Black and White
by John R. Plunkett
"Be careful," Leopold cautioned.
"Of what, exactly?" Kara demanded, scornfully. "These pathetic little wards?" She gestured; pale lines of lavender light appeared, forming strange, arcane symbols on the door and the wall around it. "I could bypass these in my sleep, with one arm tied behind my back." With her left hand she traced a design in the air; her fingertip left a glowing trail, similar in color and consistency to the lines on the door but considerably brighter and more vibrant. With her right index finger she touched the center of the door, which also happened to be the center of the design woven upon it.
There was a very faint click as Kara's finger activated a hidden pressure plate. Somewhere nearby a klaxon shrieked.
Leopold sighed heavily and shook his head. "I told you, didn't I."
"Bite me," Kara growled.
"Promises, promises." Leopold stepped forward. "My turn, now." He keyed the microphone attached to his lapel. "All units move in," he commanded briskly, then gestured with his right index finger and made a fencing lunge at the door. A bolt of energy, as dazzlingly bright and intensely golden as the noonday sun, leapt from his hand and slammed into the door. A tremendous explosion rocked the whole building; when the dust settled the door and its wards weren't a problem any more. There wasn't a door; just a ragged hole littered about with bits of smoking rubble.
"Subtle," Kara sniffed.
"Bite me," Leopold riposted, extending his right arm and throwing in a curious flick of the wrist. A bright, golden glow shone between his fingers, growing rapidly into a sword made of light. A pale, electric blue light formed in his left hand, expanding in a circle to form a translucent, faintly glowing shield.
"Nah, you'd probably enjoy it," Kara decided.
Something lunged through the blasted doorway. It looked like a skeleton made of gleaming metal, with malevolently glowing red eyes. In its hands it carried an AKM assault rifle; it opened fire at once, aiming for the center of Leopold's chest. From a range of no more than two meters it didn't seem like it could possibly miss. Nor did it; Leopold staggered back under the impact of the .30 caliber hammer blows. But he did not fall; the bullets vaporized in bright blue flashes when they struck his shield. He responded with a deft upward thrust of his blade that opened the monstrosity's chest like a cleaver splitting a carcass. Metal glowed where the sword cut it; the thing fell back, its animating force dispelled. All well and good, except that three more immediately took its place. Quick as a wink Leopold ducked aside, slamming past one and taking off its head along the way. The next skeleton in line tried stabbing with its bayonet; the blade skittered off Leopold's shield. The third fired; one round managed to slip past the shield and tear a bloody furrow in Leopold's right shoulder. He grunted in pain but didn't loose his rhythm, shield-bashing one skeleton and stabbing the other. While the bashed skeleton reeled, off-balance, Kara leapt up and touched it on the back. Bright purple light flashed from its joints and it collapsed in a heap.
"Thanks," Leopold said, wincing as movement pulled at the wound on his shoulder.
"Leo-" Kara began, her eyes on the blood staining the shoulder of his doublet.
"It's nothing!" Leopold cut in. "Come on, we need to get in now!" He grabbed Kara with is left hand and pulled her through into the building. They found themselves in a garage that hadn't been cleaned in a very long time; cobwebs hung everywhere and boxes of dusty, rusted junk crowded the floor and makeshift shelving that looked about ready to collapse. Some had, due to Leopold's violent entrance. A wooden stairway led upward.
"It's booby trapped," Kara declared as Leopold glanced at the stairs.
"Ain't that a pity." Leopold dismissed his sword and pointed straight up. The resulting blast blew clouds of dust from the old beams and set some of the scattered junk on fire, but also left a gaping hole in the ceiling. Leopold grabbed Kara around the waist with his left arm and leapt, sailing right up onto the next floor. "Spartil Cornis, you're under arrest!" he bellowed. "You might as well give it up now, 'cause one way or another, you're coming with us!"
Kara gasped. For the first time Leopold actually looked at his surroundings. They were in the living room of what had been a very nice home back in the early decades of the twentieth century, but was now suffering from many years of abuse and neglect. This area too was cluttered. Not with junk, as below. With corpses.
Spartil had known, even before the alarm went off, that the authorities were closing in. As he rushed to complete his preparations he cursed venomously, though in truth he had no one to blame but himself. Being so close to achieving his goal had led him to rush. Cut corners. Take chances. Now he was suffering the consequences. On the other hand, he had two advantages this time: first, the experimental phase of his plan was complete. Everything he needed was in his notebook, which he placed carefully in his backpack along with the most essential of his tools and the most difficult to obtain of his components. Second, he'd figured all along that the authorities would come sooner or later, and thus had implemented his escape contingency before doing anything else.
The second explosion nearly knocked Spartil off his feet. He clutched desperately at his backpack, twisting so his body took the shock instead. Breaking some of the things inside would be very, very bad. As he scrambled upright he noted that the firing had stopped. No surprise, really; the Terminators looked fierce but really weren't all that powerful. Certainly not compared to a true combat Adept, which Leopold Donitz unquestionably was. Especially since Spartil had accidentally killed Leopold's wife. It might even be said that since then Leopold had thrown himself into his training as if nothing else mattered.
It also meant that, all this talk of being under arrest notwithstanding, Spartil seriously doubted that he'd be walking out of here in handcuffs. The Blacks might wink at things like murder and necromancy, but they had very strong- and inflexible- views on the subject of loyalty. Betraying a rival for personal gain could be tolerated- even encouraged- under certain circumstances. Betraying the Society as a whole could not. That Leopold was here, and spoke of arrest instead of revenge, meant that Spartil Cornis had run out of options. Both sides had tired of his antics, and joined forces to end them.
But there was another option. After shrugging on his backpack Spartil grabbed the big red T handle on the side of his escape device. He'd even labeled it: none of the above.
Despite the fact that only seconds- if that- remained to him, Spartil hesitated. Truth be told, he had no idea if this would really work. Still, he knew all too well the other choices. If he were extraordinarily lucky, he'd merely die and that would be the end of it. If not-
I hope to God this works, Spartil thought, squeezing his eyes shut, gritting his teeth, and slamming down the handle.
Chief Lance Hardy, two blocks away in an operations van, felt the ground shock a fraction of an instant before a shattering roar assaulted his ears. The van bounced and rocked, savaged from both below and above. Even after the shock wave passed, debris pattered down like hail. Once it let up he threw the doors open and leapt out.
The location of Spartil's hideout wasn't secret any longer. A towering, black, flame-shot cloud soared up into the sky from where it had stood. Flaming debris littered the street and the roofs of nearby houses.
"Bloody Hell," Chief Hardy muttered, staring at the cloud. "Bloody, motherfucking Hell." Along with Spartil, his hideout, and all the good malefurs and femfurs on the capture team had gone any chance whatsoever of keeping this mess safely under wraps.
In the welter of fire, police, and medical teams going about their various duties, no one remarked on the black limousine that pulled up. Nor did anyone seem to care that the officers manning the police barricade passed it without comment while refusing all other non-emergency vehicles. The limo stopped near chief Hardy's operations van; the driver got out and opened the rear door.
A short, heavy malefur in a flowing black robe emerged. He marched straight up to Chief Hardy. "Well?" he demanded.
"Nothing, my lord," Hardy replied. "Nada. Zip. A big, smoking, crater, and that's all."
Edward DeSoie, Lord of the Black, clenched his fists and ground his teeth. Chief Hardy looked away, glad beyond words that the Lord's anger wasn't directed at him. "Search it again," Lord Black commanded brusquely. "I want an analysis of every speck of dust. Search the neighborhood too."
Chief Hardy grimaced. "Ah... that won't be very... um-"
"That is not your problem," Lord Black interrupted. "You will do as you're instructed. I will figure out how to square it with the Mundanes."
"Ah, yes, Lord. Right away." Chief Hardy hurried away.
For a time, the Lord of the Black remained. Then he turned away suddenly and returned to his car. There wasn't anything for him to see here. Besides, the fallout from this mess was still coming down. He was needed to put out fires elsewhere. Not to mention his meeting, which he'd already put off far too long already.
Phaeron, Lord of the White, stood with his hands clasped loosely behind his back, his eyes focused on nothing. It was quite easy to do; in this place the magically adept called Elsewhere, there was plenty of nothing to see. There wasn't anything but nothing. The pearly, faintly shimmering whiteness before him looked like fog if one didn't examine it too closely. It seemed to press in around one, masking everything else from view. If one tried looking at it the "fog" seemed to recede. Then, quite suddenly, one reached a point where pressing closeness suddenly became infinite emptiness. It would be very easy, under those circumstances, for a person to experience extreme vertigo and sink into mind-killing panic. Anything the eye settled upon, in the hopes of finding some stability, twisted away.
None of this bothered Phaeron in the least. He'd passed the test centuries ago, upon becoming Lord of the White. The trick was to remember that nothing existed here. That included things like up and down, space, and motion. True, there was no ground. Though he held his body in a standing posture, his silver hooves rested on nothing. Which did not mean that he was falling. But he could be, if he let himself start to believe that he was. The key to the test was that most people needed something outside of themselves to give them orientation and context, be it physically or emotionally. Here, there wasn't anything to find. Looking for it simply fed back one's own fears and insecurities, locking one in a vicious cycle that eventually spiraled down into irrecoverable madness. That there wasn't anything here didn't mean it wasn't possible to get lost.
Phaeron could endure the nothingness because he'd reached a point were he no longer needed external validation of his sense of self. He stood because he chose to be standing. That no external evidence supported this belief did not signify. None existed to refute it, either. Since nothing else existed, the act of declaring a thing to be so was enough to make it so.
The only thing bothering Phaeron at the moment was that Edward hadn't arrived yet. But even that wasn't more than a mild annoyance. In way, Elsewhere was the perfect place to wait because time didn't exist either. All Phaeron had to do was decide that he'd waited the right amount of time and-
"About time you got here," Phaeron said aloud.
Edward snorted. "Quite the comedian, ain't'cha, horn head?"
Phaeron smiled. He hadn't seen Edward arrive, even though that worthy now stood right in front of him. Without time there couldn't be any cause and effect either. "I saw a funny cartoon not too long ago," Phaeron said. "It shows a fellow standing in a park, looking at a sign. The sign is titled 'Zen Park.' There's a big X in the middle, and under it a caption that reads, 'why are you here?'"
Edward grimaced while Phaeron laughed. "Least you could do is find some new jokes," he groused. Nevertheless, he couldn't help smiling. He, too, had been required to pass the test before becoming Lord of the Black. The joke captured the essence of Elsewhere more precisely than many much more learned discourses. If you tried to understand it you ended up chasing your intellectual tail. You had to let it be.
"I understand that the Cornis affair didn't end well," Phaeron said abruptly.
Edward said nothing aloud but his expression spoke volumes. "Yeah, that's one way 'o puttin' it," he growled.
"Have your people found any traces of him?"
"No, not yet," Eddie snapped. Then he stopped, setting aside his anger and looking at Phaeron. "You know something," he pronounced.
"He got away," Phaeron said.
"How?" Edward demanded.
"I'm not sure. I do know that a dimensional rift appeared in the same instant as the explosion. Spartil went through it to another place."
Edward rubbed his chin. Phaeron was a master of dimensional magic. Certainly he had no reason to lie; Spartil had betrayed him too. "Where did he go?"
Phaeron's face split into a demonic grin. "You're positively gonna shit when I tell you, Eddie old boy."
Spartil awoke with a shuddering gasp, shivering violently. He'd had a terrible, terrible dream.
Waking wasn't much of an improvement. Spartil found himself sprawled, naked but for a ratty backpack, in a pool of cold, filthy water while more poured down from a heavy, leaden sky. Since he sat between two buildings the blustery wind didn't affect him unduly, but soaked as he was it only added to the chill caused by the water in his fur. He tried to get up but a stabbing pain in his shoulder threw him back down, gasping. Something had torn a ragged furrow in his flesh just above the shoulder joint of his right arm. His abortive attempt to get up had broken recently formed scabs, letting fresh blood pour from the wound and into the already matted fur around it.
"Jesus H. Christ," Spartil gasped. It might have bothered him a bit less if he could remember how the wound had come to be there, but he couldn't. It hurt like a sonovabitch, made worse by the backpack strap tugging at it. Gritting his teeth he rolled over, shedding the pack while trying to move his right arm as little as possible. He ended up sitting against the wall, the pack in his lap, waiting for the pain to subside.
Despite his situation, Spartil couldn't help wondering: why was he wearing a backpack, when he wasn't wearing anything else? Oh, right, he thought sourly. I decided to go for a hike in the nude and got shot by a hunter. That he found himself in what was clearly a fairly dense urban area didn't seem any more illogical than the rest of it.
Which didn't matter, really. "I need to have this looked at," Spartil said aloud. The sound of his own voice startled him because he didn't recognize it. He brought a hand up to his face, exploring it. Then he looked at the hand.
Spartil found that he was a wolf. A big, muscular one, with a broad, powerful chest, thick arms, narrow waist, and a hard, flat stomach. Not a bad looker, discounting that at the moment he more resembled a drowned rat.
A portion of Spartil's mind assured him that he should be glad to find out that he was such a hunk. The rest of him responded that he'd feel better about it if he could remember being this way before. But he couldn't. For that matter, he couldn't remember anything at all. Before waking up there was... nothing. As if he'd sprang instantly into being, like a light coming on.
The pain in Spartil's shoulder reminded him that he could also spring out of being just as easily. He needed help. Gritting his teeth against the pain he dragged himself upright. The backpack slipped off his lap and fell into the pool where he'd lay upon awakening.
For a time Spartil stared at the pack. Yes, he needed medical attention. But just as much- more, in some ways- he craved identity. Some sense of continuity. The pack was the only thing around that could even remotely be considered his. He picked it up and opened it.
On top was a jar made of hand carved obsidian. It felt heavy... and cold. In a way that had nothing to do with ambient temperature. Hastily he set it aside, and scooted away. Next was... a notebook. Covered with worn leather, as if old or heavily used. No writing or pictures adorned the cover so he opened it. On the first page he found precise, hand-written script... which made no sense at all. Not only was it not a language he knew, the letters seemed to twist and writhe as he looked at them. Trying to decipher them gave him a splitting headache. With a growl he made to toss the thing away-
One words sprang suddenly into focus. It was... his name. Spartil. As if that were a key, all the other words resolved into recognizable forms. He read, page after page, his eyes widening in wonder. His lips parted in a grin. Finally, he threw back his head and laughed. He remembered. Which meant that his escape plan had worked after all. Whistling cheerily, he dug another object from the pack. It was a caduceus- a staff entwined with snakes- carved from ivory. He touched it to his shoulder; the wound closed as if it had never been. He put the caduceus away and extracted a ring, which he placed on his right hand. At once he stopped shivering; despite still being wet and naked he felt comfortably warm. Another ring went on his left hand. Now he appeared to be fully dressed, in clean and neat if unremarkable clothing. He wasn't really dressed; anyone touching him would feel bare fur, but at least he wouldn't draw undue attention. He un-zippered a side pouch on his pack and removed a bundle, from which he counted out half a dozen one ounce Krugerrands. All that remained was to find a place where he could turn them into ready cash and he'd be in business.
Very carefully, Spartil picked up the black jar and returned it to its place. He had his most precious ingredient, he had his notes... and most importantly, he had time. There wouldn't be any nosy wizards looking for him here. He slung the pack over his shoulder and set out to fulfill his lifelong dream.
Phaeron used the complimentary shampoo while showering but ignored the towels and brushes. A simple spell not only dried him but left his hair and mane brushed and combed. Some loose hairs had collected in the drain; he left them, though he was by nature fastidious. As a unicorn he was required, while visiting the mortal world, to leave some subtle clue of his presence. Frankly he thought it a ridiculous affectation, but no doubt that was his Nighthorse ancestry talking. All the purebred unicorns he'd ever met accepted it as naturally as breathing, even though not a one of them could explain where the rule came from or why it mattered.
As he emerged from the bathroom Phaeron beckoned. A fresh robe, laid out on his bed, leapt into the air and wrapped itself around him. Being an Adept level magic user meant one didn't have to waste time with mundane activities if one didn't so choose. Ironically, as he grew in power Phaeron found himself growing nostalgic for those very things he'd strove in his youth to escape. Today, though, he was in a hurry.
Gynavave waited in the hall outside Phaeron's suite; she fell in beside him as he headed for the elevator. "They're here," she said.
Phaeron nodded. He couldn't help noticing the proximity of so many Blacks any more than he could help noticing someone pounding on his skull with a hammer.
"He's here," Gynavave added, with rather more than merely a tinge of bitterness. Her ears flicked back and her tail twitched.
Phaeron sighed. He'd known the minute Morgan arrived but hadn't said anything. What was the point? Eddie brought Morgan for the same reason Phaeron brought Gynavave: they were, respectively, best suited for the task at hand. Personal feelings simply didn't figure, for Gynavave and Morgan or Eddie and Phaeron.
The elevator stopped. Phaeron and Gynavave left it, moving briskly down a hallway in the hotel's conference center. A bellman tipped his cap and opened a door for them. That the guests he addressed were a midnight black unicorn with a white mane, silver hooves, a golden horn, and blue eyes, and a gorgeous, well-built lioness with a golden mane composed of fine, hairy feathers and yellow-gold wings with brown tips didn't appear to faze him in the least. Hardly a surprise since everyone in the hotel was either an initiated Black or White or affiliated with one of the groups. No one to whom sorcery was nothing but superstition, and creatures like unicorns and sphinxes only mythological, would have to worry about having their fragile belief systems unduly disturbed.
Eddie was already at the table. Behind him stood a male sphinx, with a black mane and wings, and an etched, muscular body that was every bit as breathtakingly beautiful as Gynavave's. His eyes followed Phaeron and Gynavave but his expression revealed nothing; he might as well have been carved from stone. It perhaps said something that Gynavave returned his look just as stonily.
Phaeron took a seat at the table opposite Eddie. Gynavave stood behind him and slightly to his right, just as Morgan did with Eddie. Along the far wall, precisely spaced, stood eight enormous, massively muscular Nighthorses in half plate armor, sabres sheathed at their hips and pikes in hand, their manes- flame red shot with yellow- done in corn row braids. Opposite them, behind Phaeron, stood eight equally large and impressive unicorns, similarly armed and equipped. Providence was a neutral city; both Blacks and Whites could go there so long as they didn't cause trouble, and this conference had been personally arranged between Phaeron and Eddie, but that didn't for an instant mean that the animus between the two sides had in any way diminished.
"You're certain that Spartil escaped?" Eddie began, without preamble.
"Yes," Phaeron replied. "Not only that, the Essence of Neverwas went with him."
Eddie said nothing. For a moment he and Phaeron stared silently at one another. "You know where they went?" Eddie asked.
"Yes. To the same dimension the Guide did."
"Do you know why that is?" Morgan inquired.
Phaeron shook his head. "It's possible that the previous connection somehow biased Spartil's machine. I have no conclusive evidence one way or the other."
"If he's gone, then why do we need to worry about it?" Gynavave wanted to know.
Eddie grimaced as if tasting something unpleasant. "He got his mits on some powerful spells. I think he's gonna use 'em to bind the essence into one of his little toys."
"If these spells are so dangerous, how did he get them?" Gynavave inquired.
"That's neither here nor there," Eddie snapped.
"I must agree," Phaeron interjected smoothly. "The situation in which we find ourselves is the product of a great many mistakes. In which there is certainly a valuable lesson for the future, but here and now the only concern is how to stop Spartil from doing any more damage."
"We have to go get him," Morgan said.
"What exactly do you mean by that?" Gynavave demanded suspiciously.
"You think that, deliberately or by accident, Spartil is going to let loose an invasion of Neverwas," Morgan pronounced. "I'm sure it wouldn't concern you unduly if someone else's dimension gets overrun, but you're afraid they might somehow make it here, too. So we go and stop him before he has a chance."
"Who exactly do you propose to send?" Gynavave wanted to know.
"A team," Phaeron announced. "With representatives from both Black and White."
For a long time no one spoke. Even Gynavave seemed shocked at the idea. "A team, you say?" Eddie asked, rubbing his chin.
"We don't have time to waste smoothing ruffled feathers and stroking bruised egos," Phaeron pointed out. "You wouldn't trust us to do it, and we wouldn't trust you. A joint team is the only workable solution."
"Even if we stipulate that, deciding who's on it could take the rest of our natural lives," Eddie pointed out.
Phaeron smiled wryly. As a unicorn, his natural life was very, very long. On the other hand he was no longer a youth, as his species reckoned such things, and simply having a long life didn't make him disposed to waste it on tasks he knew to be fruitless. "We don't have time for that," he said. He held out his hand; Gynavave passed him a sheet of paper. "Here are the Whites I want to send." He slid it across the table.
Eddie picked up the sheet; Morgan read over his shoulder. "These aren't your best people," Eddie observed.
"They have to be able to get along with their opposite number," Phaeron said. "If not, their skill doesn't amount to a hill of beans."
Eddie nodded. "Can't argue with that. All right then." Morgan passed him a sheet; he slid it across the table to Phaeron.
Phaeron looked it over. None of the names surprised him unduly; clearly they'd been chosen with the same criteria as those on his own list: the ability to get along ultimately mattered more than skill and strength.
"Where do we meet?" Morgan asked.
Phaeron considered. He'd spent a lot of time in contemplation of that very fact, and didn't much like the answer that kept coming up, but any other possibility led to unacceptable delays. "Right here," he said. "Nearly everything we need is ready to hand. What isn't can be brought quickly enough. I know it's short notice, but we really don't have the time to break everything down and reconvene elsewhere. Spartil's already had weeks and weeks to do his mischief. How much more time do we give him?"
Eddie scowled. Being a bulldog made the expression even more impressive. "I can't tell you how much it irks me, but I agree," he said. "It would take months just to set the ground rules." He tapped his chin. "Very well. It should be possible to assemble everything needed in three days' time. We'll perform the ritual right here in the conference room."
Phaeron nodded. "Agreed."
Eddie rose. "Nice chattin' wit'cha, but I've got work to do." He turned and left, Morgan at his side. Once the door closed behind him Phaeron rose and hurried out.
"He gave in too easily," Gynavave muttered as they returned to Phaeron's suite.
"It's a trick," Gynavave growled.
Moments passed while the elevator rose. "Then why are we doing it?" Gynavave wanted to know.
"We have no choice," Phaeron replied. "If the team doesn't get off now it never will. The entire process will break down in bickering and name calling."
"We don't know that there's a danger."
"We don't know that there isn't one, either."
"It would be nice to know what they're planning," Gynavave muttered.
"They're going to send a second team of only Blacks," Phaeron replied.
Gynavave started. "How- I mean- are you certain?"
"It's what I'd do," Phaeron replied.
Gynavave opened her mouth, then shut it, looking troubled. Phaeron had to repress a smile; in Gynavave's world Black and White were as different as, well, black and white. Which was why she'd only ever be a lieutenant and never a Lady. A person in Phaeron's position- or Eddie's, for that matter- couldn't ignore how similar the sides were, in ideology and methodology both. Choose your enemies carefully, the old saying went, for you'll come to resemble them. Black and White had been enemies for a very, very long time.
Gynavave stopped dead in her tracks, staring at Phaeron, her mouth hanging open. "You're going to send a second team," she said.
"Who's going to be on it?"
"You, for starters."
Eddie, at the opposite end of the hotel, had an easier time of it. He didn't have to cajole Morgan into acceptance of the situation; Morgan understood how the distinctions blurred as one rose to ever higher levels. Unfortunately, the very thing which made Morgan perfectly suited for the mission also made sending him on it dangerous: Morgan did not cleave unthinkingly to the ideals of his Society the way Gynavave did. Sending him away on his own, where Eddie wouldn't be around to keep an eye on him, would almost certainly lead to trouble. But Eddie, like Phaeron, realized that he had little choice. At this very moment, Phaeron would be plotting to send his own team. Gynavave would almost certainly be on it, and Morgan was the perfect person to checkmate her.
"Spartil's sure to have whipped up a bunch of his toys," Eddie added, as if an afterthought. "You'll need a heavy slugger if things turn sporty. Like... oh, I don't know... Glaive."
"Glaive?" Morgan frowned. "He's not very subtle."
"If you end up needing him, you won't want subtle," Eddie pointed out.
"If I don't need him, he'll be sitting around taking up space."
Eddie shrugged. "Would you rather be a foot too long or a quarter inch too short?"
Morgan grimaced. "Point." His expression turned thoughtful. "I'll need a diviner, too."
"How 'bout-" Eddie began.
"I know!" Morgan cut in. "The Palmer kid."
Eddie frowned. He didn't like being interrupted, and he wondered if Morgan were trying something. On the other hand, Palmer was pretty good... and while his Talent was rather odd and quirky, the whole situation was as well, so it made a twisted sort of sense. Besides, there wasn't time to argue, not with the insertion only three days off. "All right," he decided. "See to it."
Morgan bowed. "At once, my lord."
Phaeron blinked, rubbing his muzzle. He felt like he hadn't slept in days. Which, in fact, he hadn't. Opening a trans-dimentional gateway was a trying prospect under the best of circumstances. Now he was doing it in too little time while simultaneously managing a very touchy political situation. He knew he was taking a dangerous chance but he couldn't very well back out after having proposed not only the activity but the timetable as well. His only consolation was knowing that very soon it would all be over, one way or another.
The conference room looked essentially the same as last time except for two things: the guards were gone and an intricate design in colored sand had been laid out on the table. Even now, black and white robed acolytes were applying finishing touches. They stepped back as Phaeron approached; he gave the design a quick but thorough look and continued on to his place without further comment. The layout and alignment could stand some improvement, but it would do. It would have to do; the frenetic pace, combined with having to work cheek and jowl with their enemies had keyed everyone up to a fever pitch. Phaeron couldn't help thinking that if he so much as farted at the wrong time it would spark an all out mage war on the spot.
"The fart heard 'round the world," Phaeron muttered under his breath, then had to fight to keep his expression composed. Realistically it wasn't at all funny; time and time again conflicts of unimaginable savagery had erupted over things that, in retrospect, looked every bit as silly as an unfortunately timed bout of flatulence. Ironically, the gravity of the situation only made it harder for Phaeron to keep a straight face. Fortunately Eddie arrived before he lost it completely.
"Good grief, Eddie, you look like shit," Phaeron commented. Stress and lack of sleep made Eddie even uglier than usual.
"I suppose you think you're the Lords' gift to the Gifted," Eddie riposted. "Oh, I'm sorry. You do think that."
Phaeron grinned. "Ready?"
"Hell no." Eddie took his place. "But I'm gonna do it anyway, just like you are."
"Too true." Phaeron saw the Adepts Eddie had selected to assist him moving up to take their positions, just as were his own. Morgan was conspicuous by his absence, as Gynavave would be on Phaeron's side. A sharp pang of conscience brought Phaeron as close as he'd yet come to calling the whole thing off. He was as sure as his own name that Eddie would be sending a backup team. He was almost as certain that Morgan would be on it. He had the right blend of skills, powers, initiative, and loyalty... and he was here. So Eddie would send him, even knowing that Phaeron would almost certainly send Gynavave, and that the nature of the mission made it almost inevitable that the two of them would come to blows. Personal feelings, no matter how painful to the individuals involved, couldn't be allowed to interfere with the greater need. It was, Phaeron thought, an incredibly cold hearted line of reasoning... and it matched his own in every particular. If the Neverwas escaped its prison, the world they invaded would quickly be divested of all life. Then they'd find another world and drain it. That would continue until all life had ended or someone managed to lock them up again. In the face of such a catastrophe, the personal problems of a few simply couldn't be allowed to matter.
Phaeron grimaced. Even in his own mind it sounded like a rationalization.
Eddie had said something. Now he turned and gestured. Phaeron did the same. The members of the primary team stepped forward from their respective sides. Phaeron looked them over, nodded, and indicated for them to proceed. They climbed up on the table and took their places.
None of the four Whites and four Blacks who stood facing one another looked like traditional Blacks or Whites. While everyone else in the room wore robes, armor, or badges that proclaimed their allegiance, the members of the insertion team all wore the same thing: combat boots, BDU pants and jackets with camouflage patterns of swirled blacks, whites, and grays, web belts, and packs. They could have been a military Special Ops team but for the lack of any visible weapons.
A smile kinked the corner of Phaeron's mouth. In fact, the team was not only armed to the teeth but carrying its hardware in plain sight. It was simply that most non-mages probably wouldn't pay any mind to the selection of rings, pendants, wands, and other knickknacks arrayed about the person of each individual. Unless, of course, the non-mage happened to be a mugger or pick-pocket, in which case the would-be assailant was in for a nasty, and quite likely fatal, shock. Political considerations aside, neither Phaeron nor Eddie were going to send people who couldn't look after themselves in an alien, and very possibly hostile environment. If that involved knocking some people on the head, no one here was going to second guess the folks on the ground.
"Prepare for insertion," Phaeron announced, raising his arms. There weren't any speeches or pep talks; they'd only give vent to axe grinding and one-upmanship that, so far, had been held in check by the frenetic pace. Pre-mission briefings had already covered all the salient points; everyone knew why they were here and what was at stake.
Eddie and the other Adepts followed Phaeron's lead. Eddie held the position of power opposite and equal to Phaeron's, but Phaeron would be leading the ritual.
As Phaeron began to speak and gesticulate it seemed as if the very air were clutching at his throat and hands, trying to still them. Quite simply, magic wasn't magic; Phaeron and the others were doing work as surely as if they'd been outside digging ditches. By application of their mystical power, the Adepts in the conference room were exerting a force that changed the balance of the natural world... and the natural world resisted the change, just as a boulder resisted being prodded into motion. Phaeron's voice and hands remained steady even while some of the others wavered, but he had to pace his words between deep breaths and sweat stained the neckline of his robe.
The problem wasn't strength. The Adepts Phaeron and Eddie had gathered could very easily blast a hole through the fabric of space and time... provided they didn't worry overmuch about where it came out or what might come through. People pushing a boulder would reach a point where the rock would start rolling on its own, and pushing it became much easier. It would also be very easy at that point for the rock to get away from them and cause untold damage, including maiming or killing members of the team. For both rock pushers and dimensional gate openers, strength got things started but only consummate skill saw them to a happy conclusion. For Phaeron, the transition point arrived with a tremendous crack that jarred the entire hotel on its foundations. A dazzlingly bright spark appeared in the air above the insertion team. The rock was moving now; stopping it would be more dangerous and take more effort than letting it roll. Only skill would save those present, and possibly the world at large, from disaster.
The spark grew into a pulsating blob that roared like a tornado. Occasionally, things became visible. At one point a dragon made of red hot iron burst forth. An instant before its jaws snapped shut on Phaeron's head the whole thing puffed into smoke. Phaeron would have sighed if he'd had the breath; Spartil's machine had done exactly as he'd feared it had, smashing through the dimensional fabric like a train wreck, heedless of the damage and disruption in its wake. Which left Phaeron picking his way through a maelstrom of forces still seeking their own balance. Like tiptoeing through a minefield in the middle of a hurricane, it was. But it was not for no reason that Phaeron was considered the greatest master of dimensional magic in the world. He felt the ebb and flow of energies that moved in ways the human mind couldn't really comprehend, and slipped through them with an instinctual feel that went beyond mere skill and entered the realm of art.
There was another crack, as loud and violent as the first. The dimensional discontinuity vanished, and along with it the insertion team. The sand on the conference table had turned black, like burned powder. A moment later the table fell apart, splitting precisely along the lines of the drawing. The edges of each piece were charred black, as if the lines had burned right through the wood.
Phaeron let his arms fall to his sides. Five Adepts- two Whites and three Blacks- collapsed. Many of the others wavered on their feet and clearly wouldn't last long. Assistants rushed forward to aid them. Phaeron walked without help, though his legs felt like rubber. He offered a silent prayer for the teams. All three of them, not just his own. They were good people- even the Blacks- going into danger they didn't really understand simply because people they trusted said it was necessary. They deserved all the help they could get... and they'd probably need it, too.
Morgan was not wearing BDUs when he entered the secondary staging area on the Black side of the hotel. He was, instead, dressed in an incredibly loud jacket and pants combination, plus a backpack so large he had to hunch forward to keep his balance in spite of his size and strength.
John said nothing, though his artistic soul wailed in anguish. Morgan was in charge of the mission. That meant he had absolute power, including that of life and death, over its members. He had a reputation as an easygoing fellow as Blacks went, but John wasn't disposed to test it, especially not with Glaive in the room.
