I groan, opening my eyes.
The bedroom is spinning, and a horde of drummers are using my brain to practice “Death Metal’s greatest hits.”
How much did I drink at the Jubilee?
All I recall is people with two glasses of alcohol, one for them, one for me—and me giving in to peer pressure.
Sitting up, I slide my feet into my slippers. Moving makes my skull feel like a white dwarf star about to explode into a supernova.
With superhuman effort, I navigate to the bathroom.
If walking with a hangover were a sport, I’d get a gold medal.
A pale ghost of my already-pasty self looks out of the bathroom mirror with huge bloodshot blue eyes and a jet-black mop of hair.
Looking at the toilet generates flashbacks of me hugging the white marble, and I vaguely recall Ariel and Felix fighting for the honor of holding back my hair.
After a thorough shower and five minutes of brushing my teeth, my mind clears enough for me to decide that this hangover is the worst of my life.
I’m never drinking again.
At least I had a good reason to get so trashed—the Jubilee is a big deal. It was my entry into Cognizant society, the secret race that includes psychics (like me), descendants of Hercules (like my roommate Ariel), and whatever techno-thing Felix is. Not to mention, vampires, werewolves, necromancers, and who knows what else.
I stumble back into my room and strongly debate skipping work. The problem with this idea is that my boss Nero is now my Mentor in the Cognizant world—a role with as-yet-unclear meaning. Last night, after informing me about a raise, he demanded I research two new biotech stocks for our portfolio by 11:00 a.m.—and it’s already 7:45, so I don’t have much time.
Figuring I should break the problem into smaller chunks, I decide to jam some liquids and electrolytes into myself, to see if that makes me feel human again. Though maybe the expression should be “Cognizant again,” since we don’t seem to be human.
Dressing in my most comfortable work clothes, I waddle into the kitchen and find Felix by the stove.
“Morning, party girl,” he says with an annoyingly cheerful smile. “Do you want eggs or oatmeal?”
Felix’s face is a melting pot of Slavic, Asian, and Middle Eastern features, and he’s the only person I know who looks endearing when wiggling a bushy unibrow.
“Whatever works better for a hangover,” I croak, the smell of food failing to entice me for once.
Felix nods and fusses over the stove as I watch the kitchen spin.
“I’ve put some salt and bananas into your oatmeal,” he says a moment later, his voice much too loud for my comfort. He sets the bowl in front of me with a skull-shattering bang. “Let me also pour you some juice and tea.”
When he hands me the liquids, I guzzle the juice in one gulp, like medicine, and slurp the tea while I wait for the oatmeal to cool.
“Did you see Ariel dancing with that vampire?” Felix says conspiratorially, putting his own plate of eggs on the table with another too-loud smack. “What was she thinking?”
“You mean Gaius?” I catch some banana with my spoon. “She says they’re just friends.”
“Just friends,” Felix mutters. “We are just friends, and if I rubbed against her like that, she’d probably break my neck.”
He blushes, realizing what he’s said, then looks at the door and turns beet red.
Ariel jauntily sashays into the room. Though her Jubilee makeup is gone, she still looks like she could pose for a cover of Maxim magazine. Batting her perfect eyelashes at Felix, she asks, “Who would break your neck and why?”
“No one. No reason.” Felix stuffs food into his mouth.
“All right,” Ariel says and blitzes through the kitchen like a sultry Tasmanian devil from the cartoons. Cabinet doors slam, plates thump against the counter, and dishes rattle in the sink. I’m pretty sure I see a crack appear in the cup she’s holding as she bangs it against the kitchen faucet in an effort to get water. Before I can beg her to stop making such a clamor, she grabs a plate of eggs and a cup of coffee, and heads for the table.
“Would you sit down?” Felix says to her as she jumps up a second later to grab milk in the same frantic manner. “What, is this your tenth cup of coffee?”
Actually, Ariel is acting like she’s on amphetamines, but I don’t say it out loud because that would upset her. My roommate takes a range of legal and, I suspect, some not-so-legal drugs to help her cope with the PTSD she denies having. Felix and I generally don’t give her a hard time about that because taking those pills seems to improve her quality of life.
“I’m just excited after having so much fun last night.” Ariel’s megawatt smile blinds my hungover eyes.
“So much ‘fun.’” I make air quotes to make sure no one misses my sarcasm. “I could use a guillotine right about now.”
“Is your hangover really that bad?” Ariel’s smile dims slightly. “I can hook you up to an IV, if you’d like. They say it helps with dehydration symptoms.”
“I think I’ll pass,” I say, sipping my tea. “But I will take enough Tylenol to cure or kill an elephant.”
Ariel jumps up and beelines for the medicine cabinet. Almost instantly, she’s back with a bottle of painkillers and a glass of water.
I gratefully shove a handful of pills into my mouth and chase them down with water. Hopefully, my liver can take it.
“You better recover soon. The Jubilee was just the first step in our celebration,” Ariel says as I resume eating.
I nearly choke on my oatmeal. “More celebration?”
“Of course.” She beams at me again. “I’m taking you to Earth Club.”
I picture loud club beats, and my left eye twitches involuntarily, the headache gleefully pulsing at the base of my noggin.
Felix looks me over. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to take her there so soon?”
