The Cat’s Cradle was a tiny little sub-pocket of reality, just like the Mystryal Islands are. All the tiny different entrances scattered across the globe? Every entrance leads here. And best part is, that only people who NEED to be here are allowed in. If you aren’t let in, or don’t have a key, you simply aren’t getting in. As for the key itself? Those special people had it simply grafted onto their souls long, long ago- manifesting as a pair of cat ears and a tail that only those with another key can see.
Walking through the massive cavern, Mikari saw countless people buying, selling, and peddling various goods- legal or not. Quite a few market stands that she saw at a glance appeared to be perfectly legal businesses that were operating down here in this strange underworld. There were even a few bank tellers operating, some whose stalls even had long cable lines trailing out for a few good yards above them before vanishing abruptly into thin air.
Sure, fences were definitely laundering and fencing obviously stolen goods… but that seemed to be a small minority of business going on, for today, at least. There were apartments, some small restaurants- everything in this cavern, the “Cat’s Cradle,” were various facets of the surface world, all merged together under one non-corporeal roof.
“It’s like an underground replica of Mystryal,” Mikari commented on the similarity, and Hergie laughed.
“Oh! Yeah, there’s a reason for that,” The Matron of Luck began. “Hecate and I made our respective realms at the same time with the same base idea: a place for people to work and live in- in isolation if need be- with all the necessities of life provided. I liked the stars, and Hecate liked the underground caverns. We both chose the locations based on the others’ pasts before we met each other.”
“Aww! That’s adorable,” Ayako smiled.
“Yeah, it’s cute, like a newborn kitten,” Hergie giggled, then grew serious. “Speaking of newborns,” Hergie turned on her heels- golden furred tail swishing this way and that to counter balance as she locked eyes with Detective Kaie. “I wanna speak with you all after this kidnapping business is all over and done with. About what happened in Eggtown.”
Kaie gulped out a “Yes, ma’am.”
And then Hergie was moving again, almost as if she hadn’t taken the time to spin around so dramatically to deliver that declaration.
They arrived at what seemed to be a perfectly ordinary apartment building copied from Mystryal’s residential district, except it had been uprooted and somehow was sticking sideways out of an invisible wall of some kind. The stairs to the entrance seemed to have twisted along with the building’s orientation, but were still perfectly serviceable. Somehow.
Gravity, after all, seemed to stick to the stairs, regardless of where gravity actually should have been coming from.
“Ehh… just a head’s up,” Hergie said, casually standing at an acute angle to what should have been the level ground, “Hecate’s been a little upset since the other night. This place isn’t usually so out of sorts.”
Mikari heard Kaie mutter something about “Reality Warpers” under his breath as he rubbed at his left arm before starting the walk up the oddly twisting stairs towards the front entrance of the sideways building. Walking up such odd stairs was disorienting, and yet at the same time, was not. It was almost as if reality simply didn’t care about how the visuals were all twisted about.
Kaie seemed merely disoriented for a few moments, but was holding on just fine. Mikari didn’t have much trouble with it. Tony nearly threw up, leaving a barely phased Ayako to help him up the stairs while he tried to contain his lunch inside his stomach. Hergie seemed mildly amused at the thought of watching which way the puke would fly if he lost control.
Once the outside world was no longer visible to those heading inside, however, everyone seemed to adjust to what should be “normal,” and they continued into the building, whose insides definitely did not match the decor of the outside. First and foremost, the outside was definitely larger than the inside. It really was basically just a plain mud and dirt built hut on the inside.
Inside, a werewolf made out of golden archery bows and solid gold spheres sat waiting- everything seemed held together by string. Next to it, Ahven and Mila sat, almost meditating, possibly even asleep.
Hergie gave off a soft, almost imperceptible ‘mew’ sound, and in response, glowing blue orbs appeared on the strange werewolf’s head where eyes would be. “Hecate,” Hergie smiled. “They’re here.”
