After being sick for nearly a month, I've had a lot of time to work on this story, and I am now several chapters ahead. Expect to see more posts in the next few days.
A song filled the dread swamp. It was simple, lyrical, and clean: one voice, without accompaniment. The melody was impossibly out of place in this land of hanging moss, rotting logs, and steaming bogs.
Neana followed the song back to camp. She landed in a flurry of translucent feathers and rattling armor. Razze and Chandra stared at her with unreadable faces. Sam continued singing: with her eyes closed and her hands clasped behind her back, she looked like a child at choir.
A flat, conical pile of stones separated Neana from the rest of the group. It was waist high, and most of its stones were a dull, grimy grey color, and showed the marks of ancient scrollwork. One oval stone appeared to be half of a broken statue's face.
Sam ended the song, holding on to the last note as long as she could, until it faded away to silence. When she opened her eyes, she didn't seem surprised, or pleased, to see Neana. "You're back."
"Yes," Neana said. She avoided Sam's eyes.
"Did you get what you wanted?"
Neana avoided the question as well. She hadn't. She'd ranged the jungle for hours, on the ground and through the air, and she had only found four more of the little lizardfolk. Three had been running in a pack through one of the rare open breaks in this gods forsaken swamp, and she had fallen upon them like a shrieking fury. The fourth had been hiding in a hollowed log, but Neana had smelled the stench of the alchemical poisons that it carried with it. She'd dispatched all four of them with brutal efficiency, but no real joy. Their deaths didn't satisfy. This wasn't the joyful battle rage that sustained her through a good fight. This was a dull black hate, like a weight in her chest. She knew that it was self-loathing as much as anything. They had been small, weak, spiteful deaths, and what did it say about her that she had caused them?
The others were staring at her. She felt, or imagined she felt, revulsion rolling off of them. The black loathing swelled within her, and she almost fancied that the others could see it. Neana said, "So you built a cairn."
"We found some fallen columns just a short way to the west." Razze wiped his forehead with the back of one arm. His face was grimy and soot-marked and, she noticed for the first time, beads of sweat were rolling down his neck and chest. "Some kind of old Dhakaani outpost. We dragged the stonework over here to cover the grave." He shrugged. "It seemed like the right thing to do."
It took all night," Chandra added. She was almost as grimy as Razze, and looked twice as exhausted. There was no mistaking the disdain she directed at Neana.
Neana's temper flared, and then died. She couldn't hate the mind-witch for being right. She should have stayed for the burial. "Did I miss… Did you give him the rites?"
Sam sighed. "We're none of us priests, so we just tried to wing it. We said all the words we could think of. I don't even know what religion he was."
"He was druidic," Razze offered. "He told me, once. He belonged to one of the old nature spirit cults. He said that most of House Tharashk follows the really old ways, and he converted for his wife."
"Oh. Well, we couldn't give him a proper druid funeral, because didn't know what that was. So we read him the Committal for a burial at sea, just like he was a sailor. I think he might have liked that."
Neana nodded dumbly. The four of them looked down at the small, mute little pile of stones. It was still wrong. Neana closed her eyes and tried to remember. Scraps of her past drifted behind her eyes, most of them short and hot and angry. One of her mentors at the university had been a goblin, a battle mage, and he had spoken of this once. Goblins weren't big on religion, but they had their own ways. The Dhakaani Empire had been dead for five thousand years, but every goblin remembered some of its rites.
She looked down at her gauntlets, which were still stained with blood. She'd choked that last lizardfolk in her clenched, metal fists. She reached and touched the cairn, picking up the stone which held the imprint of a face. When she set it down, she left a bloody handprint.
"Every hobgoblin grave should be marked with the blood of an enemy," she said. "That's how it was for ten thousand years." She looked up at them, clear-eyed and angry. "And whatever else he was, he was a goblin, and a tough son of a bitch."
Sam and Chandra looked unsure, but Razze nodded. The gesture seemed to have eased something within him.
They stood around the grave for a time. No one seemed to want to do the thing that came next. Instead, Razze asked, in a still, almost childlike voice, "What do you think happens to you when you die?"
"You go to Dolurrh, the land of the dead," Neana said automatically. It was known. People had come back from that grey place, and told others what they had seen. There were caverns, and grey mists, and the wandering shades of the dead.
