“Harry Potter meets Dr Dolittle”
ANIMAIA – The Return is a high-concept story of a unique world under threat and the psychic and material personalities destined to rescue it. Several books are planned for the series, although book one can stand alone. ANIMAIA is suitable for 12 years to adult, features allegory, parody, fantasy, science and some dark themes with elements of magical realism . . . but does not miss opportunities for irony and comedic exchange. The story arc builds exponentially beyond the early chapters as the main characters attend high school. Powerful female characters are a feature of the book.
Arno Steele can communicate with animals — and he’s very, very good — as his dad discovers when Arno is four. Now at thirteen in his hometown of Lemurville, Arno is looking forward to holidays at the beach with his favourite school friends before going to high school. Except Arno and his friends are no ordinary kids, they are Anima. In the country of Animaia, where animals were liberated in the Great War over 100 years ago, the Anima are the ‘animal talkers’, an elite few percent of the population who have inherited an ancient ability to converse with animals in that silent telepathic stream they call ‘syncing’. Yet Arno is not just any Anima; he is especially gifted because he can sync with four classes of vertebrate animals — mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians — not a single class like most of his fellow Anima. Some, especially his mother, think he could be the Truemore, the ancient, legendary saviour who, some say, will one day return to save Animaia at a time of great peril — but to his school friends, he’s just Arno the freak-boy.
Arno’s growing tired of his mother’s wacky expectations. Now, he’s not even sure he wants to attend the famous Anima school, the Dolotty Institute of Primal Intelligence (DIPI), after all. But when he saves his best friend Leroy from the jaws of a monstrous snake as they walk along the jungle verge at the beach, he understands the depths of his talent. Life’s getting complicated for Arno as he and his childhood best buddies — Leroy, Ashley and the willful Charlotte — are growing up and seeing each other in a more romantic light.
When Arno attends DIPI boarding school, he and his school friends, animal friends and a quirky bunch of Anima teachers find themselves at the centre of a gathering storm as the heretical forces called ‘fleshers’ plot to return to the days of animal exploitation and torture once more. Beguiled by the Crater Nebula and the mysterious dinosaurs and inhabitants that survived the last global extinction, Arno struggles to understand his place in the history and evolution of Animaia, and ultimately he must face the cruel, head flesher, Zacharias Carnivale, at school jungle camp in a fight for his life, as his human and animal friends race to save him. The battle for the soul of ANIMAIA has begun.
The story is more magical realism than fantasy, and although ‘young adult’ in essence, the deeper text and ideation is a fusion of philosophy, post-modernism, allegory and parable that adults may understand and enjoy.
Targeted Age Group:: 12+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A lifetime of environmental conservation interest and campaigning, and a lifelong interest in fantasy and adventure stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings resulted in the idea for the world of ANIMAIA.
In addition, I contemplated a world where animals were free and not just resources for humans to exploit.
Chapter 6 – The Dolotty Institute of Primal Intelligence
Arno Steele stood at the entrance gates, eyes glued to the huge, intimidating sign that shouted: ‘Zuzu Mansions, Home of the Dolotty Institute of Primal Intelligence.’ The school motto, ‘Wild and Willing,’ in bright red, maybe even blood red, only added to his unease.
Arno had seen it only once before up close – two years ago when on a trip to Feral City with his parents. With Elanor his mum, Julian his dad, and sister Esmeralda, the family had stopped briefly outside the gates while Elanor raved on about her time at the school. Four years of DIPI would be enough to make anyone rave on he thought.
Now, standing at the front gates looking in, the Dolotty Institute of Primal Intelligence was overwhelming.
“Arno, over to you,” said Elanor.
He spoke into the intercom as instructed in the application guide. “Arno Steele reporting for school entry assessment.”
“Please speak the password provided to you,” came back a stern voice. Several kapis were grazing at the edge of the sweeping lawns. Arno made a mental note and quickly answered the challenge.
