After leaving the village, Kris ran for three hours before allowing himself to think back on the parting words of the Elders. Only after he had exhausted himself crossing the plain to enter the forest did it feel safe to let his anger rise.
His low growl startled a handful of blue and green birds into flight, and his eyes followed them for a second, his ears flattening over his head. Small and graceful, the birds rose through the branches, reaching for the gray-blue sky above. He could have shifted now, and joined them—joined them in freedom. His bird form wasn’t as elegant or colorful as theirs, but his size gave him the speed they lacked. Since his first shift, he had always loved flying.
He growled again, lashing out with his tail behind him in irritation. As much as he loved to fly, he had to try not to shift to his bird form. It would only make everything more difficult if he did. Springing up to a low branch, he barely touched the tree limb before jumping higher, using branches as so many steps toward the top of the forest.
His panther form, light and agile, was best suited for this. When only a few thin branches stretched between him and the sky, he settled on a thick branch next to the trunk and sighed. The sound, coming from this form’s throat resembled a purr, and was a far cry from the irritation he felt.
The Elders had warned Kris, before sending him on his fifth journey.
“You’ve reached the age limit. If you do not find your true form this time, you will be banned from the village.”
He had known better than to protest. He knew the rules, and knew it was not enough that the blood of the First Family ran in his veins, not enough that he had been shifting for thirteen years since his first shift at only four years of age, not enough that the village had been weakened by the sickness. He had to follow tradition and bind himself to one form, as all adult Shifters did, or he would lose his place in the village forever.
With this anger burning through his veins, he wondered whether it wouldn’t be better if he simply didn’t return from his final journey. It was rare but not unheard of for Shifters to refuse to bind themselves. He’d be free, then. Free to do as he pleased, to fly or roam across Haldae, with no rules to follow or responsibilities to care about.
Blue-gray eyes barely darker than the sky pierced his mind, reminding him of his duty—reminding him of why he’d been so reluctant to start this journey in the first place. He shook his head. As tempting as it was, he couldn’t abandon everything he was, everything he could become. If for no other reason, he had to return for Elea’s sake. He was all she had.
The anger faded, submerged by a wave of intense longing. Five years had passed since his father had succumbed to the sickness, just days before Kris’ first journey. Every time he returned to the forest, he couldn’t help but wonder—what signs had his father and mother seen on their own journeys, that had helped them choose their true forms?
His father’s had been a crowned eagle, with a wingspan half again as wide as Kris’ bird form. This was why Kris didn’t want to bind himself to a bird; all those who had ever known his father, himself included, would never cease to compare the two of them if he did.
He had only seen his mother’s true form once. Few people chose water creatures, unwilling to limit themselves to a form they could only use in the lake near the village or the river that ran from it. Kris had understood her choice when he had seen the long, thin body of her dolphin form part the water of the lake, fast as a bird, agile as a large cat. He had clapped when she had jumped out of the waves, twirling in the air before plunging down again. To his great disappointment, he’d never been able to shift into a water creature himself.
Standing on all four paws again, he shook his head, chasing those thoughts away. Whatever his parents had seen, whatever guidance they had received, they couldn’t help him now. He would have to find his own signs for himself, and finally decide—
Silver flashed through the sky, catching his eye before disappearing behind leaves and branches. Kris tilted his head, curious. That glint of metal could not have been a bird. So what was it? He closed his eyes and pushed his consciousness into his body, feeling himself change at once into his bird form. A small voice deep inside his mind that sounded like Elea chided him for his curiosity. He had come to the forest to find his true form, and he had decided already that the bird wasn’t it. He needed to find his sign.
What if the silver flash was his sign, he retorted to the voice even as he took flight. He batted his wings strongly and soared above the forest, quickly finding the strange object again. It seemed to glide toward the rising moons, losing altitude with every passing moment. Kris accelerated, intending to catch up with it, but a second unusual sight made him lose his rhythm. For a few moments, he let the faint wind carry him, easily shifting between currents that he could feel with every feather of his body, and focused on the oddity.
A big, red… thing had appeared in the sky. It unfolded, taking the shape of an inverted bowl. Kris turned his head this way and that, trying to see the thing better, but he could not figure out what it was. He did notice something hanging beneath it, silver like that first flash of movement in the sky, but the rectangular shape meant nothing to him. The two objects were falling down toward the forest.
Again, that cautious voice warned him. Remaining a falcon was a bad idea when he was supposed to bind himself to a form. Moreover, whatever these strange things were, he ought to stay away from them. They might be dangerous.
Then again, they might be exactly what he had been looking for; they might be the clue he needed to guide him toward his true form.
