The most crippling limits are those set upon us by our detractors, and we are ever our own greatest detractors. There are limits everywhere, but WHERE? How do we know a thing is impossible until we have attempted it, and failed? And even then, how do we know that if we had only done things a tiny bit differently, we might have succeeded? To be truly alive is to be constantly hurling ourselves at the barriers which our perception has placed before us, and the only way to truly know if a barrier is real or not is to break it.
--Xart Oglevert, "Cyclopedia of Aerodynamics and Aerobatics"
There was an iron clamp across my face that was riveted to my skull and jaw; it was impossible to speak, and difficult to breathe. I heard Perrin's voice say, "It's all right; you can let him up, 'Bacco." The clamp resolved itself into Bacco's hand as he took it away, and I drew a deep breath.
There were more people in the room than there should have been; Perrin and Jasmine and Chalice-Leaf were there from the start, and I knew that 'Bacco had been right outside the door in case of trouble. But the others... I suddenly realized that the others were all at least mildly translucent, and then I began to recognize them: Ravin, Chalice-Storm, Tayma, and a gray-bearded dwarf whom I did not know, but who looked vaguely like Perrin. All of the ghosts, and Perrin, were busy interrogating Tayma, who seemed overwhelmed. I sat up and cleared my throat loudly. All eyes turned to me.
"I'm home," I said. "Doesn't anyone want to know what happened?" All but Tayma and 'Bacco started to bombard me with questions; Tayma shrank against the wall looking grateful, and 'Bacco just grinned his usual wicked grin. I considered trying to sort out the cacophony, but decided against it and just gave them some time to run down.
"'Bacco," I finally asked, "Can you see him, or him, or her, or her?" I indicated the ghosts. "Bacco glared at me and shook his head. I nodded. "Perrin, why can I see disembodied ghosts?"
Perrin and the gray dwarf looked at each other; the gray dwarf spoke. "Tell him he seems to be starting down the shaman's path, in which case this young lady would seem to be his spirit guide."
Perrin opened his mouth, but I waved him off. "I can hear you as well, Grandfather. But I don't believe we've been introduced."
The old dwarf smiled and offered me a spectral hand. "Meligrant Stonebow." He indicated Perrin. "The young tyrant's great-grandfather." I nodded, and took and shook the proffered hand as well as I could; I could feel it, but it had no substance.
I looked at all of them. "Is there anyone here who thinks they have a better idea of what just happened than I do?" Heads shook and negative grunts were made; I nodded. "Then here is my version of it, guesses and all." I indicated Jasmine, Autumn, and 'Bacco. "You three. Just so you have some idea of what's going on, I can see four ghosts in the room: Ravin, Stormchaser, Perrin's great-grandfather Meligrant, and Athame Sweetwater, usually known as Tayma, She had the bad luck to change into a unicorn for the first time directly in front of a rather nasty Necromancer, which is why she's dead."
I took a deep breath and continued. "Once upon a time there was an Ebonese wizard named Kelestor Sar. He was a thaumatologist, a magical theoretician, and he taught himself necromancy, and he became addicted to casting warp spells. Before too long he had to leave the Celestial Kingdom, and he went north into Haskalad territory.
"The Haskalads loved him. He seemed to know every warp spell that had ever been conceived, and he was willing to teach them in exchange for fairly modest considerations, so he quickly became very rich, even if he wasn't very powerful politically. But even though he knew all sorts of warp magic, he had never done a single drain spell, because he had never had access to a shapeshifter. It seems that under Haskalad law you have to be a pretty high noble to be allowed to use necromancy. They made a loophole for Kelestor as long as he was a useful teacher, but he still wasn't a Blazeblood, and they would have killed him if he had tried to steal one of their shapeshifters.
"And then one night, he had a sex slave in his room, and a warp storm passed over, and the girl changed into a unicorn right in front of him, and he realized that he could drain her, and no one would notice the warp because there was already a storm overhead, and he could make up some excuse for killing the girl because she was just a slave.
"So he did it, and in the process caught an enormous dose of the Storm Seeding, and turned into a dragon himself. And the girl... It's a weak metaphor, but the girl got stuck in his metaphysical throat. He couldn't consume her, and he couldn't get rid of her. And then there was the fact that he was much older than most first time shifters, and that he was just FULL of residual warp energy from all of the spells he had cast...
"He lost his mind, I guess. He was in hideous pain, and he realized that the life he had built for himself was OVER, and somehow... He reached back into his memories to the heroic stories he had loved when he was a small boy, and he built or summoned or FOUND someone who could deal with the pain and all of the complications and survive. And then he flew straight into the nexus of the warp storm and did a blind teleport."
Perrin got it. He had spent at least as much time working on the riddle as I had. "And the next morning you woke up in a meadow several hundred miles away. Interesting. Can't say I've ever heard of anything like that happening before. So what became of the necromancer?"
