Nan let me out of the room about an hour later. She didn’t know what was wrong with Kathleen, but I could tell she was worried by the way she smelled and the way she constantly went to check up on her.
“What did he do? to her?” she said once when she was feeding me. “That- that man. I hope she’s alright.”
Sometime after dinner, Achleneck left his study. “Nan,” he said, getting his coat. “I’m going out. I’ll be back when I feel like it. Don’t go into the study, and catch that pigeon while I’m out.”
He left before she could say anything. She grumbled under her breath and loaded the dishwasher. “How does he expect me to catch the bird without a net?”
I ran to the livingroom window- the one lower down, and watched him pull his car out of the driveway. Then, once he was well and truly gone, I ran to Kathleen's room and pawed madly at the door.
"Let me in!" I yowled. The door opened immediately.
"Sasky," she said, rubbing her eyes sleepily. "What's wrong?"
I wove between her ankles and meowed urgently until I was certain I had her attention. Then I ran down the hall. At first, I was afraid she wouldn't follow me; humans can be so thick about that sort of thing. But Kathleen was cleverer than I gave her credit for and appeared in the hall a moment later. I led her down to her grandfather's laboratory and scratched at the closed door, indicating where we should go next.
"Saskia," she said. "We can't go in there. He'll get mad."
She was afraid. I could smell it on her. But Gerald and Marion were still down there. I kept at it. I was relentless and soon curiosity got the best of her. She opened the door and I darted inside to the crate where Gerald and Marion were being held.
"We can't be down here, Saskia," she said, keeping well away from the circle on the ground. "He's going to get- what is that?" She went to the crate and looked inside. Gerald and Marion looked groggily back at her. "Oh. Hello."
"My head," Marion groaned. "What hit us?"
They both tried to stand and couldn't manage. Tentatively, Kathleen put her hand inside the crate. She whispered soothing things and waited for Marion and Gerald to sniff or scratch her. They didn't, though Gerald, groggy as he was, thought she wanted a handshake and put his paw on top of her hand.
"Charmed," he said. Kathleen's eyes went saucer-wide, though Gerald didn't seem to notice. He squinted at me. "Nora? 'Zat you?"
Kathleen squealed and pulled her hand away. “You can talk!”
“Yes,” said Gerald, still groggy. “So can you.”
“But you’re a cat!”
“No I’m not.” He blinked. “Nora?” he said, looking at me. Then he looked confusedly at Marion, and his eyes went wide. “Oh, damn! Marion! He-“
“I know,” she said.
“You’re a cat,” said Kathleen. Why can you talk?”
“We’re not cats,” said Marion, but Kathleen ignored her. It became clear that she could only understand Gerald, which, in my opinion, was highly unfair. I made sure to tell him.
“Why can she understand you and not me?” I said.
“I don’t know. I guess it makes a weird kind of sense. Normally I’m a human who can talk to cats- I guess it fits that I’d be a cat that can talk to humans.”
“You’re a cat,” said Kathleen again.
“We’ve established that,” said Marion dryly.
“The man, Mr. Achleneck, turned Marion and I both into cats. We’ve been stuck in this crate for- what time is it?”
“Eight,” said Kathleen.
“Several hours. Damn.”
He and Marion wobbled their way out of the crate and went around the room, stretching their legs.
“My mother,” said Marion. “We have to go tell her. She might be able to help us.”
“At the very least she might know why he’s doing this. He mentioned your family. You, girl! What’s your name?”
“Kathleen,” said Kathleen.
“I’m Gerald. Can you please let us out of here? We need to go find her mother and see if she can help us.”
Kathleen was in no mood to argue. She helped them both up the steps and out the door. The second we stepped out of the lab, Marion and Gerald’s ears flicked up, alert.
"What's that noise?" said Marion. She and Gerald looked around, their ears swiveling around to hear better.
"What noise?" I said.
"The screaming!" said Marion. "It sounds like a woman is screaming. Gerald, ask Kathleen if she can hear it."
"She can't," I said. "That's the ghost. I guess I've tuned her out. She's on that pigeon." I flicked my tail irritated. "I told you about the noisy ghost, Gerald."
"And I'm sorry I didn't listen," he said. “Kathleen, can you hear the screaming?”
“I just told you she can’t.” Why did nobody listen to me?
“No,” said Kathleen, looking confused. “Who’s screaming?”
“A ghost trapped on a pigeon,” he said. “She’s screaming.”
“Arnulf? Really? There’s a ghost on him?”
“Yes,” I said, starting to feel very offput. “A loud one who hasn’t shut up for the past week, it feels like.”
“Kathleen,” said Gerald. “Where did the pigeon come from? Where is it now? Can we please see it?”
“He’s in the livingroom, still. Up by the high window. He won’t come down. Saskia knocked over his cage and he got out.”
“I was trying to let him out. I wanted him and her gone.”
