In addition to the standard “horrible twisted shit from the depths of Feo’s mind, viewer discretion is advised” warning, I must also give a “psychedelic trip inspired by Satoshi Kon, will probably confuse the hell out of you at first” warning. (If you don’t know who Kon is, I’ll compare it to Inception instead.) Anyways, if I’ve done my job right, it should start making sense by the end of the first chapter. As always, comments and criticism are welcome.

Chapter 1: The Illusionist

Sandra watches herself in the mirror as she pulls the mask from her face. Her reflection is beautiful, stunningly so, and she blows a kiss at it before she hides it again. But this is a lie.

She takes the mask away again, and her reflection shows empty blackness, no face to be found. In this manner, she’s intimidated more than a few criminals. This, too, is a lie.

Once more she unmasks, as she does every night, forcing herself to confront the truth. She runs her hand across the scarred ruin . . .

– — – –

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP! The alarm radio jolted Sandra awake.

“The Crimson Five have gone missing after a confrontation with an unknown foe. As yet, it is uncertain whether they are still alive . . .”

As if by habit, Sandra reached out and felt for a mask on her bedtime table. It was only after she failed to find one that she realized she’d been dreaming. I need to stop listening to the news, she thought, punctuating her resolution by hitting “snooze” harder than was strictly necessary.

It hadn’t taken long after the dreams began for her to move a mirror to the wall beside the bed. She checked it now, proving to herself that her face was the same as ever.

Pretty as a mask, she caught herself thinking, and it’s all mine. Not a blemish to be found. It’s no wonder I’m so scared of burns . . .

She shut herself up and lay back in bed, resting until the alarm went off again.

– — – –

Sandra’s inheritance had been sizable enough that, so long as she lived cheaply, she’d never have to work. She’d long ago done the math, concluding that marrying and raising children would not mean living cheaply, but thanks to two modern miracles–nightclubs and birth control pills–that did not preclude her current lifestyle.

She always slept until two in the afternoon, but she waited for the clock to strike six before she made her grand entrance. By then, the dance floor was already crowded, couples shifting and breaking apart minute by minute as she watched.

A leggy blond girl had briefly separated from the boy she’d come in with. “Might I have this dance?” Sandra asked loudly, and more quietly she followed up with, “Don’t ruin the moment.” She led the confused blond through a slow, romantic dance, and she finished with a kiss before releasing her. A little girl-on-girl should draw men’s eyes quite nicely, she thought.

She wasn’t sure what made her pick him out from the crowd, standing alone at the edge of the dance floor and quietly sipping a drink. He was handsome, after a certain fashion, with pale grey eyes and the figure of a runner, but it seemed that no one other than her had given him a second look. For just a moment, his eyes met hers, but something in them forced her to look away. I’ll make him my target for tonight, she decided.

She danced with quite a few good-looking boys and girls before she made her way over to him, but he didn’t seem at all surprised to be chosen over them. He’d already set his drink aside, and he didn’t seem so much as buzzed as he introduced her to a dance she didn’t recognize. “Was that good enough for you?” he asked once the song had ended.

“You move as smoothly as you dress,” she replied. “There’s something about you that really draws a girl in–I still haven’t figured out what. Perhaps I could solve your mystery more easily in a more private setting.” (This was not as great a risk as might be assumed–were he to try something untoward where no prying eyes could see, he would find that she was stronger and more vicious than she looked.)

“I doubt you could solve all my mysteries,” he said, and she suspected he wasn’t joking. “But you’re right, this place is a little loud. You seem like a lovely girl, and I’ll gladly follow where you lead.”

– — – –

Back at her condo, she decided their conversation would go best accompanied by light music (lighter than the dance tunes at the club, at least.) Unfortunately, her antique record player had finally given up the ghost, and the first thing she found on the alarm radio was the news. “Tonight’s retrospective on the missing Crimson Five will begin with the Enchantress. This mysterious illusionist has seldom been seen without a comedy mask, and is the only one of the Five whose true name and face are still unknown . . .”

She was a little too hasty to turn off the radio. “You don’t like supers?” the grey-eyed man asked.

“Every time I hear about them, I have strange dreams,” she replied. “What’s it matter to you? Are you–” A metaphorical light bulb shone over her head. “You are, aren’t you? People only notice you when you want them to.”

