Hunger in any Form
"I think that I will give your eyes a rest as we both take on the forms of birds. The Redeemer just might be not too far away stacked in some eagle's aerie or some beaver's hutch,” Chiapos instructed his new partner.
Samarin consented and the two men transformed themselves into a pair of remarkably similar huge mythical thunderbirds. Each changed man described awe in the breath-catching form of the other. "Do I look like that!" Chiapos exclaimed. He had not seen what he appeared like before when he had earlier taken the thunderbird shape. Samarin appeared like an eagle tenfold its normal size with a ruby head overtop of a ruddy-striped body that just oozed with power and strength. His golden beak was hooked into a very honed point that gave the impression that it could shred the entire hide off of a Comptode Buffalo with only one rip. His talons also were tremendous -they would put any grizzly bear to shame.
The shapeshifted highwayman's head gawked down at his body and answered Chiapos, "No. I'm reddish in colour. You are almost all ivory white save for your midnight black head, beak and claws. Other than the difference in colour, I guess we are the same."
Once again it was odd to hear a human's voice emanating from a creature that should not be able to speak but Chiapos was quite pleased to hear the colour scheme that he had chosen for himself. It somehow seemed to him like the hues of a champion. "You don't mind looking like a Rainwaterman then?" he quipped.
"It's only a temporary form. At least I know what I truly look like and I will have no difficulty returning to my inherent shape. I still can't get over it that we are able to do this. It so much defies common sense."
"Wait until you get your first taste of flying!" Chiapos exclaimed, eager to once again take flight. "You will wish that you always had wings!"
With that said the white thunderbird took a hop into the air, spread out his immense wings and felt the winds lift him towards the ether. The red thunderbird followed him into the sky. Even though a giant raptor's face is quite expressionless, Chiapos could see the glee in Samarin as he soared upon his great wings hundreds of feet above the land below.
"This is absolutely amazing!" the red thunderbird screeched. He started to climb abruptly over the warm thermal winds that rose from a nearby cliffside. The white thunderbird did the same. It was a time to enjoy themselves and experience the incredibly awesome thrill of flight.
The two shapeshifted men spent several hours soaring and gliding and hovering and diving. As he watched his fellow thunderbird delighting in this magical moment, Chiapos found himself thinking that he could not truly hate or despise this man. Samarin had done many terrible things to many people over many years but maybe this experience would forever change him and make his heart good. It might be a naive outlook but he had been placing a lot of trust lately into hope. Maybe this was one place where hope could finally be realized.
After doing a tailspin from hundreds of yards up and skimming the terrain at a breakneck level, Chiapos called to Samarin. "It's time to start searching." He climbed high into the air and with the amplified vision of a great bird of prey he scoured the land below him for indications of huge nests and beaver dams. With his first glance, he spotted three of the first and a half dozen of the latter.
When he raced downward to a bald eagle's aerie that sat proudly and vainly upon the upper branches of a great dead oak, he was greeted by its two angry occupants. They challenged him and Samarin bravely to clear the airspace. The eagles scrambled above them and came down at them with clutched talons. At the last possible moment, they deflected their course and flew by. They did this several times in the hopes of intimidating the thunderbirds but neither Chiapos nor Samarin would flinch. Their quick inspection of the house-sized nest showed that it was old and that any of the most recent additions to it were made of bramble nowhere near resembling the Redeemer in shape or length. And without any further ado, they moved onward leaving the two eagles feeling very accomplished that they managed to chase off birds that were tenfold their size.
The other two aeries were abandoned by their makers. Neither held the Redeemer although one of them had a clutch of three massive unattended eggs sitting within it. If there were unhatched eaglets within them and the two parents had flown off in fear upon seeing the gigantic raptors in the distance, the unborn might be doomed to die. This sent a pang of remorse into Chiapos. He did not want to be responsible for the death of three members of such a grand species.
His fellow thunderbird, Samarin, saw this situation in a completely different light. He landed upon the aerie and before Chiapos could do anything about it, he started to chip away at an egg with his heavy beak. The eggshell had been breached and whatever life inside of it had become severely compromised.
"What are you doing?" Chiapos cried from a hovering distance a few yards above.
"What do you think I am doing?" the red thunderbird rasped. "I'm eating, I'm starving. There are three eggs, we each can have one and a half." Samarin splayed open the egg and his beak was covered in a creamy yolk.
Chiapos realized that his new companion was unaware that he did not have to eat. Was this something that he should reveal to Samarin? Or would this lead to other questions that would violate the secrecy that Chiapos had established? "I'm not hungry," he said. "You go ahead and have all of the eggs." He rationalized that no eaglets had yet formed in these eggs and thus Samarin was not inflicting any real suffering on the creatures of this side of the Divide. It was unfortunate that this timeless land where the animals did not feed upon each other had to endure someone like the highwayman but on the other hand, Samarin did need to eat.
After the red thunderbird had sucked the contents of the third egg, Chiapos asked, "Have you had your fill?"
"Not really," Samarin replied. "All this flying expends a lot of energy, I think I need to eat a buffalo a day to keep me going. I really don't understand why you aren't hungry. You are flying as much as I am."
"I don't know. I'm just not hungry, I guess," Chiapos shrugged as much as a bird of prey was capable of performing this action. "Let's check those dams."
"Maybe there will be some beavers in them! They ought to be pretty tasty."
"I don't think that you and I should go on a wild eating binge, Samarin. We don't know how many creatures have survived the Dark Aura's wrath. There might only be a few of them left and we might be eating ourselves out of our future meals," Chiapos said, fearing of what kind of scourge the red thunderbird would be on these fearless creatures on this side. The birds and animals did not know predation. They were too trusting and too easy of a mark for someone with the killing instincts of the highwayman. Surely, Brucar must have known that Samarin would be very predatory on this side of the Divide, and the Sovereign didn't seem to have a problem with this or why else would he have banished his prisoner into such an idyllic world? Like so many other aspects about the Sovereign of the Suzerainty of Sutherland, this confused the Rainwaterman.
