|No further updates are expected.|
|Wisp-touched story universe|
Even after thirty years, the people of Cambridge still stared at Harry as he trotted past.
They didn't stare at the water nymphs frolicking in the Charles, nor did they stare at the elves, or dwarves, or beings who belonged in no mythology in the history of mankind. But Harry? Oh, yes. They most certainly stared at him.
The low Boston skyline was being transformed into a true metropolis as dozens of new skyscrapers sprang up to house all the humans. Their sides were covered in wisp-wards, just like everything else. Wire-woven spells that kept the wisps at bay. Even the white iron fence along the riverbank had flower-like shapes affixed to it every twenty yards. To anyone with mage-sight they glowed, and needed periodic replacement. The wards formed a protective barrier around anything stationary, keeping away all sorts of dangers. Griffins, dragons, even more wisps.
Smaller areas were easier to protect, and Boston was filled to overflowing. It was a compact city to begin with, and its crowded apartments made living conditions difficult at best in the poorer neighborhoods. From his modest Cambridge apartment graduate student Andrew Petrof saw people trying to make due; sleeping in the streets, in the parks, anywhere there was space. Most inside the city were human, those who had not been wisp-touched.
Andrew and his friend Harry were of the first generation born after the wisps, so things were not quite so strange to them. They had grown up with their teachers warning about the dangers of griffins and dragons, were instructed how to make simple wisp-wards, and considered demi-humans a fact of life even if their parents feared them. They weren't all that different from normal humans, when it came right down to it. Human enough to vote.
Andrew held onto his fedora as his friend Harold picked up the pace, moving into a trot as they made their way back towards the Yard. He wore a dated gray flannel suit, the only formal garb he owned. "I appreciate the ride, Harry," he told the centaur. "I'd hate to be late for this."
"No problem, Andy," Harry Briggs replied, equine ears a-twitch. He was a more aesthetic blending of man and animal than normal centaurs--stunted muzzle, a real forehead, but horse's teeth. His head was covered in glossy reddish hair, though his torso was bare like a human, and he had a black mane rather than hair. Even his eyes were equine, which tended to unsettle people, so he wore custom dark glasses despite his mobile ears. "I figure if I got these extra legs I might as well do something useful with them. If the pavement wasn't so hard I'd gallop." His voice was completely human, though most people expected him to whinny. Most centaurs actually had human faces, so Harry stood out.
Andrew held on to the pommel of the western-style saddle, hoping he wouldn't be sweat-soaked by the time they reached the Yard. He'd never ridden horseback before, let alone centaur-back. It was a jolting experience, and he wondered if he should've taken a cab instead. But they were so expensive, and even some Harvard graduate students were eternally broke. However, being as portly as he was didn't make this trip any more pleasant.
"So," Harry said between breaths, "you think the Old Men will like this proposal of yours? Whatever it is? You've been awfully close-mouthed, Andy."
"Sorry, Harry. I just don't want to jinx it. But I sure hope so. I've spent long enough preparing for it! There's so much we don't know yet it shouldn't be a problem," Andrew replied between jolts. A cramp was quickly developing in his right leg, but stopping now meant he would be late, so he held on. They were off the riverfront now, heading towards the Yard proper. "But I'm not saying anything until I know they've accepted it or not. I have the whole presentation laid out in my head and I don't want to mess it up."
"Fair enough. You don't want to attract bad luck." Harold snorted. "I can wait 'til after. But you're buying me a drink for the taxi service."
"Fine," Andrew agreed, despite what he knew about the centaur's capacity for beer. At least Harry was considered--barely--a demi-human and not a monster. Andrew looked at his watch and grimaced. "Any chance you can pick up the pace a little?"
Cambridge was comparatively emptier than Boston. Even the parks were free of tents, and there were many new luxury apartments under construction. The residents were richer, even owning cars, especially near Harvard proper. With the streets clear enough Harry cantered the last quarter mile to the Yard.
When this is over I'm really going to need a drink, Andrew thought with a sigh.
"Congratulations," said Harry, who had already had five pints of beer, "I hope you have better luck than I did." He snorted and swished his tail. Flies abounded in the sultry summer heat, and all the centaurs at the bar whipped their tails to be rid of them. "Goddamn machine. I can't believe my attractor didn't work!"
Poor Harry. Like so many before him, he had hoped to capture a wisp for study. He had built something he thought would hold a wisp in a sort of cage that used weak wisp-wards to keep it in one place. But normal people couldn't see them, and he had neglected to find someone who could, deciding to depend on his faulty electronic triangulation equipment. Something had gone very wrong, and the wisp had hit him instead of the trap.
"Bad luck," Andrew said, sipping beer. "But it could have been a lot worse, my friend."
"True. Very true. But there has to be something that will work," Harry replied, stamping a forehoof. "If I could only pry some more grant money out of the Old Men." The centaur slapped his friend on the shoulder. "But congrats, Andy."
At least Harry's parents weren't too upset--they were fairly liberal and owned a stable to the south of Boston, so could supply him with certain necessities he now required. And he had a large stall all to himself when he visited home.
"Thanks," Andrew replied, nursing a half-empty glass of lukewarm Guinness. He was 26, and knew he was too large for his own good. He didn't consider himself handsome, though his few friends insisted otherwise. Pale, with short brown hair, brown eyes, and only average in height, he knew he didn't get out enough. Since becoming a graduate student he'd spent more time in the classroom and library than out in the world, and it was telling on his increasing girth. He longed for the fitness he had in high school. His angular features had been softened by too much food and not enough exercise.
They were at an streetside bar in Boston's North End. Harry was fortunate that he wasn't the only centaur in the city, and there was a sizable population of them. Since civilian gasoline supplies were still erratic, real horsepower had made a comeback. Harry did not lack for work when gas was rationed.
Andrew finished off his beer. "I'm still amazed the Old Men actually liked my proposal."
"Don't be. It's ridiculously easy to get funding these days if you're researching anything related to magic. If you're at least demi-human, that is." He snorted derisively. "They were going to cut me off completely unless three psychologists certified I wasn't going to shit on the carpet. And I had to take my oral exams again." Harry smiled, showing his big teeth. "I'll never forget the looks on their faces. I have a photographic memory, you know. I still have to wait until I have something solid before I can make another proposal."
The centaur acted more horse-like than he cared to admit. Andrew doubted his friend was really conscious of the personality changes that came with being wisp-touched, and usually kept quiet about them. Even though they were partially responsible for inspiring his thesis and field study proposal. He had the funding, the contacts, and the approval all in hand now. If all went well, he'd have his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology in three years. A year of field study awaited him, and the beer wasn't helping to settle the butterflies that had already made a home in his stomach.
"When's that mage from California supposed to arrive?" Harry asked after downing yet another beer. He wasn't the least bit drunk yet. "What'd he call himself?"
"Doppelganger," Andy replied. "He'll be here in a week or so. He's going to make it so I'll blend in, at least physically. Some sort of magic costume. This guy's worked in movies for years. He's not cheap, but I need the best and I've got the grant to pay for it. Then I'm going to spend a year making behavioral and cultural observations." He smiled. It was all so clear in his mind. "It'll be like I'm going into the Amazon to live with some newly discovered tribe. With luck I'll get to participate in some of their rituals."
Harry frowned behind his glass. "They're still human, Andy. You are an anthropologist, you know."
"I'm not sure I agree. Part of this field study is to objectively determine if they are, and see how they've adapted to their circumstances. There's bound to be a lot of cultural changes based on their cervid instincts. I mean, it's as if these people evolved from deer instead of. . ." Some of the other bar patrons were looking his way. One was a rather belligerent-looking centaur stallion. Too much beer had loosened his tongue. With the Demi-human Suffrage Act passed only two years before, it was still a hot button issue. "Maybe I should change the subject. . ." Andrew stammered.
There was a moment of tension. But then, as one, all the centaurs flared their nostrils and turned their heads. A group of female centaurs had appeared down the street. Harry and others started to push and shove each other for a better view, snorting and nickering while trying to monopolize the mares' attention.
Pity someone already wrote a dissertation on centaur culture, Andrew thought, thankful they'd been successfully distracted. One whiff of a female and they started posing like prize racehorses out to stud. Vain creatures, the lot of them. I wouldn't have to leave Boston.
Doppelganger wasn't what Andrew expected. But he'd seen enough movies that had featured this man's talent to know he was exactly what was needed. It had taken several months of correspondence before he'd agreed. Doppelganger wasn't coming cheap, but he thought getting his name on a significant research project was going to get him work with the major movie studios. But he was. . . strange. He had long multicolored hair, and his skin looked like it'd been tie-dyed in psychedelic colors. It shifted, slowly flowing into different patterns like a fleshly kaleidoscope. But what was really odd were his eyes--they didn't have any pupils, but were black and spangled with stars.
The effect made him difficult to look at. Andrew had a headache after only a few minutes.
They met at South Station. Few untouched people wanted to risk running into a wisp at 20,000 feet to use airlines, though there were enough touched to make a small number profitable between major cities. For most everybody else, trains could be protected by wisp-wards along the tracks.
"This is going to be far out, man," the multicolored mage said. "I've put so much effort into making this thing work. I even tested it out on my roomy for a month."
Andrew stared at him from the other side of the cab's back seat. "And? Did it work?" In the enclosed space the mage smelled intensely like incense.
"Beyond my wildest dreams. He thought it was trippy. I'd never done a suit you can actually live in. Can't wait to get you into it. You'll love it. It'll broaden your horizons like you won't believe." He enthusiastically slapped Andrew on the back and looked out the windows at the crowded streets. "By the way, is there a place we can get some deer meat around here?"
"Why do you need that?" The idea was actually a little repugnant. If he was going to be one he didn't see the point of eating one.
Doppelganger smiled. His teeth were sky blue. "Essence, man. Flesh and blood. These deer-people are a fusion of the man and the animal. Once I slap the right spell into the meat it'll give the deerskin something to grab on to on the inside. Your human-ness will sort of squeeze between them, thin-like. It'll still be there, but your new body will feel totally real. Like normal flesh and blood, man. If you get cut, you'll bleed. You'll shed fur with the seasons. Your antlers will grow. All of it, man. Otherwise your soul will reject the suit in a day."
His eyes literally came alight in the dark cab. It was like looking at a starry sky. "You told me you want them to take you in as one of their own, right? This is as close to perfection as I can get. You must consume."
Andrew's Cambridge apartment, provided by Harvard, was a nineteenth century brownstone that had not been substantially modernized since the 1930s. While there was electricity and running water, it could only barely handle larger appliances like a refrigerator. The lights flickered and dimmed whenever it came on. After thirty years, infrastructure and industry was only just picking up the pieces from the disastrous appearance of the wisps. The city had only had reliable power for five years, after being disrupted again by a mysterious second wisp outbreak six years ago.
