Journal Archives - November 1-15, 2003
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The high-pitched screams of children echoed through the warehouse. Batman turned nervously to Hercules, who himself glanced at the sorceress and pirate behind them. The pirate giggled nervously and looked around as they stepped through the side door into the building's cavernous interior, partitioned with tall slabs of plywood and hastily constructed barricades.
"Oh, don't mind them," the tall, thickly-built man said, waving an arm dismissively at the screams. "You guys are big kids. Nothing's going to scare you, right?" He smiled, and Hercules bravely smiled back.
"Anyway," the man continued, adjusting the nametag pinned to his shirt, "welcome to Coyote Run's haunted house. I recognize some of you from last year" -- and Pete pointed to the sister and brother dressed up as a wolf and tiger -- "but things have changed quite a lot around here since then, so don't walk in thinking you'll know what to expect." He gave the group a sinister smile as the door creaked closed on noisy hinges and shut with a menacing click. "There's plenty in store for you."
Then the lights went out.
There was a brief silence; the kids froze. "Darn it, Joe!" Pete said loudly. "Cut that out!"
"Sorry," a voice called from behind one of the plywood walls. The light came back up. The kids broke out into a collective nervous laugh.
"Sorry about that," Pete said apologetically. "You see, we're not actually supposed to be in the haunted house yet. How many of you have been to Coyote Run before?" He looked around at the show of raised hands. "Good, good. For the rest of you, we're a wildlife sanctuary. We protect animals that are injured, or young animals that have lost their parents. I thought that, maybe, on the way to the haunted house, I could show you one or two of the animals we've taken in lately. Follow me." He beckoned to the children, and started walking down a wood-paneled corridor along the side of the warehouse.
Pete and the kids filed through the narrow corridor into a small, empty room in the warehouse's corner, walking out of the main room's bright light into the dimness; he leaned against one of the two serrated metal outer walls and paused to wait for everyone to catch up. "By the way," he said casually, "I should probably warn you, things have gotten a little bit ... different ... around here since the Changes."
As if on cue, a man burst into the room from the opposite hallway, running and yelling. One of the sleeves of his black sweater was on fire. He waved it in the air ineffectually, gave a panicked look and screamed directly at a ninja near the back, and ran out of view the way the group had come, trailing a plume of smoke.
"Oh, that was Ryan. He's one of our caretakers for 'special' animals here," Pete said casually as his costumed charges stared. He smiled and pointed down the hallway the man had come from. The high walls were papered over; their white surface was smeared with soot at odd intervals. "Nothing to worry about. This way, kids."
He hummed as the group assembled and started moving down the hallway; a curtain blocked the view through the wide doorway at the other end. "The room we're about to go into is where our newest arrival has been staying," Pete said as they shuffled nearer the curtain, the smell of sulfur growing thicker. "He's been a little bit feisty lately, but that's OK -- we've made certain everything is perfectly safe. The haunted house entrance is just on the other side of this next room -- I'll guide you through from there." He paused meaningfully. "Do I have a brave volunteer to go in there first?"
Hercules and the ninja raised their hands. Pete pointed to Hercules. "Why don't you go ahead and lift the curtain for us and show us what's back there?"
The child did so, tentatively grabbing the thick fabric but flinging it to one side in a single motion. The room beyond was dark.
"Joe?" Pete said. "Lights are out in room three."
"I'm on it," a voice called over the wall. "One of the circuits popped. I'll have it by the time you all get inside."
Pete shrugged. "Alright," he said. "Let's head in. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but I think you'll be impressed with what Coyote Run can handle." He stepped through the doorway to just the other side, holding the curtain open and beckoning the kids into the darkness beyond.
The dozen kids straggled in, in twos and threes. Pete let the curtain fall behind the last of them and fished a small flashlight from his pocket, focusing the light on his face. "So, can anyone guess what we've got here in this room?" he stage-whispered.
"A dragon!" the sorceress said quietly.
"Maybe a manticore? A centaur?" Pete suggested, a little louder.
"A dragon!" Batman said confidently.
"A really big wolf?" Pete said.
"A dragon!" several kids said in unison.
"You think so, huh?" Pete said, looking surprised. "What about ... an elephant?"
"It's a dragon!" the kids chorused loudly.
"Huh, I don't know, maybe it is, at that," Pete said, and then, dramatically: "Joe! Show us our guest!"
There was a loud whunk as a large toggle switch was flipped out of sight. The room's walls suddenly shone moon-bright, pristine white wallpaper fluorescing under black lights. Several of the childrens' costumes gave off the same unearthly glow -- as did a huge set of open manacles on the floor, mounted on chains as thick as a curled fist, lying empty near the far wall. An inch of straw lay scattered across one corner of the large room, mixed in occasionally with strips of white paper; a small wading pool called into use as a food bowl lay overturned, with large chunks of kibble scattered near the second corner.
"Uh-oh," Pete said in a hushed voice, walking over to examine the manacles, the kids trailing behind.
There was a weighty pause. Then the pirate grinned. "You're the dragon," he said, pointing an accusing finger at Pete.
Pete looked shocked. "What? Me? You think I would do all this just for a cheap scare?" he said, and spread his arms wide, gloves glowing in the light.
"Yeah," several of the boys chorused.
Pete looked disappointed. "Alright. Well, I guess there's just no fooling you guys. You see that doorway over there to your right? If you'll just --"
"Aiiiieeee!" Joe shrieked from behind the wall at the front of the room. A guttural snarl reverberated to match it, and the scream was cut off abruptly, with loud and heavy crunching noises. Several of the kids reflexively shrieked, too, before getting ahold of themselves.
Pete ran back to the front of the room, in front of the curtains. He knocked on the wall next to the doorway. "Joe? Joe! You okay in there? Speak to me!"
The crunching noises stopped; there was sudden silence.
"Joe?" Pete asked.
The wall seemed to explode into ribbons, strips of paper flying outward underneath heavy claws, as a huge paw, neck and head burst through, eyes a luminescent red, pale grey scales glittering in the black light. The dragon rumbled out a snarl, jaws agape, teeth a brilliant, glowing white, as it snaked a shoulder through the tattered paper that once covered the false wall.
A chorus of screams went up from the kids, scattered throughout the room.
"Oh, my God!" Pete shouted, taking a step back in front of the curtain. "Run, kids, run!" He jabbed a finger desperately toward the doorway he'd referenced earlier. The dragon stepped forward, weaving its other shoulder into the room and standing up a little taller, neck swaying up at an angle until those glowing eyes were about eight feet off the ground. It locked eyes with the closest child -- the pirate, who had been near the pile of straw -- and advanced toward it, jaws wide open.
"I'll distract it! Run!" Pete shouted, and stepped forward, kicking the dragon in the leg. It stopped, clicking its jaws shut, and swiveled its head toward Pete, snarling menacingly. The pirate backed up on trembling legs and fled, shrieking, toward the far doorway, jostling with several other kids to get through.
The dragon gaped its mouth open and inhaled loudly. Pete dove to the ground. It snapped its muzzle almost-closed and spat a thin jet of flame toward the man. Light flared throughout the room as the fire, several feet long, its tip flickering at about chest level, crackled above Pete's form -- and then, as the dragon turned its head again, back toward the kids. The stragglers, screaming in terror, fled through the far doorway, leaving only the dragon and his victim.
The dragon lunged back toward Pete, jaws agape, and growled in triumph. Then paused, glanced at the far doorway, and shut his mouth, bringing up one forepaw to massage his jaw.
"I dare say that was one of my best yet," the dragon said quietly. "Although all this growling and posing is stretching muscles I didn't know I had."
Pete pushed himself to his knees and stood up with a grunt, dusting off his pants. "Nice touch with Joe back there, Ash. That was an inspired lead-in."
"Thanks," Joe said, stepping forward to tear the ragged paper from the wooden support to the side of the false wall. "Did you like the crunching? I found some of that really huge bubble wrap."
"I'll tell you, I was impressed," Ash said. "I thought I'd have to magic that for sure."
"Speaking of which, the flames can be a little bit longer. You weren't anywhere near me," Pete said, hustling over to the corner to collect the biggest strips of shredded paper from the ground.
"I didn't angle my head down far enough," Ash said. "I'll keep working on it. It's not like the fire-breathing shtick comes naturally for me, you know."
"I know. I'm still impressed," Pete said with a grin.
Ash backed up behind the false wall's face, and Pete walked through it into the staging area; Joe pulled several yards of paper from the roll on the right side of the opening, starting to staple its end to the wooden support on the left. "We got many more groups tonight?" he asked as he worked.
"They're still lined up four deep outside," Pete said. "We'll still be at this at midnight, for sure."
"Sweet," Joe said, stretching the paper to sit taut. "Don't worry, I've got this. It gets easier with practice. You go do your wolf room thing."
"Alright," Pete said with a grin. "See you two in 10. And thanks again for helping out, Ash. I think you've been one of the biggest hits of the night."
"I don't know," the dragon said thoughtfully. "The parents seem to really like our succubus ..."
"Honey," Gary's mom said as she came in, "have you got a minute?" She sat down on the edge of his bed near his feet, hands folded in her lap. Oh no. That was never a good sign.
Gary closed the "People" magazine he was reading, leaving one clawed finger between the pages as a bookmark to the Redwing feature. Then he remembered the math homework he was supposed to be doing. He folded the magazine and guiltily buried it behind the lamp on the nightstand. Mom looked preoccupied. Maybe she wouldn't notice. He grabbed the ballpoint pen from his lap, blowing on it to clean the extra fur off, and made a show of setting it down next to the open algebra book. "What's up, ma?"
His mom ran a hand nervously through her hair, then patted him on the ankle, nail polish sparkling on her manicured hands, red against her pale skin. "I was cleaning your bed this morning, changing the sheets. And ... well, I know this might be an awkward thing, especially for a guy your age ..." she said, pausing for words.
Gary's muzzle flushed, blood rushing to his cheeks. Oh god. "Mom, I can explain --" he said, trying to sit up straight. The motion bent his tail, with a sudden twinge of pain, and he leaned backward against the wall again with a wince, shifting his weight to one side so he could move the thing out of the way. Even after four months of being a theri he was still trying to retrain himself to adjust to the extra appendage.
"It's alright, dear, it's not --" his mother started, a little too quickly to really be reassuring.
"I know, you found the magazines," he blurted out, his stomach doing flips. "I guess it was a stupid place to hide them. But, I, look -- I mean, you had to have been expecting that sort of thing. I'm seventeen. If I wasn't thinking about, um, that sort of thing then that's when you'd have to start to worry. It's all the hormones, and, I mean, sex ed, and it's nothing to be ashamed of ..." Gary stopped, trying to calm down. He'd run through the scenarios a hundred times in his mind. He always knew this day would come. But now that it was here all of his defenses were coming out wrong.
"H-Honey --" his mom stuttered. "That's not it at all -- I mean -- this isn't about --"
"Oh geez," he interrupted, panicking. It wasn't just about him having porn. Then ... "And you've got to expect that, I mean, a guy like me. Mom, think of what I see when I look in the mirror. I mean, humans aren't going to, you know, turn my head, you know? I want someone like me. I think that's only healthy, and, well, I'm not really happy with some of the things they show, but -- uh -- theri porn is kind of a limited market here, you know? I'm totally not into bondage at all -- but that's the only magazine you can get with werewolves without going upstate. Well, that and bestiality, but that stuff's just sick." Gary took a deep breath. That came out well. Maybe he could pull this off after all.
"Oh, honey," his mother said, sitting up and putting a hand on her chest. "I'm, I'm not one to judge ... I mean, I know how kids are, and really, being a theri's mother is a learning experience every day. I ..." She stopped, and looked at him in shock for several seconds. "Gosh."
Gary shivered, despite his thick winter coat and the season's increasing heat. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins, and his heart thumped hard enough to rattle the base of his skull. "Was ... was that it, ma?" he asked hopefully.
"I ..." she started uncertainly. "Well, no. I didn't come here to talk about ... I mean, you're right, like you said, pornography is, for a guy your age, I mean, sort of, normal. It's not that ..." she said, and paused, trying to refocus.
The thought leapt unbidden into his mind. "The other magazine?" Gary blurted out. Oh, God, kill me now. "Mom -- it's -- it's not what you think, I swear. Guys get -- well, curious. I mean, no," he corrected himself hurriedly, "I don't mean that at all. Oh, God, that came out so totally wrong. I'm not curious at all. That was the last thing that I even thought about. But, you know, I just ... guys just ... I wanted to know how I, uh, 'stack up', you know what I mean? I just wanted some, um, guy werewolves to compare myself to." He closed his eyes. Oh, please, God, let her believe that ... I was just curious. That's all. If you make her believe me I swear I'll never touch that stuff again.
"Honey," his mother said, surprised and sounding slightly concerned, "this has nothing to do with pornography."
Relief flooded through his body like a dam breaking. Thank you. Then the full implication of what she said hit him.
He never had found it. He'd assumed it had fallen behind the bed somewhere ...
Oh, God, kill me now. Heart attack. Lightning bolt. Meteor. Falling airplane. As long as it's quick.
Two heartbeats, and no salvation came.
"Gary?" she said, and his eyes snapped open.
