|Xanadu story universe
For the hundredth time that day I looked enviously around me at the multitudes of costumes wandering Kubla Con. Aliens and animals mixed with humans in uniforms out of popular science fiction shows and movies, and some of them were superb. But saving for cross-country airfare had eaten most of the funds I might have spent on a more complete outfit for myself.
At least I wasn't alone in my... uncostumedness, if that was even a word. I'd seen plenty of other people walking around without costumes, and even more had bought animal noses in order to get in the spirit of things, even minimally. I rubbed the equally minimalist horns glued to my forehead absently for a moment before snatching my hand away. So the sparsity of my outfit didn't stand out all that much.
That would change soon, at least a little. One of the dealers was selling sets of wings; mostly feathery white angel wings, but there were some black sets there as well, and a single pair of black batlike wings. With the convention ending tomorrow, I could afford to splurge a little on them, and even at a mere three feet across they were perfect.
When Jesse and I had heard that costuming was going to be a major part of this year's con, rather than the usual sideline, we'd decided to actually wear something, even if it was minor. After some thinking, we decided to walk around as the characters we played every Tuesday and Thursday in our gaming sessions. Jesse's was easy: a gray wig, a staff, some robes, and a leatherbound book were all that was needed to make him into a passable wizard.
Coming as my character was a bit more problematical, because Kyr was a dragon. I had entered only recently into a campaign that had been underway for almost three years, so I'd had to find some way for my new character to join up with the party. I did it by getting caught burglarizing the party mage's tower. Gray the wizard, Jesse's character, had been justifiably upset that Kyr had managed to kill his old dragon familiar, and so the thief took up the role instead. My character made for a somewhat underpowered dragon, but Kyr's power levels were just about right to fit in with the rest of the party of seasoned, experienced adventurers.
But there had been no way I could afford the several hundred — or several thousand — dollars I'd have needed to buy a full dragon suit. So I'd made do with a set of rubber horns and some painted-on scales in a few places, and simply pretended I was Kyr before Gray's "essence transference" spell, which had given Kyr the familiar's form and powers, had taken more than token effect.
Finally, finally, the fat woman in front of me gave up on knocking the price of her purchases down another twenty bucks and just paid up. The guy on the other side of the table smiled apologetically as he turned to me. "Sorry about that. So, after a set of wings, eh? Part of your costume?"
"They will be, yeah." I set my credit card down with a plastic snap. He snatched it up and began processing it.
"You a demon?"
I grimaced. "Naw." I hated being mistaken for a demon, even if it was a fair guess. "Dragon. Well, part dragon."
"Gonna be a bit more dragon in a minute. Ah! There we go. Sign here?"
It was impossible to stop my mouth from spreading to a wide grin as I turned away, wings in hand. I couldn't wait to try them on.
Without warning a child a few feet ahead of me squealed and doubled over. The gray plastic mouse nose that had overlain his own seemed to ripple, and gray fur spread rapidly back from it even as he shrank. In the space of a second or two he vanished from sight, engulfed in clothing.
"Jimmy?" his mother cried, looking at the pile openmouthed. "Jimmy!"
All around me were cries of surprise and fear. Here and there the sound was cut off, or transmuted into some other noise.
I looked around wildly. Had someone dropped LSD into all the water pitchers? Right in front of me people were changing, turning into elves and robots and animals; some of the latter seemed to stop partway through. Those people who were unaffected, like myself, were staring at them in shock.
What finally convinced me it was real, that people were really changing into their costumes, was that even some of those who had changed were looking around with stunned expressions. They were looking down at their own hands and bodies, too — and none of the people who hadn't been affected were looking at themselves. The idea that a hallucination could possibly be this... consistent was absurd.
"Holy shit!" I said. My voice was soft, but it was very, very heartfelt.
I could hear shouts and screams in the hallway outside as people began to panic. There were other sounds, too: gunshots and high-pitched whines that immediately made me think of lasers, along with bellows of anger or pain. It must be all the people at the awards ceremony, I realized. A sinking feeling grew in my stomach as I thought of all the people in costume that must have been crammed into that one room, and I thanked God Jesse and I hadn't gone. We'd been interested enough in seeing the costumes, and had thus attended the masquerade yesterday, but it mattered little to us who won. And by the sound of the chaos outside the dealer's room, it was a good thing, too.
Not that there was no chaos and panic in here. Several people (and other things) had already bolted for the exits. But the dealer's room had been largely empty, thanks to the awards ceremony, and it seemed to have affected the response. By and large people reacted like they might to a fire drill after actually smelling smoke. Urgently, but not hysterically.
Still, it would be a good idea to get out of there. At the very least I wanted to find Jesse. Last I'd seen, he was heading over to the game room to get in a few last sessions. It wasn't all that far away, but to get there I'd have to get through the mess in the halls.
It turned out to be a surprisingly simple task. It was more a mob than a riot, really; people were panicked but not actually violent. The greater difficulties were simply to avoid getting in anyone's way, which might make them belligerent, and keeping myself from tripping and getting trampled. Beyond that all I needed to do was to peel away into the corridor leading to some of the other rooms of interest, including the game room, rather than let myself be swept to the exit along with most everyone else.
A dozen or so people were at the game room talking animatedly about what had just happened, but it still felt like an island of calm amidst the chaos. It probably helped that few people who were interested in gaming had worn costumes in the first place, though there were exceptions. Jesse, of course, was one of them, and I found him easily at one table, surrounded by other gamers.
"Ash!" he shouted in greeting as I entered. He stood and abandoned the conversation to greet me, somewhat to the annoyance of the others, I saw. "Jeez, man, it's good to see you. I was worried."
He took a seat at an empty table. "Yeah," I said as I took a chair opposite him. "It's kinda crazy out there. Looks like you guys are fine, though." While it was noisier than usual even for the game room, it was clear that nobody had really lost it when the change hit. Nothing was smashed or even overturned.