"Yeah, but after that. What happens to the dead?"
'Nothing happens," Sam said. In her exhaustion, she looked as if she had aged ten years. Her blank eyes were sunken and the skin around them was the same dark, violet shade as a bruise. "Your soul goes to Dolurrh, and then it rots. First your memories go, and then the rest of you. You just fade away."
"You believe that?" Neana was amazed. Between the two of them, Sam had always been the fanciful, optimistic one.
"Sure. Dead is dead. There's nothing after." She pushe a lank strand of her hair out of her eyes. "Why, what do you believe?"
"I... My sect," Neana said, carefully avoiding naming one of the Dark Six, "believes that Dolurrh isn't a place, but a journey. The souls of the dead travel to Dolurrh, where they walk the caves, trying to find a path to freedom. And if you find your way through the grey caverns, or if one of the gods shows you the way, then on the other side is a paradise, where you will dwell forever in the favor of the gods."
Sam gave her a look that was unreadable. "Well I don't know if it's true, but I like that version better than the mine."
Chandra surprised them all by speaking up. "My people believe that life is a cycle. The world is a wheel, and history is divided up into ages, and in each age the same conflict plays out over and over, not just in this world, but in all worlds. When you die in one age, you don't cease to exist, but instead you go back into the eternal dream, only to be reborn when your time comes round again in the next age."
It was the longest single speech Chandra had ever offered up, and she gave it with an emotional force that was unusual in her. After a moment of silence, Neana said. "I think the druids believe something similar."
"I'd like to think that Victor will get another go round again," Sam said wistfully. "Him and all the other folks we've buried at sea."
And that was that. Sailors never mourned for long. They went their separate ways to gather their things. It was already well into morning. When she thought that no one was looking, Sam gave Neana a brief hug, which she returned gratefully. That dull black hate was still with her, but she was grinding it down, and she was thankful that Sam didn't seem to hold it against her.
"We have a problem," Sam whispered into her ear.
"Someone has to say something."
When they gathered together again, Sam was carrying a large sack in both hands. "This is Victor's pack. When we get back to some kind of civilization, I'd like to send it back o his family."
Razze nodded gratefully. Victor's death had hit him harder than the others. "Good idea."
Sam coughed diffidently. "There's something else." She reached into the pack and drew out a piece of parchment covered in florid script and decorated around the edges with scrollwork. It was the certificate of passage they'd purchased from House Tharashk. "I've read this thing backwards and forwards, but I can't find any wiggle room in it. It says that the bearers are entitled to safe passage through the lands claimed by the Cold Sun Federation of the… I can't pronounce that word, but I assume it's the lizardfolk word for lizardfolk… People, as long as they are accompanied by a proper guide. Well, we no longer have a guide. And that means our lives aren't worth a bent copper to the Cold Sun tribes anymore."
Neana nodded. She had been expecting this. "How long did Victor say it would be until we passed into Cold Sun territory?"
"He didn't know. One, maybe two days. He said by all rights we ought to have been in their territory already."
"Maybe we can explain what happened," Razze said, although he didn't sound as if he believed it.
Neana snorted. "We've been attacked how many times already? Did any of the other tribes bother to ask what we were doing here?" She shook her head. "We'll have to slaughter our way through half of Qbarra to reach those old ruins." She didn't sound as if she minded.
Sam looked sick. "We'd never make it. I've seen maps of Qbarra. The Cold Sun tribe's territories are huge. The people back in Newthrone just pretend to be in charge of Qbarra: it's the Cold Sun tribe that really controls it. We wouldn't last a week here if they turned against us."
"So what?" Razze asked. "We turn back now? We'll never be able to fetch another guide and make it to the rendezvous point in time. The ships will sail without us."
"There is another way," Sam said hesitantly. "But you're not going to like it." She reached into Victor's pack and pulled out one of his spare shirts.
"Oh," Neana said dully. Chandra looked from the shirt to the changeling, and her eyes narrowed.
"They're expecting a Tharashk guide. Well, I can give them a Tharashk guide." As she spoke, she shrank in size, and her skin changed from pale grey to a ruddy orange. Bristly whiskers sprouted from her cheeks and chin. Her muscles bulged and widened as she became heavyset and squat. In only a moment, Victor stood before them, in the flesh.
They stared at the figure.
