My head hurt. That was the first feeling that percolated into my consciousness.
The second was that I appeared to be face down on very rough surface. And it smelled musty, enough that I felt my nose crinkling automatically in distaste.
I cracked an eye open, trying to ignore the throbbing behind it. The world was at an angle, and I was seeing it through my yellow-green night vision. That confirmed at least one thing: I was still Chat Noir.
But where was I? Not where I should have been, that much was certain. I tried to pull the threads of memory back into form; the last thing I remembered was being on the rooftop balcony patio of Marinette’s bakery. I’d been away from Paris on a weeklong photo shoot in Nice, which meant my Chat alter-ego had not been able to visit her nightly as he normally would. My first night back, I’d texted her (as Chat) saying I’d wanted to drop by, only to have an akuma push it later into the evening.
When I’d finally arrived, she’d greeted me with a tray of freshly baked Belgian chocolate croissants. I’d barely touched one when a greenish whirlpool of swirling energy opened below us, and we fell for what felt like an eternity. Somewhere along the line, I’d blacked out before waking up here.
Wherever here was.
I pushed myself up into a sitting position, my feline senses straining to collect data. I was in some sort of geometrically shaped space, comprised of what my sense of smell was telling me was very old wood; the faint fragrance of farm animals underlying everything told me I was likely in a barn, though one that hadn’t been used as such for some time. The space wasn’t terribly big and had a door in the far side.
Rotating, I realized there were tiny windows at the joint between the roof and the walls, and the floorboards had spaces between them. I leaned back down again and picked up the faint smell of wheat or some similar type of grain; the space below had most likely been storage of some kind, long since emptied. Propping myself back up again, I went into a pounce-crouch, slowly continuing to rotate.
That was when I found Marinette.
One quick leap and I was by her side; carefully, I rolled her over. Any thought of why she was with me were pushed aside as I did a quick triage; gloved fingers to her wrist located a strong and steady pulse, and though unconscious, my feline hearing heard her breathing regularly. There were no obvious injuries, so I gently placed a paw on her shoulder and nudged her.
“Princess?” I shook her a bit more strongly.
Her blue eyes flew open, and initially were unfocused; they darted around, trying to make sense of where she was; a moment later, she latched onto my somewhat glowing green eyes. “Chat?”
“Right here, Princess,” I said, as I helped her into a seated position. “Are you okay? Is anything painful?” I asked, ignoring for the moment my own aches and pains.
“Just a bit of a headache,” she said. “You?”
“Purrfectly fine,” I lied. “Cats are pretty resilient.”
She seemed to let that go. “Where are we?”
“Barn of some kind,” I said. “There’s a door over there – take my paw and we’ll see if it’s open.” I held out a hand and she took it; I helped her up and then led her through the gloom toward the exit.
My vision only swam a little bit as I stood up, making me wonder if I’d suffered a concussion of some sort. With luck, my faster-than-normal healing abilities would make short work of that.
Carefully, I approached the door. There was a wooden handle on one side, and it appeared not to be locked; still holding Marinette by one hand, I used the other to grasp and then slid it sideways. Considering how old it appeared to be, the mechanism appeared to be in good order, and it rolled noiselessly open.
Wherever we were, it was definitely night – and just as moonless as it had been in Paris. We stood at the top of a short wooden ramp that gave access to a small farmyard rimmed by outbuildings; in the distance, my feline vision could make out fields of some kind, and beyond that… was that the ocean? I sniffed the air, scenting the salty tang of the sea.
“I don’t think we’re in Paris anymore,” I said to Marinette.
“No,” she agreed.
I pulled out my baton, which I somehow still had, and cracked it open. For a moment, it displayed the current time – 0135 – then suddenly shifted to 2035. It had auto adjusted to the current time zone we were in, and if my math was correct, we were somewhere far, far west of Paris. Six hours would put us…
“We’re in the United States,” I said confidently, flipping to my GPS function. I noted that the that the ladybug logo didn’t appear; hopefully that meant she was safe and sound back in Paris. I quickly scrolled the map. “Virginia, to be exact.” I looked back at Marinette. “Mount Vernon – I’ve read about this place,” I told her as I swapped to the phone mode. “It’s the estate of the very first President.”
“Washington?” Marinette said, no slouch when it came to Global History.
