Blog | Author's Blog | Published 22 April 2021
It’s All About Flash
“I cannot believe I let you talk me into this,” my cousin Bran said to me using thought speech. It was a magical means of communicating that we had devised for ourselves back when we were plotting our escape from our family.
Oh, he could speak well enough as a raven since ravens could imitate human speech better than most parrots. Still, they could only manage very short phrases. It was simply easier for him to communicate with me via magic.
“You let me talk you into this because it’s a brilliant idea. You’re just sour about it because you couldn’t come up with anything better,” I told him as I stood back to admire my handiwork. I was well pleased with it.
He looked nothing like Bran O’Doyle Ó Griohtha.
Bran had been a remarkable looking man. The first thing people always noticed was that he was tall, almost six and a half feet, and storkish. His long legs gave him a stride that would have other people scurrying to keep up. The second thing they’d say was that he was striking. Not handsome per se. His face would never have prompted anyone to wax poetically about rugged good looks or harsh masculine beauty. Instead, people would say he was intriguing to look at, with his high chiseled cheekbones, his long lean face, his black wavy hair kept short and practical, and his deep-set black eyes that glittered with a razor-sharp intelligence.
In short, he’d been memorable, which was most inconvenient when one had gone to the great trouble of faking one’s own death to hide from people who had the kind of resources and reach whole governments would beg for—and sometimes did.
Even worse would be to have word get around that a man of Bran’s description was traveling with a woman looking like me.
Not that I had ever been described as the definition of girlish good looks either. But when you have snow-white hair, mismatched emerald green and sapphire blue eyes, and you’re tall and curvy you kind of stand out in a crowd. Especially since odd eye and hair color were hallmarks of a high-bred Conduit. Such individuals were scarcer than phoenix eggs and more in demand than a cure for the common cold.
So, walking around looking like ourselves was a losing proposition.
There were any number of ways to change one’s appearance, but any disguise we came up with had to stand up to serious magical scrutiny. To compound the problem, we had more than appearances to worry about. Our skills and abilities, while highly marketable, nevertheless made us as conspicuous as a peacock among wrens. Which meant our disguise had to lend itself to a certain kind of background that wasn’t of a sixteenth generation Conduit and a seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son magical prodigy.
Bran had thrown around a number of possibilities, each more unlikely than the last, before finally admitting that my talents were best suited to the task.
As a Conduit, my relationship to magic was different than that of a Gifted. The Gifted needed props, rituals, and implements of all sorts to cast a spell in most cases. When I worked with magic, though, I did so by making something more of what it already was, or do what it already wanted to do. For this reason, when I worked magic, the results were far superior to what the Gifted could manage. It also meant that my craftings were much harder for them to detect or unravel—if they could at all.
I was especially deft at shapeshifting. I could turn myself into five different animals fairly easily because they shared a number of characteristics in common with me and each other. I could do the same for others with their permission—or without it if I possessed a link to them, such as blood, hair, or nail trimmings. Bran had given his consent to my magical manipulation long ago, so no samples required, thank you Lady.
As we were growing up, and even as adults, Bran had always reminded me of a raven. It hadn’t been very difficult at all, then, for me to make a few minor adjustments to his music—which was how I perceived magic in general—in order to change his outward appearance to better match up with another aspect of his being. The difficult bit had been altering his form so that it was a hybrid of human and bird. It took some experimentation, but looking at him now, I thought I’d done a passable job of it.
I’d given him back his height. I’d always liked how tall he was and people tended to give larger people their space, maybe even think twice about picking a fight. Greater size tended to be a winning defensive trait in general, just ask an elephant. I’d also altered the articulation of his pelvis and spine to allow him to walk upright. He had a man’s torso and arms, but those were about the only recognizable human bits I’d allowed for. The rest was all bird. His head was that of a raven. From the hips down, he was the same, with tail feathers and everything.
But what really annoyed Bran were his hands. The index fingers were freakishly long, nearly the length of his forearms, while the thumbs and other fingers were little more than vestigial nubs, the palms narrow and misshapen.
