I don't own Coraline. Frankly, that's a good thing for everybody.
This can be read as compatible with other stories I've written for this, or it needn't be, depending on your preference. Knowledge of them isn't remotely necessary for reading this.
Any constructive criticism will be gratefully accepted.
Atop the battered signpost that read, in faded letters, 'Pink Palace Apartments', there lay a sphinx-shaped silhouette against the pale sun.
The cat was resting, and trying to remember the last time he'd done so.
The distant sounds of the garden party came to him, carried by the summer breeze, and he paid them little heed. Mingling with anything more than a few lumbering humans held little appeal, and he had had enough of most of the inhabitants there to last him several lifetimes.
He closed his eyes, blotted out the sounds that threatened to distract him, and, with the wind stirring softly through his fur and the sun beating down gently on his back, listened.
The flap of the flag strung up above the walkway, the creaking of which sent a note of discord loud enough for him to pick up on. A tiny and monotonous piping from the building's attic, from one of the little creatures the demented old acrobat insisted on trying to train. The movement of wind through the trees on all sides, sending branches moving and leaves gently rustling.
Past these, further yet, the jumping and crawling and scuttling of countless tiny creatures in the grass and forest. Thousands of tiny heartbeats, thousands of caught breaths, the all-but inaudible flaps of eyelids as they blinked, cawing, chirping, squeaking, the slash and motion of violence, all around him, and further still, further yet-
-And there it was.
One strung-out note, low and baleful, sucking and cloying and almost hypnotic if you let it persist, remained beneath all the clatter of that which was merely real; a note which he had been bitterly acquainted with for far too long.
There had been days past when it had been all he could hear, thrumming and bloated with dark and deep malevolence. Those had been each time after the children had been taken (three from this building? He had lost count of those before.), and when he had burdened himself with a new failure.
But there it was, discernible to him only with the greatest of effort, and that fact gave him a strange rush of feeling he had almost forgotten to call satisfaction. It came mixed with a dark and savage joy, for that meant that, maybe, at long last…
Greatly diminished, but not gone. He reminded himself to not rush blindly into certainty; and with one long, drawn-out stretch, pulled himself up to his legs.
He had a job to finish.
Stalking out along the signpost's top, back straight and tail swinging, he narrowed his blue eyes on a point in space that only he could see, and prepared himself.
With the last steps, past the post's end, he walked to an Other place altogether.
He had braced himself for freefall, to lurch back into the real world the moment he began to tumble through nothingness. To his surprise, his paw made contact with something large, large enough to perch himself upon. He hoisted himself all the way through – the transition from real to Other feeling like a sudden note trilling throughout him – and stopped to take stock.
His perch was a knotted black skein of coin-thick thread, stuck fast and made solid with what seemed like tar. Several long needles were thrust through it, holding it fast in the empty air through some talent of the Beldam. They glistened with a dark lustre, painting the gleaming surface of the thread with an unhealthy and hungry light. The skein hung in the middle of white nothingness, running on forever in all directions.
Even in nothing, from where there should have nothing to drive it onwards, there came the howl of distant winds, and the far-flung breath of them stirred through the cat's fir. He shivered involuntarily.
From the anchor-skein, a long thread ran out, running all the way to a looming structure in-progress; the skeleton of the Pink Palace, wrought from the same night-black thread . Past the building, and from its sides, the cat could see similar and distant anchor-skeins holding the Palace in place. A few smaller threads hung like wisps between them, forming the suggestion of a great web.
Within the structure itself, a dark shape moved slowly.
The cat took a careful stance up onto the thread leading from the skein, and coolly stalked along its length. He kept his poise, mindful of the endless nothing below him. He had never actually fallen into it before, and he preferred not to find out what could happen.
As he walked, the thread wobbled ever-so-slightly beneath his miniscule weight, and he paused, wary of the distant creature noticing his approach. His eyes narrowed, glinting like cut sapphires, the only point of colour in the black and white expanse. There was no reaction from the structure and the creature within, and he resumed his approach.
He reached the strand's end, where it began to wind into the network of similar threads. They rose vertically and diagonally to give the structure its outside shape, crossing across the empty space within to give the first impressions of the building's interior. Smaller skeins, anchored with the same gleaming needles, twisted around where the threads met and made edges.
Past them, inside what the cat gauged to be the Palace's living room, the Beldam worked to reweave what she had lost.
