I am Queen Betty. I have had many names, and when I was born, I didn’t have a name at all. I was the First Cat. And like all things First and all things Cat, I am the best. I started my day by indulging in a nap next to the human, Horace Creed. His body heat and his presence were pleasant, soothing away the aches in my old, arthritic bones. The steady rise and fall of his chest helped me to relax. It was the first time in a week I’d been able to calm down. The world was ending. I had been feeling it ever since the end of the summer. I didn’t know what had provoked the oncoming cataclysm. It didn’t matter. It only mattered that the time had come for me to be a guardian once more.
Some might consider a never-ending battle to protect humans from the threats that stalk them in the night to be an unpleasant task. Surely, it couldn’t be worth something as simple as room and board. These people were mostly humans, and those who knew what I did considered their species extraordinarily fortunate, and terribly clever for making such a wise deal. They failed to understand two important facts. First, threats to the world are very rare. It had been decades since something had demanded my attention. And second, if you enjoy what you do, it is no job at all. It is a pleasure.
But of course, I am the First and the Cat, and thus all my bargains work out to my advantage. I stood up from beside the human. He had become very flustered when I was in my deific form, and had attempted to lie next to him. No doubt he was overwhelmed by the greatness of my presence. In my feline shape, he seemed to calm down quite a bit. He’d performed his duties in stroking my fur until he had fallen asleep, and now I was ready to go and finish my work. Prey had escaped me, and while I would not normally deign to pursue them, this prey was the type to make trouble later. It’d save me time if I killed them now, while they were weak.
I climbed down off of the bed, and my human kept sleeping. They slept so little, but when they did, it was like they were dead. I took on my deific form, feeling the rush of energy. I felt stronger than I had in decades, after sleeping in this warm place, and being fed. I’d forgotten how good it felt to not have to worry about where my next meal would come from. I smiled brightly as I leaned against the window, gently opening it. The gray light of pre-dawn was beginning to fill the city. I turned back towards Horace, and smiled. He did not know what I was doing, which was the way I liked it. But I would return triumphant at the end of the day, and he would give me the worship I desired.
The leap down to the ground below was easy, and I landed softly, ignoring the looks of surprise from people around me. They were simply admiring my greatness. Humans always did, unable to keep their eyes off me, whether I was cat or god in shape. I began walking, bare feet padding across the concrete. It wasn’t the most comfortable of materials to walk on, but I was used to it after decades in this city. I made my way down to the subways, retracing my path. Hopping over a turnstile, I stepped into the train waiting for me.
Outside of Horace’s home, my age caught up with me. I could feel the weariness in my bones returning. I had been doing this for such a long time. But I wasn’t going to show weakness to the world. Instead, I leaned close to a human sitting in one of the strange benches on the train, bending forward as I casually wrapped an arm around one of the metal bars that lesser creatures needed to keep their balance. He was male, which made him an easy mark. I gave him my best smile, my eyes dropping down to the burger he was unwrapping. “Can I have some of that?”
As I got out of the subway, smacking my lips and licking my fingers clean of the creamy sauces that had been smeared across the meat, I was feeling renewed. It was fun taking on the deific shape, I had to admit. Human beings had much more sensitive taste buds than a cat did, and it was amazing how good some of the things they made tasted. I drew a few eyes, dressed in nothing but Horace’s shirt, but it didn’t matter to me. It was all I felt like wearing. If someone tried to make a fuss, I’d just run off. It wasn’t as though any human could keep up with me.
I looked down at the bright yellow tape and the thick black smears on the ground. I took a deep breath. Burnt corruption filled my nostrils, and I bared my teeth. The oily things were unpleasant prey. No good to eat, and they usually spread by corrupting humans. That was annoying. It was an affront. Humans were mine, and the oily things certainly had no right to steal them away.
