This story has been stuck inside my head for ages, I've always loved reading, but this is me trying to do the opposite. Please don't be shy to share your opinion! You might notice (if you don't I would be really surprised) that English isn't my native language. I'm from Belgium so I speak Dutch but I prefer English...I read English books and to me the descriptions and stuff like that sound so much better in that language! Anyway as this story grows (and I really hope it does) I might need the help of my readers! Enjoy!
Underneath the surface
Chapter 1: An unfortunate encounter
I clearly remember the day I transformed for the very first time. It's like I can replay that particular snowy Thursday. In my mind I see myself from a distance almost as if I'm dreaming. A beautiful dream vivid with colors. That's how it all started. Somewhere along the way it just turned itself into a nightmare, corrupted by some outward influence. Though if I'm honest my uncanny ability to make all the wrong choices might've pushed it in that direction. Makes it harder to share, since I'm not very proud of my actions, but maybe – if you are reading this, and somehow you recognize yourself in my story – you'll realize I really tried my hardest, so don't be too judgmental, it's rude to kick someone when they're already down. Oh and please don't say 'I told you so.' Trust me, I've heard it quite often and I prefer being kicked. It's quicker, easier and somehow less painful.
Like all other things in this world my story starts during a time were everything seemed so simple. Actually it was. As a twelve year old, I worried about the carrots I'd be forced to eat during supper, I got into fights with the local boys my age for teasing my friend with her blonde pigtails and ran until it felt my legs were about to come off.
Pretty normal life right? You just wait. Have you ever had one of those dreams in which you are able to fly? The weightlessness, the possibility to go where you please? Imagine that but multiply it by – let's say the biggest number you know - back then the twelve-year-old, mathematically challenged version of myself chose five hundred fifty five- anyway that's how it feels to ride a fully grown snow leopard's back. Minus freezing to death and having to keep your mouth closed in order to keep the bugs out.
Before you call me mental, a liar or both hear me out, I'm not one of those nature fanatics who'll end up as a nice scratching pole for a raging tiger, I prefer having my skin attached to my body thank you very much. No, the wildlife I met during my early childhood was rather tame.
My brothers, Jeremy and Joshua are both capable of changing themselves into snow leopards. This neat little trick is called shapeshifting, some people prefer the term Changelings or Mimics.
It's an ability you're born with. You have it or you don't. Unlike drawing or the ability to play a musical instrument, you can't develop it, one has it or one finds himself wishing he had. It's as simple as that.
Jeremy and Joshua? They have it. And me? I wish I had it.
I love to watch their transformation, it's evolution at its best and most impressive.
Just imagine. One second my brothers, two gangly, troublesome boys whom I secretly admire more than anyone, the next gigantic silver felines with actual spots, claws and fangs!
Real wild snow leopards are extremely rare so seeing one up close, and with up close I mean exiting the bathroom and tripping over a sleeping one, leaves quite an impression. My brothers become a slightly bigger version of the magnificent feline and between us I have to admit they're amazingly beautiful. If you're lucky or unfortunate enough to ever encounter one of these creatures I give you the following advice: never use the B-word. Apparently the term 'Beautiful' isn't very masculine, and please for the love of everything considered holy don't climb a tree, because they can jump higher than you can climb. Consider yourself warned.
Anyway Jeremy and Joshua loath the B-word, which is why I make sure to say it about ten times a day. A girl needs her weapons against her older brothers, especially when they delight in teasing said victim and have tongues like sand paper (Joshua's favorite torture technique when in leopard form is licking my bare feet, if you have a cat and just suppressed a shudder you know what I mean.)
They find me being the only one in my family who is unable to transform rather hilarious, a sentiment I don't quite share. My dad had been very supportive when it turned out his youngest was painfully normal. "Makes you unique. One of a kind." He had said, an actual genuine smile on his face. You can probably guess how I felt.
I was uniquely normal. Awesome.
That and me being a female, a little sister instead of a younger brother was reason enough for my brothers to act like spoiled brats. According to those geniuses most girls aren't able to transform, we are too girly for it and breaking a claw would be our biggest concern. Some argument, our village has loads of female Mimics and they knew I wasn't that kind of girl anyway. I vaguely recall my payback consisted of aiming a mixture of rocks and snowballs at their heads. Sadly I failed to bash some sense into their thick skulls but I felt better afterwards.
