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|This story is part of a series|
|Xanadu story universe|
With a smooth and precise motion Arthur slowly lifted her left leg over her head to point at the ceiling, arms curved up on either side. Thirty-four up... Arthur counted silently to herself, balanced on tip-toes and stretching as high as she possibly could. After a long moment of motionlessly holding the pose, she smoothly sank back down to the carpeted floor. ...Thirty-four down. Thirty-five up... She repeated the movement again, perfectly matched in form and timing to the previous one. ...And thirty-five down.
Arthur breathed a small sigh of satisfaction, still amazed at the strength and flexibility of her small body even after all the time she'd spent in it. It had been five days now since Kublai Con had fallen under the curse that had transformed her. And twice a day since then, right after breakfast and lunch, she'd spent at least three hours doing these exercises. She hadn't wanted to, it was part and parcel of the whole ballerina's existence that had been magically imposed on her, but whether she'd wanted to or not she still found herself doing them.
And now... Arthur sat down on the floor and started doing stretches, folding her torso over and spreading her legs to grip one dainty slippered foot in each hand. Hold one two three four five... release one two three four five. This actually feels pretty good. Hold one two three four five... It fills the time, at least. Release.
Spare time was something she'd had a lot of since the convention. It had taken the local authorities quite a while to fully accept what had happened, and a lot of conventioneers had scattered rapidly in that period of inaction, but once they'd gotten their act together the police had thrown up a sort of informal quarantine around the hotel and convention center while scientists all over the world began puzzling about the meaning of it all. Arthur had been holed up in Felix's room for pretty much the entire time, with little else to do but practice ballet and think about her situation. Frankly, she preferred ballet to thinking right now.
Finishing up one last set of stretches, Arthur finally decided that she'd done enough to satisfy her needs for the morning. She stood back up and smoothed out her rumpled tutu self-consciously. She had discovered that while wearing normal non-ballerina clothing was strictly prohibited by her curse, she was able to substitute a different ballerina outfit for the one she'd worn when she'd transformed. After phoning every place in the local yellow pages that might sell them she'd had six different styles delivered, finding four that were able to meet the curse's criteria of acceptability without getting magically modified. She was wearing her favorite of the four today; a light yellow leotard with a satin tutu that was much less frilly than her original pink one, though not quite enough to be mistaken for a normal skirt instead.
Arthur sighed. In a way, Felix had it easier; the only thing his curse let him wear was a simple belt or backpack for carrying things with. She knew he felt quite self-conscious about his nakedness, of course, but Arthur figured his anatomy and thick grey pelt provided adequately for his modesty. And more importantly, he looked dignified as a humanoid cat.
Most of the time, anyway... Arthur grinned. Yesterday Felix had dug up a CD of ballet music from somewhere and left it playing on the stereo as a joke; she hadn't been able to stop herself from dancing along to it until it had finished playing all the way through. She'd got even later, though. She got a laser pointer out of Eric's luggage, and as soon as Felix had come out of hiding she'd started shining it around on the floor. Felix hadn't been able to stop himself from chasing and pouncing on the little red dot, over and over again for five minutes straight. He'd been mortified by his behavior, and she'd giggled herself silly; afterward they'd agreed to call it even and declare truce.
Eric hadn't noticed a thing during the entire escapade; he'd had his beak buried in a book in the adjoining room, deep in his crash-course on Amerindian mythology.
Arthur did a quick little twirl and then skipped lightly across the room to the side door, peering inside to see what Eric might be up to today. He was perched in his usual spot on the table, pecking at the keyboard of his laptop. Arthur noticed that Felix was also in the room, curled up on his side and sleeping on the bed. She tip-toed in quietly to look over Eric's shoulder.
Eric glanced up at her approach. "Finished practicing?" he cawed. Arthur winced at the loudness of his voice and Felix's pointed ears twitched in his sleep; it seemed that ravens were physically unable to speak quietly, it was either harsh cawing or nothing. Eric snapped his beak shut and ruffled his feathers slightly in embarrassment.
Arthur nodded and read a few lines off the screen; Eric was typing an email to his legal firm. "Finished studying?"
Eric bobbed his head. "For now anyway. Not learning anything I haven't read-" he broke off as Felix woke up, blinking at them and yawning widely.
"Morning," Arthur greeted. Felix had been up earlier in the day already, but one of the cat characteristics he'd picked up along with the appearance was a proclivity towards frequent naps.
Felix's response was to get up on his hands and knees to perform a long, luxurious, feline stretch; Arthur doubted she could have done better herself. Then he began to say something, but broke off before the first word. His attention seemed caught by something in their direction. Tail swishing slowly, he sank down into a crouch. "Felix?" Arthur frowned, puzzled. "What's up?"
With a ferocious yowl, Felix lunged.
Arthur danced backward, but she wasn't his target in the first place; he was aimed straight at Eric. Eric emitted a startled caw and raised his wings to launch himself into the air. He didn't make it. Felix batted him down with his hands, along with the laptop and a pile of books, crashing to the floor in a heap.
Then the window shattered, and splinters of wood exploded out of the tabletop where Eric had been perched only a moment earlier.
Arthur shrieked in terror and dove to the floor herself, for once not even bothering to make a ballet move out of it. Several more chunks smashed out of the table in quick succession, and there were the sound of ricochets whining off the floor. Then, finally, a moment of silence.
"Damned glowing red bug," Felix snarled under his breath, his words coming out sounding more like animal sounds than usual. "Was on the bird this time. Almost caught it." Then he blinked and shook his head, apparently just now finishing waking up. "No, stupid, it was a laser again. Arthur!"
"Not me!" Arthur squeaked, still trembling under cover. "Someone shot at us!"
Eric just groaned, and Felix hastily rolled off of him. Arthur watched, first fearful and then relieved, as Eric struggled clumsily to his feet. "911," he squawked after taking a moment to catch his breath. "Someone with fingers, get a phone."
Arthur carefully peeked around the edge of the bed and looked out the window. She managed to catch a brief glimpse of a black form zipping away in the distance, and blinked in surprise as she recognized it; a traditional halloween witch riding on a flying broomstick, with a rifle slung across her back. She was still too frightened to consider the incongruity deeply, however, and ducked back down for a minute to stop trembling.
She heard Felix dial.
"A laser scope, eh?" The policeman shook his head and tut-tutted quietly to himself. "Obviously not a professional. Those things are pretty useless for this stuff."
"Seemed effective enough to me," Arthur complained. "I was scared out of my wits."
The policeman smiled at Arthur. "Don't worry about it," he spoke in a reassuring tone of voice. "The shooter's gone now. We'll keep you safe."
Arthur set her fists angrily on her tutu-clad hips. "Stop talking down to me. I'm forty years old."
The policeman just sighed and shook his head again, obviously still having trouble with the concept that the little girl he was interviewing was not really what she seemed. He turned to the other policeman still in the room, who was poking around at the holes in the table. "Think we should call in ballistics on this one, Collins?"
Collins paused a moment before replying, carefully withdrawing the pencil he'd been poking through one of the bullet holes in the table. "It seems to match their story," he said with a disappointed tone. "Angle seems to suggest the perp was in the air, there's no building or tree out there high enough for this."
The first policeman nodded. "There's nothing more to do here right away, then. If the shooter was really a witch, there's no telling what weird sh- uh, stuff, she could be up to. Collect the bullets and file the photos." Then he turned back to Arthur and bent down slightly to speak to her. "We're going to go back to the police station soon now," he told her. "Do you have anyone else to stay with today, family or friends?"
Arthur kept her fists on her hips, scowling fiercely at the man's condescending attitude toward her. Then she realized that her fierce scowl probably looked more like a petulant pout to him, and sighed in defeat. "Yes, Mr. Policeman, there are other grown-ups I can stay with."
The policeman got a pained expression on his face, the sarcasm coming through quite clearly in her young voice. "There's just no way to tell," he grumbled under his breath. Arthur wondered exactly how many conventioneers he'd dealt with in the past five days.
As the last of the investigators finally filed out of the room, Arthur headed over to the adjoining room where Felix and Eric had been debriefed. Felix was pacing back and forth like an agitated caged tiger, while Eric perched serenely on the back of a chair watching him. "They done with you guys too?" She asked.
"Yeah, they're done," Felix spat. "Most cursory investigation I've ever seen. Nobody asked Eric anything, and the one they had asking me questions wouldn't even meet my gaze. They just wanted to get out of here as soon as they could."
"Eric looks like a normal bird," Arthur reminded him, "and you look like a fierce, primitive cat-man stalking around naked. Can you blame them for being uncomfortable?" Felix froze, and then drooped in embarrassed acknowledgement. Arthur chuckled. "Don't feel bad, I got the 'just let the big men take care of everything, little girl, here's a lollipop' treatment. The rest of the world probably needs longer to adapt to what's happened to us than we do."
Felix lashed his tail again, absently unsheathing and resheathing his claws. "Still, you'd think they'd be more interested when a conventioneer starts shooting at people."
"They don't want to get involved," Eric observed from his perch. "Hard to blame them. Everyone's still hoping that this whole mess will resolve itself on its own, with all the changes going away as suddenly and inexplicably as they occurred. If we're stuck like this for a long time, though, it might be for the best that the rest of the world's trying to ignore us." Arthur and Felix broke off their complaints to listen; Eric hadn't spoken a lot lately, preoccupied with research and various attempts at meditation. He glanced between the two of them, puzzled by the sudden intense scrutiny. "What?"
"Someone just tried to kill you," Arthur accused, "and I don't think it was a random act. Why would a witch be using a rifle? I don't suppose you've got any ideas."
Eric sighed. "I didn't recognize her, if that's what you're asking. But I'm thinking that maybe people are starting to figure out there was a connection between me and what happened."
"All you did was donate money," Felix objected. "How could anyone guess about the mask?"
Eric shrugged his wings. "Beats me. But enough is public knowledge for anyone to figure it out, if they think to check."
"Revenge, then?" Arthur asked.
"Maybe. How would I know?" Eric ruffled his feathers in exasperation. "I can't even figure out how to turn myself back, and I saw it all happen from the inside. It should be easy."
Felix sighed. "Well, whatever's going on, we shouldn't stick around here. We can discuss the matter more once we've found new lodgings. And had lunch, I'm starving." Both Eric and Arthur nodded, and Eric flew over to land on Felix's shoulder. Felix raised an eyebrow and grinned wryly. "Great, now I've got an assassin's target right next to my head."
"And I've got a starving cat right next to mine. Let's go."
There were many vacant rooms in the hotel, understandable considering it lay within the huge "crime scene" area around the convention center that the police had tried to cordon off, and Felix requested three of them. "We'll pick which one to use later," Felix explained as he put the keys in his belt pouch. "Throws off anyone relying on the hotel registry to find us." Arthur almost requested a key of her own, but realized that ironically Felix was the only one with the pockets to carry them in anyway.
