"By your command, Your Majesty, I will formally relate my involvement in the events of earlier this night."
I was standing before Random in his private audience chambers, with Benedict and the Captain of the Guards sitting attentively on either side of him. The old tomcat I had nicknamed `Growltiger' lay under Random's idly-scratching hand on Random's lap, and two German Shepards and a mastiff lay curled on the floor at the three's feet. Off to one side, an impatient but slow scribe with quill pen and parchment sat ready to take down my every word: what I wouldn't have given for a transcriber or even a typewriter then. Random signalled his acceptance, and I took a deep breath and began speaking.
Well, Your Majesty, I think it all started for me when I was asleep in bed, in my room up on the third floor, dreaming about playing the opening theme to Cats on my steel guitar: no, not "Memories", although I have sung that, but the actual theme. That's when I heard a cat meowing in tune, and I knew I wasn't dreaming that.
I opened my eyes and peered down at the foot of the bed: in what little light there was, after I adjusted my night vision to compensate, I could see Tab sitting on the bedframe, meowing and staring at me. "Tab, what's up?"
I'm sorry, your Majesty? How did I know the cat's name? Oh, that. Well, I guess I should start my tale a little earlier.
A couple of days ago, the afternoon I arrived, to be specific, I went prowling the castle. I also decided to experiment with shapeshifting, too, and turned myself into a cat. I thought it would be easier to poke around if I was something inconspicuous. I finally got the shape right, but it took me a while, and I still didn't lose any weight: it would have been a big surprise to anyone who wanted to pick me up.
Anyway, after wandering the upper floors for a while I followed this wonderful cooking smell down to the kitchens, where I saw this line of cats waiting outside the kitchen door. Yeah, a line: an orderly line of cats. I didn't believe it either when I first saw it. There was this one old cat near the head of the line lording over everyone -- yeah, him, the one on your lap, Your Majesty -- he signalled to the others to give me a place in line and at his table in the kitchens.
Inside, the Head Cook treated him almost as if he were royalty, which I guess he was. Afterward, while he was holding court, he personally welcomed me as one of the Kindly Ones to his court. (Yeah, he spoke to me, and, as a cat, I could understand him, and all the other cats, too; I should be used to that, since I had a telepathic talent for languages in my home shadow, but this unexpected communication still surprised me.) I thanked him for his hospitality and told him that if he ever needed my assistance, he could call on me at any time, and I would come. Then I left to do some more exploring, this time in human form; when I said good-bye he detailed one of his people, Tab specifically, for one, to follow me.
After our dinner I went exploring the castle grounds and further; I can adjust my vision so that even the dim moonlight was as easy to see by as daylight. In passing I made the acquaintence of several of the dogs of the castle: besides cats, I've always had a strong association with dogs and wolves for some reason. I noticed the cats stopped following me when I approached the kennels, but I wasn't really surprised. The dogs in the kennel were happy to see me, although they somehow seemed to notice the scent of cats on me, because they reacted a little strangely to me, they way they circled and sniffed around me before finally approaching me. Once they did get close, however, they about as friendly a bunch of dogs as I've ever seen: this from someone who used to work as a volunteer as the animal shelter as a kid. The kennel master remarked that I must be of the Blood to have the dogs react in such a way to a person.
Yes, Your Majesty, this is all relevant. I'll explain in a minute.
So, where was I? Oh, yeah, staring at Tab, who was sitting there on the bedframe and meowing at me. Like I said, I asked what was the matter, as he sounded pretty upset about something, then I remembered that he couldn't understand me as a human. Well, I shifted down to cat shape and repeated the question.
"His Majesty urgently requests the assistance of the Lady of the Kindly Ones," he said. Then he bounded off the bedframe and ran out the door.
In cat form I found it a lot harder to swarm through the pile of furs and quilts I have piled on my bed. Finally I just leaped towards the door, hitting the ground running halfway across the room and bolting through the door. I caught up with Tab around the corner just down the hall. It was only then that I noticed that there were a lot of cats running about, in two different directions: a few older cats went past us running the other way while shooing a herd of kittens, while we were following a mob of the younger ones.
Tab led me down to the throne room. There Growltiger, the King of Cats, was sitting on your throne. Yes, Your Majesty, that's the name I gave him, but it fits him, doesn't it?
"Your Majesty, I have brought the Lady of the Kindly Ones," announced Tab. I stepped up beside him.
The old King of Cats looked down at me. "Lady, Twisted Tail, the King of Rats, is leading his armies against the Feline Kingdom and the Kingdom of the Kindly Ones. We have already repulsed one of his feints against the kitchens, but he is now massing his forces for an attack on my forces and on the throne room itself.
"Would you aid us in the defense of your home?"
I admitted that I would be proud to do so. He motioned me into a place against the throne, on the top step, alongside his best. Around us he placed four more rings of ten or twelve cats each, all grizzled-looking fighters.