“I can’t do anything with these!” Bran complained as he stood flexing his mutated digits, making strange grumbling noises that sounded a lot like a raven imitating the growl of a pissed off dog. “How am I supposed to feed myself? How am I to hold any tools for working enchantments?” he demanded of me with a black-eyed glare.
“It won’t be permanent,” I assured him, yet again. “It’ll only be until we can establish our story. Then I’ll fix your hands first thing. Promise.”
Bran made a low croaking sound and eyed me with an avian twitch of his head. “When I said the best way to hide was in plain sight, I didn’t mean for you to take it quite this far.”
“You also said a good disguise was one that directed people’s focus where you wanted it,” I reminded him, sinking down on my haunches to rummage around in his travel sack for the final touches to his costume. “As peculiar as you look, trust me, people will definitely be thinking you’re spectacularly weird, but they won’t be thinking you’re a fugitive Gifted wanted by the Ó Griohtha. Isn’t that what we’re after here?”
Aha! Found them.
I pulled out the kilt and broad leather belt with utility loops and pouches I’d snatched from a shop the other day. Thieving was easy as breathing when you could make yourself silent and invisible with a touch of glamor. I stood and held the kilt up to his waist, making sure it would fit his new form.
Undoing the two straps holding the kilt closed, I said, “Here, let me put this on you. Your hands won’t be able to work these buckles.”
Bran lifted his arms away from his sides and out of my way, cocking his head to watch me work with one beady eye. “So, if I’m a raven who’s been enchanted and bred for genius-level intelligence and magical potency, what are you going to be then?”
“I’m going to be the Dionysian tigress who’s gradually helping you achieve your fondest wish of becoming a man with clever hands to work your clever magic,” I said as I finished securing the belt around his hips and stood back up.
“And how is a Dionysian tigress able to do such a thing?”
“We’re incredibly talented with shaping magic, didn’t you know?” I told him with a grin and a wink. “We have powers and abilities that would make a Gifted weep with envy.”
Bran groused again, shaking his head. “I’ll grant you those beasts are filled with strong magic by their very nature, but they’re no more intelligent or possessed of any special powers or abilities than your typical griffin or hippogriff.”
I shrugged. “Who’s to say? Dionysian tigers are so rare, few people even know they exist.”
“The Romanovs will. It’s their business to know the rare and exotic beasts. Their Menagerie is filled with them.”
Which was true of course.
After doing a bit of research, we’d learned that the Romanovs had made a deal with the Wardens. Whenever the Wardens rescued animals and rare magical beasties from smugglers and black marketers, they turned them over to the Romanovs’ circus where the animals were exhibited in the Menagerie while they recovered. They were then safely transported back to wherever they belonged. If an animal was too traumatized or injured to be safely released back into their natural territory, they were given a permanent home where they would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. I figured that meant the Romanovs’ circus was the ideal place to blend in for the creatures that Bran and I were pretending to be.
The perfect place to hide in plain sight.
I shrugged again. “So, we say I’m another product of the same evil warlock’s experiments that created you. Except I’m the experiment that eventually bit him in the ass. Literally.” That made me grin again before waving my hands at Bran who’d opened his beak to protest some more. “Now hush. This next bit is going to take some concentration.”
I turned to the full-length mirror standing in the corner of the living room of a small single-family bungalow we’d commandeered just outside Kumeyaay’s city central. The occupants were currently out. We weren’t sure when they would be back, so we had to finish up and get out of there as soon as possible.
We wouldn’t have risked breaking in at all, except I needed a mirror. I had to be able to see myself in order to tailor this next form to look exactly like a Dionysian tigress should. I was hoping it wouldn’t be too difficult. It was much like the beast form I’d come up with under duress. I would only need to make a few minor changes.
I shifted into my beast form to start. It was a matter of rearranging my own music. I pictured myself as an orchestra conductor, directing the phrasing and tempo of a symphony. By beckoning the strings to swell and the horns to simmer down I brought certain aspects of my character or spirit (or something, I wasn’t exactly sure what) to the surface while tucking others way to be called back later.
