[Dark][SI][Multiple] The end of pain

‘Oh great, another self insertion’ I hear you grumbling
Yeah, I know, I’m falling into the trap that many a writer has done.
This is different (kind of) from the norm for the genre though. Instead of the inserted character knowing everything and being all-powerful, I am actually going to be basing my character off of my RL self.

The story starts out very bland...and very very dark. The first chapter is where things start in the actual storyline, so skipping the prologue won't mess you up.

All of the characters portrayed here are copyright their respective owners. Liath, however, is mine.

The End of Pain
By Shadow Dancer


Prologue:
I never really loved myself. Truth be told, I honestly hated myself at times. Couldn't stand looking in the mirror, couldn't stand being in the same room with myself. Suicide lingered in my mind nearly every day...but I could never find the courage, or should I say defeat, to actually go through with it. There was always something holding me back. Something important.

Family is important to me. I want a family of my own some day...but not the way life has cruelly declared that I have that family. That is what keeps me going. That is what turns me to depression so deep it is nearly impossible to get out of.

Friends are important to me as well. Maybe not so much as family is, but important nonetheless. Then again, "there is family that you are related to, and there is family that you choose" Most of my friends...if not all of them...are family that I choose to have.

******
Prologue
******

'Will the pain ever end?' I ask myself in the depths of my mind.

Today I tried, again, to get close to someone. Someone who I cared for. And, again, I was rebuffed.

It's not her fault...not really. Ever since I was taken advantage of, it has been impossible for me to get close to anyone. Forget 'taken advantage of'. It's too...tame. Passive. To put it bluntly, I was raped. I've heard so many times, from so many people, 'men can't be raped, it's always the girls.' Well, maybe in their fantasy world it would be true. Not in real life.

There are many types of rape. The one that is most common is physical rape. Everyone knows about it, and men are 'too strong' to let that happen to them. What they don't see, is that most men are also prohibited from hurting women...even if the woman is hurting them.

This happened to me...the last time I was 'with' a friend. She used me...and used my hatred of _hurting_ people against me. She used me, abused me...and then left me on the side.

Then there is emotional rape. Men and women both are guilty of this one. Someone who is emotionally attached to someone else leaves himself or herself wide open to this. 'You don't love me' 'you hate me' 'why don't you love me anymore'...all of these are examples of them.

This also happened to me. With that same girl. 'No-one can know what we did' she says. Then she refuses to talk to me kindly, verbally abusive...and, even in private, refuses to be kind in any way.

Then there is mental rape. In many ways, it is similar to emotional...and in other ways it isn't. When someone has something different about themselves...something that they dislike...and it is used against them...it hurts. A lot. Sometimes even too much.

This, also, happened to me. With that same girl. You see, I was born as what is called 'intersexed'. Or, more colloquially, a 'hermaphrodite.' I had a surgery when I was young, to take away one of the sets of equipment. The _wrong_ set. So what I was left with is something that doesn't fit to my inner self. In short, that _thing_ hurts me, just being there...and, when she used it...it was too much to bear.

It still is too much to bear.

The girl I'm 'chasing' right now...she is someone I've cared about for almost forever. And, unfortunately, she also sees me as my inner self. Why is it unfortunate? Well, I identify as female. Always have. And ...she's straight.

'Damn.'

'I just want the pain to stop.'

'Maybe...maybe there is no other way.'

I take the knife from the counter, and slip it into my robe pocket. 'If there is another way...I don't want to wait for it anymore.'

I slip into the bathroom, closing, and locking the door behind me. I fill the tub, noting how cliché what I am doing is. I slip in, pull out the knife, and whisper, "Goodbye, life."

******
Ch. 1
******

I am floating in a void, colourless, soundless, endless. I have no eyes, I cannot see. I have no ears, I cannot hear. I have no skin, I cannot feel.

"Your time has not yet come. Why do you come here now?"

I don't know. I don't care. There is no pain here...I like it.

"The pain is what you were there for. You were to live with it, learn from it."

There is such a thing as too much pain. I had too much, so I stopped it.

"You will try again. And you will keep your memories, short as they are."

No ...not again. No!

"You have no choice. Back you go."

No!!!!!!!!!

*****

"Sir? Sir?" Someone is shaking me. I hurt all over. Joy. "Get up sir! Get up before it comes back!" it? What it?

"What happened?" the words sound different for some reason. I open my eyes to see a woman...a sales clerk, it looks like. She is still in her uniform, although it is a bit dirty. I sniff. What's that smell? Oh...fire. I struggle to get up, but it is as if my entire body is defective somehow. Nothing is moving quite right. My control. My control is gone. Damn.

"The boomer, it just went berserk! Sir get up please, it's coming back!" Something flashes through my mind. Memories of pain...pain from before...mixed with pain from now. Too much. Again.

"Get out of here," I mutter. Finally, I manage to stand...and I can feel my 'old' control slipping back into place. It will take me a while to get it completely back. Then, I think. 'Why would I want to?' The pain is worse than before...apparently, I was injured being sent here. And ...and memories of _that_ are hurting even more...they seem more...fresh somehow. I look at the clerk...and I can feel the pain welling up, "Get out of here, save yourself." It's almost a fight in itself to get the words out. She seems familiar...so familiar.

She looks like an exact duplicate of Her. The one who hurt me before.

Crashing sounds...gunfire. A wall is blown out by what looks like a focussed beam of light.

She falls back, falls ...turns, and runs away. I stand, and face it like a man. I look down. Yes, that pain surges back too. I hate this.

"Come and get it you fucking bastard!" the words rip out of my mouth. I run towards the broken wall ...feeling deep inside for that wellspring that is always nearby. It's a reach ...a long one. Finally, I grasp it...pulling it up with years of experience. Maybe, maybe this time, I can use enough.

Fire flickers in my hand as I scramble through the shattered wall. It flows up my arm as I stand again. Flowing all around...back down to my palm...coalescing, condensing into a single ball of pure flame. 'Baseball' the thought flickers through my head, leaving a small sense of regret. No, not enough this time, except maybe enough to get the other job done.

I see the 'boomer' as that clerk called it. A towering hulk of plastic and metal, shimmering blue in the firelight. I raise my hand, screaming, "Fireball!" I pull everything I can from the well, focus it into the ball in my hands...and then throw it.

Metal melts...plastic burns. But not enough to kill it.

So be it.

The creature roars, turns. It opens its mouth, and I see a light similar to the one I threw gathering in the centre there.

It is the last thing I see.

***

"What the hell happened Daley!?" Leon calls out.

"I don't know, it appears as though a store manager went berserk...he threw some kind of napalm at the boomer. Didn't do more than get its attention. What a mess." Daley grimaced at the remains of the man.

"Berserk, huh? I don't get it." Leon climbs into his car, waits for Daley to slide in as well, then drives off into the night.


******
Ch. 2
******

Clumsy clumsy, I chide myself.

"Again you return? What is it with you?"

I hate the pain...I hate being male. The two, for me, are synonymous.

"Oh. That."

Yeah, that. Maybe let me be female next time, please?

"We can't do that. You are scheduled to be male in this incarnation."

Damn it.

"Don't use those words here."

Sorry.

"We'll try something different this time. You seem to like fighting,"

I hate it, actually.

"Yes, well, if you survive more than five minutes in this one, we can talk about next time."

Oh. Joy. I'll try.

"Good. Here you go..."

*****

Reality snaps around me like a vice. I'm in a cockpit of some kind...my hands on the controls. Okay, I can handle this. Am I headed for anything? A big butt-ugly brown asteroid.

I swerve to the right, just on instinct. Swearing ripples through my headset, even as a lance of purest blue arcs from the 'asteroid' through where I was flying not two seconds ago.

The swearing stops as soon as it started. "Damn, Captain, I never even saw it coming!"

I grin, "Just keep flying boys and girls, we'll talk shop after this milk run."

"Milk run he calls it, no wonder he's the captain!" I focus my attention on the asteroid, and the display on my front screen. I flip the 'com' switch to off...then ask, "computer, what is the range of my current load-out?" A series of numbers flash up on the screen, settling on a large number. One that the distance to the asteroid was quickly rolling down to. "Mission parameters?" words on my screen. 'close to 3000 kilometres, deploy salvo, destroy enemies contacted.'

"Light up incoming targets." I say, then switch the com back on. "Okay boys and girls, we've got incoming. It looks like a target rich environment out there. Don't get dead." I grin.

"But, captain, I don't see anything..."

"See all those cute little rocks that fell off of that thing?"

"Yeah...?"

"Those are manned craft. Large ones. If I'm not mistaken, none of you have turned on your targeting computers yet, right?"

Numbers quickly scrolled on my screen, and the lower screen quickly shows my entire wing...five people including myself, flashing from red of inactive to the green of online.

"Holy SH!!"

"Watch your language lieutenant. Light up one of those things, each of you, but save the missiles for the mission."

"R...right!"

I turn the com off again, then query, "computer, how long since that narrow miss?"

1:28

"Damn, this is going to hurt. Warm up all the pods...but keep the missiles locked down until 3000" Affirmative. "Keep that timer going. Light up the closest target, then prepare all the energy salvo we can put out." the grin on my face widens slightly as the lit target's range numbers flash down from red...to yellow...to green. Instantly, I pull the trigger on the handles, feeling the entire plane slow minutely from the energy being drained from everything...but it is worth it. Target one, destroyed. "Next!" I call out.

"And give me a charge time on my pods, I might need it."

3216
1:45
:12

The grin on my face fades, as the distance to the next target hits green 3 seconds before the charge is ready. I swerve right, then left, watching a lance of light arc from the enemy fighter careen past my cockpit...too close.
2. 1. Another rippling salvo of energy and light lances from my fighter to the enemy...obliterating it.

I look down...two of my wingmen are flashing red lights. "Damn" I whisper. I pull into a barrel roll, watching several other misses...all of them coming ever so close to hitting me...

3100
2:15
:03

"We aren't going to survive to contact," I whisper. Hurriedly, I flip the com switch on. "Okay, kiddo, it's just you and me. Personally, I don't think we're going to make it to 3K...deploy missiles now, and let's get the hell out of here." I turn to the computer, "Flush missile salvo."

Lockdown engaged until 3000 kilometres.

"Well disengage the lockdown!"

Affirmative.

3056
2:30
:00
:00

I lit up the big target in front of me, crossed my fingers, and pulled the triggers.

Twenty missiles tore from the pods attached to my fighter, and the pods themselves were jettisoned.

Fifteen missiles managed to escape from my lone remaining wingman...before he too was destroyed.

"Gerwalk" I growl. Turning to face the killers of my crew, I scream at them, "Come and DIE!"

The ship I apparently came from...a big blue and silver monstrosity...starts to split down the middle.

I don't have time for that.

Lasers lance from my ship, the auto cannons firing at top speed. Four more enemies fall to my relentless attack.

Lasers arc from the remaining enemies cutting my wings, my fighter's legs.

Lightning arcs along the entire length of my 'home' ship.

