Title: The Weapon of the Wood
Fandom: (Non-canon) Magelight
Characters: Frego ♂, Mocker ♅
Rating: M (L0 N3 S3 V0 D0)
Warnings: Shapeshifting, gender-swapping, slave trading
Notes: For Sargantas. This was supremely strange to write. It needs dialogue, but I don’t know one of the characters well enough to write dialogue for him, so the dialogue is all suggested rather than explicitly spoken. Not really sure how I feel about that. It’s also confusing as hell, and that’s semi-intentional. Mocker changes forms faster than people change their socks, and he’s always called by the face he’s wearing. Sometimes he’s the Marquess of Renshaw, sometimes he’s a friar, a foreign spirit, a jaguar… If you’re not sure who that is, it’s probably Mocker. This is a pretty serious break, stylistically, from anything I’ve written, before, and I don’t know how well it works, but I do know it’s the only way I could manage to tell this particular story. (2831)
The Marquess of Renshaw stripped his armour, packing it into the chest that sat on the cart behind his horse. A chest and a cage, he carried, and those who saw the cart assumed he meant to capture that devil-ape of local myth. Another hunter of the devil-ape, just like the tens who came before him, in the preceding centuries. He packed away all he wore, then drew apart his flesh, bloodlessly, replacing what should have been his intestines with the bottle his brother had given him and bindings in the same strange blue. Non-porous, Noctis had told him, meaning not to let the gel soak through his skin, but the bottle would keep him safe, for now. He calmed the horse and walked away, deeper into this grand jungle, becoming a great cat. Perhaps a jaguar was not the most unremarkable choice, but it was one he knew well enough to hold, with little thought.
Fortune favoured him, as he entered a clearing, and that made him somewhat uneasy. His attention and gaze cautiously turned toward the pale-haired, point-eared humanoid creature, crouched on the rocks, looking down at him, a bow in one hand and arrows at his back. Was this too easy? Had this been a trap? No, nothing knew him, but his brothers.
The jaguar leapt, as the hunter took aim, with his bow, and in the confusion, became less of a jaguar and more of a shapely young woman, still with spotted fur and strange features. She pushed aside the arrow, with a shout, and the hunter was overtaken with confusion. Apologising for his mistake, he asked her nature, and she introduced herself as a spirit from a far land. The Far Lands, actually, but that was another story, and one she didn’t mean to tell. Curious, she asked if he had never before seen a jaguar.
He had thought she was a leopard, if a very strange one. But, that was no matter, he said, since she was now the most beautiful woman he had seen. Or so he said. She seemed to still be changing, as he spoke to her, the fur and talons growing shorter, her face taking on an exotic, elven look.
The spirit stepped closer, offering gifts and other exotic, foreign delights. She took in the vines and leaves the hunter wore, and asked if he were a dryad. She had heard of dryads, she said. He was quick to correct her. Not a dryad, but a sylvestre. Close, though. Related, but not the same. She seemed intrigued by this — almost impressed at learning this handsome hunter was some rare creature — and she joked that it was just the thing that a rarity like she was, in these lands, would encounter someone just as unusual.
It was just the thing. The spirit flirted and teased, and the hunter seemed terribly interested in her flirtations. Soon, her hands were on him, then her mouth, and he did not resist, but encouraged her. Her body continued to shift and change, as he leant back against the rocks and his head lolled back. She slowly shifted, becoming the Marquess of Renshaw, once more, and forced the bottle of gel to the surface.
The Marquess opened the bottle with one hand, changing the consistency of the inside of his mouth, as he did. Don’t swallow it, Mockingbird, his brother had joked, but they both knew that even if he did, it wouldn’t affect him much. Anything that entered him could be made to exit just as quickly. Still, it had been a century or two since he’d done anything of the sort, and he took a hesitant breath before introducing the contents of the bottle to the contents of his mouth. The gel worked fairly quickly, soaking into the skin and dyeing it blue, clinging to the flesh like a second skin. The Marquess would thank his brother for the warning, later. Non-porous, indeed.
The hunter glanced down, as he felt his loins grow unnaturally heavy, the skin stretched tighter than he thought he could bear. Blue—? And the spirit had changed shape again — a man’s shape, now?
As the hunter’s foot caught him in the chest, the Marquess smiled blithely up at him, wrapping a hand around the hunter’s calf. A jest and another slipped past his lips. He had already changed shape once. What made the hunter think he was done? And so on. A tirade of distaste came from the hunter, but the Marquess batted each remark aside with a quip of his own, making no move, as the hunter leapt back onto the stones behind himself.
He could have found an easier way to do this, he was sure, but the Marquess was always one for a challenge. A few twists to a stable plan, just to keep things interesting. And this would be interesting.
