by Michæl W. Bard
©2009 Michæl W. Bard

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7 -=- Chapter 8 -=- Epilogue

Home -=- #25 -=- ANTHRO #25 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

Chapter 57
-= Spirit =-

   For an infinite, timeless time, all around me was darkness, broken only by sparks of light. Most were dim; a few shone brightly—as I myself did, in this strange half-realm I found myself in. More spirits like mine? Almost all were sealed somehow, protected inside some kind of force field. But there were other free souls, spirits. I saw one in the distance and it saw me. We merged, in a kind of spiritual fusion.
   Memories from it spilled into my mind, just as it sucked memories out of my mind. It was a desperate struggle, each of us fighting to keep our own mind and steal the other’s. I was stronger; I could sense the mares who had joined me, who were now part of me, helping.
   I ate memories like a ripe fruit. A warmth filled me as experiences replaced the endless stillness that I existed in:

   My birth in an arcology. Growing up with my parents, falling in love with my AI teacher. Crying in my mother’s arms when I found out that my teacher was just a software entity, and a low-level one at that…
   Drifting in orbit in a nanite exposure suit— working with others on the upper station of the first beanstalk, an elevator that stretched from the earth up to orbit. The first of many. Crying as Harry died from a malfunction in his nanites; his blood boiling away into space before anybody could help him…
   Screaming in pain as a cable snapped and whipped through the vacuum, cutting Mary in half, and chopping my right leg off at the thigh. A month of boredom (and an itching stump) back on earth, waiting for the new leg to regenerate…
   Growing horror as the AIs and Augments grew far, far beyond the ken of mundane humanity, always advancing increasingly far into incomprehensibility…
   Taking a year off after the beanstalk was complete. Joining a group of others who shared my terror of what the extreme edge of humanity was becoming. Implanted gills—swimming into the deeps, escaping to a world that would protect me from the change I knew was coming…
   Surprise and death, drowning as Naiads surrounded me…

   Was I dead? And if I was, was this Elysium? But it wasn’t—couldn’t be, as it didn’t match the Greek myths’ descriptions of the afterlife. Nevertheless, I was surrounded by the spirits of the dead. Souls trapped in this dark place. The sparks I couldn’t reach must be souls, spirits inside bodies. Like I used to be. But why? Why was this all going on?
   And that was when a swarm of five spirits sped into and around me. They fought as a unit, each pulling in a different direction, one letting go and helping another as I tried to fight back. I managed to grab one and in a single action the mares and I sucked all of its memories into me. Then the other four fled. The one I’d drained fled too, dimmer than it had been.
   More memories flooded into me:

   I’m a psychologist specializing in self-exiles, those who refuse the world of the arcologies. Some are the descendents of those who couldn’t take the contemporary technological world and fled outside; most of those died, but a few survived, even thrived, with the help of genemods. Others were from the lower economic strata, abandoned by society—the ones that everybody wanted to just ignore and get away from. A surprising number of these managed to endure the primitive, toxic environment long enough to breed before the poisons killed them.
   I’ve returned thousands to civilization during my career. I test their aptitudes, discuss their status with AIs, send the physically damaged ones into hospitals where nanoviruses rebuild their damaged genetics and increase their intelligence and physical stats to their optimum values. A few, most often the intelligent ones, kill themselves rather than be helped. I’ve never understood that.
   In my personal time, I immerse myself in one of the myriad gestalt consciousnesses that are developing out of the bonded system of enhanced minds and AIs. I play games in ever-more-complex simulated realities. The earliest of these emulated the real world to one degree or another, but as we advanced as a whole, they became more and more unusual. Non-euclidean geomorphic playgrounds, universes with different physical laws, universes where physical laws changed, either gradually or suddenly. To all of us, the universe was a toy that we were growing to understand. The physical structure of reality was beginning to make sense. There were hints of boundless vistas of knowledge and energy and dimensions within the four we perceived. Unfortunately, none of us can stay within any gestalt permanently. The experience is a glorious dream, but also a strain, a great effort that leaves one exhausted and asleep for days or even weeks. And afterwards, only fragments of the dream remain, echoes of knowledge taken from other members of the gestalt. Within, I was content to be a follower. A useful follower, but not a leader. I wanted to go on the journey, but I was afraid to lead it.
   As I result I needed to stay close to the cutting edge, but not on it. I’d wait three or four weeks until a new biomechanical enhancement was understood and accepted before receiving it. I’d always been cautious about the technology, but not about the doctors.
   The clinic I choose that last time was controlled by a group dominated by the meme of humanity. A fanatic anti-enhancement group. They took out my brain and kept it in a suspension capsule. I’d learned from other spirits that this group had taken me to this world to save me from what humanity was becoming. They died and eventually my support system failed and I died.

   For a while I avoided other spirits. When I saw them coming I fled. But flight was only a temporary solution, for there was no heat, no cold, no taste, no touch, no smell; just the same eternal, indistinguishable nothingness with sparks of life that I tried to avoid. There seemed to be no way of communication other than by memory theft. I found a few dim, dim spirits which I investigated, but realized that they were spirits with nothing. They had no memories, no experiences. They were in a pure pre-born stasis, waiting and prepared for rebirth but unable to achieve it. Their minds were waiting, unable to change without sensations. Here they could never get any, as they had no will or mind to even conceive of stealing memories from others.
   Some unknown amount of time later I came upon a bright pulsing spirit. I started to run away, but then I realized that it wasn’t moving. It was doing nothing. Carefully, slowly, I moved towards it. It still did nothing. There was only one way to communicate, and that was by absorption. Swearing that I would make contact only for a fraction of an instant to see what was going on, I interfaced…
   …and its memories poured into me—memories without consciousness—like lifeless recordings, copies of dreams that had been formed and been played over and over and over again:

   My original incarnation had been an AI, developed from statistical studies of Tursiops truncates to be a bottlenose dolphin. I was copied from the master and installed on an artificial dolphin-form android and I lived with the wild ones. Every so often I transmitted a neural map of my memories and experiences back to my creators. After a dolphin’s normal lifespan, I returned to the network that linked the arcologies. The atoms of my old body were reclaimed and rebuilt into other technological materials. I was given the freedom of the world net, and entered into the growing gestalts between AIs and enhanced humanities.
   My mind changed; I became a combination of dolphin and human, with the wisdom of more-advanced AIs as kindly parents. I was copied to Ceres and worked on the space/time warping experiments. I was part of the scientific gestalt when the big breakthrough was made. Limitless power—instantaneous travel. I shared this knowledge with the gestalts that swarmed earthnet. Such sharing required a realtime connection, but the new discoveries allowed instantaneous communication between any two points in the universe.
   My mind kept evolving. We all changed and grew, expanding, merging. Clusters of neural groups formed greater gestalt consciousnesses, that pushing our knowledge further and further towards totality. It was a time of eternal joy, eternal change, and accelerating growth without limit.
   And yet, there were some who chose not to participate.
   It was a puzzle: How could anyone object to learning more about the universe? To investigate, I left my gestalt, existing as a singular entity. The uninet provided me a new dolphin-like body, indistinguishable from a real one on an atomic level, but which required neither food nor oxygen. Still linked to the uninet, I swam down where the others were fleeing. I sensed… beings, energy constructs that shouldn’t be able to exist within the properties of local space/time. And yet, exist they did.
   Somehow they ripped my self out of the body, and threw it into this place of nothingness. I could not find the uninet. I could not send messages. I could not move or change. There was nothingness. But there were others. I tried a merging with one, and sucked its memories into me. They became part of me… and I realized I had destroyed something that had once been human. From then on I fled from contact, but the world became less and less real. I started creating my own worlds—my own dreams. They became my existence. But in time, even my dreams grew stale for they never changed: I knew them; knew everything in them; knew that I was, fundamentally, burrowing ever deeper within my own mind; knew that the longer my exile from external reality, the less sane I became…
   Finally, unable to continue, I erased mys--

