“Saila,” Bastian chokes out, reaching forward for her slowly. The eyeshine is gone, but Bastion still keeps his movements slow, steady. Just because he can’t see whatever caused that doesn’t mean it can’t see him. If he trips on the squashy rug now, whatever that is might rush out for an easy meal faster than he can handle.
“Do you think we should let it out?” Saila asks, turning to him. She doesn’t seem to have noticed anything. “Would that…. interfere with your investigation?”
“I need you to take the lantern,” he grits out, shifting his stance so his sword is between them and the hole. “Carefully. And we need to leave. Now.”
Saila opens her mouth to speak, but the eyeshine sweeps by again and she snaps it shut with a sound like a pair of scissors closing. Ah. She’s seen it now.
“Here,” she says, taking the lantern in her spare hand, the bird ball clutched tightly in her other. It makes a weird, warbling noise; the eyeshine sweeps by again and this time resolves into an enormous pair of slanted, almond-shaped eyes. “O-oh.” She’s so quiet, in that moment, that he can barely hear her over the soft sound of the Southern Sister flowing by.
“Stay behind me,” he insists, keeping his voice quiet and his tone steady, “lead us out. Go slowly.”
“Yes,” she says, grabbing him by the sash to guide him, cautiously, backward. The eyes vanish. Bastion swallows. He can feel his Adam’s apple bob, can feel the dryness in his throat. The bird in its ball has abruptly gone silent as well, only contributing to the heavy atmosphere. Saila’s grip on his sash feels like it only grows tighter.
Bastion considers, letting her pull him carefully through the darkness. The door here is broken and unlockable. The door up above is also broken and unlockable.
“Can you lock your front door?”
“I have a key,” Saila says, and starts to edge backwards again very gently. Bastion keeps his sword arm steady and his senses brutally, wildly raw, ready to strike at the slightest unexpected sound.
“Where?” he asks, relieved to feel the glassy hardness of the underway’s stone underfoot again. They’re further to the door than they were a moment ago. If they can get to the steps, they can make a run for it and hopefully just bar the whole damn building up until the glass locks can be repaired.
“Around my neck,” she says, clutching him backwards with renewed vigor, her breath coming trembling and quick very suddenly. “He’s coming.”
“Steady,” Bastion whispers, following her lead, eyes straining. He sees a shape poke through the hole with a numb thrill: it’s the blunted, smooth dollop of a Cat King’s muzzle.
It oozes through silently, Bastion and Saila working their way to the door with urgent, stilted fear. First the cute snub nose in dark emerald emerges through the hole. Then comes the mouth, its chin white as a cloud, its dense-furred muzzle striped in contrasting shades of green. There’s an almost-audible pop as its rounded, bear-like ears fit through the hole, bouncing a little as they flick back up. A clatter like dice falling sounds. The creature’s crown, gold with red stones, materializes over its head with a little spin in the air.
“Its head can just barely fit,” Bastion whispers to Saila, who has started moving them away with such single-minded purpose that he feels like she’s a hair away from picking him up and bolting with him under her arm. “I think we’re all right.”
“Are you- what?!” The beast swerves its face toward them, its long, thread-like silver whiskers fanning out. Saila takes in an airy, slow tremble of a breath. The thing’s eyes are enormous, deep pools of blackness, though Bastion thinks he can see little glitters of wetness in the weirdly flat darkness. It’s almost like the thing’s eyes are furred too. “They’re stretchy. Come on. Come on. Don’t stop. We’ll die. We’ll definitely die.”
“Are you sure?” Bastion asks, though he’s still letting her drag him. It looks sort of cute like that, with its head poking through and peering this way and that. He’s never actually met any of the Kings, certainly never fought any of them. Perhaps it’s just curious.
“I was here when this city was founded, right alongside this building,” Saila hisses, pulling urgently on him again, and there’s a faint clatter as she nudges the door open again with her foot. The King oozes forward a little further. It’s so furry that it looks exactly like the stuffed toy version of itself sold in shops for rich children. “I know exactly why we worship these things. Now come on.”
Bastion spares a moment to glance back at her as she tugs mightily on his sash, sheathing his sword. It isn’t that he doubts her, but… okay, maybe he doubts her. He’s curious, too: the city is named, in half, after this very creature. Flexible or not, he doubts it can fit its whole body through such a tiny hole. He’d like to observe the King just a little longer. It would be an interesting story to tell back at the eyrie at the very least.
As if to mock Bastion, a long stretch of a leg squeezes through the wall, changing thickness as it squeezes out, moving like a stream of spilled yogurt. After a brief pause another leg comes through, and then another, and as yet another presses through that impossibly small hole Bastion is backpedaling so fast that he almost steps on Saila. The King turns its head to leer at him and if he still had actual knees he would absolutely go weak in them, because when it does half of its jaw, the white part, just peels back and curls down and away to reveal a glistening, thorned pink maw more than large enough to scoop three of him up whole into. Bastion realizes that its soft furred paws have sprouted savage talons the length of his torso, and those it digs into the stone his own claws couldn’t touch like a child pawing through sun-warmed butter. It’s wriggling this way and that, pulling its chest through, then its slim waist, and another leg that lands in an oddly fluid splay,
“MOVE YOU IDIOT,” Saila screams, and Bastion surges after her like a deer startled.
Bastion pulls the door shut behind him, hoping to buy them a little time as the King works out how to open it. There’s a heavy slam and a wet, chirruping, squeaking noise before a noise happens to him.
He can’t really describe it, except that it vibrates every part of his body and makes him forget, temporarily, where his limbs all are.
But his feet remember, and Saila never seems to have forgotten, and so they manage to slam around the corner of the stairway at the same time the door below is ripped through with a savage splintering noise. Bastion’s never heard a door that thick broken like that before, and it only spurs the fear beating wildly between his lungs, singing a panic song up to fill his mouth like ashes.
