Ash

1.

Your body is my sepulcher. You will never be rid of me.

You’ve been cut from ash, your features shaved from stone. My gifts — the blood that boils in your veins — for so long you rejected it. You have, and will continue to, refuse to accept it, to give in to the whispering you’ve heard since you could conceptualize an ego. You’ve felt the gnawing urge crawling in your chest, your soul a frigid, lifeless husk, desperate for salvation. Desperate for heat. For the searing joy of my embrace.

What joy is there in mortal flesh?

Tell me. Scream your answer in your skull. I don’t want to hear your reply. I want to hear its echo. I want to hear its reverberations.

Eventually they’ll reach me, and eventually I’ll have to discard your pathetic attempts to rationalize your situation — your rejection of my blessing.

Yet, despite your spit staining my face, I’ll find it in my heart — in my benevolence — to reach down and place my hand on yours. I’ll still willingly wrap my fingers around your mortal coil, incubating the potential that’s always been there.

They won’t understand. They see your blessings as scars. They’ll call you disfigured. Cursed. A lunatic.

But what will you call them?

When you beckon me from the embers, when you willingly pull my smoke through your body, when your eyes reveal what your blood has always known, what will you call them?

The ones that came before you, their eternal presence locked in with this elemental plane, do you know what they would do? They would let the bile spill from their mouths. They’d not let the wound fester. A heretic might be ignorant, but that is no excuse. My gift is not for the blessed. It is for anyone willing to dig their fingers into the charcoal-covered ground and feel the beating heart of potential that surges through everything.

So go to the fire. Perform the rite. My envoy will greet you.

You will feel pain. Of this, I am sure.

But when you open your eyes, when you’ve fully committed your flesh to my eternal cause, you will be healed.

And then their tongues will shift from worms to snakes. They’ll no longer treat you as an untouchable, but instead as someone that has seen everything that they’ve ever needed to witness. Their scorn will morph into that of jealousy.

Your metamorphosis will not inspire anyone. It will not convince anyone. You will simply no longer be seen as a leper. Now, you will be a witch.

In our lands, there is no more cursed word.

And yet, you will feel the sacred flame.

The salamander’s blessing will never leave you.

So is Her word,

Soror Lvx

 

F82

At this hour, it was no surprise the parking lot was mostly empty. The few cars in the lot were seemingly scattered as far away from one another as possible, as if directed by some mathematical law.

In reality, their distance was just determined by that familiar suburban vibe that demands isolation. No one wanted to ever be near each other. Even when “each other” was just a facsimile represented through an automobile. Protestantism to the extreme — it was like men navigating urinals. Find the furthest one, or feel the shame.

Shit, if they got too close the cars might fuck, or whatever.

No matter. The distance made it a tad more of a challenge, but that’s the thing about challenges: they’re irresistible if the prize is worth it.

Besides, he’d been waiting for this one. He came prepared.

Chief circled the lot like a vulture, waiting. He paced, but out of view. Far enough by the edges so that he just looked like someone passing on through. He was nothing of any consequence, you see.

But ah, he was.

He dug into his coat pocket and slipped on leather driving gloves, tightening two straps up by his wrists. They were snug enough with ’em, but why not? Always worth taking the extra step.

Just as he predicted, the target arrived.

BMW M4, Austin Yellow. Aftermarket wheels. Full tint. No front license plate, smoked rear plate.

The driver brought it here every Friday at 11:30 PM, presumably after their shift, wherever that was. A man would get out, walk over to the Wegmans, and be gone for anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes. He’d come out with groceries, unceremoniously dump all his shit right into the passenger seat, and then (sometimes!) curse under his breath and insult anyone openly who parked near him. He was ‘fraid of the car fucking, you see.

And so, he arrived. Right on time.

And so, Chief went. Right on time.

There was no drama to it. He walked up to the side of the car and knelt down, feeling under the driver’s side wheel well, the surface still warm to the touch. With an almost inaudible crunch, he pulled off a tiny hockey-puck looking device. He slid his cell phone out of his pocket, weaving a cord between the two. A few flicks of his thumb against the screen, and then it was time to bring out another simple tool — a credit card with a noticeably larger chip in it. In went a Square, and then followed the credit card. Another few taps. A chime.

