As shrines went, there was nothing about this one that suggested it had been the site of a legendary story. If you bothered to get close enough to notice the details, it became much more clear. All the ways that pictures of cats were worked into the walls, windows, and objects of the shrine suggested that if you knew the story, you understood where you were. Most of the cats had names and stories of their own, each added after their adventure was finished.
Joji sighed a little as he worked up the courage to smile and give directions to the clearly very lost tourist standing in the courtyard. Very few people came this far away from everything intentionally, and most were quite happy to know which way the main road was so they could get back to where they really wanted to go.
"Hello," he said, catching the tourist's attention.
"Hello!" the tourist replied immediately, and bowed respectfully to him.
Joji waved him up immediately. Formal greetings seemed excessive just for directions. "The main road is back the way you came," he said. "If you hurry, you'll catch the last train."
The tourist seemed confused. "I'm sorry. Is this the shrine of Mukashibanashi?" he said, tracing the characters in the air with a practiced hand.
"Yes," Joji said cautiously. Tourists didn't usually know the name of the place, much less the correct pronunciation. And they certainly wouldn't be able to draw the right kanji on the first try.
"Are you Joji?"
"Oh, good! I'm Jason. This is a very hard place to find, but you might be the only person that can help me."
Joji sighed. That made it somewhat worse. It would be best to let him down gently.
"Yes, I'm Joji. I'm the sixteenth to carry the name, but unfortunately, it looks like the family talent skipped me completely."
Jason looked at him skeptically. Joji shrugged and continued.
"My ancestor is the one who the story is about. Drew cats everywhere, all the time, accidentally purified a temple when the cats came to life and took care of a demon rat. Every oldest child has had the name since."
"And?" Jason prompted.
"And...supposedly, everyone in the family for all these generations has manifested the talent to bring the cats to life. Some could do it with brushes, others with pencils. There's even one that figured out how to do it with digital drawings and made a really successful app by disguising it as a cat collector game. Thwarted a widespread attack over the Internet by demons riding on a different game."
Jason nodded, seeming to accept the idea of cats and demons fighting over the wires and cellular towers a lot more easily than Joji had expected.
"And then there's me," Joji continued. "I can draw just fine. Cats and landscapes and dragons and all the rest. But none of them have ever come to life, even when everyone else has had drawings go out and protect the world. So if you were looking for help, I'm not sure I can."
Jason looked a little disappointed. He sighed a little and appeared to think.
"Well, I was hoping for some illustrations that might help, but maybe you could just take a look at my story, anyway?" Jason pulled a small laptop from his bag, looked for a convenient place to put it, and then opened it up. As he tapped keys, he continued talking. "I'm a writer. It's not great for making money, but it does okay. I inherited this laptop when my grandfather died. It's so old that it doesn't have any built-in wireless or anything like that. It's great for writing without being distracted. I've been transferring some of my old stories to the computer, but they keep getting...mangled."
"Mangled?" That was potentially interesting, even if Joji couldn't help with any of it.
"Yes. It's a silly science fiction story I wrote to make wordcount a year ago. It's here in my notebook." Jason fished out a small writing book from the same bag and thumbed through it before showing Joji a particular passage.
"The only way we'll get through this is by stepping across that platform. There's just one problem."
A jet of flame erupted across the platform.
"There's a pattern," he said quickly to calm the hysterical Lieutenant. "But we're going to have to dance our way across."
"Not exactly my best work," Jason said apologetically. Joji had sympathy - everyone who got good at writing had to be bad at writing first. Before the Internet, though, there were a lot fewer places you could embarrass yourself.
"Now, I've been trying to put this part in for a month, but every night I go to sleep, the words get rearranged into something else." Jason turned the screen toward Joji as he came closer to look.
"The only way we'll get through this is by stepping across that platform. There's just one problem."
RATS. SWARMS OF RATS POURED OUT FROM EVERY AVAILABLE DOORWAY, FILLING THE FLOOR WITH THEIR BITING, SCRATCHING SELVES. THE HUMANS IN THE ROOM WERE QUICKLY OVERWHELMED BY THE SHEER AMOUNT OF RATS AND FELL, SCREAMING AND CLUTCHING AT THEIR SOFT BITS AS THE RATS CONSUMED THEIR FLESH AND ORGANS BEFORE DEPARTING.