The two oily things I’d fought the night before last should have been no match for me. But I’d grown rusty over the decades. Again. It was hard to keep in shape in the time between crises, when I had no human. I sniffed at the air, turning my head. The smell led down towards a manhole cover. I’d need to take a smaller shape. I bent over, tugging the metal disc out of its slot, tossing it aside, and climbed down the hole as a car came to a screeching halt inches away from me. I ignored it, and the human screaming curses at me, and climbed into the darkness.
When I found the floor beneath my feet, I shrank back to my feline shape, and peered around. Uniquely human smells filled the place, but not the fun, pleasant kind. My hair stood on end. If I fell into the sludge passing through the storm drains, I’d probably lose my tongue getting the smell off my fur. The oily things liked dirty homes.
My memories drifted back to Rome. It had been a place like this city. Waste had to be gathered. Humans, for all of their fine attributes, could be such filthy creatures sometimes. But they had learned a few of my lessons, gathering their waste towards a place where it wouldn’t normally offend me. I made a note to hurt the oily things for forcing me to experience the smell, and their lack of appreciation for all the work humans had done to keep their waste out of my way.
I walked through the storm drains, doing my best not to succumb to the urge to flee the odors as quickly as I could. Eventually my path took me to a large open area. A cistern sat in the center, full of something murky and black. It was emphatically not water. Rusty pipes extended from every wall, leading into the concrete floor. Shadows were everywhere, and the only light was cast by a set of humming bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Corruption hung in the air like the aroma of burnt coffee grounds.
One of the oily things shifted out of the darkness in the pipes. I took on my deific shape, and stared haughtily at it. “Goddess.” It spoke formally, its figure tall and skeletal. It was the same creature that had tried to attack me two days before. “You are, er, outmatched here. You will leave, or-” It turned. The massive cistern was shaping itself into a face. The oily figure dropped to its knees. “My, er, lord.”
“What are you here for, Goddess?” The voice asked, deep, and rumbling. I brushed my fingers across my chest, considering my options. Fighting it here, in the center of its power, was something I was capable of. But that would be not only dull, but potentially dangerous, as well.
“Oily thing. It has been a long time since we last met. You’re trying to come into one of my places again. Why?” I asked. Bright, cheerful menace spread across my face. I ignored the oily thing as it began to explain. It wasn’t as though it interested me any. I looked around the room. Numerous pipes led away from the cistern. It must have been a storage place for water at some point. Maybe some fountain, no longer connected. If humans drank the oily thing, it would not be good for them- But it would be even worse for the oily thing, as stomach acid was not its friend. It preferred other ways to enter people, and hollow them out.
My brain whirred with possibilities, and finally, I interrupted its babbling excuses. “Enough. I’m old, oily thing. I guard many humans now, and I can hardly be asked to guard them all. This city is mine. I will allow you to flee to somewhere else. I’ll be back in eight hours, and if you are not gone, I will kill you.” I smiled brightly, spreading my arms out. “A gift.”
“You dare, er, demand this from us?” asked the thin oily thing. “You are, er, not a goddess of consequence anymore! You are, er, just an old relic, a-” It went silent as the dark cistern rumbled loudly.
“Agreed. We thank you for your forbearance, Goddess. We will take you up on your immensely generous offer. We wish you a safe trip and shall be gone by the time you return.” There was a sound like a drain pipe being strangled. “We wish you the best of luck in preserving the life of your current… master.” I stared down at the pit, my smile turning glassy. I turned on my heel, and walked out of the cistern chamber, finding a manhole cover and emerging up onto the street. Another car came to a screeching halt, and I ignored it as I strolled towards the nearby park. I lay back in the grass and rolled around in it, sighing with relief as I rubbed the smell of the place off on the blades.
If I hadn’t already been planning on betraying and killing the oily thing for the affront of existing, I would certainly have changed my mind after that little attempt to needle me. The oily things were predictable. They always liked to avoid conflict. They simply weren’t strong enough to stand up to something like me in a real fight, and if they thought they could escape, they would. Of course, I wasn’t going to let it flee. It had resisted me. It had hunted humans in my city. It had to die. But it would be much more fun to kill it while it fled away from its home, thinking it was safe.
