"Watch where you put your feet. You might be stepping on someone's toes."
My feet went out from under me and my face hit concrete. Tasting blood and sand, I rolled onto my back and stared up at the flood lights and gasoline barrels dancing over my head. It must have been a solid minute before I remembered how to breath. Of course, as I lay there on that cold, wet, ground trying to sort out what had just happened... the people I'd been running from caught up to me.
"Stop, thief!" One of the Knights yelled.
I scrambled to my feet and bolted. I knew that I had one last chance to lose my pursuers, and I intended to take full advantage of it. There was a wooden barricade at the end of the tunnel, at least ten feet tall and crowned with rolls of barbed wire. When I vaulted over it, the Knights were both close enough to see what I'd done. They swore incoherently.
As my feet pounded the pavement, I realized that my fall had done more than just shake me up a little. I paused for maybe a minute longer than I should have and gingerly touched my lips. My fingertips came away glossed in black, and I swallowed a few choice words myself. One of my teeth had been knocked out!
Blam! Blam-blam-blam! Blam!
Gunfire ricocheted off ancient construction signs and out-of-Realm license plates which were nailed to the tunnel walls. Despite the way my right knee buckled and my mouth bled, I kept moving. If I wasn't careful, I was liable to end up losing something that wouldn't grow back.
Like my fucking head.
I felt the wind off of a bullet just over my ear, and stumbled for what felt like the thousandth time. Somehow I'd found the one awkward brick in the midst of an otherwise even floor. My body wasn't moving like it should, and I knew that was because I'd been lazy. While I suspected that the liquor in my system was throwing off my balance, I couldn't justify tripping over my own feet just because I'd taken a few shots.
Then again, the Knights tailing me were unusually persistent. A seasoned veteran would've given up the chase six blocks back and that a Knight Commander wouldn't have even put down his coffee. Real professionals didn't waste their time cleaning up after routine bar brawls. They didn't chase pickpockets either. It's not that the Knights don't care about preserving order in West Quarter. It's just that there's never been much order to preserve.
Forget everything you think you know about Zenith. It's a nasty, dirty, dangerous place and it's the Etone who really run the city. Everyone who's anyone is on the payroll of some Brother or Sister… including the Emperor himself.
Gritting my teeth, I took a flying leap over the fence that blocked off access to the Central City Canal… and landed flat on my face again. As I picked myself off the ground, I accidentally snagged a tripwire. A bucket full of sewage swung at my head. I dodged it, but only barely.
"There he is!" One of the Knights shouted, pointing at me. I heard a very distinct ka-click sound followed by a louder hum as his partner charged up a plasma rifle.
"Nayoh!" I cursed out loud. On a normal basis I try not to cuss in Ekbahte, but when someone points a plasma rifle at your face… well, there just aren't many words capable of summing that feeling up.
A burst of hot blue energy zinged over my head, making a big hole where it hit the wall behind me. I ran for the exit as fast as I could, skidding to a stop in front of a metal door marked with a sign reading "No Entry".
Another burst of plasma struck the floor by my feet, putting a six-inch diameter pit in the concrete. Without wasting another second, I tore the chain off of the door and entered the Wonderland. Like all the secret entrances into the City Below, the Wonderland Maze is basically a fun-house from hell, designed by amoral dimension-hoppers with way too much free time on their hands.
The knights followed me in. They didn't even hesitate as they passed underneath a blue skull tagged on the ceiling in spray paint, the insignia of the notorious Coven of a gangster's perspective, blazing past a tag like that is something like running a red light into five lanes of oncoming traffic.
I still wasn't far enough ahead of the Knights to lose them and with the way they were constantly radioing for backup, I knew I was in serious trouble. "All available units, this is Knight Commander Anriel. Report to 45th street and Jackson! We've got a demon!"
I was close enough to hear that call, and when I did I cussed again despite myself. The Knight's obnoxious fluttery accent told me that he was an Elf, which meant that I stood a pretty good chance of getting lashed by white magic if he got within range of me. More importantly, I hate being called a demon. Demons have a pretty lousy reputation in the multiverse, one they've worked damn hard to maintain by being evil, sadistic bastards. While I'm no mass-murdering psychopath myself, I seriously doubted that the Knights would believe anything I said if they actually identified me.
See, I have a rap sheet thicker than an East Quarter phone book with convictions ranging from loitering and shoplifting to carjacking, arson and assault. I'd be in jail for a damned long time if anyone in the multiverse made cells capable of actually holding me. To make matters worse, I'd already been arrested twice in the last six months. Having my mother called from the Knight's Office again would be embarrassing. I kept that in mind and started running faster.
So what did I do to deserve this?
To be honest, at first I couldn't remember. I was sure there had been a fight, which was typical for an afternoon at Mad Mack's... but like I've already said, people don't generally get arrested for brawling on Gandalf Street. If you get thrown out a window in my neighborhood, chances are you're actually thankful that some Magic-User didn't light you on fire, and put you through the ceiling instead.
I wasn't sure what had started the whole altercation, but sometime before the punches started flying, I'd drank enough to put two Champions of Asguard under the table. I probably would have noticed people staring at me and whispering suspicious things if I hadn't been as drunk as I was. The thing with Asguardians is that they practically invented alcohol. There are few people alive who can go shot-for-shot with one of them and live to tell of it. It doesn't matter that I'm skinny and short. I've been told that I look like a twelve-year old with a goatee, and while that may be true... just because I've been mistaken for a kid doesn't mean I can't hold my liquor.
Dodging an exploding confetti bomb, I glanced over my shoulder to see if my pursuers had gotten hit by the traps. The Elf in the lead seemed to be faring reasonably well, but his partner looked about ready to collapse any minute, covered in layers of trash, paint, sand and glitter. I also noticed that he'd lost his plasma rifle.
I smiled slightly despite myself. I'd have to go back and find the rifle later, before some Toad got his sticky fingers on it. Big guns sold for good money on the black market, and I happened to know one of the best fences in the business.
As the Knights were about to turn the corner, I swung myself up into the ceiling and waited for them to pass me by. They'd already made one fatal mistake in assuming that I'd lead them into the heart of the City Below, secret haven of crime, vice, and illegal dimension-hopping. Of course, the absolute worst thing you can possibly do in a place filled with swinging axes, pits of fire and unstable floors… is chase one of the guys who set all the traps.
From my hidden perch I watched the Knights hesitantly examining the most obvious hazard in the Wonderland, a giant blue fiberglass walrus with a camera in its mouth. On the wall all around it were instant photographs of Knights, Peacekeepers, White Cross and would-be gangsters, all looking very surprised. Obviously thinking the walrus was an elaborate prank and nothing more, one of the knights stepped forward and tapped the camera.
I laughed despite myself and almost fell off of the pipe I was sitting on, giving away my location. It didn't matter. That was when the camera flashed and triggered the trap underneath the Knights, flushing them down a water slide hidden under the floor. I could hear them still screaming long after they disappeared from view. It wouldn't have been funny if the poor guys were really heading for their deaths, but I knew that the trap would deposit them relatively unharmed in a massive pile of dead fish behind Charlie's Bait Emporium.
