It was the cat. She ruined me.
Among the cliff-side trees of Ionia, I laboured under the art of my craft and the pallid sun, and between the scratch of my pen there came a noise. I looked up to see her perched at my window with all the air of a queen, gaze piercing.
“How’s the outside like?” She was my only source of information — I was no important person, no longer in contact with my other inventing colleagues that’d gradually fallen out of favour in the past year — though a reliable one. She seemed to unfailingly know everything.
In response, something wet landed on my desk. She’d dropped it from her mouth, though I hadn’t realised she’d been holding anything at all because it was the same black shade as her.
“I noticed that your vase was empty after my flowers died,” she said. It wasn't so odd to only keep the company of a talking cat, I hoped, not in Ionia where magic was abound — and she certainly was magical, with that one purple eye. “As much as you say no one else is welcome, I think you’re in sore need for interaction.”
It was, now that I looked closely, moving, alive. It was shifting all over, indiscernible plates sliding. “What is this?”
“There was a merchant travelling between villages.”
“So you stole it,” I said flatly, and picked it up with my gloved hands. It was a black spherical mass that squirmed between my fingers, though the heat it radiated was unmistakable even through the leather. With the intricacy of its parts, it seemed that it could've been valuable to someone.
“I acquired it.” When my expression did not change, she added, “I thought you appreciated gifts. It’s too late to return now, anyway. You might as well set up an aquarium in the vase.”
“What if that merchant had been penniless? What if this had been a sentimental token? I can’t condone this.”
Her ears drooped slightly, and her tailed flicked forwards in reluctance. “I just wanted to do something nice for you. There isn’t much I can, trapped in this body.”
She had never been very forthcoming with her situation, though I’d never asked, assuming that it was a sensitive topic. She’d merely appeared on my window one day and been appearing ever since, and I’d grown to look forward to her visits over the months, and shared with her much of my life as she regaled me with stories of the other villages and lands.
It was for these reasons that I let my disapproval fade with an edge of guilt. She was my dearest and only friend. “I do appreciate the effort... but please, do not harm another on my behalf again.”
I never even suspected it to be manipulation.
“I won’t,” she said, with clear relief, and instead it touched me to know that my forgiveness meant something to her. “Flowers next time, then? I’m getting predictable.”
I had filled the glass vase up with water and was setting it back onto the corner of my desk. The sphere had gone still, and when I placed it in, it merely sunk slowly to the bottom.
“Are you sure it’s aquatic?”
“Sure tasted like squid,” she said, and had the audacity to give me the equivalent of a smug smile.
“Right, right.” I frowned at the unmoving, tightly coiled ball in the vase once more, then turned for the door. “Food could loosen it.” I wanted to please her by interacting with the gift, pitiful as that might’ve seemed.
“Get me something too.”
The last I saw of her was her delicate form seated on the sill, light spilling around her like a halo, before I made my way to the pantry, choosing fruits, meats, nuts, and her favourite sardines. I enjoyed invention and learning; studying this new creature that she’d given me, as disapproving as I may have been of its means of acquirement, was an exciting prospect.
I had to give a return gift sometime. I did have an idea in mind, but worried that it wouldn't be to her standards. Even if she communicated only through a cat, I imagined as a woman she would have the features of the creature, with high expectations, curling wit, and perhaps even that one purple-pink eye that seemed void of light.
If I ever saw her as a being like me, I hoped there would be something recognisable.
My return was filled with thoughts like these, though something stilled me on setting foot. There was a silence to the room, a sense of heavy anticipation, and she was not moving on the window, merely looking outside.
The gift was missing from the vase, I realised, with sinking finality.
The food I’d gathered tumbled from my arms.
It was on the ceiling, spreading like hair, tentacles unfurling and twitching, and so much could not have come from a small ball, but dark plates were sliding over each other and it was growing and crawling inch by inch down the walls like creeping fungus towards the window.
I lunged forwards and grabbed her, intending to pull her away from the danger she hadn’t realised, but as I dragged her back, her tail pulled taut on something because it’d been seized by one of the tentacles, by the monstrosity that was swallowing the room.
With one hand clutching her, the other scrambled wildly for an enchanted knife on my desk. I needed any form of weapon. She twisted in my arms, was twisting, and I stared into her familiar golden eye. The other, the purple, was rolling madly in its socket like a screw.
The ground robbed me of my breath as I dropped her and fell back, frozen with horror as she was hauled away and left an oily black trail to be swallowed by the living mass. Above me, something was bulging in the centre of it, something pushing out from beneath the shifting tentacles that were now curling over my limbs, warm like fingers.
It was a head, a disembodied head, a head not by any sense that I was familiar, but ridged and plated, rotting golden, within it crowned an enormous unblinking eyeball whose gaze I felt as a heat bursting over my body. One of the three smaller eyes staring from above it was being cleaned by a second eyelid, shockingly reptilian, rolling slick and wet, newly returned to its place from where it had lived in the cat I’d come to adore.
The head bore down on me with all the steadiness of a guillotine. The curved cornea of its eye was glistening, flexing faintly with a pulse, catching the light from the window like the edge of a horizon. My skin blistered from its heat.
“How could you fear me when I have gifted you the best companion of your life?” The voice came from every side, though I hadn’t expected it to speak because some part of me refused the notion still, quivering like a rabbit.
“Because you are afraid of knowing.”
I wanted to plead. My mouth would not cooperate under its eyes that unraveled me. It, I realised, had been the one answering when I’d spoken of my nightmares, comforting me when I’d drifted away from those who knew me, encouraging me when I was struck with a new idea. It knew my fears, my anxieties, my passions, my… friendship — this enormous, monstrous, creature.
It must've chosen me as a target, a pet Ionian it’d isolate to open up as obscenely easily as an overripe fruit to reveal the raw and bleeding human condition.
Its eyeballs turned with the sickening sound of many fingers squelching in open sockets, and it said, “I systematically destroyed your bonds with individuals, whether by killing the other party or imitation in your letters to generate hostility.”
With that admittance I burst through my blockade, a dam erupting, a litany of _please-please-please-no-_ and struggling against its bonds.
“I would,” it said, "but the League summons. What if I do not return? My careful cultivation would be for naught.”
I did not know what the League was. I did not care.
A tentacle reached out to cup my face with shocking fondness. Instantly the skin there seared, the smell of burning flesh vivid, and my throat tore open to howl in anguish and betrayal and pain against this crime branded into me.
My devastation in that moment surged and surpassed a physical weight — the despair of a realisation, so utter and complete that it eclipsed everything else, crushed me wide open. It split my ribcage at invisible seams. _This_ had been my only friend.
It should have just killed me. Not taken more than my life.
“I understand you,” it crooned.
The full force of its stare was a torrential roar of light; or that of the dark.