Igms issue 3, p.2
IGMS Issue 3, page 2
"We have our secrets," the Regent said.
Howlaa snorted. "Even questing beasts die sometime, Wisp. The snatch-engines probably grabbed the corpse of one." Howlaa was pretending to be unimpressed, but I saw zir hands shake as they took the vial.
Questing beasts were near-legendary apex predators, the only creatures able to hunt extra-dimensional creatures. They could pursue prey across dimensions, grasping their victims with tendrils of math and magic, and chasing them forever, even across branching worlds.
"Wherever the killer disappears to, you'll be able to follow him, once you shift into the skin of a questing beast," the Regent said.
"Yes, I've grasped the implications," Howlaa said.
"Then you've also grasped the possible avenues of escape this skin will provide you," the Regent said. "But if you think of leaving this world for frivolous reasons, or of not returning when your mission is complete, there will be... consequences."
"I know," Howlaa said, squeezing the vial. "That's what my little Wisp is for."
"I will be vigilant, Regent," I said.
"Oh, indeed, I'm sure," the Regent said. "Away, then. Go into the city. The killer seems to favor marketplaces and restaurants, places with a high concentration of victims -- he has appeared in five such locations since yesterday. Take this." He passed Howlaa a misshapen sapphire, cloudy and cracked, dangling on a thin metal chain. "If any civil servant sees the killer, they will notify you through this, and, once you drink the blood of the questing beast, you will be able to 'port yourself to the location instantly."
Howlaa nodded. I would go wherever Howlaa did, for my particulate substance was inextricably entangled with zir gross anatomy. Howlaa uncapped the vial and drank the blood. Zir body, through the arcane processes of the skinshifter race, sequenced the genetic information of the questing beast, the macro-in-the-micro implicit in the blood, and incorporated the properties of the beast. Howlaa shivered, closed zir eyes, swallowed, and whined deep in zir throat. Then, with a little sigh of pleasure, Howlaa opened zir eyes and said, voice only slightly trembling, "Let's go, Wisp. On with the hunt."
The killer did not reappear that day. Howlaa and I went to the Western Outskirts, one of the few safe open spaces in the Ax, so zie could practice being the questing beast. It's dangerous to loiter in empty lots in the city proper, because the royal snatch-engines are configured to look for buildings that can fill available gaps. Thus, a space that is at one moment a weed-filled lot can in another instant be occupied by an apartment building full of bewildered humans, or a plaster-hive of angrily jostled buzz-men, or stranger things -- and anyone who happened to be standing in the empty lot when the building appeared would be flattened. But the Western Outskirts are set aside for outdoor recreations, acre upon acre of playing fields, ramshackle wooden sky-diving platforms, lakes of various liquids for swimming or bathing or dueling, obstacle courses, consensual-cannibalism hunting grounds, and similar public spaces. Howlaa chose an empty field marked off with white lines for some unknown game, and transformed into the questing beast.
As one of the bodiless, dedicated to observation, it shames me to admit I could make little sense of Howlaa's new form; too much of zir body occupied non-visible dimensions. I saw limbs, golden fur, the impression of claws, something flickering that might have been a tail pendulum-swinging in and out of phase, but nothing my vision could settle on or hold. Looking at Howlaa in thisform agitated me. If I had a stomach, I might have found it nauseating.
Howlaa flickered back to female human form and spent some minutes curled on the ground, moaning. "Coming back to this body is a bit of a shock," zie said after a while. "But I think I get the general idea. I can go anywhere just by finding the right trail of scent."
"But you won't go anywhere. You won't try to escape."
Howlaa threw a clod of dirt at me. "Correct, Wisp, I won't. But not because you'd try to stop me -- "
"I would stop you."
"-- only because I don't like being tossed aside in a fight. I'm going to follow this fat bastard, and I'm going to chew on him. You can't lose a questing beast once it gets its claws in you."
"So... now we wait."
"Now you wait. I'm going to drink. One of the advantages of wearing a human skin is that something as cheap and plentiful as alcohol provides such a fine buzz."
