Written by Amethyst Mare for Catprog
The sunshine is brilliant over the archery grounds, almost too bright to take in the sweeping, grassy hills, which are dotted with pockets of coniferous trees - welcome shade to weary walkers. Where you stand, however, the row of immaculate archery targets are painted in crisp, bright colours; a fair amount of care and attention is placed into their upkeep by the servants, of course. Being part of such a rich family, you are well acquainted with all things luxurious and that certainly has its perks, you admit to yourself as you nock one, long arrow to the bow. Everything was of the very, very best quality, without fail.
To an archer intent on improvement and masculine prowess, the light glinting about the edge of your eyes may be a hindrance, something that would throw off the aim of any devoted trainee, but your brother and you are not interested in becoming proficient with such deadly tools: deadly tools transformed into something for play and leisure. Who cared about killing? It was only a bit of fun, something to occupy yourselves with. You would never want for anything that you could not have, so why train and train until your bones ached and your muscles were abused beyond recognition? Therefore, the glorious day with the warm wind licking at your bare arms, like one of the stable cats, is far from a concern but something that elevates a giddy joy.
Yet, sometimes, a lack of proficiency can be just as deadly as years of experience.
Just as you release that single, quivering arrow, your brother clutches your wrist in a vice-like grip and light lances across your line of vision, blinding you for a terrible, crucial split second. Blind, you hear a muffled, pained grunt and feel the ground tremor beneath your feet as something all too solid drops heavily to it, completely unmoving. Unwilling to turn your mind to the truth, you wonder, through the dazzling, dancing glare, if your brother has dropped his quiver, although, in your heart, you know that this is not true, not true at all.
When your eyes recover from sun-blindness, you inhale sharply and collapse upon the soft, luscious grass, darkened in sickening patches by blood. Your brother gasps, blood bubbling up between his lips as if from a morbid fountain, staining them a morbid, bright crimson like the maw of a wild animal, jaws yawning for the kill. His eyes lock with yours for the last time before growing languid and still, his mind as unknowing as he is now forever unseeing. Gently, you take him in your arms, afraid of harming him further even in death, the knowledge of what has happened and what you have done slowly sinking into your shock-addled mind. There is no soul around that may account for this accident; to any outsider, you have murdered your own kin in cold blood. You have murdered him.
"Please," you cry out, tears streaming down your flushed cheeks. "Say something! Abel, this is not funny - get up! Please get up!"
You know that he will never walk again and he will never speak again, but this fact does not deter you from at least trying to raise him. All too quickly though, your voice must trail off and falls into a quiet murmur of nonsensical babble, so low that no human can catch the nuances of your speech. Though there was one non-human who is able to hear you.
Before your tear-filled gaze, a figure materialises out of the air itself, taking the shape of a finely muscled man. He has no clothing except for a line of shiny, gold armbands, which traverse the length of his forearms, and a thick, matching chain around his neck, set with a fierce ruby the size of a child's tightly clenched fist. His skin is a pure, serene blue, as if composed of pure turquoise - it has the dark touches and snowy veins of such - which convinces you that it is not a man who stands so coolly a few metres away to bear witness to your offence. He looks down upon you, his handsome face contorted into an overbearing sneer.
"Such a tragedy," the...thing says in a low, mocking tone, catlike, aquamarine eyes glimmering. "Your own brother...now what will happen to you, Cain? Will you run away like so many before you? Will you spend the rest of your life behind bars, chained for something so easily avoided? Oh, such a tragedy."
"Get away from here!" You scream, lunging for your forgotten bow and waving it wildly over your head, behaving in a way that suggests that you think you can frighten this creature away like a wild animal, though you are not thinking at all. "This is private property! You saw nothing here - get away!"
"Get away?" It responds calmly, staring blankly into the distance. "No, I don't think I will. Or, if I do 'get away', you're coming with me."
"Coming with - I'm not going with you!" You shout in a stronger tone, levelling your bow in warning with another arrow fitted to the trembling string. "Think I won't shoot you too? I've done it once, shouldn't be too hard to do it again... Get away from here, spirit. Did you come to take him? You can't have him! I just want my brother back! I want to be with him again! Get away, just get away!"
Your shaking fingers can contain the tightly strung bow for no longer and the arrow flies forth, striking into the centre of the man-like being, who smiles knowingly, showing no pain from the sharp tool protruding like a grotesque adornment in the centre of his chest. He extends his palm towards you and beckons with a crooked finger that you cannot acknowledge, as you are stumbling back in shock that he is still standing. Is he dead? Dying? A ghost? Have you killed again? Dizziness washes over you and the world spins sickening, a whirling circle of sky, grass, sun and painted targets blending into one another until your cheek presses against the bloodstained grass and your mind is enveloped in darkness.
When you come around, you sit up cautiously, surprised that your body does not hurt after your fall, and recollect your memories. You are in the midst of a deep forest, isolated within a small clearing, which is dotted with petite snowdrops, their heads hanging solemnly like mourners at a funeral procession. There is a stump a few feet away, covered with thick moss that appears like it has not been disturbed in decades, testament to the remote corner of the world that you must have been dragged too. Kidnapped? Yes...kidnapped, you must have been kidnapped - it was the only explanation. Rubbing the back of your hand across your eyes, you wrinkle your nose to ward off a sneeze and glance back. Your heart jumps in your ribcage as that man from the archery grounds now casually sits upon the gnarled wood, pointed chin contemplatively resting in the curve of his paler palm. If he could be said to be sitting that is; his lower half has all but disappeared and a curl of periwinkle smoke takes the place of the legs you had so clearly seen previously.
