I got the "galley proofs" to correct for the story I'll have in the 23rd volume of the Sword and Sorceress anthology, so I guess it must actually be happening.
One thing, though: the story that'll be appearing there, "Squirrel Errant," is the sequel to a story I had in the 2002 edition of Sword and Sorceress. But rather than force everyone to track down a copy of that out-of-print anthology, I figured I'd just post "Familiars" here so folks'll be ready in a couple months when the next one comes out.
Familiars by Michael H. Payne originally published in Sword and Sorceress 19 (DAW, January 2002) The stink of Crocker's fear hit Cluny like an acorn dropped from the top of an oak tree, made her tail jitter and her claws dig into the desk top. She forced them loose. "All right, Crocker. I'm breaking the link now." Kneeling on the carpet across the room, Crocker nodded, his eyes fixed on the ball of blue fire spinning between his hands. With a quick prayer, Cluny lowered herself to all fours and backed away along the desk, her fur prickling as she mentally stretched the link between them till she felt it pop. Immediately, sparks began crackling through the fireball. "Hold on," she breathed, but he was already trembling, sweat now visible on his forehead. "Hold on, you little—" The ball exploded, fire engulfing his hands, and Cluny leaped to the floor. "Idiot!" She scrambled toward him, pushed her power into his, and water congealed around his arms, the flame dousing and the healing spells they'd set up rushing into place. "You're not feeling the flow!" "Tell me about it." Crocker fell back onto his calves, ran a wet hand through his hair. "You snap our link, and I don't feel anything." "Oh, come on." She glared up at him. "You do healings and make light and work doubling magic, so don't tell me—" "Sure, small stuff." He waved an arm, drops spattering Cluny's fur. "But I can't even evoke a chapter one fireball, and with finals next week..." He sighed, his chubby face lost in the evening shadows coming through the dorm room curtains. "The magisters are gonna kick me outta Huxley for sure. You'd better request a transfer to another novice." Stomach tightening, Cluny turned away. "I have. Every week all semester." "You have?" The shuffle of his robes made her ears fold back. "Then...then why hasn't someone asked you to—?" "Because I'm a squirrel!" She whirled back. "Never mind that I've memorized the whole freshman spell book! I'm not a cat or an owl or a fox, so forget it! And the magisters say I don't have the right attitude to be a familiar, that I'm not deferential enough!" She bunched her paws into fists and scowled up at him. "They only assigned me to you, I'll bet, so I'd get sick of nursing you along and drop out!" Crocker rubbed his ear. "Actually, I requested you. After we met during orientation week." "What?" A vague memory, Crocker talking to her at one of the mixers for maybe two minutes. "You...requested...?" "Yeah." He gave another sigh and shook more water from his sleeves. "Well, if you're stuck with me, I guess we'd better try this again." Staring another second—he'd requested her?—Cluny shook her head to clear it, scurried across the floor, and jumped back onto the desk beside his book. "Well, since the textbook way isn't working for you..." She closed it with a thump and tapped the cover. "How about you make some light, just a little in your hand. You won't need me for that, right?" Silence, then a bubble of light began to grow ahead of her, the room brightening, Crocker's eyes narrow and fixed on the glowing ball in the air above his palm. "That's it." Her whiskers didn't twitch, so he wasn't using her power. "Now, can you make it bigger?" "Sure." He blew on it, and the ball pulsed into a good handful of light. "Just like...blowing up a balloon...only with light." His eyes darted up from it. "Now what?" "Now?" She rubbed her whiskers. Evocation was mostly a mental discipline, so maybe she could get him to... "Picture fire in your mind, lots and lots of fire." She spread her claws. "Then just blow that into the ball instead of light." A puff of his fear wafted against her whiskers. "It's easy," she said, trying to keep her voice calm. "Focus on the fire in your mind. Then blow just like you did before." Several blinks, and he nodded, his eyes narrowing even more. He took a deep, shaking breath, puffed his cheeks... And Cluny's whiskers sprang straight out, Crocker's spell grabbing her power and sucking it in. She tried to snap the link, but the light in his hand exploded into a huge pillar of fire, knocking her back into the wall before she could do anything. "Who dares??" a voice thundered, and Cluny looked up from where she was sprawled to see the pillar flowing into a fiery female humanoid figure, hair like lava around her broad shoulders, eyes fiercer than the sun at midday. An ifrit. High Clan, too, Cluny was sure, with those— "I haven't got all day!" the ifrit roared. She swirled around to fix on Crocker, groaning as he pushed himself up from the floor in front of the closet. "You! Human! Why have you disrupted my schedule??" Crocker's eyes widened as his head tipped back, his mouth dropping open. "Well??" the ifrit shouted. The briefest of seconds, and Cluny leaped from the desk, rushed across to stand in front of Crocker, bowed down all the way to the carpet. "Uhh, forgive us, spirit, we meant no disrespect. We were just—" "Talking animals?? I haven't got time for this!" A hand like a burning tree branch slammed into Cluny, knocked her sideways into the tangle of blankets on Crocker's bed. "You will learn the error of your ways, human!" Cluny heard, and she clawed her way free just in time to see the ifrit grab