Darkness Ascendant

One: Summer School

It was late on a warm summer evening, and the sun loomed low on the horizon. The middle-aged woman behind the wheel of a blue sedan had a lot on her mind. The Coreyton school board meeting had droned on and on, and now she was late for another meeting with the middle school principal. She had never liked Saunders. She was tired, and all Dr. Norma Kitt really wanted was to go home and relax with her family. She wasn’t quite sure why he was so intent on meeting with her today, and she wasn’t very comfortable with his insistence that they meet at his house instead of her office. He had sprained his ankle, he said, and couldn’t drive. She should have told him to get a cab.

Saunders said he wanted to discuss a fundraiser that would benefit both their schools. Dr. Kitt sighed. Budget cuts made school fundraisers critical to many after-school activities during these tough economic times. Saunders reminded her that their schools had worked together very successfully in the past. True, but couldn’t it have waited for office hours, at least? Well, too late now. She was nearly at Saunders’ house. But she would make sure this was a quick in-and-out meeting, find out the details of the fundraiser—probably another concert—and leave.

Dr. Kitt turned her car down Oak Street. The large, leafy trees that gave the street its named formed a tunnel of green in the dying sunlight. As she neared Number 19, the largest branch in the tree above her gave a loud crack and crashed onto the roof of her car.

The police report would declare it a freak accident. The officers who investigated the crash assumed insects or previous wind damage must have weakened the branch, and the unfortunate woman was crushed beneath it after it gave way. None of the neighbors who gathered on the street afterward had seen a black and white cat on the sidewalk in front of Number 19, the jewel in its collar flashing just as the branch broke and fell on the car. Neither had anyone seen a tall, thin, dark-haired man watching from the second floor window, the curtain falling back into place as the car slammed into the curb.

As the echoes of the crash died and people rushed out of their homes, the cat trotted through the open gate in the tall fence that surrounded the house, sauntered through the side yard and leaped deftly onto the back porch. The door seemed to open by itself as the cat entered, closing behind him with a soft click. Inside the kitchen, Saunders leaned against the table and watched the cat leap to a chair and sit facing him.

“It is done,” Roah said, his voice projecting inside Saunders’ head. He dropped his head to lick at a spot on his shoulder.

“So I saw. Did anyone see you? Did he see you?”

“No. Niflah is out with Alef and Bet and the new Shomrim we recruited.”

“Good. But poor, dear Principal Kitt. Such a tragic—accident.”

“Your way is now clear.”

“Yes,” Saunders told the Wild One. “As for the good principal—well, one might say curiosity killed the Kitt.” He chuckled as he dialed 911.

#

“I don’t like this,” Silsula told the small, black and white Catmage that sat facing her. “Why would the Council summon Zahavin and Letsan now?”

Zehira’s tail switched restlessly. “I don’t like it either. But Hakham didn’t send me here only to summon your sister. I’m Andy’s new tutor,” she said. “What can you tell me about the boy?”

“He needs a gentle touch. My sister is powerful and brilliant, but she doesn’t have—how do they say it? People skills. Chirrup.

Zehira laughed. “That’s a good phrase to remember. But Hakham chose me for another reason as well. Nafshi was my oldest friend.”

“Andy will like that. He was very fond of her.”

“So were many of us,” Zehira said with a sigh. “I hear we have another Catmage in the line of Nafshi here. Word of your niece is getting around.”

Silsula twitched her ears. “Leilei is powerful, yes, but she has a long way to go before she understands how to use those powers. She is young and reckless. And she thinks a great deal of herself. My grandmother would have scorched her tail for that.”

Zehira laughed again. “Yes, Nafshi was never very patient with arrogance. Well, Leilei will learn. I am here for her as well, and I don’t think she’ll find me as kind and gentle as the boy will.”

“She will need it,” Silsula said. Chirrup. “Well, we’d best get you settled. My sister will go straight to the Council Compound after she tells Andy about the change in his lessons?”

“Yes. She said she will send Andy to me in a couple of suns.”

“Then let’s get you settled properly. Chirrup. Come with me. There’s an isolated bayit outside the clearing that should suit you.” Zehira followed Silsula across the Compound.

#

Andy Cohen sat cross-legged on the ground in his backyard, eyes closed, taking slow, deep breaths. The morning sun felt warm on his face. He tried to clear his mind as he’d been taught, but the events of the past year kept running through his thoughts.

