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Darkness Rising: Book One of The Catmage Chronicles

Chapter One:
The Dagger in the Moon

“Cats and dogs, living together,” said the tall, gangling man, his lip curled in a sneer. He was part of an odd group that moved through a field beneath the light of the rising full moon. The man held four dogs on leashes. The dogs did not bark or whine, nor strain against the leashes. They walked silently, in step, almost as if they were marching. A black and white cat rode on the man’s right shoulder, while three cats trotted silently behind. None of the cats seemed afraid of the dogs, but the cats were clearly excited about something. One of the cats on the ground was a patchwork tabby, his tail curling over his back as he hurried to keep up with the dogs. The other two were identical chocolate-point Siamese. Their tails whipped back and forth as they ran, ears laid flat against their heads. At the edge of the field, the entire party stopped as if some silent signal had been passed. The tall man turned his head towards the cat on his shoulder.

“Now?” he murmured.

“Now,” said the cat’s voice in his head. The man leaned down and unleashed the dogs, who waited expectantly. He pointed to the small wood downwind from them. “Kill,” he said softly. The dogs raced noiselessly towards the trees. The black and white cat leaped from his shoulder and joined the other cats at the dogs’ heels. The man pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and lit one as he heard the screams and growls coming from the wood. By the time he had finished his cigarette, there were no more screams. He dropped the glowing butt, crushed it under his heel, and went into the wood to retrieve his dogs.

Hours later, two cats sat in the empty field. The gems in their collars glittered in the moonlight. An orange and white female sat on a large rock, silhouetted in the night, watching the moon as it appeared slowly from behind a cloud. Her underbelly and left paw were white. The other paws had white socks. Below her shoulders, along her back, was a white patch. Seated nearby on the grass was an elderly, grey tabby with black stripes. The fur on his face, particularly around his muzzle and eyes, was whitening. The moon shone brightly, throwing the cats’ shadows behind them. Goldeneyes shivered on the rock, though the summer night was warm. Something—she couldn’t say what—was bothering her about this night. Her companion flicked back his ears. “Rest time is over, Zahavin,” the older cat said, using her given name. “It’s time to go to the Council meeting. We’re late enough as it is.”

“It’s not our fault we had to elude those stupid children, Master,” Goldeneyes sniffed. “If we hadn’t had to hide from them, we’d have been here in plenty of time.” She leaped down from the rock and followed the older cat as he trotted across the field to a small stand of trees. It irked her that a group of children had seen the two cats and tried to capture them. Not that the children had a chance—Goldeneyes and her master were powerful Catmages. Eluding the children would have been very simple if she’d been allowed to use her powers. But Hakham would not let her. She corrected her thought: The First Lawwould not let her use her powers in front of children. So she and Hakham had to duck and dodge as simple cats, delaying them for tonight’s Council meeting.

They leaped over a small brook and ran in silence towards the wood. “Old you may be, Hakham, but no one can say you’re not fit,” she said, straining to keep up with him.

“I haven’t seen my brother in ten moons,” Hakham said. “Besides, we have much to do. The Council has been working on a plan of action to—” Hakham stopped short, sniffing. His ears went back and his fur fluffed out. Goldeneyes could smell it, too—Catmages, yes, but there were also the scents of dogs—and blood. She stopped in her tracks. The air was thick with the acrid scents. There was one more, though, that worried her most of all. Smoke. A human had been in the wood. She turned her head from side to side, sniffing.

At her master’s glance, Goldeneyes froze, then followed his example and moved as only a cat could move, slowly, silently, one careful step at a time as if she were stalking prey. They threaded their way noiselessly between the trees, ears and noses twitching, until they reached the center of the small wood. She peered carefully around a tree trunk. There, in a small clearing, near the foot of an ancient oak tree, they saw the Council—or what was left of it. Twelve cats lay scattered around the tree in pools of blood. There were large, bloody paw prints—too big for cats—on the ground. There were no sounds of any other creature nearby. With every sense straining, Goldeneyes and Hakham approached slowly. They found nothing else, only the twelve maimed cats. The dogs that had murdered the Council were now gone.

Dead, Goldeneyes thought. The whole Council is dead. The oldest, wisest, most powerful Catmages on the planet have been murdered!She felt a howl of misery wanting to break free of her throat, choked it back as Hakham leaned down to nuzzle his brother, Niflah. The two tabbies looked so much alike. Hakham closed his eyes in pain. Goldeneyes couldn’t bear to watch any longer. She stepped cautiously between the bodies of the others, searching for anything that might help her make sense of this atrocity. She paused to gaze at the body of Razelle, a sleek, all-black shorthair. She had been known far and wide as The Council’s Prophet. Her wisdom and power had made her almost a legend among Catmages. Yet even her powers could not prevent this slaughter. Goldeneyes bowed her head and turned to go. As she turned, she saw a slight lift of Razelle’s abdomen. “Master!” she cried, “I think she lives! Razelle is still alive!”

Hakham hurried to her side. Razelle was breathing, but it was very shallow. “Help me now, Zahavin,” Hakham said. “A healing spell. Quickly!” He touched his nose to Razelle’s flank, his tail moving rhythmically. Goldeneyes found her tail unconsciously mirroring his. Then she, too closed her eyes in concentration and performed the healing spell with him as Hakham trilled in his throat. The jewels in their collars glowed as they trilled. As the spell ended, Razelle opened her eyes. Her breathing was labored, but her green eyes were clear.

“Rest now, Razelle,” Hakham said. “We’ll cast the greater healing spell soon and bring you back to us.”

“It’s too late, Hakham,” she said. “There is too much damage. Your powers cannot save me.” Her voice was low and ragged with pain. Hakham tried to protest, but Razelle stopped him. “Listen to me. I haven’t much time. The Darkness has returned.” She paused for breath. “It’s worse, far worse than ever before.”

“Who did this to you?” Goldeneyes asked.

“A pack of Wild Ones,” Razelle gasped.

“But Wild Ones are no match for the Council!” said Goldeneyes. The Council members were the strongest Catmages on the planet! How could a handful of failed Catmages kill the members of the Council?

“They had help tonight,” said Razelle. “Dogs. Large, fierce dogs. We had set no guards. Why should we? This has always been a peaceful place.” She drew a long, gasping breath. “They attacked before we even knew they were here. It was very strange. The dogs seemed to be following the Wild Ones’ orders. We had no chance. We couldn’t fight the dogs and the Wild Ones at the same time. The Wild Ones broke through our defenses, and the dogs did the rest.” Razelle grew silent as she glanced around at her fallen comrades. “I am sorry, Hakham. I failed.”

Hakham sat on his haunches quickly, as if he would have fallen had he not. He was trembling, whether with rage, fear, or exhaustion, Goldeneyes couldn’t tell. She stood frozen in shocked silence. Dogs had murdered Catmages over the years, of course. But that was a rare occurrence and generally happened when a Catmage was caught off guard by a wandering pack or trapped by mischance. For dogs to be working with Wild Ones—Goldeneyes strained to remember her history lessons, but she was certain that had never been done before.

Razelle’s tail switched feebly against the ground. “The Wild Ones have done something to these dogs.” She paused for breath. “They were more intelligent than any I’ve ever seen, and the Wild Ones had very strong magic. Something is helping them. I fear it may be a Catmage who defies our Laws.”

“That’s not possible!” Goldeneyes said. “No Catmage would work with our enemies!”

Razelle glanced at Goldeneyes, nodded, and closed her eyes, conserving her strength. Hakham’s voice turned cold. “It has happened before, but it is not widely known, Zahavin,” he said. He turned to Razelle. “I shall find him, Razelle. And I will find the ones who did this to the Council. If a Catmage is indeed behind this, then he will pay the ultimate price.”

“Vengeance is notwhat is needed,” said Razelle. She lay silent for a few moments, looking off in the distance. Then she closed her eyes. Goldeneyes and Hakham waited for her to speak again. A low, rumbling purr came from her throat. Her eyes snapped open, all color gone, the pupils instead reflecting the crystalline moonlight back at them. Her sides had stopped shuddering. Her breathing was normal.

“The Enemy rises once more,” she said in a strong, deep voice. Goldeneyes and Hakham looked at each other in amazement. Razelle, The Council’s Prophet, was prophesying on her deathbed. There was no other explanation for her sudden strength. “The Darkness will rise at the Dagger in the Moon. The Enemy has enlisted the Evil One from the humans. You must defeat him. But you will not succeed without the aid of a Son of Aaron—a boy who is yet a man.”

“A Son of Aaron? A human? How will we find him?” asked Hakham.

“By his aura you will know him.”

“What?” Goldeneyes asked. “His aura? How can a human have an aura?”

“Razelle? Razelle?” Hakham said. But it was too late. Razelle said no more. Goldeneyes bowed her head in grief as Hakham sang the death song. When he finished, the moon was over the trees.

“Master, I don’t understand,” Goldeneyes said. “How can the Enemy have done this? The Enemy was defeated over three hundred cycles ago by our ancestors, at great cost to us!”

“The Enemy is never truly defeated, only halted for a time in an uneasy peace.” Hakham bowed his head. “Unfortunately for us, that peace is over. I fear Razelle is not the last Catmage we will lose to the Enemy.”

A long cloud crossed the moon as they spoke, throwing its shadow on the clearing. The cats looked up. A ring of copper surrounded the full moon. As they watched, a dark, dagger-shaped cloud crossed the orb. The cloud cut through both ring and moon at an angle, its hilt resting in the top right quarter of the disc.

“The Dagger in the Moon,” Goldeneyes said in a hushed voice. “Razelle’s prophecy is coming true!”

“Then,” Hakham said, “we must make haste to find our Son of Aaron. Let us leave this tragic place. But first, we must give our Council a fitting burial.” They looked around at the dead mages. Suddenly, Zahavin gasped.

“Master! Master! The Magelights! They’re all gone!” As they surveyed the twelve cats lying dead on the ground, that fact finally registered: All of their necks were bare. Their collars, containing the Catmage gems, were missing.

“Zahavin,” Hakham said in a voice filled with fear, “this is far, far worse than we could ever have imagined.”

Weeks later, Hakham stood in front of the new Council in the Compound where he lived, while Goldeneyes and a companion sat apart, listening with half an ear to the discussion. Most of the adult Catmages of the Compound stood or sat at a respectful distance. The proceedings were being held publicly due to the unusual circumstance of the entire previous Council being destroyed. Some Catmages had traveled far to be here for the meeting, as news of the previous Council’s deaths had spread throughout Catmage society. Goldeneyes had never seen so many Catmages gathered in one place before. It looked like every Compound in the region had sent at least one representative.

