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Title: Descent
Fandom: Diane Duane's Cat Wizards series
Characters: Rhiow, Saash, Urruah
Rating: PG for catly swearing
Summary:In Book of Night with Moon Rhiow mentions that she, Saash and Urruah had to go down to the catenary about a year before Arhu joined them, and what happened when they were down there. What she left out was why exactly that trip was necessary...
Notes: Written for Rhap-chan in the New Year Resolutions 2009 Challenge on the Yuletide Exchange site.
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"The vhai'd thing just won't stay strung!" The exclamation was accompanied by a hiss and Saash flung away the offending hyperstrings and sunk to her haunches in the corridor. Had anyone passing by been able to see her, they would have seen a thin, tortoiseshell cat, with her fur all bristled. However, only a few select humans had the ability to see the cat crouched in an alcove of Grand Central Terminal: she was sidled, having taken a step sideways out of the visible spectrum of light. If anyone with the ability had been passing by, they would have also seen two other cats, reared up on their hind legs, paws and teeth sunk deep into the glowing hyperstrings that made up a gate, a portal used by wizards of all species for rapid transit between locations.

The bristling of her fur caused Saash to start scratching yet again, which lead to another bout of washing. Urruah, the largest of the three cats, twitched his tail in annoyance, but he too released the strings he'd been holding and flopped to the ground. The pervasive New York grit blended effortlessly into his grey tabby coat. The third cat, Rhiow, ignored Saash's scratching; they'd been teammates for over four years now, and she had become accustomed to the gate technician's quirks. Instead, she concentrated on the string currently clenched in her teeth, the one that allowed her access to the gate's logs. By the time she too had released the strings, Saash had finished straightening her fur and Urruah looked to be half asleep, recovering from his recent outpouring of energy.

"I think you're right, Saash," Rhiow said with a sigh. "It simply won't stay strung. We spend three hours working on the tether, and in two twitches of Urruah's tail, it's come undone, flapping in the breeze like some ehhif's wash." She glared at the gate in annoyance. It had been giving her and her team fits all week. Because of the omnipresent renovations going on in Grand Central, they had been forced to relocate the gate from it's usual home down at the far end of one of the Metro-North train tracks. A week ago, they'd moved the gate's locus to a small alcove in the Lexington Avenue passage, and had nothing but trouble since.

Rhiow lashed her tail in frustration and settled down in a crouch to think. "Do you think the gate is too close to it's old locus point?" she asked slowly. "That it wants to snap back to the old track?"

"No way," Urruah said definitely. "And anyway, if it had been inclined to do that, wouldn't it have done so when you and Ffairh were moving it all over the place a few years ago? You never mentioned anything like this happening then."

Saash flicked an ear in the negative. "Urruah's right, Rhi. If this gate had been inclined to be a home-seeker, it would have done so then. This is definitely new behavior for it." Urruah preened under Saash's confirmation, and she cuffed him gently on the leg. Urruah was a young tom, not even two years old and had only been on the team for ten moon-rounds; he had all the ego and maleness of a tom coming into his prime. But he also had a strong commitment to his craft and a deep respect - almost bordering on reverence - for Saash's knowledge of the gates. Not that that meant the two female members of the team didn't enjoy puncturing his ego on occasion.

"So what now?" Urruah asked, standing up and shaking himself out. "Has anyone else heard of a gate coming lose like this before? I haven't been able to get any answers out of Her, no matter how I ask the question." Rhiow put her whiskers forward in commiseration: her own attempts to get answers out of the Whisperer had met with no more success.

"I asked the Penn team and they were as mystified as we were. I suppose we could ask the Tower Bridge team, or Tokyo, but..." Saash scratched again, betraying her discomfort with the idea. Personally, Rhiow agreed; they were supposed to be the senior gating team in North America. Having to ask one of the other senior teams on the planet was too much like an admission of defeat. But personal ego had no place in wizardry, and Rhiow knew that if asking one of the other teams for help would solve the problem then that's what they would do. Putting her own feelings aside and making decisions for the good of the team - and the world - was one of the toughest tasks for Rhiow since she took over the team two years prior. At the beginning, she had alternately cursed and beseeched Ffairh's memory almost daily; nowadays, she only wished desperately for her mentor about once a week. Stretching languidly, Rhiow made her decision.

"You two go and check the other gates - the last thing we need is for one of them to develop a sympathetic resonance or something like that. I'll take this one down and put up a glyph redirecting any wizards to the gate at track... one sixteen?" she queried and Saash flicked her ear in agreement. The gate giving them so much trouble was a "local" gate, one designed for transit along the Eastern seaboard. The other three gates under their care were worldgates, designed for global - and off-world - travel; they could take a slightly heavier load.

As Saash and Urruah trotted off towards the tracks, Rhiow reared back up onto her hind legs and reached for the control string of the gate. With a deft flick of her paw the glowing weft of the gate structure went dim, just faintly there against the darkness, even to a cat's trained eye. Next, she set a warding glyph, carefully picturing the diagram in the workspace of her mind and then tying it to the activation string of the gate: it would tell any wizards who might want to use the gate that it was out of commission. Lastly, Rhiow sat down, panting slightly from the wizardries she had just worked.

Tom? Rhiow called silently, inwardly, and yet at the same time casting outwards. I think we have a problem.

There was a momentary pause and then she heard a distinctly male, distinctly ehhif voice in her head. You sure know how to make a guy's evening, Rhiow. I'm coming through Grand Central in half an hour anyway. I'll see you then.

*******************************

"We're going WHERE?" Saash hissed. Her ears lay flat back and her tail was lashing. Next to her, Urruah was calmer but no less surprised.