The strange Werewolf observed Tony and Ayako for a few moments before suddenly being something completely different. In a stepped transition: the metal frame was suddenly humanoid- simpler with fewer parts- and then just as suddenly was not a frame of metal bows and strings, but instead a suit of armor colored just the same as the metal of the bows.
There had been no “In-between” forms, the being standing across from them, who almost certainly was the ancient hunter known as Hecate the Pathfinder, had simply just changed multiple times in the blink of an eye.
And then, they spoke.
“I see my agents of Justice have arrived.” The voice that came through the helmet was gender neutral- neither male nor female- but it was not synthetic, or supernaturally powered in any way. It was as natural and organic of a voice as any mortal, unmodulated in any way save for the fact that a helmet blocked the mouth and should have suppressed some sound, but it wasn’t blocked at all. With a quick snap of their fingers, they ordered the two meditating next to him to Wake Up.
And they did, opening their eyes and easing out of their held stances, though grimacing at sore muscles from however long they’d been sitting still.
“Eeesh, did we really have to wait so long?” Ahven inquired, rolling his shoulders and flexing his wings.
“Oh?” Mila blinked. “What’s with the armor?” And then she realized that they had company. “Oh! Hi! You must be the detectives!”
The casualness of speaking while being next to such a powerful creature, even inquiring if the time spent had been worth it… The Pathfinder, Hecate, held such a presence that even Mikari found herself staring in awe and respect. And yet, Hecate seemed to be such a permanent part of this odd community that these two thieves had become used to their presence enough to become casual with their presence despite what they represented to the Justice side of the equation.
It didn’t help matters any that Hergie slipped up alongside Hecate, and held one solidly armored arm against her front. Tony stared on. The contrast in the light, cloth based clothing Hergie wore, compared to that massively armored Pathfinder… There was something adorable about it, he couldn’t deny it.
“Hecate,” And then Detective Kaie took a step forwards. “Chief Llewellyn sends her regards.”
“Your daughter is well, I hope?” Hecate, the Pathfinder, asked of him.
“Angry at me because I had to leave for this case so soon after the last one,” Kaie shrugged. “So in the interests of getting back to her so I can apologize, can we get down to business?”
The direct tone from the Detective, however, was what made Tony stare up at the detective in surprise. Over the bond, Tony could feel that Ayako knew some of the backstory that existed here, and he felt the sad feelings tied to it. So taking his cue from Ayako, he simply smiled sadly even if he didn’t know the reason for it yet.
“Right then,” Hecate nodded. “The matter at hand.”
And so Mila retold the story, of returning home one morning thirteen years ago and discovering her parents dead, and her a sister kidnapped. “That was about thirteen years ago,” She said. “Thirteen years we’ve been searching, and now we’ve finally found my sister.”
“Princess Tooly Vahn Failur de Lah Guar,” Ahven spoke the name, “supposed daughter of King Kamoran Sutrah de Lah Guar and Queen Hakaru Vahn Failur de Lah Guar, heir to the throne of the previous King and Queen.”
“On their way into town, before they discovered that the Princess was her lost sister, Mila and Ahven discovered a Lycan skeleton half buried in the sand outside the city, bones picked clean by scavengers and bleached by Cypher,” Hecate spoke, declaring facts for what they were. “I traced that skeleton’s remaining blood traces back to the Royal Jackals of Fai’lah Guard, which confirmed him to be the lost Prince, Utchra Failur de Lah Guar, who died thirteen years ago during the same unobserved trip around the Ehm’ma continent that the Princess was supposedly born during.”
“It goes without saying that if the royalty of Kah’tan’na Port find out about this on their own, they’re going to go to war over the De Lah Guars’ deceptions,” Hergie rolled her eyes. “And war is the last thing anyone needs with Kyiahlnah on the loose again.”
“Wait, hold on one second,” Ayako spoke up. “You said-” pointing at Mila- “your sister was an infant when she was taken?” Mila nodded. “And it’s been thirteen years since then?” Another nod, which prompted Ayako to turn towards Hecate, “How old is the prince she’s going to be marrying!?”
