The Wings Take Shape – Part Thirteen

It’s time to slow down a little bit with The Wings Take Shape and drop some info on you all. The weekly serial novella is coming to a turning point today, and the mad dash to the end will begin next week!

If you’re new to the story, head to Part One and start from the beginning!

Last week on Wings, Stalker and Jon fought for dominance inside Jon’s Skinchanger body. He lost and Stalker faced off against what she considered the abomination that betrayed her and the other Totems. Sadie inherited the abilities of the cadshee when she killed him, and she used those powers to defend herself against Stalker. They fought until Sadie took Stalker into the sky and threatened to drop her, and only then did Stalker’s fear of heights and death overwhelm her desire for vengeance.

Jon asserted control once more and promised Stalker that they would figure this all out, and elected to stay in the form of the cougar for a while yet.

_____

The Wings Take Shape

Part Thirteen – Reparation

by Rick Cook Jr.

Jon and Stalker shared the cougar’s body as well as they could, but Stalker was twitchy with Sadie nearby, and Jon kept letting himself be distracted by Renee’s hand on his head.

They settled into Sadie’s burrow near the entrance. Marie kept everyone back while Sadie and Stalker had their conversations. Renee refused to be parted even though she couldn’t communicate with Jon, and Jon was glad for her.

“It’s hard to explain,” Sadie began, talking to Renee. “And perhaps Stalker would not like me to share all the details.”

We are a fallen race, abomination. Who cares if every fertile woman from here to the end of the woods knows about us?

“You don’t need to be rude. I’m not here to hurt you. I’m not the cadshee. What did you call him before?”

I did not. He is abomination.

“What’s she saying?” Renee asked.

“Patience, Captain.” Stalker growled low, but said nothing more. Jon nodded to Sadie.

Tell it all.

“Very well, Jon. It’s like this, Renee: the Totems were once akin to gods of these woods.”

Renee nodded. “So you’ve told us. They’re legends to most, but still real.”

“Perhaps I have underrepresented their strength and influence. If the foreign soldiers are any indication, their reach extended beyond the woods once upon a time, before even the cadshee’s memory.”

Stalker said, We were young when man first crawled out of trees and surprised us with speech.

“Yes,” Sadie went on, ignoring Stalker, “Around for a very long time.”

“What happened to them?”

“Their hubris and boredom.” Stalker bristled and Renee pulled her fingers back reflexively from the beast. Jon settled Stalker down and forced a purr to set Renee back at ease. Her hand found his head once more and he settled his head into her lap.

You are a lovesick cub, Stalker teased.

He ignored her.

Sadie went on after the brief interruption. “They grew bored of the humans’ worship, of the mundane existence of the woods. And so they began to experiment. They are responsible for what you call your enhanced abilities.”

“No way!” Renee said, thunderstruck. “Twinners are a Totem thing?”

“Not just Twinners. Farsights, Horse-whisperers, Tellers—”

“What’s a Teller?” Renee asked.

“I forget that some of them, like Skinchangers, are undiscovered.” Sadie considered, looking at her hands. “I was once a Skinchanger, but now you would call me a Smokeshift, correct?”

“It’s what you do,” Renee said. Jon listened intently and Stalker was interested to hear how things had progressed without her presence in the world.

“There were eleven Totems involved in these experiments. Eleven of them that created eleven abilities within humans. Then they went a step further to make something completely new. They created what would become the cadshee from their combined essence.”

And he betrayed us all! Stalker growled.

“Yes, I know, my friend,” Sadie said. “He was an evil creature. He wanted to dominate and destroy everything that had come before him. His memories are fresh in me. And for what he did to you, I am most deeply sorry.”

“What did he do?” Renee asked.

Sadie wiped a tear away. “As Stalker keeps saying, he grew angry and bitter. He was once a human child, and the transmutation into a Smokeshift drove him insane. He blamed the Totems. He blamed them all, and because he had a piece of each of them within him, he found he could wield power over them.”

He stole our spirits and made us shades of ourselves, Stalker complained. It was a bitter hurt that ached in Jon’s chest. To become enslaved, it was what he was always afraid of.

Sadie stood up. “To cut a long story short, as time is not on our side, the cadshee enslaved their spirits, and eventually began his own experimentations with their essence. The Skinchangers are the result of those experiments.”

“How horrible,” Renee said, holding her hand to her mouth to cover her gasp. “Can’t anything be done?”

“I don’t know, and I am afraid to try anything. The transition for Jon and the Skinchangers is already volatile and painful. If I wield the cadshee’s powers, I might kill them both. I cannot stomach killing a spirit of the forest, my grandmother.”

Stalker harrumphed and Sadie smiled sadly. “Whether you like it or not, that is what you are.”

And if you could separate us? Would you do it? Stalker asked.

“I would have to. I didn’t ask to become the cadshee. I will not let myself carry the burdens of his many sins. But I can try, if you really wish it. Both of you.”

“Try what?” Renee asked.

“To pull them apart. To free Stalker and Jon and make them separate, for the first time in untold years to allow Stalker the freedom of the Red Forest.”

I would die for the chance to be free, Stalker mused. I would sacrifice you, Jon.

I know you would, Jon said, and I can’t blame you. I’m willing to try it if you are. He was surprised that he meant it. Having the capability of Skinchanging was wonderful, and an integral part of his identity, but now that he knew the Totems were enslaved to make it happen, he couldn’t stand the thought of ever ‘changing into one again. To possess their bodies and banish their minds.

Do it, Aunt Sadie, he said. Whatever happens, we have to try.

“Very well. I’ll see what I can do.”

“What’s happening?” Renee asked.

