Trigger Warning: A cat is sad in this story.
This had always been a bad idea. Some part of Thel knew that from the beginning. And yet, she had gone ahead with it anyway. Had pushed for it even. And now the consequences were staring her in the face, talking about goddess knows what.
“So I think the really only major thing is the fiber-based computer they put in alongside my optic nerve.” Said Nightwhisper, “The rest is just some bone reinforcements. Oh, and the sub-dermal kevlar. That’s a big one.”
Thel’s whiskers twitched. She doubted any sane person could follow this conversation, if one could even call it that. The object of her waning affection had been talking, uninterrupted, for what must have been a quarter of an hour, oblivious to Thel’s frustration.
“But yeah, I guess I’m not supposed to talk about cyborg stuff to people in this dimension. No one here knows what any of that means. There’s no internet here either, so I usually just leave the computer alone.”
People in this dimension? Was Nightwhisper even talking to anyone besides himself anymore? Thel gritted her teeth, resisting the instinct to growl. Instead she made a play to steer the conversation in a new direction.
“So, how do you like being sheriff?”
Sheriff. The position implied a measure of competence and stoicism that Nightwhisper was falling catastrophically short of. Based on the last fifteen minutes alone, Thel wasn’t even sure if he was qualified on grounds of sanity. However, come to think of it, crime was at a record low in the city. Thel preferred not to ponder the implications of that fact.
“It’s okay.” Replied the sheriff. “Actually, my official title is ‘chief in charge of the sheriff’s office of Heart City’.” He paused for a moment, his face skewed by dim contemplation. “Wait, I think you’re right. It is just ‘sheriff’.”
A palpable silence followed. Thel could have screamed, if only to offer a sound into the deathly still air. She dug her claws into her own leg under the table, in an attempt to ride out the tension. This was going worse than she could have imagined.
“Sooooooo…” Nightwhisper stretched out the syllable in a way that could not have been calculated to inflict more irritation. “How do you like your job? A sew-er?”
“Seamstress.” Thel corrected. “And that’s not all I do. I also manage most of the material purchases at the Chimera, and I have final say in all financial decisions. I oversee my siblings’ work, and at the end of the day, I’m responsible for determining what to charge for our goods and services.”
Nightwhisper was staring at what appeared to be a random point on the wall to his left. Thel had listened respectfully to his torrent of stream-of-consciousness nonsense, and now he couldn’t stay focused while she described the main focus of her entire life? What self-sabotaging, irrational part of her brain had held any desire to date this man? There weren’t many other cats in Heart City. That must be the reason. If there were any other explanation for her behavior, Thel wasn’t willing to entertain it.
Seeming to finally realize that a response was expected, Nightwhisper snapped his head back to stare at his date.
“Why do you call them that? Your siblings, I mean. They’re a dragon and a goat, right? And you’re a lion. So I guess I don’t think you came from the same parents. Did you?”
When would this be over?
“Two reasons,” said Then, exerting restraint she did not know she possessed, “the first is business-related. It matches the chimera theme of our clothing store, and we wish to give the impression of a family-run business, even if the actual nature of our relationship is apparent. Second, my appreciation and fondness for my ‘siblings’ is genuine, and does indeed compare to familial affection.”
She snarled the last words, then recomposed herself when she realized that Nightwhisper shrunk back away from her.
“I’m sorry,” said Nightwhisper “I didn’t mean to make you angry. You must really care about them.”
“Indeed.” Said Thel, relaxing just a bit.
Another long silence.
“Well,” said Thel, standing, “thank you for dinner. I must go finish a few orders before the end of the night.”
The check hadn’t even come yet. Thel figured the sheriff would have no problem covering it. And it didn’t matter to her if he couldn’t. This night was finished. Their conversation could not be salvaged. Any desire to spend another moment with the cat was gone. Thel retrieved her handmade, high-end coat, and left the restaurant without even offering a goodbye.
