My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 23 (Mark)

“Why did I let her do that?” I demanded, to myself as much as to Key, who was leaning against an ash tree and looking impatient.

“’Cause I did,” she said. I knew she was right. Key sent Phoebe away before I had time to argue. Not running after that kid had been against my better judgment.

Key sighed. “Mark, she’s thirteen. And a mage. And an Epselan. There’s a reason the Agency uses the Epselan spell to protect non-mages.”

I fingered the canvas pouch inside my coat pocket. I always kept the ingredients with me, just… in case.

“Well, if you want to go after her, I’m game,” Key said, bouncing back up.

“What if she comes back here?”

“Then she’ll go back in and find us,” Key said. “Or Phoebe will use a spell.”

“And that other kid?” I asked. “She wouldn’t do anything stupid for him, would she?”

“Phoebe and Xavier?” Key said, starting to laugh. “Are you kidding me?”

“Not that,” I said, after a minute where I tried to figure out what she was talking about. “But… if he was in trouble…”

“She would use magic,” Key repeated. “Mark, just admit it to yourself. She’s better armed than you are.”

“Unless she loses her wand,” Mark said. “She’s not exactly a street fighter.”

“Mark, did the Epselan part get past you?” Key pointed out. “She’s. Part. Phoenix.”

“I’d still feel better if I were there,” I said. “Or one of the robots. One of the ones that makes loud noises in another room to frighten people you don’t want around.” Phoebe had been in there for over fifteen minutes. Even if the place really was deserted, what if there was an animal in there? Like a bear, or a moose, wandering in to get food?

She held her arms out, as if to say, “You just had to ask…”

“Pull apart your eyebrows,” she commanded, and I stopped scowling.

We explored the deserted base.

“Do you think they would have gone left or right?” I asked, once we were inside the glass doors.

“That way is a mess,” Key said, pointing left toward a long string of halls filled with classrooms. I had forgotten the layout of the place—I hadn’t been here since I was younger than Phoebe, and didn’t stay long anyway. The Agency held my real friends.

“They’re light,” I said.

“We’re not.”

“Good point.”

We went right.

We found kitchens. Endless random cooking appliances in stainless steel, with dark wood cabinets and a bright stone-tile floor.

“This is nasty,” Key said, picking her way around a few Kitchen-Aid mixers knocked over by animals. It was hard to see in here—the only light was the stuff that filtered down through the cobwebs from the high windows.

“Is that an avocado?” I asked, pointing at an oblong piece of mold on the counter, half-eaten by a raccoon or something but now covered in flies. Yuck to the power of ew.

“I think it’s a papyrus,” Key said.

“Isn’t that the stuff you use to make paper?” I asked.

“No… yes… Papyrus, papaya, whatever it is,” she shrugged.

Phoebe would have known, I thought. I couldn’t help worrying about her. I knew I was being protective, but I’d kept Phoebe safe all her life—actually, about half an hour longer than her life—and, well…

“Mark, chill,” Key said.

“What?” I asked.

“You’re biting your fingernails.”

“They’re long.”

She turned around and gave me a Yeah, right look. There was no arguing with Key.

Key found another door and began to try to get it open. If something so much as moved suddenly, I would have said the spell to turn into a full-fledged polar bear so fast that you couldn’t make out the syllables. The spell to turn the nearest person into an Epselan wasn’t far from my mind, either. Wouldn’t be the first person I’d used that on. What would be Key’s animal side?

“I think there’s something on the other side,” Key said. I must have looked alarmed, because she said, “A chair or something. Seriously! We just need to find another way. This one won’t budge.”

“There was a door back there,” I said, pointing.

We fought our way back, between the occasional rat droppings and the odd loaf of still-fresh Wonder Bread. The stuff they put in that is scary.

This door worked—we went through, and there was still nothing there. It was just a cafeteria littered with nasty red chairs and turquoise tables. We could see the other door, and a table under the handle.

“Phoebe isn’t here,” Key said. “Let’s go the other way. This place stinks.”

I couldn’t agree more. And as far as I was concerned, the faster we got Phoebe and left to find shelter, the better. I hoped we’d find beds nearby, though. The pegasi were all right, but I hated travelling on them. Riding a horse on the ground is tiring enough, but riding one in the sky is worse. Not to mention the lack of oxygen, being too high, with not very much food…

We were out soon, and back in the messy hall filled with glass doors and papers and classrooms. I remembered this part. I’d spent some miserable time here, doing one thing or another in those classrooms, but mostly wishing I was back at the Agency with Daniel, Sophie, Hannah, Cat…

Fortunately, the next door gave. There was a giant room with some glass thingy in the center, filled with plants.

“Phoebe was with Dr. Wynne in the greenhouse at the Agency,” I said. “She liked the plants there. Maybe she’s inside.”

