Posts Tagged ‘mythical creature’
September 27th, 2011 Posted 4:11 pm
The two months of… boot camp? were not nearly as bad as Liz’s whip-cracking lessons. Liz wasn’t teaching me. I was with some dude called Keegan, who was about five feet tall, had bright red hair, and was flexible enough to be a contortionist.
Which was good. Because he was.
But he was also, apparently, an acrobat. Which was also good, because he was teaching me. Emma and Dakota used a number of spells on me, not all of which I recognized, but I was pretty sure one of them had used one to make me pick up skills quickly, since I did.
Nothing particularly interesting happened until the first dress rehearsal, because that was when we found out where we were performing. The special effects crew, who had been practicing their theatrics on their own in a different building, were present and ready. Key, who had been practicing on whoever was unlucky enough to wander into her when she had makeup on hand (including me a few times), was also eager to get started.
I was standing around in a balcony/hall of the building where we would perform in another month (as Leslie, Mark and I needed to get used to the lights and other distracting stuff). I had been waiting for twenty minutes for Dakota to come out with my costume. I was sweating in my jeans and under my feathers; the lights were extremely bright and very hot. Montgomery, Alabama in late April? Not too great on the heat scale, even for me.
I wanted to see what the costume makers had devised for me. Leslie had swept by twenty minutes ago, donned in a long, brown, hooded coat and lots of beads. I wondered exactly how she thought she was going to keep cool, since our building was basically a giant gym.
Eventually, a very pretty girl came out of a room on the right. She handed me a box and gave me directions to the bathrooms, which were across the hall from the room she’d just exited.
I slipped inside and opened the box. Inside was a white leotard, the back scooped so low that my wings wouldn’t have any problems, and with an elastic strap stretching from the back of one shoulder to the other, so it wouldn’t fall off of me in midair. I put it on.
I had to admit that I’d been worried what the Cirque would decide to dress me in. But the only other things I found were a white satin skirt, which I put on as well, a pair of white leather ballet slippers in my size—I’d tried them on last week—and directions to Key’s station. I was guessing that was a hint.
I had been told what to do with the slippers. I ran them under the sink to get them wet before putting them on. This way, I could wear them until they were dry and allow them to mold to my feet.
So, still making sopping wet footprints on the floor tiles of the big gymnasium/performance building, I found my way to Key’s.
“Oh, hey, Phoebe,” Key said, when I entered. “Ooh, looking good. What’s up with the wet shoes?”
Without waiting for an answer, she beckoned me over and warned, “I’m going to put a lot of makeup on you. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to look a little silly. But it’ll look sillier if you move around, so I need you to be as still as you can.”
I sat there for maybe thirty minutes while Key applied… well, I’m not an expert on makeup, but I think she put on everything in the book—and not just to my face, but to my hands, my neck, my back, even my legs and feet.
“Well?” she said, and handed me a mirror.
I was impressed. I’d never known my origins, but my skin had always been very tan. Key had made me look something like a Chinese porcelain doll: completely white, except for the bright red feathers on my skin, which she’d wet to take the white powder off. She hadn’t blended the blush in my cheeks at all, and my mascara would have otherwise satisfied twelve obsessive fashionistas.
“Now hold very still,” Key instructed. “Dakota whipped up this cream for me. It’s going to make this makeup stay on until we rub it off with her aluminum cream. Don’t ask how it works, because I don’t know, but this way you don’t have to worry about rubbing your face.”
When I finally got up from the chair, I felt a little woozy from sitting so long. But I took a look in the full-length mirror and heard myself say, “Wow, Key. I didn’t know you could do that.”
She smiled. “High school painting classes. You would be surprised.” She waved the eyeshadow brush around, as if painting a picture. “Today, you are Annabelle, the porcelain girl.”
She started putting away the makeup. “I’m serious, you know,” she said. “It helps if you pretend you aren’t yourself. Today, you are someone else. Phoebe might have stage fright, or she might not, but Annabelle certainly doesn’t.”
“Thanks, Key,” I said, and left.
Now I actually did feel like a different person. I looked so unusual and felt so surreal that it was easy to slip into character. If there was something I wanted to do, then this was the person to do it.
Annabelle felt secretive; she wanted to explore herself, her own character, and look around the building with her new eyes. She was free from the person she’d occupied before, the girl who was naïve, lonely, and wouldn’t go out in the rain.
Annabelle found herself to be the unusually graceful acrobat she’d trained for months to become. She glided through hallways, strode through empty rooms. Several people passed her, looking over their shoulders with interest. Annabelle soaked up the attention. This was what she had trained for.
Then she remembered, in a second of mortality, that she had practice in twenty minutes.
Okay, so this was an awesome tool. Key was right. I had found my solution in performing. Annabelle was invincible, even if she only lasted a little while. She was a non-magical hiding spell, in reverse: she brought out the part of me that I was normally afraid to show.
I found Mark sitting in the main performance area, playing Angry Birds on his smartphone. His eyes moved from the dainty white ballet slippers to the white satin skirt to the white leotard to my powdered white face and exaggerated makeup.
“They have a theme, don’t they?” he said.
“Sup,” I said.
“Sup,” Mark said.
Leslie appeared from a hallway, wearing her bard outfit.
“Nice getup,” I told her.
“Look who’s talking,” Leslie replied.
“Mark… why aren’t you in costume?” I asked. I noticed the box at his feet.
“Waiting for the line by the changing rooms to die down,” he muttered.
“They’re empty,” I said.
“Better go, then,” he said, reproachfully. I knew he was wishing he could just perform in the black yoga pants and tank tops that we’d all practiced in before. At least I was used to ballet slippers by now, having worn them for a few months.
I wished that I didn’t have to drag Mark through all this. I felt like it was my fault: I’d contacted Leslie and had taken a risk in trusting her, then told her that she should come with Mark and me, then said that I wanted magic lessons, causing her to switch our train tickets. And Mark was not very wealthy by the time we met up with her, since he was still paying rent for our house. That meant that Mark couldn’t just have both of us hop straight onto another train and go to Maine. And then it seemed like the only real way to get any money was to run off with a circus of Anoki…
Mark didn’t return for an hour. When he did, he was painted mostly green, with this teal eye makeup that can only be described as outré.
Key was close behind him. “I take it that you like your costume,” she said to Mark. “You aren’t complaining about crimes against your dignity yet.”
“Silence isn’t always consent,” Mark said, but he was smiling.
Leslie and I have agreed that we’re never going to talk about, mention, or write about what the two of them did next. Gross.
“Get a room,” Leslie groaned.
“Everyone, practice starts in fifteen mi—Mark! Key!” Dakota had walked in at just the wrong moment, Emma on her heels.
“Ooh, can you two do that after the show, on stage? Drama sells.” Emma, of course.
Mark glared and Key muttered about someone else needing a boyfriend, but when Leslie and I snuck away, it was because we were laughing too hard to stay.
The day of the performance was one of those days where everything is kind of neutral, and you’re anxious to get the night over with even though you don’t really want the event to come. The weather was gray but not rainy, we ate sandwiches for lunch, and Leslie tried to learn what Mark and Key meant when they talked about something they called “OS Leopard,” not because she was interested, but because she was bored. I hated it.
I spent some time flying low in the performance area, above the benches where the audience would sit, but not for very long, because it was a tight space to fly in without hitting stuff. Tried to imagine what it would be like to watch instead of do. Tried to imagine what it would be like to do, in front of an audience. My act wasn’t complicated, but it was difficult; at least I wasn’t afraid of falling, since I had a built-in parachute ready.
I couldn’t forget that we were performing later, because everyone was setting up. Anoki, humans, fairies and Epselans alike were all trying to get everything up and running at once. Cirque du Soleil used a lot of lighting and special effects work, not to mention trying to amplify all their music across a giant space effectively.
