the cat is mightier than the pen
“It’s a big one, Kabiyo. The biggest in centuries. Our chance, if we’re bold enough to take it.”
Sometimes, a god dies.
“It’s a big one, Kabiyo. The biggest in centuries. Our chance, if we’re bold enough to take it.”
Sometimes, a god dies.
Farmer Tenlo squinted down the dirt road. The sun was setting flamewards, but looking waterwise he saw a flash of orange, growing brighter. The tangrowth waggled his vines uneasily, wondering if the intense light heralded a fast-moving wildfire. Should he—
But before his thought could progress into panic, the orange blur resolved into the shape of a running arcanine. His pace slowed to a gentle lope as he neared the orchard gate.
"Good evening!" he called out cheerily.
Farmer Tenlo responded with more ebullience than was his custom, relieved that neither his orchard nor his life was in danger. "Good evening to you, traveler!" He eyed the arcanine's bulky saddle bag. "Are you a messenger? The settlement's only a few plains onward. Keep going and you'll get there, oh, as fast as an arcanine can cross an open field."
The farmer chuckled to see his idiom brought to life. The arcanine cut a magnificent silhouette against the rapidly dimming evening. His lips curled back over shining white teeth.
"I'm not a messenger, no. Actually, I'm a sheriff from Farpeak Town, over the mountains. I'm here on official business. Tell me, have you seen a honchkrow in these parts? Large, dark-feathered, blind in one eye—"
"I knew that one was trouble!" the farmer exclaimed, cutting him off. His vines twisted in agitation. "Should have trusted my dirt. Yes, officer, not only have I seen that honchkrow, I've gone and employed her as night guard for my orchard. We have such trouble with thieves in these parts, well, I'm sure I don't need to tell you. Her look-out post's at the center of the orchard—if she hasn't already flown off with my valuables . . ."
"Don't worry, citizen," the arcanine said firmly. "I'll see to her. Please, don't trouble yourself."
It took several repetitions of this phrase, all spoken in the same authoritative tone, before the farmer lurched back towards his sleeping mound, still muttering to himself. The arcanine sat back on his haunches and sniffed the air: apple fragrance mixed with the dark pungency of fertilized soil. And then, like a cold mountain breeze that cut the still heat of a summer day, he caught the scent he was seeking.
The arcanine set off at a run, his paws passing nimbly over the tilled furrows of the orchard, his passage charring bark and leaves. The farmer would consider the damage a small price to pay for a dangerous ruffian being chased off, thought the arcanine, and let out a short bark of laughter.
At the center of the orchard the fruit trees subsided, and an oak tree, bulging and knotted with age, rose in the gap. A dark shape was just visible on the top.
"Hallooo!" the arcanine called up. His tail wagged.
"Oh, it's you," a hoarse voice answered, after a pause. "Been some time. What's the game today?"
"I'm a sheriff from Farpeak Town, beyond the mountain. I've been tracking you for weeks."
The honchkrow let out an amused shriek. "Is that so? Am I under arrest?"
"Indubitably. So lug yourself off that tree, and for your punishment, tonight you're treating me."
The honchkrow descended in a whirl of black and white feathers and the clanking of many hidden pouches. She was massive—as tall as the arcanine, and far wider when her wings hit their full span. But the wings themselves were ragged, with bare spots where feathers had come loose and not regrown. Beneath those feathers her body was thin.
The arcanine puffed out a surprised ember. "You've seen better days, Kabiyo. Maybe I should be treating you."
"You should. This is the first job I've had in half a moon, and that stingy tangrowth has refused to pay me a single coin until the work's done." Her good eye fell appraisingly on the arcanine. "Since you've turned up, I suspect I won't be seeing any coin at all."
"You're a dangerous criminal, Kabiyo, and anyone who looks at you can see that. Come on. I hear the settlement's close, even for a sluggard like you. And where there's a settlement, there's a pub."
He set off without looking back to see if the honchkrow had followed. They passed leisurely through the trees, stopping at intervals to snack on the riper fruits.
"My compensation," the honchkrow said as she swallowed an apple down her gullet in a single gulp. The arcanine shot her a sideways look at the remark, eyes dark and shaded, but he didn't share his thought.
