Three Hearts: Chapter Four

A Change rite always ends with a full transfer from boy form to girl form or the other way around. Never had it been done alone, never had anyone excepting Mesdan attempted and made the decision to change all on their own. Generally it was to be for the good of a particular village, or area. There were plenty of his… type… scattered throughout the villages, but never had they changed on their own before. There also had not been a full change in years and years. To do so would require a very specific knife, of a glass Mesdan just happened to find and hone years back.

The idea of one freely changing back between forms is nearly heretical. Even for Outsiders, the concept of it is simply impossible.

So it is that, when Danni takes over as Mesdan falls and Mesdan’s body changes, Sojourn is so shocked that he loses hold of her hair.

Danni shifts into place with effortless, fluid  grace, dancing back away from Sojourn and the three slavers. One of them- with his skull-patterned shirt- raises what Danni instantly recognizes as a weapon, thought it appears as nothing more than a metal stick. The earth’s knowledge flows into her feet and then swirls up through the rest of her body, and the memory of Kesta being shot with it, a mere cycle ago, screams for her attention. The blast from it is light-fast, and invisible. The only warning she’ll have is a glow.

According to this memory, she won’t have any time to act.

Danni doesn’t act, just reacts, shifting her body to the side quick as a blink. She isn’t quick enough, though. The heat of the ray as it is fired is simultaneous with a crackling hiss and a streak of burning pain along her side.

Impassively, face as cold as Sojourn’s had been, she ducks behind Kesta’s traitorous brother as the masked outsider holding the weapon– which is long and thick with a silvered tip– sweeps it towards her. Brush on the ground catches flame, smoking as that invisible magic catches it. The traitor who had held her hair seconds before is still too stunned to move. He only starts to turn his head as she darts behind his legs.

Sojourn barely has time to yell as Danni slams her thin shoulder against the back of his knees, forcing them to bend. The beam strikes him full in the chest; Danni can hear it burning through skin and hissing at his bones, can hear some of his blood flash into steam.

Danni rolls away from Sojourn’s falling body, rises. As she runs for the cover of the trees, she hears a shout from one of the outsiders, unintelligible. A brief argument ensues, two sentences from the voice of the brightly-dressed outsider that come too fast to understand. The skull-shirted one’s voice rebuffs it with a single word she can certainly understand: “No.”

A lance of searing agony cuts along her leg and topples her over onto her hands and knees. She twists onto her back, brings up a hand, barely thinking. Before the weapon can turn on her again and focus her into ash, she gathers mana from around her and, without an incantation, without a word, hurls it into a barrier before her, a desperate shield made of desperate energy. The grass around her lends its life to the spell, turning grey and dead, drying and withering away in a moment.

The beam sweeps towards her, visible only as a ripple cutting through the afternoon air.

The heat blast crackles when it strikes her hasty mana shield. She can’t tell whether it begins to burn through it or not, but it doesn’t sound like her shield will last long.

She tries to stand, to duck behind trees, to leave her barrier as cover for her escape, but her leg will not move. She can’t move at all except in a crawl.

At any moment her shield could give way.

She hurls it at the outsiders.

The field of mana, visible only as a blue sheen in the air, sweeps away from her and washes forward like a wave, flattening grass before it, sending Sojourn tumbling aside, crashing towards the skull-shirted outsider directly. He stands his ground, though, either unaware of the danger or unafraid of it.

Whether because his mask drains it away or because of sheer bad luck, Danni watches her barrier disappear. She still isn’t in cover- the trees remain yards away, yards that feel like miles.

For a moment, the skull-shirted outsider just stares at her from behind that impassive mask. He doesn’t fire his weapon.

Suddenly, with the trickle of blood slipping down her chest, Danni realizes what he’s staring at. Her bandages have come undone, exposing her ebon-skinned breasts.

After she follows his gaze, she can’t help but stare as well. What in the heart of mana?

There’s a thunk, quickly followed by another, then another.

Danni looks up in time to see every single outsider drop to the ground facefirst, in time to wonder at Thaneen stepping over their motionless bodies.

He rushes to her, then stops a few feet from her, the wooden cudgel held loosely in one fist, dangling by his side as he stares at her, at her chest, then at her face. Thanee always was easy to read.

“Danni?” He asks in disbelief. “What has happened?”

“I… don’t know,” Danni answers cautiously, truthfully. “Honestly I haven’t the faintest. Ah…”

She shudders, dropping a hand down to her leg, to the cracked, burned skin on the back of her right leg, breath hissing between her teeth. The pain is excruciating.

Thaneen forgets himself, dropping his cudgel and kneeling down next to her, lifting her foot up onto his lap and away from the roughness of the forest floor

“Where did you…? Oh. Are you well, Danni? Are you going to stay conscious?”

She nods once, hugging her chest and feeling terribly vulnerable. “Yes.”

“You’re a witch now.” It isn’t a question. “Does the earth remember what happened here?”

Again, Danni nods.

“What happened?” Thanee asks quietly. One finger traces the charred skin on the back of her leg, sending a line of white pain from thigh to her spine and making her tremble.

“Than-”

“Why is Sojourn dead? Who are these people, these outsiders? Why is Kesta over there, barely alive, and where is the rest of the village? What’s going on?”

His finger presses at her wound, digging in too hard,

“Ah- OW- Thanee, stop! Stop, and I’ll tell you!” Danni snaps sharply. “You’re acting like a child!”