“I’ve never been the type for tights,” he told her. “I am merely a sort of weaver. I assure you that my threads cannot control your actions, only draw your interest.” There was a hint of levity to his smile. “I didn’t even need them to draw it now.”

“What’s your story, then? How’d you get to be this way?”

To her surprise, he answered. He described a life spent in loneliness, always wondering what other people truly thought. He told her what it felt like when he first made his way into someone’s mind–how it hurt to learn how much she hated him. He spoke of the search he’d undertaken to find and help others like himself.

“You interest me, Sandra,” he finished. “I’ve watched you, both awake and in your dreams, and I’ve seen how deep your pain goes. I wasn’t expecting to reveal myself this early, but I’d rather make the offer now than lie to you. Sandra, how’d you like for me to make your sorrow go away?”

“How would you do that?” she asked, her tone lascivious.

“It begins like this,” he replied, kissing her square on the lips.

It would not be true to say that the sensation was indescribable–it was quite similar to what she associated with a tongue across her breasts. To have that same feeling on her lips, though, was as strange as it was wonderful. He changed focus to her cheek, then down to the hollow of her neck, and wherever he touched, pleasure followed.

Her dress hit the floor, soon followed by what little she wore underneath. He knelt as his tongue trailed down her body, stopping in a familiar place and circling counterclockwise. “Keep doing that,” she sputtered between gasps, “and I might collapse.”

He pulled his tongue away and looked up at her, his grey eyes merry. “Do you want me to go?”

“If you’ve got anything I’d rather not catch, now’s the time to tell me. Otherwise, get those pants off and hop into bed.”

As she lay back, he paused at her entrance. “Tell me about your dreams,” he said. “Keep talking as long as you can.”

“There’s this girl,” she began, “who used to be pretty. She was caught in a fire” (at that, he entered her), “and she wasn’t so pretty anymore. People saw her as pretty–that should not feel this good–but it didn’t always work–that really should not feel this good–so she put on a mask–” With that, her words became unintelligible.

They lay motionless together, him on top of her. “What were you afraid of?” he asked.

She racked her brain. “I don’t remember. I was telling you about something, just a moment ago, wasn’t I? Something I’m better off not remembering.”

“I’m happy to have helped you,” he told her as he withdrew. “I’m afraid there are other places I need to be, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

– — – –

Five bodies lay on a concrete floor. A grey-eyed man knelt beside the nearest, pulling off a comedy mask.

Had her illusions remained, he might have seen a thousand things, from a flawless Venus to a creature of nightmares. But now that she was caught in an illusion of a different sort, he could see her as she truly was, and lay a kiss upon her ruined lips.

“Sleep, my bride, and dream of me. Be happy in your world of dancing and drinking. Be only Sandra, and forget the life in which you were called the Enchantress.”

His time was limited, of course. So long as the others retained the hopes and fears from which their powers stemmed, there would always be a risk that they would break free. Sandra herself had come dangerously close to waking before he’d taken away her memories.

The dream weaver stood, and turned his attentions to the next in line.

Chapter 2: The Strongman

“All right, chump, hand over your wallet.”

Julian takes in the ski mask, the gun, and the bravado. “You’re trying to mug me? Seriously?”

“Don’t talk back to me, little man! I’ve killed plenty of jackasses like you for talking back!”

“No, you haven’t. This is your first mugging, isn’t it? You’re standing way too close.” He crushes the barrel of the gun in his hand. “Besides, all the criminals around here know better than to mess with me.”

It doesn’t take much to reduce the mugger to panic. Within two minutes, he’s repeating after Julian: “I’ll never break the law again . . .”

– — – –

“Wake up, Julian! You know the Master will fire you if he catches you sleeping!”

Julian groaned and opened one eye. It appeared that he hadn’t even taken off his shoes before collapsing into the armchair. “If he fired me, then I wouldn’t have to vacuum this mansion anymore. Is there even anything left to clean?”

Lucas was all smiles once he was certain Julian was awake. “Of course, silly! You haven’t gotten any of the dust under the furniture! Now hurry and get up–I need to get back to scrubbing the toilets before I’m seen!”

