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Reversal of Fortune
Jeremy had seriously contemplated the concept of death before, had even faced it once or twice in his life. But it had always been for just a short while, sometimes for no more than an instant while he struggled to bring the car back into the right lane or grabbed for a railing to keep from falling off the edge of a building. He had never been in a situation like this before, in which the specter of his increasingly-likely death loomed over the period of days while hunger and fatigue slowly gnawed away at his strength.
Jeremy was thoroughly lost. He hadn't seen a sign of civilization for three days now, since he had somehow lost the tenuous thread of the trail he'd been following. Not so much as a single airplane. He was a reasonably experienced hiker, but even so he was beginning to doubt he'd come out of this one. He should have come to a highway days ago, according to the compass and his reckoning, but he only seemed to be headed deeper into the woods. His food had run out, and he'd never had to live off the land before. Things looked pretty grim. But he trudged on, since only once he'd given up would all chance of survival be lost.
He again came across the small creek whose path he'd been following, and thankfully stopped to refill his canteen again; he hadn't seen much worth eating in the dense pine and underbrush of the mountains, but at least there was lots of clean water available. As he capped the canteen and began stowing it back in his pack, though, Jeremy's attention was snatched by a sudden flapping of wings; he looked up to see a raven swoop overhead a few times and then land on a branch just across the stream. Jeremy and the bird locked eyes for a moment, and then Jeremy broke his gaze and looked down at the rocky streambed. There, that looks like a good throwing stone, he thought as he stooped to pick up the missile. Scavengers are probably poor eating, but I can't afford to be picky...
Quoth the raven, "North-northwest!"
Jeremy dropped the rock in surprise at the bird's exclamation. "What?"
"North-northwest! Caw! North-northwest!" The raven then hopped into the air and flapped about twenty feet in that general direction, landing on another branch and looking back at him.
"Are you saying I should follow you?" Jeremy asked incredulously. "Am I going nuts?"
The bird bobbed its head emphatically. Jeremy didn't know which question it was trying to answer, but the mere fact that he thought it was trying to answer a question at all suggested the latter.
"I am going nuts," he muttered to himself. "Surely I'm not hungry enough to be hallucinating yet. Perhaps it was the loneliness that drove me over the edge. That would also explain why I'm muttering to myself, too." The raven cawed impatiently, and made an unmistakeable "come this way" gesture with its wing. Jeremy sighed. "Well, considering that I'm thoroughly lost, north-northwest sounds like as good a direction as any. At least one of us will know where they're going, eh?"
Shouldering his pack, he set off toward the bird. It leapt into the air and flew ahead of him, keeping just within visual range and matching his pace. The underbrush was dense at first, but after only a few minutes thinned considerably; soon Jeremy was making better time than he had been by following the stream. "You know the terrain pretty well, huh?" He called to the raven ahead of him. It cawed back at him, and Jeremy shook his head at the silliness of what he was doing. Ravens could mimic speech, sure, but there was no way one could be smart enough to understand it.
"Are you just squawking at me every time I speak, without understanding what I say?" He demanded. The raven hesitated, glancing back at him askance. Jeremy chuckled. It was almost as if the bird was trying to figure out whether it should squawk in reply or not. It presumably decided not, and after a moment it continued to lead the way.
About six hours later, Jeremy came to a pleasant-looking clearing and collapsed heavily on a fallen log to rest. The raven was still staying just ahead of him, and when he didn't get back up again after a few minutes called out to him impatiently. "I need a break," Jeremy called back irritably, "I'm resting!" The raven called again, but he ignored it. After a minute or so of silence, it flew back to him and landed on a branch just across the clearing from his log. "So, you going to let me rest?" Jeremy asked.
The raven shifted from foot to foot restlessly on its perch. "Caw! Northwest!" It said. "Just two more hours!"
"Aha!" Jeremy grinned in triumph. "Finally, I get a little more information out of you!" By now he'd come to believe in the bird's apparent intelligence, and at the same time lost most of his remaining suspicion that he was imagining the whole thing; he still thought this was a pretty strange situation, but he was willing to play along for now.
