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Masters and Students
It had been another one of those days, the sort that slowly but surely crushes your head in a vice of tension and conflict. A headache was pounding in my temples by the time I left the office and headed home, desperate for a tylenol and a rest on the sofa. The management back at the office had once again managed to remain oblivious to my common sense. Ah, the joys of self-delusion. They would come around eventually, I was an expert at dealing with people like that by now, but it was still a long and frustrating process sometimes...
Then it finally happened, with absolutely no warning. One minute I was driving along, the throbbing in my temples merely a dull background ache, when suddenly the pain erupted and stabbed through my brain like an icepick. Brilliant lights flared in my vision, a roaring filled my head, and I saw the steering wheel rushing up towards my face. I didn't feel it hit.
The next instant, everything was different. I screamed, thrashing wildly in a total panic with my eyes screwed tightly shut. I've never been so terrified or confused in all my life; everything felt wrong. I finally had a stroke, I thought frantically as I tried to make sense of what my body was telling me. The stress finally did me in. Blew a brain artery wide open. And I had been in a speeding car, too. Now I was probably in an intensive care ward. But stroke or no, that just didn't seem correct...
I wound up lying curled on my side, huddled against some sort of rough wall and frozen with fear. I seemed to be in a small cage of some sort rather than a conventional bed, made of wicker and sitting on the floor of a huge open room. There was the smell of burnt... something in the air, very thick but not too unpleasant. A bit like incense, though not as nice.
Something huge moved out there, and I was instantly drawn to its motion before I had a chance to think further. The shape took a moment to resolve itself in my addled brain, however; my eyes were still blurry and unfocused. It was a giant humanoid, perhaps five times my height, raising itself to its hands and knees with a deep groan and clutching its head feebly. It, or rather he from its appearance, was obviously in pain. "Gods," he mumbled, "that was terrible." I would have agreed if I could think at all; I was still too stunned for that.
Then he crawled over and looked down at me through the cage, towering twice as tall as it, and said. "Hello? Did... did it work?" How the hell should I know? I thought numbly. But at my thought, a wide smile broke over the giant's face. "It did work!" he exclaimed. "The spell still worked!"
I was starting to regain my equilibrium, and though this situation was clearly beyond my experience I decided that I should try to gain some measure of control over it. "What spell?" I tried to ask, but my throat must have been paralysed; all I could force out was a strange high-pitched moan. I reached out to grab the wicker-like bars of my cage.
The hand I reached out with wasn't a hand. It was a fur- covered paw with stumpy digits that barely separated as I splayed them, claws curving out from their tips. Breathing faster as panic again started to swell, I looked down at myself; more fur, more unfamiliar body shapes. I didn't look at all human, and it sure didn't feel like something I was wearing. So I did a most understandable thing, considering the circumstances; I screamed my head off. So much for regaining my equilibrium.
"Hey, hey! What's wrong!?" The giant man exclaimed.
I crouched on the cage floor, clawed fingers and toes clutching the wicker tightly as I looked up at him. What's wrong? I thought wildly, stifling my high-pitched yowling. Are you blind? What the hell's happened to me!?
"You don't know?" he asked in surprise.
I, too, was surprised; geeze, can you read my thoughts or something? I wondered.
"Yes," the man responded. "That's the way it's supposed to work."
I closed my eyes and forced my breathing to slow. Okay, I tried to take stock. So you can read my thoughts.
"Yes, I can," the man confirmed, as gently as someone fifty feet tall could make himself sound.
Alright. I took a deep mental breath. Then who are you, and what the hell have you done to me!?
"Something... something's gone wrong after all, hasn't it?" The man asked cautiously. "You really don't know what happened, do you?" I snorted derisively, and he got the picture. "Okay, uh, then where are you from? What are you?"
What am I? I have no idea, you idiot! I looked down at myself and pawed at my body with my "hands". I look like an animal or something!
"No, I mean before you answered my summons." The man seemed genuinely concerned, though at this point I was too upset to let that affect my mood.
I was human, I thought. My name is Jeffery Gilbert. I was driving home from work, when bang! My head felt like it exploded. And here I was. Now, where is here? What happened?