“DUNWUDDY.” What in Animaia is a dunwuddy?
“Correct; please advance through the gates to the reception hall where you will be greeted.”
The giant iron gates opened automatically. Arno shouldered a small backpack full of essential items for the day’s activities – fone, slate, his favourite snack of fresh jelbelly fruit, and a change of clothes. What are the clothes for? Elanor Steele held tight with the tears as she hugged him, Julian Steele offered encouragement, and then they waved him on. Behind them, another applicant arrived at the gates.
Arno’s invitation letter explained that it usually took about five days to work through the sync tests and interviews for the seventy or more new students who would receive an enrolment offer. He was pleased to be attending on day one, and he was comfortable enough with his prospects; after all, he was an Anima. Even so, he was still unsure what to expect, even though he had read the preparation sheet from DIPI that explained the test procedures and school requirements in some detail. Not in enough detail according to Ashley and Leroy: surprises were inevitable.
Charlotte, in her usual boisterous way, had said, “Whatever,” which apparently meant no worries. Her bird talking was renowned and she egged the others on. They all knew that around ten percent of applicants would fail entry. This made everyone nervous. Then there was the Wilding at the end of each grade year, at which time any student risked dismissal if they could not handle the pressure.
And the text message worried him. He could not bring himself to mention it to his parents. None of his close friends would admit to it, and it was not traceable because it arrived from an anonymous service. A prank by one of his old school enemies was the best he could conceive of.
The decision to leave Arkie and his other animal friends – Terry the vole rat and Mixie the fairy squirrel – had been painful. Mum has not been here for twenty years; maybe it’s changed. I might fail, freeze up – hey, maybe I could fail on purpose, get back home? Nah, just get through it. You promised.
The large concrete and plaster columns, the double and triple storied buildings of brick and timber and stone and tile, and the daunting dormitory wings that speared out from the main classroom block housed around three-hundred students in four grades. The view over the cliffs to the sea and the vast grounds, gardens and adjoining wildervoids, from which animals came and went, added to the feeling of isolation and threat for new students.
Arno had read about the monstering incidents and how the school protected students as best they could – DIPI had not had a death for over ten years – although Sammy Nesbitt, Arno’s much older cousin, had gotten a broken nose after Congo the school donkey butted him in the face. (Congo had now retired to the coastal plains.) Yet these injuries, it seemed, were no greater in number than those from futbol and other school activities like the Wilding and the Gathering. “Trust to the Truemore.” That’s what it said on the bottom of the school information brochure. He wished he had someone more tangible to turn to!
The teachers who lived-in had their own accommodation floor, while others chose to commute from Feral City and beyond each day. Arno had been through the DIPI net site with a fine eye, absorbing everything there was to know publicly about DIPI and its staff and facilities.
Now he was standing inside the front gates ready to make the long walk up the path to the reception hall. Students had to do this alone. Parents could only collect their children from inside the school after the admission process was complete. Until then, all applicants faced the DIPI world by themselves.
The entrance and reception hall seemed to be about a futbol field away through a tree-lined driveway and parallel path. A pond with water lilies decorated the sprawling lawn about half way along on one side. He tried a sync with a kapi about fifty metres away on the other side near the forest fringe. The animal looked up and shook its head.
The entrance door loomed open and a well-groomed, chunky woman in a bright blue dress with animal prints greeted Arno.
“Welcome to DIPI, I’m Mildura Tuttleton, the school manager. I look after new students, their paperwork and that sort of thing. Welcome to DIPI, Steele. Please sit down in the waiting room; you will be told what to do very soon by your supervisor for the entry tests.”