"I've seen hundreds of different species since I woke up from that terrible dream. I assure you that the Dark Aura's wrath was only taken on humanity. The rest of the world has been untouched and unscathed. We shall not go hungry, my friend."
"Just as well, I think that we should make recovering the Wood our highest priority. We will eat here and there but I don't want to get ourselves so laden with food that we grow lazy in our quest," Chiapos answered as he tilted his wing and started veering towards where he had seen a beaver's dam a few moments ago. Samarin leapt into the air and with a few effortless flaps of his huge red wings he was soaring after his fellow thunderbird.
The beaver's dam was a hodgepodge of timbers that were dragged from a nearby stand of trees. The copse gave plenty of evidence that the tireless and industrious rodents were hard at work in transforming it into a shrine of pointed stumps while the bramble of mud and branch that blocked a fresh creek grew taller and wider. On the side that was being pooled, the small river had swollen into a swamp that flooded the grasses and thickets that formerly made up the creek's banks. The rodent architects of this wetland were nowhere to be seen. They must have been underneath the dam or in the nearby lodge tucked into a corner of the newly created ecosystem. Chiapos was rather thankful for this fortune. He was sure that if Samarin had come upon any hapless beavers he would have feasted royally upon their chubby furry flesh.
Instead the red thunderbird voiced his complaint at the arduous task of trying to find the Redeemer in such a massive collection of shorn trees. It was a daunting task but Chiapos knew that they would have to search the dam and the lodge thoroughly. A stick like the Wood of Faerie could be tucked in any spot along these rodentary constructions. Unlike the aeries where the most recent additions were on the top or the outside of the nest, a new building material could be anywhere in a beaver dam. Chiapos was acquainted enough with the beavers around Rainwater, to know that these animals were constantly checking for leaks and breaches in their projects and the newest pieces of material would not necessarily be in any conspicuous spot. So he set to work tearing away at the dam. He wasn't sure if his companion would help him but to his surprise Samarin did join in and grumbled his complaints as he worked. Chiapos could only guess that the possibility of a beaver being flushed out motivated the hungry highwayman.
Almost an hour had passed and no beaver had shown itself. The lodge and the dam were in a shambles and it was no great stretch of the imagination to figure that there were some very disgruntled beavers watching from somewhere nearby as their homes were being torn apart. The creek was starting to run through the destroyed dam with a vigor. It was finally able to escape the stagnation of the pool. There was no Redeemer to be found although several of the branches did seem to possess the characteristics of the Wood of Faerie. Chiapos thought of keeping these sticks and tying them up into a faggot and experimenting with their magical properties afterwards. But even if they were composed of the Wood of Faerie there was nothing in them that spoke to him in anyway near remotely the same manner as did his Redeemer. It was best to leave these branches here and not carry them back to the other side of the Divide. Brucar and Cherite would not be very happy to learn that despite all of their efforts some Wood of Faerie was being smuggled back to the Land of Time.
With disappointment the two thunderbirds abandoned the first beaver dam without achieving any success. As they took to the air and headed towards the next dam, Chiapos was almost positive that he saw a pair of very agitated beavers suddenly appear near the decimated dam. These creatures would have to swallow their anger and get back to work and repair their precious edifice. With their unswerving addiction to labour, the white thunderbird was sure that it would not be too long before the new dam would once again block off the current and keep the adjacent land covered by listless waters.
The next dam proved to be an almost identical experience to the first. There were no beavers to satisfy Samarin's craving for food nor was their any Redeemer to be found. All what there was was hard work for both birds and afterwards for the beavers in redoing what was undone.
As they flew away Samarin asked if Chiapos thought that maybe they were wasting their time searching these dams. "Afterall when your stick was stolen from me I was nowhere near any river or creek. The closest one had to be at least a mile away. I wholly doubt that any beaver is going to traverse that much land to get such a paltry prize for his dam as your Redeemer. The only natural creature that would have taken it would be a hawk, owl or an eagle. I suggest we search their nests solely and not be ripping apart every beaver dam between here and Tanejul."
It was a valid suggestion and somewhat surprising coming from the red thunderbird. It did not seem to be in character for Samarin to pass up a possible feast of beaver. But the rodents had been doing an excellent job in keeping their whereabouts hidden while the pair of giant raptors demolished the fruit of their toils. Perhaps the highwayman was more willing to dine upon the sure meal of bird eggs. Nonetheless, Chiapos found himself agreeing with the notion and the two avian partners spent the rest of the daylight hours searching almost a dozen hawk and eagle nests to no avail. The Redeemer just wasn't there to be found.
Samarin did find himself several eggs to help stave his ravenous hunger. "I tell you this bird form is a true ordeal. You have to be constantly feeding to supply the energy for all of this flying. For once, I wish that I could keep my mind on something else other than food. I don't know how you do it. You haven't eaten a thing." His comments were made as the two thunderbirds came to a rest along the jagged peaks of a steep precipice. Their view, in the waning light, was commanded by a large lake that gleamed with magical sparkle from the dusking sun. From this vantage they could see a massive herd of antelope lazily wading in the water. On the other side of the Divide these animals would be in a continuous vigilance of grazing. But here they did not need to eat and they could bide their time pursuing loftier or hedonistic activities that their counterparts in the Land of Time were not at liberty to delve in.
The antelopes gave Chiapos an idea on how to answer Samarin. "Have you noticed that every creature we encountered today was not eating?"
The highwayman nodded and Chiapos noted that Samarin had returned to his human form. He looked exactly the way that he did before. "It's more comfortable being myself," he confessed. "Maybe I won't be so hungry if I'm not a bird. Yes, you are right, come to think of it. I haven't seen any ruminants grazing or any of them being stalked by the carnivores ever since I woke up. And goodness knows I've seen more animals recently than I have had in years. What do you make of this?"
"I don't know. It probably has something to do with the Dark Aura's holocaust. Nothing seems to be the same any more. I mean we never were able to change our shapes before and now we can do it with hardly a second thought."
"You had better take a second thought, Rainwaterman. You don't look like you used to. You don't even look like what you did earlier today," Samarin grinned.
