"The furocious huntress stalks silently through the bushes, closely observing her purrey."
In truth, there were no bushes. In fact, the girl muttering the completely fictitious narrative sentence was perched behind an unusually large tea kettle, peering over its lid at a cotton candy imp, who was completely oblivious to her presence.
"Sensing the purrfect time to make her move..." she said, unsheathing her claws.
"She strikes!" With that, the girl dramatically vaulted over the top of the tea kettle, sending the lid flying into a bank of little cubes. The imp turned to face its assailant, but before it could begin to act, the girl had brought down her claws through it, slicing the creature into seven long, flat pieces. They flopped to the ground before disappearing entirely, leaving only a modest amount of grist, which the huntress collected eagerly.
For Nepeta Leijon, the day seemed just like any other in the game. And yet, at the very edges of her perception, she could tell that, ever so subtly, something about it was different.
It was almost like it was... louder.
She almost ignored the strange bit of speech that just popped into her head. Who could it be? It wasn't any voice she recognized.
THE LITTLE CAT GIRL.
But there it was again. If it wasn't a memory, then was it a... a voice in her head? Was she going crazy? Oh god, she really didn't want to be going crazy.
YER THE ONE WHO CARES ABOUT ROMANCE RIGHT.
No, if it was her own head, she wouldn't be asking herself such silly questions. Of course she liked romance! It was practically her favorite thing in the world!
I SEEN THE SCRIBBLES IN YER CAVE.
So if it wasn't her, it must be someone watching her. She looked up at nothing in particular and pointed to herself.
YEAH YOU. THE LITTLE BROAD WITH THE CAT HORNS POINTIN AT HERSELF.
Okay, it could see her, but could it hear her?
"What do you want?" she asked. At first she felt a little silly talking to nothing in particular, but then she remembered she does that all the time anyway when she's roleplaying. Then that just made her feel a little sillier.
I WANT YOU TA STOP MESSIN AROUND AND KISS THE BOY.
THE ONE ALL OVER YER WALLS. THE SHOUTY RUNT WITH THE NUBBY HORNS.
A look of desperate terror came over her face. "You know about that?! Listen, you can't tell anyone about it! I mean nopawdy!"
WHOA WHOA TAKE IT EASY KID. I AINT TELLIN ANYBODY ABOUT YER LITTLE CRUSH.
She sighed in relief. The last thing she needed was her OTP getting out. "Thank you," she said.
ONLY OTHER KID I TALKED TO WAS SOME RUNT IN A WHEELCHAIR.
"You mean Tavros?" she asked, then realized what a silly question it was. Of course it was Tavros. And considering the voice hadn't even asked for her name yet, it probably didn't even know who Tavros was.
I TOLD HIM TA KISS THE GIRL BUT HE WOULDNT LISTEN.
"Wait, what? Kiss who? Vwiskers?" Certainly not Vriska... right?
THE WHOLE SPECTACLE WAS EMBARRASIN. I DONT EVEN WANT TA TALK ABOUT IT.
Her shoulders slumped. "Well, then, what do you want?"
I WANT YA TA GO AND KISS THAT BOY.
A streak of olive painted itself across her cheeks. "What? But I can't just kiss him!"
YER IN LOVE WITH THE LITTLE RUNT RIGHT.
"Well, yeah..." she said, her blush intensifying ever so slightly.
THEN WHAT ARE YA WAITIN FOR. JUST GO KISS THE BOY.
"But I can't! You don't understand! If I just kiss him, he'll think I'm weird, and things will get all awkward between us and he'll never speak to me again!" Her face was burning green, and she was suddenly a little upset that she didn't know exactly which way she should be shouting.
WELL THEN YA GOTTA USE YER FEMININE WILES TO SEDUCE HIM.
"Feminine w..." What the hell was it talking about? "What the hell are you talking about?"
ALRIGHT ALRIGHT MAYBE YER NOT QUITE OLD ENOUGH TA GET THAT YET.
The voice was starting to get on her nerves. "Then what should I do?"
ALRIGHT LOOK KID. YER THE HERO A HEART RIGHT.
"Yes!" she proclaimed, striking a heroic pose. "I am the Rogue of Heart! Even though I'm not really sure what that means yet."
THEN JUST DO THE HEARTY THING AND MAKE THE RUNT FALL IN LOVE WITH YA.
"What hearty thing? Could you be a little more descriptive?"
JUST DO THE HEARTY THING.
