The Cat (The Summoner Meltdown Remix)
Remix of 'The Mayor' by volta_arovet, for EX Mode 2011. The Cat had been many things - but a father, only once.
They called him Mayor on Destiny Island. Which suited him well; he was the mayor, and before that he had been the reeve, and before that he had been the stray, the trickster, the toy. He had been many things, the Cat had. He had danced with mad jesters and sung to cosseted kings. He had built shining towers and watched them fall. He had seen women turn into monsters, and monsters turn to stone. He had whispered while on his knees to the hunger-bright eyes of a merchant prince.
He had long come to terms with being a word, rather than a name.
They called him Mayor on Destiny Island: Mayor, or The Mayor, or sir. All were standard variants on a single theme. None of them required creativity to pull off. Government was no longer a challenge for the Cat to play, though it had entertained him at first, back when he'd been lucky to have a corner cube on Mondays, Wednesdays and occasional Thursdays. The novelty had worn off some time ago; he'd been a thousand different job positions over the years.
But only one person ever called him, Daddy.
Mr. Mayor was a minor name of the Cat, a small one, almost not enough to disturb him. Yet the voice was soft and quavering - a girl's voice. Young. Like his daughter's when she woke up on new moon nights, when the skies were dark and frightened her for their lack of stars. He stirred.
"Is he... dead?"
Hands wafted the air near his face, flavoring it with sweat and fear. "I thought - I thought I saw him move."
Island sunlight scattered dots of color across the backs of the Cat's eyelids. His limbs felt heavy, prickled with salt water. His wet slacks soaked up the heat.
He was lying on the beach. Why was he lying on the beach?
Children barely older than his daughter surrounded him. They were talking, exchanging chitter-chatters of noise that normally shouldn't have bothered him, but now seemed deafeningly loud - as if all the dials on his body had been cranked up to full, magnifying each vibration like a hammer blow upon his ears. The feel of them was smothering. There were three, he could smell them - he couldn't stop smelling them, couldn't stop hearing the rustles of their clothes as they poked and prodded at his body. He couldn't breath without inhaling the sour meat reek of their sweat, their high-pitched cries like the keep-keeping of oakmouth mice, bellies full and soft.
His wits felt dazed. His thoughts were slow, distracted by the overwhelming weight of his senses. Brine was soaking into his skin. He was on the beach. What had brought him out here again?
Kairi,he thought suddenly, and inhaled. The strawberry-peach aroma of his daughter's favorite soap teased at his nose. She had passed this way. He was sure of it.
Along with something else. There was something else on the air, something that he had encountered before and that he should have been able to identify: a tang that was crisp and sharp in his nose, like the musk from an animal made of living glass. It coiled around the back of his mind, tickling at memories he hadn't bothered with in years. It reminded him oddly - and uncomfortably - of the past.
He opened his eyes and pushed away from the children, nostrils flaring as he instinctively tried to pinpoint the scent. They recoiled, and the Cat did not care. His throat felt rough; he fought the urge to lick his lips. The children tumbled out of his way like puffballs - and there again, humming in the back of his mind was the whine: Kairi, Kairi, Kairi.
Kairi should have been playing on the beach. Destiny Island was safe enough that the Cat did not have to worry about her the same way he would have in a large city, where the easiest way to get rid of an unwanted child was to send it to the corner store for a pint of milk. She should have been there. He shouldn't - there were three meetings that he was scheduled to attend, but he had skipped out on them all because of the strange sensation that had been inching up and down his shoulderblades, fussing and gnawing at his wits.
The Cat remembered abandoning his planner on his desk and leaving his office. He'd gone out to find Kairi, to pick her up from the beach to reassure himself that she was safe, an excuse of an early dinner ready on his lips. She hadn't been there. Before he had a chance to search around, the ground had shuddered, throwing him to his knees; the ground had shuddered, but the trees hadn't trembled at all, their fronds swaying languidly in the breeze while the sand had sweated black oil. The liquid had bubbled up faster than he could escape - and as the Cat recalled the way that the fluid had engulfed him, his memories and instincts came together in a gut-wrenching fusion, and he knew what he'd been neglecting to realize.
That night when he had found Kairi, when he had taken her from the raft - the stars had fallen on that night, and the scent of Darkness had been strong in the air. Smaller spirits had fled, burrowing into the tiniest holes they could find so that the danger might pass without devouring them. The Cat had gone out to the beach to watch the sky crumble. He knew how to appreciate things like that.