They ignored me and went to the livingroom to see the pigeon. I followed because I stupidly held on to the hope that eventually they’d see sense and start listening to me.
“Oh,” said Marion pityingly. “Poor thing.”
“Who?" I said. The pigeon or the ghost?”
“Both. Can we do something to help it?”
“'Fraid not,” said Gerald. They either need to finish their business or the pigeon has to get killed before the ghost can be freed. Kathleen, you never answered me, where did the pigeon come from?”
“My grandfather bought it,” she said. “He said he needed it for his work, but I could keep him after.”
“Her,” I said. “The pigeon is a girl.”
Gerald didn’t translate for me and instead looked as worried as a cat could. His tail twitched agitatedly. “I don’t like this,” he said. “Pigeons are a staple in sacrificial city magic, and the spirits they carry are a huge source of power. I don’t like the idea of Achleneck being interested in them. Come on, we need to get to the bottom of this.”
"What do we do?" I said.
"We need to get to Mother," Marion said. "This has all been about some trinket she has. We have to warn her that Achleneck may come after her next."
"Right," said Gerald. He translated what Marion had said to Kathleen, and then translated the address. “Do you have a way for us to get there?” he finished. “It would be a long walk this late.”
"I can take you," said Kathleen, "But Sasky's not going to like it."
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, Kathleen, Gerald, Marion, and I were on Kathleen's bike. Marion and I were stuffed snugly together in the basket on the handlebars, while Gerald was tucked away inside Kathleen's open backpack, explaining everything he knew about Achleneck and Marion and me along the way. Kathleen was pedaling frantically, trying to make it up the large hill before Marion's neighborhood.
She was right; I didn’t like it. But I had to make do. It was obvious that they needed me to explain what was happening to them, even if they ignored my explaining the first time around.
Kathleen parked the bike just before the porch and went up to the door, Gerald on her shoulders, Marion in her arms, and me at her ankles. She knocked on the door and it opened immediately. Mother frantically stuck her head out. “Marion?” She looked and saw Kathleen and us and her face dropped.
“Oh,” she said. “Hello, dear. What can I-“
“Mother!” Marion flung herself from Kathleen into Mother’s arms. Mother caught her expertly, and Marion began nuzzling and purring.
When Kathleen spoke, it was all in one hurried burst, like she was afraid Mother would shut the door on here. “Mrs. Sift, my name’s Kathleen and I found a box of cats in my grandfather’s study and one of them could talk and he said that they’re actually not cats but people my grandfather turned into cats and that one is your daughter Marion and my cat is also your cat and my grandfather is probably home by now and knows what I did and can I please have a glass of water because that last hill was a killer?”
“Hello,” said Gerald, in case Mother didn’t believe her. “I can talk.”
Mother didn’t hesitate. “Come inside and I’ll get you a glass.”
We all went inside.
Kathleen got her water first, and after that, Mother said, “Now, tell me again. What’s happened?”
So the whole story as we knew it came out, with Gerald translating for Marion and I, and Kathleen piping up with what little she knew.
"He wants a ring," Marion said through Gerald. "I told him I didn't have the faintest idea of what he was talking about, and he said of course I must've known and turned me into a cat when I insisted otherwise. He said he was going to use me as a hostage, but I escaped out the window when his secretary came in. Mother, what was he talking about?"
"Ring? Blast if I know. I have an entire jewelry box here! If he wanted it then he should have robbed us like a sane person.”
“Is there any way to get you back to normal?” Kathleen said. “You’re a wizard, aren’t you, Gerald? Can’t you do something?”
“Not like this I can’t.” His tail flicked irritatedly. “I’m useless.”
“Well then that’s the first order of business,” said mother, “is getting you two back to being human. You wouldn’t happen to know how to go about doing that, would you young man?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Gerald. “I don’t even know how he did it, to be honest. If I had the base spell to work with, but now? No.”
“Damn,” said Mother. “What can we do?”
“We’d need to get Achleneck to undo the spell. Or at least find out how he did it to begin with. Then I could manage something. . .”
“So that’s what we’ll do,” Mother said matter of factly. “Kathleen, you have thumbs. First thing tomorrow morning, you help me pack all my jewelry up and we’ll go see what exactly your Mr. Achleneck wants.”
“Mother?” Marion mewed.
“You can’t think I’d value some old pieces of jewelry over you!” She hugged Marion a little tighter.
"Kathleen," said Gerald. "I want to thank you. You took a big risk coming here and helping us."
"Yes," Marion said. "Thank you so much!"
"I'll make up the spare room," said Mother. She got creakily to her feet and went to the hall closet. "How many blankets do you want, dear?"
"I'm staying?" said Kathleen, surprised.
