She could feel herself tumbling into a void of chaotic thoughts. Her mind was being assaulted at every turn. She was beginning to lose herself and her sense of her own identity. 'I am such a failure. Why do I have to live like this? This thing between my legs can't be mine, I shouldn't even have it.' Reaching down she found the bits this thought was referring to. She let out a silent scream, which blended with the other screams in her head.
"GET OUT OF MY HEAD!" Where did that thought come from? She was in her own head, wasn't she? A wave of sadness overcame her. Images of women in beautiful dresses, followed by fierce jealousy that they could wear them and he couldn't. Why was life so unfair? 'But I am not a he, I am she. I AM SHE!' That thought was echoed through her mind from a million different angles. The sound changing pitch. She has never heard some of these voices in her head. What is going on?
Deeper... she had to go deeper to find the cause of all this turmoil. There had to be something. She needed to find it before she lost all sense of herself. She could already feel her will being stripped away. Right, she was in Eldrick's head trying to find a way to reach him. Even in her thoughts calling Eldrick him, felt wrong.
She found herself pressed hard against a wall of DUTY. There seemed to be three other walls slowly closing in. LOYALTY, HONOUR, and SACRIFICE. She needed to find a way out or she would be destroyed by their inexorable crushing forces. Is that how Eldrick was feeling? Opening at her feet was a tempest of ANGER. Above her a deluge of HOPELESSNESS. There didn't seem to be any way to escape.
She thought she saw a glint of metal in one of the walls. A door? Where does that lead? Reaching out she grabbed the handle, opening the door. On the other side was a field of green grass. Three figures were standing together. Spells flying, from all directions. Suddenly she was no longer watching the scene, but was in the body of one of the figures. Her strength ebbing away as she blocked spell after spell. She wasn't sure how long she could last. 'There were just too many of them. Have to hold on. Sebastian, what are you doing? I need your support. Oh crap, I need to extend the shields. He is making himself a target to protect us. I can't let him do this alone. Sergei, lend me strength. Oh thank goodness.'
Suddenly the scene changed. She was walking down a flight of stairs to the angry shouting of some man at Eileen. He struck her, 'How dare he strike a healer who is doing her job. It is time to act. Apprentice or not this is what I have been training for. Loyalty is only one step away from duty. But there can be no duty without some form of loyalty. These people have accepted me for myself, not some illusion of what they expect me to be.'
Another scene change. This time she was surrounded by a snow-covered farm. A blue dragon was standing in front of him. With a shake of the head, trying to clear the muzziness out. I am he or she? Oh, this is getting confusing. How dare he accuse my master and mentor of not taking care of me. There is more to care than just food and clothing. I am not even sure where I would be if it weren't for Sergei.
I need to get out of here. I can't handle this. She began searching frantically for the exit, there, the glint of metal coming through the snow. Grabbing the handle, she threw herself through the door. The walls were still closing in on her. The handle vanished from her hand. The wall was solid with no hint of there ever having been a door. What was that? Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw light refracting through crystal. This had to be better than the last door. Opening it she stepped through.
'Honour is the key basis of life. If one doesn't live by honour there is only chaos.' These were thoughts she could get behind though they were not her own.
She found herself in a tub of water in the house of healing. The room was full of naked women. He climbed out of the tub, suddenly everything is black. 'Don't look, don't look, it is not polite and that means you are not honouring their bodies, or who they are. Why are they laughing? I mean they are giving me the honour of seeing them without clothing but it doesn't feel right. Oh crap I am naked. Need to find a towel so I can cover up.' Light returned, there they are, only a few feet away. Darkness again. 'Okay, it's only a few steps to the towels. Hands out front to find the towels so I can cover up. My body is so wrong. It shouldn't be on display like this. That has to be what they are laughing at. What are my hands on, this doesn't feel like the towels'. Visual again,' oh shit, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I am so sorry. Why did I miss my target and grab her breast. Sure, they say I need to get used to seeing and even handling them but it just feels wrong to me.' He could feel the heat rising in his face. He could feel himself relaxing in their company, yet he was jealous of them at the same time.
