“I take every opportunity I can to do something like this,” Graff huffed as he jogged along the snowy path, the black cat struggling to stay in his arms. “It’s just so—just so darn cold.”
He passed a few norn and bounded down the frost-caked stairs. “Out of the way!” he shouted. “I’ve got a job to get back to!”
At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped. Mabel’s every limb became an agent of escape and she eventually stumbled out of his arms.
A travel-weary norn walked between the Snow Leopard sculptures, completing the last leg of his trip. He approached the Shaman for some much-needed wisdom.
As soon as she hit the frozen ground, Mabel let out successive, ringing meows and desperately staggered around, looking for a warm spot.
“The danger came while I was gone from my native land. My home is gone, my family is missing.” The norn looked at the ground in front of him. “I’m—I have guilt over leaving.” The Norn lowered his head in shame.
“It does not serve anyone, especially the dead, to dwell on past actions. You have no control over fate.”
“Then what?” he asked. “Meditate? I don’t want to think. Thinking means dwelling for me right now.”
“Help others as you hope someone helped your family.” She gestured to the cat, and the asura desperately trying to chase her into the lodge.
He stepped towards the cat and scooped her up, something she graciously welcomed. “I’ll take it, friend,” he told Graff. “You can return to work now.”
Graff stopped, panting. “Th-thank you, sir. Good luck with your family.” He turned around, looked up at the staircase, and sighed.
The traveler nodded and walked into the lodge.
Mabel, overwhelmed with warmth, unhooked her claws from his leather chestplate and allowed herself to be lowered onto the cool wooden planks.
She gave a sharp mew at the carpet and leapt toward it, writhing on her back with contentment.
Mabel was not an extraordinary cat, and, as the adjective suggested, no one expected her to be. She’d already forgotten about the people that had brought her to the spot she came to enjoy for a full week.
On this day, the norn traveler only gave her a sad smile before heading to the lodge bar for a single pint, nothing more.
The Snow Leopard Lodge proved to be a great place for Mabel. She made sure to stay clear of all pets, leopard or not, and of children, until her previous perceptions were proven wrong by the relatively calm norn children.
She grew to like a pale girl with brown pigtails, Oginn. Oginn didn’t run around as much as the others, and Mabel often found herself too tired to keep up, and when she was, Oginn was there. Many an evening (in the lodge, it was always evening) was spent with the girl’s ear buried in Mabel’s chest. Just as sheltered as the other children, Oginn had nevertheless seen the “exotic” animals a million times and was convinced that if she took her eye off of her newfound friend, the cat would be captured and put into one of those cages as well.
If Mabel had any complaints about her friend, it would be the paranoia she exhibited when Mabel was, in her eyes, too sedentary. Oginn kept a close watch during her naps and often placed her hand on her back to check temperature. Mabel slept too close to the center fire, she felt, and became so hot that it would be a toss-up whether she would wake.
At these points Oginn would scoop up the grumbling cat and fast-walk to the large wooden doors, where the harsh chill of outside was still present. Mabel’s eyes would shoot open, and she’d squirm in the girl’s arms, running back to the fire. Oginn would follow with a huge smile, ecstatic that the cat was still alive. Then she’d join Mabel by the fire, listening to her snores and pretending to pray.
Every time she had such a connection with someone, it seemed to Mabel that she lived a lifetime during their time with each other. In this case, it was a week. Only one week spent in the Snow Leopard Lodge before this life was over. Unlike her precious lives, or would change not just for her, but for everyone around her.
It had been a week since Mabel’s arrival, and the arrival of many others who were eager to begin their hero stories. The lodge became increasingly crowded with people of all races, talking of the hours or days they’d spent braving the unusually harsh outdoors, waiting for this danger they’d heard tell of.
They became increasingly bored as well, with some young charr and humans set to torment Mabel whenever she dared to get close to the bar. After downing their overlarge pint of liquid courage, they’d toss it onto the dozing cat, and cackle when her fur stood on end, and at her lack of sense when she didn’t run away. This would be accompanied with a pouting Oginn snatching her up and running away. There were no more pockets of space in the Lodge that could serve as a haven for those looking to avoid harassment. Oginn couldn’t leave due to her mother’s employment there, and neither could Mabel.
The deafening rumble came from below, and the people on the ground floor stirred and fell where they stood. Two hundred cries of alarm, a mass shifting of bodies, and blurring walls. These were the indicators to everyone, even those who had been prepared, that life as they knew it was over.