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Terramagi were known for their stoicism, but this one couldn't hide his disappointment. The fading darkness spell brought back into view the opulent inn suite where he was staying. The glowering face buried under a white beard that went down to his waist was enough to make Dominic want to back out of the room and forget the money that was still owed him for his service.
The brown-and-green robed wizard reached into the heavy wooden box that had been carefully covered in black velvet and took out a coal-black pitcher plant the size of a goblet. What distinguished this particular plant was the bulb as large as a pea above its slippery edge, irresistible to unsuspecting insects attracted to the light. The plant didn't just depend on natural ways for catching its food--which were themselves often magical--but pulled them in with an enchantment.
Dominic already knew the product of so much hard work had almost been for naught. He'd seen no light on the wizard's face when the box was opened just a minute earlier. That meant the plant was already dead, and the wizard was unable to cast a sustaining spell to keep it alive no matter the conditions. The carnivorous plant was wilted, its bulb stalk bent at a sharp angle.
The terramagus, still not saying a word, reached into his clinking money pouch and placed ten gold dux on the table in front of the young man. Each coin was stamped with the noble profile of Duke Baldwin IV. "As agreed upon in our contract," he said.
Dominic felt like pulling his blonde hair out by the roots. "Do you know what it took for me to get that? They only live in total darkness in the middle of greencaves! I couldn't even light a torch to see what I was doing or where I was stepping!"
"The contract we signed did not include compensation in case of partial failure. You're being given the going market rate for the liquid contained inside, which is still very valuable; though it's worth only worth a tenth as much as the live plant. I do commend you getting it to me without spilling any. But at some point during your journey the box must have been opened. One ray of sunlight and they die." The wizard steepled his fingers in front of him. "I had hoped to obtain one alive so I could take it home with me to keep it producing..."
"I... I suppose I could try again," Dominic offered, speaking before thinking. He didn't really want to go back into the Godspell Forest again, not so soon. Ten dux were enough to get him by for several months, though they did not provide the savings he needed. Even after three years of being a seeker the forest unnerved him. It unnerved everybody; few stayed in the profession for very long for one reason or another. This town existed only because the cursed place was a cornucopia of spell components for wizards: animal, vegetable, and mineral. The only thing keeping the wizards from gathering these things themselves was that the Godspell's environment blinded their magical senses, and usually made them very ill.
Of course, the forest didn't seem to like normal people either, though its effects normally took several days before they became noticeable. Seekers used special amulets to protect them, but even the strongest wards crumbled in a matter of days. The one he'd always used--an enchanted lump of silver; expensive but worth every copper--could last a full eight days before giving out and needing a recharge. Fortunately he'd been close to the edge of the forest basin when the magic had begun to fade with the tingling sensation that every seeker dreaded. The mad dash to escape, his humanity ticking away, had been terrifying. His muscles were still sore from the effort.
He waited for the terramagus to make a decision. The wizard was obviously of high rank. But it wasn't for Dominic to ask why he needed the plant.
"Since I have not been able to find any other seekers willing to do what you have done, I suppose I have no choice. The urceus lucis produces a very pure form of..." the old wizard stopped in midsentence. "How soon can you leave?"
"Tomorrow, if I can get my supplies together," the young man admitted. If he didn't need the money so badly he would have walked out and found another client. It wasn't just wizards who came to buy things. There were plenty of traders who came from the larger cities where there were enclaves of magic-users who bought their spell components for them. Only when something was really rare or expensive did wizards and sorceresses trouble themselves to come all the way to Cliffsedge. Cutting out the middleman only made economic sense.
The wizard raised an eyebrow. "It's only noontime."
"The more daylight I have to reach the greencaves the more likely I'll return with my humanity intact." This was one issue where the seekers had absolute say. You didn't have to take a job if you felt you risked too much.
"Ah yes. Of course. I suppose I shall let you go, then. I'm sure you have things to attend to."
