or, enter your birth date.*
or, enter your birth date.*
or, enter your birth date.*
The witch winked at me, as all I could do was stare in shock. On her arm was a new purse, which a moment ago had been Daryl. She let out a slight giggle. "I always love the looks on their faces." She kept looking at me. "Say something, boy." I did not move. After some time, she gave a mock pout, as I remained still. "I usually don't leave witnesses, but you look too cute like that to transform." She giggled again. "Lucky!" She vanished, purse and all.
I was still reeling. I had watched his skin turn to leather, as if being tanned. The leather grew over his mouth and nose, as he sank into his clothing, his upper body hollowing into a shoulderband. It was difficult to tell, but the purse proper seemed to mostly come from his pelvic region, opening in front, in a mouth that had seemed disturbingly yonic at a glance. And so I was left there, ruminating, in a dark alley I felt posed no threat to me, no threat greater than the one who'd just played her sick game of catch-and-release.
That would have been a very good excuse to avoid the word of magic thenceforth, but my drive was the opposite: I went home that night determined to find out more about the magical world. I wasn't under any illusions about getting my friend back, but it would have felt irresponsible of me not to at least try. The world that coexists with our own, and on occasion so dramatically affects our own, came to fascinate me, and Daryl's fate struck me as a fatal blow to my previous "out of sight, out of mind" approach. Fortunately, I already had a connection to that world.
Gabriella was her name. Not "Gabby" or anything else, she'd have you know - "Gabriella." We hadn't spoken in nearly two years by that point, due to my fear of her world, after most of a decade of quasi-avoiding her. I still remember that Hallowe'en night. She, I, and a boy named Danny had had a mutual "thing" going, and had together decided if we were old enough for that, we were too old for trick-or-treating. He was fourteen, we were each thirteen. We had all retired to Danny's bedroom, for novelty card games punctuated by makeout sessions, because we were all too nervous to go any further than that.
I didn't realize it had anything to do with Gabriella at first. I was dealing out cards to her and to Danny when suddenly Danny's body began to twitch. I rushed over to him, and I couldn't get him to acknowledge me; I thought he was having a seizure. It was only when I noticed that the scant hair on his arm was thickening and turning white that I thought to turn to her.
Gabriella was also not responding to me, but not twitching. Rather, her eyes were... not glowing, precisely, but flashing, and her hair was standing on end. I turned back to Danny, and saw that his hair was standing on end as well. It was then that I realized what was happening, and decided it would be best for all three of us if I wasn't touching him. I backed away, watching the two of them, helpless.
He seemed to swell up at first, like a balloon, but only slightly. The hair on his arm thickened further, with hair on his face to match, as the hair of his scalp shrank to the same white fur. His whole body was shrinking uniformly, so slowly that it took me a while to notice, and any hint of his bones seemed to fade. His face took on cartoonish features, his nose poking out, as his ears grew upward from his head.
Gabriella was beginning to come to her senses, a look of horror coming to her face. She looked over at me, agape. Most of me I wanted to take her into my arms, to console her, to kiss her, but, I told myself, my higher faculties told me it wouldn't be for the best; in retrospect, I call it my cowardice getting the best of me. What I did was to give her a nervous smile and go to the door. It would be best for her that I call in a professional, my chickenshit logic told me - it would be best for everyone.
Needless to say, we'd grown apart after that. She'd been pulled out of school in favor of a special program aimed at witches and would return only for exams, to furtive glances from her fellow students. At first, I made a point of stopping by at least once a week, but I found we didn't have so much to talk about anymore. Her kisses had lost their appeal, and I didn't want to bring up the subject of witchcraft. Once in a while we'd deal ourselves a round of the novelty card games we'd once so loved, but it seemed to upset her, so that faded. Mostly, we just sat, and it became increasingly obvious that these visits were token. The most damning proof in my eyes was that she never initiated one.
Within three months, I had stopped making it every week. There was no conscious decision to do this - first I forgot to make a date, then I couldn't remember what I'd forgotten. Every two weeks or so, then every three or so, I would realize how long it had been since I'd seen her, and the same pointless exchanges between us would take place. By the next Hallowe'en, it had become a little less than monthly. Over the four years between that anniversary and graduation, we must have seen each other - other than at exams - about thirty times all told.