The golden burn of sunset had been smothered by the night by the time they reached the settlement. The gates were shut, but a few friendly words from the arcanine won them entrance. The honchkrow shuffled behind him, drawing suspicious looks. At the pub, the arcanine lapped up his bluk wine in quick swipes, while the honchkrow bent over her platter of roasted nuts and seeds. Her beak moved quickly, until two piles formed. She eyed them with evident satisfaction and then started in on the seeds.
"What a ridiculous habit you have, to always save the best for last," said the arcanine. He watched the honchkrow eat with his eyes drooped lazily. "It's an admission of defeat. Eat the best first—then get more of it. That's my motto."
"You didn't come all this way just to comment on my eating habits," the honchkrow returned in a bored voice. "Don't be coy, Alu, it's unlike you."
"Coy? Never. It's just that when I tell you my news I'd prefer for you to faint from excitement, not hunger." The arcanine leaned forward until his muzzle was nearly flush with the honchkrow's beak. In a low voice, he murmured, "There's been a starfall. Only a few days' journey from here."
The honchkrow nabbed a large seed. She said nothing.
His voice took on a warm, coaxing tone. "It's a big one, Kabiyo. The biggest in generations. Our chance, if we're bold enough to take it."
"I quit that life, Alu."
"And for what!" The arcanine's face twisted into a snarl; sparks fell from his mouth. "Look at you! Skin and bones. Selling your skills to two-bit farmers? You deserve better, Kabiyo. You deserve a kingdom."
"That time is gone. It will not return, no matter how many crystal vials you fill and sell."
The arcanine shook his head. "You're thinking small. You're thinking seeds."
"And your thought is like a madly dancing flame. Your ideas shine prettily, but when they are through burning, the only result is smoke."
"Smoke, and warmth. That's not nothing. Won't you come with me, Kabiyo? One last journey. For friendship's sake, if for nothing else."
The honchkrow answered in her hoarse, cracking voice. "For friendship's sake, then. For nothing else."
They left before dawn broke, down the dirt and brush road. Alu supplied the chatter. Kabiyo kept silent, but every so often she spoke up with a dryly-phrased insult, and Alu's laughter rang out loudly on the road. Twice they passed other travelers, who stopped to admire Alu's resplendent coat and listen attentively as he explained their urgent quest. The first time, it involved tracking down a missing child, dearly-beloved; the second, bringing life-saving medicine to an isolated mountain town.
Where the road forked, they took the steeper path. It led up the side of a broad canyon, the stone a muddy red and the scrub scattered. On the third morning of their travel, they woke to a silver mist that hung low to the ground but did not feel wet.
"We're getting close," Alu said, and Kabiyo nodded.
The morning sun had grown harsh when a sudden voice called, "Halt!"
Blue light wrapped around Alu and Kabiyo, holding them in place like sticking sap. Two lucario emerged from the mist. The fur on their foreheads had been stained to show the insignia of a star.
"This path is forbidden," the shorter of the two said in a clipped voice. "Turn back."
"Good day to you," Alu replied brightly. "Have you been on duty long?"
"Only since last evenfall," the other lucario answered. She blinked, as if unsure what had compelled her to speak.
"Evenfall." Alu's face became a picture of deep thought. "He probably made it through before you got here, then. I'm sure it wasn't your fault."
"What?" said the second lucario.
"Clarify your meaning," the first added sharply.
Alu's lips pulled back over his white teeth. "My name is Sheriff Akio. I specialize in hunting down those nasty and slippery folks who think they can take whatever they want, with no concern at all for broader society. I'm afraid rumor of the starfall spread quickly as a brush-fire in the plains below. I followed the tracks of a very notorious explorer up this canyon—and the scent leads on from here. He's certainly made it inside."
The lucarios' reaction rippled through the air like a physical blow. They dipped their heads and fell into an urgent exchange of whispers. Alu watched them with an air of polite restraint, but when the lucarios' voices began to rise—"We can't leave our posts. And by the time reinforcements come, it may be too late!"—he stepped forward.
"Friends, don't trouble yourselves. That's what I'm here for. You keep out any new interlopers; my partner and I will hunt down this explorer before he gets any further."
