So, I wanted to just write something. This happens from time to time.
I didn’t want to work on one of my official projects, just something unplanned. I decided to write in a style I haven’t really done before, a highly-informal first-person with a lot of personality showing. I had also wanted to try something cool with shapeshifting for a while because shapeshifting is cool.
So I started writing snippets from a vague idea, with no real plan of where it will go, although that begins to take shape in the snippets. It involves a kid getting caught up in an ancient war between shapeshifters, element-controllers, and technologists, due to the fact that his father is kind of the chosen one. In any case, I now present a series of random snippets with no real consequence, from which a plot may be roughly surmised. I am totally open to suggestions, constructive criticism, and cool ideas. I give you: Shapeshifter.
“Come with me or you will die,” said the wolf standing in front of me. This was not a common occurrence. I live in Iowa. I do not live in a fantasy world with unicorns and talking dogs. But a wolf was crouched in front of me, talking. Its lips moved and everything.
“Brandon! We need to leave!” it said. How did it know my name? I had to be dreaming. It didn’t feel like a dream, but I’ve had that thought before, usually just before I woke up. I turned and started to walk away, hoping I wasn’t delusional, hoping I’d be able to drift into another, more normal dream. I made it about three steps before the earth exploded under my feet.
I was thrown backward by the force of the explosion, hit the sidewalk, ears ringing, coughing from the sudden clouds of dust in the air. I felt definite pain. Maybe this wasn’t a dream. I tried to stand up, but the blast had thrown off my sense of balance, and I fell back to the ground.
I lay there, dazed and confused, staring at the massive crater in the center of the Mikkelson’s driveway, like the world’s worst pothole. It looked like a meteor had struck. Did the Mikkelsons keep land mines in their driveway? As I watched, a mottled black and red substance began to bubble up from a crack in the center, a thick liquid, like honey. I had played enough video games to recognize it as lava: instant death. It began to flow of its own volition, uphill and over the lip of the crater.
I scrambled to try and crawl away from the lava flow, but I was not fast enough. It flowed in a river, like an anaconda slinking up to a mouse with deceptive smoothness. Already I could feel the heat warming my face, singing my shoelaces. I awkwardly crab-walked away, groping blindly for each step, unable to take my eyes off the stream of lava. I felt grass beneath my hands, then gravel, and then I hit my head on the fence that separated our house from the Mikkelsons. Good fences make good neighbors, said my dad.
I tried to push myself upright, using the walls for support, but there was no way I could escape in time. Already the flow had broadened into a syrupy wave of death, glowing red and gold as the scabs cracked on its surface.
I’m going to die by lava, I thought. Pretty cool way to die. In a video game it means you sucked, but that’s because there’s always a way out in video games. I wish there was a way out now.
Something descended on either side of me and picked me up like I was a stuffed animal in one of those arcade claw games you can never win. But unlike the claw game, I was not dropped to my doom. Instead, I found myself bouncing along, slung over the shoulder of somebody apparently wearing a fur coat.
Definitely a dream, I thought. A weird one too. It started out normal enough, wake up to alarm, shower, eat Fruit Loops, wait for the bus with my iPod. Then wolves and land mines and lava. Maybe if I think hard enough, I can still change this dream into something involving significantly more flight powers and cheerleaders.
I focused as hard as I could, squinting at my rapidly receding house. It seemed to work for a second. A man in a red bathrobe was standing in front of my house doing tai chi or something. But nope, there was the crater from earlier, and a ribbon of magma hung suspended in the air around him like a giant tentacle. He appeared to be fighting a biker gang decked out in post-apocalyptic gear and Christmas lights.
I didn’t see any more, as whoever was carrying me reached the end of the block and turned a corner. I gripped the fur coat to keep my balance, and heard a grunt from the person carrying me. I looked over my shoulder to see I was being carried by a gorilla. Of course I was.
“I told you to come with me,” said the gorilla, who I guess used to be a wolf. An unmarked white van pulled up and slid a door open.
“I’m not supposed to take rides from strangers,” I said.
An unseen voice came from the shadows of the van. “He’s in shock, and we’re out of time. Sedate him and move out.”
A bee stung the back of my neck and I decided to take a nap.
I wake up in darkness, drenched with sweat. What kind of dream was that? I lay there for a few moments trying to sort everything out, but it’s hard to think. My mind feels foggy, sluggish. I try to sit up to get my blood moving and clear my head, but I find that I can’t move anything but my eyes and maybe a finger or two.
Suddenly, a light comes on, blindingly bright in the darkness. I squint, trying to protect my eyes while still seeing what’s going on. Above me, I see plain white metal, not my bedroom ceiling plastered with old glow-in-the-dark stars from when I was seven. The thought takes a moment to find its way through my muddled mind, then the conclusion reaches me. I am not in my bedroom. The dream was real.
