My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 8

I’m not insane, a tiny, defiant, ridiculous voice piped up in the back of my head.

I was stretched out on two wide branches, far up the tree where I’d perched for the night. The last thing I was worrying about was falling. The first thing I was worrying about ran more along the lines of “So many pathetically improbable things have happened within the past 48 hours that I no longer have any idea whether it’s real or I’m insane or this is all a ridiculously long dream and I’m in a coma somewhere in Maquoketa, Iowa.”

But I was awake—to a greater degree than I had been five minutes ago, at least, if I really was in a coma somewhere. And from what I could hear, I was just about the only one.

I came to a decision.

I walked straight out to the end of the branch—at least, to the end where I could legitimately balance and it could hold me. I held out my arms and wings for balance. When I got to the point where my arms swirled in the air to stay on the branch and my wings automatically shot into the air to rescue me from a fall, I stopped… and, intentionally, slipped off.

My already-outstretched wings caught the air. I gave a single beat down, then another, then another, then another, then another… I was up, gliding for a few, precious, energy-saving seconds before I had to beat my wings down again. Then, before I knew it, I was circling the campground, riding natural breezes up to the thermals.

Had I been part human at one point? When was that?

Overwhelmed by my own skill on the wing, which had been practiced so many times in Colorado mountains, Minnesota forests, and even over the ocean, I completely ignored my human half to totally and fully embrace my phoenix side. I felt myself inching, slipping away towards it, just like I’d slipped off the branch. I let myself. After all, I could always fly away.

My breathing synced with my wingbeats: up, down, in, out, faster…

“Phoebe!”

That was my name, wasn’t it? Or… someone’s name. Oh, well. They could talk to whoever it was later.

The orange feathers that coated my arms, face and legs thickened; there seemed to be more of them now. But that didn’t matter, did it? No, not really.

Someone grabbed me around the middle. I squeaked.

“You were slipping away from us,” Emma said. Her brown eyes stared straight into mine, which were technically also brown, though Mark would say differently.

She let me go. “I see what Mark meant. You almost turned…”

“…totally phoenix?” I asked, thinking I knew the answer.

“I… I don’t know.” Now her eyes showed fear. “Let’s get back to the ground.”

I followed her, reluctantly.

“Do you want to go hunting with us?” Emma asked.

I didn’t. Fortunately, I was saved from shooting magic spells at snakes all day by the appearance of Leslie and Lucian.

“Sorry, Emma,” Leslie said with a smile. “Not today, I’m betting.”

“Remember that surprise I told you about?” Lucian said to me with a grin. “Well, here it is. You’re going to learn to fight with us!”

I was trying to remember when Lucian had promised me a surprise when the full impact of what he’d said hit me.

“Fighting?”

“Sure!” Lucian said. “You don’t think we’d let you battle the Agency without training you up first, do you?”

I was about to reply that I wasn’t going to battle the Agency when Dakota showed up with a friend.

“This is Liz,” Dakota said. “She’s a Fire Anoki, but she can also fly. We just want to see if you can do Fire magic.”

“And we know you can do mage magic,” Leslie pressed.

“Methinks it’s time to get out of here,” Emma said, and she kicked herself into the air again.

I was about to follow her and escape these crazy people, but Lucian, who knew what I was planning (of course), grabbed my hand and carted me off.

Past the place where the picnic blankets still sat in the grass, a whole lot of fighting was going on. One of the minotaurs from last night was sparring with the gray centaur, and the second minotaur was swinging a tennis racket around, trying to hit a small yellow blur that must have been a faerie. To one side, shapeshifters reacted to each other, a few of them getting stuck between forms until their friends smacked them around a bit, and plenty more than a few sitting around under trees and playing Nintendo DS games. Mermaids leapt in a pond that definitely hadn’t been there last night, each dive more exquisite than the last, and each shooting more powerful bulletlike projectiles of water and ice in certain directions with simple tail flicks that sent splashes into the air.

