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Archive for February, 2012

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She could feel the chill of decaying stone corridors through the thin cloth of her slippers. It was solid, if slightly damp; the smell of mildew and desiccated flesh filled her nose, tightened her throat and made her eyes water.

Her jaws hurt from clenching.

Her feet moved at a whisper, steps hushed from long practice, though the many things Lorcain O’Cellachain had taught her were distant and hazy in her mind. But this, she kept- more from habit than will, really. A tiny voice behind her left ear whispered to her that it would keep her alive.

Light only knew what horrors waited in the dark.

There were- empty places, now. There always had been, since they’d banished the demons. But of late, it seemed the blackness encompassed greater spans of time. Before, there had only been that raw and empty hunger- the ache of missing fingers, of missing something inside herself, where the voices used to be. This loss was more tangible.

She couldn’t recall how she’d come to this place.

Now the magic was never far from her. She could feel it in the air, the oppressive thrum of shadows and fel energies twisting, calling to her- the scent of lilacs with the fetid overtones of sickly sweet rot, alluring and repulsive all at once.

Her head ached and her skin felt confining and hot, unbearable. Hazel eyes turned to study the pale suspension of a femur, dry scraps of flesh still clinging to the curve of it. Briefly, she could envision herself as nothing but bone and shriveled sinew, riddled with squirming maggots.

It should not have been appealing.

She paced the corridor- nineteen steps one way, nineteen steps the other. The ragged hem of once-fine silk whispered secrets as she walked, and her lips pulled in a frown, eyes half lidded in the perpetual gloom.

They were talking about her. She could hear them laughing in the emptiness of her thoughts, could hear every vile word they said, though who ‘they’ were was beyond her. She knew they were there, though. She could hear them. Her heart was shale behind her breast, cold and brittle; she could feel it flaking to pieces, could feel herself coming apart. They mocked her in strange, sibilant tongues, in high, unearthly voices and low, guttural growls. She was determined to learn their secrets.

Her phantom fingers itched and her left palm tingled as she paused to briefly peer at the thick white knot of scar tissue. There something- important. Something she ought to remember. Some part of her insisted it was important, but her thoughts were restless, fickle things.

The emptiness in her spine was unbearable.

Cold metal met her palm as she pulled the dagger from a sheath at her hip, idly trailing the wicked steel across her skirts. She barely noticed a layer of ragged silk parting from the soiled mass of fabric that was once a many tiered skirt. The scrap formed a puddle of grey at her ankles.

She lifted her atrophied right arm, staring at it without recognition. It didn’t seem possible that something so withered belonged to her, yet there it was. A frown bent her features, narrowed her eyes, as she let the gathered sleeve fall away to reveal pale, yellowed skin. The dagger’s point traced a careful line up the contours of her elbow, to her shoulder- pulled across her throat in a mimic of something she’d once been taught, though she couldn’t remember who it was that taught it to her. Someone important, she was sure. Could almost remember a face, a pair of wire-framed glasses balancing on his nose- but it was too hard to think through the blistering heat and constant aching.

Everywhere felt hollow. She struggled to remember a face- quiet grey eyes, this time. Couldn’t recall his name. Couldn’t recall why it was he was important, too.

Her phantom fingers itched and her tongue was blistered, throat raw from magic. Her very bones felt hollow.

Something was missing and she couldn’t get it back, no matter how hard she tried.

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It was a short flight back to the outcropping. She could feel the wind beneath her wings, feathers twitching to adjust seamlessly- the stars called to her, the cold night air tugged her to rise higher, to fly further… but not tonight.

Her thoughts were dizzy, avian and intoxicated, failing to understand exactly what had happened. She knew she was displeased. It was hard to remember why, though. The why never came into it so long as she wore feathers instead of soft, pliable skin. She held on to her humanity, but the confines of her skull could not contain the understandings she knew when she walked on dusty feet.

The trio of trees was there, and she recognized the remnants of last night’s fire. It had been at least a week since she’d slept beside a fire. Hazy memories of comfort clouded her mind’s eye, and she tipped her dark wings landward, driven by the simple demand.

It was a graceless landing, a sudden impact of dirt and a whirlwind of feathers. Spirits alive, how much had she drunk?

Her transition to a lady was seamless, as it always was, but the reek of sewage and vomit now engrained within her leathers hit her enhanced sense of scent like a boulder to the nose. She gagged instinctively, almost bringing up a bellyful of beer and little else, but pride kept her from vomiting, teeth gritting and throat working to swallow it back down. It burned in her throat; stomach bile and dwarven stout had never been an appealing combination.

But if she was anything, she was stubborn.

It took her a moment, to gain her bearings. She was at the camp, where Eidrin had told her to go. The flattened grass marked a trail from the fire to the lake’s edge, the cold cinders contained tidily within a circle of stone. She remembered… Indi had manifested a keg. They’d drunk the whole thing, between the two of them- and they had drunk it quickly, so quickly, with laughter and swaggering, brave words. Then Indi, demonstrating much less restraint than Ash herself, had vomited.