I force my eyes open, and a face appears in front of me. It’s somebody I’ve never seen before. His hair is long and grey, and he has a scruffy beard that looks like a tangle of steel wool. His face is wrinkled, his eyebrows are bushy, and he’s wearing a patterned headband. He looks like an old hippie. Then he looks me in the eyes, and I change my mind. Those were not the eyes of a stoner or a beatnik. They are a vivid gold, and seem illuminated from within. There is some sort of primal power in those eyes, the gaze of a predator, calculating whether you’re worth the effort of chasing.
He seems to decide I’m worth it. “The sedatives will wear off soon,” he says. His voice is forceful and sharp. “I apologize for the inconvenience, but we were in desperate circumstances and had need to take whatever actions were expedient.”
I try to speak, though my throat is incredibly parched. “What’s going on?” I croak. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” he answered. “As for your purpose here, all will be revealed in time.”
“If you’re a friend, why am I tied up?”
“Technically, you are tied down,” he replied. “Our ride has been a bit… chaotic, and since you were sedated, we thought you would be safer if you were kept secured.”
“I’m awake now. How about untying me?”
The man narrows his eyes. “You are not very patient, Mr. White.”
I return the glare. “Are you going to let me out or not?”
“In good time,” he said. “You still have not fully recovered. We are nearly at our destination.”
“And where is that?” I ask. He places his fingertips together and stares up at the ceiling as if considering the question or perhaps praying for patience. I keep staring, and eventually he sighs and looks down.
“I could tell you, but I doubt you would listen. No, I will wait until you can see for yourself where and what we are.”
I’ve got a raging headache, and I would gladly trade front-line Superbowl tickets to be able to massage my temples, but no luck there. I’m strapped down in the back of a van with a complete stranger, I still don’t fully remember how I got here, and nobody will give me any answers. Only the feel of the straps on my wrists and my piercing migraine convince me this isn’t a crazy dream. I bite back the urge to let off a long string of muttered curses.
Suddenly, the van pitches forward, as if descending down a very steep slope. The blood rushes to my head, making my headache that much worse. I decide to indulge in the curses after all.
A few minutes later, the van levels out, then comes to a stop. The stranger stands up. “We’re here,” he says.
“I still don’t know where ‘here’ is,” I snap. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“My apologies,” he says. “I was hesitant to divulge too much until we had arrived in safety. My name is Calvin Hunt. Welcome to the Wilds.”
He opens the back of the van, and I am greeted by the most remarkable thing I have ever seen.
It was like the freaking Garden of Eden.
Imagine a cavern the size of the Superdome. Great. This cavern makes that one look like a cubbyhole. The cave was so large that at first I didn’t notice we were underground. The place had its own freaking climate. Clouds hovered near the roof, birds hovered on the breeze, a storm was brewing on the far end. I couldn’t tell where the light came from, but it was as bright as any summer day.
The bottom half of the cavern was simply covered in wilderness. Any kind, you name it, they had it. It was like a display of Earth’s Greatest Ecosystems. A tropical rainforest dominated the center of the cavern, giving way to deciduous forest as it spread. The forest was surrounded by a color wheel of different biomes: grassy plains and savannas, sand dunes, red mesas, an enormous lake, swamps… It was as if all the earth had been scrunched into one space.
“Come,” says Calvin. “We shall take you to the Heart of the Wilds, and then I will explain what is happening and who we are.” I make a move to get into the van, but he places a hand on my shoulder and shakes his head. “No vehicles within the Wilds. We use technology as little as possible.”
That didn’t bode well for me. I tend to have difficulty breathing without wifi. At least, when I’m not busy being abducted. I ignore this for the time being. “You expect me to walk? It’ll take hours to get to the middle.”
“That will change after the induction,” Calvin smirks, “but for now, we can accommodate your… fragility.” I scowled, but Calvin either didn’t notice or else he didn’t care. He continues, “Have you ever been horseback riding?”
“This is your first form,” said Calvin. I’m looking down at a dog, like a husky or a malamute or whatever. A sled dog. Then it curls its lip back and reveals its teeth. Nope, not a dog. A wolf.
“I want you to stare deep into its eyes,” he continues. “You must understand the animal to become it. Much of that understanding will come with practice and experience, but it is important to learn as much as you can before shifting.”
I nod and kneel down. My face is inches away from this animal’s head. I notice I am shaking a little. Why shouldn’t I? All I can think is that I must look like a chew toy to him.