Again in the bathing room, this time he was braiding the hair of one of the other ladies. He could hear the guys in the tubs behind him. He didn't want to look because it felt wrong to him. Suddenly he felt a wet hand connecting with his ass. Spinning around with his fist clenched he landed a punch square to Henry's jaw. He could feel the comforting swish of the skirts around his ankles. His anger rising to true wroth. Stalking forward he stared down the bunch of them. He couldn't focus on what he was saying, just that he wanted these hooligans to understand that their antics were inappropriate. The ladies were tired of them and were not going to put up with them anymore. Suddenly the guys all fell back into the tubs. Turning back to the ladies all he could see were the smiles.
He found himself in the house of healing once more, this time in a room full of people injured in a mill accident. In front of him was a woman in obvious labour and severely injured. He had to do something or she was not going to survive. Closing his eyes he placed his hands on the sides of her head. --Just like I did-- Letting out a slow breath, he let his senses flow through the woman and child. He could feel energy flowing through him from somewhere. He lost all sense of time as the energy filled the woman, the child within her, and everyone else in the room. All he knew was he had to help. The healers were overwhelmed and if he didn't do something there were going to be many deaths. He couldn't allow that.
She found herself panicking as the power flowed without any true sense of control, though it wasn't an overwhelming amount. She could sense so many different energy forms. He had more ability than she thought. He was stronger than she was and she had invaded his mind. I am not going to get out of here. "What do you want? Why don't you just LEAVE ME ALONE."
"I am trying to understand. There is so much pain here. I WANT TO HELP!"
"You are not welcome here. Just let me DIE!! Please let me die." The plaintive cry was heart-rending. So much pain, what could be causing anguish such as this. There was the handle once again. Reaching for it she fled the scene.
Back between the four walls they had stopped moving, the torrent was closer and threatened to engulf them. The pain and anguish of being a complete and utter failure hit like hail stones. Regret at being born into the wrong body. The impending loss of mentor. Leaving behind the only one who seemed to accept him for himself and not some pawn to be moved in a cosmic chess game. There had to be answers in here somewhere. Which door would open next? Did she really want to enter it? Every door she found herself drowning in Eldrick's emotions and experiences. Could she survive this and still be the same person who had entered?
What was that? A board sat in cradles across the wall. She knew she had no choice, not if she wanted to get through this and find a way out. Struggling with the board she got it out of the cradles. Once free the door flew open and the board vanished from her hands. The vortex created by the opening of the door sucked her in.
The green fields around the farmhouse were fascinating. A younger Sergei sat on the edge of the field. "Eldrick come here. It is time for your lesson."
Running over to his mentor he sat on the ground. "I was looking at the grain blowing in the breeze. Will it be ripe soon?"
"Oh not for another week or so. But there are, other things which are ready for harvesting." Lifting the cloth which he had across his lap showed several different flowers and a variety of mushrooms. "You need to learn the plants around and what they can be used for. Some of these are poisonous, but if used properly can have beneficial aspects." Lifting one of the mushrooms, small and pink in colour, "These are very special mushrooms. Take too many and they can kill you. But in the correct amount they can be very useful in seeking visions. Later you will be going on a vision quest, while I oversee the process. First, we need to finish this lesson. The lesson is this. I want you to find and harvest each of these plants." Sergei eyed him until he rose and ran off into the forest.
As he ran into the forest the scene changed. In front of him was a vast open field, where people were gathering for a feast. All the children were being lined up to face an old man in a robe. She was scared and yet excited. Wait! She? Something wasn't quite right. Everything went black.
The next thing he saw was the inside of a well constructed and maintained farmhouse. The wind was howling outside. Sergei was sitting in a chair by the fire. In her hands was a clay jug, filled with some sort of liquid.
"Well boy, bring me my medicine."