"I didn't get it right again, eh?" Chiapos chuckled. He had returned himself to human form but apparently he had done it wrong once more. His eyes were adjusting back to the inferior vision that came with being a man but his sense of smell increased to allow him to waft the fragrant aromas of a stand of trilliums that lay just behind them along the cliff.
"Someday I'm going to have to draw you a picture of what you looked like. Maybe then you will finally return to your true form."
"Maybe you are closer to your true form in more ways than one, Samarin," Chiapos commented, noticing that where they had lit themselves might be advantageous and perfectly natural for thunderbirds but it was truly perilous, constricting and an awkward spot for human beings.
"What do you mean?" The highwayman too showed signs that he was aware that their perch was awfully risky. One wrong step and he could find himself tumbling headlong into the rugged gorge below.
"I mean you still get hungry and that is normal. But I don't get hungry or thirsty at all. Just like the animals. Whatever internal change that happened to steal their hunger away must have happened to me as well because I am just not hungry. The thought of eating food even unsettles my stomach."
Samarin's face was lit with curiosity and a seeming sense of understanding and empathy. Maybe he was accepting the Rainwaterman's latest ruse at deception. "Why am I famished then, I wonder?"
"It could be that there is something special about you," Chiapos chirped, thinking it might be best for the highwayman to think of himself as the exception.
Samarin lifted his shoulders in a shrug. The motion nearly made him lose his footing. The Rainwaterman was quick to grab him by the sleeve and keep him from slipping past the vertiginous edge. "Thank you," the highwayman sighed. "That's quite some drop there. I don't think that I could have changed myself fast enough into a bird before smashing into oblivion down there."
"But once you were all torn apart, you could have made yourself into a flock of butterflies and flown away," Chiapos joked.
The highwayman did not return the laugh. His mien held a heavy grim expression. "What would set me apart from everything else? Why am I the only thing that experiences hunger in this damned world?"
"I really don't know. It's just an observation that I have made. I don't need to eat. The animals don't need to eat. Yet you do. It's a reality that we are going to have to deal with whether we come up with a satisfactory explanation for it or not," Chiapos responded. He lifted his hand and brushed at his face.
"That's a pretty profound statement that you have just made. I would never have believed that a Rainwaterman was capable of making such an astute observation." The sour dour look started to leave Samarin's face. His mood must have lightened. He, too, waved his hand through the air but he was especially careful not to throw his balance askew.
"I don't think that we can make that distinction between humans any more because it is just the two of us that have survived. We ..... Drat! What are these things?" Chiapos began thrashing with unnerved vigor at the air before him. His face was being inundated by hundreds of slightly ticklish sensations.
"Flies!" Samarin grumbled. He, too, had become quite animate in trying to wave them off.
The creatures were so minute that they could not be seen by the naked eye but there had to be literally an invisible cloud of them surrounding the two men. They were extremely annoying. "They are trying to eat us alive!" Chiapos cried.
"I thought that you said that I was the only thing that needed to eat!" the highwayman exclaimed.
"I thought so too!" the Rainwaterman agreed. "But are they really eating us? They are just swarming about us. Maybe they are just trying to get warm in the air that surrounds us?"
"I don't care what they are doing! They are driving me mad!" Samarin changed forms and turned himself back into the thunderbird and leapt into full flight.
Chiapos was not long after in following him and the two sailed downward towards the lake. They landed along the shoreline and took their human forms again. "I have never experienced anything like that before at all," the Rainwaterman remarked.
"If only the bats around here had kept their appetites. That would have gotten rid of them," Samarin said. His eyes were focused upon the wading antelope nearby in the shallow waters of the lake. Chiapos had to wonder if the highwayman's mind was thinking about what an excellent meal an antelope would make. But before he could make that comment, the invisible flying insects had descended upon them again.
Samarin yowled in frustration. "They're back! I've got to get out of here!"
"Those antelope don't seem to be bothered by them. I wonder if the water keeps the bugs away?"
"You are completely surprising me! That could be the very reason why they are in the lake! I've never seen antelope wade before. The flies are driving them into doing this!" With that said, the highwayman shapeshifted himself into an identical form as the myriad antelope nearby. He walked out into the water. A moment later, he shouted back to the tormented Chiapos. "There are no flies out here!"
The Shark and the Pike
Transforming himself into an antelope as well, Chiapos went out into the deeper waters alongside the animal that he believed his shapeshifted partner to be. There were other antelopes wading in the vicinity as well. All of them were almost exactly the same in appearance. There is not much in the way of variation between individual members of this particular species. The markings and the size and the blankfaced expressions tended to be the same among each and every one of them. All the ruminants were taking pleasure in the gnat-free environment of the warm waters. The herd did not stay stationary in the lake but kept moving about in a lazy saunter, perhaps out of a fear that if they remained motionless the gnats would find their way to them and start their incessant pestering once more.
Chiapos copied their behaviour, as did Samarin. The two transformed humans were in a group comprised of a dozen or more beasts. Neither man was speaking and Chiapos, quite frankly, was not quite sure which one of the antelopes was in reality the highwayman. One thing, he was sure of however, was that the lake floor was composed mostly of sand and that it did hold an abundant quantity of twigs and branches that had blown in from the shoreline and had gradually sunk to the bottom once they became waterlogged.
A new notion sprang into his mind that he immediately put into spoken form. "Do you suppose that the Redeemer might be at the bottom of a lake?" He recalled how Cherite in her dolphin form was searching the waters around Martok's Keep for any pieces of Wood of Faerie that may have sunk there. It was entirely plausible that the Redeemer might have found its way to this murky niche as well.
The antelope directly beside him just looked at him dumbly. Chiapos repeated his question. Perhaps Samarin did not hear him. "I have a suspicion that the Redeemer might not be on land at all, but at the bottom of some body of water. Maybe even this one."
Once again, the antelope did not respond. "Aren't you listening to me?" the Rainwaterman snapped with an angry haste.
The antelope looked at him through stupid but sad big brown eyes. It bleated.
From a distance away, Chiapos suddenly could hear some laughter and realized to his chagrin that he was talking to a real antelope and not the highwayman.