Glaive was actually about the same height as Morgan, but appeared to tower over him because of his much greater mass. He looked like a warthog: prominent, turned up snout, small, close-set eyes, heavy, yellowed tusks protruding from either side of his mouth, small, pointed ears, and scraggly hair that looked like the bristles of a wire brush. His skin was black as night, with a texture like boiled leather. His arms hung nearly to his knees, were as thick and gnarled as the limbs of an ancient oak, and bigger around at the biceps than John's thighs. They attached to a torso that seemed almost as thick from front to back as from side to side. He wasn't wearing pads under his jacket, his shoulders really looked like that. His belly protruded with a well developed paunch, but his hips and thighs were as thick and solid as the rest of him. Instead of boots he had metal shoes with rubber soles nailed to his hooves. In addition to his kit and web gear he carried two knives, hidden in cargo pockets on his thighs, but John considered that a technicality. Even naked Glaive would be armed and dangerous. He was a weapon.
For his own part, John carried only two weapons: a ring on his right hand that fired lightning bolts, and one on his left that projected a shield. Where other team members had loaded up with various rings, pendants, talismans, and what-nots, John carried art supplies: brushes, knives, tubes of paint, charcoal sticks, grease pencils, and a selection of sculpting tools. He wasn't here to fight, after all; Glaive and Morgan would take care of that, should the need arise. John would aid them in other ways. For example, he'd already touched up the patterns on his BDUs. When he moved the color patches seemed to detach from his body and float around him, like leaves swirling in an autumn wind. Staring at it too long would give a person eyestrain, which was precisely the point. Identifying exactly where John was and what he was doing within the swirling field would be very difficult. Then, when John stood still, the patterns settled back into place and took the color of whatever was behind him. The mimicry was good enough that he could almost disappear.
"Places, everyone," Morgan declared, clapping his hands. John moved to his, looking down to make sure. Tape outlines marked where he should put his feet, and just to make sure there was no mistake his name was written on the tape. This put the team in a triangle formation: Morgan in front, Glaive behind to the left, and John behind to the right. All three of the them faced the wall; if the hotel's structure hadn't been in the way Morgan would have been staring straight at the back of Eddie's head. Or rather, over it at Phaeron.
John and Glaive didn't know or care, but Morgan knew enough about dimensional magic to realize that this arrangement shouldn't work. But it did, because the Whites had another group of three on the opposite side of the hotel, which kept the equation in balance. Now that he had time to think about it, he found it troubling that they were, in effect, counting in the enemy's duplicity... and, at the same time, giving the enemy a hand through their own duplicity. The Whites had to know. Phaeron had to know. But here they were, both sides going along with the charade, pretending that it was all a big secret. The phoniness of it all was one of the reasons he'd switched sides in the first place. Standing here, though, he couldn't help wondering if the Blacks really were any less so than the Whites-
Morgan and his team never felt the initial shock as the dimensional rift opened because they were sucked in immediately. Though he had experience with such things, Morgan screamed; he couldn't help it. He seemed to be plunging through a vortex of fire and ice that burned and froze him at the same time, not only on the outside but all the way through. The vortex twisted and writhed like a snake with a gut ache, spinning him on a dozen different axes at once, most of them ones the human mind couldn't normally perceive.
As suddenly as it began, it stopped. It might have lasted no time or an eternity; there wasn't any way to tell. Morgan arrived standing up- the end of the rift synchronized him perfectly with his environment; he materialized without so much as a hair out of place- but the psychological disorientation was so bad he fell headlong. The floor beneath him was hard concrete studded with metal protuberances, but at that moment the relief of being back in only three dimensions was so great he actually welcomed the pain.
Other impressions made themselves felt. Voices, talking and shouting. A distant rumbling. A rush of air. Morgan's hand lay on cold metal, which vibrated. His eyes snapped open. The metal surface was the top of one rail of a railroad track. The rail lay on rubber pads, secured by large bolts to a concrete foundation. Beyond it Morgan saw a wall, or at least a vertical surface. That meant he lay between the rails, right in the middle of the tracks. The style of track suggested a subway or other such heavy rail transit application. Suddenly everything snapped into focus: the rail vibrated under the wheels of an oncoming train, which drove air from the tunnel as it came.
Morgan didn't consciously think these things. There wasn't time. Another part of his brain, one that worked entirely on instinct and training, processed the data and drew a conclusion. The conclusion was that he needed to get the Hell out of here, now. A flip brought him to his feet, balanced on the railhead. A leap, tuck, and roll planted him safely on the station platform a meter and a half above. The train nearly clipped his backpack as it roared past, brakes screeching. Shocked commuters pressed back from him in a ring, staring in a mix of wonder and horror.
What are you people staring at? Morgan started to ask, but his rational mind caught up with events and stopped him. For starters, outside of a Hong Kong chop socky flick, no normal human being could possibly have performed a two meter vertical standing jump while wearing a backpack weighing nearly a third as much as the jumper himself. Next off, Morgan happened to be a large, powerfully built lion with a jet black mane composed of thin, hairy feathers and a pair of wings patterned like a hawk's sprouting from his back. Finally, he wore the aforementioned backpack and a really obnoxious suit. Add it all up and even at Mardi Gras people would be staring at him.
"Well, that was exciting, wasn't it," Morgan declared. His face assumed an expression that might be called a smile except that unburned hormones surging through his blood twisted it into something maniacal and terrifying, as well as giving his voice an edge as jagged as torn metal.
"Any one you can walk away from," Glaive put in. He stood at Morgan's side; in his right hand he held a knife, the blade folded back along his wrist to keep it out of sight, and in his left he held John, who, judging by the smell, had wet himself. For his own part, Glaive's expression and demeanor suggested that leaping from in front of speeding trains at the very last possible instant was not only entirely routine but rather boring at that.
"Quite so," Morgan agreed, in more like his normal voice. With the specter of sudden and violent death lifted from his soul it became possible to consider futures more than a fraction of a second distant. "Thank you, thank you," He declared in a strong, carrying voice, artfully making a leg. "For my next trick-" He gestured, muttering a few words under his breath. A cloud of white mist billowed forth, quickly filling the platform area with impenetrable fog.
A great many people shrieked and fell back, or turned to run, as the cloud enveloped them. Morgan paused only long enough to cast a second spell on himself, Glaive, and John, then threw himself into the press, using his size and strength to bull his way through. The panic was more than he'd expected but it served his purpose nonetheless. Fortunately there weren't so many people that they clogged the stairs leading to the mezzanine, though it was a near thing. The area around the exit was packed solid with people trying to leave the station, but security officers and station workers were feeding people as quickly as possible through the emergency exits. Morgan let himself be swept along; the evacuation was actually going quite smoothly. The crowd seemed more startled than panicked; no doubt it helped that the mist didn't come up the stairs and none of the people seeking to escape showed any obvious ill effects.
On the street those who'd fled the station stood around in milling crowds further enlarged by spectators drawn to the commotion. A few security guards tried to sort things out but there weren't enough of them to effectively establish order. Which condition would likely change very soon, Morgan decided; in addition to normal city noise he heard a number of sirens which seemed to be approaching. He led Glaive and John into one of the crowds, eased gently through it to the back, then nonchalantly strolled away down the street. They turned the corner just as a group of police vehicles pulled up to the station.
"Doesn't seem so different from our Earth," Glaive mused as the party hurried along. No one paid them the slightest attention, despite their outlandish appearances.
"Not to look at, anyway," Morgan responded. They were in London, he'd decided. All the signs were in English and the people spoke it with a particular, easily recognizable accent. Vehicular traffic drove on the left side of the street and the vehicles themselves, not to mention the buildings, generally had an English feel to them. Nor could he think of any other city where the subway trains had rounded tops. Primarily, though, what convinced him was the stern visage of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, Knight of the Bath, gazing down at him from atop a towering column on the other side of the street.
"Look at the people," John commented. The illusion Morgan had cast in the subway hadn't affected him, but the colors on his painted outfit had changed, giving it the appearance of a nondescript coat and pants.
Morgan had been doing just that. Mostly he saw individuals who resembled dogs, cats, foxes, badgers, skunks, and weasels. In other words, just the sort of people he'd expect to see in the London on what Avalonians like Morgan and Glaive called Mundane Earth. But there were others, too. People who resembled sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and even pigs, though none of the last looked anywhere near as fierce as Glaive. In any case, none of them were types known on Mundane Earth... and not a few of them would be considered mythological creatures.
"There's something else, too," John continued. He'd removed a brush from one of his pockets and seemed to be waving it about idly, but Morgan saw flickers of color dancing from the brush's tip. "There's power here. A lot more than back home."
"Yes," Morgan said slowly. He'd felt it too; on Mundane Earth the energy many thought of as magic was... constrained. Difficult to reach, except through discipline and study. Here, the power was... right at his fingertips, as it were, just waiting to be used. Very like Avalon, in other words. Which, frankly, perplexed him to no end. The Societies of White and Black might disagree on most things- nearly everything, in fact- but on one particular item they agreed wholeheartedly. To wit, that the unrestrained use of magic would be a disaster for all concerned. Thus the Societies controlled who could learn and how it was taught and used. It seemed that a world like this, with so much power available simply for the taking, would require even more regulation. And yet there didn't seem to be any. Morgan's senses were straining for any indication that they were being tracked, studied, or observed through magic but so far hadn't caught so much as a whiff. Which troubled him immensely; the nature of their arrival should have drawn all sorts of attention. He couldn't bring himself to believe that no one had noticed... which implied that they had, but he couldn't detect it. Which alarmed him even more.
"Where are we?" Glaive inquired.
"Trafalgar square," John replied. "That's Lord Nelson up there-" he pointed at the statue- "and behind him is the National gallery." His eyes were positively gleaming.
"We aren't here to sight see," Morgan interjected gruffly. He drew a pince-nez from the breast pocket of his suit and perched it on his muzzle, then turned slowly in a circle, surveying the scene. Through the glasses the view looked mostly the same... but certain things seemed to glow, and there were lines of light on the ground and sometimes in buildings. "This way," he pronounced, setting off.
"What's over here?" Glaive asked, falling in.
"Don't know yet," Morgan replied. "Something interesting, though."
After a short walk the Thames hove into view. A park lined the near bank. The glowing lines converged on a granite obelisk inscribed with Egyptian designs.
"Wow!" John exclaimed, eyes wide. "That's Cleopatra's Needle!"
"Actually, it was erected by Tuthmose III," Morgan said. The obelisk was itself an artifact of some power, and it had bent the local ley lines until they converged upon it. Just looking at it made Morgan wince. All that power just sitting there, waiting for some nut case to come along and blow a hundred meters of the Embankment clean off the map. Morgan knew any number of people who'd do it, too, just for kicks. Needless to say, the Needle on his Earth had been secretly replaced by a thaumaturgically neutral simulacra. "Hey, John," he asked. "What do you need to find out where we're supposed to be?"
"A little time, that's all," John replied, removing a selection of colored chalk from his pockets and commencing to draw on the flagstones around the base of the obelisk. "Since someone obligingly left all this manna sitting here for us, it would be a terrible shame not to use it."
"Works for me," Morgan replied, putting his glasses away. "Keep an eye out, Glaive."
"That's an affirm." Glaive wandered off, apparently looking at the scenery, but his roving eye missed nothing that happened in the immediate area.
Had anyone happened to be watching, they would have noticed that while John's strokes with the chalk were deliberate and purposeful, the lines laid down looked random and haphazard, a bunch of scribbles not even organized enough to be called doodles. The reason for this would become clear if the hypothetical observer watched for a time: after he laid them down, the lines John drew writhed away from the paths he'd chosen, seeking new shapes and positions of their own. Nevertheless, John kept drawing; the pattern would emerge sooner or later.
Morgan sensed the tendrils of power John cast out... and he sensed them come back empty handed, if they didn't simply evaporate. The waiting grated on Morgan's nerves, all the more so because he felt so horribly exposed. He kept it locked up, though. Pestering John wouldn't speed things up any; divination was far more art than craft, and John did so well at it because he was an artist, not a craftsman.
None of which meant that Morgan had to keep lugging all this gear around. He shed his backpack and set it on a bench, followed by his suit. Underneath he wore BDUs and web gear like everyone else. He sighed happily, glad to be rid of the weight, then wrung his hands and wiggled his fingers to loosen them. After a brief pause to collect his thoughts he cast a spell.
Suit and backpack melted like wax in a furnace, flowing together into a single mass. It pulsated and swelled, extruding pseudopods that gradually took on more definite form: a hand... a foot... a leg... a head... another head...
In the end Morgan found himself with two furs: a male border collie and a female puma. They were both the same height and size; the male was a bit shorter and slimmer than average, the female taller and heavier. Both had trim, well sculpted frames, with impressive sexual characteristics: the male's penis was long and thick, the female's hips broad and full, her breasts substantial.
The most notable thing about them was not their utter nakedness, or the fact that being that way didn't seem to bother them in the least. Rather, it was that the male's left hip was fused with the female's right, so that the two of them had only three legs between them. The middle leg was rather oddly shaped, given that it combined collie and puma fur patterns, male and female structure, and a right and left foot. "Hello, Master," they chorused in voices that were strangely similar, even given the changes in timbre due to sex. "Are we there?"
"Hello darlings." Morgan gave each one a kiss on the cheek. "Yes, we are. For some reason we arrived on the southbound track of Charing Cross tube station in London, England. Now we're at Thames Embankment while John figures out where we should be." He glanced up at the sky; it was overcast with a threat of rain so he couldn't see the sun, but the impression he got was of early morning on a weekday, around the leading edge of rush hour.
"This is amazing," the female enthused. "I've always wanted to visit London!"
"I don't know how long we'll be staying," Morgan cautioned. "Don't wander off or get too busy with anything; we may have to leave suddenly." He added a modest illusion spell, so his concubines would appear clothed and merely sitting beside one another.
"I'm sure we can find a way to pass the time," the male commented, giving his companion a kiss on the cheek and reaching over to stroke her vulva. She responded with a giggle and fondled his penis.
Glaive, patrolling nearby, noted the entire exchange. He averted his eyes, keeping his expression carefully blank. In his opinion Morgan was a fop and a pervert. A female sex slave he could understand, but a male? Furthermore, word had it that Morgan used his powers to transform both his concubines and himself in a variety of interesting ways as the mood took him. And Morgan had a very fertile imagination in that regard, it was said.
On the other hand... Morgan claimed that Robin and Robin had useful skills. Frankly, Glaive had doubts. In any case, it wasn't for him to say. Eddie had put Morgan in charge, and that was that. Of course he'd also told Glaive- privately- to keep an eye on things. Don't interfere, but pay attention... and when the mission ended, don't hesitate to pass on anything that might seem important.
Glaive resisted the urge to smile. He strongly suspected that things would be very different for Morgan once this was over. Frankly, Glaive had never trusted him. It might be said that leaving the Whites for the Blacks could be seen as him coming to his senses... but to Glaive it showed a fundamental weakness of character that he could lay aside his loyalties like that. There were even rumors that Morgan still consorted with Gynavave, his estranged wife. No doubt, if confronted, he'd claim to be spying for the Society, or some such thing, but Glaive had his doubts. He also wondered if Gynavave knew about the Robins, and if so what would she think then? At that point Glaive did smile, imagining himself being the one to tell her, and her likely reaction. Not for the first time Glaive wondered how it could be that a man like Morgan ended up with a woman reputed to be so tight-assed she needed industrial lubricants to take a shit. The world was indeed a strange and wondrous place.
"Eureka!" John shouted, clasping his hands above his head. "I have found it!"
"What?" In a flash Morgan was at John's side, peering over his shoulder. All he saw was a chalk line frame containing a bunch of scribbled lines, some piles of colored dust, and a few blobs of paint.
"Observe." With a flourish John drew a paint knife from his breast pocket and traced the point in a circle through the blobs of paint and pigment as if stirring them. Bits of each color were dragged along and mixed, creating circular streaks.
Morgan opened his mouth, but then he felt a surge of power as things fell into alignment. John continued to stir but now the pigments moved by themselves, blending and flowing across the surface, until-
"Where is that?" Morgan demanded. The swirled colors had resolved into an image: a city, fronted by a body of water, with a tower located prominently in the foreground. The tower consisted of a solid cylindrical column supporting a slightly thicker body that had a protruding rim around its middle. Above that the tower slimmed down to a needle spire. Morgan found himself thinking of an Art Deco scepter.
"Auckland sky tower," John replied, sitting back on his heels.
"Auckland?" Morgan blinked. "Oh, right. New Zealand. Is that where Spartil is?"
John shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't look for him. He's really good at hiding himself, I've heard, so why bother? But this is the place where he arrived in this world, I'm sure of it."
"Well, well." Morgan rubbed his chin. There wasn't any guarantee that Spartil had stayed in Auckland, but what the hey, it gave them a lead. John could always look again when they arrived. "Huddle up, people," he called, gesturing.
Female Robin had been giving male Robin a blow job while he fingered her vagina. They both looked up, she licking her face, then rose and hurried over in an odd, three-beat gait. Glaive arrived shortly thereafter.
"We're going to New Zealand, folks," Morgan announced. Then, just as he was about to continue, a memory popped into his mind, bringing him to a sudden stop. "John," he said, "You're from there, aren't you? Originally?"
"I'm a Kiwi, yeah." John agreed. "Born in Christchurch."
"Hmm." Morgan rubbed his chin. The similarities between his own Earth and this one were enough to make things convenient in some ways... but difficult in others. For instance, he'd been warned to consider that there might be local Doppelgangers of his Earther team members. Which, in this case, meant John, since Morgan and Glaive were from Avalon. Morgan spent a moment wondering what John might have become if he hadn't been identified as Gifted and trained in magic. It wasn't a very pleasant thought; John's Gift was the sort that would tend to grow on its own even if not shaped by an instructor. Given how much loose magic there was here... no, it wasn't a pleasant thought at all.
Nor was it relevant. Morgan would deal with John's local equivalent if necessary. Until then, he had more pressing concerns. Such as getting to Auckland. "I don't suppose we could think, wink, and double-blink, close our eyes and jump?" he asked.
"What utter nonsense," John replied with a sniff, putting away his supplies and rising to his feet. "A one-two-three is quite sufficient. Besides," he added as an afterthought, "You know Mary Poppins was a White. With that saccharine do-gooder attitude, what else could she be?"
"Yes, but she did things instead of merely sitting on her ass and pontificating," Glaive pointed out. "Show me a White with that sort of power that would dirty her hands with scut work."
"You think she was a Black?" Morgan inquired, arching an eyebrow.
"I say there's a cop headed this way, and we'd best finish before he arrives," Glaive replied.
"Hmm, yes." Morgan returned his attention to the painting. "Lead the way, John, if you please."
"Right." John took Morgan's hand in one of his own and Glaive's in the other. Morgan took female Robin's hand. "Ready? One, two, three, jump."
A policeman strolled up. He looked around the park and frowned. He thought he'd seen some people messing around near the Needle, but he must have been mistaken. Glancing down, he saw that someone had drawn on one of the pavers with colored chalk. Though 'drawn' was perhaps too strong a word. More like someone had scribbled random patterns in equally random colors. He'd notify Maintenance, but it hardly mattered. The next rain would wash it away.
"Hya, Kelli," Cyndi called as she came up to Kelli's cubicle. "Got the weekly stats done?"
"Just finishing up." Kelli grabbed a stack of papers from her laser printer's output basket and handed them over.
"Awesome." Cyndi leafed through the pages. "Everybody's doing just-"
Kelli waited, for a moment, then frowned. "Cyndi?" she prompted.
Cyndi held the report before her face but her eyes looked away across the half-height rows of cubicles in which sat customer service reps wearing headsets, busily taking calls. Her gaze was locked on the thing making its way along one of the aisles. In color and texture it reminded Cyndi of nothing so much as a gigantic, semi-gelid blob of diarrhea. Spindly threads extended from the front of the mass, attaching to the floor and cube walls, dragging the thing forward. Pits that might have been mouths opened and closed; if so they randomly changed size, shape, and orientation as the blob inched forward. Pseudopods on top of the mass, which generally didn't anchor to objects, sprouted pale orbs at their tips which looked something like eyes. Since the whole thing was rolling, they moved down the face of the mass and gradually disappeared beneath it.
To Cyndi, at least as startling as the thing itself was that no one else seemed to notice it. CSRs paid it no attention whatsoever as it oozed past their cubicles. At one point a rep headed for the bathroom walked right through it as if the blob- or the femfur herself- were nothing but an illusion.
"Cyndi?" Kelli repeated, a bit more forcefully. In truth it wasn't so unusual to see Cyndi staring off into space. Generally she'd be humming under her breath, though, and Kelli had never seen it happen in the middle of a conversation. Worse by far was the expression on Cyndi's face. Kelli couldn't think of words to describe it, but seeing it turned Kelli's guts to ice.
Cyndi's eyes never left the thing as her right hand dropped to her side and came up holding a wooden flute. Kelli blinked; the flute wasn't especially large but she couldn't imagine where Cyndi could have kept it. She strained the business casual dress code by wearing denim pants that clung tightly to her ample hips; the flute would have protruded from any of her pockets and shown quite clearly if stuck down one of the legs. The stat report fluttered to the floor as Cyndi brought the flute to her lips and drew a breath-
The thing was gone. One instant it had been. The next it wasn't. Life in the office continued, unconscious of the disruption.
The breath Cyndi had drawn escaped in a shuddering sigh. Her hands were shaking, and every quill on her body stood up straight. The ones on her back and shoulders had popped right through her blouse.
"C- Cyndi?" Kelli stammered. She sounded frightened now.
Cyndi tried to say something but all she managed was a pathetic little squeak. She gripped the flute with both hands until her knuckles turned white, gulping deep breaths to steady her nerves. "I... I don't feel well," she finally managed. "I-" she swallowed. "If Adam doesn't mind, I'm gonna knock off early."
"He'd better not," Kelli glowered. "Here, sit down. I'll get you some tea and let Adam know. Is there someone you'd like me to call?"
"No thanks, I'll do it." Cyndi picked up the phone on Kelli's desk. Reaching out to dial with her other hand brought the flute to her attention. For an instant she looked as surprised to see it as Kelli had been. Fortunately Kelli had already hurried off to the break room. Cyndi lay the flute aside and dialed a number.
"Hello?" a female voice on the other end responded.
"Hi, Vicki," Cyndi replied. "Could you guys come by and pick me up? I'm knocking off early today and I-" she stopped. She didn't care to talk about it over the phone. She wasn't sure she wanted to talk about it in person, either, but most especially she didn't want to be alone. "I don't feel good," she admitted. "I... don't think I should drive right now."
"We'll be right over," Kayleigh's voice cut in. "You'll be okay until we get there, right? Should I call a doctor?"
"No," Cyndi insisted. "It isn't a doctor sort of thing," she explained, very clearly and precisely.
For several heart beats neither Kayleigh nor Vicki spoke. "Oh," Kayleigh finally said in the tone of one who has suddenly grasped a critical point.
"We'll be right over," Vicki added. "Don't go anywhere, 'kay?"
"I won't," Cyndi promised.
"Okay. 'Bye." The line went dead.
Kelli returned with the tea and Adam in tow. Needless to say that attracted the attention of Corrie and Stella. In short order Cyndi had so many people fussing over her that she wanted to ask if there was anyone actually taking calls. She let it go because she didn't want anyone asking difficult questions, such as why she was upset or where had the flute had come from. Eventually Kayleigh and Vicki arrived.
Vicki and Kayleigh were an interesting pair. Vicki was a beautiful white mink and Kayleigh an equally attractive blue-gray husky, but that in itself wasn't what made them interesting. It was that each had only half a body, divided vertically along the spine. The two halves were joined seamlessly into a single whole, mink on the right and husky on the left. Even their tail was split, white on one side and gray on the other. Nevertheless, each woman had a complete and separate head, Kayleigh that of a husky and Vicki that of a mink, mounted side by side on a single pair of shoulders.
Most interesting of all was that no one seemed to regard the pair as in any way unusual. Cyndi squinted, forcing her eyes to unfocus slightly. Instead of a double image of the conjoined pair she saw two complete and separate femfurs, one mink and one husky, walking down the aisle hand in hand. One might remark that they wore identical orange shorts and white tank tops, but that wasn't a big deal. Cyndi relaxed her eyes and the two flowed back together. No one remarked on Vicki's and Kayleigh's odd appearance because no one saw it. They saw instead the illusion of two separate people holding hands.
"Cyndi?" Kayleigh asked. "You look awful! Are you all right?"
"I just- I don't feel good," Cyndi replied. At some point, without realizing it, she'd picked up the flute, and now held it in her lap, gripped tightly with both hands. "Things we're going fine, and then- and then they weren't."
"You'll look after her?" Kelli asked.
"You bet we will," Kayleigh replied, quite firmly.
Cyndi rose and walked along with her two friends. On the way to the door she looked around; the office seemed to dim, as if seen in a half-silvered mirror, and sound became muted, distant. Zones of light, colored in ways Cyndi couldn't easily describe, overlay the scene. Where the creature had been the colors were... disturbed. Whipped into curling vortices, like tendrils of fog behind a speeding car.
"Cyndi!" Kayleigh hissed.
"Huh?" Cyndi started, blinking. The office snapped back to normal.
"Your eyes are turning purple," Kayleigh whispered.
"Oh. Sorry." Cyndi stared fixedly ahead until they got outside.
"All right." Kayleigh's face set in a grim, determined expression; she planted her hand on her hip. "What's going on?" Her tone brooked no argument, like that of a parent speaking to a child caught in the act of wrongdoing.
"Oh, nothing much," Cyndi breezily replied. "Henrick and Jolie are going to have a baby, Kim thinks Aja's cheating on her, Adam's going to a technology seminar in New Hampshire next month, Seldra's teenage son got busted for drunk driving..." She paused, as if collecting her thoughts. "Oh yeah. A nameless horror from another dimension popped in for a bit."
Kayleigh blinked. For a second she actually wondered if Cyndi were being serious. Then her ears lay down, her lips drew back from her teeth, and her hackles rose. "Dammit, we just finished one, and now we've got another?" she demanded angrily.
Vicki reached across and stoked Kayleigh's cheek. "This magic business really keeps one busy."
"If somebody's causing this, I'm gonna borrow Patricia's paddle and give 'em a whacking their bottom won't forget in a long time," Cyndi muttered.
"I know," Vicki interjected. "Shaving. Nobody likes being shaved."
"Speaking of grotesque public displays, which one of you dressed, anyway?" Cyndi demanded. "I mean, orange trunks? Come on."
"She did," Vicki and Kayleigh simultaneously responded, indicating one another. For an instant they stared at one another in shock. "Traitor," Kayleigh sniffed. "I mean, my own flesh and blood-"
"Oh, bite me," Vicki responded, sticking out her tongue.
"No way." Kayleigh turned her face away. "You'd enjoy it too much. 'Sides, I'd probably catch something."
"Cooties! Cooties!" Vicki exclaimed, reaching across to tickle Kayleigh's side of their chest.
Kayleigh let out a shriek and responded in kind. The fight ended as quickly as it began when the pair fell on their butt. Given the nature of their interconnection, remaining upright required a certain amount of cooperation. Cyndi, meanwhile, was doubled over with laughter, tears streaming down her face.
"Oh, let's get in the car before we get arrested," Kayleigh muttered crossly. Vicki, with a huge grin, presented the keys; Kayleigh opened the door.
The drive home didn't take long. Of course, by the standards of larger states, it could be argued that nothing in Rhode Island was especially far from anywhere else. Though in Kayleigh's opinion this generalization overlooked important details. Such as the fact that Providence was a large, densely packed urban center, the size of its state notwithstanding. Getting around posed the same problems as one would encounter in any other major metropolitan area.
"Um... could you guys help me with my blouse?" Cyndi asked, somewhat hesitantly, as they entered their shared apartment.
"Why, Cyndi, I thought you'd never ask," Vicki quipped, batting her eyelashes. Kayleigh tried, with only partial success, to stifle a giggle.
"Why you- I oughta-" Cyndi exclaimed, assuming a series of comically enraged expressions and gesturing threateningly with the flute. Needless to say, all she accomplished was to make it even harder for Kayleigh and Vicki to control their mirth. Once the paroxysm passed, though, Kayleigh took stock of the situation.
Cyndi was a porcupine; her quills and fur were a dark, rusty red, her large, expressive eyes startlingly green. Where Kayleigh and Vicki were tall and athletic, Cyndi was short- coming only to Kayleigh and Vicki's shoulder- and more rounded, though not plump. Quills grew from her head, shoulders, back, and tail; her limbs and the rest of her torso were covered only in fur. The current problem arose from the fact that she didn't clip the quills on her back, as did some of her type. Her only concession to fashion was trimming the quills on her pelvis so she could wear pants. Obviously this arrangement made clothing her torso somewhat difficult, but so long as she stuck to loose fitting garments they weren't insurmountable. But when she got angry, upset, or frightened, the quills would try to stand up. In this case they'd done so with sufficient force to lodge their tips in the material. The barbs then held them firmly in place, just as they were designed to.
"I think we'll need the scissors for this," Kayleigh commented.
"Oh well," Cyndi sighed. "It's about time I replaced it anyway."
Even without saving the blouse, disentangling it from Cyndi's quills took time and patience. Kayleigh had no desire to accidentally stick herself; the quills were very sharp and the barbs would lodge them in her flesh like fish hooks. Not too long ago she'd stepped on one Cyndi had dropped in the shower; it was an experience she had no desire to repeat.
"From the front it's not too bad," Cyndi allowed, holding the freed garment op before her.
"Backside's a little drafty, though," Vicki commented. Below the collar nothing much remained of the blouse's back but tatters.
It did not escape Kayleigh's notice that while Vicki spoke of the blouse's back her attention was on Cyndi's front. Cyndi's breasts were not especially large but they were round, firm, and- like Cyndi herself- perky. As if that weren't enough, Cyndi generally didn't wear a bra. Her breasts held their shape well enough without one, and her quills made it problematical in any case. To avoid trouble at work she usually wore a strapless bikini top. As an undergarment it worked well enough; as a top in it's own right it was shockingly risque, barely covering her nipples. Lusting after my straight friends like a bitch in heat is not a good thing, Kayleigh reminded herself sternly. It didn't do any good; Cyndi was much too cute and far too sexy, especially in a state of advanced undress.
The problem, fundamentally, was Vicki. She had a libido that wouldn't quit. But her naughty bits were also Kayleigh's; when Vicki caused them to get all hot and bothered Kayleigh's brain assumed that she was, too. It was, Kayleigh had to admit, a consequence of sharing her body that she hadn't anticipated. Along with quite a few others. "Would you like something to eat?" she asked in a desperate bid to steer her thoughts into safer territory.
"Thanks!" Cyndi exclaimed. "I'd love a stack of bark pancakes."
"You aren't going to tell me you didn't see that coming," Vicki said tartly as they entered the kitchen.
"Just help me make the pancakes, okay?" Kayleigh replied crossly.
Vicki giggled, but lent her assistance.
In the front room Cyndi sat on the couch, lost in thought. After a moment she took up the flute, stared at it for a moment, then put it to her lips and started playing. Nothing much at first; just scales and random collections of euphonious notes. Over time a melody of sorts emerged; it was a haunting tune in an eerie, minor key.
Kayleigh tried to ignore the music, but it gave her goose bumps and made her hackles rise.
"What's she doing?" Vicki asked nervously.
"We'll find out," Kayleigh replied, forking the last of the pancakes onto a platter.
Just as Kayleigh and Vicki returned to the front room, all the lights in the apartment went out. They came back a second later but only dimly, flickering bloody red. The low, unsteady illumination threw dancing, red tinged shadows on the walls and floor. Most of them were on the wall opposite Cyndi, though there wasn't anything casting them. And... they moved. Swirling around, like a whirlpool. Or a tunnel, reaching away into unimaginable distance-
"Zee!" Cyndi shrieked. In a flash she was on her feet, bounding right over the coffee table, diving headfirst into the vortex.
"Cyndi, no!" Kayleigh was in motion, the plate of pancakes crashing unheeded to the floor. She managed to grab Cyndi's foot... and because of it was sucked into the vortex as well.
Raquel pulled up to the building, noting that Kayleigh's car was already there. Hardly a surprise, really; the DMV call center where Cyndi worked was much closer than the downtown office tower where Raquel labored. What with traffic and everything it wasn't particularly remarkable that Kayleigh could go and return before Raquel completed her one-way trip.