Two more fall to my auto cannon, before that too is taken from me. I float there, watching the remaining timer count up.
4:49

Longer than I expected to last.

One of the enemies puts a gun to my cockpit. I watch it, bemused. The timer rolls over to 5 minutes...then all goes black.

***

My spirit turns to look at what happened. A huge blast tears from the home ship...through the group of fighters, including my dead self. Right into the centre of the 'asteroid' I saw at first.

***

"He was a good man."

"They all were."

"Pity none of them survived to come home."

******
Ch. 3
******

I passed your test. Five minutes you said.

"Five minutes and two seconds you lasted. Good enough."

Thanks, I think. Can we talk about that other, now? You're going to send me back anyways...can I be a girl at least? Please?

"Yes, well, there aren't many girls you can be born as. None, actually. The 'girl' waiting list is longer than the planet itself...but I can send you back, to be a girl _part_ of the time at least."

I...see.

"Yes, well, it took a bit of work, but we can manage it. You will have a brother, by the way. And the body you will take will have no memories of its own, so you'll have to use your own."

I'll be a baby?

"In a way, yes. And also in a way, no. You'll see when you get there."

Sure.

*****

Reality snaps around me...holding me tight. I try to breathe...and end up pulling water in. my eyes open, and I try to find 'up'.

Surging out of the water, I scramble to the edge of the pool, spitting that which I breathed in, out. Everything feels different...and yet the same somehow. I mentally take stock. Yup, I'm a male again.

Damn.

"Oyaji!!" I hear a female scream from off to my side. Startled, I look over, and see a petite Asian girl, shaking her fist at...a panda? Hope rushes into me as I gaze around. The girl takes off after her father, screaming things in a language I don't know much of. [Author's note: I do know _some_ Japanese. not much...not even enough to get by. About the same as any American or Canadian otaku you would happen to run across]

"Excuse me?" I look up at who can only be the Guide. "Do you speak English?"

He nods, "A little, yes. Why sir not speak Japanese like other sir and father?"

I grimace, "It's a long story. I'll tell you in a bit. Can you tell me, please, if the curse is reversible?"

The Guide shakes his head. "Sir just tried way to reverse curse. Split sir into sir and miss."

I blink, "How, exactly, did I try to reverse it?"

The Guide smiles wanly, "No permanent cure for curse. What happen is curse mix with next curse. What sir tried was 'spring of drowned twins'."

An idea sparked in my head, "uhm...hot water reverses the curses normally, yes?" the Guide nods, "Well, can we get some hot water please? I'm sure we'll need at least a bit fairly soon." I look around, "Can you tell me where the 'spring of drowned piglet' is?" the guide looks at me strangely, but points over towards a nearby cliff. "Thanks." I grin, and then move over that way, carefully keeping my distance from all of the pools.

I see the girl and the panda running around on top of the cliff, and see a certain boy fall towards the pools. I shudder; grab a pronged branch from nearby. (Maybe the guide uses it to fish hapless travellers out?) And slide carefully towards the pool that the poor boy just fell into. A tiny black piglet pops its head out, squealing. I growl at the panda that is running closer...and fish the piglet out. Holding the pig carefully, I again use the branch, this time to fish his clothes out of the pool. I look at the clothes, and shudder. Carefully hiking the pig, I walk towards where the Guide waits patiently, somehow with a kettle already in his hands.

"Oh sir, you found delicious piglet!" I shake my head, and then motion for the kettle. The Guide blinks and hands it over. I pour it slowly on the pig...stopping when the change starts. The Guide stares at me, as if I were insane or something. I shrug, then pour some on myself...hoping.

Whispers of touch caress across my chest...the air swirls around me...I open my eyes. Where before I had to look up slightly to see the Guide's eyes...now I have to look down. My eyes fall further...seeing...myself. Myself as I should be. Tears fall from my eyes as I set the kettle down...then wrap my arms around myself. I kneel, then sit...then curl up, crying softly.

The boy reaches out, touching my shoulder. "Luanma?" he asks, quietly.

I shake my head, laughing softly, "no. Liath."

"Riasu" he tries to repeat. I grin, and then nod. It isn't that far, really.

I turn to the Guide. "Would you happen to have any clothes for me?" Wide eyed, the guide could only nod. I return to gazing at myself, tears tracing silently down my cheeks...

"Um, miss? Are you shrinking?" The question startled me out of my reverie. I look up at the guide. Sure enough, he seems to be growing to my eyes. I look down, in horror, but my newly gained femininity hasn't left me, although I do seem to be getting...younger?

Young enough that my breasts are starting to shrink slightly. But only slightly. No, wait, they are shrinking more. "No!" I scream, holding myself, trying to stop their shrinking to nothingness...

Finally everything stops. I look, up now, at the Guide and the boy. Tears trace tiny tracks along my face. I am young now...very young. But at least I am still female.

The ground catches me with its solid embrace.

*****

I estimate my age now at twelve or so years, or maybe younger. Genma seems determined to leave me behind; constantly setting a gruelling pace, but Ranma and Ryouga both help me when it starts to get too difficult to keep up.

It is now Ryouga's turn to help. I giggle as he throws me, quite literally, onto his shoulders. Ryouga is still angry with my new brother, but he has promised to not kill him. Fight sure, but not kill. And, as I wish to stay with my new family, he uses me as a direction point for following...or, like now, I point the way with a foot-long stick that I found.

Speaking of the stick. It quivers in my hand sometimes when I play with it. I remember my 'old' talent, and would dearly love to try it with a real focus. But I'd rather wait until I was alone for it. The wellspring of energy is a _lot_ closer than I am used to. Sometimes, if I am not careful, I start trailing little glowing fireflies whenever I move...

Apparently, Ryouga knows some English. He's not very good at it...but he's good enough to understand me. Understand me...and help me learn more Japanese. I'm still not very good, but I can understand a few phrases. I look over at my brother, watching him fight our 'father'. I feel a slight tingle in the air, and look up to see storm clouds roiling across the sky. I tug at Ryoga's umbrella...and he grins, pulling it out and flipping it open over us...just as the first raindrops start falling.

I giggle as I look up again, watching my brother, now _sister_ fighting a rotund panda. Her grey eyes flash as she launches, to my eyes, devastating attacks, which the panda dodges. I whisper in Ryouga's ear, "Get us a bit closer, please. I wanna try something." he looks at me, then walks faster...gaining slowly on the fighting duo. I reach inside, tapping the wellspring...and pull it up, inside...pushing it out of the improvised wand. I don't give it any direction; I just want to see what will happen.

Tiny 'fireflies' leap from the end of the stick, and arc into the panda's fur. Ryouga and I watch in silence as Ranma launches a kick...that the panda doesn't jump over...but ducks. right into it. He rolls on the ground, confusing everyone, until he starts to howl and scratch with his claws. Ranma turns to glare at me. And I hold up my wand. Haltingly, I say, "Is Liath turn to bug father."

'Maybe I shouldn't have done that' I reflect sadly as Ryouga's laughing knocks me off of his shoulder...into the rain. "Shit," I mutter, then smile, "At least it's only temporary."

Suddenly the guide speaks up, "Welcome, Sirs, to famous Chinese Amazon village. Oh! You in luck, is time for yearly tournament! We go watch."

On a log in the centre of the village, a tall lithe young woman is fighting a much larger, and also older, one. I watch, rapt, as the younger woman easily defeats her opponent. When she turns, however, she stares at our group. My heart stops for an instant. 'Damn, she looked like..." My eyes widen.

"Stop!" I yell, turning...but it is too late. Not only has Genma started eating the prize, but also it is already half eaten. I turn to the Guide and quickly ask, "Tell her we are sorry, please. If she demands payment, offer me!"

Ryouga turns to me, "No! You won't!"

"I must!" I cry, "He violated her honour, eating her victory prize like that! She'll demand _something_ for this...and better to lose me, than the life of a teacher! No matter how stupid he is." I mutter as an aside.

"She'll kill you!" Ryouga snarls, "I won't allow that!"

"She might not," I counter, "and if she does, death holds nothing for me that I have not already seen. Don't make my sacrifice one of vain, please!" Grudgingly, he nods.

I turn to face the girl that now holds my life in her hands. This close to her, I can feel the old pain rising steadily, burning through my resolve. I pull my hands behind my back to hide my shivering. She walks around me, slowly...looking me over from head to toe. She then leans down in front of me, and asks in halting Japanese, "What name?"

"Liath" I reply. I can feel the terror creeping up inside of me...grabbing at my heart...eating at my control. I make my hands grip each other tighter, knowing it's only a matter of time before my fear gets the better of me.

"Lii-ya" she repeats. I nod. Suddenly, her hand is on my chin, pulling my head up, to look at her. Or at least that's what I think she's doing. I feel the fear take over, pulling my hands in front of me...pulling, as well, on the wellspring inside of me.

"Don't!" I scream, the Fear screams. The energy surges from my hands, out towards Her...but thankfully not focussed. I think that is the only thing that let her survive. As I finally regain control, I curl up into a ball, crying...wishing I hadn't done that. I feel Ryouga holding me...I think he's glaring at anyone who's coming close right now. Xian Pu, I think her name is, is talking to someone else, in a language I don't understand.

Ryouga then snarls, "Stay away from her!" His entire body tenses against me. 'he doesn't stand a chance in a fight' I think to myself.

"Who is this 'her' you speak of, boy? The one you are holding is male."

Ryouga shakes his head, "No, she's female. We visited Jusenkyou..."

"Jusenkyou?" the old woman's voice interrupts him. I feel him nod, "Well, that changes things. Tell me, do you know who did this to her?" her voice sounds...softer, somehow. Concerned. 'No,' I think, 'she can't be.'

"It happened before I met her," he replies, pulling me closer. I try to look, but my eyes are still filled with tears that still haven't escaped yet.

"Was it one of these two?" I hear her ask. I shake my head, trying to squeeze the remaining tears out, "Would they know?" Again I shake my head.

"She appeared in one of the springs. She was supposed to be a copy of me, but something changed when the pool took hold." my brother-turned-sister says.

"I see." the old woman walks closer to me, slowly. "Was it your last life?" She asks quietly. I shake my head slowly...then hold up my hand, showing three fingers. "Three ago?" I nod. "Well then. The one who did this is likely far away in time and space...but we are here now." I look at her, eyes wide. 'What is she saying...?' "You show some talent. Would you like some training?"

Before I can reply, Xian Pu yells angrily at the old woman, then charges at her with one of her maces. A blur of movement, and Xian Pu goes flying again. The old woman relaxes, setting her staff down again. "Well?" she asks.

I nod, slowly. "Please..." the word escapes my mouth, even as my eyes plead with her. She nods.

"Very well. You two, return in a month," she points at the old man and my brother, "and you," pointing at Ryouga, "may leave...but you may return when you wish. Males who _protect_ are welcome." She then beckons to me, "Come, we have much to teach you."

******
ch. 4
******

You've never sent anyone to help me with the pain before.