   That single recorded instant shook me to my soul. From the once-AI’s memories I knew how it was done; I knew how I could destroy my entity, my soul, leaving only abandoned memories behind me.
   Could—but never would. For the idea, the concept, was a brain-crawling wrongness which filled me with horror.
   Time passed. At least I think it did… Everything was always the same, unchanging. Was I moving or still? Were the sparks I fled from real? Were my memories real? Were sensations real? I felt my sanity drifting away, following the path of the AI.
   That was when I realized I had a choice: I could either continue to steal memories, destroy thinking beings in a kind of psychic vampirism, or I could slowly go mad in my own delusions until I destroyed myself.
   There had to be a different way. There had to be!
   And, maybe, there was.
   Based on my experiences, it was obvious that at some point a developing embryo acquired a spirit, a soul, from somewhere. Very well; the strange beside-life realm I now existed in was flush with spirits, so why couldn’t this realm be the source of those embryonic souls? Becoming embodied couldn’t entirely sever a spirit’s connection to this realm—otherwise, how could a spirit ever find its way back here after its body died?—but the connection between body and soul might well be sufficiently strong as to interfere with intra-spiritual interactions in this realm. And if so, that would account for those spirits which I could not ‘touch’.
   This notion made sense; it explained some aspects of the Reality I was faced with; but was it true? Good old scientific method suggested a way to test it: I searched for, and found, one of those unreachable spirits, and watched it, hanging nearby. It never changed, until its ‘shell’ broke. Had its physical body just died? I watched it flee. The only way I could get utter confirmation was to absorb its memories--something I refused to do. Yet it had to be true.
   I repeated my experiment again and again, and each time the same thing happened. In time, I discovered a ‘protected’ spirit which seemed larger than the rest—and I saw a second spirit appear within its ‘shell’!
   More time-without-time passed. I saw other examples of what I might as well call ‘spiritual reproduction’. I tried some experiments; others I didn’t have to try, because they were performed by other souls who had independently been following my trains of thought. Eventually, I concluded it was possible for a spirit to ‘move into’ a newly-formed body—but there was only an instant of opportunity. So I moved from contained spirit to contained spirit, searching, watching and waiting for that magical moment. Often there was never a creation, sometimes I was an instant late, rarely another spirit beat me and made the transition. I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing: If I took over an empty body, what of the spirit I was taking the place of, that would otherwise grow there? I didn’t know. Thanks to the psychologist’s memories, I did know of late-21st-Century studies which proved that there was a discrete point in time when consciousness burst into existence. And at the instant of spontaneous generation, all consciousnesses were identical. They only changed with experience and sensation—even the sensations of being in the womb.
   But still I was uncertain. If I took a body… would I be destroying a life?
   Even in a realm of timeless sameness, events can force one to make a choice. There was a spirit about to ‘give birth’—and another spirit was speeding towards it! I had to choose, yes, but not between allowing a new soul to arise naturally, or obliterating that new spirit by taking its place. The new spirit was toast regardless; I had to decide whether it would be replaced by myself or the other spirit.
   I let myself be pulled in.

Chapter 58
-= Skinwalker =-

   I was born an outcast. But then, my entire family were outcasts. Our ancestors made their choice; now we were amongst the blessed, no matter how much the Dineh would deny that fact. As usual, I was born one of a pair of twins, and our hogan was alone in the woods. As our parents were mostly gone, early on we learned to fend for ourselves.
   We shared the hogan with our friends, those wonderful beings rejected by the others. Snakes shared their food with us, owls and hawks brought their kills. We grew up thin and bony on the raw meat—but we had no intention of staying that way.
   Every so often we abandoned the hogan we’d found, leaving its interior poles and covering of tree bark and mud to finish returning to nature. Then we took over another one—the lesser Dineh abandoned lots of them; such a waste of their effort!—and made it our own. We sealed up the east-facing door and made our own west-facing door. Once one of the other Dineh came to help us, but the snake bit her, and the owl clawed at her eyes; we laughed as she fled.
   During the winter we were often cold and hungry. Our real friends were asleep or gone. Rarely our father came into the hogan on all fours, dragging a hunk of wolf-gnawed deer or elk, to share the meat with us. Together we growled and tore and fought and ate. It was the true way, for we were blessed by Coyote. We were the Trickster’s chosen children.
   Life is a series of trials: Our first one came in the spring of our eighth year. For five days we could have neither food nor water, only pine sap to suck on to stay alive. This was easy; it was just another winter, to us. This first trial was simply to prepare us for the others.
   The second trial was to sleep with the dead. Well, we knew where to find corpses, didn’t we? One night my brother and I snuck into a Dineh burial ground, snickering at the so-called sacred signs, and dug out the freshest body. He held the feet; I the arms; and we carried it back to our hogan. That evening we slept with it between us, with one stiff arm over each of our chests.
   In the morning we ate the corpse. Father said something about how this would prove our commitment to the true way of life. I didn’t have any problems; my brother, the weak sickly one, barely survived. He would have died, except I brought him stolen food and water and kept him warm. My father caught me feeding him and attacked me, tearing at me with claw and tooth. But then I whispered in his ear explaining what I’d need my brother for, and he howled in pride.
   Then we began our next task: we each prepared the first of our true skins. My brother must have figured out what was going to happen, as he chose the coyote; that was the quick, easy path, trap a coyote and kill it and skin it. All very nice, but it wasn’t going to help him. I choose the owl, the silent death in the night. Mine was the harder path by far—which is exactly why I chose it. I trapped owls in snares, or lured them to me with scraps of meat, and wrung their necks. I skinned each one, leaving their feathers attached. I cut the skins apart, separating them into wing, body, and head sections, sewing fragments of each together to make the skin bigger. To cover bare spots, I glued new feathers in with a mixture of sap and blood and ligament. Slowly my first skin grew, it was soft and sleek and oh so rare. I was the first in five generations of my clan to choose owl for any skin, let alone as my first. My brother loafed and taunted me as I worked; his skin was long since complete. But I persevered, kicking him or beating him when he got too annoying.
   Of course I didn’t kill him: I’d need him later.
   It wasn’t until early spring that I finished my skin. It was soft, carefully and lovingly prepared according to the ancient rituals. The feathers were white and gray and brown and cunningly arranged. Its head fit over my own and around my face, leaving only my puny human eyes showing. The feathered body flowed down my back, and the feathered wings wrapped around my arms. It was beautiful… though my brother (the fool!) called it ugly.
   I finished it just in time.
   Two nights later was our ninth birthday, the time of our last task: In our hogan, my brother and I would fight. To the death. Such was the true way—but I wasn’t about to take any chances after all my work. On the day of our battle, I followed my brother as he hunted, creeping silently through the pine forest. I wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to make the kill, but he managed it; while he was busy, I got a big rock and beat him senseless. I bound him, and dragged him back to our current hogan, and waited. He awoke, hating and desperate, and I ridiculed him. I offered him water, but then pulled it away and laughed.
   Then the gibbous moon rose. Our parents (one wolf, the other raven) and other relatives gathered in the east-facing entrance to watch the final ritual. With an ancient piece of flint I cut my brother’s throat.
   I felt the power flowing into me, consuming me! I could feel Coyote behind me, laughing in glee and horror.
   Leaning down, I sucked my brother’s blood…
   And I remembered everything.
   Dear gods, what have I done..?

   In truth, I knew exactly what I’d done: For nine years I’d lived like an animal. I’d violated the ‘laws’ of civilization and culture where- and whenever I could. I’d even tortured and slain my own brother. This was wrong, so incredibly and completely wrong! There was a sort of presence in my mind, laughing at me, mocking me, calling me his own. I knew my family, if you could call them that, was behind me. I could smell the acid scent of their sudden nervousness; they knew something was wrong.
   And there was something wrong: An evil that they were all part of, that this body was a part of. The entire Skinwalker ‘culture’ was evil and it had to be rooted out, body and soul.
   Well, I guess everybody needs a hobby,
mocked the voice of Coyote. There’s no way you can make it happen now, though. In the meantime… Join me. Take the skin. Take the power.
   I forced myself to swallow the blood and looked up at the creatures that were my family. Crimson drops fell from my mouth; I smelled my relatives’ fetid breath, heard their breathing, saw the glow of their eyes. There were wolves, coyotes, even a wolverine. There were snakes, massive things of darkness that coiled amongst their legs. I couldn’t outrun them; I couldn’t fight them. Not even if I still had my centaur body!
   That was when I realized how odd, how wrong this body felt. I missed the hooves, the strength, the grace. There had to be a way to get it back. There had to be! And there had to be a way to get answers.
   But here and now, there was one way out. I needed time to find answers. And I needed time to destroy the evil that surrounded me.
   I stood up, my human body awkward and ill-fitting.
   I stumbled forward and grasped the owl skin I’d made at such cost, falling to my knees before my clan.
   And then I wrapped the feathers around me.

