Monday, February 10, 2020

Queen of the Cats 13. Of Observation and Arrivals

By the end of the night, Danny and Jason had found seven herds of the dead and twenty two men and women equipped as a rag tag militia. Well, not so rag-tag considering the number of guns and amount of ammunition they were toting along.

Only Daniel had a near run-in as a loose rock dropped out from under his foot and threatened to tumble him into a pit full of the dead. When the guards came to check out the noise, he had somehow managed to spider climb inside the overhanging roots of an ancient oak and hang there, silent and motionless. For half an hour, with gunmen above and hungry corpses below, he mentally recited his favorite speeches and monologues from Shakespeare to Dune, trying not to think of the pain gathering in his back and shoulder. By the time the militia boys had wandered back to their beers, Danny had silently slipped out of his hiding place and slithered back up to the leafy forest floor. He memorized all of their faces so he could be sure to personally terminate them in repayment for his pain and suffering. He was too old for this tree-dangling superhero crap.

He took counts on the herd then swiped a can of gas and box of ammo from the militia truck. He applied the contents of both quite liberally to the milling dead in the hollow, watching the gas soak into their clothing and the dry leaves below them. He really did admire how well their shuffling steps camouflaged the dumped rounds of ammo under the leaf litter. That, Danny thought with a grin, would be super fun for those assholes in camo to find.

Danny transmitted his intel by radio and made it back to the barn just behind Jason. Yep, he'd hear about that for at least a day. Back at the big table, everyone had gone quiet waiting for them.

     "So, seven herds?" Nix asked.
     "And 22 bad guys. Plus whoever shows up pretending to be selling produce for the Day family." Jason finished.
     "Well, shit." Nix groaned.
     "Yeah. Pretty much. But I have some really hilarious ideas" Danny tried to grin but grimaced while rolling his shoulder.
     "Oh? Enlighten me, brother" Jason smirked at his brother and slipped him a pill and glass of water.
     "Well, how many pressure plates do you think we can make in a day, rig to explosives and then bury under the cover of darkness right in front of militia idiots and hungry, hungry corpses?" Danny asked, swallowing back the pill and some additional offered naproxen.
     "Hmmm, at least seven. Eight or nine if we play some Norwegian death metal while we work." Jason nodded sagely.
     "Danny, can you do this with a reasonable chance of not killing you and your brother? I really don't want to have to keep up the house by myself." the General asked in a firm but not unkind voice. It was clear that he was a bit concerned.
     "Solid 70/30 odds, sir. Are you good without either of us being here? We are going to need to work at the house and well... deliver the pizzas directly to the kids" Danny answered, motioning his chin in the direction of the forest.
     "Hey Nix, save us some Applejack. We're going to earn it" Jason grinned.
     "Try not to die. Again." The General shook the hand of each son and exchanged some quiet words.
     "Just a head's up, we're going to take a roll by the Day farm on the way home. If it looks like any of the ladies are being held as captives we'll be doing a bit of captor extermination and hostage extraction." Jason's arms were folded across his chest. He was no longer smiling.
     "We have a bigger problem here, son..."
     "Dad, this isn't a negotiation." Danny cut in. "We'll take the ladies back to the compound and set them up in the bunk house and infirmary. We're not leaving them there a minute longer than necessary. They are good women, good girls, good neighbors and we aren't monsters." Danny finished and nodded to his brother. The General nodded to both. The guys headed for the truck then the General turned back to the gathered group. "Time to get back to work."

Once the good times special forces lads were gone, the setup for market day began in earnest. Outside, stalls were being staked out and canvas hung while trucks and carts were backed into place. Inside the barn, a 15 foot walkway had been marked out with rope, keeping a clear lane around the interior perimeter of the barn. Family and single sized sleep spaces were marked out and some were claimed by the early and vigilant arrivals. Members of the council were carefully spaced around the barn so that there weren't any dark corners left un-watched.

Stalls for horses and livestock were setup beneath the great hayloft and some solar powered lights were hung from the underside of the loft to illuminate this darkest area of the barn. A few stalls were taken up by teen boys who would make a little money by turning the stalls and doing feed and water runs. The barn had been set up so no one had direct access to the walls where they could be unobserved and the darkest sections of the space had been reworked with lights and young eyes to keep watch. It was the best they would be able to do on the short notice of 24 hours.

With that setup complete they didn't have to wait long for more excitement. Within a few hours two interesting things occurred. First, a small army of tired cats arrived, many carrying small bags and packets in their mouths. The odd parade of black and calico and tabby was led by Sampson and they ignored all manner of beasts and people, instead they just walked inside the barn, found Nix and followed her to her family size reserved space. The four walls had been hung with canvas from the partition rope above and James had helped her find some extra lumber to construct cat benches along the sides of the allotted area. The wagon had been cleared out for Nix to sleep in, her sale goods were stacked underneath and low, wide benches were covered in fresh straw onto which the cats hopped and settled down. Nix collected all of their small packages, kissed Sampson all over his face, and placed him in her own bed to sleep. Garibaldi climbed into the wagon and laid down in a guard position in front of his best friend. Sampson's sleep would not be disturbed.

About two hours later, the huge produce wagon from the Day farm came rolling up the track with a team of four massive warm blood horses pulling the heavy load where usually six were used. The harness and traces were jumbled and poorly strapped in places. The horses were sweat soaked and foaming, clearly having done more work than was meant for them. The members of the council looked askance at each other, each hating to see their awful predictions coming true. Nix felt like a stone had been placed in her heart so that it stuttered in its beating. James and other young men ran up to unhitch the horse team quickly. The horses badly needed water and to be cooled down and calmed down. Their wide rolling eyes began to settle under the hands of people familiar with horses and they allowed themselves to be lead away into the barn. As he passed, James gave Nix a long, meaningful look. He did not suffer well the abuse of animals.

Three people sat on the front bench of the wagon and had not helped a bit with unhitching. Now, with the work done, they began to gather their belongings and descend from the wagon. One man and two women stepped down and beamed their smiles at the gathered crowd. Not a single one of them was a member of the Day family.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Queen of the Cats 12. Party Planners

As she pulled up to the group of young people splitting wood and digging the fire pit, Nix halted her wagon. As a fellow lead homesteader, even just in his mid-20's also, James Early set down his ax and came forward to greet Nix as another member of the council. He looked a touch perplexed at the broad smile from the usually wry and sarcastic young woman, but as he started to open his mouth to ask if she had taken a fall and somehow become nicer, Nix rushed him with a boisterous greeting "James! I am so happy to see you! Come here! I have a present for you!". She hugged the young man fiercely as if reunited with a paramour and whispered in his ear "We have big trouble James, I need you to roll with my lead. Treat me like any other girl."

James pulled back enough so she could watch his face re-shape into a giant grin as he picked her up under the arms and swung her in a circle. As he placed her back on the ground he returned her greeting with "Oh, I bet you do Miss Alexandria" and planted a huge smack of a kiss right on her lips as Nix kept herself from biting him and only snarled a bit at the use of her middle name. She never should have drank that bottle of applejack with him, but that was a couple years and a lot of cares ago. "Follow me!" she winked and nodded for James to follow.

Rather than unhitching her wagon outside, Nix drove Cow and her wagon directly into the barn with James walking just behind, scratching Garibaldi who was a whore for his belly rubs. It was plausible that her wares were delicate and couldn't stay outside or could be ruined by the moisture of dew or a light rain. Nix drove straight to the far wall where the big council table was set up for any meetings or decisions that needed to be made.

"James, we have a big damned problem. Who else is here from the council is here? We need all of them and every map we have but we need to look calm and normal because we are very much being watched. and within 48 hours they will have slipped spies in among us." Nix dropped Cow's rope and sank into a chair, finally realizing the toll that even a few hours had taken on her. In them, she had relived the deaths of everyone from her childhood and imagined the deaths of everyone she knew as an adult dozens of times while trying to act like a regular person, a task at which she was already no good.

