Okay, I'm gonna stop making promises that I'm not going to keep. This is rough and only sort of checked for mistakes. If you find horrible glaring errors please tell me! I'm sorry that this thing is so stupid but thank you so much to the people who've left comments! They give me a much-needed kick in the ass. Here, for what it's worth:
About a half-hour later Helgo bounded down the side of a hill and jogged up to us.
"How's it coming?" He asked Hexer. I was still, my eyes closed and body relaxed, patiently waiting as Hexer did her work. I opened my eyes when I heard Helgo. Brad, on the other hand, was vibrating with the effort of being stationary.
"It will do," Hexer replied.
"Hmm. Not very attractive." He commented, walking around Brad and I outside the circles Hexer had drawn.
"But sturdy and functional," the necromancer reasoned, "And people won't stare. Did you see anything on your trip?"
"Yes!" Helgo exclaimed, eyes gleaming, "There's a caravan on the Path and it looks like it's bringing a circus to Fortune City! If we hurry we should meet it."
"Excellent," Hexer nodded, "it'll be much easier to hitch a ride with a circus caravan."
"And there'll be bitter rosin and trux tequila…and honeycups! Hellions, it's been so long since I had a honeycup." Helgo was dancing like a kid on the way to Disney World.
"Hey, can I move yet?" Brad demanded, twitching.
"Yeah, I'm done." Hexer waived her arm-wing in dismissal.
"Finally!" he popped from the ground and ran to the top of the hill, "Can we go now? I'm hungry and thirsty and I want a honey pot." I looked at Brad as he bounced on his toes but I didn't really see anything different about him; no horns or fangs or anything. Perhaps the spell only worked on demons.
"Honeycup," Helgo corrected Brad, offering his hand to help me up at the same time. I took it and stood, making a face as my jeans crunched from the change in position. I wanted a hotel room to myself so bad right now. I was hungry and thirsty. My hair was still in muddy dreadlocks from the river and the ends were still red from where they'd been dragged across the Planes. My clothes were stiff and chaffing and I smelled like a dead dog.
I started walking and we fell into our pattern: Brad and Hexer side-by-side in the lead and Helgo and I a little way behind them.
"Helgo?" I asked, staring at the ground tiredly, "Will we be able to rest and shower where we're going?" I didn't know if the demon realm even had hotels.
He hooked his arm around mine and dug is hand into his pocket, "Yes. When we get to Fortune City we'll sneak into an inn and sleep and clean ourselves up." I leaned against him and listened to him talk, "By then Hexer's deceptions will be wearing thin so we'll explore the market and steal some sick duds for the two of you. It'll be fun! I'll give you a total makeover. You'll be the hottest demon there. Then, I'm going to get myself a honeycup come Hello on High Water. Then, we'll round up some supplies and get back on the road. We'll get to the Dark Academy, the necromancers will patch me up and I'll find a sleepy glade and make sweet, sweet love to you."
"Helgo!" I laughed and threw my weight against him and he stumbled sideways, chortling cheekily.
"Hey, stop messing around." Hexer commanded from ahead of us, "There's the Path."
I looked up and retrieved my arm from Helgo, stopping beside Brad on the top of a hill. There was the Path, twisting across the desert like a pale scar. To the right of us a long snake slid along the road, stirring up dust till it flew like dark red waves from the sides of the procession. The wagons were colourfully draped in blues and greens and the lowering sun reflected off of baubles dangling from the horses' harnesses.
"Let's go," Hexer said, "I want to try and meet up with it at the magicians' carriages."
We all started down the hill at a fast pace and I watched the caravan as we approached, specifically the horses pulling the carts. There seemed to be two kinds: normal-enough ones with spots and stripes or mixtures of both, and weird chicken-horses. These latter had the front half of a horse and the legs and tail of a chicken, proportionate to the horse part. They also had under-sized wings in the middle of their bodies, yellow eyes and jerky movements. They clucked and snorted warily at us as we approached the caravan.
I edged closer to Helgo and touched his arm, nodding at the weird animals, "What are they?" I murmured.
He glanced over at them, "Cock-horses; hippalektryon. Very flighty, very stupid, but the easiest pseudo-equine to tame as long as you start when they're chicks. There was a minor infestation of them on Earth at one point. Those others are mustangs, horses that got across into the demon realm and were fast and mean enough to survive."