Then, having all finally been forced out of their rooms for the first time in days and needing to unwind from the stress of getting shot at, they decided to remain on the hotel's main floor to eat a late lunch in the dining room for a change. It had remained open thanks to some small financial compensations Eric had paid to the hotel's management in exchange for hosting so many conventioneers who had been told by the police to stay in the local area, and more importantly it had no outside windows. There were only a few other conventioneers using it right now, a wolfman, someone wearing a hooded black robe, a humanoid fox in chain mail, and four more folks who appeared perfectly normal at first glance. Everyone was keeping quietly to themselves, and the three of them did likewise as they chose a table near the back of the room.
They ordered sandwiches, tuna salad for Felix and chicken for Arthur with Eric scavenging a bit of both for himself, and ate in silence. It wasn't until after they'd finished and spent several minutes staring uncomfortably at their plates that one of them finally spoke up. "So, then," Arthur began. "What are we going to do next?"
"Switching hotel rooms should help," Felix mused. "I don't know how much help the police will be, but there can only have been so many witches at the con, and most everyone's costume was in the convention registry. If we just sit tight they might catch her."
Arthur sighed. "Screw the witch. I meant long term. I'm getting tired of just sitting around waiting. I know you're working on changing everyone back, Eric, but what if you can't? How will we be able to go back to our old lives?" It was a question that had become increasingly pressing in the back of Arthur's mind, but which none of them had broached so far.
Eric hung his head slightly. "Batesman still hasn't figured out a reliable way to confirm everyone's legal identities yet," he cawed apologetically, referring to the head of the legal team he'd been building to deal with the crisis. "It's not something the laws were written for. That's not even considering the question of nonhuman rights..."
Arthur's vision suddenly blurred as she felt tears starting to well up in her eyes. She blinked rapidly, struggling to force them back down; she was not going to start crying like a child, especially not in public or in front of Eric and Felix. She managed to keep her voice relatively level. "I want to go home. I mean, I... I know it's not fair, with you two stuck looking like animals like this, but..." Arthur stopped to sort out her thoughts for a moment before continuing. "You're a good friend, Eric, and I like you too, Felix. But I'm feeling caught up in stuff that I don't belong in, and I'm no help at all dealing with it." It's making me start to feel like I really am just a little girl, she added silently and bit her lower lip to keep the tears at bay. It was a helpless feeling that nothing in her previous life had ever prepared her for.
Eric hopped across the tabletop to stand directly in front of Arthur. "Don't feel guilty, whatever you do," he reassured her. "I've been feeling out of my league from the very start. I can have my people arrange things, and this 'quarantine' the police have got us in is so flimsy people have been coming and going on their own already. Where would you like to go?"
"I don't know," Arthur mumbled miserably. Going back home to Connecticut didn't feel right, she didn't want to face her friends and family like this just yet and if a cure did show up she wanted to still be in Florida to have access to it. "I just want out."
Felix pulled one of the room keys out of his belt pouch and put it on the table. "How about taking a different room from us for now?" He suggested. "This has been a bit of a shock. Take some time to relax, perhaps."
Arthur took the key. "Thanks. I think I'll do that. I'm sorry, I really am, I wish I could stick it out with you on this."
"Maybe in a little while again," Eric said.
Arthur nodded, and rose to her feet. "I'll phone," she promised, then turned and headed quickly out of the dining room. She didn't think she could hang onto the tears for very much longer.
Eric sighed, and Felix heard him mutter "Poor Arthur. What a mess." Under his breath.
Felix didn't respond, except to idly scratch a set of shallow furrows into the wooden tabletop. Then he held up his hand and examined the tips of his claws, sheathing and extending them a few times. We've all got problems, he reflected to himself. Arthur's a ballerina, Eric's a bird... I'm a cat. "I know how she feels," he muttered. "This is very... inconvenient." He scratched a deeper set of furrows in frustration. No, more than that, he corrected silently. It's damned unsettling. I'm a cat. There were other conventioneers who had suffered far more extreme changes than he had, mentally and physically, but Felix was hardly comforted by that fact; it was his own identity that was potentially in crisis here. And Eric had seemed quite oblivious to it. He swished his tail in agitation.
"You're talking to a man with no hands," Eric reminded him. "And no magic, either. That witch flew on a broomstick, why can't I undo even one transformation? I'm starting to think I'm hammering my head against a dead-end, trying this on my own. I need to find another way."
Felix sighed. Eric didn't really notice his problems, of course; for the past few days he'd been focusing more and more deeply on his own. Felix couldn't really blame him, but it was starting to get a little disheartening. He was employed as Eric's aide but they were friends as well. "Sorry about smacking you to the floor so violently by the way," Felix apologized. "When I saw the laser dot sitting right on you, I couldn't help myself."
Eric chuckled. "Don't apologize, you saved my life." He hopped over to Felix's plate and pecked at one of the bread crusts he'd left uneaten. "I put my trust in you entirely."
The fur on the back of Felix's neck bristled, and the thought *my* food! Mine! Flashed briefly through his head, but he dug his claws into the tabletop again and forced himself to let the bread crumbs go; he hadn't wanted to eat them originally anyway, it was just instinct speaking. "I wish you wouldn't do that," he murmured under his breath.
Eric cocked his head at Felix in what Felix swore was an avian grin. "Don't worry, there's a pay raise in it."
Felix sighed again.
Arthur slipped under the yellow police tape strung across the doorway to her old room next to Felix and Eric's, glancing nervously out the window to check for hovering snipers before gathering up some of her things. She didn't need most of the luggage she'd brought with her; only the four ballet outfits hanging in the closet, the extra pairs of ballet shoes that went with them, and a small package of toiletries. She bundled them all up and tucked them under her arm, turning to hurry back out of the room before she had any more second thoughts.
She hesitated. Sitting on the table next to the stereo system was the Tchaikovsky ballet compilation CD Felix had caught her with yesterday. She realized that it was time for her afternoon practice, and then shook her head firmly; she really didn't feel like dancing right now. She took the CD anyway, added it to her bundle, and slipped back out into the hallway.
The halls of the hotel were a rather surreal place to wander around in, she reflected as she headed off to find her new room. She hadn't been out much in the past few days - not at all, actually - and the building had taken on the feel of some kind of weird housing project for the conventioneers that were still staying there. The carpet was stained in places, and as she passed certain doorways odd scents and sounds sometimes filtered out to her. Some of the doors were broken, clawed or smashed or in one case covered with what looked like a thick layer of spiderwebs. It was no wonder the police that had responded to the shooting had been so cursory and quick to depart; it was probably a relatively minor event compared to everything else that had been going on. Arthur picked up her pace a bit, skipping along lightly on her toes despite her dark mood. She just wanted to get back into the privacy of a room of her own right now.
She reached the room that matched the key's number, quickly entered, and shut the door firmly behind her. It wasn't as large as the previous one but that hardly mattered; she dropped her bundle of things and sank gratefully to the floor for a moment of rest. So now I'm on my own, she thought to herself. Well, not really; it's not like Felix kicked me out or anything. But still... Arthur had been living on her own for a long time before the events of the con, having never got along well with her parents and being eager for the independence. But now she felt scared like it was the first time again, not having any idea what to do with her life. She'd had a good job managing shipping for a chain of stores, but now that she looked like this... She wanted independence again, she just didn't know if she could hack it. She let a few tears trickle freely down her face now, sniffling quietly.
Finally, after several minutes, the tears dried up again and she wiped her face. I'm being silly, she chided herself. I'll be okay. I'm a grown man. She smiled slightly, managing to find a touch of humor in that thought, and rose gracefully to her feet. Then she stretched, smoothed down her rumpled tutu, and tiptoed into the center of the room. Not as much room to move, she thought as she looked around critically, but it'll do. Just have to be more careful. As she began limbering up for some basic bar exercises, her eyes fell on the Tchaikovsky CD and she paused.
There's no CD player in here, she realized, both relieved and oddly disappointed. As much as she'd rather not be doing this ballet stuff at all, she had to admit to herself that the music did have a nice feel to it... hell, even that dancing to it had felt kind of good. Maybe when I feel the least like dancing is when I need to the most, she thought, then sighed and shook her head. Silly. Just get practice over with for now. She took a deep breath, then bent down to touch the toes of one foot while lifting the other to point upward. One... how did that tune start again, anyway...?
Arthur began humming the opening act to herself as she repeated the exercises, keeping her own movements in perfect synch with its measure. Soon she began mixing up her routine a bit to match the music, and by the time the second act began playing through her mind she'd lost all of her remaining resistance to the dance.
Eric and Felix got settled into their new room just as quickly. There were a lot of books to transfer over, but neither of them had any clothing to pack. Eric's laptop had not survived its fall from the table, but after a few phone calls Felix arranged for another one to be delivered soon.
Then Eric returned to his studies, and Felix once again became bored. Napping was the obvious option, and what he usually did when nothing else demanded his attention, but considering that he'd nearly been shot that very morning and the shooter was still on the loose he couldn't bring himself to settle down. He paced the small room restlessly, eventually getting on Eric's nerves despite his efforts at stealth while doing it. "Why not take a walk, Felix?" Eric suggested. "Go see if Arthur's settled in, or something."
"But then you'd be alone," Felix objected. "This is hardly the best time for it."
"I can take care of myself for a while."
"You can't even open the door."
"Leave the window open, then. And take your cell phone, just in case." Felix eventually grumbled and acquiesced, stalking out of the room. Eric breathed a sigh of relief, and then started trembling.
He'd managed five days of working with Felix without any real trouble, but the morning's events had nearly given him a panic attack. He shuddered at the memory of the cat-man lunging at him, teeth bared, slamming him to the ground... Eric jumped off of the table and flapped up to perch on the light fixture high on the far wall. He felt a little safer there, and he started to get his trembling under control. The predator-scent wasn't as strong in this room yet either, which helped, and he was glad that he'd managed to keep either Arthur or Felix from noticing how much the assassination attempt had frightened him. Still, he felt like he was suddenly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and he struggled to calm himself further. Deep, slow breaths...
It took him a while, but Eric finally got his emotions back under control. I guess I'm only human after all, he reflected ironically. It had felt a lot like his panic the first day, right after he'd transformed and nearly lost it then as well. If only he'd been able to maintain his mental state from before he'd freaked out, when he'd actually felt the magic doing its work... Eric glided back down to the tabletop and gave one of the reference books on Napatack culture a vicious peck. Stupid mask, he grumbled. Every damned witch and superhero at the con got magical powers, but Raven the Trickster turns out to be about as capable as a normal crow.
