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.

Demimind: Chapter 3

(3)Banished

The ground here is freezing cold, but Winter can’t even feel it. Summer can, trapped in Winter’s head as she is. C-couldn’t have picked a better spot, She grumbles. What is it with you and cold?

“I don’t know,” Winter says quietly. “I… I must not have had a memory of somewhere warm. I still don’t know how I remembered this place.”

Did you mean to bring the Illmetal with you?

Winter shakes her head. “No. I didn’t know it would come along.”

She clutches the tiny bead in her fingers. She could put it in the pocket of her jeans, but she worries if she drops it it might disappear. The metal-stone had lost its luster shortly after arriving.

It’s useless without the column though.

“Yeah.”

The air is frigid. Trees stand here, covered in frost and ice, buried under ages and ages of white. Even the snow is frozen solid, so that she leaves no tracks.  For as far as the eye can see there are more trees, an infinite forest. The eye can’t see too far, of course.

She had hoped that the binding spell would leave Summer when she left the column and He-Whose-Name-Shakes-Mountains behind. It hadn’t. Winter hasn’t the faintest where she should go, and Summer is too cold to be much help.

She looks all around, trying to find a path through the trees. She has as much time as she needs, really. Summer had told her, sleepily, the last time she’d woken up, that Winter needs only the occasional bite of life energy to survive.

Summer, on the other hand, needs to be surrounded by it in order to thrive.

It seems fairly inhospitable here, but if she concentrates, Winter can feel the presence- like tingling pinpricks on her thumbs- of life, far off to the east.

She decides that will have to do. She gives up her aimless wandering and sets herself off to the east.

Her clothes are stiff. Summer had guided her through the long, laborious process of conjuring them. Of course, Summer had also been half asleep. It figured there were some flaws in their creation- namely two long blank strips made of conjured material, but not dyed, and one long slash down the right leg where Summer had nodded off mid-teaching.

After a while of walking, she feels very exposed. A strong oppressive presence lurks nearby- she can feel it.

She can feel the sting, the dangerous hum of the scar on her thigh suddenly. And Summer is awake in her head.

Uh oh. Magehunting squad by the feel of it.

“You don’t sound too concerned,” She mutters.

Comes with being a demigoddess. We could probably take them under any other circumstances. I dunno that they’ll even know we’re magic users. Our type of magic is usually undetectable. We can get by without hurting anyone.

“I seem to recall you being much more-“

And suddenly, she remembers. And the memory hits her like a hammer.

“Come on!” Summer growls gleefully, lifting an arm and sending out a stream of power towards the nearest man. It vaporizes the poor soldier in his armor, leaving hissing plate in its wake. It withers some of Summer’s power, but she really doesn’t care. What does it matter? She’s never felt so alive. The sheer life around her is granting her power beyond any mortal dream.

“Are all of you cowards?” Summer’s eyes glint. Her body is the same as Winter’s, but bigger- taller, a little plumper and with golden bronze skin. The switch between hers and Winter’s is usually seamless. Only their hair remains the same- a short pixie-cut, naturally white-blonde. Summer’s eyes are green.

The men circle her. Their lead mage sets her arms, perhaps a little uncertainly. “I didn’t even feel it!” She shouts. “What type of magic is that?”

“Thomas is down,” One of them grumbles. “We should call for backup.”

“His fault, he wasn’t wearing antimagic plate.”

“How do you know it’s magi-” says a clever third, but he’s interrupted as his skin flash-fries. The sickly sweet scent of charred flesh and the hiss of his steaming blood as it escapes from his armor fills the air.

Summer’s finger smokes. “I told you,” She hisses. “I’m a demigoddess. You can’t fight me. You can’t lay a blade on me!”

Heat rises around her in waves. It’s enough to make the strongest of men uncomfortable. The sorceress backs away, lips pressed into a tight line.

The rest of the soldiers flee. And Summer stands there, laughing.

“-vindictive,” Winter finishes weakly. The memory had been quite strong. And very, very vivid. The smell of burning skin still lingers in her nostrils, no matter how much she wishes it wouldn’t. Summer feels a bit uncomfortable.