Samarin was thirty feet away amid a grouping of five antelopes. His laughter was giving him away. "If I really wanted to get rid of you, Rainwaterman, I don't think that I would have too much trouble here."
"Very funny," Chiapos moaned. "Did you hear what I asked?"
"I did and I wish that I could respond to you the same way as your newfound friend beside you did. Do you realize how difficult it would be to search a lake bottom for a stick? It would be a gargantuan and fruitless task. I suggest that we keep our concentration to the land. Remember there were no bodies of water nearby to the spot where I lost it. I, for the life of me, cannot see how it could end up here or on the bottom of some other lake."
"Well, it's worth a try, I think," Chiapos answered. "If we turn ourselves into fish we can search this lakebed right now while we are here."
"The light's dwindling, my friend. No fish that I know of is equipped with the ability to see in the dark." Samarin seemed determined not to give this suggestion any chance.
"Back in Rainwater, we caught most of our fish at night in the streams and ponds. To me that means a fish is well capable of maneuvering about and hunting for its food at night." He had made up the distance that had separated him from the highwayman/antelope.
"They hunt at night through the sense of smell, Rainwaterman. Their food has a distinctive odour to it and it is this smell that draws the forager to its prey. Your stick will not have any distinctive smell. It would stink to whatever is at the bottom of the lake. No fish sense of smell is going to sniff it out."
With a sigh, Chiapos knew that Samarin was right. But he was still haunted by the prospect that the Redeemer just might be at the bottom of a lake, river or even worse the ocean. If it were there, how would he ever be able to retrieve it? This was a dismal thought that sank his spirits into a low that he had not experienced thus far in his escapade in the timeless land. However, even if the Redeemer were lying at the deepest point of the sea, a whole eternity could lapse before he found it but not one moment would have passed by on the other side. Things would not get worse over there as long as he was here. This just may be a far more daunting task than he had first expected in getting back his Redeemer. But as long as the Wood of Faerie was not destroyed on this side, he knew that there would come a time when he would find it and then return to his native-born dimension armed with its magic to wage battle with the demonic Aura in Ascension.
As long as the Redeemer was not destroyed here!
What could destroy the Wood of Faerie here? Beavers still had a proclivity to chew wood on this side even though they did not require it for any source of sustenance. Was the Redeemer impervious to the large rodential teeth of these furred creatures? Insects such as ants and termites existed here and they did like to make their nests within wood. Could these industrious and myriad wee animals likewise gnaw the Redeemer into nonexistence? And there were many, many other animals that he was sure could have some detrimental effect on wood. Could any one of them out of their instinctual need to ruin wood eliminate the only hope that the Land of Time had to overcome the wicked Martok? Somehow, Chiapos had to assure himself with some degree of certainty, that the Redeemer would be impervious to these natural destructive forces because of its inherent magic. All that he knew was that he would have to cling to hope that such was the case.
"So are you turning yourself into a fish or not?" Samarin asked, tugging Chiapos out of his doubting reverie.
"What's the point?" the Rainwaterman groaned. "We don't stand a chance of ever finding it in the dark."
"I think that we should do it just for the fun of it!" the highwayman/antelope cried with enthusiasm. "It would be quite an experience to be swimming about as a fish."
"We might find ourselves some better company than these bores," Chiapos concurred, allowing Samarin's sense of adventure to minimize the lugubrious thoughts that he was experiencing. The bores he was referring to were the antelopes. They were a mundane group that just didn't inspire the Rainwaterman.
Samarin's mighty spine began to grow arched while the creamy and tan hair upon his hide began to fade away and change into olive-coloured scales. A striking dorsal fin built itself up like a powerful cumulus cloud upon his back while the rest of his transforming body began to sink into the water. He was becoming a fish although Chiapos was not sure what kind of fish because of the darkness.
Following the highwayman's lead, he shapeshifted himself into what he hoped was a long and sleek pike. As his legs melded with the rest of his body, he found himself immersed by the water and all that he could see around him were dozens of antelope limbs with their hair wafting with the slight current. The status of his vision was something again quite different from what he had experienced as a human, bird and chameleon. This time it was like his entire world was one globe that surrounded his body only by the distance that the developing darkness would permit. It was quite unique and created the impression that his universe was very small. This was limited even further by the sand being stirred from the bottom by the wading antelopes.
He began swimming about by wiggling what would have been his torso in his human state. He was surprised by the swiftness that resulted from this motion. The odd strand of seaweed zipped by his field of vision as he swam out into deeper waters. Ahead of him he could just barely make out the shape of what had to be Samarin. From what little he could see of the shadowy figure just at the offing of his fish-scope horizon, it appeared that the highwayman had chosen the form of a shark for his latest manifestation. The lake was a body of fresh water and sharks should not belong in such ecologies, yet Samarin was a powerful, streamlined thrasher that would have no problem being the king of this niche.
Chiapos paid him no never mind and assumed that the man was jauntily experiencing a sensation that normally was out of reach to a human's ken. The Rainwaterman also was enjoying the life of a fish but he decided to mix some work in with his pleasure and swam towards the bottom to survey what lay there. He was not expecting to find the Redeemer but one never knows what will happen when expectations are running at a low.
There were literally thousands of sticks dispersed intermittently along the lake's bed. In the dim light it was practically impossible to discern what was exactly there. This problem was being compounded by the spreading sand being stirred about because of his swaying tail. It did not take him too long to conclude that such a hunt that he was embarking upon did not suit a fish's morphology. One needed arms and hands to pick up this bramble in order to carefully examine them. A great northern pike does not have these amenities. His heart prayed that the Redeemer would be on land instead of out here. This was too much of a foreboding task.
He swam for half an hour or more and had covered a lot of area without any sudden surprises to his expectations. It was time to give up on this monumental endeavour. It was time to rendezvous with Samarin before the highwayman started thinking about eluding him once again. And it was then that Chiapos realized that he had lost his bearings. He had not paid any attention to where he was going. He had been scraping along the bottom and discovered that he had gotten himself into some very deep, deep water. This lake was deceivingly deep, he surmised, as he worked his way to the surface. Had he been dependent on breathing air, he doubted that he could have made it all the way up without drowning. The lake had to be at least a thousand feet deep.
