The coffee was cold. Martin scowled and looked at his watch. Eleven fifteen. So he’d been sitting in this Costa for an hour and fifteen minutes and forgotten to touch it in all that time. Way to go, he thought grouchily and pushed the paper cup along the counter out of reach, before turning back to the window, his brown eyes tracking the Glaswegians that passed by outside. It was a miserable day, matching the teenager’s mood perfectly- grey, dour, cold and drizzly. The crowds were wrapped up in coats and scarves against the winter cold, their breath steaming and their pace hurried but cautious in case of ice.
None of them had any sign of vivid purple hair though, Martin noted. Still no sign of Dan. With anyone else this late he might have come to the conclusion that he’d been stood up as a joke, but Dan really could be an hour late. And if he walked away she’d probably find him in a few days and give him an earful for giving up on her, she had done that once, as if it was his fault. No, Martin steeled himself, he’d wait her out, and when she came, let her know just what he thought. You can’t just give me a mysterious text and then leave me waiting for hours, that’s unfair and annoying. If you’re going to be late you reply to the messages, or have your phone on, and you try and show up when you arrange for. It’s not hard, it’s just common sense, not that it’s very common these da-
The raspy loud voice was followed by a surprisingly tight hug that destroyed his train of thought amid embarrassment, shock and confusion.
“Uh, Dan, can you let go?”
She laughed and released him from the grip, “Sorry! Just glad you showed up on time, this’ll be awesome. Are you okay? I didn’t break you, did I, stickman?”
Martin blinked and exhaled, rubbing his bony back, “No… I’m fine. I didn’t know you got your hair changed again.”
The short girl grinned and ran a hand through her spiky golden blond hair, a weird style that was barely more normal than the previous violet pigtails. That must have been how he missed her, no one had come with the purple hair after all. The rest of her attire stood out too, her patchy and badge covered coat was so long it reached almost to her ankles, and she had wrapped a bright red scarf around her neck with a mitten attached to each end, one of which held her phone. “Yeah, fancied a change and… well, just ended up like this! Do you like it?”
“Uh… um, yeah.” He nodded nervously. Why was she always like this? So bubbly and full of energy, it half scared him. Even with six inches over her, Dan could be terrifying when she got cross, and just as terrifying when she ended the rant with good grace and forgave the other person with a tight hug.
“Good. Let’s go then, come on!” She said cheerfully, and grabbed his arm suddenly to pull him off the stool and towards the door.
“We’re going, I didn’t want to meet up just for a chat Mart, I have to show you this place. It is utterly amazing, but… argh, it’s a surprise okay, I won’t want to spoil it for you guys.”
Martin frowned, “Guys?”
“Yeah here!” She cried as she opened the door and they emerged out into the cold air of the city. Two other young adults stood there, a boy and a girl who looked at Martin uncertainly. “This is my flatmate Stacey, and Andrew’s on my course at the college. Guys, this is Mart, we used to live next door to each other when we were little, he’s coming too.”
Andrew nodded, he was a tall, unkempt looking student with wavy black hair and a scruffy goatee on his chin, “Yup, Andy’s fine too, nice to meet you, Mart.”
“Right, please say that’s everyone now, Danny? I’m freezing out here.” The other girl moaned. She was broadly built with black chin length hair around a pale pouting face, and a heavy green felt coat wrapped tight around her.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t think there was anyone else I invited…. Oh well, alright gang, roll out!” Dan declared loudly and set off at a brisk pace, while the other three followed on, hugging their arms tight around them in the cold air. Martin bit his lip too, looking at the other pair nervously. This just felt even more confusing now, he wanted to snap at Dan for not telling him there would be more people, but the words just didn’t come.
“So you knew Danny growing up?” Stacey asked eventually as they wove through the city streets, their progress slowed by busy cars whizzing past at crossings, and the crowds moving in different directions.
“Yeah.” He muttered, then realized she might want more information, “Met when we were nine. She’s nice.”
“Has she always been so…” The girl let her voice trail off quietly, then caught his confused expression. “…so… you-know.”
Know? How was he supposed to know? She hadn’t said anything! “Huh? Uh…she’s always been bold and cheerful.”
“Cheerful. Yeah. She’s been bouncing off the ceiling since Friday night, keeping whatever this is a surprise. She’s not told you anything either?”
“Same here, I’m really impressed.” Andrew added, “I hope it’s worth all the build-up Dan.”