Waiting a moment for the floor to settle back to its original position, I picked up the instant photo of the Knights as it printed out and tacked it to the Wall of Shame. Fishing through my pockets, I found a black felt pen, wrote the word "SUCKERS" and signed the photo "FELIX". Though it had been a close call for me, I wasn't about to let anyone know. I had a reputation to protect.
I slipped around behind the walrus and picked the bottle labeled "drink me" off of the shelf in the corner. The wall slid open to reveal a door made of dark-colored wood with an unusual brass door knocker. Two little screws formed the eyes, the knob was a nose and the keyhole was a mouth. I didn't have a key myself so I knocked on the door three times, waited for a moment and then knocked twice more, the standard pattern for requesting entry to The City Below. No one responded, so I knocked again… a little more forcefully.
"Password?" The door yawned, waking up slowly. I blinked in surprise. The enchantment had to be a new one, but I could guess whose work it was.
"Jeo! Let me in, you freak!" I shouted.
Master Jeo was a notorious prankster, the ringleader of a group of mad Magic-Users who called themselves "The Grand High Order of Cacophony". Jeo and his pal Lovecraft had been the masterminds behind the whole Wonderland Maze and they never seemed to get tired of "improving" it. At very least, I owed the old perv a sucker punch for the tripwire and the sewage bucket that had almost finished me off.
"Jeo!" I shouted again, loud enough that anyone listening on the other side of the wall should have heard me. The door didn't seem to acknowledge that name. I sighed in defeat. It didn't really matter anyway… I could guess what the password probably was.
"Password?" The door chirped.
There was only one code known and honored by every gangster in the infinite multiverse. The old timers sometimes made it sound poetic, sometimes adding an additional verse or two, but most Brothers and Sisters only cared about the last part.
Take only what you need. Give what you can. Look after your own. Ride fast, Ride far. Never repent.
"Never repent." I supplied.
"Password?" The door repeated.
"Never repent," I scowled, putting more emphasis on my words. The door only blinked at me.
"Open Sesame? Abracadabra? Madonna? Frankenstein? Vodka! Aw, c'mon!" I groaned, racking my brain for anything else that was classically Jeo. The spell he'd cast was ingenious, but I wasn't about to stand around all day talking to a door, not when there was a chance that more Knights might still be on their way.
"Password!" The door chirped. "Password, password, password!" It cried with escalating volume, the sharp cry literally burning in my ears. I can hear things that are well out of the spectrum of human hearing, like dog whistles. Likewise, anything that would sound loud and shrill to a normal person is physically painful to me.
"Nayoh'ysk!" I cursed again. The door stopped screeching and stared at me, not so much because it understood what I had actually said, but because more or less anything sounds evil in Ekbahte. I suppose that's not surprising. It is a demonic language.
Then the door cried out again, even more shrilly… a new word that I knew was bound to get me in unnecessary trouble. "Intruder! Intruder!"
At that moment, I couldn't take any more shrieking. I snarled despite myself and seized the doorknob. The door fell silent and blinked at me warily. I could almost see little cogs slowly turning in its clockwork "brain" as it tried to process what was going on. I wasn't surprised. If somebody who looks human makes a real nasty animal noise, there's a pretty short list of what they might be. Illusionists can manipulate sound, but they generally don't want to be mistaken for real monsters, which leaves vampires, werewolves, dragons, other shapeshifters... and well, demons.
"Intruder!" The door croaked, "Intruder!"
"Shut up!" I hissed. I didn't know anything about the sorcery that had given the door the power to speak, but I guessed that if I shoved its nose into its mouth, it would stop making noise.
I gritted my teeth and let strength flow into my hand until my knuckles whitened and my claws extended. Not wanting to hear any more wailing or protesting, I put my fist directly through the door. The wood splintered and I hit something harder, a plate of sheet metal. Punching through metal isn't easy, but three or four good hits will usually get me through about a quarter inch of steel. As much as I hate to admit it, there are some real perks to being what I am… and not having to take "no" for an answer is one of them. I could tell that I was close to the other side after my first blow, and gritted my teeth, throwing one more solid punch. The metal gave way and I swore under my breath, shaking out my fingers.
Somebody would fix the mess I'd made, but not before all of the little twerps running around in the sewers had a chance to look at something a real "demon" had fucked up. When I accidentally tore the door off of Mepmac's car, it had stayed where I threw it for two solid weeks.
But don't get the wrong idea. I'm not a violent person.
At home in the City Below, I sighed in relief and breathed in the strong, familiar smells of the underground. I hadn't really intended to come back two years ago when I'd led my cousin Kieran and his girlfriend down from Zenith "The City Above" through the deadly Playground Maze. After my father died, I stopped trying to make myself into some hotshot Etone.
That word is "E-tow-nay", by the way. Lots of people mispronounce it, which is kinda funny considering that it is a bastardization of a common phrase in Ekbahte "e'toh nayoh" which translates as "those who will be great". In the simplest possible terms, Etone are gangsters who travel the multiverse. While not all of them are outright criminals, Etone do tend to live around the edges of respectable society, preferring to subsist upon "Favors" given to other Brothers and Sisters rather than actual, legitimate work. Generally speaking, Etone travel in groups called "packs" that conduct business together.
For example, one pack that I'm always on good terms with is called "The Fifteen-Sixties". Run by a lady pirate who goes by "Chaucer" and her partner "George the Dragon"… who is actually a dragon, the Fifteen-Sixties are small-time smugglers who can also be caught performing bad renditions of Shakespeare on the street. Another pack I know pretty well is "The Coven of Darkness", which is run by an old vampire called Germaine "The Skunk". Germaine's principal business is fencing stolen artwork and rare heretical books, but he also owns a 24-hour nightclub. The place is called "Day Owls" and it's way too damn posh. The velvet covered chairs and marble mosaic floor make you feel bad if you spill a drink. Of course, most of the regulars aren't actually drinking out of cups.
Lots of people think of the Etone lifestyle as the ultimate kind of freedom, escaping from rules and society. But what they don't realize is that "The Brotherhood" is more like a big family. When you're part of it, everything you do or don't do is subjected to "The Rumor Mill" and then recycled out as hugs and kisses, punches, and general backstabbery. Since being Etone required more commitment than I was comfortable with. I'd torn all of the hard-earned patches off of my jacket and even stopped wearing my infamous "birthday present", a necklace enchanted with an illusion that I could easily tweak in order to appear physically normal anywhere I went. It was time that I put some effort into being myself.
Zenith is the most cosmopolitan city in the multiverse, after all. Real weirdos may get a few stares, but on the whole, people are pretty tolerant. If you're socially unacceptable in West Quarter, you're pretty much screwed anywhere.
