- **I haven’t written in months now. This is a work I consider a fresh breath. I don’t know what to think of it. That’s how much I feel out of touch. Tell me what you think. It’s a fantasy short story.**
I should have been able to shift into an elephant, a lion or even a wildebeest. Something with style and grace. Something to show my lineage but a snow leopard wasn’t a bad alternative.
The sky was an endless blue, rays of sun everywhere, and sand occupied most of my view. The hill I’d been waiting for was in view now, something resembling a rocky outcrop, jagged and smooth at the same time. Brown rocks and white ones, strata probably visible if I used binoculars. I was part of a very large caravan. I’d joined them a year ago, back in the city of Koppo. They had been recruiting labourers to work the camels, clean and feed them, and other various duties. I’d applied, been accepted, and had waited six months until the next around-the-desert trek. Now here I was, covered in all types of cloth, the sun beating on me. I was very tired, something I didn’t experience often. I was leading two camels as they bellowed, and their stench was everywhere. It was all sweat here, from people and animals alike. But there was some goodness in it all. The people treated me well. It was an integrated society, considering most places from this part of the world still clung to ‘the man works and the woman cleans’ ideologies from about a thousand years back. Women were equally important, leading their own sub-groups in the caravan, and most of my workmates were female. When I had extra time, I played with some of the children. They liked me and they had got a nickname for me already. Coldy. They said I moved slowly, like mist rising from an iceberg. And it was ironic, considering the element I could work was ice.
The hill, which I now called an outcrop though it was actually an exposure, was nearer. I knew the caravan would stop by the base of the outcrop. The people who stayed there had hosted the caravan every time it went on its annual march about the Black Eyes desert, for generations now. That was my destination but none of my crew knew that. To them, I was going to be in the city of Koppo in three months after rounding the desert.
That was where she was, Tinela, my bondee. She’d been taken five years back and I’d never slept well since, not even a day. Word was she was being held there. If the rumours were true. Well, they weren’t rumours since I had had to torture some five men and two ladies for the information over a period of seven months. They said she’d never shifted back since her capture and they had tortured her on most days. A wing broken beyond repair, they said. Five years without ever shifting now. What was the essence of torturing if not to get information, how could she talk if she was a bird? I sighed mentally. I pushed the thought away, too much to bear. A thought rushed at me again. Even her boyfriend of ten years had moved on. It seemed only her family and I cared now. Everyone had just lost hope or forgotten about her. I mean, they had buried an empty coffin. My thoughts of her lingered and I remembered that she hadn’t been one for talking much, mostly with other people. Maybe that was why she chose to be a sparrow, quiet and lurking, unseen. I remember the day she shot down the sparrow, bow and arrow, a spectacular shot. Then she had claimed it, the very day I saw her wildest smile. She was granted the ability to work air by the earth, something rare across the world, and I didn’t know anyone with wind power more than her. Thoughts of Tinela were distracting me, I needed to orient myself now. I pushed her away completely and made my mind clear, as if in an ice bath.
I had to remind myself of the technicals. I’d heard they were keeping her in an ancient metal box, the type that could keep our kind. I constantly forgot that fact because governments and organizations barely had any ancient weapons to spare these days. The little artillery left was spared to the borders, to paranoid rich men who feared attacks from rogue shifters, and to shifter societies who believed in culling off ‘the bad lot.’ Finding caches of weapons from before 1600 was an absurdly lucrative business. But a thousand four hundred years later, there were barely any stores left. Most places had been ransacked or modernized, yet the government always threatened with releasing their secret cache of weapons reserved for the complete annihilation of my kind. But we all thought those were bluffs, it had been three hundred years now with that statement. The only thing we feared were the Old-Bearers, when they were in adequate numbers.
The caravan slowly came to a halt. I was somewhere in the middle of it. I’d managed to buy a monocular with some of the little money I had earned. I cleaned the dust off one lens and looked through. The other side was still dusty. Clumsy me. Not being able to shift for months was making me clumsy, I thought. We’d been travelling for a month now and up to three months before that I hadn’t shifted. It’d been too risky, too many people around but I’d done my best to prepare. I was obviously used to doing jobs in other countries, involving not shifting for months on rare occasions, but this was different. I could count two occasions. The job in Tabela and the heist in Tutulu. But this was the desert, polar opposite of where I lived in the cold mountains or usually did my jobs.