See my brothers have catlike reflexes, it's annoying as hell and it gives them a huge advantage during games, (it aided them in dodging my rocky projectiles). Enhanced hearing, eyesight and smell, agility, speed and last but not least my favorite: stealth. Some package huh? Sneaking up on me and trying to scare the hell out of me has been quite popular for a while, they really went overboard with it, to the point where I'm sort of immune to people trying to scare me.
Once I came back from school and one of my classmates jumped out of the woods on my way home. I didn't budge, not even a blink. I thought dad would explode when I told him that night during dinner.
"YOU TWO!" he had yelled eying his still snickering sons who seemed to shrink in their seats. "WHAT IF SOMEONE TRIED TO ATTACK HER FOR REAL? BECAUSE OF YOUR STUPID JOKES SHE WOULDN'T FEEL THE NEED TO RUN!" By now his eyes had changed from human to something quite cat-like, which was never a good sign.
"It's okay dad." I had sputtered, suddenly nervous. He looked ready to transform, something our shabby wooden table wouldn't survive. "Jeremy and Joshua teach me loads of useful stuff, I punched him in the face instead of screaming, that has to count for something right?" I tried, smothering the urge to laugh which wasn't easy since Jeremy was nodding his head in silent approval while Joshua punched the air, whispering "Way to go Sen!" through clenched teeth.
My dad turned on him and his smile faltered. Towering over them the effect was immediate and I remember being impressed with his ability to look like a snarling feline without having to transform. If my brothers were in leopard form their ears would be flattened by now, body low against the ground in submission.
"One more stunt like that and I will shave of every last bit of fur the two of you posses and have you run through town naked" He threatened before leaving our small kitchen, door slamming with a deafening sound. Jeremy had whistled softly, "Thank the heavens he hasn't found out about our climbing sessions. Call me a ninny but I'm rather fond of my fur."
Looking back on those days I have a lot to be thankful for. Without my brothers I wouldn't be capable of climbing a tree even if my life depended on it, they were the ones who taught me how to track wild animals, made sure I knew which plants were edible, and handy stuff like that. Growing up in a town full of shapeshifters wasn't easy, but they made it fun. Games like hide and seek gave me a real challenge, with opponents who could smell me from miles away I had to be creative. Some of my better hiding places still remain a secret to my brothers, and little old me outsmarting two felines sets their fur on end.
The snow leopard form is considered quite common in the mountain village where we live. Children start showing potential at an early age, like hissing instead of crying or high resistance against cold temperature.
You'd think parents have trouble with handling situations like that properly but to us it's considered normal. Nothing special if your kid falls out of a tree and lands on its feet. If the child broke his neck, now that would be considered something!
Like I said, our village is full of children who have a peculiar distaste for water and seem to take more naps than necessary. Occasionally someone even sprouts a tail or ears. The other children love to chase the unlucky fellow in some twisted version of the game 'Pin the tail'. Usually this only happens to young inexperienced shifters and they get away with it. If you are an adult doing partial transformations is considered not done. Losing yourself like that means you lack self-control.
Joshua once told me in confidence that alcohol dulls a shapeshifter's senses, "Remember Randy, the deer who couldn't hold his brandy?" he'd asked roaring with laughter, while cracking jokes about Randy.
I had heard some stories about him, judging from what I've heard I think he's kinda crazy. Getting drunk until you sprout antlers isn't particularly normal. I tried to visit his favorite pub once, to see if Joshua's story hadn't been one of his pranks but the owner refused to let me inside.
Us non-shifters are pretty rare, I like to use the term 'abnormally normal' when I describe the category I belong to. Besides me our town has about fifty non-shifters I know of, there are more but some families refuse to acknowledge them, the fact that those people are unable to transform explains enough, they are different, they can't be family, they defile the family bloodline. A load of crap if you ask me. I asked my dad about this once but he didn't want to talk about it, he got that look in his eyes, the same he gets when I ask him questions about my mother.
"You will understand when you're older." He had said ending this frequent conversation by leaving the room or pretending to be deaf for a while.
When you are older… But when would I be old enough to understand? He had to be more specific if he wanted me to understand. At least the owner of the pub had given me some kind of clue. He had said he would allow me inside his pub the day I managed to climb on a bar stool without the help of an adult. It reminded me of one of those 'You have to be this tall' signs amusement parks use to spoil the fun.
"Come on Sen concentrate!" Joshua said in a disgruntled voice. His large paws left tracks in the snow, it had long turned into a nasty brown color that sloshed between his large paws, the sight of it made me cringe.
