I whirled around and met the eyes of the smaller, black-furred beast. They were a fiery red, rimmed with gleaming yellow circles, and in them I could see a lurking, alien intelligence. As if taking a cue from me, the creature nodded once, and stood up. I tensed, expecting a blow, but instead, it merely lowered its head. I waited, and as the moments passed, I was struck by the impression that the beast was somehow concentrating.
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From the innards of the beast came the strangest sound I have ever had the opportunity to hear during my time in this world. It was a sort of thick, grinding splash in reverse- a sound that was liquid and solid and plasma all fused together into a single chord that penetrated into my brain and wore away the nerve bundles, letting loose a blinding burst of pain/dizziness/nausea/vertigo all mixed together, inseparable.
Before my eyes, the beast appeared to explode in reverse- not to implode, but rather, to literally reverse itself- and withdraw into its own shape, running time and size backwards along a scale perpendicular to all the notions I had grown up with. It hurt my eyes to watch.
A moment later, it was done, and the beast was gone, replaced by a pale, shaking girl of an even younger age than her brother. She was tall and athletic, her frame muscular, and devoid of any excess flesh. Like her brother, she was also nude, and apparently unconcerned by the fact- her fear being purely of physical harm, as far as I could tell. Her hair spilled across her shouders in tresses of dark brown, their color made darker by the sweat that held them lank and wet. Her face was set and hard, the features almost unnaturally regular. A magnificent bruise was rising on one side of her stomach.
She noticed my gaze, and put a hand gingerly against the spot. "Ow," she muttered, and pulled her hand away. Her voice was nearly a full octave below what I had been expecting.
"I'm...sorry..." said her brother, clasping his hands behind his back; a strange-looking gesture indeed, being that he was nude. "This is going to take some explaining..."
"A lot of it, I expect," came Morphine's voice, from behind me. I turned.
Gone was the panicked, screaming girl I had seen when the blood-rage left my eyes. Morphine was calm, composed, and in control of the situation; arms folded haughtily, as though the creatures/naked people in front of her were a pair of naughty children that she had been set to watch- and not a couple of savage shapeshifting monsters. I admired her for it.
"Your appearance is not, as you might have expected, completely surprising," said Morphine. "We had been looking for...people...of your sort lately, though I do not think we expected to meet them in such a violent manner." She bathed them in a glower, hands on hips. The young man blushed noticebly.
"We...had been expecting someone else," he said, holding his hands behind him like the naughty child I had been picturing in my mind. "My sister and I are really sorry. Is there any way we can, uh, make it up to you?"
Morphine raised an eyebrow. "Certainly. You could start by telling us your names."
They both blushed.
"Yes, of course," said the young man. "My name is Jeremiah. This is my sister-"
"I can talk for myself, Jeremiah!" The girl snapped. She put her hands on her naked hips. For the third time that night, the man blushed.
"Yes," he said. "Sorry."
"My name is Christy," she said, holding out a hand. "I'm really sorry about hitting you and about my brother throwing you at a tree." Up close, I judged her at no more than twenty, perhaps as young as seventeen. She was very well muscled. They both were, for that matter. I shook the hand.
"I..." Jeremiah was fighting for words. "I don't want to...oh hell, I don't know how to ask this, so I'll just ask it. I've...I've never lost a fight to someone who wasn't a Lupine before..."
"A what?" I said.
Jeremiah blinked. "A-"
"Werewolf," said Morphine. "Correct?"
"Ye-es..." He appeared to scan his words for offensive content. "We call ourselves Lupines, though, not werewolves. It's an old word that means-"
"Yes, yes, we'll get to that," said Morphine. "You had a question, I believe?"
"Uh...yeah..." Jeremiah floundered, and I saw Morphine smile a small smile of pleasure at his insecurity. "I mean...I...um..."
"Wanted to know what we are."
He nodded, relieved.
Morphine grinned, baring her fangs. "Would you believe me if I told you? No, don't answer that- I'm not giving you two enough credit. Fair's fair, after all. For now, let it be enough to know that we are not human. We are, as you have seen-" she gestured at me. "Far beyond the reach of human range, for had we not been so, you would have slain us easily. We are vampire- an Old World term for a creature that stalks the night and feeds on the blood of living things. That much is true, and it is all you need to know, for now. I'm sure you will learn more about us- and us, you!- in the coming days. You see, your coming here and meeting us has not been coincidence. You were called here, to this village- as were we- and it is high time you met the one who called you."
She turned away in a flourish of fabric and flesh.
"Follow up," she said. "And don't fall behind, if you value your secrecy- you are naked, after all, and that's hard to hide. Follow up, keep in stride, and try to keep an open mind. We're off to meet the wizard, my friends." Morphine started away.
To my surprise, the two young werewolves fell into step behind her, keeping almost superstitiously close as she led them out of Ellis Park and across Main Street. I hurried after them and found myself bringing up the rear of the strange procession. And so it was that we made our way back once more, to the doors of the Royal Theater.
All was silent when we arrived. Morphine stomped up to the door and hammered on it with her fist. Three great hollow bangs echoed out over the empty square. She tilted her head back and bellowed.
"Cross!" she yelled at the second-floor windows. "CROSS! We're back- your loyal followers and lackeys- and we've brought some friends with us! Come down and greet them, you manipulative motherfucker!" She raised her fist to deliver another volley.
"There's no need for that, Morphine."
The voice came from directly over her left ear. She whirled around and locked eyes with Cross. He was decked out in the latest 19th century fashions, complete with hat and cane. There had been no sparkle of magic, no dazzling blast of fire or purple smoke. One moment he wasn't there, the next moment he was. Instant Cross, I thought. Just add Morphine.
"You ever do anything like that again," he said, fixing her with a glower that put her own earlier glare to shame. "And you're fired. Now, would all four of you please come inside? We have a great deal of talking to do, and never enough time to do it in. Morphine?"
"Yes?" she said, half-belligerent, half-frightened.
"You cracked my window," said Cross, and vanished.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.