"Nix, what the hell? Who is watching us? Spies? What problem is this?" James looked confused but not panicked as he asked. He was not a young man given to sudden and thoughtless responses. "Well, someone has collected a bunch of dead folks in small paddocks spaced around this farm and those dead include the freshly killed Day men. I'm betting they are going to drop those dead herds on us during the harvest bonfire and win themselves a bunch of valleys and homesteads and goods all in one night." Nix rasped.

"Yeah. Shit. That's a big damned problem. I'll get everyone. You have a sit and a drink." James squeezed Nix's shoulder and slipped a flask into her hand. With a final ruffle at Garibaldi he took off with hands in his pockets, looking to not have a care in the world. He was a good man, even if Nix wasn't sure if she wanted to punch him or hug him from minute to minute.

In under an hour, James had passed the word around and all of the homestead representatives present had casually made their way into the barn, just happening to carry their bedrolls or other items from their wagons that served as excellent disguises for map rolls. After ditching their unneeded goods, they came to the large table and placed their maps into the patchwork so the whole system of mountains and valleys became visible.

Using stones, pipes, flasks, and other goods from pouches and pockets, the group marked out every homestead and important landmark. A box of colored chalk allowed them to sketch in paths, creeks, old roads and derelict buildings. Nix chalked in the herd of dead and four likely positions for the others. She talked out the routes, locations, and tactical plans she had considered for both sides, including the spies posing as Day farm workers and even the upsetting possibility of them creating a back door into the barn itself.

Just one question was asked. A middle aged woman with tight blonde curls and the strong body of a blacksmith queried "Are you certain it was the Day family and that they had just recently been killed? Sometimes we see the faces of those we lost or know in the dead and it sets our minds to terrible worrying." Nix turned to her respectfully and nodded her head. "Yes ma'am. I saw Richard Day bumping through that crowd of dead and his own dibble was sticking out of his chest right where his heart should have been. His face was clean and he was wearing that awful Grateful Dead shirt with all the holes that Karen keeps threatening to burn."

Off to the side, someone whispered "What's a dibble?" The piercing blue eyes of the blacksmith  flicked in the direction of the question as she answered "A dibble is a farm tool. It's a graduated metal spike on what looks like a pistol handle. It's used for planting bulbs and transplanting small plants to the field. Imagine a vampire stake made of metal and with a handle and you are about there. I made that dibble for him." The blacksmith frowned deeply. Several people flinched or recoiled as one.

The group at the table became very quite. No one laughed at Nix. No one dismissed her. Anyone who had survived on their own for this long after Revenant Day had good instincts and was probably not a hysteric. An older and soft-spoken man known simply as "The General" (because he had been) leaned forward and perused the map. Two of his sons moved forward with him and others stepped aside so they could get in closer. The General picked up the blue chalk which marked possible locations for dead herds and placed two more small X marks on the maps and then tossed the stick of chalk to one of his sons who snatched it out of the air, seeming not to have looked up. He added one more X and similarly his brother added two more. One known location and nine possible locations.

One of the sons, Daniel, nodded to his brother Jason and began "We both ran a couple of tours of special ops in the military." At this understatement, Jason smirked. "We'll go run recon tonight after dark. These sites are all close enough that if we split them up between us, I'm pretty sure we can put eyes on all of them. We have scopes and rifles in the truck. We'll get a look at their arms, placements, numbers and any other intel we can gather"

Jason continued "Let's number these sites one through nine." He turned to the General, "Dad, at 0300 I'll broadcast on CB channel 1. Two short, and then one long..." what followed was a complicated system of CB channel changes indicated by counted seconds of broadcast dead air and then counts of dead and living at each site given by a system of clicks, not unlike Morse code. However, as Jason and Danny were making up the code and channel hops right here, not using a set system, no one else would be able to follow them on the dial or understand what information was being transmitted. It was low tech, but so was everything these days.

James asked the General why Danny and Jason wouldn't just come back and give them the info, rather than this complicated system of radio communication. The General let out a long breath, watching his only sons plan a dangerous strategic mission in just 15 minutes, knowing they were the most likely to make it succeed. "Well," the General said softly, "it is very possible they can be followed, spotted, shot or captured. They are walking into a lot of area with almost no intel. Those boys have seen and done some crazy things, so even if they are chased or shot- they know they can keep moving and hiding for at least a few hours, long enough to transmit the information they have before they are killed. They know these woods and this valley better than whoever is out there and are likely better trained. Even if someone gets the drop on them, they will find a way to get us the information. Even if it kills them."

James looked at the men, impressed and suddenly understanding them so much better. Nix just nodded sadly to the General. She laid her hand on his arm, stood up on her toes and kissed his perfectly, regulation shaved cheek. "They are damned good boys. General, but you already know that." The General nodded once and turned to look at Nix. "And you, Miss Kobesky, you are a damned tough young woman and we are lucky to have you. That was a hell of a catch today. How did you find that herd all tucked up in a hollow like that?"

"Cats found them and led me over for a look." Nix nodded toward Garibaldi, now sprawled across the council table being absently scratched by Jason and Daniel as they planned their final details. Shaking her head slightly, Nix continued "They aren't always that... brazenly indolent." The General chuckled. "All those years we used dogs in the military. Maybe we should have had a few cats too."
Nix grinned "But then you would have needed cat ladies too, General."

Wrapping his arm around her shoulder and leading her back to the table, the silver haired man smiled and quietly promised "There is always a place for you in this old man's army." Jason and Daniel were standing up from the table and gave their father identical claps on his arms. He nodded and they walked off to go toss their truck for supplies. The General headed off to meet with other family heads to start setting up some signals and creating security measures that had never been used before. As Nix began to follow and took a slightly staggering step, the General pointed her toward a bench. "Sit. Rest. Drink. Food. Work more later."

Nix nodded and sat on an old bench. James brought her a sandwich and mug of coffee with something very alcoholic mixed in. She asked no questions, closed her eyes and leaned back to sip the potent brew, only half listening to the planning around her. James sat beside her in silence and Garibaldi hopped up between them on the bench. It was going to be a very, very long day.

13. Of Observation and Arrivals

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Queen of the Cats 11. How to Plan a Market Day Party

As she walked the final distance down the forest path, Nix considered whistling a merry tune so she would look normal and perhaps even merry about the market day to come. No one whistled anymore though. She settled on quiet and calm humming of an old melody remembered from a childhood with Alice, knowing it was probably some hippy dirge about overcoming something or loving everyone.

It was important to look nice and normal, because there were likely spotters in the trees. Whoever had killed the Day men and their farm help and then rounded up a shamble of corpses would likely put down a single settler who looked like they were about to spoil the big surprise. These party planners wanted everyone in one place so that with one festive day of blood spatter and arterial spray, they would own this valley and whoever they left alive or kidnapped.

If you wanted to entirely depopulate a region while causing little damage to usable resources, this was the plan to use. Market day events were important to exchange goods, but also information, plans for spring planting so that crops would not be duplicated, requests for those going out on scavenging missions, ordering clothing to be made, seeing the doctor, visiting the dentist and sometimes finding the closest thing to true love left in this rural corner of mountains. Unless you were on your death bed, market day was to be attended. If you were on your death bed, it was still an option and the doctor would at least be there.

Market day was actually three days and would see nearly all the settlers of the region arriving and setting up their wagons, tents and stalls for trading goods. This first day and night would just be the arrival of the planners, most able and closest resident settlers. They would undertake extra work, helping older settlers and farmers set up their wares as they arrived the following day. Also, the early arrivals would dig a massive fire pit with high banked sides, drag in the dead logs that had been pulled from the woods weeks ago, then chop and stack the wood. Lastly, the posts and barbed wire hung with tiny bells would be set fully around the encampment and wagons in case the fire or the noise brought any stray corpse shuffling in their direction.