"I think..." the man paused, uncertain. "I think I screwed up the spell after all. I don't suppose you know what plane of existence you come from?"
Uhhh... no. The planet's called Earth, though. Are you trying to tell me I'm on some sort of alternate plane of existence? At this point, I was willing to believe almost anything.
The man sighed and put his head in his hands. "You're not a spirit, then, from the ethereal plane?" I shook my head. "Hoo, boy." I waited for him to continue, and eventually he did. "Okay, then. You're an alternate material plane denizen, I guess, right?" I tried to shrug, but my narrow shoulders apparently didn't work that way. He seemed to get the message, thought. "All right. I owe you a big explanation, then."
"I'm Kellor Gazin, a magic-user." He began. "I just finished an apprenticeship, in fact. And I was trying to summon a Familiar spirit. But something went wrong, it all blew up in my face just as I was casting the spell. It looks like the spell worked, but snagged the wrong spirit. Oh gods, what will I do now?"
How about sending me back, for starters?
Kellor looked up. "I have no idea how," he said quietly.
Swell. Then let me out of this cage, and start telling me exactly what you did to me. What am I? I had developed a pretty good idea just from looking down at myself, but I wanted confirmation. I'd never had to determine my species from the inside before.
"You're a cat," Kellor said. "A nice big tabby, the best I could buy. I had originally thought maybe a raven, but..." I stopped paying attention to him as I crawled out of the cage. I was walking on all fours, and it felt natural; I could tell it would be a struggle to stand on only two. I looked back at myself, noting my fur and flicking my tail experimentally. My god, I really was a cat! No wonder everything looked huge. I tried to speak out loud, but all I could produce was a sort of mumbled meow.
This is no good, I thought at Kellor accusingly. Look at this! I can't be more than a foot or so tall down here!
"I, uh... I'm sorry," Kellor apologized. "It's traditional to use small host forms for familiars, I guess it's supposed to be more convenient..."
I sat down and sighed, shaking my head and trying to rub the bridge of my nose with a forepaw. Assuming I wasn't simply having a coma-induced nightmare I had just been thrust into an alien universe and an alien body, and yet I could still tell right off the bat that this supposed "wizard" knew less about what was going on than I did. At least my headache was gone and I could think straight, ignoring the rest of my senses for the moment.
Start at the beginning, I told him patiently. Tell me exactly what you were trying to do, and where you think you went wrong. Perhaps even without personal knowledge of magic I could help him get me back in my proper body...
"Familiar spirits are summoned from the ethereal plane," Kellor explained carefully, as if reciting a lesson memorized from a book. "The spell should have presented a request for service; familiar spirits usually want to visit the material plane. I don't know why it was different in your case, just like everything else it must have gone wrong. Anyway, the familiar enters the shell of a small animal prepared by the summoner, and is bound to the summoner. We're linked; that's why I can understand your thoughts. Normally, the familiar boosts my spellcasting power through the link, and comes with arcane knowledge and experience to teach its master, but..."
Yeah, I'm substandard in the arcane knowledge department. And can the 'master' bit, too; I'm not here for that.
"Sorry, Jeffery. Standard terminology." Kellor stroked his chin, thinking. "Let's see, now. There're other aspects of the spell beyond those, but they're sort of secondary; I'm supposed to get boosted special abilities from you, and you get boosted special abilities from me. The link shares our health; we're each harder to hurt than average because of that. But if you get killed I take a blow, and if I get killed, you die too."
Woah, waitaminute! That's not fair.
You don't die if I get killed, but it doesn't work the other way around?
"I don't know, I think it must be because ethereal spirits just return to their home plane instead of discorporating... hey, now there's an idea!"
It took a moment for me to realize what that idea was, and quite reflexively my back arched and my fur stood on end. An odd sensation, that. No. You are not going to kill me in an attempt to send me home, I told him, punctuated with a very feline hiss. Kellor actually took a step back, to my gratification.
"Sorry," he apologized again. "But wait a minute. I know you're not the right type of spirit, but the spell might bounce you back anyways if our link gets severed. You could plop straight back into your original body, or something."
