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After months of emptiness a layer of dust covered everything in the cabin. Alexander Iagaris and his wife Marion carefully put their hard-cases full of camera equipment on the floor and sighed. Cleaning wasn't a favorite task for either of them, and with this much dust, everything would need to be cleaned before they could even unlatch the cases on their expensive camera equipment. "Did we leave a window open a crack, you think?" Marion said.
"Possibly, it's not stuffy in here," Alexander replied, looking about the large space of the living room. The cabin sat about a mile back from the two lane main road, connected over a rise by a gray gravel driveway, in the middle of thick forest. It wasn't a large cabin by any means. Half of the space was given over to the living room, with the kitchen taking up a corner. There was a single bathroom attached to the master bedroom, while the other bedroom had been converted into a darkroom. He went inside and glanced at the four relatively new vertically sliding windows the living room had, and then noticed that one of the quartered panes had broken. Beams of light were quite visible in the dusty air. There were bits of feather on the pointed edges, but oddly enough, no bird on the floor next to it. "Must've bounced off the window."
Marion sighed sadly at the thought. She loved birds and always managed to get the best photos of them, something that escaped Alex's picture-taking abilities completely. Between the two of them they made a very good living as wildlife photographers. "Well, we'd better get to cleaning. There should be a spare pane in the storeroom. I hope the darkroom is in better condition than everything else," she said.
Thankfully the darkroom was dust-free, so Alex was able to help his wife all the faster. He worked without complaint; sharing the unpleasant tasks as well as the career they enjoyed was simply a given in their years of marriage. "Think we'll see a griffin up here this time?" Alex asked, knowing that his wife had an obsession with them.
Marion's green eyes sparkled. "I hope so. Charles got a wonderful picture with a thousand millimeter last summer. Two thousand dollars with one click of the shutter! And the royalties!"
To his credit, Alex had never done more than think about trying to find a basilisk. The taker of the single photo that existed was now a stone statue kept in some hospital in England. Thankfully, the basilisk's power didn't extend to being stared at from a photograph.
Alex wiped the sweat from his brow and rested on the old couch that sat in the center of the room and took a moment to look at his wife of seven years. She was quite pretty, with a heart-shaped face and shoulder-length, dark brown hair that was currently bound by a beige hair clip. She normally didn't wear any makeup, and that was how Alex actually preferred her. He felt there was something phony about makeup, and Marion had a wonderful athletic figure. With a tired sigh she put the dusting cloth on the kitchen table and sat down next to him on the couch.
The cabin had much in the way of luxuries, at least compared to the dome tent where they normally spent their time. In addition to a wind generator there was a Honda gas-powered model in a shed close to the front door, just in case. This was home more than the house they had in Burlington--and there were always animals around as subjects.
Working in soaking rain, freezing snow, and stifling desert heat had left both of them fit and trim. When running away from a manticore or a ceberus a few extra pounds could mean the difference between escaping and becoming an entrée. Of course, most of the couple's subjects were far more mundane--birds, deer, wolves. Almost anything that would stand still long enough for them to catch it on film.
"Are you hungry?" Alex asked.
"Now that you mention it..." His wife replied. "Did you hear something?"
Alex heard it only after his wife mentioned it. A quiet rattle coming from the kitchen. "Yes. Sounds like..."
A cupboard swung open and a what appeared to be a tiny rat-like human jumped out. He wore a jerkin made out of leaves and had his rodentine teeth locked around a Saltine cracker. "A gnome!" Alex exclaimed. "I thought the warder was still under warranty!"
Marion and her husband both grabbed brooms and tried to sweep the little pest towards the open door. But gnomes were notoriously fearless, and needed to be magically "convinced" to stay out of human dwellings. "I'm going to give that salesman a piece of my mind!" Marion said.
"It's always worked before!" Alex said, looking for an opening. The gnome clawed holes in the back of the couch as he climbed it. The little pest then taunted them with the cracker in a chittering voice, only narrowly avoiding the sweep of the broom. "Damn it. I wish we could kill these things..."
"I know, I know. But they're supposedly as smart as humans are. Remember that Stanford study?" his wife reminded. The gnome was now hiding under the couch. Marion dropped to her knees and shoved the broom under one end. "Shoo!"
The gnome, because he'd had enough fun with these humans, paused at the open door to taunt them one final time before dashing off into the woods. Marion closed the door. "My fault for leaving the door open," she said, returning the broom to its proper place.
"Don't worry about it, hon. I'll go check the warder."
The warder was one of those "as seen on TV" brands, styled like a plug in air freshener. Unlike a lot of things on QVC, it actually seemed to work. Alex returned with a reassuring smile on his face. "No big deal, hon. It just needed a new insert. The warding rune only lasts a few months after activation, anyway."
But this news didn't cheer Marion up at all. "But how long has it been out? We had a lot of dry goods in storage."
"Well, if it's empty then we'll have to go down to Fred's. It's only a few miles. Don't stress, hon."
Unflappable best described Alexander. They were opposites in many ways. She was the worrier of the two of them, the detail-minded. She checked every bin in the storage pantry and found that half their stores were gone, and the rest were very likely inedible. Alex grabbed the keys to their aged Jeep Cherokee and started to head out the door. "Just a moment," Marion called. "There's one more thing I should check. There might be another reason the warder didn't work."
The Greek paused halfway out the door while he watched his wife walk over so a small display panel on the far side of the room. "While you're at it," she said, "check the batteries. We're going to have to survive on the Honda for a while, so bring some gas."
"Yes, dear," Alex replied with a smirk. His expression then turned more serious. "Something wrong?"
"I forgot to check the battery shed," Marion replied in that worried tone of hers. "Either they're completely dead, or we've been robbed."
Alex jogged over to the other side of the log cabin, where he found his wife's fears confirmed. The padlock was the kind locked magically as well as physically, and it had been completely circumvented by the simple expedient of tearing open the metal lid. There were claw marks in places and huge paw prints in the dirt. Werewolf? he thought. Could be. There was a neighbor of theirs who was a werewolf, but he was something of a hermit who had no use for technology. He was also quite territorial where other werewolves were concerned, though he actually treated others quite cordially. Whoever had robbed them had probably been sent packing with his tail between his legs.
Marion looked at the damage and winced. "At least he only broke the lid."
"And Fred's bound to have a spare. It's a standard battery shed around here. I'll be back in two shakes, hon..."
"But can we afford this?"
Alex shrugged. "This is what emergency funds are for. Don't stress."
Fred's General Store had a little bit of everything, as one might expect in a rural area where there wasn't a supermarket or hardware store for another twenty miles of winding roads. It was a relatively large building--though not because he had so many goods. Centaurs simply needed far more space than humans in order to live comfortably. The store itself carried perishable food, dry goods, hardware, a well-protected gun and ammo section, and gas pumps out front. A bit of this, a bit of that; including the local post office. And what his customers couldn't get from him directly, Fred had set up an internet connection so they could buy online.
"I was hoping you'd stop by, Alex," the dark bay centaur said, smoothing back the thinning hair atop his head. On his human torso he wore a beige polo shirt that was much longer in front to cover all the bare skin. "We've had a rash of thefts lately. The State Marshall says the FBI sent someone out to investigate, but I haven't spoken to anybody yet. Sorry to hear about your batteries, though."
"Thought so. Thanks." Alexander had always liked centaurs. One of his best friends in high school had been one. It'd been great having a friend who could take you on a ride to the local Hardee's for lunch. The last he heard his old friend was working for Zeus Consulting. "How's the little one?" he asked, knowing that just before they'd left the year before Fred's wife had foaled.
The centaur flushed with pride. "Not quite so little anymore. We grow much faster than you do, remember. Have to keep up with our horse halves. He looks... oh... about four human years old now."
Centaurs--and equitaurs, their horse-headed cousins--matured faster but lived about as long as humans. It'd been admittedly strange in high school, because Mark looked like he was in his mid-twenties where he was really the same age as Alex.
Fred loaded up the Jeep with the heavier purchases, then came back in to lean his human torso against the wall, next to where Alex was looking at batteries on the internet and wincing at the prices. "Where have you been the last few weeks? We expected you midsummer."
"We got a little sidetracked in Alaska," Alex explained, not looking up from the screen.
"Bigfoot? Yetis?" Fred said with a wry grin.
"Caribou, moose, and a bear or two," Alex replied laconically. "It's a little thin this year."
"I hear you."
They chatted a bit as Alex went from site to site, trying to find a place that would deliver in a reasonable amount of time and price. But by the look of things, since both he and his wife knew that you got what you paid for, he wasn't going to get away with spending less than half of the emergency fund. This is not good. If something else happens we're not going to have much money to work with.
Outside it grew darker. Fred thoughtfully gave Alex a cup of coffee (plain, black) as he continued to search the internet, also catching up on the news. Over six months in the Alaskan wilderness had left them completely out of touch, although Alex wasn't sure he cared. He blinked at a headline. "Apollo sued Delphi for trademark infringement and lost?" A god was a force no human wanted to reckon with. Alex scanned the story for details.
"I heard about that," Fred said. "They got some obscure god from India to defend for them. It was quite a battle, I understand, though it lasted less than five minutes..." Fred broke off when he heard the sound of a car park on the gravel lot out front. Having equine ears gave him quite an advantage. But the strange thing that struck him was the fact that he hadn't seen the headlights. But now that he saw it, the car was clearly visible in the moonlight.
Moonlight? It wasn't even up yet!
Alex looked up as a woman entered the store. He couldn't help but look. She was the most beautiful women he'd ever seen in his life! Her hair gleamed with a silvery light, and she had this sense of sheer Presence. "I'm after a particular quarry, and I was wondering if you gentlemen have heard anything," she said.
Alex didn't like the way she'd said "gentlemen". There was more disdain packed into that single word than anything hurtful Marion had ever said to him (which were quickly forgiven in any case). Alex suddenly felt like an insect confronted by a big frog; an image that turned him off instantly. "How can we help, ma'am?" the human asked.
"A month ago a werewolf stole something from Boston University. Apparently he's some sort of computer criminal. I'm looking for any possible leads. Would you gentlemen have any information that might be useful to me?"
Both men tripped over their words during the short "interview", so the goddess simply took the information she needed right from their minds. Alex didn't enjoy the experience. But, in this case, it was tolerable. She left almost as quickly as she came, leaving the two men breathing a sigh of relief. "You know who that was, don't you?" Fred asked once the car had gone.
"Diana, Luna, Artemis?" Alex replied. "Who else would be in constant moonlight?" From a young age people were taught to recognize when one was in the presence of one of the old gods, especially the Greco-Roman ones who'd been mostly pushed out by Christianity. Mostly so you could stay out of their way. "I don't like this at all..."
"Pray she's done quickly," said the centaur. "Find anything?"
Happy to get back to more mundane matters, Alex shook his head. "Everything's so damned expensive. I'll have to sleep on it. It's too late to order and get delivery tomorrow, anyway. Thanks for the coffee."
"Anytime. See you tomorrow."
On the way back to the cabin with his loaded Jeep, Alex decided that it would be best not to tell Marion about what had happened. She tended to worry overmuch about things she really couldn't do anything about. And when there was a goddess in the area, there was nothing anybody could do. Not even a minister or bishop had the power to exorcise a being of that caliber. While a certain portion of the population was immune to "godmagic", neither Alex nor Marion were among them. I just hope she finds that thief soon, he thought.
He arrived to find the front door open. It wasn't yet late enough in the year for all the insects to stop biting, so there was only one reason why the front door was wide open like that. Marion and the expected company came out once he pulled to a stop. "Dog! How are you?" Alex called as he got out of the Jeep.
The werewolf, who was never more than half human, loped up to Alex and shook his hand. "Great, man. Howling," he said in his laid back tone of voice. The werewolf was one of those who had taken some "furry acid" that had gone around at Woodstock. And because he was who he was, Dog had decided to take the hint and "follow his totem". He hadn't back to civilization since, and living like a wolf for over thirty years hadn't changed his outlook much. He was "just 'Dog'" to his friends, and didn't own a stitch of clothing, or anything else, as far as the Iagarises knew.
"Dog had a couple surprises for me when he got here. Dinner... and our batteries!" Marion said happily.
Alex smiled widely and gave the werewolf a petting behind his ears, something that he enjoyed. "Thanks, man! You're a lifesaver!"
"'S no problem, man. You're great folks," the gray wolfman replied in his oddly pleasant growling voice. "Finally used some of that magic I learned in college to keep 'em safe and usable, too."
"More than I was ever able to do in Magic 101," Marion said.
"Thank much," Alex repeated. "What's for dinner?"
"He brought us a couple of rabbits," Marion informed with a smile.
"Fresh food's good for the soul, man," Dog said.
With Dog's help the Jeep was unloaded quickly, and they were able to go back inside to enjoy the fresh meat. Marion had already gutted and skinned the rabbits and was roasting them in the oven. Since they spent so much time outdoors both of them knew how to hunt, as well as gut and dress a carcass. The smell of the cooking meat permeated the cabin. "Good catch," Alex complimented.
"I could've gotten better," Dog replied. "But there's some competition in the neighborhood," he said with a slight edge to his growl. "It's bad news, man. You're lucky I caught him when I did. But what scares me is that I lost him. I'm getting old, man."
Alex decided he could volunteer a little of what happened earlier. "Well, the FBI has sent out a master investigator," he said. "They'll catch this guy in no time."
"I dunno. This guy's crafty. I'll be hanging around your place for a while to make sure he doesn't come back while you're here."
"We'd really appreciate that," Marion said.
Dog's tongue lolled in a lupine grin. "A wolf's nothing without his pack."
Marion still worried even though she knew Dog was reliable--if a little erratic. Normally she was able to put her tendency to worry behind her, but there was something about this whole situation that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. All her husband would do was shrug and tell her "don't stress." Normally that'll all it took to dispel her worries, but this time it just didn't seem enough.
It wasn't as if Alex were an unemotional man--far from it. He was a very tender lover and she felt he understood her various failings and accepted them. But unfortunately she couldn't yet describe what she felt, so she decided to keep quiet until she knew more of what was going on.
With the return of the batteries things more or less returned to normal. They spent the day preparing the darkroom and cleaning their cameras. While out in the field there was rarely an opportunity to give each piece of equipment a proper cleaning. Some things just shouldn't be opened to the cold, dusty outdoor air. Alex paid special attention to the lenses and bellows of his large format cameras, where the negative could be as large as ten by ten inches.
"Dog said it's liable to be an eventful rutting season," Marion said. "Lots of big bucks this year and few hunters around."
"I'm more hoping you'll find those griffins," Alex said. "We really need the cash. Royalties just aren't enough."
"Still planning on going scouting this afternoon?"
Alex nodded. "I thought I'd check some of the spots I know for deer sign. If the herd is as good as Dog says it is, I should be able to snap a few photos with the Leica before it gets dark. Don't worry, I'll wear my locator so I won't get lost."
"You do that," Marion said. "And don't get distracted," she added without knowing why.
The late summer weather remained humid at the time of year, but since there was enough elevation it didn't get so beastly hot. The cabin sat in the middle of a mixed forest of evergreens, oak, maple, and a scattering of ash. Already in higher elevations there were touches of color. Got back here just in time, Alex thought as he made his quiet way through the dying undergrowth. He took pictures of squirrels busily packing away food for winter, woodpeckers on their own diligent tasks, and geese on the small lake less than a mile from the cabin.
The cabin had been one of the first choices Alex and Marion had made together after getting married. It was literally the Perfect Place for wildlife photographers. Alex visited each of his favorite spots one by one, the lake, a couple of meadows, and lastly, a small, hidden pond created by a clear sweetwater spring. Quietly, from long years of experience at his craft, he pushed aside the thick, tall grasses that grew around the edge, camera in hand.
What he saw froze him in place. Artemis bathing in the clear water of the pond. His eyes were drawn to her perfect figure in spite of himself. Even in the sunlight her hair glimmered with the light of the moon. The goddess, not three feet away, noticed him instantly but made no move to cover herself. Instead she just glared at him, hatred making her eyes glow with silver moonlight. Oh lord... he thought. What is she going to do to me...
Two possibilities raced through his mind. The moon goddess could either change him into a stag like Actaeon... or a woman, like Siproites. His muscles were frozen, he was unable to even blink. And he really, really hoped it would be the latter; because if she did change him into a woman at least she wouldn't bother him again. He tried to sputter this preference, but he was unable to speak the words. It was the goddess who would decide his fate, not him, a mere mortal.
Artemis swam around in the spring for agonizing minutes, obviously taking great pleasure in making him feel so uncomfortable while she came to a decision. She stood up and displayed her supernatural physique to him, and smiled in such a way to send a chill down his spine. "Do you like this body? Sure you do. I suppose I could give you one just like it, but you look just like a deer frozen in headlights," she said with dark humor, one hand cupped in the swirling water, looking at the camera. "Yes, just like a deer." Then she dashed a handful of water in his face.
Abruptly released from her grasp, Alexander turned and ran as fast as he could, his mind filled with panic that blotted out every rational thought. Antlers sprouted from just above his ears as he ran. His neck stretched out, and he pricked his ears. His clothing tore off of him at the seams as his changing body forced its way out; at one point he tripped and fell to all fours, and didn't notice that he moved with a swiftness that no human could ever hope to match. Abruptly the fear drained out of him and he stopped in his tracks.
And realized that he had not gotten away unscathed.
He saw the world in grayish green tones, many details were gone but anything that moved stood out against the flatness of what didn't. Alexander's ears pricked and rotated at the sound of a breath of wind though the leaves above. And the smells... the smells! They overwhelmed him!
Somewhere behind him his ears picked up the sound of a stream. He walked over and looked at his reflection in the clearly running water. What looked back was a whitetail buck that would look perfect over any hunter's mantelpiece. Twelve perfect points, the velvet already shed. "Oh Lord," he cried, his voice coming out a distorted groan. I should have stayed home...
Alexander wasn't the kind of person who brooded over a bad situation. Ever since he was a child he'd been amazingly resistant. He didn't berate himself for his mistakes, he made plans on how to do it better next time. His parents had had nothing when they'd come to America from Greece when he was five. From that early age he knew he had to help his family by behaving himself. That'd often made him the butt of many jokes in school, but he couldn't have cared less what his enemies thought.
Alex slowly gathered his thoughts, taking a moment to slake his thirst at the stream. He'd decided that he'd panicked enough already. Now he just had to get back to the cabin and somehow convince Marion what had happened. Shouldn't be too hard, he thought optimistically.
Unfortunately, optimism didn't have to deal with having four cloven hooves and a tail.
The world was so different through the senses he now possessed that he didn't recognize anything. The muzzle that divided his vision also gave him two single views of the world, for the most part. The tiny bit of depth perception he still possessed was mostly blocked by its huge grayish mass. Alex swished his tail back and forth, pawing at the ground in frustration as he looked about him to see if there was anything at all he recognized, trying to match it with his mental map... only to find his it gone.
He nearly panicked again. Alex knew that he'd walked these woods dozens of times with his wife and alone. He'd thought he knew every tree and rock. But now those years of experience were gone--or blocked somehow by what Artemis had done to him. Yes, that made sense. But it didn't help matters.
Okay, deer 'see' the world through their noses. I'll have to start there. The buck put his nose to the ground to see if there was anything that might smell familiar. He discerned a thousand scents at once, a flood of emotions rushing through him in an instant. His body, it seemed, knew what they were. But it was like being a child in a candy shop. Which one?
He found an answer to what a few of these myriad of smells were right away. A doe and two large, unspotted fawns appeared to his right. He suddenly had no doubt that he would recognize their scents again should he encounter them. He raised his head to look at her, curling his upper lip instinctively. The doe's fawns, all unconcerned, looked at him with huge brown eyes and stayed behind their mother. Her scent shifted from moment to moment, he realized. She wanted to know if it was safe.
And somehow he let her know that it was, because the trio came into the small meadow and started to heartily eat the vegetation.
Alex was content to watch them as they browsed while he tried to figure out what to do next. That is, until he realized that they were gorging on ripe blackberries. Their smell wasn't yet locked in its proper place in his cervine mind before he joined them.
It wasn't unusual for Alex to remain out after dark, but Marion worried all the same. Her mother had often warned that she'd worry herself into gray hair before she was thirty (and she'd worried about that, too). But when nine o'clock passed by without a peep from the locator she decided that she had cause. Something's happened to him.
She opened the door and shined a powerful flashlight out into the woods. The greenish reflection of a dozen animal eyes looked back at her, startled at the sudden light. It was a small herd of about six deer, all does. During summer evenings the deer were always more active around the house. There were blackberry bushes all over the place in the small clearing where the cabin was, which drew dozens of animals out of the woods. One of Marion's best pictures ever was a blue jay industriously tugging at the last berry on the bush. The perfect greeting card for nature enthusiasts.
The only other animal in the yard was a large raccoon trundling his way towards the berry bushes, obviously intent on a meal himself. Once she shut off the light the deer went back to their browsing. They knew they had nothing to fear from this human, at least. Now what? she wondered. He wouldn't get lost around here.
Outside she heard the deer blow and stomp, then make a dash for the woods. A moment later there was a polite knock on the door. She opened it to see Dog standing there in his rather large seven-foot tall half-human form. He itched at the dark gray fur on his neck. "Alex not back yet?" the gray werewolf growled.
Marion shook her head. Dog undoubtedly picked up her anxiety in her scent. "Where have you been?" she asked a trifle accusingly.
"I just got up an hour ago and I spent half that time just getting here. Cut me some slack."
"Sorry," Marion apologized. "Alex left here about three to check on a few spots. I didn't expect he'd be out after dark."
"I didn't smell anything strange on the way here," Dog said, rubbing his muzzle thoughtfully. While the lupine hippie took very little seriously, when there was something wrong with the couple he considered to be his pack, his voice lost all trace of its characteristic laid back tone. "Don't worry, I'll sniff him out and have him back before midnight."
"You're a lifesaver, Dog," Marion said.
"No problem," he replied, hoping that wouldn't be literal.
Dog shifted to the full wolf form he normally used and loped away from the Iagaris cabin, his nose to the ground. He had to admit, Alex was a very good woodsman when he put his mind to it. Almost as good a mage as you could have been, you silly wolf, his conscience nagged. He'd only been a sophomore when the opportunity to go to Woodstock had popped up. The pressure of several good friends (and a little dope, his conscience reminded) had made him go. About the only thing his conscience didn't nag him about were the past thirty years. Ever since that single hit of furry acid nothing unnaturally created by man had touched his system.
Dad told you that lycanthropy runs in the family, even if he wasn't affected. Stupid, stupid wolf. He would have disowned you anyway.
Dog brought his mind back to the present when he smelled something strange. It was completely dark, and the quarter moon was only just rising over the mountains. But he didn't need to see what he smelled. He was right next to that pond that Alex liked so much. He was up here about five hours ago. Where did he go from here...
But the scent that left from the spot that Alex had occupied wasn't the same. It smelled like a deer--sort of. There was some human scent mixed in that was Alex's, but Dog dismissed this as anything unusual. The human had an uncanny way of getting close to the animals he wanted to photograph. He could creep up on them one step at a time. All it took was one click of the shutter.
Just to be sure, Dog circled the spring a couple of times. When he didn't scent Alex coming out from any side, then he began to wonder.
And then he saw it, the moonlight glinting off of its shiny metal surface as he came back to where Alex had stood. The werewolf changed forms and picked it up. The circular metal disc was marked with a simple rune (by what looked like a stamping machine). Alex's locator... The chain was broken and seemed to have some bits of fur caught in it. He sniffed them out of curiosity. That's odd. Deer fur.
The werewolf's thoughts froze in their tracks. There were few enough Native American spirits left in these woods to really make them a danger to white people, but Dog had encountered enough in his time to make him wary. Only being a quarter Algonquin had saved him on one occasion. But there was nothing within two hours walk that he didn't know about, and the couple knew what to avoid. Would they have changed him into a deer? he wondered. No, they would have killed him. Not that I would blame them if they did... He didn't condone murder, but the native spirits of the Americas had little love for Europeans in general.
Dog put his nose to the ground again and followed the strange-smelling trail a bit farther. There wasn't enough moonlight to really help much, although he could see far better than a human could in that light. But then, sitting in the grass, he saw another glint. The lens of Alex's expensive camera. He picked that up and moved farther along, the scent becoming progressively less human as he first found shoes, socks, jeans, and shirt all torn to pieces. The very last thing he found was a watch, right next to where a deer had fallen and then dashed off.
The smell was undeniably whitetail. Deer left trails of scent wherever they walked. And this one was running at full speed after he got up. What in God's name happened? There's nothing at that spring that could cause this! But just to be sure, he went back to put his hands in the water and use what magical knowledge he still possessed to see if he could sense anything. Nothing. The water was exactly what it appeared to be. What the hell am I going to tell Marion?
Soon after gorging themselves on blackberries, the doe and her fawns found other deer and gathered into a larger herd. All the bucks that Alex saw still had their velvet. It wasn't quite late enough in the season for shedding it, so most of them deferred to the twelve-pointer without contention. Alex flattened his ears slightly as he walked through the herd, still following the doe and her fawns. He'd seen this sort of behavior before. The fact that he was now doing it as if he'd been a deer his entire life was more than a little disturbing. But since he was still so new to his body and its instincts all he could do was go with the flow.