The Council had been droning on for hours, arguing over increasingly minor details. They wouldn’t natter on about this if Nafshi were here, she thought. Nafshi had retired from Council business several years ago, but she would surely have done her duty when called upon to come back. And that was the problem: Nobody could find her. She hadn’t been seen since spring. So far, the Council had argued about whether to send someone to find her, whom to send, how many to send, and where to send them. And each point had taken longer to agree upon. The endless discussion had Goldeneyes trying vainly to remember the human term for the Council’s replacements, those who were not as good as the ones they replaced.

“Second string,” said Letsan. He was a cheerful, ginger Maine Coon cat, several years older than she, who never seemed to take things very seriously.

“Second what?”

“Second string. The phrase you’re looking for is ‘second string.’ It’s used to describe the substitutes for the main set of players in a human game.”

“You were eavesdropping on me.”

“You were projecting, Goldie. I think they can hear your thoughts in the next three counties. Lucky for you the Council is too busy to listen to a couple of nobodies like us.” His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “They’re too busy trying to prove how wise and sophisticated they are. Did you notice how pompous Flathead got when he was picked?”

“Letsan!” Goldeneyes said coldly, “Call me ‘Goldie’ again and I will set fire to your tail. And I strongly suggest,” she added as Letsan yawned, unfazed by her threat, “that you don’t call Kharoom by anything but his name within his hearing. I’m not the only one projecting, it seems.” She nodded toward the Council. A black and white Persian was glaring daggers at Letsan. “He heard you call him Flathead.”

Letsan faced the Persian and opened his mouth in another yawn. “Don’t see how you can tell he’s mad, what with having that squashed-in face to begin with. Talk about fitting into your name!” He stopped at the look on Goldeneyes’ face. “Okay, I’ll call Flatnoseby his rightful name. And you too, Zahavin.”

“Good,” she growled.

“By the One, you’ve become stuffy and stuck up,” Letsan grumbled.

“And you’ve become too much like those humans you spent so much time with,” she retorted.

“You should spend more time with them,” Letsan said, “and less time with Council members. It would do you some good to be around some who don’t think they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.”

“Letsan,” Goldeneyes said sternly, “you need to have more respect for—.”

“For what? My betters? I spent six months in a Teaching Ring with Flatnose, watching him make a fool of himself time and again. The simplest spell seemed to evade our Kharoom. His apprentice cast all of his spells, and corrected Kharoom as he mistaught us. I swear, Zahavin, my oldest kitten knows more mage work than old Flatnose, and my kitten’s barely out of the Teaching Rings himself!”

“Kharoom cannot be that bad, or the Council wouldn’t have chosen him,” Goldeneyes protested.

“Really? How many mages did we have available for the Council?” he asked.

Goldeneyes paused to consider the answer. “Not much more than a dozen,” she replied.

“That’s right. And it seems that numbers won out over talent. Couldn’t have a Council of Ten or Eleven. No, that would be against tradition.” Letsan laughed. “I’ll wager Hakham didn’t vote for Flatnose. They don’t need unanimous consent; only a simple majority. Once Hakham appointed two other Councilors, the rest were chosen by majority vote. Flatnose has spent years carefully making all the right contacts and flattering the more powerful mages, for just this very thing. He was chosen awfully fast, considering.”

Goldeneyes tried to argue, but found that she couldn’t. One of the Council members appointed by Hakham was a former mate of Flatnose’s. A mage that she’d seen with Flatnose on many occasions was the second voted in, making him the fifth member. Kharoom was voted in immediately after.

“But—surely, politics would not affect—”

“The Council? Ah, Zahavin, so bright, so powerful, yet still such an innocent,” Letsan said with a sigh. “You should have listened to your grandmother better.” Goldeneyes stiffened, about to respond, when Hakham interrupted.

“Letsan, Zahavin, please stand before the Council.” They hurried to obey. The cats in the Council had formed themselves into a half-circle. Hakham stood in the opening, facing them, his back to the others.

“The Council and I have completed our deliberations.” He paused. “After much discussion, we have decided that Zahavin will be given the task to find Nafshi.”

“Alone, Master?” she asked, wondering how she would accomplish such a difficult task on her own. Nobody seemed to know where to find her grandmother.

“No,” Hakham said. “Letsan will be going with you. He is the more experienced Catmage and you will yield to his decisions if there is any disagreement.”

Goldeneyes nodded.

“Letsan, you will meet with me after the Council session. I have further instructions for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Letsan said.

“And now, for some welcome news. After much effort, I have finally been able to trace Nafshi’s aura.”

Goldeneyes’ heart thumped as excited cries came from several of the Council members. Nafshi was very well-liked, as well as respected. She noticed that Kharoom did not move or speak at the good news.

“Her aura is emanating from a town not far from where the Council was slaughtered,” Hakham said. Growls emanated from several of the new Council members at that reminder of their predecessors’ fate. “It is also not far from one of our Compounds. If I’m not mistaken, your sister resides there, Zahavin,” he said. “You and Letsan will go to this town and find Nafshi. If she is in need of aid, you will help her. And then you will bring her to us.”

“When do we leave, Master?” she asked, rising.

“Not so fast, Zahavin.” She sat back down again as Hakham turned to face the Council. “You all know about the last prophecy made by Razelle,” he told them. “What you do not know is that ever since I heard the prophecy, I have also spent many hours trying to find the Son of Aaron.” There were murmurs from the Council. So that’s why Hakham had been in seclusion so often of late, Goldeneyes thought. Also why when he came out of it, he was exhausted and weak. He was still looking a bit frail. Now she understood why Letsan would be accompanying her, and not her mentor. Hakham would not have the strength for such a journey.

“Why were we not told?” Kharoom asked irritably. “You had no right to keep this information to yourself.”

“You were not told because until yesterday, you weren’t even on the Council,” Hakham said sternly. “Iwas the sole remaining Council member. It was my duty to keep up the Council’s work, with or without a full membership, until a new Council could be chosen. Or do you presume to tell me that my counsel is wrong?” He stared at Flatnose until the younger cat dropped his gaze, blinking.

Hakham turned back to the others and continued. “Razelle said, By his aura you will know him.As I was searching for Nafshi, using the spells you all know will help find a mage by his aura, I discovered something after pinpointing Nafshi’s location. I found the auras of several Wild Ones, which was not unexpected. But there is another aura in the human village. It is neither Catmage nor Wild One. It is like no other aura I have ever experienced.”

“What, then?” asked Levana, a pure white cat with blue eyes.

“I think it is the human. And I think it is no coincidence that he is in the same place as Nafshi. I think their fates are woven together.”

“How do you know this is the Son of Aaron and not the aura of one of the Council’s Magelights, if it’s so close to the place where they died?” Flatnose asked. Letsan laughed softly enough so that only Goldeneyes could hear.

“The Council members were well known to me,” Hakham said with disdain, “and Wild Ones’ auras differ from our own. Are you not listening, Kharoom? I just said this is an aura unlike any I’ve ever experienced.”

“I told you so,” Letsan whispered to Goldeneyes. “I’d wager my fifth kitten that Hakham did not want Flatnose on the Council.”

“No,” she murmured, “he didn’t. Hakham told me he does not feel that Kharoom is ready for such a responsibility.”

“He is not,” Letsan responded. “Nor will he ever be.” They hushed as Hakham spoke again.

“Zahavin,” he said, turning to her once more, “besides finding and aiding Nafshi, you will also find the Son of Aaron—the boy who is yet a man—and make yourself known to him. He is vital to our cause.”

“A child?” Goldeneyes asked. “I must work with a child?

“Do you have something against children?” Letsan asked. “I’ve got sixteen of my own.”

“Seventeen,” Hakham corrected, eyes twinkling. “Never lose track of the number; their mothers will not forgive you for it.”

“Noted, sir,” Letsan said.

“And how am I supposed to find this boy?” Goldeneyes asked coldly.

“Zahavin, you and Letsan will remain after the Council leaves, and I will show you the boy’s aura. It is similar to a Catmage’s, but it is quite distinct.”

“But—but Master, a human!”

“Zahavin,” Hakham said severely, “you will work with a human boy in order to find Nafshi. Letsan will assist you, as will any and all Catmages. These are your orders. I suggest you get over your distaste for humans, and quickly, or I shall find someone else to assign to this task.”

Goldeneyes was silent, humiliated at being chided in front of the Council.

“Hakham, I have a question before we go,” Letsan said.

“Yes?”

“While I’m searching for Nafshi, can you tell me how to avoid the wall that Flatnose ran into? I do so love my nose in the shape it is.”

Several members of the Council snorted with amusement, but most of them looked shocked at Letsan’s cheek. Most of the other Catmages were laughing softly. Letsan was well-known and well-liked. Kharoom flattened his ears in anger and started to rise to his feet, his fur fluffing out. Goldeneyes was aghast, but she was also grateful to Letsan for deliberately drawing attention away from her humiliation.

“I will not stand for such insolence,” Kharoom said. “I am a Council member and will be treated with the proper respect!” He glared at those who had laughed at him.

“Dear old Flatnose,” Letsan began, getting ready to tell Kharoom exactly what he thought of him, “you’re so right about being treated with the proper amount of respect.”

“Letsan!” Hakham said sharply, but his ears were up and his tail was still. “This is neither the time nor the place. One of these days, your tongue will cause you more trouble than Kharoom’s hurt feelings.”

Letsan nodded his head respectfully to the old Catmage. “But not today, sir. I believe you just assigned me a rather important mission.” Letsan tried not to look smug, but Flatnose growled softly, still glaring. He subsided only when Hakham looked sternly his way.

“No,” Hakham said, turning to stare at Letsan, “not today. But next time you come before the full Council, you will keep a civil tongue in your head or you will deal with me.” Chastened, Letsan dropped his gaze. “Now come, you two. We have much to do before you leave.”

Letsan and Goldeneyes followed Hakham to his shelter in the Compound. Once there, they made some rough plans on how to go about finding Nafshi. Hakham did not need to share the details of Nafshi’s aura with Goldeneyes. She could feel it without thinking, as Nafshi had been like a mother to her after her own mother died. Letsan would rely on her to find Nafshi.

