Chapter 11 – Bereaved
The space surrounding Solonn was utterly silent and dark, but far from still, anything but empty. A stream of pure power rushed through this lightless, ethereal plane like a river. It brought the most wonderful feeling: an almost inebriatingly sweet familiarity that comforted and revitalized him as it flowed freely all around him.
This was the raw, elemental power of ice, and he reveled in its direct presence and contact. He couldn’t see it, but he recognized it in the surest, most ingrained way. He floated contently within it, free from distracting thoughts as the very essence of his mother element rushed over him.
Subtly, imperceptibly at first, the elemental stream began to pick up speed. The glalie in the midst of it noticed with a delay, regarding it with nothing more than mild curiosity, still wrapped up in his unity with the power of ice. But concern eventually set in, and it grew stronger as the current flowed faster and faster—soon, the stream was rushing by so swiftly that he could barely perceive it.
That concern turned to fear, and then panic, when Solonn couldn’t feel it at all anymore. It was no longer flowing alongside him—it was rushing away.
It was leaving him behind.
No! No, come back! he tried to call out as it hurried to some distant, invisible point far beyond him. But in this place, he had no voice. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. He was helplessly suspended in empty space, the life-sustaining flow of elemental power nowhere to be found.
Panicked, he cried out silently, again and again. How this could be happening? How could his mother element abandon him like this, knowing it would mean his death?
His mind began to splinter in earnest as he made his final, desperate appeals for salvation, pleading voicelessly to the multitude of gods, begging for his life. But moments passed with no response. The severance from his element would not be undone.
He almost didn’t feel it when something finally disturbed the emptiness around him. Just as soon as he’d noticed it, before he could even begin to identify it, a strange, pacifying wave emanated from whatever it was and engulfed his mind completely.
All will be fine, it seemed to say. Do not be concerned.
The suggestion came as gently as could be, but also as irresistibly as possible. Perhaps it was death; perhaps it was salvation; perhaps it was something entirely beyond reckoning. Whatever it was, Solonn obeyed its consoling command without resistance. The glalie slipped away from all further thought and sensation without a care.
* * *
Vague notions of waking up crept into Solonn’s mind, just out of grasp of his full consciousness. Unhurriedly, he began reconnecting to his senses. With his eyes still closed and his consciousness liable to slip right back into sleep at any moment, he decided and attempted to rise up.
Still only barely awake, emerging very slowly from the deepest sleep he’d ever known, Solonn felt something only marginally resembling concern. He could’ve sworn he’d just commanded himself to get up off the floor. He tried once more to ascend…
…And failed again.
As his mind unmuddled even further, a burgeoning panic set in, one that spiked when the notion finally hit him: I can’t get up!
His eyes flew open. A plant hung in a basket directly above him, a number of leafy tendrils spilling over the basket’s rim to dangle toward the floor. Something was distinctly… off about it, and as his gaze shifted away from it, he realized what the problem was: his vision had gone strangely dull, lacking in definition and color. He started blinking rapidly, trying to clear out whatever was making it so hazy.
At the same time, he went back to trying to ascend. His body still wouldn’t respond; it was as if it no longer understood his instructions. The sound of pounding blood filled his ears as his heart began racing. Why can’t I get up? He tried to calm himself enough to make sense of things and was only partially successful. Maybe his body would have an easier time carrying out a simpler task, he considered, and so he gave up on trying to rise for the time being. He’d be glad just to get off his back and sit upright again.
To this, his body actually responded. But as it did so, he was stricken by a very unusual sensation: as his face pitched forward, he felt something cinching together in the vicinity of his abdomen—almost a bending sensation, as if at a waist, which was something he didn’t have.
And yet, he did.
He cried out in disbelief at the sight that met his eyes, a picture that very bluntly told him how his body had bent in a fashion that should’ve been impossible. A pair of long legs ending in five-toed feet stretched out before him. And unless his mind was playing a very cruel trick on him—it had to be, he told himself silently in a repeating loop—those limbs were his.