"No, we didn't. And we didn't do it this time either. You journeyed to them. As you were supposed to with the rest."

There isn't any that can help with the other pain...not until this world...

"Yes there are, actually. You just have to look to find them. Anyways, you aren't dead now, just sleeping. Go back."

One question first?

“What is it?”

Do you know why I shrunk?

“Yes we know. Your age was reduced to match your current experience with the female form. Also, to match your current emotional level.”

Yeah, I kinda thought so. Okay, I’m going now.

“Take care,”

***

It has now been two months since my brother and the old man have left me here. Ryouga has shown up, infrequently, but he has shown up nonetheless. I think, however, that Ranma and Genma won't return...at least they won't without being dragged.

Genma won't, at least. Ranma, if he remembers me, would come willingly.

In the first month, they tought me meditation techniques, to help push the pain away. To isolate it, when I really needed to be around others. They also taught me how to let it go...that is the hardest part. "You have to forgive yourself, and you have to forgive the one who hurt you."

Forgive myself? That's almost impossible...especially with how much I hated myself before. Oh well, I try, and that is the most important part.

Shampoo tried several times in the first week to ambush me and claim me...but each time, before she could get too close to succeeding, her Grandmother would appear and forbid her to do so. With how fast she moves I now find it very believable how good she was 'reported' to be before. Shampoo gave up after that first week, and disappeared completely. For some reason I think I know where she went.

Grandmother has asked me, and I honestly say, each time, "I have suspicions only, I can not prove where she went. But my guess is Japan." What, oh that? Yeah, I call her Grandmother sometimes. It's harmless...it makes her smile, she's always so serious, plus everyone gives me a wide berth because I do call her that. IS there a relationship there? Only one of student and teacher, nothing by blood. Heck, my body was made purely out of magic, there is no blood relation of me to anyone.

When Genma turned tail and ran, avoiding that first month, Grandmother began to teach me basic skills with my magic. She was surprised at what I knew before, and my proficiency in them, but everything else was new to me. In a way it still is, as I have to build the spell-forms in my head from scratch. Grandmother chided me on that, "You have to do it step by step, don't leave anything out," she admonished me one day.

"But Grandmother, all the steps you show me form one thing only with the magic, and I can do that without the hand waving and chanting."

"It's the principal, child. You have to give the opponents a sporting chance to defend themselves."

"But I'm not sporting,"

"Try to be," That was the end of that conversation.

Actually, it is fun to do it that way, and it's even more fun to build one spell form, and chant another...really throws my sparring partners off that I chant out the fireball spell, and instead fly over them without doing any damage. THAT one got me 'bread and water' for two days...and congratulations from the entire village.

The _down side_ to how I do spells, though, is that it takes months of practicing and memorizing to be able to do the simple ones even relatively quickly...and I only have four of them memorized to that point so far. The tiny spell book in my hands, however, holds all the spells I know even peripherally.

It's not enough to make me a super-power in the world, not that I want to be one. But it will let me survive in the coming years.

I find that I want to survive now...as long as I can.

Ryouga steps up from the forest, "Can you tell me the way to Joketsuzoku?" he asks me...then stops, and grins sheepishly, "uhm, nevermind. Hey Liath, are you ready to go?" I giggle softly then turn to the village. Only two guards can be seen, but I know others are watching. I raise my arm, and wave a fond farewell. I then turn, grab the lost boy's arm, and lead him south.

Towards home.

*****

I check the map again, and try to compare the characters on it to the ones on the sign ahead of us. "Uhm, Ryouga?" I wish my Japanese was good enough for this, "I hate to say this, but we are going in the wrong direction. How about _I_ lead us, this time?" I look up at him with my eyes wide open. He shuffles his feet, looking down, "Yeah, I know, you don't like to talk about it. Let's just accept it for now, and try to get home straight away?" He nods. "Good, let's go in here first," I grin, "I think we're getting low on food and I want to spend some of this money Cologne gave me."

We walk around the town looking for the marketplace. We can hear the people, but it seems to be a bit far out of the way...either that, or the access to it is deliberately confusing.

Ryouga points to the side, "I think it's this way." I turn and stare at him. "Really, I think it is."

I sigh, "Okay, let's try it your way this time. But if we hit forest, we turn back, okay?" He nods, "Let's go then." I grab onto Ryouga's arm before he moves, just in case.

We slip into the side alley, and a voice behind us says, "Hey, what will you sell the girl for?" A sudden feeling of vertigo assaults me, and I almost fall as Ryouga turns to the person.

"She isn't for sale, mister. Get lost." His voice seems far away to me. Grey clouds my vision, and I stumble...

"Hey, she's sick. I'll take her off of your hands, then." There is a quiet *snick* of metal against plastic. I fall to my knees, gasping..."Hey!" the man yells, then there is a *whack! * of something solid hitting cement.

Ryouga kneels beside me, holding my shoulder, "Are you okay?" he asks worriedly. I raise my head...multicoloured spots fly past my eyes...it's almost a minute before I can focus on his face.

"Don't move!" I snap, as I try to pull myself up onto my feet again. Ryouga stands, and I again have to look up at him. 'I wish I wasn't so small,' I think. I grab his hand again, "Okay, we aren't where we were before, Let's see if we can get directions."

"How do you know?" I glare at him. "Right. Sorry. Nevermind." He stares at me as I stumble over to our attacker and start to rifle through his pockets, "What are you doing??"

"He attacked us, therefore, in honour, he forfeits anything he has on him."

"That's not right!"

"He attacked us, right?" He nods, "He was trying to buy me, then steal me, right?" Again, Ryouga nods, albeit reluctantly. "Well then, he is paying for me, but to be healthy this way, instead of paying to own me. Does that work for you?" Ryouga looks sullen, but nods again, grudgingly.

A female voice behind me makes my blood go cold, "Is spoils of war, of course is right." I turn around, and see Shampoo right behind me. Ryouga growls, standing up. "Shampoo glad pig-boy take good care of sister." My eyes feel like they're going to fall out of my head.

"What???" he growls, falling into a fighting stance, "What do you mean 'sister'? You never liked her!"

Shampoo nods, and steps back, "Is true. No like Li-ya." I try to scramble away from her, "But not Li-ya fault. Shampoo now know Li-ya try to make peace with Shampoo. Not fight. Not eat prize. Try stop Li-ya father from eating prize. Amazon law say sister no kill sister." I relax, slightly, "Law no say sister no _hurt_ sister." I squeak, and try to run behind Ryouga as a bonbori crashes into the cement where I was just kneeling. Her hand flashes back to ready position as I scramble around my friend. "Anyway, Li-ya owe Shampoo for broken bones. Shampoo break Li-ya's bones."

"Stop!" yells Ryouga, "She's innocent! She was only defending herself then!"

"Matters not to Shampoo."

"She's sick right now! Can you, in honour, attack someone who is helpless?"

Shampoo stops. "Li-ya sick?" Ryouga nods, "Shampoo see. Will come back later, try again." She then jumps onto a rooftop, and away.

Nearly five minutes later, my shivering stops. Ryouga looks down at me, "Are you okay?"

"I okay" I whisper. He looks at me strangely for a second, "I need use Japanese here. Is Japan here." Ryouga nods, then turns at me, looking somewhat bewildered, "Trust me!" I grin as he groans.

"Trust a little girl that looks half my age," he grumbles. I gasp, he looks up, "What's wrong?"

"Half your age?" I stumble over the words, "I shrink again?"

He looks me over, "Only a little bit. The way you hold yourself makes you look older, though." I nod, breathing a quick sigh of relief.

"Okay. We go find someone. You know where Ranma is?" he nods, "Good. We ask next person we see, where that place be."

"He's at the Tendo Dojo." I nod, and then pull him towards the exit.

I pull Ryouga out of the alley and look around. We apparently have our pick of people to question, but, just out of sheer perversity, I walk over to the policeman standing nearby.

"Excuse," I call out, "Can please show us way to Tendo Dojo?" The policeman looks at me strangely, and then points to our left at a gateway with a sign. I turn to Ryouga, "What sign say?" I ask.

"Tendo Dojo." he looks a bit sheepish...I wonder why?

I grin, "There, that not so hard, yes?" he shrugs and blushes. Turning to the man, I bow and say, "Thank you very much," Turning around, I see Ryouga walking towards the gate. "Stop!" I yell, hoping...miraculously, he stops mid-motion. I gape.

"Why stop, we're already here." he looks confused.

I grin and run over to him, "No walk without me. Ryouga might get lost, yes?" he blushes and hangs his head. I lead the way, and pause at the gate, but Ryouga keeps on going straight in. "What you doing?"

He smiles, "They know me here, and I can bring friends along, yes?" his smile turns to a frown, "Ranma's a bit strange though..."

We walk to the front of the house, and then we're stopped by a voice. "Ranma? Is this another one of your friends?" A girl I can only assume to be Akane snarls, "Isn't she a little young for you?"

My brother looks at me, and voices up, "I don't even know who she is." he declares, "Hey, Ryouga, who's the kid?" Pain clouds my vision, fills my heart...

"She's your sister, Ranma! Remember? From Jusenkyou?" Ryouga seems to be getting angry. Why should he? He doesn't need to protect me.

"Jusenkyou?" Ranma looks startled, "All that happened there was me getting my girl curse. I want to go back there to get rid of it, but the old man won't let me," The pain hardens, becomes almost solid in my heart...

"You already tried to get rid of the curse, Ranma...and she showed up when you did. You told me about that when we went to the Amazon village, re-mem-ber?"

Ranma looks thoughtful for a second, then shakes his head, "Nope, can't remember at all."

The pain wells up from deep inside me. I can barely see, I can barely hear...all I can feel is the pain. Vaguely, I can tell that Ryouga and Ranma are starting to yell at each other.

"Ryouga," My whisper vanishes in the noise with surprising ease. I try again, "Ryouga!" Sudden silence, "We go now. We not welcome here," The lost boy nods, picks up our packs, and I lead him from the house.

"And don't come back!" Akane's yell shatters the silence...and my heart.

I reach into myself, into the wellspring...and feel, below my feet, yet another one. No, not a well, more like a river...or an Aqueduct. I reach to that one as well, thinking, 'away...I just want to get away!' A hand touches my shoulder.

The world goes black.

******
Ch. 5
******

Bile rises in my throat as I look at the water around me. A hand gently holds me steady as I dry-heave. Tears run silently down my cheeks as I try to forget my own brother, forgetting me. Why? Why did he have to say that? How could he forget me so fast? Why?

The questions run through my head in a constant stream of pain and agony. I wish, I just wish…that I could find out _how_.

Wait. "Where are we?" I ask, looking around. Water all around me, water everywhere…yet contained…in small pools or "The springs," my voice comes out in a whisper.

Ryouga mutters, “Yeah. And we’re in the center of the springs…I could make it to one of the sides, I think. But if I carry you as well, yeah. That will be a problem.”