A few people stopped whatever they were doing and stared as Raquel got out of her car and locked it. That too was understandable; there weren't a lot of tigers in this particular complex. Raquel happened to be quite a looker as well: tall, muscular, and athletic, but still nicely curved. Her knee length skirt and matching jacket met the business formal dress code but nevertheless showed her figure to best advantage, especially her legs, which she'd always considered her best point. Though her chest was pretty good too, especially what with having four breasts. But that wasn't so unusual among felines as it was in other species.
Still in all, the reason people stared when Raquel came around probably had most to do with the fact that she had two heads and no tail. In that respect she was almost certainly unique. At the very least she'd never encountered or heard of anyone similar... until Vicki came along, at any rate. On the other hand, it could be argued that Kayleigh and Vicki weren't an appropriate comparison. They were two different people, and not even the same species. They had a tail, too. Of course, looked at another way, it might argued that Kayleigh and Vicki were more unique, for those very reasons.
None of which mattered to Raquel at the moment. She didn't even stop to pose for the gawkers, which she might have done under other circumstances. (Watching people tweak at her appearance had become one of her most satisfying pastimes.) Concern for Cyndi swept it all away. Kayleigh had called, saying that Cyndi had suffered some sort of breakdown at work and asked Kayleigh to come pick her up. That Cyndi would beg off work for medical reasons was bad enough; that she questioned her ability to drive herself home only made it worse. Of course Raquel had immediately excused herself, citing concern over Cyndi's health, and come straight home.
Just as Raquel reached the apartment door the lights in the hall went out, then came on again, guttering bloody red. For an instant she froze; then she whipped out her keys and opened the door. This couldn't be good.
It wasn't. Raquel found herself looking across the front room at a spinning vortex of shadow. Just as Cyndi dove into it and Kayleigh and Vicki tried to stop her.
Someone else might have hesitated. Someone else might have wondered how the Hell something like this could happen in an age of science and reason. Someone else wouldn't have traded her tail for an extra head, much less have found herself in a situation where such an exchange would be possible. Completely aside from that, Cyndi was Raquel's best and closest friend, who'd stuck by her through trials no person should have to endure. Kayleigh was Raquel's lover, who'd brought her out a long, lonely dry spell. And Vicki... well, she was a bit flighty by Raquel's standards, but the joy she brought to Kayleigh made up for a lot. If pressed Raquel might reluctantly admit that Vicki's presence put a bit of a strain on Raquel's relationship with Kayleigh... but if rectifying the issue meant casting Vicki back to the horrific fate from which Kayleigh's selflessness had delivered her, then Raquel would just have to grin and bear it. She'd never be able to forgive herself. Kayleigh wouldn't either, and rightly so.
Raquel didn't have time to consciously consider all this but she didn't have to. All that mattered was that the people dearest to her were being sucked up by some sort of extra-dimensional whirlpool. As such there was only one possible course of action: she dove after them.
"Oh-" Janda gasped, then retched yet again. Nothing came up but a few ropy strands of mucous; her stomach had completely emptied itself several iterations previously.
Gynavave rested on one knee, cradling Janda's torso in her arms. She wiped the mucous from Janda's lips and slung it away. Gynavave's left boot and calf were spattered with vomit and the spreading pool threatened her right knee, but she ignored it for now. The utility uniforms were, she felt, frightfully ugly, but the heavy material resisted soaking and against the camouflage patterning the stains hardly showed. Phaeron had told her straight out that, under the circumstances, he couldn't predict where on the target world they'd arrive. As such, trying to dress for the location made no sense; better to choose outfits that were the most practical. The utilities were that, if nothing else. If, between Gynavave and Yolanda, they couldn't shield themselves from a pack of Mundanes, well, they deserved whatever they got.
Janda breathed in ragged, gulping gasps. Gynavave stroked Janda's head reassuringly; the insertion had been terribly hard on her. Gynavave would have preferred someone with more inter-dimentional travel experience, but Janda had been the best diviner on hand given the time constraints. Since Gynavave wouldn't know where in the world she'd arrive, identifying the target zone as quickly as possible was paramount.
"I-" Janda gasped, trying weakly to push Gynavave's hands away.
"You are not all right," Gynavave insisted, gently but firmly. The heaves seemed to have stopped so she rose to her feet, bringing Janda up with her.
Janda was a black leopard. Her body was trim, powerful, and exceptionally well shaped, an advantage upon which she capitalized by wearing the most sexy and revealing outfits she could. Even in BDUs she cut a fine figure, except for looking half dead and being covered with her own vomit. Gynavave didn't approve of Janda's loose lifestyle- she considered it shallow and demeaning- but that didn't mean she felt no sympathy for Janda's current plight. All too clearly Gynavave recalled her own first hop; Janda, at least, had managed not to spray a full load of beer and pepperoni pizza in her instructor's face.
"Give me a healing potion," Gynavave said, extending her hand. "I think she can keep it down now."
Yolanda's expression tightened. Frankly, she thought it wasteful to use a potion- which might not be replaceable in this world- when Janda wasn't actually injured. Nevertheless, she handed over the vial without comment. Gynavave was the boss; Phaeron had been very clear on that point.
Gynavave un-stoppered the vial with her teeth and emptied it into Janda's mouth. Janda swallowed convulsively, gritting her teeth against another twitch of the diaphragm, but it subsided before developing into a full scale heave. Then the potion did its work: like the sun coming out on a blustery day, the sickly pallor left Janda's face. Her body stopped quivering and she straightened up, no longer leaning on Gynavave for support. "Ick," Janda commented, in more or less her normal voice, grimacing comically as she tried to clear the bitter taste of bile and vomit from her mouth.
"I need you to look for our quarry," Gynavave said.
"Now?" Janda looked around; the alley was dark, filthy, and even Janda's addition couldn't make it stink any worse.
"Yes, now." Gynavave's tone was quiet but firm. "He's been here nearly a month. We have a lot of catching up to do."
"All right." Janda unslung her pack and took out her crystal ball. It was a fishing float made of blue tinted glass, its surface marked with pocks and imperfections. It wasn't even precisely spherical. None of which mattered because the power wasn't in the ball itself; it was merely the focus through which Janda accessed it. As Janda concentrated, muttering to herself, light blazed forth from the ball, filling the alley with an eerie glow. It surely would have drawn attention, being quite visible in the night darkness, except that an illusion placed by Yolanda on the alley mouth kept people from seeing it or the three travellers.
Yolanda, from her position at the alley mouth, couldn't see into the ball itself; Janda's hands blocked the view. She could see patterns of light projected on the opposite wall, though. And sometimes... they almost looked like-
Yolanda's blood turned to ice and her whole body quivered. Her right forearm itched; she rubbed it distractedly with her left hand. There had been... something that might have been a face. A black face, with golden eyes-
"There's... a powerful undead who lairs nearby," Janda said.
Gynavave cursed under her breath. "I hope that doesn't mean we're too late. Is it... what we're looking for?" Merely speaking of Neverwas could be dangerous; it created a sympathetic connection that attracted their attention and could even summon them.
"I can't tell for sure," Janda admitted. "But... there's traces. Whatever dwells in this place has had dealings with... them."
"I think we should check it out," Yolanda declared. "It's all too much of a coincidence." And if it turned out to be what she surmised-
Gynavave nodded. Her thoughts ran on similar lines. It might be that they'd just happened to arrive near the lair of an undead who'd dealt somehow with Neverwas, and Spartil wasn't involved in any way... but if so, as Yolanda said, it did seem like rather too much of a coincidence. "Show us," she commanded.
Janda cupped the ball in one hand, gesturing with the other. A swirling cloud of colored light seemed to billow up into the air. Slowly it coalesced into an image... of a building. It looked vaguely like an ancient Egyptian temple, but was clearly of modern construction. Brightly painted hieroglyphs decorated its facade, which was illuminated by spotlights. The building's grounds were dotted with date palms and pools with papyrus stalks growing in them. The corner of a car park was just visible; people came and went through the main entrance, met by greeters in fanciful Egyptian costumes.
"Apparently this undead doesn't believe in keeping a low profile," Gynavave commented.
Yolanda nodded. In her mind, a lair like this spoke of an arrogant, wanton nature, which only confirmed her initial supposition.
"Do you have it fixed, Yolanda?" Gynavave asked.
"Just a moment." Yolanda walked slowly around the image, studying it intently. "Yes, I've got it. Thanks, Janda. It's a good image."
Janda smiled, albeit a bit weakly. "Actually... it was easy. There's... a lot of power here."
"Yes." Gynavave glanced around. "I've felt it too. It's almost like-" she'd been about to say like Avalon. It had no bearing on the current situation. "Check it out, Yolanda."
"I'm on it." Yolanda concentrated, casting an illusion on herself that transformed her paramilitary outfit into a comfortable but stylish dress. It also altered the cut and styling of her mane, adding jewelry and makeup she wasn't wearing. The pendant hanging around her neck and the rings on her right and left hands were real; the pendant cast a shield against undead, the ring on her left hand blocked scrying, and the one on her right allowed her to teleport. She raised her right hand, concentrated on her destination, and spoke the word of command.
Suddenly Yolanda was there, just outside the entrance, at the edge of the car park. She started walking, ignoring one or two startled looks. This wasn't her Earth, with its Draconian rules about hiding the effects of magic from Mundanes. Aside from that, she'd learned long ago that most people simply ignored things that didn't make sense. Even if someone had been staring straight at her when she appeared out of nowhere, they'd convince themselves that it was a trick of the light or something. What was the alternative? To honestly believe that an attractive, young, black footed ferret fem had simply popped into existence out of thin air?
As she approached the portal with its faux Egyptian greeters Yolanda produced a silver framed pince-nez from one of her pockets and perched it on her nose. On the surface, this Earth looked the same as hers, but whether or not the locals knew it, there was magic. Undead were magical creatures; they couldn't exist without it. They also tended to exist for a long time; if they survived, it was often through picking up some magic of their own. For certain, if Yolanda were an ancient creature who chose to live in such an ostentatious pile, she'd have a few discreet spells here and there to make sure the locals didn't get uppity.
There weren't any spells on the entrance. But as she looked around, something caught Yolanda's eye. Up ahead a young mouse fem passed into the foyer. The greeters smiled and spoke to her; she smiled and said something back. Yolanda quickened her pace; the fem's actions and appearance weren't at all remarkable- at least not in this place- but in the glasses an aura of sorcery surrounded her like a halo. The mouse fem carried at least half a dozen magic items, some of them quite powerful. After a brief internal struggle Yolanda touched one of the decorative gems on the frame of her glasses; attempting to penetrate what might be an illusion required an active exertion of magic power that might itself be noticed. The mouse blurred and reformed: no longer a mouse in a flowing, satin dress, but a skunk in urban camouflage battle dress utilities, combat boots, a backpack, and web gear. In other words, her outfit looked just like Yolanda's own.
It was all Yolanda could do not to stop dead in her tracks and gape. The fem apparently hadn't noticed that she was being followed; she seemed preoccupied, like someone urgently in search of something. Yolanda looked around the foyer as if admiring the decor, though she didn't really notice it. A question kept running through her mind: what in the name of the seven Hells was Jessica doing here?
Raquel screamed at the top of her lungs, from both mouths, but couldn't hear herself. What had looked like a turbid whirlpool on her apartment wall roared around her like a tornado funnel cloud once she entered it. The funnel wasn't made of cloud, either; it was instead a billion spinning shadows. But these shadows had form, after a fashion. They had claws that reached for her, and eyes that blazed with hate and longing. She recognized them; she'd seen them before, boiling out of the walls of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery like cockroaches. But here- the world she'd just left, at any rate- she wasn't strong enough to throw a tank and tough enough to take a shot from a cannon and still get up afterwards. If those claws touched her they'd tear out her soul, devouring her very essence.
Though she didn't remember grabbing it, Raquel clung to something. She didn't know what; the vortex tumbled her like a leaf in a windstorm and assaulted her senses with such a cacophony as to make rational thought utterly impossible. In fact, Raquel didn't even notice when the noise stopped; her mind was stunned by the overload. She did notice when she crashed headlong into a table laden with food, breaking it in half and catapulting ornate silver trays and dishes every which way. Now Raquel realized what she'd grabbed: it was Cyndi, curled into a ball with her quills quiveringly erect like the pikes of a phalanx. As she struggled to her feet Raquel looked down at herself and noted that the front of her jacket and blouse were punctured by hundreds of small rips, as if she'd taken a blast from a shotgun. Except that the flesh underneath wasn't punctured. It didn't even hurt. Which it should have; one night, back in college, Raquel had awoken Cyndi from a nightmare, and she'd lashed out in fear, embedding a quill in the back of Raquel's hand. That one quill alone had engendered a sensation as if someone had tried to cut Raquel's hand off with a hacksaw; removing it had required surgical intervention. Raquel picked up a silver spoon and, holding it between her thumb and middle finger, squeezed. It folded in half without any noticeable effort. Well, Toto, we sure as Hell ain't in Kansas any more, she thought to herself, using both heads to look in opposite directions and take in the whole of her environment as quickly as possible.
The place in which Raquel and Cyndi found themselves seemed to be a convention hall in a fancy hotel. The table on which they'd landed was one of several set up buffet style at the edge of the floor, in which a crowd of richly dressed people congregated. The crowd had surged back at Raquel's precipitous arrival; they edged back another couple steps when Raquel got up and focused her attention on them. At least there wasn't a squad of armed security guards rushing forward with weapons drawn.
Cyndi uncurled and got to her feet, starting forward in a determined fashion. Her eyes had turned from vibrant green to deep lavender. Furthermore, the color had subsumed all detail, erasing her irises and corneas. That, as much as the fact that her quills were still prominently flared, caused the crowd to scoot hastily out of her way. She seemed to know where she was going, and quite determined to go there, too.
"C-" Raquel began, but a motion caught her eye. There was someone coming; not a squad, only one person. He looked like quite enough, though; his head rode well above the average level of the crowd, and rested upon shoulders as heavy and solid as a concrete wall. The crowd parted for him because it was obvious that he'd bowl them aside if they didn't, and he was easily large enough to do so without breaking stride. Nevertheless, he somehow threaded his way through the press with barely a ripple. Raquel shifted away from the tables so she'd have room to move without tripping over them.
The last rank of conventioneers parted and the newcomer stood forth. He was every bit as big as Raquel had guessed; not only tall but broad and thick. A suit of armor made of metal plates sewn to leather backing covered him entirely, but his sheer size combined with the way he wore the suit as if unaware of its weight led Raquel to conclude that his body would be sheeted in slabs of rock hard muscle that stood out through his skin like cords. He'd no doubt look every bit as impressive naked, though Raquel didn't favor males with overdeveloped musculatures. At the moment she wondered what species he was; on the whole he looked like... a unicorn, truth be told. His head had a long, generally horsey look, and a spiraled horn sprouted from his forehead. But it was black, and open, like a corkscrew. What she could see of his face and neck through his helmet and barding was a deep, burnished red; a beard decorating his chin and jaw was even darker. His tail was like a lion's, except for being white, and the tuft on the end matched his beard. His hooves were shiny black and cloven.
"Um... I'm sorry about the table," Raquel began. She'd attacked Bull Dog without the slightest hesitation; of course she hadn't known that he was a Super. Fortunately, she was too, at least in the place where she met him. She seemed to be here, as well, but she still found herself reluctant to mix it up with this character. Bull Dog had burst in and immediately started throwing his weight around and generally acting like a jerk. The presumed unicorn turned the problem around backwards: She didn't know he wasn't a Super... and he seemed perfectly at ease, assuming a relaxed stance with his hand resting casually on the pommel of the longsword sheathed at his hip. Raquel didn't fail to notice that he'd left himself plenty of room to draw and wield it, should the occasion arise. She might have interpreted his quiet calm as overconfidence, but one look into his deep blue eyes disabused her of that notion. This was a male who didn't bluster because he didn't need to, and that alarmed Raquel more than anything else about him. "I'm afraid we took a wrong turn at Schenectady," she continued, keeping her left head focused entirely on the unicorn while seeking Cyndi with the right. "Hey you! Get back here!"
"She's here!" Cyndi exclaimed. "I can feel it!" She paused, glancing around, and adjusted her course slightly. "'Scuze me. Pardon. I have to find someone..." She vanished into the crowd but Raquel could still follow her progress by watching people shy out of her path.
"Good evening, ma'am," the unicorn said in a voice as deep and powerful as his body, speaking English tinged with an accent Raquel didn't recognize. "Do you have an invitation?" His teeth were sharp and pointed, clearly those of a carnivore, not a herbivore.
"Depends on whose party this is," Raquel responded. "We've had a bumpy ride so I'm a little unclear on where we are." She wondered, fleetingly, where Kayleigh and Vicki were. She'd seen them go into the vortex but they weren't here. She set the matter aside; there'd- hopefully- be time to deal with it later.
Meanwhile, Cyndi found herself face to face with a femfur in a fancy gown made of dark blue silk, accessorized with jewelry wrought from silver and decorated with an abundance of diamonds. Though face to chest might be a more technically accurate term; the woman was quite tall. She was a jackal, with a long, vaguely fox-like muzzle, and long, sharply pointed ears that stood straight up. Her fur was solid black, her eyes a startlingly bright gold. Her figure was voluptuous and then some; her breasts were positively enormous and she had four of them, showcased by a cleverly designed double bodice. Her torso looked as soft and comfortable as an overstuffed couch, her hips broad and sharply flaring, her thighs and buttocks as prominent as her bosom. But where a frame with such an abundance of flesh should have looked dumpy and fat, hers remained compellingly pert and firm, in apparent defiance of gravity.
"Zee!" With joyous abandon Cyndi launched herself into the fem's arms, hugging her fiercely. "Thank... um... Isis!" Zalika, Cyndi belatedly recalled, didn't approve of invoking the name of God.
"Aset," Zalika corrected, but in a gentle, friendly tone. "And it's only blasphemy I don't care for." She strode forward, with Cyndi still in her arms. The burden didn't seem to trouble her in the least. "It's all right, Khusrau." She raised her voice slightly to carry above the hubbub. "These are friends of mine." The unicorn dipped his head but his overall demeanor didn't change any.
As Zalika set Cyndi back on her feet she eyed Khusrau, clearly considering how best to hug him. Raquel caught Cyndi's eye and shook her head minutely. Cyndi didn't argue but radiated disappointment.
"You two certainly know how to make an entrance," Zalika commented, surveying the damage Cyndi and Raquel's arrival had wrought. "I suppose I should know better than to expect you to come in through the front door like normal people." Her tone was more amused than censorious and the corners of her mouth quirked up in a smile.
"Blame my driver," Raquel muttered sourly. Cyndi looked sheepish. "Sorry for breaking up the party, but we need to talk," Raquel added, turning to face Zalika squarely. "It's urgent."
Zalika nodded. "We'll talk after the show. I haven't the time right now. Marko-" she turned and beckoned- "take these young ladies to my suite and fit them with appropriate attire." With a touch on the shoulder she gently impelled Raquel and Cyndi forward.
"You need help? Least I can do is recreate the buffet table," Cyndi offered, eyeing it guiltily.
"The staff will take care of it," Zalika replied. Now would not be a good time to exhibit Power, Cyndi. Unfriendly eyes are watching. The words appeared directly in Cyndi's mind as if she'd thought them herself, but in Zalika's voice, not her own. Cyndi nodded.
Another figure loomed out of the crowd. He was a vampire bat; his frame was almost scarecrow thin but wiry and strong. His fur was soft gray, his eyes black tinged with flecks of red. He wore a shiny black jacket, a white shirt, and a blood red cummerbund. Since his wing membranes reached all the way down to his hips the entire outfit was stitched together into a single piece and slit on the sides.
"Please come this way, my dear ladies," Marko said, bowing with a flourish. His voice was surprisingly deep and heavily accented. He led the way through a utility door, down a corridor, and to a staff elevator. Raquel caught sight of signs written in ideographs, either Chinese or Japanese. A few floors up they emerged into another staff corridor, then exited into a main corridor of what was obviously a fabulously expensive hotel. Liveried attendants standing by a fancy double door opened it and bowed as the party swept through.
"Whoof," Raquel muttered to herself. "Someone's living it up, that's for sure." Cyndi nodded absently to the doormen, her thoughts elsewhere.
However amazing the hall had been, the suite was even more so. The floor was polished marble, covered with brightly colored, hand loomed rugs. Intricately carved cherry wood paneling decorated the walls; recessed lighting illuminated not only the room but the beautiful frescoes on the vaulted ceiling. A fully stocked wet bar occupied one corner, opposite a sitting area with armchairs and soft, comfortable couches for at least twenty people. Glass walls, dusted with mist and condensation, enclosed a swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Even at that it wasn't everything; a number of doors let out into other chambers.
Marko opened one of the doors, waving Cyndi and Raquel into a bathroom. In every particular it lived up to the promise of the main room, not in the least for being as large as some apartments Raquel had seen. The bathtub was sunk into the floor like a pool and looked big enough to seat four comfortably, and more if they happened to be on friendly terms. It even had built in hydrojets, like a Jacuzzi. A small annex to one side contained a toilet and bidet; another across from it held the shower. Which wasn't like any Raquel had ever seen; it was a cylindrical chamber lined with vertical pipes that had rows of tiny nozzles along their entire length. With all of them turned on, a bather would be sprayed from every direction, all at once. A wooden door led into what Raquel guessed to be a steam room.
"What the heck does Zalika do for a living?" Raquel demanded, no longer able to contain herself. "Turn lead into gold? I know houses that would cost less than this room does per month!"
Marko grinned. His teeth were small but needle sharp. "Not too far from the truth, actually. Ms. Corby operates a modeling agency. The program includes comprehensive and professional instruction, and an all-over bodydo. Which alone costs forty thousand dollars."
"Would you refuse to pay, even knowing that, in an afternoon, you could become absolutely anything your heart desired?" Marko's grin actually broadened, which wouldn't have seemed possible a moment earlier.
"I see your point," Raquel allowed. She wasn't really in a position to point fingers; her transformation hadn't cost her anything. Not monetarily, at any rate.
Cyndi sat on the edge of the tub, absently rolling her flute between her palms. "I used the wrong instrument," she muttered, eyes focused on nothing in particular. They'd resumed their normal aspect, except that the irises were lavender instead of green. "I should have used a harp. Dammit."
Cyndi's comment drew Raquel's attention... and caused her to notice that there was a telephone- a telephone!- placed beside her. Marko picked it up, punched a number, and spoke briefly in what Raquel thought to be Japanese. "Ah, where are my manners," he exclaimed, rising once again to his feet. "I am Count Marko von Slavych, Ms. Corby's business manager. At your service." He bowed with a flourish, sweeping his arm before his body. What would have been his pinky, ring, middle, and index fingers were extended into spars supporting his wing membranes; the thumb remained separate, along with a digit that seemed to be an extra index finger. Both were very long and bony; the thumb was equipped with a hooked claw and the second index finger and long, straight one.
"Raquel Fayral." She returned the bow. "My friend over there is Cyndi Siun."
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance." Marko took Raquel's hand and kissed her knuckles.
Cyndi looked up, blinking in surprise. When she opened her eyes they were green again. "Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to go all spacey on you!" She jumped up and gave Marko a hug. Raquel winced, but Marko accepted it gracefully and even returned it.
"I hope we're not too much of a bother," Raquel apologized. "This was a little unplanned. We'll try to keep the disasters minimal- like only a tidal wave or something. By the by, where are we?"
"You are at the Imperial Hotel in Osaka, Japan," Marko replied. "Where the Temple of Bast is holding an event to showcase the latest graduates."
"Hey, that sounds like fun," Raquel allowed, perking up.
"It certainly is," Marko agreed.
A crowd of attendants in bathrobes bustled in, carrying baskets laden with bathing supplies. After them came a young fem who was clearly the same species as Khusrau, and in fact looked enough like him to be related. She also wore a bathrobe. "I'll take it from here," she said, giving Marko a peck on the cheek. She spoke with the same odd accent as Khusrau.
"Do us proud," Marko called over his shoulder on his way out.
"Don't I always?" the fem returned.
"Hi," Cyndi chirruped. "I'm Cyndi, that's Raquel." She advanced to give the young fem a hug.
I wonder if she's one of the models, Raquel mused. The bathrobe only covered the fem's torso, leaving her arms and legs bare. Of what she saw Raquel heartily approved; the fem's limbs were long and exquisitely formed. They lacked Khusrau's bulk but the muscles were nonetheless clearly defined, more like those of a gymnast- or a diver- than a bodybuilder. In addition, she moved with a grace and precision that spoke of dexterity and control as well as power. As discreetly as possible Raquel dabbed at her chins to make sure that she wasn't drooling.
The fem allowed herself to be hugged. "Pleased to meet you both. My name's Darya." She offered a hand to Raquel.
"Likewise." Raquel took the proffered hand. It looked soft and smooth but she felt the strength in it, and a certain hardness in the palm. Darya wasn't a delicate wallflower who exercised merely to stay in shape; she took her physical development seriously. Her nails, Raquel noted, were long, black, and sharply pointed, but bore little sign of artificial enhancement. Darya buffed and polished them, but the shape and color was entirely natural. "Mind if I ask what species you are?"
"My father and I are Kartajan, or Karkadann in your tongue," Darya replied, shedding her robe and hanging it up without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. Her torso fulfilled the promise of her limbs, being similarly lithe and exquisitely formed. Nor did her sexual characteristics in any way suffer for her athletic physique; her thighs, buttocks, and breasts swelled with firm but generous curves. She lacked Khusrau's beard but otherwise she matched what Raquel had seen of his coloration exactly: a dark red hood that covered her head and neck all the way down to the shoulders, a mane of even darker red shot with flecks of gold, eyes as intensely blue as sapphires, and black lips. Her horn looked more delicate but was also black and corkscrewed to the left, just like her father's. Below the shoulders her coat turned to snowy white, separated from the red by a narrow, speckled boundary. Her nipples and aureolae were soft pink and well developed. A patch of dark red speckles decorated her rump, after the fashion of an Appaloosa, which Raquel felt accented it wonderfully. Her tail looked the same as Khusrau's, right down to the tufted tip. She had the same red-gold fetlocks, too, along with a fringe of red-gold around her ankles. Her feet were much more delicate but had the same black, cloven hooves.
Raquel used all four of her eyes to take in as much as possible of the awesome spectacle. Mmmmm. I love fems who know how to take care of themselves. A faintly pained expression came to both her faces. Geez, you have two lovers already! Down, girl!
Cyndi sighed. "I tried to get muscles once. All I got was pulled muscles."
"Because you didn't take it slow, you ninny," Raquel declared. When not speaking she kept her mouths tightly shut so she wouldn't start panting.
"Developing a well tuned physique requires patience and dedication as well as effort." Darya's eyes shifted to Raquel; the attention she gave Raquel's physique was partially clinical, partly... otherwise. Raquel almost felt it sliding over her body, and only with a significant exertion of will prevented herself from purring.
"Becoming beautiful also requires patience and dedication," Darya continued. "But not so much exertion, thank goodness." She grinned. "We'll start with a thorough cleaning." She gestured; the attendants set to work.
I hope this doesn't take too long, Raquel thought as she and Cyndi were divested of clothing, placed in the tub, and meticulously cleaned. She couldn't help wondering what had become of Kayleigh and Vicki. Cyndi, on the other hand, reveled in the attention, joking with the attendants. Sadly, they didn't speak English, but they knew their jobs without a doubt. After the bathing and Raquel were trimmed and styled; Darya participated, though she'd skipped the bath.
"And now for the outfits," Darya pronounced, clapping excitedly. Raquel's gown was dark lavender, Cyndi's yellow-orange, and Darya's midnight black. All were backless, made of the finest silk, and came with matching shoes. No panties or bras went under them; the material was so sheer it would have spoiled the lines. Raquel's and Cyndi's gowns were tailored right on their bodies for perfect fits, which didn't take nearly as long as Raquel would have expected. Her own gown, just like Cyndi's, fit reasonably well even before the tailoring, and that in spite of the fact that having two heads and four breasts gave Raquel's torso a decidedly nonstandard shape. And yet, apparently there had been a gown on hand, of Raquel's size, for a fem with two heads. That seemed like too much of a coincidence until Raquel reflected for a bit on what Marko had said about Zalika's line of work. It might be that for Zalika, two headed fems were not so uncommon as they might be for the rest of the population. For example, Zalika had fused Vicki and Kayleigh. In light of that, Raquel could easily imagine that Zalika might need to have gowns on hand for two-headed fems. Or even more exotic body shapes.
Jewelry and makeup completed the ensemble. Rings, ear rings, necklaces, and bracelets, wrought of precious metals and liberally decorated with precious stones, coordinated to match both the outfit and the wearer's natural color. Which was in turn accented by lip and nail gloss, eye shadow, and fur dye, all skillfully applied in such a way as to bring out the wearer's natural beauty while concealing any defects.
"Wow," Cyndi breathed, regarding herself in a full-length mirror. Even with the evidence right in front of her eyes, she couldn't quite believe that the stunningly, drop-dead gorgeous fem she beheld was really herself. No less amazing was how little time it had taken; the bath attendants had worked like a Formula One pit crew, doing their jobs rapidly and precisely, without a single mistake or wasted motion.
Raquel, at least, had some preparation; Mr. Gregan had instructed her on dressing for success, though even he had never aspired to such dizzying heights. What blew Raquel's mind was adding up the estimated cost of the dresses, jewelry, and accoutrements; the total, she guessed, would amount to more than her yearly salary. For Cyndi it would be more like two, or possibly three years. You could get a decent car for less. And yet here it was, as if it had been laying around, waiting to be used. The implications of that made Raquel feel as if her brains were tying to boil out through her ears.
Cyndi's thoughts were running in much the same direction. "This really is nice of Zee- um, Ms. Corby," she said, belatedly deciding that too much intimacy might not be appropriate.
"In this business, appearance is everything," Darya pronounced. The only jewelry she wore was a necklace of silver encrusted with diamonds, sporting a solid diamond pendant big enough to choke on. "If you are seen in Ms. Corby's presence and look scruffy- even by comparison- that reflects badly on her, and the whole enterprise."
"I could get used to this," Raquel sighed, inspecting her own reflection. "Believe me, I know about business," she added. "It's not so much if it works, it's how it looks. Granted, later that becomes important but for first impressions its all about appearance."
Darya led the other two out of the suite. "Do you dance or model?" she asked of Raquel.
"I body build semi-professionally," Raquel replied. "Right now I'm taking courses to be a licensed masseuse." She hesitated briefly. "To be honest, for a while I had a... deformity... that sort of kept me from wanting to show off my body."
"And I still say you were overreacting," Cyndi put in.
"Oh? What was it, if you don't mind my asking?" Darya inquired.
"Well, you'll notice I don't have a tail," Raquel explained. "It was... covered in sores and scabs. And the hair kept falling out. Basically it looked hideous. It was genetic condition too; no cure. The surface area was too damaged for transplants, and weaves and cover-ups looked fake. Needless to say, when I got the chance to trade it in for something as distinctive I jumped at it. I've been two-headed ever since, and I love it."
Darya laughed. "You've come to the right place."
"Thanks for the offer, but I'm happy with the way I look now." Raquel smiled with both faces.
"Speak for yourself," Cyndi piped up. "I've love to make my breasts a size bigger."
"Then do it yourself, oh all-mighty spell caster!" Raquel laughed.
Cyndi responded with a raspberry.
The convention hall, upon the party's return, looked as if nothing had happened. The buffet tables were gone and a runway had been set up, upon which an ornately dressed model strutted her stuff. Music played from hanging speakers and an MC offered running commentary. Darya led Raquel and Cyndi to a raised platform, separated from the crowd by silken ropes and guarded by ushers in case the ropes themselves didn't make the point sufficiently clear. Only a handful of people sat there, with Zalika at the center, and her chair- an ornately carved, high-backed affair that looked more like a throne- stood on a small platform by itself, setting Zalika apart even from her inner circle.