“No. Not a good idea,” I say, clearing the knot in my throat. “I’d rather go to a shooting range and let someone put a bullet in my head.”
“I’m not saying we go today,” Ariel says, her hyper manner undiminished. “We don’t even need to go tomorrow. We’ll go on Saturday—that’s when everyone’s going to be there, anyway.”
“What do you mean, everyone?” I massage my throbbing temples.
“All the Cognizant,” Ariel says and spears a piece of egg on her fork. “Earth Club is where we hang out without having to hide our natures.”
“That does make it a little more interesting,” I say cautiously and eat half a spoon of oatmeal. “Maybe in a few years, when this headache is gone—”
“It’s located in the Otherlands.” Ariel’s smile threatens to break her face. “It’s your chance to officially go there—I know you’d want that.”
“I’ll think about this,” I say and sip my tea again. “But no alcohol at the club if I go. No alcohol for me ever.”
“Sure.” Ariel shoves her fingers through her hair in a jerky motion, still beaming like a lunatic. “They have every drug known to man—and some not known to man.”
My concern about Ariel’s sobriety returns with a vengeance. I catch Felix staring at me intently—his thoughts must echo mine.
“Are you going with us?” I ask Felix. What I leave unsaid is, “Maybe you can help me keep an eye on her?”
Felix hesitates, then nods. “Yes. All right. I’ll go.”
Ariel all but jumps up and down in her chair. “This is going to be so much fun, you guys.”
In the momentary silence that follows, I hear the pitter-patter of fluffy feet. With a wave of guilt, I realize that in my hangover misery, I completely forgot to feed Fluffster—my pet chinchilla.
Fortunately, Fluffster doesn’t look particularly grumpy, so hopefully, he just woke up and hasn’t realized I forgot about him. In fact, he looks extra bright eyed and bushy tailed today, his tiny nose wrinkling in the middle of majestically long whiskers and his large ears standing up like radio antenna dishes ready to receive alien transmissions.
My roommates exchange a strange look, then stare at me.
I look at them, then at Fluffster—and then I see it.
Fluffster has a tiny aura.
The glow is similar to the one both of my roommates possess—which in their case means they’re under the Mandate, like me.
In other words, Cognizant.
“Felix. Ariel.” I point at the aura. “Are you also seeing the glow that’s supposed to indicate people under the Mandate? Do you know why my cute rodent has one?”
“It’s a long story.” Felix puts down a butter knife and looks at Ariel.
“Fluffster isn’t what or who you think he is,” Ariel says, her smile as bright as ever.
Fluffster scurries closer and jumps onto my knee, then leaps onto the table, displaying a dexterity I’ve never seen from him before. He then looks at Ariel with his pretty black eyes, his posture radiating unusual intensity.
“No,” Ariel says, seemingly to Fluffster. “It’s better if you tell her.” Fluffster looks at Felix in the same intense way—as though he wants to hypnotize him.
“Don’t look at me,” Felix says. “I think it should come from the horse’s mouth. Or chinchilla’s brain. Or whatever.”
“Tell me?” The room starts to spin again, and it’s no longer because of the hangover. “Guys, please. This is the worst day for jokes.”
Fluffster stands on his haunches on the table, and it could be my imagination, but did he just gesticulate with his little hand-like paws?
“I wouldn’t know where to start.” Ariel puts down her fork with a loud clank, her smile disappearing as she full-on glares at my pet. “It’s your charade; you deal with it.”
Fluffster begins to pace the table. From time to time, he looks at Felix or Ariel, then at me.
“Okay,” Felix finally says to my pet. He then turns to me. “You ever hear of the domovoi?”
“Yes,” I say, my headache evolving into a full-on migraine. “It’s some kind of a Russian house spirit or something like that, right? Vlad and Pada called Fluffster by that word, so I looked it up.”
“Correct,” Felix says. “The domovoi feature prominently in Slavic folklore. And, according to my dad, they’re a group of powerful Cognizant within their own realm of influence, and he”—Felix points at Fluffster—“is one of them.”
I gape at the little animal. “But he’s a chinchilla. A rodent native to the Andean Mountains in South America—as far from Russia as you can get. I bought him at the pet shop. This makes no sense.”
Both Felix and Ariel look at Fluffster, avoiding my gaze.
“This isn’t funny,” I say. “Are you seriously about to tell me Fluffster is a were-chinchilla? Or is he supposed to be a chinchilla who got bitten by a rabid guy from Siberia, making him a were-man—a cute furry creature who turns into a hairy Russian dude during a full moon?”
“Having grown up in the States, I don’t know that much about the way the domovoi work,” Felix says. “What I do know is based on what my dad told me. The domovoi usually stay in an insubstantial form, but sometimes, they take the shape of a passed-away pet—usually a dog or a cat…”
I stare at everyone in turn, the hair on the back of my neck rising.
Fluffster walks over to my oatmeal bowl, stands on his haunches again, and stares directly into my face.
My eyes widen, and I blink repeatedly.
There’s always been intelligence in Fluffster’s gaze, but never this deep. Never this intense.
“I’m so sorry you had to find out this way,” says a soft voice in my head—and though it’s purely mental, it has a hint of a Russian accent.