"Is this the best time to become intoxicated?" We bodiless have a reputation for being prudish and judgmental, which is not unwarranted. I can never get drunk, can never pleasantly impair my own faculties, and I am resentful of (and confused by) those bodied creatures that can.
"Which time? This time, when I might be killed by a fat man with a golden sword tomorrow? Yes, I'd say that's the best time for intoxication."
The next morning, we went to a den of vile iniquity near the palace. While Howlaa drank, I observed, and listened. I learned that a plague of nightmares was troubling the city center, and many of the bar's patrons had gone to stay with relatives in more far-flung districts in order to get some sleep. At least Howlaa and I wouldn't be called upon to deal with that crisis -- bad dreams were rather too metaphysical a problem for Howlaa's methods to solve.
After a morning of Howlaa's hard drinking, the sing-charm the Regent had given us began to sound. Howlaa was underneath a table, talking to zimself, and seemed oblivious to the gem's keening, though everyone else in the bar heard, and went silent.
"Howlaa," I said, rumbling my voice in zir bones. Howlaa scowled, then skinshifted into a Nagalinda form, becoming instantly sober. Nagalinda process alcohol as easily as humans process water.
"Off we go," Howlaa said, and rushed into the street, transforming into the questing beast once zie was far enough away to avoid inadvertently snagging any of the bar patrons with extra-dimensional tendrils.
We traveled, the city folding and flickering around us, buildings bleeding light, darkness pressing in from odd angles until I was hopelessly disoriented. Seconds later we were in the middle of the Landlock Sea, on a floating wooden platform so large it barely seemed to move. The sea-market nearby was in chaos, fishermen and hunters of various species -- Manipogos, Hydrans, Mhorags, others -- running wildly for boats and bridges or diving into the water to get away from the fat man, who was now armed with a golden trident. He speared people, laughing, and Howlaa went for him and grappled, flashing tendrils wrapping around the fat man's bulk, barely-seen limbs knocking aside his weapon. The fat man stumbled, staggered, and fell to his knees. Howlaa's ferocious lashings didn't penetrate the man's impossibly durable flesh, but at least he'd been prevented from further acts of murder.
Then the man vanished, and Howlaa with him, and I was pulled along in their wake, on my way to wherever the fat man went when he wasn't killing residents of the Ax for sport.
For a moment, I looked down on the Ax, which spun as sedately as a gear in a great machine, and other universes flashed past, their edges blue- and red-shifting as they went by at tremendous speeds, briefly touching the Ax, sparks flying at the contact, the royal snatch-engines making their cross-dimensional depredations. Then we plummeted into an oncoming blur of blue-green-white, and after a period of blackness, I found myself in another world.
"Wisp," Howlaa hissed as I came back into focus. I had never been unconscious before -- even my "sleep" is just a blessed respite from sensory input, not a loss of consciousness -- and I did not like the sensation. Our passage from the Ax to this other plane had agitated my particles so severely that I'd lost cohesion, and, thus, awareness.
Now that my faculties were in control of me again, I saw a star-flecked night sky above, and Howlaa in human-female form, crouching by bushes beside a brick wall. I did not see the fat man anywhere.
"What -- " I began.
"Quiet," Howlaa whispered, looking around nervously. I looked, but saw nothing to worry about. Grass, flowerbeds, and beside us a single-story brick house of a sort sometimes seen in the blander sections of the Middling Residential District. "The fat man got away," Howlaa said. "Only he ac
"Perhaps the legends exaggerate the beast's powers," I said.
"Perhaps you'd best shushit and listen, Wisp. There's an open window just over there, and I can almost hear..."
I did not have to settle for almost. I floated above the bushes a few feet to the window, which opened onto a bedroom occupied by two humans, neither of them the fat man. The man and woman were both in bed, illuminated by a single bedside lamp. The man, who was pigeon-chested and had thinning hair, gestured excitedly, and the woman, an exhausted-looking blonde, lay propped on one elbow, looking at him through half-closed eyelids.