I looked again through the lens and found a man from our caravan, wrapped with green and white distinct cloths and possessing a shiny gold necklace, interacting with a small boy who wore only a thin white shirt, a blue turban and blue, electric shoes, the latest Cheetah type it appeared. I had a pair myself at home. It didn’t suit his other clothing and looked odd. The kid ran off, feet barely sinking into the sand, and the man reached for his horn by the side. He blew loud and clear. Everyone knew what it meant.
On caravans, they used the oldest technology they could find. No phones here, no devices, nothing with chips or electricity. Perhaps experience had taught them. I only imagined so because among their ranks were twenty Old-Bearers. Most were taller than the average man. They wore very thin chainmail and leather padding over their shoulders. Their waists were bound by leather skirts with fish-like scales of various colours. Some had red, others green and the eldest wore white. Some had swords hanging on their sides, others spears in hands, old from usage but sharp nonetheless. Each man either had a shield on a camel at arm’s length and for those riding, the shields were clad to their backs. It wasn’t saw common to see more than five in one place. Five were enough to take an average shifter. More were required in places like the border and so on, but so many could be spared in one place. Here were twenty. But I wasn’t scared. Twenty sent a shiver down my spine, even for me, but they were distributed along the caravan and that was good. It would be easy to take them down if the need ever arose. In the night they rested and took shifts which was also better. That would make my job a tad easier though I knew whoever saw my face in my cephaloform had to die. It was a rule, not of my choosing. I’d murdered children, old men, the pregnant. Some had mistakenly seen me; others had dared me and opposed my orders which I had been clear about. At first, I had only used substances to make their faces and voices go away until I discovered I could freeze my mind into a state of no thought and so when I was at home, I slept in my cephaloform. On nights I didn’t, they came like a storm, so I took whatever I could get my hands on, cannabis, snow, whatever helped. And so, it had been, even these days it was hard to sleep since I hadn’t taken anything since her disappearance. I had never seen myself being that emotional. I had told myself it was to make myself suffer, to punish myself for not being able to save her. Some nights were better than others but all bad enough.
Once in a bid to stop adding more face, I had started wearing masks, against the instructions of the Sam of my clan, Parukah. He discovered it after rumours had spread of a masked man and he ordered I revisit those people and do what I should have. I finally grew numb in the end. It was like being slapped after a thousand bee stings. What would you feel? I thought of how many I would have to kill today and I didn’t flinch. As long as the job was completed. But her, she always left those who saw her alive when we went on missions together or even when she was alone. But she didn’t know that I was always sent back to finish off or maybe she didn’t want to know. She was a spy after all, and she could have easily got that information. Ignorance is bliss, I realized, as I did so often. So, every time she showed pity, it broke my heart even more. If only she knew what I had to do afterwards. But I thought she knew and just kept quiet. I thought maybe she hoped I would get to a breaking point, reach a threshold. But I was sure that now, I had none.
I thought all this as I did my duties. Things moved faster than I had anticipated. We settled down slowly and I had charge of the camels of my subgroup in the caravan. I worked with another boy, his name was Sand, at least that was how I knew him. He had hair the colour of fine, soft sand, like the one in the cities. Time moved as I was lost in duties more. No moon rose in that dark sky, only a few stars were there, like a black canvas with splashes of white paint. It was good for me. I didn’t need light. Tinela came back. I thought of where she might be. I guessed there had to be an underground encampment nearby, probably in the hill. But there was a certain reverence for that hill by the locals and no one dared go there. They called it Ol’Ikoi. That would be the best place to keep her. Locked in that cage, like an animal. That would be what I would do.
