Author's Note: Here is draft 1.5 of this. I like to call it 1.5 because it's not really a second draft (I technically haven't finished the first draft yet), but I'm trying to edit pieces, especially the opening since it's so important.
Also, this is my first manuscript that I really hope to publish and I know that I really need to polish my writing style. It's still not there yet, so I appreciate all comments and tips to improve!
So, without further ado, it's sort of long, but I will be happy to return any critique (give me the link to the requested piece) or I will simply return comments (for every comment here I'll probably comment on several different posts of yours).
“With the possible exception of the equator, everything begins somewhere.”
- Peter Robert Fleming
Flames leapt into the night, tearing through the darkness and reflecting in the dozen sets of eyes sitting in a circle around it. At the center of this circle stood the village elder, clinging to a staff to support his weary bones.
“Through the ages, Les Anciens have told of a special school that was built in the clouds. Only the chosen leaders of every new generation were allowed entrance to this place. To ensure the outside world left them alone, the founders decided the school would never remain in the same place but that it would constantly move.”
Moving in and out of the shadows, the smell of human flesh drove them on. Soft, frail humans. Easy to catch and easy to eat. Mouthwatering, juicy morsels to quench the roar of hunger in their bellies that had raged for days.
Paws padded the ground, the soil absorbing every noise and intention. The dim flicker of campfire was mirrored in their glassy eyes, directing their movements with precision.
“But Ancien, why would a school need all that protection?” one of the boys interrupted loudly. “After all, it’s just a school.”
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Djib. This was not just any school.” The elder shifted his balance and slowly sat down on a log with a loud grunt. “The students of this school were special. Very special indeed because they were shifters.”
“What are shifters?” a little girl asked, leaning forward on the very edge of her seat.
“Shifters, ma petite, are creatures that are half human and half animal in spirit. They masquerade as humans for the majority of their lives. Most people don’t have a clue that they’re different. But inside—deep down in their soul—they carry this secret with them and it’s there, in the depths of their hearts, that the beasts lurk in the darkness.”
The darkness fell back to light as the campfire emerged in plain sight. Such blinding, splendid beauty. Such blinding, splendid pain. Feline eyes blinked back the sudden light and withdrew further into the black refuge of the forest.
It was the heart of the animal itself that hesitated. Some mechanic device woven deep into their genes that forced them to pause in the face of fire. Their ancestors had done it, their cousins, their siblings. Their descendents would do it one day, too. All they had to do was overcome animal instinct—and hunger was more than enough to drive them to do it.
“So do you mean they’re some kind of freaks?” another boy sneered.
“No, of course not. They’re just as normal as you—but better adapted. When they find themselves in need, they can awake the beast within them and take the form of the animal in their spirit. Imagine being able to change yourself into one creature—not of your choosing, of course, but still a full-fledged animal.”
“Don’t you think we’re a little too old for fairy tales?” one of the teenagers asked. There was a group of them, keeping their distance from the rest as if they were too cool to join. Only one of them seemed completely engrossed with the tale: a young woman by the name of Zara who sat just to the right of the teen who had made the outburst.
Zara kept her eyes focused on the flames for the entire story. There was something in them she found oddly enticing, yet repulsive at the same time. It was like wanting the light, but hating it for what it did to the darkness.
Ancien was known to have many stories—some true, some false—but she knew deep down in her soul, in the depth of her heart, that what he was saying was real.
“Of course you are,” the elder admitted with a sigh, staring at the fire intently. “But that’s why I don’t tell you fairy tales anymore.”
An explosion erupted from the underbrush on the farthest edge of the circle of listeners, followed by a scream that incited the others to move. Beige blurs launched into the crowd and a few others took up the cacophony until the village was in chaos and even neighboring tribes would have heard of their misfortune.
