Narsalon, Rimara, Ganebran year 2042
Shards of Chaos era
Run. Hide. Run. Hide. Always running, always hiding, never, never allowed to stop. Can't find my center, can't find my focus. Predators everywhere and I'm the prey. If they see me, they'll catch me. If they catch me, they'll kill me.
Maybe I should let them. What is the point of continuing to fight? I'm not wanted, not loved. I'm the accidental child my mother's family forced her to keep. She resents me. I'm a mistake, just a mistake. She doesn't love me. I don't think she's capable of loving anyone. It would be easier for her to survive if she didn't keep bringing me with her, but she continues to drag me from one safe-house to the next and told me she will until I am of age or one of us dies.
Three years. I'm fourteen now. I'll be an adult in three years and I can go hide on my own. But where? Where can I go? There isn't anywhere left for someone like me, nowhere at all except too-distant Starfall and desert Dunewind, the one place my mother refuses to go. I could go to the forest, but there are as many predators in the forest as there are in the city, and their teeth and claws are just as sharp.
“Aurelien.” My mother's voice reaches me as a clipped whisper. I jolt into the leg of the dining chair and scamper into the kitchen. The pantry door is slightly ajar, so I dash inside and squeeze myself in the gap between a sack of beans and the wall.
The door swings open and light hits my face. I retreat further and bury my nose in my paws. Maybe if I stay here long enough, the outside world will vanish and I will be safe. No. There is no safe. I'll never be safe.
“Aurelien, they're gone now. You can come out. Or stay there. Stay a rabbit forever if you want. I don't care.” My mother closes the door and leaves me in the dark. She knows I'll have to transition back to human to open the door and let myself out. I don't want out. It is easier to hide in this form, but I can't stay locked in a closet without access to water for more than a day.
Dark. Too dark. Don't like the light and don't like the dark, and the in-between is smothering. The smells of the pantry overwhelm me. A winter squash is rotting behind a bag of sprouting potatoes. The rice is musty and harboring some sort of benign fungus. I think the cans of tomatoes on the upper shelves are as old as my grandparents, who are probably in the backyard mocking me for getting myself locked in the pantry again. I hate them. They're the reason I'm here. They bullied my mother into keeping me when she wanted to give me up as soon as I was born. Family stays together, they said, and they continue to say. That's why she feels obligated to look after me even though she feels nothing but resentment for me. I'm such an inconvenience, such a burden. I'm the punishment for her indiscretions and she wishes she had never met my father. I don't know who he is, where he is, or if he is even alive. All I know is that he is not a Geophorian, and because of that my family has decided I'm not one either, despite my obvious magical talent.
I'll stay in here, stay in the dark. I'm more comfortable as a rabbit than as a human, so maybe I'll just stay a rabbit. I'm supposed to be in this form whenever anyone visits, anyway. That's why no one outside of my family knows I exist.
A dog barks in the distance and my shoulders twitch. I can't leave this place. Maybe if I sleep, my life will pass by faster. That's it. I'll just sleep. Close my eyes and sleep.
“Gazelle, find that useless kid of yours. Dinner time.”
I open my eyes just before the light hits my eyes. I shrink into the shadows, but I know I've been spotted. A pair of slender hands shove aside the sack of beans before grabbing onto my sides. I'm lifted and held against my mother's chest as she walks me across the cramped and grimy kitchen. She deposits me into a dining chair, then sits in the one next to mine.
“Be a person, Web-damn it, Aurelien!” my grandfather growls. His name is Fennec Dirus. He is a predatory shifter, and so are many other members of my family. Even when I'm human, they treat me like I'm potential prey. My mother is the exception, and I often wonder how a gazelle-shifter ended up in a family with three canids and a feline.
“Idiot child,” my mother's brother, Fox, says. Coyote, my mother's cousin, smiles down at me and I avert my eyes to avoid her hungry gaze.
“Now, Aurelien!” my grandfather snaps.
My muscles quiver as my body lengthens and twists. My auburn hair falls over my face and I don't bother to push it away from my eyes. It's a veil I wear to shield myself from the world. My grandmother used to clip my hair short every time it reached my eyes, but no one bothers with it anymore. My mother says I look too much like my father and my heritage will be obvious if anyone sees my face, so now they let me hide and I'm grateful for it.
My grandmother, Lynx, drops a bowl of lentils and overcooked spinach on the table in front of me. She sets an identical bowl in front of my mother. Everyone else is eating some sort of wild fowl that my uncle trapped, but I can't eat such things. Through some hereditary quirk, my mother and I are as much obligate vegetarians as the animals we shift into. Sometimes someone, probably Coyote, sneaks meat into the food we are served just to see if we notice in time to prevent ourselves from getting sick. It's a cruel trick that leaves our bodies in distress for days.