Finally he broke through the surface and could see that night had settled upon the world. The stars shone brightly overhead and there was a crescent moon just hanging by a few degrees above the distant cliffs that he and Samarin had perched upon in their thunderbird shapes several hours earlier. That shoreline was more than a mile away. That was quite the swim he had undertaken. He wondered where Samarin might be.
The shark had not followed him along his swim. He hoped that the highwayman was back at shore and not on the lam. Chiapos, still in the body of a northern pike, skidded along the surface to the approximate place where he had seen Samarin last. As he swam speedily along, he noticed something bobbing in the water about half way towards shore. When he reached the floating object, he discovered to his dismay that it was the front half of an antelope. The back half was missing. The flesh and entrails dangled in jagged shards from the poor creature's thoracic cavity. It was very plain that the antelope had been the victim of a shark. The highwayman obviously had taken advantage of his supreme carnivore's morphology and had partaken in a hefty meal. His stomach would most certainly be sore once he returned to his human shape. Half an antelope would make his entrails close to if not beyond the bursting point.
Chiapos continued towards shore, leaving the antelope's remains to whatever destiny the lake had decided for it. He was now not very distant from the shore and from the moon's light he could see that the antelopes had all fled from the wading depths back to the safety that the beaches provided. The surprise encounter with a predatory creature must have puzzled and frightened them. But he could not see his partner among them as either a fish or a human. Perhaps Samarin had chosen to shapeshift back to the antelope form.
But then something ghastly caught his eye. It was barely discernible for only a smidgen of it floated above the water. But what little was on top was white and being reflected by the light of the stars and the crescent moon.
When Chiapos arrived by its side, his fish-sight confirmed what he was quietly dreading. It was a dead shark floating upside down on the surface. It had to be his partner Samarin. How could the man have died? He was the top predator here and need not fear anything. Nothing here hunted. Yet the shark was dead. Upon closer examination of the creature, Chiapos saw that everything was in tact. There were no huge gaping wounds. The only thing that was somewhat abnormal was that the stomach was distended but considering the size of meal that the shark had jawed down upon, this was to be expected. Had the highwayman died of gluttony? Had his insides succumbed to the undue stress he placed upon it with his gargantuan meal? Perhaps shapeshifting was only an exterior phenomenum and everything below the skin retained its original morphology. If this were the case, then maybe Samarin had died from over-indulging.
Nonetheless, the highwayman was dead and this was a fact that Chiapos did not want to accept. He needed the man to help find the Redeemer and he had come in a small degree to rather like him. The Rainwaterman knew what he had to do.
He dragged the shark's corpse to shore while simultaneously returning himself to his human shape. Once upon the sandy beaches and with the antelope cautiously watching from a distance, Chiapos went to work upon the body. He was the Healer again. It had been some time since he last applied these magical arts and he was not all too sure that he had retained these special medical skills. Another variable in the equation that he had to consider was that he had never tried to resuscitate anything that was not as it appeared. Fixing a shark's body may not be fixing the human body underneath. This made him nervous. He didn't know what to do precisely. Yet, did he ever know before when he brought back to life all those bodies back in Tanejul? When he brought breath back to Sjorud's lifeless form, he did not know the method and procedure. His hands instinctively did whatever had to be done to bring back life. It was an unconscious act on his part and he had to get himself back into that trance-like state to perform the miracle upon his partner in this world.
For several minutes, as much as he tried not to think of what he was doing, his mental state kept consciously getting in the way and he was getting nowhere with the shark. The gnats that had driven Samarin and him to the water had returned and were acting like tormenting demons flying about his face and buzzing in his ears. He felt a helpless rage stirring up within him and knew that this state of mind could not bode well for his deceased partner.
Finally, he was able to overcome his clouding perceptions and his hands went to the task as a master displaying some elementary skill to uncomprehending students. Within a few short minutes, the gills of the shark began to flap open and closed. A gush of water poured from them. The semi-opaque eyelids lifted to reveal the dead, unliving gaze of the fish. It made Chiapos think at first that he had failed his comrade.
But then moments later, the shark began to gasp, flailing huge and mighty jaws that could shred an antelope in half. The black eyes suddenly focused on the Healer. "What the ..." the shark spoke with Samarin's voice. The voice was just not congruent with the shark's shape although the personality might have truly found its innate form.
"Everything's fine, my friend," Chiapos said, trying to soothe the highwayman. The shock of returning back to life must have been overwhelming for the brigand.
"It's you!" Samarin cried.
"Of course, who did you think it was?"
"I thought it was me, you silly bloke!"
"I truly have to show you a sketch of what you look like, Rainwaterman, so that you can get your original form back," the shark laughed.
"Why? Because you look just like me!"
Upon hearing this Chiapos walked to the lake's edge and peered into the water. There was enough light reflecting from the moon to show the Rainwaterman that he had taken the guise of the highwayman. He looked just like Samarin.
When he returned to his patient, he saw that the highwayman had shapeshifted back to the human state. There were two Samarins upon that moonlit beach. It was obvious to Chiapos that he must have been thinking of his partner when he transformed himself. He wished that he knew what his own appearance was so that he could one day return to his former self.
"How did I get here?" Samarin asked as he looked down at his wet clothing. "The last thing I remember was that I was fighting to try to get to the surface so that I could breathe again. Blast it! I was drowning! How could that be? I was a shark, the king of fish? Why was it that I could not swim underwater?"
This was an interesting question. It tied in with what Chiapos had been thinking about earlier regarding transformations. Was it merely the outside surface that shapeshifted and everything underneath remained the same as in its original form? The fact that Samarin was unable to breathe underwater spoke volumes that it was very likely that a person does retain his true anatomy and physiology beneath the guise of the surface topical change. He explained his theory to the highwayman.
