She holds herself. Her hands are red and cracked, her eyes are downcast, her mouth set in a line. Fingers curl against her skin as ashes blow around her feet. Dead ashes. Cold ashes.The fingers are hers.
The ashes are hers. Of hope, of dreams, of a life that now means nothing. Has meant nothing. She stares at her fingernails, caked with grey. All of it had been for nothing. The life here with this family had been for nothing. There is nothing to rebuild, not even the shadow of a glimmer of hope. The girl knows that there is nothing left here.
Feet help her rise, her hands pull at nothing, as much a stretch as a need for aid in standing. Her muscles ache from kneeling there for so long.
Before her, smoke hisses and sways in the breeze. Around her, shades of people she once knew flit here and there, carrying buckets both empty and full, fighting for life and limb amidst the smoking sand that had once been her home. She has no name.
The villagers around her do not see her, do not touch her, do not think of her as they rush by. Many children are sitting as she did, near the grasses or in the ashes of their old houses, staring numbly at nothing. She is but another broken child, like a doll worn and finally torn from overuse or mistreatment. She is of no use to the village, being barren and small and frail besides.
The day goes by and the blaze is fought down to nothing, the flames eventually burning down to cinders, and the cinders cool in the coming night. Still the girl stands there, in her rags and tatters and the singed remains of a dress that might have been pretty before it was coated in the ashes of the dead. The grey remains cling everywhere, her body painted with them.
She stares into the darkness as it falls, the night moonless, the stars eclipsed by clouds. Her stomach rumbles and her head pounds. Her lungs are weak, and she coughs with near every breath in, from the smoke.
The girl isn’t sad that her old family is dead. She doesn’t mourn the loss of her house. That she has nowhere to stay is of no consequence to her. She looks at the ashes that remain of her old home and in her mind, thoughts race.
They are focused on but one thing, as the smell of charred flesh is finally swept away on the night wind, a wind that chills her legs and arms and sends gooseflesh down her back. She is thinking of the dragon.
After a time, how long if asked she could not say, a pack of wolves comes forward from the grass of the plain surrounding the village. Those humans left without homes flee for the remaining standing houses, hoping for shelter, and these wolves– which are wild ones, dire ones, each the size of a horse– chase them down. Methodically they pick the old or the weak of the survivors out from the rest, herding them away from the safe shadow of the dwellings.
The girl does not look up as their screams echo into the night. Mercifully for the families locked in their houses, they do not last long.
The girl does not turn around until the pack leader approaches her from behind. A wolfish muzzle nudges her front, and razor teeth bared in a snarl meet her eyes as she finally snaps free from her near trance. Hot breath against her face does not make her tremble.
Instead, the girl reaches up and strokes the jaws of the alpha wolf, who stares down at her. The wolf speaks first.
“Why do you choose such a weak and vulnerable shape, shifter?” his voice is kept soft, but the threat of a growl is palpable in the air in each pause.
The girl simply smiles, and shrugs, a human habit. “I know of no other.”
“I could show you a shape. We would roll together in grass, feel the plains beneath our paws. The scent of the stars would be within your grasp, and you would learn what a true soul is like,” the dire wolf whispers. “Come with me, shifter. Learn to be free.”
The words are not apparent from lips alone. All of the creature’s body shows it, in the tensing of its muscles, in its stance and the way its tail slowly sweeps, side to side, the way its silver-green eyes stare into hers.
“No freedom comes without cost. To take your shape is to lose a part of me, great wolf,” the girl replies. “Should I give up such a thing and offer you myself for no gain of my own?”
“The gain is your life, shifter,” the wolf snaps, jaws closing bare inches from the girl’s hand. She yanks it away, but stands her ground. “If you do not come with me, you will remain a human, and prey.”
The girl folds her arms, and feels her heart rise and fall with the deep breath she takes. For her apparent eleven years, she seems far older in that moment, and far more tired than she should be.
“There is a catch, is there not?” she asks sharply. “If I go with you, if you share your form there is always a price. What do you wish of me?”
The alpha wolf’s stance denotes anger, then, hackles rising. “Do you want to die, little human? What price would not be worth life?”
“We all die sooner or later,” the girl answers calmly. “If you wanted to kill me, you would have done so when you first drew in my scent. Something about me piques your interest. What is it?”