I didn't answer, if I opened my mouth I would say something rude. "She's trying Josh." Jeremy interjected, he was standing against a large tree carefully monitoring my progress, or lack of progress.
"Well then she should try harder."
I gritted my teeth, I could feel a headache building and the last thing I needed was their bickering.
This is ridiculous. I thought, resisting the urge to kick something. I'm learning something that's impossible to learn."Remember what I told you." Joshua continued no trace of emotion visible on his feline face, "It feels like a summer breeze, you can't miss it."
Jeremy snorted and I found myself staring in his direction. "What?" Joshua asked, his voice flat.
"A summer breeze? You serious?" I rolled my eyes. Here we go. At least once a day Joshua would drag me outside for these so called lessons. At first I was excited, what if against all odds I managed to transform? When I was younger I had dreamed of being a Mimic. I'd fantasize about which animal I'd be, a snow leopard seemed the most likely outcome, but a wolf would've been nice and I had always liked the idea of being a bird until Joshua pushed me out off a tree trying to force me into a transformation.
The possibility of me being a mammal or some kind of non flying creature hadn't really crossed his mind and I'd broken my wrist. I disliked the cast I was forced to wear for three weeks almost as much as I disliked my brand new fear of heights. Sadly the latter turned out to be permanent.
It had been a rather memorable day. Dad had chased Joshua into a tree and Jeremy still held onto the fact he had broken two ribs from laughing. I didn't care about my wrist, I didn't care if my animal form turned out to be a dung beetle, as long as I managed to transform I would be happy. I dreamed alright but it had never happened.
"Have you seen where we live? A summer breeze...What a stupid description." Jeremy snorted, his eyes fixed on the snowy mountains surrounding our village, "No it feels like some kind of…tingle. Yeah definitely a tingly feeling." Said Jeremy a solemn expression on his face, "The kind you get when you've slept on your arm."
I sighed and stretched my tingle free arms. Yesterday they had gotten into the very same discussion, and the day before that Joshua's summer breeze had been the warm glow of a fire.
I rolled my eyes. "Maybe those tingly feelings and unexplainable summer breezes occurring mid winter have a meaning!" I exclaimed, tone bright. Jeremy and Joshua turned, obviously delighted.
"It means you guys got fleas!" Their smiles melted like snow in March.
That said I turned my back on my older brothers a small grin on my face when they shouted some comment about me hurting their feelings. Walking through town I repeated Joshua's instructions in my head. But it seemed like the more I tried to understand the less sense it made, as if I was trying to grasp water or air bare handed. Frustrated I aimed a kick at a large pebble, "Stupid mimicry." I muttered not paying any attention to my surroundings. The sound of breaking glass broke –derailed- my train of thoughts.
"Aw crap." I cursed, realizing in which direction I had kicked the rock. I considered running away. Mr. Hooper who owned the store of which I had broken the window was a rather unpleasant man. He was a tall gangly fellow with bulging blue, watery eyes that made him look like some kind of sea creature. I always wondered about his animal form, it had to be something foul or slimy, most likely both, to match his personality. For some reason he really disliked me, getting caught while spreading rumors about him being a slug hadn't made me very popular with the merchant.
My feet started to move, somehow I knew Mr. Hooper wouldn't mistake me for a costumer and I wasn't going to try my luck.
"Don't worry my dear, only one witness." I froze at the sound of a smooth voice. "And –to use the human expression- shards bring luck."
Turning on my heel I checked my surroundings. Across the street a few people stood huddled together their hands moving. They were too engrossed in their conversation to notice me. I shook my head and took another step,
"Don't try to act as if you hearing me is a product of an over active imagination," the voice said, it's tone silky, "some people might consider you rude. Now lift your big air filled head and look up."
Doing as told my head snapped up. Perched on top of the decorated sign which hung over the entrance to The Bargain sat a black bird. It gave me a stern look, disapproving my previous behavior. "Swallowed your tongue little one?" it asked cocking its head to one side in that way birds do when they are listening to something.
Large parts of the bird's body had a glossy black color, the dark hue seemed to absorb the feeble rays of sun, hues of metallic green and an almost sinister violet like color flashed. Feathers of the purest white adorned it's belly. The bird's name suddenly flashed in my mind and I had to suppress a groan. "Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire." I muttered and the bird cackled loudly, obviously finding amusement in my distress.