"This feels sick," Razze said.
"Can you really do this?" Chandra asked.
Victor cocked his head. The face, the expression, and the stance were perfect. "Can I get you through this jungle?" Even the voice was perfect. "Aye, I can do that." With some difficulty, he peeled back the sleeve of his silk shirt; the only place where the illusion didn't match was that Sam's clothes had been tailored for someone much taller and thinner. His arm was covered in patterns of interlocking blue whorls. As far as Neana could tell, they were perfect as well. "See these tattoos? That's all the mark of passage we'll ever need."
"This feels sick," Razzed repeated. There was dull, throbbing anger in his voice. Neana could relate.
There was a blur, uncomfortable to watch, and Sam stood before them again. "You think I don't know that?" She was weeping. Tears spilled down pallid grey cheeks. "You think I like stealing the face of a dead man? His body's not even cold. I hate doing this kind of thing." She wiped her eyes and glared at the three of them. "Give me a better idea. I'm begging you."
Razze shook his head and looked away. No one else spoke against her.
Chandra spoke into the uncomfortable silence. "There is a flaw in your plan," she said.
"What is it?"
"I am sure that you can pass for Victor. You may even be able to fool people who have known him for a long time. But you cannot do everything that Victor can do."
"What language do the Cold Sun tribes speak?"
Sam blinked back the tears. "Aw, shit. You're right."
Neana considered. "The old maps that Victor had were written in a form of Draconic. That's the language of magic, and of dragons. Most of the reptilian races claim to be descended from dragons along ancient lineages, and they speak some dialect of the language."
"And I don't speak it," Sam said. "Except for a few words of gutter kobold, maybe. But Victor would be able to speak it fluently. Chandra's right, we can't pull this off." She sounded relieved.
"I can speak Draconic," Neana said hesitantly. "Well, high draconic. That's the language most old magic tomes are written in. I learned it at university. But I don't think we have enough time for me to teach it to you."
Chandra steepled her fingers. "Ah. There may be a way for you to teach her in only a few minutes."
Chandra told them.
"No," Neana said.
"You want to steal my memories?" Sam exclaimed, appalled.
"Not take them," Chandra assured her. "I would only modify them slightly. And I would give you knowledge in return."
"No," Neana said.
"You would not lose anything in the process, Neana. I would merely copy the knowledge of how to speak a language from your mind and insert it in Sam's."
"But I'm going to lose something," Sam said. "Can't you just… slip the memories into my head? Without me losing anything?"
Chandra shook her head. "For one kind of knowledge to be gained, another must be lost."
"Well, can't you just take my memories of all my ex-boyfriends, or something?" Sam asked wistfully. "I've got a ton of those I wouldn't mind losing."
"No, I'm sorry. I must put the knowledge into a part of your mind that you use regularly, and that entails sacrifice."
"Damn," Sam sighed. "Well, I always said I ought to learn more languages."
The two women looked at Neana. She stared back belligerently. Finally, she broke. "All right. Fine. If it will save our lives, you can have a peek inside my head." She gritted her teeth. "But I better not lose anything."
Chandra stepped between the two women and pressed a palm to each of their foreheads. "Relax. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath, and let it out slowly," she said. "Neana, I need you to recall the circumstances under which you learned Draconic. If it was in a classroom setting, then remember the details of that classroom: the teacher's voice, other students' faces, and the feel of your textbook's cover. Can you find those memories?"
Neana sighed. "Magister Quintain's room. Of course." She felt a tickling sensation, as if she had an itch on the inside of her skin.
Chandra's voice was droning, and eerily hypnotic. "And Sam, I will need you to recall a time in your life that you will not regret forgetting. The memories may return in time, if they were important enough to you, but for now they will be overwritten with others, so choose wisely. Do you know what you wish to forget?"
"Yes," Sam sighed.
"Then I need you to embrace those memories. Picture them clearly in your mind. Relive them as vividly as possible, so that they will be easy for me to find. Can you do that?"
"Yes. Hey, that tickles!"
"Good. Now it only remains for me to—"
Scabs scratched at the skin on the back of his neck, and he didn't even notice when his claws came away bloody. They called him Scabs because he had scabs, and because street people weren't that clever at naming stuff. He didn't mind the name anymore; it suited him.