It took a few seconds for the shock to register with most of the tribe and even then only basic instincts took hold. It was fight or flight, and it didn’t seem like fight was really an option. The more screams that filled the air, the more the uninjured feared for their lives. Mothers rushed to save their children from being trampled as people fled. The real problem was that no one ran in any one direction, but in twenty different ones at the same time.
Zara leapt to her feet, but didn’t run like the others. The lions would take advantage of the confusion; it would only make their feeding that much easier with everyone whipped into a frenzy and no one united against them. There had to be probably four of them in all. Zara couldn’t tell if any had manes or not since everyone was moving around so much, but she could sense full well that their actions were driven by desperation and they would not stop until they had more than their fill.
From the corner of her eye, Zara caught a flicker of movement, silhouetted by firelight. Ancien had cast aside his staff, letting it fall carelessly to the dirt. And he was changing. The solid lines that made up his body were oddly wispy, like the outline of a ghost. Then they fell away altogether, collapsing in a lump on the ground and out of that rose the statue of a four-legged beast—a leopard.
Zara watched as he seized the closest lion in his jaws and tumbled to the earth with him. Dust flew in all directions, highlighting the shock and terror on the faces of those who had witnessed the transformation. Their ignorance made Zara smile with glee. But one leopard was certainly no match for four lions, let alone four lions on the brink of starvation. And judging by the reaction from the crowd, they were alone in a sea of disbelievers.
Zara carefully weighed the options. The transformation was anything but easy and it always gave her shudders thinking of the needles that tore through every fiber of her body. It wasn’t something so took lightly, but ultimately the beast inside her was getting excited form the smell of blood that mingled with the hot night air. Almost before she knew what she was doing, her form was twisting, shifting to become the black panther she knew lurked just beneath the surface.
Every part of Zara screamed with the shift. Her muscles tugged and shrank, inciting a new form of torture with each change. Her human bones broke with muted noise and then grafted together to create the feline body structure. There certainly were perks with shifting, but this wasn’t one of them.
Once the beast took over, Zara was barely aware of what she was doing. She had never been a particularly good fighter, so she let the panther’s instincts take over and pushed aside her own. The panther lived to fight.
Immediately she felt the overwhelming anger of the threat. The people around her disappeared in a haze of distraction. The only thing that mattered was the overwhelming scent of unfamiliar cats encroaching on her territory. That was all it took to inspire the panther to attack.
The panther’s instincts were keen and ruthless. There was no holding back and Zara got caught up in the whirlwind of emotion. The smell of blood—whether it was hers or the lions’ was irrelevant—spurred her movements. The more she could smell it mixing with the pure desperation of the moment, the more euphoria the panther felt and the harder it fought. Everything was a distortion of pain, pleasure, and musty lion fur as she bit into soft flesh.
When the fight was over, the cat retreated back inside as Zara resumed her own form. The pain lingered for several minutes and she stood as still as she could, willing it away sooner. The crowd had calmed considerably now that the threat had fled. One of the lions lay dead just before the tree line. It was a large male, quite strong judging by its looks, but Zara couldn’t remember who had bested it, her or Ancien.
Her spine began to tingle slightly and when Zara raised her gaze she wasn’t the least bit surprised to find Ancien staring at her intently. She shivered, imagining that he was reading her thoughts even, but quickly let the thought dissipate.
“Jahzara,” he whispered, bending over slowly to retrieve his staff. He moved like an old man now, but the leopard had been as graceful as ever. It was like age never touched it at all. “I knew that someone in the tribe—but you—I never would’ve thought.”
“Yeah, well. I try not to brag about it.” Zara shrugged and looked away. It was rather uncomfortable talking like this, with the entire village circled around them looking like they were circus show freaks. Ancien had just finished saying that shifters were normal. So much for that. At that moment she felt anything but normal.
“Do you know what this means?” Zara made no motion to answer so he continued, “I have a successor. There’s finally someone to take care of the tribe after me.”
“You mean…like…being une Ancienne? But I thought all les Anciens were males.”
