He Nearly Killed the Cat
The Chronicled Worlds
By Anne B. Walsh
Trying to come up with some topic of conversation that might leave the deeper portions of his mind free to recall the errant scrap of memory, Fox hit on a discrepancy which had been bothering him since he'd first clasped Neenie's hand. I think you said at one point you were undercover at the Potters' house a year?
Almost exactly a year. And that's one of the names you usually shouldn't use, but you couldn't know that yet and I had a hard time with the name prohibition when I started out here too, so my mentors arranged with one of the Chroniclers to get a temporary mask around this domain. I think it's still in place… Neenie gestured again, Fox following her movements more closely this time.
A design sprang into place in the air in front of them, looking like nothing so much, Fox thought with a mental chuckle, as a map of the London Underground. Neenie made a sound of satisfaction and traced a finger along one of the lines, which glowed more brightly at her touch. Yes, we're still masked up. We shouldn't push it too far, but if you slip once or twice while you're getting acclimated, you won't bring the wrath of the RC's down on us.
Always good to know. Fox focused his conscious attention on the diagram, tucking away his question about "Chroniclers" for later and touching Neenie's surface mind lightly for the translation of the multicolored lines. I know it isn't, but it almost looks like…
"Ow!" Neenie clapped her hands over her ears, grimacing. "You didn't have to shout!"
"Sorry, I'm sorry, but I've just remembered!" Fox clambered back into his chair, pointing at the diagram. "Doesn't it look like our magic, the Pack and the Pride, I mean? The way we were interconnected, the times we linked up all the way to do the crazy things that we could do?"
Neenie nodded warily. "What about it?"
"I heard them talking, back… back then, back there." Fox jerked his head in the approximate direction from which they had approached the cottage. "They said all sorts of things about having trouble with us. About us being resistant, more resistant than normal, because of what they called a web of power. And they couldn't destroy it completely, because they were missing one of the nodes."
"One of the…" Neenie broke off, eyes wide. "They meant me," she whispered. "I was missing, so they couldn't break my bonds…"
"And because of that, they couldn't entirely break any of the bonds." Fox reached across the table and clasped Neenie's hand tightly. "And when they couldn't break our bonds, they couldn't break us. Not entirely."
"What they did was bad enough," Neenie said stiffly.
"No argument. But don't you see? Don't you understand what this means?" Grimacing as his voice started to squeak with excitement, Fox squeezed the handkerchief tightly in the hand not holding Neenie's and pulled himself back under tenuous control. "If they couldn't break us, then they couldn't rehabilitate us. Not the way they'd have wanted to. Which means…"
"Which means the others must still be out there somewhere." Neenie's voice had dropped to an awed murmur, and Fox could see images of their missing family and friends passing through her mind like a slideshow. "Do you think…"
"We can find them? It'll be a job, but I bet we could." Fox glanced around the modest ground floor of the cottage. "Though I think we're going to need a bigger house."
Somehow, this struck them both as exquisitely funny, and they giggled their way up the stairs and into one of the bedrooms overlooking the backyard, which was as neat as though no one had been inside it for a year.
We never did finish that discussion about time.
"So, what I was going to ask earlier." Fox plumped a pillow and set it at the head of his personal nest, a neatly folded cocoon of bedsheets an easy arm's length away from Neenie's. "How could you have been undercover at… where you were undercover for a year, and still have had time to set all this up and get trained in being a Legendbreaker? It hasn't been much more than a year since everything happened."
"That's the thing about Outer Time." Neenie's trousers joined her shirt and robes on top of the three-paneled screen behind which she was changing. "It's exactly what it sounds like. Outside the kind of time that we used to know. I spent a year here in training, part of which was building my own domain, and then my mentors sent me into the world where I found you for my first assignment. Part of which was being undercover, as the family cat, for a year. So it's been two years for me, where it was only one for you."
"So, what, the year that you spent here doesn't count?" Fox tossed his own robes onto one of the two bed frames in the room, denuded of their mattresses, which were neatly placed side-by-side on the floor with the two nests built on top of them.
"Doesn't count how?" Neenie emerged from behind the screen in baggy turquoise pajamas and plopped down onto her nest with a groan of relief, shaking out her hair. "It counts for me, I remember it, I learned a lot of important things during it, but no, for you it wouldn't count. You were still on Inner Time, the time of the world that you were living in."