"Northwest! Northwest!" It repeated insistently.
"Oh no you don't," Jeremy said warningly, "I know you can say more than that. Where are you taking me? I won't budge until you tell."
The raven growled in frustration and appeared to grind its beak in an almost human fashion. "Ranger station," it cawed at last. "Telephone!"
Jeremy smiled and settled back against the log with a sigh. "There, that wasn't hard, was it? You could have told me from the beginning, you know." He took out his canteen and had a relaxing drink while he mulled things over. "Okay, give me half an hour. That's not much, is it?"
"Then northwest?" asked the raven.
Jeremy nodded. "Then northwest."
Two and a half hours later, Jeremy began to realize that something was wrong. The raven had been cawing "almost there!" for ten minutes now, but they were still fairly low in the valley; ranger stations were supposed to be placed at high points. That'll teach me to listen to strange animals, he thought grumpily. If that bird lied to me, I'm going to have to have a stern talk with him. He may end up over a campfire yet...
But then the raven excitedly crowed "We're here! We're here!" and Jeremy's anger was momentarily overcome by curiosity over what they had found. He hurried through the last patches of dense brush, and came out into a circular clearing under the arching branches of the surrounding trees. In the center, he was surprised to see a large painted wooden sculpture surrounded by small mounds of piled stones. It looked like an abstract sculpture of a bird, done in native american style. The raven flew straight to it and perched on top of its head. "Come here!" it called, hopping excitedly. "Telephone!"
"Telephone, my ass!" Jeremy shot back. "What are you playing at, you dumb bird? What is this?"
The raven forced itself to settle down. "Would you have come along if I'd gone and said straight off that we were headed for an ancient Indian temple-totem? Look, you were in big trouble and I came to help. Trust me, this is the way out of here. Come and have a look."
Jeremy was intensely suspicious, both of the sculpture and of the suddenly-verbose bird perched on it. He just knew it was up to something. Nonetheless, he slowly walked forward. "Okay, I'm coming. How is it going to..." As he stepped within the circle of stones, Jeremy was cut off by a sudden electric tingle; he jumped back with a yelp of surprise and then emitted an even louder yelp when he slammed into an invisible wall that had somehow appeared behind him. He stumbled to his hands and knees, and looked up at the raven.
The sculpture was coruscating with electrical discharges rippling over its surface, rapidly building in intensity. They flowed over the raven, too, the static fluffing its feathers. But it stood there solid and unflinching, its head raised and wings outstretched, embracing the current that flowed over it. It looked down at Jeremy, meeting his gaze. "Gotcha," it gasped.
Then the sculpture and the bird seemed to explode in Jeremy's vision, flaring with blinding light, and the next thing he knew he was tumbling down a multicolored cliff to the bare earth below...
Jeremy regained consciousness only a moment later, totally disoriented and confused. The first thing that swam into focus when he opened his eyes was the wooden sculpture, now seeming to tower over him. He cried out in fear and tried to scramble away, but only managed to kick his feet feebly in the air; he was lying flat on his back and couldn't seem to roll over. After a struggle for coordination that seemed to go on forever, he managed to flop over onto his belly and jam his face into the dirt. Or, at least, part of his face...
Jeremy froze, staring down his nose and blinking in surprise. It was a beak. He had a beak! Resuming his struggle, he managed to push himself up and to pull the tip of the beak out of the ground. He stuck out his tongue and spit out the dirt he had got on it; that beak was his, alright. Turning his head sideways, he saw that the 'arms' he had used to push himself up were now wings covered in glossy black feathers. He could only stare numbly, gently trying to flex his fingers and finding that he no longer had any.
Then he heard someone else groan and tore his attention away from himself to search for its source. Looking across the clearing from the sculpture, Jeremy's new beak fell open in shock at what he saw. It was himself, or someone that looked exactly like him. If he had been fifty feet tall, that is. Appearing just as uncoordinated as Jeremy was, he struggled to his hands and knees and crawled shakily out of the circle of stones. Then he sat down, and began slowly flexing his hands in wonder. "It worked," Jeremy's body whispered with awe, and then after a brief look of surprise he began making all sorts of funny faces. Testing the flexibility of his lips. Slowly, they spread into a wide grin. "I'm human!"