By then most unaffected people were behind wisp-wards. But enough had ventured out to cause a much smaller second wave of transformations. With the second outbreak, it meant there was nearly 800 million people transformed worldwide. This number increased yearly as more people were touched. The fortunate ended up demi-human, like Harry or Doppelganger.
Some of the professors in the History department were comparing it to the Black Death, even though most victims didn't exactly die. Surprisingly few wisp-touched committed suicide. The Psychology department had had a field day with Harry, and the centaur was making some money by participating in experiments.
The mage's two large steamer trunks were heavier than they looked, and made a lot of noise as they banged up two flights of stairs. The other graduate students opened their doors to glare at the rake-thin, colorful mage in disgust, then shut them with an audible click of the lock. "Sorry about that," Andrew said, wiping sweat off his forehead between lifts. "They're really insular in this neighborhood."
"'S'okay. I'm cool about it. Los Angeles has its squares, too."
Ten minutes later they were at the third floor and dragged the trunks inside. Exhausted, Andrew collapsed onto a third-hand brown leather couch. It sagged towards the floor when he sat on it, sweat-soaked and exhausted. "Mind if I take a break?"
"No problem," He smiled again. Andrew was getting used to those blue teeth. For a few minutes they rested, Doppelganger sitting on his decorated luggage.
Andrew raised his head, eyeing the trunk. "Can I see the costume? Your letters were encouraging, and I'd love to see what you've done." He felt a little more energetic and pulled himself into a sitting position. Although the letters had been fairly detailed, there were no pictures. The success of this study hinged on just how convincing this magical costume was.
Doppelganger smiled crookedly. "Sure thing, man. I was hoping you'd ask." The mage unlocked one of the steamer trunks and opened it. The room filled with the smell of tangy musk and incense.
He pulled out a glove and handed it to Andrew, who took it reverently. "This looks wonderful!" he praised. Worn it would come halfway up his forearm. The glove was covered with a short, wiry coat of russet fur that grew longer toward the elbow. The hand was much different from a human's. The middle fingers were larger, and tipped by thick black nails the shape of an iron that curved inwards towards each other in an imitation of a cloven hoof. The thumb and pinky finger would be the dewclaws on a real deer, though of course human-sized. There were only four fingers. "This real deerskin? I don't see any seams."
"Part of my talent, man. Go ahead and put it on if you want. It won't stick 'cause the spell's not complete. But you'll get a taste of what you're getting."
There were symbols written in blue ink inside the glove, and it needed very little effort to pull on. The inside was soft, and seemed to stick to his skin. Once it was fully on, it immediately felt warm under his ungloved hand. The mage pointed at the kitchen. "Go ahead and test it. Pick up a glass or something while I lay the rest out."
Since he was very thirsty, Andrew went into the apartment's tiny kitchen. He opened the cupboard with his normal hand, then reached in with the cervid one. "I can actually feel the glass!" he exclaimed in wonder. The fingers had only a little less gripping surface than his human hand, and seemed just as sensitive despite the fuzz on the elongated palms. He filled the glass with ice from the tiny freezer, then added water. Sensations of pressure, heat, and cold were all transferred through it. Then he got another glass for Doppelganger and returned to the living room.
The body was all one piece, with an impressive physique. Its fur coat was the proper short summer russet. From the clavicle downwards there was white fur that continued between its legs, and presumably under its tail also. And it was obviously anatomically correct. The suit's masculine arrangement was noticeably different from a human's. There was no visible scrotum, and the penis was encased in a short sheath. Some aspects of being a cervid he hadn't thought about too hard, and this was one of them. He ignored that for the moment, and focused on the legs. This was a problem. "You couldn't make the feet correctly?"
"Sorry, man. That's part of their natural magic, you know. That's how they balance. I can't copy that. In fact, there's a lot of things I just can't do. So I had to stick to a human model."
"Really? Like what?" He found that hard to believe. If the glove was this good even before he'd done the bulk of his magic, then he was sure it'd work out. The legs were a major disappointment. But if it can't be done, he'd just have to make due.
Doppelganger shrugged. Since South Station his color pattern had changed to match his t-shirt and pants, which weren't quite so outlandish as the psychedelic patterns from before. "I'll let you know after you've decided to really follow through. The fewer preconceptions the better." He reached into the trunk again. "Now the masterpiece. This is the best head I've ever made, man. I hope you like it."
A masterpiece it was! It looked like something he would buy from a taxidermy shop. But there were differences. To account for the larger brain, the skull bulged between the eyes; there was the shadow of a forehead. The major departure from a real deer was in the eyes, which had a noticeable white around the large, brown iris and oblong pupil. The effect, even "dead", was eerily human; they glimmered with obvious intelligence. The ears were attentively forward. Andrew found the mask's expression easily readable. His cervid counterpart looked alert and content.
How Andrew was supposed to fit his own head into it he hadn't the foggiest. Probably more magic.
"It's all in the details," the mage said. "Lucky you can find all types in Hollywood. I had a couple good living models. Their facial expressions are, like, eighty percent in these ears, you know."
Doppelganger put his hand in through the neck, opening the mouth. Teeth and tongue were present and accounted for. "In case you're wondering, I can't make real what I don't build in. That's why everything's hanging out on the body suit. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to take a piss for a year. That's just how my magic works."
Andrew cast a significant look at the empty antler sockets. Holding the head in one hand, the mage pulled out a velvet-covered antler and plugged it in. "No worries. See? Eight points. Not bad for a first rack, eh?"
"Can't forget those, right?" Andrew said nervously. The butterflies returned in formations. "So. . . when do we start?"
"I have to bespell the meat, first. Then you'll consume over the next day, then the day after you'll be ready." He looked around the living room. The only other pieces of furniture were a pair of floor lamps, a four-drawer filing cabinet, and the oak desk he normally studied at when not at the library, and a beaten-up typewriter. The hardwood floor was covered with a careworn rug. "And we need to move some stuff."
Curls of fragrant incense filled Andrew's sweltering apartment. Doppelganger would not allow him to open the windows while he prepared his spell. The living room had been cleared of its sparse furniture and rug, which had been crammed into the bedroom early that morning before sunrise. And carefully laid out in the center on the old hardwood floor was the costume.
Since early morning Andrew had felt strange, as if his skin wasn't really his own. It was an obscure, strange sort of pain, as if something was broken inside of him. Every sensation felt subtly wrong in a way he couldn't define. And then there were the strange phantom sensations, a tail, flicking ears, and he kept sticking his hand into his pants to make sure everything wasn't changing shape without the costume. A twitch of muscles that his brain told him were there, but then again were not. It unsettled him.
Andrew couldn't bear to look at himself in the mirror. The human face that looked back seemed alien. This, of course, was absurd. . . but when he told Doppelganger about it the Californian had just smiled with his neon blue teeth. "Don't worry, man. You're almost ready. There's just a couple more things and we can get you into your new skin."
"It's blazingly hot and here I am putting on a furry suit," Andrew muttered tiredly. "What the hell did you do to that meat, anyway?"
"It's half the spell, man. That's why you don't feel right. But I'm ready for you now. Strip." Flushing bright red, Andrew slowly removed his clothes in the center of a chalk circle inscribed on the apartment's wooden floor.
It took surprisingly little effort to pull on the body suit. The inside was inscribed with more symbols--the mage called them "natural runes"--that pulled it onto the right places on its own. It was very tight, and worked into awkward areas. There was a kind of slurp and the sheath pulled itself over his groin. It pinched, but there was no pain. There should have been pain.
Andrew looked strained, confused. There were conflicting signals, one from the "nerves" of the suit, the rest from his human body underneath. His tail twitched uncontrollably. Or he thought it was his tail.
"Only temporary," the Doppelganger reassured. Around the room, the random drifting of the smoke curls began to change. It twirled up in spirals, then into even more complicated orchid-like shapes, changing colors like the mage's skin. He chanted a few words. Andrew felt the back seal itself, seeming to squish his fat torso out of existence. "Gloves, next."
The seams around the gloves vanished as soon as they were on. Then the feet adhered just as easily. Andrew stared at himself, but couldn't focus. There was something building inside him he couldn't describe. A pressure. His body seemed to strain from the inside of the suit, where it should not have fit. The physique was fit, muscular. There were shades of abdominal muscles. There was not an ounce of extra fat.
Andrew looked up. The mage held the mask, velvet-covered antlers plugged in. "How am I supposed to fit in that? My head's too big!"
Doppelganger smiled. "Don't sweat it, man. It's magic. It'll work. Just shut your eyes. You'll be in one piece in just a minute."
Darkness closed over Andrew, and he couldn't see a thing. Everything was muffled. His head felt compressed into a space that should not have been able to fit it. "Is this how it's supposed to. . . whoa. . ."
Phantom senses. Flickering, dizzying. He reeled on his feet, but felt hands steady him. "Keep your eyes shut," came Doppelganger's distorted voice. It wobbled in pitch and volume. Behind him, smoke curled into rune-shapes, hovering in midair around the circle, forming a dome that hid the rest of the apartment from view as he shut his eyes as ordered. The Doppelganger's expression hardened, eyes narrowing. "Don't say a word, man," the mage commanded in an uncharacteristically serious tone. "This takes all my concentration."
Time stretched and compressed like taffy, Andrew's senses exploding in a thousand different shards. The traffic noise outside, muffled by black curtains, became a roar. Someone was walking in the hallway. . . he could hear the footsteps clearly, the dull thump of a pair of boots. The overwhelming smell of the incense broke into a hundred subtle shades. Flowers, cedar, saffron, and lavender.
The two halves of the spell snapped together like opposite poles on a magnet.
The phantom sensations intensified, overwhelming what remained of their human counterparts. All discomfort vanished in an instant, leaving only an indefinable sense of wholeness. His ears flicked animatedly in shock and amazement, tail whipping back and forth. Flushed, feeling like he had just awoken from an erotic dream, Andrew opened his eyes.
In one eye, the Doppelganger was splayed out on the floor. He was still conscious but exhausted. He smelled a little like the vegetable kebabs he'd had for dinner the previous night. The suffocating incense was now tainted with sweat, and an odd musky odor. . .
Of course, he thought. He had to smell like a deer-man as well as look like one. He knew one's personal smell was incredibly important to these people.
Andrew flared his nostrils, then looked down the long muzzle that was now his face. It was no mask. There were real nerves there--he could feel the hot, steamy air against his leathery nose. He probed with his tongue experimentally and found a narrow mouth and high-crowned teeth. He tugged on his white chest fur, giving a light yank between thumb and think forefinger.
