the cat is mightier than the pen
In the dark hours of the morning, a man and a boy make for the river. Everything you need to know about life is in the Zoroark Stories, if you listen.
In the dark hours of the morning, a man and a boy make for the river. Everything you need to know about life is in the Zoroark Stories, if you listen.
Content Warning: Light gore.
Night hung over the village like a raincloud before it burst. The half-moon slumbered behind slate blankets, a sentry asleep on her watch.
The air nibbled at Nayati's skin, infiltrated the thin spots between his hides. The month of the simipour was waning, and soon the condensation in the air would sharpen into snow. Each bootstep brought him closer to the small hut at the center of the village, until there were no more steps to take. He shivered as the wind whipped up. I should have dressed more warmly. But it was an idle thought. He couldn't turn back now.
Instead, he undid the hut's flap and stepped inside. The starlight briefly illuminated nests of cloth, tangles of moss, and in the back, a large heap of furs. From somewhere in the gloom came the steady rise and fall of breath.
"Speaker," he rasped.
A body shifted in the darkness. Then a startled voice, high-pitched and thin, called out, "What's happening? What's wrong?"
"It's Nayati. Speaker, I—" He needed to get control of himself. "The council sent me. Spirit Trappers have encircled the village. They will attack soon." His fist clenched. "The village will be taken. But not you, Speaker. You must not be taken."
The Speaker's breathing came fast and sharp. "I don't understand."
Of course he didn't. How did you tell a boy that his life outweighed the lives of a whole village?
"You must not be taken," Nayati said again. "We will make our way in secret to the Striped River. Friends wait for us."
No answer, only breathing.
"Two may do what many cannot. They do not know we were warned of their coming, so they will not be watching for us."
"You're telling me to run away," the Speaker said finally. "To abandon everyone. I can't do that."
"You must, Speaker. We all do what we must."
"Tokala. You don't always have to call me—I'm just Tokala."
He was only a few winters older than Nayati's youngest.
"They are here for you—the last Speaker east of the Arbok River," Nayati said. He brought home the blow as kindly as he could. "If you are taken, what hope do the seven hearths have?"
No hope. He couldn't dwell on it. No hope at all.
His voice wound on, "You cannot say any goodbyes. It might rouse the village, and we do not know—we believe there is a spy. A traitor. So we must leave in secret. I'm sorry."
Had he said that yet? It seemed worth saying again.
"I am sorry, Tokala."
There was a low snuffling sound. Was he weeping?
"Bring little. Dress warmly. The chill is worst in the dark hours of the morning."
He couldn't bear to listen another second to that horrible snuffling that wasn't quite tears. He stepped outside, where the wind moaned and the gray clouds swirled. He tensed as another hut flapped open—but it was just a badly secured hide, twisting in the wind. A few minutes, he waited, or a few hours. It could have been either, when the Speaker finally emerged. He had taken Nayati's words to heart and bundled himself thickly in dark furs. His small face seemed even smaller as it peered out from the frame of his hood.
Nayati's heart galloped in his chest. He placed a finger over his lips. Silent as a gliding swoobat.
They left the village without further words.
The chill had deepened into a bitter cold, but Nayati was drenched with sweat. Each rustle and twig crack sent fresh fire roaring through him. Pursuit. Not pursuit. He knew these woods better than he knew himself, but tonight they seemed as foreign as his heart.
He wondered if Mosi was awake. His darling girl, almost a woman now, with her mother's broad smile and her same restless sleep. How many nights had she tugged him from a dream, her chubby hands insistent at his shirt. She'd asked him once why the sun sometimes went away and he'd said, So we can sleep, dear one. When would we sleep, little pidove, if the sun always shone?
We'd never sleep! she'd piped out proudly. She'd crossed her arms and smiled at her papa's lack of wits. We'd never have to sleep at all!
With effort, he pushed the memory aside and glanced behind him. The boy was keeping pace far better than Nayati had dared hope. For an hour they had travelled in silence. Now Nayati risked words.
"You've done well. My son could not have done better."