With a final indignant comment, the hunter leapt down the far side of the rocks, intending to flee into the wood. To his misfortune, the gel had served its purpose, and his swollen member had reached astonishing proportions — proportions with which he was not prepared to contend. The vines he wore tangled with it, and he stumbled, tripped again, and finally fell. As he attempted to scrape the gel off, with the side of his hand — what hadn’t yet absorbed, anyway — the Marquess slowly rose to his feet and circled the rocks, a simple ring, the same colour as the gel, hanging from his fingers. A tart remark set the hunter to run, again, but he was no better prepared this time than the last, and the Marquess leant toward his sprawled form, with the ring.
The ring would cause no harm, the Marquess promised. He had no need to engage in such ridiculous things. It would simply provide a better display of the hunter’s assets. And what he wouldn’t mention is that those assets would not include the hunter’s formidable talents with the local flora. In fact, he was somewhat surprised he hadn’t yet seen those talents in play. Could he have mistakenly caught a dryad? One who dreamed of being something else?
As that thought passed through the Marquess’s mind, the question was answered. He’d caught the right creature. Or, perhaps it was more correct to say he’d been caught by it! Lilies he’d thought too small to do more than trip wound about his legs and arms. He watched the plants grow, as if they too had been affected by his brother’s strange concoction. The lilly-vines lifted him off the ground, stretching his legs and arms, as he struggled against them. This was exactly what he’d hoped for. No human, however skilled, would escape this without assistance. The Marquess thrashed more violently, just to ensure he was correct about the strength and response time of the vines. This was perfect. Ideal.
Suddenly, the Marquess stopped moving, and the hunter watched curiously. Was the spirit already exhausted? Was it saving its energy?
Slow, deep breaths. The Marquess didn’t need to breathe, but breathing calmed him, relaxed him, and calm and relaxed was exactly what he needed to be, to get out of this. The colour began to drain out of his skin, and his extremities began to drip large hematite-coloured drops. He hadn’t meant to do this, but at times, it was a necessity. Slowly, his body collapsed into itself, streaming down what remained of him, as the hunter looked on in horror.
What strange creature was this? The hunter grabbed his bow and leapt back as the Marquess dissolved into an oily-looking pool. The liquid moved like quicksilver, beading and running, but never soaking into the ground. As the last of the body fell away from the vines, which continued to grab after it, the liquid rose up, slowly taking form, as it washed over the floral tentacles that stabbed and grabbed at the bulging pool. The liquid creature took little notice of the vines, as it shaped a torso, arms, a head with the features of the man it had been.
As the liquid creature lunged, the hunter fired an arrow and leapt back, again. The liquid creature made no move to dodge, and was struck, as intended, in the centre of the chest. The arrow sunk slowly through the thick fluid of the body it had pierced, but did not slow the creature at all. The hunter backed away, swiftly; he dared not turn his back on it to run, and that was his mistake. A silvery-grey tentacle lashed out from beneath one of the creature’s arms to wrap around one of his legs, and a hand settled on his other ankle. The other hand came into view again, still holding the strange blue ring.
The hunter could not twist himself out of the way, and the ring dropped onto his engorged flesh. Strangely warm, it crept into position, as if it were alive. And suddenly, the vines were just lilies, again. Freed from that threat of battery and capture, the Marquess once again fully formed himself from the pool of deep silver liquid, dragging the hunter to the ground, with tentacles and tendrils that slowly retracted into his body, to be replaced by ropes the same strange glowing blue as the ring. Even as a liquid, he hadn’t lost the rope hidden in what had been his abdominal cavity. The hunter weakened as each knot tightened, the power leaching out of him, and the Marquess whispered in his ear, encouraging him to rest, as they had a long journey ahead.
Once the hunter was safely asleep, the Marquess carried him through the jungle, back to where the horse and cart waited. The empty cage, tarnished with the damp, still stood, bolted to the cart, lacking only a prisoner, a prize. It seemed almost lonely, the Marquess thought, much like his horse, which nosed at his chest, as he drew near. Such a patient creature. Once again, he had chosen well. He laid his forehead against the horse’s, for a long moment, and then moved to the back of the cart, where he hung his captive in the cage, with the same blue ropes that had been wound about the hunter’s body. No sense in taking chances. The Marquess needed his prize too weak to resist, at least for a few hours, once they arrived. The ropes and the ring would leach the creature’s powers until they arrived, and it would take a short time — at worst, a day — for those powers to return.