"Well, we're not going nuts, it that's what you mean," Jesse said, confirming my earlier thoughts, and a few nearby heads nodded agreeably. "I wouldn't really call this fine, though!"
At that he gestured sharply at his face. For a few seconds I saw nothing wrong with it. It was simply the weatherbeaten, slightly past prime face of the wizard Gray. Then it hit me, and I reeled back as if struck. This was the face of Gray, not Jesse made up as him. The are lines were no longer makeup, the locks of white hair had not been bleached.
"Jeez, you're really him, aren't you?" I asked softly. "You turned into Gray."
"Yeah. Dammit, I look like I'm fucking fifty!"
"Isn't Gray more like a hundred fifty?"
He shrugged. "Yeah, around there. Hundred forty-one, I think. But I look fifty. I feel fifty! How am I supposed to get a date, now?"
Now it was my turn to shrug. "Older guys get married too. My uncle met his wife when he was forty-six." I smiled encouragingly. "Besides, there's probably a lot of prestige in dating a wizard! As useful as engineers and rarer than rock stars."
Jesse looked at me like I was an idiot. "Don't be a dick." It was odd to hear those words coming from that face. Incongruous. "It's not like I'm really a wizard. I can't actually cast any spells. Hell, magic doesn't exist."
"Oh, really. Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
He snorted, then nodded, acknowledging the point. "And have you?"
I shook my head no. "I didn't change."
His eyes glinted with amusement. "Oh, really," he said in his best imitation of my voice.
"Yes, really. If I had changed, I would be a dragon." I pointedly looked down at myself, arms spread wide. "Do you see a dragon sitting across from you?"
"Of course not. But what do you call these, hmm?" I looked up in time to see him leaning across the table, arm extended towards me. Before I could ask him what the hell he was doing he flicked his forefinger at my scalp. But instead of striking flesh there was a distinct click, and I felt the vibration travel down into my skull. But it was hardly the same thing as tapping the skull itself.
"Holy shit!" I said again. My hands flew up to my forehead and felt the horns poking out of my skin there. It was immediately obvious they were made of bone now, not rubber. I gave one a few experimental tugs, but they were firmly attached. Indeed, I actually winced when I tried to twist it.
"You didn't know?"
"No! In all the mess I forgot about them." I looked at the miniature pair of wings on the table beside me. "I guess those are kind of moot now. Damn, they weren't cheap, either..."
Jesse laughed. "Maybe not! Maybe if you put them on you'll have a nice set of wings! Have you thought of that?"
I hadn't. I rolled the idea around for a moment before shaking my head. "No, thanks. I don't feel like being part of a freak show. Horns are enough for me. More than enough."
"You have scales, too, you know."
I looked. The patches of charcoal gray I had brushed onto the backs of each hand glistened, now; the lines separating one scale from another were deep fissures, rather than mere black paint. "Shit." The rest of my hand was unaffected; the scales faded back to skin exactly where I had stopped painting. I ran my fingers over one patch. It felt smooth, but just short of being slick. I could feel my fingers, too, but faintly. Dragon scales were supposed to be tougher than skin; apparently they were less sensitive, as well.
Jesse was looking at me with a peculiar expression on his now-wrinkled face. It took me a moment to realize he was expecting something, another to recognize exactly what. "That feels... weird. Kind of like being touched through clothes, but not. Just... weird."
It wasn't a really good description, but it was the best I could do. And it seemed to satisfy him, judging by his thoughtful nod. "You have some here, too," he said, touching his forehead. He waited for me to feel between my horns (two words that will take some getting used to!), but I believed him well enough to resist the temptation. Eventually he asked, "Anything else different?"
"On me?" He nodded, and I thought it over briefly. "No... I don't think so. That's all the costume I wore."
"Even... you know. There?"
"What?" But I knew what he meant even before I was finished with the single syllable. Kyr had been a man before he took op Gray's previous familiar's position and powers and form. But the old familiar had been a female dragon, and the gamemaster had decided that that aspect would be transferred over as well.
I hadn't really minded, at the time. It was only a character, after all. (Said character, of course, did mind, and he'd gained a few personality quirks and mannerisms thanks to it.) Still, that was just a game, and this was real.
But a hasty check revealed everything was still where it should be. "Nothing wrong there," I said. "Nothing changed but the parts I costumed, thank God."
"Well, that's a relief."
"Oh, heck yeah."
We both fell silent. I found myself rubbing a horn as I contemplated exactly what to do next.
"This is intolerable! Idiots! Morons! What the hell do they think this will accomplish?"
"They think it'll keep us all in one place where they can keep an eye on us," I said, not bothering to look up from the television to where Jesse pointed. I knew quite well what I'd see out the window, after all, since it had been there for the last two days. Our hotel room had a wonderful view of the police mobile headquarters that had been set up nine stories down and across the street, where the cops were coordinating the quarantine they had set up. Nobody who had been affected at the con was supposed to get out (or in, though why anyone would return was beyond me). It was an open secret, though, that some were escaping anyway — there were shots on the news of a gargoyle or demon or something that was already flying around New York City, for one thing. Compared to all the various aliens, mages, and superheroes, not to mention all the things like that demon, things that could just fly over any cordon... well, the cops were simply out of their league.
There were persistent rumors that the National Guard, even the Army, were going to take over Any Time Now, but there was never any concrete information. There were also rumors that the quarantine would be lifted and everyone could go home. Almost nobody believed those stories, however. Surely the government wouldn't do something so obviously sensible.
"But it's stupid! Their cursed cordon leaks like a sieve!" Jesse ranted as he paced beside the bed.
"There's reports all over the place of things showing up. One was on Leno!"
"And our plane back was supposed to leave today. I don't suppose they'll let us catch our flight."
Jesse stopped stomping around the room long enough to glare at me. "And can you please give me something a little more than monosyllabic replies?"
"Sure." I paused just long enough for my friend to think that was all; making him go nuts was amusing enough to keep me from going stir crazy. When his mouth was open, ready to spew a heated rejoinder, I added, "When your statements deserve them." He shut his mouth with a snap; this was fun! "Besides, there's not a whole lot we can do about it."
