The telepathic transmission was scattered, the impressions nonsensical. Orion focused, trying to make sense of it all. Carefully, while still giving just enough of his attention to the message, the cat opened his desk drawer and took out a small black box.
Inside was a tuft of fur, pinned to a slip of paper, the dark brown fur of a sea otter to be exact. The minute he held it in his paw, the images in his mind became clearer, but only slightly so.
“Hemingway! Is your sympathy working right? I can barley sense you.”
No…time…sympathetic…Just get your tail over here right now!”
“Has something happened with Tobias? What about Smed?”
There was an impression of bright pastel bands of color, and the connection was broken. Taking his signature greatcoat off his chair and shrugging it on as he ran, Orion headed for the third floor. The fearful edge in Hemmingway’s last words unnerved him. A cat wasn’t likely to panic, all things considered. He heated to see fear in others though.
The third floor was a sitting room with a lavish art gallery and indoor garden. A small whirlwind stood in a corner, swirling silently. This was actually a portal, built to bridge his home with that of his old teacher, Ser Tobias Buteo. Some years past they had visited often by this gateway, but the visits had fallen off as the hawk had grown older. Standing before it now, Orion closed his eyes and stepped though.
It had all started so simply. Orion’s friends had suggested that Tobias might want to have some company for the Solstice. The cat had agreed. After all, who doesn’t like a good party? Smedley and Hemmingway had gone on ahead to set everything up. Magicians preferred to do everything on their own, but at his old age Tobias was grateful for the help. Orion stayed behind to finish some housecleaning of his own, promising to join them later.
And now he was here. Tobias’s manse, the Slipstream Aerie, had been built on the side of the eponymous Mount Slipstream. Judicious use of magical rock shaping had created an alcove for a stately manor house. The front door was unique. A more conventional door allowed land bound creatures like Orion to enter, while a window just above it was designed for birds and other flyers.
Paws in his pockets, whistling a tune to allay his own tension, Orion rang the bell pull. The bell clattered throughout the house, but no one came to the door. The Magician tried the door, and found it unlooked. He meowed uncomfortably. This did not bode well. Magicians were usually fastidious about security.
Chasing away his misgivings, Orion stepped inside.
There was no light within. The foyer was pitch black. “Hello?” Orion called. “Smed? Hemingway? Tobias!” No answer. The only sound besides his fading echo was a curious humming. Orion’s ears twisted this way and that, trying to discern where it was coming from.
The humming sound intensified until it was like a throbbing beat, a thousand vibrating rubber bands. It was then that the feline Magician was gripped with a horrifying familiarity.
“No…It can’t be…”
Suddenly a crack of light appeared in the darkness, slowly growing wider. An open door! Orion rushed toward it. The moment he crossed the threshold he was blinded, and it took all of 20 seconds before he could blink it out and see again.
“Oh Tobias, you didn’t.”
The very walls were saturated, painted in soft, powdery pastel shades comforting to children. This had once been the hallway leading to the dinning room. The paintings on the walls, once portraits of Tobias’s proud red tail forebears, were now simple stick drawings, child-like conceptions of the sun, houses and trees.
One of the frames caught his eye. It was empty, but there was a title. “Best Friends Forever, Solstice, 1909.”
“What is going on here?” Orion had a hunch he already knew. From behind the double doors at the end of the hall came festive music.
The dining room was like a child’s dream, or perhaps and overwhelmingly saccharine nightmare. Platters were piled high with cakes, pies, cookies and other pastry. There was no concession whatsoever to any kind of balanced meal. Tinsel hung on the walls, and a record player near the fireplace played solstice carols, the ones that made your ears bleed after you hear them a thousand times.
As for the people at the table, he recognized them, but only barely. At the place of honor at the head of the table, perched Tobias, or what was left of him. His plumage was an impossible pastel blue, and he had on a green sweater with an Eaton collar and a big red floppy bow. The hawk was smiling. It was the most terrifyingly honest smile Orion had ever seen. And his face…Were those cherry dimples?
Smedly sat to his right. The calico was dressed in a red holiday pinafore with a holly leaf embroidered into the apron near the hem. A green ribbon hung behind her left ear.
And Hemingway, well, he had to laugh to himself. The otter had been saddled with a blue sailor jacket, the kind in vogue for the smallest of children. In lip service to the Solstice theme, the trim of the collar was red and the cuffs green.
Both Orion’s friends were smiling, but they were toothy, forced smiles. They ate their plates of sugary delights mechanically, as if it meant death to stop. The looks in their eyes suggested near panic.
“Ori! You came to visit me, how nice!” Tobias’s voice was pitched high, even a bit shrill. It sounded nothing like the venerable sage he remembered. And Ori? It was unlike Tobias to use such pet names.
Orion sat down beside Smedley. Until he knew more it was best to be diplomatic. The minute he took his seat there was a bright prismatic flash. The cat looked down at himself. “What in…?”
His sensible suit and greatcoat were gone, replaced with blue denim overalls over a shirt with green and red stripes.
“I hope you don’t mind.” Tobias giggled. “But you were so underdressed.”
“Mind? Why would I mind sitting in a banquet hall with all my friends, attired in the manner of cubs with you gone Howler?” Orion replied, taking a sip of what proved to be hot cider.
Smedly whispered in his ear. “Don’t antagonize him, please.” That solved one question. They weren’t enchanted. Now for the next question
“Tobias, are you feeling all right?”
His smile widened. “What a silly question! I feel marvelous! Oh, I could fly all day I’m so happy!”
Orion’s tail danced back and forth. This was going to be a touch nut to crack. “I see. No arthritis? Or rheumatism? What about illness?”
At the mention of illness Tobias started. It was for less then a moment, but his smile, the manic look in his eye faded. The hawk was saved from having to reply by the jangling of a bell.
“Oh! The sugar cookies are done! I’ll be back in a bit!” And Tobias flew off.
Orion turned to his friends, steepled his fingers on the table. “How long has he been like this?”
“Since we got here.” Hemingway growled. “Smed, for some unfathomable reason, insists that we humor him, but Gods help me I’m sick of this nursery school farce. I contacted you after I’d had one cookie too many.”
“I learned a long time ago that you shouldn’t make a Howler cross.” Smedly replied. “If his emotions match the décor and wardrobe at all refusing his hospitality could be messy.”
Orion nodded. “That’s very sensible. Though I must ask, does Ser Tobias throw a good party?”
“He’s an infantile fool-” Hemingway began. She cut him off.
“He’d be an excellent host if not for, well, all of this.” Smedly gestured at the room.
“True.” Orion replied. “Though please understand I mean no disrespect, Smed, when I say that dress suits you quite well.” The calico blushed at that, smiling for the first time that night. “And Hemmingway, you look good in uniform.”
Hemingway only mumbled. “Stop growling Hem!” Smedley laughed. “You look adorable.”
“It’s not adorable!” The otter shouted, leaping up from the table so hard his chair was knocked over. “It’s stereotyping and I won’t stand for it!”
“Calm down.” Orion said, holding up his paws defensively. “We’ll never help him or get out of here if we’re at each others throats.”
Before they could plan any further Tobias returned.