Screaming. Somewhere, the sound carried by a long-dead wind, someone was screaming.
Ears twitched. A massive head lifted. A body shag-furred in shadows and steel rose, turned, paced forward. The eyes stayed closed, velvet lids offering a blank slate to the surrounding forest. Ears alone guided the heavy-clawed feet.
The screaming continued.
Time passed: hours, days, some uncounted ticks on a clock that didn’t exist within half a season’s slow walk. The screaming stopped sometimes, started again later. The sound weakened, thinned, frayed like a worn thread.
The high wail snapped in twain as soon as the gnarled paws stopped.
The eyes opened. Featureless ink-black reflected the scene along a curving surface.
One of the Sivas stepped away, lifted an empty hand in warning, and said something in a trade language. Another hand pulled a thin knife and held it over a third wrist, ready to spill blood to power battlemagic; the fourth hand hovered over a pouch of reagents.
An Ipyan struggled feebly in the many arms of another Siva. Two of the People, looking like two-armed Sivas with muddier skin and softer eyes, stood near a makeshift alchemy table. They all stared at what had emerged from the forest.
Blood stained the air with its starkly metallic scent, a cry of agony to a sensitive nose. The Ipyan shook, a number of neat, shallow incisions along its flat torso already bled dry, its arms marked with uncounted slices. The enormity of magical potential in the vials of blood on the table pulsed like thunder too low to be heard, only felt through bones and the shuddering of the heart.
/Help,/ whispered the Ipyan, a word universal to all the great languages, its slit-pupiled eyes staring wildly. /They’ll kill me./
The other words should not have been understood, but the ears twitched, and the face with its jutting tusks turned. The whiteless eyes met the Ipyan’s panicked gaze.
/Help–/ The Siva holding the Ipyan cupped a strong hand over the wedge-shaped mouth.
The Siva in front said something again, meaningless, its slanted face intent. A warning was in its sibilant tone, slicing through the breathy syllables like the delicate knife in its hand would cut into its arm and loose enough magic to destroy the intruder.
That which came from the woods moved, and screams rose anew from the clearing.
At dawn, the vials and decanters of blood were untouched on the table. No blood had been spilled into the earth. Five bodies lay unmoving on the loamy soil, and the Ipyan huddled around itself, rocking, its long tail wrapped around its ankles and its arms encircling two of its knees as it sat on its other two heels.
Its mind blurred, smeared like the skin of the People while they slept, hazing in and out of focus. It had lost so much blood. Almost too much. It clung to rational thought, ran basic arithmetic through its head, holding so tightly to the surety and solidity of numbers that it nearly lost sense of the pain warming its flesh.
One of the bodies stirred, ears twitching, nostrils flaring. The Ipyan froze and stared, then unfolded unsteadily and crawled over. It rested a sleek three-fingered hand on a fog-and-shadow flank, the fur coarse and thick, and waited until huge eyes opened and met its slitted gaze.
/Thank you,/ the Ipyan said, exhaling, feeling the weakness pooling in its solar plexus.
The head lifted, a foreleg pulled beneath the deep chest, and the creature propped itself up stiffly. The gaze never wavered, even when pale membranes washed over swamp-dark eyes and obscured their murky depths.
The Ipyan stared, shivered, wanted to laugh. Its savior was a mad beast, and it itself was barely more stable. So little blood. So little of the magic that its people scorned. So little grasp on sanity left. /You are shapeless,/ it said, almost begging for some word to the contrary.
The membranes washed the eyes again. The ears quivered.
The Ipyan touched the tusked face, too dazed to be afraid. Ragged whiskers scraped its fingers with miniscule serrations. /Thank you, shapeless,/ the Ipyan murmured, bowing its head and tucking its narrow snout between the soft rolls of flesh around the beast’s neck.
The low croon was startling, but the sound continued like a morning aerophone’s drone. The Ipyan found its body relaxing against the breathing mass of its rescuer, fingers loosening, tail going lax. It slept for the first time since its capture three days prior, breathing so shallowly as to seem dead, lulled by the smooth call of a mother to her long-lost son.
The dreams drove the Ipyan awake time and again, sobbing, wailing, flinging out a weak hand until it hit the rough pelt of the shapeless. But wakefulness was never truly achieved, the veil of dreamscape shading the sharp yellow eyes, and even a touch from the shapeless could not pull the Ipyan from the haze.
The madness was taking hold. It had lost too much blood, and with that blood, the magic that held its brilliant, complex mind intact.
The shapeless rose, left the Ipyan writhing in another dream, and stared blankly at the vials on the alchemy table. The People had probably intended to drain the Ipyan dry, extract the magic from the blood, and replace the blood in the failing body: all the necessary tools for such a lengthy, agonizing procedure were set up. The body still had enough blood to function, but the mind didn’t have enough magic, and the Ipyan would be lost to madness under the moon of the next night.
The shapeless studied the table for unmeasured moments, comprehension drip-dropping like a river-smooth stone through a series of waterfalls. Eventually, it took a stoppered vial in its jaws – carefully, so carefully – and brought it to the thrashing Ipyan.
It pressed a talon to the Ipyan’s scarred chest, some of the incisions trying to bleed anew from the dreamer’s violent movement. Gently, the shapeless pressed its wide muzzle to the Ipyan’s angular face, holding its head still, its face to the sky.
And the shapeless crushed the vial in its jaws, blood spilling between its teeth and past the Ipyan’s parted lips.
The Ipyan swallowed convulsively, unable to jerk aside, unable to draw breath to cough. It drank its own blood, the shards of the vial too large to drop into its small mouth, until there was only reddened spittle dripping from the shapeless’s muzzle.
The gold eyes cleared. It stared upwards as the shapeless pulled back, dropped the rest of the shards, coughed, spat, hissed like a gale through a canyon – the blood sprayed, a fine mist. It would only ingest a tiny amount.
The People didn’t need blood-magic, after all, and even the wild shapeless were still the People.