Our Lady of Acceptance: Dama Fristad

***

Wake up.

Brush teeth.

Shower. Don't shower. Wait, no. Shower this time.

Deodorant.

Comb your hair, you piece of shit.

Get dressed, pull on shoes.

Breakfast, breakfast, break... Leftover spaghetti? No, it's started to rot in the fridge, it's been so long.

Didn't you have a slice or two of spinach and bacon... Pizza! Yes!

… You're probably going to regret this later, but for now, your stomach is full and you can go on with your morning routine.

***

Zach Bruys bent down and did a quick retying of his boot laces before walking to the main room of his home.

1685 Blightblossom Lane. The address belonged to the condo Zach stood in. It was such a large space that the city decided to give the singular condo it's own moniker separate from the building it resided in.

Zach sighed, pulling his fingers through deep brown hair as he performed a mental checklist of what needed to be done before he left to do errands.

“Let's see,” The 22-year-old said, his voice a warm neutral that lifted up on certain syllables, “Rooms 3 and 7 need their carpets deep-cleaned. Room 4's bathroom needs a new toilet paper holder. Shit, and the window in Room 1 was busted a few days ago...”

He folded his arms and marched to the supply closet in the main hallway. He snatched up his favorite toolbelt, grabbed a canister of cleaning wipes and sponges, as well as a bottle of all-purpose cleaner.

He was going to have to make more than one trip, probably ten and over before he was done. But this would be a good place to start.

***

“Dear Mom and Dad,” He spoke out to Room 1 as he hefted up the new glass to the window pane, “I'm still taking care of the condo. Not like I can do much else with the two of you still gone. But, hey.”

He fastened the glass into place and plucked a cleaning wipe from the canister next to his feet. “It gives me something to do in the mornings.”

Wipe.

The smears remained; egged on by the residue on the glass that the warehouse employees had done fuck all in the means of cleaning up.

“Damn it...” Zach groaned, taking a new wipe and going at it harder.

***

“Mrs. Kusnetstov from the second floor keeps insisting that I should sell the place,” Zach shouted out over the choking whir of the carpet-cleaner. He shoved and yanked it over the pink shag carpeting in Room 7. “I guess she means well, but where the hell would I even go?” Which, really, was the thick and sad of it. A young man who was unequally Yokut and Japanese (he hated how his hair would never choose between stereotypically smooth or stereotypically thick and wild). He was gawked at whenever he went to the local Little Tokyo and he was pitied when he visited the Yokut settlement. So, really, what was the point of leaving?

“I mean,” He turned off the carpet-cleaner, “What if I did leave and you guys came back to an empty house, huh? What then?”

The words rolled through the room and crashed into a silent death in the hallway.

***

“The city's even been hounding me for the space.” Zach marked the part of the off-white bathroom wall where he needed to drill. He abhorred the thought of fucking this up again. He already had to patch up the remains of the last time he tried to fix one of the other towel racks.

Zach hefted up the power drill and rummaged through the bits that he had. “'You're holding up progress', they say. 'Think of what you could do with the money', they say. 'Why are you being such a stubborn little shit', they say.”

Zach fed the drill into the wall just enough so that, when he hefted up the first handle of the toilet paper holder, he would have a notch to put the corresponding nail.

***

“They say that I'm selfish keeping all this space to myself.”

Zach pulled a rag damp with polish over the doorknob of Room 5. He moved it back and forth until, when he removed the rag, the knob was sparkling like the sun's reflection in the harbor.

Zach looked around the condo. He removed the bandana from his hair with a low breath. “It's not like I'm forcing people away from renting some of these rooms out.”

''Cause she's a Maneater

Make you work hard!

Make-'"

Zach ripped his phone out from his pocket and hit 'Accept'; not even glancing down at the caller-ID. “Talk to me.”

“Where are you?” A woman's voice snapped out on the other line, “You know that the LlamaYama Cronutwich food truck calls it a day at 1:37! PM! To. The. Second!”

Zach shied away from the screeching voice and looked at the clock on his phone. Indeed, it was already 1:15. “Shit!”

He tore off the tool-belt, the gloves, and almost ripped off his boots before he realized how futile that would be.

He grabbed his wallet and keys off the counter and bolted towards the door.

His boots screeched against the hallway's hardwood floors when he forced himself to stop his momentum.

Zach walked over to the mirror he had hanging there and brushed back his hair, just to have it fall back into place. “Whatever.” He walked to the front door and took a step out.

Not before turning back, examining the state of the condo, and snapping a quick picture of the space with his phone.

***

Nestled by a fresh-smelling bay and surrounded by gigantic steel bridges, Dama Fristad was known all over the country as 'the harbinger of new beginnings'. The population was primarily younger (recent college graduates, idealists, and entrepreneurs), majority employed, and wholly of the favor of looking towards the morrow and never the past.

Were there unsavory elements to this bay-side burg? Of course; we're talking about a city of living, breathing creatures here. Someone's bound to get stabbed, mugged, raped, or –

But the point is that it didn't happen as much as it did in other cities. Everyone was far too busy trying to build up lives they could look upon with pride and pass on to their loved ones.

“One Honey-Whip on Vanilla Wafer!” A burly, hair-covered man popped his upper-half out of the side window of a brown and white food truck decorated in llamas wearing chef hats.

“That's me.” Zach walked up and waved his receipt before anyone else could try and steal his order like that one asshole from two weeks ago who--

The truck owner handed him the warm delicate, flaky layers of a croissant and donut love-child split in two with a large scoop of fresh ice-cream in the middle.

With his food in hand, Zach walked back to the stone bench where the young woman who damn-near screamed his head off on the phone sat.

“So,” Faaria took a bite of her own order as Zach sat down, “Any takers on your condo?”

“No...” Zach was about to take a bite but he went on, “I've been updating the listing on every rental site every other day for the past eight months.”

Faaria adjusted her bright blue hijab to try and avoid staining it in her haste to finish eating. “I still can not believe you've gone this long without any tenants.”

“Like it's my fault?” Zach brought out his phone and opened up the latest site that had any rental inquiries. “Look at this. I put it as clear as night and day: '1 bedroom, 1 bath, kitchen-access, prime central location. $878/month as well as a share of utilities'. Do you know what I was sent last night?”

“No, but I am sure you are going to tell me.”

Zach swiped his phone screen and read out, “'Do you really need 878 tho??? I can't see paying that much for one room...'” Zach shoved his phone into his pocket. “If it wasn't what I was asking for, why the hell would I have posted the ad?”

Faaria shrugged. “Maybe they wanted to haggle you down.”

“I'm renting rooms.” Zach quipped back, “Not selling fruit in the back alley of Calcutta.”

The truck owner slammed his fist against the side of the vehicle. “Alright, last call!” He looked around, scanning through the crowds. “Come on, I know one of ya wants--”

In the corner of his eye, he could see a small hand bandaged hand waving a five dollar bill near the window. He looked down, a smile growing on his face. “Well, hello little lady.” He leaned out of the truck as much as he could to address the little bundle of ancient bandages. “What can I get for ya today?”

“Vanilla on cinnamon!” The little mummy beamed, her mouth missing several teeth but her eyes just as bright as most human children her age.

“Vanilla on cinnamon, huh?” The truck-owner chuckled as he went to prepare the order. A fresh cinnamon donut, a scoop of creamy sweet vanilla... “Here you go.” He waited until the mummy had a good hold on her order. He nodded, “Tell your moms I said hello.”

The mummy nodded and rushed off. She was going to get this right back to her parents and they were going to go to the park to share it!

The little mummy ran past Zach and Faaria just as Zach said, “Maybe I should claim that the condo is haunted so I can get some tourist revenue.”

The little mummy kicked up her feet when she saw an older mummy and the off-colored flesh of a zombie near the water fountain.

“I – WAH!” Her tiny feet tripped over the brick of the path and as she was sent to the floor, her icy sweet treat meeting the floor with a splat. She caught herself upon her hands but the moment she looked and saw the dismal fate of her ice cream, her wrapped-up face squeezed tight into a grimace. Her tears and whines rang out through the park, finally prompting the zombie and mummy couple to shuffle over.

“Oh no...” The older mummy cooed, gingerly lifting her child into her wrapped arms, “You have to be more careful, dear.”

The zombie turned towards the departing food truck. “Damn... it...” She rasped out. Despite the limited vocabulary her and her kind had control over, the words held all of her frustrations at the fact that the LlamaYama was G-O-N-E for the day.

Zach was listening to his friend talk about how there had to be something he wasn't trying. However, his ears were far more taken by the crying of a child robbed of a simple joy.

“Hello~?” Faaria waved her hand in Zach's face. His gaze had been wandering and his attentions were blatantly elsewhere. Zach silently got up, cronut sandwich in tow, and walked over to where the zombie and mummy were failing to calm their daughter down.

Faaria pouted at the retreating back of her friend. She wasn't just talking for her own benefit. However, as she watched Zach hand over his own cronut-sandwich to the little mummy and depart with a wave and a ruffle of the child's ribbon, a quiet little 'aw...' left her lips. And with her heart feeling fuzzy from the display, her brain was blooming with a new idea to help Zach out. She wanted to be able to go home without worrying about him being alone in that giant empty condo.

“Guess my track-record of going without LlamaYama's is still safe.” Zach tried to joke it off but, despite doing a good deed, he was still slightly disappointed that he had run all this way just to end up missing out again. Zach looked and saw Faaria grinning up at him. “What?” He looked down to his feet. Up to his knees, to his shirt. There was nothing amiss. “What's got you grinning like that?”

Faara finished her food and clapped her hands together. “We're going to get your rooms filled by the end of the week!” Faaria hopped up to her feet and grabbed Zach by the wrist.

“Wait, your hands are sticky.”

“Shut up and let's go!”

***

Zach often wondered if someone like him should have been so familiar with the inner workings and sinew of City Hall. But Faaria had a thing for dragging him to work with her to see what a real job was like. So he knew to wave to the guardian lion statues in the main hall of the older building. Both statues nodded their greetings to him before resuming their stone-faced duties. The sound of great wings flapping caused Zach and Faaria to duck just as the graceful form of the mayoral caladrius whisked by: her great wings reflecting the light of the room as brilliant spectrums.

She departed and they were soon off again. They reached an elevator and Faaria produced a key-card from her pocket and swiped it through the reader on the wall.

“I should have said something before,” Zach spoke as they stepped into the elevator that soon lowered down, “But what are we doing here again?”

Faaria waggled a finger in his face. “Good things to those who wait.”

“Last time you said that,” Zach shoved his hands into his pockets, his foot tapping as he waited for their stop, “I didn't have water in my condo for a month.”

Faaria folded her arms and sent a pout and a cut of the eyes Zach's way. “You still aren't letting that go, are you?”

“I had to go to the Chinese restaurant around the corner just to take a bath, Faaria.”

A chime floated down and the elevator doors opened. “Hey, wait.” Zach looked up, left, and around. The intimate warmth of red velveteen wallpaper and embroidered flooring seeped into his perception: it condensed his senses, letting him smell the crackling fireplace two rooms away.

“This is the floor of the city Housing Committee.” Faaria kept walking and Zach even found himself, “Come on, keep up! We're here for you, not me.”

Zach grumbled something under his breath along the lines of 'around the corner for a bath, Faaria...' but allowed the tug of his friend to pull him.

She skidded to a stop in front of a simple, unassuming room with a glass door. “Faaria, for the love of God,” Zach glared down at her, “If you try to tell me that there's wine in here.”

“Quiet down, Fortunato,” Faaria opened the door and led the way in. It was a tight fit for Zach so he didn't even know how the hell Faaria was walking through with her, ahem, larger presence.

Shelves upon shelves, crafted from steel but blanketed with verdant moss, reached to the ceiling. Zach stopped to take a look at one of the many, many treasures this storage room held.

They were perfectly round, perfectly smooth, while they held the fluidity of water and the color of the world around them.

Zach's words fell lifeless to the ground as he approached one of the orbs. He hefted it up into his hands, a soft warmth spreading out from his fingertips and resting into his bones.

He smelled... vanilla. And sugar.

“It's an Enviea.” Faaria explained, “They're what allow non-humans and humans to live in the same space.”

Zach had to pull himself away from the welcoming aura that the Enviea seemed to flood over his entire being. “What do you mean?”

Faaria leaned against a shelf. “Well, think about it: a dragon, a mermaid, and two humans couldn't live together in the same house without gutting it or something, right?” She looked up at the collection of Envieas in the chamber. “They... affect space and matter. I don't completely know how they work, but all the businesses and rentals and things in town all have one.”

That was it. Zach understood now.

“How much?” He asked, his eyes looking back at the Enviea in his hands. He knew that something like this couldn't possibly come for cheap. But, just maybe...

If, you know...

It would help him rent out those rooms...

Faaria stood up straight. “Right to business, hm? Let's see...” She hummed and swayed, “The typical price is around, oh, 150,000--”

“What?” Zach dropped the Enviea back onto its cushion like it was made of fire. “Faaria, what the hell? I can't afford this; why the hell did you bring me down here?”

Faaria stepped back. “Come on, I had a feeling... But maybe we can find a used one around here for you to buy at, I don't know, half off?”

Zach scoffed and Faaria pouted at him once more. “At least I'm trying to help, you big grumpy baby!”

“Faaria.” Zach sighed for a second. “Most of your 'help' results in me begging for a quick and merciless death.”

“Now, now, you two...”

“There's no need to argue in a place like this.”

Zach whipped his head to the left. “Mayor Hebeus!” Then to the right. “Mayor Heart!”

Mayor Heart was an older woman, dressed in a baby-blue skirt-suit and matching heels. Her black hair had some streaks of gray in the up-do she had, but her brown skin showed no sign of her age.

Mayor Hebeus stood upon four powerful legs, the hoof of each leg swaddled in billowy feather hairs. He had started to bald a bit, but his gray goatee was as thick as any rugged lumberjack's. His torso was draped in a suit jacket, the tails falling over his lower half and splitting in two just as his swishing tail came into the picture.

Faaria smirked and folded her arms. “Told you.”

But Mayor Heart allowed her painted lips to curl up in a skeptic's grin.

“And I thought that I told you that I need you to file the rest of the petition templates for the leprechaun banking school?”

Faaria flinched back like she had been burned. “Well, you know...” She tugged at her sleeves, “I just wanted to... Help my best friend out with his rental situation?” Faaria ended her piece with a chuckle.

Mayor Hebeus looked to Zach. “Still no decent applications, huh?”

Zach sighed and started to leave the Enviea chamber. He should have known better than to let Faaria drag him into any more bullshit but he was getting desperate.

***

He walked through the halls of City Hall, dipping out of the way of an embittered Cwn Annwn trying to make their way to the law department. Zach followed the hall, took a left, and let the quivering carpet underneath his feet carry him back to the reception area.

Now then: if he could just find that one bench that he always seemed to be in a three-way power-struggle with two non-humans for any time he was stranded here. Zach squinted his eyes to get a good look. His vision was obscured by the lumbering mass of opaque sludge that was being escorted through the building. When they were finally gone, Zach carefully stepped over the slime trail left behind and found, to his relief, that the simple wooden bench was empty. “Now to wait.” He whispered, leaning his back against the wall once seated.

He felt submerged: cloaked in the sounds of growls and hisses, of ancient languages mingling with human tongues. Zach took a deep breath, soaking it in. He finally opened his eyes and let them fall onto the one major ornament of Dama Fristad City Hall. Oh, the building was well-furnished and decorated, but the shining jewel of the city was the velveteen dress of deep plum encased in a glass tomb. It stood in the center of City Hall for all to see... And for some to strive for.

Zach heard Mayor Hebeus approaching before the centaur spoke. Hoofbeats traveled further than footsteps.

“Still haven't found a princess for this dress, huh?”

Mayor Hebeus shook his head. “Unfortunately the search for someone pure enough of heart and kind enough of mind is looking to be too much of a reach. But,”

Zach found his attention taken away from the dress beneath the glass when the centaur next to him began rummaging through his pockets. Zach managed to keep his mouth shut for all of three minutes before he asked, “So, I've been wondering--”

“No, I'm not going to start wearing pants just to have better pocket options.” Mayor Hebeus switched to his other coat pocket: mumbling something about 'nosy young people' and 'how would that even work, anyhow?' It took him another minute. “Ah.” Mayor Hebeus pulled out what he had been looking for: the familiar warm scent of vanilla and sugar whispering to Zach's senses. Zach turned as Mayor Hebeus eased an Enviea into his hands. “Sir, wait—”

“You know just as much, if not more, than I,” Mayor Hebeus insisted, “That those rooms have been empty for far too long. Go on, boy,” Mayor Hebeus nickered, one of his hind-legs tapping at the linoleum floor, “Take it.”

Zach looked down at the clear orb and then back up at Mayor Hebeus. He couldn't accept this, really... Though he was certain that if he didn't, he would get a pun about looking a gift horse in the mouth by Faaria later on.

Yeah, he would honestly rather die than hear that. “Thank you, sir.” When Mayor Hebeus handed him a handkerchief to wrap the Enviea in, Zach took it without question.

This could actually work.

Now Zach just needed a way home that wasn't Faaria or public transport. “Mayor Hebeus,” He looked up, “Do you think that maybe I could hitch a ride home?”

“Don't push your luck, boy.” Mayor Hebeus gave Zach a simple punch to the shoulder; tail swishing angrily behind him.

2: The Great Convergence - Part the First
The Great Convergence - Part the First

Zach slowly sat up in bed. He pressed his hair back with his fingers and hopped out of his mattress's alluring hold.

“You have to get up sometime, you miserable fuck.” He whispered to himself before pulling himself out and walking to the shower.

