It was easier for Michaela to explore Primera Forest as a wolf; her sense of smell was more acute in her monster form, and so she trotted along, nose to the ground, tracking the raccoon. Its scent trail led her around the lake to the north, through clearings and trees. Twice she was drawn off-course by the scent of the strange, monster-spawning lights—a yellow one and a blue one this time—but the monsters that came from them simply ignored her, so she let them be.
The raccoon's scent trail ended at the lake, and Michaela sat in the grass, confused. Had it swum across? Should she follow?
She glanced around. There were two statues nearby, one orange and shaped something like an upright figure facing north, and the other a gray pole with a sort of head on top, complete with flowers for hair and a face pointed to the east. Between the statues, there was a square slab of rock. There was something written on the rock; Michaela went to take a closer look.
"When the faces see each other, the doors will open," read the writing on the rock.
What does that mean…? Michaela wondered. She looked up at the statues. They did have faces, a more obvious one on the gray statue and white dots on the front of the orange statue that were something like eyes and a smile. She transformed back into her human form and took hold of the orange statue's arm, tugging on it. The statue haltingly rotated towards her, and she pulled it around so it faced the gray statue. Then she did the same to the gray statue, reorienting it so that it faced the orange one.
Nothing happened. Michaela looked down at the stone slab.
"The faces see each other," she said. "What else do I have to do?"
There was no answer from the rock. Michaela rubbed her eyes, frustrated. Nothing was ever simple, especially cryptic messages. She'd gotten the faces to see each other…
…unless there are other faces.
Michaela slowly lowered her hands and looked out across the lake. She could just make out the opposite shore, and standing there…were two large shapes, one orange and one gray.
Michaela turned the statues again, this time making them look out across the lake.
A few minutes later, the golden wolf came to a halt on the other side of the lake. There were indeed two more statues there, identical to the ones she'd seen before, and another stone slab between them, with the same inscription. Michaela worked quickly to turn the statues, making them face their counterparts on the opposite shore. As she slid the final statue into place, the ground trembled beneath her feet, and the stone slab fell away.
So that's the door! Michaela thought with a grin. A trapdoor.
She approached the edge of the entrance and saw a stone staircase leading downwards.
"This raccoon has got a heck of a hiding place…" Michaela muttered as she started down the stairs into the darkness. Maybe the ruins had been there before, and the raccoon had just moved in recently—
Her foot suddenly came down on air, and she grabbed a nearby stone pillar, managing to keep her balance. She held on to the stone as her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the underground cavern. The walkway dropped away abruptly before her, the pillar she held the sole remnant of what once had been a bridge. Several yards in front of her there was a wide island of gray stone, and she could see stairs leading up to the surface from the island, but between her and there was nothing but dark water.
I can't jump that far, Michaela thought. At least this isn't the time to see if I can; there's no way to climb back up if I miss. I should check the other side.
But a run back through the forest proved fruitless; although the trapdoor on the northern end of the lake had also opened, the bridge at that side was also broken.
"This is the day of frustrations," Michaela said aloud. "Write it on the calendar. Or in the diary."
She hadn't actually written anything in the diary that Shara had given her that first day she'd arrived in town as a human, but if any day was a tale worth writing down, it was this one. First she'd had to deal with Raven's stubbornness, and run the weapon shop to boot. Then she'd been sent off to fight a battle she didn't see any reason for, with a slim hope that the battle might be avoided with a conversation, that is, if the raccoon understood Chipsqueek, and also that is if she ever found the creature she was supposed to battle after all the running through the forest, puzzling over cryptic messages, moving statues around, and now this broken bridge… How ironic it was that sweet Shara's birthday was the newly-dubbed Day of Frustrations, the longest day of the year…
Michaela turned and slowly walked back up the stairs and through the forest, back to the entrance. It was about lunchtime, judging from the height of the sun, and she was hungry from all the running around, so she picked an apple from a tree and bit into it.