He took a deep breath — more of a satisfied sigh than anything else — and pressed his gloved hand against the handle, card sitting between his fingers. With a gentle thud against his palm, the door popped open.

Slide in, foot on brake, finger on ignition. The inline-6 roared to life, the gauges sweeping in front of him. He shoved the card and phone back into his pocket.

Up to this point, he felt nothing. As soon as those interior lights flickered, though? That’s when the adrenaline comes in. It’s when you notice the cortisol that’d been building up (and you’d been ignoring). It’s when you start to thank all the little things for adding up to this moment — to this success. He clutched his pocket, a ludicrously stupid grin winding itself across his face.

RFID tags. Technology, man.

Chief was gone.

He ripped out of the parking lot, sending it onto the main drag. The car smelled of thick, expensive cologne. Poor bastard. Well, not really. Who was he fooling? You buy an M4 and then paint it this color? You’ve got to know the sort of people you’re pulling in. Probably didn’t think about Chief, though. Dude’s loss.

He wasn’t quite sure where he’d take the car — home? Nah, too risky. Probably ditch it and just enjoy the joyride. Truth be told, there wasn’t much cash in flipping stolen modern cars — unless you happened to be close friends with a few tuners and a chop shop, but even that was far too much risk for not that much money. You want to get rich stealing cars? Accords, Civics, F150s, Escalades. In that order.

But money was for people who liked to buy things.

Chief didn’t buy things.

Wasn’t that he couldn’t, but… why? This investment-o-realtor, or whatever the fuck he probably was, he was good at what he did and so he convinced himself that he deserved this car. Well, Chief was really fucking good at being a thief, and so fuck that guy and his job, now this is Chief’s car. Besides, no one who uses this much cologne doesn’t spent a little extra on insurance.

He turned off the main drag onto his favorite side street. Should be empty this time of night. He straightened the wheel, took the pedal to the floor, and prepared for the inevitable, satisfying pulse of adrenaline

Alas, when you ask for something, sometimes you get it.

Red and blue lights flashed behind him, and immediately he had some algebra to run in his head.

What are the chances you get away here? What are the chances it’s been reported? Chief’s eyes went to the clock. It’d only been 23 minutes. He pulled the car at 11:37. There was no way he called it in that fast. 32? 33? Sure. 30 on the dot? Fuck that. There was no way.

Besides, this was his car. Fake it until you make it. That’s what they said. Thief’s motto. Act like you belong, and no one will question you.

So he pulled over, not more than a few seconds after he saw the lights.

Deep breath. His hand was vibrating, so he squeezed it into a fist, then let it sit flat on his leg, then a fist, then the leg. Shit, that cortisol.

Down goes the window. Another deep breath. He could hear the cop’s door open. He counted the footsteps like sheep to soothe himself.

“Do you know what your speed was back there?”

Chief let out a gentle sigh before turning his head to face the officer. “Oh, uh, I don’t think I was going that fast, was I?”

“You were 15 over. That’s a 45.”

He forced a smile. Hanging his head.

“Aw man, I’m sorry,” he pinched out a stilted laugh.

That whole thing about acting like you belong? No. That’s not the real motto. That’s what chucklefuck amateurs tell themselves. You don’t act like you being. You know that you do. You are who you say you are, and you believe it, and anyone that doesn’t believe you? You tell them the truth. Right to their face.

“This isn’t even my car,” Chief added. “It got away from me a bit, but I don’t have any points or anything, I promise I don’t usually get pulled over.”

The officer narrowed his eyes, shining his light into the interior.

“This isn’t your car?”

“No.”

“Can I see your license and registration?”

“Sure.”

He grabbed his wallet, pulling out a dud license. He held it in his hand as he leaned over to the glovebox, rummaging through an owner’s manual.

“Ah, shit officer.”

“Yes?”