The celebrations came, people eating and drinking, feasting like mad kings. It seemed the people who lived here had adequately prepared for this caravan’s arrival. This was my chance. I slipped away and it was too easy to. I acted as if I was going to piss a distance away enough from the camp. Then I saw Old-Bearers camped about. One whistled at me and gestured I not wonder any further. I raised a hand in acknowledgement. When I looked around there was an occasional glitter of armour here, fires there and there, held by braziers. They hadn’t been able to bare the cold of the desert. No, they had managed before with no torches. Clumsy, they were too relaxed. Who would attack them here? Of course, I would be relaxed too. Sand had told me some of the Old-Bearers had moved with the caravan for years now, about six. I pissed and went back. That had been plan A. I knew there was a low probability of it working. I had hoped that the fact that there had been no history of attack here and the fact that we had travelled hard for the past three days unlike before would make them slack a bit. It hadn’t, not completely. I sat, drank (but nothing intoxicating), not really absorbing what was happening. I was looking at the outskirts, assessing. I noticed I was jittery, nervous. I had confidence in my skill. I still had. But it was her, she made me jittery. I had never been jittery on a job, even my first. I missed her and perhaps it was her suffering that made me shake.
At the heat of the celebrations, I walked to where the camels from my subgroup were, surrounded by a makeshift crawl I had assembled. The sounds about were loud, ululation, beating drums, lovely voices of both men and women singing. But I had blocked it out now.
There was a reason I had chosen the camels. I could have taken care of the donkeys instead, or mules, or cleaned the dishes or take care of the old. But I needed the camels to know my scent, to accept me as part of them. In my cephaloform, my scent didn’t change much and so they wouldn’t be frantic when I shifted. I walked up to my camel, a gift from a man who had taken a liking to me because his young daughter had, who called me big brother. She had been one of the kids I had played with in my spare time. He was a rich man and giving a camel away was as insignificant taking a breath for him. There was a bottle somewhere in my baggage on the camel, with a clear liquid. After I saw four on each cardinal point except the east hidden by the hill. In the past days, they had never used fires when they guarded the camp and I knew each of them had a gadget, something which could switch off to alert them of a shifter. But they could never gauge my location with them, my radius was humongous.
I moved to the middle of the camels with a bottle of my sweat. I poured it on my head and rubbed it into my hair. I sat down, cross legged and not far from me a camel dropped dung. I took my shirt off and the cold was like a sudden pouring of cold water in a shower when you thought you had switched to the hot water. I left my trousers on, something like wool but tattered in some places. This was it! After this there was no turning back. Kill whoever, snap! I can’t, I thought. Where was this coming from? Was it because of what Tinela would think as I retold my rescue? But only she cared. To my Sam, I was a tool and all that care from him was one for a tool. You still gave food to your slave, otherwise where would he get the energy to labour? Tinela cared, she really did despite the colour of my skin, despite having been sold and bought by a family that didn’t want me. But it was naïve to think that there weren’t any shifters in the caravan, some who would try to fight him, thinking he meant to attack and rob them. But would they dare shift with Old-Bearers around? I breathed in and out, preparing. I reached for that beast in me. My breath caught and I felt as if my eyes had been pulled out, aware of the visual world but knowing my face wasn’t there but just a blur. The feeling suddenly stopped, and I could breathe again. I touched my face and thought of my reflection. Fur, that grey fluffy fur and black spots on my face. I traced the circles around my eyes, scar tissue from that mission in Tutulu. The memories of that day came, the devices they had used to burn this into me flashing before my eyes. I breathed again and they faded. I was more comfortable in this form than in with my one as Sevador. My body was still normal me except my head. The chaos I’d been hoping for set in. The lights from the buildings by the compound of our hosts had gone off, any technology switched off. I still marvelled at this, the power of shifters. The light reaching the crawl had dimmed, the fires from the feast and braziers but faint in the general scheme of things. I heard people drawing swords, distinct sounds of metal on metal.