Crocker from the floor. "You will await me in my realm! Upon my return, I will deal with you properly!" Flames burst from the ifrit's other hand, hit the wall, and spiraled open to a blast furnace beyond; a smile sharp as lightning bolts, and she flicked her claws, Crocker flying into the furnace, his eyes still wide with terror. The whole room flashed, and the creature was gone, Cluny blinking, the fiery hole in the wall beginning to wheel shut. Half a heartbeat she hesitated; then she leaped for the hole, tucked and rolled and smashed right into the flames, roaring over her, tumbling her headlong into boiling liquid pain, her mouth opening to scream— And relief surged through her, the breath she drew cool and damp. A moment to get her paws under her, and she rose to find herself standing in a pit of molten rock, the lava sloughing off the water coating her, her charred fur growing back as she watched. The spell, the dousing and healing one she and Crocker had set up in case fireball practice got out of hand. Yes, her fur prickled under its watery coating, his power drawing on hers, so their link was intact. But where was he? Squinting against the blazing whites and reds, she could see that the lava pool she stood in was surrounded by walls of magma. She poked at the stuff, steam hissing from her claw, and frowned. Like glowing red pudding, nothing to dig into, no way she could climb out. Unless... If this really was molten rock—she cleared her mind, concentrated on the flow of her power, focused her thoughts on the cold spells from Chapter Six of Crocker's textbook—maybe she could firm it up a bit. The motions and phrases came easily, and she felt her watery coating get colder and colder. The viscous ground began to seize up beneath her, and when she pressed her paws into the glow ahead, the lava crackled, turned gray and craggy. It still jiggled, but it wasn't much worse than the half-dead trees she'd played in growing up. A quick scramble, and she dug her paws into more of the magma, solidifying under her touch and letting her climb higher. At least the water spell told her Crocker was still alive, and he'd have the same protection as long as their link didn't break. Unless he'd sunk into the magma: he sure didn't know the Chapter Six cold spells. "Idiot." Her breath coming faster now with the effort of holding the cold spell in place, she reached the crest of the flow, grabbed it, froze it, pulled herself up, and looked down to see water, a lake lapping against the molten rock walls. And bobbing out in the middle, his dark curly hair and chubby face unmistakable even through the curtains of steam— "Crocker?" she called. "Cluny!" He sloshed around and started swimming toward her. "Where are we? What was that thing? How did we—?" "You summoned a High Clan ifrit, you idiot!" She struggled to keep on her paws, the magma pushing against her cold spell and against the water rising in the— Rising? Cluny squinted, saw the lake was expanding up the sides of the pit, felt it draw on her power every time it sloshed higher. "It's our watery healing spell." Crocker had paddled to just below her, the water bringing him closer and closer. "I used some doubling magic on it, figured I could swim in water easier than lava, and now, well, now I can't get it to stop." He was almost level with her now, the water lapping at her paws, steam geysering up even as ice formed around them. Crocker stared at it. "How...how are you doing that?" "Chapter Six cold spell." She tried to back away, but she was already at the top of the lava flow. "What?" Crocker blinked up at her. "But...you're a familiar. You can't cast spells." The water topped the ridge then, rushed past Cluny into the pit she'd just climbed out of. Quickly she cut the cold spell and jumped forward to Crocker's shoulder. "What I can't do, Crocker, is swim." "Uh-oh," she heard him say, then the current pulled them over and sucked them down. Water in her nose, eyes, ears, Cluny dug her claws into Crocker's hair, his shoulders swinging beneath her. She had to get out, had to breathe, had to— She grabbed the flow of Crocker's power, added it to her own, let their combined force roar into her mind. Directing it downward, she smashed at the water, hot air rushing past her whiskers, her stomach yawing; she pushed her face away from Crocker's hair, gasped for breath, and saw Crocker looking down, his eyes wide and staring. She followed his gaze, the lake spreading below, several dozen empty yards between his feet and the water. "We're flying?" he whispered. "Can't be." The power burning through her made her pant. "Flying's not...till sophomore year. I haven't learned—" "What's going on here??" a huge voice thundered around them, and Cluny's stomach clenched, light exploding to reveal the ifrit, her eyes blazing down over the lava field. "Who put all this water on my magma??" Her gaze snapped up, an even greater heat slapping against Cluny. "You again??" "Uhh..." Crocker swallowed so convulsively, Cluny could feel it. "I...I'm real sorry about that, but—" "I will not have this!" The ifrit loomed through the mists, grabbed Crocker with one clawed hand. "I should have done this to you the first time!" She blazed brighter and hotter than before; then darkness crashed in, and Cluny felt herself falling. She still had hold of Crocker, though, so when they hit the flagstones, he took the brunt of it. Flagstones? She raised her head and blinked as a flood of firelight showed her the main quad of Huxley College. "Gollantz!" The fire towered into the shouting ifrit. "Gollantz, get out here!" A dark puff of cloud, and Master Gollantz appeared. He blinked at the ifrit, then bowed. "Your Majesty, it's an honor to