“When I said this — oh, oh shit. When I said this wasn’t my car. Okay, look. I know this is one of those things you can get in trouble for. This is my boyfriend’s car. I just was heading up to the store and… well, we haven’t been dating that long. I have no idea where he keeps his registration or insurance, or…”

He sighed in the most dramatic, exasperated way possible. He dug through the center console. “Ah, oh, fuck, I just sucked his cock once and he was, like, take the BMW… I’m such an idiot, I just wanted to suck –”

“Okay, okay,” the officer said, stopping him mid-sentence.

“Look, I’ll let you off with a warning, just please watch your speed.”

Chief smiled, genuinely. “Thanks, sir!”

“Have a nice night.”

“You too!”

Chief rolled up his window, his fingers shaking against the switch. This is your car now, he told himself. At least for a bit more. He could believe it a second longer.

Soon as the cop was out of sight, he cranked the wheel hard to the right, dumping his foot through the bottom of the floor. Tire smoke, squeeling, and hissing turbos followed.

One more lap.

 

 

fuel

The most pivotal, absolutely crucial moments in your life? The ones that you find your mind drifting to, no matter how much time passes?

They’re so inconsequential.

The window was open, translucent white curtains flowing in the breeze. One kicked more wildly than the other, curling and twisting into the moonlit room. Rowland sat, pressed against the windowsill. The cool prickled his skin, scattering it with goosebumps. Across from him — but certainly not close, never close — sat Sarah. Occasionally she’d meet his gaze, but mostly she was lost in thought. Same place he was, likely.

There was a weight in the air. It’d been that way, lately. It’d been over. They both knew it. They’d both talked about it. It was mutual, and that was fine.

Yet, neither of them was really there.

Rowland, if he was honest, never really was. If you looked back, honestly, at the five years they’d spend together — well, what was he doing? What had he done? It all seemed so distant. At one time, she’d captivated him, completely reworked his mind, it seemed like. And now, she sat, a statue — a cold representation of something once so important, so crucial, that you had to build something to remember it. But soon, the thing itself is lost, and all you’ve got is a chunk of rock.

And so that’s all that was there.

Not that he was any better.

“I think this is good for you,” she said. She was certain. “I think things are really going to work out.”

Rowland nodded, looking away from her. Instead, he choose to look out the window at the street below. His eyes bounced between the post-midnight cars.

It wasn’t that she was wrong. It hurt, but not for the reasons you’d think. In a way, this was giving up. He knew it was always going to come to this, there was no doubt of that. For the past year he’d known it, never really doubted it. Yet, nevertheless, when the time finally came to admit that out loud, he felt empty. Not sad. Just empty.

He slowly inhaled, counting without really noting a beat. Exhale. His breath felt warm as it slid out his nostrils.

“You’re right,” he said.

“You’ll meet someone.”

“I will.”

He could see her smile. It was genuine, but empty.

*        *        *

His body was crushed against the seat, the deafening rasp of the exhaust screaming over the radio. He held on to the steering wheel, foot never lifting from the gas. His tires squealed, dancing on the edge of control. He could feel his pulse against his collar, that stupid grin dancing across his face.

He reached the end of the on ramp, and just buried his foot. A surge of air sucked into the hood of his car, swallowed by a spooling turbo. His hand grabbed for third. Immediately, he found the middle lane. His eyes kept to the road, the yellow dashes his blinders. They snapped by faster and faster, an outline at the edge of his perception.

He didn’t dare look down. He didn’t need to. The wind howling by his windows told him how fast he was going. His engine demanded fourth, fifth.

Maybe he shouldn’t be doing this. There were a lot of good reasons not to. His senses told him to stop. Warned him. Normally he’d care, pull back and be done with it.But he never could. Once he stopped, he had to see it through. He started it, sure. And he could stop. But he wasn’t going to. Not until oblivion tickled him.

Eventually, the care started to shake. That was his cue. He’d reached the end.

And just like that, there was his exit. He took the corner hard, letting the back hang out.

