[ An entire plotline revolved around the Cat-Eyed Queen delivering the body of Krista to Thira, in part to honor a Sister of the Order she had helped found so long ago, and to provide a means for her agent - the little black cat - to enter the Sisterhood's citadel. All of that led to this scene... but since the whole matter of the Apple of Dis isn't covered in the rest of this series... well, it had to go. ]
A small furry black head, yellow eyes bare slits, slithered around the corner of a passage. The walls were glassy black stone, the floor a dirty gray. Against such a dark background, in such poor light, the little black cat was almost invisible. It darted ahead, finding the corridor empty, and came at last to a deeply recessed door. The walls on either side of the door were elaborately carved to show a series of bas-reliefs. Women in tall headdresses were frozen in the stone, facing towards the portal, their hands raised. The little cat ignored them, nosing about at the base of the door itself. It was stone and heavy and shut. Yellow eyes looked this way and that and the cat sniffed carefully all along the frame. At last, tail twitching in disgust, it rose up on its hind legs and scratched at the black stone.
Claws squeaked on the smooth basalt, but made very little sound. The cat let its front paws drop to the ground, then turned quickly in a circle. The door remained closed, as solid as the core of the mountain that surrounded it on all sides. The tail twitched again and the cat paced up and down the door, rubbing its shoulder along the glassy stone. Finally, after rolling on the ground, it sat up at the middle of the door and meowed.
The corridor was silent as a tomb. The portal remained closed.
Truly disgusted, the little cat began to nose along the ground in front of the door, pacing carefully back and forth until it had covered the entire vestibule. At last, it came back to the bottom of the door and laid down, tail lashing from side to side. It stretched out a paw, extended a curving sickle-like claw, and began trying to get the sharp tine under the door itself. A grain passed, then another, then the cat rolled up, yellow eyes furious, and it paced haughtily back to the carvings. Some of them were deep enough for it to squeeze into a space between the bangled legs of the statues. Curling up, the little cat closed its eyes, leaving only the tiniest slit of yellow. Then it began to wait.
A dream of smelly fish and hot cream was interrupted by a grinding sound. The little cat’s eyes opened, then squeezed down to almost nothing. The door was opening. It rolled inward on some hidden hinge, sliding across polished rock. Light spilled through, the creamy yellow radiance of an oil lantern. The little cat oozed out of its hiding place, creeping across the ground, tail flat, ears back. It pressed itself against the wall, right at the junction of door and jamb, waiting.
A woman stepped out, dressed in a warm pair of woolen pantaloons, with a stole around her shoulders. It was cold, this deep in the mountain. A peculiar dampness hung in the air, making the air frigid. She stepped out, the lantern in one hand, then turned to face the black door. As she did, the little cat darted through the opening, claws carefully retracted, running silently.
“Echthros!” The woman spoke in a clear voice, carefully enunciating the syllables. The grinding sound resumed, and the door swung shut, closing with a heavy thud that echoed through the floor. Within the chamber, the little cat crept to a wall and paused, sniffing the air and listening. A large octagonal room opened up before her, with a domed roof cut from solid rock. A series of three broad steps led down from the heavy door to a floor covered with debris.
Bits of broken statues, battered shields, fat-bladed swords, vases, wooden chests, a chariot, sheaves of metallic grain, rolled up rugs, a winged idol missing its face and wicker basket after wicker basket of papyrus scrolls crowded the floor, leaving very little room to walk. At the center of the room there was a raised dais, thick with dust, but unaccountably empty. Every other space in the room was crowded with trinkets and baubles and unrecognizable bits. Figure-eight shaped shields and helmets with horsetail crests hung from the ceiling. The little cat proceeded to sneeze mightily, sending up a puff of ancient dust. It’s whiskers twitched in annoyance.
No one else was in the room. The cat took a moment to wash its face, curling a paw over its nose. Then it padded down the steps and wound its way, tail high, through the baskets and boxes. It moved carefully, trying not to leave any paw-prints, but the dust was so thick on the black floor that this was impossible. After a grain or two, the cat gave up with this and sprang up onto the dais. There, it paced across a patterned series of interlocking bronze rings that lay on top of the dark stone. Each ring was carved with tiny symbols and signs, but the cat ignored them. Sniffing, it made a slow circuit of the pedestal, then halted suddenly, ears twitching.
Opposite it, on the wall of the chamber, was an alcove cut from the basalt. A screen of silvery metal covered it, perforated by many holes. Gauging the distance, the cat sprang lightly across a precarious stack of round red lacquer bowls and onto the top of a yellowed statue of a kneeling man. The stone man’s shoulder provided a solid perch and the cat sniffed at the metal screen, then batted at it with a paw. A faint greenish light shimmered where the paw passed and the cat’s whiskers twitched in annoyance.
“Mrrrw yerp!” The cat stood up on its paws and danced around in a little circle, tail lashing. The green glow strengthened, creeping across the front of the screen, but then it died, fading away like the last touch of sunset. The little cat butted at the screen with its head and the metal squeaked to the side. Now the cat stretched out, back feet on the head of the stone man, one forepaw on the lip of stone under the screen. The other paw, claws extended, hooked around the corner of the metal. Creaking, rust curling away from the iron pins that held the screen in pace, it swung back. When a space big enough for its head was clear, the little cat wormed into the opening.
Behind the screen there was a shallow space, barely bigger than the cat, but it was enough to hold a box of ancient wood, stained and chipped, that had seen far better days. Faint images remained on the wood, outlined by flaking bits of blue paint, but they were unrecognizable. The little cat paused to wash its face again, pink tongue busy until the dust was gone.
Satisfied, the cat nudged the box with its nose until it flipped over, falling open. A golden glow, like the harvest sun rising over endless fields of ripe grain, spilled out, making the cat’s eyes shimmer. Something round was in the box, and it made a pleasing soft rattle as it rolled out. The cat smiled, showing white teeth.