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Change of Mind (2 of 3)

Legend of Hero is on break; in the meantime, please enjoy this three-part story set in the Tomorrowlands Universe.




( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )


The monster came out amid a late spring rainstorm, when Alethea woke up with whiskers and a black-and-gold muzzle.

When she opened her eyes, it seemed right, at first. Then consciousness dawned.

Alethea thrashed to her feet, yowling, tangled in the covers. Tamara screamed and flailed. Alethea fell and hit her head. Tamara scrambled naked around a corner and screamed a few more times. After Alethea hid in the closet, Tamara finally stumbled back, sobbing. Bleeding.

Tamara called Randall's new work number in a blind panic.

"She did what?" he said. "I'll be right there."

Randall convinced Tamara to let him heal her claw gashes -- after an ominous discussion of how awkward it would be to explain large-cat wounds to the authorities -- and chalked a circle on the bedroom floor. When Tamara retreated to the kitchen, Randall coaxed Alethea out, and half an hour later, the cheetah's body had unfolded back into a crying and apologetic woman.

The argument didn't start until Randall left.

"I'm so, so sorry," Alethea repeated. "I didn't even realize I was a cat until it was too late."

"Why didn't you tell me you were a theri?"

"I'm not! That's why I panicked."

"Then how did you change?" Tamara challenged.

Alethea was silent.

"It's your job," Tamara asked, "isn't it?"

"That's all I can think of. Yesterday's client was a werecheetah."

"Leeth. That's it. You need to stop."

Alethea looked away. "Tamara. Please. I can't."

"Yes, you can. You've been humoring the mental cases for long enough --"

"My clients," Alethea said, raising her voice, "are normal people who want to fix a problem in their lives."

"And the guy who came to our house at 1 AM shouting about the spiders?"

"Jesus, Tammie, I never even let him into my office for the first consultation. I don't even take calls from the public since then -- I'm only taking referrals from psychologists --"

"I don't care. This is the last straw, Leeth. No more spells for money."

Alethea tried to change the subject. "Think of what you're saying. Your paycheck will barely cover the house payments --"

"Alethea, for three years I've given you so much and only ever asked you for one thing --"

"For three years I've told you I'm not giving up magic."

"For three years I've asked you to keep magic from complicating our life!"

"Tammie," Alethea said, grabbing her hands. "I swear. This will never happen again."

"You're right," Tamara said. "It won't."
 

* * * * *
 

It did.

A month and a half later, Alethea slept through her alarm clock, but not Tamara's shriek. She sat bolt upright as Tamara fell out of bed and crabwalked back to the wall.

"Tammie?" Alethea asked, looking around, vision sleep-hazy. "What's wrong?"

Tamara fumbled behind her for a bathrobe, not taking her eyes off of the bed, her eyes filling with tears. "Goodbye, Leeth," she finally choked out.

"Tamara!" Alethea said, reaching out in confusion. It was then that she noticed her human-shaped arm was covered in short, silky black and white fur.

Alethea chased her into the kitchen, endured Tamara's shouting, and begged her to reconsider.

"Shifting isn't dangerous," she said. "You're not going to get hurt unless one of us panics. Look -- if it makes you feel better, I can sleep in the guest room the night after I've worked with a theri."

"No, Leeth," Tamara said. "This isn't about theris. You promised you'd stop your mirror thing."

"No I didn't."

"Back when I told you I was willing to accept magic paying the bills. You said you'd stop and go back to finding bail jumpers."

"That wasn't a promise. I said I'd think about it."

"Well, then promise me! Right now!"

"I can't. Thoth's Mirror is too important."

"You keep saying that. Why?"

"I see its effects every time I cast the spell. It changes people's lives, Tammie."

"Like it's changed mine?"

Alethea called Randall after Tamara left, so shaken that she had to try twice to navigate his office's phone tree. Randall listened to her disjointed story and promised he would help after leaving early for lunch.

Alethea spent several restless hours pacing in her backyard, hooves clicking on the patio.
 

* * * * *
 

The third time, as Randall let himself in, he jumped and dropped the magical supplies pouch he was rummaging through.

"Holy shit, Leeth," he stammered, "what the hell are you?"

"Damned if I know. The last guy was a piece of work. Called himself a chimera, but I don't think he meant what the mythology says."

Randall looked up and down the bizarre body, a black-scaled, feathered-winged, llama-shaped quadrupedal form with exaggerated front claws and a human face. "By the Lady."

"I made lunch for you. I figured it was the least I could do while I waited."

She sat patiently on the hardwood kitchen floor while he chalked his runes around her. By the time he had figured out how to modify his spell to account for the bizarre form, the food had grown cold.

When they finished, Randall slumped back against the pantry. "Alright," he said, "seriously, Leeth. Twice in ten days."