I glanced at my reflection in one of my father's many mirrors as I headed up the dim-lit stairs of his office. I looked pale, and I knew that wasn't a good sign. I thought I'd gotten some sun riding Free Ships all weekend, but it didn't seem to have done me any good. Without my sunglasses on, I would have stood out even in The City Below. Getting away from the knights had taken a lot out of me.
I ran my fingers through my hair. It's jet black, which makes me look paler than I actually am, and it never wants to lie completely flat, mostly because my friend Mepmac cuts it for me and he's not a professional barber. If I tried to guess my own age, I'd say I look about sixteen.
I'm a lot older than that, although I don't know exactly how old. My mother can never remember which year I was born in, and my grandfather sometimes forgets what century it is.
See, the Knights weren't wrong when they called me "demon". They were just being rude.
Everyone in multiverse knows about Traversers. It's hard not to, since they're in all kinds of positions of power, which they tend to hold for a really long time. Still, it's a commonly held belief that Traversers are extremely powerful wizards, not actually demons. This belief rests almost entirely on the fact that Traversers don't look like demons. And that's where it all gets really idiotic, because it's also common knowledge that many demons are shapeshifters. Whether the general population buys into the whole sham or not is debatable, but the Traversers themselves take their charade very seriously. They live their entire lives in disguise, following what are collectively called "Kaora's Laws". Since Kaora's First Law discourages Traversers from associating with each other, over the centuries a few of them settled down and married humans. Some even had children… half-breeds, like me.
When I work too much magic, I lose control over my appearance. Normally, my ears are just slightly pointed, as are most of my teeth. My fingernails are grey and tough, and my eyes are yellow with completely vertical pupils. All of that makes me look odd enough, but when I push my limits, my eyes also get this weird sulfurous glow that takes hours to fade away. Looking at myself, I could guess where the Knights had pulled the word "demon" from.
Eying my reflection in the mirror, I smudged my dirty hand across the glass.
The City Below has been my second home since the time I was thirteen years. Everybody knows my name down there, I never pay full price for anything and I can always catch a few hours sleep if I need to. I'd come down from Zenith Above… not just to ditch the Knights, but to get some rest in one of the safest place I knew of. It had been a long day. Opening the door to my father's office, I suddenly discovered a large egg-shaped diamond my pocket.
Oh. Was that what the Knights were after?
I sighed heavily and threw the rock into a pile with the rest of my petty treasures. Then I flipped through the wallet I'd jacked from a drunk at the bar and decided it wasn't worth having. There was no money in it, and I'm not really desperate enough to risk using other people's credit cards. I tossed it in the garbage.
Making sure I was alone, I took off my jacket, my shirt and my boots. I splashed some water in my face and tried to get my hair to lie flat, covering up the tips of my ears. I would have checked the time if there was a clock anywhere, but my old man always thought they were annoying and never kept one around.
I suppose when I call the place an "office", I should explain what it really looks like. The Etone used to pay homage to my father by bringing him ridiculous gifts worthy of "His Lowliness"… things like really old plush rugs and heavy velvet curtains covered in patches. The space that he lived in is still filled with bad paintings and cheap mirrors in gilded frames. The walls are papered with maroon and gold stripes and the furniture is all garage-sale fodder, most of it in an old Ardran style with lots of curlicues carved into the wood. The Victorian couch from Earth Realm had always been my favorite place to crash. Some of the cushions leak stuffing, but it's the most comfortable piece of shit in existence. Every time I lay on it, I think about the gangsters who brought it in and smile despite myself. The Fifteen-Sixties are crazy, even by Etone standards. There aren't many people who will steal an old couch and run with it halfway across the multiverse. Chaucer did one better. She and her Brothers also stole a claw-foot sink.
Between the sink, the couch and the four-poster bed in the corner, my old man's "office" more or less resembles a cross between an aristocratic study and a high-end whorehouse. The sort of business that was once conducted in that space wouldn't suit a stagnate corporate cubicle anyway. But the thing I like best about the office is the way that it smells, like chocolate and expensive cigars. More importantly, if you've got a very good nose you can also pick up the distinct scent of aa'yn baysha, a drink more often known by its street name, "ambrosia". It's ungodly good stuff, and the fact that I love to drink it proves that there's a lot more demon in me than I want to admit.
Humans can't drink ambrosia. It's basically poisonous to them, and most agree that it doesn't taste all that hot either.
After making sure I was alone, I opened my father's secret cabinet, took a cigar and poured myself a little Old Brew. Considering all the running I do, you wouldn't think I'd be a smoker, but there's something about being in "The Office" that always makes me want to light one up. As I saw it, there was no better way to celebrate my escape. I lounged back on my couch and kicked my feet up on the table. All was well with the world… at least until I saw a stack of puzzle books sitting on the desk across from me.
The sight of those books made me put out the cigar I'd just lit. I'd always known that sooner or later someone would take over my old man's position. What I hadn't considered was where I would live when the new "Prince of the Streets" moved in. I'd always sort of expected the job would fall to my father's second-in-command, Mephystus Macavity Faust. Old "Mepmac" had been the City's Deputy Boss, sheriff, tax collector and maintenance man for longer than I could remember. He deserved the position if anyone did… and more importantly, I knew that he wouldn't ask me to move out. I wouldn't have minded Mepmac as Boss, but I was pretty sure the books on the desk didn't belong to him. See, Mepmac doesn't exactly read, let alone solve crossword puzzles. I was instantly on my guard.
"Arr-harr-harr! Look who's down in the sewers, matey!" A voice laughed. I whirled around and almost fell over, tripping on my own boots. At first I didn't see anyone at all… but then a bout of insane giggling drew my attention towards a pair of grubby little feet hanging down from the ceiling. An Etone child sat on the steel beam just over my head, a girl maybe seven or eight years old. She was dressed like a pirate and grinned very broadly as I noticed her, showing a missing front tooth. Then she reached in her pocket and popped a big speckled jawbreaker into her mouth, sucking on it with a loud slurping noise. A little black monkey climbed up on top of her head and the girl adjusted her eye patch. I wasn't sure if she really needed it or not, but I wouldn't have been surprised to find out that she did. Life as a dimension-hopper is dangerous for adults, and even worse for kids.
"Hey, Cybil!" The girl in the rafters shouted, dropping her pirate impression. "Cybil, he found me! You can stop hiding now! Stop hiding!" She repeated, louder and with more emphasis.
A big red bug landed on the desk in front of me. I reached to smash it, but the girl in the rafters leapt down and grabbed my hand.
"No! No, that's Cybil! Don't squish her!" She begged.
The bug on the table started growing and changing. I stared. I'd seen shape-shifters do some crazy shit before… but the bug thing was just incredibly gross.
"Don't look! I'm naked!" The bug-person squealed. I sighed and covered my eyes. All things considered, I'm actually pretty comfortable around bizarre magic, since I do more than a little of it myself. There was a scrambling sound and then a heavy thunk. I peered through my fingers and the little girl who'd been up in the ceiling waved at me with a grin. Sitting on the desk was a taller, slightly older girl wrapped in a musty red bathrobe with black ladybug spots. She was staring at me fearfully and holding the stack of puzzle books against her chest, her fists clenched so tightly that her knuckles had gone white.