I remember I asked her once, during those first couple months, whether she wanted to meet up at my house. She gave me a sad smile that told me her answer, but I asked anyway - "...my parents?" She gave a shrug that may as well have been a nod. I sighed. My parents had loved her once, but they had already resented her a bit, due to the path they could see she, I, and Danny had hoped to embark on. Even before they'd caught on to that, however, they had warned me about the fact that her matrilineal great-grandmother was a witch, despite two generations of women without the knack making her breakthrough unlikely. Although they didn't know I had been there for it, nor did they know what had happened to Danny, they knew afterwards that she had broken through, and when they heard I was going to see her, while they'd never stop me, disapproving glances and mutters would follow my departure.
Really, I couldn't blame them. We've all heard the rumors about witches, and on that night with Daryl - to a lesser extent even that night with Danny - I would find those rumors painfully true. I had grown up with Gabriella, and even I was afraid of her. In college I made a point of seeing her every time I could, which wasn't too often, but I managed to see her more often than when we had lived in the same town. With her all but totally immersed in an environment of witches, the subject of witchcraft had become unavoidable.
"So you're learning to turn people into toads?" I had once joked.
"No, we're learning to turn people into toads usefully. It's easy to turn people into toads. Here, I'll do it right now."
"Well, you or anyone," she said with a glance around the bustling café.
"Um... please don't."
She laughed. "You're no fun." My face, I realized, had taken on a look of horror, that caused the smile to fade from her face. "Uh... you okay?"
I wasn't. She saw then that discussion of such things made me uncomfortable, and never made such a threat again. We would only talk about other classes of magic, and the boring legalisms of her world. Even then, she gave me a very high-level overview when she could. Mostly we would talk about my studies in mathematics, ultimately, theory of algebraic structures. I would make my best Feynmanesque attempts to be understandable without sacrificing comprehensiveness or correctness.
Still, while we saw more of each other, I'd estimate, during those four years than we had in the years before, we hadn't seen any of each other from shortly after graduation to that fateful night. There was nothing noteworthy about our last encounter to make it our last encounter, and indeed, it may well be the fact that it bore so little note that made it our last encounter. Just idle pleasantries and pretending the rift her nature had caused wasn't as great as it was.
As of that night, it had been well over two years since I had last seen her. When I saw that witch, though, her faux-innocent little smile, I had thought back to that half-joking offer to turn me into a toad. I don't doubt she would have, right there in the café, if I hadn't reacted the way I had. But she didn't. She asked, and she didn't. And I doubt she would have kept me that way for long, whereas, somehow, Daryl... I shuddered at the thought of what was to become of him as I walked up to the door of what I hoped was still her apartment.
I smiled as from inside I heard her voice for the first time in so long. "Hold on a sec," she said, quietly, not directed at the door, but someone inside. I barely had time to breathe before she answered. She looked, well, just as I remembered. If you're expecting some fawning description of her beauty here, well, I'm sure she'd love that, but I can't say it's my style, only that my eyes were drawn immediately to her brown locks, a joy after what a blond witch had done. She looked radiantly familiar, and in my own head, I feel that's the highest praise I could give.
"Hey, Gabriella," I said.
"Miles! Hi-hi-hi-hi-hiiiii!" She hugged me, and I returned her hug with a pat on the back. We took a few steps into her apartment in unison, as if doing some sort of clumsy waltz. Over her shoulder, I saw a man sitting on the couch in a robe, looking up at us, his expression seeming most to me like one of boredom, betraying nothing. Whatever he was projecting, it certainly wasn't jealousy. Even so, I worried I had intruded.
"Oh... someone's here?"
"Oh, don't worry about that!" she said, waving a hand at the man, whose skin began to change color, from a pasty white to a dark green.
The man raised a finger. "Um," he said, not bothering to finish his thought, even though he seemed to have time. A moment later the finger, and his hand with it, retreated into his sleeve. He did have time to say more if he'd had anything else to say, but a few seconds later his green lips melted together over his mouth, and his head began to shrink. What struck me was that at no point while his head was distinct did he seem the least bit vexed - a bit surprised, I could tell, but nothing like the image of horror on Daryl's face still burned into my head to this day. It can't have been a full minute before he had vanished completely, an empty bathrobe, with a tiny bit of green fabric peeking out at points, all that remained of him.
Gabriella turned to me, a casual smile on her face, as if I'd just watched her finish some everyday chore. "So what brings you here after all this time?"
I tried to maintain a poker face, and to my credit, I think I succeeded - it didn't hurt that at this point I was more puzzled than anything else. "Um... well... there was an incident the other night, and I thought I should get your... input?"
