Before Creature Was Creature
In the village of Inor there once lived a cat called Creature. Before Creature was Creature she travelled far and wide and went by many names. She travelled for years but could not find a home. People would marvel at her beauty; the smooth grey and white fur, the emerald eyes. They would stroke her and delight in the soft belly as she rolled on her back and pawed at the air. Seduced, they would justify taking her in by thinking of all the mice and rats she would catch.
Sooner or later, the novelty of this new possession would wear thin and she became a nuisance to them. They no longer saw her beauty, mice and rat corpses were no longer presents but grotesque irritations, and her playfulness was no longer a delight, but a distraction from more important tasks. The cost of food and care became a burden, an unnecessary luxury for a toy that didn’t amuse. They cursed and kicked her, casting her out and leaving her to lament. They threw stones at her when she meowed and scratched at the door, and soon she left, travelling to another village, looking for a home.
One day, the cat with many names arrived at the cottage of Sitome, the Immortal Man of the North.
Sitome was a medicine man who brewed potions and tinctures for the villagers. Stories of his immortality were known far and wide; some said he was over six hundred years old and had become immortal after drinking a potion, others said his eternal life was a gift from a sorcerer who had been a lover in his youth. Dissenters would click their tongue and say, “Nonsense, he is ninety at most, and a great weaver of tales.” But Sitome made no effort to confirm or deny, he would merely mumble and grumble in response, shuffling round his garden, fetching the herbs needed for their ailments. In return for his healing potions, the villagers supplied him with all necessities, and in spite of his gruffness he got on well with them, and attended their festivals and parties.
Sitome spent most of his days harvesting ingredients, making tinctures, and listening to litanies of illness and injury. In the evenings he would sit on his porch, enjoying the hum of the crickets. He’d always look to the south, staring down into the valley as the breeze brought the smell of mint and jasmine.
When the cat with many names arrived at Sitome’s cottage, she found him in the garden, watching as she crept along the path. She stopped and stared at him with her wide emerald eyes.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” said Sitome, winking at the cat with many names. She blinked at Sitome, drawn to him, but hesitant after so many years of rejection. Sitome called to her. She approached and rubbed herself against his leg. He lifted her and held her gently against his chest.
“A scrawny creature,” he said. “All skin and bone.”
She nuzzled his chin. “We will dine together,” he said, and took her into his home.
The cat with many names became Creature. Over the years she grew comfortably corpulent. She was content, often to be found sprawled across Sitome’s ancient books or scratching herself amongst the hogwort. Wherever Sitome was, she would follow. As he wrote in his medicine book she’d sit on his desk and purr; tired after a night hunting mice in the garden she’d doze, her tail twitching, and Sitome would pause and watch her, wondering about her dreams. As he worked in the garden in the afternoons she’d chase insects, or lie stretched out in the sun.
In the evening she would sit with Sitome on the porch, but he’d no longer look down into the southern valley; instead, he looked down at Creature and stroked her belly until her purring was louder than the crickets’ hum.
On cold nights she’d forgo her hunts and sleep in Sitome’s bed. She’d jump onto him as he read by candlelight, pad in circles and settle on his chest, falling asleep to the sound of his heartbeat. Sitome would lay his book aside, place his hand on her stomach and fall asleep to the rhythm of her breath.
The villagers told stories of the treacherous ways of cats and were suspicious of her. They told Sitome she was not to be trusted, she would bring bad luck, but he only mumbled and grumbled and they soon grew accustomed to her presence. Some of the villagers developed a reluctant affection for her and they’d take her scraps of meat. That is, until Sitome disappeared.
Creature had been out all night, hunting mice. When she returned, Sitome was gone. She could smell other humans, and there was horse dung by the gate. She assumed he’d been called by one of the villagers to help with an urgent affliction or accident. She settled in Sitome’s bed, falling asleep on his pillow.
He did not return that day or the next and Creature grew worried. The villagers came for their usual tinctures and potions and were surprised by his absence. They stopped by on each new dawning and on the fifth day they were frantic and angry; their superstitions resurfaced and they blamed Creature for Sitome’s disappearance.
“You brought a curse with you! We knew it all along. Catch her, catch the evil creature. We must kill her and lift the curse.”