"I'mafraid of being smashed," She whispered.
It really wasn't surprising, I reasoned, when one tended to change into the form of something as tiny and easily killed as an insect. Most of the dragons I knew admitted that they felt slightly edgy in human form.
"I bet," I nodded. "So you're Cybil, eh?"
"And I'm Reiko!" The girl with the monkey proclaimed. "Me an' Cyb, we run with The Deputy." She informed me with a sly wink. It was funny to hear the kid use gangster slang. She was about one step away from perfecting the classic "Mad Mack" accent that so many Etone adopted. In six years or so when she was old enough to get contracted, she'd have it right.
I wasn't exactly surprised to learn that Mepmac Faust was responsible for the two little sneaks playing in my old man's office. Most of the kids in the City Below belonged to him. My father had plucked the Deputy Boss out of the gutter centuries ago and transformed him from a measly pickpocket into one of the heavy-hitters of the underworld. Even if he didn't bother to make them brush their teeth or wash with soap, Mepmac was optimistic about his charge's prospects. In his eyes, they were all future badasses.
"Ol' Mepmac, eh? Where is he?" I asked, and Reiko shrugged.
"In his office. He's got a new girl," Cybil admitted, a note of hesitation in her voice, as if the mere act of speaking made her horribly uncomfortable.
"Another kid?" I groaned, rolling my eyes at the thought. "Aren't there already a dozen of you kids living with him? Where's she going to sleep? The bathtub?" I suggested.
"Oh no!" Reiko laughed. "She's not going to live with us. She's not really a girl. She's a lady I guess."
"And even if she did move in with us, she couldn't sleep in the bathroom!" Cybil informed me, dead serious in her tone. "The tub is mine!"
"Right." I rolled my eyes. "Look, you two… don't play in here, ok?" I moved to stand up. "Go on, get out!" I ordered, pulling Reiko out of the rafters and setting her on her feet. Cybil only nodded obediently as I pointed in the direction of the door.
"C'mon, Boss!" Reiko tugged on my arm. "You should come with us! Don't you want to meet the lady?"
"No, not really," I sighed in defeat, knowing that if I didn't go downstairs, Mepmac's kids would only keep harassing me.
"Yeah, well that lady really wants to meet you!" Reiko argued. "I heard her say so!" Reiko pulled on my sleeve. "C'mon!"
Sighing in defeat, I put my shirt back on and followed the kids down to Mepmac's office. It's sort of a gas station booth with one big glass window and part of a wooden shed built up next to it. Since Mepmac's main responsibility as Deputy Boss is collecting the donations used to maintain the City Below, his place basically looks like what it is… a garbage dump.
People who've never met Mepmac are always surprised when they see him for the first time. In general, Elves have a reputation for being obsessively clean and sophisticated. They're always on the covers of magazines and in clothing advertisements, which has contributed to the misconception that no Elf could possibly be a scruffy chain-smoking gangster. Mepmac is living proof that not all Elves are runway models. He's got the green eyes and the super-fine blonde hair… but he's also got a scar from a butterfly knife across his face, two gold teeth, and breath that consistently reeks of cheap bourbon. I don't know if he showers or not, but if he does, he doesn't do it frequently enough.
All things considered, I wasn't sure how I'd feel about showering myself if I had a juvenile shape-shifter sleeping in my bathtub.
When I came into his office, Mepmac was dressed in his favorite bowling shirt, sweatpants from some college he never went to and a pair of furry purple women's slippers. Empty bourbon bottles, shredded clumps of paper and safety pins were scattered everywhere. The room smelled strongly of old fried chicken. Taking a long drag off of a cheap menthol cigarette, Mepmac looked up from his ratty overstuffed chair and grinned.
"There's my Toads! C'mere ya slimey little bastards!" Mepmac laughed and the two little girls ran to hug him. A lot of Etone call their kids "Toads". I'm not sure where the whole thing started… but it's definitely appropriate.
"Felix!" Mepmac exclaimed, suddenly noticing me. "Holy shit. I ain't seen you in months!" He laughed. "Where's your illusion?" He asked, noticing that I didn't wear the little piece of enchanted black steel on a chain around my neck. "You look younger without it," he added.
"Yeah," I nodded. That was about as far as I wanted the conversation to go, and Mepmac picked up on my signal to drop the subject.
I noticed there were some people standing behind me. I turned around slowly. The first face I recognized was Duke Mandala Damina de Celadon. The floppy fedora hat he wore barely concealed his brilliant pink hair, and no amount of gaudy jewelry could hide the fact that he wore one of the four Jewels of Ardra. He avoided my eyes even though we had come to an understanding that I wouldn't spread tales of his dealings in the City Below. To be honest, I didn't know what he was doing anyway. I figured he was either buying drugs or picking up prostitutes, neither of which bothered me. Business is business, after all.
The woman next to him I didn't recognize. The first thing I noticed was that she was wearing absolutely ridiculous thigh-high purple boots with stiletto heels. They were impossible not to stare at. The slit in her skintight black dress was cut so high I could tell she wasn't wearing underwear, although she obviously had a fairly amazing bra. Her hair was cut in one of those distinctive gangster-girl bobs that made her look like she'd stepped right out of an old film. Her fingernails were lethal weapons and were painted the same scarlet color as her lips. Leaning on Mepmac's desk she smiled seductively, flashing her very white teeth, which were stained just slightly with a smudge of lipstick. I doubted she knew the spot was there and figured she'd probably be horrified if I mentioned it. The "lady" had "moll" written all over her.
"Kesh, you have lipstick on your teeth," A man in the corner interrupted. The moment he spoke, I knew I'd met him before. He was over six-foot and blue-skinned with ratty white hair pulled back into a ponytail. Six-foot is damn tall for an Eleri, and the guy carried himself like someone who beats the shit out of people for a living. He wore a white trench coat with Circus masks embroidered in blue and gold on each shoulder and he carried a distinctive pair of red guns, a set of #9 Maglocks which could only mean one of two things… either he was a Knight or an assassin. Considering that we were down in the City Below, I was betting on the latter.
You must be Felix. It's a pleasure to finally meet you," The woman in the black dress took my hand. "I was a friend of your father's."
"Nice to meet you too, miss..." I waited for her to supply her name.
"Kesha." The woman smiled. "Kesha Catrina Damina."
Kesha took my hand like a fancy court lady but then released it like she'd been stung by a wasp. Nervous people make me crazy. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but I can't help wondering if I'm the one making them uncomfortable. In any case, the way Kesha had introduced herself was very odd. Most Etone were quick to offer a known Brother or Sister their nickname. I waited for her tag and the name of the pack she ran with, but she didn't say anything.
"The Queen of Diamonds," Mepmac added. "She usta run with The Circus and the COD."
