Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

The Kitty at the Edge of Forever

(This little bit of cosmic wrongness comes to your courtesy of John Scalzi’s fanfic challenge. In connection with a chapbook to benefit the Lupus Alliance of America, Scalzi, Wil Wheaton (yeah, that guy from STNG) and Subterranean Press commissioned the attached art from Jeff Zugale and invited readers of Scalzi’s Whatever blog to write fanfiction that explained what the hell was going on. What can I say? It spoke to me. Consider this your final warning.)

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“KAAAAAAAAARRRNNNN!” I howled, setting off the neighbors’ wolves again. “KAAAAAAAAARRRNNNN!”

What? Orcs have families too, you know.

The better half of mine shivered under the covers of our bed, whimpering in drug-induced slumber. A rash of smooth, dun-colored skin fanned across the green cheek not pressed into her pillow. She didn’t even smell like herself. The haunting fragrance of rancid butter that once perfumed our cozy, one-room hovel had been replaced by a sickroom fug of mint and eucalyptus, pine cleaner and the Limburger liverwurst sandwich the doctor ate for lunch.

Docmehkoi belched more liverwurst into the fetid air. “I’m a doctor, Scalzorc, not a magician. The only cure for humanus is the ground horn of a unicorn Pegasus kitten, and…”

I grabbed his neck and squeezed. “Do I look stupid?” I shook him for emphasis. “There’s no such thing as a Pegasus kitten unicorn.”

“Unicorn Pegasus kitten,” my sister-in-law Ceparkk corrected absently. She sat at the table on the other side of the hearth, honing her knife. Like Karn, she sharpened cutlery when she was upset. “While it is improbable, Scalzorc, it isn’t impossible, and there is no alternative.”

I turned my scowl on her. Ceparkk wasn’t impressed. That’s what happens when you marry into a family where the females are all bigger than you.

“Whatever.”

I tossed the doctor at her feet and sank onto the bed. It killed me to see Karn like this. I couldn’t comfort her either. She hurt too much to hold. The doctor, on the other hand, was hardly hurt at all. After a little gagging and throat rubbing, he was as good as new.

He started to rise. “If you’re gonna get nasty, I’m gonna leave.”

Ceparkk’s boot on his shoulder nixed that idea. I thought I heard something crack, but it was probably wishful thinking.

“Morgoth uses the kittens to hunt eagles,” he croaked sullenly. “They’ve got dens all over Middle-earth. There’s one near Mount Doom.”

“That’s an eight day trip by war boar. I can’t leave Karn alone that long.”

“Don’t worry,” Ceparkk said, “Doc and I will manage.”

She smiled at him. Her tusks weren’t as impressive as her mother’s, but on the plus side, she didn’t think her sister married beneath her, either. The doc gulped and nodded very fast. Satisfied Karn would be safe in my absence, I asked for specific directions.

“Getting there’s easy. Getting out with the horn…” Doc shook his head. “The kittens aren’t exactly pussycats, but their guardians, the Wheaton, are worse. Every one of them wears Morgoth’s bozo.”

“Wheaton…riiiiiight. You sure we’re talking Morgoth’s hellspawn here, because the last time I checked they were called things like Tor, Baen or Crusher.”

Doc started to shrug and went a paler shade of chartreuse. They didn’t call Ceparkk “Leadfoot” for nothing.

“How would I know?” he gargled. “I got this from a crazy hobbit with a ring fixation. He was a little short on details. The gist was you can’t look straight at it or the horror turns you to stone.”

Ironic, since the point of the expedition was to put the pebbles back in Karn’s cheeks, but not something I wanted to experience personally. I scratched my neck. The legendary Perseusorc faced something similar with the Elf Medusa. He avoided petrifaction by only looking at her in his mirror shield. Our village blacksmith specialized in mirror shields. I headed over as soon as I shackled Doc to the bed.

“I canno’ take any more,” Cekoddorc protested. “I’ll need a year to fill the orders I’ve got. It’s the warped core of the spell casings. The shields’ll fail if I dinna calibrate them just right.”

At least, I think that’s what he said. It was hard to hear over all the banging in the forge. I nodded like I understood, then cornered one of the red-shirted dwarves who did the real work. After a little pummeling—er, persuasion, he burnished my ax and replaced the iron fittings on my wooden shield with polished steel. Any shiny was better than none.

Back at the house, I brushed the damp hair from my darling’s forehead and breathed a kiss over her clammy, too-smooth skin. I told Ceparkk, “If I’m not back in ten days, you know what to do.”

Ceparkk tested Karn’s cleaver against her thumb. Green blood welled around the tip. “He’s a little on the stringy side, but that won’t matter in a stew.”

“Just make sure Karn gets the eyeballs. They’re her favorite.”

The thunk of Docmehkoi’s head hitting the floor interrupted our farewells. Funny, blood never affected him like that before. I hoped it wasn’t an omen.

I didn’t sleep much on the trip to Mount Doom. Normally on campaign, I found my boar Svini’s snores soothing, like a giant saw in a forest full of Ents. This trip, I spent most nights polishing my gear. I alternated between second-guessing everything Doc said and wondering how to defeat something that could turn flesh to stone. I practiced chopping things reflected in my shield boss. I sucked at it. A mirror shield might’ve helped, but Karn couldn’t wait.

As promised, the cave was an easy climb from the Sammath Naur causeway. The surrounding volcanoes illuminated a pit of stalagmites and broken statuary between the entrance and the secret door in the cave’s back wall—tricky to navigate, but not impossible. I pulled the camouflaged lever. The adjacent wall parted vertically from the middle, like a mouth big enough to swallow my whole house.