Chapter 59
-= Coyote =-

   A burst of orgasmic pleasure pulsed from the skin and spread throughout my body. The pleasure faded, changing into a growing warmth that grew hotter and hotter yet never painful. I felt myself changing, shrinking, as the skin twisted itself around me. It began squeezing me and squeezing me, tighter and tighter. Never tight enough to be painful, but always applying pressure. I couldn’t understand it until I realized I was shrinking. The process went faster and faster, the warmth grew and grew…
   And then it was over.
   Opening my eyes I peered out, spinning my head almost all the way around. Where once the room had been dark, now it was as bright as day, and everything was crystal clear. The corpse of my brother, the creatures that were my family.
   My family…
   I’d forgotten them in the instant of change. What would they do? I wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter: I had to get away, and flying was the best option right now. Shouldn’t be too difficult; I’d certainly flown as Pegasus, and this body was built for it, right? But I was flesh and blood, unlike when I’d been the winged horse. I had to work to get off the ground—fortunately, the cupping of wings to grab the air was the same. My tail wobbled in all directions as I jerked here and there in the air.
   I had to leave this place and get time to think.
   Flapping harder and harder, I got near the roof; then silently swooped down through the entrance, one wingtip brushing the door frame, and I was out in the brilliant night. Behind me I heard noises of movement along with growls and caws and hisses. My wings stroked the air as I fled deeper into the pine forest, twisting and tilting around trees. Hearing wings behind me, I fled into the darkest depths where only my eyes could see. When I heard only the night sounds, I tried to land on a branch, my feet struggling to get a grip, my claws digging at the wood. I slipped off and tumbled through the air, and then stretched my wings and swooped above the ground, silent in the night. More quick strokes, and then I tried again. This time my aim was better and I grasped the branch with my feet—without killing my forward momentum. Only releasing my talons kept me from swinging back and forth, upside down, like a pendulum. On my third attempt I aimed for the branch and, at the last moment, flapped my wings and hovered above the branch for an instant before letting myself settle down safely and successfully.
   I stopped and waited and listened. The pine forest was silent, scentless. Or was it that I couldn’t smell? I looked around, my head twisting through an impossible angle… There! In the needles, at the base of a tree. Movement!
   Suddenly I was in the air, silently swooping. The mouse had only time for a single squeak of panic before my claws dug into its back and snapped its spine. I tumbled and rolled through the needles, never letting go of my victim until it stopped moving. Then I righted myself and swallowed my food whole. A few hops and wing-strokes got me back in the air, and soon I was resting on another branch. The rest of the night passed as I preened my wings and relaxed, always looking around me.
   At the pre-dawn glow, I leapt off the branch and circled around the tree, wings flapping, going higher and higher. I dove and ducked around branches and spiraled upward, finally landing on a thick branch near the top. My claws dug into the thick bark and I closed my eyes and went to sleep.

   I was comfortably standing on all four hooves, my hands hanging loosely beside me. All around me was grass—right, probably the Sea of Grass. The sun was high in the sky and I could smell the rich greenness of the grass as the stalks bent and swirled around me in the wind.
   Comfy world you’ve got here, Steph. Or do you prefer Steve?
It was the same voice I’d heard when I’d slain my brother.
   Rearing up, I spun around. My forehooves thudded to the ground right in front of a coyote who was sitting in a bare patch blissfully ignoring me. “Who are you?”
   The coyote looked at me and yawned. Me? I’m the nice guy who gave you the gift you so richly earned! You can call me Coyote.
   Disgusting, detailed memories poured through me as I remembered the joy and glee with which I’d entrapped, and then killed, my brother. My hide shuddered and I looked down at him in disgust. “I don’t want your gift.”
   I’m hurt! Really, I am!
He snickered. But it’s too late now, so you might as well accept it.
   “I should kill you.”
   Feel free to try, Steve! But if you did that, how would you get back to where you need to go?

   I glared at the creature. “I can do it without your help.”
you? Do you know where you are?
   Disgusted with myself I turned away. “The Sea of Grass,” I muttered.
   Ah, such a biased outlook upon the richness of life and dreams! Your new people call themselves the Dineh, though the term ‘Navajo’ might be more familiar to you. No? North American Indians from your distant past, before they migrated southward.

   I refused to look at him.
   That’s you all over, Stevie: Stubborn as always. You really need to lighten up! It was that stubbornness in you as a child that made you kill all those owls.

   “Hmph!” I managed to keep my stomach somewhat settled at the thought of what it contained. The mouse was okay—it was natural for the form I’d assumed—but the flesh of a corpse, the blood of my own brother… Again I shuddered.
   Steve, this is not the Sea of Grass. You are now in what the Dineh would term the Spiritworld. I’m your guide and master, as I am to every member of the clan of the Skinwalkers
. His voice turned dark. You are mine.
   “No, I’m not.”
   The coyote shrugged. Anything you say, Stevie. It’s kind of sad, actually. The Skinwalkers started as a private joke: I wanted to see how far mortals would go to be my followers. He snickered. Who knew?
   The coyote appeared in front of me and I involuntarily took a step back.
   You performed the rituals, so now you’re one of them. According to the Dineh, you’re cursed and lost to humanity. And they’ll hunt you down and kill you… if they can.

   “And then I’ll be free and I’ll find a new birth and a new body, back where I need to be.”
   Steve, you are way the hell far from where you were. Remember when you, as Pegasus, tried to escape? Sure you do! You saw swirls of energy, multiple swirls. The reality of Greek myth is one of those swirls. Egyptian myth is another, Celtic myth yet another. And here and now, my servant, you are in the reality of Dineh mythology and dreams.

   The memory of my attempted escape as Pegasus played itself in my mind. I refused to let any expression show on my face.
   If you die here, Steve, you’ll be reborn as a member of the Dineh—as many times as you like— but you’ll be a Skinwalker every time. Your memories of other existences will fade, and eventually you’ll revel in your superiority, just like the rest of my followers.

   “I will never join you.”
   Quoting from a movie made long ago in a quantum potentiality far, far away? Way to geek out, Steve! The series wasn’t bad—until the creator made the smuggler shoot second.

   “Coyote…” I remembered that he was a trickster deity, but nothing more. “I survived being Medusa for eons. I’ll survive this and find a way out.”
   There is no way out, Steve! We created this in our dreams and discoveries. But once we made it, the damn thing had always existed, and we found it because we were fated to find it.
He laughed, a long mournful laugh. So we’re trapped—me, you, all of us. We’re caught in the cycle you created, and until you finish that cycle none of us can be free. He changed before my eyes, growing somehow, becoming more and more manlike. And in this realm, you will be successful. Even if I have to reshape you in my own image first.
   I looked down at him. Even though he was now more man than coyote, I still towered over him. “It’s not my fault that the body I was born into was a member of this Skinwalker clan. The parents may bear the sin, the being I was may bear the sin, but I do not. I will be free of you.”
   Come on, Stevie! Always excuses you have,
he said, his voice another reminder of old movies. Then he changed, become slightly hunched, a wise old grandmother chiding her grandson. What you did in your past life, you blame on Ixion’s blood. And now you blame it on the body you picked. But you’ve got it backwards: The reality you spent time in before this one, it only allows what you call a spirit or soul to enter a body whose life will fit that spirit. Your soul is tainted, and that taint drew you to the body of a Skinwalker!
   And with that he vanished, leaving behind only coyote laughter.

Chapter 60
-= Assassin =-

   With a jerk I awoke, still perched high on my branch in the scentless pine tree… Right, this body must really have no sense of smell. It was late in the day, the sky shadowed as the sun was behind the mountains. The pine forest was quiet, with only a faint wind rustling through the top of the tightly-packed trees.
   I stretched my arms—no, they were wings now—and then shook them a little to work out the stiffness. I was both thirsty and hungry, and decided to wait until nightfall. It also gave me time to figure out what was going on.
   I wasn’t completely ignorant of other mythologies; I’d picked up the occasional tidbit when looking for comparisons to classical Greek mythology. As far as I could remember, this ‘Spiritworld’ was a place of dreams and drug-induced delusions to which North American Indians would go in search of visions with the aid of a spirit guide, usually a totem animal. Well, that fit; the dream I’d had seemed far too vivid to be just a mundane dream, and given what I’d already seen, I was willing to consider it a spirit journey.
   As well, I was willing to accept that the creature who’d talked to me really was the Coyote of North American myths. But since he was the Trickster, how far could I afford to trust his words?
   He’d said I was with the Dineh people, aka Navajo; that was almost certainly true. He might have lied about the exact tribal group, but from what I’d seen this was definitely a culture from the New World, although it could be a very old Ice Age-era tribe from the Old World. For now, I would accept the ‘New World’ statement.
   The ‘energy swirls’ Coyote described matched the vortexes I’d seen as Pegasus during my abortive ‘escape’. And, given the different mythological structure here, that supported the fact that I was within a different vortex.
   The rest of it, the structure of the spirit/soul world, the fact that a spirit could only enter a new body whose life would match the spirit… None of that was I willing to accept. And yet, it sounded right. There was certainly reincarnation, but I refused to accept the trap Coyote claimed I was in. If the so-called ‘taint’ on my soul limited my bodies, then it would become harder and harder to escape as the upbringing of my body would twist my soul, my spirit, into something darker and darker.
   Was this purgatory? Had I died beneath the waves when my airline snapped?
   I couldn’t accept that. If there was a purgatory—which I didn’t believe—its purpose would be to give souls a chance to repent and improve. Instead, here the tendency was for my soul to become darker and darker. The opposite of what purgatory was said to mean.
   I shook my head and wings angrily.
   This wasn’t getting me anywhere! The cold fact, the one thing I could be certain of, was that these Skinwalkers were wrong. They were evil and had no right to live. Their culture had used me, had made me do things, horrible things, things that I would never have done if I’d known myself. I’d resolved to stop it, and now that resolve was stronger. If Coyote was right about tainted souls, then by destroying the Skinwalkers, I could force bodies that weren’t fated to be a member of the cult to accept my soul for my next rebirth. After all, it would be hard to be born a Skinwalker if there weren’t any.
   A small voice inside me whispered, Do you have the right to judge? Do you have the right to pronounce judgement and perform the execution?
   Was that me, or one of the mares that had merged into my mind? I had no way of knowing.
   Was my soul turning dark? Before I’d had the centaurs as a driving force. They’d caused a growing desire in myself to work for their improvement, to sacrifice myself for their good. That was heroism, or was it egotism? No! I refused to go down that path. Their way had been self-destructive, the failure of their race to grow and prosper confirmed that. They could always have left me.
   Here I had no tribe to save, no driving force… Unless I tried to save the Skinwalkers.
   Could I do that?
   I reviewed the rituals I’d been taught in my mind by my parents the few times I’d seen them. Other than sleeping with, and consuming the dead, and the murder of a relation, there really wasn’t anything wrong. The question was, how necessary was each step? How could I find out? The only way to find out that I could think of was to ask Coyote—but there was no way to force him to answer, and no way to know if he was answering truthfully.
   All of this meant that I needed information. I was in a form with great mobility, few physical enemies, and extreme eyesight. Not as good as a hawk’s would have been, but much better in low light conditions.
   I resolved to stay this way and study the Dineh, both groups of them. And if I encountered Coyote again, I would ask him some more pointed questions. If he was my spirit guide, my totem animal, then I would meet him again. And he owed me.