I feel my grandfather's brown eyes bore into me as he says, “Let's be grateful to the Web for another day without Blues banging on our door. May the Elements continue to bless the house of Dirus.”
Blues are our name for the underlings in the Ganebran Army who patrol Narsalon looking for Geophorians to execute. They are the reason we have moved to a new house at least twice a year ever since we escaped from the burning temple city of Nighthollow four years ago. If the Blues find us, we are dead. The Dirus family is more cunning than most, though. As shifters, we have the advantage, not the Blues. We can hide, we can fight, and we can run.
“I didn't make you food for you to stare at it, Aurelien. Eat it or you can go hungry tonight and tomorrow you go out back and graze instead of participating in dinner like a normal person,” my grandmother, Lynx, says.
Fox snorts. “He's not normal. He's a–”
“Don't you say it,” my mother growls. She shoves a spoon into my hand and pushes my hair behind my ears. “There are some things that should never be said, especially not with the scourge of Ganebra creeping through our gutters and under our eaves. He is Aurelien Dirus for as long as we're still trapped in this infernal mess, and call him nothing else. If you invoke his true name, so help me–”
“Fine. Keep your little herbivore obedient, Gazelle.”
I dip my spoon into the bowl and raise it to my mouth. The lentils are undercooked and the dish is completely unseasoned. I'm used to that. I've learned to eat out of necessity instead of with pleasure. We can't afford much because as Geophorians we can't find legitimate jobs, and we move too often to establish anything more than an impromptu garden.
I eat quickly and set my spoon next to my bowl when I finish. My grandmother doesn't like it when I leave the spoon in the bowl, so I try to remember proper table manners to appease her. I don't like being yelled at, and most of the words I hear are harsh instead of gentle. I want to leave the table and find somewhere to hide for the night, but I'm not allowed to move until everyone is finished.
A knock echoes through the sparsely-furnished house. There is someone at the door. I lower my head and shrink back into my rabbit form. Shifting is a reflex for me now, and I'm more often a rabbit than a person. I may soon decide to stay as the rabbit permanently.
My family startles as a second knock interrupts the silence.
“Inspection! Open up!” a gruff voice calls from behind the front door.
My grandfather stands, his eyes wide. “Remember what we rehearsed.”
The family shifts into a fennec fox, a gray fox, a coyote, and a lynx. Coyote snaps her jaws at me, her eyes hungry despite her recent meal.
My mother doesn't shift. She picks me up and carries me into the kitchen. She holds me in one arm while she pries up a floorboard with the other. She drops me into the crawlspace, then slips between the boards herself, replacing the floorboard as she reclines onto the dust. She grabs me again, rougher this time, and crawls away from the secret entrance. I don't understand why she still holds me. I can move to a better location on my own.
She ducks under a pipe and tucks us into an alcove against the foundation. The sound of splintering wood ricochets off the bricks. The Blues are in the house. If they are breaking in, it means they know we're here. My family has scattered to give each of us a better chance of survival. If they don't know how many of us there are, they won't know if they've missed anyone.
A gunshot shatters the dusty air. My hearing is acute in this form, so I pinpoint the noise as coming from near the tool shed. Fox is down. He and my grandmother were supposed to run into the woods in opposite directions, but it seems the Blues have our house surrounded. It is safer where my mother and I are, at least for now.
She doesn't tell me to stay quiet. I already know. We've been here before. Coyote's mother was found three houses ago and we thought we were being more careful, but now Fox is gone. I don't care. I hate him. Hated him. Dead. No more mean Fox.
My mother strokes my back as the floorboards creak over our heads. They're searching, scouring empty closets and threadbare bedding. They're in the pantry, in the cupboards. The house is small, only two bedrooms, and there aren't many places to look.
A second shot. This one is close, so close, and my ears ring. Water and blood drip between the floorboards not far from where we hide. They must have found my grandfather behind the false wall in the cupboard under the bathroom sink. His fennec fox form was small, even smaller than my rabbit form, but his size didn't keep him safe in the end.
“Hey, Mort? How many more are there supposed to be?” a voice calls from directly above us. The Blue's accent is Rimaran, not Ganebran. Our own people have now turned against us. Feet shift on the floorboards and I close my eyes to shield them from the falling dust. I bury my nose in my mother's shoulder. If I sneeze, even a little rabbit sneeze, they will hear me.
“Not certain,” a second Blue says. “At least one more, a younger woman.”
“Damnable shifters. Lowest of Geophorian scum. Keep looking. Might have run out to the forest, but make sure no one else is here first.”
