Chapter 14: Elsewhere.

Meanwhile, back at Sartoris shack, there was quite a commotion on the hill below him. The roll had trampled a lot of small trees and disturbed countless natural habitats and cleared a path that the smaller animals would never have noticed. The clearing quickly became a thoroughfare for the displaced animals and their neighbors. At the bottom of this path, of course, was the new curiosity, the roll of wood that had pressed the felt. The caracal had returned, but not finding its familiar perch decided to head back up the hill. There were however, lots of smaller woodland frolickers that began to pick and chew at the felt bindings. A little bit of chewing effort, and the roll quickly lost any semblance of structure, the lumber collapsing into the wreckage it had just created.

While Sartoris had been reclaiming its felt, the local animals stayed out of sight, many of them already shorn for their raw materials. With the roll broken, the tattered felt remains were quickly picked apart by birds and nesting land animals to pad their nests. The ray of unbroken sunlight across the swatch scared away the nocturnal animals, and the ones who kept lower to the floor. Birds swarmed in and found new sunny perches and a few even moved lower down. The ponds and streams running across the swatch quickly dried up or diverted around it.

This sudden act of destruction had single-handedly caused a restructuring of the habitats in the surrounding areas. Sartoris didnt know it yet, but he would have a different crop of felt when the next season came around.

The caracal had quickly sensed that things were changing, and set out to find the curiosity it had faced a few days before. The boar had retreated and although she could hear it scurrying around in the distance of the woods, there were no more confrontations. They were not interested in each other, only the disruptive human.

The caracal had never been hunted for or caught by Sartoris, indeed had never even crossed the Human, and certainly wasn’t afraid of it, but in the wake of the destruction, she felt compelled to follow, out of curiosity. Being a spry animal, really a large cat, she bound up the hill with no trouble. She had eyed Sartoris collecting the felt the next day, but chose not to confront it to try to figure out its motivations. She made her way up the hill the next day to watch him prepare and load the felt on his back, and in his absence, pawed around his shack.

Human habitats are obviously different than animal habitats, and while Lucy (the caracal), was an exceptionallly bright cat, she really had no reference or use for things like chairs or clothing made of crushed animal pelts. Still, she was thorough, sniffing the entirity of the cabin, jumping on the rood, pawing at the soapy rainwater behind the shack, chewing at the domesticated glasses around there, sniffing the empty liquor bottles under the house. She even went so far as to chew on some of the stray hair that had escaped the feltmaking process. At the end, her cat instincts were satiated by her now instinctive knowledge of the hunter.

Satisfied, she jumped back on top of the shed, curled up, and rested for the rest of the day.

At nightfall, the next day, while Sartoris was navigating the walls of the city and drifting from inebriated haze to inebriated haze. Lucy sprung to life, on her paws, face darting quickly from left to right. She was wide awake and felt ready to move. She slumped off the top of the shack and bounded from the shacks clearing back into the woods.

With the overpowering stench of the shack behind her, she could get the faint traces of Sartoris and his wares in the distance, heading to the top of the ridge. She bounded, quickly towards the path, crossed it quickly, and darted back into the shadows, following the footpath in a way that she would not be seen. As she reached the crest of the ridge, she made her way back up on the footpath. The moon was high and bright, though she could still only make out the top of the valley. The nestle of brambles rising in thin crags across the horizon. The trail fell steeply the other way, back to the ridge where she would not be able to follow the scent, or even tell if she had overtaken him.

She slowed her pace and padded lightly down the trail. The wind picked up, and cut sharply across the valley, the rushing deafening her and rustling her fur in a most unpleasant fashion. She lowered her head and picked up the pace, in a deliberate quick walk, not quite a  trot, and too forced to brace against the wind to get the fluid motion needed to run quickly.

The path was becoming more and more treacherous, but she sallied forth, continually lowering herself to the ground. The wind grew violent and seemed to change direction making her padding even more treacherous. Eventually, she was stationary, claws futily clawing into the crumbling dirt. Her legs began to slip, and she scurried to keep place, legs flailing across the ridge. The wind seemed to gain a coherent focus and she lunged back towards the ridge with her front legs, but to no avail, her hindquarters had slipped onto a decrepit branch hanging above the valley.