There had been chunks of something unidentifiable, but she suspected it was corn.

Right on her leathers. Her fancy war-leathers that she’d spent half her first week’s pay on.

“… fock.”

Her voice was soft and hoarse, a faint groan following the expletive. She’d disgraced herself before the Great Nate Natsby, too, she recalled- in her haste to cleanse herself of beer-corn-vomit smell, she’d plunged into the nearest water source. How she’d failed to realize it was a sewage drain was beyond her.

“Hell, fock, damn, shite!”

The words broke the night’s silence, shame clenching her belly. She felt sick, but couldn’t tell if it was the liquor, the humiliation, or the continued reek. More than likely it was a horrible combination of all three. She wasn’t about to purge her stomach, though. It was hers to bear. She’d drunk that beer and she fully intended to keep it.

She swayed a little as she found her feet and staggered for the lake’s edge. The cold she could feel immediately, but it took a few sluggish steps before water filled her boots, passed through the seams of her leather, pressed to her skin. Her jaws clenched tightly, suppressing a shudder, goose bumps rising against her skin.

This was the price she paid for her shenanigans. She accepted that.

Somewhere in Gilneas, her granmere’s corpse was probably spinning in the mud from shame.

She was hungry, always hungry. It drove her, ruled her senses and kept her heavy paws moving.

Her teeth ached and her claws prickled, muzzle lifting in the air to scent the breeze. To the south, she could smell it- could smell woodsmoke and herbs. Her stomach growled, and her throat rumbled an answer, struggling to focus with a hunter’s precision. She dropped to all four limbs, thick, furred arms doubling as legs. Her claws ached. Her thoughts were sour and sickly.

Somewhere inside herself, Maggie was screaming, but she couldn’t hear it through the hunger, the need, the deep and unbearable anger.

Blood answers blood.

Her bounding strides devoured the distance and she didn’t know how long it took to get there, to the small clearing and miserable little hut. She could smell it closer now, fire and smoke, queer herbs drying from the rafters, bones and bottled reagents of unknown origin.

But that wasn’t what interested her.

It was the scent of blood, of withered flesh and thinning bone. She could hear a voice within, saying words but the words made no sense and the fire inside her skull was too much to bear, the hunger and the rage driving her for the door-

Clawed hands wrenched it open, and Penelope the Crone stood impossibly tall, her sightless eyes gaping holes in her head, green energies suffusing her withered form. Shadows trembled in the strange green light and it hurt her eyes, the screaming in her mind was deafening-

There was a moment before the vines struck, creeping roots snarling over her paws and thorns dragging her down down down to the dirty wood floors-

There was a moment, as the brittle old woman screeched something that she could not understand, a second where she could have acted, but for the screaming– one word, over and over again- no no no no no no NO NO NO NONONONONO!

That second of hesitation was enough as she fell and darkness flooded her mind, the heaviness of vegetation pinning her flat.

She could have torn open the old buzzard’s throat, but… she knew herself, if only for a minute. The relief was brief, the darkness impenetrable.

She scrubbed at herself, but the puke smell lingered, sullied the mossy waters. Her stomach was a fish flopping on dry land and she began to wonder if will alone would be enough to keep her from emptying it into the lake.

A fistful of muck and she scrubbed her armor with dirt. Dirt was cleaner than sewage, cleaner than whatever Indi had eaten, at least. They’d probably laugh at her later. Bits of plant left green pigment staining the pale leather on her torso. She didn’t care.

The shivering was getting worse, but the spinning in her head was beginning to un-twist. She lashed out for the shoreline, the silt mud dragging at her boots, arms thrashing in the water as she struggled. Her fingertips reached for the chestpiece, working clumsily at the buckles, a grunt crossing her lips as she fought to free herself. Her fingers were thick with cold, an agitation.

Frustrated, she gave up on changing. It wasn’t as if she had clothes nearby anyway. The nearest cache was hidden in the ruins of the old barracks, safely tucked beneath a heavy bit of stone- and she was in no mood to go streaking through Cathedral Square. Not tonight, anyway.

It wasn’t as if the entire world needed to know her tits were crooked, after all. They’d never be the same after the incident with the goblin caravan.

She’d shamed herself enough.

Half in, half out of her leather top, but mercifully covered with a lurid purple shirt beneath, she tossed herself at the ground and wallowed in drunken self pity.

When she woke, she was caged and furious. The hunger was eating her from the inside out, maggots gnawing at her belly, scraping at the inside of her skull. Everywhere they traced etched fire, and she could hardly see for her the anger, form trembling and weak with fever and rage, choked by smoke.

The hut reeked of burnt hair and charred bone, strange whispers floating on the acrid breeze. She could make out the hunched shape of an old woman, bent over her cauldron, but she couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Her claws rattled over the bars of her cage, muzzle thrusting to fit between them. Her tongue was dry and cracked, a withered hunk of skin behind her teeth. Everything hurt. Everything ached.

She couldn’t think or breathe, she was so hungry… she could feel the moon, somewhere overhead.