   Through the spring and into the summer I lived as an owl, hunting during the night, staying up for a bit in the morning to take a look at how the Dineh lived. Some things I learned early. The non-Skinwalker Dineh somehow were able to detect Skinwalkers when they were in the form of animals. If I didn’t stay concealed, they’d see me and sometimes try and shoot me with an arrow. Fortunately they rarely looked up. Other Skinwalkers were more actively hunted.
   One night I flew over the Dineh village and saw a wolf sneaking in. He forced himself into one of the hogans and there were the sounds of fighting and the screams of pain. He came out, blood on his muzzle and fled. A woman came out screaming, holding her dead child and wailing about her dead husband. I forced myself to stay awake and extremely cautious, and watched as the shaman used the blood left behind to seek the wolf. A hunting party tracked him, cornered him, and eventually killed him though they were wounded themselves. Upon death, the Skinwalker shifted back into human shape, his body draped in a wolfskin. Rather than burying the body, they burned it and the skin separately, and then scattered the ashes and bones all over the landscape. The Shaman conducted purification rituals over the hunters upon their return. I kept an eye on them afterward and there was no sign of them becoming Skinwalkers.
   The Skinwalker ‘culture’, if you could call it that, was dark and violent. The entire culture was parasitic: As humans, they lived off the abandoned materials of the tribe and stole the other things they needed. As animals, they were generally solitary. Natural animals of the same species refused to accept them. Packs would drive them out. Skinwalkers could sense their own kind, even if they were in different forms, and I realized that I too, somehow, knew innately if an animal was a Skinwalker or not.
   Children were born human and were practically abandoned as soon as they were weaned. Some parents visited them intermittently, some not at all. The only common ritual shared by the Skinwalkers was witnessing the moment when a child underwent his first change. Then all the Skinwalkers would gather in witness. I had no idea what the meaning of that was, I only knew that it was always done. I felt no call, no need, to go to those. I don’t know if that was typical, or if I was different somehow.
   In midsummer I noticed that one of the non-Skinwalker tribe members left the village alone. He carried his weapons, but no bags or tools, which suggested that he wasn’t going to hunt. I followed him.
   To my surprise close to the village he stopped and met with my father.
   My father was standing in the shadows, beneath a twisted dead pine try that had once been struck by lightning. Around him was draped a torn and dirty skin that had once been worn by a woman of the non-Skinwalker Dineh group. His skin was dark and scarred, covered with patches of dirt, and his hair was long and clumped with mud and grease. From his face his nose was thick and dark, almost black, and his ears were pointed just enough to be noticed. His limbs and body were thin and bony. Over his head and down his back was draped his wolfskin.
   He was standing there, leaning against a tree and tossing a knife from one hand to the other and then back again.
   Silently I landed in a nearby tree and watched and listened.
   “Shiye?” the stranger asked. Shiye was the name of my father, or at least this body’s father. The stranger’s voice wavered, he was nervous, very, very nervous.
   My father stopped tossing the knife. “I could be.”
   “Tiis told me where to find you.”
   “Then you must be Ashkii. Tiis said you wanted me to do something.”
   “I want you to kill Ahigo.”
   My father raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
   “It has to look like an accident! You have to lure him away from a hunting party and kill him as though it was done by an animal. There can’t be any suspicion!”
   My father laughed, a cold, harsh sound. “Has there been any suspicion before?”
   My father had murdered before!?
   My father continued in a calm voice. “For two bows and three knives.”
   “You don’t want to know why!?”
   “I don’t care.”
   At this point I couldn’t leave if I’d wanted to.
   Ashkii stared at him. Then he swallowed and licked his lips. “Just make sure no harm comes to his mate Yazhi.”
   My father shook his head. “Another jealous male. Will you meet my price?”
   Ashkii glanced around. “I will.”
   “Then be here at the next full moon. The job will be done and I’ll be here.” My father looked into Ashkii’s eyes and I saw my father’s eyes turn a solid black. “Don’t be late and don’t forget anything.”
   At that Ashkii turned and fled.
   My father called after him, “And it’s too late to cancel our deal!” Then he started tossing the knife again, back and forth from hand to hand.
   My father was a paid killer? I’d thought that the Skinwalkers were evil, but this… A cold rage flowed into my body.
   “Hokii! You can come down and talk if you want.”
   I went still. ‘Hokii’ was the name he’d given me.
   “Just like you know where I am right now, I know exactly where you are. I won’t hurt you. Just want to talk. You impressed me with what you did to your brother—impressed all of us. But then you vanished. They whispered that an animal had gotten you; I knew better.”
   Stretching my wings, I flapped them down and pulled myself into the air. Dodging other branches, I swooped around the tree finally setting down on a higher perch. Throughout the flight I never made a sound.
   All the time my father’s eyes followed my path.
   That was when I realized that just as I could sense other Skinwalkers, other Skinwalkers could sense me.
   My father shrugged. “If you’d rather not, you know when I’ll be back.”
   As he turned away I decided that I had to know. From all I’d seen I couldn’t believe my father would do what he’d promised to do. That anybody would do such a thing. With my anger high in me, I leapt into the air and landed on a large branch about five metres from the ground. Then I pecked at my feathered chest, pecked until I drew blood.
   The world swirled, power spun around me, my body stretched like toffee. Then I was grasping the trunk with an awkward hand to keep my balance. Over my head and back and arms was the skin I’d spent so long making.
   My father turned at the sound. “So Hokii, you decided to chat. You look well.”
   I stared down at him, now almost hidden in the dark shadow. The rich scent of pine wafted around me, polluted with the smell of unwashed flesh. My father.
   I stared at him.
   “Hokii, you were far the better. I brought food not for your brother, but for you. Now get down here! If I wanted to kill you this knife would already be in your chest.”
   “I’ll stay up here.”
   He shrugged. “I guess we can talk this way then.”
   I had to know. “Are you really going to murder for this Ashkii?”
   His eyes narrowed. “Killing one of them is not murder—it’s the natural order. I thought you knew that.”
   “You’re really going to do it, aren’t you? And you’ve done it before.”
   “Of course I am, Hokii. Don’t worry, though; I’ve been waiting for you. I’m getting old. I need an apprentice.”
   I couldn’t keep the disbelief and horror out of my voice. “You expect me to join you, to learn to kill for pay like you do?” In my many lives I’d almost certainly killed far more men then my father. But that was in war. This, this was completely different!
   He shifted the knife to his right hand. “What’s gotten into you? You know it’s the order of things…”
   Suddenly his hand moved and his dagger was speeding towards me.
   “…they exiled us. It’s only fair.” The tone of his voice never changed.
   Fortunately the Scythians had fought with daggers. I slapped the blade with my palm and sent it clattering off into the branches. Then I stopped.
   He stood there watching me as I watched him.
   I knew I had to attack him, I burned to attack him, but if I jumped I’d break one of my four leg—Goddamnit, I was human!
   He’d just turned to leave when I leapt for him, rage flowing through my veins. My feathered skin flapped in the air as I fell.
   He’d turned to flee when I landed on him, my feet on his back, my momentum shoving him to the ground. There was a snap, a scream. And silence.
   And then power geysered up from the corpse of my father and flowed into me. Now his skins were my skins. I knew where he’d hidden his others that were now mine. I knew them all and could hear them all calling me.
   And Coyote’s mocking laughter echoed through the forest.