He batted his wings again, looking from the red object to the silver form disappearing behind the forest. It would fall beyond his village’s territory; better not to investigate, then. The Ushias could be touchy about incursions on their grounds. Letting go of the silver object, he focused on the red one instead. It continued to fall, and now appeared headed toward the river F’ryn.
As he flew closer, he was shocked to realize that someone was sitting on the gleaming rectangle. He tried to approach to get a better look, but already the object and the person on it were reaching the water. He watched, feeling a little apprehensive, as the river swallowed the silver seat and its occupant. The red object spread out over the water, the folds giving away that it was fabric, and finally sunk. Kris instinctively let out a small cry; in this place of the forest, the river flowed fast—too fast for anyone to swim in it. That person would certainly drown.
He blinked. He thought he had seen—
There it was again. Red hair pierced the surface of the water. The person was swimming toward the riverbank—or at least, trying to. They didn’t seem to have much success. Still, they kept trying; maybe they knew that after the next two wide turns in the river, large rocks would make the flow even more agitated and deadly.
Kris did not hesitate. He plunged into the river, closing his eyes at the last moment to shift into a more suitable form. His panther shape was useless in water, more adapted to climbing trees than to swimming, but his wolf form swam better than he could in his human body. He took a deep breath before he hit the water and let himself sink enough to pass beneath the person before he pushed hard with all four legs to break the surface again in front of them.
The young woman’s eyes widened in terror when she saw him. She started screaming, but a wave stopped her, flooding her mouth. Kris tried to smile, remembering too late that, in this form, a smile might not be all that reassuring. She kicked and batted at him, not realizing that he was trying to help her—not realizing either that the only thing fighting would achieve was tiring herself out.
She started slipping beneath the water. He swam closer to her and she gripped his fur, only to let go at once and resume trying to fend him off. But the next time the river started to pull her down, she seemed to give up, holding on to him instead.
Keeping her against his flank, he began swimming toward the edge of the river. He could feel her grip slowly loosening, and swam even harder. If she slipped now…
He let out a frustrated growl when she let go as they were only a few paces from solid ground. He plunged at once after her, and caught her sleeve between his teeth. It ripped, but held on. Breaking the surface again, he dragged her to safety. The fabric tore just as he was lowering her to the mossy ground.
He was frowning as he shifted back to his human form, and for once it had nothing to do with the unpleasant feeling of having clothes constricting him again. Rather, it was her appearance that puzzled him. Her skin was pale, almost luminous against the silvery fabric of her clothing. He had never seen hair like hers. And she had come down from the sky…
Her chest heaved and she rolled to her side to cough up water. He watched, both fascinated and wary. Could she be one of the angels from the tales he had heard in his childhood?
He knelt by her side. Her coughing fits slowed down, and she pushed her hair away from her face, revealing delicate features.
“My name is Kris,” he told her, placing both his hands over his heart in the traditional salute.
Her eyes went from his face to his hands and back. She spoke, but Kris could make no sense of her words. He shook his head. If she was an angel from the stories, why didn’t she speak his language?
Tentatively, she rested her hands over her chest, imitating him.
“Zaren,” she said slowly, enunciating the word—the name, he realized. Her name.
He placed a hand on top of hers. She flinched.
“Zaren,” he repeated.
She smiled, faintly at first then more brightly when he repeated his name and she caught it. The old stories didn’t lie. Angels truly were beautiful. Still, what was he supposed to do with her now?
* * * *
The circle of Elders looked at Kris with various degrees of incredulity.
“An angel?” Elder Sarly asked, his thick white brows arching in amusement. “Come on, Kris. Those stories are for children. You can’t honestly believe this stranger is an angel.”
Kris rolled his shoulders and shifted on his chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. Generations of Elders who had met in this room, around this table, had polished the wood of these chairs, but they had not made the seats any softer. He couldn’t help but wonder if whoever had first carved the chairs wanted to make sure the meetings would remain short.
“I don’t believe it anymore,” he conceded with a small nod. “But when I first met her, I thought she had to be. How else would you have explained seeing a woman descend from the sky?”
Elder Sarly chuckled, as did a couple others, but not everyone was amused. Elder Pala glared at Kris, her slight frame leaning forward over the thick wooden table.
“If you do not think she’s an angel anymore,” she said sharply, “then do tell us. Who is she?”
Without thinking, Kris looked to his right. Zaren was being kept out there,in a room that was little more than a cell. He hoped she wasn’t too scared.
“She’s an explorer,” he explained, turning his eyes back to Elder Pala. “She came from the stars.”
Laughter and outraged cries erupted around the table. Kris’ gaze returned once more to the locked doors. Whether they believed him or not, Zaren had come from a world he could barely imagine.