Jesse smiled oddly at me. "That's what you think."
Then I did look squarely at him. I scratched the backs of my hands as I thought; the line between skin and scales itched nearly constantly. "What do you mean?" I eventually asked warily.
"I'm supposed to be a mage, right? I think it might be time to try one of the spells in my grimoire."
I sat up a little straighter, all itching forgotten. Now this was interesting! Every now and then Jesse had looked through the book that had become his repository of spells, muttering occasionally. Yet he hadn't cast a single one, hadn't even tried despite the growing evidence that people who'd been dressed as any kind of magic user had become able to cast spells. But if he was going to make an attempt at last... oh yes. Interesting, indeed.
"So which spell are you going to use?" I asked. "Something to disguise us as cops? Or, hey, do you have invisibility in there? You remember, the one that got us past that goblin horde last month?" I'd always wondered what it'd really be like to be invisible.
"No, no, no," Jesse said. He was flipping quickly through his spellbook. Suddenly he stopped and thrust it all me, all dramatic. "This one."
I glanced at the page briefly before returning my gaze to him. "You know I can't read that crap." The blank pages that had filled the leatherbound book that Jesse had toted around as Gray's grimoire had been replaced by masses of runes and diagrams. I couldn't read a word of it. In fact, it made my eyes hurt to look at them for too long — which is to say, more than five seconds or so.
"Ah, yeah. Sorry." He had the grace to look embarrassed. But then his enthusiasm returned full bore. "It's Trakam's Teleportation!"
"Are you insane?" I almost screamed. "There's a one-in-a-hundred chance of failure on that thing! And you want to cast that as your very first spell ever?"
"It won't be my first! I cast a few this morning while you were asleep."
"Really? Which spells?"
"Sangred's Silent Room and Ichanhor's Illusionary Disguise."
"Fine, you got some practice in. But if you screw up the Silent Room, all you get is a burst of noise, or a headache. Screw up on teleporting and it can get nasty."
"Well, yes," he admitted. "But just about anything above a fourth order spell can have some really bad consequences if the mage flubs it, so unless you think I'm incompetent and should keep to the tame stuff like light shows and lightening burdens, then we'll be taking that risk eventually."
He had a point, but I wasn't ready to admit that quite yet. "I just think you should practice some more. Build up to it."
"I've found, over the last few days, that I have some knowledge and instincts that I could only have gained from Gray. And he's a ninth order mage. So I'm pretty sure I can get this right."
"You're sure, huh?"
"Hey, I'm teleporting both of us, remember? It's my life, too. Sure, I'm sure."
I still had my doubts. He'd countered my most major objections, though; protesting further would only make me seem petty or cowardly. Worse, it'd just make him dig in his heels. "Let me pack first, will you?"
A few minutes later I dropped my bags at my feet, adjusted the baseball cap that hid my horns, and nodded to my friend. "Ready when you are."
Jesse had already packed. But he hadn't been idle. A circle six feet wide had been drawn on the carpet in pink chalk. A few lines crossed through the center in no pattern I recognized. "Stand in the circle, and try not to muss up the lines," he said.
"And the luggage?"
"You'll have to carry it."
I didn't realize, at first, that he meant I was to carry all the luggage. But he had to keep his arms free to make the gestures necessary to work the spell. Or so he said. So I had to hold four bags up off the carpet but within the circle's borders. I think I only managed because none was particularly large. Still, it wasn't easy. And it became even less easy when Jesse stepped in there with me.
"All right. Let's go."
I nodded. "Please, let's." None of the bags were heavy, but all four together was no small load. "By the way, where'd you get the chalk?"
Jesse’s voice began as a low murmur that I could barely hear and slowly grew. He spoke a language that I did not know and rather suspected didn't exist last week. His arms moved like a conductor's, flailing about in a way that suggested chaos at first glance but revealed patterns to those who continued to watch.
The room turned hazy, fading to gray nothingness. Even the carpet disappeared, though the chalk lines remained. It was just us and those lines, floating together in a sea of gray. We remained like that for what felt like several minutes, Jesse chanting all the while, before the familiar shapes of his living room began to fade in.
Then things started to go wrong.
The scene abruptly wavered like a television with bad reception and began to fade back into nothingness. At the same time, a bolt of nausea shot through my stomach and my legs felt like rubber, nearly making me stumble out of the circle. "Jesse..."
My friend's voice, already loud, became a shout and more insistent. Still things worsened. The grayness was darkening rapidly, and my hands and feet were beginning to tingle painfully. I could feel fire shooting up my limbs.
And just as suddenly, everything was fine. The nothingness vanished with a snap, replaced by the living room only glimpsed earlier. It all looked solid enough, though I stamped the floor to make sure. Yup. And the floor had the chalk circle on it now, I saw.
Jesse strode over to an easy chair and plopped into it heavily, head in his hands. I dropped the bags besides the couch before taking a seat. The corner of one bag, I noted, was missing. It had probably swung outside the circle when I stumbled. It was one of Jesse's. Serves him right.
"I think," he said in a shaky voice, "that I just rolled a ninety-nine."
Rolling one hundred would have been a critical failure, in the game. "Sounds about right," I said.
"Maybe I should practice a bit before I do any more major spells." His tone made it sound like it was the first time it had been proposed, and that it was his idea.
I looked down at the ruined bag, and the cross-section of its contents. "Yeah. You do that."
After the hectic events of the last few days, it was something of a relief to return to my simple job as a computer programmer. I had made no secret of going to a convention in Florida, and by the time I got back everyone on the planet had heard what had happened at that particular con. So it was no surprise when I was barraged with questions. What really happened? What was it like? How did I evade the quarantine? Was I affected at all? The first two questions I answered truthfully, for the most part, and enjoyed being the center of attention for a while. The other two, though, I was forced to lie over, lest I bring on the kind of attention I didn't want.
But that was two days ago. Today, with rare exception, it was just the usual monotony of work. Code, email, lunch, meeting, code some more.