I listened, and because Howlaa is (I grudgingly admit) better at data analysis than I am, I let zir listen, too, by extending a portion of my attenuated substance down toward zim, a probing presence that Howlaa sensed and accepted. My vision blurred, and sounds took on strange echoes, but then I found my focus and stopped picking up residuals of Howlaa's sensory input -- but zie would see and hear everything as clearly as I did.
"It's amazing," the man was saying. "They get more real all the time. I know you think it's stupid, but lucid dreaming is amazing, I'm so glad I took that seminar. It's like living a whole other life while I'm asleep!"
"What did you do this time?" She leaned back and closed her eyes.
The man hesitated. "I was in a sort of fish-market. There were fish-people, mermaids, selkies, things like that, and ordinary people, too, all buying and selling things. There was a lake, or an inland sea, and we were all on a wooden platform floating on the water..."
"You get seasick just stepping over a puddle," she said.
He looked at her, mouth a tense line, eyes narrowed, and I think if she had seen his expression she would have leapt from the bed in fear for her life. Unless long association with this man had dulled her awareness to the dark currents in him I saw so clearly.
"My dream body doesn't get sick," he said. "It's part of my positive visualization technique. My dream body is impervious to harm."
"And I bet you look like a movie star, too."
Another hesitation, this one accompanied by a troubled frown. "Something like that."
I wondered what his dream self really looked like -- his father? An old enemy? A figure from a childhood nightmare that he could not escape, but was eventually able to embody?
He continued. "The only problem is, I can't seem to control where I go. The teacher at the seminar said that was the best part, being able to go to the mountains or the beach or outer space as easily as thinking it. But I just find myself in this city full of strange people and creatures, and..."
"Do you sleep with any of those strange people?" she asked.
"No. It's not like that."
"What good's having control of your dreams if you can't wish yourself into an erotic dream? Seems like that would be the best part."
"I want to go back to sleep," he said. "I want to try again."
"You don't have to ask my permission. I was sleeping fine until you sat up and started yelling. Doesn't sound like lucid dreaming is doing you much good -- you're still having nightmares."
"The nightmares are different now," he said. "I'm in control." But she just turned over and pulled the sheet up to her neck.
"He's the fat man," Howlaa said, speaking silently into me, able to share thoughts as easily as we shared senses. "He goes to the Ax in his dreams, and he kills us for pleasure. That's why the questing beast couldn't hold the killer, why he melted away, because he has no substance beyond the borders of the Ax."
"Madness," I said, though Howlaa's intuitive leaps had proven right more often than my resultant skepticism.
"No, I think I've figured it. The Regent has consulted with many oneiromancers, lucid dreamers, and archetype-hunters over the years -- I know, because I was sent to kidnap and press-gang many of them into civil service. I never knew why he wanted them before. I think that, with the Regent's help, the royal orphans have constructed a machine to steal dreams. A dream engine, that grabs mental figments and makes them real. But they locked on to this mad man's dream, and now his dream-self will keep coming, and killing, until this world spirals too far from the Ax for the engine to reach, which could take years."
"A dream engine," I repeated. "The activity of such a machine might explain the plague of nightmares in the city center."
"I doubt the Regent would worry overmuch about properly shielding any strange radiations," Howlaa said. "This is a new low for him. It's not enough that he grows rich through the orphan's thefts -- now he wants to pillage our dreams, too."
The man lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. Despite his words, he did not seem eager to sleep again. If Howlaa was right, the man had just been chased out of his fantasy of infinite strength by the monstrous questing-beast, which would be enough to give any dreamer pause.
"If you're right, we have to kill him," I said.
"Or not," Howlaa said.
Howlaa severed our connection, swirling my motes, and so it took me a moment to realize zie was transforming into the questing beast again -- and I knew why. To jump away from this world, to another plane, adjacent to this one but not necessarily adjacent to the Ax. A few dimensional leaps, a little time, and Howlaa would be far beyond the Ax's influence, beyond the grasp of even the greatest snatch-engines.
