During the following week, Willow started Care of Magical Creatures Club. Her first lesson was less than what she expected. One of the older Suncorn boys in the club told her to clean out the pegasus stalls.
“But can’t you do that with magic?” asked Willow. “I thought I’d get to work with a pegasus, not clean up after one.”
“As a first year? Ha, ha! No, newbie. You’ve got to work your way up. Everyone starts by mucking out the stalls. It’s always been that way.”
That doesn’t make it right, she thought as she picked up the shovel. Well, I may hurt tomorrow, but a little hard work never killed anybody. Resigning herself to the dirty job, she set to work and had the stalls cleaned out a half hour later. She had just emptied the last wheelbarrow of manure outside the pegasus barn when she saw Miss Mercana walking by.
“Hello Willow, I’m glad to see you making an effort this afternoon,” Miss Mercana said to her. “I’m working with the wyverns today, which are too dangerous for anyone who’s below a Junior. I’d like you to work with James over there to take care of the blink dogs.”
Willow headed over to where Miss Mercana had pointed to meet a brown-haired Hammersmith boy in the telltale red and gold uniform. He looked to be about three years older than Willow.
“Ah, you must be the newbie,” said the boy. “I’m James and I’ll be your slave driver for the afternoon.”
“Hi?” replied Willow. I don’t like how this is starting, she thought, dreading what might come next.
“Alright, first task for you,” he said. “I need you to put these collars on the blink dogs. You’ll have to be quick since they’re kind of jumpy.”
Collars on dogs? Easy, she thought. She nodded and took the handful of collars that James held out for her. I’ll show James what I can do.
She walked through the gates into the enclosure, seeing a pack of about eight dogs near the middle of the pen. She started to approach them slowly. These animals looked like regular dogs - almost like a labrador - so she couldn’t see that this would be too difficult of a challenge. One of the dogs came close to her, sniffing the air to catch her scent. She put out the back of her hand to allow the dog to smell her, just like she would do with a normal dog. The blink dog took a few sniffs and then wagged its tail. Thinking this was a good sign, Willow reached forward with the other hand that had the collar and tried to get it around the dog’s neck, but as soon as she thought she had it, the dog was gone. The dog didn’t run away - it disappeared in an instant.
Looking around, she saw that the dog was now six feet away from her, still wagging its tail. She approached again and went through the same routine. She slowed down her attempt to put the collar on, but as soon as the collar touched the dog’s fur, he blinked away. She looked up at James, who was laughing at her.
What a jerk, she thought. She stood up and took a deep breath. Okay, what do you know about dogs...what do they love more than anything else? She immediately glanced around the enclosure and saw what she was looking for, a large storage box located right next to the dog’s food bowls. Bingo.
She walked to the opposite side of the enclosure and opened the box. As soon as she opened it, the dogs came bounding over, barking all around her. Pulling out the bag of food, she poured portions into each of the food bowls and then proceeded to put their collars on while they were chowing down. Having threaded on the last collar, she walked back over to where James was waiting. He wasn’t laughing now.
“Nice job, newbie,” he said sarcastically. “Clever and resourceful...they should have stuck you in Featherpenny or Murgatroyd. Follow me to the hellbender salamanders.” He led the way toward a path that followed the edge of the North Woods. They continued on the trail until they came to a stone wall that enclosed an area about fifty feet across.
“Salamanders?” Willow asked. “You mean the little slimy lizard things that live near water?”
“Lizard things, yes,” James replied. “But you won’t get anything but steam if you put water near these creatures.” He stopped and looked over the wall into the enclosed area. “Here we are. Now, newbie, these hellbenders heat the school during the winter, but during the warmer months, we have to keep them outside. Your next task is going to be to catch one of these bad boys in this cage. Good luck.” He handed a metal box with holes over to Willow. Looking at it, she thought it might once have been steel, but now had been completely blackened by fire.
Willow looked over the side of the wall. The entire floor of the enclosure was black and covered with scorched ash. She could see several fires burning below, the heat was pouring upward in waves like the air above a dark car roof on a blistering summer day. Definitely no water down there, she thought, trying to figure out where the salamanders might be. As she looked closer at the burning fires, she could see something moving inside the flames. There were creatures inside the flames. What the...how is that possible? she wondered. And yet - there they are. Now it makes sense that they heat the school. The creatures in the fire had the shape of normal salamanders, but they were much larger - about a foot long and deep purple - almost black. Their skin flickered as if it too was made from flames. How in the world am I going to catch one of those? It’s not like I can whip out their food bowl. She set the cage down on the ground and thought out the problem.