"Downside. I spoke with T'hom last night and he agreed that this may be the only way to fix that gate. Everything we've tried up here hasn't stuck; so we go closer to the source. We need to check out the main control matrix..." Rhiow trailed off, hoping to leave it at that, but Saash narrowed her eyes even more.

"What else, Rhi? Spit it out. You're keeping something back."

Rhiow's tongue flicked out to touch her nose. "And if we don't find anything at the control matrix, the Advisory has authorized us to go... further. Down to the catenary." Saash hissed again and started scratching vigorously.

Urruah stared down at the track below them and his tongue touched his nose, twice, very quickly. Then he straightened up. "So when do we head down?" A slightly twitch of his ears was the only thing that betrayed his underlying nerves beneath the tom-bluster and bravado.

"As soon as possible. Now, if you've got the spells, in an hour or two if you don't." Urruah's eyes went vacant for a moment as he checked his own personal work space. Each wizard kept their most commonly used spells in there, just a thought or two away from completion. Other, less common spells either resided, dim with disuse, in the back of one's workspace, or were provided by the Whisperer as needed.

"I have most of what I need," he said, "but I'd like to add a few more things. What should we bring besides spells for the gate?"

Rhiow looked away. "What do you mean?"

"Great Tom's balls, Rhiow! You know better than I do that we might not be the only ones down there. Especially if we have to go all the way down to catenary! We've got to protect ourselves if we're going to do any good."

Rhiow growled lightly and glanced at Saash. She was still scratching and washing and scratching again. No help from that quarter. "I do know that, but our job is to get in, fix the gate and get out. We don't have time or energy for sidetrips that might or might not happen. Plan for the gatework, light and maybe some light defense. That's all. I don't want you weighed down with unnecessary spells." Urruah plainly looked skeptical, but subsided into a curled up position that indicated he was conferring with the Whisperer. Rhiow turned back to the third member of the team.

"Saash?"

"I want it noted that I strongly object to all of this," she said without looking at Rhiow. "There are a hundred things that I can think of that can go wrong, and probably a million more that I can't even begin to imagine. There are a lot of things we could still try on the gate from here."

"But you don't think they'll work." Saash lashed her tail in concession to the point. "I don't like it either, Saash, but I don't think we have a choice. We've got to get that gate fixed, before it begins causing even more problems."

Saash sighed and finally turned to face Rhiow. "I know. I just have a really bad feeling about this."

"Thank you, Ha'an," Rhiow muttered and Saash looked at her quizzically. "Never mind, ehhif thing. How soon can you be ready?"

"I want to run a few diagnostics on the gate and see how it's behaving today. I'll meet you at the westside gate in an hour."

Rhiow watched her friend trot off. Please, Iau, let her just be paranoid. But Rhiow knew that a Person's intuition was the best of all beings, and Saash's was better than most People's.

*************************************

Rhiow stared out the mouth of the cave at the fading twilight. It was the rainy season here Downside, and the sky weeped endlessly. Every now and then, a gust of wind blew the rain under the outcropping and splattered Rhiow's large form. Her shiny black coat was matted in places, somewhat ruining the majestic jaguar-like form that she sported Downside, where People's physical bodies once again reflected the size of their souls.

Rhi? You'd better come look at this, Saash called out silently, for her huge jaws were currently clenched around several hyperstrings. I think we've found the problem.

Rhiow turned away from the fading light outside and picked her way over to where Saash and Urruah were paw-and-jowl deep in the strings of the main control matrix for the Lexington Avenue local gate. Nearby, the matrices for the other Grand Central and Penn Station gates glowed, bathing the entire area in a warm light.

Urruah carefully released two of the strings from his mouth and then bit a third. Here, take these, he said, handing a bundle to Rhiow. Those are the left side tethers. They look like they ought to, right? Well, here, he handed her a second bundle, this is the right side.

Rhiow's eyes widened as she took the strings. They're flickering! They're not supposed to do that! Sweet Dam of us all, what is going on?

That, said Saash, as she began to disentangle herself from the matrix, is a very good question. She scratched thoughtfully. The rest of the gate is structurally sound, which removes one major worry. If we could get it to stay in one place for more than a few heartbeats at a time, it would be completely operable. It's only the tether strings that are causing the problems, and even then it's one the right side ones. The left side and auwsshui'f-space tethers are perfectly stable.

"I wonder," Urruah said outloud. "Do either of you remember when they were tearing up Va'an'ilt a few moons ago and they hit something they shouldn't have? All the lights in the control tower started flicker." He glanced meaningfully at the faintly flickering bundle of hyperstrings.

"You think something is disrupting the power to those strings? I suppose that might explain why sometime they'll hold and the next moment they'll fail. Saash, do you need to do a re-weave?"

"It wouldn't help, Rhi. While you were checking the other matrices, I swapped out one of the strings on the right for a good one from the left. The new string did exactly the same thing. And the old one behaved just fine on the other side."

"Fwau," Rhiow spat. "I was really hoping to avoid this. Saash, Urruah, you're sure there's nothing that can be done from here to fix the problem?"

Urruah lashed his tail "no" and Saash looked mournful, an odd look for a large, tawny lioness. "If there was, I'd be claw deep in it already. I want to go down there even less than you do. But I'm afraid there's no help for it. The power to those strings is being intermittently disrupted, and that can only be at the catenary."

Rhiow sighed and mentally pulled forward the map to the catenary that Ffairh had left her, tracing out the route that they would need to take. Then she stood and squared her shoulders. "Alright, team, let's go then. The sooner we get down there and straighten this out, the sooner we get home."

The three large cats silently padded their way to the back of the cave and downwards into the belly of the great Mountain, largely unprepared for what they would find there...

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A brief glossary of Ailurin terms used:

auwsshui'f (n.) sub-space (roughly)

ehhif (n.) human

fwau (ex.) damn, crap

vhai (adj.) damn, bloody

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