She pointed to a door on the right. “You will call me Miss Tuttleton and you will use this form of salutation for each and every one of the female teachers and staff, with one exception: Prima Dolotty, the head of school, you will address as Prima and Prima only. You shall address all male teachers as Mister. There are no exceptions – no doctors, no professors, no animastis, no madams or mizzes or masters. All in this together. The teachers will tell you their first names – no secrets at DIPI, Steele – but you are not to use them, do you understand? The teachers will often refer to you by your last name, but unfortunately not always. Do you realise that if the staff uses last names only instead of including a salutation or first name, we save over five days of school time each year? That’s time saved for your education and money in the bank for the school, Steele – money in the bank, boy. But I suspect you don’t know about that sort of thing.”
“Er . . . no, I hadn’t considered that Miss Tuttleton. Thank you for letting me know – about everything.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for.”
Arno took time to look around Zuzu Hall, the impressive entrance building with its soaring ceiling, polished, ancient timber rafters and beams, and handsomely carved statues of animals along each side, each one featuring a brass plaque with an inscription. These were not just any animals; these were famous animals.
“Can I take a look at the animal statues?”
“Not now, Steele. Time for that later.” Miss Tuttleton ushered Arno to the waiting room where two nervous-looking, would-be students sat silently. They stood up.
“Hello, I’m Arno Steele.”
“Calliope Winsome. Mammals. Hi.” Arno shook hands with a tall girl with short brown hair and laughing brown eyes that looked straight through him.
“Zorro Venomora. Reptiles of course. Heard about you on the news, eh. How’s it goin’ – big snake, huh? You do more than one –”
Arno did not want to talk about Skweezie right now, or his abilities. “So, you guys ready for the tests?” At that moment, the door opened. Arno, Calliope and Zorro stood to some sort of attention, expecting a call.
“Arno Steele, come with me please. Miss Winsome and Mr Venomora, your supervisors will be with you in good time.” Prima Sybylla Dolotty spoke crisply with an air of serious authority.
Arno said nothing because he couldn’t think of the right thing to say. Thank you Prima Dolotty. Right away Prima Dolotty. Yeah, right, let’s get going, Prima!
He followed her quickening footsteps out the back door, across a small courtyard, through another building and down a stony path to an enclosure that looked like a barn building. A large fenced yard adjoined the building and it butted up against a dense wildervoid that Arno assumed was a part of Ashok’s Jungle.
Prima Dolotty led him into a clean but simple office with a desk, bookshelves, two screens on separate tables, and a sink, stove and small fridge along one side. She sat behind a table and offered him the seat facing her. She immediately started to read from a slate.
“Now, Arno, I’ve noted that you have listed syncing ability for both mammals and birds. We don’t get too many dualis through DIPI; they are quite rare. I do mammals and birds myself. However . . . I need to ask you, in light of the recent public incidents at Sandtree Grove, whether you can sync reptiles as well? It seems to me you can. Why did you not put that on your application form? Surely your mother and father would encourage it? Having a Multi would be a magnificent thing for the school – and for everyone of course.”
Around Sybylla’s neck hung a gold necklace with a small, gold pendant inscribed with a spiral. Along it hung very small, perfectly shaped elephants of silver it seemed to Arno. He stared at it. He noticed her smell. She didn’t smell like his mother at all, but he liked her voice and her darkish but greying hair that tucked away neatly behind her ears. Like Dad’s mother, Gran, when she was younger; yes, that’s it . . . someone kind . . . perhaps.
“Well . . . ?” Sybylla was almost glaring at him now and her eyes were not laughing.
“I . . . I just didn’t think I was all that good; it was luck really . . . I think. It never worked like that before, you know, with looped tree snakes or water dragons.”
“Yes, but perhaps you are maturing Mr Steele – happens you know. Brain develops, hormones race, next thing you know you are doing things you could not do before. Like syncing reptiles. In any case, you will be tested today. We’ll see what you’ve got Mr Steele. I’ll be handing you over to Miss Furlonger, the head mammal teacher, for your first test.”
Sybylla left the room. Arno sat and waited, and after a few minutes, a woman, somewhat younger than his mother, he thought, entered the room.