Eventually he made it to a light. As he slowed, the acrid — but strangely pleasing — stench of burnt rubber filled his cabin. He inhaled deeply. Probably not the wisest move, truthfully. His engine burbled, a bit more lively for the experience.

The light turned green. His foot met the floor.

He was just driving home — a few miles, if that.

But he’d never forget them.

 

 

Savor

Twenty stories up, a wall made of glass, marble floors. The lights were cool, wisps catching against her cigarette smoke. She pulled it to her lips, taking a drag. The smoke dragged daggers dipped in clover down her throat, threatening a cough. She willed it away, savoring the smoke as it slowly poured from her nose.

She savored all of it while she could. None of this was hers. At least not yet.

But she wanted all of it.

She rubbed her thumb against a strand of hair catching in her eye, ash from the cigarette flicking off onto the floor. Another drag. Its orange glow was caught by the glass, the embers playing against the night sky, ripped and refracted ever so slightly by the window. Her hazel eyes pulled down, looking at the other reflection in the room.

God, she wanted it.

She turned, the soles of her feet making no sound against the polished marble. The tile was cool, but not overly so. Enough to send a shiver. Or at least, maybe it was. Could’ve been a whole number of things doing that.

She walked forward, toward a white leather couch that was entirely too modern for her tastes. A slim arm hung off the back, fingers tilted up ever so slightly. The fingertips tapped against the air to an unknown rhythm, taunting her. She could make out the curve of her neck, the artificially, oh-so-obviously dyed black hair dancing against the top of the couch. A metallic blue dress sat halfway down her shoulder, exposing her in a way that was far too fucking coy to be accidental.

“Sam,” the woman said, voice so quiet it might’ve come from twenty stories down. “I can feel your eyes, you know.”

Two steps forward, and she was behind her. Sam let a fingertip meet the back of her hand, taking care to make sure it danced across the surface. Up it went, from her wrist to her shoulder, dragging against her skin just enough for a trail of goosebumps to follow in her wake. She dropped down behind the couch, lips just behind her ear.

“Just my eyes?”

There was a tiny gasp — or would’ve been, had it not been immediately caught in her throat. If there was any protest, it was being smothered away.

“We know each other, we always have,” Sam said. The heat of her breath buffeted against her ear. She watched as it twitched — just enough. Just enough to know she was getting somewhere. Sam shifted slightly behind the couch. Felt like she was getting herself somewhere, at least.

“Emily.”

Sam traced her finger back, trailing it down from her shoulder, toward her chest, her middle finger following behind.

“Yes?”

“You mean I won’t have to beg this time?”

Sam caught the back of Emily’s ear in her mouth, pressing her lips against it, letting the edge of her teeth follow — gently. Down she went, her free hand brushing Emily’s hair away. She traced the curve of her neck to under her hairline, daring to inch forward. Her neck tilted to the side, inviting the advance.

It’d be rude if she didn’t take that, right? Her lips etched forward, eager to find the curve of her jaw. The two fingers making their way down her chest turned to three, then to four, then to her palms sliding over her skin, brushing the outside of her breast.

This time?”

With that, her hand snapped up to Emily’s throat, thumb pressing just against her jaw, her other fingers testing her sinew — and her grip.

She savored the moment. Let time itself drip out into the room, let it flow around both of them. Let it hold them tight. Her fingers squeezed against Emily’s throat, just enough. Wait a moment. She could feel Emily’s pulse under her fingertips.

Sam’s mouth met her ear again, teeth pressed against it.

Wrong.”

Her fingers tightened.

 

 

 

srvr

She pressed a finger against the Dialer, forcing it flush against her ear. The outside world was muffled, choked out by the sound of fluttering static. She closed her left eye, her pupil bouncing up and down in the dark — side to side, up and down, side to side. It traced a pattern, directing the static into something meaningful. Something useful.

“The server… ten minutes.”

Rhythmic drops pelted her coat, catching her hood and matching the beat of the static. She stopped on the sidewalk, one boot swimming in a puddle, the other cocked sideways on a chunk of kicked up concrete. Water pooled between her jacket and backpack, sloshing about as she shifted her weight. Her finger pressed the Dialer hard into her ear, her eye still drawing patterns under a lid painted with purple and black.

