Pursuing the Wayfaring Cats: Free Fiction for Fyretober November 28, 2023
Crawling on his arms, his shoulders burning with the pain, Wayne struggled between the feet of the partiers, none of whom seemed to notice him. Of course they didn’t. Somewhere a puck was blinding them with the Mathematics of Influence.
He could clear their fogged brains, but only if he could stand up, look them in their eyes, distract them with the proper gestures, and tell them the proper words. Face down here on the floor, he was helpless. He needed his crutches.
So he slid along the edge of the crowd of costumed feet, taking shelter under the handicap table. It was solidly bolted to the floor by a single middle pillar. He grasped that, pulled himself to a sitting position, and rested. He just had to cross a few feet to the donut case, where his crutch –
Wayne’s eyes popped open as he stared under the donut case. The crutch was gone.
Carol sat helpless in the muck, crying, heedless of the mud seeping through her leggings. Everything was ruined.
She looked around at what had once been her beaver den, part of the dam that had blocked this river and turned this area into a pond lush with life. Now the pond was gone. The river trickled by, heedless of her concerns. And the den…
Someone had smashed the den and the dam around it. She couldn’t find her entrance. The entire structure was now sunk into the mud, surrounded by small puddles that had pooled there before the rest of the water drained away. Someone had ignored her magical defenses and had simply smashed the den with rocks from the sky.
And she couldn’t hear the kittens.
But they might yet live! They had nested in the deepest, most sheltered chamber of her home. And they were clever, practically full-grown now. If there was a safe hiding hole, they would have found it. She started digging through the muck, trying to remember the layout of tunnels which she normally only saw from underneath, swimming as a beaver.
Then she heard deep, wicked laughter from a distance. She looked up.
“The Golden Monk.”
The tall, scrawny man the golden face and hands looked at her and laughed louder. Then he paused, pointed a bony finger at her, and said, “The Golden Monk no more. I have attained enlightenment. You shall address Us by our proper name, for We are now the incarnation of the Golden God of the Ways.”
“The incarnation –”
The hooded figure started to glow with a golden light, as if he burned within. “We have selected Us for our holy mission! One you shall no longer be permitted to thwart. Only We can be allowed to travel the Ways unimpeded. All others must pay obeisance to Us, else be trapped within your one world each.” An orange glow appeared in his eyes. “And that includes your accursed cats.”
“You cannot deny them their heritage! They are descended –”
“Their ancestors stole power which was never theirs by right. And through stealing that, they have tempted others to use them in their line to travel between worlds without Our blessing. They have flouted Our authority, and We shall have it no more!”
Carol shook her head. “So you killed them for something in which they had no choice. They were born with this power. Though I dare say they would use more responsibly than any so-called god would.”
The golden figure opened his mouth and spat a burning, molten gob of bile. “You do not get to judge such as We. Go ahead, dig. Dig for their corpses. Torment yourself with your failure. Soon We alone shall control the ways.” With one long last echoing laugh, he faded from view.
Carol lowered her face into her muddy hands and sobbed quietly.
When the last of the Golden God’s echoes faded, and the wood turned silent, Carol heard something else: a small, thin plaintive mewl. The unmistakable cry of a cat in distress.
She stood and looked around. Was one of the cats still alive, buried as she had feared? Once she had feared this idea. Now it gave her hope.
She paced around, trying to pinpoint the sound. She trod softly, afraid that she might step into some sinkhole and charge a kitten beneath her boots. Every step she tested before she put her weight down.
But no matter where she paced, the cries got no closer, nor farther away. They did not come from anywhere in the ground. They were around her, everywhere. She thought she recognized the tone, the cat with the little croaking meow. “Toh, I am here. I shall protect you, I promise. Open a Way for me.”
“There came a faint glow low near the ground. Carol dropped down into the muck and peered into it. It was a hole, barely the size of a kitten’s nose; but it was expanding. When it was large enough, she reached a hand through, feeling around on a rough stone surface in search of a furry little body.
But instead, her arm was gripped by an unseen force. It pulled, so she resisted as strongly as she could. But all that accomplished was her practically dislocating her shoulder before she surrendered and let the strange force pulled her through the wall between worlds.
Carol lay in pain upon a large square block of some soft stone, like sandstone but textured. Nearby stood a strange-metal skinned creature on soft black feet.