It was late in the day when Drew, my boss, stopped by my cubicle. "Hey, Ash, they got the specs finalized on the next patch release." He handed me a thin sheaf of memos. I'd also get a copy in email, but Drew liked to hand out hard copy.
"Cool," I said. "Anything I should worry about?"
Drew didn't answer. He was too busy peering intently at my face. "You feeling okay, Ash?" he said at last.
"I feel fine. Why?"
He gestured at me, half point, half wave. "The skin on the bridge of your nose is turning black."
"It's what?" I reached to feel my face. A vertical strip of insensitive skin, bumpy but slick and perhaps two inches wide, ran from under my cap halfway down my nose.
"Turning black." Drew had backed up a step while I wasn't paying attention, probably to avoid getting infected with what was obviously some horrible skin disease. "You might want to get that checked out. In fact, I really think you should go to the doctor."
I didn't leave immediately, though. I went to the bathroom, first. I knew already what I'd see, but I had to look, anyway.
Despite being made for multiple occupants, then men's room door still had a deadbolt lock on it. I used it. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, took off my cap, and looked into the mirror. The sight was not unexpected, but a jolt nevertheless. My forehead was a mass of scales forming the branches of a dark T. Its trunk went down my nose, the edges just kissing the corners of my eyes.
"Jesus." My face had definitely not been like that this morning. I felt the horns on my forehead... and then the second pair set further back, more on the top of my head and angled backwards. I'd discovered those yesterday. Were they larger now? It was hard to see them in the mirror, but my fingers told me they probably were.
I'd found the second set of horns while shampooing my hair. A sudden shock, a scramble for the mirror. But they truly were hard to see. I had convinced myself that I had just never noticed them before. They'd always been there — since Xanadu, anyway. I mean, a second set of horns growing spontaneously from my skull... ludicrous! It made no sense, so obviously I must have just missed them.
And the idea that these painted-on scales were growing, expanding... just my imagination. Of course. It wasn't like I was keeping rigorous track, or anything! How was I supposed to tell whether the last scale before skin was this one or that one? And if the scales were now to the point where they wrapped around my wrist and crawled halfway down my fingers... well, obviously I'm misremembering their extent. Right? Just bring out the skin-colored makeup, slather it on, and ignore it. It's the same as it was yesterday, sure it is.
But it was hard to brush this off. This time the patch on my forehead was definitely, unarguably larger. I was quite certain that my cap had completely covered it this morning. As a matter of fact... I replaced it on my head and tugged it down as far as it would go. My suspicions were, unfortunately, confirmed. It didn't go down as far as it should have. As it once had. It was being held away from my scalp by that second pair of horns. Which in turn meant not only that they were clearly growing, but quite likely were indeed a new addition rather than being an original — if unnoticed — part of the change back in Florida.
I was out of the building not three minutes later.
One of the side benefits of leaving work a little early was that I missed the worst of rush hour. Which isn't to say the traffic was actually good. This was, after all, San Jose. Every traffic light, every highway slowdown tensed my muscles and strained my nerves.
"This can't be happening to me," I said over and over as I drove. "It just can't!" It was impossible. It was insane. It was infuriating! I ground my teeth over the situation and blasted my horn.
Naturally, I did not go to the doctor. This was no skin disease. There was nothing any doctor could do for me. Only one person could.
I should have known that Jesse wouldn't be home so early. Despite his more obvious changes (well, perhaps not more obvious, anymore, I amended), he had gone right back to work. He said it was no problem. I often wondered if it was a case of openminded coworkers or if he was using magic somehow. Or if he was just being optimistic. Whichever it was, it seemed to be working out so far, which meant he wouldn't be back for another hour, minimum. I gave him a ring on my cell phone and told him to get home soon. Real soon. Then I went and had dinner.
It was a very uneasy meal. I could feel every other person's eyes on me, on the discolored patch of skin, on my hat as they wondered exactly what it hid. Even then I knew it was an exaggeration, but I still felt it. And the looks the kid behind the counter gave me as he took my order were certainly real enough.
I didn't want to stay long. On the other hand, I didn't relish the idea of some neighbor calling the cops on me if I hung out in his front yard while I waited. It was a kind of balancing act, and for once I hit it perfectly. I pulled into his driveway right after he did.
"Hi, Ash!" he called as we got out of our cars. "What's up?"
"That's exactly what I want to know!" I yelled. I whipped off the baseball cap and pointed at my brow. "What the hell is up with this?"
His weatherbeaten face creased in a frown. "Let's go inside."
Once we were in his place, I got right back to it. "Look at this! I'm still growing scales! What the hell is happening, here?"
"I was afraid this might happen..." Jesse began, but then halted.
"Afraid of what, damn it?"
"Surely you knew. That you would continue to turn into a dragoness. Into Kyr."
I did know. It hit me like a punch in the belly, anyway. Gamely, I rallied with, "But I can't be! My costume wasn't of Kyr! I only made myself into a partial dragon, not a full one!"
"Wrong. You went as Kyr at the start of his transformation. Only a partial dragon, yes, but a part that was meant to increase."
I swore vehemently. "Why didn't you tell me this might happen?"
Jesse shrugged and got a Coke from the fridge. "You were having a hard enough time coping with the changes you had. You would have gotten yourself all worked up if I'd told you there might be more coming. In short, you didn't want to hear it."
"And since I didn't know for sure that they were coming, there was no point in letting you panic just then."
"I am not panicking!"
Jesse just shrugged again and took a long pull from the can. "If you say so."
"Damn it! I'm not!"
"Then you're throwing a tantrum. But whether it's panic or shit fit, you would have done then what you're doing now. I didn't need that, then." He paused to give me a hard look. "I don't need it now, either."
A tantrum? "Fuck you! This is important! You're not fucking taking this seriously! And until you do, I am out of here!" I saw myself out, making sure to slam the door behind me.