"Hypo-electric…" I tried and gave up, "Never heard of them."
"Not surprised. It was around the Grecian islands and it was almost three thousand years ago. They only lasted long enough to get painted on a few urns. Human's forgot about them fairly quickly."
"Oh." I stayed close to Helgo as we got closer and Hexer called out to the nearest wagon in a barking language. Colourful flaps were thrown open and heads poked out to see who was calling. An older lady with horny ridges over her eyes and spikes on her shoulders talked with Hexer for a while but the caravan never slowed down. Finally the demoness nodded and pulled her head back inside the wagon, drawing the flap after her. I thought we'd been turned down and would have to walk the rest of the way but Hexer jumped up onto a small platform at the back of the wagon with a few strong beats of her arm-wings and motioned for us to follow. Brad sprang up on the deck, flailed for balance and was saved by an irritated Hexer. Helgo clawed up and settled himself as well, taking up the last of the space on the narrow stage. I jogged behind the wagon, trying to find a place to clamber onto and keep up at the same time.
"Hey, help!" I panted, annoyed and tired.
Helgo laughed musically, caught me under the arms and hoisted me up to straddle his lap.
"They've agreed to let us ride with them till Fortune City," Hexer said, coiling herself, "they want us off at the gates."
"Fair enough," Helgo replied, ignoring my half-assed attempts to free myself and draping his arms over my shoulders, "it's generous of them to let us ride at all. I'll find some money to buy my honeycup with."
"We should take this time to sleep." Hexer suggested, settling her body on a pillow made of her coiled serpent half, "We've got a busy night ahead." She drew her wings over herself, forming a one-man tent, and fell silent. I turned to look past the necromancer and saw Brad, passed out, mouth hanging open, leaning against one of Hexer's coils. I wriggled again and then gave up, sighing in exasperation.
He grinned, fangs flashing and eyes smouldering. He'd turned on incubus mode. I frowned at him and my ears turned red.
"Jay," he murmured. I felt his voice rumbling in his chest where my hands pushed against him.
I ducked my head and glanced sideways at the other two. If they weren't unconscious they weren't letting on.
"Again?" I asked, the burning spreading from my ears to my cheeks.
"Jay," He sighed as though explaining something simple to a child, "I haven't had an uninterrupted draw since our trial by the Ni. I haven't had a full exchange since before I started hiding under your bed."
More alien biology, "I don't know what that means."
Quietly, "It means yes, again."
Something like nervous anticipation settled high in my sternum, "Just a kiss, though, right?"
His voice was almost a whisper, "Just a kiss. And just for a moment. I have an idea."
I leaned forward, resting my hands on his chest for balance, and kissed him nervously. His hands dropped from my shoulders and fell to my sides and he pushed against my lips, flicking his tongue over them. He drew back a tiny bit and murmured, "Touch my horns. Just a little."
I moved my left hand up, over his collarbone, traced the curve of his ear, shuffled through black hair and let my fingers play lightly where horn met skull. Helgo rested his forehead against mine and his hand brushed my cheek gently.
He kissed me again, more forcefully, surprising me. The nervousness in my chest got cool and condensed into something else. I didn't know what but it made my head spin. His lips left mine again and he breathed another command, "When I say, wrap both hands around my horns, squeeze tight, and twist. Okay?"
I nodded and shifted my other hand up to the base of his other horn. "Now," Helgo sighed. I pressed the red bone into the palms of the hands, held tightly, and rolled my wrists. The movement of dry horn against my sweat-damp hands was jerky and Helgo's body reverberated to it. His cheeks flushed red, his eyes half-closed and he grinned widely and lazily. He looked drunk. I reached the end of my wrists' ability to bend and stopped moving, waiting for further instructions. He sat still as well, his head lolled to one side, mouth open, one hand on my ribs and the other where my shoulder and neck joined. We stayed that way for a few slow minutes as the fluttering in my chest settled and an uncomfortable, sick feeling started to rise in the pit of my stomach.
I removed my hands from Helgo's head and wrapped my arms around my middle, hunching over a cramp. He stirred and the cramp and the illness disappeared. I straightened again and he put a hand on my cheek.
"You alright?" he asked, examining my face.
I nodded, "Just hungry I guess."
He frowned and pursed his lips but the expression was gone in an instant and he leaned back against the back of the wagon.
