Sunlight against my closed lids. Wind whispering through long grass, birds chirping in the air. Dirt, hard and rocky on my back. I wanted to sleep, yet everything told me to wake up and move.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
I cracked my eyes open, seeing a pinch of bright light and blue sky. I eased myself up, rubbed my eyes, stretched my arms, and opened my eyes. Yellow grass everywhere—I stood up and shaded my eyes, studying my surroundings to determine my bearings.
Behind my was a thick forest—so dark and foreboding, I didn't want to head in. Before me was a sea of wavy, yellow grass, punctuated by islands of solitary trees. Serengeti…no, that was in Africa. This region felt too cool, too crisp to be Africa. Squinting, I saw a tower in the distance. Tall, domineering, concealed in white, tough stone, it was the only landmark I had.
I walked forward, my shoes crunching on gravel, wading through the grass. It was slow going—despite the cool air I was soon panting. The tower was far away, its image blurred by thermals. There had to be an easier way to get there.
Air. Rising air. Thermals.
I pictured a bird in my mind, and shifted. I shrank, black, oily feathers covering me, and then took off flapping hard into the air. I circled, seeking a thermal. When I felt the powerful current lift my tiny wings, I shifted again—this time lengthening my wings, turning my feathers ochre. My mouth curved from a simple beak to a hooked weapon, my tail fanning out to catch the lift. My eyes would be yellow, the same yellow of the hawks in this region.
Wait. Yellow? How did I know that?
I reached the top of the thermal and set course for the tower. I looked over my body. How did I do this? How did I shift into a…crow, then to a hawk so effortlessly? I strained to remember how I learned to do this, from who I learned to do this, but came up blank.
Pumping my wings to gain altitude, I began a slow descent, heading toward the base of the tower. Now that I was closer I saw homes, a central square, and a bustling market ringing the tower. It seemed familiar. I recognized these people, but couldn't remember their name. They were bird shifters; they were sparrows, crows, and ravens, and their royal family consisted of hawks. Av...Avi…something. Why couldn't I remember?
I descended and landed at the edge of the bazaar. Passersby barely gave me a second glance. They must have thought I was one of them. It didn't help me much. I knew I was supposed to come here for a reason. I knew I was supposed to save these people, and others, from a force. A powerful force. Was it here already? I didn't know.
I wandered through the crowds, watching. Couples meandered, hand-in-hand. Stall owners either shouted out their wares or were busy working on their merchandise. A group of shrieking children ran by—one looked up at me curiously, before joining his friends.
It seemed peaceful here. I scanned the crowd and saw only a couple of soldiers stationed near a far gate, looking bored. I recalled hearing of a war here, a war that had lasted for two millennia before a union of the royal houses ended it. Supposedly, these bird people, they fought with a snake people. They went to the tiger people to seal their peace, and dealt with lions and falcons who wanted them to fight once more. Impressive, truly. I admired these people, even though they only had two forms.
Two forms? And how many did I have? Standing in the middle of the bazaar didn't help me with my…selective…memory.
I went to a local merchant to see if talking could jog my memory. His was a pastry stall, stacked with pies and fresh baked bread. Two young men worked behind him, one working some dough, the other checking a small, brick oven.
"Ah, greetings, young man. You look hungry. Perhaps some of our new meat pies would help."
The pies smelled delicious, but I wasn't too hungry. "Actually, I was hoping for a few pointers, kind sir."
The merchant arched his eyebrow. "A traveler, eh?"
"Yes, I just arrived." I looked around, spotting a few strange figures in the crowd. "Are there snake people here?"
"Snake people? You mean serpiente? Why, of course," said the merchant. "It has been several years since any incident occurred to scare them off. The last one was when the Diente Salem was attacked."
"Why was he attacked?"
The merchant shook his head wearily. "The months after Oliza's abdication were rough, but we've managed. Some traditionalists would rather have restarted the war than have a serpiente ruling them, I guess. Business wasn't good back then, what with everyone frightened stiff of the next big clash." He waved his hand in dismissal. "But things are alright now. The serpiente have returned to the Hawk's Keep, and some of us avians have gone to the serpiente palace. There hasn't been anything major for a couple of years. I think we've finally gotten used to each other."
Avian. These bird people were avian. And they had made peace with their former serpiente enemies. My memory wasn't as flawed as it seemed.
