Fantasticoe 
2009

 

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Fantasticoe 
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Betsy Casey

Walk the Night

An Urban Fantasy

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Welcome to my world

     Given the darkness and the disrepair of the sidewalk, there was no reason why she should be striding down as if it were broad daylight on Main Street. In broad daylight, however, she would be long gone, asleep.

     The bar's sign flickered slightly as she passed under: Haiven's Haven, Open 24-7. Whoever had spelled it for enduring glow would be hearing from Haiven soon--he was a man who did not like to be cheated. It was quiet tonight, but then, it was two AM on a Tuesday. "You'll be wanting your usual, I take it, Kasha?" Haiven asked, raising a slanted eyebrow as she took a stool at the corner. Small earrings marched up the edge of one of his blunt-pointed ears.

     "Yeah," she replied with a grin. "Thanks, halfer."

     "Sure thing, sucker." He popped open a bottle and poured the contents into a mug for her, sliding it over to where she sat.

     She took a sip, rolling her eyes. "Bastard."

     "Hey, my parents are married."

     Laughing, Kasha left the half-elf to deal with the other customers. Someone deep in the shadows in the corner of the bar wolf-whistled.

     "George, don't try to hide. I know that was you."

     He faded into view as his shadow slid off him. "Aw, how'd you guess?" he complained as his symbiotic Shadow made rude gestures at her from the wall.

     "Lessee... I've known you since you met your symbi, you like to be annoying, and you're the only person I know who's stupid enough to whistle at a terulea?" Kasha smiled, giving the lie to the insult, and took another few sips of her drink

     "Fine, ruin my fun." He took one glance at what she was drinking and pulled a face. "I don't know how you can drink that stuff. I wouldn't drink anything magicked-up if I could possibly help it."

     A soft laugh. "Care to donate to a worthy charity, then?" Kasha raised an eyebrow and shifted slightly in her seat. "The Feed the Hungry Kasha Fund?"

     "Oh no, don't start that. You know your whammy doesn't work on me, not anymore. You keep to your potion, Malglorious Thoughtsucker, " he indicated her mug, "and don't be eating any of my emotions."

     Kasha snerked at his newest nickname. "Fine, ruin my fun."

     George stood and left his payment at his place. "Screw you, and I'll see you at the Council meeting tomorrow," he laughed over his shoulder.

     "Up yours, and sure thing." She'd almost forgotten.

     Haiven came back over and nodded to the sign above the door; No Predation Permitted. "For a moment there, I thought you'd forgotten Rule Number One. This place is certified for a reason, you know."

     "Nah, we do that kind of thing all the time, you know that. Comes with the power."

     "You ever consider going the traditional way, instead of drinking an emotion-potion?" Haiven asked idly. "Heard it's coming back in fashion, and you being the Lady Terulea and all..."

     "Pfft." Kasha dismissed the notion with a flick of her hand and tucked a bit of black hair behind her ear. "The 'traditional way,' Haiven, means working in a brothel. There's no other even semi-legal way to get fed, and the tastes are pretty limited. With the supplement, I get 'variety with every sip.'" She grinned as she quoted the most recent advertising jingle.

     He raised an eyebrow.

     "That's not to say I don't enjoy a fresh meal," she amended, "but the variety is nice all the same. Most people don't feel very strongly, I'm afraid." She took her last sip and the spell on the liquid let a gentle wave of joy wash through her. It tasted faded and fake like it always did--after all, it was synthetic--but at least she wasn't hungry anymore.

     Haiven nodded, accepting that in his usual calm way. "Heard there were Skeptics hanging about. They wouldn't dare mess with my place or anyone in it, not with the Neutrality Certification, but you might want to take the roof-road tonight. I wouldn't want that group of human-supremacy salach'nialhai to give any of my customers any trouble."

     "Skeppies aren't what they used to be," Kasha reminded him, impressed with his vocabulary as usual. She hadn't heard that particular Elvish word before. It sounded like 'nightsoil-buggerers,' but she wasn't certain.

     He was right of course. When the Winged Knighthood of the angels and dragonkin, the Shifter Alliance of the shapeshifters and were, the Nightwalker Council, the Magic-User Parliament, the Elvish Council of Lords and the City Council all agreed that a place was neutral, anyone sane knew that disturbing the peace would be plain suicide. She bit her lip. But the Skeptics had never exactly given the impression of sanity. Sure, they weren't like they were ten years ago, but they were...

     "Plenty dangerous enough, when you get enough of 'em in one place." Haiven was getting his stubborn face on, so Kasha jokingly raised her hands in surrender, banishing her own dark thoughts.

     "Fine, fine, I'll take the roof-road." She paid her tab and slipped out the back door, encountering a gangly young guy with freckles, curly red-brown hair, and an innocent face. Even so, she was slightly unnerved when his nervous eyes fixed on her and she caught a taste of despair/desperation/fear.

     She walked quickly around the corner, climbing up the fire-escape ladders to the roof, jumped the narrow alley, and headed off. She waved to the family that lived up here, and the one who was awake at the moment waved back, then crouched back down onto his corner and resettled leathery wings.

     The roof-road was unnerving for the novice and near-suicidal for the uninitiated. A network of ladders, catwalks, bridges and gangways that connected most of the city's buildings, it was a veritable highway for any knowledgeable person with little fear of falling. She knew the roof-road well, and speedily made her way across the city and back home, jumping from a catwalk to her apartment's tiny balcony. Sighing, Kasha slid open the door, closed and locked it, and drew the thick black curtains, which would keep out the morning light when it came. It was routine now, after six years.

     Six years? Was it really? She checked her calendar. Six years ago yesterday, since she was turned into a terulea. Yawning, Kasha headed into the kitchenette and took a bottle of emotion-potion out of the fridge, letting it thaw on the counter for her breakfast-to-come. Then she headed into her bedroom, climbed into bed and drifted away. She didn't dream. People like her didn't dream.

     They remembered.

     He was bright, laughing--blond and confident, singing Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" like he had no cares and no shame, his eyes strayed towards her more times than could be coincidence, and she blushed. Cautiously she approached the karaoke stage.