“I don’t know,” Key said, eyeing it. “There’s too much foliage and not enough room to fly. But maybe you’re right.”

This door wouldn’t move, either, even with Key’s pocket lock picks.

“Okay, then just step back,” I said. She did.

“You think they would have locked themselves in somehow?” Key asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe the Epselans installed some freaky security system.”

“So you’re going to break down the glass door?” she said skeptically.

“And exactly who is going to answer?”

“Okay, then,” she said, and backed off.

A few side kicks with my steel-reinforced hiking boots made quick work of the glass door—fortunately without knocking the entire structure down.

“I see a lot of vines,” Key said. “How in the world would they get through that?”

“I don’t think either of them carries a machete,” I said. “They aren’t here. Do you think they left the building already? I’d hate for them to come and step on all this glass.” Most of it had landed on the other side of the door, but it had gone everywhere.

I tried to walk toward Key, away from the mess, when something in my foot hurt. I stripped off my shoe and sock, discarding the sock into the mess of glass and slipping my foot back into the shoe.

“What, you got the exfoliation treatment?” Key asked, amused.

“Yep.”

“Surprise.”

There was another door on the other side of the room, and we opened it up. This time, we found a giant library.

“She’s definitely here,” Key said.

“That goes without saying,” I said.

Sure enough, we found Xavier sitting on the floor with his nose in some book, and Phoebe a few aisles down, flipping excitedly through dozens of Epselan books.

“I guess it wasn’t a waste to come here after all,” she said brightly, amber eyes glancing up. “How’d you get here?”

“Same way you did,” I said. Then I noticed the giant pile of books on the floor. “Are you planning to actually read all this?”

“Just because you wouldn’t…” she teased.

I snorted.

She set the book she was holding on top of the neat stack and stretched her arms around it, trying to take off.

“Is that the only way you can carry that?”

“Yes,” she said sheepishly.

“Give.”

She handed me half of the stack and took off, carrying the other half, to what I remembered as the most comfortable part of the library—the section by the window, with lots of soft couches and floor lamps. Then I remembered another part of the base.

“Whoa!” Phoebe called. So they were still there! Maybe the spell Daniel and I put over them to protect them was still working.

I ran out to the couches with the books in hand to find Phoebe staring out the window at dozens of tree houses, sitting right next to Peskawa Lake.

“Cool!” she said. “I think I know where we’re staying.”

“Uh, Phoeb…” I said. “It’s kind of… September… in Canada…”

“So it’s too cold?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “But I think I know where to find a decent bed or four.”

We carried the books outside, through another door in the library. I decided not to mention the domed second and third floor to the library for now. We had enough books to carry.

Once we were outside, we got onto the pegasi again. It was better than walking, but this time I switched places with Key so that Phoebe’s palomino didn’t have to carry the extra weight. The other pegasus, the white one… it felt different, not as energetic but a lot more muscular. Less skinny. This one was pampered, probably by the kid who sat in front of me.

Directed by my memories of the place, we found ourselves flying toward Beaverskin Lake, which was between and south of lakes Peskawa and Peskowesk. We landed at one shore, where there were a lot of buildings—small houses, not quite cabins, but that was what the teachers called them so that people didn’t get too jealous. They were like large one-room apartments, no basement, just standing on their own.

I knew they were safe because the teachers saw the spell Daniel and I had done to preserve the tree houses, and they’d requested that the same spell be done for their houses. Daniel and I quickly obliged. I’d been excited at the idea of helping with mage magic back then, even though I knew I had no talent for it by myself. Now it just seemed creepy. I knew mage magic was far more powerful than I could see—and I didn’t understand it now any more than I did then. Anyway, even though everybody had tried to take away the spell to prank the teachers, I knew the magic was still standing. Daniel was really, really good at magic—freakily good. He had a skill for it. Daniel wielded power like robots wielded lasers. I had just been a second person.

Key picked the lock on the first cabin. Inside were two good beds and several desks and tables littered with grade sheets and paperwork. One even had a computer still sitting on it, and I resolved to search all the cabins with Key later, in case there were still salvageable electronics lying around. I had a feeling these guys weren’t going to come back any time soon.

Key picked the lock on a second cabin for Xavier and me. This one had a computer, too.

“Do you think they get wireless Internet up here?” I asked Xavier.

He shrugged.

I didn’t want to start up that computer until I had seen the inside—and cleaned it, or maybe replaced the battery—so I just used mine for now. Who knew why these computers were left behind. Whatever it was, I was sure the problem wouldn’t persist after I took it apart, put it back together again, and installed Linux.

Anyway, somewhere within the next thirty minutes, we were all asleep. (I’m guessing. I didn’t stalk Key and Phoebe so I could see for sure. For all I know, Phoebe was reading.)

