The folk of the Infinite Forum swore in nine languages and ninety dialects as a cat’s black shape darted up Via Antiqua’s hot white stones. They hissed again as they spied the magic-twisted bloodhound bounding after it like a carnelian thundercloud. And cursed once more as their gazes flicked back to the cat.
I didn’t blame them. I’d have been more afraid of me, too.
However I, Shadowdrop, most magnificently tragic of black cats, had fears of a different litter that day. My chief worry wasn’t the hellsnout, for all that it pursued me past the hundred marble emperors glaring beneath pigeons’ feet. I didn’t trouble much about its spittle-flecked fangs chomping the air behind my tail as I cleared the iron fence of the Western Gravegarden. Nor was I overly concerned about its frantic howling as it summoned a half dozen friends for a chase up the Stairway of Ages, up the stone stretch, the bronze stretch, the iron and steel stretches shining near the hilltop. For, whatever strange fates separate us from our origins, hellsnouts remain dogs—and I, a cat.
No, what preoccupied me that afternoon when I raced through the drought’s heat toward Underseers’ Tower was that, once again, I’d shed bad luck upon innocents.
The Tower before me offered both safety and distraction from the screams. It pretended to lack a first story, its columns wreathed in a mass of pipes, scaffolding, gutters, and ladders. The infrastructure was all real, but its exposure was all symbolism. The wizards needed no stairs, but there were pathways just for magical servitors and cats, and I rose into a rhythm of leaps, spiraling around the building, my hunters baying below.
As I reached the second story, where the tower looked more like a respectable fortress with crenelations and arrow-slits and all the architecture of killing, I peeked between gargoyles, surveying the damage.
It was impressive, even for me.
Overturned fruit carts spilled pink wondermelons and purple squirtbursts onto the stone emperors’ feet... A carriage sprawled within the Fountain of Shackled Seas, and silk-clad nobles fled the spray spurting from every gilded window... A crowd emerging from the Zodiac Coliseum tangled in the backwash and like angry bees swarmed between the partisans of Glorg Headsmasher and Snarl Biteblood.
Mighty was my chagrin, and mightier still my power.
“My congratulations, sister.”
I twitched my tail in solemn acknowledgement. There were maybe a hundred black cats in the city, a feline village of sorts within the human metropolis... but even if there were a million, I would know Whiskerdoom.
“I really am impressed, Shadowdrop,” he said from his perch upon a gargoyle, executing a negligent-seeming but thoroughly precise maneuver of paw-wetting and face-grooming. He looked upon Archaeopolis, and his eyes, in the manner of our family, resembled obsidian flecks mounted in jade and fringed by gold. “Why, break all my mirrors if I haven’t seen such spectacular luckbane all year. You were always the strongest.”
He didn’t mean just in our litter, of course. I was a legend, of sorts, among black cats. It was one reason I avoided my kind.
“Might has its drawbacks,” I said, regarding the ramshackle houses far over in Foottown. I remembered the day a year ago when I had encountered the girl who read books to me. “As in, people might have gotten hurt.”
“Ah, but people are always getting hurt. Clumsy dumb things! If they’re not injuring themselves, they’re throttling each other. Except the wizards, naturally.” Whiskerdoom nodded a trifle uneasily toward a small steel panel crisscrossed with magic symbols. They glowed with silvery light, yet it was afternoon with no moon in the sky. “A shame you’ve never applied to be a familiar, sister. You’ve got the luck for it. In a way, that’s why I sent for you.”
“Oh?” Despite myself I was curious.
“I invite you to come through the cat door.”
I eyed the magic symbols more warily. “I distinctly remember you saying...”
“It was instant death? I may have exaggerated. A bit. Well, a lot. If you’re blocked you’ll receive a nasty shock, though no worse than a kick from a random cat-hater in the streets.”
“Why, thank you.”
“You’ll not trigger the ward, Shadowdrop, fear not. You are my kin. Recall the spat we had last month over, oh, I do not quite recall...”
“You introduced me to your colleague as, and I quote, your ‘mangy brat of a sister but harmless in her own way.’”
“Ah, yes. That was it. The fur flew, and I found myself with a bit of yours on my nose.”
“And I with a bit of yours in my claws.”
“The point is, the bit of you on my nose... that should have been enough to trigger the warding spell—like your pride, it’s on the sensitive side—but it didn’t. Now that is interesting. I want to see what happens when all of you goes through.”
“And supposing I’m injured? Or attacked by wizards?”
“I am here to look after you, little one.” Whiskerdoom had been first in the litter by perhaps a minute. “Or would you rather keep company with the hellsnouts?”
We glanced down. The seven had dwindled to three, as the beasts lost interest and whined their way down the hill, disappearing into foliage, alleys, and sewer-holes. The ones remaining were not the largest but the fiercest. Chief among them was my first pursuer, whom I’d dubbed Hork. Like his cohorts, Hork had an alligator’s-worth of sharp teeth, rhinoceros-like hide, and claws worthy of a grizzly bear. But the greatest modifications lay within. Hork spat fiery phlegm upon the cobblestones and growled up at us.
We licked our paws, making a show of being utterly oblivious. Nonetheless I said, “An indoor nap might be agreeable.”
Nerving myself for the unknown, I nosed through the cat door.
For a moment my hair stood on end, as the enchantment scrutinized me and found me worthy.
I entered a modest, high-ceilinged stone landing built for feline comfort. There was a metallic human-sized door covered in arcane symbols, beside which stood a shaggy, many-branched scratching post. Two cat-proportioned stairways, one up and one down, lay at either hand, but I disregarded these in favor of exercising my claws.
There came to my ears a muffled voice, saying, “Eek. Ooo. Hee hee. Gah.”
I backed away hissing. “What?” I managed to say.
“Whoo. Heh,” said the scratching post, though it had no mouth that I could determine. It did quiver a bit.
“Um, yes. Hm.” It sounded surprised. Possibly masculine. It said, “You’re asking a question? Say there, you’re new.”
“My name’s Shadowdrop. Whiskerdoom’s my brother.”
“Ah. That explains it. You are joining the familiars, then.”
“No, just visiting. There’s a lack of cat-hating monsters in here. I approve.”
“I’m surprised Mistress Wurm did.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I’ll not tell! Wurm thinks she knows everything. I’m happy to disprove her at every opportunity.”
Whiskerdoom appeared. I decided not to hunt the subject of Mistress Wurm. “Thank you,” I said. “You’re very kind... er...”
“You may call me Postgrad.”
“Thank you, Postgrad. That is an unusual name. But then I wouldn’t know what one names a scratching post.”
“I used to be human,” said the post, “a post-graduate scholar here, or as the jargon goes, apprentice. But I was overly free with my opinions. And perhaps my jokes. Have you heard the one about the prophecy, the curse, and the blessing who walk into a tavern? Never mind. Those were the days. I can at least voice my discomfort when the familiars need to sharpen their claws. Ow.”
“I’ll be just a moment,” Whiskerdoom said.
“Take your time,” sighed Postgrad.
“Brother!” I said. “How can you?”
“Well, first you flex a little,” Whiskerdoom said, “and then you kind of keep the tension going...”
“Do not worry,” Postgrad said, perhaps a little too quickly. “Really, at this point it mainly tickles, albeit a bit aggressively. And the cats aren’t truly cruel, they’re just... cats. No offense.”
I said, “None taken. We are what we are, and proud of our claws. But I won’t sharpen mine on you.”
“You are... different. Well, you have a friend in intermediate places, Shadowdrop. I—”
Whiskerdoom eyed me and said, “If you’re done chitchatting with furniture, we’ve things to discuss. The experiment worked, sister. You can visit our fair tower after all. So, I have a little suggestion... I would find it nice to take a vacation, stretch my legs around town, just for a while. Chase banderflies. Lick axefish heads. Sniff the chimney-smoke where they’ve got the yak-yak birds turning on spits. Live like ordinary cats. Ordinary magical ones, I mean.”
“You never do these things?”
“I can escape briefly but my mistress may need me unexpectedly and she’s unpleasant when she has to wait. You see, sister, we black cats are valued as familiars not simply because luckbane enhances our minds. The luckbane itself is of use. Wizards can siphon off a portion of negative probability to enhance spells.”
“That never backfires?”
“It does, sometimes, but wizards are crafty. They’ve been needing more and more of our strength lately, in their tussles with the Things that rise from sewer and catacomb. That is the Underseers’ purpose after all, the magical defense of the city’s infrastructure, just as Overwatchers guard us from Horrors from the stars. But I need a rest.” He continued in a more conspiratorial way, his mews supplemented by many twitches and tail-flicks. “I propose a trade, sister.”
I understood, in a way that made me want to sharpen my claws. “You want me to pose as you.”
“Only for a time. We’re quite similar in appearance and aura; the cat door experiment proves it.”
“Only until I talk!” For, alone among humankind, wizards understood cat conversation.
“Mistress Wurm takes Moonsday off. Lately she isn’t around at all much that day. She might siphon luckbane on her way out, but otherwise she won’t even acknowledge your existence. What say we switch places tonight, and switch back again Bloodsday morning. Just one day. Who’ll know? You’ll get excellent food and shelter, and I’ll get to roam.”
I was tempted by the chance to see Whiskerdoom’s world. But I remembered the human child who’d sometimes read to me and the way she’d looked the last time we’d met—thin as an abandoned housecat, stomach growling like a territorial tom. Things had been hard, with the drought.
“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Perhaps next w—”
“Fine, then!” Whiskerdoom snarled. “For once I thought you’d might be fun, Shadowdrop! But have it your way!” Whiskerdoom stalked up the cat-sized upper stairs. I was left alone with Postgrad.
I arched my back, feeling that old tug between fight and flight, even though my brother was already gone. It was ever thus—one minute purrs, the next hisses.
“He has a temper,” Postgrad observed.
“Some cats are like that,” I said, striving for an appropriately feline nonchalance before an audience, even if it was a scratching post. “The next time I see him he’s as like to be cheerful again. At least he doesn’t hold grudges.”
“That is true,” Postgrad said. “He’s one of the easier ones, when the storm passes.” Postgrad added, “You are different. Calmer...”
“Having such an acute example of spitting anger to observe,” I said, “I saw the value of serenity. It’s said all siblings distinguish themselves.”
“I didn’t mean different from Whiskerdoom. I mean different from other cats entirely... or from most humans, for that matter. You have a striking empathy, guarded by a shield of aloofness...”
“Your conversation bores me now. I must be going.”
Out the cat door I found two hellsnouts remaining below the tower, hopeful of a good rending. Hork at least had wandered off. I puzzled again as to who—or what—had made the beasts, and why they increasingly threatened our city. Archaeopolis was older than recorded history, and the underground coughed up ancient horrors the way other soil might reveal arrowheads or potshards. But of late, creatures stalked the open air that had no counterpart in story or scroll.
Even a black cat might be mildly concerned.
But in any event, what could one cat do? On that last innocent afternoon my answer was to nap in the shadow of a gargoyle, soaking up late afternoon heat, waiting for the sun to drop, and for long-suffering apprentices to finally chase away the hellsnouts with enchanted trowels, wedges glowing like fangs made of sunset. With all clear I scuttled down the drainpipes and scaffolding in the eased temperatures of early evening, off through dusty cobbled streets to Scatterwind Market.
Tru, the little girl who read to me, had recited tales about our whole coastal country of the Eldshore being the sinuous body of the immense slumbering Elddrake, with Archaeopolis sited at the socket of its heavenward eye. The other draconic eye (she’d read) looked toward molten things in the depths of the Earthe, and should it ever blink the land would shake and weep fire and Archaepolis would gain a fresh layer of skeletons and relics...
The sight of a gold Blazon in the red sunset, gleaming precariously on a sewer grate, returned me to the present. This would “buy” a nice pheasant for Tru’s family. I carefully reached out to bat the coin toward the cobblestones... and froze.
In the shadows below the grate a trio of glowing red eyes, arrayed in a downward triangle, gazed upward.
They were of human shape. Human eyes, however, do not come in threes. Nor are they crystalline. And they certainly don’t blaze like furnaces. I withdrew my paw, puffed up my hindquarters, and flattened my ears.
The Thing in the darkness merely stared back. I had the sense of an oily presence, raspy breathing, the scent of dry dust, and a whiff of hot ash.
“Why... I know this cat...”
The voice had a serpentine sibilance to it, and an insectile trill, and a human mockery. Perhaps a touch of the feminine? I wasn’t certain. I was certain I’d never before heard such a sound.
A smarter cat would have run. A braver cat would have hissed. But I was a cat with a keen interest in money.
I spun as I swatted the coin free, wheeling around the grate. My moment of triumph was interrupted by a grey tentacle that shot between the bars. Searing my skin, it constricted around my right hind leg like a burning rope. I thumped to the cobblestones and it dragged me backward.
I wasn’t sure how the Thing expected me to fit through the sewer grate. I’d the feeling such considerations were far more important to me than to it.
I hissed, “Omens and outrages! Pain and pestilence! Your future is full of boils, bandits, and banana peels! Lice and lightning covet your flesh! All your prayers against toothache will be as naught! Your sinews are but thin reeds, and the rocks are falling!”
The Thing released me, and I skittered backward.
I was very lucky indeed. I had in no way crossed the Thing’s path. Only my reputation protected me. I wasted no time recovering the Blazon and carrying it like a kitten in my mouth.
Hurrying toward Scatterwind Market, I limped a little from the tentacle. I couldn’t dwell upon such Things, however, for I had come upon people.
Although night was beginning, the Eternal Esplanade that led from Hourglass Harbor to Scatterwind Market was crowded with early revelers for the Festival of Time’s Breaking the day after tomorrow. This aroused my curiosity. Soon a temporary wooden bridge would be assembled across the Harbor, symbolically severing its hourglass shape. The bridge was even now being carted in pieces to either side of the waters, a flotilla of small boats crowded with eager hands to help it along. Starting tomorrow the humans would dance and frolic and generally pretend there was no high birth or low birth, no left or right, perhaps no masculine or feminine, no yesterday or tomorrow. The distinction between prim respectability and gyrating with a bottle in your fist would also be somewhat blurred. The festivities would reach a peak on Bloodsday, with another cooling-off day to follow.
Even tonight there were hundreds of two-legged obstacles in my way. Most were light-brown of hue, but Archaeopolis attracted humans from all the known Earthe and possibly farther, and they came in as many colors, sizes, and shapes as my kind did, and every mode of costume or lack thereof. So I blinked three times and walked among them, ducking and shifting, weaving and leaping. In my second sight I beheld, like a potful of noodles made of moonbeams, the silver threads of human world-lines.
Behind each man, woman, and child these cords were tightly bound and distinct, gradually trailing off into ghost-like transparency, then invisibility. Things were stranger out front. Ahead of each person the world-lines first jabbed like silver spears but soon blurred and expanded like twisted reflections of silver birch trees on a windy lake. Whiskerdoom claimed that the spear-like portion represented thirteen seconds’ progression into the future—the part of a human world-line we black cats could poison. I didn’t think the period was quite so precise, but it wasn’t worth arguing about. (Some day Whiskerdoom might declare the period was fourteen seconds and that he’d always believed it so, and that would not be worth arguing about either.)