"Maybe you are right, Rainwaterman. I felt my lungs aching for breath when I was many feet below. It never occurred to me that I had not entirely changed into a fish. I was lucky that you found me before I did drown. Wait a moment!" The highwayman's eyes became wide open and wild. "How did you find me alive? You weren't anywhere near the spot where I was and I can swear that there was still hundreds of feet yet to go before I reached the surface! I could not have possibly made it to the top alive!"
It occurred to Chiapos that Samarin did not know that he had actually died. If he were to tell him what had really happened, the highwayman would most certainly be curious about where and how Chiapos had obtained the healing abilities. And then he would also start to be wondering how it was that Chiapos was able to swim about underwater without any apparent need for air. He no longer needed to concern himself that the highwayman would keep information away from him regarding the Redeemer. It was plain that he did not know where it was. Why keep up the ruse? What would be the worst thing to happen if Samarin knew the truth about the special powers that he had acquired? He might refuse to help him. That was about it. It was time to come clean about his special abilities. He was still not going to tell him about where they actually were. As long as Samarin believed that he was upon the land to which he was born, he may not feel any craving need to part company with him.
"You did drown, my friend," Chiapos said quietly.
"Yes, you drowned. You were very dead when I found you."
"Then how is it that I am living now?"
"I brought you back to life."
Samarin's eyes flared open and he burst out into a hearty laugh. "You brought me back to life? A Rainwaterman?" He grabbed hold of his sides as he chortled loudly. Some water that was still retained within him from his drowning experience bubbled from his nose.
Feeling somewhat indignant that the highwayman's old prejudices were still very much in existence, Chiapos replied somberly, "I brought you back to life. You were upside down in the water. Your fins went up and down with the waves. You would have eventually drifted to shore and slowly decayed in a stinking heap if I did not intervene."
"Impossible!" Samarin rasped. "Nobody has the power to bring life back!"
"Think of your last memories, man!" Chiapos snorted. "Weren't you in an impossible position to have been able to survive?"
"I passed out and you found me on the surface before I actually died. You simply breathed air into my lungs and somehow you were able to revive me. I find that more believable than to instill you with any supernatural powers."
The highwayman was not going to easily accept this information Chiapos was beginning to sense. "How is it that I was able to live underwater whereas you couldn't?"
"I guess it is by the same reasoning that you don't have to eat any more. Something happened to you and all the other animals while I was somehow shielded from those strange effects." Samarin smiled. "I don't have to concoct any fabulous explanations for what is plainly and simply some explainable phenomena that does not impinge on the fantastic."
"Feel my chest!" Chiapos demanded, grabbing Samarin by the arm and placing his hand on his breast. "Do you feel me breathing? Now, feel yours."
The highwayman obliged.
"Don't you feel your chest rise and fall with every breath you take?" the Rainwaterman asked. "You did not sense such a feeling with me, did you?"
"You could have been holding your breath. My hand wasn't on there that long." Samarin was being his usual obstinate, stubborn self.
"Keep your hand on my chest as long as you like and you will not feel any breath being taken."
"It's just another effect like the eating. Somehow or other you are obtaining your air without having to employ your lungs. I bet that all the animals here that were exposed to Martok's malice are the same and do not need to breathe!"
"I bet you that they are not!" Chiapos was getting somewhat peeved with his partner. "Go catch yourself an antelope and you will see that it does breathe."
"Please, not another antelope. I have had my fill of those!" Samarin laughed.
"Well, can't you remember sensing that the antelope that you killed was very much a live, living thing? You cannot say that about me. Ever since I had that encounter with Cenan, all my life functions have ceased and I have become something very different. I don't eat, I don't sleep, I don't urinate or defecate. I don't feel warm or cold and most of all I don't breathe."
"Whatever you say, Rainwaterman." It was obvious that the highwayman was growing tired with what he believed to be a sham.
This dismissing attitude served to irk Chiapos immensely. "Why can't you just simply believe me? Why would I want to steer you wrong on this?"
Samarin shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe you are just trying to shirk your Rainwaterman heritage and prove to me that you are something more? I don't know. I accept you for who you are Chiapos. You don't have to resort to unbelievable fairy tales to gain my trust."
It was a suitable answer to Chiapos. What did he have to gain by having Samarin in the know? It appeared that he had the highwayman's confidence and that was all that he needed to continue.
"So, I hope that you can figure out what you really look like. I can't stand having an argument with myself!" Samarin laughed, deftly changing the topic from the previous one that was apparently standoffish.
"You'll have to show me what I look like. I never in my life have seen my face," Chiapos answered in honesty.
"Well, it's been sometime since I saw your true face. I'm not quite sure if I could describe it to you perfectly. It was rather on the homely side," the highwayman chuckled. "I've seen snapping turtles with prettier faces!"
Chiapos smiled knowing the jibe was not meant to malign. He thought that his true form would return to him once they crossed the Divide and returned to the Land of Time. But that wouldn't happen until the Redeemer was back in his hands. In the meantime he had to adjust his looks. Two Samarins was one Samarin too many. He thought of the appearance of another Rainwaterman, Chakka his father. It had been some time since he saw him last but that rugged mien was carved deeply in his memory.
"You look like an old man now!" Samarin remarked after Chiapos completed his shapeshifting. "You're not that old yet, my boy."
"This is the face of my father," the Rainwaterman explained. "People have always told me that I am of his liking so this is the best that I can do for now."
"You've aged yourself thirty years. I don't know if I can muster the respect due to an elder knowing that he's just barely a child inside," Samarin squinted his eyes, placing his hand squarely on his jaw. "But I have to admit that there is a resemblance. You don't quite have as prominent a nose as your old man but the mouth and chin are the same if you remove the jowls."
"It's going to have to do," Chiapos answered. "I think that you had better catch yourself some sleep now. You've wasted half the night already. I want to cover a lot of territory tomorrow and I will need you well rested."
As if he was directly prompted to do so on cue, the highwayman opened his mouth wide in a big, tiresome yawn. "Some dreamtime will do me some good. Maybe when I wake in the morning, I will be back in my home in Tanejul and realize that this has all been one, strange, long nonsensical dream." He laid himself on a patch of sand using a gnarly unearthed root for a pillow.