Creature ran from the villagers and hid in the forest, finding shelter in the hollow of a tree. She fell into a fitful sleep and woke to darkness. She crept out, her ears pricked, listening for the villagers. There were no signs of humans as she padded through the forest. Her stomach growled, and she searched for mice to satiate her hunger. As she hunted, she caught the scent of Sitome; she sniffed frantically, turning in circles, trying to find where the scent led. It was faint and she didn’t want to lose it; forgetting her hunger, she followed Sitome’s trail. It mingled with other smells; more humans, and horses – the smells from the cottage. It wasn’t long before she came across horse dung, and since this smell was stronger than Sitome’s, it was this scent she pursued.
Creature travelled for almost three weeks until she came to the forest in the Eride valley. The path skirted the edge of the forest and she was still following the trail of the horses when she heard a voice.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
A man stepped out from the trees, blocking her path. Creature crouched and bared her teeth.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he repeated. The man lit a candle and leaned towards the flame, his face lit by the orange glow.
“I am Enucel. Do not be afraid, sweet Creature.”
Creature let out a small meow at the sound of her name and moved back along the path before crouching, ready to run into the forest.
“I know who you are, Creature,” he said. “I mean you no harm.”
Creature’s ears pricked up.
“You can trust me,” he said, holding his hand out to her. “I will help you find Sitome.”
Creature let out a plaintive wail. The man took a step towards her and she arched her back and hissed. He raised his hand in supplication.
“Your Sitome is a prisoner of the King.”
“I can tell you how you can reach him.”
Creature cocked her head, inspecting him. Enucel’s short greying hair framed his pale face. His eyes were pitch black, his lips adorned with golden rings. Silver rivulets were painted on his cheeks, flowing from his eyes to his chin. Enucel’s red robe looked like fire licking at his body.
“I live in the ruins in the forest,” he said, pointing the way with his candle. “I will be waiting for you, Creature.”
Enucel left the path, the candle flame flickering as he moved through the trees. Creature didn’t move. She watched the flame grow smaller and disappear.
The Eride Ruins
Creature sat on the path for some time. She thought of her life with Sitome; sharing meals, following him through the garden as he gathered his herbs, lying in his lap as the sun set. She’d felt loved, protected and content for the first time in her life. She loved Sitome and thoughts of a life without him were unbearable.
She let out a small trembling meow and walked into the forest, following Enucel’s scent to the Eride ruins. She entered through a broken archway which lead into a large hall that was opened up to the night sky. At the back of the hall Enucel was waiting for her, his face lit by candlelight.
“Come, sweet Creature,” he said. “My quarters are below. We can eat and I will tell you how you can save Sitome.”
Creature was wary, but followed, walking a few steps behind Enucel. He led her down stairs made uneven by erosion. The walls shimmered in the candlelight and Enucel’s robe billowed as the wind whistled through the decaying palace. Creature sniffed at Enucel, smelling the dust from the crumbling building and the comforting scent of jasmine, reminding her of summer nights in Sitome’s garden.
Enucel led Creature into his quarters. At one side of the room there was a fireplace and at the other there was a huge bed piled high with intricately woven covers and embroidered cushions.
“The old woman, Hirtef, from the village to the south, gave me these beautiful covers and drapes,” he said, running his hand down material hanging from the wall. “I offered her blood in return.”
Creature froze and Enucel smiled. “Don’t worry, Creature, I won’t be offering your blood. It is my own that I sell. It is precious.”
Enucel’s black eyes reflected the flickering flame of the candle.
“Rest, sweet Creature. We will dine together, and I will tell you how you can find your friend.”
Creature settled amongst the silk covers, enveloped in warmth and the scent of jasmine. Enucel lit a fire, illuminating the drapes, awakening their lustrous colours. Creature looked more closely at Enucel’s face and saw that the silver rivulets were scars. They wove their way down his face from beneath his eyes to below his chin, some snaking onto his neck. The scars shimmered like silver jewels in the light of the fire.
“I will explain the scars, sweet Creature. I will cook for us, and then we shall talk. Rest for now.”
Creature pawed at the covers, finding comfort in their warmth. What seemed like only a moment later, she was wakened by the smell of cooked meat and a gentle stroke from Enucel. They sat by the fire, eating. Enucel told Creature his story.
“I was a shapeshifter. I lived part of my life as a lizard and part of my life as a human. When I was a lizard I could shoot blood from my eyes, poison blood that would burn the skin of predators. When I became human I couldn’t cry. If I cried, I would cry the same poison blood and it would burn away my skin. I have only cried twice in my life. Once as a child, and again when my lover died, leaving me with these scars.
