Chapter 12 - The Shapeshifting Kirillian

A lax summer breeze coated the mountainside with a refreshing pine and lemongrass redolence. As the day reached its peak, sunbeams showered the wildflowers and cascading foothills. Rhemar and Cato soaked in the atmosphere and settled into a surreal relaxation. After the seemingly ceaseless ordeals they faced in the temple of Seneca, the duo was in no rush to continue onto the next journey. They were cut, scraped, nicked, bruised, bashed, battered, branded, and bombarded by the three trials of Seneca. Although they emerged victorious, their spirits remained disheveled.

After several long minutes, Rhemar shuffled to his feet and stretched his back studiously, “What a day to be alive. The bright temper of the sun shining, birds professing their undying love, pine and lily gamboling in the air…yes sir, the world is B-E-A-U-Tiful.”

“Someone’s chipper. Feeling those endorphins, or did you hit your head on the way down?” Cato holstered his encased and scorched arm as he got to his feet, “Say, would you mind removing this stone stump and healing my arm? It’s quite irritating and I can’t move my hand.”

Rhemar turned to Cato, inhaled a deep breath of the melodious air, and jaunted over, “It would be my pleasure.”

He gripped Cato’s left arm and murmured an incantation, “Lutum attero amnis.”

They both expected to see the stone wrappings cascade to pieces, like the stone tomb Rhemar dismantled during their encounter with the wind spirit, but nothing happened.

Rhemar looked a bit embarrassed, cleared his throat, and with a bit more gusto, reattempted the spell, “Lutum Attero Magna!”

Again, nothing happened.

“Maybe you’re saying it wrong.”

“I’m saying it right. It’s something else…”

“Maybe you didn’t put you’re hands in the right spot.”

“I put them in the right spot, you ass. Shoosh!”

“Maybe – “

“Shut it! It’s not that!”

Cato turned his face away, “Just trying to help.”

“Well you’re not. Give me a second to think. I can feel my majin, but something’s different. Let me try again.”

Rhemar closed his eyes and focused on his objective. He spoke the words of power and bore his will into breaking the stone cast. A sharp jolt shot through Rhemar’s arm and into the masoned wrappings. An electrified neon-red arc cracked the cast down to Cato’s wrist.

Before he could see the results of his final attempt, Rhemar turned his back in triumph, “Ha! Maybe you’re not saying it right. What do you think now Mr. I-have-a-suggestion-about-things-I-dont-know-about?”

“Uh, Rhemar – “

“No need to thank me – ”

As Rhemar turned back to wallow in victory and heal his comrade, Cato’s fractured cast burst open and sent slate shards flying in all directions.

“Holy shit, what was that?”

Cato’s eyes widened with developing rage, “What do you mean, What was that? THAT was my Fucking Arm Blowing Up! What are you playing at Mr. Magic-man?”

Rhemar was speechless, as he stared at Cato’s still-intact, blistered arm. He looked up to Cato and tried to explain but closed his mouth before any words fell out. His spell failed to deconstruct the stone cast and instead, nearly severed Cato’s arm. It was by chance the shaman’s mutilated appendage remained attached to his shoulder. Unsurprisingly, Cato did not express gratuity for Rhemar’s blundered attempt to safely remove the stone casing.

Rhemar shuffled closer to Cato, “I’m sorry, let me take a look. I can – “

“Oh no, we’ve done enough for one session. I think we should…reschedule our next appointment. Ahem, thank you for removing my cast. I’ll tend to my wounds down by the lake.”

Rhemar gazed at Cato with wounded pride, and attempted to voice an explanation, but the wind shaman was already retreating into the woods where they previously noted a lake in the distance. The hopelessly useless mage sat down in shamed defeat. He pondered the root cause of his malfunction until he realized its source. The golem. When his shadow arrow collided with the golem’s electrified bolt, the lightning transformed into a blackened void-blast and reciprocated. The demonic energy struck Rhemar before he could prepare a defense and must have caused his majin to alter. While the tress shifted in the wind's combing, Rhemar remained stationary and considered his insidious condition.