Hours, at that moment, meant little to me. Time warped; fifteen minutes seemed more like thirty when I was nervous, and an hour could seem to pass in seconds. I just knew that I ended up putting my costume on, and Phoebe was so nervous that Annabelle naturally took over, even before my makeup was on. I let her.
The show started; the stands were packed with people, and the special effects were a lot more than you could imagine without having been there. Leslie started playing with the rest of the musicians, but I couldn’t really hear her. I didn’t even try to watch the show from backstage until Mark went out, and the clowns started playing with a giant paper airplane and pretending to cry when it crashed.
I smiled. It mattered.
Grateful for the comic relief, I started watching the show more—seeing the contortionists performing the same moves that I’d seen a million times before, in exactly the same way as in our practices. Somehow, this decreased the importance of the show itself. I felt a little better.
Like a little kid on a train, I stared out the “window” and waited for the “conductor” to tell me when to move.
And then my stop came.
Phoebe stopped like a human in the showlights, but Annabelle kept striding along. Fortunately, Annabelle was the one who was in control of my body.
Annabelle grabbed ahold of the wire on which she was supposed to keep in her sweaty palms as she slipped off, bounced back, flipped over the wire, dropped again, came back up again. It was special wire, magically enhanced by the Anoki who’d made it. She allowed the person above her to catch her ankles, just in time, as she began to fly, stretching out her wings as if to glide, but only like a costume. Although she didn’t look like it, she was really gliding—not just allowing the person to hold her ankles and swing while she kept her body forward by pure muscle—her body wasn’t strong enough to do that. But her wings could carry her weight, so she let them.
The person dropped her, an intentional move, and Annabelle caught a second wire by its handhold. She put her wings into a diving position as the wire carried her in a curve downward, below some more acrobats who were doing another act in a separate motion, also circular, like Annabelle’s. Annabelle’s own curve struck a half-moon, not quite letting her touch the net, and brought her back up, almost full circle. She kept her wings out, beating them lightly as if to fly, as the wire carried her back up to her line.
She didn’t let go of the wire, though the audience couldn’t see that. Annabelle kept her handhold on the wire, pirouetted on her own line, and proceeded to walk it as if on a balance beam. It was really the wire she held above her head and the wings outstretched at her back that kept her on the line. Even still, she slipped a few times and had to flap her all-too-real phoenix wings to stay there.
Wow, Phoebe thought, from the shell in Annabelle’s mind, only a spectator. Wow. I’m doing this.
Annabelle shooed her thoughts away.
It was getting hot up here, and Annabelle started to get sweaty.
You have weaknesses too, Phoebe said. You’re not immortal. In fact, you sort of need the bathroom right now…
Shut up, Annabelle said. I’m working.
With Phoebe subdued, Annabelle kept working, dancing across her line in the background as the other performers caught the audience’s attention, but not for long—Annabelle could feel their gaze return to her wings as her red-gold feathers caught the warmth of the light again.
I have fans now, Annabelle thought, mentally preening herself.
Her white skirt fluttered in the back and stuck to her ever-sweatier legs in the front. It was getting hotter and hotter in here…
Annabelle reached the highest curving loop of her act, the one that took her closest to the hot, hot lights, she was almost done… and she fell, losing consciousness, losing awareness.
The audience stared, spellstruck, as the most dazzling acrobat they’d ever seen turned into a red-gold bird, fell almost into the net, and then took off again, somewhat raggedly. Each person turned a hypnotized gaze toward the bird as it made a flying loop around the stands before returning backstage. They didn’t think that there was any magic in it, just substitution and a well-trained bird, but it was an attention-grabber all the same.
I flew backstage as fast as I could, to land on the first thing I could catch. Mark handed me my wand, and I did my spell as fast as I could.
“No more magic now,” I was able to mumble, and passed out.
August 26th, 2011 Posted 5:00 pm
My absence hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Lucian flagged me down first thing next morning. I was doing my routine lap in the air above the campsite and finding out how annoying it really was to have a telepath poking around in your head.
Where were you yesterday‽ he demanded. I was waiting for you for hours!
Didn’t Leslie tell you? I replied coolly. She was teaching me how to make a wand. It’s really complicated, so she took me to the other side of the marsh to do it.
Leslie and I had decided that Mark and Emma should be the only people who knew about my issue. I had to keep communications with Lucian minimal so that he didn’t find out I was hiding something. I didn’t dare think about the day before while he was focusing on my mind.
Well, come on down! Lucian said, sounding antsy. We actually have breakfast today. Leslie arranged something. And then I want to teach you…
Nothing today, I’m afraid. I’m leaving today.
What! Lucian’s indignance sailed up to me. I gave a sigh—should have known. Emma said she wasn’t planning on leaving until the day after tomorrow! I still haven’t shown you…
He rambled for a while. I focused my attention on flying for as long as I could, but the prospect of food was very tempting. I’d hardly eaten yesterday, and Leslie and Emma knew it.
Checking to make sure I still had arms as well as wings, I dived. Sure enough, the tables were piled with fruit, meat and bread. I grabbed a lot of everything.
Lucian was still muttering to me, but it seemed like he was doing it more aloud than he was mentally. That was cool with me.
I found Mark and Emma sitting at a blanket, ready to go. They’d packed. I had, too, but my backpack was still in the tree, balanced on the two branches I usually slept on.
“So, are you ready to go?” Emma asked.
“I have been for days,” I said.
“What, you don’t like watching Lucian in his ninja-imitation endeavors?”
“Maybe it would be better if I never saw him try to do a jump kick again.”
“Well, you’ll be working with pros at Cirque du Soleil,” Emma said.
Mark did a little dance. “Yeah, see how professional I am?”
“You’re a clown,” Emma said. “You don’t count.” Turning to me, she said, “I’ve told the other performers about our predicament. They were thrilled that you’re coming along, of course—half of them are magical. The shows have long since been done in Florida, though; this is just where our group likes to spend extra time. Even with the rain.”
“What time are we leaving?” I asked, flicking my unbrushed and flightblown hair out of my face.
“After everyone’s done eating, we’re hitching a ride on a dragon to get us across the marsh. Well, Mark is. We can fly.”
“I think Mark might want a little help with the luggage,” I said carefully. A polar bear and a dragon? It didn’t sound like a very good combination, especially if he was the only one riding. “I think our bags might be a little too much for one person, that’s all. Er… are there any gryphons around here?”
“Sure,” Emma said conversationally.
“Might we fly with one of those instead?”
“I suppose so,” Emma said, looking confused. Apparently, she hadn’t spotted the obvious problem with the plan.
Gryphons had to be better than dragons, I reasoned. Mark was used to feathers, but scales sounded sharp. If Mark had to fly, better to be on an eagle/lion cross than a dragon.
I looked at Mark. He seemed to know where I was going with this.
“Gryphons are more energetic,” Emma warned. “And less amiable—dragons are easier to communicate with.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Mark said.
An hour later, I had a full stomach, a duffel bag, a backpack and a large computer case.
“Did you have to take the PDA that runs on Linux and the one that uses Unix, and all the old phones that don’t work any longer?” I moaned as I hauled the bags up to Mark, who had already tentatively mounted the gryphon. “Is this all essential gear?”
“Hey, what do you think I’ve been doing lately?” he shot back. “Half of those phones work now. Key is excellent with that sort of thing.”
Oh, yes, I thought. Wonder why he’s not moping about leaving her behind?
“High time we kicked off, guys,” Emma called. “Let’s go!”