Once Lucas was out of sight, Julian stood and took another look around him. The vacuum cleaner was still plugged in, the furniture was still old and absurdly heavy, and the floor was still an infuriatingly fragile wood that marked at the slightest provocation. Julian had no desire to be lectured again for scratching it, so he once again made an effort to tilt the armchair forward rather than sliding it.

“One, two, three . . . Damnit!” I hate being scrawny.

It seemed that Lucas’s intervention had been well-timed, because a quiet cough soon alerted Julian to a presence behind him. “Overwhelmed?”

Authority is a funny thing. Julian often told Lucas that it was ridiculous to call their employer “Master”–”We’re servants, not slaves!” He promised himself nightly that on the next day, he’d stride confidently up to the Master and greet him as “boss.” And yet, whenever he looked into those pale grey eyes . . . “Not at all, Master. I was just planning what to do next.”

“It’s late, far past the time you should be done. Go home, and sleep–you’ll have your plan in the morning.”

At the time, all Julian thought was that he was grateful not to have been fired. “Thank you, Master.”

The Master left him with one last word of advice. “You don’t always need to use your head, if you can get someone else to think with his.”

– — – –

Julian awoke to the sound of a refrain that was almost familiar. “Get up, Julie! Work starts in an hour!”

“Suck my dick, Lucas.” Julian wondered once more why he’d ever agreed to share an apartment with him.

To his surprise, Lucas laughed. “First time I’ve heard that metaphor from you, Julie.”

“I say that all the . . .” This was when Julian finally realized how high his voice had gotten. “Damn it, I’m still dreaming, aren’t I?”

Lucas was starting to get irritated. “Maybe you’re dreaming that you finally learned to drive. I’m sick of being late because of you.”

Julian rolled out of bed in a less-than-dignified manner, then stood and faced Lucas. “Definitely a dream. Two big things give it away.” He grasped Lucas’s right hand, pressing it firmly against the dream-body’s chest. “Might as well have some fun tormenting you, though.”

Sure enough, Lucas looked horrified. “Julie–are you all right?”

“Are you really this much of a dweeb, or do I just dream you this way?” He let go of Lucas’s hand to strip off the dream-body’s nightshirt and bra, and sure enough, Lucas didn’t look away. “You just keep getting redder and redder. Any more of this, and you might . . .” He put a hand to Lucas’s pants. “Explode.” This is gay as hell, he thought, but if it’s just a dream, who cares?

“Julie, you’re not well–” Lucas didn’t get to say much before Julian tackled him to the floor. The dream-body’s lips were against Lucas’s lips, and the dream-body’s breasts were against Lucas’s chest–and then Lucas shoved, and the dream-body’s head smacked against a wardrobe.

That hurt, he thought. It doesn’t normally hurt when I’m dreaming . . .

– — – –

Julian didn’t bother to knock before barging into the study. “What the hell did you do to me?” he demanded. “How did you even do it?”

The Master didn’t so much as stand from his chair. “I lent you the tools with which to solve your problem,” he replied. “What you did with them is your own concern.”

“Damn you! Me and Lucas–I’m never going to live this down!”

“Who’s vacuuming under the furniture?” the Master asked.

“Does it matter who’s vacuuming under the damn–”

“Lucas is.” The Master didn’t raise his voice, but he didn’t need to. “And who do you think will be cooking dinner tonight?”

“. . . Lucas will?”

“And, provided you let him touch those lovely tits beforehand, who do you think will clean the toilets the next time you’re assigned to do so?”

“Lucas will.” Julian was surprised to find himself laughing. “He’s that easy to control?”

“There are greater powers in this world than the strength of arm you revere, and I am happy to pass this one to you. However, there is a complication. So long as you think of yourself as a man, you can’t remain a woman forever. Your body will change back unless you can somehow affirm your femininity.”

“I’m already wearing maid clothing . . .” Julian put two and two together. “Oh hell no!”

“It should only require your mouth. I’ll volunteer myself if you’d rather not do it with Lucas.”

Julian could feel his body already shifting, breasts slowly shrinking away. Yet he stood his ground. “No way!”

“The past won’t change, you realize. It will merely be differently tinted.”

“I’m not doing it!”