Nayati didn't blame the Speaker for not knowing. He was a boy, but he hadn't grown up like the other boys. His childhood had belonged to the forest. It had been given to the tribes of the sawsbuck and the stoutland, the unfezant and the scolipede. Nayati didn't blame him for it.
"You have other children?"
"I am thrice-blessed. Nahele is the youngest, my only boy. Mosi came first, then Manaba."
The Speaker caught the careful absence. "Your wife . . ."
"In the Battle of the Long Summer."
He couldn't say anymore. Even after seven years, the memory tore him in two. His feet continued to move, but his mind drifted into a dark haze. He watched the passing trees but ceased to see them.
He only came back to himself when the moon chanced to illuminate a tree scarred with acid. Even sleepwalking, he'd know a sign like that. They had strayed too far north, into the territory of the scolipede. Their poison made for a certain death, though not a quick one. He froze in place, swinging out an arm to halt the boy.
"Back the way we came. Quiet and quick, but do not run."
They had only gotten five steps when the ground erupted around them. Gray shells rolled out from beneath the eaves, spines flashing. Watchful yellow eyes burned in the center of each shell. Nayati's heart pumped painfully. They were surrounded, and his knife meant little against a pack of whirlipede.
If they died here, it was all for nothing. Mosi, Manaba, Nahele. He hadn't even said goodbye.
An arm, surprisingly strong, pushed him back. The boy stepped out in front of him and started to Speak.
Nayati had never heard anyone Speak before. He was a scout, a tracker and a hunter. He did not sit in the main house when the leaders of the forest peoples came to renew their alliances. It had never crossed his mind to wonder what the Speech would sound like.
Guttural, was his first impression. Almost growling. It was hard to believe such low sounds could come from such a small form. But the longer he listened, the less alien the sound became. A rhythm twined beneath it like a lullaby he had heard a long time ago.
The yellow eyes ringed around them glowed in the morning's darkness. Then, one by one, the eyes blinked shut and the spikes tucked down. The shells rolled back into their hidden crevices, leaving nothing but stirn-up undergrowth.
Nayati's breath left him in a slow hiss. They stood in silence for several moments, washed in the weak moonlight.
"What did you say to them?" Nayati asked at last.
The Speaker cocked his head. "I reminded them of their promises. I reminded them of the curses that follow those who break their word."
Nayati shivered. "We must reach the river by dawn," he said.
He turned away, his feet crunching on dead leaves. The boy followed him, soundless.
This morning the current ran swiftly. Nayati stood on the bank of the Striped River and looked upstream. The river had been named for the schools of basculin that choked its waters. They were sharp-toothed and vicious, deadly to a child swimming alone. But they disliked the taste of wood, so boats passed unmolested up and down the watercourse.
"They'll be here soon," Nayati said aloud. "Once we cross the river, we'll be safe."
Layered over the melody of the rushing water, his voice sounded harsh and cracked. Let them come quickly, shouted his quick-beating heart, and in the same breath shouted back, Let them not come at all!
The Speaker squinted thoughtfully at the sky, now a pearly gray and growing lighter with each minute. He settled himself on the river bank, one leg crossed over the other.
"It's nearly winter," he said. "While we wait, tell me a Zoroark story."
Nayati hesitated. He was not in the mood for storytelling. But it would keep the boy's mind occupied, until—until dawn. Nayati sat down on the hard earth, facing the river, and cleared his throat.
"After the world was formed, after the Great Gods and the First Beings came forth, the lesser creatures were made and for all of them there were blessings." He was no great storyteller, but his mother had been, and the cadences came back to him easily. "But our ancestors were too eager to experience the beauty of the young world. They ventured forth before Meloetta had taught them the Speech. At first, this hastiness seemed good to them, for they multiplied and quickly took root across the lands. But without the Speech, they were an outcast tribe. Now, Zoroark—"
"If it's all the same to you," the Speaker interjected softly, "I'd prefer to hear a different story."
Nayati closed his mouth, stricken. The tale of the first Speaker was comforting in its familiarity, and he had chosen it without thinking. But of course the Speaker did not want to be reminded, now of all times, of that which set him apart.
