Chapter 9 - Transformed

Montal

My chest tightens. My biceps flex. I toss what’s left of the flaccid straps across the room. They crash into some of the vials with explosive force, leading me to believe that they were more substantial than they felt when bound across my limbs.
I
can’t remember experiencing such a mind-splitting scream. It’s launched with such a fury that I nearly spring off the table. Her shrieks smell of burnt envyranott and cured kettleleaf.
She wails until she has spent her breath. Then she refills her lungs and resumes her cry. When she’s exhausted her air again, she finally gathers her senses sufficiently to flee the tent altogether. As she exits, her motion stirs a wondrous cauldron of technicolor wind that swirls and dances in her wake.
A commotion ensues somewhere outside the enclosure. It’s only after several minutes of listening to the outer turmoil that it dawns on me: She was shrieking at me.
I don’t know when I first grew aware of my surroundings. There were too many sensations flooding my mind to properly steel my bearings. Vibrations pounding rhythmically through my heart. Fluorescent hues flitting through the damp atmosphere. Concoctions boiling in containers stationed around me – each of them singing their own wailful tune. And the suffocating perception of imprisonment.
The cage in which I was held was like none other. Skin-tight. All-encompassing. Pressing down upon me. Constricting my essence. It was the most insidious container one could ever devise. So it was all the more shocking when I finally understood that the container… was me.
My body. Or at least, something hideous that had taken its place. My arms and legs were restrained. But those restraints were as scant as a moth’s wings. My true cell was this carcass in which I’d been placed. No one could have been more shocked than me to learn that, when I strained against this evil sarcophagus, the sarcophagus moved with me. The sarcophagus is… me.
I’m not sure what they thought would come of my silly bindings. They offered no resistance. As I gasped for air and inflated my lungs, some flimsy leather strap spanning my midsection creaked – and then snapped. Similar token constraints popped and frayed as I flexed – first my arms, then my legs. Before I could come to grips with my own form, I was sitting up on the edge of the table, legs dangling over the side.
Some feral instinct drove me to crunch my abdomen, straining my midsection and hardening my chest. That’s when I first noticed the tubes. Dozens of them. Violating my form. Plunged deep beneath my spectral skin.
As my muscles compacted with some other-worldly force – a power that did not feel natural emanating from within me – those tubes were ejected from my body. They popped out in rapid succession, each of them crying a symphony as they sought the safety of the vials to which they were connected.
I don’t know where I am.
I don’t know who I am.
I don’t know what I am.
With the screamer gone, I indulge in a renewed assessment of my surroundings. The woman was painted. Tribal. Primitive.
The tent I’m in bears all the hallmarks of barbarism. Gruesome blades hewn from rock and bone. Tiny fires that fuel opaque cauldrons. Fanciful patterns on the wall. Geodesic shapes that feel… cold – even from a distance.
A small table supports an array of clear pans. Those pans are filled with ochre broths, in which float various bits of skin and… other tissue. Tissue that looks disturbingly similar to my own – or at least, to a body resembling what I used to be.
Jarin sits across the room from me. His left leg is a mishmash of sullied bandages. A gnarled and knotted cane rests beside him. His right hand is a doughy club of rags, bound tight with translucent twine. He sits upright – but he’s tethered to his chair. I get the feeling he’s been tethered to that chair for quite some time.
My attention is drawn to him because I see him laughing. I don’t mean that I see his head bobbing and his jaw wagging as he revels in some inner joke. I mean that I am literally watching the laughter as it spills from his mouth. It sparkles and billows forth. It’s a whimsical explosion that slowly fills the room.
What I mean to say: What exactly is so funny?
What I actually say: Ha-ha?
It’s difficult to sort the confusion of his laughter from the disarray that wells up from my own words. I most certainly did not mean to blurt out a simplistic ha-ha. But that’s exactly what escaped my mouth. My speech – the words I intended to say – are clogged in my throat. In my mind. They’re no more fluid than pitch.
What I mean to say: I mean it! What’s so goddamn funny?
What I actually say: Ha-ha?!
Goddamnit!
This jars him into silence. He stares at me with feral eyes. I can smell his thoughts. Spicy and acrid. They wash over me in repeated waves. His chuckle still gurgles in his gut. But his skin is riddled with the pulsing glow of wonder… and fear. He squints at me as though he can somehow unravel the mystery if only he can concentrate hard enough.
Jarin: You in there, buddy?