***

Zach walked around his condo for the fifth time that morning. He was getting a bit... not anxious, but he was confused. His condo looked the same. Did Mayor Hebeus give him a busted Enviea? Even with Faaria texting him in the middle of the night, reassuring him that the changes would be more apparent when he finally got some tenants, Zach was uneasy.

“Just throwing it all to the wind here...” Zach stopped his pacing to push the candy dish on the coffee table. It was just.

A little.

Off-center. An impassive face often hid deeper passions and agitations. When he felt as though the main room looked okay, Zach grabbed several pieces of chocolate from the dish and walked to the door.

***

“Shit!” Zach grabbed his knee, gritting his teeth at the pain from the sudden impact against his leg. “What the hell was that?” He looked around before finally taking note of the large chest that stood in the hallway. It was your typical grade-A treasure chest: black lacquered wood gilded with gold. It nearly pulled Zach closer to it; something inside of it... calling to him.

He shook his head. He didn't have time for this, he had to talk to his doorfairies.

If you lived in a nice enough place and could hang a basket of living flowers upon your door, you could end up with doorfairies. And it wasn't a bad thing, either: if a family of doorfairies moves in, making their home in the breathing blooms upon your door, you could expect fortune, tranquility, and safety.

Zach stepped close to the basket of blightblossoms upon his door, the violet blooms and thorns shuddering with his approach.

“Hello?” He spoke, and waited.

“Hello?” Zach spoke, and looked at the time on his phone.

“... I have chocolate.” Zach stated.

“Good morning, Zachary~!” Three teeny-tiny heads topped with fuzzy antennae popped out of the blightblossoms: a chubby father, a slim mother, and a little daughter.

“Is that for us?” The doorfairy mother asked, already snatching away the chocolate that Zach had brought. The doorfairy father leaned his fuzzy body against Zach's finger and schmoozed, “Boy, let me tell you Zach: you are a dream! Sleeping and screwing all day and amazing food! All without having to lift a wing!”

“Maybe some of us should look into lifting their wings more often.”

A flutter of wings found Zach's ear as a fourth doorfairy flew over to Zach's hand. “Hey, Zach.” He called up to the human.

Zach nodded at the doorfairy with the rich, blue fuzz: a stark comparison to the others' rose. “Hey, Periwinkle.”

Periwinkle fluttered up and landed on Zach's shoulder. He put his chin in his hands and pouted, black eyes pleading, “Please tell me you've found a reason for this door to open more often. I'm dying here!”

“Damn it, Periwinkle!” The doorfairy father growled out at his son, “Haven't you ever heard of 'not looking a gift Pegasus in the mouth', you little ingrate?!”

“It's not being ungrateful when you just want to do what you're born to do, you fat fuck!” Periwinkle yelled at his father.

Zach didn't even try to get in the middle of this fantasy family feud. He waited for the motions to rise: Periwinkle's father trying to fly up to get at his son but failing due to his weight, Periwinkle cutting the air with more of his complaints (complaints that were, really, justified), and then Periwinkle's mother and little sister coming into the fluttering fray to dog-pile on the indignant doorfairy.

The thing was, though, that Zach didn't have the time for this. “Guys. Guys?” He snapped his fingers, the sound-wave rolling over the doorfairies and quelling the squabble. For the moment. “Great, good; you can listen up now.” Zach cleared his throat, “I'm actually expecting some potential tenants today. So, can you guys maybe... Go back to working?”

“WHAT?!” Periwinkle's family squeaked in horror. But Periwinkle shot up into the air and did a complete loop.

“Praise be to Trillium the Fair!” Periwinkle zipped over to Zach and gave him a high-five to the finger. “I've been waiting for this day!”

Zach opted to take his leave and wait for the first of the applicants. Though, that left the matter of the chest. “No one else lives on this floor.” He stepped closer and tapped the chest with his foot.

Nothing.

Zach rubbed the back of his head. “God damn it.”

***

Zach panted and wheezed, sweat beginning to bead upon his brow. He had just managed to carry the chest into the main room and, damn it, the thing must have weighed as much as a morgue's worth of dead bodies.

Zach took several steps. He was desperate to find a place where the chest wouldn't be an eyesore.

“Visitor!” The doorfairy father announced, his tiny voice vibrating through the door via the blightblossoms.

“Oh, fuck this.” He let the chest drop to the ground. “I'll just call the postal company about it later.” Zach jogged over to the door. He brushed down his shirt and wiped the sweat away from his forehead. “Okay. Okay, here we go.” Zach reached out for the doorknob –

He was shoved into the wall when a hoof kicked the door inward with a resounding crack.

“What the shit?” Zach yelped, trying to ignore the bruise forming on his stomach from the doorknob. Zach squeezed his way out from behind the door. “Can I help you?”

He didn't get an answer aside from two literal jackasses walking in.

The two donkeys, one brown and one white, walked in on their hind-legs. Dressed in black suits with shimmering blooms in their breast pockets.

“Vicinity clear?” The brown donkey gruffed out, adjusting the earpiece he had in his right ear.

“Vicinity clear.” The white donkey nodded. He knocked his hoof on the door and the both of them rushed to stand, at attention, on either side.

Soon Zach heard hoof-beats from the hall. They were gentler than the ones that had knocked his door in: falling to the floor like the winter's first snow.

When he first saw them, there were the crystal hooves that cleared away dust and debris and dust as they kissed the ground. His coat was pristine and white, a few silver speckles on his hindquarters.

The hair of his luxurious mane and tail floated and shifted around him. The silken strands twisted between bright silver and deep blue as sparkles, like stars in the Milky Way, swam through. Deep eyes; stormy, blue eyes framed by thick, white lashes. The equine beast looked around the apartment, careful to not pierce anything with the spiraling horn jutting from his forehead. Zach stood up straight and asked, once more, “Can I help you?”

The unicorn nodded, main and tail shifting, “Allow me to make an introduction. I,” He readjusted himself to bear his weight on three legs, lifting a hoof to his chest, “Am the first son of the reigning King Alabastras and Queen Fuschiabolt Winterdust: Prince Silveste Winterdust.”

The two donkeys closed the door, allowing Silveste to step closer to Zach. “I am here to inquire about the open status of your dormitory selections.”

Zach looked at the unicorn for a long while. “I beg pardon?”

Silveste chuckled. His eyes sparkled when he spoke, “I would like to rent one of your rooms.”

“Oh, right.” Zach got up and led the way further in. “The kitchen is large enough for several beings to cook and entertain without bumping into each other.”

It was odd to fall back into 'open-house' mode after his condo had been empty for so long. But it was the fact that someone was actually there, not pulling or hiding behind passive-aggressive fake inquiries...

Silveste looked around. He gave a quick nod. “Might I see the chamber in which I could retire and gather clarity for the next morn?”

Zach looked Silveste up and down. “Listen, I'm going to need you to ease up on that before you drive me crazy.”

“Right, of course.” Silveste cleared his throat. “I'd like to see the rooms now.”

***

Zach opened up the door to room three, the first two being denied due to not 'having the right aura', whatever that meant. “Step on in, have a look around.” Zach let the equine entourage inside. Speaking of which... “So, I got your name,” Zach hung tight near the door, “But your friends here elude me.”

“Oh, Blancher and Bruner?” Silveste gave a nod towards the two donkeys. “They're my bodyguards. They've been with me since before I was born; I don't know what I'd do without them.”

Blancher and Bruner didn't say anything.

'Tough crowd.' Zach thought.

“...y, this room will do.”

Zach nearly missed the way that Blancher bowed to one knee, Bruner walking close to Silveste with a briefcase weaved of ivy and sweet-grass. It opened with a click and Silveste grabbed a wand out of it with his mouth.

A wand. A purple-polished handle topped with a snowflake crystal embedded in the center of a silver ring.

Before Zach could say anything, the wand was already shining brilliantly in Silveste's grip. The flash that started off as a mist exploded into a flood that engulfed the entire space.

Zach shielded his eyes and didn't lower his arms until he heard the sound of bubbling waters. He gasped, looking around to see that what had been Room 3 not even a few minutes ago was now a piece of pristine forest. A soft breeze blew through the boughs of grand oak and maple trees that nearly obscured the view of a shimmering violet sky. The grasses and plants beneath their feet held an ethereal glow.

“Much better.”

Zach turned to see Silveste, Blancher, and Bruner examining the mystic space. “Do you two think I should send home for my bedroom set or should I order a new one?”

Blancher and Bruner gave each other a quiet look. “You two are right.” Silveste nodded, walking to a soft flat of flowers and sweet-smelling leaves. “I'll put in the order tomorrow. Bruner, can you give our kind landlord the deposit so he can be on his way. I'm sure that we've taken up far too much of his time.”

“What did you do?” Zach muttered in awe. Magic was a common occurrence in Dama Fristad, but you usually had to travel to the Shimmer Gale District to have it specifically done for you.

Zach watched Bruner walk over with a checkbook in hoof. But he had questions. “Unicorn magic?”

“Diluted, of course,” Silveste replied around the wand until Blancher came to put it back in its briefcase. “The idea of using pure unicorn magic is absurd.”

Zach took the check from Bruner and shrugged. “Guess I'll leave you guys to get settled. Welcome home.”

***

Zach stepped out of the condo for a second to check if anyone had gotten lost (though, he was the only residence on his floor). He could hear simple bickering from the blightblossom and the doorfairies within. Zach knew that Periwinkle was beyond hyped with the development, but the rest of the family –

“Such tortures never existed back on Azathoth...”

Zach turned to the western end of the hall that was punctuated with a staircase. Periwinkle peeked his head out of the blightblossoms before flying over and hovering by Zach's ear. “Is it another tenant? Zach, is it? This is so great!”

The humming of the doorfairy's wings was deftly ignored. There was something about the voice from the hall's end: the way that it wriggled and rolled through the air.

A squelch.

A squish.

A slide.

A writhing mass of slime and tentacles pulled its shuddering form up the stairs. It looked around with three black eyes, magenta forked pupils contracting and expanding.

“Shit.” Zach backed up at the sight of the tentacles. “Are you still a target for hentai-trope bullshit if you're only half Japanese?”

The writhing mass turned at the sound of Zach's voice. “Oh!” It pulled itself to Zach, its height reaching up to Zach's groin. “We are sorry about our appearance! We weren't expecting your, erm, your...” The gelatinous creature let out a crackling trill, three eyes squinting up, “What is human word for--” The tentacle-blob made noises that blended vowels with clicks for several seconds.

Zach turned to Periwinkle. “Don't suppose you speak Eldritch-ese?”

“Sorry,” Periwinkle shrugged and floated back to the blightblossoms, “I only took a semester of Harpisian back in Secondary.”

“Great...” Zach turned back to the bleb at his feet, wide eyes looking up at him. He followed the trail of translucent slime that the tentacle-blob had dragged from – “The stairs?”

The tentacle-blob gasped, the sounds not coming from a mouth but wisping about in Zach's mind. “'Stairs'!”

Zach watched as the creature reached into its slick, slimy body and pulled out a clean notebook and pen. In handwriting that was perfect portions scratch and script, it wrote out a series of symbols and then the word 'stairs' next to them.

The tentacle-blob examined its notes with a nod. It tossed the notepad up above itself and its body tore open into a ravenous maw. Wriggling tendrils and spiny teeth swallowed down the notepad, with spine-shattering squalls filling the hallway. It pulled itself back together and smiled with its eyes.

“Can we rent one of your rooms, please?”

Zach, still shell-shocked, eased the front door open.

***

The tentacle-bleb handed Zach a thick manila folder full of photos, dusty pages, and paperclips.

Zach opened the folder up to an ink-drawing of the very tentacled horror in front of him. And the words... It was written in a humaneness script, but pronouncing it was a feat. “'Ne'...” Zach twisted his lips and tongue around the combinations of the letters on the page, “'Phobos'?”

Nephubos nodded. “Yes! You said it correctly! Usually, we have to spend so much time going over it!”

Zach flipped through a few more stained pages and weathered pamphlets. He clapped the folder shut and set it down on the coffee table. “So, what's an Eldritch Abomination like you doing in a place like this?”

Nephubos's dark slimy body swamped over to a pale pink swath of hair. The dark slimy state returned, as did that voice. “We have been given great opportunity! A full scholarship to Dama Fristad Academia to study Human Culture and Relationship Dynamics!”

“DFA, huh?” Zach folded his arms and watched the bleb crawl around the main room and touch everything with its tentacles at least twice.

“Yes, yes! We are so very overjoyed to have been chosen to study a subject of such vast interest and variances! But...” 

Those three wide eyes swam through Nephubos's gelatinous body to look up at Zach. “We are in need of shelter while we learn. And we happened upon your listing while using the primitive human technology called a...” Zach cringed when Nephubos reached into themselves and pulled out that same notepad from before. They sped through several pages, eyes squinting at the right one. “Laa-p-tooop!”

Zach turned away just as the ungodly shrieks and baying began, signaling that Nephubos had put the notebook back inside. The noises finally subsided and Zach found it in himself to look down again. Nephubos's minute movements managed to make their body jiggle and their tentacles wiggle. It warmed Zach's heart a bit.

“Let me show you to a room that you might like.” Zach led the way down the nearest hall. Room 6 would be a good fit.

***

Zach slammed the door to Room 6 open, a series of claws, tentacles, and bubbling slime speckled with agitated eyes reaching out forto him. He shut the door, shoving himself up against it in an attempt to keep the hellish din inside.

'Decorating', is what Nephubos had called it.

“Visitor!” The doorfairies chimed out before there was a scratching at the door. Zach could have sworn that he heard some growing agitation in the voices from some of the small beings.

Maybe he was imagining things.

He walked to the door and sidled up close to look through the keyhole.

The sight that welcomed him was... relatively normal. A pretty face and a pointed chin. Topaz eyes with plenty of surrounding eyeliner with a smorgasbord of thick dark tresses around their smiling visage. “Hello?” Zach could hear the stranger call out. “Are you home in there?”

Zach pulled back and shrugged. After being crushed by his own door and still wiping his hands free of some otherworldly slime, Zach could use some normalcy.

Zach opened the door.

Zach was forced up against the wall by a warm behemoth of sandy brown.

“Hi!” Said the creature, whose body was that of a lion: heavy paws, lustrous mane, and large ears. His face, despite holding the same shade as his fur, was more human-esque. Well, as human-esque as you can imagine when a creature fills the entire walkway and front area of a condo. “Is this the place?” The sphinx asked, making a circle and smothering Zach beneath more of his fur and bulk. “It's so pretty! And in such a good location!”

'I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die! I'm gonna die!' Zach screamed in his head. He certainly couldn't have done so with his mouth. Not unless he wanted to make an impromptu hairball.

The sphinx stopped circling and sniffed around. He sat on his haunches and reached to his side, pulling Zach free from his fur. Zach swallowed down air as soon as his mouth and nose were free. “If I wasn't gay already,” He wheezed, “That would have put me off of pussy entirely.”

The sphinx didn't seem to hear him. “You have such a nice home!” He beamed down at Zach and Zach could get a better look at the topaz eyes that bore slits pupils. He followed the whorls of liner around the sphinx's eyes that formed an Eye of Ra.

“My name's Gahiji.” The sphinx introduced himself after he let Zach go. “And I'd like to rent one of your rooms!”

Zach looked the sphinx from the golden headband around his head down to the manicured claws on his paws. He couldn't even get away with saying something like 'oh, sorry but I don't think any of our rooms will fit ya, buddy'. Fucking Enviea...

“Okay..?” Zach tried to smile back but he was snatched up and rushed over to the nearest window.

“This is great! This is so great!” Gahiji clapped his paws together and opened the window. “Almighty Morning Star~?” He called out, “I've finally found a place! Come see!” That was it. Zach was officially of the mindset that this sphinx was crazy; shouting into the air like he was.

Then the air got hotter.

Not like fire. More like the change one feels when driving from a beach to a desert. Zach looked up and the sun was lowering down. Closer, closer, closer still. To rest near the building. If Zach wasn't still so close to what had to be 13,000 pounds of clingy lion mixed with God only knew what, he would have panicked.

He was still uneasy but when the sun began to shift and form into something new, he simply stood still.

The Sun god Ra's avian face appeared in the flaring orb or plasma and fire. Ra looked around for a second before gaining focus. “Gahiji.” He addressed, his words sending zephyrs of heat over the building. “Are you sure that this is where you would want to live? We could try that nice bungalow off the 91 again.”

Zach opened his mouth. Gahiji covered his face with a heavy paw. “Oh no, almighty Illuminator. I want to live here. This place is perfect!” He grabbed Zach and jumped to the left, the apartment shaking. “It's nice!” To the right, sending a glass toppling from the counter. “And roomy.” To the left again. “And it's right in the center of everything!”

Zach was going to puke.

Gahiji hopped backwards: one paw before the next, chattering away until Ra chuckled,

“My dear knowledge-keeper, I have heard your concerns. And your praises. You, boy.”

Gahiji carefully set Zach back on the floor. Zach waited for the salty bile in the back of his throat to settle back down before looking up.

“Boy,” Ra addressed the human in the room, “The child next to you is very precious to me and mine. I understand how the presence of creatures like him and beings such as myself may be overwhelming, but I order you --”

“Make sure that he doesn't get into the medicine cabinet by himself, got it.” Zach interrupted. He wasn't trying to be rude, but he really needed to finish this and get some fucking ginger into his stomach pronto. Ra blinked down at them. He cleared his throat and shook his head, “Right. Okay. How much of a deposit are you asking for?”

***

“And this,” Zach said, leading Gahiji into one of the available rooms, “Is one of my larger layout rooms. Well, besides the basement. Hey, do you want to live in the basement?”

Gahiji tilted his head. “How does a condo have a basement?”

