The grey-eyed girl was dead. Crushed beneath the claws of a giant beast, her tiny hands splayed out to the side squishing the red clay between her rigid, dead fingertips, dress twisted under her right thigh like bed sheets wrapped around a nightmare, mud caked over her eyes without concealing that final emotion--awestruck delight. The girl had died laughing, spilling immortal secrets with every last sputtering rasp, laughing at her lost mother, laughing at the end.
Rachel woke up coughing, unable to breathe or think through tears of pain and fear. Miraculously, she avoided waking the young man beside her as she ran barefoot to the river. As much as she rinsed her face or sat waiting or strained for a glimpse of the dim sky through the canopy of trees, she could not shake off the new fear.
The grey-eyed girl could be dead. Of course, people had stopped dying a long time ago, but it was not hard to discern what it was that terrified her about the dream.
Rachel recalled everything. The life of a baker in Coburntown was another woman's role, at this point. The kneading, the selling, the weekends at the bar listening to guitar music, the yearning for her young assistant who was only ever interested in other women, the constant sensations of being undesirable, being fat, being weak… all of these were someone else. She had changed.
Her mother, Augusta, had come to that bar with a letter from her sister, a girl who had fled home with a man and lost the man to the same jungle within which Rachel now slept. The man had died and, having met death and the strangeness that it carries, disappeared. Then, Rachel's sister did the same. Before she disappeared, Tabitha sent a letter to Augusta asking for help taking care of her daughter, a girl named Cathy who had been born dead. This was the grey-eyed girl from her dream: a girl she had never seen but thought about constantly.
Rachel had packed up her life to come to Cathy's aid. She did not have a concept of what she was getting into and had nearly died in the jungle on the way from Coburntown to Namirus. When she arrived in Namirus, she started to change. Over the course of a week, Rachel had become much bolder: she faced the town elder with bravado, demanding answers and gaining allies. She had struggled with a monster made of darkness and had emerged victorious--but the answers she received left her paralyzed. Rachel's sister was gone completely and had left Cathy alone. Cathy had been seen in the same jungle Rachel had fled.
In that jungle, two giant monsters waited. Their forms contorted in Rachel's mind, but the overall impression they had left on her was raw, quivering terror. Their claws could cut down swaths of vines and trees, clearing sections of terrain in seconds. Their intelligence could lead a human astray, leaving them vulnerable for the beasts to play with as they pleased. Their bodies were huge yet sinuous, weaving between trees but capable of snapping them like straw beneath their bulk. They were formidable.
And yet, Rachel was possibly more intimidated by the child. Cathy had managed to make the entire town of Namirus hostile towards her, to the point where they were actively planning to do something. Her mangled visage in Rachel's dream made no notion that the changes Rachel had been through would be enough to save her.
As Rachel looked into the trees and into the river, she realized that she could now, to a certain extent, see in the dark. Each light from town was like a lantern penetrating and revealing the dark. Each crack of light from the sky was as good as a fire in her hand. How is it that I can see so well? She wondered. Perhaps being out of a busy city and sleeping in the jungle had rewired some of her instincts. She started to feel her body, scanning for changes. She was still overweight, but it seemed to matter less. She could have the man sleeping next to her as a lover, if she chose, but it wasn't Gavin that made her feel sexy. It was herself, a new woman, confident in the body she owned. Underneath the skin, new instincts and developing muscles demanded her to take action. She liked these changes, but they felt a little too sudden to be natural.
It had been five days since Rachel defeated the thing inhabiting the village elder. Tomorrow, she would rescue Cathy. She only hoped that the girl was still alive.
She waved goodbye to Gavin while wading across the river between Namirus and the jungle. Where she had once tumbled headlong towards the village, she now scrambled upward. Soft dirt slides accumulated under her feet. The ridge faded quickly into more even terrain and dense, damp darkness.