We took off. Mark looked a little peaky at first, but a little into the ride, he seemed to calm down. Still, he held on tightly to the gryphon’s neck, and to his precious bags of technology. I hung on to Mark firmly, hoping that my touch felt reassuring rather than sweaty.
We were about halfway through the trip over the marsh when a voice from behind began to curse Samsonite for not making their computer bags big enough. A female voice.
Dakota, Emma and Mark greeted Key. Emma and Dakota stopped in midair to wave as Key’s dragon, young and feisty and not quite up to human communication yet, swerved. Key struggled to keep control of her computer bag, which she was holding onto like grim death. I doubted that the computer bag issue was Samsonite’s fault; to fit all Key’s gear in, the bag would have to open into one of those parallel dimensions Mark keeps going on about.
Then I noticed someone hanging on behind Key: Leslie!
“Leslie! What are you doing here?” I shouted over the wind.
“Well, Emma said that her circus needed a new violinist,” Leslie replied.
“You play the violin?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Leslie said, surprised. “You didn’t notice? I usually have it with me.”
“And you’re usually keeping me busy!”
She shrugged. “Is that bad?”
“We’re almost there, guys,” Emma interrupted. Within sixty seconds, we’d landed on the other side of the marsh. A blue VW was waiting for us by the warehouse.
“Pile in, peeps,” the driver called. Mark, Emma, Dakota, Key, Leslie and I did so. The gryphon and dragon started back toward the campground.
It was cramped, even though there had obviously been magical alterations to give the van a third row of seats. Emma snagged the front seat. Key jumped into the middle, closely followed by Dakota, who apparently thought it best that she prevent Mark from sitting next to Key. Leslie and I, being skinny seventh-grade girls, slid into the back. Mark followed suit, unhappily.
“So,” I said to Leslie. “Do you usually perform with the violin?”
“I’ve done it once or twice. I had a dancing routine once, too, for a school play.”
“How’d that go?” I asked, intrigued.
“Perfectly fine,” Leslie said. “My character had glasses. I bought a pair that made it so that I couldn’t see far away. I couldn’t see the audience. Then I just pretended I was in my room, doing one of those routines you never ever show to anyone else.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” I said. “That wouldn’t be good for my health, not with this gig.”
“You’ll be fine,” Leslie said, rolling her eyes. “You’ve got the right personality?”
“Like, what?” I asked, confused over what the eye-rolling meant.
“You’re… sparky,” she said, and we locked eyes.
“Is that supposed to be a pun, or are you serious?” I asked.
“If I said it was supposed to be a pun, I would sound wittier,” she said.
“So yes, or no?”
“What is yes and what is no?”
“You’re confuzzling me.”
Leslie shrugged. “It’s a hobby.”
Suddenly, Mark cursed, and a few screws fell onto the seat.
“We went temporarily deaf there for a few seconds, didn’t we, Phoebe?” Leslie asked kindly.
“Oh, yeah, I think we did,” I said. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Mark muttered.
Dakota and Key were making polite conversation. I could tell Dakota wanted someone who was halfway normal to talk with for once, and she certainly wasn’t getting it from Key, who talked in some sort of geek code that I couldn’t understand.
There was a question I’d been meaning to ask, though, and I wasn’t going to ask Emma.
“Is this safe?” I interrupted Key, cutting off some sentence about suboptimizing matrices in some video game she was trying to program. “Cirque du Soleil. Is it safe? Won’t people be putting pictures out on the Internet?”
“No, that’s forbidden,” Dakota said. “Some people try, but mostly they use cell phones to do it so they don’t get caught, and for how high up you’re going to be, and how much makeup you’ll have on, you won’t be giving away anything that the magical community doesn’t already know.”
Key’s head whipped around, her short blonde hair flying. “Oh, yeah!” she said with a broad grin. “Cirque du Soleil makeup. I can’t wait to paint someone blue!” I realized that Key must have been the new makeup artist.
“Not you,” Dakota assured me.
“When’s our first show?”
“After a lot of training,” Dakota said. “A lot. A month, at least, and that’s with magical help. But we’ll be working in real facilities, not just trees.”
That definitely sounded nice.
Mark grumbled something else that was fortunately unintelligible, and another screw went flying. He located it in a nearby water bottle, and I watched as he worked out: Can’t pour it in the car. Magical windows don’t open. Must drink. He almost swallowed the screw.
Needless to say, for the duration of the ride, Mark was a reason why you didn’t need a TV.
August 14th, 2011 Posted 12:41 pm
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.
“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.”
“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.
July 27th, 2011 Posted 8:34 pm
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…
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.
“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 being loyal,” he said.
“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.”
July 27th, 2011 Posted 8:31 pm
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?”
“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.”
July 27th, 2011 Posted 8:26 pm
“This is not Maine,” I said, scuffling around the train station.
Mark was without words.
I slumped down onto a bench.
“I guess we took the wrong train,” he said. “Somebody must have switched our tickets. I knew something was up when we were told we had gone to the wrong train. I memorized the numbers and everything.”
“I know you did,” I said. Mark’s memory was impeccable.
“But we took the wrong train,” he repeated. “What are we supposed to do here? I don’t know if we can catch another train.”
I can help you with that, said a voice in the back of my head. I have a place for you to stay.
And who are you? I asked it back. It didn’t answer, so I repeated the message.
I’m… like you. We all are.
Epselans? I wondered.
Not Epselans, the voice spoke back. Not all of us. But all rejected, because of our powers—the way we don’t fit into the Agency’s categories. We aren’t their precious wielders.
I was a little hesitant about following any advice given to me by an anonymous voice that was clearly angry with the Agency—and I was sure Mark wouldn’t want me to follow it at all. He’d probably tell me that it was from the assassin bogeyman. But we were stuck, and we couldn’t stay in the train station all night. We were already attracting attention. I needed to get Mark moving in the right direction—and more importantly, to know what the right direction was.
“Mark,” I said, “we need to grab our luggage and go. We can’t just sit here.” I looked pointedly at the bystanders. A few of the more inquisitive people were starting to listen in.
Mark got the picture. “But where are we going?” he asked in a low voice. “Do you know any better than I do?”
“Well, first we need to get out of this station. There are too many people around here. We need to get far away.”
Where are we going? I asked the voice. I had apparently lost it again, so I repeated the message like last time, and, also like last time, it responded on the second try.
You’re at the train station on Larkveer, right?
Go west. Go around all the buildings. It’s about a mile. I’ll meet you there, and we’ll cross a marsh. The marsh is dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but on the other side is a beach with our camp and pretty decent shelter.
If you’re thinking of deserting us on the marsh, I warned, let me remind you that I can fly. And I can carry heavy stuff.
I know, it responded.
Then you’ll meet us alone?
Alone and unarmed. You, however, may bring as many weapons as you like.
Can I trust you?
Would you believe me if I answered that question?
Then you’d better start off—your friend is getting suspicious because you’re standing still.
“Phoeb?” Mark said, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh,” I said. “Just zoned out a minute. Listen, we need to look for somewhere outside the city—a marsh or something where we can camp out.”
“Sounds good,” Mark said, but he still looked a little unsure. Before he could change his mind, I picked up my bulging backpack and took off westward.
We traveled the predicted mile. Fortunately, there were buildings all the way, so I didn’t have to make excuses to Mark about why we were still walking.
Whoever was behind the voice must have been following our progress, because he was just walking up to where we were heading, along the edge of the marsh.
“Ah, hello,” he said brightly. “I’m glad you decided to come. I’m unarmed and alone, as promised.”
“How do we know that?” Mark growled.
“Yowch! Bear, eh? Protective mind. You, on the other hand…” He turned to me. “You’re just… complicated. I like that.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, not attempting to decide whether his remark was a compliment or not.
“I’m Lucian,” he said. “I’m a telepath, in case you didn’t notice.”