It only took a moment.
In that short time, I felt a burst of tingling rush over me while a roaring like ocean surf filled my ears to deafness and flashes of light and color briefly blinded me. When I shook my vision clear I saw a seven-hundred-pound tigress in the mirror with the wings of an enormous great horned owl and an owl’s grasping feet where my front paws should have been, each toe tipped with six-inch talons. Hints of my gray fox form could be seen in my large velvety ears and long bushy tail, though the tail was bushy not because of plush fur but long blunt owlish tail feathers.
I was still white, though, with one green eye and one blue. My animal forms were always white with mismatched eyes. I was going to have to do something about that. It was just too distinctive a combination and a dead giveaway if my family should hear of the Romanovs’ latest addition to their Menagerie. But it was so much a part of my self-image that it was probably going to be the most difficult part of the process. I would save it for last.
Instead, I focused on my ears. I made them smaller, rounder, like a tiger’s ought to be. Same with the tail, stripping away the feathers and the poisoned spines they hid. Away went the owl feet, to be replaced with proper tiger paws and I flexed my new retractable claws. Much better for walking, though I would miss the owl’s more dexterous toes.
I tried to recall what kind of wings a Dionysian tiger had. Were they those of an eagle, like a griffin or hippogriff? The ancient cracked tile mosaic, which was the only image I’d ever seen of this breed of tiger, hadn’t been detailed enough for me to know. I decided to leave my wings as they were. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to change them anyway. The owl’s silent flight seemed more fitting for a tiger that relied on stealth than the loud flapping of an eagle’s wings. The more discordant the changes I tried to make with my magic, the harder it was to accomplish. If I failed in changing the wings, it would cast doubt on any further changes I wanted to make. Belief in my abilities was paramount; making doubt the deathblow of any casting I attempted.
I gambled that the style of my wings wouldn’t be important enough to muck around with and so moved on to something that wasn’t optional. One of the defining features of a Dionysian tigress were the goat horns and I focused all my will on them. I concentrated until the mental effort left me panting, struggling for more air as a twinging ache set in at two points on my skull between my ears.
There we are! A little more, that’s it…
The horns grew, thickening, curling down and around until they encircled my ears and their tips turned back up, pointing forward just below my eyes, shielding the sides of my head. They were black with pronounced growth rings edged with white. I thought it was a very nice touch of contrast, myself.
Huffing out a huge sigh of relief, I turned my head this way and that to better study the horns in the mirror. They weren’t half-bad. Not much like in the picture, I thought, but I decided I liked mine better. They made me feel more regal, like I was wearing a fancy headdress.
“You overdid it,” Bran said, moving to stand behind me so he could see my reflection too. “The horns in the picture were small and short.”
“Maybe the picture was of a juvenile,” I said using thought speech as well now that I no longer had a human mouth. I gave my head a test shake. It was a little top heavy, but I guessed that was only to be expected. I’d just have to be careful not to throw my neck out with a careless head toss.
“You know it wasn’t. The artisan who created the mosaic made a point of depicting her with full teats. She was clearly lactating, which meant she was a mature female. You should dial them back.”
“No, I don’t think so. Since I don’t plan on mimicking lactating teats, I bet I can get away with not copying the horns exactly either. Relax, Bran. Some differences between individuals of a species are normal, right?”
“To a degree, perhaps, but too many differences and people who know what they’re talking about will begin to question your authenticity. For instance, you’re huge. Not even female Siberian tigers are as large as you. You’ve made yourself as big as a male—one for the record books at that.”
There was a lurching sensation in my guts as a moment from my past rushed up and punched me…
… I was back in the family’s manor, in the grand foyer.
I was fleeing the scene of my imminent rape as a hummingbird, frantic to escape those who were supposed to love me but who were bent on using me most cruelly instead. They’d managed to cage me by bringing a chandelier down on my head and were closing in when, in blind desperation, I’d taken on my beast form for the first time.