Before Carol could puzzle out what manner of beast this was, a man came running out from a nearby manor, a strange estate clad in panels of some unknown material. He was dressed in a slovenly fashion, short breaches that didn’t reach his knees and a loose jerkin that didn’t hide his swollen belly. The backs of his pale naked legs were abraded and bleeding.
The man yelled angrily at a woman. Carol could hardly believe her eyes, but the woman opened the side of the metal beast. It was no beast at all, it was a structure.
And not just a structure, a conveyance. Once inside with the door slammed shut, the woman did something, and the metal machine began to roll down a gray stone lane and out of sight.
The man reached the lane too late, cursing and gesturing at the departing conveyance. Carol shook her head, trying to understand what angered him. Someone named Paula was escaping his control, and he was having none of that. He picked up stones from a strip of gravel beside the lane, and he tossed them angrily – and fruitlessly – after the woman in her carriage.
Carol did not understand their quarrel, but she didn’t need to. It was none of her concern. She had but one thought on her mind. “Sir, have you seen the kittens?”
The man spun angrily upon her. “I don’t know nothing about your fucking cats, lady!”
Carol took a step back, not wanting to further anger the stranger. But she wasn’t ready to give up. “Please, they’re important to me. Still kittens, really. There’s a black one, and a gray and white tabby, and –”
“Get out of my way!” The man didn’t look strong, but he was angry. Without warning, he jabbed out with his arms, shoving Carol backwards until she stumbled and fell back on the hard rough stone.
Civility only went so far. No one laid hands upon her without her leave. She reached out to clutch the forces of magic around her to weave them into a web that would wrap around the man’s legs, trip him, so she could deal with him properly.
But her fingers found nothing. The man stomped back into his manor, seemingly forgetting her. She no longer mattered in his mind.
And Carol promptly forgot about him. For the moment, all that mattered was the magic, seemingly gone away. How could she find the kittens without it? How would she protect them?
But as she lay there wondering, she again heard Toh’s mewl. He was still around there. She crawled along the ground, following the cries through dense bushes which she had to push aside to make a path.
Then suddenly choose Toh’s cries seemed to come from below the ground in front of her; and before she could stop and explore this, she found that the ground sloped down into a big hole in the earth, as if burrowed by some beast. The tunnel was large enough for her to fall into it, unable to stop herself.
She fell for a very long time, tumbling in the darkness. But somewhere during the fall, she felt magic once more around her. It was a darker, more maleficent form than she knew from her woods, but it was the only power available. She reached out, wrapped it around herself, and took on the form of a hawk.
No longer falling, now Carol swooped in lazy circles. The air at the bottom of this pit was warm, she might even say hot, and it rose up around her, trying to drag her back to the land of mechanical conveyances and pasty angry men. It would be so easy to ride the updrafts and take her to a place she could rest.
But Toh’s small voice still cried out from below. She could never rest while she knew the cat was in trouble. She angled her beak down, folded her wings to her side, and dove.
She knew not how long she fell. Longer than an hour, perhaps, always urged on by the cat’s cries. At last she saw dim light ahead, the low red light of coal’s burning in the forest after lightning and flames stripped away the old dry growth. As she grew closer, the light grew brighter, enough so she could see when at last she broke out into a rock-walled chamber. She spread her wings to slow her dive so she could swoop around and inspect the scene.
The first thing she saw were stalactites hanging from the ceiling all around her. As she swooped close to them, they… they screamed: human faces frozen in the rock, mouths open as they screeched their terror and pain. This was the most foul magic Carol had ever encountered. Suffering emanated from the faces like waves of radiant heat. These weren’t carvings, they were petrified souls. The screams pushed her toward the edge of despair, and they also drowned out Toh’s cries. She dropped lower, leaving the faces behind.
When Carol could hear herself think, she looked toward the bottom of the vast chamber, where a boiling red sea slowly consumed the rusty hull of an old diesel ship.
But the ship was but a distraction from the real horror. The rocky beach at the edge of the boiling sea was strewn everywhere with red-hot coals. Upon them marched a line of the dead: skeletons in various states of decay, plus a balding man and a blonde woman, all in a line and tugging on chains around their necks. The chains ran back to a massive metal sledge. They were slowly, painfully tugging it across the coals.
