Doll Rebirth

Taran twitched each time another bullet or magic bolt impacted on their car. Each twitch shoot lightning bolts of pain through his veins. With numb arms, he pressed the gauze on his bleeding stomach.

"Hold on Taran," his father shouted. "I'll try to shake them."

His father maneuvered wildly - trying to shake those who hunted them - but Taran hardly noticed. The blood-soaked gauze fell as his hands slipped and he drifted off into unconsciousness.

*****

A week earlier Taran walked through the traveling carnival. He didn't want to go, but his friends insisted. Maybe it was about time to rip of the band-aid. He hadn't visited a carnival since his mother died. A decade earlier. It was the last thing they did together. One last happy day before cancer took her away from him. Not wanting to spoil the memory he stayed away. But maybe it was time to move on.

His friends dragged him from booth to booth. Laughing. Smiling. However, Taran couldn't get his head into it. He was on edge. Something was wrong. He felt it in his blood and bones.

"Hey look. That old gypsy is waving us over," one of his friends exclaimed.

Caught curious his friends dragged him along. Taran tried to not roll his eyes. Magic was real, but looking into the future through cards and crystal balls? Surely not.

"So, Miss Adamache. How much for our future," one of the group hollered after reading the tacky sign above the tent.

"It's free, but not for you," the old woman countered with a smokey rough voice. Then she let her eyes drift till they rivet themselves onto Taran. "Yours I will read. Come in. Alone."

She vanished into her tent without another word. Naturally, Taran was reluctant to follow her, but his friends pushed him on. Practically shoving him into the tent.

The old woman didn't even look up. "Take a seat," she just said.

Thinking he would be faster out if he complied Taran sat down at the small round table. The top was covered with a thick purple velvet cloth and on top of it was a single deck of large cards with ornamented back.

As the woman reached for the cards to reveal the topmost Taran had to ask. "Shouldn't I. You know. Shuffle the deck."

"It is already shuffled and cut," Miss Adamache replied. "It was just waiting for the right person."

That sounded phony to Taran. More so as the first card was revealed. Death. Of course. Start with something big to lure the audience in.

"Don't be alarmed," she muttered. "Rarely means death at all. Most often the end of something. The start of something new. Stuff like that."

She draws the second and third card. "The rider and the virgin. Curious. A long journey perhaps. A new woman in your life?"

Taran had to stifle a laugh as she flipped open the fourth card. Death. Again. Phony for sure. "Shouldn't there only be one card of each in a deck?" he asked amused.

His smile vanished as he saw Madame Adamache with a face white as chalk. With a trembling hand, the flipped the next card. Death. Once again the grim reaper grinned from his motive. She was flipping more and more cards. All of them: death. Eventually, she looked up and straight into Taran's eyes. "When is your birthday?" she asked in a wispy voice. Barely recognizable from the authoritative one moments before.

"Tomorrow," he admitted.

"Be more precise," she hissed urgently. "I know everyone around here knows their birth date to the second."

"Five minutes after three in the morning. And a few seconds." Then the penny dropped for Taran. "You can't mean that. I can't be a sacrifice. They would have taken me at birth."

Madame Adamache stood up nodding. She rummaged through the back of her tend and a moment later she fished out an old portable television. She switched it on and Taran saw a grain grayscale version of the local news channel.

"... dozens of wounded. The firefighters are still trying to dig through the rubble in search for survivors. However, the list of known victims is growing minute by minute. The most prominent of the casualties is the adoptive son and sacrificial brother of local Krem-Mage ..."

The image and sound died as she turns the small television off. "Don't go back out to your friends. Forget returning home." She stepped over to the back of her tent and opened a flap. "Run," she just said to Taran.

And run he did.

*****

Taran jerked awake. Now of all times he had to remember the fortune teller. All her warnings in vain. The image of grim reaper tarot cards littering the small table flashed before his eyes. All for nothing. He was so weak he couldn't even lift his hands to the wound anymore. Still, he felt warm blood quell out of his body.