“Give up yet, newbie?” said James.
“No,” replied Willow. “I’ll figure it out.” There was no way she was going to give up now, but she was going to have to think fast and start fishing for ideas.
“Fishing,” she muttered to herself.
“Excuse me?” said James.
“Is there more to this cage?” Willow asked. “A pole and a way to lower it down? I know nobody can go down there.”
James looked downtrodden, like Willow had just popped his last balloon. “Yeah. It’s over there.” He pointed to the right side of the wall, around a corner from where Willow was standing. Once there, she saw the long pole with the hook on the end...and a few logs. Problem number two solved as well. It had obviously been staged so that James could appear the hero when Willow gave up.
She loaded the logs into the cage, connected the hook to the top and lowered it so that it was right next to a salamander that was close to the wall. She could barely see what she was doing, with the heat rising up in her face like a blast furnace. The sweat was dripping from her forehead when the cage hit the ground. The door opened toward the dying fire and the wood inside the cage was already starting to smoke from the nearby coals. Now there’s nothing left to do but wait.
Willow had never had a problem with waiting, but after fifteen minutes, James was fidgeting.
“You set it down too far away,” he said. “We’ve been waiting here forever.”
“Just be patient for another minute,” said Willow, peering over the edge. “Yes, he’s moving now.” The salamander entered the cage and Willow hit a trigger on the pole that closed the door to the cage. She started raising it. Just like reeling in a fish. Once the cage was at her level, she put the pole over her shoulder and followed James, looking very much like a tramp with his life’s belongings tied in a sack at the end of a stick.
“Are you sure you don’t belong in Suncorn?” James asked as they walked. “They’re the only ones I know that can wait as long as that without going insane.”
I don’t know where I belong, thought Willow, but she just shrugged at him.
James was scowling. He had obviously wanted her to fail and as they handed over the salamander cage to a sophomore wearing Suncorn's yellow-trimmed robes, Willow thought she caught a wicked gleam in James' eye.
“Come on,” he said, another malicious smile on his face. “Let’s go feed the manticore now.” Willow didn’t know what a manticore was, but she was pretty sure this was going to be another uncomfortable challenge.
“Listen, newbie, you did a pretty good job with the dogs and hellbenders, but you’ll have to be brave to feed the manticore. You’ll have to get in the pen, toss in his food and get out before he finishes. If he’s still hungry, he’ll come after you and sting you with his tail, and you’ll spend the rest of the week in the hospital - if you’re not dead.”
Willow wasn’t sure how much of this was true and how much was meant to frighten her. Either way it was working. Being nomaj-born definitely put her at a disadvantage. If she knew what a manticore was, at least she’d be prepared for what she had to do.
“Take this slab of steak and drop it on top of that stump and then high-tail it out of there. I don’t want to have to drag your body out on my watch.”
Willow looked at the large bloody slab of meat sitting on the table next to her. So the manticore was a meat-eater - not good to know. She took a pair of tongs and picked up the slab, which now was dripping, so she had to hold it away from herself to make sure she didn’t get any blood on her pants or shoes. James was standing by the gate, waiting for her to go in.
“Have fun.” he said to her as he opened the gate. As soon as Willow was through, he quickly shut it again. Willow continued forward cautiously. She couldn’t see the manticore, but there was a hut-like structure in the back of the pen that was shrouded in darkness. She was about forty feet from the tree stump, about eighty feet from the hut.
What am I doing? she wondered. Why am I walking into a pen with a slab of meat on a stick to feed a beast I’ve never heard of? She continued forward at a slow walk, her eyes on the pen. She decided that if she saw anything move, she was going to drop the steak and make a break for it. I’m okay with not being brave...as long as I can keep being alive.
How fast could a manticore be, anyway? She finally made it to the stump and there was still no movement from the hut. She leaned over and glanced down at the stump as she dropped the meat on top. When she looked up again, the manticore had left the pen and was bearing down on her like lightning. It looked like a mountain lion, but with a human-like face and a giant scorpion tail. It was bounding toward her and Willow was frozen in place, her mind numb.