"Alright, try to sleep now."
I turned sideways, wedging my hip in the little space between Hexer's coils and Helgo's leg and leaned against him, pillowing my head on his chest. Even as contorted as I was, I was too tired to be uncomfortable and I closed my eyes and relaxed. Helgo started purring quietly – so faintly that I couldn't hear it – but I felt it in my head and it knocked me out faster than any magic dust could.
… ·_· …
The wagon bumped to a halt, jarring me awake. Helgo's purring hitched and then stopped as he struggled into a sitting position. His movements folded me uncomfortably in half and my face fell into his lap. I ricocheted upright and landed on top of Hexer, who hissed at the rude awakening and pushed me off with her arm-wing.
"Get up, get up," Helgo said, words thick and movements uncoordinated, "gotta get to the front."
He rolled off the platform and used it to stand while he worked his mouth and swatted at Hexer and Brad, still shaking off sleep, "Get up, we gotta go."
Hexer unfolded her wings too fast and slapped Helgo in the face, knocking him over. Brad had been leaning against her and was shoved off the platform as well, landing in the dust with an audible clack of metal teeth and huff of breath.
"What – oh," Hexer grumbled, stretching and unwinding, "What are you idiots doing on the ground? We have to get to the front of the caravan or we'll be here the rest of the night while we wait for the wagons to get through!"
Helgo lurched upright, holding onto the wagon and nursing his nose, scowling, "Stop talking, necromancer, and just move."
I shimmied off the back of the wagon and landed – on my feet – in the dirt, looking to Helgo for instructions. Brad had recovered as well and was scratching himself and looking around, pretending he hadn't just been thrown to the ground by an irate necromancer.
"Come on, everyone." Helgo grunted, moving around the side of the wagon, "I hope you all like running first thing after waking up." He looked up and down the line of wagons and then started running for the front of the caravan. I squawked and followed him, my head still foggy and my limbs unenthusiastic about this 'running' thing.
It was night time and the landscape was lit faintly by a disgruntled, sickly-looking yellow crescent moon. Oops, moons plural. There was a second crescent, closer to the horizon but no less waxen.
Running was difficult. The ground was alternating abyss-like black shadows and watery greens, blues and purples from the lanterns of the caravan and the baubles on the horses' harnesses, which glowed now with their own phosphorescence. My eyes hadn't adjusted yet and I stumbled often. Chicken horses and people stared at us as we sprinted past their wagons. It wasn't long before I was out of breath.
But then, quite suddenly, we were at the front. A group of people were haggling before a massive set of gates while another group stood a little inside. As we drew to a halt, puffing and panting, someone from the second group hurried up to us. He was a squat, gnome-ish demon with large, blunt horns that poked out at ninety degrees from his head and a set of chompers to do an anglerfish justice. He leered at us as he beetled over and his beady, slit-pupiled eyes flicked over us in the dim light and lingered on me. I didn't like him right away; he smelled like a bog. He made a horrible, throaty, gurgling noise like an angry llama being strangled and drowned at the same time. He ended with a wet little cough and looked expectantly at Helgo, who was the tallest.
"No, we're not," Helgo replied, "We're looking for a place to crash for a few nights, get some new clothes, maybe check out a casino or two. We only hitched a ride with the circus."
The tree-stump-with-teeth glared at us, me the longest, and croaked and gurgled something.
"No, we know the rules. We leave it at the gate."
"Gurgle, croak, snort."
"We've got nothing. We met some gentlemen on the road."
"Hork, narggle, burp." The demon glanced at me, then at Helgo and grinned slowly. His head seemed to split in half, his mouth opening further and further, pushing his head back till he almost couldn't see us. His needle-like, interlocking teeth shone grossly with saliva and a sharply pointed tongue flicked between them. I shied back a bit. I wasn't rested enough or awake enough to deal with this shit. I just wanted a shower for fuck's sake.
I felt Helgo's demeanour change beside me. His face seemed to darken and he swelled up, his dangerous traits magnifying while his gentler ones receded. I'd seen him do things like this before. It meant that he was pissed and also a bit defensive. He used his ability to change his appearance as a defence, poofing up like a puffer fish.
"No," he growled, "are you going to let us in or not?"