"While I won't tell you that you have no say in the matter- as that would be kidnapping and very wrong- I will remind you that you have probably just made a necromancer very very angry. From what I gather, this Achleneck character doesn’t seem like the sort of person you want mad at you. I don’t know how close you two are-“
“We’re not,” Kathleen said miserably. “I’ve tried, but I don’t think he likes me-“
“That’s because he’s going to steal your life,” I said. I casually started cleaning my face. “That’s what he’s been after, by the way. He wants extra lives so he can live forever. Though I don’t know how this ring business plays into it.” I looked at Gerald. “I told you this. How he tried to take a life off me.”
“Did so. Back when you were fiddling with that television for Mrs. Leary.”
Gerald shot me an exasperated look. “Nora, you’ve got to stop telling me important things when I’m working.”
“Shame on you, young man!” Mother said, returning with an armful of blankets. “If a cat takes the time out to tell you something, you listen.”
“So you can understand me!” I said.
Mother looked at Gerald. “She just asked if I could understand her, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Gerald. “Can you?”
“I’m afraid not. Not really. My sister Margaret was the witchy one in the family. I just know cats. What did she say?”
So he explained about Achleneck trying to steal Kathleen’s life, then I reminded him how Achleneck was going to steal my lives, and he told her that too. It all seemed to come down to Achleneck wanting more lives than he should, as well and wanting some ring of mother’s.
“And that still doesn’t explain that ghost,” said Marion. “He must know it’s there. No way a man like him just happens to get a pigeon with a ghost on it like that.”
“I think maybe the demons needed it,” Kathleen said. She was so quiet; I was surprised Gerald heard her.
“Demons? What demons?”
She turned beet red. “He used me to- to make a call earlier. I don’t remember much, but they were really excited about the pigeon. I didn’t know why at the time, but if it has somebody’s soul stuck on it, then. . .
“So we need that pigeon,” said Gerald.
“It can wait until tomorrow,” said Mother. “You’ve all been through a lot, and the girl looks like she’s about to fall asleep on her feet. Kathleen can have the guest bedroom, and you can take the couch. It folds out to be bed.”
I could tell he wanted to argue, but wizard or no, there’s no arguing with Mother when she’s got her mind made up. Besides, I think he just remembered that his car was still parked back at Achleneck’s office building, and it was pitch black outside.
“Alright then, tomorrow.”
“Excellent. Come on, Kathleen, I’ll show you your room. Then I’ll help Mr. Nolwake with the couch.”
“Don’t bother,” said Gerald, a little bitterly. “I'm a cat, aren't I? I can sleep on it as is."
They all set about for night time preparations, exiling Ranger, boots, and I to the spot in front of the fireplace.
“Hey,” said Boots. “Long time no see. It’s been what- two days?”
“Feels longer,” said Ranger. “What’s all the fuss with them?”
“Those are my other humans,” I said. “Someone’s out to get Marion, and the other ones got caught up in it.”
“Hurt Marion!” said Boots. “Who would want to do that?”
"The girl’s grandfather. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. Not really.”
“Do you need any help?” said Boots.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “It feels like there’s something we’re missing. We need someone who knows what’s going on, but the only person who does is the person responsible for this.”
“Huh.” said Ranger. “I think I have an idea. Be back later.” He got up, stretched, and then went to the kitchen and out the cat door there.
“What do you recommend?” I said to Boots, figuring he might have some good advice.
He yawned and started licking himself. “Sleeping. That Kathy girl knows how to pet really well. I call her tonight.”
“Go ahead,” I said. “Just stay away from Gerald.”
And with that we went our separate ways. Gerald and Marion were talking on the couch and I didn’t feel like waiting for them to finish, so I went to sleep with Mother instead.
* * * * *
Mother is one of those people who cooks when she's stressed. The next morning, the kitchen table was piled high with bacon, eggs, french toast, pancakes, grits, sausage, hashed browns, and three different kinds of jam. Kathleen's eyes went wide as saucers when she saw it all. She and mother sat on chairs while Marion and Gerald sat on the table. After some whining, the Cats Boots and Ranger each got their own plate.
"Why not?" said Mother. "It's not as though we'll run out."
I leapt onto the table.
"Nora," Gerald said, disapprovingly, "you shouldn't be on the-"
"Well you are." And he had no response to that. I got my own plate.
"This is amazing," Kathleen said through a mouthful of pancake. "We never eat like this at home. Nan doesn't cook."
Gerald crept across the table to thee carafe of coffee. "Mind pouring me a drink, Kathleen?"
"Oh no you don't." Mother lifted the carafe and placed it on the counter behind her. "I don't care if you're normally a human; you're a cat now and that means no caffeine."
Gerald grumbled and flicked his tail irritably, but retreated back to his plate. Halfway through breakfast, Ranger returned. Even before he came in through the flap, all of us, save for Kathleen and Boots, who were too busy concentrating on the food to notice, were looking at the door. From outside, we heard,
"Let me down you overgrown sack of worm meat! Let me down! I'll hex the whole damn house, I'll curse your kittens for generations to come unless you let me down!"