I shake my head, “No, you get out of here, but stop at the edge please…I’ll make my way towards you. Okay?” Ryouga nods slowly, then starts jumping towards the poles. I watch, my hands clutched at my sides, until he finally makes it to the other side of the area.

Gazing at the clustered springs in front of me, I grimace in distaste, “You know,” I say conversationally, “Even though you are pools of water with things that drowned in you,” stepping quickly and carefully along the pool edges, trying to pick my way through the largest gaps between pools, “I’m pretty sure you like causing torment whenever you get a chance to. I mean, really, turning my friend into a pig? I know, he’s not perfect, but still. Couldn’t you have chosen something better for him? Like a tiger or something?” As I get closer to the edge of the spring area, the tufts of dirt holding the springs separate from each other seem to get closer and closer together. I’m about twenty meters from the edge, and I’m sure it’s going to take forever to get out of here...the pools are probably only six centimetres apart now, and it looks like they’re clustering closer as I move.

As the pools seem to loom in my vision, I mutter, “Yeah, you probably want to change me now too, right?” I shake my head, “I wish you could make up your mind...I’m fine as a girl, really. I don’t even mind the boy side much, as long as I have a girl side to return _to_,”

The wind must be picking up, because I can hear the water lapping against the sides of the springs. Little wavelets splashing...almost...whispering?

“You aren’t going to let me past without dunking me, are you?” I ask the springs, as they seem to cluster around me. One in front, two behind and to the sides...and, to my eyes, the area I can walk along is now razor thin between the pools. I can’t move in any direction, and the ground seems to be eroding under me.

A gust of wind ripples all the springs around me, almost seeming to whisper “no...” My hair doesn’t move in this wind, and then I realize. The springs ARE whispering.

“Oh...crud.”

I stop a second to gather my wits (fair), my courage (very little), my considerable strength (none), and what’s left of my balance (less than none). Then, with as much speed as I can muster, I try to run along the razor thin ground towards the edge of the spring’s area...maybe two pools distant.

I’m pretty sure I’ll make it at least halfway to the next clump of ground.

The dirt crumbles under my feet and I fall...no, I’m _pulled_ to one side. I try to shift my balance, to lean the other way. If the springs want me to land here, then better for me to land there instead. Still my legs try to move me along, but to no avail. Using the last of my energy I try to jump away from that pool. Sure I know I'll land in another pool, but at least it won't be THAT one, whatever it is.

It feels almost as if there are ghostly hands pulling at me, drawing me towards that one pool to my left, when my faltering jump pulls me, barely, away from their grasp. I close my eyes and take in as deep a breath as I can, knowing that to pull away from the grasp of the pools, I'm pushing myself into another pool that is possibly nasty for me, but at least it isn't the one that THEY want.

Water envelopes my body. I can feel...something happening. I don't know what, yet. I move my arms...yes, they are still arms, they haven't been changed to some kind of leg...rapidly, clawing my way to the surface of the water. Oh, claws. Those are different. Mud and rocks fall slowly away as I pull myself to the surface, drawing a deep breath. I can hear Ryouga yelling my name, not far away. I turn, trying to see him, there he is. I crawl along the ground towards him. Oh, good, there is room for me to move again.

I cough, spitting up water and...something else. I don't want to know. I'm afraid to find out. Hands reach down and pick me up. I look up, into Ryouga's face. "Liath?" he whispers, hands pulling me towards him. I wrap my arms around him and sneeze.

"I think I swallowed some of it," I mutter. Then I blink in surprise as that came out almost intelligently. Of course, the burr in my voice might be because I've got water in me still, but then again, it might not.

I'm still smaller than Ryouga. But at least I'm not smaller than I was before, as near as I can tell. I set about examining my body to see what has changed, and what remains the same. Everything _feels_ normal, but that could just be my imagination. I first examine my hands, and aside from my nails now being claws, and I think rather sharp ones at that, they don't look all that different. I don't even notice as Ryouga sets me down, I'm so focussed on finding out what's happened. My arms still look like my arms, small, graceful, feminine. Oh. Hang on a second here. I peek in my pants. Yup, I'm still female.

I'm just about to jump for joy when I feel Ryouga's hand at my back. His hand isn't anywhere near my back, but I can still feel it. I crane my neck, trying to look back and see...oh. Oh dear. Oh deary deary dear.

This sensation is familiar. Shock. Lots and lots of shock. Hands keep me from landing in the dirt as darkness claims me.

*****

Swimming out of the darkness, I open my eyes, to see a vaguely familiar face in front of me.

"Oh miss, you wake! I go get sir!"

I close my eyes and sigh. Then I open them again, looking down at myself. There isn’t much different that I can see at this point, but then, I _did_ see those wings on my back earlier. I don’t know how much earlier, but it was still earlier. I sit up, slowly, and reach behind my back. Oh good, at least I’m not less flexible than I’m used to. I gently trace my fingers along the soft leather (?!) of my wings. I’m sure that they were a little bat-like when I saw them last, but they could be something different. I trace my hands up more to find the bone and muscle of the wings, and then stretch them out to full extension. Well, at least they aren’t too big, I’m sure I can hide them under shirts and stuff. Yup, they definitely look batty. Oh joy.

Then another sensation permeates my thoughts, something that I felt before I started on this journey, but it’s something that I’ve not been expecting to feel until several years from now. I hurriedly glance around, breathing a quiet sigh as no one is here, yet. My fingers slip down under the covers, and I start to whimper softly. I’m sure this shouldn’t be happening so early, but it feels almost like relief. Relief knowing that I can do this without hurting...

The door crashes open and my eyes fly wide. "Eep!" I squeak as I try to hide what I've been doing as Ryouga walks in the door.

"Liath!" he looks at me...then notices where my hand is. Blood spurts from his nose as he crashes to the ground.

"Mou!" I mutter, frustrated. "Couldn't you wait like five minutes? You just ruined the mood!" I then blink, realizing what I was thinking. "Err, oh. Sorry." I know I'm blushing, my face feels like a furnace, "I guess that was kinda my fault, wasn't it?" I pout, and then sigh.

Then I look around for my clothes, and spy them just to the side of my bed. I first pull my shirt on, fluffing it nicely to fit. Hang on a second here. I look back; yup there are my wings. I look down, yes my shirt IS on. I then reach back tracing the fabric of my shirt up to where my wings pass through it. As if it's not even there. Oh crud. "So much for hiding THESE," I grumble, then draw my pants on, securing them tightly.

My pants are on none too soon, as the guide steps in the door, "Oh sir! What happen to you?" he then looks over at me, "Did you do something to sir here?" I roll my eyes, and then shake my head, "I see. Maybe he just surprised you come out so cute, yes?"

"Why is that?" I ask quietly. Funny, my words sound different right now.

"Well, miss fall in spring of drowned demon. Terrible tragic story of demon too arrogant for words fall in spring three days ago."

I raise my eyebrow, "And why would that be a tragic story?" A demon dying in ironic ways is a GOOD thing, in my books.

The guide shrugs, "Is tragic story because now anyone who falls in spring become arrogant sex crazed demon." The guide peers at me for a second, "Miss? How you not become full demon? The demon that fell in spring was adult, and had red skin. You look almost human?"

I roll my eyes at the guide, "I was here before, remember? I was split off from a teenage boy who fell in spring of drowned girl. I then changed to a younger form for...some reason." I try to taste the words as they come from my mouth, then I notice that the syllables are all wrong. Doesn't 'I' only have one syllable, not three?

The guide stares at me for a second, then asks, "You came here as boy, before, with father? Fall in spring of drowned girl, and then jump in spring of twins? Father fall in spring of panda?" at my nod he grins, "Well then, I wrong in calling you miss!" he meanders over to the stove and picks up a steaming kettle, "We change you back to boy then, sir."

I eye the kettle suspiciously, "how hot is that, exactly?" I ask, stepping away as he approaches.

"Is for making tea, so is nice and hot." He grins and then splashes it on me.

Have I mentioned yet that I really hate pain? A scream tears from my throat as I jump away from the falling water, "That's too HOT!" it's a tossup between getting really angry at him for burning me like this, or just curling up and crying.

Crying wins, this round. "Don't do that again, please..."

The guide stares at me with a shocked expression, "Why sir not turn back into sir? Have you been locked in this form?"

A shuddering laugh creeps out through the tears, "If I was locked in this form I'd be ecstatic. Just...don't throw hot water on me again. Please."

The guide stares at me for a second, then he asks, "You were the sir that turned into girl with hot water, yes?" I nod slowly, and he continues, "So hot water not change you to sir. Cold water change you to sir...so you is miss." Again I nod, "So sorry miss, didn't mean to hurt you, just wanted you to be in...umm...normal form."

I snort, "Yeah, this apparently is my normal form now. I can wait to see if it did anything to my guy side too, though. So no more water, hot OR cold."

A groan from the doorway catches my attention. Ryouga sits up, with his hand over his eyes, "Is it safe to look again?" he asks, his voice not quite whining, but it's a close thing.

I snort for a second at Ryouga's question then reply, "Yes it's safe to look. But we should be going to Joketsuzoku before this place does get dangerous for us." I turn to the guide and bow as well as one can from a kneeling position on the floor, "Thank you for your hospitality, but we have to be leaving now."

The guide nods slowly, as I take Ryouga by the hand and lead him out of the hut.

******

We are within sight of the village when it decides to rain again. Luckily for Ryouga, he had his umbrella ready. Unluckily for me, I wasn't close enough to take advantage of it at the time.

I look down as I feel the change, and nod, "Yeah, still cursed to turn into a boy," I grumble. Ryouga coughs from behind me, and I turn, "What is it? Is there something else that's changed too?"

Ryouga smiles sheepishly, "Well, yeah...your wings are different now. If you could see yourself now you'd laugh." I raise my eyebrow in sarcastic query, "Well, your girl side is part demon, right?" I nod, and he continues, "Well your wings are very different...and your horns are gone now."

I blink, and then raise my hands to my forehead, "I had horns?" I ask incredulously, at Ryouga's nod, I just shake my head, and then crane around to see my wings...my...oh THIS is pretty.

I tentatively reach around to touch my wing with a gentle hand, and silk-soft feathers rustle quietly to my touch. An almost electric shiver runs down my spine as I caress the faintly pink feathers. It's almost torture to stop touching them, but I do. "Umm, yeah," I whisper softly, trying to get my focus back. I don't know how long it takes, but I do know that the feelings I got from my wings stop long before I do get my attention back to the task at hand.

I breathe in deeply, and then announce, "Well, I won't laugh, Ryouga, but it is rather funny that my boy side is part angel. I just wish that I didn't have that boy side anymore, you know?" at his nod I grab his hand and lead him the rest of the way to the village.

A staff and a spear cause us to stop rather suddenly, barely within sight of the village walls, "Who are you?" I hear a pair of feminine growls from in front of me, as two girls who look to be barely in their teens appear suddenly out of the bushes.