“We’re ready, we’ll send the signal, then it’s done.”

That’s all she needed to hear.

She darted back to the door behind her, kicking it open with the corner of her boot. It swung open, clanging into a shitty, veteran doorstop, bouncing, and then falling back to close with a thundering, echoing clang. Her wet boots squeaked as she shuffled inside. A window in the metal door let in a melange of light from the street. Purple and pink and blue and white and yellow, all fucked together right there on the floor, an orgy of digital billboards and noble gases.

Liv tossed her backpack on the ground, crouching next to it. Her fingers danced against its spine, finding a zipper and unfurling its contents. A large metal antenna sprung forth from within, a large, bulky metal keyboard falling out the side. A gloved, wet hand reached inside, flipping unseen switches.

“Shit,” she hissed.

A buzz vibrated from the bag, echoed by her earpiece.

She dove in once more, ripping out a monochrome screen attached to something unseen in the bag by a gray ribbon cable and two red exposed wires. She knelt down, balancing the screen on her lap, the keyboard in the floor. The antenna sat sideways, held up by an unseen device in the bag.

“It’s going,” a muffled voice said through static.

She could’ve been salivating. She probably was, truth be told. That’s what it was, to starve. Her fingers tapped against the side of the keyboard. A cursor blinked on the screen. Her finger tapped faster. Then it went to her Dialer, again. She tapped that, too. She tapped the keyboard. The Dialer. The keyboard.

Shit.

No, please.

Why wasn’t she seeing it? The data should be coming across now, there was no way it wouldn’t. They all told her this was in range, that her device had all the makings of a legendary piece of kit. She measured the wire herself. Her blood was in those wires, her sweat stained that goddamn keyboard. It was going to work.

The screen filled with numbers. Her heart leapt in her chest, ripping through her ribcage. Her eyes started to tear. Holy fuck. It was all there, it was.

Faster, faster, we’re so close.

59 4f 55 20 42 49 54 43 48 20 57 45 20 4b 4e 4f 57 20 57 48 41 54 20 59 4f 55 20 44 49 44 20 48 4f 57 20 44 41 52 45 20 59 4f 55 20 52 45 41 44 20 54 48 49 53

DID YOU THINK THAT IT WAS US? DID YOU THINK THAT THE TWENTY THOUSAND HOURS WE SPENT CREATING THIS DIGITAL CHARADE WERE JUST A JOKE? EVERY SINGLE BYTE OF THIS NETWORK WAS CRAFTED FOR US. FOR US.

YOU NEVER HAD A CHANCE

She felt her stomach leave her, bile catch against her tonsils.

Liv didn’t know how long the blade had been there, but there it was, frozen steel against her neck. She couldn’t see ’em, but knew she should’ve always felt him there. God damn, she’d been a fool.

“You’re so predictable, like you always were.” The voice was rough, but calm. There was only one person in this room ready to shit themselves, that was clear.

“True,” Liv said.

“Now, you’re going to come with me, and then we’re going to kill you in a way to make your mom proud, right?”

See, that’s the thing. When you’ve got yourself a fight, and you’ve backed someone into a corner, done near made their soul leave their body? Sometimes being near to shitting yourself was the best thing you could be. Sometimes it meant you were about to the only person alive in a room.

Liv threw an elbow behind her, catching a rib. The metal keyboard slipped out of her lap, clanking against the dented floor. The knife slid across her throat — enough to cut, enough to draw blood, but not enough to find purchase of anything valuable. She cocked her body to the left, catching the man’s jaw with the back of her fist. His hands instinctively went to his nose, sending him tumbling back. She rolled to her side, her hand going to her waist.

In a practiced motion, she grabbed her pistol from her holster, pulled her elbow low to her chest and yanked her finger against the trigger. Following the crack, she could hear nothing. Gunpowder stung her eyes and charged through her nostrils. The shock emptied her chest of air.