She could hear it laughing at her.

Redoubling her efforts, she threw her weakened form against the bars, snarling and scrabbling- rage made her stronger, stifled the screaming and the laughter both. She could smell the old hag through the smoke, through the fire, she could smell her freedom past the bars—

She could smell the fetid reek of death in the breeze through the window, gunpowder and corpses.

There was no such foresight for Penelope the Crone, however.

It was over before the old blind witch had a chance. The door burst open and the contents of her skull painted the mantle with a deafening gunshot, skeletal fingertips easing up from the trigger and malevolent yellow eyes scanning the room. He fell into step, the sound of bone scraping moldering flesh a whisper in the smoky darkness.

The soldier let out a gurgling laugh, his lower jaw slack and his tongue black with rot, flapping past the rattling breeze of his unnatural breath.

For the first time since she’d become whatever it was she was, the screaming stopped.

The fire ebbed.

Where it had been hot, she felt sudden cold and clarity.

Her claws found the clever latch, working as silently as she could.

It was over before the Forsaken had a chance. The door burst open and the contents of his ragged corpse painted the room with a sound that was half-snarl, half howl of rage. Dark claws rent and tore through the smoke, malevolent yellow eyes scanning the immediate area.

Nothing moved, and slowly, slowly, the screaming returned.

The fire returned with it. The laughter and the maggots crawling in her belly, in her head, in her veins…

She threw up her muzzle, dark with dessicated flesh, putrescent juices, and howled her devastation to the night sky. For a brief moment, Maggie was there, mourning touching the haunted sound.

The night air and cold, wet leather left her sullen in the dirt. It was some time before her trembling fingertips managed to conjure fire with Eidrin’s borrowed flint and tinder, but flame sprouted from the small pile of reasonably dry wood she’d obtained.

Ashtivar Whiteoak let her head drift down, eyes half closing.

She could smell dirt, now, and woodsmoke… that, and the faint scent of wet dog that clung to her hair. The musty animal taste of wet leather filtered from her nose to her tongue and she picked at the grass, staring into the flame.

Her head drifted down, listening to the murmur of the wind through the trees, the creaking of ancient branches and the popping crackle of the fire.

Her eyes came closed.

Beneath the proud circle of the winter moon, Ashtivar fell to troubled dreams.

The anger inside her stirred. Somewhere inside her head, she could hear the moon laughing.

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It had happened suddenly.

A fistful of long dark hair, kept neatly confined to a careful braid; she felt the pressure ease as the knife slide through the thick strands, peeled them back and left her- lighter. She was barely aware that she’d done.

It was a beginning.

She began to talk again, her lips recalled how to smile, her throat how to laugh.

The world came coursing back, all of its joys, all of its sorrows. She began to notice when it was day or night. To feel the wind on her cheek, and she began to remember why she was alive again- the sun beating down on her black hair, darkening her skin and producing little freckles across the bridge of her nose, across those queer, hollow cheeks.

The wolf dreams never left her for long, though. How could they?

It was still a part of her, whether or not she willed it.

Once she’d remembered how to live, it wasn’t long before Darnassus became too small, became stifling. The strange, soft tongue of the native Kaldorei was a constant hum, the irritation of a mosquito’s beating wing in her ear. The air was too soft, the sky too wide.

There was never enough rain. What rain there was was not like home, was muted by leaves and branches; the mist here was humble and burned off easy in the morning’s golden light.

She missed the smell of woodsmoke, the impenetrable darkness of the storms. She missed the way the trees crowded, brambles and branches greedily choking one another from the fickle light of a sun that didn’t often part the dark clouds.

She missed thunder and tall, pale wheat.

“Maggie!”

She could hear it echo across the cornfield, a tiny tilt to her lips as she recognized the tone of exasperation to his voice.

Her broad fingers were dark with dirt as she carefully coaxed the seedlings into sprouting, roots creeping at an incremental pace into the richness of the earth. The first anemic leaf unfurled; the vines reached slowly, oh so slowly, toward the small terrace she’d laid for them.

Peas were always eager to please, polite and biddable to her touch. There was much work to be done still, though.

Alex Cumberland was not a patient man.

Of course, she was not precisely an easy woman to handle, either. It would have been easy, to draw to her feet, to call back to him that she’d be done soon. Instead, she settled herself deeper, feeling the familiarity of the dirt between her toes, of the plants that so desperately called to her. She could feel it, but could never explain what that feeling was; a woman’s intuition was what Penelope the Crone had called it, but folk like Alex didn’t believe in such nonsense.

She could taste rain in the wind, felt it in the hollows of her pores like an itch. Rain was good.  Sun would be better, though. The peas wanted to grow, after all, but there was only so much she could do without the sun’s gilded warmth; she didn’t dare take too much. Balance in all things, as the crone had instructed- there was no taking without giving something in return.

