Rumbling thunder drowned out the rattle of dice on the tabletop.
“Fourteen,” Kurt said, waited, then prompted, “Yo, Earth to JC? Did I hit the thing or not?”
JC blinked, forced his attention back to the game, and hastily checked his notes. After all, it was only a storm, the thunder was only electrical discharge. Not the snarl of some cosmic animal, no matter how much it sounded like it. “Um, sorry, yeah. You swing at it, it blocks with its buckler but your sword skids off the metal rim and hits it across the chest. Roll for damage.”
Lightning flashed, blinding-bright, and a sharper crack of thunder felt like it made the windows rattle.
“Sound and fury, signifying nothing,” Grant muttered. “What has no significance is weather forecasts. They said it was going to be clear and sunny all week. If this doesn’t blow over tonight, I’m going to have to spend the weekend with Trina bitching that she can’t work on her tan.”
“She has heard that’s a rather stupid vanity these days?” Peter asked.
“Try telling her that.” Grant shrugged fatalistically. “What can you do?”
“You can roll the dice,” Neil suggested pointedly.
“Why don’t we call it a night?” JC only realized he’d said it when his four players all gave him incredulous looks.
“In the middle of a melee?” “Over some thunder?” “This early?” “What the hell for?” All simultaneous—it was only due to years of practice that JC made any sense of it.
“Listen to the wind out there. We’re going to have trees down, maybe lines. Might be safer to head home now.” Maybe he should have taken Niko’s bad feeling about tonight more seriously and cancelled the session without going out.
“It’s not even midnight,” Peter protested.
“JC has a point,” Grant said thoughtfully. “I’ve got the longest drive home, and that’s going to suck if roads get blocked. And people always start to drive like idiots in bad weather.”
“So crash here,” Neil said.
“Y-y-yeah,” Peter said, drawing out the first sound. “That’ll go over well with Vicki.”
“Oh, come on, stop making her sound like a bitch. She wouldn’t want you guys out there if you don’t think it’s safe to drive.”
“It’s only a thunderstorm,” Kurt said. “So it’s a bit windy. Big deal.”
“On the other hand,” Peter said, “we’re just not getting into the groove tonight, and JC’s been spacing out on us since…”
JC missed the next few exchanges, his attention drawn back to the storm. Neil and Vicki’s pleasant apartment was part of a reasonably new building, sturdy and well-constructed, and there was simply no way he could be feeling the floor trembling under them, no matter how ferocious the wind sounded. The sounds of papers shuffling, dice being tossed back into bags, and chairs moving pulled him back to his surroundings, and he hastily began to gather his own things.
“You want a ride home, Jace?” Grant asked. “It’s not that much of a detour, and you’re really out of it.”
“I’m okay,” JC said with more assurance than he really felt. “I think I’d rather walk, see if it clears my head at all. Sorry, guys.”
“No worries,” Kurt said. “Just make a note of where we are for next time, eh?”
JC nodded, scribbling a couple of lines quickly onto his notes that he hoped he’d be able to make sense of next week. “Will do. Neil, can I leave my backpack here, and grab it later? If it starts pouring down buckets, I’ll live, the books not so much.”
“No problem,” Neil said amiably. “Take it easy, eh?”
“No peeking at the plans for what’s coming,” Kurt said.
“Why the hell would I do that? It’d make the rest of the game no fun.”
“Besides,” Grant said, “Jace makes a lot of it up on the fly, so it probably wouldn’t help anyway.”
After the usual farewells, Kurt swung on his bicycle and rode off, Peter joined Grant in the latter’s car since he lived practically right on Grant’s route home, and JC started walking.
It wasn’t all that late, not even midnight, but there weren’t many people out even on the streets that normally were busy until the wee hours. The heavy clouds looked lower than usual, ominously dense, with a faint greenish cast that just didn’t match the yellowish reflection city lights should be creating. The wind changed direction unpredictably, so that one moment it was behind him, the next he was walking directly into it.
And over and over, with only brief pauses, thunder growled.
Hands in the pockets of his worn denim jacket, JC did his best to dismiss the odd feeling that there was something about this storm that simply wasn’t right. It was summer, it was frequently hot and humid, they were on the edge of a lake and surrounded by rivers on the other sides… thunderstorms were normal. So were the sirens howling from multiple directions, they happened in every storm.
He stopped, startled, in front of a park. In his distraction, he’d taken a wrong turn; he knew this park, his own apartment was half a dozen blocks from here—he was actually much closer to Niko’s bookshop-and-home. He’d walked between his place and Neil’s countless times, this shouldn’t have happened.
Lightning flashed, and as his eyes cleared, deep in the park, possibly on its far side even, something flickered. Brilliant blue, leaf green, sunny yellow, the colour shifted almost as rapidly as the brightness, but there was definitely something there.
He really should just leave it and go home, or maybe to Niko’s since he’d still be up and it might be safer. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d slept on Niko’s couch.