"This one's completely my fault," she said, getting dressed. "I made a change I thought would stop the bleedthrough of their self-image into me. It backfired."

"You know better than that. You have to take time, test these things, stop casting under stress --"

"This is not about Tamara," Alethea said, raising her voice.

"I didn't say --"

"She's left before. She'll be back again, and until then, I'm coping just fine. It is not interfering with my work."

"Something is," Randall said cautiously.

"The last bleedthrough was before she even left."

"Have you considered," Randall asked, "taking a vacation while you figure it out?"

"I worked out my rate of sustainable casting before we started. There's no reason to modify that. I just need to figure out something for the damn theris. I've got a month before I Thoth the dragon. I can do it."

Randall let his head fall back against the wall. "If you say so."

Alethea finished buttoning her blouse, sat down against the cabinets facing him, and let out a long sigh. "Anyway, thanks."

"Yeah."

They stared at each other in uncomfortable silence.

"Look on the bright side," Alethea said with forced humor. "I've been an unqualified success compared to Judy."

"Who?"

"Come on! You know. 'Eyes of Thoth.' The thing on the TV that got me started --"

"Oh! Titania."

"Yeah."

Randall started repacking his supplies. "What ever happened to her after the big courtroom escape, anyway?"

"While you were taking your week in the woods figuring out the new you, some mages working with the police tracked her down. She sent Dennis Redwing to the hospital --"

"No shit!"

"-- no shit. Then flashed out, under fire, with another gryphon thing that came out of nowhere. Never seen again. The spooks confirmed a teleportation accident."

Randall bit his lip. "I guess she had it coming to her."

"I guess." Alethea shrugged. "You know, I fixed one of her victims pro bono? One of the TV cameramen. He went into a huge spiral of depression after she Thothed him. His therapist finally got desperate, somehow found out about me and called from California."

"Really? That's awesome! You never mentioned that."

"I probably still shouldn't. They made me swear to complete secrecy. The media circus around that would have been ridiculous."

"Well, good for you anyway. There's some cosmic justice in that."

"It felt less like karma and more like a loop closing." Alethea's eyes unfocused. "She shapeshifted, cast the spell and hurt people. I cast the spell, helped people and here I am shapeshifting."

"Well," Randall said, "don't you go disappearing like Titania did."

"Tamara's got that covered," Alethea deadpanned.

Neither of them laughed.

Alethea looked away. "She'll be back."
 

* * * * *
 

"Welcome back, Mark," Alethea said, not smiling.

"Hello again. Today's the day, right?" asked her latest client, a nervous young brown-haired man in a bland shirt and slacks who looked like he hadn't shaved that morning. "That you're actually casting Thoth's Mirror?"

"Maybe. First, there's one thing we need to discuss."

"Oh?"

"Why doesn't your registration form say that you're a gryphon?"

He squirmed in his seat. "H-how did you --"

"It's not important how. Answer my question."

"It shouldn't matter what race I am," Mark evaded. "That's not why I'm here."

Alethea leaned forward. "I'm only going to give you one chance, Mark. The spell opens up your whole mind, with me along for the ride. I need to know exactly what we're getting into. I cannot cast it unless you are completely honest with me about everything I ask."

Mark looked away. "I'm sorry. You're right, I lied. I was afraid you were going to turn me down because of my race. My health insurance has given me no end of shit, and the only psychiatrist they'll cover insisted that I would have to enter one of those ex-theri programs in order to make progress. This is all out of pocket and you're my last hope."

Alethea stared at him, then threw his registration packet onto the desk. "Did you lie about anything else in your registration?"

"No. I swear to God."

"Did you lie at any point during our conversation the last two office visits?"

"Only about my therianthropy. Nothing else."

"Did you omit any relevant information on the form?"

"I answered everything else you asked as honestly and completely as I could."

Alethea stared into space for several seconds. "Well, you're not lying now. Thank you for that."

"But?" Mark asked, bracing himself.

"I will help, but I need to warn you," Alethea answered. "The spell's got some -- side effects -- with theris. For one, you might have trouble shifting for up to 48 hours afterward."

Mark's face fell into an uneasy mixture of relief and frustration. "Thank you. I really do appreciate your help."

"... But?"

"But I flew here today. I don't know how I'm going to get home."

Alethea sighed. "I'll call you a cab if anything happens. Do you need help with cab fare?"

"It's okay. I brought this on myself. I'll call my housemates." He looked out the window at the distant shrouded cap of Mount Rainier. "What do you mean 'might'?"

"It's happened to four theris I've worked with. They were stuck in human form until they fully reoriented from the spell, but they did recover their abilities on their own. And if worse comes to worse, I do know an excellent transformation mage."

