Then, as if riding on song, she floated to him. Her s.h.i.+rt was gone, hair flowing back from her naked body. She added her touch to the thousand of others. He was hardly aware of her releasing his pants and them falling from his hips. The song noticed, gripping the shaft as Sarah wrapped those sleek thighs around him, and slid him inside her body. The combination made pleasure dance over his skin. The touch kept its pressure around his b.a.l.l.s and a.s.s. He filled his hands with her body, pulling her against him, sheathing him in her hot folds. He couldn't help driving into Sarah as she moved with him, suspended on his hands and that song. He managed to stay standing as the song reacted to their movement, lapping beneath his sack and along his cheeks. He slid their bodies together harder. In and out, faster with the rhythm, as her voice shook with the approaching climax, the touch squeezed, slid into him in a twinge of surprising pleasure.
"Don't stop," she cried and the touch vibrated around him and inside.
He hadn't been aware that he had stopped but the diversion nearly broke him. Liking started the motion again, slamming her against his body. He couldn't stop the coming explosion.
Lynn had a fitful night's sleep. It was early afternoon but she'd rested little. At first she reached for Liking, then sat up startled when there were no sounds of her children in the cave. The reality of what had happened crashed down on her.
"They've all gone."
She'd thought it was a terrible nightmare, but she was alone. The strength left her and Lynn slid from the bed to the floor of the cave. There on the dirt, the pain of what had happened fled to the rock and earth. In return, the ground eased her, brought her some comfort in her despair. The emotion drained from her, leaving a cold emptiness that was a welcome diversion from pain.
"I am a s.h.i.+fter. I am part of this earth."
Before the war with the flyers, s.h.i.+fters lived in caves, growing strong from the contact in the ground. She'd seen the oldest of her tribe raise magic from the earth, learn the future, and even find new forms to s.h.i.+ft into. It had been too long since she'd practiced the old ways. The exercises of her youth frightened Liking, so she'd put them aside.
"I have always been a s.h.i.+fter."
It was instinct that caused her to reject the boy baby. He will grow strange. Male s.h.i.+fters, even a flyer mix, could never grow into a real life. The forces in him will cause his death; tear him apart from the inside out. Only females can manage the great power in their s.h.i.+fter blood.
Celia was deformed. It wasn't so wrong to try to make her look normal. Of course, Liking thought wings were normal, even a preferred trait. It was another thing he'd been mistaken about. Men were only useful for breeding. Actually living with one was a ridiculous notion. s.h.i.+fters didn't make their beds with animals and keeping a man in the house was the equivalent. There was no point in listening to his ideas of beauty. Liking was inferior.
That left Elise, her perfect baby, a miracle from a mutt union. Lynn would take that baby back. The world shouldn't be without s.h.i.+fters and if Liking raised the baby as a flyer, her race would die all the same. Flyers didn't understand true magic, only their little fire, wind, and ice conjuring. They were low-grade creatures, managing a few elements.
Lynn closed her eyes and tried to feel the beat in the earth. That thing that lived deep in the dirt where the heat grew and the core drove the seasons that fed these weaker things. Real power lived there. Once she'd regained her power, Liking would beg to be in her bed again. Perhaps she'd let him when the breeding time came again. He'd created at least one decent child. It would be fitting for him to leave that other woman and wors.h.i.+p her.
s.h.i.+fters should be wors.h.i.+ped. They were once great in the land, feared and loved. Those times would return. She wouldn't die alone in this cave. Her people were gone. The burden of her race lay in her. She couldn't fail. Slowly, she'd repopulate the world and teach these other things where their loyalties should lie. She was the last of a great race, far more powerful than anything that had existed before or since.
"I'll show those flyers."
The only reason they'd won the battle for the star was their numbers. They had great numbers against ten, the last ten s.h.i.+fters of the world. The s.h.i.+fters had fought bravely but there was no stopping that many.
"I wish I could create more s.h.i.+fters, but I won't be able to breed for so long."
She let her mind drift, creeping into the rock below. The magic would come to her and strength. There was a way to solve her dire situation. She couldn't birth enough. Breeding season only came every five or ten years.
As she tried to push the problem out of her mind, the lower levels answered her.
There are other ways.
