At first it was just a background noise. Constant and soft. As Din gradually grew more awake, he recognized the noise. The sound of soft rain.
He opened his eyes. The light was soft, like morning or evening. He was staring straight at rock. Lots of rock, some meters away from his face.
He closed his eyes again. His body ached all over, and his head felt like lead. The weight lightened as sleep lost its grip on him, but it was still too strong to resist for nothing less than a life-threatening reason.
Dreams. He had had some extremely vivid dreams. He couldn't recall everything, but he distinctly remembered a native woman.
There was something about violence too. Much more than he was used to. In his ordinary dreams, there could be violence such as when he was the hero, blazing with the fiery flame of the red essence, and fighting against bandits attacking the village. But there were never so much blood. The memory of his dreams slipped further away as he neared a state that could be called awake.
He opened his eyes again. Tilting his head, he noticed the treetops bathed in a stream of soft rain. Some leaves had already fell off, but most of them remained, creating a beautiful picture of the colors of the fall. Din had always liked Fall.
Tilting his head further revealed the still warm coals of a campfire. He recognized the place. It was the cave they had camped the night before entering the crypts. Mist had found the natural cave. Not very deep, but enough to provide cover. No need to sleep in the open unless you had to.
Mist. He was the only one of the adventurers who had been friendly to the four of them. He had shared a tale and food with them. The other three adventurers had been about as polite to them as they'd been to cattle. And now he was dead.
Din should've be dead too. He recalled lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood, freezing as unconsciousness dragged him under, unable to breathe as his chest seemed to have stopped obeying him.
He felt strange sensations and pain from his entire body. Not pain as when he'd hurt himself, but the pain in his muscles after a full day working the fields. Make that two. However, pain was usually a good hint that he was alive. He was fairly certain dead people didn't feel any pain.
He seemed to be able to breathe now, somehow. Ignoring the protests from his body, he raised his arm and put it on his chest. It felt strange. There was something weird there. Din pulled his head up and looked down.
Shock hit him like an anvil. Now he was definitely wide awake. And possibly crazy. He almost leap up into a sitting position and looked down.
He was still wearing the same clothes as earlier. They were full of dust and some dirt, completely stained with blood and drenched in sweat. Okay, he could live with that. But they were as fitting as a fat man's on a starving beggar. That was scary, but not too bad either.
He poked his own chest, confirming what he had felt earlier. There were something there. Not only something, but a woman's breast. Boobs. Tits. Din and Rob had spent quite some time watching women, and that had been one of the favorite parts to look at when they didn't notice you were looking.
They neither felt nor looked very big, though. Not like the daughter on the next farm, who were really endowed with an enormous size. On the other hand, it was a bit hard for Din to measure. It wasn't like he was used to seeing them from this angle.
There were something else strange, too. More than one thing. He just realized he didn't recognize his hand. It looked smaller, and had a different skin color than he was used to. Darker, but not like the tan you got when working outdoors during summer.
He recognized that color from somewhere. The native woman from his dreams.
Din realized he was hyperventilating. He was probably in a state of panic, he remembered seeing that on a little girl that watched her mother getting run over by a horse. He put his hand over his mouth, and tried to relax. Panic wasn't getting him anywhere. On the other hand, if he actually had gone crazy, panic would possibly not be such a bad idea for dealing with the situation.
He closed his eyes again, and tried to recall the images from his dream. A memory rose in his mind, a scene where a woman walked up to a statue, touched it, and somehow turned into that girl. He couldn't recall touching any statue himself, but he had somehow ended up like that woman. It seemed like the only reasonable explanation he could come up with, even if it was lacking.
'Okay,' he told himself, 'so I'm a girl now.' Given the choice, he very much preferred to be a girl over being dead. With a bit of luck, it was even reversible.
If it wasn't reversible, or until he could get it reversed, it would take some time getting used to. If he was hoping to ever getting used to it, he 'd have to start with thinking of himself as ... herself. A 'she'. It felt incredibly weird.
He ... She relaxed a bit more. As she felt the wave of stress fade back, the wave of fatigue he had suppressed in her panic came back with a vengeance. Her muscles felt really sore. It made sense, in a way, after undergoing such a transformation.
Taking it slow, she examined the rest of her body. She had expected to find nothing between her legs, but it was still rather rather unnerving to actually feel it with her hand. There were all kinds of strange sensations she wasn't used to from her body when she touched herself down there. She withdrew her hand.
Putting her hands on her head, she could feel that her hair was different. It had a different ... feel, somehow. It was no longer than he was used to, but fell in a different way. Touching her face, she wished she had a mirror. On the other hand, perhaps it was better not to expose herself to too much shock at a time.
She returned her hands to her breast. They were surprisingly stiff, and felt rather sore. Just as he was squeezing them, he heard a voice. "Good to see you awake."
