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The Narrow Road to the Deep North (IC)

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Spring 2022 


Riverside Hilton 

In the relative privacy of the women's bathroom, Neko took a moment to inspect herself and her companions. She was dressed in one of her prize possessions, a brightly-colored red and white kimono that Talya had acquired for her, something that wasn't a Westerner's stage prop or fashion choice but something old enough that it had actually been a working garment. Her hair was behind her back in a neat plait, her ears curled above her head, her tail poking out the kimono's back thanks to some artful modifications to the fabric. (Nobody in the bathroom was looking at her; nobody could see her at all.) On her left shoulder was Merlin, her erstwhile 'manager' having come along for her live debut once it was clear, and on her right was a bright red mechanical insect whose color scheme was a near mirror of her kimono. 


"Come on, Red," she whispered, and sure enough the small insect-bot buzzed and hummed and began flying around her head. She smiled at the pretty bug and whispered, "You are so pretty! Everyone will be watching you if I am not careful!" With that, she checked Merlin's phone, nodded in satisfaction as it showed the success of the livestream, then checked with her manager one more time before she turned and exited the women's room. As she exited, she let herself be seen for the first time as she was (Merlin staying discreetly hidden), heading out into the crowd. 


"Hiiii!" she declared to her hovering bug-drone, smiling as she twirled a red umbrella over her head that was a costume prop. "Welcome to Catgirl Reacts to...AnimeCon! Make sure to like and subscribe!" She was by no means the only person in a costume, but so far she was the only person whose unusual appearance was natural. The room was crowded with people, more than could have fit into her whole village, all of them with unusual sounds and smells. She wasn't even the only person doing a livestream in the crowd, but she seemed to be attracting attention. Good, good! 


"Today I am going to see other catgirls, watch anime, and play video games! Come on!" With a smile for the hovering camera-bot and a girlish wink, she headed into the crowd, her sensitive ears catching the mostly-admiring comments about her appearance. People know Catgirl Reacts! This is actually...working!  

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Red buzzed a short tut-tut of dismissal at the compliment but flew in a pleased little loop nonetheless. She lifted the three segmented legs on her right side then lowered them one at a time in a countdown before going live with the camera installed behind the black dot at the front centre of her elytra. As Neko spoke she banked gracefully through the air over the heads of the crowd, angling for the most flattering angle and most interesting backgrounds. The Robug had been raring to get to work since Ryder had introduced her to Neko and Red was approaching the convention livestream with all the enthusiasm of a new sheepdog.


One of those background shots captured a young man with thick, brick red dreadlocks and wearing a silk suit in an impossibly loud floral pattern and a thick gold necklace under the jacket in place of a shirt. He stood with his back to Neko and her camera, next to a much taller woman with the sleeves of a golden-yellow dress shirt rolled up to prodigious biceps and the buttons only done up to just below her ribcage. The shorter of the two was shaking his head in irritation as he indicated a life-sized cardboard standee of what was clearly himself, topless and wearing an ornate, folded skirt, winking and giving the passing crowds a pair of enthusiastic thumbs up.


"Behold and despair, oh Mistress of Slaughter! Such feeble idolatry that should fail to capture the divine truth of my chiselled musculature! My jawline most cutting! Lips so exemplifying the platonic ideal of fullness as to inspire nothing platonic whatsoever!"


"Tis inks upon thickened parchment," his companion pointed out, sounding incredibly bored by the conversation and distractedly sniffing the air as Neko passed.


"Sculpture may be printed thrice across dimensions by machines, Sekhmet! Or better still, the venue might have commissioned one of those statues made of multitudinous children's blocks!"

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It was the smell that told Neko first; the smell of a fierce feline, a great beast of a bloody-mawed cat close by. Then she spotted the two strange ones. A quick Internet check by Merlin told Neko who Set and Sekhmet were - but also told her very little. She wrinkled her nose, considered her options, then snapped back into action. She had originally intended to speak to Set as she approached, but gradually her attention was increasingly drawn to Sekhmet as she stalked closer and closer to the pair. 


By the time she reached Set and Sekhmet, her tail was lashing behind her and her ears pointed forward, her yellow eyes unblinking as she stared at Sekhmet. This was not one of her people; but on the other hand, it was, in a way she could hardly explain. She settled for greeting them as she would have one of her own people around strangers: 


In a low, accented voice she said, all without breaking eyecontact: 


"Disconnected, the cat
outside, how she cries
Banked fire 

went out, t'was cold
in retirement" 


Her voice rose in a question at the last word before she added with a deep, old-fashioned bow that matched the kimono and red umbrella. "Good day, great one. I am Neko." 