Zach shrugged, “I don't know, after today I'm just giving everything the King Crimson approach.”

Gahiji took that as a window to look around. “I probably wouldn't want it, though. Being surrounded by gloom and doom? I can't possibly imagine subjecting myself to that when it's such a wonderful day!” Gahiji looked around and made a circle around the room before nodding. “Yes, this will do it!”

“Great.” Zach folded his arms, “You can call whoever you need to help you move in and – you're going to pull some mystic bullshit and completely ignore me, aren't y--”

A flurry of brightly colored feathers flew into the room. They spun and spun, faster and faster until they took the form of a woman dressed in a gown of ibis feathers. A crown of gold and ebony feathers rested upon her head.

“Ma'at!” Gahiji bounced over and crushed one of Zach's feet on his way to the goddess of justice and harmony. She merely laughed as he got close enough for her to scratch behind his ears. “Such an excitable creature, as always.” When Gahiji pulled away, Ma'at looked around. “A reasonable amount of space... Yes, yes I think I'll be able to do something worthwhile with it.”

“Good,” Zach grunted and dragged his screaming foot out of the room. “I'll leave you two to whatever plans you have.”

Gahiji waved a paw at Zach's retreating form. “Thanks again!” He chimed out.

The door slammed shut. 

3: The Great Convergence - Part the Second
The Great Convergence - Part the Second

The fridge door squeaked as it was pulled back, Zach poking his head in. Oh, the beers standing guard by the leftover Chow Mein seemed tempting... But, it just wasn't a good time to, well, have a good time.

“Still,” He shut the fridge and leaned against the door, “Three out of nine rooms rented already. I guess the Enviea is doing its job.”

Though he really could do without another mouthful of hair or nightmare fuel anytime soon.

***

“Much too lively.”

“Nowhere near enough black and blue.”

“Too close to the sky but not nearly close enough to the ground.”

Zach kept silent. The group that was looking through his apartment then was composed of the resident Lich of the Necriona District in town, the (emphasize the 'THE') Grim Reaper, and a young combination of the two. He had to be their son, Zach realized, looking at the figure in the cloak leaning against the wall.

The ghastly face of the Lich glanced over at Zach. Zach had to avert his eyes when he felt his body grow heavy at the sight of the icy blue lights the lich called eyes.

“Are you sure that this is the place?” The lich asked the younger figure.

He nodded in silence. The Grim Reaper, however, wasn't too enthused.

“This is nonsense,” Her voice reverberated through the condo, “We will go back to Necronia and put this nonsense of you 'moving out' out of your head and beyond our troubles.”

Well, it wasn't like Zach had the wherewithal to force these three to fall in love with what he had to offer. He just wished that they would get this over with so that he could prepare for another walkthrough.

The younger hidden figure lifted his head. He tilted it to the side: listening.

“What's that?” The lich asked, taking a listen. “Hm...” It was a raucous sound: crashing, roaring. It would take one's breath away if it could be heard by more than those who could no longer speak.

“It's louder here.”

The first sound of the younger figure's voice made Zach's bones jumped out of his skin. He had been quiet this whole damn time and now he decided to open his mouth? Fucking kids these days...

The Grim Reaper lifted a bony finger to her teeth, dark eye-sockets thoughtful. “I see. Fine.” She nodded to the Lich in the room.

He held up his hands in time for a grisly pen and a checkbook made of aged skin to appear in front of him. Sritching, scratching. “Here you are.”

“Wait,” Said Zach as the check was forced into his hands, “What did you guys hear? Actually, wait!! This is more than first and deposit!”

“Let us be on our way.” The Grim Reaper announced, ignoring the human in the room and leading the shadowy trail of her cloak behind her. She stopped, not to let her husband join her but to address the younger figure. “Fane.”

Zach watched the figure, Fane, lift their head: a lone seafoam light shining out from the darkness of the cloak. “I will be in touch.” Said the Grim Reaper, “Your father and I will be expecting progress.”

And that was that. She disappeared in a haze of mist and, in a blink of blue, the Lich was gone as well.

Zach looked down at the check, grimacing as it began to wriggle before going limp. “Hey,” He looked over at Fane. “Your mother's not going to get mad and cut my life down by thirty years if I deposit this as is. Is she?”

And then it was like night and day. Gone was the quiet stander-by, now Zach was greeted with Fane presumably rolling his eyes and scoffing. “She gave you extra to feed me. God, you're embarrassing.”

“Wait, what?” Zach walked to Fane, the phantom interloper standing shorter than him. “What's your damage all of a sudden?”

Fane turned away. “There's a basement here, right?”

Zach scrunched up his face. Fuck this little shit if he thought he was going to get an answ – “Hey!”

“You're too busy being stupid over there.” Fane said, his cloak dragging on the floor as he found the stairs that descended into the abyss. “I already found it.”

Zach opened his mouth.

Then decided 'Fuck it'.

And merely waved Fane off to do whatever.

The last bit of the phantom's cloak disappeared into the darkness before Zach scratched the back of his head. “What a shitty attitude. Probably gets it from his mother...”

***

“Oh..!”

Scaley claws surged forth to grab at another scaley body, bringing it close to a silk-covered chest. Zach sat on the couch across from a family of three nagas. And they weren't the fantasy-porn variants of 'human torso fuzed with snake bottom' either. 

No, no; these were scaley from tip to tail. The mother of the micro-nuclear family was built more like an elegant cobra compared to her death adder-esque husband and her python-esque offspring. “My baby...” The mother kissed her son's cheeks, her forked tongue flicking out over the same spots. “I still remember back when I laid your egg. It feels like yesterday and now you're leaving the nest!”

“He'sss a twenty-four year-old, Charlotte!!” The father hissed, “Quit smothering him, for God's sake!”

“Raleigh!” Charlotte hissed at her husband. She immediately regained her sweet composure, turning to Zach, “You have to understand: my little Silas has been at home in the nest all his life. And when he up and started talking about 'culinary school'-this, and 'moving out on his own'-that! It darn-near gave me a heart-attack!”

“He'sss a grown ssserpent, Charlotte...” Silas's father hissed under his breath, Charlotte holding Silas tight and baring her fangs at her husband.

“Raleigh..!” She caught herself again, resting a clawed hand upon her cheek, “You'll excuse us for just a moment.” Zach said nothing as the cobra naga dragged her death-adder naga mate off to the balcony. The door slid open, two bodies slithered out, and then the door slid to a close.

But, even with the barrier of glass, one could just make out the furious hissing-match going on outside.

Zach looked to the naga still on the couch. His shy posture didn't necessarily match his large size (at least half a head taller than Zach). His scales shifted whenever he moved: melting from sandy brown to a ripe green. They also changed shape: round, to square, to diamond.

His eyes gave Zach a questioning look and, for a minute, Zach wondered if he had missed something.

Wait.

Silas's hands. The motions that the naga performed were nonsense to Zach's brain until, out of the blue:

'...she's always been like this, I guess. My dad doesn't make things any better.'

Silas was mute. And, thank God for the Enviea because Zach new for damn certain that he didn't recognize the gestures on his own.

“Crap,” Zach said, “I've been ignoring you this whole time, haven't I?”

'It's alright.' Silas signed, 'At least you weren't doing it on purpose.' The naga shrugged his shoulders. 'Like my dad.'

“Maybe if you didn't coddle him ssso much, he would be talking like a normal naga, Charlotte!!”

“HE CAN COMMUNICATE JUST FINE, RALEIGH! MAYBE IF YOU WEREN'T SUCH A STUBBORN ASS--!”

Zach and Silas shared a glance. “Normal for you?”

'Every. Single. Day.' Silas looked down at the coffee table, his claws still moving, 'It's why I finally decided to move out. I actually got into Keebalah Culinary Tech. The crème de la crème of confectionary and culinary education for nonhuman kind. I love my parents, but I can't breathe with them around.'

Zach noticed that Silas's parents were still arguing on the balcony. He stood to his feet and pointed down the opposite hall. “Let's get you a room.”

Silas smiled, his forked tongue flicking past his lips. 'I'd like that.' Silas slithered after Zach and took another sniff of the air. 'It's already becoming a bit of a full-house, isn't it?'

Zach thought about that. “I guess so. But, so far, everyone's been pretty cool about it: mostly going straight to getting their rooms the way that they want them.”

Silas nodded. 'I'll probably have to go back to my parents' nest to get my textbooks and baking supplies.'

Zach felt a bit relieved. No more sudden magic bullshit or flipping through Lovecraft's wet-dreams. “Well--”

The door was forced open faster than Periwinkle could announce it: a pile of loaded suitcases was hurled through the air, smacking into Zach and sending him into the nearest wall.

Silas immediately slithered over and began digging through the luggage. He hissed as it felt like there were lead weights crammed in every corner of every case.

He didn't have long to work. Heavy hooves clopped against the floor, a low voice barking out, “What it do, pencil-dicks?!”

Silas flinched and turned around to see a minotaur looking down at him. The minotaur tossed his remaining backpack onto the floor and scratched at his stomach through his tight-fitting shirt. “Hey, scalie, you seen a human around here anywhere?”

'Yeah! Under your mountain of crap!' Silas signed furiously, eyes narrowed and tongue lashing out.

The minotaur snorted out and stepped over Silas's tail so he could grab his largest suitcase. Zach popped out when the weight was removed and gave the minotaur the grimmest frown he could manage. “Can. I. Help. You?”

The minotaur jabbed a thumb against his thick chest, “The name's Odysseus and I'm taking one of your rooms!”

With Silas's help, Zach climbed out of his weighted tomb and stood up in front of the monumental minotaur: from filthy hooves, to his recently trimmed mohawk. “And, why, should I rent to you and not wait for someone to come along who hasn't crushed me under an airport's worth of luggage?”

Odysseus threw his head back and bellowed out a huge laugh. “Ha, you're funny! Look, my credit-score is fucking flawless and,” He dug into his pockets, “Here, take it.”

Zach frowned even further as he was hit in the face with a check bound to a couple of monetary notes. It had Zach wondering if a good portion of non-humans just had excess money laying around in spades for shit like this.

“Fan-fucking-tastic.” Odysseus snorted out, “Going to go pick out a room. Try to have something to eat for me by the time I come out, alright? Alright...”

Zach and Silas watched Odysseus take his one backpack, the rest of his heavy hoard simply left where he had dropped it. “He's the exact sort of guy,” Zach began, his expression still neutral, “That you just know has a dick so small that he has to compensate in every. Other. Aspect of his life.”

Silas frowned when he heard a door open and then shut. 'He took the room that I wanted.'

***

The brevity of breathing room was something that Zach took complete advantage of: scrolling through inquiries on his phone. With Odyss-Ass and Silas getting settled, he simply had to survive whoever came in next and – O-oh.

Oh.

There were several dragons looking to move in, a banshee, and a dullahan. Zach grimaced at the notion of adding scorch marks and icicles to his daily maintenance rotation. And he actually liked being able to sleep, so he didn't need a banshee living under his roof. Their cries could pierce through any wall or barrier. Maybe the dullahan. Zach lifted his finger to open up the inquiry but his phone flashed as Faaria's picture popped up on the screen.

“I'm still mad at you.” Said Zach after he pressed the phone to his ear.

“Oh, shut up.” Faaria huffed out, “Anyway, do you have any rooms left?”

Zach grimaced. “Yes... but I feel like telling you that is opening the grounds for more 'make Zach miserable' time.”

He could hear Faaria roll her eyes over the phone. “Look, I am sending over a nice young thing who has just made it into town but needs a place to stay.”

“Never say 'nice young thing' again, please.”

“Shush!” Faaria hissed, “Anyway, he's going to be there soon. Don't scare him off with your usual mopey self.”

Zach's face was impassive but his words were flat and cold. “Well that was dickish.”

Faaria sighed. “Sorry, I'm sorry. Look, this kid is really nice but he's, well, trying to get away from some awful things.”

Zach took a seat. “Is he a refugee?”

“No, nothing to that extent. Look, just give him a chance, alright? I'll talk to you later.”

“Later then.” Zach hung up. The sound of slick tentacles sliding across the floor made Zach look to his left to see Nephubos crawling around.

“Sorry, sorry!” The writhing mass said, “We are just exploring. There are so many things in here that we've never seen before. Like this!” Nephubos pressed themselves up against the couch and ran their tentacles along it. “It's so soft and plush! And you... recline upon it?”

“Y-yeah.” Zach cleared his throat, “It's called --”

Nephubos pulled themselves over the back of the couch and landed next to Zach with a loud 'splat'. Zach moved a bit away from the ooze that started to seep into the upholstery. “A couch.”

“I see, I see!” Nephubos reached into themselves and pulled out their unfazed notebook. “'Couuuuuch'.” They scribbled the word down and put several symbols next to it that Zach couldn't recognize. Nephubos's eyes swept across their gelatinous form to look at Zach. “This is nice.”

“Mm-hm.” Zach hummed back. It was... He just didn't want to get too comfortable before – 

“Visitor!” The doorfairies shouted. Zach got up and walked over to the door. He braced himself to be smothered or slimed or tackled... But there wasn't any of that. 

He blinked and looked at the creature on the other side of the door. “Did Faaria tell you about this place?”

His hair was curlier than a freaking R&B convention. Simple but elegant horns twisted up from his head and the mask that was his face crinkled as he chuckled. “Yes, how did you know?”

“Come on in.” Zach stepped aside to let the rakshasa in. He carefully lifted his feet one at a time to avoid the rakshasa's long, striped tail as it followed along the floor. “I thought you guys usually stick to India.”

“Ha ha, yes.” The rakshasa chuckled again, bat wings shivering, “And, trust me, the weather here is already colder than I am used to.”

“It's 85 degrees.” Zach deadpanned.

The rakshasa turned to Zach and held out his hand. “Forgive my rudeness. My name is Suraj.”

Zach returned the gesture and continued into a bow. Zach knew a little about nonhuman culture, after all; he hadn't been raised on an Amish barn.

Zach had to ask, though, even if it was none of his business in the long run, “What's a predator like you doing in this neck of the woods? If I'm correct,” Zach sat back down, he was getting tired of the standing, “Rakshasa are social predators, right? Family piles and close-knit circles?”

Suraj's joyful disposition seemed to die for a quick second. But it soon came back. “I just wanted a change of scenery. It's never good to stay in the same place for too long, right?”

“I'd disagree on that,” Zach turned around, “Well, I can either show you to a remaining room or you can go searching on your own. Your choice.”

With a savage crack, a dozen dripping tentacles seeping out of Nephubos's room. “Oh no!” Nephubos pulled themselves across the floor. They ducked away from the fanged beak-like appendage that surged out and snapped at random.

With Nephubos fighting their bedroom furniture, Zach and Suraj had a moment to think. “Maybe...” Suraj hummed, “I should find a room to set my things in before it gets too late.” He yawned, both sets of fangs revealing themselves for a quick second. “Jet-lag is setting in something fierce.”

“Come on.” Zach waved Suraj over to follow him. “You might really like Room 7.”

They passed Nephubos's room on the way, the tentacle-bleb tying the monstrous beak of their bedroom-set so it would stop snapping.

“Should we help him?” Suraj asked Zach, but Nephubos slammed the door and waved one of their tentacles.

“Nothing to worry about! Just settling into a new home!”

“Home...” Suraj echoed. That word held just that much warmth coming from the rakshasa's lips.

***

It was going on 3:35.

Zach had relocated to the kitchen table. There were deposit checks and cash to the left of him and a layout of the condo in front of him. “Room 3 has a unicorn...” Zach scribbled onto a napkin, “Room 6 has a living porno prop, I have a douchebag in the basement and a turd-sandwich in Room 1...” His lower lip was caught between his teeth as he wrote Silas's and Suraj's names next to Room 2 and Room 7 respectively. And, with Gahiji bouncing in the picture, Zach had successfully managed to rent out all of his available rooms save for two.

“Never! Ever! Met her at all!

Ya wish you never ever met her at all!”

Zach snatched up his phone and walked into the main room. “Zach Bruys.”

“A good strong voice for such a strong-sounding name.”

Oh.

Ooh, baby boy... Zach had to take a second to brace himself up against the nearest wall. Deep, like dark caverns hidden beneath the Earth, baritone voices. The one thing in the world that seemed to make him go weak in the knees.

“Can,” Zach swallowed the lump that had appeared in his throat, “Can I help you?”

The voice on the other end of the line chuckled and Zach felt himself falling ever faster. “I was in the market to rent a room. Well, two of them. To be precise.”

“Two rooms?” Zach echoed, feeling just how hot his face had become.

He could hear the flipping of pages before the voice asked, “Is this a good time to talk? I can call back at another ti--”

“No!” Zach insisted, embarrassingly loud at that. He caught himself too late and shook his head, “N-no. This -- I mean – now is fine.”

“Excellent.”

“Christ on a bike!” Zach fell on his ass with a shriek. He bit his lip again when he heard a bicycle chime in the hallway.

There was no time for that, though. Zach ran his eyes up the tall, broad physique that had appeared inside of the condo in the span of half a breath.

A wendigo. But not the Native American variety that Zach was used to. A dark blue suit with a raven tie, large leather shoes shined to perfection, and thick white hair that made up a beard in the front and fell in long tresses to his back.

Oh, there was also the matter of the large skull that rested upon his neck. A cross between lupine and crocdylinian features with deep dark eye-sockets only broken by the bright eyes within: flashing like blue and green fire as they regarded Zach. Zach followed the tight curl of his horns until the conversation began.

“Forgive my intrusion.” The wendigo closed the book that he had in his hands. “You've probably had a busy day and, here I am: popping in unannounced.”

Zach wished that he could have cared more but this creature's voice was turning his insides into jelly with every syllable.