She wasn't even trying to look like a woman now. Her legs moved from supporting thread to supporting thread, cautiously so as to avoid losing its balance on the frail structure. Over her body, from abdomen to thorax to elongated head, metal needles sprouted like hair. Where her rows of button-eyes should have been, broken threads emerged instead, matted with tar-like blood. Two forelegs on her right were gone at the middle, the cut metal gleaming like silver. Her mandibles champed and shuttered as she half-mumbled and half-crooned to herself
At her back, spinnerets writhed, and new glistening thread emerged. She took one careful probing step forwards, seeking the room's end, dragging the thread from it had been adhered to the opposite wall.
The slow and pained scuttle of the Beldam emboldened the cat, and, pouncing onto an overhanging thread that formed part of the next floor, he adjusted his poise, and said, in the driest and cruellest tone he could muster, "Rebuilding, are we?"
The Beldam stopped in her scuttle, the thread looping out of its spinnerets drooping in midair. A shudder seemed to run throughout her whole form, and she rasped "Your games have grown wearying. Begone, vermin."
"Why, I'm only asking," replied the cat, ostentatiously cleaning a forepaw. "When was the last time? Some minor repairs after the Lovat girl, nothing around Joshua's time, and not since Anne's family first built the place. Didn't you build it to last? Why, I'd say it's all come crumbling down around you at last."
"Such powers of observation. Begone or I will skin you."
"Under what power? Or what sight, for that matter?" The cat rose and stalked casually along the black strand, making a short pounce to one running perpendicular to it. "Not that I'm trying to discourage you. Try, by all means."
The Beldam's legs tensed and she seemed ready to spring. Instead, she forced herself to untense and continue her work, her slow scuttle from one edge of the room to the other resuming.
The cat started his own casual saunter around the building's perimeter, keeping one eye on the Beldam all the while. He observed the paucity of the threads in some areas, the erraticism of their layout in others, the work of a creature made blind and confused.
Reaching the room's end in the meanwhile, the Beldam, with some effort and searching, detached the trailing thread from her abdomen and tethered it to the thread forming the floor's utmost edge. The creature paused after the small task was done, wearied by the effort.
The cat, watching, stretched out one paw with claws outstretched to one thread forming part of a roof slop, and sliced through it with one sharp twang.
The Beldam whirled. "Stop that!"
"Three souls gone, and your fourth denied you," mused the cat, as if he hadn't heard the demand. "From where are you drawing the power to make all this? Yourself? Because if you spent whatever was needed to craft it all anew – why, I couldn't imagine there'd be anything of you left."
"I did it before," came the rattling response. "It shall be done again. And you'll be as powerless to stop me as you always were, shackled spirit."
"Perhaps. Greater miracles have happened. But what'll there be left when you're done?" The cat's eyes narrowed. "Let me weave a vision of the future for you. One day – many decades from now, if assuming the humans don't destroy the standing building and if there's a new child, if the child's a curious sort, if they find the door in the living room, and if they can contrive some way of opening it without the key – then they'll walk through and find themselves home. But in a home that's half-done, where barren nothingness still leaks through and the whole building's affray."
The Beldam turned away, and groped with her front legs for a rising strand for the wall before her.
"And they'll wander through its empty rooms and dusty corridors, and they'll find no predator, no mother or father offering buttons with a smile." The cat's tone sharpened even as it became gleeful. "All they'll find in some half-finished corner of an empty room will be the husk of something too pathetic in its last days to be called a monster."
The Beldam rose up, metallic mandibles champing at the thread and bringing herself to an approximately standing stance. Her legs stretched out to their full extent, touching the threads rising up from the room's corners, which she snagged at with gleaming claws. Drawing in breath for a sudden rush of work, the Beldam pulled off smaller threads from them and drew them in closer to the central one before her. Knotting them fast, her legs blurred out again, pulling off smaller fragments yet from the subthreads and weaving a tight network between them. A low drone came from her as she worked; a note that shivered across the threads.
Finally, she slumped against the little section of monochrome wall she had created; wall that, given colour, could have passed for the wall of the kitchen back in the real world. The missing leg on the creature's right had left her work lopsided.
"Congratulations," said the cat. "Shall we give it a few more years? You might have finished this room by then, and who knows? It may even look something like its counterpart. A decade hence, and imagine! You might progress all the way to the corridor."
"You have no right to gloat here," whispered the Beldam. "The child won, and only through cheating. Not you. You never could. You failed, all these years."
