She would paint in blood, she thought: arc her claws outwards and inwards, drawing canyons through splitting skin, leading the flood of scarlet towards gravity’s sucking mouth until the drops burst like over-ripe melons upon the floorboards.

Her favorite paint was sun-yellow, the color of the flowering weeds that crowded against the sidewalks and pressed upwards against faded brick walls. The paint was thick and took days to dry when she pasted it onto canvas, smearing her padded fingertips across off-white stitching, singing nonsense songs in the back of her furred throat.

A Failed Experiment, they called her, not sure if she could understand the words but certainly not caring enough to hush their melodic, machinae voices. She only tensed her haunches until they cramped, careful not to let them see any tremors in her thin arms, in her sweeping hands stained a cheerful gold. Her ears never fell so much as a single degree. She knew the cameras were there, even when her masters were not.

When the yellow dried in its myriad patterns, she dipped a curving clawtip in primary blue and etched scenes into her sunlit setting. Never figures, not even objects – those could be interpreted, analyzed, used against her – but only symbols. She created a set of characters that meant other things, and she knew she was making language under her masters’ disinterested eyes, but without a reaction from them, she did not know if this was a surprise or the lowest possible achievement.

A new person came in, as occasionally happened, and she ignored every sign of presence, outwardly enthralled by the incomprehensible marks she made on oil-caked canvas. But a faint clicking sound reached her keen still ears, and though the lighting in her single room never changed, the entire atmosphere lurched with a sudden difference. She didn’t let herself pause in her painting, but every molecule of her being strained to identify what had stopped, what had come into being– strained so hard that the person coming to stand over her was not noticed until its shadow blocked the light on her immature, ungrown art.

She looked up, fingers ceasing, and in the silence left by her stillness, she realized that a soft whirring that had underlaid her entire reality to date had gone away. The space she was in felt colder and bigger and bleaker for the lack.

The person stretched its face wide and did not show teeth, gentled its staring eyes by half-closing them. Hello, it said. How Are You.

She stared at its mouth, at its rubbery lips and distinct lack of whiskers. She watched it with all the fascination a curious animal can give to things that move in a world that is otherwise motionless. She knew this game.

But the person knelt, bringing itself to the ground and to her level. I Like Your Art, it told her slowly, enunciating the words. The notes of its voice slipped from pitch to pitch like a slide whistle, like a siren approaching and then receding. She remembered what those things were like, from the early days when they thought she was still worth teaching. She kept watching its mouth, but her eyes flicked away when it moved a hand towards the glistening canvas and its symbols.

I Think I Know What This Says, the person whispered, mouth forming the syllables awkwardly around its binary-regular breath. This One, it pointed a flat, squared fingertip to the first symbol she’d etched, Means Frustration. This One, it continued, moving to the symbol opposite the first, Means Outside.

She wasn’t sure what to do. The person wasn’t completely correct, but it wasn’t completely wrong, either. Perhaps it was guessing, wanting to see if she would react and be lured out into confessing her craft. Would she be rewarded or punished if she admitted? Or if she corrected it?

She stared at its hand, then gave a perfunctory low growl when its finger clumsily smudged part of the thick paint. The person did not shout at her for the warning noise, like some of the other masters did; it simply drew its hand back and tucked it against its lean, suited torso. Its skin was grey against the grey of its clothing, but the spot of sun-yellow stood out brightly, a trophy, a scar.

The person extended its other hand, slowly and steadily, soft palm upwards and fingers closed flat like a plank. Can You Say Anything Anymore? it asked, still whispering, still hard to understand without its voice powering its breath. I Saw Tapes Of Your Younger Days. You Were Like A Little Parrot. You Tried So Hard.

She watched its hand, glancing up to its strange dark eyes briefly, then to its half-curled mouth, then back to its waiting palm. Her ears quivered with uncertainty, with the effort required to hold them aloft and unresponsive. Her whiskers tingled, electrified by the nearness of the person.

Neither of them moved, and she got tired of waiting, her inner reserves no longer lasting more than a few minutes of company. She reached out a paint-soaked hand, the yellow so common on her skin that the blood in her fingers was surely colored like sun, and drew a tiny symbol on the person’s palm. She was very careful not to use her claws, only touching the blunt overcurve against the wrinkled skin.