Eric shook his head in exasperation. It had been hard to believe that he'd somehow accidentally turned himself into an Indian deity, of all things; he'd originally thought the mask represented an ordinary raven instead. But he'd learned that the Napatack thought all ravens were aspects of Raven in a way; he was now pretty sure that that's who he was supposed to be. It was disappointing to find that he had apparently missed out on gaining any of Raven's godly powers, one of the foremost of which was the ability to change into human form. He was still hoping it was just a case of learning how, but the five days of frustration had started to get to him.
Perhaps he needed a new approach. Book learning wasn't doing him any good, and he wasn't getting far with his attempts at meditation cooped up in a hotel room with the scent of a predator. He hopped over to the open window, carefully poking his head through the curtains to check for snipers. There were none that he could see, and it looked like a very nice afternoon out too. I'll just leave a note for Felix in case I'm not back before him, he decided.
That alone took him a solid ten minutes of work, struggling to hold a pen with his beak and one foot while balanced on the other and cursing the loss of his laptop. Once he'd got something readable scrawled out, he hopped back to the window and climbed out onto the sill. Four stories up, Eric swallowed nervously. Then he spread his wings. No problem. He launched himself into the air and headed off in the direction of nearby Hill Park, to retrace the path he'd taken on that first day.
Felix had first gone over to the room whose key he'd given to Arthur to check up on her. His sensitive ears had picked up the sound of her humming to herself and dancing around the room, though, and he'd decided not to disturb her; the fact that she was doing her usual afternoon ballet practice suggested everything was fine. That left him with no particular goals in mind. He wasn't about to go back to Eric's room so soon after leaving, despite his concerns; Eric obviously hadn't wanted him around for a while and Felix was feeling quite restless in his own right. He began prowling aimlessly through the hallways of the hotel. He didn't feel very comfortable about the place, there were too many strange scents and sounds filling the air. He was still having a hard enough time getting used to his enhanced senses to want to bombard them with all of that.
The door to one of the rooms opened as he approached and a woman stepped out who was part cow. She had patchy black-and-white hide, a bovine head complete with short horns, long ears, and a broad snout, and a ropy tufted tail swishing nervously behind her. She also had a clanking cowbell hanging from a thick leather collar buckled around her neck, presumably made unremovable by the convention's magic. But her most eye-catching feature was the huge pink udder on her belly, bulging out from under her far-too-small T-shirt. "Oh!" she halted in surprise upon spotting Felix, wincing as the jolt caused her udder to jiggle. "I'm sorry, I was just... oh, hell, I guess you'll do. I really need some help. Would you mind, uh... milking me?" She looked abashedly down at the floor and raised her hands to show them to him; her thumbs had been reduced to mere stubs, and her fingers had been replaced with a pair of ordinary cloven hooves. "I just can't do it with these, and my friend isn't here right now."
Felix just blinked and stared for a moment, completely taken aback by the request. "I'm kind of in a hurry," he mumbled as he hurried past her, "sorry." He heard the woman groan in disappointment or discomfort behind him, and thought it sounded exactly like a cow lowing. I think I'll head outside for a while, he resolved. I'm sure it's a lovely day out.
There were a couple of police cars parked outside the hotel entrance, virtually the only vehicles left in the parking lot, but to Felix's relief there didn't seem to be anyone standing guard. He knew there were roadblocks on all the routes out of the immediate area, but they were quite a distance away leaving plenty of space on the convention center's grounds to go walking without being disturbed. Felix would rather not deal with any more people right now.
If only I could wear clothes, Felix thought wistfully to himself as he padded down a sidewalk that led into a more concealing grove of trees some distance away. Many other people who'd been turned partially into animals like he had were able to wear them without them magically disintegrating into scraps of cloth, or turning into something else more appropriate to their forms like Arthur's clothing did, and he still hadn't come up with a clear answer for why he himself fell into the group that was condemned to permanent nudity instead. Perhaps it's just because I thought I looked good in fur, he reflected bitterly. If only I hadn't gone with the full-body suit... There were very many potential "if-only"s, of course, and Felix sighed. It could have been worse; at least his fur was sufficient to provide for his modesty if he didn't think too hard about the fact that it wasn't a costume any more. He looked no more naked than a real cat would, which wasn't all that bad if he could just get used to it.
The sidewalk ran out of cement and transitioned to fine gravel surfacing as Felix got deeper into the patch of woods. At least the lack of shoes isn't a big problem, he thought as he scuffed his feet. These pawpads feel pretty tough. He found he had to chuckle at least a little thinking of the tracks he'd leave in softer soil; he didn't put much weight on his heels when he walked any more and the rest of his footprint would look like the pawprint of a very large cat indeed. He flexed his toe claws. Scary lion-tracks...
He was interrupted in mid-thought as the sound of a dog barking filtered in from the distance. Felix froze, pointed ears rotating to catch the sound better and localize it. It barked again... coming closer. He broke into a sprint as fear lanced through his body like an electric shock, the fur along his back and tail standing straight up and his ears flattened back down against his skull. More barking, even closer; there seemed to be several of them. I'm being chased by a pack of dogs, he thought with frantically. There's no way I'll outrun them. I don't believe this. There was only one escape route that he could think of, and he turned off of the trail just as the pack of dogs burst into view.
Felix scrambled up the trunk of a massive old tree, claws digging easily into the rough bark. The dogs leapt and snapped at his heels, but he was just ahead of them; he reached the canopy, leaping up several more branches with feline speed and agility borne of sheer feline terror. The dogs circled the base of the tree, jumping and barking futilely at him. Felix clung to the trunk, panting heavily while he tried to calm down.
It was hard with the incessant barking coming from below, but eventually Felix managed to convince himself he was safe for the moment; none of the dogs was capable of climbing up after him, and he was anchored quite firmly to his perch. He glared down at the animals and tried to think of what to do next. There were a total of three dogs, a pair of scruffy-looking medium-sized strays led by a much bigger dog who was obviously the pack leader. Felix figured he could have fought off the two small ones, but the third... Felix blinked. It was no normal dog. He recognized a suggestion of human form in its canine body, not nearly enough for it to walk on two legs but enough to mark it as more than a normal animal for someone who knew to interpret it. The lead dog was a conventioneer.
"Hey!" Felix called down to it. "Leave me alone, dog! I'm a person, like you!"
The big dog looked up at Felix and barked with renewed vigor, no recognition at all in its dark brown eyes. Felix winced. It was one of the ones who had completely lost themselves to their new body's instincts; there was a good chance that even if there was someone inside the dog who understood his words he wouldn't be able to control himself enough to act on them. The police had tried to round up the worst cases, with the Department of Animal Control setting up a temporary facility to hold them in, but a lot had slipped through or been overlooked in the confusion.
Felix's fur bristled slightly as a different sort of fear passed through him; forget about the clothing issue, had things turned out somewhat differently he might have wound up like that dog himself. It was a sobering thought. But it didn't help him solve the more immediate problem of getting away from these dogs; he forced it out of his mind and looked around for any ideas that might help.
There were no trees nearby that Felix would have felt safe jumping to; they were either too thin or too far, and even if he made it the dogs would simply follow along underneath. He'd walked quite a distance from the hotel and convention center, and he'd been deliberately heading where people were least likely to be, so it was unlikely that anyone else would come along to help him... Felix suddenly laughed, realizing that the cell phone on his belt had completely slipped his mind. He reached down for it.
The laugh died in his throat. The phone wasn't there. Felix looked down and gave a disgusted yowl. The cell phone was lying on the ground right below him; it must have slipped out of its loop when he'd scrambled up the tree. Some help this damned belt turned out to be, he grumbled angrily. The one and only damned thing I've been able to wear... There was no way to get at the phone with those dogs still down there, and once they were gone he wouldn't even need it any more. Felix sighed and carefully maneuvered himself into a more comfortable and secure perch on one of the tree's limbs. "So I guess now we wait each other out," he muttered at the dogs below. The dogs responded with a renewed cacophony of senseless barking, and Felix decided that any further talking would just encourage them.
He quietly settled down, preparing for a long and boring wait.
Eric grumbled at the distant sound of dogs barking their heads off at something somewhere, disturbed from his attempt to meditate. He opened his eyes and launched back into the air again, heading away from the sound and deeper into the park to find a more peaceful perch. His goal was the same as the first time he'd come out here right after the transformation, to find a place where he was safe and alone so that he could turn his attention inward for a while.
He shortly found a small picnic shelter building, and landed on the eaves. There, this should do. Now, what am I here for? Eric closed his eyes and tried once again to search for the feeling of the power that had flowed through him that day. He started by searching his own body for it, as usual; if the mask that had contained it was anywhere, it was probably still inside him in some way.
This time Eric swore he could almost feel it, like a small throbbing spot deep in his chest. Or maybe that's just my heart, he sighed. Still, he did his best to try bringing it out, spreading his wings and picturing human arms. Come on, dammit, I can almost taste it...
There was a sudden loud thunk from the roof next to him, and one of the shingles exploded into fragments.
Eric cringed and opened his eyes, looking around frantically for what had caused it. A black silhouette was descending rapidly towards him from the sky, a silhouette with a pointed hat on her head, a rifle in her hands, and a broomstick between her legs. Eric cawed in alarm and leapt into the air as another bullet hit nearby.
The witch was fast. Eric pumped his wings harder, but broomflight seemed effortless; she pulled up beside him and fired several more shots as he dodged and wove through the air. He was close enough to hear the crack of the gun quite clearly now, and also the witch's high-pitched cackling. He cawed again, in anger this time, an dove down towards the woods. She's fast, but is she maneuverable?
She stayed with the high ground, flying high over the treetops and shooting down at him as he hurtled between them. Holy shit! he screamed as he had several near misses with branches, though in the heat of the moment it came out as just another inarticulate raven's cry. I haven't practiced this sort of flying! What am I doing!?
Finally, realizing the branches were more likely to hit him than the witch's bullets, Eric pumped his wings harder and shot back into the sky again. The witch pursued, taking a moment to reload the rifle and then opening fire again. From his higher vantage, Eric looked around for someplace to go for protection. Orlando's suburbs were visible all around the long strip of parkland the convention center and hotels were in, and on one of the snakey roads that went into them he spotted a couple of police cars sitting next to a roadblock. It was far away, but he dove again to pick up speed.
The witch dove too, and pulled up right beside him. She gave a hideous cackle, and then fired off three quick shots at close range before Eric could even begin to bank. All of them missed by a wide margin, though, and then Eric heard the gun click as the witch ran out of ammunition again. "Dammit!" she screamed, hurling the empty rifle in Eric's general direction.