Loud banging on a door made him look up. His father standing in front of some cabin in the woods. Desperate. Now and then looking back to Taran in the car. He was the only one Taran had called. The day his life in greater Florida ended. He had believed Taran on the spot. Picked him up near a highway and just driving like demons are hunting them. Which was close to the truth. Just past state lines they noticed someone following them. No matter how often they shook them off, they always found them again.

"Coming!" An old voice shouted. Muffled by wooden walls. As the door opened Taran saw an old white-haired man.

"You are a doctor, right?" Taran's father asked with urgency in his voice. "My son. He needs help!"

"I don't think I can help," the man said but followed to the car. "By the great witches. Your boy needs a healer or ambulance."

"There is no time," his father urged. "He lost too much blood already."

"I am not that kind of doctor," the old man insisted. Seeing Taran's fathers desperate eyes he relented. "Let's get him inside. Maybe I can slow the bleeding till help arrives."

Together they heaved Taran out of the car. Blood dripping. Leaving a trail from car to the couch.

"I'll get my first aid kit," the doctor said while walking deeper into the cabin. "Call the police," he shouted.

But when he returned Taran's father hunched over him and tried to stem the blood flow of the wound.

"Let me," the old man said. "Call. Now."

"I can't," came the weak reply.

"You have to. I am not a doctor for this. I studied enchantments and prosthetics. I can't help him. Not really."

"Can't. They might call who did this."

"Who? Was this a hunting accident?"

"Krem-Mages."

"What? Here? Great witches of the past give me strength. Call. They have no friends or authority here."

His father was about to turn when they heard cars racing over gravel. The hunters had arrived. They were out of time.

The old man hurried into the back of the cabin. Leaving Taran and his father alone. This was it. The end. Taran tried to talk, but his voice barely a whisper. His father crouched down. Bringing his ear to Taran's lips so he tried again. "Dad. I love you." Taran didn't know if he just imagined the words or not. He hoped his father knew. How grateful he was.

With tired eyes, he looked up to his father. As his eyelids slowly closed he saw him being shoved away. Pain flared as something cut his chest right over his heart.

The pain drew him away from the tiredness one last time. Seeing the doctor who held a strange crystal to his chest. A light started to glimmer behind delicate goldwork and crystalline walls. Taran thought that maybe it was some kind of healing device. His pain drained away. He became more alert. As the glow became stronger Taran closed his eyes for the last time.

When he could see again his view was from the ceiling. The doctor leaning over him and his father wringing his own hands. He just saw the doctor palm the glowing crystal before the door burst inwards. Chunks of wood flying everywhere.

Men in black tactical gear stormed the cabin. Dragging the doctor and father away from the body that Taran could only think of as his corpse. As the doctor was pushed out of the cabin Taran's view followed.

Outside a ghastly scene unfolded. His corpse was dragged out. His father and doctor pushed to their knees nearby. The men formed a cordon around his body. Only to be broken by two men entering who were dressed quite differently. Black suits with blood red shirts and accents. Krem-Mages.

One was older and pushed the younger one to the corpse. "Go. Hurry."

Taran noticed that the younger Krem-Mage was close to his own age. He guessed so close that only a few minutes separated their birth. The boy withdrew a dagger - from where he couldn't tell - and sank to his knees before Taran's body.

Taran couldn't look away as the boy plunged the dagger into the body before him. Unblinking he had to witness as the boy mutilated Taran's body. Suddenly a little relieved that he couldn't feel the corpse anymore.

With a triumphant grin, the boy held up the very price he had chased after: Taran's heart. It was sickening as Taran saw the boy bite into it. Savage. Wild. More and more frantic.

"I don't feel it," the boy howled in anger. "Something is wrong."

"The soul is gone," the old doctor said. As every pair of eyes turned to him he continued. "He died minutes ago. You are too late."

"For nothing! All this for nothing!" the younger Krem-Mage raged while kicking at dirt and random stones.

The older one meanwhile walked leisurely to Taran's father. "Your son could have been part of something great. Now he died in vain. You robbed him of that. You should be ashamed."

"Ashamed? Me?" Taran's father raged. "You wanted him dead. At least this way he had a chance. You and your rituals sicken me. I ..."