Next month it would be a whole year since he found out about the existence of Catmages—cats with human intelligence and magical powers. Goldeneyes, a perfectly normal orange and white cat (or so he had thought, until she began to “talk” inside his head) showed up at his house one day last autumn and turned his life completely upside down. She’d enlisted him to help find her grandmother Nafshi, a wise and powerful Catmage. Nafshi had been kidnapped by—of all people—his school principal, who was working with Wild Ones. These were Catmages expelled from their society for their misuse of power and breaking Catmage laws. Thinking of Wild Ones made him remember the battle at Principal Saunders’ house. And Andy didn’t like thinking of that at all.

Breathe, he told himself. Concentrate.

It was no use. The reason he was performing these exercises was because he was supposed to be the boy in the prophecy, the Son of Aaron, the one who would help the Catmages defeat the enemy. Only he hadn’t done a very good job so far. Even with the help of some other Catmages, like the cheerful Letsan and his dour brother Razor, a Catmage warrior, they had failed. Nafshi was killed during the rescue operation. Before she died, she gave Andy the Magelight that now glittered inside the face of the leather band he wore on his right wrist. Becca Jefferson, one of his two best friends, had crafted the thick leather band and the metal setting and given it to him for his fourteenth birthday at the end of the school year.

Andy smiled as he thought of Becca, a pretty girl with light brown skin, straight black hair, and a lovely double-curved smile. They had been friends since preschool. His other best friend, Mike Murdoch, a slim boy with shaggy black hair, was constantly getting in trouble for things like reciting fractured Shakespeare in the cafeteria. All of them would be moving on to high school in the fall, a prospect that relieved Andy greatly. They’d be leaving Saunders behind with middle school, so Andy wouldn’t have to face him again after setting his cellar on fire. But it was Saunders’ who had locked Andy in the cellar with Nafshi. Andy had only started the fire to trick Saunders into coming downstairs so they could escape.

Andy moved his wrist, making the Magelight wink in the sun. Goldeneyes had taught him that a Magelight was the focal point for Catmage powers. It contained a part of the essence, or soul, of the Catmage who created it. Never before had a Catmage willingly given one up as Nafshi had given hers to him. And never before had they taught a human how to use one, but Goldeneyes was teaching Andy now. Or at least, she was trying to. Andy wasn’t very good at it. He wasn’t even very good at the breathing exercises. Here he was, supposed to be clearing his mind of stress, and all he could think of was Nafshi’s last moments. If he hadn’t gone running to Saunders’ house in response to Taylor’s taunts and gotten himself caught by the Wild Ones, maybe the rescue mission would have succeeded. Maybe Nafshi would still be alive. Maybe—

“Maybe you should try concentrating on your exercises,” Goldeneyes said sternly. Andy opened his eyes. The orange and white Catmage stood in front of him, ears flat against her head, displeased. He sighed. He was used to Goldeneyes being mad at him—It was a fairly regular occurrence. He didn’t mean to screw up so much, but he always seemed to.

“It’s really hard to stop thinking,” he muttered.

“You’re not supposed to stop thinking,” she said. “You are supposed to clear your mind of distractions and concentrate on the task at hand.” She paused, raised her ears and tried to stop her tail from switching in irritation. “Let’s work on your breathing for a while. Take long, deep, slow breaths. Close your eyes and try it again.”

Sighing, Andy did as he was told. It had been a long, fruitless summer. He hadn’t yet learned how to use the Magelight, and today didn’t seem to be turning out any differently from all the previous days. The most Andy had been able to do so far was make the Magelight glow, and that usually happened only when he was feeling strong emotions. He closed his eyes and thought about the Magelight, opened them a sliver and saw no change. He closed his eyes again and pictured Nafshi the night he was stuck in the cellar, talking to him, keeping him from being frightened, showing him mental pictures of Goldeneyes as a kitten. Andy smiled as he pictured Nafshi reaching against the bars of her cage, rubbing her head against his hand. Concentrate, he told himself again. He felt a warmth on his wrist. The Magelight was glowing! Andy turned to Goldeneyes, grinning. As his concentration broke, the glow disappeared like a switch had been turned off. Goldeneyes cocked her ears forward.

“Again,” she said. Andy, no longer smiling, started the breathing exercises again.