All humans and animals would be bedded down in the barn each night of the market, because it was still the safer option. A cot and pillow inside with three shifts of a watch set sure beat sleeping in your wagon and wondering if the bells on the fence would wake you if there was trouble. This site was a great location for Autumn Faire as the temperatures could drop a bit and the barn helped retain some heat. The great hay loft above would be filled with the night long giggles of the younger children, bedded down in straw and in about the safest place they could be. The giggles were nice to hear.

As she reached the wide open stretch of ground around the barn and began leading Cow across the two acres of cleared land, Nix paused to look at the vista of the property as if she was savoring the view. She let the darkest part of her mind unfurl, a black lotus on still water. If she was going to murder everyone she knew using the shambling dead, how and when would she best accomplish the deed. She considered the lessons of every hunter, trapper, builder, thief and the most horrific things she had seen in her life.

Tomorrow would be the larger setup, installation of more fence and then the opening social at dusk. A bonfire, roasting meat, dancing, attempts at music, over-sugared children, story-swapping, gazes meeting, plans made, alcohol consumed, drunken settlers and a rollicking good time had by all. But still, not quite yet. Everyone would be excited, happy, up late talking and have trouble getting to sleep after months apart.

The following day would be full with trade, games, food, races, day-drinking and then the harvest bonfire. A huge stack of wood (and event trash) that would burn to the heavens. No one, except the youngest children and dimmest teenagers would still be entirely sober. Everyone would be tired, at least buzzed, sore from sleeping in the barn, and forcing themselves to stay awake longer than they intended, trying to make this good time last.

That, Nix imagined, was precisely when the party would turn ugly as the bitey herds of corpses were maneuvered through the dark. She imagined from the group she had seen that they could be gathered up with the wire like a lasso and would follow along behind any living person, hoping for a taste. At the market day site, some bells would be silenced, fences cut, tied packs of dead brought inside the perimeter and then released into the crowd. In the half-light of the bonfire flicker, they wouldn't be seen, except as tripping drunks, until it was far too late. Chaos. Blood. Screaming. Death. Fire.

Nix figured on at least three to four groups of the dead, brought in from different directions for appropriate redundancy. Maybe a set left on the perimeter for anyone who ran. That kind of herd would need eight to ten people, minimum, to direct the dead. Nix figured that size gang would place at least two men or women on the inside as new settlers. They would probably come in to introduce themselves as new hands hired on at the Day farm. They would arrive on horseback and probably be charming, maybe even attractive. Everyone trusts a bright smile and firm handshake. Nix imagined they would explain that the family had the flu, and that they had brought the wagon of produce for trade.

During the opening evening social, they would probably pick a far and dark corner of the barn for a "good cuddle", produce some noises that no one would disturb, and work loose a few boards from the ancient barn. A final herd of the dead could be set loose inside the barn where everyone would run for shelter. All of the dead would follow from the broad carriage doors to the makeshift opening where the corpses would keep filing in.

Shut the doors. Light the barn.  Old wood and hay on fire. Now, the gang would own a region and all of the trade goods from the market day. They would probably kidnap some more young women. Nix shook off the terrible daydream and wished she couldn't imagine things so awful, but this was so close to her own past.

Well, that shit wasn't happening on Nix's watch. She'd seen hundreds of  humans go down that way once before and she was not going to watch it again. With a bright, feigned smile she waved at the boys chopping the wood and digging the fire pit and she, Cow, Garibaldi and the wagon headed for the "safety" of the market day enclosure. She kept her eye out for good sniper perches in the hillsides, strange flashes of light and how she was going to explain this to the council without them flailing in fear, grabbing up their families and running for the hills. It was far too late for that.

12. Party Planners

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Queen of the Cats, 10. Sampson

10. Sampson

A flash through the forest. Monochrome, brown on brown through autumn brush and over deep leaf litter, damp and rich with the smell of the endless cycle of decay, enrich, rebirth.

Eyes flashing in the half light. legs churning on silent paws. Feet that barely touch the ground. Up the steep hills. Pause, mark the path again. Across the water on old tree and rocks. No stopping. No rest. Rub against the oak. Smell a dead one. Redirect. Race the falling sun. Chase the rising moon. Dapple light, pale through bare trees.

Exhaustion creeping in from every limb, the tired ache of every joint run ragged. Hunger. Thirst. His belly clenching, throat raw, foot pads that seems to be splitting with pain. A wild leap across a ravine, just catching the far side and scrambling to the top. The mossy rock. A tree that smells like Garibaldi. Pride land. Just a little more. Familiar ground for his stumbling, automatic feet. There, the tall house.
Up the beam, through the fireplace, into the kitchen where he crashed bodily into the call bells, ringing every one in a discordant clang that meant one thing. Danger- come now to help and know.

Sampson stopped running and collapsed beside a water dish. He picked his head up a few scant inches and rested it on the side of the bowl, beginning to lap furiously at the cold, clear water, stopping only to let air gasp into his heaving chest. Nocta walked up to him and canted her head to one side. When Sampson seemed about to stand she stepped on his rear foot and he yowled in sudden agony, his eyes going wide as he looked at Nocta as if betrayed.

The ancient queen bent her head to his paw, and with her delicate teeth she extracted a long thorn and dropped it on the floor where Sampson could see it. He heaved a sigh and pillowed his head against the bowl again as he realized she was going back for more and some of the other old queens were coming toward him to help. Sudden memories of being a kitten, held down and cleaned by countless raspy tongues made him twitch.

When they finished, most of the Pride had arrived and Sampson just stared at the pile of forest bits that the old queens had pulled off or out of him. He had felt none of it while he ran. He felt every bit of it now. After a few tries, Sampson heaved himself up to sitting, surveying the cats around him. His eyes blinked slowly.

The conversation the followed can not be spoken of, for the language of the Pride is arcane, a mystery that is not for humans to know unless, like Nix, they are of the Pride. Some symbols drawn low on the wall were involved and then the matter seemed settled. As one, the Pride turned and scattered, each to its own chores. There was work to do and it must be done quickly and done correctly the first time.

Sampson stood and stretched, then began to take a step toward... nothing. He was laying on the floor again and Nocta stood above him with her paw raised, daring him to try it. He growled low. Nocta looked unimpressed and groomed her paw. He began to rise again and this time the blow came from behind. The queens stood around him, one having just finished nosing a bowl of food to the space in front of Sampson's face. He growled. Nocta growled right back. Sampson's stomach growled. He stopped fighting and ate his fill.

When he finished, they brought him more water and this time he did not fight them. He drank quietly. Looking Nocta in the eye, he slowly attempted to rise. This time the cuff came at the side of his head and he slowly laid back down on the floor. Sampson drew in his legs, wrapped his tail and tucked his nose into a compact ball of cat. Nocta climbed atop him and curled into the same shape and began to purr contentedly. Sampson's eyes flashed for a moment and then the feeling of being warm, and full and watered and not running washed over him. The other old queens curled up around him, their bodies warming his aches, their old feet kneading his exhausted body and their purring waking the purr within Sampson.

Within a moment, he slept.

The old queens looked to each other and wondered how many others of the kittens they had nursed and raised and taught would need such care after this night. They watched the cats running about their chores, remembering each as the tumbling kitten that they had loved.

The old queens let no one wake Sampson just yet. It would be at least an hour yet before the leaving would begin and their darling but monstrous big tabby son of the whole Pride would rest until then. They each loved him as a kitten of their own body and thus, were always doubly hard on him. Cats, as humans, do have some things in common

11. How to Plan a Market Day Party

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Queen of the Cats 9.5: Run

After just a few moments Nix got her head together and a thought occurred to her that brought her to a sharp halt. She dropped to one knee and exhaled a sharp hiss. Once on the ground she pulled off her shoe as if a rock had fouled her step and she rubbed at her foot, allowing Sampson and Garibaldi time to come to her hissed call. Their training worked and she slipped them some bits of dried chicken from her pocket. They wove around her legs, letting her scratch at them as they waited for instructions.