“Want me to call for the dogs?”
“Nah. Not worth the trouble.”
Relief. They are still above me, but all I feel is relief. Dogs are bad. Dogs can smell me.
My mother's hand drifts from my back to my ears. I don't know why she's petting me. She's never done this before. She didn't react when any of her other relatives were murdered, and I know she didn't like either her father or her brother, so I'm surprised that she's reacting to this raid with affection.
We keep our silence as the Blues continue to stomp about our safe-house. Former safe-house. Safety is just an illusion. All we can do is hide.
“All clear,” a Blue shouts. The footsteps retreat and the door hinges croak as the Blues toss it back into place. They're gone, gone, gone another day. We'll survive this moment, but what about the next?
My mother waits at least twenty minutes before her shoulders relax. She tilts her head toward me and whispers, “Don't shift. Stay in this form until we're at the next house. I know you can smell and hear them if any are still here. Are they gone?”
“I think we'll stay here for a while longer since they're probably still on the perimeter,” she says.
Her grip on me loosens just enough that I can wiggle free. I stretch my paws and sit on my haunches to watch her. There are no tears in her eyes for the family she has lost.
“Rabbit Briarwind.” The words slip from her tongue and reach me as something wholly unfamiliar. I tilt my head and she offers me an expression that almost approaches a smile. “That's your name. Rabbit Briarwind. Aurelien Dirus is what is on your birth record, and that is the only name I will ever call you, but that's not who you are.”
I lean forward onto my front paws and rest my chin on her bicep. Her heart remains steady even though a faint tremor prickles at her muscles. She reaches over and runs a single finger between my ears.
“If anything happens to me, I want you to go to Dunewind. Your father is there. He doesn't know about you, doesn't even suspect you exist. I left him before I knew about you. I think he'll know you're his if he meets you, though. You look just like him. His name is Rhodren Briarwind.”
I startle and lean back so I can stare at her. I know this name. All Geophorians know this name. Rhodren Briarwind is one of the leaders of the resistance. He's responsible for orchestrating at least one assassination attempt on the Ganebran royal family.
“I want you to know some things, and I think you're old enough to understand now,” my mother says. She rolls onto her side and runs her fingers along the scar barely hidden by the fur on my right side. When I'm human, the scar runs from my armpit to my hip. It was a gift from a fence I dove under during a raid last year. My mother stitched me back together and stole antibiotics for me, despite my grandmother telling her I should be left to bleed out and die.
I click my teeth at her. I don't have many vocalizations I can use when I'm in this form, so I'm not sure how she'll interpret my sounds.
“You told me a couple days ago that you know I don't love you. I'm sorry you think that. It's not true. In fact, you're the only person I've ever loved, and I'm sorry that I don't know how to express that to you. I'm sorry you got stuck with me. You deserve better than me, but you revealed yourself as Geophorian an hour after you were born. You were on the bed next to me and I didn't want to look at you, but then you disappeared and were replaced by a newborn rabbit for several minutes before shifting back. I'd hoped to send you away for adoption, but with your first shift I knew there wasn't anywhere safe for you to go. Because of that, I didn't fight my parents much when they insisted I keep you. It wasn't fair to you, though. I knew I couldn't give you what you needed and deserved, but at least I could try to keep you safe.
“I had to keep you hidden, especially as you got older. The Blues have a book they reference, a book of photographs and drawings of known members of the resistance leadership. The only photograph they have of Rhodren is from just before I met him. It was a school picture from Heren, and he was only three or four years older than you are now. I think if they saw your face, they wouldn't kill you right away. They would use you to get to him, keep you alive long enough for him to watch you tortured.
“I know you think why would he care about me? Well, I think he would. The Rhodren I knew was arrogant and self-centered, but he was also compassionate underneath that nonsense. If something happens to me and you go to him, I suggest you use that compassion to gain his favor. Tell him you were never loved, not even by me. I suppose the truth isn't far from that, anyway.”
I return my chin to her arm. She scratches the bases of my ears and sighs. “I'm sorry you don't think I love you. I didn't even know what love felt like until I had you, and it took a couple years before I recognized what I was feeling because I'd never felt much of anything before. I hope you make it through this storm, but I don't know how long it will last. I hope you find the peace I can't give you. I had a dream once that told me you are important, told me that you'll be one of the survivors who picks up the pieces when all of this chaos is over. One day, you'll live with something other than the fear you were born into.”
I transition to human so I can rest face-to-face with her. She strokes my face and a tiny, crystalline tear forms at the corner of her right eye. She brushes it away and says, “Damn it, Aurelien. I told you not to change back.”