This comment set off another round of troubled back and forth. Kabiyo examined the lucario's foreheads, where the red dye was still vivid. New initiates and inexperienced, she decided. Beside her, Alu waited patiently, his tail swishing gently from side to side. The sunlight filtered through the mist and set his fur gleaming gold.
"You may go on," the lucario said at last. "But please, be careful. The explorer won't be the only danger. The area around a starfall is dangerously unstable. They say paths change. And other, stranger things . . ."
"Don't worry about us," Alu said. As the lucario stepped aside for him, he added, "Oh, but perhaps you can tell me. Which one fell?"
The lucario froze. In unison, they clasped their paws to their hearts and bowed in the three directions, and lastly towards the sky.
"The Lord of Earthly Fire," one whispered, when the gesture was complete.
Only Kabiyo saw the satisfaction flash through Alu's eyes.
"Terrible," he murmured. "Well, shall we be on our way, Kabiyo?"
They walked in silence until the lucario were well out of hearing range. Then Kabiyo said, "They were children. We could have easily dealt with them."
"What, with you all skin and bones?" Alu laughed when Kabiyo cuffed him sharply with her wing. "My way is easier—and more fun."
"Hmph. You weren't surprised to hear it was Entei."
"No, I wasn't surprised."
Kabiyo stared hard at him, but Alu didn't elaborate. The mist was thickening. Seen from below, the path had seemed to lead straight for many plains with no turns or deviations, but ahead the road unexpectedly forked. They stood for some time at this crossroads.
"Ready?" Alu murmured.
"No one is ever ready," Kabiyo spat back. She extended her wings and gave a brisk flap that scattered the mist for a brief second before it reformed, thicker than before. "No one is ever ready. So what are we waiting for?"
The first phantasm wore the face and form of a steelix. It shot suddenly from the ground like a silver geyser bursting. Kabiyo fluttered back as the air filled with sharp-edged stones; she collided with a sheer rock-face that hadn't been there a moment before. Alu charged forward, already a roaring blitz of flame. The air trembled when he hit the steelix; the phantasm splintered. Mist swirled back to fill its place.
"That was reckless," Kabiyo said, watching Alu pant. "You shouldn't expend so much energy this early."
"I think what you meant to say was, 'Thanks for saving feathery behind, Alu.'"
"No." Kabiyo's single-eyed gaze was unblinking. "I am serious. If you will not be serious, I will turn around now. I've never seen a phantasm spawn so early. This starfall is different."
Alu's tail thumped the hard ground. "Of course it's different. It's fresh. Can't you feel it, Kabiyo? The power in the air? Raw energy, surging all around us. Past starfalls—that was just nibbling at already rotted corpses. This one—the blood's still warm."
"All the more reason not to over-exert. Leave the next one to me."
As if they had crossed an invisible border, after the steelix phantasm the attacks came without pause. Graveler pelted them from the sky; sandslash sprouted from the earth. Kabiyo's dark pulse hissed through the silver haze, darkening the cramped passage until Alu's fire lit it again.
"We need to rest soon," Kabiyo said, when the latest wave of phantasms had returned to the mist.
Alu bared his teeth. "Nonsense, we've hardly made any progress at all."
"If we push ourselves into exhaustion, progress will not matter. These phantasms are strong. Calm yourself, Alu. You're letting your flame think for you."
There was a tense silence, and then the arcanine laughed, spilling fizzling embers over the rock. "You're right, as you always are. We'll rest as long as you say. But I'll expect you to keep me entertained."
They took refuge in the center of the cavern, shunning the appealing alcove that curved out just ahead. Walls were more dangerous than open space—they had a tendency to move. Alu flopped on the ground, closing his eyes as Kabiyo worked open his saddlebags with her beak. She fussed for some time through his possessions, before saying in surprise, "You brought licorice root."
"I planned to mention that, if friendship didn't do the trick."
The honchkrow's caws of laughter echoed loudly off the rocky walls. She tossed Alu his rations and set to work at the long, wiry strip of root. Alu finished his food in a few gulps. He crossed his paws and blew idle embers.
"Tell me a story, Kabiyo."
"No," the honchkrow said. She cocked her head. "What kind of story?"
"The story of the mountain. The way it was before."
"You know that story."
"Doesn't matter. I want to hear it again."
