A Gathering of Monsters
Chronological note: This story takes place about
four months after the Lisa Dawnwind story _Unwanted Help_ and about a month
before the Fox Kid story _Cat House_.
"How's my patient?" asked Robertson, as he handed
Mariah his hat and coat.
"Wearing," said Mariah, rolling her eyes.
"You do look a bit worn," said the doctor, grinning.
"You know what's really frightening? All those maternal instincts coming into play. She's been mothering _me_!"
"Lisa still keeping them in the nursery?"
"Oh, yes," said Mariah, grinning as she led Robertson down the basement steps. "We're careful to chaperone them when they're anywhere else in the house. The only one who's giving us trouble is the youngest, who keeps getting out, somehow."
Cougar cubs are often raised in caves. Lisa and Mariah had modified one of the basement rooms into a nursery, complete with a cougar-sized litter box. The cubs weren't weaned, yet, but were already showing an interest in solid food. After a little research, Lisa had bought several large bags of high-quality kitten food from a vet whose practice included privately-owned large cats.
As Mariah and Dr. Robertson stepped through the gate which now stood in place of the door, they could see Lisa - in cougar form - lying on her side, nursing her young. She was purring, paws flexing, claws rhythmically penetrating the indoor/outdoor carpet. Crofta, the oldest, eyed them but stayed put, continuing her feeding. Mihos, the male, ignored the humans, greedily sucking away. Roda popped lose and came bounding excitedly over.
Dr. Robertson laughed as he play-wrestled with the cub, already much larger than even a Main Coon. Mariah grinned at the sight. Roda had claws and fangs that could seriously injure a normal human, but even in the roughest of play rarely even broke the skin. All three cubs were precocious, in body and behavior. Mariah had for a while thought this was a sign that they were shapechangers, rather than merely non-changing descendants of one. However, a bit of research had shown that this rapid development was not unusual with well-cared for, human-raised cougars. Like most wild animals, they were benefiting from the intelligent attention and foresight humans could provide.
Robertson tired before Roda, and the cub moved over to the housekeeper, looking expectantly up at her, head cocked to one side.
"Sorry, not now," said Mariah, still grinning.
Roda, realizing playtime was over, hurried back to her meal. The two humans followed. Dr. Robertson crouched beside Lisa's head.
"Is it all right if I examine them while they're feeding?"
The adult cougar nodded, also giving a slow cat blink of approval. Dr. Robertson sat on the floor, putting his bag down beside him. He pulled out his stethoscope and listened to the kittens' hearts and lungs, nodding each time after a short pause. Mihos simply ignored him; Crofta made a mild attempt to pull away; and Roda tried to play some more. Lisa made a slight chirping noise at the rambunctious cub, who immediately settled down.
"Lungs are clear," said Robertson. "I don't think there's any need to check their temperatures. However, I do want to look at their teeth and gums."
"That might be a bit difficult," laughed Mariah.
It was, but with a little help from the young woman Dr. Robertson soon finished his checkup. Naturally, they all three immediately decided they'd had enough to eat and moved away from their mother, to play with some of the cougar-sized cat toys scattered around the room.
Lisa shifted to human form and sat up, stark naked. She greeted Dr. Robertson briefly, then returned to watching her children, almost purring even in this shape.
"How are you doing?" the doctor asked.
"I'm hungry more than anything," she replied, absently.
"She's even been eating some of the kitten food," said Mariah, accusingly.
"Shouldn't hurt her," Dr. Robertson judged. He briefly checked Lisa, then nodded. "Everything seems normal. Well, normal for shapeshifters."
"Good," said Lisa. She looked at him, hesitated a moment, then plunged ahead. "I hope you don't mind, but as part of the cover story I'm going to take them to a vet next week."
"No, I don't mind," said Robertson, a bit surprised that she would even ask. Maternal hormones had definitely made Lisa more mellow. "I remember you talking about your plan to have them registered as exotic pets."
"Yes," said Lisa, turning back to watch her cubs. "They most likely aren't shifters. The odds are just too great against that. So I need to create a background that won't arouse much suspicion. I already have three exotic pet permits for cougars, and an explanation that they were sent to me by my Mother.
"Also, when I'm sure they _aren't_ shifters I want to release them in different areas near my Mother's home. So I'm making sure they're vaccinated."
Dr. Robertson nodded. Shifters or not, they would be more vigorous and resistant to disease than normal cougars, but could still get sick. Vaccinations were a good idea.
"You seem to have things pretty well planned out," he commented, closing his bag.
"I thought I did," sighed Lisa, looking around the room. "I'm a neophyte at raising a family. There have been many surprises."
Dr. Robertson laughed, shaking his head.
"You'd be surprised how many first-time mothers have said something like that to me."
* * *
After Dr. Robertson left Lisa was able to enjoy a
rare period of relaxation in human form. The cubs were alternating between
sleeping and nibbling at the dry food. Lisa took long, hot shower, dressed
in a simple robe and then settled down with a favorite magazine and some
good music on the CD player. She was just getting into an article on the
plight of the Montagnards when the doorbell rang.
"Hellfire and damnation!" Lisa yelled, slamming the magazine down and lunging out of her chair.
Mariah beat her to to door, which was probably a good thing. Lisa reversed course, and faded back around a corner. Maybe Mariah could convince whoever it was that she wasn't home. That hope faded when she recognized the voices of the visitors: the teenage _kitsune_ and his human mate, whom Lisa had first met a few months previously.
Lisa sighed and went back into her den, turning off the stereo and settling herself in a chair. She liked the young couple, and in spite of the interruption was glad to see them. She would make an effort to be pleasant, not letting them know how much she resented this intrusion. Besides, Lisa made a point of never letting anyone seeing her agitated.
How was his usual eccentric self, dressed in wild patterns and colors which he somehow managed to make look almost fashionable. Tina, as normal, was the more conventional of the pair, both in clothing and manner. She was the one who uttered the expected conversational amenities after the pair were escorted in and seated. However, Lisa could sense an underlayer of tension, something they were here to see her about which they were reluctant to bring up. So she decided to be blunt, though in a friendly way.
"What brings you out here?"
"Well, I guess you've heard about the mysterious disappearances in the city, recently," said How.
"No, I haven't," countered Lisa. "I've been... busy."
"Ah, well, something has been kidnapping people - mostly young, mostly female, but some of everything - and the local fey think it's something supernatural."
"Do tell," said Lisa, politely.
"Whatever it is, it seems to be pretty formidable," How continued, not obviously put off by Lisa's indifference. "One woman made it inside her home, and this thing ripped the whole door frame out of the wall. Also, it's been _seen_, and the local authorities are starting to take reports of a monster seriously. We've tried getting some of the local werewolves to help us but, frankly, we can't find 'em. Broderic is helping, but he's not as potent as the non-Changeling werewolves and we're worried that we might not have enough muscle."
"Well, I'll see what I can do," said Lisa. "I'll contact some of the shapeshifters I know in the area and pass the message along, if you'll give me a number to call on your end."
"Actually, we were hoping you might help," said How. "I mean, Tina and Broderic and I have seen you in action and know what you can do."
"Sorry, no," said Lisa, firmly. "I have important matters I'm involved with right now."
"More important than saving people's lives?" asked How, confused.
Lisa started to respond that this wasn't a simple either/or situation, but was preempted by Tina.
"Oh, how darling!" exclaimed the young woman, suddenly straightening and smiling, as she looked past Lisa towards the doorway.
Tina slipped off the couch and dropped easily to all fours, holding out her hand and making clicking noises with her mouth. Lisa, confounded by this strange behavior, turned to see what Tina was looking at. There, in the doorway, was Roda, peering quizzically at the girl.
