Emiko could have sworn she heard a distant roar come from the sky. When she looked up, however, all she saw was a few clouds and the sky turning a pink shade as the sun began its descent. Atsui meowed from her perch on top of the wagon, but Emiko could only shake her head.
“Nothing,” Emiko said simply. Atsui tilted her head in confusion, and Emiko rubbed the kit’s head with a smile. The longer she had Atsui, the more Emiko realized that she wasn’t a normal cat. There were no signs of growth from her, yet the little kit could eat enough for a full grown person. It didn’t even matter what Emiko fed her, because Atsui seemed content with eating whatever she was given. Sometimes, she would even wake up to see Atsui had brought some prey she had caught to her tent door. Suffice it to say, she was shocked to see a few dead rabbits that morning, and Atsui being all to proud of herself. Emiko knew that Atsui was only trying to look out for her, but she worried sometimes about where the kit was running off to.
The only thing that continued to reassure her was that, without fail, Atsui would return, at least by the end of the day. The first time Atsui had disappeared, she had completely panicked and entered another coughing fit from trying to shout. “A-Atsui!” Emiko had tried to call. She spent the whole day pacing and crying as she realized she was alone again without a cute kitten to cuddle, and she couldn’t have been more devastated. It was twilight when Atsui had returned, and Emiko had nearly suffocated the kit in her relief. The next day, Emiko had tried her best, in as few words as possible, to explain the rules of their companionship, and, as always, Atsui responded with a meow and a lick to the face.
They squatted in a few houses as they made their journey out of the city. Stopping every so often, Emiko would raid a convenience store, stock up on non-perishable food, and find Atsui treats. During the day, they would walk, and at night, they would set up camp or stay in the few houses or businesses that still looked safe enough to sleep in. Apart from the zoo, Emiko wanted to cross a few more spots off the map before she discarded it entirely. She stopped by a famous bridge and chased Atsui around; looked at some murals that had already lost all of their colour and some of their image; And stopped by the biggest temple shrine in the city.
It had been, like always, as silent as the wind and the rustling leaves could make it. Emiko blinked at all the grass that had already risen above the cobblestone path, and all the stray dust, leaves, and grass that had started to swirl around the foot of the shrine. With a deep breath, Emiko left Atsui to watch her curiously as she walked up the steps. Stopping just in front of the temple proper, she clasped her hands together and bowed her head.
“Please…” Emiko whispered. “Why did this happen?”
A stray tear fell, but that was all she could really muster. Staring up at the temple and into the sky, she had closed her eyes and sighed. As Emiko returned to the wagon, she held her map lightly in her hands, staring at each of the circles she had already crossed out. A strong gust of wind begin to blow, and she realized what she could do. Smiling at Atsui, Emiko looked into the sky and held her map up. With her heart pounding in her ears, she let go, and the map began to fly. At the time, she could still remember feeling like her many unsaid prayers were flying along with the map, as if, one day, they might return to her.
They moved on to leaving the city after that, and soon found themselves in the suburbs. Now that they were reaching the edge of the city, Emiko was even more shocked to see that the world had already fully reclaimed some land, where she almost couldn’t see where the city ended and nature began. The houses were wrapped in shrubbery and many of them had crumbled under the failing support, as if the greenery itself were sapping their structural integrity.
Emiko went so far as to grab a pocket tool she had stashed in her wagon, flipped out the knife, and cut into a patch of vines on a stone wall. She blinked as the vines twisted and churned before her very eyes and gnarled themselves together again. Hearing a soft growling, she looked down to see Atsui attacking a root that had been wrapping itself around her paw. Emiko quickly picked the kit back up and placed her on the wagon before taking one last confused look around. More so than anywhere else, the air itself felt alive, and Emiko didn’t want any of it. Gripping the handle tightly, she moved.
