Chapter 17: . . . comes the thunder
Copyright © 2018 by Brian Bixby
“I beg your forgiveness, Althani.”
Not the very last words I would expect from an eight-foot-tall humanoid now prostrate at my feet. They sort of fit the situation. I suspect there is some sort of protocol here, of which I am of course completely ignorant. So I do my best. “Be forgiven, Allia, and stand before me.”
For such a big person, she moves very quickly and gracefully. She’s standing in a second or two. She turns to face Theobald. “You may leave. I will attend the Althani. Leave guards behind to do our bidding.”
Theobald is profoundly grateful, to judge from the look on his face. With an uneasy look at me, he exits. The door closes behind him.
Allia looks down on me. “What is your wish, Althani?”
I have just been chained up and subjected to some sort of herb that turns me into a raging animal, and now an eight-foot tall humanoid is apparently willing to do anything for me. Why? So I ask the first question that comes to mind. “What does Althani mean, Allia?”
She seems surprised for moment. Then she figures it out. “You are from the other world, Althani?”
“For Althani, you would say ‘Goddess.’”
“I am a goddess.” I’m having trouble believing this.
“You have the blood of the gods within you, else the merketh would not have affected you. And I gave it to you without your permission, which is why I asked your forgiveness. Now you may command me in anything. If you wish, I will free you from this place and take you back to our land. There my people will worship you with all the rites and kill you at the end, as is appropriate, Althani.”
Not my idea of the best option available to me. I choose to find out more about what I am, instead. Allia and I talk, which is to say I ask her questions which reveal my ignorance, and she offers answers which I often don’t understand. We do this for some hours.
Allia’s people and the hell cats reside in neighboring lands some distance from here. Allia’s people consider the hell cats, which they call theni, to be gods. They worship the hell cats because they are divine, and kill them because they are dangerous. The hell cats return the favor by allowing themselves to be worshiped when they are not killing or mating with Allia’s people. It does not strike me as a fair deal, but I guess people have the religion they want.
To judge from Allia’s description of them, hell cats are solitary apex predators. They are intelligent, but no one knows if they have reason or self-awareness. Research in such subjects usually ends with the death of the researcher.
Another proof I’m partly hell cat? My colorless eyes. That’s a hell cat trait. They are known to use their eyes to take control of some of their prey, and also some of their sexual partners.
Turns out hell cats are rather more sexually promiscuous than most species. They don’t just mate with their own kind, but with other cat species and the whole range of humanoids. These interspecies unions reliably produce viable offspring. Indeed, Allia’s people, the Vothani, feel honored to bear such children. Still, half-breeds tend to go insane once they mature and therefore have to be killed once that happens. Little is known about quarter-breeds like me, such few as have existed. What is known indicates their fates are more varied.
My “Perfect Daphne” episode? It’s thought hell cats have an ability to warp reality, another reason they are dangerous creatures. How much they can do it is unknown. It supposedly works differently for half- or quarter-breeds. The psychological conflicts due to their mixed nature sometimes result in the personality splitting into two beings. Thanks to the hell cat side, one of the two beings is usually much more aggressive, which fits Perfect Daphne to a T. Whichever personality wins, reality changes to fit it.
How any of this is known I have to wonder. I’d almost dismiss it as myth . . . except that my experience with Perfect Daphne was all too real.
The other charming and unexpected explanation Allia offers? The reason I came out of the tree to confront the panther? It hadn’t taken control of me; the panther venom story is just folklore. Instead, it was the hell cat in me that had taken control of it, and would have mated with it. “And you would have killed it afterwards, in all likelihood,” Allia casually adds.
While Allia is educating me, she’s also pampering me. She uses her bare hands to rip the manacles off me, has water brought in so she can wash me, orders food for me, and has some fine clothing brought for me. As she says, “You are Althani. You should be treated appropriately.” First time in my life I’ve ever had a servant, let alone a worshiper.
I still have many questions to ask Allia when Theobald sends word he is about to open a portal. We rush off. When we arrive at a small office-like room in the palace, Theobald and another dwarf are waiting for us. It’s the other dwarf that controls the portal; he must be the technical guy.
Theobald looks at me nervously the whole time we’re in the room together. I’m not sure whether he’s worried about what I’ll do to him, or what I’ll report back to the Council. In a slightly shaky voice, he tells me that however I feel about him, he does wish me luck and asks me to be remembered to my mother.
In contrast, Allia is clearly sad to see me go. She kisses me and says she will treasure this experience for the rest of her life.
And then I go, stepping through the portal. I arrive back in Boston in an alley less than a five minute walk from my apartment, just as I was told to expect. Which is fortunate, because I have nothing on me to help me get around, neither CharlieCard nor wallet nor even phone. Vesta took all those things before I departed for Exile, saying I’d find them magically hidden outside my apartment building when I returned.
But I do have a parcel with me. It’s a leather pouch, filled with the hell cat herb. Allia was aghast when I asked for it during our conversations in my prison cell, but I’m a goddess, and one does not disobey goddesses, so she got it for me. She did warn me that the pouch is not air-tight, so I can’t keep it near me for long.
Allia was right. By the time I get to my apartment building, I can pick up the scent coming from the pouch, just the barest hint of it. That’s enough: I can feel the hell cat in me stirring. It is difficult to control, if I’m controlling it at all.
Right by the front door is my shoulder bag, in plain view of anyone who comes by. I reach for it, feel an odd twinge of magic, and understand. Vesta had it put here with an invisibility spell, so that only I, the owner, would notice it.
I get my keys out, get through the door and up the stair and unlock my door and get into my apartment as fast as I can. I really, really need to put this herb pouch in an air-tight container. Because if I don’t, I am going to tear it open and go crazy for sure.
It only barely registers on me that someone is in my living room. I figure, stupidly, that it’s Vesta, because I don’t have time. I must get this herb put away. So I pay the person no attention while I go into my kitchen nook, open the cupboard, take out a container, stick the pouch in, and seal it. Only then do I turn around. My mind is still a bit juiced up on that herb, so it takes me a few seconds to see who it is in my living room. I walk out of the nook as he stands up.
It’s Pedro. He gives me one of his familiar smiles. “Daphne!” He steps over, gives me a kiss on the forehead, and swings me around, saying, “Let me take a look at you. That’s quite an outfit.”
I laugh at that, not just because it’s Pedro and he can cheer me up easily, but also because I’m still a bit light-headed from the herb. “It’s a special order from a place you’ve never heard of, I assure you.”
“And you look so good in it, too. It’s a pity I have to do this.” He reaches inside his jacket, and pulls out a pistol from the shoulder holster he is wearing. He gives me a sad smile as he raises it to point at me.
Pedro has maneuvered me so he is between me and the door. I have no escape.