In spite of everything, the chair did nothing to detract from Zalika herself. She'd exchanged her blue gown for one of deep, royal purple silk. The voluminous, pleated skirt ended high enough to show off Zalika's shoes, which seemed to be made of silver and studded with diamonds, but little else other than her ankles. Above her hips, though, the gown clung like a second skin; despite the lavish and intricate lace trim it was quite obvious that there wasn't anything under it but Zalika herself. The double bodice was cut so low her aureoles were visible if one looked carefully, and her nipples very noticeably dimpled the fabric over them. Against the incredible expanse of cleavage thus displayed rested a necklace of wrought silver with no less than five pendants, each one a cluster of diamonds gathered around a central, even larger stone. The pendants grew in size approaching the middle; the center one was positively huge. A pair of earrings, which resembled miniature versions of the pendants, added their own sparkle to the ensemble. The crowning glory- literally- was a silver tiara, crusted with diamonds and set with an enormous amethyst that exactly matched the color of the gown. Zalika wore no rings, though her nails had been polished and buffed until they gleamed like jewels themselves. In her right hand she held... a curious device that, to Raquel, looked something like a large tuning fork. A round handle connected to a U-shaped frame with long, slender arms; between the arms ran a number of thin rods with tiny cymbals on them, like the bangles of a tambourine. The instrument was made of, or at least plated with silver, and etched with hieroglyphics.
You're staring, Raquel told herself sternly, forcing herself to look away from Zalika's cleavage. In truth it wasn't the cleavage itself that put Raquel in danger of tripping over her own tongues; she preferred apples, as it were, and what Zalika had were melons and then some. Much too large for Raquel's tastes, for all that they were amazingly firm. No, it was the necklace that made Raquel's heart palpitate. The necklace that made Cyndi's and Raquel's necklaces look like toys, the necklace whose value Raquel couldn't even begin to guess except that it started at a lot and went up from there. It was the sort of thing you never expected to see anyone actually wearing; you went to see it in an armored glass case, surrounded by armed guards, at a museum or national gallery. It, the gowns, the other jewelry, the suite... the amount of wealth being casually displayed was shocking. More like... like a member of royalty holding court than any typical showbiz gig.
Cyndi moved as if to rush forward and give Zalika a hug but Raquel shook her closest head sternly. "Decorum," she murmured. Cyndi looked disappointed but managed to control herself, barely.
An usher directed Raquel to her seat, immediately to Zalika's left. With a start Raquel discovered no less than three faces among Zalika's coterie that she actually recognized. To Raquel's immediate left, one position removed from Zalika's throne, sat a pair of slender, exotically beautiful seal point Siamese cat fems. They were identical twins, apparently in their mid to late twenties, and shared a single pelvis, from which sprang two complete and wholly separate torsos. They wore a cream colored gown that perfectly complimented their natural color, and looked as if it were casually draped on, with nothing to hold it but friction. Also, though decently voluminous, the outfit hardly covered anything to speak of; as she took her seat Raquel got a clear look at the right twin's nipples, which were quite obviously erect.
Raquel forced herself to smile politely but not engagingly. In her own world she'd met Tina and Theresa Vanni through her boss, Mr. Gregan. Those Vannis had been identical twins, yes, but not conjoined, and somewhat older, too: early thirties, though they'd contrived to look every bit as sleekly attractive as this pair.
"Oh my," the right twin exclaimed. She could have more obviously undressed Raquel with her eyes, but not by much.
"Friends of yours, Zalika darling?" the left one inquired, though her eyes remained fixed upon Raquel. Hungrily, it had to be said.
Yep, that's the same too, Raquel sighed to herself, waiting to formally introduced.
"Dears, these are Raquel Fayral and Cyndi Siun," Zalika said. "I met them on a recent business trip. Ladies, allow me to present Tina-" right- "and Theresa-" left- "Vanni, who are two of my investors."
"Charmed." Tina offered a hand.
"A pleasure." Raquel took the proffered hand and clasped it.
Tina brought Raquel's hand up to her face as if to kiss the knuckles. Using the motion as a cover, she slid her tongue between Raquel's middle and ring fingers and caressed the palm. Raquel started slightly but couldn't help purring softly at the sensual feeling of the tongue against her skin and fur. She also couldn't help noticing how long and dexterous the tongue was, and wonder what it would feel like stroking certain other parts of her anatomy.
Cyndi smiled and gave a curtsey. "I'm sorry we're late." She looked at Zalika and dimpled. Raquel gave her a mildly admonitory glance.
"Quite all right," said the owner of the third familiar face, flashing what he obviously thought to be a charming smile, but which Raquel thought looked more like a leer. He was a somewhat overweight male gray fox in his early fifties, dressed in a very expensive charcoal gray suit. Not a bad looker, Raquel allowed, though personally she preferred harder bodies in her males. But his bonhomie had an oily sheen to it that, at least to Raquel, bothered her more than if he'd been overtly boorish. Which, regretfully, meant that this Kyle Langford was exactly like the one from Raquel's world. Though, in fairness, Raquel had to admit that at least part of her discomfit stemmed from the fat that Kyle was the reason she and Mr. Gregan had gone to the Sackler Gallery in the first place, from when she'd been swept up in the ensuing... excitement.
Kyle glanced at Raquel but his eyes lingered on Cyndi. He turned his smile up a notch, rose, and gallantly handed Cyndi to her seat, which was the one to his immediate right, one removed from Zalika. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. Siun. Kyle Langford, at your service." He bowed floridly.
Cyndi smiled demurely, batting her eyelashes. Memories of Byron still hurt, whenever she let herself think of them. Jesse was a sweet guy but heck, they'd only dated once. It wasn't like they were married or anything. "Oh," she piped up, returning her attention to Zalika. "When the show's done, if you'd care, I'd like to sing something for you and your guests here."
Raquel hoped Zalika would say yes; Cyndi had a great voice. Though Raquel couldn't help wondering a little; Cyndi hadn't ever wanted to sing in public before. Why now?
"I'm sure something can be arranged," Zalika allowed. "For now, let's watch the show." She returned her attention to the runway.
"Yes, let's," Tina put in. The seating arrangement left her snuggled up against Raquel's side. "This is excellent work," she added, reaching up behind Raquel's chair and stroking the place between Raquel's necks with the tip of a finger. From there her hand gently explored Raquel's shoulders and back.
Raquel purred a little louder. Whether by accident or design, Tina had hit one of Raquel's sweet spots. "Thanks; I did it myself," Raquel said. "With assistance." Cyndi shot her an amused look.
"My, you must be very talented," Tina observed. She went back to stroking Raquel between the necks.
Raquel tried thinking cool, calming thoughts. "One does one's humble best. Truth be told, the muscles are mine. It's the extra head I needed help with." Through an effort of will she managed to reduce the volume of her purr. But not by much.
"They're very nice muscles." Tina stroked the side of Raquel's torso with her other hand. Her fingertips brushed as lightly as a spider's footsteps across the outer faces of Raquel's breasts.
Great. Swell. Peachy, Raquel thought sourly. How am I gonna tell these kitties no? Especially since I'm about half ready to say yes. She wondered, fleetingly, exactly how far Tina intended to go. The traitorous side of her mind hoped that the answer was all the way.
What brings you to this neck of the woods, may I ask? The words materialized in Cyndi's mind, as if they were her own thoughts, but the "voice" sounded like Zalika's.
"I-" Cyndi began. No need to speak aloud, she reminded herself. Just... think loudly. She took a breath. At work I saw... something. It looked like a breat big pile of self-ambulatory poop. But... it wasn't really there. No one else saw it and people just walked right through it.
But it was there, Zalika commented.
After a brief pause Cyndi nodded. Yes. It really was there. Anyway... I asked Kayleigh and Vicki to pick me up at work. I... didn't feel good. At home I- I-
You felt something wrong, Zalika suggested. You looked around, trying to find out what it was.
Yeah. Cyndi nodded.
"Are you a professional singer, miss?" Kyle inquired of Cyndi.
"I've had a lifetime of experience at it," Cyndi replied with aplomb. "I also play a mean harp and flute."
Kyle chuckled. "I'd love to hear that. If Ms. Corby won't let you play for all of us, perhaps we could arrange a private performance."
"Perhaps, time permitting," Cyndi allowed, shooting an amused glance at Raquel and smiling warmly at Mr. Langford.
The show seemed to be a fairly typical fashion event. Models came out, preened for the audience, and retired. All of them were quite beautiful and captivating, though in not a few cases it seemed as if the clothes were meant to showcase the model, not the other way around. Then the MC announced the close of the first act and the opening of the second. This presented more... exotic entrants. Raquel recognized characters and races from various fantasy and science fiction movies, books, and television shows. It wasn't makeup either; each model, at the end of her walk, came almost within touching distance of Zalika's private box. The models were exactly what they looked like, down to the last detail. Another series presented ordinary species with... extras. Extra arms, extra legs, extra breasts, extra tails, extra heads- or creative conjoinments, depending on how one looked at it. After that came a series where the designers had apparently let their imaginations run wild. Models with fins, tentacles, and wings in addition to and/or in place of their regular limbs. Centauroids and mermaids. A rabbit fem whose body was covered with light-emitting organs like those of a firefly, all of different colors, and covered with fur that conducted the light like a fiber-optic light fountain. There wasn't any pretense of showing outfits; the models themselves were on display. Most went out wearing nothing at all.
"Wonder what they'd say about Vicki's talent," Raquel mused.
"Now that would be a show-stopper," Cyndi giggled.
"Aren't they pretty?" Theresa asked, laying her head on Raquel's shoulder. She extended her tongue, which reached under Raquel's chin and all the way around to lick the cleft between her necks.
"Very nice, although they can't compare to Vicki and Kayleigh." Raquel denied herself permission to purr, but sadly found herself ignoring the command. She gripped her seat, remembering just in time to restrain her enhanced strength.
Cyndi leaned over to Zalika. "Just so we're clear... that wasn't you that gave Vicki her very kinky talent, right?"
"Which kinky talent?" Zalika responded.
"I didn't think so." Cyndi looked slightly worried. "Vicki can separate from Kayleigh and join with another femfur in any type of conjoinment you can name. When she separates she has her full body- and so does Kayleigh by the way- but she complains that it's uncomfortable to separate and she tires very quickly. So she stays joined to Kayleigh."
"She joined to me a couple of times," Raquel commented. "It feels... very erotic... when she does it."
"Interesting." Zalika stroked her chin. "I'm not surprised she finds it tiring. Her soul can't have recovered in so short a time."
"I'm more concerned about where it came from," Cyndi put in.
Raquel managed to nod, though she found it increasingly difficult to ignore Theresa. "Yeah. Cyndi says she had nothing to do with it. She wondered if it was a parting gift. Oh, by the way, they came through with us but didn't stay with us for some reason."
"And now, the moment we've all been waiting for!" the MC declared. A pair of well built, scantily clad males brought a wire lottery basket out onto the runway and cranked it several times to stir up the tickets. The MC opened the basket, rooted around for a bit, and drew out one of the tickets. "And the winner is-"
Raquel raised an eyebrow at Zalika. Cyndi leaned forward, excited. "What's going on?" she asked.
"Ms. Cyndi Siun," Zalika whispered under her breath, her eyes on the MC.
"Ms. Cyndi Siun!" the MC shouted, holding up the ticket. "Come on up, Ms. Siun!"
Cyndi blinked, staring at Zalika. "Huh?"
Mr. Langford grinned. "Well, go on up, girl," he prompted. The Vannis giggled.
Cyndi remained confused for all of two seconds, then decided to go with the flow. She bounced up with a big smile and hurried up onto the runway, waving and blowing kisses at everyone. The audience cheered and clapped. Cyndi gave a few bows, then enthusiastically hugged the MC.
"Fresh," Raquel commented, giving Zalika an amused look. Zalika merely smiled.
"Now, Ms. Siun," the MC began, smiling warmly, "Would you tell us what you'd like to be, if you could be anything you wanted?"
"Laid," Cyndi replied with a giggle. Raquel groaned; the audience roared with laughter. "Well, it's been a while." Cyndi shrugged. "No seriously... hmm, I don't know. There are a lot of choices from what I've seen. You've got some lovely girls here!"
The MC bowed. "You're clearly a lady of exquisite taste, Ms. Siun. On behalf of us all, please accept our thanks."
"You're welcome. You all do make it easy." Cyndi scratched her chin. "Well, everyone says I have such a cute butt." She bent over slightly, thrusting her well-rounded derriere out for everyone to see. "But I don't have the top to go with it." She straightened up and put her hands on her hips, arching her back to show off her breasts. "Is that fair? I ask you."
"Certainly not!" the MC declared. "Shall we rectify it for you?"
"But I don't know how big they should be," Cyndi pouted. "Any thoughts from our lovely audience?"
"You are such a ham," Raquel giggled quietly.
Members of the audience enthusiastically shouted their suggestions. A few of them were even remotely practical.
"Oooh! Hey I know!" Cyndi perked up. "Can they be adjustable? You know, say, I'm feeling like a D cup on Tuesday and a C cup on Wednesday?"
In her mind's eye Raquel saw Cyndi with a bicycle pump attached to her nipples, inflating her bosom. Both heads grimaced: at the vision itself, and her reaction to it. Part of her- that which wanted to rip the Vannis' gown off and fuck them blind right there on the runway- wanted very much to see it for real. Be interesting to find out just how big they'd get-
"I'm terribly sorry, variable configurations aren't practical," the MC apologized. "But please don't hesitate to come back for a tune-up. We'd love to see you again!"
Cyndi considered for a moment. "I suppose... okay, I know. Somewhere between a C and D cup..." her eyes twinkled. "And another clit. Right next to my current one. Would that be okay?"
Both of Raquel's jaws dropped.
"But of course," The MC replied. "Anything else?"
"Well... I can't think of anything else I really want. Maybe a detachable head, but everyone always says I'm absent-minded. What if I leave it somewhere?" She giggles.
Raquel groaned in stereo. The audience laughed.
"No, I'll stick with a... make it a D cup and two clits. I'd go for a longer tongue, but that would interfere with my singing voice."
"Your wish is our command, dear lady." The MC bowed and stepped aside. "It gives me the greatest pleasure to present our most lovely and gracious hostess, Ms. Zalika Corby!" He applauded; Zalika rose from her chair and stepped up onto the runway.
Raquel stood quickly- grateful for the excuse to get out from under Theresa's maddening fingers- and applauded. Cyndi curtsied gracefully to Zalika, who responded with a polite nod.
The Vannis also rose and clapped. To stay balanced they put their inside arms around one another and applauded with their outside hands.
"Thank you," Cyndi whispered so only Zalika could hear.
Zalika smiled. "Are you sure I can't do something about your tongue? You won't be singing while you're having oral sex? Or will you?" Her smile broadened into a grin. "It doesn't appear to have hurt Gene Simmons' career."
"I'm sure," Cyndi murmured back with a smile. "Unfortunately, it would mess with things that someone with my kind of voice shouldn't mess with."
"As you wish. Would you kindly disrobe?"
"She's not going to..." Raquel muttered in shock. But Cyndi did indeed, turning her disrobing into an enthusiastic strip-tease and blowing kisses to the audience.
"I swear, I've been naked more times in front of women than men lately," Cyndi declared, presenting her naked self to Zalika. "I wonder if someone's trying to tell me something?" Raquel developed a sudden coughing fit.
Zalika stepped behind Cyndi, putting one hand on her face and the other on her chest. Cyndi gasped, feeling strange power surging through her flesh. All of Raquel's eyes widened as Cyndi's breasts inflated like balloons. The reality wasn't very different at all from what she'd imagined. Zalika moved her hand down, placing it in Cyndi's crotch.
Damn, it's not fair, Raquel pouted. She gets to be conscious for hers.
Zalika stepped away. Cyndi's breasts were larger, but that wasn't all. The lines and textures of her face and torso had also changed subtly, adjusting to match the new configuration. Individually the changes weren't readily apparent, but taken together the results were stunning. Where Cyndi had been pretty before she was now absolutely gorgeous. She pirouetted gracefully, giving the audience a good look at her new body. She even bent over and spread her labia, though only those sitting near could possibly have seen her extra clitoris. The audience cheered and applauded enthusiastically.
Raquel took a second or two to respond, other than to stare in wide-eyed wonder. Then she whistled loudly with both mouths. "You go, girl!" she shouted.
"Another satisfied customer!" the MC triumphantly announced. "That's it for the show, but I do hope you'll all join us for the reception...."
The MC kept talking but Zalika led Cyndi off the runway. An usher collected her discarded clothing. More ushers escorted those from the private box into another room.
"Ms. Siun will need her gown re-fitted," Zalika announced. "Would you join us, Ms. Fayral?"
Raquel smiled at the Vanni twins. "If you'll excuse me..." She hurried after Zalika. The twins looked terribly disappointed. "I could kiss you," Raquel murmured, falling in step at Zalika's side.
"Don't tempt me," Zalika replied.
The three of them ended up in a small private room. "All right," Zalika said. "Give me the whole story. Starting with why you're here in the first place."
"Our friends from Boston look like they're making a comeback," Raquel said.
"And some enemy spell casters are trying to get at you, Zee," Cyndi added. "I saw-" she paused a moment. "There were three of them. All fems. The first was... big. Tall and muscular. A lioness, but she had wings. Sort of yellow-gold, with brown tips. And... there was something funny about her mane. Sort of-" she frowned. "Coarse, as if she had dreadlocks or something. The second was slim, a ferret. The third was-" she frowned briefly. The third person had been difficult to make out, as if Cyndi had seen her through warped glass. "A red fox," Cyndi continued. "But she had three tails. All three of them were dressed like soldiers, with backpacks and camouflage. Their outfits were all mixed grays, whites, and blacks. And you- you were laying on the floor between them. With your arm up, shielding your face." Cyndi demonstrated, holding her right arm up with her fingers spread.
"What were they doing?" Zalika asked.
"The lioness had her hand out forward. She was about to throw a lighting bolt." Cyndi hesitated briefly; she wasn't entirely sure how she'd known that. "The ferret had a pendant in her left hand and a wand in her right. The fox had something that looked like a police badge."
Zalika considered for a moment, stroking the side of her muzzle with the tip of one finger. "What was I wearing?"
"A white dress that hung down to your ankles but was slit up to your hips on the sides," Cyndi replied. "It didn't cover your boobs either. On your head you had... this thing that looked like a black wig, and a gold tiara with a little snake head on the front."
"Ah." Zalika nodded. "Did I have a bracelet on my right upper arm, several loose ones around my wrists and ankles, and a pendant hanging around my neck that looked like a cat woman with brightly colored wings?"
"Um... I saw the wings, but I couldn't say for sure if it was a cat."
"I had my arm up, like this," Zalika continued, raising her own. "Did I have my mouth open, and my other arm down at my side but cocked away from by body a bit?" She assumed the described pose; it looked rather stiff and unnatural.
"Well... yes," Cyndi admitted. "What does it mean?"
Zalika laughed. "It means you saw one of my life-sized sex dolls."
"Life-sized sex dolls?" Raquel exclaimed.
"Yes," Zalika replied. "In addition to this modeling agency, the Temple of Bast operates a hotel and casino in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, and a chain of nightclubs and bordellos scattered across southeast Asia. Twenty-six last time I checked, with a dozen more under construction. There's also an Adult Products division, which produces magazines and videos, operates the online service, and manufactures a complete catalog of what are euphemistically referred to as marital aids. Including the fully posable, life sized Daughter Night sex doll, with vibrating vagina and sucking action mouth."
"You mean we risked our asses to save a sex doll?" Raquel almost shrieked.
"Not necessarily," Zalika responded soothingly. "Cyndi, did these people come from your world?"
"Yes," Cyndi replied. As before she didn't understand exactly how she knew, but she was certain. "I... felt a disturbance. When I looked to see what caused it, I saw... all that." She gestured vaguely.
"Did they come to find me?" Zalika asked.
"I don't know," Cyndi admitted fretfully.
"Something's got the- ah-" Raquel began, but caught herself. She'd been told that it wasn't safe even to discuss Neverwas in passing. "That is, the things we met in Boston, all stirred up. I... saw them while... we were on our way here. But I don't think they're loose yet."
"They aren't," Cyndi put in. "If they were you'd know it, believe me."
"I do." Raquel nodded soberly.
"I can't reach Kayleigh," Cyndi exclaimed suddenly. "My mental link isn't working for some reason." Her head drooped. "I think... I think Kayleigh and Vicki are out of range."
"You should be able to reach them no matter what," Zalika put in. "But something could be blocking it."
"Great," Raquel growled. "Well, at least a conjoined husky and mink will be distinctive."
"Only if they stay that way," Zalika pointed out.
Raquel and Cyndi looked at each other. "Vicki can't stay apart from someone for long..." Cyndi's voice trailed off, her eyes widening in horror.
"But if they got split in transit-" Raquel began. "Shit! Vicki could be dead by the time we get to her!"
"This is all my fault!" Cyndi wailed. "I should never-"
"They jumped in after you, roomie," Raquel interjected gently. "They accepted the risks." The gaze of her right head shifted to Zalika. "What do we do?"
"If something's blocking you, perhaps I can help you punch through it," Zalika suggested.
Cyndi nodded. "I think I'll need help on this one. There's no time to go back for help-"
"Jessica's away on a business trip," Raquel put in.
"Nuts," Cyndi groused. "Yeah. Help would be really good- oh. Jessica's another Gifted. She's a Black, but she hates it. I get the feeling they didn't exactly give her a choice about signing up and weren't very nice about it."
"We'll have to leave that for later," Zalika said, taking a seat. "Sit here, Cyndi. Now look into my eyes."
Cyndi obeyed. Zalika's eyes seemed to glow, blanking out the room with their glare. Cyndi felt like she was falling into them, a pair of vast, golden seas. Then she passed through... and found herself before a wall of shadow. It was made of individual creatures, interlocked like in an Escher drawing. Cyndi felt their hateful gaze, heard their horrible whispering. Then the light from Zalika's eyes shattered the wall, sending the individual shadows swirling away like leaves on the wind. With the barrier broken Cyndi seemed to pitch forward. She fell into Kayleigh's mind, seeing what she saw and feeling what she felt.
As she exploded back into the physical world Jessica let out a shriek and stumbled. There wasn't any physical motion involved in her arrival, any more than in the trip itself, but it felt like a runaway elevator hitting bottom. She landed heavily on rough stone... and screamed again because her head and shoulders were hanging over empty space. She tried to push herself back but her hands slipped off the edge.
"Careful, there." George knelt, grabbed Jessica by the collar, and hauled her back.
"Where are we?" Yolanda asked looking around. The sky above was black, though sprinkled with stars; the team had arrived atop something made of stone and fairly high, but the night was so utterly dark that she couldn't tell what.
"One moment." From a cargo pocket on this thigh George produced a handheld GPS unit. The illuminated screen bathed his face in a pale, indigo glow. "We are on top of the Pyramid of Kukulkan, also known as The Castle, at Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan peninsula," he pronounced. "In other words, watch your step. If you go off the edge, it's a long way down."
"How do we get down?" Icarus wanted to know. Being a pegasus he could always fly, but he was the only member of the team so equipped.
"We use the carpets," George replied. "But there's no rush. Yolanda, make sure no one sees us. Cymbeline, give us some light if you please."
A second or two passed before Yolanda nodded and proceeded, rather stiffly, to cast a sphere of invisibility on the top of the pyramid. At the same time as she was here, in Mexico with the prime team, she was also in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, with Gynavave and Janda. On the whole she'd say that having two separate bodies was immensely useful; she really could- as now- be in two places at once. But there were drawbacks, too; both bodies had to be clothed, fed, and housed, effectively doubling her living costs. At present, while the dimensional transit had gone fairly smoothly for the prime team, it hadn't at all for the secondary. The transition itself- even the bad one- didn't affect her unduly, but the discontinuity in perception gave her a kind of vertigo. Still, she managed to get the spell up, though it took longer than would have been required under better circumstances.
Cymbeline kindled a wizard light as soon as she felt the dome go up. It's harsh, cold light illuminated the team, which was still arranged by rank and Society, just as they had been upon leaving Mundane Earth.
George, the Black leader, put away his GPS and produced a magic wand, which he waved in a series of intricate patterns. He was a bulldog, and reminded Jessica uncomfortably of Eddie. Though not as tall and some years older, George had that same air of grim determination about him, that he'd do whatever was necessary regardless of the cost. On the other hand, Edward had a... polish, an air of crafty refinement, that George lacked. By comparison it made George appear rustic and perhaps a bit slow-witted. Jessica wasn't fooled, though she didn't doubt others were. She'd seen the keen intelligence in George's eyes; he guess him to be the sort who let people think him stupid then listened carefully while they prattled on, filing away every detail for future reference.
Esmerelda, his opposite number among the Whites, couldn't have been more different: taller, for one, a Sheltie collie, and strikingly attractive despite being somewhere around thirty, Jessica estimated. She contrived to look regal even in battle dress utilities, but hers was a cold, cold beauty. She wasn't frowning, exactly, but she wasn't smiling either. Jessica couldn't imagine her laughing or even smiling.
Without waiting for instructions Esmerelda had taken off her pack and laid out her gear, the foremost of which was a silver framed hand mirror which she propped on a wooden stand. Beside it she placed votive candles in little crystal cups, and before it she carefully arranged a selection of highly worn antique coins. After a few minutes of silent meditation she produced a wand of polished ebony with wrought silver caps and starting casting. The wand's tip left flickers of colored light hanging in the air; they faded quickly, but their reflections in the mirror did not.
After only a short time Jessica looked away; even were Esmerelda a Black Jessica wouldn't have liked her as a person, and watching her cast was like listening to a highly informative but incredibly boring lecture. Icarus and Narcissus, now, they were a pair worth looking at, even when they weren't doing anything at all. Icarus, a pegasus, had a snowy white coat, matching wings, beautiful blue eyes, and a mane and tail of bright gold. Narcissus, by contrast, was a nighthorse: coal black coat, lavender eyes tinged with red, mane and tail a mixture of deep red and bright gold that made them ripple like flame when he moved. Both shared big, powerful physiques, with pecs and abs that could have been sculpted from stone. Both had elected to forgo jackets, being content with tank tops. In Icarus' case the decision had clearly been prompted by the need to avoid fouling his wings; Narcissus had done it simply to show off his physique. A pity he was completely and inflexibly homosexual; Jessica wouldn't have a chance no matter how much she prettied herself up. If she approached him as male, now... but she'd heard rumors that he was very aptly named. The way he posed and preened, even with no one looking at him, confirmed them. Icarus, by all accounts, was firmly hetero... but he had a reputation of gallantry taken to extremes. Sure, being pampered and treated as something rare and precious was charming... but it wore if carried on too long. A true gentleman, in her opinion, knew when not to be gentleman.
More from boredom than anything else Jessica shifted her attention to the team's official diviners: Cymbeline, White, and Paddy Ann, Black. Even in utilities they were, Jessica decided, the sort of people who, in high school, had spent all their time reading and studying, ignored or openly scorned by the opposite sex and also by the more beautiful members of their own. Both seemed around George's age, middle forties to early fifties. Both were short, dumpy individuals with plumpish, sagging figures; that Cymbeline was a striped, orangish cat and Paddy Ann a bulldog made little difference; they were alike enough in spirit that physical details hardly mattered. They too had set to work, though as far from Esmerelda as possible. They would have avoided Esmerelda even if she didn't have a reputation for sharpness; she was exactly the sort of person who'd tortured them as teenagers and now represented everything they weren't and could never be.
Cymbeline used a gold disk with an Egyptian eye etched in its face. Paddy Ann repeatedly scattered a selection of well worn bones, muttering to herself. Jessica kept watching because it was a reason not to look at Yolanda, her own opposite number. Jessica and Yolanda were here as experts in reconnaissance, which meant sneaking around and gathering information without being detected. A better description, Jessica felt, would be ninja: while diviners gazed from afar, Jessica and Yolanda would be the ones sent in to get the goods. Icarus and Narcissus were muscle and nothing more; they'd only come in if Jessica and Yolanda failed to gain the prize by stealth.
Yolanda was, in her own way, as beautiful as Esmerelda, though not as full figured. Hers was a lithe, slender grace; appropriate enough for a ferret, Jessica supposed. Yolanda also had a warmth, a sensuousness, that Esmerelda lacked. Esmerelda's was the beauty of a porcelain doll: captivating but remote; untouchable. Yolanda's was just the opposite, hinting of warm, intimate delights. It seemed the insertion hadn't gone well for her, though; she looked a bit green around the gills and while apparently watching Cymbeline and Paddy Ann her thoughts were clearly elsewhere. For which Jessica was secretly glad; while the other members of the team might be theoretical enemies with their opposite numbers she and Yolanda were opponents in a very direct sense. Both had been assigned by their respective Societies to keep an eye on Raquel, and for some months now they'd been engaged in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, trying to learn as much as possible without revealing to the other side how much they'd discovered. Meeting her adversary face to face made Jessica uneasy, especially as she couldn't shake the feeling that Yolanda was still watching her.
Cymbeline had evoked a cloud of shifting, scintillating color but no particular images. Because she happened to be looking that way Jessica saw when one formed: that of a slender, attractive young mink fem with a white pelt and long, flowing mane. She was naked, sprawled untidily on a smooth concrete floor, propped against an unpainted plasterboard wall. Her head lay against her chest, so her mane covered her face, and her arms were tucked behind her, most likely bound given the way her torso slumped. The image persisted for only an instant but the brief glimpse was enough for Jessica to recognize Vicki, Kayleigh's lover.
It took all of Jessica's self control not to start or cry out. The vision didn't necessarily mean anything; for one, this was a parallel world: the image could be an alternate Vicki, not the one Jessica knew personally. For another, divination was a notoriously inexact process. The images one saw could be from the past or future as well as the present, or other places more fantastic than the human mind could grasp.
On the other hand... though not herself a Diviner, Jessica was in many ways more closely attuned to the forces a Diviner read than either Cymbeline or Paddy Ann. For instance, most folk- and not a few Diviners- thought that the "extra" images a prognostication turned up were simply noise to be screened out and ignored. Jessica understood that everything revealed was relevant... though it might lay beyond the ability of the human mind to discover how. Since Cymbeline had been searching for the focal point of the dark powers Spartil had invoked, Jessica found Vicki's appearance to be particularly telling. Enough that she dropped her hand into a cargo pocket on her left thigh, caressing the object within.
If brought out into the light, the object would have been revealed as a piece of charred wood: ash, with a remarkably fine and even grain. Many centuries ago it had been part of a lyre, but a lightning bolt flung by Phaeron, the Lord of White, had blasted it to bits. This fragment was the only physical remnant Jessica had of the woman who had once been her dearest love: Shona, who called herself Xendaen Miltrilsinger, and whom others called the Dark Minstrel. When Jessica's fingers came in contact with the ancient wood it seemed to vibrate, trilling with the ghost of a song Jessica could almost hear.
Tears came to Jessica's eyes as memories of her lost love rose to the surface of her mind, but they didn't blind her to the broader significance of the event. The wood sang because it felt the presence of its mistress, which it still remembered even across the gulf of centuries. Which in turn meant that she had to be here, somewhere in this world. Which made no sense, given that Shona had died a thousand years ago in another universe... but did make sense if one knew that Shona's soul had been reborn. Furthermore, Jessica happened to know that the young woman who'd inherited Shona's legacy had recently gained access to some of Shona's powers. It was not inconceivable that she might have used them to propel herself into this world.
Paddy Ann had also begun to produce images, but there relevance wasn't apparent. A field of wildflowers, a windblown snowscape... a young male golden cocker spaniel stopped by the side of a busy road, changing a tire on his car. A jackal fem in a stunningly beautiful dark blue gown, accessorized with a fortune in diamonds and wrought silver. The fem herself was black, a black so deep it looked almost like negative space. Her figure was voluptuous and then some: broad, sharply curving hips, enormous but amazingly firm breasts- of which she had four- and body that could only be called Reubenesque.
Surely anyone would have been captivated by that incredible body, but Jessica spared it only a glance. What caught her attention and held it were the eyes: gold like a cat's, they almost seemed to glow, like metal melting in a crucible. Moreover, they seemed to look straight at Jessica, as if they saw her as clearly as she saw them. Jessica swallowed convulsively; she'd never seen them herself but she'd heard them described: they belonged to a person who called herself Zalika Corby. A powerful sorceress and also an undead, a lich.
Zalika was known to the Societies. Not too long ago she had, apparently by accident, come to Mundane Earth. While there she'd discovered Shona's current incarnation and awakened her to her power. Needless to say that had upset quite a few carefully laid plans. Edward himself had warned the team that Zalika was powerful and dangerous, to be approached only if absolutely necessary. Phaeron had added that she did not value what the Societies did, and would deal harshly and suddenly with anyone who offended her. The reincarnated Shona, on the other hand, regarded her as a close and dear friend. Not the least because she'd brought Vicki back, where the Societies couldn't or merely couldn't be bothered.