I could stay clear if I kept alert, taking advantage of alleys, corners, rooftops, shadows. It made progress slow, but it was best. For to come near one of those bright silver threads was to bend it like a cobweb in a breeze, snap it, make the remnant curl and blacken for a time. The person so afflicted might stumble, gag, be hit by a falling brick, or collapse in a seizure. My nose twisted at the thought.
Once I fell into my rhythm, I peered more deeply.
Surrounding these sharp, bright pathways was a kind of haze of silver possibility shrouding the city, like a fog that crept in on little cat feet. I could enter that fog without harming the humans, though I sometimes wondered if even then little accidents might spread upon the wind—stubbed toes, lost coins, forgotten names. In some places—markets, crowded neighborhoods, the castle—the probability mist curdled thick, foaming with the mixed fortunes of a throng. In others—back alleys, quiet rich neighborhoods, graveyards—the mist was thinner, the futures less volatile. I sought such places when I could.
There was another reason for preferring quiet retreats. Over the last few days, I was noticing a new factor: bubbles in the thickest parts of the fog, places where the possibilities were rent. The bubbles were slowly expanding like cracks in the clouds of chance. I didn’t know what to make of them, yet they made my hair rise.
There were many such bubbles today.
I blinked three times and banished my fatesight. I was nearing the Market, which was open late in anticipation of the festival, with bright stands sprawled across the hulks of old ships like flowers strewn amongst broken pots, and for all that I worried over humans I had to focus on what could hurt a cat.
Scatterwind Market didn’t merely encompass dilapidated piers and boardwalk; it filled hundreds of wrecks crushed together like fish from a catch. I scrambled up the hull of the Dawn Zephyr, which lay on its side amid tidepools and muck, and from there leapt to the overturned hulk of the Grandiloquent, with its many market tents upon the keel. Sliding down its edge I boarded the Modest Compensation, a gigantic hulk split into two pieces, rope bridges thick between them.
My target was the neighboring Boon Companion, a wreck of recent vintage. It had a more or less level orientation, with several bright-colored and rich-scented food stalls. There was a butcher there, one whom I’d visited before, and unlike his cohorts, his meat didn’t stink. I slunk in, batted my Blazon toward his feet, and stole a pheasant.
“That cat!” roared the proprietor. “That benighted cat!” Other merchants shouted and commenced chase, while he himself stood back and quietly pocketed the coin.
My pursuers, naturally, had no chance. Prize in mouth I bounded off, taking in turn the hulks of the Cloudrunner, the Deep Ending, and the Windthreader. The tricky part was protecting the humans as I veered around their world-lines. At last I ducked belowdecks on the Windthreader and followed a rat-path I knew well, through dark interstices where the day-lit hulks crushed against the deeper ships.
Tru had read me the history. The Market’s pile-up began centuries ago in the great storm of 744 E.Y., when that ill-timed hurricane destroyed a victorious returning armada, and the resulting naval graveyard was long considered haunted. Flooding and engineering created the Hourglass Harbor while reeds and mud shrouded the old one.
But, as if the dead ships held a fatal attraction for live ones, new vessels joined the originals every few years. At last the emperor, shrugging at old ghosts, declared a peculiar rehabilitation. Enterprising vendors strewed scaffolding and rope bridges across the wreckage, because only in Scatterwind could a business operate tax-free and away from official eyes. Thus humans flocked to this creaky place for the promise of bargain prices or disreputable wares.
Down here amid planks and mud were skeletons of sailors still clutching their treasures. Sometimes adventurers excavated them, drawing the wrath of the merchants who needed the whole mad conglomeration stable. The risks were great and the rewards slim and I rarely noted any speculative archaeology in this spot. And yet...
As I passed through the hold of the Heat Mirage into the belly of the Sickle Moon, I caught a scent and saw a glow, both disturbing and familiar. Red lights moved in hidden spaces far beneath my paws, a ship or two below me, where no human ever went.
“You were not followed?” rose a voice I’d recently heard from a sewer grate.
“Control your fear,” came a woman’s voice, rich and strong like salty waves. “I am unsuspected. Why did you ask to see me personally?”
I hesitated. Yes, I had a mission. But I was curious. So kill me.
“I require one last component. A book called the Nominus Umbra. Specifically, page 99.“
“What? I know the Nominus Umbra. It is kept in the Northstar Tower of Castle Astrolabe, watched by constelletons and sealed in a dome of crystalized phlogiston. Even Underseers are not allowed to consult it, save with an Overgazer escort and tongs. To steal it—”
“The whole book is unnecessary. Only page 99. You can burn the rest.”
“If I singed even one corner of one page I’d be torn to pieces before I escaped the castle. And then they would punish me.”
“Control your fear. I am collecting what I need for a diversion.“
“You must cast the Dragonspark on Bloodsday, at the height of the Festival of Time’s Breaking. If you had been freer with your plans, Ruingift, I might have had agents in place.”
“I have faith in your resourcefulness. The city is full of those who might profit from its destruction. In fact...” The one named Ruingift paused. “We are being watched.“
I decided discretion was the better part of curiosity. I slowly padded through the darkness.
A plank creaked.
“Above,” said the one called Ruingift. “I will investigate.“
Now I ran. Behind me something slithered and muscled through wreckage and muck. I scrambled through the maze of rubble separating the Sickle Moon from the Clean Getaway and from there burst through a portal onto a sunlit muddy bank. “I am a cat among cats,” I purred to myself, darting under the legs of a wine juggler on the boardwalk, escaping the market with my mouth full of pheasant, my ears full of shattering glass, my nose full of spilled Merlot.
Tru’s family lived, you might say, in the very heel of the city.
Foottown was peculiar even for Archaeopolis. Two hundred dwellings rose here, all in the shape of paired human feet. Foottown’s origin (as Tru had read to me) lay, or stood, with Emperor Garn, he who’d commissioned fifty-foot statues of himself and his Empress bestriding Archaeopolis’ eastern gate, glaring toward the frontier. Not content with dominating the land by day, Garn had his delven artisans fit the statues as watchtowers, with firelights crackling behind their stares. The flame-tenders dwelled in one foot of each statue, and the watchmen in the other. Not to be outdone, Garn’s daughter and heir Vame raised, just beyond the gate, statues of herself and her husband. These fit the original specifications except that the statues were fractionally taller. Garn’s grandson the Emperor Besk continued the tradition; he and Empress Krin were observed to rise a little higher than their predecessors.
This pattern progressed for several generations, and the ever-changing city expanded to trail the statues, until the Emperor Vorg, facing three invasions, publicly denounced such wasteful monuments.
That he was slain a week later by Mandrake Marauders was taken as a sign. The next sixty rulers raised statues tall and early.
In the twilight of the Age of Emphatic Expansion, the needs of the far-flung provinces at last demanded economizing at home. Delven artisans were rejected, and increasingly flimsy materials went into ever-taller statues. Then came the great earthquake of 888 E.Y., which tore a gash in that district afterward known as Scarside. As buildings collapsed throughout Archaeopolis, the last and tallest pair of statues snapped backward at the ankles. They collided with their neighbors, which collided with their neighbors, and after the last crash had finally toppled the statue of Garn, the event became known as the Day of the Footless Emperors.
Ever since, the east end of the city had been a poor district, rubble-strewn, never fully rebuilt—while Footside was itself a tolerable neighborhood cutting through two bad ones, though the housing was, it must be said, of modest footage.
A family large as Tru’s might acquire, if lucky, two such foot-shaped houses, whose lost emperor had been demolished for materials long since. Tru’s had made theirs homey. Thatch covered the hollow vestiges of legs, with a chimney poking up from the left shin. Laundry quivered on lines between sandaled stone feet. Dogs and chickens barked and clucked on the plot between. Seven human beings dwelled within the Emperor Vrul’s soles, four on the right, three on the left. They mostly slept in the toes. Tru herself, however, claimed the heel door, where she could communicate secret messages via clothesline to her little sister Dru.
I knew eight-year-old Tru and seven-year-old Dru were holding the family together. As I approached, their mother and father were once again arguing about whatever adult humans argued about. (Lovefearmoneyworklusthope it could have been called, though humans tended to focus about only one aspect of that Great Worry Beast at one time.) Their noise echoed up a stovepipe. I neared Tru’s heel-door, watchful for humans.
I dropped the pheasant outside, scratched on the wood, and slipped around behind the heel to wait. The door opened, and Tru appeared.
Eight was of course a redoubtable age for cats (in those days I was three) but very young for a human. Her green eyes looked old, however—until she saw the pheasant. Then those eyes widened on her too-thin face, and a smile burst beneath them bright as sunlit rain, its breadth moving freckles like dark wheeling stars in a sepia sky. “Pepper! I know you’re out there. Thank you! Mama and Papa are fighting again. This will distract them. Wait! I’ll be back.”
There were sounds within of surprise, fumbling speech, and grumbled apology. I padded closer, and Tru emerged.
“Thank you, Pepper,” Tru said, sitting down and twitching her extended fingers. Now that Tru wasn’t moving, I could approach, nuzzle her fingers, curl up in her lap, and purr. I deigned to do these things.
Being called ‘Pepper’ was neither fish nor fowl to me. Humans were always making up silly names. And here was a strange thing: being unable to talk could be soothing. Just now it allowed the notion that I was a simple kitten looking for warmth.
The illusion couldn’t last. “Pepper, I know you can’t really understand. But it helps me to talk to you. I’m worried. My brother Zik is missing.”
I stopped being a kitten. I perked my ears.
Tru said, “People saw his gang? in Scarside, exploring old mansions. That was yesterday. They never came back.” She hugged me until it hurt, but I didn’t want to deny Tru her solace. At last I mewed my discomfort and Tru loosened her grip, saying, “Mom and Dad keep screaming at each other. I think they care more about who’s to blame than how to help Zik. It’s like when Vil died.”
I went still as a drop of shadow. I remembered well when Vil died.
“You were the only thing good about that day,” Tru was saying. “You and the Millers. That was the first day they loaned me a book.”
I nuzzled Tru, wishing she’d change the subject and read one of those books again, about the city, about magic, about anything.
“Mama says Papa’s been too hard on Zik since we lost Vil. Papa says Mama went too easy. I just want them both to shut up and look for him, but I’m just a child...”
I wished I could say It will be all right. But I couldn’t communicate this idea, in which I had less than perfect certainty. So I mewed.
When Tru was called inside, I slinked through Foottown and crossed a bridge into Bookside. I padded through alleys behind those shops where amateur mages find their spells, toward another district where few humans tread after dark. I wanted to get far from Foottown and the river and the thought of Vil’s death.
I blinked away my fatesight as I passed into the Tombgreen. There were still very faint traces of silver in the air before the sight left me, remnants of mourners perhaps, or nearly imperceptible world-lines of mice and moths, or vestiges of ghosts. My presence couldn’t hurt anyone here. The mourners were long gone, the animals were little affected by my power, and ghosts were already about as unlucky as they could be.
It was quiet. Dead-silent, vine-choked, dust-hushed, web-wrapped, stone-still. Peaceful.
But quiet brought me no peace. Misfortune seemed everywhere—drought, hellsnouts, missing children. And I, creature of bad luck, felt somehow responsible for it all. What I wanted was to leap, scamper, chase, claw, pounce, grapple. I wanted to hunt without ever considering the effects of luckbane.
I wanted to be pure cat.
I climbed atop a tomb sculpted with visions of afterlives hopeful and otherwise. Up there was the last thing I wanted to see.
It was another cat.
Specifically, it was a meekbreed, an ordinary cat. A calico, healthy of body, but with a torn and badly healed ear. So... a feral cat but a frequently fed one, perhaps with several adopted human households. It hissed in the unsophisticated way of our mundane kin. “Go away,” the sound conveyed.
“I wish only a corner of your domain,” I tried to explain.
“I am most inoffensive and will be gone soon.”
“Go away,” came the hiss.
“I am bad luck!” I hissed back.
The other cat, sensing in its sinew the truth of things, screeched and leapt off the tomb.
“Yes,” I called after it. “Yes, run! For I am a black cat. I am unlucky, and that is all you need know. I am destruction with four legs and a tail and fangs. I need no friends.”
I lay down. A moth landed beside my nose.
“I am too dejected to eat you, O stupid and happy insect. Mock me, fluttery one.”
In this melancholic mood I surveyed my city, the ancient and ruined, the thriving and splendid. My gaze settled upon the tower of the Underseers. While firelights appeared in other buildings of the Forum, this citadel’s windows shone with strange flickers of blue, red, purple, green. Within dwelled humans who did not fear black cats. There, amid musty grimoires and dripping alembics and singing skulls and talkative brains in jars, a cat could just be a cat. Albeit one who might know a spell or two.
“Whiskerdoom,” I said, rising. “On reconsideration, brother, you have a deal.”
I leapt to the hallowed ground. Once when I glanced behind me, I noted the moonlit moth meandering about the tomb, and the calico stalking it. I couldn’t shake the notion, just then, that the whole city was in the much the same peril as the moth.
“Well...” said Whiskerdoom, at last emerging from behind the arcane cat door, “... met by moonlight, eh? By that I mean it’s late. I wasn’t planning for the switch, sister.”
“It’s still the night before Moonsday,” I persisted. “It can’t be too late.”
“In a wizard’s tower, arrangements must be made! I have prismspiders to contain, slinkrats to debrief, rafterghasts to feed. I must now do all this in haste, so you won’t be in a position to mess things up.”
“Why, thank you. Then you will do it?”
“I will do it, sister.” Now that I was actually interested, he made it sound like a magnanimous gift. “And of course I benefit as well. I will experience this city of ours as a real inhabitant sees it, not in passing along the way to beast-infested sewers or ghost-troubled houses.”
“I am pleased for you, Whiskerdoom. There’s one more thing...”
“There’s an errand I myself couldn’t complete, that your vast talents might easily master.”
“A cat appreciates flattery. Go on.”
I told him of Tru’s brother, lost in Scarside.
Whiskerdoom wrinkled his nose. “You have not promised anything to this Tru person, I hope?”
“I can’t even talk to the humans, Whiskerdoom. You need spells for that.”
“Ah, indeed.” Whiskerdoom twitched his tail. “Well, no doubt I can find him if I wish. Heh. That could be fun. A real adventure! And not as a mere servant!”
“Thank you, brother.”
“All right, all right. I can never refuse you! Well, I often can’t. Once in a while I can’t. But you must be wary, sister. I won’t have time to coach you. I will do my Moonsday morning chores now. Moonsday afternoons are taken up with naps, so you won’t be expected to do anything but look elegantly sinister. I think you won’t mess that up.”
“Why, thank you.”
I gave him directions to Tru’s place, and he gave me quick instructions. I was at my liberty until dawn. Now that I’d done something about Tru’s brother, I decided to roam the city’s nighttime heart, in case I could detect any more signs of monsters, or of this Ruingift.
This region was frequented by nobles and the rich (overlapping but distinct sets) but also by commoners enjoying the Forum and Coliseum. There weren’t many this late, however, and with care they could avoid cats and catastrophe. I strolled upon the edge of the Fountain of Shackled Seas (they’d cleared the fallen coach) wondering what it would be like to visit a place where my kind was some approximation of normal.
