The Only City Left: Part Thirteen

You can find the Table of Contents here if you need it.

As a quick reminder, Part 12 ended with Emperor Banshee dropping this bomb on Allin: “There is much your father kept secret from you, Allin.”

The Only City Left: Part Thirteen

Despite my tired, aching body, the Emperor had my complete attention. At last, I would get answers to questions that had been running laps in my mind for the past three years.

“Tell me everything,” I demanded. Then, remembering who I was speaking to, I added, “Please.”

“My boy, I know you are eager to learn these things, and you deserve to know of them, but you are shaking with fever,” Emperor Banshee said.

It was true, I was in a bad way and the long journey here had only exacerbated it. The more I tried to stop the shakes, to hold myself still, the worse it seemed to get.

“You need rest, food, and a cleaning. You are safe here. Let us care for you. When you are recovered, there shall be a feast and we shall speak of events past, present, and future.”

“No, I want to know now!” I insisted.

Banshee raised an eyebrow but otherwise ignored me. He turned to Tumble and said, “Arrange for him to be tended to, and get that bite looked at before it festers.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

I continued to protest as Banshee turned his back to me and ascended to his throne. I even went so far as to push myself to my feet and start to follow him.

Two guards blocked my path, halberds crossed before me, and Tumble tugged insistently at my elbow.

“Come, Allin, all in good time,” he purred.

I looked up at Banshee, who now sat stoic and silent above me. If he held the answers I needed, I could not afford to anger him with a tantrum, but I didn’t need to be happy about it.

“Fine,” I managed to spit out, my teeth clenched. “Let’s go.”

“Ahh, splendid,” Tumble replied nervously. “This way, please.”

I didn’t pay attention to where Tumble led me from that point. It all looked the same to me and my eyelids kept drooping closed anyway, making the trip a series of images interspersed with darkness.

Spiraling ramps, rope ladders, narrow bridges, and then an entrance into an old-world building through a window. That’s all I remember about the trip from the throne platform.

Next thing I knew I was waking up in a bed, a real bed with real sheets and blankets. It was a first for me and I rolled around under the covers simply to feel the play of the smooth fabric on my skin. I never wanted to leave.

Other than the bed, there was a chest of drawers across from me, a table beside the bed, and a light in the ceiling overhead that glowed bright and strong. The floor was covered in a thick, brown carpet and there was a framed triptych of paintings on the wall depicting some nature scene from ages past, with clear blue sky above a dark, foreboding forest. There were two doors leading off the room, one closed and one open to a bathroom, and an open, uncovered window. All in all, it was the most luxurious room I had ever slept in.

As I moved around in the bed, I realized that my body didn’t ache anymore, and my muscles felt fresh and relaxed. I sniffed the air and smelled perfume, ducked down to check my armpit and realized it was coming from me. I marveled at all the cats had accomplished while I had been passed out. I had no idea how much time had passed since I had arrived in Pudlington, but I was clean, rested and healthy, all of which put me in a much better frame of mind.

My clothing had been laid out on the table next to my bed, not the tan set I had worn on the trip to Pudlington, but my original clothing, all clean and dry. My cling-tight boots and cocoon bag were on the floor in front of the table. It looked like the cats had returned all my belongings to me. But what about…?

My hand shot up to my chest and gripped my lantern coil where it hung at the bottom of my necklace. Still there! For a moment I had feared that it might have been removed by someone who didn’t understand its value to me. I squeezed it and let it fall back to my chest.

As good as it felt to lie between clean sheets on a soft bed, I was more excited about the prospect of meeting with Emperor Banshee again. Now that I felt better, he had no excuse to not tell me about Dad and his history with the werewolves. My heart rose into my throat at the thought that I would finally learn why they had been after us. And why they were apparently still after me.

I got up and dressed, put on my cocoon backpack, and stuck my head out of the window. I was not at all surprised to find Tumble on a narrow ledge next to the window, leaning against the building. He was polishing his claws with a cloth.

“Feeling better, I hope?”

“As good as new. How long was I out?”

“Over a day.”

I saw that Tumble’s shoulder was wrapped in a bandage and nodded at it.

“You all better?” I asked.