People in the crowd shied away from Scabs as he passed by. Probably it was because of the scabs, but maybe it was also because of the way he hunched over in his oversized, filthy cloak, which could hide any number of embarrassing body parasites. Or maybe it was because he was a shifter; a beast-man, whose great, great grandfather had been a werewolf and who still had the fangs and body hair to show for it. People feared shifters. Scabs didn't mind too much. He wasn't exactly a people person.
Normally he wouldn't even be here. Scabs preferred to walk the streets at night, when the darkness suited his cat-like eyes and when there were good pickings to be had if you knew where to look: people threw out all kinds of tasty and valuable things in their garbage. The darkness and the loneliness didn't bother him. He avoided crowds as much as possible. But today there was something he needed to do. He had to find the fat man.
He knew that the fat man would visit the bank, so he loitered near the baker's shop across the street for an hour, hoping to codge a few stale pastries or something. But the baker chased him away, so he went and stood outside the chandler's shop. He saw a lot of fat men go in and out of the bank, but none of them were the Fat Man. The lady had been very specific about which fat man he was to find, and what he was to do when he found him.
It took another hour before he spotted the fat man. He was everything they'd made him out to be: enormous in girth, stuffed into rich silk clothes that must have fit better a good fifty pounds ago, with half a head of hair and little piggy eyes looking out over pudgy cheeks. The eyes looked smart, though. A big man walked on either side of him, flanking and protecting him: one was big and tall and bald, the other was big and broad and dwarven. Bodyguards.
Scabs had to do this a very particular way. The lady had ben very clear on that. He let the fat man go in the bank and waited for him to come out. He waited a long time. Scabs diverted himself by finding and eating a half-devoured chicken leg that someone had thrown to a dog. He was still sucking gristle off the knob of bone when the fat man came back out of the bank with his two guards. Scabs dropped the bone and scurried after them.
They never saw him. People were good at not seeing Scabs. It was easy to pretend that he didn't exist. As he moved through the crowd, it made a path for him as people turned aside in distaste. He followed the fat man in this way for three blocks, until they came to Fleetwater Street. Fleetwater would be a good place to do it. Scabs made sure that the fat man had fully entered Fleetwater, and that he wasn't going to turn up Breakspear Street. Then Scabs ducked into an alleyway. As soon as he was out of sight of the crowd, he ran as fast as he could. The alley was cluttered with barrels and crates, which he leapt over without breaking stride. He might not be a people person, but Scabs was fast. He emerged from the end of the alleyway gasping and out of breath but, he was glad to see, he was now far ahead of the fat man.
Now to do the thing. He began moving towards the fat man. If Scabs had known what the word "nonchalant" meant he would have called his walk nonchalant. When he was close enough to the Fat Man to be noticed, he began to beg passersby. "Please sir, spare a copper? Please ma'am, could I have a coin?" He fastened his eyes on the fat man. "You sir! Spare a coin for an old veteran."
The fat man's eyes narrowed. "Get away from me."
"I fought in the war, sir. To protect the homeland, sir." He put a grubby claw to the place on his horrible old cloak that presumably covered his heart, and began to croon, "Hail to thee, Cyre, hail to thee, the homeland of my heart…"
"Get away, I said! Filthy beggar." The fat man motioned his bodyguards. The big human guard stepped forward and brought one heavy hand down on Scabs's shoulder. It knocked the little shifter off balance. Scabs stumbled and fell, diving head first into the fat man's prodigious gut. The fat man screamed and pushed him away, and Scabs went sprawling in the dust.
"Please, sir, don't kick me, sir!" Scabs scrambled away on all fours. He was good at scrambling.
Unfortunately, the fat man was also good at thinking. Like any longtime citizen of the bustling Cyran capital of Metrol who has collided with a stranger in the street, his hands immediately and unthinkingly went to pat his pockets. Which were, sadly, now quite empty.
"Thief!" He shouted, his pudgy jowls trembling in rage. His bodyguards began to lumber into action. Scabs was already a prudent distance away, but the foul little shifter was having to fight the crowd to make progress. "Thief! Thief!" the fat man shouted, as Scabs reached the intersection of Fleetwater and Breakspear.
When Scabs turned the corner of Fleetwater and Breakspear, briefly passing out of sight of the fat man, he shrugged off his heavy cloak and promptly ceased to exist.