A cold breeze swept the hillside with swooning parish and ushered in the afternoon temper. Rhemar dismissed his thoughts for the moment, dragged himself to build a fire, and set up camp. Although defeated in his attempts to aid his friend, he carried on with solemn intent.

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At the base of the Garza Mountains, Cato entered a clearing where a glassy lake pooled like a rippled mirror. He knelt near the closest bank and dunked his arm into the lake’s chilly undertow. At first, the cool sensation made his arm spike with irritation but soon abated his ailments. After several moments of sitting in the baking sun, Cato decided on a rejuvenating swim. He removed his robes, bandana, and Gobu’s gourd, set them by a shoreline boulder, and dove in stark naked.

He paddled thirty meters out and floated in the shimmering pool. With no one attempting his life, Cato enjoyed a breath of the alpine wilderness. As his troubles washed away, he noticed a white ram emerging from the forest. The ram appeared much larger than the typical mountain goat known to graze these foothills, yet its head was distinctively smaller. Disproportionately smaller. Tiny. As Cato observed this creature, he noticed that it was inspecting his gear. It started rummaging through his robes and caught the wind gourd’s emerald sash around its curled horn.

Now alarmed, Cato shouted to the billygoat, “HEY GET AWAY FROM THAT!”

No longer covert and uncontrollably startled, the ram dashed away with the Wind God’s artifact streaming from its rustic cuticle horn. It nagged and bobbed as its hooves clamored over the rocky shore with deliberate effort. The ram seemed clumsier than a typical foraging goat, slipping every few pounces; most likely due to its wee head failing to discern where its hooves landed.

Astonished, Cato frantically paddled toward the shore. By the time he made it to the beach, the ram was a speck in the distance. To keep track of the thieving goat, Cato spared no time redressing and sprinted after the burglar. Cold, wet, and naked, the wind shaman kept his sights on the escaping ram and called the wind to aid his travel. A galloping rush of wind hit Cato’s back and thrust him forward, faster than any normal man could stride. With the aid of the wind, he closed the distance on the ram. The fleeing fiend noticed his enclosing pursuer and darted off the shore path into the thick underbrush. Cato continued his pursuit. Despite his blistered and splintering feet, the shaman did not faulter. He knew that failing to recover Gobu’s gourd would jeopardize everyone’s future. Resolved, the shaman increased his pace.

Cato waved his hands in a fluid motion while he continued to sprint between the maze of obstinate pines. He hailed the wind to halt the ram and a steady whooshing cascaded through the forest. Impeded by the thick canopy, the wind failed to slow the goat. Instead, a rather pleasant breeze wafted through the thicket of branches and brushed against Cato’s fiery hair. Perturbed, he tried again. His next attempt fell short as well. If Cato wanted to retrieve the ash-bone gourd, he needed to cut off the ram before it outpaced him and escaped.

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Rhemar finished erecting the tent and built a roaring fire that he was self-indulgently proud of. He retrieved a sack of preserved rabbit meat from his cloak and sat on a wide pewter stone nestled in the ground. Skewering the rabbit jerky with a whittled stick, Rhemar implanted the meat-clad rod into the warm dirt accompanying the campfire. While the rabbit meat roasted, and he waited for Cato’s return, Rhemar twined sapling fibers into a makeshift rope. Rhemar inspected his majin again. The unsettling energy churning inside felt unnatural and tormented. As he pondered his predicament, a sudden shout echoed through the forest. Rhemar shifted his sights toward the disturbing source and inspected the tree line. A white blur, in the shape of a humpback boar, dashed through the trees with a naked man chasing it vigorously.

Rhemar smirked to himself, “Someone’s hungry.”

He looked closer and noticed crimson locks trailing behind the feral man. Looking back to the white blur he noticed a mutated ram with the bone gourd jostling from its horns. Without alarming the racing competitors to his actions, Rhemar grabbed his unfinished rope and sprinted ahead to flank the fugitive swine.