“Fourteen, the same age as the Princess will be in a few days,” Hecate answered in an instant, and then observed the way Ayako reacted.
“Fourteen?!” Ayako blinked, ears flattening in surprise as she processed that. “O… kay, that’s not bad… I guess…” She scowled, “But why are they getting married Now!?”
“Because of an arranged marriage planned out over two decades ago,” Hecate answered. “The original plan was for the Princess of Kah’tan’na Port to marry the Prince of Fai’lah Guard, however, as the terms of the arrangement dictated, the Royal Family of Fai’lah Guard would be merged into the Royal Family of Kah’tan’na Port, which would increase the land holdings of the Gi’ahn’na Continent, and give full control over the land bridge to them.” Hecate paused, “The Queen of Kah’tan’na port, however, consistently birthed sickly, female heiresses, who often never survived longer than a year.”
“It wasn’t all natural, as a matter of fact,” Hergie added. “I asked Yaovi to check before I called for you all. Every infant from that family that she reaped the soul showed signs of magical poison. Their luck wasn’t just really bad. The mother was getting affected by it as well, and she wouldn’t survive but one more pregnancy… in which she gave birth to a boy.”
“The current prince,” Kaie nodded.
“From there, King Kamoran and Queen Hakaru had the excuse to reverse their agreement,” Ahven added. “Birth a female heiress, marry her to the foreign prince, and the land deal would go the other way around.” He paused. “Except for one problem.”
“Queen Hakaru became infertile some time after giving birth to her son, according to private medical records I, ah, borrowed,” Hergie shook her head. “We think she was using dark witch craft to cause the deaths of the male heirs of the other family, and the backlash caught up with her at some point- forcing the kidnapping to make an heiress before the arranged marriage contract fell through.”
“So they took a short tour around the world, under the pretense of getting Queen Hakaru pregnant, to kidnap an infant who was human, of the right age, and could be turned into a Lycan,” Mila concluded. “Then they killed their own son to prevent him from speaking out in case he ever grew a conscience.”
“So how do we go about this without starting a war?” Kaie asked.
“The answer is simple,” Hecate said before she suddenly became the spitting image of the Princess they were seeking to rescue. Her eyes shone with an unnatural hue of blue before settling down to a normal appearance. “We’re going to make them unveil everything and forfeit their plans all on their own.”
“W-What the…? What just happened?” Tony couldn’t help but stare awkwardly at the transformed Pathfinder, whose whole body had simply changed, voice and all, to that of of the soon-to-be fourteen year old girl she now looked like. Really, hearing the plan coming out of Hecate’s mouth would have been disturbing enough, but with the added tone of voice of a fourteen year old…? “I can’t be the only one creeped out by this, am I?” Tony whispered to Ayako.
“I’m not entirely sure what to think of this, really,” Ayako whispered in return.
Kaie just sighed and planted his hand to his forehead, “Are you really going to impersonate a little kid in public?”
“Oh no,” Hecate said, and the effect was still just as weird as before. “I’m not even going to leave this room. Instead, someone else will take her place for a little bit while you get the real Princess to safety. Just in case something goes wrong and the parents have some kind of back up plan in place.” Hecate eyed Ayako, and gave a kind smile. “I can think of no one better to replace a Lycan girl than another Lycan.”
Ayako gulped. “Oh.. that’s…”
“And while that’s going on,” Hergie smiled, “I’m going to have a little chat with the parents.” And then that smile turned into a predatory smirk, “And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s someone who has the gall to murder their own flesh and blood over a kidnapping.”
Hecate approached Ayako, and asked her, “I can smell your unease. But rest assured, what I will be casting on you is merely a ward that will make the outside observer think they’re seeing you as the Princess. I would never dare mess with the internal morphology of anyone other than myself without their permission.”
Ayako considered it for a few moments, then nodded. “I’ll do it.”