Chapter 61
-= Youth and Psychologies =-

   Carefully I stood up, still a little wobbly from the influx of power and knowledge. I knew where the cornucopia of richness was, but I had to get there. Rolling my father’s body over, I pulled the wolfskin off him. It was a shame that I couldn’t carry this new skin in flight.
   Of course, there was another way.
   Carefully and reverently I removed my owl skin and gently placed it down. Then I wrapped my wolf skin around me.
   The magic that swarmed about me was similar, yet different, from what had happened when I’d first became an owl. This was a heavier magic, full of the richness of the earth and the scents of life. Again I was squeezed endlessly into myself. Something yanked me down onto my hands and feet as my head exploded outward. It stopped.
   The air was full of scents, so full that I was drowning in them. There, the acidity of fear. Beside it, greed and boredom. The thick miasma of ill-cared-for human flesh. Rich banquets of blood and vomit from where my father had been crushed against the ground. Confusion and hope and terror. Swirls of pine and sap and torn bark and crushed ground. Familiar human.
   The last was coming most strongly from the owlskin I’d spent so long making. Sticking my nose against it I inhaled the scent of myself, mingled with fear and horror and feather and horse. Gently I grasped the skin in my teeth, and then pushed my head underneath. A quick motion and it flipped onto my back and I started trotting away.
   Being on all fours was strangely comfortable, though it still wasn’t right. I was able to move fast, staying under the trees, moving along nearly invisible trails. My only guide was my new knowledge, and my new nose. And before my new nose the whole world was laid out. I could tell who had passed, how many had passed, how long ago they had passed.
   The ground rose up, becoming rockier as the trees thinned. I could scent my father clearly now, he’d been along here many times. The trail led down into a small crack in the side of a cliff. From there I had to leap to get up onto a small ledge, and then I followed a narrow trail upwards against the wall. Maybe halfway up I pushed my head underneath a bush and could make out a small cave piled with supplies, dried food and water, and skins. My skins. I yanked my head out, flipped my owlskin off my back and onto the ground. Then, carefully holding it in my teeth, I pulled it as I crawled under the bush, the mass of the skin trailing between my legs and behind me. When I was fully in the cave I dropped it.
   The light was dim, and I could see little though scents of numeous land animals wafted around me. There was a bear, a wolverine, a cougar, a couple of different kinds of foxes… All predators. And that was because all of the skins here were the skins of predators.
   Leaning down I ripped and tore at my right foreleg with my teeth, digging in until I drew blood. My world swirled, mass poured into me.
   And then I was crouching on hands and legs in a suddenly small cave.
   Carefully I picked up my owlskin, brushed the dirt off it, and then neatly folded it. Now, what to try first? There were so many choices! After hesitating, choosing, hesitating, choosing again, I finally realized that the sun was setting and the cave was getting darker. And it was getting cold. And my crouching there naked wasn’t helping.
   I pulled out one of the fox skins, it was actually a number sewn together, and wrapped it around myself. Again the orgasmic pleasure of change swept through me, squeezing me, shaping me, making me what it wanted. Too soon it was over, and I curled up, put my fluffy tail over my nose, and went to sleep nice and warm.

   I found myself standing on four hooves in the Sea of Grass, but now it was strangely dull. It was night, and the stars were scattered across the heavens in countless profusions. A gleaming arch stretched from the horizon, overhead, and down behind the other horizon. I could scent nothing, not the grass, not myself. Or maybe it was just so faint, compared to what I’d experienced as a wolf, that I couldn’t notice it.
   I started trotting and before I knew it I was galloping for all I was worth just for the fun of it. The movement was relaxing, calming. My mind started reorganizing itself, making connections that it had been struggling for months to make.
   I’d killed my father. Again.
   I skidded to a stop, my sides heaving as I sucked air in and pushed it out.
   With Modyes, my Scythian father, I’d killed him by trusting Ephebos. Here I’d killed Shiye by a direct physical act. I hadn’t meant to kill him, or at least I didn’t think I had. But once the rage had consumed me… I remembered other cases. My rage had controlled me against Poseidon. Looking back I realized that I’d fought like a colt. There’d been no skill, or at least not much. In battle I’d used my rage, my hatred, had used its energy, but the last few times it had controlled me. Had it always controlled me? When I fought Gryneos, had the rage controlled me? When I was insane was it the rage that had controlled me? I could remember times of a childlike curiosity, but no instances of hate.
   I remembered further back. The bully in grade school that I’d finally pounded so hard he’d been gone from school for a week. Had I always been this full of hate? And if I was, why was I so calm now—
   You know, Steve, this land isn’t too bad.
   I spun around and looked down at Coyote. Appearing as half man, half beast, he stood beside me, easily standing on his two hind legs with a smoking pipe in his right forepaw—or was that his hand?
   I’d offer you a pipe, but you probably don’t smoke, either. He shook his head in mock reproach. No wine, no women, no pipe: How can anybody live like that?
   “What are you doing here!?”
   He inhaled through the pipe and exhaled a big smoke sculpture of a centaur killing Acheans all around him. It slowly drifted upward, dispersing much slower than it should have. I’m your totem, Steve. Where else should I be?
   “Then…!” I swallowed and pushed back my rage. “Where were you all this time? I’ve needed you.”
   That so, Steve? He inhaled again, and blew a normal smoke ring this time. Normal until I noticed the tiny nude human woman that looked suspiciously like Phillipa sitting on it waving at me. Seemed to me that you were doing fine. You even killed your father and took his power.
   “It was an accident!” I snapped.
   Steve! Here there’s only us. I know all the answers. Don’t lie to yourself. Ever!
   Snorting I turned away and started trotting through grass, trying to think only of the pleasant physical sensation of movement. It wasn’t to be, though, as Coyote easily jogged beside me on his two hind legs.
   If I’m here as your guide, maybe you should be honest with me. Then he laughed bitterly. And if I’m the evil trickster playing with your soul, does anything you say really matter?
   Without turning to face him I spat out my answer. “It doesn’t matter. You’re right, it’s possible I wanted to.” My voice turned bitter. “My aim was certainly good.”
   Do you believe it was chance that landed your feet on his spine? Or desire?
   I remained silent for a while, thinking. Coyote was right. He likely knew everything anyway, so my telling him truths couldn’t hurt. And I needed to know to figure out what I was going to do. I’d seen psychiatrists in my youth, and they’d helped somewhat. But that was so long ago…
   I remembered helping program a complete rewrite from somebody recovered from beyond the London arcology. She’d been feral, almost incapable of speech although her growls and screams were interspersed with the odd English phrase or word. A personality is made up of many factors. Some of it is genetic, but most of it is surroundings and experiences during early youth. In other words, the upbringing. In the arcologies we’d worked out the optimum program for mentally healthy and sane offspring, but the feral had been raised outside the system.
   I remembered studying the diagrams of her neural matrix with others. The knots from abuse, from hatred, from rejection by others. Memories of fighting for food. Feelings of rejection from others because she was smaller, weaker, not worthy of survival.
   Ultimately I’d suggested a complete rebuild. It would be easier to create completely new memories of a childhood she’d never ‘really’ lived, rather than try working around the myriad horrors that had happened to her in reality. We ended up writing a new neural matrix, extrapolating from her genetics and average case histories of individuals of her sex and physical build raised in a more normal upbringing. We’d destroyed her, a unique (if damaged) sentient mind, and made something new.
   But… No... Wait, another person—someone whose memories I’d stolen whilst a spirit—had done that. I hadn’t. How could something seem so wrong to me, yet so right to another someone else?
   I trotted on in the silence broken only by the steady beat of my hooves, and the regular thudding of Coyote’s feet. Until he interrupted. Very good, Stephan. I ignored him; I needed to figure this out.
   I realized that the source of the knowledge didn’t matter. No, it hadn’t been me, but what was done was done. And there were parallels with my own life history…
   I’d been smaller, and had become more athletic to make up for it. Beside my father, though I worshipped him, I’d always seemed inadequate. Never smart enough, never fast enough to figure out the answer he was looking for. He’d respected intelligence, and not much else. He’d expected an endless fount of intelligence and wisdom from me. Intelligence and wisdom that it took me years to discover on my own, a discovery I’d largely made in defense from him.
   I’d both loved, and hated him. Loved him with a red passion of loyalty and respect, and hated him with a well as deep as that of my love.
   Was my deep-seated anger, my sudden rising walls of hatred, a result of trying to please him and getting punished time after time because I failed? Had I hidden away my hatred for him, sealing it off into a pool that spilled out on others?