“Indeed,” he replied, and tucked his polishing cloth away. “Dinner is in two hours. Care to explore Pudlington a little until then?”

I grinned. Climbing through the cat city seemed like a perfect way to keep my mind off of the questions parading through my head.

Pudlington was immense, and so tall I thought for sure that its ceiling had to be the limit of the city’s height. Tumble quickly disabused me of this notion.

“You could fit five or six Pudlington’s on top of one another before you scratch the roof of the world,” he explained.

Besides that minor letdown, crawling through, over, and around Pudlington was a treat. Between my boots and getting used to the sway of the city, I was able to keep up with Tumble and traverse the city like a native.

Everyone we passed seemed cheerful and friendly and engaged in some activity or another. There were hunters chasing down birds, farmers tending hanging gardens, craftsmen repairing and adding on to the city’s network of support ropes, and my favorite, a group of school-kittens led by an exasperated teacher. Pudlington was the most alive place I had ever been in my life and I was the only human present. It didn’t speak well for the future of humanity, I suppose, but I couldn’t help but have my spirits lifted by the vitality of it all.

Soon enough Tumble called a halt to our circumnavigation of the city so that we could head over to the Emperor’s dinner. It was held in a long, rectangular hall, its floor supported by ropes and accessible by ramps and ladders, like most rooms in the city. There was a low railing on three sides of the floor, and at one of the short ends, a full wall covered in fronds and vines, with a waterfall that crested over the top and gathered in a small pool below. It was impressive given that we were untold stories above the ground.

Tumble led me to the low table that filled the hall, around which twenty or so cats were engaged in chatter in small groups.

“The Emperor will sit there,” Tumble explained, pointing to the end of the table by the waterfall. “I will be on his right hand side and you shall sit across from me. It is a place of honor but it means I will not be able to assist you during the meal. Follow the cues, speak when spoken to, be polite.”

“I’ll be a good boy,” I assured him while rolling my eyes.

He arched an eyebrow in return, then gestured that I should take my place.

Banshee dropped in to the room between the table and the waterfall, going down to one knee and then standing back up. The floor perceptibly shook but settled down within a few seconds.

The hum of conversation in the room faded to silence as all the cats turned and acknowledged their Emperor’s presence with a bow.

Without a word, Banshee took his seat, and only when I saw everyone follow suit did I sit down also. The table was so low that I had to kneel in order to be near it.

“Welcome, guests. Tonight we are honored by the presence of this young man who sits beside me,” Banshee addressed the room. “He is here at my request and I wish you all to accord him the highest respect. There is much he needs to learn from us, and likewise much I need to know from him, but first: food and drink in honor of this day!”

With that pronouncement, a line of servers strode into the room bearing the first course, a soup. From that point on it seemed like there was always a line of them snaking around the table, bringing out new dishes, refilling drinks, and clearing the emptied plates away.

It was the most extravagant meal I had ever eaten, and for all I could not recognize some of the courses, everything was delicious, even the rat that Tumble had caught and which was served solely to Banshee, Tumble, and me. It sure as heck beat a steady diet of nutri-bulbs.

As the evening progressed, however, I became more and more antsy to speak with the Emperor, to wring from him every drop of information about my family that he had to give, to find out about my supposed uncle. Keeping silent and answering polite questions might have earned me Tumble’s appreciative smile, but my veneer of pleasant sociality was wearing thin.

Finally, Banshee appeared to be done eating, which signaled the end of everyone’s dining. Servants cleared the remainder of the plates and dishes and set out tall, fluted glasses full of a bubbly, pink liquid in front of each guest.

I must have looked askance at it because Tumble explained from across the table, “Gerrybrook Juice. From the flower of the same name. Never tried it? A delicacy, I assure you, but it packs quite a punch so tread lightly.”

I took a tentative sip and found it to be delightful, not too sweet but with a fizzy kick.

The Emperor quaffed his glass in one gulp and a server immediately refilled it. Glass in hand, he focused on me and said, “You have been exceedingly patient, Allin, for which I thank you. I must ask you to extend that patience further before I answer the questions so plainly written on your face.”

Not again! I thought, but kept my face emotionless. I sipped at my drink to keep from saying anything rash.