One of the guards struck Taran's father down with the butt of a rifle. He raised it again but was stopped by the older Krem-Mage. "He is punished enough. Let us not waste time, as we might still find a replacement in time. A week is not over yet."

Taran saw his father crawl towards his body while the Mages and their guards just drove away. In the coming silence, only his fathers sobbing could be heard. Meanwhile, the old man stood up and walked into the cabin. As much as Taran wanted to fight it he was helpless as his view followed the doctor inside.

After grabbing a blanket he walked back out, to Taran's father who had propped up Taran's head on his lap and was gently stroking his hair. "Maybe it was fate after all," the old man gently said while covering the corpse with the blanket. "I was the wrong one to save his body, but the right one to save his soul."

"What are you talking about?" Taran's father demanded while tears ran down his cheeks. "He's gone. My son is dead."

"Not as long as we have this," the old man said while pulling out the same crystal he had touched to Taran's chest.

"In there?" his father asked.

"Yes. Come inside and I will explain. Tell you how we can bring him back. But nothing can be done for this body. Come," the old man insisted.

With a heavy heart, his father pulled the blanket over Taran's face and followed the other man into the cabin.

"I know how painful it is to lose a child. A few decades ago I lived with my family in the Great Lakes area."

"Gorgon territory," Taran's father added half-heartedly.

"Yes. Medusa and her kind can control now their stare of petrification. Not so their pets. My daughter used to play with a young gorgon when she was little. The Gorgon got a baby basilisk as a gift. Had to show it, my daughter. The stare of the basilisk was not fully developed yet. Started out with a small spot. A coin-sized patch of skin turned to stone."

By now they arrive some storage room in the back of the cabin. Hard case and crates were stacked on top of each other. "Help me with this, will'ya?" the doctor asked while pointing to a hard case that was pretty long and big. Buried under everything else.

"The spot grew. More and more of my daughter's leg turned to stone. It took months, but it steadily advanced. We tried everything, but nothing helped. Eventually, healers had to amputate her leg. That was what made me change fields. Learn about prosthetics."

The doctor stopped for a moment. Panting from the physical exhaustion. But beneath it, Taran saw the pained look of a man who had lost someone.

"We thought it beaten, but a few month later the petrification returned. The flesh to stone curse wasn't on the body. It was on the soul. I had only one option left: a full-body prosthetic. I succeed, but not in time. My daughter passed away long before I could complete my work. Still, I worked on. Maybe someday someone else would need a full body prosthetic. Then some advancements in magic took place and suddenly my research wasn't needed anymore. My investors jumped ship. My wife was long gone too."

They pulled the large case out of the room and placed it on the living room floor. "So I came here. With all my material. Most curious of all no-one complained about me taking the prototype." He patted the case. Then he fumbled with some locks. With a hiss, the top opened.

"It ... A girls body," Taran's father remarked as he looked upon a still body of a young woman.

"Yes. It was for my daughter after all. You have to decide. The crystal can hold the soul only so long without help. The body or set your son's soul free."

Taran's father looked pained but gave a slow heavy nod. "Do it. Give my son this body. Please."

The old man took a knife and carefully cut some plastic wrapping. Revealing the youthful body beneath. His father turned away out of modesty. Taran couldn't do so even if he wanted. And what was the point? If the doctor held his promise this would soon be his body.

With curiosity, he studied the body. It looked a little unfinished. The skin had a slight sheen to it. Like a mannequin. He saw tattoos. One on the chest right between the breasts. The place where humans had their heart. Another was located on the right forearm. Details eluded Taran but he made out the shape of a large key.

The doctor held the crystal with Taran's soul right above the tattoo on the chest. Reacting to it a small cavity opened. Just big enough to sink in the crystal. The moment the skin closed over the inserted crystal Taran's view vanished. Instead slowly senses returned to him. Hearing, smelling and the sense of touch. The last one curious as he could tell this body felt different from his original, but not quite. However, control of the body was eluding him.

"He isn't moving," Taran's father said close by. His voice tinged with worry.