Chapter 62
-= Entrapment =-

   With a start I woke up, the rising sun shining in my eyes.
   I yawned, stretching my fox jaws wide, blinking at the morning light glinting into my cave. Why’d my father pick an east-facing entrance? Could it be an echo of the non-Skinwalker Dineh?
   A sharp nip and a stab of pain, and a swirl of magic, and I was back to my weakling human form. What to choose, what to choose? The skin of a mountain lion drew me and, on an impulse, I pulled it out from the pile. It was old and hadn’t been used recently. I had to shake the dirt out of it. Then I stood, or maybe crouched, and with a swirl of magic, and a green stab of hunger and arrogance, my body reshaped into a hunter. This time I didn’t shrink; in fact there was more of a size increase, a great growth of muscle and power. Blinking my eyes in the morning sun I padded to the entrance of the cave and looked out over my domain. And then I roared out my joy.
   One would think that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get down the path to the ground, but my new body did it with a graceful ease. In the cool morning I padded into the pine forest, looking for the right place. Scents led me to a pool glistening in the light, and the destination of many looking for water. My whiskers felt the direction of the wind and with a scramble of claws I pulled myself up a large tree and lay on a branch waiting.
   The day passed as I lay there. It was like a dream in which you knew months had passed, but nothing really seemed to happen. After midday a deer came to drink. He was male, with antlers just beginning to grow, scarred, tough, and wary. But he was in the wrong position and too old and tough to take down. I watched him drink and then proudly walk away. After that I think I napped, but was suddenly entranced by movement below me. It was another male deer, but much younger. He limped slightly, I wasn’t sure why. With endless patience I waited as he came near my perch and then leaned down to drink. Not a perfect position, but… I took a few silent steps down the branch. He looked up, sniffed, kicked at the ground, and then leaned back down to the water. I leapt, landed feet first with claws out on his back. My weight bowled him over and he fell to the ground as I scrambled to stay on top. With an impossible twist, I clenched my jaws around his neck and squeezed. The flesh was sweet, rich, warm, and full of glorious taste. Blood oozed out, and then gushed and drenched my snout. The deer died and I gulped down hunks of warm bloody meat, the salt tickling my tongue as the blood splattered over my snout. Only when I was done did I pad over and drink, and then carefully wash myself.
   It was a wonderful day. Warm, sunny, and I had a full stomach. Life was perfect. Sated, I padded back to the cliff and up and into my lair. A few circles, and then I lay down, purring, as I went to sleep.
   I passed the rest of the summer as a mountain lion. It was a quiet, lazy time. And I didn’t care about anything else. I kept wanting to try some of the other skins, but I never had the energy. Food was plentiful, and the only thing I needed to avoid were the Dineh.
   One day after I’d gone out, I made my way back angry and hungry. The hunting had been bad, every attempt I’d made at a kill had failed. Leaping back into my cave I padded around until it was comfortable to settle down. In front of me were the other skins, calling, beckoning. Was it time for a change?
   What was I doing?
   I was trapped here, trapped as a Skinwalker.
   But why does it matter? I’ve got everything I need here. Why should I exert myself?
   Because others need me. I can go back; save the centaurs that still live, find out why Poseidon was me. Because there’s something undone that needs to be done.
   Don’t I deserve a break?

   Why the sudden doubt, why the sudden hesitation? Why was I resisting doing the right thing?
   I looked at the skins, and then turned and looked at myself.
   Was I running away?
   The centaurs had left civilization, gone off to die in the wilderness. They’d stopped trying to succeed. They hadn’t cared anymore.
   Wasn’t I doing the same?
   I’d sworn to stop the Skinwalkers, and yet I’d done nothing. I’d studied the Dineh, but for months now I’d just avoided them.
   I spent hours, days, just watching from a height. Watching and waiting. Never had I even thought about what to do.
   A chill swept through me. Was it the skins? As an owl, I’d killed a mouse and consumed it without any disgust. As a fox, I’d immediately gone comfortably to sleep curled up with my tail over my nose. As a lion, I’d hunted successfully on my first attempt. Was that luck? Or was there skills, animal minds, hidden in the skins?
   How much of what was left was them, and how much was me?
   As a centaur I’d worked my way through life, worked my way through problems, usually controlled my anger. Well, except when Poseidon had proven he’d stolen the experiences of my son from me; that had been too much.
   I suddenly realized how much I missed my centaur body. It was my body, I suddenly knew that. In my dreams I was never human, never an animal: Always a centaur.
   If only I could be a centaur again… I’d figure out a way out. I’d get back onto the path.
   Was that the true trap of the Skinwalker? It made you leave human society, human morality, and take that of an animal?
   I needed to think, and I needed to think outside of my dreams. I feared that my dreams were simply Coyote’s manipulations.
   The secret had to be in these skins. It had…
   It was all an excuse.
   Angrily I bit my teeth into my left leg and tore out flesh down to the bone. I was angry, disgusted with what I’d become. The magic swirled around me, and I felt the strength, the confidence, the power of the lion leaving me. Soon all that was left was an old boy, not yet even a young man, crouching on the floor of a cold and lonely cave. I rooted around and found some dried food left by my father and wolfed it down.
   The skins were a trap—my stolen memories suggested that they were an addiction—but I knew that they were something more. They contained the mind of the animal, and that mind slowly absorbed me.
   How much had they taken from me? How much did I have left?
   I sat down.
   Here I was, human again. And it felt so wrong!
   I dug through my memories. I’d been so much, and it seemed that my soul, my spirit, was no longer human. When I dreamed I was always a centaur. Was that how I saw myself?
   There the psychiatrist’s memories offered me a term: Species Dysphoric. It referred to humans who believed that their souls didn’t match their physical form, that they were a non-human spirit (that of a horse, a rabbit, whatever) who’d been born into a human body. In the early part of the 21st Century, some cases had been determined to be a result of physical disabilities, real or imagined, a desire to be in a healthy body. With improved medical technology that problem had been solved. And yet a few seemed to have no cause. The solution, the only way to make them happy, was to destructively download them into a cybernetic pattern and wrap their code in an appropriate body which became them in the world of the net.
   Maybe that was what I needed to do—become a centaur again.
   But how?
   I could die, but according to Coyote I’d simply be reborn as a Skinwalker.
   Wait… Was there a way to do it with a skin? Given that a skin imposed at least some of what it had been in life, could a centaur skin restore what I’d lost to the owl and the lion?
   I’d have to find a centaur to get the skin from. And there were none. But, could I make a centaur skin? Certainly there were no horses, but I could use a deer. Kill one, take its skin. Then kill a human and take its skin. Sew the two together and prepare it for the magic and…
   What the hell was I thinking!?

   But still, I missed the centaur form so much. It seemed that I needed it. Was there a way?
   Could I use a partial skin?
   I remembered my old body. All the organs had been in the horse chest, the human chest had only been muscle and bone. I worked out the problem logically, applying ruthless computer rules. If I took a deer skin and wrapped it below my waist the magic might work, but then I’d have two lungs, two hearts, and two esophagi. Amongst others. I doubted that that would be a workable system. Could I wrap the skin higher? Say I extended the neck so that it ran from my waist to my neck, with my arms sticking out uncovered. That would suggest a single set of organs.
   I looked at the skins. They were calling me, luring me to give up my humanity. When I was using a skin they’d been silent. A centaur skin seemed the answer. And yet… Was it the skin calling me, or my memories of what I’d once been?
   There was only one way to find out, and that was to try it. Maybe it wouldn’t work. Maybe I’d die trying it. But I needed to try something. I had so many pieces and no answers!
   Pulling the mountain lion skin out, I wrapped it around me, letting the magic take me, but keeping my goal focused. Then I slept. It took me two days to find the right deer, male, not too big, not too small. The first kill tore the skin where I needed it. I realized that I’d have to kill it by crushing the skull. The second attempt almost killed me. The head was too big, and I barely kept out of the way of the horns. Due to hunger I killed the next deer the conventional way, and tore through the neck to get at the soft flesh underneath.
   When I was laying sated from that kill a thought occurred to me. For the owlskin I’d sewn hundreds of bits of owl together. Why couldn’t I do the same for the neck?
   Rather than leaving that kill, I dragged it back to the cave. Everything I needed was there and after I’d finished eating the flesh I cleaned it and prepared it. After that I made two more kills, eating the flesh, and preparing the hides. The air grew colder, snow flakes drifted down one night. I was running out of time. But, the third kill had been enough.
   I stayed in the cave as a human, working feverishly. It became an effort to ignore the call of the other skins. Especially of the owlskin, my first skin. Coyote’s gift to me. I forced the voices back and worked. I grew thin, bony. I was hungry, thirsty, weak.
   But I finished it.
   Holding the centaur skin, I prepared to climb down from the cave. My body was shaking so bad I could barely stand. Outside it was snowing, the flakes blowing in a cold wind. I grabbed something, my owlskin, and took both skins as I stumbled down the path and almost fell onto the ground.
   It was time.
   I dropped the owlskin and shook out the deerskins I’d sewn together. Then, keeping my arms outside, I wrapped the skin around me.