He recognized Rob. Instantly blushing, Din pulled her hands away from her chest. Rob seemed to be a bit uncomfortable as well. Rob dropped a small bundle of firewood on the ground. He kept holding one piece, as if wielding a weapon in one hand. His other arm was busy leaning on a make-shift crutch.
"... Din? Is it still you in there?" her friend asked.
"Ye... " she started her reply, but stopped as soon as she heard her own voice. Okay, she should have expected that. A female body, a female voice. "Y-yes," she tried again, "I think so. I still have memories from before the crypt, at least."
Rob seemed to relax a bit more. He sat down, very carefully, and put down his weapon. However, Din noticed that he laid it much closer to his hand than what was strictly necessary. He wanted it within reach. He was a bit frightened, or at least careful, and trying not to show it.
He looked tired, and his clothes were far from clean. In fact, they were even more covered in mud than his own. The black field under his eyes suggested he had been sleeping very little.
Rob unfastened a rabbit from his belt. "I've had some luck with my traps," he smiled. The notion of food instantly caused Din's stomach to complain about the lack of food lately.
Rob seemed to have figured that out on his own. "It'll take some time to get the rabbit finished, but I've got some roots cooked here." He dug into the earth next to the campfire and pulled out several thick roots with his knife. "I baked them in the warmth from the campfire. Careful, still hot," he told Din as he handed them over. He also produced a waterskin to him.
Rob just sat and watched Din as she started digging in with great appetite. Din was aware of this, but didn't mind. After all, he'd have good reason to be suspicious on her. For all he knew, she could be possessed by a demon or something. For all she knew, too.
"I must admit I wasn't too sure, but I believe it's you now," Rob said, breaking the silence between them. "You still eat like there's you had a pack of wolves on your heels," he chuckled. Din couldn't help but smile herself too. One of her, or perhaps his, less graceful properties suddenly came in handy.
"How are you feeling?" Rob asked. Din could hear from his voice that he was genuinely worried about her. "Like a bull has been using all my muscles to pull a cart for a week," she replied. She had meant for it to be a funny, but Rob didn't seem very entertained by it.
"No, I mean, how are you feeling now that you're a ... a ... woman?" he asked. Din wondered by he had such trouble saying it. He could think of several reasons, but decided to leave it for now.
"I'm glad to be alive," Din replied, "If it means I have to live as a woman for a while, I can deal with that. I hope. Even more than that, I hope it's reversible, somehow."
They sat silent for a moment. After a few moments, Din noticed that Rob was about to ask another question. She broke in before he had the chance. "Tell me what you saw back there, Rob."
Rob looked down and started building up a new fire. "I'm not sure. I assume you mean after Brick caught fire? I saw him pick you up, and then when he was about to finish you off, something strange happened to him. He looked like he quickly turned into a statue of ice, and he certainly wasn't expecting that."
"However, after he 'shattered', the real weird thing happened. You started floating into the air in a sort of blue cloud, and ... changed, somehow. Transformed. I don't know how to describe it, I've never seen it before. But when it was done, the blue cloud dissipated, leaving the ... your current form slowly floating down to the ground. And then you laid completely still."
Din felt a bit sorry for her friend. Okay, she was the one that had changed, but he looked so uncomfortable about this that she almost wanted him to stop talking. Almost.
"I wasn't sure you were still alive. Heck, I wasn't sure the girl was you. But I crawled over to the girl, and she was breathing slowly, like she was asleep. You. I ... must admit I hadn't thought about the girl as you until now. If it somehow weren't you, I was afraid you'd attack me or something, and if I thought about the girl as you I was afraid I wouldn't be able to fight back."
Rob proceeded to tell how he had struggled to get back out with Din. He had hardly been able to stand at all, and carrying Din while staggering proved to be an impossible plan. In his attempt, though, he had noticed that Din seemed to weigh much less now than he did as a boy. It made sense since he now was both shorter and thinner, but it didn't make sense where all the weight had gone. Din could only shrug in response.
Eventually, Rob found a solution. He tied a rope around girl-Din and lay her on his cloak. He'd then crawl or limp, depending on whether he had a wall to lean on, and stop every few meters to pull Din to him and then move on. He had been worried that she'd get hurt by the rope or if there were some sharp stones on the floor, but couldn't think of any better plan.
On his way out, Rob had been very careful to walk the exact same route as they got in. Mist had disabled a few traps on their way in, and Rob wasn't very keen on finding out if Mist had missed some. He succeeded in not setting off any trap. However, once when he had pulled Din up to him, he heard a click, and a sword-like item appeared from a wall to cut thin air where a waist normally would've been on a standing person. After that, Rob had to take several minutes to recover from the shock of having been near killed if he had stepped on another stone.
It had taken him several hours to reach the entrance to the crypts again. He didn't know how many, but it was already evening. He had been dead tired, and had risked a rest before moving on. However, he had fallen asleep without intending it.