"Okay..." she said. She then tried to do the hearty thing.
DO THE HEARTY THING.
She is still attempting to do the hearty thing.
DO THE HEARTY THING DO THE HEARTY THING DO THE HEARTY THING DO THE HEARTY THING.
She is having trouble bringing herself to do the hearty thing.
YOU DO THE HEARTY THING THIS INSTANT.
She cannot do it. She cannot do the hearty thing.
WHAT THE HELLS THE MATTER WITH YOU YA LITTLE RUNT.
"I don't know how to do the hearty thing, okay?! I don't even know what the hearty thing is!"
WELL THEN FIGURE IT OUT.
JUST FIND ONE A THE LITTLE SALAMANDERS OR WHATEVER WEIRD LITTLE CREATURES YA GOT WANDERIN AROUND YER PLANET AND TALK TO EM.
"Do I have to? That sounds silly."
YOU WANNA KISS THE BOY RIGHT.
THEN FIGURE OUT HOW TA DO THE HEARTY THING.
"Okay, fine!" She began to march off, but she stopped and turned around. "But just fur the record, I think you could affurd to be a little more pawlite!"
"The brave Rogue... ventures deeper into the Denizen's lair... and even though it's dark and spooky and creepy... she isn't scared!"
Nepeta Leijon was scared out of her goddamned mind.
She had been doing her quests, and the voice seemed to be pleased, although it was constantly urging her to just use her heart powers and kiss the boy. But she insisted that it wasn't time yet, and that she had to master her heart powers if she wanted to guarantee her success. That always seemed to quell its... enthusiasm for romance, at least temporarily.
But now she had almost mastered her powers, and all of her quests were complete but one: confronting the Denizen. The consorts, whatever they were (axolotls, she almost remembered?), assured her that she was ready to challenge the beast. And although she had ascended to the top of the echeladder, and bought all the most powerful fraymotifs boondollars could buy, and even spent an enormous amount of grist combining items with her claws until they were so sharp and so deadly that the air itself seemed to cut itself upon them, standing in this tunnel, peering into the darkness beyond, she didn't feel ready at all.
But she pressed on anyway, if not for her own sake, then for his.
As she pushed herself further through the brown passageways--this deep below the surface, the sugary cubes had been crushed into a dark and bitter molasses--she expected to encounter monsters, or puzzles, but she found neither. Even after she was certain the journey itself was harmless, she still carried herself with trepidation, knowing that the true threat waited at the end.
After what seemed like days, the path began to straighten and widen, and, forcing herself to continue, Nepeta found herself in a massive spherical chamber. The enormous structure certainly wasn't natural, but its inner surface was warped with the tensions of eons, and massive caramel stalactites loomed from above, some even having grown into the floor itself to form great columns around the center of the chamber. She would have guessed the place was hundreds of thousands of years old if she hadn't known it was created a little over a week ago.
A massive shadow loomed at the bottom of the chamber, slowly rising and falling with the motion of breathing. A low rumble echoed periodically throughout the room, reverberating off the walls until it seemed to come from every direction at once. It was her Denizen, and it was asleep.
She stepped forward nervously, fruitlessly hoping to get a better look at the creature. "Hello? Are you there?" she asked quietly. "Are you awake?" The Denizen continued to sleep.
Well, if she was asleep, then Nepeta would just have to wake her up. "Psyche!" she shouted. "Wake up!" The sound suddenly halted, and she saw the shadow in the middle of the chamber slowly rise.
Suddenly, the walls of the chamber began to glow, flooding the entire room with a pink-white light. And there, in the center of the chamber, towered an enormous figure, shaped like a troll, but without horns or hair or even arms. Her entire figure was smooth and white, as if she were carved from marble, except for her eyes, which burned internally with an intense pink fire. But her most notable feature was the two massive insectoid wings that sprouted from her back. They as well were pink, the same fuschia as emanated from her eyes and from the chamber's edge, but were inlaid with patterns in a thousand other colors, golds and greens and blues and every color from the hemospectrum and beyond. They drew hearts--an utterly massive, uncountable number of hearts--of all sizes and colors, connected by an inscrutable maze of lines.
It was Psyche, the Denizen of Heart, and Nepeta had just stepped into her demesne.
Every bone in her body screamed out for her to run, to escape, to leave this place while she still had her life and never return, but she made herself stay. Her stomach churned, her blood boiled, and all her muscles went numb but the ones in her legs, but she forced herself to stay. Every single piece of her gnashed and wailed and bellowed at her to leave, for his sake.