Although Niko had been acting oddly since the blackout-barbecue, asking JC whether he’d seen or experienced anything unusual that he was worried about telling anyone. He’d even brought up the idea of magic as a series of forces that operated by rules that only tenuously overlapped physical forces, and the question of what the long-term results would be if beings existed that interacted with magic and could produce viable offspring with humans. JC was sure his friend was exhausted and stressed, too, though Niko assured him otherwise; sceptical, JC had showed up at his doorstep with a decent healthy meal every day for the past four, lunch or supper as they fit around his work schedule, in hopes of at least keeping Niko from living on junk that came from a can.
Even Niko’s edginess would at least be safe. This was a stupid place to be at this hour: it was a little-used park with minimal lighting, half-hidden between a business park of professional offices and a strip mall. Though he was male, considerable bullying through his school years had driven home that a skinny geek with glasses could become a target all too easily. But… somehow, the direction of that light felt like the right way. It reminded him of something, though he couldn’t place it at the moment.
His feet were on the asphalt path into the park before he’d even made a conscious decision.
He kept a wary eye on the trees, as best he could in the darkness, but the buildings on either side seemed to shelter the park; at least, that was the only reason he could think of to explain the complete lack of wind here. The trees hardly swayed at all, unlike the fierce lashing their kin endured outside. With the greenish clouds overhead, everything held an aura of surreality.
Dreams. That’s what this felt like. Something in the atmosphere and something about that flickering rainbow light resonated with his dreams.
Sudden light struck his eyes, but didn’t vanish instantly like the lightning; he closed his eyes tightly, battling vertigo, then opened them again, blinking in confusion.
He’d passed this park any number of times, crossed through it to the other street on the far side often, and he knew for sure that there was nothing in it but trees, grass, a few benches, and two parallel paths running end to end with a single crossbar in the centre joining them.
There certainly wasn’t any kind of enclosed space—the light wasn’t all that strong, and the vertigo was interfering badly with his sense of orientation and dimension, but he had a distinct impression of walls and ceiling, and it didn’t feel small and confined. The floor, he discovered when he stumbled and fell heavily to his knees, was something smooth but with the give and resilience of the vaguely-remembered safety mats from gym class in school—enough to keep the contact of knees with floor from being painful. He scrambled unsteadily to his feet, trying to figure out where he was.
Uncertainly, he took a couple of steps forward, struggling to understand the bright splashes of colour on the floor ahead of him, but couldn’t make any sense of it until he went to one knee carefully beside the first he reached—vibrant golden-yellow.
The yellow was the close-fitting arm-and-belly-baring clothes worn by a lithe woman who was completely unresponsive. Long black hair in loose curls darkened a large area of the pale floor, forming a background for a face of absolutely impossible beauty, flawless dark skin with the sharp contrast of lips and eyelids of the same golden-yellow as the clothing—matching, as well, the long nails.
Hands seized his shoulders from behind, made him yelp and twist in an attempt to see who it was.
“Be still.” Male voice, fairly deep and not young; it didn’t sound like it was close enough to belong to either of the pairs of hands that seized his upper arms. The hands on his right were hard and calloused and large; those on the left were smaller and smoother and coming from a different angle, but strong enough to dig painfully into flesh anyway. They dragged him to his feet and back from the yellow-clad woman. The man on the right was taller than JC, the man on the left shorter, but both held him tightly and neither could be shifted off-balance no matter how JC struggled.
“We’re not going to damage you,” the same voice added. “You’re far too valuable to harm. This won’t hurt. Unless you hurt yourself, that is.” Despite JC’s frantic attempts to writhe out of reach, those hard fingers only tightened to the point of pain.
Two other men circled into sight in front of him.
One had hair of varied shades of grey cut short but raggedly; he was dressed in slightly tattered and rumpled layers of further shades of grey. Even in this lighting, his face looked creased and wrinkled.
The other was wearing some neutral colour, dress slacks and a shirt in a lighter shade; medium-shaded hair was cut neatly short, and a beard was trimmed short and neat as well.
“Just as close as the others,” the younger one said clinically. “As soon as we start, we’re going to have to finish fast or we’ll never get the whole set on before it changes.”
The older one nodded. “Collar and wrists are the most important. Ankles, if we can.” He reached into the pocket of his calf-length outer coat and produced something that gleamed bright metallic gold. “Ready?”
Both moved at once.
The elder wrapped the gold thing around JC’s throat, cold and hard and narrow, too rigid and smooth for a chain, and held it there.
The younger wrapped both hands around one of JC’s wrists, with some help from the large man on that side. JC felt a narrow stripe of heat, which chilled rapidly down into icy cold, and then it averaged out to somewhere between but he could still feel something smooth and hard. When those bony hands moved away, JC discovered that around that wrist was a band of something clear and glassy, the width of his thumb, catching the light oddly. The younger man stepped around the elder and repeated it on the other side.