She felt more than heard his presence, though it would have been easy to hear for the sibilant trail of swears that parted his lip. But there were more important things at hand; the delicate life at her fingertips demanded her attention. Thoughts of golden warmth, of sunlight and soft rain, of rich dark earth and vibrant green life, coaxed the magic from her fingertips, slow and careful, steady…

It would have been easy, to pause and rise from her crouching ankles. It would have been simple, to wipe the dirt from her hands, to toss her arms about his shoulders and pay him just the smallest bit of mind.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Maggie Cumberland had realized months ago that she felt little but disdain for the man she’d dragged into her marriage bed.

It was a disdain that turned almost instantly to white, searing rage as the efforts of her moments came to an abrupt end.

There was a sharp sensation, as though she’d a hair pulled from her head, and a sudden sense of mild loss, as the fragile pea patch was ripped from the ground by large, strong hands, hands that furiously shredded the vines from the terrace, that destroyed without thought or care. She could hear his voice- he was hollering again- but his words passed through her like mist, scarcely touching the surface of her mind.

In an instant, she could smell the whiskey on his breath, could feel sudden pressure of her bones as she struggled not to change. Her breath came in a short burst as she drew to her feet, her fist was pulled back and the impact of it striking his face was almost a surprise.

The bear subsided, the white rage fled, and she could hear the crack of the blow with sudden crystalline clarity. She felt relief, but only briefly; granmere had warned them time and again to never reveal what they had learned. The animal spirits were her allies in secret alone- it was still too new, too dangerous, to use when anyone might be watching.

Alex Cumberland staggered back, dropping the ruined plants, and stared hard at his spitfire wife. Not for the first time he wondered what he had done to deserve this. The blow didn’t hurt as much as it could have; the liquor dulled the pain. Made it that much easier for him.

Those large, capable hands reached as he caught her by the arm, hauling her forward with a vicious jerk. The bitch would learn her place.

She’d started it, after all. But he’d be damn sure he finished it.

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((Try not to die of shock. It’s a Dyna post. o.O))
 
It was a cold morning; but then, this time of year they usually were.

Outside the thick paned windows, she watched the fog creep over the foothills, through the trees and over the stony path. She could see phantoms in the mists, could imagine a dozen faces that she knew she’d never see again.

Still, the heat of the hearth and the smell of cooking porridge kept her thoughts from drifting too far down that stony road. Mykhael was working careful stitches at the table; she could visualize his wiry fingers expertly tugging careful embroidered designs through the cloth. Thoran was busy on the floor, babbling happily to himself and yanking on the ever-patient Manny’s fur. The worg was nearing adulthood, and as level a beast as one could hope for, infinitely tolerant of Thoran’s manhandling. Dyna’s own worg, a black pup of considerable size, watched with mild interest from where he lingered, always close to her heels.

The gurgling grumble of thickening grains hissing and boiling recaptured her attention, and the woman turned her quiet blue eyes back to the porridge, giving it an idle stir. A very faint smile tugged at her lips.

This was a far cry from the destruction that nagged the edges of her mind, that haunted her dreams and dogged the heels of her thoughts. It was impossible to forget. Light knew she’d tried.

Some things just didn’t go away.

Life had taken on a simpler rhythm. She worried, of course- but she always had, about one thing or another.

It was supposed to be over, but it wasn’t. In her heart, dread stirred; she doubted it would ever be over.

There would never be enough time… and so she made the best of what she had.

Perhaps their days were uneventful, to the eyes of those who were heroes or villains of great renown; but to Odynae, there was subtle, inevitable purpose to it. There was sweetness to the frost that rimed their windows each morning, and the icy chill of the dead of night couldn’t touch the slowly growing warmth inside of her. She’d grown softer through necessity, though not by much; she didn’t have the endless hours she had before, to do nothing but hone her body to the living weapon it had been. They had a house to fix, meals to cook, a child to entertain and animals to tend to. She had herbs to render and prayers to pray.

Gradually, the armor had been set aside. It seemed a fool’s garment when working daily chores. Her glaive’s pattern dances no longer took hours at a time. She didn’t have those hours anymore.

Her knotted scars fell prey to Myk’s fingertips. She couldn’t remember the last time it hadn’t hurt, to roll out of bed in the morning- but Myk had fixed that. She’d even learned to return the favor, though she was privately certain she would never master it as Myk had. She’d learned to braid her hair each morning, too, much to the man’s amusement.

It had taken time, to begin to look in the mirror each morning. It had taken practice, to meet her own solemn blue eyes, to study the crooks of her nose and the scars that told stories of betrayal, of failure, of deceit. But for the first time in a long time, she had time… and made full use of it.

But try as she might, she couldn’t rid herself of one nagging whisper, itching at the back of her mind.

Duty.

Duty always called, never rested, never stopped. She pretended not to feel the guilt burning in the pit of her belly, but it was inevitable that she would answer the summons.

Just… tomorrow.

Another day, perhaps.

Still. Still.

It wasn’t the call of loyalty toward Jahgan and Tremaine that caught her this time. It wasn’t the summons of a demon that her purpose was to destroy.

It was a letter, forgotten and tucked away safely in her heavy oak chest, the printed ink etching words in a firm hand; she could almost hear the words spoken in his Highland’s brogue.