The person looked down. Hello, it said thoughtfully. I Think This Means Hello.

It did, but she didn’t give any indication of it, watching the person lip its words like a horse might lap up an apple in bites. The base of her ears was sore with straining. She was tired of the game now and wanted to be done with it, so she uncurled her lithe body and stood, bounce-balanced on the balls of her claw-toed feet, half a tail making half a circle behind her thighs. Even standing while the person crouched, she was not much taller, the top of its gleaming scalp even with her heart.

Thank You, the person told her, looking from her face to her canvas to its palm again. Would You Like Me To Come Back Again?

She didn’t respond, moving away in a crescent, never fully turning her back on the person. The silence in the room was echoing without the familiar, almost cozy buffer of the whirring machines.

When I Am Here, the person said, I Will Make Sure They Keep The Cameras Off.

One ear twitched like a fragile bone snapping, nerves flushing with blood as it turned to face its listening cup to the person. Her eyes followed her ear, and she stared at the person with its stretchy mouth and dark gaze and did not know what to do.

The person stretched its mouth more, like an upside-down horizon. I Thought You Might Like That, it said softly, placing its hands on its slackclothed knees and standing stiffly. She wondered if she only imagined the faint whine of gears and old joints in the base of its spine. I Will Be Back, it said, nearly dusting its legs off before remembering the bright paint on its finger. It looked curiously at the yellow stain. Be Well, it finally said, turning to leave the room.

As the door sealed shut behind the person, the background whirr of machines slowly spiraled into hearing, an incoming helicopter whose sole purpose was to watch her with all its encircling eyes.

She walked back to the painting, straightened her skewed ear, and dipped her fingers in the color of the sun.

She carefully pinched the edges of the hand-pressed parchment between thumbs and metal-tipped forefingers, then tore it slowly. The greyed ink glimmered as the sigils separated, a sigh like the wind escaping the shearing paper as the magic dispersed. This was the last scroll.

Without a word, she set down the ruined parchment, finishing her stacks on either side. They swayed, almost weightless despite the paper’s thickness, air pressed between the sheets like mortar in a column. Her work was done. The library had been infiltrated and destroyed.

A shrill gasp shattered the silence of the immense chamber; she turned, feathered cloak rustling softly, to see one of the aliens staring in horror. “You… you…” It lifted a long, knobbly arm and shook it at her, its myriad joints rattling like a fleshless human spine. “Why would you do such a thing!”

Time to go. She nestled into her cloak, shrugging it close until the gap showing her bare chest and stomach was closed by red and purple feathers. The hood draped low over her brows, and she lifted an ink-smudged hand to secure the clasp of a beak-shaped mask across her nose and mouth.

“No!” the alien cried, shakingly distraught, as she spread her arms like wings. It jolted forward, an unnaturally quick motion, but stopped as she sprang upwards and left the ground with the first downstroke of coalescing pinions. Her feathered tail fanned, her shrinking legs tucked up, and she was ten feet above the ground as the alien watched in shock.

The light streaming into the room from the skylight changed then, hue swinging from natural yellowed sun’s-breath to a deep, bloody ruby. She sucked in a deep breath past her sharp-edged beak and flew for the sky, the glass an illusion she left in her wake when she broke into the library. She knew no one expected her to succeed, let alone return alive; the pomegranate light staining every surface agreed with her poor odds.

She risked a glance downwards as she flew at an angle, checking to see if the alien was going to intercept her– and yes, it was already moving, its four stilted legs a biomechanical blur as it hopped long tables and hammock-like chairs below. She was twenty feet above it, ten feet below the faintly arched ceiling with its luxurious murals, but she was still thirty-five feet away from the round eye of her only exit.

The alien kicked off of a table, its bony weight not even rocking the heavy construct, and the color tinting the sunlight swept towards its sailing body like reverse-filmed ink in water. As soon as the room was gently yellow again, the alien’s fog-colored skin was painted a vivid burgundy, and it no longer had a care in the world for the gravity that she struggled against in a still-aired room.

Still, she had one advantage: the alien thought her target was still physical glass, not a generated hologram. It aimed its leap to land against the glass and catch her up when she attempted to dive through it, but unfortunately for it, it sailed cleanly through the broken skylight and into the windy atmosphere beyond.

