Chapter 5: A New Destiny

"We mustn't say a word," Dr. Horst urged.

"What? Why?"

Dr. Horst looked up at her suddenly, his gray-brown eyes sparkling. "Change into something else, or get down. I can't take you seriously with you standing on your bed flexing your wings."

Aspen smiled wryly at his words, but the smile disappeared when she realized something. "How do I change?"

Dr. Horst shrugged. "I'm not sure, sorry. I haven't seen this in all my years. You did it before, though, and that should help a little."

Aspen plopped down on the bed suddenly, landing heavily on her rear. "I got angry," she muttered.

Dr. Horst put his finger to his chin. "Hm. Maybe you could think about what you want to change into."

What do I want to change into?

Aspen paused to think about this. Wings distracted her from the task at hand. She had been a half-cat before. She was eager to try out other forms, though. She chose one and closed her eyes.

Sure enough, she felt her wings shrink into her back. Her tail contracted and lengthened. Her hair, once a short, lovely golden-blond, lengthened some. Her human ears disappeared, to be replaced with cat ears atop her head. She opened her eyes as a half-leopard.

"I like it," she said, flicking her tail experimentally.

"Good. I'm glad. Now, on the matter of your...ability, we should keep this secret."

Aspen's tail bristled. "Why are you part of this?"

"You told me everything earlier."

Aspen flattened her ears. "Darn." She considered this. "I am fifteen years old. Will you trust me to be responsible enough to do with my secret what I wish?" She frowned, unhappy with the order of her words.

Dr. Horst nodded uncertainly. "There may be powers at work larger than even the mayor. You must be careful, Aspen. Find your allies, and find them quickly."

"What—what do you mean?"

Dr. Horst gazed at her seriously before silently rising out of the chair.

"Trust me, Aspen. Someone in this town will be an ally."

Aspen was about to ask a question when her aunt cracked the door. "How is she, doctor?"

His reply was blunt. "She's fine now."

The half-swan gave her niece a questioning look as Dr. Horst pushed past her.

After the doctor had departed, Aspen's aunt sat down on the bed next to her. "Something's stirring, Aspen," she said softly. "I am in the dark as to what is occurring, but be careful." She kissed Aspen gently on the forehead. "You have me on your side."

Aspen could only watch as her aunt waited expectantly for the situation. Aspen shook her head helplessly, and the half-swan left sadly.

I'm alone, Aspen thought. I was different before, and now I'm even more different. Is that good, or bad? I always wanted to have an animal half, but I never imagined this! Dr. Horst said that someone in the town would "be an ally." Does that mean someone can help?

But who?

"Aspen?"

Aspen looked up at a soft call from the doorway. Her cousin Jacob stood there, his tail flicking uncertainly.

"C-can I come in?"

Aspen nodded. The half-red-panda took a tentative seat on the far side of the bed.

"How do you feel?"

Aspen shrugged. "Fine."

Her brother looked away, twirling his tail between his fingers.

Aspen's realization hit her like cold water. He's afraid of me!

"I'm feeling much better," Aspen soothed. "I've taken on the form of half-leopard, and I like it a lot."

Jacob smiled weakly.

A mischievous smile crept across Aspen's face. She conjured the half-animal she wanted to transform into.

Long ringed tail, dusty red hair...

She was aware of Jacob looking at her in shock as the stardust swirled around her. His eyes bulged after her transformation was complete.

"Sari is beautiful, but if you weren't my cousin, I'd marry you in a heartbeat," Jacob breathed.

Aspen flushed. Half-animals are attracted to half-animals of the same animal half, she reminded herself. Still, she picked up a hand mirror to observe herself.

Her eyes were a sparkling brown, and her hair was thick, layered, and dusty red. It fell to where her neck began. Her skin was tanned, and two red panda ears protruded from the top of her head. Her tail was exactly like Jacob's.

I am pretty.

Aspen reddened even more and closed her eyes, preparing to transform again.