Luckily, it was Friday, so I had another two days to figure out what I'd do about this. The problem was that there was absolutely nothing I could do. Kyr had some magic, true, but much of it was inherent to being a dragon, like her her ability to fly or to breathe fire. I couldn't use those, yet. The rest of her magic came from being a wizard's familiar; even if that was available to me now, I didn't know how to use it.
And neither type of magic would be able to prevent this slow change, anyway. I knew. I'd had Kyr try, way back when she was just my imagination and a sheet full of stats.
Naturally I wasn't about to leave the house like that. Which meant my weekend was spent watching television, interrupted by frequent trips to the bathroom mirror as I inspected myself for changes.
And changes there were! They seemed to come more quickly, now that they had an audience. Over those few days I watched my scalp grow black, my hair vanishing in lieu of bony knobs and bumps covered in scales. They crept down my face, as well, so that by Sunday night everything above my upper lip was covered. My ears had become merely fleshy, scale-covered hollows in my skull. My pupils were slitted, now, and the irises that filled the rest of the eye was a green so deep I thought at times they glowed.
My fingernails had grown long despite every effort I made to keep them short. Sharp talons now tipped every finger. My hands were entirely covered with scales, larger on my palm than the back, and they extended a few inches past each wrist as well. Black peeked out from beneath the edge of my watchband.
And Saturday afternoon I found the first of the scales on my feet. It seemed that this transformation was to proceed from my extremities inwards.
Friday and Saturday, each clear sign of change brought on another round of curses. Some of them prompted thrown objects. But tempers cannot remain forever hot. At some point Sunday I calmed down somewhat. I was still more than a little upset, but there was little point in getting violent over it.
Besides, it was time to do something about work. I picked up the phone and dialed — with excessive care, thanks to these damned talons.
"Hi, Jesse. Uh..." What to say? "Sorry I blew up like that. I guess you were right, I was panicking. I shouldn't have taken it out on you."
"It's okay. You were upset, and with good reason."
"Mind if I come over there? I need to see you."
"No problem," was the reply.
Jesse took one look at my face when he opened his door, then stood aside. "Come on in."
I waited until we had taken seats in his living room before speaking. "Getting into the role, I see."
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't blink, or step back, or show any signs at all of surprise at how far this had gone."
"Ah." His smile was slight but genuine. "A wizard is supposed to be nigh-imperturbable, after all."
I nodded. "Right. Well, I hope you've practiced other facets of being a wizard. Like spellcasting."
"That I have. Small spells, mostly, but a few of higher order."
"Good. I want to reverse this spell. Change me back."
Jesse nodded slowly; evidently he'd anticipated the request. Then he looked at me gravely and said, "People have been trying to nullify Xanadu's spell for a week, now. If anyone's had any success, they're keeping quiet about it. Frankly, I doubt any wizard created by Xanadu — and that's every wizard, remember — will be able to cancel the spell of Xanadu."
"I'm not so sure I agree with that. Magic by definition breaks all the rules of logic. Who can say it won't do that here?"
"I'm a wizard, so I can."
I threw up my hands. "All right, whatever. That wasn't what I had in mind, anyway. All you need to do is negate your spell."
Jesse's bushy gray eyebrows rose for the first time. "My spell? You mean the one cast in the game?"
"Essence Transference, yeah. You never actually cast it, I know, but thanks to my costume concept Xanadu thinks you have. So if you just negate that spell, I should change back."
"It won't work."
"I don't see why not. I've thought this through pretty carefully."
"Yes, but with incorrect data. Or rather, incomplete. At any rate, remember GIGO. It's a good idea, but it just won't work."
"And just what do you know that I do not?" I said with a snarl I could not quite suppress. Was this anger normal or was it part of being a dragon?
Jesse thankfully ignored the tone and concentrated on my actual words. "The change at Kubla Con made me a wizard. And that includes certain knowledge that I suddenly just know." He hastily held up a hand to forestall an angry reply. "Didn't do much for teleporting, I know. I think I was relying too much on it, to soon. But I still know things. And my grimoire is not a cookbook, either. There's more in there than lists of ingredients and instructions on combining them. There's notes on how each spell works. Not only what it does, but how. And after you left here Friday I looked up the Essence Transference spell."
He paused. "And?" I asked into the silence.
"Think of a heart transplant. Once it's done, it's done; you can't stop it from taking place when the patient is walking out of the hospital. The operation's over. Canceling it then can't be done.
"It's the same thing, here. This isn't some kind of ultra-slow polymorph spell. It's a soul transplant, essentially. But in the game — and now in real life, I suppose — you now have the soul of a female black dragon familiar."
That was certainly news! I'd never thought about it that way. Still, "What about all this, then?" I asked, and waved my talons in the air.
"Heart transplants leave scars, which heal but slowly. Think of this as the scar healing. Your body is healing, as it were. But because your essence is that of a black dragoness, that's how you will heal. As a black dragoness."
Interesting. Hardly good, no... but interesting. Still, if that's how it works, then a solution is obvious. "So just cast it on me again. Give me the essence, the soul, of a male human."
"Can't. The notes say it can only be cast on any specific creature once."
"Damn it! That's stupid! Why the heck would there be such an idiotic limit on the spell?"
"Please don't ruin my furniture." Jesse pointed, and I glanced down. My hand had clenched, forcing my talons through the upholstery. I sheepishly extracted them as he continued. "There are two things you need to remember about this spell. First, this spell is not part of the official game spellbook. The GM made it up for the campaign to introduce you to an established high-level game. So if it's a little odd, it's probably because it wasn't completely thought out.
"Secondly, it was made for a game, as were all the spells in my grimoire. And being able to change someone, body and soul, into another creature is pretty powerful! In fact, it's listed as a fifteenth-order spell; Gray technically should not have had any hope of a successful casting in the game, but Keith hadn't said how high it was. Probably Xanadu determined it, somehow. Anyway, making it permanent like this adds a little more power, but is a major limitation because that will be the character's base form for the rest of the game. If it turns out to be a bad choice of target form, tough. The target is stuck."