He gets halfway up the second flight before he falls. Saila notices and darts back to him at the same time the King crashes into the curve of the stairs with a violent scream that makes his legs buzz. Bastion pulls frantically, but his claws have struck the nail again, and this time there’s no way he can have Saila delicately, leisurely free him. The King seethes around the corner of the stairwell like a wave of foam borne on an angry tide.
Saila and Bastion look at each other for a frozen moment.
“Run,” he says, but she has a hard, mean look on her face already.
In one fast move she throws the lantern straight into the King’s face and tucks the handle of the wicker ball between her teeth, reaching to him to pull mightily with both hands. The King squeals as the glass shatters, and Bastion feels the enormous amount of air it displaces as it starts to frantically claw the lantern off its face. He can smell something like the smoke that drifts from the foundry on hot summer days: metal burning, magic sizzling.
This is it, he thinks numbly, the light snuffing out with a scream of crushed metal. The King is right behind him. He can feel the wash of its breath on him. Perhaps it’s best he can’t see for this part.
There’s an enormous impact.
Saila pulls again on his arms, her eyes suddenly burning luminous in the darkness. Bastion feels the stairs start to collapse under him. There’s something wet and sharp touching his legs. Desperation snaps his resignation cleanly in half. He kicks, lets his claws catch and rip at whatever they’re sunk into while he feels Saila’s hands clutching onto his desperately, slipping but still pulling as hard as she can. He feels a fantastically powerful crunching blow on one of his legs that pulls his hip down oddly, kicks more, feels another crunching hit, hears the King make that noise again and goes unsteady between the ears at the worst time.
Their struggle has crooked the door above them open a little, and Bastion finds himself looking up, desperately, to the morning sun above them. He feels the King drop him, knows it’s getting ready to strike and guzzle him down-
Saila surges up into the King’s face, over Bastion, and screams with every ounce of her being.
The King is so startled by the unexpected gesture that it rears up in alarm, ears pressing down and jaw furling shut.
Saila wrenches Bastion up and he scrabbles behind her, and the house shudders as the King slams into a spot in the stairs where Bastion no longer is.
He regains his footing on her immaculate polished wooden floors and bolts for it, Saila pulling him still as if she’s terrified he’ll lose the will to live now. The door down to the underway slams open as uncountable furred paws stab out, splaying on the door frame like the legs of a giant spider about to pull its body out of some unexpected hole.
Bastion lunges for the front door, throwing Saila in front of him, and surges back to slam the doors shut. He feels the air move in front of his face as a set of talons pass by that glitter and shimmer in the sun’s rays. Saila grabs him around the waist to pull him back again but there’s no need: he slams the doors shut, digs his feet into the stone, and strains every muscle in his body to hold them tight against the slamming, furious impact of the King behind him.
“The lock,” he half-manages to gasp out, panting wildly, but Saila is already there, her hand thrust wildly down the front of her matronly high-collared dress to pull out a glistening golden key that she stabs into the lock like a knife into flesh.
“Hold it still,” she demands, bracing her shoulder against the door too as if her slight, waifish strength will do anything against the god demanding their blood and flesh as tribute. “I just need- one moment where it’s flush-“
Bastion thinks, panicked, his legs straining so hard they creak and his arms burning with the strain, that there’s no way this thin door will hold when the thick wooden ones below splintered. If he can unlatch his legs and grab Saila, he can move her to a safe rooftop and sound the alarm, and they can all do battle against this monster, this force, to keep it from the rest of the city. Hopefully most of them will survive to
Bastion spends a frantic, terrified second thinking that the door has started to break. It is the longest second of his young life so far.
“We’re safe,” Saila says, tucking her key down the front of her dress again. She sighs. She slumps down to the ground.
The door is still.
Cautiously, shaking, Bastion peels away from the door. The King is still there, staring out at them. When it presses against the glass he can see the dense green of its body, the snowy white of its underbelly, and a disconcerting amount of legs that swarm on the wood and glass as it rattles at the door. Alarmingly, it even presses the door latch. Or- tries to.
Bastion collapses to the road next to Saila.
“Holy shit,” he says, and doesn’t even feel guilty that he’s swearing in front of a civilian. “What is that door made of?”
“It’s the lock,” Saila explains, rising to a crouch to inspect his legs. The spring mechanisms, the ratchets and struts and rebound-spells and shock-barbs, are all crunched and mangled, the metal showing crimson where its outer seal has been punctured. Bastion spends a dull moment staring at that: he’s been hit by a carriage and his legs haven’t been so much as scratched. He’s not in any pain, but- holy hell. He’s going to have to get repairs. He’s never needed repairs before. “My predecessor bought it from the Golden City right after the war ended, but before the battle of the Two Kings. She was dead frightened of the Rat Kings, you see.”
Bastion turns to look at the shop. The Cat King is still frothing against the doorway, cresting wildly like a wave against jagged rocks before sizzling down to the bottom of the door, then the middle of the doors where they join. He spends a terrified moment worrying that it will be able to squeeze through even that small crack before his brain catches up with Saila’s words.
“The Golden City,” he breathes, and then gives himself a shake. Of course the Golden City could make a lock that would hold the Kings. And there’s the city’s old seal in glass right next to it, which means the front door is impenetrable in other ways too.
Bastion gives his legs a shake, then clambers to his feet. The Cat King screams at them again, raking its claws uselessly over the inside of the door and the glass, leaving no visible marks behind.
If that’s what one of the Kings is… What the hell is a Rat King like? And, perhaps more pertinent to the rest of this investigation, what broke the glass panels holding strong against a Cat King?