There was some sort of commotion out of doors, and little bits of gravel were falling from the ceiling, and a series of brighter to less bright incandescent whoofs were goosing the patterns of light and shade the cavemouth shed on the shipping wall.
Somebody’s milk-white lusus must be absolutely tearing up the countryside, said Pounce, in double-dipped tongue trills down the back of Nepeta’s mind. But once they got out there the trees were still and strange. The early-dawn light was limp and gloppy on everything; the creatures of the forest held their breath. The wind had fucked off. A morose, overweight silence buried the glen.
But the footprints! The out-of-control gigantic footprints! And more than a few things were on fire!
If there was ever a troll who had a keen nose for adventure, it was this one; and if there was ever a troll whose overbearing adventure-averse friend was sunk in a deep romantic gloom and not responding to texts, it was also this one. As adventures went, the pursuit of a mysterious flamethrowing giant seemed primo, just the tops, or at the very least available, and currently happening. It was an absurdly bright and delicate morning, and time for all good trolls to be sinking slowly in their cocoons, but the earliness of the hour merely added savor to the stalk. And Nepeta was so bad at sleeping!
Did you know that’s how it started, with her and him? The only ones still on in the early morning, the late morning, sometimes in the godforsaken noontide, the shitshow of early afternoon. She would message him just for someone to talk to, and he with the utmost sternness would tell her to go to bed, and she would say she didn’t like the way the slime felt on her fur, and it was the gravity with which he accepted this that suggested there was something more to him. He understood the itch of a body not quite there, on the verge of completeness –
But there was no time for memory. The game was afoot.
The footprints were as long as she was, pendactyl, crowned with deep grooves that hinted excitingly of talons. There were only two of them, denting the soft earth of a nearby hillock. From the vantage of the second-to-highest branch of a nearby trollbirch, it was clear that the prey was either winged or extremely good at jumping, and the scorch-patterns in the receding forest canopy suggested it had fled uphill, into the lighter wood.
She set off with Pounce at her heels, unhurried, checking here and there for signs of the beast’s passing, but mostly just digging on being outside. It was that kind of day. The forest was settling like a startled pigeon in the wake of its late trauma, and soon enough the air began to shrill with the horrified screaming of the morning birds. The low rhum of burrowing snootbeasts emerged to drive a basso counterpoint, and the bracken rattled with tube puppies going about their devious business. Purple rocket and nubchute snaked up the ancient trees, parping and whistling as they disgorged their oleaginous saps. Nepeta loved the living symphony of these normal-ass woods!
Never averse to mixing a little gathering with her hunting – how much easier to see the little stationary edibles in the cursed blast of the Alternian sun! – she stopped occasionally to pick enticing flora. Dusk squabs to decorate the lintel, dingleberries for Pounce to play with. Soon she had accumulated a fine collection of fiddle nodules, mint chunks, porpentines, aromatic lungwort, soft grunge and rocky mountain sass, all stuffed in the capacious inner pockets of her trenchcoat. She was just bending down to pluck a yellow danube – prized in certain quarters for its insane slickness – when a soft snore from the canopy above stopped her short.
“Why, Pounce”, she subvocalized – “I believe there is a legislacerator napping in that tree!”
“I am merely resting my eyes”, said the legislacerator. “Which is a funny joke, if you think about it.”
“The intrepid hunter is not amewsed – not by your funny joke, and not by your lies! You clearly climbed a tree that was too big for you and came down with a case of the vapurrs. Because you are a tiny, delicate flower.”
The legislacerator, razor-thin and resplendently clad in her official unitard of state, unfolded herself and dropped lightly to the forest floor. Delicate leaves bruised themselves on her passing elbows, recoiling in bubbling clouds of offended ichor.
“I happen to be in the middle of pursuing an extremely serious legal matter, which I am in a unique position to address, and I lost track of time.”
Nepeta pricked up her ears, or tried to, as hard as she could. If she believed in the realness of her ears hard enough, it was possible that someday the cloth they were sewn from would get the idea, out of osmosis, or simple fatigue.
“Purrhaps I can assist with this delicate matter. You know I am trained in handling important and official matters of state! I myself happen to be on a hunt for an elusive and powerful beast-“
The legislacerator scratched the back of her head, nonplussed. The screech of stiletto fingers on waxen hair echoed through the leaves.