Whitetails didn't normally herd like this at this time of year. Does and bucks formed their own little groups during the year, only coming together during the Rut, and then in individual mated pairs. The only time they herded together was when the snow was deep in the middle of winter. What could possibly be making them do this now?
They weren't precisely afraid, but they were acting on a deep-seated sense of caution that seemed to Alex a central part of their existence. There was safety in numbers, with more noses, eyes, and ears to keep a look out for any possible danger that might sneak up on them. And if it should appear, they'd scatter in every direction in an instant, somehow knowing that there was a far greater chance that they'd live to see the next morning than if they'd stayed on their own. The feeling was particularly indescribable to Alex, who still could only marvel at everything he sensed.
He was still focusing on getting used to his own senses when the reason for the herd's gathering percolated through the mass of smells and sounds. There were two new hunters in the forest, the werewolf fugitive, and Artemis. Dog had inhabited these woods for so long that there were many generations of deer who had always lived with his presence. He'd often told Alex that they seemed to know when he was hungry and hunting and when he wasn't. It wasn't as if he could get within touching distance, but predator and prey had lived together for so long they knew what to expect.
These newcomers disturbed the balance. More than that, one of them was a powerful being whose very existence was defined by hunting. And surely the goddess of the moon wasn't adverse to getting sidetracked on her hunt for a lone fugitive to take a few prime bucks. Who would dare arrest her for poaching?
Fear. The smell slowly crept into the meadow, prickling at the back of Alex's cervine mind, touching off unfamiliar reactions in a world of new and strange perceptions. He felt, in many ways, like a newborn fawn. After so many years of careful observation of deer, he was now experiencing everything firsthand, and it was turning out to be a lot tougher than he thought it was. It's going to take a while before I can control this. But with experience he knew he could.
He had to.
Marion stared at the torn flannel shirt that Dog had given her. There was reddish deer fur plastered all over the inside and caught in the seams that hadn't torn. The clothes even smelled like one. A strong, somewhat unpleasant musk exuded from his boots and pant legs. Oddly enough, the camera was almost completely undamaged. Dog looked at her with a plaintive expression. She hadn't said a word as he'd recounted what he'd found.
But the thought of her husband, out there in the body of a prey animal while there was a rogue werewolf on the loose made her faint.
She awoke some time later, Dog splashing water on her face from the tips of his claws. "Good, you're awake," he rumbled. "Marion, I'm..."
"Why apologize? It's not your fault," Marion said through a throat tight with near-grief. Her husband wasn't dead. He was just... different. What mattered the most was if they could find him, and how to reverse it. "You said you don't have any idea at all?"
The werewolf shook his head. "I'm at a complete loss. I've been by that spring hundreds of times. Frankly, Marion, there hasn't been a lot of magic going on around here for a few years. I haven't seen a griffin in at least a year and a half, and the only other sizable population of mythicals is a very small dryad grove about seven miles up valley. The only thing I can think of is something coming in from the outside."
"And you've somehow seen to it that not even human hunters are interested in your range," Marion added, sitting up on the couch.
"Just a tiny warding spell," Dog replied dismissively. "I keep the herds healthy enough all by my lonesome." Marion blanched and he immediately wished he hadn't said that. "Geez, I'm sorry..."
Marion smoothed back her shoulder-length hair and got a hold of herself. "Would you recognize him if you smelled him?"
"No problem there, but I'm afraid that he won't let me get near him." Not that I'd blame him... "It all depends on how deer-like he is. He didn't seem to have a problem galloping, though."
Another unknown I don't need, Marion thought with a sigh. If he doesn't even remember who and what he was, then what? Will he even be the same person if I get changed back? Her mind spun with worries and unknowns. It was entirely possible that her husband was for all intents and purposes, dead. But before she could admit that to herself, she had to know one way or the other. "How safe do you think he'll be out there tonight?"
Dog scratched his muzzle thoughtfully. "Well, the deer were acting a bit strange last night. They were yarding up like it was deep winter or something. If he's a smart buck--and I'm sure he is--he'll find a yard and stick with a herd. Safety in numbers, you know."
"I'll have to go down to Fred's tomorrow and report this," Marion said. "I'm sure he'll know something. I just hope that fugitive wasn't responsible for this. He has no reason to change my husband into a deer of all things."
The werewolf nodded agreement. "This guy couldn't be more unmagical, except for his lycanthropy. He tried to steal batteries from you, stole a laptop computer from the Hoovers, some other odds and ends from fuse boxes, and a small wind generator. You're lucky your generator is too big to carry, even for a werewolf."
Alex said that the Marshall had sent someone up to investigate. But there's no chance in hell an investigator-mage could have done this. The very thought was preposterous. First thing's first. Find Alex and bring him home.
Just in case, Dog agreed to stay near the house when she went down to Fred's the next morning. Marion drove a little faster than she normally did, but there were times when she felt speeding was justified. Fred's wife Debrah and her foal trotted out to see her skid to a stop on the gravel. "Marion? Is something wrong?"
The worry all came back to her for a moment, but she regathered her determination and held it back. The centauress paled when she described what she thought had happened to her husband. "My dear Lord... He should have known, with Luna in the area..."
"Who?!" Marion exclaimed.
"Artemis," Debrah clarified. "Surely you know the old stories. Alex didn't mention anything about this? She's here to hunt down that fugitive. He and my husband met her last night."
And it'd be just like him to not tell me. I would've worried. But he should have known better... Should have. He had no way of knowing that he'd meet her out there. If only the locator hadn't broken. It's Actaeon all over again. "We need to organize a search party..."
The gray centauress raised her hand. "Marion, that's not going to help. If we all go tramping into the woods without even knowing how much control he has or what he looks like, we'll just scatter all the deer in the area," she said calmly. "If he's still Alex, then he'll find his own way back to your cabin."
"But that could take months!"
"Dog knows his scent, right? He'll keep track of him and make sure nothing bad happens. In the meantime, I suggest you use whatever extra money you might have to sit tight and wait. Besides, it's not safe to leave the cabin with a goddess in the area."
Marion sighed. Debrah was right. There wasn't a huge amount in the emergency fund, but it was enough for her to wait for at least a couple of months. And there were always the Alaska photos to develop and sell. Just so she wouldn't have to leave the cabin, Debrah agreed to deliver food. "And I'll only charge you cost. I'm sure Fred will agree, considering."
Marion smiled at her friend. "Thank God for people like you."
Dog sat at the substantial kitchen table, playing with the Iagaris' laptop to pass the time. When they'd first gotten one a couple years before the werewolf had thought it pure magic, but they'd assured him that it was yet another one of the technological breakthroughs that had been made since he'd last been an active member of society. He really had no use for such a thing, but had played with theirs on occasion. While he waited for Marion's return, keeping his nose out for any sign of the Alex-buck's scent, he played a game called "Minesweeper".
He wondered what else he'd missed over the last thirty-one years. Oh, he'd been able to catch little snatches of news now and again. He knew the millenium had turned (the calendar on the wall read September 6, 2000). Before, he'd been content with these little bits. But now, with his conscience pestering him daily, he felt... out of touch. Doris could help you get back into the swing of things, his conscience nagged. She still checks in on you every year.
But she works for the DEA, he retorted. She does that to make sure I'm not doing anything "illegal". And she's the one who gave me the furry acid in the first place!
His conscience didn't have an answer for that one.
Dog heard the Jeep coming up the driveway long before it arrived. He quickly shut down the computer and went to wait at the door. Marion parked under the carport, but didn't come into the house right away. Concerned, Dog went outside to find her collapsed against the wheel, crying. Disturbed at the sight, Dog tucked his tail between his legs and went back into the house to wait.
The night passed nervously, but uneventfully. In daylight the herd separated again, and Alex found himself torn between finding his home and following the doe that didn't seem to object to his presence. The other bucks snorted belligerently at him in a manner that he'd come to think of as jealousy. After all, he had his antlers free of velvet and he'd already staked out his doe.
In spite of this, and the surprising possessiveness he felt over the doe, he decided to go his own way and find home again. That's where my real doe is, he told himself firmly. It was too bad his body remained unconvinced. He only realized that he was still following the doe when one of the fawns suddenly popped out of the undergrowth beside him to dash off playfully towards his mother.
To separate himself from her trail had been very nearly physically painful.
But a night of having to depend on his senses had taught him much. The hours he'd spent with the herd had taught him that he had an innate mental organization of what smells meant what and what sort of reaction his body had to them. As the sun rose he even thought he recognized a particular young tree--but only because he ended up scraping the trunk with the base of his antlers. There was only one yard within walking distance of the cabin that had a marking tree as well-used as this had been. He smelled the scents of dozens of bucks who must use it in some way even when they didn't have antlers.
He went off in the direction he thought led to the house, but couldn't help but pause to eat at every opportunity. The urge to eat was even stronger than the one to follow the doe had been. And when he was full, he found a secluded place to bed down and chew his cud. It wasn't something he thought about doing, it just happened on its own.
And then he realized that he was being followed.
It wasn't anything he smelled, or heard, or saw. It was simply knowing that someone was watching him--and they didn't like him. The feeling made Alex jump to his hooves, sniffing the air, his ears in a whir. But there was nothing. Nothing.
He redoubled his efforts to find the cabin, and the safety of his wife's presence.
Marion was in the darkroom when the lone buck stumbled out of the woods around twilight. Dog knocked furiously on the door. "Get out here, now!" he shouted.
Inside, Marion was nearly startled out of her wits; but she couldn't risk exposing any of the film she and her husband had worked long and hard to take. There was a particular one of a herd of caribou silhouetted against the arctic sunset that was very promising. Alex himself had taken it and she wasn't about to ruin it. "I'm coming!" she yelled, finishing the treatment of several rolls of film. Once the images were fixed, she turned on the safety light and dashed out through the double door. Dog was crouched under a windowsill, trying to make sure he wasn't seen.
He was a wildlife photographer's dream, frozen right at the edge of the clearing, his ears twitching madly with one forehoof held frozen in mid-stride. He had the most perfect set of antlers she'd ever seen on a buck. If that is him, Marion thought.
The buck couldn't seem to bring himself any closer to the cabin. He trembled with nervousness, lowering and raising his head, looking around. "Damn it," Dog said, "he probably smells me..."
"But he isn't running!" Marion replied in a whisper. "It's got to be him!"
The front door still hung open. Slowly, Marion moved to stand in the doorway; the buck noticed and stared at her. His eyes seemed to flicker as he stretched his neck out towards her, sniffing furiously. Moving slowly, she left the doorway and crept towards him. Come on, Alex. That has to be you.
The buck fought with his instincts. For whatever reason he had a deep fear of humans. The deer around the cabin didn't fear them, so why should he be so afraid of Marion? Even Dog's scent was bearable. A wolf not hunting was no danger. But as Marion came slowly closer, it was all he could do to turn tail and never return again. He was so nervous that he was literally quaking with anxiety.
She slowly got close enough that all he had to do was reach out with his long neck and sniff her offered hand. It was the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life. To top it off, she didn't even smell good. Her smell was worry personified, and there was a greasy sort of smell also. Marion always did like sausage for breakfast.
They stood frozen for several minutes, until, with a final supreme effort, Alex nosed his wife's hand and licked it.
Then he collapsed to the ground, suddenly drained of energy and unable to hold himself up any longer.
Dog bore the silence anxiously. The wind had shifted and he could no longer smell either of them. Only the quiet shuffling of Marion's feet told him that she was still moving closer. Finally, he heard Alex fall to the ground and Marion's startled gasp of dismay. Deciding to take the risk, he perked his ears and peered above the window sill, to see Marion placing the head of her fainted husband on her lap, making sure to tilt his antlers away from her face. The buck let out a single gruff-sounding bleat of relief. Marion started to stroke her husband's muzzle comfortingly.
The gray werewolf's conscience nagged at him, but for once he didn't snap back at it. Instead he started to peel away over thirty years of memories, trying to remember his days as a university student. Before he'd gotten involved with the hippie crowd he'd made quite an impression, making A's in all of his classes. The certain spell he was looking for was a sort of perk for those who had the aptitude for it, and with luck it would help Alex immensely.
After several minutes of deep thought it came to him. But instead of trying to creep around the cabin and trying not to be seen, he instead did quite the opposite. In the mind of a deer, he well knew, the predator that you could see wasn't a danger. He had no pack--at least, not one of other werewolves--so when he didn't want the deer to be nervous he always made as much noise as possible. Most of the time they didn't run away--and Dog was taking a risk that Alex was too shocky to care.
He picked up a pad of paper, and as an afterthought, a bunch of carrots, then walked over to stand in the doorway. Marion looked up at him in surprise, but when Alex didn't startle, she didn't argue. The buck was making repeated attempts to communicate with his wife, the frustration apparent even from this distance. Well, I'll take care of that right now.
Alex watched the werewolf as he slowly moved towards him. The urge to run was there, but he was simply too exhausted to obey, and the presence of his wife had weakened certain barriers. Dog was a longtime friend, so it wasn't much effort to cease fearing him also--at least for now.
Dog padded over towards Marion, who still looked puzzled. He briefly explained himself, which made her smile in delight. "Wonderful!"
"I just hope this spell works," Dog said. "It depends on how much abstract thought he can accomplish. Do you realize how much smaller a deer's brain is?" Alex snorted. "No offense, man," Dog added quickly.
Marion smiled. The way the buck's head was tilted, one eye was looking directly at her face. It was like a scene out of some unwritten myth. The tragically cursed husband returns to his wife in a form where he cannot communicate, and they must find a way to change him back, or lose each other. Damned if I'm going to let that happen, thought Dog. Here goes...
There were at least a dozen major forms of magic. Alchemy, artifacts, ancient books, runes, and may more. Sorcery, the one Dog still knew best, didn't even have images or words, but was directed by the will alone. Even after thirty years of little use, his magic was still as strong as his Magic Aptitude Test had indicated. He felt the effects of the spell settle over the buck's mind without a problem, which was a good omen in itself. If Alex had lost the capacity to think in words, then it simply would have bounced off.
Dog placed the pad in front of Alex, who still had his head in a comfortable place in his wife's lap. The feeling of her gentle hands running her fingers through the fur on his neck was almost putting him to sleep. But it also had had the effect of soothing away the physical wrench of the change of such a deep-seated smell association. She smelled worried, but was clearly happy about his return. He licked her hand often when it ranged nearer his mouth.
When he felt magic being worked on him he was surprised, and even slightly nervous. He lifted his head carefully and watched the werewolf. The spell stimulated the human parts of his mind and touched at an undeveloped region of his cervid brain, activating dormant nerve cells into making connections. A different sort of perception sparked, and a little more of the human Alex Iagaris gained control. He looked at Dog questioningly. "Just think of what you want to write," the werewolf said. "Back in school we used this spell for taking lecture notes."
The words came slowly, and the "handwriting" was almost illegible, but with the sound of a pen on the page, words appeared. "Li...ke.... This?"
Dog lolled his tongue happily, but that was surpassed by Marion's glowing smile. She reached out and hugged her husband around his thick neck. "I knew you'd come back!"
"Hard... to," Alex scrawled. "I can't... even... begin to describe.... this." He paused. "I suppose... I shou... ld... tell you who did... this to me."
"Debrah told me," Marion said crisply. "But I don't care. We just need to find a way to reverse it..."
Dog looked thoughtful. "Just who did do this, anyway?"
"Artemis," Alex wrote, his words now clearer and not taking as long to write. There was something in his handwriting that communicated chagrin. "I was stupid..."
Artemis? thought Dog. This could get complicated. "Uh, I have some rather bad news for you, but I don't know if this is the time."
"You might as well say it," Marion said. "I know just what we're dealing with, so I know it can't be good."
"Well, the gods have always been rather capricious. If you remember, Zeus changed Lycaon into the very first werewolf and it all went downhill from there. But my point is that they don't like their curses tampered with. Either we're going to have to find another god to fix Alex, or we'll have to find a powerful non-human mage. Perhaps a fae, if we can find one."
"Elves?" Alex wrote. "They've hardly come off of Avalon since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Too much iron."
There was a possible solution, but it required something of Dog that he wasn't sure he was willing to do. But his conscience started to nag at him, this time full force. Don't you remember that first winter they were here? You got gored in the thigh by a moose, and they nursed you back to health! You're lucky they were out there that day! You owe it to them! "Um... but they do come off their island to teach, occasionally," Dog added reluctantly. "At least they did when I was going to school."
Alex had smelled the carrots and seemed drawn to them. For whatever reason, his cervid mind had decided that this werewolf was no threat--and since he happened to be holding something that smelled quite good, Alex felt he might as well take advantage. Dog fed the buck the carrots one at the time, who devoured them fully, including their uncut tops. Then he sniffed Dog's paw-like hand. Marion had to turn the page. "I think I have an idea about the world you live in, my lupine friend," he wrote. "I take it you know one of these elves?"
"But from a different angle," the werewolf replied. "That we can talk about later. But yeah, I knew one. He took an interest in me when I was a sophomore." Call Doris, his conscience pestered. "But maybe I can call someone to help me get in contact with him."
The buck and his human wife looked at each other. "We would be eternally grateful," Alex wrote.
Eventually darkness made them return to the cabin. But Alex wouldn't come inside, no matter what. "It's another one of those things," the buck wrote. "I really don't want to go through what I just did all over again. I'll just take it slowly, if you don't mind." Since they were used to keeping the door open for Dog, and it wasn't yet late enough in the season to be very cold at night, it wasn't a problem.
Dog begged off to go catch a meal. "I want to do my hunting as far away from the cabin as possible," he said. "The last thing I want to do is startle Alex."
"I'm still jumpy enough as it is," Alex wrote. "I may be able to think like a human, but I somehow doubt I'm going to be acting like one." His wife gave him a worried look. "It's not like I have any choice, hon."
"I know," Marion replied. "What amazes me is that she made you into such a handsome buck."
"All the better to appeal to trophy hunters. Remember the original story," Alex wrote, his ears twitching nervously as he stood in the doorway. "Hunting season is what? A month away?"
"We'll have you changed back before then," Marion reassured. But she still worried. She knew this animal was her husband, he had the same personality. But it was the personality of a human projected onto an animal brain that had all the instincts and habits that went with it. She watched him blithely chew cud as if he had done it all his life; and he'd occasionally lose his train of thought to some smell or sound that only he heard. And she well knew the rut was coming.
Although she didn't know it, Alex's thoughts echoed her own. The doe's remembered scent kept crossing his mind over and over. Then his stomach growled. "Hungry," he wrote.
Marion stood up and got some more carrots. They'd bought few fresh vegetables, and Alex was quickly eating up the supply. "I hate to say this, but maybe you ought to go eat up those blackberries," Marion said.
The buck flicked his ears, but his face was incapable of any sort of recognizably human expression. He bobbed his head at her, obviously a conscious effort to imitate a nod. Marion returned to pick up the pad to see what her husband would reply. "There are a lot more deer around here than I originally thought," he wrote. "Hold on..." He turned and walked off into the darkness, vanishing from sight. Marion waited nervously at the door for his return. When he finally did, he nudged his wife's hand with his wet nose and licked it lovingly. "Something's going on out there. I don't think you're going to like it."
"Just a moment. You'll see him."
As if on cue, a buck walked into range of the light from the front door to stare at Alex belligerently. He had a set of eight-point antlers, from which hung the tatters of shedding velvet. Alex glared back at the smaller buck and traded a hard look before the newcomer walked off quickly. "The Rut is just around the corner," he wrote, snorting depreciatingly.
Marion noted the capitalization worriedly.
The fast, loping rhythm of Dog's four paws was almost hypnotizing. He always did this when he had to run long distances to find food in his range. Game was plentiful everywhere this year, but because he didn't want to disturb Alex, the farther way he did his hunting, the better. So he headed up towards the dryad grove. The dryads themselves loved meat-eaters, since they only allowed a small number of herbivores into their woods to keep things from getting overgrown.
They were also among the few Old World creatures to be accepted by the spirits of the New.
Dog considered his next step as he closed in on the grove. You know that Doris is going to gloat. Can't be helped, I suppose. But by the sound of things, elves don't teach as much as they used to... But you could be wrong, you stupid wolf. You just don't know anything about the way they do things now. Even if he could find Doctor Alysen, there was no guarantee he would do anything for him. Besides, the very last thing he'd seen on the elf's face was a scowl of disapproval when he learned Dog was going to Woodstock. And you just looked at him and said, "whatever, man."
He caught a whiff of something strange just as he came over a rise just before the grove. It smelled like well-used canvas, mixed with something that got his hackles up. The fugitive werewolf's scent. Dog instantly slowed to a stop and found cover, moving so quietly on his paws that a cat would be jealous. Staying downwind of the apparent camp, he crept closer.
The army tent was pitched right on the edge of the grove, the front open with the flap snapping in the breeze, just barely visible in the moonlight. Above the tent, he heard the wind generator whirring furiously. The scents were all at least an hour old, and there were no sounds of movement other than birds. Dog pulled back when he heard something that crinkled smack against the bush next to his face. Shifting to a more human form, he reached out and picked it up. It felt like a foil food wrapper, and smelled like chocolate chip cookies. City wolf, he thought.
Dog decided that a little independent investigation was in order. The smell of this werewolf permeated everything, and Dog's thirty years of experience had given him many skills. Knowing where to step, he carefully moved closer to the tent. Once inside, he found a lantern and turned it on, confident that if this guy should return, he'd be able to handle him.
In one corner of the tent sat two car batteries, jury-rigged to some sort of transformer that plugged into the laptop, which sat closed on the floor. Surrounding the laptop was what looked like a pair of sunglasses, and a large metal disk about the size of a Frisbee attached to four much smaller ones, each inscribed with spidery runes. On closer inspection, the glasses themselves had runes etched into inner part of the lenses. Dog recognized none of these, but he did feel some strange magic associated with them. Curious, he picked up the glasses and looked into the circular areas, right where a human's pupils might be.
Dog dropped them instantly as he felt the magic almost take hold, playing with his vision and making him dizzy. That wasn't real. Seemed like some sort of illusion. Then he noticed that a pair of cables connected the glasses to the back of the laptop through another box also inscribed with runes. What the hell? Magic and technology? For what?
Outside the tent, the moonlight suddenly grew sharply brighter. Dog without warning found himself unable to move, and standing face to face with the goddess of the moon, who had a silver arrow aimed at his heart.
The sound of antlers being scraped against trees permeated the woods around the cabin. The smell of blood saturated the air; it was shed from dry, peeling velvet that for a brief moment, sometimes made certain bucks wish they'd been does instead. But thankfully for them, it was a fleeting experience that left their present-centered minds after only a few hours. There were does to be courted, a hierarchy to form, and one's own position in it maintained at all costs.
Alex felt his blood stir in anticipation. He knew he shouldn't be feeling this way, but as his experience had taught him, his body didn't care in the least what he thought. But at the same time, he wasn't sure it was worth the concern. He'd been photographing elk, deer, moose, and other cervids ever since he was twelve. But now he was experiencing it firsthand. This would be invaluable once he was human again! Not even the helpful hints the whitetail ¬sileni had given him could compare, and those half-human people were often quite reliable in that respect.
He watched the does eat the blackberries. The raccoon chittered a complaint at him, as Alex was standing right next to his favorite bush. The buck ate a few more choice berries, and deciding he was filled enough to go chew more cud, started to walk back over towards the cabin.
The herd smelled it a few seconds before he did and nearly bowled him over in their tail-flagging dash to escape. An instant later Alex turned tail himself, following his brethren into the woods to escape the abrupt danger. Hunting werewolf! his nose had shouted at him, briefly driving all other thoughts from his mind. Marion! The thought of his doe--his wife--in danger brought it all back. Only a moment's indecision passed before he decided what to do next.
Marion heard the deer scatter and reflexively slammed the heavy oak front door shut, locking the deadbolt. The thought of Alex still being out there almost made her open it again, but with those four fleeting cloven hooves of his it would take more than a single werewolf to bring him down. But what she really wondered was why the deer had scattered like that--the only time that happened was when Dog was hunting near the cabin, which didn't happen often. And Dog was somewhere up valley.
The feeling of a pair of eyes drilling into the back of her neck made her look towards the other side of the room. Standing in the window, looking at her with a pair of piercingly golden eyes, was a ghost-white werewolf. He looked at her like she was a sick doe waiting to be brought down.
Marion tore herself from that gaze and took a deep breath, then ran over to the gun cabinet, unlocking it and taking out a loaded pump-action shotgun. There were rifles in there, but they were unloaded. And while the shot itself wasn't silver, it would hurt like hell and would probably knock him out. Dog had been shot by the previous owner of the cabin when he'd first made the area his home, and had attested to that.
She removed the safety, pumped one cartridge into the chamber, and glared right back at the surprised werewolf. Marion wasn't a small woman, and had gone duck hunting more than once with this particular weapon. She pointed the muzzle of the gun at the intruder and traded a predatory glare of her own. "Unless you want a muzzle full of buckshot..."