It looked terribly uncomfortable to Chiapos but he realized that Samarin was used to life on the road and had probably seen far worse beds than this one that he was making for himself tonight. "Maybe you will," the Rainwaterman sighed.
Two Old Friends
Another night of being on his own was at hand while other humans were able to sleep. The longer that he was away from that somnolent state the more he missed it. When he was younger he used to think of sleep as a waste of time but now he realized that it was one of the most tranquil conditions that the human mind could ever hope to achieve. He envied Samarin his sleep. He envied Laulo, Sjorud and Dedication their sleep as well. It was hard to imagine that so much subjective time had elapsed since he last saw them and in all of that period they were asleep.
Samarin was soon snoring in a motionless equilibrium. He had been dead not twenty minutes ago. He was unaware that he had crossed the nexus between life and death. He slept peacefully and each sound trumpeting from his nose was a proclamation that his body was indeed alive.
Chiapos decided that he would allow the man his full measure of sleep and would not rouse him until he was ready. In the meantime, he had to find something for himself to do to fill this gap. He thought of returning to the water and conducting a search for the Redeemer on the lake bottom. Such an act might sooner or later have to be performed if their hunt for the Wood of Faerie proves fruitless on land. It would be an intriguing venture but one mired with the greatest of difficulties considering the lack of light and the mud down there.
Regardless, he had to do something while the highwayman slept. He did not want to just sit and think. He had been alone with his thoughts long enough. What kind of marine creature would be best suited for this search? He had to change himself into something swift and equipped with excellent vision. His mind soon came to Cherite. She chose to be a dolphin to search for pieces of Wood of Faerie. He decided that he would take her example. She would know best about what form was optimal since she had such a long experience in this activity.
Wading into the water, he started transforming himself into a bottle-nosed dolphin. He could feel the muscles in his upper body, neck and head stretch themselves into a streamlined shape. Just before he was to take the plunge into the dark waters, he thought he saw something move across the starlit sky.
The image bothered him as he flicked his tail and descended into the depths. There was something familiar about what he saw although its gestalt was not quite yet formed in his mind. The moment had been only fleeting. His nagging consternation over the matter made him realize that he was not paying attention to the task that he had just given himself. He could not hunt for the Redeemer while his mind was occupied with what he might or might not have seen. The nagging had to be dealt with at once so that he could alleviate his mind and give his full attention to his search. With one swoosh of his tail, he split through the surface with acrobatic aesthetics.
In the nighttime sky, the clouds overhead had formed an apparition that he had seen several times along his journey but not for quite some time. It was an apparition that he had not seen since he crossed the Divide, an apparition that gave him both slight hope and the most grotesque forms of dread. The heavens seemingly had taken the form of an almost comatose Cenan enveloped within very wispy veils that barely could be gleaned as the shape of a mammoth. Hope had been stirred within him once more for the pair was entwined in some supernatural dynamic that proclaimed that they were still in existence. His despair was that the image was weaker, much weaker than the last time that he had seen it. Were Cenan and the Mammoth failing? Was the Aura in Ascension achieving the vainglorious stance of victory? Within the lapse of an eye blink, the apparition was gone and in its place was just a haphazard gathering of clouds drifting aimlessly across the backdrop of stars and constellations. Had he seen it or was it his imagination?
"How goes it out there in the water?" a voice emanated from the shoreline, although Chiapos could not even detect a shape there amidst the darkness. He was not used to the vision of a dolphin above water and half suspected that this uncustomary perception might explain his vision of the Mammoth and Cenan. The voice however was very familiar. It was that of Brucar. The Sovereign of the Suzerainty of Sutherland had said that he and Cherite would check up on him from time to time in this land on the other side of the Divide. Perhaps this was one of those occasions.
"The water is cool but it is fine," another voice answered and Chiapos became suddenly aware that he was not alone in the lake. There beside him was another dolphin. It was Cherite.
"Hello!" Chiapos said with some delight in being reunited with the pair of Sutherlanders.
"How does your fortune fair in the Land Without Time?" Brucar called from the shore. "I see that you are employing Cherite's strategy in conducting your hunt for your talisman."
"I've had not much luck so far," Chiapos answered in honesty. "I did however find Samarin. He's on shore there sleeping."
"No, I'm not!" a grumpy voiced Samarin cried. "How can I sleep through all of this ruckus?"
"You have found my prisoner. Are you going to return him to me?" Brucar asked.
"He did not have the Redeemer. It has been stolen from him here on this side of the Divide. Do you know any of this?" Chiapos replied. His slowly developing fondness of Samarin made him reluctant to return the fugitive to his captors.
"We know nothing of what happens in this world. It is as vast as our own," Cherite answered. "Are you searching for the Redeemer in these waters?"
"I am but I fear that it may be a fruitless venture. Finding sunken wood in water is almost an impossible task."
"It is a task that I am well acquainted with and let me tell you the reward when it is achieved is as satisfying as anything can be in life. Do you wish me to help you look?" Cherite's offer was very tempting but before Chiapos could agree Brucar voiced his dissent.
"You will take that reward away from him if you assist in his quest, my wife. We bear him only the best of wishes and these wishes must include allowing him the satisfaction of reaping his own fortune," the Sovereign said with his usual sagely tone.
Chiapos wanted to cry out that he did indeed want the help but something inside of him squashed the temptation. Somehow he instinctively knew that if the Sutherlanders found the Redeemer for him that in some way its powers might be diminished or transferred to them instead of him. Afterall its magics never worked for Samarin other than to protect him in the shipwreck.
"How did you people, if that is what you are, get here?" Samarin interjected. "I thought it was only the Rainwaterman and me that survived the auric holocaust?" Chiapos watched him move along the shore until he came to a stop where another shadow appeared. At last he saw Brucar.
"We need not provide you with any answers. You have a black heart and we are not obliged to help you," Brucar gruffly dismissed him.
"Samarin states that the Redeemer was stolen from him a couple of nights ago," Chiapos proffered to the Sovereign.
"And you would take the word of a known miscreant?" Cherite protested. She was beside him in the water.