“Oh, I noticed,” Mark muttered, clearly not happy I’d led him this way.
“Calm down,” Lucian said. “You’re safe here. Your Phoebe is an awfully good judge of character—I can always tell.”
“And… er, how are we supposed to know you’re alone?” I asked Lucian, cautiously.
He shrugged. “Can’t you feel the emptiness of the place? That warehouse back there is the last mark of human life for miles—apart from our camp.”
He was right. The place felt bare.
“Come on,” Lucian said cheerfully, clearly delighted. “Let’s cross the marsh. I can read the minds of the plants, and they know which path is safe.”
“The minds of the plants?” I asked, confused.
“Oh, sure!” he said. “Plants have minds. Ask any Earth Anoki—those people have the talent to talk to them.”
I raised my eyebrows and looked at Mark, who didn’t seem ready to go anywhere. “I can fly us out of here, you know,” I said.
“If your strength holds out,” he responded.
I sighed. “Do you have a better plan?”
“…No. But I don’t like this one.”
“It’s what we have,” I said, “and I’m going with it.” I started purposefully towards Lucian, who was positively beaming by now. Mark was forced to follow.
“Women,” Lucian consoled Mark.
“She’s not a woman—she’s a girl,” Mark said, though it was less taut.
Lucian gave a sympathetic look, but kept smiling and led us on. It was another mile’s walk through the marsh, which we achieved in about half an hour, with Lucian’s careful directions.
“It rained recently,” Lucian said, sighing. “It makes things so hard to navigate.”
But we eventually walked out of the marsh, scraping mud off our shoes on fallen trees.
“That over there is the camp,” Lucian said. It wasn’t far.
“Are we… safe now?” I asked. “Are there any humans around here?”
“Sure,” Lucian said. “I’m human. But there aren’t humans who will freak out. It’s not news to anyone that there’s a phoenix Epselan on the loose—and we’ve finally found you!”
“You knew?” I asked, puzzled.
“Of course!” he said. “Don’t you know that there are people who keep tabs on these things?”
“Oh, yeah, we know,” Mark said. It was obvious that even Lucian’s buoyant, nonthreatening demeanor was not earning Mark’s trust. It was earning mine, though—I was starting to like him more and more.
“Yeah—word of you has flitted around the Agency for years! Mostly rumors, though. I remember someone saying you could shoot lasers out of your fingers, and someone else told me that you’d already died and had come back to life! I mean, who knows if that trait actually crossed over?”
I certainly didn’t. This story was getting stranger by the minute.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, if we’re safe, then I’m ditching this hiding spell before it goes on me. That train ride was too long anyway.”
Lucian watched in amazement as feathers once again prickled through my arms, and wings showed up under the hoodie. As always during my changes, I wasn’t completely conscious of everything that was going on around me, including the changes in my appearance. I did, however, feel the magic pouring back into my system.
“Much better,” I said, taking my windbreaker off and stretching out my red-gold wings. “Much, much better.” I noticed that Mark hadn’t changed; I guessed that he didn’t quite trust his polar bear side around here just yet.
“So the part about the hiding spells is true?” Lucian asked.
“They don’t work well for me,” I said. “My magic is screwy. Come on—you wouldn’t have food somewhere around here, would you? I’m starving.”
“Is it true that your human side actually has mage power? Like, the kind of magic that human magic wielders have?”
“Yup,” I said. “Otherwise, I probably couldn’t do magic at all.”
I could tell Lucian was absolutely bursting with questions, but I was pretty sure that Mark would explode if I said anything more. I knew he thought I’d been reckless. I knew he wanted to tell me off. But it was my own safety I was risking, and if Mark couldn’t handle that, then it was his problem.
I still wasn’t in the mood to answer a bunch of questions at the moment, though, so I took off. Circling far above my entourage, I could see Lucian gazing up at me with fanatic attention.
I landed just outside the camp, which was impressively large. Lucian and Mark ran to catch up with me.
“Hey, who are you?” asked a girl with short blonde hair, almost the second I touched the ground.
“I’m Phoebe,” I said. “And you?”
“Are you the phoenix?” she asked suddenly. “Cool! You’re, like, a legend by now. How’d you come up with it? Or were you natural-born?”
“Uh…” I started, but Mark and Lucian had caught up.
“Oh, you’ve met Key,” Lucian said.
“Me,” said the blonde girl.
“Her real name’s Keisha, but considering her talents…” Lucian said.
“Why?” I asked. “What can you do?”
“Key here can hack, crack, or break into anything. Computers do her bidding—they practically program themselves. She’s actually part computer herself. See, most of us are magical anomalies—the result of mages’ spells gone wrong. These are all the magical outcasts of America.”
I looked around, trying to spot someone else. The place itself gave off the vibe of a sort of rebellious hope—hope that something might eventually go right. But since night was falling, most people were inside their tents and, in some cases, tepees. I even saw an igloo, right in the middle of Florida.
Key’s mischievous hazel eyes scanned Mark. Mark scanned her back. I watched the mutual approval take place.
“Well?” Lucian said, smiling at me again. “Do you like it? Should we take a look around?”
“I think Mark might be tired,” I told him. “He’s been carrying a laptop all the way out here, so he had the heaviest bag.”
“What kind of laptop?” Key asked.
“Come on, then,” Lucian interrupted, dragging me away. “You’ve got to see the rest of the gang—and our training grounds. It’s great!”
He pulled me off to a giant tepee stuck randomly into a row of tents.
“That’s Lottie,” he said, nodding at a woman in her thirties, brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Hey, Lottie! This is Phoebe. Phoebe, Lottie can sense possibilities.”
“Like, I know when there’s only one way out of something,” Lottie said, once she’d come close enough. “And I usually know what it is. I couldn’t always tell you the best way if there’s more than one way to do whatever it is, but I could tell you how many options you have, and sometimes what they are.”
“So multiple-choice questions really don’t give you much help?” I asked.
“More like everything is a multiple-choice question. So what’s your oddity?” she asked. Apparently, this was a major talking point around here.
“I’m a phoenix Epselan,” I said simply.
“So it is true. I think you have… a friend. Lucian, do you know where Leslie is?”
“Leslie? She’s here?” I repeated, stunned.
“Of course I know where she is,” Lucian said, annoyed. Somehow, I found it refreshing to see him while he wasn’t smiling.
“I figured you might say that, for some reason,” Lottie replied, sighing.
“I think she should see Teague first,” Lucian said.
“But you can’t see Teague,” Lottie said.
“That’s the point!” Lucian said, grinning again.
“Is he invisible?” I asked.
“Yup,” Lottie said. “And if you’re not careful…” She didn’t need to finish the sentence. I could only imagine what might happen if you weren’t careful around an invisible person. “But Leslie was particularly distressed. She desperately wants to see you.”
“She… she does?”
“Come on,” Lottie said. “I’ll lead you away from this madman.”
I got the feeling that Lottie didn’t exactly enjoy having a telepath poking around in her head, and had come to despise Lucian. Still, Lucian was… well, Lucian. I couldn’t see him as mean. Annoying, but not mean. And he was trustworthy.
Leslie was waiting, in half-sheep form, against a tree.
“So my plan worked,” she said evenly. “You’re here.”
“Did you switch our tickets?” I asked. I knew I was jumping to conclusions, but that was the only reason we were in Florida, anyway.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Didn’t you want magic lessons? I couldn’t do that in a human neighborhood. Since I knew you’d be travelling by train anyway, it seemed the obvious option. To bring you here—where you’d fit—where you would, for once, be understood and liked. I can’t predict that these rebels will take as nicely to the polar bear, though. He’s in league with the Agency—they won’t trust that he won’t turn them in, won’t bring them to the Agency. Like he’s doing with you.”