Ranger sauntered in through the catflap, looking mighty proud of himself. In his mouth was the pixie from earlier. Ranger had him by the middle, with his jaws clamped firmly around the belly and the pixies' wings immobile.
"Is that what I think it is?" said Marion,
“I know that pixie!” I said. “That’s the one that was spying on Marion.”
" What?" said Marion and Gerald at the same time.
Ranger spat the pixie out, but pinned its wings before it could fly away. "I figured he might know something," Ranger said. "He's been hanging around the house for the past few days."
"I don't know nothin' about nothin'!"
Everyone gathered around the pixie. "Is it true? Were you spying on me?” said Marion. “Do you work for Achleneck?"
"I ain't sayin' nothin'."
Gerald growled. "Is that because you're contractually obligated not to, or because you want to be disagreeable?"
"Neither, it's both."
"You know what the man Achleneck is up to?"
"I'm not sayin' that." But it did nod its head.
"Would you be willing to help us?"
"Can't say that I want to." It nodded vigorously.
"Because you literally cannot say."
It grinned. "You're sharp."
"Help us," said Gerald.
"No can do," said the pixie. "He's got my contract. If I disobey, I'll get turned into a steaming pile of mush."
"I can break any hold he has over you," said Gerald. "Get me my opposable thumbs again and I guarantee you won't have anything to worry about."
"How can we be turned into humans again?" said Marion.
The pixie glowered at her. "I can't say. Ask better questions."
"Is it in his study?" said Kathleen. "The cure or counterspell?"
The pixie thought about this for a second. "I'm not saying it's not." It shook Its head.
"That's where he always has his things," said Kathleen. "If it's not there, then he has it with him, or it's in the lab."
"I'm not saying it's in the lab! I am most certainly not saying that at all."
"Well there we have it. Come on," said Mother. "What are we waiting for?"
"Do you expect to just go in there and ask him to turn us back?" said Marion. "He'd just turn you into a cat as well!"
"You're probably right," Mother said once Gerald translated. "We'll have to do it sneakily, then. Get you two turned back, then deal with him."
"Oh I'll deal with him all right." Gerald's tail flicked back and forth angrily. I imagined that whatever Gerald intended to do to Achleneck, it would probably be worse than being shape shifted into a cat.
"Kathleen,” he said. “Would you be willing to help us? I know we’re asking a great deal of you-“
Mother was appalled. “You can’t seriously be asking a little girl to risk-“
“I am asking because either we’re stuck as cats and Achleneck does to that pigeon whatever it is that will make some demons happy- which is bad no matter how you look at it- or we’re not stuck as cats, and either way she still has to deal with her grandfather, and if Nora’s right about him stealing lives-“
“If?” I said, indignant.
“I’ll help,” Kathleen said. She was looking pale and nervous, so I went over to her and purred at her until she picked me up.
“Thank you,” said Gerald. To the pixie he said, “And you?”
“I’m not saying anything.” It gave a little thumbs up.
“Make him promise!” I said. “They’re useless unless they promise!”
“You promise not to turn us in to Achleneck?” said Marion.
It crossed its heart. “I promise.”
“Good,” said Mother. “Everyone have enough to eat?” She looked meaningfully at Kathleen.
“Then let’s go.”
And so Mother and Kathleen locked up the house and we all went out to the car. Despite Marion and Gerald telling her how useless it was, Mother still brought along her jewelry box in case they would have to deal with Achleneck upfront after all. Mother left the back door of the car open for us to get in while she went and unlocked the front for Kathleen. When she came back, she found Marion, Gerald, the pixie and I, as well as Cat Boots and Cat Ranger.
"What are they doing here?"
"They wanted to come too," said the pixie.
"What? Why- oh fine. But tell them not to make a mess." Then she closed up, got in, and we were off.
Gerald and Marion sat together and I sidled between them. While they were both my humans, Gerald had been mine for longer, so even if he was still cat-shaped, I had to make sure Marion didn't get any wrong ideas.
Cat Boots sat languidly while Cat Ranger ran across the back seat, looking excitedly out the windows and slashing his tail through the air.
"Look at all that stuff!" he said.
"So what?" I said, feeling the car sickness creeping in. "You see it all the time."
"Yeah, but now it's moving fast!"
Kathleen was nervous going back home, but she put up a brave front.
“So,” said Gerald. “You said he was your grandfather? Have you been staying with him long?”
“I didn’t even know he existed until a couple months ago. I’d been living with my grandmother, but she died and then I was living in foster care for a few years. Then a few months ago they called me into an office at the home and said they finally found some relation of mine and sent me to live here."
Gerald and Marion exchanged looks that I couldn’t decipher (since cat faces are particularly good at indecipherable looks), and neither of them said anything for the rest of the trip.
* * * * *
We reached the house a little later after, and there was some argument when we finally arrived.