I stare at the twins for a second, and then smile, "I'm Liath, this is my friend Ryouga. We left Joketsuzoku a few days ago to be with my brother, but I was turned away. I'm coming back to ask Matriarch Cologne for advice and maybe assistance in getting my family to recognize me." My smile falters slightly as the twins glare even harder.

"Is no true!" snarls the one on the left.

"Li-ya is girl, not winged boy!" continued the girl on the right.

"You lie to us! We fight!" they both chorus together.

I stare at the two for a second, then groan, "Lin-lin, Ran-ran, I'm not lying. I fought against you two before, and I don't feel like eating dirt again, thank you very much." they glare still harder. I am SO glad that their eyes aren't weapons, else I'd be dead right about now. Again. "Yes, I fought you before, on the challenge log if I remember correctly. And you succeeded in knocking me off the log in about two seconds."

"How you know about our fight with Li-ya? She defeated too quick to be called fighter."

I feel the anger running out, and depression sinks into my bones yet again, "Fine, forget it. You don't believe me, you possibly never will. Kill me if it will make you feel better, but I don't want to fight." I slip to the muddy ground, tears mixing in with the falling rain.

"No!" Ryouga yells, stepping in front of me, "I won't let you hurt her!"

"Forget it Ryouga," I whisper, "They are possibly looking for husbands. If you fight them and win, you'll have to marry them."

Ryouga glances back at me, "Yeah, well that doesn't mean they can hurt you like that. They should know better!"

"You should no tell laws to outsiders. You not of village, you not know laws!" the twins shout at me, then they look at Ryouga, "You strong man, make good husband, yes?" I can almost feel their grins as they stare at Ryouga's physique.

I can also feel the razor sharp tip of the spear just bare inches from my throat. It would just be so easy to lean forward...

"No!" I hear, faintly, Ryouga's shout, and I feel a soft impact, pushing me away from the tip of the spear. I find myself looking at the sky with four light things pressing into my chest, and a "bwee!" of an enraged...piglet?

It takes a lot of effort to move my head, but I do, just to look at the thing on my chest, "Ryouga?" I hear myself whisper in query, before darkness takes over my vision.

******
Ch. 6
******

Why do I have to be hurt so much?

"This time wasn't a part of the learning process. This time it was someone who has a history of trying to make Our plans come to naught. Look at your brother for instance, your birth was supposed to help him as well, but that creature went and removed his memory of you."

I can't believe it. Genma did that?

"Only in a small way. Even with your new additions, it shouldn't take too much to get him to remember you. Either that or your friend can help you."

How can Ryouga help with this?

"Now you're just pushing for information. You should find out who on your own. Anyways, it's time for you to wake up again, one of your friends is calling."

******

"Liath!" I feel someone poking me in the side. Not too hard, but more than hard enough to sting.

"Oww!" I sit up quickly, or at least try to. Opening my eyes shows a nice bright blur all around me. "Who's there?" I ask, trying to blink the blurriness out of my eyes.

"Come now, someone with your supposed powers would be able to figure something as simple as that out," came an old feminine voice. I close my eyes again, and then open them again, attempting to blink away the skewed vision from my eyes.

"Cologne?" I guess, taking a stab in the dark. At the old woman's laughing I sigh, "Well sorry, I only know Cologne from when I was here before. I never really talked to the other elders enough to remember their names, let alone know their voices."

"Ah," the voice muses, "So you continue to claim you are Li-ya. I think your form shows your words to be lies, for Li-ya was a female, and you are very much a male."

"If you had some hot water for me I could show you that I am female," I reply as politely as I can. My eyes are still blurry and they don't seem to be getting any clearer.

"Ah yes, the mysteries of Jusenkyou. Lin-lin and Ran-ran saw your partner change to a pig in the rain, but that does not necessarily mean that you are cursed as well. The winged ones from heaven should be immune to such magic, yes?" I can just hear the oily smirk in her voice, even though I can't see it.

It takes all of my control to keep my voice as polite as I can make it, "I would think so to, but when we were at Jusenkyou earlier today, the guide told us that a demon drowned in the pool that I had fallen into just three days ago."

"Oh ho! Another lie!" cackles the voice, "You say you fell in a spring where a demon drowned three days ago, yet still you are a feathered one. I know not of any feathered demons, you see, so I find your story very hard to believe."

I sigh, "If I could have some hot water, please? This form grates, and I would rather not stay in it long at all." I don't really hold much hope that she'll help; she's being very mean as it is. What is this, an interrogation prior to being killed? Sweet ghoddess I hope not.

Another voice reaches my ears, "Let him have some hot water, Lilac. Even if you do not believe, a demonstration of any possible curse might lend some truth to his story. We already know that Liath's friend Ryouga came here with this person, so maybe the rest of his story is not false either." Cologne's voice is music to my ears. Oh. Wait, this IS an interrogation. Oh crud. I can feel the blood drain from my face as that particular thought wends its way through my mind.

"Oh, not to worry," another voice crackles from behind me, "If you are who you say you are, then there isn't much of a problem, really. Well, other than teaching you again how to relieve your pain before it gets to this point again. And if you are from the gods, then that also means you have nothing to worry about. If you are from Phoenix Mountain however, well, we shall see. So don't worry, you have two chances out of three to get out of this safely." Something about her voice seems oily to me. Almost tainted. I really truly hope that she's not the final arbiter to my fate.

My vision finally starts clearing, sort of. Instead of everything seeming blurry and fuzzy, I can now make out indistinct outlines around me, almost as if I were peering through fog. I push my hand out, and encounter a wall of some kind. I can't feel it, really, I can only tell it is there. My hand won't go past the point of the wall, even when I start pushing for real. I can, however, tell that the wall is curved in both directions...oh. A circle. The wall forms a circle around me, apparently. I look down, and I can see the floor clearly, at least. I can also see what looks to be like shining blue and red lines intertwined in an intricate pattern that tugs at an old memory from...

"A circle of holding," I whisper in awe. I've only seen one before in an old spell book, and that was years ago, long before I came here the first time. I can tell that there are things different from this circle compared to the one in the book from before, but I can't tell what things are different, exactly.

"Yes, it is." Cologne says from in front of me. I can almost make out the outline of her body through the misty shroud separating her from me, "Well, I doubt you would be Liath, from that response. We never taught her how to do any of the sacred circles while she was here. So, who, or what are you?"

I smile, "My name is Liath. Always has been. And no, you didn't show me the circles, I read of one, a long time before I ever met you or came here. And this is different from the one I did read about, so it's only through its application that I actually recognized it."

"And Liath never learned much mandarin, and here you are speaking it fluently." Cologne's voice has gained a harsh edge to it, and I gulp silently in reaction.

"Umm, well, that's news to me, because it seems to me as if everyone's speaking English. My guess would be this form understands languages even though I don't?" I'm feeling scared now. Worse, I know my voice is showing how scared I am. This isn't going to be pretty, no matter how it turns out.

"Oh, really?" Sarcasm drips heavily off of Cologne's voice, "So you say it is the form you received most recently from the springs, and that it is this form's fault that you speak our language fluently. Tell me, is there anything you are willing to admit to, rather than blame on magic?"

I wrack my memories for a minute, then blink, "How about news of Shampoo?"

"You could be lying about this knowledge. And we would have no way to confirm or disprove your information without sending someone to verify it. Tell me, how does this help your situation?"

I smile, "Well, I was going to ask if someone could help me anyways, and the place where Shampoo is, is where I need this assistance." Oh please let this work.

"You could be trying to trap us, you know. We hold not the bird-men in great trust, and you look much like them right now." Sarcasm has shifted to outright hatred. I am going to be in so much trouble if someone doesn't come by with some hot water soon.

"Can I get some hot water please?" I ask. Tears drip from my eyes in frustration. "There's nothing I can say that will change your minds, and only that will show you that I'm not lying when I say I'm not one of those bird people."

I look around me through the mist, and then I see someone larger than the others standing up, and reaching forward with something in their hand. As the hand passes through the barrier, so does the kettle in her hand. Steam rises from the gleaming polished copper. "Move under the kettle," A woman's voice tells me. I slip as close as I can to the wall, and position as much of my body as possible under the kettle. I mentally cringe as I see the kettle turning, hoping that the water isn't TOO hot.

Water washes over my body, and I feel the change take effect. I notice the temperature of the water. Not too hot, not scalding either, but definitely on the warm side. I reach up and smooth my hair down as the hand and kettle retreats. Oh, there are my horns. Can't see them from this angle, but I hope they look cute. A series of gasps can be heard outside of the circle as my movements reveal them to everyone else.

"See?" I grin, looking out through the mists, "I told you that I had a Jusenkyou curse. Think you can recognize me now, Cologne?"

Just as I say that, I notice a faint swirling around my head. I blink in confusion, watching what appears to be tiny blue and green strands float away from my face. I reach out, touching one of them, just before it disappears before my eyes. A sharp bark in mandarin catches my attention, and I look up in the direction of the voice, "What was that?" I ask as politely as I can.

Utter silence greets my ears for almost a minute, and then I hear Cologne asking me, in slower Mandarin, "Why did you stop speaking Mandarin?"

I blink, and reply in that same tongue, "I no know. I just talking, then something move, now I no understand what you saying anymore."

Cologne's voice is still suspicious when she asks again, "Can you prove that you are Liath? You look more like her now, but that doesn't prove anything,"

I just stare in the direction that the voice came from for what feels like an hour, before something occurs to me and I grin, "I think I have way to show proof. You no get mad, yes?"

A generally muttered, "We'll see," greets my ears, and I then position myself in the center of the circle.

"Breath of life,
Life of flame,
Come and form,
In my hand,
Come and we,
Shall scorch them all,
Fireball!" The words that slip from my tongue are in English, but I already know Cologne understands that language more than she lets on. And my grin becomes even more mischevious, as I hear a startled, "No!" from outside of the circle as I finish the spell. With effects completely different from what everyone who understood my words could expect.

"Is poof good, yes?" I grin from my sitting position, nearly three feet above the floor with only a faint layer of magic holding me up.

Cologne's voice isn't suspicious anymore, but I can clearly hear her growling through the words, "What did I tell you about doing that?" Either this is another test, or it's an honest reaction. Either way it's not good to hide the truth.

I settle back down in the circle. It's not like I can fly anywhere anyways. I reply as modestly as I can, "But I no sporting."

"Try to be," Cologne growls back at me. My giggles are apparently all that remains to prove who I am, for the mist seems to disappear from my eyes as the circle disappears from around me.

Several elders surround me, all of them in kneeling positions. I can see them clearly now, where before I could only see mist shrouded shapes. I spy Cologne sitting nearest the door, and her position surprises me a little.

Cologne is sitting in lotus position, with her staff across from her knees. As she looks at me, I can almost see the question hiding behind her eyes, but it isn't polite to answer before the question is asked. I had to learn that at a very early age. "Where is my errant great grand daughter?" she finally asks me, staring into my eyes.

My smile fades as I reply, "Shampoo in Japan, chasing my brother." Even mentioning my brother in passing causes enough emotional pain to make me wince.