"This is one of the tamer versions. Some of the other versions have been...graphic." Jason shuddered. "But always rats. Sometimes lots, sometimes just one giant rat. So I looked online to see if anyone had similar problems, and after nearly a year, trying just about every anti-virus software I could find and reading a lot of retellings of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, I came across the story of your ancestor and a mention of the shrine."
Joji nodded. It seemed logical, if desperate, to seek out a tiny shrine to exorcise your computer as a last-ditch effort. Before he went too far into mocking Jason in his head, Joji realized Jason's story wasn't actually that odd. Or at least no stranger than being the shrine keeper and telling a story of an entire family line with the ability to make cats jump off the page when nobody is looking.
"It's late," Joji said. "There's not really a hotel in this area that you can get to before it gets dark. There's a spare room you can stay in for tonight. I can't promise anything, but I'll see what I can do for your computer."
Jason nodded and let Joji show him the guest room. Not soon after being introduced to the bed, Jason was asleep.
Joji took the laptop back to the shrine's main chamber and set it on top of the altar before going about closing duties for the shrine, turning over the problem in his mind until he came back to the altar.
A mural of cats, one drawn by each of the family members with the talent over the generations, adorned the back wall behind the altar. Joji often found the altar room soothing and enjoyed talking to the cats of his ancestors.
"What am I going to do with this?" Joji said to the assembled pictures. "Any ideas?"
A gentle breeze reminded Joji that he had forgotten to close a window when closing down the shrine for the night. A clacking sound came in with the breeze, but Joji didn't pay much attention to the wind chimes any more. Once the window was locked, he went back to the computer and stared at the story on the screen.
A short while later, one of the stray cats the shrine took care of came through the altar area, making loud demands for petting. Joji petted her thoroughly as he thought, politely ignoring the thorough kneading he received from the cat's claws as he glanced over the story on the computer. After reading for a while, he decided that, if nothing else, he could give some writing pointers to Jason so that he didn't leave the shrine empty-handed.
It was not good prose. Full of excess superlatives, unexplained technobabble, and a plot thin enough to make Flash Gordon look like Friday. Neither great, one needlessly byzantine, but both better than this, it felt in every word the effort of a young teenager using a story to explore the world around him.
A flicker in his periphery of his vision broke his rhythm. Glancing around, he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Maybe one of the other temple cats had bolted through at high speed. He settled back into the reading.
Galena had insisted on a feline accompanying them in the mission, ostensibly for morale purposes, but the Captain knew she just wanted a pet and was rich and spoiled enough to get her way. She called it many names, but the current one seemed to be "Mr. Bubbles."
The temple cat in his lap drove her claws into Joji's lap at his latest petting. Rubbing his eyes, he looked at the cast of drawn cats in front of him, watching carefully for signs of movement, in case the family talent was going to manifest after all.
Hadn't Kuroki's tail bent the other way before? And Tama didn't look so...predatory in his memory.
"So..." Joji said carefully, eyeing the cats, "should I transform Mr. Bubbles into a fierce rat-eating machine?"
The temple cat in his lap chose that moment to nip him. Joji shook his hand and apologized for the bad petting, checking to make sure no skin had been broken.
When he looked at the cat mural again, he was certain that Rose had been on the opposite side of the painting. Yet she was clearly with Kuroki and Tama at this point, and all three of them had their noses pointed at the laptop on the altar, tails arched, and muscles tensed to pounce.
"So, you three, then," he said, deciding to go with the sign. The temple cat stretched and dug her claws into him and started kneading him painfully.
"Four," Joji amended, and when the temple cat finished kneading him, he began to type.
Unbeknownst to the Captain, Galena loved to collect felines and had secreted four others, in addition to Mr. Bubbles, in her quarters on the ship. They had a tendency to attempt to escape into the ship's interiors, pursuing what seemed to be invisible dangers and threats for hours upon end before returning. One time, one of them, Tama, came back with what looked like a tail in her mouth...