Eric pulled up and did a quick circle, watching the rifle plummet towards the ground and then break when it hit the pavement of a tennis court below. I guess a rifle is not the best birding gun to use from a flying broom, Eric thought with a sense of almost delirious relief. The witch circled too, like a sparring partner looking for an opening to strike, glaring and muttering under her breath. Eric began to feel more than a little angry himself now. He glared back at her, heart pounding, and called out "What do you want from me, anyway?"
"I want you dead and in hell, warlock!" The witch spat back at him. "I want this curse you've laid on us to end!"
You think I'm not trying to end it myself? Eric cawed angrily at the witch, and felt something odd that made his vision waver for a moment. The witch must have felt something too; her eyes widened and she started looking a little frightened. She cursed again and sped away, leaning forward and spurring her broom to a speed much greater than Eric could hope to match. He didn't try, a little confused about why she'd fled so abruptly and realizing that he had no weapons of his own anyway. Something weird just happened, he thought to himself, unable to figure out exactly what.
Then he snorted. Yeah, like everything was perfectly normal before. Wheeling around one more time, Eric turned back towards the hotel. Suddenly a nice confined room with lots of other people present sounded like an excellent place to do some thinking.
Humming the final grand flourish of the ballet, Arthur twirled one last time across the small hotel room and then sank to the floor with a split and a bow. She held the pose for a long moment, breathing a little harder than normal from the exertion of her performance, and then rose smoothly back to her feet.
The imagined orchestra now silent, replaced it in her mind with the sound of an imagined audience giving thunderous applause. Part of Arthur wanted to grimace in embarrassment at the thought, but couldn't suppress the radiant smile that came to her face instead. She bowed gracefully a few more times. Then the imagined curtains finally closed and Arthur relaxed with a sigh. The practice session had left her feeling good despite herself, even moreso than usual. She began doing a few wind-down stretches to keep anything from cramping up.
Something tapped on the windowpane, scaring the wits out of her and sending her leaping into the corner to dodge any bullets that might come smashing through. A moment later the tapping came again, and Arthur struggled to calm herself; the momentary panic had set her heart hammering far faster than the workout immediately beforehand did. Bullets don't knock before entering, she reassured herself, and snuck over to the window to see what it was.
It was a raven, perched on the windowsill and tapping with its beak. With a sigh of relief Arthur opened the window and popped out the screen to let Eric inside. "You scared the hell out of me," she accused. "What're you doing out there, peeking in fourth-floor windows? It's getting late."
Eric hopped in through the open window, giving himself a little shake and fluffing his plumage. "I wasn't peeking," he cawed indignantly. "Felix isn't back yet and didn't answer his cell phone, so I came up here instead."
Arthur shut the window and then resumed stretching. "I don't know where he is. I haven't seen him since lunch."
Eric was silent for a while, and Arthur did a few more stretches until she felt sufficiently wound down from practice. She sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed in relief. "Well, that's over with. I swear, no real ballerina has to practice this much."
"I bet none are as good as you are, either," Eric countered with a suggestion of a grin conveyed by the angle of his head.
Arthur grimaced and lay back on the bed, automatically adjusting her tutu so that it wouldn't get crumpled in the process. "Bite your tongue, bird-brain. I don't want to hear that kind of compliment." After a moment's pause, she added "How long were you watching?"
"Only a few minutes. I'm kind of amazed you didn't bump into anything, in these small quarters."
This time Arthur didn't object to the compliment. "I just wish I'd had a CD player, I kept forgetting the music near the middle of pieces. I only listened to it once, you know. And of course I had to make the whole performance up as I went along, too, which made things harder..." She trailed off, realizing she was starting to ramble. "So, how've you been?"
"The witch who shot at me this morning tried to kill me again. She couldn't hit me with the rifle, though, so she threw it away. I don't think she'll try a third time tonight. I think I scared her away somehow."
Arthur blinked in surprise and sat up, her own troubles unexpectedly trumped by Eric's. "Um, what? How did you scare her away?"
"I'm not sure. We were circling each other in the air after she threw away her gun, and I felt... something, and my vision went funny for a moment." Eric clacked his beak in frustration. "It's just like when all of this first happened, I felt some kind of power but I don't have any idea how it worked or what it did."
"Wow. Do you think it might have been the same power that caused the transformation in the first place?"
Eric shrugged his wings. "No idea. It could have been, but nothing happened this time."
Arthur sighed. "Well, I guess there's still no end in sight just yet." Then she frowned. "Felix went out, and now he won't answer the phone?"
"I hope he's alright," Arthur murmured, looking out the window at the fading evening twilight.
Felix lay on his belly lazily flicking the tip of his tail back and forth as it hung below him, following it with his eyes. The attention he paid to the rest of the world was betrayed only by the occasional twitch of his ears, keeping tabs on the movement of the nearby dogs. It had been perhaps three hours now since they'd treed him, and they were starting to look like they were losing interest again.
They'd almost left once already an hour or two back, but the cell phone he'd dropped had chosen that exact moment to start ringing. It had driven the dogs back into an excited frenzy of barking, and they'd chewed it up quite badly in the process as well. Felix sighed; it was enough to drive even the calmest of cats to frustration.
Finally, the pack's leader sat up from where he'd been lying and glanced around nervously. Felix didn't betray the slightest reaction, even though the dog's attention seemed focused elsewhere for a change. The dog sniffed the air, whined, and then dejectedly trotted away from the tree. The other two dogs followed, and soon Felix was alone again.
Felix wasn't about to celebrate just yet; he forced himself to remain where he was, draped comfortably along the tree limb, waiting to see if the dogs really had given it up for good. They'd gone far enough away that he could no longer hear them, at least... After about five minutes of nothing, Felix decided he'd risk it. He rose to his hands and knees, stretched mightily to shake off the feeling of long inaction, then climbed down through the branches and jumped the last twenty feet to land in a silent, alert crouch. No dogs lunged out in ambush from anywhere. Felix slowly relaxed, then grinned and licked the ruffled fur on his shoulder smugly. Stupid dogs. No tactics at all.
Then his nose twitched, and Felix spun to stare at the source of a scent that had just registered on him. A dark figure was crouched in the underbrush only a few tens of feet away, obscured by shadows even with his enhanced night vision. The only feature that he could make out instantly were a pair of intensely green eyes with vertically slitted pupils... Felix blinked. "Mrrowl?" He murmured in surprise.
A set of pointed white teeth appeared with the other feline's answering grin, and then she stood up and stepped out of the darkness. She was a humanoid cat, though not quite in the same way that he was. Her fur was pure black, shorter than his, though she had straight black shoulder-length hair in addition. Both her head and her legs were more catlike although her torso remained quite human in form. It took a second before he noticed it, but she was wearing a short, slinky dress that matched her pelt's color perfectly.
"Treed by those dogs?" She asked.
Felix nodded, trying to hide his acute embarrassment. "Yeah. Pack of three. I think you scared them off."
"They probably caught my scent. I kicked the crap out of them two nights ago, they leave me alone now."
Felix blinked, surprised and impressed; he doubted he'd have been able to even stand his ground against them. Moving his attention on to another subject, he picked up his heavily gnawed cell phone and tried to turn it on. It didn't even light up, and he put it back in his belt. "Well, thanks for the help. I should probably be headed straight back to the hotel."
"My name's Shawna," the cat-woman introduced herself. "What's yours?"
"Felix," Felix sighed, expecting the usual 'for real?' response to his name. But Shawna didn't bat an eyelash. She nodded and stepped closer, tail swishing back and forth gracefully with her movement. Felix shook his head and tried to regain control of the situation. "I really need to be going," he tried again.
Shawna hesitated. "But it's such a lovely evening for a prowl," she said. "I'm tired of being cooped up in that hotel. Isn't that why you're out here?"
"How did you know that?"
Shawna shrugged. "It's why I'm out here, and since you're a cat like me..." she trailed off, a troubled expression crossing her face. "Well, maybe, maybe not. This curse hit everyone differently, maybe you feel differently. Personally, I can't stand being confined, being told where to be and when. It's driving me nuts. I figured it was a common cat instinct, the whole 'independent hunter' angle or something."
Felix grinned wryly. "You may be right about that. But I've got responsibilities, and I can't just ignore them."
"You have no idea how familiar that sounds," Shawna sympathized with a weary, understanding tone. But then her expression turned sly and somewhat playful. "Tell you what. I scared off those dogs for you, letting you get out of that tree earlier than if you'd just waited for them to leave on their own. Don't you therefore owe me a little of your time? If there's nothing really urgent you need to do, why not take a little walk with me before heading back, hmm?"
"Well..." Felix was of two minds on her offer. On the one hand, with the cell phone broken he had no way of knowing whether there was anything really urgent he was needed for. But on the other, her comments about being cooped up in the hotel had struck a chord. He'd been continually on the job for five days now, and while normally that wouldn't be a problem he admitted that his catlike nature must have been starting to get to him. "I guess I never did get far on my walk before I got treed, I might as well finish it."
Shawna smiled. "Great. I'm glad to finally have a chance at a little company. Shall we?" She seemed relieved at his acceptance, but also a little nervous. Felix thought it was a somewhat odd reaction, and found himself getting curious about this woman.
Felix smiled too, and they began strolling quietly through the woods together. Just remember what curiosity did to the cat, a corner of his mind warned. Felix nodded absently to himself and walked onward.
There were other things to catch Felix's attention as they walked, too. He hadn't been out at night like this since he transformed, and he was beginning to realize his senses had changed more than he'd originally thought. The deepening twilight seemed almost as bright as day even though the sun had finished setting a while ago, but with a much different quality to it than normal daylight would have; it came from everywhere, a diffuse nighttime glow of starlight. The air had a crisper scent to it, and even felt different blowing through his fur. The distant sound of traffic faded, letting his pointed ears focus more on the whisper of night life and the soft padding of their paws on the grass. It was quite beautiful.
Felix and Shawna both froze as they simultaneously heard a quiet rustle nearby, crouching down and searching for the source of the sound. Felix spotted it almost immediately; a short distance away on the edge of a small clearing there was a rabbit munching on the shrubbery. Felix's heart quickened and he slowly prowled around to the left, trying to get farther downwind, and Shawna followed his lead. The rabbit didn't seem to notice. Felix grinned, his tail flicking back and forth intently as he slowly slunk forward to get into pouncing distance.
"Wait," Shawna murmured quietly. "What are you going to do?" Felix twitched, startled just as he was coiling up to spring, and the rabbit suddenly noticed him. He leapt at the rabbit anyway, despite it having been tipped off by Shawna's voice.
Felix came to a stop after only a few steps, letting it get away. "Uh... I was trying to catch it," he mumbled. He hadn't really considered what he was doing until Shawna had asked, though, and he suddenly felt quite unsettled. He'd always managed to easily restrain such impulses regarding Eric...