For several moments, only the suck and tug of Kabiyo's beak on the root filled the silence. Then the honchkrow spoke in her rasping voice.
"On a mountain tall enough to see the whole world, I sat and I saw. Everything on the mountain belonged to me."
From where he lay, Alu let out a satisfied grunt.
"Nut and seed, root and berry, the food of the find, the find of the forage, the work of the earth and the gift of the sky. They brought it to me, and I made portions. The portions were three: one to return, one in trust, and one in gratitude. This was the way of my mother and her mother, and mothers past the generations that can be named." Kabiyo blinked slowly. "That way is ended now."
Alu lifted his head and whined in displeasure. "You've shortened it."
"I am humoring you enough already. I do not need to wear out my voice as well as my wings."
"Don't you miss it, Kabiyo?"
The honchkrow sucked at her root and did not answer.
"I miss it. My people were once as gods to the plain-dwellers. They left us tribute and counted themselves blessed if our passage burned their homes to ash. The freedom of that time! To run, to truly run, without a care for these ridiculous cultivated fields. To get your due without lowering yourself to the whims of petty merchants and their endless trading."
"But trading is what brings us here, is it not, Alu?" Kabiyo said, studying the arcanine with her single eye. "You did not bring many vials along. This labor of ours will yield poor profit."
"You're thinking seeds again," Alu said dismissively. He snorted, covering his face with his paws. Soon his heavy snores filled the cavern.
For some time Kabiyo watched him, still tugging on her root. Her dark eye churned like stormclouds on a mountain.
Rock gave way to thick underbrush, and for some time Alu burned their path through hoards of sunkern, hoppip, and oddish. The oddish's noxious powder clung to Alu's fur and Kabiyo's feathers, setting them coughing and staggering their steps. At last the underbrush thinned out into low, dry grass. Ponyta cantered through the mist, snorting and bellowing, and fearow cawed harshly overhead.
An arcanine twice Alu's size leaped out at them, fur blazing. While Alu stood stunned, Kabiyo cut through the air with the black edge of her wing. The first blow wasn't enough to dispel the phantasm. It turned on Kabiyo, teeth bared, and spat a firestorm that she only narrowly dodged. At last she broke the phantasm with a gust of powerful wind.
"That must have been one of my ancestors," Alu whispered, staring at the spot the arcanine had vanished. "So bold. So proud. We must be getting close."
"You sound confident."
"That would be new."
"Don't scoff. I've been busy since we last met. I charmed a priest, a xatu learned in lore. You should have seen the fool I made of myself, japing about, praising her plumage to the high heavens. In the end, she told me all her secrets. Tell me, Kabiyo, what is a starfall?"
The honchkrow tilted her head. "The death of a god."
"Oh yes. And we explorers, remorseless corpse-peckers, siphon off their fading energy for our own miserable ends. But there's more to it than that, Kabiyo. A starfall is a death—and a birth."
The soil was soft and gray now. Kabiyo's talons sank in deeply. The ground climbed beneath them, and the air had turned hot, parching.
"Do you smell that?" Alu exclaimed, inhaling deeply. "Iron and magnesium. This is volcanic soil. We're almost at the beginning."
"A volcano," Kabiyo said quietly. "The place of Entei's birth."
"A god's birth."
"What do you intend, Alu?"
The arcanine didn't answer.
Around them, silver mist swirled like the eddies of a turbulent ocean. Flames lashed out suddenly from the path ahead. Dark red forms converged, pressing their attack in plumes of smoke and fire. Alu seemed senseless to the attack. He stared forward, unflinching, even as a wave of fire broke over him.
When the last magmar had shattered, Kabiyo turned. Her beak was open; her throat fluttered against the unrelenting heat.
"Alu," she said again, hitting him sharply with her wing, "what do you intend?"
He blinked, but no longer seemed to see her.
"We're so close," he murmured in a low, drunken voice.
The mountain ahead lay shrouded in silver mist, shrouded in the depths of the past. On the peak, a light was growing.
Lava trickled from the smoking mouth of the volcano, slow and bright, like a sunrise. Alu pranced towards the crater, baying with atavistic joy.
She had closed her eye against the heat. Now she forced it open. Inside the crater, shoots of white light sprang up, each bending towards the center like trees moving in obedience to an invisible, circling wind.