The image lasted only an instant. Then the colored cloud floating above Paddy Ann's bones turned solid black. Staring out of it were those baleful golden eyes, seemingly close enough to touch. Paddy Ann let out a shriek and tumbled backwards, scattering the bones with her foot. The cloud vanished, the spell broken. Cymbeline, though not directly affected, lost her concentration.
Jessica smiled coldly. Obviously Ms. Corby valued her privacy and didn't approve of nosy diviners.
"I have it!" Esmerelda announced. All eyes turned to her; even Cymbeline and Paddy Ann hurried over to see. If anyone had meant to remark on what happened to Paddy Ann they put it aside.
Esmerelda's mirror showed a city overlooking a brilliant blue harbor. "Auckland," she announced proudly. "There's a dimensional disturbance there, matching the signature of one of the things Spartil took with him."
Jessica nodded. Everyone knew Spartil had brought the Essence of Neverwas with him. Just as they knew not to speak of it, for fear of their very souls.
"Jessica, Yolanda," George began, waving them forward. "Get a lock on this location. Jessica, scout around. Yolanda, you ferry the rest of the team."
Jessica pulled a ring from one of her pockets and slipped it on. She touched a piece of paper tucked into her right breast pocket; the rune inscribed thereon activated, turning her invisible. After studying Esmerelda's image carefully for a couple minutes she made a fist, concentrated, and spoke the word of command. Suddenly she was in another place: a sidewalk on a busy city street. Looking up, she grinned: she'd arrived right at the foot of the tower which dominated the skyline in Esmerelda's image.
The various runes, either inscribed on articles of clothing or upon slips of paper tucked into various pockets, shielded Jessica from every type of detection she could think of. Nevertheless she hurried along, leaving the arrival point. In Auckland it was evening, the city gradually winding down after another busy day.
A few blocks away Jessica stopped, caressing the lyre fragment in her pocket. If anything, the tune was even stronger. Suspicion firmed into certainty: Cyndi was here. Though Jessica couldn't imagine how or why, it made a twisted sort of sense. Even before Raquel became such a problem, Cyndi had shown a knack for winding up in the thick of things. Why should this be any different?
But it was different. Spartil was here too, and Jessica could only imagine what sort of horrors he'd unleash when he used his Essence of Neverwas. The team was here, and noble words notwithstanding Jessica didn't for an instant believe they were here to arrest Spartil. That had been tried and look what happened. If they happened upon Cyndi-
Jessica gripped the lyre fragment until her fingers ached. She didn't know; at best her reasoning could be called inspired guesswork. Getting involved meant actively betraying the Society; shading the truth, playing the ends against the middle, wouldn't work here. There'd be hard questions when she got back, and Eddie already didn't more than half trust her, if that much.
No. However awful the price for acting, the price for not acting would be worse. Jessica had lost Shona once. If it happened again, when even the remote possibility existed that Jessica could have done something about it-
Jessica drew the fragment from her pocket and held it up to her face, feeling the rough wood against her cheek. She needed help, and there was only one person who even offered the possibility of giving it. "Shona, my love," she whispered to the fragment in a quaking voice, "Show me the way to Zalika."
Kayleigh tripped and fell on her face. In time the world stopped spinning. She lay on cool, neatly trimmed grass; pushing herself up she beheld a city park: tree lined walkways, grassy lawns, benches, and a children's play area. One side of the park bordered on a busy street upon which traffic drove on the left instead of the right. The other side dropped off into a broad harbor. From the water the land rose steeply to a line of hills surrounding the area of all sides; the city clung to their flanks. Kayleigh glanced to her right, checking to see how Vicki was.
Vicki wasn't there.
"No!" Kayleigh looked around frantically. Vicki couldn't survive on her own; her soul was damaged. If she stayed separate too long she'd die. "Keep it together," Kayleigh told herself sternly. Panicking wouldn't help either of them. She looked around again, more carefully this time, hoping to find a discarded newspaper. No such luck; the park was very tidy. Not good, she thought, taking a seat on a bench and hugging herself. In Providence, with summer on the way, shorts and a tee shirt served just fine. In this place heavy, lead colored clouds filled the sky, driven by a stiff, biting wind. Those pedestrians whose business took them outside wore long pants and light jackets. Cyndi, I hope you arrived okay because I really really need you, Kayleigh added, concentrating on the link she shared with her friend, pushing her thoughts out along it.
The world darkened, as if God had turned down the brightness. Shadows oozed from angles and corners, reaching out across the grass even though nothing cast them. They had eyes... and voices. Kayleigh heard them chittering, a surruss of sound like rustling leaves.
A chill clutched at Kayleigh's heart, a cold that had nothing to do with temperature. She'd felt this before, a bit more than two years previously, on the night she'd lost Vicki. Vicki hadn't actually died until much later, but that was a technicality at best. On that terrible night Vicki had been stripped of everything good and joyous, leaving her only with pain, suffering, and loss. Death, when it finally came, was a relief.
That alone would have spurred Kayleigh into action, even without her police training. She dove off the bench, coming up in a crouch, reaching for her pistol.
A casual observer would see an ordinary looking Colt .38 Police Special. A bit outdated, perhaps, since most police forces now used Glocks or other semi-automatics. But this pistol was special, in a number of very important ways. For one, even though Kayleigh wasn't even wearing a holster, as her hand closed she felt the textured plastic grip under her fingers. No matter where she left it, whenever she called it always came. It came this time too, but not as easily as usual; drawing it took a determined effort, as if it were immersed in glue. It came free with an audible pop- and suddenly everything was back to normal. The shadows were gone as if they'd never existed, the park was as it had been before... except for Kayleigh, in a crouch, holding the pistol in both hands, aiming at nothing.
It took a concentrated effort of will for Kayleigh to relax her death-grip on the pistol and get to her feet. Her hand automatically tried to return the weapon to the holster she wasn't wearing; after two tries she looked down and finally apprehended the problem. Fuck, she thought darkly. The pistol might appear with a thought but it didn't go away with one. Now that she'd called it she was stuck with it. As if being marooned in a strange city with no money, almost no clothes, no ID, and certainly no carry permit weren't bad enough already. Overall which lay the realization that the clock was ticking, and Vicki's time running out. Kayleigh thrust the pistol into her waistband as a marginally better option than carrying it in her hand and set out in search of a pay phone. Failing to see one in the park she crossed the busy street on a foot bridge. Turning up a nearby intersection she found herself looking at a police station at the far end of the block.
For a time Kayleigh stood, poised between approaching and fleeing. As a former police officer she felt obliged to go in and work things out through the proper channels. But as a former police officer she knew how long that could take, and certain aspects of her situation- such as the pistol- would be exceedingly difficult to explain. Saying that it had been given to her by Death in order to kill a murderer who could walk through walls didn't seem like a good idea. Even allowing that she could explain, would Vicki still be alive by the time she got through with it?
It wasn't a choice at all, and Kayleigh knew it. She darted across the street, finding herself at the edge of a large plaza. There were a lot more pedestrians about than there had been in the park, and they gawked at Kayleigh as they passed. At least they spoke English, with an accent that might have been English or possibly Australian. The plaza wasn't a shopping center, as Kayleigh had hoped, but rather an office area. But there- thank heavens!- was a visitor's information center. Kayleigh burst in at only slightly less than a dead run. Her gaze swept over the racks of brochures and the desk with attendants behind it to- glory of glories!- a pay phone. Weeping with relief she rushed to it, tore the receiver off its hook, and hastily dialed a collect call to Patricia.
The call failed to connect. After an interminable wait the phone responded with some kind of cryptic telco error message. "No!" Kayleigh exclaimed, trying again. "Work you... wait a minute. Damnit, I'm an idiot." Zee, Cyndi had exclaimed: a pet name for her friend Zalika. Kayleigh dialed information, intending to ask for Zalika's number, but that didn't connect either. Not as it would have helped anyway, without a city of a last name.
"Idiot," Kayleigh snarled, hanging up the phone. The traffic, the accents, she should have put it together before now: she wasn't in North America any more. So, in all likelihood, calling Patricia wouldn't do any good. Doubly so, in fact; Zalika didn't merely come from another country, she came from another world: a parallel Earth, to hear Raquel speak of it. Kayleigh turned to the rack of brochures; from the titles she deduced that she was in Wellington, as in the capital of New Zealand. She grabbed a map and spread it out on the counter.
Wellington lay to the west of a roughly triangular bay, curled around a substantial harbor. Frank Kitts Park appeared to be the place where Kayleigh had arrived; if so she was now in a place called The Civic Centre. She looked through the front windows, scanning the crowd in the plaza. A number of the furs she saw were sheep, which proved beyond a doubt that she'd left her own world. Back home sheep were only animals, never fursons.
Then maybe, just maybe, things weren't as bleak as they looked. When Zalika had come to Kayleigh's world, Raquel had gone to Zalika's. While there Raquel had met a number of people... including a super heroine from New Zealand. Fleetingly Kayleigh wondered if her arrival here were truly accidental, then discarded the question as irrelevant. The heroine- who called herself Super Collie- was a furson, perhaps the only one other than Zalika, to whom Kayleigh would have a chance of explaining herself. She turned to the counter, meaning to ask how to get in touch with Super Collie.
The attendants were gone. In fact, now that Kayleigh thought about it, the area immediately around the information office looked surprisingly empty.
"This is the constabulary!" a voice through a bullhorn announced. "Put the weapon down and put your hands on your head!"
"Double fuck, with walnuts," Kayleigh growled. No surprise they'd arrived so quickly; there was a police station almost across the street. Getting arrested would draw things out interminably, and all too easily she could imagine that the opportunity to explain might never arise. "I want to talk to Super Collie!" she shouted back, holding the pistol in her hand but pointed at the floor.
"If that's what you want, just sit tight and we'll have her here directly," the officer with the bullhorn replied.
"Tell her I'm a friend of Raquel's," Kayleigh added. "In the meantime I'll stay here. Please don't come in after me." The front doors wouldn't lock without a key; Kayleigh barricaded them with a chair. She moved behind the counter, where she wasn't clearly visible from outside, and sat down to wait.
More police arrived, establishing a cordon. The new officers had riot gear and firearms, where the others had been only equipped with clubs. Some half an hour later Kayleigh noticed a commotion at the back. The police line parted, passing a single individual. The newcomer wasn't a police officer; she wore only a low cut dress with a skirt that stopped just short of her knees and was slit on either side all the way up to her hips. She was a lioness, and far and away the largest one Kayleigh had ever seen: well over seven feet tall and, between her voluptuous figure and awesome musculature, probably weighed around four hundred and fifty pounds. Her dress, colored in a mixture of red and yellow that rippled like flame as she walked, nicely complimented her tawny pelt. Her eyes were a gold so bright it almost seemed to glow.
"Are you-" oh gods, what was her name- "Cymbeline?" Kayleigh called.
"Yes," the lioness replied. "Will you come out and talk, or do I have to come in after you?"
"Thank god," Kayleigh sobbed. "Come up to the door so you can see me drop this damned thing I got in my hand, okay?" She moved the chair out of the way, set the pistol on the floor, then stepped back. "Listen... I have no idea how I got here but if I don't find Vicki in two hours she's dead. Again."
"Who's Vicki?" Cymbeline asked. "And who are you?" She gestured; the doors opened and the pistol leapt into her hand.
"I'm Raquel's lover," Kayleigh began. "No, Don't touch that! It's death energy!" She leapt.
Very briefly Kayleigh saw a fist that looked about the size of a Christmas ham coming straight at her face. Then she saw nothing because consciousness had suddenly and violently fled.
Kayleigh awoke, literally, with a shock: she felt as if she'd been hit with an electric charge. She found herself not in a police station, as she more than half expected, but in an office decorated with an eclectic assortment of objects d'art, most of them Egyptian in character. Kayleigh's right hand was cuffed to the chair in which she sat; Cymbeline stood over her, having just removed her hand from Kayleigh's chest. "To recap," Cymbeline said. "Who are you and who is Vicki? Why do you have only two hours to find her?"
"Thank god you're all right," Kayleigh exclaimed. "I'm Raquel's lover and Cyndi friend. Vicki was resurrected and bonded to me by Zalika. But she needs to be connected to me otherwise she'll sicken and die."
"Why are you here?" The speaker was a slightly more than middle aged bulldog in a constable's uniform.
"Something screwy's going on with the dimensions again," Kayleigh replied. "Cyndi came to warn people but apparently her spell went wrong because I'm alone."
"Cyndi brought you here?" Cymbeline asked, frowning.
"Yeah. She's been at the White library recently and picked up a ton of books she's been reading in her spare time. Look, that's not important right now. I need to find Vicki!"
"How do we find Vicki?" the bulldog inquired of Cymbeline.
"That is a very good question." Cymbeline opened a filing cabinet and retrieved a metal disk decorated with Chinese characters on one side and polished smooth on the other. "Hold this," she commanded, giving it to Kayleigh. "Think about Vicki as hard as you can."
After spending a moment to calm herself Kayleigh took the disk in her left hand and thought about Vicki as hard as she could.
Cymbeline spoke a few words in Mandrin Chinese and made a complex gesture with her right hand. The polished face of the disk shimmered and clouded over, turning steadily darker until it was completely black. A point of light appeared, split in half... then blinked. A vaguely formed thing of solid shadow oozed from the metal.
Kayleigh flung the disk away. Even as it fell the pistol came to her hand; though a rightie by practice she was in fact ambidextrous and she'd trained herself to shoot left handed just for situations like this. Her first bullet went straight through the middle of the thing's body even before it finished emerging from the mirror.
And kept going, plowing into the floor behind it. The shadow creature blurred for an instant, loosing what little definition it had. Almost at once it reformed and kept coming.
"It didn't die!" Kayleigh exclaimed, eyes wide. Another thing about this pistol was that she'd been assured that anything hit by one of its bullets would die, no matter what. It had killed Vicki's murderer, even though he could walk through walls and couldn't be touched by ordinary weapons.
Quick as lighting Cymbeline grabbed the thing. It let out a shriek like tearing metal, writhing like a snake and clawing at her forearm. Its long, pointed fingers tore bloody gashes in her skin. Cymbeline managed to get a grip with her other hand, her fingernails flashing with bright, actinic discharges. She pulled, and with an even louder and more hideous shriek the thing came apart. Its remains disintegrated into a shower of black dust that evaporated before reaching the floor.
"What... was... that?" Kayleigh exclaimed.
Cymbeline didn't immediately respond. She glared at Kayleigh with a very nasty expression. The blood oozing from the cuts on her arm glowed like hot iron, and when it dripped on the floor the carpet bust into flame. "That is what the thing which took Zalika to your world was supposed to keep out," she said flatly.
"So it's broken again," Kayleigh growled. "Wonderful. What do we do?"
Cymbeline ignored the question. She grabbed the pistol, making sure the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, and detached it from Kayleigh's grip. She didn't use unnecessary force but Kayleigh was certain she'd have ended up with broken fingers if she'd resisted even slightly. Cymbeline handed it to the constable, who removed the bullets.
"That's a mighty interesting toy you've got there," Cymbeline commented, licking her forearm. The wounds vanished as if they'd never been.
"It's not a toy," Kayleigh replied bitterly. "I hate it, but I'm stuck with it. Can't even get rid of it. When the Grim Reaper asks you to do him a favor you don't say no. You don't even get a choice of rewards. By the way, removing the bullets doesn't work. Neither does burying it, or melting it down, or sawing the barrel in half. Or dozens of other things I've tried."
"If I broke your fingers you wouldn't be able to fire it," Cymbeline observed.
"Then I wouldn't have been able to stun that whatever-it-was for you to kill it." Kayleigh looked up at Cymbeline. "I won't stay by the sidelines and watch. Would you do that if the one you love was in danger?"
Cymbeline's whole body tensed; her lips drew back from her teeth and the gold in her eyes intensified. Enough that they really did glow, and the light leaked from the corners of her eyes, crackling in the air. The constable lay a hand on her arm, looking up into her face. She quivered, then relaxed suddenly, almost slumping, closing her eyes and looking away. Tears glistened on her cheeks.
"Then you know how desperate I am." Kayleigh's voice quavered slightly and tears forced their way out of her eyes. "Raquel can take care of herself. Vicki can't."
A knock came from the door. The constable answered. A voice spoke in an agitated way from without. "No, everything's all right," the constable replied soothingly. "Our investigation hit a snag, but everything's under control now." The voice added something. "Excellent," the constable responded. "Send her right up, if you please."
Shortly thereafter another person entered. She was a Sheltie collie, with an orange topcoat, a white underbelly, white gloves on her forearms, and a black saddle on the small of her back and the top of her pelvis. A lustrous, nut brown mane spilled to the middle of her back. She wore a French cut bikini bottom, a matching top that showed lots of cleavage, high-heeled calf length boots, and a long, flowing cape secured by a fancy clasp. The entire ensemble was vivid blue with bright gold trim. Golden bracelets decorated her wrists and her left thigh. In her hand she carried a shepherd's crook, a staff with a hooked tip.
Kayleigh couldn't help staring. However impractical it might be the costume showed its wearer's figure in the best possible light. And what a figure: generously curved hips, luscious buttocks, and meaty thighs, a trim, tight abdomen, a quite ample bosom, and a pleasingly athletic torso. She stood a half head taller than the constable, though still nowhere near Cymbeline's lofty height. "Raquel was right; it is a nice costume," she mused, firmly resisting the urge to drool.
"George, what-" the woman began, then reeled away from the constable as if he'd turned into a monster. "Where did you get that?" she demanded hoarsely, pointing at Kayleigh's pistol.
"It belongs to this young lady here," George replied, indicating Kayleigh. "She says it was given to her by the Grim Reaper."
"Death Himself," Kayleigh amplified, a world of pain in her voice. "I tried to get him to take it back but he doesn't do returns."
"It stinks of death, that's for sure," the woman commented, staring at the pistol with what could only be called morbid fascination.
"Hard to believe, isn't it?" Kayleigh commented. "If you think it smells bad, you should try having to keep it."
The woman turned to Kayleigh, brisk and businesslike once more. "Good day. I'm super Collie. May I ask who you are?"
"I'm Kayleigh." She nodded. "Raquel's lover."
"Raquel?" Super Collie frowned. "How did you get here?"
"Cyndi sent her," Cymbeline supplied.
"Cyndi?" Super Collie frowned even more.
"More like Cyndi came and we tagged along," Kayleigh corrected. "Raquel's here to. And Vicki, who if not for Zalika would be a tattered, maimed ghost haunting the cemetery. If I don't find her in an hour and a half, she's dead again. I don't think she can be re-resurrected." Kayleigh took a breath to calm herself. "We got separated. I don't know how or why. Maybe Cyndi needs to practice." She couldn't help a rueful grimace.
"Re-resurrected," Cymbeline said, slowly and carefully. "I'm not sure I can even say it."
"We have to find her, then," Super Collie declared. "Cymbeline, can you-"
"No," Cymbeline interjected, picking up the mirror. Her claws had left trails of melted, discolored metal across the face as if someone had taken an arc welder to it. "I tried already. And... you remember the Sackler gallery?"
"What about the Sackler gallery?" Super Collie wanted to know.
"One of those creatures you fought there came out of the mirror when Cymbeline tried to look for Vicki," George put in.
"We need to contact Cyndi or Zalika," Kayleigh insisted. "I have a mental link with Cyndi but I can't get it to work for some reason."
"Cymbeline, is there any other way to find Vicki?" Super Collie inquired.
"Well-" Cymbeline frowned, deep in thought. "Kayleigh, tell me the whole story about you and Vicki, as quickly and completely as you can."
Kayleigh took a deep breath. Even with Vicki back, thinking about those dark times hurt terribly. "Back then I was still a policefur, and Vicki a reporter, we were-" the word caught in her throat; she forced herself to say it. "Lovers. There was a serial killer running around Providence; he'd dismember his victims, leaving them in pieces... but they didn't die. He was a necromancer. He fed on their pain. Then... someone came to me."
"Death?" Cymbeline ventured.
"Or near enough as to make no difference," Kayleigh continued. "He told me the killer had made a deal with... dark powers. He couldn't do anything himself but if I chose to, he'd help." She lifted her chin defiantly. "Of course I agreed. This monster had to be stopped."
"Of course," George agreed. Cymbeline and Super Collie nodded.
"He gave me that pistol," Kayleigh continued. "He told me it would kill anything it hit, and no defense could stop it."
"Why did he come to you?" Cymbeline asked.
"Because he thought I'd be the next victim," Kayleigh replied. Emotion barely held in check made her vice harsh and edgy. "It didn't quite work that way. He took Vicki. He used her to get to me. I went to meet him... and I killed him." Her eyes hardened, daring her audience to argue, even the tiniest bit. None of them did. "But-" the cold rage shattered, broken by an uncontrollable upwelling of sorrow. "He'd- already-" She gulped back a sob, tears streaming down her face.
George moved to Kayleigh's side and rubbed her shoulder. Super Collie moved to the other side, giving Kayleigh a hug. Cymbeline hung her head, tears running down her muzzle.
"I was assured that the local mages would take care of Vicki," Kayleigh continued in a rush. "After a while they brought her back." She had to clench her jaw tightly; even the memory of what she'd seen was enough to make her gorge rise. "They'd put her back together, but... she wasn't whole any more. We... she went away, back to her family in California." She scrubbed her face; her hand came away wet and the tears showed no sign of slowing. "I didn't see her or hear from her for two years. Then... I met her outside a restaurant where Raquel, Cyndi, and I were having dinner. She was... rooting through the dumpster. I... didn't even recognize her until she spoke." The emotion gradually left Kayleigh's voice, leaving it a flat monotone. The memories hurt so much they overloaded her ability to feel sorrow. "I... she wanted one last moment of happiness. She chose to see me again. I took her home, I looked after her as best I could... Cyndi sang to her... and she died."
For a time Kayleigh said nothing; no one prompted her to continue. But the story wasn't over; a very important chapter remained. "One day Raquel disappeared. In her place Zalika came. She said she could help Vicki... and she did. Cyndi healed the scars on her soul, and Zalika brought her back to life." Once again Kayleigh's tears flowed, but this time it was recalling the rebirth of hope and love that brought them. "Zalika said that Vicki's soul was still damaged; she'd have to share a body with someone until it healed. I offered to let her share with me. I-" She was going to say she'd have done anything, anything at all, to have Vicki back. She didn't because there wasn't any point; words could never encompass the breadth of her longing. "Zalika put us together," she said instead. "We had one body, with two heads: me on the left, Vicki on the right."
"Is Vicki also a husky?" Cymbeline asked, frowning.
The ghost of a smile lifted the corners of Kayleigh's mouth. "No. She's a mink."
"That must have looked... interesting," Super Collie commented, woodenly.
"Zalika adjusted our bodies so they matched," Kayleigh explained. "Then... after Zalika left Vicki found that she could... detach herself. She could separate herself from me and somehow we both ended up with whole bodies. She could even join to other people. But she couldn't stay separate. She tried once, and almost died." Kayleigh swallowed. "You see? I have to find her and get back together."
"Well, then." Cymbeline stroked her chin. "There may just be a chance we can do something. Gimmie a sec to change." She closed her eyes, concentrated... and changed. Her legs fused into a long, serpentine body; two additional pairs of arms sprouted from her torso, which shrank to normal size and changed to that of a clouded leopard, complete with its curious, ring-like marking. Needless to say the gown didn't fit anymore; it hung loose, baring one shoulder and both breasts, now modest sized and pleasantly firm. Without a trace of modesty she removed it, folded it, and lay it aside. "Look into my eyes, Kayleigh," she directed, settling herself before Kayleigh's chair.
"Yes, Mistress," Kayleigh replied with a bit of a giggle.
In this form Cymbeline's eyes were deep blue. As Kayleigh looked at them they seemed to grow, filling with a strange light of their own. They kept right on growing until their light banished everything else-
The King Dick was really too rich a place for one of Keaira's relatively modest means. For the sake of appearances she always ordered an appetizer and a drink, then nursed them as long as she could. Recently she'd got to feeling that the staff regarded her somewhat askance, but they neither said anything nor refused her custom, so she kept coming.
As to why Keaira subjected herself to this, time after time, the answer was simplicity itself: cute guys came here. Cute rich guys, young professional types looking to unwind after a hard day's work. Keaira studied them as a naturalist studies an exotic species, learning their ways, noting their likes and dislikes. She dressed and decorated herself as much like the girls they tended to prefer as her income as a waitress at a Nandos restaurant would allow. So far all her effort had been for naught; the pretty boys hardly glanced at her. Or only glanced at her. Even the not so pretty ones passed her over until it was obvious they couldn't hope for anything better.
Quite simply, Keaira wasn't fashionable. Not her clothes or her makeup but Keaira herself: she was short, plump, and small chested; what the rich boys wanted were tall, athletic, busty girls. That Keaira had a pretty face and a body that would have been plush and voluptuous if she'd lost even just a little weight and increased her bust line by two cup sizes didn't matter in the least.
Keaira knew all this. She also knew that she was out of her class. She kept coming because on one glorious evening one of the pretty boys had not only smiled at her but spent some time chatting her up. He'd only been waiting for his mates to bring the girls, but the memory of that encounter kept hope alive in Keaira's heart. It had happened once, so logically it could happen again. It stood to reason.
When Keaira realized that a cute guy at the bar was checking her out she felt a hot flush spread through her body. The atmosphere if the pub suddenly felt hot and sticky, as if it had turned into a sauna. She didn't remember seeing him enter, which was surprising since he was far and away the cutest guy there, but now he was looking at her. Not merely a casual glance but a long, lingering regard, practically undressing her with his eyes.
Needless to say Keaira had spent many long hours rehearsing in her mind what she'd do if and when this moment finally arrived. She did none of those things; she couldn't remember a single one, for all that she'd written long dissertations about them in her diary. The light of attention paralyzed her conscious mind the way a car's head lamps paralyzed a deer.
The unbelievably pretty boy left the bar and came over to Keaira's table. He said something, though whatever it was floated away before her conscious mind could catch it and examine it. It didn't matter anyway; he was talking to her. She opened her mouth and a flood of words tumbled out; she was blabbering, and a distant corner of her consciousness in which some shred of objectivity remained knew it, but the rest of her didn't care. She was a female in the throes of estrus who'd managed to attract a male; all other considerations dropped away as irrelevant.
He wanted Keaira to come with him. Without so much as a first thought she rose and took his arm, pressing herself against him and groping shamelessly. If he'd asked to sniff her vulva she would have stripped on the spot. If she'd been in a position to think of anything other than the immediate prospect of intense sexual activity she might have wondered why he'd parked so far from the pub when there was plenty of room nearby. As it was she saw the walk as a perfect reason to stay close, basking in his presence. Nor did she notice that his car was rather small; all she cared about was that he'd kissed her knuckles after handing her in.
Keaira's conscious mind would have been shocked and horrified that she'd get into a car with a total stranger, having no idea where he meant to take her. It would have been even more shocked and horrified at realizing that she had no clear idea of what the car or her paramour actually looked like; she'd noted the particulars but somehow they didn't stick in her memory, until she forgot that she'd forgotten. All those considerations sank into irrelevance compared to the fact that her dream, so long sought and so earnestly hoped for, had finally come true.
Spartil heard the car pull up. He glanced up from his work table, littered with notes inscribed in strange, arcane script and an odd assortment of glassware, a mixture of lab equipment, kitchenware, and hand blown. He smiled, leaning back in his chair and massaging his hands to loosen them. El Seducto must have had a particularly good night to be home this early.
The front door opened and two people entered. One sounded normal; the other walked with an odd clattering quality, like wooden blocks rattling together. Spartil left his bedroom and looked out into the front room. There he beheld a most curious couple. First, a young fem, a skunk, stout and plumpish in build with a modest bosom and a not so modest belly, probably in her late teens or early twenties, in too tight slacks and a blouse with puffy sleeves that would have shown a lot of cleavage if she'd had it to show. Second, a creature that looked like one of those articulated wooden dolls artists used as guides when sketching poses. This particular one happened to be full sized and moved on its own in a reasonably natural fashion.
The couple sat on one of the couches. The fem nattered away, her hand on the doll's thigh in a very forward manner. She saw not a doll but a perfect sexual partner, completely unaware that every detail of his appearance and behavior had been drawn from her own thoughts. In fact, she'd sunk so deep into the illusion that she didn't notice Spartil, though he lounged in the doorway right in front of her.
For his own part Spartil merely watched. This fem looked to be a promising candidate; she had the kind of pelvis he liked best: broad and solid, with meaty thighs and prominent buttocks. Her belly was too large and too saggy, her breasts too small, but all that could be corrected. Best of all she had a nice face: that is, her features really were fairly pretty, not as a euphemism for being fat. Only a little adjustment would make it absolutely stunning. He would have liked her to be taller, but that in itself wasn't a deal breaker. Provided, of course, that her clothing didn't hide more serious defects. Spartil gestured; the doll interrupted the fem's ramblings by drawing her close and pantomiming a kiss. She threw her arms around the doll returned it ardently, acquiescing quite happily as the doll's hands explored her body and removed her clothing. When the doll put a hand between her legs she opened them so it could stroke her vulva. Spartil moved close to get a better look; he didn't like vulvas with loose, floppy lips. This particular one wasn't too bad, though somewhat floppier than he would have liked. But that too wasn't so severe that it couldn't be corrected.
"She'll do," Spartil decided. From his work table he retrieved a tiny phial containing fine, gray powder. When the fem reached her moment of ecstasy he emptied the phial into her mouth. Her whole body spasmed as she let out an explosive cough; her eyes flew open, staring in horror at Spartil, looming above her. As a side effect of its action the powder banished the illusion; for the first time she saw her partner, the house, and Spartil himself exactly as they really were. She drew a breath to scream... which escaped as a sigh when her eyes rolled back and she fell unconscious.
"Excellent," Spartil declared, rubbing his hands together. All that remained was to finalize the recipe and set up the lab. He dismissed El Seducto with a gesture and hurried out.
Basements, Spartil had discovered, were not common in Auckland; he'd been forced to settle for an attached garage. He'd adapted this one to his needs by sealing the door, installing insulation, and boarding over the windows. It wouldn't do at all for the neighbors to see his work and he'd rather save the illusions for where they really mattered. Fortunately the neighborhood happened to be one of not especially affluent southeast Asian immigrants; it didn't trouble anyone that Spartil kept to himself.
When Spartil threw open the door to the garage turned lab it struck something soft but fairly heavy, which tumbled back onto the floor with a cry. Spartil flung out his left hand; a shimmering, translucent shield sprang from it, and behind this defense he advanced cautiously. Sprawled on the lab floor was a young mink fem, slender and quite attractive if not for the fact that she looked desperately ill and now had the makings of a most impressive shiner. She'd thrown up in the corner, then crawled to the door, in the process liberally smearing herself with vomit.
Strictly speaking it wasn't at all unusual for Spartil to find a naked fem in his lab who looked more than half dead. What alarmed him was that he hadn't put her there. He glanced into a corner; in it hung a glass tube filled with liquid in which floated a number of glass balls partially full of various colored liquids. One of the floats- the green one- had sunk a bit below the others and now hovered just above the level where it would have triggered an alarm. The mysterious fem really had come from nowhere; a dimensional rift had deposited her in Spartil's lab. But it had been a random, unfocused rift; most likely a regular transport gone bad.
Spartil extended his right hand. A glowing, golden blade sprang from his palm. He'd lived so long in no small part because he had a rat's instincts: always have a bolt hole, and if one is good three is better. Every bolt hole should have at least three secret exits, only to be used in emergencies. Most of all, there was no such thing as a safe haven: the enemy could appear at any time, any place. At that moment Spartil's rat senses were tingling something fierce; the conclusion which barged into his mind was that the Societies had somehow found him. He needed to get out of here right now. He took a step forward, raising the sword for a strike. Just then his intellectual processes caught up to his instinctual ones and he stopped himself short. If this was an attack it was a singularly inept one: a single person, with no equipment of any sort or even clothing, who'd arrived in no condition to do anything. Spartil banished the sword and shield, grabbed the fem by the arm and dragged her to the wall, cuffed her hands behind her, then used another pair of cuffs to secure her to an eyebolt set low in the wall for just such a purpose. He'd come this far; in only a short time his plan would reach fruition. Running now would set him back by days or weeks. Yes, the girl could be a trick of some sort, meant to distract him, but if anyone came after him it would be Phaeron, and Phaeron would not countenance such a thing. Edward, now... there were rumors about Eddie that made even Spartil shudder. But Eddie couldn't get here without Phaeron knowing. Phaeron would never let Eddie come alone, and Eddie would never let Phaeron come alone.