“Wait—how’d you know we were travelling by train?”
“He’s a polar bear! Can you expect one of them to want to fly somewhere? I knew he thought it would be urgent enough not to want to take you by car—or maybe because he wants to catch up with his friend.”
That’s right, I suddenly remember. The second telepath I’ve met today.
“Oh, I’m not a telepath,” Leslie said. “I can only read minds; I can’t talk back… unless the other person is a telepath or mind reader, that is, but then they have to read my mind. I can’t force the information on them. Made friends with Lucian quickly enough.”
“So… it would be bad? If I ended up at the Agency?”
“No,” Leslie said. “Not bad for you. Not bad for an impending threat. But for someone who can talk to crickets? Yes. Bad for someone who’s good at finding four-leaf clovers. Bad for someone who can breathe underwater. Bad for someone who can make wood carve itself. The Agency impedes your freedom until it’s studied you enough that it knows how to deal with you. That’s bad. And it’s worse if you’re the last in a long, long line of people to be studied. Right now, you’re more important than some Joe dancing around with musical grasshoppers.”
“Hey!” came from across the yard.
“See, there’s a reason these guys stick together,” Leslie concluded. “They’d rather be free out here, alongside each other, than stuck with the Agency, torn away from any opportunity to use their talents until the Agency gets around to Joe and his crickets. This is just a place for people who have odd abilities… unimportant talents… useless little knacks. And it would be safer, much safer, for them if they were approved by the Agency and declared as harmless as they are, because there is another group who is after odd and unknown people, but not to study them or help them control themselves. They make the Agency seem innocent.”
She paused. “Do you trust me now?”
I didn’t say anything for a while. “Almost.”
She smiled. “Then maybe you’ll survive.”
July 27th, 2011 Posted 7:52 pm
After a nice day of exploding potatoes, I was perfectly ready for a train ride, long or not. I had a deck of cards and a cheap mp3 player from a garage sale, and Mark had his computer, his lap desk (a big hunk of plastic that served as a hard surface on which to set stuff) and a stack of books and papers so he could continue working. But I managed to pull him away from the fray long enough to pound him in gin rummy… then to be doomed to lose while playing hearts.
The train’s bumps were mechanical and random, but there seemed to be a consistent life about them. We were riding a similar machine to the one on which Mark’s Old West characters—the non-pirate ones—had arrived. I bored myself thinking about that long enough to lose concentration on the hearts game, and after a stupid move made by me, he won again.
Most of the time, Mark and I moved around in cars, and used moving vans. Trains go a lot faster, though, and you aren’t stopping for a red light every fifteen seconds, so it was only a few hours before we had to get off, so we could get on another train.
You know your iPods? The seven-gig memory? Mine wasn’t one. It had a single gigabyte of memory storage, which was probably why I got it for five bucks. You can’t store ten hours of music in one gigabyte, and it’s not a good idea to neglect unloading the songs you downloaded off the Internet and realized were horrible right before a ten-hour trip. It results in your flipping through the junk whilst hunched over a tiny music player onboard a sweaty train. Result of this result: Not good.
Also, you may want to reconsider eating heavy foods before boarding any vehicle that is designed to take you halfway across the country. Chili dogs and gourmet tacos are out. So is salad, for that matter, because you find yourself absolutely starving later. Mark was discovering the former. I, with the weak stomach, had thought I’d planned ahead… and was discovering the latter.
The second train seemed a lot bumpier than the first, but maybe I was just getting bored and travel-weary and was feeling the absence of my bag of jelly beans, which Mark and I had devoured on the first train. Mark, on the other hand, was asleep, and after his recent behavior, the last thing I wanted to do was to wake him up—even to order food.
Instead, I turned my attention to the window. The ground was surprisingly lower than usual, because we were higher. The weather outside had begun to reflect our comatose atmosphere inside. Then it started to rain.
When I’m inside, I love rain. Rain is awesome. Rain makes a cool noise. When I’m outside, rain is awful. Disgustingly horrid. Bane of my existence.
But I was inside the train, so I leant back and listened to the rhythmically random tapping of the drops. I pulled a Mark, and fell asleep.
An hour later, I was being shaken awake.
“Phoeb! There’s this thing called food!”
“Really,” I moaned. “You’ve discovered it. Don’t tell me it’s sushi again.”
“No, it’s pizza!”
I cracked one eye open, looking to see what Mark had put on it. Then I remembered that we were on a train, and had a sudden, pathetic, desperate hope that Mark hadn’t brought any pickle relish along.
I saw cheese pizza. Just cheese. Safe-ish. I took the two slices Mark offered gratefully, remembering how hungry I was.
“Wow,” Mark said. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen you eat!”
“Salad,” I muttered through a mouthful. “Salad.”
“Hey, a fake palindrome!” Mark noted.
“Don’t start,” I warned. “I just got up, and some of Andrew Bird’s lyrics might sound… different.”
Mark seemed to know what I meant, because he stopped humming the tune and went back to his pizza. He finished, shoved the paper plate in a pocket of his duffel bag, and started playing Angry Birds on his computer. Apparently he had lost his appetite for work as well as pizza.
Several minutes later, Mark had gotten tired of lobbing unusually deformed triangular birds at what must have been very sick pigs (since they were green), and started playing a word game instead. It was called Chicktionary. The only disturbing point in this game, which involved making words out of letters stamped on eggs, was the way the eggs went back under the bawking chickens when you were done. And I mean under.
“The seven-letter word is oldster,” I said.
I went back to staring out the window. The rain had lifted, but the gray clouds hadn’t. Nevertheless, I was plenty happier with food in my stomach, so I spent my time offering help over Mark’s shoulder, rattling off the words the unfortunate chickens could spell out.
Eventually, both of us got bored with this again. Mark put the computer away and went to sleep again—Mark can sleep anywhere, and at will—and I was resigned to wondering exactly how Daniel planned to help control my magic—let alone deal with whatever assassin Mark was talking about. Frankly, I wasn’t entirely convinced that any assassin existed.
Finally, the train stopped, and we got off—and stepped into Florida.
June 29th, 2011 Posted 8:29 pm
“Where have you been?” Mark asked when I got home.
“Chatting with a friend,” I replied. It was, after all, true.
“Girls,” Mark sighed. “Talk, talk, talk.”
“Yes, girls,” I said. “The same girls you were begging me to form social contacts with yesterday.”
“Fair enough,” he said, taking a bite out of his sandwich and rummaging around in the kitchen shelves for more food. I didn’t take note of the ingredients this time.
“I can cook,” I offered.
“I know you can,” he snapped, which was unusual for Mark. First, that he seemed more irritable than usual… and second, that he was turning down food.
“Out of date, my eye,” he muttered, reaching back into a bag on the counter for more Doritos, his favorite comfort food.
“Out of date?”
“I tried to contact the Epselans,” he said. “I got a magically automated return message saying that, since I hadn’t contacted them for so long, my membership was out of date. After all I’ve done for them…”
I wanted to know what Mark had done for the Epselans, but I didn’t want to aggravate him more. I knew how to recognize a situation that had been neglected and had become worse with age.
I knew better than to try and talk to Mark more. On those rare occasions that Mark got angry, it was best to leave him alone.
I went up to my room, which was still a mess of boxes. The furniture—my dresser, my bed, the nightstand, the lamps—were all lined up against one wall. Mark was the polar bear and I was the bird, so I typically made him move the furniture, while I would make the beds and stuff. At the moment, though, I didn’t want to bother him at all.
I undid the hiding spell, and my feathers grew straight back over my arms, prickling through my skin. Before I knew it, I had changed and my wings were ready for flight. So I took off, glad the ceilings in the house were high—something Mark had probably arranged. I was ready to move the dresser.