Apparently Cologne noticed my reaction, "What is the problem there?" her words are still gravelly, but they carry an overtone of concern that I don't hear very often.

"It's...my brother. He doesn't remember me. I talked to someone on the way back here and they think that it might be our Father's fault. But without proof I can't really say one way or the other." I slip back into English, my Mandarin not being extensive enough to get across the information that I need to relay.

Cologne's staff is as fast as always as it raps, softly, against my head. "Speak a civilized language, child." She's smiling as she says so, and it's not the first time she's said that either. I don't think it will be the last time, though.

"Parlez vous francais?" I can't help but grin again as I reply in yet another language. Cologne laughs softly as her staff taps my forehead again.

Just as Cologne's staff touches my head, I feel a burning sensation in my stomach. You know the kind, when it feels like you haven't eaten for way too long, and your stomach is informing you that it is quite willing to eat its way through your spine if you don't feed it NOW. Although the sensation is a little lower than I am used to, I'm very much familiar with it.

"What's wrong, Liath?" Cologne asks in worry as I curl up in a ball at her feet.

"Hungry," I manage, as tears fall from my eyes. There is another sensation along with the hunger, but I can ignore it, for now. Hopefully I can wait for that until I have some privacy. Electric tingles ripple from my knees to my neck and touching everything in between. When Cologne's hand rests for a second against my skin I fan feel the ripples of sensation focussing against her hand, pushing back, even though she's only barely touching me.

I can't help but whimper as Cologne's hand pulls away from my skin. Another pair of hands lifts me from the ground and I curl up into the person's embrace. Her embrace. It is a female who is holding me, and from her size I think she isn't an Elder. She may be an adult, but I wouldn't be able to tell. She is bigger than me, however, as I am cradled in her arms easily.

Hunger is all that fills my mind as people talk around me. Hunger of two different kinds. The voice of the person holding me sounds sweet, sensual…a shiver runs down my spine as I listen to her voice. Words don't seem to mean anything to me right now. Just tone matters.

I'm fooling myself, I know. Thinking I can ignore something which my body desires so painfully. I try to concentrate on my hunger, but that only brings into sharp relief the other kind of hunger I feel.

Wind ripples across my back, across my skin, as the person takes me somewhere. I open my eyes slightly. Colours move swaying in my sight. Red and green, back and forth. I reach towards the red…and then it vanishes, pulled up and away from me. I move my head, following the red in its movement upwards. A young face greets my sight. She is maybe in her mid to late teens, or maybe (doubtfully) in her early twenties. Eyes of emerald fire radiate concern, as a sharp command filters through my ears. She must have understood my confusion, for her hands hold me tighter for a second as something covers my eyes.

Time ceases to mean anything. We are moving, and fast, but for how long I do not know. A second, a minute, an hour, a day, a lifetime for all I care. The motion slowly stops, and I can feel THAT hunger lessening, slightly.

Something caresses my lips, and a feeling of wetness can be felt. My mouth opens, almost of its own accord, and an almost sweetness caresses my tongue. Sweet, yet not, but definitely wet. I swallow the liquid as if I am parched, and the flavour ripples across my tongue. An almost flavour, as though it were filtered through things that left behind their own taste mark. 'Water' whispers my mind, and the almost taste matches my memories clearly. I swallow all that is placed in my mouth, and then it is pulled away. Somehow, even though I was drinking blind, and most likely sloppily, I know I managed to not spill a single drop.

Another something brushes against my lips, and again my mouth opens. My tongue darts along this soft intruder, and I can taste another kind of sweetness, with a hint of bitter here and there. Softness, yet ridged and slightly rough at the same time. My teeth close around this intruder, and I bite off a piece of this thing. I chew, and sweetness pervades my mouth, yet here, and here, are little hard bits of that same bitterness. Heavier than the sweetness surrounding, and harder, but the flavour doesn't displease as it rolls across my palette.

Even as I swallow, I feel wetness across my lips again, and again I drink of this water. A hand brushes softly across my face, and that which was blinding me is removed. My eyes open slowly, to darkness.

Darkness not of the pitch of night, but of an enclosed house, for some light can be seen through slatted windows. Cloth whispers, voices waft across my ears, and I can barely make some sense of the words now.

"Will she survive, Fa Shen?" One voice asks. The voice seems familiar somehow, but not enough to be important.

"She will be fine, Ku Lon," A second voice replies. This voice is new, and still not important to me, "She might, however, need to bond. She used magic that is new to her, yet familiar to her new form. To put it bluntly, she used too much. Casting three separate spells like that is bound to drain almost anyone, yet she did so with magic completely different from what she was used to. I recognize the signs, however rare they might be. A drain like that which she put herself through, she would need to recharge in the way her body is designed for. She is the one that was here for two months, yes? The one who was….hurt?"

"She is," the first voice replies, "In her own way, she is a survivor, but she does not like males in that way. She does look at the girls with some desire, but outside of training or challenges, she never touches anyone else."

"That will probably soon change," the second voice sounds wry, "For her body will desire sex, and take her along for the ride. I hope that whomever she links to does not hurt her like the one, or ones, who scarred her so deeply before." The words mean something, yet don't mean anything to me right now, their content seeming to mean nothing to my mind.

"Matriarch," that Voice, the one of she who carried me. Just the sound of her voice sends ripples across my skin, and I move my eyes, looking, searching for, "I think she may have already found someone to bond to." Her. Cascades of fire seem to roll over her shoulders, and those emerald eyes, flashing even in this half-light, look towards the owner of the first voice, then glancing towards me. My heart feels as though it flutters in my chest, and a touch of wetness slides towards the ground from my eyes.

"I see," The first voice gains an almost imperceptible edge, "Well, Lai Lac, who is it you think she has bonded to?" The edge is almost of warning, that the answer must be correct.

"I won't hurt her," the Voice replies. Her words grow softer, "She reminds me of someone before, and she needs one to protect her. Is that not the way, between those of Magic and those who fight? One protects the other, and they help each other when needed?" A smile graces Her lips, and I can't help but smile in return. "Besides, I think it interesting that a soul so scarred, yet innocent in its way, resides in a body such as that."

The first voice replies with faint mirth, "It would be an admirable challenge for a warrior of your calibre to assist this one without harming what innocence she has remaining." The edge returns to her voice, "And what of your preferences? Will you force your ways on her?"

"No, I will not force," Her voice is but a whisper, I try to reach over to touch her, but my hands are held. She continues, a little louder, "She is much like my lover from before. A heart of both steel and glass. A paradox in herself. I will not ever force her, for I think that she will follow the same path without coercion. To El persuaded me to follow her path, not I convincing her. Li ya has that same way about her, I think." Her hand lifts up, and She holds a long brown thing against my mouth.

I see the bite marks in it, and I realize that this is what I was chewing before. 'Sweetbread' memories whisper to me as I take another bite of the softness. The Hunger in my middle eases as I swallow. She holds up another brown thing to my mouth, with one end soft, and the end against my mouth harder. Water flows from this thing to my mouth, and I drink it until she pulls it away again.

Sense seems to return, or maybe it is my mind coming back from wherever it was. I can move my arm a little now, and I do so, reaching up to caress at Her hand when it moves in my vision again. I pull gently at it, until it rests against my cheek. My eyes close again.

"She has chosen you, granddaughter." The second voice says quietly, "Do you accept this of your own free will?"

"Yes," She whispers.

Sounds fade from my awareness as I fall asleep.

******
Ch. 7
******

"My, you do like to tempt fate, don't you?"

I don't know what you're talking about.

"Right, pull the other extremity. We heard what you said at the springs, and to be honest, you got off rather lightly."

I wouldn't exactly call this light. Actually, you're right, this IS light. I mean, even with what just happened, it's just the hormones. And I didn't actually do anything.

"You won't be able to hold off forever. We already can see the cracks in your resolve."

Of course you can, you're perfect.

"Thank you."

Maybe I can hold it off long enough for it to not hurt, then. Surely that is possible at least?

"It is possible. Highly unlikely, but possible."

So aside from the hormones scrambling what's left of my brains, I should be okay, right?

"Oh, they didn't scramble anything. They just shut off your higher functions for a short while. You should be coherent when you wake up again."

So is it only sex that this new body needs?

"Oh, you need food as well. But just closeness can compensate for sex, for a little while at least."

Um, I don't know what you're talking about, but I'll find out eventually.

"Go back to sleep. While your visits are entertaining, you really shouldn't be here yet."

Okay.

******

Brittle light in my eyes wakes me up rather more sudden than I am used to. I turn my head, just enough to get the sun off of my face, and then breathe in deeply.

"How much trouble am I in now?" I whisper to myself. I'm sorely tempted to not even move from where I am, I don't want to find out what new problems I'll be running into today.

The light landing in my eyes makes THAT a moot proposition. I roll away from the light again...falling onto the floor. Ouch that hurt. I open my eyes, to see a woven cloth rug, covering a solid wooden floor. Very solid. "Ouch." I lift my head and shake it a bit, then try to examine where I am now.

I'm in a sparsely furnished circular room, which means, to me, that I'm probably in one of the guesthouses. The window above the bed is wide open, through which I can hear someone getting their morning exercises out of the way. Or maybe in the way as I hear a slightly meaty smack of wood on flesh. There is the bed I just fell from, which is a fair bit bigger than the cot I slept in last time I was here. Hmm, this may be someone's house, rather than a guesthouse. The door stands ajar, and I can see another house through the door, from my current position.

I carefully push myself up, and then back on my knees. "I dearly hope that I wasn't as zoned as I think I was," I mutter softly, and then try to piece together the comments from the day (evening?) before. A pole by the door catches my attention before I remember too much from before, and I gaze at the piece of wood in wonder.

There are many types of wood in the world, some of them hard, some of them soft. They come in all varieties and colours. The four and a half foot long piece of wood in front of me is one of the types I have had significant difficulty (before I expired) finding in any significant size. The rich black wood fills me with a sense of...presence. I notice that there isn't so much as a single scuff on the wood, nor can I see any engravings of any kind.

Ebony is one of the more rare woods, I believe. And grown in the wild, it is one of the stronger woods when it comes to focii. The staff in front of me is stronger still than the few pieces of ebony I've ever managed to touch, and I find it hard to step over and pick up this piece. I stare mesmerized at the staff, for I don't know how long, until something, or someone, moves between it and me.

"Nihao," a female voices whispers, and I look up to see the girl, no, woman, who was carrying me before. Was it only yesterday? Even without the hormones addling my perceptions, her hair seems like fire rippling in the morning breeze.

"Good morning," I reply, a smile slipping onto my face unbidden. Butterflies decide to take up residence in my stomach as I gaze at this person's face.

"Are you okay, Li-ya?" she asks softly, staring into my eyes.

I nod, happily, "Yes. I only fall off bed." I gaze at her face and almost am I brought to wish that she could care for me like I feel I already do for her. She reaches out with one hand, touching my cheek. I lean into her hand and close my eyes. "Staff who owns?" Maybe the hormones aren't completely gone, I'm pretty sure I knew how to say that properly before.