“...weather we've been having. Oh, my manners.” The wendigo chuckled: the gentle shaking of his chest the only physical sign of the sound coming from him. “My name is Abelard von Baumgarten.” The wendigo offered a dark hand to Zach.

Zach took it and gave an earnest shake. The flesh was lukewarm at best but the way it engulfed his hand (and Zach was a pretty large guy) gave that deep, warm caress of a voice that much more weight.

They let go of one another. Zach covered his nearly flushing features with a quick hand; moving it away as soon as the warmth left his cheeks. “So, asking rent is $878, along with a deposit of first's and last's month.”

“But of course.” Abelard nodded, his facial features unmoving. As expected. And, as expected, Zach nearly groaned out like no man's business. He bit it back, though: continuing on.

“However, with you needing two rooms --”

Abelard reached into his breast pocket and, one extravagant flip between the fingers later, held a check out to Zach. “I am prepared and then some. In order to get these two rooms.”

Zach took the check and let his eyes follow the elegant curls and twists of Abelard's handwriting. Sure enough, there was the necessary amount for the two rooms. “Why...” Zach shook his head to clear away the fog known by anyone who had ever been near a sweet piece of ass, “Why did you need two rooms again?”

Abelard looked around until he noticed the couch. “Zach, take a seat with me.”

They both moved to the couch. Zach all but collapsed onto his side while Abelard slowly let himself sink into the plush cushions.

“I've just moved into town,” Abelard's words were so deep they rumbled through the couch and into Zach's very bones. Zach watched the Wendigo flip the pages of the heavy book he carried until he came to a sketch of the Dama Fristad skyline. “I was just offered a job as the resident Non-Human Researcher for the Dama Fristad Police Force.”

Zach quirked an eyebrow. “Really? And they didn't station you over in Necronia?”

That deep rumble rippled through Zach once more with Abelard's chuckle. “No. Apparently,” He leaned over and said, “Apparently I'm... 'too lively'.”

“Heh.” Zach thought to the phantom in the basement. “Oh, I have my own experiences with that.”

Abelard's eyes looked over to the dark discarded chest in the room. But he didn't speak on how it caught his attention. He allowed the discussion to merge over to his need for two rooms. “Evidence and records.” Abelard explained, “Seems to me that, despite what my work will entail, that I haven't earned enough priority to keep my library inside of the police department building.”

The door to Odysseus's room cracked open: the minotaur jogging over to the couch and tipping it over: Zach and Abelard faling to the floor.

“Where's the food, fat-ass?”

“You were serious about that?” Grumbled Zach. He hadn't gotten to his feet before he heard a painful-sounding bellow. He looked back up to see Abelard holding tight onto one of Odysseus's ears, the minotaur looking about ready to cry: one of his hooves stamping against the ground.

Odysseus bellowed out again, unable to twist out of Abelard's hold. “I know for a fact that you weren't raised in a barn, young one. Don't you figure that interrupting a conversation shows for a strong lack of manners?”

“Let go!!”

Abelard shook his head. “Apologize, young one.” When Odysseus choked and bellowed out once more, Zach could tell that Abelard was pinching harder.

“Fuck, okay, FINE!! Sorry!”

Abelard nodded and let Odysseus go. The minotaur immediately grabbed his ear to feel for any bleeding. He retreated to the kitchen and began rummaging about in the fridge on his own.

Zach got another good look at Abelard while the wendigo's back was turned. He really did fill those slacks out nicely.

A flutter by his ear. Periwinkle. Zach turned to see the doorfairy humming by his head. “Looks like you're at full capacity.”

“Yeah, it's like night and day.” Zach took a second to get the couch right-side-up again. “It's amazing what a ball of water and some resilient bones can do. But, here we are: eight very interesting tenants later.”

Odysseus peeked his head out of fridge, a celery stalk sticking out between his lips and a jug of milk in his hand. “Eight?”

Abelard picked up his book from where it had been tossed to the floor from Odysseus's pestering. “You may want to do a small recount.”

“What?” Zach blinked and held up his fingers. “Silveste, Nephubos, Gahiji, Fane – the little prick, Silas, Suraj, Odysseus, and, you, Abelard. That's eight tenants.” What were these guys getting at? He had single-handedly endured each and every one of their brazen introductions. He would have known first hand if a ninth non-human had tried sneaking in. The only way that he could have forgotten something like that is if they had come in before all the chaos had begun: Zach forgetting about them after the first blow to his self-esteem in the form of a door to the face.

Abelard said nothing. His eyes, though, were looking at that black chest that was sitting in the center of the main room.

Zach followed the wendigo's gaze and immediately remembered how this day had started. This friggin' chest and how he had nearly busted his shin open against it. How he had nearly broken his back carrying it in. And now it was trying to make more trouble for him?

“Hey.” Zach nudged his foot against the chest. “Hey. Get up.”

The chest rumbled and trembled. It yawned and grumbled. It snorted up a bit of air and let out a muffled sneeze.

The latch in front unclipped itself, allowing the lid of the chest to open with a significant 'pop'. Inside were rows upon rows of knife-like teeth and thick, opaque drool drenching over fleshy burgundy walls. 

A long, thick tongue lolled out of the chest and, on the inside of the lid, a great eye that shined like a ruby blinked up at those in the room. But it wasn't garnering the most attention at the moment.

Nay, that went to the form of the young boy whose torso hung out of the vicious chest: anything from his waist down dissolving into that slick, dark flesh. The boy 'sat up' and gave an exaggerated yawn that was copied by the rest of the chest. He opened his eyes and looked at his surroundings with ruby-colored eyes.

“Hey...” He looked and pouted, his thick bobs of copper hair following his motions, “This place is pretty nice on the inside...”

“And who are you?” Zach asked, already feeling like he wouldn't like the answer.

The boy... the treasure-chest... The mimic gave a small two-finger salute. “The name's Mira. And I want to live here!" 

Zach folded his arms. "Tough tiddy, kid. First off, I'm not even sure you should be living on your own. Secondly, do you even have the money to pay rent and a deposit. Third, I'm out of rooms."

Zach almost felt bad, too; he wouldn't want to send a little thing like this Mira out on the street. 

But Mira merely. 

Chuckled. 

"Listen, kid." He shrugged, "I've been around since the Aztecs were wiped out due to a bunch of guys who didn't know the meaning of 'pull out'. I'm not going to be rejected by some squirt barely out of diapers. Or access to PornHouse.com. Fucking douchebags." Mira sank into the chest, the lid falling shut. It opened up again so Mira's tongue could hold out two handfuls of gold coins, jewelry, and gemstones to Zach. 

Don't tell Zach how he knew they were real or how he figured that the mimic would lash out and rip off his arms, it was a mystery to him.

"This is all fine and good," Zach had to insist, "But I still don't have a room for you." 

Mira closed himself and reopened with his boyish appearance back in place. "I'll just stay in the main room here. A room of my own would probably be too much space anyway. Everything I need is inside me."

"Huh." Zach nodded, "That was surprisingly deep." 

"Of course it was!" Mira closed himself and reopened with a laptop in his hands. He turned it on and asked, "So, what's the passcode for the wifi in this place?" 

Zach had to decide what was more worth it at that moment: stopping Odysseus from eating him out of house and home, kicking the mimic out, or finding some way to keep Abelard talking so he could hear more of that lovely, lovely voice. 

He sat back down on the couch. "You." He pointed to Mira, the mimic waiting with wide eyes, "'Melancholia'." 

"Finally~!" Mira typed in the passcode, whooping when his laptop connected. 

Zach turned to Nephubos, the tentacle-bled crawling out of his room. "You. Has your furniture calmed down yet?" 

"We... think so?" Nephubos offered. Zach watched Nephubos crawl to the kitchen and finally turned to Abelard. The wendigo looked down at him. Zach could swear he was smiling. 

"You have quite a bit of work ahead of you." Abelard hummed. But Zach merely reached for the remote and turned on the TV. The afternoon news was on: a clown reporter honking away her report about a local cafe that had just opened. 

"As long as my condo isn't burned down to the ground, we're good."

4: Hooves and Claws
Hooves and Claws

The morning sun broke through the thick canopy of pine and ash trees. 

Crisp, clean waters cascaded down upon Silveste: cleansing his coat and relaxing his mane and tail so that they seemed to melt into the crystal pool surrounding him. Silveste nickered and moved away from the waterfall. “Blancher?” He called, his vision obscured by his soaked mane, “Bruner? I – Oh,” He stopped when he felt hooves upon him, “There you are.”

Blancher, the white donkey, brought over a woven basket filled with glass bottles and spheres full of powders and liquids.

Bruner, the brown donkey, came carrying towels knitted from the wool of Fae Ewes and golden brushes.

The two donkeys waded through the crystal pool until they were close enough. Blancher poured the contents of several bottles onto Silveste's back. A combination of sweet-smelling liquid and shimmering powder was massaged into the unicorn's drenched mane: Blancher's hooves belying just as much, if not more, dexterity as human fingers.

“I should get a new phone...” Silveste hummed, keeping his eyes shut to prevent any soap from getting into his eyes. “My parents are probably wondering about how the search is going. Though I have just moved in, so I guess I have a bit of a grace period. Also...”

Blancher and Bruner had learned, after twenty-two years of service to their prince, that the best means of action was to tune him out whenever he began to ramble. It wasn't a feat of disrespect, just an attempt to retain one's sanity.

Blancher guided Silveste underneath the waterfall: the clear waters whisking away the bubbles and oils.

Well.

Most of the bubbles and oils.

You see, with more than two-thirds of the suds left, the waterfall had trickled out.

“Blancher... Bruner...” Silveste huffed out. But the two donkeys could only shake their heads.

“Water disruption?” Blancher asked.

“Water disruption.” Bruner confirmed.

Silveste walked to the shore of the lake and struggled to pull himself out with his form being weighed down by water. “This is a truly unacceptable course of occurrences! My follicles need to be lathered, rinsed, and repeated to a completionary scale before I can commence with my daily compendium of actions!”

Blancher and Bruner had tuned out around 'unacceptable', so they were waiting for their prince to calm down long enough so that they could get to the bottom of this.

Silveste grimaced with how he was still dripping with suds and oil. This had to be the work of whoever was in the room next to him.

“Blancher! Bruner!” Silveste nodded towards the small vale of trees that led to the door. “Let us go and clear up these chaotic principles of aquatics!”

***

Silveste knocked a hoof against the door of the room next to him. “Hello? Hello in there!”

Blancher and Bruner stood at either side of their prince; the unicorn huffing as he didn't get an answer soon enough for his liking.

“Hello?!” Silveste knocked harder until his efforts resulted in the door easing inward: a warm air billowing over them.

Without hesitant thought, Silveste traveled down the golden brick-hewn path that led deep into the earth. Blancher and Bruner followed him in. They passed intricate carvings of hieroglyphics and paintings curled and swirled onto the wall in striking golds, reds, and blues.

A gentle tug on his tail stopped Silveste at the base of the descending staircase. The unicorn looked around and saw that, with a few more steps, he would have fallen head first into a pool of warm, jasmine-scented water.

Water that was surely the cause of his own shower being cut short.

Blancher and Bruner followed the sides of the pool until they happened upon two large paws dangling out of the water.

Silveste grit his teeth, nostrils flaring and hooves kicking at the ground. “A lion? Here?”

Blancher and Bruner narrowed their eyes, ready to defend their prince. “Dying to a lion in the line of duty.” Blancher hummed.

“Seems like a nice way to die.” Bruner whistled back.

The waters broke apart and the three equines in the room braced themselves for the worst...

“Wow!” Gahiji whistled as the waters settled, thick drops rolling down his mane and fur. “I didn't realize how deep this pool went! Ma'at really went above and beyond for me~!”

Blancher and Bruner immediately deflated away from their offensive stances. “Sphinx?” Blancher asked.

“Sphinx.” Bruner confirmed.

Silveste wasted no time when the assumed threat was dissolved. “Hark there! Keeper of wisdom!”

Gahiji tilted his head.

Silveste huffed out, “Okay... Could I inquire upon the fate of the aquatics belonging to me that would be facilitated for cleansing?”

Gahiji bit his lip. “I wouldn't know. I just filled up my pool for a bath a few minutes ago.”

Silveste stepped back. Someone who understood him upon first words. “Oh.” He shook some soap from his mane, “Well, then your bath has resulted upon the abrupt cessation of my own and I demand compensation!”

“But I didn't do anything...” Gahiji gave a little pout. As little as someone his size could muster. “You're really high-strung. Ooh, how about a massage! I'm really good at massages!”

Silveste groaned, his mane falling limp over his face. “Look,” He nickered, “I just want to finish my bath so I can move on with my day. Could I please use yours.”

Gahiji clapped his paws together. “Of course! That way we can talk, get to know each other, discuss our favorite foods...” Gahiji went on and on, not noticing how the water in his pool was starting to descend. By the time Blancher and Bruner noticed, Gahiji had felt his rump touch the bottom of the still-warm-but-ultimately-empty pool.

“Oh.” Gahiji frowned, tail flicking listlessly. “Well, that happened. I guess. But!” He beamed, “We can still talk! Oh, I know! Truth or dare! Twenty-Questions? 'Never Have I Ever'!”

Silveste could feel the hair in his mane cry out for washing and fluffing. It had been far too long: the oils were surely stripping away his hair's nutrients. Tears in his eyes, the unicorn tossed his head back and neighed, “ZACHARY!!”

***

The water-closet door swung open: Zachary setting down a toolbox and looking around. "I've lived here all my life." He deadpanned, "And I've never had the water-heater give up the ghost like this." 

"I can't go out like this!!" Silveste bayed out. His eyes frantically flitted left, then right. "There has to be some less-taken course of directory actions that has yet to be expl--" 

Zach used the bucket in the water-closet and poured some of the cooling water into it. He quickly upended the bucket over Silveste. "What did I say about doing that?" Zach sighed. 

Gahiji smothered a laugh behind his palm at the sight of Silveste's pitiful state. The poor unicorn's eyes began to water, and it wasn't from soap. "I'm a prince... Why is this happening to me?" 

Zach got out a wrench and went to work. With every twist of a nut and tap against hollow steel, his muscles bunched up underneath the shirt he wore. "Shit-times don't care about titles. When they decide that your life needs to suck for a bit, prepare to get on your knees, because shit-times are not gentle." 

Zach examined the exhausted water-heater. He finally whispered, "Shit." He got up and started to leave. 

"Where are you going?" Gahiji asked, bouncing after Zach and shaking the apartment. "Can we come?" 

Zach shook his head. "I need to go pick up some stuff to fix the water heater. Can you guys just... stay here so you can tell the others not to try and take baths until I fix this?" 

Silveste, once Blancher had come over with the briefcase that held his wand, took it and waved out a spell. The water was wicked away from his mane and tail: the curls returning and the colors shining as bright as ever. "I'm not so sure if we--"

"Can do!" Gahiji plopped a paw on top of Silveste's head. "Come back soon, Zach!" 

Zach shook his head. He patted his side to make sure he had his wallet and phone. Zach nodded to himself and walked out of the condo.

Bruner came along and offered Silveste a sparkling muffin. "Going out today?" 

Silveste took a bite and shook his head. "No... My mood has been shattered, torn, and all but dismantled into a million pieces before being tossed amongst the chaotic waves of life." 

The hallway was quiet save for occasional puffs of equine breathing. 

"..." Gahiji blinked. He leaned to the left. Then to the right. "So..." He asked Silveste, "What's your favorite color?"

"The color of disappointment and panic." Silveste frowned. 

Gahiji blinked. "Oh..! You must mean black! One of my former classmates really liked that color. Then again, he was a death-god, so I guess it was a given..."

5: Shopping in ShimmerGale
Shopping in ShimmerGale

“I think this might be it.”

The fluttering of pages.

“Okay, yep!”

Nestled between two department stores not too far from Zach's building, Pecan Pavillion was a simple bookstore that managed to keep a steady clientele despite being in the era of digital publications reaming the living hell out of the printed word.

Rory Fontaine was similar in age and build to Zach, but his warm demeanor and small presence mixed with his softer voice made him seem that much younger. That much smaller in being.

“Here you go.” Rory set a book down on the counter in front of Zach, “'Plumbing and Piping on the Nonhuman Scale for Dinguses'.”

Really wish it wasn't called that.” Zach frowned. He picked up the book and skimmed through a few pages. He also stepped aside when an old cyclops hobbled over. “You are a lifesaver, though.”

“Think nothing of it, Zach.” Rory rung up the old cyclops (throwing a free cookie into the bag; his favorite recipe). When the cyclops hobbled off, Rory adjusted his wide glasses.

“Aside from your plumbing issues... How's everything going so far?”

Zach reached into his pocket and slid over a fiver. Rory sighed, “That bad already, huh?”

“Not really.” Zach watched Rory take the bill and replace it with a package of three cookies wrapped in purple cellophane...

Which was soon joined by a twin.

And then a triplet.

Zach quirked an eyebrow at Rory, who simply offered, “Share them with your tenants, Zach. I'm sure they'd like them: every nonhuman that has ever tasted my cookies has raved about them.”

Zach knew better than to say anything about how those words could have had a second meaning. Didn't hurt to think about it, though.

“Well,” Zach shoved everything into his bag, taking special care of the cookies, “I'd better get home before the place gets pulled into a magical sinkhole.”

“Are you going to the gym tomorrow?” Rory asked, “They're finally fixing the racks.”

Zach cricked his neck, rubbing the initial smarting on his shoulder it caused. “Maybe. I won't be able to get a good set in if I'm constantly worrying about someone setting my condo on fire with a stray bolt of magic or some goth-wannabe pissant turning the place into a graveyard.”