No… no, this can’t be real… I’m still dreaming; I’ve got to be… Solonn was almost able to believe that conclusion—almost. Swallowing against a hard knot of dread that had built up in his throat, he stared intently at one of the feet and, hoping and expecting that the effort would fail, he willed it to move.
It moved right on command.
He screamed, flailing as he half-jumped, half-scuttled backward in horrified surprise. The back of his head connected sharply with a corner of the small table behind him. He shouted wordlessly at the pain as it exploded across the inner surface of his skull. There was no doubt about it: the pain was real. Though Solonn dearly wished otherwise, it seemed reality was determined to literally beat the truth into his head. This wasn’t a dream. This was really happening. Somehow, impossibly, he had become human.
He swooned and slumped backwards against the side of the nearby armchair, panting. His heart hammered in animalistic terror, making his chest ache. He almost felt like he could pass out at any moment and would have been all too grateful to do so, but his brain stayed disobligingly conscious and forced him to endure this bizarre new reality. As if possessed of their own will, his eyes just kept staring at the tall, lanky body that was now his own.
This body was more than strange—it was wrong. He should not have this; he should not be this. He should be a glalie, a creature of the element of ice… but that element was no longer there for him. He tried to reach it again, part of him desperately hoping he could somehow return to his true form or at least feel more at home in this one if he succeeded. But no matter how he tried, he could no longer feel his mother element’s embrace in the least.
He moaned involuntarily, not at the throbbing, shooting pain that still lingered in his head but rather at the severance from his beloved element. His anguish swelled in his chest and then welled up behind his eyes until they could hold it in no longer. For the first time in his life, he was crying.
Several minutes after the fact, he finally noticed there was something damp at the back of his head. Shaking, he glanced down at his hands for a moment as they lay limply at his sides. Then, only half-aware of what he was doing, he lifted one of them to the damp spot, recoiling at the warm stickiness he found there amidst the hair. He then brought that hand before his face, and he felt his throat go dry at what he saw. Though his vision had gone even blurrier, he could still make out the blood smeared across the tips of his fingers—red blood that didn’t turn to mist in the air. Human blood for a human body.
Which he should not have.
Solonn closed his eyes and tried to retreat into the corners of his mind, thoroughly overwhelmed. He couldn’t even remotely fathom how this could have happened to him, nor could he even begin to think of what to do under these circumstances.
Sighing, he opened his eyes once more, resigned to the likelihood that he’d be staying awake for a while whether he liked it or not. He turned his head and let it drop listlessly to his left shoulder, faintly regarding a number of long, black strands of hair that fell across his face. Past them, through the corner of his eye, he could make out the table he’d backed into.
A course of action occurred to him as he remembered what sat on that table.
He didn’t know what to do about this situation, but perhaps Jal’tai would. Solonn could think of no one else to turn to. He reached up and pulled the paging device down from the table, turning it over in his hands for a moment as he tried to remember how to operate it. Voice-activated, he soon recalled. You tell it what to do. After another few seconds, he thought he’d remembered exactly what he was supposed to say.
He looked at the large speaker that dominated one side of the strange paging device; seeing no other prominent features on it, he figured this was where he should direct his command. He took a deep breath; then, “Page,” he said, and he felt his throat constrict as soon as the word had escaped it. Presently-stuffy nose notwithstanding, his new voice sounded exactly like his old one. He still sounded like himself—why couldn’t he still be himself in every other way?
There was a small beep, and a tiny, green light turned on next to the speaker. “Please state the recipient’s name and room number,” the device said in the same computerized voice that the transporter outside the suite had used.
“Jal’tai,” Solonn answered hoarsely, “room 44-B.” He dearly hoped he’d remembered that number correctly.
“One moment please…” the device said.