“It will be. Trust me, this is a-maz-ing!” She practically squealed, before suddenly frowning, her dark eyebrows drawing closing together, “You guys don’t have problems with mystics do you?”
Mystics. Martins heart leapt slightly. Non humans, creatures that were supposed to be legends, myths, stories, fantasies and cryptids, but had just been hiding the entire time. And they had attacked people too, he had seen news stories of a clan of monsters hunting people down.
“Are we going to see some?” Andrew asked excitedly, “I’ve barely seen any, I mean, some pictures, but never talked to one. Cool, what is it?”
“That’s a surprise.”
“It’s not…” Martin started to ask, and then trailed off as everyone looked at him curiously. Dangerous? They’re not dangerous are they? No, of course not, idiot, she’s seen them before and survived. “Uh, never mind.”
“No, what is it?” Stacey asked.
“Nothing.” He muttered, biting his lip, “Well… just, it’s not anything dangerous is it? Cos there were those attacks…”
“Dangerous?” Dan grinned widely, “Yeah. But not more dangerous than normal life, I mean we could be run over or shot right about now and we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.”
A car whizzed by right at that moment, causing Martin to flinch, and Stacey laughed, “Don’t piss yourself before we see whatever it is. You’ve got me really interested now Danny, it’s not a dragon is it? Or… damn, what would be your ideal mystic…uh…”
“Kitsune? They’re meant to be hot.” Andrew smirked, “Or a mermaid?”
“Shut up, that’s not helpful. What about a phoenix?” The girl nodded, “Aw, a phoenix would be awesome, imagine having one as a pet like Dumbledore. You could raise it all the way till it dies, then it gets reborn and you get a chick again, all the way forever!”
“I don’t think you can keep a mystic as a pet.” Martin said quietly, “They’re sentient individuals.”
“No, a phoenix would just be a magic bird right? So that’s a class three, they’re just magic animals, so they can be pets. Class two’s are the sentient ones- centaurs and elves and your kitsunes, and then normal people are class one.” She replied firmly
“No, they’re all sentient Stacey.” Dan corrected her, and swung around a lamppost to fall back beside her. “If the class three’s weren’t sentient they couldn’t hide for a thousand years could they? I heard there were some magic animals that weren’t sentient, but they got killed off because they weren’t intelligent. Class threes just can’t speak, that’s the criteria.”
“Aaw, that explains it… how do you know that?” The taller woman asked, frowning. Martin blinked too, Dan wasn’t dumb, but her brightness was reserved for her own interests-anime, art, rollerskating, not normally politics.
“I paid attention. Some are sorta borderline, and then some people don’t know what to do about clothes. Like sphinxes, they’ve got human faces so they can talk, but the rest is lion, so normally people can see their parts. Centaurs too I guess. It’s just stupid, if you don’t want to see, don’t look.”
“What about a scorpion centaur?” Andrew asked. “Or a hydra?”
“My favourite non human? No.”
“Baku? Werewolf? Gryphon? Wyvern? Cancer? Blast Ended Skrewt?”
Dan rolled her eyes and punched the tall youth in the shoulder. Or in the elbow where she could reach. “No, no, no and No! you’re just reciting random fantasy stuff now. My favourite mystic would be a-“
“Don’t spoil it. What about you Mart? Would you like to meet any mystic in particular?” Stacey asked.
“Uh…” He bit his lip anxiously, trying to think of legends. There was that... the grey man of Ben nevis was it? But that was more a ghost story. Think! Just something, anything… quickly…anything…“A chimera.”
They nodded, satisfied with that answer, and Dan smiled, “Cool, I didn’t think you’d know ones like that. What about you Andy?”
“Easy, Roc. Giant eagle.” He declared with a smile, “No idea how they managed to hide for so long, you’d think we would’ve seen them if they flew around.”
“Maybe they’re not real. Not all myths are true right?” Stacey commented.
“No, not all of them, but c’mon here we go!” Dan practically yelled and pulled a door open at the side of the street. Martin took a second longer to look at the building. It was a big sandstone building, four stories, fairly common in Glasgow, although the windows were decrepit and unused looking, and the cracks and fissures in the stone were rife with plant growth. Half of it was covered in old half broken scaffolding, and the building next door was gone completely from the looks of things, the windows there revealed open sky behind the remaining wall. The door itself that was open was a smallish hatch in a large shutter on the street, and the only decoration was a fluorescent wet banner above it, boldly declaring , “Come in for a change!” with multiple strange characters in a script he didn’t understand around it. Under it the door swung open again, and an iron haired middle aged woman with sharp features trotted out, a smirk set on her narrow face.