"You are most fortunate," the torso of the man says, looking you from head to toe with the appreciation of a seasoned better appraising a horse at the race track.
"Fortunate?" You answer bitterly, struggling to your feet. "What the hell have you done to me? Where are we??"
"It's not what I've done to you but what I am going to do to you," he smirks. "Please enjoy your new form and, subsequently, your new life."
"Now look here, you have no idea what -"
Your words are cut off abruptly when a pained gargle swallows your breath. You bring your hands swiftly to your throat, widening your eyes in terror as the skin bulges and twists grotesquely. Staggering backwards, you spin in a circle - somewhere, anywhere, there must be an escape! - but the ring of trees seem to close in like hunters around a kill, a fierce throbbing behind your eyes forcing you to drop to the ground, writhing and releasing a high pitched, keening cry. The sound terrifies you - it was not human!
You are not human.
With your skull cracking and bones realigning, you look down at your 'hands' through a haze of pain, watching them sprout a short coat of brown hair, the nails becoming hard and encasing the very tip of every finger and both thumbs like a miniature, monstrous hoof. Against your will, your body swells to meet the needs of an unfamiliar shape, clothes splitting at the seams and falling in useless shreds alongside your ruined pair of shoes, burst open with the growth of your...hooves. Bar the rapidly spreading growth of hair, you are completely nude, shamefully naked. There is something wrong with your neck and it lengthens and arches; you fear, until the shape settles with a sigh of firming bones, that this is the creature's chosen method of doing away with you - snapping your neck like a twig.
The final changes come in a swift series of sharp jabs, like a bright light flashing behind closed eyes. Your face shoots out obscenely, the cracking of bones like branches snapping under a storm's footsteps, and your legs settle with a subtle rearranging of muscles into a 'double-jointed' position, devilishly difficult to rationalise into motion. Upon the back of your head, a pair of curved ears twitch and you snort heavily, flaring your large nostrils in a mixture of breathy disbelief and all too human shock. As if to add insult to injury, a black tail shoots from the base of your spine, swishing back and forth as if it had always been there, and, most unnervingly, your chest raises two mounds of flesh that are surely nothing a male ought to carry.
Grasping these fleshy mounds with your now paw-like hands, you shake your head vigorously - this isn't happening! How could it be? You're not female - you're a... Afraid to know the truth, you look little by little down your rounded contours, soft as a male should not be, seeing nothing about your crotch that can define you as the man you once were. You leap into the air and shriek, stomping a hoof down into the grass with enough force to send a small tremor up to the old tree stump. No! It was all wrong, all wrong! Him...that creature. He sits there staring at you so calmly, as if he not only understood everything that was going on but was the one who orchestrated it, playing you more easily than a musician draws music from a flute.
"What are you, some evil spirit?" You snarl furiously, covering your chest and crotch with your brown, hairy arms; to your humiliation and relief, your flowing tail provides some cover for your more prominent derriere.
"Not quite: I am a genie," the man answered, pausing to observe the bipedal horse with a lewd smirk. "And you make a very fine anthropomorphic mare. I do believe you are a bright bay, in equine terms. Now you are fit to become a part of my private collection."
Private collection? You have heard this term before and, although you cannot specifically tell what sort of a collection you might be a part of, you understand that it means that you have become a possession of sorts. And how can you stop the 'genie' from his wicked, cruel deeds? You have no power over such a creature of evil.
"Let me go!" You shriek, pinning your ears back with a grimace from how the higher pitch hurts the sensitive eardrums. "You have no right to do this and you have no idea what you're doing. Change me back immediately and I'll forget all about this. You won't have any trouble from me, just let me go."
"Let you go? Oh, what fun is that?" The genie murmurs in delight, gesturing at something out of your field of vision. "But don't you want to see your brother again? You do want to see your brother, don't you?"
You almost do not recognise the weary, transparent figure that steps out from the tree line, its tread dragging at the grass but not disturbing the drops of dew. Though how can you not recognise him, your own brother? You, better than any other, knew the lines of his face, the edge of his features. But, to your eyes, he appears to have aged a thousand years and is undoubtedly a ghost from his grey, 'barely there' appearance. Why, he is so frail that you worry that a gust of wind or a tear from your overfilling eyes might sweep him away at any moment.
"My brother..." You whisper, reaching out to him imploringly. "I did not mean..."
You hesitate when the ghost holds up a hand, his eyes dark and accusing; he will hear no such apology from your lips. Perhaps he does not believe it necessary? You would very much like to believe this, but the unveiled hatred in your brother's face forces you take an unsure step back in shock, your resolve wavering: the genie smiles.
"Well then, your wish is fulfilled," the genie cackles, sweeping the ghost away with a grandiose flourish. "You have seen your brother again! Oh, Cain, are you not happy? Was that not your wish?"