I lay in the grass, rolling from side to side. It felt good to stretch out, letting the sun warm my belly, feeling the pleasant scent of grass replace the stench of the sewers. I climbed to my feet. I had some time to kill before I pounced, perhaps an hour or two. I changed, becoming feline once more. I was hungry, and could do with a decent meal. Something to clear away the smell of the place. The rats skittering across the piles of trash were amusing, but they smelled foul. Besides, I was more in the mood for fowl.
I was distracted from my hunt by a very familiar scent. I strode through the park, until I spotted him. Horace. My human. His dark black hair hung around his head, and he looked dead on his feet, his eyes barely open. He had a large bag, a loaf of bread inside of it, and he was feeding birds. I watched, crouched low in a nearby bush. My tail flicked with the the beat of my heart. Most of the birds were pigeons. Foul-tasting things, in my experience, although sometimes worth the effort. Most interesting, however, was the abnormally large crow that seemed to be taking the prime position at his feet. I watched, my nostrils flaring.
The damn bird was stealing food that should have been mine, and being abetted by my human. I couldn’t accept such misbehavior. I slipped out of the cover, staying low, and close to the shadows, my eyes narrowed. That jackdaw would regret ever begging for food at his feet. I snuck closer, until I was about ready to pounce, and- “Queen Betty?!”
The feathered mongrels scattered. The crow gave me a contemptuous caw as it flew off. I eyed them with annoyance, before hopping up onto the bench, sitting next to the human. They never seemed to understand how to hunt. Oh, they were good at agriculture, at growing food. But they didn’t know how to kill. Not the way I knew it, anyway. “Hello, Horace.” I purred, becoming human-shaped.
“You weren’t home when I woke up. I got a little worried.” He was stiff as I leaned up next to him, my chest rumbling. It was always amusing to watch those little reactions on his face as I rested my head in his lap, monopolizing his personal space. “Are you alright? You had a broken arm yesterday…”
I stretched my arm out. Indeed, that fall had been a bad one. It had hurt quite a lot, landing on the concrete while in the middle of a tussle with the creatures. All better now, though. “The tuna fixed me all up. I was just in a feisty mood this morning. I decided to go out hunting a bit!”
“For birds?” he asked, frowning. I smiled. He had such a large heart for little things he thought needed his help. I knew the feeling.
“Oh, yes. Among other things.”
“But I fed you. You don’t have to go killing innocent animals.” I rolled my eyes. He was so soft. He just didn’t understand.
“If I don’t stay sharp, I’ll get into a lot of trouble the next time I’m a stray! Gotta keep my skills.” I enjoyed behaving childish around him. He seemed to expect it to some degree. It was far beneath my dignity, but one of the great things about being as old and grand as I was is that dignity, at a certain point, simply exists. It doesn’t have to be maintained or jealously guarded anymore. I reached up and batted at one of his hands gently.
“I’m not going to abandon you.” His voice was so soft and earnest, it made me feel a little warm inside. Of course, he was wrong. Even if he cared enough to keep me, he didn’t know how dangerous it would be. It was the downside of the bargain. But I could reward him anyway. I purred loudly, and arched my back, and watched as he nearly choked on his tongue.
“Well, of course not. I’m much too cute! But I still need to stay tough.”
“So you can… ‘protect the world’?” he asked, an eyebrow raised. Humans always doubted it, of course. I didn’t blame them. They just couldn’t comprehend the idea of the end of the world. They thought it would happen, but it was always going to be later. They didn’t know how to deal with the actual end of the world happening around them. That’s why they’d made the agreement with me.