There would be time, the Marquess thought, as he checked the ropes, to take his sister and leave. There would be time, and then the collector would be destroyed by his own collection. He would have a word with the hunter. Leave some supplies a bit outside the collector’s isolated desert menagerie. He had no intention of letting his prisoner die, in the desert. Just to trade him for the prize he’d dreamed of claiming for seven hundred years. Opening the chest of supplies he’d left on the cart, he removed a heavy drape and stretched it over the cage, fastening it to the cart. No sense in adding a sunburn to his captive’s troubles, or in letting anyone see what he’d caught. To bring a sylvestre from the wood in such a fashion would bring him nothing but trouble, from the surrounding communities. Time for a change, the Marquess decided, so no one who’d seen him go in would see him come out. The robes in which he’d left the friary came out of the chest, as well, and his flesh reformed as the weighty material settled around him. Who would harass a friar?
The friar drove the horsecart back out of the jungle, toward the nearest thing resembling a road, which was mostly just milestones with no paving. An old Roman route, long covered over with the weight of years and little travel, since the empire collapsed. Every day, he checked on his passenger and the walnut sapling he kept in a glass dome. Food for one, water for the other. Every night, they travelled further. The journey should have taken many months, but by paying the exorbitant fees of the owners, he passed in through the Ivory Gate and out through Djinn’s Gate, and shaved the journey down to a couple of weeks, the whole time chattering away to the sylvestre. He instructed his half-conscious captive in the tools that would be provided to him, the expectations of his escape, and the idea that he was to take the menagerie away with him, once the collector had been dealt with. Few would stand in their way with any degree of success. The friar fed the ideas into his captive’s dreams, as they travelled.
As they drew close, the friar again became the Marquess, trading his robes for the enamelled armour he’d last worn in some misty Eastern pass. No one had survived to tell that tale, and it was presumed the Marquess of Renshaw had died with the rest of them. Presumptions were always such a dangerous way to do business. At last, they reached the packed-earth walls of the fortress containing the menagerie. Half a day’s ride, the guards instructed, and pointed out to the east. Khurshid, the collector, would not allow him into the fortress until the goods had been inspected.
An hour out, the Marquess stopped the cart, burying a bundle of supplies, topped with the bottle that had once held the blue gel, now filled with water. When the light struck it, the bottle would reflect blindingly. He hoped it would not be lost beneath the sand, before the sylvestre was able to find it again. Brushing the sand out of the details of his armour, the Marquess took in the vast expanse of blurry-edged sand and sun. If this went awry, even he might have a difficult time getting back to civilisation.
As the sky turned red, and the red bled out across the expanse of sand between the horizon and the horse’s nose, an expanse of canvas billowed into being between the travellers and the sunset. The Marquess unloaded the cage, with the assistance of the two guards who came out to greet him, and the three brought it, still covered, into the tent, along with the glass-domed walnut sapling and an assortment of documents. The collector rose from his pipe and his sweets, with a broad grin, pleasantries spilling out between his teeth as he stood.
The Marquess introduced himself, and waited for the name to sink in. Khurshid recognised it, but only vaguely. Some story he’d heard as a child, perhaps. A hint of confusion passed across his face, as the Marquess of Renshaw began to speak again, offering the documentation, first. The Marquess seemed just out of step, somehow, slightly out of time with the rest of the world, as if his second hand turned at a different rate. It made him at once intriguing, unsettling, and dislikeable, but if nothing else, he seemed sincere. They removed the drape from the cage, and the creature trapped within seemed drowsy and weak, but the Marquess was quick to point out the problem was the ropes used in transit. No sense in having a captive able to cause problems, even if one isn’t travelling through many populated areas. He introduced the walnut tree, as well, saying it had been grown from a cutting of the dryad’s original tree, and as such, the creature would not survive long, if separated from it.
What Khurshid knew of dryads seemed to confirm what the Marquess was telling him. He asked, again, precisely what it was the Marquess desired in trade, and the response was the same as it had been. Only the shadowy girl would suffice. For a moment, it looked like he might not agree. With a protest that she had lived in her enclosure since before his grandfather’s birth, he finally produced the key, trading it for the one the Marquess offered.
As they untied the ‘dryad’, Khurshid spoke of how he came to be in possession of the shadow creature. She had been passed down through his family, as had many of his creatures; the menagerie was full of long-lived and seemingly immortal creatures. He would be sorry to lose that one, but she had always made him strangely uncomfortable. Books had been written about her, but no one had ever heard her speak. The Marquess nearly smiled, but managed to contain himself.
It had been, he assured Khurshid, a pleasure to do business, and he left the collector with his new prize, to return to the fortress for his sister. Less than a day, and they would vanish back through the djinn gate. A few more sidesteps and dead-end paths, and he could take her home, without a trace.