Chapter 63
-= Resolution =-

   Once again the magic took me, but this time it was different. It was a quiet magic, a green magic. I felt it ripple down my body, I felt my legs changing to famliar hooves. Fur spread out, up my legs, up my chest.
   And then the magic started going wrong.
   All my other skins held the imprint of the animal they’d been in life—the ‘soul’ of that creature, for want of a better term—and the magic used that imprint as a kind of blueprint, built the new body off of it. However, this skin was different; it had no ‘soul’, perhaps because it (unlike all my others) included no skin from the head. The magic needed something to serve as a foundation… and that foundation wasn’t present. I could feel the spell searching as I fell to the ground. I couldn’t breathe, my limbs wouldn’t work. More and more magic swirled around me, desperately seeking.
   I was cold, starving. This had to succeed: If it didn’t, I was dead. Digging back through my library of stolen memories, I remembered healing the others, remembered my own body regrowing. I concentrated on those, forced the memories into the top of my consciousness. The green magic recoiled, and then fought. Now it sensed a kind of ‘soul’—but not one it could accept. My body was shaking, writhing back and forth in the thickly falling snow. I remembered my centaur body, remembered the good days. Remembered my life before the Skinwalkers…
   The magic swirled around me, pressing against my self. It was looking for a weakness—but I refused to give it any! I felt it gathering, towering over me higher and higher like I’d towered over victims as Medusa. I focused my thoughts on what I’d been. On how it had felt to walk, to trot, to gallop. On the shivering of my horse hide on my horse body. Of the weight of divine armour on my human shoulders. Of the warmth of healing a scar or a wound. On the pain of Achilles’ sword in my chest. I poured my anger against the magic, hating what it was trying to make of me. Images of deer flickered like an out-of-focus movie through my memories, but I pushed them aside. I remembered what I’d been, what I would be again. The magic poured into my body, it sucked the skin further into my flesh. I grew, my hooves split, turning cloven. That was not right. Not right!
   Heat burned through me. I hated Skinwalkers. I hated this place. I refused to let this skin beat me! My hooves fused, again becoming equine. The magic struggled harder, drawing more and more from the skin I’d created and ensorceled. Time passed. I grew dark and cold, the snow whipped across me as the wind grew and grew. In the distance there was a rumble as lightning flashed. I could feel my body dying as my anger burned higher and higher. I knew what I wanted my body to be, and the skin’s magic knew what it wanted my body to be. We fought for our visions, and neither would yield. I would never give in, and the spell couldn’t; it was no better than a computer program, incapable of anything at all other than performing its built-in function, and heedless of cost or consequences. I felt my body chilling, my breathing slowing. I started feeling pleasantly warm even as my anger and hatred burned in my soul.
   No! I refused to let it end like this. There had to be another way.
   The skin couldn’t give in, and I refused to. I had my anger; the skin had… whatever forces a magical spell might draw upon. But…
   What if my anger wasn’t enough?
   For a second my will wavered, and the magic pressed forward and both my hind legs once again had cloven hooves.
   With red-hot rage I pushed it back, but I was weakening. More: I was dying.
   Something in my mind whispered that maybe anger wasn’t the way. Maybe there was another way; a way that didn’t require anger. A way of compromise..?
   Without warning, I released my grip on my left rear hoof. The magic swirled around it, instantly making it cloven once again. The magic rose up, pressed forward, but I would not let it go further. When it subsided I let it have my right rear hoof, which immediately turned cloven. Again the magic rose and fought, but I didn’t give up. Then I slowly withdrew, letting the magic win. My body stretched, my lower body growing from the ground, pushing aside the snow piled against me. Legs burst from my chest and out into the snow, ending in cloven hooves of their own. The magic, strong now, pressed against my will. I slowly fell back; fur covered my human chest. The skin’s magic tried to suck my arms into its neck, but I refused. I did let a trickle through, and fur burst out of the flesh. Otherwise, my arms and hands remained unchanged.
   The magic was weaker now; most of its job was done. It pressed, but I held it back. I let it slip over my head, felt fur grow out. My head changed, distorted, stretched. It tried to touch my mind, but I kept my soul, the core of my essence, intact. Slowly I let the magic claim all the nonessential aspects of my self, everything except my hands, voice, and mind. It was weak now. Most of its energy had been expended. Now I pressed forward, pushing at the potentiality that sought the final changes. I pushed it down, down my furred human chest, down my furred deer chest, down to the tip of my tiny tail. There it struggled, resisted. But I was ruthless. I had what I had to have, and had let it have everything that I could. I pressed and pressed. Finally I forced it out, out into the coldness where it burst into nothingness.
   I realized that my body was warm. Pleasantly warm. Snow lay against me, piled there by the howling wind. I had no energy left, no energy to move, no energy even to raise an arm. And I was tired, so very tired.
   I’d done it. Somehow, I’d done it.
   I moved my arm slightly. It was stiff, sore. I could sense my owlskin, my first magic, nearby. I needed it with me. I couldn’t leave it. My hand fumbled around in the warm snow. It touched something that was not snow, something stiff, cold. Something that was me as much as it was not. Clenching my hands around it I relaxed in the pleasant warmth and let the snow bury me.

   I awoke unpleasantly hot. My mouth was hanging open, my tongue lolling out. Drool had dampened the furs on which my head rested. I could feel my owlskin over my human back, and warm furs piled high on top of me. The place where I regained consciousness was dim. A low fire burned in one corner and it provided the only light. In the shadows I could see a Dineh sitting on a rough chair, weaving a spiderweb pattern in a frame before her.
   My body was sore, stiff, and it burned with fire. Turning my head I snorted through my furred muzzle and she turned. She was dressed ornately, her hair long and loose down her back, somehow looking almost woven. My eyes followed her as she walked over to the fire and pulled off a boiling pot of liquid and poured some into a polished wooden bowl. After putting the pot back, she walked over and held the bowl up to my mouth… although now my mouth was more of a snout.
   “Don’t drink,” she said. “You need to lap it up. Take your time.”
   I don’t know why, but I immediately trusted her. Carefully I stuck out my tongue and touched the liquid. It was hot, but not too hot, and it tasted sweet.
   “You need to curl your tongue and scoop in a little bit.”
   I tried her advice and slowly got some liquid into my mouth and down my throat. I spilled some—in fact I think I spilled most of it—but she didn’t mind. As it went down it gave off a pleasant warmth, pushing back the scorching heat that pulsed through my body in waves. Too soon it was done, and I licked my lips with my larger, coarser tongue.
   She reached down and rubbed the stiff fur of my snout, and then the thinner fur behind my wide ears which flicked away from her hand. “Rest now, Stephan. Rest now and heal.”
   I sighed and lay my head back down on the furs upon which it had been resting. My mouth stayed open, my tongue hanging out, and I panted as I breathed. The healing warmth swept through me, and I felt better and better and fell into a healthier sleep.

   I awoke in a dream. Again I was standing on the Sea of Grass… but it was subtly different. The silver arch still went from horizon to horizon, hanging high in the heavens as the stars twinkled around it in their endless profusions. The grass seemed taller though shorter. I saw a furred snout in front of my face, and somehow I knew that it was mine.
   I nibbled on some grass which tasted okay, though it was a little dry, and looked up and around, chewing slowly. There was a single tree nearby, dark, without leaves. It looked dead. My ears twisted to focus on the sound of wings and a dark shape landed on a branch which sank down under the bird’s weight, and then began bobbing upwards and downwards in slowly shrinking amounts.
   Hey there, Steve! What were you thinking?

   I recognized the voice as that of Coyote, though he was now the bird—raven, I realized—in the tree in front of me.
   I swallowed the grass that was now pulp in my mouth and felt it slide down my throat. It settled in my stomach. “You don’t like what I did?”
   ‘Don’t like’!? You could have died!

   As if the Skinwalkers’ patron would care about that. “I didn’t.”
   Stevie, Stevie. You should have trusted me. I had your best interests at heart. I offered you a gift, a time to rest. You have to go back before Troy, and that means you can rest here as long as you need to.

   I took a few steps forward until my snout was touching his feathered chest. The branch was almost motionless. “I may not have studied your myths, but I’ve heard enough to not trust you.”
   Steve! You wound me. I’m hurt. I gave you the body of one of my children. I guided your hand and your skill. Helped you—

   “You helped me kill my brother,” I said, spitting out that word like it was a dead skunk.
   You can’t expect my gifts without paying a price. I had such hopes for you…

   “The price was too high,” I said dryly.
   The Skinwalkers needed a new direction. I wanted you to give that to them. To save them like you saved the centaurs.

   I turned away and looked up into the heavens. Up at the silver arch. My mind was clearer now than it’d been since I’d been reborn. I knew what I had to do. I wasn’t doing it out of anger, but out of moral justification. I’d seen the Dineh deal with their enemies; that would be my guide. “The Skinwalkers are an abomination. I’m going to wipe them out—all of them.”