“If you don’t, Lucas will still remember that you tried to force yourself on him–as a man, no less.”

That managed to shut Julian up.

“We won’t be interrupted in here.” The Master stood from his chair. “Kneel in front of me. Take as long as you need to prepare.”

Within a minute, the Master’s pants were around his ankles, and Julian was nervously running his hand up and down an implement he’d never expected to find dangling in front of his face. It obediently hardened under his touch, and once it passed level, he rewarded it with a lick. Maybe this won’t be so bad, he thought.

“You don’t have to be so scared,” the Master told him. “Go on, take it into your mouth.”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Julian let his lips close around the tip, only moving it a short way inside. As he built his confidence, he began to clean away the precum that slowly dribbled out, savoring the strange flavor.

When he trusted that the Master was off guard, he forced the organ as far into his mouth as he could manage, and a few seconds’ sucking was rewarded as the Master gasped in surprise. Unfortunately, it was also rewarded by a thick blast of cum that very nearly choked him. He reached the wastebasket under the master’s desk just in time to cough most of the cum into it. “Worth it,” he gasped.

The Master’s shocked expression turned to a smile. “It’s not often someone manages to break my self-control. You really are incorrigible.”

“I can’t say I changed my mind about guys,” Julian told him. “I liked toying with you, but it wasn’t really sexy for me.” Julian pondered that for a moment. “I’d love to see you do to yourself whatever you did to me. We could have a lot of fun together, girl-on-girl. Just one thing . . .”


Julie knelt before him once more, and she licked away what cum remained on his cock. “Make sure you still taste this good next time, boss. It’s not normally sweet like this, is it? This is the first time I’ve liked cleaning something.”

“I’ll be back before nightfall,” he promised. “Have fun with Lucas while I’m gone–but not too much fun.”

– — – –

“Not a dream,” Julian mumbled. “Really not a dream.”

The grey-eyed man smiled at that–what sort of a dream weaver would he be if he couldn’t mimic pain and pleasure? A job well done, he thought. I can’t believe he thinks I’m powerful enough to change his sex. I wonder, though, is he merely resentful, or did I miss something about Lucas? I’ll try him right after I check on Sandra–

For a moment, he didn’t recognize her.

The scars are gone! She looks the same as in the dream! The grey-eyed man had never before used a dream to change someone rather than punish them, and he wasn’t sure what the implications were if the body could change with the mind.

Well, I know one implication. He smiled lecherously at Julian’s body. Those lips will soon be just as kissable in this world as in your dream. Lucas can wait, at least for now–I have another experiment to try.

Chapter 3: The Beast

She’s alone in an alley, long after sundown. She’s been too successful, and too careless in hiding the bodies–few of the humans are brave or foolish enough to walk alone now.

The wait is intolerable, but at last she smells one, slowly coming her way. She waits for him to enter the shadows, and then she leaps–

She can’t see what she hits, but it feels like a brick wall. When she regains her senses, the barrier surrounds her, holding her in an invisible cage.

“In the name of the Crimson Four, you are under arrest on suspicion of murder.” His tone loses its edge as he examines her. “I don’t know what you are, but I hope you can understand me. Believe me, I want to help you–”

– — – –

“Wake up, Margaret,” Al told her. “You’re having another nightmare.”

She lashed out with knife-sharp claws, but even in darkness, he knew her movements before she did. He began to recite a calming mantra, and she matched it in growls that slowly turned into words as her snout receded. When fangs and fur had gone away, she laughed, almost hysterically. “Living dangerously again, Alvin?”

“You’re the one who insists on having these dreams,” he replied. “The least I can do is help you through them.” He’d been nothing but patient throughout their courtship, understanding of the fears that often threatened to transform her, but she knew he was tired of having to sleep in a separate bed.

She had no desire to restart the familiar argument. “Well, I’ve had enough of them for tonight. Put me to sleep again, my dear sandman, and make sure that I don’t shred the mattress this time.”

She couldn’t see his smile, but his tone was soothing. “No more nightmares tonight, I promise. You’ll wake up fully rested for the big day.”

“Way to make me less nervous, Al. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to do it, but it’s such a big step, you know?”