"Take your comfort from the old days while you can," said the cat. "It'd be churlish of me to deny you what you'll only ever have."
Slowly, in something akin to the sound of rotten wood splitting, the Beldam choked out a laugh. And another. And a last.
"Oh," she breathed. "Oh, the glut of fire in these days. Soul after shining soul, from bush hut to wigwam to wood hut. Each dwelling made anew, each child fuelling the hunt for the next. I forgot long ago how many I took. They couldn't stop me."
"I didn't forget," said the cat, too quietly to be heard.
"I wonder about these days and their happenings," said the Beldam, "What did the Shasta shamans think to achieve, when they gathered around their totems and called to their gods? When their drums and fires unwove the night sky, and made you anew from it."
Memories came back to the cat, the songs of creation echoing once more, forming the first words he had ever heard whilst filling the idea of him with power, purpose, love, hatred…
Watcher from the dark, give strength to our fires. Vigilant eye, see our children safely through each night. Shadow, give us mercy, mercy, mercy…
It had been dark, that first night, wherever the fires hadn't cut through it like beacons and wherever the totem poles hadn't caught the flames with the underside of their shapes.
He especially remembered how disbelieving and how … hopeful the shamans had looked when their efforts hadn't seemed to come to naught.
At least, not at first.
The Beldam turned to face the direction of the cat, and even in an eyeless head of metal and glistening mandibles, her pride still shone through.
"I wonder what they thought of their guardian in the days after?" the creature said. "One child from each chieftain's family, to teach them respect. One child from each shaman's family, to thoroughly instruct them in their failure. And one more from each tribe, for fun."
"You ran every time," said the cat. "You grew sloppy and scared, you threw yourself from child to child whenever you felt me coming near-"
"Yes, yes, I led their most sacred guardian on a merry chase, and much good he ended up doing them." The Beldam's tone, which had started high and triumphant, fell to a low and content murmur. "Shall I describe their prayers, just before my actions neared their end? Or would you prefer to know of when I finally stopped – when they stopped praying to you at all."
The cat stood silent, a figure blacker than crow-feathers amidst the even blacker web; two points like stars glinting in his face. The Beldam laughed and turned away from him.
"Begone, vermin," it said. "Perhaps I'll die, failed in the last – but I'll do so knowing more success than you ever did."
Trailing threads were snagged by a reaching claw, and the Beldam turned to another part of the wall.
"Answer me this, then," said the cat, at long last. "What do you imagine your slow demise will feel like, in the end?"
"Like the breath of spring itself, fair and full of joy and promise," said the Beldam in tones that, for all their inhumanity, managed to drip with sarcasm. "Weren't you instructed to leave?"
"Like this," replied the cat glibly.
The Beldam paused, halfway through her work.
"Like this, but thinner and hollower with each passing year. Memories will fade – you'll have to feed them to this fruitless lair as well. Your glories will do nothing but make it all the more painful. And though you will certainly, in the end, die alone – I promise to visit you every once in a while before that happy day." The cat's teeth gleamed white. "It's important to keep in touch every once in a while, wouldn't you agree?"
The Beldam didn't answer.
"Fare-thee-well, and suchlike insincerities," said the cat, turning slowly on his tail, looking back towards the skein from which he'd came.
He started walking forwards, keeping his gaze firmly on the horizon and pointedly not behind him.
Beneath, the threads on which he stepped seemed to briefly slacken.
His sudden pounce upwards (impossible, given the effort his body had seemed to put into it from his position and stance; but possibility itself was so mutable here) carried him away from the wild spring and cleave downwards of the Beldam's claws. He caught a horizontal wall-thread, twisting himself around and onto it, turning his attention back to the Beldam.
She stood where he had stood, claws glistening and mandibles writhing. The thread on which the cat hung began to sway and pitch, and though he kept his grip, the Beldam reached out for it with one claw.
"You tire me," it hissed, pulling itself upwards with a great heave of effort while the cat shied back. "You are nothing but enslaved vermin, and you presume to try to frighten me. I, who wove herself from the darkness before humankind had even felt weak enough to imagine the likes of you."
She rose onto the thread, looming over the cat. Her dark and armoured bulk seemed to fray at the edges, and at those points where she was the most indistinct, something more terrible blazed through, shapeless and shifting and alive with malice.
"The Shasta probably did put some degree of potency in you," she said, stalking closer. "Enough, perhaps, to make something small from. A mirror? A plant? A doll? Oh, the possibilities in your flesh. Shall we explore them?"