By the end of the day, I had learned a few pretty good mage spells, could do a front kick and a roundhouse kick while flying (which is harder than it looks), had sparred with a harpy, and had found out that I had absolutely no talent for Anoki Fire magic.

“But that’s because you’re a breed all your own,” Emma said consolingly, smacking my shoulder and grinning. “You’re giving us a bunch of trouble—you know that, right?”

“Right,” I said numbly. By then, I was so tired that I didn’t care what anyone thought about it, much less myself, and what I wanted to do most was get back into my tree.

Then I realized how inconveniently hungry I was.

“Well, Emma’s back, isn’t she?” Lucian said in response to my thought. “Dakota’s cooking up the meat right now. None of the hunters would have come back without a decent picking!”

“At least thirty of our hunters go out every day,” Emma told me. “We have about a hundred and twenty mouths to feed, and some of them aren’t great at hunting, and most of them do about as much training as you did now. But we have an edge, because we have magic. I mean, it’s easy enough to find a hotspot, and then if you have varied enough magical talents in your group, you probably have some sort of masking device so the animals don’t catch you as easily. Like my invisibility spell. So if I don’t snap too many twigs and I approach the hotspot from upwind, the animals don’t catch me.”

I only caught about half of this. Lucian had been determined to pass on his kick boxing experience, and the smell from what must have been the bacon from the wild hogs… well, I must have been downwind.

“So… good hunting day?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Did you get to try the quail yet?”

The rest of the week went on this way. I practiced with Lucian and Leslie, hunted with Emma, and cooked stuff up with the rest of the Anoki (who were much more impressed with my cooking than they had been with my pitiful side kicks). Liz had given up on trying to teach me Fire magic, but she was determined to help me practice for the shows.

“If you’re going to tag along with Cirque du Soleil, you’re going to find your schedule even more tied up with practices than it is now!” she’d declare.

And I was tied up. It seemed like every moment of every day was filled with exhausting activities. I was always glad to get food at lunch and dinner (breakfast was whatever you saved from the night before, because there wasn’t enough food prepared yet).

Today had been a pretty tiring day. Lucian had been intent on teaching me how to strike past blocks and defenses, and over the weeks I’d spent with the rebel camp, I’d learned just how much of a slave driver Liz was. Leslie, however, was the most tiring. She didn’t say anything when I failed to do a spell, just continued to describe it. If she’d shouted at me for not trying hard enough (or something equally silly), it would have given me a break. No. Quiet, mind-reading, half-sheep farm girl Leslie never shouted. She stopped if I stopped, though, and seemed to look at a point directly behind my eyebrows, making it clear: I was not to give up.

“Your life may depend upon this,” she’d say quietly. And then I would have to keep going.

Liz was refreshing after that. Her lessons went a lot more like this:

“Come on, girl! Throw your weight! You have a thing called balance! Keep your center of gravity in line with your target! Now… catch!”

I don’t know how Cirque du Soleil would survive without magical help—at least, not unless the humans who worked there were whipped into practice the second they could walk—which was likely the situation in most cases even now.

When we all dropped down from Liz’s equipment, the couple of Anoki who were practicing with us grinned broadly. None of them had broken a sweat, as Anoki are plenty stronger than humans—and plenty stronger than the fully grown pair of Epselans who practiced with us when the Anoki were out hunting, for that matter. Both the Epselans and I were definitely ready for food and drink by the end of the day.

I hadn’t proven any stronger than the Epselans, let alone the Anoki, but I did have a knack for flying through the air in intricate patterns. My days on the monkey bars and jungle gym had paid off. I even had a built-in safety net. Liz and Emma told me that they’d work my wings into the act and pass them off as a costume.