“Hey boy,” I say, but as soon as I look into his eyes, it sounds wrong. LIke snuggling up with a shark.
The wolf’s eyes are yellowish gray, and they are bright. They are intelligent. This is no droopy-eyed basset hound or bug-eyed pug. These are a hunter’s eyes, calculating and piercing. And yet the wolf exudes a sense of serenity, of power under control. I feel like it understands me, in some ways better than most of the people I grew up with.
I know I should study the wolf more broadly, examine the thick, sleek coat, the taut, trim muscles, the sharp gleaming fangs, but I can’t. The eyes draw me in and hold me like they are magnetic, as though we have connected as strongly as two electric wires, filling me with new knowledge. The wolf is dangerous but not arrogant. Strong but not invincible. Tireless, faithful, intelligent. I can feel it all resonate with my mind and soul. Calvin has chosen well for my first form.
A hand brushes my back and startles me out of my trance. Instinctively, I snap at the intrusion, but my fangs click closed on empty air. I immediately spring to my feet, feeling the hair on my back bristle in response to danger. My brother responds likewise. In front of me, a strange creature standing on its hind feet holds up its forelegs.
“Calm down, Brandon,” it says soothingly. Brandon? Oh.
I look down and see paws instead of hands. As the realization hits me, I rear backward from surprise, and this time feel the change as my body twists and reshapes itself like clay, ending up in my human form. As myself.
“What the hell was that?” I snap.
“You shifted,” Calvin says, again using the soothing tone. “And quite well for your first time. Don’t be alarmed.”
“Don’t be alarmed?” I repeat. “Don’t be alarmed? I just turned into a freaking wolf!”
Calvin cocks his head to the side in curiosity. “Well, of course. That was the point.”
“I expected I would know when it was happening! One second I was kneeling on the ground and the next I’m ready to roll over and drink out of the toilet!”
“It is largely an instinctive process. In fact, the fact that you did it without conscious thought is an excellent indicator of talent. A talent that will likely save your life sooner than later.”
“Listen, it’s great that I’m a part of your little club now, but that was not what I had in mind. No matter how cool it might be to fly around or whatever else you do here, if I can’t control it, I don’t want it.”
“I assure you that within a short time, you will be in complete control of the process,” Calvin says.
“Will I? For a second there I didn’t even remember I was human! How can I be sure I won’t turn into a caterpillar and spend the rest of my time munching leaves because I forget who I am?”
Up until this point, Calvin has been projecting this whole ‘wise mentor’ image as if he were Yoda or something, but at this last statement, all that drops away. His eyebrows shoot up and he leans toward me. His expression changes from regal and wise to sharp and suspicious in about a millisecond.
“You forgot?” he asks, his voice a strange mixture of incredulity, awe, and accusation. “What do you mean?”
I am a bit pleased to have cracked his facade, but his sudden interest frightens me a little. Angers me. He drags me into this and doesn’t even bother to explain the risks?
“I mean that until you said my name, I WAS a wolf. Inside and outside. I didn’t even recognize you. Like, as a species.”
Calvin puckers his lips and turns away. He strokes his chin and taps his foot. I stare for several seconds, feeling like I’m staring at a computer loading screen, a little beach ball spinning around in his head as he computes. One thing is clear. This is unexpected news to him. Again, I feel that strange mixture of triumph that I do not fit neatly into their plans and fear that everything has gone terribly wrong. Or gotten worse, anyway.
“That is… most unusual,” he says. I hate it when people use weaselly words like that. “This… condition… is not unheard of, but neither is it common. I’m will have to discuss this with the council. Please wait here.”
I stare incredulously at him as he scurries away, stupid robes dragging on the ground behind him until he gets outside, shifts into a bird, and flaps away. Without telling me a thing about what’s going on with me. What a tool.
I hear a strange growl, but the wolf is no longer in the room. He was taken out when I started shouting with Calvin. I hear it again, and this time I feel it too. It’s me. I am growling. I run my tongue along my teeth and find they have all changed into ivory daggers. The rest of me is still human.
More confused and angry than before, I burst out of the room, through the same door Calvin used. I spy a crow perched on the edge of the roof and stare at it until I can shift into a close approximation. Then I take to the sky.
It is clumsy and unpracticed, but it works well enough. I am flying, and is a thousand daydreams come true, but I am too focused on my task to feel excitement, too angry to truly become the crow. I am going to this meeting, and I will be getting some answers, one way or another.
Some time later…
“The elements slumber, content to lay dormant and react only when acted upon. But we can awaken the elements and command them to do our bidding.” David demonstrates his words by waving his hand and causing wind to swirl around us.
“Why are we in a parking lot?” I ask, but he ignores me.