"Of course," the doctor said. "There is something missing. And your son needs you for it. You see the soul is connected to the body by an energy. Most call it Ki. For the prosthetics, we use the same energy so that the soul can move the artificial limb. However here the full body prosthetic has a huge disadvantage. Ki can only be produced in a normal body of flesh and bone. As this body is entirely artificial no Ki can be produced. Leaving the soul unable to control the body."

"But you must have found a way to make it work, right? Some way to bypass this drawback," Taran's father insisted.

"Yes and that is where you come in. Place your hand on the tattoo on the arm and say 'reveal the key'."

Taran felt his father's touch and then heard the words followed by a gasp. Then something metallic landed on his new arm only to be picked up.

"This is one of two keys. Magical devices not just for transferring Ki, but also generating it inside another person's body. Help me to prop up the upper body."

Taran felt hands grab under his new chest. Lifting him upwards and forward.

"Here in the back, there is a small tattoo shaped like a keyhole. Use the key there."

Something cold touched his back. Taran reasoned it must be the key. The cold touch didn't last long as he felt the rather strange feeling of the key sinking into his skin.

"Now wind the body up."

Taran could feel the key turning. Slow, but steadily. Each turn filled him with something. Whatever it was it didn't felt unpleasant. On the third turn, movement returned to Taran. He drew in a lungful of air and managed to open his eyes. Blinking against the sudden brightness.

"Welcome back to the world of the living," the doctor said close by and gave him a lopsided grin. "Sort of..."

"Taran?" he heard his father asked from slightly behind him.

Turning around he saw his father. Worry had etched deep lines into his face in a short amount of time. His eyes were puffy red and his whole look spoke of exhaustion.

"Dad!" Taran exclaimed while drawing his father into a heartfelt hug.

They remained like this for a while till the doctor cleared loudly his throat. Feeling a little awkward both separated.

"Keep turning his key," the doctor instructed. "Till it won't turn anymore. I call the Sheriff."

Mentioning the authorities Taran couldn't help, but look out of the open front door to the corpse covered in a blanket. It was surreal. Here he was alive - kind of - and over there was his old body. Mutilated and broken open.

"Are you okay?" his father asked while resuming the winding of the key. Fresh energy flooded into Taran's new body.

"Yes. Sort of. I ..." He broke off. Not startled by his new feminine voice but because of a loss of words. He stared down his new body. The skin now looked softer and less artificial than before. Most of his lower body was still covered by plastic, but his new breasts were out in the open. Between them, the tattoo that marked where the crystal was hidden along with Taran's soul. It brought him back to the gruesome scene moments before.

"I saw everything," he whispered. "Floated above everything. Couldn't look away. Couldn't blink. I ..."

His father stopped the winding of the key. Instead, he gently put a hand on Taran's shoulder, who leaned his head against his father's chest. Tears started to dwell in Taran's eyes and a moment later he cried with all his soul. Not caring why an artificial body could cry. Just glad that he could.

When the last tear was shed Taran saw a bathrobe draped over the hard case lid. He murmured an ashamed "sorry" to his father and grabbed the robe. Pulling away and slipping into it.

"Don't be," his father softly said. "No one should go through what you have experienced. I thought I had lost you. And I am just glad that you aren't."

With the help of his father, Taran stood up on shaky legs. Soon he got the hang of his new body and with it, he got steadier on his new legs. Still, he sat down on the couch. As he leaned back something poked his back. Remembering the key he tried to twist and reach for it with his arms.

"Let me." His father's gentle voice calmed Taran down and sat still as his father pulled out the key.

A fake clearing of a throat made both look to the doctor who stood nearby.

"If the winding is done place the key on his arms tattoo and say: 'hide the key'."

His father did as told and once again felt the cold metal on his skin. As the words were uttered the key started to levitate and to glow. In a few heartbeats, it turned to light and wisped into the tattoo. Nothing remained of it but air.

"What now?" Taran wondered aloud.

"I called the Sheriff. She is on her way. I guess you are wondering why you are in a different body."

"No. I heard you. While I was just the crystal. I could see too. Had no choice but to look. I am sorry about your daughter."