Lisa froze. Her maternal imperatives screamed _protect the cubs from strangers_. But Lisa _liked_ How and Tina, and those same instincts were generalizing, including the young human and the _kitsune_ as "cubs." For one long moment she literally didn't know what to do. Then Roda sauntered over to Tina and let the young woman pet her, rubbing her cheeks against the girl's hand and purring.
"Wow," said How, "is that a cougar?"
"Yes," said Lisa, tightly.
How looked at Lisa, eyes suddenly wide. He looked at Roda, then back at Lisa. And got very tense.
"Uh, Tina, I think we better go now."
Mariah came hurrying in.
"Oh, Lisa, I'm sorry," she exclaimed, obviously flustered. "I don't know how she keeps getting out. The other two are sound asleep but she..."
She stopped, taking in the scene.
"Tina, I _really_ think we better go."
Lisa thought about simply telling the two of them the cover story. She desperately wanted to keep secret the fact that she now had three children, partly because she was embarrassed about them being animals, but mostly because the fewer who knew the safer her cubs would be. But she knew that How already suspected the truth, and was on the verge of convincing himself of it. And that the voluble kitsune would not be able to keep from telling his mate. Better to just get things out in the open. The pair were trustworthy, and might provide valuable assistance for protecting the cubs.
"It's... all right," said Lisa, forcing herself to relax. Which included pulling her claws out of the arms of her chair. "Just don't tell anyone about them."
"Oh, aren't you supposed to have them?" asked Tina, distracted by Roda's roughhouse play. "Don't worry; we won't tell anyone."
"That's not a pet," said How, quietly, staring hard at Lisa, frozen in place.
The boy's reaction was almost amusing. Lisa actually smiled a bit, in spite of the situation.
"I have three darling children," she said, surprising herself with the surge of pride she felt at saying this.
"Children..." said Tina, slowly pulling her hand back, staring at the cub in numb disbelief.
Roda swatted at Tina's hand, wanting to play some more. The girl, however, was too stunned to respond. So the cub trotted over to Lisa and started meowing.
"You've been fed," said Lisa, slightly scolding. "You've been groomed, you've been put to bed for a nap. That's where you should be right now."
"Come on," said Mariah, coaxing the cub. "Come on, come here..."
Realizing she wasn't going to get any more attention from her mother or the strangers, Roda sighed and let the housekeeper pick her up. Mariah carried Roda out, the kitten purring like a Geiger counter in a uranium mine as it's belly was rubbed.
"Okay, I can see now why you said you were busy," said How, "but if you can contact some real werewolves it would be a big help."
"I said I would." Lisa's uncharacteristic warmth of manner from a moment earlier now chilled noticeably. "I know of at least two currently in the area. I figure one of them would certainly be interested in helping."
"Just one," said Tina, disappointed.
"These are real werewolves," said Lisa, sternly. "Not Changelings with a lupine affinity, like Broderic."
She gave them a very feral smile.
"Most of them are almost as formidable as I am."
* * *
"I'm really glad you agreed to walk me back to the
dorm, Tina," said Ginger. "With all these strange kidnappings and people
seeing monsters, I'm glad to have someone along."
"Not a problem," said Tina, smiling. She raised her _boken_. "Thanks to all those _kendo_ lessons, I could probably take out most monsters with this."
Despite her kidding tone, meant to convince Ginger that she didn't believe in the stories about monsters in the area, this was no idle brag. Aside from her own formidable skill, the practice sword was no ordinary piece of wood. The threat of Exposure was deemed so great by the Fey Council that extraordinary measures were being approved. The _boken_ had been "treated" by Lord Teleomier and a couple of other Changelings who were strangers to Tina. The latter were part of a group of reinforcements brought in from outside the area to deal with the situation.
For the past two nights Tina had been volunteering as an escort for girls with late-night classes or who had to study late in the campus library. Moreover, Tina and her wooden sword weren't the only protection available for these young women, though if things worked as planned none of those escorted would ever know that.
All of the local Fey who could manage it were scattered around the area where the attacks had taken place. Hidden by various means - some simply walking around in plain sight in human form - they watched and waited. Tina occasionally caught sight of a strange shape on a roof, or a normal-looking pedestrian who had that odd _shine_. Whatever this thing was which was stealing young girls, from now on it would not be able to operate as freely as before.
The problem was, the attacks had no obvious pattern. The first few had occurred about one every three nights. Then came a flurry, one a night for a week, with two on the eighth night. Now, for three nights there had been nothing.
_I hope it didn't get enough already,_ thought Tina, _or just move on._
There was a chance the victims had been taken prisoner, rather than killed. If so, their best hope of rescue came from someone spotting the kidnapper and following him - or it - back to wherever it took its prey. That was deemed a forlorn hope by some, but even if those kidnapped were dead, the hunters could at least make sure there weren't any more monsters where this one came from. Tina recalled the legend of Beowulf, and shivered. In that story, the monster hadn't been as bad as its mother.
Tina and Ginger took a well-lighted path to her dorm, going a bit out of their way to avoid dark areas. This probably was no safer than the shortest path; reports said nothing about the kidnapper being light shy. Still, they felt better being able to see clearly the area around them. Ginger didn't really relax until they were inside her dorm building.
"You sure you'll be all right walking alone to your dorm?"
"Yeah. It's only three buildings away, and I can stay in lighted areas the whole way."
"Okay, then," said Ginger. "Good night, good luck, and thank you!"
As Tina descended the steps she fought back a yawn. Up early for training, classes all day, up late for escort duty. She _really_ needed sleep. Of course, the downside of this was that she'd probably get it, since How was one of the Fey watchers. He was keeping even longer hours than she was, since besides the same sort of schedualed items Tina had he was also attending planning meetings.
Tina was shocked back to full alertness by a scream from ahead and to the right. Whipping her _boken_ into a ready position, she ran towards the source. Though the scream cut off abruptly, she could now hear sounds of scuffling. Tina rounded a corner and saw a large man in an overcoat wrestling with a young woman. Tina didn't hesitate; neither did she give a warning. Not only was the garb a bit too warm for this late Spring night, the man matched some of the descriptions given by witnesses of the kidnapper. She ran in and slashed downward at his shoulder, intending to break it.
A shock ran up Tina's arms as the _boken_ encountered something much more solid than mere flesh and bone. The sword bounced away, but from the roar of pain the target vented it had done at least some damage. Tina staggered back, both to recover her balance from the recoil of the sword and to get away from the man. Because it quickly became obvious this wasn't a man. The reports of monsters were right, after all.
Tina could hear people running towards the scene, shouting out questions and warnings. Her primary attention, however was on her opponent, who was growing. He had been big for a man, but now the overcoat shredded as he expanded. The creature left standing naked before Tina was not only nearly twice her height, but much bulkier than even the buffest body builder. It roared again, this time in anger, revealing uneven teeth, including long fangs. Tina quailed, backing away even further.
Seeing this, the monster took a step forward, nearly coming within reach of Tina. Then it stopped, a pained look on its face. Reluctantly, hesitantly, it retreated, then turned away. Towards the young woman it had been struggling with earlier, who lay on the ground, apparently paralyzed with fright. Tina stirred herself, and with a cry lunged forward, thrusting the sword into the monster's lower back. It howled, a strangely high-pitched cry for something so large. The magically-enhanced wooden sword had struck deep, and strangely-colored blood ran around the blade. Tina yanked it free, and ducked away as the monster swung blindly behind it. She slashed at its arm, but missed, as it was turning towards her, lifting both arms like an angry chimp.