“Furlonger.” She held her hand out. Arno hesitated, but he assumed it was for a handshake, even though he was not used to shaking hands with teachers. She grasped his right hand, squeezed it tight and shook it once. He felt like a squib because at no time did he return the shake. Patsy Furlonger was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. She wore no shoes or jewellery and had no smell of perfume or makeup. Her long, dark hair straggled, scruffily, half-way down her back.
“Arno? Great. That’ll do me. Too bad Miss Tutt.”
Arno wondered how he should greet her; he was still a little goggle eyed. “Nice to meet you Miss Furlonger.”
“Your first sync test is ready. I’ll be watching and listening and so will Harry Carey, the school Animasti, who has overall technical responsibility for student and animal interaction. Don’t be afraid, give it your best try and see how you go. You should know that these school animals are very experienced and mostly good talkers. Some have served the school for years and they know they have to test you out. Ready? Please remove your watch. Your pack will be safe with me. Let’s get going.”
Arno followed Patsy out of the room into a roofed area with a dirt floor. Patsy glanced across to Harry Carey, who was working quietly nearby, and he looked up and nodded to Arno. The sign on a large gate said: ‘No Entry without Permission’. Patsy gestured toward the door and Arno went through.
He could feel the energy pulsing through him. His defence systems were on high alert. Like when he had to deal with Skweezie the first time and then again. Or when he and Leroy and Ashley and Charlotte dared themselves to swim at night in the non-netted area of the beach.
A high, railed, wooden fence enclosed the area along two sides. The building from which he had emerged formed a third border. At the bottom end was dense, unrestricted jungle. He moved forward, away from the gate, and stood there, waiting. About five minutes passed. Arno looked across in the direction of Furlonger. Still nothing.
Down at the jungle, a small tree moved slightly, as if fanned by a brief and gentle breeze. Nothing . . . then everything. The sky leopard crashed through the foliage and ran at full speed into the corral, bounding the twenty-five metres to the centre of the yard at frightening speed. He was huge. Arno estimated close to his height at full stance. The big cat growled a shrieking growl as only leopards can, two long, sabre-like teeth flashing in the sun. Then he started to stalk Arno, crouching, inching his way forward with high shoulders and low body. In some way, Arno was ready for him, for something. I knew they’d do this. I just knew. The black, cloud-shaped spots on the big yellow animal seemed to loom at Arno but he held his ground.
Leopold, the legendary DIPI sky leopard.
Arno struck first. Sync. “My name is Arno Steele. Hello. You are Leopold?” Leopold scowled but Arno received nothing in return except some pinpoint flashes of light. Patsy was now at the fence looking on. She did not speak. The leopard continued to creep forward, now only ten metres away from Arno. He felt a tingle run up the back of his neck. He started to look toward Patsy but she showed no concern and offered no sign of help. He concentrated hard in deep Anima mode.
What the? . . . His head started to throb, then a starburst of brilliant blood-orange burst right in front of his eyes, raining down on the outside and the inside of his mind and thrusting him backward as if he’d been hit by a fiery missile. Arno caught his footing and steadied himself.
“And who is Arno Steele?” Leopold was now only two metres away, standing upright, head high. The stream was loud and clear. Arno could smell leopardness like he could his mother’s scent. So powerful.
“I am here to study with you and your friends and colleagues and I ask for your help.” Arno’s voice was cool and measured.
“You must tell me why I should not eat you. This is your first test.” Arno saw Harry Carey join Patsy at the fence. Harry had one leg on a rail but neither showed any sign of intervening.
What could they do anyway thought Arno. Ask him to be a good boy? And what’s the fence for? Leopold could spring over that in a flash if he wanted to, yet Arno realized that this scene must have played out hundreds of times with new students. He did not reply immediately. Leopold moved forward a little, now crouching slightly lower.
“Because I am Arno Steele; I am the next one.” Arno was dumbstruck at the words that flowed from his mind. Leopold rose up to full height, pointed his jaws at the sky and growled so loudly that Arno took a small step backward. He glanced across and could see Patsy and Harry start to fidget. The looks on their faces had changed.
