The Society of Secret Cats, page 1
The Society of Secret Cats
By De Kenyon
Copyright © 2011 by De Kenyon
Published by Wonderland Press
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For Fafnir, whose luxurious tail guards my daughter’s sleep.
Table of Contents:
Mice are delicious. But even more delicious are monsters, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night. Your mother or father might tell you that they are all in your head and that you’re just imagining things. In a way, they’re right. Monsters are all in your head.
But you’re not just imagining things.
I was inside Jaela’s head with a tasty monster called an Aranea, which was dribbling slime and trying to skitter out of the way on its spider claws, when the entire world of dreams shook, as though being shifted around by an earthquake.
The Aranea crawled up the wall of Jaela’s dream-bedroom, clinging to the ceiling, too scared even to spit acid at me, as I tried to keep Jaela from waking. It is bad when a dreamer wakes before you have eaten the monster, because the monster might be able to escape the dreamer’s head, sometimes for a short time, sometimes for a long time, and cause mischief.
When I was a wee kitten, I let one of her monsters get out, and it threw a tantrum in her room, only disappearing when her parents appeared to find out what was the matter. Jaela hid in a corner and screamed, and wouldn’t stop screaming even when her parents asked her what was the matter.
She was punished for breaking toys and writing in crayon strange words in letters and languages that none but those who walk dreams could ever read.
But, even as a kitten, I could read them: Stupid cat.
I was so insulted...and ashamed...that I had to lick my tail for an hour, afterwards. I have never since let another dream escape, no matter how much they beg and plead and say it’s the only way to save their grandmothers from terrible monsters, etc.
Inside Jaela’s dream, I purred, trying to soothe her. Sometimes when she woke suddenly, she would look around for a few seconds, and then go bfsack to sleep as she shifted to a more comfortable position.
Not this time.
As the dream world shook, it changed, becoming less like Jaela’s closet, bedroom, house, and city, and more like a forest full of long trees with even longer shadows.
The shaking turned from a constant rumble into footsteps. Some gigantic thing was coming toward us through Jaela’s dream, toward her dream-self. She whimpered, squatted down on the moldy leaves of the forest floor, and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“Shh,” I told her. “I will defend you. No monster will hurt you while I am here, my princess.”
It was not often that I spoke her in dreams, for then she always knew she was dreaming.
“Ferntail?” she said. “Where are we?”
“I do not know,” I said.
“We are in the Great Forest,” hissed a voice.
I quickly looked up and saw the Aranea above us, on one of the trees. I growled at it, and it backed up the trunk.
It laughed through its long teeth at me. “You’ll never catch me here, dream-walker. There are too many ways for me to escape, not like the corner of some bedroom, where you can trap me and eat me.”
“Run away, little nightmare,” I said. “Lest something bigger come along and snap off your many legs so you can’t run away anymore.”
“Please,” Jaela said. The ground was shaking even harder than before.
I shifted form, until I walked like a man on my hind legs, and picked up Jaela in my arms. I ran quickly through the forest, ignoring the branches that whipped across my fur, protecting Jaela in my arms. She put her arms around my neck and clutched me hard, but not so hard that I couldn’t breathe.
We ran, the footsteps growing louder, until I came upon a little house in a clearing of the forest. I hadn’t noticed how dark was the forest (we cats can see well in dark places) until we reached the clearing, and bright moonlight shone down, making the long blades of grass shine white. The windows of the little house were covered with wooden shutters that let only tiny cracks of light through, but the chimney was puffing smoke. Jaela shivered in my arms, and I realized she must be cold, a human outside at night in only her nightgown.
I stepped toward the house when the hissing voice laughed at me again. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
I looked up; the spiderlike Aranea hung above us, as though we hadn’t moved a step.
“Get back!” I swiped at it with one paw, cutting across one leg, which dripped clear fluid onto the forest floor.
“Sssss...no need to be rude,” the Aranea said. “But I would avoid the house if I were you. Witches live in houses in the middle of the wood. A word to the wise.”
Jaela shivered again.
“She is cold,” I explained.
“Better to be cold than eaten by a witch,” the Aranea said.
“She cannot be eaten in her own dream,” I said.
The Aranea dribbled green slime onto a foreleg and rubbed it over the wound in its other leg. “But she is not in her own dream any longer, as I said. This is the Great Forest, not some little child’s dream. This is something bigger.”
I turned around in a circle slowly as the shaking, quaking footsteps grew ever closer. “What is it, then? I have never been here, nor have I ever heard of it.”
“If a child lives in a house, and a house lives in a city, and a city lives in a region, and a region lives in a country, and a country lives in a continent, and a continent lives on the whole world wide, then this is the continent of dreams upon which the child lives. A dream that came out of the great forests of the old world.”
“Why are we here?”
