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

Demimind: Chapter 4

(4)Spider Queen

I was only trying to help, Summer gripes. God and Cycle, you get so angry sometimes… It’s really kind of childish.

“Drop it, Summer,” Winter says quietly. “We’ve been over this.”

She feels edgy for some reason. It isn’t her power levels- she still feels full up from the two men she… she murdered. No, that’s not the problem. Something is off, as she trudges through the snow, the unconscious woman over one shoulder. It’s not just the still air, either. The trees are all bent inward, creating perpetual shade. Underbrush is so thick it creates actual barriers in places, and she is forced to clear them, one handed, from her path before moving on. But the lifeforce she sensed from so far off is very near.

Of that she is sure.

Summer’s prior behavior disturbs her. Summer’s inclination for murder, even to stay alive, disturbs her. Winter shudders a little at the thought. It’s a small part of her, but there IS a piece of her that enjoyed taking that lifeforce, taking their energy.

What would you have done without my help?

Winter doesn’t know the answer to that. She lets her lips settle into a tight line and continues moving east. The crunch of her feet on the hard ice and snow is the only noise. Yes, it’s certainly an uneasy silence…

And it’s… much warmer here, somehow. As if the whole of the forest is heating up as she moves deeper into its clutches.

The sun will be gone soon, and then it will be truly dark. Winter doesn’t know how she knows this. It just feels like the truth.

She comes to a bush, a hedge about head-height, and she’s about to tear it aside when something catches her eye. There’s something shining in the middle of it. Without thinking, she reaches out, reaches in and wraps her fingers around it, tugging it out. Silken strands stick to her hand as she does so, but with her spell augmented strength, it matters very little. Winter pulls it out. It’s little more than a bead, and she recognizes the material immediately. Illmetal. Like the stone in her pocket.

She just stares at it for a while.

Hey! You can use this stuff to wish me unbound again! Summer cuts in.

“Yeah,” Winter says absently.

Do you remember how to build the pillar?

“Vaguely. Bronze, silver, copper. Twine it in veins around lime and stone.” The recitation comes as from a long lost dream, or a memory. She tries to catch hold of it, but it slips through her fingers and drops out of sight.

Winter pockets the tiny piece of magic metal in the back of her jeans. It’s then that she sees the silken strands all around her, and feels the lifeforce she’d tracked stir. After another few moments, something huge and spider-like drops down behind her. Summer shouts a warning, but Winter turns around slowly.

“I know you. Who are you?” She asks simply. “I felt I needed to come here. Are you who I came to see?”

It’s a damn great spider! You never told me about it!

No, it’s not a spider,  Winter thinks to herself. It’s too tall and the wrong shape.

She’s right, she can see that as the spider-creature steps a little closer. It’s really more like a human-spider hybrid.

It has a glossy, smooth yellow carapace dappled with red over its abdomen, and four spider legs joined smoothly to a woman’s waist to support the abdomen- which is smaller than Winter expected. It has the upper half of a woman as well, reared up where its head normally would be. Her bald head nearly brushes the ceiling. She seems to have the normal number of eyes at least- two- and a sharp nose. Her ears are missing, which Winter finds a little strange, but she decides not to comment.

The spider-woman opens her mouth, baring four fangs. Rather than speaking with it, she clicks a foreleg against her other, supplementing the gesture with snaps from her fingers and the occasional hiss.

Like when Jane had first talked to her, Winter imagines words in the noises, a hidden language. She finds herself recovering from her shock quickly.

[With respect, it must be the greatest of heroes to our people, Long-Frost. You are unaware of who you are to us?]

“I’ve… been out of touch,” Winter replies, and then sighs. “Who are you?”

[This humble servant is Seven-Spinner. I can take Long-Frost to see Ever-Widowed, if it would please her.]

“Could you take my charge here, as well?”

[Yes! It is customary to take gifts to Ever-Widowed. Is it slave or food?]

“Neither! She is a friend.”