"I thought we were just trying not to disturb it," Shawna said quietly.
"I don't know. I didn't think." Felix glanced at Shawna, and part of him was angry she'd alerted his prey like that, but a larger part suddenly was more grateful towards her for that than he had for driving away the dogs. "I guess I shouldn't have missed supper," he finished lamely.
Shawna nodded. "I usually eat before I come out. I... sometimes feel that way too, when I'm hungry. I should have realized." Then she smiled. "I guess you're going to want to go back to the hotel now. How about I walk back with you? I could join you for dinner. A properly cooked one."
Felix started to object, but then sighed and grinned. "That sounds excellent. If you don't mind cutting your evening stroll short, that is."
"Oh, of course not. To tell the truth, I was starting to wish for a more social setting myself. I'd love to talk more, and out here like this it just doesn't feel right." She swished her tail, still grinning but with a slightly nervous tone sneaking into her voice. "The night brings out my animal side more."
Felix nodded. "You handled it better than I did," he reassured her.
"My animal side... has other needs tonight." She spoke very quietly.
Felix blinked, caught by off-guard by her revelation. "Oh. Uh..." He swallowed hard, suddenly acutely aware again of his nakedness. Now that he thought of it, she really was attractive, and her scent was quite desirable. He blushed under his fur and desperately hoped he wasn't about to embarrass himself.
Shawna just chuckled nervously, though, and touched him lightly on the arm. "Don't worry, I've got it under control." She reassured him. "I really do just want to chat over dinner... I could use the company. I was starting to feel like I was going nuts trying to deal with this on my own."
Felix's thoughts jumbled for a moment. On the one hand, he knew he really shouldn't; if nothing else, he was worried about his modesty if anything happened in public. But on the other hand, he hadn't had a nice date in months... years, even. "Alright," he agreed. "But not in the dining room, let's get room service, okay?"
"Thank you. I promise to behave."
Each of them emitted a simultaneous sigh of relief at their arrangement, and then smiled at the other's reaction. "Let's go."
Arthur paced nervously back and forth across the room, moving with delicate tip-toe steps and using a different style of turn at each end of her path. The more agitated she became, the more elaborate and dance-like the performance was; she didn't have the spare attention available to suppress it right now. She finally forced herself to stop moving altogether, sitting down on the edge of the bed in a huff and glaring at Eric as he perched quietly on the table watching her.
"I'm sure Felix is okay," Eric calmly reassured her again.
"I still don't know how you can be so sure of that," Arthur complained.
Eric cocked his head thoughtfully. "I'm not entirely sure either. But I'm beginning to think that maybe I'm getting a handle on the power that caused this. I can feel... something, I don't know exactly what, when I try looking inward now." Eric shook his head, frustrated by his inability to explain it in words. "It feels like Felix is okay. And all we know is that his phone isn't on, anyway; perhaps he just wanted some privacy to help him get away from all this."
Arthur sighed. "Eric Winters, mystical deity-bird. Not how I ever imagined you ending up." Still, she could certainly understand how one might switch off one's cell phone under these circumstances; Arthur had tried to hide from it all by coming up here, herself. "Well, I guess you can stay with me until he gets back," she reluctantly offered. "I didn't have any plans."
"Thanks." Eric hopped off of the table and flapped over to land next to her on the bed. "Personally, I'm not so wild about this deity thing myself. I wasn't even entirely used to my net financial worth yet. But I guess we all play the hands we're dealt."
Arthur scowled for a moment, and then remembered that Eric wasn't joking. When his investment choices had unexpectedly paid off enormously a few years back she'd been worried it was going to turn him into an asshole, forgetting about old friends like Arthur. And for a while she'd thought that it might be happening, Eric had started chatting with her less frequently, acting more guarded and aloof. But eventually she'd confronted him about it and discovered he'd been withdrawing from her because of the exact same fears; he'd been just about ready to start divesting his newfound wealth out of fear that it was isolating him. "You'll always be just a plain old scavenger to me," she reassured him with a grin.
"Gee. Thanks again, Buttercup." Eric's retort was in good humor; this was the kind of friendly verbal sparring they'd always enjoyed and Arthur didn't feel at all put down when Eric said it. They kept it up for a few minutes just like old times, and Arthur even began to feel somewhat relaxed about the whole situation. But then Eric turned serious again. "By the way, considering that I've still got an insane witch on my tail, I'm thinking it might be best if Felix and I moved on soon. Do you want me to arrange for your ticket back, too? Last I heard the airlines were reluctant to transport any of us, and that's a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it..."
Arthur's grin faded and she fell silent, caught off-guard by the question. "I... don't really know. I'm not sure what I'll do once I'm back home." She tugged on the edge of her tutu, noting that the gesture had apparently become a nervous habit and resolving to try to break it in the future. "I spend half my time practicing, whether I want to or not. And the rest of the time... I can't go out to work like this." She gestured down at her outfit.
"Do you have anyone to stay with?"
She sighed. "That's exactly the sort of reaction I'm worried about," she complained. "I've been getting it from practically everyone I've met to since the convention, the 'oh, she's just a little girl, she can't handle things on her own, where's her mommy?' I'm a grown man, why can't I live on my own? Why won't anyone believe it?" But Arthur found that she was answering her own question as she spoke, her voice rising and tears flooding her eyes. "Dammit, I can't even keep my emotions under control, can't even control my own body any more..." she broke down into sobs, crying unrestrained.
Eric could only sit next to her in an awkward silence, not knowing what to say and not being in the right shape to offer much physical comfort. But Arthur eventually cried herself out on her own. "I wish Felix were here," Eric ventured at last. "He's much more huggable than me now."
Arthur laughed, wiping her face. "Oh, thank you, Eric. You don't let anything change the stupid crap you say to me."
"You're the one arguing with a bird, remember," Eric countered. But he remained somewhat serious, and added "The offer still stands, though. You can stay at my house until you've got things worked out or I've managed to fix everything. Consider it an extended vacation."
Arthur nodded, sniffing and clearing her throat. "That does sound reasonable. I think I'll probably take you up on it." She'd stayed over at Eric's house on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico before, and it was quite a nice place. Not enormous, but nicely private, and it had a very large living room that would make an excellent makeshift dance studio.
"Well, then. I suppose I'd better head back down and check if Felix is back yet." Eric flapped over to the table again, waiting by the window for Arthur to open it. "You know our room number, give a call if he shows up here instead, okay?"
Arthur got up and let him out, closing the window again behind him and drawing the curtains. Then she flopped back down on the bed and sighed, exhausted. "What a day," she mumbled, glad it was finally close to being over.
Eric flew across the face of the hotel, reflecting with some amusement on how easy it was to travel outside the hotel compared to how difficult it would have been for him to cover the same distance inside it. Only a few rooms were still lit, making it a little harder to navigate than it had before, but he quickly spotted his room by its open window. He began his landing approach. Just before he arrived, though, he suddenly realized that there was someone in there saying something. There was no time to abort his landing, and if it was the witch again-
Silence! He thought urgently, flapping hard. He came to a stop just outside the windowsill and touched down... in total silence. Eric blinked in surprise, so startled by the unexpected sound-suppression that he almost forgot about the mystery occupant of his room.
"...so then he loaded them all in a van and took them to the pawnshop." Eric sighed silently in relief as he recognized the voice, it was only Felix. But then someone chuckled in response to Felix's comment, and he tensed again; he didn't recognize that one. He carefully poked his beak through the curtains for a peek.
Felix and another humanoid cat, black-furred and female, were sitting together at the table. They were sharing a chicken dinner and chatting amiably; Eric cocked his head and listened in.
"Sounds like quite a fellow," the female cat said.
Felix nodded. "Yes, that he is." He picked up the last drumstick and began finishing it off; the woman had apparently already eaten her own portion of the food. She took advantage of the lull in conversation to discretely lick her pawlike hands, cleaning them. "It's always interesting to work for him," Felix resumed speaking once he'd finished eating. "I must admit... even this whole convention fiasco has been fascinating. Almost fun."
The woman nodded. "Still, it'll be nice when it's finally over. Maybe we can look each other up again afterward."
Felix nodded, leaning back and sighing in satisfaction from the meal. He spent a minute licking his own fingers, the woman sitting and watching him with a wistful smile on her feline features. Finally, she asked "do you know when he'll be back, by any chance?"
"The note didn't say. He may be gone all night, for all I know."
The woman seemed quite relieved by that news. "I'm glad. I think you're a much more interesting person yourself, Felix." She reached out and touched Felix's hand, gently running a fingertip over his striped grey fur.
Eric thought for a moment that Felix was going to pull his hand back, but to his surprise the cat-man didn't. He placed his other hand on hers instead. "Shawna..." he began quietly.
Shawna's smile fell. "I'm sorry, I promised I'd behave myself. I guess I should be going now."
"No, it's okay," Felix murmured. He took her hand in his and then hesitantly rubbed his cheek against the back of it. "You're an interesting person too," he rumbled quietly. "I'd enjoy it if you'd stay a while longer." Shawna's smile returned, positively sensuous this time, and her tail swished playfully behind her. The two leaned closer over the table.
Eric launched from the windowsill, flying in a wide, gradual climb around the outside of the hotel while his mind whirled. Wow, Felix has a romantic side, he thought in stunned disbelief. It was only after slowly circling the building a few times, noting that Arthur's light was off in the process, that he managed to pry his attention away from that subject and remember the way he'd somehow gone into stealth mode just before landing on the windowsill. His flapping was once again making noise, but he distinctly recalled the eerie silence he'd cloaked himself in earlier.
He had done it deliberately, too, if not consciously; his first frantic instinct upon detecting intruders in his room had been to hide himself from their senses. I must try to duplicate that, he realized. I think I just worked my first bit of real magic since the convention. Eric flew up to the roof of the hotel. It was dark up there, and quiet, and solitary; the perfect place to work on the problem.
If he could first get his mind past the shocking revelation of Felix's romantic side, that is.
Felix woke slowly, in no great hurry to move from the comfortable spot he lay curled in. There was an odd rumbling sound in his ears, and a minute of sleepy consideration he realized it was coming from his own throat. I'm purring, he thought with a grin. Well, of course. Someone's stroking my back. Feels good.
Waking the rest of the way at that thought, he blinked and turned over to discover Shawna lying on the bed next to him. She was propped up on one elbow, watching him with her emerald green cat's eyes. "Morning," she said with a shy smile.
Felix blinked as the night's events came back to him, and then grinned in embarrassment. "Good morning," he responded, and hesitantly reached out to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand. "Not sure what else to say. I wasn't expecting this."