Somewhere inside herself, as she stirred the porridge and felt the warmth of hope, Odynae Dawnhammer made the resolution take up the path of Knighthood that she’d set aside before, laid tenderly down in favor of facing death.

She wasn’t dead, and she intended to live like it.

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Purpose

The world bobbed and weaved about her, spinning in a sickening sort of way as she rode the currents with instinct more than skill.

Seen in simpler terms, with fewer shades of grey to confuse the issue, she was free as ever. Nothing had changed- not really. There was only wind and moonlight, her long dark feathers splayed out to catch the breeze.

It was difficult to brood when the Stormcrow flew.

But somewhere in the corner of her mind, she could admit to feeling disappointment. Silly, given the circumstances, but there it was. Disappointment, and shifting could only dull the sensation, couldn’t dismiss it entirely.

Long grasses brushed the underside of her belly, and her ears flicked back, always wary. She didn’t recall giving herself to Panther form, but here it was, and somehow it was right. She crouched low and fell motionless, listening to the wind whisper through the tall grasses.

The thick, dark ale she’d imbibed was sitting poorly on her stomach, the effects still disturbing her system. Mildly, she felt reproach- could almost hear Granmere rebuffing her with sharp, sarcastic tones. She ignored it. It was too late now, and unimportant besides.

She crouched, but felt restless, thoughts refusing to leave her be. They were too confused for her in the dark skin of the cat, too alien to a cat’s understanding.

The wolf waited, lurking inside her in a way that didn’t quite fit, wasn’t the same as the others.

A faint grown rumbled in her throat and she closed her eerie yellow eyes for a moment, claws retracting.

Wolf had never come half so easy as the others. Her lithe, feline shape shuddered, a series of grinding cracks accompanied by the prickle of her thick ruff springing from her scalp and neck, the course fur replacing her smoother panther’s pelt. Her bones popped wetly into place, muscles stretching and shifting. A shudder passed through her, but she didn’t give in to uncertainty. A moment later, Ashtivar exhaled a quiet gasp as she fell to a crouch, flaring her fingertips.

It was one thing, to shift to the other forms. She’d spent years under Granmere’s tutelage to understand the spirits, to invite them in.

Wolf was never invited. It had entered unbidden, and she hadn’t been prepared- no more so than anyone else had.

Wolf had been impossible to understand and to leash, was too powerful to subdue and too reckless to make a covenant with.

The ritual had muzzled it, had dulled and subdued it. It almost seemed a pity- nothing wild deserved to be caged as such. But she only need think back to the wolf dreams, to the blood and intoxicating scent of fear, to the thrill of the hunt and the joy of the kill- and it was enough to justify their actions. Granmere had ever emphasized the importance of Will in matters of skin-changing; she’d never stood a chance against the Wolf.

Wild things didn’t kill for pleasure. Wolf was an abomination to the balance, when let unchained.

It felt both familiar and alien at the same time; she could taste the scent of a nearby coyote on the wind, could hear an eagle’s flight far overhead. And her thoughts were as clear as they were when she was human. She could see why other worgen chose this form, muzzled and collared and toothless as it was in comparison to how it had been before- she could understand the allure of it, but it held little to her.

Carefully, she settled herself back in the grass, eyes closing a moment, fingertips twining in the green and garnering strength from its nearness.

She felt very strongly that Archibald Warfather had made the wrong choice. And the fact that he’d chosen to abide by the enemy’s rules -bothered- her, the way a hangnail or a sliver might. It was something she could pretend to ignore, but it was there. For someone who was so good at surviving, it seemed like a mighty obvious sort of trap to blunder in- the very sort that a stubborn cuss would walk into and be too proud to walk out of.

But then, she’d never been a soldier- had only fought out of necessity, for survival. What did she know about it? Nothing, that was what.

And yet.

… it really wasn’t her business. And she’d told him plainly what she thought of the plan. He’d heard her out and been as bull headed about it as you could please, but she’d said her piece, at any rate.

She had plenty of shit on her own plate to handle. The interview with Keeper had gone- well enough, she reckoned. Some of what had been said was troubling, though- not that she’d let it show. It was easy to play it off, she’d a lifetime of training to be a bumpkin, it was reflexive and came natural as anything ever did. There was no point in pressing then, she’d gotten all she could out of the woman and knew at a glance she wasn’t getting more.

Which meant she’d have to ferret it out herself, and that posed its own set of problems. How far did she want to go with this, after all? It seemed like an awfully slim concern to potentially jeopardize her new job. And she liked her new job, damn’t! She got paid to hunt down cultists and talk to people, to go on adventures and belong to something bigger than herself- it was almost like being back home, except not half so loud, and she could come and go as she pleased.

Restlessly, the woman rose, unfamiliar muscles stretching- it was a great pleasure, to stretch in Form, something she’d never been able to explain to anyone- and trailed her fingertips over the grasses.