With only a single chance to capture the ram, Rhemar looped his rope into a shabby lariat and flung the fibrous circlet between a set of conifers. Luckily, Rhemar was a hunter by trade and knew his way around roping a bull. Rhemar yanked on the lasso and drove the ram into the ground. The submitted capra could not resist the overpowering force driving its tethered horn into the dirt. As soon as the billygoat hit the ground, Rhemar flipped it over, hogtied its hooves, and prevented any further scampering. The cowboy mage also untangled the bone gourd from the ram’s curled horn and tossed it to his heavily-panting comrade.

“This one giving you trouble?”

Still trying to catch his breath, Cato put up his index finger to signal for another moment, “I – I was – just about – to catch it. Was this close.”

“Yeah, it looked like you had it by the horns. Sorry I intervened.”

“No – problem. Just don’t – make it a habit.”

“Ha! Coming from the man swinging his cock in the wind. Don’t worry, I won’t interrupt next time. I know traveling gets lonely and sometimes you need a release. You know, it’s still tied up if you want to take a go.”

The restrained ram went completely still and shifted its bulging, lopsided eyes to Rhemar. It half-opened its scuffled maw and gaped with look of absurd bafflement.

Cato piped up, “WHAT? NO. I WOULD NEVER – YOU ACTUALLY THINK – WHAT KIND OF SICK FREAK ARE YOU? I WASN’T TRYING TO FUCK THAT GOAT!”

“Hey man, it’s cool, to each his own. I bet that goat wouldn’t even notice – “

A grouch voice spat up from the disproportionate lump with buckeyes, “I most certainly Would, you barbaric Neanderthal. Let me shove my Barry Renshaw up Your sunshine daffodil, and we’ll see if YOU notice.”

Rhemar and Cato stared at each other in disbelief.

“Did that goat just talk?” Rhemar asked.

“I’m no goat you surly, bellowing buffoon. Now, untie me at once!”

The white ram shook fervently in its attempts to free itself, but its stumpy legs could not breach the hunter’s steadfast restraints. It wriggled its pugged face as it fought for freedom. The ram’s furrowed brow deformed with every convulsion. By the time it exhausted all available options, it looked more akin to a sea cow: muffled face rolls folding over its squinting eyes.

Cato inspected the fidgeting ram, expecting to see some type of parasite burst from its mangled maw, “What Are you?”

The ram stopped writhing abhorrently and subsisted in its attempts to escape, before it spoke again, “I am a man in disguise! I mean you no harm nor treachery. Now, if you would be savvy as to release me from these splintering restraints, I would be in your kindest grace and indebted with gratitude.”

Rhemar spoke first, “I don’t see the harm in letting him loose. We got the gourd back and you seem to be lively now. So long as you don’t try any funny business, I’ll untie you.”

The hogtied billygoat repositioned its head and focused its black beady-eyes on Rhemar, then spoke with honest intent, “That is agreeable.”

Rhemar knelt with a knife extruded from his cloak and severed the fibrous bindings. As he unfurled the handmade rope, the ram sprang to its feet and shook off the dust gathered in its coat. The ram cracked its neck and stretched its legs and with a deep exhale, its form started to shift. Its thick coat shed in seconds, revealing pink flesh and toned muscle. Its previously miniscule head inflated and reformed into a square-jawed, chiseled face. The ram leaned onto its back legs and stood tall. It grew to a prominent six feet and sprouted a twisted-tip moustache. Its feral eyes flared indigo as they inspected the surroundings. Rhemar and Cato ogled as the previously disfigured ram transformed into a strikingly dapper man.

Fabric threads seeped from the man’s pores and started weaving themselves into a fine silk shirt and leather-clad trousers, as the man turned to Cato for clarification, “Not that I don’t find you delicately handsome Mr. Starke, but I tend to stumble upon dubious luck when engaging redheads and practice evasion if my appetite can resist. Alas, they always hook me like a trout in the river, floundering on the bank and begging for more.”

The shapeshifter looked Cato up and down then shot him a smirk and a single, enticing wink. Bashfully embarrassed and aware that he was still quite naked, Cato turned to the forest and jogged towards the lake without saying a word. Rhemar and the stranger watched as Cato disappeared into the thicket and then simultaneously burst with laughter.