"But you look older." One second too late, Fox realized the inadvisability of saying this to any female, even his easy-going twin. "Not like old older, but older the way you should look if I hadn't seen you for a year. Is that just the year you spent as a cat? Or wait, you said once you were sealed to Outer Time, Inner Time didn't affect you anymore…" He moaned theatrically, pressing a hand to his forehead. "I'm so confused!"
"Stop being silly and listen to me and maybe you won't be." Neenie tweaked a piece of his hair between her fingers. "All the worlds we can reach from Outer Time are like books on a library shelf. We can take them down and read them any time we want to, but no matter how long the things took to happen in the book, it only takes us a few hours, maybe a few days, to read all about it. To the people in the book, it took weeks, months, even years for those things to happen. That's Inner Time, and however long it took us to read the book is Outer Time. Does that make sense?"
"Not yet, but it probably will in the morning." Fox covered an enormous yawn as Neenie made another of her gestures at the curtains, which obediently closed, blocking out the sunlight. "Are those worlds you keep talking about like books any other way? Can we peek ahead and find out the ending?"
"Yes," Neenie said softly into the dimness. "Yes, they're like books in a lot of different ways. But we can only peek ahead sometimes, and often, even when we need to know, it hurts."
"Life hurts." Fox slipped into his cocoon and had to repress a snort of laughter at the irony of his blunt statement when compared to his comfortable surroundings. "At least, part of the time it does. Right now? Not so much."
"Mmmm." Neenie's slender-fingered hand met his groping one halfway. "Fox? I'm glad I found you."
"I'm glad you found me too." Fox tapped his thumb, ring finger, and middle finger against the back of her hand in that order, invoking the hand code of their childhood to tell her without words, even mental ones, that he loved her.
Because I think if I tried to say it aloud right now, I'd cry like a baby.
Which I'll probably end up doing at some point anyway, but this isn't the time.
Right now… He consciously relaxed each portion of his body, starting with his toes and moving upward until he felt the knots in his shoulders begin to dissolve with the twanging pain of overstrained muscles. Right now, I am going to get the best sleep of my life.
And then tomorrow, we can talk about how we're going to get the rest of our people out of whatever hells the Reality Cops decided to toss them into.
Alternate realities or not, nothing keeps the Pack and Pride apart for long.
"The worlds really are almost exactly like books," Neenie said the next morning, pulling muffin halves out of the toaster oven. "Don't you remember, when…" She giggled aloud. "When Valentina Jett would really be on fire with one of her stories, how she would say that it felt more like looking through a window and watching people than making things up?"
Fox buried a snort in his mug of tea at this blatant reference to one of their Pack-fathers, who had taken a feminine pen name in order to get his romance novels published. "I remember," he said when he'd swallowed. "But do you mean—"
"I mean that's exactly what was happening." Neenie set the serving plate on the table and scooped two banana nut halves and one courgette pineapple onto her own plate. "It's far less common than people think that writers simply make things up. Almost always, for anything that's interesting enough to make people want to read it, the writer had at least a little contact with another world. They don't always get it right, of course, but who does?"
"So it's all real." Fox helped himself to the other half of the courgette pineapple muffin and half a double chocolate. "All those worlds we used to love to read about, all those people we wanted so much to find out what happened to. They're real somewhere."
"Yes, and you've just touched on the next important thing." Neenie took a quick swig of tea to clear her throat. "Love and desire are very powerful forces. So is belief. Didn't you always believe, somewhere in your mind, that these people just had to be real? Because how could they affect you so much if they weren't even real?"
"I never actually believed they were real," Fox protested halfheartedly, but he had to admit he saw what Neenie was getting at. You do get emotionally involved with characters when a story is really good. And what's the highest praise that you can give to any author's characters? "They seemed real. I felt like I could meet them on the street. That's my mother, that's my brother, that's my baby sister…"
"Not with your conscious mind, but somewhere down below." Neenie waved a hand at the back of her head. "And that's where some of the strongest believing goes on. But what I'm trying to get at is that the love, the desire, the belief in these worlds and these characters gives them power. Real power. And once people have power, they don't like it being threatened. Which is where the Reality Cops come in."
"Not sure I follow."
