On the Trail of an Untouchable Rat (4)
Wherein Clifford Engram remembers why loving a shapechanger is the best and the worst thing in the world.
And if you were watching us, you would have thought we were long-lost lovers nestled closely, fearing the song would end, and our renewed passions would vanish.
Elaine smelled wonderful; lilac and lavender and vanilla were all hinted at in her hair, her cheek next to mine was silky and perfect, the way only a shapechanger’s can be. Her power let her get inside my mind and whatever my idea of perfection might be, when I touched something, smelled something, licked something, she would always be that perfection.
“There’s something you want to tell me, isn’t there?” Thought I go with the easy opening. Her response shapes what is feeling uncomfortably like a trap.
“What’s there to say? You broke my heart, left me for dead, didn’t visit for nearly twenty years. Look at what I’ve been reduced to. Have you seen what this place looks like?”
Not understanding what she meant. I’d been here since she remodeled. It was still a relatively swanky place, despite my comments to the contrary. What did she want me to notice? What was different?
God damn, she smells so good. So hard to think when I’m this close to her. My body is responding probably because of what happened the last time I was here. Yes, death, destruction these things did happen. But there were many nights of a completely different kind of death. Much smaller ones.
I could feel the hunger for her rising in me. Like a drug addict realizing his candy of choice was just within reach. This was why the shapechanger was one of the most feared of the myths of humanity.
The werewolf embodied the demon, the rage, the monsters of our id, given ravenous destructive flesh. The skinwalker, wearing the mask of animals, hid among us ferreting out our secrets, safe within the illusion of their animal kinship, an ally we entrusted with all our secrets. Rakshasa, made of the breath of Brahma himself, could hide in their illusion of whatever you believed them to be, to live in love with you your entire life, or to be consumed by you at your next carnal gathering, you would never know the difference.
The shapechanger was the fear of losing oneself to one’s new self.
She kissed me on the mouth. She had started by my ear. She slid down my cheek, each caress of her full mouth, causing me to close my eyes. When she reached my lips, I was totally enthralled. Willing, hungry, yet still terrified. More afraid than I had been in a long time.
Her kiss was filled with magic. The kind of magic which killed people. The kind of magic that possessed people and drove them mad; captured them and made them unwilling participants in debauchery, in a Pan-filled insanity where anything was possible. Slow, sensuous, and tingling with magic. The kind of magic I routinely avoided.
All kinds of forbidden magic; the magic of my wanting her. Right here, right now, in front of all of these people. The magic of her power, mingling with mine. She sought a way past the wards, a way to tap into the Beast and share its power with hers. But more importantly, the magical awareness of her place. Of this building, and the locus of power beneath it.
She couldn’t tell me, but she could show me.
But in this moment, I could not see it. I was deep in my long-denied addiction, subsumed in the spiritual ecstasy of this most magnificent of beings. Shapechangers are creatures in every mythos. Loved and feared, Humans tended toward the later so they learned to hide from us. Among us. When we discovered them or they revealed themselves, we tended to be afraid. They left. We regretted their leaving with an inability to ever truly love again.
Who could love us the way we wanted to be loved, whether it be illusion, glamor, or shapeshifting, whatever the method of achieving this symbiosis, this merging of souls, how could an ordinary love ever compare?
You never truly overcame it. Like an addict, you always craved it. Every day you survived to find compassion in another person, enjoyed the companionship of someone who wasn’t a perfect match for your needs in every way, understood that soul-mates was a terrible condition to hope for, you were one more day sober. You were still a member of the Human race, replete with flaws, and the ability to accept them in others.
Loving a shapeshifter took that away from you. You sought perfection. Because you had it. You craved it, because it was self-reinforcing; co-dependent. This was the power of the shapechanger. After some time with them, you would defend them against anything and anyone.
They became your everything. I needed you to understand this to make my next point.