"Thank you. But she is long gone. I made my peace with it." Yet despite the doctor's words Taran still saw the pain in his eyes. "Anyway. You might have questions about your new body and its functions."

It was his father who asked first. "It was kind of hard to wind his key. Is it still functioning correctly."

"Yes. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for me to wind him. The key is a device with practical and symbolic function. The person who winds the key volunteers their own body to Taran to produce Ki within their body. That requires trust. The more trust the easier the Ki production and the faster the key can be turned."

Taran meanwhile examined his new slender hands. "This will take some time getting used to," he murmured. Then he looked at the doctor. "Is there a way to rebuild this body to resemble my old one? I mean can you make this one male?"

Sighing the doctor took a set himself. He looked at Taran as if he was debating what words to use to bring bad news.

"So it is not," Taran concluded out loud.

"It is possible, but ..." the doctor broke off. "I could build a new body or alter your current one. The problem is funds. The body you now inhabit, the one I practically stole, took materials worth two million to build. On top of it countless work-hours and access to some high tech machinery."

"And we are utterly broke," Taran added.

Again he felt his father put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "We will find a way to deal with this."

Taran nodded but looked to the doctor as he started talking again. "There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Your body is mostly made up of enchanted magical clay. Animated by the donated Ki by your father. It was designed to mimic a natural body. However, designing goes only so far. In earlier smaller prosthetics we introduced a system with great success. It uses the persons subconscious to adjust itself. Become more realistic."

"The skin," Taran threw in. "It looked more unnatural a while ago."

"Correct. In theory, it could be possible that your subconscious can remodel the whole body to a male one. As both, the magical clay and the skeleton, are designed to be self-repairing and adjustable. However, there is sadly a hurdle. It siphons off Ki from your reserves to do this. On small prosthetics, we had the problem that they would often shut off on the first days of use because it used the hosts Ki to rebuild itself little by little. On your body, this might be more extreme. Watch out that you don't run out at the wrong time or you will be unable to move till someone winds you."

"How long will one full charge of Ki last," Taran wanted to know.

"Best guess. Maybe an hour," the doctor admitted. But he was quick to add to it. "But once your body did most of the adjusting it should expand to longer durations. Maybe four. But that is not all. One of the phenomena was that since we introduced the subconscious remodeling system that, for a lack of better words, the clay evolved. Gaining the ability to store more Ki and use it more efficiently. My team was investigating this when the project was shut down. My current best guess is maybe eight hours in the long run."

"We can manage that," Taran's father said and squeezed Taran's shoulder. While Taran didn't feel that confident that he could, his father gave him some hope that he just might.

All three looked at the front door as they now heard sirens slowly coming closer. A minute later they could differentiate two pairs of sirens. The doctor stood up and walked to the door. Taran was at a loss how to explain this mess to the authorities. Still, he knew he couldn't avoid it. Sighing he stood up.

"I am okay," he said as he saw his father's worried look. Together they followed the doctor outside. Taran quickly averted his eyes from his old body. Blood had soaked the blanket above the hole that once had contained Taran's heart.

An SUV of the sheriff's department and a paramedic stopped right beside Taran's father's car. It was so riddled by bullets and charred by spells that Taran wondered how it had last so long, to begin with.

A late thirties woman exited the sheriff's car and put on a hat that looked like a mix of Bonney and witch hat. One look at the car and covered blanket made her face hard and grim. "Arthur. What happened here?" she demanded from the doctor.

"Krem-Mages. Not ten minutes ago. They hunted for a sacrifice," the old man said.

Cursing the sheriff ran back to her car. Snatching the radio to relay the news. Meanwhile, the paramedics got out but saw nothing could be done anymore. They waited at the sidelines till they were called.

Still cursing the sheriff got back. "Someone dropped the ball here. Krem-Mages so deep in witch-country. They should have been flagged the moment they took a step over the border." Shaking her head she stepped closer and offered her hand to Taran's father. "Sheriff Hester. And you are?"

"Morgan. James Morgan. I am the father."