The room fell silent as everyone hung on the Emperor’s words.

“You will learn all that we know by evening’s end, I assure you. But first it would be helpful if you could tell us what you know of your parents and their involvement with the werewolves, so I know what gaps in your knowledge need to be filled in.”

That took me aback. To buy some time, I took another sip of that wonderful, frothy nectar and set my cup down carefully before me.

My parents and the werewolves? There was only one story I had to tell on that subject, and I had never shared it with anyone before. Not only because it was too painful, but who would I have told?

Well, now I had an audience and the story needed to be told, even if it shamed me in the process.

I had to force the words past the lump that had formed in my throat, but after a slow, halting start, the story began to pour out of me. I needed to tell this tale.

“We arrived in Glin’s Rising to trade for food,” I began. “And that’s when I met a girl named Tyena.”

As I described her and our instant connection, the cats around the table exchanged curious glances. Perhaps human customs of love sounded strange to them.

I went on to tell of how I wanted to stay in Glin’s Rising, and how Mom and Dad insisted we move on. Of the plan Tyena and I made for her to secretly follow me. Of the fight I had with Mom and Dad when I realized that our visit had put the Glinites in danger. And how I had run away from my parents to go back and make sure Tyena was safe.

I stopped, took another gulp of my drink, and held the glass up to be refilled. I would need a lot more of that heady stuff to give me the courage to finish my story. The story of how I killed my parents.

* * *

Immediately enter “Flashback Mode” with Part Fourteen, or read my notes on this week’s episode first.

5/13/12 News: Part Thirteen is double-sized because I did not want to break it up into two segments and delay the next part even longer. As it is, I had to rush through a few scenes to fit in everything I wanted and keep it to 2,000 words or so. Allin summarizes some details of his story at the end here. Astute readers will recognize it as the Cliff’s Notes version of the flashback sequence that began in Part Four and ended in Part Seven. The rest of that flashback sequence will unfold over the course of the next four weeks.

Thanks to everyone for reading. Comments are always appreciated; I’d love to know who is reading and what you think. For my new readers, welcome! Care to let me know how you found The Only City Left? Finally, if you could share the link to this story with even one person who you think might enjoy it, I’d be ever so appreciative. Thanks!

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The Only City Left: Part Twelve

Click Part Eleven to find out what happened last time. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Twelve

After Tumble handed off his prize rat to a page with orders to send it to the royal chef, we made our way up a series of ramps into Pudlington proper. The clearance was enough that I could stand up straight, but I often found myself leaning against walls and posts on the way. Tumble continued his role as proud tour guide, but it was all a grey buzz in my ears as I forced my rubbery legs to keep moving.

Walking inside Pudlington was a dizzying affair, as the entire city swayed minutely but continuously. Not a problem for the sure-footed feline inhabitants, but in my sorry state I felt about to plunge to my death with every step and sway. The lack of railings and uniform color of the city were no help, either. It felt like climbing through a moving optical illusion.

Sensing my distress, Tumble took my hand and led me the rest of the way, for which I was grateful.

Soon we reached a long, thin ramp that led down at a slight angle to a wide platform in what I took to be the very center of the city. Other such ramps radiated out from it like spokes, and between them were great ropes that came down from somewhere above to hold the platform up.

In the very center of the platform, Emperor Banshee sat on a raised throne atop a set of circular stairs. He was a beast, more the size of a small child than a large cat, with a thick chocolate-grey coat marred here and there by bald patches. As I approached him, I could see ample scarring on his exposed skin.

Six guards in ornate costumes held vigil around the circular dais. They wore black caps that each had one large, white feather sticking straight up out of them, and held tall halberds by their side. Other cats milled about the platform talking in small groups, but quieted as we approached.

Once we reached the base of the stairs, Tumble let go my hand and climbed three steps to stand one below the throne. He turned and announced, “His Royal Feline, Emperor Banshee LXXVI, welcomes Allin Arcady into His presence. You may kneel.”

It took me a few beats until I realized he meant I should kneel.

“Not a chance,” I replied.

This caused a flurry of consternation amongst the cats gathered on the platform. The two guards nearest to hand stood straighter and gripped their halberds more tightly, and Tumble rolled his eyes and brought one hand to his forehead.