“Good evening, my feline friend,” an old human’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
I didn’t know how I’d missed him before. He was a grey-haired dark-brown man with a scarlet spattering of psoriasis like a topographic map of volcanoes. He had the deflated look of a big human gnawed thin by disease, and yet, as his toga-covered frame perched on the rim of the fountain, studying a set of cards laid out in solitaire fashion, there was an intensity to his eyes like the first crow to spot the corn.
I recognized the human game as one called Treatment. Every card represented either an illness (demoniacal tittering fever, perhaps, or nasal crabs) or a medical procedure (e.g., crack of dawn screaming monkey surprise or bloodletting-and-nice-fresh-air.) The right combination of cards would let players eliminate their diseases, discard their hands, and escape the “hospital.”
“I have seen you now and again,” the man continued, setting down a treatment (blindfolded medium-range acupuncture) that required two side-effect draws (intestinal monologue and peculiar luminous seepage.) “You had a hand—or paw—in the Forum’s recent excitement.”
There was something wrong about all this, but I was too fascinated by the man and his game to slip away.
“But there was only so much excitement, eh?” he said, eliminating mossy shingles by adding placebo pudding flambé to his treatment spread. “For you are the black cat who endeavors never to cross anyone’s path. The one with heart and conscience.” He was down to three cards now. “You realize that every chain of events can have the most wonderful, hideous, and outré results.”
I gave him no acknowledgment.
“You do not know me,” he said, setting down earwax termite colony, “but I am in a parallel position. I can hardly sneeze without some unfortunate being thrown into a workhouse or down a oubliette. If I wish to accomplish a good turn I must be discreet.” He played elixir of screech-eel and was compelled to draw the side effect acidic weeping. “This is because I possess primarily persuasive power against the rich, but mainly violent power against the poor. Lately the wealthy have concluded the thin spiders’ webs of safety we’ve given ordinary mortals are a costly indulgence that might deprive them of one whole soiree every year. They mean to rend those strands.”
I pretended to swat at an invisible insect. The man worried me, but somehow his voice was catnip.
“They will kill me,” he said, considering his last card, “if they discover how vigorously I oppose them. But they consider me an uncouth old imbecile and dismiss me. The rich, you see, confuse a lack of dignity with being weak. And they confuse a lack of scruples with being strong.” He placed a card labeled targeted luckbane—eliminate any two cards, then discard this one. He smiled as he won. “True strength of character means braving risk for yourself, not just apportioning it to others. I know you possess that strength.”
I could only stare.
“But the moment may come,” he said, packing up his deck, “when you have to impose a little danger on others as well, not capriciously, but judiciously, to save them from greater harm. I don’t fault you for shrinking from that crisis. Your isolation has a certain nobility. But your city may be better off for facing a small risk. Just as you may be better off taking the risk of friendship. As always the trick is knowing what cards to play and when.” He nodded. “Good evening, Shadowdrop.”
He left the fountain and passed without interruption through the dusty crystalline doors of Castle Astrolabe. It occurred to my sluggish brain I might have been in the presence of some wizard. I had no reason to trust him, yet found that I did. But I couldn’t see what he was urging me to do, nor regard the world as a game of Treatment. Too much of life wasn’t a game at all but a hunt.
In this reverie I spotted one of my kindred across the Forum, peering out from behind a Coliseum column. It was an old, lean, black cat, one who chose every movement carefully. She mewed.
“Shadowdrop, is that you?” she said. “My eyes aren’t the greatest anymore. But whichever one you are, hightail it out of here! There’s a Thing that... well, a Thing...”
“Grimtail?” I recognized the voice of our eldest.
“It is Shadowdrop! I knew it! I’ve still got it! What was I... Right! Get out of here! And tell Whiskerdoom—”
The message was lost as the tentacles of something hidden behind the column wrapped around Grimtail and dragged her out of sight.
“Why didn’t you tell me about these Things before?” Whiskerdoom snapped at dawn, when I related the attacks on Grimtail and, by way of context, myself. He scratched compulsively at his neck, freshly shorn of his iron collar. “Now I’ve no time to consult the grimoires.”
“So you don’t recognize the threat?”
“No. I don’t like this, sister. The undercity’s getting creative. We’ve had hellsnouts for a year, and lately we’ve gotten pigeon-spiders and bedbanes. And now this whatever-it-is. It’s like someone’s making these Things on purpose, mocking the Underseers.”
“The one I met said it knew me...” I felt I should tell him more, but his manner grew agitated, and I knew from painful, nipped-ear experience there was no talking to my brother in one of these moods. And surely, I thought in my innocence, we could discuss it later.
“Arg. Enough of your tales! I’ve got to make my exit, before you change my mind. I’ve just warned the other cats my little sister’s visiting and not to expect me back for a day. If I go back inside now I’ll be ambushed with by-the-ways, just-one-more-things, and do-you-have-a-minutes. I have to go, sister. The sweet illusion of freedom calls.”
I watched him dart hither and yon amongst the buildings caterwauling happily to himself, until I lost him in the morning grey. Nothing grabbed him during that time. It surprised me what a relief that was.
Working up my nerve, I nosed in.
Again my hair stood on end as the cat door scrutinized my aura or blood or mouse-breath or whatever and found it barely acceptable. I greeted Posgrad.
“Hello, Shadowdrop,” said the muffled voice. “I understand you’ll be here a while. Let me give you such advice as only a scratching post can give. The cruelest cat here is Quickfang; she is Master Slint’s. The coldest is Nightwise; he is Mistress Voyd’s. The angriest is Hauntclaw; she is Master Hake’s.”
“Quickfang, cruel. Nightwise, cold. Hauntclaw, angry. Thank you, Postgrad. I suppose I’d better go meet them.”
“Up the stair to your left and into the lions’ den. Good luck.”
I ascended into a cat’s dream of meandering stone passages, nooks, and high places. It was like a miniature sandstone canyon that had been weathered down to smoothness, with leaded glass windows bringing enough dawn illumination to perfect the shadows.
There were just two flaws with this cozy scene. First, there was another iron door to grant access to wizards. Second, there were the other cats.
The cruel-appearing one poked her head around a corner and sized me up, as the cold-seeming one peered aloofly from his moonlit perch and the angry-looking one slowly backed away down the central path. Hello, Cruel, Cold, and Angry.
“I’m Hauntclaw,” hissed the angry one, stopping and puffing herself up in the way of the cornered cat. Her collar was of bronze. “You just watch it, kit. We’re wizards’ cats. Show yourself false, we’ll turn you into somebody’s lucky scarf.”
The cold one craned his head, revealing his collar of silver. I recognized him as the colleague Whiskerdoom had once introduced me to. He yawned, pointedly.
“Oh, do let her alone,” cooed the cruel one, slowly emerging into view. She was a sleek, quick-looking cat bearing a collar of gold. “Whiskerdoom will have warned her all about foolishness like chasing bugs into pentagrams, or climbing golems, or sleeping on our blankets. There will be no cause to break her, ha. Hello, dear. I am Quickfang. I assume you’re the great Shadowdrop. You’re dead if you’re not.”
“I am Shadowdrop. Thanks for having me.” I called to the tom overhead. “And you must be Nightwise. Hello again!”
“Whatever,” said Nightwise. Bits of white fur starred his brow. His answer given, he licked his paw as if exactly no one were there.
Hauntclaw, a large cat threatening to become a fat cat, lowered her haunches, though she kept her distance. “Whiskerdoom’s such a fool. Monsters are stalking the streets! And he wants to traipse around like a meekbreed on catnip. And make us babysit.”
“No one’s babysitting,” I said. “I am a black cat full-grown. I bear the unluck that is blessing and curse. I see the silver lines of fate, the black lines of fate unraveled. I bear the mind that knows death and life, choice and destiny, the word and the book, and yet remains cat. I will do as I will do.”
In their various manners, Hauntclaw, Quickfang, and Nightwise silently acknowledged this declaration of old.
“Follow me,” Nightwise said unexpectedly, and leapt down. I complied, stepping carefully past the other females. “Here,” he said, showing me an alcove at the far end. “Whiskerdoom’s lair.” There was a whiff of Whiskerdoom’s urine around the entrance, the usual ‘my place’ marker.
“Whiskerdoom’s air, anyway, ha,” I quipped. “That was a joke,” I added.
“Whatever. He left his collar. If you dare it.”
Was this a test? Whiskerdoom had said nothing of the collar.
“Thank you, Nightwise,” I said. “I wish to rest now.”
The other could voice no objection, though he lingered. “Right.” He strolled away with the kind of slow deliberation that says the next sunbeam may be ten feet away but by heaven I’ll get to it before the hour’s up.
I entered the lair and confronted the collar, an unbroken iron circle as simple as could be, with no hint as to how one donned it. I batted at it, nosed into it, and said hello to it, by then feeling mocked by it.
I heard a footfall and turned to see Quickfang. She stepped exactly one paw beyond the boundary marked by Whiskerdoom’s scent.
“Yes?” said I, raising my tail in formal greeting.
Quickfang raised her own tail, but a little lower than mine, implying superior status. “We are going to view the crystal Orb. The wizards are rarely up at this hour on a Moonsday, and we have saved mice for the occasion. Your presence would be... tolerated.”
I decided to leave the puzzle of the collar for later and followed the others down the stairs. I got a few appraising stares for that but no snide remarks. Apparently I hadn’t disgraced myself quite yet.
Quickfang paused long enough to exercise her claws on Postgrad. I said nothing, though I heard murmurs of pain.
Guilt vanished amid wonder as we entered a huge chamber taking up three stories of the tower, with a stairway climbing the walls beside vast windows. Huge tables stood cluttered with books, maps, sketches, hourglasses, gears, beakers, candles, crucibles, drafting tools, alchemy gear, unfinished mugs of coffee, and marble mazes.
“Don’t even think about playing with the marbles,” whispered Nightwise. “They don’t like that.”
At they don’t like that my gaze drifted upwards toward cages suspended on chains. At first I thought these were filled with broken skeletons, but my vision clarified and I realized they held junk. They spun overhead like the distilled essence of a dozen antique shops. There were cases and boxes and piled contraptions and scrolls and sculptures and curios and swords and bows and paintings and turtle shells and butterfly collections and padlocks and keys that seemed relics from opposite ends of the Earthe. There were stuffed owls and stuffed bats and stuffed humanoid heads with wings for ears. There was a complete sarcophagus and a ship’s wheel and a rusty sword that seemed to twitch a little as its cage spun and creaked, scattering dust. There were several peculiar candles whose sticks branched like stubby trees.
“It’s like Scatterwind Market,” I said. “No, it’s more like the ships beneath...”
“The Underseers are, sad to say, sloppy,” Quickfang said. After the resulting pause she added, “Well, it’s no crime to say it. Instead of storerooms, they have hung these cages. If they require some oddity, chances are excellent it’s in there, somewhere. The only inventory they keep is in their dear little brains.”
“Sometimes,” Nightwise said, “they need the Orb to find something that’s ten feet over their heads.”
“Where is this Orb?” I asked.
“It’s over here,” Hauntclaw said, leading us to a table bearing a low pedestal with a glassy sphere twice as big as a human head. The milky look of it made me hungry. I didn’t want to admit weakness, of course, so I followed Hauntclaw’s example, leaping from floor to chair to table. The Orb was surrounded by books with names like The Seven Wands of Architecture and Civil Wizarding and Ley-lines: Their Application to Sewer Systems and Feng Shui and the Art of Street Paving. The tomes crowded like an honor guard. Black cats perched atop them.
Quickfang rubbed her paw against the crystal. “Nightwise,” she said, not looking at him, “be a dear and get the mice, would you?”
Sulkily, the boy-cat left. I lingered, watching strange images move about within the frosty glass like unknown insects twisting deep within tangled webs. But I pulled my nose away.
“I’ll help,” I told Nightwise, catching up.
Nightwise’s eyes held suspicion, but he led me to a corner beside a trap-door for garbage. There lay a dozen dead mice in a basket labeled YE INCENTIVES. It was difficult to carry the mice in our mouths without nibbling, but I managed.
“Thanks,” said Nightwise on the sixth trip. “You’re not so bratty.”
“Does Whiskerdoom talk about me?”
“Sometimes. Too much, maybe. The rest of us lack kin. Familiars are usually loners. I guess the tower becomes a family. Of sorts.” He paused. “Whiskerdoom says you’ve gone batty. Spending time with humans. Ordinary ones, I mean.”
“I suppose the humans are a kind of family.”
“Is it?” I said. “Some mundane cats are fond of humans.”
“You’re not mundane,” he countered. “Humans don’t like black cats.”
“Sometimes with good reason,” I said.
“We don’t do too much harm— ”
“Maybe you don’t,” I said, “but all my life I’ve had strong luckbane. There was a time...”
“It’s about humans. You wouldn’t care.”
He surprised me by pausing and setting down his mice to show he was interested. “Try me.”
“I... it was when I met Tru, the little girl who reads to me.” And for the first time in a great while I let myself remember.
When I’d met Tru the year before, she was playing beside the Dragondraught River, toes splashing muddy water. I’d seen her before on bug-hunts, always keeping my distance, because in addition to being fragile, human children lurched and grabbed. But as I chased dragonflies I was peripherally aware of Tru dancing her way among sticks and stones and detritus. I was careful that our paths didn’t cross.
Meanwhile her family added bits to their foot-cottages. Two adults constructed an awning, while a young man hammered upon a tiled roof.
A peculiar thing occurred then.
The boy paused amid his pounding and stared across the river. At first I thought he was looking at me, but his gaze appeared to focus on something above the level of my head. Curious, I turned.
Upslope were the bustling streets of Bookside, and there strode a young woman laden with baskets, emerging from a shop painted black and covered with so many white stars and moons and orbital charts, and so many eyeballs and strange letters, you’d think it was a tavern where astronomers kept their trysts with astrologers.
I’ve never understood human notions of attractiveness (why not rank agility above all else?) but I suspected the slender girl was indeed desirable, as was the broad-shouldered boy.
As I watched, the Bookside girl paused and looked around as if sensing someone’s attention. She stared across the river and her gaze met the boy’s.
A tingling in the air made me blink three times.
In fatesight I beheld silver worldlines spearing out from girl and boy, stretching across the river. The lines bore such a lovely argent shimmer that I was transfixed—and so I didn’t move as they suddenly dipped and intersected within my body.
I convulsed. Never had I felt such a contact, never such a backlash. Both world-lines shriveled and snapped backward like yanked springs. The concussion of misfortune was silent but dreadful.
The girl was struck by a horse and cart. The Bookside streetcorner erupted with screams.
The boy lost his balance and tumbled through the unfinished roof. Tru’s family’s wails echoed those across the river. And only I understood the link between them.
As her family raced into the house, I remained to see what became of Tru. She, confused by the commotion, stumbled into the water and was swept away.
The river wasn’t deep here, and the current wasn’t strong, but Tru was young and the folk of Archaeopolis had little practice swimming in the murky waters bequeathed by their ancestors. Tru flailed, not yet drowning but unable to escape.
