My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 9

Mages tend to have funny dreams. Some mages like to sit up in their beds in the morning and philosophically mull theirs over, at least until whatever animal they’ve trained to do their bidding—or they’ve trained to allow the mage to think he’s trained the animal to do his bidding—shows up with a mug of coffee.

Epselans have funnier dreams. Usually, it involves interaction with their animalina, which is a different species with different instincts, and thus occupies a different part of their mind, allowing the Epselan to switch between human and animalina. Sometimes the Epselans find themselves in a group of animals identical to their own animal side, and at this point, the Epselan generally hopes that the animals catch a good whiff of their animal side, and note that they aren’t there to deliver the pizza. Epselans, for the most part, do not mull over their dreams philosophically, since most of the philosophy you can get out of them is not to eat too many beans, and to make sure that you got lots of vitamin K.

I was both. The phoenix was taking over. And once I jumped off this branch, I wasn’t sure it would want to fly back…

But I’m getting ahead of the story. This deserves to be seen first-hand.

I was definitely dreaming. The stars were the wrong color.

The Big Dipper’s glint had turned from the usual pale brilliance of stars seen far from a city to a gauzy, metallic color.

Then I smelled it, and I knew why.

Prairie grass. Smoke. Iowa? Is this normal? A seasonal fire, or caused by something else? Because, well, I’m still here, even though the entire prairie is burning…

I’m still here because the entire prairie is burning. I’m the one who set it on fire.

How in the world did I end up back in Iowa?

“I’ve been here before,” I realized, aloud, and caught a mouthful of ash. I was prepared to spit it back out, but it melted on my tongue. It tasted almost sweet.

But I wasn’t dying, which would follow typical logic if I were to think about it. The whole routine, you know: phoenix dies = phoenix burns. Usually, that’s how things go.

That was not how things were going. I felt amazing. I felt like I was coming out of a hiding spell, times a thousand. Magic and energy and strength poured into my system, and I was ready to fly.

I gave an extravagant dive between a crumbling aster and the sticklike remains of some plant I didn’t recognize, curled up with my wings folded around my entire body, and fell asleep.

And then I woke up, back where I was supposed to be. But I wasn’t what I was supposed to be. At least, it felt like that. I still had that energy, the magic, the strength, but it was in a poor place for use now. Now I was jittery and uncontrollable. I needed to get to the ground.

As usual, I headed towards the end of my favorite thick branch, and jumped, wings out.

Ooh. I felt lighter. A lot lighter.

I was both pleased and disappointed to see that the stars were their typical extravagant white, not silver and darkly flickering.

In the sky, my sickness dropped away—like I’d been hunched over, but now I was free and stretched out. I was ready to reach my arms out to feel the breeze, but I somehow couldn’t.

It didn’t worry me. I was soaring—better than an eagle. I could outdo eagles any day. Heck, I was a phoenix! Who was gonna argue with that?

Forget the ground, I thought. If the sky was going to save me from barfing my guts out, I wasn’t about to be stubborn.

I flew for hours, until it started to rain. I knew by then that something was out of the norm, but something else kept me from investigating. I just wasn’t in the mood.

When the rain started, I glided straight away from the campsite and landed in a tree on the other side of the marsh. I knew dawn would come sooner or later, and when it did, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone.

I sat upright in my tree, not feeling the need for any support. I pulled a Mark, falling asleep in the middle of nowhere, and woke up two hours later, just at the sun was coming up.

After a few cursory laps around the sky, I landed back in the tree, high up.

“Phoebe?” A voice called from below. Leslie’s voice, I realized. And Phoebe meant me, I knew, but I really would have been more comfortable if she’d called me Lee…

I gave a chirp of surprise and left my high branch for a lower one. Leslie came into view. She was in her half-sheep form.

“I thought I saw you earlier,” Leslie said. She was alone.

I ruffled my feathers.

“So you tried my spell?” Leslie said. “I told you it was too dangerous.”

I shook my head and tried to respond, but all that came out was an indignant note or two.

No, I thought hard at her, willing her to read my mind. It just happened. I was dreaming.

“Dangerous things, dreams,” Leslie said, calmly.

“Hrrp,” I agreed.

“Well, now we need to find something to do with you. Where is your wand?”

It was in the clothing I’d left in the blankets on the branch. Leslie would have a hard time finding it, since I’d left a hiding spell to disguise my stuff, and if I went, people would flip out. I needed my wand if I wanted to undo the hiding spell so I could find my wand.

“All right,” Leslie said. “Let me show you how to make a new one.”

There was a lot to it. First, you had to find the right kind of wood, which meant staring at trees until you found a good one. Then you had to find a decent stick, straight and without knots, and shape and carve it so that it was easy to hold and conducted magic correctly.

Leslie sat on a tree stump, whittling chunks off of the wand with her Swiss Army knife. I explored the area and returned once with a branch of cherries.