Every piece but one: her heart. And her heart told her that for his sake, she had to stay.
So she stood her ground. She remembered the advice of the consorts, that she would have to issue a challenge. Conjuring all her strength, she raised an arm to point her claws at the Denizen, and cried with all the fake bravado she could muster, "Psyche! I, Nepeta Leijon, Rogue of Heart, have come to challenge you for dominion over this planet, the Land of Little Cubes and Tea!"
Acknowledging her command, Psyche leaned forward and lowered her gaze to meet the little troll's. Looking directly into her face, she was beautiful, almost, in a terrifying sort of way. Although she had followed her consorts' advice, she still feared she may have done something wrong, and that any moment Psyche would flare her nostrils and incinerate her in a gout of pink flames, or maybe flick her eyelids and rip her soul into a million pieces. But instead, she opened her mouth, and spoke.
"Very well, Rogue. I accept your challenge." Her voice was filled with unimaginable power, but it didn't boom, didn't thunder, didn't cause the ground to shake, but instead seemed to quake inside her, sending convulsions throughout her every bone, every nerve, every vein. "What are your terms?"
Her terms? She was shocked that Psyche was acknowledging her almost as an equal, but she rationalized that perhaps, after all of her questing and developing her powers, she had begun to rival even the Denizen in power. Nonetheless, she didn't allow herself to lower her guard.
"We will have a contest of strength. A strife!" she began, figuring that a boss fight was what the designers of this game had in mind. "If I win, you will release your grip of tyranny on the people of this land, and you will grant me mastery of my pawers as a Hero of Heart! And if I lose..." she hesitated. She wasn't sure what would happen if she lost. "If I lose, you may do with me what you will!"
Psyche raised her head, but did not avert her gaze from the Rogue, as if taking her challenge with contempt. "A contest of violence. How typical for your species." Her wings moved behind her, and Nepeta saw some of the hearts and lines begin to glow, all in the colors of the hemospectrum, and she could almost see a story form within them, a story of thousands of years of death and bloodshed and conquest. "I will accept these terms, but if you would listen, I would offer an alternative."
Another set of terms? Did the Denizen not want to fight her? In truth, even though it looked as if she might be bargaining from a position of strength, Nepeta did not truly want to fight the Denizen. "Furry well, I'll hear them," she said, lowering her claws.
"Interesting. Perhaps you are different from the rest," Psyche said, once again lowering her gaze to meet the troll's head on, and the faintest of smiles appeared on her marble lips. "My terms are as follows. Instead of any sort of physical conflict, I will ask only that you make The Choice. Depending on The Choice you make, I shall give you a Task. Complete this Task, and I will accede to your demands."
An unusual request, but Nepeta supposes it can't be harder than fighting her. "What is The Choice?"
"I cannot tell you until you have accepted my terms."
"Okay, fine. And if I succeed in this Task, you'll give me efurrything I asked fur?"
"Once you have made The Choice and accepted The Task, I will release my hold on the consorts of this world. And once you have completed The Task, I will grant you mastery of the powers of Heart." Psyche once again leaned back and raised her head slightly, and her mouth curled into what almost appeared to be a smirk. "In addition, once you have finished, I can guarantee you the thing you truly came here for, though you did not ask for it."
Nepeta gasped as slightly as she could manage. "You mean..."
"Yes. The heart of the boy."
Inside her head, she squealed and shouted for joy, but then she stopped to consider what Psyche had said. "I want his heart, yes... but I don't want it taken furom him by furce!"
Psyche chuckled, sending a shiver through her entire body. "I did not say I would give it to you. I said only that I can ensure that you would have it."
Nepeta furrowed her brow. How could Psyche guarantee he would love her without some sort of potion or magical spell? Nonetheless, she seemed confident in what she said. "Okay. And what catpuns if I fail this Task?"
"Then you and your entire timeline shall be doomed."
"What?! No! Furget that! That's too much!"
"Allow me to clarify," Psyche said, and her smile vanished. "In truth, your timeline is already doomed. I cannot specify where or when it happened, but at some point in time, it strayed too far, and the events meant to guarantee its existence never took place."
"W...what? So this entire timeline is doomed? What does that mean?"