What should I try now?

I'll go with half-leopard. I want to see what else changes when I take on different forms.

Soon she had returned to half-leopard. She held up the mirror and suppressed a gasp.

Her eyes were golden yellow, and her hair was long and golden brown; in fact, her hair fell to the middle of her back. Her skin was fair with a hint of a tan. Aside from those, she still looked like herself.

But what do I look like?

Desperate to find out, she changed to half-cat and sighed with relief. She looked exactly as she had when she was a whole-human, except for the dark brown tabby-patterned cat ears and tail. Her eyes had cat pupils, and they were more green than blue.

"You look like Aspen," Jacob noted.

"I'm glad to hear that," Aspen replied dryly.

Still, I'm glad I found what form makes me look like me.

"Jacob," Aspen began, "do you know anyone in the town with a lot of knowledge on magic?"

Surprise flashed briefly in her cousin's eyes. "Yes, there's Mr. Felinus. Silly name, I know; I bet it's not his real name. He's a half-cat with many years lived."

"Okay. Thank you, Jacob." Aspen leaned over and surprised her cousin with a hug.

=^.^=

Aspen hesitated for a moment before knocking on the thick wooden door.

"Come in," a raspy voice called.

Surprised, Aspen entered cautiously. She was astonished to find herself tense, ready to transform into something that could fight.

"I've been expecting you for quite some time now."

Aspen peered into the darkness of the nearly empty room. Normally she wouldn't be able to see the figure crouching in the darkness, but her cat half allowed her to detect the half-cat man in the corner.

"Close the door."

Aspen obeyed.

"Sit down."

"I'd rather stand."

"Very well."

The old half-cat rose to his feet with a creaking of joints. He lit a lamp and set it on the floor. It cast an eerie orange glow on everything.

"You are Aspen, no?"

"Yes."

The old half-cat dragged a chair from the shadows and sank into it with a sigh. "I am Felinus. I've lived in this town for years upon years. I was there when you were born, Aspen."

Aspen was surprised, but she was determined not to show it. "Why have you been expecting me?"

Felinus laughed in a voice rusty from disuse. "The young are always so hasty. Aspen, you have been touched by magic, quite strongly."

Aspen's jaw dropped.

"So have I, Aspen. That half-wolf Horst said you would find an ally in this town, no? I'd be him."

Dust of some sort swirled around him. When it cleared, Felinus was standing. Golden-feathered wings had sprouted from his back, and his once-bald head had a thin layer of golden hair. Aspen recognized him as a half-griffin.

"I cannot do many forms," the old man wheezed, "but I have seen and touched the same stone that you have. You must go on a journey, Aspen. This stone is magic, and it belongs in its rightful place in the faraway jungle."

"B-but I'm half-animal now," she stammered. "Will I stay this way?"

"Yes."

"Why did it let you change?"

"I took it from its place in the jungle, and it gave me a few other half-animal options other than cat."

"Hm. Are you going to come on this...journey?"

"Yes, for as long as I am able."

Aspen paused. "Who are you?"

"Felinus, an old half-cat full of mysteries."

Aspen growled under her breath, pushing down the urge to transform. "All right. Will you give me time to think about it?"

"The stone is changing to black at this very moment."

Aspen abandoned the man and fled out the door.

As she ran, she felt something inside: an indescribable urge, similar to when she had changed forms. Soon, she had to stop and allow the transformation to occur.

When it finished, Aspen was on four legs instead of two. She figured she was the same size as she had been as a human.

I am a cat now.

Filled with new energy, she dashed along the dirt path.

She arrived at the door and was forced to open it with her teeth. No opposable thumbs now, she thought wryly, dashing up the stairs.

The stone was the same as it had been before, except for one major difference. It was the same cheery pale yellow, but now flecks of black were swirling around the top.

She unknowingly began to transform, pleased when she returned to standing on two legs. She stepped back from the stone, afraid.

My future has just changed.