I kept working, though. Emma had promised me that Cirque du Soleil would be taking off within a week, and in turn made me promise that I’d practice extra hard so she could get me a job. Mark was still not thrilled about being a clown, but you could tell he was excited that we were moving again. He currently spent his time working, saving us money to buy clothes for different weather conditions—which, of course, we had at home, but didn’t pack. He’d already stopped off at a Wal-Mart and fetched us suitable clothes, as we’d been dressed ready for foggy Maine.

I covered my plateful of snake with barbecue sauce before sitting down next to Mark, Emma, Dakota and Brian. Liz was at the next blanket, twisted around to talk to Mark.

“So you know Daniel, too,” Mark was saying to her as I approached.

“I’ve had a few run-ins with him,” Liz replied.

“Hey, Phoebe,” Dakota greeted me cheerfully.

“Hey,” I responded, already half asleep, and flopped onto the blanket, balancing my plate.

“Tired yet?” Emma asked with a smile.

“How’d you figure that one out?”

“The lack of meat on your plate and the very happy dog over there,” she said.

I glanced lazily at the plate, and attempted to pry myself up again.

“I’ll get it,” Dakota said kindly, taking my plate, then taking off. Bless her little Light-Anoki heart.

“Four days, Phoeb,” Emma said cheerfully. “And I can see you’re working your hardest.”

Four days. Four more days of acrobatics, of hunting, of magic and fighting. Four more days of watching Liz, a contortionist, dance sleekly around our eating area at two in the afternoon. Or two in the morning, for that matter; she was obsessed. Four more days of quail and snipe and rabbit and—Emma had made me—frog. Four more nights in the breezy cool of the tree.

Dakota returned with a new plateful of meat.

“You’ve forgotten a drink, as well,” Emma pointed out. She seized a cup from a stack in the center of our blanket and pointed a finger at it until it filled itself.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. I scarfed down the meat, which was still hot and burned my mouth, but I didn’t care. Then I looked at the other stuff Dakota had gotten for me—lime slices coated with sugar.

“It’ll bring up your blood sugar,” she insisted. “You need that. You can’t live off of protein, anyway.”

I was pretty sure, as I threw the paper plate away in a bag which was to be flown to a dumpster by one of the dragons, that I had eaten about half of the lime peel as well as the fruit. But I didn’t care.

I left straight for the tree, but Mark caught me first.

“I have to thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For being loyal,” he said.

“Loyal?”

“To me. For leaving. For not wanting to stay here and live with a bunch of… well, weirdoes. Good weirdoes, but… weirdoes.”

“Leslie’s not weird,” I said.

“She switched our train tickets,” Mark reminded me. “Don’t jump to her defense so quickly.”

“Well, what about Emma and Liz and Dakota and Lottie? And… Key?”

“Key’s all right, I’ll give you that,” Mark admitted.

Of course Key’s all right, I thought. Key is very all right, isn’t she, Mark. Isn’t she.

“Anyway,” Mark said, blushing now. “You can go to bed now.”

“Anything wrong?” Emma asked, flying up. I was guessing that she had very sharp hearing.

“Yes,” I said, surprised at myself. “You and Dakota and Brian don’t seem to have oddities at all. Is being an Anoki enough? I thought the Agency already knew about you!”

“We have oddities, all right,” Emma said grimly. “And… enough? This camp will take in anyone who’s down on his luck as long as they won’t freak out and cause an apocalyptic war. Yes, the Agency knows about Anoki, but they don’t know enough about the black-market spell that allows them to fly.”

“Wait—Anoki can’t fly?”

“Not naturally,” Emma said. “Not for most of them. Usually, it’s only the Air Anoki who can fly—not some ol’ Joe Water Anoki like me, or a Light or Earth Anoki like Dakota or Brian.”

“And you can,” I said.

“And I can,” Emma said.

There was silence. Mark looked puzzled, but he didn’t say anything.

“You need sleep,” Emma said finally. “I’d go without a few of those blankets tonight, if I were you. The Storm Anoki say it’s going to be a hot night tonight.”



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This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 at 8:34 pm and is filed under Phoenix. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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