On the very edge of the ocean, a human girl had washed up with the tide. Even while unconscious, she had managed to cling to a few crude planks that had been roped together, curled up like a newborn still damp from its own birthing. Her heart had beaten like a bird's, like something that should have spent its short life fleeing white-eyed through the woods, like prey - but her hands had been so cold. She had been shivering in long, full-body shudders. Her arms had pressed close to her chest as if trying to draw warmth from somewhere, from anywhere.
And the Cat had crouched on the beach and cupped her hands until her fingers started to look more like flesh instead of white sticks, and then he had scooped her up and carried her back home, leaving the Darkness behind.
The Darkness, it seemed, had not been content to wait.
Ignoring the odds, the Cat staggered along the path to his cottage, just in case his daughter had gone home early and had escaped whatever creatures were on the hunt. He was not alone. Other adults were walking along the twists of the beachside homes, searching for their own children. Sora's mother was calling for her son; Riku's father came and went through the trees, ghostly in his grim silence.
The Cat barely acknowledged them. He limped up the walkway to his front door, his gait feeling mismatched, as if he was trying to figure out all over again how he wanted his bones to move. The sun felt too bright. Its radiance left the trees cheerfully dappled, and the Cat's skin feeling raw wherever it touched.
Whatever predatory miasma had assaulted the beach had left the Cat's home untouched. He opened his front door, fumbling twice with the latch, his hands alternating between graceful and clumsy when he tried to get them to move properly.
"Kairi?" he called out as soon as he stepped inside.
There was no response.
He turned, entertaining dull thoughts of seeing her coming down the stairs - and then the Cat saw himself in the hallway mirror.
The Mayor was gone. The Darkness had stripped some vital root of the illusion away, and so the Mayor's face was disintegrating like a withered husk. His hair had darkened to a black that was feathered with grey; his flesh was milk-white pale. His mustache was thinning, the beard erased, exposing a narrow chin.
But his eyes were what gave him away. They were brilliant green now, reflecting the light and revealing everything about him: exposing a truth to the world that lived beneath all his names. Their slit pupils betrayed sinuous grace in place of bones. They told the story of fur that hid within his skin.
He opened his mouth and bared pointed teeth, their tips demurely feral.
With each second, more of the Mayor flaked away into nothingness, along with his kindly laugh and the lines around his eyes from worrying. Gone was the mysterious man who had arrived on Destiny Island with three degrees in civil engineering and the story of a one-winged angel to haunt him. Gone was the smile that would turn sad on long afternoons when no one was looking, remembering the sacrifices of friends who dared to fight the heavens themselves.
The Cat tore himself away from the mirror. His gaze fixed itself to the living room instead. All the knowledge he had gathered throughout the years had been brought to fruition here, wrapped together with an architect's hands. His home was a whimsical product of metropolitan sensibilities that tried to disguise itself as rustic, with wide port windows and high ceilings. An amberwood couch with scalloped curves was wedged against an endtable that had been hammered out of alternating slabs of bronze and steel. Underneath his feet was a circular rug that had been woven from hanks of cloth that were dyed the green and rose of a certain woman's changing hair. The basin of washwater in the main hall flowed with a current that was diverted from nearby waterfalls; the stone of the fountain glistened with dark streaks of crimson, flaunting its hidden colors only when wet.
Kairi had been the center of it all, inheriting his experiences. She had grown up surrounded by marvels, playing with the legacies of worlds she had never seen. Everything he had witnessed during his travels, he had given to her, whether it was in the blankets he had wrapped her in at night or the tales he had whispered to lull her to sleep.
Without her, the house seemed a mockery of tribute. The Cat turned away from the hollow rooms. He slipped out through the front door, leaving it swinging loose behind him.
At the end of the path, he kicked off his shoes and went barefoot, his weight barely mussing the sands.
As he walked, the awkwardness melted away from his demeanor; his footsteps became delicate, finicky over the stones. The firm set of his lips transformed into coyness. Power flooded into his bones. He sprang down the ramps to the beach, slinking through the abandoned playgrounds of the Island's children. Renewed agility brought him over the equipment; his spine was supple with bestial grace as he pulled himself over the beams. Confident fingers hooked the platforms, one by one. He moved with more than just innate balance - every inch of the construction was known to him with the intimacy granted to a creator. He had designed all the equipment with cunning toymaker's hands. The people of Destiny Islands had loved him for it.
They fled from him now, mistaking him for one of the Shadows as he prowled through the chaos of the island. Most villagers screamed when they saw him; the ones that dared to linger did so until flares of recognition lit their eyes, drowned out swiftly by horror. The uric smell of fear soured the air. They cowered, cursed, wept.
