Xanadu (story)

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This is the origin story for the Xanadu setting. See Xanadu (setting) for details of the universe as a whole.

By Bryan

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Xanadu story universe

From his seat in the main hall Eric Winters surveyed the thronging hordes that filled the stately pleasure dome of Xanadu. He couldn't help but feel somewhat overwhelmed by it all, even as he felt the satisfaction of having been the prime mover behind this year's enormous turnout. For the past fifteen years Kubla Con had been a well-established but relatively small sci-fi/fantasy convention, but this year his personal donations had caused an enormous swell of attendance.

Known unimaginatively as the Orlando City Convention Center the other fifty-one weeks of the year, Xanadu's halls had a total capacity of fifteen thousand. He was glad he'd splurged and made sure they were all available to the convention this time; although there were fewer than fifteen thousand attending, they took up an awful lot of space. There were art exhibits, booths set up by every major role-playing and hobby game company in the country, nearly continuous workshops and discussion groups, dioramas and displays of every description. But the most spectacular displays were the people; this year the vast majority of them were in some kind of costume or another.

Not surprising, considering the amount of money he'd put up for grabs in this year's various costume contests.

"Eric!" A voice boomed from the crowd, unmistakably belonging to Arthur Hall. Eric looked up and grinned as the large man dodged a blue-haired alien and pushed his way past a matched pair of black-and-white humanoid tigers. He was hard to miss; he towered over everyone except the winged gargoyle. Arthur was Eric's friend from way back, and his principal link with the convention's board of directors. He was also dressed in a pink ballerina's outfit, complete with frilly tutu and toe-slippers. Eric had no idea they were made in that size.

"How go the last-minute registrations?" Eric asked as Arthur made it to his table and grabbed an empty chair to drop heavily into.

"Just about done, actually," Arthur sighed with relief and rubbed his sore feet, glad to be safely out of the crowd and its many heavy boots again. He wasn't used to being the one who had to watch where he was stepping. "Almost everyone signed up for the contests automatically at the door, as we'd hoped."

Eric nodded and nervously swirled his drink, staring into the liquid contemplatively. He still wasn't totally sure why he'd decided to turn this year's Kubla Con into a costume-themed convention, but he didn't regret that decision; he'd had a great deal of fun seeing all the amazing things people had come up with. The fact that the Con was taking place on Veteran's Day weekend only a week after Halloween had helped improve the costume supply a lot, too. And he'd certainly spent more money on less productive things in the past, he could hardly call this whim folly... He chalked his nervousness up to stage fright. Making million-dollar stock transactions was a lot more impersonal than handing out thousand-dollar cheques to individual people. He'd be doing that a hundred times in front of the whole crowd before this last day of the con was over.

But at least he'd be masked. Eric patted the wooden box resting next to him, feeling a sense of reassurance; if Arthur could prance around in that ridiculous getup, then he'd be the very image of dignity wearing an authentic work of art. It had been his purchase of the old raven mask that had first given him this idea, in fact. He hadn't had much interest in costuming beforehand, seeing it as simply a valuable sculpture, but afterward he'd begun to find the whole idea fascinating. He considered putting it on again right now, to get into the mood of things early, but decided to hold off for just a little while longer. It was a very old Native American piece, carved from wood and bedecked with real raven feathers, and he didn't want to damage it.

"Why that costume, anyways?" He asked Arthur. "It's not science-fictiony or fantasy-related."

"Neither are half the costumes out there," Arthur shrugged. "You should see some of the weird stuff in the Over-18 Hall."

Eric grinned. He suspected Arthur had chosen that outfit simply because it was the last thing someone like him would normally wear; normalcy was the enemy around here today. He wasn't about to let him off the hook just yet, though. "You didn't answer my question."

Arthur just grinned back at him and straightened his tutu, playing the evasion game. "It seemed like the logical thing to wear, at the time. Oh, hi, Felix!" Arthur waved, catching the attention of Eric's aide as he passed near the table. Felix padded over, dodging a small gang of elves as they charged past waving wooden swords.

Now there was a man in a costume appropriate for his personality, Eric reflected. Felix was dressed as a striped grey cat, in the style of the costumes from the musical "Cats." He'd always struck Eric as being a feline sort of person, and only in part due to his name; the man had a certain quiet grace in his movements and a way of silently watching people from a distance like a predator staking out its prey. Eric had hired him on as his personal assistant in part for that very attitude, it was great for unnerving people in meetings. Felix made his way over to their table and sat down across from Eric, shifting to settle his spring-loaded tail more comfortably against the backrest.