* * * * The sun rose, burning away the morning chill. Liking couldn't keep his eyes from the sky, watching for his old friend. It was amazing Cordin had remained his friend through so many mistakes and lies, but he had. Cordin was truly good and Liking couldn't stand the thought of harm coming to him. "Cordin should've been back by now." Liking stood on the porch with Sarah by his side. The children played at his feet. "I fear for him." "Go look for him." Liking looked down at Sarah, who was sitting with the children. It amazed him at their rapid growth. Overnight they'd gained the ability to sit up and even managed some awkward steps. "Are you sure you'll be safe alone?" "Oh Liking, look," called Sarah excitedly. He glanced at the children again. This time Celia wasn't visible. Faller sat with Elise and a tiny version of Sarah sat on his wife's lap. Celia had learned to shape s.h.i.+ft and had chosen Sarah to imitate. The baby hadn't changed size. Perhaps she couldn't manage that yet. She had done a miraculous job of looking exactly like Sarah, even if it were a smaller dimension. Liking got down on his knees and held his arms out to Celia. The baby laughed, rubbed her little face on Sarah, then got up and fell into Liking's arms. He tickled her while kissing her face. As the baby laughed, she changed back to the black winged and equally dark body. "Mmmmmmmmmmmm," Celia muttered, stringing the m's along in a long single sound. "Mmmm." "She's only five days old and already talking." Liking hugged her tightly. "Say daddy." "Mmmmda." Celia smiled brightly. "Mmmmda." "No. Say daddy, please?" "Peas peas peas peas." "That's close enough." He kissed her again. Elise must've noticed her sister getting all the attention and s.h.i.+fted. Instead of looking like Sarah, she grew large black wings, and appeared like Celia. Faller squished his eyes and wrinkled his nose, looking like he had to p.o.o.p. After a moment, he kicked his feet and cried. It seems his son had not gained the ability to s.h.i.+ft. It didn't matter. Liking pulled the three into his arms. "My children."
He kissed them all. Celia and Elise batted at his head with their wings, then laughed when he tried to protect himself. Faller was still upset with his current form and began kicking again. Doing such on Liking's lap wasn't a good idea. The boy soundly kicked Liking in the b.a.l.l.s, causing him to yelp in pain and all three children to laugh.
"Sarah, a hand please."
Sarah scooted forward, wadding up her dress in the process. She promptly pulled Faller from Liking's lap. She hadn't laughed but there was a naughty grin on her lips. Liking handed her both girls and shook one finger at the four of them.
"Arah," called Celia.
Elise mimicked, "Sarah," managing to p.r.o.nounce the S more clearly than her sister.
Faller pressed his lips together and blew air, sounding much like an animal. He followed it by sticking his tongue out at each of his sisters, who looked at him but said Sarah's name again.
After a moment, Faller tried again. "Da." He stood up proudly and puffed out his chest. "Da da da da da."
Liking grabbed Faller from Sarah and kissed his face repeatedly until the little boy screamed. He didn't care. The boy had nearly said daddy and it made the difficulties with Lynn vanish, if only temporarily.
Both girls looked at Sarah then s.h.i.+fted to her form. Elise didn't quite get it right, leaving Celia's wings with the small version of Sarah. It was still an incredible thing to witness.
"They're bonding with her."
Liking jumped at the sound of Lynn's voice. Sarah clutched the children, holding all three close to her as Lynn descended from the sky and s.h.i.+fted into her regular black featureless form. Liking looked at the babies but none of them reached to Lynn. Instead, they clutched Sarah, as if knowing she'd protect them.
"Liking, may we talk a moment?"
He looked at Sarah, but she didn't make eye contact with him. Her focus was on Lynn. He'd never seen Sarah so angry. From the look on Lynn's face, both women would gladly fight before speaking to each other in a civil tone.
"Certainly." He pointed to the sky. "Let's speak away from my children."
Lynn created wings but didn't take bird form. She flapped a few times before getting off the ground. Liking simply rose into the air. Being a wind tamer meant never relying on wings, no matter how beautiful they were.
He followed Lynn into the air, noticing that she headed east, stopping a hundred yards from the cabin. There she dropped from the sky, choosing solid ground for their discussion. Liking followed, making sure to keep his distance.
"What?" Liking kept his voice cold for fear of what this conversation had been intended.
"I know I was never the best partner, but you have to admit that we had a good thing going for a while." She pushed her long hair from her face and looked at him, the silver lining of her eyes were the only clear point.
"I'm sorry things ended so badly for you." Liking took a step forward, then thought better of it and retreated. "I was willing to try to be a family until you rejected the babies. I never wanted to take the kids from you."
"But you did."
"What else did you expect me to do?"
He thought about Faller. His little voice speaking for the first time, or the way he learned to walk so quickly. Lynn would have robbed him of those experiences, stolen his son away.
Lynn's shoulders grew slack. "Would it have made a difference if I'd kept Anzele's form?"
"It's not the form that is as important as the heart." Liking didn't want to be cruel, but she was acting as if he'd cheated on her. None of this would've happened if she'd tried to be a mother to Faller. "I want my children, all of my children, to be loved. Not just the one who looks like you. Did you ever think another form could be beautiful?" His voice rose despite his fight to control it. "How did you even stomach sleeping with me?"