Leopold’s tail was now thrashing wildly. “The next one? Why do you insult me?”
Arno was now standing tall himself, moving forward ever so slowly. He stared into the deep, grey-blue eyes of the sky leopard. Leopold snarled. They were no more than a metre apart. “I’m sorry; I want your respect, that’s all. I don’t understand why I sent that. . . .”
“Very well. I will work with you, help you,” synced Leopold. “But if you betray me with false words or deeds, I will eat you.” The words fell into line like orange alphabet noodles on a virtual mind plate. Arno stored them away on his mental flash drive. I’ll need to remember that.
Leopold turned and slowly retreated towards the jungle. At the forest fringe, he turned his great head and looked back at Arno, holding that pose for quite some time. Then he was gone.
The next one? Why did I say that? The next one of what? The door opened and Patsy Furlonger beckoned Arno from the yard.
“Hey, Arno, put it there.” She held her hand palm-up for a congratulatory slap of his.
Harry came over and congratulated him as well. “Fair job, Steele. Don’ know what you said but looks like you went steamers.”
Patsy had run straight down to the jungle and disappeared into it. A few minutes later she returned. Quieter now and more formal, her eyes blazed with intensity as her hair, littered with forest debris, fell across her face, almost enclosing her eyes from each side. “Thank you, Arno; I’ll take you back to Prima Dolotty so that you may complete your entry evaluation.”
Patsy introduced Arno to Kris Carson, the head bird lecturer. “Steele, is it?” Carson’s bright, red hair stood as an evenly cropped patch about five centimetres high and ten wide down the centre of his head. With the sides completely shaven clean like his face, his ears looked like two giant attacking insects. Arno tried hard not to stare, or even laugh. He suddenly became aware of his own blondish hair that crept over his ears in waves and curls.
“Get a haircut, Steele. Can’t talk to birds if you look like a snow lion you know. And one more thing: students have taken to calling me ‘Cockatoo’ Carson behind my back. That’s not my name, Steele – even though the cockatoo is a fine bird – my name is Mr Carson. If we admit you to DIPI, you will need to understand that simple thing. Don’t let me catch you; I have ears like an owl – absolute pitch Mr Steele, absolute pitch.”
“Yes Mr Carson, I understand that very well.” Arno glanced at those protruding ears. One seemed lower than the other. He wondered if Carson ever flapped them. Arno transfigured a looming smirk into a polite smile with some difficulty.
It did not take long for Carson to learn that Arno could indeed talk to birds – and very successfully. A quick conversation with Diva the school harrier hawk, who seemed a little cranky at having to appear anywhere lower than a high tree, settled that.
Arno sat down again in the testing office and waited for Prima Dolotty to return. Through the window, he saw a few older students leaving one of the dormitory buildings. It seemed that rarely was DIPI completely without live-in students – even on the holidays.
Prima Sybylla Dolotty entered the room and sat opposite him. “From all reports you’ve managed very well. I don’t want you to get too excited about it, but we don’t request Leopold’s participation with every student.” She left it at that, and Arno did not reply, but he felt good. “Please follow me – and make sure you have no money or personal items in your pockets; please leave them with your other personal effects. We’ll meet Mr McFardle along the way.”
Arno blinked. He knew that name. A mild feeling of dread came over him.
They crossed over the floral display garden and lawn behind the assessment buildings, hurried through the fruit and vegetable garden and past one dormitory wing, then descended to a building on an island with a moat around it. Behind, a vast swamp blended into thick jungle hugging the coastal shore. The black water hung there, silent, impenetrable. Dragon flies darted, surface swimmer insects kicked across the water and small, furtive things ducked under water lilies. A water dragon plopped into the murk for protection as they approached. Bubbles floated up from the dankness. Identification tags labelled pandana and femwood trees that stooped at the edge, their stilt-like roots holding them up above the water line. Like ecology class at my old school thought Arno.