"The first set of hall costume prize winners have been selected by the judges," Felix informed them, straight to business. "The presentation's in an hour in the dining room, you'll probably want to get moving in about ten minutes if you want to see them all first."

Eric nodded. "Thanks. Enjoying yourself?"

Felix's painted features broke into a sly grin. "You hang out with some insane people. Very amusing place, this Kubla Con."

"This year's even better than most," Arthur told him. "Eric's donations really boosted attendance, and not just for the costumes. Have you seen Michael Dorn? It's the first time he's come to this con, and he's in full Worf makeup this afternoon to boot. The Klingon Club's gone nuts about it."

Eric looked back at the box at his feet while the two continued idly discussing the sights they'd seen. It was just about time to leave the relative obscurity of his table in the corner and head out to the main hall. He unlatched the box and carefully took out the raven mask, setting it down on the table. It was a nearly perfect replica of the bird's head, with a carved wooden beak, glossy black seashell eyes, and feathers that despite their age retained a deep purple iridescence. Arthur whistled appreciatively. "So, that's the fancy mask you mentioned?"

Eric nodded. "It gave me this whole idea. Eight thousand dollars well spent." Arthur whistled again at the price, even though he'd come to expect such extravagance from Eric lately. Eric put the mask on, tying its new leather laces securely behind his head and carefully smoothing his own raven-black black hair to cover them. He pulled a mirror out of the travel bag lying next to the box and checked himself over. He was looking out through the beak's nostrils, though, so his field of view was somewhat limited.

"How's it look? Everything in place?" Arthur and Felix gave him a check and assured him that all was in order. "Right. Time to see to the first prizewinners of the evening." Eric stood up and stepped away from the table, Felix rising to accompany him.

Arthur gave a pained expression. "You two go ahead, my feet are killing me. I've been stomped on by more Klingons than Kirk already." Eric nodded, somewhat ponderously from the weight and odd balance of the wooden mask.

The two headed off through the crowd, Felix leading the way like an icebreaker to penetrate the lines of Starfleet personnel that had developed in their path. Eric was still feeling nervous, but his fluttery heart had calmed down and he strode with increasing confidence; he was very proud of this mask, and the appreciative glances it was getting. He'd worn a black turtleneck and black pants to go with it, a deliberately minimalist look that he felt worked quite well.

Aliens, elves, werewolves, goblins, superheroes and supervillains, robots, even a walking garbage can trudging around and bumping into tables while soliciting trash to "eat." Eric felt more and more exhilarated as he passed through them, like there was magic in the air. His face practically tingled from it under the mask. Even though a lot of the people in costume wore nothing fancier than the rubber animal noses or simple plastic masks that the vendors' booths had been selling like hotcakes, to such a degree that it was the undisguised people who looked out of place. They made their way through the artists' den with its facepainting booths and past the theatre where a couple of authors were giving a talk, and reached the gathering place for contestants in the hall costume competition. It was, appropriately enough, in a wide hallway near the front lobby.

The hall competition was for those who didn't want to go up on a stage in front of thousands to show off their costumes. Eric could certainly understand the feeling, but by the looks of the contestants he didn't think they would have had much to be nervous about; everyone looked splendid.

"Eric Winters, everyone!" Announced a cheerful woman in a dress that appeared to be made out of cloth leaves; her clipboard marked her as someone important in the proceedings, though Eric didn't recognize her offhand. The murmurings among the small costumed crowd hushed, and Felix got out a clipboard with the results on them.

Eric didn't pay attention. The feeling of exhilaration, of a building rush of power, had grown; his head felt like it was throbbing, and he was short of breath. A part of him began to wonder if he might be suffering from some sort of medical problem. But whatever it was, it was not a bad feeling.

"Eric?" Felix asked quietly, sounding concerned himself. "You want to greet the winners?"

Feels mind-expanding, Eric thought to himself with a sense of euphoria and delirium. What a rush... but what's going on? He saw all of the people in front of him, the tunnel vision imposed by the mask's eyeholes fading away and then his field of view expanding even wider than normal, but beyond the visual scope he somehow felt the thousands of others who were here at the moment. People who all represented something other than their normal selves, fantasies or imaginings that didn't normally exist in the mundane world. Eric's awareness spread out over all of them, his immediate physical surroundings fading in importance.

Something big was coming, something that had been pent up for a long time.

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"Eric?" Felix asked, quite concerned now. And nervous, too; not only was Eric behaving very strangely but he was starting to feel some sort of strange electricity in the air as well and it almost seemed to be radiating from Eric himself. He felt like the fake fur of his costume was standing on end, if that was possible, sending an unsettling tingle through his skin. "Eric!" He touched Eric on the arm.