Thaneen blinks, then pulls his finger away, curling it into a fist, ivory knuckles gone paler than usual. His face is white as well, his mouth set in a tight line.

“I just don’t understand,” he whispers. “The whole village- empty. Everyone is gone but me, you and Kesta, and Kesta might die soon. I went out to the shrine earlier in the morning, then out to hunt- when I come back I find all the huts deserted, all the houses empty. I see Sojourn dead on the ground and three men near you, watch you put up the shield. I sneak around and- I kill those people, those Outsiders.”

“Than,” Danni says softly. “I understand. They came here to take us. Slavers.”

He nods, then turns his face away so she won’t see his tears. “We need to stop them. For Sojourn and Kesta’s sake.”

Danni’s heart hardens at Sojourn’s name, but she shoves it aside. The man had lived among them for a long time.  Now that he is dead, she doesn’t feel that it would be respectful to the memory of who he was to claim he had died doing anything other than defending the village. She isn’t sure if Kesta knows that his adopted brother betrayed him, but she is certain that if he doesn’t, he doesn’t need to know now.

“Well don’t run off before I’ve a chance to heal Kesta,” Danni replies. “And don’t mourn him before I give it a shot.”

“I have some questions about that, actually,” Thaneen starts, but Danni cuts him off.

“Save them,” she snaps. “I’ll need to concentrate. Can you get me to Kesta? I can’t move, my leg isn’t working.”

“Yes.”

Thanee pulls her up into his arms, lifting her easily. She weighs as little as a child, as Danni, is easy to lift. He carries her to where Kesta lies and sets her down beside him.

“Thanks,” she says absently, and gets to work, leaning over her friend.

Kesta is bleeding sluggishly from a mass of cracked and blackened skin.  It must have been his chest at one point. It would have made Mesdan sick to his stomach, but as Danni she feels only a hollow regret. She could have stopped this if she hadn’t been busy trying to become a shaman. She should have been here to protect the village. Whatever magic reversed her Change rite must truly wish to torture her; barely an hour earlier and she could have fought off the outsiders as they came.

Now, however…

“Can you heal him?” Thaneen asks.

Danni looks up at him. “As a witch? No. As a shaman? Yes.”

Thanee folds his arms. “We don’t have time for you to undergo another Change rite, Danni. If you can’t do this thing, the rest of the villagers will be lost. Only Kesta knows what happened. Your link to the earth is powerful, but not powerful enough to find what happened hours ago.”

“You think I don’t know any of that?” Danni snaps. “Hush for a moment. I’m trying to think.”

Change rite or not, reversed or not, she should still have that connection to the shaman side of her heart. She reaches inside of herself…

A cough from Kesta breaks her concentration. She jerks awake again, staring at him. He isn’t coughing up blood, and she supposes that must be a good thing. When he tries to sit up, though, he winces and groans, sliding back down again, gasping for breath.

His eyes focus again, finding first Thaneen, then Danni. His breathing steadies somewhat after a while.

“You went through the Change rite. You shouldn’t look like that,” he observes. “What happened?”

“That,” Thaneen says, “is what I want to know.”

Danni bites her lip and turns her head. Long black hair falls around her shoulders in a manner too familiar for comfort. She’d had a sneaking suspicion– for a while now– that she knew exactly what had happened. The knife’s magic had been severed somehow. When Sojourn had gripped Mesdan’s short hair, he’d done something…

It’s odd, all of Mesdan’s aches and little cramps from sitting in one position seem to hurt Danni as well now. She feels a separate person from the man she’d chosen to become– it’s obvious, though, that they share a body. She stares down at herself, as if to reaffirm it in her mind. Yes, her breasts, her body, her dark skin.

She hadn’t missed it. She feels as if she never left it, as if Mesdan and his hopes and dreams were simply that– hopes and dreams.

Something warm and liquid is trickling down her chest and over her belly. She’d almost forgotten that she was bleeding.

The cuts on her chest also reopened, from Mesdan’s shaman magic earlier. They aren’t bad and it’s not urgent, but she takes the time to rebind her bandages. When she’s finished with that, though, Danni feels no closer to figuring out what went wrong.

She becomes aware of something else, suddenly, something unrelated to any of the disastrous things that have happened. It overwhelms all attempts at rational thought.

Kesta and Thaneen are staring at her expectantly. Her stomach growls.

“I’m really hungry,” she says quietly. “Before we do anything else, I’d like something to eat.”

Kesta forces a smile. “Fine. No use thinking on an empty stomach. Truth be told, I’m hungry too.”

“You’re both in luck,” Thaneen murmurs hollowly. “My hunting trip was a success.”

 

 

 

 

©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)

——–

So here it is finally, the next chapter. One whole week after the third one was delivered! Crazy! Why, back in Demimind’s day I used to be getting like two whole chapters out a week! What is this madness? I’ll never get a story done with just one a week!

Pssh, it’s alright. If I’m lazy it gives folks a chance to catch up. No big hurry. I need to get all the writing this though, if I want a schedule of tuesday to continue.  Can’t be lazing about on Chapter Four. Gotta speed it up now in order to get Chapter Five out too. This is the last buffer’d page. Everything else will be fresh. And hey! A chapter where the main character DOESN’T fall unconscious! And it’s not really a cliffhanger, either. What the heck is wrong with me?

Anyway, enjoy.