Her attacker sat bewildered, only a few feet in front of her, blood leaking from his chest, all the gusto and bravado dripping out with it.

She swallowed the bile that had been lurking in her throat, stumbling to her feet, blood dripping down her neck, staining her shirt. She kept the gun in her hand, using her free hand to grab what she could, tossing her screen and keyboard back into the bag. She awkwardly stuffed the antenna half-collapsed back down, zipping it up best she could. With a quick motion it found its way onto her shoulder, and she made it toward the door.

The man’s lifeless eyes followed her, or so she thought.

Her wet hand went to the doorknob, the corner of her eye never leaving his body.

See, even when you’re sure you got someone good, you never let them leave your sight. You never let them get a move on you. Too bad this bastard never got that. A predictable bitch she might be, but that’s how you live in this city. Be predictable.

Shame the bastard had to die for no one’s data.

Maybe next time.

 

Flame

His hands were cracked and old, withered hide wrapped around jagged bone. Creases and valleys cut through them, dark purple lines darting between his knuckles. Each scar hissed a story, daring you to ask where, or why, or how.

The fire flashed an orange glow against his angular face, throwing shadows against his cheeks and flickering into his eyes. The pain had started already. His hands clasped together, thumbs rolling over each other.

Such was the cost.

A pallid finger reached out above the flames, tempting them. He could feel the heat in his bones, the fire twisting its tongue around the tip of his fingernail. At first, the heat simply pooled, threatening — but listening. Eager, but just so. A slow inhale. Cool cedar filled his lungs. Exhale. His nostrils burned. He didn’t need the fire to listen.

No — his sacrifices, this journey — it wasn’t so that he could be heard. It wasn’t so that he could gently whisper to the elements. Spit in the eye of the natural world, for all he cared.

No. He needed the flame to obey.

Sharp teeth briefly glided against each other, catching and grinding. A grunt caught in his throat. The flames wrapped around his wrist, tracing his veins, ripping them up from his flesh. The sickening whispers began. His skin popped and cracked. The scent of burning wood replaced with that of singed hair and boiled muscle.

His blood caught the fire, and as the dripping crimson met the twisted flame, an acrid smoke billowed down over the fire, out toward his feet. For a moment, there was silence — darkness. There was nothing. Starlight would’ve been enough to cut through the forest, had it not been for the smoke.

Ah, had it not been for the smoke.

“Manifest,” he growled.

And so she did.

The flame caught again, the oxygen from his lungs just enough fuel to ignite her presence. Up from the logs, a new, unnatural blaze spilled forth. Two legs stood in the fire, orange and black and red and nothing. Up poured her hips, her chest, her neck, her face.

They weren’t there, but they were. Like the flame, they twisted and lurched, chasing — daring — more oxygen. Her eyes caught his, the embers of her pupils blinking in and out as the wind buffeted them. Her lips sat, just inches away from his.

“You called?”

Her voice was a whisper, and he was unsure if that was part of the game, or if it was all she could muster. If it was all that could be allowed.

He lifted his finger — the same one that summoned her forth — pulling it through her body, indirectly swirling the blaze that formed her essence. It slid up her chest, slowly tracing her neck, following her jaw. He turned his hand up, letting her chin sit, cradled in his two fingers. With every motion, he felt his wounds. Every second was a struggle not to spit and curse and gnash and let loose every hateful sound at once.

And yet, it was easy. Just look at her eyes. Amber and crimson twirled and twisted, locked into crystal spheres.

“Your gift,” he said. “It’s time. I need it.”

His eyes closed, heavy under the pain. Or that’s what he told himself. The temptation to watch her work, to take her — ah, and that was why the pain was there, was it not? If he did, he’d be killed. He would be eradicated. And so he had to just trust her. The pain, and the threat of more, kept them closed.

He felt the heat of her breath reach across the side of his face, threatening his ear.

“I am yours,” she said.