Briefly the notion of a joint mission flashed into Spartil's mind. The very idea was so utterly laughable that he did, in fact, laugh. But it wouldn't be the first time the Societies had teamed up, on one level or another, to deal with Spartil's antics. He couldn't imagine it taking less than a few years just to work through the politics, but there remained enough of a real possibility to make Spartil uneasy.
None of which changed the fact that Spartil needed to dispose of his unexpected house guest as soon as possible. He banished his blade and shield, grabbed the fem by the arm, and dragged her to the wall. There were several lag bolts set near the floor, with manacles hanging from them. Spartil secured the fem's wrists, crossing her arms behind her back. "Congratulations," he told her, patting her head. "You're gonna help me test my latest and greatest creation." Then he hurried back into the house, grinning broadly and rubbing his hands together gleefully. This was going to be fun.
Kayleigh woke up screaming. She was dying; she could feel herself unraveling like a cheap sweater, her being slowly dissipating into cold, empty, nothingness. She struggled wildly but succeeded only in bruising her arms. Yet even that, in a way, was a relief: the pain proved that she was still alive.
A wave of nausea left Kayleigh doubled over, retching and gasping. Nothing came up but a few strands of mucous; judging from the vile smelling stain splashed down the front of her body she'd already puked up everything she possibly could. She noticed something else, too: her pelt was solid white, with no trace of blue-gray, and her body too slender. She wasn't in her body at all. She was in Vicki's.
Kayleigh lifted her head. The room in which she found herself looked like a partially finished garage: smooth concrete floor, unpainted plasterboard walls, and a ceiling made of plywood laid over the roof joists. There were no windows, or they'd been boarded over. Against the opposite wall stood several sets of gray metal shelves that had seen better days. On them stood labeled jars, glassware, metal pots and pans, cooking utensils, and surgical tools, all piled without any apparent organization. A bare florescent light fixture illuminated the area, in particular the workbench, an obviously hand-built affair made of two-by-fours held together by bolts and topped with a sheet of Formica on plywood, like a kitchen counter top.
On the bench lay a fem. Kayleigh was reasonably sure of that because the person happened to be naked. Beyond that Kayleigh wasn't sure; most of the fen's fur had fallen out, leaving nothing but a few scraggly, bleached clumps. Her flesh had wasted away until it stretched tight over her bones, and her skin had a sickly pallor to it. Her wrists and ankles were secured by heavy cuffs, but it hardly mattered; she was too weak even to move. And yet, she was still alive, though only just. Her chest rose and fell, ever so slightly; her breath fogged the bottom of a hand-blown glass retort suspended over her face. Inside the retort a black, blue, and purple cloud seethed like boiling ammonia; sparkling vapor rose from it, passed through a fractionating column and condenser, then dripped into a flask as bright silvery liquid.
"No!" Kayleigh shouted, struggling against the cuffs holding her wrists. "Hold on! I'll get you out of here!"
It did no good. The fem's last breath escaped with a rattle. The seething mass in the retort settled into a black, oily sludge.
"No!" Kayleigh sobbed. "No, no, no..."
A door to Kayleigh's left crashed open. A big, incredibly muscular wolf male in loose, somewhat ratty sweats and no shirt entered the room. "Oh, you're up," he said, glancing in Kayleigh's direction. He flashed a grin with lots of teeth. "Excellent. You're just in time to watch 'Cooking with Spartil.'" He unclamped the collection flask and held it up to the light, examining the contents.
"And just who are you supposed to be?" Kayleigh demanded.
"Who am I?" Spartil grinned. "I am a genius, that's what. Who is about to do the impossible." He set the collection flask aside, then reached under the workbench and pulled a latch. Next, he gripped the edge with both hands and lifted. The top hinged upward; the body of the fem slumped but hung, suspended by the cuffs. Spartil gave the bench a shake; the fem's wrists and ankles broke like dry twigs. Her body shattered into dust and bones when it hit the floor. Her skull bounced and rolled into a corner. After lowering and re-latching the bench top he retrieved the skull and placed it on a shelf where four others already stood. "Just you wait right there, and I'll show you," he added over his shoulder to Kayleigh, then left the room, whistling cheerfully.
"Yeah I'll just hang around," Kayleigh muttered. Her fingers clenched; she could already feel the textured plastic against her palm... but she relaxed, letting it slip away. It was possible that she might use the gun to shoot the manacles off her wrists, but far more likely that she'd blow herself away. Which would be as good as handing this nut job a weapon of incredible power on a silver platter. She needed to convince him to let her free. Even just one hand would be enough.
Spartil returned. Over his shoulder, like a sack of grain, he carried a young skunk fem, whom Kayleigh guessed to be in her late teens or early twenties. Nor was she an insignificant burden, even to one as muscular as Spartil; she was quite plump, with a bulging tummy, love handles, broad, fleshy hips, substantial thighs, and a great big behind. Her breasts, though, were modest, Kayleigh saw when Spartil lay the fem face up on the workbench. He didn't bother securing her with the cuffs; she looked asleep, though it had to be something more if Spartil's rough handling hadn't woken her up.
"Good evening, one and all," Spartil said, gathering a selection of pans, jars, and utensils from the shelves. "We've got a doozy of a dish laid out for you tonight, oh yes we do."
"Is there actually a point to all this outside of you indulging in your little twisted fantasies?" Kayleigh demanded.
"Point?" Spartil retorted in an offended tone. "You think I spent twenty years of my life, not to mention risking death or worse, just for kicks?" His glowering disapproval slipped a bit, and the corners of his mouth quirked up. "Well, maybe a little."
"Wow, a funny man," Kayleigh growled. "You should take your act on the road. And then off a cliff."
Spartil laughed. "I'm glad I let you live. You're funny."
"Thanks. Maybe you could free me and I'll show you how grateful I am." Kayleigh bared her teeth.
"Don't worry. I'll set you free soon enough. I promise." Spartil held up his right hand and crossed his heart with the other. "Just give me a moment to collect my special ingredients." He withdrew, returning a moment later with a basket. The first item he produced from it was a black jar that looked like it had been carved from a single piece of obsidian. Etched designs on the sides winked in the light, but not clearly enough to be made out. Other items followed, but Kayleigh didn't notice. She couldn't tear her eyes away from the jar. Just seeing it brought an icy chill on her soul.
"This is my most special ingredient of all," Spartil purred, gently sliding the jar to one side. "I'm saving it for last." He grinned. "We'll start with this." He held up a small figurine made of tan colored stone with a reddish finish. It depicted a fem of uncertain type, with an enormous, bulging belly and gigantic, floppy breasts. Her mane was done in cornrows laid in rings, rather than hanging straight. Her face wasn't visible except for a bulge suggesting a muzzle, laid against her bosom.
"To begin, we lay down a foundation of Earth Mother spirit," Spartil said, placing figurine face up on the girl's belly button. "Add a touch of menstrual blood for seasoning..." he unstopped a flask and poured out a line from the figurine down to the girl's crotch. "And mix vigorously." Spartil raised his hands, speaking Latin in a sing-song voice, accompanied by intricate gestures.
The girl twitched, then spasmed violently. The figure remained in place and she didn't awaken. She moaned, clenching her teeth and arching her back. Blood poured from her vulva, staining her thighs and running across the bench top. Suddenly the figurine exploded with a sharp crack; the girl fell limp and the blood turned black, smoking like oil burning in a skillet. The girl started to change; her belly shrank and the flesh all over her body tightened up, but she wasn't loosing any weight: it all flowed into her breasts, which swelled like balloons inflating. And kept inflating until their weight caused them to settle onto her arms. Her nipples thickened and lengthened, her aureoles becoming large and clearly defined. In time the transformation slowed, then stopped; Spartil ceased chanting and leaned on the edge of the table, breathing heavily as if he'd exerted himself strenuously. "There," he said proudly. "Isn't she lovely?" He put a hand behind the girl's neck and sat her up.
"Rough for a makeover," Kayleigh commented. The only dramatic change had been the shift of mass from gut to boobs, but the overall effect was striking, even though the girl's basic appearance and general proportions hadn't changed. The diminution of her belly combined with a modest firming up of her hips, thighs, and buttocks, and to a lesser extent the rest of her body, had changed her from a cute, roly-poly sort of plump to a sexy, voluptuous kind. Nor could the effect of the enhanced bosom be ignored; the new breasts hung down to the girl's waist, and perhaps a bit beyond. Despite their size they remained firm and full, lacking utterly the quality that sometimes made large breasts look like partially deflated water balloons. They also lacked the artificial tightness common to breasts that had been artificially augmented. Despite their structural perfection Kayleigh found them grotesquely oversized; she liked a generous bosom but she would have stopped half a dozen cup sizes ago. "I still don't see the point," she snapped.
"Pah. This is just the beginning." Spartil pulled on a rubber glove, then opened a small jar and scooped out a dab of brown paste with the tip of his finger. "Can't be too careful with this stuff," he observed, applying it to the girl's labia. "Too much and her pussy'll disappear completely, and we can't have that." He admired his handiwork. "Perfect. Now for phase two." He picked up a plastic bag and pulled it over the girl's head, clamping it in place over her muzzle with his hand. Her chest heaved as she struggled to breathe... and abruptly she woke up, trying to scream. Spartil pinned her down; against his weight and strength she had no chance. Nevertheless she struggled wildly, for all the good it did. Her motions grew steadily weaker, and finally stopped.
Kayleigh jerked against the restraints. "You bastard," she snarled. "All that trouble so you don't have to wear a condom!"
Spartil laughed. "There is that, yeah." He pulled the bag off and arrange the girl's body in stately repose. "And now-" he picked up the black jar- "we get to the good part." He stroked the jar tenderly, holding it against his face. "It took me years to get this, and it's what'll make this lump of flesh into something damn hot." He set the jar aside. "But you can't use it by itself, you see. I tried; it eats up the life force in its host and evaporates. To do anything useful with it you have to stabilize it. And I've found just the thing." In one hand he picked up a beaker of dust and with the other a flask of ruddy liquid. "The ashes of a vampire lord and the ichor of a arch devil. These, blended with my special special ingredient and charged with my custom animate dead spell, will tie everything up nice and neat." He cupped a hand behind his ear. "What's that you ask? Won't the two spirits consume one another, or us, while I'm casting the spell? Hmm, yes. That could be a problem." He set the dust and ichor aside and tapped his chin thoughtfully. "But it just so happens-" he picked up the flask of silvery liquid distilled from his previous victim- "that I have a beaker of life essence I've collected over the last few weeks. Mixing it in with the other two ingredients will keep the spirits sated while I bind them." He bowed. "Thank you, thank you. No applause, just throw money."
"Why?" Kayleigh demanded. "You killed all those people to test a theory?"
"Theory?" Spartil slammed his hands down on the table; jars jumped but none of them fell. "Theory my ass! I am going to create a creature the likes of which has never been seen. With power undreamed of. Implacable. Unstoppable. Unkillable." He grinned. "And a looker, too. Hell, if I'm gonna have her hanging around, she might as well have a nice rack."
"Just what makes you think she's gonna go for you?" Kayleigh snapped.
"The animate dead spell binds her to my will," Spartil replied, opening the girl's eyes and placing upon each one a black onyx gemstone. "She'll do anything I say. Anything at all." He poured the devil ichor and vampire ash into a stainless steel mixing bowl, then stirred in the life essence while beating the mixture with a whisk. As he worked it bubbled and frothed, emitting a nauseous odor. Then he picked up another, much larger flask full of life essence and mixed it in as well. The concoction settled down but continued to bubble restively.
"Pay attention now; this is the special part," Spartil said, putting the bowl aside and taking up the black jar. He concentrated, spoke an incantation, and opened the lid. Black fumes spilled out, sinking quickly to the floor. The temperature fell dramatically; Kayleigh couldn't help shivering. As Spartil tipped the jar over his mixing bowl a liquid poured out that was so intensely black it couldn't be seen; it reflected nothing for the eye to register, like material shadow. While Spartil whisked the mixture vigorously frost formed on the outside of the bowl and white vapor rose from within. Other things rose too: tendrils of darkness that reached and quested with a bit too much determination to be mere spatters. They clutched at the whisk and Spartil's hand as well as the edge of the bowl but couldn't seem to grip and sank back. Spartil finished mixing and lifted the whisk out; shadow dripped from it the way beaten eggs would have, but didn't leave any residue behind. Spartil stuck a metal funnel into the girl's mouth and tipped the contents of the bowl into it.
"No!" Kayleigh screamed, jerking violently against her bonds. "Spartil, you leave her alone! Let her rest in peace!"
Spartil ignored the outburst. He raised his hands and once again began to speak. The gemstones caught fire and burned like thermite; the girl screamed, arching her back, clawing at the table beneath her and drumming her heels. Blackness erupted from her mouth and nose like ejecta from a volcano. The cloud wasn't merely cloud; it was... a million shadows, their screams blending with the girl's, clawing wildly at one another and nothing at all. As this happened this girl's body desiccated in fast motion: her fur turned dry and brittle, like dead grass, her flesh melted away, and her skin drew tight over her bones, drying and cracking like poorly cured leather. Yet still she screamed. With an all too familiar rattle the scream stopped... and the process reversed itself. The cloud was drawn back into the girl's mouth in one impossibly long gasp. Her fur recovered its rich, healthy luster, her skin became soft and supple once more, expanding as body swelled beneath it.
Not everything came back, however. The girl's eyes remained nothing but scarred, empty sockets. Her pelt, which had bleached white, stayed that color, except for a faint tinting of lavender on her face, back, and tail which outlined those parts of her pelt that had originally been white. Her lips turned black; color returned to her gums, nipples, and fingernails, but it was a cold, cyanotic blue. And yet... her chest rose and fell as she breathed. Kayleigh couldn't see a pulse but the girl's heart had to be beating; her flesh had the vibrant texture which only appeared in conjunction with strong, healthy circulation. Kayleigh had seen enough corpses in her life to know the difference.
"Wakey wakey, darling," Spartil cooed, patting the girl on the cheeks. She mumbled, stirred, and rubbed her face as if waking from a deep sleep. When she lifted her arms blackness trailed from her arms to the tabletop, like ink dripping from a sponge. "How do you feel, dearest?" Spartil asked, helping the girl to sit up. The blackness detached from the table and withdrew into her body but Kayleigh could still see it from time to time, bulging through the girl's skin. It undulated like a fluid, but like the shadows in the mixing bowl it had a disturbing determination. Little pseudopodia poked from the girl's skin and explored nearby objects, amoeba-like.
"Hungry," the girl plaintively replied
I'll bet, Kayleigh thought grimly. I just hope mealtime isn't what I think it is.
"We can't have that, can we, dearest," Spartil continued, helping the girl to swing her legs over the edge of the workbench. Blackness drizzled out of her feet and flowed out across the floor. "See?" He aimed the girl toward Kayleigh. "I brought you a snack."
The girl smiled. "Thank you, Master." She slid off the table; blackness exploded from every part of her, surrounding her with a roiling, swirling cloud of shadow. It also held her suspended, so that her toes didn't quite touch the floor. A dozen black tendrils lanced out, reaching for Kayleigh.
Kayleigh, for no reason that she could clearly identify, started singing.
Cyndi! Kayleigh thought, thankfully and desperately at the same time. It was Cyndi's song; Kayleigh could almost hear her friend's voice in her mind. Tears streamed down her face; her friend had found her at last.
Spartil's monster seemed to be having trouble, too. The tendrils hesitated, then drew back. The girl looked surprised, and a little bit alarmed. She backed up a little.... then fell to her knees, clutching her hands over her ears and moaning. "It hurts, Master!" she wailed. "Make it stop! Please!
Kayleigh grinned savagely. "Back to the drawing board, I'd say!" she crowed.
Spartil stared, his jaw hanging open in an expression of shock. Then his mouth snapped shut and he snarled, spitting venomous curses. The girl lay on her side now, curled into a ball, shivering violently. Spartil gestured with his right hand and a blade of golden light sprang from his palm. It reminded Kayleigh of a light saber, but barely had that thought entered her mind when Spartil stepped forward and chopped her head off with a deft flick of the wrist.
"No!" Cyndi screamed, struggling frantically. "Zee, we have to do something! He's going to feed her to them!"
"Who, what? Feed who?" Raquel demanded. "You're not making any sense!"
"Cyndi! Focus!" Zalika commanded, gripping Cyndi's cheeks.
"Zalika..." Cyndi whispered, tears streaming down her face. "I can't get to her in time. If I try, they'll be waiting. What'll I do?"
"Look into my eyes, Cyndi," Zalika replied, soothingly. "Let me help you."
"Zalika, what-" Raquel began.
"Please, Raquel, just wait for now," Zalika said. She didn't raise her voice, exactly, but there was a definite edge to it. "Trust me. Trust Cyndi. I beg you." Raquel subsided, but her hands clenched tightly and her eyes blazed.
Zalika looked back at Cyndi. Suddenly Cyndi found herself flying through the air. But she also saw herself- her body- still in the side room with Zalika's and Raquel. In a few seconds she found herself somewhere else. She stood on a Roman style cobblestone road that wound its way across a series of low rises, through mostly open land dotted with clumps of trees. Somehow she knew that she was on Avalon, though she knew with equal certainty that she'd never in her life ever been there, nor even heard of it. The air was still and clear but roiling, blood red clouds shot with gold colored lightning filled the sky. Up ahead the clouds reached down in an enormous black funnel cloud that undulated across the landscape. Even from here Cyndi could tell that the funnel wasn't merely cloud; it was formed from billions of shadows, compressed by the vortex into a solid mass. She knew what they were, too: the ones who could not be named, the enemies of all life: the Neverwas.
"Hold on to me, Cyndi," Zalika commanded. She stood at Cyndi's side, holding her hand. Instead of her blue gown Zalika wore an ankle length skirt of white linen. Nothing covered her torso, not that there was much that could have in any case: a pair of feathered wings sprouted from her waist and her tail had changed to that of a bird. When she spread them Cyndi saw that the leading edges were red, the trailing edges blue, and the bit in between green. Moreover, each individual feather had a gold border around it. Cyndi herself wore brown trousers, a sleeveless blouse, and a long, gray-green cloak.
"What do I do?" Cyndi shouted as Zalika scooped her up and took to the air, winging toward the funnel. "We have to stop it! How do we stop it?"
"Sing, Cyndi," Zalika replied. "Use the living power of your music to drive them away."
Cyndi looked toward the funnel. She'd never been more scared in her life, but what those monsters would do if let loose scared her even more. She opened her mouth and started singing, even though she couldn't even hear herself over the roaring wind. She didn't sing of anything in particular, she simply opened her heart and let it pour out into the form of music. Without consciously thinking of it she sang of love, life, and friendship, and the risks one undertook, both emotional and physical, to have those things. In other words, the very things the Neverwas had forsworn so very long ago.
The funnel rushed at Zalika and Cyndi, then shied away. Zalika blasted right through it. down at the bottom, on the ground, Cyndi saw... Kayleigh. And Vicki, as if the image of one were laid over that of the other. Before them floated a fuzzy blob of darkness; tendrils spun out from the mass, questing toward Kayleigh / Vicki.
Cyndi raised her voice. The air shimmered, forming a silvery halo that enclosed her and Zalika both. "I've got us covered!" she shouted.
Zalika folded her wings and dove. Suddenly, she and Zalika were in the room with Kayleigh / Vicki, the shadow, and... someone else. A huge, gray wolf male in ratty sweats. He didn't react to Zalika's and Cyndi's sudden appearance. Neither did Kayleigh or Vicki, for that matter. But the shadow did. Tendrils shot out, questing for them. Zalika attempted to parry with her hand but when the tendrils brushed her fingers her hand and part of her forearm crumbled into dust, leaving nothing but bleached bones. Cyndi focused her song; the tendrils jerked back.
Cyndi drew a breath. She'd fought Neverwas before, at the Sackler gallery; she knew her songs had the power to destroy them. This wasn't one, exactly, but enough like one that her songs hurt it. One good blast and it would be history-
Like fog in a morning breeze, the shadow parted suddenly. Cyndi saw a young skunk fem, huddled on the floor, sobbing. Inside her chest something glowed; the shadows surrounded it, gripping it with their cruel claws, but they couldn't hide it, not from Cyndi's sight. Instead of the attack she'd planned Cyndi came forth with a soothing lullaby. "Choose," she called. "You can be something instead of nothing. It's in you. I know it!"
"Cyndi-" Zalika called.
The wolf manifested a blade of pure light. He cut through Kayleigh's neck with a single slash; her head fell off and bounced across the floor while blood spurted from her severed neck and her body spasmed in an obscene dance of death. Except that it wasn't Kayleigh's body; it was Vicki's. The ghostly images of Kayleigh and Vicki that Cyndi had first seen detached from the body and floated up into the air. Zalika grabbed them with her remaining hand, then the whole scene broke apart and Cyndi was slammed back into her body at the hotel in Osaka.
"No!" Cyndi screamed. Her vision blurred red at the edges, as if she were looking down a tunnel of flame. She wanted to kill that wolf more than anything else she'd ever wanted in her entire life.
Raquel stared at Cyndi with a mixture of shock and horror. "Cyndi, what-"
"Cyndi!" Zalika grabbed Cyndi's shoulder. "Calm down! I have them!"
"I saw Vicki die," Cyndi sobbed. "And it was my fault! I brought them here-"
Zalika caressed Cyndi's cheek. "Don't fret," she said gently. "I've died several times and I'm none the worse for wear." She glanced self-consciously at her hand. "Mostly, anyway. Point is, I have their souls. They're safe."
"Someone better fill me in before I break something," Raquel growled ominously.
"Kayleigh and Vicki separated when they came here," Zalika explained. "They landed in two different places. Vicki fell into the hands of a necromancer; he created a wraith using essence of... the creatures we fought at the Sackler gallery. He told the wraith to consume Vicki but Cyndi put a stop to it, so he chopped Vicki's head off. Since Kayleigh happened to be in her body at the time, both of them died. Since I happened to be there, I caught the souls as they fled. Which means..." she paused briefly. "All we have to do is find Kayleigh's original body and put them in it. And you can help, Raquel. Let me have some of your power. Kayleigh's soul will lead me back to her body, if I act quickly."
"What is this necromancer's name?" Raquel asked very, very quietly. "I'd like something to carve on his tombstone."
"We'll get to that in due course, I promise," Zalika replied. "Will you let me draw some energy from you?"
"Help yourself," Raquel invited. "I'm told I got plenty to spare."
"Do you have Cymbeline or Super Collie on speed-dial?" Cyndi asked of Zalika.
"Not on speed dial, not," Zalika replied. "But I can get word to them quickly enough, don't worry. Let me deliver Kayleigh and Vicki first." She put her arm around Raquel's necks and kissed her on both mouths at once. Her tongue, Raquel discovered, was quite long and dexterous. Eventually Zalika broke contact, settled herself in a chair... and keeled over, to all appearances dead.
Kayleigh and Vicki found themselves walking, hand in hand, down a road that looked exactly like the Yellow Brick road from The Wizard of Oz. The landscape even had an appropriately bright, slightly surreal appearance. Neither wore a stitch of clothing.
"Hey you," Kayleigh said, turning to Vicki. "How come you separated?"
"I don't know," Vicki replied, frowning slightly. "I certainly didn't intend it." Now that she thought about it, she couldn't remember how or why she'd come to this place. She had memories, yes, but they were all jumbled and confused; she couldn't make any sense out of them. In turning to address Kayleigh, though, she noticed something: holding Kayleigh's other hand was a jet black jackal fem, also naked, with an incredibly lush figure and bright, gold colored eyes. The fem's right hand, from about the middle of her forearm down, was nothing but naked bone with bits of charred flesh clinging to it. Oddly enough, the sight of this person didn't alarm Vicki at all. "You look familiar," she commented.
"Zalika Corby. We met briefly in a graveyard."
"Oh." Vicki's eyes grew large. "Oh! I'm sorry, I wasn't... um... with it," she finished lamely.
"It's all right," Zalika replied. "I trust you and Kayleigh are getting along well?"
"There were a few bumps." Vicki smiled, putting one arm around Kayleigh and the other around Zalika. "We ironed them out."
"When I thought about being in a three-way I never thought it would be like this," Kayleigh added. "By the way, is Vicki's special trick your doing?"
"Not intentionally," Zalika replied. "By the way, don't let go of my hand or Vicki's. I can find my own way home, and you'll probably return to your own body, but Vicki will be in a fix."
"I'm dead again?" Vicki exclaimed crossly. "Do I get Frequent Dier Miles?"
"You've only died twice," Zalika pointed out."
"Yeah, but I can't bring myself back. Therefore, as a passenger, I'm entitled to some consideration."
Kayleigh's only response was a snigger that quickly grew into howling laughter.
Zalika smiled. Laughter was probably better than the alternative.
"Oh, because I didn't say it before... thank you for giving me a second chance." She hugged Zalika. "When you get me back, I'll show you my special trick."
"I can't wait to see it," Zalika replied, giving Vicki a somewhat more than merely friendly peck on the cheek.
The end of the road came up. At it they found Kayleigh- or her body, at any rate- laying on a gurney.
"D-" Kayleigh began.
"Please don't curse," Zalika interrupted, not loudly but definitely sharply.
"Oh, sorry," Kayleigh apologized. "I forgot." She looked at the gurney. "Super Collie must be having a fit."
"You'll be able to reassure her soon enough," Zalika promised, laying her hands on Kayleigh's cheeks. "Ask her to call me- Zalika- just as soon as she can. Raquel and Cyndi are safe with me, but something terribly important's happened, as Cymbeline's probably already noticed. If at all possible, tell her privately." She kissed Kayleigh full on the mouth... and appeared to suck Kayleigh's whole body into her own mouth. She bent over the body on the gurney, opened its mouth, and exhaled into it. "Your turn, now," she told Vicki, gripping her face and kissing her. Vicki attempted to return it but the world broke apart into a spray of random color.
Vicki awoke and immediately wished she hadn't: her chest felt as if someone had worked it over with a meat tenderizing hammer and there was an ugly taste in her mouth. "Euh," she moaned. "I feel like I've been beaten."
"Is Super Collie or Cymbeline still here?" Kayleigh asked. Her voice was so rough and gravelly as to be little more than a croak.
Vicki glanced to her right. Her and Kayleigh were once again in their conjoined form. Vicki kissed Kayleigh's cheek and would have done more but merely the thought of moving was enough to make her cringe in pain.
A bunch of people who looked like doctors were clustered around the gurney, looking absolutely flabbergasted. Someone pushed roughly to the fore: an enormous, massively muscled lioness with curious tear markings around her eyes. "Hot damn, you're alive," she commented, and laid a hand on Kayleigh's and Vicki's communal chest. A strange sensation, both hot and cold at the same time, flowed out from the point of contact until it had completely filled them. It washed away the aches and pains, leaving a mildly pleasant tingle in its wake. "I don't believe we've been introduced," she said to Vicki.
"Cymbeline, this is my wackier half, Vicki," Kayleigh said. Vicki smiled and nodded.
"Charmed." Cymbeline took Vicki's hand. "I'm Dr. Cymbeline Lathasar, resident Egyptologist for Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand." She waved forward a squat, powerfully built bulldog male in a police uniform. "This is my husband, Constable George Kremmin." He nodded politely.
"If you're real nice to her, she'll show you something I bet you've never seen," Kayleigh added.
"Play later," Vicki chided. "Is Super Collie around? We need to deliver a message."
A third pushed her way forward, a fem who was, appropriately, a collie, dressed in what Vicki would call a very appealing, though perhaps impractical, costume. "I'm Super Collie," she announced.
Vicki waved. "Hi there. Call Zalika; it's very important."
Super Collie blinked. "Oh," she said, hollowly.
Kayleigh sighed. "So much for subtlety."
"That certainly answers a lot of questions," Cymbeline muttered.
"Call who?" one of the doctors exclaimed.
"No one," Cymbeline replied, looking around. "Forget about it." Her eyes flashed. The people standing about blinked and looked surprised for a moment, but it passed quickly.
"Sorry," Vicki murmured. "I'm a little shaky. If you saw what I just saw-"
"It's all right." Cymbeline stroked Vicki's face.
"I saw what she did too, you know," Kayleigh muttered. "Some fems get all the luck."
"Well, I am cuter than you," Vicki said with a smirk. Kayleigh responded with a raspberry.
A loud discussion, bordering on an argument, had broken out among the doctors regarding Kayleigh's and Vicki's condition and their miraculous return to life. Cymbeline peremptorily ordered them to clear off, using not so thinly veiled threats where intellectual or emotional appeals failed. "Sorry about that," Cymbeline apologized to Kayleigh and Vicki. "They're marveling over the fact that someone who'd been clinically dead for more than half an hour should suddenly and spontaneously come back to life for no apparent reason, and grow another head in the process. As if that were really unusual or something."
Just then a group of policemen arrived, led by a tall, rake-thin whippet in a trench coat who had a heavily gnawed hide chew toy dangling from one corner of his mouth.
George, who'd observed the byplay without taking part, turned to face the newcomers. "Good evening, Inspector," he said with a polite nod.
"Uh oh," Kayleigh murmured.
"Hello," Vicki added, waving.
"What's happening here, Constable?" the Inspector wanted to know.
"That's what were attempting to discover, Inspector," George replied.
"Is this her? Them?" the Inspector asked.
Vicki and Kayleigh kept silent, reasoning it better not to offer any comment unless directly addressed.
"The woman sighted in Frank Kitts Park, according to witnesses, had only one head," George pointed out.
Nice evasion, Kayleigh thought. Vicki decided that she owed him a kiss for that one.
The inspector stepped up to the gurney and subjected first Kayleigh, then Vicki, to an intense scrutiny. Vicki did her best to resemble an innocent waif. Kayleigh satisfied herself with a friendly smile and a nod. She didn't think it would work anyway; she knew that look. The inspector's I-smell-a-rat sense was tingling. "I understand this- these- young ladies were dead when brought in to the hospital," he announced.
"That's what the doctors said," George replied.
"They seem quite hale and hearty now," the inspector observed.
"That they do, sir," George agreed.
The inspector opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked at George, then at Cymbeline, and finally Super Collie. His expression remained impassive but Kayleigh could practically hear the gears turning. "I see," he pronounced. "Miss- ah- Misses-" he returned to Kayleigh and Vicki- "Since you're obviously feeling much better, I'm sure we can move you out of the ICU and into a private room." He cast a meaningful look at one of the doctors, who nodded. "I don't think I'll need a squad of constables to protect me from a pair of bed-ridden young ladies," he continued, dismissing the other officers with a wave. They withdrew.
Kayleigh and Vicki found themselves moved into a private room and transferred to a bed. The doctors left them alone but not unmonitored: they found themselves wired to a whole rack of machines and plugged into an intravenous drip. George, Cymbeline, and Super Collie entered, followed by the inspector, who closed and locked the door.
"Good day, my dears," the inspector said cheerily, pulling up a chair. "I'm Inspector Tekukuni Samson of the New Zealand Police, Wellington District. I hope you won't mind if I ask a few questions?"
"Not at all, Mister Sampson," Kayleigh replied. Vicki smiled and batted her eyelashes.
"Thank you." Inspector Samson turned to George. "Well?"
"Do you remember when we went to Boston?" George asked.
"How could I forget? It was all over the news."
"What isn't commonly known is that one of the items in the exhibit was a powerful magical artifact," George explained. "It opened a gateway and brought a person through from a parallel dimension."
"That wouldn't happen to be the two headed tigress, would it?" the inspector ventured.
"It would," George agreed. "Her name is Raquel. With the aid of a DSA spell caster named Forethought we a managed to send her back and close the gate. These two young ladies are friends of Raquel, sent over from the other world."
Kayleigh and Vicki waved at the inspector.
Inspector Samson took it all in without batting an eye. He glanced at Kayleigh and Vicki, then back at George. "How did they get here?"
"They were sent by a powerfully spell caster," George replied.
"We aren't entirely clear about that," George admitted. "Perhaps we should let the young ladies explain themselves."