Even if Kellor's wild guessing hadn't been enough to put me off of his plan, a fact occurred to me that would seem to kill the idea once and for all. My ears flattened against my skull as I realized it, another new sensation I didn't have time to pay much attention to at the moment. Kellor... when I left it, my original body was doing fifty miles an hour down the expressway. Nobody's been piloting it since I got here. Does time run at the same rates in other dimensions?
Right. It looks like I might not have a usable body back home to plop back into.
Kellor looked down at his feet and scuffed them guiltily. "I'm sorry I killed you, Jeffery. I didn't mean to, I did everything by the book..."
I sighed and rubbed the back of my paw over my face. It seemed that even in other dimensions the irresponsible and ignorant were always the ones to wind up with the most power. Now it looked like I might be stuck in the role of this idiot wizard's familiar for the foreseeable future...
I grinned, an expression my pointed teeth were well suited for. Not necessarily an idiot, perhaps, just young... Okay Kellor, I began after a long pause to collect my thoughts, it looks like you'll have a familiar for a while after all. Yeah, I've got sod-all arcane knowledge, but you've apparently leapt ahead with too much of that already right now. But I do have a little life experience, something you seem to be lacking. Fresh out of apprenticeship, you say?
Kellor nodded unhappily. "Yeah."
Then you must have been apprenticed to someone, someone who I assume knows more about how to fix this mess we're in than you do...
Nichodemus, Kellor's old master, answered the door promptly when Kellor knocked. Unfortunately, just as promptly, he began to snicker. "Ah, Kellor. Back already for help with your exercises? I thought you'd finally decided to strike out on your own."
From my inconspicuous location at Kellor's heels I couldn't see his expression-- frankly, trying to look people in the eye from ground level still gave me vertigo-- but I could have felt him tense up with resentment and shame from a mile away. Actually, my new familiar wants to talk with you, I mentally prompted him, and Kellor snapped out of it to repeat my words.
"Your familiar, eh?" the elderly man said with some surprise, glancing around suspiciously. I stepped out from behind Kellor's legs, returning his stare self-consciously. I don't think I'd ever get used to being this small, though hopefully I wouldn't have to...
Nichodemus took one look at me and then scowled fiercely. "You tried to summon a familiar? That spell was too advanced for you, boy! Why do you think I forbade it while you were still my apprentice?"
"I know, I know," Kellor interrupted meekly. "I screwed it up. My familiar spirit didn't come from the etheric, it came from someplace called Earth. He didn't want to come, he wants to go home. Can you help him?"
"Bah!" Nichodemus waved his hand dismissively. "You screwed it up, you fix it. I'm not your keeper any more." He closed the door on us again, and I emitted a small yowl of dismay.
"Wait! I'm not asking this for me! It's for him!" Kellor cried. "I'll do whatever it takes to set things right!" There was no answer, and after a minute's silence stretched out Kellor sagged slightly in defeat. "I'm sorry, Jeffery. If only he hadn't had to save my own hide so many times, maybe he'd have been willing to help you..." he was interrupted when the door opened again, just a crack.
"Oh, come on in," Nichodemus snapped testily. "Let's talk with this cat of yours."
Kellor immediately swelled with gratitude, but I managed to interject my thoughts before he made a fool of himself; just go inside and save the thanks for later, Kellor. You want him to respect you, right? Kellor nodded and managed to rein himself in before he went overboard. I followed him inside, paying close attention to my tail so that it wouldn't get caught in the door. Very painful, as I had so recently learned on the way out of Kellor's small apartment.
The room though Nichodemus' front door was a densely cluttered magic shop, its walls covered with shelves filled with jars packed with herbs. Nichodemus sat down at a small round table off to one side, motioning for Kellor to sit across from him. After taking a moment to gather my nerve, I leapt up onto Kellor's lap and peered out over the tabletop as well. It wasn't a particularly spectacular jump for a cat, but I was still new to this...
"So you scooped the wrong dimension," Nichodemus began. "Why am I not surprised. Are you from a prime material plane?"