     Before she could put in her request, he had intercepted her, and the look in his eyes made her melt. He didn't use a pick-up line. He didn't need one. One look, and she felt more alive than ever before.

     He introduced himself as John Nemis, and he asked her about her day.

     Three months later, he revealed himself as the terul Nemisva and offered her immortality.

     Two years later, he died, starved from solitary confinement in a Skeppie holding cell, and there was nothing Kasha could do to save him. So she took his name, in his honor.
 


Nightwalkers

     She knew what it looked like. A lone woman, dressed well, was a target. She felt him approach and smiled to herself. Overconfidence/cruelty/anger, all dulled by stupidity. Of course, the linked-circle badge of a major security company was invisible to him at his angle, but she kept on walking to work. This was some gang or another's territory, but this guy must have been new, or he would have known not to--

     He got too close, reached out, and she interrupted her own thought to turn, grab his arm, jerk him off-balance and pin him facefirst against the wall. He turned his head to save his nose from breaking, looking over his shoulder. Eyes met and he froze as Kasha grinned and pumped up the power that George called her 'whammy.'

     He was already surprised and frightened, struggling against the hold she had on his wrists. She didn't even have a vampire's strength, but this guy had the feel of a born thug, unused to being taken down, much less by a woman lighter and shorter than he. It was just too easy to take his emotions and spike them. She took him up to the peak of astonishment and horror before drawing in the energy, leaving him limp, numb and spent. Kasha let him go, and he slid down the wet wall to fall in a heap at the bottom. She let him sleep it off, and went on her way, grinning at the red-haired young man who crossed her path. Mm, terror, the breakfast of champions.

     The night was uneventful at the security station where she worked, except her boss wanted to know whether there were any truth to the reports of berserker shapeshifters on the loose. She'd heard nothing like that, but told him she'd listen close.

     "And I've got tomorrow night off, right?"

     He checked the computer, glanced up. "Tomorrow's Thursday?" His eyes asked another question, and she nodded. He made a quick adjustment. "Yeah, that's right."

     She and her boss had an understanding. He let her off no-questions-asked on Council nights, and she kept him updated about any dangerous Fantastics at large in the area where his family lived. That didn't keep him from wearing a bit of dried garlic around his neck when she was on duty, but she didn't mind it and didn't feel like letting him know the stuff was useless on her--she was a psychic vampire, not Dracula. But hey, his anxiety was a nice snack.

     She took the bus home. Her fellow passenger in the otherwise empty vehicle was a familiar face under red hair, which bothered her. She was seeing him everywhere lately. She sipped of his fretfulness and tension, and when she got off the bus, he stood as well. But he was at the back of the bus and she was near the door, so he didn't quite make it before it closed. There was a burst of frustration from him, then the bus drove off and she forgot about the guy.

     When she was back home, she called ahead to make sure she had a cab and checked her Council clothes. Thankfully none of it needed cleaning--all-night cleaners that actually took orders after dark tended to be watched by the Skeppies. She laid it out as a reminder to herself as the sun began to think about rising.

^

     She paid the cabbie and watched him speed off. She supposed she couldn't blame the old man for being a bit frightened by the dark facade of the Nightwalker Council Building and the small hunched forms of the goblins guarding the door. But he knew his duty--he'd be back at the end of the night. If he didn't, he'd cost his company the business from city 'Tastics who didn't bother with cars.

     The goblish doormen bowed her into the building and she turned a corner, stopping in front of their psychic.

     Goblins were a form of fae, but what the fae called 'dark'. This psychic was a prime example of their kind--a pale gray humanoid with adult proportions, but smashed and twisted into the size of a small child with jaundice-yellow eyes and a whiny, clicky accent. A goblin had played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, Kasha knew.

     The goblin stared at her left ear as he read her aura to confirm her identity. After an inspection that was just long enough to make her annoyed, he bowed as well. "!sha Manemis, Lady Terulea, you may enter the !cil Chamber."

     The goblin's accent bugged her every time--already on edge from the intense yet indirect yellow stare, she thought the least he could do was try not to click the first syllable of her name. It was part of the reason why she never bothered to learn his. Kasha itched to whammy him for a snack; Council meetings could get long. But then again, this was a goblin, and goblins didn't scare well, much less the few sensitives of their kind. Besides, he was a servant of the Council; he had immunity. Thwarted, Kasha nodded at him and, holding her breath against the smell, passed by him and through the door into the anteroom.

     'Tastics tended to be very territorial--her kind were among them, given their urban leanings and predatory natures. However, unlike the majority of Fantastics, many Nightwalkers had been born pure and remained part-human, at least in mind, so the Nightwalker Council was not only a regulatory and legislative agency, but an excuse to gather the family and friends and yammer after the formal meeting. The Council ground was sacrosanct, certified neutral like Haiven's, which defused the usual tension. It was a place where the masks came off.

     However, masks or no, some things just had to be in order. The anteroom had a mirror and a digital camera connected to a screen, so that the council members could check their appearances before entering the chamber itself. Kasha glanced at the mirror, adjusted her shadow-gray silk tunic a trifle, brushed the seams of the loose matching pants. The steel drop on its delicate chain was slightly off-center on her forehead--she shifted it carefully, and disentangled a bit of hair from the chain. Her other steel ornaments were fine. Silk and steel: silver was too bothersome to have around vampires.

     She took her place at the oval Council table, between the Lady of Ogres and George, whose symbiote was the Lord of Shadows. George flashed her a smile, the Shadow waved, and she whispered a greeting to the two of them.

     The leader of the Nightwalker Council, Lady Sangra, took her place and tapped the ebony mallet against the black-iron gong. "Those who walk the night have gathered; those who lead them have come; let the Council be joined," she intoned. The entire mood changed as beings relaxed out of the ritual opening and got comfortable. Sangra shuffled her papers, shook one loose from a clawlike nail, and flashed long, bright fangs in a brief smile. The vampiress proclaimed, "First, old business... Lady Harpy, how are the negotiations with the Winged Knighthood going for improved airspace right-of-way?"