Upon a stone seat in the sledge sat a tall red shirtless devil, seemingly carved from glowing red wood. He laughed at the tiny dead creatures that drew him along, sometimes reaching down, grabbing a fiery whip, and snapping it across their backs.
Meanwhile, in his other hand, he held a tiny black kitten. Toh!
Carol folded her wings and dove toward the sledge, willing just herself to be faster than gravity so she could sweep down, grab the kitten in her talons, and arch away before the devil even knew she was there.
But he knew. Somehow he sensed her while she was still twenty feet away. He waved his right hand dismissively – and she found herself frozen in midair, no longer a hawk. She was in his completely in his power.
The devil looked up at her, laughed in a way that reminded her of the Monk, and said, “I have a message from the Golden God.” He held up his massive left fist wrapped around a little ball of fur.
And he squeezed. There came a sickening crunch followed by the briefest of feline screams. Then he tossed the remains into the burning sea, where they sizzled and sank.
Carol squeezed her eyes shut, trying to shut out the vision of Toh’s demise; but she couldn’t shout out the devil’s abominable laughter. That echoed for what seemed like hours.
When at last the sound died out, Carol opened her eyes. The light was more natural, from the sun in the sky, not from hellfire. That would’ve made her more comfortable save for the fact that there were skit suns in the sky: bright yellow directly overhead, and a distant dot of red. She briefly imagined the second star was the red devil, pursuing her to torment her further; but it didn’t grow larger in the sky, and eventually she stopped looking at it. It was just the nature of this place to have two sons. It wasn’t the strangest place she had ever visited.
Then she looked around yourself, and she questioned that assessment. She was in a city of giant fortresses, metal and stone towers rising into the sky. In all the lands she had traveled in her world, she had never seen one such tall edifice, much less a city of them. The people who built these must be like unto gods. Maybe they were gods! Maybe she could enlist their aid against the Golden God. Surely they wouldn’t let such an interloper try to limit their power.
Then she looked down from the tall towers to the empty streets. There was no one to be found in the mighty city. Maybe they were powerless against the Golden God.
Maybe they were already dead.
These were strange streets, running in very straight lines as if the builders simply moved and shaped the earth when it didn’t fit their plans. No wandering cow paths for them! She could imagine hundreds, maybe thousands of the strange metal conveyances she had seen earlier, all wandering these streets.
But the streets were impassable. Rising up from them were scores, maybe hundreds of large stone disks that block the lanes and the walks with seemingly no concern for the city layout. These disks were smooth polished stone, carved in strange symbols, with rings of writing around the top. In the center of each a small round disk slightly wider than her hand bulged up from the flat surface. She could not make out the purpose of these monuments. They seemed to have taken over the city, and all the residents had simply left. Or…
Carol heard the sweet, musical meow of Tih, and she turned in surprise and fright. She saw no cat; but in her haste, she stumbled over her own feet and fell, both hands landing hard upon the nearest disk, practically dislocating her shoulders.
As if a creature summoned from the depths, the round bulge in the middle of the disk rose up, becoming a tall column of stone. Carol fall fell back on her butt, then scrambled on hands and feet away from the strange manifestation.
But as if it gripped by some invisible hand, she crawled only slowly. She could still reach out and touch the disk with one foot if she dared when the column stopped six feet from its surface and started to turn, throwing out a big cylinder of light filled with images.
Carol recognized the giant golden face that formed in the cylinder: it was the monk, before he became the incarnation of his god. His face was still that unnatural golden color, but he didn’t glow from within.
Yet his eyes were bright as he gripped Mama Tasha’s lifeless body at head and hips and tore her apart. The viewer of the images seem to scramble away, much as Carol had, as it tried to escape the hideous monster which had killed his mother, and planned to kill the rest of them next.
Then a woman appeared behind the golden man, a tall blonde woman in traveling gear and bearing a staff. She swung the wood in an elaborate gesture, and winds arose as if she had summoned them. The winds gripped the man, yanking him bodily into the air with such force that he flew over the horizon.
The view shimmered as the viewer seemed to shiver before turning and looking at the two kittens beside it. Then all three gave out the death cries for their lost mother.
The woman stepped closer, filling the image. She took off her cloak and laid it down, saying, “You’re all right now, boys. Carol will take care of you.” A tear fell down her massive face. “I’m sorry I wasn’t in time to save your mother, but I’m here for you. I’ll never let you down again.”