Her thoughts were sluggish; unfocused, but growing more urgent as the creature bore down on her. Run. You should run. Run, you idiot! Legs, move! She was just turning to run toward the fence when the manticore, who ignored the steak entirely, knocked her to the ground, pinning her underneath its front paws. She turned her head to try to roll over and escape, only to see the giant scorpion tail plunge toward her. As it pressed into her back, she screamed.
The next thing she knew, the manticore had been knocked from her back and another shape stood over her. The manticore retreated back toward its pen and Willow looked up at her rescuer, thinking it would be James. Instead, it was Miss Mercana, who was in an absolute rage.
“Willow, get out of the enclosure now,” she said in a firm voice. Willow could hear the anger behind it. She didn’t waste another second and ran toward the fence, Miss Mercana right behind her. Once outside the gate, Miss Mercana whirled on James and exploded.
“What were you thinking!” she screamed at James. “Have you any brains in that head of yours! She could have been seriously mauled and you couldn’t have done a thing about it!” James started to open his mouth, but Miss Mercana cut him off. “No, don’t give me any excuses. Get out of my sight! Go!”
Willow was on the ground, tears pouring down her face. Miss Mercana turned to her.
“I’m so sorry, Willow,” she said. “I should have known better than to put you with James. Can you stand?”
Willow nodded her head and pushed herself off the ground.
Miss Mercana pointed to the nearby Care of Magical Creatures building. “Come into my office.”
Willow walked toward the building where she had her first Care of Magical Creatures class and entered into Miss Mercana’s office which was on the far side. In her office there was a large comfortable leather chair across from a desk. Miss Mercana pointed Willow toward the leather chair while she went behind the desk and sat down.
Willow, who had been trying to catch her breath and stop crying, finally choked out, “Am I poisoned from the stinger?”
Miss Mercana took a second to think about what she was asking and then answered with a shake of her head, “No. The manticore we have here is just a baby. The stinger doesn’t develop until it’s two or three years old. It was actually trying to play with you, but it still could have mauled you with its claws. The fact that they’re resistant to magic makes them even more dangerous. What other tricks did James play on you?” she asked.
Willow told her about the blink dogs and the hellbenders. By the time Willow had told her how James had a scowl on his face after she had reeled in the salamander, Miss Mercana was laughing.
“Ha, I bet he was eating his liver!” she said. “Good job Willow. You seem to have a pretty good head on your shoulders. I think maybe I can use you for a very special task. You see, I was hoping you might watch Fred for me.”
Great, now I have to babysit another student? she thought; but then said “okay”, since she felt it would have been rude to turn Miss Mercana down. Especially after she had just saved Willow from being attacked by the manticore.
Miss Mercana got up from the desk. “Hang out here for a minute while I go introduce you.” She walked to a door in the back of the room which opened to a staircase and she climbed up to the second floor.
After she left the room, Willow glanced around at the office. Everything in it was related to magical creatures. She saw antlers, horns and a number of skulls that didn’t belong to any animal Willow could recognize. Why is there a wooden bear here? she thought, looking at a small carved brown bear figure sitting on Miss Mercana’s desk. They aren’t magical. She was still puzzling over this when Miss Mercana returned holding a large covered cage in her hands.
Oh, thought Willow. Fred is a cat.
Miss Mercana set the cage on the desk and removed the cover. Willow gasped. Inside was definitely not a cat, but what looked like a miniature dragon. Willow remembered that this was the creature that she and her mother had seen in Narrowway at the pet store. The miniature dragon was about eighteen inches long, scaly with large bat-like wings and a long tail.
Miss Mercana looked at the creature. “Fred, meet Willow.” and gesturing to her, “Willow, Fred. Fred’s a pseudodragon* and he’s fully grown, so you don’t have to worry about him eating your dog. I just need someone to look after him for one or two days a month and I was hoping you might be able to do it.”
Remembering the ban on magical animals, Willow’s face dropped. “Miss Mercana, I’m so sorry, but I live in a nomaj house. I don’t think they’ll let me take Fred home.”
She smiled. “I wouldn’t worry about that. The stores can’t sell you a magical animal, but you can certainly have one in your house. If anybody asks, you can tell them it’s an iguana.”
