Tinwit tittered and skittered, dancing with too many feet along the damp bark of the tree’s stretching boughs. Her translucent scarves whirled around her, caught in the wind of her own speed, tangling and disengaging like iridescent sparring serpents.
“Wait up!” Girque hissed behind her, walking with his hands and feet all down the same branch. He was weighed down by a full basket strapped to his shoulders, the bulk resting between his gauzy wings.
“No~” Tinwit sang back, pausing only for an elaborate twirl before flouncing off. “I have to open the door~”
Girque mumbled something uncharitable beneath his breath, antennae drooping in annoyance, as he continued to trudge along the two-inch limb. His pack was full of broken weapons, blades and arrows and shortstaves, to be mended by the armory’s smiths and woodworkers. And it was blasted heavy.
But of course, Tinwit wouldn’t help him carry any of it. She had to open the door. Feh.
At the end of the branch, where it dove into the network of other boughs that would combine to comprise the trunk, a light billowed into existence and brightened slowly with a not-quite-audible hum that made the bark shiver. Girque stuck sharp nails into the branch for traction and kept moving, hands and feet together, eyes averted from the growing luminance.
The tree whimpered through his fingertips when the door opened, allowing the two Zeri access to its hollowed, honeycombed interior.
Tinwit pirouetted back to him, smiling with all her needle teeth, faceted eyes reflecting the now-fading glow. “I opened the door~” she purred triumphantly.
“Thank you,” Girque grunted. “Now will you help me wi–”
“I’m going to tell the weaponsmen we’re here~” she interrupted, spinning and buzzing her wings briefly, just enough to give her momentum to bound gazelle-like along the bough. She vanished into the tree’s aching doorway, ignoring the aura of unhappiness hovering at the threshold.
Girque squeezed his eyes shut, counted to three, and opened them again. Zeri magi were becoming less and less lucid as generations went on; Tinwit was a young, talented little waif, but she was as reliable as a leaf blown by the wind.
He sighed, plodding along until he reached the entrance. “Sorry,” he said to the tree, touching a hand briefly to the threshold and snatching it away just as quickly when pain shot up his arm. He did it every time, penance for the door’s necessity, even though all the other guardians had long since abandoned the old tradition.
Girque and his bundle stepped inside; he felt through the shadows for the weed-woven ladder and began his blind descent, the weight hanging so heavy that his body canted at an unnatural angle, his back aiming for the floor. His feet tangled in the fraying rungs; he tightened his jaw and moved more carefully.
There was light at the bottom, set well into the tree’s slope-buried base, a great hollow that shook slightly with old pain. The Zeri who manned the armory bustled around, ignoring Tinwit dancing in spirals around them; one grizzled woman stopped when she saw Girque, no welcome or smile softening her soot-smudged face. “More?” she demanded, somewhere between resigned and frustrated.
“More,” Girque confirmed, pitching his tone to be apologetic. He unstrapped the bulging basket from his back and handed it off, straightening gratefully while the old woman huffed and dragged it off towards the repair quarter. “Tinwit!” he called, muscles burning as he stretched them. “We can’t stay here.”
“But I like the smells of iron and sulfur~” she sang happily, her scarves already darkening like sullied smoke.
Girque winced; his lungs were shutting off in protest of the atmosphere already, and this youngling liked it? With half-hidden exasperation, he trotted over to her and captured her wrists, then tugged her towards the ladder. “We’ll be back soon enough,” he muttered, wishing it weren’t the truth.
“I love the war~” Tinwit crooned sweetly, kissing his cheek before swarming up the ladder ahead of him. “It paints everyone such pretty colors~”
Girque stared after her, shook his head, and began to climb.
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.
Kanna frowned at her daughter. “Honey,” she began, trying for patience, “you’re only six. You don’t actually feel dysphoric yet. That doesn’t happen until well after you’ve had your own children and they’ve grown up. You know that.”
Hazi was unfazed by her mother’s logic, a stubborn set to her red brows. “My skin don’t fit right,” she protested, pinching at the soft flesh of her upper arm. “Inn’t that dys-pho-ri-a? Dada tol’ me it was.”
The Merre woman lifted a hand to massage her temples and the base of her long ears. “Honey,” she tried again, “how old is Dada?”
“Dada is five times me!” the little girl said triumphantly, still pulling restlessly at her dark skin.
“Has Dada said he feels like he needs to change his skin?”
Hazi gave a gasp and a scowl. “Of course not! Dada stays with us ’til I’m a mama.”
Kanna smiled gently, kneeling to look her daughter in the eye. “Exactly. Now. Try to tell me how you feel without using the d-word, okay? If you’re getting sick, we want to make sure we take you to the herbologist today while the light’s still warm.”
Hazi’s face fell and she bit her lip. “Um. Liiike my skin is a wool sweater and it’s summertime, so it’s all hot and scratchy inside. And my tummy feels like it’s made of water.”
“Do you have to pee?” Kanna asked matter-of-factly, a distant fear beginning to toy with the back of her mind.
The child stuck her tongue out. It was purple. Kanna blinked; Hazi had been born with a blue tongue. Well, sometimes even children in good health changed colors… “No!” she grumped, folding her arms across her chest. “Not full of water, made of water!”
Kanna sighed. “Did Dada tell you what dysphoria feels like?”
Hazi slumped her shoulders in a sulk. “No,” she mumbled. “I tol’ him what I felt like an’ he said go find you and tell you ’cause it sounds like dys-pho-ri-a and if I got that then it’s a bad thing. He said I shoul’ mention his brother.”
Kanna recoiled, despite herself. Her mate’s brother had become one of the shapeless and gone mad. The fear blossomed in her throat, cutting off her air. If Hazi became shapeless…
“No,” she whispered, shaking herself off. She reached out and touched her daughter’s dark mane, ran her thumb along the soft cheeks. “No, sweetheart, you’re not going to be like Dada’s brother. Come with me; I’m going to leave you with Dada while I go talk to the herbologist. There might be an illness going around that’s making you feel funny.”
Hazi took her mother’s hand and scuffed her feet all the way to her father’s workshop, where the hill-shouldered man sat over a pottery wheel and shaped clay with paw-like hands. “Dada!” she called, running up to him as soon as Kanna released her hand. “Mama’s gonna talk to the herbogist–”
“Herballagist.” Hazi stuck her tongue out. “And gonna ask if I’m sick.”
Tenyu looked up from his work and met his mate’s troubled gaze. She mouthed no over their daughter’s head, forced a smile, and walked down the slope towards the dirt path that wound towards the center of their village.
“Okay,” Tenyu sighed, pushing the rim of his work-in-progress to correct a fold in the lip. “Tell me again how you feel.”
“My skin’s a scratchy wool sweater in summertime,” Hazi diligently repeated, pleased with her newfound metaphor. “An’ my insides feel like they’re made of water.” She frowned, plopping down next to her father’s stool. “An’ my bones kinda ache.”
The Merre potter kept himself busy with his work, wondering when she would list the fourth common symptom of dysphoria: a growing exhaustion that would lead her to sleep more than a few hours a day, giving her body time and rest to begin its first evolution towards a new skin and shape.
The shapeless were the only ones who ever changed as children, and they never stopped once they began.
As Tenyu worked in silence, Hazi yawned.