That's four times now I owe Randall, she thought.

Mark chewed his lip. "So this is a side effect of the -- the --"

"The link, yes."

He nodded. "I'm curious. Does the spell have that effect on you too?"

Alethea picked Mark's paperwork up again and made a show of scanning it, her cheeks reddening. "Don't worry about me. The better you stay focused on your problem, the easier it will be to solve it."

"Alright."

"Ready? Good. Sit there, on the line of the inner circle."

As usual, the ten minutes of chanting felt like forever, but the spell itself seemed to fly by.

Alethea let out a deep breath, head exploding with thoughts, reciting her script on autopilot. "Keep your eyes closed. Now start wiggling your fingers and toes one by one. Count backward from twenty, one for each wiggle." She did so herself, and felt awareness of her form return.

Alethea sorted through the overlapping sensations in her head. Thirst: "There's a bottle of water on the table behind you." Fatigue: "The tiredness is normal; grab a chair, or lie down on the floor if you need to." Itchy nose: She grabbed a tissue. Need to urinate: "The bathroom's on your left."

"Yeah," Mark said. "Suddenly I feel like I need to pee."

Suddenly? Alethea thought. She had been aware of it since before the ritual. She refocused and cracked open her eyes, looking down at her body. "Never mind, that's me. I'll be right back. Your sensation should pass."

In the bathroom, she cursed under her breath. Confusion of physical sensations -- warning sign #1. She ran through the checklist again. She was fairly certain that the fatigue she felt had been his, but she was definitely tired too -- warning sign #2. Well, it was too late to do anything about it now.
 

* * * * *
 

Mark was lying on the floor when she returned. He sat up. "Hey. Um. Before we say anything else, I have to apologize --"

Alethea gently interrupted him. "That fantasy about me? Don't worry."

"Yeah," he said, not meeting her eyes. "It was completely inappropriate --"

"And that's why you kept it inside your head, where it belonged," Alethea said. "You're hardly the first --"

"And it was also silly of me to think," he continued, raising his voice, "about asking you to dinner afterward. I'm at peace now with ... you know. Not being your type."

She felt her face flush. That went beyond warning sign. She had screwed up the spell. The mirror had exposed her too -- reflected them both to each other.

There was no denying it: she was going to wake up the next morning as a gryphon.

Mark misinterpreted her embarrassment. He cringed. "So I really am sorry. I came in because I did need help. The other stuff was just stupid wishful thinking --"

Alethea cut him off firmly. "Mark. Please listen for a moment. One, you're far from the first person with thoughts like that. The brain drifts through a thousand embarrassing ideas every day. Two, I will take it as a compliment that you find me a worthy object of fantasy. Three, it is a sign of your respect for me that you did not let your fantasies interfere with our professional relationship. Thank you for that. You don't need to apologize for your thoughts."

"Oh," Mark said. "Alright."

"Now let's please get back to the remainder of your session. I want to confirm that you're satisfied with the spell's outcome, and help you unpack what you encountered so you and your psychologist can more easily return to any insights that need clarification."

Mark considered.

"What?" Alethea asked.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I just have to say one more thing first."

She sighed. "Speak."

"Maybe it's none of my business. You're right, we're here for my problems. Still, as long as we're clearing the air ... you're right, she was an idiot to leave you, but it really is for the best."

Alethea stood speechless.

"It has nothing to do with my feelings!" he quickly protested. "It's just -- what I saw --"

She pointed at the door. "Get out."


>>>

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
roaminrob
Jun. 28th, 2009 09:14 am (UTC)
(Posting notes as I read it this time...)

> Alethea thrashed to her feet, yowling...Tamara finally stumbled back, sobbing. Bleeding.

Much, much better. This is a clear scene, and mentioning "whiskers" before it helps clear up the imagery.

> "For three years I've asked you to keep magic from complicating our life!"

Nice tie-in to Alethea's earlier comment! The discussion here also is much better -- it's clear what their differences and positions are.

> He looked out the window at the distant shrouded cap of Mount Rainier.

I got here before remembering to comment as I went -- good job! The side-effects of the spell, and its consequences, and some of the previous interactions, are all explained clearly without slowing the story down.

> She pointed at the door. "Get out."

Also, there is a slight-but-important difference here from the draft I read; for some reason, in the earlier draft I read this part as her being merely annoyed or indignant or pissed-off at an invasion of her privacy, but here, it reads more like a doctor that can't take their own medicine, which is a more interesting twist. I'm not sure if that's just me, or if it's to do with some subtle change in the text.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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legend of hero
ttustories
Tales from the Tomorrowlands

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Legend of Hero
[001]. Premonitions
[013]. Incursions
[026]. Companions
[043]. Complications

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