Shawna smiled, and then playfully leaned over to nuzzle his neck. "You were fine," she assured him. "I had a wonderful time." Still, Felix couldn't help but notice a somehow wistful, haunted cast to her expression. He gave her a hug before sitting up and looking around the room.
Eric wasn't present. Felix felt both great relief and a good deal of concern; he'd been gone for rather a long time now, but on the other hand he certainly hadn't minded the privacy. "I'd love to lie here all morning," he said, "but I'm afraid I've got work to do."
Shawna nodded. "I know exactly what you mean," she sighed sadly. "I've got obligations to fulfil soon myself. I'm sorry." She got up, stretched, and then began licking down her thoroughly rumpled fur.
Felix tore his eyes away from the sight and did a little grooming himself. First thing to do is call the front desk, he thought out his schedule. See if they've heard from Eric. Then get in contact with Batesman to see about possible travel problems. I bet Eric will want to get on the move today. I... I guess I should give Shawna my private number...
There came a tap at the window, causing both Felix and Shawna to jump in surprise. Shawna grabbed her dress from where it lay draped over the back of a chair and hurriedly pulled it on while Felix went to peek through the curtains. Eric was perched on the sill, head cocked. "'Morning, Felix," he chirped. "Sorry to disturb you so early, but there's lots to do today. Is your guest decent?"
Felix glanced back at Shawna, and she nodded reluctantly. She seemed very tense all of a sudden, especially compared to how relaxed she was a moment ago, but Felix couldn't really blame her. "Yes, come on in," he said. "Allow me to introduce Shawna. I met her yesterday in the park."
Eric hopped in through the window and nodded towards her. "Pleased to meet you, miss," he greeted cordially, and then gave Felix a sly wink. "I couldn't reach your cellphone. I'm glad nothing happened to you while I was busy."
Felix sighed, and then grinned wryly. "No, sir, nothing to report. If you might excuse me for a few minutes longer, though?" Eric nodded and began preening his feathers in a show of inattention. Felix turned back to Shawna. "I'm afraid duty's going to be calling this morning again," he said regretfully. Then, feeling awkward, he added "Uh... may I walk you back to your room?"
Shawna didn't respond; she was looking intently at Eric, oblivious of everything else. "Eric Winters," she said softly, "I've been wanting to meet you."
Both Felix and Eric blinked in surprise. "Flattered, miss," Eric responded with a puzzled bow. Felix remained silent, uncertain of what was going on.
Shawna walked past him and approached Eric, extending her hand. "I'm very sorry," she began, "but if I may..."
Then she pounced at him, snatching Eric before either he or Felix had a chance to realize her intent, holding him by the neck and preparing to wring it like a chicken's.
"Shawna! What are you-" Felix lunged at Shawna and grabbed her arms, frantically trying to get Eric free before she killed him. He only had a split second, and it was just enough time for the realization to dawn that he wouldn't make it...
Miraculously, Eric suddenly slipped free of Shawna's grip. Shawna yowled and and swiped at him with claws extended, trying to bat him out of the air. Again miraculously, her hand passed right through him without causing any apparent damage at all. Eric wheeled around, disoriented and squawking incoherently, and flew off in the direction of the bathroom. Felix tackled Shawna as she tried to give chase, pulling her down while trying not to hurt her in the process.
Shawna went berserk in his grip, snarling and thrashing at him wildly. Felix cried out in pain, vainly trying to deflect her wickedly sharp claws without letting her slip away from him. "Shawna! Ack! Shawna, what's wrong!?" Her only response was to knee him hard in the stomach; her wild green eyes were staring monomaniacally in the direction Eric had fled.
Felix had no choice. He slammed his forehead hard against hers and she was momentarily stunned by the blow. Felix wasn't much better off, but at least he'd been prepared for it; he took the opportunity to grab hold of her wrists and force her over onto her belly, holding her in a securely incapacitated position. She started struggling again a moment later, but Felix held firm until she went limp with a mewling sob.
"God I'm sorry, Felix," she whimpered. "I had to do it. I had to try."
Felix didn't have the breath to respond, all of his effort going into trying to keep Shawna in his grip and regaining his breath. He was still wheezing hard from the knee she'd put to his gut, and blood was dripping into one of his eyes; he didn't know if it was from the headbutt he'd given her or from the clawing she'd given him. All he knew was that he'd just barely beaten her, and only because she hadn't been focusing on him at all during the fight. He didn't want to think much beyond that right now.
Several minutes passed with only the sound of their harsh breathing. Felix didn't hear Eric flapping any more, and was beginning to get worried; maybe he'd been seriously hurt despite how quickly he'd managed to slip out of Shawna's hands. But just as Felix was starting to think of ways to reach the telephone without letting Shawna go there finally came a rush of wings. Eric returned carrying a pair of large silvery rings in his talons, flying through the wall into the room like a ghost.
Felix almost let go of Shawna in surprise, but Shawna tensed at the reappearance of her prey and he reflexively tightened his grip instead. Eric dropped what he was carrying and landed clumsily on the table, wheezing and quite badly rumpled himself. "Use those," he grunted, and Felix realized it was a pair of handcuffs. He carefully snagged them with a finger and clipped them into place around her wrists.
Both Felix and Eric breathed a small sigh of relief. "You look like shit, Felix," Eric croaked.
Felix felt that way, too. "What happened?" He asked Shawna with a bewildered tone. She resisted chasing that rabbit last night, why did her control slip so badly this morning? "Should I have got us breakfast first?"
Shawna shook her head. "No," she whimpered, "I... I..." She trailed off with an odd choking sound. Felix eased some of his weight off of her in case he was making it hard for her to breathe, but a moment later she resumed speaking again with a distinctly different tone of voice. "Let her up," she demanded harshly. "The bird has to die for this curse to end!"
Felix didn't respond, realizing that things were developing far too incomprehensibly for him to make a useful contribution at this point. "To whom am I speaking?" Eric asked from his perch, sounding like he already knew the answer.
Shawna laughed, an evil cackle entirely unlike her usual demeanor, and Felix suddenly realized what Eric was thinking. He almost leapt off of Shawna's back but forced himself to remain in place holding her down; now was no time for emotional reactions. "My name isn't important," Shawna answered. "Suffice to say I know that you are the one who is responsible for casting the spell on all of Kublai Con, and I know that you are the one who is maintaining it." She pulled her lips back in a sneering smile. "All you have to do is end it, and there will be no need to kill you. Or do you prefer to remain hunted by those you have cursed?"
"I'm working on it," Eric said defensively.
Shawna laughed again. "Then I'll give you a little incentive. A curse of my own, cast on one you hold dear." Then she shuddered and fell silent.
"Eric, what's going on?" Felix demanded nervously, not sure he wanted to know the answer. "Is she the witch or not?"
"I'm not Tiffany," Shawna mumbled dejectedly from under him. "I'm her familiar."
A wave of relief hit Felix, followed by a welter of other confusing reactions to the revelation. A witch named Tiffany?
"What did she mean by 'a curse of her own,' Shawna?" Eric asked urgently.
Shawna started to reply, but her voice cut off in a strangled grunt before she could get any words out. "I- I can't tell," she managed to choke out. "Tif won't let me." She seemed to be trying hard, though, and Felix was left wondering just whose side she was really on.
"Arthur." Eric hopped over to the window. "Hold her, Felix, I've got to go check on Arthur." He was gone before Felix could respond.
Arthur had awakened bright and early that morning, once again dismayed at how her biological clock had been thrown out of whack by her transformation. There's no work today, she grumbled to herself and snuggled deeper into the blankets, can't I at least sleep in 'till noon? But it was not to be, she was already fully alert and starting to feel restless. She sighed and sat up, climbing out of bed with the blanket wrapped securely around her shoulders. Given the options of sleeping in her ballerina outfit and sleeping in nothing, Arthur had lately found the 'nothing' option to be more palatable.
She showered, brushed her teeth and hair, then regretfully decided not to wear her favorite yellow ballerina outfit today since she'd worn it for two days in a row and it could probably use a wash. She went with one of the two pink-themed ones instead. Ready as she'd ever be to face the day, she considered breakfast. Eggs and toast, I think.
Arthur sighed and shook her head. Just last night she'd been on the edge of breakdown, but after a good night's rest and by the light of morning her problems had once again faded away into the background. I guess I'll worry about long-term things again when I get settled in at Eric's. She thought through her schedule for today as she sat on the edge of the bed lacing her shoes' ribbons around her ankles. Quick breakfast, then pop down to Eric's room before practice to see when they're leaving, then practice as much as I can before we go... A sharp rap on the door broke her train of thought. "Coming," she called out sweetly and jumped to her feet.
The peephole was too high on the door for her to reach, so she left the security chain in place and opened the door a crack to peek at who it was. A woman in a French maid outfit almost as frilly and impractical as her own tutu stood outside with a room-service cart and a feather duster. "Bonjour, leetle girl," she said in a heavy French accent. "May I come een? Eet is maid service."
Arthur shook her head, slightly miffed. "It's way too early."
The maid's face fell. "But I 'ave to clean! I 'ave cleaned next door already!"
"Sorry," Arthur mumbled and shut the door. She heard the maid's cart being wheeled away, and then the sound of her asking at the next room down the hall. At least I'm not exactly unique in my compulsive behavior, she thought to herself, and went to look over the breakfast menu from by the phone.
There was another knock on the door. "No room service!" She called out. "Go away!"
"But I have a nice shiny red apple for you," a grating, high-pitched voice entirely unlike the maid's answered. Arthur's heart leapt into her throat, realizing what sort of fairy-tale character a voice like that best suited, and she grabbed the phone to call 911.
The door flew open, locks magically undone, and the witch stepped in. She pulled a gnarled wooden wand from her black cloak, pointing it at Arthur and cackling an incomprehensible word. Arthur screamed and leapt out of the way, dropping the phone as the spell she had cast hit it.
The telephone crumbled into dust.
Arthur crouched on the other side of the bed from the witch, using it as cover while she frantically tried to come up with options for escape. This body's a goddamn gymnast's, she thought, maybe I can dodge past her. Maybe I can get out the window. Maybe... why is she after me, anyway? She peeked over the edge of the bed at the witch, who was still standing in the doorway. "The bird isn't here!" She cried out desperately.
"Oh, I'm aware of that," the witch cackled as she tucked the wand away somewhere under her cloak. "In fact, I was counting on it. He's growing dangerously aware of his own power, I don't want to face him directly again. So if I can't kill him myself or by proxy, I'll just have to convince him to do it himself." She grinned, a fearsome expression on her ugly snaggle-toothed face, and pulled out an ornately carved wooden box. "I can't counteract the curses he cast on all of us, but I can build on them. I can show him what it's like." She opened the box's lid.