I nodded. “I need to call Ladybug,” I said as I speed dialed my partner, “and let her know where I am.”
I’m not sure she realized I could see her expression; she’d started to say something and then stopped.
Ladybug didn’t answer, and I left a quick message for her. “It’s Chat, obviously,” I smiled. “Who else would call this line, anyway? I have no idea how I got here, but I’m in the United States – still trying to figure out why – call me when you get this.”
I clicked the phone shut, ruminating. This was a bit of a problem – aside from the small matter of how we’d managed to be transported across an ocean and then some, getting back was going to be a challenge. Even if I could drop my transformation and return to being Adrien, explaining how I’d gotten here in the first place to a sure-to-be-apoplectic Father would be nearly impossible without revealing my alter ego.
I looked sidelong at Marinette. Having her by my side was an unexpected complication; not an unwelcome one – we’d spent quite a bit of quality time together over the last four years; even more now that we were attending the same university together. (Well, technically, Adrien was attending university with her. But who am I to quibble?)
Actually, I was quite fond of her, and she clearly felt the same about Chat. But there was no way I’d be able to drop my transformation without revealing to her my true identity; Ladybug had drilled into me how important it was that we guard that particular secret, so it appeared I’d be staying Chat for the foreseeable future.
How a cat-themed superhero would hide in plain sight, especially near the national capital of another country, was going to be an interesting challenge to surmount.
There was one other person I could call, but it was a risk to do it in front of Marinette. Intuitively, though, I knew I could trust her. I turned to her fully, and put an arm to hers.
“I don’t know how we got here, Princess, but I will get us home,” I said. “I am going to have to trust you with a secret or two though. Are you okay with that?”
Her eyes flashed, even in the dark. “Chat, you can’t tell me who you are,” she said firmly.
“That’s not one of the secrets I had in mind,” I said, laughing, “and though I would trust that particular one to you, willingly, it’s too dangerous for you to know.”
She nodded, seeming a bit more at ease. “All right.”
“I need to make another phone call,” I started. “I’m not sure how they would react if I let you know their identity – so until I find out, I want you to wait right here while I go way over there to call.”
“I’ll be right here,” she smiled.
“Clawsome,” I said, starting to trot away from her.
“Don’t keep a girl waiting, kitty,” she added.
That made me pause, and I turned. “Sorry?” I asked.
“Don’t keep a girl waiting,” she said.
I was certain she’d said kitty, which was Ladybug’s term of endearment for me. But maybe I’d heard it wrong.
Once I was on the far side of the clearing, I speed dialed Master Fu. Thankfully, he picked up. “Chat Noir?”
“Master Fu, I have a situation,” I said without preamble. “A portal of some kind grabbed me this evening and seems to have dropped me in the United States. Virginia, to be exact.”
His eyes narrowed on the small screen. “Describe it.”
“I only saw it for a few seconds, but greenish, I’d guess?”
“With black accents?”
I thought about that. “Maybe.”
“Where were you when it opened?”
I hesitated, not entirely certain I should tell him that, essentially, Chat was on a date. “I was with a friend,” I said honestly. “In Paris.”
“Who?” he asked suddenly. “And are they with you?”
I sighed. It appeared honesty would be necessary. “Marinette Dupain-Cheng, and yes.”
He nodded. “Bring her to the phone,” he said. “What I am about to say affects both of you.”
I raised a masked eyebrow. “All right,” I said, and I trotted back across to Marinette. “He wants to talk to both of us,” I explained, holding the phone so both of us could see his tiny image.
“Hello, Marinette,” Master Fu said. “I must apologize, but I cannot share my name with you. I will need you to trust that Chat and I will get you through this situation without forcing you to be a party to or need to reveal any secrets more than is absolutely necessary.”
The Master’s phrasing was odd, but Marinette seemed to understand his point. “All right,” she agreed.
Fu looked at us. “I won’t hide the fact that the two of you have landed in the middle of something big,” he started. “If what Chat describes to me is correct, I believe Chat’s Miraculous has been summonsed to protect the Keys to Paris.”
“The what?” I asked.
“Keys to Paris,” Master Fu repeated. “There are twelve of them, common objects that have a connection to the City of Paris and have been bewitched in such a way that when they come together, they form a ‘master key’ for lack of a better word.”
I looked at him. “Let me guess. This master key opens something that we don’t want opened.”