"That sounds like an excellent suggestion." The inspector turned to Kayleigh and Vicki expectantly.
Kayleigh hated lying to cops but realized that telling the whole truth, in this situation, might not be a good idea. Besides, George had given her a line to follow and the inspector seemed okay with it. "Because we believe a threat from the Boston incident has made its way here. Unfortunately, being sent her had... unforeseen effects. Hence your conflicting reports about our health."
"Why?" the inspector asked. "What is it that made you think there was a problem, and why did you think coming here would help?"
"The magician thought there was a problem and sent us to check it out," Kayleigh explained. "Basically, we're here to warn. Believe it or not, traveling here is a lot easier than just sending a message."
"I'm not a sorcerer, so I wouldn't know," the inspector replied. "Who did you come to warn?"
"Super Collie, actually. We didn't have a contact point for the others involved-"
"And we don't even know all the parties involved since we weren't there the last time," Vicki interjected.
"-but we hoped Super Collie would," Kayleigh concluded.
The inspector nodded. "What's the danger you came to warn her of?"
Kayleigh sighed. "Something might be trying to come through to here. We're not sure, but the local magicians can check it on their end while we check it on ours."
"I hate to bring bad news, but apparently magicians are more common in your world than ours," the inspector said. "Dr. Lathasar here is the only one we have. Unless you count the Wizard of Christchurch." The inspector chuckled; Cymbeline's expression turned wooden.
"Then I guess it won't take long to talk to them all." Vicki smiled sweetly.
"What happened while you were gone, Kayleigh?" Cymbeline asked. "And why did Vicki come with you when you came back?"
"I saw what Vicki was seeing," Kayleigh began. "First-" she hesitated.
"It's okay, Kayleigh." Vicki sounded determined. "I can tell it."
"You sure, love?" Kayleigh stroked Vicki's cheek.
"I'm sure." Vicki took a deep breath. "I was a captive of some sorcerer named Spartil. For some reason I arrived in his garage. It was locked and I couldn't get out. He found me and chained me up." She hesitated a moment, then continued. What she related was exactly what Kayleigh had also seen.
"One moment please," the inspector interrupted. "Are you certain that these two women were alive when you first saw them?"
"Oh yes," Vicki growled. "They sure were. And there was evidence that he'd killed at least four others the same way."
"I see. Please continue."
Vicki did. Kayleigh gently stroked Vicki's cheek throughout. "Fortunately, a spell that had been cast on me by the magician who sent us through reached me and pulled me away," she concluded. She didn't want to say that Spartil had chopped her head off; the inspector seemed opened minded but he might not be that open minded. And besides, now that the moment had come, she really didn't want to talk about it. Jokes notwithstanding, she hadn't died anywhere near enough times to become sanguine about it.
"Where you ever outside the garage?" the inspector asked.
"No." Vicki shook her head.
"Did you see anything through the windows?"
"There weren't any. I couldn't even say what time of day it was."
"Any sounds? Traffic, telephones ringing, people talking? Anything?"
"I'm sorry, no."
"What were you wearing?"
"How was the temperature?"
"Comfortable," Vicki decided after a moment's thought. "Not too hot, not too cold. The floor was kind of chilly, though."
"Not much to go on, so far as finding him is concerned," the inspector commented sadly, shaking his head.
"I wish I knew where he was, I really do," Vicki put in.
The inspector clenched his fists. "I'll get my people to work on it right away," he said briskly, getting to his feet. "Oh, my dears-" he smiled at Vicki and Kayleigh; it was only half a friendly expression. "I trust you won't mind staying here until you're released?"
"We'll stay put in the hospital until we're better but after that, we want to help catching this guy." Kayleigh said. "In my opinion, serial killers belong in two places: jail and the electric chair."
"We don't use capital punishment in New Zealand," the inspector replied. "But otherwise I agree." He turned to go.
"Should we notify the SASVS?" George asked.
"And tell them what?" the inspector countered. "At the moment, we don't even know what to tell them to look for." He grimaced. "Besides-"
"They'll come in and start strutting around like they own the place?" George suggested.
Inspector Samson pursed his lips. "That might have crossed my mind, yes."
"I can call Major Wilkes," Cymbeline suggested. "And... there's something I'd like to try. It might give us a lead."
"Magic stuff?" the inspector asked.
"Yes." Cymbeline nodded.
"All right. Keep me notified."
"Will do." Cymbeline nodded again. The inspector withdrew.
"What would he do if I told him the truth about the 'woman in he park?'" Kayleigh asked of George in a soft murmur. "I hate lying to a cop."
"I think he's already more than half sure you are the woman in the park," George replied after moment of thought. "He's willing to let it go for now because you've given a bigger fish to fry."
"And the constables are still outside the door," Super Collie added.
"That too." George nodded.
"That's not going to work," Kayleigh insisted. "I-"
"We," Vicki corrected
"-want to help nail this guy." Kayleigh finished. "I will not let him get away with what he's done." Her ears lay flat against her skull; anger radiated from her in palpable waves.
"We know you do," Cymbeline interjected, before George could speak. She took both Kayleigh's and Vicki's hands in her own. "And-" Cymbeline's face lit up with an expression of unholy glee- "there's a way you can do that, right now, without ever getting out of your bed."
"How?" demanded Kayleigh, Vicki, and Super Collie, all at the same time. George said nothing; he merely watched.
"Kayleigh, you were by yourself when you arrived," Cymbeline said. "Vicki, you landed in this Spartil character's garage. Kayleigh's soul went to you for the last bit. From the way you described the situation, it sounds as if you had an actual, physical body. Is that correct?"
"You want to know how I had my own body?" Vicki grinned broadly. Even Kayleigh smiled. There was a mischievous twinkle in both pairs of eyes.
Cymbeline chuckled. "We can wait on that. For the moment, it's enough that you had one."
"How does that help?" Super Collie asked.
"A simple spell, with Vicki as the focus, will lead us straight to the location of her body," Cymbeline declared.
"What do you need?" Super Collie asked.
"A compass, and something from my office. Look in the cabinet marked 'Middle Kingdom Codices,' in the folder labeled 'Seti II,' item 726."
"I'll be right back." Super Collie hurried out.
"You can trace where this buttwipe to where he..." Kayleigh trailed off with a grinding of teeth.
"...killed me again," Vicki put in, soothingly. "It's okay to say it."
"Cyndi and Raquel are here too?" George asked.
"Yes." Kayleigh nodded. "Cyndi saw something dangerous and apparently leapt after it." She shook her head in disgust. "When it comes to her friends, she can be too impulsive."
"Impulsiveness isn't necessarily a bad trait," Vicki argued.
"It can be a very, very bad trait," Kayleigh shot back. "I agree sometimes you don't have the luxury of waiting around on your tail, but this was not one of those times."
"I suppose," Vicki grudgingly admitted.
George cleared his throat, gazing rather pointedly at Cymbeline, who looked somewhat abashed.
"Anyway," Kayleigh said to George, ignoring the byplay. "If you do find this guy, I was given another gift and it's a lot more useful. I can see magic- literally see it- in detail. If it's as fresh as I think it will be, maybe I can find the bastard."
"That's good to know," George replied. "A talent like that might be very useful. Now why don't you two relax for a bit? I figure things will be exciting enough as it is." His face brightened. "I'll go get some snacks. We could all use a bite, I'm sure."
"Absolutely!" Vicki agreed, eagerly. Kayleigh merely smiled.
Super Collie returned after about twenty or so minutes. She had a folder tucked under her arm, which she presented to Cymbeline. Cymbeline opened it and laid the contents on a table, producing a compass, photographic reproductions of several stele, and pages of neatly typed notes. She pulled up a chair and read through the notes, frequently referring to the photos.
"Did you talk to her?" Kayleigh eagerly inquired of Super Collie. "Are Raquel and Cyndi okay?" Vicki looked just as eager for the answers, if not more so.
"No, I didn't have the time," Super Collie admitted. "Will this take a while, Cymbeline?"
"Enough," Cymbeline replied, without looking up. "George'll beep you if anything happens."
"Thanks. Give him a kiss for me." Super Collie departed once more.
George returned, bearing sodas, sandwiches, and candy bars. Cymbeline caught the front of his shirt, hauled him close, and planted a wet one right on his mouth. "Super Collie said to give you a kiss for her," Cymbeline said after breaking contact.
George grinned. "Please tell her for me that she's a great kisser. Sandwich?"
"Thanks." Cymbeline took one and returned to her notes.
"You know," Kayleigh said wistfully, "Two years ago I didn't even know magic existed." She gratefully accepted a candy bar and took a bite.
"Hey, give me that," Vicki exclaimed. "Chocolate isn't good for dogs."
"Only half my digestive tract is dog," Kayleigh riposted.
"I know the feeling," George replied with a chuckle. "You hear stories, of course- the tabloids are full of them- but never expect to see it for yourself."
"I hope your experience was a lot more gentle than mine," Kayleigh said.
"I don't know," George replies. "My first personal experience with sorcery was Daughter Night trying to kill me."
"Mine was a serial killer disassembling his victims," Kayleigh said. "And keeping them alive, or trying to so he could feed off their pain. He got four before Death came to me and helped me stop him."
Cymbeline put her notes away, leaving only the compass, and rose to her feet. "All right, let's give this a try," she announced, rubbing her hands together. "Hold my gown, would you, George?" Without the slightest trace of modesty she pulled it off. She wore nothing whatsoever underneath.
"Certainly." George took the gown, folded it carefully, and lay it over his arm.
"Nice," Vicki whispered. Kayleigh said nothing; she felt a tingle in her loins and it wasn't just because of Vicki, either. Kayleigh liked muscular fems, and Cymbeline was that, without a doubt. Under other circumstances such a heavy build would have looked too masculine, but Cymbeline countered that effect with large, beautifully round breasts and broad, artfully curved hips. If pressed, Kayleigh would have to admit that she'd looked forward to the possibility of seeing Dr. Lathasar without her dress, when more important concerns did not intrude.
Cymbeline clasped her hands together and concentrated. And suddenly... she changed. Her legs fused together and transformed into a long snake body that was black with yellow speckles. Her torso shrank, its musculature and bosom diminishing to much ore modest levels... and sprouting two additional pairs of arms, one just above the bottom of her rib cage and another just below where her waist had been. Her pelt changed from tawny to pale gray with dark brown, ring-like markings with sharp outer edges and diffuse inner edges, like coffee stains left on a countertop. Her face changed too, from that of a lioness to that of a leopard. A clouded leopard, specifically, considering the spots.
"Wow," Vicki enthused. "That's as good as my little trick."
Kayleigh elbowed herself. "Better, even," Vicki fake-pouted.
"Sekhmet's great for blowing things up but I lose fine control in certain areas," Cymbeline replied, taking the compass and placing it in Vicki's hand. "This form's better for casting intricate spells. Now, Vicki, I want you to think as hard as you can about your body." Cymbeline began to speak in a language Kayleigh didn't recognize, drawing intricate designs with the forefingers of all six hands. Her fingertips left trails of fire hanging in the air which created glyphs that, to Kayleigh's admittedly untrained eye look Egyptian. As each glyph was completed it vanished into the compass as if sucked. Every time that happened the needle would jerk and spin, first one way, then another. Even after Cymbeline had completed the ritual the needle kept spinning for a time. Eventually it slowed, steadied... and finally aligned. Cymbeline studied it closely, then peered out the window. "Yes!' she exclaimed. "We have a fix!"
"Hooray!" Vicki exclaimed.
George drew a cell phone from his belt. "Can anyone use that?" he asked.
"Let's see." Cymbeline took the compass from Vicki. The needle twirled a couple times, then pointed at Cymbeline's chest. When she turned back and forth it stayed locked. The same thing happened when she gave it to Kayleigh. When Vicki took it back the needle returned to its original bearing and would not be dissuaded, however the compass body might be rotated. "I'm afraid not," Cymbeline reported. ""It only stays locked so long as Vicki's holding it."
"Well, well." The corners of George's mouth turned up. "It looks like you may yet get a chance to use that gun of yours, Kayleigh."
"I'd like to catch him alive in case he has any accomplices," Kayleigh said. "Corpses have a nasty habit of not talking."
"We can rectify that," Cymbeline replied, rubbing her hands together and turning back into a lioness.
Vicki giggled. Kayleigh suddenly looked sheepish. "Oh. Sorry. Forgot who we have on our side. Okay, maybe we don't have to take them alive. But-" she glanced at George- "there's the local police to consider. I'm shaky on my international law in these parts. Would you prefer he be taken alive?"
George placed a call, then returned his phone to its holster. "That depends entirely on the situation. Just because our officers don't habitually carry firearms doesn't mean we aren't prepared to use them. A multiple murderer, especially one who endangered the lives of the officers attempting to take him into custody..." he shrugged. "Of course we'd prefer to take him alive, but we don't expect our officers to sacrifice themselves either."
"Just wanted to check," Kayleigh replied solemnly.
Inspector Samson returned. George explained about the compass, stressing that it only worked while Vicki held it. Several doctors were called in and a long debate ensued; Inspector Samson insisted that Kayleigh and Vicki were needed to help capture a dangerous criminal but the doctors insisted that the pair could not be safely discharged. Making those basic points didn't take long at all, but they kept getting re-hashed in more pointed, and often more heated, terms. Vicki and Kayleigh looked at one another and shared a sigh.
Cymbeline was not nearly so sanguine. She crossed her arms and glowered; in time her tail started to lash, faster and faster.
Vicki and Kayleigh glanced at Cymbeline, then one another, and mouthed a single word: uh-oh.
Cymbeline uncrossed her arms and raised her right hand. Her palm emitted a dazzling flash, like lightning, accompanied by a deafening crash, like thunder. Everyone in the room stopped arguing and recoiled in shock.
"Subtle," Kayleigh muttered.
"Shh," Vicki whispered.
Cymbeline held her hand out, fingers spread. "Five," she pronounced. "There are five corpses laying on a floor in a basement." She closed her hand except for her index finger, which pointed accusingly. "When that number becomes six, which of you is going to explain to the parents, children, and siblings that you could have done something about it but decided you'd rather waste your time arguing about nonsense?"
"Dramatic," Vicki murmured, approvingly.
Inspector Samson seized the initiative and browbeat the doctors into submission. The doctors required him to sign a release accepting custody of and responsibility for the patients, which were disconnected from all the equipment and transferred to an ambulance. By the time all the preparations were done a convoy of police vehicles had formed up.
"You know, we do feel fine," Kayleigh insisted. "All this coddling isn't necessary."
"Maybe so," Cymbeline allowed, "But you were dead. Long enough that you shouldn't have recovered. I hope you can understand that the doctors are a bit skittish. Besides, why argue about it? At least we're moving."
"Point," Kayleigh admitted.
"That's okay. I don't mind being coddled," Vicki purred, looking up at Cymbeline and smiling.
Kayleigh the familiar tingle in her loins and gave herself a poke in the ribs. Vicki subsided with ill-concealed disgruntlement.
"I've notified Major Wilkes," Inspector Samson announced. "He'll mobilize his team and meet us en route. Cymbeline, he wants you to stay on the phone and call out compass bearings so he can plot a location."
"That's a rog," Cymbeline replied. George tossed her a fanny pack, which she belted around her waist with the pouch in front. From it she produced a cell phone and checked the charge.
Nearly everyone had mounted their vehicles but George remained on the ground, looking around worriedly. "What's wrong? Samson asked.
"Where's Super Collie?" George asks. "She should have been back by now."
"I'll go get her," Cymbeline volunteered.
"No." George caught Cymbeline's arm. "I need you to keep an eye on Kayleigh and Vicki."
"If Spartil or his creation comes after them, who's going to protect them?" George interrupted. "The police? SASVS?"
Cymbeline grimaces. "Oh, all right." She climbed back in, hoisting George one-handed without any apparent effort.
"Wagons ho!" George shouted, pulling the ambulance's rear doors shut.
The convoy got under way.
"Anything?" Morgan asked.
John sat back and scrubbed his face. "The technical term for what I've discovered so far is, I believe, a great big pile of fuck all."
Morgan dropped back into his chair with a sigh. They'd arrived safely in Auckland. A modest application of mid-affecting illusions had allowed them to check into a motor lodge. They even had a car. Morgan smiled, though without much humor. He told Gynavave that knowing how to hot-wire a car using a modified knock spell would come in handy someday, but she'd never believed him.
The real problem was that, at the moment, everyone had something to do except Morgan. John sketched away, performing divinations. Male Robin worked away at a laptop computer, looking for networks to invade. Female Robin was giving Glaive a blow job. Admittedly that last one wasn't forwarding the mission in any major fashion but Morgan didn't at the moment have anything more important for them to do.
Morgan propped his chin on his hand and stared off into space. What he really wanted to do right now was drill John's behind. That boy had the sweetest little ass Morgan had seen in a long time. It practically begged to be violated. That John didn't bend that way didn't concern Morgan in the least; in his life he'd talked dozens of devout heterosexual males into bed, and without even needing to get them drunk first. The seduction itself was half the fun, if not more.
"I'm going for a walk," Morgan announced suddenly bouncing to his feet. "Beep me if anything happens."
"Yes, Master," male Robin replied. Female Robin gave a thumb's up.
"Yeah huh," John muttered into his latest sketch.
Morgan marched out. The motor lodge was a quadrangle of two-story buildings with a pool in the center and surrounded by a parking lot. They'd ended up on the outside, facing the freeway; Morgan didn't worry about it because they weren't paying for the rooms in any case.
What really bothered Morgan right then was that they'd found no trace of Spartil whatsoever. John had searched, Morgan had searched, and both of them had found, as John so succinctly put it, a great big pile of fuck all. In Morgan's experience, no one could be shielded that well: there were always traces, if you looked hard enough. And yet, so far as Morgan and John could tell, Spartil simply wasn't here.
Could Phaeron have made a mistake? It was possible, of course, but Morgan hesitated to believe it. Phaeron had achieved his present rank and position by not making mistakes. When he said he knew where Spartil had gone no one questioned his judgement, not even the Blacks. And John had picked up evidence that Spartil- or someone, at least- had come here from Mundane Earth. Also, there were unmistakable traces of the Essence of Neverwas. If Spartil had fled he wouldn't leave that behind.
All of which left Morgan with the disturbing conviction that he was overlooking something. When it showed up he'd kick himself for having missed it... except that he'd probably find out about it when it leapt out and bit him in the ass.
John, meanwhile, tore the top page from his sketchbook, wadded it up, and lobbed it toward the trash can. It bounced off the rim and rolled into the corner with all the other wads. He stared at the pad hard enough to burn holes in it, then reached into his bag and pulled out a sumi kit. It came in a hand carved box; John opened it, wet the stone with a little water from his drinking glass, and started rubbing the ink stick on the wet surface. Once a sufficient quantity of ink filled the well he took up a brush and started drawing. Ordinarily he never would have dared use the sumi kit for something like this; it was his most precise and powerful tool, yes, but that very fact also made it dangerous. One tiny, insignificant mistake and a bloke could end up peeking out of his own arsehole. The sumi kit was for doing precise, detail work after the general shape of the situation had been roughed out using other media. Using it to perform a general divination was asking for it in the worst possible way. But what else could he do? None of his other tools had produced any meaningful results. Not even the oil paints, which were demonstratively his best medium. And anyway, he really didn't have a choice. The only other option at this point was to give it up as impossible. Morgan wouldn't like that. Edward really wouldn't like it.
A shudder ran up John's spine but it never reached his brush hand. If he screwed up with the sumi kit he'd be lucky if there was enough left of him afterward to fill the well in the ink stone. But that didn't scare him nearly as much as the possibility of getting on the wrong side of Lord Black. There were stories about how Edward had deposed the previous lord and taken his position. The worst part was, they were true.
In the middle of laying down a line John realized that he was, in fact, drawing an actual picture. His lips pulled back in a savage smile. "Damn, I'm good," he whispered under his breath.
Nevertheless, it took several more lines for John to make out what he was drawing. A fem; with breasts that size it couldn't be anything but. Plumpish figure, pointed face, small, round ears. A ferret or weasel, perhaps? No; completely aside from being a little butterball, she had a comparatively squat, heavy frame, and her mane and tail were too voluminous. A skunk, then. Yes; she had the characteristic blaze on her forehead. Sitting on something: a table, maybe, or a counter. Something hard, so it couldn't be a bed or a couch. Her legs hung over the edge, not touching the floor. If only he could see more of the fem's surrounding, perhaps it might tell him something useful-
John's hand jerked back, leaving a partially completed line and a few droplets of spattered ink. The girl seemed to be looking straight at him, with a quizzical look on her face. John's hand started to shake; he wasn't sure how but he knew with absolute certainty that he'd fucked up big time.
For a time Spartil simply stood there, staring at the mink's body. Because of the manacles it slumped forward instead of to the side; blood pouring from her severed neck had soaked her chest, belly, and legs, forming a pool under her. He glanced at the barometer in the corner; all the floats had risen to the top.
Now that the singing had stopped Spartil's creature seemed perfectly okay. She shook her head and sat up. A blob of blackness swallowed her torso, leaving only her arms, legs, head, and tail poking out. She lifted into the air, settling on her feet; the blackness withdrew back inside her. More spilled from her hand, sweeping across the bloodstained floor in a fashion that reminded Spartil of a tongue licking. Where it passed the pooled blood vanished, leaving only a mild stain on the concrete.
"Wait," Spartil called as the blackness expanded to engulf the whole body. "Umbriel, what happened?"
"Master?" she turned, regarding Spartil quizzically. Or would have been, if she'd had eyes.
"Umbriel," Spartil repeated, getting a mental grip on himself. "That's your name." He stroked loose strands of mane back from her face. "My dusky sprite."
"Oh." Umbriel smiled happily. "Thank you, Master."
"Now what happened?" Spartil demanded. "Why did the singing bother you?"
Umbriel's smile vanished, replaced by a doleful expression. "She shone a light into my soul," she mumbled, staring down at her feet and wringing her hands. "It hurt."
"You mean to tell me she was a Bard?" Spartil exclaimed, more in shock than anger.
"No, Master," Umbriel corrected. "The other one was the bard. The porcupine."
"The other one?" Spartil demanded. "How many were there?"
"Four," Umbriel supplied. "Well... three and a half, really. No- wait- yes. Three and a half, and one other, who was something else."
Spartil drew a breath to say something cutting. Instead he clamped his mouth shut and held it closed until he'd gotten control of himself. "What do you mean by that, exactly?" he inquired in a deceptively mild tone.
"The mink was only half a person, really," Umbriel explained. "But the husky was in there with her, and she- the husky, that is- was a whole person. They were connected together. Then the porcupine came along, but really there were two of her, one inside the other."
"And the other?" Spartil prompted.
"I don't know. She didn't look like anything at all."
"Where are they all now?"
"I don't know. After you chopped her head off-" Umbriel gestured to the mink- "the other one took them all away."
"Was this other one more like you, or me?" Spartil demanded.
"Well-" Umbriel struggled, frowning with intense concentration. "Like both of us, actually," she finally said. "She had the glimmer in her, like you do, only brighter, but she didn't have the... the warm sparkly bits like you. She had the cold sparkly bits, like me."
Spartil stared intently at nothing, puzzling through that statement. Umbriel sat on the edge of the workbench, idly kicking her feet. "Just a second," Spartil exclaimed, producing a blade of light. "By glimmer, do you mean like this?" He indicated the blade.
"Yes, Master." Umbriel nodded.
Spartil pointed at the dead mink. "What about her? I mean that?"
"There's no glimmer in her," Umbriel replied. "And almost no sparkly bits." She sighed wistfully. "in a minute they'll be gone completely."
Spartil's face slowly split into a huge grin. "Incredible!" he exclaimed, dancing about the room, laughing. "It worked! It worked!" Umbriel wasn't merely sensitive to magic and spirits, she saw them, the way regular folks saw light.
Realization interrupted Spartil's celebration. He'd been found. Maybe by people from Avalon or Mundane Earth, or perhaps locals, it didn't matter which. He might have killed the mink but her soul had been carried away, which meant it might be interrogated. Which meant she might be used to-
Spartil turned. "What are you looking at?" he demanded. Umbriel was staring off into space, exactly as if studying something of compelling interest, despite not having eyes.
"There's a funny little man looking at me," Umbriel replied.
Spartil's gaze flew to the barometer. All the floats were still at the top; not a one of them had moved so much as a millimeter. A surge of panic filled him; they were scrying him already-
No, wait. Umbriel had said the funny man was looking at her. Which wasn't so surprising, really; in creating Umbriel Spartil had done the thaumaturgical equivalent to setting off an atomic bomb. How could he expect people not to sit up and take notice?
"Could you go where he is?" Spartil inquired in honeyed tones.
"Yes, Master," Umbriel replied.
Spartil grinned wickedly. "Then do me a favor. Go kill him."
John let out a shriek and threw himself backwards. Only just in time, as it turned out; blackness spewed from the lines of the drawing like water jetting through cracks in stone. If he hadn't moved when he did the spurts would have caught him full in the face.
Glaive surged to his feet, kicking Robin away. He wasn't caught with his pants down; he wasn't wearing any. After accepting female Robin's offer he'd taken them off, precisely so he wouldn't be hampered if something like this happened. A crackling ball of blue-white energy formed in his palm, which he flung with all his might. The shadow jetting from the drawing splashed like water; John's sketchbook exploded in a shower of flaming fragments and the table broke in half. Glaive waded forward, flinging bolt after bolt, alternating hands for maximum rate of fire. Despite his best efforts the blackness kept spreading, until it filled a corner of the room.
Male Robin leapt to his feet, running for the door. John, screaming shrilly enough to shatter glass, dove across the bed. Female Robin grabbed him and followed male Robin. Glaive kept up the punishing fire, even though he was starting to pant and sweat from the exertion. The bolts he'd thrown so far would have blown half the building away, but the shadow simply absorbed them like pebbles falling into a dark pool. Male Robin finally got the door open, though in fact it only took a couple seconds. Robin, Robin, and John pelted out.
Glaive threw one last bolt and dove through the door, rolling to his feet and coming up running. He'd insisted on a first floor room so the party wouldn't be trapped on a narrow balcony or stairway if they had to run. Male Robin was climbing into the car; it wasn't locked, again at Glaive's insistence. His last action on earth was not going to be standing around with his thumb up his ass while someone fumbled for keys they'd given to someone else. If one naturally assumed that every second would count, one was ready when it did.
John and female Robin were already halfway across the parking lot and going for all they were worth. Robin led John diagonally, so that parked cars gave them cover against an attack coming out of the room, but Glaive suspected it wouldn't matter. It didn't; hardly had he taken a dozen steps when a jet of liquescent shadow erupted through the front wall of the motel after the fashion of water being wrung from a sponge. It floated in the air like smoke but no light showed through it, no matter how diaphanous it might appear. It was so intensely black it stood out by contrast even against the night sky and it had a definite surface that gleamed ever so faintly with an oil-like sheen. It streaked past Glaive like a negative comet, trailing streamers of darkness that rippled sinuously.
Glaive drew one of the knives that were always strapped to his forearms, even when he was in bed, and threw it. Silvery flame trailed from the blade as it flew; it struck the blob dead center... and vanished without trace. The blob did hesitate for a second, which allowed Glaive to catch up, using a burst of magically enhanced speed. He bowled female Robin aside, scooped John into his arms, and took off running for all he was worth, pouring every iota of energy into speed.
It didn't help. Glaive tore down the street as fast as a horse at full gallop, dodging oncoming traffic, but the blob caught up without any apparent effort. It opened like a blossoming flower, revealing a young, plumpish skunk fem with bone white fur and skin. Pulsating bands of shadow twined around her, holding her suspended in mid air. The black petals turned into pseudopods, reaching out to engulf John and Glaive-
A fireball flashed in from above and ahead. The skunk fem let out a yelp and flung up her arms to shield her face; a wall of shadow boiled up but not quite quickly enough; the fireball slipped past and detonated with a shock that made Glaive stumble. The blob burst apart into a cloud of ebon tatters drifting on the night air.
Morgan, wand in hand, pulled out of a steep dive and turned hard, paralleling Glaive's course and drawing ahead. He glanced back; maybe the fireball had done it-
No such luck. The tattered cloud reconstituted itself, drawing back together like an explosion in reverse. It leapt into motion as if it had no mass at all; hundreds of tendrils spun out from it, like the tentacles of a jellyfish, reaching for Glaive and John. Morgan turned and fired a lightning bolt; it slashed through the tentacles, whose distal ends puffed out of existence, and blasted a crater in the street.
A projection as sharp and straight as a spear stabbed from the blob. It would have skewered Morgan right through if not for his shields. He had three: a ring of protection on either hand and a third he'd cast himself. Nevertheless, impact nearly knocked him out of the sky. His shields coruscated brilliantly; he saw the point drill through the first layer and start on the second. In desperation he triggered his teleportation pendant; he appeared on Glaive's shoulder, grabbing him and John as hard as he could. The blob wasn't deceived, or had meant to attack anyway because another spear struck Morgan square between the shoulder blades. His second shield failed and the third trembled dangerously, but it lasted long enough for Morgan to trigger the amulet yet again. The three of them landed in a heap in the back of the SUV they'd commandeered.
Morgan's wings were not only in the way but being bent in ways they weren't designed for, so he made them go away. There were distinct advantages to being a flesh-shaper, even in situations such as this. Robin and Robin sat in the front seats, with male Robin driving; they were already tearing down the street at high speed. It had been Glaive's idea to back in rather than head in; now especially Morgan agreed that it had been a very good one. Robin crammed on the brakes and did a handbrake turn that nearly flipped them, but managed to recover with nothing worse than side-swiping a delivery van.
"Did we lose it?" female Robin asked. Her question was answered when something slammed heavily into the roof. Two protuberances- blades this time, not spears- slashed in opposing arcs, cutting an enormous, eye-shaped hole in the truck's roof. Morgan triggered his amulet again, carrying him and John back to the motel. He restored his wings, took a running start-
A wall of shadow popped up directly in Morgan's path. Despite that it rippled like satin in the air it felt as hard as concrete when Morgan caromed into it, head first. He reeled back, his eyes full of brilliant, multicolored explosions and his ears ringing, and fell in a heap.
John fell in a heap. He looked up and saw the wall collapse in on itself, revealing the skunk fem. Portions of her body, which hadn't been masked by shadow, were hideously burned; about three quarters of her face was completely gone, stripped to the bone. The outside of her left arm had been likewise ruined, though the inside was untouched. A gash like a sword cut opened the right side of her belly; she held the charred lips of the wound shut with her hand to keep her internal organs from falling out. Blood as black as pitch had oozed from the hole, staining the fur on her hand and all down the right side of her body. Even so, she looked far more annoyed that actually hurt. Lobes of darkness extended from either side of her body, reaching around in front of her. The rippling edges hardened, forming a double row of vicious looking spikes.
"Why?" John screamed in desperation. "Why are you doing this?"
The fem hesitated. What remained of her face looked, if anything, apologetic. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice muffled and distorted by the damage to her lips. "Master told me to kill you."
During the exchange John had been scooting backward. His hand fell on something familiar: the handle of his painting knife. His kit had been upset in the scuffle, his art supplies scattered all over the floor.
What John had really wanted to do with his life was paint. It had been a Black who identified his talent and brought him in for training; John served the Society more or less by default, not from any personal inclination. He feared Edward, but didn't really owe him any great loyalty. Being a Black had taught John one thing, though: that there were worse things than death. As he gazed at this- this monster, he found himself looking past the horrific appearance and seeing an ordinary young fem who really didn't want to hurt anyone, but had no choice because of what she'd been made. Yes, there were indeed fates worse than death.
John brought the knife up and slashed it across his throat. It didn't cut; the edge wasn't sharp. Despite its name the knife was actually more like a miniature trowel, meant for mixing and spreading paint. All it did was leave a smudge on his neck... but that was enough. John was a painter Bard; he saw the universe through his at but his art also created reality. With a gurgle he keeled over, dead.