"Please," you beg, forgetting your nudity and throwing yourself prostrate at the genie's 'feet'. "Let him live! It was my fault! Please - just let him live again! I'll do anything you want, just let my brother live."
Laying prone with your nose pressed into the sweetly scented grass, you squeeze your eyelids tightly shut, hoping and praying that he will listen to you, see reason in your request. It was not your fault and if you can assist your brother back to the world of the living, give him a second chance...it will be the best you can do in unspoken apology.
"I could consider it..." The genie says after a long pause, raking his gaze over his softly curved fingernails, which are a fainter shade of turquoise than his skin. "I could consider it...if you can take care of a little annoyance within the confines of my collection. A dragon has broken into my enclosure and now inhabits a cave in the mountainside, depriving one of my prized possessions of a safe place to rest and frightening the lesser creatures, which prefer darkness to sunlight."
He looks stern when you chance a glance up, wondering what on earth you can possibly do about this dragon. Though the mention of some creature breaking into the genie's collection perks your interest; maybe you can later find some way to escape, if there is a way in to the zoo place...the genie's collection of what you now suppose are animals, or mutations. You snap your attention back to the genie when he continues, cheeks flushing at how your thoughts had so easily drifted from your brother to self-serving attempts at escape.
"If you can defeat this dragon and bring me his tooth as evidence - though I would be able to discover the truth of the matter even if you did dare to lie - I will make your brother live again, in your world, as he was before."
"Exactly as he was before?" You gasp, hope flaring in your chest. "In good health, happy, in the family he was - everything, everything, the same?"
"Everything will be as it was, the same," the genie nods in agreement. "Kill the dragon, bring me its tooth and your brother will drink of life once more. Do you accept my terms?"
"I accept!" You scramble joyfully to your hooves, abruptly becoming aware again of your rude nakedness and flicking your tail in equine annoyance. "But...may I have some clothes? This task will be quicker to complete if you give me some clothes, as I won't be worrying about it and crafting rough coverings for myself. You do want this dragon gone quickly, don't you?"
The genie waves his hand, his brow furrowing at your nerve but makes no comment, and dresses you with a large, white loincloth and chest bandeau that adequately cover your assets, but leave you feeling more feminine than masculine in what is left exposed. Hoping to appease the genie, despite the fury hissing in your stomach, you bow your muzzle respectfully.
"Very well," the genie dismisses you, vanishing with a whisper of parting breath. "Do your brother proud, Cain."
Running your 'paw' along the back of your neck to feel the mane of hair cresting the ridge, you tug self-consciously at the white cloth covering your chest, ensuring that it will not slip out of place. Where to now? You must find this dragon...but where is it? It could be anywhere!
You walk awkwardly from the clearing, as unsteady as a newborn foal, struggling to fall into an even pace with the new joint in your legs. And those hooves! As big as those belonging to a normal Clydesdale or Shire, they simply do not move in the direction you desire, slipping and sliding on what you realise is damp and undoubtedly treacherous grass. Within the first hundred yards, you crash heavily on to your side, whinnying (to your dismay) impolite curses with every fresh bruise. What is the point in politeness and manners when you are not human and there is no soul to hear you?
After some time of walking blindly through the trees, you notice that the vegetation is beginning to thin out, allowing you to see more daylight between the weathered, flaking trunks and place your unshod hooves with greater care. Soon, the grass gives way to a pebbled, sandy wasteland where scraps of life tuck themselves away in crooks and crevices of the mountainside. You swallow uneasily, wondering if you are now low enough down the food chain to be one of those hidden lives, quivering fearfully in the shadows.
No, you tell yourself firmly, strengthening your stride with renewed determination. I have nothing to fear here - I know who I am, no matter what my appearance may be right now. If the genie did not think I could defeat the dragon, why would he have set me the task? It would only waste his time.
The ground inclines upwards and you follow the rise, staying alert for any movement between the rocks, though none catches your wary eyes. Small rocks are knocked aside by your progress and you toss your head, squinting through the dust you raise, despite your due caution. A muffled groan and shuffling sound halts you in your tracks, eyes stretching wide in fear so that you are sure the whites are showing like that of the horses you used to keep in your stables. What is it? It is coming from a cluster of oddly-shaped rocks ahead, each taller than you are and casting ominous shadows in which all manner of deadly creatures may lurk, stalking you, eyes gleaming...
No, don't think that way. Better to be careful and discover the source of the sound, otherwise you will have no leads, nothing to go on, no idea whether the sound belonged to man or animal, friend or foe. Inch by agonising inch, you creep, hunched over, around the nearest boulder, paws shaking in terror - what if the dragon is just around the corner and you are walking meekly into its greedy jaws? Well, at least you will then know where the beast is and it will not see you, if you are very careful about your approach. But what if it is something else? Something that will end your suffering more quickly than you have the desire for it to be ended?
To your relief, as you round the dark corner, it is not the dragon at all, but another very peculiar beast. Upon your travels within the arms of your wealthy family, you had once had cause to visit Egypt, where you had seen the towering pyramids and, more relevantly, the stone sphinxes, grave in expression. The creature lying upon its belly was a sphinx in breathing guise, lashing its leonine tail despondently even as the beautifully feminine face contorted into a frown. You edge forward a little more, fascinated, but skid over a pile of loose, treacherous stones, which skitter forward noisily to announce your presence. Barely looking up, the sphinx shrugs her narrow shoulders and sinks closer to the ground, a bright patch of hide against forlorn surroundings.