“It is difficult to plan exactly,” Hakham said. “We know nothing of Nafshi’s situation. Is she hurt? Is she a captive? Does a human family hold her? Why are there Wild Ones in the same area? We simply don’t have enough information. Your first task is to investigate the circumstances, Letsan, Zahavin. Do not go rushing in until you know what you are facing. In fact, I think I’d rather you brought in reinforcements. Letsan, do you know where your brother Razor might be?”

“No sir, I haven’t heard from him in many moons.”

“Then you need to find him. Zahavin can do the scouting work and discover all we need to know about Nafshi. The two of you will travel to the village together, but Letsan, I want you to track down your brother and get his help. And now that I think of it, get some of the other Shomrim. If the Darkness is indeed rising, we will need our strongest warriors.”

Goldeneyes was shaken. The Shomrim, the Catmage guardians, were normally used to keep dogs and other dangerous animals away from the Compounds, or to occasionally get rid of any Wild Ones that came within range of a Catmage settlement. They had been at peace for so long that she had forgotten the Shomrim were also warriors ready to do battle. If Hakham wanted the Shomrim involved, he was expecting trouble.

“I understand, sir,” Letsan said.

“The two of you should get some rest, then, and start when you are ready. And may the One Above Us All guide your steps and bring you success.”

 

 

Chapter Two: Andy

“Loser says ‘ow’!” Taylor said as he slapped Andy on the side of the head, hard.

“Ow! Jerk!”

Taylor elbowed Andy as he rushed past, making him drop his backpack. It fell open on impact and the contents spilled out. “No, you were just supposed to say ‘ow’!”

Pete and Tommy, two of Taylor’s friends, laughed loudly as they followed him down the hall, making sure they bumped Andy as they passed. The bell for the next class rang. Andy gritted his teeth to stop himself from saying anything, hurriedly pushing his books back in the pack. The small, skinny boy grimaced as he gathered his things. He had short brown hair and a light spray of freckles across a snub nose. Andy was smaller and smarter than the rest of the boys in his eighth grade class. He was always at the top of his class, which Taylor and his friends resented. It wasn’t Andy’s fault he was smarter than they were. He was athletic and liked sports, but he was too small and never managed to make any of the teams. Boys like Taylor shot up in height, put on muscle, and were able to push Andy around—especially when they ganged up on him.

This was the second time this week Taylor and his friends had humiliated Andy. Baiting him was Taylor’s favorite sport, and the smaller boy couldn’t do a lot about it. Taylor always had two or three of his buddies around, and Andy had already experienced the unpleasantness of a three against one fight. Not for the first time, Andy wished he was about six inches bigger and fifty pounds heavier. Fantasizing about how he’d punch Taylor’s head in made him smile all the way to history class.

“What’s so funny?” Becca asked as he sat down at his desk. She was a pretty girl with light brown skin that Andy liked to think was the same color as coffee ice cream. He liked her high cheekbones, her big, brown eyes, and the way her mouth turned up at the corners, even when she wasn’t smiling. But he didn’t want to talk about Taylor with her.

“Nothing.”

“I saw Taylor picking on you again.”

Andy looked away. It wasn’t just embarrassing to be picked on. It was worse when his friends knew that he didn’t fight back. They all saw what a coward he was. He liked Becca. He’d known her all his life, ever since they went to preschool together. She knew Andy as well as he knew her. But Becca didn’t understand about Andy’s problem with Taylor.

“It’s not fair, three against one. He’s a jerk and a bully,” Becca said. “You ought to tell someone about him.”

“No!” Andy said. “That’d just make things worse. Promise you won’t tell!”

“But Andy—”

“Promise!”

“Okay. I promise.” She added under her breath, “For now.”

The class quieted as the teacher entered the room. He sat down behind his desk and began sorting through the homework papers. “Don’t think I don’t see you, Michael,” he said, head still down, to the slim, shaggy-haired boy who whipped through the door into the seat behind Andy. “One more time getting to class after the bell and I’m sending home a note.”

“Sorry, Mr. Straight.”

Jack Straight got up and handed out the homework, face down. “Most of you,” he said, pausing to look around, “did a pretty good job on the assignment. A few of you could do much better, though.” He stopped by Andy’s desk, dropped his homework paper, and moved on. Andy held his breath as he turned the paper over, then expelled a huge sigh. An A-minus. Mike grimaced as he turned his paper over, and then shrugged.

“I think you’ll all like today’s topic a lot better than the last one. Turn to chapter three. We’re going to learn about the Salem witch trials. A fitting subject for autumn, don’t you think?”

“Mr. Straight, did people really believe in magic? That’s just stupid,” Becca said.

“Not only did people believe in magic, but twenty-five innocent people died after being accused of performing witchcraft. It’s a pretty bad period in American colonial history.”

“My mother says there really are witches,” said Mike. “She says they’re called—wait, I can’t remember the word. It’s not ‘rayguns,’ but it sounds like it.” The class burst into laughter.

“You mean pagans,” Mr. Straight said. “They may call themselves witches, but they’re not. They don’t really cast magic. It’s a form of New Age religion.”

“What’s New Age?” Becca asked.

“Something for another time and class. Now turn to page 67 and let’s read about how the Salem witch trials began because a couple of children were acting oddly.”

Mike stood up and bowed, grinning. The class laughed again.

“All right, Michael, if you want to behave oddly, you can start reading out loud,” said Mr. Straight. “Participating in class would definitely be an odd thing for you.” Mike’s grin widened as he began to read.

When the bell for the end of class rang, Andy felt like no time at all had passed. Mr. Straight was right, this wasan interesting subject. Andy went to the front of the room and waited while Mr. Straight put away his teaching materials.

“Yes, Andy?”

“Um—I was wondering if you could recommend some other books about the Salem witch trials. I think I’d like to learn more about them.”

Mr. Straight smiled at the boy. “Sure. I’ll email your mother a list of books tonight. Why the interest, Andy? Do you believe in magic?”

“Me?” Andy shook his head slightly. “No. I dunno. I was just interested.”

“It’s good to see a child interested in history,” said a quiet voice from the doorway. “So few of them these days care for anything that happened further back than last week.” Principal Saunders stood in the doorway, his long, lanky frame seeming tall enough to touch the doorframe. He had a pointed chin, long, black hair, and a long, thin mustache. Everything about him was long, even his nose. The principal watched them unblinkingly. Come to think of it, he did that a lot, Andy thought—watching people like that, in long stares, saying nothing. Something about the principal had always bothered Andy, but he could never tell exactly what it was.

“What are you learning about, son?”

I’m not your son, Andy thought. Out loud, he said, “The Salem witch trials.”

The principal and teacher exchanged a brief glance.

“Jack knows all about that subject, don’t you, Jack?”

“Not all about it. But yes, I know a bit. I have ancestors who lived in Salem at the time.”

“Wow! Were any of them in the trials?” Andy asked.

Jack Straight hesitated before speaking. “No,” he said, glancing at Saunders again. “I don’t really have time to talk with you now, Andy. Principal Saunders and I have something to discuss. I’ll send you that email tonight or tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Mr. Straight.” He turned to leave, going around the principal, who stood unmoving, to get to the door. Saunders watched him with a piercing gaze. Andy hurried out of the room, feeling both men’s eyes on his back.

The witch trials were on his mind all the way home. Andy had learned from hard experience to sit as far away from Taylor on the bus as he possibly could. Today, Andy was in the front seat just behind the driver. Taylor didn’t have the nerve to pick on him there, where the driver could overhear and stop him. When Andy got off the bus, he was thinking about the witch trials as he walked down the street. Andy was so deep in thought he didn’t notice that Taylor and Pete were following a few feet behind him, until he was suddenly pushed hard from behind as he was about to turn into his front yard. Andy fell heavily, looking up to see his tormentors grinning.

“Oops! Clumsy of you, dork!” Taylor said as Pete laughed.

“Oh, look, Andy has a boo-boo,” Pete said. He and Taylor, laughing uproariously, walked away.

Andy sat up, nursing his scraped elbow. It was bleeding. He said nothing, just glared at the two boys as they left.

When they were out of sight, Andy pushed himself up from the ground, choking back tears. Bad enough Taylor had to pick on him in school, but following him home—that was unbearable. Andy wiped his nose on his sleeve and turned up the walk. An orange and white cat sat in his front yard. It wasn’t a stray, as it wore a leather collar studded with a gold-colored stone. The cat had been there every day for the past week, but she wouldn’t come near Andy or his mother, not even when they’d offered food. Impotent rage suddenly filled the boy; rage at Taylor’s constant bullying, the fall he just took, and the fact that the cat was just sitting there, watching—like it was judging him, or laughing at him, too. He reached down for a rock. “Get out of here!” he shouted, throwing the rock at the cat. “You’re not wanted! I don’t want you! Go away!” The rock, heading straight towards the cat, veered suddenly to the left. Andy thought he saw the sunlight glitter on the stone in the cat’s collar as the rock flew past. She sat unmoving, staring straight at the boy.

“If you throw another rock at me, I will make sure it turns around and hits you on your thick head. I am not the one you are angry with,” said a woman’s voice. Andy looked around to see who had spoken. If he didn’t know better, he would swear the voice was inside his head.

“Those boys were cruel. They deserve your anger, not I,” said the woman.

Andy looked around again, puzzled. Who was talking to him? No one was in sight, only that stupid cat.

“Stupid? I’m not the one looking around to see who is talking to him when she’s standing right in front of you,” said the woman’s voice.

“Who said that?” Andy asked. “Where are you hiding? Are you behind the house?” He ran to the side of the house. No one was there. He ran over to the other side, then circled the house entirely, finding no one. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

“That’s because you’re looking in the wrong place for the one talking to you. It’s me,” said Goldeneyes. “The cat. Sitting in front of you. I am the one speaking.” She lifted her front paw and waved it at him.

“Yeah, right,” Andy said. “Nice trick, whoever you are.”

“I can see that I’m going to have to prove it to you. Watch your front door.” The jewel in Goldeneyes’ collar flashed again, and the door to Andy’s house flung open with a bang.

Andy gaped. “Who did that?” he asked. “Mom? Are you home? This isn’t funny!”

“She is not there, Andrew Cohen. I opened the door,” said the cat.

Andy stared at the cat. “That’s not possible,” he said.

“I assure you, it is.”

“You’re—you’re a cat.”

“And you’re a human. If you’re finished stating the obvious, we must talk. I need your help.”

“But you’re a cat!”

Goldeneyes sighed. “This is going to take longer than I’d expected. Let’s go inside. It is not allowed to use magic in public in broad daylight, except under extreme circumstances.” She stood up and trotted to the front door, switching her tail and waiting for Andy to follow. He stood unmoving, still staring at her. “Well?” she said. “Are you going to go inside or will I have to make you?”