He was gone from the window in an instant, but Marion soon heard him tearing at the battery shed again. She could hear the sound of bending metal. This guy was strong. She started to feel afraid again. He only wants the batteries, she told herself, turning on a lantern. Then he'll be gone...
Dog's pounding heart was in his throat. Artemis' silver arrow was leveled right at his chest, yet she didn't release. Does she think I'm this criminal? If she did, then he was in for a hell of a time. She could kill him if she chose, or transform him as she had Alex. And the goddess was notorious for changing the men she captured into women--if she felt like it.
The werewolf felt a tingle in his head. Artemis lowered her bow slowly. "You are not my quarry," she stated. "What are you doing here?"
"Chance, I suppose," the hippie replied tersely. "This quarry of yours had the misfortune of setting up his campsite within my range. Which is confusing, since it wasn't here a couple days ago..." he stopped himself when he realized he was babbling.
The goddess didn't reply, and didn't even seem to notice Dog's presence any more. Instead she turned around, kneeled to the ground and took up a handful of dirt. He was suddenly coughing from the dust kicked up by her superhuman dash down valley.
Well, so much for that. I hope she gets him. He was just glad she was gone.
All this hadn't been here a couple days before. Though he knew this was a crime scene, Dog decided to check some things to make sure everything was okay. Since the Iagarises had moved in he'd actually made quite a few friends in the valley; people who had previously considered him strange and held themselves aloof. Even though he had a mailbox down at Fred's and visited the centaurs at least once a month. So now he felt obligated to make sure his neighbors would get their things back in good order.
Then he realized. Artemis had made a beeline for the cabin. The car batteries, the wind generator... that can't have nearly as much power as he needs. What did Marion call that... 'virtual reality'? He's probably lucky he gets a few minutes use out of that thing.
The cabin was the closest dwelling that had such a battery system. But from here it was almost a half hour's lope away. Without a second thought he dashed after the goddess.
Alex charged back towards the cabin at nearly the pace he'd left it, coming to a halt just before entering the clearing. Creeping quietly, he poked his head between a pair of blackberry bushes and surveyed the area with nose, ears, and eyes in that order. The front door was just across from where he was, about a hundred feet. The wolf was nowhere to be seen, but Alex smelled his presence and heard the bending metal. He's going to have a bit more trouble with that this time. I got a sturdier lid and two locks.
The door was closed. Marion wouldn't have panicked like he had. She was probably inside with the shotgun or a rifle. Maybe I should let him just take the batteries. He's not likely to be around much longer, with Artemis hunting him.
The buck heard a snarl of frustration that chilled him, removing some of his resolve to come back and defend his home. Every nerve was poised to obey an urge to run that became more powerful by the minute. With a final snap of metal, the lights in the cabin flickered out except for what was probably a lantern. Then, coming around the side of the long cabin through the carport, came a ghostly white werewolf carrying two black battery packs. There was an unnatural sharp, acrid smell associated with him. Dye? He's dyed his fur white?
Alex felt his fur stand with what happened next. The werewolf stopped next to the front door, put the batteries down... and gave it a wood-shattering punch. If the door hadn't been over a hundred years old and made of incredibly thick, heavy oaken planks, it would have shattered. As it was, he only broke a single plank.
That was all the warning Marion needed. She opened fire.
It was all he could to keep from running away again when he heard the shotgun, but at the sight of his wife being put into further danger, his blood boiled. With a snort, he jumped out from behind the berry bushes, charging with all his might. Over three hundred pounds of whitetail buck met four hundred of utterly unprepared werewolf. The buck's antlers failed to puncture the skin, but the shock of being thrown to the ground by Alex's tremendous momentum was more than enough to knock the wind out of him.
Alex didn't look back and dashed on into the woods, hearing the werewolf scramble to his feet and give chase, howling for revenge. The white werewolf caught up amazingly fast--too fast for the buck's comfort. He let instinct take over, depending on his four nimble hooves and incredible ability to turn on a dime be his defense. It worked more than once--the wolf couldn't turn as quick as he could, and would often slam into a tree, giving Alex precious moments to gain ground.
But then he broke into the Meadow, not realizing that he'd been going in that direction. It was the Meadow. Open farmland that hadn't been used for years, but it was huge and covered with tall, drying summer grasses, totally open ground. The wolf had the advantage there, and Alex couldn't turn back into the forest without putting himself in more danger. Alex was getting winded. The werewolf's loping, ghostly shape closed in.
But it seemed he hadn't learned his lesson, and received a hard kick to the head. Alex spun around to face him, snorting and pawing at the earth. I can't beat him! Damn it, just like Actaeon! At least this isn't Dog...
They both froze an instant before raking claws would have hit Alex in the face. The half moon brightened, and they were surrounded by silver light. Artemis appeared, making an entrance fitting for a goddess. She only looked at Alex in passing, and took a small index card out of the pocket of her modern hunting outfit. "I agreed to read this," she said, as if to a fly on the wall. "For some reason I feel like keeping my word tonight. It's been a good hunt. Anyway." She took a breath. "You have the right to shut up. Anything you whine, howl, or snarl might make me snap and change you into something more to my liking. So if you really want to be a she-wolf, just tempt me," She looked at the fugitive, daring him with her smile. "Your worthless mortal self has a right to a lawyer, and if you can't scrape up the money the court will provide one for you." She snorted derisively and tossed the card on the ground. "That's enough of that." The werewolf vanished into thin air.
Artemis looked at still-frozen Alex, and he knew that this was where the feeling that first night had come. But strangely, she didn't take the bow she had strapped to her back and nock an arrow. Instead, she smiled humorlessly, and walked around him as if she were a shark. "You would make a fine trophy. But instead, I think I'll let you live. The male fawns that come from you will make the herd the best on the entire continent. I've even let you retain your human lifespan so you can give me more of them. Enjoy your life, stag." Then she vanished, leaving him in moonlit darkness.
"Well, that's one problem solved," Dog said, watching Fred repair the door. The werewolf was very sleepy, having eaten a healthy amount of red meat--it didn't taste as good as rabbit, but it was filling after not eating for two days. But he wouldn't sleep yet--not here, at least.
Marion cleaned the kitchen from the meal she'd served, while Alex frolicked with Fred's little colt outside. The buck seemed to be having great fun, dashing back and forth across the clearing to the foal's whinny-like giggles. "So," Marion said. "I guess Doris wasn't as haughty as you thought she'd be?"
"Once I told her about Alex, she was quite sympathetic," Dog replied. "Unfortunately she can't get up here until Saturday, so we have a few days to wait."
Marion sighed and put the last of the dishes in the drying rack. "Did she say anything about that fae professor of yours?"
The werewolf sighed. "Only that he hasn't been seen on campus for twenty years. I'm lucky enough Professor Derkins still teaches there. Of course, he was a fixture at BU for thirty years before I enrolled. Magic tends to preserve mages, you know."
"How well did you know him?"
"Hopefully..." Dog yawned carefully. "Hopefully well enough that he'll at least point me in the right direction. If not... well, a university is the best place to go for help anyway. There's got to be someone knowledgeable enough about the old gods and their curses."
"I just hope we'll be able to afford it," Marion said gravely. "There has to be a way..."
Dog nodded, then yawned again in spite of himself. "I'm going to have to get some sleep. It's been a couple days..." He got off the couch and moved towards the door. Fred was just finishing up. The door had taken quite a bit of damage; two planks had been ripped out, and much of the rest had buckshot holes in it. But with a little time and care (and a good coating of stain) the repair would hardly be noticeable.
Alex paused to watch Dog lope off towards the cave he used as a home. Thankfully, the foal wasn't quite so frisky when he returned to playing. He was panting with fatigue, but actually being able to enjoy himself in his new--and hopefully temporary--body was quite a treat. He and the little colt tired out at almost the same time. Fred led his child back into the RV-sized vehicle that centaurs used as transportation, where the rooftop air conditioning was running. "I really have to thank you for occupying him," the centaur said. "He was really causing problems down at the store."
"My pleasure," the buck wrote in the dirt. "He smells like the perfect little colt."
The centaur glowed with pride, which quickly changed to concern. "I hate to say this, but what if they can't change you back?"
Alex scribbled out what he'd written. "Then I'll deal with it. It's not like curses like this don't happen--how many new weres get stuck in animal form their first times?"
"But for normal people it's like getting struck by lightning and being bitten by a rattlesnake on the same day! I know there are ways I could, say, become a human if I wanted to. But that's always reversible. This is different."
The buck tilted his head, flicking his ears. "Don't stress, Fred. Even if I'm stuck this way, I've still got a long life ahead of me."
"Do you know how many deer diseases and parasites there are? I wouldn't count on it!"
Alex sighed and pawed the gravel, knowing that Fred was telling the truth but unwilling to get himself worked up. "Don't stress. I'll be fine. Excuse me." He went over to the door to see what his wife was doing.
Marion worried. Alex had returned only at dawn, still shaking like a leaf from his encounter with the fugitive and the goddess. He hadn't been able to write, and had given her a blank animal stare whenever she'd said anything to him. The fact that he'd returned at all was cause enough to be happy, but for a while he'd simply been a buck that wouldn't even allow himself to be touched.
Only when he'd started to write rudimentary words on the pad did Marion allow herself to go down to Fred's and get his help. By the time she got back, Alex was himself again--or at least to the degree he'd been before. When Marion had explained to him how he'd been on his return, he'd just told her "don't stress" and started to recount what had happened.
The thought of her husband being used for breeding stock made her blood boil. If that had been Artemis' original purpose, what hope was there if Alex was still a deer when the Rut was at its height? Would he react like a buck, seeking out does no matter what? And if he did, could she blame him for that? She took a deep breath. One step at a time, girl. One at a time.
Even more worrisome was the possibility that he would simply leave her for some doe and never come back, having lost his mind to his body and the urges that came with it. There was a precedent that Marion had read about in high school. Although that case had been a dolphin and not a deer.
The sound of cloven hooves on the cabin's hardwood floor made her turn around. Alex was standing in the doorway, panting like crazy. Marion put on a happy face and filled a clean plastic bucket full of water for him to drink. Her husband drank greedily, then cocked his head. Marion couldn't read cervid expressions, unfortunately. She held the half-full pad in front of him. "Don't stress, hon. I mean it. I'm not going to start worrying until Dog finds out 'yea or nay' that it can be done."
She reached out and rubbed his soft muzzle fur. "You know me..."
He hated it when Marion worried, and wished he could pat her on the back and hold her like he could before. Instead, he nuzzled her hand. "We'll get through this, love. I promise."
An hour before Doris arrived, Dog looked at himself in a mirror, trying with all his might to return to a form he hadn't used in decades. After an hour of trying he'd only been able to make himself look only slightly more human than the huge half-wolf form that was capable of speech. What looked back at him in the mirror was a wolf-headed man with a tail, fur all over his body, with hands and feet that retained claw-like nails. Well, at least I'm human sized. Alex's clothes fit me well enough, too. The pants had needed a slit for his tail, and even then chafed horribly at times. "Damn it, why can't I change back?"
"Maybe your body just doesn't remember how?" Marion suggested.
"Could be," the werewolf replied. "Didn't you say there's more sileni around?"
"Yes, they're rather more numerous than they used to be. I can't remember if there's a reason why. So I don't think anyone will give you a second glance." Marion smirked. "But then, who ever makes eye contact in Boston?"
I still can't believe I'm doing this, Dog thought. At least his conscience wasn't nagging at him.
Doris arrived right on time, as she always did. The strangest thing about her was that she'd been of the most enthusiastic hippies he had ever met--until Woodstock. When he'd seen her the very next year, she'd been as sober and straight-laced as his father. She didn't even offer any explanations about her change of heart, and Dog wasn't the type to pry. But she hadn't lost the warm-heartedness that he'd liked so much about her.
She was a rather pretty blonde, her hair always shoulder-length and scrupulously neat. Almost fifty, there were some smile lines on her face, and her blue eyes twinkled. Dog remembered her as being very cute in tie dye with a flower in her ear, free with herself, and unafraid of nudity. In over twenty years with the DEA she'd broken through any glass ceilings. She also knew both Alex and Marion from previous visits, so introductions weren't necessary. She made a face when she saw Alex. "My, you folks are in a bind, aren't you?"
"It's been hell," Marion replied tensely.
"Well, if this doesn't work I can always make use of some of my contacts in the Mage Corps," Doris offered. "But frankly, Boston University is cutting edge when it comes to magic research. Not even Harvard can match them. There's got to be someone. These sorts of things have been undone before."
Yes, but only by another deity, Marion thought. "All we can do is hope. And I really don't want to keep you two from getting started."
"We'll be on our way shortly," Doris said. "First I need to ask you a few things."
Dog perked his ears. She did this every time she came up here, asking questions to make sure he hadn't been touching anything illegal. While there were a few mushrooms that had hallucinogenic properties, Dog hadn't touched anything since the furry acid. She knows that, so why doesn't she trust me? He knew the routine, so he went outside to wait next to the car.
Alex walked up to stand in front of him. "You look sharp," he wrote in the dirt.
"Sorry we had to ruin a few pairs of your pants, Alex," Dog replied.
"No big deal. But that must chafe like hell."
Dog realized that Alex wasn't at all self conscious of his own nudity--and certain parts of him were in plain view of one looked from the right direction. Dog's tongue lolled as he changed his train of thought to something a little more cheerful. "I never thought I'd have a deer as a pack-brother."
The buck flicked his ears, then shook with mirth. "We'll have to get Marion to take a picture of the two of us before the curse is lifted. I think it would make a wonderful photo, my friend." He scratched out what he'd written, but whatever more he was going to say was cut short. The gravel wasn't cooperating much. He snorted in frustration.
Just then, Marion and Doris came out. Doris' expression was unreadable, and Marion smelled confused. "Well, we've got a long drive ahead of us," Doris said. "We'd better go if we plan to make Boston by nightfall."
Dog thought that Doris' Ford Taurus looked like a squashed white bug. The inside was spacious, but there was hardly enough room for his tail. She didn't say a word to him as she started the engine and made her way down the mile-long graveled driveway towards the paved main road. He was so nervous about leaving that he only returned to his senses once he saw Fred's pass by, going closer to any kind of large town than he'd been in decades. He whined quietly in spite of himself.
"Open the glove box," Doris said abruptly. "Please."
The werewolf did as he was asked, and gaped at what he saw. Sitting atop the car owner's manual was an old leather wallet, well-worn and very familiar. He picked it up and opened it, knowing what he'd find. A long out-of-date driver's license with the name Edward Callahan on it. "Never thought I'd use that name again..." Dog mumbled. "I'm amazed you kept it."
"I'm amazed you didn't come back sooner," the blonde replied. "But I've always understood that this was your choice to make. Even your father understood that, Edward."
He chose not to hear that last part. Dog's father had died ten years before, the cause he couldn't quite recall. He'd been left everything, but when the lawyer eventually found him, he'd refused the inheritance he'd been given. The lawyer had just walked away. "It's just..."
"No, it's not 'just Dog'."
"You're the one who first called me that you know," Dog growled. "Once I told you that I had some werewolves in my family tree."
"I'd forgotten that..."
"I thought you had."
She opened her mouth as if to say something, but thought better of it and remained quiet. Dog spent the next hour turning his old wallet over and over in his hands, the scent of aged leather strong in his nostrils. Rain started to patter on the windshield. There was little traffic out the window; to take his mind off his wallet he simply watched the egg-shaped minivans, organic-looking cars, and larger vehicles, pass by while waiting to arrive in his hometown.
Eventually Dog felt he had to break the silence. "Why didn't you trust me? You know I haven't touched anything bad in thirty years."
Doris sighed heavily. They were caught in Boston traffic, much worse than Dog remembered. "I do trust you, Edward. But ever since that day I've felt horribly responsible. I'd had a hit of that acid before I gave you one, and nothing had happened to me. I gave it to you as a joke. I didn't think it would do anything.
"Then I saw you grow fangs and claws right in front of me. Scared me to death, you know. That's why I dropped out of the hippie crowd." A horn honked behind them, Doris gunned it to move the ten more feet that had opened up in front of the car. "I'm sorry if it appeared that I didn't trust you. But for a while I didn't know how else to act, and it just became habit."
"And you've kept it up for thirty years." There were times when he'd wondered why she'd kept coming to see him after so long. But after a while he'd also ceased to question. Even though she had an annoying habit of asking questions to make sure he'd stayed clean, she was still a face he looked forward to seeing yearly. "If I've never said it before, thank you."
"You haven't," Doris replied with a note of amusement. The rain grew heavier as she pulled off the expressway in Quincy, driving up to a posh-looking complex of townhouses. Dog was completely indifferent to most weather, but since he was wearing clothing, he reluctant to get out of the car. Doris gave him an umbrella.
Well, here goes nothing. He opened it and followed Doris to her house.
Marion spent the afternoon in the darkroom, focusing on processing a hundred rolls of film taken on their Alaskan expedition. They'd gambled a lot on that trip, and hoped that most of that they'd taken would be marketable. Normally this was a day's work for two of them. It would definitely take Marion longer than that. From the rolls she took there were pictures of eagles, ptarmigans, puffins, and a dozen smaller birds. She hoped she could do justice to her husband's landscape photos, also. Large format wasn't her forte.
This left Alex to himself, but he wasn't idle. By the time the sun went down there were several medium-sized trees around the clearing that had felt the scrape of his antlers. He marked his territory like any buck would, justifying it to himself that since Marion was his "doe" he should make sure the other bucks well knew that. He ate blackberries and chewed cud between marking sessions, resting in the shade and waiting for it to cool off.
Other deer came around sunset. The presence of Dog and the centaurs had almost erased the hunting-scent of the fugitive. Instead, Alex's scent pretty much crisscrossed the whole area. An eight-point buck wandered in and added his own calling card to one of the smaller trees. Alex simply sat and watched, unconcerned. It wasn't yet time for serious fighting, he knew. That was at least a month away.
The other buck sensed his presence and walked over. Alex stood up, and they meshed antlers in a practice-sparring session. A slow, deliberate dance that wasn't meant to decide outcomes, but merely confirm where each buck stood in the hierarchy.
When Marion came out of the darkroom she found her husband just finishing up sparring with a strange deer. When they were finished, much to her own shock, they groomed one another, then the smaller buck walked back off into the woods. Alex trotted up to Marion. "Something wrong?" he wrote.
"You know you just..."
"I know, I know. But it's what deer do. It's as instinctive as breathing."
He's making excuses, she thought. Or is he? "I just worry..."
"We just have to sit tight until we hear from Dog." He paused. "Want me to try to come inside tonight?"
"That would be nice." She didn't have the heart to tell him that he smelled bad. Just deal with it.
But he did come inside the cabin, although he shook like a leaf for at least ten minutes and couldn't come in farther than the just inside the door. "I... I can't come in any farther. Something..."
"It's okay, hon. Really. I guess I'll see you in the morning."
Alex nodded, obviously having to consciously do the unnatural action. It looked more like he was sizing Marion up as a danger. "I'll stay close to the house."
He watched his wife close the door, then turned to go back into the woods. He felt safe where he could hide himself well, and now that the door was closed and the light was out, more deer were coming back towards the clearing. Alex encountered several does, who all watched him carefully as he passed by. Times like this I wish normal animals really could talk. Somewhere in the back of his mind was a little boy who'd grown up on cartoons who still spoke up every now and again. If I'm Bambi, then Marion's Faline.
The buck curled his upper lip at a scent that had abruptly returned. It was the doe he'd found himself following, and she was upwind of him. Her scent drove human thought from his mind, and he quietly trotted off to find her.
Boston University was an unusual school. It didn't have a traditional campus, but was strung out on several streets between the Charles River and both sides of Commonwealth Avenue. The buildings were so well integrated into the city itself that unless one was specifically looking for the campus it would be easily missed.
Dog rode the Green Line trolley-subway, since Doris was unable to take any time off of work to help him just yet. "I've got several pressing cases that I'm working on, and unfortunately I can't just leave them," she'd said apologetically. "But I should warn you that the campus has changed a bit. New buildings and such. Unless you want to spend time wandering aimlessly, go to the administration office."
The woman sitting behind the desk wasn't much help, unfortunately. She directed him to go someplace called "Transmorphic Studies" and speak to some mumbled professor's name. "Can you tell me if Professor Derkins still teaches here?" he asked.
The woman looked back at him, then tapped a few keys on her keyboard. "Hrm. Maxwell Derkins? He's just gone on sabbatical for a year. You won't be able to reach him, I'm afraid."
"Thanks anyway," Dog grumbled, leaving the woman to her work. Now what? And what the hell is 'Transmorphic Studies'?
Coming back to the city had quite an effect on him. The chaotic mix of smells alone was almost incapacitating; and the high-pitched whine of electronics, the constant chatter of people, and imperfectly lubricated machinery overwhelmed. There were times when he simply had to stop and cover his ears for a while. And there were so many people. After decades of near-solitude, being thrown into a crowd of thousands was nearly the straw the broke the camel's back.
He found some measure of solitude in the library, going up to the very top floor to escape the crowds. Very few of the old, musty books were familiar to him. He slumped down between a couple of shelves and shut his eyes.
"You look like you could use a hand," said a friendly female voice.
Dog opened his eyes to see a rat sileni. She was a perfect mixture of human and rodent features. The rat-girl was more or less human-shaped, and wore a pair of khaki coveralls and a white shirt. Like himself, she lacked hair like a human would have. Instead she had light gray fur. She also had a friendly, unafraid buck-toothed smile. Dog felt mild surprise that at that. She tilted her head. "Are you okay?"
Dog shook his head slightly. "I'm lost as all hell."
"What are you looking for? I was just on campus to go to the library, but I can point you in the right direction if you want."
"I'd appreciate it. Do you know if Mystical Arts still has their building on Granby?"
"Granby? They expanded years ago. They share space with a lot of the departments, since they're applying magic to just about everything, especially computers. Do you know what you're looking for specifically?" Dog told her. "Transmorphics? I really don't know, they keep on getting bounced around. By the way, my name's Angela."
"My name's just..." he paused. "Edward."
"When were you here last?"
"Just before Woodstock," he said without thinking.
She paused a moment to stare. "No wonder. I'm an Alchemy major, myself. Never could get into that transformation stuff. I'm happy as I am."
"Well, it's pretty important that I find them, so I'd appreciate any help you can give."
"No problem. We'll just find the infodesk."
He followed her to a fairly large desk he'd missed entirely on entering. But since the Student Union was in an attached building, the strong smell of coffee from a Starbuck's had driven him to find someplace where caffeine wouldn't diffuse directly into his brain. The man sitting behind the desk looked and smelled slightly like a chipmunk. He was certainly energetic enough, and was again unafraid of Dog--not that there was reason to be. "Transmorphics?" He said, tapping on some keys. "Ah, here we go. It's now officially 'Metamorphic Studies' and they've moved out to a new facility in Hanover."
"Why'd they move them way out there?" Angela asked.
"Remember last year when a misdirected spell turned an entire class next door into frogs?"
The rat-girl groaned. "Gods, yes. Took a week to sort out. Something was wrong with the building shields, though. I can't imagine why..."
The chipmunk shrugged. "They've been wanting something like this for years. Most of the grad students live out there, too. It's an old farm."
"Thanks," Dog said. Transformation had always been part of graduate study, Masters level at least. Changing one's physical form or that of others was not undertaken lightly, and could be very dangerous. Especially when the target form happened to be very large--like a dragon.
"Need a ride out?" she offered. "I've got the time, no classes on Mondays."
"I really don't want to impose..." Dog sputtered.
"You're not," she replied sincerely. "You're really worried over this and I hate seeing someone down. Let's go."
That night the first frost touched the forest around the Iagaris cabin. Alex hardly noticed through his thick fur coat, and the thicker scent of the doe he followed. She wasn't in heat yet--but it paid to be cautious. He couldn't help himself.
And yet, a little corner of his mind nagged at him. Like Jiminy Cricket sitting on Pinocchio's shoulder, it annoyed until it was heard. He stopped in his tracks, his breath puffing in the cold air as the frost froze on the branches around him. Your doe is back at the cabin, it reminded him. So what the hell are you doing way out here?
He was on the edge of the Meadow again, surrounded in the silver light of a waxing gibbous moon. The smell of dead summer grasses filled his nostrils, their stalks moving back and forth, standing out in his motion-sensitive vision. The doe, one in a herd of about six plus their fawns, had briefly stopped here and moved on along the edge, eating as she went. He could smell her trail easily.
He followed her scent-trail at a trot, intent on keeping up with her, and marking his presence on the most commonly-used trees. He couldn't help but feel a little guilty. But Marion was asleep and wouldn't know, as long as he returned by dawn. Besides, he thought self-importantly, If I can't get this curse lifted, I might as well deal with it and do what comes naturally. Wasn't that the nature of his curse, after all?
Marion awoke to find that the puddles left by the rain were covered with a thin film of ice. Alex was nowhere to be seen, but there were new cloven hoof prints all over the place.
As was her nature, she worried.