The alpha wolf snarls, then rises and lashes out, knocking her back into the ashes of her home, throwing her right off her feet and forcing the wind from her lungs, sending searing tracks across her chest. Stabbing, overwhelmingly sharp pain indicates that the blow may have cracked her ribs. A sharp, cold fear runs through her now, as she stares up at the monstrous wolf standing above her. Will he kill her now? Despite her brave words, she isn’t sure she is ready to die.
“No price will be taken now,” he growls. “When you are older.”
Ah, the girl thinks wryly. That explains it, then.
A haze of pain hangs over her every movement. It makes it hard to think, breathe and speak. “Come here then, pack leader,” she whispers, voice trembling. “I’ve made my choice.”
She reaches up as he approaches her and settles next to her, in the ashes of her former home. The cold night air clings to her skin and as she buries a hand in the wolf’s fur, she buries her mind inside of herself.
Frayed memory greets her as she drifts in the vast, galactic expanse of her own ego, rolling, twisting to look at shimmering stars of vague wants, recollections of some of her earliest forms that are locked away from her and unlabeled, forgotten. As her spiritual form floats in that space, she realizes she can feel the dire wolf’s jaws closed on her physical body’s hand, the teeth but a moment’s pressure from wrenching it away from her.
Even now he’s being cautious, the girl notes silently. As he should be, of things he doesn’t understand.
She rises in her mind, buoyed upward on willpower alone, rising up through the galaxy of forms spiraling to either side of her, unused, untouched. Finally she reaches the surface, the ceiling, where she can see the specific spiritual signature of the dire wolf she clings to.
She rocks herself around it, a bead of light, dark and crimson red hanging in space, in her own head. The girl reaches out, takes it in one hand, and pulls it against herself. The sucking emptiness where it used to be demands something from her, and, helpless to refuse it, some of her essence, her glowing, radiant mind, parts from her soundlessly.
Searing ghost-pain rolls down her body the moment that piece of her leaves, and in the ashes, clinging to the alpha wolf’s fur, she hears herself whimper.
With a new bead hanging there, proclaiming itself to be the essence of her old form, she absorbs the mental bead of light, that dire wolf spirit, into herself and begins to change.
Her spine curves. Her arms turn to forelimbs, the whole structure of her body changes, from head to foot, toes shrinking, the littlest ones disappearing altogether. They form great paws, tipped with iron-sharp claws. Her face lengthens, twists and changes to form a long canine muzzle, teeth sharpening, lengthening, some of them disappearing, mostly specialized for rending meat. Her stomach grows, its emptiness more acute, her whole body grows out, fur covering every inch of her skin, the dress torn to pieces. The cuts on her chest turn tiny in comparison with her new size, her breasts shrink and disappear, growing out along where her human belly had been as two rows of little teats.
The alpha wolf slinks back, withdrawing his mouth from her forepaw as she finishes changing, watching the girl become wolf-like with a passive expression.
Ludicrously, her first instinct when the transformation is over is to find more clothes. She feels exposed. Her bones are hard as any metal now, though, and her skin has become more like hide, and rough to the touch. The fur warms her up, and she shakes herself, sitting back on her haunches, eyes downcast as the alpha stands. He towers over her still. Though she is much larger than any normal wolf, she is still young by dire wolf standards.
Many dire wolves could live as long as two hundred seasons. She is still but a child. A pup.
The pack leader’s stance is somewhat disappointed, but the girl-wolf is sure he didn’t expect much else, for it is also resigned.
“Come with us now, shifter,” he says quietly. “There is nothing in the ashes of this human den. Not for you, and not for the pack.”
The girl-wolf does not argue. He is her leader now. While she is slightly unsure, her body knows what it must do, so she lets it follow the pack leader away onto the plains, planting new paw-feet unsteadily, one after the other, until she is lost in the night.
©2012 Eris (Sam Oliver)
So basically I’ve been kicking around this story along with Mesdan’s Three Hearts. It’s shorter- more a serial short rather than a serial novel. I’ll finish it eventually, this is just part ‘zero’ as I like to call it. I thought I’d share, because I do so love to write. I should be getting more of that done soon.