Magic is a force of entropy. That’s why dinosaurs became dragons, and why dragons became invisible and untouchable. That’s why zombies became vampires, which became mere pissed-off ghosts.

Magic makes a thing powerful, intelligent, magnificent, and then breaks it down and takes it all away, so that it is even less than whatever it started out as.

We’re on the decline, too. My people, us shapeshifters– once upon a time, we were werewolves and werecats and were-whatevers, but after our peak and our age of glory, magic began smashing our races together, and now we’re unholy mutts. No one would mistake us for any natural animal, and even our human bodies show the melding; we’re all brown-skinned, brown-haired, an average height and a thick build. No timber wolves here, no, and no blue-eyed blondes.

Just us. Just monsters.

Each generation is a little shakier than the one before, especially as Western society advances. Most of us don’t live in North America, not with its shrinking wilderness and ever-increasing technological security, but some of us are still stupid enough to stay.

Try dealing with the internet, with a keyboard to type on, when your hairless human skin can barely contain the mutated beast within. It’s like wanting to vomit out your own inner body.

Shapeshifting itself, by the way, isn’t pretty. It’s not painful, and it’s not a long process, but it’s not pretty.

So we hide. Most of us live feral and never interact with humans; it’s easiest that way. A few last, strained bloodlines try to run double lives, men by day and monsters by night, but you’ve read the books, you know how that goes. Either they go crazy and their own kind kills them to keep the secret, or they go crazy in public and humans kill them without ever realizing their secret.

No one speaks of wanting to come out to the humans. In every population large enough, there’s one or two of us who still feeds on human information– newspapers, books, anything we can unplug and still use. I’ve read the books, fake and speculative and almost-real alike. I know what happens to not-humans. It’s messy.

I saw, once, someone mention wanting to go out, to make contact. It was just me and our chief and her. She broached the subject as carefully as one would handle the tiniest of breakable bones.

The chief killed her instantly. No conversation, no nothing. That’s apparently the well-hidden punishment, passed down from leader to leader. If I hadn’t been the swarm’s reader, he probably would have offed me too, to preserve the secrecy, but as the reader, it’s my job to understand how things work and never explain it, only to guide as necessary. Of all the swarm-mates, only I can be trusted not to speak.

We don’t have a lot of contact with the other centers of population for our kind. The Atlas Mountains out in Africa are huge and largely empty of humans, and we thrive there, but we stay the hell out of the rain forests because damn, the natives and local animals are more dangerous than we are. We don’t do so well in open and hot and dry areas, so much of the world barren of humans is barren of shapeshifters, too.

We aren’t super-human, let alone invulnerable or immortal. We’re not sub-human, yet, although that’s probably where the entropy of magic will take us– slavering, mute, unshifting creatures that break into the civilized human world like a surprise plague and are, unequivocably, destroyed to the last.

We have some time before that happens. Granted, we have no idea how to prevent it, or even stave it off. Only the readers and the chiefs have a sense of timeline; the rest of us only know what they witness personally. I’d like to see a swarm who all have reader education, and I think some of the swarms who still maintain double lives have that, but for us, our chief will kill whoever gets out of place.

Which is why I have to find a way to kill him, instead.