This feels like a mistake, he thought as he left the inn, box and cloth in his pack. No, it really was a mistake. It was too soon, and the last half dozen trips into the Godspell he'd been tempting fate too much. Besides, the Summer Fair was only a couple days from starting. A few tents were already going up in the town square, and a number of trades would be represented. The twice-yearly Fairs were always the best time to find a place to move on, which was what he'd been planning.
But the best lucre was found in very deep areas of the forest, days from the bottom of the narrow canyon in the side of the otherwise very steep cliff. It was the only place in dozens of leagues that allowed access to the valuable products of the forest. Anything within two days' journey was well picked over by less experienced seekers who couldn't afford to spend too much on their amulets. Dominic was wiry and fit, made for running tirelessly across great distances on very little food and not much rest. And he nearly always found what he was looking for, having studied books about the plants that wizards most needed. But his chief advantage--the edge that set the best seekers above the merely talented--was his meticulous preparation and study. Few of those who ventured into the forest could even sign their name, let alone read the wizards' botanical texts that described the rarest and most valuable plants.
Dominic took his amulet out from under his tunic. It was just a shapeless lump of shiny metal with a hole through it, only significant because it had been found somewhere inside the forest basin. It belonged there, the former seeker he had bought it from had said. A little bit of magic and the Godspell thought you were part of the landscape. The town's resident wizard made a very good living recharging them. It was secured by a rawhide cord which always rubbed his neck until it burned. He always felt like he'd had his head in a noose for days after his return.
Without the amulet the Godspell would have claimed him long ago. As it was, the few itching spots on his skin were enough to tell him that he had two days left in the forest at most without the amulet's protection. The effects were cumulative. You had four days before the first signs of change appeared. Seekers who stretched their amulets too far slowly chipped away at those precious days. After the first signs of change most either found another line of work, or stayed well within their amulet's time allotment. Beyond that, the Godspell began to have its way with you. There were a number of people like that in Cliffsedge already.
Among those was Dominic's friend Benjamin, who met him as he was crossing the square to the wizard's shop. Dominic looked at his companion's fiercely golden, slit-pupil eyes. Ben's face was oddly shaped, strongly triangular with his nose and upper lip coming to a point, almost merged together; sharp teeth were displayed when he smiled. He had an emerald green cast to his skin with a very faint scale pattern, and the nubs of a pair of horns were visible through his hair on the back of his head. He had narrowly escaped ending up one of the medium-sized forest wyverns that were more common deeper in. Another few hours and the Godspell would have had him. Once part of the Godspell, you generally didn't want to leave it unless you wanted to lose what little of yourself that you had left.
"You're going out again, Dom?" he said, incredulous. "You didn't get the lucre?" Since his last trip he had a high, almost feminine voice.
"Oh, I got it; but only a fraction of what I hoped for. Damned if I know why not. I'm sure the box was shut tight!" Dominic replied sullenly. "But I have to try again if I'm going to get out of here by Fall."
Ben looked at Dominic's arm. "You know you've got a brown feather growing out of your elbow."
"I know, I know. Figures you'd see that." It was an eagle feather, and his right elbow wasn't the only place where they had appeared. If the terramagus had noticed it, he didn't mention. The possibility of ending up with feathers, fur, or scales was simply a risk of his job. But now, if he spent more than a day inside the forest without the amulet, he'd be unable to hide the changes; like Ben he'd be noticeably animal. Longer, and he'd be catching rabbits or fish for dinner. "Anything going on here lately I should know about?" Dominic continued, changing the subject.
"Only that Duke Baldwin's brother came of nowhere with a personal army and knocked his brother off the throne," the wyvern-man replied offhandedly.
Dominic stopped in his tracks in front of the wizard's shop, for the first time noticing just how few Fair tents were being set up. "I wondered why everyone's so tense around here," he remarked. The change in dukes obviously scared away the most cautious traders, and the townsfolk were also very nervous. "Any decrees?"
"He hasn't done anything yet. At least, that's affected us," Ben continued. He paused a moment. "But he's a lot like his father," he finished gravely.
Dominic swore. "And I can almost afford the Collegium! I'd be gone tonight if that plant had come through. Even after taxes I would've had enough to go to Anchorhold. Just how much like his father is he?"