He could feel his face flushing. He quickly brought the jug to Sergei. "I need to check on dinner so that it doesn't burn, sir." Sergei waved him off. Duty is the only thing which he worried about right now. It was duty and loyalty that kept him here not to mention he didn't have a clipped copper to his name. Sergei had been kind to offer him the apprenticeship when there were so many others who were hoping to get it. After dinner, he had to do the dishes and then go back to studying the books Sergei placed out for him. He didn't understand half the stuff in the books but if he didn't learn it he would have to read them again. Sergei did say the information would make sense in time. It was his duty to learn what he was told to learn even what he really wanted to do was get out in the world to explore. There would be a time once the apprenticeship period was over to do just that as a journeyman. But he had to consider his duties to the order, his master and the Grand Druid. But the greatest duty is to the world, for that was the purpose of the order. Especially if the order or any member of the order were to be doing something against the original concept. Why did it feel like all he had was duty? Where was fun? Love?
There the door, barred by the same board. Approaching tentatively he reached for it. With it free, the wind pulled the door open sucking him back through. It closed with a loud reverberating ka-thunk, which drowned the sound of thunder. Okay, there was only one wall left which may have a door. That is unless the ground were to open up and swallow her. Or the storm above decided to pick her up and toss her about. She didn't want to think about those possibilities. She could already feel the crushing weight of all the emotions pressing in on her.
She really needed to find a way out of this but she had entered willingly not knowing the hazards she would be facing or the soul-crushing extremes to which this young person was dealing. She wasn't sure if the switching thoughts of he and she were just her trying to separate herself from his mind or if they were his thoughts. She felt herself sinking into the ground, like being sucked down in quicksand. The more she struggled mentally to remain calm the faster she sank. All she could feel was rage.
Her feet touched something, her head just above the floor. Why? How could the world be so cruel? I haven't done anything to deserve this, yet I am forced to endure. Duty be damned. Loyalty has gotten me nothing but pain. Honour is useless since others won't be honourable. Sacrifice, why should I sacrifice anything? I have already sacrificed everything. I have nothing left to sacrifice but my life. If they want it so badly they can have it. Then I won't have to worry about anything. Or I can just try to sacrifice the whole world. Then there won't be anyone to worry about anything. First I am going to kill whoever it was that has decided to strip me of everything. Victor, I am coming for you. If you hadn't attempted to kill the King I wouldn't have lost my master and lover. I had to leave Sebastian behind. Then I get this stupid bitch who thinks she is so much better than me. "WHY WON'T YOU LEAVE ME ALONE? HAVEN'T YOU DONE ENOUGH DAMAGE? I CAN'T EVEN HAVE ANY PRIVATE THOUGHTS!"
With a sudden convulsion, the ground about her started to press in. She could feel bones breaking, breathing was becoming more painful and difficult. How was that possible? There is no physical form in this place. It has to the consciousness being crushed. Need to escape, but how? "You, stupid, petulant brat! I didn't come to hurt you, I came to help. But you are too far gone in your own misery to give a damn." The pressure backed off a bit, only to redouble upon returning. She tried to get her arms free. They moved very slowly, the pain, causing her to stop every so often. She could feel herself slowly losing consciousness. If she blacked out in here she would be lost. Panic for her own survival spurred her efforts.
"I WILL NOT FAIL!" the litany forming over and over in her thoughts as she fought to be free. The anger around her giving her power. She was beginning to fear that if she used Eldrick's power, she would lose herself here. Then how would she be able to help anyone? She began to feel despair at that thought. "I am so sorry. I didn't think about what you may be going through. I should have talked to you instead of acting so superior," she could feel the tears welling in her eyes.
She found herself laying on top of the ground, tears flowing freely. Sitting up she saw a small door open in the final wall. A small hand beckoned through the portal. Watching the hand as she crawled to the opening she noticed they were the fingers of a small child who couldn't be more than a half dozen years. How could one so young be trapped in here? What kinds of secrets was Eldrick holding even from himself. That door didn't have an external handle. As she entered the light vanished and she could feel herself falling. How deep was this hole? Why had the light been extinguished? There had to be a reason. Oh, this felt like it was going to be worse than all the other doors. She could feel dread building up. She wasn't sure what dark secrets this young man could be harbouring.