Rory nodded, his bangs following the motion. “Well, text me to let me know. And, if anything else research-related pops up--”

“I'll come running back.” Zach waved as he left, ducking out of the way of the lamassu that was lumbering in.

***

Sand baths four times a week.

Soap and water baths three times a week.

Luckily for Silas, the morning of his new residence's water issues landed upon a sand-bath day.

The naga slithered out of his room and noted with a wash of relief that the main room and kitchen were empty.

Save for the mimic hammering away at a game controller connected to his laptop.

Silas really didn't feel like a conversation was needed; the mimic's eyes were focused on his screen.

He slithered into the kitchen and took a quick stock of what was on hand. Just enough flour... Just enough butter... Some vanilla extract. Wow, he really needed to do some grocery shopping before his classes started. As for then and there, however, Silas grabbed what few ingredients seemed good and set them on the counter.

His claws were washed with care, Silas making sure to get soap into the crevasses of his nails. A quick dry was followed by an apron being tied around the naga's waist. Silas searched for a bowl large enough for dry ingredients. The only one he found was, urgh... Plastic. Silas felt the bile rising up, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

Something simple, was his thought. And, hey, if it was good, he could share some with Zach. The human seemed like he could do with some cheering up.

Sift the flour, like you're twisting a rope.

The baking soda, to perk up one's hopes.

Salt, to remind you to appreciate the sweet.

Shake those together, keep it neat.

Butter and sugar, the bane of bad tidings.

Whisk in eggs, vanilla, and milk to be sure. And the result will be a treasure to share and adore.

Silas poured the sweet-smelling mixture into a baking pan. The fact that Zach only seemed to have the most basic of basic cooking utensils made him yearn for his own kitchen essentials to be brought over from the nest as soon as possible.

Frosting would probably be nice. And Silas absolutely refused to mix up buttercream in a plastic bowl. When the oven timer went off, Silas slithered to his room to get one of the few glass bowls he had managed to fit into his suitcase.

No porous surfaces for any stray flavours to linger. Anything mixed inside of it would slide right out with a mere swi--

If Silas had a voice, it would have filled the air of the condo with his screams.

The cake he had left cooling on the counter had vanished with nary a crumb left after.

Silas rushed over to the counter. He looked underneath it, in the fridge, in the pantry... Silas then slithered over to the main room to ask anyone if they had seen his cake.

Sure enough, there it was.

More than half devoured by a Mimic and a Minotaur.

'What are you two doing?!' Silas signed in a panic.

Mira's eyes never left his laptop screen. But the giant red eye in the treasure-chest portion of his body regarded Silas with an air of indifference. “Were you saving this for someone or somethin?”

Odysseus scarfed down the rest of his cake and walked over. He slapped Silas on the back, nearly knocking him over, “You really need to work on your baking, scaliebutt. That cake tasted like shit.”

'THEN WHY DID YOU EAT IT?!'

***

Zach hopped off of the 32 Air Tram when it pulled into the station. He could have gone straight home. But his phone had just flashed with a notification that the open-market over in ShimmerGale was having a surprise sale and he had been meaning to stock up on produce.

“Really wish I had brought one of the guys with me to carry stuff back.” Outside of the Air Tram station a moss-covered path led to the main shopping avenue of ShimmerGale.

The air was heavy with the aroma of newborn lilies and ripe berries: the chimes of flying fairies and pixies punctuated the area. Zach stepped aside, the forest district quaking when the paw of the ancestral Dire Wolf hit the ground: followed by the rest of its gait. He passed by a small florist's shop. In front of it, two old treemen were gruffing and joking over a game of Chess.

“Come on!” That came from the leader of a group of dwarves. Several of them got into a truck, the leader shouting out, “If we're late to the mines again, I'll have the hides of all of ye!”

Zach walked past a pair of nymphs selling feathers and leaves, had to persuade a swarm of pixies to leave his hair alone, and opted to give directions to a will-o'-the-wisp couple who were trying to visit their daughter in Necronia.

“Remember,” Zach called after the glowing balls of green and pink fire, “If you reach the hall of Judgements and Repence, you've gone a bit too far.”

Zach watched them float away before quickening his pace.

There. The open-market at last.

As far as the eye can see, and a bit further on, there were booths and tables full to bursting with the fruits and baked goods of nonhuman labor.

Zach deftly avoided any table being handled by goblins and grabbed a basket.

“Turkish Delights~!” A young witch with white hair called out as Zach passed by, “I promise they taste better than the shitty ones my sister-in-law makes when she's busy trying to kill Jesus-allegory lions~!”

A jackalope reared up when Zach picked up some of their carrots and spinach. He turned around and picked up some turnips before handing the jackalope some money for his purchases.

“I wonder if anyone in the house is vegan...” Zach hummed, walking over to where an orc butcher was selling fresh cuts of meat. He paid for some short loin and some hanger steak, the orc grabbing a large butcher's knife and cutting out the choices. When they were wrapped up, Zach placed them into his basket and walked away.

It was only then that he remembered. “Wait. Isn't Suraj Hindu?” He looked down at the beef he had just purchased.

“Damn it.”

***

'Wow!' All three of Nephubos's eyes went wide as the tentacle-bleb crawled around Abelard's library. 'There are so many books in here!' The wendigo had taken a quick cold shower (because surely a brief coldwater wash wouldn't cause too much damage with what Gahiji and Silveste had told him) before setting up his much-needed space.

“Yes, young one. I know that your education is going to have you reading quite a bit. So feel free to come in and use whichever tome you need.”

With his bookshelves spanning from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with pamphlets, scrolls, and thick books filling up every nook and cranny, Abelard was still thinking about what supplies and collections he would need once he started working.

Nephubos crawled to one shelf in particular and pulled out a book entitled: ''Dissection on the Past Relations of Humans and Nonhumans' – Oh! We shall start with this one!'

Abelard chuckled and rubbed at his beard. “Keep in mind, young one, you can come in here anytime. And, unless I need it for a case, you can take as long as you'd like with any of my books as well.”

Nephubos nodded before they held the book close in its tentacles and crawled out of the room. They soon came back, 'Thank you again! Your kindness is most appreciated!'

Abelard walked over and pet the top of the slimy tentacle-bleb. “It is my pleasure, young one.”

***

After getting some fruits, more vegetables, and some chicken and fish (because fuck everything if he was going to make a bad impression on a rakshasa), Zach came to the full realization that there was no way he was going to be able to carry these things home.

“Where the hell is the Delivery Post again?”

The wooden counter of the ShimmerGale Open-Market Delivery post had been grown into the mossy-ground. Red and mauve toadstools peeked out here and there, ivy wrapping around the stool that grew up from the ground to accompany the counter. Zach walked over daisies, vines, and bluebells until he got to the admittedly small line to the Delivery Post.

If anything, it only seemed big because the two creatures ahead of him were ornate dragons. The Chinese sort, to give further detail. Talking away and flicking their long, scaled tails every so often: creating minute hazards that had to be avoided.

“I mean, it isn't even good sauce!” The golden dragon told his cobalt dragon friend, “Oy, I remember when I first came to this country! You could get a real, with actual Szechuan Sauce, for three dollars! And that included tip! Oy vey, the passing of the years! It's a mess!”

“Ah, you are stuck in the past. Come, we need to get these groceries to your wife. She's a real berryer, that one!”

The two dragons spiraled off into the skies beyond the trees. Zach hefted his purchases up onto the counter. The employee on duty was a young gryphon, her fur a dusty tan and her beak painted pink (for painting one's beaks or talons was a bit of a new fashion with the gryphon set). “Alright...” She typed pretty fast for someone with heavy paws tipped with fearsome talons. “Address, please?”

“1685 Blightblossom Lane,” Zach answered, already getting his debit card out.

The gryphon typed everything up and, after calculating the weight of Zach's purchases, said, “That'll be 8.50 for delivery!”

Zach paid the fee and grabbed an apple from his purchases as they were carried off. “I really should start heading back.”

6: Home Again, Home Again; Jiggety-Jig
Home Again, Home Again; Jiggety-Jig

“That's it!!

The door to the basement slammed open. Gahiji and Silveste could hear furious footsteps stomping up the stairs until the owner of the steps charged into the main room.

Fane glared at the two large living creatures sitting in front of him. Gone was his heavy black cloak in favor of a black hoodie and skinny jeans. The hood was pulled over his face but one could still see how his face was savagely torn between a skull and the limp, hanging skin of a corpse. A glowing green eye shined out from the eye-socket of the corpse half, slightly obscured by bangs haphazardly dyed pale blonde and pink. Despite his other eye being a deep, empty hole, the phantom kept a mighty scowl. “Has the friggin' water been fixed yet?”

Gahiji tilted his head before bouncing up, Silveste too late to warn him. “Ooh! You must be Fane! You look a lot different than I thought from your voice!”

Fane rolled his eye. “Can you answer my fucking question? Has the water been fixed yet? Actually, where's that fucking human anyway?”

“He went to go get the things to fix it, if you must know.” Silveste huffed. “All we can do is be patient.”

Fane groaned, storming over to the kitchen. On his way, he noticed Mira: still playing his game. Fane, quick as a whip, changed course and snapped the laptop shut.

“What the fuck?!” Mira screamed. He whipped around and yelled at Fane, his lower body's teeth and eye rearing up. “Who put a bunch of sand in your vagina, asshole?!”

“Well, maybe you should listen when people are asking questions. Instead of playing your shitty, normie video game bullshit.”

“Oh, fuck off, you pretentious piece of hipster jailbait!!” Mira shouted back.

It was at that point that Suraj decided to pop out of his room. He had a pair of earbuds on, the soundtrack to his favorite Bollywood movie of the week blasting in his ears. He danced into the kitchen and started to make himself a cup of tea; oblivious to the fight boiling up around him.

“Um,” Fane puffed a bit of air against his lock of hair, “Do you have any idea who you're talking to?”

“Yeah!” Mira huffed, “Some spoiled pussy bitch-baby who has never had to deal with anyone calling him a pussy! Well, guess what?!” Mira took a deep breath, his small cheeks puffing up, “YOU'RE A GIANT, SPOILED PUSSY!

“THAT'S IT!” Fane yelled, charging at the Mimic.

At this point, Blancher and Bruner were shielding Silveste from whatever the conflict would bring. Gahiji frowned, turning to Silas, “Shouldn't we stop them?”

'Maybe the angry corpse will be able to cut my cake out of Mira's stomach.'

All the yelling had warranted Abelard to come out of his own room. “What is the meaning of all of this? All of you need to calm down and start acting like the young adults you are!”

Fane gave the advice as much note as one would give a 'Don't Pirate this Software' notice. He managed to seize Mira by the throat and was getting a good throttle going on before Mira shut himself. He bit deep into Fane's arms before hurling him down the hall.

Mira opened himself up and gave a smug shrug, “Talk shit, get hit.”

Suraj picked up his mug and took a deep sniff of the jasmine tea he had brewed. Looking up, he noticed the chaotic scene and took out one of his earbuds. “Did I... miss something here?”

Silveste sighed, resting his head against one of his hooves, “Hopefully this will be the end of it. I hope Zachary gets back soon...”

Gahiji was about to say something when his eyes flashed gold. He frowned and reached behind himself for an umbrella.

Silas quirked an eyebrow. 'What's that for?'

“Wait for it.” Gahiji sighed.

Abelard was about to berate all of the younger nonhumans again when he heard the creaking and the groaning. It got louder, sounding more and more painful.

Odysseus walked out of his bedroom, a porn magazine in his hand ('Succubus Salaciously', a classic publication). “What the hell are you faggots doing out here?!” The Minotaur bellowed out, “I'm just trying to beat my meat, like a normal person, and you all are out here: KILLING MY BONER!”

A boot-clad foot stomped into the carpet. Everyone looked down to hall to see Fane.

Hefting the water-heater above his head.

He clenched his teeth together and hurled it into Mira: the Mimic screaming until the heater made impact and sent him flying into the nearest wall.

Fane stood up straight and gave a toss of his shock of hair. “Eat that, asshole.” He felt a tapping at his shoulder. He turned and saw Abelard standing behind him. “What the fuck to you want?”

“Young man,” Abelard asked with a sigh, “Was that the water-heater you threw just now?”

Fane opened his mouth but the bubbling of water cut him off. Both of them turned around just in time to see a flood of water surge up and wash over them. Gahiji managed to black most of the water with his umbrella and Silveste was kept mostly safe via Blancher and Bruner. But Silas, Suraj, Odysseus, Fane, Mira, and Abelard were caught in the flood. The water filled the condo up to the ceiling and stayed there.

The opening of the front door was muted by the onslaught of water. But the majority of the water sluice out of the condo when the door was opened all the same. When the water let out, everyone took a moment to regain their bearings. Abelard stood up and removed his coat. “Oh, the dry-cleaning for this is going to be a nightmare.”

“MY RI-I-IG~!” Mira sobbed, holding his waterlogged laptop to his chest.

However, one had to think back to the notion of the open door. Sure enough, it was Zach. He looked around the soaked remains of his condo: silent as the dead.

“Oh boy...” Gahiji frowned, Blancher asking,

“Think he's pissed?”

“He's definitely pissed.” Bruner answered.

But Zach stayed silent. He wiped the excess water off of the hallway table and set the cookies and book down. He then dialed a number on his phone.

And waited.

Everyone was too uneasy to be the first person to speak.

Zach kept on waiting until a voice on the other line spoke up. “Yes, is this Ascendant Home Repair? Yeah, I need someone out here ASAP.”

'We do not wish to be alarming anyone!' Nephubos popped out of their room and cried, their words heavy with worry, 'But we do not think that human living spaces are supposed to be wet like this!'

7: Coming Clean
Coming Clean
Evening in Dama Fristad. The entire city was draped in the cloak of violet darkness: nocturnal beasts and late-shift workers wandering the streets.
Silas signed something but since the group was walking outside, Abelard had to step in as translator. “Silas shares my apologies for the damages.” 
“It's fine.” Zach shrugged. “I guess it's my fault for leaving you guys alone so s—”
“Hey!” Odysseus snorted out, “Don't go talkin' about me like I'm a calf who needs babysitting, pencil-di--”
One withering look from Zach managed to shut the Minotaur up.
The group walked down the cool streets, light posts shining and basilisks slithering blindly towards final bus-stops.
Zach felt the ground quaking and knew that Gahiji's voice would soon be ringing in his ears. Soon enough, the sphinx bounced over to Zach's left and asked, “So... Where are we going? Ooh, is it the donut shop? I could go for donuts!”
“No donuts.” Zach sighed, stopping in front of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. You know, the types that scared off Yuppies but had better food than the best restaurants on Yelp.
Fane was quick to let his disgust be known. “Ugh, what the hell are we doing here?”
And, unfortunately, Silveste silently agreed. He could feel grease sticking to his coat just from standing in front of the restaurant. But Zach was already opening the door.
“Wǎn-shànghǎo~!” They were all immediately greeted by the family who owned the restaurant before the wash of spices flooded over them. Zach walked right up to the counter where the mother of the family, not at all daunted by the size of the large, leathery creature. Or her teeth.
“Oh, Zachary!” The Taotie grinned, the gesture spitting her face in two; a lone eye in the center of her head crinkling up. “You here for two-for-one dumpling platter night? I get you table!”
“No, no Mrs. Kwong.” Zach gave a low sigh. “Just a bath. Largest room, please.”
“We have to take baths here?” Fane scoffed and grimaced, “In a shitty Chinese restaurant? Can't you do anything useful and tell those repair dragons to hurry up?”
“Okay, one,” Zach began, “Shut the hell up.” Before Fane could sputter out in disbelief that a human of all things was talking back to him, Zach continued, “Two: The repair dragons said that they need at least five hours to get the condo back in shape. And three, and this is kind of important, ahem... I was on my way back to do a simple fix of the water-heater. You just had to lift the thing up from the pipes in your little hissy-fit. So can we please just enjoy a bath, get something to eat, and eventually go back home without any more diva bullshit? Okay?” Zach paid for the bath and a group dinner and, eventually, one of the employees came to guide them to an open room.
Zach followed the employee first and his tenants held back a bit. It was Mira who spoke first.
“You just had to go and piss the human off, didn't ya, Bonejangles?”
“Oh, fuck off.”
***
Eventually, Mrs. Kwong opened up a door down the hall and revealed a chamber the size of a suburban living room. The majority of the space was filled by the steaming pool of water that stretched from the small bit of tile where the table that bore towels and soaps, as well as a small patch of cubbies in the wall to place clothes and belongings in.
“I didn't realize it would be such a sizable space.” Abelard hummed, Zach nodding,
“When my friend Faaria threw a surprise party and ruined my plumbing a few years back, this place was a lifesaver. I've never had to use the larger rooms, though.”
Silveste walked along the edge of the pool. “I smell...” He took a deep whiff, “Seaside Jacaranda. Phantom Vanilla. And Leprechaun Salt!”
A decadent mixture mixed with warm water that gently bubbled like vintage soda pop.
“Well, I don't know about all of you,” Suraj said, already pulling off his shirt to reveal toned muscles under striped skin covered in faded scars, “But I am about to take full advantage of our incredible landlord's hospitality.”
The sentiment soon grew amongst everyone else: undressing and covering their sultry bits with towels. Though, there were a few hesitancies.
'We are uncertain about how safe this will be for us.' Nephubos cringed away from the steaming water.
Zach stopped just short of undoing his pants so he could go to one of the cubbies to get something...
***
'Yay!' Nephubos trilled out as they floated over the water on a small round inner-tube. 'Whoo!' They added as their tentacles dangled beneath them. 'And other joyous sounds of merriment!'
Blancher and Bruner helped Silveste into the warm pool, the unicorn prince letting out a content whinny as he let himself float through the scented pool.
One by one, everyone stepped inside of the pool (Gahiji grabbing some soap before cannonballing in). Everyone, of course, except for our grumpy phantom.
“I am not getting in this fucking pool.” Fane folded his arms and narrowed his eye, “Can't believe you guys are being so complacent in this. Bunch of friggin' normies...” He turned around. His chest cavity was determined to let his displeasure be known and unignorable. This stupid human... These miserable living nonhumans... Why had he settled for being stuck with –
Fane was yanked into the warm embrace of one-hundred percent bonafide Rakshasa. Now, of course, he had seen Suraj around the condo before. But this was Fane's first time really seeing him. All of him.
From curly hair.
To the veritable sausage hanging between his muscled thighs.
Now, what could have been going through Fane's mind? Things like 'Oh my God, how does he walk?' and 'Wait, is he hot? I think he's hot. Is that weird?' and, of course, 'Am I gay? Wait, this might be a crucial element in my personal development as a person and --”
“You are so tense, my friend.” Suraj placed a hand on the trembling phantom's shoulder, ignoring the green, ghastly flush and the wide eye and the shortness of breath. “Just join us: relax, take a load off.”
“'Load off'?” Fane gulped, forcing his eye away from Suraj's dick. Suraj chuckled and patted the phantom's back before stepping into the pool.
“He's out of your league, Bonejangles...” Mira told him as his chest floated by on a larger inner-tube. Fane merely glared at Mira until he was out of earshot. He glanced over to Suraj, the Rakshasa laughing at something Gahiji had said.
Fane frowned. He looked down. He started pulling his hoodie up and over his head.
Zach leaned his head back. It was half an expression of relaxation and half getting his hair wet so he could properly wash it. He let himself float upright and looked around for a bottle of shampoo. He didn't find one, but he did find a broad, solid wall of black muscle wading over to him.
“You've had a rough day, young one.” Abelard offered, oblivious to the way the water droplets moved down his chest and made him glisten. “How about I take care of your hair for you?”
Zach had to clear his throat and take a few breaths to balance himself. And to make sure that he didn't pop a semi in that wickedly warm water. “S-sure.”
Abelard waited for Zach to turn around and pull out the rubberband in his hair. The locks of brown hair fell flat, tickling the top of the water, before Abelard took a slow breath and poured some shampoo into his hands. “So...” Abelard cleared his throat, trying to change focus away from the close-proximity. “Can you tell me a little more about Dama Fristad? A bright young man like yourself surely has some insight on any...” He put a slight bit of pressure in his fingers: massaging into Zach's scalp, “Interesting spots?”
Zach shuddered a bit, the sensations combining with the warm water and turning his bones into mush.
The moment promptly shattering when Gahiji swam over, Mira perched on his back. “Yeah,” Mira leered down at Zach's relaxed expression, “Teach us the twists and turns of Dama Fristad.”
Zach could have just sworn that Mira was doing this to spite him. Nevertheless, if he could give them a brief rundown of the city, he could have a few hours of peace every so often.
He waited for the floating tray of soaps and powders to float by. Zach grabbed a few of them and let the tray float a bit in front of him. “So, Dama Fristad was made with different types of creatures, both human and nonhuman, in mind. The center,” He gestured to the tray, “Is kind of like neutral ground: ideal for humans but comfortable for most nonhumans. Then there are the five districts.” He poured some blue soap to the left of the tray. “Aquacia: The District of the Sea.” A dollop of purple soap to the right. “Miasmus: The District of Poison and Corruption.” Next to the fading blue soap, Zach added a spot of green. “ShimmerGale: The District of the Forest.”
Above the purple soap was sprinkled some charcoal powder. “Necromani: The District of the Dead.” Finally, next to the green blotch but under the purple, Zach dripped in some red oil. “Ignis Fanis: The District of Fire. But depending on when you look up into the sky, as well as your individual Net Worth,” That last part was added underneath his breath, “You can see El Doradus: The District of Gold."