Nightwhisper walked through the city, not trying to get anywhere in particular. He knew that he screwed up. He knew he wasn’t smart enough to pick up on a lot of things. He never understood anything the engineers on his homeworld said, about nanotechnology, or gene therapy, or artificial intelligence, or anything, but he knew when he made someone upset. He had friends in the monastery where he grew up. Other cats who liked the things he liked, and learned kung-fu, and fought robots like he did. Then, he left the monastery and met all sorts of people, like wizards, and mercenaries, and rebel soldiers, and even robots who didn’t like to fight. He made friends with some of them, even though they were different from him. But here, things weren’t the same. People didn’t know about things like guns or computers, but they were still a lot smarter than him. When he talked to people, he never knew what to say. Either they would start talking about something he didn’t understand, or he would say something about his homeworld, and someone would always get confused. He wondered if he would ever go back. There were only two wizards across all existence who could travel to an entirely different multiverse, and Nightwhisper didn’t know if he’d ever see them again.
He had been staring at his feet while he walked, and when he looked up, he saw the heart of the goddess above him. The entire city was centered around this structure. The literal heart of a dead deity whose titanic, petrified body was left standing in an obscure mountain range on the west end of the continent. Forget leaving this dimension, Nightwhisper wasn’t sure if he’d ever get out of this big statue.
The heart itself rose almost one hundred feet above the city, supported by a giant pillar of natural stone. Atop it was the mayor’s office. A veritable palace for the city’s ruler, and the highest point in the city.
Nightwhisper’s tail twitched. He focused on the heart, and repeated a mantra to himself, filling his body with supernatural strength.
Light as the wind. Light as the wind.
And then he jumped. His body rocketed up, as he had been launched by a catapult. If he had chosen a different trajectory, he could have grabbed a window ledge on the fourth story of the surrounding buildings. He rotated slowly, until at the peak of his jump, he was completely upside down. He felt the night air around him, expanded his consciousness to pull at the darkness itself. He was a shadow, and shadows didn’t follow the same rules as cats. A shadow’s position wasn’t marked by the presence of matter, but rather, the absence of light. Nightwhisper slipped into the darkness, and teleported upwards, nearly tripling the height of his jump. He quickly righted himself, and landed softly on the stone surface of the heart. Another teleport brought him to the top of the mayor’s palace.
He stared down at the multitude of city lights below him. Nightwhisper liked high places. He liked it up here. It was a good place to be alone.
Nightwhisper reached into a belt pouch, and withdrew a small silver cylinder with a scrap of purple cloth tied around it. The last gift given to him by a friend from his homeworld. The most precious thing he owned. The cylinder telescoped open with a click, revealing itself to be a simple flute. Nightwhisper raised it to his lips, and let out a few mournful notes into the darkness.
“Elf booze, or dwarf booze?”
Gella held a bottle of high-proof liquor in each hand. Thel stood in the doorway to the modest apartment above their shop, and the goat-woman offering libations reclined casually on a nearby couch. A small luxury in an otherwise sparsely-furnished abode. “I didn’t know which you’d want, so I got both.”
“That’s awfully presumptuous.” Replied Thel. “The date might not have gone so badly that I need to drink myself into a stupor.”
“So how did it go?”
Thel paused for a moment. “I’ll take the dwarven.”
Gella tossed the stouter of the two bottles to her sister, and uncorked the other. “We should have a toast,” she said, “though I’m not exactly sure what for in this situation. Better luck next time, maybe?”
“To liquid consolation, perhaps.” Said Thel, as she sniffed at fierce drink Gella had procured for her. She considered fetching herself a glass, but that sort of formality wasn’t called for right now.
“I’ll drink to that.” Said Gella. She did.
Thel took a small sip from her own bottle. The dwarven liquor had a strong bitter taste, but it promised to improve her mood. She took another sip, deeper this time.
“So,” said Gella after she finished another long pull, “I’ve got to know, what was the dumbest thing that the sheriff said all night?”