Regardless of the fact that I usually have the strength of a house fly, I was able to pick up most of the furniture. My bed and my dresser needed to be pushed, but I was finding that everything was much, much easier to move than normal. I mean, my arms were dead tired… but if I could manage not to drop the furniture, my wings provided all the force I needed.
Now came the fun part: opening all the boxes and all the drawers of the dresser and my desk, and zipping around the room, taking armloads of stuff from the boxes and dumping everything in its place: in other words, all over the place.
This, of course, caused some racket. Pretty soon, Mark was ripping the door open to see if I’d tried to move the furniture and had gotten hurt. Instead, he burst in on a completely set up room and a phoenix Epselan with an armload of knickknacks.
Instead of commenting something like “Localized earthquake, eh?” or “What did you eat last night?” like he usually would, Mark stared, rigid, at the furniture that his wimpy twelve-year-old adoptee had somehow managed to move—including a steel-frame bed and a hardwood dresser.
“Did you fly that there?” he asked.
“Some of it,” I said.
Mark sighed. “Your powers are starting to come through. Your wings are stronger. Bad.”
“Bad? I moved the furniture.”
“Yes, bad! We don’t know what to do with phoenix magic!”
“We! The Epselans!”
“What about me? I should know how to control my own magic,” I said.
“Well, you don’t,” he said. “Maybe some of the powers, but not the magic!”
“You act like you’re tossing me around like a hot potato,” I accused.
“Phoebe, I’m sorry, but your safety comes before your feelings,” Mark shot back.
I was ready to say, “I think your animalina is coming through, too,” but then Mark seemed to realize this himself. He went into a hiding spell—the fur disappeared from his cheeks, and his face softened.
“Sorry,” he said. “I think I need a little more human for this.”
I landed and perched on the metal frame at the foot of my bed. I found myself attempting to recall a point when I was in Mark’s place, and couldn’t find one. I had never been as stressed as he seemed to be, and I had certainly never felt like my phoenix side was dragging down my mood. On the contrary—it was fiery, and light, and bright, and burning with hot, flying energy that I never got while using a hiding spell. I couldn’t quite imagine a situation in which that wouldn’t be useful.
“What… did I just do?” I asked, still not sure. I didn’t exactly know how I’d moved the furniture, and I didn’t know if Mark knew that it meant something else was coming through.
“Phoenixes grow faster than humans,” Mark explained. “Your wings are developed enough to support the body you’ll have as an adult.”
There was a pause. I had no clue what to say, and apparently that was all Mark had to comment on the subject. So he changed it.
“I’m so angry with these idiots,” Mark said, obviously feeling inadequate and frustrated, but I could tell that it wasn’t the time for me to leave—not with Teddy in a rage. I patted the bed, inviting him to sit down, which he did.
“Could you get off the footstead?” Mark asked. “I know you’re light and all, but it makes me nervous—I feel like you’re going to fall off any minute.”
I beat my wings and jumped off the footstead, which rattled. Mark winced, seeing this as a confirmation that it was unstable, and I landed on his other side, cross-legged.
“Some people don’t know how to run their own stuff,” he growled. “Now what am I supposed to do with you?” He ran his fingers through his sweaty hair, which messed it up. But he didn’t bother to smooth it out, even though Mark hated it when his hair didn’t lie right.
“We could go on our own,” I suggested.
“That’s risky stuff you’re getting into, there,” he said. “I don’t want to put you in danger.”
“What’s riskier?” I asked. “Seeking these guys out, or letting me stay here like this?”
“It depends,” Mark said, running his hands through his hair again. “I’ve got to find a way to contact one of these guys”—He stopped.
“What?” I asked.
“Facebook!” he exclaimed with obvious glee.
“Facebook?” I laughed. “The Epselan leaders use Facebook?”
But Mark was already bolting straight out of the room. I wasn’t sure how long it would take for him to get onto all fours, if only to go faster.
He was on the computer in a nanosecond, typing like lightning. I decided to dodge this caffeine storm for now, and go back to putting my room together. I still had the armload of trinkets to sort through.
Thirty minutes later, Mark came back into my room looking depressed. Apparently, he hadn’t found his furry friends on Facebook.
“Two accounts hacked, five inactive for six years, four with, like, no information, and I don’t know the names of the rest of them—let alone whether I’m getting the right people. I wish I knew magic for this.”
That reminded me of something. “Mark, if I’m part mage”—
“You don’t know any spells,” he reminded me.
“Is there a way to change that?”
A light came on in Mark’s eyes. “The Agency!”
I was confused. “You’re going to go talk to spies about magic?”
“No, no,” Mark said. “That’s just… well, what you said is the reason they named it the Agency. It’s a sort of group of mages that make sure that the parallel dimensions don’t get into trouble, and that all the magical creatures play nice with each other—that kind of stuff. Since it’s called the Agency, though, anyone who doesn’t know what it really is assumes that it’s a spy agency and that everything is top secret—so they don’t ask any questions.”
“Parallel dimensions?” This didn’t help my confusion.
“Never mind,” Mark said. “It’s not our problem. But I bet they have contacts with the Epselans! This is right up their alley. I’ll try to get a hold of Daniel or Sophie—they’re generally the ones who organize the crazy stuff. Trust me, though—you want Daniel, or our taxi ride to the nearest Agency base will be a gryphon.”
“Just don’t eat a bunch of sandwiches beforehand,” I suggested.
“No kidding,” Mark said. “Daniel first, though. I’d rather see his talking cat than Sophie’s gryphon.”
“Is the cat an Epselan?” I asked.
“I don’t know—Messenger’s a little weird. She only shows up half the time, but even when you can’t see the dang cat, Daniel’s chattering at her.” He shook his head. “Mages.”
“So where’s the nearest Agency base?” I asked. I was liking this idea more and more—maybe I would pick up some magic there, too.
“Ten thousand miles away,” Mark said.
“Give me a week, and I’ll be able to lift…” I started, but Mark interrupted.
“No, thank you, I’d much rather keep my feet on the ground.”
“Anyway, a week is too long,” Mark continued. “Who knows what kind of new ability you’ll have by then? You might need to jump in a fire every hour, for all we know. This is a job for the Agency.”
“Well, how are we going to travel, then?” I asked.
“Train,” Mark answered with conviction. “For most of the way, at least. There isn’t quite so much security on a train, not like there is on an airplane. And we would not pass security.”
Since Mark had pretty much decided that we were leaving within a week, I began to pack. Again.
Meanwhile, Mark was on the telephone; he had been almost constantly since I’d moved the furniture. He was definitely pulling strings with the Agency, and it seemed to take a lot out of him. I was biking back and forth from the grocery store just to ensure a steady supply of Gatorade so his voice didn’t go to the dogs. Or the bears.
“Thanks, kid,” he said, cracking open an ice-cold, bright red shirt stain in training.
I left in silence. Mark’s half-finished computer program sat, open, on the screen, but he turned his back to it, hunched over the phone.
I looked out the window at the Friday afternoon that loomed before us. I had never met a weekend I didn’t like… but this was different.
For one thing, I hadn’t managed to spot Leslie anywhere, even though we had three classes together. I had been looking forward to magic lessons, but now I was also worried for her safety. She had shown me her animalina, and she’d disappeared the next day. She could have been out sick, but it concerned me all the same. Yesterday, I had been running to keep up with her—now what? She was gone. It was too fishy.
For a part-phoenix Epselan who traveled constantly, I felt contained. Much too contained, like my freedom had been tampered with by the forces of magic. I had nothing to do. The activities mentioned by Mark before were all now impossible: I had no social contacts, and the TV wasn’t set up yet. Mark needed to use the computer and telephone, and I was trapped in a new house. It wasn’t like Colorado, where I could go out into the mountains and fly around, chasing birds and animals everywhere.