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Sekhmet stood almost impossibly still as Neko made eye contact, matching the girl's preternatural unblinking stare with luminous golden eyes. She listened to the entire poem and greeting before meeting the bow with a deep inclination of her head. "Well met, oh courteous mortal." As she straightened her head seamlessly became that of a tawny furred lioness with a distinct black streak. While a few other convention attendees were startled by the sudden change Neko could smell in the aroma of blood dried in desert heat that neither this nor the human appearance had been illusions. "Know me as Sekhmet of Heliopolis, She Before Whom Evil Trembles and Lady of Slaughter."


Sekhmet's shorter companion tilted his head and cocked an eyebrow in theatrical inquisitiveness throughout the exchange. He clicked his tongue and placed his hands on his hips. "And yet you receive deference and respect unbidden!"


"I be respectable," Sekhmet countered flatly.


He nodded amiably. "True! Whereas I be Set," the gosling introduced himself with a cheerful wink. He produced a smartphone with a flourish and proceeded to operate it one-handed while his attention remained primarily on Neko. "You I know from somewhere, aye?"

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The mighty woman had not challenged her; had even accepted her into her territory. Good! This wasn't home, where a fight over territory between two strangers was nothing unusual - they might have gotten kicked out the con! Neko blinked and tilted her head to one side, one large ear swiveling and producing a pleased exclamation from another passerby, the two of them seeming to pass for an excellent costumed duo. Sekhmet could smell whatever it was she was listening to, some sort of ape, but curiously her interlocuter was invisible to Set. "Ah yes," she said, smiling a girlish smile at Set that seemed taken straight from the faces of the cartoon catgirls around them. "I am Neko Musume, of...the Catgirl Reacts channel. And this is my camera, Red!" she added as a red insect that on closer inspection revealed itself to be a technological marvel swooped by her head. "This is my first anime convention. My fans said I should go." Her accent was heavy still, though more fluent than it had been when she'd first arrived in this century. Conscious of the growing crowd, she nodded her head at Red, who circled around, glowing slightly. 


"Do you mind if I film you?" she asked courteously, addressing Sekhmet as much as Set. "It will be good for my hits." So these were gods! she mused thoughtfully as she took in Set and Sekhmet both, thinking about Merlin's hastily murmured description to her. She had met gods in her service to the Katana, but not gods like this - and she had been raised on the tale of Yurei-Daki and what it meant when mortals trampled in their affairs. But what can they do to me that hasn't happened already? She was already far from home, in a world that was never hers. 

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Set snapped his fingers in recognition. "Ah ha! An ascendent sun of content creation indeed!" While only moments had passed since Neko had made her more comprehensive introduction her accounts pinged in rapid succession with notifications that Set had subscribed to and followed her channel, tagged her in a social media post telling his followers to be on the lookout for an upcoming collaboration - along with a string of shocked cat emoji - and organized a raffle giveaway on one of this own channels for gifted subscriptions to her videos.


That legwork done the phone vanished from his hand again with a small flourish and he gave the girl a genuine, beaming grin. "I would be truly heartbroken should you not, oh robed reviewer! I can send a boilerplate press strategy to your manager, correct links, pronoun etiquette, most efficacious SEO terms, so forth!" Sekhmet sniffed the air again and narrowed her eyes in the direction of Neko's seemingly unoccupied shoulder but said nothing. "And I adore you," the godling added in Red's direction. "I am indeed patron of redheads, obviously and I do believe you count. Have you a scarab sibling, mayhaps? Absolutely too cute!"


Returning his attention to Neko, Set rolled his neck as if working out a tight muscle and a pair of feline looking ears sprouted from the top of his head, covered in brick red fur, shorter than her own. "Speaking of cute, what do we think? Shall I add the tail? Might it read a mite appropriative? Tis your gimmick, Neko-chan, tis your call, naturally."

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"Oh!" Neko stared at Set's transformation with big yellow eyes, hands folded before her and tail twitching. Then she cocked her head, listening to her invisible interlocutor again, then shook her head. "You are most polite," she said diplomatically. "But it is not stealing." She shot a look around the room, eyes flicking to catgirls and boys, wearing the clothes and the ears, in the flesh and on the walls. Though nobody seemed to exactly have her look, nobody else for the moment seemed to have any sort of power. It was her and the gods; and a very large room full of people. "You are just - wearing it. Everyone wears it." 


When Red's cameras came back on, Neko lit up like a paper lantern - not in so many words, but with a bubbly, cheery demeanor that was not false necessarily but was not much like the girl who'd been talking seriously to Set at all. "Hiii! And Konichiwa. Welcome back to Catgirl Reacts, where I have just met two amazing individuals!" She turned to Sekhmet first and declared, "Look at this! Sekhmet, the amazing lion kami!" She punched the air for emphasis at that. "Just like a Japanese Komainu!" She turned to Set and said, "And here is Set, the amazing kami of the desert! But he is not sandy at all, he is very kind." She beamed and said, "Oh and I understand we have many new subscribers coming in now! Domo arigato!" 


