Ron walked, eyes closed. Occasionally, a step wouldn't be exactly where he expected, making him stumble; occasionally, a step wouldn't be there at all, and he would activate a flight spell, mentally lowering himself until he touched ground again. But always, he walked, and always, he kept his eyes shut.
Until his face smacked into an unexpected wall.
He cried out in surprise, eyes flying open to see the dingy grey of an old apartment building spreading out to both sides. As his body fell backward, he activated his flight spell again, neutralizing gravity long enough to pull his legs back and catch himself. He rubbed his tender nose and looked around.
The building seemed to have been transported whole into the middle of the flat wasteland. There was no exterior landscaping, just dull stone walls catching the blowing dust, which had built up into small drifts. There was a big glass entryway into a foyer some distance to Ron's right, but no other ground-level features; above him, six stories of curtained windows and balcony doors lay silent and closed.
With one last glance at the featureless desert, Ron walked over to the foyer, pressing his face against the window glass. Inside was an empty front desk, an open elevator, a staircase that spiraled upward around a broad square stairwell, a row of wall-mounted mail slots, a large projection television, and several empty chairs. Ron closed his eyes again and scanned for life signs -- but something felt off. The building itself seemed to have a thin, even aura to it, strong enough to indicate something inside, but with no concentrations that might pinpoint any residents. Some effect was clearly interfering with his spiritual perception, probably related to whatever it was that made the wasteland outside so unnavigable and utterly devoid of life.
Ron tried the front door. It was unlocked. He chuckled. "Great omen, there," he said, as much to hear the sound of his own voice as anything. Days without any water beyond what he'd conjured up for himself had left his throat gravelly, and days without seeing so much as a single moving thing had gotten him doubting his sanity.
He let himself in, and slowly allowed the door to swing closed, checking to make sure it didn't do anything ominous like lock behind him. He scanned the building for life again: no change. Satisfied, Ron turned and called out in a loud, deep voice: "Hello?"
There was a rustling behind the front desk. Surprised, Ron raised his hands -- one open palm out, ready for defense; one with splayed fingers pointed forward -- and froze.
"Who goes there?" he called.
A golden retriever's head and paws appeared over the edge of the desk. Its dark eyes stared at him and floppy ears rose in interest. The dog disappeared behind the counter again, then pushed through the ajar gate to the side.
Ron leveled his hand squarely at the dog. "Stop or I'll blow your head off!" he threatened in his most menacing voice.
It trotted toward Ron with its tail up and wagging, oblivious. Ron reluctantly lowered his hands. "So you're not a theri, then. And I could be wrong, but I don't sense any danger in you." He crouched and extended a palm. "What are you doing here, pup?"
A soft thump in the background caught Ron's attention. He glanced up to see a human-shaped figure crouched at the bottom of the stairwell. It was golden-grey, soft-edged, with pointed ears and a fluffed-out, black-tipped tail. It locked eyes with him.
"Don't touch it!" the theri shouted, standing and raising its hands.
Ron felt the surge in magic even before his body moved, and he fought, thrusting his will downward and anchoring himself to the ground. Even so, his body skidded sideways before he brought his massive weight to bear and planted his feet against the carpet. At his side, the retriever's body shot away, hurtling into the air and crashing into the giant TV screen against the far wall with a surprised yelp.
Ron slammed down a shield against further magical attack and narrowed his eyes at the coyote theri. With a surge of willpower, he picked up his opponent's form and slammed it back against the railing, holding the coyote in place with a spectral hand.
The theri's grip on Ron evaporated -- but its focus on the retriever didn't waver. The coyote made several hand gestures. The dog's barking fuzzed away into an electronic hum as it was suddenly sucked into the television. Ron gritted his teeth and directed additional mental force to paralyze his opponent's hands.
"Get out of here, human!" the coyote shouted at Ron. "Save yourself, while you still can!"
Ron paused. With the dog gone, the theri was putting up no further resistance. Was it a trick? It didn't feel like one.