The cat leapt upwards once more, missing the side-slash of the Beldam by a hair's edge. He caught the next thread up, forcing his momentum from that to carry him onwards along it in quick, loping strides. He wobbled briefly, as the weight of the Beldam shifted to the thread, but he kept his balance, and lunged upwards once more. His back claws snicked the thread behind him just as he rose, and as he caught the vertically rising thread that formed one of the house's corners with some impossible grip, he redirected his gaze.
The Beldam had moved to the outside before the cat had even cut the thread, scuttling up the frame with her claws. She was fast, faster than the cat had anticipated, and there was no doubt that she was still horrifically strong compared to anything he could set forth.
But she was following him, and the control this gave him over this confrontation filled him with a savage glee. This, he felt, must have how it had been for her, back when he was still young and the nights were filled with fire and nameless totems.
He raced upwards, away from her and her wild scuttle. He ascended the thread all the way to the edge of the floor that would form the attic, and sprung up onto the roof from there, all his movements shifting into one shadowy blur as control of his form escaped him. The far edge beckoned, and he answered even as the weights on the threads around him warped and the clack of mandibles and claws came closer and closer.
Alighting on the edge of the roof's slope, he found himself facing out towards the thread and skein from which he'd arrived. Glancing behind him, he saw the Beldam stepping closer, her claws sliding into a fighting stance.
"By my guess," came the rasp of her voice, "You are cornered."
"Never change," replied the cat. "Never correctly estimate those you target."
She charged, and he turned out towards the void. And jumped, at the last second.
He spun in freefall, forcing substance back into his limbs, retrieving what he could of the simulacra that passed for his body's muscle memory, aiming for the only thing he needed, above all else in this moment-
-And got it, landing upon the thread with two paws and quickly shifting his stance to stand haughty upon it with four. He steadied himself, the panic that had filled him there subsiding, but not leaving altogether.
Behind him, he heard the scrabble as the Beldam caught herself at the roof edge, and heard her curse as she made herself scuttle down the building's side once again. She didn't have the – precision of form to do what he had done. In all senses of the term.
He walked. Briskly, but calmly. It seemed only appropriate, after all, and it was the only thing guaranteed to enrage the Beldam enough to pursue him past the boundaries of common sense.
On that thought, he felt the thread shift as a new weight came upon it, and he had to force himself to keep on walking calmly, carefully, keeping his gaze on the skein which was so close, so tantalisingly close…
With one small dig from a claw, he snagged at the thread. Just a little; not enough to sever it, not quite, but enough to weaken it.
The Beldam's triumphant cackle, made monstrous by metal and mandibles and something more horrific and unknown yet, and the cat finally let the last burst of fear it provoked jolt him into action.
One last matched jump and lunge would pay for all. The cat made his, landing on the solid skein; and the Beldam made hers, landing on the weakened section of thread.
The snap sounded out across the void, and she fell too quickly to scream.
Once the snap's echo had died away and the cat, who had been trembling on the skein and gathering his nerves, had judged himself recovered, he rose, and peered over the side.
The strand of thread dangled down, and the Beldam was clinging grimly to its end with all the claws she could bring to bear upon it. With one great strain, she heaved herself up one fraction of it, panting as she did so.
The cat positioned his extended claw over where the thread fed into the skein.
The beldam had prepared herself for another effort before she noticed the cat watching her from above. His eyes blazed like the oldest stars, and the shadowy nothingness of his form was only vaguely suggestive of a cat now, so greatly had his control slipped.
His ready claw was the salient part, however, and she focused on that.
"Finish it," she hissed. "Go on. Finish it, and be done! Win at last in your pathetic life!"
The cat was still.
He had a purpose that, in this moment, could finally be satisfied once and for all.
Mercy, mercy, mercy-
"Finish this farce, or I will rise and kill you!"
He stood still there, watching the Beldam try to rise with greater and increasingly painful efforts towards a point that led to nothing, nothing but a view of a job that would be forever half-finished.
And he sheathed his claw, and angled his head down to face the Beldam.
"I'm not so good as to do that," he said. "I only served those who were."
With that, he stepped back from the edge, not seeing whatever expression fell upon the Beldam's face at that moment, and ignoring whatever she called up after him.
"I look forward, by the way," he continued, "To seeing you next summer."
He turned around, ignoring her last calls, and stepped away, leaving nothing in his wake but the sound of the wind.