The last was directed at me, and my ears flicked back for a moment as I struggled to think of a reply. I am, right? I asked Kellor. He nodded, and I gave Nichodemus a satisfied look. He harrumphed.
"Well, assuming he has a body to return to, it should be fairly easy to send him back. I'm surprised even you didn't figure it out, Kellor."
"Uh... Jeffery tells me he left his body on the verge of certain death, sir."
"Ah." Nichodemus again glanced in my direction, and I nodded in solemn confirmation. "Well, that's a fine mess you've sucked him into, then. Prime material spirits need a physical host, and all he's got now is a cat!"
A quick prick of my claws in his thigh to nudge him on, and Kellor continued with his request for help. "I know, sir. I was wondering if you had any ideas where I could get him a new one."
"And well you should," Nichodemus replied. "You owe him." He sat back in his chair for a moment, lost in thought. "I could just swap the two of you, you know," Nichodemus mused at last. "Give Jeffery here your body, and you his. The summoning spell has safeguards against just that sort of thing happening, but I'm sure you messed those up with the rest of it."
Kellor winced and glanced at the door for an instant, reflexively thinking of escape. Then a defeated expression came over him. "I suppose it'd be fair justice," he sighed. "I'd probably make a more successful cat than I do a wizard anyways..."
"I'll need leola root. Wait here, I've got some in back." Nichodemus stood up, a hint of concealed sadness showing through his crotchety exterior.
I was stunned for a moment, not quite believing that they were serious about giving me Kellor's body. Then, once I had recovered, I leapt onto the table with a sharp meow to catch everybody's attention again. It worked, Nichodemus hesitated and Kellor literally jumped in surprise. Though my accidentally unsheathed claws may have also played some role in the latter reaction...
"What is it, Jeffery?" Kellor asked nervously.
I don't want your body, I told him, slightly embarrassed by the turn of phrase.
Any possible insult Kellor might have perceived from my refusal was indistinguishable under the immense wave of relief that almost made his knees buckle. "He says he doesn't want my body," he told Nichodemus.
Nichodemus looked at me, puzzled. "Why not? It could be said you have a right to it, since Kellor here lost you your old one. And since I'm the one saying it, that's the way it goes."
Kellor, you took me away from my entire life. But I don't want it back at the expense of yours. I glanced at Nichodemus. That old wizard may have taught you a few magic tricks, but he apparently missed the reality training for when you had to go out on your own. Or something, I don't know much about your apprenticeship system here. Whatever the case, tell him that if he can't send me back outright right now, I'm willing to stay for a while. And to keep an eye on you, give you a voice of experience next time you think of pulling something like this.
Kellor repeated my words, and Nichodemus frowned at me. "You want to be his mentor? Do you know anything about magic?"
I shook my head. No idea. But I do know how to deal with power in the hands of the inexperienced. I lived with it all the time, back where I came from.
"You'd be my familiar after all?" Kellor asked, astonished.
Yeah, I guess I will I thought, as much to myself as to Kellor. But none of that 'master' stuff, though, I addressed him directly. I'm not going to be a talking pet.
Kellor was shaking his head earnestly. "Oh, of course not, I wouldn't dream of it. We'll be partners, fifty-fifty."
"I take it you've reached an accommodation," Nichodemus observed dryly. Then he again addressed me directly. "You realize, of course, that I'm not going to be able to 'magic up' a new human body for you any time soon. If ever. And even if I did, sending you home would be an awesome challenge. You're willing to stick with Kellor in the long term?"
I nodded solemnly. Kellor seemed like a decent sort, and not terribly assertive; I was sure I'd be able to keep him in line. And as for remaining in this world, in the body of a cat... well, I could think of far worse extended vacations. In my brief time like this so far, I had found that felines were amazingly competent at relaxing...
Nichodemus smiled. "Then perhaps there's hope for you yet, Boy," he told Kellor. "And I can finally be rid of you without worrying about you so much. Listen to your familiar, even though he doesn't know any arcane secrets I'm sure he'll guide you well. Now shoo! Didn't you want to strike out on your own to make a name for yourself or something? I've got a shop to tend!"
Kellor grinned and turned to leave, and I jumped off the table to follow.