-Eris

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Three Hearts: Chapter Three

Chapter: Initiation (3)

The landscape of Mesdan’s mind is fiery, an immense plain of verdant greenery now reduced to ashes by a rolling wave of liquid rock. In the distance, the red haze signals the fire’s rapid approach. Mesdan stands on the plain, gasping for lost breath. There’s still that awful nauseous feeling in his stomach. If anything it feels stronger here, where the scent of burning grass is mingled with the sickly sweet scent of burning flesh. Beside him, a girl, standing there with black skin like his and long, black hair, a girl with a thin, child-like body and soft blue eyes stares at him. Behind her there is a taller girl, more- more adult-like, more filled out with longer hair, closer to what he’d had before the Change rite. Her eyes are hard. He recognizes both of them, of course.

“Mesdan,” Danni says sharply, nodding to him from behind Dessdan. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Of course,” he replies shortly. “Where is the one I must fight?”

“Idiot,” Danni snaps. “Patience is required to be a shaman, as well as insight. Have you neither?”

“The monster is that way,” Dessdan whispers quietly, pointing towards the red haze on the horizon, towards the approaching wall of flame. “Be careful, Mesdan.”

“Thank you,” Mesdan says simply. He starts off through long grasses and sand, over the burning plains holding his fate.

It is a long and painful eternity that passes as he pushes onward.

The plain seems to go on forever. When he finally approaches the fire, when he can feel the heat of it on his skin and the sand between his toes, he watches the colors dance along the edges of the flame and understands.

There, standing before it, strolling leisurely towards him, is himself. 

No. It is as if he were a shaman all along. It is as if he had never been a witch. That is who stands before him, the version of him who is, was, and always will be a man. The man before him is tall, built quite strong, with flecks of grey in his close-cut hair, though Mesdan knows he is young in truth. His body is weathered and hard, like old earth, and his eyes would be soft and warm were they not filled with disgust.

In an instant, he attacks, while Thaneen and Kesta, both standing behind him, watch with folded arms. The two appeared near silently, but Mesdan can’t be surprised. After all, if this is to be his initiation, his worst fears would be brought before him.

Fears of a better him, fears of a real him, instead of the fake status brought by a Change rite. The bandages feel tight around his chest as the other-Mesdan strikes.

Mesdan is borne to the ground as other-him strikes him, knocking the air from his lungs  with a gasp. The other-him raises a hand like leather, curls fingers into a fist, and brings it down in one fluid movement, jabbing Mesdan in the gut.

Again. His ribs, his arms as Mesdan raises them to protect themself– a blow catches him on the cheek, the shoulder, the stomach. His shaman-self is strong. Too strong to fight back against properly. Pain explodes along his temple and blossoms against his chest as ribs crack. 

“Ah-!” He hears himself gasp. A strike to his chest makes his head spin, the pain, red hot and swollen, spreads in waves along his chest and back as the beating continues. A strike to the throat leaves him breathless, coughing.

Still, he does not fight back. He says not a word in response.

I am an abomination, he thinks. I deserve this.

He feels no emotion now, as his ideal double smashes him in the ribs, arms and head over and over. Nothing, and it’s alien, this feeling of emptiness. It’s as if the mere presence of this impostor is draining his energy. It’s as if with every blow, his own helplessness is vindicated and he just doesn’t care.

“Your weakness is going to get you killed!” Kesta is shouting.

“You are nothing,” his shaman-self snarls. “You are worthless, less than dirt, an abomination, a natural reject. Half-man! Half-woman! What are you but a freak?”

The weight of his shaman-self is crushing his ribs. Mesdan stares up at the face of his dream, of his idealized self, of the person he could have been if he had only been born a man, and finally a shock of anger wipes away all traces of his own apathy, of his unwillingness to fight back. A very real flush of rage forces his weak boy’s body to move. Too long as a girl has made his hands weak, his reliance on mana outside his own body has caused entropy to grasp at his muscles, but he closes fingers into fists and, summoning a burst of energy, pushes back up, struggles, blocks a blow from his other-self. He can’t breathe.

There is no mana in his mind. Nothing to draw on to fight back. The ambience of his mind is not something he can drain in order to cast a spell or incantation to reduce his shaman-self to ash. All he has is his body. His weak witch body.

His weak witch body with her sharp, sharp teeth.

He sinks them into his other-self’s arm as it comes down again, grabbing hold of it and wrenching it to his mouth.

His teeth dig deep enough to draw blood, and his shaman-self yells, smashing a fist into Mesdan’s temple and knocking him senseless. Blood coats his tongue, his and his. Dizzied, seeing stars, he rolls in vain, struggling as his shaman-self grabs his own arm and shouts something foul.

Half-man? Half-woman? Anyone who is at all a man or woman from birth cannot undergo a Change rite! When has Mesdan ever regretted being the way he is? Such words from something, anything like what he sees above him, on him now, anything that looks like what he once wanted to be– they are poisonous, bitter, toxic. He can’t believe they come from something shaped like his mouth.

His cracked ribs flare in agony as his other-self bears down on him again with his good arm, but Mesdan grabs the first blow as it hisses through the air towards his face. He feels bones grate with the effort. His shaman-self is still very strong.

“You don’t scare me!” Mesdan snaps. “You aren’t who I want to be anymore! Anyone as awful as you is nothing more than a nightmare!”

The world flashes red, stars dart in and out of Mesdan’s vision. His heart pounds and his eyes flutter as vision blurs, as the pain rises to a roar. But it isn’t new. It’s the pressure on his heart, it’s the fire already in his ribs. His double is staring down at him.