"I know what you're thinking," he said desperately, talking rapidly, "and I don't blame you, but I swear on everything I hold dear that Katie and I never did anything. Not a thing. Not even necking. I swear, that night we came home late, it was a flat tire, I can show you the receipt she got from the garage. And ... Oh, God. I swear, ma, the ... the ... the condom, that wasn't us, that was just me, I mean, alone ... I got curious ..." Gary, ears flattened, head low, held back tears.
His mother sat in stunned silence.
Gary searched his mind. That had to have been it. There wasn't even anything else he could even possibly be ashamed about. "I'm sorry, ma," he said meekly, and sniffled. Liquid itched in his nose.
"Honey," she said, finding her voice again, "I ... I was just going to say, I think you're shedding more -- maybe you're growing out of your winter coat -- and it would make it a lot easier to clean up after you if you'd strip down and let me brush your body twice a week."
"... Oh," Gary said.
"But, you know," she said helpfully, "if they don't have any good werewolf magazines down at the corner store, maybe you could talk to your father about driving to the city?"
The door swung open to reveal a towering, menacing figure, wearing a bathrobe that only came down to its knees. Kathy, in high heels, gasped and reflexively stepped back to shield her daughter, who was wearing a white karate uniform tied with a green sash at the waist.
"Caleb, I thought you --" the figure started, in a raspy bass, then did a double-take. "Miz Ellerbee?"
Kathy's daughter, who had been distracted when the door opened, craned to get a look around her mother's frame. Her eyes grew wide and she stifled a shriek.
The figure raised one furry, clawed hand, palm out, and sighed. "It's okay, Sarah. It's me. J.E."
"J.E.?" Kathy said, horrified. "You ... you're one of those animal people?"
The werewolf ignored her. "What are you doing here? Didn't you get the phone call? Class is cancelled this week."
"N ... no, I hadn't, we haven't been home all day," Kathy said, staring.
"Mom?" Sarah said timidly, tugging at Kathy's skirt, and also staring. "Sensei's a wolf lady?"
"Yes, Sarah, I'm a wolf lady now," J.E. said gently. "I just need a little time to adjust. Go home with your mom and practice the circle kata some more, okay?" She adjusted the bathrobe, holding it closed with one paw, and looked up at Kathy. "Drop by Sunday and I'll have Caleb process a refund for tonight's lesson. Things should get a little more settled over the weekend."
Kathy stared at the werewolf, a mixture of emotions fighting for control of her face.
"Missus Ellerbee?" J.E. prodded.
Kathy's eyes refocused. "Oh, my. I'm sorry. You're ... well, this is the first time ... I'm sorry. I don't mean to stare."
"That's okay. There's been a lot to get used to, and it's only been two days."
"I ... yeah," Kathy agreed. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I'm fine," J.E. assured her. "I'm just trying to keep the dojo running smoothly. Caleb will be taking over the beginner and intermediate classes. I'm still figuring out what to do with the advanced. Now, if you'll excuse me?" she asked.
Kathy looked back up into J.E.'s eyes with an effort. "Of course," she said. "Um, have a nice evening."
"You too," J.E. said. "Take care, Sarah."
J.E. closed and locked the door, double-checked to make sure the Venetian blinds were tightly shut, then leaned against the wall of the dojo and let her breath out in a deep sigh. Well, it could have been worse. Tom Jeiburton had cancelled both of his sons' lessons on the spot when he had met Caleb at the supermarket and found out about her condition in a moment of accidental candor. Not everyone was going to react that strongly, she hoped, but ... well, within a week she'd know whether her childhood dream was going to wreck her adult one.
Bless Caleb. She hadn't thought that he was ready to take responsibility to the extent that he had, but he had really proven himself in his reaction to J.E.'s change. He'd worked a sixteen-hour day yesterday taking care of business details -- and then running errands -- for her, and had spent most of the afternoon contacting her students to make sure she had the space she needed to process all this.
Teaching the kids was going to be another matter entirely. He'd been helping out with the white and yellow belts, but he didn't have the confidence to do much more -- and had always been sloppy with his falling technique, which she'd been meaning to correct for months. She was coming to the point where she thought she could deal with the social consequences of doing the teaching herself, but ...
J.E. double-checked the blinds on the door, and then the blinds on the front windows, twisting the knob one extra time to make certain they were absolutely tight. With a self-conscious glance at the shuttered windows, and then around the large, empty front room of the shopping center storefront she was renting for dojo space, she wriggled out of the bathrobe, twitching as the cool night air ruffled her fur and skin in areas she'd grown used to covering with clothing all of her life. It wasn't that she had a burning desire to go nude now that a layer of fur arguably provided modesty -- she still felt naked, and, for heaven's sake, you could still see the naughty bits if you were looking for them -- but, quite simply, none of her clothes fit any more, and after hearing of that incident in the supermarket, she hadn't worked up the nerve to go out in public for clothes shopping yet.
She walked out to the center of the room, staring at her form in the mirror on the side wall. She'd grown over a foot and practically doubled in weight. It seemed like even her muscles had muscles now. Thankfully, her breasts hadn't grown the same way; she was just barely coping without a sports bra as it was. The tail -- twitching from side to side; she still hadn't gotten used to the idea of a part of her body not always under conscious control -- wasn't too big of an inconvenience, but the legs ...
J.E. stepped forward and dropped into a front stance, settling into what her body found comfortable and then freezing. She looked at herself in the mirror and grimaced. That wouldn't do. That wouldn't do. Her rear leg was supposed to be straight -- but her haunches were so muscular that the leg wouldn't straighten all the way, and she couldn't push her ankle anywhere near the ground because it put too much tension on her toes and overbalanced her. Most of her weight was on her front leg, haunch bent almost double, tension like a coiled spring; it felt like her rear paw was only being used for balance.
It was a testament to the power -- or the different structure -- in this new body that she couldn't even feel the strain of supporting almost her entire weight on just the one leg, bent in one of the toughest postures, the one that sent her students home sore lesson after lesson. There were definitely some possibilities here. But there was no way she could go on teaching the classes this way, not to human students; she had no way to demonstrate the stances to them correctly.
On the other hand ...
"Hai!" J.E. barked as she leapt straight up off of that single leg's bent forward haunch, feeling her muscles catch and strain with a push that would have been physically impossible for her three days ago -- that might have left her human form throwing out a knee. She shot her rear leg forward at an imaginary opponent's head as she left the ground, whipping herself into a backflip, and reached her arms above her head, catching the mat as gravity brought her back down into a handstand. She held on, bending her elbows, as the momentum of the spin teetered her over toward a fall on her stomach, and then, when she was only a second from hitting the ground, braced herself and shoved with all her might, sailing back through the air in a graceful arc. Her paws caught mat, and, just for the hell of it, she kicked back off again, tucking into a backward somersault, thrusting her arms into an open-handed overhead ready position as she landed heavily into a graceful crouch, her tail glancing off the wall, twelve feet from where she'd launched.
She froze there, admiring her pose in the mirror, and bared her teeth in a wide grin.
Oh, yes, there were definitely some possibilities here.
Tal shivered. Damn this cold. His eyes hurt, his chest hurt, his head hurt, his nose just wouldn't stop running, he felt completely drained, and he was so spiritually cross-eyed from the antihistamines and cough medicine that he couldn't even flip the light switch on from across the room. And on top of that, a freak late-spring snowstorm had sent temperatures plummeting. Even under two layers of blankets, he just couldn't stay warm.
Tal shivered. Maybe he should call in Alice, tell her to get into bed with him and snuggle, sharing body heat ... no. He wouldn't wish this cold on his worst enemy. Well, that's what he had been thinking all morning and most of the night. But his resolve was quickly weakening. He just felt so miserable, and her warmth would be so wonderful ...
Stupid cold. Stupid cold. Over the last three months, he'd recited healing incantations so often he had the words memorized; he hadn't had to worry about a single cut or bruise since the Changes. He'd magicked off acne and even a wart. So why shouldn't he be able to throw a spell on himself that would be any more effective than the stupid Tylenol he'd been popping for the last 24 hours? The healing spell loosened up the symptoms, sure enough, but then ten minutes later they'd be back again -- and all the misery he'd avoided would hit him all at once, as if it had merely been waiting to pounce on him when his back was turned. And, of course, because of the stupid cold, he didn't have the power to make it stick any longer; he would have loved to have burned it off a little at a time, and deal with a week or two of minor discomfort, but he just couldn't get that far.
Even a damn heat spell. But he was far too out of it to do any real research, and the one he'd been able to improvise without looking up the elemental spells had, after about five minutes, left him feeling like he'd been shoveled feet first into a blast furnace. He hadn't thought the misery could get worse. But ... well, things could always get worse, he supposed. Maybe that's what this was all about. To teach him some humility.
"H...honey?" Alice said as she walked into the room, carrying another down comforter, struggling with the bulky blanket, wadded up in front of her upper body and face. "How are you feeling?"
Tal rolled over onto his back, stifling a moan as the shift caused the ache in his muscles to flare up and brought new currents of freezing air creeping under the covers. "Like absolute crap, love." He coughed. His throat had dried out. "But glad you're here. Can I have another bowl of chicken soup?"
"I ... brought you another blanket," Alice said. Her voice sounded a little odd, but Tal could do little more than register that fact as he felt his eyes throb with every heartbeat. Stupid, miserable cold. She lowered the unwieldy pile of cloth onto the bed, and he noticed she'd changed out of the negligee and bathrobe into a thick wool sweater. Her eyes were red and her makeup streaked. Huh, Tal thought. I guess she's picked up my cold anyway. Well, that's it, then. She's coming under the covers after that soup gets made.
"I've got to say, Tal," Alice said, sitting on the bed, "I haven't seen you in this bad a shape since we first got together. My god, it really does seem like forever." She looked up at him, sniffled, wiped her nose, and gave him a reassuring smile. "How long has it been?"
Tal tried to wrap his brain around that. The Changes, Christmas ... New Year's Eve? No, a day or two before that. And what month was it? March ... no, April. Jerry's stupid April Fool's prank at work. He'd gotten Jerry back by making his car blow a tire in commute traffic; that had been truly satisfying, even if he couldn't gloat about it. So ... "A little over three months," he croaked. "Wow. Three months of paradise, love."
He looked over at her tenderly -- and his stomach did a half-flip. The smile had fallen from her face. She was staring at him with cold, cold eyes, as frozen and as blank as the glass in his bedroom window.
Something was deeply, deeply wrong.
"Love ...?" he asked. "... Alice?"
She stood back up and walked around to his side of the bed, and he realized as she turned the final corner that she'd brought the chef's knife in from the kitchen cutlery set -- hidden it in the comforter while she walked in. His blood stopped in his veins.
"Three months," she said as if she was pronouncing a verdict, staring down at him past the point of the knife. "Three months. You ... you ..." and her lip began to tremble.
Adrenaline cleared Tal's head enough to let him sit up slightly and visualize some power runes for an improvised spell; he tried surreptitiously tracing them on the bedsheet with a finger while he talked. "Alice, please. I have no idea what you're talking --"
"Liar!" she shouted, lashing out at the items on the bedside table with her free hand to punctuate her point. The box of tissues went flying; the bottle of Tylenol tipped, scattering pills to the floor with a noise like a clattering of marbles; the empty water glass shattered on the floor with a ringing crash; and, morbidly, all he could think was, two glasses down, four left to go.
"You stole," she shouted at his face, "three months of my life. Three months of suicidal depression that would just magically," she said with great emphasis, "disappear when you were around. Three months of only having you to look forward to, and even that was a lie."
She paused, and narrowed her eyes. "The biggest lie of all."
"Alice," Tal said desperately. "Please ... calm down and get some sleep." He finished the isa rune under the covers, and gathered his energy, pushed, projected sleep. But he could feel his waning energy dissipate almost as it left his body. He wasn't entirely surprised to see her not waver, not even appear to notice.
He tried to cheer himself up by blaming his failure on the distraction of the breaking glass, but with knife-edge clarity, he knew it was a lie, and knew he had no way left to halt his onrushing fate.
"Now I know why my head always hurt when I asked you about magic or tried to read anything out of your books," she said in a low, level voice, body trembling with rage. "And why you spread that lavender stuff on my pillow every night. Heh --" she snorted humorlessly -- "to 'make me sleep better.'"
Maybe if he could get his ritual knife, on his altar across the room ... No. No chance. Maybe if he tried a teleportation spell? Turning inside out and exploding in some street wouldn't really be any worse than her wrath. Of course, there was that little matter of actually learning the damn spell. A travel rune by itself did nothing and he didn't exactly have the time to experiment. ... Not to mention finding a way to cast it in his drained state.
"Tal!" she shouted, and he cringed, snapping his attention back to her, half-expecting to find the knife swinging in. But she was still standing there, trembling. "It didn't work last night," she said softly. "Maybe you did something wrong. But it's not going to work any more. I want my three months back." Her eyes filled with tears, and she continued, choking back a sob, "And I want to know ... what you have t...to say for yourself ... you son of a bitch." She raised the knife in a quivering hand and stared into his eyes.
He looked back, and her eyes were a void, dull and shiny as metal.
"Alice," Tal said sincerely, forcing the words through a bone-dry throat, "I love you."
She screamed and lunged. He closed his eyes. The impact was dull, wet and distant.
"What a night," Dr. Wood said, scratching his moustache, as he walked up to the monitoring station of Ward C. "Sorry I'm late. Head-on accident blocked 35 about ten minutes south of the hospital."