There’s something… unsettling about his query. It’s not in him to squeal like the lab assistant. But I’ve never witnessed that exact look on him. Specifically, I’ve never seen him look at me in such a way. I could imagine nothing more disconcerting than that look.
What I mean to say: Jarin… of course, it’s me.
What I actually say: Jarin… I Montal.
What. The. Fuck?!
Those words. Those idiotic words. A vicious frustration rages within me. A dense sorrow seamlessly churned with a growing impatience.
My heart races. Every muscle leaps against my skin. He reaches for his cane with a flustered hand. That tether still confines him to the chair. It doesn’t look like he’s got enough slack to even stand proper. But he doesn’t want to lean on the cane simply to rise. He wants to wield it. In self-defense.
My brain is hot with the rising embers of conflicting instincts. The terror on his face is… heartbreaking. It strikes me as no arrow ever could. It triggers an involuntary swell of tears, gathering in the corners of my eyes. But my “body” does not portray my dismay.
My chest tightens. My biceps flex. I toss what’s left of the flaccid straps across the room. They crash into some of the vials with explosive force, leading me to believe that they were more substantial than they felt when bound across my limbs.
Jarin: Buddy… It’s okay. It’s me. Remember me? Jarin? Your brother??
He squirms in his chair. He holds the cane aloft in his good hand. It sways slightly. But he also readies it as though it were the blade that he wishes it would become.
What I mean to say: I know you’re my brother. I’d never hurt you! You’re my brother for godsake!
What I actually say: Forget not. Hurt brother.
Aww… fuck, fuck, FUCK!
I rise and Jarin launches into an apoplectic fit. His arms flail. He swings that ridiculous cane at… nothing. At everything. At… me. He wants to stand. He wants to run. His panic assaults my skin like a pricker bush.
I’m naked. I feel damn silly. It’s not that I care much about Jarin eyeing my nether regions. After all those years in the klyster and the pleasure houses, we’ve both seen far more of each other than we ever would have wanted. But standing here, in the buff, just feels so… awkward.
I cross the room, less than a meter from Jarin’s outstretched “weapon”. He releases a bronze shriek before he realizes that I don’t have him in my sights. Our clothes are folded neatly in the far corner. I don’t see them so much as I feel them. I can’t properly explain just what sensation betrays them to me as comfortable, but it’s a primal sense. One that I’ve not previously experienced.
Anxiety wells within me as I sort through our garments. His longboots – my longboots. His jerkin – my jerkin. All of it is so… tiny. What I previously identified as my own attire is now laughably insufficient.
I swing my undershirt around, trying to slide it over my left arm. I can’t even manage to squeeze it past my forearm. And yet something about it seems so empty. It’s no use. My half-attempt is already straining the stitching.
Jarin babbles with unbridled dread.
Jarin: Buddy! It’s alright. Maybe you should, you know… sit back down?
I know he’s disoriented. Dismayed, even. But there’s something about his frantic flailing that provokes an involuntary spasm throughout every tendon in my body.
Another table, empty but identical to mine, stands on this side of the room. It’s formed of thick canopeia lumber. Impressively crafted and insanely sturdy. I presume it was Jarin’s home at one point.
With no conscious thought, I yank it skyward in a single hand. When I drive it down over my opposite knee, it shatters like glass and the commotion outside the tent heightens anew.
Jarin’s abandoned the futile cane-swinging routine. He just cowers in his chair. Terrified and whimpering. Seeing him like this – because of me – tears me apart from the inside.
The tent flaps pulsate as they explode inward. An old woman – the oldest woman I’ve ever seen – strides inward, buffeted by a handful of masked and blood-spattered attendants.
Those behind her are drenched in the stink of fear. But the woman – she inhabits no such cloud. She is warm. And hazy. But her smile sings like the southern dracon. I may not know how I came to be here. But I know this woman. She is the witch. She is Lorelei.
It would seem that knowing her charms would somehow disarm them. But the opposite is true. There’s something about her mere presence that is calming. The air around her glows of dulcet purples and royal blues. Her voice is somnolent.
Lorelei: Welcome to the Manderlands, Montal. You’ve been lost for some time. But against the best advice of the spirits, it seems that’ve we’ve nonetheless managed to find you. Somehow… we’ve brought you back.
With no direction from her, I’m suddenly desperate to get back to my table. I’m exhausted. I’m depressed. And a new emotion sweeps through me – unadulterated shame. Because all I can think is that I don’t want Jarin to see me crying.

Phonas cover
Date 2191 AoR
Location The Manderlands, a muddwood region in the southeastern corner of Phonas
Reading Time 8 minutes

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