Steady breaths. Calm the mind. Focus.
Her eyes were closed, her focus shifted inward. She could feel her mana. She slowly pushed it outward, feeling the transition when it passed out of her skin, and through her scales.
No longer in me, but still mine. Just like moving a limb.
She repeated the mantra, her breathing steady and mind harmonious.
The mana felt… slippery when outside, but she could still sense it, lead it. She pressed it to the floor, letting it spread, but keeping it controlled. Her focus was steady and the mana was still responding to her will. It was working! It was…
Calm. Steady breaths. Calm the mind. Focus.
She started to shape it, impressing the image she held in her mind over the shadowy mana covering the floor in front of her. She could feel it as it started to shift, where there was once a vague shape, sharper lines began to—
TOC TOC TOC TOC
That’s a woodpecker!
Shadow's eyes shot open as she sprang to her feet, shadows dissipating around her. She took off in the direction of the sound.
“Shadow! Come back here! You almost had it!” Annie shouted at Shadow’s retreating form. She hopped up on her back legs, turning herself and starting to walk in a two-legged side step, keeping her tail up to help with balance and so it didn’t tangle with her legs. Her forepaws now freed, she used one to raise an ‘index’ claw toward Annie, shooting her a grin. She’d figured out the trick to keeping those from unnerving her beloved humans (she’d finally learned the real name for their species, but ‘thinker’ would always have a place in her heart) was to not show too many teeth.
She lowered the claw and then made an M shape in the air.
One minute! I won't be long!
TOC TOC TOC TOC
She dropped back to all fours and padded toward the sound again. Her ears shifting around, trying to home in on the sound.
“I suppose it would be a terrible travesty to let a woodpecker go undocumented. I wonder why she likes them so much?” Annie asked, perplexed. She’d run off whenever she heard one.
“Who knows? Why don’t you ask her when she gets back?” Jonas responded, continuing to pack his bag, breaking down the camp for the day’s travel.
“I suppose I should.”
She focused back on the ground, which a moment before had been filled with shifting magical shadows. A smile made its way over her face.
“Did you see how close she got that time?” Annie said, the pride clear in her voice.
“Yeah. It’s mighty impressive. Aren’t mages supposed to take years before they can shift their mana around outside like that?”
“Indeed they do. It comes naturally to her. I’ll need to do more research on shadelings once we make it back to Glossa. There is no way they don’t have some sort of magical background.”
“I’ve always thought shadelings were mundane beasts, but I agree. She’s either a variant to end all variants or there’s something about shadelings I’ve never heard of.”
TOC TOC TOC TOC
It wasn’t long before she spotted the bird and its vibrant red head. Shadow circled around to get a good look at it.
It was the seventh she’d seen. They were getting more common. She wasn’t sure what it was about the birds that interested her so much. Something about their beautiful head feathers and the way they carved holes in trees by smacking their faces into them just called to her. They were pretty and weird. She liked them.
TOC TOC TOC TOC
She’d made a game for herself out of cataloging every woodpecker encounter. Whenever she heard one, she needed to go off and see it. She had to know what it looked like for her research!
Just like Annie.
Annie was always writing stuff in her journal about one thing or another whenever there was free time. Shadow wanted to do that too, and what better thing to do it with than woodpeckers!
This one had a bigger head than normal, she thought. As she kept circling she noticed a scar where its eye should be. It was missing its right eye! She’d have to note that. Everything else about it was pretty standard. She nodded to herself, task complete.
She took off back toward the group. She’d learned so much over the last month. For example, now she knew what a month was. She was also at the point where she could understand almost any given sentence. She would still run into plenty of words she didn’t know, but she understood enough that she was figuring them out from context. Even when that wasn’t enough and she had to ask, her vocabulary was sufficient for the thinkers to explain what the word meant. Her writing was getting better too.
She was improving rapidly.
Apparently more rapidly than expected. Annie had seemed shocked by her quick improvement. Human babies supposedly took a lot longer to learn. Annie said she was really smart for her age though. She was quite proud of that.
She made it back to the pair, bouncing slightly, a smile plastered on her face. She hopped up on her back legs again and tapped on Annie’s backpack, then mimed writing. She was surprised by how high she could reach now. She'd definitely been growing, although it seemed to be slowing down a little lately. Her head came up a little over Annie's knees when she was standing on all fours and she cleared Annie's waist if she stood up on her back legs.
