PREY FOR CHANGE

By Betsy Dornbusch


The disappearances of their victims didn’t even make a back page splash on Crete’s media, certainly not like the brutal Human deaths had. “No bodies, no news,” Elliot said, shrugging. Still, the media’s silence smelled pusillanimous, as if the Humans sensed their parasite had grown stronger than its host.

“ Must we eat them? It seems so... barbaric,” Christian commented one morning as they stepped from the shower, their bellies still rounded from the previous night’s kills.

“ He didn’t notice. He was already dead.” Elliot’s lips wrapped around his manicured nail as he sucked at a deep gash on his finger. Now that their prey had changed, they often sustained wounds. “Besides, it hides the evidence.”

“ I suppose,” Christian said.

Elliot fixed him with a sullen glare. “You aren’t getting second thoughts in that pretty head of yours, are you?”

That petulance hid great, wallowing danger. Christian relented by walking away from Elliot toward the open window. Lifting his face toward the Mediterranean sun, he registered the distant memory of warmth, and he considered Changing in order to feel it.

But Elliot wouldn’t appreciate it, not mid-conversation. He preferred human form for every interaction beyond hunting. “It’s more dignified,” he always said. “Are we beasts or are we civilized?”

Christian never bothered to answer.

Elliot’s tone took on condescending appeal. “You’re just feeling depressed. Happens from time to time-no shame and all that.”

“ I’m not depressed.”

“ What is it, then? You do believe that what I’m, what we’re doing, is the right thing, don’t you, Chris?”

“ Logically,” Christian said. “Yes, it does make a certain sense.”

“ Logically.” Elliot left a silence between them, long enough that Christian looked back at him. “Well. Since you find it so distasteful, you don’t have to participate.”

“ You can’t do them all on your own,” Christian said, somehow feeling helpless and hopeful at once. “You need my help.”

“ All right, then. Come give us a kiss, and we won’t speak of it again.”

***


When Christian said he wanted to return to the city of his youth, Elliot willingly packed up for dull, gray, winter London and its dull, gray, winter prey. He was ready to leave Greece anyway, since their business there was finished.

They leased a roomy flat with three fireplaces, sprawling wood floors, and enough built-ins to bring Christian’s library out of storage. It had been decades since they’d settled in so completely and comfortably, and under that contented guise Christian began his betrayal.

The parties in London were attended in full Change. Elliot didn’t approve, but he claimed it was a good chance to study the enemy.

As he stepped aside of Elliot’s spreading wings in the foyer of the latest house party, Christian thought, I am a double agent. The notion appealed to his sense of boredom, but as his face lengthened with the Change, his smile faded. In books, the double agent always got caught.

The darkened sitting room was full of the hissing Changeling tongue. Elliot was pulled away by their host and Christian found himself outside a circle of three Changelings.

“ The whole thing was odd.”

“ Maybe they just left for the season,” someone suggested.

“ Or perhaps they were killed,” the tawny cat said.

“ No one could kill us but one of our own,” Christian said.

Three furred faces turned toward him, eyes glittering in the candlelight, tongues instinctively sleeking back whiskers.

“ You’re with that winged gryphon,” one with tufted ears said. “Makes you a lord.”

“ Elliot,” Christian supplied, his eyes narrowing. His lordship was so longstanding that discussing its basis was vulgar. “And I’m Christian.”

“ Ah, yes.” Tuft Ears inclined his head. “Honored, my lord.”

“ We were in Greece, as well,” Christian replied, dropping his haughty tone. It was a party, after all.

“I didn’t see you,” said another, inclining his russet head so that the tips of his ears pointed accusingly at Christian’s chest.

“ We didn’t attend the parties,” Christian said with a self-depreciating growl. “Getting a bit old for this sort of thing.”

“ We were discussing the disappearances there,” Tuft Ears said.

“ Do you think it’s really one of us?” asked the young tawny. He hadn’t mastered the intricacies of full Change yet. His face still resembled his human form so he could talk, and his wings were clipped because he was so newly Changed. His future lordship, though, apparently emboldened him to question Christian.