"Incident?" she asked. "What sort of incident?"
"Well, my friend Daryl and I ran into a witch, and she, um... turned him into a purse."
"Ugh. I hate it when witches pull shit like that!" she said, going back to the couch where the man had sat. She pulled a green shawl from his clothes, and draped it around her neck. "So what do you think?" she asked. I stood dumbstruck as she took a few sniffs and crinkled her nose. "Ugh... one sec."
She vanished. It's strange, when people are teleported, the way the rest of the room seems to jump. Something about the human form, especially the female form, draws the mind's eye in a way that seems to affect the position of everything else in the room. For a person to vanish with no fanfare, as witches have them do, causes the room to the mind's eye to spontaneously rearrange itself, without a micron's movement.
She reappeared. Same jump, but less noticeable with my eye so drawn. She was no longer holding the shawl; rather, she was looking at me. "I'm sorry. That seemed flippant, didn't it?" she asked with a sigh.
"I don't know, I just thought... gloom and doom seemed unwelcome."
After a moment's reflection, I smiled. "Thanks. So, er, where did you take him?"
My eyes widened. "I thought water made it permanent?"
She chuckled and sighed again. "That's an old, tired myth. Besides, it was already permanent. The myth is that water locks permanent spells, and that's only true for a tiny minority."
"Permanent...?" I asked.
She gave her best "evil" smile, an expression not welcome in the state I was in. "Of course! All my spells are permanent."
"When's the last time you saw Danny?"
I realized with a chill that the last time I could then remember seeing Danny was that one Hallowe'en... I had it in my head that I had seen him since then, but I wasn't sure where I'd gotten that idea. As she saw a look of horror come to my face, she began to let out a girlish giggle, which slowly became a witch's cackle.
At once she stopped laughing and winked. "Be right back!" She vanished. I reflected on how the giggle and the wink had reminded me of the witch from the alley far more than her hammy cackle or "evil" smile. Maybe it was a sign of her innate goodness, or maybe a shared hateful innocence. I didn't have much time to think about it, though, since soon she'd returned with a blanket, of the same green as the shawl. "Say hi!"
I took the blanket in my hand. "So... this is him...?"
"Yep, there it is."
I heard his voice in the blanket, still so strong in my memory - why was it so strong, if I hadn't seen him since fourteen? - though muffled and indecipherable. I stood, staring at the blanket, running it over and over again in my hands, as it looked like Gabriella was barely hiding a laugh. After a moment, I realized something, and I began to smile as well.
"He's not a plushie anymore..."
"Hee! That's right! I was wondering how long it would take you to catch on!"
She telekinetically seized the blanket from my hands, and as it fluttered to the ground, it unfolded into a naked man, familiar to me, although he was older, unmistakably Danny. "Did you have to muffle me like that?" he asked.
"Of course! If he hadn't heard your voice, it would have ruined the joke, and I couldn't let you speak distinctly and give the punchline."
"Hmmph." He waved up at me. "Hey, Miles. Been a while."
"Hey," I said, waving back.
He looked up at Gabriella. "So can you go ahead and turn me into something so I'm not lying bare ass in the middle of the living room?"
"You could wear Miles!" she chirped, raising a hand in my direction.
"Pass," Danny said. I said nothing.
"Oh, all right."
In a spectacle I was beginning to worry I was getting too used to, his body hollowed out before my eyes into a frilly little dress of the same green. She held up his body in front of me. "This would be perfect for you to wear to the party! I would wear it, but I'm already going to be wearing Cecil here..." she gestured toward the empty robe, "...well, not here, but... well..."
"He wouldn't fit," I said interrupting her rambling.
"Oh, I could fix that."
"Aww." She pouted. "I guess I'll ask Leann..."
She sighed. "Anyway. More serious matters. I really should get you to the council."
"The council?" I asked.
"Well, yeah, who did you think I was going to take you to?"
I suddenly realized I had hoped she would do something about it herself, but of course that made no sense. "The council."
"What, did you think I'd go all vigilante?"
She laughed. "I rather like walking on two legs." At that, I lowered my gaze to the Danny-dress. She followed my gaze. "Was he complaining?" she asked.
"No," I said, raising my head to make eye contact again.
"Then let's go!" she chirped.
"Do you have a better time in mind?"
She gave a theatrical shrug, then opened the door with an equally theatrical beckon.
"You're not going to teleport us?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Too far, too unfamiliar. Pain in the ass."