I stared out at the clouds. They were cumulonimbus: the big, fluffy clouds that stretch high into the atmosphere and bring an apocalyptic sense of impending rain. Cumulonimbus clouds are also the ones that look like things—boats or animals or people. I started looking for the shapes, but as I stood there, leaning hard on the windowsill, I found myself staring at the clouds without really looking at them, as if I were looking for the blue sky past them or searching for UFOs.
Unpacking more seemed futile. Who cared what the living room looked like? We weren’t going to be here. We didn’t have enough food in the house for me to start cooking, either.
“Why don’t I drop by the grocery store?” I suggested to Mark, who was still hanging over the telephone. He nodded and reached for his wallet. A key slipped out of his front pocket, which he snapped up off the floor with alarming efficiency. Handing me a bunch of crumpled green bills, he went back to his phone conversation and the email he was writing simultaneously.
I knew better than to attempt any inquisitive gestures. I was free—back on my ancient bike (which was probably heavier than I was) and pedaling as fast as possible—one of the closest socially acceptable activities to flying.
Dinner was interestingly varied. A dish of falafel sat next to a bag of ranch Doritos and a platter of grilled cheese sandwiches.
“Cabin fever?” Mark asked, cracking a wry smile.
“No kidding,” I said, tucking into more falafel.
“Maybe I should deprive you of entertainment more often,” Mark said. “This is excellent.”
I gave a little laugh. I wasn’t exactly feeling wonderfully cheerful. I was tired, and hungry, and unusually lonely.
I was beginning to know what Leslie had been talking about—“Haven’t you ever wished you could be all human?” It would mean that I would be chatting up some popular blonde valley-girl type, out by a public pool, instead of trapped in a new house that seemed, somehow, filled with paranoia. And I needed someone.
“You need to learn to be independent.” That had been another Leslie-ism, hadn’t it? Independence. I needed to not need people.
Which wasn’t going to happen.
“I think I finally got through to Daniel,” Mark said cheerfully, which explained his rise in mood. “The phone message I got sounded like his voice. I’m expecting a call around three tomorrow. Meanwhile, I got you a gift. You were still at school.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, a flash of hope showing up in the situation. If we were travelling, we wouldn’t have to sit inside so much. We would be moving. We would be doing something.
“Maine,” Mark said. “Halfway across the country—I know.”
“It would be a lot faster if we took a plane instead,” I insisted. “We have hiding spells.”
“Yeah?” Mark protested. “What about your wand?”
“I’ll tell people I’m a fantasy fan,” I said.
“You think they’ll buy that?” Mark said incredulously. “You think they won’t recognize the magic in it? Magical objects feel different—even normal humans can pick it up.”
“They’ll make excuses,” I said.
“No—you don’t get it. People are watching us. How, exactly, do you think people came up with talking-animal stories?”
Clearly, this was a touchy subject for Epselans. But I didn’t want Mark to know that I’d contacted Leslie. “How?”
“They saw Epselans!” Mark said, extremely agitated. “Back when those stories were written, people just… well, they just made stories. Now, people remember the stories, and if they become convinced that someone else has seen the same thing…”
“Well, then I could fly you over Lake Michigan,” I offered.
“You’re crazy! Over water, without rest?”
“I fly fast.”
“While carrying an adult? That’s more than your wings could take. They’re meant to carry a single adult—not an adult and a twelve-year-old kid. So don’t try and carry me any longer than you could carry a twelve-year-old now. You’d be relying on your own strength from there on out.”
It took me a few minutes to understand Mark’s logic, but I had to admit he had a point.
“Okay,” I said. “Train. Then… when are we leaving?”
“Tomorrow,” Mark said, with “adventure” written smack across his face. He was clearly excited—whatever he’d done with Daniel, Mark must have had fun. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to go back to that after maybe twelve years of settling down—Mark had always been dodgy about how old I was when he adopted me, except that I was a baby. Which meant—I realized for the first time—that he must have been around my age when he did so, and even younger when he worked with Daniel.
Then I realized how shocked I was. “Tomorrow?”
“Uh, yeah,” Mark said, suddenly embarrassed and immediately aware of how uncomfortable I was. “Do… do you want to go explode something in the backyard? I think we still have that potato cannon around here somewhere.”
“Just as long as you don’t stick your face in it again,” I said. “You don’t look good with one eyebrow.”
And that was where we spent the rest of the day.
June 29th, 2011 Posted 8:29 pm
“Phoebe, are you okay?” Leslie asked me during Social Studies. I suddenly realized that I’d been staring at the back of one of my classmates’ heads for the past fifteen minutes, thinking about the new revelation that they were completely human. I couldn’t count how many times I had been on the verge of asking one of them what their animal side was.
“Do you feel well?” Leslie prodded.
I shook my head. The place where my wings normally were bristled, as if the feathers would have ruffled if they were there.
“Do you need to go to the nurse?”
Hah, that was the last thing I needed, seeing as I probably needed to change sometime before the end of school. No, nurse, really! I was just going to try out for the part of Big Bird in a local play! I shook my head again. Leslie seemed to calm down, but she approached me at the end of class.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked, packing up her books. During the week in which Mark and I were sleeping in the car in a Walmart parking lot, gun in the glove compartment and a wand in my pocket, Mark hadn’t let me off school. He himself was house-hunting for a place to rent out, somewhere we’d have a small house to ourselves (necessary because of our animal sides). Somehow, Leslie had managed to press her way into friendship with me. She had an uncanny way of reading my emotions.
There was no point in lying. “No.”
She backed into an empty bathroom and beckoned me over. Interested, I followed.
“Does it have something to do with this?” she asked quietly, drawing a wand from her pocket. Automatically, I groped inside my own pockets. Sure enough, my wand was missing. Leslie was holding it.
“Is it real?” she breathed, too softly for anyone outside to hear.
I said nothing. I couldn’t lie to her, but there was no way I could tell the truth.
“You wouldn’t be carrying it if…” Her eyes glinted with something like recognition.
“Do you know someone?” I asked, unable to believe that she believed this of her own accord.
“My brother,” she said. “He’s a lot older than me. Left home a long time ago. He still sends us postcards, but I haven’t seen him in years.”
“That’s sad,” I said.
“I know,” she said. She handed me my wand. “Are you a mage too?”
“Yes,” I said. I was dying to show her the full extent of my problems, to tell everything… but I’d just gotten to know Leslie, and I wasn’t sure how much to trust her, contacts or not. “I have been for as long as I can remember, and Mark just told me other people aren’t. That it wasn’t normal.”
“That would upset anyone,” Leslie said reasonably. “But it wasn’t fair not to tell you before now.”
“Leslie, there’s something else,” I said, coming to a decision. “I’m”—
But then the one-minute warning bell rang, and I said, “It’s not important—go to class!” I was hungry for a chance to explain everything to someone other than Mark, and if I was going to explain to someone, it was going to be Leslie. But I wasn’t willing to make her late.
Leslie cautiously glanced back at me several times as we both bolted out of the bathroom and hurried to class. I managed to vault myself into my seat just as the bell rang for the second time, the real bell that signaled the start of the next class. My heart was racing, not because I’d raced to class, but because I had come so close to doing exactly, exactly what I needed to do. I had never needed someone to understand me so much before. Usually, Mark was there for that, but now he was the source of the problem. I had only Leslie to talk to about this, and she was… I don’t know… dangerous. Unsafe. I still wasn’t sure how much I could tell her before she’d flip and tell people.