#

Andy lingered over his eggs as Goldeneyes finished her salmon. They had gotten in the habit of having breakfast together after his mother left for work. This was the first summer that Mom allowed Andy to stay home by himself. She called him on the land line from time to time or texted him when she was too busy to talk, but so far she said she was very pleased with his ability to take care of himself. Andy was pleased as well, since it gave him hours of time to train with Goldeneyes without having to worry that anyone would see them. It wasn’t all training, though. Some days he biked over to Becca’s or Mike’s to spend the afternoons with his friends.

“Andrew, I have to go away for a while.”

“Away? Why?”

“I have been commanded to attend a Council session. Letsan and I will be leaving tonight.”

“Tonight?” Andy said, his voice cracking. “But I thought you were going to stay here and teach me for the rest of the summer! How am I supposed to learn if you’re gone? Who’s going to train me?”

“My sister Silsula will take care of your education,” Goldeneyes said. “You’re to report to her in the Compound tomorrow.” The Compound was a community of Catmages, a place where they lived, raised their young, and learned how to use their magic. It was a few miles out of town, hidden in a clearing in the woods.

“What? You’re putting me in with the little kids—I mean kittens?”

“Not exactly,” she said. “But you will report to my sister. She will introduce you to your tutor. You won’t be put in a Teaching Ring. You’re not a kitten.”

Andy laughed. “No kidding.”

“But you are a novice, and you must learn,” she continued. “We may be gone for some time. You must not neglect your lessons. Silsula will expect you tomorrow morning.”

“How am I going to get in the Compound without you or Letsan to send a message?” Andy asked, remembering how they had made him wait outside last year to be escorted safely in. “You told me I could get knocked out by the guards or something.”

Goldeneyes purred approvingly. “An excellent observation. You are known to them now. You will not be challenged.”

“Oh. Good. Hey,” he said, struck by an idea, “can I bring Becca or Mike with me? It’s a long ride there and back.”

“No you may not,” she said stiffly. “You are not going to play games, Andrew. You are going to learn how to control your Magelight. Nafshi gave it to you, and by the One Above Us All, you will learn to use it.”

Her eyes flashed and Andy looked away. There it was—the barely-healed wound. Nafshi was dead, and Goldeneyes was still angry about his part in it. Not that he blamed her. Andy hadn’t gotten over Nafshi’s death either. He took a deep breath and turned back to Goldeneyes.

“Okay,” he said, “then since you don’t have to leave for hours, let’s get to work. You’re not the only one who wants to make Nafshi proud.”

#

Andy went out on the porch to say goodbye to his friends. Letsan sat on the railing and purred while Andy scratched him behind his fur-tipped Maine Coon ears.

“I’m going to miss this,” Letsan said, rubbing his head against Andy’s hand. “So many Catmages just don’t get the advantages of being around humans,” he said. “Their loss.”

Andy shook the orange cat hair from his hand. “Yeah, and some humans don’t get the advantages of hanging out with shedding fluffballs,” he said.

“I’m just leaving you a memento to hold onto while I’m gone.” Letsan said. “Be thankful I’m not the type to use a sandbox, or you’d have a lot of smelly mementoes to remember me by.” Andy laughed as Letsan jumped off the railing to the ground. Goldeneyes circled around Andy’s legs and went down the steps, joining Letsan. She paused and looked back at Andy.

“I’ll be looking forward to seeing what you achieve while I’m gone,” she said. Andy waved and watched them trot off down the street. Letsan turned back before he ducked behind a tree, flashing his Magelight in farewell. Andy grinned, imagining the scolding Goldeneyes was probably giving him about showing off magic in public, even though Letsan was several years her senior. He stayed on the porch lost in thought, listening to the crickets until his mother called him inside.

#

Andy rode his bike down the street leading out of town. The Compound was in the woods outside Coreyton, past all but a few scattered farms. Andy left the road and walked his bike to the edge of the woods. There was no chance he’d forget how to find the path–Goldeneyes had plastered it inside his head before she left. Planting an image inside another’s mind was a Catmage ability that Andy was trying to learn. Nafshi had shown him images of Goldeneyes as a kitten while they were imprisoned in Saunders’ cellar. She had taken images of Leilei from Andy’s mind, so in a way, she had “met” the great-granddaughter who looked so very much like her. Andy wondered how Leilei was doing now, and where she was living. Maybe Silsula would know. He hid his bike in a thicket near the path, though the chance of anyone finding it out here was slim. Then he headed down the path toward the Compound.