Startled, Andy hurried inside and closed the door behind them. “I don’t believe it. You really aretalking to me. Holy— You can talk! A talking cat! No one’s going to believe me!” he said as they walked down the hall and into the living room.

Goldeneyes leaped onto the sofa and looked steadily at Andy. “No one is going to believe you because you won’t tell anyone. My gifts must remain a secret between us. Do I have your word that you will tell no one?”

Andy was still trying to accept the reality that a cat was talking to him—inside his head. He decided agreeing with her was probably the best thing for now. “Um—okay.”

“Good. Andrew Cohen, I need your help. Weneed your help.”

“My help? We? We who? Me? What?”

“Now you’re just babbling. I was told you were smart. Was I misinformed?”

“Hey!” Andy said, stung. “You know, I don’t really think I need to be insulted by a cat.”

“And I don’t want to be working with a human.We all have to do things we do not like.”

“You sound like my mother,” Andy said, dropping his backpack to the floor and sitting down next to Goldeneyes. “Anyway, if your world suddenly got turned upside down, you’d babble, too. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that I’m having a conversation with a cat that’s actually talking backto me.”

“Perhaps if you let me explain—”

“Okay, but I’m starving. Can you explain while we go into the kitchen and get something to eat?” Without waiting for an answer, Andy rose and went to the kitchen. Goldeneyes leaped down from the couch and followed him.

“You might want to see to that wound,” she said as Andy was opening the pantry.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. It’s just a scrape.” He closed the pantry door and went to the sink, where he washed his arm, patted it dry with a paper towel, and decided it didn’t need a bandage. The bleeding had stopped. “Are you hungry?” he asked the cat as he took a bottle of milk from the refrigerator and picked up a plate of wrapped cookies on the counter his mother had left for him before she went to work.

“No. I had a fat little mouse earlier this afternoon.”

“Oh. Uh, well, you want a drink?”

“Yes. Milk would be lovely.”

“Uh, what should I put it in? You can’t drink from a glass. Well, you could, but you wouldn’t be able to reach the bottom, and then I’d have to throw a lot away and—” Andy stopped, realizing that he was starting to babble nervously again.

“A shallow saucer would do nicely. Most humans have them.”

Andy shrugged, took a small plate from the cabinet, poured milk into it, and placed it on the table in front of the chair where his mother usually sat. Goldeneyes leaped lightly onto the chair, raised herself on her hind legs, and put her front paws on the table on either side of the saucer.

“Thank you,” she said as she lowered her head to drink. Andy watched her lap up the milk for a few moments. She looked just like a normal cat—one that couldn’t talk. He was pretty sure, though, that most cats didn’t drink milk from a plate on the kitchen table. Andy thought about that while he ate his cookies and Goldeneyes drank her milk. His mother, he decided, would kill him if she found out. He made a mental note to make sure to wash and put away the dish before she got home.

“So how come you can talk?” he asked. “Can all cats talk? Are they just pretending that they can’t?”

Goldeneyes licked a drop of milk off her front paw before replying. “No, only a tiny number out of the millions of cats in the world can talk. We are all Catmages, or the children of Catmages. Most of us,” she corrected herself. “There are a few cats with mage abilities that—but I’m getting ahead of myself.”

“So you’re saying not only can you talk, but you’re a Catmage? What’s a Catmage?”

“A cat as intelligent as—or more than—a human, who also has the ability to perform magic.”

“You can do magic? Seriously? Like making an elephant disappear? I thought magic was all tricks and illusions!”

“Human magic is illusion, ” Goldeneyes said, her mental voice carrying a sneer so emphatically that Andy felt like he’d said something wrong. “Human magic is nothing but trickery and lies. Catmage magic is true magic, achieved after years of practice and study.”

“Is that how you opened the door to my house? With cat magic?”

“I am a Catmage, Andrew. Of course I opened your door with my abilities.”

“Well,” Andy said, “how am I supposed to know the difference? I never saw cat magic before.”

“Then I will show you the difference between, as you say, cat magic and trickery. Close your eyes.”

“What, here? Now?”

“Yes. But first, put your hands on the table in front of you. Move your chair back until your arms are straight.” Andy did as he was told. “Now close your eyes,” she said, watching until he did so.

“Is this supposed to help?” he asked.

“No, I just wanted to see if you could follow orders,” Goldeneyes said, a hint of laughter in her voice. Andy frowned and his eyes snapped open.

“Close your eyes. That part of it is real. I want you calm while I do this.” Andy closed his eyes again. Goldeneyes trilled in her throat. The trill sounded almost musical to the boy, and he couldn’t help smiling. Then he felt a warmth on the arm with the scrape. Goldeneyes gave one final trill and said, “Now open your eyes.”

“Was that it?” Andy asked. “Where’s the magic?”

“Look at your arm. The one that was wounded.”

“Hey! The scrape is gone! There’s no more blood, no scab, and no scar!” Andy said. “Wow! You cando magic! And really good magic! Thanks!”

Pleased by the unbridled admiration in Andy’s tone, Goldeneyes dipped her head to the saucer again. She lapped a bit of milk, and then looked at the boy. “Now you will believe my story,” she said.

“Oh, I started believing your story the minute the front door flew open. But I would appreciate one more thing.”

“What is that?”

“Well, you haven’t told me your name yet. And you already know mine. Hey! How did you know my name?”

“You may call me Goldeneyes,” she said. “And I learned your name while observing you this past week. Now, are you finished eating?” Andy nodded. “Then pay close attention, and I will tell you why you were chosen. Andrew Cohen, there is a long and difficult task ahead of me, and I have been told that I cannot do it without you.”

“Me? Why me? I’m nothing special. I’m no one,” Andy said glumly. He looked down at the floor. “I’m just the little loser who gets picked on by Taylor and his creeps.”

“Andrew, you were chosen for this task by the Council of Catmages for a reason. One of the Council members was a prophet. I was there when she told us to find you.” Goldeneyes paused, thinking back to that awful day, saddened by the deaths of so many of their most powerful Catmages. Then she shook herself. “That’s all in the past now. Razelle’s prophecies are never wrong. I’ve been watching you for some time now, Andrew, and I don’t think you’re a ‘loser.’ However,” she said stiffly, “I must tell you that am not happy that I have to work with a human boy.”

Andy studied Goldeneyes, trying to decide if she disliked boys in general, or him in particular. Boys in general, he decided. She was like old Mrs. Palecki down the block, who sat on her porch all day just so she could yell at any neighborhood kid who was unfortunate enough to come near her yard. But the cat didn’t seem mean. Just stern. “What do you need me to do?” he asked.

“One of our Catmages has been taken by the Wild Ones.”

“What’s a Wild One?” Andy asked.

“Generally, it’s a failed Catmage. Some of us are unable to follow the Commandments. They turn to evil ways, and we expel them from our society. Sometimes Catmage kittens are born to normal cats and are never found by us. These halfbreeds learn magic on their own, wild magic, and do not abide by our Laws.”

“You have laws? Like we do?”

Goldeneyes sighed. “Andrew, I do not have the time to fully explain the history of Catmages to you. Suffice it to say that most of the Wild Ones are those that have been dismissed from the Teaching Rings for various reasons. They’re not supposed to keep practicing magic, but some still do anyway.”

“And they have your friend?”

“She is not just my friend. She is the oldest, most powerful Catmage in the world, perhaps the most powerful since the First Mage. And more than that: She is my mother’s mother.”

“Your grandmother? I didn’t know that cats even had grandmothers. Gee, I’m sorry your grandma’s missing. Mine died when I was little—”

“By the One Above Us All,” Goldeneyes said, exasperated, “will you be quiet and listen? Can you even focus on one thing at a time?”

Andy clapped his hand over his mouth. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Go on.”

“We fear for Nafshi’s life. We’re fairly certain the Wild Ones are working with humans. And these humans will know that Catmages are looking for Nafshi. That’s why we need you.”

“But how can I help you? I can’t do magic.”

“You don’t need to do magic. You just need to do what you are told.”

“But how am I going to find her?”

“You’re not going to find her. Wewill find her. There are ways of tracing a Catmage.”

“How?”

“Through the Magelight, for one.” Goldeneyes half-closed her eyes in concentration, and the jewel in her collar lit up like a tiny sun.

“Whoa,” Andy said, “that’s really cool.”

“Each Catmage bears a distinctive amulet. No two are truly alike, even if they appear to be so, because each one gives off a unique magical aura that is a reflection of the Catmage’s own aura. If you know their aura, you can trace a mage, with certain spells and aids. Even if we don’t recognize the aura personally, we know it’s from a Catmage. That’s how we know that Nafshi is in your village.”

“So what am I supposed to do, go door to door and ask people if they happen to be holding a cat prisoner? People will think I’m nuts!”

“No. You are going to work with me. We need you.” Her voice carried a tone of reluctance, which Andy caught. “It’s been foretold—”

“You don’t like having to work with people, do you?” he asked.

“By the One, child, will you let me finish a sentence? Stop interrupting!” She waited until Andy settled down. “What I like or dislike doesn’t matter,” she continued. “I do what I am told. And I suggest you do the same. It isn’t only Catmages that are in danger. If the Wild Ones are not stopped—”

“Yeah, I get it,” Andy said. “The world as we know it will end. Or something like that.”

“Nafshi will die! And that is the least of the evil,” Goldeneyes said angrily. “This is no joking matter! The last time the Darkness rose, scores of your humans were killed. Do you want that to happen again? How much do you know of the history of your people? The last time this happened, your people were called witches before they were tried and executed.”

“Would that happen to have been around 1692?” Andy asked, “during the Salem witch trials?”

Goldeneyes was surprised that Andy knew about the last time the Enemy walked the earth. “Yes. Salem is the name of one of the villages where the Wild Ones were discovered by humans. Well,” she said, purring softly. “You do have some knowledge. Hakham was not wrong about that.”

“We’re learning about the witch trials now! My teacher says that all the people who died were innocent.”

“Your teacher is incorrect. Humans were working with Wild Ones. Several of them tried to partner with humans in towns throughout what is now your state of Massachusetts. The Wild Ones broke the Law of Secrecy that forbids us from practicing magic in public. The Wild Ones got away, but their human partners were killed.”

“You just practiced magic in public. And in front of me,” Andy pointed out.

