The first sensation Sammy feels when his feet land on the soil of Earth for the first time is horrendous, excruciating, bloodcurdling, red-hot angry pain.
His eyes go out of focus – he only sees the greenery of a canopied forest for a single moment before he begins to fall. He thinks, numbly and distantly, that maybe this is just Earth’s reaction to his presence. He isn’t meant to be here, just like he isn’t meant to be anywhere.
There’s a loud screech behind him in another second, though, and another raking of pain down his back, and something – talons, claws, fangs – catches on the grooves in his back where his wings sprout from.
Sammy realizes with numb terror that he wasn’t the only creature to cross through the stone archway tonight. That there is something with him, that wants to hurt him.
Sammy never screams. He hasn’t screamed since he was a child and realized how much it hurt.
He screams now, though. His hoarse shouts, shaky from misuse, not nearly as powerful as they could be, echo through the forest, reverberating against the trees.
Sammy presses his face into the dirt. It smells a little different than the dirt in Sylvain, as if combined with something putrid. It should be disgusting, but the difference is comforting. Sammy is probably going to die here. He doesn’t know if anyone will hear the screams, but that’s okay.
He hadn’t had much of a plan for when he crossed through the stone archway, anyway. He heard there was a safe place for Sylvans somewhere on the other side, but – well, they probably wouldn’t have helped him, anyway.
Sammy could try to fight, but he can feel his blood pooling in the dirt now, too. He knows he can’t run, and he certainly can’t fly. Whatever that thing had done to his wings was the single worst feeling Sammy had ever known. It was like his wings had been ripped at the seams.
The thing behind him screeches again. Sammy braces himself.
“Hey! Hey, over here!”
Sammy thinks he must be imagining the voice ringing through the forest, a delusion moments before death that he might be saved. But then the creature makes a sudden noise, and Sammy hears thundering footsteps running in the opposite direction.
Another voice: “C’mere, you great ugly fucker!”
A noise – a shot? Sammy’s heard of guns, mainly horror stories, but whatever that ricocheting pop was, the thing lets out an agonized shriek in response.
A third voice, louder than the rest. “Ron, look out!”
“Oh, fuck – the thing’s taking off! Get to the goddamn car! We have to follow it!”
Footsteps. They’re leaving.
Sammy tries to call out to draw attention to himself, but it’s useless. The scream took everything out of him that the creature hadn’t already. All he can do is try desperately to open his eyes, so maybe the last thing he sees isn’t a dirty forest floor covered in his own blood. He could see stars. Earth had stars, didn’t it?
And then there’s a fourth voice, a presence next to Sammy that’s brand new. Not the creature.
“Hey, hey,” the voice is soothing and quiet. Sammy could cry. “The abomination is gone – the others are chasing it down. It’s gonna be okay, just – try not to move too much. I’ve got you.”
Sammy feels a heady rush of relief as someone places a hand on his shoulder. Whoever it is sucks in a harsh, terrified breath.
It must be bad.
“Abomination?” Sammy manages to croak out, unable to shift his head. It’s a miracle he’s even able to speak, honestly. “There wasn’t – I came through the – the gate – all alone, I don’t know –”
“Shh,” the person puts a hand on the back of Sammy’s head now. “They don’t come from Sylvain. We don’t know where they come from. You just had the highly unfortunate luck of coming through at the same time as one.”
“Am I going to die?” Sammy doesn’t quite realize he’s said it out loud until the person makes a sympathetic noise.
“No, no, you’re not,” their voice becomes more firm and solid. “I’m going to get you to my car and take you back to Amnesty, and I’ll fix you up. I’ve seen worse, I promise.”
Sammy’s heard the word amnesty before. That’s the safe place. That’s the place he would’ve looked for anyway. He can’t be fully relieved, though. The pain is getting worse.
“What’s your name?” The person asks quietly. “I’m Jack.”
Sammy has to swallow first in order to get out a single word. “Sammy.”
“Okay, Sammy. I’m going to pick you up, as gentle as I can, but it’s going to hurt.”
Sammy nods to show he understands, because the words just won’t come anymore.
Sammy is far, far too quiet for the five-minute drive back to Amnesty. He whimpers a few times, blood just the slightest off-red as it streams down his back and around the notches where his wings connect to his spine.
Jack goes eighty on the gravel paths, almost losing control of the car once, but he pulls into the Amnesty parking lot in record time. He only spares a glance up at the golden-lit windows – he could grab one of the residents for help, but they’re only going to slow him down.
“I’m going to open the cellar door,” Jack tells Sammy as he pulls his keys from the ignition. “I’ll be right back.”
Sammy doesn’t do anything but moan almost silently in response, but he nods nonetheless.
