Chapter: Polite Society (1)
Mesdan– formerly Danni– sleeps long into the day. From midday onward towards dusk, he sleeps, sleeps and sleeps, eyes closed, breathing even. No one wakes him up and no one comes to congratulate him on his recent Change rite. No one does this because it is not the way of the man to celebrate small things. It is not the way of the man to sleep for the entire day, either, but Mesdan does this because he is exhausted, and this, as an excuse, is enough for the other men of the village.
The main reason, however, for no one waking Mesdan up would have to be this: Mesdan is the oldest man in the village.
He opens his eyes, and it is well past dusk now. He can see it. It’s perfect for him, though. He hadn’t wanted to wake up until now anyway. It would be dangerous to practice his art in the day, when others might see it. Not for his protection, of course, but for theirs.
He rolls over in his hammock, setting ebon feet on the brown woven mat of the floor.
A familiar girl with short black hair and pale, pale skin stands at the doorway of his hut, staring at his nude body with interest. “Praise to the skyborn,” she purrs casually. “Aren’t you up early, Danni?”
“It’s Mesdan now,” he replies curtly. “It’s not proper to lurk near a sleeper’s hut, Eliss. Worse when it is the hut of a shaman.”
“Sleep poorly? Did you forget your initiation is tomorrow?” she asks, and then ducks away before he can find something to throw at her.
Mesdan sighs, standing up, crossing the hut in a stride to the door and closing it, then barring it with the broom set next to it. Before he does anything he should probably rebind his wounds.
He sits on the edge of the hammock, reaching under it to grab his roll of medical tape. After unwrapping the dirty bandages from his chest and lower body, he slowly starts to bind them up again. The old ones are stained near totally red with his blood, and a fresh stain starts to spread the moment he finishes wrapping the new ones around his chest, shoulders and waist. It doesn’t hurt. The medical tape administers anesthetic any time he rewraps. It’s an odd feeling. The technology is old and, at present, not something he cares to dwell on the origin of.
His chest and his waist are both covered in scars.
Even being a candidate for shamanhood would make injuries such as his quite common. For Mesdan– formerly Danni– such a thing was to be a matter of course. His chest had split open– and resplit every time subsequently– the moment he had tapped into Mana. It had been an accident that first time, and the first inkling aside from his black skin that he would be shaman.
Well, witch at the time, but that is a different problem, and one that Mesdan doesn’t particularly feel like he needs to delve into.
After he finishes wrapping himself up in bandages, Mesdan leaves the hut, unbarring the door and closing it behind him to keep out the rain.
He enters polite society, then, dressed only in bandages and with no weapon by his side but his tongue and his wit. The trail at least is one he knows well, even in the dark. A long woven path of leaves, dry and cracked from overuse, leads him away from his hut where it sits at the village edge. Along the path not a soul can be found. Eliss had been rather foolish to come visit him at this time of the evening in any case. As a shaman– rather, as a shaman-to-be– he could survive the deadly dust given off by the night-opening plants, but precious few others among them could.
A cloud of it, near invisible but for the half-light of the swollen moon shining through the trees, hangs over the path in front of him, and he brushes it aside as he walks towards the first of the homes– this one made of log where his had been made of clay, straw and hard work.
A witch is allowed envy. A shaman is not.
He shrugs aside his momentary irritation, stalks up to the front step of the home. It rises above him a good ten feet again, a long oaken log-woven house with a thatch-and-vine roof. The door is ajar, and darkness lurks within. No one has lit any candles, and for a moment Mesdan thinks nothing of it. After all, if all of them are sleeping it wouldn’t surprise him.
But a sharp, bitter iron scent reaches his nostrils. He tugs the door away further and holds up a hand, reaching out to just barely touch his Mana, letting it run through his arm and up to his fingers. They glow, then, shining brightly, illuminating the interior of the house before him.
The log floor is wet, and as he steps inside, he realizes it’s covered nearly entirely with blood. The slickness of it is everywhere, and it is quite, quite fresh. It sticks to the bottoms of his feet, and a wave of revulsion, lessened somewhat by a hard year of training, runs through him like a shudder, bringing bile to his throat. He chokes it back down again, swallows a scent like bad meat and tries very hard not to bolt.
He forces himself to take another step inside.
Beyond the entryway is a scene of devastation like nothing he has seen before. The entire room is a wreck- chairs and handcrafted furniture shattered to pieces and strewn everywhere, animal skins lying here and there on the wooden floor, some so badly torn that the creature it came from is unrecognizable. Every glass window has been shattered to let the dust in on the breeze. It wouldn’t come until later in the night, with any luck.
Mesdan can feel the aura– near palpable in the air– of something horrible, too. It pushes at him, oppresses his own. Something he recognizes almost immediately.
“Awful, isn’t it?”
The voice is like Eliss’s, but it isn’t coming from her mouth.