We began down the street together, beads of sweat on my face in a temperate twelve degrees. I was afraid of her; I was afraid of the council. I expected the witch who had taken Daryl was the exception rather than the rule - in fact, I must have thought her more exceptional then than now I do - but still I had already seen something of her in Gabriella. The council, whose very mission was to preach peace, nonetheless had both the power of the gods and the power of legitimacy, a terrifying combination in the softest of hands.
For the longest time we walked in silence. I could see her turn to me a few times, with a look that told me that she had noticed the sweat on my brow, and had gleaned the reason. Still, she said nothing. Eventually, I had to say something, anything, and I came up with a doozy.
"So, um, are you wearing anyone now?"
"Yes," she said, without changing expression.
"...anyone I know?"
"Of course not."
At that she smirked. "Not anymore."
"Heh," I replied. "Um... wow."
"Oh, I could tell you all about the pasts of some of them... but nowadays, they're not up to much."
"H-how many are you wearing?"
"What? Oh, right now only one. But I have a lot back at home."
"And they'll... stay that way?"
She shrugged. "Most of them."
"And they're okay with this?"
"Of course. Most of them I can hear while I'm wearing them, so if they want to go, they can go."
"A few asked not to."
"That... that's a strange request..."
She shrugged. "I don't know... I can't get into their heads, not my magical forte. But I imagine it's a thing that seems much more reasonable to a mundane who's spent a year or three hanging around witches."
"That doesn't sound healthy."
"I'm a witch, not a doctor. If someone wants to be incommunicado, I don't psychoanalyze them, I do it." With the last three words especially, her voice became louder, harsher - I flinched, and she winced at my flinching.
"And maybe I shouldn't," she continued. We stopped in the road, and she hung her head. "I think... I think I won't again. I hardly wear those people anyway... it's just no fun. There are enough witches who get off on that sort of thing." She gasped slightly and looked up at me with a sigh. "I guess you know that, though." She put an arm around me. "Miles, I'm sorry."
"For what?" I asked.
"For her. For Daryl."
I took her hand and gave it a half-hearted push "off," only getting to the top of my shoulder. "You're not her."
"No, I'm not. But I'm invoking her in your head, I can tell." I said nothing. "It's just because I'm not her we're going where we're going. I doubt she's ever seen the council." She took on a dark affect in her voice before saying, "I promise you she will."
She took her hand from my shoulder and grabbed my arm before continuing, "I can understand why you're wary of me. I'm just glad to see you again, even if it's under such bleak circumstances. Please don't abandon me like that again. I understand why you're afraid of me, but please - it was bad enough to have Danny reduced like that, to have him traumatized like that, to have gotten him hooked like that, but I hardly saw you for over a decade now."
I felt sorry for her, and stopped to give her a soft hug.
"Don't do that if you're going to turn around and run away again."
"All right," I said, "if I were, I wouldn't."
After a moment, she asked, "what?"
"If two is three, I'm Senior Pontiff."
Another moment, and again she asked, "what?"
"I won't abandon you."
She hugged me back. "Thanks."
"You're thanking me for the bare minimum, without even me having done it."
"I know," she said. "Thanks."
I said nothing at that, but held her until I felt her grip weaken. About two kilometers from her apartment, we came to an unassuming stairway to a third-floor office. This office had the council insignia on the sign, "CMRM." She and I walked into the room.
The office was unsurprisingly busy, but unexpectedly normal. No scarecrows, tin men, or lion-men, only humans walking around in suits, not unlike any other office. I suspected that there was a "dress code" of form, although I didn't ask. Almost all of them were women. A woman walked up to us. "Gabriella?"
"His name is Miles. He had an issue with a wicked witch last night."
"Oh. I'll find someone. One sec - just have him sign, and you ought to sign next to him."
The form had some markings for whether a guest was a witch or not. Guests without the knack would often be accompanied by witches, I inferred from the presence of a special column for that, separate from either alone, which we both signed. "It's good we're at the council," Gabriella said, "they've broken a number of cases similar to this one."
"So you think they'll find her?" I asked.
Gabriella did not answer, and I decided not to press her. A woman wearing a blood-red cape over a formal business suit soon approached. I glanced around to see that no one else in the room was wearing such a thing, and thought that she must have a side office. Indeed, she took us there, since there was no door taking both our hands to phase us through.