The sheriff crouched down beside the body and lifted the blanket from the body to take a look. "Who is the victim?"

"My son, Taran."

Sheriff Hester looked up surprised how calm the father of the victim said it. Then she looked at the girl clad only a bathrobe. "And you are?"

"I am the victim," Taran blurted out while blushing.

Seeing the confusion on the sheriff's face the doctor stepped in. "Jeanne. You remember what I told you about my previous work? This is it. A full body prosthetic."

"No way," she said with a shocked expression.

"It was the only way to save my soul," Taran quickly said flustered. "I didn't ask to be a girl. Had no choice."

The grim look on the sheriff's face returned. She gave a last look at the dead body and covered it. Then she waved the paramedics over.

"I need a statement from all of you. Probably best with the mayor and his aid in attendance given that Krem-mages are involved."

Taran's father - James - nodded. "May I grab some clothes for my son?"

"Go ahead," Sheriff Hester said with a nod.

Taran followed his father to their car and promptly starred in shock at it. It was a flat-out miracle that the ride has made it this far. The backend was riddled with bullet holes. Concentrated around the back wheels. Probably to take them out and force them to stop. Other less aimed bullets had impacted in the trunk. And with a wince, Taran reminded himself that one bullet had made it far enough into the car to bury itself in his stomach.

Opening the trunk they soon found out what might have saved their lives. Or rather the life of his father. A few states back they had practically raided a second-hand store for clothes as they had started their escape with just their car and their clothes on their back. The two trunks now proofed to be riddled with bullet holes.

Still, James popped them open to see if anything could be salvaged. A few shirts sported only one or two holes in them. Better than a bathrobe.

Meanwhile, Taran held jeans up. "And I thought ripped jeans are in. Not punch through by bullets. Krem-mages have no fashion sense."

The dry humor elicited a chuckle from his father. One that was contagious to Taran and soon both were laughing.

The Sheriff looked over at them but was stopped by the doctor putting his hand on her shoulder. "Everyone deals with stress in their own way," he whispered.

Taran excused himself while caring some clothes inside. He returned in an ill-fitting outfit that showed way to much skin. "We should stop at my home," Sheriff Hester offered. "I may have some clothes that might fit you better."

Not particularly eager to wear woman's clothes Taran still accepted the offer with thanks.

Soon everyone was climbing into the Sheriff's car. As they drove away from the cabin Taran saw his old body being pushed into the paramedics truck. He wondered if it would be the last time he saw his own old body.

Maybe ten minutes in, Taran suddenly lost control of his new body and slumped against his father in the backseat.

"Doctor!" James at once shouted. Making the doctor riding shotgun turn around.

He only needed a moment to assess the situation. "You did wind him fully, right?"

With a blush, James recalled being interrupted midway. "Maybe not."

"Just wind him again," the doctor advised with gentle smile on his face. "This will happen a few more times till Taran's soul gets used to his body and the clay evolves."

James nodded. He summoned the key as shown before and propped Taran up to have access to his backside. While he was wound up Taran was helpless and could stare ahead. He noticed the Sheriff doing her best not to stare at the scene taking place on the backseat through the rearview mirror. This might be very embarrassing if his father ever needed to wind him up in public.

Soon Taran could move again but had to remain still so his father could finish winding him up. The silence in the car was broken as Taran had to chuckle. "I finally manage to relax and you get me all wound up again."

Small laughs filled the car and Taran thought he even made the Sheriff smile for a moment.

"Why do I feel that this won't be the last doll related pun I hear," his father said with an amused sigh.

"Because, new body, but same old soul you know and love," Taran countered. Which earned him a squeeze of the shoulder and a hug by his father.

The quick stop at the Sheriff's house turned out longer than expected. Taran's new body hadn't quite top model measurements, but it was close. Finding some sweatpants and a loose blouse still was better than the shirt he wore before. The one that tried to imitate cheese with all its holes.

The town proved to be quite scenic as it was nestled against a forest of redwood trees. It wasn't like his own hometown were tourism and retirees swamped the streets. It appeared to be more the sleepy kind of town. Cozy, he soon added in his mind.