The spider-woman blinks. Then she shrugs- it’s complicated, for Winter notices now that she has four arms in addition to her four legs. Very strange.

[If Long-Frost wishes to bring friend to give to Ever-Widowed, this is fine as well?]

Just get it over with and fry her before she makes a move, will you?

“Take me to Ever-Widowed, then.” Winter says, ignoring Summer.

The spider-creature leans forward, pulls Winter up into her grip bodily- along with the nameless woman- hangs, for a moment, by threads before she begins reeling herself back in. The silk strands are surprisingly durable.

Winter feels more than a little uncomfortable, so close to a virtual unknown. Summer seems to share her unease.

This is not going to end well, Summer warns. They’re a people I know virtually nothing about, and I don’t know what they’re saying.

Winter doesn’t want to open her mouth to respond, so she just holds the unconscious form of her rescued acquaintance closer. The ride is fast and sickening- landscape, trees, branches, leaves- air, it all flies by in a blur. Unsure exactly where she’s being yanked, she figures it can’t hurt to just close her eyes and wait for the sense of motion to stop.

Mercifully, it is only a few minutes of that heart-wrenching treatment before they seem to have arrived.

Something is different, though. Here it is warm, and out of the wind. Winter opens her eyes. Summer watches, mental lips pursed, as Winter tries to get her bearings.

When the world stops spinning, she sees that they are surrounded by spiders, spider-creatures similar to the one who brought them here- all female-, and standing before them is a woman with eight arms and two legs. She is otherwise nothing truly extraordinary.

Further, they are standing on a funnel of smooth spider silk. The ground under them is swaying slightly, as if in a breeze, and Winter gets the distinct feeling that she is quite high off the ground here.

You’re insane. This is insane. You’re going to get us killed, Summer says grimly.

“Shut up,” Winter hisses. “Not helping.”

“There’s a language I haven’t heard in a while,” The woman says. Her eight arms come right out from her shoulders, which are massive in comparison with the rest of her body. They’re thin, but her fingers end in claws, and when she speaks her mouth bares fangs. It’s a bit of a surprise that Winter can understand her at all. Summer is equally surprised that it’s a language she can understand.

She speaks English? That’s a little weird, Summer remarks quietly.

“How do you know me?” Winter asks, ignoring Summer. She gets the feeling she’ll be doing a lot of this reintroduction stuff, at least until she can get her memory back.

The eight-armed one smiles. “Oh, Winter. My people call you ‘Long-Frost’. We were childhood friends. We’ve known one another for a long, long time. I hear you’ve lost your memory.”

Winter frowns and folds her arms. “I may’ve,” She says uneasily. How could she have heard? It’d been all of a day since she had, right? Maybe less.

“If you can’t remember me, I find it unlikely you haven’t lost your memory. Is Summer still around, or did you finally find a way to rid yourself of her?” There’s an edge to her voice.

“Who are you. Tell me who you are, first.”

“My name is Ever-Widowed. But I’d feel better if you called me Silk. It might help your memory return. My servant is Seven-Spinner, and these-” She waves a hand grandly, including all the spiders, the entire silken cavern. “-are my subjects, my people. Now…”

“Summer is still in my head. She’s been-”

Don’t tell her I’m bound.

Winter pauses for a moment, then continues. “She’s asleep, Silk.”

“Well I’m sure the heat will wake her up. So let’s cool it down a little. Seven-Spinner, be a dear and chew a hole in the ceiling, won’t you?” The named spider-creature bows at the waist and then hurries off to do as she’s told. There’s a very distinct ripping noise somewhere high above them both.

“Why?” Winter asks as cool air leaks in from the ceiling. “What’s wrong with Summer?”

“Why, last time you were here and she was awake, she went on a murderous rampage and killed over half of my people! I’m not surprised she didn’t tell you, as I’m sure she’d rather you didn’t know,” Ever-Widowed says sharply. “We assumed you must not have been in control at the time.”

What? Why the hell would I have done that?