As he sees himself through his double vision, he watches his shaman-self smile.

“Good,” is all he says. “Then if you so swear to heal those who hurt and to guard the villagers from spirits and their inner selves and demons, I pronounce this initiation-“

“-complete,” Sojourn’s voice finishes.

His eyes are the first thing Mesdan sees as he comes back to consciousness. Sojourn looks tired. Mesdan feels tired, all over, aching and horribly stiff. Sojourn rises and reaches down to Mesdan where he sits. The new shaman smiles as he clasps Sojourn’s leather’d hand.

Sojourn is Kesta’s brother– well, adopted brother– and his tan skin feels warm against Mesdan’s hand as he lets Sojourn pull him upright, to his feet.

Mesdan notices the light next. It must be midday. No one is cheering, but he can feel the sun beating down on him and that itself is encouraging. He’s alive. Not only did he survive, now he is shaman. The two go hand in hand.

His ribs feel raw. The wound on his chest feels ready to split open again. Did he use mana while he was unconscious? Was it real? His skin must be covered in bruises.

The dream shell feels heavy in his hands.

Mesdan nearly drops it. He stumbles, nearly drops to the forest floor, nearly collapses face first onto the ground. He feels queasy, every part of him feels sick. Sojourn doesn’t move to catch him, and Mesdan falls to the ground, hands out to catch his fall. They nearly collapse when they strike the earth, nearly can’t support his wait.

He coughs, feels another wave of nauseating pain writhe through his guts, and empties his stomach on the ground. Sojourn is stepping back, an impassive look on his face.

“Sojourn-” Mesdan starts, staring up at him. Then he notices that he doesn’t seem to be in the same part of the forest he started. The people aren’t cheering because they don’t look like his people, his villagers.

The other shaman stares at him. His hand had been warm, but his face is cold.

“Well?” He asks, turning to the people. “I brought you a mana-user.”

Mesdan stares at them. There are three in total. All of them are dressed in the clothes of the rich, jeans and nearly new t-shirts. One of them has a strange device around his neck and the dyes that cover his shirt seem strange, patterned oddly. He lifts the device, aims it at Mesdan. Then he says something, and it’s in the language of Mesdan’s people- just twisted a little. The words can be made out, but no sense can be drawn from them.

“Cam er ah, flash foe toe.”

A second, no two seconds later, there is a blinding burst of light right in Mesdan’s eyes, offsetting the natural gloom of the jungle and burning the outlines of the three people into his memory.

They are human, there can be no doubt of that. They wear odd masks and have long heavy boots on their feet, but they must be human. He cannot see the color of their skin or eyes or hair- the masks are thorough.

“Who is she?” one asks. Its use of Mesdan’s language is slightly flawed. On its shirt, an immense skull pattern, stylized and embellished to a magnificent degree, stares back at Mesdan.

“Her name is Danni,” Sojourn replies. “I will give her to you for ten shells.”

“Steeper than usual,” the skull-shirted one comments. “But I have the shells.”

Mesdan struggles to stand. When he reaches his feet, however, he finds himself  on his back, staring up at the sky, at Sojourn’s cold eyes and outstretched fist. His chest is in blinding agony now. It feels like the blow cracked some of his ribs. He didn’t even see the shaman move.

The third person, whose face is hidden by that mask, and whose business shirt seems to be much crisper than the others, says something Mesdan can’t make out. From the way those masks occasionally turn to regard him, a chill feeling sinks into his spine and settles there.

It occurs to him. They’re talking about selling him. Her. Selling Danni? And with her, he will go. His mind spins in his head, pain arcing through his insides again.

He isn’t Danni any longer, though she lives in his head. How can they sell someone who doesn’t exist except in Mesdan’s mind?

Why would Sojourn betray him so?

The iron tang of blood reaches his nose. This time Mesdan rolls over onto his belly to look around. He is a few feet off of the path leading through the main village. Before him he can see Eliss’s cabin.

The door to Eliss’s old cabin is open. The smell of dried blood is wafting out of it. Slumped against the bloodied door frame, a very familiar face is softened further in  repose. His chest is burned terribly, the skin bubbled and cracked around his ribs. It smells of burnt skin and charred hope.

Kesta.

He’s breathing, but shallowly. If Mesdan can’t get to him to help him, he could die…

A hand is suddenly in Mesdan’s hair. His short, black, hair. It squeezes, grabs hold close to the base of his skull, and yanks him upright. For his part, Mesdan tries a kick, which Sojourn, still hanging on, sidesteps.

The pain in his skull intensifies, and spots dance before Mesdan’s vision. It swims and sways and his eyes blur with sudden tears.

“Sojourn-” Mesdan whispers weakly. “What are you doing?”

“As the Outsiders say: Making moh knee. It’s a simple enough plan.”

“So this is how you repay your brother and the others?” Mesdan snaps,.

Sojourn shakes him by his hair and snarls right back. “My ‘brother’ is a fool for taking me in. Five years I spend waiting for a raid, waiting for a chance to go back. Now that I have it, not even a so-called ‘brother’ will stop me from returning to the people I know.”

As pain flashes through Mesdan like fire, his mind finally gives in, and he blacks out completely…

…forcing Danni to the forefront.

