To Elaine's significant alarm, the cat did not seem to be doing well in her house by the second day.
"I don't understand," she said to the cat as it lay flopped on the floor, whiskers drooped, fur matted, panting as if it was terribly hot. "I've given you water, food, a nice place to sleep, and even fresh air because you begged." She'd had to hold the cat in her arms to make sure it didn't run away, but she had taken it outside a couple of times, hoping it might stop acting like it was dying of heat. It hadn't. "You're just like all the plants I've tried to keep in my house. Does everything just die in here except me?"
The cat made a miserable half meow, half whine sound.
"Just hold on until tomorrow, okay? Sir Strickland will take you back to the city, I'll get my money, and, I dunno, maybe you'll feel better once you're in a place that doesn't siphon magic."
The cat gave Elaine an incredulous look before laying its head on the floor and continuing to pant.
Elaine sighed and set a fresh bowl of cool water on the floor by its head. "Yeah, well, I don't make the rules. It is what it is."
All that day and into the next morning, the cat seemed to be growing less and less responsive. It was breathing, thank goodness, but it was almost as if it was focusing so hard on something, it couldn't possibly do anything but lay on the floor.
"Not much longer, kitty. I can tell you hate it here, but you can leave as soon as Sir Strickland gets here."
Elaine went to set about making herself and the cat some food— maybe she could get it to eat something and then it wouldn't look so sorry— when she heard a gusty sigh of resigned exhaustion and then— nothing. The cat was silent behind her. By the Spirits. Please don't tell me it's dead.
Elaine turned around and, to her unspeakable surprise, there was a young woman on her floor. Where the cat had been. And she wasn't wearing any clothing.
Elaine spun on her heel to face the stove again, feeling her face heat up. Oh Spirits.
She stood there, frozen with nervous energy, for some long minutes before finally edging around to the couch to grab the throw blanket off of it.
After taking a minute to regain her composure, Elaine returned to the dining area and looked down at the woman on her floor.
Her hair was the exact color of the cat's fur, white at the ends like its toes and tail-tip. Upon closer inspection, it even looked almost as if her skin had the faintest of striped markings on it. A key hung around her neck.
I'd be willing to bet her eyes are as orange as they come, too, Elaine thought, her own eyes traveling over the unconscious woman's figure.
Elaine caught herself after a moment and threw the blanket over the woman's naked body. Then she continued to stare down at her. "What am I supposed to do with you? Who are you, anyway?"
She looked pretty young, almost more of a girl than a woman. Probably about Elaine's age.
Oh. Oh no.
Would the Lady Enchantress do something like that? She undoubtedly had the power to shapeshift, even into a cat, if the stories were true. If the only way to catch the cat was to not actively chase it— or to get it stuck on Elaine's roof, apparently— then whoever caught it would have to be pretty friendly with it. It made sense, in a way.
"And if you are Lady Katherine…" Elaine paled, finally making the connection between the cat's sudden transformation and the magic-sapping qualities of her home. "What have I done to you?"
There was a sharp knock at the door and a cheerful, "Miss Elaine? Are you at home?"
Elaine nearly swore. Sir Strickland! She'd all but forgotten about him, what with the cat having turned into a clothless lady on her kitchen floor.
"Oh, Spirits, Spirits, Spirits…" Elaine darted around her house, trying to find something that might inspire her in what to do. Finally, she opted for simply opening the door and standing in the entrance, hoping Sir Strickland wouldn't try too hard to look past her.
"Ah, Elaine. I was worried you might be out." He looked mildly curious, but clearly didn't care too much about Elaine's somewhat odd behavior.
"No, just…" Had she heard something from inside? "Preoccupied."
There was definitely movement behind her. "Um, Sir, may we speak outside?"
He looked surprised. "If you'd rather, sure."
Elaine moved forward and closed the door behind her, only then remembering that she wasn't wearing any shoes. Ah well.
Before Strickland could say anything, Elaine said, "I'm sorry, but I… haven't seen the cat yet."
The man looked terribly disappointed, so Elaine continued, "It's happened before where it doesn't come by for a week or two."
He nodded in understanding, but still looked unhappy, so Elaine added, "If you see the cat in the city, though, I've figured out that it's not hard to befriend it if you just sit still and talk softly to it. It likes high places and chicken, so perhaps that might help as well?"
Elaine felt bad, knowing that none of that advice would be of any use as long as the cat was in her house and, well, not a cat, but Sir Strickland looked a little happier.
"Well, I appreciate your trouble anyway, Miss, and thank you for the tip. If you do manage to get your hands on the cat again, I hope you might be willing to bring it into town? Ask for the Strickland Manor and anyone can direct you."
"Of course, I'd be happy to do that, Sir," Elaine said, not too untruthfully. "My apologies, again, for not having it for you today."
"Well, the Spirits have their ways, and who are we to ask that They change them?" Strickland straightened his hat on his head. "May They provide you with the aid you need."
"You as well, Sir Strickland." Though I think I'll need it more, she thought wryly as she watched him go.
Elaine waited until he was just a speck on the road, then took a deep breath, steeling herself as she faced the door. “Okay, Elaine, you’ve got this.”
She opened the door, and standing directly in front of her was Enchantress Katherine, Lady of Light and Dark, wrapped up in a fluffy throw blanket and looking at Elaine with glaring orange eyes.
“Oh, um, Lady— Enchantress—”
“A house that siphons magic?” the woman asked angrily. “Really?”