"Are you trying to escape?" The sphinx asks gloomily, resettling her wings against her tawny back, feathers ruffling up in...discomfort, you guess.
"Um...no? No, I'm not trying to escape. Not yet, at least," you reply, not relaxing your stiff, suspicious stance. "Who are you?"
"My name here is 'Sadhana', some exotic fancy the genie took a liking to," the sphinx says with a disdainful look, as if she is resisting the urge to spit upon the ground. "I'll have you know that I wouldn't be here right now except that I've been rudely ejected from my so-called home here."
Comprehension dawns upon you; this sphinx is one of the creatures the dragon evicted in order to make room for its own sorry bulk! You fight to rein in your triumph and shift your weight anxiously on the spot, gathering your wits and voice into a calmer manner.
"So you know where the dragon is?" You whinny, an edge of excitement in the strange sound. "Can you show me?"
"I most certainly cannot show you!" Sadhana hisses, her fur fluffing up in distaste. "What reason could I have to go back into the presence of that vile serpent? For that matter, why would you want to find the dragon? It will eat you in two bites. To that thing, you are no more than an afternoon snack."
"It's a long story," you sigh deeply. "To make it short...I'm doing this for my brother. There was an...accident. He's dead. If I defeat the dragon, the genie will restore my brother to his former life, as he was, happy... Wait, were you human once too?"
The sphinx does not reply immediately, but shuffles her wings fixedly, her eyes following a hawk soaring high up on the thermals, claws flexing and cutting furrows into the soil. Lashing her tail, she skilfully does not acknowledge your question, but continues on a vein of her own choosing.
"He chased me," she says very quietly, her high cheekbones shadowing with sorrow. "He chased me out. He didn't care that it was my cave - mine! Don't you see?"
Unsure of what you may say to placate or comfort, you remain silent, adjusting your scant clothing with a self-conscious air, unexpectedly feeling more exposed amongst the scattered rocks than when you were clad in nothing at all. The sphinx turns her head this way and that, her expression rapidly changing from anger to sadness to helplessness and reverting to anger once again. Your muscles stiffen as this predator seems to lose sight of herself and your mind whirls with a feral instinct, which begs you to flee.
"I'll help you," she growls abruptly, springing to her paws with the suppleness of a lion. "You'll get me back in my cave, won't you? Your needs will serve mine... But I can't take you to the dragon like this. You need a weapon."
"And...you know where to find a weapon...capable of downing a dragon?" You answer hesitantly, unwilling to relax as your tail twitches, swatting anxiously at invisible flies.
"Yes," she murmurs simply, eyes downcast. "Yes, I do know where there is a weapon, though whether or not it is sufficient against the dragon... Well, that matter is in your hands entirely. Come with me now. Follow. What is your name?"
"Cain," you blurt out quickly, clattering after the sphinx, padding away on her large, rough paw pads, scarcely disturbing the scattered stones of the mountainside in her passing. She inclines her head gracefully in acceptance of this information and makes an impatient gesture with her furled wing tip, curling it forward twice in a mocking substitute for the hand she must have once had, if the genie was consistent with his efforts in obtaining creatures in the past...though you cannot be sure, of course. Who had Sadhana been?
"Keep up," Sadhana sighs in exasperation, bounding ahead.
What's her problem? You wonder silently, scrambling after her with your hooves clattering with far less grace across the stones. Sadhana has an air of knowing about her, yet something forlorn lurks in the curl of her wing-feathers, the way in which they are prone to slightly droop, rather than be lifted up proudly. Shaking your head in confusion - you don't have time to speculate, you trot forward awkwardly, coming up to her tawny side.
"How far is it?" You ask breathlessly, tiring from even your short sprint; you are unused to your ungainly hooves.
"All too close," the sphinx mutters, lashing her tail and springing over the rise. "Half an hour or so, not that we can measure the time with watches or anything. Do you have a watch?"
"Uh, no, I don't," you mumble, as if ashamed. "I did, but - "
"Figures," Sadhana cuts across without waiting for you to finish. "That's his trick. Doesn't allow you anything from your old life so you'll slowly forget it. Or at least that's what he believes. Cruel bastard. Can't even tell the time now. Without that, surely all we are is dumb animals? Slowly becoming less and less..."
Falling silent, you follow her over the rise, glancing back at the barren landscape, the valley sliced into a U-shape as if, many years ago, a glacier had carved a path through, leaving little mounds of moraine during its destructive retreat. With suspicions in mind, you stride beind the sphinx, stilling suddenly at the sight of a clear lake, cut into the side of the mountain like a giant's bowl. A sheer cliff rises ominously behind the lake, casting a dark shadow over the water, which you suspect is freezing. Even in the low light, the surface seems to dance and sparkle, regardless that there is not a single hint of a breeze to stir it into life. Though the air is pleasantly warm against your short hair coat, you shiver and hug your arms around your frame; Sadhana huffs impatiently and swats her tail at you, waking you from your dreamy reverie.