I close my eyes and lean into her touch. She is not a normal person and never will be, but she is trying. She's trying to protect me, trying to love me, trying to be as close to maternal as she is capable of being.
“You still have nothing to say to me, do you?” my mother asks. She tilts her head forward so her brow touches mine. “I wish the world and my family hadn't rendered you so skittish, but I think some of that is innate for you. You were born a rabbit, and rabbits are prey. I suppose it's timely, considering we're always surrounded by predators. Better to be cautious than bold right now.”
“I have nothing to live for, but I still don't want to die,” I whisper.
“You are so young. You have everything to live for,” she replies. She embraces me and kisses my cheek. “And I'm not going to let you die. If I have to give my last breath for you to live, I will. You're important. I don't know how or why, but you are. It's the only thing I feel with certainty.”
“They're not patrolling anymore. We can run now,” I say. I retreat from her and roll under the pipes.
“Be a rabbit. I can't be a gazelle since there aren't any native gazelles here, otherwise we'd both shift and sprint. I'm going to carry you like you're my pet. If I put you down, you run.”
I shift into a rabbit while she removes the loose floorboard. She sticks her head up and turns a circle before reaching down for me. She climbs out of the crawlspace. From the pantry, she grabs a sling bag she uses for groceries, slips it over her shoulder, adjusts the strap so it's tight on her chest, and slides me into the pouch. A muddy woolen cloak hangs off a peg by the back door. She takes it down and swings it over her shoulders before opening the door.
The sky smells like rain and distant lightning illuminates the trees. I don't know how far the new safe-house is, and I hope we can make it there before the rain starts. My sense of smell will be useless if we get stuck in the storm. I smell blood. Fox is still on the grass. Dead. We will be too if we don't leave now.
My mother steps off the stoop and immediately breaks into a run. She is agile as she darts around the tree trunks and ducks under branches. We are going south through the forest instead of along the perimeter of the city like I expected. Either my grandparents gave me incorrect directions for our next location or we are finally breaking free from them.
I huddle in the sling bag and try to chase away the panic generated by the hoot of an owl and the distant howl of a wolf. The forest is not a safe place for a rabbit, but neither is anywhere else. I am hunted. I will always be hunted. Fear is written into the foundation of my soul.
I don't know how long my mother runs. I try to focus on the steadiness of her breathing and ignore everything else. Her running endurance is unmatched by anyone and I doubt she'll feel the fatigue in her lithe muscles until well-after she stops. Rain taps upon pine needles and drips onto the ferns. My senses are useless now, so all I can do is wait.
My mother's pace eventually slows to a walk. A creek bubbles nearby, raindrops splashing and rippling upon the current. A dove coos overhead. Through the rain and the pine, I smell something acrid. Wood smoke. A hearth is lit nearby. My mother raps on a wooden door. The material sounds cheap, little more than plywood. It opens with a groan and I feel a jostle as someone hugs my mother. Lynx. I smell Lynx. My grandmother's musty musk is distinctive and unpleasant.
“I was afraid we were all that was left,” my grandmother says. I keep my head buried in the sling. I don't want to see her. “Coyote is here. I see your kid isn't. Going to cower in the floorboards until he starves, or did he get caught?”
“He's right here, Mom,” my mother says. She reaches into the sling and pulls me out. I drop to the floor. There is too much going on here. Too bright, too many people. I smell and hear two people I don't recognize. We often share our safe-houses with others like us, but these Geophorians aren't shifters. They smell different. One smells faintly of brimstone, the other of cypress. I back toward the wall, but my mother picks me up again and carries me to a mildewed chair. She sits and holds me on her lap.
“Did anyone else–” my grandmother starts.
“No,” my mother says. “Dad and Fox were found and shot. They're dead.”
“You saved the kid and left your father and brother to die?” my grandmother asks, disgust in her tone.
“I told you the first time we had to run... I told you I will never abandon my son. I'm not discussing it further. Now, show me where I can sleep. This cabin is so small, but I still want to be as far away from you and Coyote as I can get.”
My grandmother snaps her teeth together and points at a mat in the corner. My mother carries me there and sets me down on a threadbare blanket. I scurry into the shadows along the wall. Low murmurs come from the kitchen, where my grandmother and Coyote converse with our new companions. I hope they already have the necessities here, because we are the farthest from civilization that we've ever been and we came with only the clothes we wear. We start over. Like every other run, we start over with nothing but our lives.
My mother shifts into her gazelle form. She lies down next to me and licks my head. I snuggle against her side and close my eyes. I am safe here, at least for this moment. I was always so certain she didn't love me, but I don't doubt any more. She has protected me for fourteen years, and she will continue to protect me until she is no longer able. However broken we may be, all we have for now is each other.