Felix saw Eric blink, finally registering him. But it was the mask's glittering obsidian eyes that blinked! He drew a sharp breath and stepped back in surprise, raising his hands defensively and flexing his fingers to extend their claws.

Now it was Felix's turn to blink, and stare in shock at his own hands and the curved claws that extended from his fingertips. He did that for about half a second. Then almost in unison people started making noise all around him, talking and yelling and screaming and roaring. Felix dropped into a panicked crouch, desperately trying do figure out what was going on and which way to run or attack if need arose.

One of the prizewinners, a man in a minotaur costume, bellowed and pushed the leaf-clad woman away. She went flying into the wall with a solid thud, landing hard and not moving. The minotaur bellowed again, and Felix realized that this was no costume any more; he was facing a real enraged minotaur. The other winners turned to run, some of them moving with obvious clumsy unfamiliarity with their own bodies, and it began to dawn on Felix that he might be in very big trouble indeed. He grabbed for Eric's arm, to drag him away and run for safety.

With a sudden rush of feathers, Eric turned into a big black bird right before Felix's eyes. It happened so quickly that the bird never even hit the ground; it flapped frantically in mid-air and careened down the hallway away from Felix and the others. Felix was caught completely off guard and nearly fell, but his tail whipped out to counterbalance him and he recovered just as the minotaur lowered his head and charged in his direction. Felix yowled and leapt three meters to the side from a standing start, crouching by the wall and instantly ready to jump again. The minotaur rushed past, apparently not interested in Felix specifically. Felix panted and stayed out of the way against the wall.

I'll demand danger pay next time, he thought to himself as he tried to figure out what exactly was going on. Damn strange people Eric hangs out with.

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Throughout the convention centre, similar scenes of mayhem and confusion were erupting everywhere there were people who had been in costume. Those who hadn't been wearing costumes were also getting in on the panic, joining in the rush for exits or safe hiding places to sit things out in.

Arthur huddled under a cloth-draped gamer's table, trying to be as small and unnoticeable as possible. Should be easy, she thought with a giddy sense of detachment, I *feel* really small. She hugged her knees to her chest, a posture that would have been hampered mere minutes ago by an ample middle-aged-male paunch. Now her body had been changed to suit her costume perfectly, as far as she imagined a 'perfect' ballerina's body to be like anyway, becoming a lithe young slip of a girl appearing no more than about twelve or thirteen years old. Arthur hugged herself more tightly, shivering at how different she felt. She'd always been a large and rather heavyset individual for her age, and the loss of all that bulk was perhaps even more disconcerting than the loss between her legs. She felt so very vulnerable...

It was at least ten minutes before the commotion began to die down, at least in the immediate vicinity of the table where Arthur was hiding. Most of the people had fled the scene leaving only a few stragglers, people like Arthur who were in too much shock to cause much fuss right away. There were also a few who were unable to flee, whether through injury or other adverse physical condition, and as the frightened yelling slowly faded off Arthur began to hear a few moans of pain and cries for help.

Cautiously, Arthur pulled aside a corner of the tablecloth and peered out from under the table. The room was a shambles, tables and their contents strewn about the room by the mob, some of them smashed or otherwise damaged. One broken posterboard lying nearby had been torn by what appeared to be clawmarks, and there was a whiff of sulphurous smoke hanging in the air from some unknown source. Arthur had just about decided to return to hiding for a while longer when she noticed someone's prone form lying under one of the shattered tables next to her's. It shifted slightly and emitted a moan. Shit, that could have been me, Arthur thought with a shiver. She decided that she couldn't stay in hiding any longer; she needed to do what she could to help.

Arthur crawled out from under the table and stood up, looking around the room cautiously and ready to run at the first sign of danger. There was a wookie sitting on the floor nearby tugging on his costume's hair and mumbling incoherently to himself, but he didn't seem interested in attacking her in his current state. She set her jaw and stepped through the wreckage on the floor towards the fallen figure, careful to avoid stepping on anything sharp with her silk toe-slippers. It was far easier going than she'd expected, despite her unfamiliarity with her body she felt far more balanced and graceful than she ever had before. I guess I'm really a ballerina now, she mused uneasily, and gave her tutu a nervous tug. She didn't have a clue how it had happened, but all the same she wanted to get out of that costume at the first opportunity. She knew it had to be involved, somehow.

But more important matters first. The man under the flattened table was bleeding and clearly not fully conscious; he could be in serious medical trouble. Others were starting to shuffle dazedly around the room, some tending to the other injured people but not enough to look after everyone until more help arrived. Arthur lifted the tabletop off of the man and shoved it aside, struggling with its weight. Then, getting a clear view of the man for the first time, she gasped.

