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.
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.