Linda Taylor, R.N., looked up from a half-finished crossword puzzle. "Hey, Evan. I figured that might be it. Jay got yanked to ER for it. But I've been holding the fort. Don't worry -- things always seem dead around here on a Wednesday."
Evan took off his coat, brushed the snow from the collar, and opened the closet door to hang it on the coat rack next to Linda's. "So to speak. Any new patients during the day?"
"No," she said, glancing over at the patient files. "Hmmm. Samson's mobile, and looking on track to leave by the weekend. DeLee's had some serious arrhythmia; I've been checking in on him hourly. Nick switched Torretti to tamoxin -- 30 milligrams -- to see if that helps her keep food down any better. Robinson wants her painkiller dosage upped -- again." She paused, and jotted in a word at 27-Down. "That's the big stuff."
"Just another night at the finest convalescent care ward for three counties around," Evan said, walking over to the nearest sink and depressing the foot pedal. He scrubbed his hands with soap, up to both elbows. "Give me a clue."
"Hmm?" Linda said.
"For the crossword."
"Oh. Um ... 42-Across. Editor's 'Keep as is.' Four letters, second letter T."
Evan thought for a few seconds as he rinsed. "Stet, I think. It's one of those words crossword puzzles use all the time."
She wrote it in as he dried his hands off with a paper towel. "33-Down. Change. Five letters, fourth letter A."
"Umm ..." Evan said. "Search me." He walked over and peered over Linda's shoulder. "Hmmm ... wait. No, not 'stat.' S-T-E-T. With an E."
"Didn't you say stat?" Linda said, flipping the pencil and erasing the word. "What's stet mean?"
"Keep as is, apparently. I don't know. I only ever see it in crosswords."
A light flashed from green to yellow on the console in front of Linda's chair, and a buzzer began to quietly but insistently beep. Both of their heads snapped up.
"DeLee," Linda said, and stood up. "I'll get the defib."
"Okay," Evan said, dodging around her as he started walking to Room 4, several strides down the front hallway. "Has he --"
The light turned red, and the beep turned into a persistent buzz. "Crap," Evan interrupted himself. Linda stopped in mid-stride and turned around to look at the console.
From the direction of room 4 came a solid crack and heavy thump that Evan felt in the soles of his feet, punctuated by several crashes, one of which rang out with the sound of glass shattering.
"Crap!" Evan said emphatically, punching the red button on the column at the front corner of the desk, and breaking into a run down the hallway, Linda closely at his heels. "What in God's name wa--" he started as he rounded the corner through the open doorway into the dimly-lit room with DeLee, and then --
"JesusHChrist!" he yelled, scrambling, backpedaling, flinging his arms out as he skidded to a stop and strained to reverse course. Linda, at full speed behind him, had barely enough time to do a double-take and fight for traction before slamming into him from behind, nose straight into his shoulder, chest glancing off his side, bouncing back into the hallway and sitting down hard on the floor. The impact overbalanced Evan; he windmilled, lunged desperately for the door frame, and somehow managed to fall onto his side rather than pitch face-first into the room. He clawed for the floor, hoisted himself onto hands and knees, and sprinted on all fours back around the corner, eyes wide.
"Fahk!" Linda hissed, hand to her nose, eyes squinting in pain, sitting against the wall by the doorway for support. "Ow! Fahk! Whuh the hehh --"
"Ssssh!" Evan hissed back, urgently, from the other side of the doorway, sitting with his back to the wall, motioning with his head toward the room. He gulped, and held his breath, straining to listen, and Linda -- who still hadn't seen what the fuss was about -- caught an echo of his terror, and did likewise.
Seconds passed. The console, several paces back down the hall, buzzed urgently. A voice spoke animatedly from the television in DeLee's room. Linda glanced down at her hand and saw blood along the edge of her palm. "Shih," she cursed in a whisper, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand, leaving a smear of red along it. "Efah?"
He fixed her with a terrified stare. "There ... is ... a ... tiger ... in ... there," he whispered urgently.
Linda looked at him strangely. She pinched her nose with her hand, tilted her head back slightly, rolled over to her knees, and leaned toward the doorway, cautiously peeking. Her eyes widened and she yanked her head back. "Shih!" she hissed.
The console continued to buzz. A different voice talked excitedly from the television.
"Go cah nih-wuh-wuh," Linda suggested in a hoarse whisper, still clenching her nose to try to stem the bleeding. "Dah phoh's ah yuh side."
"Good idea," Evan whispered back. He flattened himself against the wall and inched his head toward the doorframe, cautiously peering around the corner. "... How did that thing get in there?"
"Heh if I knoh," Linda whispered back, and leaned back toward the door. "Thah thig is fahkeg huge."
"It's not moving ..." Evan trailed off.
"Is it deah?"
"You want to go in there and find out?" he whispered.
"Yeah righ. Wheh's DeLee?"
Evan risked a look further around the corner, sticking his head out almost entirely past the frame. "I don't know."
The console continued its steady buzz. Two television voices debated something.
Linda glanced over at Evan. "I thig its dead. It haht moobed."
"I think you're right," he whispered back.
"Mi ... Mister DeLee?" Evan called out. "A ... are you in there?"
The tiger -- lying on its side, fully four hundred pounds, amid the wreckage of a hospital bed; tangled up in cables from two fallen equipment tables, an IV stand, and the shattered glass of a broken heart monitor display -- cracked open an eye.
"Oh geez," Linda whispered as she and Evan yanked their heads back.
Buzz. Chatter. No sounds of motion.
Evan risked another look. "It's just lying there," he whispered, "looking this way." Linda leaned back around the corner of the doorway.
The tiger looked at each of them in turn, its eye apparently having trouble tracking. It then inhaled, drawing in a deep, raspy breath, and let that breath out slowly in a long, weak purr. It blinked and then closed its eye, lying still.
Buzz. Chatter. Evan glanced at Linda.
"Mistuh DeLee?" Linda asked. "Tiguh? Anywuh?"
No response. No motion.
Evan stared blankly at the motionless feline. "What in God's name ...? Where's DeLee? How did that ..."
Linda tore her eyes from the tiger and glanced around the room. "Dah wihdow's closed."
Evan stared helplessly around DeLee's room. "I don't understand. Tigers don't just appear out of thin air."
Linda looked for several seconds at the tiger, then limped past the doorway and back toward the monitoring station. "I'h goig tuh cah nih-wuh-wuh now ..."
"What are they going to do about a dying tiger?" Evan asked helplessly.
"Whuh ah we goig to do abouh it?" Linda retorted, then coughed, and tilted her head back further. "Gah. Stubih node ..."
Evan froze, blinked, then whirled and bolted for Room 3.
"Whuh the hehh?" Linda said, looking back to make sure the tiger wasn't suddenly leaping out into the hall.
"His TV!" Evan called back over his shoulder. Linda stared at him as if he'd gone crazy, but turned around and walked cautiously after him.
Evan fumbled with the channel and cranked up the volume. The 10:00 news featured a bright-faced young man and a dour-looking, bearded one talking back and forth in front of a backdrop reading "Dragon Sighting?"
"All I'm saying," the bearded man was protesting, "is that there's no good, rational explanation for this video we've seen. Given the massive track record the paranormal community has of outright frauds and questionable evidence --"
"You can't ignore this stuff when it's right in front of your eyes like this!" the young man retorted. The screen cut to a scene of a reporter on a city street as the discussion continued as an overdub. "This isn't some grainy, backwoods Bigfoot sighting," the young man continued. "This was a professional news organization's live broadcast." The reporter moved his lips silently, focused on the camera, as a large, brown form, with bright red highlights that looked like folded wings, rounded a corner in the background, slightly out of focus. "If you don't accept this as evidence, when will you accept what's really happening?"
"Holy shih," Linda breathed.
"It's not evidence for anything," the bearded man's voice cut in -- as the reporter on screen glanced behind him, did a double-take, and ducked off-camera with a wild look on his face -- "until it's verified, until all simpler explanations are ruled out, until an out-and-out hoax is ruled out." The figure -- which did look amazingly like a dragon -- stopped, looked directly at the camera, briefly raised one of its forelimbs, and then spread its wings. The picture shook; the focus blurred, then clarified, and swayed to center on the beast, which crouched, muscles tensing.
"There were over fifty witnesses willing to go on record by name on that street," the young man's voice broke back in, "along with the news crew. Were they all in on this 'hoax,' too?" The dragon -- and it was definitely a dragon, in that flash of a moment while the camera was properly aligned -- leapt into the sky; the camera tracked it, jerkily and obviously hand-aimed, until it lost the figure behind a nearby building.
Evan stared, stunned.
"You're kidding me. Is this the news? The ten o'clock news?" Jay -- who had arrived in response to the alarm Evan had hit back after those crashes -- said from behind them. Three members of the hospital security force crowded around the doorway and stared in disbelief at the screen.
The news show cut back to the studio, the dour bearded man's face filling the screen. "And if this was a real dragon, what implications would that have for the rest of our world?" he pointed out. "That couldn't possibly be the only one. Where are the others? How come we haven't heard of any more? And where have they been up until now?"
Evan turned around, his face blank. "We've got a ... dying Bengal tiger in Room 4. I ... I think it's Mister DeLee."
Jay stared. "You are frickin' kidding me." He paused. "You're not. You ... Oh, my God."
The security team exchanged looks.
Jay asked the question that was on all their minds. "So what the hell do we do now?"
Loud chatter; distant buzz.
Linda answered for them all. "I hab no fahkeg clue."
Ash sat and stared at the candle.
Ash sat and stared at the candle.
Ash sat at stars and the candle.
Ash, saddened stars, and the candle.
Ashes of stars, sand of a candle.
Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. A candle, a star.
Better ashes than dust -- Better meteor than planet in orbit whirling tilting above candle flame of a sun light sun bright click of a camera flash bulb of darkness in a blink blink dit dah dit dit daaaah of an eye ... ...
... ... staccato pulse rhythm of gently swaying saving waves of fatigue crash, crash, crash on the beach tropical wind topical mind flecking away like sand in an hourglass. Grain falls pebble falls crash of the clash of the eyelids blink blot out, blacken candle sun, ducking and weaving, butterfly moth flame, flapping erratically, crash, crash, noisy wings howling the howl of nothing at all --
blackness reigns rains raindrops dropping plummeting screaming the void, falling, fall, fall colors shifting reds of fire lipstick reds burning passion reds of her red blood red ruby red shimmer glitter scales catching fire catching sun. Fire burning melting screaming passion fire blazing enveloping heat of her heat of her inner fire stoking fueling reds blazing reds and lazing beds of her warm soft fire, nights of beds, red nights, leaping dancing bouncing bonding clinging crashing passion crash and crash, crash, fire and ash.
Savor heat, wild and sweet. Passion, passion, ash and ... her --
void yawning void screaming blackness screaming crying tears of fears of pain of rage black rage black heart of darkness' kiss, black abyss, falling keening screaming dreaming dreaming dreaming DREAMING sweating screaming Ash awoke.
Eyes wide open keep your eyes on dark horizon candle candle candle think and blink and focus, focus, focus pocus.
Ash sat, scared, at the candle.
Candle, candle, burning bright; guide me swiftly through the night. Candle, candle, burning on; on and on, dreams be gone, 'scuse me while I kiss the dawn.
Dawn kissing dream kicking Dawnkickers banish panic vanish manage cling and hold a golden light bright candle flickering sputtering guttering draining raining strain and pain again and again --
screaming, lashing, matching isolation, pain and clinging, stinging, singing at the darkness Love in heat and fear, siren's song, angel's kiss ripped away away torn asunder wonder blunder? Fear of fear of fear itself a terror cringe at shadows world of shadows dark and lonely lone a long and distant cry Love angel's voice demon's tongue human lips, frozen lips, frozen image cold and distant distant locked in ice sealed cold with freezer burn. Heat and sweat wet silent nights of tears, rain-streaked cheeks, cold and ice, human eyes. Flash of scale of fire glint memory calling Love locked away.
Culling ashes for fire, calling Ash in fear, alone forsaken lost and naked for the dark stark bare a terror fling of fight or flight light shattered glass a field of knives cutting blood spilling red to black drunk by the night. alone and scared cared prepared to bare heart and heat sweet words of love, fear, lost, bleeding needing key held in fire fire find a match one match their clash and cry consumed by joy love swallowed bleeding darkness screaming waiting fading shreds bled gripped and ripped in jaws of night --
scream maul chew and tear torn and shredded red blood pale skin dying eyes longing dark fuel for fireless fire quenched unprotected darkness closing in sharp as death, breath of ice clenching lifeless husk freezing lungs seizing throat screaming flailing frail weak and gathered hold and shout hand out desperate cry I'm sorry
sorry echo echo sorry echo fading sorry
-- then wham slam blazing vision burst of light field of fire green fire waving blazing ripples wind whipping grass, ice sky water blue fire earth meeting rolling tumbling wings out catching air blazing sun tasting wind flying home. Ground soars meets feet claws sink hugging earth, wind blows nose knows scent sent from firs, ferns, sap sweet and green-clean -- hint of scent of stranger danger creeping low slow, shadow, shadow. Urgent burst of motion muscles pulling hurtling homeward there she is terrified encircled, frail flesh facing naked fear fangs crimson claws, turning shouting hand outstretched shadows pouncing cry and lunge a desperate roar strain for fingers time crawls shadows slaver spark of fire triumph eyes ablaze roar and burst in red fire red shimmer scales --
darkness bounces fleeing yelping pride of helping gentle smile scent inviting, ash and fire, ash in fire, yearning burning flaring pairing lights uniting burning like
A candle before the dawn.