"Is he here?" said Marion, looking out her window.
"I don't see his car," said Kathleen.
"Good!" said Gerald. "Let's just run in, nab the cure, and run out."
"Who?" said Mother. "Not Kathleen. Who knows what might happen to her if he gets home."
"Then I'll do it!" He looked at the pixie. "You'll help?"
"I ain't saying-"
"I'll go too," said Marion.
"No," Mother and Gerald said simultaneously.
"Why not? I'm just as capable as he is in this state-"
"I want to help!" chirped Kathleen. "You'll need opposable thumbs-"
"Which is why I'll go," said Mother.
"No!" said Marion and Gerald together.
And so on. It was dreadfully loud and boring, so I pressed on the button to make the window go down and jumped out. Ranger and Boots followed suit.
"We want to see what happens," Boots said. "They're our humans too, after all. We've got to keep an eye on them." And I couldn't fault them their reasoning, because that was exactly the reason why I was there. That and because I was certain things would fall apart without me.
A minute or so later, all of them got out of the car, and none of them except Kathleen looked happy about it. Mother carried her jewelry box, "Just in case we wind up needing to bargain."
"Why is Kathleen coming?" I asked while the girl unlocked the front door.
"Because she has the key," Gerald grumbled. And our entourage trickled inside.
Someone was home and vacuuming upstairs. "It's Nan," Kathleen said. "Keep quiet and maybe she won't notice us."
"Kathleen," said Mother quietly, "where is this pigeon at? No offense to you two, but I think someone's immortal soul may trump temporarily being a cat."
"Agreed," said Marion immediately. Gerald said nothing, but his ears flicked and I could tell he didn't altogether agree, but at the same time wasn't going to argue.
"Over here," said Kathleen, leading the way. The pigeon was exactly where she'd been the day before. The humans in the group began talking about ways to bring the pigeon down. I stopped listening to them and went closer to the wall.
"Hey, Pigeon!" I said.
She peered over the ledge. "Hello."
"How are you doing up there?"
She ruffled her feathers. "I'm hungry. But I can't go down. The man smells bad."
"I agree completely. But it's alright, now. He's not home, and the people here want to help you."
Boots and Ranger trotted over and sat beside me. "Ooh, a pigeon," said Boots. "Need help getting it down?"
"Not yet," I said.
"Who are they?" said the pigeon.
"Nobody. They're fine. They want to help too."
And since I had called them nobody, and since cats are by nature disagreeable creatures, the two of them started yawning and stretching, showing off their teeth and claws.
"Kathleen? Kathleen is that you?" The vacuum upstairs shut off.
"Oh no," said Kathleen.
Nan came bustling down the stairs. "Your grandfather was looking for you this morning." She slowed. “Oh. Hello,” she said to Mother. “And you are. . .?”
“I’m a friend of Mr. Achleneck. He invited me over today- we were supposed to have brunch together. But it appears he may have forgotten our engagement; I didn’t see his car outside.”
“Oh, no,” said Nan uncertainly. “He left a while ago. But he should be back soon, if you’re willing to wait.” She looked at the cats surrounding Mother. “And why, may I ask, did you bring all these cats? Why aren’t they in carriers?”
“Oh for the love of-“ Gerald trotted forward. “Why are we lying to the woman? Miss, your boss turned two of us into cats. The other two came because they were bored. Will you help us look for the counterspell?”
"I don't believe it," she said.
"Fine, don't. I'm lying to you."
Marion was the closest to Gerald. She batted his head and he said, "Fine! Sorry. It's the cat rubbing off."
Her eyes were wide. "Kathleen. . ."
"Nan, it's true. He turned them into cats and he wants to do something horrible. We've got to get the pigeon out of here, and then we've got to find the cure. The pixie will help."
"I'm not saying-"
"That's his way of saying he'll help."
Nan looked at us all, then looked up towards the window. "Uh-huh. And what are you doing with the pigeon?"
"There's someone's soul on it," Kathleen said. "He's going to sacrifice it."
"That's crazy talk," Nan said. But she looked unsure.
"You know he talks to demons," said Mother.
"I don't judge my employers-"
"He used me to talk to them yesterday. I know why he wants the pigeon, and he's going to give them the soul stuck to it!"
Nan looked pale. "Right, then." She twirled the broom and carried it so it rested on her shoulder. "We just lose the pigeon, then. Open all the windows."
"Doreen!" shrieked the ghost. Damn. I had been hoping it would keep quiet. "Doreen!"
Mother looked up sharply. "What was that?"
"You can hear it?" said Gerald.
"It's the spirit," said Marion.
"Hear what?" said Nan. "I don't hear anything."
"Why is the ghost shouting my name?" She started waving at the pigeon, trying futiley to shoo it down. "Get down here!"
"Pigeon, do as she says." The spirit was wailing louder than I'd ever heard it. "I think your ghost wants to come down."