His head felt weighed down, the center of gravity higher than it should be. He tilted his head carefully. "Hurrrk. . ." he grunted. Puzzled, he tried to speak again. All that came out was a kind of low, gruff bleat. He snorted in frustration.
"Just relax, man. It'll take a bit to find your voice, so just chill," the mage said in an exhausted tone. Doppelganger was literally drained of color. He looked absolutely human, and was laid out flat on the floor.
"Hrru. . . Heer. . ." Andrew took a few deep breaths through his mouth, then enunciated his words slowly. His voice was very different, lower, with a strange undertone. If a deer could talk, this is what it would sound like. Andrew concentrated hard to get control of his unwieldy tongue. "Thhhisss wuu. . .wass. . n-ot. . . ex. . . exprr.." He pinned his ears back against his neck.
"Just practice, man. Be happy I could duplicate this bit. In a couple hours you'll be talking up a storm. But it looks like it's working. Great, man. I'm going to crash. . ." He fell asleep right there.
Giving up on talking for now, Andrew picked up a hand mirror and had a look at himself. It was difficult; the furry sides of his muzzle stretched out in front, blocking a significant part of his vision. Depth perception was elusive, and the world was split in two. Atop his head was a pair of velvet-covered antlers with six points--and two more nascent. They were warm to the touch, the whisker-like hairs sensitive. He had a general sense of how large they were, if he thought about it.
Panting, Andrew opened the window to let the hot air and incense out. The listlessness of the past few hours had given way to a kind of giddy euphoria. Every sensation, every smell, every sound, was brand new. He took deep breaths, despite the intensity of the incense and his own tangy musk. He took in deep draughts of air, listening to traffic sounds, flicked his tail, savoring them all like a fine a wine vintage. "I'll mmma-ke thisss worrrk," he grunted to himself. Was he smiling? He looked at his reflection. When not actively moving, both ears were forward and up, and his eyes were alight with energy and curiosity.
"Hurra. . ." he grunted. God, oh God. I feel like. . . like. . . a fawn or something! He looked down at his fit, muscular physique. There was no sense in letting it sit idle, was there? Can't let it get out of shape. "Haaahhss sssoon asss I ca . . . caahhh." He took a deep breath. Nothing could spoil this. Nothing. Not even the temporary loss of speech.
He went into the kitchen, throwing open cupboards, tracking the trails left by the all-too-numerous mice and roaches. His human smell was all over everything. On the bed, soaked into the couch, the cabinets, inside the refrigerator. Doppelganger was a very new addition to the layers upon layers of odors. Even dust had a smell to it.
The city beckoned.
Andrew glared at the campus policeman, irritated. The man smelled very strongly like garlic. It was funny how people smelled like what they ate, a fact he quickly discovered walking down the streets of Cambridge. After a few hours of intense practice he was finally in control of his voice, though there was no way anyone would ever recognize it. The proof of that was right in front of him. "Look, can you just call Dr. Lockwood and confirm that I'm a graduate student here? I'm Andrew Petrof."
"Sure you are," the middle-aged man replied skeptically. His reaction was typical. There was a slight disbelief in his manner, as if he couldn't quite connect the human speech coming out of his cervine mouth with something that could think. Animal-people were so uncommon in cities that most people simply stared. Andrew had caused a stir as he walked by. Traffic stopped. Even demi-humans paused what they were doing. Though not one of them even tried to make eye contact.
"I just need to check in with him and get into Widener," Andrew continued, exasperated. The Widener Library was Harvard's largest, holding over two million books with collections stretching back to the university's founding in the 1630s. "He's in today. He'll vouch for me." I told him I was suiting up yesterday. Wish I'd called him before leaving the apartment, though.
Mumbling something about "goblins" that was quite audible to Andrew, the fat policeman picked up the campus phone in the tiny booth at the brick-and-iron gate. The wrought-iron fences were covered in replaceable wisp-wards. The campus operator connected him with the Professor's office. Andrew politely folded his ears back so he couldn't overhear what his advisor said to the man. "This is the North Gate. There's some goblin here who says. . . yes, he looks kind of like a deer. Yes, he calls himself that, but. . . Yessir. I'll send him right up."
The policeman practically threw a campus pass at him. "He's. . ."
Now ears-back meant plain irritation. He laid on the sarcasm thickly. "I know where he is. I've only been seeing him for six years and been his teaching assistant for two. Thanks, but I know my way around."
The policeman was a dark spot on an otherwise bright day. What was old was new again. The easy familiarity with Harvard Square was replaced with a whole new landscape of smell and sound. Every so often he'd stop, close his eyes, and savor it.
There was a lingering odor of red onions clinging to one of the oaks. Dr. Lockwood often ate his lunch there when the weather was good. The smell wasn't very old, and included a hint of hot mustard and roast beef.
Andrew followed his nose, despite knowing the way blindfolded.
He was stopped several times by faculty while walking through the halls that echoed with his hoof-like toes' steps. He had no shoes that fit, so barefoot it was. And his tail was uncomfortably confined within a pair of Bermuda shorts that desperately needed a slit or something in it. Clothes and shoes. Of all the details he had forgotten, he surprised himself with this one.
The halls smelled like wood varnish, cracked plaster, and floor wax. The air was tinted with the scent of dust and irritated faculty. The red onion odor intensified.
He knocked on Dr. Lockwood's office door. "Come in!" came the kindly man's voice.
When Andrew entered, the anthropology professor had half-risen out of his chair to greet him. He was a short, stocky man, in his mid 50s with iron gray hair. Unlike his colleagues he also had a full beard. He looked like a mountain man, even dressing in flannel shirts and jeans, something nearly unheard of in Harvard's conservative environment. He had a reputation for being unflappable, but upon seeing Andrew, his blue eyes widened and he fell back into his chair. "Good Lord!"
The deer-man froze in the doorway, tail squirming under his shorts. He had to hunch over to keep from bumping his soft antlers, so it was a little awkward. "I did tell you this was just about perfect, right?"
It was several seconds before his advisor replied. The man seemed very unsettled, and shifted nervously behind his huge oaken desk. "Well, yes. I suppose. But good Lord. . . What possessed you to go out into the world so soon?"
Andrew couldn't explain it to himself, let alone Dr. Lockwood. He shrugged. "Wanderlust? Really, there are some articles you'd said I should look at before I leave. It can't hurt to do some more reading while I'm getting used to this. I don't leave for a week."
Lockwood relaxed just a little, but couldn't stop staring. The man fidgeted like a child, the room filled with a strange smell that made Andrew uneasy. For a man who had spent several months in New Guinea as a graduate student, this behavior puzzled the deer-man. Dr. Lockwood took a deep breath. "So you need to get into Widener. I think I can take an hour or so off from my analysis." His eyebrows furrowed in thought. "You can use one of the new Xerox copying machines and read them at home, if you like."
Harvard felt 330 years old, but the Widener Library smelled it. Andrew covered his nose at the stench, again pausing at the door. "God. . ."
Dr. Lockwood hovered a few feet inside. "Yes? What is it?"
"Do they know how bad their mold problem is?" It had been noticeable as a human, but now it was as if someone was shouting in his ears.
"They're aware of it. But money is tight right now."
Andrew frowned. "And they just bought two of those copying machines?"
"Trust me," Lockwood reassured, "they're worth every penny."
The librarians reacted predictably, stopping their work to gawk at the "goblin". When Dr. Lockwood re-introduced Andrew to them they were understandably skeptical. But he knew all of them very well--and now even better, since he knew what they smelled like. Unlike nearly everyone else he had encountered, they actually made eye contact and attempted to be friendly.
Margaret, one of the younger librarians, spoke first. "It looks so real, Andrew. It's a costume? Can I touch it?"
The deer-man extended his hand, which she took. "Amazing. Like real flesh and blood," the young woman exclaimed. She let go, then rubbed her fingers together, sniffing them. "Smelly, too."
Andrew smelled his hand. There was a thin, fragrant waxy substance on the back, with a little on his palms. "I didn't realize that. I'm sorry. Can I just get those articles, Doctor?"
They returned to the professor's office twenty minutes later, with the copies in hand. Andrew marveled at the neatly-stapled pages. They weren't perfect, but they would enable him to return to his apartment instead of sitting for hours to take detailed notes.
Once back at Dr. Lockwood's office, Andrew finally had a look at who the author was. "Cécile Baudel? A woman?"
"She's at McGill," Dr. Lockwood informed. "Demi-human. I've read these articles. Her methods are similar to yours. Though she won't share how she blends in with her research subjects. I suspect it's some kind of innate ability like your costume mage, but she won't go into detail."
"A woman," Andrew repeated levelly.
"Don't get hung up on that. And she's Doctor Baudel now," Dr. Lockwood chided, sitting back down in his big chair. Shafts of sunlight came in from the windows behind him, visible in the dust-filled air. Bookshelves lined both walls beside the desk. "She's good. Read the articles." He thumped them where they lay in front of him.
"We've had this discussion before," Andrew sighed. His ears folded backwards a little.
"Indeed we have. And now I'm certain that you are who you say you are." Dr. Lockwood folded his hands in front of him. "Andrew, I still think it's unfortunate that you think the way you do. Her research is in your area, so you need to make sure you don't duplicate her efforts. All of it so far has been with the predatory types, which says something for her bravery. Read them."
"Okay," said Harry, his voice coming from behind. Andrew heard the glass being slid in front of him. "You got all the easy ones. What's this?" There was a makeshift blindfold--a bar towel--around his eyes. It was clean, but smelled strongly of detergent. He held his nostrils shut with some difficulty. He had a lot more nose since the last time he'd been here. And the towel brushed against his ears when they were forward.
A minute passed, with a lot of sniffing and even a curl of the upper lip. "He can't tell," said one of the female centaurs doubtfully. She had a heavy New England accent. Her voice boomed in his ears, and they flicked backwards on their own to lower the volume. "Do yah have hay fevah or somethin'?"
"Hold on," Andrew said. He sniffed the beer glass again. "It's not Sam Adams. That was the last one. Guinness was way too easy. I know there's a trick to this. . ." He could tell the alcohol content by the way it stung his nose, but that wasn't enough for this one. There were many different kinds of beer: stouts, ales, and lagers. He was training himself to identify things by just their smell. The cervids depended on it.
Andrew pondered, rubbing the white fur on what passed for a chin. "It's either Coors or Budweiser. . . and you poured it right out of the can. I heard you pop the top."
"So, which is it?" Harry said. He was close enough that Andrew could smell the alfalfa and carrots on his breath. The man did eat like a horse. But then, Andrew had been forced to change to a vegetarian diet, himself. And his new teeth required some getting used to.
"If you'd move back a little, hay breath, maybe I could tell," Andrew jibed. Harry snorted good-naturedly and backed off. Andrew took deep breaths. But this time he was stymied. "Hell, you got me with this one. I guess I'm three for four. Maybe once I have more experience with this nose, I could." He pulled off the blindfold.