A large sign declared: ‘Slymeball Lagoon – BEWARE OF SLYMEBALLS!’ A crude picture of a coiled snake with forked tongue decorated the bottom of the sign. Waiting next to the sign was a short, bald, older man with glasses. Arno knew it must be the legendary Herbi ‘Striker’ McFardle who had taught his mother all those years ago. This was the reptile man with a regional reputation as a communicator and teacher.
Herbi introduced himself. “Don’t worry about the sign Mr Steele, no doubt your mother has told you that students around her time named the swamp as a joke. It is a backwater of the Slyme River after all. No snakes by that name either.”
“No, sir, she didn’t tell me that. But she did tell me about you, Mr McFardle.”
“Good, good. Mother’s well I trust?” McFardle sounded genuinely interested. “Couldn’t get her into reptiles, but she does have some ability you know – never practised that’s all. Probably didn’t mention it.”
“No sir, she did not.” Mum a secret Reptilia! “She works for the Regimentary now.”
McFardle frowned a little and said, “Oh dear, hope I’ve not flushed out a family secret. No use though, she doesn’t care for them I fear. You have to like an animal to talk to it well.”
“I agree sir.” Of course, it was now obvious to Arno what was next: Sybylla had lined up a sync test with a snake, and probably a big bodger as well. Arno hoped he did not lie about liking snakes. He did have some sort of distant bond with Skweezie, he thought.
“Right then, Steele. In you get. Show you how.” Herbi threw his glasses on the grass and strode straight into the swamp, shoes and all. “Don’t follow me. Enter up there past that clump of femwoods. Love a swim on a warm day, don’t you? Off you go. Take your shoes off if you like; never bother m’self.”
Herbi seemed to move effortlessly in the thick water as if it was a second home for him. He stopped at chest depth and gradually sank below the lily and waterweed infestation that crusted the top of the swamp. Arno had his shoes off by the time Herbi popped up again. Thirty seconds at least.
He waved Arno in. As Arno stole into the water, black mud squished between his toes until he stood waist deep in a little circle of water lilies. He looked across at Herbi. Sybylla looked on from the bank with arms crossed. Arno glanced rapidly from side to side, anticipating what might come next. This was not his territory, although he had often paddled and waded in Little Swamp in Sandtree Grove.
Herbi waved exuberantly. “Good spot.” With trousers rolled up above the knee, Arno felt the finest of touches on his left leg. A floating stick perhaps, current moved a water lily? He twitched. It made him even more edgy. He stood motionless and gazed around the swamp. What appeared to be a floating log about 30 metres away was surely edging toward him – floating perhaps on a subtle current. Then, as the log seemed to accelerate, the mouth of the huge attacking crocodillo opened wide and he knew he was about to meet another of DIPI’s denizens.
Herbi yelled across the waters: “Say hello to Liza. Arno and Liza. You like?”
The yawning croc steered to within a metre. Arno felt something – he knew the croc was paging him – but he was having trouble getting a sync. He looked into the croc’s eyes and shrugged while shaking badly from cold or fear; he was not sure which. Liza swam right up to him and clasped him around the chest with those jaws. Not so tight at first . . . but it tightened and Arno shivered violently. He was looking at a big green eye as he attempted not to fall into the water as the powerful jaws bent him sideways. Yet Liza seemed to be holding him upright, too. Arno gritted his teeth and things started to happen. Soft waves of meaning wafted into his brain, half music and half colour – orange and rainbow colours and odd, flute-like music, and then . . .
“Welcome to DIPI. I will be your companion. Come here, talk with me.” Liza thrashed her jagged lizard tail in recognition of the connection.
Arno synced a reply. “Thank you. I will call you Liza, as told to me by Mr McFardle.”