Kesha twitched as Mepmac gave me what I'd been waiting for. I nodded casually. I didn't much like Circus folk, but I was on good terms with The Coven of Darkness, so I figured we could probably get along. Still, Kesha seemed almost paranoid, as if she were afraid I might remember "Diamonds" from somewhere. I didn't, but I wasn't surprised that the bitch had a reputation. There's a lot that people can do with magic to alter their appearances… but even the best illusion money can buy can't compete with perfect genetics. And when it comes to organized crime, the last person anyone suspects is the beautiful woman. Nine times out of ten, she's the one who'll blow your brains out.
"Friend of yours?" I wondered, glancing to the Duke. She had introduced herself with his family name and I knew that was more than coincidence.
"I...er... no." He paused, and the woman scowled at him. "She's my sister. Not "Sister-sister", but you know… actually related," Mandala finished lamely. "She's been out of The Realm for a long time." He explained. "This is her husband, Danilo Fa Gatu. His tag's Rembrandt."
"Oh, I've met Felix," the Eleri nodded. "Mepmac introduced me to him back when Panther hired me track down ol' Shadow-Tamer. Must'av been twenty nada years ago." He whistled. "The clicks do fly, don't they? You been out on the Waves?" He wondered.
"Riding Waves" was how most Etone traveled the multiverse, living between worlds where centuries could pass in the blink of an eye.
"Yeah," I nodded, not wanting to bother with the truth... that I was a lot older than I looked. "So what's your business here?" I wondered. "A couple of Toads said that you wanted to see me."
"I... ah?" Kesha bit her lip, looking precisely like her brother the Duke did when he was attempting to avoid a sticky situation within The Outer Court. If I'd doubted that the two of them were related before, I didn't then. Their mannerisms were identical. I almost laughed out loud as the Mandala and Kesha both sighed in unison.
"Danilo?" Kesha wondered, turning to her husband.
"You might as well tell him," Rembrandt suggested, and Kesha sighed heavily.
"He doesn't come down here often anymore," Mepmac added, picking his teeth. "S'now or never sweet-cheeks."
"Well..." Kesha began... glancing over her shoulder. "Felix, I'm afraid I need your help."
I cringed at the sound of those words. There were typically two reasons that people needed my help. Either they were trying to steal something very hard to get… or they knew what my father had been and wanted to have someone killed. Neither prospect was appealing. Yet before I could object to Kesha's request, I noticed something I hadn't before. Sitting in the corner behind Mepmac was a little boy, about ten years old. There was something about him that made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.
"Horus, come here. Don't play under the Deputy's desk!" Rembrandt ordered, and the boy scurried forward.
"Have you ever seen The Circus?" Kesha wondered.
I shook my head. "No," I admitted. "My old man used to promise me every few years that we'd go... but we never got around to it. He told me that he used to be in love with one of the high-wire girls before he met my mother."
Kesha immediately turned scarlet and I suddenly understood what was going on. I tried not to let my disgust show on my face, but I guessed that it did anyway. I'm not exactly fond of running into my old man's whores… especially since they all tend to be ridiculously gorgeous and totally unattainable. "Well, you do know a little bit about how it works, right?" Kesha pressed.
"I don't give a damn," I sighed. "Is this conversation going somewhere?"
"To the point, Diamonds," Mepmac clarified.
"The Ringmaster is a time traveler," Kesha explained. "Most of Circus stays out on the Waves between shows, but Boss Umeoth occasionally brings people with him into town. The last time I was in Zenith, I had a little fling with your father." Kesha admitted as she sat down on a bench, fiddling with her hands in her lap... a look on her face that seemed to suggest she might be biting her nails if they weren't so nicely manicured.
"Miss Damina, my father picked up lots of whores," I groaned, not at all surprised by her confession. One thing I thankfully hadn't inherited from my old man was his reputation as a shameless skirt-chaser.
"I'm not a whore!" Kesha argued. "I… well, I'm the high-wire girl." She admitted. "I knew your father had a thing for me, and then he broke me out of jail… so I figured I'd do him a Favor. He didn't ask me to sleep with him and he didn't pay me for it!"
I decided not to push the issue, although as I saw it, there wasn't much of a difference.
"The problem is my son, Horus," She gestured to the boy. "He's been acting strange for a while now. Before he was born, I assumed he was Danilo's… but then I thought maybe he could be Umeoth's. And then there was that sweet boy I met at Shirley's party. I never did get his name." Kesha turned to Rembrandt, who only shook his head and sighed, gazing skyward. My father had never been particularly high-moraled, but this woman was making him look like a saint.
And then it hit me. "Wait. You don't mean..." I stared at her in disbelief. "That's insane!" I argued, though I could tell how serious Kesha was from the expression on her face. "The odds must be astronomical!"
Kesha scowled and Rembrandt bit down on his lip, looking ready to laugh. Mepmac glanced to Duke Damina who only rolled his eyes. The Deputy looked a little uncomfortable himself. Of course, unlike Kesha, her husband and the Duke… Mepmac knew damn well what my father had been, and more importantly, who. The thought numbed me. I found my gaze slowly drifting towards the boy, Horus, who defiantly stared back at me, his gaze wavering only slightly as he noticed my eyes.
"I know it's a long shot," Kesha admitted. "It seemed completely ridiculous when Umeoth first suggested it, but..." She shook her head. "No one else could help me, so I came here to talk to Panther. Mepmac says he's dead."
"You've been gone a hundred years," I reminded her.
"Oh, don't give me that! Honestly!" Kesha groaned. "I'd only hoped. I kinda wanted to… patch things up a little. Your father and I didn't exactly part on the best of terms. I think I might have gotten him arrested." She admitted. "I… I would have said something years ago, but I was so scared, and by the time I could think straight, I was already back with Circus!"
"All of our friends are Etone and most of them travel with us," Rembrandt explained. "Years don't mean much to a Traverser."
There was a marked difference between Etone and Traversers, but I didn't bother to correct Rembrandt. Many dimension-hoppers used the terms interchangeably, usually in the sense that popular Etone were referred to as "Traversers" or "True Brothers". There are Etone of every race and background, some former soldiers, others runaways, courtesans, street punks, born gangsters or magic-school dropouts. Of course, genuine "True Brothers" were always I'Eloshir. More importantly, Kesha had admitted to being afraid of my father. I didn't want to ask why, but I was beginning to suspect she wasn't lying about her relationship with him.
Rembrandt fell silent, glancing at me suspiciously with an expression of mild discomfort, as if he'd just started to remember something he would have rather forgotten. I said nothing.
"Well, Mandala's been here in Zenith for about twelve years, right?" Kesha tried to lighten the mood, but I could tell that she was still nervous. "But as far as Umeoth is concerned, his contract only ended about fifteen months ago. You see how he's older than me now? He's actually my little brother."
"You were in The Circus?" I turned to the Duke, grinning slightly.
"What's so funny about that?" Mandala pouted. "Kesha and I always brought in a fabulous crowd for our act. I never did anything… you know, illegal." The way he spoke that last word brought a real smile to my face. It was strange to consider that someone who lied as poorly as Mandala seemed to be so successful in politics.