“My usual partner has recused herself from this particular investigation, for matrilineal reasons. And because she is a coward, also. It would be highly irregular – I mean highly, really irregular, super irregular – to involve a noble member of the opposition like yourself in a case like this-“
“Oh. Should I just -”
“But in this case I’m sure we can make an exception. Also it’s warm out here and I’m tired.”
“Oh. In that case, should I just -“
But the keen tendrils of the eavesdropping forest never found out what should she just, as there came an uncorking sound of massive size and a whole passel of sky flooded into the conversation. Pounce’s hackles stood on end – all of them, and as hackles go, Pounce’s were not insubstantial, it is a lot of hackle we are discussing here – and as an alarming fraction of canopy layer was batted aside like so much irreplaceably biodiverse cotton fluff, a beast of completely ridiculous proportions loomed into view. The downdraft from each beat of its massive wings sent massive skirls of mulch flying everywhere, and when it roared it roared like the dickens. It was, all told, extremely impressive.
“Oh meow!”, said Nepeta, backflipping nonchalantly to avoid the swipe of, yes, a satisfyingly pointy talon – “is that an actual Dragonnyd? Is this normal? For Flarping, I mean? If I had known I would have been here like yesterday! In spite of what certain smelly, humorless horse-themed grumps might have to say about it. Wait, am I breaking character? Can I break character? Am I screwing it up?”
“No, no, no, I know, fuck that guy, yes, yes, and no. Can you get it to focus on you for a second while I murder someone? I mean bring someone to justice, whatever. It is way too early for this bullshit.”
The legislacerator’s keen nostrils were fixed on a blur of gray skin, violet gills and gold leaf clinging to the neck of the hovering beast, a beast which did look an awful lot like a dragon, except bigger, and fatter, and jowlier. It had the sweeping wings and the swanlike neck and the playful, sanguine grin, but it seemed a little blurry around the edges. It pulsated, vibrated, swam in and out of focus. And, as Nepeta sprang forward in as ostentatious a manner as she could and the cherry embers of its mad eyes locked on to her, it changed.
For a second, it was nothing that made sense in nature, a writhing mass of white against the shocking blue sky – and then it was Pounce. In most respects. It did not trill warmly in the back of her mind – the noise it made was lions in busted stereo, a misaligned catfuck blaring from blown speakers – but other than that, it was a perfect replica, built exactly to scale, if by “to scale” one meant “about 500 times as big as usual.”
It also shared one of Pounce’s most salient physical attributes, to wit, that Pounce, a cat, could not fly.
“God dammit”, said Terezi, re: the fast-approaching apocalypse of belly fluff.
The cat-thing landed on the forest canopy like a meringue on a gas grill. Birds exploded in all directions, some literally.
A darkness spoke.
Once there was a little cat named Nepeta. She lived with her mother, Nanny Two-Mouths, in a quiet cave in the leeward side of the Dusty Mountains, where the wind carries the smell of the sea from the Bay of Jewels. Nepeta was a happy cat, and liked to frolic and play and paint pictures on the walls, with paints she mixed herself in a little earthen pot, made from whatever was handy.
The darkness took the story in its hands and ate it.
Something sticky, something sharp. Wood in my paw? How? Lick it. Which paw? How many paws? How many tongues? Something sounds like sinking ships, but I have never seen the sea. Mainmast splinters, all tongues sing doom. Simple enough. Dredge the bottom, sieve the silt. Rich pickings from the still-warm survivors. Something caught in my clutch. Something through my leg?
How many legs have I? How many paws? Mute math is a cold bath. Can’t.
The present came back to somebody in a great rush, in a cacophony of groaning timber – no, a catcophany, a catcatphony, that’s right, she is this, this specific thing – and the present was an endless marshmallow whiteness, receding. Receding? Herselfness poured back into the gap.
As the great beast struggled to its feet and the suffocating cloud of almost-fur rose away, it took with it the last purple-black tendrils of. Something. An aftertaste in her mouth – saline. Her blood? No, brackish. The warm delicious emetic blood of the ocean. How many arms? No? Gone. Her name was Nepeta, it turned out.