Delicate, tinkling notes of music began to play. Arthur's eyes widened as a strange shock jolted through her. What the..!? She rose stiffly to her feet, her body moving against her will, and assumed a pose with her arms raised and one leg lifted off the floor. Arthur struggled against what was happening, but couldn't even twitch the corner of the broad, artificial smile fixed on her lips. This was nothing like any of her earlier compulsions to dance at the sound of music, this was more like she was some kind of puppet being jerked around on strings. "S-stop," she managed to force the words out past the smile. "Please."
The witch left the music box open, playing its little tune. Arthur began stiffly twirling in place, going through the motions of dance robotically. Her limbs were beginning to feel oddly numb and rigid, and she suddenly realized that she was starting to shrink. Oh god, no! She tried to scream, but she was having difficulty even breathing now. Her skin started taking on a shiny, artificial finish, with seams fading in at the joints that still flexed, but then her eyes locked solidly in place and prevented her from seeing more of what was happening.
When the music finally stopped she was less than six inches tall. Her body stopped shrinking and instantly fell into a final pose as her dance ended, balanced on her tiptoes with her arms raised gracefully over her head. Despite the most desperate struggles that she could exert, she couldn't budge a millimeter from that position. She couldn't even make herself fall over.
The witch picked her up, holding her with a thumb and forefinger clamped around her inflexible abdomen. Arthur screamed in her mind as she was lifted high into the air, frozen solid and utterly helpless. I'm a doll! She turned me into a fucking doll! The witch held her before her looming, leering face, inspecting her for a moment. Then she placed Arthur inside the box, her feet magically clinging to the circular platform inside like magnets. "Like your new home, my little music-box dancer?" she cackled with glee. "You're going to be in it for all eternity, displayed for my amusement."
Arthur nearly managed to scream herself hoarse without emitting the slightest sound outside the confines of her own mind. The witch reacted almost like she could still hear her, though, and her grin widened with Arthur's silent pleas and curses. She began winding up the music box's mechanism again.
Both Felix and Shawna remained silent for several minutes after Eric had flown away. Felix remained seated firmly on her back, trying to remain wary of any sudden moves while at the same time trapped deep in conflicting thoughts and emotions.
"I'm really sorry, Felix," Shawna mumbled at last.
Felix glared down at her and suppressed a snarl, not wanting to let on just how upset he was. "I suppose you are. You failed."
Shawna winced. "That too, I guess. But I really didn't mean to hurt you. I wanted to wait longer for you to leave first, but Tif was in my head and wouldn't let me."
"Was she in your head last night too?" Felix demanded, some of his bitterness slipping into his voice.
"No! Please, you have to believe me, I'm her familiar but I'm not her puppet. At least not all the time. Actually, last night was just about the only time since the con..." She trailed off with a sigh. "Damn it, I'm all screwed up. Me and Tiffany are friends, at least we were before our costumes became real. Now she treats me like a slave and I can't do anything except go along with it. I don't even know if she realizes how much she's changed." Shawna sniffed, her own emotions leaking into her voice as well.
Felix regarded her silently for a moment. She certainly seemed sincere... but so had she last night. "Do you want to kill Eric too?" He finally asked.
"Yes," Shawna admitted with a sob. "If it'll get Tiffany back to the way she was, not all twisted up and evil like she is now, I'd do it."
"There has to be a better way. But what do I know about magic?" Felix sighed. "I just hope Arthur's okay."
Shawna sobbed again. "I wish she was."
Felix gritted his teeth. That didn't sound good.
Eric landed on the sill of Arthur's window, magically suppressing the sound of his wings and peering carefully through the glass to see what was in the room. The sheets were pulled open on Arthur's bed, but she was nowhere to be seen even though Eric could hear the chiming notes of ballet music playing inside. Coppelia, I think, Eric tried to place the tune. Ghost. Turning insubstantial with that thought, he stepped through the glass.
The music was coming from an ornately carved wooden music box that sat open on the desk by the TV, with a ballerina figurine twirling slowly inside it. Eric hopped over for a closer look and blinked in shocked recognition. "Arthur?" He whispered. The figurine didn't visibly react, continuing to dance its stiff mechanical dance as it rotated on its platform. But Eric could feel Arthur's panic and desperation, trapped inside her inanimate prison, and he began trying to think of some way to help or communicate with her.
Last night he had made what he thought was the key breakthrough he'd been trying to accomplish for so long; he'd finally figured out how to manipulate the strands of magic he'd been sensing since the day of his transformation. But he'd only figured out how to do a few small things so far, and when he tried to sense the tangle of what had been done to Arthur it was like a tight bundle of piano wire under his imaginary fingers. Where could he even begin?
"Can't undo my spell, eh bird?" Eric spun at the harsh voice behind him. The witch appeared from a dark shadow in the corner of the room, stepping out from where she'd been hiding. "A witch can't undo another witch's weave, only add to it. Your ballerina will only go free when I do."
Eric glared at her. "I didn't do this on purpose!" He spat. "This is stupid, it's not going to help. Why not just show me how to undo this spell, so I can make everyone happy?"
"Because you won't," the witch spat back. "You think I want to be doing this? I hate what I am, but I can't be anything else. You are Raven the Trickster. Is this not the most incredible trick ever pulled by man or deity? You'll never change us back!"
"I am Eric Winters. I'm not a god, Raven or otherwise, I just look like one."
The witch cackled. "And I am Tiffany Sanders! Sweet, innocent little Tiffany!" She pulled a gnarled wooden stick from her cloak and pointed it at Eric. "Die, Raven!"
Eric felt a moment of fear, once again at the wrong end of the witch's weapon, but this time he reacted with an attack of his own. He lashed out with his imaginary fingers at the dead stick, thinking a command; Sprout! It exploded with new leaves and twigs, and the witch dropped it with a cry of alarm.
The two of them stared at each other for a moment, at an impasse, and then Tiffany cackled again. "It doesn't matter! You can't stop me from casting more curses on others, and others! There's only one way to end my magic!" She grabbed her broom and leapt into the air, flying straight out through the window. The sound of shattering glass mixed with her insane laughter and the delicate melody of Arthur's music box.
Eric remained perched where he was for a moment. "Maybe she's right," he murmured quietly. "But one way or another, I've got to stop her. Arthur, if you can hear me, try not to worry; I'm going to get you out of this. Just... wait here." He lifted off and flew out the window too.
Arthur remained behind, trapped in her wordless dance.
Felix's ears twitched at the distant sound of breaking glass outside. "I wish I knew what was going on," he muttered to himself.
"Tiffany's leaving," Shawna responded with dejection, her voice muffled by the carpet. "Eric's magic's too strong for her to fight directly now."
Felix blinked. "How do you know?"
"I'm her familiar," she sighed. "I've got a mental bond or something." Then she stiffened in alarm. "Oh no. Eric's chasing her." She tugged experimentally on her handcuffs, and Felix tightened his grip on her arms with a growl of warning. Shawna desisted immediately. "Felix, please, can I at least sit up? I promise I won't attack you again. At least as long as Tiffany doesn't make me, anyway, I can't stop her if she does..." She trailed off, choking on emotion, and then wailed "Oh, Tiffany, why are you doing this?"
Felix was torn. On the one hand, he couldn't trust Shawna; even ignoring how she'd deceived him before, she was admitting that she could be possessed by the witch at any time. But on the other hand... he sighed. This is what I get for not having a date in living memory, he complained to himself as he carefully shifted his weight off of her without giving her any openings to make sudden moves. Still holding her securely, he helped her to her feet and guided her to a chair in the corner of the room.
Shawna sat with her emerald eyes cast to the floor in shame, sniffing quietly to herself for a few minutes. Finally, she raised her head to meet Felix's gaze. "She's flying as fast as she can," she reported. "But Eric's keeping pace somehow. How's he doing that?"
"Even if I knew I couldn't say," Felix replied guardedly. It sounded like Tiffany would be distracted for a while, but even so there was always the chance she'd send a stray command Shawna's way and he'd have to be ready for it.
Shawna hung her head again. "I'm sorry Tiffany's doing all these horrible things. She's not really like this..."
"I'm well aware that people are not necessarily what they seem." Shawna cringed, but didn't reply to Felix's pointed comment.
Felix glanced out the window at the increasingly overcast sky, hoping Eric knew more about what was going on than he did.
The pursuit stretched on and on, with Eric able to keep pace with Tiffany this time thanks to a boost from his magic but still uncertain exactly what he could or should do when he caught up with her. For her part, Tiffany seemed quite willing to remain airborne for as long as necessary to outpace him. They crossed over towns and highways, at one point even being followed for a few miles by a helicopter before their dodging and weaving through a forest had brushed it off.
Maybe I really should just leave this to the police, Eric thought to himself. Just figure out how to knock her out of the sky or corner her somehow... He shook his head. No. They wouldn't have the slightest clue how to handle her, they can't even handle normal conventioneers. It's time for me to take responsibility.
They were approaching a broad expanse of open fields, crossed only by the sparse grid of farm roads; an excellent place to bring her down and confront her. Eric spread his mind's wings and summoned the biggest downdraft he could. The winds he generated hit both himself and the witch, but he was prepared for it and she wasn't; she dove. The second time he buffeted her she was more ready, but he was still creating enough turbulence to cause her more problems than she could easily handle. She screamed an angry incantation at him, but the magic rolled off his feathers like water and only managed to summon a weak thunderclap from the roiling grey clouds overhead.
"Pull over!" Eric shouted as authoritatively as his raven throat could manage. "I want to end this!"
Tiffany glared over her shoulder at him, clinging to her flapping hat to keep it from blowing off in the gusting winds, and skimmed to a landing on the field. Eric swooped down to land on an old fencepost a dozen paces in front of her.
The two watched each other warily as they each caught their breath. At last the witch spoke. "So, Raven, which way's it going to end? Do I have to strangle you with my own bare hands to get you to set things right?"
Eric shook his head. "There has to be some other way. Please, Tiffany..."
"Don't call me that!" Tiffany shrieked. "I'm a witch! An evil, horrendous monster! I curse innocents and use people! There's only one way to stop this, and you're going to have to do it. Now!" A strange grin spread over her face, malicious and frightened at the same time. "Shawna, channel me..."
Shawna's eyes suddenly widened and her head shot up. "Tif, no...!" She exclaimed, and Felix jumped back a step in surprise. Then he took another step backward, fur standing on end all down his spine as Shawna smiled at him ferally. "Hi, loverboy," she greeted him with the witch's mocking tone, and then began chanting a torturous incantation. Felix tried to take yet another step away, but this time he felt like he was caught in some kind of invisible web. He struggled to reach for a chair instead, or any other weapon that came to hand...