"A different story? Let me think. Perhaps the story of how Zoroark outraced the wind."
"No," said the Speaker with finality. "Tell me the story of Zoroark and the Two-minded One."
Nayati's mouth went dry. "That's not a comfortable tale."
"Good," said the Speaker, his lip curling back. For a moment his eyes betrayed something that wasn't placid. "I don't feel like comfortable right now."
Nayati could guess the shape of his thoughts: Spirit Trappers stalking an unwitting village, a dawn that would rise blood red. Nayati wanted to reassure him, but what could he say?
Only I am sorry, and he had already said that. If he said it again surely he would unwind like a willow basket.
He fixed his gaze on the river and began once more.
"They say that after Zoroark outwitted Thundurus and stole the secret of sparking fire, the Thunder God's wrath knew no bounds. Forests burned under the force of his fury, yet quickly Thundurus tired of these tantrums. It was Zoroark and only Zoroark he wished to hurt. However, the god knew he could not slay Zoroark directly, for Zoroark is one of the First Beings. Their tricks and skin-changing are just as essential to the world spirit as Thundurus' lightning and storms. The god also knew he could not match Zoroark for wits and that to try would only court further humiliation. What, then, was he to do?
"As Spring warmed into the easy lulls of Summer, Thundurus chanced upon his eldest brother, skating low upon the wind and showering the lands below with blessings and plenty. Landorus, Guardian of the Earth, hailed Thundurus, and for a time the two floated on the breeze. Then Landorus said, 'Speak, my brother, for I see that you are troubled.'
"When Thundurus had poured out all his grievances, his brother spoke again.
"'Indeed, this season as I travelled to spread my blessings, I have seen small fires burning where no fire should burn. To my eyes it seems as if the very stars have been brought low. Truly Zoroark acted wrongly to share your secret, but it is in their nature to transgress as much as it is in the nature of the wind to uproot trees or the lightning to burn them. As for punishment, is that not the realm of Cobalion and his brutish ilk? Forget Zoroark, brother. The thunder must not heed what happens below.'
"Thundurus was greatly dissatisfied with his brother's answer and he made this known by summoning a storm, which devastated the new sprouts called up by Landorus' passage.
"'That was badly done, my brother,' said Landorus. 'Yet I forgive you, for I know well your hasty and destructive nature. Out of love for you, I will share how to take revenge on Zoroark. You must ask yourself: what is it you have that they have not?'
"With these words, Landorus left Thundurus pondering. All Summer he pondered, but could make no sense of his brother's riddle. At last he exclaimed, 'Pah! What do I have that Zoroark has not? All I have is a foolish brother!'
"Yet as he spoke, Thundurus understood. Zoroark was one of the First Beings, and though they may have lesser children, they do not have equals. Thundurus had two brothers, but Zoroark had no one like themself. Why else would they have bestowed the gifts of speech and fire on a tribe of lowly humans?
"Zoroark, realized Thundurus, was lonely."
As Nayati paused for breath, the boy nodded. He had closed his eyes and his mouth was pursed in concentration as he listened. The river still showed nothing except for the occasional spiked fin of a basculin.
"Now, there was a man called by the name Solosis, for wherever he went, he went alone. Bold, he was, and quick of wit, with a form that pleased every eye. One night as he travelled, a mighty storm arose. Then Thundurus appeared to him, swathed in blue and gold. In a thundering voice, he promised Solosis great gifts. Both awed and terrified, Solosis agreed to carry out Thundurus' will.
"The story of how Solosis and Zoroark met is its own tale, as is the many years they journeyed together. They covered themselves in leaves to learn the secrets of the whimsicott, wisest in weaving. They shaved the rainbow plumage from the evil mandibuzz—even now her neck is naked and her descendants do not forget her shame. Together they brought down the fearsome Darmanitan and so saved the world from a death by fire. But in the tenth year of their journeying, a great storm arose. For ten days and ten nights the thunder did not cease. Then Solosis knew that the time had at last come.