Ash jolted in his sleep, screaming, arm outstretched. He drew in a trembling, ragged breath, looking around the room uncomprehendingly -- then a second breath, lowering his arm.
He looked out the window, curtains flung back, at the brilliant desert sunrise.
"Dammit!" he roared, smashing a fist fiercely down on the lush carpet, doubled over, body heaving with sobs. The candle jolted, tipping over on its side. Its pool of melted wax spilled out into a puddle.
Tears flowed down his face. "Fuck ... you ... Sue. Leave me alone." He pulled himself up to trembling hands and knees, tears dripping on the carpet. "Leave me alone."
The candle, deprived of its fuel, sputtered and snuffed out. A thin line of white smoke curled up from the tip of its wick.
Matthew swung closed the door with a soft click, turned on the overhead light, and pushed at the window, trying to close it against the resistance of its frozen hinges. Kay stood in the middle of the room, arms hugged against her chest, shivering slightly, wearing a black long-sleeved blouse against the January chill, her sweater draped over her chair next door in the library. The back room smelled of mildew, but looked surprisingly clean and free of dust. Several of the school's cheap plastic-and-metal chairs were stacked against the back corner; four of the least broken were arranged in a loose oval in the center of the cramped room.
With a squeal and a shudder, the window yielded to Matthew's push, nearly closing. The traffic noises and chatter of kids from outside, a floor below, subsided to a background hum, and the small room got uncomfortably cold and still and quiet. Kay remained standing, still; staring at Matthew in silent impatience.
He turned around, looked into her eyes, and almost lost his nerve. She didn't want to be here. She was tolerating him, maybe humoring him. Matthew swallowed, trying to ignore the lump in his throat, but couldn't think of a way to start.
"Well?" Kay said, and the temperature in the room dropped another degree. "What did you want?"
Matthew fidgeted. One step at a time. "Kay, I know we don't know each other too well ... but, you know, I see you in the library all the time. You've been acting kind of, um ... different, lately --"
Kay shifted her weight to one leg and threaded her arms crossed. "Different? What's that supposed to mean?"
Matthew felt his face flush. One step at a time. "You-- You've been spending all your lunchtimes in here this week, but I haven't seen you eat, and your boyf-- uh, the guy you've been going out with, seems like he's ignoring you. You're using a lot of tissues. I'm, um, getting concerned. It's not like we're really friends, but I want to help if there's anything I can do, or if, um," he stalled briefly, "there's anything you want to talk about ...?"
Kay stared at him silently through his speech, then for an extra moment to make certain he was done. "Thanks, Matthew. It's nice of you to be concerned. I'm not going to do anything stupid like kill myself." She glanced up into his eyes, and -- probably reading his expression -- sighed. "I promise."
"Are ... are you, um, do you want to talk about it?"
Kay uncrossed her arms and took a step toward the door. "I've got homework to do."
He twitched. I'm not going to get another chance. "W-wait," Matthew said desperately, stretching out one arm toward her and fumbling in his jacket pocket. Here goes nothing.
She looked back, despite her front of disinterest, and her eyes widened. "Where did you get that?" she demanded, face reddening, shoving one of the chairs out of the way and making a beeline toward Matthew and the floppy disk he was holding uncomfortably by one corner.
"It was between two of the computer desks," Matthew said quickly. "I was cleaning yesterday and found it on the floor." Kay snatched it from him, and he offered no resistance; she examined the disk as he talked. "I ... I didn't know what to do with it at first, and --" he stopped himself and took a deep breath. "First I need you to know that, I swear, I won't say a thing outside of this room, not one thing --"
Kay looked up at him, stunned. "You read it?" she asked, then again, frantically, angrily. "You read it?"
"Just two files," Matthew said defensively. "I had to figure out whose --"
"You read it?" she said, face a twisted mask, eyes glistening. "You ... creep, you asshole --"
"Kay!" Matthew said desperately. "Please ..."
"That was my private diary. I just needed a disk to get the essay to the library printer. I've been missing that for four days now. I can't believe you'd just, you'd just ..." Kay seethed at him, blinking back tears, then whirled around and stormed toward the door.
Oh, geez, Matthew thought, heart pounding. This is all going wrong ... He swallowed, throat suddenly dry. "Kay!" he called after her, desperately. "I ... want you to show me how to change."
Adrenaline flooded through him. It was out.
She halted, hand on the door handle. Time froze.
"... I don't have time for bad jokes," Kay finally said, voice uneven, eyes fierce and wet.
"It's no joke," Matthew said, trembling, stepping forward and bracing himself against one of the chairs. "I swear. Please. Please don't go. I ... I want to learn."
"No," she said bitterly. "No, you don't. It's not worth it." She wiped her eyes on her sleeve, and finished, quiet, raw: "It's brought me nothing but pain."
"I do," Matthew protested. "You think the world's got anything better to offer? Hell, half the school is probably talking about me behind my back anyway. Those morons don't need a reason to hate."
Kay stared at him, teeth clenching her lip, then abruptly trudged over to the nearest chair and sat down heavily, burying her face in her hands. "What am I going to do?" she said brokenly.
Matthew stared at Kay in bewildered silence as tears streaked down her cheeks, then looked down at the chair his fingers were clenched around in an iron grip, and sat down as well. A thought occurred to him. "Um ... Todd. Does this have anything to do with ... I mean ... did he find out ...?"
Kay nodded, choking back a sob. "He ... I ... Oh, God, Matthew, I'm so scared."
"Why? What happened?"
She looked up at him. "You didn't read?"
"No, I only read just the two files ... the first night you changed, and your Social Studies homework."
Kay nodded and took a pair of unsteady deep breaths, wiping her eyes. "He ... Over the weekend. He ... hit me. I shifted and, and ... nearly tore his throat out. I told him if he told anyone I'd kill him. We haven't talked since."
"... Oh my God," Matthew said.
"And I can't run away. Where would I go? I don't have any money. If anyone finds out I'm a panther they'll probably kill me or worse. I don't know any other ... other theris, I guess that's the word, except the ones I've seen on TV. And I can't even go try to track down Dennis Redwing or anything -- he's helping out the New Year's Eve dragons, and now he's talking about declaring war. God, that'd be the first place they look. I don't want to spend my life on the run." Kay shook her head, and said brokenly, "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do."
"What did you ever see in Todd in the first place?" Matthew asked, helpless, changing the subject. "I mean, the stupid jock barely seems to notice you, he insults you all the time ... he hit you, for God's sake."
Kay sighed. "Nothing. He was a total jerk." She wrapped her arms around her chest again. "But it shut everyone else up. Everyone else left me alone while he was around."
"Geez," Matthew said. "Geez. I'm sorry."
Kay shook her head in despair. "I don't know what to do ..."
"Maybe if I could shift too," Matthew said, "I could become, like, a dragon ... help you get away somewhere. Maybe hunt things, or, I don't know, probably live with dragon magic. It's got to be better than you sitting here waiting for Todd to stop being scared. There's gotta be something I can do to help. Anything's better than keeping going through this. The world's nuts and maybe finally there's a way out of it after all."
"That's what I thought. But it's like it's just more of the same."
"It's not. Look at what Redwing is doing. There's never been anyplace to run to before. But now he's taking a stand. He got people to stop." Matthew sighed. "I don't know, I guess you're right, he's in a lot of shit. But ... you know ... the world has always sucked. But now there's something more. Something real. I'd give anything for that new chance."
"But ..." Kay said. "What's stopping you? I mean, I can't teach you how to change. It just ... works. I just think about it."
Matthew felt himself blush. "I don't know! I want it. I swear, I want it, more than I want anything. I've been trying since the First Sighting. I just keep wishing and wishing to become something else. And nothing happens. The guys on TV who say that's what it's about ... I don't know. I guess I'm just not good enough. But I'll get it, I swear. Becoming something else is my only way out of this hell."
Kay looked up into his eyes. "Did you mean it?" she asked softly.
"About going somewhere else ... if you change. Do you think we -- you can really find a place to go?"
Matthew stared back at her earnestly. "There's got to be somewhere. Changing's the hard part. Remember how many people there were at Redwing's meeting. We'll find a place."
Kay smiled at him then, briefly, gently, sniffling and wiping her nose. She sat up into a crouch and rolled forward onto her hands and knees. "I. Um. I just close my eyes ... Oh, geez. It's gotten so much different since the first time I did it. I don't even have to wish any more. I just remember what it's like being a panther again. Like this."
The soft, dark glow of her change reflected off of Matthew's wide eyes.
He sat, frozen, trembling. She looked up at him, hopeful, from his knees, through soft, golden eyes. Light rippled off her jet-black fur as muscles shifted. Whiskers twitched.
"Oh, God," he whispered. "You're beautiful."
Matthew held out a hand, palm up, toward the cat. Kay looked at it, then back at his face, silently. He reached, arm quivering, to touch her fur. She did not resist.
In one sudden, fluid motion, Matthew slid forward off his chair, throwing his arms around the panther's neck, collapsing to the floor, clinging to her. Kay froze, muscles rigid. Matthew started to cry. "Oh, God ..." he sobbed. "You're so beautiful. I never ... never thought I'd see ... one in person." His head sagged, face pressing against her shoulder, tears soaking her fur.
As Matthew sat crying, Kay gradually unfroze -- first sitting, to shift some of his weight off of her legs; and then, tenderly, resting her own head against his neck. The cat sniffled and closed her eyes.
The bell for fifth period buzzed, distantly, through the door. Neither of them moved.
(Editor's note: Happy Sunday! Posted slightly later than expected, but still "on time" -- haven't gone to sleep yet. And as a reward for your patience, the longest BaMoTTuStory yet: Well over 3,000 words. Enjoy!)
* * * *
Gerry opened the bag of tortilla chips and fished the salsa from the shopping bag under the table. He reached for the plastic bowls absentmindedly. His hand groped empty air.
He looked over. Out already? No -- wait. He'd only brought two over from the car. The rest were still in his back seat. Gerry made a face, took a deep breath, and paused, focusing. He snapped his fingers, glanced down, and grabbed a bowl with a smirk.
There were a lot of things about the Changes that could have gone better ... but, damn, being a mage sure had its moments.
This whole day, he hoped, would be one of them.
He took a deep breath of the park's fresh air -- fir and cedar -- and looked around the parking lot. It was a perfect late-spring morning -- and, okay, only a little weather control had gone into that; mostly just dissolving the few clouds that would otherwise have thrown the area into patchy shade.
Four carloads (and one large pickup truck, and a few that had flown in) of Seattle's finest practicing willworkers -- which was to say, his circle, Sarah's coven, and a double handful of friends-of-friends. A few strings pulled for overnight access to Wallace Falls State Park -- even after the "theris taking over the wilderness" brouhaha, the parks weren't closed exactly; you just needed to know who to talk to.
... And Nex's very controversial, very secret and very fresh-from-the-company-backroom live-action Age of Ascension rules.
The very not-"Rock-Paper-Scissors" version. The version that the reactionary right had been throwing a fit over even though it very much Didn't Exist.
Gerry had volunteered to gamemaster -- organizing most of them as the monster and/or enemy and/or bit-part brigade, and plotting a day-long adventure for the eight players, who had been chosen randomly to keep things fair. Coordinating everyone's existing magical capabilities, transferring that spell-casting into the game environment, and trying to get the safety rules down cold had taken the better part of a week -- but it had been much less of a hassle than he had expected, even with half of the group never having role-played before.
Nex was a genius, setting up rules for the spell effects, tweaking the thaumometers to ignore the "allowed" spells, and even managing to -- well, hopefully -- balance the time and wild magic. The only class he'd had to eliminate was the Waywalker, which wasn't much of a loss, as none of them was exactly a martial arts master. The folks less confident of their skill, of course, could just play as elementalists -- the simplest classes by far, ones that any competent mage could be coached into picking up. Even the new guys, those who'd joined after the Changes and had only been willworking for a few months, had picked that up quickly enough.
In a way, Gerry envied the others. His job as the game's top referee and head schemer of the plot meant that he had to stay settled and locatable; he'd make sure to go over to the big climactic battles, the ones where basically everyone was involved, and get the vicarious thrill of watching the coordinated chaos of magical combat, but for most of the rest of the time, it was impossible to predict where his help would be needed. So -- he finished stirring his special spice mix into the salsa, and took an experimental bite, his eyes watering from the kick -- Gerry was manning the game's command post, back at the picnic tables by the parking lot. The "Grinning Ghost Tavern."
Randall, wearing black jeans and a bathrobe magically altered and dyed into one of the game's mercenary battle mage uniforms, emerged from the woods and walked back up to the tables, grinning like a madman, holding his two index fingers crossed up above his head in the game's "I'm dead" hand signal.
"Welcome back, Rand," Gerry said, hauling a bottle of cream soda out of the cooler with a flourish and pointing at the screw-top to send it hurtling, bent in half, in a perfect arc to the garbage can. "Out of all the player characters, I didn't expect you back here so fast."
Rand uncrossed his fingers and reached out for the soda, his grin still plastered on his face. "Thanks. Damn, Gerry. I just got my ass handed to me -- and, by the Lady, I haven't had so much fun in months." He took a heavy swig from the bottle. "This game rocks."