The Shifting Flames – 1

Silver-Fur-Shining crouches on the plain, her tail and body set low in the tall grasses, looking for all the world like an immense cat ready to pounce, rather than any wolf. She is far too large for any regular wolf, as well, nearly twice the size of a well fed horse. Her wolf pack is a hundred yards distant, herding an immense scaled creature with armor-like hide and flames for its breath. Its name is lost to Silver-Fur-Shining, but she is certain that it is not like the winged creature which took her home from her so long ago. While the monster’s breath is as flame, its form is more bull-like, albeit an especially large one. Rather than hooves, it has long scaled talons for feet, and its tail bears a spitting serpent’s head.

Normal wolves would never be so foolish as to try to take such a creature down. In fact, though Silver’s pack is made entirely of large, powerful dire wolves, they would not be able to kill such a creature under normal circumstances, though they hurt it by raking its metallic scales and nipping at its tail, which already has fallen limp, whether from exhaustion or damage.  The wolves had taken several injuries from those claws and its tail.

She settles back again, panting slightly from the heat. It’s midday on the plains. Padding from behind her marks the arrival of Silver’s mate, Claw-Scars-Many. Claw settles down next to her almost lazily.

“Anxious, little girl?” he asks lightly. The old wolf’s fur is streaked near white with age.When he had first found her he had been old. Forty seasons later he is older still.

“No more than I should be, dear one,” she answers quietly. Then, “Are you prepared?”

“You know what I think of your chase after these monsters,” Claw replies in a soft growl. “But this beast has killed too many of our pack for me not to be ready.”

Claw is nearly twice as small as Silver-Fur-Shining. It hadn’t always been that way. Silver is the largest of any wolf in the pack, the largest any dire wolf has ever been, according to Claw, but she doesn’t mind.

Nor could she help it if she did.

Of all the things she gave up to enter this pack, she is sure that the memories of her human life had been some of the hardest to let go.  The others were either easily dropped, or the pain had been negligible. She’d been treated like a child until, by dire wolf standards, she was a child no more. It hadn’t been easy- at least, at first, as the runt of her pack. She remembers that she’d been the only pup in the pack for five whole seasons after she first was accepted. Gradually though, things changed. She had grown. She had become stronger.

The few wolves who still remembered that she was a shapeshifter had either left the pack or died seasons before she mated with Claw.

The tale had not been perpetuated, so only Claw was around to remember the truth.
Then, she’d stayed on with Claw-Scars-Many, risen to pack leader after beating him in a contest of strength, and let him stay with her for advice.

Her pack now consists mostly of her children, whether by Claw or by other foreign dalliances. She cares for them all dearly, and is proud of their work here, in a vague sort of way. She feels, however, a certain emptiness in her heart, even as her big moment slowly stampedes closer, even as the great scaled bull comes within twenty five yards and Claw coils like a spring. The woman-wolf pushes it aside, however. She’ll need all her focus for this moment.

Silver ducks down further, staring up as it tramples down grass. She waits for her moment as the beast finally stands before her on those scaled legs and rears back a little, horse-like. Its head is turned away from her and its neck is exposed. Claw, however, is the one to move first. He darts underneath the creature and rakes sharp iron claws along its soft underbelly. The thing bellows, kicking out with one leg, twisting and turning, and presenting Silver with its back.

As Claw-Scars-Many jumps away, Silver leaps up atop the creature’s exposed flank, digs her claws in and closes her massive jaws on the beast’s metallic neck, snapping them shut and feeling her teeth scrape and then puncture right through its scaled hide, warm, copper blood splashing her fur, staining her teeth greenish blue. It smells good, filling her nose with a colorful splash of metal and honey.  The taste, however, is just a little too sweet for her.

She’d gag if she could, but instead she bites down harder and wrenches to the side sharply, tearing the metal scales and snapping the iron bones making up the monster’s spine. It breathes a single jet of flame from its nostrils, kicking out, bucking weakly before its blazing red eyes darken and it collapses with Silver’s weight bearing it down.

Silver steps off of its massive corpse, more than a little pleased with herself, for all the loss this monster brought. Her plan had worked fairly well, considering the prey they’d decided to try to take. It would be prudent for her to have the pack move to the kill rather than to try to move the kill itself.

“The scales are tough,” Claw observes from her side. “Like metal. How does it taste?”

Silver licks her muzzle, sits back on her haunches and stares Claw-Scars-Many down. He holds her gaze for a few long moments, then turns away.

Finally, Silver answers him. “Too sweet, for me, though the meat is good. Divide it up amongst our hunters. Make sure you get first pick, my love.”

Something is eating at her heart right now, some unfamiliar feeling. With the killing done, she feels she can focus on it. Whatever it is is ruining her appetite.

The woman-wolf pads away to find a place to be alone, curling up near the edge of a tall, tall tree, crouched in its shade. When she feels she must be completely alone, she lets herself relax. For a time, she can let her thoughts run free.

She can’t remember the name she had as a human. She only vaguely remembers how old she was then. She remembers, to some extent, being small. But then, compared with Claw-Scars-Many, as a human she would have always been small.

Her memories of being a pup are blurred. She had taken wolf shape at a time where her body could accept meat and drink and walk on its own. From the very start she had been allowed to eat portions of any kill brought back- so long as the adults ate first.

Silver closes her eyes a moment. Dreams had haunted her every night for as far back as she could remember. Claw couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. Dreams of winged monsters. Dreams of fire breathing, scaled creatures flying across the sky, eclipsing the moon. Dreams of dragons.