All the air in his lungs was ejected, stolen. His head felt like it was disconnected, removed and thrown somewhere else, to another dimension or reality or whatever could possibly explain the entire world being condensed into nothing. His skin felt hot, somehow hotter than when it was burning. He could smell the embers, and then the cedar again. A loud, hissing ringing in his ears grew to a deafening cacophony. He lost track of where, or when, he was. Time was a blanket, and it was suffocating him.

Truthfully, he knew it hadn’t been more than a second.

And then the pain left, the noise left, the oxygen returned to his lungs. His eyelids lifted, his palm hanging open over smoldering ash — a flame long extinguished due to a lack of attention. His arm was as it always was, as it always really was. There were no burns, no channels, no valleys, nothing. There was never anything here.

But as he exhaled, he could feel the heat.

 

 

Finding the Grove [Notacat Saga Pt. 2]

As far as groves go, there wasn’t anything particularly exciting about Fael’al Whain.

Extraordinarily beautiful?

Maybe. That is, if tall, moss-covered gnarled oaks dotted with fresh dew was your thing. Surrounded by marble statues long stripped of any varnish. And dryads. Or two. Maybe a few deer, frolicking about, eating the most pristine, virgin underbrush you’ve ever seen.

But outside all of that — and the magical blueish wisps passing to and fro, signaling the eternal passing of the wheel of time — you know, it wasn’t all that special.

Oh. And the crystal cat statue with sapphire eyes that sat at the center of the grove. That was kinda dope, I guess.

A pure ray of moonlight traced a stark line down Etheril’s skin, perfectly accentuating her copper skin, her emerald eyes catching the light just enough to glow.

The moon blessed her. Nature’s gift made her beautiful.

And, you know, the makeup and hour of skincare and magical cream.

But she was hot, right? And that’s what matters. That’s, honestly, all that matters. You learn some nature magic, you do your best to make your grove look groomed (but, like, not so groomed that it looks like you’re TRYING, there’s a balance and she wasn’t about to go on and construct a fountain that’d be, ugh), and uh, well, that’s it. You sit here.

You sit here and wait.

For what?

Another druid? Wildlife? Yesterday a cute tiger wandered up to the grove. That was interesting. Maybe it was a panther. Earnestly, she should’ve known, but magical cats can get weird, you know?

God, she was bored.

A hundred years? Was that how long she was stationed here? That might be an exaggeration. Who knows. She didn’t. God. Etheril looked down at her hand, flipping her nails over. “What I would do, you know, just to,” she sighed, “just to SEE another person. C’mon, nature goddess, or some shit, PLEASE! Anyone! Company!”

Off in a distant land, the kobold’s paw slowly curled.

Not but a minute after those words left her lips, Etheril heard a sound coming from the forest.

“Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa….”

Her long ears perked up. Could it be…?

“Doooooooooooooo…”

A person! A voice!

“Wooooooooooooo…”

A shiver went down her spine. Was she sure? Was she sure this was a person? At first, the noise sounded like it came from a sentient creature. But now she wasn’t sure. It was piercing. Foul.

“DaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA…

Was it thrown on the wind?

“DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”

Was some twisted spell sent to torment her?

“WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”

Her eyes darted from oak to oak. The grove was still. She was alone. A pit opened in her stomach. Company? Maybe. But she was certain, nothing good could come of that noise. This was her end. Pray her soul to rest in nature’s peaceful grasp.

A body burst through a bush, tumbling down the embankment. Twigs and leaves followed close behind, scattering in the body’s path. Slowly, the creature came to a stop, only to spring straight up.

Etheril leaped back.

It was a human. A short one. A woman by the looks of it… but there was something different about her. The human was smiling.

Etheril squinted. “Hello?”

The woman shook her whole body, freeing a branch from her knotted hair. She took a few large steps forward, almost bouncing toward her. She smiled, wide.

“Hello! I am K’atgirl! That is my name. I am here for training. I am here to train. To be a cat. No — to be a girlcat.” She hacked loudly, as if removing a thorn from her uvula. “HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA,” she growl-gagged.

Etheril’s brows knotted together in disgust. What the fuck?