Doppelganger's spell had made a few changes to his brain so his new eyes didn't cause headaches. While he could see stereoscopically right in front of him, it was tiring after a while. And there was the large, prominent mass of his wedge-shaped muzzle; it blocked a significant part of his forward vision. Relaxed, he saw the human barkeep in one eye, Harry in the other.
"It's okay," Harry demurred. "I can't tell the difference, either. Why not lap up a glass?"
Andrew glared a little. It was an undignified way to drink and he didn't like anybody watching. "I don't think so. Besides, Ernst is arriving today and I don't think smelling like alcohol would make a good first impression."
"A point," Harry replied. Then he paused, moving his head around. His nostrils flared. "You know what you do smell like?"
Andrew sighed. He had all these weird musk glands all over. What they did, exactly, he couldn't fathom. "A dirty buck. Look, I know I stink. But I'm going by something from Ernst's letters about personal odor. I just hope I smell right to this guy. He's the one who got the town to allow me in for this study in the first place. And the real test of this suit will be his reaction." Andrew was anxious about that. But then, he was nervous about a lot of things. Andrew wondered if it was himself, or if Doppelganger had added those instincts he said he couldn't do. These people were supposedly very cautious by nature.
The faux deer-man flicked his tail, leaned back a little on the barstool, and poured some ice water down his throat. The sultry heat hadn't abated, and there were thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. About the only benefit from the fur so far was it kept out the worst of the biting insects. But the afternoon had been a good one despite the weather. Harry's demi-human friends had asked a lot of questions about his study, so Andrew had taken the opportunity to become more comfortable out in the world. His neighbors had complained to their landlord the same day he'd ventured out, but he had made sure that wouldn't be a problem beforehand. It didn't matter as long as he paid his rent on time.
The centaur checked his watch. "We should probably head to North Station. Train arrives in a half hour."
They left the bar at a slow walk through the North End, the only demi-human neighborhood in Boston. The first wisps in 1935 had moved across the landscape like storm fronts, large and small. Entire towns, cities, even states had lost their human population in a matter of hours. One "tornado" had hit this part of Boston and afflicted most of its residents. The city had tried, very unsuccessfully, to move them out in the years after. But since they quickly proved useful making the then-new wisp-wards they became a grudgingly accepted part of the city.
At least here people didn't part in front of them. Harry's apartment was here, along with most of the other centaurs, satyrs, a few were-animals, and other borderline demi-humans. Although people still stared suspiciously at Andrew as they walked past, they didn't throw things. Though many did wrinkle their noses.
The city air carried good smells as well as bad. Bread, pasta, spicy tomato sauce, meat cooking over open flame, they all mixed with dust, motor exhaust, garbage, and sweaty people trying to keep cool. Nobody was indoors today. Harry threaded his way carefully through the crowded streets, with Andrew following close behind. He would have ridden, but with his heavy antlers he was sure he'd fall off.
He still walked like a human, but the toes had been substantially altered to emulate a cervid's as much as possible. The results weren't really satisfactory. The hoof nails looked oversized, and the "dewclaws" sat beside them like normal human toes. None of his shoes fit, and it was yet another unforeseen expense to get some custom made. And even then there was no guarantee they'd be comfortable. The mage advised he should try going without once he was off the pavement.
Once they arrived at Boston's other train station, they found a place to watch for a telltale pair of antlers. The deer-people--indeed, animal-people of any kind--were exceedingly uncommon in cities. In some places they were attacked, and even hunted down. The few in the area lived in Saugus, a town just to the north of Boston, where they had a furniture business. So it was a sure thing any arriving deer-man was Ernst.
Harry's tail whipped a few more flies from the air and nearly flicked off the fedora of a passing salesman, who grumped and glared back at them. Harry Briggs watched his friend, whose expansive ears were a-twitch. "Calm down, Andy. It'll go fine."
"I'm not so sure," Andy replied, shifting nervously. Something was up. They had originally agreed to meet in Portsmouth next week, not here in Boston today. From there they would've gone up what was left of US Highway 1 to Freeport, the formerly abandoned town they'd taken over a few years after the first outbreak. Is there something wrong with me? Andrew wondered. Yesterday's telegram had been very unexpected. Did they renege on our agreement? If they did, at least Ernst had the decency come and tell him in person.
Harry patted him on the shoulder. A train had just pulled into the station, flooding the platform with passengers. "I think I see him."
Suddenly very self-conscious, Andrew stood up straight and brushed some imagined dirt off his button-front shirt. He could see the antlers himself now, still covered in velvet, bobbing up and down in the crowd. Andrew's heart leapt into his throat. He stood up straight.
The bobbing antlers angled towards the centaur. Andrew caught a glimpse of his face, then he was abruptly standing in front of him. The male cervid was a few inches taller, standing on legs that belonged on a real deer instead of something that stood upright. The proportions were somewhat different, less animal and more human. Otherwise he would have towered over Andrew. But no biped had any business walking on cloven hooves without toppling over. There was something in their magic "aura" that allowed them to move as easily as their four-legged cousins.
Ernst wore a pair of khaki shorts, specially tailored for his oddly-shaped thighs, and a dark red button shirt. His nose was wider than Andrew's, the ears tipped with black. He had a little white throat patch, and the white rings around his eyes were much smaller than Andrew's. They made him look like he wore glasses. There was also some gray on the muzzle between the eyes. His nostrils pulsed, sniffing, head tilted forward critically. The human-like eyes were thoughtful as he leaned forward to get a close smell.
"Andrew Petrof, I presume?" he said. His voice was deep and age-roughened with a hint of a German accent. But his still-growing antlers were huge, with twelve points. He was clearly very healthy. When the older cervid extended his hand, skepticism faded from his expression, replaced by a good-natured smile. "Ernst Voight. Pleased to meet you at last."
Andrew let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding, then finally smelled the newcomer. There were obvious differences from his own musk that he wouldn't mistake him for himself. He took Ernst's hand. "Yes, finally. Glad to meet you."
Instead of shaking it, the cervid took Andrew's hand, then held it up to his nose, sniffing. "Amazing. Well done. You even have the pits between your middle fingers." He let go, then leaned forward enough so Andrew felt his warm breath on his face. More sniffs, but he seemed politely curious more than anything.
Confused, Andrew stayed still. It seemed like some sort of ritual, or perhaps he was being tested. "Do you always greet people like that?" Andrew asked, curious. Once Ernst let go, Andrew fished for a notepad in his shirt pocket. This seemed important.
Ernst shook his head. "Only on certain occasions. You'll learn to tell a lot about a stranger by how they smell. I was just seeing how far your--I hesitate to call it a costume--goes. This mage of yours did his research thoroughly. Pity about the legs, though. You'll stand out in a crowd back home."
"I was afraid of that," Andrew sighed.
"Gentlemen, I don't think this is the best place to discuss this," Harry said.
A small crowd of humans watched them as if they were some sort of zoo exhibit. And most were covering their noses. The combination of sweaty horse and two deer-men in the sticky, humid weather wasn't going over well. A policeman was watching them closely. "Quite right," Ernst agreed. "We can continue this at your apartment."
Back in Cambridge, Ernst unabashedly lapped water out of a soup bowl to slake his thirst. When they arrived they found Doppelganger asleep on the floor. He hadn't stirred much, but there was literally a lot more color in his skin than the day before. Since completing his spell, he'd slept at least half of every day, regenerating. For two days after he didn't even have enough energy to make his skin change color. Without it he was a thin white hippy.
Even with every window open--all three of them--the apartment sweltered. Andrew's tiny freezer couldn't keep up with the demand for ice. The one thing that made the room bearable was a large, metal-bladed fan purchased with some of his grant money. After some innocuous talk about the weather Ernst finally got to the point. "I'm here because only a narrow majority allowed you in. I'm afraid it wasn't a clear mandate. And a significant number wanted me to make sure you weren't making a mockery of us with your magic costume. If it didn't measure up they didn't want you near town to begin with."
Andrew swallowed nervously. "What do you think so far?"
The deer-man brightened. "From the waist up, you're perfect. Your mage did some stupendous work. You're as real I am as far as I'm concerned. I'll be pleased to send a wire back home and reassure them it won't be a problem. In my--influential," he emphasized, tapping his thumb to his chest, "--view, you're showing us a great amount of respect with attention to detail like this."
Words like that encouraged Andrew and made him feel less self conscious. He really did want to do this right. "And my legs?"
Ernst shrugged. "People should be looking at your face when they talk to you. That's what counts. There are enough variations among us that it should eventually be overlooked."
Ernst leaned forward and gestured at Andrew. "All the important things about how you look are there. Your facial and ear expressions are spot-on. You smell a little strong, but that's nothing unusual. I think the only thing that's going to bother some people are some social quirks. I'm sure you'll have a tough road figuring a number of things out that come naturally to us, but most townsfolk will give you the benefit of the doubt." He rubbed his white chin thoughtfully. "Still, there are a few malcontents. Freeport is a sizable community."
"But I don't have your. . ." How to put this? Andrew thought hard. "I don't. . ." he tapped his muzzle. "In the head."
Ernst filled in the blank. "I know. I'm a deer that walks on two legs. You're still human, on the inside. I've tried to make the town understand that. You were very specific about that in your letters. Honestly, it was so long ago I can't even remember what being human was like," Ernst finished, ruefully tugging on an ear. "Frankly, there's a lot of us who want the contact with the outside world again to remind us what we were. We're far too isolated for my liking, actually." The enthusiasm in Ernst's voice was unmistakable. In his letters, he seemed eager for some perspective on the changes. Andrew hoped he could provide it.
Other then the obvious physical differences between them, there were subtleties of behavior and cultural mores others might expect him to know, simply because he looked like he belonged. Andrew was going to have to be careful. He didn't know what was expected of him. He didn't have the bestial side that Ernst did. Doppelganger couldn't give him that even if he wanted it. As an outsider looking in, not a newly wisp-touched trying to find somewhere to settle, they would naturally be suspicious.
Narrow majority, he'd said. That didn't sound encouraging.
The research study's objective was to gain acceptance as one of their own so they didn't alter their behavior. Then he could observe and essentially be invisible. While Ernst praised Doppelganger's work, the worst problems were never anticipated.
In 1935 the first wisps came down in massive clumps, sheeting through the atmosphere like giant hurricanes. One of the largest had hit Maine, northern New Hampshire, and much of Quebec, erasing most of the human population wherever it hit, with wisps left over. The most fortunate of nearly 800,000 victims had fled south, especially to areas that the wisps mysteriously had left untouched. This had lasted a few months before the invisible bubbles of magic began to disperse more evenly around the globe.