"The next morning, Zoroark woke alone. Their fur had been shaved and they were bound in ropes of flame. They flinched as these flames licked their naked body, and sought to cloak themselves in a new skin so that the world would not witness this humiliation. But the fire belonged to Reshiram, and it would allow no deception. As Zoroark twisted in pain, they became aware that they were no longer alone. Around them were gathered all the gods of the greater pantheon, summoned to bear witness to Zoroark's disgrace. Thundurus flitted among them, smirking mightily, for this revenge was all he could have wished for. The air rang with the crashing laughter of the gods. But Zoroark had eyes only for a figure almost hidden under the forest eaves. It was Zoroark's friend, and they knew then that they had been betrayed."
Three boats on the river. Nayati's words evaporated in his mouth. The prows were sharp, not smooth, and they cut the water like bisharp blades.
At his long silence, the boy opened his eyes. He saw the boats.
Did he understand? With a sudden, overpowering urgency, Nayati needed to know if he had understood. Curse me, hate me, hit me, try to run away! Why don't you run?
But the Speaker lifted his chin and said, "The story?"
"A story's like a promise," the Speaker said in the tone of a teacher chiding a student. "You can't start one and not finish it."
Hysterical laughter crept up Nayati's throat, and he had to press his lips shut to keep it from spilling out. This is the least of the promises I break today.
But every moment the boy sat and listened was a moment he didn't run.
"Zoroark knew that they had been betrayed," Nayati said hollowly, abandoning all the flourishes of tale-telling. "He cried out, 'Once you loved me, but now you turn upon me. Hear my curse, for you shall always be in two minds!'
"No sooner had Zoroark spoken, then Solosis felt a great pain, as if he were being torn in two. He screamed. They say his screams were so loud that even the voices of the gods seemed small.
"At last, Meloetta of the gentle heart took pity on Solosis and granted him a new form, one that could bear the torment Zoroark had unleashed upon him. But his descendants still wander the world, always pained, never whole. And we —"
The boats touched land. Nayati faltered.
"Finish the story," hissed the boy, in a voice that hardly seemed human.
Nayati whispered, "We name traitors as Zoroark did: two-minded, and Zoroark's curse forever follows them."
One by one, the Spirit Trappers disembarked. They could have been mistaken for normal men, if not for the staff their leader bore, topped with a blue crystal.
Nayati stood, pulling the boy to his feet. He set his hands on his shoulders the way a father might, in comfort. The boy was trembling —or was it only Nayati's hands that were trembling? The voice of the river rushed in his ears.
The leader of the Spirit Trappers pointed his staff at the boy.
"This one speaks with poke-mon?"
He spoke Nayati's tongue badly, tripping on the rolling consonants. The last word was foreign, but Nayati had heard it before. He knew what it meant.
Ever since the Spirit Trappers had learned of the Speakers' power, they had feared it.
"Yes," he said, just that.
The man struck his staff against the ground. Light flared suddenly, so bright that Nayati threw down his eyes. When he looked back, a stoutland towered over them. Nayati tasted the rank odor of its breath.
"You say, we see," the man said. "Back. You back. Just the boy."
The first step backward came from instinct, the second from cowardice. Only the third was a choice. It's too late now, Nayati told himself. You knew what you were doing, you knew .
Alone now, the boy clutched at his furs. Before the massive stoutland, he looked very small. He could have been Nehele, he could have been any man's son, but he was not. He belonged to the forest, and one life was not worth three, it was not worth a whole village, it was not —
The Spirit Trapper shouted a command in his own language, and the stoutland roared. It pawed the ground, once, twice, then charged forward. At the last moment, the boy darted to the side, forcing the stoutland to dig in its heels as its charge went wide. Now the boy's back was to the river. He stood there, his head held low and his eyes full of challenge. The Spirit Trappers loomed behind him, the stoutland in front.
Did he think they would spare him if he kept his silence?
"Speak!" Nayati pleaded. "Speak or you will die here!"
The boy shot him a contemptuous look, but as the stoutland lunged again he opened his mouth. He only Spoke a single word, but it was enough to freeze the stoutland in place. More words flowed from him, and where before the sound had struck Nayati like a lullaby, it now sounded like the punishing winds of a rising storm. The stoutland whined and settled back on its haunches.
