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.
“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.”
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.
“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?