Summer is genuinely bewildered. I’d think I’d remember doing something like that. I mean, it’d be sticking in my head if I had to kill that many spiders. And I’ve never even seen their kind before.

That doesn’t really make sense, no, Winter thinks to herself. Why indeed? Summer is spiteful, sure, and occasionally mean, but there’s no way she’d attack so many people for no good reason. There’d be no challenge if they were innocent, and in all her memories of Summer being in control, there are none where she has willfully killed people who weren’t actively threatening her. Summer may occasionally be careless, but she’d never hurt a bystander. That’d mean that Ever-Widowed’s people probably attacked first.

Which, in itself is rather a scary thought. Still, it’s probably just a mistake. Don’t burn any bridges. Or cut any silken cords, or whatever.

But she can’t bring it up- she claimed Summer was asleep, after all.

The warmth- uncomfortable for Winter- seeps away, and a welcome chilly breeze leaks in instead. Summer finds herself getting a little drowsy again.

“So what brings you here, Winter? Why did you decide to come?” Silk asks quietly. “Or, if your memory is truly broken, what prompted your return? What gave you the idea that this might be safe?”

She shakes her head. “I came here because I felt life in this direction, and-”

“Did you come here to feed?” Ever-Widowed asks sharply. “I haven’t got servants to spare for that. Seven-Spinner is the only one I have left, really.”

Winter shudders openly, shakes her head again vehemently. “You’re mad if you think I want to- to do that ever again. I came here because this woman was being held captive and she’s dreadfully cold and I don’t know what to do with her,” She says, indicating the woman she’d brought. Even as she lies there she seems to shiver with the chill.

“Well you’ll need to feed eventually,” The Spider Matriarch responds. She seems to relax a little. “As to your friend, I’m not sure why you’d bring her to me. I’m not really known for my warm hospitality- I live in a forest that’s been cold as long as you’ve been alive. There’s rumors about that we eat our guests, can you believe that?”

She smiles. “It’s good to see you’ve still breath in your lungs, Winter. I’ve missed you.”

Winter is taken aback by that. No one had ever- as far as she could remember- missed her before.

It’s a trap. Without a doubt, Summer warns, stifling a mental yawn.

Comforting, Winter thinks, though she doesn’t respond.

“Now, do you need a place to stay?” Silk asks quietly. She takes a half-step forward towards Winter, but seems to think better of it, and returns to where she was. There’s something like uneasiness between them, and Winter can’t tell if it’s because the Spider Queen wants to stay clear of Summer or doesn’t want to frighten her. Either way is fine with Winter- she’s not sure if she’d like being too close to this strange old friend now, however friendly they used to be.

“I really just want you to take care of this girl for me, if that’s not too much trouble,” Winter says firmly. “I have some unfinished business I need to take care of, and I’m not really that sleepy.”

“Oh,” Silk says, sounding more than a little disappointed. “I can do that for you. You’ve done much for us. Maybe when you remember it you’ll understand I mean you no harm.”

Winter is about to say something, but stops herself, and just watches. Ever-Widowed gives her another smile, but it’s fleeting.

Something is weighing heavily on her, Winter thinks. I really will have to come back, and not just to make sure she hasn’t done anything nasty to my sleeping friend.

“Well, Seven-Spinner can show you the way out. Just leave your new friend here, I suppose. Do come back when you’ve finished with your “business”. I enjoy your company.” The Spider Queen half-turns away, arms folded.

Summer, for her part, finds herself going over spell formula in case Silk decides to turn nasty unexpectedly. Still, it’s nice to know she won’t be obvious about trying to keep Winter here forever. That sort of silly villainy always did make Summer a little sick.

Winter, on the other hand, waves to Ever-Widowed and moves to join a waiting Seven-Spinner. “Let’s go then,” she says. “Just put me back where you found me.”

[This I do,] Is the spider-creature’s reply.

The world spins again as the servant of the spider queen picks her up and whisks her away.

After a torturous descent, she is deposited on the snow once more, and after a short, clipped farewell, she is alone with Summer again.