Daecon was horrified. “Blood? Why?”
“We need to make it look like those clothes were on you when they were shredded.”
“Ok, I see. So... more rabbit blood then?”
Leander sighed. “Sorry, but no. Rabbit blood was good enough for our little ruse last night, but once those men find your clothes here they will want to test them, and when they test them they’ll need to find your blood.”
Daecon realized what Leander was saying. “So you’re saying that you need my blood. I’ve got to cut myself.”
“Yes, we need your blood. You don’t have to cut yourself, though. We can extract your blood into bags, just as if you were donating it. I figure one half litre should do. We only need enough to make a mess inside that cave.”
Daecon stuck his arm out. “Get on with it, then.”
“There’s a good lad”, Owen-bear said as Leander retrieved some medical looking equipment from the bag.
“Wait”, Daecon said as he watched Leander retrieve the gear. “You carry equipment for draining blood out of people with you?”
Leander looked hurt. “No! This is just some generic medical equipment that I thought we should have. We are both healers, after all. Doctors, if you prefer, though our people don’t use such titles.”
Leander stuck a needle into Daecon’s arm and attached a tube to it. Daecon watched as the bright red liquid flowed through the tube and started filling a clear plastic bag.
“Hold on. What’s that?” Daecon asked, suddenly looking worried.
“What do you mean-”
“Shh! Please! I hear something.”
Owen and Leander looked at each other. Owen said “I don’t hear-”
“Helicopter”, Daecon said. He was sure of it. “It’s a long way off, but it’s coming this way.”
Daecon could see Owen straining to listen. “Can’t you hear that? It’s plain as day.”
“No, sorry, I can’t.”
He looked at Leander, who shook his head.
Owen said “Are you sure you hear anything? I have excellent hearing in bear form and I can’t hear a thing.”
“Of course I’m sure! How can you not hear that? It’s getting louder, even. Aren’t you the one that once called them ‘noisy helicopters’?”
Leander removed the needle from Daecon’s arm and stood up. “Here”, he said as he handed the bag of blood to Owen. “You go make your mess in the cave. Let me have a listen.”
In a flash the black panther was standing there with its head cocked, listening intently.
“Yes, yes, I think I hear it now. It’s very faint, but...”
“Faint! There’s nothing faint about it! It’s clear as a bell!”
Leander was looking at him oddly again, the same way he had been looking at him when he saw the red in his eyes. “What are you looking at?”, he asked.
“Oh, nothing”, Leander said as he shook his head, almost as though he was coming out of a trance. “It’s just that, well, it seems as though you have the use of your animal abilities even while in human form.”
“So? Isn’t that normal? I mean, at least as normal as could be with people that change into animals?”
“No, it isn’t. It is extremely rare, as a matter of fact. Some think that we enjoy slight improvements in our senses of sight, smell, and vision, but nothing compared to what we experience while in animal form. It’s actually been proven that even the slight improvements we think we feel are merely placebo – having access to animal form makes us more aware of our surroundings in human form. We simply pay better attention than true humans do.”
“So why can I do it then? I can’t even properly shift yet, so why can I see and hear so much better?”
“Oh, you can see better, too?”
“Yes! I told you guys that just a few minutes ago when you were freaking out about my eyes. Last night, before you got here, before those men got here, I was standing on the plateau looking out over the valley and I could see everything. Even though it was dark I could see clearly. I could even see the faces on the men in the boats! I thought it was normal, but now you say it isn’t. Why is it not normal? Why can I do it?”
Leander paused, looking very much as though he was considering his answer carefully.
“Well, it’s just that your particular skills are very, very rare among our people. Most of us – indeed, almost all of us – have never possessed the ability to use our animal senses while in human form. Being able to use those abilities without shifting would largely negate the necessity of shifting. To my knowledge there was only one bloodline whose members ever had some of those abilities, and that bloodline is extinct as far as we know.”
“What do you mean, ‘extinct’?”