“They say you know you whether you really love someone when you see them at their worst. I’ve been seeing your worst for almost a year now, and if I haven’t fled in terror yet, I never will.” His grey eyes glowed white as he called on his power, and his words followed her off to a peaceful sleep. “I love you, Margaret, and I’m nothing but happy to share the rest of my life with you.”

– — – –

“We are gathered here today, in the presence of these witnesses . . .” Lucas spoke with such solemnity, it was difficult to tell that both his speech and his officiant’s license had been obtained off the Internet. Thankfully, he kept it short. “. . . If any object, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

“Who do you think’s going to object?” Sandra asked. Margaret had no family, Al wasn’t speaking to his, and they’d managed to duck the paparazzi. Al was the only person in the church who wasn’t a member of the Crimson Five.

“If there are no objections,” Lucas continued, “then it is time for the happy couple to recite their vows. Alvin, do you take this woman as your lawfully wedded wife?”

Al was looking snazzy in a rented tux. “I didn’t know what I’d found when I first met Margaret. I was still new to my powers, and to the dreamscape, and I was drawn to the strange sorrow that haunted her. In the time that has passed, I have learned much from her dreams, and I am happy to have helped to ease her pain.” Margaret’s shifts in size prevented her from wearing a ring, but Al had found a jeweled armlet that was just slightly overlarge. Julian passed it to him, and he slipped it on her arm. “Now and forever, I do.”

“Margaret, do you take this man as your lawfully wedded husband?”

“I was barely more than an animal when I was captured. I have all of you to thank for believing I could be redeemed. Lucas, thank you for letting me join the Crimson and turn Four into Five. Sandra, thank you for showing me that I didn’t have to hate myself. Thank you, Claire, for treating me just the same as everyone else, and thank you, Julian, for razzing me whenever I fell too far into woe-is-me. Above all, thank you, Al . . .” Suddenly, the words she’d prepared seemed inadequate. “Thank you for seeing me as I am,” she found herself saying, “and for loving me nonetheless.” Claire took this as the cue to hand her Alvin’s ring, so Margaret cut her speech short. “Now and forever, I do.”

“You may now kiss the bride.” Lucas’s grin was of the sort Julian would have described as “shit-eating.” “Thank you both for giving me the opportunity to say that.”

“Do you really want to do this?” Al asked. He was well aware by now of her fear of being touched.

“Worst case scenario, I transform and the shock collar knocks me out. When I wake up, my dress will be ruined and all the wedding cake will be gone. Best case scenario, we’ll make a memory that will last forever. Let’s give it a try.”

His lips met hers, and she stiffened. She could already feel flesh and bone rearranging, nails and teeth growing sharper and sharper. His scent hung in the air . . .

His scent. His calm, reassuring scent, without so much as a hint of fear in it. She pulled away to breathe it in, then dove back into the kiss.

They separated to find the others watching them intently. “So, cake?” Julian asked.

– — – –

“I want to try kissing you again,” she told him, together again at home. “Sleeping with the collar off has helped me learn to control myself. We can’t have a real wedding night, but we ought to be able to do something.”

In lieu of a verbal response, Al jabbed her hard in the stomach.

“Ow! Damnit Al–” She caught the transformation at her ears, and recited a mantra until it reversed. “See? I’m getting better already.”

Al took a moment to think. “How long can you hold yourself at about halfway?”

“Pretty long. Lucas’s been letting me go on more patrols lately. He’s always got me collared–after what I did, the cops would blow a gasket if they knew I could take it off–but I can just do the nose or the claws if I need to.”

“There’s something I’ve been thinking of trying, and tonight’s as good a night as any. To start with, I’ll need you at halfway.”

Six seconds and a few shifted bones later, she bared her teeth in mock-ferocity. “Halfway ithn’t tho bad,” she told him, “though the fangth are a problem.”

“Okay, try kissing me. I’ll stay completely still.”

The kiss was very nearly successful. The taste of his lips was sharper than normal, but she found that she enjoyed the flavor, and his scent reassured her as she pressed against him. Unfortunately, her teeth were also sharper than normal, and one drew blood as it snagged on his lower lip. She hastily backpedaled before temptation could strike.

Al rubbed at his lip. “That could have gone worse,” he told her. “Now, let me take the collar off you and stand back. I want to see if you can control yourself at full strength.”