“Yes. Did you bring lunch?” He nodded. “Can I have some?” I asked, my tail swishing languidly, a smile on my lips. I saw the uncertainty in his eyes, and decided to aim for his guilt complex. “I’m so hungry, after you let my prey escape…” I mewled softly, watching as his expression filled with shame, and he reached into his backpack. I happily took half of a tuna salad sandwich, peeling open the bread and eating the delicious fish inside. I leaned against his side, and enjoyed the quiet moment. The day was going to become much more violent soon, after all. I had to appreciate the good things while they lasted. I spat out a couple of chunks of celery, a reminder that even in the sweetest things, humans could find a way to make life difficult.
“Alright, I have to go,” Horace said. He began to stand up, and I sank my nails into his side. He squawked, and I leaned my head against him. “Betty, my lunch break is only about 20 minutes, I need to get back now-” I stood up, and smiled. I had to go, too, but I’d be damned if I let him think he could just walk away when he liked.
“Well, it’s about time for me to go, I’ll see you tonight, have salmon ready.”
“Tuna.” He said, in the tones of one trying to bargain. I allowed the silence to hang for just a moment, and saw him grow uncertain.
“Salmon. I’m going to be very busy tonight, and I need a special treat to celebrate my impending victory.” I stood, and grinned. “Don’t worry, you will have good fortune come to you.” I waved a hand in something like a mystic gesture I’d seen a human use once. He sighed, and began jogging back towards the building where he worked.
Horace was an uncommonly kind human. I was not unaware of the costs that he was accruing in taking care of me. He was young, and like so many young humans, he was considered fit for only the worst work, with the least reward. And he still made time in his day to feed me, to take care of me, and to worry about me. I smiled, as I walked over to the fountain, and took a seat by it, removing Horace’s shirt. I splashed some water onto myself, washing my skin clean, brushing off the remains of the smell of the sewers. I would be going back into them soon, of course, but the feeling of being clean helped.
“Hey! Miss!” I looked up, a smile spreading across my face. A watchman in a black-blue uniform was frowning down at me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m going to need to take you in for indecent exposure, and loitering-”
I had been dealing with watchmen for as long as there were watchmen. They had become significantly more brazen in the modern day. There was a time when he would’ve been properly trained to provide me with an offering on meeting me. Still, he was just trying to do his job. So I decided not to be too harsh on him. I simply stood up, embraced him, and then sprinted in the opposite direction, laughing and giggling as I did. “Hey! HEY!” He shouted after me, even as I darted through bushes, Horace’s shirt still in one hand. By the time I’d left the park, there was no sign of the watchman behind me. I smiled to myself. It would not technically have been outside of my rights to tear the man limb from limb, but I wasn’t so petty. It would be a waste of a human.
I lifted up his wallet, and threw away the little cards of worthless plastic. I knew, vaguely, that they were sometimes used for money, but the whole process seemed complicated and annoying. I smiled as I found the cash. Fifty dollars. That would certainly make up for the cost of any salmon. I slid the money into the breast pocket of the shirt, as I tugged it back on.
Finally, I set off for the darkness beneath the streets once more. I knew the sewer systems well. If the creature was going to try to escape, there was only one path it could take without risking being torn apart by the flow of water and washed into the sea. That would kill it very effectively, and the oily thing would not risk it. I smiled, and lifted the manhole, climbing down into the dark storm drains below. The creature would take time to gather all of its thralls back to it. In the mean time, I would be waiting.
I crouched, and took on feline form, disappearing into the darkness and watching. The large room was part of a waste-water treatment plant. A set of fluorescent lights buzzed angrily, and the rush of water pouring through a channel in the center of the room filled the air with a dull roar.
As I sat, my mind wandered. The last time I had seen these things… It had been in Rome, actually. I had killed its spawn and sent it retreating back into the darkness between worlds. The fact that the creature had returned to bother me a second time was nearly unprecedented. Most of the creeping things lucky enough to survive an encounter with me never returned to this world. I wondered whether it had come back because it had thought I had disappeared. But that was unlikely to be enough to risk an encounter with me. I disappeared frequently.
There had to be something else. This realization was annoying. It meant that I probably would have more to do after I finished this one. I was going to be earning my keep. What a horrid situation.