I shook my head. "My best guess is that he was unconscious until tonight; he was dreaming of what I was doing, sometimes. But the spell we used tonight seems to have brought him to full consciousness. He managed to dispel the connections that gave Ravin and Stormchaser the ability to function inside my mind, but Tayma and I really lived there, and he had to take another approach.
"It came down to a contest of will, and Kelestor didn't have a chance. He was a warp junkie, and I, Goddess help me, am a storybook hero."
Autumnleaf chuckled. "We already knew THAT, Quill. We just didn't know that the storybook had already been written." She was smiling; Perrin was deep in thought; Jasmine and 'Bacco still looked puzzled. The ghosts were deep in conversation with one another.
I looked around the room and saw Brindle on a high shelf, staring intently at me. I stared back, and found myself saying, "Hello, Cat. What do you think of all of this foolishness?" Except that I didn't say it, I just threw the thoughts at her. Brindle reacted as if I had slapped her, then returned to her original pose and cocked her head to the side. I had a strange sensation that she was getting closer and closer to me, though she didn't actually move.
"Quill?" said an unfamiliar voice in my mind. "How did you do that?"
"Brindle?" I answered; I was as surprised as she was. "I'm not sure; let me think about it."
"You can hear me? I can talk to you? This is WONDERFUL!" Brindle launched herself across the room and caromed and bounced her way into my lap. She looked up at me, and again I could hear her voice. "So when do I get to go flying again, huh?"
I laughed at that. "Soon, silly Cat. Very soon." I looked around the room again; no one was paying much attention. I stood and took off my clothes, then reached inside myself and...
If you have never shifted shape, it is hard to describe the sensations accurately. It should hurt; your skin is stretching in some places and shrinking in others; your bones are dancing and reshaping themselves under your skin, and you joints are pretty much all dislocated. It should hurt a great deal, but it doesn't. It actually feels good, in a sun-on-your-face, scent-of-fresh-baked-bread sort of way. I looked around the room again through unaccustomed eyes and saw that everyone was watching me.
"I TOLD you he was a dragon," came Ravin's smug voice. "Interesting that he chose the miniature form, though. And I have NEVER seen that color on a dragon before."
"He looks like a dragon storm," Autumnleaf said softly.
"He looks like a Soul Gem," growled Perrin. "Like a polished piece of Taintstone."
I squatted back on my haunches and looked at my front claws; my scales were a purple so deep it seemed black except when the light hit it, and they were streaked with veins of red and blue."
"Quill!" Brindle's voice sounded in my head. "You've got wings! No fair!" I turned to glare at Brindle, realized there was no draconic equivalent to licking my lips hungrily (too many sharp teeth) and settled for ducking my head at Brindle and snapping my jaws. She jumped backward and rolled under a piece of furniture.
I turned to Perrin. "Any other questions?" I thought at him, and he flinched a bit as he heard me.
"Mindspeech, too," Perrin said. "Not bad for a first try. No, go try out your wings if you want. Just stay low, and keep back from the river." I nodded and went out the door with Brindle behind me.
"You heard what Perrin said, Cat. Stay low, and to the west. Can you live with that?" I sent to Brindle; she nodded and I cast the Wizard Wings spell. Brindle charged into the air with a cry of "Can't catch me!" and I set out to prove her wrong.
Brindle was as fast as I was, and more maneuverable, but she had no skill at all and telegraphed her maneuvers, even in the darkness. I could easily have snatched her out of the air with my jaws, or shredded her wings with my claws, but that wasn't my purpose. I wanted to fly, and to let her fly. I could hear her giggling happily in my mind. I let her tire herself out, and then herded her back to Ferrypoint before the spell expired and left her wingless.
I found Perrin waiting with my clothing; the others had gone off to bed, and there were no ghosts in evidence. I returned to my accustomed form and got dressed; Perrin played with his pipe and scratched Brindle's head.
"There is just nothing simple about you, is there, Quill?" Perrin said at last. I didn't respond. "Spirit speakers are trained to set limits on spirits before they are allowed to bond with a guide. The ones who don't usually end up being consumed by the spirits. And now you've bonded with this girl, and gone out of your way to set no limits on her at all. Not to mention that there are all sorts of stories about why it is a bad idea to have a spirit guide who is of the opposite sex." He smiled slightly and shook his head.
Brindle looked up at him quizzically; she asked me, "What is he talking about?"
"I don't know, Cat," I said aloud. "I think he is talking about Tayma."
Brindle looked at me suspiciously. "Who's Tayma?"
"A dead unicorn who lives inside my head, I guess. We're still trying to sort that out."