This was ordinary bad luck, such as has afflicted life since the world began. I wasn’t the cause, not directly. It shouldn’t have concerned me. But I’d just destroyed two humans. Somehow it seemed unacceptable to lose this third. It wasn’t just the pathetic waste of it all. I refused to simply be a conduit for luckbane. It wasn’t enough to be a force of nature, albeit a sublime one. I was a cat. I would act.
I needed help. I could endure the water but I couldn’t rescue Tru. I raced along the bank, yowling. Occasionally I heard somebody in Bookside stumble or swear as a river-aimed worldline brushed me. But nobody noticed us.
Racing ahead of Tru I reached a mill beside the Tombgreen, near where the river bent into Scarside. This was my last chance. I leapt onto a barrel and caterwauled.
The miller burst forth armed and ready to confront monsters, and I splashed into the darkness beside the waterwheel. With his gaze directed by the sound, the miller spotted the struggling girl. Bellowing to his family he dropped his sword and dove. He, at least, perhaps from a need to maintain the wheel, could swim.
As the family led the dripping Tru inside, I saw her darting eyes notice me. She seemed to understand something of what had happened. And I glimpsed something I had never seen before on a human face.
A smile that was for me.
I’d no idea what Nightwise might say. I’d given him a terse version, but it was more than I’d ever told anyone, even Whiskerdoom. It felt draining and yet freeing to give it voice.
Nightwise’s response was, “Odd.”
“Odd?” That was all? I had the urge to swipe at him.
“Odd,” Nightwise said. “I study luckbane. In my off time. There’s a rumor it comes from the Elddrake itself. And that it’s twisty, like a dragon. Consider. Those humans’ world-lines intersected you. But that shouldn’t have happened.”
“Of course not!” I said.
“What I mean is this. Even were they crazy enough to swim toward each other, their meeting should have been downstream. Right? So why did their world-lines touch you?”
The incident was so clouded with dread in my mind, I’d never considered this point. “I don’t know.”
Quickfang called out, “Where are the rest of the mice? Do we have to come looking for you, you lazy meekbreeds? We’ve started without you, you know.”
“We’re coming,” Nightwise called. “I was telling Shadowdrop my exploits.”
“That shouldn’t take long,” Hauntclaw put in. “Hurry it up.”
I didn’t know what to say. We returned with the mice and settled onto our books. Now, the crystal sphere was like a giant drop of day-lit ocean. Within it seemed to dart rainbow-striped fish. It fixed the attention. I nibbled thoughtfully on my mouse.
After a while, Quickfang said, “What would you like to watch, Hauntclaw?”
“Birds in the mountains,” said Hauntclaw, touching the crystal ball, “somewhere where it’s dawn.”
The ocean shimmered and vanished into wild dazzles of light; the bright flurry faded and became grey cliffs and the aeries of hawks, with the brow of the sun just now glaring above shadowy grasslands. We watched the birds and our voices rattled in our throats.
I felt dizzy, and left off eating. “Amazing...”
Hauntclaw said, “I suppose it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
I did not want to concede this truth, and so said instead, “Can it find a particular being?”
“I’ll show you,” Nightwise said. “When it’s my turn.”
After we watched hawks glide and dive and return with rodents, Nightwise rose and touched the glass and said, “The Elddrake.”
The other familiars stood still. They hadn’t expected this. We beheld our meandering country from a great height, with wisps of cloud between us and the green-brown land and its companion the midnight blue water. We could not see the political borders, but the combination of coastline, hills, and mountains did suggest a serpentine form.
“So it’s true,” I said.
“Yes,” Nightwise said. “Now—the skyward eye of the Elddrake.”
“Nightwise,” Hauntclaw said. “You sure...?”
The view was like that of some mythic bird diving through clouds to behold our city sprawling in bright and decaying majesty. Somehow its walls and harborage did suggest an eye.
“And now,” Nightwise said, “the earthward one.”
We plunged, it seemed, into the streets and thence into darkness. Now I perceived catacombs and caverns, lit by a fiery red glow that seeped mysteriously from the stone itself. In time we came to a vast pit with molten fires dancing far below. The roof of the chamber was an inverted stony dome, fringed with stalactites big as buildings. A pathway ran directly beneath the dome and around the edge of the pit, large as a city wall.
We gazed at that titanic shut eye, and something in me felt a strange recollection, as if the eye and I knew each other from of old.
The scene lurched. The eyelid shifted, and light like an exploding sun appeared at one edge. The vision faded to white.
A tremor shook the tower. “What have you done?” hissed Quickfang.
“I... we got its attention...” Nightwise said. It was hard to say if he sounded rueful or triumphant.
As the tremor subsided, we heard footsteps far overhead.
“Move,” Quickfang told us. “There is time for only him to be blamed.”
“But my turn—” I began as the others leapt from the table.
“Stupid meekbreed!” hissed Hauntclaw.
I ignored her. Touching paw to Orb I said, “Zik, brother of Tru, of Foottown, last seen at Scarside Falls.”
Shadows twisted like a muddy river. The scene shifted to a dying campfire on the edge of an abyss, a waterfall surging beside. A ruined passage framed the scene, and more ruins piled above and below. A band of sky told me the spot wasn’t quite underground but lay so deep amid the ruins no one in the living city could spot it. Three human boys crouched beside the fire. One looked like an older, male version of Tru, though his hair was short and he wore a permanently befuddled expression. He conducted a hushed conversation with his companions.
“Hey, wow... did you feel that tremor?”
“Of course we did, Zik. So what?”
“We’re going to die here, Zik.”
“Shut up, Jol. Ignore him, Zik.”
“Hey, leave him alone, Dev. And, hey, I don’t want to wreck anyone’s mood, but we’re going to have the ruins collapse on us if there’s another one. That could kill us or something.”
“Don’t cry to us about it, Zik. It was all your idea anyway.”
“Hey, now, you thought it was a good one, Dev.”
“We’re going to die here, Dev.”
“Shut up, Jol.”
“Wait. Do you, uh, hear Things moving around below? Like, monsters? Because, now that’s exciting!”
“Shut up, Zik.”
More footsteps above me, and doors creaking. “They’re at the Orb again,” came a woman’s exasperated voice.
A man sighed, “Could they have caused that quake?”
Another man mused, “Doubtful. They are just cats.”
I whispered to the Orb, “Show me more; pull back as if we were a bird, flying.”
Within the Orb swelled an expanse of Scarside, thick with dawn shadows, its gaping chasm like a ghastly maw in the earth, sucking up silver waterfalls.
A cat tackled me, and I saw no more.
“Move!” hissed Nightwise.
The Orb was a milky sphere again.
“All right,” I said, my anger quenched in the wonder of another cat caring for my welfare. We fled.
The Underseers were emerging from their dwelling overhead. Light flared in crystals strategically placed within the swinging junk cages. “There they are!” I heard, and “Confounded cats!” and “Come back, Nightwise!”
At those last words, uttered by Mistress Voyd, Nightwise twitched and ceased running. “Hide,” he told Shadowdrop. “You can get away, you’re not wearing...” He gurgled, turned, and staggered toward the wizards like a puppet with mismatched strings.
Another voice cried out, “You as well, Whiskerdoom!”
So commanding was that rich voice that I almost bolted toward it. Worse, it was, to borrow a word, familiar. I dared not tarry to think about it, and I retreated up the cat stair.
“What a fool,” Hauntclaw greeted me on arrival at the landing.
“What were you thinking?” Quickfang said.
Postgrad had nothing to add, for which I was grateful. I fled and hid within Whiskerdoom’s alcove. I saw his iron collar twitch of its own accord.
The great wizard-sized door opened and That Voice roared, “Out, Whiskerdoom!”
“Enough, Wurm,” soothed the voice of Mistress Voyd. “Let it be. It’s not worth—”
“You correct your familiar, I’ll correct mine. Out!“
The collar rattled. I held still.
“Very well,” said Mistress Wurm. “Your willpower’s increased. I’m impressed. I have business in the city and can’t waste time with you. You must emerge eventually, if only to eat. Those mice were barely nibbled. There’ll be no food until we have words.” The door boomed shut.
The collar ceased its shaking, but my own commenced.
For I recalled now where I’d encountered Wurm’s voice before—in the hulls of the Scatterwind Market when I’d heard her discussing, with someone named Ruingift, the destruction of the city.
Yowling echoed through the tower.
After it stopped, there was a great silence. Eventually Quickfang and Hauntclaw slipped into Whiskerdoom’s nook. I stayed curled up, head under paw.
“He’s not back yet,” Hauntclaw said. “Mistress Voyd’s never kept Nightwise this long.”
“It’s all your fault,” Quickfang said.
“How?” I said, slowly uncoiling to face them.
“How?” said Hauntclaw. “What do you mean, ‘how?’ You stayed at the Orb!”
“And you lacked your collar,” Quickfang said. “That meant Mistress Wurm couldn’t summon you back. And that made her angry.”
“To be fair, she’s always angry lately,” said Hauntclaw. “But this sure doesn’t help. She may have goaded Mistress Voyd into punishing Nightwise. That’d be just like her.”
I regarded the collar, with the truth about Mistress Wurm on the tip of my bristly tongue. “How do I wear it?”
“It’s too late for that—” Hauntclaw said.
“Wait,” Quickfang said. “Why?”
“Because,” I said, “if I go to the Underseers, maybe they’ll go easier on Nightwise.”
“You’d do that?” Hauntclaw said.
“I had assumed,” Quickfang said, “you kept the collar off by choice.”
“Whiskerdoom didn’t tell me how,” I said. “I would wear it now, if I could make life easier for Nightwise.”
Quickfang studied me. Proud though I was, I felt like an insect. She said, “You may be right—your appearance may ease things for our colleague, whether or not you don the collar. Perhaps having the collar will perpetuate your and your brother’s deception, if you wish.”
Hauntclaw said, “If Wurm uncovers your ruse, it may go a lot worse for Whiskerdoom later.”
Quickfang said, “Wurm is cruel but unobservant. She is the sort of human who thinks she knows all truths before she even sees them. Shadowdrop... lower your nose into its center and purr. You must believe in the purr. Do what is necessary to attain that state. You might imagine yourself a kitten, and pretend the collar is the jaw of your mother. You might, if you are truly pathetic, envision yourself in the lap of a human being. Whatever thoughts can ease you into believing that submission is joy, use those, and the collar will leap to encircle you, for a split second, dividing.”
“How do you get it off?” I asked.
“Dream about the hunt,” said Hauntclaw. “But do it soon. It gets harder and harder to remember the chasing and the pouncing and the heartbeat pounding, the longer you’ve got the collar on.”
I wondered at the hidden aspects of Whiskerdoom, that he had managed to remove his. Slowly, I lowered my head—but my attempt was interrupted.
The great metal door opened. Pale hands lowered a black cat into familiars’ territory. Nightwise walked stiffly to his alcove. The hooded shape of an Underseer lingered for a long moment at the opening before the door clanged shut.
“Nightwise,” called Hauntclaw. We all followed as he slunk to his lair.
As we crossed the threshold, Nightwise spun and hissed. He appeared physically unharmed, but his movements were the opposite of catlike grace. “Stay away,” he said. “Especially you, Shadowdrop. I wish you had never come.”
We three backed out, regarding each other in silence.
“Perhaps it is best you go,” Quickfang said at last.
“‘Perhaps?'” Hauntclaw scoffed.
“I have to wait until sunset at least,” I said, not meeting their gazes. “To keep up appearances.”
“Then Whiskerdoom will return,” Quickfang said. “Things will at last resume their normal pattern.”
No they won’t, I thought. I wanted to tell them about Wurm. But I couldn’t make myself speak. And why would they respect anything I said? And would they side with Wurm regardless? I slunk away to the least conspicuous shadow and dropped myself there.
Sunset blazed bloodily as a slaughterhouse on a coronation day. Whiskerdoom had not returned. I decided I couldn’t wait. I was doing no one any good, including, significantly, myself, so I descended the stair.
“Where are you going?” whispered the scratching post.
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
“What is it to you, Postgrad?” I snarled.
“Well... it was nice to have someone to talk to. I mean, someone who didn’t want to cause me pain.”
“There’s nothing for me here. And I have to warn...”
“Warn?” Postgrad surprised me by taking me seriously. “Warn whom? What about?”
I hesitated. But if you can’t confide in a scratching post, whom can you confide in? “It’s Wurm,” I said as quietly as I could. “She’s up to something terrible. I don’t really understand it. I have to warn someone.”
“I can readily believe she’s up to something terrible. Have you alerted the familiars?”
“Won’t they take Wurm’s side?”
“Is Wurm betraying her duties?”
“I am pretty sure.”
“I’m no fan of the familiars, but they believe in duty.”
“Even so, I’m not sure they would believe me.”
“Hm. Well, find a human!”
“I’m just a cat. Humans don’t understand us.”
“I understand you.”
“You’re not human.”
“I was human. I could tell someone. It would delight me to foil Wurm.”
I regarded him dubiously. “You are a scratching post.”
“That is not my fault.”
“If you warned a human, they would say, ‘Aieee, it is a talking scratching post.’ I suspect that would be their full response. Until they fetched an axe.”
“You may be right. And there is the problem of transport. Hm... Aha!”
“I don’t like where this is going.” I said.
“The Orb can send messages. If you could bring me to the Orb, I could speak through it. I would be a disembodied voice, reverberating with tinkles of crystal, arising as if from the ether, like a spirit speaking from unfathomed realms beyond the grave and therefore much less disturbing than a talking scratching post.”
“Are all your plans like this?”
“Ever since I planned to be a wizard.”
I said nothing, realizing with some horror that I was actually considering it. I could hear human movement elsewhere in the tower.
“All right.” I started clawing him.
“Hey! What did I do?”
“This isn’t to hurt you. I need to tip you.”
I leaned Postgrad over, using my own tail to muffle the noise of impact. It hurt like a booted foot, and I suppressed a yowl. From there I carefully backed myself down the stairs, clawing Postgrad along.
“Shadow—ow—drop, I’m not—ack, so sure—urg—about this.”
“Too late now. There’s no way I’m getting the Orb up the stairs, but I can get you most of the way to the Orb.”
“Be—urk—careful. I—ngh—hear the talk—oof—of wizards.”
At the bottom of the stairs I listened. Luck, not just luckbane, was with me. It seemed the wizardly conversations were happening overhead, echoing down from the human-sized stairway that curved along the wall. I caught the voices of Voyd and one of the males. I made out a few tantalizing words, like probaballistics and candlequicks and dracotectonics. The rest were inaudible, or at any rate even more mysterious.
I tugged Postgrad bit by bit across the floor of the grand workshop. A gentle light emanated from the Orb. I hauled the scratching post beside the Orb’s table and leapt up.
A creak made me stop and peer upward. One of the cages of junk twisted on its chain. A stray breeze perhaps? I returned my attention to the Orb.
My task was to roll the great crystal onto the floor. It would contact Postgrad, and Postgrad would contact help. Simple. But I had to prime the Orb by selecting someone. I pawed books out of the way to clear a path, every moment fearing creaks and sighs. Whom to contact? The Emperor? The head of the Archaeoguard? At last I decided on the chief of the Overgazers.