My ears pricked. Several hours had passed. The lights were still flickering. There was a distant ripping noise, like tape repeatedly being pulled away from a surface. Sticky things being torn. My tail flicked with increasing excitement as the noises grew louder. I could only barely hear it over the roar, but my prey had finally left its place of safety.
Oily things were hard to kill. There was a human underneath all of the sticky black stuff covering the thralls, but the main oily thing was just a mass of burnt oil. Not very mobile, but tough. I’d have to cut it open and hope it bled out enough into the water that it became disparate, unable to hold itself together. The humans were beyond anything I could do to save them. They’d been killed to make room for the black stuff to fill them up. I sighed. So many people who could have fed me.
The black thing slumped around the corner. It walked unsteadily, a vaguely humanoid, blubbery abomination of slick black grease. I changed into my deific form, my smile broad. “Hello, oily thing.” I smiled. “I see you took my advice. Thank you for leaving your sanctuary. It will be much easier to kill you, this way.”
“We had a deal, Goddess. You offered to allow me to leave the city. You’re not an oath-breaker, are you?” I laughed, sharply, my ears pricking. There was a sticky noise behind me. Soft, something trying to sneak up.
“I cannot be bound by oaths. I’m not some happy little fairy or hidebound demon. I’m a Cat. I do what I please, and if I should change my mind, be grateful for the times when I do not. Now, are you going to surrender and allow me to kill you easily?”
I spun, an arm lashing out. Warmth and moisture covered my hand, and a low, gurgling noise erupted from the oily thing that was sneaking up on me. The white slime spilled out of it, landing on the ground in thick, curdling splatters. I frowned with distaste, as the desiccated, mummified corpse of a human dropped onto the floor. I crouched down, and sank my hand into the rushing water. It was not clean as it could be, but it was much cleaner than the stinging oil on my hand.
I stood up, shaking my hand, looking around. A dozen more thralls were approaching me, from all sides. The thing had set a trap for me. Its thralls weren’t carrying it. That was rather clever. Risky, but it must have realized I was going to betray it. “You are a relic. Stuck in your ways. The world is changing around you, old cat, and you don’t even realize it.”
“This isn’t very much like you, oily thing. You’re a parasite. You don’t try to take on the predator. You try to avoid its gaze. Why, you could just go back to the dark places between the worlds. Why would you risk my wrath again?” I let my eyes run around the sewer, piercing the darkness. There was only one oily thing on the far corner of the sewer platforms, across the water.
“It’s simple. There’s something-” As the creature settled in to speak, I leapt across the water like a ballistic missile. I crashed into the lone oily thing, swinging around it as my nails grabbed its shoulders, and bit through its neck. There was a crunch, and it fell limply, oil bubbling away. I perched on its corpse. “Damn you, Cat! Can you never listen?! This is important! Even you can’t ignore what’s-”
“Oh, just run away, you stupid thing.” I spat. The taste of the oily thing was nauseating. This was the unpleasant side of being shaped like a human. All of those tastebuds made biting feel weird, sometimes. “Or attack. Give me something to get my mind off of how bad you taste. I don’t care about why you’re doing this. You’re going to die for coming here.”
The portly creature looked from side to side. Its thralls stood, their yellow eyes glowing like lantern lights. Then, they all rushed me as the sticky black creature ran for it, rushing past them. I smiled. I struck with my claws at the first thing that rushed me, lashing out in a wide arc, and tearing away its yellow eyes. It screamed, and fell to the ground, the other thralls trampling over it. The narrow confines gave them little room to approach me, and I backed up, striking each one in turn with knife-handed blows. They fell, bubbling and gurgling, to the ground. My claws made wet noises as they slipped out of the punctured vessels. I felt young again, the rush of adrenaline making the world clean. Each stab of my claws took the life of one of the creatures, and I danced back from their heavy, clumsy blows even as oily fists cracked the concrete where I had been standing.
