Coming back to consciousness was a struggle – like swimming through tar.

Before he was quite able to make sense of anything around him, Varon remembered the fire – racing through the village, surrounding it. He remembered digging his way into the quarry pit, hoping against hope that there’d be nothing the fire could burn to follow him. He remembered the dizziness, the screams fading…

But now, all was silent and still. Even the weight of his own limbs felt barely-there.

Was this… the Beyond?

“Be at peace, small one. You are safe.”

The words arrived in his head without passing through his ears. So did some of the meaning behind him; “small” didn’t mean “young” or even “runty,” both things that could be used to describe him; it just meant “smaller than me.”

He forced his eyes to open.

And promptly came to almost wish he hadn’t. He was in a fair-sized room, seemingly made of some blue-grey stone, and lying on a bed lined with some manner of leaves or fronds. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that a short distance away from him, there was a rippling wall of water. Trying to look past it was disorienting; he could hardly tell which way was down. That something several times his size was floating on the other side of that wall, scrutinizing him, didn’t help.

“You are alive,” said the voice in his head, “but for a time our healers weren’t sure you would survive. The smoke and bad air nearly claimed you before we were able to pull you away.”

“Away?” he repeated dumbly. There hadn’t been any way to get away by the time the clamour of flames had woken him up.

“Our seers felt the distress and panic of your people on the wind between worlds, and worked a great summoning to bring to our home those we could,” the other explained. “But we were not in time to find many. You are the fifth – and last – to awaken.”

For a moment, Varon didn’t really understand what he was being told. Bit by bit, though, it sank in – the important parts, at least.

Five people. Out of a village of over two hundred, all that remained was five people. Most of his life was just… gone. And he was… here, someplace completely strange and unfamiliar. Could he even go back?

What would there be to go back to? An expanse of ashes and burnt bodies? He shuddered, curling his tail around himself and burying his face in the black fluff at its tip as grief bit deep.

“I am truly sorry that we could not preserve more,” the voice-in-his-head crooned, full of sorrow, regret, and frustrated compassion. “We save whom we can, and it never feels enough, but your people were… worse off than most. But we can offer all of you a home here, a new life, away from those horrors – a place fire will never come. Another chance.”

Safe from fire… “Then I’m… underwater?” Though it was hard to see clearly through the rippling boundary, the figure floating there did look something like a dolphin. If dolphins had great bunches of claw-tipped tentacles instead of flippers.

“Yes. This is Riondar, a city of the Shavari, and on our world, the dry places are few.” The figure drifted over to one side, considering him from another angle. “We can work upon you a change that will let you thrive in this place, while preserving as much of your self as possible. I understand from your fellows that your band kept mostly to itself, and there are none you could trust to take the five of you in while you rebuild.”

“True.” Varon drew a deep, quavery breath, smoothing down his tail-fur, fussing over the brown-and-amber bands to give his hands something to do. His clan had prided itself on being so independent, so far from any others of their kind. Now it didn’t seem like such a fine thing after all.

“So if you stayed here, where we are willing and eager to help, there are none there who would mourn you as lost kin…”

Varon sighed. “Also true.”

Once again, the other drifted to one side. “Now that you have recovered, I can reunite you with your fellow survivors, so that you may decide what course to take…”

“Just do it,” Varon blurted.

A pause; a quizzical look. “Once done, this manner of change is not so easily undone,” the larger creature cautioned.

“That’s fine,” insisted Varon. All his life the best he’d been able to hope for was that he wouldn’t be in the way – in a place like this, if the locals were so large, at least being able to squeeze into small places might be useful. “It has to be a better life than I’d have back there.”

There was a vague sense that someone was looking over his shoulder at what he was doing, only it was about what he was thinking. Then: “If you are as certain of this as could be expected, I can work the change here and now. Your form will keep much of its character, but will be suited to a life in the water. As your body is ill-equipped to make sounds which carry here, you will also have some measure of thought-speech to help you communicate. If the others also agree to this change, you will be of a kind – a new kind, one which could not breed with your former selves, but a proper kind in itself. Knowing these things, do you still wish to continue?”

The thought-speech alone seemed worth going through with it for; all these new concepts, and though it took him a moment to make sense of them, make sense of them he did. There was no confusion. And all his other thoughts on the matter still held. “Do it. If nothing else, I guess I can be an example for the others.”

“Be ready, then.” A half-dozen tendrils extended toward him, curling so close against the bubble that surrounded him that its surface dimpled.

There was a sudden sense of displacement – and then a frantic need to breathe. Except that the air that still surrounded him wasn’t something he could breathe anymore.

Before he could even start struggling, the bubble shrank, water pressing in against him – and then it was gone. He coughed, setting free a silvery stream of bubbles, and felt a little better for it; a few times more, and with the last of the air gone, he was able to take deep breaths in peace.