"See the lake?" She says, dropping to her haunches with a soft sigh of feathers.
"It's pretty hard to miss," you answer shortly - the question does not really merit an answer in your current condition.
"Don't be like that," she snorts. "I thought you wanted help? The bow's at the bottom of the lake."
"At the bottom of the lake," you repeat incredulously, advancing towards the dark waters. "And how, pray tell, am I to reach this wonderful bow?"
Smirking, Sadhana looks you up and down, appraising you for the task ahead.
"You swim of course."
"Divine," you mutter, pacing warily to the edge of the shallows and staring down into the darker water, where the light did not reach. "How did this bow get here, anyway? It's not like it was lying around for someone to find since forever, right?"
Stretching laboriously, the sphinx settles herself down on top of the curiously warm pebbles - there is no sun for them to borrow heat - her head dropping to her paws as she makes herself comfortable.
"One of that arsehole's past prizes managed to bring it with him," she says dispassionately, swishing her tail in lion-like discontent. "He tried to hide it, but the genie knew, of course he knew. I can only assume that he was lured into challenging the genie and was swiftly dispatching. At any rate...since he vanished, the bow has been drifting around the bottom of the lake. It has some shiny jewel adorning it, which is how I know: when I fly over, I can see it glinting through the water."
Deciding not to question the sphinx further - you have to get on with the task - you warily wade into the water, which is as pleasantly warm as bathwater. You swallow your nerves and dip your hands below the surface as the water creeps up your thighs, then above your waist, not becoming any cooler in the deeper reaches. Thankfully, there are very few stones littering the bottom of the lake, at least where you are walking, so your hooves are able to gain a better grip in the thick layer of silt and sand, sinking slightly under your weight.
Emboldened, you strike out into deeper water, working your limbs into an ungainly breaststroke, struggling to look down while swimming forward. Your arms and legs just don't seem to work together anymore and your progress is slow and tedious with long, labouring strokes of your gangly limbs. You gulp as the lake floor slopes down sharply, disappearing into a muddy tangle of weeds and scattered rocks, the bottom seeming near a league away, although you know it cannot be so.
There! Something sparkles far below you, nestling in what seems to be the crook of two sturdy rocks, sunken into the sandy bed of the lake...what else could it be but the searched for bow? You call back to Sadhana for confirmation and she bobs her head once in acknowledgement, yawning widely like a lioness.
"Yes, it was about there I saw it last," she shouts carelessly, studying a shiny pebble with undue concentration. "You should dive now."
Taking your last, deep breath of fresh air for a while, you sink swiftly below the surface, trembling as the warm water closes over your skull, mane and tail drifting gently underwater. You fight your natural buoyancy until you manage to point your muzzle down, using your arm muscles more than your legs to work out a rhythm, which, although unsightly, propels you at a greater pace down to the grainy bottom of the lake. Thick, kelp-like plants wave jovially as you swim past and catch at your legs with a lingering caress, though the slimy feel makes your skin crawl unjustly.
The bow is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship that is easy to decipher even with mud coating its back, the wood indistinguishable beneath the layer of filth. It is encrusted with elaborate gemstones - rubies, emeralds, sapphires and a myriad of miniscule, flawless diamonds - with only the middle band of the bow free of adornment so that it may be used for its intended purpose. So beautiful...yet you cannot reach out to grasp it.
There is a sudden constriction around your throat, an unrelenting, choking hold. Startled, you reflexively battle to draw breath, inhaling in a lungful of bitter, black water. It doesn't seem so warm and pleasant anymore - not with this fierce burning in your chest and the instinctive need to cough out water that just cannot be ignored. Bubbles escape from your lips and nostrils, streaming upwards to burst upon the surface far, far above, deserting you in the murk. Bringing your hands up to your neck, you writhe and claw at a disembodied foe, the lack of air leaving you with the sensation that something cloying is seeping into your mind, though the thought is swept away as quickly as you register it.
And then, without warning or any weakening of power, the choke hold disappears, as if it was never there to begin with. Your lungs are near bursting now, desperate for a breath of cool, fresh air, a white-hot pain burning lancing through your torso as you need to breathe, get this water out of your lungs and out of the gods cursed lake! Spots of colour cloud your vision as you blearily reach out for the bow, finally securing it into your hands and into safety.
Sluggish and reeling in an air deprived daze, you draw the bow in close to your chest and kick out for the surface, your throat smarting from the unseen pressure, imagining that there are a series of imprints upon your neck, where the invisible assailant reaches out again. Though the light filters more clearly through the water now, your thoughts remain down in the dreary channels, as if pond weed is wrapped around your legs, dragging you down into the sordid depths, unwilling to release you from its slimy hold...
"This is impossible," you mutter miserably, shivering with cold. "I don't even have arrows...how am I to do this? It's impossible."
The trek to the dragon's cave had been uneventful, but a black mood hangs over you like a storm cloud, refusing to spill its heavy shower and be done with the angst. You peer over a built up ridge of jagged-edged rocks, which appeared to have been dumped there deliberately as a defensive embankment of sorts. If you had been home, in your own world, you would have certainly classed it as man-made and the intelligence you perceive this creature to have chills you to the bone. The cave, which you have heard so much about, yawns ahead, the blackness impenetrable by either your eyes or the sphinx's; Sadhana shakes her head to quiet your despairing whine, crouching low to the ground, every muscle in her body drawn taut with tension.