Willow smiled back. Fred did bear a resemblance to an iguana. If iguanas had wings; and a long neck; and burped fire.
The sugar maple trees were starting to turn bright orange by the beginning of October when she first got to bring Fred home to stay with her. She didn’t think about it until she walked in the door, but somehow, she had completely forgotten to tell her mother about him.
“You brought a what home?” said her mother as Willow carried in the cage that evening.
“A pseudodragon. It’s what we saw in the magical animal store when we went to Narroway.” Willow set Fred down on the kitchen counter and pulled off the cover so her mom could see.
Fred had apparently been napping and uncurled as Willow and her mom looked in at him. He hiccuped and the mail caught on fire from the flames that shot from his mouth.
After throwing the mail in the sink and running water over it, Willow’s mom turned to her. “You brought a fire-breathing dragon into our home? “she yelled. “What in the world were you thinking? Our house is made of wood!”
Willow hadn’t thought of that.
“Did you just think you could keep it in your room?” Willow’s mom continued. “What are we supposed to do with it?”
“I’m just supposed to look after him for tonight,” Willow said. “I can take him back tomorrow. It’s just...”
“Just what?” said Willow’s mom, her eyes growing wider.
Knowing that her mom was about to go off on her, she quickly blurted it out. “It’s just that I promised to watch after him one day a month for the whole school year and I can put him somewhere safe and I need to do this, mom.”
Willow’s mom gave her ‘the look.’ “So now I have to worry about our house burning down tonight and every month for the rest of the year?” her mom asked, her voice rising in anger. “Willow, this is incredibly irresponsible. You’re going to take back this dragon tomorrow and not bring it back here.”
Willow was getting upset and felt the emotion rise in her. “You don’t understand,” she said to her mom. “You’re just a nomaj.”
“Just a nomaj?” her mom yelled. “What does that mean? I think you are trying to insult me, but nomaj or not, I’m still your mother and this is my house!”
Willow ran up to her room and slammed the door before her mom had even finished yelling at her. Why does she have to be so mean? Why can’t she understand that I’m magical and that I have to start doing the things that other mages do? I’m not making friends, everyone is mean to me and there’s nothing I can do about it. Now, finally, I have something of my own and she’s going to take it away! She collapsed on her bed, the tears streaming from her eyes.
After about ten minutes, she felt better for having released the pent up emotions of the last two months. Okay, she acknowledged, maybe I shouldn’t have brought a fire breathing dragon into the house.
A short while later, her mom knocked on her door. “Willow, please come down to dinner. I’d like to talk.”
As Willow came downstairs, she noticed that Fred was gone. “Where’s...”
Her mom cut her off. “The dragon is safely in the garage - away from anything that can catch on fire. Go take a look.”
Willow went out to the garage. The car had been moved out to the driveway and in the middle was Fred’s cage, wrapped in aluminum foil. She went over and peeled back a corner to look inside. The foil was warm and Fred was curled up, fast asleep.
Willow came back in and sat down at the table. “I didn’t think about his fire-breathing when I brought him home,” Willow said to her mom in a low voice.
“I know,” said her mom. “It’s not something that you and I usually think about. I recognize now what Mr. Abrams meant when he said our world would be completely different. I know I’m going to have to get more comfortable with your magic. So for starters, I’d like to read your textbooks.”
“You want to what?” asked Willow.
“It’s not like I can go to the library and check out a book on mages can I? If I’m going to live in your world, I need information and the only way I can think of is to use your textbooks.”
“I’m kind of using them, mom,” said Willow.
“I’ll read them in the evenings,” her mom replied. “And only when you don’t need them to do homework. I’m also going to send a message to Mr. Abrams to see if there is anything else I can do.”
“Does this mean I can keep Fred?” Willow asked.
“Who’s Fred? her mother questioned.
“The pseudodragon. Can we keep him here?”
“Oh. Yes, we can keep it here - but you might want to ask your teacher if it has a fire-proof cage before winter sets in.”
Willow got up from the table and hugged her mom. “Thank you. It means everything to me.”
"Just please tell me it doesn't get much bigger," her mom said. "We only have a one-car garage."
(* Blink dogs and pseudodragons originally created by Gary Gygax, Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, TSR, 1977)
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