A few minutes later—sweating, scratched, and irritated—Andy was starting to think that “path” was not the word he would use to describe the way to the Compound. He could swear it had been a lot easier last autumn. There were far fewer thickets to struggle through, and he was pretty sure there hadn’t been so many thorn bushes.

“There weren’t, sweetling,” said a familiar voice in his head. Chirrup. “Plants grow in the summer.” Chirrup. She laughed. “Don’t they teach you anything in that human school of yours?”

“Silsula?” Andy said, looking around for Goldeneyes’ sister. The orange and white Catmage padded slowly around the trunk of a nearby fir tree. Andy was struck again by her similarity to Goldeneyes. It was mostly physical, though. Their personalities were nothing alike. Silsula was a kind, motherly Catmage who, as a Nanager, spent her time caring for and teaching kittens and half-grown cats. Andy liked her a lot.

“I like you too, dear,” she said. “And I see you still haven’t tamed those wild thoughts of yours. I think the birds in the trees can hear you.” Chirrup. Andy started to stammer an explanation. “You don’t have to apologize to me. I’m not Zahavin,” she said, using Goldeneyes’ Catmage name. “Now come, we’ve a lot of work to do.” Silsula turned and led him down the winding path.

“Are you going to be my teacher?” Andy said hopefully, as he walked behind her.

“Oh, no, dear. I don’t teach. I have too much to do just taking care of my catlings. We’ve found you a tutor.”

“A tutor?” Andy said hesitantly.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Silsula said, looking back. “Zehira is a wonderful teacher. Chirrup. She’ll have you guarding those thoughts of yours in no time!”

Andy wasn’t so sure. He followed Silsula carefully, watching keenly as she slipped through bushes and around trees until they arrived at the Compound. Catmages played, napped in the sun with their kittens, and gathered in Teaching Rings. His heart skipped a beat as they neared one of the Rings. He knew it was impossible, but he couldn’t stop himself from calling out, “Nafshi?” as he saw a tortoise-shell cat who looked exactly like the one who had died in his arms.

The Catmage turned her head at his voice, shouted “Andy!” and leaped from the center of the ring and ran to him, jumping into his arms. She purred loudly and looked him in the eye. “I’m not Nafshi, silly, I’m Leilei. Don’t you remember me?”

“Of course I remember you,” he said, smiling as she rubbed her face along his. “You were pretty young when we met. You’re all grown up now. But you look a lot like Nafshi. No, you look exactly like her.”

“So everyone tells me. I wish I’d met her.”

“Leilei!” said a grey tabby cat in the Ring. “You are no longer a kitten. How dare you abandon your duties?” The black markings over the tabby’s eyes looked like frowning eyebrows.

“Uh-oh,” Andy said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

Silsula laughed. “Oh, come on, Kapdan. They haven’t seen each other in moons, and they’re both very young. Chirrup. ”

“Leilei is over a cycle old, Silsula,” Kapdan said stiffly. “She has responsibilities that she cannot just set aside whenever she wants.”

“And she has feelings, as do we all,” Silsula said. “There’s no harm in renewing a friendship. Chirrup. But there is also a time for everything. Leilei, dear, you may see Andy later, when you’ve both finished studying for the day. Chirrup. He’s going to be with us for a while.”

“That’s great!” Leilei said. She gave Andy one last cheek rub and leaped to the ground. Kapdan stood aside as she rejoined the circle. “I’ll see you later,” she whispered to Andy. He grinned and followed Silsula.

They went past a few more Teaching Rings toward the edge of the clearing where the Catmages made their homes. A few late-season kittens tumbled over one another on the grass in front of the doorways. The little ones stopped their play when they saw Andy. He could hear them calling to their mothers.

“Look, Mom, a human! Mom, why is there a human here? Mom! Mom! Who is that? What’s he doing here?”

“The name’s Andy,” he said, grinning at their antics and waving to them, which sent them into paroxysms of joy. They leaped on and over one another, their fur fluffed out and their tails standing straight up. One of the kittens tried to wave a paw back at Andy and fell over. Andy laughed as he followed Silsula. He wondered if Goldeneyes was ever going to have a family, and if she’d like to raise it in his home someday. That would be so neat.