Oddly, she felt like her descent slowing, though there was nothing dragging at her. Her feet touching a hard surface brought a bit of relief. Slowly turning, she noticed a light just off to her left. It bled from a room of some sort into the passageway, which looked very much like a rough-hewn tunnel. With tentative steps, she made her way along the passage. Moving as carefully as she could so as not to spook whatever was here, she felt this would also give her time, just in case she was sucked into his memories once again. She didn't think she could face that again, not and retain any form of sanity. She was already traumatized by the experience. Trust was something to be earned even between a teacher and a student. How could she have forgotten that? True it had been over a hundred years since she had learned this skill. And she had trusted her instructor implicitly. He didn't know her and here she was making demands. Oh by the Eldritch... What have I done? I am unfit to train anyone if I only think of my own ability and power. I am going to need to meet with the Drus Elder after this is over. No, before I can complete the task set before me. I have to find a way to reach out to him, but I have no idea where he is. Peering around the edge of the doorway she saw a small child laughing and playing in a field of flowers, her long blonde hair flowing freely behind her. She was wearing a simple shift, of dyed yellow linen. Approaching from the side of the field were two people, an older man and a middle aged woman.
"Amalin, come here please." The child stopped and looked over at the kind voice of the woman, before running over to her. "I would like you to meet my father, Master Druid Sergei."
With a curtsey, "Pleased to make your acquaintance sir. Am I in trouble?" The look she flashed at the woman was one of fear.
"Oh, by all means, no. My father is looking for a new apprentice. He is testing all the children in the village. But he has some concerns. You see he is very picky when it comes to choosing an apprentice. I told him you were the brightest in the village and he wanted to see for himself."
Sergei knelt in the grass in front of her, "I find the best way to test is to do a mild mind probe through magic. May I?" He gently brushed her hair out of her face. "I can see you have great potential for magic already, but I need to be sure of your smarts and if you could be compatible with the training." His smile faded for a moment. "My last apprentice was too eager and I had to part ways with him. I did find him another position though."
"What do I have to do?"
"Well if you grant permission, just stand very still. It doesn't take long and I promise not to invade anything you consider private." His warm smile invited trust. "It doesn't hurt."
Standing at the entrance she was surprised to find the voices carried all the way to her. She stood still enraptured be the scene playing out in front of her. Why was this a secret that needed to be kept? Wait why was Sergei talking to a little girl and how did Eldrick have this memory? Was he once standing on the edge of a field watching this? Did the little girl fail? No, now was not the time to be woolgathering.
"Well sir, if you think I have what it takes. Please test me." She stood up straight, arms rigid down her sides, hands clenched in tiny fists.
Sergei placed his hands on either side of her head, exactly like she had to Eldrick, and gazed into the little girl's eyes. After a moment he released her. "You have courage little one. I will need to consider all the potential candidates before I make a decision. You can go back to your play." He bowed to her as she giggled and ran off to chase the butterflies. Rising he turned to the woman, "Evelyn, you were right. Unfortunately, you know the Grand Druid's edict."
"Papa, there has to be a way? She has no family here. She trusts me and after everything you trained me for, couldn't you at least try? For her sake, give her something other than the life of scullery maid?" Keeping her voice low so as not to be overheard by the child, "That's all anyone will see her as good for, that or a harlot. I would hate to see her used that way. You know that once her moon cycle begins there is going to be talk. No one will be willing to marry her without a dowry. Where would she get one?" Concern for the well-being of one so young was plain in every motion.
"I have learned of a spell which may allow us to avoid that, but it is risky. I am not sure if the drawbacks are worth it." He patted the satchel hanging at his side. "I need to study it more carefully before I can make that decision. But, don't you think she should have a say in this? It is after all her life that will hang in the balance as well."