A long, drawn out hiss emanates warningly from the cave's mouth and you quail, nose pressed into the dirt as you cower plaintively, wishing you could be anywhere but here. Your whole body shakes as the beast stalks from the cave, its massive head swinging back and for, the monster searching for something. Its scales are a traditional, ruby red, but smeared with filth and dust, which greatly depletes from the handsome beauty that it would have otherwise held. Your eyes, however, go to the line of snow-white spikes running down its spine, from head to tail tip, and the gleaming daggers, of a like colour, lining its hungry muzzle, parting in a low, rumbling growl.
While the sphinx and you watch fearfully, striving to keep yourself away from the dragons sickly, yellow gaze, it pauses to nose a cluster of rocks with plain pleasure, crooning with a mother's care to them. It roars ferociously, the fierce waves of sound bouncing off the rock face and reverberating back; Sadhana and you duck your heads, covering your ears to block out the terror the best you can, lest you lose your nerve at the crunch. Closing its jaws with a sudden, decisive snap, the beast looks about itself with bewilderment, its tail tip flicking anxiously as it lowers its pointed muzzle to the rocks again.
"Who has taken my cup?" It snarls more softly, separating the rocks with a curved talon and grouping them together repeatedly, counting them over and over again in a compulsive, furtive way. "I must have my treasure and some thief has stolen into my lair to take it from me! I will have my cup!"
You go to ask a question of Sadhana but, alas, your hoof knocks aside a large, uneven rock, sending it clattering noisily away. The dragon's head jerks up sharply and the beast hisses, curling around the pile of rocks and scooping more closer with its white talons, wings spread protectively.
"Stay away from my hoard!" It growls, slapping its tail against the ground threateningly. "You can have none of it! It is mine! Stay away!"
"Go!" Sadhana snaps, pushing you forward over the stones. "Quick! While it's distracted! Now!"
Stumbling forward, half blinded by dust and fear, you raise the bow like you would lift an axe, forgetting your years of archery training in an instance. Why did you not find an arrow or something to replace the missing implement before rushing into the fray? The dragon seems to smirk, if a dragon can smirk, seeing you as no real threat - something it can quash for sport and not out of necessity - and whips about suddenly, swinging its tail at your midriff. Too late, you flounder and kick off into the air, legs reaching to clear the limb, but it is no use at all as the tail collides hard with your thin legs and sends you sprawling, your bow flying out of your hand.
All your breath rushes from your lungs and you are no better than a sack of lead weights at the rate at which you are able to scramble upright again, swaying like a drunkard. The dragon snarls threateningly, hunkering low to the ground, perhaps thinking that it has warned you off now...or is it toying with you, like a cat toys with a mouse before crunching its bones into its next meal? More warily now, you set your hooves apart for balance, watching the dragon's tail anxiously as it thrashes reflexively - a nervous twitch - long spikes smashing into the rocks. You crouch low, looking for an opportunity to advance, and then see it: one of the dragon's spikes has been sheared off, though the beast does not seem to have noticed in its fury.
So, you're not invincible, are you? You think viciously.
Renewed by this revelation - its armour is not impenetrable! - you yell out a hoarse battle cry, charging forward like a colt in the field. Despite not having your only weapon in your hands, you bound valiantly for the dragon's head, clinging on to its straight horns and battering the more sensitive snout with your bare fists. Hissing, the dragon backs away, shaking a shower of blood droplets off its scales where your hard nails have cut through; you are stronger than previously believed and an exhilarating rush sears through your body like wildfire, fuelling your determination to greater heights. You remember now why you are doing this! You are doing this for your brother. And you will do this for your brother.
The dragon snaps at you, forcing you to retreat a few steps, giving up precious ground, and drives its bulk forward like a battering ram. It's a tangled mess of limbs, teeth and claws, all twisting together with one, determined aim: to tear you to shreds. Bravely, you advance on the monster, diving, without care for your safety, at the dragon's chest. You claw frantically at the tough hide, searching for a weakness, a gap between the scales - anything! Anything that might gain you an advantage. As if amused by your efforts now, the dragon snorts derisively, darting a thin tongue of fire out to lick at the rocks, so close that that heat scorches your tail. Your tussle with the beast is short-lived, however, and the dragon slams a clawed foot into your stomach, knocking you on to your rump as easily as it would swat a dragonet that had stepped out of line.
Pinned upon your back, you squirm and shout helplessly as the dragon's muzzle looms above you, jaws parting so close that you can count every razor blade contained within. No, you think, it can't end now! You've come so far, only to fall prey to this thing, no more than a reptile, an animal! But you are an animal too... Your thoughts spin and weave into one another, the threads unravelling too rapidly for you to hang on to a single vein in the turmoil, all the while with that beast snarling like a demon. That monstrous head lowers slowly, taking pleasure in your distress, until it jerks to the side at the last moment; something feathered that screams like a wildcat comes out of nowhere, harrying it so terribly that its attention diverts for those few crucial seconds.