The man had an elephant's trunk sprouting from the center of his face, at least a full meter long and as thick as a man's arm. It made Arthur think of the simple rubber animal masks that had been bought by many of the uncostumed attendees to fit in with the convention's theme, most no more than a funny-shaped nose held on by an elastic band around the head. But this was far larger and more elaborate than one of those; due to the thickness of the trunk's base the man's entire face had distorted to accommodate it, his eyes shifted wider apart and the bony bridge of his nose blending smoothly up into his forehead. The man groaned again, and the trunk twitched reflexively as if it was alive.

Which it probably was, Arthur thought dazedly. If she could become a young girl, why couldn't this guy become part elephant? She knelt down and tried to determine what injuries the man had, and whether there was any first aid she could perform. She was very relived the elephant-man didn't need mouth-to-mouth, noticing a short pair of tusks protruding on either side of the trunk. He seemed to have suffered a blow to the head, though, and something had cut or clawed his chest. Arthur gingerly lifted the man's trunk out of the way to get a better look at it, and the feel of its warm grey skin confirmed for her that it really was alive. Fortunately the wounds were not deep, and Arthur decided the man probably wouldn't need bandaging right away. She gently shook the man's arm to see if she could wake him. "Are you okay?" she whispered quietly, not willing to trust her voice just yet.

There was a sudden thunderous crash from somewhere in the room behind Arthur. She jumped to her feet and spun around, scared out of her wits, and did a backward leap over the prone elephant-man to put some additional distance between herself and the source of the sound. She landed gracefully on one foot, her other leg extended out horizontally behind her and her arms spread in perfect balance.

A muscular blonde-haired man wearing bright blue spandex stood in a ragged hole torn through the wall. "Woah," the man muttered with a surprised expression. Then he got a grip on himself, snapping into a confident heroic stance. "Uh, never fear, Captain Convention is here! Is anyone hurt? Are there any miscreants on the loose?"

Arthur just stared, caught off-guard by the surprise of the man's violent entrance but by now hardly affected by the surprise of a man claiming to be a superhero. If he can help clean up this mess, I don't care what stupid getup he's dressed in. Then she tugged on the hem of her tutu and blushed, remembering what she herself looked like right now. It's hard to decide how much I should be frightened and how much I should be embarrassed, she thought ruefully. For now, at least, embarrassment was winning; she decided to go with that and take time to be frightened again later when it was more convenient. She tip-toed away from the elephant man, headed vaguely in the direction of the coat-check room where she hoped her street clothes still were.

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Felix waited for several minutes after the minotaur had run off down the hallway, crouched half-hidden in the corner and panting while he worked to regain his composure. Finally he realized that the coast was clear, and stood back up to have a look around.

It was quite a mess. Chunks torn out of the plaster, lights smashed, furniture smashed, carpet torn and stained... Felix shook his head as he started padding quietly down the hallway. This was going to cost a fortune.

But perhaps I have more important things to worry about right now, he thought nervously to himself as he ran his tongue over his enlarged canine teeth and ran his clawtips through the fur on his chest. His tail lashed in agitation, which only enhanced his awareness of the strange alterations that had been made to his body.

There was a mirror on the wall nearby, and he took a moment to examine his reflection in it. He actually didn't look very different than he had just before the chaos had erupted, but the big difference was that he wasn't wearing a costume any more; he carefully rubbed and tugged on the grey fur all over his body to confirm that it was now attached to his actual skin, not a synthetic bodysuit. He was relieved to find himself still anatomically correct, at least, even though it wasn't obvious from outward appearances. His face was no longer painted to appear feline but was now quite naturally shaped that way, complete with long, sensitive whiskers sticking out of his upper lip, and he noted with some degree of surprise that his pupils were now vertically-slitted like a cat's. It was unsettling seeing them reacting to the changing light levels, as if they were real.

Felix shook his head. They were real, at least as far as he could tell right now. Might as well accept that and move on to more important issues. The minotaur had hurt some people... he padded quickly over to where the woman in the leafy dress lay. Her leaves were real now, not simulated with cloth, and her hair had turned dark green; whatever had happened to himself and the minotaur must have affected her as well. She had an ugly bruise on the side of her face and she lay in an awkward heap, but at least she seemed to be breathing. "Hey," Felix said gently, touching her arm. "Wake up. You need medical attention." He reached for his cell phone, but found only bare hip; of course, he'd been wearing it under the costume when the unexplained event had occurred. He'd have to find a phone somewhere to call emergency services from.

