We pass under cloak of shadow, the colonel of cats and I, through a shifting maze of tunnels in search of a kitten. The passages have an odd quality about them, the oddness stemming from the seeming intuitive normalcy of the passages rearranging themselves at random. Yet this does not bother me. Why?
Sergei Romanova…I think to myself…What are you?
More needless distraction, which gets put aside as the old queen, her well-kept fur bristling with alertness, softly mews a warning of what may lie ahead. I pay attention, and show her the spoor I note of what we seek, but no signs of a kitten’s capture by or struggle with those…things, not yet.
There are paws, large, heavy paws with blunt claws scraping bare stone, thudding against the passage ahead. Barghest paws. These are no mere chihuahuas of Dream, but more like full-sized mastiffs.
I hear a sudden howl, echoing in the tunnels, and my blood freezes. That’s not a good sign, for it means they’ve caught scent of their prey. Perhaps there’s time yet, though.
No screams. Barghests like hearing the screams of their victims. It makes the meat tastier. My hopes rise a bit, as that means they haven’t yet caught the colonel’s granddaughter.
A light shines ahead, a pale blue phosphorescence from fungi probably, and we hear a tiny yowl of feline rage as we approach. Just in time to see those we seek, one of them recoiling and yelping as tiny needlelike kitten claws draw blue ichor.
My admiration of kittens as potential combatants goes up a few notches. This one will be a good warrior when she’s grown.
Without a thought — after all, how can you think and fight at the same time? — my blades flicker forward, slicing alien canid flesh, separating head from body in a single stroke, while the old colonel snarls as her claws tear into the other pseudo-dog’s flesh, her hind claws ripping to disembowel it, and doing a fair job at just that.
In less than fifteen seconds, it’s over, with dead barghests oozing fluid on the cave floor. I offer a quick, silent prayer of thanks to Mother Kali, not because I believe, but because in this realm of Dream She may well be listening, and to ignore Her would be rude.
…and I’m nothing if not rude as the linked familiar to Her avatar. Deference saves lives, especially one as messed up as mine. That, and I’d much rather not piss off Angel. There are far scarier things in the universe than me, and Angelique is one of them. The other is Marie.
My first thought is to check the kitten for injuries. Then I see the gash in her side. Brave little thing, injured without so much as a squeak from her. There are signs of rapid fungal infection, probably from drifting spores attaching to exposed flesh, a claw wound by one of the mockeries we killed. She’s failing, rapidly, and the colonel sees it too.
My hopes for an easy and quick rescue fall rapidly, as the infection spreads in only seconds. The old colonel yowls in grief. The two stalwart toms guarding the cave’s entrance hear it and yowl in response. We are too late, and I have failed.
Wait. There’s a small chance, maybe just this once, we can rescue hope from despair. I look to the old queen, and tell her what I must do. She nods, giving her assent.
Angelique will probably kill me, but I do it anyway, enacting my failsafe plan. I draw upon my familiar’s link to my mistress, and ask for a bit of power, power enough to stave the infection, even reverse it, and restore the kitten’s health while healing it. I’ve never done this before, and may not be able to do it again.
I’ll have to both donate most of my own vitality to the kitten, and borrow enough from Angel to restore it. If not, this will kill me, and I’ll be unable to return to my teammates.
I get a flash of consent through the mindlink, and I channel raw power. The pain is blinding, but I don’t care. Let this be enough. Just give me this one chance to make things right. I whisper a word I don’t remember ever saying till now…
I burn inside, and collapse in less than a minute. It hurts. It hurts like nothing before. Then everything goes dark.
I wake, a kitten’s nose nudging me from sleep. Sleep? No, not sleep, but a dreamless state vaguely like it, but no matter. I’m surrounded by Mooncats, reinforcements who followed our original party of four.
The old colonel is grooming her granddaughter’s now pristine fur, her injuries and infection healed, and now fully healthy. It worked. It really did. Even if only this time, no innocent lives were lost. That gets tiresome sometimes.
The colonel faces me and says, You did well, shinobi, and we shall honor our bargain. You have earned the gratitude and eternal friendship of the cats of Ulthar. My granddaughter is restored. We leave now, and will return you to your teammates. There is much to you that you do not know, but one day you will. Come, leap with us once more. You will have a great tale to tell your charge, and she will grow to be as strong and swift as yourself.
I respond, Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of. Let’s leap then. I’ll worry about explanations later.