"What is it?" Mandala demanded, noticing my expression.
"Nothing. Well… it does explain your hair!" I laughed.
"I'll have you know this pink is completely natural!" The Duke argued. "Listen, pet," he whispered, turning to Kesha. "I've got to go. Court starts in forty-five minutes. Will you be all right?" Kesha nodded, and without another word, the Duke left.
Very slowly, I turned back to Kesha. "All right, let's just assume that you're telling the truth. What do you want me to do?" I wondered, still staring at Horus. He avoided my gaze by burying his face in his shirt. The kid was abnormally skinny and pale with an unusual amount of energy around him that was clearly not the aura of an average child. That didn't necessarily mean that we were related, however. It was equally likely that he might have been the son of Kesha's employer the time-traveler. She had admitted so herself.
"I don't know," Kesha shook her head. "Mepmac thinks we should have a doctor come look at him."
"Probably not a good idea," I shook my head. "If you think he might have black blood, that's asking for trouble."
Kesha paled. Even if she'd been gone five hundred years, she still would have known what those words meant. "What?" She whispered.
"You didn't know?" I laughed slightly, observing the expression on her face. It was a little awkward for me to think of the woman I'd only just met as yet another of my father's seemingly limitless ex-lovers, but she did seem to think her kid was his. And yet if she hadn't been able to figure out what he really was, maybe she was full of shit! As my father had told me long before I was anywhere near old enough to be informed of such things… he liked shapeshifting, but not in the bedroom.
"Oh, I knew that Boss Panther was a high-class shape-shifter," She admitted. "I thought maybe he had some Elf in him or somethin' like that. But part demon?"
I snorted. I wasn't sure if Kesha really was stupid or just pretending to be, but if my father had heard her say the words she'd just spoken, he would have been incredibly insulted. One of the worst things you can call someone in Ekbahte roughly translates as "son of an Elf".
"Did I say something wrong?" Kesha wondered uneasily.
"Hell yeah you did!" Mepmac cackled. "If he wasn't sweet on you, the ol' Bossman would've clocked you in the face for callin' him an Elf! Them's fightin' words! Lady, there's a good reason why Mad Mack used to call Panther "Prince of the Streets". Ol' Jeremiah knew him for what he was. He wasn't just a demon. He was a bloody damned Ithraedol!"
"Whoa, hold on!" Rembrandt turned to Kesha, his hands on his hips. "You actually f…"
"Shut up!" I cut him off. He got quiet right away, and everyone stared at me. I could almost see the gears turning in their heads as they considered what they had just learned. The surname "Ithraedol" wasn't a common one. Everyone who carried it was a direct descendant of Aeteh the Half-God King, the most feared immortal to walk the face of any world. I observed Kesha and Rembrandt's reactions as they realized that the man they had known as "Panther, Prince of the Streets" was in fact Elhilom Ithraedol, the Prince of Tirs Uloth. They both took a few steps away from me.
"Well, I don't think Horus is a demon!" Kesha argued. "If he'd just stop breaking things, we wouldn't even be here!"
I knew then what was wrong with Kesha's son. Horus stared fearfully at the little mirror above Mepmac's desk and I remembered a time when I'd been petrified of anything that gave a reflection myself. Now seeing my own face sometimes unsettled me, but it was nowhere near as frightening as it had been when I was… about ten or twelve years old. Up until then, I'd been just like any other kid back then, before I'd started growing into my Gift. It began with little things, a sudden awareness that marked most children who would one day become wizards. Before my mother pulled me out of primary school, I'd been offered more than one scholarship to go study magic. And yet I knew that I wouldn't be allowed to leave home, not so long as I was still having "problems".
"Felix?" Mepmac wondered hesitantly.
I blinked suddenly, returning to the present. I was starting to feel a little aggressive and I knew that was a bad thing. In circumstances where any normal person would be afraid and want to back away, I tend to react like an animal pushed into a corner.
"Right. Kesha," I paused. "Stop me if I'm wrong, but your kid's been smashing mirrors. Window glass? Anything that gives a reflection?"
"How did you know?" Kesha whispered.
"How do you think I know?" I snapped. I focused on Mepmac's mirror for a moment. Ta'ud welled up all around me. I barely had to call for it.
There's a lot of debate as to where the name "Traverser" comes from, but most people seem to agree that it's got something to do with the fact that the I'Eloshir were the first dimension travelers. Since ancient times they've traveled from one place to another, bending the fabric of the multiverse with a kind of sorcery called Ta'ud. Of course, Traversers don't actually have to break mirrors to travel between worlds, but focusing on something solid can makes things easier… and sometimes shattering a little glass gets a message across like nothing else will. The surface of the mirror I grasped with my mind began to ripple and then exploded into a thousand pieces.
Kesha shrieked. Rembrandt turned to Mepmac and suddenly busting out laughing, slapping his leg. "See, you tramp! I told you!"
"It's not funny!" I snarled at him. Rembrandt fell silent and watched me uneasily. Kesha bit her lip again, and Mepmac only shook his head.
It was a long while before any of us spoke. Though I had tried to seem nonchalant about the entire ordeal, a thousand conflicting thoughts were running through my mind. I might have a brother.
The poor kid stared at me. He had an obstinate sort of face with a pointed nose and dark-colored, somewhat slanted eyes. He wasn't very tall, but then again, neither was I. His hair didn't look like it had ever seen a brush and he was wearing a t-shirt printed with a big green monster that read "The Incredible Hulk". His shoes didn't match. They were the same brand, but one was red, and the other was black.
Kesha broke the silence. "Can you be sure, Felix?" She asked. "Is there any way to know?"
"Wait until he's about twelve. If he's got black blood, that's when you'll start to see it. I was born human myself," I explained. "My father wasn't around much when I was young, and my mother never talked about… what he was. I didn't find out until I first started changing." I sighed, brushing my hair aside so that Kesha could see my eyes and my ears. I felt absolutely filthy as she stared at me, observing those little characteristics that I usually kept hidden.
"Seems awfully subtle," Kesha paused.
"It's not," I cut her off. "I'm just getting better at disguising myself. When I was younger I couldn't go anywhere. There are some signs you can watch out for. Breaking mirrors is one of them. Has he cut himself in his sleep? Complained about ordinary sounds being way too loud? Have you caught him trying to smell things?"
Kesha nodded quietly, observing what I had told her and the kid, Horus only stared. "There's more?" She wondered uneasily.
"Yeah. If he's a halfbreed, there's a lot more," I paused. "All of us are shapeshifters. And I'm not talking about that goofy shit my old man used to do. I'm talking about… well, this." I held my hand up at about eye-level and purposefully extended my claws.
The color drained from my skin and all of my knuckles cracked simultaneously. My fingernails grew and thickened into slate-grey claws, each about an inch long with a slight curve like a bird's talon.
Kesha took a step back and put her hand over her mouth. I'd made my point.
"How old's the kid?" I asked.