I could see trees falling, jerking, disappearing as the earth-shaking monster shoved them aside.
“She is a very strong dreamer,” the spider-kin said. “I have had my eyes on her for quite some time. Perhaps others have, too.”
“And what is that?” I asked. I felt as though I was not the mighty warrior-cat of dreams that I had come to think of myself over the last five years of defending the girl from dreams, most no stronger and no more clever than the Aranea above us.
“An Azdaja,” it said. “If it comes to a choice between killing the girl and letting the Azdaja eat her and take over her dreams, well, there are other little girls you can protect.”
I shuddered, and held Jaela close. “Never.”
“When you see it, you will understand. Now run! But do not go into the house. For there are things even worse than the Azdaja in the Great Forest.”
I backed into the darkness of the forest and ran. One of the clever-clever things that I have learned, as a dream-walker, is to run faster than paws can run, faster than thought. I do not know of any other dream-walkers who can run so fast, but of course now I realize that I only knew a handful of our kind, hardly enough to say that I knew anything at all.
But still, when I put my tail to it, I could run faster than the Azdaja, for I heard the sound of it fading behind us.
“Doesn’t this forest ever end?” I asked.
“No,” said the spider-kin. “In this dream, it is everywhere. Beware the forest, but beware the things that are not in the forest even more. You are about to come upon the Wolfish-kin soon, by the way, if you should continue in this direction.”
“Why are you following us?” I asked.
“Because I want to get out of this forest as much as you do. I far prefer the safe little dreams of little girls than that of the Great Forest and its kind. I could get eaten up in two snaps out here.”
“You’ll get eaten either way,” I growled. “When we get back, I will crunch you right up.” I let Jaela slide down to the ground.
She looked up at the spider-kin. “You have a face.”
She was right; among the many spider-eyes and the snapping jaws, a pattern of splotches on the hairs of the Aranea formed a face, a lovely cat-lady’s face that seemed to wink as the wind rippled the hairs.
“Stop that,” I said, and the cat-lady’s face laughed.
The spider said, “I suppose,” and the face faded into the spider-hairs.
Suddenly, the forest seemed to part like a pair of gauzy curtains across a breezy window, and a dream-walker stepped through: a cat.
“Hello, cousin,” said the cat politely. She had calico fur and a collar made of something shimmering and bright, like fish scales. Her tail was like the thinnest, most delicate, beckoning finger, and her smell was like rich perfume. “I see you are in some difficulty.”
Nevertheless, I stepped between her and my girl. “Who are you?”
“I am Slide,” she said. “I am a member of the Society of Secret Cats, and I am here to return you and your charge to your own dreams.” She walked closer to me, but I did not step away from my girl.
“I have no intention of hurting you or your child,” Slide said. “However, if you would follow me, I will guide you back to the lands you know.”
She stopped within paw’s reach and tilted her head back a little, baring her throat, which, among cats, is very much like a bow.
I cleared my throat—I felt awkward, like my fur was out of place. I brushed my paws down my sides quickly, then picked up Jaela and purred to her for a moment, almost more to reassure myself than her.
“We will be all right,” I told her. “I will keep you safe.”
“Ferntail,” she said. “I don’t like that cat. She will scratch me.”
I looked back at Slide, who was licking her paw and bathing her face with it. I didn’t see any reason not to like her, but it was all very strange.
“Lead on,” I said. What else could I do?
Slide did not take us through the curtains of dream, the way she had come. Apparently, it was a way that could only be used by the Society of Secret Cats, and not by humans. If I were to go through such a way, I would have to promise my loyalties to the Society, and leave Jaela behind, to be guarded by a mere kitten instead, and that I could not bear. Jaela was like a kitten to me, even though at six, she was old enough to be my mother.
As we walked through the forest, I saw that the Aranea followed us. The way the spider-kin traveled was to wait until we were almost out of sight, then cast a thin line of web, almost invisible, through the trees. As the line of web touched a far tree, a little bit ahead of us, the web would disappear, and the spider-kin would appear where the web had touched. In such a way, the Aranea could travel as fast as we.
We did not travel as fast as we had when I had run. As I said, I am very fast.
“Do you need to slow down?” Slide asked, after a time. “Or to rest?”
“Not a bit,” I said, running at a pleasant speed. “Keep going. The sooner Jaela is back in her bed, the better.”
We ran and we ran, and the sounds of the Azdaja faded behind us.
“Now are you tired?” Slide asked.
We ran and we ran, for a short way or a long way, and through the gaps between the trees, I saw that the moon never moved, that time never passed. Even though time did not pass, I began to become tired.
Not the kind of tired that comes from too much running, the but kind of tired that comes from too little sleep.
“Now are you tired?” Slide asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But keep running.”
“We are almost there,” answered she.