“Collar’s done,” the elder reported, letting his hands fall, but the metal remained around JC’s throat. “I’ll do one.” Both dropped briefly to their knees, each wrapping something around JC’s ankles. He tried to kick, tried to stay out of reach, but the shorter man on his left growled, “You kick, we drop you flat on your ass and he sits on you while I pin your legs, just like we did with the blonde bitch. Or more, like with the macho one.”
JC faltered, distracted by the threat and the question of who “the blonde bitch” and “the macho one” were, and apparently that was long enough for the two men in front—he felt hard coolness around each ankle, under his jeans, and the pair straightened and backed up a couple of steps.
“Done, with no time to spare,” the older man in grey said. “Let’s see what we get with this one.”
JC felt warmth radiating out from the gold at his throat and the glassy bands around wrists and ankles, soaking through his skin and down inside him. The sensation wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but with no idea what it was, he resisted, tried to pull out of contact.
“Let go,” the younger said. “It’ll be too distracted for anything else now.”
Both sets of hands on his upper arms released. Some thread of reason still battling the fear told him to run, but when he spun around to look for the way he’d gotten here, he found only empty space and a solid wall with an archway drawn on it in chalk, unidentifiable symbols within and around it. The motion made the room tip, and he fell to all fours hard again.
His skin began to tingle, faintly at first, then more strongly, until it felt like every millimetre was being prickled by icy-cold needles that were also fire-hot. It was worst of all on his scalp.
Before he had time to process that or try to figure out what it meant, it faded, and he heard vertebrae pop. The throbbing vibration that began in the bones of his legs felt like it should be audible somehow; it made him feel queasy wondering what could cause that and the uncomfortable feeling of needing to stretch his legs, and stretch more, and still more, before it finally faded enough to get lost in the rest. First his feet, then his hands, spasmed and cramped before releasing. Muscles flexed and tightened disconcertingly, out of his control, and everywhere that passed, it left behind a feeling of indefinable difference. He was vaguely aware that he was breathing in fast shallow pants, but whatever was happening to him left no room for thought; far away, he heard himself whimper, fear tangled up with the escalating physical sensations.
Pressure, behind both nipples, and his breath caught hard; somehow, that felt like it was linked directly to somewhere in his groin and sent pulses of stimulation back and forth. The pressure increased, uncomfortable enough to make him writhe in place. The sensation of something soft and smooth rubbing across both nipples drew a wordless whine from him: they were so incredibly sensitive, and it sent something like liquified fire down to that place between his legs, though there was a distinct sense of weight that didn’t feel right.
Though his penis and testicles had already drawn themselves inward as best they could for protection, he could feel them moving farther inside, an eerie sensation that might have been interesting under circumstances that let him feel safe; it strengthened and rippled outward, washing through the entire area of his pelvis. Even the terror couldn’t entirely suppress the awareness that it felt disturbingly good, climbing to something near the edge just before orgasm. Whether it lasted only a few seconds or whole minutes, he couldn’t have said, but as it began to fade he moaned again.
As the overload eased, allowing thought to creep back in, JC was sure everyone near him must be able to hear the rapid violent pounding of his heart as loudly as he could. Every muscle quivered with tension; some part of his mind howled in protest at the loss of pleasure, while another part whimpered in terror.
Still shaking, he made himself kneel upright as steadily as he could manage, the weight of too much hair not so much interfering with balance as intensely distracting—and looked down.
Over an emphatically female body, with smooth skin of a soft beige-brown, clad in something soft and clingy and stretchy, a pure red darker than primary.
Shivering, he twisted in place to look around him, trying to see who had just done this to him, desperate to find out why; the impossibility of how could wait.
The world switched off.
* * *
I didn’t move fast enough. Another day and I would’ve had a solution, it wouldn’t have taken that much longer to reach an agreement with Diomedes. It should, by all reports, have taken roughly ten days for them to first change, and still two more weeks before they became any possible danger to loved ones and bystanders and themselves. I should’ve had just a bit more time to negotiate for what I need without creating exactly the kind of mess I wanted to prevent.
Exactly the kind of mess that’s now happened.
Someone jumped the gun. Someone willing to stroll right into my backyard and do it right in front of me. I may not have much by way of sheer power, but most wizards and mediums are willing to consider this my turf by courtesy. Someone decided that doesn’t matter.
Whether this is inconvenient or catastrophic, whether you’re having a rough time or are in hell right now, depends totally on who it was who spotted and grabbed you.
I bet they’re going to do something very, very stupid on their part, though. I bet they won’t know any better than to put all seven of you together.
I am going to find a way, damn it, I don’t care how many favours I have to call in and what I owe to whom by the end of this. I will not, I cannot, let the lives of seven generally good people end like this. Especially not the one person I’ve come to care about as more than just an interesting casual acquaintance.
You’re smarter and stronger than you believe you are. Hang in there, look after each other. You don’t know that anyone knows and cares and can do anything at all, but I promise, someone does and will.