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When Cato returned to the camp, both Rhemar and the man sat around the fire and continued to chat. Not wanting to interrupt, Cato sat on the stone next to Rhemar and began wrapping up his arm with some extra gauze he procured from Rhemar’s robes of infinite possibilities.

“Sounds like you two fought a Tsurbaron and actually managed to live. Impressive.”

“Sir-bur-on?”

“Yes! They’re artificial constructs crafted by the Arcimmions to protect places of sacred importance. There’s two standing guard outside the Church’s basilica, in northern Sabine. Wouldn’t have guessed one would be way out here in no-man’s-land.”

“There’s more of those things? Bythion’s Beard, I can’t imagine fighting more than one of those monsters.”

“I haven’t heard of one activating in centuries. People believe that only an Arcimmion architect can operate one, and they’ve been missing for three hundred years. Now, they’re simply ornaments for tourists to gawk at and priests to sermon about: Beware the Tsurbaron and its Holy Might. When the night draws cold and the only sight is Ice, hide thine name and hail Bythion’s Light…or something like that.”

Cato interjected into the conversation, “What do they say about the other stones?”

The man shifted his sights to Cato and grinned, “Didn’t mention any other stones and I didn’t stay to hear the rest. Chasing redheads consumes most of my attention.”

Rhemar chuckled at the man’s response and patted Cato on the shoulder, “Cato, this is Marcus. Marcus, my windswept friend, Cato.”

Marcus nodded at his introduction, “Pleasure to meet your acquaintance. Not trying to tease, and sorry about the gourd. Once it was wrapped around my head and I heard you screaming, I panicked and ran.”

Cato looked skeptical, “Why would you run?”

“As you have noticed, I’m something of a shapeshifter. Typically, I only transform parts of my anatomy at any given time, depending on the occasion. However, when I go full beast, I tend to lose myself in the mania. You know, fight or flight. I was like that for three days before I met you two. Being hogtied and potentially backdoor-bamboozled jarred me back to my senses.”

Still not satisfied with Marcus’ answers, Cato took to more questions, “If you can’t control it, then why would you go full animal? Also, you didn’t look like a normal ram or mountain goat to me?”

“Ah yes, there’s both rhyme and reason for my behavior. First and foremost, when I see a beautiful specimen, whether it be man or beast, it is my duty and divine right to engage in cavorting relations, that is, if the creature will have me. This leads to my rejoinder. When making my travels into the Garza Mountains, I set eyes on a rare species of mountain goat known as Capra aegagrus ferrum, or the Ironbone ram. This species is known for a peculiar trait where their horns develop from threaded iron interwoven with hardened cuticle, hence the name.”

Marcus looked to his audience, noticed he was rambling, and cleared his throat, “Ahem, I’ve digressed. As I was saying, among the herd was an indescribably gorgeous ewe. Her wool softer than silken cashmere with utters tight and supple, ready for a jostling. All it took was a single baa, and I was seduced. Courting her on the other hand, turned out to be more of a challenge. I needed to be the ram with the longest and thickest horns. Of course, for me this is not typically an issue.”

Cato let out a sarcastic laugh to which Rhemar shot him an appalled look. Rhemar seemed to take great offense in Cato’s interruption of Marcus’ absurd tale. The shaman bent his head in shame and hushed in silent defeat.

Marcus sipped water from Rhemar’s canteen before he continued, “I fell into ill grace with the herd when I failed to get the composition of the ironbone right. It didn’t seem as obvious to me, but to them I was a bullfrog in a litter of pussycats…smelly, moist, croaking, and puffed out.”

Rhemar gagged on his roasted meat skewer from laughing at Marcus’ last remark. After spitting out the lodged jerky, he waved his apologies so that Marcus could again continue.

Pleased that his humor struck a chord, Marcus babbled on, “After trying for so long to get the horns right and going days without intercourse, I ended up looking more like a maldeveloped wombat with a fetus for a head. Not long after, I lost my mind to the beast and just carried on with life. Oh, the simplicity of a grazing caprine. I can still smell the citrine chlorophyll from fresh torn lemongrass…”

Cato could not contain himself from interjecting, “Going days without intercourse? How lush are you?”

