The elder bowed and thanked her again, and Schala bit her lip to keep herself from reassuring him once more that no thanks were needed. Especially not when she had failed.
It was a sad fact that magic could not erase death from the world - no matter what Mother had the Gurus working on - and it came for the Earthbound more often than most. She had done her best for old Arwin, but in the end...in the end, she had never been able to save anyone when the black wind came.
So lost was she in her own thoughts that she nearly tripped over the child. They didn't seem to mind, simply staring at her with the infinite patience of one who was used to waiting for attention. "Hello," Schala said, leaning down to their level, "did you want to speak with me?"
The child simply continued to stare, worrying their lip between their teeth. They were about Janus' age, perhaps a bit older, and their sex was indeterminate under the layers of rough cloth and caked-on dirt. Schala didn't recognize them at all. The child stood still for a moment, then skittered off, beckoning for her to follow.
The child led her deeper into the cave, to the precious food stores. Past the hide sacks of jerky - too few, Schala noticed - and the small clay jugs of grasses and seeds, until the child stopped and pointed at a certain area of the floor. Schala leaned over the child for a better look and gasped with delighted surprise.
A pile of soft, fluffy creatures laid there, curled up in a small corner. There was one large creature that curled around the rest, a tangle of small paws, pointed ears, and sweetly closed eyes. All were mottled white and black, some in stripes, some in spots. One of the small creatures on top of the pile stretched and twisted in sleep until it rolled right off its siblings and flopped to the floor, where it stood up, none the worse for wear, and wandered about making small animal noises.
Schala was enchanted. Had these animals been here all along? The wanderer came right up to her and the child, bumping its head into the child's leg. Schala reached down to pat it and it looked at her, eyes wide and posture alert. The fur was as soft as it looked, though she could only brush her fingers across it a few times before the animal lost interest and went to explore a small cranny that attracted its curiosity.
"Eh?" Schala had been so absorbed she'd lost track of the Earthbound child. "Pardon me?"
"Cats," the child said softly. "Eat rats."
"Do they? That's good of them." The loss of any food was a matter of life and death on the surface. It was good to know the Earthbound had such small protectors. Schala watched the wandering little cat attempt to scale the rough wall, only to slip and land on the ground in a heap.
"...can have one." The child's voice somehow got even quieter. "If you like."
"I couldn't..." Schala trailed off. They were such sweet little creatures. It would be wonderful to have one of her own, to hold and pet and come when she called. The palace felt strangely cold in recent months, and Mother made more and more demands on her time...it would be nice to have a friend of her own again. Even if it was just a little cat.
But the Earthbound needed the protection from rats much more than Schala needed a friend. "I couldn't," she said firmly, rising from her crouch. "May they guard your food well."
The child looked at her from beneath dirty hair. "...have plenty. Won't miss one."
Schala wavered. The adventurous little cat had given up on the wall and was toying with a small stone, batting it back and forth between its small paws. Another had awakened and was trying to wriggle its way out from under its siblings. It did seem as if the Earthbound had enough to protect their meager stores. "If you're sure...."
The child silently reached out and placed the adventurous little cat in Schala's hands, where it cried in brief protest before getting distracted with her sleeve. Schala clutched it close, feeling the warm little life in her arms. She could always bring it back, if the Earthbound turned out to need it. It was such a sweet little thing.
Schala admitted to the decision she had already made. "Thank you, child. I'll take good care of this little one."
The child hunched their shoulders and said nothing, but seemed pleased all the same.
Once back in her quarters, Schala shed her thick traveling garments. The little cat she had bundled in her mammoth-down scarf for warmth, and the poor thing had fallen asleep on the journey. A boy cat, she noticed as she carefully unwrapped him. She left the little cat sleeping in the pile of scarf on her desk as she gathered ingredients for the spell.
Aloe and fennel for protection, dried black cohosh and lavender for love and courage, peppermint for good health and holly for loyalty, two front claws of a mana beast for strength, and a glass ball to tie it all together. Schala hummed as she arranged the ingredients into a proper circle. She'd stopped to ask old Mari about the best way to take care of a cat, and had been warned they tended to be willful, private, and kept to their own whims. A bit of magic would fix that at no harm to the cat, and then she could enchant the rest of the Earthbound cats at her leisure. It wasn't much, but no magic shared was wasted.