"I suspected as much," Gerry said, pleased. "Wish I could be out there with you all. We'll have to do this again so I can get into the action."
"Definitely," Randall said. "That your special salsa?"
"You'd better believe it. What happened out there?"
"I didn't put enough power into my wards -- I was saving a little too much for a power attack and quick kill." Randall shrugged and grabbed a handful of chips. "Just goes to show the genius of the game balance."
Gerry chuckled. "Ha. Another battle mage done in by overconfidence. Speaking of which, what were you doing wandering around by yourself? You know you can't get back into the game unless one of the other PCs gets back here to tag you in to the temple for a resurrection."
Randall grinned wryly. "The group split in two in order to make it easier to get both artifacts by the noon deadline. Great touch there, by the way. When Ben and Tayek and Moon and I hit our first encounter, we used a few more spell components than we were expecting --" he fished some arcade tokens out of his pocket -- "and I volunteered to jog the half-mile back here to restock and save them the trip, since I thought we'd already cleared the hiking trail out. Nice job with the ambush."
"I aim to please," Gerry said with a smirk, opening a cream soda for himself. An ambush along the hiking trail? That didn't immediately ring a bell, but probably one of the monster groups had outdone themselves and shown a little initiative.
Anna walked out of the woods, sheepish smile across her muzzle, both furred arms raised above her head, index fingers crossed.
Gerry felt his face flush as he watched her approach the table, body swaying with every step of her digitigrade legs. The were-coyote was one of those theris that seemed to prefer walking around au naturel -- especially out here, in the middle of nowhere. Although her fur obscured everything that might have gotten her arrested, he couldn't help but stare at the rest. At least she seemed to enjoy the attention -- of not only him, but every other red-blooded male in the group. He never had figured out how Moon put up with it, but the two of them seemed to get along well enough.
"Hey, Gerry," she said, her canine voice high and raspy. "Hey, Rand. You dead too?"
"Well, it makes me feel a little better that at least I'm not the first one here." She bared her teeth in a gesture Gerry had grown accustomed to reading as a smile. "I guess we weren't the only ones who had a tough fight."
"Oh?" Randall asked. "What did you in?"
"We hit a pretty major battle as we got close to the artifact, and had to retreat. The guys decided to hold the high ground on the rise near the waterfall in case we got counterattacked -- and as the scout, I was going over to catch up with you four to get you to rejoin us for a frontal assault. I snuck past the bad guys and went through the woods to stay out of trouble, but took the trail back after meeting Moon and Ben and Tayek to see if I could find you along the way -- and that unicorn samurai on the bridge just totally outclassed me."
"You too?" Randall asked, handing her the chip bowl.
Gerry blinked. "Um. Unicorn?"
Anna bent over the table in front of him to grab a soda -- Gerry blushed furiously -- and looked up at him. "Why, yes, sir innkeeper," she said. "A creature most strange, perhaps from the Wild Lands to the north. Legends tell of the --"
Gerry cut her off, holding up one of his hands, palm outward, fingers and thumb straight out in an "L" shape. "Out of character. Anna, the tavern's an out of character zone. And, seriously: Unicorn?"
Anna blinked, exchanged a glance with Randall, and looked back up at Gerry, strangely. "What? Should we not have met him until we leveled up?"
"I don't know if you've been keeping track, but we didn't exactly bring any unicorns in with us when we drove here," Gerry said. "None of us is a unicorn theri. And I know Red's NPC team was going to spice things up with a little magical shapeshifting, but I need to go chat with him, because we never talked about any unicorns." Gerry blinked and did a double-take. "Unicorn samurai?"
"Yeah," Randall chimed in. "The two-legged sort. Great costume. Swords at his belt and everything."
Gerry sighed inwardly; any plot element that big definitely should have been cleared with him pre-game. "You guys chill out here and have something to eat. I'm going to go chat with Red."
The two dead players glanced up at him and descended on the salsa. "Okay."
Gerry was several steps along the game trail into the thick woods by the lake when Ben, Moon and Tayek -- dressed in sharply colored robes and, in Moon's case, a Native American-looking headband and loincloth over his black fur -- all appeared in front of him, walking back toward the picnic tables, arms raised, index fingers crossed over their heads.
"Oh, geez," Gerry said, staring in shock. "Not you too."
"Huh?" asked Ben, in the lead.
"The ... um. Unicorn samurai, on the bridge?" Gerry said.
"Yeah," Tayek said, uncrossing her fingers and brushing her hair back from her face. "Did we run across your end boss early or something?"
"Go chill out at the picnic tables," Gerry said, deflecting the question. "I'll get you guys raised as soon as I go settle a few things with Red."
Tayek shrugged. "You're the boss."
"Hope the other group can hold out without us," Moon rumbled, scratching behind one of his wolfen ears with a clawed hand. But Gerry was already walking past them, double-timing toward the hiking trail around the lake.
He reached the trail and turned left, walking briskly through the curving path under a thick canopy of leaves and needles. A little under half a mile, he thought, mentally reviewing the map of the area around the lake they'd staked out for the game. Then: Where did that samurai gear come from? Red had apparently been doing a lot of advance planning under his own initiative. Which ... okay, it made for a much more interesting game, but as GM, Gerry was supposed to be in control of, and aware of, everything. And especially an enemy powerful enough to take out three PCs at once.
Maybe ... Gerry thought. Nah. Couldn't be. We're out in the middle of nowhere. Then he remembered the player group's lack of "spell components"; okay, the three-on-one defeat did make more sense. Maybe they just couldn't fight back effectively. Red had just gotten a lucky break.
Gerry rounded another corner and saw, through the trees, a large red form walking up the path toward him.
As Gerry got closer, he noticed that the dragon had stretched his folded wings up and crossed them in an X above his head. Wait a second. He stopped and stared in disbelief.
The dragon ambled up. "Hey, Ger," he said in a deep bass. "Don't mind me. Just gonna go have some soda in the 20-minute dead-monster downtime."
Five of the PCs are back at the tavern. Anna said the other three were pinned down at Bayer Hill ... Gerry thought, mind whirring madly. "Duncan. Who killed you? Wait. Don't tell me. A unicorn samurai at the footbridge."
"Well, yeah," the dragon said, lifting a forepaw in a shrug. "The PCs booked and Red decided to send me in pursuit. I guess Moon did finally get that shapeshifting effect working he's been trying to pick up all week?"
Gerry stared dumbly up at him.
The dragon lifted one eyeridge. "Or ... um. Okay, I did think it was a little weird when he challenged me to a duel. Is something wrong?"
"Well, crap," Gerry said, and broke into a jog.
He wasn't nearly as surprised as he should have been to find Red leading two other NPCs back down the path as he approached the footbridge -- all three with index fingers up in the air in an X. Red was dressed up as an orcish necromancer, his skin tinted green, and the minions had been shapeshifted to look like shambling corpses.
"Oh, hey, Ger," Red said as Gerry trotted up. "Look, I think one of your PCs might have disabled his thaumometer and might be powergaming up there --" Red blinked as Gerry ran past, and reversed course to walk after him. "Wait, what the hell?"
"On it," Gerry called over his shoulder, now furious.
Gerry rounded the final corner of the path before the stream that fed the lake. Directly in the center of the wide wooden bridge that spanned it was a pure white were-unicorn -- two-legged, standing upright, leaning on the railing, staring at the rushing water below him contemplatively through deep black eyes. He was, as the others had said, dressed in samurai garb -- baggy black coat covering a white kimono and heavy light grey skirt that didn't quite cover the digitigrade legs' raised ankles. A sturdy, pearled horn spiraled above his head through a fine, silky mane that spilled down over his back. The scabbards of a pair of swords poked at the coat from inside, mounted at his belt.
"Hey!" Gerry said as he walked up, but the unicorn continued staring at the water in perfect stillness, and Gerry realized he was being perhaps a little too confrontational with someone who to all appearances was just trying to sneak his way into the game. "Excuse me. My friends and I are trying to do some live-action roleplaying here -- it's called a LARP. Your interaction with the players is having all sorts of effects that I really wasn't anticipating. Can we talk about that? Maybe find you a part to play, if you're interested, or get the players to leave you alone, if you're not?"
The unicorn stood up straight and turned to face him. "You're with the group that arrived here last night?" he said in a deep and quiet voice.
"I am. I'm Gerry. I'm the GM. Do you have any role-playing experience?"
The unicorn bowed, inclining his body shallowly but tipping his head. "I am Kiasu. I challenge you to a magical duel."
Gerry blinked. "What?"
"I am Kiasu," the unicorn repeated, standing stone-still. "I challenge you to a magical duel."
Gerry's temper snapped. "We're not in the game. I'm the game master. I run the game. Stop putting on the act."
The unicorn stared at him. "Who said anything about a game?"
Gerry stared at him in disbelief for several seconds, then waved his arm, mentally activating a set of defensive wards and focusing his inner energy. "Bring it, tough guy."
"Very well," the unicorn said simply, and raised his hand.
"Gerry?" Duncan said, muzzle upside down in front of his face, and Gerry realized with a sudden sense of disorientation that he was lying on the ground looking up at the dragon and the trees above.
"Gah!" Gerry said, and sat up, head swimming, noticing that Red and the two "zombies" were standing there at his feet, looking curiously down at him. He glanced at his body -- seemingly unhurt, albeit dirty from his trip to the ground, and nothing felt broken or missing. "Where did he go?!"
"Huh?" the dragon said. "Oh, the unicorn? He walked off into the trees once he smacked you down."
"He what?" Gerry asked. "How long was I out? Which way?" He paused, and pushed himself to his feet, vertigo causing him to stagger.
"Why didn't you stop him?" Gerry added, fuming, dusting himself off.
Duncan quirked an eyeridge. "When we dueled, he sent me to the ground with his first shot with my wards fully powered. Would you try to stop him?"
Gerry sighed sharply, although he couldn't dispute the logic, and tried to find a target for his anger. "Okay, which one of you guys invited a friend? You missed April Fool's by two weeks."
"Don't look at me," Red said. "I've never heard of this Kiasu before."
Gerry looked around at the four, then over to the empty footbridge, then sat down on the ground again numbly.
"Hey, Ger," one of the zombies volunteered, "If it helps any, this is still the most kick-ass game I've been involved in during a decade of LARPing."
"I'll say there was some ass-kicking involved," Gerry said. "Holy smokes."
"Ah, don't worry about it," Red said. "You're not the only one. Let's go kick back at the tavern, calm down with lunch, then get the whole group together and see if we can figure this thing out. If we find him again, ain't nobody going to stop 23 mages all at once."
Gerry stood back up and started walking down the trail toward the parking lot. "Makes sense to me ..."
"Ah, ah, ah," Duncan chided from over his shoulder. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
Gerry looked back at him uncomprehendingly. Duncan grinned broadly, exposing a jaw full of wicked-looking points, and lifted his folded wings to cross behind his head.
Red burst out laughing. "Gamemaster or no, rules are rules." He crossed his index fingers overhead, as did the zombies, smirking with the casual humor of the undead.
Gerry chuckled. "The gamemaster getting slain in combat. Now that's a gaming story for the ages." He hoisted his fingers above his head, bursting out into self-conscious laughter, and walked with his rag-tag assembly of dead monsters back to the Grinning Ghost.
Ben looked around the interior of the limousine. "I trust that settles the qualification issue."
The three men in black suits -- looking for all the world like some demented filmmaker's parody of government spooks; their average age was probably 40, and one was wearing glasses rather than the stereotypical black shades -- stared down at the Rhine deck, the same way they'd stared at the candle, the same way they'd stared at the resume he had pulled out of thin air. Whoever these guys were, it was obvious they weren't used to having magic stare them in the face. And their bewilderment was flattering, sure, but it was getting old fast.
The oldest of the three looked back up at Ben. "Well," he said, trying to sound self-assured, "it's one thing to demonstrate magical skill in a carefully controlled trial, and quite another to use it out in the field. It should be obvious that our interest would lie in the fieldwork --"
"Look, guys, I'm willing to work with you here," Ben interrupted, "but please don't yank my chain. If you had serious questions about my magical aptitude then you wouldn't have called me and be parading out the secret-agent act here. Can you please just cut to the chase? What do you want?"
The youngest man, a relatively fresh-faced fellow who was obviously enjoying the suit-and-shades act, bravely stepped into the conversation. "It's not just your skill that's at issue here, Mr. Jacobs. We're aware of your service record and your confidential security clearance -- but that was all years ago, and we're also trying to verify that you're still capable of working with the discretion this job requires."
Ben shrugged. "I already gave you guys my resume; you'll find everything's in order since my discharge. I have yet to hear you bring up any specific concerns about my work experience or trustworthiness, and I'll answer them if you do. In the meantime, maybe you could tell me what the government wants with a mage."
The third man fished a manila folder out of his briefcase -- but the older man held out a hand to stop him. "Before we get to that, Mr. Jacobs, could you maybe tell me what your interest is in this position? Obviously, you made the choice to come out to this car. What would you be looking for from us?"