Emiko nearly flipped over as the wagon barely wiggled. Frowning, Emiko looked to the ground near her wheels and stared at the blades of grass that were knotting themselves around all four axles and the spokes of each wheel. Inhaling sharply, she dropped to her knees and began cutting frantically with the pocket tool that was still in her hands. She heard Atsui hiss, the wagon rustle, and a tearing noise as Atsui began tearing into the green as well. Pulling the loose grass free from the axle, she turned to the other wheel and started slashing just as fast. As soon as she finished, she looked up to see Atsui finishing with her own wheel. Grabbing the kit, she threw her tool into the wagon and started pulling. Even then, it seemed like the very ground itself was coming alive, trying to stop her. Her wagon began to click and bounce as the pavement cracked apart, and she tried her best not to stumble at the sudden impressions and raised bumps in the ground.
Atsui started meowing and hissing at something, but Emiko couldn’t pay attention. All of her focus was on getting out of there, and she didn’t want to see what would become of her if she stayed. Her legs began to burn as her sprint turned into a prolonged run. She winced as things clattered around behind her. Then, Emiko yelped when she felt claws scratch her hands, and she dropped Atsui.
The distraction caused Emiko to trip, and she covered her head with both arms as she hit the ground and cried in pain. She rolled to a stop, and curled in even further as she held her side. A stray piece of concrete had jabbed her in the side, and Emiko’s breath came out in bursts.
An odd rush came flying in from behind her. Covering her face from the dirt and debris that was getting kicked up, she caught sight of a strange animal. All the wind was churning towards it, as if it were commanding the air. It was the oddest mixture of a buck and the wildlife that was trying to capture her. All around its legs and body, and hanging off of its antlers were vines and moss. It’s eyes glowed an emerald green, and it turned its gaze towards Emiko.
Emiko’s breath caught as she realized that this creature was probably the one who wanted to get her so badly. With more urgency to her movements than before, she made to move, but realized with a yelp that her legs were already getting wrapped in tree roots. For a moment, she was stunned, until the roots started closing in tighter, and she began to scream. It tore her insides open and she felt like her throat was on fire, but she didn’t know what else to do. Crying out as another root wrapped around her waist, Emiko did her best to resist, to try and tear the root, but to no avail.
Thrown to the ground, tried to grab at the concrete with her hands and nails. Emiko continued to cry, and she felt her vision go blurry as she tried to reach out to her wagon, but it was too far away. Her screams were now more rasps than anything, and she watched in terror as the creature grew close.
A flash of black and orange jumped in front of her. As Emiko tried to blink her tears away, she realized in shock that it was Atsui. “N-No,” Emiko gasped out. “Run, Atsui! S-save yourself!” She cried in pain as her head was tied down, and she began to choke. All she could now see was Atsui’s lower half. Emiko’s vision started to go spotty, and in that moment as she tried to breathe, a flash of light overtook her vision.
Suddenly, all the pressure on Emiko’s body lifted. She choked and rubbed her throat as she got on her hand and knees and she wretched trying to breathe in air. Instead of escaping, all of her focus now lay in recovering from nearly dying, so she almost missed it when the ground shook lightly beside her. Emiko’s eyes then widened at the large striped body that had replaced Atsui and now stood in front of her.
Nearly as long as her and just as tall growled a tiger that was dripping with rage. It’s tail whipped restlessly, and she fell onto her behind and slammed her ears with her hands as it tensed up and roared at the buck-looking monster.
The monster, because that was what it was, merely cocked it’s head to the the side before two large roots broke the ground and flung wildly before straightening and crooking themselves in the tiger’s direction. She watched in terror as the tiger swatted one root away and clamped it’s jaws on the other. Bringing the root down, it braced and whipped it’s head to the side, tearing the root from the ground. It then swung it’s head back and let go. The root flew true, and slammed into the buck-monster. It stumbled, and that was all the opening the tiger needed.
It reared back and pounced, shoving the monster to the ground. The monster retaliated by kicking the tiger off with it’s hooves. The monster rolled onto it’s legs and its eyes and antlers began to glow with an ethereal light. Lights began to appear in the air, and the foliage around us began to glow the same colour as the monster’s antlers, before they all burst up in a flurry of green.