The tunnel beyond was sized to match. Metal ribs alternated with slabs of grainy stone embedded with tiny lanterns. Speckled tiles paved the gently sloping floor. Everything felt cool to the touch, even the frosted glass covering the lanterns. Considering the heat outside and nearby magma channels, that took serious magic. I unstrapped my ax and shield.

I walked for what seemed a long time, using my ax blade to scout around corners and open doorways, before I smelled the kitten’s lair. Imagine an overflowing saber-toothed tiger-sized litter box and multiply by ten. It was worse.

The chamber was constructed of the same materials as the hall. In its center a low ramp led to an Oliphaunt-sized ring of stone inscribed with Elvish runes translating to “4EverGrd ™” or “StarGate ™”, depending on the system you used. The object of my quest curled over the ramp in a pretzel of gray wings and tabby-striped limbs. The head resting against its hoofed hindquarters was wider than my shield was long. The gold spiral of its horn sagged toward the floor, point hidden by a mass of giant hairballs. The fuzzy clumps were everywhere.

I grimaced. I had no problem killing a kitten. I’m an orc, for crying out loud. Separating the horn from the former contents of its stomach—not so much. On the other hand, the Wheaton was nowhere around. This could be my best shot. I eased into the room.

The hairballs quivered. The harmonic trills I assumed were snores shifted pitch. I tiptoed closer to my goal. The trilling got louder. The kitten sneezed. Its eyes popped open. It sprang to its feet with a terrible “Mrowr!” and I suddenly remembered an inconvenient fact about unicorns. I hadn’t smelled like a virgin in years.

“Nice kitty.” I shook my shield and ax in the universal gesture of terror.

The kitten lunged. I scooted backwards, tripped over a hairball and landed on a mess of others. Game over! But the hissing, snarling kitten crashed next to the ramp, tethered by a harness hidden under its wings. I scrambled to my feet. I’d like to say I planned a strategic retreat with the triumphant return date already penciled in, but honestly, the parts of my underwear that didn’t have holes in them were stained purple.

The ring burped. I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder. Water gushed into the circle as if into a glass. A man-shaped outline pushed against the impossibly elastic blue.

“Spot, what’s wrong?” barked a disembodied Elvish voice.

That damned Spot meowed back.

Ear hairs standing on end, I tore down the hallway faster than a lunch squirrel at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth. Behind me, the haughty voice boomed: “Release the kitten!”

Claws scraped. Hooves clattered. Framed in my ax, a diminutive Spot galloped beneath a tiny red- and white-armored rider brandishing a needle-like spear. Crap! My legs pumped harder. Lungs burned, arms throbbed, but I made it to the exit.

“Stop! That’s an order!”

Like an orc listens to orders. I cleared the pit in a single screaming leap. I hurled my shield and ax onto the causeway and nearly passed them on the way down. I grabbed them off the ground without breaking stride.

Heated air propelled by giant wings buffeted my back. I raced down the gully to the barren slope where I’d left Svini. My pursuers’ image grew in my blade. My heart jumped up my throat and dug its claws into the roof of my mouth. The kitten’s human rider wasn’t wearing armor. A ghastly second face grew from his chest, sleeved in tomato-red hair. Crazy blue eyes topped a pink gash crammed with pointed teeth, and that was the mouth talking.

“Resistance is futile!”

Who’s resisting? I was running.

“Life as you know it is over!”

Not yet, it wasn’t. The dead tree where I’d tied Svini loomed two hundred feet away, a hundred fifty…

I was almost within ax throwing range. Svini couldn’t outrun the kitten, but if I cut his reins and spooked him, he might distract Spot long enough for me to hide. Sure we’d been together for years, but I could always get another pig.

“You will become one with the Wheaton!” Sparks shot from the mad blue eyes. “Prepare to be assimilated!”

Assimilated? As-in-eaten-as-in-Wheaton-means-We-Eat-‘em-means-ORC? I mean, of course I eat orc, but it’s different when I’m the one on the menu. I swung my ax.

“Make it so!” the chest face roared.

Reflected lightning exploded from my blade. Thunder cracked the mountain. Everybody screamed. The ground dropped from under me, but I kept pedaling air until I slammed face first into the tree.

I woke to the buzzing of overly optimistic flies. Something rubbery prodded my fauld—Svini rooting for truffles. I smacked his nose.

“Pig. Serve you right if the Wheaton got you.”

I froze. Where was the Wheaton?

Where was Spot?

What happened?

Svini and the flies were the only things making noise. Was I safe? Keeping my shield close, I sat up to check. Sprains and bruises protested, but nothing felt broken—except maybe my skull. My ears rang like Cekoddorc’s forge. The clouds spinning overhead weren’t doing my stomach any favors either. Luckily, nothing tried to eat me while it settled.

Nothing was left to eat me. The Wheaton lay at the base of a large boulder about twenty feet downhill. His body was folded in ways humans aren’t supposed to bend. The crazy face was in there somewhere, but the only colors reflected on my shield boss were red dirt, brown blood and black flies.

They’re dead, Scalzorc. And if they weren’t, screw it. I was in no condition to whack anything backwards.

Sunk to its knees in the slope above me was a statue of Spot, perfect down to the stone whiskers and gleaming gold horn. Almost like it dropped straight from the sky. The realization it had kicked me in the gut. What had I done? What if I’d ruined the horn? Karn… Pain forgotten, I raced up the hill.

The horn flexed when I grabbed it. Not daring to hope, I whacked it with my knife. There was bone beneath the gold. The horn—Karn’s cure—was okay!

Unlike the Wheaton and Morgoth’s pet unicorn Pegasus kitten.

Do you know what you just did?

And the Lord of the Dark wasn’t exactly the understanding type.

“Svini, let’s get the hell out of here.”

-The End-