Cats crowded around the alley-way door of Dirk and Gantry’s Fish and Gourmet Shop, the noonday sun casting their crisp shadows against the bare whitewashed walls. They were a motley lot—long-haired, short-haired, hairless Sphynx and Cornish Rex, black, white, grey, Siamese, tabby-striped and ginger marmalade —and even a few saber-toothed knippers, Scottish Big Ears and forked tailed Neko-mata. The shop owners were very generous in feeding them; always setting aside leftover portions for them. In return, the cats kept the local rodent and grankle bird population under control.
The sun blazed on the springy summer grass fringing the alley. Bugs and small sprites chirped in the shadows of the gray-white buildings. Birds and mini wyverns swooped and skimmed the clear-blue sky. Footsteps crunched on the gravel and the cats turned their heads and stared as a spiky-haired figure approached. It wore a green dress decorated with gold frog motifs, and had a leather satchel slung over one arm while tucked under another was a round hatbox.
As the Churcka girl paused to look at her wristwatch, the cats padded noiselessly down from their various perches and pressed against her legs. But the long-nosed girl only shook her head.
“Sorry, fellas,” said Tullugaq, “I don’t have any treats for you, plus I’m in a real hurry.”
Setting down the hat box, Tullugaq transferred the satchel to around her neck. Straightening up, she then closed her eyes and concentrated.
The transformation that followed lasted a few minutes, although it seemed like an eternity to Tullugaq. A warming burning sensation much akin to a sunburn began to radiate all over her body, it soon grew into an intense stinging as feathers of various metallic shades of black quickly took place of her nut-brown skin. Jolts of pain soon followed, radiating in rippling waves as her tendons snapped and reattached as every fiber of muscle stretched, distorted and then sprang back in place against reformed bone, her restructured arms vanished under an insulating layer of flight feathers; her clothes and well as her dress shoes vanished as the atoms combined within the avian form; there was one last burst of pain as her head narrowed and lengthened, her pointed nose and mouth merging together into a thick black beak. Within a moment or two, no trace of Twhistle Tullugaq remained, only a larger than average sized raven.
Unperturbed, the cats watched as the raven with the satchel around her neck inspected the hatbox, grasping the smooth sides and lid for an adequate foot grip. Such strange things didn’t faze these felines, they have already seen their share of oddities passing through their territories; people turning into clouds of birds, bats or butterflies, all-weather commuter bikes cobbled together from recycled metal scrap and machinery, puddle pythons and jinn whirlwinds, the list goes on.
Just then, Niamh, the golden-haired elf woman that shared a train seat with Tullugaq’s kid sister, rounded the corner, the moment she caught sight of the bird in her path, she reeled back, turning ashen white.
The raven cocked her head at the elf, gave a brief croak, and then took off with the hatbox tightly clasped in its scrawny feet.
Niamh closed her eyes and shuttered convulsively. When she opened them again, the bird was nowhere to be seen. With great effort she pulled herself together, and continued walking toward the bookstore. When Niamh tried the door, she found it was locked, despite the fact there was no sign saying so. Frustrated and puzzled, she squinted through the murky windows. There was no one moving about, the place was all closed up.
Seething, she swung away and started on her way back. Several times she turned to see if anyone was following her, and her eyes scanned carefully every person she walked past. But she saw nothing to cause her any alarm, only the many pairs of unblinking feline eyes and in a few more minutes she would be safely on her way. If only she found that book.
The cats watched her slim, sparkly form as it vanished around a corner; a strange, fetid odor lingered in her wake. Though it was faint, it caused nearly all the cats to suddenly go into hysterics-- yowling and hissing, bouts of jerking and frantic biting at tails, flanks and sides, finally dancing sideways into the shadows screeching, as though something was after them. By the time the owners opened the door with full plates of scraps, there was not a cat in sight. But the nameless odor remained as well as an icy atmosphere that combined to make the alley entirely abominable to them, and after lingering a moment to check for any crouching customers, they made haste to shut the door and hurried downstairs to search for some sage smudge sticks.
As Tullugaq flew over the busy main street, she started cursing herself for staying so long at that dreary dust mite farm of a bookstore. The Greebik train probably left an hour ago—or was it more? How long had she been at The Cheerful Dragon’s Antiques and Books? The long trip through the bookshelves seemed to take a whole day. For a minute or two, she wondered if time was somehow at a standstill inside that murky place. It was an old magical ploy that was often used by merchants to keep their customers preoccupied without wasting any of their time. After considerable thought, she finally came to the conclusion that this wasn’t the case with Henderson. He was the sort of person who was more interested in collecting his merchandise, not selling it.
How does that guy stand it? She wondered. Working there, day after day, stacking up dusty books hardly anyone buys, going to and fro through dark rooms and passages that may be different tomorrow. Maybe he has a few screws loose or maybe he just loves his work. Anyway I wouldn't want to work in a place like that, all that choking dust and stagnant air and all those horrid beasties.
Tullugaq also wondered about the elf woman’s odd behavior. Elves, as far as she knew, weren’t the least bit frightened of ravens. They regarded the raven as a particularly auspicious bird, often appearing in epics as wise counselors and messengers of the gods. The elf’s reaction, however, was much the same as an ardent vegetarian who had just found a piece of pepperoni in her lentil soup.
A faint recollection stirred at the back of her mind, but the sight of the Greebik and the boarding passengers distracted her. By the time everyone was seated she had forgotten the thing completely.