The water was a pleasant pressure against him. It felt pleasantly cool against his nose and paw-pads; the rest of him didn’t feel it as warm or cold at all. Holding his breath, he found, didn’t work – apparently it was moving the water in and out that let him breathe, rather than having it in his lungs. Deep, steady breaths soon turned the brief choking panic into a distant memory.

“I am sorry. That was not done as elegantly as I could,” the other said. “Should your fellows also desire the change, I will be more careful of your need to breathe.”

And somehow, Varon was getting a deeper sense of what the other being was communicating to him. He was receiving the meaning that much clearer, and was a bit more aware of how his own mind was filling in the words around it. He knew now why that being had never offered or asked for an introduction – what Varon’s mind read as “I” was far beyond any mere name, it was an image of the speaker’s very self. The closest he could feel from it was more of a title or vocation – a Binder, one who wielded mystical power.

And it still left the question of “male or female” a complete mystery. Did these beings even have such a concept? It didn’t really seem so.

“Do you feel well?”

“I feel healthy, at least,” Varon replied in kind. He looked himself over. All four paws were webbed, like an otter’s; his hind paws seemed more deft than they had been. His tail, instead of bearing thick fluff, was itself a much sturdier limb at the base, tapering along its length, also like an otter’s – though it still bore the bands it had before. His intimate parts were tucked away even more than they had been; his fur, overall, had changed from being long and plush to thick, dense, and a little oily. Exploring fingers found that his muzzle was much the same, but it bore a spray of thicker whiskers, and his ears showed almost no sign anymore.

It was as though he’d been fused with an otter, if otters breathed water.

He wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that until he tried to move about.

It was so easy. Oh, he was a bit clumsy, not quite going the way he wanted to, but there was a sense that he just wasn’t used to it yet, that he could get better. The movement itself was wonderfully effortless, so smooth and fluid. It was sheer joy.

There was a sense of mingled amusement, relief, and satisfaction; then: “If you are feeling well, perhaps it would be good to bring you to confer with your fellows.”

Some of Varon’s good humour evaporated in a surge of sorrow and loss. He took a deep breath – or tried to, anyway – and forced it back. “I probably should. At least I’ll be useful as an example of one option they have.” More than he ever had been previously, anyway.

The Binder looked at him with an inscrutable sort of… concern? Whatever it was, it gave the impression that the undercurrent of Varon’s thought had shown through. But all the instruction that came with it was “Come this way, then.”

For all its bulk, the Shavari moved far more naturally in the water than Varon did; there was no wasted motion, barely any sign at all of what limbs were moving to drive the whole forward. Varon’s paddling along was far less efficient – and it didn’t help that he wasn’t used to his paws being webbed; that, at least, he felt like he could make progress with in time.

The corridors were rounded, though the floor was flat, and there were numerous rungs along the walls. What they were for was not immediately plain – Varon’s host didn’t interact with them in any way – and in his clumsy attempts to keep up, Varon didn’t really have time to speculate. He was ushered into a larger chamber than he’d woken up in, though one that was otherwise much the same in style.

There he saw what the bubble he’d been in looked like from the other side. More importantly, he saw who was in it.

At first, all he saw was a tangle of tails; but even as those tails started to unwind from one another, to uncoil from around their owners, recognition started to set in. Light grey dappled with dark was Deliss, the huntress; white with a nearly-black stripe along the spine marked the stonecutter Ikarem, one of the strongest women in the clan. Brown and black bands and a white tip, like his own pattern but with different colours, could only be the tanner Merra. Plain brown was less distinctive, but a black-masked, blue-eyed face poking up from the tumble tied it to another huntress, Jeron.

Seeing them there together, just now separating from the pile in which they’d rested, Varon was suddenly struck by a surge of intense longing, an ache for such companionship, at least on a physical level, as he’d never known.

Deliss blinked at him, scrutinizing his features, while the Binder sent, “I apologize for intruding, but the last of your number has now recovered, and I thought it best to reunite you.”

Deliss peered a little closer. “Is that… Varon?”

At first, Varon had been expecting scorn – dissatisfaction that the runt of the clan had survived when so many had not. On seeing who was there, that had faded; these four, at least, had always been friendly with him. He hadn’t been expecting relief – certainly not like that overwhelming sense of it he could feel behind her words.

“He has chosen to stay among us,” the Binder explained, shifting somewhat to one side so the others could get a look at Varon. “Any of you who make the same choice would undergo a similar transformation.”

“It’s… not nearly so different as I feared it might be,” Merra opined, tilting her head to peer closer. Her whiskers lifted in a wisp of a smile. “It looks good on you.”

Varon felt his ears flush from the compliment, and tried not to duck his head too much. “Thank you,” he sent.