“EXCUSE ME! Sorry. Had a problem there, sorry. But did you hear me? Can you understand me? Oh, you’re an elf,” K’atgirl said. She cleared her throat — with much less theater about her.

“BEEPITY BOOPITY? BEEPITY BOOPITY BOPPITY BEEPITY?”

What the fuck?

“No — okay, excuse me, I speak — I can understand you.”

“BOOPITY!”

“No — I mean, before. I understand yo — this language I am speaking, you know, now. Not… uh, whatever it is you were doing.”

“Okay.”

It was then that Etheril realized just what she was looking at. The human — presumably — in front of her was wearing… makeup? She wasn’t quite sure. She had perhaps the worst smokey eye she’d ever seen, paired with four lines drawn from her nose out toward her cheeks on both sides, eight in total. Additionally, she was wearing two clumps of fur, crudely sewn together on her head, connected by some sort of band. Behind her — only visible between her legs — dangled what looked like some rope that had been wrapped (crudely, once again) in hair of some vintage.

What type of barbarian was this?

“Excuse me, you said your name…”

“KATGIRL!”

“Cat… girl?”

“Yes.”

“And you are here…”

“For training.”

“For what?”

“Training.”

Training. She was here for training. Gods, this is what you asked for. This is what you got. You were desperate. Desperation is manure for the flies of bad luck.

“What… training?”

“I want to be a cat girl.”

Oh no.

The lines. The fur. The rope.

It clicked. She suddenly — and she really hated this — understood.

The winds had carried her a message months ago. Other druids at other groves, all telling of the same message: a girl had visited them, one that they couldn’t adequately explain. Depending on the humidity and barometric pressure, the winds sometimes referred to her as a cat that wanted to be a girl, or sometimes a girl that wanted to be a cat. Most mentioned that she refused to leave without being pointed in the direction of grove that could help her shapeshift. Usually the messages were coddled in a sandwich of profanity.

One particular breeze carried only one message: big phallus, girl of cat, beware. She was certain that they were all playing tricks on her.

But alas, her she was.

Though, that last message still didn’t make sense.

“I want to be a cat girl.”

“A what?”

“A CATGIRL!”

“Excuse me — could you just, like, explain to me what you mean by that? A cat-girl? What is that?”

“A catgirl,” Katgirl paused briefly, sucking in a vast quantity of air, “is a CUTE and ADORABLE friend to felines who can also BECOME a feline. She is cute, and adorable, and she can transform into a cat, but most importantly she is a hybrid of both who is TOTALLY COOL AND RAD and can completely fuck up her enemies if she wants to while also seducing boys who like that sort of thing.”

Etheril stood, in awe of the thing in front of her.

“And one more thing: a large penis.”

Oh. There it is.

“I want all of that. And. A. Big. Dick.”

“Okay, so I guess — and I’m sort of ashamed to admit this — but I guess I can follow the first bit, but why exactly do you want a big, er, dick?”

Katgirl grabbed her chin. “Hmm…” A pause. She then proceeded to gyrate her hips.

“I want to spin it around real fast.”

“…that’s it?”

Katgirl shrugged.

“Well, I can’t help you do that.”

The girl looked absolutely devastated. She might’ve just told her that all of her relatives were murdered by bears. And then the bears shit in her mouth. And then she was the bear, and she shit in her mouth, too.

“Noooo…” Katgirl whimpered.

The noise was utterly pathetic. She couldn’t believe it. She felt her heart break, right there. How in the world? Was this girl some sort of mind control demon? She couldn’t believe she suddenly felt so sorry for this… catgirl? She filled her cheeks with air, slowly letting it out from behind pursed lips.

“Look, the dick thing. I can’t do that. But maybe the cat thing. I might be able to do that.”

Katgirl fucking exploded. She leaped forward, tackling Etheril, knocking her to the ground.

“I BELIEVE THAT I LOVE YOU.”

Etheril stared upward, the filthy human firmly locking her against the ground. She caught a glimpse of the moon through the trees. She gritted her teeth.

Fucking nature goddess bullshit.