“She will probably have them in a Compound, Andy,” Silsula said. Chirrup. “But I’m sure she’d be thrilled to have you visit as often as possible.”

“I’m not so sure. Sometimes I wonder if she even likes me,” Andy said.

“She does, sweetling. Believe me, she does. Chirrup. You’re a very likeable boy, and my sister isn’t known for sharing her feelings with anyone. And here we are!” She stopped in front of a small Catmage home just a few feet out of the wood—a rounded structure made of sticks, twigs, and dirt. The shelter reminded Andy of pictures he’d seen of igloos, except there was no tunnel to go in, just a hole in the front wall.

“We call our homes bayits,” said a small, black and white Catmage sitting in the doorway sunning herself. The word sounded like “by eat.”

“It means ‘house,’ dearie,” Silsula said.

“I am Zehira,” said the new Catmage. “And you must be Andrew Cohen, the Son of Aaron, my new student.”

“Uh, hi,” Andy said with some trepidation. “You can call me Andy.” He didn’t know anything about his new teacher, and he was worried that she might be even more strict than Goldeneyes.

Zehira gazed up at him quietly for a few moments, as if taking his measure. “Sit, Andy” she said, and Andy sat down on the ground in front of her. “That’s better. It hurts my neck to look up at you. You’re a tall one, aren’t you?”

“Actually, no, I’m kind of small for my age,” Andy said.

“By the One! You’re going to get taller? Oh, Silsula, you’re going to have to find me a human chair to sit on when I teach this one!”

Andy didn’t know if it was okay to laugh, but when Silsula and Zehira both started laughing, he joined in.

“I’ll leave you two alone, then. Chirrup. Andy, work hard. Zehira is a good teacher, one of our best.”

“I hope you don’t mind sitting down a lot. I was serious about hurting my neck,” Zehira said.

“We will start with one of our most basic lessons,” she told Andy as he settled down. “We teach kittens to levitate leaves, and Son of Aaron or no Son of Aaron, as far as your abilities are concerned you are a kitten. You have a Catmage’s aura, and that means you may have a Catmage’s abilities. That is what we are going to find out. But first and foremost, the littlest kitten among us learns how to make a leaf float in the air.”

“I can do that,” Andy said, grinning as he picked up a leaf and let it fall.

Zehira stared at him. “It isn’t what you say, it is what you do that matters. Now is not the time for levity. When you show yourself worthy of my old friend Nafshi, then you may make jokes.”

“Sorry,” Andy said meekly. “You knew Nafshi?”

“Indeed, yes. We grew up together in the Great Rock Compound and remained friends for years. That’s why Hakham sent me here when he called Zahavin to him at the Council Compound.”

“The Compounds have names? I thought they were all just called Compound,” Andy said. “So what’s this one called?”

Zehira’s ears twitched forward. “Has no one told you? It’s the East Wood Compound. How could we possibly tell each other where we are from if we all named our homes the same thing? Do humans name all your towns the same thing?”

“Uh, no, but—”

“By the One!” she said, “Zahavin was not exaggerating. You do know how to switch subjects quickly, don’t you? And I let you distract me.” Zehira chuckled. “Well, that won’t happen again, will it?”

“Uh—” Andy said.

“No, that’s quite enough for now. You have a lot to live up to if you’re going to honor Nafshi’s memory, young man, and I expect you to do so. Now.” Her ears twitched forward again. “When we want to lift something with our powers, we picture that object floating in the air. Pick up the leaf again.” Andy did as she said. “Hold it flat in your hand. Close your eyes and picture the leaf floating.”

Andy closed his eyes.

“Try to make the picture as real and as vivid as you can. Look at the leaf in your hand, then close your eyes again and try to reproduce that leaf in your thoughts. Note the veins, the color, the little breaks around the edges. Concentrate on that leaf as hard as you can. See if you can make me see the leaf.”

Andy tried, but to no avail. The Magelight remained cold on his wrist. He grew more and more frustrated each time he tried and failed to raise the leaf.

“Try again,” Zehira said, “and again and again and again. Nafshi made very few mistakes. I don’t believe you are one of them. I expect you to succeed.”

“Do you really think I can?” Andy asked.

“I do. Now, again. Try to show me the picture of the leaf. I think you almost had it, last time.”

Andy closed his eyes and tried again.