I put my hands into the sand. I couldn’t feel the cold. My body had a lowered temperature now and ice crystallized on my hands. My vision was clear, like day, only that I couldn’t distinguish every colour. I reached for my core and lowered my body temperature further. This is why I had waited a year before attacking, to master this final act. She could have been transferred already but I would still do it all over again. I felt my temperature dip, my heart rate slowing, my heartbeat less powerful, fainter and longer, my breathing becoming like that of a hypothermic patient. The camels moved away a bit, the cold probably biting into them, but they had thick skin. My temperature dropped and dropped until I felt numb and light, like a feather. I rose and extended my arms fully sideways, finger outspread. A burst of ice spread out from each hand and made points in the air about a thousand metres away. The two points seemed anchored where they were and spread out quickly from their focus, the upper sides rising to the sky and curving to meet somewhere in the middle, the lower sides going down, straight as poles into the ground. It would make a perfect blue dome. Ice crept like a vine to the ground and sky, like ink seeping into a page. I meant to exclude the Old-Bearers on the outposts who were still out of range. I saw them rushing towards the crowd, trying to beat the wall. In the confusion it was hard to see the source of the ice unless you had the eyes of a hawk in the dark, which was almost impossible, unless there were owl-men. Probably were but they had to be at a vantage point and there was none except the hill and most people were down here. But soon, this dome would exclude their view from me, if ever they were perched there. I knew there were people who could work fire but they wouldn’t risk exposing themselves now with the Old-Bearers around. Shifting was forbidden in every country. This was the perfect setup, and even if they did try, they wouldn’t be able to take it down for hours, I think, unless they raised their core temperatures a good bit and unless they were trained, it would result in instantaneous death. I’d had to forgo my salary for twelve months and live off the food Tinela’s family provided to master this. The barricade shut up ahead and I saw three Old-Bearers frozen inside the thickness of the wall, mouths agape. One was struggling with a foot frozen in the wall. He raised his sword and cut it off.
The barricade had dug into the ground too. I then dug my hand into the earth and became one with it, sending tentacles of ice along the earth and making paths in the sand withing the confines of the dome. It looked like a maze. I raised the sides of every path to the ceiling, and some brought up people with them. They screamed and went quiet as they hit the ceiling, blood splashing and it rained red. A thick red. The paths made a maze, a very cold maze. I had taken care to separate the daughter of the leader of the place into her own small, sealed path. I ran out of the crawl, the centre of the maze, body numb but nimble and ran the maze, towards one particular path, budging into people, drops of blood falling like snow, already crystallized. I got to the daughter after punching through a wall. I grabbed her and asked, “Where does your father keep Tinela?”
“What, who?” she replied, trying to look scared but she wasn’t. She shivered from the cold. I knew genuine fear, I could even smell adrenaline. She had none whatsoever, and I had seen her callused hands and her scars just by her wrist when she and her father had met the leader of our camp, all through the scope of my lens.
I immediately held her hand and froze it. “You have a few seconds, or you will never have a hand. Where is she?” I growled, agitated already.
She was crying as the cold burrowed into her. She could have shifted; I was sure she was one. “I will never-” she said but stopped when I broke off her hand. She screamed a scream of despair and hurt. Then I saw red glowing spots on the ice about me. Had she been that loud? So, they had decided the Old-Bearers were less scary, I thought.
She was frantic, looking at her hand. She pushed against the wall, crying, sobbing.
“You can still do surgery, or I could crack it into dust. Depends on you. Again, where is Tinela or the next time I’ll take a leg?”
“Mountain. There is an underground safe there, north side, a few metres up, near a white tree with streaks of red.”
“Take me!” I roared. Then something in the periphery of my vision. I saw a glowing, red spot become black. Someone here, sort of a version like me was around. Not average person could have melted my ice that quickly.