I glanced up at the tower behind me. The Hawk's Keep. Where the avian leader—the Tuuli Thea—resided.
"I need to speak with the Tuuli Thea."
"Ah, Sive Shardae. A bit young for a leader, but she's done well. She maintains an open door policy. So long as you don't barge in rudely, you should be able to speak immediately."
Sive? That wasn't the name I remembered. It was Danica, wasn't it?
"Danica Shardae was the previous Tuuli Thea," replied the merchant after I asked. "She was the one who got us through the first peaceful years."
"Her. I need to speak with her," I said urgently.
The merchant shrugged. "I don't believe she's here. Last I heard, she'd headed off to the serpiente palace with her alistair, Zane. Some kind of new arrival there, not exactly sure what. Local gossip hasn't been too helpful with that."
I thanked the merchant for his help anyway, though he seemed disappointed that I didn't buy anything. I didn't care. Now that I knew who to go to, I didn't have any time to lose.
I proceeded to the gate in front of the Keep. Looking past, I noticed the tower sat on a ring of pillars roughly fifteen feet above the ground. There was no staircase, probably to keep serpiente out during the war. Clever.
I shifted and flew to the first floor of the Keep, this time using a sparrow's form. The Tuuli Thea wasn't too hard to find, surrounded by a retinue of followers, constantly listening to someone's request or complaint. I proceeded to her, hoping this wouldn't take too long.
The pulse hit me in the chest. Puzzled, I looked around. It hit me again. That pulsing…I'd felt it before, down beneath the earth. It could only mean…
I scanned the market searching for the source of the pulses, but couldn't determine who they were coming from. There were too many people, too many voices. The pulses seemed to be coming from close to the Tuuli Thea.
Desperate, I shoved my way into the crowd, earning myself a couple of glares. One pair of eyes was black, glossed over. The man stood next to the Tuuli Thea, watching as she spoke with an old lady. The pulses came right from him.
As soon as he saw me, the man's eyes exploded. Without warning, he rushed forward and tackled the Tuuli Thea, knocking her to the ground.
I tensed as the room erupted into chaos, women screaming, trying to get away while guards, alerted by the noise, swarmed from above, their weapons bristling. Another man standing next to the Tuuli Thea grappled with the attacker.
I rushed forward to help, when suddenly I glimpsed a flash of blades. The aggressor flipped the man with amazing strength and planted him on the ground, leaving the bruised, bloodied Tuuli Thea shrieking on the ground. The attacker's eyes…weren't eyes, but bulging, black globes that reflected the light, soulless and lifeless. His mouth had morphed into a wiggling, squirming mass, as if chewing on something. He raised his arms. They gleaned in a coat of green, shiny armor, rigid and stiff. Where his hands should have been sprouted a pair of sharp scythes, each more than three feet long.
Before I could stop him, the attacker gutted the poor man, shredding his chest and stomach in seconds, the blades a whirl as they swung and stabbed. The man screamed in anguish. I reared back and swung, smashing the attacker in the head. The bulging eyes, the green armor, the blade arms—alien as they were, they seemed familiar.
I pounced and landed on the creature, going for his neck. It wasn't until I bit with a muzzle full of teeth that I realized I'd morphed unconsciously into a wolf. I shook my head voraciously, trying to tear the creature's head off. It struggled, planting its limbs against me, slashing me with its huge blades. It was too much; I couldn't bite through that thick plating, and the blades were shredding me. Jumping backwards, already gashed with wounds, I changed, my grey fur turning black, my limbs growing muscular as I reared up and pounded my chest. The creature scrambled to its feet only to meet the huge fist of a gorilla.
It flew across the room, smashing into several merchant stalls. Dazed, it lay there for a moment. I charged forward. Whatever it was, I had to kill it before it could hurt any more people.
I grabbed it around the midsection, hoisted it into the air, and began pounding it with my other fist, feeling its tough armor crunching with a sickening noise. It stabbed my hand, and I felt it escape as I roared, clutching my bloodied fist. The creature balanced itself on four spindly legs. Its large rear end twitched as white gunk dripped from a gash. Its eyes were bloody, the green armor mangled. It hissed and gurgled, swishing its two front blades.
I finally identified the creature. Even as a powerful ape, the realization paralyzed me.