I needed to be bigger—big enough to drive them back. I had to be so big, so strong, so fierce that they would be terrified out of their wits …
I shuddered, my eyes squeezing shut against the remembered fear and anger that wracked me anew. It was a small eternity before I could shove the past back where it belonged and calm my racing heart. I became aware of tension in my front paws and looked down to see that I’d dug my claws into the floor, leaving ten deep gouges in the pale hardwood.
Shame and embarrassment rushed over me in a scalding wave and I quickly released my grip, jerking my claws free.
A glance into the mirror showed me Bran still standing where he’d been, watching me without comment, the tone of his music somber, sympathetic, and patient. He’d been wise enough not to try to touch me as I gathered my wits. He knew firsthand how explosive my reactions could be to unexpected or unwanted physical contact.
Thinking back on that episode brought bile burning up the back of my throat, forcing me to swallow hard. I looked away from him, my head sinking down between my hunched shoulders, my ears flattening to my skull and my tail wrapping tight about my front feet.
“I’ve told you before, Danny,” Bran said and the old fury boiled up in his magic, still as molten hot as the day he’d returned from his studies abroad to find me a wrecked ghost of the girl he’d known growing up. “I don’t ever want to hear you apologize for what happened.”
I shrugged my wings in discomfort then resettled them again, still not looking at him. “Not that. For… falling apart just now. I try not to, but sometimes it just… sneaks up on me. A smell, someone’s music, a piece of random conversation I overheard, and I’m trapped in one horrible memory or another. I just wish I could forget it all and move on already. It’s been over a month since our escape.”
“You need to be patient with yourself. You were tortured and abused for more than a year. It’s going to take time to heal from such deep wounds. Time spent in a place where you can feel safe. Danny, I wish you’d reconsider this scheme of yours. You would heal much faster in Eire. You could have peace; build a life without these ridiculous charades. You would be free to be yourself there.”
My gaze snapped up to meet his in the mirror. “And be perfectly wasted there as well. I will be of much greater use to my kind here.”
Bran folded his arms over his bare chest and shook his raven’s head at me. “There are people in the Old Country that need help too. I have friends there that—”
“That’s exactly my point, Bran,” I said, cutting him off, tired of the same argument we’d been having the whole time we were traveling from Boudicca to Kumeyaay, a city on the coast half way down the length of Maidu Province. “There’s already a network of people working to free enslaved Nulls and Conduits over there, but no one here in Vineland has the balls to accept the challenge and do what needs to be done. I’m willing and more than able. I want to help my people here, where they need it most.”
I turned my focus back on my reflection, determined to make this disguise work. Getting on at the circus was the first crucial step towards the work I’d set myself. With the circus, Bran and I had a good chance of creating a secret base for our rescue operations, as I liked to think of them.
The circus was essentially a small roving vacation town, bursting at the seams with floods of tourists and positively mad with the doings of people who were either determined to have a good time or trying to turn a profit. It had a large fluid workforce and was always on the move. An easy place to hide and transport fugitives on the run from vengeful masters, or so Bran had assured me when we’d been discussing logistics during the early phases of our planning.
Of course, other people might call our potential base a thieves’ den since, legally speaking, we were talking about stealing and fencing stolen property. But I wouldn’t piss on those people to put out the flames if they were on fire. They were the ones using Nulls like they were dumb beasts of burden and Conduits like me as though we were those disposable batteries people have out in Ten B.
Alright, Danny, focus already! I chided myself. I had to scrap the distractions and finish my disguise. The owners of the house would be coming home eventually and we couldn’t be there when that happened.
Maybe I should tone down my size, I thought. It was more than a little silly to have a genius along only to blow off his advice all the time.
I stared at myself, concentrating hard, but I didn’t seem to be getting any smaller. Not so much as an inch under four feet at the shoulder. I really was huge. And terrifying, just as I’d wanted when I’d confronted my family.
And that was the problem.
Aneirin, the Hound that had taught me how to use my magic as a child, had once told me that how I shaped magic wasn’t with a spell but with a want. I had to have an intense desire to change what was into what I wished to be. Here and now, I didn’t want to be smaller. Big things were almost always treated with deference—or at the very least a healthy dose of caution—whereas small things… well, small things got eaten.