"Of course you don't, I'm telling it all out of order." Finishing her last bite of muffin, Neenie pushed her plate away and sat back in her chair. "Around here, the people that we used to call writers or authors are usually called Chroniclers, because they're the ones who see what's going on in the worlds and write it down, chronicle it. The most skilled Chroniclers can just look out into nothingness, into the void, and see a brand-new world that no one ever saw before. But a lot of the less skilled ones, the newer ones, take a shortcut, especially when they're learning their trade."
"That makes sense." Fox bit an extra large chunk of pineapple in half. "What is it they do?"
"They focus on an existing world, and a question. Usually a what-if question. What if Cinderella's slipper didn't fit? What if Hercules failed at one of his labors? What if a bunch of modern Americans turned up in the middle of the Thirty Years' War?"
"Tell me that last one's a joke."
"Not even. Going off the rails a bit, if you ask me, but nobody did. In any case." Neenie set down her tea mug, made of the same brown-glazed ceramic as the goblet she had used for Fox's sealing the night before. "Some of the other Chroniclers didn't think this was fair, especially because these Chroniclers, being new at what they did, often didn't see very clearly and would exaggerate some of their characters' abilities terribly. So they decided that, except under special parameters, that kind of Chronicling wasn't to be considered real Chronicling."
"And the worlds discovered by that method, not real worlds. Hence, Reality Cops, to make all those pesky un-realities go away." Fox shuddered briefly. "It makes sense, as long as you don't consider that these are real worlds, with real people and real pain that's going to be inflicted on them."
Neenie shrugged. "To most Chroniclers, they're not. The worlds are 'just stories,' the people 'just characters,' and they never stop to think about the disconnect between that dismissive attitude and the very real emotional reactions that their readers have to them. But that's not even the worst of it."
She stuck out her tongue at him. "I see your sarcasm hasn't been impaired any. But you're missing a step. The Chroniclers only made rules that said other Chroniclers shouldn't look into derivative worlds, and that if they did, it wasn't for real, just for play. It was characters, people like you and me, who invented the Reality Cops. Which is why it has to be characters, like you and me, who join the Legendbreakers and stop them."
"How could characters invent the Reality Cops if they didn't even know that there were other worlds?" Fox objected. "That doesn't make any…" He trailed off. "No, I've got it backwards, haven't I? Some of them must know that other worlds exist, because the Reality Cops sure as hell do. Exist, I mean. How did they ever find out?"
"Different ways for different worlds. In magical worlds, someone discovered a new kind of magic. In scientific worlds, someone took science places it hadn't gone before." Neenie scowled. "Some of the older Legendbreakers, like my mentors, think that one of the Chroniclers must have spread the idea through the worlds, because the breakout into Outer Time happened so close to simultaneously in so many different places. But however it happened, it did happen, and this is where my point about love and desire and belief comes back to bite us, because all those things add up to just one thing."
"Power." Fox had no trouble following this line of thought. "The more people in any world who read about, who love, who want to know what happened in, who believe in a particular world, the more power that world and its characters have here in Outer Time. Right?"
"Right. And almost all of those most powerful stories are originals. Which I'm sure is as it should be, but it does end up meaning that the derivative stories get the short end of the stick." Neenie looked thoughtfully at the muffin platter, then broke off the top of the remaining half of the double chocolate muffin Fox had taken for himself. "Most of the time, derivatives aren't powerful enough to worry the original stories, but sometimes they get what I've heard ridges referring to as 'uppity.'"
"Legendbreaker talk. Ridge for original, either a world or a character from it. Plenty of ridges are very nice, not pretentious or rude at all, but then there are the ones who spoil it for everybody else."
"Aren't there always." Fox scooped up the remaining quarter of double chocolate muffin. "Food control. So ridges have all the power, or most of it, and—is there a nickname for derivative worlds?"
"Actually, there are two. It depends on what kind of derivative it is." Neenie got up to refill her teacup. "If the breakpoint for the derivative world is something that simply happened, a natural phenomenon that could have gone one way or the other, that's called a spin, for spinoff. If it's someone making a different choice, consciously deciding to do something that they didn't do in the original, that's a tell, for retelling. The RC's tend to be a little harder on tells than they are on spins, but they'll go for either type if it starts getting too powerful."
"Don't tell me," Fox said dryly. "We were getting too powerful."