"Don't try to act pitiful. I stopped my practices for you. There were just a few society laws I wanted to follow, and you go insane. There's nothing about the s.h.i.+fter life you liked. You hated the caves, the smell of dirt around you. You even hated me."
"I hated the way you wanted to kill our child. If that's one of your laws, then I want no part of it."
It was true that he'd hated living in that cave. He'd done it for Lynn. Her people loved to be surrounded by dirt and rock. He wanted open air, the scents of the forest. Ancient dirt held no fascination for him.
What was he supposed to say to her? She would never understand him and he would never care for the same things as she. They had nothing in common, except their children. Well, he supposed that they both loved Elise.
"Could you ever love me?"
"What?" The question took him by surprise. The few times he'd been forced to answer for any love towards Lynn, he'd tried to be honest. It wasn't an easy thing. There were many forms of love and caring. Few, if any, Lynn understood. He didn't like where this was going. "I'll always care for you, but Sarah is my unta."
"To h.e.l.l with your unta." Lynn balled her fists at her sides, then took a deep breath. "I want you back Liking. I want my family back. If I have to accept Celia, fine. I'll do that. For you, she can keep her wings."
"I'm sorry, Lynn. It's too late for us."
Liking supposed breaking up with any woman could be a dangerous thing, but ending the ties with a s.h.i.+fter could be deadly. He saw her skin ripple a moment before the change. It happened fast this time, like she'd been charged by some new energy. Her body lengthened, claws formed, as did the gruesome beak of a war bird.
"Don't do this, Lynn." That's all he got out before she charged.
"Die you b.a.s.t.a.r.d."
It had been a long time since he'd practiced, but his skills were intact. Liking sent an updraft, catching Lynn as she caught flight to go after him and tumbled her up into a tree. He knew he couldn't be gentle. If she killed him, the children and Sarah would be next. With a tear in his eye, he caught the air around her on fire. He followed it with more wind, tangling her in the growth of the forest while her body burned. He couldn't watch her die though. It was time to go home to his family.
The scent of singed feathers hung on the air as he took to the sky. He didn't look back. No matter what monster Lynn had become, he couldn't stand to see her hurting and fire was the worst way to go.
She'd once told him that there was no worse pain than burning alive. It had been one of the few times they'd spoken openly, like friends. She described the battle he'd been in, where the flyers wiped out all of her race but her. To hear her version, the s.h.i.+fters were mighty and brave and dying by fire. They fell to the ground while their bodies burned. It hurt so much, according to Lynn. She said she never knew the moment she'd impacted with the ground. All she knew was heat and pain that had taken her from the sky.
Liking started back to the cabin and thought of Cordin. His friend was very late. It was risky but he wanted to fly over the witches' camp. Besides, he didn't want to face his children knowing that he'd killed their mother.
He flew high, trying to hide in the clouds. Soon he was over the camp. An old fire smoked from below but he saw no sign of the witches, not even evidence that they'd been there. It seemed odd. A spell could be protecting the area but he dared not land to find out. He'd be an easy catch on the ground.
The only thing he knew to do was churn the air below. He hid in a tree while he sent the gusts through the area, watching for anything out of place. The wind blew unhindered and only leaves and twigs scattered.
There was nothing below him. He couldn't smell anything either, except the scent of burned feathers. That awful smoke seemed to have permanently contaminated his nose.
As a last check, he rose high in the air and called to Cordin. There was no answer and no one came from the ground to get him. There was a slim chance that Cordin had hurried back to the flyer village instead of going to the cabin. He might've feared the witches following him.
"Please be safe, Cordin." Liking lingered a moment longer, wis.h.i.+ng for some sign. "Please."
Liking rose into the air and gave a last glance over his shoulder. There was nothing there. Part of him wanted to stay, just to make sure, but Sarah was at the cabin unprotected. If Lynn lived despite her wounds, she'd go after Sarah.
There was always a chance that Sarah could be tougher than she appeared. She certainly had some amazing powers. Whether they had a combative side, he wasn't sure. He didn't want to risk finding out either.
Lynn managed to escape the flames and fly higher into the tree. Her feathers were burned, but she'd lived. If her skin weren't so sensitive to fire, she would've gone after Liking and destroyed him. He'd always have that over her. She hated flames, even heat from the sun bothered her.
She s.h.i.+fted back to her regular form and sat on the branch. Her back hurt, but she couldn't see how badly she'd been burned this time. Those flyers loved to use fire against her kind. She touched the scar on her chest from the big battle before her kind were wiped out. It was amazing that it had healed. s.h.i.+fters rarely scarred, injuries that severe usually killed.
"Now what?" she whispered into the wind.
Going after Sarah was an option. It sickened her to see the babies bonding with that creature. They impersonated Sarah. The first creature a baby mimicked was always the mother. She'd been replaced.