But I still had a chance, this brief moment between transformations, to strike, and I did. I performed the one act that Howlaa could not resist, the power I was given permission to use only in circumstances as extreme as these.
I took possession of Howlaa's body.
Howlaa fought, and I batted zir efforts aside, then simply reveled in having a body, especially a body as sensitive as the questing beast's, seeing into higher dimensions, seeing colors that only exist between worlds. I wanted to fly through suns, roll across jagged stones, immerse myself in lava, feel feel feel this forever.
Howlaa was laughing at me, a tinny internal sound. "Shushit," I said, not speaking aloud. I didn't even know if this body had vocal cords. "You didn't escape. You failed. We're going to kill this man, and then return to the Ax."
"Go on then," Howlaa said. "Best of luck."
I attempted to take a step forward, and everything blurred. My head rang with odd chimes, and bizarre scents assailed me. I had never been in a body so sensitive to smell -- each scent was like a line attached to me, tugging me in one direction or another. I paused, and the chaos of sensory input lessened. I took another step toward the dream-killer's window, and this time a whole new set of sensations struck me, making me fall to the ground.
"This form will not do," I said.
"Why not? Because you have no finesse, Wisp? Because you can control gross motor functions, but the intricacies are lost to you? In the questing beast's form, even the most trivial movement is intricate. Then why not take another form, a simpler one?"
I felt rage -- glandular rage, pumping up from somewhere in this body, a biological response to a mental state. I never get used to that, the feedback loop of mind and body that the corporeal undergo constantly, and I tried to dismiss its effects. I couldn't shift into another form. That was far too intricate a task for my understanding of how to control a body. If Howlaa had been in a human form, I could have broken into the man's house, stabbed him with a knife, and walked out again -- such simple physical manipulation was within my powers. But as the questing beast...
"We have reached an impasse," I said.
"And what do you propose?"
"Kill this man," I said. "And I will not report your attempt to escape."
Howlaa laughed. "Oh, please, don't report me. What will they do? Sentence me to another lifetime of servitude?"
"Just kill him! That's why we came."
"I came to kill an invulnerable fat man with the golden weapons, Wisp, not a mentally disturbed human in his bed."
"They are not the same. This man is mad, but he is not the killer -- he simply dreams of killing."
"But... his dreams are evil..."
"You would hold us responsible for our dreams now? If so, I am a regicide a thousand times over, for in my dreams, I rip the Regent and his orphans to wet bits every night. The Regent is the guilty party in this -- he has made a machine that steals dreams, and he brought the killer to our city."
"What do you recommend?"
"Fixing this problem at the source. Which is what I was trying to do when you so rudely possessed me."
"You were trying to escape." I said.
"No, Wisp, I was trying to return to Nexington-on-Axis. Sorry I didn't consult you -- my understanding was that you're an observer, here to lend me support."
"I am here to make sure you serve your duty," I replied, wondering if zie was telling the truth.
"I will. But my duty is not to the Regent. I serve the welfare of Nexington-on-Axis. Come, Wisp, and I'll show you I do have a sense of responsibility. Such a strong one, in fact, that I won't kill an innocent madman for the Regent's crimes."
I gave up control of Howlaa's body, and with more shifting, we returned to the Ax.
We appeared in the Regent's private chambers, which should have been impossible, as there were safeguards against teleportation there. The Regent sat in a wingback chair, holding a ledger in his lap, and he raised his eyebrows when we appeared.
Howlaa shifted to female human form, only swaying a bit on zir feet in the aftermath of being the beast. "Huh," zie said. "I wondered if that would work. It's said nothing can stop a questing beast from coming and going as it pleases."
"Mmm," the Regent said. "I trust you solved our problem, and disposed of the fat man? I'll see you get something extra in your next pay allotment. Now, go away. I'm busy." He looked back down at his ledger.
Howlaa cleared zir throat. "Regent. I require your assistance in the fulfillment of my duties."
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