“My lover, Rone, was the grand Hierophant of Eride. This was her palace. Salun, the King of Niesso, heard rumours of her powers and tried to take them. He tortured and killed her. My poison tears burned the skin on my face and my hands. I thought of revenge but my grief overwhelmed me. I fell into ruin with the palace. The Hermit of Eride was the name the villagers gave me. Their children liked to play in the ruins but the villagers warned them to stay away, or the Hermit of Eride would capture them and burn away their skin. For years the only person I saw was Hirtef, who would bring me food and furnishings in exchange for my blood, which she would use in tinctures. She hoped to become a medicine woman, and my blood used in small doses, mixed with the right herbs, could be a cure for many ailments. She kept her source secret, to prevent the villagers from coming to me. I did not want to be disturbed by them so I encouraged the tales of the Hermit-monster who would burn their children.”
“Ever since Rone’s death, I have been unable to shapeshift. Instead, I am cursed with visions. At first I thought I was going mad. The visions were vivid. Real but unreal, unfolding before me.
“One day, I saw you and Sitome. You were in the garden together. Sitome was chastising you for crushing the herbs when you chased insects. You rolled on your back, paws in the air, seducing him into good humour. He stroked your belly. I felt a warmth towards you both. I was sad when the vision faded but you always returned, always fragments of your happiness, which I began to share. I’d been alone for so long, and though we’d never met, I began to consider you as friends. I looked forward to visions of you, until one day there was violence.
“Sitome was in King Salun’s palace and the corridors were filled with blood. I worried for you, until you appeared in my visions again, travelling, seeking Sitome. I was angry with myself – if I hadn’t sunk into a self-pitying grief, but had instead avenged Rone and killed the King, you would both still be safe. To atone, I decided I would help you, so I waited for you by the path. When I saw you, I felt such joy. And now here you are.
“I had one last vision, which told me how you can save Sitome from the King. We will sleep now, and in the morning I shall tell you of my vision before you continue your journey.”
Creature stood, meowing. She jumped on to his shoulder and pawed at his face.
“No, sweet Creature. I fear if I tell you more you will think only of saving Sitome. You cannot save him if you have no strength to continue on. We will sleep now and in the morning I will tell you of the vision. You will save him, be assured. I have seen it.”
She meowed and pawed at him and he stroked her, calming her. She returned to the cushions and covers and lay there, thinking of Sitome until she fell asleep.
“I do not have what you seek.”
Sitome stood before King Salun.
“You are the Immortal of the North, are you not?”
“I do not have what you seek.”
“The Oracle tells me that if I have your heart I shall become immortal in your place.”
“My heart is well protected.”
“We shall see.”
Salun gestured to Kier, his aide, who forced Sitome to his knees.
“I do not have what you seek.”
“We shall see,” said Salun, nodding to Kier. Kier unsheathed his knife and pulled Sitome back by his hair.
“Be careful,” said Salun.
“I am always precise,” said Kier, and plunged the knife into Sitome’s chest.
It Has Begun
Creature wakened and pressed herself flat. She bared her teeth and hissed. She wailed.
“It has begun,” said Enucel.
Enucel lit a cone of incense, the juniper smoke spiralling through the room.
“It has begun,” said Enucel. “I will tell you how you can save Sitome and you must continue your journey.”
“Bring it to me.”
Kier reached into Sitome’s chest and lifted out his heart. Sitome’s body fell to the floor as Kier placed the heart on a silver platter. He delivered it to the King and Salun began to eat. He held it with both hands, his nails sinking into it like skewers. He tore at it with his teeth, blood spattering across his face, smearing across his mouth, dribbling from his chin. Kier turned away.
Sitome opened his eyes, rose, and sat at the table, opposite the King. He watched Salun eat his heart. The King, immersed in his grotesque feasting, didn’t see Sitome. “Soon I will be immortal,” said Salun, spitting blood.
“My heart is well-protected,” said Sitome as the hole in his chest glowed with a golden light.
Salun stopped eating and stared at Sitome. “How can you live? I should be immortal – I have devoured the very heart of you.”
“Let me test your immortality,” said Sitome.
“Don’t dare mock me.”
Salun licked the blood from his fingers.
“Why didn’t it work?”
“My heart is well protected.”
“Who protects it? What spell is this?”
Salun stood and slammed his fist on the table.
“Don’t play games.”
Salun’s eyes narrowed as he contemplated Sitome.
“The cavity in your chest is glowing,” said Salun.
“Then there is a spell.”
“There’s no spell.”
“Don’t lie to me, Sitome. I always get what I want.”
“Not this time.”
The gold glow faded to reveal Sitome’s healed chest.