Tina lunged again, shoving the tip of the blade at the thing's swollen gut. This time the monster saw the attack coming, and twisted away, though this was not completely successful. The blade sliced a shallow cut across the leathery hide. However, the lack of solid contact left Tina off balance. As she struggled to recover, the thing swept an arm like a tree limb at her. She tried to drop out of the way, but was only about as successful as the monster had been. The massive arm caught her in a glancing blow, sending her rolling across the ground.
By this time there were several other people in the area. Dazed, Tina still managed to recognize one of them as a visiting high elf who had volunteered to help with this problem. He charged in, making a drawing motion from his belt. Tina caught a flickering glimpse of a Fey sword, as intangible as lightning and about as deadly. Before he could close the distance, however, the monster scooped up the girl and fled. It's movements seemed clumsy and slow, but like an elephant, its size gave it a long stride which was very effective at covering distance in a hurry. The elf, realizing he couldn't keep up, reversed course.
Tina sat up as the visiting elf came to her. She realized her left arm was numb, and looked down to see that the upper bone had a slight kink in it. The numbness was rapidly being replaced with a dull, throbbing ache. She looked at the elf. Speaking required two attempts.
"Wha... what was that thing?" she whispered.
"May the Creator protect us," the elf whispered back, glancing after the monster, "it was an ogre. The biggest I've ever seen."
* * *
"Your description doesn't match what other witnesses
told us about the attack," said the Detective, staring down at the young
woman sitting up in her hospital bed.
"Well, considering I described a big, ugly guy and they described a monster, who are you gonna believe?" asked Tina, sourly, as she scratched absently at her cast.
"Miss Moore, I know you were closest to the... assailant. I know that you are a martial artist, with armed and unarmed combat training. But are you sure..."
"Yes," said Tina, staring him straight in the eye. "I'm sure."
How squeezed her shoulder, feeling very proud of her just then. Not only for being willing to lie to help reduce the chance of the existence of supernatural creatures becoming public knowledge, but for standing up to Detective Burns. The Detective sighed, nodded to the two youngsters, and left, obviously dissatisfied but also obviously unwilling to spend any more time trying to get Tina to change her account.
As soon as the door closed behind Burns, a huge orange tabby came out from under the bed and shifted into Lord Teleomier.
"They know," he said, gloomily. "Worse yet, they are beginning to believe."
"So what do we do?" asked Tina.
"_You_ lie there and get well!" said How, firmly. "You've already done too much."
"Oh, How..." said Tina, aggravated at being left out but grinning at his protectiveness.
"I've been saying for years we need to have someone in local police forces," muttered Teleomier. "One of us or a human ally. Now it's too late."
"Maybe not," said How, frowning. "We should check into the background of the officers working on this case. Seems to me they've been awfully quick to accept the existence of something which shouldn't exist."
Teleomier nodded. Then his frown deepened.
"The problem is, someone predisposed to believe in the supernatural may not automatically be sympathetic towards us. They may even feel a need to reveal our existence to justify their beliefs or actions."
"So we'll just have to be careful who we pick," said How, shrugging.
Lord Teleomier started to reply, but was interrupted by a knock.
"I hope that's not your folks," said How, rolling his eyes at Tina.
"Come in," Tina called out, after a quick glance to make sure her two visitors were both presentable. That is, looking human.
Lisa Dawnwind pushed the door open and flowed into the room, long hair streaming in her wake.
"Hello," she said, looking and sounding uncharacteristically subdued. She nodded at each of the trio in turn. Then she looked back at Tina. "How are you?"
"Pretty good, considering I had a fight with an ogre," said Tina, grinning. She lifter her arm to display her cast. "It's a greenstick fracture, no big deal. A few weeks in this and I'll be fine."
"I can heal that, if you want," Lisa offered, casually. Too casually.
"Thanks, but the doctors already have x-rays. If they take another and see that the break has healed..."
Lisa nodded, biting her lip.
"Listen, I've contacted that... friend I told you about. He's agreed to help. And I want to, as well."
"Done," said Teleomier, nodding. He gave Lisa a long, thoughtful look, the same sort of predatory gaze she often used to discomfort others. How grinned to see her fall victim to her own medicine. "I do believe I'm getting an idea. Correct me if I'm wrong, I believe you have a contact in the local police department."
"A contact, yes," said Lisa, nodding. "But he's not in the know, if you catch my meaning."
"Could he handle that?"
"Probably. If we approached him the right way."
"Good. You might have the answer to a question we were just asking ourselves."
* * *
Detective Toole looked up as the young man he had
an appointment with was escorted in. He was surprised to see two other
people with the boy, a man and a woman. The latter looked familiar, and
after several seconds he recognized her. He had met Lisa Dawnwind before,
two years earlier, when she had interviewed him while doing some background
research for a book. He had a sudden feeling of suspicion, and glanced
over at the Japanese-American youth. Had the boy already made a deal to
sell his fiancé's story?
Introductions were made, the large, somewhat rough-looking man Toole didn't know being introduced as "Mr. Smith." He figured the fellow was either a literary agent or worked for one.
"Now, then, Mr. Metu, would you care to explain why you wanted to speak to me?" Detective Toole asked of How. "I told you on the phone that I'm working on these kidnapping cases - nearly everyone else in the department - but I'm not involved in your fiancé's particular part of it."
"You know that Tina wasn't there by accident," said How, folding his hands and sitting slumped in his chair. "She was doing escort duty. What you don't know is that there's more to it than that. Y'see, there's some people - Tina one of them - who don't want people to find out that there really _are_ such things as ogres around."
Toole shook his head, feeling confused. If the boy had accused someone else of trying to cover up what the department was slowly and reluctantly coming to admit - at least internally - then Toole would have thought he was having delusions of conspiracies. But How had said that _he_ was part of a cover-up. And he had used a word for the mysterious kidnapper which both fit what some of the witnesses had described and implied further knowledge of it.
"Just what are you doing here?"
"Lisa tells me that you are skeptical but open-minded," said How, as planned acting as the spokesman. "And that you know when to keep quiet about things."
The Detective glanced over at Lisa, whose expression gave away nothing.
"What I want to offer you is a deal," How continued. "We handle this thing, and you do what you can - within the limits of your conscience - to help us keep it from becoming public knowledge."
"And just how are you going to 'handle' this?" asked Toole, irritated at the vagueness and presumption of How's offer. "Even if you can find the thing..."
"Oh, we can find it," said Lisa, speaking for the first time.
"We have some of its blood, from Tina's sword, as well as pieces of its clothing. Those will let us trace it. You don't need to know how, you just need to be prepared to misdirect attention if we need for you to when we go to confront the ogre."
"With respect, Miss Dawnwind," said Toole, keeping his temper with an effort, "assuming you do find it, then what? I know you're a war hero and combat veteran, but this thing is out of your league! It's a monster!"
"That's all right," said How, quietly. "We're monsters, too."
The Detective spun around to snap at How... and froze. The chair where the young man had been sitting was now occupied by a creature from fantasy. It had fur, and vulpine features, including pointed ears. Dangling down behind the chair Toole could see two fox tails. Incredibly, it was still recognizable as How. The Detective stared for a long moment, wondering if too much work and too little sleep during this emergency had finally taken their toll. Or if maybe he was the victim of some bizarre practical joke. Then he recalled How's "we" and turned back to the other two. Standing on the floor in front of the man's chair was a wolf the size of a Shetland pony. It looked up at him... and winked. In that odd clarity that sometimes comes with a great shock, he noted a distinct kink in the beast's tail. Toole stared at the wolf for a terrified moment, then jerked his gaze towards Lisa. She looked just the same as she had before. Lisa smiled at him.
"There's no sense in shocking you too much at once."