When we got to her office, I described to her every aspect of the offending witch's appearance, which she told me not to repeat. I also told her the circumstances of our meeting - the utter chance nature of it. She asked several times whether I or Daryl had done anything to offend her, stressing that she wasn't asking to judge us, but only to establish her MO. She asked strangely subtle questions, things about her mannerisms and speech patterns, only a few of which I could answer. The more I said, the more her face fell; I turned to Gabriella, and she seemed to echo the councilwoman's concern.
Finally, with a heavy sigh, the councilwoman filled out a form and placed it in her outbox. "Well, it's not good news."
"What do you mean?"
"I think this is someone we've been looking for for a while, and I doubt we'll find her now. Even if we do find her, there's a pretty good chance we won't be able to save your friend. She's a hydrocleist."
"A what?" I asked, as I turned to Gabriella upon glimpsing her wincing behind me.
"Yeah..." she said, "you remember what you thought earlier about water?"
"Hydrocleist witches are where it comes from. Any transformation done by her, if she's dipped them in water, becomes very difficult to undo - what's more, hydrocleists are hydrocleists because they want to be, because they want to trap people. If she's a hydrocleist, she probably dipped him in water as soon as possible."
The councilwoman nodded. "If we get him back, and he's been dipped in water after being transformed by a hydrocleist, it's very likely it will take us longer than his consciousness will persist to break the lock. That's if he's even still alive at all - for a number of hydrocleists, their victims' consciousnesses are shattered upon immersion."
"Thank you, E--," said Gabriella, "I was trying to take a soft touch."
"And I was trying not to be on a first-name basis on an official visit."
"Well, we can't always get what we want, can we?"
I remained speechless as Gabriella and the councilwoman continued to babble on in front of me. I hardly heard a word of it after that. Gabriella walked out without needing to touch the councilwoman, and I followed.
"Hey," said Gabriella, putting a hand on my shoulder. She looked up at me with her little doe eyes. "You really should come to the party."
"I don't want you transforming me."
"Okay. Hey! Jan!" she said, waving to a woman across the room.
"What?" she said, turning, her skin taking on a blue tint. "Oh. Okay," she said, and almost too quickly to see collapsed into her clothes. Gabriella ran over, collecting the empty pile of clothes under her arm - woven through them was a flowing robe of countless blues, which Gabriella pulled out. The councilwoman politely looked in any direction other than any of ours.
"You can be her ride!" said Gabriella.
I sighed, with a pained smile on my face, at the knowledge that I was not getting out of this party. I took the robe in my arms as Gabriella gathered up the woman's clothes.
And so, when the time came, I knocked again on the door of Gabriella's apartment. It seemed larger than before. I was greeted by Gabriella, wearing Cecil the scarf, his green incongruous against a pink witch's hat with matching mini-dress and platform flats.
"Miiiiiiiles!" she pounced on me with enough force to throw her hat down into the common vestibule, a bobby pin with it; I had to grab the far wall. She gave me a peck on the cheek. "Come in!" Inasmuch as I'd have put even money on the hat having been human (a bet I can now say I'd have won), I tried to reach down for it, but she ushered me inside. I think I saw her wearing that hat again later that evening, certainly many times since.
I looked around. There were eighteen of us there humanoid, and for all the eldritch forms they took, the first thing I noticed was that I was one of only two men. If it had been two men and five women, I might feel a lucky bastard and cast my line. Two men and sixteen women, my first instinct is to go up to the other man. He had a goatee and wore all blue, a blue coat, pastel blue shirt, blue tie, navy pants and shoes, and a royal blue scally cap.
"Hey - uh, and you were...?"
"Um... I'm me." I grabbed my robe. "This was a woman named Jan."
He touched it as well. "Ah, I see - hey, Jan." He tipped his hat - "yes, I'm the 'ride' of a girl named Nicole, myself, but since I've never seen you before, I'd assumed you were a new form of someone I knew."
"What - who would want to be turned into me?" I laughed.
"I thought maybe she'd turned some woman I knew into a man. It's not always predictable how a woman turned into a man will look. In retrospect, I should have caught on to the Jan-robe."
"Yeah, you really should have," I said, running a hand down my side. "So you know Gabriella?"
"She and I run in the same circles," he said. "In fact, I thought I knew most of those who knew Gabriella... and you don't seem to know any of them. So really, I should be asking you."
"We grew up together," I said. "But after she broke through, I kind of got scared away from her. It's only recently we've been in contact again."
"Scared away?" he asked.