“Are you crathy? If I hurt you . . .”

“If you charge at me, I can put you to sleep before you reach me. You’ll probably crash into the wall, but nobody ever said therapy didn’t hurt.”

She attempted a melodramatic sigh. “Go ahead.”

She took the time to retract her claws and remove her clothes before she changed. She’d been naked before him often enough, and she had no desire to rip such an expensive dress. She moved the armlet slightly to compensate for increased muscle mass, and once he’d removed the collar, she called upon the change.

He looked her up and down (mostly up; bloodthirsty beasts don’t know enough physics to care about conservation of mass.) “I’ve never seen you hold still in this form before. You look like a cross between a dog and a cat.” At that point, he remembered that he was supposed to be evaluating her mind rather than her body. “You doing all right so far?”

She couldn’t respond very well without lips, so she just gave an obedient whuff. Actually, she was doing far better than fine–she could smell his blood stronger than ever, but she wasn’t having control problems at all. I wonder . . .

“I’m thinking we’ve done enough for today. We can try some more tomorr–”

She interrupted with the most plaintive whine she could produce.

“We’re better off not rushing this. Neither of us want to get burned–or clawed, as the case may be.”

Like Hell you do. The smell of blood was far too strong–he’d properly simulated its nature, but not its quantity. She approached him slowly, arms out in a nonthreatening gesture, and sure enough, it stayed constant with distance. You put me to sleep for this “therapy,” didn’t you? I wonder how much of this was a dream?

“I guess if you really want to–mmph!” She lifted him off his feet, pressing his face into her breasts, and she didn’t let him go until they were both in the bedroom. He’d explained her pathology to her more than once–when she was frightened, she turned into the beast, because the beast wasn’t frightened of anything. Now she was the beast, and the beast was her, and even if it was just a dream, she wanted to be touched while the feeling lasted.

He seemed a little dazed at first. “This is furrier than I thought our first time would be, but you seem like you’re still in control. If this is what you want . . .” A lewd gesture demonstrated that this was in fact what she wanted, and he removed his clothes just in time before she would have torn them off him. You may be littler than me, she thought, but you dream big in at least one department. Score! She bent double to take it in her mouth . . .

“Yeouch! Cat tongue!”

Well, her claws were even worse-suited for the job, and her tail was too stubby to be of any use. She flopped back on the bed, face up and legs spread. I am a beast, she thought, savage and monstrous, and I know how to skip to the important part of things.

Her hymen had torn in some long-ago incident, and her overtaxed body hadn’t ovulated in years. His entry to her entry was a simple affair. This is ridiculous, she thought, watching him bob between her legs, but it feels pretty nice. I could get use to this– His upwards-reaching hands finally found her breasts, human and charmingly squeezable under a thin layer of fur. Wow. I could really get used to this.

She came slightly after he did, yowling with pleasure, and the wondrous scent of their union threatened to overwhelm her. They lay motionless together, happy in the moment, and his only response as she shrank in on herself was to kiss her when her lips came within reach.

“How much of this was real?” she asked when she was human again.

“Uh, what?” he replied, already beginning to panic.

“There’s no need to lie. I can’t be angry with someone who’s filling me up so nicely. Our marriage–was that a dream too?”

“It was what I wished our marriage could be like. What it would be like in a better world.”

“How about our courtship? Was that a dream?”

“We couldn’t love each other in reality. Too many things stand in the way.”

“Do I even know you?”

“No, not yet.” Al seemed to be trying to sink into the ground, but of course, this only pressed him closer to her. “Listen, everything about the Five, that’s true, and everything about you as well. I was the only lie in it.”

“I figured that much. But you owe me another lay. In real life this time.”

“What? But–why–”

“Did you really think you could cure me in one dream? I’ve got maybe three minutes before I start flipping out again about being touched. But I do think you helped me a bit, and I’d like you to do it again.”

“. . . Thank you.”

“You know, Al, this could be the beginning of something beautiful.” She smiled wickedly. “Or it could be the beginning of something really, really fucked-up. I can’t think of a worse thing to do with dream powers than sex under false pretenses, but it was at least good sex under false pretenses.”

Rather than respond to that, he simply vanished, leaving her alone with the smell of sex and fulfillment.