Maybe his inexperience with that mode of communication kept him from concealing how surprised and flattered he’d been by her words; maybe they just knew him too well. Ikarem’s ears flicked back in mild distress. “We’ve truly not been kind to you, have we, Varon?”

“You have!” he insisted. So shocked was he that she’d even say such a thing, he’d lurched half a length back before he recovered his balance. “You four always have been!” The kindest of his generation, in fact!

But Jeron shook her head, ears flat with regret. “We haven’t been unkind to you. That isn’t the same, and it doesn’t begin to make up for all those who were unkind, or even cruel. I should have spoken up long ago. All I can say now, Varon, is that I’m sorry.”

He sensed the weight and sincerity behind that apology, and the regret that drove it; as never he could have before, he knew it for truth. His ears furling, he reached out for the surface of the bubble. “Jeron…”

That surface was a strange thing – flexible, stretchy, it shifted slightly under his touch but did not let his forepaw through. His fingers splayed against the surface; Jeron’s met them from the other side, near enough to feel the warmth and pressure, but lacking the texture of fur and pad.

Jeron held that almost-touch for a moment, then drew back, looking downward in shame. He wanted to tell her it was all right, that he’d still cherished her company and that of the others there, but he couldn’t make himself speak past that tangle of sorrow and regret he’d felt from her.

“If only so few of us can be here,” said Ikarem into the ensuing silence, “I’m glad you’re one of them, Varon. It could have been someone like Darek…”

The chieftain’s son, the most-skilled warrior in the village; strong, handsome, well-groomed…

“That insufferable, arrogant clod,” Deliss spat. “I shouldn’t be glad he’s gone, but I am glad I won’t have to spend the rest of my days with him!”

“Too right,” Merra put in. “Though I was worried the fifth would be another woman. Just delaying the inevitable.”

Oh. Varon was the only man among them, wasn’t he? Somehow, despite identifying all of them as female, that conclusion had eluded him.

As had the corollary: if there was to be another generation of their clan, all would be sired by him.

Suddenly the intense scrutiny of the other survivors made him feel very self-conscious indeed.

“The Shavari may have only one sex,” the Binder said, “but we have encountered many races with two. I would not have given you that hope had it been completely out of reach.” Its bulk shifted in another slight gesture. “For now, I shall leave you to one another. You,” and this was specifically to Varon, “can call at need.”

Then the great figure wheeled about and wove its way through the archway, and out of sight.

“I’m not sure I want to know how they make offspring,” Jeron said, bemused. Which at least meant she’d shed some of the sorrow.

“Deliss is right, though,” said Ikarem. “Can you imagine how Darek would have been if he was the only eligible male? It’s not as though he didn’t already act like it!”

“I… don’t want to speak ill of… of the dead,” Merra struggled to say.

“You’re right, of course.” The stonecutter flattened her ears. “May he – and all of them – know peace now.”

“I do wish the Fates hadn’t made this decision for us,” Deliss sighed, full of her own regrets.

“I’m sorry.” Varon hung his head. “I know I’m not the best man you could have had.”

“To the Deeps with that,” she hissed, suddenly fierce. “I wanted the choice to be mine. That doesn’t mean I’d have chosen another.”

Before he could even begin to ask what she meant, the meaning struck him – in the form of an image, a mighty tree outside the village; the one he’d liked to climb when he needed to get away from everything. Indeed, there he was in that image, sprawled belly-up along one of the biggest branches – fondling himself. Her image had the curve of his member just right, and he was suddenly sure it was a memory, that she’d seen him one time when he’d thought himself alone, but he’d never looked so fine – so well-proportioned, so sleek, even so well-endowed – to his own eyes.

And then the image shifted, the memory became a dream, and she was atop him, muzzle to muzzle, sinking onto him. He felt the bark under her paws, the warmth of his breath on her cheek, the rigid heat of his member sliding in and out of her, the rising tide of her pleasure…

It wasn’t his own side of the dream that he was experiencing, and that dissonance was what finally shattered the connection, but not before the surge of her imagined climax set off a real one in him. He squirmed and shuddered through it; had he still had his usual voice, he’d have whimpered. It wasn’t actually a very good sensation, unexpected as it was, with his body not prepared for it; it was much more awkward than pleasurable.

Especially when he recovered to find them all watching him with some mixture of puzzled curiosity and intense focus.

Deliss alone came to grasp what had come over him, puzzlement giving way to shocked insight. It was to her that he said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I was meant to see that…”

“It was honest enough,” she told him, pressing her forepaw against the bubble where it was closest to him. “I’m… very sorry, Varon, that I hadn’t spoken up before. I fancied you, but with how nasty people could be to you, I was worried you’d believe, deep down if not on the surface, that I was pitying you.” Ears back, she shook her head. “I was trying to find a token I could give to you, something that would prove my interest was genuine. That’s what I was out hunting for when… when the fire started.”