She turned to Set and Sekhmet and said, "You both have many fans on the Internet. How did you get them?" 

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"Mayhap risking accusations of arrogance... have you seen us?" Set purred with a cheeky wink, expertly sliding into frame beside Neko, feline ears twitching theatrically. For her part Sekhmet stiffened slightly, shifting from one foot to another as she tried the gauge where to stand given the implied but unseen audience. "Nay, I jest. Fortunate are we to have grown a community most active who know the value of welcoming the unexpected and unknown with kindness!"


The godling continued discussing the cultivation of that online following in rosy terms, interjecting a few jokes for pacing, a public speaker with practice on a time scale impossible to mortals. That bounty of time did not prevent Sekhmet from growing visibly impatient as he went on, lips curling up around her rows of sharp teeth. "Titles of grandiose rhetoric to prey upon the 'clicks'," she interrupted flatly.


"The phrase be 'clickbait' oh gorgeous grump," Set replied cheerfully. He placed a finger to one side of his face as though letting Neko and her audience in on a secret in confidence. "Never claim Set knows not hot to play the game!"

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Neko listened carefully, her eyes narrow and head tilted slightly, ears pointed forward and hands folded in front of her. It was actually easier to understand Set the more she heard the Egyptian kami talk; even though the subjects were very different, his command of the English language wasn't so different than Owain's. She listened to Sekhmet too, albeit with a faint lowering of her head and attitude of more proper respect. It was certainly true that her videos for the Internet were not exactly respectable work - not the sort of thing her parents would have wanted her to do, had the world kept turning the way it should have. But there were no fields to till here or men like her to marry, and nobody was terribly interested in her hand at soba or spinning. 


"It is like - performing in a show," she offered. "You must be very...big if you want big money. Oh, you - " She tilted her head, then nodded. "All right. I have a friend who wants to see you. Please, do not be surprised." 


At that moment, something distinctly happened on Neko's right shoulder and a monkey appeared as he had always been there. He wore a service animal's harness and a leash that disappeared somewhere into Neko's kimono but he didn't look like a service animal, especially with the way he was tapping away at an Archetech-brand smartphone that Set recognized as one of the high-end models social media types used. This impression was only heightened when the monkey introduced himself as Merlin, Neko's manager (though this got him a friendly buzz from Red) and thanked Set for the recent social media support. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

“Ah!” Set pointed at Merlin in surprise not when the the simian social media manager appeared but when he ‘spoke’. “I understood your meaning!”


“Thy make thy command of language known often,” Sekhmet grunted flatly at the shorter godling, taking a reflexive sniff in the capuchin monkey’s direction. She settled her weight on her heels with the contentment of a predator deciding to tolerate a prey animal’s continued presence for the time being.


Set nodded and waved a hand in a hurried circle. “Aye, aye. God of foreigners and outsiders, naturally.” He gave Neko a meaningful look but breezed past to the topic that currently had his interest. “But tis not my own prodigious gifts at play! Our concealed capuchin content creator cleverly communicated concept with counter-causal chitchat!” He paused to consider his own alliteration. “Stretching, admittedly. The meticulous Merlin sidestepped language altogether with a terribly tidy bit of spell work. Colour me curious.”

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  • 3 weeks later...

Merlin explained to Set that his linguistic abilities came through his alliance (evidently a euphemism) with a certain powerful witch (not Neko herself) who might be available if the Lord of the Desert ever needed the professional services of a magus? He took a moment to exchange contact information for his ally with the godling in case Set or Sekhmet might ever need such an arrangement. 


"Merlin is very...savvy with computers," said Neko, making a little circling gesture with her hands as she found the English word. "He helped me start this work. But I should go now so I can film the panel on Asobi ni Iku yo!, it was nice meeting you!" She stepped away from the godlings and got back to filming with the help of her robot friends, cheerfully chattering at them as she narrated what she saw, Merlin shooting Set a distinct 'call me' gesture before he vanished behind the cloud of illusion that seemed to follow Neko everywhere she went. 


There certainly was much to see and do at the con, and though Neko and the Egyptians were both stars in their own right, it was easy to get lost among so many cosplayers and content creators. The music was playing and the crowd was big; the organizers had sold quite a few tickets. The putative guest of honor was an elder statesman of anime; Hayashi, who had been active in the industry since the first film he'd helped animate had made it to the screen in 1958! Now an old man, Hayashi was in town for a special screening of his classic movie about the sexy space pirate, recently re-released and remastered for a new audience. 



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