We didn't have long to wait: from behind the curtains, out of holes in the walls, through half-open doors, came the horde of rats, followed by the huge King of Rats himself, stepping out of the door leading down to the kitchens. A couple of the cats beside me looked at me like I had gone crazy, but I couldn't help laughing at the sight: I kept thinking of The Nutcracker Suite. That is, until I saw the Rat King.
The King of Rats was about the size of a medium-sized dog, much bigger than any cat present, and fat. He waddled unsteadily on his hind legs while holding a scepter-thing in his front paws. Between his legs I could see the reason for his name: his tail was twisted and broken in three places. He stared at the cats and me with red beady little eyes, then he waved the scepter in front of him. That's when the six smaller versions of him showed up out of the darkness behind him. "My children," he said with a hiss.
They were slightly bigger than of any of the cats, with yellow front teeth as long as my little finger. They were mangey, too, and smelled of the sewers or something. They surrounded the Rat King and hissed their defiance at the cats.
The Cat King stood up on the throne. "Go back to your dens, now, or you will not live to see them ever again." The Rat King just sneered in response as the two armies faced off. There were as many rats as cats, but the darkness behind the Rat King could hold ten times more and we'd never see them. At least I couldn't see them, even though I shifted my eyesight down to the IR range for a moment. There was a lot of shuffling and tense movement on both sides, then all at once both sides charged each other.
There were fights and battles all through the hall as the first two rings of cats met the rats full on. The innermost ring split up and attacked in pairs and threes, and even old Growltiger leaped down from the throne into the fight, leaving me alone on the dias. I sort of had the idea that Growltiger wanted me to keep an eye on Twisted Tail and his Children, that this was my purpose for being called. It looked to me like that they were waiting for some signal to enter combat, so I thought I'd give them one. Both sides were about even at the moment when I decided it was time for me make an entrance, to draw them to me.
"Nuada, do your stuff!" I thought, and I leaped from a standing start halfway across the room into the biggest knot of advancing rats in sight, killing a couple just by landing on them, then started swatting left and right. I must have killed a dozen rats in about as many seconds then, swinging with my paws left and right. Sorry about the windows, though: I didn't know just how far they would fly when I did a full wind-up before swinging at them. I'd say the falling dead bodies into the courtyard outside were what alerted the guards, though.
Just like I had been expecting, that's when one of the Rat King's children jumped me. He tried gnawing away at me but slid off of Nuada's shield. He was a tough little prick, I'll give him that: I wasn't hurting him with my paws any more than he was hurting me, when I just decided to end the fight by shifting my paws into hands and wringing his neck. He joined the others out the window. Before anyone else could move, I leaped across the room and did the same with one of his brothers. After that all the rats backed away me.
All except the Rat King, that is. While the rats kept the other cats busy, he advanced down an aisle of his subjects towards me. "You will pay for killing my children," he boasted. Gods and goddesses, his breath stank. I just smiled in return. I didn't pay him much mind: I've been threatened with a lot worse by the best.
He swung his scepter at me. I instinctively brought up my arm to block it, and it cut through Nuada's shield like it wasn't there! It actually cut me! Not a lot can do that, so I stayed pretty wary of it for the rest of the fight. I couldn't avoid it completely, but I wasn't going to let him get a good shot in on me.
I found out pretty quickly that he wasn't as strong as I was with Nuada's help, but he was canny enough not to let me catch him like I did his kids. He must have found I was pretty tough myself, as he hit me several glancing blows with that scepter and couldn't seriously hurt me: any one of those blows would have killed any of the cats. Most of the wounds he inflicted I could have healed quickly, but he cut me a couple times really good and the last one on my hand was a bleeder that I didn't have the time or concentration to close off immediately. That's when I decided to pull a fast one on him.
I backed off a step, then leaped at him, growing to full size, from cat to panther. The rush knocked his scepter away and I started to lock my teeth on his throat, but he shifted himself to get away. The little bastard was a shapeshifter, too!
He stared at me. "Who are you?" he said, real low and menacing. "Whoever you are, you will die tonight."
I couldn't help it. I laughed in his face: I'd faced certain death from supervillains and alien horrors in my time, and, believe me, this wasn't even close. "I'm the Lady Griddlebone," I replied. While I was talking I took the time to heal my wounds but I was still pretty bloody-looking.
We faced off, circling as the fighting surrounded us. Then, like on a signal, we both jumped at each other at the same time, meeting in mid air. I raked my claws down his side, and he shrieked!
He backed away, burning! He was holding his side, and I could see little blue flames coming out of the scratches I made!
"You are of Amber!" he yelled. I just grinned in reply.
The four remaining children of the Rat King ran over to him to stand around him in a tight group, surrounded by a host of other rats. As good as I was, I didn't feel up to taking on all five, especially when I noticed that one of his Children had retrieved Twisted Tail's scepter.
Instead, I rejoined Growltiger and the other cats on the throne and looked around. Dozens of rats were dead across the floor, and here and there, the body of a cat, but most of Growltiger's forces were still standing. Unfortunately, there were still at least a dozen rats for every remaining cat, maybe two dozen. They circled the dias while the cats hissed and spat, dareing them to come closer.