She had more than enough on her plate than to impose her rightness on Archibald. Besides, he’d realize it soon enough. Or he wouldn’t, and that was fine too. He’d taken care of himself for this long, he probably had some idea of what he was doing. Maybe.

… naw. He’d be fine.

Maybe.

Well, if he wasn’t, he’d have no one to blame but himself. It was silly, to be disappointed in the choice of a man she’d barely known a day. No, it was more than silly- it was downright stupid, and she was making up her mind right here and now to let it go.

She’d find Clay North in the morning and see about that mission to Stranglethorn. She’d survived two missions already- she’d come out better for it, smarter, too. She’d learn how these folks did things and she’d do it right.

No sense in wasting the life she had on moping over things she couldn’t undo. Jack wouldn’t have wanted it.

Her tongue ran over the smooth pearly surface of her teeth. She bowed her head, and felt a familiar sensation of peace.

There it was.

With a toothy, lopsided grin, Ashtivar Whiteoak gave herself to the shape of a bear, plodding toward the forest to curl and sleep.

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Bits and Peace

Ashtivar twirled the pale grey gull feather between her fingertips, reclined on a pile of palette of moth-eaten blankets.

Somewhere beyond her little ramshackle hut, past the reaching fingers of winter bare trees, the night was silent host to a thousand stars. There was something inside her that felt restless, that stirred and shifted and couldn’t quite feel at home with four walls about her… she felt a deep yearning to see the stars, to study the pale crescent moon- to feel the wind on her cheek and pebbly earth beneath the palms of her feet.

Before she realized she’d even decided to, the young woman was at the door, pushing past it impatiently and stepping out into the darkness, feather still in hand, features quiet and inquisitive as she lifted her head.

Her gaze searched the darkness, straining between branches. It didn’t take long to give herself to feathers and talons, the gull feather forgotten on the ground as her tall human form shivered and fell away. Dark feathers prickled at her skin, and a brief tension prickled at her bones before she felt the tell-tale pop of things settling into place. She shuffled on her talons, flapping steel grey wings to clumsily hop to her fence, then springing out into the darkness.

There was freedom here, even as she strained to catch the air, as her wings buffeted the wind and her neck lifted, wheeling and swerving until a current of wind captured her, easing the struggle. She barely realized she’d passed the tree-line, could only feel the rightness of her form and shape, of purpose and intention.

The clarity of her human form seemed to fade as she rose, higher and higher- she could recall, distinctly, the words and the facts, but it was difficult to find them important now that she was aloft. The moon’s slender crescent drew her, and she spread herself from wingtip to wingtip, reveling.

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Different Voices

((An experiment.))

Part One

She focused in silence on the placement of her feet, the careful splay of her toes in the soft-soled sandles as unaccustomed muscles worked uncertainly, gauging the stability of the slab of shale she balanced on. Her lips were thin with concentration, a robed arm lifting to counterbalance before shifting her weight to her foot, drawing a shallow breath-

I am a shadow, the barest ripple beneath the still waters. I am small. I am unnoticed in the dark.

Her foot planted, balancing precariously; the stone felt wobbly, and, moving as precisely as she could, her second foot joined the first in a wide stance, good arm moving to one side. Her other arm rested limply at her side, as if unuseable- she couldn’t bring herself to touch it, to shift it. Couldn’t bear to acknowledge it was a part of her, the tainted limb that ended with a crude, terrible hook.

Still, she was unpracticed. The stone shifted, beginning to slide with a cacaphony of sound as it teetered from its precariously position. A cadre of pebbles and small rocks beneath her began to shift, the dry smell of dust rising even as shale shrieked in the darkness. The small woman clenched her teeth and scrambled with little dignity to try to find stable ground, but her uncertain balance had set off a rockslide that was already encompassing far more than her simple stone.

As long-wrought balances and precarious barriers crashed and fell, she struggled to maintain her upright positioning, no longer careful in her footing- simply scrambling to evade the rockslide. Her sharp hazel eyes caught glance of an ancient tree’s exposed roots and she made a desperate lunge, half running the hill as it shifted sickeningly beneath her.

Her soft fingers, blistered in places from new training, wrapped about the gritty, dirty root and she clung to it, body contorting and twisting as she tried to find a way out of the mess she’d created. The roots of the tree seemed strong enough, deep enough to sustain her weight…

As quickly as it had begun, the shifting rock slowed and settled, rising dust thick in the air. Her heart thundered in her chest, fear making her throat tight. Panic rose in her gullet but she choked it back savagely, jaw gritting and eyes squeezing shut. The shale beneath her was uncertain, the earth above half crumbling rock and eroded, hard packed earth. Below was the newly rearranged shoreline.

It would be easy, you know.

The whisper was quiet, sinuous- a memory of a toneless voice that put cold fear in her belly and sent shudders down her spine.

You are nothing. You wouldn’t be missed.

The night air seemed colder against her cheek, now, the stars more ominous as she lifted her gaze in silent pleading. The taste of thick, choking dust and bitter ocean was heavy on her tongue. Far below, the tide greedily swayed and murmured, creeping and receding in turns.