Thel considered for a moment. “Around midway through the evening, he made an argument for the existence of double-ghosts. He proposed it in order to answer his own hypothetical question, ‘what happens to a ghost when it dies’.”
“Oh goddess. The sheriff says some pretty great stuff, but that is pure gold. Why on earth did you let that man go?
Thel chuckled, feeling pleasantly relaxed from the early effects of the alcohol. “I honestly don’t know why I pursued him in the first place. Tell me the truth, sister. Have I become desperate?”
“A momentary lapse in judgement, nothing more.” Said Gella. She was a good way further into her bottle than Thel. “You saw a cute face, an athletic body, and a nice tail, and decided it would be enough to distract from his complete lack of coherent intelligence.”
“I would call it more than just a momentary lapse.” Said Thel, sighing. “Oh goddess, I’ve been giving him subtle clues for weeks now. Your theory doesn’t hold much water I’m afraid.”
“No, but it makes you feel better to hear it, right?”
Thel couldn’t help but grin. “You know I’m too clever to fall for your tricks.”
“Don’t be too sure. I’ve already got you befuddled with my brilliant liquor ploy. If you’re not more careful, I’ll make you stop blaming yourself entirely.”
Thel sighed, but the smile never left her face. She looked at the bottle in her hand, but decided against further inebriation. She had a store to run tomorrow, after all.
A short burst of cold air blew through Nightwhisper’s fur, stirring him from sleep. He blearily raised his head, and found himself staring into a pair of large blue eyes. The eyes of mayor Reshtha.
“It seems, sheriff, that you have decided to fall asleep on the roof of my office. You know very well that I chose such an inaccessible location because I do not like to be disturbed. I would be inclined to call for the sheriff and report a trespassing, but, well, you know.”
“I do?” Said the sheriff. He was still very sleepy. “Sorry, I was just napping for a few minutes.”
“It’s noon.” Said the mayor.
The mayor huffed, sending forth another blast of frigid air. She was a silver dragon, a towering, majestic creature, with icy breath that could, and sometimes did, freeze the massive waterfall outside Heart City into a magnificent solid sculpture.
“You have a job to do, and if I’m not mistaken, it does not include loitering on my roof. I’ll thank you to go earn your salary, as I am the one who is paying it.”
“Sorry,” said Nightwhisper with a hint of shame, “I was on a date, and it didn’t go well, and I guess I got distracted, and I lost track of time, and I fell asleep on your roof and it won’t happen again. At least, not in that order.”
The mayor let out a low rumble, warning of dissatisfaction, but her demeanor softened.
“Do you need help getting down?”
“No,” said Nightwhisper “I don’t think jumping down from this height could hurt me. My kung-fu is far too powerful.”
He said it with complete earnestness.
“Very well.” Said the mayor, and with that, she took off with a mighty beat of her wings.
Nightwhisper’s fist snapped forward to collide with the adventurer’s head. The way the druid’s neck snapped back, Nightwhisper knew that he was concussed before his limp body even hit the cave floor.
That took care of the healer.
One big disadvantage to having adventurers around was that they liked to cause trouble. They often moved from city to city, looking for quests and treasure, and that resulted in two problems.
First, they didn’t usually stick around long enough to learn the local rules and customs. In some places, no one would bat an eye if you stabbed out someone’s kidney in a dark alley, and adventurers tended to only conform to only pick up on expectations that give them the most freedom to act on their whims. If they could get away with something in one place, then they reason that they could get away with it everywhere.
Second, when they do get in actual trouble, they’re on the move again fast enough that the consequences never catch up with them. Quite a few of the adventurers coming to heart city had separate bounties in half a dozen or more cities.
The mayor had very low tolerance for trouble. She made sure that Heart City was a place with order. A place where the citizens could feel safe, without worrying about a bunch of rule-breakers carrying big weapons.
That was why Nightwhisper was always the first to greet newcomers. That was why he could keep the peace in Heart City. He knew how to deal with adventurers.