“And if you try to shift, I will kill you immediately. As you have seen I am no bluffing man.” I stood back and added layers of ice to the areas with red spots of fire on the ice, my hands releasing streams. I knelt and placed my palms flat on the ground and a ladder of ice crystallized. “Climb!” I barked at her, knowing she had one hand for the task. She climbed slowly, clumsily. Skin peeled from her hand as she touched the ice on the rungs. She just winced and sobbed, body bobbing to the rhythm of her cries. A few steps up and I sent a blast of ice from my right hand. She froze in place, like a statue. I stretched that same hand out to my side and a long sledge hammer formed, as blue as the sea. I swinged it and she broke her like fine china. I let down the hammer and set my hands near my thighs, palms open, trying to imitate jet engines. For my Tinela and I spit at her fragments. A burst of energy shot from my hands, but it wasn’t red like jet engines but blue. A cold blue with a hue of purple. I rose to the top of the barricade, lifted by the force they gave me. With one hand I beat the ice repeatedly, trying to balance on my other hand. Thirty powerful strikes in twenty seconds and the ice broke. I went through and was met with a burst of flame that set my trousers on fire. I shot towards the hill and bursts of fire and sand came at me. I maneuvered through them, dancing like a seal in water, and my fire slowly extinguished. Now was probably the best time to make the shield, a thin layer of ice on my skin. I willed it and it spread from my hands to my whole body. Sand brushed some of it off, jets of it coming from somewhere, for it just to be replaced. The fire didn’t do much, it just tickled. The other shifters were devoted to melting down the barricade, leaving me with less men. When I was near the hill, I suddenly dropped, putting out my hand engines. My trousers had been burnt off except the fire-proof material I had wrapped around my groin as loin cloth. I hit the ground and I was immediately surrounded by four shifters, two already in their full form as animals, a fox and an onyx. The other two were in their cephaloforms, a lion, and a … I burst out in laughter. “You chose a camel of all animals!” I turned and… OLD-BEARERS! In cahoots, my heart sank. I looked closely and these were different ones, not part of the twenty. Five, in full knight armour. Here was something I wasn’t expecting. Regardless, I got into a crouching stance. Fire and sand were lashed at me by camel-head and lion-head, with no precision or care, just useless, angry blasts.
Really, no coordination? They probably thought I was just an overzealous bloke, not sticking to the plan of my team. They obviously thought there was a group and probably looking for the others. That was what could only explain their stupidity. I spun towards the camel-head and lion-head, leaving replicas of myself as statues of ice that held in place. It was hard to trek my movement that way. I got near the fox and kicked it into the air. I grabbed it mid-air and impaled it on one of the onyx’s horns, sucking out the life of it immediately. The Old-Bearers moved in coordination like a clock. They wanted to surround me. I tried to shoot into the sky but one of them loosed a chain that hooked my leg at the ankle, and he yanked. I went off balance a bit and let myself fall. He hadn’t been expecting that easy fall, I saw a slight raise of his head in amazement. His face was in that silver, ugly helmet. Just before I touched the ground and a spear about to ram into my side, I shot backward, propelled by my ice engines in that horizontal position. It caught him off guard again and he was pulled towards me. I changed orientation and faced him, shooting towards him now. I didn’t tackle him but passed him by a few centimetres and made a circle about the bunch of Old-Bearers trying to get the chain about them, but it was too short. The onyx came for me, one horn crusted in red, as I circled about, and it hit me straight in the gut with the long, cool-looking horns. I winced, seeing some red spots on my belly. Okay, enough! I willed a thicker coat of ice, and I lowered my temperature again as the activity had raised it. I heard the sound of ice crystallizing, like tiny bells ringing all at once. My temperature went lower than before as a sword struck my back and a spear jabbed at my shin. I willed an even thicker coat and the next blows were useless except when lion-head grabbed my head with both hands and released all he had. I kicked him in the gut thrice before he bent over. I used his body as a shield as the onyx charged again at me, camel-head tried to make me sink in the sand like a whirlpool would. I grabbed the horns on the onyx and tried to swing it around. I had forgotten that cephaloform didn’t suddenly give you more power. I definitely hadn’t shifted enough these past months. It threw me up, yanking me out of the sinking sand and into the air. Thanks for saving me from your friend, I felt like telling it. I landed some metres away. I rose and it was galloping at me already. I got up and ran up the mountain in zig-zags, leaving replicas of myself. Each second I heard ice being scrapped. I used my hands for an extra boost, half running, half flying and then I saw a man coming out of the ground near a white tree with some marks on the bark. He held open a brown door. I stopped my engine burn and punched him using momentum. He fell over, by the door. I raised him and threw him behind me. A scream followed as I entered that passageway. I fell into a burrowed tunnel with stumbling into steps I had missed to see. I let a blast of ice forward to the end of the hall and it froze the interior including some AK-47s protruding from either side by the corner. It seemed this gun didn’t know time enough. This was some vintage, 1947 gun in 3000. I ran forward a corner and froze the feet of the two soldiers who were struggling to be free., shouting in pain, hands probably burning. This was the coldest ice they had ever had and would. Enough to give the worst kind of burns. I heard men scrambling into the tunnel and a thump as one of them probably slid and fell. There was a large room in front of me, and it couldn’t be mistaken. It was printed above the doorway in the local tongue ‘TORTURE AND CAPTIVE ROOM.’ Where desert people this predictable and stupid? They’d relaxed, thinking no one else cared about her. They were probably so protected by corporations they saw no need to be complicated anymore. I ran and budged the door in. There were three soldiers there, laser guns in hands. At least they understood what moving with the times mean unlike those twats in the corridor. I grabbed one and rammed his head into the wall. I heard his neck pop. The other two tried to run but I blasted one with my ice fury. I saw him trying to scream but the sound probably got frozen in his larynx. The other, I ran at him, and tackled. I punched him thrice with ice-clad fists. Not too hard to break much but the touch of the ice left burns on his face, a red map on white skin.