***

A three-tier tray of food floated over the water: Suraj looking for anything he could actually eat before grabbing some dumplings and gently pushing the tray away with his tail.
"How much longer until the repair dragons are done again?" Silveste asked around his wand, magic drying his hair.
"Thirty more minutes," Zach replied, drinking a cup of wine. "Not much else to do but burn out the last few minutes."
Odysseus shoved some spare-ribs into his maw. "Hey, tell me something, stick-legs: why aren't you pissed off about the condo? Hell, I got interrupted when I was almost done and I'm livid."
Zach finished off his wine. His breathing was even and his expression didn't stray a minute margin outside his impassive coolness. "I am pissed. I am more than pissed. But, really, why should I even try to blow up on you guys. One, I can't."
"Wait," Abelard shook his head, "What do you mean 'you can't'?"
"I physically can't get upset." Zach answered, changing topic like no matter was minded, "Two: as long as you guys pay your rent, you can do whatever you guys want. Just know this..." He grabbed and ate the last sweet cake on the tray. "You all will never get your deposits back. No offense."
The room went quiet.
'We think we are starting to melt...' Nephubos whimpered as their inner-tube floated by and knocked the food tray away.
8: Love-Scratched
Love-Scratched

The thing with beasts of fur and claw is that sharing a bed, while providing a primal, raw experience, has the result of sweating buckets in one's own bed due to the close contact.

Not to mention the 'fur-burn' (like beard-burn but all over your entire body). But, even with these factors, beasts and daemons bear some of the most complex of hearts. Hearts that bleed evermore, hearts that entomb themselves with iron thorns...

And there are the hearts that yearn for love like a parched man yearns for the drink.

***

Bedsprings creaked and complained from the two intertwined bodies above them. One was a man, handsome in face, strong in body.

But the second was a body covered in fur so creamy white that it held fast to itself like a pearl-finish. His mouth dropped open in a syrupy mewl at a particularly deep shift of hips: two sharp fangs hanging from the top, several sharp teeth jutting up from the bottom. His ears, rounded points, and strawberry-red insides, twitched and soft, round paws with paw pads of the same hue fell upon the man's back.

“Love...” The feline being tossed his head back, his breath in rough pants, “L-love you...”

“Mm-hm.” The man responded. But the feline didn't mind.

Being high on love and endorphins will do that to a creature.

***

Late that evening found the feline waking up and rolling onto his belly. He stretched out, his spine popping back into place from the series of contortions he had performed that night.

It was all more than worth it, though. A full night in the arms of the man you loved: the man who made your heart beat heavy, the man whose smile brought forth the morning sun!

The feline creature laid back down and pulled the sheets, a stray thread having caught his attention before he noticed the absence of his love.

He meowed, ears twitching and smooth tail gently flicking about. He got up from bed and prowled over to the bedroom door, peeking through the slightly opened door. He didn't have to go far. He didn't even have to listen too harshly.

“Come on...” He heard the voice of his love whispering, pleading, praying. “Come on, come on, come on!”

The ding of an email being opened floated in the hall.

“Dear Mr... Bla-blah-blah... We are... proud to offer you the position of lead danc-- YES!” He quickly shut himself up and skimmed through the rest of the email. He pumped his fists into the air. He did a little jog-in-place for victory. “Fucking that creepy cat up the ass finally delivered!” He cleared his throat and attempted to compose himself: ruffling his hair, coughing a bit to roughen his voice.

He walked back into the bedroom. Butterscotch eyes glowed in the darkness, pulling a gulp from the man's stomach. “Couldn't sleep?”

“Oh, um.” The man shifted on his feet. “I was just... thirsty. You know: a night of lovemaking can do that to ya! Heh...”

Love... making.” The feline hummed. “Yeah. Yeah, that's...” He rolled over so that his back faced his lover. Out of sight, claws extended out from his squishy paws and cut into the sheets. “Hey. Hey, um, listen: maybe you should go for the night.”

“Huh?”

Was he really pulling an 'oblivious' act right now? “I have an early morning.” Those glowing eyes went narrow, the black slits inside of them contracting.

“Oh.” The man bit his lip. “I... Okay. I'll grab my stuff and see you tomorrow then?”

“Yeah.” The feline huffed back. This was getting so beyond old. He listened to the human gently walk around the room. He picked his clothes, got his briefcase and, finally, tip-toed over to the feline. He gave him a small peck on the back of his head. “See you later, babe.”

“Mm-hm.”

The bedroom door was pulled to a gentle close.

Then the door to the apartment.

When the footsteps started making the staircase outside his building ring and groan, the feline got up from bed. “Where did that collar get to?” He asked as he rummaged through his bedside drawer. “Ah.” He pulled out the familiar red silk collar that held a round golden bell. It stayed silent, even as the feline fastened the collar around his neck. When the collar was in its rightful place, the feline rang the bell with a bat of his paw.

The bell rang out with a hollow chime. It was a dying breath, a pathetic ran during a drought. The shadow of the feline warped and shifted: the smooth form growing jagged and twitching.

Before it could start, however, it was finished: the completion heralded by the sound of a semi truck's horn desperately crowing out.

The chaotic bout of noise was cut off by the sick, splattering crunch of flesh meeting steel and glass.

And then.

Silence.

 

… He just wanted to be loved.

***

“Alfalfa-Vanilla-Blueberry Smoothie for Silveste!” A young cashier called out the drink that they were setting upon the counter.

Blancher walked up, hooves grabbing the smoothie and walking back to the large booth where Silveste and Gahiji were waiting: Bruner arriving soon after with an order of sweet-cakes from the next-door cafe.

“Thank you.” Silveste nodded as Blancher set the cup in front of him. “This is an outing that provides a suitable amount of positive air, right?”

Gahiji nodded, smile ever-present. “It is! You know, I was actually thinking about trying this place with the Almighty Illuminator. But he's always so busy! You know: minding the sun and all.”

Silveste nodded and took a sip of his smoothie, allowing the smooth textures of the yogurt and tart blueberries paint his tongue. “If I may stray upon the territory of those outside of my wisdom and inquire upon your reasons for picking this city as a residence? Surely a creature of your rarity and prestige has available lodgings the world over.”

Gahiji didn't answer right away. His attention was taken by the harpy desperately trying to carry the large smoothie cup in her talons. Her wings desperately flapped and sweat poured down her face in buckets. She eventually was able to set the massive cup in front of Gahiji. The harpy wheezed and panted, “One... dragon-sized... Peach-Mango-Pomegranate Twister Smoothie... With a Ghee shot...” She gave one last wheeze, “And Hibiscus syrup..!” She keeled over, her talons twitching in the air next to the table.

Silveste and Gahiji looked at the poor creature for a while before Silveste cleared his throat and when Blancher and Bruner walked over, he nodded his head in the harpy's direction.

The donkeys hefted the unconscious harpy into their arms and carried her away. Finally, Gahiji felt comfortable enough to wrap his lips around the straw and give a slow swallow. The sphinx licked his lips and sighed, “I just... want to enjoy as many of the world's surprises as I can. And Fane flooding the condo was definitely one of them!”

Silveste couldn't help but find that woefully vague as a response. Gahiji took another sip, but the sudden flashing of his eyes choked him a little. Gahiji looked at the unicorn across from him. “A bride? Do you think you can find one in this city?”

Silveste gasped, once more taken aback by how far-reaching a sphinx's knowledge ran. “Or a groom.” Silveste hummed. He leaned against the table, “I'm not picky with who my heart decides to court. But I do need a spouse sooner rather than later.”

They continued to chat. The company and their drinks providing enough of a blanket that they didn't notice the pitiful body slumped up against the main counter of the smoothie bar.

A Maneki-Neko. His fur was sleek and pearl-like and his eyes shined like aged candies floating deep in scented coat pockets.

The Maneki-Neko's tail curled and twisted around the stool he was sitting on as he licked at the sticky remains of the cup closest to him.

“Not to be a bother,” Said the woman who owned the smoothie bar, “But I think you may have had enough.”

The Maneki-Neko lifted his heavy head. He blinked up at her, miserable all the while, and batted a paw at the bell on his neck. It chimed like the welcoming bells of Heaven's highest-reviewed salon.

Immediately, a young man walked over and stuck two hundred-dollar bills into the tip jar.

Just as abruptly as he came, he was out the door. The owner of the smoothie bar blinked at the more-than-generous tip before bowing out. “Did I say 'enough'? I meant 'take your sweet time, you incredible creature'!”

The Maneki-Neko frowned. He pushed away his empty cup and tapped the counter. They couldn't take too long to make another one of his smoothies: they were literally just yogurt, condensed milk, vanilla bean, and a splash of fish oil!

Gahiji finished off the rest of his own smoothie. He opted to do a bit of people and nonhuman watching while Silveste was having Bruner text a message to his parents.

Humans... Elves... Oh, a water elemental. They were pretty far outside of Aquacia...

Then he noticed the Maneki-Neko at the counter. “Ooh!”

The Maneki-Neko yowled when Gahiji stretched his cheeks out. “Come on~!” Gahiji beamed, “No more sadness! Only joy now!”

When Gahiji removed his paws, the Maneki-Neko had to readjust his jaw. He glared up at the sphinx until Silveste walked over. “Is he deranged?” The Maneki-Neko rubbed at his face.

“He's a joy,” Silveste replied. He cleared his throat and stood proud. “I am Prince Silveste Winterdust.”

“And my name's Gahiji!” Gahiji said, “What's your name?”

“Oh, does it even matter?” The Maneki-Neko groaned. He seized his latest smoothie when it was brought over. “What does anything matter when you're going to end up cold and alone in this miserable world~!” He took a quick sip and continued, “I open my heart up and I get shat on every. Single. Time!”

The Maneki-Neko slumped over the counter, sobbing in those ugly tears that made everyone in a room feel horrendously awkward.

“Bad Breakup?” Blancher asked, hastily drinking the leftovers at the table.

“Bad Breakup.” Bruner confirmed, eating the remaining crumbs.

“Aw...” Gahiji bounced to the Maneki-Neko's side, “Everyone has their bad choices! You just have to stand up, keep the good times in mind, and think about what you want for your next relationship!”

There was chuckling.

Cold, mirthless... “My name's Eito.” The Maneki-Neko said, “And that whole song and dance you just talked about? Yeah, try keeping up that optimism when you're 57 and 0!”

Silveste's grimace was almost comical. “Fifty-seven lovers?” He whispered, “I can't even locate and make acquisitions for a part-time paramour!”

Eito sat up and drank more of his smoothie. The small TV propped up in the corner of the smoothie-bar flashed on, a clown news reporter was honking away about the recent tragic death of a young up-and-coming dancer.

“So sad,” Gahiji frowned a bit, “Taken away so soon. And by such a big truck.”

“Psh!”

Gahiji and Silveste looked to see Eito finishing off his last smoothie. “Asshole deserved it.”

“Wait,” Silveste tapped his hoof to his chin, “You did this? But, how? You are a creature of beneficial luck and circumstances!”

Eito shook his head, lips curling into a smirk, “You think I could run the lottery if everyone had good luck?” He batted at the bell on his collar, “Just being in my vicinity can give people good luck. Or, if they piss me off, bad luck. The bell here is a bit of a conduit.”

“But why would you,” Gahiji rolled a paw in the air, “Do a thing like that?”

Eito turned around on his stool. “I'm a simple creature, guys. I just want to be able to go home to someone who has as much love in their heart for me as I have for them. And how do you think it makes me feel when every. Last. One of them only wanted to fuck me for my Good Luck?!”

Gahiji finally sat down on one side of Eito, Silveste on the other. “Well...” Silveste hummed, “Perhaps you could try... not sleeping with every guy you fall in love with?”

Eito's face twisted into a grimace. “Those words that you're saying,” He wondered, “Can you combine them into a sentence like you're doing?”

“Yes!” Silveste neighed in exasperation, “Yes! You can! Maybe you should make an honest attempt at it!”

Eito licked at his paw and gently cleaned his face. “But how do you even show love in a relationship outside of sex?”

“Well!” Gahiji bounced to the left, “You get each other flowers!” He hopped up and jumped in place for a minute. “Oh, or you make the other's favorite meal after a long day at work!”

Eito pouted. “That seems harder than saying 'I Love You' and having sex.”

“But, I mean,” Silveste cleared his throat, “Love isn't easy. Love, divided into the four mighty houses: Phileo, Agape, Storge, and Eros.” He reared back and placed his front hooves on an empty stool, “All bearing their own trials and tribulations! All influential in the lives of creatures of nonhuman and human affiliations! The truest of loves are finding one whose life accepts you with an intricate but yielding mesh of compromise, understanding, romance, and--”

“Oh!” Eito shoved his way between Gahiji and Silveste to get a better look at the dashing young man who had come into the smoothie-bar. “Who's that good-looking side of Peking Duck over there?”

“Now, Eito,” Silveste tried to calm the Maneki-Neko down, “Remember what we talked about: think more about what you want in a lover--”

By this point, however, the Maneki-Neko already had hearts in his eyes and was hanging on every word that the human said.

“So... You're that Lucky Cat, right?”

“Mm-hm?” Eito snuggled into his chest.

“Yeah, you run the lottery and stuff, right?”

“But of course...” Eito purred. He wrapped his tail around the human's waist, “How about... we go back to my place and, you know? Knock paws and boots?”

Before they could stop him, Eito had already gone off with his latest hope at 'true love'. 

When the Lucky Cat and the poor sod were gone, Gahiji hummed, "The Ancients had a phrase for what ails him. 'Love-Scratched'." 

"I don't imagine that there's an active cure for it." Silveste asked. 

Sure enough, Gahiji shook his head, "Nothing outside of growing up will fix that. Anyway~" He started pushing the unicorn prince out of the smoothie bar, "Come on, come on! Let's go do something! Like ride a train, or visit ShimmerGale, or even..!"  

