Not much was ever prone to change in the First Precinct of Death. For those who walked in the obsidian-black river, the quiet roar of the distant waterfall over the First Gate and the soft, unchangingly dull grey light overlying everything were known constants.
Then again, none of them had ever walked quite like this.
The Disreputable Dog paused long enough to lower her head to sniff at the surface of the river and promptly sneezed, sending droplets pattering everywhere. Despite that, her tail continued to wag, splashing the water behind her and marking her rambling passage along the border with a rippling wake not unlike that of a small boat.
"You might as well show yourself," she growled at the empty air. "I am not some mouse for you to stalk."
"Nor are you a fish, for all that you seem to be playing at one," came the disembodied answer, somewhat thin and hollow, as if heard from far away. "Hold still."
With that, a small white cat sprang across the border from Life into Death. He landed squarely on the Dog's back and clung like a burr, yowling irritably when the Dog yelped and begin to jump and thrash about in a reflexive attempt to rid herself of her new passenger.
"I said hold still! Do you think I want to get wet?"
"Do you think I care?" retorted the Dog. She ceased leaping, but continued to bristle as she snapped, "I am not a horse, either, Yrael!"
"Mogget," he corrected, settling himself more comfortably. "In this form I am used to it. As I suppose you are used to being called simply Dog."
"The Disreputable Dog," she retorted. "And I have never been simply anything." She huffed out her breath in a sigh and turned her head to look back over her shoulder at him. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
He blinked slowly at her, then lowered his gaze to focus on cleaning one white paw, instead. "Why shouldn't I be here? I am free to go where I please, now. Surely you noticed."
The Dog let out a warning growl and flattened her ears back. Mogget finished tidying his last claw, then glanced back up at her with studied indifference.
"Very well. Perhaps I merely wished to see what you were up to."
"A likely story," the Dog scoffed.
Mogget yawned. "Believe it or not, as you choose." He paused, then added, "But I am curious; what do you plan to do with yourself, now that the body the Abhorsen-in-Waiting created for you has reverted?"
"What I have always done," she told him. "Why should it be any different?"
"Why indeed." He looked pointedly around at the grey-lit sky and black water, then back at her. She flicked an ear at him, then dropped her jaw open in a gape-grin.
"Well. Maybe a little different. I figured it couldn't hurt to keep an eye on things."
"Under the circumstances, I happen to agree with you," Mogget said. "And if you're interested, I have a suggestion."
"I still say you should have told them."
The Dog trudged northward with the small white cat riding on her shoulders, safely out of reach of the water. At first, the numbers of the Dead that had been released and made restless by Hedge's defeat and the Destroyer's near-escape had been great. Sometimes it was Kibeth's sharp barking that sent the Dead walking back beyond the waterfall gate, sometimes it was Yrael's song that banished them; it did not much matter which. Working together, they had slowly but steadily secured the border where they passed. As they drew closer to the Abhorsen's house, the encounters with the wandering Dead grew fewer and further between, leaving them with more time to talk.
"Pfft!" Mogget swatted irritably at her ear with a paw. "And risk the Abhorsen deciding that the possibility of the collar-spell releasing Kerrigor as well when she freed me of it was too great a chance to take? I think not. I have had my fill of being spell-bound, thank you very much."
"Do that again and you can swim," the Dog snapped. "And you know perfectly well that your binding was your own fault."
"I stood neither for nor against," he reminded her, just as sharply. "It was the Seven of you who refused to accept that. Hopefully this time will be different, but I have no intention of trusting blindly. Stop here."
"Stop? What do you—" Even as she jerked to a halt, the white cat launched himself from her shoulders and vanished from sight into thin air as he passed over the border. Although the voice that floated back was once again thin and distant-seeming, the sardonic bite to it was unmistakably Mogget's.
"Are you waiting for an engraved invitation?"
The Dog growled something under her breath that sounded suspiciously profane, and leaped after him. The white cat was already halfway across the Ratterlin to the island, jumping nimbly from stone to stone. She scrambled after him, although with rather less grace.
"You are fortunate I currently have no physical form here," she informed him, after emerging from the waterfall's spray and skidding to a halt at his side on the riverbank. "If I did, I would be sure to shake myself dry this very instant."
Mogget ignored her, staring up the path with a focused, near-feral intensity. "Kibeth. Do you feel it?"
She turned her own attention toward the Abhorsen's house, and immediately sobered. "Yes. I can smell it." The Dog planted her ghostly feet, every hair bristling as her lip curled back in a silent snarl. "You were right. He stirs."
The white cat streaked up the path like a comet, with the disembodied Dog hard on his heels. Straight into the house they went, passing the startled sendings of servants without a word, and then down flight after flight of stairs until finally they reached the very deepest cellar, only to find it dark and quiet no longer.
As they watched, the black cat stretched and turned over. The murderous fire of Kerrigor's hate-filled stare flashed at them for an instant from one red-slit eye before the cat lowered its head and settled back into uneasy sleep. The tiny bell on the collar around its neck tinkled with the cat's every movement, but Ranna's chime was drowned beneath the sulfurous crackle of Free Magic as it sizzled against the Charter marks gleaming from the collar's surface. Each spark was met by a bright repudiating pulse from the collar – but after each brilliant flash, the Charter marks flickered and grew dimmer.
"Even bound and held prisoner, in his dreams he still pursues it." Mogget crouched to one side, his tail lashing back and forth and his green gaze fixed unblinking on the other cat. "Seeking his greatest desire. I can sympathize."
The Dog stiffened. "Mogget, if you mean to help him— if you dare think— "
"I do dare think, as it happens," he interrupted. "You should try it sometime." He lunged upwards, his shape stretching and shifting into a tall figure of white flame that glared down at both Dog and black cat with disdain. "There is a difference, Kibeth. I dreamed of the freedom to live on my own terms in the world. Like Orannis, this one dreams only of destroying it. And that, I no longer choose to accept."
With that, he raised his voice in song – a song that was quickly joined by the Dog's triumphant howl. The two sounds rose and fell at intervals, weaving around each other and blending into something more, something both powerful and glorious. Golden fire exploded from the Charter marks on the damaged collar in response to the call of the renewed spell and braided itself into an impossibly complex, shining band that settled back into place without weakness or seam, and with the tiny bell dangling securely from the new collar. The black cat stirred a final time, then fell into deep slumber once more.
The Dog ceased her howl as Yrael brought his song to an end and resumed Mogget's shape again, and promptly pounced on him, ignoring her incorporeal nature in favor of licking his face in delight.
"Faugh!" Mogget hissed and batted at her with a paw; the Dog stopped her efforts and sat on her haunches in front of him, her tongue lolling out as she grinned.
"It's my turn to make a suggestion," she offered. "Now that you're – well, yourself again, maybe you'd like to walk with me for a while? There's a whole world and more out there to explore, after all. We can get in trouble together."
The white cat studied her in silence for several seconds, then rose, stretched, and lazily strolled to her side. He glanced up at her and grinned back, showing sharp white teeth.