I raised my paw. But a sudden impulse came over me, just as one might be stalking a bird and become distracted by a tasty moth.
“Whiskerdoom,” I mewed, paw upon crystal. “Find me Whiskerdoom.”
Light swam and sparkled, before darkness shrouded the Orb. I feared I’d botched something. Then my eyes adjusted to a dim illumination and my ears detected a waterfall. A black cat crouched in the same spot I’d located Zik, though no humans were visible.
“Shadowdrop?” came his voice. “Is that you? Not some trick?”
“It’s me! What’s happening?”
“I made it, through cleverness and athletic prowess, into the Scarside catacombs. Embarrassing to admit it but I like your human. Acceptable chin scratches. I find myself so loyal now, you’d think I was a dog. The shame! But I must remember I am a cat, and a great one! It took a familiar like me to discover the secret passage from the left heel of Emperor Garn into the tunnels.”
“You found the boys?”
“There was more than one? You’d think they’d make more noise. No—but I have found monsters! I think they may have a considerable presence here. In fact, I think they are coming for me. It is very exciting.”
“I am shy on escape routes and flush with precipitous falls... Shadowdrop! Of course! You can inform Mistress Wurm!”
“Um.” Fear churned in my gut like bad milk. “Wurm is working with the monsters.”
“I’ve heard her voice in the underworld. I didn’t know it was Wurm’s until today.”
“She wouldn’t do that... would she?”
“Trust your sister, brother. We have to warn the city. Somehow you must talk to a human.”
Pairs of red eyes filled the vision within the Orb. The black patch that was Whiskerdoom edged back toward the brink.
“I’m a little short on humans right now. You will have to find a way.”
“Whiskerdoom, watch out, they’re—”
“Beware, Shadowdrop, for I hear a candlequick—“
Something seized me.
The dim light of the Orb went out. I yowled and kicked and bit. The grip was not fleshy but waxen. My claws dug in, but the servitor admitted no pain.
Our tussle knocked the Orb loose. I felt like a player of Treatment forced to draw side-effects, as the Orb dropped, bounced, and chimed.
“Shadowdrop!” Postgrad hissed. “Who do I—”
I heard no more as the waxen thing and I rolled off the table together. Impact broke our grapple. The Orb flared just then, and I got a good look at my foe. It was a large candlestick with eight fused smaller candles serving as limbs. As I watched, the wicks ignited. The overall effect was that of a brass spider on fire.
Wizards were cursing. Cats were racing. The Orb’s light died, but at least the flames marked the candlequick as it lunged, and I scurried out of reach.
There was no chance of reaching the cat door. There was a human exit but I couldn’t manage the bolt. That left only the trap door for garbage.
I leapt upon the lever as the candlequick bounded after. The panel flipped up and the thing was catapulted into the air, landing amongst a stack of maps. Flames danced up.
I peered down. Because the lowest level of the tower was a mass of beams, scaffolding, and piping, the garbage door opened on a plunge through cool early-evening air and down through a pit into the sewers. However, a third of the way to the ground lay a narrow walkway intended for magical servitors. Whiskerdoom had pointed it out to me once from the outside. The walkway was too small for a human, but a leaping cat might land safely.
The candlequick was back, and fire licked my tail. I leapt.
I clawed the wooden walkway’s edge but my hind legs dangled. No points for dignity. As I scrabbled my way to safety my waxen foe gesticulated angrily like the vanguard of a tiny torch-wielding mob. I hissed back, but my feline pride was hollow. Leaving Nightwise and Postgrad well the worse for knowing me, I launched myself down into the twilight.
The stars were out when I reached Foottown and collapsed beside Tru’s door. It took minutes before the urgent voices within penetrated my skull.
“Where did Tru go to, Dru? Where!”
“To Scarside, Mama... I’m sorry, I’m sorry...”
“What in the world’s five corners is she doing there? Trying to find Zik?”
“She thought the black cat was trying to find Zik, Papa.”
“The black cat!”
“Tru said she had to help.”
“This is what comes of her reading books! You were very wicked not to tell us sooner.”
“I know, I know...” The conversation dissolved into bellows and wails.
I wanted to rest. I couldn’t rest. It was as if my whole city had walked under a ladder while spilling salt under the full moon. Now Tru had at last fallen to bad luck too. I knew that despite all their puffed-up belligerence, her parents would never dare enter Scarside.
But I would. Maybe I couldn’t stop Wurm, but I could help Tru. I dragged my carcass up and hunted my doom.
The feet of Emperor Garn lay at the very place where Foottown began, where the crumbled Old Wall cast dawn shadows. Hidden in the garden between the feet, I recognized a groggy pair of elderly moonshroom vendors, plucking their silvery fungal wares from a shaded arc of the wall and aiming their wheelbarrow at Scatterwind Market. Moonshrooms got their best flavor if they soaked up moonlight, and the ships’ decks were fine places to catch it. Tru had read me that, out of a book.
As they scrounged for their keys, I slipped inside Emperor Garn’s left foot, and the old woman cursed, “Another one, Bren!”
“Count your blessings, Marg,” said the old man. “It didn’t cross our path.”
“Well, lock it in,” said the woman, chuckling. “We can fetch old Glu the alchemist later. I’m sure he can distill something out of a black cat.”
“Didn’t used to be so many black cats around,” Bren said, his voice receding.
“Or monsters,” said Marg.
“Or earthquakes,” said Bren.
“Or squeaky wheelbarrows.”
“It’s the times. Young people these days.”
“No respect for their elders. The way they throw rocks at our houses.”
“We used to throw rocks.”
“Yeah, but we did it respectfully.”
The squeaking receded. I nosed and clawed among their ledgers and dishes and cuttings and pots but saw no secret passage. And yet Whiskerdoom guided me, for a pungency arose amid the tickle of the herbs and the smell of human sweat; he’d sprayed a corner. No wonder the residents were so eager to alchemize me.
Investigating, I found a broken piece of floorboard. This wood appeared different from the neighboring planks. Perhaps the current owners had needed to repair this spot because past occupants had known of the old secret passage and left it uncovered. Whatever the truth, I was able to wiggle through the break into the recess beneath the floor.
I pawed around in the dark. Yes. There was a sliding panel in the old metal, well-crafted by the delven whom Garn had employed. It took only a steady paw. The passage was snug for a crawling human, spacious for a cat.
It led toward Scarside. Back in Garn’s day that had been a wealthy district, so maybe he’d wanted a hidden path from a friend’s manor to the city’s edge? Now the walls lay far beyond his statue and Scarside was in ruins. Time made its passage, I reflected, and not just for cats.
I emerged within the husk of an ancient manor, and many more passages opened to me. Luckily, Whiskerdoom had continued marking territory. I appreciated his arrogance, as I tracked the reek through a tangle of old human habitation and lost streets between. Sometimes the way led through dry sewers, other times over piles of rubble, and on the whole the maze was like the entrails of some titanic ravaged beast. At last I found the now-abandoned place where I’d spotted Whiskerdoom in the Orb, and I smelled fearful cat and angry hellsnout.
I don’t know how long I followed those scents through shattered mansions before I heard a boy human calling through the darkness, “Help! Hey! Maybe now?”
I padded down a peculiar tunnel beneath the flow of the River Dragondraught. I had the impression of titanic hands having shoved aside the ruins, patting them down into a structure composed of old tiles, stones, frescoes, beams, windowpanes, statues, sundials, trellises, gazebos. I didn’t trust the stability of this path, nor did I approve of its nearly forty-five-degree downward slant.
But then: “Why are you doing this?” cried another human, and it was the voice of a girl. A voice I knew. There was no turning back.
The passage twisted and switched back and plunged some more and at last opened upon more narrow corridors that had actually begun their existence as such. This new region had the look of a wine cellar, or a dungeon, or the dungeon of a wine seller. Old barrels lay mustily to either side. I crept up to an interior balcony and beheld a fire-lit underground sanctum.
It seemed that before the Day of the Footless Emperors, some oenophile had concealed rather more than casks of Chateau d’If. Huge iron braziers rose to the level of the balcony, illuminating all in chaotic flickers. Vast frescoes displayed fire-breathing dragons upon the walls. A massive altar silently snarled in the shape of a draconic snout. A huge circle of flame rose unnaturally from the floor before the altar. I sensed a theme.
Slouched before the altar and within the ring of fire were one girl, three boys, and fifty black cats.
I didn’t cry out, for all that I saw Whiskerdoom and Grimtail and Tru and Zik. They needed my silence now. I crept forward, nose to stone, and studied the captives. Most were unconscious—and perhaps the loop of magical fire had something to do with that. I noted various arcane-looking symbols carved around the perimeter, symbols that looked rather more ostentatious than mere ancient writing. I couldn’t make sense of them, but I suspected they weren’t notes about grape picking or fermentation.
Whiskerdoom, one of the few wakeful cats, guarded the unconscious Grimtail while sizing up the figure behind the altar. Judging by the hooded red robe, the concealed shadowy face, and the knife with the ambiguously rusty stains, their captor was either auditioning for the role of Chief Evil Cultist in The Tragedy of King Laughgloom, or the altar had an ugly dual purpose. The knife itself earned marks for flamboyance. It bore a disturbingly crimson fringe of flame that always treated the jabbing direction as “up,” and only its thin line of smoke finally admitted natural law and vainly sought the sky. To make matters worse, the human or human-shaped thing in the cloak had three glowing red eyes under the hood to match the dagger, arranged in a downward-pointing triangle. Tentacles slithered from the robe, which possessed rather more sleeves than two. My enemy was both horrifying and practical.
“I regret how it must be, children,” said that dusty voice I recognized from the wrecked ship, a voice that seemed to echo with wind and sand blowing over old bones: Ruingift. “The cats we have uses for. You children are a distraction. You are too few for forced labor, too poor for ransom. Perhaps we will grind you into food for the cats.“
“Why, we’d never eat them,” scoffed Whiskerdoom. “Too stringy.”
Ruingift turned toward him as if in understanding. “Maybe the hellsnouts will do it then.” It gestured to the six mutated beasts who cavorted and snuffled around the fiery perimeter.
“We’re Foottowners!” said Tru, clearly not understanding Whiskerdoom. “We’re used to being stepped on. You don’t scare us.”
“Your courageous words are as irrelevant as the fear that twists your insides. But have the courage to admit your fear, and perhaps you can serve me. I will found a new realm, and I will need servants.”
“Oh, yes, do go on, give us the speech,” Whiskerdoom said, in a voice that drawled indifference.
“I needn’t explain myself to you,” said Ruingift. “You are a kitten gifted with power you don’t deserve. I will tap that power for a worthy purpose.“
“There is no worthier purpose,” said Whiskerdoom, making a show of yawning and licking his paw, “than to catch little animals, play with them, eat them, lie in the sun, look regal, and do it all over again tomorrow.”
Despite all the trouble between us, I was proud of him.
“Um, ‘scuse me,” Zik asked Ruingift, “so, are you talking to the cats?“
“Cats,” scoffed Ruingift. “You humans are bound to them by a fiction more wicked than any sorcery. For you believe they love you.”
Zik said, “Hey, well, my sister thinks so. Her cat’s pretty nice...”
“You lie!” Whiskerdoom was saying, and I might have taken offense, but I realized he was correcting Ruingift. “Humans have an honored place on the love list! Directly beneath catnip, just above sunbeams.”
“Pathetic hunter-and-prey,” Ruingift continued. “Evolutionary dead end. Parasite. You do nothing to contribute to the world but pounce and devour and sleep. Your only saving grace is you look pretty while you do it.“
“Ah yes,” Whiskerdoom said. “Tell me how pathetic I am.”
“Once the black cats of the Eldshore were indeed pathetic. But the Elddrake stirred once, and saw that humans bred too numerous and built too high and thus disturbed his sleep. And that elder dragon breathed out his soft vengeance. A black smoke threaded through the streets of Archaeopolis and settled upon those whom the Elddrake perceived as the most dragon-like of the inhabitants. Not a single human met his standards. But a few of the cats did. They were marked with the smoke, they and their offspring. Ironically, the naturally black cats who weren’t chosen fled the Eldshore in terror. Today in Swanisle they are considered lucky.”
“So we have a dragon’s blessing?” Whiskerdoom said, puffing himself up. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“You have his blessing,” Ruingift jeered, “and bear his curse. It is your purpose to spread disaster amongst teeming humankind, lessening the noise that afflicts the Elddrake’s mind. You have done a terrible job.“
“You remain too little dragon and too much cat.”
“Why, thank you.”
“You are too indifferent to the humans to properly doom them. You even allow yourselves to become familiars.“
“Well, the food is good.”
“Enough. I will put you to use. The Festival of Time’s Breaking is at its fever pitch tomorrow. And you shall all be released into its heart, at the start of the Parade of Missing Souls.“
“Why?” said Tru, her fear forgotten, her anger apparent.
“To distract people from the true danger.“
“And what’s that?” said Tru.
“You show some wit, girl, and for that I may spare you. And there is something about you and your brother that haunts...” Ruingift paused. As if not realizing its action, it removed the hood of its robe.
I perceived now that both natural eyes were covered with a blindfold and three red crystals had been set into the forehead. The head looked partially caved-in, and covering that cavity was a stretch of thick parchment crowded with arcane symbols like a tribe of beetles.
But I still recognized her.
I knew her from the day she’d suffered a cart accident in Bookside, moments after seeing a handsome boy on a rooftop across the river.
At the sound of my involuntary hiss, a hellsnout sniffed the air and howled.
“Oops,” I mewed.
“Another cat?” said Ruingift, looking up with her false eyes. “Another black cat comes here willingly? Delightful.”
The warped dogs bellowed back and forth, hunting. They were profoundly bad at it, of course, but eventually blundered up the steps toward me.
I sat still, imitating calmness, cleaning my face. I did it for a reason, of course. Hygiene matters. Also, when I did finally dart across the landing to the balcony, I crossed their paths. The change in the timbre of the howls was very satisfying.
I leapt from the balcony and smacked into a tall brazier.
I’d meant to do that.
There was one summer I’d jumped onto a hot copper roof while fleeing the unkindness of strangers. My paws had screamed. This was like that but mercifully briefer; I bounced off, landing, naturally, on my feet.
The brazier was rather less graceful. With a clang and a roar it toppled across the circle of magical flame. Nature’s fire and magic’s fire dueled for a time, making an opening in the circle. When great powers wrangle thus, there is often the chance for mere earthly creatures to find the exit. Whiskerdoom took his opportunity, just before the brazier went out and the magical flame closed the gap.
“The others,” I said.
“I know, sister,” he said, smoking a little at the edges, “but we’ve got to run.”
“Pepper?” Tru said in wonder. She looked around and came to the same conclusion as Whiskerdoom. “Run, Pepper!”
We darted into the nearest tunnel, chancing the depths of Scarside. Behind us Ruingift called out, “You! I know you—!”
We quickly became lost in a labyrinth of ancient corridors and collapsed buildings. We sought the narrowest passages and in this way evaded the maddened hellsnouts. Even so their echoes hounded us everywhere. At last we emerged at the base of the great chasm.