Angela's car was no more boxy than Doris's had been. But at least the seats had very convenient tail holes in them. She was also the consummate Boston Driver, blithely moving through traffic as if she was the only one on the road. The werewolf's heart hadn't pounded so hard since that time when he's stupidly tried to take down that moose all by himself.
Dog was quite happy to be able to leave the city. It'd been too much, too soon for him; and the smell of the new car was far more bearable than the ever-shifting scents of thousands of humans and others. "You seem much better now," Angela said matter-of-factly.
"I haven't been around people much," Dog explained, looking at a map. It said that this road turned to gravel, and about a mile after that they'd come up to the farmhouse, right at the end. "Especially so many humans."
"Been out in the woods for thirty years?" Angela joked.
Dog turned to her, and replied in his best deadpan. "Yes."
"Then you're a braver soul than I," she replied, obviously not sure if he was telling the truth or not. The tires crunched onto the gravel. "Almost there."
It certainly didn't look like a farm. A brand new sign, with blue letters on a white background had been erected in front of a pair of security gates, announcing "Boston University, College of Mystical Arts, Metamorphic Research Campus". A security guard--human, Dog noticed--let them through upon sight of Angela's parking permit.
Right beside what had formerly been a farmhouse was what looked like medium-sized single story dormitory. There were signs of just-completed construction everywhere. A large pile of muddy dirt, wood scraps, a tractor not yet taken away, the smell of sawn wood. Next to the former farmhouse were what looked like a stable, and connected to that was a huge white building at least four stories tall with an arched roof, with large translucent windows on the end. "Looks like an indoor practice ring," Angela supplied. "My parents own horses, and they have theirs stabled where they have something like that."
The rat-girl parked with a few other cars next to the farmhouse. This wasn't a small structure, either. Whoever had owned it before must have been a centaur, judging by the size of the doors. Of course, it could have been modified for students. Dog paused before entering. Do I really want to involve any kind of administration in this? The last thing I want is the press to get wind of Alex's curse. "Let's check out the dorm," he said.
Angela looked a bit surprised, but she followed him anyway. He noted some hoof prints in the dirt. Centaur, or a student changed into a horse? he wondered. Metamorphic Studies hadn't been a separate discipline when he'd been in school. Magic had been lumped into two categories of study, Alchemy, and Arcana. A magic major chose one of the two and was happy with what they taught. Wonder why it got so pigeonholed.
They entered a door halfway down the side of the building, finding that there were two hallways, and about four doors on either side down each, making about thirty two rooms total. The dorm seemed empty, until he heard a scratching sound. The smell of raccoon was nearly overwhelmed by that of new linoleum. Slowly, a door swung open and a large raccoon came out, coming their way. Dog's stomach growled. He hadn't been able to eat since arriving in the city. That's probably a person... he reminded himself.
Sure enough, the raccoon sat down in front of them. "Are you two new students?" he said in a tenor voice, puzzled.
I don't believe I'm talking to a raccoon... But after talking to a deer, what's the big deal? "Actually, no. I'm looking for some help--some pretty serious help. I thought this would be the best place to come."
"Oh? Why is that?" the raccoon replied with a note of suspicion. "Do you want this werewolf curse of yours lifted? It can possibly be done, depending--but you'll have to pay for it."
Dog wondered just how the raccoon had known--but after a moment's thought, it was probably easy enough for someone who specializes in those sorts of things to tell. He shook his head quickly. "Oh, no. It's not for me at all. I've got a friend in dire need of getting his humanity restored up in Vermont. Artemis changed him into a deer, see..."
"Whoa!" the raccoon yelled in an amazingly commanding voice from one so small. "Are we talking godmagic, here?"
Dog couldn't help but whine a little. If he refused--and at the moment it seemed that whoever this was had some degree of knowledge in the field--then what? "Well, yes..."
But the raccoon's reply was eager--not a refusal. "You can explain to me just what happened to your friend over dinner." The raccoon's black ears twitched. "Assuming they got the kitchen up and running yet. If not, I know a place in town that caters to people with our tastes."
As it turned out, the kitchen--located in the farm house--wasn't even half completed. So they took Angela's car back into town. The raccoon introduced himself as "soon-to-be-Doctor Richard Lotor".
"Lotor?" Angela said. "As in 'Procoyon Lotor'?"
"The scientific name for 'raccoon', I know," Richard said with a sigh. "To make a long story short, I was at a Spring Break party hosted by Baccus Beer when I was a sophomore. Guess who showed up at the celebration? He thought it'd be so funny if he got me falling-down drunk and do this to me. I woke up in a garbage can the next morning with a huge headache. Took me four days to convince someone I wasn't just a raccoon. I've been trying to break my curse ever since--and not without some success, I might add. It's the subject of my dissertation, in fact. A study on godmagic curses and how to break them."
"Then I'd say I came to just the right place," Dog said.
"Fortune's Wheel turns both ways," Richard replied.
"And you haven't seen him since last night?" Fred asked, his tail swishing. He'd come up to visit the Iagarises at midafternoon to find Marion standing in the doorway, watching the woods. She'd looked like she hadn't moved in hours.
"Not at all. It's not like him to worry me like this..."
"And Dog isn't here to sniff him out. Damn it. I hate to say it, but if this curse is anything like he said it was, he's probably following a doe. They sometimes come into heat early, you know."
Just what I wanted to hear, Fred. Thanks a million. "Would you mind not reminding me?" she said tartly.
The centaur shrugged stoically. "I'm sure he'll be back, Marion. We'll just have to be patient."
Three miles away, the formerly human whitetail buck was hovering over his prize. She had a sweet, enticing scent coming from her. At first she'd run from him, and it'd taken quite a bit of doing to separate her from her herd. A merry chance had followed, dashing through the woods at top speed, led on by her heat-smell. He nuzzled and groomed her neck, and she his. And when they were finished, she moved her tail aside from him.
WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST DO?! his conscience shouted, nearly bowling him off his feet, causing him to stagger away from the doe once the act was completed. All concerned, she came over and started to groom his muzzle again. He felt his body again respond to her caresses, utterly out of his control.
It happened several more times over the next hour, until her estrus-scent vanished. Only then did he regain full control of his body.
Alex dashed away from the doe as fast as he could run. Damn! Damn, damn, damn! I thought I had more control than that! But his body, it seemed, had other ideas. The act had been mechanical, deep-seated, and irresistible. It hadn't even been particularly pleasurable... although the flood of guilt he felt wouldn't let him admit that he had enjoyed it.
It's got to be the curse, he thought, remembering what Artemis had said. She wants me to father fawns. Well, there's one pair right there... And there would be many more to come if he couldn't either get a hold of himself, or if Dog found a way to undo the curse--something that he highly doubted. He felt even more guilty; for what he had just done, and for what he would be compelled to do in the future.
Before he burst into the cabin's clearing he smelled Fred's presence. It was just after dark; every light in the cabin was blazing, and he heard the sound of the generator going. Alex skidded to a stop in front of a surprised and relieved Marion. It took a while before he could gather his thoughts to mentally put the words on the page. His ears drooped with guilt as he wrote what had happened. "I can't even begin to express how I'm feeling right now. There's just no words..." he wrote. He cursed the printed word for not expressing his emotions like a human voice could. But it was clear that Fred could smell his regret.
Marion felt her anger rising as her husband told the story. She almost couldn't read it, but when she was finished, she threw the pad down on the gravel and stormed inside, slamming the door.
Alex moaned as the centaur carefully knelt down to pick up the pad. "It wasn't your fault," he said.
"Hell yes it was my fault! I shouldn't have gone into the woods all by myself in the first place!" he wrote in slashing strokes.
"You realized what was happening and you still couldn't stop yourself," Fred calmly pointed out. "What Luna wants, she gets. History has shown that time and again."
Alex felt like he had just lost his wife all the same. "I'd kill her right now if I could..."
"Many have tried. But she is the Huntress. It takes another god to kill a god." The centaur whuffed. "Just give Marion time. She's a very good girl. She'll come around." I hope, he added to himself.
The buck just hoped he wouldn't smell another near-heat doe before morning.
Dog quickly learned that Metamorphic Studies students tended to be on the strange side--at least to his mode of thinking. There were fifteen of them, most of which were Masters-level. In the split common room at the end of the dormitory building were tables, some older arcade games, four computers hooked up to the internet, a large TV/VCR combo, and a small kitchenette that was indeed working.
"Why's this place so big?" Dog asked Richard, looking around at the mostly empty room.
"We get about twenty rooms, but the rest are divided between Boston College, Northeastern, couple other schools. BU footed most of the bill for this place, so we get to put our name on it," Richard explained.
Seven of them sat at one of those tables, called by Richard to discuss Dog's problem. The raccoon sat in the middle of the table, explaining things to a very diverse group of people. Only two of them were human, four were in varying sileni forms, and the last was a blue jay perched on the back of a chair, busily preening himself.
Richard finished explaining things. "Remember this is unofficial as yet, everyone. I'm going to speak with Doctor Freeman tomorrow and get this circumspectly added to the case studies for my dissertation if I possibly can; I know he'll be quiet about it. If I can get grant money to help out with Edward's predicament then it's all for the better. But I need ideas now."
"How about that spell elements runic program I wrote last semester?" one suggested. He was one of the close-to-human students, only sporting a pair of lupine ears and a partial muzzle. Dog recalled his name was Carlos. "It worked pretty well in that were-ostrich case you had."
"True, true," Richard said. "It might speed things up a bit. Go ahead and run it and see what pops up."
The part-wolf smiled. "I'll just need a listing of the curse conditions."
"Excuse me," Angela said. "What's 'runic'?"
"RuniC with a capital 'C' on the end," Carlos, explained. "It's an experimental variation of the C programming language, see. I haven't yet gotten a computer to actually do magic, but it's pretty good at coming up with spells on the fly. Although the failure rate isn't what I'd like it to be..."
"Then why use it?" Dog growled. The presence of another wolf got his hackles up.
"Because if I did it the traditional way it could take weeks, or even months," Richard said. "I'll review each and every element the computer suggests, so don't worry."
Angela was still skeptical, however. "I don't suppose you've had any luck with this curse of yours?"
"I'll show you. Can someone put me on the floor?" A pretty girl who had been introduced as Terry lifted him off the table and put him down, where the raccoon closed his eyes. After a moment's concentration, the raccoon glowed a soft blue, and began to grow. Two minutes later a man who was about as human as Dog could manage was standing there--completely nude of course. "I can hold this for about three hours at a time, with a rest time of at least a couple days between changes. Unfortunately, I can't change myself back from this until that time runs out, so I'll be right back."
He returned clothed in a bathrobe, taking a seat at the head of the table, putting down a bunch of papers. "I've done histories on about twenty gods and demigods, including Artemis. I'm quite familiar with the Actaeon myth. What I've got here are about a dozen different versions of that story. So let's begin at the beginning, shall we?"
Angela bid goodbye around nine, saying she had early classes and still wanted to get in some studying before bedtime. "We might be able to use an alchemist," Richard said before she left. "Can I have your email address?"
The rat-girl was clearly uncomfortable in the presence of so many odd people, Terry especially, for some reason Dog couldn't figure out. She'd shied away from her during the meeting. "I'm just a junior," she said. "I know a Masters student that can help you out, though. She's trustworthy."
"I'd appreciate that," Richard said. Angela left at a clip with Terry smiling at her.
Dog had been offered to share Richard's room with him. It was obvious that the raccoon didn't need a whole lot of living space. The rooms themselves were only meant for single students, more like studio apartments than dorms. The bed even looked moderately comfortable. Doris had been quite happy to hear that Dog might have found a solution, and was very willing to let him stay at the campus.
Richard slept in a sort of "nest" made of pillows and blankets. "You have no idea how happy we are to finally get this place," he said.
"Why is that?" Dog asked, trying to make himself comfortable on the bed.
"For one thing, it's surrounded by both magical and physical fences. There's about forty acres of land here, all enclosed so students can try out whatever form they wish without bothering anyone. And the fences keep them inside the boundaries just in case they lose control. The practice ring can handle anything up to apatosaur-size. And best of all, no innocent bystanders will get changed into frogs on accident. It's perfect."
"I'll take your word for it," Dog replied. Then he drifted off to sleep.
The next morning his growling stomach awoke him. He found Richard already gone, and the door slightly open. His ears picked up the sound of chatter from the common room. So he pulled himself out of bed, put on his pants, and headed out.
Richard was eating some fruit while a guy that looked a lot like Terry was making breakfast. The human was bare above the waist, wearing a pair of pajama bottoms. The air smelled like toast and peanut butter. "You really need to stop scaring people like that," the raccoon was saying to him.
Terry gave Dog a sideways look, shrugging. "I don't see what the big deal is. If they feel uncomfortable that's their problem, not mine." The human crossed his arms across his chest and smiled. Then Dog's eyes went wide. The man's blonde hair grew longer, his facial features became familiar again, his body gained feminine curves, and between her crossed arms a pair of fair-sized breasts grew. "You can take it, can't you Edward?" the girl said.
Dog's jaw dropped. The Terry last night had been a bit less of a looker. This one could have graced the cover of Playboy. The girl noted Dog's expression and returned to her male form, going back to fixing breakfast. "I just love that expression," he said with a wry grin. Richard chittered reprovingly. "What? How is this different from the rest of you changing yourselves into animals?"
"It's okay, really," Dog said quickly. "I mean, we had a gender specialist in the department when I was in school. You just caught me a little off guard is all." Sure he did... she did. Whatever.
Richard sighed. "Never mind. I know I'm not going to change you, anyway."
"Damn straight," Terry replied, spreading peanut butter on his whole wheat toast.
The werewolf regained his composure. "I don't suppose there's anything a carnivore could eat around here, is there?"
"You can't be more human than that?" Richard asked.
"Blame it on a bad choice in my youth..."
"Let me guess. Furry acid, right?"
Dog nodded, amazed. "How did you guess?"
"That kind of drug leaves a sort of 'taste' in the manna-field that surrounds you. You should also be very happy you can be as human as you are. Most users of furry acid either die from a differential morph, or end up changed completely and with an animal lifespan."
"Excuse me, 'differential morph'?"
"Imagine having a wolf's heart trying to service a human body--or a lupine brain inside of a human skull. You seem to have some werewolfism somewhere in your family line, else you probably would have died. The scary thing is that the stuff stays in the body forever, and there's almost nothing that'll get it out of the system."
Dog realized just how lucky he was--and how much luckier Doris had been. The raccoon flicked his ears. "Enough with the morbid thoughts. Let's go see if Carlos has any results yet."
The part-wolf didn't answer when Dog knocked. After waiting a few minutes, he knocked louder. "Are you sure he's up yet?" Dog asked.
"I'm sure of it. He's quite nocturnal and sleeps at odd hours. Put your ear to the door, maybe you'll hear something."
The werewolf had learned that the building was heavily soundproofed, which was probably a good idea since most creatures had better hearing than humans. However, he still heard the quiet tapping of keys when he did as the raccoon asked. "He's up. Why didn't he answer?"
"Carlos can get pretty focused on his work," Richard explained. "Just open the door. He won't mind. He may not even notice."
The raccoon had said that they'd only moved in two days before, but the mess that was Carlos Velasquez's room looked like it had accumulated over months. There were papers everywhere, books strewn about the floor with titles like Running Linux or Tcl/Tk In a Nutshell. Sitting at a large-screened computer with at least a dozen windows open was Carlos, still tapping away at the keys. "I've got the program running a couple of parallel processes on your curse conditions," he said, not looking up. "Should be finished in an hour or so."
If his floor was messy, the area around his computer was neat. It seemed that whatever couldn't fit on the bookshelves that filled most of the wall space had simply gone on the floor of the fair-sized room. Richard walked across a page scribbled with simplified runes. "I'm surprised you're not still working on it."
The part-wolf shrugged. "I had to change a hundred or so lines of code and recompile the thing to allow for godmagic, but it wasn't any big deal. But the big problem was with the database format, for some reason it wouldn't..."
Dog's mind came to a halt under the assault of so many technical terms. "Whoa there. Just as long as it works."
"I guarantee it." The computer abruptly beeped, and yet another window appeared. "And it looks like it came up early. Let's see what we can see..."
"Would you mind printing it out?" Richard asked. Carlos did so and handed the raccoon the results. He looked over the pages and sighed. "This is going to take some doing. There's at least a dozen likely elements here... A couple I know I'm going to need right away."
"Oh? What's that?" Dog said.
"Moonstone and a sample of your friend's fur. In fact, I think I should meet your friend before I do anything else. Excuse me while I go find Doctor Freeman..." The raccoon ambled off.
"Hungry?" Carlos asked, going over to a small refrigerator. He pulled out some meat wrapped in brown paper. "It's venison..."
The smell was enticing, but he couldn't help but think of Alex in conjunction with that smell. "Er... no. Got any beef or chicken?"
"Yeah. Happy to oblige."
He knew he was being treated like the alpha wolf, being given the first choice of meat before Carlos took a bite. But he also didn't really care, because he immediately felt more comfortable with the part-wolf programmer. The presence of other lupines had always made him behave like this. It wasn't something he could ignore. I hope Alex is holding out. He's got at least as many problems of that sort as I do, I'm sure.
Her anger came down to a simmer. The only sign of it was little bits of torn junk mail sitting on the table. Before Marion had gained that habit she'd often broken things. Now she just sat down, tore a piece of paper in half, then tore each half and half, and so forth, until her anger was spent.
Two hours had passed. She'd gone into the darkroom so she wouldn't be seen, and now she was left with time to think. Surrounding her were three dozen treated rolls of film hanging from racks, waiting to be carefully examined, judged, and the best developed into prints. Hundreds of hours of biting cold, shivering, insect-ridden, smelly, and at times starving, work. Half of which couldn't have been accomplished without her husband. Her husband the stag.
It's not his fault, she told herself. Dammit! Why couldn't he have run away from her? Why didn't he? She wasn't angry at him--frustrated, but not angry. At least, not at him. Not normally a religious woman, Marion had to wonder why Christianity hadn't absolutely destroyed the old gods like it had many of the Native American spirits. They were still around, using humans as playthings. Zeus was still well known for having several lovers and didn't even rate any stories in the tabloids. They still acted as they had for centuries, as unchanging and hard as a diamond.
So Artemis made my husband the best of deer. The perfect stag, the kind of mate every doe wants to have... She shuddered at the thought. Unfortunately the realization didn't leave her any less disappointed. Alex had still done what he did, and that made her blood boil. Typical ma... oh no, don't think that! That's what mother always said after dad left!
She'd married him because he was the atypical man, after all. His stoic worldview had steadied her worrisome world, a rock to hold on to and keep her from getting those gray hairs her mother had always warned about. But what if this is forever?
She didn't want to think about it.
Outside, a touch of frost gave a slight bite to the air as the darkness deepened. In the upper elevations the hint of fall had been felt for a week, and the leaves were starting to turn. Alex had noticed this when his and Marion had first arrived, and that had made them very happy. Their agent were always hungry for seasonal photos of the fiery leaves that made the area so attractive to tourists every year.
The buck paced around the driveway, slowly wearing a circular trench all the way down to the dirt. His wife had slammed the door to the darkroom equally hard, and hadn't been out in far too long for his comfort. "She'll be out any minute now," said the bay centaur.
"You've said that at least nine times now," the buck wrote sullenly. "I might as well leave..."
"Don't," Fred replied strongly. "We haven't even heard from Dog yet, so just wait. I really wish I could offer more advice, but centaur marriage is quite a bit different."
Alex's ears perked to the sound of an inner door being opened. He stopped pacing and walked over to stand next to Fred near the door. Trembling with anxiety, his wife opened the front door and looked at him. "You only did what you were compelled to do," she said in a carefully neutral tone of voice. "I... I guess it was a little optimistic of me to expect otherwise."
"Can you forgive me?" he wrote timidly.
She sighed deeply, and leaned against the doorjamb, her face drawn with stress. "Alex, I'm not a perfect person. I really can't say yet. This isn't over and I'd rather know if you can be cured or not. Either way, once we both have some distance from this... well, then we'll see."
The buck nodded agreement. There was nothing else for him to do.
Then they all heard the sound of tires on gravel, and turned to see who was coming.
One of the things the Dog quickly learned on the roadtrip from Hanover was that even though two people could argue like they hated each other, they could also be very good friends. That much was obvious, since Terry and Richard seemed to be having a great time arguing, mostly about the sometimes-girl's abilities and where they fit into the scheme of Metamorphic Studies. Terry's position was that they did, while Richard said they didn't--although Dog privately thought that was only because he wanted to take a contrary position to debate from. He wanted to stick his head out the window.
The only thing that kept him was his suddenly discovered sense of dignity.
"I really think they ought to stick you in the sociology department," Richard said.
"Ha! I've already done my time in those kinds of experiments. How many times do I have to go into a store in different feminine forms to see what kind of service I get? Horrible experimental design! The professor gave them a fitting grade."
"You made pretty good money on those, though," the raccoon replied.
Terry--still in male form--smiled. "Damn straight I did. And I'm not saying I didn't have fun sometimes, too. I got to swap an entire graduate gender studies class for a whole week last semester! Those that agreed, at least... Party poopers."
Unlike Doris, Terry was actually a very good driver. But he also had the disturbing habit of changing genders and flirting with the male drivers beside her, changing back when they had to look away, then laughing at the expressions on their faces. He reminded Dog of an obnoxious acquaintance of his from high school. A guy who'd been borderline between class clown and troublemaker.
He and Richard seemed to know each other quite well. When they weren't debating their chosen issue, they were throwing all sorts of banter and innuendo back and forth, seeming to have forgotten Dog was in the same car with them. A few of Terry's comments made his fur stand up. Finally he couldn't take it any more. "Guys, do you mind?"
Richard sounded startled. "Whoops. Sorry, Edward. Forgot you were there."
"Yeah, sorry," Terry said insincerely. "Rich and I are old high school friends."
"Only high school? Try middle school," Richard replied. "I remember you scaring the hell out of our teachers by changing into a girl behind their backs on the first day. They'd always think it was a mistake in their rosters." He laughed. "And not to mention the reactions of the other kids..."
"Including your own, remember. It's my fault for getting you interested in transformation in the first place," Terry said. "You didn't stop asking me questions for weeks."
"I hate to ask this," Dog said, his curiosity egging him on. "But are you two..."
Terry turned female. "Gay? Hell, no! I'm a lesbian!" She burst out laughing.
"But truthfully, neither of us are," Richard informed. "Although there was the time we faked a date..."
"Hey, a guy wants his best friend to be seen with a pretty girl," the female Terry replied in a suggestive tone, batting her eyes. Both of them started laughing again at the shared memory.
Fortunately, they agreed not to "argue" so intently for the rest of the drive. And they didn't, instead making sure to include Dog in their discussions. He actually got to like them quite a bit in those few hours--although he still thought Terry had a bit of an attitude problem. He'd long known that although people can warily accept a man who can change himself into an animal, a person who can change their gender seemed to disturb most people on a far deeper level. Terry seemed to enjoy that, and played upon it whenever he could.
Around six in the evening they passed Fred's store. Dog became comfortable again, now that he was in home territory. And when they turned up the driveway towards the cabin, he felt even more eager to feel the familiar ground under his paws again. When they finally entered the clearing, he saw Fred's vehicle, and all three of them looking their way. Richard looked over the dash. "That's him? This could be tougher than I thought..."
"Why is that?" Dog asked, ears perked forward.
"Can't be sure yet. I'll know after I've spoken to him."
Something had happened while Dog was gone. That much was clear when he stepped out of the car. He smelled traces of doe heat-scent coming from Alex, and the reasons became clear to him. Hooboy. Hell if I'm going to pry, though. "I've brought help," he said. The werewolf helped Richard out of the car. Marion, Alex, and Fred all stared as if he was crazy.
"Hello!" Richard said, nearly startling Alex. "Richard Lotor at your service."
A raccoon and a deer talking to one another was a strange sight, Dog decided. Alex and Richard had moved off near to one of the nearly empty blackberry bushes, Richard eating berries off the branch as he spoke with the buck. At times he seemed to be in a trance, not saying a word, only standing on his hind legs. Finally, he said, "Your curse is a little different from most of the versions of the Actaeon I've encountered. See, most of the time she just lets the victims be killed by their hunting pals. Consider yourself lucky."
Lucky, he says. "I hope you know how you're going to break it, now..." Alex wrote.
"I have more of an idea than I did before I came. I also know we won't be able to do anything before the full moon, so I have some time to do some book research," the raccoon said. "I want to make sure I cover all the bases. I don't want to think about what might happen if I botch the counter-curse."
"In that case, take whatever precautions you want," Alex wrote quickly.
The trio drove back to Boston that same night. Dog was reluctant to leave, but the debt he still owed the Iagarises weighed heavily on him. When the weather was bad his muscles still ached from the old wounds. He'd been lucky enough when he was injured that no bones were broken, and the vaunted healing power of being a werewolf had kept him from scarring.
"This is going to be very tricky," Richard repeated. He hadn't said much since leaving the cabin. "Very, very tricky."
"Care to elaborate?" Terry said. She'd been more than a little subdued after talking with Marion.