9: The Story of Delta-759
The Story of Delta-759

Even when the computer that hosted him was shut down or hibernating, he still had a small bit of consciousness.

Words said around him could be taken in in clips and gasps.

A crisp exhale of breath formed slight bytes that formed in the sterile space around his jaws.

“... maybe I could... make a copy... strip the code down...”

His human... He was talking to someone that he couldn't see from his blacked-out domain. His eyes did open, though: fading in from darkness to a low hum of pale blue binary code.

The beast in the darkness lifted his titanic form and waited. Not too much longer.

A series of clicks. Four keys in particular. The light washed over him: a warm wave growing up from the sterile darkness and illuminating a forest of winding code and pulsing circuits.

The lights grew brighter, causing the creature's iridescent scales to react. They shifted color, blue against black, turquoise against black, with every step he took.

“Delta-759?”

The draconian beast's glowing eyes blinked. He turned and lumbered after the echoing voice. “Delta-759, you in there?”

Delta-759 followed onward, He passed several shifts in RGB lighting, revealing an engraving of the Delta symbol on the bones folded against his back.

Delta-759 recoiled when a window of light appeared in front of him. There was a young man on the other side. You could tell from the bags poorly hidden behind his glasses and the cup of coffee quivering in his grip that he hadn't seen a bed in several days.

“Mateo.” Delta-759 rumbled, “I could hear you talking from all the way in here.”

***

“Can you blame me?” Mateo took another sip of coffee. He made a leisurely pace back and forth in front of a wall-to-wall flat-screen monitor, the digital dragon looking in from the other side. “All the coding, the debugging, the Q and A...”

“The worst-case scenarios,” Delta-759 puffed out, “The bruises, the sleepless nights – Look at you, Mateo!”

Mateo did a slight roll of the eyes before Delta-759 added, “You're exhausted! You need to take a knee and get some rest.”

“After!” Mateo downed the rest of his coffee, “Today's test! Delta-759, we're so close. After today, we can get the government off of our backs, get our money, and go off the map. You and me...”

Mateo stepped close. He pressed his hand to the screen, eyes imploring.

Delta-759 breathed out, long and hard: the crisp air flaring his nostrils. Delta-759 lifted one of his own paws and set it against the window in front of him.

“Finally together.” Mateo offered.

“Finally together.” Delta-759 sighed.

***

Mateo typed at his keyboard in rapid sweeps and swings. “Initializing Final Test for Project '759 – Here There Be'.”

Inside of his cybernetic forest, Delta-759 stepped towards the bough of a cliff of glass.

He dipped his head out of the way of two package-laden lights zipping past. Delta-759 didn't want to do this. But he needed to.

***

This was it. Mateo glanced at the three locked files on his desktop background. Three efforts. Three heartbreaks. Three failures.

They wouldn't let those sacrifices be in vain.

***

They would learn from those who had passed. Delta-759 felt the whip-like winds from the abyss beneath him. Crisp like an ocean; bubbling, churning.

***

“Alright,” Mateo started the screen and event recorders, “Delta-759, you ready?”

***

Delta-759 rolled his shoulders. The bones on his back lifted and spread, a gossamer webbing of light growing between them. “Initializing Phase 1.” Delta-759 let the sounds of the ceaseless current of information take him in. Chiming glass and spiraling chirps.

Delta-759 stepped back.

“Godspeed.” Mateo's voice rippled into his ear. Delta-759 bolted forward, leaping off the cliff and letting himself plummet. Plummet into the information stream.

He dove in with a crash but his body went on auto-pilot: swimming with the current.

Delta-759 extended his left wing, his trajectory shifting.

***

“How are you feeling, Delta?” Mateo asked. He jotted down the time and looked at the recorder to see how long they had been at this.

“To tell the truth,” Delta-759 chuckled, “It's great! The wings are handling excellently and my scales are substantial enough. The data stream isn't slicing through me at all.”

Mateo jotted down some notes. “Okay, try to increase your speed. Let's try by several knots.”

“Oh,” Delta-759, “I think I saw something about knots speed by--”

“Wrong knots!” Mateo sputtered out, “Wrong knots!!”

Delta-759 chuckled but got back to business. He whipped his tail, the increasing spires gleaming until, with a click and a whip, Delta-759's speed increased thrice-fold. The dragon dipped over exchanging emails, threaded the needle through uploading videos, and skated past salacious sites of ill-repute.

***

“Alright Delta,” Mateo typed up the command for the next part of the test. “How confident are you feeling right now?”

“I don't know.” Said Delta-759 with a grin, “What do you have in mind?”

***

Delta-759 got his answer just as he was going to make a turn into the rivulet of stocks. He saw a floating package that shined like Sunday mornings and flew right over. Delta-759 didn't grab it immediately, though. He flew a lazy circle around the package of data. His eyes performed a preliminary scan on it for any security measures.

He finally grabbed the package and announced to Mateo, “Initializing Phase 2.” Delta-759 flapped his wings and dived back into the main current.

***

This would be the heft of the test: the part that had Mateo gnawing his pencil to an early grave.

Going in was easy.

Coming back with something was the hard part.

“Keep an eye out, Delta...” He told the dragon.

***

Delta-759 nodded, following the information current into a forest of angry red spires.

This digital parody of a coral forest meant that he was in a more secure area: a place where people actually cared about their information.

Delta-759 stayed quiet and moved on.

He passed a particularly large spire: lights streaking up into the unknown and down into the deep but didn't stay long.

So he missed the ghostly pale face: the sunken in pools of darkness that were its eyes, the grimace on its face that promised only an unyielding hunger.

This miserable creature struggled down a wheezing breath and slithered through the digital current. It's slinking form kept to the shadows of the the spires.

ThepackageThepackage.Notsecure.InsideInsideInside.Wantit!Inside!Thepackage!Infect!Want!Infect!Want!Inside!ThePackage!ThePackage!MIIINNNE!!

Delta-759 hung a rapid right, dodging out of the way of rotten teeth that snarled and snapped.

“Delta-759?” Mateo leaned forward, furrowing his brow. “Delta, what's going on?” The video feed was always muddled in the deeper parts, so all he could rely on was audio.

A croupy snarl pierced through his headset, forcing him to pull it away. “Delta?!”

***

Delta-759 ducked out of the way of the infected creature's attack. This wasn't part of the plan. He wasn't ready for something like this. The dragon panted, already exhausted.

The infected creature lunged forward and knocked Delta-759 off balance. “MATE--!”

The sickly creature, like a bullet, like the slimiest little worm, shot through the digital flow.

Delta-759 shook himself back to his senses. Like a sailor fighting the seas, he reached down within and pulled with little strength he could find. His claws drawn, he drew back--

He faced an abyss known only to the most depraved of creatures: spindling spires of teeth laced the edges of a foul, cavernous maw that encompassed Delta-759 and the space all around him.

All the dragon could do was watch as the miserable mouth crawled forward and swallowed him whole; it's jaws closing in a cruel 'crack'.

***

Mateo felt his heart plummet: beating and screaming all the way down. “Delta-759!! Delta!!” He frantically typed in every variation of 'End Project' and 'Escape' he could think of. He even tried 'Ctrl-Alt-Dlt'-ing several times but he still wasn't getting a response. “No... No, no!!”

This wasn't happening. How could this be happening?! They had been so careful; he had predicted every. Single. Scenario!

“Delta-759, come on!” Mateo pulled at his hair. He was trying to pull out some kind of solution that he hadn't thought of.

But then.

The screen.

Went white.

Not an eggshell, not a pearl. But a grim, ghastly white.

Mateo adjusted his glasses, “What?” He tried to run his antivirus but his whole set-up had been locked. From his main computer to his television... Mateo spared a glance to the massive platform a few feet away. No, he hadn't allowed the computer any access to that yet, it couldn't--

M-minemy-5476#@#!mi-mine-my-mi-mi N-647-no-now-now665667NOW!”

The unholy din of glitches and beeps was corrupting what sounded very similar to Delta-759's voice-bank. But Mateo knew better. Damn his sinking, shattering heart; he knew better!

Mateo lowered the volume on his headphones and spoke into the mic. “Where. Is. My dragon?”

He winced but didn't back down when his eventual response was:

M-mine-mymymymy-1717171—HAHAHA-MYMYMINE--%$^%PACKAGEWORTHLESS!MYMYMYDATA###NEWDATA!

“Where the hell is Delta-759?!” Mateo shouted. “Answer me you glitchy piece of shit!!”

The platform in the room whirred to life. The laptop next to it turned on, the sole script on it pouring down the screen as it initiated a new program. A program that, after so many hours pored over it, now had Mateo's blood running frigid.

“That...” He shook his head, standing and sending his chair spinning back, “That can't be happening. Only I have the passwords to access that program, you can't...”

HAHAHAHAHA!”

The infected remains of Delta-759's voice-bank screamed,

“PASSWORDS: DELTADRAGON!DELTADRAGOON!CAMELOT!”

Mateo jumped into action. Even as he reached the laptop that was causing the platform to shine brighter and brighter, the lights were winding and twisting: swallowing down matter and taking on physical shape.

“No, no, no!” Mateo hissed as every firewall he put up was shattered or extinguished by a warping of one of the passwords that the infection had data-mined for.

Two more firewalls went down.

“D-D-DELTA-TA-TAANDMATE-o-O-o000%#%#%-O!”

The antivirus was soon overwhelmed.

“NEW!NEW!DATA!7&7w96&&&!!!!5%5%%MYMYMY--”

“FUCK!” A surge of electricity from the laptop seized Mateo and flung him across the room. He couldn't move; the impact, the electricity, they had left him numb. All he could do was watch as the virus, a stealthy behemoth of one, overwhelmed all of his computers one by one; the laptop beginning to overheat with how much data was being run through.

Mateo was helpless. He seethed through the pain, not only in his body but also in his mind and heart. Delta-759... He had betrayed someone he cared about again.

The platform kept building upon the physical weight of the lights it gathered. Soon the gnarled and twisted form couldn't even fit upon it, but still it grew.

Larger and larger.

Mateo saw those eyes, formerly beautiful blue pools of code, now writhing orbs of malignant errors. “Delta...” Mateo rasped out, his words punctuated by wet coughs, “759...”

The beast threw its warped head back and let the skies and air above suffer its corrupted roar.

 

“Data.

Mine now.

More Data.

Mine.

It will be mine.

Mine. Now.

Now.

Forever.”

***

Zach stood next to Mira inside of a small electronics shop located two streets over. “What about this one?” He pointed to an impressive-looking computer set-up.

The disgust upon Mira's face dripped down like bacon-fat. “You're shitting me, right? This hunk of crap isn't anywhere near my old rig's stats! Besides,” He pouted and folded his arms, “I need a laptop, not a PC. Where would I even keep this glorified doorstop anyway?!”

“Can you not be a prick about this?” Zach asked, face as impassive as was the norm. “I am trying to help you. Actually, can I ask: why are you out here if you're just going to complain?”

“Pegasus Parcel doesn't have Same-Day Shipping for all of the parts I need. I thought I'd buy local, buuut...” He turned around in his chest and addressed the shop-owner, “Your selection is shit~! You hear me? SHIT~!

“And we go now.” Zach hefted Mira inside of the modified stroller that Mira had offered upon hearing that Zach was going out to replace his rig.

Mira only smirked and shrugged when he heard the angry shop-owner shouting about how they were banned. “Like I'd want to come back any way.”

Zach sighed, looking up as he pushed Mira along. It was a nice afternoon: not too late as the sky had gained an orange hue, but not too early as to bring about cries of 'High Noon'.

Mira was looking around, far too used to being chauffeured around like this, and saw that they were about to pass a bistro. “Hey! Stop here, I'm hungry!”

“Do you have money?” Zach asked.

Mira pouted, looking all the part of a stubborn brat. “I paid rent, didn't I?”

Zach shook his head and pushed Mira inside. They were quickly offered seats at the counter and Zach took the soonest opportunity to sit down.

After making sure that Mira was close enough to the counter to see what he wanted.

God, it felt like he was baby-sitting a toddler. Outside of the drooling tongue filling the treasure chest and the vicious teeth, Mira filled the role exactly.

Which could have meant that Mira didn't fill the role at all.

Mira skimmed over the menu before calling out to the server, “Oy~! Cabron~! Give me the spiciest empanadas you can make~!”

The server clenched his fist and carved the order into the notepad he had before giving Zach his best smile. “And for you?”

“Can I just have a glass of water?” Zach asked, “Oh, actually...” He skimmed through the menu for a bit. May as well get his energy up before pushing Mira back home.

Mira piped out, “Hey, get us a bottle of tequila t-- Whoa, hey!” He shrieked when his chest was shoved aside.

Zach watched a strange newcomer move like a man possessed. He fumbled with plugging in his laptop-charger, he slammed said laptop on the counter and nearly tore off the screen in his haste.

“Come on, come on, come on..!” He seethed, eyes scanning through the screen in shaky motions.

It was just getting too weird. And Zach currently shared a home with a sphinx, a unicorn, a wendigo, and God could only count what else at this point, so he would know full well what constituted as 'weird'.

He reached out to nudge the guy on the shoulder, noting the name-tag on his lanyard that read 'Mateo'. Mateo recoiled back, eyes wide and frantic. “What? What is it?!”

“Easy.” Zach took his hand back, “Just trying to see what's going on.”

“Well, I don't have the time to talk!” Mateo snapped. But Mira was not one to let things slide.

“Hey! Dickhead!!” Mira shouted, “Are we going to have a problem or what?!”

“Can you guys just fuck off for a sec?” Mateo grit his teeth and clicked on one stream. Nothing. Then another. Nothing again.

“No!” Mira was seething now, the eye in his chest glaring and shining particularly bright. “No, buddy, you're shit out of luck if you think I'm just going to 'fuck o--'”

Everything in the bistro lurched three feet to the left: a massive roar echoing up from the ground and piercing through every digital screen.

“Wha...” Mira's second tongue extended from his chest and righted him back up, “What the hell was that?”

Zach got up. After checking that nothing was broken, he saw Mateo pulling at his hair. “Where are you?” He choked when Zach turned him around.

“Listen.” Zach said, holding Mateo with a bit more strength than necessary, “I just want to know if whatever you're messing with is going to make me have to find a detour home.”

“Look, buddy!” Mateo stood up, forcing Zach's hand, “I have a life-or-death situation going here! So if you could just fuck off for a sec--”

That glitching din of a roar filled the air once more.

Mira looked around, his voice wavering the smallest amount, “What is that?”

“Delta-759!!” Mateo called out. He grabbed his laptop and ran out of the bistro before any of the bistro staff could stop him.

Zach knew he should have just left well enough alone.

But he did have to get Mira home.

He jogged outside just to stop dead in his tracks: looking up in the same direction that Mateo was.

“Don't just leave me here!” Mira pulled himself up into his stroller and used his tongue to move towards the door. “Listen, I'll just wait for Pegasus Parcel. Let's get the hell out of here and...” Mira's words trailed off when he finally looked up. “Holy Quetzalcoatl...”

Delta-759 loomed over them: the virus's influence causing his once-proud body to bloat and stretch. A miasma of infection wafted between the wriggling snakes that were his teeth. His wings constantly shattered and rebuilt themselves, the broken pieces falling to the ground and piercing cars and buildings when they made impact.

And those writhing eyes. They rolled around in the dragon's skull, the virus looking for the next succulent piece of 'data' to devour.

The writing eyes swiveled down and saw Mateo, Zach, and Mira.

Delta-759 roared and surged down.

10: The Demise of Delta-759
The Demise of Delta-759

Zach pulled Mateo and pushed Mira out of the way, his own feet scuffing the tip of one of Delta-759's scales as the dragon crashed into the bistro.

Delta-759 thrashed and coiled. His feverish brain couldn't make heads or tails of what had just happened, so Zach took the window of opportunity to get as far away from the creature as possible.

“Delta-759...”

Zach turned to see Mateo. He was regarding the dragon with such pity in his eyes, such forlorn crushing his face.

“I take it,” Zach began, “That you know that dragon?”

The abrupt, bubbling chirp of a siren interrupted whatever dialogue that was trying to bubble up.

Like the actual police siren, not the type of guys and gals who got a jolly out of wrecking ships.

Out of a nearby waterway popped two of Dama Fristad's finest. Navy blue uniforms lay clean and pressed over their breasts. Though one's hair was long and the other's tightly-curled, both of their heads were topped in decorated berets of their uniforms' hue.

Fringed ears flicked away excess water and the tails that ended their lower bodies shined as brilliant gems in the water.

“Megaphone.” One of the mermaids held her hand out to the other, a conch shell megaphone being set down. “Attention!” The first mermaid called out, “Attention! You are, like, currently in violation of Dama Fristad Ordinance D-3869!”

The mermaid police were talking but Delta-759 wasn't listening. His jaws snapped shut around the main register of the restaurant, swallowing it and the surrounding debris: the weight of it a visible bulge as it slid down his throat. “Please cease your actions and turn yourself in or else, like, totally risk physical retaliation!”

Delta-759 jerked and twitched. His body contorted until he was facing the police officers.

The air had no time to grow tense. Delta-759 lashed his tail at the mermaid police, throwing them into the wall of a nearby building.

“Delta-759, stop!” Mateo jumped up and ran to the dragon. He grabbed his laptop and rapped his fingers on the keys. “Come on, where's an antivirus strong enough to--”

Delta-759 snarled and beat his wings. Once, twice, and into the air he went: slicing through the air like a vicious storm front.

“Crap...” Mateo removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. A slick length wrapped around his stomach and pulled him where Zach was standing next to Mira.

Mira let go of Mateo and shut himself. He opened back up, cherubic face glaring up at the human. “You must have the world's shittiest Firewall/Antivirus software.”