Worldwide civilization was nearly dealt a death blow. For years it reeled, clawing for grip. The wisp-wards, which had arrived only a few years after the outbreak, went a long way towards saving what was left. Unaffected humans had fled to cities fortified against both wisps and the dangerous creatures--former humans, all--that still threatened humanity. Boston itself had gun emplacements and mages on duty, should a dragon happen by.
Food supplies were short. Technology rolled back three decades or more without reliable electricity. Born only three years after the outbreak, Andrew remembered his parents' home lit by candles and gaslight, hungry days with short rations, or even none at all. It took ten years just to restore some basic services and begin to reclaim cities that had been abandoned. Though the larger industrial cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Los Angles had maintained most of their infrastructures even during the first outbreak. Ford still made cars, and now that the economy was finally on an upswing people could afford to be more affluent.
Humans' wary acceptance of the recognizably human victims came only grudgingly. Only they could make the wisp-wards that kept them safe. And most of the time they weren't that noticeably different. The elves were probably most tolerated of them all, with their pointed ears the only differing feature. There were a few million of them in the United States alone.
The next step down were people like Doppelganger, who varied more widely from the norm. They were often lucky if they were tolerated at all. Though many could defend themselves if they were threatened.
At the very bottom were Ernst's people, among others. Animal-people had very little mythological precedent. Unlike satyrs, centaurs, mermaids, and the like, these anthropomorphic animals were a more aesthetic blend of beast and human. They confused most people--even demi-humans--to the point of being unwelcome in most places. And organizations like the Ku Klux Klan regularly hunted them down--when they did venture out of their warded fortresses.
The animal-people, already wisp-touched, decided the best thing was to retreat to places where they could depend on each other, form their own communities, and get on with the business of living. Years of near-total isolation had done strange things to them. The few people who had found the towns they'd taken over had described people (or creatures) at once eerily human and yet completely different. Andrew had read over fifty accounts before deciding what "species" to study. As "monsters" went they weren't that numerous, numbering an estimated one million nationwide, distributed between about two dozen major "species", with some curiosities thrown in.
The definition of what was human was becoming more and more blurred. The passage of the Demi-human Suffrage Act in 1962 was proof of that.
In Washington, the debate had become if the Act included people like Ernst in its admittedly vague wording.
Andrew knew his project could help determine if it did.
Whatever the results, having his name on this research study would be the most important factor in his career.
The cougar tooth amulet dangled down between Kat's breasts on a rawhide cord as she crept silently though the sparse, drought-stunted undergrowth. It was chilly against her skin, which was a good thing. It meant the spell attached to it still worked, though not as strongly as when she had first acquired it. For the first few months, when the feline illusion had been so strong that it had given her fangs and claws, the amulet had been like an ice cube. There were still some scars where the intense cold had burned her, but it was discomfort she willingly endured.
But now it was only effective from a distance, which worried her. She had an image to live up to in the tiny cult she belonged. She was one of the two among them who had even come close to what their leader called the "soulself". In her case it was a humanoid cougar. A lithe huntress. Although she no longer possessed the enhanced senses from when the amulet had been strong, she'd honed other skills to make up for it. She made traps, and had become adept with the bow. Enough so that she was quite strong in the upper body for a short woman.
And her skills were needed. The six member cult was constantly in need of someone to put food on the table, and the cityfolk who made up the other members resisted all her attempts to teach them. They'd soon find the wisps, Moonsong always said as the months passed. The wisps would release their soulselves, and they'd be with those who they belonged with. Hadn't Red already been so fortunate?
The fact that the talking raven had never been that picky about what he got in the first place seemed irrelevant.
Kat ruffled her short, blonde hair and wiped the sweat from her forehead. Her hair was thick, and kept short enough it resembled a cougar's tawny coat. The others, except for Red, thought that the amulet was a real transformation. In the beginning, when the amulet had been near full power, she had allowed them to stroke her half-real fur. Back then she had catnapped in full view of the other cult members to improve morale. She had allowed this fiction to continue, though lately she only used the spell when away from the camp, in case one of the cult was watching her hunt.
An oversized raven perched in one of the numerous cedars in the grove near their campsite. Maine had a lot more pine than farther south, and the cedars were a fragrant place. Enough to hopefully mask her scent from any ambulatory venison.
"It's getting worse," the raven cawed from fifteen feet away, "I can see right through it now."
From her own perspective Kat's "hand-paws" were hardly most than a ghost, the clawed feet only a little more clear. Where are those damn wisps Moonsong keeps promising? After she found one of her own the amulet would be irrelevant. She'd spend the rest of her life hunting game freely, perhaps find a nice male to have cubs. Maine was supposedly full of all sorts of animal-people. The state still had a notoriety for numerous "accidents" with wisps.
To Moonsong's thinking there were no accidents. The wisps were drawn to people to bring out the true selves of the "ascendant". If that person changed into a monster, well, then that's what they had always been.
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news," said the raven, "but all the traps are empty."
"Shit," Kat swore. "We've had nothing for three days! Where the hell is Starshine with those supplies?"
The bird cocked his head. "It's lot farther to Portland driving than flying, you know. But you know the Preacher. He's probably spent the last two days crowing on street corners. He loves to do that when Moonsong isn't around." He hopped along the branch, then glided down to the top of the granite boulder Kat was leaning against. "Have anything edible in that pouch of yours?" He bobbed his head.
"Just a few crackers," Kat replied.
"I'll take 'em, if that's okay. You don't want to know what else I've been eating lately." Red huddled in his ebony wings, shuddering. "There isn't much with this drought, so I'm not very picky. It's just how ravens are, I guess."
Kat fed the hungry raven a few bits of graham cracker. She was thin, but strong, with wide hips and small, firm breasts. Her clothes were a careworn cotton shirt and ragged denim shorts. Her mother would have professed disapproval about her outfit. But Kat had never liked skirts; and shorts were more practical for hunting. Her bow and quiver were slung over her back. "Any large game?" she asked, hopeful.
"Nothing you'd want to shoot an arrow at," Red replied after he swallowed. "They'd shoot back. Two-leggers. Big moose-men. There's a village about a dozen miles from here." The bird cocked his head. "As the raven flies, of course."
Kat considered her options, then pushed herself off the side of the rock. "Well, I'm not going to wait any longer. It's hard to hunt when your stomach's trying to eat a hole in you."
With Red circling above, she headed to the nearby valley, which was green and fertile despite the years-long drought. There were apple orchards, berry bushes of every kind, a grove of oaks heavy with acorns, maples, and even a cranberry bog. "Who eats all this?" she wondered. Not all of the plant life was producing. Most were in various states of growth or fruiting. She'd only met the two dryads the day after they'd arrived a month ago. When Moonsong had refused their help, they didn't return again.
Kat carefully descended the steep slope from the ridge that separated the dryads' valley from the cult. Two huge trees dominated the view, a maple and an oak about a half mile apart. Their roots must have gone very deep to maintain their verdant, massive canopies. Since this was the only fertile place within miles, one would expect all sorts of herbivores. But the only sounds were from insect-eating songbirds and the tapping of woodpeckers. They didn't want deer eating their crops.
At least not the four-legged kind.
The dryads knew the instant anything came into their valley, so Kat waited to be found. It didn't take long. The dryad was, of course, completely naked. Her beauty was purely supernatural, and if Kat had been a man, it would have affected her quite strongly. Even the Preacher, who was over sixty, had been. Her hair was dark green, the color of oak leaves, and her face was ageless. Weather did not affect her at all. But she didn't have a very friendly look on her face. "I thought your leader didn't want anything to do with us," she snapped.
Kat rolled her eyes. "To be brutally honest, if I had a way to get back to civilization, I would. Moonsong can go hang."
The stern face softened just a little. "I see. Things aren't going so well, are they?"
"No, and we're starving," Kat replied, letting her pent up frustration come through. It had been how long? A year since she had joined the cult? Back then there were over two dozen members. But a series of disagreements, altercations, and full-shout arguments had reduced them to just six. The last one had been over whether they should hire a Touched who could see wisps so they'd be much more likely to encounter them.
They had been on the verge of convincing Moonsong it was necessary when Red's had found him.
Now she was more fanatical than ever.
The dryad sighed. A sympathetic expression came over her face. "I suppose I can't blame you for what your idiot 'elf' leader says. But I'll have to ask Henry's approval before I can give you anything." She took a deep breath. "Heeeenrrrrryyyy!"
Who was Henry?
The other dryad appeared a few minutes later. Like her counterpart, she was very beautiful. But she seemed a little unkempt, her leafy green hair a slightly lighter shade, and her arms were covered in dark soil up to the elbows. Her features were slightly more angular, also. "Yes, Marge?"
"You may remember our feline friend here from last month," Marge replied crisply. "Can we possibly spare some apples for her?"
"We have contracts to fulfill," the other dryad replied laconically. "We don't have that much to spare. Both the moose and the deer will be here this month. We've been asking a lot of the plants in this weather as it is. We're lucky there's still well water."
Marge put her hands on her hips and frowned at her partner. "Then go see what we can spare, Henry. And don't be lazy about it. There's no excuse for this behavior, young woman."
Henry's expression hardened a little. She rolled her pretty eyes. "For the thousandth time, Marge, there's no need to rub it in any more! I think I've paid for my womanizing many times over by now. Am I going to hear about it for the next few hundred years?" Henry practically shook with frustration. "So just... just stop, okay? Let's stick to business." The dryad finally saw Kat standing there. She relaxed and smiled warmly. "Good to meet you, dearie. I'll see what we can spare."
No, thought Kat, I don't think I'll ask.
Stomach full of apples and berries, and carrying a basket full of the same, Kat trudged up the slope. The dryads had said she could share with anybody but the cult's leaders, who they were still quite angry with. Red was perched on the edge of the slope above. "I've got some news," he cawed. "Starfire's back!"
Kat tried to scramble up faster, but the dry, crumbly dirt made footholds precarious. "Did he bring food?"
"Some," Red replied, turning his head left and right, "but he also brought something he calls a 'Wisp Compass'. Moonsong exploded when she saw it! You've got to hear this."
She heard the argument just as she cleared the top of the ridge. It was so loud, so heated, that she decided to stay right there to wait for its resolution. Red flew off to collect the other two cult members. Below, accusation followed insult, and went downhill from there. So this is how it ends, Kat mused, sitting in the sparse grass near the ridge edge. Funny. I really don't care very much. At least I won't have to hunt for these cityfolk again.
The shouting match ended down below. A few minutes later three walked up the hill out of the grove, towards where Kat was sitting. Starfire, who Red called the "Preacher", was trailed by the two remaining members. One insisted to be called "Firedrake" and was something of a dragon lover. And the other, a twenty-something girl named Elena, a pixie.