Goldeneyes flattened her ears and her tail switched from side to side. “Pay attention, child. I said we are not allowed to use magic in public except under extreme circumstances. The kidnapping of the most powerful Catmage alive would be classified as an extreme circumstance. And I had to do something to convince you that I’m not justa cat.”

“I’m not a child,”Andy said, stung. “I’m thirteen. According to Jewish law, that makes me a man!”

Goldeneyes stared silently at Andy. “The boy who is yet a man,” she said softly.

“What are you saying?” Andy asked.

“This law turns a child into a man?” she asked. “I don’t know very much about Jewish law.”

“Ha! You don’t know everything, then!” Andy said, slapping the table.

Goldeneyes sighed. “No, I don’t know everything. And I take your point. If you are done with your snack, let us go into the other room—I want to sit on that big, soft—er, I forget its name—”

“The sofa?”

“Yes, sofa. Let us sit down and discuss what has happened and what we must do. Andrew, we have an enormous task ahead of us.”

“Okay.” He took his plate and cup and the saucer that Goldeneyes used, rinsed them off in the sink and put them in the dishwasher. The cat followed him into the living room. Unseen by Andy, she closed her eyes wearily.

“Prophecy or no prophecy, he is still a boy,” she said to herself. “I have to work with a boy. By the Great Mother!”

 

 

Chapter Three: The Search Begins

“So how are we going to find this Nafshi, anyway?” Andy said, leaning back in the chair. He picked up a ball from the floor next to him and started tossing it up in the air and catching it.

“You’re going to come with me today as I go to where we think Nafshi’s been taken. I want to scout the area during the day. If we find anything, I’ll go back tonight.”

“I can’t go tonight,” Andy said. “It’s Parents Night at the school. Anyway, I have a curfew on school nights. My mom wouldn’t let me go.”

“You weren’t asked,” Goldeneyes said. “I said I will go back tonight. Andrew, you need to pay close attention to what I say. And stop playing with that ball!” The gem on her collar glowed, and the ball flew across the room as if it had been hit with an invisible bat, bounced off the wall, and rolled into the corner.

“Sorry,” Andy said sheepishly. “It helps me focus. I’m still trying to get used to talking to a cat.” He sat on the edge of the chair and peered over at Goldeneyes. “What is that thing on your collar, anyway? You called it a Magelight? How come you’re wearing a collar at all? You don’t belong to anyone, so why do you need it?”

“The reason we wear collars dates all the way back to the first Catmage,” Goldeneyes said. “And our history is entwined with yours.”

“Mine?” Andy asked, surprised.

“Your people,” she said.

“Oh. Um—could you tell me about it, or is it a big secret?”

“I will tell you,” she said, pleased by Andy’s interest. “Thousands of years ago,” Goldeneyes continued, “your ancestors were strangers in a land not their own. At first, your people were simply escaping famine. They went where the One Above Us All sent them.”

“Who’s the One Above Us All? Do you mean God?”

“Yes. Your people went to Egypt. There they stayed, but they never became a part of that nation. But while they were there, your ancestors met my forebears, who lived among them as companions.”

“You mean pets?” Andy asked.

“Companions,” Goldeneyes said icily. “Many years after your ancestors first arrived in the country, the Egyptians made them slaves.”

“I know that story!” Andy said, leaning forward. “It’s the story of Passover. I’ve known about that since I was a little kid!”

“It is also the story of the Catmages.” Her ears twitched. “If you will be silent, Andrew, I will tell you the tale as it was told to me as a kitten.” She waited until he had settled back into the chair.

“If you know the story, then you know that the Hebrew slaves demanded their freedom of the Pharaoh of Egypt. You know the story of the plagues, and how Pharaoh refused Moses time and again. The last time he refused, God sent the Angel of Death to take the Egyptians’ firstborn sons. The Hebrew slaves were all directed to mark their doors so that the angel would not take their sons.”

“Yeah, they marked the doors with lamb’s blood,” Andy said.

“You do know the story,” Goldeneyes said with approval. “But you don’t know the whole tale. The ancestor of the Catmages lived with the woman we call the Great Mother, whom you know as Miriam, Moses’ sister. On the night of the Passover, they say, most of the household spent the night awake together, fearing to sleep. Miriam’s grandson, the firstborn in his family, was just a babe, not even walking yet. He fell asleep in a corner, and the family soon forgot about him. Some time later, the boy awoke. He started crawling towards the door. No one in the family noticed, but Miriam’s cat saw him. The First started meowing. No one paid attention. She meowed again and again, louder and louder, running back and forth between the family and the baby, until finally Miriam looked over to see why the First was making such a fuss. Then Miriam saw the danger her grandson was in and hurried across the room. She stopped him just as he was about to reach the door, saving his life, for if he had left the protection of the sign over the lintel, the Angel of Death would have taken him, too.

“Miriam was so grateful to the First, she gave her all the milk she could drink, and all the food she could eat. Then Miriam took off her necklace and placed it on the First, wrapping the leather strap twice around her neck so that it fit snugly. Legend tells us that the First wore a pendant in the shape of a golden cat, with eyes as amber as her own.”

“So was that how she did magic? With Miriam’s necklace?”

“No, the pendant was not the source of her power, Andrew.”

“Then how did the First get her magic?” Andy asked. “Were there other magic cats around to teach her?”

“No, we received our power neither from cats nor humans. That night, though your ancestors never knew it, more than one angel visited Egypt. The One Above Us All saw that the First saved Miriam’s grandson, for whom He had great plans. So He sent another angel. This angel went to Miriam’s home and touched both the First and the necklace Miriam had given. The angel’s hand on her throat gave Neshama the ability to understand human language, such as we all have today. And its touch turned her pendant into an amulet much like the ones we create today, which we use to focus our powers.” She paused in concentration and her Magelight glowed brightly. Andy felt the hair on his arms rise.

“You’re giving me goose bumps,” he said softly. “That is such a cool story.”

“It is not just a story, Andrew,” Goldeneyes said. “It is our history.

“Of course, the First’s pendant was much more powerful than our Magelights. And our magic is but a pale imitation of hers, since hers was a gift from the One Above Us All. But the First revered Miriam, who was wise and kind and loving. She spent the rest of her life imparting Miriam’s kindness and wisdom to her kittens. When the Hebrews reached the Promised Land, the First’s descendants were with them. And later, when the people of Israel were scattered to the four corners of the earth, the descendants of the First were scattered as well. And so we came to new lands, on new continents, including this one. We have been among you for thousands of years, but our numbers have always been small. And we rarely make contact with humans—only grave danger to your people or to ours brings us together.”

“Danger like the Dark Catmages?” Andy asked.

“Yes.”

“So what happened to the First’s pendant?”

Goldeneyes paused in thought, impressed by the depth of the boy’s question. “We don’t know. Some of us think that the pendant is only legend, part of the story. Those who think it is real have no idea what happened to it. We suspect it was taken or hidden during the fall of the Second Temple and the scattering of your people. If it survives at all, we have no knowledge of its whereabouts.”

“Hey, you know what? I just realized something!” Andy said. “I’m a Kohain! I’m descended from Aaron. He was Miriam’s brother, too!”

Goldeneyes stopped short. “You are descended from Aaron?”

“Yeah, that’s what a Kohain is. They were the high priests, descendants of Aaron and his sons. That’s why my last name is Cohen.”

“Then Hakham was right. You arethe one Razelle foretold,” she said softly.

Andy looked at her in puzzlement. “I thought you already said that.”

“Yes. But now it is confirmed.”

“You mean now you believe it,” he said shrewdly. Goldeneyes said nothing, but her eyes narrowed. Andy changed the subject quickly.

“So your ancestor lived with Miriam, and I’m descended from her brother. That makes us like—uh, not like family, but—”

“Certainly not! Catmages and humans are not related! But I see where you’re heading with this. It gives us something in common.”

“Yeah! That’s what I meant. It’s nice to have something in common, even if you’re a cat and I’m a kid.”

“Catmage,” she corrected. “Be that as it may, Andrew, it’s time for us to go look at the house where we think Nafshi is being held. Come,” she said, trotting to the front door and flinging it open again as her Magelight flashed. “Let’s go see what can be seen.”

She led him through the streets of the town, surprising Andy by stopping at a red light when they reached Main Street.

“I thought cats are supposed to be colorblind,” he said.

“They are,” she replied. “And I am a Catmage.”

“Oh,” he said, afraid to say anymore. She had that tone in her voice again, the one that made her sound like Mrs. Palecki. Andy was beginning to wonder if that was Goldeneyes’ usual tone of voice, or if she was just in a bad mood today. Well, he thought, I’ll find out soon enough. He followed her silently through the streets of Coreyton, wondering what on earth he’d gotten himself into.

At last, Goldeneyes stopped on a corner behind a large oak tree. Andy glanced at the street sign. “Oak Street,” he muttered. “Who do I know lives on Oak Street?”

“Now,” Goldeneyes said, “you must be still, Andrew. We’re approaching the house where Nafshi should be.”

They were on a quiet, tree-lined street. The houses were small, single-family Georgian Colonials and Cape Cods. The neighborhood seemed ancient to Andy, who lived in a modern house that had been built during the post-war boom. Some of the houses on this street looked like they’d been there since pre-Revolutionary times. One had the remains of an old dry stone fence on either end of its driveway. Centuries-old oak and willow trees were starting to lose their leaves in front yards and along the street. Goldeneyes was looking at a house in the middle of the block. It was surrounded by a fairly new, tall wooden fence. The fence looked garish and out of place against the white rails and old stone of the neighborhood.

“Nafshi’s aura was emanating from that one,” Goldeneyes told Andy. “The white one with the blue shutters.”

“The house with the big fence? Number 19?” Andy asked.

Goldeneyes sighed. He is a boy, she thought, and boys ask a lot of questions. “Yes, the one with the fence. I don’t know your numbers.”

“Oh, right. You can’t read. Okay, let’s go see what we can find!” Andy said, running across the street towards the house.

“No! Andrew! Wait, we can’t just—”

Andy paid no attention to her. He ran to the fence, intending to leap up and see if he could grab the top of it and look over. As he drew near, he heard loud, ferocious barking and growling coming from behind the fence. It sounded like a pack of ravenous wild dogs. Andy could hear heavy bodies thudding against the fence, making it quiver. He stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of the house, frightened. While he stood frozen, he heard a door in the house creak slowly open. Andy panicked. He turned and ran as fast as he could down the street, back to where Goldeneyes was waiting. He slipped behind the tree and stood there, shaking. Goldeneyes was furious.

“Fool!” she said. “Our mission today was simply to observe. You could have ruined everything!”