“Kier?” said Salun. “Do you see this? He has healed.”
“I see it.”
Salun stood and circled the table. He grabbed Sitome, pulling him to his feet and placing his hand on Sitome’s chest.
“Your heart is beating. How is this possible?”
“My heart is well protected.”
“So you keep saying.”
“My King,” said Kier, “It could be we need a ritual as the heart is cut out.”
“Yes, you’re right. Send word to the Oracle.”
“Yes, my King.”
Enucel’s Final Vision
Creature listened attentively, watching the juniper smoke turn red as the morning sun crept through the cracks in the Eride ruins.
“In my last vision,” said Enucel, “you consumed my blood. You were poisoned and slowly dying. I took you to Salun’s palace and he saw how you glowed gold with the love of Sitome. Salun saw that it was you who carried Sitome’s heart.”
“He killed you, consumed you, became immortal, and died an agonising death from your poisoned body.”
Creature’s fur stood on end and she hissed.
“Because he can never truly die, Salun died over and over. He will suffer eternal agony and Sitome will be free. But I can’t let you do it, Creature. I realise now that I can’t let you sacrifice yourself.”
Creature paced, letting out small trembling meows.
“We must find another way.”
Creature continued to pace the room, then she jumped up on Enucel’s table and pawed at the knife.
She placed her paw on the knife and looked up at Enucel, meowing loudly over and over. Enucel looked down at her, shaking his head. Creature gave a long strangled wail, then there was silence as they considered each other.
“You must love him very much,” said Enucel, a resigned sadness in his voice. “You have made such a difficult decision. I admire your courage.”
Creature removed her paw from the knife and Enucel lifted it. He turned away from her and smiled. Turning back to her, his smile gone, he sat on the floor and took the knife to his arm. Enucel’s blood dripped to the floor.
Creature paced across the table, watching the blood fall. She stopped, meowed, and jumped down. She walked over to Enucel and licked the blood from the floor.
“I am growing weary of this meal, and I see it is taking its toll on you, Sitome. Tell me what spell protects your heart and you will be released from this hell.”
“There is no spell.”
“I won’t give up, Sitome.”
“My heart is well protected.”
“So it seems.”
“You won’t succeed. Let me go.”
“I always get what I want.”
“Not this time,” said Sitome.
“Kier? What is that? Get rid of it.”
Kier walked towards the cat that had entered the hall, but Creature ran to Sitome and jumped onto his lap. Sitome exclaimed in surprise and hugged her as she licked his face and purred. Enucel entered the hall and the King turned to him.
“Oracle,” said King Salun to Enucel, “You told me if I ate the heart of Sitome I would be immortal. You lied to me.”
“I would never deceive you, my King,” said Enucel. “Look.” He gestured to Sitome and Creature. The King watched them as Sitome pushed Creature away.
“You can’t be here, Creature,” said Sitome.
She paid him no heed, meowing, jumping back into his lap. He hugged her and whispered into her ear, “You must run.”
The King saw how Creature glowed gold in Sitome’s arms.
“Run, Creature,” said Sitome, and he tried to push her away again as the King called on his aide.
“Bring it to me, Kier.”
Kier took Creature by the back of the neck and knocked Sitome to the floor. He placed Creature on the table in front of Salun. She pressed herself flat and did not move.
“Sitome, you were right,” said Salun. “Your heart was well protected.”
Salun took the knife from Kier and plunged it into Creature. Blood spread across the table as she died. Salun devoured her and Sitome wept.
Enucel approached the King.
“It’s just a cat,” Enucel said to Salun. “I don’t know why he weeps.”
“Oracle,” said the King. “Now I have my immortality you shall be well rewarded.”
Enucel smiled and sat at the table, waiting. “Yes, your highness. I shall be well rewarded.”
Sitome returned to his cottage. He continued with his daily life as if nothing had changed, but he was haunted by the irrevocable absence. He missed the smell of her head, the feel of her fur. He missed her rolling in the herbs.
Travellers seeking medicine and shelter often came to see him, relating stories of Salun’s palace, now in ruins. “It is cursed,” they said. “You can hear agonising screams echo through the crumbling halls.”
The travellers would tell of how they were lost in the forest surrounding the palace, but a golden cat guided them on their journey; she led them away from the palace ruins and brought them to Sitome’s cottage. They said the cat would disappear into the night, the sky exploding with gold.
Sitome gave the travellers medicine and shelter and every night he sat on his porch and looked up at the evening sky, watching the gold shimmer through the Northern Lights.