He wrote for several hours after that, well into the night, before his stomach reminded him that dinner was not an optional pursuit. Unlike the writing he had been doing for the last several hours. He rubbed his eyes, decided he was at a good stopping point, and went to the kitchen to cook a meal before going to sleep.
Joji dreamed of thunderstorms and cannons before slowly waking and realizing the sound that was intruding on his sleep was Jason knocking on his door repeatedly.
"I don't know what you did," Jason said excitedly, "but it worked. And it made the story better, too!"
Joji blinked and focused on the screen that Jason was waving around.
RATS. SWARMS OF RATS POURED OUT FROM EVERY AVAILABLE DOORWAY, FILLING THE FLOOR WITH THEIR BITING, SCRATCHING SELVES.
In a flash, Galena's four cats darted from the air vents, hissing and intimidating the rates, striking with their claws at any rat that dared get close enough to them or to the humans.
THE RATS ARE UNDETERRED BY THE PRESENCE OF TINY FELINES. THEIR NUMBERS ONLY SWELL IN RESPONSE.
The cats form a protective wall, surrounding the humans on all sides against the growing rat menace. Any attempt at testing the barrier results in another rat corpse on the ground.
THE FELINES UNDERSTAND THEIR LAST STAND WILL BE FOR NOTHING. UPON A HIDDEN SIGNAL, THE RATS RUSH THE HUMANS, KNOWING THEIR NUMBERS WILL BE ENOUGH TO OVERWHELM THE SMALL DEFENDERS.
As the rats rushed in, Galena and the Captain drew their sidearms and began firing into the swarm, every shot striking a rat, as the cats dashed and clawed and struck. Despite the overwhelming odds, the humans and the cats were able to keep the rats away.
An unexpected boost came in the form of Engineering's temporary lockout expiring. The flame jets roared back to life, mercilessly incinerating entire swaths of the rat horde.
Joji hadn't written any of that. He had inserted the cats into the story earlier, and was getting ready to try and rewrite the rat fight when he had stopped for the night. The most obvious culprit would be Jason, but Jason seemed clueless about the entire affair.
"It gets better," Jason crowed. "But you already know this."
"Oh?" Joji said.
"Yeah! The part where the rats realize they're not getting through, and so they mass together and try to take out the cats as a giant demon rat is great! I never would have thought of it."
Joji nodded. "You know, I'm not entirely sure I was fully awake when I wrote that part. Can I see?"
Jason scrolled in the document to the right part and handed Joji the computer.
THE RAT TOWERED OVER ALL OF THEM. ITS INCREDIBLE SIZE STRUCK FEAR IN THE HEARTS OF ALL THE CATS AND THEIR HUMANS. THERE WAS NO WAY TO DEFEAT THE RAT. NONE.
A yowling sound from behind the rat captured its attention long enough to break its fear gaze. Mr. Bubbles, long thought lost in the ship's ducts, exploded from a vent into the rat's face, a furious ball of teeth and claws, striking at the eyes, nose, and other sensitive parts of the rat, driving it backward, right into the path of an incoming flame jet!
Leaping clear at the last possible moment, Mr. Bubbles watched in satisfaction as the demon rat caught on fire, thrashed in pain, and toppled over the edge of the chasm, falling for what seemed an eternity before striking the floor of the cavern with a wet, bone-cracking thump.
"Guess we won't have to deal with that again," the captain said, before raising Engineering again to have them shut down the system temporarily for their crossing.
Joji blinked. He had not written anything like this. Yet, here it was. And Jason was clearly happy. The best thing to do at this point was to have breakfast and pretend it had all been part of the plan.
After breakfast, and seeing Jason on his way, Joji went back to the altar. The cats on the wall were in their familiar places. Had he not known the history of the family, Joji might have believed this was all a dream. Instead, he smiled. The family talent sometimes took some strange turns, but it always manifested in every generation. Joji went to collect the brushes and paints. It was time to add his own cat to the mural.
Just as soon as he thought up a better name than Mr. Bubbles.