A simple problem has a simple solution, she thought as she munched on the apple. Problem: I'm hungry. Solution: I eat something. Problem: The bridge is broken. Solution…
…fix the bridge.
Michaela stared at the red fruit in her hand for a moment. Simple problem, simple solution.
I don't know how to fix a bridge, she thought. But maybe I can find someone who can.
Who did she know who was good at making things? Gaius and Raven came to mind first, but Raven wasn't feeling well and Michaela didn't want to bother them. So who did that leave?
The answer came as she finished the apple. Daria. The artist. She even lived just outside Privera Forest! Michaela hadn't interacted with her much; she'd run into her on the street a few times and once in the bathhouse, but since any conversation with the enthusiastic elf inevitably turned to the subject of Michaela becoming Daria's assistant, Michaela preferred to avoid talking with her. But now she needed Daria's help.
Michaela quickly made the short walk to Daria's house, which stood between the entrance to the forest and the flower field. It was a small building surrounded by statues of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, each more eclectic than the one before it. Daria herself was standing outside of her house, adding white dots to one of the statues with a small paintbrush.
"Hello, Daria," Michaela greeted her. Engrossed in her artwork, the elf did not reply.
Michaela tried again. "You know those statues by the lake in Privera Forest?"
"Sure I do," said Daria, not looking away from her current project. "Touched them up myself. Those silly ancients had no taste in color; they're much more vibrant now, don't you agree?"
"Vibrant is the word…" Michaela muttered, looking at the white dots Daria was painting and thinking of the dots on the orange statues in the forest.
"I found a secret tunnel underneath," she continued, "but there's a broken bridge, so I can't get across. Do you think you could fix it?"
"A broken bridge?" Daria glanced at Michaela, one eyebrow raised. "How mundane. I'm sure I could fix it, but where's the art in that?" She began to wipe off her paintbrush with a piece of cloth.
"Come on, a great artist like you?" Michaela complimented her, trying to keep her attention. "I'm sure you can find something artistic to do with it."
Daria froze, staring at Michaela for several seconds. Then a huge, maniacal grin split her face.
"You're right!" she cried. "A great artist can make art out of anything!"
The elf hurried into her house, and the door slammed shut behind her. Michaela waited, and had just decided to knock on the door when it suddenly opened again. Daria came running out, her arms full of paints, brushes, and other art tools that Michaela had no name for.
"Leave it to me!" Daria called as she darted off into the forest. "I'll build you a bridge like you've never seen!"
"Hold on, wait up…!"
Michaela ran after Daria, but the elf was much swifter than a human, and Michaela didn't dare transform in front of her, even though the wolf could have kept pace. As Daria disappeared into the northern part of the forest, shouting about inspiration, Michaela slowed to a walk. She had had enough of running for one day.
There was, she noted, one good thing about travelling behind the exceedingly energetic elf: the forest's monsters kept well out of the way.
I bet they're more used to Daria than I am, Michaela thought as she spotted an elephant lurking safely out of the way of the path, especially if she's been in here often, graffitiing ancient statues.
Michaela finally reached the trapdoor. She heard the sounds of a happy clamor coming from below, and sat on the top step to wait. Better to keep out of the way.
"This! Is! Art!" Daria shouted, her voice echoing through the underground cavern and back up the stairs to Michaela. "Rainbow!"
And then, silence. Michaela stayed where she was, and soon she heard the quick staccato of Daria's returning footsteps. The elf came rushing up the stairs towards Michaela.
"It's finished!" she gleefully announced. "It's another masterpiece! A bridge like no other!"
Daria laughed merrily, jumped out of the trapdoor, and ran back off through the forest. Michaela stared after her for a few moments.
She's like a storm, Michaela thought, wondering if Shara and Daria's enthusiasm had ever come head-to-head, or worse, worked together—one would arrange your life and the other would decorate it, in a whirlwind of energetic generosity.