"I can't, really. I'll have to talk to Lucius and find some resources. I hope they've got the library organized. Going into Boston would be a pain."
"Yeah..." the girl replied. Terry wasn't even flirting with other drivers.
"Are you okay?" the raccoon asked.
"I dunno. I've never met anyone quite like Marion before--except maybe Dr. Samson. I changed genders right in front of her and she treated me just like one of the girls..."
Richard looked back at Dog and wiggled his ears. "First time I've seen her act like that in years."
They arrived back in Hanover just past midnight. By then Terry was almost asleep at the wheel. She stumbled into her room and closed the door. Thankfully the both of them had been too tired to argue the entire drive.
They next day they went to the campus library. The library was as new as the rest of the campus. The expanded former farmhouse included Commons--where the students could make meals--a half dozen classrooms, faculty offices, and the library, which took up quite a bit of space by itself. "Lucius" turned out to be the department librarian. It was a nickname that the students had given him, and by the look of things, it was quite appropriate. Standing--or perhaps sitting--at a desk was what at first glance appeared to be a man with a donkeyish face and ears. He was slowly turning the pages to a book. Richard, never one to be carried, chittered for attention. "Hey, Lucius!"
Dog heard the thwap of a tail behind the librarian. "I've asked you not to call me that, Mr. Lotor," the man said exasperatedly.
Richard snickered. "Why not? It's appropriate. That mask you put on all those years ago is Lucius from The Golden Ass."
The donkey-man's ears pinned back. "Lucius" had a face that at the same time was both human and animal. It was almost like the two faces occupied the same space--a donkey-like human head, and that of a normal donkey. Dog muttered a spell to himself and smelled the manna. Geez... this guy is really messed up. Wonder what did it.
The donkey-man picked up the nameplate on his desk. "My name is Dustin Capman. And the only reason I'm a librarian is because of my 'condition' as you well know."
"Nevermind," Richard chittered. "I need to find some sources on godmagic, curses, and their counterspells."
The librarian snorted, getting up from his desk. Dog observed that his entire lower body was that of a donkey. He had human hands, and with difficulty walked on all fours towards the shelves. "Unfortunately students can't browse the stacks," Richard whispered. "All because he doesn't want his neat shelves messed up. I'm amazed they managed to fit everything in here. We've collected almost ten thousand books on transformation, and I've heard there's a local resident that has a fair collection himself that we'll have access to."
Dog boggled. "There weren't a tenth so many when I was in school."
The raccoon shrugged. "Oddly, we have your generation to blame for all this. So many students back then got so interested in magic that it had to be expanded."
That's the truth, Dog thought. Most his classmates had some interest in magic, either as a major or a minor, and had often vocally expressed the inadequacy of the way it was taught. The renewal of magic as opposed to science, and oddly, the rise of the computer industry, had run almost parallel courses. "Now we're combining computers and magic."
"Trying to combine them," Richard corrected. "RuniC is the start. The only thing that was even partially successful other than that was a pair of virtual reality glasses. It got stolen from BU a couple months ago. Dunno what happened after, though."
Dog knew, but since it wasn't the time to fill him in, decided to tell him later.
The librarian returned with three books tucked into a saddlebag. "Do you have your ID card?" he asked, smirking.
"You know I can't carry the dumb thing!" Richard exclaimed. "You've got my ID number memorized."
"I can't check out books to anyone without a card," the donkeysphinx declared.
Richard glared at him. Pompous ass. Well, he'll get his. "This is serious. If you don't check them out to me then I'll tell Dr. Freeman that you're withholding critical materials. Besides, you damn well know an ID card never works in this department."
Dustin looked down at the raccoon, flicked his ears, and tapped it in. He handed the scanned books to Dog. "Read them in good health. They were useless to me."
Once outside, Richard moved to one side of the door and gestured that Dog should also. "I'm about to do something a little cruel," the raccoon said, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, "But if anyone deserve it, he does."
"What is it?"
"Well, let's just say that I know his curse better than he does, but he hasn't given me any reason to actually give him that information." Dog blinked. "Oh, I'm not going to keep it from him forever," Richard reassured. "Just until I get my doctorate. Listen." Richard closed his eyes and muttered a few words in Latin.
From inside the library there came a clatter, and a stunned bray. "Damn it! Always when I'm reading!" the librarian brayed. Dog peeked back in through the glass door. There was now a normal-looking donkey with the same double-image head pulling himself out of a torn dress shirt.
Richard chitter-laughed. "If he was wearing a tie, I wouldn't have done that, of course."
"Care to explain?"
"It's a rather sordid story, Edward. I'll tell it to you sometime."
"I expect he'll change back."
"Eventually. I haven't actually hurt him and if I knew the real cure to his curse, I would tell him right away. Come on, let's go help Alex."
It would take several days for Richard to pare down the two dozen or so spell elements that the computer had suggested. He worked tirelessly, and without worrying that he'd be reprimanded. His advisor had confidentially added the case to Richard's dissertation, recognizing that such an opportunity should not be passed up. So Dog really had nothing to do but sit in the common room and wait.
Answers to magical problems were usually elusive. Richard had sifted through dozens of dissertations, journal articles, and much older works in his five years of being cursed himself. By nature magic defied description. Western mages called the energy from which it comes "manna", although there were certainly many other names for it. In Asia they often they called it "qi" or "shen". The only thing science had been able to do was confirm its presence.
Richard only came out of his research mode to sleep, eat, and take care of his natural functions. Unlike many transformees he wasn't particularly affected by instincts. Although Terry liked to give him shiny things like mylar balloons that he wouldn't admit could hold his interest for hours. But Alex's curse was more complex than even his own, and he'd only partially been able to undo his. But there is an answer. I can feel it.
He found hints in the Actaeon stories. There were a dozen recorded incidents of Artemis changing men into stags over the past hundred and fifty years. It was almost like she was setting things up on purpose. Most of those times the transformee had ended up dead. And at least twice the poor men had been made into does. Connections, connections. Look for connections!
A Metamorphics student was a mix of mage, zoologist, biologist, sociologist, and historian. Connections were a part of the job description. The raccoon paced around his room, walking over furniture, washing food meditatively, forcing his mind to focus on the problem at hand.
On the third day Terry came in. She was wearing a very flattering shirt and khaki shorts, and even a little makeup. Richard was puzzled. "I haven't seen you wear clothes like that as a girl in quite a while."
Terry shrugged. She hadn't actually become male again since talking with Marion, and even had a bra on. Terry didn't normally feel like she fit in anywhere--not with men nor women--and being spoken to as if she was just "one of the girls" had put her in a rather good mood. The t-shirt she wore at the moment had quite a daring neckline and was actually quite flattering to the slightly better-than-average figure she preferred as a girl. "I know. I've just felt really feminine lately. It's hard to explain, really..."
The raccoon chittered. "You don't have to explain anything to me. Is Dog still out there? He seems a little out of it, I haven't seen him back in here for a few days."
Terry shrugged. "He feels more comfortable sleeping outside, he says. He's been loping around the campus for a few hours a day. Made quite an impression around here."
"I wonder if we could persuade him to go back to school..." Richard mused. "I'm sure you've felt the manna around him that I have. Dr. Freeman told me he spoke to him about it, but I don't know any details."
"No kidding. I think we'll have to talk to our respective advisors. He may be stuck a werewolf, but he could always be put into a different department. Elementals, perhaps?"
"Thirty years is a long time..." Epiphany chose that moment to hit him. "Oh boy." Richard started swishing his tail back and forth excitedly. "Oh boy..."
"'Oh boy' what?" Terry asked. She was a little distracted by the underwire on her bra. It pinched her in a rather sensitive place. "Well?"
But the raccoon was already ambling off to find Dog. "I'll tell you later."
Boredom came almost as soon as Dog sat down in front of the TV. The other students had their classes, and he wasn't willing to disturb Richard's research just to make conversation. So he did the only thing he could, he explored the campus.
The Indoor was by far the largest building. Like everything else it smelled of fresh paint and sawn wood. Light slanted down through the gable windows in visible beams in the dusty air. The sound of dozens of hooves was plainly audible when he went through the entrance from the old farm house. There was a spacious balcony that overlooked the ring where Dog went to watch; but the dust made him sneeze.
Nineteen horses stopped dead in their tracks and looked up at the newcomer on the balcony. "Uh.... Hello," Dog said, his tail between his legs. "I'll be going now..."
"Wait a moment!" someone bellowed from below. A horse sileni, blindingly white in color except for a black-skinned nose where his hair was much thinner, dashed up the stairs and extended his hand. Surprised, Dog took it. "Scott Freeman," he said. "Richard's told me a lot about you, but I've been meaning to meet you in person."
Dog was taken aback--partially by the fact that the stallion wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing--and partially by his forwardness. "Er... has he?"
The horse-man nickered, then seemed to notice his nudity. Briefly he looked over the rail at the rest of his class, who were all gathered together and looking up at their instructor. It was one of the strangest sights Dog had ever seen. "I'll be back down in a few minutes. Until then, trot around some more and get used to the way those bodies move. When I come back we'll head out to the pasture and see what you can do with them. If you can gallop, then I'll be very happy." He turned back to Dog. "You'll have to forgive me. It'd be a chore to return to a full human form since I'm going to join them again. Anyway, I was wondering if you'd stay around until the end of class. I'd like to talk to you about some things."
The werewolf hippie agreed, if only because he didn't have anything better to do. "Great!" Dr. Freeman said, running his fingers through his mane. "See you in three hours at my office. It's H5, by the way--in the farmhouse."
Dr. Freeman's office was clean and neat. There were books stacked neatly on the bookshelf, the papers in his inbox were all straight, even the pens were organized by color and diameter. But he was far more personable than such a level of organization might suggest. He spoke in direct, no-nonsense words that got right to the point. "Don't mind the office. It'll be quite messy by midsemester," he said with good humor. "But I always like to start things out neat and clean."
"I'm a little confused why I'm here," Dog said.
As a human, Scott Freeman had ebony black skin and an ever-present smile. A few hints of the form he'd used remained in his features, he'd retained pointed ears, the hair color, and oddly enough, the eyes. The man's white, mane-like hair contrasted with his skin. "The short of it is that you have a rather marvelous magical potential, Mr. Callahan. Anyone with talent to do so can sense it. But it's untrained."
"I gave up on that years ago..."
"But it's never too late to learn," Dr. Freeman replied persuasively.
"Richard had to have told you where I've been for the past few decades," Dog growled.
"And I'm not pressuring you to do something you don't want to do. But I feel I should tell you that the University is quite willing to fund someone of your potential into a full-fledged mage."
Dog snorted. "Only because it'd make them look good. I'm not looking for prestige, so why should I bow to the establishment and take their money?"
"Spoken like a true hippie," the human said, smirking. "But you sound like you don't quite believe that any more. Doctor Alysen spoke highly of you in spite of your flippant behavior, you know."
Dog's jaw dropped. "How did you..."
"I found your file sitting on my desk this morning. I think I had an overnight visitor." Dr. Freeman leaned forward. "Like I said, I'm not going to pressure you. But I do want to offer you something to do while Richard does his work. How would you like to help me with the class you saw this morning?"
"I don't see how I can help with horses..."
"Not just horses," Freeman explained. "The class you saw is actually undergrad. It's a Metamorphic Studies survey course where the students don't actually change themselves. During the semester they get to be several different kinds of animals. However, my problem is that hoofed animals are my specialty. I could use someone like you to help me with the wolf class on Friday--if you're still here."
"I'm not really good in a pack environment, Doc. But I'll think about it."
Richard found Dog in the indoor ring, pacing around a large pack of wolves in his fully lupine form. Dr. Freeman--also in wolf form--was sitting on his haunches off to one side. Thankfully, the building shields disabled any hunting instincts, else the whole pack would have broken off to chase the raccoon. Dr. Freeman loped over to Richard, sensing his urgency. Found a solution, Rich? he asked informally mind-to-mind.
I think so, but we need to get up to Vermont right away. I need the full moon to do this, and a sizable bit of moonstone. That's going to be expensive.
I forced your request down the throat of the Administration, so I don't think we'll have any problems there, the wolf replied. He looked back over at Edward, who was giving the students a lesson in pack behavior. It was too bad they'd have to give up the illusory rabbit hunt, but he'd make it up to them later.
But we'll have to get out of here quickly. The full moon's tonight and I'll need that power for the counter-curse.
Doctor Freeman immediately changed to half-human form. "Okay, class. I'm sorry but I'm going to have to cut things short today." There was a collective whine. Dog perked his ears and listened. "I've got some things to take care of, so see you all next week." He waved his hands; the wolves started to become human again, clothes appearing on them as they did so. Dog joined them. Dr. Freeman's tongue lolled in a wolfish smile. "You'll be happy at this news, I think."
He was indeed. "This is great! Let's go..."
"Just a minute," the raccoon said. "I need to get one more thing from Lucius and then we can head to a jewelry store."
Lucius, who had returned to the donkeysphinx form a couple days before, set the book Richard had requested on the table and fixed him with a level gaze. "We're all doomed," he said. "It's not going to work, you know."
"Thanks for your optimism," Richard replied sarcastically. "Just give me the book."
The librarian snorted and handed them over. "Doomed," he repeated in a deadpan voice.
"Just because he's never found a cure he's always such a damned pessimist," Richard grumbled as they got into Terry's car. The girl agreed to drive them up, saying she wanted to talk with Marion again.
"Have you ever cured anyone?" Dog asked.
"Godmagic curses? I've researched a dozen and actually cured two," he replied. "Er... well, not precisely 'cured' per se..."
"Look, godmagic is so different from human magic we're lucky we can meddle with it at all. It helps that Alex is Greek. They've developed some sort of partial resistance to the magic of their old gods. It should be easy enough for me to do what I have planned." I just hope they agree to it, the raccoon thought. A cure is a bit much to ask for, considering what I felt.
"And that is?"
"I prefer to keep it to myself for now, if you don't mind. I know they're your friends but I need to ask them first."
Dr. Freeman came with them to see just how his protégé performed this feat, and to be sure he wouldn't take any risks. Unfortunately, he was unable to tell his student if he was making a mistake or not. Richard was on the bleeding edge of magical research, often using Carlos's programs to help him with his counterspells. Dr. Freeman also held the checkbook they needed for the moonstone, which would cost at least a thousand dollars. They went to three jewelry stores before they found a rough stone of a large enough size. "Now what?" Dog asked.
"To a hunting store. I'm going to need some doe estrus scent," the raccoon said. His words were met with silence. "What? It's needed, so we get it."
"If you say so," Dr. Freeman said dubiously.
A half hour later they were on the road back to northern Vermont, going as fast as Terry would drive. "It wouldn't do to get a ticket," she insisted. "My driving record is spotless and I don't plan to ruin it now, thank you."
The tires met the cabin's gravel driveway just as the sun was setting. Dog sprang out of the car and sprinted up to the cabin. To his surprise, he found Alex inside, dozing against the couch, with Marion running her bare feet along his side. The buck looked quite happy with the attention, and was in the midst of turning his head to lick one of her feet. She looked up from looking at slides when Dog opened the door. Richard trotted in a minute later. "I need to speak to them, in private," he said.
Dog shrugged and did as he was asked.
Inside Marion a war raged. She'd worried that she was losing Alex to the body he wore. But when she realized that she viewed that doe as competition, everything changed--although she still continued to wonder about forgiveness. She didn't say much, instead spending all of her time inside the darkroom, making slides of every single frame and putting them into sleeves to be viewed. So many birds, so many caribou, but not one yeti or snow drake. Such creatures seemed to know when someone had a camera and avoided them--or killed them.
She'd been taught when she was in high school that magic had been at an low point since the seventeenth century. The history books had called it the "Ebb of Magic" and it had given science a foothold in the world. The most powerful human mages were said to live up to three hundred years, and yet for several hundred years they could only manage a third of that. There just wasn't enough magic.
And thus the populations of centaurs, griffins, dragons, elves, dwarves, sileni, and dozens of others had decreased, but not vanished. During the second world war to magic had returned to its former medieval levels. Scientists and magicologists assumed it was some sort of natural cycle--and what mages that were left had cheered its return and had begun to train as many new mages as they could for the war effort. Now every species that depended on it were on an upswing, and the public was hungry for photos of every single one of them. It was how the Iagarises made their living.
But it wasn't without its own set of dangers, Marion well knew. One of those had struck her husband, and had nearly pulled him out of her grasp. Breeding stock, that's all he was to Artemis for whatever reason. A plaything for a goddess. A plaything who at least has a mind of his own, she reminded herself.
Indeed, he had shown he could overcome quite a few instincts. He'd returned to the cabin the first time, after figuring out his senses. He'd returned after mating with that doe--which Marion was quite willing to admit had actually happened. Her husband had returned in spite of knowing how she would feel, knowing his loss would have been far worse.
Yet the fact remained that he was an animal. He possessed more than the form of a deer, but also the mind of one. He loved her, and she knew that. But she also knew that he wouldn't be able to keep away from a doe in heat.
But one of the worst things she had to come to terms with was that she wasn't attractive to him any more, except on an intellectual level, and she was in much the same position. For a buck he was certainly handsome. But he was still a deer. The thought galled her more than she expected possible. An important component of their relationship was missing and couldn't be replaced.
Outside fall had come in earnest. The leaves around the cabin had begun to turn, and it was now too cold at night to keep the door open for her transformed husband. But to her surprise, he managed to overcome yet another fear and became comfortable indoors. "I can't smell any does in here," he wrote. "I don't know how long I'll be able to stand it, but I'm safe as long as I'm with you. Don't stress, hon. Please."
His reassuring words warmed her heart a little. "I'm beginning to think things are going to be stuck this way."
"I'm not exactly optimistic either... Besides, I'm more concerned about our financial problems. I don't know if the insurance covers transformation."
Knowing the danger of their business they both had high value death-and-dismemberment insurance policies. But since Alex wasn't really dead, they knew they wouldn't be able to collect. "What about the disability policies..." Alex suggested.
Instead of sitting and brooding until Dog returned, they went over their options. They weren't rich, and any money they could squeeze out of any insurance would do a world of good. They buried themselves in practical details until all thoughts of the buck's encounter were pushed out of their minds.
A thought hit the both of them at once. "You know," Alex began, "If I'm the perfect buck, just think of the photos of me. There is a market for posed animal pictures. Werefolk do it all the time."
Marion smiled. "I had the same thought."
The next day, before dawn, they went out. In the backs of their minds they both worried that if Alex smelled another early doe he'd repeat his performance; but both decided not to think about it. Marion brought two cameras, a sturdy tripod, and two dozen rolls of high quality slide film. Alex sniffed the cameras. "I can still smell the plastic," he wrote. "And a lot of human scent."
"We'll have to fix that. Maybe you can go over our clothing with that nose of yours, too."
Alex cocked his head. "I just had a strange thought. A camera mounted in my antlers and a squeeze bulb in my mouth. I should be able to get some more natural shots of the other deer that way."
Marion chuckled and reached out to rub him on the nose. "That might work, if you can see what you're doing. Now, let's put you over in that underbrush near the edge of the Meadow. All we need is a little fog..."
They spent the whole day taking photos. She had to hand it to Alex, he knew how to pose in a way that looked natural. She took pictures of him galloping through the Meadow, jumping over logs, making scrapes at tree trunks, and even sleeping. She was particularly happy with one of him standing in a small pond, the water smooth and glassy around him, his reflection perfect. Our agent is going to love these! the buck thought.
The other deer gave them a wide berth, though he sometimes smelled a few just out of sight, watching them. He didn't tell his wife that he was a little worried. On the scrape sites he'd smelled someone new; a buck whose strong, challenging odor made him feel quite belligerent. The scents were all less than a day old. Alex sniffed the air reflexively, holding his nose to the breeze. "Smell something?" his wife asked, holding out the pad of paper.
"Just a reflex," he replied neutrally. Then the wind shifted, and he smelled it. Another early doe less than a mile away. And she had company, the new buck he'd smelled. Alex faced upwind.
Marion snapped another picture. With Alex's help, her skills had much improved that day. While she'd been passably good in taking photos of mammals, she didn't often waste film on them. But she knew from association with her husband's work that the only time a deer had that expression was when there was a rival coming. She watched as a doe dashed out of the woods, quickly followed by a buck in pursuit. It was, she noticed with amazement, another large twelve-pointer, easily Alex's equal.
Their antlers met with a resounding clatter, but only briefly. The two stags almost instantly separated, then turned to glare at one another. The challenger looked experienced. There were nicks in both of his ears, and his fur was dark grayish brown compared to Alex's redder coat. Both of their hackles were up on their swollen necks. The doe stood off, just on the edge of the clearing to await the outcome between her suitors.
Fighting drove rational thought from Alex's mind. It was only him and his enemy. Him and his experienced enemy. The curse had granted him the perfect body, but it hadn't granted him the experience that this stag had. But he fought anyway. He didn't want to disappoint the doe.
His doe, he reminded himself. The two-legged one. No wait... the four-legged one smelled better. Alex's head spun.
The challenger snorted and chose that moment to strike. Alex parried, and the fight began in earnest. But he knew within moments that he was completely outclassed. The best he could do was simply defend himself from injury. Much more efficient with his technique, the challenger quickly tired Alex to the bone, and left him standing there panting harshly.
That sucked, Alex thought as he slowly regained rational thought. So much for being 'ideal.'
"Not bad, not bad at all," said the challenger, who began to glow softly in the twilight, his form becoming less whitetail and more a species common to eastern Europe. Alex was so tired he was unable to even move, and Marion was unwilling to leave him. The ghostly stag walked around them a couple times, then stopped in front of them, now glowing even more brightly. "You do realize how lucky you are?" he said. "I can only think what may have been, had I not brought my dogs along on that fateful day. But the Fates decreed that I should finish my life as a stag. Yes, consider yourself very lucky." The ghost then flickered once, and vanished.
"'Lucky', he says," Marion scoffed. "Actaeon, I presume?" Her husband's fur was soaked with sweat, and his tongue hung from his mouth. The poor, exhausted buck still looked too tired to move. The buck looked at her and bleated gruffly, nodding. At least he's still on his own four feet. She filled a large cup with water from her canteen. Alex drunk greedily from it. "What do you suppose he wanted?" Marion asked.
"To test me, I suppose. A sort of buck-to-buck welcome," Alex wrote. "Did you get any pictures?"
Marion looked at him incredulously, then started to laugh.
It was well dark by the time they returned to the cabin. Alex recovered, but was only capable of a slow walk. With her flashlight and his nose they found their way back in a couple of hours, which gave Marion time to think. I don't have his body, but I still have his mind. She decided that half a loaf was better than none; and it was, all things considered, the better half.
Alex glowed when she told him, and licked her face in thanks, making her laugh. Words weren't necessary.
She was looking over the slides when Dog arrived, after having spent the morning developing the efforts of the previous day. Her feet were cold and Alex had a big, warm body, even if it smelled a bit; she simply saw it as something to get used to. Besides, his fur was soft and thick, and he had a very warm tongue that tickled her feet.
Both came to attention when Richard sat before them. "I'm going to be honest with you outright," he began. "I can't cure him."
They sighed in unison. "We thought as much," Marion said.
"Hell, I can't even cure myself," the raccoon went on. "But what I can do is balance the curse between you. This entails a bit of a sacrifice for you, Mrs. Iagaris. You're going to have to give up about half of your humanity for him."
"So, what you're saying is that it'll essentially turn us into a kind of faun?" Alex wrote.
"More like a deer sileni, actually. But they're very similar."
A single, important question came to Marion's mind. "Will we be able to have children?"
Richard was taken aback. "I hadn't considered that, but I don't see why not. You'll both be about the same, genetically, if it works out."
The thought of losing some of her humanity worried her, and when she thought about it, she thought it quite repugnant. But the mere possibility of still being able to have his child was the only reason why she considered it. While she thought about it, Alex stared at her with those huge, deep brown eyes. Animal eyes. She'd never see his human face again, and if she agreed, hers would be gone also. She imagined a toddling, two-legged fawn with hands running around the cabin, and decided it was an image she could live with. "What are we waiting for?"
A small meadow was all that was needed; the moonstone was placed on a small tree stump. The bright full moon cast enough light was to see by for the humans. The cloudless sky was a bit of luck that Richard had hoped for, otherwise they would have had to wait another month. Two circles were drawn in the dirt about ten feet from the moonstone on opposite sides. Marion balked when she was told she'd have to dab some of the estrus-scent on herself. "It's a catalyst," Richard explained. "I already got some of his human hair from a brush inside for his side of things."
Amazingly enough all Alex did when she put it on was lip-curl. The scent was almost too strong for him. Only the mix with her human-scent kept him from rushing her. "Now what?" Marion asked, wrinkling her nose at the smell.
"Stand in the circles, and I'll do the first incantation," the raccoon said.
The moonstone, about the size of a child's fist, was already glowing from the moonlight hitting it; and it brightened with each word he spoke in Latin. Two silvery fingers reached out towards Marion and Alex, growing until they touched them, then enveloping both in a glowing light. Marion's skin tingled with the feeling of insects crawling all over her skin, and she shivered with revulsion. Alex's tail swished back and forth nervously; only pure willpower kept him from running.