The cat opened his eyes and looked about, uttering his high cry. He rolled to his feet and looked about Schala's desk, curious. She patted him on the head - another high cry - and told him: "Stay there for a bit, all right? I need to check a book."
Alexander's Treatise on Binding Magic was the standard reference for cases like these, including quite a long section on taming animals. She was absorbed with the intricacies of layering spells together on a non-human body when a loud crash startled her off her feet.
She looked up just in time to see the cat bat one of her smaller books right off the desk. The herbs were scattered to the four winds, and the beautiful, important, rare glass ball was lying in pieces on the floor. The cat looked on all of this with interest, until his head turned...to the bookshelf.
"Oh no you don't!" Schala dashed, hands reaching out, just as the little cat leaped in what should have been a quite impossible jump for something so small, sailing right past Schala to land on the very edge of the bookshelf. His hind legs didn't make it, and before Schala could turn around he'd already happily kicked two more small books off and dragged himself up, unharmed and ready to explore.
Schala didn't even need to look to confirm his interest in her delicately carved wand. She just swung around and grabbed his middle, dragging him away with his teeth inches from the soft wood. "No!" she said, glaring right into his eyes, "Leave that alone!"
The only answer was another piping cry.
"I don't think it understands you," a voice came from close behind her. "Or cares. What is it?"
"Janus!" Schala spun around again - all of this was making her dizzy - and saw her brother watching the show with open interest. "Shouldn't you be at lessons?"
Janus shrugged. "Shouldn't you be running the Mammon Machine? Mother was looking for you earlier."
"And what did you tell her?" Schala asked as she set the little cat back down on her desk and started cleaning up. Ever since the Mammon Machine had come to life a few months ago, Mother was always after her to increase its power. It was silly, they had plenty as it was. Power alone couldn't change anything.
"I said I hadn't seen you, which was true. And if you want it to remain that way, you won't tell Ravna where I am either. Really, what is that thing?"
"Don't blackmail, Janus," she scolded absently. "And he's a cat - an Earthbound creature. Isn't he cute?" Janus humphed in reply, but Schala knew her brother and could tell 'genuine dismissal' from 'dismissal to cover real interest'. "Get him out of the way while I clean up," she instructed, and though Janus made a great show of being put-upon, he obeyed promptly.
The glass shards were gathered up, the herbs swept off the floor and the usable ones rearranged in the proper configuration, and the claws fished out from the corners they had been shoved in. The glass ball could probably be substituted with water, Schala reasoned, and it was the work of a moment to fill a shallow - metal! - dish from a spell. After some consideration, she sprinkled a lot of chamomile in it, for peace.
Satisfied with her remade magic circle, she looked over to where Janus was sitting on the floor...using her scarf to play with the cat. The cat who appeared to have every joy tearing it to pieces with his tiny teeth and claws. Even as she watched Janus lifted the scarf entirely into the air, the cat clinging with just his front paws.
They both seemed to be having the time of their lives, and even from his distance the edges of her lovely scarf were noticeably frayed.
Schala pressed her lips together and reminded herself that princesses did not smack their little brothers upside the head, even if said brothers deserved it.
"You're done?" He pulled the scarf across the floor, the cat pouncing on every movement. "That was quick. Look at how fast he is!" So fast that on the latest pounce the cat went rolling across the floor, worrying the edge of the scarf he had caught with his teeth.
"Yes, I'm done, and stop letting him tear up my scarf!"
"You can hardly see it..." Janus sulked, but stopped dragging the scarf around. The little cat quickly lost interest in pouncing on something that didn't move and settled for nestling in it instead.
"That's...never mind." It wasn't a battle worth fighting. Schala calmed herself and mentally reviewed the parts of the spell instead. Each part had to fit together perfectly... "Just put him in the center of the circle, and don't let him wander off. You can hold him there if you want, but take - what's that smell?" It was a strong, animal scent, and Schala's heart sank as she realized the answer to her question.
The cat calmly left his little nest to explore the rest of her room, letting Janus lift up the scarf to show a fresh damp spot right in the middle. "Animals are animals, after all" he said philosophically.
He was right, and Schala felt she should have seen this coming. "We'll have to find some dirt and train him to use it." She sighed. "But right now, please put him in the circle, and don't leave your hands in there after I start."