“ Shut it, William,” Tuft Ears said, giving Christian a nervous glance. “Sorry for my docile’s rudeness, my lord.”

William combed apologetically at a white patch on Tuft Ear’s chest with his claws, but when he was batted away he stepped aside and folded his wings tight against his back.

“ It’s all right,” Christian said, watching them closely. They reminded him of his early days with Elliot. He added, pointedly, “I wouldn’t pretend to know about the disappearances. I’m just indulging in youthful gossip.”

“ Point taken, my lord,” the russet said. “We’ll see he keeps to his place.”

“ He’s just worried about our missing friends,” Tuft Ears added.

Christian inclined his head. “I will pray for their safe return.” He stepped away to find a bite to eat. Julian always served such tender meat.

***


The next evening he lay on the sofa in the lounge, half-Changed, utterly relaxed. He sniffed the air. Curry, he thought, curling his furred lip. God, I am hungry.

“ Getting a bit worried, aren’t they?” Elliot called from the kitchen. “The local tribe was positively in fits last night.”

“ Hmm,” Christian said. “Why were those mongrels there? Really, Julian ought to keep out the riffraff.”

“ They can’t help being common, and the one will be a lord soon enough,” Elliot said. “But, as I was saying, the latest theory is priests on a rampage.” He walked to the shelf flanking the fireplace to peruse the books. He picked one out and it fell open in his hand, the leather cracking into dust. Summa Theologica.

“ Rather dry, isn’t it?” Elliot said, arching an eyebrow at Christian. “Why would you keep this?”

Christian shrugged. “From school, I suppose. I never throw away a book.”

The night was cold, and though they had no feeling for it, Elliot had a fire burning anyway. He snapped the book shut and slipped it back on the shelf, leaving its spine lined up precisely with its shelf-mates. “Bloody priests. Can you imagine that?”

“ Stop worrying. We’ve left no evidence,” Christian said, watching him and rubbing the pads of his feet together.

“ You threw most of the last one in the Thames, and you say we left no evidence?”

As he thought how to respond, Christian stretched out his hand, more paw at the moment, and allowed his claws to extend. Glittering, diamond-hard, black as the night sea.

Without his usual freedom to hunt his preferred prey and Elliot keeping such a close eye on his nibbling at parties, he hadn’t been eating enough. The only relief he found was in the Change. Sometimes his face went whiskery; sometimes his limbs rippled from white skin into silky black fur. Mostly he manifested his Changeling in more internal ways. His sense of smell deepened until no scent was offensive, only intensely fascinating, be it rubbish or copious amounts of blood. Or curry.

“ He won’t be found,” Christian said. “Don’t worry so much.”

Elliot’s back was turned, and his hands gripped the edge of the counter. “I do worry, though. About you.”

“ Me?”

“ You just don’t seem as comfortable with the idea as I’d hoped.”

Christian tried to stay relaxed as Elliot walked toward him. “What difference does it make if I eat them or not?”

“ You’ve got to eat.”

“ You know I don’t prefer cooked meat, El.”

“ We must cook if we’re to change our ways. Like Humans do. Like we used to do.” Elliot dropped into a chair, one leg crossed with elegant, idle looseness over the other. He looked rather lonely sitting there, gazing at Christian with his flat eyes, yellowed by his own Changeling. Trepidation prickled the fur on the back of Christian’s neck.

“ Switch back, would you?” Elliot said. “I’ll take you out for sushi instead.”

London kept them busy, but at the rate they worked Christian thought they would be at it for years. Like in any city, the Changeling population was greater in numbers and confidence. And, despite his amusement at the party gossip, Elliot chose their prey with more care.

Christian sensed a certain desperation about Elliot, but he continued to starve himself, ridding himself of his Changeling victims in the Thames and taking infrequent, polite bites whatever vile concoction Elliot cooked.

“ You’re worried for your soul or something,” Elliot said gently as they lingered in bed one morning, legs and tails entwined.

Christian made sure to look troubled. “I’ve no longer got a soul.”

“ You still pray,” Elliot said.

“ It’s just habit,” Christian replied.