"It means this iteration of this universe has failed to guarantee its own creation. As such, its existence is a paradox. And in time, it will be dealt with in the same way that all paradoxes are dealt with: it will slowly be destroyed, inch by inch, and every piece will be cast into the Furthest Ring."
An insurmountable sense of dread came over Nepeta. "Well, then... what can we do? How are we suppawsed to stop this timeline from not existing?"
"There are ways of temporarily and even permanently protecting a doomed timeline from the mechanisms that dispose of them. Should you accept the Task, I will protect your universe for its duration. And should you succeed, I can ensure its permanent existence, as a branch of sorts."
Hearing those words, Nepeta's decision was already made. "If that's the case, then I have no choice but to accept!"
Psyche leaned back once more, her back standing straight up, and a smile once again returned to her face. "Very well. I will now give you The Choice." With that, all the light in the chamber seemed to redirect and point itself directly at Nepeta, casting faint shadows in every direction around her.
"As a Hero of Heart, you are blessed with power over the hearts and souls of other living beings. With your powers, you may read the hearts of others, ease them when they are troubled and mend them when they are broken. You may even stir emotions in them directly, be them joy, or sadness, or hatred, or even love. You could, with practice, control one's every feeling, dictating their every emotion as a conductor directs an orchestra."
The smile on Psyche's face becomes a frown, and Nepeta thinks she can almost see sadness in the fires of her eyes. "Right now, you twelve, you and all your friends, are suffering. You are all coming of age, coming to realize how much you rely on each other, how much you need each other, and how much you love and how much you hate each other. Each of you has suffered all the pains of love, those of the love rejected, the love false, the love inadequate, and perhaps most painful of all, the love unrequited." True enough, she thought, and her gaze fell to the ground.
Psyche continued. "As a Hero of Heart, you can bring peace to the hearts of you and your friends, but how you do so is only for you to decide. So The Choice is this: with your powers of Heart, will you bring your friends peace swiftly and directly, shaping their emotions as you see fit? Or will you use your powers only to guide them, and wait for them to find peace of their own free will?"
Nepeta considered her quandary carefully. "So I can use my pawers just to help my furiends, or I can use them to just plain make them happy? Like mind control?"
"Not mind control, exactly. You would control their emotional states, making them feel love or indifference where none existed before. Their reactions would be entirely their own."
Psyche's answer wasn't entirely convincing. "How is that not mind control?"
"If you see no difference, then I cannot tell you otherwise."
"Well, I don't want to just furce my furiends to fall in love with each other against their will! Howefur you dress it up, it doesn't sound right!"
"So you have made your decision?"
She hesitated. She really didn't want to manipulate her friends into loving each other, but at the same time, there was one stupid, selfish little thing she had to wonder about.
"Before I answer, can I ask... does he love me?"
Psyche's features softened, and the sadness Nepeta swore she saw in her eyes returned. "No," she said, and Nepeta's heart sank. "But he may, in time. And whatever decision you make, should you complete your Task, I can assure you he will reciprocate your affections."
The answer was heartening, but vague, so she extended the question. "What do you mean, you can assure me?"
"It is not a vow to act, nor a prophecy of things to come. It is merely a promise. A highly educated guess, if you will, that after your Task is complete, his feelings for you will be the same as yours for him."
"Well... I guess that'll have to be good enough."
"So you have made your decision?" she repeated, the intonation identical to the first.
"Yes I have," Nepeta said, her voice unwavering. "I'll only use my pawers to guide my furiends and help them, and nefur to manipulate them!" The amount of certainty with which she said it almost frightened her.
"Very well," Psyche said, and leaned back to her full height once more. She closed her eyes, as if processing her decision. For a brief, lingering moment, Nepeta thought she may have made the wrong decision. Then Psyche's eyes opened once more, and she returned her gaze to the troll. "You have chosen wisely. I will now give you The Task." Nepeta was relieved but still nervous, wondering what labor her Denizen had in store for her.
"Your task is this. In your society, romance is divided into four quadrants. I am only interested in two in particular: those you call matespritship and moirallegiance." All the hearts faded from her wings but twelve, all in very familiar colors, and a dizzying lattice of red and white lines connected them. "For you and each of your friends, you must find both a matesprit and a moirail. Once you have found a suitable match for each, The Task will be complete."
Nepeta blinked, then suddenly realized what Psyche was asking her to do. "So... you want me to ship them?"
Psyche's face was emotionless, but nonetheless she was visibly confused. "I do not understand your question."
"I mean... you want me to put them all in relationships."