Different days. I’m a bit different than before-

Whatever else Summer was going to say is lost.  There’s a series of fantastic ‘pops’, and three figures appear out of thin air.

One is dressed in crimson robes. Another, obviously and emphatically female from the shape of her clothing and body, wears nothing but two strips of cloth and is being carried in chains. The third, holding the chains and looking particularly morose in a wide, black-rimmed hat, is wearing sensible working pants and a thoroughly sensible vest with leather armor under it and a metal circle  on the front. In one hand he holds the chains, in the other he bares a long metal blade. From the chill it radiates- somehow much more piercing than that of the cold around her- and the warping sense it gives off, the chain and the blade are both made of earthmetals, though what type Summer has no idea. The stuff would drain her magic if she were to try to enchant it, but fortunately Winter seems nonaggressive and probably wouldn’t try it.

“See here now, Argus! You’ve gone and given me the wrong coordinates again!” It’s a man’s voice, and it comes from the crimson robes. “It’s freezing cold! We’re probably in some godforsaken tundra-“

“Forest, actually,” The man in leather and vest says mildly. He doesn’t seem perturbed by the chill.

“You’re always getting us lost and- what?”

“Tundra are bare of trees. This is a forest.”

The woman in chains shivers violently in the cold and mutters something that might be a curse. Then her eyes look up and find Winter standing there, not ten yards away, under the shade of a frozen pine.

She lets out a clipped cry, and muffles it quickly, biting her lip and trying not to draw attention to Winter at all, a moment later.

The look had been a pleading one. Winter stands there, rooted to the spot and staring. Is that one of my- your disciples? Summer asks.

“How should I know?” Winter hisses. “I’ve forgotten pretty much everything!”

And then the men see her, too. The one in crimson robes seems to spot her first.

“Hey- Argus. There’s a woman there in the shade of that pine. Do you see?”

The man in leather is only a little slower. “Yes. I see her.”

“She’s standing there- gracious Cycle, is she barefoot? She should be frozen to the core.”

“Seems in fine enough health to me.”

“A bit rigid, perhaps.”

“It’s not exactly pleasant weather, my magical friend.”

They talk as they move toward her, carefully as though she might startle. It’s a hunter’s walk, a predator’s walk, though neither is likely to be aware of it. Summer notices, though.

Winter, these men are dangerous. That woman is a magic user, likely they’re transporting her to a prison for not having a signed doc for its use.

Winter backs away slowly, unfreezing.

“A slip of a thing, but clearly a Frostwitch. Natural, by the look,” the red-robed one says.

“You give her too much credit- she can’t be more than ten years, the idea of her using more than a cantrip to keep warm is ridiculous.” The other is still skeptical. Their respective life-forces feel exceptionally strong, this close. It’s making her strangely hungry.

They stop, some ten feet distant, still eyeing her, talking and shaking their heads. The woman doesn’t look at her.

Winter wants to keep backing away. You’ll have to fight them, Summer says grimly. The woman clutches the Illmetal bead tightly. I’ll help. Look, you can’t run- you might lose them, sure, but they can track you. I know how it works around here.

Winter clenches her fingers into fists. She raises one hand uncertainly. But she hasn’t the faintest how to fight, and she feels very silly.

Her stomach growls at her, throwing her off a bit. She’s quite hungry. She’s not sure why, but being near these three is making her very, very hungry. She tries anyway, bringing up the will, or trying to, feeling her scars begin to glow.

No, don’t use your magic. Just drain them. You need the energy anyway.

“Sort of a crooked nose, don’t you think?” says the one in his crimson robes. “A little on the ugly side.”

“She’ll sell,” Argus shrugs. “That’s all we need. Hey, kid!”

No, no. Not like that! Here, watch, Summer says.

There’s a moment where time seems to hiss and bend, where the world is distorted and everything is scrunched up tight. Summer makes Winter spread her fingers. There’s a sensation of tugging, of pulling in such a fashion that seems to make her legs wobble. The hunger inside, the gnawing emptiness reaches a glorious peak, settles in her hand, in her arm. There’s a wet sucking, popping sort of sound, like tugging a slick rubber dart off of a window.