It hurt, to hold the root so tightly with her blistered, soft fingers. She could feel the tree’s strength digging into her skin.

Weak and soft. You could have been strong.

But she was stronger now than she had been yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that.

She closed her eyes a moment more, shuddering as she uncertainly began to climb astride a new rock. Her limbs felt as if all the strength in them had drained, as if her bones had melted and all that was left were brittle pillars of charcoal, threatening to snap at any moment and lead her to her death.

Slowly, haltingly, she let go of the root, only to shift her grip to a new one. It was painstaking, but, with tiny, careful steps, she began to climb the cliff’s face. Cold sweat beaded her brow.

I don’t listen to whispers and lies. I will be a shadow, invisible- but I will not vanish at the light’s first touch. I am here. I am something. And memories of monsters in the dark cannot take that away from me.

The progress was slow. Pain-staking.

But by the end of the night, Marlbane emerged, filthy and shaken, from the cliff’s edge.

In the moonless night, she turned to stare over the edge, hand gripping the bark of the tree whose roots had saved her. A very faint, but definite, smile curved over her lips. Then pulled a bit wider. Her breathing grew staggered and she began to laugh- a strange sound, a rough and wild and unfamiliar thing. Sinking to her knees, legs suddenly unable or unwilling to hold her upright any longer, she threw back her head and let loose a cacaphony of sound into the cold night air, arm looping about her middle, tears making the world dance and quake in her view.

I am something. I am someone. I live.

Part 2

It was a small, withered looking garden, with scraggly, stubby plants sprouting from thin, gravelly earth, yet the woman looked on it with with a proudly lifted chin and a sense of deep accomplishment.

She swaggered with a long stride, large hands planted on leathered hips as she strutted her meager plot. Eyes sparrow-bright, she paused at a likely looking patch of leaves and abruptly dropped to a squat, studying the plant intently.

Unflinching, her fingertips moved to stroke the thick stalk, a faint green glow encompassing her digit as she muttered beneath her breath, voice low and rumbling. Her words were barely audible, crooned gently and unintelligible- her curious golden brown eyes slowly shutting as she savored the nearness of green life. The leaves shivered, as if stirred by a breeze, but it was a quiet morning in the small, protected grove; the stocky growth around her remained still.

The woman’s eyes opened after a moment, a silly, pleased smile on her lips.

“At’ll do ye, m’thinkin’…”

With a sudden, savage yank, the plant was ripped from the earth, still twisting with growth and life- and a yield of small, pebbly potatoes was jerked from the loosely packed soil.

The druid crowed aloud, shaking her spoils with a victorious whoop, and rose to caper from her garden into the shabby, derelict cabin she’d called home for some months. Her voice was a loud, braying sing-song, tuneless and unenjoyable, but she didn’t seem to mind her own growling disharmony as she did a mad little jig through the door.

“M’gonnae eat some ‘taters an’ m’gonnae cook ’em good! I grewed m’some po-tate-ers an’ m’gonnae smash ’em intae foods!”

There was no reason or cadence to the spontaneous tune. She threw back her head and cackled delightedly, sounding for all the world like the harvest witch she purported to be, shaking her potatoes wildly and scattering dirt about the cabin- not that she noticed. The little ramshackle home was far from clean or orderly to begin with. The dirt just added to the layers and layers already present.

She set about rinsing them, enthusiastically pumping the hand pump to spill yellowing water into a slightly rusted washbasin. More water was poured into a pot, the hand pump groaning in feeble protest against her continued sing-songing and jigging.

“… an’ m’gonnae make m’taters tha’ I grew m’very self! ‘Cos I’mma best o’ witches an’ witches dinnae get stitches, ah grew ’em m’self an’ m’gonnae eat ’em oop! Baawwwww yis! Taters taters, tasty tubers an’ I’mma boil EM oop!!”

Impatiently, she watched the pot, staring intently into the water as tiny bubbles streamed from the bottom, the water heating slowly, painstakingly slowly…

Her staring didn’t last as she abruptly whooped with laughter and leapt backwards, shuffle-jigging in the small makeshift living room she occupied.

Bits of broken armor and rusty weaponry adorned her walls, brightly colored and whimsical to look at. The furniture was dusty, some of it broken, but it was piled up to one side, as if an attempt to rearrange it all had been abandonned midway through. Her leather boots scuffled and shuffled against the gritty, worn wood boards as she wiggled and twirled over to a chair with a pair of antlers dangling from its spine.

The antlers, cunningly attached to a band of stiff leather, were summarily dropped on her head as she continued to flail and dance about her living space, apparently over the moon over her gardening prowess.

Then again, growing a garden in the dead of winter was, perhaps, something worth crowing about.

It hadn’t taken much poking. Her granmere ha dwarned her against trifling with the Balance overmuch. The winter was unseasonably warm, the frosts barely nipping anything, and she’d only leant the plants a bit of encouragement, egging them on to grow faster, to be fortified against the cold and produce heartily. A green thumb, as it were. It wasn’t as if she was sprouting an orange tree and demanding fruit the next day while snow fell, after all- nothing that Granmere would get shouty about!