I couldn’t bring myself to make myself smaller, because then I’d be making myself more vulnerable.
“Danny?” Bran asked after the long silent moment in which I sat staring at my reflection stretched out to three. “There a problem?”
I swallowed and let out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. “No. No problem. I was just thinking that I’ll stay this size. Goes with the horns, you know? Everything about me says someone was trying too hard, right?”
Bran’s shoulders rose and fell in a sigh and he rubbed at the point where his beak met feathers with the knuckle of one long forefinger. “Fine. But you have got to change your coloring. You’re far too distinctive as you are. One glimpse of you and anyone in the family will know who you are.”
“I know, I know, I’m getting to it!”
Yet my confidence had been shaken when I couldn’t decrease my size. I didn’t know if I could make myself an orange and black tiger like the one in the mosaic, and if I failed a second time I didn’t want to know what that would do to my ability to work further magic. It hadn’t been all that long ago that my control over my shapeshifting had been in tatters. Living with Bran if I was never able to restore him to normal would be miserable for both of us.
There were white tigers, though. They just looked subtly different than I did. I could make those minor tweaks, no problem, but first I’d need to see color better.
Tigers saw blues and greens okay, but they didn’t see red very well at all. Neither did they see details as well as humans did. I would need to be able to see both as a human would to make sure I’d pulled off the necessary changes. It wasn’t all that hard. I’d been practicing giving my human eyes a fox’s night vision; this was simply a reversal of a sort. Even easier, since I already knew how everything should look. I just had to convince my eyes they saw what I knew they should be seeing.
I felt a brief sharp spasm as my eyes adjusted. An explosive sneeze gave me a rough shake and I had to blink away a few tears. Once my vision cleared, I could see the full spectrum of colors and the details I needed.
This new success helping to shore up my confidence, I focused my attention on my fur and feathers, tracing a tiger’s traditional stripes over my pelt and brushing bands of darker color on each of my wings. At first, all that appeared were faint smokey gray smudges. It was a start, but not enough to look natural.
Remembering in as much detail as I could, I tried to match my markings to the deep rich brown of the stripes on the white tiger I’d once seen in a book. Like dark chocolate syrup swirled over vanilla ice cream. Then I moved the stripes themselves around into new patterns, having a little fun with them in the process. I gave the vague impression of a dragonfly with the short wavy lines on my forehead and the barest impression of a running fox down my back.
Next were the eyes. These were going to be harder. I’d always liked my eyes. I’d loved the clear vibrant jewel tones even as others had declared my gaze disconcerting. A man once told me I had daemon eyes. I couldn’t possibly keep them as they were, but maybe I could have fun with them as I had the stripes.
I pulled magic to me, focusing for all I was worth to make my green eye match the blue. Then I poured on the mental effort to fade them out until they were like looking into the pale crystalline depths of a glacier. For the final touch, I added cold ghostly green flames dancing around the inner edges of the round irises. A little nod to Aneirin, my second oldest friend after Bran. Missing him was a constant ache in my heart. This way, I kept him a little closer.
I shifted my wings and craned my head this way and that, studying the results. I thought I looked pretty good. “What do you think?” I asked Bran.
“I think you’re still white,” he said with a rattling raven’s grumble. “It’s too flashy. Are you incapable of doing anything understated?”
“Are you serious? Understated? Too flashy? We’re going to stand out no matter what. Might as well play it up to the hilt. The circus is all about showmanship and showmanship is all about flash. And besides, white is a good color. White animals are thought to be good luck. Like a white elephant or white buffalo.”
“And a white deer or crow are thought to be death omens,” Bran reminded me. “You’re as likely to have us kicked out as welcomed in with open arms based on that thinking.”
The front door rattling whipped both of our heads around. We’d just run out of time. As quietly as we could, we made a dash back out through the door that let out to the house’s backyard. It was a tighter fit exiting than coming in, but I managed to hug my wings in close and squeeze through. Bran closed the door shut behind us and we set out for the Commons.