He let them go, watching as they ran, studying them with a detached curiosity that lacked the interest to chase. Instead, he hunted for his daughter, returning to the beach and tracking her steps all the way down to the cave hideout that she shared with her friends. He had found her sleeping there more than once, tucked up like a mouse safe in its nest. It had been dangerous for him to allow her to play there, but the very fact that she had never sensed the danger lurking nearby had made him think that maybe she would be safe forever -
The Door was open. The belly of the world had been ripped apart, and Shadows were streaming through the gap. The pathway between the realms was being invaded.
One of Kairi's wristbands lay on the ground. It was a small scrap of cloth, badly made, the elastic poking out from the hemming - but he recognized it even before he picked it up. He'd tried to help her when she first came up with the desire for one, but she had pushed him away, laughing, and said that she could do it herself. She'd stitched and cut and measured and chalked out dotted lines on fabric, and the result had been a flat, daffodil-colored wad. She'd worn it proudly anyway.
He pressed it to his nose. He opened his jaws, and tasted the staleness of strawberry and peach against the roof of his mouth.
His daughter was gone.
The wristband was cold. He dropped it.
The doorway shuddered; Shadows spewed out like exposed grubs, flooding around him before he could blink. He tensed his shoulders, wondering if they wanted to fight, wondering if he even had the strength to do so - but they slid past, blank yellow eyes averted. They did not bother with him. They knew what he was. They knew what he could do.
Behind them, the Door lay open. Kairi's scent led towards it; there could be no mistaking what had happened, just as he could not pretend that Destiny Island wasn't doomed. There was no evidence of a struggle, nothing he could read, other than a faded trace of Sora and the lingering citrus reek of Light. There was no blood.
The Cat turned away from the pathway between worlds, padding back outside. When he left the cave, he saw that the Shadows had reached the surf. A few of the more daring ones wriggled into the foam, struggling to submerge their bodies instead of bobbing to the top; the rest gathered like ticks, fastening their mouths to the edge of water and land.
Then, they began to eat.
People were screaming everywhere now, blending together in a raw mass of terror. The Cat saw Sora's mother in the distance, her skirts flapping like butterfly wings as she ran.
He crouched, watching the horror calmly, fingers digging idly in the sand, and waited for something, anything to sink in at last. Everything seemed detached. His house was empty; his home was empty, and the scraps of what were left were even now being devoured. The Mayor had been erased. There would be no one left to call the Cat by that name, even if he managed to look the part again.
That knowledge floated through his thoughts, refusing to be pinned down. He could stay on the crumbling Island - rally the survivors together, who would require strong leadership if they wanted to escape and find their way to a stable world. He could hope desperately for Kairi to return. That should be the thing to do, because Kairi was the only daughter he had ever had in his long existence, and no destruction was absolute. The Cat had been through enough disasters to know the truth of that, watching people lift their fists against red skies while the continents split apart around them.
There would be survivors. Destiny Island could live on through them. And maybe someday they would have the islands restored to them, and maybe their homes would be rebuilt, and maybe - maybe Kairi would come back, bruised but triumphant, and climb the path to their home with a smile on her face, hungry for a bowl of her favorite chicken soup, and he -
He would -
He wouldn't care.
He did not care anymore, not about anything, not about his house or the town he had helped to govern, or the people he had helped take care of, or the islands he had helped to guard, and that was the worst part: he did not care. Even numbness would have been something - a suppression of emotion that could still be weighed by the stifling of it - but he wasn't cut off, merely uninterested. The Cat had been many names; he had worn more faces than he could count over the years, picking them up and discarding them like brightly-colored beetles or bits of string. And a home was nothing, nothing - he had traveled endless worlds, lived in countless places, and had always known that such things were temporary.
But his child should have been more.
As villagers screamed in the distance and the shoreline crumbled, the Cat finally understood why the Shadows left him alone. It hadn't been because they'd been cowed by his power. It was because there was nothing left in him to take.
The Cat watched as the ocean turned black, marrying the horizon line between water and sky. The sand was dry on his fingers. Behind him, the Door yawned like a chasm, rich with possibilities of other worlds just waiting to be played with. The villagers would not accept the Mayor again, but possibly something else would suffice - some other guise in his arsenal, a world regenerator or a traveler. An experienced leader would be invaluable if they wanted to survive the hellish days to come. He could find them, work with them, and help them live on.
After every disaster, there would be time to rebuild. After every disaster, there was room to hope. He only had to stay, and try to put things back together. All he needed was to care.
Go, the doorway whispered.
The Cat went.