Neither were people she enjoyed being with. From the beginning it was instant dislike. Except for Red.
"The compass says there's wisps in the area," the old man said. "I think. At least two. I think."
"Really?" Firedrake said. The man was more of a rat than a dragon. "You think? Well, that's better than the giant nothing we've had. How far?"
Starfire moved the compass back and forth. "I can't tell, exactly..."
"Well, how far inexactly?" Elena said impatiently.
"Actually... I can't tell at all. But the wisps do exist here!" The Preacher said brightly. "Which is a far sight better than that old bitch wanted us to know."
Kat watched the trio a few more minutes. They seemed to be ignoring her completely, if they even knew she was there. They walked back and forth, all over the hillside, in and out of the cedar grove. All the while Kat ate berries and chuckled to herself. It was so nice having a full stomach.
A little chill flowed up her spine.
Starfire stopped in his tracks, tapping the compass. "Wait a second. I think one just disappeared. We might be able to pinpoint the other now." He pointed back down towards camp, and seemed to frown. "It'd just figure if Moonsong got a hold of it, wouldn't it?"
Ten seconds later, the three just stopped and stared at the compass. "Well, now what?" Firedrake snapped.
Kat leaned forward, getting to her hands and knees, looking down through the cedar grove. The old Ford delivery truck that Starfire owned could barely be seen, over a quarter of a mile away through the widely-spaced trees. She strained with her senses, trying to pinpoint the unease, the atavistic chill, that had suddenly overtaken her. Kat's body tingled.
From down behind the truck came a roar. It sounded like someone had crossed a wolf with a gorilla. A snarl and a bellow, inarticulate, and seemingly made of pure panic and hunger all wrapped into one horrible noise.
Reflex took over.
At the moment she tried to run, Kat's legs seemed to twist beneath her. She lost her footing as she stood up, stumbled backwards, and slid head-first down the ridge slope. Dirt and rocks dug into her back, ripping off her shirt, vision blurring as a wave of disorientation added to the sensation of an uncontrollable slide. An eternity passed before she hit bottom, barely conscious.
The tingling spread throughout her body, twisting it, changing it. Fur spread like honey over her chest, down her back, over her legs and arms. This must be a wisp, she thought, clawing to keep hold of consciousness. I think I caught a... Her senses flowered, and she was so sure what was happening to her.
Sounds were sharply defined now. Something that smelled like an old carpet was stumping around at the top of the ridge. Kat kept her eyes closed, letting her new feline senses tell her what she needed to know. But she didn't move, not an inch. She had a feeling she'd possibly slid under one of the berry bushes, so she was safe from whatever-it-was here. Safe. Had to be safe.
She heard a monstrous sob. Then the creature sniffed the air, roared again, and loped away from the ridgeline. Yet Kat remained still, waiting for safety. She felt her tail attempt to move beneath her.
It didn't seem long enough.
She felt around her elongated mouth with her tongue. There was a distinct lack of sharp canine teeth. Instead there were... no, it couldn't be.
Something large landed in the berry bush. The sound of feathers was very loud, and close. Kat nearly jumped, but still hurt enough to stay where she was. "Kat? God, is that you?" Red exclaimed. "Damn! Consider yourself lucky for what you got, girl. I think Moonsong changed into this... this...I don't know what the hell it was! This big man-gorilla-wolf thing! But it went after the others like gangbusters." There was the sound of rustling in the underbrush. "Just sit tight, okay?"
There was little else she could do. But what she felt, increasingly clearly as the dizziness wore off, didn't add up to feline in any way. She opened one eye, and brought her hand up to see it.
Thick, black, blunt nails like a pair of irons. And far, far too much muzzle.
Red watched Kat glumly for a moment. There was nothing he could do for the others, he'd lost track of them when they scattered into the forest. They were already far out of the dryads' territory. Starshine was in amazing shape for his age. But he could do something for Kat. She was certainly no cougar-woman. And her heart had been so set on it. He flew off to fetch the dryads.
The world had turned to mud. Days of heavy rain and thunderstorms had turned nearly dry creeks into raging rivers. And they'd driven the prey out of their burrows. But the wet also made the prey difficult to track. It frustrated Kat for days, trying to sift though the thousands of subtle differences in odors she could now discern but couldn't name. On top of that, she just couldn't understand why her hunting skills had apparently vanished. It didn't make any sense! Moonsong had promised. Promised!
Kat stared at her hands, seeing the claws that had to be there. Had to.
But the 'elf' was some sort of ravening beast, now. Something that preyed on humans, and was repelled by the dryads' magic. She was safe in the valley, and safety was paramount to her now. The argumentative duo had thoughtfully provided her somewhere to sleep, a stone and glass greenhouse that sat midway between their trees in a large meadow. It even had a few luxuries, like a coal-burning stove. They got them from the "animalfolk" they had contracts with, in exchange for food.
But she still tried to hunt, bending her acute senses to finding prey.
Kat stalked the rodent for twenty minutes, watching the chipmunk carefully, frustrated by the obstruction before her eyes. The unsuspecting creature was scampering around at the base of a tree, and she was waiting to pounce...
At just the right moment, when the animal was eating a pine nut, she leapt! But her narrow feet found little purchase in the mud, and she couldn't understand why. She slid along the ground on her stomach, causing an awful lot of pain, but she snatched it! The animal was held prisoner, waiting for her to bite and...
Her throbbing breasts briefly made it clear. There were no claws. No paws. No sharp canine teeth to tear the rodent's flesh. And the chipmunk was staring at her with a kind of shock she'd never seen on an animal's face. Then it bit her.
The sound that came out of her throat was no cougar's scream, but a strangled bleat. The wound bled profusely while she tried to lick it clean.
Kat stared at her black-nailed, clawless fingers and cried. This wasn't right! This wasn't how it was supposed to happen! Moonsong had promised! Promised!
The amulet didn't work any more. It flickered in her thick-fingered hand. Something was interfering with whatever magic was left in it. Probably her own wisp.
Covered in mud, she slowly pulled herself out of the puddle and glared at her chest. I was happy when they were smaller, thank you, she snapped at the wisp that had glommed on to her four days before. The dryads were concerned, though about what she couldn't quite imagine why...
A little part of her remained pragmatic. You're no cat, it said. You're a deer, girl. A doe. You've chewed cud for God's sake. Live with it!
She tried to meow. She bleated. She tried to purr. Nothing came.
There was entirely too much face. No sharp fangs extended from her jaw.
And a short brush of a tail that was blindingly white underneath. She had a white rump, a white chest. Cougars had white, but their fur was tawny, not russet. And they didn't have this much white fur. Though it was mostly covered in mud at the moment.
You're a deer on two legs, her pragmatic side repeated.
The forest smelled like furiously growing plant life, and the valley was even more intense. The dryads were using the break in the weather to speed up their plants and make larger reservoirs underground. There were new leaves everywhere. Succulent, tasty light green. Fresh, tender-sweet maple. Kat absently picked leaves off of them as she walked by, sampling a bit of everything. Food was food, even if it was green and tasted faintly of maple syrup. Even the dryads didn't seem to mind... much.
Red sat on a branch, preening his wet feathers. She hadn't seen him in several days, so she stopped below the large raven. "Where have you been?"
"Looking for the others," the bird replied. "Among other things."
"Any luck on either front?" Kat bleated. She hardly recognized her own voice any more.
The bird huddled into his feathers a little. "I wish I could say yes. They've just vanished. It's like the woods just swallowed them. Damn it..."
Kat sighed. She hadn't liked the cult members, but she hadn't wished them dead either. "And no other ravens like you, either?"
"No, and I'm starting to get a little annoyed with that," Red cawed. "There's a very important question I'd like to get answered."
The doe-woman tilted her head. "Oh? What's that?"
Embarrassed, the raven pulled his head further into his feathers. "If you want the truth, I have no idea if I'm male or female, Kat. It's... well... confusing to say the least. I assume another one like me will know."
Kat reached up to scratch the raven under his beak. Her beak. She shrugged. "I'll still think of you as a 'he' until you tell me otherwise, okay?"
Red looked at her with one intelligent black eye, and sighed. "I guess that's fine. Though it might be a wrench if I lay an egg." He swallowed.
Scent carried easily in the damp air. From down the valley came the smell of truck exhaust, and the faint sound of several motors. Henry appeared in front of her. "Your people have arrived," she announced in her typically laconic tone.
"My what?" said Kat, voice trembling a little.
"The other deerfolk," Henry continued, brushing her wet green hair out of her eyes. The dryads' hair had grown several inches in this weather, and was the lighter green of new leaves near the roots, while the ends were darker. "Look, you know you can't live here. And these deerfolk are from Freeport. Big, big town of them. You'll be safe there. They'll be happy to welcome you into the fold."
Kat put her hands on her hips. "I... I can't. They won't... I'm not..."
"You can't stay here," the maple dryad repeated more firmly. "We've been gracious by letting you eat what you have. But the plants don't like it too much." She looked Kat up and down. "And you'll want to put on some clothes. These are civilized folk." With that barb, she turned around and sauntered back into the thick undergrowth.
If she's this bitchy as a woman, I'd hate to think of what she was like as a man, Kat grumbled. Any conversation between the two "partners" was a barely contained fight. Maybe I should leave.
The valley focused the sound of several vehicles moving slowly up the road. But it would be some time before they arrived; the rutted track that passed for a road was crowded with plants to either side was very muddy with the rain, and the lack of visibility meant they couldn't go very fast anyway. Kat picked up the tatters of her shirt, which had been torn to pieces and repaired with what was left from the cult's van. Some needle and thread, and much patching, later and she had something passably comfortable. But her enlarged breasts were a little disconcerting. Shouldn't I have an udder or something?
The image that formed in her mind wasn't one she cared to repeat. No, perhaps not.
Carrying her clothes in an old burlap sack, Kat decided it would be best if she washed off to make herself more presentable. There was a rock pool on the edge of the dryads' valley. She had first found it before the rains started, when the water smelled stagnant and flowed sluggishly over the waterfall at one end. It was certainly unnatural, but it was the only place where the water was now almost clean enough to wash the mud out of her fur. The rains had nearly washed it clean. In fact, it seemed too clean...
The water splashed gently over the lip of the waterfall. Kat dropped the sack, preparing to wade in. But a prickling sensation on the back of her neck made her stop short. She retreated to cover, ears a-twitch, sniffing the air. You're no cat, her inner voice repeated. She felt an urge to smack her hand against the ground.
"Meow," she replied to her inner voice, defiant. Though it sounded more like a bleat than she cared to admit.