When there were only a couple left, I vaulted over them. One of them made a clumsy grab for me, and my ankle slid through its hand as I danced around it. I ran after the scent of the creature, following it into the plant, leaving the sound of confusion behind me. I could kill the rest of them later, once their leader was dead. I stopped at a junction, and sniffed the air, following the scent of burnt motor oil. The lights down one corridor were flickering, covered in a thick, stinking, mildly corrosive oil. They flickered out as I walked beneath them. “You know, you could always flee. I like when you run away. You can warn other things not to come.”
“They wouldn’t listen.” The voice hissed from deeper in the corridor. I peered into the darkness. The thing was there, its featureless round head lowered, its pudgy arms resting against its sides. The space was a dead end. I smiled.
“Now’s the time to run away.”
“I can’t. There’s nowhere to go but here. I can’t go back.” I narrowed my eyes. “Death here is preferable.”
I darted forward, slicing my nails across its stomach. Sharper than steel, they tore open the thick oily exterior. The dense, glutinous white substance that filled it spilled forward, covering the ground. The creature roared, and grabbed my hand in its thick, clumsy grip. It was faster than I expected. Then, its fist pumped forward into my side, and there was an unpleasant cracking noise as it demonstrated a studied contempt for my rib cage. “You call yourself a cat? You should remember that the cornered prey fights hardest!” I rolled my eyes, and lashed out at its stomach with my other hand, even as my ribs ground together. It was a painful wound, potentially debilitating, and it would guarantee me a hot meal and quite a lot of petting when I returned home to my human that night.
“You’re a hopped up little blob of grease. Why don’t you just shut up and die?” I growled, slashing again. My ribs ached with each word, but mocking my prey was important. The creature yanked me forward. It was stronger than it should have been. Much stronger. It was fighting with the desperation of the truly cornered. Its skull crashed against mine, and the world spun around me. I let out a yowl of pain, pulling away from it, my wrist slipping free of its grasp. I backed off, and hissed, shrinking against the shadows. The creature chuckled darkly, as it followed me, hunching over. Pain was filling me, and the thing smelled my weakness.
“Not so defiant now, are you, cat?” I huddled a little closer. My body was playing an entire symphony of pain, and I was not inclined to appreciate the effort it had put into its art. “I think I’ll leave you like this. That human, though… I’ll go kill him. A reminder to the humans that you can’t protect them.” It snorted, and turned away from me. “I remember when I feared you. You’ve gotten weak over the years. Maybe domestication made you fat, and lazy. There was a time when you were a nightmare in the darkness, even more than me. Now you’re just a housecat-”
My nails drove through its stomach and out of its lower back, grabbing hold of something. I squeezed, and the creature let out a gurgling sound. “I’d tell you not to threaten my human, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to settle for being an object lesson.” I squeezed tighter, and something popped. The creature shrank, falling to the ground, disintegrating. Something like rotten egg yolk was on my hand. I was covered in the stinging, burning oil. I fell into a fugue.
I remembered little of the walk home. The street lights flickering on. Pain filling me. Ears ringing, head full of cotton, wrist sore, and the clothing torn from where the oil had burned it. I climbed the fire escape clumsily, forced to use one hand, and stumbled into the apartment through the window. Each breath hurt. Pain was running through my body, as I dragged oily footprints on the ground. The large, soft bed sat in front of me. It smelled of Horace, and I climbed onto the bed, curling up. Pain was tearing at me. It had been an unexpectedly hard day. If the human hadn’t bought me salmon for this, I was going to flay open his arm the next time he pet me.
Lying on the bed, oil dripping onto the sheets, I felt a little bit scared. It had been unexpected, how much the threat of killing the human had frightened me. It was getting harder and harder to find safe places to be. To find humans who would care for me. The thought of being alone again had filled me with terror. Another spasm of agony ran through me, and I began to think about the human again. Where the hell was he? It was past sunset. In the hopes that maybe it would make him hurry home faster, I began to purr softly, the vibration easing the pain while I waited.