Then there’s a brilliant flash of light. Two red streamers of twisting something leap from each of the men and writhe, twisting into her outstretched hand. The connection snaps just as the last of it is siphoned off. The last streaming tendril of energy whips out and then in, funneled to fill the emptiness in her arm warmly, snugly.

Winter just stands there, stunned.

The woman doesn’t appear to notice until the two men stop dead in their tracks and both topple, strings cut. The girl starts, at that- she can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen. Her eyes snap from the men, who lie prone, to the slip of a child who seems to have been responsible. She looks at Winter, at her outstretched hand, a mixture of pure terror and awe on her face. She shrinks away as Winter first moves.

But it’s only to stare at her hand. Her scars- visible all over her body in weird shapes and lines- are glowing brightly. She feels full again, the hunger is gone.

“What did you do?” She whispers, her gaze traveling all over her body. A feeling of horror comes over her.

Fed you, Summer says blankly. There isn’t even the slightest hint of unease.

And that seems to be that.

Or would be, except for the feeling of outraged violation Winter nurses. It contrasts sharply with the pleased, full contentedness of a good meal. It also cements something in her mind. She is extremely dangerous. And so is Summer.

The shaking in her legs she can tell herself is relief. The men were going to take her somewhere and sell her? Or take her to prison. That’s what Summer said.

Their deaths are on Summer’s conscience. Right?

Are they dead? Yes. Their lifeforce is gone.

Oh come on now. They just return to the Cycle. It’s not like you’re stealing their souls or anything. Toughen up, wuss.

“Shut up,” She hisses. “Don’t preach ethics at me, murderer.”

Hey, I’m just using what’s there to save our hides. If you can’t wise up and protect yourself, we both’ll die. If I have even the slightest bit of control, I’ll take it, Summer snaps. I’m in here too.

“It’s your own damn fault you got bound!” Winter shouts. “Don’t try and pin this on me! I never wanted you in my head!”

Winter, sweetie, I’ve been in your head from the fucking start. We just usually take turns.

“Liar.”

Think what you want, fine. Your memory’ll come back eventually, I’ll find a way to free myself.

“You’re just like you were,” Winter snaps bitterly.

Summer is silent for a moment.

“Did that hurt?” Winter asks. Summer’s silence is all she needs. “Good.”

Finally she takes a deep breath and turns to the woman. She’s since crumpled, breathing shallowly, on the snow. Her skin is blue and her eyes are shut.

Fiery anger is banked. Summer is still quiet, so Winter acts, rushing over to the woman’s side. She strips the first man of his crimson robes awkwardly, wraps the young girl up in it. The robes are probably cold, but much better than nothing. The woman’s skin feels warm to her, but she can’t trust her own sense of touch, and Summer won’t tell her what the girl’s real temperature is.

Winter eyes the chains. They’ll prove a bit awkward. She can’t afford to drag two corpses around. Searching the one named Argus reveals a set of strange metal things-

Keys. Summer grumbles. They go in the locks.

– which, with Summer’s reluctant guidance, Winter puts in the locks of the woman’s manacles and turns. Undone, she finishes wrapping the woman up, staggers under her weight, and sighs.

Here’s the formula for the spell you want. Summer offers, showing Winter the way. Borrow some of my power, it’s what it’s there for. This woman is giving me some, only fair I return the favor.

Unsure if she should trust her mindguest’s words but with little other choice, Winter recites the incantation. Her scars flare and magic floods her for a moment. It weakens her- tires her- but she finds the woman in her grip light as a feather now.

She turns. The woman’s lifeforce is strong- blurring her grip on where the faint forces were before- but she remembers the direction she was moving. The sun is hidden by treecover and clouds, but she knows it’s going to set. She needs to find shelter. With that in mind, Winter strides off through frost and snow, a new burden in arms.

The corpses of the two men lie silent in the snow, and eventually the thick forest surrounds and swallows them.