When he woke up, it was night. He had been afraid that Din had frozen to death on the cold floor, but she looked alive. More than that, it had looked like she was dreaming fiercely. The sounds escaping from her lips had suggested it was not a good dream. Rob hadn't known whether it was a better idea to wake her up or leave her like that. In the end, he had waited until she fell into deep sleep again. Rob had figured that it was a better idea to stay where they were until morning, but he hadn't dared to fall asleep again.
The next morning, he had crawled out to some nearby trees and cut himself a makeshift crutch. It had taken him more than an hour, but it was a big help. With the help of his crutch, he had managed to carry Din to the cave where they'd camped. He had spent the rest of the day looking for food, setting up traps, and recover a bit. Occasionally, Din had moved slightly in his dreams before falling asleep again. Rob had risked some sleep during the day, figuring they were less likely to be attacked by animals during the sunlight hours. He had sat guard all night, with a campfire and a ready torch as his only weapon.
And now, finally, Din had woken up, after about two and a half days of sleep.
Din put down the inedible parts of root and picked up the waterskin. The only sounds were her drinking , Rob blowing on the embers to get the fire burning again and the constant tickle of rain. She put down the skin and stared out into the increasingly darker evening.
"Thanks, Rob. I owe you my life," she said after a while. Rob looked up from the embers. He smiled at her. "And I owe you mine," he replied.
They sat in silence for a long time while Rob got the fire running again and put on more sticks.
Din suddenly became aware of a pressure in his lower region. "I have to take a piss," he said, absentmindedly. Instantly, a lot of thoughts fought for his attention. 'How do you pee as a girl?', 'Now I have to see what's down there' and 'I don't want Rob to see me,' were the most prominent among them.
Rob also looked like he suddenly had a lot of thoughts. "Erm," he started, "ehm... you could do it further in in the cave," he told her and turned towards the entrance, "I won't look, I promise," he told her. She believed him. Though they had used to take any chances they got at peeking at woman, Din knew how much Rob hated facing stuff that he found embarrassing, and this obviously fell into that category.
Din got to his feet, still aching. "Hey, my arm's fine now," she suddenly realized, looking at it while turning it back and forth. Then she recalled the reason she had gotten to his feet. She walked with stiff movements further into the cave.
Now came the difficult part. 'relax,' she told herself, 'this is nothing scary, half of the world do this every day.' It was true, but it didn't mean it helped her a lot. However, she had some experience. She recalled helping his little sister take off her clothes to pie when she had been younger.
Din peeked at the cave entrance, confirming that Rob was sitting like a statue looking in the other direction. Even if he turned around, he would hardly be able to see anything in here in the dimness of the cave. Din pulled down her trousers, and was immediately greeted by a strong smell of sweat. It smelled fairly bad on the outside, but horribly inside. She wanted a bath, if the opportunity arose.
Sitting down, she looked at herself. Just looking at it sent a lot of strange sensations through her body. A part of her was slightly turned on by this, but most of her mind was freaked out. She looked up, realizing she wasn't making this any easier for herself.
She tried to relax again, close her eyes and breathe slowly. The muscles felt a bit different than she was used to as a man, but close enough that she managed to relax the correct ones. A thin sound of water hitting the hard ground greeted her ears, accompanied by a feeling of relief.
However, she wasn't sure what to do when she was done. She remembered her mother telling her little sister to wipe herself. Din had no clue what she was wiping it with. And it wasn't like she could shake it to remove the remaining drops.
She ended up wiping herself with her left hand. It felt incredibly strange, so she finished it as quickly as possible. Afterwards, she wiped her hand on the ground. She was fairly certain that wasn't the best way to do it, but couldn't figure out any better given the circumstances.
Din returned to the fire. Rob still sat with his back towards her, even if she was sure he heard her approaching again. "You can turn around now," she told him.
He did so, hesitatingly, as if he was half-expecting her to be naked. When she proved not to be, he relaxed a bit more. He watched her while she stiffly lie down on the cloak again.
"Remember how we used to pretend we had essences?" he asked her, trying to lighten the situation a bit. She nodded, smiling. "We didn't play it like this, though," he said, sighing. "No," she shook her head, and then tried to suppress a yawn. Despite only being awake for a short while, she was already sleepy. Perhaps from the exhaustion after her transformation, she wasn't sure.
She closed her eyes. Rob looked at her in silence. "Say... do you have an essence now?" he asked her after a while.
Din opened her eyes again. "I honestly don't know," she replied in a sleepy voice. "If I have, I don't how to use it. If I can somehow feel it, I guess I've got too many other unfamiliar feelings to sort out that single one at the moment."
"Perhaps we should try to find an essence user and have him tell you how to find out," Rob suggested. Din just nodded and closed her eyes again. She felt a bit bad cheating his already tired friend for more sleep, but didn't really feel like she had a choice. Either she slept now, or she'd just fall unconscious very soon anyway.