The lead Spirit Trapper began to laugh.
"Good, very good." Ignoring the Speaker, he walked over to Nayati and clapped him companionably on the shoulder. "You—very good. Home, safe now. Children safe."
Nayati looked into the man's clear blue eyes and smiling mouth and wondered just how much time he had bought. Time enough for a boy to grow into a man, he thought. Time bartered for with blood.
The first Spirit Trapper murmured something to one of his comrades, who drew a long knife from his belt. A third man grabbed the boy by his shoulders, holding him in the same grip Nayati had employed moments before. The sight sent bile into Nayati's mouth.
You knew, he told himself furiously.
He stepped forward, all the same.
Their eyes bored into him. The Spirit Trappers didn't look hostile, only confused. The boy looked . . .
"You say bye-bye?" the leader asked. He spoke the last word with a child's inflection, sing-song and naive. A child must have taught him, some trader's son or daughter who hadn't yet learned to fear the men with the tall staffs.
"Bye-bye," Nayati echoed him. A step and then another brought him within an arm's length of the boy. Close enough to—what? His thoughts mocked him. Strike at them with your hunting knife? Lose a fight of one against seven?
"Tokala," he said. It was an apology, or it was a plea. I did what any father would do in my place. "Forgive me."
But the boy grinned at him, toothy and ferocious. Sunlight split the murky dawn like a spear, and Nayati's gaze dropped to the ground, where the boy's shadow was growing, sprouting claws and fangs.
"That's not my name," he said.
Before Nayati's frozen mind could comprehend it, the boy that was not a boy had moved. Red claws sank into the third man's stomach and came out glistening. The world descended into a haze of movement. The Spirit Trappers were all shouting, a desperate cacophony that cut off into gurgling silence as the dark figure flitted past.
And then it was over. The morning sun peeked curiously at the seven bodies arrayed beneath her. The lead Spirit Trapper still clutched at his staff. Grinning, the dark figure shattered its crystal tip. They barked something at the stoutland, who took off into the forest like a frightened lillipup.
Nayati didn't run. He watched as if witnessing a distant curiosity as the dark figure loped towards him, furs stained with fresh blood.
In a small and distant place in his heart, a bitter voice cried out, Where were you during the Battle of the Long Summer? Where were you when the first village was overrun? Where were you when my wife—
Nayati fell to his knees.
"Mercy," he said, lowering his eyes to the dirt.
"Mercy?" Zoroark spoke as if they had too many voices jumbled in their mouth, voices young and old, man and woman, gentle and terrible. "What mercy would you ask of me? The same mercy you would have shown the boy Tokala?" When they spoke again, Nayati knew the voice. "The same mercy the Spirit Trappers showed your wife?"
He looked up and she was there, smiling.
Everything went away: the loud river, the winter chill, the copper scent of blood. She wore a simple shift, dyed dark blue, and her braid coiled down her back. Nayati staggered forward.
Just as he reached out for her, the image changed.
Her mouth opened and blood ran out. Her lips clenched into a distorted grimace as her skin turned pale and waxy. Now she stood naked, half her chest gone. Insects nibbled at her gaping ribcage.
"My children," she rasped. "Mosi, Manaba, Nehele."
Nayati flung out his arms. "I did it for them," he cried frantically. "To save them!"
"Look," she commanded, and he did.
Seven Spirit Trappers surrounded a young boy. He struggled against their grip, but what could one do against seven? The Spirit Trapper laughed and drew his knife.
The boy fell to the ground, his hood dropping back. An involuntary cry tore from Nayati's lips.
"Nehele!" he screamed. His boy lay there, sightless and unmoving. When Nayati touched him, his cheeks were cold, cold like river water.
It hadn't happened like that. He hadn't—
"Do you see it yet?" the voice murmured. "They are all my children."
Nayati's vision went dark.
He knelt alone on the river bank, shivering violently. His son's body was gone, but the Spirit Trappers' corpses lay ringed around him. Mandibuzz circled above.
Nayati lay down his head and wept.
This is my mercy.