Snapping out of his shock, Jeremy attempted to disagree. "Ah... Ah a' hu-a'!" he squawked, wincing at the harshness of his voice, the lack of familiarity with his hard beak rendering him almost unintelligible. But whether or not the words were understandable or not, at least they got his body's attention. It laughed at him.
"Of course! Hello there, lost hiker! I bet you don't have any idea what's happened, do you. I know I didn't, at first."
Jeremy struggled to pull his feet under his body and stand, a difficult task considering how different his proportions were from what he was used to and how loudly he was screeching at the raven that now wore his body. "Cha' 'ee 'ack!"
The man was also struggling to his feet, and with more apparent ease than Jeremy; though he held onto a nearby tree for support, he managed to regain his balance quickly. He shook his head. "I waited two hundred years for another human to get near here! I'm not going back to that accursed body. I'm getting out!"
"'oo 'unnerd 'ears?" Jeremy echoed, aghast.
"I was cursed," the man spat. "That damned Indian heathen... claimed I 'defiled his temple.' I was cursed to spend eternity wandering the Earth as that filthy bird. I couldn't even die a proper death and move on to my judgement; no matter how far away from this place I went, I always came back to life in this clearing and in that form. What a twisted perversion of immortality! But I figured out their satanic rituals, and discovered a way out of this. You're going to take my body, and my curse with it!"
With that the man inhabiting Jeremy's body turned and began walking back into the woods. He was still unsteady, but gaining confidence with every step; he'd been human once before, after all. Jeremy, on the other hand, had never been a raven; he tried to follow but just kept tripping over his feet. "'ait!" He called after him desperately. "It 'on't 'ork! Come 'ack!" But the man ignored him, and Jeremy quickly lost sight of his old body. A few minutes later, he couldn't even hear it any more.
Jeremy spent several hours simply learning how to move around in his new body. It would probably take days for him to learn how to fly, he realized, or perhaps even weeks; he had no idea how difficult it might be, or how much of that skill was hard-wired. But whatever the case, his stolen body would be long gone by the time he could get airborne and even if he caught up with himself he had no idea how to get him to come back and reverse the process.
Eyeing the ageless magic sculpture balefully, Jeremy felt even more lost and alone than he had even before he'd met the raven this morning. His body had been stolen, and even if its new owner wasn't suicidal it still had a long way to go before reaching civilization and safety. His human body might well be dead by now, trapping him like this forever.
Forever... Slowly, the stunning realization began to dawn on Jeremy. If I've really got the raven's curse - and it certainly seems that way - then I could actually be *immortal* now! As the implications began to sink in, Jeremy could only stand there in front of the totem and absorb them. To the raven who had stolen his body, it had been a curse. But Jeremy had thought a lot about death in the past few days, and he had decided that he didn't want any part of it. He didn't believe in an afterlife, or any other comforting illusions of continued existence beyond death... except, now, by living as a raven again. If he could believe that he'd had his body stolen, then surely he could believe that.
If his beak had been flexible enough, Jeremy would have smiled. Sure, there were downsides to what had happened to him. Ravens were scavengers, something he found distasteful to even think about. He had no hands, no human rights, no official identity. But he didn't have to eat carrion, after all; he should be able to find enough regular food in a city to get by. With some practice he should be able to speak semi-clearly, perhaps manipulate things with his feet and beak, and even fly; it was far more than vast numbers of disabled humans could manage on their own. He had friends he could stay with if he could convince them of his identity. What was the worst that could happen to him if he went home as he was?
Animal Control could euthanize him as a nuisance bird. Scientists could put him in a lab and dissect him. Lunatics or predators could murder him.
But he was immortal. He'd just wake up here again, and go someplace else! And if he ever grew tired of life, then perhaps he could find someone else to pass the 'curse' on to. Surely there would be someone else out there like him, that didn't mind being a raven. He would have time to search. He would have time for anything. But right now, all he needed was a little time to practice flying. He was going home.