Marcus ignored the shaman’s question, lifted his head, and sniffed unknown scents lingering on the wind like a trained bloodhound, “You may think I’m mad, but there’s nothing more liberating than becoming an animal for a few days…and yes, sex is where I cultivate my power from. The transference of living essence between two beings is a sacred dance practiced by my people and the eternal source of our abilities.”

Rhemar replied first, “Interesting adaptation. So, the longer you go without – “

“The more rapidly I age, and my shifted form deteriorates. Most of my people have no problem form-shifting, but since my mother isn’t a native, I innately have some setbacks.”

Rhemar nodded at Marcus’ explanation, “I can see that making sense. I do have a question as well, if you’re up for it?”

Marcus shot Cato a snickering jeer before replying to Rhemar, “I’m not out of answers yet. Let’s hear it.”

“If you’re from Kirill, then why are you all the way down here? It must be twenty thousand klicks to Warrin and Kirill is further still.”

“Alas, I was not bore in Kirill. My mother settled in Bahrii after leaving my father. So, I grew up a shapeshifter with no others like me for a thousand kilometers. To make a very long story short, I fell in love with biology and dedicated my life’s work to documenting the unique species of Nazar. I have a scientific journal with some shabby sketches and notes. One day, I’ll publish it and become a renowned biologist. But before I can do that, I need to complete my catalog. And that’s where Asco comes in.”

Cato flickered with excitement, “You’re going to see the Lycanos?”

While opening his journal and sifting to a particular page, Marcus noticed Rhemar’s expression shift to perplexed, and so continued with an informative introduction from his notes, “Canis andros, the first known creature to become sentient after the dawn of man. They are an evolved species of wolves that hold dominion over the Dungaal Forest and are the number-one exporter of lumber in the Sevenhand kingdoms. Ruled by the Edenhand King, Cicero, the Lycanos remain a secluded sect, only venturing out of their kingdom for mercantilism and diplomacy. Reportedly, Lycano mercenaries have been seen escorting members of the Church of Bythion. This has yet to be confirmed. From what we do know, the Lycanos are a fierce race far superior in physical attributes as well as sensory capabilities. They also take pride in restraint yet tend to express their inner wolf upon offense.”

Marcus flipped the page and saw Rhemar intently listening, as though he were telling a bedtime fable, “What’s more interesting, is their ability to disguise themselves as normal men and women. Some believe it’s a pheromone that inhibits perception. Others speculate witchcraft. They argue that Lycanos use illusionary magic to appear indistinguishable. Which is said to take effect upon meeting their debilitating gaze, yet no proof has been produced and therefore, remains purely speculative.”

Marcus closed his journal and stashed it in his coat before he spoke again, “As you two can see, there isn’t nearly enough information on these mysterious creatures. If I am to be renowned, I must capture their information and document it.”

“How do you keep notes when you shapeshift?”

“A tricky detail that’s taken me years to refine. I store the information as tiny ripples in my hair follicles. Various combinations of ripples and spaces mean different things. When I transform back to normal, I am able to decipher the text and keep log.”

Marcus reopened his journal to show his audience, but Cato could only make out tiny embossed dashes across the page, “But how?”

“That’s the secret. No one knows how to read it, except yours truly. I call it Marcus’ Observation Research and Secret Evaluation Code or M.O.R.S.E. Code for short.”

Rhemar chuckled and stood to stretch, “I think you could still shorten it a bit.”

The conversation continued into the night while the campfire steadied into a somber smolder. They spoke of past adventures and future intentions. Where to find the best food, which cities have the sexiest women, and how to spot a tell in Farrowlen. After midnight passed, the duo invited Marcus to camp with them, which he graciously accepted. Rhemar bid them a safe night and good morrow, threw a few more logs onto the fire, and resigned to his A-frame tent. Cato and Marcus wrapped up in their cloaks and nestled with the crackling campfire. Glinting embers danced on rising heat waves and doused into ashen soot. The night air swirled and tangoed with shimmering starlight, as it poured over the hushed mountainside and into silent regard.