"Ten nada years" Kesha replied. "I told you that."
"You've probably got a little while then," I nodded. "He hasn't been sick, has he?"
She only shook her head. "Just… weird."
"Well, watch out for anything that looks like some kind of nasty flu," I warned. "Everything hurts, and he can't eat anything without throwing up. And if he gets to the point where he can't deal with loud noises or bright lights… that's it. Three years, tops."
"Oh no!" Kesha shook her head. "I can't just wait! I need to know now."
"I could bite him," I paused, and then sighed, amused by Kesha's indignant glare.
"Go ahead, I dare you!" Horus spoke suddenly, and I turned to face him.
"I was kidding!" I rolled my eyes.
"Maybe so," Mepmac nodded quietly. "But I do remember the Boss saying something about blood."
"Oh, I'm sure they could test him at Lady Mercy's. The hospital likes to keep things quiet, but they've got all the Traversers in this realm on record, including my old man," I paused. "As a matter of fact... why didn't you go there in the first place?"
Kesha avoided my gaze, wringing her hands again. "I'm a criminal, Felix," she admitted.
"Yeah, and I've been busted in thirty-six different realms. You could say I'm not exactly sympathetic." I rolled my eyes.
Kesha shook her head. "It's not that. I was sent to prison for a botched attempt on the Ardran Crown Jewels. Your father broke me out and I ran without ever serving my time. I should've just hopped a Wave right out of Gelthar, but I decided to go back to Zenith for one of my girls… and a couple of knights ended up dead."
She was wanted for murder? And not just that, but killing Knights? I cursed under my breath and even Mepmac looked a little ill. Most Etone aren't killers. Though a lot of illegal activities like hacking, stealing, smuggling, prostitution and drug-dealing are considered legitimate business within the Brotherhood… some things are still not okay.
"It wasn't what I intended, I swear, but Umeoth just shoots and shoots and doesn't ever look..." Kesha paused. "When the Circus is in town, any Sister with a past is added to the most-wanted list. Doesn't matter how long you've been gone... the knights know how we work. If I show my face, they'll have me locked up and Horus sent away. I'm not a bad person, I swear! I'm just a thief, I've never killed anyone!" Kesha argued. "It's just that Umeoth's always been so twitchy!" She grimaced.
"I see." I nodded. I didn't know much about Umeoth Beluntri, except that he had been one of my father's worst enemies. Since enemies of my old man's had a tendency to become enemies of my own, I was a little disturbed to hear that "The Ringmaster" was a little trigger-happy.
"The Boss said he liked the taste of it. Demon blood," Mepmac mused as if he'd completely missed everything Kesha had said. "He said it was like…"
"Like fire but sweeter," I finished, surprised that I hadn't thought of such a thing sooner. I remembered when my father had first discovered my cousin Kieran. He'd bitten him once on the ear and Kieran, the wuss, had made a big deal out of the whole thing. Still, I couldn't forget what my father had looked like with that black stain on his teeth. He'd explained to me that Ithraedol blood was like fine ambrosia, and that the Gods made wine from it. I knew what my own blood tasted like from getting punched in the face a few dozen times, but I was definitely creeped out by the idea of drinking it on purpose.
"Well," I paused. "I suppose it's worth a try. Someone got something to poke him with?" I wondered. "A pin maybe?"
"Why don't you just bite me?" Horus demanded.
"Kid, you are really starting to piss me off!" I growled, and then caught a hold of myself. Horus stared in bewilderment and took a few steps back. The faint rumble that lingered in my throat caused me to put my hand to my chest.
"You're a demon?" He blinked in disbelief.
"Are you retarded?" I shot back. "What do you think we've been talking about? You'd better start listening and stop mouthing off you little shit, because this is your business! And for your information, I'm not "a demon."
"Pshaw! You sure ain't human! Not more than one-quarter, anyway!" Mepmac corrected me. "And you do know what they say about them Blanche-Codys!" He taunted, referencing the somewhat infamous Etone "lineage" of my mother.
"I didn't ask for your opinion," I glared at him. My jaw popped. I'd pushed too hard when I'd extended my claws, and some of my teeth had also changed. When I spoke, my words sounded sloppy and slurred together. As any vampire will profess, having serious canines makes speaking Common a real bitch.
"I'm a little surprised myself," Kesha admitted. "You seem normal."
"He is normal. Sorta. Well… you get used to him, anyway," Mepmac paused as he caught me glaring at him. I sat down in Mepmac's chair and put my elbows on his desk, resting my chin in my hands and watching Horus. He pushed between Kesha and Rembrandt, his face only a few inches away from my own.
"I want to know!" He shouted, so loud that I could hear ringing in my ears. I twitched and Kesha grabbed hold of Horus's shirt, pulling him away from me. "Shouldn't I know who my real dad is?" Horus demanded.
"All of you, stop it!" I groaned. "Just let me think!"
Mepmac nodded solemnly, watching me with the sort of fearful respect that I hated seeing on his face. Almost immediately, he began digging through his jacket pockets, avoiding my eyes. "Hey, look! I've got a safety pin!" He exclaimed, holding the pin up triumphantly as if it were some kind of sacred relic. It was sort of blackened on one end and had a piece of fuzz stuck to it.
"Forget it, Mepmac," I smiled slightly despite myself. "I think my teeth are cleaner than your pockets. C'mere, kid."
"But…" Kesha whispered uneasily.
"I'm not going to hurt him. But I do need to taste his blood," Without waiting for his mother's permission, Horus came forward.
"I'm not afraid of nothing!" He vowed. Still, he hesitated for a moment when he reached the corner of Mepmac's desk. He was close enough that I could take in his smell, and when I did I almost bit down hard on my own tongue. He didn't stink. See, from a demon's perspective, basically everyone stinks.
I shuddered despite myself. I'd changed my hands to scare Kesha... but that was nothing. My run through the Wonderland Maze had left my blood boiling.
"You sure, Felix?" Mepmac wondered. "You look pale."
Of all the inane things to say! I gritted my teeth. If the Mepmac couldn't figure out that I was trying not to shape-shift, he was a moron.
"Now this is going to hurt," I explained, taking Horus by the wrist and drawing him slowly towards me. "I'm not a vampire. I don't do subtle and I can't pump that numbing-toxin through your veins so you don't feel the bite."
"I don't care!" Horus replied stiffly.
It was hard to remain strictly business-like as I bit the kid. Horus let out a sharp whimper of pain and I reflexively tightened my grip on him. He struggled a little, but he wasn't nearly strong enough to pull away from me. At first, my teeth barely drew any blood, but once it started to flow, I recoqnized that familiar sweetness, nothing like the salty flavor of human blood. There was power in the kid's blood as well, rich, flowing, Ta'ud that burned through me like fire. My old man had described it perfectly.
"Felix?" Mepmac's voice broke me from my reverie and I let go of Horus.
He seemed frightened. Considering what I had just done, I wasn't surprised.