The woman abruptly regained consciousness. "Ah! Ow! Ohhh..." she grimaced, clearly in a great deal of pain. "My arm, my leg. What happened? It hurts."

"Uh, there seems to have been a riot," Felix told her. "You were attacked by a minotaur. Don't worry, though, he's gone now. I'm friendly." He tried to smile reassuringly, but then remembered how his new teeth must make that look and stopped. He carefully took her hand instead.

She blinked in surprise. "Your hand... oh, I remember you, you're Mr. Winters's aide. Where did he go?"

Felix glanced around, his triangular ears twitching at the sound of thudding footsteps and splintering wood somewhere nearby. "I don't know. But I think we should get out of here, and call for some help. Does your back hurt?"

The woman shook her head, then winced in pain at the gesture. "No, but my head's splitting. Help me up." Felix helped her to her feet, and she leaned dizzily against the wall favouring one leg heavily. "I think I twisted my knee or something. Is there anyone else hurt?"

"Not here." Felix didn't recall anyone else getting hit by the minotaur as it charged off down the hall, and even if someone had they must have been well enough to get away under their own power. He offered the woman support, and she put one arm over his shoulder to take her weight off of her injured leg. They started towards the nearest emergency exit.

The woman suddenly got a puzzled expression on her face, and she explored Felix's shoulder fur with her fingers. "Uh... nice costume."

Felix sighed. "You don't know the half of it. Let's get outside."

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Eric flapped his arms in a panic, zooming crazily through the riot-packed hallways of Xanadu as he tried to find someplace safe to escape to. He had no time to think, only to reflexively act; he hardly even noticed that he was flying at first. Careening through a door into one of the main convention halls, vast and high-ceilinged, he instinctively angled upwards to get away from the panicked crowd on the floor and reach safer heights. There was a big light fixture near the center of the room, and with an awkward flutter he settled to rest on it. Eric gripped his perch tightly in his toes, heart thudding and breathing rasping loud in his ears as he tried to figure out what was happening.

That was when he realized he'd been flying. Eric emitted a startled caw and nearly fell off of the light fixture, windmilling frantically with his wings to regain his balance. Wings! What the... Eric cawed again, the expletive he'd intended coming out as an incoherent bird call. Shit! Calm down, calm down! Eric closed his eyes and took a minute to do breathing exercises, blotting out the chaotic sound from below and the strange sensations coming from his own body.

He remembered the sense of power flowing through him, the strange awareness he'd felt of the entire convention. The awareness of the thousands of attendees, each of them pretending to be something from beyond the normal world... Eric opened his eyes again and looked down, trying to ignore the huge black beak filling the center of his field of view and focus on the people in the room below him instead.

Former people, in many cases. Eric's beak fell open in surprise as he realized what the power he'd felt surging out of him had done; it had made everyone's costumes become real. Dragons, cyborgs, animals, aliens, freaks and mutants of every kind... Did I do all that? Even to myself?

Eric extended a wing and examined it, careful not to lose his balance again. It felt sort of like an arm, but also quite different; his fingers were fused into a single appendage, and all his joints wanted to bend in ways that should have been very uncomfortable. His feathers were black as night, with a deep blue sheen just as the feathers of his mask had had. A raven, Eric realized. I've turned myself into a raven. My god.

He continued his numb self-examination, lifting one taloned foot and then the other and twisting his neck around impossibly far to look down his own back and tail. All he managed to do was confirm his original conclusion, though, so he pulled himself away from thoughts of his own condition and turned back toward the people on the floor.

There weren't as many of them now, many having opted for the emergency exits and more following them every minute, but the room was large and Eric had plenty of variety to consider. Some people had become exactly what their costumes had represented, such as the enormous green caterpillar lying curled in a terrified ball over in the corner that he recalled being impressed with earlier. Others had suffered more elaborate changes that had merely been hinted at by what they'd been wearing; he, himself, was an example of that. He wondered whether their minds had been affected; his own apparently hadn't, but there was a small menagerie of animals down there didn't seem to be behaving like people any more...

Eric shook his head and cawed angrily. He remembered the exhilarating feeling of the power, remembered somehow channeling it through himself, but he hadn't known it would do this! All these people, and himself turned into a bird... though could he have chosen not to, had he known? Eric wasn't so sure, the power hadn't felt like it was his.