A delighted giggle causes me to open my eyes again, and look upon her face. "Silly...that is your staff. All of those who use magic get one, at some point."

My eyes open wide in surprise, "But, why?" I ask in shock, "Yesterday I inter...inte...questioned. Why today I get staff?"

Her mirth fades as she looks at me, then replies, "Because you drained yourself dry yesterday, casting three spells at the same time. According to Ku Lon, you had already used almost everything before you did that. What were you doing that would drain you like that?" Her eyes held genuine curiosity as she asked her question.

"I travelling," I reply, blushing slightly, "Japan to Jusenkyou. Would no have be so bad if Ryouga not come with." A thought occurs to me, "What name?" I ask almost desperately. Maybe if I have a name to latch onto I won't act so much like a schoolgirl with her first crush.

"My name is Lai Lac. Don't you remember from yesterday?" I can see another giggle hiding behind her eyes, although it hasn't escaped, yet. "And how did you drain yourself just travelling?"

My blush gets even deeper than before, "Went from village near here, to Japan, to Jusenkyou fast fast. One hour, I think," I'm pretty sure it was an hour. Maybe it was more, maybe it was less, time when between places like that is hard to keep track of. The travelling seemed instant, but it could very well have taken longer. "And no," I answer her question, "I no remember. I sorry."

Lilac grins, "That's okay, I forgive you. So are you going to try the staff?" I feel a little nervous as I shrug, and she smiles, "Hey it's yours, don't need to worry. You can even use it to fight with, if you like. Have you ever fought with a staff before?" I shake my head, "No? well, we can always start now. Pick it up and let's go?" Her smile gets infectious and I slip around her, letting my wing caress her arm as I go past.

I hesitate for another few seconds, my hand just a short distance away from the staff...I then breathe in deeply, and gently take a hold of it.

Strength flows through my arm, like a warm summer day, or an even stream. Waters of light sift around my consciousness as I feel the smooth wood beneath my fingers. I breathe deeply again, smelling fresh bread, overturned soil...wood shavings.

My attention snaps to now as I notice the last sensation. Wood shavings. It has been so long since I've felt fresh wood beneath my fingers, ready to be shaped, that I almost ache.

"We go to wood shaper?" I ask softly, my fingers tracing soft whorls in the wood, almost invisible to sight, but naked to my fingers touch. The wood is smooth, yet not, there is a glassy feel to some sections, and others are rough, unshaped...unloved. Pure wood is fine for many, but to a craftsman of any calibre, the shaping of the material is almost a labour of love. And to one who uses magic and wood alike, it IS love that is instilled in the crafting.

Now that I'm closer, I can see where, at the top, and bottom, the wood is ground down slightly, ready for butt-caps to be placed on, either hot or cold. I pay attention to that last thought. Hot OR cold forged caps.

Several metals have different effects on magic, even in the same metal, if some of the metal has been hot forged, and some has been cold forged. Steel is a prime example. Cold forged steel is supposed to be proof against both magic, and some of the fey; they call it the death metal. While hot forged steel makes an excellent conductor of heat magic, and can be used to polarize spells that are cast at the holder. Steel doesn't eat all kinds of magic, thankfully, but it does make it difficult to cast certain types of spells around them.

With a thought to my current form, I sadly conclude that steel caps, of any flavour, wouldn't be good. But silver, that's another story. Silver is a sign of purity, no matter how it is forged, and many kinds of evil can't touch it. Just having that should help people see me as good. I hope.

I don't even notice that we have been moving since I asked the question, I'm just following Lilac to...the training circle. Oops.

******

I know that it hasn't been forever since I stepped into the circle with Lilac, but I can't help feeling that it has been. I KNOW she was going easy on me the entire time, but that doesn't make me feel less like a training dummy. I'm pretty sure I managed to block one of her much slowed down strikes.

One, out of I don't know how many hundred swings she took at me.

"What you practice?" I ask, my breath coming in short quick gasps as I lay on the ground.

"I practice the spear usually," she replies with a smile, "Although I do use swords on occasion."

"Thanks," I whimper, "You could have leave me with illusion that block I make was not pure luck." The pout on my face seems like an adequate reaction, considering how much I ache right now. And it is only an ache; that of muscles sorely tested, but not injured. Well, not injured yet, at least.

"That was the worst showing from any Amazon I've ever seen in my life!" exclaimed someone from behind me. I turned slowly to glare at Cologne, "And I've been around for a long time, so that should say something to you," There is a twinkle in her eyes that belies the harshness of her tone.

"Excuse me," I grumble, "Not everyone born or bred warrior. I just simple little mage, why bother me?" the end of my query comes off in a plaintive note, and I'm sure my face matches. A hand runs through my hair from behind me. I almost jump out of my skin from the touch, until Lilac's voice reassures me.
"Leave her alone please, Matriarch. She's new to our ways still, and mage or not, she still has yet to learn the staff, even though she just received it."

Cologne nods, "Yes, that is true. Take her to see Ku Ten later, to have her staff finished. Who knows, maybe he will live up to his mother's skill some day." a sly grin crosses Cologne's face as she continues, "Don't worry, he should be good enough to finish an apprentice's staff."

Lilac's voice has an edge to it that surprises me, "Indeed Elder. But with what she can already do, with barely a month of training, are you sure she ranks only as an apprentice?" I twitch uncomfortably underneath Lilac's hand.

Cologne's voice reassures me, marginally, as she replies in a laughing tone, "Maybe not in magic, no. Most people who can do what she does so easily are ranked as masters and more. But HERE," she stresses, "she is but an apprentice. She must be able to use the staff, as well as the magic it signifies." A hard edge in Cologne's eyes says she won't budge on this. Not yet, at least.

Lilac's hand tenses in my hair for a minute and then relaxes. "True, she needs much work in the martial skills. But even then, for an outsider mage, she is just fine, true?"

Cologne grins again, "True." she replies.

"Not have to say like that," I comment, pouting, "I know I not good. You no need to rub it in."

Cologne smiles, "I notice you didn't use any of your other skills in the circle. Were you afraid to? Or were you just pushed so hard you couldn't think about it?"

I shrug, "Pushed hard and harder. No had time for think, let alone move."

"Why don't you try this time?" I can hear curiosity, and something else, in Cologne's voice.

For a minute I deliberate with myself, to try, or to not. I know that using magic through a weapon is supposed to make it easier to use the weapon itself, but I don't know what it will do if I don't know anything about how to use the weapon yet. Well, that's not exactly true. I do know a VERY little bit on how to use a staff, back from several lifetimes ago. Maybe more than that, really, I never did try and figure out how I learned to use the staff I was playing with back then.

"I be clumsy," I warned Lilac, "I very bad with staff. You know saying, yes?"

A wry grin crosses Lilac's face as she replies, "The best weapons master fears not the second best, but the worst, because the worst person with the weapon doesn't know what they can't do."

I smile in return, and then use my new staff to lever myself standing again. I examine the length of the staff for a second, and then lift it comfortably into my palms. I start moving it in a slow circle, feeling the flows of air around me. I concentrate on that feeling, only peripherally aware of Lilac slipping into a defensive posture across from me. I grasp the air around me, pull it inside…and then breathe out, pushing the air from my body into the staff.

Air moves around me, following the path of my staff as it spins. My staff now feels almost as light as a willow switch, and it responds just as quickly as I reverse the spin of the staff, knocking aside Lilac's practice staff. Again I breathe, again the staff feels lighter still, and again a gentle tap pushes aside her strike.

I'm starting to feel light-headed with this constant movement around me. Air seems to glow to my eyes, and I can't see anything but the air moving. Another tap that I hear more than feel, and can't see.

Hand over hand. Hand cross over hand. I remember a movement to change spin at this speed, and I'm tempted to try it, just to see if I can. Hand over hand, cross over turn, and pull it forward Quick! A sliver of pain seems to light across my ankle as I misjudge (of course) the timing. That's going to burn like nal-fire in the morning. Another crack I hear, and I lose the focus…and my staff. The weapon spins from my grasp as I lose the flow and…

I fall to the ground, gasping, as what feels like a miniature cyclone spins around me, lifting my hair in its grasp. My staff I see, lying outside of the circle, and Lilac's staff is at my chest, barely an inch away from skin. Her flame red hair flows and whips in the wind, and a grin is plastered across her face.

Cackling laughter behind me, "Well done, Liath, well done. Maybe with a few years of practice you might be able to get that good without using magic, yes?"

"Not likely," I grumble, "if I lucky, maybe less than hundred years."

"She passed your test, Elder Cologne." Lilac declares jubilantly, causing me to blush.

"Very well, Let Sil Ku see to her weapon." A twinkle in Cologne's eye tells me she's either got something planned, or she's pulling Lilac's leg again.

"Silk?" Lilac replies in disbelief, "Why her? She works with jewlery, not weapons. What good would it be for Liath to take her weapon there?" I turn away from the conversation, crawling over to my staff. My entire body feels like pudding, I feel so weak.

Cologne's reply reaches my ears as I caress my fingers along the smooth wood of my staff, "Because Silk's work is good enough to handle magic. Hers is the only metalwork in the village that can do that." My fingers glide silently along the sturdy wood, testing for dents and divots in the wood. I don't find any.

"As you say, Elder. I wouldn't know, though my grandmother might." One end of the wood feels overly warm to my touch, then it cools off to ground temperature in the middle, and becomes ice cold at the other end. Strange. "Again, though, why Silk? She works in the softer metals." Lilac asks yet again.

"Silver," is the reply she receives, although it is me doing the replying.

"Why?" her tone is softer now, a query, rather than a demand.

"Because the softer metals work better with magic, and a mage rarely uses her staff as a weapon. She should always be able to use the staff, true, but her staff is a focus to her power, not a weapon in and of itself. You especially should know this, Lilac. Your grandmother wouldn't have let you leave her home without knowing that little bit." Cologne's comment is both repressing, and soft. An interesting combination, now that I'm paying attention to her.

My staff slips easily through my fingers until I grasp it at the balance. I then lever myself up, again, and turn to Cologne. "Thank you, Elder, for suggesting that to me. Thank you as well, Lilac, for not bruising my ego too much," I don't know what language I'm using right now, I just seem so fumble tongued. Oh well, at least my tone and movements should convey the information, right?

*Whap* Cologne's staff raps against my forehead, "Speak a civilized tongue!" She reprimands me with a laugh. Lilac also laughs at the reaction of the Elder.

******

I'm currently at Silk's workshop, and Cologne and Lilac must be laughing behind their hands here, because I'm having a hard time trying to explain to Silk why I want the ends different like I want.

"No no, you don't want that. It's very bad for a mage to have opposite forgings on her weapon." Silk reiterates for what seems like the fifth time today.

"Why?" I grumble, "Is only for focus, I not using it as weapon!"