“Well, many years ago, the last known member of that family disappeared and was never heard from again. It is thought that he was killed somehow, though many think that to be highly unlikely. Members of the r---”
“Enough talking”, Owen said as he suddenly emerged from the cave. He was giving Leander an agitated look as he deposited the medical equipment back into the bag. “We must go! I hear those helicopters now. They are getting nearer.”
Daecon shifted his attention back to the sound and found that Owen was right – the sound was growing louder. He gazed off in the direction of the lookoff, where this whole fiasco had gotten off to a flying start the previous day. “Wait, I see it. It’s not quite to the lookoff yet.”
“Wait, how can you see... give me a moment here”... Owen said as he shifted from bear to golden eagle. He was looking in the direction of the lookoff.
“You’re right, I see it now, too. It will be here in less than ten minutes. We must go now, there is no time to waste.”
Leander shifted into the big black owl.
Owen-eagle regarded Daecon. “Do you think you can shift? Fully?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think....” He closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself as a bird, spreading his wings. He opened his eyes and saw that he had failed – the wings were there, as was the tail, but he was no bird.
“Damn it”, Owen said. “Oh well, we’ll have to make do. At least you’ve cloaked yourself. Leander told me you flew last night. Is that correct?”
“I sure did.”
“Good. Let’s go then, all of us. You can carry the bag.”
“Because you’re the only one of us with hands, and I don’t fancy carrying it in my mouth. Enough talking, let’s go!”
With that Owen spread his giant wings and started pumping them. He took off in a whirl of dust, and Leander followed. Daecon reached down and grabbed the bag and spread his white wings out.... and immediately realized he had never actually taken off properly before. He started pumping his wings vigorously and could feel the weight leaving his feet. He looked down and could see that he had risen a half metre off the ground.
“Come on!”, Owen yelled as he circled back around to the plateau. “They’re almost here!”
Daecon looked out over the lake and could see the helicopter was already halfway across it. He could see that there were boats in the water too, all coming this way. He pumped his wings harder and felt a surge of acceleration. He was very unsteady though, until his tail feathers automatically shifted to steady him. Once he was far enough off the ground he began wondering how he would convert upward motion into forward motion. As he was thinking this he felt his wings shift their pattern of beating; instead of flapping straight up and down they shifted to a forward/aft pattern, almost like doing the breast stroke while swimming, and he was pleased to discover that he was now moving forward at a good clip.
“Good”, Leander called from beside him. “I had forgotten that you’d never had a proper take-off before. You’ve nailed it! Keep up the good work!”
Daecon was truly enjoying himself here. It was just like it had always been in his dreams, and this filled him with an intense pleasure. He felt free. Free of trouble, free of worry, and free of the constraints of gravity. As the two birds flew steadily in front of him he was diving, climbing, banking, just having a good old time while learning the nuances of flight. He felt like he must have looked like a fool to the older birds, but he didn’t care. He was having the most fun he ever had in his life, and he was making the most of it.
Sure enough, though, the eagle slowed up and flew along side of him.
“Would you please stop showing off? You’re holding us back!”
‘Ahh’, Daecon thought as he rolled his eyes. ‘This is the Owen that I met yesterday. Not an ounce of fun in his body.’
The owl had slowed too, and was flying on the other side of him now.
“Oh, leave him be, Owen. We’re well away from those men and in no hurry now. We’re all cloaked anyway, so they’re not going to see him. Let him use his wings properly for the first time. It’ll help him to sharpen his flying skills.”
“Fine. Let him make an ass of himself then”, the eagle huffed as it pumped its wings harder and pulled ahead.
“Oh, don’t mind him”, Leander said as they watched the eagle flying up ahead. “Sometimes I think he forgets that he was young at one time, although I often wonder whether he ever really was.”