The mask. Eric felt a sinking sensation; the mask must have been responsible for all of this. It had used him somehow, to set it all up, and now that he'd let its power loose he was trapped in its own image. Cawing furiously, Eric leapt from his perch and flapped awkwardly into the air again. He needed to get out of here, to escape the situation somehow. He swooped down and through the nearest exit, almost hitting the doorframe and causing the people surging out through it below him to flatten in surprise. Then he was outside, rising rapidly over the parking lot in the open air where his inexperience with flight was less likely to get him killed. He scanned the horizon, suffered a brief attack of vertigo, then headed north towards Hill Park.

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Felix met the first of the emergency workers arriving in the parking lot as he headed away from the building in search of a safe place to let the leafy woman with the green hair sit down. There were more pouring in from the highway every minute, ambulances and fire trucks and police cars in flotillas with their sirens wailing; obviously someone had beaten him to calling 911. Many someones, by the number of vehicles streaming in.

The paramedics began setting up a triage, the police surrounded the paramedics to keep everyone but the most gravely injured away, and the firemen stayed close to their trucks trying to figure out what to do. Fortunately the convention center didn't seem to be on fire anywhere; there weren't even any fire alarms ringing. Felix would not have envied them the task of going into that madhouse, and the police seemed content to merely cordon the area off for the moment. He left the woman with one of the harried paramedics and approached one of the larger groupings of policemen arguing amongst themselves over what was going on and what they should be doing next. "Excuse me," he began, "I'm Felix Hendricson, Eric Winters's executive assistant. Do you know what's going on here?"

"Captain James," responded the one who appeared to be in charge at the moment. "No, but I was hoping to hell that you might. We're getting all sorts of crazy calls." He frowned and glared at Felix. "What sort of event is this? Are these people on drugs?"

Felix sighed. "Just a costume party, sir, but for all I know-" Felix cut off at the sound of a bird cawing loudly in the distance, whirling around to search the sky for its source. It caught his eye immediately, a large black form flapping unsteadily through the air away from him.

The policeman grabbed him by the arm before he could begin to give chase. "Hey, now, wait a minute-" Felix cut him off with a ferocious feline snarl, twisting free and jumping back from the group in a crouch with his claws and teeth bared. The police took a collective step back and reached for their sidearms in surprise, and for a moment the tableaux held frozen.

Then Felix blinked, sheathed his claws, and tried to force his fur to stop standing on end. "Sorry about that," he muttered, "forgot myself for a moment. If you'll excuse me, though, I really have to go." Felix turned again and began jogging after the bird.

"Fine, no problem," one of the policemen said hollowly to Felix's receding back. He shook his head. "If it's drugs, I think they're catching."

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Eric perched silently in a tree, eyes closed and mind racing as his heavy breathing from the flight slowed. There, he thought to himself, there's nobody nearby to distract me now, so get to work. The mask, the mask, how could the mask have done this... He clenched his toes tighter around the branch in frustration. It's magic. How am I supposed to figure out magic? I don't even believe in it! Eric opened one eye and peered surreptitiously down at himself for a moment, then closed it again and sighed. Okay, so I believe in magic. Now how did I go about activating it?

Eric tried the old meditation tricks he'd once played with when he was younger, breathing slowly and focusing inward on himself. There had to be some trick to this, some state of mind that could make things happen again and maybe control it this time... He spent quite a long time first getting used to the feel of his new body, trying to develop a detailed awareness of it; it wasn't easy considering how different it was from his old one. Then, once he was satisfied with that, he started trying to think his way back to his original human form again. Extend wing, think arm; spread flight feathers, think fingers... he could almost feel it...

Eric eagerly opened his eyes to check his progress, and sighed in disappointment. His arm was still a wing, and the rest of him was still a bird; it must have been wishful thinking playing tricks on his senses. Still, he hadn't been at it long, perhaps it just needed more time. He closed his eyes again and tried to concentrate.

The scent of some kind of animal wafted up from below his perch, a sharp and dangerous sort of scent, abruptly jolted Eric's attention back to the outside world. His eyes flew open and he braced his legs to launch himself back into the air as the instinctive recognition flooded his hindbrain; a predator had snuck up on him! A grey, furry, humanoid predator... Eric gasped in relief and relaxed again on his perch. Oh, Felix, it's you. When Eric actually said it, of course, it came out as something like "Ah, ee-ack ee-caw!"

Felix stared up at Eric intently, head cocked and tailtip flicking slowly back and forth. "I take it you recognize me, Eric?" He asked. Eric nodded emphatically. "Oh, good. Why did you fly away like that?" Eric noticed that Felix was breathing heavily, and realized he must have run quite a distance to catch up with him. It impressed him how stealthily he'd managed it.