The pigeon was still obviously uncertain, but the ghost was determined. The pigeon jerked, like she was having trouble holding on to the spirit.
"No!" she said.
"This won't get us changed back to human," said Gerald. "I want to get that done now if possible. I can handle everything after that."
"Are you sure?" said Marion. "Last time you ran up against him, he turned you into a cat."
Gerald's ears flicked, and he started cleaning his face. Normally it's hard to tell when a cat is embarrassed, but Gerald was still too human on the inside to hide it. "He got the drop on me, last time. I'm sure I can handle him."
"He's probably got the spells in his lab," said Kathleen. "I'll go look in his lab before-"
"Before what?" Achleneck, appeared in the doorway. "Before I get home? Katherine, I am so disappointed. Snooping is unbecoming in a young lady." His eyes scanned the room, taking in the cluster of cats and the expressions on Nan's, Kathleen's, and Mother's faces. He paused when he saw Mother.
I would have paused, too. She had on her a look I'd never seen her wear before: total and utter detestation. She burned with the smell of hatred. So strong was this feeling she gave off that Gerald, Marion, and all the rest were speechless. Even Achleneck must have felt it because, for just a second, he almost smelled afraid.
"Harold?" she said. "Harold Torrence, is that you?"
"Hello, Doreen. It's been a while."
"Mother?" said Marion. "You know him?"
"Yes!" said Mother. She was furious. "He's a lying, cheating, no good, scum sucking-"
"It's good to see you too, Doreen."
"He's my brother in law! He married my Margaret and and made her life a living hell! Didn't even come to the funeral. I should've figured someone as rotten as you would go in for the darker magic-"
"That's quite enough, Doreen. I'll thank you not to slander me in front of my granddaughter."
"It's not slander if it's true."
"Are you here to deal or are you here to argue?"
It was obvious that Mother didn't want to be anywhere near the man, but there really wasn't much of a choice. "Deal," she said. "Turn them back into humans, and you get the jewelry."
He smiled, confidence restored. "Excellent." The smile faded some when he noticed Nan and Kathleen were still in the room. "Nan, take Kaitlin to her room. Have her do homework or something. Stay upstairs."
Nan took Kathleen's hand. "Yes, Mr. Achleneck." She led Kathleen out. Boots and Ranger followed them.
"Now," he gestured to a small table near the fireplace and the two chairs there. "Have a seat."
Mother did so grudgingly. They sat across from each other, with the jewelry box on Mother's lap. "Before we start, tell me something. You're not really Kathleen's grandfather, are you?"
Achleneck looked surprised. "Of course I am. Didn't know what happened to my son- Margaret made sure of that- but I managed to find his kid, at least. And a good thing, too. The final bit of the life taking trick requires my giving my sponsors both a virgin sacrifice and a blood sacrifice of someone related to me. Kathleen saves me from having to deal with two corpses."
Mother's knuckles went white from clutching the box so hard. "You despicable-"
"Name calling again? Come now, Doreen. You're here for a reason."
"Here." She set the box onto the table and pushed it over.
He lifted up the lid and glanced at the jewelry inside. "It's not in there," he said, shoving the box off the table. "What isn't? That's all the jewelry I have-"
"Liar! You know damn well which one I'm after!"
"What is it?" Mother half-shouted. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Margaret's wedding ring! I know they sent it to you- you're the only relation she had."
"They didn't! She was supposed to have been buried with it."
Achleneck stared. "She buried herself with-? Dammit!" His eyes literally burned, filling with red flames. "Margaret you bitch!" he roared. He rose so quickly to his feet that the chair nearly toppled over. The air blurred and suddenly there was a cellphone in his hand.
"What are you doing?" said Mother.
"Making a phone call. If she thinks I won't dig up a corpse, then she's got another think coming-"
"You're going to exhume her?" Mother squawked. "I forbid it!" She hurriedly got to her feet and went after him.
"Don't get in my way, Doreen. I've shape-changed two people this week, don't think I won't go for a third."
"You're not digging up my Margaret!"
"Doreen?" The ghost was awake again. The pigeon poked its head over the window enclave. "Doreen?"
Mother looked up to the window. "Margaret, is that you?"
The pigeon lost control completely then. The ghost fluttered and flapped until she landed in Mother's arms. "Doreen! You're alright!"
"Margaret, what happened to you?"
"He killed me. I thought he killed you, too." The voice began to fade. "I've been looking. But you're alright. I'm so glad you're alright. That's what I was worried about." And then the ghost was gone.
"Margaret!" said Mother again. "I can't believe it, after all these years." Her face flushed angrily, and she whirled on Achleneck. "You had her! This whole time?"
"Of course I had her! It took me ages to track her down. She was the reason I put it all off until now. Everything was going to be perfect, and it would've been exactly what she deserved." He looked disgustedly at the bird. "Now I'll need to find another loose soul.
"You killed her."