have the Ranee of the Ifriti grace our—" "Never mind that!" Everything spun, and Cluny found herself dangling from Crocker's neck as the ifrit thrust them into the face of the school's Magister Magistrorum. "This is one of yours, isn't it??" "Uhh, yes, Ranee." Master Gollantz cleared his throat, his glare making Cluny's hackles rise. "I believe he is." The world shook again, Cluny jumping away and landing on her paws this time when Crocker thudded to the ground. "He summoned me, Gollantz!" the ifrit bellowed. "In absolute defiance of the agreements you have with the elemental houses!" "Ranee, I am shocked." Master Gollantz bowed once again to the ifrit. "Rest assured: he will be dealt with." The ifrit flared up into a huge gout of fire. "See that he is!" And with a burst that Cluny saw even through her clenched eyelids, the creature vanished. Things got very quiet then, and when Cluny opened her eyes, she saw Master Gollantz, his arms folded, standing above Crocker. "One thing, Crocker," the magister said quietly, but his voice bit at Cluny's ears. Crocker's eyes shot open, and he scrambled to his feet, his robe charred and stained, his face sooty, his hair dripping, his mouth opening. But Master Gollantz held up a hand. "Just tell me how my lowest ranking novice summoned the Queen of the Ifriti?" "Uhh..." was all Crocker managed to say. Cluny scurried forward, grabbed the back of Crocker's robe, climbed up to his shoulder. "It's my fault, sir." She bowed, then straightened to meet Master Gollantz's glare. "Crocker's been having trouble with fireballs, so I, well, I was trying to find another way for him to approach the spell." "You?" Master Gollantz's brow wrinkled. "A familiar designing a course of study for a student of wizardry?" Cluny's mouth went dry, but Crocker spoke up. "I'm barely a student, sir. And Cluny's sure not just a familiar." Master Gollantz's brow wrinkled even further, and Cluny tried to think of something to say. But Crocker went on, his eyes moving back and forth between the ground and Master Gollantz. "See, sir, at the first mixer during orientation week, well, all the other novices and familiars were laughing and talking, and I...I knew I was a fraud, knew I shouldn't be here no matter what the tests said. And then, bam!" He turned his head toward Cluny, a big smile on his face. "I saw Cluny sitting in the corner all by herself, and the flow of her power, it was like...like I was seeing the sun for the first time. I'd never really felt magic before I saw her, and, well, I knew the only way I was gonna get through Huxley was with her as my familiar." She blinked at him, the moment rushing back: her frustration that night when the novices wouldn't do more than glance at her and smirk; the sudden wonderful tingle at her whiskers; the short chubby human crossing the room, a goofy grin on his face. All the trouble he'd been since, she'd forgotten how...how right she'd suddenly felt. "I'm really sorry, Cluny." Crocker swallowed and looked away. "You deserve a real wizard to be partnered with, not an idiot like me." His eyes flitted toward Master Gollantz. "So please don't blame her, sir. She was only trying to help me." Silence fell, Cluny's throat too tight to speak, until Master Gollantz blew out a breath. "I can see that you are both determined to make my life difficult." "Sir?" Cluny and Crocker both said, Cluny's ears folding. Master Gollantz pointed a long finger at Crocker. "Your familiar will accompany you to all your regular classes from this moment on, Novice. Your record will show that you are a remedial case who cannot function without the constant boost that a familiar provides." Crocker swallowed and nodded. Master Gollantz's finger didn't move. "Further, you will accompany your familiar to all her classes. Your record will show that this is a punishment designed to teach you the vital difference between what a familiar does and what a wizard does." "Sir?" Crocker's jaw dropped. "But...I can't handle that many classes! How'll I—?" "Shut up, Crocker." Cluny covered his mouth with a paw and looked across at Master Gollantz. "So, in effect, sir, I'll be taking the wizard classes while Crocker here learns to be a familiar." "Nonsense." Master Gollantz scowled. "The record will show that this is Novice Crocker's punishment. And if I hear even a whisper on this campus about animal wizards and human familiars, you two'll be cleaning bathrooms till graduation. I'll be your advisor from now on, by the way." He stroked his beard. "I find myself becoming interested in you." Cluny nodded, a thrill sparking her fur. "Of course, sir." She leaned back and whispered into Crocker's ear, "I'll explain when we get back to the room." Crocker opened his mouth, blinked, closed his mouth, nodded, and started across the quad toward the dorms. "Novices?" Master Gollantz's voice made Crocker stop and turn, Cluny blinking at the old wizard still standing with his arms folded. "Where do you think you're going?" "Uhh..." Cluny looked at Crocker, then crooked a claw over her shoulder. "To sleep, sir?" Master Gollantz pressed his fingertips together. "I rather think you'll be accompanying me to the realm of the Ifriti Ranee; there's still the matter of your actual punishment, after all." He nodded. "You will perform one task of the Ranee's choosing, and I'll be along to make sure you don't make any more of a mess of things than you already have." "Back..." Crocker's eyes went wide. "Back to...all that lava and everything?" Master Gollantz nodded again, and Cluny patted the side of Crocker's head. "Don't worry." She drew a breath, felt their joined power flowing through her. "I think we can handle just about anything right now."