Jack’s thoughts race as he pulls open the outdoor entrance to the cellar. He can’t tell what sort of Sylvan that Sammy is from sight, so he’ll have to ask. Jack hasn’t gotten a good look at his face yet.
He’s definitely not a vampire, werewolf, Sasquatch, or ghost, and that’s who the vast majority of Jack’s residents are. There’s definitely something supernatural about the way his skin nearly glows white and red. He’s too humanoid to be related to an animal, but there are those large, feathered wings. A gargoyle, maybe?
He has to carry Sammy down the stairs first and foremost, though, muttering reassurances and apologies all the while, hoping that he doesn’t hit Sammy’s head on the low ceiling. He hits his own head three times.
“Okay, we’re here,” Jack shoves his various books off of the medical table with his foot before he places Sammy on the table, bloody back facing up. Jack has seen worse, but not by much, and most of those patients had died on the operating table –
Nope. Not thinking about that.
Jack crouches next to Sammy’s head. His hair is long, cascading, and doesn’t help Jack see his face any better.
“I know it’s hard to talk,” Jack whispers, brushing a hand through Sammy’s hair so that he could feel something to distract from the pain. “But I need to know what type of Sylvan you are in order to know what magic needs to be done here.”
There’s a moment before Sammy’s head turns toward him, and Jack finally sees his face.
The palest, most translucent skin Jack’s ever seen, stretched tight like it’s painful. Bright white eyes red-ringed in a way that Jack can tell his permanent. Mouth red to match, with blood that Jack can immediately tell wasn’t from the injury. “Banshee.”
“The scream,” Jack falls back on his heels, feeling faint. They wouldn’t have known that the abomination had arrived yet without the scream, even though they the Pine Guard had been patrolling just in case. “Jesus, okay. But – the wings?”
“Thunderbird,” Sammy whispers again. “I’m – it’s – hybridization. Might make it harder. Sorry. Am I going to die now?”
“No,” Jack brushes his hair back again with his hand, which he realizes is shaking. He’s never met anyone who had the traits of more than one Sylvan before, let alone anyone with the traits of a humanoid and a bird. “No, you’re going to be just fine. We have plenty of Sylvain’s magic here. I’m going to put you to sleep now so that I can operate. Just – stay very, very still. And I promise everything will be okay.”
Sammy nods, closing his eyes again. Jack can tell with a sickening intuition that he doesn’t expect to live.
“I promise,” Jack whispers, knowing that he will do absolutely anything in order to be able to keep that vow.
Sammy’s last dream is about the stone archway. He’d always had it in the back of his mind that he could run away from Sylvain, leave the isolating misery of his life behind. He didn’t know what he’d be trading it for, though, and it had always stopped him. The cruelty of humans was well-known. It might just be worse there.
With the dwindling resources, his isolation only increasing the more the city shrank – Sammy risked it, and he ran. He ran away, running to nothing other than the stone archway. Dying almost makes sense, in a way, because Sammy had never imagined a future after he crossed through. Just release. This is release.
And then Sammy opens his eyes, and he’s not in the place he was before.
He’s not on the forest floor, or a shiny, metallic table. He’s laying on his stomach in bed that smells like fresh linens. His nose is turned into a bright yellow comforter, not dirt and blood. He doesn’t smell blood at all, not even around his own mouth.
“Hey, hey, don’t move,” a voice rings out above him and – and right. Jack.
Sammy had never met a human before, but he’s doubtful that Jack is a good representative for the rest of the human race. He had been far too kind, his hands and voice too gentle. He didn’t match with the stories Sammy’s heard of human destruction and cruelty.
And he promised that Sammy would live, and while Sammy might feel like death rolled over – it’s undeniable that he is very much alive.
Jack crouches next to him. Dark hair and glasses and a bright smile. Sammy always heard humans were ugly, nearly revolting, to match the deeds they committed. Jack’s certainly beautiful enough to match with the deed of saving Sammy’s life.
“Where am I?” Sammy asks. It doesn’t hurt to talk anymore.
“Safe,” Jack promises, lines around his eyes creasing when he smiles. His hand is on Sammy’s shoulder. “We’re at Amnesty Lodge. My room – it’s more private. We’ll get you your own room as soon as you’re well enough to move.”
Sammy shifts to take stock of his body, which he’s suddenly extremely self-conscious about. There are bandages covering his back and sides, his wings creased at odd and painful angles to fit around them, many of their feathers fallen. Sammy’s wings usually have a level of stiffness to them, but this feels different, like they’ve been shredded and reassembled in the wrong way.
“How are you feeling?” Jack asks, soft and quiet.