"I am beginning to know this man fairly well and in this matter I trust what he says. My question is who would have taken it from him or rather who or what would have done this regrettable act?"
"It wouldn't have been us!" Cherite smirked and dove under the water.
"But who then? Samarin and I have been going with the hypothesis that some bird or animal might have taken it as an article for their nest and that is why we are conducting this thus far fruitless search for it. Do you have any information that can help us?" Chiapos pointed the question to Brucar.
"Remember what I had said just moments ago. The satisfaction of doing something on one's own far outrides the empty feeling of relying on someone else's help." Brucar was once again being that pillar of oblique obtuseness that the Rainwaterman found most annoying.
"Listen, Sovereign, my challenge is in not recovering the Wood of Faerie. My challenge is to use this Wood against the Aura in Ascension on the other side!" Chiapos allowed his anger to show through in his dolphinish accent.
"The other side of what?" Samarin asked.
Chiapos ignored the man's question. He wanted some answer from Brucar. "You said that Martok cannot cross over to this side until the Mammoth was completely vanquished. A few minutes ago I had a vision of the Mammoth embraced with Cenan in the clouds overhead. That tells me that not all is lost as of yet and that the Dark Aura has not crossed over the Divide to this world."
"What Divide?" Samarin once again voiced a question that nobody heeded.
"I do not have answers for you regarding your questions, Prophet. Only you have the ability to see the great ones. I did not see any such visions nor has my wife," Brucar replied somberly.
"See what?" Cherite had broken the surface and tried to join in on the conversation. Like Samarin, no one bothered to give her a reply. But unlike Samarin, she did not seem to be perturbed by this. She was quickly back submerged in the waters of the lake at night. Whether she was searching for something or did it out of delight the Rainwaterman did not know.
"But you know the ways of the great ones!" Chiapos retorted with exasperation. "Can I be safe if I give trust to the premise that because I saw the vision of the two of them alive that that means that Martok had not breached the Divide and has not crossed over to this side?"
"I know what has come to pass and never before has an aura been able to cross a barrier erected by the one that is most powerful until that one has come to his or her demise,” Brucar answered. "But I do not know what things may be. I cannot vouchsafe my knowledge to you."
"Then what about your enemies? The women in the canoes? The ones that killed Cherite and injured you on the other side of the Divide?"
"What Divide are the two of you talking about?" Samarin's voice was raised and powerful. “I'm not going to let the two of you talk until I get my answer! I demand it!"
Chiapos tried to ignore him. He needed answer to this important question but when Samarin made it certain that he would be heard, the youth was about to acquiesce with him when suddenly the highwayman became still and a soft thud could be heard against the sand.
"What did you do?" the Rainwaterman cried out to Brucar who had evidently silenced Samarin very swiftly.
"An annoying man cannot talk when his mind sees the stars. I bopped him one." There could be detected some mirth in the ancient man's deep bass voice.
Chiapos started to laugh. He wanted to do the same to the highwayman. His laughter ended rather quickly when his ears detected that his chuckles had the choppy vocal histrionics of a dolphin. The sound had disconcerted him. "Did those women make it to this side?"
"What women are you talking about?" Brucar answered with his own question.
"The ones that waylaid you on the other side? The ones in the canoes that were coming after me and my party? Those women!" Chiapos could not believe that Brucar could have been so dense as to not remember them.
"You mean the daughters of Cleomic?"
"If those are the women that killed Cherite and shot you in the leg, yes."
"You think that they managed to cross over the Divide and come into this realm on their own? Why would you think such a thing?"
"Someone stole the Redeemer from Samarin here on this side. I never learned the fate of those warrior women and I thus could not rule out the possibility that they were here." Chiapos found himself close to shouting again. Trying to get meaningful information out of the Sovereign was almost worthy of a Challenge in itself.
"Rest assured those proud females of Cleomic's clan are not in the Timeless Land. They and the other marauders were driven off by the valiant efforts of Jeyud and Maelin," Brucar answered as he started to wade into the lake. Chiapos half-expected that the man would be able to walk on water but such was not the case.
"But Jeyud and Maelin only did battle with those on the shoreline. There was a canoe that came out after me and the others! I didn't see your two wives pitch battle against them."
"You see things only from your perspective, Prophet. I assure you that if you had the line of sight that I had of things, your doubts about Cleomic's daughters would disappear." Brucar was now only yards away in the dark waters. Chiapos could see that the Sovereign's hands and arms were busy in keeping himself afloat. Why, the Rainwaterman wondered, was he coming out here and putting himself to this effort when communications were sufficient from the shore?
From behind him, he could hear Cherite surface again. Suddenly, Chiapos was overcome by suspicions. Were these two who they purported to be? This was a world of shapeshifting where anybody could look like anybody. Brucar's answers thus far did not seem to run parallel with what Chiapos already knew of what happened. Samarin was already neatly disposed of. Was he next? He turned around quickly to see where Cherite was. She had gone below again but the wake in the water seemed to be heading directly to him. Why would she be searching for the Redeemer anyway? Wasn't it her quest to have all the Wood of Faerie safely stowed away on this side of the Divide? Wasn't it cross-purpose for her to help him find it and return it to the Land of Time?
"Why are you coming out here? What are you doing?" the Rainwaterman cried out. He was sure now that the dolphin and the man were not the Sutherlanders. He felt something rub against his fins below the water.
Cherite emerged just inches from him. Even in the dark of night, Chiapos could see the fire in her eyes. "What's the matter Prophet? Don't you like me this close to you?" she said with a touch of wickedness.
He felt a hand grab his dorsal fin and another slip under his chest. It was Brucar. He was drawing him to him in a powerful hold. "You're not as slippery as I thought that you'd be!" The ancient man laughed in a voice that was clearly not that of the Sovereign. The normal deep basal resonance of the Sutherlander was replaced by the cackling pitch of a sinister madman. There was something familiar about it.
"Who are you?" Chiapos cried as he struggled to break free. The grip of his assailant was too strong.
"Someone who should have apprehended you a long time ago!" Brucar's imposter hissed and slowly transformed his features into those of Tanejul's Hand of the Law, Scanga Groes.