“You are fearless, Arno. Visit my swamp as you like. Goodbye.” Liza released him and swam immediately across to where Herbi was standing before paddling across the swamp and eventually disappearing out of sight into a circle of half-submerged paperbark trees. Arno waved at her with a soft hand, which he immediately thought was a bit lame. Striker McFardle did a little “woohoo . . . swamp viper I need to chat to” and proceeded to swim further out in the swamp to a dead stump that protruded from the water.
Arno waded from the swamp near to where Sybylla Dolotty stood. She had her hands up to her face to cover a wide-mouthed expression of astonishment.
“I didn’t believe it could be true. . . . We need to talk, soon, Arno Steele. Your time here, if you accept, will not be ordinary, I assure you. I understand that you are young. I do not want to burden you unnecessarily and I will treat you like any other student, but your education is likely to be grander than graduating from the Dolotty Institute of Primal Intelligence: Multis are very rare. You can assume your application to attend DIPI has been successful. Well achieved; I shall notify your parents.”
“Thank you Prima Dolotty. I am very relieved.” Arno acknowledged her congratulations through his dripping wetness – he had little choice – but he did feel better about it now. He was getting used to the idea of DIPIdom. And are they cool animals or what?
As he plucked the vine, root and leaf from his muddy, clinging clothes and tried not to look at Dolotty or soil her elegant, long denim pants and high boots, something moved in his right pocket. Cautiously, he slipped a hand in and tried to grasp the thing, only to have the slippery, slimy squirmer slip right out again – and then he had it. When he withdrew his hand and opened it, all he could see was a small, round, green object.
“Ah, see you’ve found one of our famous slymeballs,” said Sybylla, peering closer for a look. “Only found on the coastal swamps of the Slyme. Quite rare in fact. We are very privileged to have them. Not poisonous you see, although some have mistaken them for bushmantas. Colour’s all wrong of course.”
The ball slowly unravelled itself, four legs assuming a more recognisable position and identifying it as a frog or toad. Fully extended, the slymeball was bright green with two large, purple spots on its back just below the head on either side.
Arno’s face lit up. “Sorry, didn’t mean to squash you.” He said it aloud, but he had quietly synced with the little frog almost instantaneously. The frog edged toward the top of his fingers. That he found frogs and toads adorable companions and could talk to them was one of his boyhood secrets: all those hours spent down at Little Swamp had paid off. Talking to amphibians was his buried treasure.
“Croak,” the slymeball bleated aloud. “Go to water.” It synced goodbye as it launched itself from Arno’s fingertips out toward the swamp with powerful, slender back legs. Arno hid the quick conversation and Sybylla seemed to miss it.
She walked him back to the testing station. Arno asked a few questions about dormitory arrangements, food and other home things he was sure he would miss. A towelling down and a change of clothes along with the realisation that testing was complete saw him in a chirpier mood. Time to call Mum and Dad and get out of here.
Arno first noticed it as they were passing through the floral garden on the way back to the testing centre. The flushed Animaian flame trees were leaking blood-red hues, and the flowering twalia shrubs of bright mauve seemed to deepen in intensity as the atmospheric light quickly changed. Even though bright-blue sky was all around, a black cloud partially hid the bright sun and the warm day had inexplicably cooled. Without warning, one crack of fierce, jagged lightening burst out of the cloud and struck toward the earth in the direction of Mount Diabolo in the distance. Arno ducked in alarm, and so did Sybylla Dolotty, both expecting the loud thunderclap that usually follows a lightning strike. Yet there was no loud thunder, only an oppressive rumbling that continued for nearly a minute it seemed to Arno. The black nimbus shrunk as the rumbling dissipated. Arno looked at Sybylla and they both scanned the sky for further bluster from the firmament. All was quiet.
Sybylla was frowning now. “We get those mini storms here from time to time. Unusual geographical and meteorological symmetry I suspect – that’s what Mr Gonzales the geography teacher says in any case. I don’t know so much.” Arno did not understand what she meant.