Immediately, her previous foolishness struck her in the face. She had needed to rely on the words of Rammon and Balas, the beasts she would soon face, while working her way towards Namirus. The sun was a better cardinal guide, as it always maintained a fixed position. She could see it penetrating the trees from the Northwest. The angle and direction would pivot around her as she headed west. If the sun was ever immediately north, then she would know that she had gone too far.
Thrilled as she was by this discovery, she knew that she remembered the jungle being so dark that she could detect no sun at all. If no weather ever interrupted the light the sun provided, and the sun was guaranteed to stay in the same spot constantly (which it was, or it surely would have caused those fearful residents of Namirus something to cry about) then one or two things could have changed.
First, Rachel considered that her own eyesight had improved. She liked that notion.
Second, the jungle could have changed. Worse, it could be a dynamic, living entity, shuffling trees as it needed. Beckoning her. She did not like that idea.
As she progressed, sweeping longer vines aside with a blade borrowed from the village guard, she began to believe the second option was true. If it had merely been a difference in the trees, it would be unlikely that she could recognize it. There were hills in the jungle and clearings where none had previously existed. The change became extremely obvious when she hit the ravine.
A titanic rift in stone yawned before her. Barely audible, a river rushed below. The ravine crossed north to south, and she could almost see where it opened up to the sea. Were she unable to notice the trees thinning ahead, she may have stumbled headlong into the abyss. In either direction, there was no discernible route to cross to the other side, and heading into the ravine was extremely risky. Still, she could have sworn that she was farther in when she encountered the beasts. There is no way this was here last time. The whole world has changed.
Scanning the other side of the ravine with her eyes, she saw it. A tiny sandal was dangling from a tree branch. I am being baited, she thought. A chill started to run up her back, but she stomped her right foot and shook off the fear.
Halfway down the ravine, a short walk to the north, a thick tree root had grown out of the wall reaching most of the distance across. A seam opened in the rock on both sides of the ravine around the root. No other better option presented itself. Rachel decided to cross, using the seam to climb down.
After walking to the spot where the crack started, it looked a bit easier. Rachel climbed down by wedging her fists into the crack, turning them sideways so that they couldn't budge, and shoving a foot in below. It was a little like climbing down a ladder, except that her body was doing most of the work of making rungs. Halfway towards the root, however, Rachel began to deeply regret choosing to cross. The skin on her fists couldn't support such weight, and began to scrape away. Her shoulders and back took the brunt of the haul, and were fortunately used to manipulating large bags of bulk ingredients as a baker; in spite of this, her nerves began to tremble with the exertion.
When she reached the root, clinging to the sturdiest, thickest part, Rachel observed the high drop into the raging water below. If I slip, I will die. It was worse than anticipated--the root was not remotely rigid. Rachel did not think her muscles and hands could tolerate, a second time, the same abuse that she had just given them. The crack on the other side was even thinner. She would not be able to fully rotate her hand to wedge herself in place, using more of elbow joint this time, and would have to use her entire arm to haul her body upward. There really was no equivalent exercise in baking to help her prepare for that exertion. Furthermore, though the root brushed the far wall, there it was thin and frail.
As she moved towards the other side, she crouched lower and lower until at last, she was sitting on the root, firmly gripping it and sliding with her hands. It flexed too much, she slipped, and suddenly found herself dangling above the roaring river. Firmly gripping the tendril, she knew it would be folly to try to pull herself up again. One hand over another, she inched towards the crack on the other side while the root dragged further towards her death. She rocked back and forth, swinging her legs to swing the root around. When she could swing no farther and could reach the rock wall with her foot, she kicked her right leg into the crack and twisted it.