“I’m sorry,” Andy said, gasping. “I didn’t know there would be a million angry dogs there. You should have warned me!”

Goldeneyes’ tail lashed back and forth, her ears lying flat on her head. Her voice crackled with anger. “Warned you? I told you to be still and to follow my orders! I told you what we were to do. You are the one who disobeyed me.” She stopped talking, so overcome with anger that she was growling and her fur stood out. Slowly, Goldeneyes forced herself to calm down. She looked away from the boy for a minute. Then she turned to face him.

“Andrew Cohen,” she said slowly, “you will never, ever do anything like this again. You risked your life, mine, and Nafshi’s with your rash action, not to mention our entire cause.”

“I didn’t think of that.” A lump rose in his throat. Andy hung his head, staring at the ground, not looking at Goldeneyes. “I’m sorry,” he said faintly. “I didn’t mean to. I just wanted to help. I wasn’t thinking.”

Goldeneyes softened a little. “Very well. You’re young. You made a mistake. Learn from it. From now on, Andrew, when we are working together, you will do nothing without my permission. Do I have your word?”

“I promise,” Andy said, looking at the cat. She was observing the house. “Do you see something?”

“No,” she said, “nothing. Let us leave this place. We shall have to try another time.” She sighed as she trotted across the street, Andy just behind her. What a waste of time, she thought privately so that Andy wouldn’t hear her. Son of Aaron or no Son of Aaron, this boy is turning out to be a liability.To Andy, she said, “I’m going to come back by myself tonight, after you leave for—what did you say you had to attend?”

“Parents Night. I’m really sorry, Goldeneyes. I swear I’ll be better next time!”

“Yes, Andrew, you will,” she said stiffly.

At the white house with the blue shutters, dogs growled softly from behind the tall fence. The blinds in a second floor window quivered shut as the boy and the cat faded from sight.

 

 

Chapter Four:

Nafshi

Saunders stood at the window, watching Andy and the Catmage walk down the street. It was a Catmage, of course. It was wearing the telltale collar, the crossed leather straps with the stone—Magelight, he corrected himself—in the X. And just look at the way the cat trotted alongside the boy, so unlike a normal cat. You’d have to be an idiot not to see them once you discovered they existed. He hadn’t had to search long at all before finding cats that did not act like cats. Alef and Bett had been the keys to finding Catmages. They were too close, too much alike, and too obviously a pair. They wore a type of collar he had never seen on any normal cat. Once he convinced them that he could be of assistance, they introduced him to Roah. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship.

Saunders could tell by the child’s body language that the mage was giving him a dressing-down. He laughed quietly. “I know what you’re looking for,” he said out loud, “and you can’t have it.” He stepped away from the blinds and strode quickly from the room and down the stairs. He went to the kitchen, where two chocolate-point Siamese cats were sitting in front of a door.

“Anything yet?” he asked.

“No,” said Alef, “but Roah is with her now, trying to extract the information.”

“It’s been a long time, and she has still not given us one iota of information,” Saunders said.

Bett licked her front paw, bringing it up to her ear as she groomed herself. “She will break,” she said. “Roah is the strongest of us.”

“Yes, but Nafshi is the strongest of them,” Saunders pointed out. “Or so you’ve all told me.”

“She will break,” Bett repeated.

“Why aren’t you two down there helping him?” Saunders asked.

“We were told to stay here.”

“This isn’t going fast enough,” Saunders said. “You’ve had months to find her Magelight and yet, we have no Magelight! We need him here.”

“He is out, as you asked, recruiting allies.”

“Well, then, why is it taking you so long? Nafshi is only one cat, after all.”

Bett stared at Saunders. “Do you think Roah is powerful?” she asked.

“Of course,” Saunders said.

“He is young, still, only eight cycles old. Our greatest Catmages study for many cycles, improving their power as they age. Nafshi has been around for a long, long time. She taught Roah’s teacher. She taught my teachers, and their teachers. I cannot count the number of Catmages whom she has mentored. Practically every Catmage on the Council for the past twenty cycles has studied with her, or under her.”

“And now they are all dead,” Saunders said, “proving that she is not nearly as powerful as you believe.”

Bett snorted. “Nafshi was not at the Council meeting. The outcome might have been different had she or Hakham been there. Do you know what we call the old ones who are at the height of their powers?”

“Do tell,” Saunders said. “I’m just dying to know.”

“They are the Magi. There are only a handful of them alive. Do not underestimate a Magi. You know the main reason we can keep her captive is because you keep drugging her. It is taking all of our skill to get even the tiniest piece of information from her, and that only because she is weak from hunger and thirst.” The cat looked away from Saunders and started grooming herself again.

Saunders’ frowned as the cat dismissed him. It irked him to be treated like that by a lesser creature, no matter how powerful that creature’s magic might make it. Saunders would stand their attitudes for now. As always when he was around the Wild Ones, he guarded his inner thoughts. Roah had once commented that Saunders’ mind was a plethora of closed doors and dead-end corridors. He complimented Saunders on being able to prevent himself from being easily read by Catmages. Saunders smiled as he remembered Roah actually telling him that this would be useful when they faced the Catmages someday. It was useful now, though Roah didn’t know it. Saunders had to be careful that they did not suspect his true motives. These arrogant cats would be singing a different tune after his plans came to fruition. The Wild Ones had no idea, really, what Saunders had in mind. But for now, they were useful, and he would tolerate their superior attitudes—to a degree.

“Out of my way,” he said impatiently as he pulled open the door, causing the Wild Ones to scramble away from it. Saunders walked down steep steps leading to a damp, dark cellar. The only light was a dim, bare bulb in a ceiling fixture. The cellar windows were boarded. Boxes were piled throughout the room and along the walls. On one wall were several shelves holding various boxes and items. In the middle of one shelf, about three feet from the floor, was a metal cage. The bars of the cage were made of metal, too thick to bend without tools, and it was locked with a combination lock. A black and white cat sat on the shelf next to the cage, eyes half-closed, mewing softly. Inside the cage was a thin, frail cat, her tortoise shell coat decorated with swirls of colors, mostly black, tan, and grey, her muzzle white with age. She was sitting up and yowling, apparently in pain. Saunders waited and watched. With one great final wail, Nafshi collapsed, sides heaving. The black and white cat stopped mewing and glanced at Saunders.

“Anything?” he asked the cat.

“No. We still have no idea where she hid her Magelight.”

“For God’s sake, Roah, how long is it going to take for you to get one dried-up old husk to tell you where she hid her amulet? I need her stone!”

Roah lowered his head to examine Nafshi, whose eyes were now closed. “We told you from the beginning that this would be difficult.”

“Yes, and you told me you wanted revenge on the one who threw you out of the Teaching Ring.”

“That, too,” Roah said, his tail lashing at the memory. “I would have to say that I have my revenge, with her in that cage—at my bidding.”

“Never,” Nafshi gasped, “at your bidding. You were always one of the most stupid of my students,” she said, chuckling faintly. “I see that much hasn’t changed.”

Roah’s eyes flashed. Then he started mewing again and Nafshi cried out in pain.

“Enough!” Saunders cried. “We need her alive.”

Roah stopped mewing. Nafshi lay still, panting.

“You can make it stop, you know,” Saunders said. “All you have to do is tell us where your Magelight is.”

“It’s on my collar,” Nafshi said feebly.

“The gem on your collar is glass. Do you think we don’t know that you’re lying?” Roah said angrily. “You hid it. Where is it?”

Nafshi laughed softly. “On my collar.”

“Liar!” said Roah.

“No,” Nafshi said simply.

“Yes,” Saunders said. “You are lying! I’ve known about the Catmages and their Magelights for years. It was that knowledge that helped me search out Roah as well as the rest of your peers.”

Nafshi laughed weakly again. “They are not my peers, Evil One.” Saunders smirked at the title. “All of them together do not even come close to being my equal. If they were, you wouldn’t need this cage or those drugs.”

Saunders ignored her, refusing to respond to her taunts. Instead, he reached inside his jacket pocket and withdrew an old, cracked, leather-bound book, about the size of a paperback novel. He opened it and began reading aloud:

Each of the Cats have upon their necks a leathern collar, on which there is a coloured gem that matches the colour of the Cat’s eyes, and which varys from Cat to Cat much like the colour of a person’s eyes are not exactly the same, even though one grey-eyed man seems to have the same colour eyes as the next. This gem is called by them a Magelight and it enables the Cat to focus its Magickal energies to better purpose, causing the Spells and Supernatural Abilities of which I have written. The Cats themselfs have told me of the strange and wonderful powers that their Magelights channel; I have seen them levitate objects, heal wounds, and make a light so bright that it rivaled the sun. No Cat may make Great Magick but it has a Light; without the Light the Cat is as other cats, except that it is not dumb, and it can make Lesser Spells and Incantations. If the Cats lose their Lights, they must make another one or be weakened greatly and made susceptible to enemies including dogs and wolves and such like. I have not yet ascertained how the Cats make themselfs the Lights, but that is something that I mean to discover, although I must be circumspect lest the Cats mistake my motives.

Since the very beginning of my dealings with the Cats, I have wondered what would happen if one could harness the Magick of the Light, but I have not yet had a chance to discuss this with the Cats that have befriended me, and I do not know if they will think I am overreaching my bounds at such thoughts. There is also the problem that I think others in the Towne have begun to notice my secret activities, and I must therefore not be seen to converse or dally with the Cats, lest the people discover for themselves the secret of the Magick and of the Lights. I am afraid that Mercy Lewis, in particular, seems to be harboring suspicions of me; I may have to start meeting with the Cats secretly in the forest instead of having them in my cottage, to lessen the chance that we may be seen or overheard. Curse the benighted people of this Towne for hindering me as I pursue the greatest discovery since this continent itself was found! And they call it Witchcraft. Fools!

“And what is that quaint tale?” Nafshi asked. “Rather long-winded, isn’t it? I don’t think very much of your storytelling skills.”

“It is my ancestor’s journal,” Saunders said. “Giles Corey was executed during the Salem Witch trials. He was, in fact, the only one actually guilty of what they accused him of doing—he was working with some of your ancestors. Wild Ones, I believe you call them? Three hundred some, what’s the word you use? Cycles? Yes, three hundred some cycles ago.”

Nafshi couldn’t hide a glint of recognition in her eyes. The story of the Enemy rising and falling was the history of her kind.

“Then you don’t deny it,” Saunders said.