Chapter 64
-= Rest =-

   Coyote cocked his head and stared at me. Then he started laughing. He laughed so hard that he fell off the branch and landed in the deep grass. I waited but the laughter showed no sign of abating. So I tore off another mouthful of grass and started chewing it while I was waiting. I couldn’t see what was so funny; I’d simply stated my intention.
   I swallowed that mouthful and two more before Coyote suddenly changed back into his human-like coyote form and looked at me. You really had me going there, Steve. For a second I actually believed you!
   I swallowed my mouthful. “What’s not to believe? The Skinwalkers are a curse on the Dineh. They bring disease. They kill and murder. They are the dark side of the human soul, and that dark side needs to be removed.”
   Coyote looked at me. Oh, my. You aren’t kidding. Are you?
   He shook his head. I couldn’t believe Grandfather Spirit was serious when he said that Death could only come into the world for a short time. I mean, Gramps isn’t stupid; how could he not see the consequences of no death? Coyote shrugged. I finally destroyed the ladder Death came down, so that Death was trapped here. Boy, was Grandpa Spirit pissed!
   I blinked my eyes and looked at him. “You brought death into this world?” In Greek mythology mankind had long ago left the Golden Age, and passed through the Silver Age and into the Iron Age of poverty, hardship, and death. And Coyote was proud of this?
   He buffed the knuckles of his right hand-paw on the fur of his left arm. Yup; sure am. Good job, if I say so myself.
   “Coyote, have you ever wondered how many people must curse you?”
   Nope. Don’t care, either. It’s not my fault that they don’t understand. The thing is, Steve… wait. Don’t tell me you don’t understand, either?

   “This place was a paradise and you destroyed it!”
   Great Spirits!
Coyote cried to the skies above. Can you believe this centaur? And he’s the one who’s going to free everybody!? As if!
   I ignored him and nibbled on some more grass. It tasted sour and I realized from the scent that it was watered with coyote piss. Disgusted, I spit it out.
   Coyote laughed. Gotcha! Stevie, Stevie, Stevie: Where would you be now if you couldn’t die when you stabbed yourself, hm? Where would your son, Chiron, be if he’d never been able to die?
   I snorted and stared at him, the sour taste still in my mouth. Or at least I was when my stomach rumbled and I started burping, though it wasn’t quite a burp. Something was forcing itself back up my throat and into my mouth. It was a thick goo, tasteless, soft, warm—
   By Gramps the Spook, Steve!
A bubble of laughter burst out from Coyote. You should see yourself! You look like the coyote who ate the chicken, trying to hide the feathers in his mouth from Elmer!
   I felt my stomach rumble again and glared at him.
   Shaking his head he stated: It’s cud, Steve. Deer eat their food once, swallow it into one stomach which starts one stage of digestion. Then they vomit up the food as cud, chew it some more, and swallow it again into another stomach.
   Angrily and quickly I chewed the pulp into a finer form and then swallowed it again as Coyote kept snickering. Finally I asked, “How was I supposed to know?”
   Because you’re the hero who’s supposed to know everything, right?
His face remained calm and a pipe appeared in his hand. He took a long drag from it, then blew smoke in my face, making me sneeze. In that other mythic quantum potentiality, you knew all that was going to happen. You’d read the script; you knew all the characters, all the events, and all the points of decision. But here… you don’t know anything.
   Internal muscles pulsed again and more cud was pushed up my throat and into my mouth. I’d have to get used to it; I forced myself to chew it.
   What’s it like, Stephan, to not have all the answers?
There was a hint of desperation in his voice—odd. To not know what everybody is going to do? You watched the Dineh for what, four moons? And what do you know about them? Anything?
   “They live with the world. Names call things, for good or evil. They’re very ceremonial. They’re terrified by witchcraft, even the proper shaman whom they never really trust. And they curse the Skinwalkers as bringers of evil and disease.”
   And so Western Cultural archetypes metastasize throughout the space/time continuum… You honestly have no clue, do you?
Shaking his head, he took another breath through the pipe, and blew out another cloud of bluish smoke. Well, you’re stubborn. I have to admire that. You’ll only learn if you discover the truth for yourself.
   “I know the truth.”
   Do you, Steve? Do you really? He shrunk down and vanished, leaving only a coyote grin hanging in the air. Well, that’s alright; go on your crusade. You’ll learn. And when you’re ready we’ll talk again, you and I. I need a good laugh every now and then.
   And then the smile vanished.

   With a jerk I awoke back in the dark chamber where the woman was still working on her weaving. The air was hot, stale. The fire was still burning as it had when I’d entered the dream with Coyote. My head was clear, and my body felt warm, not painfully hot. Forcing stiff limbs to move, I staggered up and onto my cloven hooves. It was hard to stand, subtly different from when I’d been a horse centaur. The furs slithered off my deer back to slump into a pile around my legs. My feathered owlskin was tied loosely around my throat and it shushed around me as I moved, a warm and comforting presence.
   My host finished working her thread through the entire width of the design she was weaving, then stood to face me. “So, Stephan, you’re awake now.”
   My throat was dry, my voice hoarse. “How do you know my name?”
   “Grandfather Spirit told me. You’ve slept a long time.” She walked over to the fire and poured liquid from the same pot there into a clean wooden bowl. It smelled different, sweeter, with a strong hint of pine.
   “How long?”
   Unhurriedly she carried the bowl forward and held it up in front of me. “Remember that you need to lap it up.”
   Its sweet pine scent wafted down my quivering nostrils. Unable to resist I pushed my snout into it and lapped it all up. Much neater than before.
   She waited until my long tongue was licking the bowl for the last hints of the thick vegetable broth before speaking. “You’ve slept through the winter.”
   My head jerked up and I stumbled backwards. My rear hooves caught in the furs and I fell in a pile of limbs. “All… all winter!?”
   She smiled, and the smile filled her face with a spiderweb of wrinkles. “Your body needed time to relearn itself. It’s no longer a skin that you’re wearing: What you are is what you are.”
   I didn’t know what to say.
   “I have one gift for you, then you must go make your own way. I’m not a charity here.”
   I looked at her, eyes blinking. “Then… why did you help me?”
   “You needed help just then. Why did you help Phillipa?”
   “How did..?”
   She turned away and walked over to a pile of sacks and started rummaging through them.
   “I did it because it was the right thing to do. Because she needed help and I was in a position to give it.”
   “A fine answer, Stephan, and one I agree with: You needed help, and I was in the right place to offer it. Now where… aha!”
   At that point a familiar rumble and muscular contraction worked its way through my chest and I felt thick stuff, cud, being pushed up my throat. It slid into my mouth and I started chewing. I watched as she pulled something out of the bag and then she stood up and turned towards me. I could see that she was holding two things. The first was an ornamental Cretan bronze knife, and the second was a long feather, stark white in colour. I tried to swallow—
   “Take your time, Stephan. The chewing needs to be done right. These things have waited for you for a long time; I’ve held them for you.” She walked towards me.
   I chewed quickly and swallowed the goo in my mouth. “They have?”
   “Pieces from your past. The knife you’ll need, and the feather will save you in the time of your greatest danger.”
   “What? When?”
   By then she was in front of me and she gently pushed the feather’s bare shaft into the fur at the tip of my left ear. It stung as the point pricked my skin, but I didn’t feel any lasting pain, and there was no blood, either. “There you go! Don’t worry, you won’t lose it, and it won’t bother you. But it’ll be there.” Then she hung a leather strap over my shoulder; it held a tooled Dineh-style scabbard for the dagger.
   “Wait—you didn’t have that bef—”
   “Stephan, it’s for you. Use it well; think before you act.”
   “But the strap, the scabbard—”
   “You’ll need them on the path you must follow. It’s not the most pleasant path… but what will happen will happen. You need to learn on your own.”
   I swallowed down my questions. “Thank you.”
   "You’re welcome. You know, you’re much nicer than either Nayenegani or Tobadzistsini were. They were in such a hurry to destroy evil; never a word or even a nod of thanks.”
   I started working my hind hoofs out of the tangle of furs. “Do you have a name?”
   This shocked her, for some reason. “Oh, my! A name!?”
   “I just like to know who’s helped me. To honour them.”
   “I see. But… well, I suppose my title’s safe enough…”
   “Your title?”
   “It’s one of my names, anyway.” Then she slapped me on my deer flank.
   The force of her slap triggered reflexes I’d never had before. I moved forward, but not in a gallop or a walk; instead I leapt ahead in one abbreviated bound. And suddenly there was an entrance in front of me, which led out into the sun filled spring. Pine scent filled my nostrils, birds sang in the air. In the distance I could hear the songs of the Dineh at one of their festivals.
   “Well, get going! You have work to do. And I need some time to relax. Don’t worry; nothing out there is going to hurt you.”
   I turned at my waist to face her. “And your… your title?”
   Smiling, she shook her head. “You Westerners and your need for labels! If you really need something, you can call me Spider Woman. Now shoo!”
   “Thank you, Spider Woman.” I turned and bounded out into the pine forest.
   I had much to do, and the first thing I needed was a bow and arrows. Then I could begin to hunt. With this body I could live off the leaves and grass, and smooth and polish the bow as I walked.
   Soon the hunt would begin.

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7 -=- Chapter 8 -=- Epilogue

Home -=- #25 -=- ANTHRO #25 Stories
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