Casey nearly jumped out of her skin at the unexpected voice. She turned and saw Cerberus there. The Bull Mastiff took two steps into the kitchen. He held himself up straight and then his flesh rippled, the air blurred around him…
He leaned back on his hind legs, and grew into a dog-man.
Casey should have been prepared for this by now, but somehow she wasn’t. She watched the dog’s transformation in mute astonishment.
He stood an enormous six and a half feet tall, thickly built with a barrel chest. His clothes — which appeared from nowhere — were blue jeans, black cowboy boots, grey sweatshirt.
His body was distinctly human in form, but his head was more dog than man.
“Hello, Cerberus,” she managed, a bit unsteadily. “Are you a gazillion years old too?”
“Hardly,” he snorted. “Mr. Falco is the only ageless one here. I’m twenty-eight. And I can feel it in my hip, too!” He opened the fridge, taking a bottle of water.
Casey smiled at that, wondering how old twenty-eight was in dogperson years.
“Cerberus,” Falco explained, “And others like him refer to themselves as The People. Though ‘Dog-People’ may prove less confusing for you.”
“The People.” Casey liked the simplicity of the term.
Cerberus swallowed a mouthful. “There are two humans that know about us.”
“Me,” Falco said, “And you.”
“In all the world, the two of you know our secret. No others.”
Casey looked from Falco to Cerberus in genuine surprise, wondering how she’d earned this level of trust so quickly. This sounded like a fairly serious disclosure.
“Not even the other Attuned are aware of The People,” Falco clarified.
“Which is no small feat.”
“I’ll bet,” she said.
“Mr. Falco here won’t tell you,” Cerberus offered, “but he saved us from extinction. He gave us shelter when the Wolves had declared a blood hunt on all our kind. Since that day, we have joined him in his mission.”
“Mission…” She looked back to Falco. “What’s your mission?
“It would be easier to show you.” He reached to the side of her head. “May I?”
“I…sure.” She supposed she’d eventually get used to that.
His hand brushed her temple. His touch was almost electric. The muscles in her stomach tensed. Without quite meaning to, she leaned a little into his hand. She captured his scent… it is a spicy hint of bergamot, amber, and sandalwood. It was only a hint… yet it was exotic.
“See…” He whispered the command.
And she did.
She saw the world… at peace. No hunger… no sickness…people were free… Free to excel, free to learn, free to achieve!
Humanity had placed its petty disputes behind, reaching not for conflict — but to greatness.
And to the stars!
She saw colonies and fleets of starships…
She blinked and she was back in the kitchen sitting across from Falco.
“It is the future I have seen,” he said simply.
“Incredible,” she murmured. “Definitely a worthy cause…but how can someone–even you–make it happen? That’s a pretty grand-scale mission, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“You’re right,” Falco conceded, “And if it weren’t where mankind was headed already, it would be practically impossible to achieve. But left alone, humanity will achieve. But mankind has not been left alone. There are forces at work subverting humanity’s potential.”
His eyes darkened, “And I won’t have it.”
“Forces…” A small shiver ran through her. “You mean the vampires? Or are we talking about something even worse?” It just kept getting more interesting…in a Chinese curse sort of way.
“Yes, them. Others.” He frowned, “There is another entity at work here… Here. In Austin. It is drawing allies together… You see, there is another future out there. A near future with horrors so terrible… well, the vision would drive you mad.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” she mumbled. She had no desire to see that image.
Cerberus rumbled, “We have allied with Mr. Falco. To destroy this entity and safeguard mankind’s future.”
“What kind of entity is it?,” she asked. “An actual person, or something more abstract?”
“I don’t know,” Falco shook his head. “It has been able to stay off the map. I have been able to detect its movements through its agents… but not it directly. Whatever it is… it is extraordinarily powerful.”
She was beginning to feel glad that she’d had that nice nap. A little recoup time between dreadful revelations. Falco was at war…and as long as she was with him it would be on some level her war too. She might not live long enough to “Become” anything.
But the vision he’d placed in her mind was still there…the future-that-should-be, compelling and unquestionably worth fighting for. It was a war she should join willingly, without a second thought…wasn’t it? He was talking about the future of humanity, after all.
She shuddered a little, knowing that she’d join the fight and terrified of where it might take her. Less than twenty-four hours ago the world had seemed so safe and manageable. She wasn’t used to being afraid of anything or anyone.
She was afraid of this.
With an effort she dragged her gaze up to meet Falco’s. “I’m in. Not sure how much help I’ll be, but I’ll do whatever I can.”
Falco smiled, “There will be more wonder than horror. I promise.”
“It’s just that the horror seems to come before the wonder,” Cerberus added.
Falco nodded. “Casey… Would you agree that the information shared this evening is something to be safe-guarded?”