The Sheriff parked in front of a big red brick-house that appeared to be old but well maintained. There he was shuffled into the waiting room together with his father and the doctor. Then they waited. Long enough that the doctor suggested that Taran was wound up once more.

Slightly out of breath a tall woman rushed past them - and the waiting area - into the mayor's office. What struck Taran as most peculiar was her clothes. A long flowing dark robe and a pointy hat. He knew he was in witch territory, but this was a little on the nose.

"That was council witch Snyder," Sheriff Hester remarked who came into the waiting room at a more casual pace a second later. "Don't mind her attire. She likes to keep pushing people's buttons." The Sheriff knocked on the door and was let in a moment later.

Again they waited. His time only a few minutes. The door opened and the Sheriff waved them in. Taran had to suppress a whistle. The mayor's office was long. The sides lined by bookshelves that stretched to the ceiling and a few benches. One closest to the desk was chosen by the Sheriff to take a seat.

The end of the room was dominated by a large wooden table with intricate carvings. Impressive, but not as much as the wry old lady sitting behind it. The placate identified her as Mayor Lorena Woodwire. Behind her - leaning on the wall - was council witch Snyder. Her gaze was focused on Taran, which made him slightly uncomfortable.

"Welcome Mister Morgan. Miss Morgan," the mayor said after standing up. Her smile was warm and her voice was heavy yet melodious. After a moment Taran's mind caught up and only registered now that with 'Miss Morgan' she meant him. That brought a blush to his face.

"I wish we would've met under better circumstances," the Mayor continued. After offering her hand for a handshake she gestured towards the chairs on front of her desk. "Please take a seat."

The Morgan's did as told, while the doctor sat down beside the Sheriff.

"I am terribly sorry that we - the domain of Salem witches - couldn't protect you from the Krem-Mages," Mayor Woodwire said with a sad shake of her head. "Let me assure you are under our protection now."

"So we are safe?" James - Taran's father - asked.

"No," came the short and immediate respond of council witch Snyder.

Mayor Woodwire shot the council witch a quick but nasty look. "I fear you won't be truly safe as long as your soul remains on the plain of the living. Ester, you seem eager to speak. Why don't you explain why."

The council witch frowned when she was called by her first name, but caught herself immediately. "Each soul has limited access to magic. With experience, one can optimize it, but the limit remains. Krem-mages found a way around this restriction. They can take in a second soul and bend it to their will. Cast magic through it and effectively double their access to magic. However, there seems to be a limitation what souls are eligible. Their theory that souls that entered the plain of the living at the same time or close to it proofed to be right for now."

"The witches of the Salem domain tried for years to evict them out of the Confederacy," the Mayor Woodwire took over. "We have given refuge to people from other domains from time to time. There is a protection program in place we would like you to place in."

"What would that entail?" James asked.

"A new last name for the both of you. There is no interest in them for you as a father. And Taran, they think you are dead. If we keep it that way you are reasonably safe."

"That is a generous offer," James replied and Taran nodded too. "I don't know how we can repay you."

"There is no need," Mayor Woodwire assured them. "We know that you have no valuables on you and we wouldn't ask for them even if you had. So far every refugee we took in contributed to this society. And we don't mean by money or material means. We strive to provide you a safe and hopefully happy place to live. It is the hope that one day you will repay this kindness to others in need."

"We will do our best," James promised.

"Thank you so much," Taran added.

"Sheriff Hester offered to let you stay at her place and she will help you set up new legal identities," the Mayor added. With that being said they were dismissed. They said the customary farewells and followed the sheriff out.

*****

Tara was awakened by rays of the sun that found their way past the blinds. Lazily she stretched and was happy to do so. This was the second morning that she had retained the ability to move after waking up. The last two month had been hard as she had to get used to her new body and it to her.

She still remembered the first morning in her new body. She had awoken paralyzed. Couldn't even open her eyes. At first, there was panic, till she remembered her new body. That it needed to be wound up. Charged by someone who helped donate Ki. The energy of the body.