“The shapeshifters rely on their own power,” he says. “They transform themselves into whatever shape they need. However, relying on their own strength limits their power. What is the most powerful beast they can channel? An elephant? A bear? A whale? Ha! What elephant can conquer an earthquake? What bear could defeat fire? What can a whale do against the ocean? By awakening the elements, we control the power of the earth itself, to which all things must submit.”
He kneels down and places his fingertips on the asphalt. “All we need is to ask.” He closes his eyes, then stands up, pulling off a chunk of the asphalt with him, a perfectly spherical piece of blacktop the size of a basketball, ripped out of the parking lot with his bare hands. He blinks, and the sphere begins to glow from within. It is heating up.
“So, if you want to be one of us, cast away your foolish shapeshifter ideas, and embrace the power of the earth.” The asphalt sphere is glowing like a coal now, smoke pouring off it like a comet’s tail. He looks me in the eye. “All you have to do is ask.”
In a flash, he lifts the sphere and sends it flying toward me. There is no time to shift. Not even enough time to think. Only time enough to act without thinking. Acting on an impulse I cannot understand, I clap my hands together.
A wall of air rushes forward, catching the fiery sphere in midair and sending it back towards John. In a smooth motion, he leaps into the air, cutting through the sudden gale like a diver through water. As the sphere passes, he snatches it out of the air, does a perfect flip, and lands like Iron Man, smacking the glob of asphalt into the hole it came from. I stand there, bewildered, and he smiles at me, like he was expecting it.
“Very good,” he said. “I thought your pride might overcome you, but you submitted and asked Gaia for help. Very good indeed.”
I didn’t ask anybody for anything. I just acted, and it happened without conscious thought. I had a sudden flashback to Calvin’s reaction during my first shift, when I hadn’t fit into his expectations. I know in an instant that David will react the same way, or worse.
I don’t trust myself to come up with a lie right now, so I stifle my questions and switch to another emotion I’m experiencing again. Anger.
“You think you could have managed this without chucking meteors at me?” I snarl. David merely shakes his head as if this has all been a harmless practical joke.
“Desperation leads to desperate measures. This was the fastest way to determine whether or not you could become one of us.”
“And if I couldn’t have stopped it?”
He pats down the edges of the still-steaming asphalt. “Then we would have no need of you,” he says matter-of-factly. My stomach lurches. How many have failed this test? He continues, heedless of my disgust. “But that’s irrelevant, because you passed. Welcome to the family.”
He holds out his hand, grinning, and I shake it and smile back. But inside I’m wondering if this is really the kind of family I want to be in.
Lightning flashes. There’s a single moment where Calvin is perfectly silhouetted against the stormy sky, already shifting into the form of a bear. The crash of thunder is louder than I expected. I’ve become the wolf again. More sensitive hearing. Not the best choice to fight a bear. But I didn’t choose this form.
It chose me.
Calvin roars, a deep, throaty sound. Then he charges. Maybe you haven’t seen a bear charge. Maybe you think they’re all roly-poly like Winnie the Pooh. They are not. They can run faster than you. Much faster. Having a bear charge at you is like having a truck coming at you. Or a tank on nitro.
But wolves are faster still. More agile. And so I charge at him, too, and when he swipes a paw the size of a frying pan at me, I duck underneath it and shoot past. He wheels around, but I’m shifting again. Gray hair retracts, leaving only skin that is quickly turning grey. I am growing larger, and fast.
By the time Calvin has spun around, I am the size of a car. He can tell by my skin that I’m going for something large, like an elephant or a rhino. So he changes his game. The grizzly seems to shrivel up, like a grape left in the sun, collapsing in on itself, fur seeming to melt like wax and harden into scales.His legs shrivel up as his body transforms into a living whip. By the time I am fully elephant, he has become a cobra. I try to step on him, to crush him like a strand of spaghetti, but he has slithered off, and I cannot see him through the pounding rain.
I have to transform, and quickly. Not even an elephant can ignore a cobra bite. My first instinct is to transform into a bird, but with the weather, there’s no way I could fly. I decide to take the fight to him. What is the perfect counter to a snake? A mongoose.
My elephant form deflates like a circus tent with the poles removed. Within seconds, the transformation is complete. The mongoose is full of energy, like a squirrel, but all focused, like a laser. A flicker of movement catches my eye amidst all the raindrops, and I make for it. My sensitive nose suddenly picks up a strange scent that is definitely not a snake.
Another flash of lightning illuminates a large form in front of me, and I realize I have made a terrible mistake. A lynx bursts out of the downpour and snatches me. Instinctively, I begin another shift, growing larger.
To be continued if and when I feel like it.