"Now, the hard part," the raccoon muttered to himself. Terry, Dr. Freeman, and Dog stayed well clear. The next words he spoke weren't Latin, but ancient Greek.
At first nothing happened. Then Alex grew brighter, then dimmed again as a little pulse of silver light flowed along the connection, through the moonstone, and to Marion. With every pulse she changed perceptively. Her nose turned black, ears became slightly pointed, two of her toes fused. Alex changed also, but not quite as much. Only his forehooves were visibly different, shortening and starting to look almost hand-like.
This is going well, Richard thought after a few more slow pulses. I'll up the transfer rate...
Altering curses like this had always seemed to Richard much like siphoning off from a huge, leaky gas tank where any spark could set off a blaze. Normally he was very careful with his counterspells, since he was essentially trying to alter little pieces to suit his needs. The one on Alex was far more complex than the one that had been cast by Baccus. There was nothing he could really do with it other than balance it between two people. He muttered the transfer increase.
Nothing happened. Okay, maybe it didn't take. He said it again; once more, the effect was nil. The raccoon scratched his head, and muttered it a third time.
After another few seconds Alex began to glow more brightly, his shape rapidly becoming more human. He grunted in surprise as he fell to the ground, his forelimbs no longer able to hold him up. His tail twitched back and forth in pain. Marion stared in utter shock at her altered hands, and felt her ears quiver worriedly. She plainly saw her muzzle stretched out before her, and the smells overwhelmed.
Richard spoke the cutoff spell--but nothing happened. Uhoh. Alex, just starting to stand up, began to glow again and as he did, his deer-man form melted closer to humanity. He looked at his bare skin in surprise. "Rich! Look at this!"
"I am looking!" the raccoon yelled back. "Don't move an inch!" There was a problem. The curse, surrounding Alex in a hazy silver globe, had to go somewhere. And the only available path to it was through the moonstone and into Marion.
She knew something was wrong when her head suddenly felt much, much heavier. But she didn't have time to reach up and confirm what she felt, much less stare at Alex for his suddenly human appearance. Her clothes tore off her as she pitched forward onto four feet, confused by the feeling between her legs and a buzzing in her head. The glow around her flickered and died. Everyone was staring. "What?" she tried to say, but only managed a gruff bleat. Then it hit her.
The weight on her head--antlers. The feeling between her legs--she was no longer a she. Before her stood Alex, nude, slowly moving towards her. "Everyone stay quiet," he ordered, shivering in the chill air. He missed the fur already, and was as shocked as everyone else.
The buck that stood illuminated in the moonlight was Alex's former shape--twelve points, in perfect health. Even in human form he recognized the smell. And his wife was in there, somewhere, hopefully in control. Hopefully. "Hon?" he said quietly, knowing full well the fears she now possessed. "Marion?"
Inside the buck's mind implanted fears warred with Marion's desire to stay, but the shock of knowing what had happened to her was too much to bear. The buck's mind was the victor, and he smelled wolf. He flagged his tail and turned, dashing through the late summer underbrush with a parting kick to discourage pursuit, and was gone.
Alex stared. "Well, shit."
Nothing could be done, so they went back to the cabin after giving Alex a robe to wrap around himself. Dog was unwilling to go after her, citing that she was likely to startle even more and then they'd probably lose her. "She's probably in even more shock because of the gender change," Terry added. "At least you were still male."
"She's going to be after every doe she comes across. He comes across," Alex said, confused. "I know that body. Artemis seemed fixed on that whole 'breeding' thing." He sighed. "Well, at least I think I can track her."
Dog perked his ears. "I didn't know you were that good."
"I've spent most of my life taking pictures of deer. I know their habits, plus I've just spent a week as one of them. I think I've gained a certain level of insight," he said with a touch of sarcasm. He got up and went into the bedroom. "I need some rest. I'm sorry if I'm being a terrible host, but find anywhere you like to sleep." The empty bedroom smelled a little like Marion's seldom-used lilac perfume. Even with the reminder, he still slept soundly.
He awoke only a few hours later, long before dawn. Turning on the light he got up and put on the specially-treated clothes he used when he was trying to get close-up shots. Scentless fabric underthings, jeans, and a jacket that was actually kept outdoors so it didn't pick up any human smells. To complete the gear he took compass, canteen, locator, knife, and a revolver. When alone in the woods, a gun could mean the difference between being mauled by a bear and scaring him off. There were at least three bears Alex knew of that shared Dog's territory.
Before he left, Dog sniffed him over just to be sure that the spell-protected fabric was working, and pronounced him fit to travel. "Wish me luck," Alex said. I think I'm going to need it.
Meanwhile, Marion was just along for the ride. Her body didn't seem to need a human consciousness to direct it, instead it did as it was programmed. There wasn't a major scrape site that didn't know the feel of its scent-marking by dawn. Where she was confused by her senses, the buck well knew what to do with them, and what certain smells and sounds meant--especially smells.
Her mind languished in a semi-conscious, dreamlike state. Her body only paused in its search for a ready doe to eat and chew its cud, the other bucks that crossed its path giving way. Marion felt this was as it should be. She was, after all, a large and handsome stag, wasn't he?
But wait a second, she thought, I'm not a 'he'...
While drinking from a stream she saw her reflection. Her masculine, antlered head, her swelled neck, her thickly-muscled body. But I'm not a buck...
A rustle in the grass. The buck instantly lifted his head and nose to the breeze. Smelling nothing, but still feeling like he was being watched, he carefully scanned the grass. There... a leaf moved, and just above it, a pair of eyes.
The buck was gone before Alex could try to move closer, splashing him with water. Alex stood up and watched the buck gallop away. That was stuipd of me. Acted too much like a predator, there. And even if I do get closer, then what? he asked himself. I can't even tell if she's really in control of herself. Next time I won't be so secretive.
The second time he caught up with his wife-turned-stag was at one of the many scrape sites, around sunset. Hiding in a thicket, he watched as a half dozen smaller bucks made their own marks at the well-used young oak. His throat was dry, but he was unwilling to leave his makeshift blind in order to go refill his canteen. Even so, he still was unsure of what to do if he was actually able to move closer. It would all depend on Marion.
Marion appeared just before it got too dark for Alex to make it back to the cabin. He waited until she was in the midst of her routine, then he slowly and carefully moved into plain sight beyond his thicket. As careful as the animal before him to make no noise, he moved closer. "Marion?" he whispered.
The sound the Unknown made was familiar somehow, but the buck decided it was better safe than sorry. He was gone before Alex could repeat himself.
With a heavy heart Alex followed the locator back to the cabin, reaching it just as true darkness fell. Dog's expression was grave. "No luck at all?" he growled.
Alex shook his head glumly. "Maybe I'm going at this all wrong, but I don't see any other option." He got a surprise when he went inside. There was an eight-point buck standing in front of the fireplace, looking at Richard as if talking to him. Then he recognized the buck. "What's going on here?"
"My mentor decided you could use a hand," Richard explained. "So he got Marion's scent and went out to look for her, himself."
Alex didn't anger easily, but now he felt a little annoyed. "Why didn't you tell me you were doing this?"
"You were gone before we thought of it," Dog replied. "Dr. Freeman is a Metamorphics specialist, Alex. He's spent time blending in with real animals."
The eight-pointer was already assuming a more human form. "I've spent quite a lot of time in animal forms," he said. "And before you ask, I did encounter your wife. He--she stared me down. But I was able to mindprobe her..." he trailed off. "I'm afraid she's suffered a kind of disassociation from her body. Not unusual in gender-related curses, actually."
"Don't lecture me," Alex replied. "What can we do about it?"
"There is one thing," Terry said. "But I don't know if you're going to like it."
"Well, there are two things we can do for you," Dr. Freeman said. "The first is to give you a temporary telepathic ability to communicate with her directly. But since you can't get close to her you won't be able to get close enough to use it... How high was your MAT-Mind score, by the way?"
"Four hundred eighteen," Alex said.
The professor winced. "I was hoping for at least five hundred. You'll have to get really close to her to get it to work--almost touching distance, I'm afraid. Which leads me to our second suggestion."
"Since you're no longer cursed, Doctor Freeman can change you into a deer," Terry said. "Then I can change your gender."
It made sense. As a doe he could get very close without worrying that a fight would break out. Sure it would have its own dangers--a buck would often chase a doe until she dropped with exhaustion, then have his way with her. The very thought of a gender change gave him a slight headache, but there were really no other options. "Okay... I'll do it. But right now, no waiting."
"You're dead tired. You should sleep," Terry said in a surprisingly mothering tone of voice. She shrugged at Richard, whose eyes glimmered with a repressed snicker.
"Terry's right," Dr. Freeman added. "You're in no condition to go out there in any form, much less a doe."
Alex looked at the both of them incredulously, anger rising. "Who the hell do you two think you are? That's my wife out there! First you offer to help me, then you're treating me like a child! I don't..." The lack of water, food, the sitting crouched for hours next to trees, the strain of keeping still, caught up with him all at once. "I... I don't..." He passed out.
He awoke at dawn feeling rested, and his anger having almost completely abated. He'd simply dropped off to sleep right in the middle of the living room, falling right into Terry. Dog was sitting at the foot of the bed. "If you're wondering, they didn't hit you with any kind of spell," he said. "You've been running on adrenaline since last night and you haven't realized it. Dr. Freeman did at least use some healing techniques on you; otherwise you'd be in no shape at all."
"You look like you've been running on empty, yourself," Alex observed, sliding out of bed.
"I've had a lot to think about lately. I've been offered enough grant money to fully fund my college education--including room and board. It's not a decision I'd ever thought I'd have to make." The werewolf paused. "Sorry to hit you with this, man."
Alex hadn't heard him say "man" like that since before he'd been cursed. It sounded forced. "Heavy thinking, eh?"
"You could say that. Doris would say I should take it. But enough about me. Dr. Freeman has another proposition for you--if you're not still angry at them."
Alex looked at his dirty, grimy self in the mirror. He'd have to change the sheets before he used the bed next. "Considering that they probably saved me from dropping to sleep the instant I got out the door I don't see why. Let's see what he has to say."
"I think I should come with you," said Dr. Freeman, still in the half-deer shape. "I think you'll agree it's not safe for a doe to travel alone at this time of year."
"I suppose this means Terry will do her thing on you also?" Alex said.
The deer-man shrugged. "I've been female before--human female, I might add. I can't change my own gender and I was doing a study on the behavior of female ungulates, so I needed to change my base. Anyway, does this work for you?"
"Two noses are better than one," Alex replied.
The second step of the process was familiar enough. After setting the telepathy spell on Alex, Dr. Freeman changed him into a deer again, albeit with a smaller rack. Then Terry went to work. She crouched down next to the other buck in full deer form and looked into his eyes, placing the palms of her hands on his muzzle in front of his eyes. The professor's body visibly shrunk, then his antlers fell off and the pedicles where they'd been anchored filled in. Then an involuntary shudder flowed through him--her--and the new doe's eyes rolled upward as she nearly lost her footing. Terry looked deep into Dr. Freeman's eyes until it stopped. "There," she said. "Feeling better?"
I've only done that a few times, and it's always unsettling, Alex heard through the mind-link he shared with Dr. Freeman, to be used since they couldn't communicate otherwise.
"Males and females supposedly think differently," Terry said. In exchange for her help Alex had told her she could use his wife's clothes. She'd promptly changed her physique to match Marion's and found something old and worn. "I have yet to notice anything, frankly. But that's just me, I suppose," she added. Richard was giving her one of his eye-sparkling looks again, as if he was about to laugh. It always annoyed her when he did that.
Still feel up to this? Dr. Freeman asked. There was an ever-so-slight feminine timbre to the mental voice.
I doubt she'll listen to you, so do it, Alex insisted. Before I chicken out, he added privately.
She placed her hands on his muzzle like she had Dr. Freeman. A warmth spread through his body, emanating from her hands. "Just relax," she said. "This won't take long." The first thing he was aware of was the sudden lightness of his head and the clatter of his old antlers on the floor. His whole body was tingling now, he could feel the extra mass slipping away to God knew where. His pedicles filled in, then it started between his legs. The spell pulled, folded, and twisted everything that made him male into a totally new shape as his insides quivered. Alex's mind was suddenly filled with static, and a shiver flowed through him.
The only thing that held him to the here-and-now were a pair of human eyes, anchors in a sea of strange, chaotic thoughts that slowly ordered themselves into new patterns; only perceived because of the ghosts of their former paths were still present in memory. Don't be alarmed, came Dr. Freeman's voice through their link, these are the proper shape of doe thought patterns. They're going to feel different until you get used to them.
I don't plan to stay this way any longer than I have to. And I hope you don't mean I'm going to be as instinct-driven as Marion is right now, Alex replied.
By no means. We're still human minds in animal bodies. We can override what we please. What I'm saying is that your thought patterns have been feminized and will only run though their old tracks for a little while. This is one of the things Terry does really well.
You mean I'm going to be thinking like a woman? he said, shocked at noticing that his mental timbre also seemed a little feminine. Or was that because he now expected it to?
I didn't say that. I'm only repeating to you what I was told; in theory it should keep you from feeling acute gender dysphoria. But I'm not a gender psychologist. Don't worry about it and simply be yourself. Focus on Marion.
That, Alex decided, she could do.
Two noses really were better than one. The pair of does found Marion's trail right away, and followed it. He found the trail of another doe, Dr. Freeman reported.
He's going towards the lake, Alex replied. Towards the main road. She flicked her ears and looked around, checking to see if they were being followed. Already she'd smelled three bucks on their trail since leaving the cabin. They weren't fighting each other, but they nevertheless seemed quite intent on following them. What disturbed her the most was the thought that she didn't mind all that much. It seemed a right and proper thing, at least to her doe's mind. Her human thoughts on Marion, to busy to care about what the rest of her was concerned about.
They paused before crossing the cracked asphalt to double-check what they smelled. Several cars passed them by, and they waited for the traffic to die down. Is there anything else in that direction? the other doe asked.
The Hoovers live down by the lake. They're rather nice people, but it's beyond Dog's territory. They love deer even more fiercely than I do so I don't think there's any danger of poachers. She thought a moment. They feed them, too.
I imagine that's a good place to cruise for does, let's go.
The duo crossed the road carefully, the pavement jarring their hooves as they trotted. Alex smelled an increase in the number of individual deer-smells. Does, bucks, and fawns alike. The Hoovers always fed the animals that shared their land, and had lived there for twenty years before Alex and Marion had moved in. Only Dog had lived in the area longer; oddly, they didn't like him much.
Her buck-wife's scent grew stronger, but at a slightly faster pace. It intersected often with the doe's scent, and went past the Hoovers' well-kept cabin closer to the lake. The doe doesn't smell like she's in heat, she thought. But I wonder if I'd really be able to tell.
Don't worry about that, Dr. Freeman reassured. Just... whoa...
It smelled like graham crackers. But there were other smells like peanuts, grain, mashed potatoes, cedar... a smorgasbord! They were pulled towards the food-smells, stomachs growling loudly. Deer, chipmunks, blue jays, rodents, all were gathering around. They must have hit it good this year, Alex thought. It was indeed a wonderful sight. Piles of it, a dozen other deer came in from all sides and converged. They both dug in with nary a thought. I'll pay them back later...
She hardly felt the nudge on her rump at first. Only when it became more forceful did she look behind her. It was Marion. Her body tingled at his presence, feeling a different sort of warmth. It felt much like what Terry had done to her. Gender-based magic. He's bringing you into heat! Dr. Freeman exclaimed. This has to be part of the curse!
That would explain many things. So Alex did the only thing she could--she kicked him.
The buck grunted with surprise and backed off to stare at her incredulously, as if he'd just been insulted. Alex turned to face him. Marion? she tried. She moved closer as the buck pricked his ears, as if listening. Love, it's Alex. She moved to within a body length, and realized she was reacting to his smell. She decided to ignore it and nosed him at the nape of his neck. Marion? she repeated.
He startled, shaking his head violently as if bitten, and dashed off back towards the road. Alex followed at a gallop, with Dr. Freeman close behind. Did she answer at all? the doe-professor asked.
Alex bleated a reply, unable to focus on anything but the flagging white tail of her wife-turned-stag. He was almost outpacing the both of them. What did I do, damn it? Alex thought. Marion didn't even slow down and practically jumped across the road, continuing in the direction of the cabin. By the time they reached it both does were panting harshly, unable to keep up. But the buck galloped onward. Alex skidded to a very reluctant stop in front of the door. We almost had him! she said to the other doe.
The day is young, said Dr. Freeman. And you're going to have a rough time of it if he comes near you like that again.
Alex sighed, still panting. Terry thoughtfully brought out a clean bucket of water for them to slake their thirst. They drank from it gratefully while Alex pondered the next step. Well, maybe I want him to be attracted to me, she mused.
Now you're starting to scare me, Dr. Freeman replied with a worried flick of her ears. Isn't that a little... drastic?
Marion is my husband... wife, I mean. She paused a moment, taken aback by the sour taste "wife" left in her mouth. It didn't seem like the right word any more, considering the situation. I don't care how drastic it is. I'll kick any other buck who comes near me. I'm his and only his.
If you say so.
Out near the Meadow, Marion was doing her best to pull herself together. The strangely familiar woman's voice calling her name had startled her body into a full on dash for cover. A few minutes of sleepy thought passed before she realized that the voice hadn't come from the woman who had put out all the food. It had sounded hollow and somewhat distant... and in a strange way, like Alex. Alex... a doe, she thought. But it made frightening sense to her, and there were people back at the cabin who could certainly accomplish it.
But the most frightening thing was that she found herself agreeing with her body's impulse--that was a very attractive doe. Even if she had tried to give him a boot to the head...
Marion used what little control she possessed to stop herself--himself. The confusion-of-self gave her a headache. The buck's mind was like a huge rock sitting atop of hers, which was being slowly crushed into a smaller and smaller mental space.
Then he smelled her--the doe that had tried to kick him. At first he hesitated, but the enticement of a near-heat doe was too much to overcome. He lip-curled and broke into a trot, grunting in anticipation. Marion found herself--himself?--anticipating right along with him. His body tingled as he caught sight of her, the late afternoon sun throwing a dapple of light on her fur, a light breeze blowing the dead leaves off of trees around her. An artful shot... Marion mused, That's Alex for you...
Being married, and closer than a lot of others they knew, their conversations sometimes roamed where other couples feared to tread. She remembered one, about a month before they'd been married, when they'd mused about what their lives and relationship might have been like if they'd been the opposite gender. She'd learned more about him that night than any other, and had known that this was the man she wanted to marry. In fact, it had had a rather romantic ending that she quite cherished.
But this? This was even beneath being an animal! No wonder Alex had been so distraught. This wasn't what being a man was supposed to be. Marion's husband had been turned into an object, more machine than a thinking being. I guess I owe him for doubting him in the first place...
The doe looked like she wanted to run, but held firm and waited for him to trot up next to her. As he got closer, Marion heard a feminine voice in her head. Marion? It was Alex! Love, can you hear me?
The buck started to nuzzle the nape of her neck. The doe shifted uncomfortably. Marion decided to chance it. I'm still in here... sort of. What happened to you?
Terry and Dr. Freeman's idea. It made sense, so here I am. How much control do you have?
The heat-smell sharpened. Alex was starting to feel very warm indeed. But at least she'd made contact with Marion. Dr. Freeman stood just out of sight. Abruptly she felt the tingle of magic surround her, and the warmth damped down. Since you're obviously not going to tell him to stop, I tossed a little contraceptive spell on you. I've used it on myself a few times, the doe said, sounding embarrassed.
Thanks, Alex replied sarcastically. Hon?
I don't really know, Marion replied. She was having a little trouble accepting that this female voice was indeed Alex's. But she had the same speech mannerisms as he did, and the ever-calm tone. The buck moved behind Alex, but she kept her tail clamped firmly down. He grunted in frustration. Make that next to none!
I was afraid of that. I think we're going to need Terry's help on this one; she can masculinize your thoughts or something. Maybe that'll help you two get along.
The buck snorted his frustration at being once again thwarted. Marion could feel every sensation--but this... this was a little much! But she didn't see any other options. It was either give it a try or be squashed out of existence. Do it. I don't think he's going to leave you until you're ready.
Minutes later Dr. Freeman arrived at the cabin. Terry tore herself away from the college discussion she was having with Dog and Richard. We need you, now, the doe said. And I'm going to have to change you. But first, change forms.
Terry grimaced. The one time Richard had managed to convince her to try being an animal she'd ended up being scared out of her wits. She'd never thought of antelope in quite the same way again. But the urgency in Dr. Freeman's tone was enough to get her to start undressing. Once finished, she changed to male form and waited for the doe to cast her spell.
It seemed an eternity waiting for them. Alex decided that it wasn't really a bad feeling, this being in heat. She remembered what Dr. Freeman had said--these were natural doe thought patterns. Nevertheless, they felt very peculiar compared to the few still-active pathways of her male self. Do you remember that little talk we had before we got married? The buck was pacing around her, curling his upper lip every so often.
I was just thinking of that, Marion replied. Are you sure Richard said it would take a month before he could fix this?
I see. We'll have to talk about this... Marion's reply was cut off. The twelve-pointer suddenly came alert to a new smell. The buck--and Marion--recognized a Challenger when he smelled one. It was accompanied by the smell of another doe that wasn't in heat.
Dr. Freeman burst out of the undergrowth. Find a safe place, Alex! Things are going to get rough!
From behind her came another twelve-pointer, a different one from the one Alex had fought against and lost. Marion's body instantly came alert, snorting a challenge. The new buck came to a stop in front of him and fixed his opponent with a hard stare, ears flattened threateningly against his neck. Both of them waited for the other to flinch.
Marion heard a familiar male voice in her head. This is going to get dicey, Terry said, speaking quickly. I have to touch you in order to change your thought patterns, but I'm going to have to do it in bursts. I hope to god this works. You're in pretty bad shape...
You're telling me!
Since neither was about to back down, the fight began with a mighty clatter of equals. Both lacked the experience that natural deer their apparent ages possessed, so their battle was clumsy. And every time their antlers met in a rattle, a burst of Terry's unique "therapy" flowed over Marion's mind; altering thought patterns while retaining their essential characteristics. Female to male.
Now it was Alex's turn to worry. She heard nothing from either of them, and Dr. Freeman was busy monitoring their exchange, and her smell was tinged with worry just like Alex's. Terry and Marion clashed repeatedly, again and again, and again, until both bucks were so tired that they could hardly move. God, my head hurts... Marion said.
Did it work? Alex asked, hopeful.
Perfectly, Terry declared proudly. How are you feeling?
Hell if I know, Marion replied in a deep, wholly masculine mental voice. But... I don't feel quite so... how can I say it? Squashed into a corner. As for this body... It still feels a little strange, but not nearly as much as before, he finished, sounding a little disturbed. But only a little. The buck lifted each hoof one at a time. I seem to have control, too.
Good! Terry said. Because I don't want to have to go through that again.
Alex walked up and rubbed against Marion's side, then nuzzled the nape of his neck. Well, it looks like we're going to get to live out some of that little talk we had, she said suggestively.
I think that's the heat talking, he replied wryly. But lord, you do smell good...
Terry and Dr. Freeman led the way back towards the cabin. Those two really make me wonder sometimes, Terry said. I don't think I've ever met a couple more...
Obsessed with each other? Like they're still newlyweds? Dr. Freeman supplied. Alex and Marion were purposefully lagging behind. Alex's heat-smell had sharpened again and Dr. Freeman was quite certain that they would "accidentally" lose sight of them--not that she minded. Not only were they together again, but they were also the same species, even if they were the opposite gender from what they started. She was a little worried that the curse would nullify her contraceptive spell, but Alex wasn't going to be a doe long enough for conception to occur. She was quite prepared to let them have their private moment just to get it out of the way.
Once the other two deer were out of sight, Alex and Marion were finally able to respond to the call they'd both felt. Actaeon appeared before them in the form of an elk with huge spreading antlers with more points than a grove of oak trees. "What an interesting situation," the ancient hunter said. "I don't think anyone has been able to attempt to break the curse."
I suppose there's a first time for everything, Marion thought.
Actaeon looked at Marion curiously. "Something's different, here... You were the doe's wife, and the doe was your husband. I truly hope you don't plan to make another attempt."
We've had a few doubts, actually, Alex said. Dr. Freeman's contraceptive spell was starting to fade, but there was something in Actaeon's presence that enabled her to ignore the feeling of rising heat. And I have to admit that I've given some thought so staying this way, just so...
Another ghost appeared in the thicket, a doe. "Believe me, you don't want to do that," she said.
Actaeon nodded. "This is Amelia."
"Formerly Andrew, but considering what Artemis did to me, I decided to take a female name," the doe explained. "She gave me a curse similar to yours. I feel I should warn you that having fawns year after year after year is more than a little wearing on mind and body. You don't want that, trust me. You'll grow to hate having them, and your body will simply give out. I died giving birth."
Alex shuddered. I guess we don't have any choice but to let him try again, hon.