“Then I’d have been too slow,” was Ikarem’s wry remark. “I’d meant to have my own home built, a place I could do my own work, before I went hunting for a mate. But, Varon… you’re the first I’d have wanted to try seriously courting.”

At that he blinked. “Me?” He didn’t get the stark, explicit want from her that he had from Deliss, but that was quite the plan to be laying around some scrawny little nobody…

A shy smile. “I’ve always envied you your hands, Varon, and your eyes that could see the form waiting to be revealed in any bit of wood. I still have…” Realization and sorrow struck as one; she looked aside. “I still had some of those carvings you made. I’ll miss them.”

Varon hadn’t actually meant to show those carvings to anyone, not with how often he’d been harped on for making something so “useless.” To learn that the products of his solitary afternoons had been so valued…

“I always did worry too much about what my father would think of any suitor of mine,” was Merra’s confession, “and he always did look too much at the likes of Darek. If I’d had the sense the Earth-Mother gave a squirrel, I’d have sought you out with a jug of harvest-time mead before now.”

Half expectant and half curious, the attention of the group turned to Jeron, who was looking decidedly awkward; it didn’t take special mental abilities to know why that was. “You’re… not obliged to find me appealing,” Varon began.

“I know,” she muttered. “And that you don’t assume anyone would be is one of the more pleasing things about you. But by the Ancestors, Varon, that doesn’t mean I think you’re unattractive or would be a poor sire, it’s just… just…”

He was about ready to back off, to say she didn’t need to go into detail and that he wouldn’t ever pressure her, when she blurted, “I just always fancied a man with a good sharp contrast, black and white. It’s so shallow, so stupid, but…”

“Shh.” Ikarem nuzzled Jeron’s shoulder in gentle reassurance. “What you like is what you like. It’s not as though you’ve ever called someone less of a person for not matching it.”

Jeron took a breath. “I do think you’d be a good sire, Varon,” she said, meeting his gaze again, “and a good father. I won’t regret a single moment with you, if you’ll have me.”

“If I’ll have you?” Varon blinked. That was not the limiting factor he’d have expected. He’d thought any of the four would be far beyond his reach.

“So.” Merra tilted her head. “Either we get sent back where we were, to a village ruined by fire, with not another of our kind for countless leagues and no guarantee of a friendly welcome even there… or we join Varon in staying here, and start a new life where we’ve been offered some support in doing so. Seems an easy choice to me.”

“I’d have been inclined to accept even if Varon hadn’t been part of the consideration,” Deliss observed. “As it is, there’s scarcely anything to consider.” Nods of agreement met this statement, and she went on, “So now all that remains is how we can get someone’s attention and get it done.”

The Binder had suggested that Varon could get in contact at need, but hadn’t made clear how to actually do so. What could he do? He tried to focus on the essence of that one’s thoughts, the self-identity that had come with every statement, reinforced with every reference to the self; and with it was his desire for that other’s presence.

And, apparently, it worked; he felt a sudden sense of acknowledgement, of imminent arrival – and of praise.

“Varon?” It was Jeron who had her head tilted now. “You seemed to leave us for a moment there.”

Varon was about to explain when there was movement at the threshold, and the now-familiar bulk of their host entered the room once more.

“It will take some time to do this gently,” the Binder informed Varon once the women had explained their decision. “I do not wish to repeat the uncomfortable example of your own transformation. There is a chamber ready for you…” And in that moment, Varon came to understand how to get to it. “I will send the others to join you as I finish with each.”

Varon wished everyone luck, and took the hint to leave. He didn’t really notice much about his new home, doing the swimming equivalent of pacing from one side of it to another in anxious anticipation. Then Deliss arrived, and with a surge of joy and longing she wrapped him in a tight embrace, each wrapping all four legs around the other, newly-strong tails twisting together.

Longing, and the feel of her against him, coaxed a predictable response from his body; and though he was shy about it, he didn’t try to keep her from feeling it. And soon he found that being wrapped up in one of the waving seaweed-like fronds of fabric felt surprisingly good for a bed. It certainly worked to keep them together despite how much he squirmed from the intense and unfamiliar sensations she was giving him.

His lust almost broke when Ikarem entered a short time later, but they could feel that she was not at all displeased to see them started already – far from it. She wriggled into the twist of fabric alongside them both, nuzzling, caressing, urging them on, as did Jeron when she joined them as well. When the sensations started to overwhelm him, it was all three of them, not just Deliss, who urged him to give in, to fill her, to plant his seed deep. They all knew what their own pleasure felt like; now they were eager to feel his.

In that kind of company, it was only proper that he promptly shared it with them.