"Worse, if you can believe it. The Council of Burghers thinks he's going to turn this place into a garrison. He's scared to death of an invasion coming out of the Godspell." Ben snorted derisively.
Dominic rolled his eyes. The likelihood of something like that happening was so remote that it was almost funny. The animals might be as smart as a man, but they couldn't climb the cliff; and the canyon path was well-guarded. Cliffsedge had several centuries of records and not once was anything remotely threatening to the duchy recorded. The real dangers were to the seekers, who had to contend with wolves and other predators who shared the same human-level intelligence as the other animals. Only someone paranoid about magic could think that way, in Dominic's estimation.
"I'd better get ready for tomorrow," said Dominic, opening the wizard's front door.
"See you at the pub later," said Ben. The two separated.
After he was finished with the wizard he headed home. Dominic's small living space was hardly luxurious; though he could afford a far better place if he wanted it, ever since he became a seeker at sixteen he had a goal in mind. The Anchorhold Collegium was open to anybody who could pay for it, no matter what their rank, and upon graduating you were virtually guaranteed a teaching job anywhere. Although they had the Duke's portrait on them, dux were based on the kingdom's standard coinage and would be accepted anywhere. After making sure nobody was looking, he always checked to see if his savings was still there. This particular house had a thatched roof, and he had placed his gold in a concealed hollow. Though his landlord probably knew the stash was there, the deer-faced man was too honest to mention it.
After taking his meal he pocketed some coppers and headed over to the pub that almost every seeker gathered in, especially after returning from the forest. Seekers were by nature a boastful group, and not given to revealing secrets. So he was shocked to find silence when he arrived at the pub's front door. Upon entering he was surprised to see everyone clustered around a table, craning their heads and muttering to each other. "Oh, come on!" someone near the center said. "A dryad made that!"
"They don't work with stone," came another voice right in the middle.
"Hey, Dominic's here!" said a familiar voice. Ben waved. "Maybe he'll know."
Dominic was immediately shuffled to the table, where someone made room for him. Since he was among the best seekers--and had gone deeper than almost anyone except the three in front of him--this must be something important. If the three baffled men sitting before him didn't know what it was, then he wasn't sure if he could help. He didn't have half the experience inside the Godspell that they did as these individuals. "Care to fill me in?" Dominic said.
"What do you make of this?" said Arthur, an older heavyset man who specialized in finding magically-charged minerals. He was big enough to carry heavy packs filled with rock crystal. But instead of a piece of oddly-colored stone what Dominic was given made him stare.
It was roughly human, carved from a white stone that could be alabaster, stained with age and dirt. Overall it looked like the a pregnant woman, with a pair of enlarged breasts just above the swollen belly. Upon closer inspection, her head appeared strongly animal, almost lupine. There were even two little peaks atop the head that could have been ears, and a tail carved into the backside. There was a rough hole through the head below the ears; and on the grime-encrusted back some flowing symbols were barely visible. "Where did you find this, Arthur?"
"Somewhere deep," he said noncommittally, smiling broadly. "I was doing some exploring, looking for some crystals. I betcha some wizard'll pay me a purse-full for it."
"Yeah, but who made it?" Dominic said. "It looks old."
"I don't care how old it is or who made it. But I'm going back in tomorrow and searching for more."
The next morning, just after sunrise, Dominic stood atop the precipice that stretched for leagues north and south. The drought had finally broken the previous spring. The Godspell was well on the way to recovery from three years of little rain and snow. It made for steady work for all the plant-seekers like Dominic. A dozen were carefully descending the winding canyon path. Midsummer haze was already beginning to taint the sky, and the forest basin was filled with mist. Surely the afternoon would bring thunderstorms.
Seekers were experts in traveling light. They had to be. Time wasn't just money; it could mean the difference between living in comfort after accruing a fortune, or literally pawing in the snow for something to eat. A seeker typically bought "iron rations" if he could. They tasted horrible but they were smaller than normal rations and there was a lot of energy in them. Shelter was a very lightweight tent that could either be set up under a tree or propped up with cut branches. A seeker lived off the land as little as possible. Most found it hard to hunt anything, even rabbits. It was too disconcerting to kill and eat something that might have been a seeker, or was the descendent of one. Dominic had only done so a few times, and only then out of pure desperation for something to eat. It haunted him still.