     The bird-woman rolled her eyes and croaked, "Slowly. Uppity angels get too much into their damn Dante. I swear, if I hear one more reference to the Forest of Suicides..." She shook her head. "The Dragonkin are a bit more sympathetic, and we're making some progress there. Talons crossed that Knight-Captain Zxxiae of the Dragonkin can back us up before Knight-General Mikhail." She knocked on the wood table with a claw.

     Sangra nodded, sympathetic. "Hopefully that will be resolved soon. That's it for old business, isn't it?" She checked her papers. "Right. Did anyone have anything they wanted to mention as far as new business?"

     Kasha spoke up. "Pures in my area are talking about berserker shapeshifters. Does anyone know anything about that, or should we start looking for wendigo nests again?" Wendigoes weren't shapeshifters but they certainly caused a hell of a lot of damage.

     George shuddered at the thought. "Please, not wendigoes. Anything but wendigoes. I, for one, don't want a repeat of the debacle two years ago." The Shadow nodded frantically against the wall. Wholehearted agreement was voiced throughout the chamber, and Lady Sangra promised to mention it to the leaders of the Shifter Alliance first chance.

     When the taxi came again later, Kasha slid in gracefully, but stopped short when she saw the red-haired man through the opposite door's window. He looked exhausted, in complete disarray, and when she shut the door and the taxi drove off, Kasha felt his frustrated despair spike.

     She decided that the next time she saw him, she would do something nasty to him. Annoying stalkers.
 


An unwanted roommate

     It was Saturday when Kasha entered her apartment by the roof-road with dawnlight shining on her back, and froze as the sound of breathing whispered in her ears. Her head whipped slightly to the left, pinpointing the sound. The emotions she tasted were strong and familiar: frustration/fear/despair, overlaid with exhaustion. They came with illustrations which mainly featured her tearing out his throat or perpetrating other forms of mutilation and vivisection upon his helpless person. In other words, a typical pure-blooded human. Imaginative, but typical.

     She crossed into the main room, and unlocked her door. The pattern of his breathing changed as he woke from his doze and began to scare himself into an adrenaline rush. Kasha opened the door and, surprised, he fell backwards. She sighed, staring down at him. "You again."

     Hauling him up, she moved the pure out of the range of her door, closing and relocking it. Black eyes swept over him, inspecting him. The man blushed, his emotional smorgasbord gaining a tinge of embarrassment. The pure didn't speak, but Kasha expected his voice would be high and awkward because if he was over twenty, she was an imp. His dark green eyes were terrified.

     "What do you want." Kasha was too tired to make it a question. She didn't have to be nocturnal like a vampire, but the sun was rising and it had been a long night, working a double-shift. She'd never be able to sleep if she ate now, so she let him be.

     "I-I-I-I..." She was surprised to find his voice closer to baritone than tenor, but the stutter met expectations. Rolling her eyes, Kasha sank into her armchair so she wouldn't tower so much over his cringing form. He scooted over to the other one, some three feet away. She leaned forward. Her lips were dry, so she licked them.

     The guy broke out in a sweat. "A-Are you gonna eat me now?"

     She snerked at the way he squeaked. The guy was way overreacting. "Frankly? No. I don't eat people."

     He stopped tearing his lip to bits. Slowly, watching her reaction with the wariness of a mouse by a cat, he moved up into the other chair.

     Maybe not so typical a pure. She raised her eyebrows. "So, you show up for no apparent reason outside my door. Are you going to leave anytime soon?" She knew she was being snappish but this was the wrong time of day for Happy Terulea.

     The guy looked determined. Or maybe he just needed to go to the bathroom. "No. I can't."

     The terulea raised her eyes to the ceiling and threw her hands in the air. "Whyever not? I'm tired, you're freaked out, and you have no good reason I know of for being here. Now scurry on off to the Skeppies and tell 'em you've found a Fantastic." Kasha flicked her hand in a shooing motion, closing her eyes and letting her head loll against the comfy chair. She could afford to be casual about that. If he tried, she'd leave him frightened witless and unable to remember his own name, much less where she lived. The sleep deprivation would be worth it.

     "I said. I... I can't. Really can't."

     Kasha's head came up and her eyes opened. "You're shitting me."

     "I..." his cheeks reddened, "A witch cursed me." He shuddered. "I can't walk away from an a 'Tastic until I learn about them, and I... I can't talk to... Skeptics. You're the second Fantastic I've met--I had to follow a pixie until I'd learned enough to get away." Pixies were mischievous, high-pitched flying annoyances, and had about as much brains in their heads as flies. Kasha nearly felt sorry for the poor guy.

     Nearly. Witches tended to make the punishment fit the crime. He must have done something nasty to piss one off. Or maybe she'd been taking pity on the ignorant kid. Either way, it meant that... "I'm stuck with you until you learn all about teruli?" Kasha swore. And then kept on swearing.

     Her new "friend" seemed impressed by her lack of repetition except to add more adjectives. She finished with the longest and most descriptive invective she knew, an Elvish word that meant, loosely translated, "utterly useless illegitimate insectoid which lives in moldering middens and feasts on the feces of feral dogs and outcasts." Elves like alliteration.

     "Impressive. Not a word of English to be heard," her new roommate commented. "Spanish, Japanese, German, Elvish... I couldn't quite identify the other two."

     "Three. Draconic, Goblish and Dwarven." Kasha sighed, her frustration spent for now. "Does this mean I have to be diurnal until you go away?"

     "No, I don't want to be too much of a bother. I'm mostly a night person anyway. My name's..."

     Kasha waved a hand in a 'shut up' motion. "Don't want to hear it, sir stalker. Your name is Melvin. Call me Kasha. Good morning." She got up and entered her bedroom.

     He followed her. "But..."

     "You get the couch. Shut up and go night-night." Kasha shoved him out the door and closed it.

^

     She woke to the sound and smell of frying bacon, and she wasn't groggy like usual. Kasha hoped that was an auspicious omen for getting Melvin the hell out of her apartment. The extra energy helped her mood some, though.