Elliot’s yellow gaze cut to his face, but his kiss was tender. He had to be wondering how long Christian would punish himself, how long until discomfort turned to true pain. “You old soft touch, you,” Elliot whispered. “It’s your education. God’s cornerstone is guilt.”

Christian didn’t regret killing his own kind, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about lying to Elliot. He’d never done it before. But then, there’d never been so much at stake.

Elliot wanted to end it all: the change tearing through their muscles, their fangs tearing through flesh. He would endure, too, with or without Christian alongside. And, to call spades, Elliot’s assumption of guilt was much safer than his suspecting outright disagreement.

It was really too bad, all of it. He loved Elliot, if he was still capable of such a thing. Christian stretched languidly, gazed around at their lovely, sunlit bedroom, and smiled. “Let’s stay in, today, El.”

***


He needed to eat. Fasting had seemed the simplest part of his ruse, but it had developed an unanticipated immediacy. Christian was scared he’d slip up in front of Elliot, let instinct get the better of himself when it wasn’t appropriate.

Elliot couldn’t go out because he was nursing another nasty gash from last night’s victim, a graceful, Puck-like Changeling who sported talons in place of cloven hooves. Christian left the flat with vague excuses about stopping by a pub. Instead, he paced the streets in search for likely prey, all the while mulling over the intricacies connected to his deception. The lie was getting complicated and difficult to bear.

The streets were remarkably clear of people and of fog. The bitter cold didn’t bother Christian, and it wouldn’t after the Change. His coat was thick. He smiled and licked his upper lip, a motion made more feral by his slit, sandpaper tongue.

He caught a scent, and he stopped. The skin on his face began to prickle and stretch. No, told himself, firmly. He sniffed. There, again. Hunger rode the air tonight, and it wasn’t just his own.

Christian rounded a corner, following the scent. A streetlamp down the street had gone out. He had especially keen night vision so this didn’t trouble him. But the figures within the shadow of the burnt-out light piqued his interest. An altercation of some sort was taking place. Out of curiosity, and as a distraction from his mounting urge to Change, Christian stood perfectly still and watched.

A woman reclined on the street, legs tucked under and one hand back as support. Her face was lifted in rapt attention to the three Changlings who stood over her. She was making the very tiniest mew of a noise, as if terror had closed her throat over a scream. Or perhaps Christian had imagined that was what she should do, and she’d made no actual sound at all. Nevertheless, the sound tugged at him.

Her captors were engaged in a debate over what to do with her.

“ I say we take her back to the house.”

“ Then what do we do with her, Einstein?”

The first shrugged, a sinuous, slinking gesture, and Christian sniffed again. A familiar, if plebian, sort of smell. Ah, well, the Change took all sorts.

“ Shag them and shoot them, I always say,” said the third, a delicate blonde boy that raised another sort of hunger within Christian.

The second, the one who stood between the others, spoke again. “Don’t be daft, William. I hate nibbling around bullets.”

“ Who are you calling daft, Thomas?”

Christian resisted the urge to drop to all fours and sighed at the coming violence. The vigilante urge had never before possessed him, but something about the scene touched a disquieting, long-forgotten detestation of such depravity.

Use reason, he scolded himself. If he simply waited, the abductors might get so involved in their row that they would forget the girl, or at the least provide the opportunity for a resourceful victim to escape. He lingered outside the halo of the working streetlamp, a silent shadow of himself.

The three occupied each other in their skirmish, shoving and shouting. The girl seemed frozen. She was long and lean, not much of a meal. But she smelled of well-tended health.

Get up, thought Christian. You’ve a chance to get away now, haven’t you?

Besides, perhaps there would be an opportunity to corner her in a dark, quiet spot. His breath husked in his throat at the thought.

There were fatter, easier, safer prey. But he ignored reason, as was his practice. Not as if he really had somewhere to be, at any rate. Nothing edible at home.

Let her get away, and I’ll be quick about it. She’ll feel no pain. I’m so hungry. Just once, show me the way... Christian stopped to think. He had prayed for the souls of the “missing”, and Elliot had said the rumor was priests on a rampage. That prayer for those long-banished souls had come dangerously close to invoking bad fortune. He supposed he should have known it would. After all, he had long gone heathen, purely tellurian. And what, exactly, did he hope to achieve with this prayer? One didn’t beg for the opportunity to kill one of His children, no matter how far gone they were, no matter how in bed he’d been with God before.

