My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 7

An hour later, I found myself wandering around the much-darkening campground.

“Hey,” someone said. It was Lucian, and he seemed to have calmed down somewhat, although maybe he was looking a little disgruntled. “Don’t you want to know where you’re going to sleep?”

“Up a tree?” I suggested. The problem honestly hadn’t occurred to me, but I’d done it before, on camping trips. I found it much more comfortable than a tent, as long as the tree was shaped right and I had plenty of blankets. And birds didn’t like it too much.

“Well, we did manage to find you and your friend a tent to stay in…” Lucian began.

“Up a tree, then,” I concluded. “What are we doing tomorrow?”

“That’s a surprise,” Lucian said, crossing his arms, which meant he probably hadn’t figured it out yet. “Are you hungry?”

“Starving.”

“Well, come on,” he said. “Our hunters caught us plenty of game—lots of doves and rabbits, and I think they said something about squirrel and quail, too. Oh, and there’s always an alligator or a wild hog that they end up having to deal with. Those things are no match for a well-aimed spell.”

“How far did you have to go to get all this?” I asked—although the menu hadn’t slipped my mind, either.

“Oh, they travel pretty well. Remember the group you’re dealing with! Phoenix wings? Bah. We’ve got people who can carry three others—we’ve got dragons, for that matter.”

I followed him past the tents to a giant portion of damp grass. When you’re thinking about this, don’t think of grass as in the green grass in your local park or on your lawn. This was dry, tan grass that tickled your ankles and the back of your knees—that is, until we reached the place where it had suddenly been cut away, as if by a lawnmower, except that nobody could possibly bring a lawnmower through the swamp… unless you could convince the trees to pass it back here for you.

“Oh, yes, we have Earth Anoki around here who do that sort of thing all the time. Have you ever heard of Amanda, the Star Anoki? No? Well, she used to be friends with every tree in her village. Word passes quickly with trees, and they fought at her command when she needed to kill someone but couldn’t do it herself.”

Then I asked a question that had been bugging me for a while. “What are Anoki, Lucian?”

“Me,” said someone who’d just appeared, out of nowhere.

“Oh, get off it with your invisibility spells, Emma,” said a second person, appearing out of the grass. I wasn’t sure how I hadn’t noticed her. She was past my height, and the grass only came to my waist. The first girl who’d appeared—Emma—had dark blue wings and a ring made of what looked like yarn, in the same color, on her hand. The second girl had wings and a ring as well, but hers were white.

“Emma, Dakota,” Lucian greeted them.

“We caught plenty today,” Emma said. “Nobody’s going hungry tonight.”

“Plenty of what?” Dakota asked suspiciously, putting her hands on her hips.

“Quail… at least, I caught quail,” she said.

“And your friends?” Dakota pressed.

“Let’s see,” Emma said, counting on her fingers. “Two alligators, twenty snakes, a lot of rabbits—maybe fifty altogether—four wild hogs, giant ones, fifteen quail, twenty mourning doves, a few snipers, ten squirrels, and seven ducks.”

“Snipers?” I asked, confused. If there were shooters out here after people with weird abilities, surely they weren’t going to eat them?

Lucian laughed. “The Anoki’s nickname for snipe,” he said. “A water bird. Think of a cross between a kiwi bird and a duck.”

“Don’t worry,” Emma said to me. “You’ll like what we catch. Rabbit… rabbit kind of tastes like dry, lean chicken meat, only more gamey.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by “gamey,” but I figured I’d find out soon enough.

“Why are you two out here?” I asked. “And what is an Anoki?”

“We’re extremely flexible and strong,” Dakota replied. “We work with Cirque du Soleil—a sort of French circus. It’s in the area at the moment, and we still catch word of this place’s location. We aren’t here permanently—just to visit.”

“Anoki are a species,” Emma explained. “Winged people with elemental magic. Our elements aren’t just the typical natural elements that you humans came up with, though.” She was about to elaborate, but a third Anoki walked up, and I could tell that he was the Earth Anoki Lucian had been talking about. Not from his green wings, but from the way he was covered in dirt. I bet his hair hosted a multitude of bugs.

“Oh, hi,” Dakota said. “Phoebe, this is Brian.”

“Why… do you have human names?” I asked, suddenly realizing that this was unusual.