Glad one of us is having fun. I thought racking my brain for every piece of information I had on magpies. I had read about these birds, they were proud creatures, fond of mischief and extremely intelligent. A dangerous combination. They were associated with numerous superstitions some of them rather unpleasant. Bowing my head I decided to humor the bird.
"Good morning Sir Magpie." I spoke as my long hair hid my face from view, "Do tell me you sitting here so very close to the window of this…store foretells a certain person's death?" The mirth in my voice shocked even me and I noticed that the magpie's strangely colored eyes widened momentarily.
"The little Lady knows her legends hmm?" He said and its black claws clenching the sign tightened. The wood creaked softly as it swung back and forth.
I hesitated, I had no experience with magpies, and dealing with my feline brothers already forced me to use my wit to the fullest. Part of me felt like turning my back on the bird, ignoring it would be best, feign ignorance to avoid trouble. Lots of people disliked Mr. Hooper and the kids my age made a point of torturing the sour man. It wouldn't be the first time that somebody chucked a rock through the window.
Mischief and Mimic's belonged together, like tea and sugar or coffee and cream. Being a Mimic made it genetically impossible to resist getting into trouble. If you had wings all you had to do was use them to flee, paws carried you where feet failed to do so and being small gave you the possibility to disappear through nooks and crannies. Being human, a non Mimic made me slow so I decided to play along hoping my decision to do so would be a wise one. How very wrong I was.
"I suggest a trade."
I took a deep breath and crossed my arms, the bird had caught me by surprise I had to give him that. There was a moment of silence.
"A trade?" I asked, the words were reflexive, curiosity getting the better of me. The sudden glitter in the magpie's jade eyes – I noticed their strange color with a start - reminded me of a predator eying its prey. He had been waiting for me to spring the trap.
"Indeed. Are you not familiar with the concept? You see I cannot enter this," his low smooth voice became a slurred drawl, the sound of it made the back of my neck tingle, "store. The charming Mr. Hooper has a rather peculiar talent when using his Mimic form. It prevents unwanted customers from entering without his permission. It's rather annoying. Problem is my dear Lady, behind those doors Mr. Hooper is storing something which belongs to me."
I bit my bottom lip when the realization that I would have to steal something became apparent to me. The magpie halted mid sentence green eyes fixed on my lips. "What makes you think that I'll be capable of entering? I'm no customer and," I chuckled, "almost as welcome in there as the stone I just kicked through the window."
I'd seen Mr. Hooper's peculiar talent in action before, it propelled trespassers back with a surprising amount of force, as if an invisible hand shoved you against the shoulder. My brothers and I had made a game out of it, the one who managed to land on his feet won and bonus points could be earned if you managed to add a personal touch to your leap.
"You are insignificant." The bird replied, his tone bright as if he were paying me a compliment instead of an insult.
I opened my eyes, and closed them. Cocking my head I snorted, Jeremy hated it when I did that, "So whatever hocus pocus Hooper has going on in there," I said jerking my thumb towards the shop behind me, "won't affect me?"
"How impressive your powers of observation are." Although he whispered the words softly, to me they felt more dangerous than if he were to shout them.
"Let's just say, for argument's sake I agree on doing this little errand for you." I said slowly, lingering on my final three words, "what's in it for me?"
He was studying my face intently as if it were an interesting book, doing the same – although slightly more subtle - I suddenly found myself wondering what he looked like when in human form. Picturing a magpie reading a book was rather silly after all. Raven hair definitely. Green eyes without a doubt, but was he tall or short? Handsome or plain? Definitely handsome, he wouldn't be such a smug bastard if he didn't posses the looks to back him up.
"I was wondering just when this particularly lovely human emotion would emerge. How does your kind call it?" he asked stretching a white-tipped wing that flashed bronze for a split of a second, I could hear the sneer in his voice.
"Ah yes. Greed. It doesn't look very good on one so young if I may say so." At the sight of my furrowed brow the magpie cackled, "I promise you it will be worth it."
This time it was my turn to laugh and I took my time in doing so. Taking deep breaths I stifled a chuckle, when I straightened and looked up the bird hadn't moved an inch, "Stand guard when I do your dirty work." I said and I turned my back on him already moving towards the store's entrance.
"My dearest lady." The endearment sent a shiver down my spine, hiding the grimace from my face I sighed and turned,
"Need I chase off some stray cat Mr. Magpie?" I asked.
"You haven't asked which object I require."
I blinked, "Not a nice antique bird cage then?"
"It saddens me to disappoint you."