Finally, Leslie held up a pale and intricately carved wand. “Try this,” she said, and held it out like a perch. I hopped onto it. Her grip dropped a little with my weight, but she held me steady anyway. I tried not to scratch the wand too much with my talons.

“Go ahead and remove your spell on the clothes, and I’ll go get them,” Leslie said. “I wouldn’t advise trying to go back to your half-and-half yet.”

No kidding, I thought.

“I won’t be long,” she said, and trotted off back into the marsh. I took the wand and flew back to the tree branch.

A while later, she returned with my clothes in her hand.

“The spell to change back is basically the same spell as the hiding spell,” Leslie said. “You’ll know what you’re doing. I’m coming back in twenty minutes.”

She left again.

I hopped off the tree branch, changed, and put on my clothes. Twenty minutes later, Leslie was back with some breakfast. We ate, and then she was back in Teaching Mode.

“Now,” she said briskly, “you need to learn to make weapons correctly when you don’t have a lot of resources. Magic helps.”

So I made another wand. And a number of arrowheads, a spear (shaft and head attached by magic), a quiver full of arrows (made almost completely by magic, since they didn’t work well otherwise), and a bow.

“Always, always carry a bowstring,” Leslie said. “As in always. And if you’re not carrying a bowstring, carry some really good twine. When you’re in a dangerous place, you’d better keep it strung, too.”

She also taught me to string my bow by magic, since she didn’t have a stringer.

By lunchtime, I knew why Leslie had kept me with her after breakfast. I was learning exactly how my back-to-half-human spell was like my hiding spell. Especially in how well it worked.

“Oh, crud,” Leslie muttered.

Oh, crud.

“Well, never mind that. It’s just a good thing you’ve hitched a ride with Cirque du Soleil. Anywhere else and you’d never, ever pass security. Go ahead and change back again. I’m going to keep a lookout to make sure no humans come traipsing down here and find you in mid-spell. It’s a bit more difficult to cover up when you’ve been caught in the middle of a spell. You can’t claim you’re from ‘that weird old cult of kids, call themselves the Agency.’”

“The Agency is made up of kids?” I asked, when I was human enough to talk again.

“Not completely,” Leslie said. “Mostly, though, the kids are the ones who do the most magic, so they get seen a lot. They have to practice, see, because typically they don’t run into magic until they’re ten or eleven. Then, if they’re wielders, then one of the other wielders can usually recognize them and pick them up, give them one of the Agency’s talking books to help them learn.”

“The Agency has talking books?” I asked, more confused.

“Not… exactly. It’s not the books that talk. Usually, it’s people who have locked themselves into a separate dimension where the only thing that exists is the mage, and the book is a communication portal. A lot of times, older mages will do that.”

“Why?”

“When you lock yourself into a completely blank dimension, you don’t die,” Leslie explained. “Your days freeze. You can make a new dimension, but you have to put things in it for it to work right, and if you don’t put in time, then no time passes. That’s why we use them for teaching. We put one portal in their blank little dimension, and its mate in a blank book. The teacher doesn’t die, so we don’t have to hire new staff, which is a good thing. Also, the books carry magic, and every dimension needs that so it doesn’t fade away.”

“Wouldn’t it get boring, though?”

“Not if you like to teach,” Leslie said. “You never get sick, you don’t need to sleep, you don’t get hungry, you have no allergies…”

“That makes sense,” I said. “How’d you learn all this?”

“I’ve been around,” she said. “My brother had a book, too.”

“Would a book know anything about Epselans?” I asked.

“Depends on the book,” Leslie said. “Depends on the mage’s specialty.”

She looked at me. I looked back at her.

“No, I don’t know why you changed last night.”

“Mark said that my magic is changing?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “The person with the best guess right now is you, Phoebe. Except… it must have had something to do with your dream,” she said thoughtfully. “I usually have weird dreams when I’m too hot or too cold…”

Her face lit up. “Phoebe! Last night was the hottest night Florida has seen in months! That makes sense!”

That had to be it.

“Your human form couldn’t stand the heat while you were in that heavy sleeping bag, so you changed to phoenix,” she continued, standing up and pacing with excitement now. “But your phoenix is so dominant that it wants to take over now… now that it’s gotten a chance!” She stopped to look at me. “I bet you felt sick when you got up, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but more like… sick with energy.”

“And you’d just woken up! That had to be because the phoenix was getting energy from the heat!” She was on a roll now, and had continued her pacing.

“So I should be fine once the Cirque gets out of the heat?”

“I don’t know,” Leslie said, pacing faster and staring at the ground. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the phoenix is going to take all the domination it can get, and won’t let you change back… What would happen if you did the hiding spell a second time?”

I tried. “I can’t.”

“Figures,” Leslie muttered. “The phoenix won’t let you. I just can’t make guesses about your magic, Phoebe. It’s too unusual.”

“Unusually annoying,” I grumbled. “I have crummy magic, and what do I get out of it?”

“You get to be a phoenix,” Leslie said, softly.

There was a silence. Then Leslie went back to making spearheads. Neither of us returned to camp until nightfall.

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