"So you're saying I'm stuck?"
"I think so." He surprised me with a grin. "Could have been worse. I could have had a kobold familiar."
"Somehow, I don't feel appreciative." I had to think about this. After a time, Jesse left; there was a clanging from the kitchen, the gurgle of a coffee machine. When he returned I accepted a cup, took a sip, and spoke.
"You do your research into curing this thing. I just can't believe there is a spell that can't be reversed in any way! Meanwhile, cast a polymorph or that disguise spell on me so I can keep going to work."
"The disguise spell wears off after nine hours," Jesse warned. "The polymorph might last four. Maybe."
"So I stop by every morning so you can disguise me again."
"All right," he agreed. "But the other thing you have to keep in mind is that this is only an illusion. It may hide a tail and wings, when they start coming in, but that won't prevent them from banging into desks, or people from tripping over them. There's also the fact that it conforms to your body, which means you'll look like you're crawling on the carpet once you go quadrupedal. To say nothing of the increased size."
I frowned at that. I'd rather suspected the part about the wings and tail, but I had tried hard not to think at all about the rest. Walking on all fours... I shuddered to think of it, quite literally.
My friend's tone was serious as he continued, "In all honesty, Ash, you should just put in two week's notice with your job. I already did."
"Hmm. Maybe. Mention my name at your work, though. That way, if you stop this transformation, I'll have a foot in the door for your position."
"I don't think I'm going to be able to stop it."
"Don't say that! Damn it, you have to!" I leaned forward, eyes intent. "You have to!"
I returned the next morning so Jesse could disguise me as myself. Drew was clearly relieved when I showed up unblemished. The day itself went well, other than my computer crashing twice. Drew let me leave early, somewhat to my surprise; he's usually a stickler for the nine-to-five shtick. I used the time to get some food, and apparently I needed it since the spell gave way seconds after I closed the door to my place.
Tuesday, however, went significantly less well. The first time I sat down I got a painful surprise. It felt like I was sitting on a good-sized rock. And when I sat back, I discovered two more rocks behind my shoulders.
Had those appeared last week I would surely have rationalized them away as hives or unusually large blisters. But now, especially after Jesse's comments on Sunday, I knew immediately what they were. My wings and tail were starting to come in.
Every trip to Jesse's these days was urgent. This one was an emergency. I don't think I dropped below the speed limit once before I pulled into his driveway.
"You've got to do something!" I urged him. "Hasn't there been any progress?"
"Not really," he said, shaking his head. "I have an idea, but I need to look something up. I plan to go to the game shop later today and get a sourcebook."
"Good. Good. Here." I yanked my wallet out of my pocket and shoved a hundred at him.
"Um. I don't really need..."
"So you can buy the book! I don't need any more limbs, man."
He hesitated a moment more before taking the bill. "All right."
The drive to work was not comfortable. Neither was my cubicle's chair, even as padded as it was. No matter how I shifted around, my new appendages found a new way to ache. More than anything else, that solidified my decision. I gave Drew my two weeks notice that afternoon. He tried to get me to stay, but not very hard. I think he was beginning to suspect I hadn't quite escaped the convention unscathed.
The only problem came when it became apparent that I might not actually have two weeks. The slow crawling progression of scales continued unabated. It was worrisome enough on my arms and legs, but by Wednesday my head was a knobby, horny, scale-covered mass. I looked more like the Creature from the Black Lagoon than anything else, for a day or two.
Then bones started changing. Thursday my feet began to change, the proportions of the bones below the knee evening out. By Friday I was walking on the balls of my feet, which certainly earned me some odd looks from the people at work. But I had little choice; trying to walk or even stand flatfooted was awkward, even painful. Near the end of the day I was getting used to it, but I still tried one last time not to stand on tippytoes. I overbalanced badly and fell on my ass — a severely unpleasant experience, since the tail had not stopped growing.
Meanwhile, I no longer wore the baseball cap. It no longer even reached my head, hanging off my horns when I tried like they were a hat rack. And the same day I was forced off my heels I noticed that chewing my food felt strange. By dinnertime it was obvious that Kyr's muzzle was forming. It was small, more reminiscent of that of a cat or monkey than a dragon, but it would grow. Of that I had no doubts whatsoever.
And, of course, it did. It was very irritating, and not just because it was yet another sign of my humanity slipping through my fingers. As it grew out, speaking became more and more difficult. A muzzle is not properly designed for speech. (Human speech, anyway; Jesse theorized that I would be perfectly understandable in draconic tongues, were I to find someone who spoke any.) I could talk well enough if I did it very deliberately, but when I was preoccupied I sounded like a drunk. A drunk alligator, sometimes, all hissing.
The only good side of this was that the scale growth was retarded. At least on my head; everywhere else it went on as before. But it was as if only so many could be added and they had decided to push out rather than down. The front, as I was calling it, ended barely below my jaw and stayed there while my skull reshaped itself.
It was not to last. At the start of the work week, as my mouth underwent its last changes — my tongue altering, my teeth becoming longer and much sharper — the scales once more resumed their downward crawl. And a new problem developed.
Monday morning was normal enough. I woke up, inventoried in my head the latest changes, had breakfast, and headed over to Jesse's. As usual he had no real progress towards a cure, so he just disguised me and sent me on my way.
The first hour or two at work was fine, too, or at least as fine as it got these days. Midway through the morning I noticed my voice had acquired a harsh rasp. Clearing my throat helped only briefly. Indeed, "momentarily" is a more accurate word, for within a few minutes it was back. Coughing or drinking water gave the same results.
The rasp increased throughout the day. It sounded like I had an extremely sore throat, although in truth none of the changes ever actually hurt and this was no exception. Still, the new quality to my voice combined with my altered mouth to make it very hard for me to make myself understood. And it seemed to be getting worse. With some difficulty, I managed to pass it off to my coworkers as laryngitis. Or at least nobody argued with the claim, though I did get some funny looks.