You always have the option of staying human and leaving me as I am, Marion said.
That wouldn't be any more bearable to me than having all those fawns, Alex said, nuzzling Marion's shoulder. But all things considered, I want to love your body as well as your mind. My life would be half-empty.
Then we'll let him try again, Marion said.
And if he can't make you female again. Alex said gravely, then I'll happily remain your wife. It wouldn't feel right any other way.
Marion demonstrated his agreement by nuzzling his wife behind her ears, wordlessly communicating his surprise and likewise willingness to take on the male role in their relationship. Considering recent events, being a father wouldn't be a bad fate at all.
Actaeon and Amelia looked at each other, and started to fade from sight. "We wish you luck. And I'll be watching."
Now you're all mine, Marion said, feeling strangely giddy. It felt like their wedding night all over again. I think we're going to enjoy this...
Oh, I'm 'all yours' am I? Alex replied, moving away a bit and giving him a coy look. You'll have to catch me first, loverbuck. She dashed off, practically dancing through the falling leaves.
Marion smiled to himself and gave chase.
Only because the two deer didn't seem worried kept Dog from going out to search for them himself. He watched as they became human again, then Terry restored Dr. Freeman's original gender. Once they were dressed he walked over. "So... where are they?"
"They'll be along in a few minutes," Terry said mysteriously. She glanced at Dr. Freeman. Faintly, Dog heard the shadow of a thought-exchange between them.
The "few minutes" turned into an hour before they appeared. Marion moved as if he was in complete control of himself, giving Alex a playful nudge as she trotted along beside him. A single whiff told Dog all he needed to know. Dr. Freeman asked Alex to come to him, and he muttered a spell. "There, now there's no chance of fawns," he said.
The two of them looked embarrassed. Dog couldn't hear their reply, but Dr. Freeman only smiled. "Don't worry about it. But I do recommend that I make Alex human again. Tomorrow's Monday and I'm sure you both want us to return to campus and find out what went wrong." Once more, Dog heard no reply.
"Would you mind letting me in on this?" he said irritably.
"Sorry about that, Edward," Dr. Freeman said. "Let's all go plan the future, shall we?"
"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" Terry asked, her concerned voice sounding muffled from the other side of the bedroom door. They were leaving early, so it was barely dawn. The cold morning had that feeling of newness, like the mornings when Alex was back in school, just before she was about to start a new grade with a new teacher. Fitting, considering the time of year.
Alex was busy getting dressed, tossing on some clothes to see Terry, Richard, and Dr. Freeman off. Terry had thoughtfully given her Marion's former physique, so almost all of her clothes would fit. Unfortunately Terry was still fixated on her comfort--both physical and mental. Considering her insistence on staying female as long as Marion was male, perhaps that wasn't surprising. But she didn't want to make a big deal out of it. Alex and Marion had mutually decided they were going to remain husband and wife, one way or another. It felt more natural to both of them that way.
She'd only become human out of necessity. There was far too much to do to remain a doe, and she didn't want to become pregnant either. The curse would have undoubtedly brought her back into heat again, and she really didn't want to deal with the issue of having to abort a pair of fawns. It was easier this way.
"Look, I know how to put on a bra," Alex said. "I've seen it done a few hundred times since I've been married. Don't stress. Besides, you're the one who made me comfortable in this body."
"Marion will help me with any surprises that crop up. I'll be fine, believe me." The new woman looked at herself in the mirror again; a hauntingly familiar face looked back. Just enough cues were left from her male features that made her look like her older sister--but not quite. She'd retained the Iagaris square jaw and strong chin like her mother had, which made her more handsome than pretty, but there was no denying that the face in the mirror was a female one. The face was framed by long, nearly black hair that fell below her shoulder blades in a style similar to Marion's old one, pulled back into a clumsy ponytail. Lastly, she put on one of Marion's tank tops, throwing on a jacket over it, then opened the door. "Well?"
Terry looked at her skeptically. She was a little surprised to see Alex wearing something like that so soon, but she wisely didn't say anything. "Well, if you think you can handle it, I guess I don't mind leaving you alone for a week. I still can't believe you wanted to stay female."
Alex shrugged. "Your ability doesn't bother you, does it? Besides, you don't see me screaming and running around yelling 'oh my god, I'm a woman!' do you? I'm fine and I'll stay fine." She looked at Marion and smiled. "Besides, I've had a good role model."
Marion stood in the doorway, looking at Alex appreciatively. He was a little embarrassed that he couldn't come inside, but that would come in time. The buck flicked his ears. "You look wonderful," he said just as she zipped her jacket up. Dr. Freeman had given him the ability to talk. He didn't actually move his mouth, it came out of thin air just in front of it. He could even speak while cud-chewing.
Alex hugged Marion around his thick, furry neck. "Thank you. I always liked the way you looked in this top, hon. How are you doing?"
The buck sighed. "I feel like a robot. I worry that every time I smell a doe I'm going to go chase her. Last night was a little rough, I'm not really comfortable with these urges. Stupid curse..."
"Don't worry about it, I felt the exact same way. I know you're not being unfaithful. If it happens, it happens. I'm not going to stress over it. Besides, we're sort of in the same boat. Having your body does feel a little strange, after looking at it from the outside for so long." Alex smirked. "You bounce."
"Well, you wanted to have my chest for a month. Have fun," the buck replied, nudging his wife's bosom playfully with his nose. "I trust you." Alex laughed and rubbed his muzzle.
Terry stared at them incredulously, not believing what she was hearing.
Dog listened to their conversation from outside. Their personalities haven't changed a bit. There's probably a dissertation for Terry in that somewhere... The werewolf blinked. I've been talking with Terry and Richard far too much.
Richard and Dr. Freeman waited for Terry in the car. "I really wish you'd come to a quicker decision," Dr. Freeman said to Dog. "The year's just stared and we could probably put you into a program right away. It'll be harder in a week."
"This isn't something for snap decisions," Dog growled. "I need to feel my own territory under my paws again. I'll know by next Sunday."
"You'd be a natural for Metamorphics, Edward," Richard said. "I don't think I've met a werewolf more comfortable with himself."
"I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but just leave me alone, okay?" Dog growled. "I need to think."
Luckily for Dog, Terry chose that moment to come out to the car. Her bewildered expression was priceless--at least as far as Richard was concerned. In his opinion Terry had long taken her ability for granted and had forgotten that others could react in much the same way to being transgendered. He thought Alex and Marion made a great couple. Dr. Freeman was a little more pragmatic, though. "Why don't I drive?"
The girl nodded, pushing an errant strand of blonde hair out of her eyes. "Er... yes. I think you'd better, prof."
The old hippie watched them leave, then turned to go back up to the cabin. "Gah, I just remembered," Alex was saying. "Kevin's coming up here sometime this month. He knows we were delayed for a few weeks..." Kevin Hoffman was their agent in Burlington.
"So he's liable to drop by unannounced to look at our portfolio," Marion finished with a resigned sigh. "We really should find another agent one of these days."
"Probably sooner than later if he sees us like this," Alex added. "Ah well. He knows the line of work we're in. If he can't take it, there are others."
"In any case, you'd better get started on developing. We'll need to send out samples."
"I hate to leave you alone out here..."
"Don't stress," the buck said in a voice tinged with irony. "I guess I'll be fine. But that's a lot of money in there. Gogogo."
Reluctantly she left her husband, and after a parting hug, went back into the house and closed the door. Marion looked at the repaired oaken door for a few moments, then turned his head to look at Dog. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep a watch on me if I wander off."
Dog, his mind still on other things, nodded agreement.
It was the beginning of a very strange week.
For the fifth time Alex tossed out a sheet of photo paper after another bad exposure from the slide. Every single time she tried to develop one of her favorite shots something wrong happened. If it wasn't the developer it was a flaw in the paper she didn't notice. On the seventh try she decided to take a break, making sure all the light-sensitive paper was all covered before leaving the darkroom. This is going to take forever with just me doing it...
The door was open, but when she went outside Marion was nowhere to be found. She leaned against the doorjamb, crossing her arms in the slightly chilly air. She worried a little, remembering what a strain it had been on her, and knowing what was undoubtedly going on at that very moment.
It was over before Marion knew what had happened. After three does that day he was finally starting to figure out just what they had in common. He unerringly went after does who were as healthy as he was, and barring the unexpected, would bring two or three perfect fawns into the world. He felt like a piece of meat. If I find Artemis I don't care what she is, I'm going to strangle her...
To top things off, Dog was nowhere to be found. He hadn't smelled the werewolf since the morning, and was a little miffed that he hadn't been good to his word. That simply wasn't like him. I suppose he's had a lot of heavy thinking to do lately, also, he thought, knowing about the offer that would change Dog's life if he accepted it. Guess I can't blame him.
The world around him was changing. A hard freeze the night before had caused the leaves to simply start turning brown. There would be no more colors if it happened again. Every animal from birds to bears were suddenly putting food away far faster than only a day before. Marion felt it in his bones, deep down that the coming winter would be a hard one.
A few miles away Dog sat in his cave, looking through the few things he did own. At first he'd been quite the idealist, owning only the fur on his back. He hadn't even found shelter for the first few months to escape the rain and snow. A bad winter storm had finally forced him to change his plans. Stupid wolf. You knew it wouldn't last forever, even then.
So he'd found a cave, which just happened to be a few miles from the Iagaris' cabin. It wasn't in an obvious place, and the previous owner of the cabin hadn't found it. Inside were the things that Dog had started to collect only a couple years after he'd arrived, after his idealism had totally worn off. His possessions were mostly worn furniture others had thrown out, some lanterns, and a small charcoal brazier for the colder days during the winter when his fur didn't seem enough. The cave itself had a natural chimney of sorts, otherwise he wouldn't b able to use it.
He lit a lantern with one of his few matches and looked around his "house", suddenly dissatisfied with all of it, but not yet willing to let it go. I still have a few days to decide... I'll just sleep on it.
Alex opened her eyes and looked at the glowing face of the bedside clock. Just after three in the morning. A dull ache had awoken her for the second time since going to bed. Slept on my stomach again, she thought as she came awake. Pulling herself out of bed she decided to check on Marion, who was sleeping outside the door. She threw on a warmer pair of pants, shoes, and a jacket over her pajama top.
The buck lifted his head when she opened the door. "Trouble sleeping?"
"Now I know why you never sleep on your belly," she said ruefully, her breath puffing visibly in the cold night air.
The buck tilted his head. It was times like this when Alex wished she still had a deer's nose. The world was a much less detailed place without it. It also prevented her from reading her husband's feelings. "I have to wonder what you're going to need to know, even if this is only going to last a month," he said. "There are a lot of things a girl learns as she's growing up."
Alex smirked. "Refresh my memory. I seem to have misplaced my girlhood somewhere."
"You can have mine. Want to trade? My girlhood for your boyhood."
Alex went inside and started some coffee, grabbed a blanket, then came back out and settled in next to Marion, patting him on the neck. "Sounds like an even deal to me, love."
They talked until well past dawn, revisiting their discussion of years past. Marion proved an ample source of warmth when Alex was cold. She leaned against his side as they chatted about their lives, going into more detail than they had in years.
Only the sound of a car on gravel interrupted them. Alex stood up and squinted at the car coming up the driveway. It was a brand new white Mercedes. Who do we know who owns one of those? Then she realized just how dirty she was from sitting on the ground for several hours. She smelled like deer, too. Wonderful way to meet company.
Marion moved off behind the house while Alex waited for the newcomer, holding her mug of decaf. Finally she recognized the face. "It's Kevin, hon," she said, unsurprised at his abrupt entrance or the car he was driving. The satyr made a lot of money and habitually bought a new car every couple of years. A very rich man indeed. And he always sees us personally. Have to wonder why...
The Mercedes came to a stop next to Alex, who stood in front of the door. The satyr rolled down the window. To look at him, he wasn't stereotypical for his kind. He wore glasses, and didn't have the characteristic muscularity about him, and his voice was far less gruff. He looked at Alex, pulling his glasses down to the end of his partial muzzle and looked at her. "Alex?" he said in a doubtful tone. "That can't be you, can it? What the hell kind of magic did you run into to have Marion's body?"
Marion chose that moment to come around the side of the house to come stand beside his wife. Alex put her hand on his withers. "It's a long story," she told their agent. "I'm afraid you've caught us a little off guard..."
"I've caught you off guard?" he said, pushing his glasses back up his muzzle. "I guess I should have called Fred, first. What the hell happened to you two?"
"Come inside and we'll give you the short version," Marion said.
One hour later their agent was sitting at the kitchen table, looking at the slides that Marion had taken of Alex when she'd been a buck. Marion stood in the doorway with his forehooves just inside. "Did you see the way he looked at you when you came out of the bedroom?" Marion asked in a whisper.
Satyrs had a largely undeserved reputation for being rather uninhibited. While Kevin hadn't leered at her, he had acted a little astonished when Alex had come out wearing one of Marion's favorite shirts. "Isn't he going through those slides a little quick?" she said in an equally quiet voice.
"He isn't even lingering over any of them. I'm not that bad a photographer!"
Eventually the satyr came to the last slide and stood up, his cloven hooves clacking on the hardwood floor. As he came closer Marion smelled just how uncomfortable he was, especially when he looked at Alex. I suppose this would be rather a shock to other people, he thought.
"I... uh... guess I can wait until you've got your other photos ready. I'll need them as soon as possible, though," Kevin said, trying to make it look like he was glancing back at the collection of slides sitting on the table.
"I'll be working on it as fast as I can," Alex said, keeping her tone of voice neutral. "But it'll take some time--perhaps a week until everything's prepared."
"I dunno if I can wait that long," he replied, speaking quickly. "The market's a bit thin right now, so the sooner you're finished the better." He looked at his watch, then at Alex and Marion, plainly having difficulty with something. He hadn't really said anything during their explanation, and had simply gone right to the slide viewing. "But I need to be getting back to Burlington, so I'll see you when I see you, okay?" His gaze briefly drifted to Alex's chest, then back to her face. He swallowed.
Now I know what Terry must deal with. Alex reflexively crossed her arms. In retrospect perhaps the shirt hadn't been a good idea, but it was clean, at the top of the drawer, and supposedly had built in support so she didn't need to waste time putting on a bra. "We'll let you know as soon as possible."
Kevin left, and both of them let out a sigh of relief. "Maybe I shouldn't have worn this shirt," Alex said.
"It is a might flattering. But then, I knew that when I bought it," Marion replied wryly. "I think you look good in it. Maybe we should use this excuse to find a new agent."
Alex nodded agreement. "Which reminds me, I need to go down to Fred's and let them know what's going on. We should get in contact with our lawyer, too..."
Marion groaned. "I wonder how they're going to take this."
Dog's conscience nagged him incessantly. Sleep became elusive, like chasing rabbits in a snowstorm. His guts felt twisted into knots with indecision. Stupid wolf... Opportunity's knocking and you don't know if you want to answer the door! he berated himself. For two days he only left his cave to hunt, and only met with little success. A couple of rabbits weren't really enough to feed a wolf, but he'd gone hungry before.
Wednesday a storm moved in, bringing drenching rain and warmer weather. The darkness inside the shallow cave grew oppressive. He'd run out of lantern fuel, and was unwilling to use any charcoal just for some light. So instead he sat on his haunches at the cave entrance and watched the rain fall. The air was thick and damp, and a gust of wind would sometimes dampen his fur. Being city born, at first just sitting and watching how the woods reacted to weather had been fun, in a way. But that was before Artemis and her curse on Alex...
Now he was simply bored.
Dog's head hurt. An obscure kind of pain that didn't seem to have a physical cause. He whined and covered his head with his paws. Stupid wolf... There was only one choice that would give him peace of mind, and cure his boredom. He stood up and shook the water out of his fur. Time had passed without him knowing it, and the rain had soaked him. Aw hell. It's not as if people my age don't go back to college, he thought, his headache starting to abate. Besides, I'll be able to spend more time with Doris.
His decision finally made, he got up and looked in the direction of the cabin. Since he was already wet anyway, he decided to set off and tell his adopted pack what he had resolved.
Surprisingly enough, Fred and Debrah didn't seem to mind--much. They didn't say anything when they first saw Alex drive up in the Jeep, and Debrah had greeted her as Marion before she saw her face, but at least they didn't balk. They'd simply been jarred a little and would probably recover. At least, I hope they will, Alex thought after she explained.
"So," Debrah finally said. "You're staying this way until they figure out a way to cure Ale... er... Marion?"
"That's about the size of it," Alex replied. "If they screw up like that again I'm going to be back to where we started, which would do no good."
"But the bottom line is that neither of you will be human if it works," Fred said, getting to the point. "Well, stranger things have happened. Sometimes I feel like we were lucky that we stayed male after we first met Artemis." Fred shuddered.
"You say that like being a woman is a disease," Fred's wife said archly, looking at her husband.
"I didn't mean it that way."
"Then how did you mean it?"
Alex winced. Debrah was open-minded enough, but she seemed to be baiting her husband. The centauress crossed her arms, her tail swishing back and forth, waiting for Fred to answer. "Er... I couldn't be filly if I can't be you, honey," Fred said with a hopeful smile.
The answer satisfied Debrah. She smiled in approval. "Now, is there anything else you need, Alex?" she asked. "I'm sure Marion is helping you along, but there may be a few things she didn't think of."
Alex shrugged, her face a little red. "I think we covered everything last night."
"Okay then," the centauress replied warmly.
Alex took the opportunity to leave, and went back up to the cabin. The rain had actually driven Marion indoors. She found Dog inside with him when she arrived. The smell inside the cabin was a mixture of deer musk and sodden wolf. The air freshener was horribly inadequate to cover even a tiny portion of it. Dog was wrapped in a towel, chatting amiably with Marion. I have a ton of laundry to do, Alex thought. "What's going on?"
Dog turned to face her, a happy wolfish grin on his face. "I've decided that I'm going back to school," he said.
Alex smiled. "That's great, Dog..."
"There's something else," he interrupted. "My real name is Edward Callahan. I know I've never told either of you this, but now I feel is the right time. You can still call me 'Dog' if you want, though."
"Can we call you 'Eddie'?" Alex asked with a smirk.
"I'd rather you not, actually," Dog replied with a certain sourness to his voice. "My father always told me not to use a nickname. He was a very proper man and we never actually disagreed until I became a hippie. Things went downhill from there..." the werewolf sighed. "Anyway, I'm sorry I ran off like that."
"I don't mind, but I did worry a little," Marion said. "I'm sorry we've caused you so much pain over this."
"It's no problem, really," Dog insisted. "If this hadn't come along I probably would've left anyway. My conscience has be nagging me for months."
Alex took off her wet rain jacket, hanging it beside the door, then looked in the direction of the darkroom. "How are you holding up?" she asked the stag.
"I'm fine in here, love," the buck replied. "I was about to ask the same of you. How did Fred and Debrah react?" Alex told him. The buck snorted. "Be happy you left when you did. She probably would've taken you by the hand and given you a step-by-step on how to use a tampon."
Alex grimaced. "Wait a second. Why would a centauress need to know how to use a tampon?"
The buck laughed. "Nevermind."
The thought of the her upcoming menstrual period was making Alex nervous enough without being reminded of it. Alex knew that Marion had never been particularly susceptible to most of the ill effects that came of that, but she didn't know if that would hold true for her. She only superficially resembled Marion in body, after all. "I guess I'll go back to work. There's a couple dozen rolls left to finish. Then I can start viewing slides."
"Do you need help? I can at least do simple stuff," Dog offered.
Alex sighed. "But you shed. Wolf fur in the chemicals would be bad."
Marion spoke up. "You realize that we're going to have this problem eventually."
Alex nodded. "One thing at a time, hon." She gave Marion a brief neck rub and went to work.
The rain continued off and on through the next morning, when it finally began to clear. Dog sat in a chair beside a window, leaning forward to keep his tail free, wearing one of Alex's shirts and a pair of shorts. Alex had graciously given him much of her older male clothing. "I'm always buying newer clothes. They wear out quickly in our line of work," she said. "These will at least get you started again."
In the final spate of rain he noticed a car coming. A plain gray car that he couldn't identify. They all looked like squashed insects to him. Marion heard it and came to the window. "I see it moving, but I can't make out any color or detail," the buck said with a note of frustration. "I hate these eyes."
Dog's could see few colors at best, even in the most human form he could manage. Two men and one woman got out of the car. Dog knocked on the door of the darkroom. "We've got company!" he said just as they knocked.
Alex opened the door not knowing what she would find. The trio were dressed in sere, businesslike clothes and had the air of importance about them. The first man held up a telltale badge. "Charles Gorman, FBI," he said. "I'm looking for a Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Iagaris. We're here in reference to the fugitive Artemis caught here a few days ago..." he trailed off when he saw Marion standing in the background, and swallowed. "I... take it you've had a run in with her."
"You could say that," Alex replied dryly. "I'm Alexander Iagaris, and that's my wife behind me."
The investigator looked at his female colleague who nodded. "Perhaps we should come in and discuss the matter at length. We're also looking for an Edward Callahan. We understand that Artemis found him inside the fugitive's tent and would like to ask him a few questions..."
"I'm right here," Dog said. "I'm not under arrest, am I?"
"We would like to clear up a few things before any decision can be made on that." He gestured at the black-haired woman behind him. "My colleague Agent Sooner is with the Mage Corps and would like to put you under a truth spell. If you truly have nothing to hide then we won't have to bring you in. May we come in?" he repeated.
For the third time that week Alex described what had happened, this time with Marion and Dog adding in their own viewpoints. None of them batted an eye when Alex described her remaining female voluntarily, so that was at least one headache avoided. The second man seemed a little nervous, however. His questions mostly had to do with Artemis herself, and her actions.
"May I ask a question?" Alex finally said. Gorman nodded. "Whose bright idea was it to call in a goddess when a few investigators searching could have done the work at far less danger to the general public?"
The second man winced, then sighed. "The FBI will compensate anyone who was adversely affected by the shortsightedness of one of its own," he stated in a practiced-sounding speech. Alex was sure this was the guy who had called the goddess in. By Marion's pinned back ears, he knew it also.
"We'll be in touch," Alex said. "And I will quote you on that."
Taking that as a dismissal, the agents rose to leave. But Dog had another question. "Did everyone get their stolen stuff back? I more or less left everything the way I found it..."
"Everyone got their things back, yes," the woman replied. "Good day to you."
When Terry, Richard, and Dr. Freeman arrived late Saturday afternoon Alex had had almost two days of uninterrupted work to finish developing. Dog was helping her carefully cut the individual frames into slides for viewing later when there was a knock at the doorjamb. Marion wasn't around, having had to return to his programmed purpose in life. "Hello in there," Terry said, coming inside. Terry was once again in female form. "I hope I didn't catch you at a bad time."
"We're just about halfway through this tedious task," Alex said, sliding the film forward another frame in the slicer. "And before you ask, I'm absolutely fine." I even stopped sleeping on my chest, she thought.
"Have you... uh..."
Alex rolled her eyes. "No, I haven't had my period yet. Why is everyone so concerned about that? Can we just forget about that for now so you can tell us about any progress?"
Richard ambled in the door at that moment. "Sure can," he said. "The short of it is that we need to study Marion closer before we can really come to any sort of conclusion. Meaning that we'll need to bring him down to campus until the next full moon."
The buck chose that moment to come in behind him. His ears flicked. "The back of the Jeep's big enough, but there's no way I'm going to be able to get myself inside of it. I have this aversion to cars, see..."
"I can take care of that," Dr. Freeman said. "Cervid instincts are one of my specialties. I should be able to repress certain parts for a few hours, and we can give you a mild sedative also. Well?"
Alex and Marion spoke nearly at once. "If it has to be done..."
Dog snickered at the couple. Then he looked at the new arrivals. "Oh, and before you ask, I've decided to take you up on that offer. I don't have anything to lose." And I'm never setting paw in that cave again.
"Well, then what are we sitting around here for?" Richard chittered. "Let's head back."
"Not so fast," Alex said. She gestured at the yet-uncut lengths of film. "This needs to be finished first. If we're going to be down near Boston for three weeks we can't afford to not get any work done. And the house needs to be put in order besides. We can leave tomorrow."
"You have to be kidding me," Richard said.
"Alex and I have been doing this since college," Marion said. "If we don't find a new agent as soon as possible then the next year is going to be tough. We have enough problems without worrying about this."
"They have a point," Dr. Freeman said. "It's called the Real World, Rich."
"Yes, and I'm an impatient raccoon," Richard replied apologetically. "I suppose it was a long drive, and a day's delay can't hurt. Maybe we can help speed things along. We raccoons are good with our hands."
Terry hovered over Alex the whole time they worked, keeping one eye on her as if she would break down at any moment. Strange, since she hadn't been that way the week before. But now she seemed almost nervous. "Was there something you wanted to say?" Alex finally said.
Terry looked up from her cutting, surprised. "Well, I..."
"I don't like people worrying about me without reason. Please, out with it. Even with this attitude you have, I do like you, so you might as well come clean."