Dominic sent a small prayer to the Lord of Light and joined his peers.
Eleanor had always thought of her uncle Edmund as a throwback. Even her intractable, obstinate grandfather--whom she barely remembered--hadn't feared magic the way he did. But her ancestors had truly been frightened of the mystical arts; the further back she had read in the duchy's chronicles the more extreme this irrational fear became. The amazing thing was that Edmund had been able to live so long in places that accepted the use of magic as a matter of course. Before her father had taken the ducal throne, Durigan had been the laughingstock of the kingdom. Practically every other fief had at least a minor university of magic or enclave of wizards.
Before her father Durigan had been a backwards place, stricken by poverty and an inability see magic for what it was: a tool, neither good nor evil. Even the Church had long acknowledged this fact, having officially sanctioned its practice for two hundred years.
Her father was also a good knight, and unusually scholarly. The library at the ducal castle contained almost fifty books, obtained at great expense; most of them were copies of ancient works about the nature of magic. There was even one about the Godspell that was reputedly a reproduction of a fifteen hundred year-old scroll. Eleanor's father had taught her how to read it. As the eldest, he always said, it was befitting that she know how to read and write, if she was to inherit the duchy.
Eleanor had what many would consider unusual habits and ways of dressing for a future duchess. But she really didn't care what others thought--someone would want to marry her. At eighteen she was hardly a crone. Despite being far more traditional, her mother didn't protest how Baldwin was raising Eleanor. Her younger sister certainly made up for her in proper courtly manners, and her two brothers were eager to gain their knighthood and find a wealthy heiress to marry. They had been home from fosterage when Edmund struck.
Someone was obviously feeding information to her uncle; now the whole family was being driven into the Forest. During Baldwin's time on the throne he had attempted--and apparently failed--to dislodge the superstitious streak present in so many of his subjects. Without support from within the duchy Edmund could not have unseated his brother. Someone had let the usurper and his men into the ducal castle without alerting the guards. And without the mercenaries he would never have been able to secure his rule.
"Where did you find this rabble, Edmund?" Baldwin asked as the Cliffsedge town walls came into view. "I don't think I've ever seen a more disorganized group of mercenaries."
"It's no concern of yours," Eleanor's uncle replied shortly. He wasn't a handsome man, with his ragged beard and wild eyes. But he wasn't really ugly either. His expression was always carefully guarded, especially around his brother. Baldwin was clearly much smarter than he was, and he didn't want to give away that fact, especially with the captain of the mercenaries present. Losing face now could be devastating to his ability to rule.
This week would have been the Summer Fair, Eleanor thought wistfully. She'd been to every one since a young age. They would be arriving right in the middle of it, when some of the local knights normally had an impromptu tournament. It was the one week when the town honored those young men who risked so much to bring Cliffsedge its prosperity; it was filled with music, dancing, and business opportunities. The road should have been crowded, but it was empty of wagons or people on foot. The town gates were open, waiting for their arrival.
The empty streets were nearly covered in late afternoon shadow between the shops and houses; a town that should be overfilled looked dead. There were signs of hasty departure from a few houses and shops. A number of doors hung open, swinging gently in the breeze. Eleanor felt like she was being watched, and looked over her shoulder at the windows as they passed. Cliffsedge was a very prosperous town; nearly every house had windows made up of dozens of diamond-shaped panes of glass. Even the ducal castle couldn't afford the luxury. Hiding behind those windows were the watchful--and often not quite human--eyes of the townsfolk. Through one there was a large black nose overarched by a pair of antlers. These were people who couldn't leave.
Church sanctions or not, most anywhere else and these former seekers would find themselves persecuted and hated. Some had undoubtedly fled, but most were unwilling to. This was, after all, their home.