"Yeah... I mean, I knew she was all right, I tried to keep in touch, but every time I saw her, I would think of my... our... boyfriend Danny, whom her breakthrough put out of the picture for a while..."
He nodded. "Breakthrough spells can be like that."
I barely heard him as I continued. "...so what the three of us had kind of wasn't a thing anymore... so what the two of us had had hung over us. Plus there was no way I couldn't be afraid of her after that. Not be afraid of magic after that."
The man laughed. "Well, some luck you had then, finding the only other witch on two feet!"
I jumped. "What?!"
"Oh, relax," he said. "I don't use that sort of magic at these parties - well, not unless I'm asked. Gabriella wouldn't have it, and I like the swag I get here too much."
"Swag?" I asked. "So... you keep these people?"
The warlock nodded. "Most of them, at least for a while. Usually, eventually, either Gabriella or a loved one of the item will come by and ask for them back. But all told, I still have about a quarter of the people I've ever worn here."
"...and if their loved ones don't know?"
"Then she'd have set a schedule for herself, or gotten their permission for me to keep them. I daresay you're some friend of hers if you think she throws random people to the wolves. I trust her."
"...so do I," I said.
"Doesn't sound like it."
"Well, I want to trust her."
"But you don't," said the warlock, lowering his voice lest anyone overhear.
"No. I don't. I first found out about her powers when she broke through, and I found out today Danny's still inanimate."
"By choice," he said.
"It is now. It wasn't then." The warlock laughed. "Is that really something to laugh at?" I asked.
He shrugged. "It is now, isn't it?"
"I... guess so..." I said, "but what if he'd tried to go back to his normal life? Hell, what if he did go back to his normal life, and found he couldn't?"
"She broke through. Breakthroughs are always messy."
I took a step back, wondering what he was implying. "I you don't mind my asking, what was yours?"
"I do mind you asking," he said. "But tell me, what do you call a male witch?"
"Um, a wizard – but isn't that offensive?"
The warlock laughed and put a hand on my shoulder. "Good lad. Can you tell me why?" I racked my brain. I knew the word had some nasty historical connotations, but I wasn't sure quite what it was. "Here, I'll make it easier – can you tell me when it's correct?"
"...never?" I said.
"Nope. There's a subclass of warlock for which it is correct."
"No. Well... no. It's used that way, often by the so-called wizards themselves, but you'll royally piss off some of them. The ones I'm thinking of, though, by definition don't exist anymore. It refers to warlocks in a structure where practicing magic as a woman is discouraged or condemned to an extent seen nowhere in the world today."
"So it's offensive because it suggests chauvinism."
"Chauvinism, but moreover, ancient values in general, from a much more grim era. But it's not really the word that suggests that, but our very existence, especially with the perennial myth that only girls actually break through. The word is just a reminder."
"So it becomes a slur."
"Bingo. When I broke through, my mother took all of thirty seconds from finding out to turn me into a girl. S.O.P. Spent the next damn year working my ass off to undo it, neglecting all else, just that. I can't blame her, though - we get along - people don't trust warlocks. I'd guess about a third opt to stay female, and a third pretend to be mundanes. I'm the third third."
I smiled. "That's weirdly inspiring."
"It'll be more inspiring when and if I don't have to say it. But..." he sighed. "...I shouldn't be too much on my high horse. It's a myth that serves an important social purpose, and I should be glad it's out there."
"What do you mean?"
"It was a horrible time, and we can't be too high strung about its consequences today, not when its quieter effects on women still echo."
"Hmm," I said. "I guess that sort of thinking comes up a lot in the mundane world, but I never really thought about it as it affected witches."
The warlock shrugged. "Why would you? Anyway, my name's Dennis."
"So I suppose you want to take me home?" he asked.
"Uh," I said, blushing, "not really... I mean, really not at all... I mean, obviously I've had things with men, I kinda just said so, but it's not really my thing generally."
Dennis gestured toward the woman wearing Danny, sipping her wine, her skin a labial pink sheen, a plastic look, a shape that seemed not quite right. "Go say hi to your boyfriend. His ride's named Leann. But be careful with her. Her, ah, mistress... well, she's a card."
I nodded. "I will." I stepped away. "Wait," he said. "I'm at [address]. If you really are new to this whole thing, you should say hi to me, say, Tuesday night?"
"Sure," I said, and I walked over to Leann. "Hey."
"I kinda know the guy you're wearing."