Michaela shook her head and went downstairs to see what the elf had made. Her eyes adjusted to the dark more quickly this time, and then she gaped. The bridge was brightly designed with spirals of every color of the rainbow and curved at the edges, a piece of modern art.
"Wow," Michaela muttered. "It's certainly a bridge like I've never seen, I'll give her that!"
She crossed the bridge to the gray stone island and approached the stairs. Light filtered down the steps from the surface.
A short climb later, Michaela entered a grassy area, completely enclosed by trees.
This is probably an island on the lake, she thought. She could hear the water flowing nearby, but the trees were too thick to see through.
At the other end of the clearing sat a small creature with red fur, a stripy tale, and a dark mask around its eyes: the raccoon.
"So you're the one who's been causing trouble?" Michaela said. "You look kind of cute, actually…"
The raccoon tilted its head to one side and chattered uncomprehendingly. Michaela didn't want to frighten it, but she didn't know if she could pronounce the chipsqueek language with human vocal chords, so she transformed into the wolf. The raccoon's eyes narrowed, but otherwise it did not react to her transformation.
"Hello," Michaela said in Chipsqueek, thinking hard back to that morning back in Ondorus's tent. "I speak, you understand?"
The raccoon was silent for a moment. "I understand," it finally replied, in perfect Chipsqueek.
Michaela grinned, relieved. "Humans not happy," she explained brokenly. "Not happy with you. You do things, bad things; humans not happy."
The raccoon frowned. "Humans not happy with me?" it asked.
Michaela nodded. The raccoon appeared pensive for a moment, and then it let out a high-pitched laugh and said something too fast and complicated for Michaela to understand.
"What?" she said, forgetting the Chipsqueek sound for the word.
It turned out it didn't matter.
"I say, I don't care," the raccoon said in humanoid speech in a screechy, grating voice. "Humans not happy? Ha! I have food, I have fun. I don't care!"
"Y-you don't…" Michaela stammered, startled by its sudden fluency. "But… But you're messing with their things, their lives!"
"Don't care, don't care!" the raccoon repeated, dropping to all fours and starting to walk around the clearing. "Don't care what humans want, don't care what you want. You, stinky beast. I know you, and I don't care."
"What do you mean, you know me?" Michaela asked, turning in a circle to keep the raccoon in front of her as it moved. "How do you know me?"
The raccoon sniffed the air.
"Know your stench," it hissed. "Stinky beast. Stink like birthplace prison, stink like gates. Smelled you, followed, escaped! But not free. Stinky beast chased me, hurt me. Not again!"
Suddenly, the raccoon shot forward and bit Michaela on the nose. She yelped and tried to shake it off, but its jaws were strong and its teeth dug painfully into her skin. Michaela quickly transformed, grabbed her swords, and slashed blindly. Her blades met flesh, and the raccoon leapt away with a short scream.
Michaela stumbled backwards, gingerly touching a hand to her face. Her nose was bleeding, but the cuts didn't seem too deep; the wolf's muzzle was larger and an easier target for the raccoon's teeth. Were wounds exclusive to each of her forms, or would injury affect her in both?
There wasn't time to wonder about that now. The raccoon heaved itself to its feet, licking the scratches on its belly.
"Not again," it snarled, glaring at Michaela with beady black eyes. "Not again. I am free!"
The raccoon drew itself up to its full height—and suddenly, its full height rivalled the treetops! Michaela gaped at the towering red monster as it roared and waved its paws in the air; those limbs were now armed with claws as long and sharp as her swords, and Michaela didn't even want to think about how powerful the raccoon's teeth were now. She raised her swords, and the raccoon pointed one slender, black claw at her. It screeched, and the trees around the clearing trembled. Leaves came flying at Michaela, and while she managed to bat some of them away with her blades, others sliced at her skin with razor edges. She covered her head with her arms, trying to protect her face.