"It's just like she said. Every death's a birth. The power's all here, waiting to re-form. If I can take it—if I can host it—"
Her voice sobered him. He ceased his capering and faced her, eyes a molten amber of passion.
"Don't you see?" Behind him, the crater groaned and the white light intensified. "I'm going to bring it back. The old world. The old ways. Before the weak realized that together they were strong. I will burn their orchards. I will burn their towns and their pathetic huts. Their markets. Their bridges. Their gates. And when all of that is gone, the plains will once again be open. And I will run, Kabiyo. I will run as I have never run before. They will watch, fear mingling into awe. And they will worship me."
An egg, she realized, as the shoots of light curved into a towering, ovular shape.
"I'll bring it back. Everything you lost, when they drove you from the mountain. The ones who spat on you will burn. The smoke will turn the sky dark, and they will tremble when you return, their triumphant queen . . !"
Lost in the fit of fantasy, he cast his eyes up. The light tangled with his fur, burnished it.
"Alu," she said, in a croak so dry the air stole the sound away. "Alu, you would make a very bad god."
The gust caught him in the side, flung him back against the lava-stained crag. As he lay there, stunned, a mouth of shadow opened beneath him. Dark tendrils curled from the ground. Kabiyo brought down her wings, and the tendrils tightened.
The stasis only held for a breath. Alu's body dissolved into a spinning flame. Kabiyo winged upwards, but the column of fire followed her. A rope of flame lashed her back, and Kabiyo screamed. She fought for altitude, except the sky seemed to be sinking, shedding clouds and color like strips of dead bark. The ash clogged her wings, her mouth, her eyes, and the burn on her back tore away any sense of time or progression, until she was back on the mountain, perched alone on that far-seeing peak. They stood before her in a disordered assembly, some still bowing their heads, others staring at her openly, brightly.
Who do you speak for? she had thundered, in a voice that made the sky shake loose with rain.
A murmur rippled through the crowd, and then a small figure hopped forward. He answered in a voice both meek and entirely unyielding: We speak for the mountain . . .
She was at the very edge now, and the silver sky splintered into blue. From the vantage of the starfall, she looked out and saw the world again, the green of forests and orchards, veined with the blue of rivers and the brown of budding roads.
And she saw the mountain. She saw it as if from an impossible distance, and yet every detail, every face was distinct. Most of the faces were new to her. The few she recognized were wrinkled and shrunken like preserved fruits. As if in a trance, her wings ceased to beat, but the air held her aloft.
They are making portions. She watched as the stores were dug, the nuts gathered, the fruits dried and distilled. They are making portions without me.
The wind shifted. The mist rolled back in; the vision rippled and broke. Heat returned, heavy on her wings, and pain throbbed stickily, fervently.
Kabiyo turned and plunged back into the mist. The wind seemed to lend her its swiftness. She hurtled through the air, one wing-beat blurring into the next. The peak came back into view. The egg had fully formed—it glowed pearly-white, and its heat squeezed the air. Alu stood before it, one paw extended.
She slammed into him just as he made contact. There was a hoarse scream—her own, she registered dimly, as she ripped him from the energy's embrace. He yelled curses, obscenities, all dissolving into a wordless howl and a flare of scouring fire. The pain was incredible, but she did not let go. Her beak stabbed blindly into his side, drawing blood. He bucked, flamed, but none of it touched her.
"Damn you, Kabiyo," he groaned as she pinned him to the rock, bore down on him with her full weight. "Damn you, why?"
"All this time, and you've never understood. The mountain was only ever mine in trust," she said, though maybe she only said the words in her mind. He twisted under her; the last of the white light bled out from his body. "The only gods that live are those that serve."
At that moment, two things happened. Alu went limp under her. And the world blazed white.
Miku smelled the stranger before she saw her. The wind blew flamewards, carrying the scent of ash and blood. It was a warm evening, and the sky glowed a dim red.
She was just levitating in the last of the berry barrels, when she looked up to see a monstrous silhouette bearing down on her. She lost her hold on the barrel and fluttered frantically backward until she hit her wooden stall. An outlaw. I'm being robbed. I'm being murdered. I'm so sorry, Mother. I should have listened to you. The thoughts sped through her mind in one continuous current. Her terror was so complete that when the shape spoke, the words didn't register.