The ugly demon's smile shrunk and he sneered at Helgo, producing four smooth pebbles from somewhere on his smelly person. Helgo took them and pressed one to the top of his arm, just above his wrist. It blazed brightly for a moment and melted against his skin, then darkened to a dull orange glow. After a moment, red swirled into the gem and turned it crimson. He showed the demon and then passed two to Hexer and reached out for my hand. He pressed the stone to my forearm and it shone and fused just as his had. It felt warm and itchy. The gem darkened but didn't flush with red.
"Think of a time you deceived someone." He murmured to me. I floundered for a moment and then thought of times I'd snuck candy past my parents to stash in my room. The stone turned red and Helgo showed the demon, who nodded and grinned smarmily.
Hexer did the same for her and Brad and the gurgley demon bobbed and waved for us to go though the gates.
Helgo marched past him, shooting him a glare, and the rest of us scurried after. I relaxed a bit once we passed the knot of demons and started looking around at the place we were now. The city was quiet and felt deserted. The streets were bathed in bronze light from baskets suspended above the rooftops. Dark shapes flashed past above the baskets, some silently, some whirring and thrumming. The houses were intricate and unique; some were made of solid rock, some of bricks, some of mud and plaster, a few had thatched roofs and most of them were decorated with murals apparently put there by the homeowners. There was the subtle buzz of a large group of people in the distance and the place smelled like earth and hot oil and money.
Helgo guided us along the main path, deeper and deeper into the center of the city. It was relatively quiet this late at night and most of the people we passed were either kids our age sneaking around or adults reeling by, drunk. Dark shapes squatted in the shadows, crooning softly to themselves. I had so many questions but I couldn't bring myself to stop staring around long enough to ask them so we walked in silence, Helgo still puffed up defensively, Hexer sliding close by nervously glancing in the shadows, and Brad tripping along behind and staring as much as I was.
Helgo stopped so abruptly that I bumped into him. Hexer pulled up and Brad tripped over her tail with a soft curse.
"Alright, this is what we're going to do," Helgo began and we all huddled around, Hexer rearing up as best she could to be at head level with us. I pulled her arm over my shoulder, Brad did the same on her other side and together we held her off the ground so that she could hear everything that we said. She was heavier than she looked.
"We'll go into the lobby and head upstairs," he continued under his breath, "pick a room, pick the lock and crash for the night. Tomorrow we'll try to get out without being seen."
"We aren't going to pay?" Brad asked
Helgo pinched the bridge of his nose, "Alright, Fortune City 101: this place is a gambling city but more than that it's a city of deceit, okay? These tattletales on our arms are programmed for deception, so they change colours when their wearer isn't being honest. To get around the city you have to lie and steal and cheat. If you get caught being honest about something they enter you in the games. So you," he stared hard at Brad and me, "need to keep a lie in your minds at all times. Think of something you're not telling someone or something you've said that wasn't quite true. Keep an eye on your tattletales and make sure they're always red, the redder the better. You have to be paranoid. Trust no one and hold on to important objects like your life depends on it because it probably does. Any more questions?"
I kept my piece and Brad shook his head.
"Okay. We're going to walk in there like we own the place and head to the second level as though we have a room. Once we're inside we'll be fairly safe till morning. Remember to keep a lie in your heads until we are in the room. The first thing a passerby notices is a person's tattletale. If it's red they'll ignore us but if it isn't it'll raise alarms and gain us unwanted attention. Is everyone clear?" He looked hard in everyone's eyes as we nodded.
"Alright," he dissolved the circle, Brad and I let Hexer back down, and
I took a deep breath. Helgo grew a three inches and added muscle till his shirt bulged, then turned on his heel and stalked forward. Brad, Hexer and I fell in behind and tried to act natural. I wasn't too nervous. I was mostly just tired.