From high above her came the raccoon's thunderous roar, and although she couldn't see it, she felt the winds off of its clawed hands as they slashed down towards her. At the last instant, she struck upwards, and the raccoon's paw impaled itself upon her swords. The raccoon screamed and jerked away, but Michaela held tightly to the hilts of her swords, which had stuck deep in the raccoon's flesh. She was pulled up with them. The raccoon's massive face leered down at her as it lifted its paw to its mouth. Michaela braced her feet against the raccoon's fingers and pulled with all her might. Her swords came free of the raccoon's paw, and as it screamed, Michaela leapt at its chest, crossing her swords in front of her. The tips of her blades touched the sides of the raccoon's neck, and as she dropped, she opened her arms.
The raccoon let out one short, choking wail as the blades severed its neck. Michaela closed her eyes, but the explosion of light was bright enough for her to see behind her eyelids as she hit the ground and rolled. She rolled right through the space where the raccoon had stood, but when she finally came to a halt on her feet and opened her eyes, she saw that the raccoon had disappeared, gone back to the Forest of Beginnings. Hopefully, it would stay there this time.
Michaela took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She sheathed her swords and checked herself for injuries; other than her nose and small cuts on her face and hands from the leaves, she was unharmed.
I guess a fight was unavoidable after all, she thought ruefully. I wish it had listened to me.
But what did it mean, it knew my stench?
Michaela ran the raccoon's words over in her head. While most of it made no sense to her, she could only conclude that she had fought the raccoon once before, or at least run into it, in her forgotten past.
A rustling sound drew her attention, and she turned to see that the foliage at the far end of the clearing had bent aside, revealing a path through the trees. Curious, she followed the path into another open space. For a moment, she stared. This area was just like the one behind the univir settlement back in the desert—same round shape, same short pedestal. The only differences were that the pedestal stood at the end of a walkway extending into a small pond, and the orb that sat upon it glowed pink and green, like the leaves and flowers of Spring.
Is this one here for me, too? Michaela wondered. Well, there's only one way to find out.
She walked across the pond and reached out to gently touch the orb's surface. As her fingers brushed the cool sphere, it flashed and rose into the air, just like the one before had. This time, Michaela was not surprised when it merged with her chest.
Droplets of sweat stung her eyes, and she quickly rubbed them away with the back of her fist, trying to keep sight of her opponent. The figure in front of her was hovering a few inches above the ground and clad in a long black cloak. There was a pale cloth mask over his face. The only visible part of his body were two skeletal hands, one of which held a sharp scythe with a silver blade. Michaela tried to calm her heavy breathing; she was tired, yes, but not finished.
The ghost shot forward, swinging its scythe at her. Michaela ducked and rolled, feeling the wind of the blade as it barely missed the top of her head. She got back to her feet and strengthened just enough to sheathe her swords before she transformed, and then she whirled around to face her opponent, snarling softly.
A low cackling came from behind the white mask, and the ghost raised a hand and shot a ball of dark energy at Michaela. She darted to the side, and the energy exploded harmlessly in the dirt behind her.
This time the ghost raised both of its hands, and a dark mist came from them, surrounding both it and Michaela. She couldn't see a thing, so she closed her eyes and waited. The instant she felt the air in front of her shift, she transformed again. The light from her transformation stunned the ghost, and as soon as she had two legs she had leapt up and locked them around the ghost's thin body, shoving it to the ground, her landing on top of it. Upon hitting the ground, the ghost flashed as well, and suddenly it was not a ghost but a young man with pallid skin and shaggy, black hair. Michaela crossed her swords over the boy's neck, touching the tips to his skin. He blinked up at her with dark green eyes, dazed from the impact.
"You're dead," Michaela whispered, with a hint of pride.
The boy licked his chapped lips.
"That's a matter of opinion," he muttered.
A smile flickered across Michaela's face. "Would you rather I call you undead?"
Someone clapped slowly, but Michaela did not move from her position over the boy.
