The four dogs and the cat fought their way into the tower. One of the creatures latched on to Picassa’s robes, and she kicked it hard in its misshapen snout. It fell back, and the other dogs closed the doors on it, holding them shut. Zola slapped a button near the doors, and there was a loud clunk.
“The doors are now magnetically sealed. That should keep the remaining infected out.”
Rex put the point of his sword under Zola’s chin. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t slay you now, cat,” he said, panting.
Zola pushed the sword away, unimpressed. “Because, dog, I am the only one who knows the secrets of this tower.”
“Your tower,” Picassa accused.
“No,” the cat said in his own language, which sounded like net. “While I have claimed this tower as my own, I have only been here for a year or so.”
“But those creatures are yours,” Rex insisted.
“Again, no. They were squatting in this tower when I arrived, and cared little about me. They have since become infected, and I had them locked on the first floor. When they went after you, it gave me a chance to reach you.”
“Why did you save me?” Yosha asked.
“Because I have heard of the Pug family and the dogs of Pugmire. You may have the magic I need.”
“Wait a minute,” Pan said, putting his paws into a T-shape. “Just now you called them ‘infected,’ and now you’re talking about magic. Which is it?”
Zola started to speak, when a heavy thumping came from the doors. “Perhaps it is best to continue this conversation in the weather room.”
Rex stepped in front of him, still panting. “No. You will lead us into a trap.”
“Guardian Pyrenees,” Yosha said. “That weapon he has is powerful. He could have killed us outside, or even from the window.” She turned to him. “What were you trying to say up there anyhow?”
The thumping at the door increased. “Warning you about them. We must go—I don’t know how long the magnetic doors will last.” Zola turned to Rex. “I swear on my remaining lives that I will do no harm to you or those under your protection until we leave this tower.”
“Remaining lives?” Pan asked.
“Until we leave the tower?” Rex asked.
“That is all I will swear to. Accept it, or die in the snow,” Zola said, calmly brushing his whiskers with a free paw.
Rex grunted before saying, “Give me your weapon, then.”
“Never,” Zola hissed. “You will steal it.”
“No,” Rex said. “I will reclaim it for Pugmire.”
Yosha touched the side of the pistol. “There is a…magazine, I think. Without it, the weapon cannot kill, but we cannot kill you with it, either. Give Rex the magazine, and we will return it to you if you are honorable.”
Zola stared at the guardian for a long moment, but the thumping at the door convinced him. “Fine, fine.” He touched the switch that Yosha indicated, and a piece of the pistol fell on the floor. Rex picked it up—it was a solid piece of metal, and still warm. He slid it into a pocket on his belt and nodded. Zola raised his chin and walked toward a door marked “Stairs,” his tail high in the air.
The stairs were made of stone, and illuminated with flickering lights embedded in the walls every few steps. The five of them climbed in the gloom, passing door after door as they climbed, until Zola motioned to a particular one. There was a thin bar of light under the door. “This way,” he said, opening it for the dogs.
“You first,” Pan said.
Zola’s face fur bristled, but he smoothed it down with a paw and nodded. “Of course.”
The hallway gleamed, bright white light pouring in from overhead. The walls were made of more metal, but they were smooth and free of rust. As they walked, the lights dimmed behind them and lit up in front of them, always keeping them in an island of bright, white light. Zola explained that the tower had enough magic to keep the Man-tech working for centuries, as long as it only used power as necessary. The doors were also made of metal, and had markings on them. None of the doors had handles or knobs. Yosha tried to open one, but Pan grabbed her arm and pulled her back into the group. Eventually they came to a room with no markings. The cat waved a paw at it, and the door opened.
A voice came from the walls. “Welcome, Mr. Korat,” it said in the language of dogs.
Pan spun, his shortbow ready. “Who was that?”
“It is the spirit of the tower,” Zola said, entering the well-lit room. “In my time here, I discovered it could learn your language more easily than my own.” Picassa touched her nose, muttered a small prayer, and followed, along with the rest of the dogs.
The room was large, and lit overhead like the rest of the hallway. One wall looked like a giant window, showing the raging winter winds, but numbers and Man-writing crawled over it like green spiders. All around the room were chairs and small tables, on which sat frames of glass sitting upright. Yosha passed her hand by one, and it glowed. A beam of light shot onto the table, and a grid appeared on the surface, each square containing a single number or letter of Man-writing.
Pan looked around. “What is this place?” he said, his voice quiet with awe.
Picassa walked over to one of the larger tables and put her paws on it. The glass lit up and started to display more Man-writing. “I’ve read of something like this. I think it’s called an ‘office’.”
“A more correct translation would be ‘laboratory’,” Zola said. “And it is here where we will end our winter.”
Yosha started touching the squares of light, reading the glass in front of her. She sniffed, confused, as Rex crossed his arms, staring at the cat. “If this is the place where we can change the weather, why have you not done so yourself?”
Zola waved a paw at the large window. “The spirit of the tower—a Man creation from long ago—recognizes the magic that my family carries. But when I arrived, I accidentally set a ritual in motion that…well…” He toyed with his whiskers. “The winter may be my fault.”
Pan took a step toward Zola, his eyes boring into the cat’s. “So undo it,” he said. “Or do all you cats enjoy toying with the dead and dying?”
“Certainly not!” Zola said, his spine straightening. “While the Mau family may currently serve the Korats, we are not sadists!” He sagged, and looked at the ground. “But while activating the spirit of the tower requires only one magician, the ritual to undo this requires two with magic in their blood.”
“Oh!” Yosha said from where she was reading. “A security incantation!”
Zola nodded, misunderstanding the pug’s outburst. “Indeed. Man understood, as cats do, that a bold paw can seize power, but it is not so easy to discard.”
“Couldn’t you call other cats to help you?” Picassa said.
“They are not…listening to me right now,” Zola said. “I am—”
“Outcast,” Pan said, pointing at the cat’s chest. “I was wondering why you didn’t have any insignia or medals on your uniform. The Korat military kicked you out.”
“And that is why you came here,” Rex said, sinking into one of the chairs as the bite he suffered in the battle started to ache. “If you could uncover the lost secrets in this tower and bring them back to the Korat military, they’d have to take you back.”
“But it went wrong,” Picassa continued, her voice angry. “You accidentally changed the weather and unleashed the demons contained in this tower. You then directed them to possess those poor dogs outside and in the forest. That’s why they were talking about the cat. You are their master.”
“Maybe not,” Yosha interrupted. Wagging her tail, she touched a few more squares, and the large window blinked to a new scene. It was now as dark as night, with white ghostly images of the tower and Man-writing flickering across it. She pointed to some of the largest writing.
“Climate…Alteration…Tower,” she said, pointing at the first symbol in each word.
“C.A.T.,” Picassa spelled, before her eyes widened. “Cat!”
“They weren’t controlled by Lord Von Korat, but by the spirit of the tower itself. Or, as Man called it, a software.” She looked around, distracted. “Where is that smell coming from?”
Pan knocked on a nearby table, making a hollow clang. “I don’t know, Yosha. Doesn’t look that soft to—”
“You will not speak of the cat.”
They all turned to see Rex standing up from the chair and drawing his sword. His eyes were glassy, and there were flecks of foam on his lips.
“Oh no,” Yosha moaned. “Not you, Rex.”