"I know that much," Janus said, and picked up the cat from where he had wandered. Schala took the opportunity to hang her scarf out the nearest window - the smell didn't dissipate, but it was muted. When she turned to the desk Janus was already there, holding the cat in place with gentler hands than she had previously credited her brother with.
Schala raised her hands above the circle in perfect casting position, checked the circle one last time, and reviewed the spell again. She blinked and dropped her hands. How had she forgotten the most basic part? "He needs a name. Otherwise he won't know when we're calling him."
Before Schala could start coming up with a list of good, strong animal names, Janus jumped in with "Alfador." His face had the set it did when he had an idea and wasn't going to give it up without a bloody fight.
Schala tried anyway. "Alfador...like Sir Alfador in the Pelucia Saga? Janus, that's not a name for an animal."
"So...so you can't just name him after your favorite hero! He needs a name like...Pounce. Or Spot." Neither of these struck Schala as particularly good names, but she rallied as best she could. "Animals don't need human names."
"It will inspire him to great deeds," Janus informed her loftily. He considered for a moment, then added: "Spot is an awful name."
"It is." She frowned at the little cat. "Fluffy?" she hazarded.
"He's not even all white. Alfador."
Schala gave up. "Very well." She raised her hands to begin the spell, making sure Janus got his out before she started.
Loyalty, to know and obey his mistress. Strength, to hunt and protect. Health, to never fall cold or sick. Protection, against yet-unknown dangers. Peace, to rest and be tamed. Love, to give and recieve affection in turn. And finally, to tie it all together, a name.
She brought her hands down in completion, the herbs burning away in one single bright flash.
Lights blinked in front of her eyes, and it took long moments before Schala could see the results of her spell. When her vision finally cleared, the cat - Alfador - was...
He was purple.
"That's not supposed to happen," was the only thing she could think of to say.
Janus studied Alfador's new coat with patience he never gave his lesson-books. Finally, he nodded. "I like it."
It was very striking, the white and black changed to a soft lavender and rich violet, and the overall effect was pleasing to the eye. It was just that it shouldn't have happened. She had worked the spell perfectly, she was sure.
There was one good way to test. "Alfador, come here," she said, and beckoned.
The cat tottered around for a bit, seemingly still having trouble with the flash, until he bumped into the dish of water and settled down for a drink.
"Alfador, come here," she tried again, and a third time. None had any effect, and Alfador kept lapping up the water as if he hadn't heard at all. When he had finished he stood and cried a piteous little cry to Janus, who was happy to start petting him again.
"I think he's hungry," Janus observed. "Do you have any food?"
"He eats meat, there might be some jerky in the drawer..." Schala replied absently, still trying to figure out what had gone wrong. The spell had been perfect in every way, and all it had done was turn a cat purple. The little friend that was supposed to follow her seemed more interested in her brother, even before he was fed little scraps of jerky right from Janus' hand.
'They're prideful creatures that only answer to themselves' she recalled Mari saying, and sighed. It was hard to believe that her magic, the strongest in Zeal, had failed against a not even fully-grown Earthbound creature, but the evidence was hard to refute. So much for bringing the Earthbound Ones ever more loyal animals with magic.
At least, she thought as she looked at the pair on her bed, he liked Janus well enough. And Janus liked him, which was even more unusual. She didn't quite have the heart to break them up.
"If you're going to take care of him," she said and injecting her voice with more than a little big sisterly order-giving, "you'll need to take care of him completely. Make sure he's fed, watered, warm-"
"-has some dirt and doesn't eat anything of Melchior's, I /know/." Janus raised one of his hands - the other still occupied with Alfador - and quickly rattled off "I swear by the Lord of Magic and the Lady of Dreams to take complete responsibility until he or I die - whichever first - or may my flesh burn and melt away and my bones shatter to dust and I dwell in nightmares in Zurvan forevermore, this I vow." He glared at her when he was done, as if the entire idea were her fault.
Sometimes she wondered if all children were so morbid, or if Janus were unusual. He'd felt the black wind before she had, when Father had died. But it would do no good to ask him about his strange, grim vow, so she just sat down next to him and looked a bit wistfully at Alfador. "He was supposed to be mine, you know."
"I'll let you pet him occasionally," Janus said, magnanimous as ever.
So she did.