“Awful,” Sammy says truthfully, coughing and turning his head back into the pillow beneath him. “What happened to the – the –”
“Abomination?” Jack fills in and Sammy nods. “The rest of the Pine Guard is still out taking care of it. They’re getting close, I think. I told them to call if they needed backup, but I didn’t want to leave you alone and confused if you woke up.”
“Pine Guard,” Sammy struggles to fill in the blanks from his limited knowledge about Earth beyond childhood stories meant to scare him. “They’re – they’re the people who help?”
“Right,” Jack smiles. “Did you know about Amnesty before you came through the gate? My contacts in the government didn’t set up an appointment, so I figured that you were a runner and not a prisoner.”
Sammy nods, hoping that Jack won’t ask too many questions. “Yeah. I knew about Amnesty, just not…. much.”
“All you need to know right now is that you’re safe here and always will be,” Jack squeezes his shoulder, and Sammy doesn’t wince. “This wasn’t a great introduction to our world, but you’ll never have to see another abomination again.”
“Okay,” Sammy can’t help the relief that courses through him. He’d never even seen that thing clearly, and he knew he never wanted to be near one for as long as he lived. Which, shockingly, was going to be longer than the rest of the day.
“There’s one other thing,” Jack says, and the relief Sammy feels turns to anxiety in half a second. “There’s a precaution we need to take that we do with all of the Sylvans that live here. I’m going to give you a charm to keep on that will make you look human. I’m sorry, I know that might be upsetting –”
Sammy stares up at him, his heart suddenly in his throat, not understanding in the slightest why Jack’s eyes shift guiltily and apologetically. “I – really? I could look….”
Sammy has spent a lifetime looking like an odd and uncomfortable cross between two species that should in theory have nothing to do with each other. To look just like one thing, to look human when everyone else looked human, too –
And humans weren’t unpleasant to look at. Jack wasn’t.
“It might help with the pain,” Jack, for some reason, still looks anxious. “Lots of Sylvans think it’s pretty disgusting to look human, but if you’re in a form without wings, the pain might lessen.”
“It’s not disgusting,” Sammy says softly, because it’s the only thing that comes to his mind to say.
Jack’s hand moves from Sammy’s shoulder to his head, the comforting touch from before he performed whatever surgery he’d done on Sammy. With magic or human medicine, Sammy wasn’t sure. The thought of being human preoccupied him too much, as did the gentle way that Jack’s eyes didn’t move from Sammy’s own.
Sammy had never liked his eyes. Maybe they would look different, after.
Sammy snuffles in his sleep, and Jack’s a little distracted more than once from the task at hand.
Sammy chose a nondescript leather bracelet for his charm, his white eyes welling up with a kind of emotion that Jack had never seen from a Sylvan before, at least not when it came to this.
Most of the residents of the lodge itched to take their charms off and made it clear to Jack how they turned their nose up at the looks and mannerisms of humanity. Herschel was the worst of all, and the most obvious the second his watch came off, but Jack’s never been able to tell him what to do. Herschel’s been here a lot longer than he has, after all.
Ben’s better at talking to the residents, always has been. He can talk anyone into anything, even the orneriest of old bastards. He wishes Ben were here now. He thinks Ben would do a better job comforting Sammy than Jack’s been able to.
Then again, this is maybe Jack’s most successful introduction to one of his residents yet, but that’s probably because Sammy’s just grateful for Jack because he didn’t die in the forest last night. Anyone would be receptive after that.
But then again, Sammy seemed pleased about the charm in a way that was deeply unfamiliar to Jack. Probably because of his injuries, again. He’d have scars on his back no matter what form he was in, and his wings were maybe too mangled to ever do anything with again. There had been a couple of cracked ribs as well, and lots of bruises.
But the bleeding had stopped, Jack reminded himself as he felt a sudden wave of nausea. He can’t remember a time where he sobbed all the way through a surgery, but Sammy had been knocked out by then and the only time Jack’s ever been more scared in his life was when Ben broke his leg in a chase last year and had almost been eaten alive.
He’d fixed Ben up then, though, and he fixed Sammy up now. He was good at this, right? Right.
The magic of the charm is delicate, so Jack needs to push all of those thoughts out of his mind. He needs to give his full attention and focus.
He hopes Sammy likes the bracelet. He hopes that Sammy will like what he looks like when he’s human. Some Sylvans look the same with a few key features changed, some look entirely different – Jack hopes that Sammy’s the former and looks mostly like he does now. The narrow features and stocky build and cascading hair that hides his face.
He hopes Sammy will like Amnesty, too. The runners usually have an easier time adjusting, and Jack hopes that Sammy’s injuries won’t prevent an easy transition. Jack will give him the empty room that overlooks the springs when Sammy feels up to walking, though Jack could easily carry him again. He’ll get Ron to come over and cook, or else beg Mary. He’ll keep Herschel in a separate wing for now so as not to scare him off.