Eliss is lying on the floor in front of him, throat torn open, spine nearly severed. Her blood is pooled around her head, one arm broken, the other flung outward stick-like. Her pale skin is gaunt now like a ghost’s. Her clothes have been torn to shreds and her eyes stare up at him, not in accusation, but in fear, pain, desperate pleading. She still lives, then.
The voice comes from something in her shape, and now it makes sense to Mesdan that she came to visit him so late. The creature wearing Eliss’s skin is lounging in a chair, slowly licking blood from a finger, eyeing him like a cat watches a mouse. Her entire body is covered in it, the crimson fluid is splashed crazily along walls, doors, wooden windowsills.
“I was going to kill her family last, you know,” the shapeshifter says casually. “I think I like it better this way.”
With detached shock, Mesdan realizes that some of the blood is dry and some of it is new. His gaze is drawn up to the ceiling, where three desiccated corpses hang from rope that looks like… like hair…. They’re swinging gently, broken people made into dolls. They’ve been flayed and no doubt have been dead for ages. Drained of blood.
Mesdan’s gaze drops back down.
“When I heard there would be an apprentice shaman I was so- excited!” that voice hisses at him from across the room. “You haven’t any idea how boring this town has been. Two-house villages are so easy. You should have seen the look on her face when I revealed–”
“Silence,” Mesdan says quietly. “Please.”
There’s no power in the voice. There isn’t a hint of command or of anger or sorrow. There’s no shock, no stunned disbelief.
The shapeshifter stops midsentence, staring at Mesdan, astonished. Perhaps none of its victims had ever stood up to it before.
Mesdan closes his eyes a moment, blocking out the destruction around him. He wishes sorely he’d brought his broom with him for a better channel. But that, of course, wouldn’t be shaman way. Strictly speaking, what he needs to do now isn’t shaman way either, but then, he still has’t done the initiation ceremony yet, so technically he isn’t even shaman.
He takes a deep, deep breath and opens his eyes. Mana is a shared resource, between witch and shaman. Were he a true shaman, he’d use the mana of his own–as it should be!– but even for the light around his fingers now, he’d used witchcraft instead, mana from his surroundings. He draws on that now.
“You are an aberration,” he whispers. “You have broken entry into this house and village to make a mockery of those I swore to protect.”
The shapeshifter frowns, wrinkling its pale brow as if trying to follow what he says. “That doesn’t sound like a shaman chant,” It says, plainly puzzled. “What’s that part of?”
“My sacred oath,” Mesdan continues, ignoring that. “Is to deal with such matters as only a witch can.”
Gritting his teeth for the charge he knows will follow, he focuses the energies around him into a glowing orb in his mind, and forces it into being above the creature. He lowers it, the invisible sphere surrounding it totally, completely.
He lifts his open hand, pointing his palm, glowing still with witchlight, at the shapeshifter. “By mana and the earthborn, I banish you from this plane, shapeless one!”
The shapeshifter’s stolen eyes have time to narrow, it has enough time to gather itself and prepare for a leap before the energy swirls around it, hurtles at it in a hundred blue, crackling bolts. The whole room greys as the wood’s very spiritual life is sucked from it, giving its power to Mesdan to prevent him collapsing. A moment later the thunderclaps sound, deafeningly loud, blowing the door behind him wide open with a crack, knocking Mesdan on his back. His head meets the floor and he bites his lip hard enough to draw blood.
Mesdan remains on his back, but lifts his head just enough to see the remains of the shapeshifter, nothing but ashes and dust, blow away in the breeze from the open door. It’s dead silent. He puzzles over the fact that the creature hadn’t bothered to change shape as soon as it saw him.
Mesdan pushes himself up onto his elbows. He’s sticky with blood now, his back feels covered with it. Knowing that most of it is Eliss’s is not helping. He manages to sit up on the third try. He still feels weak and shaky, as the conduit to those energies. His body is afire.
He crawls over to Eliss’s warm form where she lies on the floor of the house and places his burning hands on her mutilated neck. She stares up at him, eyes now half-closed, surely close to death’s door.
Healing is not a witch’s work. Witches are meant to destroy aberrations. Shamans clean up after the messes they leave. His training as a shaman isn’t nearly as extensive as his training as a witch.
Mesdan purses his lips and then shakes his head. It isn’t important now. He needs to do something.
He closes his eyes again and, tapping at his mana, opens a flood of it, unlocking a gate and letting it flow into Eliss.
“From earth, from wind, from water and fire, I call on all to heal wounds most dire. This girl is injured, I beg of thee, save her now as a Leaf on the Tree.”
The incantation is certainly not a shaman prayer, but the mana in him responds to it at once, leaping forward and washing over Eliss’s wound in a flash of incandescent blue light. Skin starts to mend, tendon, bone and muscle reweaving. Mesdan takes a deep, shuddering breath as his chest-wound re-opens. He can feel the warmth of his blood against the bandage. The sting is nearly unbearable. A blinding headache rips through him and leaves him weak. His concentration falters. The healing weakens and then stops entirely, while a searing pain jabs at his chest. The mana roars through his blood, eating at his skin, muscle and bone even as he struggles to finish the healing, to finish what he started.