She had to fight the breeze pushing into the room, but once she, too, was free of the library, the air was her friend and no longer an obstacle. She spread her bright wings wide, flared her tail, and tucked her bootless talons to her body; the sky tasted sublime to one who narrowly escaped death.

When she glanced back, just enough to catch the library’s white-tiled roof in her periphery, she could see the alien slowly drifting back down, the red draining from its skin, whatever uncanny biology or magic it used to defy gravity being released so it didn’t continue soaring to deadly heights. It was waving both arms vehemently after her, but she only kept flying.

Step one in securing human freedom: complete.

Magic is a force of entropy. That’s why dinosaurs became dragons, and why dragons became invisible and untouchable. That’s why zombies became vampires, which became mere pissed-off ghosts.

Magic makes a thing powerful, intelligent, magnificent, and then breaks it down and takes it all away, so that it is even less than whatever it started out as.

We’re on the decline, too. My people, us shapeshifters– once upon a time, we were werewolves and werecats and were-whatevers, but after our peak and our age of glory, magic began smashing our races together, and now we’re unholy mutts. No one would mistake us for any natural animal, and even our human bodies show the melding; we’re all brown-skinned, brown-haired, an average height and a thick build. No timber wolves here, no, and no blue-eyed blondes.

Just us. Just monsters.

Each generation is a little shakier than the one before, especially as Western society advances. Most of us don’t live in North America, not with its shrinking wilderness and ever-increasing technological security, but some of us are still stupid enough to stay.

Try dealing with the internet, with a keyboard to type on, when your hairless human skin can barely contain the mutated beast within. It’s like wanting to vomit out your own inner body.

Shapeshifting itself, by the way, isn’t pretty. It’s not painful, and it’s not a long process, but it’s not pretty.

So we hide. Most of us live feral and never interact with humans; it’s easiest that way. A few last, strained bloodlines try to run double lives, men by day and monsters by night, but you’ve read the books, you know how that goes. Either they go crazy and their own kind kills them to keep the secret, or they go crazy in public and humans kill them without ever realizing their secret.

No one speaks of wanting to come out to the humans. In every population large enough, there’s one or two of us who still feeds on human information– newspapers, books, anything we can unplug and still use. I’ve read the books, fake and speculative and almost-real alike. I know what happens to not-humans. It’s messy.

I saw, once, someone mention wanting to go out, to make contact. It was just me and our chief and her. She broached the subject as carefully as one would handle the tiniest of breakable bones.

The chief killed her instantly. No conversation, no nothing. That’s apparently the well-hidden punishment, passed down from leader to leader. If I hadn’t been the swarm’s reader, he probably would have offed me too, to preserve the secrecy, but as the reader, it’s my job to understand how things work and never explain it, only to guide as necessary. Of all the swarm-mates, only I can be trusted not to speak.

We don’t have a lot of contact with the other centers of population for our kind. The Atlas Mountains out in Africa are huge and largely empty of humans, and we thrive there, but we stay the hell out of the rain forests because damn, the natives and local animals are more dangerous than we are. We don’t do so well in open and hot and dry areas, so much of the world barren of humans is barren of shapeshifters, too.

We aren’t super-human, let alone invulnerable or immortal. We’re not sub-human, yet, although that’s probably where the entropy of magic will take us– slavering, mute, unshifting creatures that break into the civilized human world like a surprise plague and are, unequivocably, destroyed to the last.

We have some time before that happens. Granted, we have no idea how to prevent it, or even stave it off. Only the readers and the chiefs have a sense of timeline; the rest of us only know what they witness personally. I’d like to see a swarm who all have reader education, and I think some of the swarms who still maintain double lives have that, but for us, our chief will kill whoever gets out of place.

Which is why I have to find a way to kill him, instead.

The pub was dim and smoky, the only lights colored a dull blue and slanting across the room at strange angles. Candles glowed red inside stained glasses on the long bar, their flickering flames waning beneath the dense atmosphere of soot, ash, and heartbreak.

Everything in the bar, except for the glasses and the booze, was made of wood. Walls, tables, chairs, stools, floor, plates, pool tables. Old wood, cracking wood, wood in desperate need of a good dusting and oiling; it was worn smooth from so many years of being touched and abused, like the faces of the regulars. In some places, wood and faces alike were stained with signs of cigarettes and beer. In others, they were broken in fits of rage or grief. Every piece of furniture and every body in a seat had a story to tell.