As for the question... Eric opened his beak and very carefully tried to form intelligible words. He knew he could do it if he could just figure out the trick, ravens were mimics somewhat like parrots after all... "Too much interference," he managed at last. "Too many people. Had to think clearly." His voice came out high-pitched and raucous, but Felix nodded his understanding.

"The raven mask had something to do with what happened back there, to all of us, right?"

Eric nodded again. "Had power in it. I let it out somehow."

"Any clue about how it might be reversed?"

"Was trying," Eric sighed. "No dice."

Felix was silent for a minute, thinking. "The mask was of American Indian origin, Napatack tribe or something like that, right? They believed in sympathetic magic. Representational magic. When one of their shamans wore an animal spirit's mask in a ceremony, then as far as he was concerned he was that spirit. I guess they meant it literally; they used magic to become the things their costumes represented. Just like what happened now." Felix looked quite satisfied with his theory, and licked the back of his hand a few times smugly.

Eric was somewhat dubious. "They had robot spirits? Alien spirits?"

"It's the same basic concept," Felix insisted. "Just tailored to the modern participants."

Eric tried to approximate a shrug with his wings. "Well, it's a theory. But what do I do about it?"

Felix frowned and put on a thoughtful expression again, not having a good answer available. They couldn't exactly take their costumes back off again, after all... "We find someone more knowledgeable about Indian culture to ask."

Eric nodded. "Back to the hotel, then. We need to make some calls. Lawyers too." Felix held out his hand and Eric hopped off his perch, fluttering down to land clumsily on the cat's extended limb. It was harder to grip than the bark of the tree branch had been, and he didn't want to use his talons in if he could help it, but he quickly got balanced with Felix's help.

Felix grinned slyly at his employer. "I want chauffeur pay."

Eric emitted a sharp, cawing laugh. "Promise not to eat me and it's a deal."

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Arthur hurried through the hallways, slipping quickly through the straggling mobs of people that still clogged some of the passages and avoiding the weirder-looking folks as widely as possible.

The hallways leading towards the parking lot were especially congested, lots of people having apparently forgotten about the other exits in their rush to get outside. She'd been forced to turn back once already when she'd come upon a panicked-looking bear backed into a corner, trapped by doors that it had been unable to open or batter down with its paws. She was on the right track now, though; the coat-check room where she'd left her duffel bag that morning was just past the entrance to the Over-18 Hall, ahead. Arthur shuddered, remembering some of the costumes she'd seen in there earlier; if the same thing had happened to them... There were muffled moans coming from behind the hall's closed doors, most of which didn't sound like the result of pain, and also some less-identifiable animal sounds. Let's not get too curious, Arthur concluded, and tip-toed quickly past.

She'd been doing a lot of tip-toeing lately, she reflected uneasily as she finally reached the coat-check room's front desk. And while running around dodging fallen debris on the floor she'd found herself moving with far more balance and delicacy than she would have normally; it was almost like she was dancing through the hallways. I'm no dancer, she grumbled silently. Never danced in my life, not going to start now. It's just a stupid costume. To prove it to herself, she climbed over the coat-check desk with as much clumsy awkwardness as she could manage and tumbled to the floor on the other side.

...landing perfectly in a crouch, and then standing up with a graceful flourish. Arthur swore under her breath and sighed; it was rather frightening how easily that reflex had come. She'd be glad to be out of this ridiculous tutu and into something normal again. She searched through the shelves and quickly found her duffel bag, pulling out her street clothing and ducking into one of the closets for a little extra privacy while she changed.

The ballerina outfit was essentially a one-piece garment, and after struggling a bit at first with the zipper down the back Arthur peeled it off with relative ease. She was surprised to discover that she was now wearing a pair of panties underneath and considered taking those off too, but decided that she'd already bared enough for now and would deal with those later. Besides, she didn't have any extra underwear to replace them with. She grabbed her old shirt and pants and hurriedly threw them on, tucking and folding and cinching to make them fit on her new small frame. They still hung on her like a tent, though, and Arthur wondered if there were anyone else's clothes lying around that she could borrow instead. She recalled seeing a few younger children attending earlier...

Arthur gasped in surprise as her overly-loose clothing suddenly began feeling snug again. She looked down at herself, thinking for a brief instant that she might have changed back to normal. Instead, she saw that her clothes were changing colour, fading and stretching into smooth pink leotard. "Oh, shit!" She cursed in her sweet- and innocent-sounding young girl's voice. A lacy frill sprouted around her waist, growing rapidly into into a tutu, and ribbons wove up around her ankles as her socks turned into soft silk slippers. Within seconds she was back in a ballerina costume again, identical to the one she'd just got out of.