With that the owl winked a bright green eye at him and surged on ahead to catch up to its husband. Over the rush of wind in his ears Daecon could hear the couple bickering and chuckled to himself at how much they reminded him of any number of old married couples. He didn’t care. Nothing in the world was going to get him down today. He continued his aerial acrobatics, getting bolder and bolder with his antics. He was now doing corkscrews, loop-de-loops, sharp climbs, and even sharper dives, all the while having absolutely no troubles keeping up with the others, no matter how much Owen may have said he was holding them back. The further he went, the more he worked his wings, the stronger he felt. On his final dive he decided he was going to pull out of it in a loop-de-loop, and was just starting to pull up when he lost his grip on the duffel bag.
“Oh, shit!” he yelled, and he folded his wings against his back and went into a steep dive after it. The wind was whistling past him as he accelerated but he could tell that he was not gaining on that bag as it fell. He started pumping his wings hard, flying straight down. The bag was still putting distance on him.
He was briefly blinded by a flash of light but didn’t have the time to think about it right now – he had to catch up with that bag! Owen would probably kill him if he lost it!
He beat his wings harder and harder, and was now flying so fast that he was catching up to the falling bag quickly. Closer... closer... NOW! He finally caught up to it and closed his beak around one of the straps. He arrested his dive by spreading his giant wings and going into a long curve, his belly coming within mere centimetres of the trees below. He pumped his wings hard again to gain altitude and caught up with Owen and Leander, who had been blissfully unaware of these events. For some reason they both looked smaller to him now.
He flew In between them nonchalantly, as if nothing had just happened, and said “So, where are we going, anyway?”
Leander turned to answer: “We’re heading to our place”. He then looked back ahead to watch where he was going, and after a moment, turned back toward Daecon so quickly that he almost lost control of his own flight.
“Oh my god! What’s happened? You’ve done it! You’ve...”
Owen turned to look now, and reacted much the same way as Leander. “My word! You’ve finally shifted properly! Well done, my lad!”
Daecon was startled. “What? Me? Shifted?” As he said this he realized that he was carrying the duffel bag using his mouth and wondered why he would be doing so.
He looked down at his hands, only to discover that they weren’t there. He looked down under his own body and, instead of seeing a human body with white T-shirt, cargo shorts, and hiking shoes he was looking at the sleek underbody of an enormous bird, covered with snow white feathers with feet that were the same colour as his skin in human form. Those feet were tipped by large, black, razor sharp talons. He reached forward with his left foot, hooked the bag's handle on one of the talons, and released it from his mouth.
“Wow! I’ve done it! I’ve actually done it!”, he exclaimed. He surged on ahead of Owen and Leander and resumed the acrobatics.
If he had thought that he was in control of his flight before, he had not seen anything yet. His new bird body was so much better adapted to flight than he had been as a human form with wings. Now Leander joined him in playing around in the air. Owen laughed – he actually laughed – at their antics. He didn’t join them, but he seemed to enjoy watching them all the same.
After a short while Owen announced “OK, fellows, we’re nearly there. That's enough playing around for now.”
Leander and Daecon straightened themselves out and joined Owen in a fast, level flight over the mountain tops. They crested one of these mountains and before them was a large valley. At this end of it there was a glacier, but further on and down the valley was green and lush with a bright blue-green river leaving the glacier and winding down through the valley and emptying into a lake. Owen started a gentle downward glide, and Leander and Daecon joined him on his flight path.
“Our cottage is on the other end of the lake. I hope you will find it to be quite comfortable. It’s off the grid, but we’ve got solar panels and a small hydro generator for power, and we connect to the internet via satellite”, Leander explained.
“I think I see it! Yes, I see it! Log cabin, covered veranda, big stone chimney, solar panels on the roof, right? But it looks like somebody is there. I saw him standing on the veranda, but he just went inside.”
Leander was looking at him strangely again. “How on Earth did you see all of that from here?”
“I don’t know, I just can. So who is it that is there? Another shape shifter?”
“Yes”, Owen said. “That would be our son, Evander. We called him earlier and asked him to meet us here.”
“Son! You never mentioned having a son!”
“No, I suppose we haven’t. We haven’t had enough time to sit down and have a really good talk. That will come later today. We have many things to discuss. Important things.”