Toole shook his head, then stared again in turn at each of them, convincing himself that this was really happening. He sat back in his chair with a squeak, and swallowed hard.
"This... this ogre... is it one of yours who's... breaking some sort of rule of discretion?"
"No," said How, flatly. "It is a monster, something non-sentient. We don't know why it is doing what it is doing. We'll find out. And stop it."
"And all I have to do is keep anyone else from finding out the truth about it... and you." Toole was suddenly wary. "What happens if I fail? Or tell someone about you?"
"We're not villains," said Lisa. "We just want to live our lives in peace and privacy. If you fail, you fail, and we'll deal with that as best we can. If you try to go public, we won't physically harm you, but we will do our best to discredit you. Make you look foolish or even deranged."
She left out that some Fey could alter memories. She wanted him to know that they were serious, and how far they would go to protect themselves, but not what all their resources were.
"So you're a werewolf," Detective Toole said, swallowing hard and nodding at what had been a large man. He turned to How. "And you're a..."
"_Kitsune_," said How, helpfully, when the Detective faltered.
Toole turned to Lisa, raising an eyebrow and waiting.
"If you're lucky," she told him, smiling slightly, "you'll never find out."
* * *
"'If you're lucky, you'll never find out,'" snickered
How. "Talk about laying it on thick."
Lisa ignored him. Bent-Tail chuckled gruffly. To How, it seemed like the werewolf did just about everything gruffly. Not to mention in a larger-than-life manner. He was big as a man, and very big as a wolf, but his midform was _huge_. He was one of those rare shifters who did not maintain mass conservation when changing.
"What now?" rumbled Bent-Tail.
"We head to the meeting and give them the good news," said How, brightly.
Those already present at the meeting were huddled over a table, the top of which was painted in strange symbols. In the center of the table lay scrapings of ogre blood and pieces of cloth.
"Any luck?" asked How, as he and the two weres walked in.
"Some," answered Teleomier. "And you?"
"He'll probably cooperate," said Lisa, "but we shouldn't make too many requests of him. And _no_ demands. He's the type that doesn't respond well to attempts at intimidation."
"So you know where the ogre is," said How, his manner making clear that he desired more information.
"North of here," said one of the Fey, vaguely.
"_Clarksville..._," whispered Lisa, shivering.
"What's in Clarksville?" asked How, frowning.
"It is... a bad place," said one of the elder Fey, who glanced at the werecougar. "We know little about it. Only that we are warned to avoid it."
"That's putting it mildly," rumbled Bent-Tail, flexing his fingers, as if to ready claws for action.
"As we suspected, this ogre is not the organizer of these attacks," said the elder Fey, whom How had gathered was some sort of magic expert. "Ogres cannot naturally change their shape. Neither can they learn magic to do so. And now we find that someone has cloaked the monster's trail. We could not track it. But we were able to track three of those he has taken."
"To a general location," clarified Teleomier. "To within a few blocks."
He looked expectantly at Lisa and Bent-Tail. After a moment they glanced at each other, and Lisa sighed.
"There's some sort of place of power over there. Something which attracts dark creatures, and humans with dark souls. And I doubt they'd willingly let some stranger come in and use their treasure. So this must be one of the locals who's managed to score some sort of coup. Because most of them are at least as concerned about being discovered as we are."
"So we may have to fight our way in to stop the actual cause of these kidnappings," said Teleomier. He did not look happy.
He and most of the other Fey present eyed Lisa and Bent-Tail meaningfully, but said nothing. Common sense told them to be cautious about asking a shapeshifter whether they were strong and fierce and brave enough to accomplish a difficult task. Such creatures weren't known for expressing doubts about their abilities, or for handling expressions of doubt from others well. Still, the changelings needed to know...
"Oh, the Hell with it," muttered Lisa. "No. I don't think we can fight our way in, not even with Bent-Tail. Even if we could, we couldn't fight our way out. From what little we know about their place of power, it is a warren of cramped tunnels."
Bent-Tail sighed, and nodded.
"Hate to admit it, but the cat's right. We need more muscle."
"Until we can get it, we need to keep tabs on the place," said Teleomier. "Are you three up for a scouting trip?"
"That sounds like a good idea," agreed Lisa. "Are you coming with us?"
"Of course," said Lord Teleomier, grinning to reveal his carnivore's teeth.
* * *
"'Take the last bane to Clarksville, and we'll meet
with Davis Station,'" sang How.
"Would you _please_ shut up?!" demanded Lisa, through clenched teeth. "Davis Station has nothing to do with the group in Clarksville! How did you ever learn about him, anyway?"
"Word gets around," said How, with a careless shrug.
They were riding in a nondescript utility van which one of the Fey had conjured for the occasion. Lisa didn't like being a passenger, but Lord Teleomier looked more convincing in a jumpsuit than she did.
Frankly, Lisa was glad to be out of the Fey meeting. One or two at a time was okay, but there had been eighteen there, counting How. They made her scalp itch, and the sensation was distracting and annoying enough that she had trouble concentrating. She suspected that was deliberate. Most of those in the room were strangers, to How as well as her, brought in from outside the Tri-State area for the emergency. They were most likely doing something to fuzz their identities. They certainly hadn't bothered to introduce themselves, something else Lisa found annoying. They knew who she was, but weren't willing to reciprocate.
Well, she couldn't really blame them. If this blew up there was a good chance the local, state and federal governments would learn of the existence of both changelings and shapeshifters. And governments worry about anything they don't control. Lisa and How would almost certainly be discovered, and probably marked for detention and possibly internment. Not that either of them was likely to actually be caught, but...
If they were, then eventually all their contacts would be identified. All the changelings, shapeshifters and others she and How knew, as well as their human associates. Better for all if none of them could identify the outsiders. She wondered if even Lord Teleomier knew who they were and what they really looked like... Lisa was shaken out of her reverie by the van abruptly slowing and making a sharp left turn. The van stopped beside an abandoned filling station.
"This should do it," said Teleomier, putting the parking brake on.
He got out and checked the area around them while pretending to examine the ladders on the side of the van. Then he quietly tapped on the rear door.
They climbed out, slowly. Their lack of speed was not due just to caution. This was, as that elder Fey had put it, a bad place. A room full of Fey masking their identities had made Lisa's scalp itch; this place made her skin crawl. In fact, she was having trouble not shifting. From the looks of Bent-Tail's five o'clock shadow, so was he.
The pumps were long gone, the building ruined empty. Broken walls rose jaggedly on two sides of the lot and a derelict house on the fourth. Lisa had traveled to many places in her life, but few had felt as desolate and inhospitable as this one. The sky seemed extra hazy, as if the sunlight had to fight to get through. Lisa noted that she couldn't even hear any birds singing.
"I'm going to climb up on that roof in cat form," said Lord Teleomier, quietly, indicating the house. "Why don't you three take up positions nearby, one in each of the other three directions? We'll meet back here in 15 minutes."
Bent-Tail, How and Tina nodded silently, and set off. However, even before the appointed time, they all three returned to the van.
"So, you guys smelled it too?" asked How, excitedly.
"Yeah," grunted Bent-Tail. "From the west. Not too far."
A slight sound brought their attention to the old house just in time to see a very large orange cat scramble out of a window and hurry towards them, shifting to pooka form as it did so.
"There's something suspicious over that way," Lord Teleomier announced, pointing to the west.
"Yeah, yeah," said How, casually, "tell us something we don't know."
"Didn't you catch the scent?" demanded Lisa, quietly. "The ogre is _here_! It's scent is quite plain. When the wind comes from the west."
"Oh," said Teleomier, startled. "Uh, no. I didn't notice that."