It was a low-talking crowd, people minding their own business, burying their faces in their glasses and trying not to think. A haven and a home to many, a last-ditch resort to the rest. The occasional younger patron flirted, flashed white teeth and bright eyes, but their efforts went largely ignored. No well-muscled chest or long leg could entice the regulars from the solemn contemplation of the bottom of their glasses.

They weren’t here for sex. They were here for booze, and for music.

Old Tom sat in a rickety chair on a stage barely higher than the floor, an old mic whining in front of his mouth, a might-be-antique guitar cradled in his lap. The black fedora hooded his eyes from the slanting blue lights; the trenchcoat and trousers hid the rest of him. He was a stocky man, not tall but quite broad, with plenty of muscle and fat bundling his frame up in thick rolls.

The fact that he was a bulldog didn’t seem to matter to anyone. His voice was made of gravel and tobacco, and his paws were hand-like enough to play his old six-string, and if his jowels flapped when he thumped his booted heel on the floor to keep beat, no one complained. They’d learned to sit far enough to dodge the occasional splash of drool.

He sang about them, their woes and miseries, their hardships and their failures, his eyes closed like he was communing with everyone in the room. Sometimes he would name one of them in a song, and it became theirs – Marcy’s Song, Dave’s Song – or sometimes they just knew without the name being necessary.

The newcomers to the bar would sometimes stare, wondering how such thick, stubby fingers could make chords and strum. One of the regulars might provide a helpful elbow to the ribs and a muted glare, if a glass was empty and one happened to glance up to catch the stupor. But at the end of the night, when the last chords were dying away in the poor acoustics of the smoke-filled room, every man and woman in the bar would file past the bulldog and drop money in his guitar case.

And every night, Old Tom was back to sing them another round of comfort for their misery.

Perran was a lamplighter.

It was as far from a glorious job as it was from an easy one. Lamps hung just above passers-by, high enough to avoid even the taller rarras’ sharp-tipped horns but still within arm’s reach; there were lamps on every street throughout the town, lanterns dangling from well-wrought iron posts, a hook and a loop making a simple system. Every fifty feet, there stood a lamp.

The lanterns were glass and dark, ornate metal to match the posts; the lamp inside was a carefully-carved crystal, faceted to shed light as efficiently as possible. Each crystal would last from the longest evening shadows until the sun was visible on the horizon, roughly an hour more than true night.

Perran had an hour to cover the entire dusty town and light every lamp.

He had been offered a wheeler to save time and his legs, but like the other lamplighter who worked when he did not, he refused. Fifty feet was too short for a wheeler to be of use, compared to the time wasted leaning it onto and off its stand, mounting and dismounting, starting and stopping.

Every other night, Perran walked the quiet border town, the desert encroaching with thin layers of sand on the outskirts.

The lamps’ crystals were powered by magic, like nearly everything in rarran society. Even in the dusty pockets of less-civilized areas, like this town, magic fueled the technology they used to survive and eke out a living from the dunes. Hooded cloaks that reached past fingerlessly-gloved hands and leather-wrapped soles shielded the body from the ravages of wind and heat like magic and technology shielded the people from the ravages of the world.

Come twilight, the hood was made optional, the sun low and heat draining from the air. Perran walked bare-headed, long ears upright and free of the heavy fabric. At every lamp, he would remove the lantern from its hook and slide away a glass panel, reaching in a paw-padded fingertip to touch the crystal. Automatically, so well were they designed and carved, it drained exactly as much qki – physical energy, the complement to magical energy – as it could hold. He had a moment before the qki was stored in the natural latticework of the crystal’s structure, before it started to heat up and glow; he replaced the glass paneling and hung the lantern on its hook again.

One every fifty feet. The town was only a few miles from edge to edge, a grid-worked amoeba with uncertain edges, but the streets were close and the buildings were small between them.

It took him a week to learn the timing so that every lamp was lit by nightfall and none faded away to artificial embers before dawn broke. But once he found the pattern, he kept it.

And every night, when he got home, his body was nearly drained of qki, the energy that kept his heart pumping and muscles flexing. He fell into bed nearly senseless, lacking the energy to even think, and slept dreamlessly until the next dawn.