Ben thought for a second. "Fair enough. To be honest, it's curiosity more than anything. I'd be lying if I said I was entirely happy with the direction that Washington is taking on magical issues. But the government's been good to me. I learned a lot in the Army. I'm pretty happy with my job at Annotech, but I wouldn't mind serving my country again if my skills came in useful." He stroked his goatee. "I don't think there's anything else I could say that would really answer your question. If you've researched my background like you seem to have done, that should tell you more than anything I could say."
"That all sounds good," the young man challenged, "but how do we know you're not just mind-controlling us to make us trust you?"
Ben chuckled quietly. "If you're not trusting me to give you straight answers, then how is anything I say going to change that?" He looked back at the older man. "Who are you guys, anyway? Can you tell me that much? FBI? CIA? NSA?"
The older man glanced at his underlings, then smiled wryly. "INS."
"I...N..." Ben repeated -- then it clicked. He burst into laughter. "Oh, come on. You're trying to tell me that the Border Patrol does covert ops?"
"Not ... exactly," the older man admitted ruefully. "We just have certain ... needs, these days."
"Was all this just set up to intimidate me, then? What's with the hush-hush act? I find it hard to believe that the Border Patrol has to hire employees under the table."
"There's a certain irony in it, yes," the older man said. "But ... like you said. The atmosphere in Washington is absolutely poisonous. Getting mages on our payroll would be a matter of several months' work in the first place -- if it weren't for the extra security requirements from Congress' burst of activity in January, which would take another several months even if half of the damn laws didn't require us to fulfill contradictory mandates. And then on top of that there's maneuvering from the House threatening to kill the funding of any agency that starts 'dabbling in witchcraft,' as the Religious Right seems so fond of saying. I hope you can see the bind that puts us in."
"Well, yes, but," Ben said. "With all that in the way, what's so important to the INS that you need to use mages in the first place?"
The older man nodded to the middle-aged one, who had been holding onto the manila envelope all this time. He nodded back, opened the envelope, and handed a stack of photo prints over to Ben.
The mage flipped through the pictures. A chain-link fence ripped in half as if it were a sheet of paper. A room in what looked like an adobe house with a circle chalked on the floor, intricate symbols around its perimeter. A blurry, grainy shot of a dark dragon-shaped object in flight, with three blobs on its back that might have been riders, against a slightly less dark sky. A black-and-white security camera photo showing a dark-skinned man frozen in the act of walking through a wall. The charred, gutted shell of a building in the middle of the desert. The slightly decomposed corpse of a green-scaled dragon lying among chaparral -- Ben winced. Several Hispanic corpses, faces frozen into soundless screams, throats ripped out by what looked like claws or fangs -- Ben twitched and looked away.
"Perhaps you should stop there for now," the older man said. "It gets worse. I won't mince words, Mr. Jacobs. We're at war out there. That isn't new -- smuggling has always been big business. But now they're finding weapons we can't fight back against."
Ben flipped back to the picture of the dead dragon. "Not easily, anyway."
"We didn't kill it. We found it that way. In truth, we've basically given up on enforcement -- we're still patrolling, manning checkpoints, and putting on a good public face, but every agent on the border has a strict non-engagement policy. Arrests are way down, and the number of grisly things we're finding is way up, but ... well, this is going to sound inhuman, but please realize the political reality we face ... dead undocumented migrants don't make headlines. Dead law enforcement officers do."
Ben stared in shock. "It's that bad? Non-engagement. You're kidding."
The older man looked at him grimly. "No. Just desperate. And frustrated, hemmed in by bureaucracy on two sides and an enemy with no scruples on the other two." He leaned forward. "Of course, officially, nothing's wrong," he said pointedly, "you do realize."
"Of course," Ben said.
"Ben --" the older man said. "Can I call you Ben? You were talking about a desire to serve your country again. Well, I can guarantee you that your country needs you, and I'm asking you to help me find a way to do my job again."
Ben leaned back in his seat and stared up at the ceiling numbly. "This is crazy. Bona fide, certifiably crazy. But I can't say no. And I wish I could assure you that I could help turn things around ... but if it's as bad as you say, I'm not sure how much I can do with just a stack of photos and a paycheck."
"You won't be alone," the older man said. "And there's a small discretionary fund I can tap for immediate needs, and we're looking into ways to conceal an ongoing operating budget for magical support in case Congress does anything stupid." He folded his hands together. "Also, would you be willing to relocate? There are enough problems up north that we could use you here in Seattle, but the real fight is down on the southern border."
"Give me a day or two to think about it," Ben said. He flipped back through the stack of photos. "And wish us all luck."
The four college students stood on the broad, flat lawn. Paul stared, stunned and a little embarrassed, out over their shoulders in the direction of the river, avoiding their eyes. The others stared at Paul.
"I don't know what to say," Chad admitted. Emotions fought for control of his face; humor won. He burst out into a chuckle.
"I'm thinking there was definitely some magic involved in that," George said, looking appraisingly at Paul.
Paul flushed. "The random confluence of random events. It could have happened to anyone."
"Don't be so modest. You could be sitting on a mint here," George teased, holding his hand up to mime speaking into a telephone: "Hello, CNN? Forget that dragon video you've been running. Wait until you get a load of our friend Paul here."
"I do have to say, this rather begs the question: What now?" Chad mused, still smirking.
Paul looked around helplessly, then turned to the fourth member of their group, who had been watching the three banter silently, as he tended to do. "Umm ... Zack?"
"Hmm?" Zack said, allowing himself a smile at Paul.
"I, um ... look, I know you've been talking to us for a while about how ... you know. You believe you have the spirit of a gryphon. With all that's been going on over the last few days ... have you, you know. Shapeshifted into one?"
Zack shifted his weight onto his other foot. "Isn't that kind of a personal question? And aren't you changing the subject?"
Paul glanced down at his feet. "Yes, I suppose. And no, I'm not. It's just that, well, you never really made that big a secret of it before, and as close as we all know each other, it was bound to come up sooner or later. Now just seems like an oddly appropriate time to ask."
George smirked. "That's our Paul. Not only talented but opportunistic."
Zack shrugged, self-consciously smiling at the others. "Well ... yeah, I mean, it's not like I could keep it secret at this point, right? I guarantee you guys, the dragon sighting caught me just as off guard as anyone else, but ... well, yes, I snuck out to the park Wednesday night and gave it a shot, and, yeah, sure enough ..."
"You are a gryphon?" Chad asked.
"Heh. Wow," Chad said.
"But it doesn't mean you're any less of a freak," George said with a smile.
"Yeah, thanks," Zack said, smiling back. "I can feel the love from here."
"You know I mean that in the best possible way." George paused. "Although I'm curious. If you're a gryphon and you're finally getting this opportunity to have your gryphon body back -- how come you've been spending all this time still human?"
Zack sighed. "I've got a lot of stuff to take care of. Homework. Studying for finals. It's hard to write or type with claws, and it's tough to get through doorways, and ... there's also the publicity, I've been trying to keep it kind of discreet ... and, well, for the moment, it's nice enough being able to go out at night and run around. It'll hold me over until winter break -- I've been thinking about dropping out then, but I want to talk to my parents first."
Paul nodded. "Makes sense. Incidentally ... can you fly?"
Zack looked at him suspiciously. "I have a feeling this is leading somewhere."
"Just curious, really. You're a gryphon. Can you fly?"
"I ... don't know," Paul admitted. "It's only been 36 hours and I've done all of my gryphon-ing in the dark or indoors. I haven't given it a shot yet."
"You 'don't know'? Oh, come on," George interjected. "What are the wings for, decoration?"
"They just might be," Chad pointed out. "I mean, I haven't seen Zack's gryphon body yet, but the surface area-to-mass ratio has got to be abysmal --"
George rolled his eyes. "There goes the physics major again."
"What I think," Paul opined, "is that we should avoid getting bogged down in a discussion of theory, and get some fieldwork done on the question." He pointed. "What about flying across the river?"
"But --" Zack protested, glancing at the sixty-foot-wide span, swollen with seasonal rain but current still mild. "I haven't tested any of this yet. What if Chad's right? What if I do drop like a stone?"
Paul shrugged. "You get a little wet. But, c'mon, it's a surprisingly nice day, and isn't it worth that chance for a learning experience?"
"Five bucks on the gryphon," George volunteered. "You up, Chad?"
Chad shook his head. "No bet. I know what you're thinking, and I have to admit that, physics aside, it's pretty persuasive. I have no idea what got that dragon in the video off the ground, but the same effect would probably be at work here."
George looked disappointed. "Yeah, well. Bet or no, I'd still like to see our gryphon in the air. I think I'm with Paul on this one. Worth a shot, right?"
Chad looked at Paul with a grin. "Yeah. And I think someone here assured there's a little more at stake than just a theoretical question."
"Bah," Paul said, making a face. "I'm never going to hear the end of this. Zack? Wanna give it a shot?"
Zack looked at the river dubiously. "I'm not sure ... well, I mean, it means changing, right out here, in broad daylight."
Paul raised an eyebrow at Zack. "This from the man who gave a presentation in front of our world spirituality class on mythic-animal totemism? I mean, yes, privacy and all, but ... well, it just seems a little ... flaky to let fear stop you now that you've been proven right."
Zack blushed. "I, no, that's not it -- okay ... well, that's part of it. But isn't that an understandable reaction? I mean, look at the media circus ..."
"Zack," Chad cut in, "I remember that presentation too. I have to admit I thought it was just pleasant superstition at the time, but I remember it. How much longer until someone hears the reports of the gryphon wandering campus after dark and puts two and two together? I don't think you're buying yourself any time with fear here."
"Not that we have any self-interest in encouraging your test flight," George commented drily.
"Self-interest or no," Paul said, "when are you going to find a good time for that first public change? Seriously, man, seize the day. It's your heritage."
"Improbable but wonderful as it may be," Chad added.
Zack looked down at the ground. "You're right, I guess ..."
"And we're not exactly in Grand Central Station here," Paul pointed out. "Sure, people are going to watch you from the dorms, but we're the only ones close enough to ID you, and we'll fight off the press corps while you make good your escape." He struck an exaggerated ninja pose.
"Paul's throwing skills and my pocket change -- a lethal combination," George quipped.
Zack looked around and sighed. "I don't know, guys."
Chad looked Zack in the eyes. "This doesn't sound like a publicity issue. What else is on your mind?"
Zack stared down at the ground in embarrassed silence. "I just ... don't think it's a good idea."
Chad crossed his arms. "Zack, as much as we may rib you -- especially Mr. Comedian over there -- we are your friends. We're all cool with you being a gryphon. I don't see how whatever's stopping you now could be any worse."
Zack blushed again. "Promise not to laugh?"
"If George says anything I'll smack him," Chad assured him, glancing back over at George, who shrugged and nodded.
Zack glanced over at the river, then back at the other three. "It's just that ... as a gryphon. Um." He made a vague gesture with one hand. "It all just hangs out."
The four stared at each other in silence for a few seconds.
"Seriously? That's it?" George asked.
Paul glanced at each of the other three in turn. "Um, only speaking for myself here, but why is that a problem? I mean, when's the last time you saw a gryphon wearing pants?"
Chad coughed uncomfortably. "Uh, I don't know, I could see it being an issue. Um," he added hurriedly, "not that I'd have a problem with it."
George looked away. "Yeah, it would be a little weird to have everyone staring at your package ..."
Paul rolled his eyes. "You guys are blowing this out of proportion. Did any of you even notice the dragon's equipment? And you've watched that video how many times now?"
"It sure crosses your mind when you're the one on display," George argued.
"Well, we're not exactly going to be pointing and laughing," Paul protested. "If anything, he'd probably make us all feel inadequate --"
Zack colored. "Geez, Paul. Way to help out."
Paul blushed. "Err, sorry."
"Um, seriously ..." Chad cut in. "Zack, this is another issue that's not going to go away. It's just the four of us ... if you've got to have a first public change, better here than in mixed company, right? And we won't look."
"Do your clothes come back when you change back to human?" George asked.
Zack looked over at George, startled. "Uh, yeah -- that is kind of weird, come to think of it. Is it not supposed to work that way?"
"Um, no," George blinked and waved his hands emphatically. "Returning clothes is just fine."
"Would you guys just let Zack be?" Chad grumbled. "The more you two talk, the more awkward it gets."
"Sorry," Paul and George chorused, looking away.
"Thanks," Zack said with a hint of relief. "Um ... look. I mean, we've talked about it this much, I might as well ..." He glanced around. "Just, no staring, OK?"
"I promise," Paul said with a nod -- followed by George. "Let's give the flying thing a shot."
Zack looked self-consciously around the broad lawn, back to the dorm buildings -- relatively light traffic for mid-afternoon -- and dropped to one knee. "Back off a bit," he cautioned, and closed his eyes, concentrating.
A wave of vertigo caused the other three to reel; when they regained their balance, an imposing creature was in their midst, leonine rear end planted on the ground, enormous beak and piercing eyes swiveling back and forth toward each of them in turn from shoulder height. The creature twitched an ear-tuft, brought one eagle-clawed forepaw up to its beak in an approximation of a cough, and said, in a surprisingly smooth and vibrant voice, "Ta-da."
Paul was the first to speak. "Damn," he said softly.
"Where do we sign up?" George said meekly.
"Your one-liners are slipping," Zack said with dry humor, then opened and closed his beak and tilted his head. "And I'm still getting used to not being able to smile."
Chad stared and stared at Zack's form. "Wow. ... Wow. I feel like I should be taking notes."