“Good.” And then Hecate touched Ayako’s nose with a single finger. In a blast of blue light, the image of Princess Tooly shifted off of Hecate’s metal frame body and flew over Ayako’s form like water flows down a stream. A moment later, the light faded, and yet Ayako stood there unchanged.
“Um…” Mikari blinked. “She didn’t change.”
Hecate’s metal frame, still the same height as the Princess Tooly had been, turned without a creak to its frame, even as the head tilted at a slight angle, “Of course she wouldn’t to you. You are not an outside observer.”
Mikari blinked again, and then again. Then, finally, “Oh. I guess that makes sense.”
“So…. what exactly is going on with Hecate asking about Kendal?” Tony asked as they exited the building.
“Kendal isn’t exactly stable, soul magic wise,” Ayako sighed. “When Miss Nahgi became Chief, she was let into a lot of top secret things, one of which she told Detective Kaie, who told Mom, who told me- that’s basically part of what we’ve all heard so far tonight. The whole ‘two sides one coin’ thing, I guess?”
“Alright,” Tony nodded.
“One of the first things Miss Nahgi did when she became chief was summon Hecate to see if there was anything they could do for Kendal’s soul,” Ayako answered. “At the time, Hecate couldn’t do anything for Kendal that wouldn’t result in the Pyromander magic in her running wild. What happened to her during that botched summoning ritual when her mother died did something to the flame magic deep within her soul, and mangled it.” She shook her head. “What should be a normal human-to-pyromander conversion is going to kill her. The Fire Magic is going to overwrite everything about Kendal’s body right now and it might even damage her soul to the point even Yaovi couldn’t recover it.”
“And they can’t remove it?” Tony asked, frowning.
“Hecate can’t directly remove that flame magic without killing Kendal, and it’s going to kill her regardless, once it fully ignites. So unless we can figure out some other way of stopping it, sealing it, she’s gonna die,” She paused. “I guess they’ve been working on it in the mean time.”
“But it’s Hecate! The Pathfinder!” Tony just couldn’t believe it. “How bad can it be that it can’t be magic’d away in a deal?”
“They’re not gods, Tony,” Ayako answered with a sigh. “They’re not all powerful, they’re not all knowing. They’re not even Immortal like the legends claim. Mizar and Alcor are dead- remember?”
“How could that even be right?” Tony asked. “They made the world, right?”
“They may have made our world, but Mizar, Alcor, every single one of them are just as fallible as we are.” Ayako replied, “Made just as many mistakes as we have… maybe even more so because of how long they’ve lived.” A pause, then she nodded. “I’m sure of that now, for some reason. Sometimes living forever really is a curse.”
Tony couldn’t find it in his heart to disagree.
“Why do you think we even need to be here, Yuki?” Kaie asked of Mikari as they walked out.
Yes, he definitely was leading this part of the conversation as a teacher. That was how most teachers at the Academy addressed their questions during class.
“Hm,” Mikari blinked. “Because we need to observe everything and make sure it’s done by the book?”
“Close, but no,” Kaie shook his head. “Think again about the question I asked. Why are we HERE? Right here and now on today of all days?”
“What?” Mikari was feeling rather confused at the moment, but something was definitely starting to make sense. “Because…” She frowned. “Because we only found out about the murdered prince and the fact that the princess is a kidnapped girl…” and then her eyes widened, “because Mila and Ahven discovered it today?”
“Hergie- the very personification of Luck- had no clue about the treachery going on here until those two kids stumbled upon the very mystery dangling in front of their faces,” Kaie answered with a nod. “She may subtly direct people along the flow of Luck, but luck doesn’t always equate to knowledge.” Kaie grimaced. “She might even push an extra-ordinary amount of luck towards their quest, but Hergie had no way of knowing where their discoveries would lead, or what the final outcome would be.”
As if sensing that she was being talked about, Hergie, walking ahead of them by some ways, glanced back over at Kaie and Mikari, wriggled her ears a little, and flashed a slightly pained smile.