– — – –

“Can’t think of a worse thing to do, can you?” he asked, looking at the smile on her dreaming face. “I’m sorry. I wish there was a place for us somewhere.”

So long as she was happy in the world of her dream, she’d never struggle against it hard enough to wake up. It was a simple matter to adjust her memory of what had happened, wiping the slate clean.

Julie‘s coming along nicely, he thought, casting his gaze to shapely breasts and luscious lips. Just two more brides, and the Crimson Five will cease to be.

Chapter 4: The Runner

She doesn’t recognize the man who’s waiting at her front door. “Good afternoon. My name’s Lucas. You’re Claire, aren’t you?”

“Congratulations. You got my name right. That’s better than most of the newsmen. Is this about my abilities?”

“Well, possibly. I’m not exactly sure what your abilities are–”

Before he can finish his sentence, she’s already behind him. “I’m fast. Really fast.” She smiles in a mockery of sweetness as he turns and gapes. “I think of it as the power to not waste time. I’m sick of talking to reporters, so please go away.” She opens the door to go inside . . .

“I’m not a reporter, Claire. Listen, I have abilities too. I’ve used them on behalf of the police for the past year, and they’re thinking of making a task force–”

She lets the door swing closed. “You want me to be a superhero?”

He flounders. “Well, not exactly. We’ll be more like a police auxiliary, called in to deal with situations they can’t handle. We probably won’t be stopping bank robberies–I’m the only one of us so far who can block bullets–”

“I’ll do it. I’ve been waiting for this for years.”

“I trust I don’t need to warn you that this will be dangerous–”

She knows she ought to let him finish a sentence, but she’s too excited to do so. “Everyone marches slowly towards death. What matters is that we use the time we’re given. A life of heroism, even if short, counts for more than a life wasted in inactivity.”

He gives her a weird look. “How very morbid.”

– — – –

The statue returned to awareness once more in the presence of her sculptor.

She only thought clearly when he was around–when he left the workshop, her mind dissolved into a froth. She’d been able to see him once he’d carved her eyes, but she could not move to ask him the questions she wondered–things like How can I think? or Why do I dream? or Why do I know about things I’ve never seen? Still, she knew that she loved the grey-eyed man who’d given her shape, and she hoped that in some way, he loved her as well.

He’d long since finished the rough work, and the outline of her body was clearly apparent. Today’s job was the last of the sanding, revealing the femininity that belied her granite construction. When he was finished, she would be the perfect ornament for a garden walkway.

She would never tell him so, even if she could, but she enjoyed the way it felt to be stripped of surface imperfections. She was no fragile marble girl, to shatter at a harsh touch! As he worked his way down her legs, she remembered the hard days of labor that had given her eyes and ears, arms and fingers, and, yes, even breasts and vulva (the latter not quite hidden by her hand.) She thought of the shock of intimacy the day when, slightly drunk, he’d kissed her lips, his warm flesh against her cold stone. Above all, one thought hung in her mind: For him, I’ll be the best statue I can be.

Within a few hours’ time, she was perfect down to her toes, standing nude upon a plinth shaped like a tree stump. “Praxiteles himself couldn’t have carved you better,” the sculptor told her. “I almost hate to sell you, but you’ll fetch a fine price.”

If she could have, she might have vomited, messily soiling her carved perfection. Or perhaps she would have screamed, combining shock with rage in equal measure. She might simply have leapt from her plinth and wrapped her arms around him, crying and begging him to please, please, not give her to some rich stranger. She cursed her immobility as she merely stood and watched him walk away.

When he was gone from the workshop, her thoughts dissolved once more, but a thudding impact jarred her to her senses. She’d fallen forward from the plinth, and her head was filled with a sensation she dimly recognized as pain.

She stood on legs of flesh and bone, and stared at hands that moved under her control. From somewhere in the depths of her memory, a word came to her: Galatea.

She knew it wasn’t her real name. She had the vague sense that it wasn’t even close. But it was the only name she could remember, and she repeated it to herself as she crept from the workshop, speaking quietly so that her dear sculptor would not hear her.

– — – –

She made it three blocks, walking through city alleys at nighttime. “Well hello, little lady,” the strange man said, all but licking his lips as he and his three friends looked her over. “Did you swim in the river, and did someone steal all your clothes?”