The night had passed. The Bloodsday sun rose just high enough to tease details from the gash’s darkness, and so we could pick our way along the rubble where the Dragondraught flowed from the falls toward Scatterwind and the sea. The waters gurgled and echoed like a vast salivating beast.
“This whole chasm,” I mused, “made by a dragon stirring in its sleep...”
We pressed downriver in silence.
“Thank you, sister,” Whiskerdoom said at last.
“My pleasure,” I said, and it was true. Despite everything I was exhilarated. Curiosity, and loyalty, hadn’t killed me after all! “But I’m sorry I got you into trouble.”
“It was exciting! I kept using my Spell of Trinket Questing—the one the Underseers use for finding lost keys, wands, that sort of thing—and zoomed in on a tattoo Tru chanced to describe as occupying an embarrassing spot on Zik. Decent primate, she is. Scratched those nice delicate spots beside the ears, just the right amount of pressure. Anyway, I braved—I!—the streets, the crotchety old humans, the tunnels, the hellsnouts, and got captured! It was incredible!”
“You’re not angry?”
“This is the most invigorating day I’ve had in years. Admittedly, it might have ended much worse. Then my opinion of it would perhaps be different. I might have been fed human... by the Swiftest Mouse, Shadowdrop, those human children, they’re doomed.”
“Maybe... However, I think Ruingift wanted them terrified, not dead.” Or so I wished to believe.
“We have to get back, put a stop to all this.”
I was startled. I’d never felt so in accord with my brother. It pained me to argue with him.
“Whiskerdoom, we have to gather what black cats remain and warn the city.” As we walked, I told him all I knew.
Whiskerdoom was silent for a time, which was an interesting change. We fell into the rhythm of travel, and it was possible to pretend we were kittens again, just enjoying companionship in the wide and misty world.
At last he said, “My mistress? I still cannot believe it. It’s true Wurm has a temper, but... it’s well I don’t have my collar, or else I’d call to her.”
“And what would you say to her?” I said. “‘Excuse me, Mistress, but are you trying to destroy the city? Is your good friend Ruingift going to release our brethren into the festival to distract everyone while you do?’”
“Who would want to destroy the city? Three thousand years they’ve had a city, and before that a village and with its chickens and goats, and before that a temple with jagged pillars as if to hold up the sky, and before that caves with strange paintings of absurdly large prey. It’s been abandoned and reclaimed before, and had many names—oldest of cities, eternal.”
“But it’s not eternal.” I waved a paw at the clouds in the sky, all those mighty white sketches of beasts and vessels and continents, all ready to drift apart. “Humans seem immortal to cats, and the city seems immortal to humans, but we’re all just the flit of a crow’s wing beneath the sky of Time. This could be our last day, brother.”
Whiskerdoom halted. “You’ve changed. If I didn’t know better I’d think I was talking to a wizard. Don’t forget where you come from.”
“I come from an alley in Archaeopolis. Brother, you are serving Archaeopolis’ enemy. I am sorry. It doesn’t mean you’ve done wrong. Working with somebody who’s partially evil is, in my view, part of the cost of living. But knowing someone is absolutely evil should change your calculations, shouldn’t it?”
Whiskerdoom hissed and strode on. Here it was again, the sudden anger, the ear-folding, snarling fury. “Do not worry,” he growled. “I do not need your pity! It is clear I made a mistake, and I will pay.”
“Whiskerdoom, it’s not—”
“Of course I know what the others say about us familiars. Fat! Pampered! Idle, but for a few simple chores. Oh, we know nothing of life on the streets. Oh, we’re all just soft and weak.”
“Brother, I don’t—” And here again the fumbling speech, with all my best words escaping like agile birds just beyond my paws.
“That’s what you think,” Whiskerdoom went on. “You don’t have to say it. Always wanting to cut me out. Always believing you’re better.”
“Well you’re not,” he said. “You’re a joke of a cat. Afraid of your own shadow. Never brave enough to get what you want. Blaming me for being smarter.”
The old hurt filled my mind like nightfall. I felt it tug at me, ready to pull me into a ball, a blot of darkness.
“You got more milk than anyone from our dam,” Whiskerdoom said. “She spent more time training you to hunt. Everyone loves you, even the humans. Your tricks work on them. But I see through it all, to the stupid selfish little beast within.”
We scuffled, scratched, bit. When we were youths Whiskerdoom had grown swiftly, and deep in my brain I still expected my brother to overwhelm me, leave me humiliated and bleeding as in the old days. So I was surprised to find that striking in anger I could overpower him. His knowledge of magic and monsters didn’t equal a life on the streets. I grappled, raked, bit at his neck in the spot that would have shattered his spine had he been a mouse.
“Enough,” he said.
I let go. He rolled away and just stopped there, belly up, looking at the clouds.
“You cannot help,” he gasped, “being what you are. A cat. A normal, healthy cat. It is I who am peculiar, Shadowdrop, I who reach for strange heights of imagination, of knowledge. You are typical. I declare you ordinary, sister. Relish it.”
This, I realized, was as close to an apology as I would ever get from Whiskerdoom. I could either accept that, or carry old anger in my mouth like a rotting mouse carcass.
I’d rather drop the carrion, I decided. Sometimes with individuals, as with waterfalls, you must simply learn to appreciate their good qualities from a safe remove. Or drown.
“I accept your... whatever, brother. Are you able to go on?”
“Yes, of course. Apology accepted. I consent to your plan. Let’s go show my mistress what it means to cross a black cat.”
We reached the streets. The hellsnouts were waiting.
We evaded them by slipping into the maze of ships that underlay Scatterwind Market. In the hold of the Silver Hind we peered out at the shining mansions of Relicwood, gleaming between tall trees. Beyond these estates rose the great buildings surrounding the Infinite Forum, the Zodiac Coliseum, the Vault of Heaven, the Tower of the Underseers, the Temple of Clockwork Justice, Castle Astrolabe.
The hellsnouts had anticipated us here too. Between the Forum and us paced my old friend Hork.
“Castle Astrolabe,” I said. “The Overgazers can speak with us. They might be friendly. They need to know the Nominus Umbra is a target.”
“Huh. Heavily-guarded place, filled with magical wards. I’ll do it. You need to lead that hellsnout away from me, get all the free black cats rounded up, and get them to the Forum, so together we can counteract Ruingift’s distraction and possibly Wurm’s theft of that page from the Nominus Umbra.”
“All right,” I said, agreeing to what had originally been my idea. “I will distract Hork. And I will summon the others. I know the city.”
“Agreed,” he said. “It’s not much of a plan, but it’s ours. Let’s get going before I decide to live permanently in this creaky, rotting mousetrap.”
We exited the ship and crept up to the Esplanade, which was crowded with sailors and wayfarers and vendors and performers and gawkers. My eyes tracked cutlasses and daggers and juggling balls and pirouetting feet. Most distinctive of all were the carriages of the rich, horse-drawn fantasies of grand wood embellished with brass or ivory or clockwork gargoyles. And a few of these went beyond fantasy into inanity. There was a carriage pressed with gold leaf, shaped to evoke a cloud of autumn leaves. There was a carriage made to resemble a giant pumpkin. There was a carriage that looked like a miniature version of the city, with silver towers for the heights, a tumble of tiny ships for Scatterwind Market, and crystal veining standing in for the Dragondraught River.
I stared several seconds before noting a more salient aspect of these opulent vehicles. The fanciest of the carriages were all going the wrong way.
In the midst of the year’s biggest event, the city’s wealthiest humans were leaving town.
The rich, you see... the old man at the fountain had said, confuse a lack of scruples with being strong. What did these fine people know that the average reveler didn’t?
Enough. Hork, still pacing at the edge of the Scatterwind’s mass of hulks, keeping to the shadows and out of sight of the revelers, was sniffing the air, as if he’d caught our scent. I touched noses with my brother and dove between the fantasia of leaves and the grand pumpkin carriage, leaving startled horses and shouting people in my wake. Bad luck. But perhaps a few of them deserved it.
Hork chased me through the ivy-threaded, rose-festooned compounds of Relicwood, his spittle igniting topiary.
I found the mansion of one Fain Raithson, dapper weapons merchant, with a sprawling hedge maze I knew as well as the kinks of my own tail. I led the hellsnout into the leafy twistings, and when I’d gotten him thoroughly enmeshed in the green puzzle, I ducked out through a narrow passage in the roots, leaving outraged snarls behind.
On a rocking swing near the garden I found our sibling Sootpaw. He was pretending to sleep through the commotion.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said, eyelids rising to reveal black pupils aswim in green. “You do cause trouble, Shadowdrop.”
“You have no idea. There’s a plot to destroy the city. It involves us.”
“Oh? Do we want to destroy the city?”
“No! Meet us at the Forum.”
I raced on before hearing his reply. I didn’t worry that Hork would chase Sootpaw, for I heard the baying and knew that only I mattered. As it should be. It was almost flattering.
I found another sibling, Moonset, in a dry birdbath at the manse of the slave trader Slith Sainsdaughter, who was very careful to keep all her slaving offshore. My sister was pawing idly at dust-colored moths. I’d never gotten along with Moonset, who also fancied Scatterwind Market and disliked sharing. Yet we weren’t enemies. I knew what an enemy looked like. “You say,” she said, “our whole city is endangered. Do you mean for humans, or for us?”
Green-and-gold eyes scrutinized me. “You have a most un-catlike partiality for humans. I had to ask.”
“It is not un-catlike. All breeds but ours show an affinity for their kind. Our world-lines have been woven together since before the sun began rising in the east.”
“You speak of meekbreeds. Our kind are different.”
“We are not so different, Moonset. If only we could control the luckbane...”
“Enough, Shadowdrop. Clearly you will mew and twitch until I respond in the affirmative. I shall do so. Behold: yes. To the Forum, you say?”
“Yes.” By now the enormity of my task had resonated through my aching legs and lungs, and I added, “But tell two cats before you proceed there, and bid them do likewise.”
“Two black cats.”
“Yes, Moonset, two black cats. I believe Smokefang and Gloomrunner dwell near here. I go now to the haunt of Lighthunter.”
“Go then. For I smell a hellsnout close by.”
That took care of my siblings, so it was on to the others. At the Timberchar Bridge I found Lighthunter amid the two-foot-wide alleys between the businesses and tenements of that improbably old span. He wordlessly agreed to my plea, flexed the claws upon his bulky paws, and leapt on his way.
I crossed and located the young kitten Flickerdark scrounging garbage behind a slaughterhouse in Ashenspan. She was eager to accompany me but reluctantly agreed to run messages. By the time I reached the Abbey of Lost Gods and peered about for the twins Cryptleaper and Tombscramble, I realized I’d run out of time.
“You,” said Cryptleaper.
“The crazy one,” said Tombscramble.
They stared down from the roof of the Abbey. I explained everything to their impassive faces. Luckily, big ears ran in their family. They conferred in a flurry of mutterings and twitches.
“We’ll go,” said Cryptleaper.
“But you haven’t much time,” said Tombscramble. “Up here we can see far. The parade is starting.”
“If this Ruingift wants to unleash our captive brethren,” said Cryptleaper, “It will happen soon.”
“Thank you. On your way.”
And I ran on mine. But my destination had changed. For the citizens were lining the sidewalks of Timearrow Way, the paraders massing by the Eternal Esplanade, and soon Ruingift would spring whatever evil she planned. I needed to accelerate my plans.
Once more I needed the Orb.
To the Forum I ran, and hellsnouts followed. They’d arrayed themselves to spot me if I approached the city’s heart.
All right then, I thought. It is cat versus dog. As it was meant to be.
People were everywhere. Hork caught up with his cohort and together they herded me toward the thoroughfare. They knew me. They knew I’d avoid harming innocents with my passage.
Somehow I had to get through to the Forum, and the Underseers’ tower, and the Orb—and quickly.
Tru’s dead brother, and Ruingift herself, would always haunt me. But the living needed me now. Me, Shadowdrop. Greatest of black cats. No, let’s just say greatest of cats. Or, to keep it simple—greatest.
As always the trick is knowing what cards to play and when.
Forgive me, I thought. Into the Via Antiqua I ran.
And then the truth dawned upon me like warm sunlight upon fur: I would cross no-one’s path.
I wasn’t using fatesight, but even without it I should have felt the frayed world-lines as my luckbane burned through them. Yet I felt nothing, saw only the endless startled faces, all unharmed.
Of course, I thought. They’re all waiting for the parade! They’re not going anywhere for thirteen seconds, or even thirteen minutes! For this little while they have no path to cross.
I had a chance. I ran on.
And a peculiar thing happened. Amid the shouts there came a cheer. And then another, and another. At last there was a roar of approval from the humans as I and my pursuit enacted a mighty entertainment before them. This day even a hellsnout, even a black cat, was accepted as part of the bread and circuses. For the first time, I felt like a citizen of Archaeopolis. For the first time the old man’s words your city made complete sense.
At last I reached the Stairway of Ages, rising amid the foliage of the Gravegarden. As the parade would not ascend the Stairway, here I faced the problem of spectators milling about on the lowest steps.
I yowled in a deranged manner I hadn’t essayed since the day Tru almost drowned. The startled crowd shifted ahead of me, just a little. My luck held, for even now, I crossed no-one’s path.
Up, up, up... Along the stairs of different metals marking different Ages I went... I thought of human eras and how my kind were but a soft footfall along history’s path. Volcanoes, plagues, famines, earthquakes, floods... why, with all these catastrophes facing them, would humans ever deliberately harm their own?
But as the Tower appeared before me I thought as a human might, as someone who builds. I thought of all those fantastic carriages moving away from the city toward countryside retreats. And I understood, then, that the richest of Archaeopolis were poised to swoop in and rebuild after this disaster, to become more powerful than ever. Never mind they’d sacrifice the real assets of this city (my city), its people and their creativity. Never mind that overall, everyone would be poorer. All hierarchy was relative. Rather than settle for merely being rich in a thriving metropolis, they preferred to be tyrants of a ruin.
I would stop them somehow. I, bringer of bad luck.
I ascended the tower’s cat path, leaping away from the spittle of hellsnouts and through the cat door in triumph.
Pain washed over me, and darkness overtook me. They’d changed the locks.
Oblivion came, looked me over in the dark, and decided I tasted bad.
I woke to claws upon my face.
“Shadowdrop. Wake up. We need you. Then you can die, if that’s what you want.”
It was the voice of Nightwise. The voice was attached to his face, and to the claws. The claws were almost welcome, for they distracted me from the ache suffusing my whole body.
“What...” I managed to reply.
“Whiskerdoom’s banished. The warding’s set to kill him.”
“You set the tower on fire. They think it was him, though. Luckily you’re only his sister.”
“I don’t feel all that lucky...”
“We need you. The others are in trouble.”
I could rise, I decided. I even went ahead and did it. We were on the landing beyond the cat door. I noted Postgrad back in his usual spot, none the worse for wear. I decided not to address him, in case he preferred to be ignored. We were otherwise alone.
“Hauntclaw?” I said. “Quickfang?”
“Mistress Wurm made Masters Hake and Slint loan their familiars to her. Their own familiars! Maybe they’re infatuated. Maybe she’s worked a charm. My own Mistress has taken a holiday, she’s so sick of Wurm. Whiskerdoom’s nowhere.”