A blast of fire issued forth from the hand of the wizard. Nightwhisper only felt a gentle warmth as he leapt well clear of the blaze.
“Damn it, hold still!” Said another adventurer. Nightwhisper’s body went rigid, as he felt the weight of the words, infused with magic, enter his mind. A moment later, he broke free of the effect, his focus and willpower consuming the force of the spell.
Sloppy coordination. If the two spellcasters had reversed the order of their attacks, they might have gotten him. It was helpful that the adventurers who attacked on sight tended to be the most rash and uncooperative.
An axe-wielding dwarf charged the sheriff, screaming. Nightwhisper took a moment to appreciate the limited mobility offered by his attacker’s stumpy legs, then hopped to the side, putting several feet between himself and the dwarf in a moment. Nightwhisper parted his lips, revealing the enchanted stone he held in his mouth. Darkness radiated out from the stone, completely consuming the melee. True darkness, the kind that not even the nocturnal eyes of a dwarf or dragon could see through. Nightwhisper moved through the blackness, listening as two more spells missed their mark by a laughable margin. When he closed his mouth, and light flooded back into his eyes, he was right beside the two spellcasters. Before they could even react in surprise, Nightwhisper spun, and kicked out in a lashing arc that caught them both in the head. A flurry of fists and claws, and a solidly placed knee to the ribs, and two more thuds as the unconscious bodies fell to the ground.
Punching adventurers was great. Even though his fists were conditioned over years of tireless training, it still sometimes hurt when Nightwhisper punched robots. But this was much better. No nanocarbon exoskeletons, and no unbreakable metal alloys. Just old-fashioned armor, flesh, and bones.
He caught an arrow moments before it struck him in the chest, and in a single fluid motion, threw it back at the figure in black leather who had loosed it. The point struck him in the shoulder, and buried itself to a satisfying depth.
The archer grabbed his arm with a yelp of pain and surprise. Then he grinned.
“Well,” he said, unable to meet the sheriff’s determined gaze, “I guess that means I’m out of ideas.”
He turned on his heel, and ran as fast as his feet would carry him. It was an impressive sprint. Nightwhisper would still catch him.
The dwarf charged him, despite the fact that the rest of his party was either unconscious or attempting to escape. How unimaginative.
Before the dwarf could swing his axe, he found himself surrounded by darkness again. His strike left a gouge in the stone floor. The light from the spray of sparks did not even reach his eyes from the cloud of magical darkness.
The blackness disappeared as Nightwhisper shut his mouth around the stone. He kicked the dwarf in the back of the head, and sent him sprawling on his face with almost casual ease.
The archer’s footfalls echoed through the cave as he ran. Each step jostled the shaft protruding from his shoulder. He was leaving droplets of blood behind him, but this cave was too dark and damp for it to make much of a trial. He had dropped his torch, but his night vision would serve him well enough until he could take a second to–
A shadowy silhouette with glowing green eyes appeared in front of him. Damn it, how did he get ahead of the archer? What the hell was this guy?
The archer stopped in his tracks. “I surrender.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” Said the sheriff.
“So it’s just hard to talk to people, you know? I feel so different from everyone else sometimes.”
The sheriff reclined against the stockade. The archer, whose name turned out to be Kasim, had gotten off with public shaming. A lighter sentence than his companions, who were being held indefinitely in a dungeon cell. Even so, he envied them.
“Anyway, thanks for listening. You seem pretty okay, Kasim.” Like he had a choice.
An onlooker threw an old cabbage. Pieces flew in all directions as it broke against the wooden restraints around Kasim’s neck and wrists.
“All of this makes me almost wish I had better cyborg powers, you know? I knew some guys who had for-real laser eyes. How cool would that be, right? It’s like, I’d still be lonely, but I’d have cool laser eyes, right?”
Kasim didn’t respond. His face had been fixed in a grimace for the past two hours.
“It’s not like I think that laser eyes would solve all my problems, but you never know, right?”
“Aww man, now I’m just really sad that I don’t have lasers in my eyes.”