Feeling  a momentary stability just out of the winds reach, she clawed, and tried to restabilize her front legs. A serious mistake. The branch gave underway, and she slid down the valley wall, front legs bouncing like a cat flying off a treadmill, she slipped immediately into the darkness, tumbling end over end. Her strength still high and in much better all around shape than Sartoris has been at any point in this story, she kept her claws out, occasionally breaking her fall and then immediately shaken back into it. After about 30 feet, she managed to flail and crash inward, and caught the base branch of a particularly large vine, and managed to jump freely into the blackness before the ledge broke.

Free jumping into darkness is not preferable, but certainly better than falling and flailing. Most of the perches were so weak, that her inertia just broke through. Still flying, claws out, she bounded from uneven ledge to uneven ledge, never resting, and always falling down.

At last her claws hit some rough ground and she dragged to a stop. Slivers of moon light dotted the ground and the sky was a thick knot of black with pinholes where she had broken or bounded through. Cats have night vision, but not in absolute darkness. She backtracked to the nearest spot of light, and held her back to it, circling and taking in what she could in the distance.

The wind high above her still rushed, but the valley floor was absolute silence. She could make out the surroundings, thick growth, quite the opposite of the forest on the surrounding ridge. The floor was a nearly impenetrable thatching of broken and corrupted vines breaking each other, choked by smaller vines and parasitic plants making each old growth vine a shaky substrate for increasingly virulent types of plants. The core structures were strong braids of dead material, providing just enough structure to lean against each other, but certainly not enough strength for a caracal.

Lucy followed the incline in the darkness and found the valley to be  a steep dry land that crumbled as she pawed it, in the darkness, she could seen no ledges or large rocks to even try climbing.

And then there was a hiss, at first it was a small stab to the silence, but it came back, and began to pulse, echoing in the distance. The echoes were irregular, and seemed to grow closer together until the ambient noise was a monotonal hiss. The pulsing quality remained, but each pulse the ambient sound began to grow louder.

Lucy stood transfixed at the base of the ridge, she had stepped far out of her pinhole of light, and the short, dim rays of light making it in from the sky were faint in the distance.

The hiss grew louder.

Lucy scurried low and made her way back through the brambles, trying to keep an eye on the light. As she moved forward, the vines managed to block or recede along her vision to strangle out the narrow pinholes that were her guide. The hiss had grown to overwhelming levels and seemed to be joined by a rousing round of irregular squeaks in the distance. She padded onward, quickening her step with a sense of impeding panic, she finally took her chances and jumped up towards the darkness. The knots and braids of vines on the ground were a good dealer sturdier than they were in the foliage, and she bounded easily between perches, jumping blindly, claws in front of the face, grasping for a new dried ledge. Her confidence quickly raised, and she broke above the mass of thickets and could see how clearly she had gone in the wrong direction. She was now closer to another sliver than her original landing point, and quickly bounded towards it. Landing at the outskirts of the next circle of moonlight, she stood tense, the noise surrounded her, and the awakened valley seemed to be closing in on her.

She stood pensive, hugging the ground floor as the sounds grew closer and closer. Pulling herself completely into the light, she stood her ground, head again darting around to try to catch something in the darkness. There was a brief flutter to her right, her head snapped, trying to track the sound. Then another one to the left, more and more, crisscrossing, causing patterns of interference above her. Her jerking motions began to move in stroboscopic motion, like a cat dancing on a disco floor.

Then a small sting on her side. She yelped in surprise and turned to look at her side, nothing, but she could feel a small welt where the pain had bit. Then another one hit her back, and a few more struck her side. She jumped in circles nervously shaking and convulsing. Shaking her whole coat to shake the feeling of the stinging and possibly to deflect any new attacks. The fluttering had grown heavier, and she saw a large black roach land on her front right paw. Again, the stinging. The air was thick with flapping and rustling in the glimpses of light remaining were swarms of the roaches gathering around the point she was standing in.

Overwhelmed by the attack, she lept striaght up and clawed for anything. Her paw batted through the swarm and caught a branch, she awkwardly pulled herself towards the branch with one limb and again found her self flailing as the perch broke. She threw herself, bounding again in an attempt to flee. The hissing and flapping had filled in so thickly that every foothold she got found her covered in the roaches fighting each other to get a bite.