Annie dutifully retrieved Shadow's journal and an inkpot, setting them on the ground for easy access.
Shadow brushed off her forepaws, then gently used a claw to page through her journal. Annie had gifted it to her shortly after she’d started practicing her letters. She got to the woodpecker sighting section. Holding it open with her left paw, she dipped her right index claw in the inkpot and wrote her observations.
#7 – It had a big head. Its right (Hmm... She hadn’t spelled these ones before…) i was gon.
Wait, but ‘i’ means I, not eye. Can a word be two things? They do sound the same, now that I think about it. I guess that makes sense.
“Oh? It was missing an eye?”
Shadow looked up at Annie and nodded. Annie reached down with her own feathered pen and dipped it in some ink, before making corrections.
i was gon. eye was gone.
Of course. Another word with those stupid Es at the end. But why is eye spelled differently even if they sound the same?
She carefully flipped to a practice page then dipped her claw again to write out her question.
Why eye not I when sound same?
“Why eye, and not I when they sound the same, you mean.” Annie gave her a critical glance.
“You know this. Don’t be lazy. I’ll answer your question when you write it properly.”
She let out a small hiss of annoyance before slowly writing out the question again. Adding all those extra tidbits just took so long to write! Annie knew what she was trying to say!
“Don’t you hiss at me, young lady! This is for your own good. You need to practice these things.”
Shadow looked up and ducked her head in apology. She hadn’t really meant to hiss. She knew she needed the practice, but she wanted to know the answer and writing was so slow!
“You could give her a break you know; she’s only been doing this for a month.”
“And despite that, she knows better, as improbable as that is." A contemplative look passed over her face. "I may have some theories about that, but they'll need to wait until I get back to the lab. Regardless, I won’t have her making mistakes just because she doesn’t feel like writing things out correctly.”
Shadow finished with her corrected sentence and looked back up at Annie again.
Annie read the corrected sentence. “They’re called homophones my dear. Words that sound the same, but are spelled differently, and have two separate meanings.”
Shadow cocked her head. That didn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t people just pick a different sound for the new word? It seemed like that would take care of the problem. She asked just that, trying to stick to things she could spell, but Annie still ended up needing to correct her words a couple of times.
“That—is quite a complicated topic, my dear. I’m no linguist but suffice it to say that people generally don’t create words like that. The words likely had different speech sounds at one point, but over time the language was simplified or drifted. Perhaps it combined with another. People, through no real fault of their own, ended up making the same sounds for different words. Things remain understandable in context, so it’s generally not an issue.”
Huh. There was a lot to unwrap there. She’d always assumed the humans had just come up with their language, but apparently not entirely?
“Enough of that. Before I forget again, I’ve been meaning to ask you why you’ve decided to document woodpeckers, of all things?”
Well, she knew the answer to that one.
They are pretty and weird.
Annie quirked an eyebrow and Jonas burst out laughing.
“If those are the requirements, you should be writing about Annie!” Jonas guffawed.
“Jonas!” Annie scowled, shooting daggers at the man.
Shadow was a little confused at the interaction but that was nothing new.
Jonas slowly settled down, his body still shaking occasionally from contained chuckles.
“We don't really have time for another meditation session do we?” Annie asked, glancing toward the sun.
“No, we should get going. If we keep a good pace, we should be able to reach Lorvale tomorrow night. It'll be nice to pick up some supplies.” They'd been mostly living off the land for the last few weeks.
Shadow perked up at the mention of the village and rushed off to put on her belt and pouches. She could secure them in no time at this point. She had lots of practice.
“Hard to believe we’re almost back to civilization.” Annie whispered, glancing over at Shadow putting on her belt.
“We’ll need to talk with her. People aren’t going to tolerate her just walking around. You have any ideas?” Jonas whispered back.
“Some, but I don’t know if she’ll accept them. We can talk about it later. Let’s enjoy the day we have.”
Shadow padded over, an excited grin on her face, bouncing on her feet.
The group set off for another day of travel. It wouldn’t be long before she would see other humans.
She couldn’t wait.