"I'm a little curious," said Baldwin to his brother. "How did you manage to afford these mercenaries? The last I heard you were up north in Okham. I'm surprised you were able to stomach living there."
Okham was Durigan's longtime rival. The earldom bordered the Godspell also, but unlike Durigan there was no good access. The cliffs were absolutely sheer, and a hundred feet taller. The Earl had made some efforts at drawing seekers to his fief, but few wanted to risk climbing four hundred feet of rope.
"Curious thing is," Baldwin continued, as if talking to himself. "I've heard rumors of some mechanical contrivance Lord Erwin ordered to be built that can supposedly lift a dozen men. So how much did Okham loan you to buy these mercenaries? Can't have been very much."
Edmund glared at his brother darkly. "It's a mystery you shall simply have to live with, which I don't imagine will be long."
They stopped in the vacant town square in front of the building that doubled as the mayor's house and the meeting place of the Burghers' Council. It was in good repair, but amazingly free of ornamentation. Edmund looked around. "Nobody here to meet us. Captain..." He stopped as the front doors opened and ten men walked out, dressed in their finest doublets. They were mostly middle-aged, but one was conspicuous by possessing a furry bear-like face and ears. And he was huge, easily the strength of three normal men. Edmund's eyes widened, staring at the burgher as if he were a demon. "Captain! Take that creature into custody!"
Eleanor recognized the bear-man. He was the Mayor. She watched in horror as a dozen mercenaries drew their swords and apprehensively approached the "monster". To his credit, the Mayor did not appear angered. Instead he appeared to ignore the men approaching him. "Your Grace," he rumbled in a gentle voice, "allow me to..."
The fearful expressions playing across Edmund's face might have been humorous if he didn't hold the kind of power that he did. He gestured at one of the councilmen. "You! How many like him are there?"
The dour, bespectacled man looked at the surrounded Mayor for guidance. The bear-man nodded slightly. "Almost two hundred, your Grace. But..."
"Captain!" Edmund shouted, "send your men to round up every last one! If they resist, you can... you can hurt them. But don't kill them. I want every last one sent down into that cursed forest!"
"But your Grace!" the red-faced burgher spoke up, holding up a long sheet of parchment with several wax seals hanging off the bottom. "We have a Charter signed by your very own forefather, the first Baldwin, and even King Alfred himself! We have had autonomy for two centuries!"
Edmund sneered at him and snatched the document out of the burgher's hands. No mean feat from horseback. He drew a sharp knife from his belt and sliced it in two.
If Eleanor's father had been a less honorable man then he would have cheerfully thrown Edmund off his horse and beat him into the ninth layer of Hell. Baldwin instead just gave him an icy look. "That, dear brother, is the worst mistake you have ever made in your entire life. Once the King hears about this..."
"I have taken steps to assure that he never will," Edmund said haughtily.
People were being brought into the square, now. There was a man who looked like a deer, the one Eleanor had seen just a few minutes before. He'd been beaten and one velvet-covered antler was still bleeding profusely, bent at a horrible angle over his partial muzzle. Another older man had a definite feline cast to his features, and tawny fur instead of hair. One of his canine teeth had been knocked out, but the mercenary looked the worse for wear with the bleeding claw marks on his cheek. A third who didn't appear to have put up a fight was being quietly led by the mercenary captain, a young man with greenish scales on his face. By the look of things they both looked relieved that they hadn't needed to hurt one another.
It was strange, thought Eleanor, that there was little evidence that any were putting up a fight. Even the mayor, surrounded by a dozen men-at-arms, was not protesting. Sometimes he would look to the west, towards the Godspell. Eleanor guessed that it might be because of the forest. Once it began its work on you, the forest instilled a desire to see its work finished. It wasn't normally strong, but in times like these the forest probably seemed safer then being threatened at swordpoint.
"It'll take days to find them all," the dirty captain said. "They're hiding everywhere."
Edmund seemed oddly fascinated with the partially transformed humans, but remained firm. "Put them in the square for now. I must see to my brother." He turned to Baldwin. "As for you and your household, your sentence will be carried out immediately. We have nothing more to say to each other, so there will be no further delays. Captain..."