See, vampires need blood to survive, which gives them a kind of legitimacy and keeps people from getting too upset about them drinking it… so long as they pick up their monthly supply at the hospital like they're supposed to. Demons just get a kick out of it, partly because it tastes good, and partly because there's something weirdly intimate about having your teeth in something when its heart is still beating.
"That good, hunh?" Rembrandt whispered uneasily, still staring at me.
I wiped a drop of blood from my lip and smiled in satisfaction, despite the fact that all of my teeth were fully extended into fangs. I'm not talking about vampire fangs either. I'Eloshir teeth aren't designed for carefully siphoning blood. They're designed for ripping shit apart.
"You have no idea," I replied, slowly standing up. I cracked my neck and rolled my shoulders. I felt much more comfortable than I should have, especially considering the circumstances.
Horus dove behind his mother the moment I let go of him… and then slowly crept out, staring at me and holding his ear.
"If it doesn't heal clean, I'll get you an earring for it," I promised, and he nodded solemnly, his fingers slowly drifting across his own face. I sighed, shaking my head as he stared at me. The fear in his eyes dissipated, and he grinned very broadly.
"Cool!" He exclaimed.
It took me a moment to realize that he wasn't actually excited about the prospect of having an earring. I sighed heavily, rolling my shoulders again… and suddenly felt a sharp pain. Rembrandt leapt out of his chair and Kesha fell into his arms. They both gaped at me, wide-eyed like a couple of floundering fish just pulled out of the water. A wine-colored feather floated down to the desk in front of me and as I caught sight of it I realized what I had just done.
"Inapsupetra!" I cursed, flipping Mepmac's chair over, and raking the upholstery and duct-tape with my claws as I fell.
Scrambling back to my feet, I stared at my own hands. My skin the color of white marble. I slowly reached to touch my ears, feeling out their shape. They were more sharply pointed than they had been before, but I'd expected that. I raked my hair out of my eyes and my claws brushed something that was at once foreign and familiar. Horns? Since when did I have horns?
I stared at my reflection in the glass of Mepmac's front window as if I were looking at a stranger. I'd completely destroyed my relatively expensive shirt… but I didn't care. I didn't look like a halfbreed with crooked teeth and stunted claws. I looked I'Eloshir.
And every word I'd meant to say slipped away from me the moment I felt my wings. I can't explain what it's like, having wings folded inside your back… except that letting them out feels better somehow. It's like the difference between breathing and taking a really deep breath, the kind that sends a shiver down your spine. I composed myself and stretched. It had been a long time since I'd had wings to move, and they were completely numb. My heart pounded furiously, circulating blood through those neglected muscles. After a few minutes the sensation of pins and needles dissipated. I straightened myself up and stretched again, as wide as I could in Mepmac's office. If the place had seemed small before, it was absolutely tiny then.
Rembrandt's hand had once again moved for the gun on his left side, knowing it was useless to try to shoot me if I really was what I seemed to be. Horus stared. He touched his own teeth, silently comparing himself to me with a strange sort of conviction, as if he knew what I hadn't yet said.
"Fhetu shifak," I cursed, burying my face in my hands. If my mother found out what I'd just done, she'd be on her way to Zenith in a heartbeat.
"Shut up!" I snapped at Mepmac, even though he hadn't said anything. Eyes watched me.
"Well?" Rembrandt wondered.
"Yes," I replied. "Yes, he is."
Sighing heavily, I resumed my human form with every-bit of the bone-crushing that I'd long since become accustomed to. The pain was intense and I immediately felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. My skin was suddenly clammy and it was like I was trying to breathe through a sheet of plastic. I thought I'd been good enough to stand, but the minute I was back on my feet, I turned around and puked into Mepmac's wastebasket. It didn't take me long to realize I'd given my system a shock of magic-poisoning. I stood for a second time, much more slowly. Every nerve in my body screamed in protest. I never changed if I could avoid it, and the Ta'ud that flowed through my own veins was not happy about being released and then immediately forced back into a small, human shell.
"Are you okay?" Horus wondered, a strong empathic twitch on his face, his expression mirroring my own. "That hurt."
"Yeah, it hurt," I paused. "Hurt to watch, eh?"
"Hurt-hurt," Horus corrected, biting his own lip. "Like someone punched me."
"There's your proof," I turned to Kesha, jerking a thumb at Horus who sat down on the floor, rubbing his jaw as I popped my own back into place. "Lady, I hate to tell you this, but the next ten years ahead of you are going to be the worst ten years of your entire life. I'd leave the Circus right now and find somewhere to live really far from civilization, because you're going to need a lot of space between you and the neighbors. Keep the kid away from mirrors, don't let him handle small animals and hopefully he won't kill anyone before he turns twenty."
"Wait!" Kesha begged. "Where are you going?"
"Home," I shrugged, attempting to compose myself. "I really didn't intend to stay here so long." I lied. I had meant to spend the night in Zenith, but considering the current turn of events, I was in desperate need of someone to talk to and knew just the dragon for the job. Unfortunately, my old friend Gabe was in Gelthar and more than twelve hours away. Still, if I set out immediately, I could probably catch a free ship.
"That's it?" Kesha screeched as I turned away. "That's all?"
"What do you want from me, woman?" I demanded. "He isn't my kid!"
"But he is your brother!" She cried desperately. "You just said so yourself!"
"I don't do handouts. I'm not a charity," I countered.
"I'm not looking for handouts!" Kesha fell silent. "It's... I'm... older than I look." She explained. "I got hurt a couple of times and then my contract ran out. I can't work Circus anymore. I need a place to settle down."
"Why don't you get Mandala to help you?" I demanded. "You've obviously got connections!"
"I've told you before, I'll get arrested if anyone finds out I'm here!" Kesha sighed. "And if I ask my brother for too much, it'll ruin his career. No one can find out that he used to be with The Circus! And I've never lived in one place before, not since I was a little girl! I need someone who understands me!"
"Nice try, but I'm not my father," I shook my head. "And I'm really not looking for trouble." I paused for a moment, watching Kesha and thinking of the diamond I'd stolen earlier. As my old man would often say, things that most people perceived as chance or coincidence were usually parts of patterns too complex for mortals to follow. At its heart, Ta'ud was chaos, but that didn't mean it was completely unpredictable.
"No," Kesha nodded. "Mepmac explained that. I don't want your money. I can take care of all of my own expenses. I've got a few things on me that I can sell if I have to." She grinned slyly, as if she expected that I could guess what that meant. "Look, Danilo is heading off on a big job soon. I just need a place where Horus and I can stay until my husband gets paid. Then you'll never see us again. Please." She whispered. "I'm desperate."
I hesitated for a moment, but then I caved in. There was something in her eyes that just killed me and I couldn't find the strength to tell her off. "Ok, fine!" I sighed heavily, hating myself for what I knew I was about to suggest. "I'll figure something out."
Kesha didn't give me time to finish. Before I saw her coming, she had me throttled in a massive hug.
"Oh thank you!" She exclaimed in such a way that I knew I had just been conned. "Thank you so much!"