If the bookies at the Red Dog racetrack down the street from the Fleetwater ditch had been of a notion to lay bets to the nature of what lurked beneath Scabs impossibly filthy old cloak, probably the last thing on their list would have been a gold brocaded silk gown. This was, nevertheless, precisely what the cloak had concealed.
Catherine d'Orien straightened her back with a pop and lifted the hem of her silk gown as she stepped daintily away from the pile of rags and fleas lying in the intersection. She bore no resemblance whatsoever to the filthy shifter. After stowing a small leatherbound book and a small pouch of coins in her fashionably embroidered purse, she put one hand to her heaving bosom, threw back her perfectly coifed head, pointed in a random direction into the crowd, and shrieked, "Stop! Thief!" To her delight she saw a face in the crowd blanch and turn away, scurrying away from her accusing finger. That had been unforeseen. She'd never expected to find another actual pickpocket in the crowd.
The larger of the two bodyguards rounded the corner, almost colliding with her. On impulse she took advantage of his stumble by stepping forward quickly, so that he dived headfirst into her décolletage. "My word," she gasped.
"Sorry, ma'am!" The bodyguard removed his blushing face from between her breasts. When he saw the curling lines of a Dragonmark disappearing into her cleavage, his blush deepened. The Dragonmarked were only a step below nobility. "My deepest apologies," he muttered.
"Thief!" She shrieked, pointing at the startled thief's fleeing back. "That man stole my purse," she shouted, despite the fact that she was still obviously holding it.
"Yes, ma'am! I'm on it." With renewed purpose, the bodyguard set off after him. He was followed a few moments later by the jiggling bulk of the fat man and his heavyset dwarven bodyguard.
Catherine d'Orien watched them go with a secretive smile on her lips. She stepped backwards, into the shadowy entrance of the Two Street tavern that straddled the corner of Fleetwater and Breakspear. By the time sat down at a table in one of the tavern's private rooms, the Dragonmark was gone, her skin had darkened three shades, and her hair had gone from blonde to brunette. She removed the journal from her purse and began to peruse it with some satisfaction. It was written in a cipher, of course, but not a very good one. She held in her hands the private ledger of the second richest wine merchant in all of Cyre.
Sam smiled. Her father would be so proud of her.
Neana blinked. What the hell had that been? She was lying on the ground, cradling her head in both hands. Somewhere beyond her, she heard Sam cursing.
The changeling was also sprawled flat on her ass. "Gods in the sky, what the hell was that?" She said this in perfect Draconic. "It feels like my head is trying to come off."
"My apologies," Chandra said, kneeling between the two women. She was clutching her temples. "I have been taught how to perform that operation, but I have never actually attempted it. There may have been some mental slippage."
"Mental slippage?" Neana croaked. It felt like heavy, padded hammers were beating against the insides of her skull.
"Some additional memories may have crossed the threshold."
"Is that why I remember losing my virginity to a chubby girl named Sarah in the fourth form at university?" Sam asked. "Because I'm pretty sure that never actually happened." Unfortunately, she said this in the common tongue.
Two pairs of eyes rotated to stare at Neana. Razze coughed into the silence..
Neana turned scarlet. She let her head fall back to the soft swamp grass. "Her name was Sabra," Neana said. "And she wasn't that chubby."
"Sorry," Sam said.
"Nice girl. A bit full bodied, that's all." Neana covered her face. "One day! I'd like to get through one day in the jungle without being mortally embarrassed, or covered in gore, or both."
"Just one day."
"Well, at least you got the language. Let's just hope it's enough."
Neana's head was still reeling. She felt other fragments of memory come unbidden into her mind: a dozen people that she'd never even seen, let alone been. It was nothing like what she would have expected. She found herself staring at Sam as the changeling gathered Victor's clothes and prepared to change. They hadn't been memories of a woman pretending to be other people, they had been the memories of other people that just happened to be contained within the same body. Scabs had felt like a real individual, with real memories and a complete past, right up until the point where he became Catherine.
She'd always assumed that Sam had been an actress, playing diverse parts. Neana had some experience with actresses, having slept with a couple, and this was deeper than that. Sam hadn't been playing a part, she had been transforming herself completely. For the first time she realized that changelings – that Sam – might not be sane in the conventional sense.
"Well that makes two of us," she muttered.