The tiger slammed a paw into the ground and Emiko watched in amazement as its stripes and eyes glowed a brilliant gold. The greenery reached the tiger. The tiger opened it’s maw and bit down. Immediately, the area where the tiger bit withered, and the same effect could be seen with every step and scratch the tiger gave to the living flora.
It was almost mesmerizing to Emiko as she watched two forces of nature battle using wild magic she knew shouldn’t exist. The buck-monster bleated, and stomped a hoof, as if frustrated, and began to paw at the ground. The tiger was using its entire body as it tore through the greenery, and with one last roar, it broke through the shield of thorns, branches, and bristles. The buck charged, and Emiko tried to yell to the the tiger to watch out, but her voice wouldn’t work. Instead, she coughed blood, and she grabbed her throat in shock.
The tiger shrieked as it was bodied by the monster’s antlers. The tiger flew into a tree, and it cried in pain. Quicker than she thought possible, however, it got up and, just as the buck made to ram the tiger again, the tiger got onto its hind legs, caught the monster’s antlers, and threw it to the ground. It bleated angrily, and began to move again, but with a flash of claws, it cried out in pain. The green glow around her instantly dissipated as the tiger began to tear into the monster, slashing and slicing and biting until it was a mangled mess of red and green blood.
Emiko winced and covered her ears as it roared once more in triumph at the downed monster. Realizing where its attention would soon lie, Emiko quickly started crawling to her wagon. If she could just get her bat, or her pocket tool, or anything, maybe she could defend herself, or at the very least, survive a little longer. She cried in pain as her side spasmed, and she tried, to reach for her wagon—
A gentle nudge brought Emiko out of her senses. Turning her head slowly, she held back a scream at the tiger that was now trying to cuddle with her. It rubbed its head against her and began to mewl as it stared at her cuts and bruises.
It was being too familiar to be a coincidence. Emiko blinked as it stared her in the eyes with a level of innocence that she knew she had seen somewhere before, and she froze in shock as the tiger carefully came forward and licked her cheek.
The tiger stepped back and seemed to nod, before a flash of golden light—the same one she had seen before— overcame the tiger, and the imposing beast was replaced with a tiny kitten. The tiger, now in the form of Atsui, sauntered up to Emiko and leapt into her lap. Emiko numbly grabbed her, and held her close as she just realized who exactly her saviour was.
Emiko was in shock. She knew that. She also knew that she would be dead if it weren’t for Atsui, and so, holding the kitten in front of her, Emiko smiled a wobbly smile and then brought her in for a hug. Emiko could only smile as she felt the kit try to wrap it’s now-tiny legs around her neck. Her face remained expressionless as she stared at nothing, but tears still ran down her eyes as she stroked Atsui softly.
She could hear Atsui mewling at her neck, before she gasped at the feeling of a lick, and instantly, her neck started to feel better. Emiko held the kitten out, and it began to squirm as it began licking wherever it could, her bloody fingers and scratched hands being the first to receive Atsui’s affection. She watched in amazement as her cuts began to heal over, leaving tiny scars. Letting Atsui go, Emiko watched quietly as she reverted back into tiger form and began licking Emiko wherever she was hurt. The pain itself remained, and not all of it disappeared, but it was enough that Emiko felt a sigh of relief escape her lips from the notable change in pain.
A wave of fatigue suddenly hit Emiko, and she groaned. Blinking heavily, trying to stay awake, she pulled herself over to the wagon and rested against it, heaving a little. Emiko felt Atsui saunter up to her in full size and realized just how warm her fur was, as she rested a hand against her. Smiling goofily, she started leaning into Atsui instead, and found bliss as she twisted until she felt comfortable.
Vaguely noticing Atsui settle onto the ground and curl around her protectively, she hugged the big cat and, in her delirium, babbled broken words at Atsui. Finally, just as her eyelids grew too heavy for her to keep open, she found her head resting on Atsui’s rear legs, and she stared the tiger in the eyes, saying, “Thank… you…”
Atsui began to purr, lulling her entire body into relaxation, and Emiko slipped into oblivion.