"Ahhh!" she screamed, the tension in her leg howling as muscles stretched to their limits. Now forming a bridge over the water, she quickly worked on a way to cross. She let go of the root with one hand, drew the sword out of its sheathe, and reached with that arm so that the sword was in the crack. It wasn't quite close enough to twist the sword for leverage, and stabbing the stone could loosen her footing. She let go of the root while using every ounce of strength in her leg to get close to the wall, forcing the blade deep inside and twisting it. Using it as a handle, she pulled herself up and began forcing an arm in again, sinking up to the elbow joint which cracked and grinded with the pull of gravity and the surface of rock it rubbed against. When she felt stable enough, she sheathed the blade and began to lift herself up the wall. Every inch of her body seethed with hot pain, and she screamed and hissed at the exertion.
Once she reached the top, she fell to her back. Sweat trickled out of every pore on her body. Her arms were mangled and mottled with dusty blood, and her muscles would not relax from the strain. Dizzy and exhausted, eyes wet with nervous tears, Rachel fainted. Her last thought before fainting was an inner grin. She felt satisfied. She had won.
Pain woke her. Pain in her muscles, pain in her tattered forearms, pain in her right leg especially. When she could open her eyes, she noticed that she was not where she had been, and her body was wrapped with ropes and leaves in selective areas, without holding her down. Where am I?
She couldn't sit up and could barely turn her head. She was further into the jungle now, in an open clearing. She guessed that someone had grabbed her and moved her.
"You're awake," a small voice said.
Rachel forced herself to roll over, in the direction of the voice. It was a little girl, sitting in a white, mudstained dress on the base of a stone statue. Rachel could not discern what the purpose of the statue was. The girl had grey eyes and a worried expression.
"Cathy?" Rachel asked.
"That's me, Aunt Rachel."
"You know who I am?"
"You look a bit like my mother. I'm so happy to see you!" the girl said, although she made no attempt to rush forward and hug Rachel, a fact which made Rachel's throbbing body very relieved. "I tied healing leaves to you to help you feel better."
"How did you find me? How did I find you?" Rachel asked, feeling dizzy with the intensity of the pain.
"You were screaming. You were screaming a lot. I'm sure most everything in the jungle heard you," Cathy giggled. "When we heard you screaming, we came to get you."
"We? Who else is here?"
"Rammon and Balas. They took turns dragging you here." Her vision clearing further, Rachel could begin to see, sitting upright with their enormous tails tucked in front of their paws, glowering at her with imperious stares. Rammon sat a head higher than Balas, but Balas' sneer cut deeper.
Somehow, Rachel forced herself to her feet and unsheathed her sword.
"No, Aunt Rachel. No need for that," Cathy answered, hopping down and putting a tiny hand on Rachel's sword hilt.
"Young woman, you have come very far from your home to pick a fight. I would eat you were it not for the intervention of this child," Balas cautioned.
"Rachel, is it?" Rammon asked. Rachel slowly nodded, sweat running down her brow in spite of the coolness of the shade. "You have demonstrated outstanding bravery in the face of immeasurable odds. You are not strong enough to face us this day, but it matters not. You have passed every test required to receive our boon."
"Your boon? What do you mean?"
"We are cats. We are the embodiment of individuality and the satisfaction of the self. This is the Shrine of the Cat, and we are the Aspects of the Individual," Rammon explained.
"To us," Balas continued, "Evil is the hive mind, the witless audience given to the ideation of a leader, the sins committed by the group. When the fear of change stifles any discussion of true peace or comfort or the satisfaction of one's own goals, we quiver with rage."
"You have witnessed Namirus," Rammon added. "You have marched towards its corrupted heart and turned the town on its own head. You have destroyed what they took for balance and life satisfaction, and, so doing, discovered your own prowess. You have faced the challenge of reaching us with a finesse that only a cat could manage. Because of these things, there is no longer any need for us to question your worthiness. It falls to you to decide whether you wish to receive our gift."
Rachel had heard of cats before, in a book. Ever since the world had ended, fifty years ago, they were just another animal that had vanished in the disaster. The "cats" in front of her hardly fit the profile of what, she understood, people had once kept in houses as companions. She was glad that she didn't need to fight them, as she had no doubt in her mind that the beasts would have won. The statue behind Cathy depicted the two beasts curled against each other, contentedly asleep. That seems more like what I know about cats, Rachel thought.