Still. Perhaps he’d let her get away as a tribute to his discarded faith.

She finally moved, but she did the exact opposite of what Christian anticipated. She glanced down the street and screamed. The cry knifed through the fight and drew the attention of the three Changelings. As one, they turned toward Christian.

There was nothing for it but hold his ground. He no longer had it in him to run; he’d lost that instinct with the Change.

The three edged toward him.

“ Here now, who are you?” The mocking, cruel croon would have raised shivers on someone less detached than Christian.

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t move either.

“ Staying on, then?” Thomas said, swaggering nearer with a leering smile. No doubt he considered three-to-one fair odds for fun. Common or no, fighting a Changeling was always a challenge. Three would be damned impossible. Christian had enough recent experience to know.

No, not swaggering. Staggering. Realization that they were drunk made Christian relax a little. He’d had no idea that the common classes drank anything besides blood.

“ Be off with you,” Christian said softly. “She’s mine.”

William, who had quipped “Shag them and shoot them,” produced a short blade and gestured with it as he spoke. The knife made careless slashes through the damp air. “Just like that, eh?” He didn’t look half so attractive up close, but he did look familiar.

Christian’s lips parted and his tongue ran along the bottom edge of his emerging fangs.

William took a step closer, emboldened by his drink and his knife. So they didn’t intend on Changing right off. It made a certain sense, especially since they hadn’t realized Christian was one of them.

Christian lashed out, his overcoat flying out behind. He caught William’s shirt and yanked him closer, dagger-sharp claws making quick work of the fabric.

“ You need a bath,” Christian said, unable to keep the disgust from his tone. He opened his mouth and released a sound similar to the exhale a train makes as it leaves the station.

Their faces were very close; the repulsive stink of alcohol moistened Christian’s lips. Even so, he had to fight the urge to seal his mouth over the other’s.

William’s eyes widened.

Christian gave him a ringing blow to the face, leaving a trail of gashes followed by quick beads of blood. He intended on simply teaching them a lesson, asserting himself as their better, but the scent of fresh blood nearly overcame his senses. He fought for controlled consciousness. His lips moved in silent invocation: Not now, not now. Please, God...

William scooted backwards, dragging alcohol weighed limbs in effort to put distance between himself and Christian. Within seconds he found his feet and was running away.

“ Fool,” muttered Thomas, and he advanced on Christian, who sidestepped the first blow.

Even so, Christian knew his own reactions weren’t what they once were. Powerful blood-lust followed by cold, alien fear made him falter. It gave the nameless third an opening in which to attack. He kicked Christian squarely on the lower back.

Christian fell forward, faster than he could imagine, grasping for nonexistent purchase, landing with a jarring jolt to his chest and forehead. He couldn’t move and fought through a moment of panic.

Praying is for church and slow-motion is for films, fool. Get up.

Christian rolled over in time to avoid a second kick, and he grasped the attacker’s ankle and yanked. The Changeling writhed in sudden agony as Christian’s black claws dug in, cutting through to tendons from longstanding habit.

Christian shoved the man’s leg away from him. He didn’t want them. He’d come out after Human meat. As he struggled to rise the boot thudded him from behind. He curled instinctively and released a moan. A third kick to his scull joggled loose every thought in his head. But he was distracted from this onslaught by one powerful, driving thing.

Christian tasted blood--his own. He’d bitten through his lip with a fang. Managing the scent of it was one thing, but the taste of it combined with his hunger-lust... that was quite another.

Full Change tail-spinned through him. The dim colors of the night swirled and blurred into a claret spectacle as clothing ripped from his chest, muscles stretched over thickened bones, and hair pricked through his skin. Pain followed him into his new form. He thought he might be sick, but there was nothing to bring up. He rolled back and forth, struggled to get a hand--paw--under himself, but to no avail. Still behind him, his attackers laughed harshly.