There were benefits of years working alone with a group of animals and people always underestimated the intellect of domesticated animals. Those facts combined to create a powerful secret weapon- you could train animals beyond the limits of what most humans imagined. A good horse would return home when told to do so. A herd of cattle or goats could be directed to a certain pasture with a few commands or the guidance of a dog. People thought cats were indolent and lazy, mostly because they had never bothered to understand them and how they, in kind, understood the world. In truth, cats were sharp at all ends and crafty in the middle. They could learn remarkable things when they saw a benefit from the knowledge.

"You are the very best boys" Nix crooned to them both, lavishing them with affection and likely boring any scouts watching this arrival trail. Both Garibaldi and Sampson sat, their attention riveted on the leader of their Pride. Nix said Garibaldi's name and his eyes snapped to her face, she pointed him to the wagon, signaling him to remain with her. They both slow blinked their eyes and the red cat hopped onto the wagon and stretched lavishly.

Clearing a bit of ground to bare dirt she drew two simple images. The first was a straight line with a circle on top, the most basic pictogram of a tree that could be drawn. The second was two curving lines that sketched out a claw. Sampson watched her draw each image. Pointing at the tree, Nix scratched the picture away with all of her fingers, using both hands. She repeated the gesture after pointing to the claw. Sampson stepped closer to the tree image and ran his right paw through it, claws out, multiple times and did the same thing with the scratched image of the claw and turned his solemn eyes up to hers.

Master, mother, friend, queen, protector, teacher, healer- Nix had been his world since she saved his tiny life. She offered the cat her fist and he rammed it with his massive head. Sampson, she hoped beyond hoping, understood the message that she had taken years teaching in case of a moment just like this. She grabbed both sides of his giant face, kissed the topped of his tabby head and whispered "Sampson, run and run back. Bring them. I love you."

She finished fixing her shoe and stood, taking hold of Cow and continuing her ridiculous wagon train down the path with Garibaldi laying atop her tarp covered goods, sprawled and rolling like a boneless sloth. As Nix looked back she watched Sampson finish taking a nice, steaming pee atop where the pictograms had been, kicking dirt over the top and heading off into the woods.

Their walking path had taken most of ten hours at the speed of a cow and wagon. They had used the paths that worked for moving goods, not the shortcuts. That cat would not take the long way. Sampson was smart. Not smart for a cat, but probably smarter than some people Nix had met. He was fast, and in a forest, he blended into the browns and seemed to disappear, just a motion at the corner of an eye.

When she found him, he was all of three weeks old and fit in her pocket. His survival had hinged upon being the biggest in a litter, yet not making a sound when his barn was found by the dead. Nix couldn't save his mom, but she saved him and since then, she had been his world. Now, she hoped, Sampson was going to be able to save her and everyone else she knew who was still alive.

Run, buddy. Run like the damned wind.

10. Sampson

Queen of the Cats 9: To Market Day

9. To Market Day

Eight hours of walking with a furry cow, a well oiled trailer wagon and two stalking, woods-trained cats was a remarkably silent affair. Their path was surprisingly even, and the new leaf springs on the trailer were making just the right difference. Every few hours, Nix would pull the tiny caravan over in tidy, well used clearings for water and snacks. She only had to re-dead three corpses on this leg of the journey, and luckily she did not recognize any of them for locals.

Like the other well settled members of this community of mountains and valleys, Nix did her part to keep thoroughfares and known rest and camp sites clear, ready and stocked. The roads used now had no asphalt or even ruts. Mapped roads were how strangers traveled and ruts just showed them the way to homesteads. Careful hard-packed soil, slabs of rock, and leafy forest floors with narrow paths free of underbrush were now the way to travel across the old roads. Leaving no trail of settler passages was one of the most important parts of safety in this dead world. When roads were found they were followed. No matter if by bandits or corpses, that always ended in a bad day.

When a good site was found for a resting place or a night camp and after it was checked several times for previously unseen dangers, it would be marked by planting a few shrubs just outside the area. This was an idea that Nix had created and cultivated, even bringing seedling plants to market days so that settlers would mark their sites in the same way. Over a few years, the practice had taken hold and stuck. Now, you could roam the mountains and hollows and receive warnings of dangers ahead, requests to not approach closer to a homestead, invitations of welcome, and safe camps if you were caught out in the weather. It was useful and complex enough that those passing through likely would not catch on.

With a quick brush to flatten the leaves in the clearing, Nix and her strange party continued on. She planned her trip for a day of long travel, an overnight near the old farm, a short walk in the morning for market day and then the repeat on the way home. Sampson and Garibaldi patrolled the path, weaving in and out of view.

It was funny how things had changed. In a world of walking corpses, so many things had become more frightening than the dead. Somehow, it turned out that the living ended up to be the real problem, because they possessed guile and hidden motivations. Zombies just wanted to eat your face and then the rest of you in rapid succession. At least Nix understood that singular drive and knew how to deal with it. On the commune, she had learned so many things, but she hadn't had enough lessons in selfishness and terror. Of those topics, she was merely a student.

After another hour and a half of travel, Garibaldi trotted back into the path, proudly carrying a recently detached but fairly putrid hand. That was concerning. Nix had nearly reached her night shelter, which meant she was less than 45 minutes easy walk to the market day barn site. This whole area should already have been cleared for a week. Tying Cow off to a small tree, Nix followed Garibaldi who was anxiously pacing for her to follow him quickly. Something was very wrong.

Nix quietly slipped in behind the red cat and followed without concern that he would mislead her. When the one-eyed cat slowed his pace and began to slink forward, she slipped to her hands and knees and followed him to the edge of a rise. There Nix found Sampson crouched low, tail twitching with obvious upset and as she crept to the edge and peered over, she knew why. The gully below them was a shallow creek bed that ran fast in the spring and only meandered as the year turned old.

Shuffling in the churned mud where clear water usually ran, corpses. Hemmed in with post and wire fencing, some fifty or more of the dead listlessly paced and bumped into each other and the high sides of the dry creek bed wall. Among them, Nix saw some fresh dead and with a squint and imagined face repair, she identified them as the male members of the Day family. The family was large, well liked, trusting and worked a productive farm a valley south.

Nix shuffled back from the edge, got back to her feet and ran quiet as small forest creature. She untethered Cow and continued her party on toward the barn. Knowing there might be scouts watching, she had to keep it together and act like she was just trying to get to the barn before dark rather than camp on her own.

Here was her lesson in horror and humanity. As they moved quickly and efficiently, but without obvious panic, Nix suddenly knew several things to be absolutely true.
1. The Day family and the market site had been compromised.
2. The women of the Day family were, quite possibly and likely unfortunately, still alive.
3. One pack of zombies placed to swarm into Autumn Faire tomorrow probably meant more packs.
4. A lot of people she knew and even liked were going to die
5. Nix was sure AF not going to let that happen without a big damned fight.
6.The booze on board the wagon was going to make a lot of Molotov cocktails.

Continue- 9.5: Run

Monday, November 25, 2019

Queen of the Cats 8. The Things We Learn

8. The Things We Learn

The commune life had not taught Nix how to be a free-thinker as much as it gave her mind space to roam and come at problems from different and unusual directions. Ed and Alice practiced a loveing and benign neglect that allowed their daughter to come and and go. Thus, on any day, Nix could be anywhere on the self-sufficient compound.

Even as a child, she had a quiet way about her and seemed to be able to read the attitudes of adults, knowing which ones would put up with children, when they were in bad moods, and when they just seemed a bit lonely. Asking an adult if you could watch them at their trade was an art. First, you had to observe and study them so you could determine which angle of approach would be best to gain their approval.

