We reached the third day of our journey and, to be honest, things were not going well.
The battle raged below on the valley floor. Deep lion’s roars made our chest rumble, the trumpeting from armored elephants heralded another attack, immense snakes hissed their way into the fray.
I turned to Scarlet. She locked her eyes on mine.
“There is nothing for us to do.”
“I came to fight. I need to experience combat.” My voice overcoming the din from afar.
“Azur, you are still a trainee, you can’t participate.”
My fists tightened on my sides. Useless primate hands. I couldn’t even use gesture magic, the only way any antropomorph went to battle. The profound longing for the power to change consistently into a battle-ready beast eroded my insides. Disgusted with my inadequacy, I turned away from the raising clouds of dust, the splatter of gore, the glorious and terrible music of conflict.
We trudged on to the castle, we had been called back from the village. My shoulders slumped, my head hanging in shame, in self-loathing. Scarlet talked the whole way, I heard it all and listened to none of it. She is a smart one, capable of performing some gesture magic. In all probability, she’ll be commissioned before me, although I’ve been training three years longer than her.
We reached the tall ivy-covered castle walls. The massive drawbridge over the deep moat was down.
The guards didn’t acknowledge us in any way as we walked between them. We were below their notice, mere apprentices.
I wanted to run up to Ash’s quarters, to demand more instruction. We had been sent away as useless noncombatants, now we had been recalled, no explanation. Maturity meant a lot and considered essential to be deemed ready. Trying to be as composed as possible, my frustratingly paused and measured steps took me up the stairs and through the cold, damp corridors.
“Azur, please, be patient. You are very good. Once your training is over, you will be powerful indeed. Ash has already said you will probably be able to jump class and possibly phylum. You will morph beyond mammals, to avians, perhaps even to reptiles or fish.”
“Power tomorrow is useless today.” The bitterness in my voice made her recoil from me. “I’m sorry, Scarlet. I’m just so frustrated.” My fist hit the stone wall. We moved off, the skin over my knuckles knitted together, and the little blood that had escaped dried up and fell off.
Her head bowed and shook slowly. “You are proficient but impatient.”
We reached Ash’s workshop. The partially opened door allowed a limited view of his heavily laden work-bench.
Boldly I pushed the door open. “Excuse the intrusion…”
My face paled, my insides froze and my breath caught in my throat.
Ash, the mightiest of the Battle Shifters lay on the floor, in a pool of blood, his windpipe ripped.
Who could have done that to him? How had they gotten in here?
I turned around searching for anything unusual, knelt by him, and touched his face. Still warm, this was recent.
Scarlet, pale and trembling beside me took my arm in her hand. “Is he dead?”
“Obviously.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Sorry, yes, he is. We need to find whoever did this.”
“We should tell the Castellan.” Her voice trembled with emotion, her eyes darted all over the room.
“Can you change? To a canine? Can you pick up the scent of the killer?”
Her eyes wide, her mouth opened twice, but no words made it out. Her gaze hardened, she nodded and moved off. The bones popping in time with the moving bulges under her skin. A soft moan ended in a low howl as the transformation completed. Her training still incomplete, any shifting was excruciating.
She padded up to me and sniffed, to discard my scent. She respectfully did the same with Ash. Then she cast around. Her search was quick. A turn of her lupine head, her eyes caught mine. She ran out the door, nose close to the ground, her sniffing loud.
We climbed some stairs, through dusty empty halls, desperation goading us.
She came up to a massive door. Again, her head turned to me.
I rushed and tugged at the door. Locked. I grabbed the ring with both hands and pulled with all my might. Nothing.
A scream broke from my chest. My balled fists rose and I pummeled the door several times. Then, the warm sensation I knew but had never experienced in such intensity took me over. My torso expanded, my arms grew in length and girth. My legs shortened. The pain exquisite, my elation, complete, I transformed.
The silver-back gorilla I shapeshifted to beat the door twice before braking it and fell tearing it off.
I got up and started forward when my short limbs tangled, causing a humiliating fall. My head bounced on the ground inducing me to change back. My clothes were tattered but serviceable. I scrambled to my feet and followed Scarlet, still in canine form.
A shadow rushed up the stairs to the top of the tower.
She was faster on four legs and made it to the landing first.
The Nemevary agent turned as she jumped, fangs flashing in the sunlight. He dodged her and shifted into an immense horned boa, which wrapped tightly around her body.
A whimper escaped her snout simultaneous with the crack of her ribs.
A primal scream ripped out of my throat as I sprinted forward, my hands shifting to the huge paws of an enraged grizzly bear.
The reptile uncoiled, rushed to the edge of the platform, and leaped morphing into a shark as it fell to the moat.
I sprang right behind him, becoming a gigantic Roc, and sunk my talons in its gills, stoping his fall and pulling him higher. I felt his blood flowing as I gained altitude.
In my mind, I smiled.
I’d rather be a bird than a fish.