Wriggling free, you scrape a deep breath into your bruised lungs, snatching up the bow, which has tumbled within arm's reach, and skidding towards the only other thing that may be used as a weapon - the dragon's broken spike. It is long and smooth, narrow and sharpened to a deadly point...just like an arrow.
"Cain! Do it now!" Sadhana screeches, beating her wings wildly as she veers away. "Now!"
You know what she means, how can you not know? You would have to be a fool to not realise. Drawing on the years of practice, you steady yourself, bring the bow up with a practiced ease and nock the spike to the string, still taut after all its time underwater. The dragon's head arcs after Sadhana as she makes her escape, giving you a clear shot. You level the bow at the creatures head and fire.
Flying true, the makeshift arrow sinks deeply into the dragon's eye socket, coming up short against the interior of the dragon's skull; the animal howls in pain and drops like a stone, writhing like a snake. The dragon strikes out blindly, demolishing boulders and scattering smaller rocks until it loses it's balance, only scrambling upright again with great force and many laboured breaths, it's flanks heaving like bellows.
Too agonised to know what it is doing, the dragon shakes its head, trying to dislodge the arrow, and smashes its head into a piece of rock that juts out from the cave mouth - luckily so, for it's suffering was ended all the more quickly. It crumples pitifully into a heap of scales and spines, jaws parted for its last breath to escape its lungs, and falls still.
Shocked at the victory and yet full of glee, you prance up to the dragon's head, grabbing a loose lump of rock, which you raise and shatter against the side of the dragon's ghastly, gaping muzzle. Up close, you can appreciate the fine nature of its circular, glittering scales and, if you had the essential tools, the hide of the beast would have made a fantastic, near impenetrable suit of armour, certainly immune to the claws of wild animals. Shaking yourself back to reality, you swing the rock at the dragon's jaw a second time, this time succeeding in dislodging your prize: the monster's tooth. You pick it up and turn it over in your delicate, feminine hands, shuddering at the sight of them - yours but not yours - more than the jagged, lethal weapon in your grasp.
"Look!" You cry out, holding the long tooth aloft. "Look, you bastard - I've got it! I've done what you wanted! Now show your face, coward, and keep your side of the deal!"
"So you have," a calm, almost impressed voice, comes from behind you.
Wheeling around, you rake your gaze over the genie, taking in his confident smirk and intimidating stance, only...he has ceased to intimidate you. You have done more than he has; you have slain the dragon. Is he really a threat to you, or is his own skill in the area of disappearing acts and stealing men away?
"It's blocking the entrance," Sadhana interjects, her expression sullen as she glares at the genie. "You'll have to move it."
"All in due time, animal - I have other matters to attend to," the genie answers coolly, paying her little attention. His narrow, greedy eyes roves over the slick, dragon's hide, though a flicker of disappointment crosses his features.
"There was supposed to be a hoard," he says suspiciously, folding his arms across his broad chest and frowning down at you.
Stunned into silence, you glance about, thinking that maybe you had really seen the dragon stomping around his 'hoard' angrily earlier, that the rocks he had been cradling had not truly been rocks, but nuggets of gold and faceted diamonds. No! It is a trick! Muscles tensing, the strain of the day comes to a head; you round on the genie furiously and bring your fist back as if to physically harm him - cause him the pain that you had felt, what you have gone through!
"Do it," you hiss, maintaining your threatening stance. "You said you would bring my brother back! Nothing was ever said about treasure and there was none anyway. I want my brother - as he was - bring him back! Stop delaying!"
The genie's look darkens thunderously, but you meet his gaze resolutely, staring him down until he sighs and makes a dismissive, 'what else can I do?' gesture. With that gesture, an unformed something steadily takes shape out of the matter around it, drawing on nature's colour and becoming increasingly recognisable until, at last, your brother stands alive, gazing down at his hands in wonder. Stumbling forward, you open your arms to him, mouthing the word 'brother' over and over.
You get within an arm's length of him before he snaps his head up, but you keep coming forward, misinterpreting his poisonous look as confusion and fear. He reels back in horror as you approach, slamming his hands forcibly into your chest to prevent you from moving any closer, keeping you, quite literally, at arm's length.
"Don't touch me," your brother hisses, thrusting you away and off-balance with his masculine palms. "Monster."
"Monster?" You gasp, steadying yourself once more. "But, my brother, you are mistaken! It is me! I'm so sorry for what I did...but I've made it better now - see? You are alive again! That is all that matters, surely?"
"All that matters? It matters for nothing! I would rather have taken my revenge in my own way, rather than have you 'bring me back' to face the questions and mourning at home. If you had not have squirmed free, like the worm that you are, I would have drowned you in that lake! The dragon would have had your rotting carcass! And I would have my revenge!"
You flinch as if struck across the face and drop to your knees, shaking your head desperately, so furiously that your neck aches from the pressure. How can you believe such a thing? Surely it is mere words spoken in anger and nowhere near the truth? And if not...
"You... You were the one that tried to drown me?" You stammer out at last, hands shaking terribly. "But why? I was putting the wrong to rights! Why would you drown me?"
"For your crime against me," he answers you in an icy tone; the genie observes this exchange with a gleeful glimmer sparkling at the corners of his eyes.