     "Breakfast?" Melvin must have seen her shadow on the wall as Kasha entered the den/kitchenette. He was washed up, but still wearing the same clothes she'd seen him in every time.

     "I don't eat solids."

     "Just blood, then? I found some bottles in the fridge and set one out for you."

     "That's... nice. It's not blood." As much as she wished he hadn't gone through her food supply, she supposed it couldn't be helped. Kasha flopped into one of the folding chairs at the kitchen table, resting jaw in hand. "Do you dream much?"

     Melvin glanced over at her. "Yeah, why? I didn't disturb you, did I? I didn't think dreamwalking was a vampiric trait."

     Sitting up straight, Kasha pinned him with her eyes. "First thing, Melvin. I'm not, repeat not a vampire. I'm a terulea."

     "I've never heard of them."

     That didn't ring quite true, but Kasha was willing to write it off as paranoia--most people hadn't. "The species is generally considered an offshoot of vampirism. Or maybe the other way around." She grinned at him, making him jerk back automatically. "Oh chill out." She tapped one of her fangs. "See, they're too short, I can't get a good bite. Teruli are psychic vampires. We eat emotions, dreams, nightmares, yadda yadda yadda. Which is why I asked if you dreamed last night. I woke up more energized than usual."

     "So you can read my mind?" Fear/embarrassment/anxiety came with that, mostly involving her mutilating him.

     "Only if you have detailed mental images of whatever you're thinking of. So technically, no. I knew you were by my door last night because you were catastrophizing. It takes a larger mouth and greater strength than many 'Tastics have to tear out a human throat, by the way." Melvin gulped, paled. "Oh don't be so squeamish. I'm just being realistic."

     "You're creepy."

     "Six years walking the night tends to do that to anyone. You're what? Nineteen?"

     "I turned twenty-one last week." Now the bacon was on a plate and Melvin ate slowly, eating around the places where the fat was still floppy.

     Okay, so Kasha was an imp. "Happy birthday, Melvin. So anyway, you're young and you're new to the city. You'll get used to it."

     "How'd you know I was from the 'burbs?" Half of her hoped that he would lose that innocence soon, before he got hurt. The other half hoped he'd never lose it. It was... refreshing.

     "I have ways. Now, I've got work. You have to follow me, right? Or can I leave you here for..." she tried to remember her schedule for today, "six and a half hours?"

     "Since this place belongs to you? I think I can stay."

     "Fine." She pushed herself up and away from the table.

     "Um..." she heard, and paused, looking over her shoulder. Mel was twiddling his thumbs in what she suspected was a nervous tic. "Do I owe you rent? Since I'm your roommate now. Ish."

     Ish? Kasha tried not to laugh at his way with words. "If you feel you must. Just keep the place clean, buy your own food and don't mess with my room, and we should be fine, Melvin."

     He took a moment, uneasy, then made his own counterterm. "...If you're going to call me that, can I at least be Mel?"

     Kasha sighed. "Can't Torquemada anything." Her parents had been fans of classic movies.

     "...What?"

     "Nothing. Sure, Mel." Kasha grabbed her shoulder holster and her uniform jacket while Mel cleaned up his breakfast dishes. She left a note with the super and her landlady that she'd taken on a responsible (she hoped) roommate unexpectedly, so a second key would be appreciated at earliest convenience. Kasha supposed they would think she'd turned someone on accident.

     It was strange: though vampires were more common, most people, even other 'Tastics seemed to have more of a problem with their dreams being eaten. It didn't make much sense to her. You could die from blood loss, but you just got tired and numb after a run-in with a terul.
 


I'm drunk on dreams

     Another boring night. One druggie trying to force his way into "his house", the gatehouse of the business complex where Kasha worked, but he was genuine rather than a distraction for a more serious break-in--that had been tried before on her beat. She escorted him from the premises, and he wandered off. She dutifully logged the proceedings in the occurrence file, and when her relief showed up at four, she stood, stretched, and clocked out.

     When the gatehouse was out of sight, Kasha ducked against the wall, loosened her .45 in its holster and started climbing, placing her fingers in seemingly-random holes in the bricks. She didn't feel like paying for a cab again.

     Walking the roofs of the city gave her an idea that would help get Mel off her hands, and off the hands of most other 'Tastics he was likely to meet. The All-Fantastic Moot was coming up, and it was her turn to accompany Lady Sangra. Surely she could work something out with the Council about bringing him along.

     She came home to find him reading in the armchair he'd occupied the night before. He must have found the bookshelves in her room. Which meant he'd broken the 'don't mess with the room' rule already, but she wouldn't call him on it just yet. Reading was harmless.

     Kasha deliberately stepped on a creaky board to let him know she was there, fighting down an urge to giggle at the way he started, then said, "Mel, I have a question for you."

     He paused, looked up. "Yes?"

     "If, say, you were with me and saw another 'Tastic, would you stay with me or would you be forced to follow the one you'd just met?"

     "Are we assuming I haven't learned the truth behind teruli yet?"

     Of course. "Yeah." Of course, if she could just introduce him to someone and get rid of him that way...

     "Then I would still have to follow you. Why?"

     Crap. "Just an idea."

     Mel gulped slightly. "Are you trying to... get rid of me?" His tone asked an entirely different question.

     Rolling her eyes, Kasha explained as if to a small child, "If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead. Trust me. As it happens, I'm impressed with your 'curse' and it pleases me at this point to have a food-source close at hand." 

     Okay, so maybe that was a bit dramatic, but Kasha really couldn't resist screwing with him a little; his overreaction was just too funny. She fought down another giggle. "Bguh... buh..."

     "Chill, Mel. What's your problem now?"

     The man's eyes were bugged out. "I'm a food source?"

     "Duh, Mel. Just because I don't eat what you do, doesn't mean I'm out to kill you, numbskull. Dead people don't feel and don't dream. Get that through your thick gr!th head!"

     A timid knock distracted both of them. "Ms. Nemis?"

     Jacket covering her holster, lips covering her fangs, Kasha rolled her shoulders back and checked the peephole. Whats-her-name, the widow from 325B, two doors down. She opened the door. "Yes, Mrs. ...Green?"