The forest was a complete mess and there was still a giant cat lying on it. Struggling to regain its balance – wind knocked out, probably. A second of deepsea oiltaste, but then the hunt, the best thing she’d ever had to go on, kicked in. This was a moment – the little hole in time between getaway and kill. Her body knew to close the gap, no matter how out to lunch the rest of her, whose name was – unspeakable, glistening – um – Nepeta. Nepeta from catweed, and from tiger balm. Nepeta for Nepenthe, the cure of a wrong body, new birth in a better life. She was already moving, she noticed. The cat was too big to kill but the troll riding it was neck-deep in the panic that presages death. This was a cornered deer turning. Only one thing to do about that.
She was about halfway through doing it when someone threw a pebble at the back of her head.
“I know this is going to sound stupid given what I said about murdering her a second ago, but this latest strategic non-decision suggests that she isn’t driving it, and also I am inferring from your catatonia that it can do psychic attacks of some kind –“
“The wLWEFKJhf recognizes ‘catatonia’ as a funny joke at its catspense. Meow, purr, lick.”
“OK, that’s not a great sign, but what I’m suggesting is maybe you can put her down, and stop cutting her throat as much, so we can go and think about how we’re going to fight this thing in more detail. This is just a suggestion.”
“The fathomless sphere of unornamented brass concedes that this is probobcat a good plan, mrr fuff fuff, and mlaw.”
“I note that you are still cutting her throat, a little.”
When she dropped the troll it was as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders, which was because she had in fact been holding the girl above her head, the better to drain her quickly so the fear juice wouldn’t get all up in the meat. Things were beginning to make more sense, though. She wanted Pounce – suddenly, and desperately – and she wanted to be home. Not to go home, and miss this. Just to be there, where she belonged, and where she would always belong, because she felt a keen little question in the back of her mind about that, like a mosquito. Or like when the first infatuation in a friendship is over, suddenly, when a flaw you forgave before becomes the only thing you can see.
The legislacerator cleared her pipe-cleaner throat from under a nearby pile of branches, rattling like glass in a coffee grinder. “I’m sorry, I know you’re going through some hard times, probably, but I need you to stop standing there like an idiot,” she said.
Rendering the point moot, the beast heaved, sucked in a lungful of air, and threw Nepeta and her erstwhile captive ten, maybe fifteen feet in the air. It was hard to tell, in the moment, and she was distracted with other things. They landed with a fup in a pile of soft peat. She had to find Pounce. Where was Pounce?
She thought she could hear him – some busted echo of his rill in the thing’s yowling – and with that thought another part of what was or had meant Nepeta slid into place.
“We have to get it away from the furrest,” she said, mostly to no-one. “There are too many things to ruin here.” Then whatever was keeping her there left again, and I forgot – how many legs? Pounce would know. The sun – bright, bright, too bright. The mad scream of tearing trees. The seadweller corpse (or possibly pre-corpse) in the peat pile twitching in agreement.
Dodging a swipe of a sickeningly familiar paw - the thing was getting really worked up now its kid was staining the earth purple - she dove through the undergrowth. There was a fruit, named for the distinctive noise it made when you shook it. Pounce couldn’t resist the things, would chase them all along the cave wall when she brought them home, dried them. Got the real ring out of them. Even a fresh one would do, in a pinch. They grew real big out here, and everything seemed even bigger, right now, with the timber flying everywhere, with the frenzied double-howling knocking the wings off the butterflies. She couldn’t remember if that was a metaphor or not. If she found one big enough, Pounce would have to hear, no matter how far away she was. And sure enough, there it was, the biggest
A darkness spoke:
One day, Nepeta was out walking in the Curlicue Woods with Nanny Two-Mouths, gathering nuts and berries for to make splendid dyes out of. It was a cool, clear day, full of cool, clear feelings. She had just spotted a particularly vibrant clump of Tillyweed when all of a sudden
The darkness took the story in its hands and ate it.
I am she was running two, deep bad scratches down her back where the, acting as anchors, stung too much for bodily confusion, and thoughts of, hang on, wait, there is an anchor
Nepenthe was running toward her fuller self when and holding a giant dingle ball. Dingle dingle dingle, it went. This seemed clear. Was it actually – am I actually calling it a – is this relevant? Regardless, that was the biggest dingleberry anyone had ever seen, which seemed to mitigate against the more – the more tentacular aspects of her self-splotch, the beaky bits, the undersea nodes – the lucid dream where some thing that looked like her chose to ruin, cruelly, again and again – that did not seem to jibe with - how could the monster she was coexist with holding a giant fucking dingle ball?