The roaches were so viscious that the erratic flight of the individuals in the storm was actually their primary feeding. The roaches swarmed locally around any disturbance in the forest and feasted, on instinct, on anything they hit. With the thousands of roaches awakened across the valley with her huge entrance, they had grown so thick that they were constantly running into and attacking each other. The ground floor of brambles was being built up by the pile of cannibalistic roach corpses.

Lucy was unfortunate to be there, but the primary victims were the roaches themselves. As she continued to run across the brambles, the roaches concentrated the direction into following her, the overflow visciously pairing off and following to the ground, leaving a solid block of the most determined (and straight flying) roaches.

Lucy, growing accustomed to running through these brambles and circling outside of the light to not be a target, quickly found herself out of the confusion of the swarm, but unable to stop because of the smaller, more aggressive swarm following her. The ambient, deafening hiss had formed to a concentrating roar directly behind her, no matter how fast she ran.

While this was happening, the other noises in the distance grew louder, but she hardly had time to notice. She bounded through the under growth, occasionally daring to higher ground, but always falling uncontrollably back to the ground, spurred on by the first few bites on her tail.

She ran further, and climbed further, tearing deeper into the nests of the valley and leaving behind her original trail. Adrenaline was wearing down, and she was becoming lightheaded. Finally, in a last ditch effort to hide, she bounded, jumping higher and higher towards each perch, and finally landed perpendicularly to a lone sturdy tree trunk. Her claws took, and she scurried directly to the other side.

The mass of roaches hit the tree full force, shaking Lucy from her precarious position stuck to the trunk of the tree, she slid down, scratching with panic with errant limbs, trying to slow her fall. She recovered quickly, but had fallen about fifteen feet, and was only hanging by her front paws. She quickly pulled her hind legs in and stabilized her position while the tree was shaking.  Above her, she could hear a diminished howl pass in a straight line above her, while on the opposite side of the tree she could hear coupled roached falling in kombat and the scattered bodies of the roaches crushed by their velocity trickled in a stream along her. Occasionally a small shower of the bugs would fall across her, but no longer stinging. Soon after, the hissing seemed to dissolve in the distance.

The squeaking was still there, omniously coming from the ground below. There was sounds of scurrying and rustling. Now, Lucy was a giant predatory cat, she knew all about the kinds of sounds little critters make, because she lived on them when she was too lazy to kill something big, or only hunting solo. These sounds were not familiar, and there were too many of them. It sounded like a colony of something.

Lucy was stuck, afraid to move again to draw back the swarms, but going to the ground still seemed dangerous. At the same time, she was clutched and stuck to the side of a tree, clinging with unnatural desperation. She was covered in stinging bug bites, and completely lost her way. The top of the valley was a black ceiling, and there was almost nothing that she could see. With the last bit of extra strength she could muster, she clawed her way slowly up the trunk of the tree.

The tree was not alive and healthy, but it was suspiciously free of any of the vines that were living in a choking war with each other. There were no thorns or leaves directly around it, but the tree was certainly too brittle to be alive, or even a particularly steady place to stop. The instinctive risk seemed less than whatever was below her.

So she scurried up the tree, in a broad circle, pawing softly ahead for anything that could make her not hang vertically. She clipped past the landing spot of the roaches, and shook off the piles of dead, biting insect bodies, circling around again and finally resting on the sharp of ledge of a long broken branch. Without the weight of its extremity, it provided a narrow, but stable place, where Lucy paused to regain her strength.

she backed up directly against the trunk of the tree, and slowly nursed the wounds she had. The bites were small, and burned uncomfortably, but were not debilitating. Carefully, she tended to what she could reach in a tense balancing act, and at last came to rest, lying directly atop her paws, claws instinctively latching into the remnants of the branch, and fell into what could be called, at least for cats, a meditative state.

In the distance, the valley was still alight with activity. As she stood stoically, the waves of sounds around her seemed to fluxuate. In the distance, where she had landed, she could still hear rustling and hissing, creatures of the valley still surrounding the points of light from where she had crashed through. She was high enough that the moonlight could barely peak through, but not in the concentration from a broken forest roof. The vines filling the valley still grew strong around her and the ceiling seemed impenetrable, and certainly taller than the lone tree she had found. There was still the light sounding of a hiss in the area, and the scurrying below, while fainted, continued unabated.