If they were gruff but affable, wait for them to take a break, walk up and shake their hand with determination, look them right in the eye and ask if you could observe their work because you wanted to know more about it. Most of the durable goods tradesman and craftsman were of this ilk. Blacksmith, carpenters, fence builders, construction and brewers nearly all had this way about them. Nix felt it had something to do with hard work, fresh air, and having the need to pass their craft on and teach another generation. A few hand delivered glasses of ice cold lemonade, some wet and cool cloths dipped in mint water, the occasional hand pie of a snack and face that looked to be yearning for their teaching and she was in.

Over the years, Nix befriended them all. She learned their tools, their processes, and even the sucky parts of their work and helped take care of each without complaint. In her small notebook, Nix recorded the names of the families of her various masters. If she learned a birthday or something their child liked, she would take time to produce a small gift for her master to take home. With each tradesperson she earned her way up the ladder from adorable pet, to helper, to moderately skilled apprentice and, in, most skills, to someone that could be trusted to run that trade or craft for a few days should the master craftsperson be ill or have to leave the commune for a few days.

Nix had nothing but time.

She moved her way through the skills of the commune, each year focusing on a new collection of related skills. Farming, animal husbandry, food production from the commune animals, animal care; well, that year had been pretty easy for her as Nix had a way with live things. She learned cooking, sewing, tanning, brewing, foraging, hunting, herb craft, building and even distillation for essential oils and spirits. Although she did not know it at the time, Nix keeping herself from boredom would eventually be using those same skills to keep herself alive.

Of all the useful skills she learned that kept her and the pride safe, comfortable and healthy, she never would have guessed that distilling would be one of the most important skill later in the Deadlands. Small pockets of survivors and the other loaners needed alcohol. Equally useful for medical needs and lonesome nights, a bottle of spirits was a powerful item for trade. Thankfully, Nix had learned distillation and infusion, so the alcohol that she made actually tasted pretty good. She could also grow some wicked good cannabis and kept a crop outside with her others

Nix had learned about people wanting to be 'off the grid' at the commune, but in the time after Revenant Day, they wanted to be off the map. The locations of camps, homes and even crops were carefully guarded secrets. People had been stripped down to their base and raw requirements of physical needs and security. The rest of the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs could suck it. No one was being self-actualized these days. Most were dug in like squirrels and hiding their nuts for marauding bands of assholes who did not care to put in the time and effort to secure the needs and safety for their own people.

However, not everyone was in possession of the same set of skills, but they had requirements for the same set of needs. Without the knowledge of how to produce those items that had disappeared from circulation, there were really only two ways to obtain them. Theft or trade.

Only a few of the pre-Revenant Day festivities were still held to, but Thanksgiving was one that was rigidly and stubbornly entrenched. Even among people who had so little, they were thankful for all of the things they had. Perhaps, more so than ever before in their lives. So, when it was time for quarterly market days to occur in this region, Autumn Faire was held the week before Thanksgiving.

As the time of year was approaching, Nix had been preparing her goods for market and making sure to be outside each night at dusk. The wagon was loaded with strong beer, distilled spirits, small but useful blacksmithed items, cannabis in small jars. wooden spoons, wooden shoes, wool roving, various vegetables (especially pumpkins) and her signature item- bottles of applejack. It was one of the strongest alcohols Nix produced and came from the fruit of a dozen orchards. It was potent, delicious, and got her anything she wanted in trade.

The day floated each year, because having set patterns was dangerous and stupid. So, at dusk, two nights before Autumn Faire, a volley of flares would be fired into the darkening sky. The first three were fired over ten minutes, just to get everyone looking in the right direction. The second volley of shots would be rapid and number between 1 and 10 flares.

Just one flare meant that something was wrong and that all sites had been compromised. As soon as a site had been cleared, they would try again. Two through ten flares provided a location for the Faire. Handed out at Summer Faire, each known attendee would receive a list of locations numbered two through ten and would keep that list safe until the next season.

Sitting in her rocking chair on the porch, surrounded by her piles of cats, Nix watched the first three flares, unbelievably bright, light the darkling sky.  After a few moments, the second volley came with seven flares, which meant the Autumn Faire site would be at the great barn at what remained of Tupelo Farms. The location was home to an early 19th century house and soaring barn that sat at the edge of what had been an 18th century turnpike. The house was fairly tumble down, but the barn remained straight and true.

Nix was pleased and would leave the day after next for her brisk 10 hour walk with a wagon, a cow, and two cats.

Continue- 9. To Market Day

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Queen of the Cats 7. Piñatas

7. Piñatas
Nix laid her head upon the soft coat of Tonkinese fur and let herself be lulled by the quiet motor of the cat's purr. She reached up and scritched at his belly and the cat stretched luxuriously and promptly fell off the bed. "Oh, buddy, you ok?" Nix asked, peering over the edge of the bed. The cat blinked vacantly up at her with eyes like the ocean, so clear and blue that Nix seemed sure she could see straight through to the back of Chaucer's skull. He proceeded to hop up onto the bed and repeat the process thrice more. It was a good thing he was soft, sweet, and behind stone walls because Nix was fairly certain if she put her ear to his fuzzy head triangle, she would probably hear the ocean.

While this feat of remarkable, but hilarious, antics were repeated, the other cats in the room just stared at Chaucer in a way that seemed to intone "Have you no dignity, man?". Chaucer merrily ignored or did not notice the feline disdain being side-eyed in his direction, he just kept having fun and demanding occasional cuddles. On any average shitty post-apocalypse day, this cat could always make Nix reshape her face into something like a smile and maybe even cough out a dry laugh. Comedy in the dead lands was scarce, but Nix had all she could ever need.

It turned out that, after the apocalypse, Nix got to see more cats than she had ever hoped to and she had learned a single, startling fact: some of them just sucked at being cats. The stunning Tonkinese cat with the tiny peanut brain was gentle and loving which were great qualities before Revenant Day, but were not in a cat's favor in this not-so-brave new world. The one thing they had going for them was that they were good jumpers, insanely fast and they could climb better than any of the dead.

As a somewhat ironic aside, sometimes the dead would try to climb trees, posts, or fences after a feline. Around ten feet or so above ground, most climbs got harder and required a bit of thought. That was not a thing the dead had in spades. Sometimes it was just amazing that they could shamble down a road in their leprous horror, enough parts missing that it made many of them hard to look at. 

Once the dead reached the point of the climb where planning and care was needed, they generally peeled off like pasta and fell to the ground. Then, there was the splash. Now that most of the dead were several years post shuffling off their mortal coils, they were no longer in prime condition. In fact, it was becoming obvious that they were coming apart at the seams and losing their stuffing. The earliest of the Revenants could step in a pothole, pitch forward on the macadam and then perform their own impressions of a water balloon fight, but just once.

About a year earlier, a clump of stumbling corpses had peeled off from a road and somehow ended up outside of the Murder House and Cattery. Nix had picked up some bronchial infection and was fevered and wheezing, but something still needed to be done. When the dead congregated, they made a not-so-joyous noise somewhere between moaning and hissing. This always drew more corpses and the problem just got larger. While attempting to get herself into some protective gear, Nix had laid down for a moment and shut her eyes just for a second. When she popped awake and tried to scramble upright, she was thwarted by a coughing fit. 

Before her breathing had evened out, she caught a sudden flash of black as Nocta landed on her chest, flinging her backward onto the bed. Nix attempted to argue with the cat, then realized she was arguing with a cat and thus, probably needed a longer nap. With Nocta like a purring hot water bottle on her chest, the cat meticulously cleaned her paws, claws extended as a reminder. Nix just stopped fighting and went back to sleep. 

The next morning, Sampson woke Nix and was excited, signaling for her to follow. "Timmy better be at the bottom of a well, Lassie." Nix grumped as she followed. Sampson was leading her out to the second floor porch. Still terribly ill, Nix took a moment to gather herself, hoping that the dead had not doubled overnight while she had slept.