Brindle scowled at me, then hissed as Perrin lifted her by the scruff of the neck and looked into her eyes. "'Bacco's right," he said sourly. "You really do manage to find an odd way to do everything. NO ONE acquires a Spirit Guide and a familiar on the same evening." I bowed my head and clenched my teeth; Brindle demonstrated a surprising mastery of profanity, of which Perrin was mercifully unaware. "There isn't time to help you through this, Quill. You'll have to get those Haskalads, and the rest of your menagerie, out of here long before I can teach you anything useful for dealing with this. So you might as well go as soon as possible, and try to find help fast once you are across the ridge. Are you up to a march tomorrow?"
"I think so," I answered.
Perrin nodded. "The one thing that saves you in all of this is that the girl is so TINY," Perrin continued. "If she weren't... Well, WELDED is as good a word as any, I guess... to you, she wouldn't have survived at all; she would have gone straight off to the void. And you're so much tougher than that it's almost a joke. Just make sure you stay in control."
"I intend to," I answered.
"Then get some rest. See you in the morning." Perrin clamped his pipe between his teeth and stalked off.
We did set out the next morning, but we didn't actually leave Ferrypoint for good for several days. We made a trek to Whisky's campsite at the foot of Blackwater, and left the three Haskalads there in the care of Willow, Stragus, and Ghost. Whisky and I returned to Ferrypoint, then made two more trips to the camp with pack horses, stocking the camp with supplies; we would leave with heavy packs.
During the time in Ferrypoint between trips, Perrin pronounced me a journeyman blacksmith, saying that there was bound to be someone worse than me somewhere who was making a living at it. Perrin also spent three full days teaching Chalice, Philo, and me how to construct mind to mind channel links. He said that having a dragon (me) who could blast through the initial resistance made the teaching process much easier.
I know that I was getting much more used to having voices in my head that weren't mine than I ever would have expected. I was AWARE of Brindle even when she wasn't talking to me, and she talked to me more that I really appreciated. And then there was Tayma, of whom I was very seldom aware except when I was asleep, and then she made it very clear that she had been watching everything I did all day long, and she always had several hundred questions. After a few days she learned to talk to me when I was conscious, and a few days after that she learned how to talk to Brindle.
The ability to see unmanifested ghosts that I had had at the end of the spiritwalk was temporary, though I could still see Tayma whenever she chose to wander outside of her sanctuary in my head. When I worked in the smithy with Perrin, Tayma often had conversations with Meligrant; I could hear and see only Tayma's side of things, and I learned from Perring that he could only hear and see Meligrant's side unless he cast a Spirit Vision spell to see it all. It surprised me that Brindle could see Tayma as well, though Perrin told me that was normal when a person had both a familiar and a spirit guide.
For the most part, Tayma took up residence in my dreams, and from there we explored our memories together. I had only a few months of memories that were truly mine; Tayma had nearly twenty years to call her own, and Kelestor's dismal swamp covered most of fifty years. We became good friends, though she never really overcame the subservience that a lifetime of slavery had beaten into her; perhaps that was just as well, given Perrin's dire warnings about spirits that were too powerful.
I finally got a chance to ask Perrin about that warning as we were loading the horses for our final departure from Ferrypoint, and he just rolled his eyes. "If you get along well, you tend to want to spend your entire life inside of your head," he said with a grin. "Though I doubt you'll be able to get away with that."
I nodded; "I can see both sides of that already," I said. "And if we don't get along?"
Perrin's grin turned a bit nasty. "Then there is no place to hide." He shook his head, and the warmth was back in his smile. "You'll do fine, Quill. There's nothing ahead of you worse than what you've already been through."
We left at the first light of the false dawn; Whisky led, followed by Philo leading one of the horses, then Chalice (with Pepper at her side) leading the other horse (with Brindle enthroned in the luggage) and I brought up the rear. Perrin, Jasmine, 'Bacco, and a small assortment of vermites saw us off.
We took two days longer getting to the rendezvous than a direct route required; I asked Whisky to lead us on a detour to the north. It was mid-morning on the third day out of Ferrypoint when Whisky called a halt in a large meadow.
"Quill?" he called back. "This is it." I walked to where he was standing, and he pointed out a small tree that had been gnawed off near its base.
"Yes," I answered. "This is it." I pulled the sword I had chosen for this occasion out of one of the horse packs and walked to the center of the meadow; it was a non-descript sword that had belonged to one of the men in the caravan I had killed. I turned around until I felt sure I was in the center of the meadow, then drove the sword point first into the ground until quillons touched the earth. That done, I rejoined the others.
"Quill?" Chalice asked. "What was that about?"
"The stump will have rotted away in a few years," I replied. "The sword should last a hundred. I just wanted to make sure I could find this place again, if I ever wanted to."
Chalice still didn't understand, but Pepper did. She had seen me use the spear I had gnawed from that stump, and was holding a walking stick that had been carved from that spear. "Chalice," she said quietly, "He was born here."