“But where are Hauntclaw and Quickfang?”
“Wurm made Quickfang sneak into Castle Astrolabe. I don’t know why. Hauntclaw’s hiding outside the Castle, waiting. I don’t know why that either.”
I knew. Quickfang must be accomplishing the theft of Page 99 of the Nominus Umbra. Hauntclaw must be her accomplice somehow. Wurm could thus make the cats endure all the risk.
“Where’s the Orb?” I asked.
“Again with the Orb? It’s out of reach. In Wurm’s own chambers. She’s there now. Meanwhile Hake and Slint are in the workshop. You’ll never make it up the stairs.”
“Tell me the way.”
He stared at me as if a rabbit had suddenly frothed at the mouth, grown fangs, and cackled death-death-death. Then he told me, adding, “I think this is the last I’ll see of you. I’m sad. Because I like you. Even if you’re trouble. If things were different I’d ask you out for midnight caterwauling. Alas.”
“Listen, Nightwise. Wurm has never truly met me. I mean to surprise her. And... I may have another trick, if you will help.”
“This will get me into even bigger trouble. Won’t it?”
“Not necessarily. Wait here while I get something.”
I raced to Whiskerdoom’s nook and retrieved, like a mom-cat, the iron collar. I rejoined Nightwise and the silent Postgrad. I said, “I gather the connection between collar and wizard is like a leash that can be tugged? I wonder if a wearer’s feelings are strong enough they might shake the wizard on the other end of the leash... not enough to control, but enough to distract.”
“I don’t think,” Nightwise said, “I can challenge Wurm.”
“Ah, but I do not ask this of you.” Claws retracted I patted the scratching post, some of whose limbs would easily fit the collar. “I ask it of him.”
I now noticed that Postgrad hadn’t escaped from our adventure unscathed. He was charred a bit around the edges.
“I should say no,” said the scratching post. “But I’m getting a taste for defiance.”
“Defiant furniture?” Nightwise scoffed.
“Haven’t you ever been ambushed by a table corner? Well, maybe that’s a human thing. Shadowdrop, when you dropped the Orb on me before—”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I’ve had worse. Anyway, somehow you left within the Orb the image of an old man playing cards.”
“I’d briefly thought about the game Treatment...” I recalled.
“Well, I couldn’t see him clearly, but I did contact him for an instant. I think he was inside Castle Astrolabe. All I was able to convey was the message Danger! For all I know, I got merely the head chef and he double-checked the larder.”
“It’s more than I hoped. Thank you.”
“I’m eager to help any other way a scratching post can. Hey, ow!”
Nightwise objected, “But you said...”
“Give me that collar,” growled Postgrad.
I padded into the workshop, counting to one hundred. Back on the landing Postgrad and Nightwise did likewise.
Nine, ten, eleven...
Masters Hake and Slint were bent over dusty city maps, cross-referencing monster sightings. It sounded like they were on the right track, but they would never draw the correct conclusions in time. Nor would they ever believe me. I crept past table legs.
... seventeen, eighteen, nineteen...
No one but a black cat schooled in stealth could have managed it. The wizards noticed me not.
... thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five...
The wizards’ servants were a different matter.
Two candlequicks pattered somewhere within the chamber even as I threaded the stairway’s shadows. Worse, I saw candles in alcoves above, twitching in an alarming way.
... forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one...
I slipped up past these benighted illuminators and into the hallway inhabited by apprentices, such as I gathered Postgrad had been. There were few in those days (word about Postgrad had perhaps gotten around) and the hall was quiet. But I heard skittering on the stairs behind. I padded up another stairway. This one was draped with a red carpet; beyond lay the wizards’ chambers.
... sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four...
Halfway up the stairway I realized that the carpet, covered with intricate yellow patterns and mysterious green calligraphy, had begun to ripple beneath me. Its ends quivered and rose, and I envisioned it wrapping a human-sized intruder like a pastry.
I was a cat, however. I stepped lightly, never quite giving the carpet the excuse to grab me, all the while marking the scuttling behind. As the candlequicks tried to pounce, I leapt to one side, slamming hard onto the magical fabric. Like a spring I shot up again, this time landing beyond the carpet’s reach.
It closed upon the candlequicks. It quivered, and smoke began pouring out either end. I hurried on.
... Eighty-three, eighty-four, eighty-five...
The upper chamber boasted four ornate rune-covered doors, one for each cardinal direction. Nightwise had spoken of the intricate patterns required to open each portal. I possessed a memory honed by learning the ways of the slow-motion cauldron that was Archaeopolis, and so I clawed at the necessary runes of Wurm’s door, leaping sometimes to catch the high ones.
... Ninety-five, ninety-six, ninety-seven...
The door swung open without a whisper. The chamber beyond surprised me in being brightly lit, filled with ferns and flowers, decorated with paintings of sunny scenes, enlivened with shelves of colorful curios. Mistress Wurm left her skulls and newts for the workshop. But she—willowy, silken-haired, gentle of face, back turned—was tapping blood-colored nails upon the glowing Orb.
Within it swam a scene that couldn’t belong to Here and Now, for the sun outside her window was high and bright, not clouded with volcanic ash. And it couldn’t belong to Once and Elsewhere, for those buildings that were collapsing were Castle Astrolabe with its newest towers and the Sidereal Senate with its fresh mural portraying all the Eldshore’s provinces. Wurm was considering the Maybe Soon. And smiling.
That is, had been smiling, for the expression was already a ghost of itself as she finished speaking to someone not present. “Enough of your misgivings, Quickfang, and shove the page through the window. Hauntclaw will do the rest.” Then she spun and said, “Whiskerdoom, you have much to—”
She screamed and fell to her knees.
... One hundred.
“You,” Wurm gasped, rubbing her fingers to her temples, as Postgrad’s years of rage were conveyed by the medium of Whiskerdoom’s collar. The scene of Archaeopolis dying flickered away as I rushed upon the Orb. I touched paws to its cold white crystal, just like a housecat yearning for birds beyond a winter window. But what lay revealed to me were black cats, many of them already converging like an eclipse upon the sun-soaked forum. As though the Orb recognized me now, it responded to my silent wish and let me speak to all the black cats of Archaeopolis at once, wherever they were.
“It is I, Shadowdrop! Many of you have already received my summons to the Forum. It is urgent that you all go there. Our kinswoman Hauntclaw is at the foot of Castle Astrolabe. I believe she’s been ordered to catch a page from a magical book. She will deliver the page into the hands a great force of evil! Be kind to her, but do not let her take it. For we are lackeys of no man or woman or Thing. We are cats!”
I perceived that Wurm was rising and not altogether pleased. A sensible cat would go. I stayed with the Orb. “Shred the page to bits, my friends, to bits! To you let it be as mouse, sparrow, butterfly, and armchair! Rend!”
“No!” Wurm rose, and her lithe fingers played a symphony upon the air, and the lovely room became noxious and stale, like a place deep underground. I gagged upon a scent like rotten eggs. “Stupid animal! Do you have any idea what I’ve sacrificed? What I could achieve? Yes, some people will perish at first, but I’ve warned those of quality, and this city will be made safe again! No more monsters underfoot! No more sinkholes and collapses! No one ever again dying in some meaningless toppling of old architecture, like my parents. All things will be made new.“
Now I embraced the better part of valor, but Wurm snagged me by the tail. “You... you’re not Whiskerdoom. You lack even his feeble magic. What do you have to say for yourself, copycat?”
“You think you’re a hard person,” I observed, “but your eyes are soft.”
I treated her face like a rodent.
It was something new, after so many months of being a shadow, to become the lightning-stroke. Wurm screamed and brought her hands together. She spoke words that were like sharp rocks in the ears. Her spell knocked me over as if I were a crumbling wall. Something in me, something feline or dragon-touched, I do not know, protected me. I fell, but I lived.
“Your torment will be prolonged,” Wurm said, wiping her bleeding face. “You will become an arch-stone in a bridge, perhaps, and be trampled forever, or a lightning rod or a sewer grate...”
“Mistress Wurm,” the voice of Nightwise came from the door. “A Word.”
He spoke it, and hearing it was like the tiniest of rocks pricking the skin. Whatever it was, it afflicted Wurm far worse. She staggered, muttering her spell for the second time. This time it shattered the window.
When I dared look up she was gone, and hot winds blew in from the city. I scented the festival, with its sweat and food and fire and dust. We heard the baying of hellsnouts and shouts of alarm. I couldn’t take it all in. “Nightwise? I thought you couldn’t face her. And I thought familiars had only minor spells.”
Nightwise licked his paw. “I like you. And she made me mad. And I used a trivial enchantment called Krumwheezle’s Mnemonic Fishhook. It makes entities remember the most important thing that’s slipped their minds.”
“Page 99,” I said, rising.
“I suggest we use the window. The Masters are coming.”
I realized Nightwise had no collar.
“Yes,” he said, noticing my stare. “Today I remember the hunt.”
We picked our way along the windowsill and leapt among crenelations and gargoyles. I am not ashamed to say that I lost my footing and toppled to the place of the cat door, though I landed on my feet. I saw Nightwise taking a slower and saner route, so I decided to check on Postgrad.
“Shadowdrop,” Nightwise said. “Don’t.”
“I will be quick,” I told the edgy Nightwise. I felt that, forewarned, I could endure the warding. I was right. Paws shaking, I entered the alcove.
What I couldn’t so easily endure was the sight of Postgrad in pieces.
“No,” I said. His struggle with Wurm had shattered him from the inside.
“Shadowdrop...” came a weak wooden voice. “Thank you. I am free... Perhaps somewhere someone is making a magic sword, or a magic statue, or a magic accordion that needs an animating spirit with experience... My schedule is open ... At any rate, at last I gave Wurm a piece of my mind, or, heh, a splinter...”
“No,” I said again, and pawed the remains of the scratching post. This time there was no answer.
The human-sized steel door behind him began to open. Master Hake or Master Slint must be looking for us, and after the commotion upstairs I doubted they were in any mood to listen to cats.
I hissed and almost stood my ground. But I didn’t have time for these Underseers. I had to stop Wurm and Ruingift. I turned tail and exited through the cat door. Outside, Nightwise gave me a wordless look. As soon as we dared, we raced to the Stairway of Ages.
Hork and the other hellsnouts roared back and forth, frothing in anger and fear. They had good reason; thirty black cats filled the Forum, and more were still arriving. The crowd was panicking now, but it hadn’t yet bolted. When it did, people might be trampled, bad luck or no.
“Difficult to get through,” Nightwise said, “without crossing anyone’s path.”
“Yes,” I said, surprised he would care.
“What you said before,” he said. “About the humans your luck killed...”
“I have wondered since if you are right. About our power. That the harm we can do means we ought to be careful. Always. But—Shadowdrop? What sort of life is that? To always constrain your own strength?”
“I don’t know. What does it mean to an ordinary cat, that her mere footsteps can destroy tiny insects? Let her enjoy her ignorance! But for us, if we care about other beings, somehow we must learn restraint. There are compensations, Nightwise. To know we’ve spared something good, that may live and grow. To tread lightly upon the world and know we leave it none the worse. To sleep in sunbeams secure that we bring no suffering thereby.”
“These seem like thin rewards.”
“Thin as a shadow, and as wide. Some days like a river, others like a drop.”
I blinked three times, and he followed suit. We darted past the hellsnouts, who for once were too agitated to notice us. In wordless agreement we slipped between people’s feet, trying to merely brush their world-lines. Some tripped, others collided, one had a fit of sneezing, another briefly choked on his own spittle. But no one passed away at our passing.
Yet death was in the air... At the edges of my vision I saw those bubbles in the haze of probability over Archaeopolis, larger than ever. Now I knew their import. The plans of Ruingift would lead to slaughter.
There was no sign of Whiskerdoom or Quickfang as we reached our brethren, but there sat Hauntclaw, encircled by her fellows, hissing her outrage. “How dare you accuse me?” she said to them. “I bet you’re just jealous I’ve got important work to do!” Her gaze flicked to us. “Nightwise! Are you behind all this? Is this about you thinking I’m hogging the Orb again?”
“The treachery’s not ours,” Nightwise said. The cats parted for us so that we stood within their mass. “You all heard Shadowdrop’s message.”
“No page has fallen, sister,” said my sibling Sootpaw. “Bird droppings, yes. Pages, no.”
My other sibling Moonset added, with suspicion scratching her voice, “Perhaps you have overreached, by a claw.”
“Look at our numbers!” I said. “See how many are gone! Do you truly think that’s an accident? You know of the disappearances.”
At that moment screams rose from the harbor, at the starting point for the parade.
Of course. Ruingift had released our kin.
We could not see exactly what was happening—what had come of fifty luckbane-blessed black cats tormented and terrified and then set loose to run. But through the screams we heard structures toppling. We saw fires rising along the Esplanade. Maddened horses ran from that place, with terrified riders and passengers tumbling in their wake. It was like mob violence without the inconvenience of a mob.
“Do you see, Hauntclaw?” I said. “It’s begun.”
“I...” she began, but halted as her gaze darted up.
At a high window of Castle Astrolabe two black shapes struggled on the sill. I realized with a rattle in my throat it was Whiskerdoom fighting Quickfang. From their catfight tumbled a shredded page. It was covered with dark, twisted writing. Even from far below it made my hair rise like rows of sleeping vipers.
Page 99 of the Nominus Umbra drifted down.
Hauntclaw studied the falling page as though it were a tasty moth, before folding back her ears as though confronting a wasp.
“No,” she said.
“Fool!” cried a voice.
A ragged Thing drifted upon the drought-wracked air. Jerkily it flew without wings, resembling a blanket torn loose from a Foottown clothesline, or a gliding vulture prematurely mistaking our land for a desert. Tentacles reached out from the tatters of an old cloak to seize the page, and I knew the apparition was Ruingift.
She laughed, and now I saw her ravaged head, smirking there above our doomed city. “I’d hoped not to reveal myself, but soon most witnesses will be dead.” Her red trio of crystals picked me out of the crowd. “Levitation is among the first spells I attempted, you know, the day before I met you, cat. I could only rise a few inches then, but I’d been about to fly toward that boy I had mooned over, and summon him to me as well. If not for that spell, you’d not have crossed our paths.“
“I am sorry,” I said, so quietly I was certain she couldn’t hear. And so help me, I was.
“Do not be! That disaster was a gift. His death, and my maiming, showed me the truth about life. Love is fleeting, life precarious. Only power can be trusted. My dedication to my Art was tripled.“
“I am sorry,” I said, meaning it even more.
“I need no pity, cat.“
“My name is Shadowdrop.”
Just then, a old human figure in a toga leaned out of a window near Whiskerdoom and Quickfang’s catfight far overhead. I knew him only as the card-player, but the humans in the Forum began calling out, “Emperor Rel! Emperor, help us! Rel! Save us from the black cats!”
Only then did I recognize him, from many a coin.
He raised his fingers as if playing a card. Fire and lightning and stranger energies I could perceive only as a torment of the air all lashed downward at Ruingift.