Between the welts, and the shaky perch, and the endless noise, she could not rest for very long, and coming from the woods in the ridge, the tree seemed to be the most natural thing to perch on. Now animals aren’t known for having a capacity for abstract thought, but Lucy had at least found a rock that she could navigate in a dark circle of unknowns.

Having just a little more ambient light helped too. She took a short survey of the vines surrounding her, and judged that one was larger and closer than the other candidates. Tensing her muscles, she bounded off the ledge and jumped expertly towards the vine.

Big mistake, her time on the tree had lulled her confidence, and her claws tore through the vine like toilet paper. Again, she fell through layers of the underbrush, clawing to break her fall to the inevitable bottom. She landed with an unceremonius splat. Without a moments hesitation, an rush of squeaking drew towards. She spryly lept in the air and turned directly around her, scuttling form side to side, she could hear the scurrying and squeaking rush directly under her. From underneath her she heard a vine break away and felt a small ball of fur rush against her right rear leg.

She snapped and bit instinctively, and her mouth snapped shut on a large rat, she shook her head roughly and heard its bones snapped. As her teeth bit in, she tasted a foul acrid bile instead of the usual thick salty blood. Spitting out the rat and buckling down, gagging she felt another rush past her. Then another, and again, something bit her foot.

Lucy extended her claws and lashed out any place she saw or heard activity. Unlike the roaches, she was quite skilled in killing large rodents and bounced around like a kitten in a hamster store. Occasionally, from instinct or panic, she would bite a creature, but its virulent taste always caught her unpleasantly, and a new throng of rats would surround her while she was recovering.

Lucy was quickly outnumbered, she could take on a few rats or nutria, but not an unending army of them breaking through the ground. She jumped vainly, pawing out, once again looking for a way out. She managed to backtrack to the base of the tree quickly, but the rats only got thicker, they seemed to be coming from enclaves in the ground circling the tree, and had no trouble climbing over each other to follow her up the trunk.

As she tried to claw her way back up the trunk, her battered tail was fending off the encroaching rats, until finally a small group had completely overtaken her tail. She screeched as her claws gave way and tumbled back to the ground, landing on a rug made of squirming rats. Claws extended, she clawed the rats she was standing directly on and ran unretracted, the bodies of the rats making metaphorical snowshoes for the avalanche of rodents.

Having footing, she shook her body vigorously, flinging the vile creatures off in the darkness and broke back into the darkness, as the veil of the rats drew thin, she retracted her claws and began another path of awkward bounding across the lower levels of the valley. Panic had set in again, and she fled for several minutes, until the squeaking was distinct, but far behind her.

Lucy took a deep breath and looked for any other opening, the only tree she had found was hopeless, and there was very little she could do to gain sense of direction, let alone find a path. Opposite the squeaking, she could still hear hissing in the background, and some other sounds in the distance.

Defying her fear, Lucy bounded directly for the next source of sound, but tried to stay directly off the ground. She jumped a few notches up, paused under a cracking perch and let out a long sustained roar. She paused, listened in the distance, and the hissing once again grew louder. The squeaking of the rats had marshalled in a direct line behind her and she jumped, zig-zagging as quickly away from the rats and towards the new sounds.

The hissing grew louder, her apprehension increased, in the distance she could barely make out a faint light. Seeing something familiar, she quickened her pace, the hissing and squeaking drew nearer, and there were much louder sounds of disturbance coming from the light.

Finally, she broke directly through and landed between two spots of moonlight. The rumbling was fierce, but the source was still in the shadows. The encroaching sounds of the smaller predators was rushing and practically on her. She lept forward towards the nearest point, and as she clawed towards the spot of moonlight, the underbrush broke open and rats poured out.

Lucy landed just short of the spot, and bounded directly out and above them. Her eyes had adjusted in the light, and her intuition of climbing the brush around her had grown considerably, she bounded up from perch to perch and finally stopped silently, just outside the circle of light shining down on the hordes of rats. Finally the hissing broke back into a swarm and the rats became the direct prey. Lucy sat completely still and watched as the roaches swarmed the cover of rats and each other and became an unrecognizable swarming mass of hissing and squealing. The light had focused the entire disturbance directly in the moon light. Lucy stood paralyzed out of exhaustion, fear and curiosity, and watched as the squirming mass consumed itself, its large body in convulsions slowing to a spasm. In the end, all it could do was twitch.

Far from her, she could hear the rumbling still, growing fainter in the distance.