The image in the cylinder changed to show the other two kittens, Toh eight and Hu, as the three of them bounded around the strange sunken home where the woman came and left in the skins of a different animal. Tih had the feeling that he might leave this place anytime he wanted to, as if he could find a Way. But he didn’t want to. Not yet. The woman kept her promise. They were safe.
There came another scene. A strange man who smelled of unclean food and wicked places stood in the den, trying to reach the kittens. Something stopped him, some charm from the woman, and Tih felt safe. The man made furious gestures, then he left. Not long after, the woman reappeared. She cried when the kittens came out to greet her.
Then came the scene were giant rocks fell through the roof of the den, smashing everything and bringing the floodwaters. Where was the woman? She was supposed to protect them!
But then Tih understood: they were in kittens now, they were cats. They would find their own Way. Chit turned toward the last unbroken wall of the den, and he walked through it, followed by the other cats.
Suddenly the cylinder filled with a gray void, a bright nothingness. Carol looked up at it. Where was Tih? She pounded upon the stone, her hands slipping inside the cylinder.
As if triggered by her hand, it lit up with one last scene. A giant black shadow with a darker man shape inside strode down the streets of the strange city. Tih tried to back away, but found itself trapped between two of the stone towers. There was nowhere to go as the black shadow walked calmly up and raised one massive boot to stomp the kitten.
The cylinder briefly flickered, then lit up with an image of the stone disk itself and with Tih’s crushed form set out upon it. The black shape touched something, and the disk and the cat sank into the ground. Then there was only darkness.
Carol fell across the stone, pounding it furiously. “Bring him back! Bring him back! Bring him back!” The tears filled her eyes so that she could no longer see her surroundings. “Bring. Him. Back!” She wept as she continued pounding the stone disk.
Eventually, though, she realized that it was no longer stone upon which she smashed her fists in vain. Now the surface gave. It splashed. She opened her eyes, and she found herself kneeling once more within the formerly flooded forest.
She was back home somehow. Maybe Hu you had brought her here? She closed her eyes and held herself very still, not breathing, listening for any sound of the last kitten.
But the silence brought her nothing, and at last she had to breathe. She opened her eyes, looking for any sign of the gray and white tabby.
But instead her eyes fell upon the Golden God, now naked in is incarnated form, with his head swollen to the size of a massive gourd. The light that shone out of him was so bright, Carol had to look away.
His voice boomed like thunder. “You are home now. We shall keep it that way.”
Carol shook her head, glimpsing him out of the corner of her right eye as she angrily retorted, “There’s one kitten left. I’ll find him, and he’ll lead me to wherever your diseased world is. I’ll go there, I’ll take the power of the land and turn it into a weapon against you. I’ll –”
The Golden God laughed, fire spouting from nostrils and mouth. The sound made her want to cover her ears, something like gurgling rocks given voice. When he was done laughing, he said, “Oh, you want the last of the kittens? Let Us show you.” He started to walk away, then turned back and saw that Carol was still on her knees. “I said come with me.” His tone was loud but even, as if he expected – nay, demanded obedience.
Carol got up from her knees, and she followed.
It wasn’t a long walk, maybe three miles to the highest point in sight, a hill where she had often perched as a bird when she wanted to survey the region for enemies. It had been recently cleared of trees, which now lay in ashes around the round top.
Carol had felt and said nothing during the walk. Her will left her, depression claiming her as she simply did it she was told. She had never done as she was told, so this frightened her. But she didn’t dare speak out.
At last they reached the peak. Besides all the trees being removed, there were three small stones now set there, all in a line. “Look at them,” the Golden God boomed.
“No!” Carol squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
“Look at them!” He gripped her shoulders, shoved her in front of the stones, and then smacked her face until her eyes opened and she couldn’t resist reading. Three stones…
Shawn Carter, beloved husband.
Thomas Carter, full of music.
Timothy Carter, full of mirth.
Carol fell to her knees. Her family… She had nothing left inside her. Not even tears.
Myra bent down and looked at Wayne under the handicap table. “Wayne? Is there something I should know? Where’s Wanda?”
Wayne shook his head. “I can’t help her without my crutches. Myra, please, help me find my crutches!”
Myra shook her head and gave him a funny look. “Crutches? Wayne, you were walking around fine just yesterday without crutches.”
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt (which I won’t even pretend to have followed): Pirate space elevator.