"His sense of smell is normal when he's not a cat," said How, grinning at the discomfort of the pooka. "I guess he just didn't make a point of shifting form and getting a good sniff of our trophies, like I did."
"_I_ didn't change form to sniff those rags," said Lisa, a bit smugly. "My sense of smell in human form is quite good."
"When you three are through one-upping each other, can we go rescue the kidnapped folks?" rumbled Bent-Tail, startling them. "I was closest, and have the best sniffer, and let me tell you, there's at least three humans with the ogre, _alive_. And terrified."
* * *
They crept up slowly, all in full beast form and
keeping to cover. At Lisa's suggestion, they moved in relays, one transitioning
from an old tree stump to a gutted auto body, then holding there while
the next moved from the leaves blown against an old fence to the shadow
under a broken brick wall. Those not moving kept watch for whoever was,
and all of them took slightly different paths while staying in sight of
each other. At one point it seemed as if the fox and cat would have to
go ahead alone, leaving the larger cougar and the larger yet wolf behind.
However, the cat managed to find a route that - though a tight squeeze
for Bent-Tail - they could all manage. Finally, after nearly an hour of
cautious approach, they were in position.
*There's nothing there!* exclaimed How, who, along with Lord Teleomier, could communicate silently with the others.
"There" was the remains of an old building of undeterminable function. On four sides a poured concrete foundation remained intact, with concrete block walls rising irregularly above this to a maximum of three meters. On the street side some of the blocks had fallen - or been torn down - forming a gap. The interior - a full, deep basement - had once been filled with the randomly distributed remains of the floors above, but this debris had been moved, piled and shoved aside to produce several clear areas, with paths between them. The largest space, near the center, was the logical place for holding the prisoners they could now all scent, but it appeared empty.
*Yes, there is,* was Lisa's quiet reply. *Can you see through my eyes?*
How couldn't, but Teleomier could. Once he had tuned into the werecougar's vision center he was amazed at what Lisa was seeing.
*The place is a hellmouth,* the Pooka announced. *I'm not going to bother trying to describe it - it should be visible to all of us once we get down there, inside the effect - but there's at least half a dozen monstrosities gathered inside those walls, most of them in the largest clearing.*
*'Get down there'?* countered Bent-Tail. *What happened to scouting the area and keeping an eye on it?*
*I'm not going to leave those people there,* was Lisa's firm response. *Besides, that plan was made when we thought they'd be holed up underground. They're actually out in the open and not that many of them. And if the ogre's not here we need to take advantage of that.*
*I'm not arguing,* said Bent-Tail, *just clarifyin'.*
*Are we in agreement, then?* asked Teleomier. "Good. To continue, just beyond the main gathering is a smaller clear space with what appear to be three bound humans. All protected by some sort of concealing spell, which our _concolor_ friend, here, is able to see through.*
*Tina can do that, too,* said How, defensively, after Teleomier finished.
*Not like this,* said the pooka. *This isn't just noticing Fey misdirection. This is spotting something overtly and deliberately hidden from sight by magic.*
*I think we all need to see what we're up against before we go down there,* said Bent-Tail.
The pooka sighed, concentrated for a moment, and relayed what Lisa was seeing to the others. There was a muffled gasp from How, which earned him a wordless mental growl from Bent-Tail. Then the big werewolf fell silent, as he also took in what was now revealed to them. Especially the abominations they faced. They were twisted, deformed things, some apparently once human, others perhaps animals. A few looked like shapeshifters in midform, though greatly malformed.
*Are those werewolves?* demanded How.
*No!* was Bent-Tail's sharp reply. *Something has either given humans animal characteristics or animals human characteristics.*
*Or perhaps blended animals and humans,* Lisa speculated.
*We can dissect them later,* Bent-Tail rumbled (yes, even by mindspeech he rumbled). *I don't see or smell the ogre here now. We can handle these things and free the prisoners now, then come back with reinforcements to handle the monster.*
*I have ranged attacks,* Lisa informed them. *I'll give you three a minute to get into position, then cut loose.*
What she didn't mention was that she had recently gained a new ability, which she could use to come to the rescue if things went wrong. In addition to her private nature making her reluctant to share such information, she had the impression that Bast wouldn't want her gift revealed without need.
*Good idea,* was Teleomier's decision. *How, you protect the prisoners. I'll keep these... whatever they are from attacking you or the humans. Bent-Tail, you take them out. Lisa, you make sure none of them escapes, and watch our backs.*
*Sounds like a plan,* the big werewolf replied, already fading away, towards what appeared to be the only intended entrance to this place.
The other two males headed off towards the right, to quietly drop down the wall at a spot where the debris was close to the top, concealing themselves with that same Fey misdirection the pooka had mentioned earlier. That left Lisa alone on the top of the wall. Satisfied that she was currently unobserved, she shifted from full cougar to her midform, also bringing her harness out of hiding. A quick check confirmed that all thirteen stainless steel throwing spikes were in place. She settled in to wait, with all the patience of a cat watching a mouse hole.
* * *
How may not have been able to actually turn invisible,
but besides the Fey trick of avoiding unwanted attention he was fox stealthy.
Still, he nearly gave himself away twice on the way to the prisoners. Once,
when he caught sight of the remains of a crude meal and realized it was
a former prisoner. And once when he came upon a bloated, rotting corpse
of one of the captors... only to have it suddenly rise up from where it
was laying and move to another of the deformed denizens of this fearful
When How finally reached the prisoners he was glad to see that they were unconscious but alive... and horrified that there were only three of them. The others... must have gone the way of the ribs and leg bones How had seen on the way in. Untying them was easy; he even healed them a bit, though they didn't seem seriously hurt. But he couldn't rouse them. Something more than their injuries was at work, here. Well, all he had to do now was help Teleomier keep them safe until Bent-Tail and Lisa could kill all these ghouls. He and the others could worry about this strange sleep later.
There was a rattling sound of falling concrete, followed by an exclamation from one of the monsters, followed in turn by a growled exclamation by Bent-Tail. Apparently, the big werewolf had been discovered. A cry of alarm was cut off abruptly by a meaty thud, notified the kitsune that sometimes the thrill of discovery wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Things got very confused after that. How stood ready, fae sword drawn, but didn't need it. Between Bent-Tail clawing his way through them like a murderous furry tidal wave, Lisa throwing those metal spikes of hers like silent death from above, and Lord Teleomier slicing and stabbing with his sword any enemy who got too close, the occupants of this cesspit didn't last long.
The results of all this activity made How feel a little sick, but considering what those killed had done, only a little.
* * *
The three warriors moved quickly around the remains
of the battle, making sure all the enemy were dead. Lisa also recovered
her throwing spikes, cleaning them on scraps of clothing and paper lying
around the basement. Satisfied that none of the creatures had survived,
the three warriors converged on How and the prisoners.
"We need to get them out of here," muttered Lisa, looking uneasily around. "There are a lot more scents than these eight. Too many for us four to handle without risk of loss or Exposure. And there's still the ogre to deal with."
"Not to mention whoever summoned it," said Teleomier, sharing Lisa's unease, only more intensely. "Presumably, the same person who placed the concealment spell."
"And the sleep spell," said How, pointing to the prisoners. "I can't wake them."
Lisa quickly checked the somnolent humans.
"They don't seem to be drugged. Maybe it _is_ a spell."
"We can't work on them here," said Teleomier.
"So we carry them back to the truck," growled Bent-Tail, towering over them since he was still in his oversized midform.
"Lisa, How and I will each carry one, in our human forms," Teleomier decided quickly. "You scout just ahead of us in your wolf form. That way we minimize the risk of Exposure."
