The yellow-green fields beyond the precipice widen as I near the edge. I hear the screams of the hunters. They want me. They want to wring every last drop of my spirit from me and bring it to their master.
The Mage of Black Mountain has long known of my existence. He could not best me when first we met nor at any time since. Now, as he nears the end of his life his mind is still as sharp and unyielding as a poisoned trap, but he has forgotten the quality of his prey. For the last time, he must be reminded.
“It’s getting away!” the hunters scream at each other. “Don’t let it get to the cliff!”
I have kicked off my sandals mid-run. The rocky ground tears at my feet. I feel it, but there is no pain. I look back. I am too fast for them. I could outrun them forever. But I have something else in mind. Ten more steps. Five. Two. With all my force, I leap over the cliff edge and spread my arms. My eyes water as they grow and deepen and shift. My clothes drop into the void. My skin numbs as it creases. The mountain air surrounds me but I cannot feel its frosty touch. I brace for the pain, the incandescent pain.
It begins with my scratched and battered feet. The smallest toes cramp into themselves and disappear into the muscle. Their big brothers tear away from each other. They pull at the tendons as they lengthen, the thumbs looping around the feet to become back talons. The nails harden and sharpen, stretching the cuticles. I scream my agony even as my throat is gripped by the morphing vertebrae. My arms snap backwards with an excruciating crunch. My fingers and carpal bones align to shape my wings. My teeth melt onto each other to form the beak of the predator. My heart and lungs tighten and shrink. My skin is shredded by thousands of irrepressible feathers cutting their way through. The pitch of my screams rises, up, up.
I glide in the crisp air and turn back towards the three hunters. I show them my full wingspan, my majesty, my power. I allow them this last sight before I lunge, my talons quivering, preparing to rip flesh. My pain softens as it sinks into the lukewarm waters of memory.
One of the hunters raises his crossbow and shoots. The arrow bounces off my armor of feathers. So weak, so inept. The very idea that they might be capable of harm insults me. I dive. I pierce his nack, lift his body past the cliff edge and let it drop. He screams and kicks and waves his arms, uselessly looking for something to hold on to. I swoop around and plunge toward the other two. There is nowhere for them to hide from my gaze on this barren plateau.
I attack the bulkier hunter, my talons outstretched. As he turns to run I connect with his back, but instead of the familiar tearing of tissue I feel the peculiar hardness of leather armor. I beat my wings to gain the air once more, but cannot extract my talons before the man falls to the ground, pulling me with him. I am about to pierce the back of his neck with my beak when a heavy rope pins my wings to my body and roughly pulls me to the ground. The heavy one rises and grinds his knees into my wings while the other’s whole body rests on the top of my head.
I cannot see anything. I hear the hissing of metal. I feel the air shifting as a blade hovers over my unprotected back. I writhe. But the blade does not come. It takes me just instants to find a new shape. The agony swells. The feathers disappear into my skin. My bones shift again, my organs regrow, my muscles rearrange. The stupid men make nothing of my convulsions, my gasping for air. I push my arms down and throw them off. They fly through the air like flapping fish.The change is not yet complete. My body is still growing as I pull my newly massive shoulders up towards the sky. I howl as my skull expands and my beak flattens into a fanged snout.
The hunters are still rolling on the ground.
“Why didn’t you strike?” wails the fat one. “We had it!” His stupid eyes stare up at me. “Gods protect me!”
The other rises. His face and clothes are covered with grey mountain dirt. He is young, hair black and eyes green like jade. He looks up at my snarling face, puts up his hands and shows me his empty palms.
“Great Spirit!,” he calls in a loud, clear voice. “Please. Allow me to speak to you.”
My growl rumbles like thunder. This man had pushed my face to the dirt. I will rip his arms off. I will tear his head clean off his body. I roar with fury while the pain recedes.
“Please! We are at your mercy. He gestures at the empty landscape that surrounds us. “There is nowhere for us to go. Just hear what I have to say!”
He is right. There is no possible escape. I lower my forepaws and look up at the sky in a futile attempt to distract myself from the pain. It fails, as it always does. Every inch of my body burns from the inside. My mouth opens wide of its own volition, yet I have enough strength of will to keep from screaming. The two men watch motionless as I return to my human form. I stand before them in silence. I wait for the pain to fade.
They are startled, as men often are when I first permit them to hear my voice. But the young man stands straight and meets my eyes, though he keeps a prudent distance.
Their gaze wanders over my body. A different gaze for a different sort of hunger. The eyes of men change according to what they see. It is the only part of them that ever changes.
“You know what we want, do you not? You know who sent us?”
I nod. They want my spirit. My power. They want everything that is in me, except for me.
“I have come to strike a bargain,” announces the black-haired devil.
I reward this bit of foolishness with laughter.
The fat one cannot contain himself. “What are you saying? Why didn’t you stab it when you had the chance?”
“Because,” snaps the other, “we would both be dead now! Isn’t that the truth?” he asks me.
“It is,” I respond. “As surely as this great mountain will stand here tomorrow.”
“We’re still dead!” yells the fat one. “At least fighting we have a chance!”