"At your order, your Grace," the now-irritated captain said.
In addition to her sister, Eleanor had twin brothers three years younger. But it wasn't only the direct family who was being exiled. Her father's most loyal retainers--six knights and the children's tutor, Reynard--were also being stripped of their humanity. The Court Wizard had been nowhere to be found, but he had a reputation for disappearing for weeks on end. His absence was undoubtedly one of the conditions Edmund had been looking for to spring his coup.
They were forced to dismount and walk the distance to the top of the steep path. Stretching beyond the horizon, the Godspell Forest appeared deceptively normal, much like the lands they had come through to get to the town. A patchwork of tall evergreens and verdant broadleaf trees, broken by ponds, the beds of streams, and meadows as far as the eye could see. Strangely, Eleanor felt no fear. She had had days to get used to the idea that this would be her fate, and now confronted with it, just wanted it over with. Her mother broke out into tears and clung to Baldwin's neck. "I'd rather he behead me!" she sobbed.
Eleanor's little sister also started to cry. She was only eleven, not even a woman yet. Eleanor held her tight. Her brothers, Uwayne and Gaheris, tried to emulate their father by keeping their fear to themselves. But they were sweating. Like all of the men, they had a high risk of losing their manhood along with their humanity. The Forest liked balance, and since all the seekers were men, more than half ended up female.
Baldwin hugged his wife Isabelle tightly. "I'm not going to tell you it's all going to be okay," he began. "That would be foolish of me, and you've never known me to be a fool, have you?" His wife shook her head slowly. "Our fate is in the hands of God now. Trust in Him to see us through."
Her mother didn't appear comforted. Eleanor hugged her sister tighter.
Edmund sneered at his brother. He once more turned to the captain. "As soon as your men have escorted them down I want you to build a palisade atop of this path. Once all the abominations are rounded up I want them marched down, also. And find out if there's any other possible ways they could escape from that cursed forest. I want every possible route covered."
"Yes, your Grace," the mercenary replied.
A young mercenary was assigned to escort Eleanor. He was smeared with dirt, but oddly handsome in his own way. But he did seem nervous. Other men were assigned to guard the others. The track was only wide enough for two people. Her father and mother were escorted first, with Eleanor and her guard just behind.
As they passed just below the level of the rim, Eleanor felt it. She had read about this aspect of the Godspell in the accounts of seekers, and from her own father, who had spent a half day at the base camp when he was younger. It was a presence, a sensation of being watched, but coming from so many directions that it was sourceless. The Godspell was judging you, some said. Looking into your soul to see where you would best fit in. Perhaps a bear, maybe an elk, a bison, or an eagle. There were snakes, birds, fish in the streams. Deeper in lived wyverns, dryads, greenmen, and nameless others. They had six days to leave before the forest would change their bodies and minds so they fit within its borders.
But the Godspell didn't seem to hate humans. Eleanor didn't think it could like or dislike. It simply judged by a standard that only it knew.
And now it was judging her.
"So, you really think you've got it this time?" The raucous, mocking voice came from somewhere in the canopy. It appeared to move from tree-to-tree, but Dominic knew it had more than one source. The ravens could imitate a number of different human voices, which could be very disconcerting for newcomers. If you knew about them they weren't dangerous, but to the uninitiated they could lead you into someplace you didn't want to be. "That's a very nice crop of feathers you're growing!" the voice heckled, ending in a chuckle from another bough.
The ten pitch-black birds were more than a nuisance, and Dominic had to admit that not all of his wits had been about him when he had hurt his ankle. If it wasn't broken it was a very near thing; and he couldn't put much of his own weight on it, much less his entire load. He had been less than a day from the greencaves--one of a number of huge caverns formed by the canopies of magic-dependent trees--when he had caught his foot on an exposed root. Sheer momentum from his running stride and all the weight he was carrying had resulted in a lot of pain. The pitcher plant was presumably safe inside of its magic box. It still sat in front of him, covered in black velvet. The effort not to lose it had cost him far more than a broken ankle. From the way the throbbing was finally starting to recede the Forest was healing it. The Godspell wanted a healthy eagle.