But though Ruingift shrieked and her tattered robes grew perforated with holes, she didn’t fall from the sky. Her false eyes blazed, and a fiery nimbus surrounded her and absorbed the emperor’s attacks. “Soon you will need pity, Shadowdrop—all of you. But for now, I cannot endure these annoyances forever. Come. I will teach you wisdom.”
An invisible claw yanked me into the air, and I knew how the mouse feels.
Ruingift and I flew over the mass of cats below, past the stupefied faces of Whiskerdoom and Quickfang in the tower, passing above the racing forms of the released black cats who even now charged up Timearrow Way toward the Forum, disaster in their wake. For a short stomach-twitching period, serpents of energy pursued us from the hand of Emperor Rel, but we outpaced them. Beside Ruingift I dove into Scarside and plunged into a series of dank tunnels to the lost temple where I’d previously encountered her. Mistress Wurm awaited us there. The human captives were still there too, bound to the altar by locks and chains.
They probably hoped I was there to rescue them. After my dizzying flight I threw up on them instead. At least the magical fire was gone; perhaps Ruingift needed to raise it again. And the hellsnouts were busy elsewhere. These were factors in my favor, if only...
“Pepper!” called out my human, Tru.
“Her name is Shadowdrop,” Ruingift mocked, alighting and drawing her fiery dagger. “And at last I recognize you, sister of my hapless boy. It is fitting that you and the cat converse properly at the end.“
Although I now crouched upon the floor, I couldn’t move, for the invisible claw held me still.
“What do you mean?” Tru said, terrified but unwilling to panic. Here, even at the end of it all, I was proud to know her.
“It matters little, save that it amuses me,” Ruingift said. “Wurm, make her comprehend cat-tongue.“
“I’m not your lackey,” said Wurm.
“You’ve no secrecy any longer,” Ruingift said. “You must see our partnership through. And I am preoccupied casting the Dragonspark.“
Wurm said, “If you don’t cast it, your life, too, is forfeit.”
“But unlike you I am mercurial and mad. You know this. Dare you risk me abandoning my whole plan on a whim?“
Wurm considered this. Then she snarled and spoke various Words. Ruingift laughed and approached the altar, clutching Page 99 like a mad composer about to conduct.
“There’s a tickling in my head...” Tru said. “Pepper? Shadow...”
“Shadowdrop,” I said. “Do you understand?”
“I do! Shadowdrop. You’ve been trying so hard to help. I’m sorry I got you into all this.”
“I got you into all this. It’s because of me your brother Vil died.”
“Vil...? Oh. And when I fell into the river?”
“That was just bad luck. The ordinary kind.”
The last thing I expected was for Tru to laugh, but she did. “It doesn’t matter now. There’s always bad luck, and there are always people—and cats—doing their best, despite it. And there’s always wickedness. That’s what I’ve learned from all those books. But I’ve learned this too, that if we can endure without becoming wicked ourselves, enjoying life until the bad luck finally gets us, then we’ve done all right.”
Wurm studied her. Her voice was strange. “Why not release these children, Ruingift? They are rather like innocents... caught in a structural collapse. Does the Dragonspark require them?”
“No,” Ruingift said, perusing her spell. “But they remind me of my youth. I hope some will yet join me in comprehending the truth of power.”
Wurm was silent. She put a finger to her lips and traced patterns in the air.
The locks snapped open.
The children rubbed their wrists. Two boys ran, but Zik stayed beside Tru. I still couldn’t move, but Tru stepped beside me and stroked me between my ears. Never let anyone tell you doomsday is no time for a head scratch.
Ruingift shrugged. “I see your sentimentality, Wurm. No matter. They will likely die when the dragon wakes.“
“That is what the Dragonspark does?” I asked. “Awaken the Elddrake?”
Ruingift was incanting. It was Wurm who answered me. “It does. Even a brief awakening can convulse the land. Archaeopolis, sited in his eye, will suffer most.”
“Why?” Tru said. “You swore to defend this city.”
“After a while, you get tired of dragging bodies from the rubble. I discovered Ruingift, and learned that her goals ran parallel to mine. I wish to wake the dragon to make a clean slate. She wants to siphon its power, as we siphon luckbane from our familiars. She will found her own empire far away, while I rebuild this one. Is that not right, Ruingift?”
Ruingift was still muttering and did not answer.
I mewed, “Throw me,” so low that only Tru could hear.
“What?” Tru began.
Page 99 took fire, ignited by the dagger. But there was no salvation in this. Rather, blazing letters fell from the page as Ruingift read with rising glee. The burning symbols sprouted tiny insectile legs and skittered around the room, falling into cracks, plunging deep into the earth.
“Wurm!” cried a human voice.
The other Underseers had arrived. Mistress Voyd, and Masters Hake and Slint, all bore glowing trowels, and with these they advanced upon their estranged colleague.
In that moment of distraction Tru grabbed me and threw me at Ruingift.
The paralysis broke as we connected. I tore away the blindfold. I’d expected to see empty sockets or worse. Instead I beheld beautiful brown mad eyes, as perfect as that day upon the river. Ruingift had simply abandoned her natural vision to view the world through other means.
So I tore at the ruby crystals in her skull.
She yanked me by the scruff and threw. I was getting used to being airborne. A shame I wasn’t getting any better at it. This time I landed among the Underseers, and I took my opportunity where I found it. I leapt upon Wurm anew, and she screeched.
Suddenly hands seized her from either side and she went still. Very still indeed.
As I dropped to the stone I apprehended that she’d become a marble column, supporting the ceiling. A hint of her startled expression remained within the veins of the stone.
Beside her, Masters Hake and Slint had likewise transformed, grim faces suggested in the stone by ripples and cracks.
Mistress Voyd’s head was bowed. “It’s the last devotion of the Underseer,” she said, “to become part of the city we defend. My colleagues sacrificed themselves to stop Wurm... and gave her an honorable ending.”
“You won’t receive one,” said Ruingift, advancing as the earth shook.
Yet as she spoke a tide of snarling darkness swirled into the chamber.
A hundred black cats crossed Ruingift’s path.
The earth trembled again, and half the temple’s ceiling collapsed upon her. She raised her face as if to ward off the rubble with her ruby eyes. The three crystals glowed like compact furnaces. But they’d been loosened by my assault, and, unluckily enough, they all chose that moment to topple out of her head, trailing red ichor as they fell.
The weight of history buried Ruingift.
Our nook of the chamber survived. Near the transformed Underseers there was a pocket of improbable stability, in which crowded our little empire of cats and the three humans.
Old Grimtail told me, “Shadowdrop, good to see you again. Close up, this time. The Overwatchers broke the terror Ruingift had us under. I’m just sorry we weren’t in time to claw the stuffing out of her. And that we’re all doomed, of course.”
“Mistress,” said Nightwise, nuzzling Voyd. “I’m sorry I defied you.”
“I regret we didn’t recognize the danger,” Voyd said. “I regret many things. It took Emperor Rel summoning me to make me understand.”
“Indeed,” said Quickfang, for she and Whiskerdoom were among the cats as well. “But that is the past, and this is now.”
Zik was shaking his head. “So, the cats talk?“
“Yes, brother,” said Tru. “I wasn’t just crazy. Maybe someday you can learn how.”
Quickfang sighed. “I don’t think there will be any somedays. The emperor told us there’s no stopping the Elddrake’s awakening. It will, at minimum, stir sufficiently to destroy the city before it settles again. I’m afraid this is goodbye.”
“This chamber can hold for a time,” Voyd said, “but inevitably it will fall.”
She was a wizard. She must be right. And yet.
“We are all here,” I told the assembled cats. “Kindred, I’m the strongest of you. It’s no secret, though I’ve long kept to myself.”
There were a few cries of dissent but many more of encouragement. “Shadowdrop will save us!” one voice rang out.
“What I have long feared,” I pressed on, “I embrace. I am the bringer of bad luck, and bad luck can help us now. Let me lead you to the Elddrake himself.”
“Shadowdrop will get us killed!” the voice amended.
Nightwise stepped beside me, wordlessly showing his support. Impulsively, I nuzzled him. I felt brave, my strength rising even as all things were tumbling down.
At that moment Hork and the hellsnouts roared into the chamber.
I felt compassion then, for in their own way they’d suffered at the hands of Ruingift, even as had we. Underground with us, they would surely perish. I screeched, “Bad luck!” and my kindred all did the same.
Whining, Hork and his ilk scurried from that place with tails tucked between their legs.
“Heh,” said Whiskerdoom. “Bad luck does have its good side. You really think we can stop the Elddrake?”
“This is our last card,” I told them all. “Today we hunt.”
And so I led them down, farther from the sunlight than I’d ever been, instinct guiding me through the tunnels, waves of luckbane parting the earth where needed, following the vision I’d seen before within the Orb.
And after what seemed an endless dark race, we found the very Pit that marked the cavern of the Elddrake’s eye.
Nightwise and Whisperdoom gasped beside me, staring up at the oval eyelid of rock, big as the city. “Well,” Whiskerdoom said, “as last things to see before dying, I admit it’s fairly impressive.”
“You should see it as we saw it in the Orb,” I said, “with its eye opening.”
There was a rumbling and a shaking all around.
“I think he may get that chance,” said Nightwise. “So what do we do now?’
“Follow my lead,” I said, and ran onto the great oval path below the eye. The others followed, a great dark wave of skewed probability.
Overhead the rock trembled. Flecks of stone fell upon us as we ran, and a great windy whispering arose. Some of the whispering formed words.
CATS, the words said. I TALK IN MY SLEEP, DREAMING OF CATS.
Here goes, I thought. “We must remain a dream, O benefactor.”
WHY? THE FIERY LETTERS TICKLE MY BRAIN. I AM AWAKENING.
“If you wake now, great one, you will perish. Or at least go blind in one eye.”
“If you awaken, your eyelid must open. And as it sweeps across this immense chamber, we will cross its path.”
There was a pause. The rumbling did not cease. MY EYELID WILL SWEEP YOU ALL INTO DARKNESS.
“That is as it may be, but your fortunes will be poisoned. You who gave us this bad luck, you will suffer it all.”
I CREATED YOU.
“You changed us. But we have always been, and always will be, cats. We will not be dismissed. We will not let our city be destroyed without a fight. And we will do all these things while looking magnificent.”
I CREATED... I CHANGED YOU... TO QUELL THE HUMANS. YET YOU SERVE THEM?
“We serve ourselves. This is our city, which we permit the humans to inhabit.”
Now the whispering seemed to acquire a chuckle. YOU AMUSE ME, CAT. IT IS NOT YET TIME TO ARISE AT THE ENDING OF DAYS. I WILL SLEEP ANEW. BUT I CANNOT STOP THIS BRIEF AWAKENING... UNLESS I AM CALLED BACK INTO DREAMS.
“How can this be done?”
ONE OF YOU MUST SEND YOUR SPIRIT INTO MY EYE.
“Send our spirit...? What happens to this volunteer’s body?”
IT WILL PERISH. BUT THE SPIRIT CAN WEAVE TALES FOR ME, SPIN IMAGES, AND SOOTHE ME INTO DREAMING.
If this was the only way, then I, in my magnificence, was the only one who could manage it. I said, “I am the greatest of us. I will volunteer—”
“No,” said Nightwise, “I’ve studied luckbane, and the Elddrake. I should—”
“Out of the question,” said Whiskerdoom. “I am, not to put too fine a point on it, the most learned of the familiars. It shall be me...”
“You’re all wrong, wrong, wrong,” said Grimtail. “As your elder, the task is surely mine.”
Other voices took up the call. It was perhaps the strangest, proudest moment of my life, when every member of my tribe offered themselves up, with all the arrogance they could muster, for the greater good.
The vast eyelid opened a tiny bit, but that was enough to shed blazing light upon the proceedings.
It will be me, came a human voice. The magic sword business can wait.
And looking up we saw a distant shadow against the light, a fleck against the blaze, a shadow that might have taken the form of a scratching post before it resolved into a man’s shape.
Remember me in your claws now and again.
As the eyelid closed, we heard the voice grow distant, even as it said, An Underseer, an Overwatcher, and a black cat walk into a tavern...
The eyelid closed like a vault door, and the shaking ceased.
We came to a halt, and I raised a paw in salute to Postgrad. “We did...” I tried to say, then started over, “We all would have sacrificed...” and finally attempted, “we really...”
“We are cats,” Nightwise said. “We did as we did. For our own reasons.”
“As indeed we always will,” said Whiskerdoom.
“But we must never,” said Grimtail, “and I do mean ever, breathe a word of this to the humans. We have a reputation to maintain.”
“True,” I said.
“I’m over here!” my human called out, with Underseers and Overwatchers behind her.
Things have changed. Things always change.
The first thing to change was what we experienced when we returned to the surface. Pattering sounds came all around us. Soft coldness spattered our faces. Blinking, it took me a long moment to remember the word rain. The convulsions of the Elddrake had changed the weather somehow, and the drought was over, for now. Soon children were stomping in puddles and adults were staring up with their mouths open. The parade was ruined; this was better.
I didn’t like rain. I soaked it up, just for the feeling of it.
The second thing was that Emperor Rel was waiting for us, his rash-covered face bright-eyed beneath the dark hood of a rain-spattered cloak. “I had a feeling you’d prove important to the city, Shadowdrop. You faced your crisis more resolutely than I dreamed. Which is very fortunate, since my enemies proved even more powerful than I feared. You played a good hand.”
“Or paw,” I couldn’t help saying.
I envisioned being grabbed by soldiers and dragged to the alchemist Glu, but Rel merely chuckled and said, “Or paw, indeed.”
“I was lucky,” I said.
“This time we all were. But you shifted the balance of probability in our favor. The Eldshore must reward you.”
“There is no reward greater than being a cat.” Apparently something in me couldn’t help but be smart with emperors.
“Naturally. But even a cat must satisfy her curiosity. The Underseers must be built up anew. You could learn much by joining them.”
“I have tried being a familiar, Emperor Rel. I don’t think it suits me.”
“I suspected as much. But there are new openings for a job with fresh air, good food, and flexible hours. How would you like to enlist in my new bureau of Nocturni?”
“In earlier days it meant the men of the night, people charged with fighting fires and crimes after dark. I thought I might revive the name, as it is quite appropriate for black cats. But they will not be cats alone, nor avoid the day. There will be humans, and goblins, and delven and perhaps stranger things. For I’ve seen new possibilities in all our denizens working together. Sometimes that is what bad luck does, you know, makes fresh opportunities apparent. You will guard the roads and public places. And if you are willing, Shadowdrop, I do have an immediate task for you and yours...”
Which brings us to the third thing.
The folk in the ornate carriages slinking back toward the half-crumbled city walls along Via Antiqua swore as three cats’ black shapes leapt onto the lead vehicle. They hissed again as they noted the smiling, freckled girl (perhaps no longer quite so thin) clutching the leash for the magic-warped bloodhound named Hork in one hand and a bill for civic damages in the other. And cursed once more as their gazes flicked back up to the cats.
As we used their gold-leafed roof as a scratching post, Nightwise, Whiskerdoom, and I shared a look. We didn’t blame them. We would have been more afraid of us too.
Thanks to Nicholas Ian Hawkins for advice and cat-lore.