"Oh," she said. "Miles?"
"Gabriella mentioned me?"
"Yeah... she says you kind of fucked her over."
I winced. "Ah, geez... were those the words she used?"
"...she's right, though."
"How's..." I didn't honestly consider asking "how's her sex life," but I tried to think of a way to say it without saying it. "How's she doing in that regard?"
"Well enough. She invited you, didn't she?"
I turned to look over at Gabriella. Her hat was back on, I think. "Yeah..."
"Don't worry," she said. "You're a tiny part of her life. An insignificant worm."
"Thanks," I said. Leann laughed.
"Well," she said, "my dress seems to like you."
"Oh," I asked, blushing again. "Does he?" I omitted, but thought, the word "still."
"Yeah," she said. She smirked. "Are you blushing?"
I considered trying to deny it. "Yes," I said.
She ran a finger over my cheek. It was odd how warm it felt, despite her rubbery texture. "It's cute," she said.
"How does he feel?"
"I think he wants me to take you home."
I almost said, "really?" but thought better of it. "Well, I agree," I said.
"Well," she sad, "you're as good as anyone." She took my hand, taking me over to where the coats were. She took a talisman from a bowl of them and opened a portal. I asked, "where is this in relation to [my own home]?" The address she gave was quite close, "not that it matters," she said.
"Okay," I said.
"I should leave this; Cassie won't like me wearing him home." In front of all and sundry, she stripped naked.
"Uh..." I looked around for cues. There were a few glances our way, but no one seemed all that bothered. I noticed then, for the first time that evening, that one of the other women, an unaltered human, was naked. She must not have been when I got in - I'd have noticed. She was in a little crowd, not talking to anyone in particular. Maybe she hadn't even been human when I'd arrived.
Through the portal, I looked around. Mannequins, statues, balloons, all women - it frightened me, but I can't say it didn't turn me on a bit. Leann saw me looking around, and she put an arm around me, drawing me to a bedroom. Shortly we had come to bed together.
She pulled my clothes from my body, letting the false magical warmth of her false magical body touch my natural flesh along my legs, along my chest, soon along my cock. She directed my hand to her sex and I teased it as best I could; barely familiar with female anatomy, not at all with rubber anatomy, I did what I could. In time, she had splayed herself against the back of her bed, and I penetrated her, pressing her up up to the head of the bed, again and again, her rubber flesh rubbing against the headboard. At some point it must have caught; she burst, and her bits fluttered to the bed around my nude body. I jumped up.
A woman walked in, dressed like a newspaper caricature of a witch - all black, brimmed hat like Gabriella's in black, sexy as all hell - giving a slow clap. I turned. "Bravo," she said.
I turned and fell onto the bed. "You... you live with her?"
"You must have known... she must have known she'd burst."
"You wanted her to burst... she wanted to burst?"
"...what are you?" I asked, "what's your relationship?" being my intent.
It said something about my attitude to Gabriella that that answer seemed underwhelming. I expect she expected me to be terrified, and with the events a few days before, I should have been, but with Gabriella I had come to see a witch as more a victim of herself than anything else. I expect from her entrance she'd expected me to infer that she was somehow mistress of Leann. I didn't. Still, I did expect she was the reason Leann was what she was.
"So you made Leann this way?"
"I made her my own."
"I've always felt transformation should be a one-way street," she said. I took the scraps of Leann in my hands. "I mean," the witch continued, "I'll stitch her up, of course, and sooner or later probably blow her back up. I might not animate her again for a while, though. I will eventually. None of that counts. But she'll never be human again, nor will any of my other 'pets.'"
"Oh," I said, still fiddling with Leann's pieces. "Okay."
"My name is Cassandra, or Cassie."
"...okay. Ah, mine's Miles."
"I suppose Leann has brought you here to join my collection?"
"Er... for how long?"
"Forever, of course."
"Then you'd best go. Are your clothes here?"
"Then get dressed." I did, and I made for the door.
"Now, I do like to keep things consensual," she said as she ushered me out, "but, well... let's just think of this door like an EULA. The next time you walk through it will be the last time." She put on a massive smile and waved as I left. "That said, come again!"
Thus I escaped Cassie's "clutches," and some time later I kept my appointment with Dennis.
"Oh, hi! Wasn't expecting you see you," he said when he greeted me at the door.
"You invited me."
"Yeah, but when I saw you leaving with one of Cassie's pets I thought that plan - and all your plans - had been very, very cancelled. Or at least revised a fair bit."