Nix found a sight she had not expected. It looked like a party had been held at the base of the trees lining the clearing around the block house. At the bottom of each tree, Nix spotted what looked like a bunch of thoroughly battered yet colorful pinatas. After a moment of sickness addled brain coming online, Nix realized why this was the worst party ever. To keep her from getting herself murdered while sick, the cats had taken care of the dead by running about, treeing themselves and just waiting for the dead to follow, fall, and splatter.

Turning slowly, Nix saw that most of her cats had followed her and Sampson outside. They all looked quite pleased with themselves, although some were still grooming bits of corpse from their fur. As she continued to stare, they became more pleased, accepting her silence as appreciation. Garibaldi threaded through the porch of rolling felines and dropped a hand at Nix's feet.

"Jesus." Nix croaked. Staring at the hand, Garibaldi, the pleased cats, and the festively decorative yet festering dead, Nix decided she was still far too sick to deal with the stomach-churning mess below. In a moment of pure despair, knowing how much more these corpses would decay and stink, Nix tried to calculate how many holes she would have to dig and how much dragging of the dead she would need to clean up this awful party.

As she leaned on the railing and considered, two vultures circles in and came to rest in the clearing below. They merrily hopped from corpse to corpse, picking the very best of the morsels. Nix glances up and saw the tightening circles being flown by so many buzzards that she did not try to count them. Nix kicked the hand off the porch for the arriving clean-up crew to enjoy.

Heading back inside, she refilled water dishes and refilled food bowls. She ate a can of soup, swallowed some more cold tablets and just went back to bed. A quick shower, clean pajamas and then a dive back under the covers. The cats came in as they finished their own meals and everyone settled down for an Autumn afternoon nap.

Sometimes, you just had to roll with the punches and the dead man's hands. Nature had this one and Nix let it ride.

Continue- 8. The Things We Learn

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Queen of the Cats 6. Phoenix and Ed and Alice and Nocta

6. Phoenix and Ed and Alice and Nocta

Nix might have been five or six years old the day she came home in tears from Sapling Society. In what passed for a group activity school for her age of youngsters had made drawings that day. They had been asked to draw themselves with their mommy and daddy, or daddy and daddy, or mommy and mommy, or mommy, mommy and daddy (no judgement) and what made them each happy.

The other children has used swaths of the 100% recycled newsprint paper and as many crayons as possible to make lavish and painfully bright colored pictures of happy groups of people with houses, toys, sports and games. Nix drew herself, a fence at the edge of the compound and a kitten on the other side of the fence. The kitten made her happy when she petted the soft black fur through the fence and played with string. Nix had asked to bring the kitten home, but Ed and Alice told her it was a lot of responsibility and maybe she could have a kitten when she was older.

As Missy Joy walked around the gazebo, she talked to each happy little flexible sapling about their drawing and helped them label some of the less clear objects, like a brown lump on a table meant to be meatloaf but looked rather a bit like a pile of excrement. Nix was coloring in the grass on the hill beyond the fence in many colors of green, because she always saw it as a patchwork of colors and not just one green.

"Phoenix..." Missy Joy hesitated. "Where are your mommy and daddy in your picture?"

With dark and soulful eyes, Nix gazed up at her "Missy Joy, I don't have a mommy or a daddy."

"But Phoenix, I've met your family. I know your mommy and daddy." Missy continued, still trying to hold a gentle smile on her face through her confusion.

"Missy Joy, I have an Ed and I have an Alice. They said that those are their names and I should always call things by proper names or I would be..." Nix seemed to search for the rest of the phrase. "robbing them of their personal right to self-identity and forcing them to conform to societal norms that are bullshit." Nix finished in a single breath, hoping that she had remembered all of the right words and all in the right order.

"Oh, dear. Yes, I see. Um. Beautiful picture dear. The grass and wildflowers are really pretty." Missy tried to sound unconcerned and pleased with her pupil's work. She wasn't certain she had managed either but Nix returned to coloring and she padded away.

At the end of the day, the Sapling Society took their drawings inside the Mess Hall and hung them up on the walls so that the whole commune could enjoy the elementary but adorably sweet art. Nix proudly hung up her picture which showed her house and herself playing with the kitten at the fence, the tall marijuana plants behind the house and the rolling green hill outside the compound fence.

A few other Saplings noticed and began staring at Nix's drawing, trying to understand. One child piped up and asked Nix where her mommy and daddy were, and Nix repeated her response that she had neither, just an Ed and Alice. The other children looked either confused or started to laugh. The laughing ones were the ones that made Nix's stomach feel all whirly like soda and too many cartwheels. "Phoenix, you are so dumb you don't even know what parents are. Your mommy and daddy are Alice and Ed and my daddy says they smoke too many drugs and that makes them stupid."

Missy Joy noticed the knot of children and tried to walk as quickly as possible to cut off what might be unkind words. She should have walked faster. As she arrived, the children were laughing except Nix who was looking balefully at the ground. When she lifted her tear streaked face she whispered "but they asked me to..". Missy could not get the children to stop laughing fast enough in her class of only positive comments and uplifting messages. The rules of their school forbade her from telling the children they were nasty little brats and mean as their parents even when it was true. Separating the children and making each go stand by their own picture helped regain order.

Nix never moved and had just looked back down at the ground. She turned back to her picture and carefully removed it from the wall, peeling off the tape with great care so the paper was not damaged. She rolled the brown paper up like a tube and walked out of the Mess Hall, even though Missy Joy asked her to please come back for the apologies. Nix kept walking.

As she opened the door at home, Alice's eyes widened at the state of her daughter. Nix wasn't given to weeping or tantrums and Alice wasn't even sure what to do.

"Phoenix bird, what's wrong? Why are you crying?" Alice asked tentatively, not sure if this was how you dealt with tears.

Her only child answered her with the words "Because I have no mommy and daddy". She set down the rolled picture on the coffee table and did not break stride. In her room she changed into not-Sapling clothes and walked back out the door just moments later. Alice sat on the couch looking at the lovely drawing that she could not imagine had caused this strife.

Phoenix Alexandria MaryJane Verity Kobesky curled up on the grass beside the fence and tapped the fence with a rock a few times. Just a few minutes later, her only friend, a tiny black kitten came racing over the hill and tumbled down most of the other side in her excitement. The kitten rubbed herself all over the fingers that stuck through the fence and even licked them. Her girl was not playing the same way she usually did and the kitten wanted more. The poof of black fur turned away and ran along the fence line, out of Nix's sight. She cried even harder as her best friend just left her on the grass.

Nix rolled onto her back and just stared at the overcast sky, unsure how to make her tears stop. Finally, she was able to quit the crying sobs and hiccoughs and get herself to just eye leaking sadness. And that was when it hit her. Literally.

A tiny black kitten landed on her chest using a force that should not be possible for her mass and then screeched her joy directly into Nix's face. Over the years, the kitten screech would mature into a screaming yowl that could stop a heart or wake you from the soundest sleep. The kitten and Phoenix played happily on the grass. There was tumbling, screeching, pouncing and more than a bit of falling over.

As the day dimmed to sunset, Nix made a few decisions in her head and nodded to herself. She picked up the kitten and marched home. When Nix arrived she observed Missy Joy leaving with Ed and Alice standing on the porch. Approaching, her parents rushed toward her but she put her hand up to stop them.

"No." Nix said, halting them. "I am sad and angry and I don't want hugs right now. I would like a set of encyclopedias and school books. Real school books. I am not going back to the Saplings and I can learn faster this way. I am keeping this kitten and her name is Nocta. I am big enough for the responsibility and will take care of her. I can do more chores so we can buy things kittens need."

Phoenix then walked right past her parents, tears still in the corners of her eyes. She did not like angry and sad, especially together. She took two bowls, a box, an old newspaper, scissors, a chunk of chicken from the fridge, and calmly proceeded to her room and shut the door.