"What is your gift?"
"Speed, a will to hunt and a conviction to see the hunt completed, and the ability to call us into being for aid at any time. We are a finite resource, but if you request our presences sparingly, you will see your ability to make use of us improve over time. Do you accept?"
"I have a question for you or Cathy before I accept," Rachel paused. "Do you know what has happened to my sister, Tabitha?"
Cathy looked down. It was a hard question for one her age, which was certainly no older than five.
Balas replied, "The young girl's mother was killed by one of the villagers in Namirus. No one you know of, and it hardly matters now that they are out of the influence of the village elder. This is why we guided you to Namirus in the first place, bestowing upon you a fraction of our gift to see you successful there. This is the true danger of a blinded society. This is the rat's nest that you plunged into and purged of vermin."
"My mother was poisoned," Cathy clarified. "After she died, she became scared. She wrote a letter and walked out looking for a courier, but no one was coming to Namirus. The next week, she started to change. She started staring towards the Northwest. She held the letter in her hand, crushing it."
Rachel was startled more by Cathy's tongue than by the words, although the meaning was haunting. Cathy spoke like an adult, just as that letter had indicated. The calm in her voice quivered, and Rachel sheathed her sword, slowly reaching out and embracing Cathy.
"My mother wrote a second note before leaving. I know I need to find her. Can you help me?" Cathy asked, giving Rachel a thin slip of paper.
It said: Find me in the Silent City.
What could that mean? Rachel wondered.
"I accept your gift," she said to the Cat Aspects. They nodded, and it was done.
When Rachel knocked on Ethan's apartment door in Coburntown to give him full ownership of her bakery, she found herself far more surprised than he. What features of his had actually ever struck her as appealing? He was a small, thin man with an angular face and conceited eyes. Before, she had fawned over his words while attempting to maintain a gruff managerial distance. Now, she understood, with the confidence she had earned and had been given by the Aspects, that he was just a person who used his lovers as a mask. It was all Rachel could do to drop the master key to the bakery in his hand. Parting with it to one who seemed so shallow to her now made her right eye twitch just a bit.
But that life was over. Rachel's new talents lent themselves towards a more independent lifestyle. The city no longer suited her. Neither did Namirus. Her future home was unknown, but her new destination was quite apparent. Rachel would find the Silent City and take back her sister.
Before heading north in the direction that Cathy had said her mother had looked, the only real clue that Rachel possessed, Rachel went to leave Cathy with Augusta, her own mother. As soon as they reached the doorstep, however, Cathy screamed.
"I see it, I see it!" Cathy shrieked.
"What's the matter?" Rachel asked, worried.
"My mother was here! She gave the letter to the woman inside by hand."
Rachel pounded on the door until Augusta answered. The old woman looked like a skeleton. Grief and worry for her last daughter had ravaged her face.
"Tell me, mother. Did you see my sister before you came and talked to me? Did you?" Rachel asked, anger seeping into her tone. Anger at the woman who had only recently been like a mother to her.
"Yes, I did. I'm sorry I didn't tell you," Augusta said, looking at Cathy and covering her gasping mouth with her hand in shock at the little girl's resemblance to her own daughter.
"Why didn't you?"
"She wasn't herself. I could tell that my daughter was gone. She was grinning madly and her eyes had no pupils and were looking all over very quickly. When I reached out to grab her, she spoke at me with a voice that was not her own. I was terrified!"
"What did she say?"
Augusta looked at Rachel with bewildered eyes. The old woman's face was pale. "She said 'The Old God comes, the Old God comes, the Old God comes.' Over and over again. I couldn't look at her, Rachel. That voice was not her. It was deep. It was a voice I've never heard from a human."
Rachel couldn't stomp away the chills creeping up her spine this time.
"What will you do now, Rachel?"
"I'm going to save my sister."