“Oh, good catch!” Emma said. “Anoki are crazy about humans. Search through fairy tales and you’ll find elves who look down on humans, but I bet you can’t find an Anoki who’ll turn down the opportunity to pull an all-nighter just to watch America’s Funniest Home Videos. We decoded English, and that opened up all sorts of technology we could steal, to use alongside magic. Some of us still have names in our old language, but everyone started speaking English so that we could steal more effectively and, if needed, pose as humans. And understand TV, of course. We work with humans, so we do have to merge a little anyway.”

“Oh, is she the phoenix girl?” Brian said cheerfully. He shook my hand. “Nice to meet. Are you going to eat sometime today? The line died down fifteen minutes ago.”

I realized how hungry I was. “Yeah,” I said. “Better do that.”

“Ooh, me too,” Dakota said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

We reached the buffet table.

“Do I want to know what this is?” I asked, picking up something fried with a pair of tongs.

Emma shrugged. “Alligator.”

I dropped it quickly.

“Hey, don’t diss it till you try it,” she said. “You don’t get a lot as far as disease with alligator meat. I’ve tried everything from squid and octopus to spiders and ants to frog and escargot—thank you, France—and lemme tell you, gator is pretty safe. Anyway, Brian and I cooked this stuff up, and we’re… well, experienced.”

I hesitantly took some.

“I remember when I was just trying this stuff—when we’d just joined this group,” Dakota said. “Emma was all over it, grabbing some of everything, but I stuck to the dove meat and it’s still my favorite.”

“Which is the dove?” I asked.

Emma pointed to a plate with suspiciously long strips. I took one, still disbelieving.

“Oops, that’s snake,” she said, grinning. “Another one that doesn’t pass on a bunch of disease.”

I’d taken it, though, and it would have been kind of awkward to put it back. Emma obviously knew this, so I took Dakota’s word for which was the dove next. I also piled on some duck, which I’d eaten before, and some rabbit, after Emma insisted.

“On a good day, we would have caught some frogs, too,” she said sadly.

I didn’t exactly take this view of a “good day.”

I found Mark sitting at the edge of the field, on a blanket, like everyone else. I was starting to get the feeling that I was sitting among Indians, people with nothing really permanent and rooted, so that they could pack up and move whenever they wanted. Except, maybe, for the igloo.

Actually, the food wasn’t bad. The dove meat had been wrapped in smoked cheddar and bacon, and the snake was all right if you covered it in A1. Apparently, the Anoki had stolen a bunch of oranges from an orchard, on the basis that it wasn’t illegal since the government didn’t have jurisdiction over a species they don’t know exists.

Once we were all full, Brian, two minotaurs, a centaur, and Leslie started to play soccer with one of the older cabbages Brian had grown. At this point, I decided it was time to disappear.

Mark, however, found me just as I was scurrying up a tree for an early turn-in.

“So this is it?” he said. “This is where you want to stay?”

“Of course not,” I said, and he looked surprised. I hung off my branch, swinging back and forth. “We just need to find a way to travel.”

“What’s that?” Emma asked, approaching us. “What’s up?”

“Phoebe,” Mark said.

“Ha ha. What was that about travel?”

“Well, we’re not staying here,” I said matter-of-factly. “Obviously, the Agency has been researching me. It’d be rude to waste their time. Anyway, they’d never get around to the rest of these guys.”

Mark seemed to relax.

“So you need a ride?” Emma asked. I nodded. “I can do that,” she said. “We have four places open in Cirque du Soleil right now, and we travel all over the country. Right now, there’s a position open for an acrobat, a violinist, a clown, and a makeup artist.”

“Why so many?” I asked.

“Well, see, they went off to do their own show,” Emma said. “They were oddballs, those four. I can’t pretend that none of us are completely sad to see them leave. They kind of freaked us out.”

I could almost see the way Mark was thinking. He definitely wasn’t light enough to be an acrobat, had more technical than musical talent, and would never stand a chance as a makeup artist—not even for the circus. Which left…

“Do you think you can pull off the whole clown thing?” I asked him, hanging off the tree branch by my knees. Mark grumbled, but I knew he agreed.

“I think I know where you’ll fit,” Emma said, pointing at me.

“This?” I asked, letting my arms dangle. “That’s nothing. Anyone can do this.”

“But you’re light enough to throw around,” Emma pressed. “And you’re not afraid of heights.”

“But my hiding spells,” I protested.

This time, she laughed. “You won’t need a hiding spell for Cirque du Soleil.”

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