“You refuse to bow to a mere cat, is that it?” came Emperor Banshee’s deep rumble of a voice as he leaned forward to inspect me.

I quailed under his gaze.

“It’s not that at all, your Emperor… ness, sir,” I explained. “It’s been a really long day. If I kneel, I won’t be able to stand up again.”

Banshee continued to glare down at me for some time. When he stood up and started to stalk down the steps toward me, I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have just knelt. Angering the Emperor in the center of his realm was not my brightest move ever, but I was so tired I hardly cared.

Once he realized what Banshee was doing, Tumble practically tripped over himself to precede him down the steps. If he planned on interposing himself between us, he was not quick enough. Banshee stopped one step above the floor, placed his hands on my shoulders, and looked me in the eyes.

“Sit,” he commanded me, and gently pushed me to the ground.

There was concern in his voice and touch, not the rough treatment I had expected, so I acquiesced and sat down, cross-legged. The Emperor sat down on the bottom step facing me, put his elbow on his knee, and rested his chin on his fist.

The members of the court tittered nervously and Tumble kept looking back and forth between us, unsure of what to do or say next to deal with this breach of protocol.

“Good boy,” Banshee said, and patted me on the head.

Polite laughs broke out and Tumble released a deep sigh. Even I couldn’t help but offer a chagrined smile in return.

“Allin Arcady, you are probably most interested to learn how it is that we have come to know of you,” Banshee said in his deep, growling voice.

I nodded mutely in reply.

Banshee stood up and paced back and forth on the step before me as he spoke, gesturing for emphasis frequently.

“With the decline of Man, much of the city called Earth lies fallow. In some places, such as this one, new beings have arrived to fill the void. Not all such beings are friendly, however. Some detest life and will not be content until the entire world is a hollow, lifeless sphere. Others seek ever to expand their empire, to put themselves in a place of lordship over the remaining pockets of life that survive here and there in this shell of a city.”

He stopped before me and leaned in. “The werewolves are one such race. Long have they been our mortal enemy, and though the world at large be not aware, long have we striven to halt their aggression and to keep them contained.

“Although he did so for selfish reasons, your father aided us and struck a great blow against the werewolves. It is in his memory that we have kept track of your adventures, Allin.”

“You’ve been watching me?” I asked, indignant and unbelieving at the same time.

“We have felt the ripples you have caused,” Banshee explained enigmatically, twitching his whiskers.

“So why bring me here all of a sudden? What changed?”

“When we heard that your uncle had picked up your trail, we knew we had to get to you first.”

I tilted my head to the side and scrunched up my face, “What are you talking about? I don’t have an uncle.”

The face of the werewolf ghost in his human form sprang suddenly to my mind.

“There is much your father kept secret from you, Allin.”

* * *

Click ahead to Part Thirteen to wring the secrets from Emperor Banshee (or read my notes below first, if you can stand the suspense).

5/6/12 News: I think it is kind of amusing that I started this piece of the story with Tumble and his dead rat, but I had to get rid of the rat somehow and it is just fit there. The alternative was to take that line out of the previous post, but I enjoyed that joke too much to excise it. That’s just how I roll.

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The Only City Left: Part Ten

Part Nine is right behind here if you need it. And here’s the Table of Contents.

The Only City Left: Part Ten

I raised an eyebrow at the note. I had never heard of this Emperor Banshee and I certainly had no idea how he had ever heard of me. Dad had warned me about accepting gifts from strangers, but as I was otherwise naked and liable to freeze outside of the cocoon, I didn’t hesitate to make use of the clothing despite any misgivings.

Before I dressed, I drank from my towel reservoir and then toweled myself off again from head to toe. No point in getting these nice dry clothes soaked with sweat the minute I put them on. By the time I got down to my feet, I could already feel more sweat beading on my forehead, and even though I had emptied the reservoir, I still felt incredibly thirsty. As I had feared, swimming through and swallowing some of that brackish water had done me no good. Whatever I had picked up, my body was in full attack mode against it, and I felt achy and sweaty and miserable.