"Today's round goes to Michaela," said a rasping voice. "Well fought, both of you. Release him."
Michaela followed the order, carefully withdrawing her blades and standing up. She extended a hand to the boy on the ground, and he took it, letting her pull him to his feet. They both turned and bowed to the red-armored goblin, their instructor, who was standing nearby.
"Thank you, Ardak," Michaela said.
The goblin nodded. "Go get cleaned up. Samaran, remember, you have the night shift tonight."
"Yes, Ardak," the boy replied.
The two young warriors began to walk towards the guardhouse.
"I've told you a thousand times, 'Cay," the boy complained, "ghosts aren't actually undead. Not ghost monsters, anyway."
Michaela laughed. "I know, Sam. I just say it to bug you."
Sam sighed and rolled his eyes. "It's not enough that you kick my butt on the training field every day?"
"Not every day!" Michaela protested. "I'm exhausted. If you hadn't transformed, you'd have had me for sure."
"Well, not everyone has a spell to help focus their rune energies," Sam pointed out, holding the guardhouse door open for her.
Michaela had to admit that her friend had a point. Sam had never met his father, and his mother was human; there had been no parent with magic to concentrate into a gem and activate Sam's monster blood. It had to be the specific parent; the spell they used was too user-specific. Without a spell to help him, Sam had less control over his transformations.
There were two bathroom stalls in the guardhouse, side-by-side. Michaela stepped into the one for girls. Near the ceiling was a bucket of water filled earlier that day; Michaela stripped off her sweaty clothes and pulled the rope attached to the bucket, pouring warm water onto her skin. Nearby, she heard Sam doing the same in his stall.
For a while, each washed themselves without speaking. Finally, Michaela broke the silence.
"Does it ever bother you, what we do? The fighting, I mean. Does it ever feel…wrong?"
"Fighting? ...Well, we're pretty good at it."
Michaela reset the bucket. "That's what bothers me," she said. "We're good at it. Sometimes I even find myself enjoying it. And sometimes, I think… Maybe they're right about us."
"Maybe who are right?"
"The people outside this town. The humans, the monsters. The ones who think that only pain and suffering can come from humans and monsters living together. We're perfect evidence that the mixture creates something that causes pain."
There was a long pause. Michaela pulled a towel down from a nearby hook and began to dry herself.
"…please tell me you don't really believe that," Sam finally replied. "Fighting's good for us. You've heard Gilda's lectures as often as I have; dual-form combat helps us vent energy from our rune imbalance. We'd better vent it instead let it build up. Besides, it keeps us fit, and we can use our abilities to protect the town. You like being a guard, right?"
"Of course I do! The whole town depends on us. It's an honor to protect them."
"There you have it, then! We use violence for good reasons. Just because we inherited the ability to cause pain from our mixed heritage doesn't mean that we inherently cause pain and suffering."
Michaela shrugged. "I guess so…"
"Besides," Sam chuckled, "can you honestly say you imagine Julia ever causing pain and suffering?"
Michaela had to laugh, too, at the idea. "No way. That's not her nature."
"Nor is it ours."
Michaela smiled and reached out to touch the thin wall between the stalls. "Thanks, Sam."
She felt him tap the wall twice in response. "Anytime and every time, 'Cay. Anytime and every time."
Sam… Michaela thought. I remember Sam. My friend. Half-monster, too. And my name…is Michaela! I guess I didn't forget my real name after all.
And I was a guard in a town… My home… Where is it?
But wrack her brains as she might, the location of the town eluded her.
I can't remember…but I know it exists! And if it exists, then I can find it. I'll find it.
There must be more of these orbs. I'll find them and get my memory back. Then I'll know what to do.
Michaela turned and strode determinedly back across the walkway and out of the clearing.
A.N.: Wow, it's been…exactly seven months since I've updated. If you're still with me after all this time, thanks a million! Have a cookie! I hope it's been worth the wait. (For the cookie, if not the chapter. Everybody wins.)