Still for Kat of the Lily Cafe 😀
“Here kitty. Here kitty, kitty.” A hundred. A thousand. More voices than I could count, calling me from the subterranean depths beneath Paris, closing in on us from all sides.
I shivered, miserable, against Hook’s broad chest. Tick, tick, said his mustache. Time is running out and here you are, trapped, while Alice fades and dies.
Hook drew his sword. It made a hiss that snaked through the tunnels, back up into the light where Paris lay silent and dead. “Here kitty, kitty.” There was laughter in the voices. They were coming slow and cruel, taking the time to taunt us, saying plain that even Hook could not win against so many, that his power to frighten them had waned. “Come with us, little puss. We’ll take you same place safe.” Cold, echoing sniggers, like the laughter of boys who set tails alight to see a cat howling, screaming, running into traffic. The sort of boys who might do it to an entire litter while their helpless mother looks on.
“Run,” Hook whispered to me. “When they come, you go. While they are busy with me.”
“I won’t leave you,” I said, trying to sound brave. Like a hero should. But my voice trembled because I was just a riddler playing the wrong part.
“You will,” he snarled. “I have more stories than this. A thousand more. So long as there is a Wendy, there will be a Captain Hook. So what is one death to me if it saves her?” He glared at me until I shrank down, pale fur and dark spots over the painful memory of being one of the Unwritten. One of the Unwanted. Who was he without Wendy? Who was I without Alice. Sometimes the Story calls for blood sacrifice. Those are the rules. They are older than the words which follow them, older than all but the oldest Story ever told.
He stepped close to the wall and tucked me into a niche, just me and the bones in a dark little hole while he stood straight-backed and unafraid; who was he to fear death? Death ought to fear him… and I think it must, else why would he be allowed so many lives? He made me think that it was he who ought to carry the title of hero… if he wasn’t so happy to be the villain.
There are pirates that are thieves, pirates full of fury, pirates full of evil, pirates lusting after gold and women, and pirates held together with dirt and bits of spit. But there is only one pirate king. Only one who knows all the voices of the sea, who loved him so much she gave him a daughter to tell him so. There is only one pirate who would give his daughter a hand, an eye, a leg, whatever her stories might require. Only one that would even give her his life, if it would keep her safe. Hook. Yes he is a villain. But any daughter who loves her father knows that, no matter what the Story says, he is a hero in secret.
They came like a flood of rats, pouring out of the dark in a swarm of bodies that moved like water, swinging cages and lanterns and looking to overcome the legend that was James Hook. For a moment I wondered; he was the devil with a sword and his hook that had all the names written on it glittered and gleamed. He was stacking them up like firewood, new bones for the catacombs, new dead for the grave. But they kept coming and even the devil can run out of energy. One of them had a little knife that flashed and bit and Hook’s crimson coat was soon trailing blood. His periwinkle eyes found mine and he was gasping for air with trickles of red at the corners of his lips. I didn’t wait to see him fall, but fled, claws scraping stone while he still had enough mean left to keep them busy.
For a moment, I thought it had worked. The cost was too high, but I could still find Not-Alice, could finish this business with the collar and the bell. Then I could save my Alice, save Wendy and Dorothy and, by doing so, save Hook for another of his many wicked lives. Then a shadow stepped from its hiding place and caught my soft underside a swift kick that made me howl. Cruel fingers dug into my ruff and lifted me up.
“Now, little brat,” he hissed, breath stinking through rotten teeth. “All over, said and done. It’s into the fires with you and I’m all out of poison, so you’ll just have to go in breathing.”
The others were coming, much fewer, now, most of them injured, missing teeth, eyes, fingers, and arms, all of them marked by a man who’s soul burned red with the wicked fire that lived inside him, but they were also soaked in the singed scent of his blood and grinning wickedly through their pain; to murder Hook was a grand victory. One of them held up a cage and pulled back the latch, pulled the door open to welcome me in.
A bright spark of light flickered past. Everyone paused. Then, down through the miles of dark and bones and forgotten depths, came a sound. A rooster’s proud crow. The sound of a boy caught just at the threshold of becoming a man. The sound of reckless arrogance looking for a battle.
The thing about fairies is they are tiny, but their strength is huge, like a bear condensed down into a single grain of rice. All the size is gone, but the strength remains. And Tinkerbell is – and always has been – a vicious little thing. If you were to take the bitter fury of every scorned woman that ever was, you might be able to match Tinkerbell. But you couldn’t beat her.
The first gray coated man flew back, howling, as if kicked by a horse, and the second flew up and crushed his skull on the low, damp roof. Then everyone was flying, clawing at the air, which laughed maniacally back at them, trying to swat her away while she grabbed hair and coat and nose to throw them, a wasp with hands, bent on stinging every inch of exposed skin until everything was mad chaos, for that is what fairies love best and creating it is their talent.
Peter burst out of the dark riding a ticking, snapping crocodile and, at his back, a green skinned witch with her pale, sister shining like fresh snow. With them came a horde of flying monkeys snapping their sharp teeth and carrying munchkins on their backs. Then, amid all the confusion, a woman came walking serenely out. She wore a simple, white linen loin cloth and chest wrap. Her long, straight hair was the blackest black, her dark eyes were hooded and full of millennia of mystery. Her smile was slow and dangerous, the sort of thing that makes men cower still in her shadow and forget they do not believe in her. The first cat. The first riddler. Goddess, oracle, mother of darkness. The Sphinx.
On her shoulder perched a cat. He was soft enough you might call him fat, but, really, not many ever would for fear of what he might do. You can’t trust someone that smiles like that. He leapt into the air with a too wide grin and hung there, as if gravity had forgotten him.
The woman did not shrink. She merely became something else. Almost a cat, but not, with her black claws and sharp teeth. The man holding me let go, screaming; she is not a thing most can see without paying the price. Their sanity. To look upon the sphinx in her true form is to see the whole universe looking back. Father can bear it, but he was always a little mad anyway. All the best people are.
“Hurry,” Father whispered down at me. “We haven’t got long.”
I didn’t ask him what he meant. I ran into the dark without one word or question. We are riddlers. If he could have taken the time to explain, he still wouldn’t have, not even to me. It’s a matter of principal.
Down, down into endless tunnels, feeling my way, the sounds of battle fading, then lost behind me. I don’t know when Tinkerbell found me, but she came and her tiny, brilliant light stayed with me, like a star at my shoulder.
The tunnel opened up without warning, becoming a huge, round chamber. The skeletons of thousands made a strange, low wall around the middle, as though the bodies had been stacked in a circle before the flesh melted away. They were a circle that held a low altar in the center and, on that altar, another of the dead.
She wasn’t a skeleton. She wasn’t rotted. But her skin was gray and lifeless, the flesh of a corpse that was far too gone for saving. There was a pale, blue dress under her tiny, folded hands and a black, velvet ribbon in a band around her golden hair. And Not or Isn’t, Not-Quite or Never-Was, my heart still twisted with grief and cried out in protest at the sight. Alice.