“Better go in before she scares whatever it is.” Stacey said cheerfully and Martin followed her in slowly, unable to shake off the sense of unease about the place.
Inside was a little reassuring at least. The room was more like a converted loading bay from the look of things, with a few chairs scattered around on a ramp and a desk with a couple of people sitting at it, chattering to Dan. The first was a man in his forties, rather short and wide with a thick black beard over his jaw and pale skin. Beside him, or sitting on the counter really was a young girl Martin took to be his daughter, with the same black hair tied back into a long tail and an excited expression on her young face.
“’Ello there, you’re Danielle’s friends then?” He called out and raised a hand. “I’m Mr Sampson, nice to meet you.”
“Guy’s I’m just running to the loo, can you show them the back please Vicki?” Dan said urgently and hurried away around the edge of the room and into a corridor as the girl nodded and jumped off the table.
“The back? What’s there? What is this place?” Andrew asked gently.
“Yeah, Danny didn’t say anything, she wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Well then, you get shown, not told, that’s how surprises work.” The girl replied smartly. Martin guessed she was about eleven or so, dressed up in messy dungarees, “You’ll see if you come. Don’t worry, it’s free for you!”
“Yeah, just down that corridor’s best.” Sampson exclaimed, gesturing towards a large hallway behind him, and the four of them headed down in obediently. Stupidly, Martin thought, getting ready to say something. Come on guys, walk all the way into an abandoned building at the word of a total stranger? Seriously, are we trying to get mugged? Down here, no one else can see us, no one else can hear us, and I don’t know about you guys but I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.
His footsteps echoed along with Andrew’ and Stacey’s as they followed the grey bleak corridor, under flickering old bulbs with exposed wires. There were three of them, and it was Dan’s word, her idea, not a stranger. That settled him a bit. The girl was wacky and excitable, but she was still one of his closest friends. When she had first moved next door she had let herself in to every house on the street to introduce herself to their neighbours. Martin had been playing some game at the time when a random girl appeared behind him and decided to pick up the other controller and join in. The memory made him smirk slightly, maybe this one time he should be that bold, that courageous.
“Here we go. You ready?” The girl, Vicki announced at a slightly open fire exit, giving a confident smile as she planted her hand on the handle.
“Yeah, shoot. Don’t keep me in suspense any longer kid.” Andrew rubbed his hand, and Stacey nodded. Martin bit his lip, looking at the surface intently, and then turned around to glance back down the corridor as goosebumps stood up on his arm. A gust of wind came as the door opened, and then the other two let out huge awe-filled gasps. He released his own as he turned back and looked outside.
The best word for it was a garden, but really, it must have been the next door building once, before it was demolished and left behind the front wall, looking out over the street, and blocking the garden from view. There was grass growing amid piles of rubble, but it was the creatures that drew the gaze. Mystics.
“You oughtta have the Jurassic park theme playing for this bit.” Andrew muttered hoarsely, eyes wide as saucers.
It would have fitted more with something scarier, Martin thought. They were terrifying. Nearest, sitting down was a huge bronze lion, at least twice as big as it should have been, its mane a glorious reddish gold colour. The eyes were intelligent looking and cold, and the muzzle looked large enough to take most of his body off in one bite, never mind the terrible claws or the writhing tail. There was a scaly bipedal creature too with a long serpentine green tail, an ugly beaked head that was crowned by a grotesque water filled indent. Something like a horse wasn’t far off either, although it looked mutated, with four extra legs along chestnut flanks, as though one of its parent had been a spider. Even further in was a beast that looked like a chicken with a lizard’s hind quarters, its wings planted on the earth too to make up for front legs, and a real gryphon, a grey one looked fast asleep in the far corner.
Martin slumped down against the wall inside the corridor, his eyes screwed shut. His heart seemed to be bursting, it was beating so fast, he was gasping for breath as though he had run a marathon. It felt like too much. Every one of those things could rip him up with their smallest claw, he was certain of that, and he doubted they would feel bad about it either. He could hear Stacey exclaiming something loudly from outside, and Andy sounded rapt and awe filled at the scene.
