CHELSEA AND THE RENEGADE SHAPE-SHIFTER
Copyright © 2009
The morn was as bright as any other day for the sky homes in Sundire. High above the clouds they collected like giant lilly pads of independent villages, attached from below to keep from floating off. As twelve-year-old Chelsea Williams trotted outside, she wondered how far down they went, especially when a piece of paper swept away from her grasp and was lost over the edge. How many others were there, she pondered, collected over time in a place where no other could venture? That was, unless you had a shape-shifter, which Chelsea did not at the moment. Instead, she waited patiently with her pad of paper settled on her lap, pencil in hand, and began to draw.
It was half past noon by the time the carrier arrived, late as usual. Chelsea pocketed her pencil and rose when the great winged beast carrying the latest letters of importance to her village appeared in the distance. A spectacular site, its wings stretched wider than a rooftop, and louder than her mothers rug beating on the down stroke. Its neck stretched like that of a dragon with the head quite equine. White bony plates lined all the way to the shoulder blades where its carrier, a boy of sixteen, sat atop with as much pride as a kitten catching its first mouse.
A wide grin spread across Chelseas face when he saw her standing at the edge. With a single wave, she stood back to allow the great creature to alight with ease. The boy instantly dismounted, taking a sack of letters with him.
Youre late, she said matter-of-factly, hands to her hips.
Should be used to that by now, was the reply as they started toward the drop-off point.
From behind, they could hear the dragon like creature yawn. Chelsea even stole a glance behind her to see it shift back to its original form. Just as pompous looking as Will. She shook her head. Nearly human looking herself, the shape-shifter walked over to a watering trough and spooned some of the liquid to her lips.
You dropped one again. Chelsea dug through her papers to produce a yellow tinted letter.
Instantly, the boy snatched it from her grasp.
Gees, Chels, how do you catch these things? He turned the letter over, his brisk walk slowing only slightly to read the address. Ah, man! This is Mrs. Loveingstons! She was expecting this yesterday.
Mrs. Loveingston? Chelsea paused in thought. Isnt she close to where you live?
Wow! Thats like, she counted her fingers, seven platforms over! Bet youll be hearing from her too.
Arriving at the drop-off point, they pushed through the double doors into a small building where a gentleman greeted them at the counter. After pouring the mail into a large bin for sorting, Chelsea followed Will back outside.
Her village was not large like some of the others. Being one of the farthest settlements, they were the last to receive mail, which meant extra time to check out the shape-shifter Will had recently obtained from his father. Saffron was her name, just as wild looking in her original form as she was in her shifted appearances. Always, she kept her white hair cut back in static waves of intertwined feathers and braids.
Cant ride today, Chels, Will said without even turning to look at her. Got an important message to deliver across the Great Gap.
She could feel a pout coming on, but instead held firm. I mustnt look like a baby in front of his mount.
Lucky! she replied. Well, I suppose Im due for a shape-shifter any day now.
Youve been saying that for months! Will laughed. Chels, some people never get shape-shifters. Remember they choose the carrier, not the other way around. Besides, its rough business being one, and Id prefer seeing you standing here every day of my life than taking my place.
What? You dont think a girl could brave the sky? Youve seen how I ride.
Saffron was waiting just outside town when the two arrived, bickering over carriers again. With a shake of her head, Chelsea got another earful about the dangers of high-speed chases from Ember Mages, wicked electrical storms, and going for days without food or water just to reach the next destination.
Not all Ember Mages are terrible, she said thoughtfully. Of all stories containing elemental-users, the Ember Mages fascinated her most. Ive heard some are very friendly, and just think what it would be like to walk through fire and not even get burned.
Yeah, Will looked doubtful, then feel their full power blasting you soon as you turn your back. Thats how my dad got that scar across his cheek. Never trust an Ember Mage!
He whistled for his companion to shift so they could be off.
Oh, sure! Like one would really come around these boring parts.
Ya never know, Wills shape-shifter answered once in her dragon form. It wasnt too long ago one actually came this way. I had the pleasure of fending it off. The creature raised its head with pride. Got an honorary pendent to prove it.
Chelsea just waved the comment aside.
Yeah, I see youve never taken it off either. But that was back when we were still developing Sundire, before I was even born!
Still, one was here, was the huffy reply.
Doesnt count. Chelsea rolled her eyes.
Will waved goodbye as his mount lifted off into the sky.
Stay out of trouble, Chels! he called back.
While watching them playfully dip through wisps of clouds, Chelsea sat down next to the landing platform to draw. The clink of pencil against the board made for a quick dash to retrieve it. Too late, it vanished over the side.