Bent-Tail nodded and shifted. He moved to the entrance to keep watch while the others loaded themselves with the unconscious humans. How took the smallest, a girl of about 13, but even so had a hard time. Teleomier offered to take the largest of the captives, but Lisa simply went ahead and heaved the overweight woman over her shoulder. Lord Teleomier shrugged and took the medium-sized one.
Fortunately, they made the van not only unmolested but apparently unnoticed. The few human inhabitants still living in this blighted place knew better than to involve themselves with anything out of the ordinary. Teleomier started the engine and drove quickly back towards the bridge across the Ohio River.
* * *
Detective Toole stared at the three sleeping humans,
lying peacefully on the grass in an isolated area of a city park.
"They will wake normally in about two more hours, and remember nothing about what they've been through," said Lisa. She vigorously shook her head and shuddered. "Trust me, it's for the best that they don't."
"And the others?" Toole asked, trying to ignore the wolf, cat and fox sitting nearby, watching the proceedings with an intelligence which betrayed their true natures.
"Dead," was Lisa's flat reply. "You can say that the same anonymous tipster who told you where to find them told you that. Their remains... won't be found."
Toole nodded, gaze shifting uneasilly between Lisa, the three animals and the humans. Obviously, he desperately wanted to ask more questions, but he restrained himself.
"And it isn't over."
"No. The responsible parties - well, the active ones - weren't there. Have you heard any reports of further kidnappings?"
"No. But we've reason to believe that a couple of mysterious disappearances in New Albany and Jeffersontown are related to these activities, so the culprits may be in one of those communities right now."
"Wish we had known about those earlier," grumbled Bent-Tail, making the Detective jump.
"We, uh, didn't make the connection until this morning," Toole said, staring nervously at the talking giant wolf.
"We are still working on this," said Lisa, emphatically. "We will do all we can to stop this grotesque business."
"I... know you will," said Toole. He stared again at the three sleepers. "They won't remember anything?"
"No. They will have all the symptoms - including appropriate residues in their blood - of being thoroughly drugged. They may have hazy recollections of monstrous shapes, but those should be explained away as drug-induced hallucinations."
"I'll do my best to convince people of that," said Toole.
"I know you will," said Lisa, smiling.
"There's something else we just figured out," said Toole. "All the kidnapping victims are virgins. It was the one thing they all - including the priest and the spinster - had in common."
Lisa's jaw dropped; then she said a few choice words in Navajo.
"Uh, this is significant?" asked Toole.
"Of _course_ it's significant!" she exclaimed, with a fury that caused the Detective to take a startled step back. "There are some magical rituals which only work with virgin sacrifices!"
She stopped, took a deep breath.
"Forget I said that. And do your best to keep what you just told us from becoming public knowledge! The last thing we need is someone who knows a bit of folklore putting two and two together!"
* * *
"This is a long shot," muttered Bent-Tail.
"Of course it is," said Lisa, calmly. "But the sidhe still can't track the wizard or the ogre with spells and the changelings like How who have a natural ability to find things can only get a general idea of where they are. Mariah says that she has a gift which is similar to How's location sense but more precise. So we give it a try."
Mariah, ignoring the quiet chatter behind her, carefully held the pendulum's string over the map, watching as the weighted end swung distinctly off-center, towards the southeast.
"I told you we'd need a bigger map," said How, smugly.
Lisa had one ready, a large-scale map of Jefferson County and the area immediately around it. She simply spread this on the kitchen table, over the highway map of Louisville which Mariah had been using. Mariah glanced up at her, sighed, and smoothed the map a bit, before resuming her work with the pendulum. Again, it swung to the southeast, off the edge of the map. Lisa muttered something under her breath and left the room.
"Just how much further will it go, oh sage?" muttered the young woman, glaring at How.
"Uhm, I don't know," he admitted, shifting uneasily. "I mainly get a feel for direction; distance is usually kinda vague."
"Well, at least we know her ability works," said Lisa.
"We need to get this over with," growled Bent-Tail, drumming his fingers on the table, refusing to acknowledge that the werecougar had been right. "No kidnappings in three days. No sightings of the ogre, either. Nothing else at the hellmouth except a few more creatures looking for the ones we killed. What if the wizard finished what he was doing and left for other pastures?"
"Most of the local Changelings figure that's what's happened," said How, sadly. "The borrowed help has gone home and the fey - especially the sidhe - have quit looking. They figure if the problem has left the area, it's not their problem any more."
"I have a feeling it's worse than our prey simply moving to safer pastures," said Lisa, returning from her study with a state highway map. "I think whoever is responsible for these acts has gathered all of whatever he or she needed - virgin organs or simply the necromantic energies released by killing virgins - and has gone to wherever he or she plans to use it."
"Any idea what use 'he or she' is planning to make of these 'virgin organs' or 'necromantic energies'?" asked Bent-Tail, sourly.
"Oh, I have some ideas, but nothing concrete enough to discuss," said Lisa, blithely.
"Yeah, right," muttered Bent-Tail.
"Could I please have a little _quiet_?" demanded Mariah, astounding everyone. For someone who was physically a normal human to speak that way to even one shapeshifter was uncommonly reckless, but here she was being rude to two, plus a kitsune and a pooka.
"I think we all need to take a time out," said Lord Teleomier, gently. "We're frustrated, and because of that irritable. Perhaps the rest of use should move to the den while Mariah works."
"Hey!" said How, excitedly, "Lets go play with the kittens!"
"No!" snapped Lisa, with a quick fury that surprised even her.
"Okaaaay," said How, slowly and carefully, eyes wide. "Let's just go into the den and sit quietly then."
Lord Teleomier and Bent-Tail - neither of whom knew about Lisa's children - glanced at each other, puzzled.
Lisa sighed and forced herself to relax. She started to nod in agreement with How, but was interrupted by Mariah.
"Got it! And look where it is!"
The location over which the pendulum was making tiny circles was in south eastern Kentucky, over the Cumberland River.
"Oh, no..." said Bent-Tail.
Lisa quickly looked up at him.
"It's Cumberland Falls, isn't it?"
The big werewolf hesitated.
"It will help us if we don't have to go in blind," said Teleomier.
"Well, it's not active, now, anyway," Bent-Tail said, reluctantly. "And there's no time to find out who the present caretakers are, if any. There's something the natives in that area - including werewolves - used to guard. And it's not at Cumberland Falls, or even on the River. It's on a tributary. And it's called Dog Slaughter Falls. With good reason."
* * *
Their vehicle this time was a rental, rather than
something conjured through fey magic, since they needed a ride which would
last longer than the period Teleomier could maintain something so large.
Lisa footed the bill. She made plain her expectation of getting the deposit
After half a day of preparation they set off at dusk, taking turns driving through the night. At daybreak they stopped for a cold breakfast in the van, took a quick stretch and started off again. As they approached their goal, Lord Teleomier was driving, with Lisa navigating. How sulked in the back, bored, while Bent-Tail dozed, face down, on a pile of blankets.
"Amazing how he can just... sleep like that," murmured Teleomier, glancing at the big man in the center mirror.
"You've got a turn coming up," said Lisa, pointing. "Go right at that next crossroad."
Teleomier nodded and flipped on his turn signal. They rode on the new road - a narrow county route - in silence for several moments.
"Do you really believe what he told us about a portal to other realms?" Lisa asked quietly, glancing over her shoulder at Bent-Tail, who still hadn't stirred.
"I've heard of such things," said Teleomier. "Usually they're ancient gateways to Arcadia, perhaps all that remains of a lost Bastion."
"And if a wizard opens such a gateway..."
"If he knows what he's doing, things could get very bad, very fast," said Teleomier. "If he doesn't know what he's doing, things could be much worse immediately."
"I beg your pardon?" said Lisa. She'd heard him clearly, but wasn't sure what he meant.