She tore at the zipper, frantically stripping the outfit off and throwing it to the floor next to the original. Only seconds after it had hit the floor the new ballerina outfit began changing again, rapidly reverting back to her old clothing. Arthur stood and stared at it in shock for a moment, and then her vision was blurred as tears of frustration started welling up in her eyes. She blinked rapidly and wiped them away, forcing herself to regain her composure before she lost it completely. "So, no matter what, I wear a ballerina suit, eh?" She muttered angrily to herself. "Fine." Kicking the pile of clothing aside, she picked her original costume back up and grudgingly slipped it back on. It fit perfectly, of course.

From back out in the hallway somewhere there came the sound of someone braying piteously. Somewhere else a wolf howled, and a moment later a Playboy Bunny ran past the coat-check room with an animalistic satyr in hot pursuit. Arthur decided she'd had enough; it was time to get out of here. She climbed back onto the desk, looked both ways carefully before hopping back down to the floor on the other side, and headed reluctantly for the nearest fire exit. She paused just before going through, self-consciously tugging on the edge of her tutu and reminding herself to walk normally, and then stepped out through the door.

The chaos outside was now greater than it was inside, the majority of the conventioneers streaming out into the surrounding parking lots and fields to be herded by the hundreds of police and firemen who were still just as confused by the situation as they were. The scale of the event began to hit Arthur for the first time; there were thousands of people out here who had been affected. It was overwhelming.

"Little girl!" A policeman hurried over to her as she wandered dazedly into the crowd. "What's your name, little girl? Are you okay?" He gently took her shoulder and started herding her towards a group of police cars.

"Arthur," Arthur responded quietly. "I'm not..." She sighed, knowing how she looked and realizing that now was hardly the time to try convincing the cop of what had happened. "Alright, so I'm a little girl. I'm okay."

"Where are your parents?" He asked, evidently not having listened too closely to her answer. Arthur couldn't blame him, but was starting to get worried; she didn't want to get hauled off to child services before she could explain who she really was. Tears started to well up in her eyes again.

Then an idea struck her. "Winters," she told the policeman, sniffling delicately. "My, uh, daddy's Eric Winters. He's dressed in black, with a bird mask. He was in the main hall. Can you find my daddy?"

The policeman made her sit in the back of one of the police cars while he went off looking for information about Eric, and Arthur took the opportunity to let the impact of recent events catch up with her. She spent quite a while curled up on the verge of losing the grip she'd kept on her emotions so far; only her desire not to burst into tears in public kept it at bay. She had the feeling she was going to have a good cry once she got somewhere suitably private, though.

Finally, someone opened the car door again and Arthur sat up to see who it was. "Felix!" She jumped lithely out of the car, did a happy pirouette, and then hugged the cat-man tightly around his waist.

Felix seemed caught off-guard for a moment, and then grinned and patted her reassuringly on the top of her head. "Arthur, I presume?"

Arthur blushed fiercely and let Felix go, suddenly aware of her own actions and of the fact that Felix's striped grey fur was now quite real. "Yeah, I got caught by whatever-it-was too. Where's Eric?"

"Likewise, caught. But at the moment he's keeping his head down; he's trying to figure out how to reverse what's happened, and needs a quiet place to do it. Eric thinks he needs to make this happen quickly, before too many folks get hurt. So I got delegated to run things for a little while." He grinned. "They said your name was Andrea. It took a while to figure out who they were talking about."

"Oh, great. I hope they don't think I have something to do with it. Though I guess I'm somewhat responsible, being on the board..."

"You don't match your wanted poster. But don't worry about that, Eric's going to get some lawyers to handle the technicalities. Everything can be solved with enough lawyers. How are you doing?"

Arthur's blush deepened. "I'm stuck as a ballerina. I can't even change my clothes, they just change back to this. It's embarrassing."

Felix nodded. "Yeah, I've heard that's happening with some other people's costumes. But not everyone seems to be stuck in the clothes they were wearing, some have changed clothes without having them turn back. So maybe there's something that can be done about it." Now it was Felix's turn to look embarrassed, glancing down at himself and swishing his tail. "I think I've got the same problem, myself. I tried putting on a pair of shorts a little while ago and they just fell apart." Arthur winced. She suspected that meant Felix might be unable to wear anything at all now; her own difficulty seemed somewhat less significant compared to that. "At least I've got fur. Now, do you want to get out of here?" Felix asked. "You can stay in my hotel room for now if you like."

Arthur smiled, wiping her eyes, and nodded emphatically. She took Felix's furry hand and danced along beside him as they headed off through the crowd.

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Preceded by:
None
This story is part of a series Succeeded by:
Witchhunt

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