Is there balm in Gilead? Can I make my friend into a horse? These seem like fixable problems. Ouch, bleeding does not seem to be symbolic in this instance though, those are pretty kind of deep. And there’s some thundering approach to the backside of. Gaining, from hot breath. Just keep running, whoever you are. The light’s changing.
Then again and then again and then again, and here’s the compelling question for the fleeting spark of whoever you are, snapping pell-mell through the undergrowth and getting your spatters all over the leaves – are you running towards your real self? And if you are, why? Because what you are, frankly, is fucking dingle ball. Squamous doom of a thousand shipwrecks is at least a coherent aesthetic. What are you? Pretending. Why is that a thing you care about?
Look at it this way – there’s a door, right there, behind you. You turn and walk through, you’ll never be you again, sure, but what you are will make sense. The nagging gap between wishing and being will collapse. Your body, no matter how toned you get it, no matter how backflippy your shit becomes, is still a hard limit on a soul it doesn’t match. Someone tore you an exit strategy – two of them, in fact. Just let yourself leave out the back. That’s where Pounce is – or if not where she is, where she’s going. Why are you running away from her?
Sounds pretty convincing to me. Nepenthe arrived at grass and turned. Dropped the dingleberry. No longer clownshoes. No longer tailless - earless - clawless. No longer between things. Spread those arms wide. Here comes mom, kiddo. She’s going to tell you what you are.
There is a galaxy of belonging on the inside of each of her beautiful mouths.
A darkness spoke:
Nepeta’s best friend was a smelly horse who does not appear in this story, because he is boring and can’t get his head around basic pretend games. Nepeta’s other best friend, though, was the best at pretending, and was also a mighty dragon, and also a lawyer, which are three very interesting things for a person to be. Nepeta looked up to her friend the dragon, because she was cool and a little bit scary, but also felt a little sorry for her, because she didn’t have a mother, and sometimes this made her mean and inconsiderate, in ways that she didn’t think Nepeta noticed, but Nepeta totally noticed. It made her sad, but it also made her strong.
The darkness took the story in its hands and was drubbed senseless by a blind maniac with a cane.
Nepeta awoke to find Terezi standing over her. It was not a bad angle to view Terezi from, although it was also kind of like looking at a sheet of paper edge-on, such that she had to move her head back and forth a little to make sure the girl was still there.
A little ways off in the middle of the field was something which was trying very hard to be a dragon and a two-mouthed cat at the same time. The effort appeared to be causing the creature no small amount of distress. The noises it was making were not pleasant, but it was not terrifying, as it had been, and not distinct, as it had been. The strange wobbles around its edges were back.
“I don’t know what my lusus looks like,” said Terezi. “I think that’s why it can’t get me.”
“She came back into focus as soon as the thing tried it on me again. She’s helping.”
In the distance, a small white shape, padding through the grass. Something on its back was staining it purple.
“Poor Vriska. I just thought she was scared of the huge spider. Admittedly, it was a very huge spider, when it was a spider. Big as her hive, easily.”
“Ouch. Yeah. I can imagine! Or I can’t, really. I can’t imagine.”
Nepeta stood up, bleeding, and looked down. She was still herself.
“You seem disappointed”, Terezi said.
Across the field, Pounce drew as close as was advisable to the writhing dragon/cat and came to a halt. A moment passed. The broken seadweller slid off her back and started walking.
“I’m not. Not really,” Nepeta said. “I know how things are. I’ve known since I was a grub. I knew what was going to come out of my cocoon, and I knew it wasn’t going to be what I wanted.”
The bloodied figure – so small, against the writhing bulk of its mother – stopped at the foot of her talon/paw. It looked down at its feet.
Terezi would not look. It’s a funny joke, but she stared a lot for a blind girl, and she was turned away now, eyes on the horizon, like she was waiting for something that wouldn’t come.
Nepeta asked her:
“Why didn’t you stop it? I know you could have. I know… I know the rest of us seem silly to you, not as important, and maybe we aren’t, but that was old wood. Good hunting ground. It’ll take centuries for it to come back.”
The troll in the distance shivered, and seemed for a moment about to collapse, and then didn’t. Instead, it raised its head, and looked its mother in the eye.