“No. The Wild Ones were working with humans back then, too. It is a story that all Catmages know, even these failures that are helping you.” Roah growled in his throat at the insult, but subsided at Saunders’ glance. Nafshi continued: “All of the humans they were working with were killed. That would be a lesson you might want to take to heart.”

Saunders started laughing, a low, reedy chuckle. “Oh, my dear Nafshi, you are an innocent if you think that I need to worry about being suspected of witchcraft by the local magistrate. This is the twenty-first century. We are a much more enlightened species. Everyone knows there is no such thing as magic,” he said, grinning nastily. His voice hardened. “I don’t care about what happened to a few people over three hundred years ago. I care about what is happening here and now. I want your Magelight. One way or another, I will have it.” He closed the journal and put it back in his jacket pocket.

“You’re lying,” she told Saunders. “You get furious every time you mention the humans who were killed. I see it in your eyes, I see it in your stance. It comes out in your voice, even though you try to hide it.”

“You’re imagining things,” Saunders said coldly. “It must be the lack of food.”

Nafshi glanced at Roah. She spoke privately to him, making sure Saunders could not hear. “And you, Roah, you trust this man after what he has just told you? Fool! What is stopping him from taking your Magelights as well?”

Roah looked at Nafshi without concern. He replied privately, “He has the Council’s Magelights. He will have yours. There is no need for ours. Saunders and we work together well.”

“Until you are no longer useful to him, you idiot!” Nafshi’s mind-voice shouted. Roah’s Magelight flashed as he mewed, and Nafshi cried out once more in pain. When it stopped, she lay in her cage, subdued.

“No more for now,” Saunders told Roah. “Go wait on the stairs.” The cat obeyed, walking halfway up the staircase. “Nafshi,” Saunders said, abruptly deciding to try a different tack, “would you like something to eat or drink?”

“Of course I would. But you won’t be giving me either,” she replied.

“You’ll find I can be extremely reasonable when I get what I want,” he said. “Roah, get me a cup so the lady can have a drink.”

“Master, this is a mistake. She will trick you.”

“Get me a cup, Roah.” Muttering, the cat raced upstairs. He returned with one of Saunders’ Dobermans, who carried a mug in his mouth.

“Roah,” Saunders said, “Why is Shadow here? Are you too proud to carry the mug yourself?”

“I am a Catmage, not a servant,” Roah replied, “but the dog is also here to stop Nafshi from getting any idea of escaping.”

“You’re no Catmage. You have broken our laws and were justly expelled from our society,” Nafshi said.

“And now I am here, starting a new society, old one,” said Roah, “and it is I who have the power here. Be silent!” His Magelight flashed, and Nafshi howled in pain.

“You see?” Saunders said. “You have everything under control. Nafshi, if you want this drink, you had best be civil to my colleague. Roah is very short-tempered when he doesn’t get his way.”

Nafshi snorted. “You’ve no idea how short-tempered—or cruel—he can be. Why, there are stories I could tell you—”

“The only thing I want you to tell me is where you hid your Magelight. I will give you a drink of water in exchange for the information.”

Nafshi paused to consider the offer. She was still panting slightly. “I agree,” she said, bowing her head. “I need water.”

“Good,” Saunders said. He filled the mug at the sink and stood before the cage, watching the Catmage. The Doberman sat quietly beside him. Saunders took hold of the combination lock and spun it, making sure to hide the combination from the caged Catmage. It was Roah who had suggested it over a plain padlock, which could be opened by a Catmage visualizing the lock mechanism unlocking. A combination lock was too complicated. No Catmage had yet figured out how to work one unless she was given the combination, and even then, many simply couldn’t understand how to read the numbers. Catmages used numbers in their lives, but they didn’t write them down. Saunders opened the door and put the mug inside. Nafshi drank thirstily and quickly as Roah watched warily from the shelf. She sighed in contentment when she finished the water.

“Now,” Saunders said, “fulfill your promise. Where is your Magelight?”

“It’s on my collar,” she said, “as I’ve been telling you.”

Saunders’ face reddened with anger. “I’ve had enough of your lies!” he shouted. He withdrew a strip of leather with a green stone from his pocket. “This is glass! Glass! Stop lying to us and tell us where your Magelight is!”

“My collar,” said Nafshi. Then several things happened so quickly that Saunders didn’t know what hit him. The green glass stone in the collar suddenly flared with light, and the Doberman beside Saunders lunged at him and sank its teeth into his leg. The collar with the glass stone fell to the ground as Saunders cried out in pain. He kicked the collar underneath the shelf without realizing it as he tried to back away from the dog. Nafshi gathered herself to leap out of the cage.

“Alef! Bett!” Roah cried. They rushed down to the cellar and immediately fought to control the dog, while Roah strove mightily with Nafshi, his spell pushing the door closed as hers tried to keep it open. Now she had her front paws on the edge of the cage and was pushing with her hind legs with all her might. The cage door moved inward. The light in her collar flared again, but less brightly. The cage door inched forward and, with a loud cry, Nafshi pulled her paws back and collapsed backwards into the cage. The door slammed shut. The dog ran upstairs at the mental urging of the two Siamese Wild Ones.

“Damn you!” Saunders said. “That’s the last drink of water you’ll have for a very long time.” He locked the cage again and then limped over to the steps. He sat down and examined his leg. It was bleeding heavily. “I can’t go to the doctor for this. They’ll make me report my dog and quarantine him for rabies. And I need to be at the school in—” he checked his watch and swore—“five minutes ago.”

“So tell them it was a stray dog,” Roah said.

“That won’t work. I’ll have to make a report. I can’t afford to be caught lying!”

“I can fix the wound, but I can’t fix the muscle as easily,” Roah told him. “Sit still and quiet. Alef and Bett, if Nafshi so much as twitches a whisker, make her pay dearly.” In a few moments, Roah cast a healing spell and stopped the bleeding. Saunders stood up, gingerly putting his weight on the bad leg. He grimaced. “It’s sore, but it will do. But now,” he said, eyeing Nafshi warily, “I’d like one of you to explain to me exactly how a Catmage with no Magelight managed to cast a spell like that right under your noses!”

“We don’t know,” said Roah.

“How? HOW did she manage? Where is that damned Magelight?”

There was no answer, except for the very quiet chuckle that came from Nafshi’s cage. “It’s on my collar,” she said. And it’s too bad, she thought, that I’m so weak, or I’d have gotten out of here this time. Well. They can’t keep me here forever. Hakham will find me. He is not weak with hunger and thirst or full of drugs that make his head spin. Oh, the spells he will cast. Then, she thought, her tail tip switching, it will be my turn to play jailor.

Saunders limped up the stairs, leaving the cats to stand guard. He paused just inside the kitchen and withdrew the journal from his pocket. He read silently to himself the last part of the entry, which he had deliberately withheld from the cats.

Imagine what Mankind could do with the Power of these Lights in the service of the Human Race, which God chose for dominion over the Beasts of the Earth! When the Magick is mine, with God’s help and blessing, there will be no limits to the wonders that I can achieve!

“Yes,” Saunders muttered, “just imagine the wonders I shall achieve.” He limped into the kitchen and shut the door behind him, smiling in a way that would have sent shivers down even Roah’s spine, had he been there to see it.

 

Nafshi woke up from a restless sleep that she had fallen into after Saunders and the others left. She was tired, more tired than she’d ever been in her very long life. Nafshi ached, she was hungry, she was still thirsty, and most of all, she was so very, very sick of lying in a cage day after day. I would give almost anything, she thought, to get out of this place. To see the sunlight, or the moon coming out from behind the clouds. She pricked her ears forward at a soft noise on the other side of the cellar. It was another Wild One, lurking in the shadows behind some boxes. Nafshi wondered why he hid himself.

“I know you’re here,” she said irritably. “You’re doing a very poor job of concealing yourself. Why don’t you come out where I can see you?”

A slight, multicolored cat slipped silently out from behind a box and into Nafshi’s field of vision. It looked young, about two years old. Its eyes were bright green. She couldn’t tell its gender. Nafshi wondered if she could use the strange cat’s youth to her advantage.

“Not hiding. Looking.”

“Looking for what, er—what is your name, child?”

“Looking for something nice.” He paused to sniff the air, and then sat and looked over at Nafshi. “Not your child,” he said. “Not anyone’s child. Not child, never child, no, not ever. Patches is my name, my name is Patches. See why? Mish-mosh, by gosh, tish-tosh, see my spots?” The Wild One turned around and around, tail held high, stopping each time his side faced Nafshi so she could see the colored patches that evidently gave him his name. Now she could also see that he was male.

Nafshi was taken aback by his strangeness. She had never met anyone like him. But she hid her thoughts from Patches. It was extremely important that she not make an enemy of this strange young Wild One. He, at least, would not have a grudge against her. “I’ve been here for moons and I haven’t seen you until today. Where have you been? Why did they leave you here with me?” she asked him.

“Patches has been here and there. Must not tell Nafshi.” He stared at her for a few moments. “Sneaky. Patches knows what you want. Must watch you, they said. I am your guardian!”

“You mean you are my guard. I suppose your task is to keep me in this cage?”

“Guard, guardian, guardian guard. Patches is out here, and you are in there, and that is the way it will stay. Would you like me to sing you a song?”

“Why not?” she said, a hint of laughter in her voice. “I’m not going anywhere at the moment.”

Patches sang, in a child’s sing-song voice, “I know where you’re hiding it, I know where you’re hiding it.”

Nafshi looked at him sharply. Could he possibly know, or was he just bluffing? This had to be a trick of the Wild Ones. Just in case, she decided to feel him out and see if he could possibly know what she had been concealing from Saunders. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself, Patches? What is your real name? Where are you from?”

“No name, no home, no home, no name. Patches was nowhere. No one listened to Patches, could not hear, would not hear, will not hear. Do you hear Patches? Well? DO YOU HEAR PATCHES!?”

His mind-shout was loud enough that Nafshi winced. “Of course I hear you, child. Why, I think they heard you in the next three towns.”

Patches laughed. He leaped towards Nafshi on all four legs, sideways, like a kitten. “Nafshi hears Patches, Patches hears Nafshi.” Then he repeated his sing-song voice, “I know where you’re hiding it, I know where you’re hiding it.”

“Hiding what, Patches?”

Patches stopped leaping around and looked up the stairs, listening intently. Then he crept slowly towards Nafshi’s cage. “Must be quiet,” he said in a whisper, looking up at her from below. “They don’t know. But I know. I know the glow, the glow I know, I know, I KNOW!” He finished with another shout, leaping up towards Nafshi’s cage. She jumped back instinctively, startled, both at his actions and at his words. Could it be true? Did he know where she was hiding her Magelight? She decided to distract him.