“Where is she?” I asked in the local tongue. Nothing. I froze his leg and tore it off in one motion. His wound had been cauterized by the cold already. Holding it in front of him. “If you want surgery, you will have to tell me.” He was frantic from shock. I slapped him.
“Focus, focus you twat!” I held the leg up. “Tell me,” I said, pointing at myself. “Tinela location, leg back to you,” I said, pointing at him.
In a daze, he pointed to some shelf. I let the leg down and crushed it into his face. Life wasn’t fair, people always said what they didn’t mean and in my business, it was the difference between life and death. I had no honour, I knew that. Did…Had he?
I rushed to the corner and then at the door, flashes of fire and rattling of sand. They were here. I threw the nearest table at them and grabbed an old-looking box. I scanned quickly and saw a box there, rusty and thick. I grabbed it, bashed it in and nothing inside. I looked back and the onyx was in her cephaloform, a woman wearing a red skirt and white boots. The cleanest white you would see in a desert. She sent streams of flame from her splayed fingers at my eyes. I put my hand to cover as lion-head tackled me, whole body on fire but he drew back as he shouted in pain, his hands red and flesh visible beneath his own flames.
“I must be the coldest bloke you know,” I said, laughing. I took the nearest chair and flung it at him as the Old-Bearers arrived and one threw some round metal at me, like a grenade, which clanged and rolled on the floor. Another threw a spear at me as I formed a wall between me and them in one sweep. The spear was frozen, half on my side. A thin layer, enough to buy me time. I picked one box at random, and it took two hits to open. There she was. I looked back and the grenade like thing had started smoking. I removed the coat of ice from my right hand and made it warmer. I took the tiny, frail, brown bird. It kicked with legs, one eyes bloated, filled with pus the other barely open. I wrapped her in a thin ice, trying to induce a comma. “It’s me. Don’t resist, sleep. Don’t shift, please,” I said. Had it not been for the ice, a tear might have flowed. Why am I crying? I am hardcore, best operative in the cold world. Suddenly the kicks of the bird stopped and the better eye closed. I lowered my core temperature again and refroze my hand, just at a different temperature than the rest of my body. I had to think of a way out. Then a blast of fire I had never seen before broke my barrier. That person who had been burrowing to save princess. That was probably them. I ran in the back. A door and it seemed to go into another tunnel. I didn’t think and just jumped in as I felt something like a sensation of pain on my back. I fell with style, one hand holding Tinela. I descended with the help of the ice engine of my free hand. At the bottom, it was just mud and earth. And train tracks. I had almost fallen into a small wagon-like vehicle with dead bodies. I blasted forward, not knowing where I was going. I heard voices behind me, beats of something galloping. I pushed more, despite my tiredness. Perhaps it was time to use that cocaine stashed in my loin cloth. Even if I died this night, I would die knowing she had at least tasted freedom and seen a familiar face before her end. And I would die in fireproof loincloth, the first for any assassin in this grim world with no sense of humour.