When we woke up five or six hours later, it was dark out and we were all starving. It was that starving-ness that drove us out in front of the cabins to the beach of Beaverskin Lake.

Key was already there, and told us that Phoebe was still out cold. I didn’t blame her.

“I’m going hunting,” Key announced. “We need food. And a fire.”

“I can do the fire part,” I volunteered.

“Should we wake up Phoebe?” Xavier asked.

“I’m awake,” Phoebe said, coming up behind us and rubbing her eyes.

“I’m going hunting,” Key repeated.

“Oh, cool,” she said. “I’ll go with.” She took a running start and started flying.

“What is she, a hunting falcon?” I asked.

Key shrugged and followed Phoebe.

“I think I saw some matches in one of the classrooms,” Xavier said.

“Yeah, wouldn’t doubt it,” I said. “There are other ways, though. Unless you want to go back in there. Matches are the easiest.”

“I’ll go find them,” Xavier said, and left.

Which left me standing there feeling kind of silly, so I grabbed my pocketknife from my backpack and went to find some dry wood and pine needles. Something that would burn.

It was a good thing it was fall, because I wasn’t looking long. There were a bunch of orange pine needles laying everywhere, and more dry wood than you could… shake a stick at. Lots of trees had dropped their branches, and I cut them loose where they’d been covered in dirt so much that I couldn’t get them out.

Soon, I had a pile of wood and tinder sitting where Xavier had been. He, on the other hand, wasn’t back yet. So I waited, feeling kind of weird just sitting here in front of some wood. I started to arrange it, scraping all the pine needles away from a big area and setting up the fire so that it was ready to be lit.

There was something I needed to tell Phoebe. She probably wouldn’t forgive me for it, but she did need to know. Come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t forgive me, either.

But I still wished she was here, and that I was alone with her. There was no way I could say this in front of Key or Xavier. Key knew about Phoebe’s past, but she didn’t know that I hadn’t told her. For all she knew, Phoebe was playing dumb so that she didn’t attract attention.

I hoped.

Hidden deep in a disused WordPress account were dozens of different speeches, unpublished, all just attempts to figure out how to say something like this. It seemed too sudden to just randomly start saying, “Hey, Phoebe, all your magical problems are my fault! I asked you what you wanted your animal side to be and you chose one that I shouldn’t have used, but I used it anyway. Also…” Well, there was something else, but there was no way I was going to admit that to her. I couldn’t keep a straight, non-red face while saying it.

She still reminded me of Tallie, and still had a lot of the same personality. Some of it was affected by that wretched phoenix, but some days I still recognized her as the girl who buried her face in the textbook until you could only see the mousy brown hair on the very top of her head, and who had a sarcastic remark for everything, whether she said it or not.

Then Xavier came out with a box of matches.

“Great,” I said, brightening. “Fire’s laid out.”

Xavier lit it up, and we had a good fire going—we scraped up some sand from the beach around its edge and used some rocks to keep it in, so the fire didn’t go any farther than we wanted it to just then.

Even though we weren’t very happy about it, we needed a pot from the kitchen. I went back in this time so Xavier didn’t have to walk back and forth. I wasn’t thrilled about going back into the building, which was still a Freaky Place except for the library, but I was less thrilled about drinking lake water before it had been boiled.

The building felt like a skeleton: empty, without substance, the bare and brittle bones of a terrible creature that kept collections in cages. The cages, the many buildings scattered nearby, marked where each of those cages had fallen when the giant died. Now there was just a rotting carcass, full of papers and kitchens and things that hadn’t quite decomposed.

Then there was the ever-bright library, attached, a giant golden sphere of people who didn’t hate you. Dropped by the giant, but never picked up. Lost. For the next looter, or explorer, or lucky kid to find. Fortunately, it seemed like the lucky-kid version right now.

I came back a few minutes later with the pot. We rinsed out the bugs and stuff in it the best we could with the lake water before filling it. Then we stuck some of the broader pieces of bark on top of one area of the fire and set the pot down. Both of us jumped back when it sizzled, Xavier less than me.

“That is messed up,” I said.

“What’s messed up?” Phoebe asked, carrying a bunch of furry somethings in a bandana.

“Great, you got the fire going,” Key said. “Phoebe’s a really good hunting falcon,” she added, nodding at the clump of fur. Phoebe dumped the whatevers onto the grass, and Key took out her pocketknife and started to clean them.

Well, as a long story short, we were fed, we had clean water, and we went to bed. It wasn’t exactly the lobster special, but I wasn’t starving, and I knew there was the prospect of new computer parts in the morning. So I (and everyone else, I’m guessing) went to sleep.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011 at 10:21 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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