Umbriel merely stood there. She could have grabbed the man's soul before it floated away, but Master hadn't told her to destroy him, only to kill him. In any case, she didn't feel like pressing matters. For one, the battle had hurt her a lot more than she'd expected. For another... somewhere, in the depths of her mind, she could almost hear the song the porcupine had sung while occupying the mink's body. Without the porcupine's power backing it up it didn't hurt any more, but it did something even more insidious: it seemed to echo around inside her head, and in so doing drew her attention to how... empty it was. Like a house with no furniture. Most disturbing of all was realizing that she'd never even noticed. She'd awoken, fully formed, on Master's workbench, just a short time ago. She hadn't cared then, but now she found herself wondering: was that all? The echoes of the song showed her shapes: not of things, but the places were things might once have been. It left her with a growing sense that she'd lost something terribly precious, made worse by the fact that she couldn't even begin to imagine what it might be. And it convinced her, against all reason, that to needlessly destroy this man's soul would be to throw away what little, insignificant shreds remained.
Still, he wouldn't be needing his body anymore. Umbriel knelt; black blades sprang from her fingertips, like claws; she used them to peel strips of flesh from the man's corpse, which she stuffed in her mouth and swallowed without chewing. The blades cut through skin, hair, meat, organs, gristle, and bone with equal ease, and Umbriel consumed it all without regard to its composition. As she ate her wounds closed, healed over by fresh, new growth.
Morgan groaned and woke up. His eyes opened just in time to see the skunk fem carve a big slab of meat from John's abdomen. He whipped up the fireball wand but she vanished in a puff of black. Morgan cursed and dragged himself upright. "Poor bastard," he muttered, looking down. Merely killing him hadn't been enough; she'd stripped hunks of flesh from his chest, arms, and belly. Morgan almost blasted the corpse with the wand, but put it away instead. He drew his pager, a small magical signaling device. "This is Morgan," he said into it. "Keep driving; I'll get the luggage and teleport to you."
Packing didn't take long; they'd only brought what was on their backs and there wasn't any need to take John's art supplies; to anyone else they were just ordinary paints and pencils. The power came from within; art was simply how John focused it. He triggered the teleport amulet and returned to the truck.
"What now?" Glaive asked, shouting over the wind noise.
Morgan didn't answer. He'd bet his eye teeth that they'd just met Spartil's latest creation. It had absorbed enough damage to level half a city block and barely even noticed, and they'd lost the only member of the team with any real chance of tracking it down. He didn't want to have to say out loud that he thought, barring a miracle, that they were well and truly fucked.
John awoke with a shuddering gasp, clutching desperately at his blanket. He flailed for the lamp on the end table and managed to turn it on without tipping it over. Looking around quickly, he saw a small, single-room flat with an attached kitchen, an old, battered couch, partially completed canvases stacked up everywhere, and a bookcase full of art books and art supplies. In other words, everything was exactly as it had been before he fell asleep in front of the telly. He'd recently completed a temp job that started at 5am, and his schedule was still out of whack. He scrubbed his face and took a drink of warm, stale soda. His hands shook slightly; the dream was still vivid in his mind. And it had been, far and away, the strangest one he'd ever had, bar none. In it, he'd been... well, himself, strictly speaking. But he'd also been a powerful sorcerer, working for a cabal of magic users. He'd done and seen incredible things... but most incredible thing of all was that he'd cast spells by painting pictures.
There hadn't been anything incredible about how it ended, though. John hurried about the flat, turning on every single light he had and aiming them so there weren't any shadows. His dream self had been sent, as part of a special team, to track down a rogue mage who'd stolen some powerful and dangerous items, with which he might either create a terrible creature, let loose an invasion of extra-dimensional monsters, or both. Dream-John had searched and searched... and finally found a cute skunk girl with enormous bazongas. But she turned out to be a monster...
John looked around quickly. His lighting wasn't perfect; there were still shadows, but they were ordinary, not the terrifying, ultimate blackness he'd seen in his dream, like holes cut in space. He started shaking again; you were supposed to wake up before the monster got you.
Though night had fallen John knew with absolute certainty that he wouldn't be going to sleep again any time soon. He switched off the TV and turned on the stereo. He liked listening to music while he worked, and the familiarity of it soothed his mind. He picked up a sketchbook. On the exposed page he'd begun a nude of Esmerelda, his fiancee. He'd finished her head, right arm, and part of her chest with colored pencils, but the rest of the figure was still only a rough sketch.
John couldn't help smiling. Esmerelda's presence, even by proxy, calmed his fears and renewed his courage. If she'd been there she would have kicked that shadow monster's butt. Because, as only a very few people knew, Esmerelda was actually Super Collie, New Zealand's greatest- and, in John's opinion, prettiest- super hero. Sure, Dr. Lathasar was pretty good on both counts, but she still couldn't hold a candle to his Essie.
Frankly, John would have liked Essie to be present just them. Or better yet, Super Collie. He glanced wistfully at the phone. But she was at work; she'd meant to visit him this evening but had called to say that last minute work had delayed her. John knew perfectly well that she never did overtime at her regular job; 'last minute work' meant her other job: being Super Collie.
On a whim John added a blue and gold bikini top and a matching cape, then re-drew the left arm holding a shepherd's crook. He placed the pencil point on the page, preparing to sketch in a bottom, but lifted it away instead. A strange, wonderful thought had popped into his head. He'd drawn hundreds of Super Collie pictures, and to be sure he never tired of them. But his dream got him to thinking: Why not a more... fantastic Super Collie?
In dream-John's world there had been fantastic creatures as well as magic. Sphinxes, unicorns... centaurs, even. Most were horses, of course, but there's been others, too. He's seen cat-taurs, dog-taurs, and even a skunk-taur. Almost of its own volition John's hand began sketching new lines, over the top of the existing ones. If Essie were a 'taur she wouldn't have a horse body; that would look funny. She'd have a dog body. A Collie's, since she was one. Her lower body would have a delightfully fluffy undercoat and a sleek topcoat. After brief consideration he decided that the saddle marking on her back would continue down over her fore-shoulders onto the back of her lower body, too.
Having roughed out the shapes John grabbed the colored pencils and started filling in the figure, relying on color and shading to define it rather than lines. In a remarkably short time he was done; he flipped the cover over and propped the sketchbook on the coffee table, then sat back and admired his handiwork.
"Oh, baby," John whispered, devouring the image with his eyes. Since it had started as a nude he'd given Essie a seductive, come-hither look. Her eyes positively burned with sensual promise; John could practically hear her calling. Are you as ready to try out my new body as I am?
"Oh, you got that right," John answered aloud, leaning forward and slipping a hand down the front of his sweats. Just thinking about it made him as hard as Chinese algebra. He pulled down the waistband and started stroking in earnest.
Orgasm was like running off a cliff. Furious activity, building, building... and then, freefall. John's eyes rolled back and he clenched his penis in a death grip. It discharged with such force that semen spattered the drawing. John slumped back with a sigh of contentment, his eyes easing shut as he drifted off to sleep, his mind full of lurid fantasies. Because of that he didn't notice the semen sizzling like grease in a hot skillet, then sinking into the paper and disappearing.
Zalika came back to life with a gasp, her eyes snapping open. She got quickly to her feet; her skeletonized hand functioned normally, despite lacking flesh.
"What happened? Is everything all right?" Raquel asked.
"Vicki and Kayleigh are safe for the moment, but they're still in danger," Zalika replied. "I returned both their souls to Kayleigh's body, but Vicki's body is still is the necromancer's workroom. If he has the skill, he can use it to track her down."
"Does that mean we can go the other way?" Cyndi asked. "Use Vicki to find her body?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact," Zalika responded. "Which is why we need to get to New Zealand as soon as possible. We may be able to track Vicki's body before the necromancer ditches it, and we definitely need to get there before he uses it to send his wraith after her." Zalika bit her lip. "Even an ordinary wraith would be bad enough, but this one is much, much worse. It destroys all life. Even the undead." She wiggled her skeletal fingers for emphasis. "Not even the power of Anpu can stop it."
"There is a defense," Cyndi asserted. "The wraith herself. She's not evil, she just doesn't know any better. But she can be made to know better, I think."
"Then let's get going." Raquel balled her fists.
"I agree," Zalika concurred. "Raquel, would you go find Darya and ask her to pack for a quick, low-profile departure?"
"Will do." Raquel hurried out.
"Is there time for me to get a small harp?" Cyndi pressed. "I need it, Zee. It'll help."
"The harp was her instrument, Cyndi," Zalika said, her gaze fixed intently upon that personage. "Do you understand the risk you're taking by using one yourself?"
"Yes." Cyndi immediately responded. "What this guy's done could end everything. Who or what I am can't be important next to that."
Zalika caressed Cyndi's cheek with her left hand, then crouched to bring their faces level. "It matters to me," she said softly. "In you I see a beautiful and vibrant spirit, full of joy and life. It would... hurt me terribly to see it go away."
Very deliberately Cyndi took Zalika's right hand, the skeletal one, and squeezed it. "Thank you." She smiled. "You, huh? What about me? I mean did you see that robe? Honestly my past self had no taste."
Zalika cracked a smile. "She might say the same about you, short stuff." She tweaked Cyndi's nose. "I'll help you find you a harp."
Raquel, meanwhile, discovered that the 'quick, low-profile departure' turned out to occasion any number of small delays, which added up to a positively interminable wait. She wouldn't have cared for it even if her friends' souls weren't in danger. If she'd still had a tail it would have been lashing in vexation.
Darya watched as Raquel paced, back and forth, back and forth. "Raquel, you said you're studying to be a masseuse, didn't you?" she inquired. "Since we have to wait anyway, would you mind giving me a massage?" Though, in truth, Darya worried far more about Raquel's tension than her own; Raquel looked about ready to explode.
"Sure," Raquel agreed, brightening. She'd always liked giving back rubs and she was intensely relieved to have something to do other than wait. "You wouldn't happen to have some good oils, would you? No, we may have to move quickly. Might take to long." She sighed regretfully. "Oh well. Here looks good." She patted a low couch.
"Your hands are soft enough on their own," Darya commented, gently stroking Raquel's palms. Then she stripped and lay down on her belly.
Raquel stroked Darya's shoulders, back, and buttocks, gently kneading them with her fingertips. She glanced at Darya's vulva, visible because she had- deliberately, Raquel suspected- lay down with her legs apart. Under other circumstances Raquel might have succumbed to the temptation to cop a feel; Darya had an absolutely gorgeous body, and just the sort Raquel liked: nicely curved but firm, nicely but not overly muscled. But too much had happened too quickly, both here and back home. What Raquel found herself really wanting was someone to talk to. "How long have you and your father been working for Zalika?" she inquired.
"You don't really want to make small talk with me," Darya replied.
"No," Raquel admitted, her throats tightening. "Do you mind if I bend your ear? I really, really need a fresh perspective."
"Not at all. Keep those hands busy and you can do whatever you want." Darya sighed happily, closing her eyes.
"Deal." Raquel smiled, but the expression fled almost as if formed. "I... wish I didn't feel like I was whining. I mean, what with everything Vicki, Kayleigh, and Cyndi have gone through... what have I to complain about? So what if I quit my job? I've got a fat loan, courtesy of some friends, towards starting my own massage parlor, something I've always wanted to do. I even have two lovers. So what if I feel like I'm the odd woman out? That's just jealousy, isn't it? And don't forget my health. Picture perfect, that's me. Of course, the best doctor around is so unsure of my insides he wants to appoint a committee to study me... under controlled situations. Then there's my brother, back in my life again. We never were very close, mainly because he's twenty years older. But every time I look at him... I feel there's something there. Something dark. Oh, and did I mention? My old boss hit on me. Made it clear that he finds me attractive and would like to pursue a relationship. I used to dream about guys like him: rich, handsome, and intelligent. I'm... not used to having malefurs hit on me like they mean it."
Darya's eyes opened, gazing off into space. "Do you know, I've never seen another Karkadann other than my father? He told me... that there was a war, a long time ago. The Moslem invaders swept into Iran, and the Sassanian Empire fell before them. They hunted us down and killed us, because their holy men told them we were demons." She fell silent. "I have a good life," she continued in a softer tone. "Ms. Corby is a kind mistress, and showers us with the rewards of our labors." She looked back over her shoulder, directly at Raquel. "But sometimes... maybe I too feel like the odd one out."
"Yeah," Raquel commiserated. "I know what Vicki and Kayleigh mean to each other. If she hadn't run away to California... Kayleigh wouldn't be available for me to love. Now with the way they are... how can I mean the same to them that they do to each other? I don't want to come between them... but at the same time, I couldn't even if I wanted to."
"Zalika tells me that love is where you find it, not where you seek it," Darya observed. "Maybe... there's an opportunity there."
"To do what? I wish I could see it. I'm not very wise in matters of love and relationships."
Darya shrugged. "I... don't think I'm really the one to advise you." An edge of bitterness crept into her voice. "What do I know about love?"
Before Raquel could respond someone knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for an answer. Khusrau stood there, in his armor, and with a bow and quiver slung over his shoulders in addition to his sword.
Raquel froze, with her hands on Darya's buttocks. "Uhmmm... hi."
"Sorry to interrupt, but it's time to go." If Khusrau thought anything of what he saw, his face gave no indication of it. Having delivered the message he withdrew, pulling the door shut behind him.
"Right... right..." Raquel cracked her knuckles. "Maybe we can finish this another time, huh? Darya?"
Darya smiled. "I'd love that."
Raquel hurried after Khusrau. She didn't feel like she'd actually resolved anything, but what could she do? Grouse about having to rush off after fuming at the delay?
Khusrau led Raquel to the lowest level of the hotel's parking garage. There she found a sleek, fiberglass cabin cruiser sitting on a trailer, parked right in the middle of the traffic lane. Someone had painted a pair of eyes on the bow.
Cyndi and Zalika were already there. The very first thing Raquel noticed about them was that Cyndi carried a harp. She held it as if it were a bomb with a defective fuse, which might go off at any moment. Every so often she'd raise slightly trembling fingers to the strings, but every time she let her hand fall without making contact. Her eyes seemed to flicker between green and lavender, depending on lighting, how she held her head, and no apparent reason at all.
Raquel gaped. "What are you doing with that, Cyndi?"
"I might need it." Cyndi's voice was small and quiet.
Zalika put a hand on Cyndi's shoulder. "Do you remember what I told you just before we left Providence?"
"Yes." Cyndi nodded. "And I try. I really do. I just wish... it was easier." She clutched the harp. "I feel the rightness in this... and it scares me, because it was her favorite instrument. There's so much pain in it..."
Zalika gently lifted Cyndi's chin. "I told you to listen to your heart. I want... if you're going to use this harp, I want to make sure that it's because it's the right thing to do. Not because you have to, or it's the most expedient way. I told you that your music calls what's in your heart, didn't I? If pain is what that harp brings to you, pain is what your song will bring to everyone around you." She paused. "If that's appropriate... then do it. If not... maybe you should seek another path."
"There's things I can do with it that aren't pain," Cyndi said. "I just... don't now if I can channel the power neccessary without risk. If I don't have to use it, I won't. But my heart tells me it might be the only way." Abruptly, she gave Zalika a kiss. Not a friendly one but on the mouth, as one lover to another. She wasn't an experienced kisser, but whatever she lacked in skill and experience she made up in passion.
Raquel blinked, all four eyes at once. Cyndi was straight, and so she'd been for as long as Raquel and known her, but that kiss had been about as straight as a campaign promise. On the other hand, Raquel would never have expected Cyndi to not only strip in front of an audience but show pink to boot. Something profound and probably very important was happening, and Raquel wasn't at all sure how to take it.
Zalika put her arms around Cyndi and held her tightly, tears leaking from her eyes. "Thank you, little one," she whispered, the returned the kiss. "The light of your love will guide us through the darkness."
"If we make it through this," Cyndi murmured, "would you...I want you to make love to me. Please?"
Both of Raquel's jaws dropped.
"Of course." Zalika nuzzled Cyndi's face. "Whatever you wish." Zalika let go. "Now we have to be on our way," she added, offering Cyndi her hand.
And I actually have the nerve to bitch about my life, Raquel thought sourly. If Cyndi can do this... I can get over my hang-up with Vicki and Kayleigh. And I will.
Cyndi took Zalika's hand- the skeletal one- and stroked it. "I'm ready."
Darya hurried up. She wore a leather cuirasses and kirtle reinforced with metal plates, bracers on her arms, greaves on her legs, double bandoliers loaded with dozens of long, slender throwing daggers, and a belt with two short swords, one on either hip. A metal cap, pierced to pass her horn, protected her head. A screen of chain mail hanging from the back shielded her neck.
Zalika turned to Raquel. "I can get us to New Zealand quickly, but it'll cost," she said. "If you give me some of your energy, I'll be able to do it and still be in a condition to fight, if necessary, when we arrive."
"Absolutely." Raquel smiled grimly. "Take what you need; I've got plenty."
Zalika nodded. "There's two ways I can do it. The quickest would be to drink your blood, but I don't think my teeth will pierce your skin. Or-" she smiled- "we can try the other way. It'll take a little longer, but I think you'll enjoy it more."
"I knew it." Raquel smirked. "All this is just a scheme to get in my pants. I'm on to your master plan, you, you... delectable!"
Zalika grinned, licking her lips. "There's advantages to being an expert in Tantric sorcery. Up in the boat, sweet cheeks, unless you'd rather do it right here."
Cyndi perked up.
"I certainly don't mind," Darya put in.
"No," Raquel said firmly. She smiled at Zalika. "I'd be a liar if I told you I hadn't dreamed about it."
"Aw," Cyndi pouted. "You're no fun."
"Up, then," Zalika directed. "We're burning daylight."
Raquel mounted to the boat's cockpit. Eagerly, she had to admit. And, maybe, with just a tiny pang of guilt. But... it was for a good cause. She'd tell Kayleigh and Vicki about it when she got the chance. They'd probably find it deliciously kinky.
Zalika followed. In short order Raquel found herself seated in the cabin, skirt up, panties down, legs apart. "I have to say... I never thought I'd see Cyndi try another fem," she observed. "You're lucky."
"I believe she may not have been heterosexual in other incarnations," Zalika replied. She knelt on the deck, admiring Raquel's vulva with evident delight. "Joining with Kayleigh may have influenced her as well." Her fingers, soft and gentle yet firm, strong, and insistent, stroked Raquel's crotch. Raquel's eyelids fluttered and she drew a sharp breath; Zalika seemed to know exactly where and how to touch in order to elicit maximum sensation. In a matter of moments Raquel's labia minor pouted invitingly, so wet they were practically dripping. Her nipples were so hard they ached. Raquel grabbed her top to breasts, one in each hand, and squeezed.
Zalika draped her arms over Raquel's thighs, lowered her head, and got to work. Her tongue stroked Raquel's crotch, caressed her labia, and teased her clitoris. Slowly, playfully, it entered Raquel's vagina, tickling the Grafenberg crest. Then it reached deep, and all the way around, in the fashion of a dog licking out the inside of a glass.
"Ohhhhh..." Raquel gasped, freeing a hand from her bosom to rub between her necks. Her doubts, fears, worries, and all other features of her conscious mind vanished under wave after wave of white hot pleasure, like farmland covered by a flooding river. Zalika's tongue was not only very long but amazingly dexterous and muscular, and she wielded it with consummate skill.
When orgasm burst upon her Raquel threw back both heads and roared. She stopped when she ran out of breath but the pleasure kept coming; either it was the longest single orgasm Raquel had ever experienced or a whole sequence of them, arriving one on the heels of the previous. When it finally abated Raquel could only lay there, gasping for breath, while Zalika got to her feet, licking crusted fluid from her muzzle. Raquel felt like jello, but Zalika looked obscenely fresh and bright. "You have... the most... amazing tongue," she exclaimed. She was purring so hard it almost hurt.
"Thank you." Zalika bent over and bussed Raquel's cheeks. "It was good for me, too." Zalika's pelt seemed somehow even darker than usual, and her eyes so bright they positively glowed. She opened the cabin door and beckoned to those waiting outside. "Mount up!" she called.
Cyndi came up first. "You are no fun," she complained to Raquel. "I showed you mine."
"Bite me," Raquel responded archly.
"Ready for another round already?" Zalika inquired, grinning wickedly.
"I sure am," Darya declared, vaulting into the cockpit. "Judging from the noise, it was quite a show."
Raquel ignored the by-play with a queenly disregard, but the truth was she wouldn't necessarily say no. The thought of another round with Zalika... perhaps maybe sharing a body with Darya... Down, tigress! she commanded herself sternly. Heel!
"Where did Vicki's body end up?" Cyndi wanted to know.
"Good question," Raquel chimed in, secretly glad for the change of subject. "And long do we have to get there?"
"So far as I know, Vicki's body is still where it was when she died," Zalika announced. "I haven't been able to check, so I can't be certain. As to how long it takes to get there, the answer is not long at all, but it won't be pleasant. We'll be traveling through the Underworld, with Apep hot on our heels."
"Well, I could always tell him to go away again." Raquel shrugged.
"Again? And who's Apep?" Cyndi wanted to know.
"Apep is a giant snake that tries to devour the Barque of Ra while it passes through the underworld on the way back to the land of the dawn," Zalika explained. "Ra and Horus fight him off, most times."
"That's what Cymbeline told me." Raquel nodded. "He tried to break out last time I was here. I told him to get lost, and he did." Raquel kept her tone light, but her expression and body language suggested that it troubled her deeply being able to do that.
"You won't be able to send him away, Raquel, because you'll be in his world," Zalika cautioned. "You won't be facing his avatar this time, but his personification."
"I know... but Vicki's and Kayleigh's lives- or more- could be at stake," Raquel said. "If it looks like he's gonna eat us, I'll do what I have to."
Suddenly Marko appeared. "Ms. Corby!" he shouted. "You have a call! From your sister!"
"Sister?" Cyndi inquired, perking up.
Zalika frowned. She steps to the rail and Marko handed her a cell phone.
Cyndi and Raquel glanced at each other. Zalika had never mentioned a sister before, and she didn't look happy to get a call from her either. What could be happening?
"Hello?" Zalika began. Someone at the other end spoke rapidly and loudly. "Raquel and Cyndi are with me, and they're fine," Zalika continued. "I don't have time to explain at length, except that Cyndi and I were helping Vicki and Kayleigh, which is why they're still alive now. But it's imperative that you find Vicki's body as soon as possible. Spartil could use it to attack Kayleigh. You must go with them. Spartil's wraith is... made from one of the creatures we fought at the Sackler gallery, just before Raquel went home last time. I don't think Cymbeline has the strength of skill to fight it on her own." A sharp sound came from the phone, like a shriek. Zalika jerked it away from her ear. "Hello?" she asked. "Hello?" She glanced at the display and frowned even more; the caller had disconnected.
"What?" Raquel demanded. "What happened?" Cyndi readied her flute, her jaw set.
Zalika returned the phone to Marko, her expression distant. "Kayleigh and Vicki are with Dr. Lathasar, going to look for Vicki's body. And... someone cast a spell on my sister."
Another phone rang. Marko dug it from his pocket and switched it on. "Marko speaking," he announced. "I'm sorry, she's busy right now." He frowned. "I... see. One moment." He handed the phone up to Zalika. "Ma'am, it's Tinka."
Zalika took the phone and put it to her ear. "Yes, Tinka?" Her brow furrowed. "I see. I'll be there directly." She hung up. "Cyndi, the people you saw in your vision are tearing up my casino in Malaysia."
As she approached the casino's entrance Jessica firmly resisted the urge to shudder. She'd laughed to hear how Zalika had tied Phaeron and his minions in knots, but she wasn't laughing now. The stories, told over drinks in a casual Black hangout, had a dashing, Robin Hood feel to them, which appealed to Jessica's fundamentally wild, chaotic nature. In retrospect, Jessica realized that she'd let herself think of Zalika as a free spirit, like herself. Now she could see how very, very wrong she'd been.
The casino's main building imitated the form of an ancient Egyptian temple; the towering, blockish facade suggested the First Pylon of the Great Temple of Amun at Thebes, what was now Karnak. Instead of an avenue lined with ram-headed sphinxes there was a looping drive and a plaza where limousines, tour busses, and taxis could load and unload. Flanking the entrance, though, were a pair of red granite obelisks, and from her association with Eddie Jessica knew enough about ancient Egyptian culture and religion to know that they weren't fakes. They were new but the inscriptions on them were not only real hieroglyphs but formed an actual message: the one on the right was a prayer to Isis, goddess of magic, and the one of the left a prayer to Bast, goddess of sex and sensual pleasure. Most telling of all was that Zalika had offered the prayers in her own name, inscribing it as a royal cartouche, as if she were a pharaoh. Either it was a joke, delusions of grandeur... or the simple truth, as Zalika saw it.
It wasn't any stretch for Jessica to stop and stare up at the obelisks and the facade of the casino itself, structurally smooth and plain but decorated with intricately carved and brightly painted hieroglyphs; others were doing it too. Jessica wasn't simply marveling at the architecture, though; she was thinking about all these people, come to drink, eat, gamble, and... what else? Jessica's gaze dropped to the greeters flanking the doorway, who smiled, waved, and exchanged pleasantries with everyone who passed. On one hand she thought of how much it must cost to have people standing around like that; it was deliberate ostentation, a boast of wealth. It was something else, too, Jessica was certain: she couldn't help noticing how beautiful, and incredibly sexy, they were. Combine that with the fact that Zalika was supposed to be a skilled and powerful flesh-shaper... and those beautiful greeters took on a whole new meaning. Come, they said. Give yourself to our mistress, and know pleasures of which the mortal mind can only dream. Jessica knew something of dreams, and what people would give to fulfill them. Money was the least Zalika could ask for, and people would pay, oh yes they would.
A shiver ran up Jessica's spine. When Eddie and Phaeron had given their warnings about Zalika Jessica had interpreted them to mean that Zalika didn't bow and scrape to the Societies. Now Jessica found herself thinking that they'd meant exactly what they said. Jessica resisted the urge to finger the lyre fragment in her pocket; unconscious mannerisms were the one of the quickest ways for an undercover agent to give herself away. She came very close to giving up and returning, but caught herself even as the impulse formed. A person who thought only in terms of power and advantage wouldn't have done what she did for Cyndi, and especially Vicki. Besides-
Besides, Jessica really didn't have any choice. People who did think only in terms of power and advantage were slowly but steadily drawing the noose around Cyndi's neck. Zalika had power: enough for all this, as well as fighting Phaeron to a standstill, and she'd treated Cyndi as a person rather than a commodity. Jessica strolled through the entrance, exchanging pleasantries with the greeters. As she did she felt their eyes on her, and not figuratively, either: something brushed her wards, like stroking her fur with a feather. Jessica's estimate of Zalika's ability rose a few more notches; the greeters weren't only for show: they had real powers. Some sort of magically enhanced vision, it seemed. Not much use if someone really wanted in and wouldn't take no for an answer, but for sure if anything happened to the greeters it would attract the attention of something much more serious. Jessica grinned with something approaching her normal effusiveness; she'd bet her left tit that any creature Zalika built would be as sexy as it was deadly.
Beyond the entrance Jessica found herself in an enormous hall. A row of columns with lotus bud capitals and bodies decorated with hieroglyphs and paintings bordered the main floor, forming a walkway around it. Shops, boutiques, and cafes lined the outer wall of this concourse; inside, past the columns, were the games. Nothing but what one would expect in any modern casino, but they embraced the Egyptian motif to the hilt. Painted statues presided over the rows of slot machines, which had ankh-shaped handles and displayed hieroglyphs on the reels instead of traditional symbols. The post in the center of a roulette wheel was four hawk-headed figures with long beaks sitting back to back. The craps tables looked like papyrus boats. The cards at the card table showed pharaohs, priestesses, and scribes instead of kings, queens, and jacks.
The greeters weren't flukes, either. All the staff members were beautiful, and wore costumes that showed their gorgeous bodies to best advantage. Even the people working the concession stands and sweeping the floors could have been super models. Jessica ogled sha melessly and by so doing fit in perfectly; everyone else was doing it, too. The staff encouraged it with flagrant come-ons.
Beyond the great hall Jessica found herself in a long gallery lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars. A grand staircase led up to a second level, lined with event rooms. The events had some rather interesting names, too: Het-Heru's Boudoir... Caligula's Bath... The Old Absinthe... The Alter of Sacrifice... The Harem.... The Pleasuredome... the Houses of Assignation... Circe's Garden... The Dungeon. These rooms weren't open to the general public so Jessica couldn't see what went on in them without buying an admission, but she could imagine all sorts of lurid possibilities.
Near the distant end of the gallery Jessica paused. She'd inscribed a rune that would home on the strongest source of necromantic energy in the area; it pointed her into a place called the Teapot Speakeasy. The door was real iron, studded with enormous rivets. A vision slit allowed the doorman to study prospective patrons before admitting them but for now that wasn't necessary: the door stood invitingly open. The doorman looked suitably intimidating: an enormous bull with an artistically scarred face, wearing an impeccably tailored mohair suit. He nodded and tipped his fedora as Jessica entered.
A torch singer in a slinky dress the color of fresh blood crooned a 1930's standard into a microphone that was also period, or at least looked it. Tables filled the floor in front of the stage; waiters brought food from the kitchen and drinks from the bar. A raised section of floor, approximately crescent shaped, contained a number of semi-private tables, set off from one another with partitions while leaving patrons a clear view of the stage. Jessica strolled down onto the floor, looking around with the appearance of idle curiosity, nevertheless noting all the salient points. She allowed a waiter to escort her to a table and ordered a drink.
The detection rune indicated one of the semi-private boxes. Looking that way Jessica beheld a black jaguar fem in a pearl white halter neck evening gown. The bodice was low cut, elegant and stylish without heavy decoration, framing an impressively large and well-formed bosom. What the gown and the individual looked like below the waist Jessica couldn't say; her viewing angle didn't let her see. Moving upward, the fem had a long, voluminous black mane that hung down to here waist. She wore it loose, without combs or pins. Her nails were also black, not to mention long and sharp. Her teeth protruded from her mouth, a set of fangs a smilodon would have been proud to own. Nor did the pretty gown in any way disguise the fact that the body beneath it was ripped, ripped, ripped, impressive bosom notwithstanding. The sleek black pelt covered muscles that bulged and rippled beneath it like pythons under a sheet. Jessica had seen male bodybuilders with arms and shoulders not nearly that heavy and well sculpted. On a fem it should have looked grotesque but it contrived not to, in no small part because the frame underneath was proportioned to match the muscles. Not masculine, quite, but much thicker and heavier than would normally be the case for a fem, even such a heavily built one.
The fact which captured and held Jessica's attention like no other was that there appeared to be no chairs in the fem's box: she sat on the floor. Yet Jessica saw her, in spite of the partitions, because even sitting down she was taller than the waiters who occasionally stopped by to serve her. Jessica estimated that while standing the fem would be more than twice the height of an average person: eleven and a half to twelve feet, more or less. Moreover, her whole body- the visible portions, at any rate- were built on the same scale. The container from which she sipped her drink was a commercial coffee urn and her meal was an enormous roasted turkey that must have weighed thirty-five pounds. Which she picked up one handed and casually stripped of flesh the way a lesser person would strip a drumstick.
Something rose up from behind the partition and took the urn while the fem dabbed at her face with a napkin that was probably actually a table cloth. It looked like an enormous, thick snake... no, a tentacle. With smooth, black hide on top and a double row of suckers underneath. At the tip was a thing that looked something like a cross between a raptor's beak and a crab claw: it tapered to a hooked point but had only a single cutting plane, like a pair of scissors. The top edge of the upper half formed a serrated edge which ran from a chisel point at the tip to a backward facing spur that slightly overhung the base. Another tentacle rose up and took the napkin, holding it gently with the nipper. On the other side a third rose up, gripping a leg of the turkey and plucking it off with no visible effort. The fem set the urn aside and took the leg in her hand, nibbling on it while the nipper which had removed the leg took the turkey and set it back on its tray. The nipper holding the napkin passed to the hand which had originally be holding the turkey.
A few moments of surreptitious observation confirmed that there were four tentacles, two on either side, attached at waist level where Jessica couldn't quite see from her present angle. It also revealed a double row of small, finger-like polyps, mounted just outside the rows of suckers. Each polyp housed a slender, curved claw, like a cat's, which also retracted like a cat's. The suckers and polyps ran from just behind the nipper to a point about a third of the way out from the body. The inner third of each tentacle had fur instead of bare hide.
For a time Jessica abandoned her observations and watched the show. As she'd come to expect, not only the singer but all the band members were physically perfect, lacking any blemishes whatsoever except those like the doorman's scar, which were clearly for effect. The tracer rune continued to indicate the tentacled jaguar fem as the strongest source of necromantic energy in the vicinity.
To Be Continued