"Imagine a flood of raw chaos straight from the heart of Arcadia unleashed upon this world."
"Oh," said Lisa, weakly.
Minutes later they were driving along a one-lane gravel road which slowly vanished into the underbrush, leaving the van stopped in what looked like the middle of nowhere. The quartet piled out.
"Well?" Lisa asked of the werewolf. "You know more about this place than any of us. Where do we go from here?"
Bent-Tail glowered at her, then at the surrounding trees and brush. He scratched his head.
"Where the Hell are we?" he finally asked. There was a stunned pause... then Bent-Tail burst out laughing.
"Oh, great," muttered How. "_Now_ he develops a sense of humor."
"Seriously, folks, I've never been here before and only heard about it at third-hand or worse," the big werewolf confessed. "I'm not even sure which direction it is from here."
"That way," said How, absently, pointing roughly northwest.
"Then that way it is!" said Lord Teleomier, setting off.
There were game trails, and even the occasional foot path, so they didn't need to change forms. Which was good, because people did live in this area, and it wouldn't do to have some hunter or a kid taking a shortcut encounter a group of monsters tramping through the woods.
"I hear falling water," said Bent-Tail, after a little more than half an hour.
"I hear... something else," said Lisa, frowning. "Not sure what it is. A sort of... whispering, in the background. Spirit noise."
"From that way?" asked Bent-Tail, pointing.
Lisa nodded. So did How. They headed in that direction, moving more cautiously than before.
The came to the edge of a gully. To their right was a waterfall. To their left the stream flowing from the falls entered the Cumberland River. And directly ahead, across the stream from them, a man stood, in ceremonial garb, performing some sort of ritual at a flat rock painted in blood. The ogre was on the same small beach, just downstream from the wizard.
After a moment of stunned silence, Bent-Tail suddenly roared and launched himself towards the ogre, shifting to his midform as he tore down the short, steep slope towards the creek. Lisa uttered a quick and dire oath in regard to werewolves and their impulsiveness and shot after him, also changing. She was in mid air when Bent-Tail rebounded, howling in pain. She frantically grabbed for a branch, a vine, _anything_... She was yanked to a halt by her hand clutching frantically at a sapling, but her feet swung forward and encountered what had bounced the giant werewolf away.
Lisa had once been jabbed playfully with a cattle prod by a careless acquaintance who had accidentally turned it on. He apologized, once he regained consciousness. This not only felt like a far worse electrical shock, but had some sort of additional, physical component, which literally slammed her back, much like a bumper in a pinball machine. Lisa howled as her feet were stung and knocked away, but still held on to the sapling. After a moment she caught up with herself, and carefully rose from where she had sprawled, headfirst down the slope. She stood gingerly on her aching feet, shaking her head. Bent-Tail was in a bit worse shape, having taken a full-body hit of the effect. However, he was already staggering upright.
"I hope you don't take this the wrong way," said Teleomier, in a strained tone, as he looked back and forth between them, "but I'm glad you two went first. That would have killed How or me."
"You're welcome," muttered Bent-Tail, groggily.
In the gully, the wizard seemed oblivious to what had happened. The ogre, however, had turned, and was looking directly at them. It was smiling. Lisa shivered.
"Whatever we do, we better do it fast," said How, anxiously. "I have a feeling he's about finished."
"Brute force or skill?" asked Lisa, staring hard at Teleomier.
"Eh? I'm not sure what you..."
Snarling, Lisa turned back towards the gully. Throwing her arms wide and her head back, she cried out to the heavens in Navajo. A fat, blue-white bolt of lightning speared down towards the center of the gully. Perhaps twenty meters above the wizard it _bounced_, heading off to the left, towards the river, before striking and blasting apart a large pine.
"Well, that didn't work..." muttered Lisa.
"It did something," said Teleomier, eagerly. "Again!"
Six more tries later, the bolt, though deflected somewhat, got through. Lisa held her pose triumphantly for a moment... then abruptly sat down in the brush.
"Are you all right?" How asked, as Bent-Tail and Teleomier rushed ahead.
"Y-yeah," said Lisa, embarrassed at her weakness. "First time I've done that many in a row. Kinda takes it out of you."
The wizard had actually looked around when the bolt of lightning hit not five meters behind him. Even the ogre had jumped, and looked startled. Now, though, the wizard was back at his mysterious task, and the ogre was advancing on Bent-Tail almost as fast as the werewolf was headed towards it. Teleomier, having shifted to his feline trueform, swung wide of those two, sword out, charging the wizard, tail whipping angrily behind him.
Lisa was supposed to be ranged support, with How as backup. She faced a choice, one she had to make quickly. Bast had told her to use the sabertooth form given to her only as a last resort. So, for now, that stayed hidden. Lisa was already in midform and had her throwing spike harness on. With these she not only did about as much damage as an elephant gun, but had the advantage of using a quiet weapon. However, with an effort she could unhide her 20mm, semiautomatic, antitank rifle. It was noisy, but after seven lightning bolts in quick succession it would hardly attract _more_ attention. Lisa decided that not only was using the biggest weapon available a good idea, but she wanted to show off. She cleared her mind and tried to summon the gun... then snarled in irritation as she realized she didn't have enough energy left.
Her delay gave Bent-Tail time to close with the ogre. With surprising speed, the ogre grabbed Bent-Tail and _threw_ him at Teleomier. The two went down in a heap. How, ears and tails out as he shifted to trueform, started down the slope to join the attack, only to have Lisa blur past him. She hurled a spike at the ogre as she jumped the creek, heading for the wizard.
The ogre hardly noticed the stainless steel throwing spike bounce off its chest... and Lisa, in turn, bounced away from the wizard, who was surrounded by the same sort of field as the one she had worked so hard to collapse. As Lisa dropped numbly to the coarse sand she noticed that a strange glow was forming in the air above the flat, blood-decorated rock. How plunged through the creek, and knelt beside Lisa, briefly checking her. The ogre, grinning, came towards them. Lisa tried desperately to shift to her saber-toothed form, or even to stand, but was left too dazed by the shock. She felt her heart sink. Not only were they too late to stop the wizard, it looked like all of them would be dead in a matter of seconds. And that was _if_ the wizard knew what he was doing.
The glow turned, impossibly, _black_, forming a vertical disk in mid air, the bottom just touching the rock. With a final shout, the wizard made a casting gesture with both hands. Streamers of light shot out from his fingers into the hole. The wizard then stepped backwards, raising his hands to pull those streamers out. There was a abrupt _snap_... and a stranger stood on the rock.
He looked... normal. Lisa was actually a bit disappointed. He was tall and lean, a Caucasian, moderately tan, and with black hair. He looked around at the group assembled before him, seeming... annoyed. Dragged unexpectedly into this world and confronted by a twelve-foot tall werewolf, an ogre, two cat creatures, a fox creature and a man in wizard's robes, the stranger not only didn't run screaming, he seemed to be taking the situation calmly in stride. Lisa felt chilled.
"Who brought me here?" he asked, his sudden breaking of the silence making all of them jump.
His voice was a calm and impressive baritone, almost as low and resonant as that Bent-Tail had in human form. When the stunned onlookers didn't answer, the man looked around at each of them again. His gaze settled on the wizard. He raised a hand, pointing, now seeming more than merely annoyed.
"_You_ did this!"
"_Kill him_!" screamed the wizard.