"Getting up there." Neenie had a slight smirk on her face. "And the best part of all is, we were never expected to go anywhere. We were expected to be a fluffy little tell, a happily-ever-after without a speck of trouble to our names, and somehow we acquired a life of our own." Setting down her teacup, she made a beckoning gesture, and five enormous paperbacks bound in jewel tones sailed in from the back room.
"Holy bricks." Fox got up to peer more closely at the enormous stack of books in Neenie's arms. "Are those all about us?"
"They are, and the series isn't finished yet." Neenie set the books down and gestured again. "But your homework for tonight, and probably for the next week or so, will be these."
The stack this time was of hardcovers, seven of them, the first three fairly slender but the fourth through seventh approaching brick proportions themselves. Fox picked up the first one and examined the brightly colored picture on its cover. "Sounds familiar," he commented, running a finger across the title. "And the next one, and the one after that… wait, is this it? Is this the Chronicle of… of our ridge? Of what we were supposed to be, what they were trying to rehabilitate us into?"
"This is it." Neenie took the first one from him and opened it to approximately a third of the way through, flipping a few pages until she discovered the spot she wanted. "And this is who they wanted you to become, in all his eleven-year-old glory."
"Joy." Fox perched on the edge of the table and began to read. "Quite a piece of work, isn't he?" he commented when he had finished perusing the brief exchange between the two boys.
"And that's him at his least objectionable." Neenie's smirk was back, and bigger this time. "Isn't there something you ought to say?"
Fox set the book carefully aside, then hugged Neenie until she squeaked. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, oh best sister in all the worlds. Something along those lines?"
"That works for me." Neenie laid her head on his shoulder as he relaxed his grip slightly, still holding onto her as tightly as she was to him. "I missed you so much," she whispered. "And all the research I did, everything I had to learn, made me more and more afraid that you were gone for good, because there are almost no other worlds with someone like you, someone who's so very different from his source, and I didn't know how long you could hold on…"
"I suppose they figured, since the Pack started on me young, they'd have to start even younger." Fox spoke lightly, stroking Neenie's hair in the same motions he would have used had she been in her cat form. "Pity they didn't realize I'm as stubborn as they come, and a baby's mind wasn't going to be able to cope with me."
"Yes, speaking of which." Neenie pulled back just far enough to meet Fox's eyes. "What are we going to do with him? Is he all right? Have you heard from him?"
"I made him a mockup of his bedroom back in here, once you gave me that bit of power so I could get control." Fox tapped the back of his skull. "Told him it was time to go back to bed, and laid as strong a sleeping spell as I thought I could get away with over the whole thing. I don't know how much longer it'll hold, so we should probably deal with that fairly soon. Unless you think we ought to find something else to do with him?"
"I don't know. I'll have to think about it. For right now, we should certainly make him a little dreamworld of his own, a playpen, like you said before, but we'll have to think about what to do longer-term. If he starts growing up and getting restless, he could be a big problem, because technically it is his body…" Neenie shook her head. "And talk about borrowing trouble. Don't we have enough to think about, trying to work out what's become of the rest of us and how we can find them?"
"At least since we've thought about it, it's less likely to sneak up and bite us on a place we don't want to be bit." Fox hoisted his sister up and spun her around once, making her squeal. "So. Any thoughts on how we should go about finding a handful of Marauders and Warriors?"
"Well." Neenie twisted a lock of hair around her finger, one of her favorite thinking mannerisms. "The first thing we'll probably need is—"
Both twins whirled as a girl about their own age with glossy black hair shot through their front door, making a beeline for the large glass jar of finger-thick pretzel rods which sat on the counter next to the wine carafe. "Pretzels," she moaned, intoning the word as though it were her lover's name. "Must… have… pretzels…"
No, you haven't met this person before. She is an entirely new character, native to the Legendbreakers universe, and will be introduced further in the next chapter, along with one more new character, and one old one whom I think you'll all be glad to see!
I hope this chapter has cleared up some of the confusion about who and what the Legendbreakers and the Reality Cops are, and what they do and want. The parallels with original stories and fan fiction are definitely intended, but not, I hope, too overwhelming. Let me know what you think. (Politely, please, even if you dislike it very much, there are ways to say so nicely…)
Next chapter most likely on Fridayâ€”keep reviewing and I'll keep writing!
Also, thanks to reviewer Sim for pointing out that what Americans call zucchini, Brits call courgettes. Whatever you call them, let me know if anyone wants the recipe for those muffins!