It is then, and only then, that a tanned, blonde-haired man wearing blue jeans and a halved t-shirt steps up next to Mesdan. Mesdan is aware of being picked up gently and placed to the side. A hand is drawn across his chest, and the wound closes, the raging mana in his body is calmed. The man, who Mesdan knows quite well, shakes his head when he sees the fresh red against Mesdan’s bandages.
“That will be enough, Danni,” the Elder says quietly. “I can finish her healing from here.”
“It’s M-Mesdan,” Mesdan gasps, trying to right himself again, trying to sit up but only managing to rise halfway before collapsing back. He should not have tried something so complex. Surely the mana inside had nearly killed him.
Ironically, the Elder- all of the Elders in the village, really- is younger than Mesdan. He has not, of course, taken age as well as Mesdan, since he spent much more time training as a shaman rather than a witch. The Elder is nowhere near as old as Mesdan, and likely won’t live nearly as long, either.
“You haven’t been initiated yet, Danni,” the Elder replies, smiling. He draws a hand along the myriad of wounds covering Eliss, starting from largest to smallest, chanting in that strange language fingers glowing as they touch each cut or gash. They seal themselves as his hand passes. There isn’t a mark on the Elder after he has finished- no wound opens. No blood from eyes, mouth or nose. Mesdan feels a shock of shameful envy. The Elder, whose name is Kesta, turns to Mesdan when he’s through.
“You shouldn’t be trying shaman magic without initiation.”
“I did what I had to,” Mesdan snaps. “Would you not have done the same?”
“The risk? Your life. The reward? Perhaps some healing that may save Eliss’s life? It isn’t the same as witchpower, Danni. Have we not been over this?” The Elder’s voice is reproachful.
“Yes, Elder,” the boy replies quietly. “We have been. There just wasn’t time.”
The older-looking man smiles at him sheepishly. “There rarely seems to be. Honestly I don’t think she would have lasted until I got here if you hadn’t healed her. Had you used the incantation you promised to, though, I could have been here sooner. As is, the only reason I came running was because of the thunder.”
Mesdan makes a face. “I would have sent up the signal, but there was no time. It was a shapeshifter, Kesta. What could I have done?”
“I’m not scolding you, Danni-gran. How could I? I’m just saying that we should be better about what signals we pick. Had I been a moment later, perhaps Eliss would have died. If you had needed to run to me, you would not have been able to. You would have worn yourself bloody. Perhaps she would have lived, but at the cost of the oldest member of our village? Too high a price! The sooner we initiate you, the better,” Elder Kesta finishes.
“Speaking of prices,” Mesdan says quietly, struggling to keep his voice level. “Look above you.”
Kesta glances upward. His face turns pale white. What the sight of so much blood could not do, the sight of the desiccated corpses of Eliss’s family does. He stares down at Eliss, who cannot talk, though her breathing is stable again. Her eyes are open, but see nothing. Perhaps the pain is too much. Perhaps the anguish of watching her parents flayed before her has left her mad. The reasons don’t matter. Mesdan aches to try to help, but knows that any more use of his own mana could damage him further. He lies back helplessly, but doesn’t fume.
Kesta will take care of her.
“We should have set up a guard last night,” the Elder says bitterly, while checking Eliss’s pulse.
“It was a shapeshifter, Kesta,” Mesdan replies gently. “It would have made no difference.”
“Did you hear what happened to Thatcher’s Creek down the path?” Kesta asks.
“Pretty crazy, the way a single shapeshifter could kill an entire village.”
“Not so crazy anymore, is it?”
Something in his tone digs under Mesdan’s skin and settles there.
“What are you getting at?” Mesdan asks suddenly. “That we’re lucky?”
“No. We’re not lucky to have lost a whole family to a monster, Kesta. We’re not lucky it was just one family. Luck would be living somewhere there aren’t monsters like that to deal with. This wasn’t luck, it was ill fortune. Perhaps not as ill as another I could name, but much worse than nothing happening.”
Mesdan pushes himself back up into a sitting position, gazing at Kesta steadily. His voice is like iron when it leaves his lips.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, Danni-gran,” Kesta replies meekly. “I understand. It is, though, the shaman way to take our blessings and give thanks.”
Mesdan blinks, takes a deep, calming breath and sighs. He’d become the eldest Witch again almost immediately and without even realizing it. He struggles to let go of the tension which grips him, slowly letting his shoulders and body relax. Really he wants to go and find a place to be alone, but he has the rest of his errands to run yet. With any luck the larger house down the path would be safe– since Kesta usually sleeps there, he can’t imagine it not being safe.
The grief will hit soon. He needs to keep moving.
As Mesdan stands and prepares to leave, he is not looking forward to the next few days. He especially isn’t looking forward to midnight tomorrow.
When initiation is to begin.
©2012 Sam Oliver [Eris]