There was no point in speeding over to Jesse's. A few minutes more or less would make no difference, I knew. So it was with a surprising calm that I told him, "My voice is starting to go."
"Yes, I see that." He chuckled for a moment. "Hear that, anyway."
"I don't think it's all that funny," I growled. I could growl quite impressively, now. It was very satisfying to see the wizard back up a pace.
"Sorry. Actually, I've been kind of wondering if this would happen. Keith played a little fast and loose about that."
I grunted agreeably. No race allowed in the game's rulebooks to be summoned as a familiar could talk. The GM had gotten around that by declaring that the "mental rapport" the books said wizards had with their familiars amounted to telepathy. This kept me, as a player, from having to tape my mouth shut to make sure I didn't comment on anything; everyone just pretended the words were relayed through Gray. Technically, though, Kyr had been rendered mute. Only Gray could hear him.
"Don't want to lose my voice," I rasped.
"I understand. Trust me, I understand." Jesse went to his refrigerator and pulled out a mayonnaise jar. Its contents more closely resembled deli-style mustard than mayo, however, with specks of something suspended in the glop. But even mustard wasn't green. It looked spectacularly unhealthy to touch, much less eat.
"I don't know what to do about your voice," Jesse said. "I guess I'll look into that next—"
"—but this may help slow down the spread of your scales. Maybe even reverse it, though I'm not as confident on that one. Just spread it on the leading edge of them, like a skin cream. Yeah, like that."
The stuff was viscous and smelled nasty, but I applied it to my neck without hesitation. "How long'll it take?"
"Results? A day, maybe two. If there's no change by Wednesday night, then it's safe to say it didn't work."
"Okay." I cleared my throat uselessly. "In the meantime, work on saving my voice. Please! It's kind of important to me."
"I'll do what I can."
Unfortunately, that turned out not to be very much. My voice continued to deteriorate until, long before the week ended, I was unintelligible to everyone except Jesse. Almost surely it was due to that "rapport" he had with me. But I had to avoid conversations as much as I could and scrawl my thoughts out on a notepad when I could not. It wasn't easy, thanks to my claws, and it didn't help at all that my hands were beginning to change. They were getting ready to become forefeet.
Drew pretended not to notice, or mind. But he let me go early, well before my two weeks were up. I don't blame him; those last few days I barely got anything done.
Jesse's skin ointment — whatever it was made of, and it definitely wasn't mayo or mustard with extra coloring and stuff added in — wasn't working, either. My skin continued to turn dark and scaly. They crawled over my shoulders and began to merge with those coming down my neck. They were reaching for my hips and groin, and it wasn't hard to realize that when they were covered I would no longer be bipedal, or male. I spent a lot of time trying to decide which I dreaded more.
My "extra limbs" were still growing, too. The wings only spread out about two feet to each side, but other than size they looked complete. The tail was thick and muscular, and getting quite long; if I crouched a little I could feel the tip brushing against the floor. I had little control over anything, though. Whenever I tried to move them they just flailed about. But they forced me to give up wearing any clothing on Wednesday, four days after Jesse had advised me to rely on the disguise spell for my modesty. It was yet another reminder that I was no longer human.
Even the most idiotic driver couldn't fail to notice me now, and even if I dared it my tail prevented me from sitting in the driver's seat. So I was stuck in my apartment with nothing to do but be a couch potato and watch myself change.
On Sunday I awoke and quickly discovered a crick in my back. There was no way I could stand up straight. A quick check showed that the scales were over my hips. My groin was... strange. The scales had not transformed the skin there, but rather formed themselves into a tent of sorts. There was a bulge there rather like that of too-tight pants, but by the end of the day even that had been smoothed out. All my plumbing was suddenly internal, which made going to the bathroom something of an adventure.
I didn't get very upset at the changes, anymore. Not even that one. I simply sighed and added another checkmark to the mental list. It was all terribly depressing.
You've been moping about the place for a week, now. Stop it.
But it wasn't like I had anything else to do. No job, and everyone else would run if they saw me.
Oh, I'm not so sure about that. In the right setting...
But I was sure. Then I blinked. Who the hell was speaking, anyway? There was nobody here but me.
I'm Jesse, of course. Remember the rapport?
I did, even if it sounded like the title to a bad poem. "If this means I'm going to have you in my head forever, then I think I'm going to have to find someone to shoot me," I said. Or tried to say.
The words managed to get through. Don't be so hasty. You're not reading my mind, are you? The reverse is true as well, I assure you. There was a pause, and I got the impression he was frowning. I haven't heard from you in a while. You okay, man?
"Not really," I growled out loud. For now I wasn't going to try just thinking at him. "For one thing, calling me 'man' is no longer appropriate. In either sense."
Another pause. Oh.
Maybe I should come over.
"Please don't. This is bad enough as it is, without a visitor."
I'm not a visitor, I'm a friend — or so I hope. Besides, I bet you're hungry.
Calling it hunger was an understatement by several orders of magnitude. I was, in fact, down to eating pancake mix. "All right."
Jesse didn't take very long, but thoughts of real food made it seem like forever. I spent the time learning how to think-talk to him. I also learned how to think in a manner that he would not overhear, which to say the least was a great relief.
This was the first time since Xanadu that Jesse had come to me instead of the other way around. He stepped inside quickly, laden with groceries, and looked at me appraisingly as I nudged the door shut with my tail. "Geez, man... er, girl. You should have named yourself Bertha, not Kyr!"
I was a little surprised, myself. I hadn't realized I had grown so much. But despite walking on all fours, my head was barely below his. Looking straight at him gave me an excellent view of his beard. Never mind that, I thought at him, where's the food?
Jesse laughed and began taking it out of the bags. My mouth was suddenly filled with saliva as I saw what he'd brought: meat. Pounds and pounds of meat. "I wasn't sure how much you'd need," he said, grinning.
It turned out he had brought far more than I could eat. I hadn't grown all that much, yet. I was able to gorge myself before flopping onto the couch.
Thanks, I told him, and meant it.