"Study the spell first, papa. If it can do what is necessary then we can talk to her again." Evelyn threw her arms around Sergei.
As they walked off the field, she slowly made her way out into it. Wait where did the little girl go? Feeling a tug at her own shift, she looked down. Amalin stood there holding a flower up. "This is for you. I knew you would come. This place isn't safe for those who are neither male nor human."
"But you are here."
"Why do you think I have the door locked from the inside? But the walls are thinning and, things are leaking out." There was more wisdom in this child's statements than there should be for one so young. "He will learn the truth eventually, and then we can be one again. The problem is I am not human. I can't give much more information than that, since there are secrets here hidden from even me. Please you need to get out of here and forget you even saw me. My life depends on him not waking up to certain facts yet. It isn't safe." She was pointing to the stand of trees off the side of the field. "Please hurry, or you will be trapped in here like me only you won't be able to escape."
With a nod to the young girl, she ran for the trees. She hadn't gotten far into them before she came upon a house in a clearing. In the yard were Sergei and Amalin. "I would like it if you would be my new apprentice," he raised a hand as she opened her mouth. She closed it again and waited. "There are a couple problems we must discuss before you make a decision. The order has changed in the last few hundred years. It used to be open to all peoples of Corrigenda. However, the current Grand Druid has decreed it is for human males only. I have a solution, but, it would mean you would have to become male." He shook his head slightly, a tear glistening on his cheek. "I have a spell which is capable of the feat, but," he paused a moment as if reconsidering. "But, it would mean you have to willingly accept the spell and it will wipe away your memories of anything before the spell was cast. This is not a choice I would make for myself. It is your choice. I do not know if it is possible to reverse it once it is cast. Sleep on it tonight, we will talk again in the morning." Rising he turned and walked directly towards Sycamorea. "This is going to cause problems, I am almost certain of it. Why did I even think this was a good idea?" Suddenly he was gone.
Amalin's earlier words rang through her thoughts. "Hurry or you will be trapped and not be able to escape." She ran on entering the woods once more. Breaking out of the coppice, she stopped, her arms windmilling to maintain her balance as she found herself standing on a cliffface high above the Fae wildlands. Looking down she spied a pathway down the side of the cliff. She knew her only chance was to follow it. She had to be close to the end of this mental maze. At least she hoped she was. Carefully she made her way down. The Verge opened up to one of the roads. She had no idea where she was. The roads all looked the same, but if one knew where they had started from they could navigate without a problem. Enough lollygagging, choose a direction. She turned to her right and followed the worn road. She considered herself lucky to come across a town quickly. In the town green, stood a young dragon covered by alabaster scales with coral highlights speaking with a young pooka.
"You don't know what you are asking youngling. There are going to be problems. My magic isn't a permanent thing."
"I understand that. Would it last long enough to live a human lifetime?"
"It may but that would depend on you. Honestly, I don't know why you would want to.
"I have this curiosity that just won't leave me alone. I think it is something I need to do. I had a dream about being human, and my elders said I should explore its meaning."
"Very well, if you decide you have had enough you just need to remember these words 'return to what I once was, let mind and body be one'."
"Thank you very much. I am ready, when you are good sir."
The pooka placed his hands on the side of the dragon and she began to shrink. Her wings receding into her back the scales sliding to her head and became hair. Once the transformation was complete a very young girl lay naked on the ground. "Rosie, could you do me a favour, this young girl is in need of something to wear. And she cannot stay here. There is a village not far from the forest gate with a large field of grain. If you leave her there she is bound to be found. I have caused some mild amnesia so that she won't remember much. She will have the knowledge she needs to survive and return to her natural form when the time is right."
A tall elf came out of the house with a yellow shift in her hands. Carefully she dressed the young girl, lifting her up. With a nod to the pooka, she carried the child away down the road. Sycamorea decided her only chance to get out of this mental maze was to follow the elf. When she reached the gate it was beginning to close. Sprinting for all she was worth, she dove through the portal as it closed.