Lynn saw where Liking had flown, towards the witches. A cold chill swept through her. He must be after the dagger to kill her. There would be no other reason to lurk near such vile creatures. He had to be traveling there to finish her off.
She took to the sky, taking the form of a small raven. Getting into smaller forms was always more comfortable than changing into larger ones. Of course, she had no idea if s.h.i.+fters had true bones as flyers and humans had. She suspected, not. She'd seen slain humans with white protrusions and twisted limbs. The only s.h.i.+fter she'd seen mangled by attack had thick jelly surrounded by red muscle, and blood so red it appeared black. The jelly was so thick it seemed like gristle until Lynn looked closer. That was before she'd been scolded and the body wrapped for the pyre.
s.h.i.+fters could turn into small gnats or large war birds. It made no difference to most of them. The strengths and abilities of that form came most of the time. She couldn't change into a witch and gain magic, but sharp talons and wicked strength came every time she turned into the animal that carried them.
The ability came from the planet, the dirt, the things that built life. That's why s.h.i.+fter power was the purest, although she'd never heard any one else admit to it. They were the most closely tied to creation, to the creator. That's what made them superior to the lower forms. Those forms had lost the connection.
Ahead she saw Liking coming back towards her. He wouldn't recognize her in this form. He'd never been able to distinguish her unless he got a look at that d.a.m.n scar. It was the only thing about her that couldn't really change. No matter what beast she became, the scar marked her. The flyers tarnished her.
Lynn kept flying straight ahead, letting Liking pa.s.s. She didn't see the star on him but she didn't dare look for too long. With any luck, he hadn't convinced the witches to give it up, if they'd even found where Cordin had hidden it.
She went straight then landed in the same tree she'd seen Cordin bound to. She let her body lengthen just enough to search the leaves with her talons. Thank the Creator, there it was. Not even the witches had its magic.
Liking hadn't been here very long. If he'd been trying to negotiate favors from witches, he would've taken much longer. Perhaps something had sent him away. Curiosity got the better of her. Shrinking back to normal bird size, Lynn headed in the direction of the witches' camp.
At first it appeared empty. She circled once, then perched in a tree. A glimmer caught her eye. To just anyone, it would appear like sunlight reflecting but Lynn knew better. Risking discovery, she flew down to the camp, swooping a few feet from the ground. From this height she saw the camp completely. The witches had put a spell over the land protecting them from aerial view. That explained Liking's quick retreat. His substandard eyes never saw them.
She flew a few feet away, keeping low to see the extent of the camp. In the corner, bound, was Cordin. Marabeth had gotten her man after all. She sat near him, feeding him fruit from a Valler tree. If he hadn't been bound, it would look like paradise, his half naked woman draped across him, touching his body between bites of food.
The sun was high in the sky but she didn't see Tara. Turning, she scanned the area. Beneath a tree, hidden in the shadows was Tara, nursing what looked to be no more than a shadow. It was one of those creatures she'd heard Marabeth speaking of. The thing died in daylight and not even magic and shadows could protect it.
Tara had constructed a shelter, made with something similar to builder's cloth the flyers used. It was nothing fancy. Not even that, or the tree she'd strung the shelter together with could keep all light from her creation. It was probably the last creature she could make without the star to aid her magic.
It was a pity really. Lynn had heard of creations from the darkness but this is the first she had seen. She'd thought the story nothing more than legend until today. According to the tales, they were used in battle two or three thousand years ago. Most didn't make it. One or two had been kept as servants but even those faded into oblivion, the complete darkness where they truly belonged. Her matriarch had told her the secret ingredient to life wasn't the same as what the Creator used. He could make life from dirt, water, and air. Living beings needed a more active component, blood. Very powerful blood. She was also warned that they'd take over the world if allowed to grow unchecked.
Hmm. I wonder what would happen...
She let the thought trail away. If she were going to attempt anything, then she'd have to retrieve the star. No s.h.i.+fter had ever touched the star and lived to speak of it. To feel its blade would mean certain death. Still, she needed that thing in her care, not near these wh.o.r.es.
The campsite held little to help her, then she noticed a pouch beneath the tree near the dying shadow. Getting the sack would be tricky, but it was the only way to get the dagger to a safe place.
Lynn went to the tree, hiding above, as Tara mourned her dying creature. It faded, becoming light enough where Lynn could see through it, then it sank into the ground like water. Tara tried to raise it again but there was no hope.
"It's gone Marabeth. It's dead."
Marabeth looked over from her spot on Cordin. "He was never really alive." She wiped his chin then scooted off him. "The dagger is gone. Let's release Cordin and go back to our lives. This has been one long failure."
"No. We can't release him. He knows where the dagger is."
She stood and approached Tara. "I already told you, he didn't have the dagger when I saw him in the tree. He was looking for it. That means someone else snuck into our camp and took it while you were being humped by some monsters."
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