Eric saw the lines of power stretching between Tiffany and her familiar back at the hotel, and sensed the pulse of magic flowing through it. It didn't take much thought to realize that this was something he had to disrupt, and he began summoning up some magic of his own. It took a long, precious moment to build... and then thunder shattered the air overhead as lightning arced through the increasingly heavy clouds. Tiffany ducked, startled by the thunderclap, momentarily loosening her grip on Shawna.
Just as the witch uttered the final words of her incantation through Shawna, a spasm passed through her and she screamed "Tif, no!" a second time. Felix didn't know what was happening, but it seemed like it was too late; he felt some kind of power discharging, like static electricity crackling in his fur. But in that split second as the spell launched itself, Shawna spat out an addition to the incantation and then met Felix's gaze with a desperate, pleading look in her eyes.
Her black dress began wrinkling and folding as she started to shrink inside it, and her handcuffs slipped off of her wrists to fall to the floor with a quiet clunk.
Tiffany's eyes widened. "Shawna! No, you fool!" She glared again at Eric, the anger burning even brighter in her gaze now. "She turned it back on herself! Why did she..."
Eric shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry, I wasn't quite quick enough to stop you from completing that spell... but it's too late now for any more. I win."
A puzzled expression passed momentarily over the witch's gnarled features, and then there was another rumble of thunder from the pregnant grey clouds swirling overhead and a look of realization replaced it. "You are the Trickster," she said quietly. "But you're wrong. I win this way, too. My curse is over."
A gust of wind swept off the witch's hat just as the first fat droplets of Eric's magically summoned rainstorm began to fall. Smoke began rising up from under Tiffany's black cloak, and she started sinking down towards the ground. But she didn't run for cover, or even scream. She just looked up at the sky, letting the drops of water run down her face as she melted away.
Eric remained perched on the fencepost for several minutes afterward, watching the empty cloak and abandoned broomstick solemnly. Then he leapt into the air and flapped off back toward the hotel, riding the gusts of his storm.
Arthur closed the empty music box with trembling hands, and then curled up on the floor next to it while she tried to regain some semblance of self-control. She was shaking so hard she couldn't even stand up right now, not even to run away from the box that had imprisoned her, and her thoughts were in too much turmoil to come up with any other ideas for what to do.
It was the most horrible experience she'd ever had, her body reduced to tiny, frozen ballerina perfection, trapped endlessly in the moment of the dance... Arthur shuddered and curled tighter. It had begun to have a kind of perverse, euphoric attraction to some part of her, the part of her that now lived only for ballet. She'd felt its sense of fulfillment even as she'd struggled and screamed against her fate.
It would always be a part of her now, as far as she knew. She'd returned to her original post-convention young-girl form, and although she didn't know exactly why it had happened she felt convinced now that she would never get any closer to her old self again.
A long while later, Arthur finally gathered enough of her wits back together to stand up. Her legs still felt as weak as jelly, but at least they weren't perfectly rigid and inanimate any more; she took her unsteadiness as a positive. I'm a real girl again, she reassured herself. Now, if I want to stay that way, I've got to get out of here. She stumbled over to the door, still left standing partly open from the witch's entry, and out into the hall. Far down at one end was the French maid's cart; had it really only been that long, that she was still cleaning rooms on this floor? Arthur shook her head fiercely, her short pony-tail bouncing with the gesture. It had felt almost like the eternity the witch had promised her. She turned and ran the other way down the hall, recovering her coordination and grace as she went until by the time she reached the elevator she was almost dancing again.
Why do I even bother fighting it? She berated herself bitterly. It's not what I want to be, but it's what I am so I might as well like it. Perfect little ballerina princess doll... The elevator dinged and opened, thankfully interrupting her train of thought.
She took the elevator down a floor and headed off down the hall towards the room Felix and Eric had chosen. She didn't know if Eric would be there, or Felix, but it was all she could think of; it was either that or simply run off in some random direction until she couldn't run any more. She doubted that would solve anything.
Eric. Cripes, what was up with him and that witch? Arthur didn't like thinking back to any part of the time she'd spent as a figurine in the music box, it sent a fundamentally frightening chill down her spine, but she recalled a few details... Arthur reached the door she was after and knocked quickly before her nerve failed her. "Eric? Felix?" She called out with a frightened tone, "It's Arthur, please let me in!"
"It's unlocked," she heard Felix call back in a subdued voice.
She wrenched the door open, ducked inside, and slammed the door shut again behind her. She pressed her back against it and slid to the floor in relief. "God, Felix, you'll never imagine what I just went through..." She trailed off.
Felix was sitting on the edge of one of the beds, holding an ordinary-looking black cat securely in his lap. The cat looked up at Arthur's entry, momentarily meeting her gaze with bleary emerald-green eyes, and then turned to bury her face in Felix's arm again. It was emitting strange choking sounds, like some kind of feline sobbing.
"I'm glad you're alright," Felix said quietly. "This is Shawna. Her best friend just died."
"I'm... sorry," Arthur murmured, somewhat confused but aware that there was a lot of emotion going on here. Then she noticed the dried blood in Felix's fur, and asked "Uh, what happened...?"
Felix grimaced. "Long story. I'll tell it when Eric gets back. Suffice to say... there's no immediate danger now." He gently stroked Shawna's back, and Arthur sat silently by the door for a while watching them. The cat was probably a conventioneer, she guessed; she'd come across one or two other fully-transformed animal-people in the hotel that had avoided the Department of Animal Control's temporary holding facility. Beyond that she didn't have a clue what was going on here. Eric had damned well better have some answers when he shows up, she grumbled to herself.
Eric arrived several minutes later, swooping in through the open window to land at his customary perch on the table. Shawna lifted her head again to look at him, and Felix tensed for a moment while the bird and the cat regarded each other.
"I didn't want to do it," Eric spoke as softly as a raven could.
"She knows," Felix replied. "Tiffany knew it had to end this way, if she couldn't kill you. She couldn't stop herself from causing more pain otherwise."
Eric bowed his head slightly. "Shawna, if it helps, failing to kill me didn't change anything. Tiffany's spells all ended when she died because she imagined that's the way a witch's magic would work - and so that's the way her magic did work, when the mask's magic made her into one. Just because I was responsible for unleashing it doesn't mean it'll end if I die."
"Why didn't Shawna change back into a humanoid, though?" Felix asked. "Tiffany cast the spell that changed her..."
"Through Shawna. And she added to it herself, to redirect its target. She's the caster, not Tiffany."
The black cat yowled in dismay, and Felix reflexively stroked her back again. "Oh," he said with a tone of comprehension. "And a familiar without a witch..."
Eric nodded. "Unless she finds another to bond with, no more spells. I think she's stuck."
Arthur finally spoke up, getting desperate for something reassuring and understandable by her as well. "Eric, I don't know what the hell you're talking about. Is the witch gone? Am I out of that box for good?"
Eric turned to Arthur and regarded her intensely for a moment, and Arthur felt a chill run briefly up her spine. "It was a tightly bound spell, but I think it's gone now. How do you feel?"
Frightened, confused, alone... "I want to go home."
Eric looked around at the three of them, and sighed. "I'll see what we can do. Let's all take a breather, and then let's get the hell out of here."
Following the patterns of the music welling from the stereo, Arthur crossed the center of the hardwood living room floor with a series of quick assemblé jumps, then turned with a pirouette en dehors to chassé back and do an entrechat cinque ending with her right leg à la quatrième derrière. It was totally improvised combination, but what the hell; it fit the music perfectly and afternoon practice was almost over anyway. The ballet was deep into the denouement of the last act, and she'd been in the grand allegro of her session for three quarters of an hour already.
She noticed Shawna sitting in the kitchen door watching, and took the time to slip her a smile and insert a pas de chat jump smoothly into the last routine. Shawna dipped her head slightly in acknowledgement. A final glissade, and then she sank gracefully to the floor as the music reached its conclusion. Arthur rested for a moment, breathing heavily from the workout, and then slowly rose back up to her feet.
Shawna tapped the floor with a forepaw in quiet feline applause, and Arthur smiled again as she walked with springing relevé steps over to the stereo to turn it off. She was still a little nervous about that cat, neither Eric nor Felix had told her the entire story about her yet. But she'd been making an effort to get to know her, at least as much as was possible considering that Shawna couldn't speak, and was starting to become a little more comfortable with her around the house. Shawna herself was apparently starting to get used to her new diminished form, Arthur noted as she saw the the plain black collar around her neck bearing a small silver tag; Felix had been trying to get her to wear it for the past several days in case she was picked up by Animal Control and was unable to communicate with them.
Two weeks now since the convention, a little over one week since they'd left the hotel for Eric's Gulfside home. Nobody else had tried to kill them since then, and away from the menagerie of the hotel's diverse guests things were almost beginning to seem somewhat "normal" again. Shawna padded off down the hall in the direction of Felix's room and Arthur sat down on the couch with a sigh, flexing her ankles and relaxing her muscles while she considered what to do with her evening. She had managed to get back to work in a very limited capacity, spending a few hours each day doing some of the paperwork for her job back home, but today her heart wasn't really in it. She picked up one of the ballet texts littering the coffee table instead and curled up to do a little reading instead.
Felix hadn't bought any of these books for her, or the CDs she'd started accumulating either; she'd ordered them on her own initiative. She had developed a strange fascination with the dance lately, on the one hand still hating that she was forced into this role but on the other admitting that it was a large and inseparable part of her now. She had managed to adopt a philosophy of "if I've got to do it, I might as well be good at it." She'd even kept the music box she'd been imprisoned in, hidden away in her room upstairs. She still had unresolved issues about the hour or so she'd spent trapped in there as an inanimate little doll, and didn't want to just throw it away and hide from it for the rest of her life. One day, perhaps she'd sort it all out...
The sound of flapping wings caught her attention, and she looked up in time to see Eric fly in through the closed porch door and come in for a landing on the armchair across the room. "Eric. Long time no see, where've you been the past few days? Felix said you didn't tell him."
Eric tossed his head nonchalantly. "Oh, I've been out getting more in touch with my spiritual side. Plus there's a ton of good roadkill otherwise going to waste..." He somehow conveyed the impression of a grin on his inflexible beak.
Arthur returned the grin, and regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. Eric had gained a lot of control over his powers since leaving the hotel, but even as the skill of his magic tricks had increased his hope of reversing the spell that had been cast on the convention had faded. "Are you really the Trickster?" She asked at last.
Eric responded with a snort. "Yeah, right. And Arthur Hall is a ballerina." He launched back into the air, wheeled around the living room once, and then slipped away through a shadow on the far wall.
Arthur considered Eric's reply for a while, glancing at the laptop sitting on the table with copies of the unfinished requisition forms she still had to fill out for work. Then, with a sigh of annoyance at Eric's unhelpful answer, she returned her attention to the book.