The dry clothing cheered me up, though. The shirt, pants, and jacket were all a light tan in color and everything fit me perfectly. The shoes were ordinary red-and-white sneakers and I briefly mourned the loss of my black cling-tights, but mostly I was curious about how my mysterious royal benefactor knew so much about me all the way down to my shoe size.

The note provided no answers. I checked the back side for more information, like how to find the Emperor, but it was blank. I shook my head, shrank and packed my cocoon, and left the small apartment unsure of where to go next.

On a lark, I turned left down the hallway but only made it a few feet before a tiny voice sounded from behind me.

“Hey, what’s the rush?”

I jerked straight and spun around so quickly on one foot that, in my fevered state, I got dizzy and had to slump against a wall to keep from falling.

“You don’t look so good. We better get you to the Emperor’s Court. He’ll get you fixed up.”

I blinked, forcing my eyes to focus and re-focus, not quite believing them. I was being addressed by a cat, a talking cat. He had gray and white fur, a thin frame, and was standing on his hind legs with his front paws resting on his hips. He wore a red-and-white loincloth and had a gun strapped across his back at an angle.

I had heard tales of such creatures but always as myths or as stories of genetic experiments that had disappeared along with the majority of humankind.

He approached me cautiously, waving his right hand at me as if to clear the air. I squinted and leaned in for a better look and, sure enough, he had an opposable thumb. Definitely genetically altered, then, but not so much disappeared.

“Woo-hoo, you in there, Mr. Arcady?” he asked, holding up one claw and moving it left to right before my eyes.

“How do you know my name?”

“It speaks! Good. Now come on, all your questions will be answered, your ills cured, and your—” he scrunched his nose and twitched his white whiskers “—bathing needs attended to, if you’ll simply follow me.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Oh, of course, where are my manners? My name is Tumble, Royal Envoy of the Emperor’s Court.”

That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but I thought it would be impolite to ask, “What are you?”

“This way then?” Tumble suggested, bowing slightly and waving his hand back toward where I had come from.

I shrugged and followed him. It’s not like I had any more specific place to go, Tumble didn’t seem dangerous despite the gun on his back, and anyway, I was curious about meeting more like him and finding out how they knew about me.

Tumble pointed out this or that landmark to me as we walked, places where great (feline) battles had occurred, commissaries that still bore the scent of food to a cat’s fine sense of smell even after being abandoned for hundreds of years, that sort of thing. He droned on like this for the entire journey as we moved through one indistinguishable hallway after another. Should I have wanted to, I would never be able to figure out how to get back to where we started from.

My feline guide knew so much about the history of this area, I interrupted him and asked, “What happened to the people who used to live here? The humans.”

“Ah, therein lies much speculation and little known truth. This sector has been ours for centuries. Some say it was ceded to us when the cats rebelled against their cruel and awful masters. No offense to present company, I assure you. Others claim that this sector became ours when the humans simply abandoned it, but there are as many stories about why they left as there are empty rooms around us. But, oh, we’re here!”

Here was a dead-end at the end of a hallway.

“It may be a tight fit for you, but I assure you it’s only for a small while. Follow me.”

Tumble stood at the wall and then sprang up its face. His claws were out but it seemed that he barely touched the surface before sliding under a loose grate and into a ventilation duct set into the wall about two feet above my head.

He popped his head back out and the grate swung upward on its top hinge. I could see that the duct was only about as wide as my body. This would not be a pleasant experience.

“Hand me your bag, young sir, and I’ll carry it for you.”

I balked at that; all my possessions except the lantern coil were in there. If he had wanted the bag, though, he could have taken it from me while I was passed out, so I handed it up.

Tumble held the grate open long enough for me to pull myself up and get my head and arms in, and then he had to back away to give me room. After a series of kicks, pulls, and wiggles, I made it into the coffin-like embrace of the duct and the grate slammed shut behind me. Ahead of me was empty ductwork for as far as my coil could illuminate; Tumble was nowhere to be seen.

* * *

Head further into the ducts with Part Eleven (or read my notes on Part Ten first).

4/22/12 News: Yes, I am one of those people who likes to put talking cats in my stories. I’m sure readers either love this or hate this, but there it is. And you know that if humankind ever develops the technology, talking cats (and dogs, and ferrets, whatever) will be a reality, because how cool would that be.

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