"I didn't want to. She practically forced my hand."
"You killed her!"
"What was I supposed to do? She had my life! She had my soul tied to her ring, and I needed it back. She wouldn't give it back because she had the stupid notion I was going to do sell it-"
"No," said Gerald, teeth bared, a low growl forming in his throat. "You only do that with other people's souls."
"Ha! So you can talk, even as a cat. I really can't wait to have you on board. My associates below assure me that dominating someone's will is an easy enough thing to do when the proper measures have been-"
To my surprise, it was not Gerald who attacked Achleneck first, though he was a close second. Marion launched herself from the couch and landed on his back and shoulders, claws at the ready.
"You monster!" she yowled. She raked her claws across the back of his head, and while he tried pulling her off, Gerald went for his face. Then Boots and Ranger joined it, grabbing a leg each.
I jumped onto the high cabinet to avoid the madness. Everyone was shouting and meowing and hurling magic at one another and I wanted no part of it. If the door had been open, I would have run and hid beneath Kathleen's bed.
"Hey, Cat." The pixie was hovering by my side. I twisted and pressed my ears back. A low growl rose in my throat.
"Hey, it's not my fault. The Man knows my name, remember? Distract him and I can help your friends. Trust me," it said. "I've got a plan."
And it vanished with a pop! "You'd better!" I said, just in case he could hear me.
I jumped onto Achleneck's head, claws unsheathed, the same moment Kathleen and Nan returned with armfulls of silver metal balls.
"We got the spells!" said Kathleen.
"We don't know which are which!" said Nan.
I saw the pixie appear, hovering, beside them, but after that I was too preoccupied with trying to simultaneously gouge out Achleneck's eyes and avoid his hands.
The next minute or so got very confusing, and Gerald had to tell me what happened later. Boots and Ranger saw the opportunity for fun and joined Gerald, Margaret, and I in tearing Achleneck apart. Nan and Kathleen, at the pixie's urging, started throwing spells at us and hoping for the best.
That part I remember. The spells thumped as they hit us, like they were not metallic balls but actually small bags of sand. One hit me in the side. Another on the head, and a third on the foot. They each burst with fleeting magic and soon all of us were surrounded in a cloud of colored smoke- blues greens reds and oranges corresponding with their source spell. Chaos continued inside the cloud.
The first one out of the cloud was Marion. I heard her shout, "I'm back!" in her human voice (which was just like the voice I had heard her have as a cat, only louder). A second later, Gerald joined her, leaving only Boots, Ranger, and I to keep Achleneck distracted.
"You can stop throwing spells now," Gerald said. "I've got it covered!"
Nan and Kathleen did stop, but not until after one spell hit me squarely on the side. I knew there was something wrong right off when the ground was suddenly a lot further down than I was used to. There was a sensation akin to stretching, only it kept going on, far beyond what stretching normally allowed. But all of that I noticed in the back of my mind. The entire front portion of my mind was focused on clawing out Achleneck's eyes.
I reached for his face and found that I didn't have that far to go, and the two of us toppled over. The smoke wasn't as thick as it had been before, but I still couldn't see much. However sight wasn't that important at the moment, and no sooner had we hit the floor than I'd gotten onto Achleneck's chest and started on his eyes.
"Nora?" I heard Gerald say.
"I've got him!" I said. It came out funny. It wasn't a meow, it was ungainly tongue-reliant speech. I stopped trying to blind Achleneck and felt my mouth.
The smoke cleared away entirely. Achleneck was on the ground, looking up at me. His face was crossed with thin bloody clawmarks, and he looked stunned stupid. Everyone else was staring at me, too. I looked down and saw that the reason I'd been feeling so odd was that I had, sometime during the chaos, become human.
"Oh dear," said Mother.
The pixie was laughing. I grabbed the collar of Achleneck's shirt and shook him. "Make me a cat again!"
He gasped and gaped and generally gawked.
"Nora," said Gerald. "Stand back." His hands were raised and they shone with a pulsing red light. I moved out of the way, as did Cats Boots and Ranger, who had been playing with Achleneck's feet. Gerald said something and threw the light at Achleneck. Achleneck stopped wriggling and glared at us all.
"There," Gerald said. "He can't move. Now we have some time to figure out what to do with him."
"Turn him into a mouse!" Ranger said.
"Lizard!" said Boots, who had a fondness for lizards.
"We're not turning him into anything," Gerald told them. "Not yet, at any rate."
Nan came up and wrapped a blanket around me.
"I'm not cold," I said.
"Cover yourself," she said. "You're indecent."
"I'm never indecent! I'm perfect. Tell her, Gerald."
Gerald and Marion, I noticed, had both changed back with their clothing intact. "You're perfect, I assure you. But humans cover up."
He was humoring me. I could hear it in his voice. I growled, which turned out to be a highly uncomfortable thing to do as a human since the proper vocal bits weren't there and it only made my throat hurt. I went and sat on the couch and sulked.