Zack stretched out his wings experimentally, straight into the air, arching his back. "The muscles feel weird. Powerful, but weird." He brought them down to his sides, then angled them up and down. "Weird, but ... I think I've got this. It's almost like an instinct."
"As much as I'd love to just sit here and stare at you," Paul said, "maybe we should get you going on that flight?"
"Yeah," Zack said, opening and closing his beak again, and shaking his head. "Gah! Stupid smile reflex."
"Not much you can do with a beak," Chad said. "Hmm. What about the ears?"
Zack experimented. "They swivel. They ... hmm. I think you're onto something." He wiggled his ear-tufts.
"There's time for that later," George said. "I wanna see you fly."
Zack wiggled his ears again. "Can do, chief. I think I'm going to want a running start -- gimme some room." The three backed off. Zack leaned forward, settling back in on all four feet, and crouched, tail swishing, rear slightly in the air. "And wish me luck."
"They call her Lady Luck," George sang, "But there is room for doubt --" Paul smacked him in the arm.
With a sudden burst of motion, Zack lunged toward the river. His foreclaws dug into the soil, and he pulled himself forward again, hindlegs whipping forward for another step -- where they promptly slipped on the damp grass. Zack stumbled, throwing his forelegs out and planting his claws in the turf to prevent a fall, managing to keep some momentum. Retractable claws sprang instinctively from his rear paws; his next steps caught solidly, and he was off, tearing chunks of sod from the lawn with every bound.
The river charged up at him, far too fast. At the last second, he took an extra-long step, gathered energy in his muscles, and leapt --
There was a fragmentary sense of timelessness, weightlessness, as the earth spun underneath him. The river receded below, then started creeping closer, and Zack realized with a start that he hadn't even extended his wings -- then, just like that, with a snap as they caught the air, they were out, and muscles he didn't even know he had pulled against the strain between lofty wings and heavy body. His inner ear spun. Suddenly, balance was an illusion; he had such deep vertigo he wanted to vomit, but there was some sort of weird -- he didn't know how to describe it, three-dimensional compass? -- inside his head, such a rush of information that he could have told the ground from the sky with his eyes closed.
The river's opposite bank flashed underneath him, and with a piercing cry of joy, he pitched backward, pulling himself into a tight loop-the-loop, not even tracking the ground with his eyes, reveling in the certainty of this weird inner navigation system.
As he pulled out of the loop, allowing himself to loosen the angle of the last half of it to lose some altitude, he slapped the water with the tip of his tail, and let out another call, triumphantly. He flapped his wings once, riding out the surge in altitude, and then again, banking slightly as he climbed. Almost as an afterthought, he circled the magnolia tree that he'd aimed toward -- the one overhanging the bank of the river -- swooped toward it in a lazy arc, banked sharply to keep his wing from the branches, and darted his head out to pluck out the Frisbee, catching it with the tip of his beak and yanking it from its perch with a shower of snapped twigs.
He coasted back across the river, flaring his wings slightly to slow his return, and touched down squarely between his three stunned friends with a perfect four-point landing. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was aware that pretty much everyone within earshot was now staring at him. The thought percolated up to his conscious brain, and he wiggled his ear-tufts proudly, and as an afterthought, tried an experimental purr -- which came out a loud, contented rumble.
Chad reached out, tentatively, and tugged at the Frisbee; Zack gaped his jaw slightly and let it fall out. Chad examined it in awe. "Damn," he said emphatically, looking back up at Zack.
George snatched the Frisbee away, handing it to Paul, and patting Zack on the head. "Good boy. Hey, Paul, let's see that trick of yours again, and we can play another round of Fetch."
Zack narrowed his eyes, glaring at George but wiggling his ear-tufts in amusement. "Paul, I guarantee you that if you send that thing out over the river again, you're going up after it, wings or no wings."
"I really never am going to hear the end of this," Paul chuckled.
John gestured at the TV set. "I'm telling you, Rick, crazy night out there. Crazy night. What a time to live in L.A., huh?"
He paused. "Yeah. ... Yeah. ... I don't know. ... Look, that's between them and their big invisible sky daddy. I mean, the curfew's a pain, yeah, but they're carrying on like they have some big moral crusade to go out there and stand up to the police. What the hell difference does it make if you stand up to the police if you believe Judgment Day is just around the corner? They think getting their teeth kicked in will earn them brownie points in the afterlife? ... No, I don't care, it's their business. Long as they stay downtown. ... Yeah. ... Yeah. ... I should call my parents too. My mom's probably convinced I'm down there getting my head ripped off by a dragon. ... Yeah, talk to you later."
John pressed the off button on the phone handset, then punched one of the speed-dial buttons. He put his ear back up to the receiver: "We're sorry, all circuits are busy. Please try your call again later." He rolled his eyes and hung the phone up, unmuting the TV set with the remote on the arm of the couch.
"... Back on location at what, just minutes ago, was a scene of devastation. As you can see behind me, Peter, firefighters have arrived at the smoking, scorched Bernard & Lyme warehouse. What's most remarkable is that it wasn't the efforts of the city's finest that brought the warehouse blaze under control -- it was like that when they got here. And even though the arsonists moved on down the street, from here it's impossible to find any other nearby buildings on fire. Both our news team and witnesses here at the scene are at a loss to explain what's happening here in Park Mesa Heights, but what's certain is that at least this one neighborhood of Los Angeles is thanking its lucky stars tonight."
"Thank you, Jennifer. World News Tonight is reporting live from Los Angeles, a city in chaos. Increasingly large and increasingly vocal demonstrations have been taking place for the past 24 hours here as many residents have gathered -- convinced that a wave of shapeshifting, which apparently began with a dragon sighting Wednesday, is the beginning of the end of the world. Downtown was nearly paralyzed this afternoon as impromptu mass prayers were held in the streets. In response, the city instituted a 6 o'clock curfew in an attempt to safely return everyone to their homes. We're now seeing some of the results of that, with several thousand people holding a candlelight prayer vigil in defiance at City Hall. There have been reports of sporadic looting and arson as law enforcement officials, many of whom have been working for 24 hours straight, are stretched thin.
"California Governor Pete Wilson has declared a state of emergency, and National Guard troops are on their way to help ensure the safety of more than 9 million people in the city's greater metropolitan area. Officials are asking citizens to return to their homes and to stay in a secure location ..."
John hit mute and speed-dialed his parents again. This time, the line went through.
"Hey, ma. ... Hey. ... Yeah, I'm fine. ... I've been on the line with one of my coworkers. Have you been trying to call me long? ... That's good. That's good. ... No, I'm just sitting here watching the TV. There haven't been any problems in my neighborhood. It's a little weird seeing the streets so empty on a Friday night, but there's still cars going by. It even looks like the market down the street is open, but I'm going to stay here just to be safe. ... Downtown? You've got to be kidding. ... Well, yeah, there's some people praying here, too, in the center of the complex. ... No, ma, I don't need to go join them. ... No, ma ... Ma, you know how I feel about that stuff." He sighed and glanced up at the TV, which was displaying images of the crowd at City Hall, most of whom were on their knees, hands waving in the air, with a thin line of police milling around nervously in the background.
"No, ma, I don't want to talk about it. I just wanted to let you know I'm okay. I'll be fine. The city's really nothing like what you're seeing on the TV. I don't even know what the big fuss is over these dragon people and wolf people. So far I've only seen them on TV. ... No, I'm not worried. ... Ma ... Listen, ma ... If God's slapping down the Mark of the Beast on people as a punishment, how come all of them seem happy -- ... C'mon, ma. ... No, I don't. ... It's silly, that's why. Maybe dragons aren't fairy tales any more but demonic possession is still a stupid fable. ... Ma --" John sighed and hung up the phone, turning the TV volume back on.
"-- asked us to ground our helicopter for safety reasons, so we can't provide the latest aerial view of the city, but coming up shortly is an exclusive live interview with a real, live dragon, who has some things to say about what's going on in the city streets --"
The phone started ringing. John ignored it, and ducked into the kitchen, bringing back a can of light beer from the refrigerator.
"-- footage from several minutes ago, before our helicopter was asked to leave the area. For many in South Central Los Angeles, tonight is a flashback to four years ago, when the beating of Rodney King led to widespread riots. The streets are beginning to look like a war zone as looters take advantage of a stretched-thin police force. But, unlike 1992, there are others in the streets fighting back down there. And in some ways what we're seeing is the most remarkable story tonight. If you look at the man in the lower left corner of the screen, you can see the rocks and bottles being thrown at him as he tries to reach the injured man in the street -- and then look at what happens to that man there, look at the ones over on the right freeze like a game of Simon Says. We weren't able to capture any more footage of this remarkable battle, but it seems to be more strong evidence that the shapeshifting appears to be part of a larger phenomenon."
The phone began to ring again. John rolled his eyes.
"A phenomenon that this guest of ours might have something to say about. He calls himself Dennis Redwing, and says he and his companions have been out on the streets doing their best to keep things calm where the police haven't been able to reach. Dennis, you're practically a walking tank on these streets -- even so, do you feel safe out there?"
"Well, Eric --"
The phone was still ringing. John picked it up with a snarl. "Ma, I don't want to talk religion -- go to bed. ... ... Hello? ... Oh, hi. ... No, sorry. Sorry. Hi, Alice. My mom was breathing down my neck about Armageddon again. ... Yeah, appropriate night for it, at least. Hey, you watching ABC? They're talking with a dragon, looks kind of like the one in that video they've been showing all over the place. ... No shit. ... Yeah, well, with what they're showing on the news, I don't blame 'em. But it's easier to stay at home instead of get stuck in gridlock on 405. Hell, the market down the street is even open, there's no reason to leave. ... Seriously? ... Well, if you need somewhere to go, this neighborhood is absolutely quiet, but you'd better be careful on the way. ... Huh? ... No ... no. ... Buses? Not with a curfew on -- oh, damn, hang on, the news just switched downtown. Shit. Turn on your TV. Oh, shit. And here my mom was saying maybe I should go down there and pray. ... No ... Geez. ... Tell you what, I'll be here, I'll keep the line open, but look, don't try to cross the city to get here. Going downtown's out of the question now. ... Alright, stay safe. ... Bye."
John stared, fixated, at the TV.
"-- Crowd appears to be scrambling to disperse. Tear gas was fired. Tear gas was fired. There's no immediate indication of what sparked off the confrontation. Our cameraman says that he saw a group of the shapeshifters approaching the other side of the police lines, but right now we can only speculate about whether they were involved. Even if they were, it's impossible to tell which group provoked the confrontation -- but the prayer vigil is clearly getting the worst of it. Some tear gas landed right at the outskirts of the crowd. There are bodies down all over the area, writhing in the smoke. Wait -- The police are being attacked. Several members of the vigil are fighting back. I am definitely seeing objects fly through the air toward the police line. Oh, geez, look -- I just saw -- That man, Ernie, focus in down there -- he's got to be at least 60 -- there, away from where the tear gas landed -- we have senior citizens throwing bottles at the police line. What a night. What a night. -- Hang on, we've just gotten the order to move our cameras back to safety. We have to turn it back over to you in the studio. Peter?"
"Los Angeles is a city under siege tonight as police try in vain to enforce a 6 o'clock curfew and officials await the arrival of National Guard troops. Downtown, we have police apparently sparking a riot by firing tear gas in the vicinity of a Christian prayer vigil at City Hall. In several neighborhoods, including South Central and Park Mesa Heights, we have what appear to be wizards and shapeshifters aiding injured people, stopping fires and clearing looters from city streets. All civilian air traffic above the city has been grounded for safety reasons. ABC's live, continuous coverage from the region will continue after this important safety message to Los Angeles residents from California state authorities."
John turned off the TV and took a deep breath. "Damn." He stood up. "Crazy night." He took a slug of beer, walked over to the window to stare at the street outside, and gazed at the lights spilled across the city and hills. "Crazy night," he grunted.
After some time, John walked back over to the phone and speed-dialed Alice.
"We're sorry," it said, "all circuits are busy. Please try your call again later ..."
He shrugged and sat back down on the couch, relaxing in the silence of his living room, staring up at the ceiling.
It was only a week before Christmas, and Roy was going to die.
He thought of Katy. He thought of Eugene and Ernest and Lindy. He tried to summon up their faces, next to the Christmas tree, their joy at his presents, her patience and enthusiasm. He imagined reaching up and touching the kids as they bounded onto his bed; he imagined reaching over to her that evening as they went to sleep, for the best Christmas present they could ever share.
He imagined reaching up or over, at all.
Unfortunately, imagining wasn't making it so -- and the clouds were rolling in, and the sun was starting to set.
"Heeeey!" he stage-whispered through a hoarse throat, wishing he could find the ability to properly scream or yell, wishing desperately he could feel his hands for just long enough to lift his carefully packed emergency whistle to his lips. He strained against the shackles of Fate, furiously commanding his muscles to move -- even just a finger wiggle, a twitch of the booted foot ...
It was only a week before Christmas, and Roy was going to die.
Below his neck, he could only feel a painful tingling and vague awareness of his spread-eagled figure. He was dimly aware that his fleece jacket was soaked from melting snow, and that his body was half-covered in snow from the fall. He had no idea where his backpack was -- but not underneath him, because his upper back had hit a rock as he landed, which was propping him up at an uncomfortable angle that he couldn't do anything about. At least it also gave him a good view of the slope he had been hiking before he slipped -- and the rapidly greying sky beyond the sparse trees downhill.