Terry shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Well, okay. It's just that I don't know how I do it. Change thought patterns, that is. The strange thing is that my own mind doesn't change. A lot of studies have proved that men and women use different areas of their brain for the same tasks. They've done CAT scans of my brain activity in both forms. Mine doesn't change one iota."
"Which means what?" Alex asked.
"It means that there is something about my powers that works in a way nobody can fathom, and it scares me. Dr. Samson, my mentor, tells me that there hasn't been anything like my power on record for centuries, and then we don't have much in the way of detailed information. For all intents and purposes you are a woman. It's like you were born one, even though you don't have the memories or experiences to match. I just wonder why I can't change myself like that." She took a breath. "I haven't really changed back to my male form since I met Marion in the hopes of figuring out how to do the same."
If what she was saying was true than Alex hadn't noticed anything. Her body did feel a little odd at times, but she'd actually gotten used to the way it moved. But she simply hadn't had the time to consider if her mannerisms had altered. Neither Dog nor Marion had said anything.
"I'll put it this way, and it's going to sound ironic," Terry said. "I can change myself into a supermodel, but I can't fathom women. I voluntarily had myself locked in female form for a year and posed as a different person in order to learn more. It's why my degree is a third Metamorphics, a third Sociology, and a third Psychology." She threw up her hands. "And I'm still clueless! I can't even understand women by being one, damn it!"
Alex took a deep breath and cradled her forehead on one hand. I'm not the basket case, she is. Geez... She looked around the room and found that Dog, Richard and Dr. Freeman had stepped outside during the discussion. Marion was standing beside her, ears forward and listening. Amazingly he'd slipped up beside her without being noticed. "Maybe you shouldn't try so hard," the buck suggested.
"I hate to tell you this," Alex said. "But my own mother told me, 'I don't understand women, either' when I asked her about them when I was maybe fifteen. What does that say to you?"
Terry stared, speechless.
She still hadn't said a word by the time they left the next day, but at least she was able to drive. Bespelled and sedated, Marion rode in the back of the Jeep, the tips of his antlers taped and padded just in case something untoward happened. Dr. Freeman rode with Alex just to make sure the spell continued to work. The buck was unable to raise his head very far because he'd hit the ceiling.
As they got closer to Boston the rain picked up again, coming in drenching sheets. Marion felt the rumble of thunder in his bones, the feeling of confinement was unbearable even under the sedation. Dr. Freeman looked back from the passenger seat. "How are you holding up?"
"Okay," he said in a whisper. "How..."
"Less than twenty minutes. We have special facilities for cursed people like yourself on campus."
In Terry's car, Dog felt an increasing nervousness. A sort of queasy, stomach-churning anxiety he hadn't felt in years. He wondered if he'd made the right choice, but only for a moment. It was either do this or die of boredom, and though he hated to admit it, loneliness. As if the thought hasn't crossed my mind that often in so long... he thought.
Terry parked her car in front of a building attached to the indoor. It looked like it used to be a stable, but now had a far more "official" look to it, more like a vet's office than just a place to keep horses. A couple people came out to greet them, walking over to the Jeep. Dr. Freeman got out. "He's under full sedation. The instincts in this case are quite strong," he said to them.
Both of the newcomers were dressed in long medical jackets that were covered by clear plastic rain coats. Clear hoods covered their heads also. He recognized them from the group meeting the week before when Richard was asking for suggestions. What really distinguished the both of them was their features. One had a blue jay's head, and the other that of a horse. Dog looked at Richard. "Do all of you use animal features?"
"Most of us do," Richard said with a raccoonish smirk. "It's sort of a departmental pride thing. Alchemy grad students wear that itty bit of lead they get to change into gold as a mark of their major, we get to look like the animal we like."
"Or animals," the equine-headed woman said. "Horses are my favorite, though I do tend to drift every now and again."
"I know that well, Roan," Richard replied dryly. "But you always return to that form."
Roan briefly looked up from helping pull Marion from the back of the Jeep onto a wide stretcher. Her chestnut-and-white muzzle that stuck out of the hood was soaked in the rain. The buck was unable to move by himself. Alex looked on with a worried expression. "What can I say?" the horse-headed woman said. "Some little girls never grow out of loving horses."
Roan and her bird-headed colleague carried Alex into the building with the help of Alex and Dr. Freeman. The whites of Marion's eyes showed when they went inside, and he appeared to be struggling with himself. Alex looked on worriedly, fixing her eyes on his, trying to get him to focus on her. As far as Dog could determine the inside of the building as scentless as anything he'd ever smelled. He did feel magic at work. Soothing, calming empathic set-spells that even affected him. But they didn't seem to be working quite so well on Alex. Richard ambled up beside him and looked into the stall. "It may be a bad idea to keep him inside," he said. "By the feel of things, the set-spell isn't working."
"I can tell," Dr. Freeman said. "Perhaps it was a we shouldn't have brought him down here."
"Possibly, but I don't have time to create an examination workshop up at their cabin. And the instruments can't be removed from campus. We don't really have any choice."
"What does this mean?" Alex asked.
The raccoon sighed. "It means that we won't be able to keep him for more than a few days, and only then under full sedation. I gather that the curse requires him to fulfill his 'duties' as a stag, so those instincts have been essentially hard-wired into him. With luck I'll be able to dampen that part of the curse, though. I just need time."
"I don't want him kept that way more than forty eight hours," Roan said, her ears turned backward sternly. "You'll have to bring him home before that."
"Understood," Richard said. "You're the vet, horse-lady."
Dr. Freeman put his hand on Dog's shoulder. "As for you, my friend, I'd like for you to come with me."
"I really don't want to leave my friends," Dog growled.
Alex looked at him. "Go on, Edward. I'm sure they're going to want to give you all sorts of tests, and the sooner you start them, the better. We'll be fine here."
Reluctantly he let Dr. Freeman lead him to his slightly messier office. Luckily he was able to borrow one of those clear plastic raincoats so he didn't get soaked again; the rain was still coming down pretty hard. Unfortunately he still had no shoes, so his paw-like feet got muddy. Dr. Freeman smiled. "The carpets in our department generally don't last very long," he explained. "Too many of us don't wear shoes in any sort of weather. Roan typically goes to a farrier, herself."
"Farrier?" Dog questioned.
"A person who shoes horses. So don't worry about getting anything muddy. We have about six hours of testing in front of us, so I'd like to get it started as quickly as possible."
To Dog's surprise he was actually given a Magic Aptitude Test. Dog gratefully handed over his test when he was finished. Dr. Freeman smiled. "We should know the score in a few days. Until then, jut sit tight."
While he waited he spent his time with Alex, who spent most of her time in the research area waiting room. The raccoon worked behind closed doors within a place that had an ominous warning sign over the door: Warning! High-energy Magic Area! "What's he doing in there?" she wondered aloud.
The only thing she could to was sit and wait.
Awaiting the return of his MAT scores, Dr. Freeman helped force Dog's admittance through administration. Unfortunately all he had to go on was his record of thirty years before, and the MAT score from before he'd entered college. "How's your memory been lately?" the black man asked Dog, a hint of expectation in his voice.
"Getting better, actually," Dog replied. "Has been ever since the Iagaris' batteries got stolen. I used a simple preservation spell from Elementals 201."
"How do you think you did on the test?" he asked, his tone of voice the same.
Dog was taken aback a moment. He hadn't really thought about it much, but now that he was reminded, "I found it disturbingly easy, actually. They posed the problems in a reasonably understandable way. But I didn't answer about ten of them."
Dr. Freeman nodded significantly. He had a somewhat rat-like face from the class he had taught the morning before. Dog had been told that Metamorphic generalists like him always kept some of the features of the last animal they'd changed into. "Wondering what I'm getting at?" he asked, his buck teeth showing in his smile. Dog nodded. "I just don't want you to be surprised at the score you get is all. I think it'll be higher than you expect."
With that thought in mind, Dog wandered into the library. The donkeysphinx was sitting at the circulation desk, looking at a computer screen; he looked up with Dog entered. "Was there something I could get for you?" he asked.
The werewolf was bored. "Is it at all possible that I could browse the stacks?"
The donkeysphinx's ears flattened and Dog awaited the inevitable answer, but instead the man suddenly blinked, shaking his head. "Why, sure. I've got everything in order. Just put any books you find into the cart when you're finished."
Even though he was a little puzzled at the librarian's answer, Dog nevertheless went into the small collection of books, drawn towards the back. The smell of musty old books intensified, the titles one the spines of the various tomes and dissertations standing out in the fluorescent light. He randomly chose a section and looked at the titles, picking one off the shelf. Opening it, he smelled the oils of a thousand fingerings, a thousand different people who had ever handled this single book impregnated into the pages. He opened to the first page and started to read.
"You make a very fine wolf, Edward," said a new voice. The voice was inhumanly smooth, with intonations a human was incapable of hearing. Dog looked up to see Dr. Alysen standing beside him. The fae were ageless compared to most of the other races, with normal lifespans approaching half a millenium. There were supposedly as many races of fae as there were those based on humans. Dr. Alysen was an elf, with pointed ears and slanted eyebrows, and copper-based blood that gave a greenish cast to his skin. If it weren't for his ears and dimly glowing, pupiless eyes then he could have easily have passed as a human. He wore not the stereotypical robes, but instead a red silk button shirt and gray slacks, looking like college professors everywhere. "I'm happy to see you back, in truth."
Dog had shrunk away, expecting to be reprimanded or yelled at. Instead his jaw dropped open in shock. "And here I'd thought you'd think me the antichrist..."
"You've repented for what you did. Why should I be angry with you?" The eyes grew a little brighter. "I see your potential has not decreased..."
"So you think so, too? I can't say I believe that."
"Human mages--or formerly human ones--don't often attain their full potential until they're near fifty. You're coming back to me at just the right time. I intend to teach you personally, one on one."
Dog's heart leapt into his throat. The fae almost never took on human students so closely. "But..."
"Perhaps I can also help you clean the acid from your system," Alysen mused. "But that will come in time. You would remain a werewolf in any case. But then, I suppose that's not a problem for you. Anyway, I shall see you again once your scores have returned. I'd like to meet your 'pack', also. Good to see you again, Edward." The elf vanished without a sound.
The moment the elven mage was gone Lucius came back into the stacks. "What are you doing back here?" he brayed. "Out! Don't mess up my books!" Dog hastily left.
While Richard worked on Marion, Alex asked Terry to change her back into a man again, explaining that it was needed in order to find a new agent. "Unfortunately I don't have any identification for 'Alexis'," Alex said. "I'm lucky enough to get some appointments at such short notice. We have to head home tomorrow afternoon."
By the time they were forced to bring Marion back up to the cabin Richard was no closer to a solution than he had been when the stag had arrived; so with his mentor's permission he packed up and went with them, Terry once more providing transportation for Dr. Freeman's return trip. She returned Alex to female form once they had returned to Vermont. Thankfully, the trip up was without incident, and Marion was conscious enough to carry on a conversation for most of the way. "Any luck, love?" the stag asked.
"I put out a few portfolios," Alex replied. "I let each of them know candidly what was going on and what might happen to us in the future. There's only one I count as a real possibility. We should know in a couple of weeks."
"And the lawyer?"
"She said there are precedents. Don't worry about it, hon. We've got many people to vouch for who we are, including the FBI agents. This will get sorted out eventually."
"I just hope our money holds out..."
On Tuesday the MAT scores came in. Dr. Freeman gave Dog the envelope himself while he was sitting in the dorm's common room. Dog opened the envelope with a claw, carefully pulling out the official score sheet, and stared for a long, long time.
Roan sat down beside him as he sat there in a daze, her human-equine scent radiating concern. "You're Richard's friend, aren't you? Something wrong?" Numbly he held up the score sheet. The horse-woman nickered in shock. "1,910! That's... I only got 1,550 on mine!"
"Two thousand is a prefect score, isn't it?" Dog said in a daze.
"And you got a perfect score in Abstract, and a nine hundred ten in Mind. Geez..."
Except for the questions he hadn't answered, he'd guessed on many of them. The runic and elemental structures in the Abstract portion had simply fallen into place. The Mind exam had been harder, but not very much. "My old score was 1,880..."
Dr. Aylsen appeared before them. Roan's eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets. The fae's eyes were bright in the dimly lit room. "So, what do you think, Edward?" he asked. "Do you like what you see?"
"There are no mages in my family line. I don't..."
"Magic talent doesn't always run in families. Shall we get started?"
There was nothing he could do but agree.
While they waited for the sun to go down on the night of the Rutting Moon, the group sat around the clearing, chatting with one another. Terry, Alex, Marion, and Roan were off to one side, trading jibes and poking fun at gender. "Actually, it wasn't all that bad," Alex was saying, referring to her period. "I don't know if I want to do it again, though..."
Roan smirked. "Then go back to being a man, woman."
"I don't suppose you'd want to be a man for a month, would you?" Marion said. "I'm sure Terry could..."
"Oh, I know she could," Roan said, nodding at Terry. "And I'll ask her to, if I ever get curious about it. But only if Edward agrees to become Edwina for a few weeks..." She looked over at her boyfriend, the warmth of knowing she was needed rising in her. It'd been quite a surprise to the both of them. Dog's old friend Doris hadn't responded to any of his overtures, which had left him feeling more upset than Roan cared to see. In the two weeks since they'd first gone out to dinner they'd gotten quite close. Dog looked in her direction from his conversation with Dr. Freeman, giving her a warm look. She sighed and waved back.
Unfortunately Richard was too busy making his final adjustments to join in. Sitting on a card table in front of him was a laptop computer, the very latest that money could buy. Carlos had customized it, loading his "special" version of the Linux operating system that had elements of RuniC integrated into the kernel, the very center of the system. There won't be any slip ups this time. Carlos said this would monitor the power flow of the curse transfer, and it's been used in dozens of other similar spellcastings. It was one of the few programs that really worked well.
Richard wished him luck on his next project--the one that would be the centerpiece of his doctoral thesis. A morphing program that really worked, and would change the user into the animal pictured.
Looking over his shoulder occasionally was Dr. Alysen, who seemed quite interested in the whole concept of using computers for magic. "We never would have thought of it," he'd admitted candidly. "We're too naturally soaking in magic to really need it. I'm afraid you humans are catching up with our technology, also. We've been stagnating since the War..."
Everyone knew that without the help of the fae the Second World War would have been much harder won. Since they didn't use iron, and other metals were much scarcer and harder to work, the fae had been the first to develop synthetics like plastic and kevlar. The synthetic rubber they'd developed had been instrumental in the war effort. They had joined the War before the Battle of Britain, knowing that if Hitler won that island that Avalon would be next.
The raccoon looked behind him. "Are you sure you can't help me? Correct anything you see wrong?"
"I really wish I could," Alysen replied sincerely, "but it's forbidden to do anything but teach." He leaned back. "However, I might suggest that you think of how Artemis might react."
Richard nodded. "Thank you. But I have thought about that. I just don't know if I'm powerful enough to do it."
Alysen nodded, obviously picking up on Richard's idea. "I believe you'll need someone with a bit more power. Excuse me a moment..."
Dog stood with Dr. Freeman, wishing not for the first time that there was something he could take for his headache. Alysen didn't precisely teach him; instead, the elven mage was cramming four years of undergraduate magic into his mind and memories, explaining that he wanted to bring him up to at least Graduate level by the end of the semester, when he would resume a more traditional method. Until then, he'd just have to live with the persistent dull throb of weeks upon weeks of classes.
The werewolf spent a lot of time watching Roan as she chatted with his friends. As it turned out, she was very close to his age and owned a veterinary office in town, not surprisingly specializing in horses. Although their relationship hadn't gotten off on quite the right foot, he was optimistic. After all, she had agreed to come up with him to watch Richard work his magic.
He nearly jumped out of his pelt when Alysen put a hand on his shoulder. Nobody else was able to sneak up on him like that--nor was it wise to try with a werewolf. "Richard needs you a moment," he explained simply, then walked away.
Richard had been more than a little surprised at just how powerful Dog was. He didn't really believe in the MAT as more than a very simple measure. There were certainly more than two types of magic and only testing those two was far too limiting in his view. So he was understandably skeptical when Alysen told him that here was the power he needed. "I really don't know if he can do this..." Richard said.
"Summoning is admittedly a little more advanced than I have taught him, but he can do it. It will be easier since they've said that Actaeon is watching," Alysen insisted confidently. "Just give us a few minutes after you explain what needs to be done."
The raccoon sighed. "Okay, here's the short of it. The curse has given the stag body Marion happens to be wearing the highest fertility levels I have ever seen. He's also able to bring a doe into heat just by looking at her, it seems. I've spoken with your friends, and they certainly don't want a couple dozen children to worry about. So I must meddle with the curse somewhat to dampen or hopefully remove that portion. I think I can do it, but there's a problem.
"I've done a little research into the Actaeon curse. She does it quite on purpose, you see. A good example was something she did at the end of the nineteenth century. About twenty years later she bought the land the cursed man lived on and built a hunting lodge for herself, then killed everything larger than a swallow. I think she's doing the same thing again. Which means that she won't like it if I mess with her handiwork."
Dog gaped. The sun was nearly down by now. "But, how do you stop a goddess?"
"There are ways," Richard said. "Let me explain what you need to do."
"And I'll give you the knowledge you need to do it," Alysen said.
The moonstone was in place by the time the moon began to rise, sitting atop a tree stump. It was hard for Alex to believe that it was the same stone. It had been recarved by laser, then etched with runes over every single square inch of its cylindrical shape. It looked very much to her like a power coupling. "It is," Richard explained when she asked. "It's been tuned to be a channel between you and Marion. The smoother the power flow the better I can control it.
"The tricky part is going to be pushing over a tiny majority of the curse into Alex. In theory doing that will restore Marion's original gender."
"And it's no big deal if you can't, really," Marion said. "The mating instincts are more critical."
Alex nodded agreement. Terry was waiting to return her to male form and then cleanse him of any residual metamorphic spells. "Right. We want children, but not that many. And I'll gladly have his baby."
The buck seemed to smirk. "You asked for it, hon."
"You bet I did." Alex replied, also smirking.
Dog paced back and forth in wolf form while Terry did her work on Alex, going over the summoning spell Alysen had implanted in his mind. It seemed simple enough. But he wouldn't know if he could actually do it until midnight, when Richard would actually attempt to alter the curse. A long time to wait.
A half hour before the moon reached its height Richard changed forms, becoming as human as he could manage. He then poured some water from the spring where Artemis had bathed onto the moonstone, which began to glow brighter in response. Alysen looked on in approval, his glowing eyes very visible in the dark. The glowing screen on the laptop was covered in a visual representation of the scene before him, with meters and graphs displayed. "Take your places," he said.
Alex and Marion stepped into the appointed circles. Richard then chanted a slightly altered runic phrase. The two were surrounded in perfect globes of silver light extending out from each side of the carved moonstone as if it were a projector. The "needle" on the screen shifted upward, and the flow meter showed zero. "Well, here we go. Ready?"
A world of difference existed between this attempt and the last. Alex felt more like a plumber than a mage, but in this case he really didn't mind. Alex and Marion began to show noticeable differences within five minutes, then he slowly and carefully sped things up.
Just as the raccoon expected there were no problems, no rough power flows, no unexpected surges. He slowed it to a stop just before the halfway mark, and looked at his handiwork.
Two nearly identical deer-men stood on either side of the moonstone, one was obviously a little more animal than the other, but they still could have been twin brothers. Their noses pulsed and their ears twitched animatedly. Richard sighed and ran his claws through his fur. The next spell would transfer a set percentage of curse from Marion to Alex. Now we see if my theory works...
But he couldn't speak the words! They seemed to vanish out of his mind just when he needed them! How could that happen? How...
The moonlight brightened nearly to daylight levels. Alysen was the first to respond. "Go, Edward!"
Inside Dog's mind the words simply fell into place. Artemis was obviously not paying full attention, else she would have stopped him also. But by the time she appeared in the middle of the clearing she had other things to worry about than a single meddling raccoon.
From out of the woods came dozens of glowing, ghostly stags and does. There were whitetails, mule deer, elk, moose, sika, fallow, and many more. Largest of them all was a gigantic wapiti, his huge spreading antlers towering over all others. Artemis forgot the punishment she was about to dole out to turn and face him. "You!" she exclaimed.
The goddess shied away from his image. "You will leave these people alone!" the ghost stag bellowed.
Artemis pulled an arrow from her quiver. "I think not," she said, sounding like a cornered animal. But a single flashing stare from the ghost-stag's eyes caused it to simply disintegrate. "I'm going to kill Hades for letting you out, Actaeon!" she said.
"You cannot touch me in death," the stag declared. "I suggest you leave before I hurt you like you hurt me--and them." Behind him the ghost-herd glowered at the goddess, hunger for revenge in their eyes. "I serve the Aesier, now. If you wish to fight the likes of Odin and Thor over this, then you may do so. But you will leave these people alone."
Artemis pouted like a little girl who had just lost her favorite toys. "Fine! Take them, I'll find someone else to play with!" She vanished, taking her bright moonlight with her.
The ghost of Actaeon the hunter seemed to take a deep breath, and dimmed somewhat. The ghost-herd behind him vanished back into the woods. "Complete your spell, mage," he said. "She won't bother you again. She's not as childish as she seems." The ghost-stag nodded one to Alex and Marion, giving them an almost fatherly look, and vanished.
Richard faltered for the words for a moment, but without Artemis' presence, they returned to him. He spoke the transfer spell, and watched exactly two percent of the curse move from Marion to Alex. Almost instantly Marion's antlers fell off, and her body followed suit. Marion was stag-no-more, but instead a rather fetching doe sileni. She gasped and looked at herself.
"One thing left," Alysen said.
The one tripping point that Richard wasn't sure of was how much of the mating instincts to damp. He had some idea from Dr. Freeman, but felt more than a little embarrassed that he had control over a couple's future sex life. So he erred slightly on the conservative side, in the hope that contraceptives would be enough.
After he spoke the final locking spell that released the two from the power of the moonstone, Alysen clapped him on the back. "Well done! Indeed, well done!"
Once free, Terry quickly rushed up to Marion to return her mind to normal. For the few minutes that Marion retained a man's mind, suddenly having breasts after several weeks of not was quite distracting. She pushed away the urge to stare long enough to look into Terry's eyes and have herself restored. Then she rushed into her husband's waiting arms to embrace him... and bleated her relief.
Alex looked askance at Dr. Freeman, and bleated also, a much rougher sound than his wife's.
"Uh oh," said Richard.
A simple permanent speech spell like had been used before was the answer, since trying to alter their forms any more would require just as much research as the last. Dog was able to lay it on them with assurances from Alysen that it would never fade, barring more strange magic. Richard was more than a little embarrassed at forgetting to make sure they could actually speak normally in their new forms, but in the end Marion and Alex didn't really care. "Could have been worse," Marion said.
"What's next for you two?" Terry asked.
Alex surveyed the room. He couldn't talk normally, but Richard had at least been able to fix their eyes during the curse-breaking. If there was any reason why the raccoon mage had forgotten about their voices it was that single stipulation. If they couldn't see colors then their careers as photographers were over. Not only could they both see colors, but they'd retained the motion sensitivity deer eyes had. Marion felt it would help her bird photography greatly.
"Well, one of the agents I spoke to accepted us. We're actually waiting for word on a possible sale to several magazines and calendar companies," Alex said. "All in all, with these senses, I think it'll actually help our work."
"Just remember that you can't drive until those antlers come off," Marion said, leaning against Alex's shoulder and scratching him behind his ears. She looked at Dog. "You were wonderful, old friend."
Dog's tongue lolled, happy with the approval. "Surprised myself with that one. It wasn't easy, but wow..."
"Worth a three month headache, I hope?" Alysen said.
Alex stood up, a little unsteady on his cloven hooves, but time would correct that. Neither of them had been granted particularly human body. Marion's waistline wasn't quite as slim as it used to be because she simply needed the room for four stomachs, but Alex didn't particularly care. All he wanted to do was sweep her off her hooves and take her into the bedroom. In fact, that's exactly what he did.
Alysen stood up. "Let's give these two some privacy, shall we?"
In the bedroom the others would have been very surprised. They were simply tired and wanted to talk. Neither of them felt any raging need to have sex, all they wanted to do was enjoy each other's company. Marion idly stroked her husband's furry chest, laying her head on the pillow next to him. "We're going to have to change a lot of things around here."
Alex sighed happily and turned on his side to face his wife. Because of his antlers his hoofed feet hung over the edge of the bed, and in order to be face to face, Marion had to be in a similar position. "No big deal. How are you feeling?"
"Like I'm happy to have you back. I don't care if we're not human any more." Indeed, in the face of what they'd just experienced, they hadn't really lost anything. "Lots to change around here."
"Just think. We don't have to buy so many winter clothes..."
"No more shoes. No more makeup," Marion exulted, relishing the thought. "Perfume built right in."
"We'll be able to get really close to our subjects..." Alex mused, then yawned deeply. "Save on food, too. We won't need to buy so many provisions."
Marion chuckled, then yawned deeply. "We'll get started after we get a good night's..." Another yawn. "...sleep."
She nodded off before he could reply. Alex turned out the light and hugged his wife closer, then sleep took him also.