That's when I thought that I could hear something faint, something just out of hearing range, and I noticed that the other cats could hear it, too. I shifted my hearing range up, and there, in the distance, was a long howling coming from the Great Hall.
The rats could hear it too, and they started advancing: small fights were breaking out again as knots of rats took on single cats.
Growltiger looked at me. "The doors!" he said. "Help is coming! Open the doors, or we will be lost!"
I looked over at the main doors to the Great Hall: they were shut and bolted tight, beyond the reach of any cat to loosen or open. Between us and the doors was a sea of rats. There was no way I'd get over there on the ground quickly, and I didn't think I could manage to shift into a flying form on the spur of the moment. However, there was one way I could get over there in time.
I've always been able to teleport back in my home Shadow, but I never tried it here. All it is, I think, is shapeshifting from mass to energy and back to mass again. Nothing to it. I stared at the door and focussed myself, just like all of my teachers had taught me: ground and center, focus on the target. Then I just pushed.
I'm told that the moment I disappeared there was a brilliant green flash of light throughout the entire room, then I appeared a moment later in human shape beside the door to the Great Hall. I don't know: I was a little woozy at the time, but I still had enough will to throw the bolts and fling open the door.
That's when the dogs poured through, led by three huge coal-black dogs with firey eyes, flanked by a dozen German Shepards I recognized from the kennels. After them poured about every kind of dog I'd ever seen in the Castle or the town: Wolfhounds and Dachsunds, Labs and Peeks; big dogs, little dogs; hunting dogs, pampered pets, mutts. A veritable wave of dogs.
At the sight of the dogs the Rat King retreated all the way to the far wall, sending his Children and the other rats out before him to protect himself. It didn't do any good. The dogs went through the massed rats like a tidal wave.
The rats could have survived against the cats because of their numbers, but they didn't stand a chance against the dogs. One bite, or one swing or stamp of a paw, and one more rat bit the dust. The dogs were killing rats as fast as I could've, and there were a lot more of them. The cats returned to the fight, too, dodging around and in between the dogs' legs, chasing down rats that were hiding where the dogs couldn't reach them and herding them back into the fight.
When they had finally broken through the surrounding rats, the black dogs took on the Children, one apiece, while the fourth Child was set upon by a big brown mastiff who took its throat while this whippet grabbed its hind legs: together, they played tug of war with the rat as their rope. Even given their parentage the Children couldn't withstand the attack.
I tried shifting back into cat shape, but apparently I was still too tired from teleporting. I managed to shift down, but I kept seeing double; by the time I felt strong enough to fight, I could see that the rats were retreating.
With the cats now reinforced, and without the Children, and with the Rat King himself still hurting from the cuts I gave him, the remaining rats really had no other choice but to retreat. They cut and ran for the doorways and ratholes, out of reach of the cats and dogs, and the first one to flee was the Rat King himself: good riddance.
Within a minute, the battle (and the war) was over. The only rats on the floor were dead ones: some of the cats and dogs were searching through the bodies and finishing off rats any still living, while others were dragging the wounded away towards a cleared area around the throne.
When it was over, one of the German Shepards approached Growltiger. "Your Majesty, by the Pact of the Ancients, in defense of the Castle, we have come," he said.
"Your timing is excellent as ever, Baron Sharptooth," Growltiger replied politely.
That's when another of those black dogs walked in, carrying another of the Children in its jaws, flanked by Flora's two borzhois and followed by a host of smaller dogs and a wave of old and young cats.
"The Count and Countess Romanov pled their case most eloquently for us to come aid you," said the Baron, looking at the two borzhois, "but it needed little pleading. The Canine Assembly of Nobles respects the Pact."
The two borzhois joined the Baron. "The Rat King sent a detachment to attack the nursery, where the kittens and old cats had been sent to hide in safety," the Countess said, "but we have prevailed: your young are safe." The black dog laid the body of the dead Child at the foot of the dias as mute proof.
The other dogs, now, had joined the Baron and the Count and Countess before the King, and there was a general sharing of introductions and congratulations: Count and Countess Romanov, Duke Preychaser, and Seargent Hellsbreath (the last was the black dog with the firey eyes carrying the dead Child) of the Canine Assembly of Nobles, and Captains Tab, Pouncer, and Racket of the Cat King's Guard. Everyone was introduced, except for me.
When all of the introductions were done, the Baron sniffed at me. "You are the Lady of the Ancients," he said.
"She is," said Growltiger: "she is the Lady of the Kindly Ones I have spoken of, come in defense of her home and in honor of the Pact."
I figured it was about time I turned back into human shape. The cats and dogs all stared at me for a moment, then the Baron approached me and put his head under my hand. Although I know I couldn't understand them in human form, I thought I could still just barely hear a faint whisper of thought from the Baron: "The Pact Lives while one remembers it; the Pact Lives."
"And that, Your Maesjty, is about when you and Benedict and the Guards came in. I told King Growltiger and Baron Sharptooth that I'd better start explaining things, and I think they understood my meaning if not my words. And so, here I am."
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