"There's nothing for me outside," Ron growled, cautiously advancing on the stairwell. "I'll take my chances. Who are you, and what's going on?"
"There's a virus!" the coyote said. "A -- ah -- my virus. Turning people into animals -- dumb animals, not theris. I'm the only one left."
Ron released his invisible grip with the wave of a hand. The coyote fell to the floor, sobbing, a frail shell of a beast next to Ron's huge, looming form.
"It was my fault," the coyote said raggedly. "I changed them all. I made a mistake. Destroyed their minds." The naked beast rocked back and forth, arms clutched to his chest, fur matted with weeks of neglect. "Nobody survived. You have to go."
Ron sighed, then paced back and forth, deliberating. Perhaps he really was in danger here ... but he'd already cheated death once, he was a highly capable mage, and he needed information. More importantly, he needed someone to talk to after his slog through the dusty wastelands. Virus or not, he'd stay. Ron turned back to the theri: "What's your name?"
The coyote looked up, and Ron realized with a shock that there was no recognition in its eyes. "Oh, hello," it said pleasantly. "Are you real? No human can live here. Perhaps you're dead? Who are you?"
"Uummm ... I'm Ron. What's your name?"
"Where did you come from? There's only dust outside. Only dust, only dust ..." Its muzzle swiveled to the window. "It's so dusty. When did it get so dusty? There's dust in my fur. It itches like memories."
"Jesus," Ron muttered. "First thing I walk into after days of desert is a freaking insane asylum. Hey. Coyote. You made sense a minute ago -- stay with me here. What's your name? Tell me your name."
"What is my name?" the coyote said. "You mean, what do they call me? Who is there left to do the calling? Only the stars. I cannot see them, so no-one answers. But when I hear them, we sing so sweetly, the stars and I."
Ron looked around. "You live here, right? Which mailbox is yours? Show me your mailbox."
The coyote stood up shakily. "Yes. Mail. There is nobody to deliver it any more, but the mail keeps coming. Postcards, full of shame and regrets." He loped over to the mail racks and peered into box 304. "Yes. There is nothing for me today. Today's mail must be for you. I'll find some to give you."
Ron looked over the theri's shoulder. Underneath the slot, on a neatly typed label, was the name "Gavin Freschi."
"Gavin," Ron said.
"I should write him again," the theri replied brightly. "Do you have a twenty-cent stamp?"
As the coyote looked back at Ron's face, he did a double-take. He whirled and screamed almost in Ron's ear, making him wince. "Human! You've got to leave! Save yourself!" Gavin cowered against the mail rack.
Ron sighed. "I'm going to regret this. I just know it." He traced some circles in front of him, brow furrowed in concentration, and held out his hands as a large leash wove itself out of thin air and dropped into his grip. He put the collar over Gavin's unresisting neck and tightened the buckle. "Alright, buddy. This place isn't doing you any favors. Let's make like pages and book."
The theri meekly stood straight, then his head swiveled and he stared over Ron's shoulder with a cheerful smile. "Oh, hello, mother!" Gavin said. "He followed me home. Can I keep him?"
Ron turned -- and literally jumped in shock. Leaning casually against the front counter was a chubby bearded clown with neon green facepaint and a curly black wig, wearing a plaid jacket straight out of the nightmares of a 1970s fashion designer over a long dalmatian-spotted white dress and giant, floppy high heels. The scent of lavender tickled Ron's nose.
"Gaaah!" Ron said, scrambling backward against the wall.
"Well, thith ith unexthpected," the clown said to Ron, then opened its mouth a few times, trying to compensate for the lisp. "You struck out through the wastes, did you? And even managed to find one of your fellow exiles. I could use someone of your talents."
Ron recovered his wits, but not his composure. "Who the hell are you? What's going on?"
The clown glanced over to one side -- where a small white kitten had leaped up to the counter to investigate the commotion -- and picked up the kitten, stroking its head. "I'll be happy to answer all of your questions, Ronald Adenson. But first, let me tell you about my plan."