There was a great splashing in the center of the pool. A mountain of water formed, taking on a humanoid shape that stood upon the water's surface. A beautiful woman, the water's translucence fading away as a more fleshly color took shape. Her hair was a long, flowing, watery blue that reached all the way down to merge with the tiny pond. And she looked almost half asleep, yawning. "Okay," she said with half a yawn, "you can come out now. I don't mind if you use my pool to bathe in."
The deer-woman was taken aback, and only came out to where she could dash away easily. "This is a very crowded wilderness. I didn't know you were here and I've been around for over a month."
"The drought put me to sleep," the water nymph replied. "What year is it?"
"1965," Kat replied. "Late July, I think. I lost count of the days."
The naiad motioned for Kat to come closer. "Almost two years." There was a kind of longing in her eyes. "Can you tell me all about it? I'd like to know what's going on in the world. I haven't been able to leave this spot for a long time, and my neighbors aren't that accommodating, for all they need my water."
Kat waded in obediently. And through the naiad, found out that this little valley had once been a popular camp site. In the depths of the Depression it had become something of a Hooverville. And when the wisp-storm had hit, everyone was changed. She pointed with her chin at the two dryad trees. "Those two argued every night before the storm hit," she informed. "Loud. And they didn't speak to each other for ten years afterwards. I think Marge was jealous that her husband became as beautiful as she."
The water did feel nice, and the naiad was probably the best company she'd had in months. Red was okay, but he was still male. Or at least she thought of him as male. As the mud was washed away, they chatted. Then the wind shifted, carrying with it a very heavy smell of manure. Kat covered her large, black nose. Notta cat! "Faugh..."
"More fertilizer," the naiad sighed. "They always bring fertilizer. I'm so glad I'm not a dryad. But I do wish I had more company."
"And I wish I could stay," Kat said apologetically. There was another smell under the manure, a heady musk that tingled in her head, speaking deep into her bones. Her curiosity roused, she had to go see what it was. Apologizing to the naiad, she got out of the pool and shook herself off. Sunlight did the rest, and though still damp, she put on her mended clothes.
Finding a proper way to account for her tail still eluded her. She had reluctantly settled for a large rectangular cutout, though it did expose some of her white rump. But at least it didn't chafe.
The oddly familiar musk grew stronger as she approached, and then she heard the argument. It filled her ears, growing louder as she approached the clearing. Both male voices, one very deep, the other a strong baritone. "We were here first!" the second voice shouted. "These are our berries, our acorns, and our pine nuts!"
When she poked her nose through the undergrowth she found a clearing full of rusting, ancient trucks, large and small, some with the roof sliced off and extensive changes to the controls. But was really drew her attention were the people. Nearly three dozen two-legged deer and a nearly equal number of gigantic moose-people. Two of them were facing each other down in the middle, ears plastered against their necks. They snorted at each other, while the rest of them rallied to support their leaders. Kat was amazed at the sight of a deer-man trying to face down a being almost twice his weight in muscle. Marge and Henry were waiting in the doorjamb of their greenhouse-home, dressed in diaphanous white robes.
Henry rolled her eyes, then stepped between the two. Then she disrobed. A few chuckles came from the females of both sides as the two men immediately turned their eyes on her. "Now that I have your attention," she said dryly, "I can clear things up. There's enough for everybody despite the fact that you're two weeks early, Ralph." She glared at the moose-man.
The shaggy, two-legged moose actually had the decency to look chagrined. "Sorry about that, Miss Henry. But we ran low sooner than we expected."
The maple dryad pointed at the smaller cervid. "Well, they still have first choice. You'll just have to wait a day or two."
Musk--moose and deer--filled the clearing, discernable even with the surprisingly nuanced stench of the manure. But it was the latter that tickled Kat's mind in strange ways. She had been noticed. A couple does had pointed, and were talking to each other in a voice low enough that even her huge ears couldn't hear. And one of the bucks also, one who had been busily writing something down on a pad of paper. There was something odd about him...
He wore a pair of open-toed shoes on feet that were oddly shaped. The rest of them were like her. You're not a cat! They stood on... on... feet. Feet like hers. His were more human, with the black nails visible. And he seemed a little uncomfortable, ears flicking about uncertainly. The other cervids would look at him, some bemused, others skeptical.
The leader of the group stamped a hoof for attention. "Okay, everybody get your gear together and get picking. You know your jobs." He looked at the odd-footed one. "Andrew, you go with the acorn pickers. Watch what they do, then pick at least a bushel yourself. You wanted to pull your weight, so here you are. And no sampling!"
The moosefolk returned to their trucks, while the deer started to separate into smaller groups and head off to harvest. Some looked in her direction, but were clearly focused on their jobs. The three oldest--two does and one buck--remained with the dryads. Marge waved her to come over. "This is the young doe we told you about, Joy," she said. "You do have room for her?"
The older doe was a matronly sort with slightly hanging jowls, and a touch of gray among the black fur on her nose. She wore a denim dress that did not extend below her knees. "Of course we will," she said. Her ears twitched, and looked in the direction Andrew had gone. "She'll be the most normal of the newcomers these days." She gestured towards Kat. "Come here, young doe."
Kat blanched a little at being called a "doe", but approached anyway. She was greeted with a sniffing of her hands and head, an action she copied because it seemed like the right thing. The older doe's smell seemed to fill an empty place in her. Kat's eyes threatened to fill with tears. Her shoulders fell. The older doe embraced her in a comforting hug. "I'm sorry you didn't get what you wanted," she whispered, "but you're one of us, child. Feel welcome."
On the third try the engine of the cult's old delivery van finally sputtered to life. The boxy 1928 Ford had been kept in very good condition by its former--and hopefully still living--owner. That is, until what the other deerfolk called a "wendigo" had gotten its claws on it. The rear doors were missing and the sides had long, raking slashes that were open to the interior. Kat had only reluctantly returned to it the day after her transformation to retrieve what she had thought were necessities at the time. The campsite had reeked of urine and smells she could not even name. Moonsong had either been so frightened she'd wet herself, or her new body had demanded she mark her territory like a dog.
Three of her new people were armed with rifles, shotguns, or military pistols. The sight of a deer holding a weapon seemed very out of place, to her mind. Kat was still trying to get used to thinking of herself as one of them. Weren't deer supposed to be timid?
The engine died again in a puff of black smoke out of the tailpipe, causing a grunt of frustration from the young mechanic, a buck by the name of Wayne. He had a pair of fuzzy spike antlers, and there were a few faint spots on his lower back fur. A few more animalistic grunts and snorts of frustration later and the engine finally cooperated, sputtering a little at the start, but it remained running. "That beast really did a number on this beauty," he said, wiping grease from his hands. His fur was matted with it up to his elbows. "But I think she'll run. I think there's just enough gas to get us home, too." His voice cracked between a boyish alto and a mature baritone.
"Good!" said Dea, an older doe who was given charge of young ones and newcomers. "We can always use more trucks." She smiled at Kat.
With one eye, Kat watched the other newcomer. He had strange feet, and acted very oddly. Although he did what he was told, he carried himself a little awkwardly. He was also fascinated with his ears, his toes, his tail, and everything else about himself. And when he wasn't working, he was either intently watching the goings on, or writing in a small wire-bound notebook.
Dea always spoke to him as if to a child. "Don't let your guard down, Andrew. Remain vigilant, we're outside the dryads' protection here. And the rain has washed away much, so we cannot tell if there's anything still a danger to us. Keep your nose and ears to the wind. And put that pad away."
The strange buck's ears laid back for just a moment, but he did as he was told. He made a show of obediently licking his nose. "Is there anything I can do to help here, ma'am?"
"Just watch, listen, and learn. That's what you're here to do, isn't it?" Dea said with an edge to her voice.
Andrew's voice remained steady, but he seemed tense. "Yes, ma'am."
A few more minutes work and Wayne announced the delivery truck was fit for travel. But he did not recommend anybody ride in it just yet. "The tires are nearly bald and we need to run very light in this mud," he informed.
"Can you take someone riding shotgun?" Dea asked.
"I think so, since I should be going last, anyway." Wayne nodded at one of the armed bucks. "George and I will meet you at the main road."
Perched in a cedar a short distance away, Red preened his midnight black feathers. They hadn't spoken much since the deerfolk arrived, despite that she had introduced him as a longtime friend. She turned to Dea. "Would you mind if my friend flew along with us?" Kat gestured with her muzzle.
Dea shrugged indifferently. "It's up to him. Birds tend to think of the whole sky as their home, anyway. I don't think he'd be unwelcome, if that's what you're concerned with."
"Did you hear that, Red?" Kat said in the raven's direction.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to leave you just yet, Kat," Red reassured. "But I'll be there at my own pace."
Andrew blinked, then looked over at Red, apparently surprised the bird was more than he appeared. "Friend of yours?"
Even though this buck was also a newcomer, Kat felt disinclined to answer. "Yes," she stammered. Yet she still felt she needed to be polite, so she settled on an innocuous question. "How... how long since you...?"
"Were changed?" he finished. "About a month. It's be..." he broke off mid-sentence, lifting his nose to the breeze, nostrils flaring. His eyes widened. "Dea..." He turned and called the older doe, who was speaking with the stocky-looking buck who was going to ride with Wayne. "Dea!"
Irritated, she turned to face him. "What is it?"
He sniffed again. "I smell wolves." He licked the black pad of his nose. "At least three."
Incredulous, the older doe glared at him condescendingly. "I don't smell anything. You did spend the required time with the fawn teaching pelts, didn't you?"
"It's really faint," Andrew insisted. "I don't know why you..."
"He's right," Wayne added in support. "I smell them now, too."
Slowly the rest of them sensed the wolves also. There was an unfamiliar flavor of musk, but Kat was still so inexperienced that she didn't know what to be afraid of. But her body seemed to be taking a cue from the deerfolk around her. Kat's tail bobbed up halfway, the fur on her rump standing on end. The deerfolk with guns removed the safeties and took up positions upwind.
"Let's get the truck moving and retreat to the dryads' valley," said Dea.
With the truck's engine running with steady putter, Wayne jumped into the driver's seat, George taking his place beside him with a double-barreled shotgun. He would have to back up before he could leave. The transmission ground into reverse, Wayne cursing under his breath. Pushing on the gas the rear tires spun, kicking up the mud and digging the old Ford deeply into the mire. "Damn it!" Wayne cursed, "we need a push!"
"Everyone, find somewhere and shove!" Dea ordered.
The ground was very muddy. Kat already had mud spattered up to her hocks, and everyone who had been working on the harvest were dirtier still. Except for Andrew, they all wore as little clothing as possible, and never feared digging their hands into the soil. The whole group was a smelly, dirty mess. Everyone took positions where they could get a grip; on fenders, running boards, anywhere. Kat and Andrew found themselves pushing side-by-side on the grille. Even Dea joined in.
