Jeffrey Hollar’s Picture Choice: Both
Title: Shifter’s Quest
Cresting the low hill, Jaldana slowed her pace from the thundering gallop she’d maintained throughout a long night of travel. Adopting an easy canter, she headed down into the valley before leaving the roadway entirely. Within the relative seclusion of a small stand of trees, she assumed her human form again.
The instant the transformation took place, she fell to the ground, gasping and fighting off the rolling waves of nausea that threatened to overtake her. To travel for such a distance in aniform came with serious risks and consequences. She was feeling some of those consequences even now.
In equine form, she was a magnificent ebon filly, standing a respectable fifteen hands and possessed of a strongly-muscled form. As a girl of a mere seventeen summers, she stood scarce five feet tall and was slender as a stick. The deeds of strength, stamina and speed easily achieved as a horse took a brutal toll on her diminutive body.
Fumbling for her pack, her arms and legs throbbed with pain and her fingers were reluctant to perform the simplest of tasks. With a sigh of relief, she located the package of way biscuits and tore at the wrappings hungrily. The coarse grains tasted like the food of the Gods to her at that moment. She washed it down with deep draughts from her water skin. Slowly, but surely, she felt relief flood through her aching body.
The recipe for the biscuits was one as old as her people themselves and contained herbs and compounds specifically intended to relieve pain and bodily stress. Additionally, her water was liberally dosed with restorative tonics and sustaining powders. Within the span of several minutes, she felt well enough to stand and pace a bit around her sylvan hiding place. Exercising considerable stealth and caution, she moved to a point barely within the shelter of the copse.
Through the thick mists of the autumn morning, she could just see the western barbican of the castle. Coarse scrub grass and rocks obscured her view considerably and left little indication of the overall dimensions and lay of the imposing edifice. Cursing softly to herself, she retreated back into the meager cover of the trees.
Without a more comprehensive idea of the obstacles she must face to gain entrance to the castle, her efforts were doomed to fail before they’d even properly begun. She would need further reconnaissance and that could only be achieved by a very obvious, and potentially dangerous, necessity. Washing down the last of a biscuit with a mouthful of water, she prepared to morph.
Settling herself as comfortably as the terrain allowed, she closed her eyes and began to whisper the words of the ancient transformation ritual. Her thoughts were fully-focused on the form she would take next and the words merely channeled her will into function. Before she’d begun even a second repetition of the spell, her voice was replaced by the strident cry of a small gray goshawk.
As it was one of her most favored forms, she shifted with no sense of disorientation or pauses for adaptation, and immediately took to the air. Instinctively riding the thermal currents, she allowed herself to gain both altitude and speed. It was her most fervent wish to blend with the lingering fog and trust to the keen eyes of her predatory avian form to provide her the knowledge she, most desperately, needed in order to proceed.
Describing a tight arc, she did her first slow circuit of the grounds. Noting the numerous arrow slits and the variety of defensive siege enginery at the embrasures of the parapet, she felt more than a bit apprehensive at the prospect of facing such brutal lethality at close range. Such only reaffirmed her, already, intended plan to rely on speed and stealth to overcome what seemed to otherwise be insurmountable obstacles.
A second flight around the perimeter allowed her to determine the location of the token guard force and, briefly, establish their patrol patterns with some degree of certainty. She noted the moat and the broad, cobbled causeway that spanned it. While that might, potentially, prove troublesome she did have the relief of seeing the heavy iron portcullis was raised.
Had her avian form possessed the ability, she would have grinned, wickedly, at the arrogance of the castle’s owner. His defensive posture, while expensive, was ultimately rather lax and cavalier, as if he truly believed himself to be above assault. That would work to her favor, indeed.
Having succeeded at both her goals of achieving intelligence and remaining undetected, she opted for discretion over valor and dove for the cover of her earlier refuge. This time, her transition back to human form was far less taxing and even left her feeling slightly euphoric at the prospect of achieving her objectives. There remained only one troublesome aspect that jabbed at her mind.
She had taken stock, on a subliminal level, of everything she’d seen in her flight and had, only now, attached significance to the, seemingly, endless nearly-open terrain she’d need to cross to reach the castle. Though the guard force seemed indifferent and bored, she knew that might well be symptomatic of the weather and the early hour rather than the norm. She remained certain she would be as exposed as a fly on a serving platter the moment she strayed very far from shelter. This would require some thought.
Plopping down, she nibbled absently at a biscuit, considering and subsequently rejecting one after another of her impressive arsenal of aniforms. Her initial instinct was to choose something small and unassuming….a dormouse or weasel perhaps? Given the distance to cover and the possibility of daytime predators, such as…a goshawk she grinned, it presented too much risk to be viable. She revisited the idea of a winged approach, but she’d seen both the bored looks of the guards and their steel-limbed crossbows and considered she might present a tempting prospect for target practice the closer she flew.
What was needed, she mused, was the culmination of speed, agility and ferocity. Once she gained access, she would surely encounter resistance and so significant offensive capabilities would be preferred. She pondered for, what seemed, an eternity before the image imprinted in her mind with absolute certainty.
Assuming the pose of supplication, she began again the spell that would summon her aniform avatar. It was one she’d only taken a handful of times and never outside the confines of either her home or of the training yards. She recited the words over and over, reaching a full four times before she felt the shift take her. As before, her chanting voice was replaced by the avatar’s. In this case, a low snarl issued from her muzzle as she rose from her haunches.
Arching her back, she admired the musculature and grace of her choice. The soft morning breeze ruffled her whiskers and brought scents and sounds to her, unnoticed mere moments before. She paced a few times the limited space allowed to her, gaining confidence and familiarity with her capabilities. Her tail swished back and forth, mirroring her excitement and her impatience to act.
The pads of her powerful, clawed feet tingled on the rocky dirt and she flexed them, finding ample traction and purchase for running. Suppressing the aniform’s desire to yowl out its challenge, she, instead, sprang forth as a silent, furred missile in the direction of the castle.
As the spine leopard reached the causeway, she was at full speed and her claws scrabbled across the stone. Soon, all too soon, she would find him. She would tear and rend and savage the petty lordling responsible for so much of the sadness and death and despair that had, for far too long, been visited upon her gentle people. Vengeance was required and vengeance would be taken this day.
Entering the courtyard, she snarled out her rage, demanding in the language of leopards, that her quarry come forth and fight for his right to live. It was a fight, she knew he could not win.
Jeffrey Hollar is half Klingon, half Ferengi, visiting Earth in an attempt to negotiate a merger. He is currently working on a novella and a collection of zombie stories with his wife, Lisa McCourt Hollar. Jeff writes almost daily for his blog, The Latinum Vault, found at http://www.jeffreyhollar.com.