“You’re a half-breed, aren’t you?” Nafshi asked. “Poor thing. The Seekers never found you, but one of the Wild Ones did.”

Patches turned his back on her. “Seek, seek, find! Not find, not Patches, no. Roah found Patches first. Roah listened. Roah heard. Roah saved Patches from the silence. No more quiet, Quiet no more. No more quiet. NO MORE SILENCE!” His shout surprised Nafshi again.

“Patches, please stop shouting,” Nafshi said in a pained voice. “I’m an old Catmage, and your companions have not treated me very well. I’m tired and hungry and your shouts are hurting me.”

“Sorry,” Patches said, instantly remorseful. He crouched on the ground and blinked up at Nafshi. “Patches is sorry. Did not mean to hurt you. Not supposed to hurt you, just watch you. Patches will try hard not to shout at Nafshi. But it is difficult. Patches needs to be heard. Patches was not heard for so very long.” His voice was quiet and sad. Nafshi was beginning to understand why Patches was so odd.

“How old were you when Roah found you?” she asked kindly.

“One cycle. One moon. One Patches.”

“Poor thing.” He had lived in the wild, unable to communicate with anyone, for more than a year. Nafshi shuddered at the thought of being unable to speak or be spoken to for such a long time. It must have been torture. “And how old are you now?”

“Two cycles. Two moons. Still one Patches.” He leaped into the air again. Nafshi waited until he settled back down.

“Have they taught you how to use your abilities? Can you do spells? I don’t see your Magelight.”

“No light, no bright, not yet. Patches is learning. Patches is not there, Roah says. Little while more, maybe long while. Sometimes Roah is too busy for Patches. But Patches can make magic! Does Nafshi want to see?”

“Of course,” Nafshi said. “I used to be a teacher. Show me what you can do, child.”

“Watch me! Watch me!” Patches half-closed his eyes. His tail started lashing back and forth. Nafshi watched, fascinated, waiting to see if the half-breed could perform magic. He twitched his ears, glanced sideways and sniffed, then he looked up at her cage and said, “No, don’t watch! Open your head and close your eyes. If you’re really good, you’ll get a surprise!”

“Close my eyes?” Nafshi asked, bewildered.

“Close your eyes!” Patches laughed and leaped, and then settled down again.

“Why not?” she said, amused. Nafshi closed her eyes. She could hear his tail lashing from side to side. A short time passed, and then there was a thud inside her cage. “Surprise!” Patches said. “Open eyes!”

A mouse lay between her paws. Without thinking, Nafshi grabbed it by the neck and killed it before it could recover its wits and run away. Patches was leaping happily around the cellar, purring loudly.

“Patches found something nice before. He was going to eat it, but Nafshi is hungrier. Do you like it? Did Patches surprise you?” he asked.

“Yes and yes, dear boy,” Nafshi said as she began eating. “That was an excellent example of your talent. And so kind of you! I’ve been so very hungry.” She ate ravenously.

“Patches knows what it is to want things. Not right. Too thin. Should have food. Patches makes it right. Nafshi can’t tell! Don’t tell!”

“It will be our secret,” Nafshi said. She finished the mouse quickly. She was famished, and this was the first decent meal she’d had in ages. Patches chirruped happily as she ate, taking a few leaps around the cellar as she did so. When Nafshi was through, she licked her chops, yawned hugely, and washed her paws and her face. “Patches, my dear boy,” she said between licks, “How would you like me to start teaching you to be a proper Catmage?”

“Patches would like that very much!” he said, leaping happily. “Nafshi is great mage! Even Roah says so!”

“Then I will start,” she said, yawning, “after I get some rest.”

“Nafshi sleep. Patches will watch. Patches will watch quietly,” he said.

Nafshi’s eyes began to close. “Thank you, dear child. And thank you so much for the mouse,” she said, yawning once more. She grinned to herself. It looked like Patches was going to be a very, very useful friend. Then her eyelids drooped, and she fell asleep.

 

When she awakened, Patches was asleep on the floor in front of her prison. Nafshi stood, stretched, and yawned. Nafshi was about to say something to him when the sound of paws on the steps stopped her. She quickly laid back down and closed her eyes.

“Patches!” Roah said angrily. “You’re supposed to be guarding the prisoner, not napping with her!” Patches jerked awake and backed away from Roah.

“Patches did watch. Nothing happened. Watching Nafshi is boring. Patches got bored and fell asleep.”

Roah’s tail lashed back and forth. “If you cannot handle the tasks I set for you—”

“No, no, Patches can do it! Patches very sorry, will not fall asleep on watch again!”

Roah was mollified. He glanced over at Nafshi. “Don’t pretend you’re asleep, old one. I’m not stupid.”

Nafshi opened her eyes and stared insolently at Roah. “That’s debatable.”

“I haven’t the time for our usual wordplay. We have work to do upstairs. Patches,” Roah said, turning to address him, “see that she remains quiet. Our work will require all of our attention.”

“Patches will be very quiet!” he said in his usual tone, then realized his mistake. “Patches will be very quiet,” he whispered. Nafshi laughed to herself. Patches was nothing if not amusing, and she thought he was much, much more than he seemed.

Roah turned without speaking again and went back up the stairs. Patches waited until he disappeared through the door. Then he leaped over to Nafshi’s cage, his tail erect and his fur fluffed out.

“Child, there’s no reason to be angry,” she told him. “He’s gone. He won’t hear us. We’ll make sure of that.”

“Patches is not angry. Patches fluffs out his tail for fun!” he said. Once again Nafshi reflected on the strangeness of the half-breed. It wasn’t his fault, but his odd behavior was still jarring to her. She cleared those thoughts from her mind.

Patches looked up at her, looking very pleased with himself. He glanced quickly toward the door and then spoke. “Did you like how Patches spoke to Roah? Patches can be very, very secret!”

“Indeed you can, child. You did very well.”

Patches leaped around the cellar joyfully at the praise. Nafshi waited for him to come back near her cage. “Are you ready for your first lesson with me, then?” she asked.

“Yes! Yes!” he replied, leaping with each word. “Patches will learn from Nafshi!”

“Quietly. And you’ll need to be still.” Patches stopped leaping immediately, and sat down, only the tip of his tail moving.

“Patches can be still.”

“Excellent,” she said. “Now let’s begin with breathing exercises.”

“Patches knows how to breathe. Patches has been doing that all his life.” He laughed.

“That’s not what I mean,” Nafshi said irritably. “Roah may have taught you how to focus your mage abilities, but he did not give you any kind of grounding in the basics. One of the first things we teach our kittens when they enter the Teaching Rings is how to focus their concentration through breathing. Now. Be quiet and watch me.”

Nafshi spent the next hour teaching Patches the basic exercises that apprentices were taught in their first week, pleased to see that Patches picked them up quickly and easily, with almost no effort. Their work was sometimes nerve-wracking. They had to do it with half an ear to the stairs, making sure that the Wild Ones didn’t catch Nafshi instructing Patches. In spite of what Roah said about not disturbing him, neither Nafshi nor Patches trusted the Wild Ones enough to get complacent. By the end of the hour, Nafshi was exhausted. “I’m sorry, child, I can’t do any more for now,” she told the disappointed cat.

“No, not quit yet,” he said. “Please?”

“I’m sorry, Patches. I tire too easily these days. Not being fed properly for weeks will do that to you.”

“Patches can fix that!” he said, leaping around the cellar. “Wait for Patches! Be right back!” He leaped up the stairs and was gone. Nafshi reveled in the silence and closed her eyes, resting. But it was only a few minutes later that Patches returned, carrying something large and delicious-smelling in his mouth. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he put it on the ground and said, “Now watch! Patches will show you what he learned.” He closed his eyes and performed his breathing exercises perfectly. Shortly after that, the chicken leg rose off the ground and flew slowly in the air. It hovered outside Nafshi’s cage, and then, with a quick flick of his tail, the chicken leg flew through the bars of the cage.

“Eat! Eat! Chicken is good! Patches told Bett lunch was for him, but he gives it to you! Patches can get more later!” He laughed and twirled as Nafshi ate greedily.

“You’d best take the bone,” she said, pushing it out of her cage when she was finished. “If only you could get me some water,” she said. “I’m so thirsty!”

“Patches will think of a way,” he promised.

“You know, I think you will, child. Well, I’m feeling better now. Let us continue.”

Over the next few weeks, every chance they got, Nafshi taught Patches. He did manage to find a way to get her water. He found a small, light cup in one of the boxes, made of an unbreakable material. Neither of them knew the human word for plastic. After many tries, Patches finally taught himself how to move the faucet handle and get the water flowing. The first time he succeeded in pushing the faucet to full open, they were terrified and closed the faucet immediately. They were afraid that a full stream of water flowing into the sink would be overheard by the Wild Ones upstairs. Instead, Patches learned how to push the faucet handle just enough to start a small amount of water dripping into the drain. If he left the cup in the sink, there would be enough water to drink from in an hour or two, and Patches could levitate it to the cage for Nafshi. He had to tilt it next to the bars of the cage in order for her to drink, and she got soaked more often than not, but at least she had water. That had been the main reason for her weakness before Patches became her guard. The drugs made her woozy, but lack of water made her weak.

As she told him during one of their lessons, what he had learned from Roah was wild magic, unpredictable and often unusable. She was teaching him what she called “proper Catmage lessons.” Roah may have learned the proper way from his teachers, but he had since gone on to develop his own, untested methods. Nafshi’s way would allow Patches to become a true Catmage, rather than remain a Wild One.

“Patches wants to be a Catmage,” he told her again and again. “Patches should have been a Catmage by now. Seekers should have found me!” And always, when he dwelled on his miserable upbringing, he grew angry and sad in turn that he was never found by the proper Seekers. Roah had done his job well, prejudicing him against the Catmages. Nafshi had an uphill battle, but she was determined to win it. When I am through teaching Patches, she told herself, by the One Above Us All, he will be a Catmage, not a Wild One. And then—then, we shall see what we shall see. Patches would be a useful ally no matter which way things turned, of that she was certain.

WAIT, WAIT, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

If you liked what you’ve read so far, and want to continue reading, you can purchase Darkness Rising: Book One of The Catmage Chronicles from:

Amazon.com (Trade paperback and ebook)

Barnesandnoble.com (Nook edition)

Kobo.com (ebook)