And yet… Leslie was always the one who would touch my arm comfortingly, and who would know exactly what I was thinking. Somehow, she knew my wand was real, even though it was much more likely that it was a costume wand or a craft or a particularly straight stick that I’d randomly stuck in my pocket. And she’d given it back, and not made a fuss.
I realized that I was staring into space again and tried to concentrate on decimals instead. It wasn’t working. Fortunately, the teacher didn’t seem to notice, since I didn’t usually have any problems in that class. Math and science were my favorites: math was easy, and science was interesting.
Even though my predicament might be interesting, it definitely wasn’t easy, and yet it managed to catch my attention more than either subject did, as I found out later. Microbes, schmicrobes! Humans didn’t have an animal side, and I did, and it wasn’t working right, and I couldn’t talk to Mark about it. That was what mattered just then.
I was facing a dilemma. Surely it wouldn’t be hard to catch Leslie’s attention when school let out—I was sure she’d be trying to find me, to talk to me again. But should I respond? I decided that Leslie might deduce something worse if I didn’t show her exactly what was bothering me. Or, worse, she’d never trust me again. Or even worse, she might force me to tell her in public. Leslie was able to wriggle everything out of me—I found that out three days ago, when she’d finally forced me to admit that I’d stubbed my toe on a desk leg. No, better to tell only Leslie, instead of the entire school.
Then, as if it had waited for me to settle my decision, the last bell of the school day rang and everyone rushed out. I turned in my halfheartedly completed assignment and left to look for Leslie.
I met her in front of the library. Immediately, I said, “Leslie, there’s something else,” but she cut me off.
“Not here,” she said. Leslie strode straight out of the front doors of the school. I had to jog to keep up as she whipped around the corner of the school, sneakers flying, to the back of the school.
“Not here, either,” I said, eyeing the kids coming out of the school.
“That bad?” Leslie asked, raising her eyebrows. “Well, come on. This isn’t exactly an urban neighborhood, as you may have noticed. If we hang around the back long enough…”
“No,” I said. “There are cameras around here.”
Leslie gave me a look that clearly told me that she thought I was being paranoid, but she complied.
“There’s a little ditch by a stream near here, about five minutes’ walk. It has a tree planted over it and there’s typically not a soul around. I’ve used it to change out of muddy clothes before. Come on.” She strode straight off again with her quick-paced walk, again making me race to follow her. These farm kids were tougher than they looked.
We reached the ditch. Leslie jumped straight down into it. I tried to copy her and jarred my knees.
“Well?” Leslie said, clearly bemused by my insistence on secrecy. I whipped off my windbreaker and handed it to an even-more-confused Leslie. I reached around and undid the snaps that held the back of my wing-hole-shredded shirt together. Then I took my wand from my pocket and relaxed the spell, allowing another 25% of phoenix to show straight through.
“You’re an Epselan!” Leslie exclaimed in a whisper. “Why do you carry a wand, then?”
“I’m a phoenix Epselan,” I explained. “My magic doesn’t work quite right. Mark says it’s because my phoenix side is overpowering my human side.”
“That can’t be good,” Leslie muttered.
“How do you know about Epselans, anyway?” I asked.
“My brother did one thing before he left,” Leslie said in a grave voice. “He gave me enough magic to read minds. What he didn’t expect was that the first thing I did with that ability was to read his. I even did it while he was sleeping. I hid under his bed. I was young and very skinny then. Somehow, I managed to learn most of the rules of the magical world. I would have guessed you were an Epselan long before this, but when I found your wand… you must be a mage, too?”
I nodded. Her blue eyes glared at me. “And I’m surprised you trusted me. You need to be much more careful than that. You need to learn to be independent. But yes”—and she put her hand to my elbow in that oddly comforting way—“I understand you.”
“Why… would you have guessed I was an Epselan?” I asked.
“Sis, I’ve never seen someone need to leave English for the bathroom that urgently. I knew it must have been a malfunctioning cloaking spell, coming from you. Your mind is… interesting.” Leslie cracked a rare smile. “However, I know a little magic that’s a mite dangerous, so Mark won’t tell you about it. Did you know that there’s an opposite to the hiding spell?”
I shook my head.
“There is,” she said. “You become 75% animalina and 25% human. It kind of hurts. But… oh, all right, you showed me yours.” And she changed, relinquishing her human façade for her half-animal side.
“I’m part doe, see,” she said. She was positioned somewhat like a centaur on a doe’s body. “That was another thing my brother did to me. Epselans aren’t always natural-born.”
“You say he did it to you…” I said. “Like it’s a bad thing.”
“Haven’t you ever wished you could be all human?” she shot back.
“No.” It wasn’t like I’d realized it could be possible.
“…Me neither. Except that we’re hunted.”
“How do you do that spell you were talking about, then?” I asked hopefully.
“I’ll do it,” she said. I would have stopped her, told her to simply give me directions, but I was too interested, and she was already doing the spell.
Now Leslie looked completely like a doe.
“This is where the talking-animal stories come from,” she said. “The frog princes? Epselans. The witches that turn into cats? Epselans. And I’m not even going to comment on Shrek, because that one’s still under question. The 25% you keep is your mind, your voice and your magic. And no—I’m not going to tell you how to do it. Not a phoenix. Not with your magic.”
She changed back into her centaur-ish form. “This is definitely more comfortable,” she said.
“I know what you mean,” I said, putting all thoughts of Bambi out of my mind.
“My parents don’t know,” she said sadly. “And my brother’s never here. I don’t even have someone to brag to when I discover a new spell.”
“There’s always me,” I offered. “Another Epselan—safe enough. Except Mark wants to whisk me away to some Epselan haven or something to try and figure out this magic. But you could just make like your brother and run off with us. I’m sure Mark wouldn’t mind—if he knew that you weren’t all human, I mean.”
“Mm,” Leslie said. “I don’t know if I could do that to my parents.”
“Think about it,” I said. “I bet our route is plenty more dangerous, but your folks don’t exactly understand you. And I’m sure you’d be welcome at the Epselan place—if it isn’t one of Mark’s excuses to go somewhere where it’s absolutely freezing or something. He’s a polar bear.”
“That’s funny,” Leslie said. “And it explains why you said you’re the cook of the house.”
“You have me for now, at least,” I said. “Nothing’s going to freak Phoebe out any more.”
“Ha, Phoebe,” Leslie said. “Your name fits all the more, doesn’t it? You must be a natural Epselan. It sounds like your parents must have known. But how…?”
“How could they have known you’d be a phoenix? It’s not an easy guess.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they could see the future?”
“Why don’t you ask them?” Leslie asked.
“I don’t even know who they are. Mark adopted me.”
I could just see the connections and questions forming in Leslie’s mind, possibilities generating for her. Apparently, though, she didn’t like any of them, because she didn’t start theorizing. Not out loud, anyway.
“That’s a shame,” she said instead. I could tell that she wasn’t saying everything that was on her mind. “You’d better get back to Mark. And I don’t advise flying.”
“I’m going to get out of this hole first,” I said. I gave a little jump, helped by wings, to check that nobody was lurking in the shadows of the trees nearby or anything. When I was satisfied that nobody was there, I flew straight out of the hole, performed my spell, and watched Leslie bound up after me and do the same—minus the wand.
“One more thing,” she said. “If your human side really has mage power, then I could teach you some spells I found in my brother’s mind. He was a really good spellcaster, and you’d probably find it handy in your travels, whether I come or not. I’m no mage, but I know the same words and stuff that he did.”
“Cool,” I said. “We should try that soon.”
But Leslie, with one great and magical bound across the stream (which she managed even in human form), was gone and out of earshot. Her shoulder-length brown hair flashed a little in the sunlight from across the stream, and she disappeared down a hill. I couldn’t see her anywhere. There was nothing to do but disappear myself.