“Leave me alone,” she told him, “or else tell me where I can find shelter. I can’t go back.”

“I know just how a sweet little thing like you could earn some money,” he said. She turned to run, but his friends were far faster, and she found herself rudely immobilized. By the time her mind could protest the impossibility, they had her down on the ground.

They took turns, and when they were done, they tossed a twenty-dollar-bill on her body. She ripped it in half once she’d regained enough presence of mind to notice it.

– — – –

The sculptor didn’t seem at all surprised to see her at his front door, bruised, bloodied, and dirtied. “You see now what the world is like, don’t you?” he asked. “Every friendly face is just waiting to betray you.”

“I’m not . . .” She struggled with the words. “I’m not pure anymore. Not the way you carved me.”

“It’s all right,” he told her. “All can be forgiven.” He led her back into the workshop, and motioned her to the plinth.

No sooner had she taken her position than she felt the change. It was less sudden this time, just a little tingle in her feet that left them hard and immobile. She looked down to see granite colored like flesh, almost as real as life, but she looked up again hastily–it was important to maintain the proper position.

The change crept up her legs, and between them, clearing away blood and other fluid. She found herself laughing at the feeling, and the sculptor smiled to see her mirth.

“Get up here,” she told him, while she could still speak. “This is too good not to share.”

He was clearly caught off guard. “I’m sorry, but I still have things I must do.”

“Things more important than me? It’ll be wonderful, I promise.” The sensation reached her breasts, and she barely kept her focus. “We’ll kiss forever in each other’s arms. When someone finds us, they’ll put us in a museum, and everyone who passes by will know what true love is. Hurry up–there’s not much time left.”

“I love you, but I can’t stay with you forever. Life doesn’t work that way. I’ll keep you as long as I can.”

The hardening of her lips prevented her response. He watched her until her eyes stopped moving, and then he turned to go.

She leapt from the plinth, slamming him against the wall.

“What? But–how–”

A granite fist split open his cheek. “You just want a statue!” she screamed. “You don’t really care about me! You’re just like those men!”

“Please, calm down–”

She hit him again and again, and the whole world shifted.

– — – –

“Sleep!” the grey-eyed man choked out, and hard fingers let go of his neck as Claire collapsed into another nightmare. It wouldn’t keep her down for long, but it would give him enough time to think.

You made me bleed, bitch! he thought, putting a hand to his face. You’re going to suffer for this.

He dragged her body next to Lucas’s. I’ll have you two share this dream. Quick and dirty, and not even you’ll be able to escape it.

Chapter 5: The Defender

“You ever wonder why supers don’t get married?”

“Don’t distract me, Sandra. This is important.” They’re just offstage at a political rally, and Lucas is in charge of protecting the keynote speaker. Neither is particularly happy to have to listen to him drone on, but Lucas believes in the importance of appearing professional.

“Pfft. You could do this in your sleep. You were daydreaming about Claire again, weren’t you?”

“I’m still trying to figure her out. It’s like she’s always happy and sad at the same time.”

“It really makes me think. Most folks marry by thirty, right? You’re thirty-three, but you look young for your age, and you’d have a shot with her if you tried. Yet you can’t even tell her you like her. Margaret’s probably never getting married. I’m probably never getting married. Julian’s marriage lasted six months before he got divorced. What gives? Are we all that fucked up?”

He winces to hear Sandra swear, but he’s long since given up telling her to stop. “Maybe it’s a matter of society. A lot of normal people are still scared of what we can do, and dating other supers brings up even bigger issues.”

“Those artificial supers in the leaked docs a few months ago were ordinary folks with families, and I hear some of those cultists who claim they get powers from meditation marry each other. It’s only us naturals who die single. Look at how many issues we each have, and it becomes chicken versus egg–are we this crazy because we’re supers, or are we supers because we’re this crazy?”

A bullet deflects off the invisible shield Lucas has placed over the speaker, and the crowd descends into chaos. Both of them know that now is not the time to talk.

Both of them know that when the crisis is over, he’ll think about her words for a very long time.

– — – –

<Sandra hasn’t noticed you yet,> the voice said.

September 2018
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