Late For His Shift
By Peter G. Reynolds
As Ron stood silently in front of the Scratch & Sniff inn, many questions went through his head. Most of them involved Mary, including who she was and why she smelled so good? The overpowering odour of fish had finally left his nostrils, and he was left with a sweet combination of lilac, honey and… something he couldn't quite place. He also found his stomach was twisting knots, a weird combination of hunger and nausea.
Carl could handle the inspection, he thought, shoving his hands in his pockets with confident determination. Yes. I think I'll explore the city a little more and make sure it's safe. With all the clans here, this is a Mary dangerous place to be.
The door opened, and Mary poked her head out, her red curls falling over her face.
"Coming handsome?" she asked?
"Coming." Replied Ron
The inside of the inn was not what Ron was expecting. He wasn't sure exactly what he was expecting but it wasn't this. There were animals everywhere - dogs, cats, birds, dozens of them. Some were sleeping, some were eating, some were playing with each other. All of them, however, were behaving themselves. There wasn't a bark, hiss, or squawk from any of them. They all stopped and looked at Ron, which he found very disturbing.
"Hello? "Ron asked the room. Mary was nowhere in sight, even though she'd just invited him in a second ago.
The animals returned to what they were doing, much to Ron's relief. It was a very odd sight, he thought. They weren't acting like they should. Birds were perched on the heads of cats who didn't seem to mind. Cats played with dogs' tails, trying to grab them as they swished back and forth. Ron even noticed a mouse cleaning itself in a water dish surrounded by a Persian and two Siamese that looked like they meant business.
The room was also larger than expected, with comfortable-looking chairs and couches spread out haphazardly across carpeted hardwood floors. The plaster walls were painted with intricate murals of the Irish countryside. Ron thought the murals seemed to move as he moved, their perspective-changing as he got closer or further away. But he dismissed this as a trick of the light or withdrawal symptoms. He had been without a phone, tablet, or computer for weeks, and it was obviously affecting his mental state.
"Hello? Is anyone here? He repeated, making his way to a large wooden desk that said Registration. Even the walk there was strange, taking longer than he knew it should. Ron spotted a classic brass bell on the desk and rang it impatiently.
"Be right with you, Ronnie." Said a familiar, melodious voice from beyond a half-opened door behind the registration desk. Moments later, Mary's smile entered, followed by the rest of her; and Ron felt the room get brighter and slightly warmer.
"Sorry, Sweetie. Just showing your brother around the Inn." She lowered her voice and leaned over the desk. "He's sooo serious."
Ron laughed involuntarily. He barely recognized the sound. It felt good, but he also felt guilty. It had been a year since their clan soothsayer, who was also his mother, had died; torn from this world in a fit of spasms. She had been the first, followed by soothsayers from other clans, one passing with each full moon. There had been no time for laughter since that day. No time for sadness either. Only time for serious plans, made by serious people.
Ron glanced back at the inn's four-legged residents. "So what's with all the…."
"The Inn is pet friendly," answered Mary. "She likes strays. Now, shall we go find your brother?" She left the room without waiting for an answer. Ron filed his other one hundred questions under "for later" and quickly followed.
The rest of the inn was no less surprising. The kitchen was warmed by a large ancient hearth. Yet, it was as well-stocked as the most upscale restaurant, with gas ranges, food processors and stainless steel refrigerators. Sides of beef, venison, pork and lamb hung in a walk-in freezer. The pantry was filled with fruits and nuts, vegetables and spices. Ten small chickens rotated slowly inside a rotisserie oven. The smell was intoxicating, and though Ron's senses weren't as heightened as his brother's, he found himself licking his lips and counting the spices he could identify. If he could fly, he would have floated across the room like a cartoon rabbit.
"The Inn doesn't like all the modern conveniences," Mary said, temporarily waking Ron from his food trance. "But you can't feed the five clans over a wooden spit, at least not in this century."
Ron begrudgingly left the kitchen catching up to Mary and nearly tripping over two Siamese cats in the process.
"Mary, you said, feed the five clans. They're not all... staying here, are they?"
Mary smiled, and Ron's fear evaporated. "Don't worry." She said reassuringly, leading Ron through a maze of hallways and storerooms filled with dusty bottles of wine, stacked barrels of beer and bags of flour, rice and potatoes. "The Inn is big and will make sure you won't see each other, except during negotiations.
That sentence made little sense to Ron, but one part did. "What do you mean, negotiations?" I thought Gary, I mean our Alpha, had already negotiated peace with the other Clans?"
Mary stopped at a door in the shape of an oak tree. It had five branches, and at the end of each were intricate carvings of the five clans' insignias. "Peace is like a fish in the lake, Ronnie. Hard to catch and even harder to hold on to."
"Who said that? "asked Ron.
"Me." Replied Mary with another signature wink. She placed one hand lightly on the door, and it slowly opened on its own.
Ron looked past Mary to the space beyond the door. If the inn had defied expectations so far, this place shattered them. He couldn't call it a room, for the walls and ceiling were just mist that danced in an ethereal light that seemed to come from everywhere. There was a stone floor, but wild grass, moss, and flowers sprang from every crack. Ron could also hear birds and insects. He knew it was impossible, but it felt like the outdoors.
In the centre of the "room" was an enormous table made from the living trunk of a single tree. It was bent over as if bowing to its guests, its branches forming benches to sit on. The "treeble" as Ron decided to call it, could easily seat fifty people, maybe more.
"Magic," breathed Ron. Scarcely believing what he was seeing.
Ron knew the average human might be surprised to learn that someone who grew up in a family of shapeshifters would be surprised by anything, even a misty forest room in the middle of a pet-friendly Waterford Inn.
But those people would be wrong.
Ron's father's number one rule was: look human, act human. And that rule extended well past shifting, which most could only do during a full moon anyway. It meant that all their ancient traditions needed to be suppressed, including magic. This did not sit well with the females, particularly soothsayers, who were now forbidden from doing that which they had sacrificed so much for.
So, like running and hunting with his pack in the mountains, Ron never grew up with magic. Never saw a clan member healed through the transfer of another's life force. Never witnessed shadow dances or took part in forest communion where vast networks of roots would tell stories of their brethren thousands of kilometers away. The original World Wide Web. No, to Ron, these were just stories, like so many fantasy novels he's read as a cub. Just stories, until now.
Standing at the entrance. Ron couldn't move. The enormity of what he was seeing had frozen him in place. Mary put her hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently.
"A little overwhelming, isn't it?
"Yeah." Was all Ron could say.
"Did your family teach you nothing of our ways?"
"Yes. I mean no," stammered Ron, not wanting to sound completely incompetent, especially in front of Mary. "I know all about magic. We just didn't practice it back in Canada. Too dangerous."
"I understand." said Mary, "Every time you pierce the veil, you leave a small piece of yourself behind. That piece can, with proper training, be tracked to the source. It was a wise decision your Alpha made."
Mary stepped backward through the doorway; eyes locked on Ron. The air shimmered around her briefly as she held out her hand. "Come." She said.
Ron paused for just a moment before holding his breath and stepping through.