You look about in bewilderment, eyes casting over rocks and distant foliage, hoping against hope that you might see something or gain inspiration from which you may appease his ill wishes against you.
"Please tell me..." You plead, crawling closer as your brother backs away. "Abel, don't leave me like this... Brother, tell me what I may do to redeem myself in your eyes. Name it and it should be done!"
"There is only one thing, which you may do in redemption, Cain," your brother says loftily, looming above. On your knees and with fat tears rolling down your cheeks, you look pleadingly to him, clasping your hands at your chest.
"Anything, my brother, anything!"
He strokes his chin thoughtfully, fingers grazing the hint of stubble that he was prone to in his old life, or your home world, something you remember all too well. What is he thinking? What is he concealing from you? The thoughts beg you to rise, shake the truth out of him, but you hold your position with passionate determination, knowing that you will abide by whatever decision he makes for his sake and yours. He will be fair to you: you believe in him more than any other.
"You think you will be returning home with me...right?" He remarks casually, a small, cruel smile tugging at his thin lips. You nod your head fervently - this was indeed what you had expected, although now nagging doubt creeps into your mind.
"Ah, so that is what you expected..." He flashes a brilliant, white smile at you, so charming that your guard is instantly raised. "You expected to come home with me... Well, I deign to take a cold blooded murderer into my company. You deserve every injustice you get here."
Your lips part without sound and shock pins your equine ears flat to your skull. Deserting you! He is leaving you behind like carrion! Have you not completed the tasks you set out to do? Have you not redeemed yourself in his eyes? Can animals even redeem themselves? Maybe that was the problem... You tremble, snorting softly through your teardrop nostrils. More animal than human, you are acting like a beast of burden, taking on his burdens so that you do not cause him more pain... You are an animal and your brother is treating you as such.
Smoothing his rumpled clothes down with practised care, your brother indifferently looks away from you, towards his being of his resurrection - the wickedly smiling genie.
"Are we done here? May I be returned to my home now?" He asks of the ethereal being, showing him far more respect than he has shown to you at any time.
Accommodatingly, the genie gives your brother a deep, respectful bow, straightening up to stand tall and proud. Stretching his palms out towards your brother, his blue skin crackles with electrical energy, green sparks sizzling as if exposed to a great heat. An emerald smoke surrounds him, steaming from the genie's palms and your brother smiles a final time, not giving you the dignity of an audible farewell. And then, with a flash of light that strikes you as unnecessary and an act of showmanship on the genie's part, he is gone, the smoke dissipating quickly on the light breeze.
Sinking lower to the ground like a scorned dog, you curl your fingers into fists, hard fingertips cutting into your palms and bruising dark circles beneath the fur. He is gone without you, your own brother... What are you to do now? You are stuck here...stuck in the genie's private collection... You are just a freak of nature, a horse on two legs... What good could you have done if you had gone home anyway? As if being privy to your turmoil of thoughts, the genie mockingly pats you on the head, making you wrench your head away in disgust.
"I am glad that your brother has rejected your company," he laughs, the sound echoing eerily off the rocks. "I have plenty of tasks for you to complete here, now that I have seen your skill! Why, I might not have allowed you to leave, even if he had been more forgiving to a murderer. You are much better put to use here."
"No!" You scream, throwing yourself at the genie, pummelling at him with your fists, your hooves, your teeth - every weapon in your armoury is brought into play and yet not a single thing seems to harm him. He chuckles and pushes you back on to the hard ground, raising a small cloud of dust as you land firmly, all air rushing from your lungs upon impact.
"Enjoy your time here, murderer," the genie taunts as he withdraws and vanishes. "I will return for you when I have another task... Do stay out of trouble, won't you?"
Lost and forgotten, you stumble through the foliage blindly, cursing and swearing loudly to no one in particular - there is no human near to hear you. The trees rise up mockingly, fingers swiping at your body and scoring thin lines of red through your fur, adding to your war wounds from the battle against the dragon. Your muzzle is streaked with tears and every inch of your body aches with fatigue, making you stumble more than once. This is your home now, home until you escape, yes, escape, you think blearily. Exhaustion is overcoming you slowly and you sink to your knees and then your side, flattening a hollow out of the long grass for your body to nestle in. It does not take much longer for your eyes to flutter closed and your breathing to ease into a laborious rhythm, sleep the only remedy for your body's ills.
Your dreams are rapt with snarling devils with gleaming fangs, ghosts smiling then showing you a cold back... Shifting restlessly, you cannot find peace in sleep, but your body is ruthless in its holding of unconsciousness, demanding the time to heal. Drifting in and out of the knowing world, thoughts and dreams lose their differences; your lost mind wanders to your brother, his actions and his mind. In your heart, you know you have done the right thing in releasing your brother from the arms of death; the blood price has been paid. What need does your soul have for punishment?
The task of redemption now falls to him and, as you nuzzle mindlessly into the sweetly scented grass, you know that your soul is clear of his black marks.
Genie's are rarely kind creatures, but one man falls ill of one particularly cruel being who has special plans in mind... Adventure and a quest abounds!
Commissioned by Catprog
Story (c) Amethyst Mare