     "I heard yelling, are you well?"

     Kasha shifted to block the busybody's view of her apartment. "I'm all right. It was my TV. I'm sorry for the disturbance. I'll turn it off immediately and go straight to bed." She didn't even have a TV. There was no point to it, in her mind. All those emotions onscreen and she couldn't taste a single one.

     "I think that would be best for you, dear, instead of watching those mind-rotting shows." The older woman tottered back to her apartment. The terulea shut the door and latched it, turning back to Mel, who had returned to his book.

     He was the perfect reader, one who imagined the goings-on in his head as he read, creating waves of colorful ideas, connections, and images that washed over her like a tide. Letting her consciousness float on the waves of mental pictures, she slowly, slowly drew them in. Mm, Treasure Island. She grinned, leaning against the door, as her energy levels rose and inhibitions dropped one by one. She'd never tasted anything like this.

     Mel looked up. "So that's what it feels like. And you look stoned. Or drunk."

     "Mm?"

     "Kasha?"

     "Mm?"

     "Can you hear me?"

     "Mm-hmm. With you in a sec..." Kasha was too busy savoring the taste to think. She slid back into herself. "Zhiak... S'good." Her smile softened as her vision fuzzed. "What were y' saying?"

     Mel shifted slightly, "I said you look stoned."

     "Yeah?" Kasha laughed. "Naaah... jus'... yum. Lots and lots of ennnnnergy." Had she retained any function in her frontal lobe, she would have known that she couldn't handle it, not all at once. As it was, she was surprised when the floor rippled and rose to meet her.

^

     "Ugh..." The tiny line of light between the curtains was like a laser-beam. Each thread of her clothing and the bedsheets pressed into her skin. Kasha could hear Mel's breath rasping through his lungs, his heart pounding a steady rhythm, all around her. She was in... her bed. When did that happen? She was talking to whats-her-name, she was closing the door, she was... oh.

     "Siallach cameill, I've got a fugging hangover." Ow. Her voice echoed in her ears.

     It's not really a hangover, whispered an annoying piece of her mind, it's more like a sugar crash.

     "Shut up," she informed that voice. Slowly, carefully, Kasha rolled over and slid a leg off the bed, then the other. Careful... Every nub in the pile of the carpet pressed against the soles of her feet, her clothes hung heavy on her hips and shoulders, she could feel every hair on the back of her neck... she took a tentative step towards the door.

     Kasha blanked out again, but when she came to, her hand was on the door. Okay so far. She leaned against it... just for a little bit. The clock on the wall read 12:47.

     She slid down the door to curl in a heap at its bottom.

^

     "Awake again?"

     The voice was familiar. Kasha opened her eyes and a face flickered into view off to her right. "Melvin." The name came out harsh and dry.

     "That's right. Are you okay now? Feel like sitting up?" He didn't have to be so nice. It was almost condescending, but... Melvin and condescending just didn't work together. Kasha blinked again, realized she was staring blankly at him, and looked away. She was neatly tucked into her bed. It smelled like him.

     "Thanks." Her voice sounded more normal now. "I hope I didn't embarrass myself. What did I do?"

     "Huh? Oh, when you went nuts? You started talking and then you fainted."

     She screwed her eyes shut and sighed. "Zhiak. Well, it could have been worse. I could've started singing."

     Mel coughed slightly. "Yeah."

     Awkward silence reigned. Eyes met, then darted away. Mel stared at the ceiling, then glanced down; the terulea examined a wall, then glanced sideways--like pinballs, their gazes struck each other and shot off in other directions. Neither could think of anything to say.

     Suddenly, Mel stood from where he crouched by her face and plunked himself down on the end of the bed. Sitting up and shifting her foot slightly to avoid his butt, the terulea broke the silence. "So, are you always that imaginative?"

     A blink, a half-smile. "I didn't have a TV growing up, and didn't really have the money for the movie theater, but there were books all over my house. I learned to read instead of letting TV and movies be my imagination."

     ...Well. She could appreciate that. "Good for you."

     He laughed softly. "You know, you had this impression of power from the moment I saw you on the bus. Self-assured, confident, graceful. I never thought an abomination would have a weakness like that. Heh. Imagination overload."

     Kasha opened her mouth, when part of what he said hit.

     "What did you call me?"

     Mel paled.
 


His world comes tumbling down

     "No, no, I didn't mean that, I really didn't..."

     Kasha could really only think of one kind of person that would call a Fantastic an abomination. "You're a Skeppie."

     "Organization for Human-Fantastic Relations officer," he muttered.

     "A Skeppie." Kasha glared at him, prepped her whammy.

     His frantic expression made her hesitate, just long enough for him to plead, "Please, please, let me explain."

     "Talk. Fast."

     "I didn't lie. I grew up in the Organization, yes. My parents are high-ranked officers. I just started solo missions for the Organization..."

     "Harassing people who didn't do you any harm, just because they're not pure human," Kasha interrupted snappishly. "Yeah, yeah, get to the point."

     Mel swallowed. "I. I um. There was a witch. Only the briefing didn't mention that she had elvish senses along with elvish power. She heard me coming and caught me out. And then she cursed me."

     "Laid a mental compulsion, more like. A geas, they call 'em. And...?"

     He ran a shaking hand back through his hair. "What I said was true. I... couldn't talk to anyone in the Organization. They kicked me out, and my family shunned me. I followed a pixie until I learned enough to get away, and by then... I had no idea where I was. So I got on the bus and saw you."

     "Certainly explains why you haven't changed clothes since you showed up," Kasha mused, narrowed eyes still fixed on him. "All you have is the clothes on your back and your wallet?"

     "Yeah. Um. And, well, these." He fished into his pocket and showed her a handful of cross-necklaces--silver, pure iron, wood, salt-filled, water-filled...

     Kasha whistled. "Thought you came prepared, did you?"

     Blinking, Mel choked out, "What?"