After cutting up the chicken and filling the other bowl with water, Nix shredded the newspaper and filled the makeshift litter box. After tiny Nocta had eaten and drank her fill, she started looking around the room. Nix picked her up and set her in the box. After a brief game of jumping out and being placed back inside, Nocta scratched at the newspaper, performed her evening toilette and then hopped out of the box. Nix set the kitten on the bed while she put on her pajamas and then climbed in beside her best friend. It had been a long day and Nix fell asleep quickly. Nocta curled beneath the girl's chin and closed her eyes, purring softly.

A few hours later, the door creaked open as Alice and Ed peeked in. As Alice made to enter the room to fiddle with the comforter and do something motherly, the kitten's eyes opened slowly and she let out a low warning hiss. Alice backed up and left the room, looking over at Ed once the door was shut.

"Well, we kind of deserve that." Ed whispered sadly. Alice responded "I didn't realize parenting would be so hard." Quietly, they padded off to their room.

In Nix's bed, Nocta seemed to almost smile as she let her eyes slowly close. No one would hurt her girl so long as she could help it.

7. Piñatas

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Queen of the Cats 5. The Shopping

5. The Shopping

Nix mused that if there were no people remaining in the houses or stores, and goods had been left behind, it really couldn't be counted as theft anymore. After the seven years since Reverent Day, most people had gotten smart and gone into the country to hide, attempted to fortify and defend for a time, or just had the shit murdered out of them. The dead people had just gotten up and gone for a wander. There was likely no one left to claim these houses and goods, so Nix used small towns like big box stores. Attics and basements offered up a lot of useful stuff.

Working her way methodically through homes and businesses, Nix packed up trash bags of things that could be helpful and set them on the curb outside. Outside was not a fabulous place to hang out, but trash and trash bags were universally ignored in these places. Trash, debris, rusting metal and the staggering dead. Sometimes Nix would find a small group of people and those were the ones she wanted to avoid the most.

After she cleared each building, Nix left her trash bag outside and quickly moved to the next building. After shopping an entire town, she could come back that evening or even a week later and pick up the bags if things had started to feel 'funny' and she had bolted half way through her shopping.

The only items she would pack out immediately were medicines, medical supplies, aged high end liquors or well packaged plant seeds. Any thing else she could likely come back for.

When Nix shopped, it was with a very different posse of cats. Town team had all been owned cats and you could see it in their expensive breeding and perfect conformation. She took the ones who had lived in cities and suburbs and excelled at getting in and out of tight spaces, over fences, and avoiding humans who wished them harm. Nix seemed to be the only human left for whom cats were companions and not used as spit roasted meat or a dead man's juice box. It made a lot of sense for them all to stick together and work together.

The town team consisted of a Siamese named Theo who mostly rode on her shoulder and his low growl told Nix that something was approaching. Talulah was a calico convinced of her superiority, but also correct in that assumption, as her Hemmingway paws were basically hands and she could open doors and manipulate a shocking number of items in her murder mitts. London, the Lykoi served as distraction so others could hide, because the sight of a tiny werewolf stopped all humans in their tracks. His hair was perfect and he was very, very fast.

There was Zoe, a remarkably chill Abyssinian with glittering emerald eyes who always seemed to know when the group had taken a wrong turn and got them headed back the right way. Oberon was the building scout who oozed into the shadows with his jet black fur and verified that buildings were clear of the living and the dead. Pixie Bob had the heart of a lion but she was a naked Sphinx with no tail. Once Nix figured out how to adjust baby clothes for her, PB also helped with shopping by finding caches of baby food and nabbing cute baby outfits for herself. Last of the shopping brigade was the obsidian black Shadow who would take a high position and watch for anything amiss coming their way.

The town team was fierce, efficient and could run like hell. Each member, including Nix, could fold themselves away into tiny and improbable spaces until danger had passed. When clear, they would hear a single call from Shadow and follow the route out of town that he had chosen.

In this grouping, they would hop into the Prius that Nix had stolen. She managed this grand theft auto by shoving a mostly skeletonized corpse out the car door and pressing the start button on the steering column. She found the key fob in the pants pocket of Senior Bones and the first stop they made was to an auto parts store for seat covers and a great deal of air freshener. The Prius was quick, quiet and conservative with fuel, basically the perfect car for a post-apocalypse reconnoiter.

Nix would always hit the pharmacies first, then the liquor store. The drugs were helpful for herself and the cats and some of them made for good trade items. The liquor was medicinal applied to skin, consumed by oral route or traded for excellent trade items. High value items went straight into her pack as the cats scouted the town. Once done in the pharmacies, Nix would emerge to find out which feline was waiting for her to follow. They led her to cashes of food, hidden drugs of the legal and illegal sort, canned cat food, sometimes cat toys, blankets that did not contain dead people or would lead her to places where they had found items she would want.

Talking a moment to tell each one how good and smart they were, the felines would receive a quick touch and treat while Nix bagged the goods. Sometimes, they even led her to other cats. In those cases, Nix would let the town squad do the convincing while she kept working. Occasionally, they would find a cat that was deeply injured or sick, even dead bitten. In those cases, work stopped, the cat was collected and they hauled ass for home.

Out in the Med Shed, Nix had installed metal animal crates against a wall, so if she needed to put a feline on bed rest or limited mobility, she could. Over the last few years she kitted the space out as a vet office and read every book on cat veterinary medicine she could. Broken legs could be set and crushed legs could be removed. There we're not many procedures that Nix would not at least try if she was certain that it could be the only save for a tiny life.

The dead bitten were the worst. The wounds festered and the fever washed over them, they ached in every joint and cried in pain. Unlike the first time, Nix now had the knowledge and supplies to dim their pain, reduce their fevers and debride their wounds, but it was still awful.

It was a few years since Nix encountered her first dead bitten animals in the months after the compound collapsed and she found herself alone with all of the cats from the commune following her. She would find an animal bitten, and at first she would observe because she needed to know what would happen and how she would have to deal with these pitiful creatures. Once they died, would they also rise up again? The answer was no. Animals with shallow bites or scratches might live but those with deep wounds went painfully. Nix learned the most humane ways of ending their lives to speed them to the end of their pain.

Then it was Olwyn. A tiny grey puff of fur somehow got herself grabbed and bitten. She limped her way home and Nix sobbed to see her pain. She curled up under a chair and would not come out. The other cats spent the night watching over her in shifts and her tiny body heaved one last breath near dawn. Nix carried her to the hole in the yard behind the trailer they had taken over and gently covered her with soil. Neither the cats nor Nix did anything that day but nap in piles to comfort each other.

At dinner time, Nix put down the plates of turkey baby food and kibble mixed with rice and canned chicken and then mostly got out of the way, shoving the back door open a foot so the yard cats could come in for the night and have dinner. Sitting at the yellowed Formica table and reading a 5 year old newspaper, it took Nix a moment to notice the the cats were clearing a path and there was a lot of sniffing and confusion going on. When Nix looked among the cats, it took her a moment to find. Tiny, grey and dirt covered Olwyn was sitting by a plate and eating in her dainty way but with obvious hunger.

"Holy shit, holy shit" whispered Nix as she stood and slowly backed toward the living room, trying to figure out if she had just let a dead cat inside and how many others would be bitten before she could save them. Her arm was reaching for the baseball bat behind the door when Olwyn looked up at her.

Her eyes were clear and not the milky haze of the dead. Olwyn gazed up at Nix and made a pleased chirrup sound. With a happy raised tail, she took a straight line right to Nix and merrily weaved between her human's boots. She seemed a little more stiff than the other cats, but she still had a large wound and needed medical care. She was not dead. She was not risen dead. Olwyn was just alive again and really needed a bath.

That night Olwyn had her bath, her wound cleaned carefully, some antibiotics and was placed on the bed by Nix so she could keep a close eye on the tiny cat who curled into a neat circle and purred with joy.

Cats, when bitten, did not behave like any other animal and Nix wanted to know why.