“ Be off,” he hissed again. “I desire Human flesh, not yours.” The Change didn’t bring the strength Christian expected. It could be a very long night.

They circled him, feet moving with malicious leisure. Slow, controlled Change was overtaking them, turning prey into hunters. Lips protruded into hissing jaws, lovely fur engulfed scarred, plebian skin. “You’re that lord, aren’t you? From Julian’s? Talking about Greece and praying for our lost ones.”

A near-silent whir of air from above made Christian look up. Black against the moonless sky, unseen by his subjugators, sinister deliverance was coming. His attackers saw and heard nothing. They were intent on their revelation and their captive quarry.

Christian hissed at them, a cornered great-cat. He usually didn’t warn before attack, but the hiss was all he had.

Elliot flew at them, his great, veined wings flapping in his fury, and Christian was acutely aware of what had attracted him to Elliot in the first place.

He caught one within his fully-fed grasp. Their mouths locked together in a killing kiss and the struggle ceased. Efficient, dagger-claws cut through protective bone and meat to severe the spinal column while Elliot’s mouth stretched the other’s wide. Wet noises of dislodging organs filled the night. The enthralling aroma of fresh blood informed Christian of his lover’s prowess. If anything, this was more powerful than before. Blood and lust combined into the most powerful scent in the world, and Elliot was beautifully proficient in the art of the hunt. Why he would ever want to give it up was beyond Christian.

The other made a valiant, if short, effort at completing his Change, but his simultaneous scramble for escape botched it. Christian didn’t lift his head to watch. His body ached, his stomach roiled, and he was nearly mad with want. The taste of his own blood was noteworthy only in its colossal insufficiency. His ears and his nose and the rise of saliva around his fangs told him all he needed to know. He needed their blood in his belly, their pain against his skin. He was closer to starvation than he’d realized.

He struggled to focus on the distant darkness.

The girl ran, but lopsidedly, as if she was injured. Her obvious fear and weakness and his own maddening hunger emboldened him. He began to slink after her.

Elliot’s wings retracted to rest against his lithe back. He stepped between them and blocked Christian’s path to the girl. Kneeling down, he tenderly lifted Christian’s head and pressed his mouth to Christian’s in a bloody kiss. While Christian’s mind feebly protested his own animalistic gulping, life roiled through him again even as the world faded away.

***


Sunlight on his face woke him. Elliot was still in half-Change; his smile revealed his sharp, pointed teeth.

“How did you find me?”

“I followed you, of course.”

“Do they know?”

“I tidied up as best I could.”

Christian turned his face up to stare at the coffered ceiling of the London flat. His hands curled into fists under the bedcovers, claws burrowing into palms. Then he recalled where he was, and he forced his hands to relax. Elliot wouldn’t appreciate blood on his sheets.

“And the girl?”

“Regrettably, I had to kill her.”

“Did I...”

“You’d had enough by the time you finished with the attackers. You were rather magnificent in your hunger.” His voice was loving, but Christian saw cruelty in that wide, perfect smile. “I told you to eat, didn’t I?”

The bloom of breath flooded Christian’s body. Well-being tingled in every cell. Night had lengthened into day.

Elliot dropped into the nearest chair, propped his bare, clawed foot on the side of the bed. “Well, you’ve got to admit, there’s a certain prosaic justice about the thing. Here you’ve been undercutting me all along.”

“How did you know?”

“I had some time to catch William while you slept. We had a most enlightening chat. You met, you realize, at Julian’s party.”

Christian swallowed as he gazed up at his lover. “I won’t pretend I was trying to be noble. I just...”

“No. Don’t. It only makes it worse.”

“I am sorry, Elliot.“

“To think they were going to kill you,” Elliot said. “And I kept them from it.

“ Thanks for that, at least.” Christian tried to sit up, but the prick of Elliot’s claws on his chest stopped him.

“ To think,” Elliot said, his nostrils quivering with the scent of Christian’s sudden fear, “that I hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betsy Dornbusch lives in Boulder, Colorado with her tolerant family and hyper puppy. Besides writing short speculative fiction, she's working on a fantasy novel called Hinterland and is an editor for Electric Spec.


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