"Silly, you're an Amazon now. Of course it's a weapon, and you really don't want to have hot AND cold forgings on your weapon, especially if you're a mage!" Silk seems both frustrated and amused, and I still can't see why.

"Fine then. You show me why?" I'm about to give up, really I am, but I want to know why she keeps on insisting on this.

Silk grins, "Finally you're making sense. Here," she hands me a light staff with iron caps on either end, "That side is hot forged, this side is cold forged. Go and try it, with a touch of magic. Outside!" She growls, "I don't want you making a mess in here!"

I blink at that comment, looking around the wider and higher than usual building, and then shrug. I reach out to grasp the haft of the staff, but Silk pulls it away, "No, outside." she repeats, pointing with one end out the door. I sigh in exasperation, and then step out of the building, and keep walking until she finally does hand the staff to me.

The staff doesn't feel like much. I can see weavings around each end, and I can tell that the ends were forged differently. The hot forging leaves a certain sheen to almost any metal. I step away from Silk, to get room to move the staff, and then take a couple tentative swings with it. Silk grins at me, watching. Possibly expecting me to fall on my butt or something. I start the spinning of the staff that I used with Lilac earlier, and blink as Silk steps even farther away with a wince.

I shrug, and continue the spin, starting to draw in on the air around...

"She's going to hurt, isn't she?" I can hear Lilac whispering to someone.

"She's going to get very very sick," Silk grimly replies.

I'm almost tempted to prove them wrong by shoving the magic through the staff all at once, but something inside tells me not to. Heeding that inner voice (for once) I let a trickle of air slip into the spinning weapon.

The world...bends, for lack of a better description. I know it isn't bending really, just my perception, but it's nauseating nonetheless. I keep everything moving steadily, until my stomach settles down again...and then I let more magic flow...

Suddenly, it feels like it's not the staff that's spinning, but me. And at different speeds as well. I hold the pattern for maybe half a second...probably less. I then let go of the staff and kneel down, ignoring the spinning wood. I just want that movement to STOP!

Utter silence greets my ears as I heave and try, desperately, to get my stomach to stop spinning in circles like the staff has been doing. I don't know how long I'm kneeling there dry heaving, but it's still silent when I finally stop, and can look up again.

The staff is hanging there, in mid-air, almost in the exact position I let go of it. My eyes go wide in shock as I stare at it, and I then spin around to look at the three watchers.

Cologne is standing still, her staff at a slight angle, her eyes wide and staring at where I was practicing with the staff. Lilac's mouth is open slightly, and she too is staring...wait. I know there was a wind before I started this, and Lilac's hair is lifted slightly as if touched by wind...

Oh.

I feel the wind inside of me, running through me, seething with energy, even as I look at Silk, who is also motionless, her hand lifting slightly as if reaching for something.

I step away from the staff. One step, two, three. I then turn to look at it, and I can see the threads of wind around it clearly...even though I don't know what they mean. I breathe in, feeling the magic inside pulse.

And breathe out, releasing all that pent up power.

"No!" I hear Silk and Lilac shout almost at the same time. Silk is the first one to notice I've moved, and her eyes are wide in shock that I moved without her noticing. Lilac casts her gaze around frantically until she, also, sees me.

Cologne is the only one to laugh. "There, Liath, do you see why she was so adamant that you not do what you wanted?" the merriment in her tone is understandable. I can almost guess that she did the same thing once.

"Yes," I reply wryly, and then stumble over to Lilac. "I not wanting different sides like that. Hard on stomach." Lilac glares at me for a second, before she too laughs.

"Well then, now that you're making sense," Silk is grinning again, "What metals did you want on your staff?" She must have done this too...why couldn't she just tell me what would happen?

"Silver," I reply, then grin at Silk's own surprise, "I not evil, body not evil. Only looks like. I be safe with silver, maybe people think I not evil, yes?" I grin at Silk's wry look. "Hey, no look like that. I good...well, I try at least." I attempt to look as innocent and angelic as my body will let me. Lilac's laugh tells me it's not enough, but still, I'm having fun again, now that my stomach isn't rebelling anymore.

I stand next to Lilac, waiting for my balance to settle back again, when I feel a drop of water on my cheek. "Rain soon," I mutter, looking around for the nearest building. Silk's workship os the closest to us. I start running...too late. Lilac giggles from behind me, and Silk looks rather surprised.

"I see why you're so sure you won't have problems with silver." Silk grins mischeviously, looking me up and down. I pout at her.

"Come inside," Cologne says, cackling softly, "We'll get your staff done, and we shall talk of my great granddaughter."

******
Ch. 8
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Christmas Special (set somewhere around chapter 12 or so)
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I stare at the ceiling, and sigh. Christmas eve, and I'm with my family. Sort of.

There's my baby brother beside me, and my mother is in her room. Jared has fallen asleep watching late night Christmas movies, waiting for Santa to arrive. Mother went to bed at almost ten pm. And here I am, staring at my computer, at yet another unfinished chapter of my epic story.

Well, it's epic to me. It's titled "End of Pain", and naturally, considering how it started, it's a very depressing story. At times. Then there are times where the story is heart warming, and others when it's downright silly.

A half second flash, and a muffled *thump* surprises me out of my dozing, and I turn.

There, ahead of me, is a sight that I've only ever seen in my mind. She is about four foot eight, with scarlet hair, and deep blue eyes. Tiny horns stick up from her forehead, and slightly pointed ears peek out from her hair. She's wearing a modest suit, a black V-neck shirt, black pants, and black shoes, with silver earrings and bracelets. A black staff with silvered ends greets my sight, just before I glance behind her and see her half furled wings.

"You're..." my mouth feels dry as I look at her in awe.

"Yeah. You." she replies with a sad smile. "You look like you're doing well, all things considering."

"No...no, I'm not," I reply with a matching smile, "I don't have what I truly need. I'm alive, but I'm not..."

"Not living. Is that what you're looking for? You're just...surviving. Existing. Which isn't a life, not really." The pain that I feel is mirrored in her eyes, "At least you're still alive. Me, I've died twice already getting to this point."

"Was it worth it?" I whisper, gazing into her eyes.

"...yes. Yes it was." she whispers in return.

"I wish..."

"Yeah, I would too."

Another thump surprises both of us, and we both turn to the fireplace. A short man (Well, everyone is short to me) about five foot six, with snow-white hair and beard, peers out from the brick enclosure.

"Hidson residence, yes?" he asks in query, staring at me and...myself.

"Yes." we both reply, then jump at the odd stereo effect.

"Oh, good," he grins, and then ambles over to the brightly lit tree, "I was hoping to catch you here." he turns to me, "Did you know how hard it is to catch her? She bounces from one universe to another and has missed christmas day five times now." He looks critically at her, "You really should wear something other than black. It makes you look so gloomy all the time."

She pokes her tongue out at him, "Yeah, well I usually am gloomy. I just jumped to another universe, again, and accidentally left my Lilac behind. Of course I'm going to be depressed."

The man grins, "Depressed, I can see. You don't have to be depressing though. Do you know what you need?"

"A way to stay female forever?" she retorts, wings shaking in irritation.

"No, that's not what you need. You need these." He holds out a matched pair of boxes. "One for you, one for your Lilac, when you get to her again."

She eyes him warily, gingerly taking the boxes from his hand, "What are these?" she queries.

"Rings of friendship. They'll make it so you never lose her again." He winks at her, and then turns to me, pulling out a large (!) circular object wrapped in brightly coloured paper. "And this, my dear, is for you."

"What is it?" I whisper, gingerly gripping it. I then grip it harder as it's rather heavy for its size...whatever it is, it's either solid, or full of something.

"It's your dreams," he replies with a grin, "Maybe not what you want, but something that you need. Not just for your pain, but for your growth as well."

I smile at the little old man, "Thank you. I just...thankyou." Tears slip silently down my cheeks as he reaches up to pat at my face gently.

"Don't worry about it. I've also got something here for your brother, if you think he'll accept it."

"Nothing like this, I hope?" She and I comment, again in stereo. I jump, and she giggles. How melodic her voice sounds in person, I muse.

"No, nothing like that. Just a video." He grins at me, then at her.

"A video of what?" I ask, getting suspicious again.

"Oh, a video of your first change!" his grin gets even wider, and my eyes open in shock.

"I...I think you'd better. He wouldn't believe without it." I mumble, staring down at the object in my hands.

"Trust him," Again a comment in stereo, but this time between her and the old man.

I smile softly, "I do...I always do. I don't trust in myself though."

"We know."

"Well...I think I should do this in the bath. Less dangerous for him that way, isn't it?" A pair of smirks greet my sight as I look up from the wrapped object, "Yeah, I thought so."

A few minutes, and a large splash later, I'm looking in the mirror at my new body.

"You know, I was expecting to come out looking like you." I comment to a jaw-dropped half-demon version of myself.

"Yeah, so was I. You know, if there's _any_ justice in this universe you're going to end up the same age as me."

My eyes go wide, "Don't say that. Don't...just don't. I can't afford to be that young right now and..." I squeak as I steadily have to look up more at her, until I'm looking her straight in the eye. I pout, "That's just mean. Now how am I going to pay my bills?" I complain in frustration.

"Oh stop your complaining," demon-me replies with a smirk, "Anyways, I like this look. Always did."

I nod and look down at myself again. My body is covered in white (and wet) fur, with deep red tiger stripes along my arms and legs. The red so deep it looks almost black in this lighting. At my back is a set of silvered wings, batty in shape, but with more (and sturdier looking) bones. As far as I can tell, I don't have horns, not even any hiding under my long silver hair. A soggy white-and-red tail flicks behind me, and I sigh. "You know," I comment, "I think this looks even better than I imagined it before," I grin at the other me.

"Yeah, but shouldn't we try some hot water? Just to see if it did anything to your other form." I think she's getting a bigger kick out of this than I am.

I smile and turn on the water, trying to ignore the whirring of a recording camera from the doorway. I step under the water and...change. I look down, yes, my clothes are still too big. I look at my arms, okay, that's skin again at least. I reach behind my behind...oh good, tail's gone. I reach up...and connect. I turn frantically, to see...my wings. I turn to look at the other me in shock, and she's grinning even wider now.

"You know," she comments, "I think I could use you as a mirror now." Her eyes twinkle in merriment as she gazes upon me. I poke my tongue out, and she responds verbally, "You really shouldn't do that. Someone might take you up on your offer." I blush beet red as I think about it, and she giggles merrily.

"Liath?" I hear from the living room.

"Oh crap," I mutter, looking at the other me...just as she winks, grips her staff tightly...and disappears. I turn to look at the old man...but he's gone already, as well. All I can see from where he was is a wrapped box with the words, "To Jared, from Santa" on it.

I then look up at my brother, and his eyes are wide as he looks at me. I'm about to try to say something, and then he grins and jumps up to me, hugging me tight. I blink in surprise, slowly wrapping my arms around him.

Jared whispers in my ear, "I got what I wanted this Christmas," he squeezes a little tighter, and then says, "Merry Christmas, big sister."
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