6. Phoenix and Ed and Alice and Nocta

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Queen of the Cats 4. Rebirth

4. Rebirth

After a long day of cutting up and planting potatoes gleaned from a field five miles away, Nix woke in one of her least favorite ways. Nocta, her ancient and unchallenged queen cat was sitting on Nix's chest and shrieking directly into her face. Once a beauty of ink black fur, soft as a night breeze and silent as death, Nocta was no longer so plush nor soft but she was still in charge and her stabby little paws could always find the softest parts of your anatomy to stand on.

"What? Shit! What the hell, Nocta!" Blearily, Nix sat up in bed looking for the crisis. There were no cats in her bed. Nocta continued to scream but ran for the stairs to the upper floor. Nix ran after her, nearly on all fours up the steep and treacherous staircase. There, in the center of where the best morning sunbeam would fall later in the day, Nix could make out a number of cats sitting or laying in a circle around something.

Flipping the switch, Nix turned on the single LED bulb and saw that Splat!, a massive calico with a disturbing and fanatical love of sharp cheddar cheese was in the center of the fray. Splat!'s markings looked funny until Nix realized that her belly had been colonized by a litter of newborn kittens rather than a new calico pattern. It had been a long time since new kittens had been born and had a chance to survive.

Nix's Murder House and Cattery was paying off. It was nearly two years after Nocta had woken her with another heart-stopping scream session and then led her to the strange house in the middle of the night. The very next day, Nix and her parade of cats had quit the Meth Shack and trekked here. No roads approached the house. There were no tire tracks, no disturbed portions of the forest floor that showed entry or egress. No one lived in it or had already looted the place. It was weird. It had walls and was defensible. It wouldn't burn. With minor changes, it would be just about the safest place they could hope for. They were home, or as close as they felt they could be.

As the human cat approached, the clowder made space for her near the main attraction. Kneeling down, Nix crooned to Splat! and then joined the pride in their sprawl on the floor. Splat!'s head was kissed many times and she was told what a good girl she was. After a few moments, she rolled further onto her back, placed her paws on Nix's slightly teary cheeks and kneaded her skin in the way of biscuit making cats of all time. Splat! purred with all the rumble one cat could manage and her impossibly small spotty and ginger babies ate, slept or were groomed by their new pride.

Soon the content purring spread throughout all the cats, and that is how everyone slept. A pile of happiness, purring with six tiny reminders of life at the center. Marmalade, the green-eyed massive ginger tom who was pretty obviously a very proud papa, remained awake or lightly dozing while sleepily grooming Splat! and still keeping out an eye for danger. Before Nix truly sacked out, she crept to the switch and turned out the light. She considered returning to the wide open luxury of her bed, but instead returned to her place on the floor and snuggled back in, quickly dropping off to sleep amid the purrs and paws.

No matter the beauty and joy of the night, the walls were patrolled, rodents were murdered and the property remained under the weather eye of grizzled toms and coal dark felines who were prepared to cause hell for the dead should the need arise.

5. The Shopping

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Queen of the Cats 3. Nix's Murder House and Cattery

3. Nix's Murder House and Cattery

Nix had taken over a number of houses, buildings, shelters, forts, towers, hotels, a tree house and even one ill-fated school bus in her years alone, but finding the stone blockhouse was a gift. It must have been a folly for the rich or a fortification for someone very paranoid indeed. In the end it had not done any good for its builder, but it had become home, base camp, cattery, and sanctuary for Nix and her felines.

The first floor was built smaller than the second, with just a single door in the front face and a pair of tiny windows. That was one more ground floor door than the cagey young woman found comforting. Using the same local river rock, flagstone and a few bags of concrete from a shed, she used her commune learned skills and bricked up the small door and windows, making the edifice appear seamless. She removed the wooden stairs to the second floor balcony that cantilevered out over the ground floor. Nix replaced the original entry methods with a rope ladder that was pulled up most of the time, a cat beam that would drop away under the weight of even a small person, and the manual dumbwaiter and cat platform that could only be operated from above.

That ground floor edifice was one of the more normal parts of the house and even after two years of residence, Nix and the cats still kept finding secret niches, doors, sliding panels and other weirdness. The second floor entry hall accessed from the balcony contained two great fireplaces and a number of richly appointed but somewhat moldy chairs. However, it contained no obvious doors that would access the rest of the house. It had taken Nix a full week to find the catch which released an inner wall of a fireplace, letting it swing back like a small door so that a tall person must stoop to pass. The catch was located inside the opposite fireplace for maximum inconvenience.

Some part of Nix always wondered if she was living in a Camp David for magicians or a serial killer murder house. Each time she opened a new room, she hoped for a hat and wand rather than a pile of human limbs. Luckily, she had found neither dead people nor magic tricks as the first would now try to eat her and the second would just distract her so she could be eaten.

Passing through the fireplace, most of the second floor seemed almost normal in that it contained the right kind of rooms for a house, but they seemed to have been randomly collected from time. The kitchen was all stainless and shining modern industrial. The pantries were stocked with shelf stable foods of all kinds, wrapped in multiple layers of plastic to keep them fresh and insect free.

The dining room contained a ridiculously long table with a hilarious compliment of chairs, surrounded by rich painted frescoes of hunting scenes and velvet curtains that puddled on the floor as if they hid enormous windows rather than yet more stone. This room was deeply appreciated by the household felines who could each choose their own chair or pile of velvet curtain for a good nap and leave open seats remaining. Nix amused herself by serving a Thanksgiving dinner for all home occupants at the table their first year in the house. The conversation was limited but it was a hilarious show to watch the cats sit on their chairs as esteemed guests and gnaw at their turkey bits from lovely china plates. It was entirely worth washing all of the dishes later.

If not for the multiple sets of identical furniture, the library seemed almost normal. Bookshelves with rolling ladders lined the walls and the room looked like it had been designed after a 20th century gentleman's club. Thankfully, there were no mounted heads and the books still remained dry.

At least the ground floor room lacked much in the way of surprises, being just a large open space with shelving around the walls and in some short rows. Canned goods, plastics bins of supplies, some guns, a lot of ammo, a room full of batteries that were charged by the solar panels on the roof, controls for the well, fuse box. Yes, this seemed perfectly on the level for the average paranoid schizophrenic or up and coming spree killer. Funny enough, their paranoia and planning had absolutely paid off, just not for them.

Top it off with a twelve foot high walled garden that contained a maze of sorts. The various endings of which brought you to the outbuildings. A grand old stone barn in which Nix took to raising rabbits, chickens, and two milk cows that had wandered onto the property one day. Finding the external door to the barn had been a special hell and in the end it had been Sampson who found it. At another end of the maze there was a shed full of tools, saws, crowbars and other dismemberment favorites. Nix just closed the door to that one and hoped to never open it again.

One long shed looked like you could perform sterile medical procedures, grow a lot of pot or cook up a great quantity of various high grade street drugs. In memory of her parents, Nix grew two pots of marijuana named Ed and Alice respectively, plus a fair number of potted catnip plants. She reserved the rest of that space for home surgeries she hoped to never perform.

Back inside, the block house third floor was just a collection of oddly themed bathrooms and bedrooms and the attic was an open space under the eaves, one of the few places with windows where you could see for a distance. In the two years since finding Nix's Murder House and Cattery, she made herself comfortable by pulling a few of the king sized beds into the largest bedroom. This almost always assured that she could sleep and wake up surrounded by cats, rather than beneath a pile of them. With few exceptions, the entire gang like to eat and sleep together as this had kept them alive through some crazy times.

As Nix slept each night, the older Toms would roam the house to make sure nothing was amiss inside. Out on the walls, there was always a black furred sentry or two that made sure the walking corpses kept on walking right by. Any that came too near were enticed to a merry chase after a nice, warm and juicy cat who always disappeared into the forest once the dead had been redirected.

Nix's Murder House and Cattery was good for the whole pride.

4. Rebirth