Their scales fill her mind when she sleeps. Even thinking about them in her off time gives her an odd thrill. How she longs to be meet one of them. How she wishes she could find one of them, speak to its shape. Grace, power and beauty mixed as one. She doesn’t remember where she saw them first, to make her dream this way, but that doesn’t matter.

“Pack leader,” a voice calls in a soft growl. Her eyes snap open. One of her children, Chase-The-Wind, approaches her, padding over quietly. Everything about his snow-white form is nervous, his tail between his legs, his eyes downcast. “Shadow-With-Teeth is issuing an open challenge for leadership. He came here with his whole pack.”

Silver-Fur-Shining rises to her four paws, stretches out slowly. “Thank you. I’ll take his challenge now.”

She knows Chase is curious. Normally she’d wait a few days after a kill before accepting any challenge. Something preoccupies her, however. She wishes only to get the fight over and done with so she might continue alone with her thoughts.

To that end, she is surprised to see Shadow-With-Teeth muzzle to muzzle with Claw-Scars-Many. The two are snarling and snapping at one another. The words are hard to make out, but she gets the gist of it.

“You think that Silver-Fur-Shining is weak? You dare step here in my pack, issue formal challenge to the leader and pretend not to know who she is?” Claw-Scars-Many growls sharply. “Were she here-”

“Where is she then, if she is as strong as you boast?” Shadow-With-Teeth snaps. “Is she too craven to accept my challenge?”

Claw stares him down, and the two are so intent that it isn’t until Silver physically steps between them that they take note of her. Claw abruptly sits back on his haunches and does not meet her eyes. Shadow stares her down defiantly, of course, but she can read fear in his gaze, even if the wind does not bring her his scent.

“I accept your challenge,” Silver says quietly. “And I have no fear.”

“The terms?” Shadow asks. His stance is tense and his eyes never leave hers.

“If you lose, you and your pack fall under my command,” Silver replies evenly.

“If you lose, you will be my mate and your pups will be the strongest of any ever known,” Shadow growls. “We will hunt on the plains until the stars burn out.”

Silver almost lets go with a wolfish grin after that, but represses it. “You won’t win.”

They begin to circle.  The wolves surrounding them scatter, both packs looking on. Silver eyes her opponent warily. His steps mark him for an experienced fighter. He is remarkably large for a dire wolf, nearly as large as Silver is, and it makes her uneasy. His fur is somewhat matted and scarred in places, and black as shadows ought to be.

They wait, each watching the other. Tension gathers in Silver’s heart. He should move. She knows he’ll strike first. They always do. Impatient.

He does. In a flash, he strikes, moving like lightning. His breath fills her nostrils as his teeth snap down, as she nimbly ducks away from those razor fangs. She launches herself forward, driving her shoulder towards his throat. He bunches his legs and jumps, though, taking it to the chest instead, letting himself get bowled over. She doesn’t chase him down, but backs away, eying him, still wary. A less experienced wolf would have tried to pin him, and a less experienced wolf would have lost a paw. Never underestimate your opponent.

Shadow rolls back onto his paws again, rising slowly and glaring at her from burning red eyes. A red that captures her for a moment, holds her for far, far too long…

The moment fades as he moves, and she steps to the side, avoiding a charge and smashing into his side with her shoulder.  She tumbles after him this time, rolling on top, pinning his form down, teeth pausing at his throat, staring down at him. Her eyes meet his again, locked as she is like this. Something about him feels strange. Feels… familiar…

He gives a little whine and a whimper in submission, and she lets up, easing away, eying him warily.

It’s good that she does, for he rolls back to his paws and swipes for her the moment she lets him free. Iron-hard claws draw three red hot lines along her muzzle, and her blood runs blue as the sky. He’d moved faster than lightning. He’d been less than a blur.

The blow stuns her a moment, and in a flash his teeth are in pause like hers were, a mere moment from piercing Silver’s throat. A growl, soft and threatening escapes past her bare teeth as her blood soaks the fur of her muzzle.

“Trickery,” she snaps. “What manner of wolf are you?”

Those razor’d teeth graze her neck through her fur, though. Hating herself for it, Silver whimpers in submission without further complaint. To her shock and shame, those teeth nip one of her ears before they draw away, neatly puncturing it. Without the threat of his jaws around her neck, Silver shakes her head to clear it, and storms away, leaving her mate with her victorious rival and trying very hard not to think about what it means that she lost.

To her further surprise, Shadow doesn’t follow her.

When Claw finds her later, she crouches under her tree with Chase-The-Wind, who is busily licking away the dried and drying blood from the wound on her muzzle, cleaning her as if she were a pup and Chase were a mother. Of all his children, Claw likes Chase the best.

He isn’t Silver’s favorite– the girl-wolf doesn’t pick favorites– but he comes pretty close.

You just ran off to sulk? is what Claw thinks, but he doesn’t say it out loud because he isn’t feeling cruel. Of course, he doesn’t need to say it. It’s implied in every muscle in his body.

“Come to mock me, Claw?” Silver asks, without looking at him. “Come to taunt me for my mistake?”

“No,” he replies, staring at her steadily. “I have not.”

“Then why are you here?” she snarls. “Perhaps you wanted one last roll before I become beholden to Shadow-With-Teeth?”

“If you had not run away like a stung pup, you’d realize that you won as well,” Claw says lightly. “A point that, if argued between packs, I’m sure you would win. You always tell me that I have trouble with my temper.”

“You do.”

Claw ignores that. “You are letting your anger cloud your mind. We are more than giant wolves– you have helped me see that over the seasons, little one, whether you know it or not. I suggest you act like it.”