Her father had been equally in panic when he had found her. Only the call to the doctor reminded him that it was his job to wind her up. One that slowly was expanded to a small group of trusted people.

There was a knock on her door and Tara was happy that this time she could answer it. "You can come in."

"Good morning Tara," her father said with a small smile on his lips. "So sleeping beauty is awake."

"I might go back to sleep if you don't hurry," she teased back.

It was good to hear her father laugh. Deep lines of worry had etched itself in the skin of his face when they had to flee Greater Florida. Now most of them had smoothened out again. Tara asked herself what was the cause. Was it her, coming to terms with her new body, or the town that welcomed them? Maybe it was the Sheriff? She had more than once noticed the small glances they both exchanged.

"Time for my morning workout," her father said with a grin. He was of course joking. Tara trusted him completely and in turn, the Ki transferation device that was her key worked with him best. Sheriff Hester or the Doc had more work to do. The tail end took the school nurse. She was still heaving with exhaustion when she was done.

James summoned the key and Tara parted the sew in slid on the back of her pajama top. By now the strange feeling of being wound up nearly felt normal.

"Ready for the big day?" Her father asked.

"Back to school. So boring," Tara remarked. Despite those words, she looked forward to it. It had taken month for her body to learn to store enough Ki to last for hours. Still, it wasn't enough. The school nurse was brought in and was being told Tara's secret. Over the last weeks, she had been trained to wind up Tara. Which was mostly to build up trust between each other.

The plan was simple. To hide Tara's real condition she was allowed to lie. Citing a strange and rare illness. Instead of eating lunch with other kids she will visit the nurse in her office and get a top-up of Ki from her.

"Can't fool me kiddo," her father said with a grin. He hid the key in its dimensional space and gave her a pat on the shoulder. "Get ready. See you downstairs."

That left Tara with her least favorite chore of the morning: finding clothes to wear. She might now have a female body and female name, but that didn't mean she had a fitting fashion sense too. In the end, it was yet another ensemble she called "teen model tries to look like a tomboy" and headed to the small bathroom of the apartment.

Showered and dressed she made her way downstairs. They now officially rented the small upstairs apartment in the Sheriff's house that she used to rent out to tourists. There was a small kitchenette upstairs but she and her father got in the habit to eat breakfast together with the Sheriff.

"Good morning Jeanne," Tara greeted the Sheriff. Might as well get used to it. It might be still early but Tara had the hunch that one day the Sheriff might become her step-mom. But till both of them got past those small glances at each other Tara pretended she did notice anything.

Breakfast consisted of a grilled cheese sandwich. Not that Tara still needed to eat. In fact, to 'digest' it cost her some Ki. Still, eating was part of being normal. It made her feel more human. And she loved the taste of grilled cheese.

"Need a last wind up before school?" the Sheriff - Jeanne - asked.

Not that it was that crucial, but a half hour gained might be worth it. It also helped build trust with her. "Yes, please."

This time it was a little more awkward. Not because of who wound her, but the clothes that came in the way. Tara had to hold up her top while the Sheriff wound her. Jeanne not only had to turn the key but also pull the strap of the bra down as it was right on top of the point where the key was to be inserted.

After thanking her and saying their goodbyes Tara and her father walked to his truck. An old beat up one that his new boss provided him. He would drop her off at school and then get to his new work: roadside constructions.

As they pulled up to the curb in front of the school Tara hesitated to get out.

"Stage fright?" James asked.

"Maybe," Tara admitted. "Still can't believe this is my new life."

"I know. You miss our old home, your old friends and most of all your old body. But we can't live in the past. You'll do great. You did so the last two month. Always remember: death couldn't stop you. So what is a little school compared to it."

A shy smile formed on Tara's lips. With a last sigh, she opened the door. "See you later Dad."

"Go knock them out," he wished her.

Then she slipped out of the truck. Took a last breath and headed towards the school. To a new life. New friends. And probably new adventures. But if so whoever stood in Tara's way, they would learn an important lesson. She might look like a doll and be wound up like one, but she wasn't as fragile as one. She was a fighter. No more running, she swore to herself. Sure steps lead her onward.



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