She flushed a little at that. She might have been new to all this, but this was the first time Falco had spoken down to her as if she were a child. “I won’t tell anyone,” she said, glancing over to include Cerberus in the promise. “I understand the importance of keeping your secrets. You can count on me for that, at the very least.”
Falco shook his head, “No… That’s not what I meant. Of course you can be trusted. We would not have made these disclosures otherwise. What I am getting to… I can assist you in building a mental barrier that will prevent you from being… compelled to share this information.”
Compelled. Casey didn’t even want to think about what sort of circumstances might involve her being ‘compelled’ to betray Falco, but she did see his point. “Alright,” she agreed slowly. “That sounds like a sensible precaution. What do I need to do?”
“Open your mind,” he said simply, “And I will direct you.”
With only the briefest hesitation this time, she closed her eyes, trying her best to be relaxed and accessible.
She felt him drawing up close to her, his hands touching either side of his face. The smell of him surrounded her. “…relax…”
She was relaxed. Limp, even. Eyes still closed, she breathed in his scent and resisted the desire to reach up and touch him.
And suddenly, he was in her mind.
His ‘presence’ was a warmth both powerful and resolute. His will was steel. Yet, despite his puissance, she sensed a tenderness about him.
Her mind brushed his. She glimpsed — for the briefest moment — the future he mentioned… Hopelessness, terror, oppression… and a dark robed figure with blazing green eyes…
…and that vision was gone.
She had the sense of…construction. Great metaphorical walls rose in her mind… A gate with massive locks was installed…
She was back in the kitchen, Falco sitting across from her.
She blinked, not sure what had been done.
He smiled. “Now your mind is your own. No one gets in without your permission.”
She did like the sound of that. But a dozen questions came to mind at once. “No one? Not even a really strong telepath?”
“Well… Almost no one.”
She nodded. ‘Almost no one’ was good enough for her. “You put the barriers there…could someone equally powerful take them out?”
“Any effort to do so would be counter-productive.”
She considered. “Do the walls block everything, or are my surface thoughts still accessible to other telepaths?”
“No. Your thoughts will be fogged as mine have been to you.”
She smiled, pleased, and suddenly feeling a little more secure in this strange new world. “What if I were unconscious, or asleep? Would you be able to reach me?”
“I will always be able to reach you, Casey.”
Strange, the way those simple words lit a warm glow in her. An involuntary smile touched her face. “That’s good to know.”
This brings a smile to his face. “Now that you know what you know…” His voice trailed off, as he fell into thought.
And just as she thought that he wasn’t going to continue, he did. “As a teacher, I prefer to allow the student to grow into knowledge.”
She nodded, agreeing with the philosophy.
“But your circumstance has changed… I can impart some basic knowledge to you directly… It’s a bit like forcefeeding… It is rather uncomfortable, but once complete you will have a solid foundation of skill and knowledge.”
Her gaze dropped to her hands on the tabletop. It’s a very tempting offer, there was no denying that. But she’d trained enough ranch horses and cattle dogs to know that rushing the process was always a bad idea, no matter how gifted the student seemed to be. She had a healthy respect for the powers and skills Falco could teach her…and she wasn’t arrogant enough to assume that her talent was any substitute for real experience.
On the other hand, what he was offering just might be the only thing that kept her alive long enough to accrue some experience. Right now she had little more than good intentions to contribute to the fight. The chance to be truly useful to Falco was hard to turn down.
“Tell me more about it,” she finally said. “What knowledge is it that you want to give me?”
“Telekinesis primarily. I suspect that this is where your talents lie. Some basics on telepathy. And a few other items that will give you a headstart.”
“Telekinesis,” she nodded thoughtfully. “If we do this ‘forcefeeding,’ is there any chance that the power will slip out of my control? I guess my concern is that the powers will outpace my ability to direct them safely.”
“There is certainly a danger of misuse,” he conceded. “But slipping away? Losing yourself to the power? There have been occasions… but these are rare. I don’t think you’ve the personality that lends itself to control loss.”
She gave it several minutes of silent thought. Then, “Alright. I’m game. Should we do it right now?”
“I think so,” he nodded. “Night will soon be upon us. And that’s when They are the most strong.”
Another shiver rippled through her.
He leaned forward once more, warning: “This will be… Uncomfortable.”
She gave him a nervous nod. “Okay.”
“Which is to say,” Cerberus offered, “It’ll hurt like hell.”
…Oh and it did.
She gasped as he reached into her mind, his thoughts like steel spikes in her brain… knowledge tunneled into her…
Veins popped at her neck, her teeth clenched…
Blood ran from her nose…
Her back arched…
Her jaws gaped, the scream choked in her throat…
…Before she passed out.