     "Hate to break it to you, but I know quite a few religious 'Tastics," she removed the holy-water one from his hand, "salt just tastes good to fey," she removed the salt one, "most elves and elvenkin have built up immunity to iron," she removed the iron one, "silver can hurt a vampire, but it's more like an mosquito bite than anything truly deadly," she removed the silver one, "and this one looks good on you." She tossed the wood one back to him.

      He paled more with each critique. "I. I um."

     "Welcome to the real world, Mel, where you don't have to be human to be a person."

     Mel bit his lip, clutching the cross.

     Crossing her legs under the blanket and leaning forward, the terulea caught his eyes and held them. He flushed scarlet. "Are you really that frightened of me?" she murmured.

     "I, um. Um." He crunched down. "It's just. Um."

     Halfsmiling, Kasha raised an eyebrow. "Mel, honestly? You're intelligent enough to find your way around not talking to your fellow Skeppies. If you were going to kill me or capture me, you would have done it when I was asleep or KO'd. Why didn't you?"

     "The cur--"

     "I repeat, you're intelligent enough to get around stuff like that. Why didn't you?" Her hand shot forward and took his collar, forcing him to look at her.

     Mel didn't meet her eyes, but only muttered, "Because there's nothing left for me there." He stood and started to leave the room. Unable to think of anything to say, Kasha watched him go. Then she choked out a word. "Wait."

     He hesitated, hand on the doorknob.

     "If you're ex-Skeppie, a pure..." she frowned, trying to figure it out.

     "What?"

     "Then how are you such a good projector?"

     Mel blinked, not expecting that at all. "What?"

     Kasha continued her musing. "I've never met a pure with strong enough projection to get me that drunk that fast, Mel. I didn't even have to use the whammy. It's got to be either vampiric, elven or fae blood. They're the ones that pass psi or magus potential to part-human children."

     This rendered him into shocked speechlessness. Five seconds, fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, and he finally squeaked out, "What?"

     She hesitated. Mel felt so frightened, she almost hated to confirm what he obviously still feared. But... "You're 'Tastic," Kasha concluded. "Have to be."

     "No. No no no no..." Mel fled the room. She heard the front door open, but didn't hear it close. Kasha stood, slightly unsteady, and followed Mel. He was halfway through the front door, but seemed frozen in place. Were it not that she could feel his frustration and see the muscles in his neck cording out from the strain, she would have thought he was frozen.

     "I'm sorry," Kasha said softly, so her words wouldn't carry outside the door. "I'm sorry that you had to find out that you're not pure human from a near-stranger, and I'm sorry you're not allowed to leave. But that your 'curse' can work on you this strongly is yet another sign that you can't be a real pure."

     Mel slumped against the invisible restraints against his departure, and took a step backwards into the apartment, shutting and relocking the door. "What does grr-click-thh mean?"

     Kasha let him change the subject. "You mean gr!th? Well, when two goblins of the driilv sex get very drunk and have no spiritmates..." She trailed off, grinning at his expression.

     "Now I'm sure I don't want to know..." A very red and chagrined Mel buried his face in his hands. "Well, at least I know shiak and I'm not afraid to use it."

     Kasha couldn't help it, she cracked up. "It's zhiak... shiak means 'hairball' in Dwarven..."

     Mel joined her after a moment, and the tension eased. He sighed. "So you really think I'm part-Fantastic?"

     Kasha looked him over, trying to pick out some idea of what he was from his appearance. "Yeah. I really do." Problem was, he looked so completely like a pure. Neither very tall nor very short, neither deathly pale or tinted any color but blush-red, round pupils, round ears... There was no hint that she could pick out, except that he was a strong empathic projector and had a vivid imagination.

     "Any idea..."

     "None whatsoever." She grinned. "Have any relatives the family doesn't talk about?" She headed for her armchair and he followed, curling up in his.

     "Heh. None that I know of. But then... Never really asked, either." He looked up from entwined fingers. "Is there any way I can find out for certain?"

     "They say Mother Sixclaw can tell you exactly what you are, from what side of the family, and how far back." As far as Kasha knew, she wasn't even exaggerating. "But you'd probably have to tell her something she doesn't know, or answer her newest unsolvable riddle. Sphinxes can be like that."

     "Well, I'm sick of staying in this apartment. If you don't mind guiding me to this Mother Sixclaw..."

     "Going stir-crazy? Sure, fine."
 


When at college, do what the Sphinxes do

     Mother Sixclaw was the queen of a college of sphinxes who lived across the city. Truly, that's what they called themselves, like a hunt of vampires, a fog of ghosts, a college of sphinxes. She only admitted beings that interested her. The terulea hoped that Mel was interesting enough to warrant an audience. She knocked. "Terulea and human outside! Answer the door, don't try to hide!" Mel glanced over with a raised eyebrow at the rhyme.

     A golden, cat-slit, almond eye peered out of the peephole in the door. The contralto voice purred, muffled by the thick door of the sphinx stronghold, "Shadow-dreams and things unseen, bright the mind that sees so keen. Veils within veils and masks behind masks, we all have our curses and tasks."

     "Here to see the queen we petition, hoping that she'll answer a question."

     The door clicked, revealing a lion with a humanoid face and tawny wings. "Come along then, eater-of-dream, unknown male. I'll see if Mother Sophia will hear your tale."

     The sphinx turned away, shutting the door with a hindpaw. The two followed, and their guide left them in a waiting room outside large doors that belonged to a warehouse, brightly painted with vaguely Egyptian designs.

     "What was that about?" Mel asked in a befuddled undertone.

     "Never ask a sphinx a direct question," Kasha advised, "and rhyme is best."

     Mel passed a hand back through his hair nervously. "Oh. Should I let you talk, then?"

     The doors to the sphinx queen's audience chamber opened, cutting off Kasha's answer and revealing Mother Sixclaw sitting with wings half-spread. She was old, and much bigger than either Kasha or Mel had expected--sitting, she was taller at the shoulder than either of them. Their guide, standing by the doors like a herald, cleared her throat. "Dreamfeeder and unknown male, with a question and a tale."

     The grey-gold sphinx settled into a reclining posture and dismissed their guide with a couplet. "Return to your post, my daughter, go; they can tell me what they want themselves, you know." She turned to the two-legged people before her. "Enter, petitioners, guests, friends--here, ignorance and fear shall meet their ends."