The ogre hurried forward, raising its right arm, massive fist clenched. The stranger watched it warily. As that arm descended, the stranger shoved both of his upwards, crossing them above his head as he stepped into a forward stance. The ogre's forearm was caught in the X. Lisa _felt_ the impact, through the ground. The stranger's arms flexed a bit, and his knees bent slightly. That was all. Then he shoved the ogre's arm away, hard enough to send the creature staggering backwards. The ogre shook its head, then roared and started forward again, arms raised menacingly. The stranger waited a moment, a determined look on his face. Then he raised his own arms, and _glowed_ as he roared in turn. There was an odd shimmer around him, and then, suddenly, he was surrounded by the image of a large, striped cat. The glowing tiger stared at the ogre with golden eyes, tail whipping, massive paws flexing slightly to reveal gleaming claws. There was a collective intake of breath from all those present; then that powerful manifestation was gone. The ogre was frozen in its tracks. The stranger pointed his finger in a stabbing gesture at the ground.
The ogre sat. The stranger turned his attention towards the cowering wizard.
"_You_ need to be more careful with your summoning spells!"
With that the stranger turned and walked back through the shimmering black portal, which closed with a snap.
There was a stunned silence, lasting several seconds. Then the wizard let out a long, rising wail, sinking to his knees.
"No!" he cried. "Noooo! Years of planning and preparation, weeks of work, all for nothing. The horrible things I did, the risks I took, wasted! Aahhh!"
He beat at the sand with his fists. Lisa certainly didn't feel any sympathy for the man, but she did now see him in a different light. However, she had more urgent things on her mind than psychoanalyzing the man.
"What the _Hell_ was that?" whispered Lisa, stunned, as she glanced back at where the portal had been.
"I have no idea," said Teleomier, shaking his head. "Perhaps... a _rakshasa_?"
Bent-Tail stood and walked to the wizard, looming over him. The sobbing man seemed to take no notice. The ogre did, but aside from looking at the big werewolf did nothing.
"So, what do we do with them?" asked Bent-Tail.
"We take the human to the fey Council members waiting in Louisville," said Teleomier. "The og..."
"You will take me _nowhere!_" the wizard screamed, suddenly coming out of his stupor.
He lunged to his feet and shoved his hands - palms outwards - at Bent-Tail. Light flared, and the big werewolf flew backwards, off his feet. Screaming in rage, the wizard drew back his hand, and literally hurled a different sort of bolt at Bent-Tail, something with a lethal glare to it. Lord Teleomier made a frantic gesture of his own, and a glowing, opaque plane appeared between the wizard and the werewolf. Bolt and plane both shattered and vanished. The ogre jumped up and started for the pooka.
Bent-Tail rolled left, then bounded back upright. Teleomier ducked out of the way as the werewolf attacked the ogre. Lisa scrambled back a bit and drew a throwing spike. Teleomier and How faced the wizard, who - much slower than any of the shapeshifters - was only now realizing that his attack had failed.
The ogre was much heavier than Bent-Tail, but the werewolf was taller, and had more reach. He clawed and dodged, staying away from those massive fists. Lisa watched for an opening, then hurled another spike. Again, it merely bounced off. Lisa began to wonder if she would have to use her sabertooth form after all... and if even that would be enough.
"Claws and fangs!" cried Teleomier, warily keeping his gaze on the wizard. "Only magical attacks will work!"
Lisa snarled, realizing he was right. So when Bent-Tail circled, causing the ogre to turn its back to her, she pounced.
Lisa landed on the ogre's back and bit the back of his neck. It was a good bite; deep and through. The ogre howled in pain. But its neck was massively thick, and she realized she had missed anything important, especially the spine. The ogre shook her off and whirled to face her.
Bent-Tail proceeded to turn the fight into a tag-team match. He and Lisa quickly spun the ogre into a dizzy, frustrated mess, as they made in-and-out attacks, clawing and biting at its incredibly tough tissues, trying for a killing strike. However, despite all the blood and furry, after several frantic seconds they still hadn't done more than give the creature a number of minor injuries. And it was starting to get cunning. It backed up to the steep gully wall, where they would have a difficult time getting a rear shot, and turned to face the werewolf.
Abruptly, Bent-Tail changed tactics. He feinted a right slash, then slammed a wicked left hook into the ogre's stomach, hitting hard enough to rock it back on its heels. The ogre gave vent to a very human-sounding grunt, momentarily recovered its balance, then bent over, wrapping around the pain. Seeing an opportunity, Lisa leapt in, and her instincts took over.
She landed with one hand/paw on its shoulder and the other on the back of its head, pushing the head forward, exposing the back of the neck. She plunged her upper fangs into the thick muscles on the far side of the neck, and bit, her canines cutting through the spine. This was the specialized attack which allows cougars to routinely take prey five times their size, and to even occasionally kill bison. For a werecougar it meant killing an ogre in a single, carefully placed bite. The big creature dropped to the ground like a mammoth sack of flour and stayed there.
Lisa held on for a moment to make sure, then looked up. Bent-Tail appeared quite impressed. Beyond him, How and Lord Teleomier had done... _something_ to the wizard, who was lying on his back, jerking and foaming at the mouth. Both changelings looked tired, but both were also smiling. Teleomier with satisfaction; How as if he'd just pulled some particularly clever prank.
"Is that it, then?" panted Lisa, blood and spinal fluid dripping from her jaws.
"For now," said Teleomier, sounding tired. "Is the ogre completely dead? Yes? Then I'll shift the body into something else. Maybe something water soluble. After I rest a bit."
"Don't rest too long," growled Bent-Tail. "Folks curious about the electrical fireworks might be here any time."
"Don't worry," said Teleomier, waving the problem away, "we'll handle that if it comes up."
* * *
"So you plan to have him show up at the police station
and confess to kidnapping and murdering those people, with his memories
edited so he doesn't remember anything about ogres, werewolves, real magic
and such," said Tina, sitting on the bed in her dorm room. "He gets tried
for his crimes, gets punished appropriately, and everybody is satisfied."
She looked around at the group gathered in the apartment. Of those who had caught and defeated the wizard and his pet, only Bent-Tail was absent, having an obligation to tell other werewolves of the events at Dog Slaughter Falls. While Lord Teleomier and How looked satisfied, Lisa didn't.
"That is far too pat a solution for my tastes," she said, with a sour expression. "He spent years building up to this. How do you block memories that extensive without leaving gaping, obvious holes? What do you have him say to explain his actions? Or his large "assistant?" What do you make him think his goals were? How do you cover up his interest in true magic and whatever other preparations he made? Or explain what happened to the bodies of his victims?"
"Well, since you helped capture him, I suppose the Council representatives wouldn't protest too much if you sat in on the planning session and offered advice," said Teleomier, grinning.
"Hey, yeah," said How, with sudden enthusiasm. "Who better to work out a convincing lie than someone who lies for a living?"
The pooka looked confused, but Lisa laughed.
"Oh, that's right," said Teleomier, embarrassed. "You write novels."
"Better stories than this, my friend," said Lisa, smugly. "Better stories than this."
The pooka and the werecougar said their good-byes and left. Once the young lovers were alone, How gave Tina a gentle hug.
"So, how's the arm?"
"The arm is fine," said Tina. "No pain, and only some minor itching. But I got a call from my basketball coach. I've missed too many practice sessions already, so now I'm officially off the team. Not even in the reserves."
"Oh, Tina!" said How.
"It's not that bad. Basketball was my least favorite sport. That's why I missed so many practices. Whenever something came up, that's what I skipped."
She gave an awkward shrug.
"Actually, I'd probably have dropped it anyway. The only team sport I really like is soccer. That and my track and field events are plenty. More than plenty!"
"If you say so," said How, doubtfully.
"Yes," said Tina, grinning, "I say so."
They hugged again, this time with more enthusiasm.
This story is Copyright 1999 by Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing
permission to reprint this must get permission from the author, who can
be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.