His amulet had been spent for more than a day, and the changes were accelerating; he felt perceptibly different from minute to minute. Flesh and bone were on the move as if he was made of potter's clay. His scaled feet were splayed like a bird's, with sharp black talons on the end of each toe. Dominic's left ankle was looking markedly less swollen. He had put his ankle into a splint so he could walk on it, but at this distance from the Rim there was no point in attempting to make it back. For several days he'd been unable to move very far. After being injured he had found an easily defensible position in case of wolves or bears, and kept his sword and knives handy.
Amazingly enough, nothing threatening had made an appearance.
Maybe the ravens were somehow keeping them away. He doubted it.
But I suppose I wouldn't be nearly as much fun if I was dead, he thought gravely. His nascent beak slid further out of his mouth, stretching his reshaping lips around it. He felt the already-hooked point with the elongated digit that had replaced his fingers, which sprouted flight feathers even as he did.
It wouldn't be long now. He had tail feathers also, and the rest of his body was covered with them. His clothes no longer fit, so he had discarded them. Dominic's vision had improved to the point where he could watch a single caterpillar eat leaves from a hundred yards. Strange things were happening to his body. Muscles twitched erratically. His chest bulged more and more as the shadows lengthened. And the world around him grew.
"I never thought this would happen to me," he said to himself. Few seekers did. It always happened to the other guy, the apprentice who didn't take the warnings seriously. Almost a quarter of them were lost each year to the Forest, most of them newcomers. But sometimes even the best were taken. Ben had nearly been one of them.
Dominic glared at the ravens, who continued to mock him, picking out each one if he could. "You damn well better hope that I don't get my talons on you!" he shouted at them.
Silence was the reply, then ten pairs of wings burst out of the trees as if they finally realized the danger that they were in. Eagles were known for snatching other birds right out of the air to dine on. Dominic realized that he didn't have any trouble thinking of them as food. Difficult to catch, maybe. But...
The Forest was in his head, changing his thoughts. The full weight of its will sat upon his mind and body, reshaping it to suit its ends. Hadn't Ben said that was one of the last signs before...?
Dominic found a place to sit that was better suited for his increasingly non-human feet. Only minutes were left. He felt the loss of his humanity acutely, shaking. He was sure that the Forest itself was keeping away any dangers to him. He was equally sure that it would only last until he was fully an eagle. After then, he'd be on his own.
He wondered if he would be male or female.
Knowing the dangers that lurked here, he'd have to be in the air quickly. If he wasn't, there were more than enough creatures who would gladly dine on grounded eagle.
The pressure suddenly increased a hundredfold, as if a giant was sitting on his shoulders. Dominic stooped forwards, his hips jostling while his chest swelled to enormous proportions. He screeched with his arms outstretched and cried defiance at the Forest, even as its voice swelled in his mind, enveloping his thoughts into the sharp awareness of an eagle. He fought it, frantically trying to keep it from seeping in, unwilling to let the Forest lock him into a prison within his own body. A bird's body, yes, but it was still his. He could still...
Do what? he wondered. The pressure eased, then abated fully as quickly as it came. His thinking started to clear. Prevent this from happening to someone else. Arthur had a companion like that, didn't he? Not all the Forest's animals were dangerous like the ravens were. Some were like Dominic now was, willing to help. He couldn't stomach this happening to someone else.
For a moment he stared at the beak that divided his vision. Then he fanned his tail feathers experimentally, then turned his head to examine his wingspread. It was all so different--but in a way, not really. He was aware that he hadn't been totally successful at keeping the Forest out of his mind. There were chinks in his own mental armor where it had seeped in. Hunger. Thoughts of food conjured up images of rodents and rabbits--there was a distant, raucous cawing.
Food. The Forest was finished with him; now he was on his own. Food. He yearned to take wing.
But first he had to get into the air. Nervously he hopped over to a high spot near the mouth of the cave and looked up into the clear, inviting air above.
Dominic pumped his new wings and cautiously pushed himself off the ground.