     With Mel hovering behind nervously, the terulea dropped to one knee. Mel followed suit.

     "You're so formal, nightwalker," chuckled the queen of sphinxes. Mother Sixclaw relaxed, letting her wings spread across the dais where she reclined, and tucked in her paws. The two of them stood. "I drop formalities for your guest's sake and allow inquiries, Lady Terulea." 

     Kasha smiled. "So you know who I am."

     "Of course! Kasha Nemis, representing teruli on the Nightwalker Council."

     Mel stared at her. "You didn't say that!"

     Kasha shrugged. "Didn't think it was important. I'm the only one in the area, after all. No one to represent but me." She turned back to Mother Sixclaw. "My friend Mel here is ex-Skeppie, but he's an empathic projector and..."

     "Ah yes, I've heard about him! Come closer, you." Kasha pushed him forward. Mel stumbled.

     "You had a run-in with Jenna kin Torvanel, if I remember correctly."

     He nodded. "She cursed... er. She laid a geas on me." He stumbled over the pronunciation.

     "And poor boy, the first 'Tastic you met after her was a feral pixie," Mother Sixclaw prompted. "Tell me, what do you like to do?"

     Surprised by the unexpected question, Mel blurted, "Read. And I used to write, but I stopped."

     A whiskered eyebrow rose. "Ah-hm. Perhaps your parents disapproved?"

     Mel nodded slowly.

     "So what did you do in the Organization, Mel?"

     "For the longest time, I was a clerk," Mel admitted. "I liked the work though. It was quiet, and it was interesting to read the reports from field officers. But I thought I might want to try it myself, and so I tried out and passed. Not quite sure how, but..." He halfsmiled. "I worked well in a team as, um. They called me 'monster-bait.'"

     Kasha rolled her eyes behind Mel's back. Mother Sixclaw untucked one paw and flexed it, momentarily revealing the extra claw for which she'd been nicknamed. "Why is that?" she inquired, inspecting her paw.

     "I kind of attracted things..."

     "You were probably projecting 'innocent pure, come and get me' every time," Kasha interrupted. The sphinx nodded in agreement.

     "I. I guess."

     There was silence for a while, broken by Mother Sixclaw's calm, soft voice. "They used you."

     Mel chewed his lip, thinking about that. "I guess." He took a deep breath. "No, you're right. The Organization... they may not tell their field agents much, but I've read past briefings. They know how to find and identify Fantastics. They knew what I was." He sighed. "And they used me as monster-bait. And when I failed my first solo mission--usually, they break the curse and put the person back on a team. They kicked me out."

     Kasha stepped forward, put a hand on his shoulder. "Skeppies are not only bastards, they're hypocritical bastards. I'd rather have you on our side any day."

     A short laugh, and Mel turned his head towards her. "Thanks."

     "So that's your tale," the sphinx mused, "but what was your question?"

     Gulping, Mel looked up into Mother Sixclaw's face. "My. My question is... if I'm not human, pure human, what am I?"

     The sphinx smiled, pushing her whiskers forward a little. "I see. Come closer, then."

     Slowly, Mel stepped into range of her huge paws and sharp teeth. He looked up into her eyes and realized that what he'd taken for a soft grey was in fact blank blindness. He couldn't look away.

     Kasha stood aside as the sphinx's eyes began to glow. The light lanced into Mel's.

     Fear/confusion/PAIN...

     His scream went on and on, and Kasha realized that she, too, was screaming just before she blacked out.
 


An angel called Melvin

     Her eyes flicked open.

     The terulea sat up. There was a red blob on a bed in a place that looked like a hospital. She rolled her shoulders and her neck popped, releasing some tension. She looked around, and slid off another bed that was far too big to be human-sized... of course. They were still in the sphinx stronghold. Sphinxes were healers as well as knowledge-keepers.

     They'd been left alone, she saw, as she looked around. She stood carefully, but she felt fine. Kasha made her way toward the huddled creature. The scarlet was feathers, huge bloodstained auburn feathers, the same color as the hair of the one who bore them.

     Mel whimpered, kneeling facedown. The terulea laid a hand on the curve between his neck and his shoulder. "Hey," she murmured.

     "H-hey..." he replied, voice laced with fatigue and muffled. "Where... where are we?" 

     "Sphinx-run hospital." Kasha ran light fingers around where the wings emerged at his shoulders. He shivered--they'd given him a new shirt, but it was only attached at hem and collar. "Looks like they healed you up. There're no open wounds or scabs."

     "There's somethin' on my back," Mel muttered. "Heavy."

     Kasha halfsmiled. "Yeah, and they belong to you. Want help up, or are you going to stay curled like that forever?"

     "Might be... peaceful existence..." A short laugh, and Mel started to sit up, wings draping limply to either side. Bracing himself with hands in front, he looked over at her, and thus saw his newest feature.

     "Holy shit!"

     Laughing, Kasha took the wing closest to her and started to make it fold. "Here, lemme help." After a moment of her pushing, involuntary muscles took over to fold the giant wings out of the way. Mel slid sideways, since the wings wouldn't let him sit up straight without unfolding. One foot, then the other touched down, and Mel stumbled backwards.

     "Whoa-oh..." he reached out blindly and Kasha caught his arm.

     "Careful, angel-boy."

     Mel raised an eyebrow. "Angel-boy?"

     Grinning, Kasha tapped a wing. "That's what you are, Mel."

     "Not precisely," said another. A young sphinx with an old-fashioned white nurse's cap paced towards them. "Red is not a plumage color found amidst any subspecies of angel. However, there are other humanoid species where wings are a recessive trait." She looked up at the two of them.

     "Um, could I have that in English, please?" Mel asked plaintively, trying to keep his balance as his wings shifted to a more comfortable position.

     With a soft, purring laugh, the sphinx brushed Mel's leg with her tail. "Both of you come with me. There are others of my sisters who can explain better."