Silver-Fur-Shining shakes her head, but it’s only to push Chase-The-Wind away. She stretches and stands, chest heaving in an immense sigh. “Fine.”

Chase stands with her, but Claw pads over to him and leads him away. “Let her deal with this on her own,” he growls softly. “This is something your mother must do.”

Silver arrives at the clearing- a place of dirt and grass- where her pack has dragged their kill. No one meets her eyes. Her children all seem downcast– as well they should be, to witness their mother lose. It wrenches at her heart to see them like this, but she shoves that aside, instead stalking past them to where Shadow-With-Teeth sits alone. A leg from the massive scaled monster lies unworried or touched next to him. He meets her eyes fearlessly, tauntingly, with his own crimson ones.

Silver restrains the snarl and snap that try to curl her lips back from her teeth. He dares to challenge her authority?

But she lost.

“Eager to start?” he growls quietly. “You should wait for me to call you, little girl.”

The words from Claw would earn the old fool a playful cuff. Those words from Shadow earn him a growl from somewhere deep in Silver’s throat. Anger rises in her heart, but something in Shadow’s eyes forces it back down again. He’s being careful in his words. He’s choosing them very deliberately. He hasn’t shown true anger yet, not during the fight, not now. Every move he makes seems to be and have been calculated.

Silver stops when she is no more than a few yards away from him, settling back on her haunches. She cleans herself in front of him, ignoring him completely and forcing her rage back, instead giving herself time to think. This wolf is much more dangerous than he would seem at first. In a head-on fight he is also craftier. She isn’t sure if she has the energy to fight him now. He is devilishly intelligent, that much is for certain. She vastly underestimated him.

Shadow waits silently, watching her intently. Though his body seems eager and his eyes are filled with malice, his scent remains calm. She realizes it had been calm the entire fight, in the brief moments she had been able to catch it.

She finishes cleaning her fur. She slowly raises her eyes to his and does not look away. “I have not come here to mate with you, Shadow-With-Teeth. I have come here to talk.”

His eyes laugh at her. For all that she keeps her steely demeanor, Silver feels her heart sink.

It may be and may end as a hundred different things, but she is certain that this is not going to be easy.

 

 

 

 

©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)

—–

Here it is, part one. Next up should be the long awaited chapter three of Three Hearts, or maybe some poetry or maybe both. Time to get back in gear- and yes, there will be a page devoted to this serial short. Promise.

<3s,

Eris

The Shifting Flames – 0

She holds herself. Her hands are red and cracked, her eyes are downcast, her mouth set in a line. Fingers curl against her skin as ashes blow around her feet. Dead ashes. Cold ashes.The fingers are hers.

The ashes are hers. Of hope, of dreams, of a life that now means nothing. Has meant nothing. She stares at her fingernails, caked with grey. All of it had been for nothing. The life here with this family had been for nothing. There is nothing to rebuild, not even the shadow of a glimmer of hope. The girl knows that there is nothing left here.

Feet help her rise, her hands pull at nothing, as much a stretch as a need for aid in standing. Her muscles ache from kneeling there for so long.

Before her, smoke hisses and sways in the breeze. Around her, shades of people she once knew flit here and there, carrying buckets both empty and full, fighting for life and limb amidst the smoking sand that had once been her home. She has no name.

The villagers around her do not see her, do not touch her, do not think of her as they rush by. Many children are sitting as she did, near the grasses or in the ashes of their old houses, staring numbly at nothing. She is but another broken child, like a doll worn and finally torn from overuse or mistreatment. She is of no use to the village, being barren and small and frail besides.

The day goes by and the blaze is fought down to nothing, the flames eventually burning down to cinders, and the cinders cool in the coming night. Still the girl stands there, in her rags and tatters and the singed remains of a dress that might have been pretty before it was coated in the ashes of the dead. The grey remains cling everywhere, her body painted with them.

She stares into the darkness as it falls, the night moonless, the stars eclipsed by clouds. Her stomach rumbles and her head pounds. Her lungs are weak, and she coughs with near every breath in, from the smoke.

The girl isn’t sad that her old family is dead. She doesn’t mourn the loss of her house. That she has nowhere to stay is of no consequence to her. She looks at the ashes that remain of her old home and in her mind, thoughts race.

They are focused on but one thing, as the smell of charred flesh is finally swept away on the night wind, a wind that chills her legs and arms and sends gooseflesh down her back. She is thinking of the dragon.

After a time, how long if asked she could not say, a pack of wolves comes forward from the grass of the plain surrounding the village. Those humans left without homes flee for the remaining standing houses, hoping for shelter, and these wolves– which are wild ones, dire ones, each the size of a horse– chase them down. Methodically they pick the old or the weak of the survivors out from the rest, herding them away from the safe shadow of the dwellings.

The girl does not look up as their screams echo into the night. Mercifully for the families locked in their houses, they do not last long.

The girl does not turn around until the pack leader approaches her from behind. A wolfish muzzle nudges her front, and razor teeth bared in a snarl meet her eyes as she finally snaps free from her near trance. Hot breath against her face does not make her tremble.
Instead, the girl reaches up and strokes the jaws of the alpha wolf, who stares down at her. The wolf speaks first.

“Why do you choose such a weak and vulnerable shape, shifter?” his voice is kept soft, but the threat of a growl is palpable in the air in each pause.

