Before they could plan any further Tobias returned.
He was levitating a platter piled high with more sugar cookies then it should have been possible to bake. The aroma was so intense the three Magicians were almost overwhelmed. With a Gesture Tobias set the platter in the center of the table.
“Please, have as many as you like. Oh, we’re going to have so much fun tonight.”
“Hmm. That’s wonderful Tobias.” Orion said. “But could you remind us where the water closet is?”
“Oh, of course. It’s up the stairs to the left.”
“What?” Hemingway whispered. “We’re trapped by a Howler and your brilliant solution is to take a-”
“Hush.” The cat whispered back. “Follow me.”
The stairs were in the foyer. It was still as black as ever. Orion’s matches had been in his other clothes, but a simple spell made them a ball of light to see by.
“You still haven’t told us what we’re doing here.” Hemingway put in.
“Don’t you remember, Hem?” Orion asked. “The bathrooms are on the top floor. So are Tobias’s chambers. When I served as his apprentice, he always kept a journal. I’m hoping he still does, and that it will shed some light on what has happened to him.”
“What’s there to know?” Hemingway replied. “Whoa!” The otter grabbed on with both paws as the stairs suddenly took a turn. “He’s gone Howler.”
“First of all,” Smedly said, “Tobias isn’t a Howler. He’s Tranquil.”
“Their different manifestations of the same problem.” Orion replied as they reached the top landing. “We’ve all had to face Howlers. They never slow down, love their pranks and their pratfalls. And-This is where you should have been paying more attention Hemingway-They’re impossible to communicate with. I don’t know about you, but Tobias seems rather eager to chat.”
Hemingway nodded. “Now that you mention it, he’s the most well behaved Howler I’ve ever seen.”
“Like I was going to say before Orion interrupted,” Smedley explained, “A Tranquil is a kind of Howler. I’ve only read about them in books though. A ‘regular’ Howler is like a storm, but look at what’s happened to us tonight. The bright colors, the pastry and postcard outfits” (She indicated her frock) “It’s like a storybook.”
“Or perhaps a warm blanket.” Orion said.
“A warm blanket?” Hemingway asked. “You mean he’s insecure?”
“Or afraid. Or hurting.” Smedley replied. “If that’s true, runaway magic or not, he needs our help more then ever.”
Orion smiled. “Smed, you would be a wonderful mother to any kittens you had I’m sure.”
By casting his magic light around the dark room, Orion found the entrance to Tobias’s rooms easily. There was no door, but there were thick curtains to keep out the light of the morning. The Magician pushed them aside and his friends followed him in.
It was as dark within as without. The curtains, deep black velvet, were closed. A perch was in the corner, bolted to the floor. Unlike the childish flourishes in the dining room, the shelves in this room belonged to an old an accomplished Magician. Books on science modern and arcane, astrological charts and correspondences nearly spilled from the nooks.
Orion found what he was looking for on an end table. It was just as he had remembered it, a sturdy Auroch leather bound daybook. Of course as a boy Orion had never been allowed to read it, but then his old master hadn’t been spiraling into a magical catatonia.
He flipped forward to the end of the journal. Starting at the current year the cat skimed until a particular entry caught his eye. “Everyone, look here!”
I have just returned from the vet. The doctor confirmed what I’ve suspected for weeks now. I never did recover fully from my last bout with avian flu. I suppose at my age it’s impossible to have such a serious illness and just fly away. An immune deficiency caused by age and the flu, he calls it. All I know is I can barley stand, much less fly. Booby that I am, I insisted on teleporting myself home. Another bad decision.
Snow this morning. I am reminded of how I would sit in the schoolhouse desperate for class to end. The Solstice is coming, and I have to be dying. I haven’t told anyone. Why should I? They would only worry. Gods help me, I’m old but I wasn’t ready to die. I’m still not ready.
I sleep most of the day now. I don’t have the heart for much else. When I sleep, I dream. Nothing hurts. I feel as though were a fledgling again, sharing Solstice with my family and friends. Perhaps I will sleep now, and dream again.
“I can’t believe he never told us.” Smedly said. “And we wanted to give him a surprise party.”
“Have you ever met an animal that told their friends they were sick outright?” Orion asked. “No one wants anyone to worry about them, even when their friends would be better for knowing. Look, here’s the last entry:”
Oh, it’s Solstice eve how wonderful! I’ll need special clothes for a special day. Perhaps that sweater mum made for me? What’s this, a knock at the door? My friends have come to see me!
“Looks like he never stopped dreaming.” Hemingway said.
“He can’t go on like this.” Orion replied. “If he’s as frail as he implies, the amount of magic he’s wrapped himself up in will burn him out. And yet…”
“And yet what?” Smedly asked.
“He’s so happy as he is. Could he really enjoy the holiday if we changed him back, to remember his illness, the pain?”
“Surely you’re not suggesting that?” Hemingway asked incredulously.
“We need to think of him.” Smedly put in. “They always say that when someone’s dying you should make them comfortable. So let’s make Tobias comfortable.”
“No! I won’t put up with any more of this! Not anymore!”
“Hem, he’s your friend’s old master. Consider that. Do it for Orion.”
Orion grinned. “Yeah Hem, do it for me.”
Hemingway threw up his paws. “Fine. I’ll do it. But I won’t like it.”
And so began a night of fun and games, after a nice fish dinner of course. Orion conjured the food. It wasn’t often done. As they say “Give a man a fish…”, but it was better then eating cakes and pies all night and getting diabetes.
Orion and Smedly threw themselves into the endless rounds of hide and seek and tag with gusto, dragging a reluctant Hemingway along all the while.
“You know it’s really hard to imagine you as a kit.” Smedly said.
“Then don’t” he shot back.
Maybe it was the magic permeating the place, but even Hemingway started to loosen up when it came time for “Pin the tail on the Auroch.”
Finally, as was custom for the Solstice, they brought out the photo album. “Oh look!” Tobias said. “That’s just after Ori and I took out the Dhole of Kenishire!” The picture showed cat and hawk standing atop the body of a massive, yards long worm, it’s body riddled with spears and bullet holes.
Orion found another. “And here’s Del Lago,
of Mictlan.” Here the two of them were in bathing outfits holding thumbs up for the camera while an enormous carnivorous fish hung behind them. Lake Monster
It went on like that for quite some time, looking though pictures of monsters killed and plots foiled. But then Orion remembered something.
“Wait, there’s one very important picture that isn’t here.”
“There isn’t?” Tobias asked. “Which one?”
Orion gestured, and Tobias’s camera hovered so that it had its sights on everyone on the couch. “This one.” Orion said as he snapped his fingers.
When everyone said goodbye that night they passed by a framed picture. There the four of them were, Orion, Smedly, Tobias, even Hemingway swallowing his pride and smiling for the camera, dressed like children.
The plaque underneath read: “Friendship Lives On, Solstice 1909.”