     Mel minced his steps, clinging to Kasha to keep from falling back with the weight of wings that were each just shorter than he was, folded. They passed sphinxes of varying sizes in the halls. After looking about avidly, Mel whispered in her ear, "I haven't seen any male sphinxes."

     "There aren't any," muttered Kasha. "Don't think too hard about it."

     Mel frowned. "But how..."

     "Dunno, but I'm not about to ask," she murmured as they passed a playroom where a litter of giggling sphinx-kittens scampered and fluttered everywhere under the watchful eye of their mother.

     Mel agreed. "So, where are we going?" he asked the nurse-sphinx.

     "The Library," she replied simply, and gestured at the doors they were approaching. She stepped on a pressure pad and the doors opened.

     Mel gasped, eyes bright. Kasha just stared.

     "The Library of the Sixclaw Sphinx College," announced the nurse.

     Mel clapped his hands eagerly, forgetting his balance issues in his excitement. However, that also meant that his wings could then correct his balance without his input. Kasha found his childish enthusiasm amusing, and smiled as she took in the Library.

     Bookshelves rose above her head, and reading nooks and research desks were tucked into every available space, including some that could only be reached by flight. Ramps and climbing pads replaced ladders to reach the higher shelves. Everything was, of course, designed for easy sphinx use, but that made the multitude of books no less incredible.

     "Impressive, isn't it?" The nurse smiled. "Come on, I'll take you to Athena, our resident Fantastic expert."

     Kasha took a few steps after their guide, then reached back and dragged Mel along after her.

^

     "Oh my!" Athena jumped down from her chair and paced towards them. "Phoebe, who are your guests?"

     "Kasha Manemis and Mel. Mel has need of your expertise." Mel waved somewhat awkwardly.

     "Ah-hm," Athena replied absently, pacing around Mel, looking him over. "Thank you, Phoebe."

     Kasha smiled down at Phoebe. "Thanks."

     "You're welcome." The sphinx-nurse left Athena's office, and Athena nodded to herself. "Would you two please take a seat? All the chairs are backless, I'm afraid." She jumped up into her own chair behind her desk.

     "That might be a good thing, for me at least," Mel admitted, and pulled up a chair, leaning forward to give his wings clearance. Kasha sat by him.

     "Correct me if I'm wrong," Kasha said, "but can I assume that Mother Sixclaw did something to him to make the wings show up?"

     Athena looked surprised. "Oh, so that is what happened. Of course, you wouldn't be here if he was born with them, hm?" She glanced at Mel again. "I don't suppose you're any kind of pyrophile?"

     Mel shook his head. "The nurse, um, Phoebe mentioned something about how I had wings but I'm not an angel?"

     Athena nodded. "The species Homo angelicus only has white, black or dappled grey wing plumage. Other species, such as Avis phoenixi or Avis humanensis can have red wings, but you're neither phoenix nor avian shapeshifter. You say Mother Sophia triggered it?"

     "Yes ma'am," Mel responded, nervous. Without thinking, Kasha laid a hand on his shoulder, and he relaxed a little.

     "Then it was probably a recessive that wasn't showing itself properly..." Athena drifted off into musing. Kasha figured her for the sphinx version of an absentminded professor.

     "Yes?" prompted the terulea.

     "Most probably. Did you grow up with parents who disapproved of flights of fancy, so to speak?"

     With a quiet laugh, Mel nodded. "That, and they were Skeptics to the bone."

     "Ahhh..." Athena nodded sympathetically. "Then it was likely your own mind that kept them from growing in. Bardic and elvish mix."

     Mel blinked. "Elvish and what?"

     "Bards. They're magic-users," Kasha supplied. "Creative magic, right?"

     With a nod to Kasha, Athena explained, "Precisely. While mostly associated with music, bards are found amidst every art, and can affect the world around them and themselves. They are also noted for strong empathy. And of course the elvish people have their own powers. I believe there is a precedent of winged bards... if you'll excuse me please..."

     Athena jumped down from her chair and sprang up to one of the bookshelves lining her walls. She paced along it, inspecting the spines of books, muttering. With an "aha!"she hooked a loop dangling from one of the books with a claw and then took up the heavily-reinforced spine of the book in her teeth. She flicked through it and drew the sharp nail down a page.

     "Hm... yes, elvish maternal grandmother and bardic father... winged daughter. And here, elvish paternal great-grandfather, bardic maternal grandmother, winged granddaughter. There are others similar." Athena snapped the book shut and looked up, pleased.

     "But what does that mean?" Mel pleaded. "Pretend I don't know anything--"

     "That's not hard," murmured Kasha with a grin at him.

     Mel rolled his eyes. "...And explain in layman's terms?"

     "Of course." Athena sat back, both paws on the book. "Neither of your parents were pure human. Somewhere in your family tree, you had at least one elven ancestor on one side and a bard on the other. But bards can often affect themselves and their surroundings, so in an oppressive environment like that in which you grew up, you wouldn't let your wings develop."

     "Right," he muttered. "Sure."

     Kasha put her hand on his shoulder. "You'll figure it out, Mel," she told him quietly. "I'll help, if you like."

     "I'd like that." Mel thanked Athena and stood carefully. "You've been very helpful."

     "My pleasure," Athena replied, and opened the door for them. Mel and Kasha left the Library, then made their way out of the sphinx college.

^

Some time later

     "What'cha working on?" Kastha leaned over Mel's shoulder while he typed. "More stuff for your tolerance campaign?"

     Mel grinned. "Yeah. It's just an opinion article for the newspaper. I don't know about the end, though. Sounds kinda corny. Listen..."

     We're not human, but we're humane. Some of us have weird bodies, but if the mind is open and willing to see beyond the surface, how can pure-blooded humans dare not match that? Some of us have odd diets, but those of us who do most often do not bother unwilling pures.

     So I charge you, who reads this, to do your best in banishing the fearful stereotypes, going out there and learning. There is no place for skeptics in this world, who brand 'different' as 'evil' and attack innocent peoples. So take your fears in hand and meet a stranger. Dive into the water, turn your face to the sky, and walk the night.

     "I don't know," Kasha said. "I kinda like it."

Fin


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