Well, it’s alright for them. They only feel some awe, so it’s awesome. I’m full of awe, so it’s awful. The mental quip gave him a tiny glint of amusement before that was crushed by embarrassment. What happened to being bold, being courageous like Dan?! Couldn’t manage it for five seconds! Wimped out straight away, what must they think of you now? He grasped his head, breathing hard. He should go. Yeah. That was it. Perfect. Sorry guys, my mum just phoned, I forgot I was meant to be… be… going to see my gran today. Got to go, sorry, but nice to meet you both, have a nice time and say sorry to Dan for me.
It was a good excuse. He sighed and climbed to his feet, unsteadily, reaching for his phone as he muttered a silent apology to his friend. Sorry for being a coward. Sorry for chickening out.
A faint sound of scuffing echoed down the corridor, and he turned on the spot, then froze. An enormous wolf was pacing down the concrete hallway, it’s back easily even with his chest, its pace languid and smooth. Light brown, almost blond fur covered the beast, shaggy over the crest of its back and trailing down to a great, brush shaped tail that swayed this way and that with every step. The two amber brown eyes were fixed exactly on him, and he swallowed, shrinking back under that malice filled gaze, fighting to control his nerves.
The muzzle opened slightly, revealing a collection of fangs each as big as his fingers, and the creature gave a weird coughing growl. Then it’s pace quickened, trotting, loping, sprinting, straight at Martin, jaws gaping open to swallow him. Martin threw himself backwards in a panic with a yell of surprise, but the wall was there and he collided with it and crumpled to the floor. His back hurt suddenly, but he had to get away, run, the big bad wolf was right ther-
A rough and wet thing slid quickly over his cheek, and Martin winced and touched his face nervously. The stuff was thick and slimy, and… drool? Yuck. He looked up in confusion, waiting for the bite, the tearing, the ripping, but it never came. The huge wolf just panted at him, long pink tongue lolling from its jaws, a stupid grin spread across its muzzle and eyes. No. that was impossible. But its tail said the same thing, wagging gleefully behind it, just like an oversized dog.
“There you are! Don’t worry there, she’s not gonna hurt you!” Vicki called out and appeared, reaching around the wolf’s neck to give it- her- a happy pat. In answer the creature turned and gave her a lick in the face, causing the girl to squeal and bat at her. “That tickles, stop it!”
The wolf kept up her stupid wide mouthed grin and glanced back at Martin, who blinked, standing up carefully. “It’s… she’s tame?”
“Tame? Ooooh, she didn’t tell you.” The girl laughed and gave him a broad smile, “This is the good part, this is what we do! All the mystics and her? They’re all people really, we’ve got magic to turn people into different creatures.”
The boy blinked and frowned, on the verge of saying it was impossible. But there was a gryphon outside, and the news all this time, it said mystics could hide as humans and shapeshift. Even if magic blew apart all the other rules and logic, this did logically fit in with what he knew. Which made…
“Dan, is that you?” Stacey gasped, open mouthed as she came back in the door way. The wolf grinned her stupid grin and nodded eagerly, moving forward to nuzzle at the woman like Dan hugged people. Although, to be fair, Dan didn’t usually hold dangerous implements while doing so. Not normally anyway, there had been that one time…
“A giant wolf? Dangit Dan!” Andrew exclaimed behind her, “You went just for a giant wolf? Not a dragon, not a gryphon, not anything half cool, just a giant wolf. I’m disappointed in you, seriously, that’s like the most boring choice!”
It had to be then, Martin breathed out. It had her hair colour, her new one, her attitude, her lack of understanding about personal space. But… but she was a human, could people really just turn into creatures like that at will. The lion, the kappa, the cockatrice, the gryphon, they were the same then. Just a load of fellow men… “Why do you change people?”
“It’s in the name, it lets you have a change of pace for a few hours, and it’s to show that magic and mystics aren’t scary.” Stacey explained, “You would’ve heard if you didn’t run away.”
“It’s cool, I’m gonna try it, that’s for sure.” Andrew laughed, “How many times in your life have you got to be something else?”
Cool. Yeah, just add yolo on to that too. Doing motorcycle stunts over giant buzzsaws is cool too. Martin clenched his fist slowly. This was what Dan had been so eager to show him, this place to try out magic. She glanced at him again, and he could see more and more of her in the lupine form now, the warm smile, the playfulness, the lightheartedness, the courage, the boldness. A little jealousy flickered in his heart, and he found his lips moving, “Okay, I’ll try too.”