“And things like that?” Mikari asked.
“That? That is her having cat ears and acknowledging that we’re talking within her hearing range,” Kaie replied with a dry chuckle. “The truth of this world is, Mikari Yuki, that one person cannot know everything that is going on at once.” He nodded back at Hergie, whose smile became a little more at ease in response. He paused, as if balancing some delicate fact with the case at hand. “You know the idea that the Reaper’s Luck Charms allow her to see into the lives of those wearing them?”
Mikari nodded. “Me and Aikari used to wear them before she… ah…”
“Then you probably know the truth already, or suspected it to some degree.” He shook his head, “Hecate once confirmed that it’s just a bogus superstition the Reaper puts on for her public appearance. The charms are just pieces of metal with paint on them. There’s no magic involved at all, but people still believe in the supposed power.”
“I kinda figured that was the case,” Mikari admitted.
“There’s no physical way for anyone- even the Creators of this world- to be aware of every detail going on all at the same time,” Kaie concluded. “It’s why the Lamia’s have their Sight limited. That kind of knowledge can drive normal people to insanity, let alone the ones most people worship as gods.”
“Mrh,” Mikari thought on that for a moment, then said, “Which they aren’t. Gods are far away, manipulative, secretive. Only a god can be Omnipotent, and that kind of absolute power corrupts absolutely. Either you micromanage everything with that kind of power and get declared a tyrant, or you do nothing, and get called apathetic, callous, uncaring. The Creators aren’t either.”
“Which brings me back to the original question. Why are we here?” Kaie asked, almost rhetorically, because just as Mikari opened her mouth to respond to that when a new voice interjected into the conversation.
“Oh, Hey! Imp girl!”
“Huh?” Mikari turned upon hearing the voice of that Undine boy cry out from behind her. “Oh, uh, Hi,” She wasn’t quite sure why he was coming back around again.
There hadn’t been any mention of him in the plans to rescue the kidnapped Princess from the royal family. So what was he doing here? Wait. Were those goggles in his hand?
“Here!” The Undine boy (What had Hergie called him? Grady? Eugo? No, Close, but not that-) held out the goggles that he’d brought to show her.
“You actually found a set?” Mikari blinked in surprise as she took the goggles from him. A completely different style from the goggles that the Undine (Yuu…Gram?) wore himself– going by the squishy, sort of rubber looking rims, she was assuming his were water-tight. These ones he was presenting were more ventilated, less seal-able. Which made sense. His were likely meant to work in water, these, on the other hand, were probably just regular goggles for wearing in the sun.
Just what she needed, really.
“Yup,” He nodded. “The trader who sells them works down here on days like today.”
“Huh,” Mikari smiled. “What luck.” Euuu… Grant? Wait, no, that was a stupid mashup of sounds that didn’t belong together. “Thanks…!” She held out her hand to shake it.
“Eugene,” He took her hand and shook it. “Eugene Gohan. And it wasn’t any big deal. I’m always eager and glad to help out people who need it, miss-?”
“Yuki,” She introduced herself, “Mikari Yuki.”
“Yuu~ kii~,” He stretched out the vowels, as if memorizing the sound of her name, and then smiled, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Yuki.”
“Likewise, Mister Gohan,” Mikari smiled in return.
“Please, just call me Eugene. Mister Gohan was my dad,” The Undine laughed, almost as if embarrassed.
“Okay,” She smiled, making sure to remember his name as well. “It was nice meeting you, Eugene.”
And then whatever moment was to happened was oh so rudely interrupted by Ayako taking a picture with an imaging gem- the flash being bright enough so as to be audible.
“Aya!!!” Mikari spun on her heels and cast a glare at Ayako, who was trying her best to disguise her giggles as coughing, and failing to do such, all while hiding the recording gem back into one of her belt pockets.
“Hehe,” The Lycan girl giggled at her fellow student. “Now we’re even!”
Eugene, who had no idea what that referred to, could only blink in confusion and mutter, “Did I miss something?”