The four of us walked into a five-storey, dingy motel that probably fell closer to a tavern or inn than any motel I'd ever seen. The lobby was dimly lit and almost empty this late. There was a bar along one wall with a surly-looking, mountain of a demon behind it and an empty stage in the corner. The stage looked more like a cage with two stone walls and two walls of thick metal bars. Chicken wire covered the bars, stopping anything larger than a bottle cap from getting through. There was a flight of stairs leading up into darkness in the rear right corner and a box beside it that looked like a sinister ticket booth. Helgo didn't stop, didn't falter in his stride as he marched across the wood floor to the staircase. The silence was oppressive and the place smelled of dry heat and alcohol. We mounted the stairs and padded along the corridors of the second floor, listening intently. Helgo paused at room after room, pressing his ear to the door before moving on. The hallway had a muffled feel to it, partly from the almost non-existent lighting from whatever was inside the woven stick globes above the doors, partly from the shag carpet on the floor and walls. Groans, growls, snores and slithering noises came from all sides. Finally Helgo paused at a door near the end of the hall and listened. He hesitated, listened again and tried the handle, which was a broken stick jammed into the hole where the original knob had been. It rattled when he turned it but didn't give. Helgo lengthened his fingernails into needles, licked them, and set to work fiddling with the catch. It clicked after a tense moment and he let us into the room, entering last and carefully closing and locking the door behind us. He started to walk toward the window but I caught his arm and turned him to face me.
"Helgo, can I sleep now?" My mind was thick, distracted, and I felt like I was being dragged slowly through the floor but I needed to be sure it was okay to rest now.
He put his hand on the side of my head, "Yes," he whispered, "it's safe."
I lay down where I was, curled up slightly to avoid being stepped on and closed my eyes.
… ·_· …
I watched Jay sink down slowly, as though supported all the way by some invisible force. She tucked in her arms and legs and nuzzled her face against the soft, thick fur on the floor. I felt a fast, strong surge of possessiveness but it was controlled and felt good. It was nice to have someone to guard and to know that that someone was somewhere safe. The call-back to ancient instincts made me very aware of the other occupants of the room, though.
"What are you doing?" Hexer hissed in a hollow voice, "Get off of there!"
My eyes refocused in the dark and I saw Hexer grab Brad by the back of the shirt and throw him onto the floor. He'd been about to sit on the bed. The bed was large and dumpy and sat proudly in the center of the room like a giant, self-satisfied cockroach; we both knew it wasn't wanted here and we both knew there was nothing I could do about it.
"What the hell?" Brad picked himself off the floor, "You two losers obviously weren't going to take it!"
"Do you know how disgusting that thing is?" Hexer hissed. The sound of her scales was almost silent against the fur on the floor.
"A place like this never washes the sheets. You're less likely to catch some demon super-bug on the floor."
"The floor?" Brad almost shouted. Hexer and I aggressively shushed him and he started again, more quietly, "The fl – you want to talk about things being dirty? Do you know how gross shag carpets are? Everything gets caught in them!"
"Carpet?" Hexer exclaimed. I sat down cross-legged and pulled Jay's head into my lap, stroking her dread-locked hair back from her face. Some of the tension left her body and she relaxed into the cradle of my legs. I purred deep inside, sending the vibrations through my arms to her head and worked a little incubus magic in to deepen her slumber and help her body recover from her long walk.
"You think this is a carpet?" Hexer was ranting, "You humans are truly stupid! Can't you smell that? Can't you –"
"Hexer," I cut her off quietly, gently, "don't worry about it. We'll have time to argue about this tomorrow. We all need some proper sleep. Brad, the floor and walls are the cleanest part of this entire building. I promise you're perfectly safe to sleep on the floor."
He didn't look convinced.
"Besides, we don't know when the bed was last fed and I don't know how I'd break it to Jay that you were eaten by furniture." I added for good measure. It was a lie, of course. Man-eating beds didn't exist this far north. The climate was wrong.
That settled him, though, and he started making a spot on the floor for himself.
Drama deflected, I turned my attention back to the head in my lap. Jay had relaxed so far that the tight ball in her core was releasing wisps of energy. The unconscious barriers keeping the energy locked into a tight, impenetrable ball were slowly becoming slack like stiff muscles relaxing in rest. My body responded to the free-floating energy and sucked it in, probing the softening barriers hungrily, preparing for an exchange. I shut that down quickly. The best I could hope for would be a draw and not until Jay was awake and able to consent. I settled for snapping up the free energy as it floated out from her. With time I thought I could train her unconscious mind to recognise the pull of my draw and relax enough that it didn't hurt her. But that was for the future and right now I needed to sleep.
I rested my elbows on my knees, slumping over Jay, and worked my shoulders till my spine clicked, then tensed the muscles in my back. I drew a breath in and let it out and my skeleton fused with a quiet, not uncomfortable creak. I wouldn't fall over in my sleep and I could still hold Jay's head in my lap. I kissed her forehead and closed my eyes.