"Heh. I got about the same impression at Cassie's, but no, she let me go."
"You didn't want to be transformed?"
"Not permanently, at least. I mean, not Cassie-permanent. Maybe Gabriella-permanent."
"Oh?" he asked.
"...and not by you!" I hastily added.
He smiled. "That wasn't what I was about to ask."
"Then what were you about to ask?"
There was a long pause. "Beer?"
"Was the beer always beer?"
"At one time it was barley. But I only fill my kegs with guests who are present - and I haven't in a while. Too long, come to think of it."
I stopped myself from saying "just don't start with me" - I'd come to trust him enough by then that such protests were starting to feel rude. I could tell that he could tell, however, whether magically or not, that I had stopped myself from responding, and I was fairly sure that, magically or not - well, most likely not - he knew what I had stopped myself saying.
"Familiar got your tongue? No matter. I expect some beer will loosen it up. I'll get you Rachel."
"Rachel?" I asked. Dennis just smiled. "I thought you said the beer wasn't human!"
"Well, sure! But you weren't planning on swigging from the can like some savage, were you?" He teleported away, and returned with two steins in one hand, two different six-packs in the other. "Meet Rachel and Phyllis!"
"...you have a stein named Phyllis?"
"Well, no, actually, his name is Damien. But I really want to find a Phyllis who'll let me turn her into a stein. Lager or stout?"
"Stout." He handed me one of the six-pack, and I held it in one hand, taking "Rachel Stein" in the other. As he opened his lager, he raised an eyebrow at my hesitance to fill the stein I had.
"Here," he said, "gimme that." He took Rachel from my hand and filled her himself. The mug he had been holding then reformed itself into a naked man, thin, vaguely muscled, white, pale, longish dark hair.
"...yeah?" the ex-mug said.
"My drinking buddy's a whiner," said Dennis.
"...'kay," said Damien, as Dennis took a sip.
"So it looks like either I'll have to turn you into a woman named Phyllis, or I'll turn you into a keg of beer," said Dennis.
"But I don't want to be named Phyllis..."
Dennis made a keg appear. "You'd best get in then."
Damien stepped into the keg and began to melt, first his sweat coming down from his flesh, then his skin, soon his entire body dripping into the keg. Dennis drew a draught with the Rachel stein and offered her and him to me.
"Is it... he... it sanitary?" I asked.
I cringed. "We're not harming him, are we?"
"Take a swig and answer that."
I heard something between a moan and a sigh as I took a sip, and he dropped from my hand. Dennis stopped Damien and Rachel from dropping, and took a sip himself. He handed them back to me. The fact that he was having us drink form the same mug I felt brought into question any claim he made regarding hygiene. I took a sip nonetheless, took a deep draught. Dennis smiled, and we shared the rest of the mug.
When the stein was empty, Dennis said, "well, I can't just take Damien back, now. You have to give him to me."
"So how do I do that?"
Dennis's smile grew broader. "You kiss me."
"Um, is that the only way?" I asked.
"Well... let's just say it's the easiest way, the fastest way, and the most fun way."
After a moment, I returned his smile. "All right." And so we kissed.
What more happened or didn't that night is of little relevance, only that on Wednesday, after I had gotten a draft of an essay submitted, I went to meet Gabriella. No soon-to-be-transformees or partygoers at her apartment that evening, just the two of us. She sat on her couch, me in a chair opposite.
"So I heard you were with Dennis last night," she said.
"Part of last night," I said.
"He spoke with me. Told me some things."
"Oh?" I asked.
"He said you were more at ease with what I was."
"Oh," I said, a guilty look coming to my face. "I... well, I guess I am."
"Hey," she said, rubbing my shin with a foot. "It's okay you were nervous. Your two big experiences with witchcraft... neither of them were especially good. I don't envy you at all. All my powers; all your..." she smirked, "impotence. And I'd say I didn't mean it like that, but I do."
I crossed my legs. She laughed. "Same old Miles."
"Same Gabby." She kicked me, laughing.
"Do you want to be a toad?"
"Oh, like you can't think of a better revenge than that."
"That reminds me," she said, "Dennis said something else."
"...that we kissed...?" I asked.
"Oh, no," she said. "Everything in that vein I'd already counted in 'else.' But he told me something besides that..."
With that, she placed her foot against my chest, and where she pressed, I began to feel my skin turn to fabric; I couldn't help but laugh.