"W-what?" she whispered.
"I said," croaked the shape, "one bowl of bluk wine. The strongest you've got."
The light shifted, and Miku made out her outlaw-turned-customer. Her plumage might have been impressive once, but it had all been charred away. Burnt black feathers clung to her skin like the remnants of a deathly cocoon. One of her eyes had been gouged out, but as if to make up for it, the other shone startlingly sharp and bright.
"I don't have coin," she continued, in her terrible rasp, "but I can pay in labor."
"Of course," managed Miku, who didn't want to die. She fluttered shakily off towards her storeroom. When she returned, levitating a bowl filled to the brim with purple liquid, the stranger had closed her eyes. Her breathing came slow and unsteady.
"Are you well?" Miku blurted out. She regretted the question the moment the honchkrow's eye snapped open. Of course she's not well, web-for-brains, she berated herself shrilly. Miku had never seen anybody less well in her life.
But all the honchkrow said was, "The wine?"
She drank it down like streamwater. At once her neck drooped and her breathing eased. She didn't ask, but Miku brought another bowl, and she drank that one down too.
"You run this place alone?"
Each word was hoarse and spoken only with obvious effort.
Miku fiddled her antenna, wondering how to respond. Wondering if the honchkrow would be dead by morning. She looked half-way there already.
"Yes, I . . . it's lonely sometimes, but it's what I always wanted. My family didn't like it, they said the world is still too dangerous. Only, the roads are really very safe these days. Not like it was before. Or how they say it was. I'm not old enough to remember."
"I am," said the honchkrow, plunging into a fit of jagged coughing—at least, that was what Miku took it for, until she spotted the mirth in the honchkrow's eye, and belatedly identified laughter. "You've not done badly here. But you need to top your barrels off. Otherwise the sour taste gets in."
Miku stared. She fumbled for words and couldn't find them. She tried again. "You know something about distilling?"
Another disturbing fit of laughter burst from the honchkrow. "Child, I know everything about distilling. Everything about storing, keeping, and preserving. They used to bring it all to me, and I made portions. No more, though. No more."
Her words were slurring. Her beak sank down into her chest and her eye slipped shut. Miku listened to her rattling breath until she was sure that the honchkrow was asleep. Then she retrieved a silk-weave blanket and draped it over her battered body.
That night Miku slept fitfully. She woke before dawn, feeling a stiffness in her wings. She shook them out drowsily and then, remembering the night before, rushed to the tree where she had left the honchkrow, half-expecting her to have vanished like a ghost or a nightmare. But she was still there, the blanket crumpled where it had fallen from her wings. Huddled in the predawn gray, she looked more pitiable than fearsome.
A hot wind stirred up, ruffling Miku's wings. She looked down the road in confusion.
A fire. No, it had legs, running. An arcanine. But it wasn't that either, because the legs found their footing on empty air. The shape was brown and red and gray, and the brown was like a strong and watchful mountain; the red like gentle fire on a frozen morning; the gray like a rolling cloud. He ran with a speed that baffled the eye, but somehow each footfall was clear. Suddenly, his head swung in her direction. He had eyes of dark, endless amber; in them blazed the lifetime of the world.
A slow, terrible clarity spread through Miku as she met his eyes. Each blade of grass burned a radiant white. The full-leafed trees shone like sudden constellations. It was too much, too sharp, too bright. She tore her gaze away, gasping. Something warm wrapped around her and pulled her close.
"Hush," a voice rasped. "You're safe."
When Miku at last dared to look up, the figure was gone. In his place, the morning sun was rising.
"You just saw a god." The honchkrow spoke in a harsh sing-song. "You saw a god and still your orchard stands."
Miku looked at her and saw her eye was wet. With the fading remnants of that painful clarity, Miku decided that the honchkrow didn't smell of ash.
She smelled of grief.
"The barrels," Miku murmured. "I should check them. W-will you help me?"
"I said I would. Labor for wine. I keep my word."
Miku brought her antenna together.
"And tomorrow?" she asked, in the silk-thin voice that she had always hated for its weakness. "Will you help me tomorrow, too?"
A terrible silence stretched out.
"As many tomorrows as it takes," the honchkrow said.