Betwixt and Between

Part One: Chapter Three


"He traveled to a forest, nestled in the sky, he ran beside the buffalo, wrestled with the lion.

Every day was Saturday, a summer-waking morn, his skin turned golden amber from the shine that toad had borne."


"Is he... crazy?" Emmat asked, feeling more wide-eyed than usual. This was a stranger story than he'd ever imagined!

"Maybe," Tavarez answered simply, with an enigmatic smile. "Maybe not. He sees himself as torn between two worlds, unable to discern which is real and which is false, or if both are real or both are false...."

"Well, this one is the real one, of course." Tavarez's eloquently arched brow and cocked ear made Emmat add, uncertainly, "Right?"

"How does anyone decide what's real and what isn't?" It was such a cryptic response that Emmat decided there was no point in pondering the answer. Tavarez took his silence and filled it, continuing the story: "I tracked this legendary wanderer, this Vagrant-Nightling, that whole winter. Even people so old that they were on the edge of death knew him or knew someone who had known him, but very few people ever said they'd seen him twice. No one seemed to know what kind of Fleshshifter he was, either-- though no one claimed he was human, not even the few humans he ever took shelter with. He has pointed ears, you see."

"And no human would call someone with pointed ears one of them," Emmat agreed. Humans were notorious for finding the smallest discrepancies between themselves and another species quickly and focusing on it immediately. "Did you ever find out? What he is, I mean."

"After a fashion," Tavarez said, and Emmat sighed. He'd explain in his own time, hopefully....


"How dare you!"

The roar made him cower even more than fear of the heavy strip of leather that swished by his shoulder, not quite touching his skin. "I'm sorry!" he whimpered again, his arms flung up to protect his head and face. The next crack of leather left a bleeding slash along one of his forearms.

"That's not good enough!" snarled the whip-bearer, one of the Others, kept at bay by the song that every now and then faltered, or that every now and then he left behind, seeking silence. Silence never lasted, because one of the Others who lived in the caves always found him. Some had names, and they made sure he knew them-- some had names but kept them secret. He didn't think this one had a name. No name would be good enough for it, for nothing was good enough for it, especially not one wayward pupil who didn't understand what he was supposed to be learning.

"You waste our time! How dare you waste everything you've been given! How dare you! You should be thanking the heavens for all your gifts! Not wasting them! Ungrateful dog!"

Each sentence was punctuated by another whistling crack of leather, which struck or did not strike completely randomly, and relief at a miss combined with the hope that the next wouldn't fall, either, only made it worse when it did. He pressed himself into the wall, eyes squeezed shut, and prayed that it would stop. Only when his apologies and promises for improvement blurred one into the other, into an almost incoherent babbling, did the sound and the strikes vanish, leaving him alone.

With a sigh in the silence, he relaxed and opened his eyes, and found himself staring at a long, strong-boned face, even with his and blinking amber-lashed, green-hazel eyes at him. He stumbled back, on his feet somehow, startled.

"You even move differently," Yula said bluntly, in human form, as always these days.

"I what?" Nightling asked blankly, trying to collect his wits again. "I do?"

"You do," she nodded solemnly. "And your voice changed. What do you see? When you're--" She waved a hand, trying to come up with a good word and failing. "Like that."

"I-- don't remember," he admitted, which was partly the truth, for sometimes that was what happened. Right now, though, he remembered a lot, and every line of his skin that the whip had bit throbbed as if he'd somehow carried his bleeding with him. He just couldn't remember why.... "Sometimes snatches, sometimes impressions, but mostly... nothing."

"Is it hard?" Yula asked.

"Sometimes." He really didn't want to talk about it, but he couldn't say that to her; instead, he took in his bearings-- he'd made it to the leafless trees of the forest, this time-- and angled himself back towards the house. This time he'd been working at the mill, and Yula must have seen him leave and followed him. Ahern and Bristel had long since given up on trying to catch him; he always came back on his own before too long, after all. Ahern had flatly refused to pay him less, though he'd offered such because of the wasted hours.

You waste our time!

Nightling shuddered and stopped. He wasn't ready to go back inside; the dream was lingering.

"What was that? Are you all right?"

Yula was still following him. Just then, he couldn't bear her there, staring at him.

"Yes, I'm fine... please... please just give me a moment," he begged.

"All right... sorry," she said, rebuffed for the moment, and she mercifully started back to her garden, picking the last of the tubers before the frost set in-- the frost which would come any day now. Nightling turned away from her, walking slowly along the frigid but not yet frozen stream, hugging himself and rubbing his hands along his arms. He wasn't cold, but rubbing helped the phantom pain start to fade.

Or was that the real pain, and this the dream, full of phantoms? Again he shivered; he had no way to know.

Finally, tired of walking, he dropped to sit beside the stream, staring in and trying not to think about anything. It was all just so tiring, not knowing, not understanding, living from day to day without future or past, unsure of what was real. He shut his eyes against it all unhappily. No wonder he fell asleep all the time....

No wonder....

When he opened his eyes again, he sat alone by one of the smaller tributaries of the great underwater river, hugging his knees and staring into the water, watching the flickers of fish and not-fish speed by. For now, he had a few moments for himself before Lady Spiridon found him. The perpetual song that echoed through the endless caverns seemed dull and muted here, near the edge of its range. Not a day and a healing since his last beating at the hands of an Other, already he'd escaped here, in search of a little privacy, a little silence... but the search would probably in vain today, as well, for where the song and the lady Sphiridon were not, there were always Others. He could hope, though, that he might be found by one of the benevolent ones. If he was lucky.

"Look who we have here."

He froze. He had not been lucky. That was one of those Others, all right-- the most difficult, unpredictable of them all.

"It's been a while, little fox... I've been hunting you for a long time, and finally you fall into my lap when I'm least expecting it!"

He shut his eyes; ignoring her would do nothing except, possibly, make her angry. "Hello, Misha-Anju."

"Is that all I get?" Misha-Anju pouted. He heard her footsteps coming up behind him beneath the sound of the babbling underwater stream; the scent of her was sharp and heady as she crouched beside him. When he didn't answer her, she laid a hand on his shoulder and he twitched automatically away.

"Awwww, what's wrong?" she cooed. He didn't answer; the last time she'd approached him, she'd tried to cut off his fingernails. That didn't necessarily mean she would try to do that to him again, of course. Misha-Anju was the most unpredictable and confusing of the Other cave-dwellers, and she never treated him the same way twice in a row.

Which might be why she was stroking his cheek with her fingertips, slowly and sensually, eyes on his when he finally looked up to meet them. "I'm not going to hurt you, little fox; why do you think I've been hunting you?"

"What does anyone hunt foxes for?" he whispered back, remembering the foxhunts humans took part in, heedless of whether what they bagged was a true fox or a shifted Vulpyr.

"Not if it's a lady-fox doing the hunting," she murmured, and kissed him firmly before he could protest.

When he woke next between worlds, a while later, again he wasn't alone. It took him a moment to place all the sensations and put them into a single picture: he was shivering faintly, the chill breeze drying and almost freezing damp skin, rough bark to his back and tangled hair... he was in the woods, leaning back against a tree, that much he could put together. Then he tried taking in the rest: strong and familiar scents accosting his nose, weight on his legs, something warm against his chest....

Yula shifted against him, nuzzled into his neck with a satisfied sigh, and he smothered a groan.

Her father was going to kill him. 


Chapter Four



Song borrowed from Five for Fighting's "Two Frogs", on the Message for Albert album

Draclin'geyar are the Creative Property of Silver Midnight; Fleshshifters are the Creative Property of Drakiera