Solonn held his breath as he waited for a response. Thankfully, it seemed he’d gotten the number right; after several seconds: “Yes? Is there something you need?” Jal’tai asked through the speaker.
“Oh yes,” Solonn responded shakily, urgently, “yes, there is.”
“Oh dear…” Jal’tai clearly had no trouble picking up on Solonn’s distress. There was a brief pause; then, “What’s the matter?”
Solonn strongly doubted Jal’tai would believe him. “Can’t explain,” he replied hurriedly. “I just need you here right now. Please hurry.”
Another pause. “Yes… yes, of course. I’ll be right up,” Jal’tai said finally.
“Connection terminated,” the device said. The beep sounded again, and the green light turned off.
Solonn set the paging device down beside him and released a long, weary sigh. All he could do now was wait for Jal’tai to show up—even if he only had seconds to wait, he wasn’t sure how well he could endure it. He was fully aware of how he trembled, his hands shaking like leaves. Tiny yet powerful twitches tugged and pricked at the skin around his eyes and mouth. Vaguely, he wondered if he might lose this body just as soon as he’d gained it; it was threatening to shake itself to pieces.
As the seconds crept by, he stared blankly at one of dragon statues that sat a couple of yards away. It lay on its marble pedestal with its tapered wings outstretched and its taloned forearms crossed in front of it and gazed sightlessly back at Solonn with a look of absolute serenity that he quickly came to envy.
A voice sounded then, startling Solonn and pulling his attention away from the statue. “Solonn? Are you all right in there?” It was Jal’tai. “May I come in now?” the swellow asked him through the wall.
“Please do,” Solonn called back shakily.
“Of course, of course… just give me a moment here…” Jal’tai responded.
A tone sounded shortly thereafter. “Prepare to receive a visitor,” the computerized voice said, calm as ever. Solonn turned toward the wall separating the suite from the hall outside. A second later, a shimmering, pale green field of light appeared above a tile that matched the one outside, then solidified into Jal’tai, who stood there in front of the wall with a concerned look leveled at Solonn. If he was at all shocked or surprised to behold a human where there should’ve been a glalie, he didn’t show it.
Without a word, Jal’tai walked over to where Solonn was half-sitting and half-lying. He stopped in front of the former glalie, ruffled his wings, and folded them tightly against his back.
“It’s all right, Solonn,” Jal’tai said calmly. “I can personally assure you that you’ve nothing to fear from your new form. After all—” He paused briefly to take a breath. “—it was I who designed that very body for you.”
That took a very long moment to fully register. For a moment, Solonn forgot to breathe. He gave the swellow a stupefied stare.
Jal’tai nodded. “It’s true, Solonn.”
The human’s stare went flat. At first, he gave no further response, frozen in the moment. Then he inhaled very slowly, very deeply.
“Why?” he asked, his voice strained. “Why… and how… in the fires of a thousand hells… did you turn me into a human?”
Jal’tai closed his eyes and lowered his head. “Yes,” he said soberly, “you are owed an explanation for all this. It’s imperative that you fully understand the situation. I will address your question of ‘how’ first, since that comes with the shorter answer. To begin to answer that question, however, I must start by being more honest with you with regards to the matter of who—and what—I truly am.”
The swellow suddenly took to the air, hovering in place to Solonn’s right and slightly above him. “Don’t be frightened by what I’m about to show you,” Jal’tai said, his words accompanied by the sound of his steadily beating wings, “for it is my true form. I am and shall still be the same person in spirit that I’ve shown myself to be up to this point.”
Solonn could only stare mutely at him, watching as the air around Jal’tai began to ripple and shimmer, blurring the swellow’s form. Soon, Jal’tai completely lost definition, becoming nothing more than a wavering mass of faint light. Then the light intensified and began to take shape once more. When it faded away a second later, the swellow was gone. In his place was something very different, something blue and pale gray that, while still feathered, was no longer a bird.
Jal’tai was now a dragon.