The wolf-smell was becoming more intense. Wayne gunned the motor at the same moment a half dozen deerfolk dug their hooves into the mud and pushed.
And at the very moment the wheels came free, the engine died again. Wayne made a frustrated snort-wheeze, ears pinned against his neck. "Farking human machine!"
"Over there!" George said, taking aim with his shotgun.
Ten pairs of cervine eyes looked into the undergrowth. Three golden pair stared back from a hundred feet away, apparently not realizing that they'd been spotted. Then a young, growly voice whispered, "Rowl, are you sure this is a good idea?"
A fourth wolf scent joined the other three, and a much more mature, and angry, parentally feminine voice came out clearly. "No, it isn't. What did I tell you cubs about food that talks?"
Three adolescent voices replied, as one who has been chastened several times. "Food that talks is not food."
The armed deerfolk kept their weapons raised as a large she-wolf came out of the undergrowth in plain sight. "Forgive them, please. They are still young enough to act rashly."
"Your cubs nearly got a face full of buckshot," Dea replied evenly.
"Trust me," the dark gray she-wolf growled. "It will not happen again." She turned around, snarling at the adolescent wolves, who whined and yelped as she drove them back towards their den.
Once they were gone, everybody relaxed a little. The Ford was pushed as far from the mud as was reasonable, and it was turned onto the path that led to the main road. "Okay," said Wayne. "Let's try that again."
On the way back to Freeport Kat finally had some time to examine the male of the species. The journey would take a couple of hours, over neglected roads overgrown with thirty years of foliage. Transportation for many was a bus as old as the cult's Ford, with a pair of doors for each row of seats. To account for the antlers that so drew Kat's current attention, the roof had been sliced off, elevated, then covered over with oiled canvas. The seats were upholstered in a patchwork of materials, and the body had large areas of rust. But it ran well.
Kat sat next to a silent Andrew, who seemed uncomfortable about how filthy he was. The harvesting crew had only made a token effort to wash themselves off, so the bus's open windows were the only thing that kept the otherwise enclosed space from becoming unbearably odorous. "Real bathing will wait until we get back to town," Dea had explained.
So she sat and watched Andrew as he wrote on his notepad, quickly becoming entranced by the bob of his antlers. Encased in a gray fuzz, they looked almost plush. Kat felt an urge to reach out and touch...
Dea grabbed her hand from the seat in front that she hadn't realized was halfway to Andrew's near antler. "Don't touch them," she said sternly. "Any pressure at this point could result in a deformity. And no doe wants that on her conscience."
"Sorry," Kat stammered.
"Don't apologize to me," Dea replied. Then she looked down her nose, towards Kat's chest. "What's that on your necklace?"
The cougar's tooth amulet was still around her neck. She pulled it out to show the older doe. "A... a keepsake. I'm not sure what they told you, but I had my heart set on being a cougar-woman."
Dea raised one ear and tilted her head quizzically. "Oh?"
Kat made a noncommittal sound that was half a bleat. "Well..."
The older doe gestured dismissively. "It don't matter. Back in town, you'll meet someone who I think will settle you, once you see what too much wishful thinking can do. In fact, I'm hoping your presence will bring her out of her delusion."
With that odd and somewhat worrisome piece of information, Dea passed back a small sack of acorns was going around. A reward for all the hard work the harvesters had done. The acorns had been shelled of their caps and were being eaten raw like a snack food. The new doe sniffed one dubiously, a few images of herself as the "lithe huntress" flashing across her mind. With a wistful sigh, she brought it into her large mouth, her tongue transporting it to the grinding molars in the back, and crunched down.
It was slightly bitter, but after a moment that taste gave way to a subtle sweetness. It tasted a little bit like an almond. She ate a couple more, then offered the bag to Andrew, who had stopped writing to look at the landscape going by. "Have one?"
The strange buck took one look at the bag and seemed, for a moment, ill. "Er... no thank you. But I do appreciate the thought."
"You can't eat acorns?" asked Kat.
"Let's just say I don't have your magical digestion," Andrew informed sourly. "I have tried to eat them. I can chew them as well as everyone else, but I can't digest."
Dea snorted bemusedly. Clearly there was some information Kat was missing. In the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of Andrew's open notepad. It was covered in a strange script that couldn't possibly be English. All squiggles and short angular lines. Mystery upon mystery about this buck.
"So, Andrew," Dea began, "anything new and interesting about us you want to share in those observations of yours?"
This was apparently a question Andrew heard often. He became a little more tense, and his tone of voice became more measured and formal. "Ma'am, I have barely begun my observations. If you really wish to know what I am writing you can petition the Council. I'm doing my best, ma'am. Really."
"You did well with the wolves today," Dea admitted. "You are learning." With that, she turned forward again.
Andrew looked thunderstruck.
"I'm putting you next door to Dr. Kolich," said Dea. "Normally we have newcomers share a room, but she is something of a special case. And you're fortunate that we're no longer short on space like we were in the early days. Newcomers have slowed to a trickle these past few years." Dea opened the door to Kat's new room. Stale air saturated with old cervid musk and dust made the young doe sneeze. "It's not much to look at, but the plumbing works."
The Newcomers' Lodge was had once been a motor hotel along US Highway 1. There were two wings of a dozen rooms to either side of what was once the lodge's tiny office. The building itself was fairly well kept for its age, though there were more than a few shingles missing from the roof, and the windows of many rooms were boarded up instead of glassed. "How long will I be staying here?" asked Kat.
"At least until the Spring," Dea informed laconically. "The first year for newcomers like yourself is always the roughest. There's just so much you don't know about yourself. You're expected to find something you're good at, hopefully where we have a need, and apprentice yourself."
"Wome... excuse me, does' work?"
The older doe's ears flicked, and she shook he head. "You'd be surprised at what we consider does' work.. At any rate, the does are at this end, the bucks are at the other. And for now it's just you, Andrew, and Dr. Kolich."
Now Kat was curious. "Doctor?"
"You'll have to meet her. She's the problem I mentioned to you earlier. Meeting her will explain everything, I hope." Dea motioned for Kat to follow. The room next door was the one that adjoined the former office, and the closest one to the bucks' side of the building. She knocked lightly. "Someone to meet you, Doctor." When nobody answered, Dea shaded one eye and looked in the open window. "She's usually working the garden. It's one of the few things she'll do out of doors. Follow me."
There were garden plots all over Freeport. The interior of the fortified town was a patchwork of vegetable gardens crowded around homes among the old streets. As much food as possible was grown within the town's central stockade. Dea had explained that one of the town's founders had studied medieval walled towns, and had modeled the design on them. All could easily fit inside in emergencies; all essential services and government were located here, along the formerly paved highway.
Kat's first sight of Dr. Kolich was of a slightly overweight doe beating the dirt into submission with a rake. She didn't even seem to notice Kat and Dea. Her movements seemed strange, stiff as if she was a puppet on a string, her elbows held akimbo away from her sizable breasts. Dea gave Kat a look. "Doctor?"
Kolich's head and ears snapped up, startled. Then, with slow, deliberate movements, turned to face the interlopers. She wore a threadbare, ill-fitting shirt that was much too large on her small torso, and a pair of dark trousers that had been roughly cut off at the knees. The button shirt was tucked loosely into the waist. Men's clothing, and old and ragged. She leaned against the rake, still keeping her arms away from her breasts. "Oh. Hello, Dea. I'm afraid there's weeds choking the peas again. Will you look at this?"
There were no weeds. In fact, the garden was the most well-kept Kat had ever seen. Even the dirt seemed somehow clean. If anything, the garden looked too well-loved. Even in the drought the plants seemed stunted, bent in odd places. She must spend every waking moment here, thought Kat. I don't see how...
Then the doe noticed her. Her hand moved stiffly to a pocket on her right breast, which she did all she could not to touch. Kat was given a business card. "Oh, hello there. I'm Dr. Samuel Kolich. Don't get used to this face! Or... or any of the rest. It's only temporary, I assure. It isn't right. It isn't me. Is that understood?"
Confused, Kat looked at the card, which was soft, with ragged edges. Very faintly she made out two things: "Psychoanalyst", and an address in New Haven. After only a second, the confused doe snatched it back to replace it in her pocket. "Good meeting you. But we'll know each other better after I take my rightful place." She turned back to her peas.
Dea turned and tugged on Kat's elbow. The young doe followed the older out and back around to her own room. Dea ran her hand over the top of her muzzle. Kat looked askance. The older doe sighed. "She's been that way for over two years. She won't socialize, except with a very few. And she always insists that tomorrow she'll be a buck. We've had newcomers in denial when they've changed sexes, but nothing like her."
"What do you want me to do?" Kat's ears twitched.
"Try and make friends. But to be honest, I don't have much hope for her now. But I thought that if you talked to her about your desires before you were wisp-touched it might bring her out of that shell." Dea sighed and looked pained.
The young doe's hand went to the dead cougar amulet around her neck. That could've been me. Her ears flushed at her remembered attempts at hunting. Her one "success" with the squirrel just as the deer-people had arrived had proven to her that she wasn't cut out for it. She was certainly no feline. But Doctor Kolich seemed a much tougher case. Kat remembered the business card. Doctor, heal thyself? I don't think so... "I guess I can try, Dea. I can't make any promises that I'll actually help."
"Just be friends. This is going to be a long process. Now..."
"Matron Dea!" a young, bleating voice interrupted the older doe. A fawn with faint spots on his sides came sprinting down the street. Kat stared as the child practically flew through the air far faster than anything on two legs should move. The young buck skidded to a halt in front. "There's a newcomer at the gates, Matron! A doe! I was sent..."
Dea dusted off her blouse a little and tried to make herself more presentable. "Calm down, child. Just lead us to her."
The first sight of the newcomer was a rather dusty, travelworn doe who might have walked all the way from New York City. She rose as they approached, and Kat noticed she was wiry and thin, as does went. And the pattern of russet, black, and white on her face was rather unremarkable. Her scent was also a strong indicator of how long she'd been on the road. Dust, musk, and sweat. Only a few townsfolk had stopped what they were doing to greet her, but there were a lot of children to see this curiosity up close. To her credit, the newcomer was trying to be friendly to them. Kat had just felt overwhelmed with questions.
Dea introduced herself, greeting the new doe with the handshake-and-sniff. "Welcome to Freeport, Miss?" she left the question hanging.
"Aula Gerard," the new doe answered, observant enough to respond to the greeting in kind. "You have no idea how long I've been traveling." There was a bare hint of a French accent in her voice.
On her chest, Kat's amulet tingled. The new doe gave her a momentary sideways glance, then returned her full attention to the Matron.
"You've had a long journey," Dea continued. "We'll ask you about it later. It's traditional. For now, we'll just get you settled so you can rest. I'm certain you'll find your place here."