“I need you to move back, Captain. Something that hasn’t been attempted in a very long time. I will separate Jon from Stalker if I can. I don’t know what will happen if you or anyone else is nearby, and I won’t be the one to bring down the great Wing Captain Renee Mollen if I can help it.”

Renee started to protest but Sadie cut her off, “Say what you need to say to my nephew.”

Renee swallowed hard and Jon stood up, facing Renee. It was easy to face her in this form; it wasn’t really him right now, but them.

“What am I supposed to say to you that can’t already know?” Renee asked, looking into Stalker’s eyes. Jon’s eyes. Stalker had retreated completely from conscious thought with a gentle purr.

Renee sniffled a little, then wiped it away and got control of herself. “You don’t die, Private Sawyer. We need you. Marie will never forgive you if you die and she didn’t get to make fun of you one last time.” She laughed at her poor joke, and Jon tried to chuckle in the cougar’s throat.

She leaned in and bent her forehead to Jon’s, whispering, “I need you, Jon. Stay with us. Stay with me.”

He licked her face. It was all he could do to communicate, and even if it was sloppy cougar kiss, he wanted to do it before he was gone for good. She laughed, wiping at the place he had licked.

“Terrible first kiss,” she said, standing up and patting his head. “Good luck, Sadie.”

Sadie nodded and beckoned for Jon to follow her up and out of the tunnel.

Jon followed, letting Stalker return to the forefront.

Do you think she can do it? he asked her.

Freedom comes in many forms, grandson, Stalker replied. Oblivion is just as good as gaining my body back.

With that sobering thought, Jon and Sadie left the tunnel and entered the forest at night.

“Are you ready?” Sadie asked, taking a seat on the ground. Stalker placed herself opposite Sadie and nodded.

“Whatever happens, concentrate on regaining your former self, Stalker. Find the lock that will earn your freedom.”

Jon shivered. Freedom. Oblivion. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to live with the enslavement. What was he supposed to do?

Sadie closed her eyes, and slowly her body turned to the oil and smoke until she was a shadow-woman, her wispy form staying in the shape of a woman. Stalker and Jon tensed as the smoke wafted toward them, as if smoke on the breeze.

The smoke enveloped them, and they breathed it in. They had to. Only it wasn’t choking. It was… exploring. Like Stalker did with Jon’s memories, only more visceral.

It tingled, and not in an unpleasant way. The last of Sadie’s form entered Stalker’s chest, and Jon lost all sense of reality. He was seeing through three sets of eyes: his, Sadie’s, and Stalker’s.

Is it working? he tried to ask, but he was no longer in control of himself. Stalker had lost it, as well. Sadie was examining the body and it was her body until she saw fit to release it.

Stalker railed against her, panicking but unable to do anything.

This is very strange, Sadie said, combing the genetic makeup of Stalker’s form. You are not a prisoner within a body. You are not a jailer, however unwitting. Your spirits are twined. And there’s more.

She hesitated, then gasped. All the Skinchangers are connected. I can feel it. The spirits are not within us, but everywhere. It is like our bodies have been attuned to receive the spirits of the forest gods, giving them control of our form but not our minds. You have no body, Stalker. I cannot free what is already free.

Stalker cried out wordlessly, unable to answer while Sadie was in control.

However… Sadie went on. Jon felt something tickle at his chest, inside his heart. I might have a solution.

Without giving them a chance to respond, Sadie began plucking at the connection, altering it, moving it. If I twist this just so, she was thinking, and turn this the other way, maybe?

The tingling progressed to a vibration, then a painful split. Stalker and Jon howled inside Stalker’s mind while her body sat statue-still.

Sadie poked and prodded. She was enjoying this! It was too painful. It had to stop. He couldn’t even beg for it to stop because she was ruthlessly in control, changing the very fabric of his body to her own twisted desires.

And at last, Stalker and Jon found each other in their mind. Clutched to each other’s consciousness like two children hiding from their drunk father.

And something twisted. It popped. It did something, and then Sadie was ejected out of Stalker, granting them control once more.

Stalker’s body dropped to the dirt and writhed with the intensity of feeling surging through it. Jon and Stalker didn’t know what was happening, but Stalker’s one thought repeated, Kill the abomination, kill it, tear it to pieces, what did she do, I’ll make her pay.

They writhed together. They were dying. Their body was going to give out and the cadshee would have its first Totem victory in untold years.

But then the writhing, swirling pain ceased, and the last piece of Stalker settled down. Sadie reformed into the woman she had been, only the smoke leaving Stalker’s mouth was thick with something new. Some of it parted from Sadie, darting away before she could capture it, swirling away to be lost forever.

Jon coughed the last of her out, and suddenly he felt a difference. Stalker? He asked.

I’m still here, Jon. What is this feeling?

I’m going to Change.

Don’t banish me to the darkness! she begged, but Jon could tell already what had happened.

He concentrated on the Change and Stalker was too weak to fight it. The ritual wasn’t necessary. The pain never came.

He turned into the young man he’d almost forgotten existed, coughing into the dirt and trying hard to laugh through the absence of pain.

“Stalker!” he whispered when he could manage it.

And Stalker answered in his head, I’m here. How am I here?

Sadie was grinning. Jon grinned right back until he realized he was naked in front of his Aunt. She tossed him a horse-blanket that had fallen when the horses fled into the forest and he covered himself.

“Welcome back, nephew. And welcome back to the world, Stalker.”

She hadn’t freed them, only gave them equal share. Equal control. No longer a prisoner, no longer a jailer.

We’re one body, one soul, Stalker said, purring inside his mind. This is good. This… is very good.

Jon agreed.

Then screams rushed out of the tunnel and Jon knew it was Renee. Something terrible had happened below.

_____

And that’s gonna do it for another week. Come on back next Tuesday to find out what’s become of Renee!

Head to Part Fourteen.

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