In wild panic, he charges at me. Rather than avoid his axe, I stand my ground. The blade sinks into my forehead. I hear the crunching sound of my skull cracking. I even feel it, in a detached way, no more unpleasant than crumbling hard bread with my fingers. The man tries to dislodge his weapon. I grab his neck with one hand, remove the ax from my head with the other. He kicks and gurgles in terror. I squeeze his windpipe until he loses consciousness but do not crush it altogether. I sense he is to serve some purpose yet. I turn to see that his black-haired comrade has not budged.
The green eyes are on me. Their large pupils seem to throb. “So I made the right choice. I could have stabbed you, Great Spirit. But that would have done us little good.”
His nose and chin are sharp. He bares his teeth. His voice. It is grave and soft and oozes out viscously.
“The cut must be flawless,” he says quietly.
I nod slightly. He knows. That voice. I feel something I have not felt in a long time — sharp, icy pinpricks of fear.
“It has to kill instantly. Otherwise you will heal yourself.” His voice feels denser, muddier.
“You know much. Or, should I say, you have been told much by your master.”
“The Black Mage is wise and powerful, Great Spirit. Yet he admires your power above all things.”
“He desires it, you mean.”
He keeps his clear, green eyes steady, his face expressionless. “My master has also told me of the curse that is your power. He has told me of the agony. I saw it now, as you changed.”
“If he has told you, he has told others. He shall die for sharing my secret.”
“I can free you from your curse and exact your vengeance as well.” whispers the black-haired youth.
“Yes, Great Spirit. Let me free you from the pain.”
I find that I am nodding my head. The man’s voice is beautiful like spring water. It washes even the memory of the pain away. I find I am weeping.
Softly, carefully, he comes closer. “How much have you borne?”
“So much… so much…”
“You cannot be harmed by the world. You are the mightiest of creatures. Yet you burn from within.”
It is true. It is unbearable. Why continue living with such a curse? Why? I am suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to make an end of it.
“I can make it stop. My master taught me how.”
I bring my hands to my face to wipe the tears away. I pause, and I breathe, and I think, and I feel.
“You will kill me.”
“And drain my spirit. And return to the Black Mountain and kill your master.”
“Yes.” His voice is in my head and in my heart. His voice and green eyes are chains.
I turn away and shudder, trying to dislodge his sorcery from my soul. But perhaps he can rid the world of the mage and free me. He approaches slowly, unafraid now. I can hear the stones under his feet. I can feel his power, as much as I feel my own.
“Let me carry the burden. Free yourself, Great Spirit. Rest.”
I am tempted to submit just so the wretched Sorcerer of Black Mountain must face his own heartless apprentice. But it is too great a thing, my power. Too great a gift for wicked and petty men.
He is close. So close. His face darkens. I can smell his rancid breath.
Then I know. “No,” I declare. “You cannot have me.”
“Oh, but I already have you!”
I cannot move. There is a dagger in his hand now. The hilt is white as pearl, the blade black as obsidian. He lifts it high and changes. His face crumples into a wrinkled, dry mask. His shoulders narrow and he shrinks before my eyes. The young man with the jade eyes is gone. The Mage of Black Mountain stands before me, laughing a dusty, throaty laugh.
“A perfect cut,” he says. “A killing cut. One chance. One moment of distraction. How ironic it has been brought about by the prospect of my death.” His voice nettles and grates against my mind.
I try to force a change. I call for the pain, I beg for it. It does not come. The sun flickers on the dagger as it approaches my neck. Slowly. Slowly. The Mage’s hand is steady. He will destroy me and steal my spirit. Will it hurt, the death cut? I raise my eyes to the sky. Let him take it. Let him regret taking my curse. Let him suffer.
The fat one has awoken. He fumbles to his feet braying and runs to the Mage. The old man’s attention flickers, all I need to pull away from the leash of his spell. It begins as an ember, it thaws my muscles, my bones, my insides, then it warms, and warms more. It is done. I am free.
“No!,” he screams at the hunter. “Get out of the way!”
The Mage thrusts the blade into my neck and my blood rains upon his face. But it is too late. Just a cut it is. Not the killing cut.
When the pain comes, it is all inside. It is the most intense pain I have ever felt, for it is birthing the most terrible form I have ever taken. I let out a thunderous howl. I find little satisfaction in what happens next. It is over in seconds.
The fat hunter’s face is white as chalk. “Gods protect me!,” he whimpers. “Gods… gods…”
From high above I consider him. I snort loudly like the wild creature I am. I doubt he even knows he saved my life.
“Go,” I command him. “By my caprice you will live. Tell all along your way that the Mage of Black Mountain is no more. Tell them what happens to those who dare hunt me and challenge me, no matter how mighty or clever.”
He nods, croaks out his thanks and limps away. I watch him go. He is visible for many miles before he sinks down below the horizon.
I find that I am weeping again, overcome by the fragility of my dominion over the world.
Story “Skinchanger” © Eduardo Frajman
Eduardo Frajman grew up in San José, Costa Rica, and has lived in Jerusalem, Baltimore, Chicago, and Oslo. He is a political scientist with an interest in Latin American social movements, and the Spanish-language editor of Southern Pacific Review. His work has appeared in Aethlon, The Point, The Transnational, and other publications.
Illustration “Unnamed” © Marek Purzycki
Marek Purzycki, aka igreeny, is a Polish artist working in digital media. His work can be found at igreeny.deviantart.com/ and prints of his work can be purchased at http://igreeny.deviantart.com/prints/