Roy was cold and numb. He was pretty sure he'd gashed open his forehead, but the only way he had been able to tell was that it was warm and wet instead of icy and wet -- and even that warmth had long since passed.
"Heeeey!" he called. "Someone help!" His voice was so soft, his ability to breathe so constricted, that he could barely hear his own words.
Roy closed his eyes, straining to listen for a response; it was a faint hope, but hope was all he had left. A soft wind rustled the pine trees. He realized with sudden discomfort that the blackness and numbness when he closed his eyes felt virtually indistinguishable from death -- or at least the oblivion he was rapidly suspecting death felt like. He snapped his eyes open again and looked around, taking in the scene again hungrily. As long as he was staring around at the snow and rocks and trees and sky, he wasn't dead. Once the blackness closed in ... he wouldn't be waking up again.
"Help me!" he called.
Roy looked around at the stark, barren beauty of bone-white snow, and took the chance of closing his eyes one more time. He focused what mental strength he had left, and silently prayed: Please, God. I am in Your hands now. I beg you. Let me see my family one more time. Give me one more Christmas with them. Let someone hear me. Let someone find me.
He contemplated the blackness of his eyelids for several heartbeats, then opened his eyes slowly, hoping against hope that a friendly hunter or skier would be staring him in the face. But the silent mountain remained his only companion.
"Help me," he called, letting himself believe that maybe the prayer had brought someone within earshot. He heard a distant rustling upslope, above the cliff he had slipped over. His heart leapt.
"Help me," he called. "Down here. Help me. I fell. I'm down --" and he wheezed, out of breath, unable to command his body to inhale. He lay, silently, as air trickled back into his lungs. "Down here," he whispered. "Help."
There was movement at the top of the cliff. Roy pursed his lips and did his best to whistle. A soft but solid tone came through.
The head of a wolf angled over the edge, sniffing the wind curiously. It looked down and locked eyes with Roy.
His despair bottomed out. So much for prayer.
It was only a week before Christmas, and Roy was going to die.
He felt the strange inner peace of the powerless; it was over. There was nothing left. He was going to get eaten by a simple wild dog. He couldn't lift a finger in self-defense. All that was left was to say his goodbyes while there was still time.
"Katy," he said, looking into the wolf's eyes, as loud as he could manage -- it had already noticed him; what sense in shutting up and hoping to be ignored? "Gene. Ern. Lindy. I love you."
The wolf stared at him as he spoke, then pulled back from the cliff, disappearing from view. Roy lapsed into numb silence and waited for the end.
A timeless minute passed. Where was it? There were plenty of safe places to climb down. And he should be able to hear its footsteps as it approached, even if it came from behind him, out of his field of vision. He closed his eyes briefly, feeling the vertigo, then opened them again and continued waiting.
Another minute crawled by, and then another. Roy glanced around uncomfortably. The silent mountain waited passively; the clouds crept a little closer overhead. Maybe the wolf had left ... it looked like he was going to die in the darkness after all.
Roy watched the clouds without speaking for another ten minutes before deciding that the wolf was gone for good. Another ten minutes of rapidly fading daylight gone ... how much left? Half an hour? An hour? He stared at the sky, trying to figure it out, but soon gave up, his mind chasing phantoms of the children he'd never see again. Maybe he should just go to sleep and get it over with, Roy thought.
He tried to discard the idea, but it just kept returning, calling at him seductively, whispering of an end to the cold and numbness and despair. Ten minutes later -- with the sun peeking out between the horizon and the clouds, partially obscured by both -- he succumbed to its lure. "Katy," he mumbled as his eyelids drooped, "Gene, Ern, Lindy ... I'm sorry."
The numbness gradually lifted to a sensation of heat and a steady vibration.
"Katy?" he whispered, opening his eyes, blurred vision trying to focus on a diffuse white light in front of his face.
A regular series of beeps in the background caught Roy's ear, piercing through a steady background white noise. An indistinct figure to his right turned. "He's back!" a man's voice said. "We've got him." The figure moved in, and a clean-shaven man's face came into focus. "Can you hear me? Sir, can you hear me?" Roy nodded, dazed; something was holding his head still, and he was only able to wiggle it. "I need you to stay with me. You're safe. We're flying you to the hospital. But we need you to try to focus. Can you do that?"
Roy nodded again, joy flooding through his body as almost a palpable tingle through the numbness. "Where am I?" he tried to whisper, but found the motion of his lips sluggish, and couldn't hear his own words.
"Don't worry about talking," the man said. "We've got you on a respirator. I just need you to lie there, try to relax, and stay with us." He paused. "You're a very lucky man. If that young lady hadn't led us to you, Search & Rescue never would have found you before the storm hit."
"What young lady?" Roy said, but it came out muffled into noise.
"I've got a girl that age," the man said conversationally, seeming not to notice him. "All she cares about is boys and her new driver's license. Must take a special breed to go out wilderness hiking in winter. Is she your daughter?" Roy shook his head, puzzled; Lindy was barely out of diapers. "Niece, maybe?" Roy shook his head again. "Well, you're lucky she didn't fall at the same place you did. That was quite a nasty fall you took."
"What lady?" Roy struggled to repeat.
"I guess you haven't been following the news, being out on the mountain all day," the man said, continuing his one-sided conversation. "But it's the weirdest thing. I heard on the radio there's been a dragon sighting in the Midwest. What do you think of that, huh?"
Roy stared at him, unable to parse that in any meaningful way.
"You're lucky the helicopter was in the area. The hospital's been deluged all evening with weird calls. In fact, you're lucky in a lot of ways -- having that girl get help, having Search & Rescue find you before the storm, having the helicopter available -- heck, I heard from the S&R team that there were even wolf prints in the snow near where you fell. You had a lot of close calls tonight. It's just one of those crazy, crazy nights."
Yes -- Roy thought, letting the heat seep back into his bones -- it certainly was.
Jonas drew back his arm and hurled the bottle out into the open field. Mark extended an arm toward the moving target, pointing his open palm at it, and closed his eyes in concentration. The bottle, slightly past the top of its arc, shattered, sending shards of glass raining down into the grass and a small curl of smoke rising up from the spot of its demise.
Jonas stared. "I'll be."
Mark opened his eyes and smiled wryly. "You're not screaming incoherently. I guess that's a good sign."
Jonas shrugged and smiled back. "Well ... I've been catching up on my reading for the last few days. I think it was obvious to anyone with open eyes that there was much more to the dragon sighting than was really being talked about. And ... well, I've been getting a few phone calls that made me suspect it was going to come down to this. I didn't know for sure we were talking about miracles in plain sight, but I was pretty much holding my breath waiting for it."
"Well ... yeah," Mark admitted, and reached up to scratch the back of his neck. "Which is why I'm here. So, what do you think, Pastor?"
"The million-dollar question, huh?" Jonas said, staring out into the field. He glanced back over at Mark. "Except that it isn't. I think what you're really asking is what God thinks. And maybe you think I can help you find a way to answer that question."
"Umm, well, yeah, same difference."
"Except that it isn't, Mark," Jonas said, crouching down and plucking a stalk of long, wild grass from the field. "I'm trained in theology. But I don't speak for God. And as much as I'd like to assure you that I've got everything figured out, the last few days have shaken a lot of people's certainty."
Mark laughed. "Don't I know it. So you're saying you're just as confused as I am?"
"I didn't say that," Jonas said, standing back up and looking at the grass appreciatively. "But I also don't think you're as confused as you think you are. And before I say anything else, I'd like to know what you think. Taking as given that you're concerned, of course, otherwise you wouldn't have come to talk to me. But why? What worries you? Why are you ... well, working magic ... despite that? And what does your heart tell you?"
Mark sighed. "That's a tall order."
"One thing at a time. Well, first, I suppose, where and when did you learn to do this?"
"I ..." Mark started, and faltered. He chuckled drily. "To be blunt, hanging out with the heathens. Jay and Karen, in my role-playing gaming group, are Wiccan. A couple of times we've gotten to talking about spiritual stuff, late at night after dorm parties ... it's fascinating stuff. We've basically agreed to disagree on religion, but they did show me some 'energy work' a few months back. It turns out I'm a natural empath, and a lot of what they were trying to explain came pretty easily to me. The 'energy' stuff, looking at souls and whatnot, fit in really well with the way I already know I can read people's feelings, you know?
"But I never took it too seriously. Until ... well, they were acting a little funny after the dragon sighting. I thought the energy work might have something to do with it, so I tried some of what I'd learned ... and it just all clicked. In the last few days it's almost like that spiritual energy has become a tangible force. I can move it now, not just see it, almost like just picking up a pencil off the table." Mark closed his eyes in concentration, pointed his palm at the ground a few feet away, and flicked his wrist; a thumbnail-sized pebble leapt from the grass to about head level, and fell back to earth.
"Hmmm," Jonas said. "I could see how that might be worrying, with the whole literal 'witchcraft' angle."
Mark sighed. "Don't remind me. All I've been hearing the last day or two -- it's like everywhere I turn, evangelists talking about Revelation and the End Times and the Mark of the Beast. And ..." he paused to consider his words. "These are people who I've written off as morons for years. But if someone had told me a week ago that dragons existed I'd have laughed them off as crazy. So, suddenly, maybe it doesn't seem so moronic any more that we might be approaching the Second Coming, either."
"I've got problems with them, too," Jonas said, scratching his moustache. "I'm really worried, to be honest, about how all of the fundamentalists are clinging so desperately to their literal interpretation of the Bible that they don't seem to be reading it. Any Biblical literalist who talks about these shapeshifters having the 'Mark of the Beast' needs to be slapped. The marking thing doesn't come out until after the seven seals are opened and all sorts of plagues are unleashed on the earth. And, heck, right in Revelation 4 John talks about four animals and strange beasts sitting at the side of God; if non-humans can sit at God's side, what makes them inherently evil? The fundamentalists' hysteria never served them well before and it's not explaining anything now."
"Yeah," Mark said, deep relief in his voice. "Although, well, the Bible is a lot more clear on witchcraft."
"Sure. Except for what's actually 'witchcraft' and what's a 'miracle.'"
"Yeah, but --" Mark protested. "... Um?"
"I'll grant you some examples seem clearer-cut than others, like consulting with spirits. But most of the events of the Bible are one long string of supernatural events. Not even counting the times when God or Jesus personally stepped in, do I really have to list off the prophets' accomplishments?
"The issue was never 'casting spells' in the strict definition of the phrase -- if I tell you 'a certain Biblical figure used an enchantment to cloud a man's mind,' I could be talking about King Manasseh's evil dealings, or I could be talking about God Himself muddying Pharoah's judgment in Exodus. The issue is always God's will -- whether we're acting as His intermediary rather than following our own selfish interests."
"It's, ah, funny you mention the prophets," Mark said. "Because one of the other things that's really bugging me is ... well, I'm not one. I don't think I have the sort of relationship with God that He'd just suddenly give me all these gifts, you know? There are millions of people more seriously devout than I am. Heck, look at you. How come you're not the one lifting rocks and exploding bottles?"
"We're called to what we're called to," Jonas said simply. "I have to admit, this whole magic thing fascinates me ... I really am curious. I wish I could learn. But ... well, it wouldn't help me to do what I need to do, which is help keep those I care about on the right path. And we're entering a period of life where maybe getting distracted away from my calling would be a bad thing. So I'm listening to how I can serve God best."
Mark considered that in silence.
"Do you know what you feel called to, Mark?" Jonas asked.
"I ..." he started, and sighed. "I wish I could understand how He could call any normal person -- not Jesus, not the prophets -- to a path of casting magic. I mean, for them it's one thing, but you just don't mess around with this stuff."
"You know," Jonas reflected, "there was a scene in Numbers that caught me this morning. Moses' people were complaining, and Moses was getting sick of trying to singlehandedly inspire and lead them, so God granted the gift of prophesy to the 70 tribal elders so that the people would listen to them and help ease Moses' burden. That in itself is telling -- but it's also amusing what happened with the two of them who were out in public at the time. Moses' attendant ran in shouting 'These guys are telling the future! We've got to stop them!' Moses' response was: 'You kidding? I wish all the Lord's people were prophets.'" He stopped and chuckled; Mark let himself join in.
"The point, Mark," Jonas continued, "is that we're called to witness, in whatever way God asks us to. Crazy supernatural stuff isn't unprecedented. And ... well, I'm going to go way out on a limb here, but maybe you should consider that if God gave you the gifts to have magic come naturally to you in the first place, maybe you do have a deeper calling there. Not all the Bible's prophets, disciples and martyrs started out that way; heck, not even all of them started out Christian. But they listened to Him. And this is where I get to my advice." He traced some meaningless patterns in the air with the blade of grass he'd been holding and paused to look at the young man.
"Pray. Only He can give you that answer."
Mark smiled. "Yes, sir. ... And thanks."
Jonas shrugged. "Hey, it's what I do."
"I think I'm going to go home, then," Mark said, glancing at the sun, increasingly creeping lower in the sky.
"I wish you well," Jonas said warmly. "Feel free to come back if you think there's any clarification I might be able to help with. Um, and ..."
Mark paused on his way back to the church's parking lot. "And?"
Jonas grinned sheepishly. "May He forgive me if I'm leading you into temptation here. But could you do that thing with the bottle again?"
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