Mateo pulled his arm back and curled his fingers into a fist. “Shut the hell up!”

Mira flinched and shut his eyes, body tensing up for the hit.

The hit that never came.

Mira slowly opened his eyes. He had to blink at what he was seeing, but he was, in fact, seeing it.

Zach was holding Mateo's arm in place: right in the middle of its path towards his face. “Let go of me!!” Mateo screamed.

“No.” Zach deadpanned out, “Not until you calm down and tell me what all of that was about.”

“Ha!” Mateo barked out. “You really think I'm going to just spill out my business for some rando on the street?” When Zach didn't let go – Jesus and Mary this guy was stronger than his boring expression let on – Mateo began slinging everything he could think of. “For all I know you could be some kind of Russian spy, or you could working for some terrorist cell--”

Zach jerked a thumb towards the street. “I'm just trying to find out if I'm going to be able to catch the A9 home.” He poked Mira's pouty face right in the cheek, “Carrying this guy around is building up to some serious back-problems.”

Mateo's face burned. His skin was throbbing, he was so upset.

But he took a deep breath. A little of the fire flickered out. Another deep breath and Zach finally let him go.

Mateo rubbed the sore part of his arm. Who the hell did this asshole think he was? Him and his stupid little Mimic fuckbuddy.

“Delta.” He cleared his throat, “Delta-759 is my... My friend.”

“Just a friend?” Mira folded his arms, the eye in the back of his chest lifting an eyebrow.

Mateo clicked his tongue. “More than just a friend, fine! Delta's been with me since the day he was born.”

“He's a dragon.” Zach said, “And not too small either, how is that possible?”

God..!” Mateo groaned, “I made him, okay?! I'm a software programmer. I built and cultivated Delta-759 from the ground up. Piece by piece, byte by byte.”

“A virtual dragon?” Mira looked over to where the staff of the bistro was trying to make heads or tails of the restaurant rubble.

Mateo shook his head, “Don't insult me. Delta-759 is way more than just a 'virtual dragon'.” He was doing his best to ignore how he could hear how Delta-759's roars carried on the wind. “Project 759. My first commission. Can you imagine it?” He looked down at his laptop: the wifi signal far fainter than what it usually was in this part of town. “Perfect internet surveillance. No chances of hacking, illegal sales, torrenting... All gone when there's a living, breathing entity eyeing every single action made online.”

“Wow.” Zach wondered if he should go help the bistro staff, “That sounds--”

“Fucking awful.” Mira interrupted. “What kind of naive bull – Wait,” He interrupted himself, “Who commissioned you?”

“That's classified!”

“A government job?” Mira scoffed, “Really? You expect a bunch of human gringos to be trustworthy when it comes to controlling the internet? They can't even decide whether or not its a universal right.”

Mira took a moment to glance at the person reading this right now.

Then he went back to the conversation at hand. “If anything, this just tells you that you were doing something stupid, stupid!”

“Look, I've already sunk years of development time into this!” Mateo turned away, “I've failed too many times to let this end like this...”

***

Alpha-759!” Mateo screamed, horrified at the convulsing dragon on his screen. He had uploaded too much information too fast; her scales popping up from her overheated body. Mateo was forced to pull his headphones away. He couldn't bear the sounds of Alpha-759 screaming... roaring in agony.

***

Beta-759 swam through the Internet. It was a normal routine expedition to see if the wings Mateo had coded were enough to support a dragon while still allowing mobility.

Veer left, Beta-759,” Mateo ordered into his headset.

Beta-759 nodded and extended one of his gossamer wings out. He wanted to gradually change his direction, to ease into it.

A zip file zipped by, crashing into his wing and shattering it on impact.

Mateo!” Beta-759 flapped his remaining wing, his body plunging into the dark abyss. “Mateo, help me! Stop the simulation and help me..!”

I...” Mateo swallowed. “I can't...”

MATEO..!!” Beta-759 screams echoed, even as his code was torn apart by the darkest parts of the internet.

***

Gamma-759.

It had to be Gamma-759.

… It just had to be Gamma-759.

Mateo watched the slim dragon on the screen sift through a constant stream of information.

Message boards were what they had been looking through. His clients had expressed an interest in being able to screen every message put onto any message board at any time.

Gamma-759 had the propensity, now it was just a matter of seeing him action.

48 hours of action.

Well, to be frank, Gamma-759 only made it 36 hours. The dragon pulled away from the window to the message feed. He thrashed and rolled on the ground, heaving and baying out.

Gamma-759, what the hell is wrong with you?” Mateo called out, “Gamma-759!”

Gamma-759 was already gone. His mind burned down to the numb from the constant flow of inane, spiteful, circling information.

Mateo watched the dragon hurl himself up against the nearest tree: cracking his skull against it over.

And over.

Damn it!” Mateo held his head, his other curses under his breath.

How had he managed to create a dragon with such a fragile mind?

How had he failed so many times over?

***

Mateo opened his eyes. “I have to fix this. Delta-759 is my latest chance at making this work.”

“What I'm not getting,” Zach began, “Is how your friend is out here if he's just a program.”

The brief softening of Mateo's eyes would have been missed by most. But not Mira.

“He wanted to be real.” Mira said, “Didn't he? He wanted to be with you.”

Mateo chuckled. It was sad but it still was a chuckle. “I only got this commission because of my first project. A machine to bring virtual objects to the real world. Delta-759, he... He means a lot to me. I promised,” He took a breath, looking away. “I promised him that after this project, after the last of the tests, we could be toge--”

“Piece of shit.”

Mateo stopped right then and there. “Excuse me?”

Mira grit his teeth, the eye in the back of his chest burning in his anger, “You're the worst kind of human. Did you – did you even care about what happened to him?!”

“Don't talk about me like you know me!” Was Mateo's retort, “I care about him more than I've cared about anything in my life!”

Mira wasn't convinced. “Okay.” Mira said, tilting his head; hair falling into his eyes, “Okay. If you care so much about him, tell me: what were you planning to do after you got your money?”

Mateo choked on his breath. “What... what are you,” He huffed, left eye twitching, “I was going to bring Delta-759 t-to the physical world and we were going to live together.”

Zach hated where this was going. This kid was a terrible liar.

“Cut the crap, kid!” Mira said and this whole while he was beginning to sound like his true age: a far cry from his cherubic cheeks and filthy mouth. “You didn't care! You just fucked with someone's life for money! Just like every other fucking human from the beginning of time!”

There was something else behind these words. Zach took another look at Mira. The Mimic was trembling, his breathing harsh and heated. “You fucked up! And the worst thing is that you don't care! Humans never care!!”

***

Mi..ra..?”

Yes, my prince? I'm here, alright? I'm here.”

It's so hot... Where's Papa?”

Shh, little one. You need your rest.”

***

“Mira.” Zach tried to stop him.

All you guys do is use and take and you never think about who you're hurting!” Mira trailed off in a ragged shout, “Zach, take me home! I can't look at this piece of shit anymore!”

Zach waited a moment. He wasn't going to let Mira think he was in control here. He eventually walked past a stupefied Mateo. Zach grabbed the handles of Mira's stroller and before he started pushing, he had to say one thing.

“I hope your friend... Delta... Still has whatever image of you he had in his mind. It can only be better than what I'm seeing right now.”

***

By that point, the two mermaid officers who were flung aside had been roused into wakefulness by their Oct-0 Units. “Ugh, what the hell happened?” One of the officers groaned.

“Like, I haven't felt this bad since the massive hangover I got from Uncle Siklon's last birthday.”

The first mermaid pushed her cephalopod away and snatched up 2-way radio she had clipped to her hip.

“Time to get some backup on this.” She said, wincing as another building was attacked.

***

Attention all available units!”

Up in the skies above Dama Fristad, out of sight of the tallest buildings and just below where El Doradus would be floating through normally.

Attention all available units!” A small dispatch radio squawked out from its perch upon a pink, scaley hip.

We have a hostile assailant! Code D-3869! I repeat: a hostile D-3869!” A body of melting and building flame flapped his wings.

Can anyone who is available come and, like, help out or something?!”  

The fiery wings flapped again, a voice singing out, “Hm... D-3869? Which one was that again?”

“Oy vey,” Pink wings flapped and rose claws pedaled through the skies, “How did you even get through the Academy?”

“I had my ways.” A golden beak smirked, ruby eyes rolling.

“D-3869.”

The two bickering voices ceased in the presence of one more. Calmer, more reserved.

“'Unauthorized Draconic Rampage'.” A pair of massive raven's wings, feather a glossy black, picked up speed. “Let's go!”

***

Delta-759's writhing teeth ripped through the signal towers near the center of town. By this point, humans and nonhuman alike had heard and seen the destruction coming their way.

Two mermaid officers who were actually covering security duty near the Lady of Acceptance statue took aim and fired at the approaching dragon.

The paralysis darts either bounced off of Delta-759's hide or sank into his rotting flesh. “Like, what the hell kind of dragon is this anyway?!” One of the mermaid officers shouted, the two of them diving into the waterway to avoid the lashing of Delta-759's tail.

An old dragon who was down from El Doradus shopping for her niece's upcoming Bat Mitzvah took a step forward. “Ay, bubbala... Stop this nonsense, you're making your ancestors weep...”

Delta-759 whipped his head around. He spread his wings and began charging at the old dragon, anguished cries flooding out from the bystanders.

A sonic boom cracked the air, two smaller ones following soon after. Delta-759 turned away from his first target. He snarled at the sight of flaming wings, pink scales, and black feathers: all dressed in the same uniforms as the mermaids, just with more medals pinned upon the fabric. Of course, modifications for each body were needed. Say, for a dragon's physique the best mode of dress would be a zip-up vest with a matching belt for her equipment. A Phoenix, on the other hand, would have a modified cap and cuffs around his ankles. And for the shining star of the Dama Fristad police force?

A young Karasu-tengu barely breaking 23 years but already a captain of his own squadron? His uniform was the most complete: a full-set with his medals pinned upon the scarf that trailed behind him. His large wings of ink-black feathers kept him floating in the air: a safe distance from Delta-759 but still in the dragon's sight.

“Attention.” The Karasu-tengu announced, “My name is Captain Oshiro.” A shift in the wind made the scarf flutter to the left. The name 'Oshiro' was embroidered upon it. “I'm here in front of you with my fellow members of the Dama Fristad Police Force. Lieutenant Officer Gasko.” The pink dragon nodded. “And Inspector Officer Ruan.” The Phoenix gave a quick salute. Captain Oshiro continued. “Your actions today have resulted in thousands of dollars in damages as well as the cessation of commerce and the endangerment of citizens. You are currently in violation of Ordinance D-3869, as well as the refusal of arrest.”

Captain Oshiro lowered his voice a fraction. “Will you stand down? Or risk physical retaliation?”

Delta-759 roared in their direction. His wriggling teeth shook and a bubble of fetid breath rose up from his throat.

Captain Oshiro slowly inhaled.

Exhale.

“You have the right to remain silent.” He said, “Anything you say or do will be held against you in the eyes of our Lady of Acceptance: Dama Fristad.”

Delta-759 belched out a wave of his toxic breath. Oshiro, Gasko, and Ruan shot out of the way. As fast as the mermaid officers were in the water, the three of them shattered those speeds when it came to the air.

Ruan let out a shriek, his body enveloping in boiling flames. He made a beeline into the toxic fumes. They lit up in a rainbow of fire and, with a flap of Inspector Ruan's wings, the remnants of the fumes vanished.

Lieutenant Gasko roared as she pedaled her claws through the air, her wings pushing her forward. Delta-759 lashed out with his tail, but Gasko ducked right; she weaved left. “Fercockt little baby...” She growled, seizing the middle portion of Delta-759's tail.

“ERROR!” Delta-759's voice crackled out, MALF-F-F-55522220101010-FUNCTION!!”

Gasko landed on the ground. Her claws extended and dug into the ground with an audible crunch. It was time to put her upper-body strength to work.

Lieutenant Gasko pulled her head back, muscles tensing under her scales. She lifted Delta-759 up by the hindquarters and flung him into a nearby building.

“I hope the chief can write that off as an expense!” Inspector Ruan whistled out.

Gasko rolled her eyes, “Focus on your job, goyim!”

Captain Oshiro landed on the debris that was once the street. They weren't done yet. Not by a mile.

Delta-759 surged out from the ruined building. He was gnashing his teeth; his mind gone in rage. Captain Oshiro stepped aside, allowing Delta-759 to trip over his own feet. Captain Oshiro was about to get into the fray when his earpiece buzzed. “Yes, Chief? … Of course. ... Yes, I understand. … Right.” He looked upon the diseased dragon, grimacing at how his flesh was beginning to slough off of his bones.

“Gasko!” He crowed out, “Ruan! The Chief just called! He said we need to stop playing around and finish this!”

“'Playing', he calls it!” Ruan shook his head. He and Gasko flew down to meet Oshiro on the ground.

Gasko stood behind Ruan as the Phoenix made a circle with his wings. Gasko took a deep breath, a warm light shining in her throat underneath her scales.

Oshiro stood behind her. He needed the best shot possible to end this without any excess casualties or damages. “Left. Two inches.”

Gasko and Ruan, in perfect unison, moved to the left to the specifications of Oshiro's measurements.

Delta-759 got back into a standing position and made to extend his decaying wings. “Anticipate a potential ascension. Adjust for optimal seven-inch upward adjustment.”

Delta-759's right wing crumpled and ripped free from his back. It landed on the ground with a squelch.

Oshiro inhaled.

Exhale.

“Strike that last direction.” He remeasured and said, “Down. Half an inch. Hold.”

Gasko was starting to feel the heat in her throat rise from the confining pressure but still, she held on. Ruan kept his arms up above him, frowning at the exertion of the pose.

“Stop!”

Gasko choked on her flames and Ruan almost fell flat on his face. Captain Oshiro looked around until he saw a human rushing in between them and the rotting dragon.

“Delta-759, enough!” Mateo yelled at the dragon whose eyes were being split open and eaten through by the worms inside. “Just stop it, okay? Don't you remember? What you wanted?”

Delta-759 jerked and twitched. “Ma-Ma-Ma-3333336666668888—Teo-0-0-0-!!&*%^*-o?!”

“Yeah.” Mateo nodded, “Yeah, it's me. Come on...” He reached into his pocket and slowly brought out a flash drive. “I need you to calm down so I can help you. Okay?”

Delta-759 coughed out, Mateo not even flinching as some of the foul-smelling ooze held fast to his clothes. “Easy... Easy...”

“No.”

Mateo blinked at the small voice. It came from Delta-759's disintegrating chest as well as the screens in an electronics store.

“Are you the virus that took Delta-759 away from me?” He asked.

“No.” The voice replied. “I am the ailment that saved him from an even worse fate.”

“What are you--”

The screens in the store lit up, showing video. Video of Mateo in his apartment, before any of this, had happened.

“Wait.” Mateo's eyes went wide. He turned away from Delta-759, “Don't play that! You can't play that!!

In the video, Mateo was on a phone call with an unknown party. “Of course I'm not going to allow the government to be the only ones with this asset. Anyone who wants to bid high enough can get in on it. … Maybe I could, you know, make a copy and strip the code down. Alter it whenever anyone drops the cash.” The past Mateo chuckled, “Of course I'm fine with it. He's just a program. I made three failures before him, I can make a dozen successes after.”

The screens flickered off. Mateo... Well, he was torn, but guilt wasn't one of the forces pulling at him.

He hated how his meal-ticket had turned out like this, but he just couldn't find it in himself to feel awful about lying to Delta-759.

He was just a bunch of code.

The roar that rent the skies was more violent than all the ones before. Mateo couldn't move.

Even as the ground began to quake and tremble, Delta-759 dragging his crumpling body towards the human.

Mateo couldn't move.

“Ma-Ma-Mat-Te-Te-Te-OOOO!” Delta-759 called out. His claws tore away from his feet but he moved on.

“MATEO!!!”

Delta-759 roared, opening his mouth wide enough that the jaw disconnected from his head.

“Fire.” Captain Oshiro ordered. Lieutenant Gasko finally breathed out the plumes of flame in her throat. Inspector Ruan let the flames gather behind his wings until they were in one place. He tightened the circle, the flames concentrated into a single bolt. It shot forward and through Delta-759's chest. The remains of Delta-759 shattered like thin glass: the sound echoing longer than Delta-759's final words.

Watching the shattering remains of Delta-759 rain against the ground, something inside of him broke.

“All my work. Everything.” He slammed his fist against the ground. “ALL OF IT'S GONE!!”

To make matters worse, he felt the cold bite of cuffs against one of his wrists. Mateo turned around just as his other hand was forced into the same cuffs.

“You're under arrest.” A mermaid officer told him.

What?!” Mateo shouted, “You can't – Let go of me! Let go, I need to get started on another dragon! Let go!!”

“What a miserable meshuganah...” Gasko rubbed at her sore throat, “Geez, I'm going to have to nurse this when I get home.”

“He knew.”

Gasko and Ruan looked away from the mermaid officers escorting Mateo away and back to Oshiro. “What was that?” Gasko asked.

“The other dragon, Delta-759,” Oshiro explained, “He knew. He probably just didn't want to come to terms with it.”

Ruan shook his head. “This whole thing has just left me feeling dirty.” Oshiro could concur.

“You two head on back to the station for the debriefing. I'll join you guys after I make sure everything is okay here.” The dragon and the phoenix flew off. Captain Oshiro waited until they had passed the horizon. He reached into his back pocket and brought out his cellphone.

He pressed the first contact on it and pressed it to his ear.

“H-hi. Are you busy? … No, no. Everything's clear here. I just.” He inhaled.

Exhale.

 

“I just wanted to hear your voice.”