"If that is what you mean by 'shipping,' then yes."
She almost couldn't believe it. "But I've already been doing that anyway!"
"You have been speculating possible relationships between your friends, but you have done nothing to make them reality," Psyche said, her brow furrowed, and Nepeta suddenly felt she might not have been taking this seriously enough. "With the powers you have gained on your quests, there is nothing stopping you from doing so, save only the restrictions you have placed on yourself by The Choice you have made."
"Hey, yeah! With my Heart pawers, I'll be able to help efurryone with their relationships! That's great!" Even though she knew it wouldn't be easy, Nepeta was genuinely excited that she'd actually be able to make her ships really happen.
"There are a few more conditions," Psyche said. "Firstly, you must abide by the restrictions of The Choice you have made. Second, you must not tell any of your friends the terms of this Task." She leaned forward once more, staring into Nepeta's eyes intently. "And lastly... the boy you love... you must save your relationship with him for last. And you must not tell him or anyone else your true feelings for him until it is time."
Nepeta hesitated once more. She couldn't tell him until she'd dealt with everyone else? But maybe that was what it took for him to love her. And maybe if she told him why she was doing this, he would be horrified that it was all for such a silly reason.
Her decision was made. "I accept."
"Very well. I wish you the best of luck on your endeavor," Psyche said, standing straight once more. "Now if you wish, I may transport you back to the entrance to my lair. I understand it is a long and arduous trek to reach this place from the surface."
"Wait, befur you do that," Nepeta started, and she swore she saw Psyche cock her head the slightest bit, "can I just ask you a question?"
"I suppose. What is it?"
"Why are you doing this?"
Psyche's features softened once more, and Nepeta saw the fire in her eyes dim to a glow. "I have seen what fate has in store for you and your friends, what happens in the proper timeline. It is... cruel." She cast her gaze downward for a moment, then returned it to meet the troll's, a faint smile once again gracing her face. "I suppose I just wanted to see a timeline in which you are all happy, because I believe that you all deserve as much."
"Oh," Nepeta said, and returned Psyche's smile with a beaming grin of her own. "Well, thank you!" Any trace of fear she felt for the Denizen was gone, replaced with respect.
"The pleasure is mine, truly," Psyche said, her smile growing larger. "Now I think you should run along. You have a Task to complete."
"Of course!" Nepeta said, and turned to leave, but then suddenly remembered the Denizen's previous offer. "Er, well, if you could just take me to the surface..."
No longer worried about maintaining her imposing image, Psyche chuckled. "Of course, my dear. Once again, I wish you the best of luck."
"Thank you! I won't let you down, I swear!" Nepeta said, locking her legs together and giving the Denizen a salute. "Oh, and, uh, goodbye, Psyche! It was really nice meeting you!"
"And you as well, Nepeta. Goodbye."
The pink light of the chamber pooled and intensified around Nepeta, and brightened until all she could see was light. Then, as suddenly as it began, the light faded, and she found herself standing once again at the entrance to the Denizen's lair.
In the axolotl village, the consorts were celebrating Nepeta's triumph over the Denizen. Once again the tea flowed freely from the Nine Great Kettles, and the axolotls could thrive as they had once before (even though she knew the kettles had been stopped up since the planet existed). "The Rogue has won! Our Hearts are mended!" the eager throng of amphibians cried as they showered her with praise and sugary confetti. She considered telling them that Psyche hadn't truly been defeated, and that her Task was not yet complete, but she decided against it. May as well let the axolotls have their fun.
Before her thoughts could turn to other matters, a loud voice turned her thoughts to it for her.
"Yes?" she asked, figuring the crowd of consorts couldn't hear her over their celebration.
CAN YOU DO THE HEARTY THING YET.
"I sure can!"
WELL DO THE HEARTY THING.
"Why, whatefur do you mean?"
I MEAN MAKE THE SHOUTY RUNT WANNA KISS YA.
"Well, I'm going to make him want to kiss me, but I'm not gonna use my heart pawers to do it!"
WELL THEN WHAT ARE YA GONNA DO.
"I'm gonna use my feminine wiles to seduce him, of course!"
HAHA YEAH NOW YER GETTIN IT KID.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some shipping to do!"
GO GET EM KID.
Nepeta indulged the axolotls in one last round of heroic theatrics, then left them to their business. Her Task clear in her mind, she took off for the gate back to her hive.
She had an important job to do.