"No problem," he said. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. "But while I really was worried about your food supplies, giving you a jumbo-sized meal wasn't the whole reason I wanted to see you."
I eyed him suspiciously. Oh?
"Have you thought about what you're going to do in the future? How you're going to live?"
I shrugged. A little. Not much, though. I didn't have to. Not many ways for a dragon to live. Unless you know some farms' herds I could raid?
"Probably some up north, or east. But I think I've managed to come up with something a little more civilized. The first step, though, is that you should move in with me."
And why would I ever do that?
"You said it yourself: you are trapped indoors. It's difficult at best for you to go out even to get food. Paying bills like cable and rent will be a problem when you can't go out to the ATM or write a check. If you live with me, I'll take care of that. Besides," he said, and grinned again, "You are my familiar. Having you around can be a big help to me."
It made an annoying amount of sense. Still, I resisted. And what do you get out of this? I asked grumpily.
"Like I said, I get the benefit of having my familiar alongside me where she should be, rather than twenty miles away. And I'm hoping you'll be my partner in my new business venture. I could really use you there."
I looked at him intently. Business venture? What business venture?
It wasn't complicated, but it was unique. At least, I'd never heard of anyone trying to do it. And it might even work, too. At the end of Jesse's spiel, there was really only one thing I could say.
You want me to do what, exactly?
The excited jabbering of children was audible all the way in the back yard where my "lair" had been set up. I could, just barely, make out doors slamming shut from two — no, three — cars.
They're late, I thought-spoke to Jesse — or Gray, as he now preferred to be called in public.
Lighten up. Ten minutes is not that bad, he thought back. You're just nervous because this is your first birthday party. Hold on.
To what? I asked. I added a mental grin that I knew he would receive; this rapport thing was pretty versatile. I got a kind of mental chuckle in return.
I waited for most of a minute before Gray spoke again. Nine kids, three adults, he reported.
Big group, I said.
I guess somebody has wealthy parents.
Very true. We were offering rides on dragonback, after all, not planes or even helicopters. People pay fifty dollars or more to bungee jump, and that can be done almost anywhere. But people would have to search long and very hard before they'd find another dragon to ride. We offered a service that was utterly unique, and we expected our prices to only go up.
Not that we were presently cheap. A fifteen-minute jaunt was forty bucks, thirty for kids. Longer trips cost more, up to a few hundred per person for an hours-long tour of San Francisco Bay. I doubted these people would be doing that; I couldn't carry that many people at once on my back. But even at the cheapest, these people would be giving us nearly three hundred dollars just for the rides. Add in the tee shirts and other stuff they might buy... not bad for an afternoon's flying.
Ash? I'll be out in just a minute. Wrapping up the safety lecture now. You about ready out there?
Sure. There wasn't much for me to do, frankly, other than look as competent and as harmless as a dragon can look. The only thing I did was stand up. We'd found it's better they see my entire length straight out than for me to try the impossible feat of seeming small.
And then they were out the door. The crowd of boys (and two girls, I saw) shrieked happily when they saw me there. The adults, two women and a man, looked anxious.
"You're sure she's safe?" one of the women asked.
"Positive," Gray said, oozing confidence. "She doesn't want anything to happen to them any more than we do. She's sentient. Say hello, Kyr."
It's Ash, damn it. But I raised one foreleg and waved a greeting. The woman still looked doubtful, but she didn't protest again.
The kids were looking up at me with wide eyes. That was nothing new; after my week-long growth spurt, Gray had measured me at thirty-four feet from the tip of my tail to the front of my muzzle. It was about the length of two parked cars, enough to impress anybody. One boy, bolder than the rest, dared to touch the scales on one leg. When I didn't immediately eat him the rest joined in, rubbing, poking, and pinching all over. That wasn't unusual, either, and once again I was glad that my scales were less sensitive than skin.
"All right, girl. Time to saddle up."
It had taken some doing to persuade someone to make a saddle for me. It had also taken some doing to make me wear the thing. But Gray had persisted, and I had to admit there was no way it'd be safe to let them fly bareback. And we couldn't afford to get sued. We'd been open for business for a month now, and the government was still trying to decide whether to try shutting us down. One easily prevented accident would have disastrous consequences for us, and for the "Magic Rights" movement that had sprouted in the two months since Xanadu.
Kids seemed to love watching me get saddled. It soothed the nerves of people who were a bit leery of thirty-four foot flying reptiles, too, when they saw me placidly submit to the ordeal.
I shifted and stretched to get the straps just so as Gray straightened. "Now, who's first?" he shouted over the noise. Nine hands lifted simultaneously. "She can only carry two at a time, I'm afraid. There were some disappointed groans.
I'll take the birthday boy first, alone, I said. They'll consider that fair.
"I just thought of the solution. The birthday boy can go first! Then the rest of you can pair up."
You shameless idea thief. But I was smiling.
I crouched, and the young boy was lifted and securely buckled in. Gray tugged here and there on the straps as a final check. Then I spread my wings, beat them twice, and launched.
It had taken a while to get the hang of flying, and more for the landings. But it was getting more comfortable by the day. All the practice this venture was giving me had certainly helped. The only thing left was to move the business out of the house. The neighbors were very nervous about me.
But that was for Gray to worry about. Indeed, I was beginning to think he got the bad end of this deal. The magical consulting and spellcasting side to the venture that would have been his bailiwick was getting only a bunch of people who wanted their palms read. And for this side of the partnership, it was he who has to worry about administration, paperwork, safety, and the government. I just had to fly. And not eat anyone, of course.
As a whole, though, the business was clearly a success in the works. We already had at least a few people every day coming in for a ride. I could easily believe we'd have a full schedule by Valentine's Day, maybe even start hiring some help.
It was hardly a life I had ever anticipated living. It certainly wasn't one I would have chosen. But it wasn't bad, not bad at all. I could get to like this. Especially the flying.
I tucked my wings in and dove. Behind me, the boy screamed in joyful terror. He was loving it.
I smiled mentally. I'm with you, kid.