Aniyah got down on her knees and looked into the square hole that served as the shack’s entrance. It wasn’t dissimilar to peering inside a doghouse, and moments later she shook her head noticing several doghouses actually were cobbled together as parts of the hovel.
“Yo, Phil. Thanks for savin’ my ass ‘n all with that meth-head… but this looks like the last damn place I should crawl into with some crazy homeless white guy who says he’s a wizard.”
“Philder,” corrected the old man, “And I do have a home, right here.”
The fourteen-year-old rolled her eyes, then poked her braided head cautiously into the opening. “You’re lucky I’m a crazy bitch, Phil!”
She crawled into the eccentric shack composed of oddly angled junk. “You said you owed me a favor, Aniyah. In exchange for it, I’m unsealing a hidden talent within you. ‘Tis a substantial boon… one that some would kill for.”
“Yeah, yeah, magical talent, blah, blah. You’ve been telling me for weeks. What’d ya have in here? Hogwarts?”
On hands and knees, her eyes adjusted to the dim light. Phil sat cross legged with a knit cap on his head, and pushing aside a long grey beard and hair he reached into his dirty jacket.
“I have no hogs,” he said removing a carved pipe.
The girl reclined back to sit, and brushed dirt off her birthstone ring. “It’s like, a school for wizards ‘n shit. Don’t you wanna turn me into the ghetto Hermione Granger or somethin’?”
Opening a pouch of tobacco, he packed his pipe and struck a match. “I never said your talent was for wizardry. In fact, I’m certain it isn’t.”
Aniyah hugged her legs clad in yoga pants, sitting opposite to him on the dirt floor. “Whatever, Phil. Let’s just do this so I can keep my promise, and then you can stop following me around.”
He smiled, sweet smoke beginning to fill the cramped space.
Reaching to his side, he lifted a rock off the dirt floor. Digging a shallow hole with his fingers underneath, Phil unearthed a small crystal. He rubbed it clean, then regarded the gem’s sky blue facets. The girl’s eyes widened at its iridescence as he offered it to her.
She drew in a breath. “Is it, stolen?”
“No. ‘Tis the last of my Onn Stones. This is the key that will unlock the sealed talent I sense within you.”
She offered her cupped palm. “You shouldn’t give it to me, you should pawn it. That looks like a lot of Benjamins.”
His eyes were as blue as the crystal he held. “It’s worth more than coin or coffer, having survived the journey to this world for a special purpose.”
“Now I know you’ve got crack in that pipe,” she said as he dropped the crystal onto her hand. “There ain’t nothin’ special ‘bout me.”
The old man leaned back, kind-eyed. Stroking his dirty beard, he placed the stem of the pipe on his lips.
Aniyah turned the gem in her palm and it sparked in the poor light. Then it suddenly became warm, and before she had time to blink the crystal dissolved. The blue liquid that remained seeped through her skin, disappearing as she tried to shake it off.
Her hand spasmed violently, and she cried out. Grabbing a trembling wrist with her other hand, the girl braced her arm against the shaking that began to take hold.
“What’d the fuck you do?! Phil! What the fuck was it?!”
He calmly puffed on his pipe. “I know it’s disconcerting, but there shouldn’t be any pain.”
As her fingers receded into the paw her hand was becoming, the sensation was indeed painless, but still unlike anything she’d ever felt. Gasping as her digits shortened and thickened, she watched her birthstone ring get pushed off the tip of a growing claw.
Phil’s eyes widened. “Shapeshifting! That’s quite rare where I come from, you know.”
Black fur overtook Aniyah’s chestnut skin, then raced up towards her shoulder as her arm became an animalistic forelimb. “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!”
“Yours is a very broad aura, it’s impressive.” The wizard nodded, taking the pipe from his mouth.
The metamorphosis spread, her body remolding like clay under her clothing. She collapsed as a whipping tail escaped now ill-fitting pants, her mind churning with sensations.
“Stop it! Sssstop…” her words collapsed into hissing as a catlike muzzle and fangs replaced her human features.
“I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s disorienting, but it’s almost over.”
He watched the final changes solidify, taking a new puff from his pipe as finally she lay still. “Yours is a versatile talent. With practice I foresee you being able to assume any kind of feline form, from housecats to lions. Even creative humanoid mixes.”
The black pantheress Aniyah had become glared and loosed a growl at the wizard.
Phil blew a smoke ring into her face, chuckling as she pinned back her whiskers annoyed. “Can you speak?”
“F-fuck,” she panted. “What the fuck have you done to me?!”
“Oh, that’s excellent! Speech across forms is always useful.”
She struggled to rise; a great cat now comically stuffed into yoga pants, a tank-top and sneakers. “Drugs! You slipped me goddamned drugs!”
“Magic,” Phil corrected, “most of it yours.”
She bared her fangs. “Change me back, you asshole!”
The old man grinned. “Not my spell, young lady!”
She rose wobbling, half-attempting to swipe him with a paw. “Damn you, Phil! I didn’t ask for this!”
He was unflinching. “I didn’t force you to come here. You had curiosity in your eyes… And you must have had it in your heart to unlock the Onn Stone.”
Aniyah looked down at herself, then back to the wizard. “I didn’t want to turn into two-hundred pounds of big ass talkin’ cat!”
“Yes, but you’re magnificent all the same!”
The claws of her forepaws raked lines in the dirt. “And I’m getting seriously pissed-off!”
He listened past her anger, looking kindly to the cat and hearing a crack of fear in her voice. “Aniyah—”
“I don’t want to live like this!” Aniyah blurted out finally letting a tear roll from an eye. “I don’t want to be your pet. Or be put in a zoo!”
“Aniyah, if you’ll listen, I’ll teach you a basic technique that will return you to your human form. With a talent such as yours, you’ll probably master it in an hour.”
The panther’s ears perked and she sniffed back a tear. “Really?”
He nodded puffing his pipe.
She took her first hesitant steps on all fours. “I- I dunno, it’s so weird. I still think I’m trippin’…”
A sneaker was left behind as she stumbled closer to Phil, still unsure of her quadrupedal balance. “But I’ll be able to change back ‘n forth? Like, when I want?”
“Of course. Yours is not a curse, my dear. ‘Tis a gift.”
“Phil, what have you made me? What am I?”
He reached out, a dirty hand rubbing behind her ear as if she were a giant housecat. “Special, Aniyah. You’re something extraordinary.”
Her face betrayed a feline savor at his scratching touch. Then there was a sudden rumble as she found her purr.
She withdrew from his hand, looking slightly embarrassed. “So, you’re gonna teach me what to do?”
“Yes. And in exchange I would hope that you might assist me in my lonely quest to aid both your world, and my own.”
Aniyah sat on her haunches with a tail curling behind her. “Oh shit… you’re not crazy! What you said about some badass dark lord is true, isn’t it?”
Phil nodded, eyes suddenly somber.
“O-okay, I’m in. Teach me. Does this make me your student or something?”
He smiled. “Something more. A friend.”