When they arrived back at the testing station, Kris Carson, Patsy Furlonger and a bedraggled Herbi McFardle were still there – all weird, wild and wonderful – and he glimpsed Calliope Winsome waiting in the office. He wondered what they had in store for her, and whether Zorro Venomora would meet up with Liza or if they would summon up another swamp or jungle dweller for his test.
Arno got permission to browse the entrance hall and the surrounding grounds while he waited, although he could not talk to the nervous newbies waiting to be tested, one of whom was Leroy. He waved through the doorway, and with a hand movement to the lips signalled to Leroy that he could not speak to him.
As he snacked on a jelbelly and wandered off in the direction of the grazing kapis, he noticed a large bird approaching out of the southern sky. The sound of flapping wings alerted him – unusual at that distance he thought – yet he assumed it was Diva returning for another student test, which he was keen to observe from a distance. But it was not Diva; he could see that now. The approaching bird was bigger, much bigger. This was becoming clearer the closer the animal got to him. He now recognised the impressive shape and colour of a velvet eagle, all blue-black with silver neck and tail. And he was certain when the sharp talons and beak bore at him with the velocity of what seemed like a military missile.
Yet, he was not alone. Arno barely had time to duck when Diva hit the black eagle with ferocious force from the side, a spray of feathers testament to her accuracy and power. Yet it didn’t completely alter the course and target, which was Arno’s head, probably an eye. Arno had turned to shield himself with one arm up in the air and the eagle hit him hard on the side of his right arm, beak slashing and large claws scraping and digging. He dropped instinctively to the ground on his haunches. The blood from his arm wounds had already started to drip. Attacking birds had swooped him many times, but not on this scale, not with such malevolence and murderous intent.
The two birds wheeled and repositioned for further clashes as Arno watched and wondered how to get to the nearest shelter. A pair of pielarks, apparently upset by this territorial abuse, and known for their fearless defensive surveillance, joined in the harassment of the eagle until it decided to fly off, a procession of harrier hawk and lark snapping at its splendid tail.
Harry Carey was now running towards Arno at top speed. Kris Carson, hands in the air, was calling to Diva. Harry met Arno, bleeding and stumbling towards the entrance hall. Harry wrapped an old shirt tightly around Arno’s bloody arm and helped him to the hall. Harry’s first-aid skills were crude but effective: Arno no longer had blood dripping on his legs and clothes.
“That beast could’ve killed me. How often –”
“Miss Franke, the paramed; she’ll be here shortly. You’re lookin’ a bit pale. Were lucky, son, them birds are brutes eh? Could’ve lost an eye . . . easy. Don’ know what she’s doin’ around here . . . good ol’ Diva though, always watchin’ out . . .”
At that point Leroy burst in.
“True blood, Arno, what happened to you? Not another barbed-wire fence? You climbing out-of-bounds again?” Arno knew Leroy didn’t really think that. “Uh, oh, you haven’t been monstered have you?”
“I’m not supposed to talk to you, Leroy . . . but a freakin’ eagle hit me!”
Sybylla Dolotty was now at his side. “Okay Arno don’t discuss the tests that’s all; and watch your language, please. What a monstrous thing. I’m very sorry this happened. Quite unusual I must say. No real harm though; toughen you up for the year.”
Welcome to DIPI, Arno; welcome to DIPI.
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Writer, editor, fiction and non-fiction over many years. Decades of environmental campaigning for conservation, environmental sustainability and species preservation. Wide ranging expertise in fitness, nutrition, environmental health and general biomedical sciences. Former marathoner and triathlete, qualified personal trainer. Author of over 300 articles for the VeryWell Health web portal.
I am a fan of fantasy of many kinds, but like many, my favourites are Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Being a long-term environmentalist and animal rights advocate, I sought to combine elements of both in a unique fantasy setting that included some science as well — thus the world of Animaia (Animal Gaia). This is a unique combination of urban and contemporary fantasy, paranormal milieu and magical realism. The time is right for such an environmental saga that can appeal to many.