My name is Cherry. I like to think of myself as a pretty normal farm girl, if a bit on the meek side... which makes me wonder how I even got drafted. You’d think they would do exceptions to the second child rule for basket cases like mine. One week after my twenty-secondth birthday, They’ve put a helmet on my head, a lance in my hands, and apparently that’s enough to be called a soldier.
The troop I’m in has been tasked with taking down an evil warlock who has taken residence in an abandoned guard tower in the middle of a swamp. Apparently the swamp used to be a town centuries ago, but the tower is all that survived whatever happened that turned the surroundings into this desolate place. The briefing was so incomplete I don’t even know what someone would be doing in such a desolate location.
I’m shaking out of my waterlogged boots. We’re not the first expedition sent to take the warlock down, that at least I know, but none of them has come back. We probably won’t either, honestly. On the way there, we keep being chased by animals; folks left and right have bite and claw marks popping up with each new attack. The strange part is how these animals aren’t swamp dwellers. We’ve seen does and elephants and tarantulas, so many things, more different species than I could count. Did the warlock bring them here?
I hear the troop leader and the second in command whisper to each other about something.
I’m worried. I want to go back to the village and to my family.
The tower menacingly appears in our sight through the foliage. I gulp. The troop is coerced onwards.
I look up at the top of the spire, and I think I see something glint for a second. I stop in my steps to focus a bit more on what I am seeing… Until the glint becomes a spark, and the spark flies straight onto one of the other conscripts.
It’s only at the grunt of the affected soldier that the others stop. Had they not seen the light? Everyone’s eyes are on the soldier groaning in pain. In the space of a blink, he grows feathers and shrinks down, and it’s a duck we see flying out of his discarded clothes and into the forest.
I scream in panic; I’m not the only one who does. Immediately the situation devolves into chaos.
“ATTAAACK!” shouts the leader, prompting us forward in a frantic charge. We scatter out of the dirty swamp water and reach the very small hill upon which the tower sits.
I see more lights appearing atop the tower before they suddenly start raining down on us. None of the other soldiers see them come.
I see them turn into all kinds of animals, a squid, an owl, a mouse… which immediately gets snatched by the bird before it flies into the trees - gods, do they not even remember being human!?
In just one assault half of our forces have been transformed, including the second in command. The leader forces us to press on with another shout. Only a few of us still continue the assault, the rest flee...
But even they aren’t spared. In fact, they seem to be targeted first, leaving only those of us who haven’t run away yet. A spell goes straight for me and I dodge it; it hits the ground and disperses itself. The others still seem to be unable to see them. Why? They can’t dodge what to them seem to be surprise attacks. More people get hit and turn.
We’re down to five now, still sprinting like mad men aiming for the door. Adrenaline is the only thing left carrying me. I look up, and see the warlock floating above us. His spindly head is fully shaved, save for a goatee on his chin. His purple robes billow with an unnatural, green wind that carries him down to us. But worse of all is his expression, this look of utter contempt. It buries itself deep into my brain. I’m terrified.
The others look up. Our leader draws his bow, only to receive a mean-looking purple light javelin to his chest. A moment later, there’s a hole in his torso where the spell was. He crumbles to his knees, and the four of us remaining flee in unison, abandoning our weapons behind with fear-filled screams.
I just take the time to look backwards, and spot the warlock flinging another flurry of spells at us. This is it. I wouldn’t be able to dodge them all. But I look to my left, and… In the first act of bravery in my entire life, likely motivated by my feeling lost one way or the other, I push the soldier next to me out of the way. I get just enough time before being hit by one of the lights to see him continue his run into the forest, accompanied by the vulture and the husky that were the last soldiers. At least one person will know what happened, will be able to tell our families.
Pain covers my entire being in the space of an instant.
“I don’t want to die,” I tell myself. “I don’t want to be an animal, I’m scared!” The world feels slowed to a crawl, but I know it’s just an illusion from adrenaline. This is all just happening in a fraction of a second.
The bubbling, blue magic in my chest hurts. I feel fur growing all over me. A tail sprouts on my back. My fingers retract into paw pads.
My short life flashes before my eyes. My mind likens this situation to that time when I was seven and narrowly avoided being run over by a carriage. Weeks after, the anxiety and the nightmares still wouldn’t stop… Until my dad gifted me Henrietta. She was a hippopotamus plushie I carried everywhere with me until I was twelve, and the only temporary abatement I ever had from my cowardliness.
The memory creates a pit of warmth in the middle of the panic. All my thoughts feel magnetized to it, my whole being even. I feel the magic go haywire before I see it happen. My increasingly paw-like hands come undone first before the rest of my body follows suit.