Everyone in this place at one time or another belonged to Elaine. Each of them was as fanatically enthralled as I once was. Each of them gave a tiny sliver of themselves to her, a wholehearted devotion, as pure a connection as each of their needs she met, could be. Not the perfect spiritual rib-eye, but damned close.
Enough to make her a force to be reckoned with under almost any circumstance. No sane demon would dare confront her here. Even an angel wouldn’t take the risk.
Her power was her weakness at the same time. She was bound to this location, spiritually. While few could tackle her here, she was not safe anywhere else. Her power was difficult to conceal for any length of time. Longer than a week and she began to glow and attract the kind of attention where she had to use her power to survive. Drawing more attention.
Gods who did this were eaten.
We aren’t going to go into that right now.
Hence most small gods stayed still. They stayed near their sources of power and worship and didn’t draw attention to themselves. Nodes like this one hid weak gods from the attention of monsters who dwelled in places beyond our comprehension.
Now I understood. I could see with her eyes. Everyone in this room was afraid. Their connection to her while invisible to my normal senses, were as clear as day, using her eyes. I could see their strings, some thin and tenuous, others mighty, like cable steel, almost unbreakable.
This was true of everyone save her two new bodyguards, and the Humans who were not regulars.
They were not her guardians. They were her jailers.
I could see the node beneath us, hundreds of feet down. Having seen it before, it was normally bright blue, a brilliant light which drove away any darkness which tried to settle here. But it attracted those creatures who though they could tame its power. Most were driven off. Those few who could not be resisted were given access, only to watch them explode as the power consumed them from within.
I had never seen it, in any way affected by an external force, save Fenrir, until now. A blight had settled over a corner of it. It seemed a strangling ivy, twisting, winding bands of shadow, which flicked toward the center and continued to be rebuffed. But the darkness could not be driven away, it only receded for a time. I followed the darkness into the room, it entered back by a VIP booth and snaked across the club to the edge of the dance floor where her “bodyguards” waited.
“You now understand enough,” she whispered when she released my lips. I drew a breath which released me from her vision. I could see the lingering echoes and realized what was about to happen.
“I can’t just leave you like this.” I realized what the Miracle she was tracing on the floor was for. There would be fire.
“We’re past that. If you can’t find Lawrence in the next forty-eight hours they will have taken the Node and I will work for them. In seventy-two hours, I will be dead, and this power will be completely theirs.”
Her two watchers, seem to sense something had changed. I could see them charging up their magical energy, parsed by some structure I had never seen before, I could see their true visage layered on top of their normal seeming. They ran toward us.
“This is going to hurt,” was the last thing she said before her hand landed on my chest. Right on top of the seal which binds Fenrir.
The magic of the node surged through me, forbidden by the Agency, under threat of her dissolution. She broke a rule which could consign her to death if I reported it.
Never going to happen.
As the power flooded me, I could feel a teleport being rigged, something crude, nasty, a brute force affair designed to break an elegantly-designed teleport-block, established to keep people from teleporting in or out. Something reputed to be impossible to do. Made by the finest mages of the Agency, it was part of our program to protect such beings from harassment. These were supposed to be some of the best, most secure magic money could buy.
Yes, these are the academic thoughts which occupied me once I felt myself being torn apart and transported. If you have to imagine just how it felt, think of a chunk of your favorite cheese and then imagine a cheese grater set to a fine selection.
I only wish it had been that painful.
When I woke. It was worse.
I was face down on a beach, in the surf, with my body burning like it was on fire. It was only then that I realized I was, actually on fire. Being in the water wasn’t putting it out either.
I couldn’t think, let alone focus my chi. My fists are clenched tightly, I can’t even imagine making a handsign, let alone work any of the little magic I do know.
I think I am going to die. Dammit. I was looking forward to that Thai food…
Tune in next week to see if Clifford can put out this spiritual conflagration…and get some Thai food, wherever he ended up.
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies:Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short(2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).