The crushing pressure of great talons lifting him high up into the dark air is what woke Benda. The body of the huge eagle which held him was dark against the black sky, its wings blocking out the stars with their dull thudding flap.
Bound still hand and foot by the harsh ropes of the Xenarths, Benda experienced a moment of sheer panic. He realized in it that the harp Eril had been left behind. And according to his read of the situation, it was altogether hopeless. Wriggle as he might, the talons held him fast, pressing his cloak around him tightly, and the great eagle flapped on to nowhere.
In the height of this panic, as the black earth sped by below them, Benda thought he heard a small voice, muffled. It seemed to be issuing from his chest, his heart even. This astonished Benda, as the voice after a moment said aloud, “Never fear, I am here!”
Benda had, by this point, experienced a great many things. For a moment, he thought it could be Machef, who had the ability to speak directly in the well of one’s heart, as an inward voice. But he knew not where his friend the sable golek had gotten to. Benda dared not speak a reply aloud, but after getting his wits together, he ventured a stifled whisper in the direction of the voice.
“Who? What? Where?”
In the folds of his cloak, Benda felt movement stirring, what felt like a pinch, and then the voice replied, “Tob! Tob Gobble!”
Benda nearly cried out for joy, but held it in. At least I won’t die alone, he thought, but did not say anything. “How?” he whispered, flabbergasted, for he thought he had left Tob far behind when he made his escape — which had turned instead into his capture.
“Nevermind that now,” Tob whispered. “We haven’t much time. I know what to do. Give me a low note…”
“A low note?” Benda whispered hoarsely, without comprehension.
“Sing!” Tob jabbed him in the ribs with a pointy object.
“Ow!” Benda replied.
“Now!” Tob’s voice was rising in frustration. “Sing!”
Benda took a deep breath, glanced up as best he could at the bird, who seemed either unaware or uninterested in the miniature drama playing out in Benda’s cloak. And he let out a deep low hum.
“Lower!” Tob prompted. “Louder!”
Benda’s voice dropped several steps, and as best he could he let out a loud, low, sustained note. The eagle’s flight and demeanor did not change, so Benda kept on. Tob, meanwhile, put his reed flute to his lips, closed his many eyes, and summoned the memory of Makkarin in his heart, and the images from his vision. Through pursed lips, he blew out and the flute sounded its awkward croaking sound. He trilled around, reaching for just the right notes, and finally struck onto a melodic pattern which meshed over Benda’s low drone.
Benda began to feel very strange and light-headed. He gasped for breath, and felt altogether… wrong. Somewhere far off, as if in a daze, he heard the strange sound of a flute, and focused wholly on it. It seemed to glow in his awareness. His own voice had faltered, but the transformation by then was complete. Through the power of Benda’s charmed Cloak of Becoming, and the combined magic of Tob’s flute and Benda’s song, he had become, bodily, a great silver fish covered in scales.
The eagle who was Murta became suddenly aware of a lessening of his load, as the magical transformation completed itself. He looked down at his talons, and in this moment, Benda’s body writhed once solidly on its own. In the confusion, the eagle who was Murta loosened ever so slightly the grip of its talons, and Benda the Fish slipped out of his grasp, plunging in free fall, and gasping through the air below.
Murta let out a cry, and adjusting his course through the upper airs, dove after his prey. Somewhere, muffled, there was the sound of a flute playing with all its little might. Benda was only aware of the dark, however, and his strange body’s gasping for air, and the feeling of weightlessness as he fell. His gills pulsed, but he could find no relief. A great heat and terror rose in him as he fell through the darkness, the eagle screeching after him.
But Benda remained just out of reach, and as the two great animals dove through the darkness, one after the other, the eagle could not trap him. Just at the moment where Benda felt his whole body would burst for lack of air, he hit ground. Only it was not ground. It was the vast dark surface of an enormous lake, and Benda’s slippery body easily splashed down into it with nary a spray produced above the surface. The eagle’s talons swept down, raking across the water, but failed to find purchase. With a flap of its wings at the last possible moment, it veered off, up, and away into the dark air, circling.
Benda, meanwhile, breathed deeply below the water, though his human mind reeled at this incredible feat. His body, however, thrilled at the touch of the dark water, and he swam and dove, and cavorted in it with glee, all thoughts of the great bird of prey passing from his mind. As he swam, the loose and now meaningless rope bonds sloughed off his body like skin from a snake, and he was free.
The little sound of a flute he heard in the back of his mind suddenly trailed off. And a still small voice somewhere deep within him now shouted, “Benda! Swim to the surface! Now!”
Instinctively, Benda obeyed, his great body pulsing once more with all its might, as the spell wore off and his body transitioned back to that of a man. He broke the surface of the water, and gasped a second time, gills now gone, and water sputtering in a cough out of his mouth. From within his cloak, Tob reprimanded in a loud whisper, “Shush! The danger is not yet passed.”