“Well, they all have been males, but that’s because there haven’t been any female shifters. Not until you anyway.”
Zara narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms as she asked, “And what if I don’t want to be une Ancienne? What if I just want to be a normal kid like everyone else? I wasn’t born to be a leader.”
“Of course you were. That’s why you’re a shifter. All shifters become leaders.”
“Yeah, or vagabonds or destitute. Like that lousy excuse of a shifter.” Zara nodded towards the dead lion that the tribe had finally begun to drag into town to skin and process. She had known from the start that the trio were all shifters. No other lion, regardless of how hungry, would have dared to wander close enough to the fire to attack someone. If they had, they certainly wouldn’t have attacked a group of humans. Lions aren’t that stupid. Shifters are. “Besides, how do you know I don’t want to be either of those?”
“Yes, like him. It’s a shame that any shifter has to resort to using their animal forms to survive on a daily basis. But that was his fault. He could’ve been a leader like the others and he chose otherwise. That will be you one day if you don’t become an elder.”
“And if I do take over for you then I have to risk my own life to protect this lousy group of ingrates that would rather run you out of town for being a freak than think for a second that you might actually have some merit to the tribe. I’m sorry, but I’d really rather be a vagabond. A poor vagabond even.” Zara glanced one more time at the carcass of the lion and added, “Or a dead vagabond.”
Ancien nodded his head slightly and slowly conceded, “You’re young still, Jahzara. When you get to be a bit older, being a leader might not seem like such a burden. But you don’t have to decide right now,” he added before Zara could get out another objection. “If, when you get back, you haven’t changed your mind then I’ll respect your wishes to not take my place.”
“When I—get back? Am I going somewhere?” Zara asked, glancing around suspiciously. This was certainly news to her. The tribe had become mobile once more, steering clear of them, thankfully, but not making a large scene, either. Nothing came as much of a surprise in Africa anymore.
“You’re going to school, of course! Don’t you listen to anything I say? Honestly, Jahzara, you could do with learning to pay a bit more attention. I just finished telling you all about a school for shifters.”
“Wait…you mean…that school actually exists? I thought you were just making things up.”
“No, no. Of course not. I hope you don’t have any problems with attending school?”
“For how many years?”
“Four years. It’s like a high school for shifters.”
Zara found that comparison somewhat amusing considering they both knew she had never attended conventional school, nor had anyone else in the tribe. It was against their culture to be educated by anyone except for the tribal elders, not to mention that they had as little to do with outsiders as possible.
“So that’s four years of not living here?”
“D’accord. I’ll go get my things. No sense in hanging around when I’ve got things to learn, you know.” It wasn’t like tribe life was bad, but she wasn’t a fool either. After everyone knew what they were it would be nearly impossible for her to go back to the normal teenage life she had. She wasn’t a human anymore, or at least not to them. This school would have people that were like her, and she was even willing to forgive them for being shifters.
Zara turned to go, but paused before she got very far and looked back to ask, “Exactly how are we going to find this school if it’s always moving?”
Ancien smiled as he carefully shifted his staff to his other hand. “Ah, so you were listening. Good. It won’t be as hard to find as you might expect. How do you think it flies? Not by magic, if that’s what you were imagining. It has an engine, just like all other flying vehicles. And, as machines do, it needs to land every once in a while to gas up. They’ve got good reserves there and a rather large oil supply. They only have to land about once a week. I can get in touch with some people and find out their next fuel stop, though. I’ll see if they can make it nearby. Just worry about getting your things and not leaving anything behind. I’ll take care of getting us there.”
Zara nodded and headed towards the orphanage. She’d gone from a nobody to a freak in mere minutes. But this school—this was her chance to go back to being a nobody. It was so much easier that way, so much simpler to avoid trouble. Trouble was the last thing she was looking for, but somehow it always managed to hunt her down. No doubt, trouble was the greatest stalker Zara had ever had.