"I think I remember Margaret mentioning some magical authority, way back when.
"What about Maisy? She can't stay like this forever," Marion said.
"I don't want to!" I said. "How can I hide under the sofa? I can't fit in the laundry basket anymore!"
"I'm sure there's a spell in here to get you back to normal." Kathleen held out a handful of metal spells. "Maybe the pixie can help us."
"Yeah, where is he?" said Nan. "He kinda vanished there."
They all looked around. "Maybe he went home?" said Kathleen.
"No, I'm here. I'm here." The pixie materialized above out heads. "Was just taking care of something. You might want to let the pigeon out, by the by. She looks rattled." He pointed at the small window at the front, and sure enough the pigeon was sitting on the sill, looking panicked. Nan went to let her outside. The pixie sank down, moving towards Achleneck.
"Do you know how long I've had to deal with him?" The pixie said.
"No. . ."
We all watched him with uncertainty. It hovered directly above Achleneck's still-glaring face.
"Five years, on and off. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff this guy's done. What he's made me do for him."
"I'm sorry," said Marion.
"Don't be. It was him, not you." It chuckled. "Guess I'm just dragging out the moment, huh? I've been waiting forever."
And then, before any of us could say or do anything, the pixie shouted a quick few words that hit the air the way bricks hit glass. They shattered and sent a wave of broken power through the room that was strong enough to knock the human half of the group off their feet. The house shook down to its foundations and the windows rattled. All my fur stood up on end, and a quick look at Ranger and Boots told me they were the same.
Unnatural fire rose up around Achleneck. Oily black flames crept over him, coiling like snakes. The room filled with the familiar hateful voices of Achleneck's "contacts."
The pixie waved goodbye as the fire enveloped Achleneck entirely and sank into the floor. In just a few seconds, there was no sign anything had been there.
"What did you do?" Gerald roared.
The pixie grinned like a mad little loon. "Just invited some friends of his over."
"You- You just-"
"It's funny," it said. "You all think you've got dibs on these kind of deals, but nope. Mine was way simpler than his, too. I wanted him gone, they wanted him, and so we made it happen. I've gotta thank you for clawing him up; I needed some blood for the summoning and was forbidden from hurting anyone. But wouldn't you know it, he happened to provide his own, thanks to you."
Gerald tried to throw a ball of fire at it, but the pixie vanished into thin air, and the fireball fizzled against the wall.
"What do we do?" Nan said. She was, I will say, taking this all much better than I would have expected her to. I wondered what, exactly, being a necromancer's housekeeper entailed.
"Report him missing?" said Mother. "I doubt they'd believe us if we told them the truth."
"They'd think we killed him or something," said Gerald tiredly. I wanted to go over and purr at him until he felt better, but my vocal chords were all wrong. Marion, however, showed good instincts and went to go sit by him for me.
"What about Kathleen?" Nan said. All human heads turned to the girl (Boots and Ranger were busy sniffing the spot where Achleneck had disappeared).
"Do I have to go back to foster care?" she said.
"Only until I can fill out the adoption forms," Mother said. "You're my grand niece. You're Margaret's girl, and from what I've seen, you're a bright, brave little girl who deserves some stability. Marion and I would love to have you live with us, if you wanted to."
Kathleen looked as though she were about to cry again, but instead she dropped the metal spells she's been holding and ran forward to give Mother a hug. The two embraced and Marion joined them, and it was all very nice, but there was one pressing question that needed to be answered.
"What about me?" I whined.
Gerald bent down and scooped up a few of the spells. "I can figure it out, Nora. Don't worry, I promise you'll be a cat again soon. But will you be alright?" This he said to Nan, who was smiling at the Sift family group hug. "It occurs to me that you're out of a job."
She shrugged. "I would've quit before, if I hadn't been worried about Kathleen. Cleaning work's easy to find in this area. And, you know. . ." She smiled mischievously. "There's a book in the study with a spell for turning lead into gold."
"How else do you think the man could afford this place? It was one of the first things he got from dealing with demons. You're a wizard, right? If you really wanted to thank me-"
Gerald was grinning stupidly. "Yeah, you'll definitely have to show me that book."
"But after you fix me, right?"
"Yes, Nora. After we fix you."
If I had a tail, it would've been swishing angrily. But all I could do with the stupid human body was grumble and pout.
"What now?" Kathleen said.
"Well," said Mother. "It is about noon, isn't it? What's say we all go to out house and have an early lunch. Mr. Nolwake can work on fixing Nora and Kathleen can pick which room she likes."
Everyone agreed and I saw Marion and Gerald exchange a Look and a smile and he went to stand next to her, and I thought, damn. It's going bad enough sharing just Kathleen with Boots and Ranger. How can I share those two with each other?
It's so complicated when your humans meet. I recommend you keep them farther apart than I did.