“Correct,” Master Fu said. “There is a box, somewhere here in Paris, that the key will unlock; the holder of what is inside that box would have the ability to control any Miraculous, anywhere.” He looked strained. “This box has been hidden for millennia. Even my order had no idea where it was located, and it moves on its own every two hundred years.” He paused. “The fact you’ve been activated means someone, likely our friend Hawkmoth, has stumbled onto the path toward finding one or more keys.”
“Okay,” I said, looking at Marinette. “How have I been activated, exactly?”
Fu looked a bit uncomfortable and glanced briefly at Marinette. “Typically, both the Cat and Bug Miraculous are activated, Chat,” he started. “I have to assume that something has prevented Ladybug from answering the summons, and I will check on this end to see why.”
“She didn’t answer when I called her,” I said, my voice betraying my concern. While I had long since given up my hopes on her returning my love, she was still an intimate friend that I cared deeply for. I had always felt the acute need to protect her, and now that there was a chance she was in trouble, the fact I was half a world away was weighing on me.
Fu looked at Marinette again. “I think she will be just fine, Chat.” He changed direction. “Your Miraculous, now that it has been triggered, will automatically take you to the vicinity of a Key; your task is to locate each key before Hawkmoth gets there and can obtain it, remove it and bring all of them back to Paris.” He paused again. “Once a key has been removed from its protected location, whether by you or by Hawkmoth, your Miraculous will automatically take you to the next key.”
“How do I remove it?” I asked, before realizing my answer. “Ah,” I said. “Cataclysm or Ladybug Magic?”
“Both work hand in hand, Chat, as they normally would – but there are some differences. In this case, only Cataclysm will work to remove the bewitched item – and, Chat, this is very important: for the next thirteen hours, you’ve gained the ability to use your super power once per hour with no need to drop your transformation. In fact, if you do de-transform, you will lose the path to the next key.”
“Thirteen hours? That seems like a particularly specific number.”
“It is,” Master Fu said. “Ladybug’s Lucky Charm has the power to disable all of the keys, but she can only use it once. If we do not disable all twelve keys by the final minute of the final hour, the puzzle resets, and we start over. The cycle will run endlessly until it concludes or the box is located.”
“Like, endlessly endlessly?” I said. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
“You shouldn’t,” he said. He turned to Marinette. “I’m sorry, my dear, that you are caught up in this, but I have to believe the Miraculous magic determined you would be an… asset to Chat Noir. Assist him if you can.”
“I will,” Marinette said.
“Chat, your baton has been updated with data on this puzzle; I will send you more as I find out more. It will also maintain an inventory of sorts as you move through the puzzle.”
I held the baton out a bit. “This is starting to feel a bit like I’ve landed in one of my adventuring games from the Xbox.”
Fu smiled. “Stay in touch, and stay safe.” He looked at me. “Keep Marinette safe, too,” he said. “There are likely protections around these keys; some will not easily allow themselves to be taken.”
“Will do,” I said, and clicked the phone off, turning to Marinette. “I’m sorry, Marinette; looks like I picked the wrong evening to swing by your place for baked goods.”
She smiled at me. “Oh,” she said, “It’s never a bad evening when you drop by, Chat. Actually, I think we were just where we both needed to be.”
“I’m glad you have faith in us,” I said as I replaced the baton on the small of my back.
My night vision let me see her smile. “I have faith in you, Chat,” she said, pressing an affectionate hand against my bicep. “Wow,” she said, suddenly running her hand along the muscle. “When did that get so big?”
Thankfully, the flame of embarrassment on my cheeks was hidden by the night. “I call it the superhero workout,” I laughed, trying to mask the odd feelings her touch had triggered. “Four long years of akuma attacks. Sometimes more than one in a day.”
“Huh,” she said.
“I think I know our first key,” I said, coughing to cover the croak in my voice.
“Yeah, this one is a softball,” she concurred. “You agree it’s Lafayette’s gift?”
“Yes,” I said. “Assuming that Mount Vernon is where we are supposed to look,” I added. “But the Key to the Bastille seems the most obvious item.”
“Is it too obvious?” she asked.
“Hopefully not.” I scanned the field and located what appeared to be a major pathway. “If I remember the story, it’s hanging in Washington’s dining room.”