Jaela whimpered on my shoulder. I slowed to a trot and looked at her. Here, in dreams, she appeared to be asleep, and having bad dreams. I did not know how that might be possible, but it was so.
I looked around and saw a clearing in the trees, a place where Slide might watch over us while I tried to find out what monster inside a dream-within-a-dream might be haunting my child.
“Here,” I said. “We must rest. Jaela is asleep, and something is inside her dream. You must protect us from the Azdaja and whatever monsters may come, including that.” I pointed at the Aranea, who lingered at one of the trees at the edge of the forest, watching us with glittering eyes and the pattern of a cat’s face in its hair, with wide, crazy eyes.
“No,” it said. “You cannot stop here. You must not stop here. Not in a clearing. Never in a clearing.”
But I didn’t listen to it; the call to sleep was too much. I laid Jaela in the long, thick grass, then shifted into cat form and curled up beside her, purring, to sleep.
I woke up, stretched, and yawned so widely that my tongue curled in my mouth. I was a small cat on top of Jaela, and we were back in her room. It smelled like a real place, and not like a place in dreams (for some reasons, humans do not create the smells of things in their dreams very often). I jumped off the bed and went in search of water, because my mouth was as dry as a bone carved into the shape of a tongue, and has been left in the sun for a hundred years.
As I lapped water from my water-dish, I heard the crystal whine of claws screeching against glass and looked up. Outside the glass door to the patio, Slide was running her claws against the glass.
I padded over to the glass.
“Let me in,” she said.
I looked up at the latch. I could easily open the lock, but I could never push the heavy door out of the way.
“Not here,” I said. “Go around the house until you find the open window next to the pink and yellow curtains. That is my princess’s room.”
She sauntered away, showing the curl of her tail, and I skipped back to Jaela’s room.
She was having a nightmare, her face turning back and forth on her pillow, her dark hair sticking in long threads to the edges of her mouth. As I sniffed her breath, I heard a scratch at the window.
“Let me in,” Slide said.
“Just a minute,” I answered. I licked the edge of Jaela’s ear, which is usually all it takes to wake her up, but she only moaned and turned her head away. I purred in worry, pushing my paws against her blanket, for a moment turned back into a little kitten who knew nothing about dreams.
I would have to go into her dreams. Perhaps, when I had woken, she had not come with me, and even now, she was dreaming horrible things.
I lay down beside her an slept, even as Slide scratched at the window.
“Let me in,” a deep voice called. “Let meeee in.”
“Not by the whiskers of my chinny-chin-chin,” I muttered. The place was dark and full of stone, wet, and smelly. I didn’t see Jaela anywhere...but I saw a line of web leading from one low doorway to another. The web twitched. I picked a direction and ran toward one of the doors, following the web.
The web led me to a white Aranea’s nest, which looks like a tangle of white cotton candy rather than a proper spider’s web. The nest filled up one corner of the room, with a tiny black hole near one wall.
I crept up to the door and looked inside. Jaela was inside, shivering and ripping bits of web off her.
“I can’t get out,” she said. “Please, Ferntail.
“Spider-kin!” I roared. “I will murder you. I will eat you up. I will crunch you like a snack and spit you out and leave you bleeding while I crunch you again.”
A hiss of laughter echoed down the strange stone corridors, but it sounded far away.
“Let meeee in,” the deep voice boomed.
I slashed open the nest. Web stuck to my paws, but I didn’t care. I shifted form until I was like a gray lion with my luxurious tail streaming behind me.
“Get on my back and hang on, my princess,” I said.
Jaela crawled out of the nest as best she could, still covered with web. When she climbed onto my back, the stickiness of it helped hold her close to me.
I turned and ran down the corridor, my paws as silent as night.
If I had run quickly before, that was nothing to the speed with which I ran now. I followed the thread of web from corridor to corridor, through a maze that seemed to change around me. But always the booming demands and the hissing laughter became louder rather than quieter, closer rather than further away.
I could have run for but a moment. I could have run for a year. I did not know which it was, that place was so twisted around and around on itself.
I do know that Jaela stopped whimpering and shivering, and that something formed in her hand that shimmered with heat and shone light before us.
I do know that between here and there, my paws skipped past some places, jumping from shadow to shadow with miles and miles between them, untouched.
And then we were there: the stone walls fell away, and we were in a great cave. A crack ran across the cave from one side to the other.
The web led to the Aranea, on the same side of the crack as we.
On the other side of the crack, was a thing of darkness and fire, so big that it could barely turn. It seemed as though it ought to be able to step over the crack easily, yet it could not.
Where it touched, the fire and darkness of it erased rocks, widened the cavern, and shuddered the earth. Underneath it the rock heated red-hot, and its feet, which I could not see except as part of its fire and darkness, left deep gouges in the stone.