As she attempting- and failed magnificently- at a cheerful somersault, the antlers clattered to the floor and she twisted back straight to place them with great dignity on the spine of the chair once more. Her weathered fingertips traced the silky horn, a more reserved smile curving her lips.

That gobbo had it comin’.

The thought was simultaneously her own- and yet, not her own. Something wild shifted within her, and the obnoxiously loud, cheerful woman fell silent for a moment.

“… ye didnae ‘ave ter kill ‘im though.” She grumbled lightly, moving toward the window to peer out the dusty panes.

Tish tosh. He was a threat and you enjoyed it just as much as I did. It’s not as if we ate him… though I could go for something rich and bloody right now.

The woman’s cheerful smile vanished entirely, leathered foot stomping on the floor. “OH NO YE DINNAE, Y’MANGY CUR! I grew them potaters fair an’ square an’ I ain’ wastin’ ’em jes cos ye get all peckish and blood-thirsty inna mornin’, y’jest shut yer trap an’ dinnae say another word!”

Images of running deer flickered over her mind’s eye. She could feel her mouth growing moist, stomach growling.

Potatoes smell like dirt. Deer, on the other hand…

“Fock ye an’ yer deer, s’wasteful ter hunt th’region dry an’ we’re eatin’ taters fer brekkist or m’name’s not Maggie!”

You introduce yourself as Ashtivar, do you not…?

“S’cos I am Ashtivar ye– HOY! Dinnae try tha’ bloody feral trickery on me, y’lousy good fer nothin’ layabout! We’re eatin’ taters fer brekky an’ tha’s th’last of it, y’hear me?!”

Her voice was loud in the morning quiet. Not that there was anyone there to hear it but herself, and she didn’t seem to mind how very loud she was.

Deeeeeer…

“That’s bloody IT! I’mma take a fockin’ fork an’ scrape it onna pan and we’re both gonnae listen ter the sound it makes until y’shut yer damn face y’blood thirsty mongrel!”

She marched to the cupboard and rummaged a bit before finding a tin pan and a slightly bend fork. With a wince, she turned her head away and began to trail the tines down the surface of the pan, eliciting a terrible squeal as she applied unnecessary force to the task.

It didn’t take long for the quiet, persistant visions of deer- frolicking, meat-rich, edible deer!- to stop cavorting through her head. The wilderness in her mind receded; her more feral thoughts fell silent, for the time.

Shaking her head and grumbling, the thick-waisted woman turned her attention to the task of draining the water from her potatoes.

“… fock’n bloody Curse, blood-thirsty mongrel… wot kind’o person argues wi’ herself alla damn time? Folk’d think m’crazy if they knew…”

Part 3

He could feel his breath growing short and labored, sense the sudden inability of his lungs to take in sufficient air, could hear his pulse echoing erratically and his legs giving way. It should have concerned him, but all he felt was resignation as he crumpled to the ground, robes too-heavy on his skin as the world danced and faded into darkness.

It was the rain that woke him. Big, heavy drops, falling warm against his cheek, slowly rolling down the hollows of his face to navigate the tidily kept beard at his chin. The earth beneath his ear was cold and damp, the smell rich and heady. It made him smile, just a bit, though the muscles of his face felt stiff and unsure. Time. Do I have enough time…?

He was lucky, and he knew it.

Beyond the obvious dangers of collapsing on the weaving paths through the jungles of Stranglethorn, he’d lived years past what the surgeons had said. Sameth had no intention of dying just yet. There was still too much to be done.

He could still feel his arms, his legs- his body responded, if sluggishly, if unwilling. But unwilling was better than unable. He still had time left.

It took too long, for his limbs to reawaken, for the pins and needles to recede enough to allow motion. The stale scent of weakness, of something sick and dying, had attracted attention, as he had known it would. It took too long, for him to find strength in his spindly fingertips, for his fists to close about the staff.

He didn’t have time to rise and fight. Didn’t have time to drive away the attacker before the fight could begin, was simply too infirm to rise to a stand and prove his strength.

The small, stealthfully stalking beast flung herself on him from a cluster of leaves, her lithe form rippling as she pounced, yellow toothed maw opening to seize the priest by the neck, to overcome him by force and strangle the breath from his body, spill his soft blood into the earth–

His body lacked strength, still recovering – slowly, too slowly – from the long-battled curse that was systematically destroying him. He knew he didn’t have enough time left.

But what he lacked in strength he made up for in cleverness and mental reflex. A golden bright burst of Holy light shuddered from his form at a hoarse shout, the Light blinding him and startling his attacker. Heavy paws struck him down from where he had risen to almost a crouch; his frail form fell forward again, chin striking dirt, but the sudden emergence of loud noises and too-bright light had sufficiently startled the cat.

Tigers, even in Stranglethorn, preferred to hunt that which could not fight back. He wouldn’t have long to rest here, in the dirt. But it would be enough.

It would have to be enough. He didn’t have time to die.

Not yet.

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