You gotta be kidding me! She sighed and looked around at all the pages from her pad flung on the ground from the sudden movement. That was my last one. She rose and started collecting the sketches. Better run over to Mr. Johnsons before they close and order more.
As she sat to reorganize the papers back into her pad, a half torn letter flipped into view.
Will, youre terrible at keeping letters together, she said to herself, turning it over to read the address. Faulkner? Thats Wills last name. It was so tempting to open the partially torn envelope that she decided to take a peek at the first few words shown in the opening.
We are in dire...
Oh, its probably for Wills father. Chelsea stood and stuffed the envelope under her arm, her pad under the other. Though I cant believe Will missed this. Hes usually good about keeping his family stuff straight. She took out the letter again and looked at the words. But I wonder why he didnt get this delivered first when his house is right there at the drop-off point?
Curiosity getting the better of her, Chelsea carefully folded the opening back so that it wouldnt rip. A green tinted piece of paper slipped out. Unfurling each section, she began to read.
To The Head Council Member, James Faulkner. Good day, Mr. Faulkner, we are in dire need of your assistance. A renegade shape-shifter was last seen heading toward Sundire two days ago. He is NOT to select any carriers, due to misfortunes in the past. I trust this message reaches you before any trouble ensues. With greatest respect, Headmaster Shape-shifter Horticus.
Headmaster Shape-shifter? Chelsea studied the name. This must have come from beyond the Great Gap too. She turned to stare through the rich blue sky, barely able to make out the next village through the haze of drifting clouds in the distance. I wonder if Will is going to meet the headmaster? A thrill of excitement tingled through her. That means hed get to see an entire settlement of shape-shifters! Will, you are so holding out on me in your adventures! I hope the renegade does show up. Least Id have something to talk about too.
Chelsea skipped all the way home and up to her room. Her parents were out in the garden again. She could hear the scratch of the hoe digging through the soil in their never-ending quest to find weeds. Chelsea just smiled and pulled open a page to her drawing pad while reclining on her bed. She glanced out the window, then held the sketch of Saffron up. She gave the paper a wiggle, making it look like the dragon was moving.
You draw very well, someone said, and Chelsea turned to see a green and gold bird with a long feathery tail sitting on one of the bedposts. Can you move it again? It looks just like her.
Chelsea slowly sat up and moved the picture for the bird to see.
? she began.
There came a chuckle before it flew toward the center of the room and shifted to its original form: a young man with white hair like Saffrons with deep blue eyes.
I hear youve been waiting months for one like me. He took a bow. Im Ego, second in command to Headmaster Horticus himself.
In rising excitement, Chelsea gripped the edge of her bed so hard she left imprints of her hands in the covers.
I read about him! Hes leader of your people, isnt he? I have a letter written by him!
Directly to you? Ego pondered.
Chelsea shook her head. No, I found it. Will is our carrier. I guess he must have dropped it. He does that quite often.
Ego made a face.
A carrier position is an honor. Dropping messages is risky and could take that honor away. Do you, by chance, still have the letter?
Of course. Chelsea dug through her papers until she produced the torn envelope. Its really for Wills father. Something about a renegade shape-shifter being on the loose. Do you know anything about that?
Only bits and pieces. Ego read the letter over before handing it back. Supposedly, he chose the wrong carrier. Not a pretty sight.
Is that possible? Chelsea asked.
Ego shrugged. It happens.
Gosh, I cant imagine what it would be like! Chelsea exclaimed. Imagine waiting all that time for your own shape-shifter. Then when one comes its not meant to be! Hows that happen?
Mixed signals, I guess. The young man shifted back into the bird and flew to the open window. Its hard to choose sometimes. The signs have to match.
Do they match now? Chelsea asked hopefully.
Egos beak curved into a grin. Ive seen you ride Saffron on several occasions. Im pretty sure youre the one. So
care for a spin?
Would I? Chelsea ran to get her shoulder bag. I want to practice immediately! She stuffed some papers into the sack and slung it over her shoulder like a carrier would do. I cant wait to tell Mom and Dad! Theyll be thrilled!
Ego dived back inside to block the door. Dont you at least want to show them after youve practiced a bit? You know, really look professional? The bird circled Chelsea, herding her back to the window. Besides, it would give me more time to get a feel for how you ride in the air. What do you say? Id hate to embarrass your parents if Im not ready yet.
I guess youre right. And I do want to look professional if Will were to see me. She hoisted herself through the window. Come on! I know a secret place where we can practice. No one checks it but me.
Ego fluttered joyfully out the window behind her.
Careful, Ego warned. Dont fall from the window your first day as carrier.
Relax. The girl slid down the vines with ease. Ive done this a million times. She looked around to make sure no one was watching, then gestured for Ego to follow. This way.
To Be Continued...