“So are you in the Pine Guard, too?” Sammy asks from behind him. Jack jumps at the sudden noise – he thought Sammy was still sleeping.
Jack turns. Sammy’s not quite looking at him, head buried in the pillow, but his eyes are so luminescent that it’s hard not to feel like they can see all of Jack at once.
“Yes,” Jack says. “I’m the co-owner of Amnesty Lodge, but I go out with the Pine Guard, too. Ben – you’ll meet him when he gets home – he’s the other owner. The rest of the Pine Guard is human, but they’re trustworthy members of the community in Kepler. That’s the town we’re in. I’ll show you around when you’re feeling up to it.”
Jack pauses, then quickly adds, “Or one of the other residents can. We’ve got nearly two dozen Sylvans living here now. We have hot springs out behind the lodge for you. Ben and I can pretty much take care of everyone on an average day, but we need some extra help when it comes to fighting the abominations. That’s what the Pine Guard is for.”
“Weird job you have,” Sammy nearly smiles and Jack chuckles.
“Yeah, a little,” he admits. “What about you? What did you do before –”
The smile slides off of Sammy’s face and Jack curses himself for even asking. He should have known better than that.
“I’m sorry, of course you don’t want to talk about it,” Jack says. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. The charm is ready, if you –”
Sammy tentatively sits up, pulling Jack’s comforter with him. It’s the first time Jack’s seen his face not obscured by anything other than his dark hair. The reds and whites of skin stand out starkly in contrast, and Jack tries not to let his breath catch.
He walks tentatively to the bed and takes Sammy’s hand. The air feels heavy, but not unbearably so. Just…. important.
Jack slowly winds the leather bracelet around Sammy’s wrist, narrower than Jack thought it might be. He tightens the bracelet once, and then clasps it together.
A ripple of energy moves through Jack’s hands and into Sammy, and Jack can feel both of their hands begin to shake uncontrollably.
And then Jack looks up and breathes a sigh of relief.
Sammy still looks the same in all the ways that Jack hoped. His build and features are nearly unchanged, and his hair is still a wild mess around his shoulders.
The translucent glow of his body is gone, though, along with the streaks of angry red on his skin. The wings, of course, are gone, leaving his back still bloody and bandaged but far more so than it needs to be now. The only proof of the wings are a few stray feathers laying in the bed around him.
And his eyes, no longer white hot and impossible to read, are a deep brown, blinking up at Jack, unsure but trusting, asking is this….?
“Here,” Jack clears his throat as he lets go of Sammy’s hand. “I’ll – I’ll get a mirror for you, just one –”
Jack scrambles around his books to find the handheld mirror he keeps for these occasions. Nearly every Sylvan will sigh in disappointment and sometimes disgust when they see their reflection, even people whose appearances are barely changed. They always thank Jack regardless though, because it is to keep them safe, not to win beauty contests.
When Sammy takes the mirror, tears well up in his eyes.
“I really look like this?” Sammy’s voice is nearly hushed. He moves his back at a strange angle, probably because the wings are no longer present.
“Sorry –” Jack apologizes automatically, but Sammy cuts him off with a shake of his head.
“I never thought humans were –” Sammy clears his throat, a blush appearing on his cheeks. His skin is still pale, so it’s noticeable. “Thank you, Jack. I – I love it.”
He touches the bracelet on his wrist gently, and Jack is pretty certain he’s never felt quite such a protective surge for anyone before who wasn’t Ben.
Jack cares about all of his residents, of course, but no one had ever been quite so –
“You only have to keep it on when we have guests at the lodge or go into town,” Jack says because it’s his usual speech. “When you’re alone, and especially when you’re at the springs. Your outside is human, but the inside is still Sylvan. And you’ll need to take care of your Sylvan body – especially the wings, since they’re injured. You can take it off when you need to.”
“But do I have to?” Sammy dovetails almost immediately, then blushes again. “Sorry, it’s just – I’ve never – I didn’t really expect much, let alone….”
Jack gets the sudden awareness that Sylvain probably hasn’t shown Sammy much kindness, even in comparison to the other lodge residents, who had all faced some measure of cruelty or abuse. The look in Sammy's eye is different, though. Haunted.
“Well, you haven’t even met Ben yet and he’s the nice one,” Jack jokes, and thankfully Sammy smiles. “I really hope you like it here, Sammy.”
Sammy seems almost surprised when he says in a marveling tone, “If most humans are anything like you, I think I will.”
Jack’s pretty sure that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to him.