“I think that’s wrong, Chat,” Marinette said, still holding my hand as I led her toward the mansion. “It’s in the main foyer.”
“Who got an ‘A’ in---” I started, then short circuited myself. It wouldn’t do for me to tell her I sat next to her in History. “I mean, if you’re sure, we’ll start there, of course.”
“Pretty sure,” she said.
The path headed toward the ocean, and then turned off to our left. I paused, and pulled out my baton, which was showing 2047. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Princess, but I think we need to pick up the pace.”
“What are you asking?”
“I’m going to pick you up, gently, of course, and then move a bit… faster… to the mansion.”
“Gotcha,” she said, and immediately leapt up into my arms.
I made a series of long leaps down the pathway and landed on the edge of the wide driveway that formed an oblong circle in front of the mansion. Marinette dropped out of my arms and we approached the main entrance. Optimistically, I tried the knob.
It was locked.
“If Ladybug were here, I’d bust this down and assume Miraculous Ladybug would restore it,” I said wistfully.
Marinette chuckled. “Something tells me she’d not agree to that course of action, normally.”
Despite the situation, I laughed. “Likely true,” I replied as I started to look for an alternative way in. Nothing seemed obvious from the front, and in truth, I was loathe to harm the historical structure in any way.
“Is that a cupola up there?” Marinette asked, trying to make out the shape of the mansion in the darkness.
I pulled out my baton, noted quickly that it was now 2051, and flipped into my data mode. As fast as my claws could work, I pulled up the official website for Mount Vernon and looked over the floorplan. “Yes,” I said, “and if I can get in up there, it gives access straight down to the main hallway.”
I wrapped an arm around her and started to extend the baton. “Ready?”
“I guess,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d take me.”
We rose up the side of the mansion smoothly. “Princess, you’re not leaving my sight until this is over, ‘kay?”
The elevator stopped at the cupola, and we gently stepped onto the sloped roof below it. Fortunately, the kwami gods were behind us, and one of the windows had been cracked open. I put a paw below it and gently pressed upward, making just enough space for us to crawl through.
“Hold on,” I said, grabbing her again and swiftly dropping down the slanted ladderway to the floor below; I leapt over the wooden railing ringing the main stairway and landed on the second floor, then slid around the banister and over the edge, dropping cleanly to the main level.
“Where is it supposed to be?” I asked, furiously scanning the walls.
“It should be hanging,” Marinette said, taking the opposite end of the hallway and using her cellphone’s flashlight to scan the walls. “Here!” she said.
I bounded over to her. A wrought iron key was inside a glass-and-wooden display case, hanging from a nail; it was just above what looked like a painting of the Bastille. I turned to her. “Master – uh, our friend warned us that there could be counter measures,” I said, as I started to hold out my ring hand. “This could go badly – step behind me, if you don’t mind.”
Marinette didn’t argue and swiftly ducked behind me.
I took a deep breath. “Cataclysm!” I cried.
The power of destruction flowed into my hand with that odd feeling I’d never been able to fully explain to Marinette. I paused. Did I need to touch the case? Or the object?
“Uh, Marinette,” I said, the power sparking from my hand. “Case or key?”
“Key!” she said.
With the other hand, I extended the baton and batted the case down from the wall; it hurt me to see it smash into a hundred pieces of wood and glass. The key remained fastened to the wooden backing of the case, and I bent down and gently swiped at it with my ring hand.
Normally, items that I use Cataclysm against turned brown and dissolved; this strange variation I had for the next few hours enveloped the object in a green-black glow of energy not unlike the transformation wave I experienced. The key lit up in with a brilliant white glare, bright enough that I threw my paw in front of my eyes to shield them.
Then it popped like fireworks, little bursts of green-black energy crackling around us. In mere seconds, the key rose on its own and hovered in front of me. A miniature green-black whirlpool of energy opened, and the key moved into it. flashing out of existence. I made the quick assumption that it was now in some sort of virtual storage space that I’d call upon later, once I finally (hopefully) met up with Ladybug.
Nearly simultaneously, a much larger whirlpool portal of that same green-black energy irised open against the wall, just below where the key had been.
I turned to Marinette. “I think we can assume we passed the first test,” I said.
“I’d agree with that,” she smiled. “One down, eleven to go.”
I held out my paw. “Ready?”
She took it. “Let’s go!”
Together, we leapt into the whirlpool.