary. In order to hunt monsters, one must make their heart like stone. In order to defend the bodies of those around them with the mana and the life-force of the air, the moon, the stars and the earth, one must have iron discipline lest they fall to that power and become like the creatures they seek to destroy.
Whole villages could be annihilated by rogue witches. Their power could level all but the strongest of log cabins and turn brave warriors to nothing but ash and dust as easily as it could do the same to a monster.
His thoughts drift back to the present. It’s growing darker now. A glance at the sky tells the tale of a forgotten and forlorn moon, and of a lone cloud as black as the darkest soil sweeping across the sky and hovering there maliciously over it, under it, sending the whole of the jungle into shadow.
No words still. He is alone with his thoughts, and in the darkness. Alone, though as a shaman he can feel the presence of the crowd nearby. It hasn’t begun then. Surely it would soon.
Mesdan closes his eyes. It’s meaningless. He can’t tell the difference between the black of the back of his lids and the light of opening his eyes. There is no difference. It’s shadow, shadow and shadow all around him. He can’t let it set in that he truly IS alone, that despite being able to feel the crowd out there, they cannot and will not lift a finger to help him during this initiation. He is to face this trial alone. His ordeal is all alone.
While he waits for his first test to start, he can feel the panic start to gnaw at him. To distract himself, he lets his mind wander again.
When he had been a her, before the Change rite, he remembers going through the witch initiation as Danni. The dream shell in his hands chimes. He opens his eyes, looks down at the hypnotic, glowing weave of it sitting in his fingers, and is swallowed up by the past.
“A slip of a girl cannot undergo witch training, Dessdan,” Ginna snaps. “If you grow to become strong, return to me, but not before you are truly ready.”
Danni flushes red from where she lies. As Ginna withdraws, she pulls the shell blade from Danni’s neck. Danni hates it when Ginna calls her Dessdan. It’s a girl’s name, not a witch’s, and no matter what anyone says Danni will become a witch.
“I am not a slip of a girl!” Danni hisses, her eyes stinging with tears, stupid, weak tears. “I’ll prove how strong I am.”
Ginna arches an eyebrow, but says nothing as Danni pulls herself to her feet and glares at the old witch defiantly. For a time, silence is all that passes between them, then:
“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, little girl, but if you truly wish to show me how strong you are, seek out the eldest shaman in the village and defeat him. I care not whether it is with skill, magic or the strength of your scrawny arms. Find him, challenge him, and defeat him. Then I shall let you train under me.”
Ginna doesn’t seem to find this a likely possibility at all.
When Danni reaches the shaman’s hut, she expects him to be outside, working in the garden. He isn’t, but a familiar face is there to greet her. The eldest shaman in the village is named Wesdal. The shaman’s hut is secluded and while he doesn’t often get visitors, he walks down the path every day. His apprentice, Keeta, looks up and smiles as Danni approaches down the worn path.
“Good eve, Dessdan-” He starts.
“It’s Danni,” she snaps, irritable already. A witch doesn’t have much use for manners. Still, she shakes her head apologetically before she continues. “Sorry. It’s been a long day. Can you go get Wesdal for me?”
Keeta just smiles at her apology, then seems to brighten up even further at her request, nodding and turning to enter the hut.
She hadn’t meant to be rude to him. Of course, Keeta would never say it, but she’s sure that he doesn’t like her very much.
She likes him well enough. Keeta is a little weird, but then again, so is Danni, so she doesn’t mind. His eyes don’t wander the way other boys’ do. Danni isn’t sure what to make of that, but it does seem strange to her that he never… well, looks at her. He must just not like her very much. She simply can’t imagine any other reason.
“So, here to challenge me?”
Wesdal’s warm voice breaks her out of her daze. He’s a tall, thick built man with soft amber eyes and weathered features, like old stone. He isn’t old, really, but all shamans get like that. Wrinkly and dry before their time. She stares up at him blankly a moment before the sharp part of her mind smacks her out of it again.
“Oh!” she almost yelps, snapping alert. “Yes! Ginna won’t let me train under her until I defeat you.” Danni pauses a moment, then stares at her feet. “I don’t think she wants me to be a witch at all.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Keeta whispers.
Danni isn’t listening, though. She raises her head and meets Wesdal’s expectant eyes with her own hard, blue pair.
Her words are like iron.
Mesdan shakes himself awake and alert again, drawing his eyes up and away from the dream shell. Darkness has surrounded him completely. The glow of the shell shimmers for a few more seconds and then fades away. His heart begins to pound and Mesdan becomes terribly aware of how alone he is in the darkness. It takes a few deep, calming breaths to remember his purpose here.
The past is the past. The present is the present. This is not the witch initiation. His foes will be beatable.
This time. Now that he knows more.
“Danni.” A voice calls from the darkness. “You must learn to face your fear, or you will never be able to protect your village.”
He can’t place the villager’s voice. He nods anyway, sure that whoever it is can’t see him. Mesdan wonders whether or not there’s anything really there, or if it’s simply the dream shell’s hypnotic influence plaguing him still. His whole body aches from his ordeal the night before.
The dark around him grows more so, swirling in like a velvet caress. Its chill touch makes his ebon skin break out in a sweat. He wills his body to move, to pull itself up, to push away from his seat on the ground. It doesn’t listen. With a shock, Mesdan realizes that he’s completely paralyzed.
A nightmarish haze hangs on his heart, on his hair, all over his aching body. It clings to him, dirtying him. He feels filthy, profaned, like his mind is being sullied somehow by this invasive presence. It seeps into him, into his self, and shakes him to his heart, to the core of his soul. He can feel it eating away at him.
“Lost yourself so easily, little girl?”
Ginna’s voice is so cold it chills him to the bone. It echoes at him out of the dark.
“You have no right to claim shamanhood. Do you mean to betray your oaths as a witch?” the voice mocks. “What sort of vows were they, to be broken like this?”
The words have literal bite to them. He can feel the marks they leave on his bare skin, on arms. This is, after all, shaman initiation. He was stupid to believe the foe he must face would be a physical one.
He would cry out at the pain, but his mouth won’t move. His whole body is still.
Yet apprentice shaman must survive this test! He can scarcely believe it- the pain of this first obstacle alone is excruciating. Without incantation, though, with barely any movement at all needed, a shaman could heal or hinder with a thought, with the sheer force of their own mana, their own spirit.
He hesitates a moment more, trying to gather himself as the haze penetrates deeper into his mind and the sick feeling in his belly grows riotous. It builds to a point, then sinks back down. His heart throbs in his chest and he feels a convulsion shudder through him. If this keeps up, he’s certain he’ll die.
Mesdan forces his mind inwards. Around him, the silence deepens. As he dives deep into his own psyche, his heartbeat slows and his body relaxes.
A few moments later, and the darkness swallows him completely, devouring his motionless body as surely as night follows day.
©2012 Sam Oliver [Eris]
Cliffhanger. Split the original chapter 2 up into 2 chapters instead- chapters two and three- to make it more sane. Finals week is NEXT week, but it’s nowhere near as hectic as this one, sooooooo…. I can get a regular schedule by next week instead????
Was that enough question marks??????
<3s to all,