The girl simply smiles, and shrugs, a human habit. “I know of no other.”
“I could show you a shape. We would roll together in grass, feel the plains beneath our paws. The scent of the stars would be within your grasp, and you would learn what a true soul is like,” the dire wolf whispers. “Come with me, shifter. Learn to be free.”

The words are not apparent from lips alone. All of the creature’s body shows it, in the tensing of its muscles, in its stance and the way its tail slowly sweeps, side to side, the way its silver-green eyes stare into hers.

“No freedom comes without cost. To take your shape is to lose a part of me, great wolf,” the girl replies. “Should I give up such a thing and offer you myself for no gain of my own?”
“The gain is your life, shifter,” the wolf snaps, jaws closing bare inches from the girl’s hand. She yanks it away, but stands her ground. “If you do not come with me, you will remain a human, and prey.”

The girl folds her arms, and feels her heart rise and fall with the deep breath she takes. For her apparent eleven years, she seems far older in that moment, and far more tired than she should be.

“There is a catch, is there not?” she asks sharply. “If I go with you, if you share your form there is always a price. What do you wish of me?”

The alpha wolf’s stance denotes anger, then, hackles rising. “Do you want to die, little human? What price would not be worth life?”

“We all die sooner or later,” the girl answers calmly. “If you wanted to kill me, you would have done so when you first drew in my scent. Something about me piques your interest. What is it?”

The alpha wolf snarls, then rises and lashes out, knocking her back into the ashes of her home, throwing her right off her feet and forcing the wind from her lungs, sending searing tracks across her chest. Stabbing, overwhelmingly sharp pain indicates that the blow may have cracked her ribs. A sharp, cold fear runs through her now, as she stares up at the monstrous wolf standing above her. Will he kill her now? Despite her brave words, she isn’t sure she is ready to die.

“No price will be taken now,” he growls. “When you are older.”

Ah, the girl thinks wryly. That explains it, then.

A haze of pain hangs over her every movement. It makes it hard to think, breathe and speak. “Come here then, pack leader,” she whispers, voice trembling. “I’ve made my choice.”

She reaches up as he approaches her and settles next to her, in the ashes of her former home. The cold night air clings to her skin and as she buries a hand in the wolf’s fur, she buries her mind inside of herself.

Frayed memory greets her as she drifts in the vast, galactic expanse of her own ego, rolling, twisting to look at shimmering stars of vague wants, recollections of some of her earliest forms that are locked away from her and unlabeled, forgotten. As her spiritual form floats in that space, she realizes she can feel the dire wolf’s jaws closed on her physical body’s hand, the teeth but a moment’s pressure from wrenching it away from her.

Even now he’s being cautious, the girl notes silently. As he should be, of things he doesn’t understand.

She rises in her mind, buoyed upward on willpower alone, rising up through the galaxy of forms spiraling to either side of her, unused, untouched. Finally she reaches the surface, the ceiling, where she can see the specific spiritual signature of the dire wolf she clings to.

She rocks herself around it, a bead of light, dark and crimson red hanging in space, in her own head. The girl reaches out, takes it in one hand, and pulls it against herself. The sucking emptiness where it used to be demands something from her, and, helpless to refuse it, some of her essence, her glowing, radiant mind, parts from her soundlessly.

Searing ghost-pain rolls down her body the moment that piece of her leaves, and in the ashes, clinging to the alpha wolf’s fur, she hears herself whimper.

With a new bead hanging there, proclaiming itself to be the essence of her old form, she absorbs the mental bead of light, that dire wolf spirit, into herself and begins to change.
Her spine curves. Her arms turn to forelimbs, the whole structure of her body changes, from head to foot, toes shrinking, the littlest ones disappearing altogether. They form great paws, tipped with iron-sharp claws. Her face lengthens, twists and changes to form a long canine muzzle, teeth sharpening, lengthening, some of them disappearing, mostly specialized for rending meat. Her stomach grows, its emptiness more acute, her whole body grows out, fur covering every inch of her skin, the dress torn to pieces. The cuts on her chest turn tiny in comparison with her new size, her breasts shrink and disappear, growing out along where her human belly had been as two rows of little teats.

The alpha wolf slinks back, withdrawing his mouth from her forepaw as she finishes changing, watching the girl become wolf-like with a passive expression.

Ludicrously, her first instinct when the transformation is over is to find more clothes. She feels exposed. Her bones are hard as any metal now, though, and her skin has become more like hide, and rough to the touch. The fur warms her up, and she shakes herself, sitting back on her haunches, eyes downcast as the alpha stands. He towers over her still. Though she is much larger than any normal wolf, she is still young by dire wolf standards.
Many dire wolves could live as long as two hundred seasons. She is still but a child. A pup.
The pack leader’s stance is somewhat disappointed, but the girl-wolf is sure he didn’t expect much else, for it is also resigned.

“Come with us now, shifter,” he says quietly. “There is nothing in the ashes of this human den. Not for you, and not for the pack.”

The girl-wolf does not argue. He is her leader now. While she is slightly unsure, her body knows what it must do, so she lets it follow the pack leader away onto the plains, planting new paw-feet unsteadily, one after the other, until she is lost in the night.

 

 

 

 

©2012 Eris (Sam Oliver)

—-

So basically I’ve been kicking around this story along with Mesdan’s Three Hearts. It’s shorter- more a serial short rather than a serial novel. I’ll finish it eventually, this is just part ‘zero’ as I like to call it. I thought I’d share, because I do so love to write. I should be getting more of that done soon.