“Well, you see—”
“What kind of a place has to drain the magic out of things? Where does that magic go?” Even though she was literally wearing nothing but a blanket, the enchantress was terribly intimidating, stalking back and forth in front of Elaine and throwing pointed questions at her. “I don’t know why I haven’t heard of whatever it is you’re doing here before, but I’m going to put an end to the whole thing if you don’t explain yourself this instant.”
Elaine closed the door behind her. “It really isn’t what it sounds like when you put it that way. I shouldn’t have said that it ‘siphons’ magic, because that’s not entirely accurate. Honestly, I’m surprised you don’t know what I am already—” the orange eyes flashed and Elaine changed tracks, raising her hands placatingly. “I’m a sliver. A magic cripple.”
Now it was the Lady’s turn to appear alarmed; she took a step back and appeared ready to drop the blanket if she had to in order to defend herself.
To avoid that future, Elaine hastened to add, “I’m not one of the contagious ones, and it hasn’t affected my mind— the therapists say it’ll never get worse than it is already. All it does is make it hard for me to use magic, and magical things tend to sort of stop working after they spend enough time around me.”
“That still doesn’t explain what you said about your stupid house,” the Enchantress said warily, looking around her at their very normal surroundings.
“Oh, well, I guess the real magic siphon is me. More of a vacuum, actually.” Elaine looked at the floor. “Magic sort of… sticks to me, if you will. I think most people have the ability to draw magic from the world around them, but for me it’s kind of just sucked in and I can’t do nearly enough magic to get it back out. It just comes in and doesn’t go back out, and it would kill me eventually, if I had too much built up inside me.
“So, this house,” Elaine gestured around her, “was built with a sort of anti-enchantment that draws the magic out of the things inside of it and sends it back into the earth— and into the lights and heating and such. I can get it to play music and things like that as well, but most of what comes in just goes back to the earth.”
Lady Katherine seemed to be letting her guard down as Elaine spoke, but she still looked pretty upset— and rightly so, since… “So, your house stole my magic and put it back into the ground.”
Elaine grimaced. “Well… basically. The more magic there is in whatever comes inside, the faster it works. Sort of makes sure that even if I was about to die from oversaturation, it could get enough magic out of me quickly enough to make sure I don’t. Die, that is,” she added when the Lady looked unmoved.
“Okay, so will my magic come back when I leave?”
“Well, no enchanted item seems to have recovered any of its abilities when I brought it back out of my house… but I’m sure it must not be the same with people?”
Lady Katherine was looking a little pale. “By the Spirits, why did you keep me stuck in here for three whole days?”
“You were a cat!” Elaine retorted indignantly. “And you’re free to go now, so why don’t you?”
Lady Katherine scowled and gestured at what she was wearing. “The Lady of Light and Dark, traipsing to her own home in a blanket? I can’t exactly teleport back or shapeshift in this condition.”
Oh, yeah. “Well—” Elaine huffed. “You can just wear some of my clothes.”
The look on the Lady’s face told Elaine that she’d nearly rather die than wear the clothes of a sliver like Elaine. “I don’t suppose your clothes drain magic, too?”
“Of course not!” Elaine scowled. “Let me go see what I’ve got.”
Elaine strode up the stairs to her room and rifled through her drawers. The Enchantress was a little taller than her, so any of her skirts might be a little odd. A pair of pants, a decent shirt, and Elaine’s old set of boots should do it.
Clothing in hand, Elaine went back down the stairs to see Lady Katherine looking at the pictures of Elaine’s family on her wall.
“Here,” Elaine said, and watched as the Lady turned, looking a little guilty as if she’d been caught doing something wrong.
The Lady picked up the clothes, and Elaine turned around, pretending to be busy with something on the counter because she was embarrassed about being embarrassed to see the other woman naked. Again.
“Your family looks nice.”
Elaine was surprised, and glanced behind her. She quickly looked back at the counter again, blushing. “They were nice.”
Silence. Then, “Are they…?”
Elaine nodded, fiddling with the point of a knife. “Dead, yes. At least I can only assume so. My dad built this place for me, but I think it must have hurt him and my mom to stay in it— they were much better with magic than I could ever be.
“They left, off to search for a cure for my condition, to make the world a better place for slivers like me. They said they’d come back when they found something, or in five years, whichever came sooner.”
Elaine risked turning around again, and to her relief, the Lady was dressed and sitting on the couch to tie the laces on the boots. “It’s been seven years, so I can only assume the worst. Even if they’re not dead, they didn’t come back, so…”
Lady Katherine finished with the boots and rested her head in her hands, elbows on her knees. “My parents died a while back, too. I’m sure they didn’t intend to leave the entire city to me—” she looked at Elaine, shaking her head— “no, the city council barely functions without me, so don’t even go there. Anyway, they did leave it to me, with some help from my uncle, so. I suppose I understand, in a way. The feeling of being left behind with a burden that no one else will bear for you.”
When Elaine didn’t say anything, the Lady’s face hardened again, making Elaine realize that it had been much softer while she was talking. “Well, thank you for the clothes. I doubt I’ll ever see you again, but it has certainly been… interesting. I’ll see myself out.”
Elaine watched as the Enchantress made to leave, pausing in the doorway. Her frame was slightly silhouetted by the light outside, accentuating her mild curves and darkening the black of her hair. “Goodbye,” Elaine finally said as the Lady continued, closing the door behind her. “I’m sorry if I hurt you at all.”