[This is a story I wrote for a one-week writing contest at the PokeCommunity forums. The prompt was "magic." Thanks for reading!]
The Magician of Ilex Forest
At the edge of a farm, there was a houndoom with a dead but warm chicken in his mouth. He was well within the light of the lamps, but he didn't care if any feeble, pitiful human spotted him. He was Houndoom. His horns were longest, his paws were biggest, his teeth were sharpest, and his fire was darkest. That meant the name belonged to him more than to anyone else. The other houndoom merely borrowed it.
There were footsteps. Houndoom looked over his shoulder and saw a scrawny human carrying a long stick with three metal fingers at the end. These creatures always thought a chicken was theirs before it was even dead. Houndoom decided he was more in the mood to punish this disrespectful behavior than to get home quickly. He dropped the chicken, showed his fangs to the human, and raised his pointed tail.
The farmer didn't move. Houndoom couldn't see his face with the lamps on the far side, but he could always smell fear. He charged forward, and the human's stance faltered. Houndoom leapt clear above the stick and too fast for it to stop him. By the time the human hit the ground, his neck was more open than closed.
Houndoom licked his chops, left the human to feed the grass, and went to get his chicken again. The humans were growing in their audacity. In the last thirty moons, one of their villages had even begun to grow at the edge of Celebi's forest. Intolerable. But now that Houndoom had brought nature a little closer to its proper order, he had no more business here tonight. He jogged off to the woods where his mate and pups were waiting.
Midnight was little different than daytime beneath the thick trees, but Houndoom knew the way by his feet alone. He stayed clear of the forbidden paths and eventually made his way to the foot of the mountains. The entrance to his cave was where the trees first grew sparse enough to allow moonlight.
His mate came out as he approached. He dropped the chicken at her feet and held his head high, as if challenging her to find something to criticize tonight. She put her long nose up to his and sniffed thoroughly. Then she growled.
That's not all chicken. You killed human.
He growled back. It's not my fault the chickens stay close to the humans. Sometimes a human gets in the way, and that is why I get the chickens and not you. My horns are longest, my teeth are sharpest.
His mate growled louder still. You are a fool. I told you about the new human in the forest. Everyone says no monster can touch him. I don't care how long your horns are.
Houndoom considered putting her in her place, but the pitter-patter of houndour paws came from the mouth of the cave. His mate never undermined his authority while the pups were close by, and in return he tried not to undermine hers. Soon enough there were two of them sniffing at the chicken, and two more were pestering their mother on their hind legs. She knocked them over again gently but firmly: they were getting too old for play. The skull-ridges on their foreheads had grown hard, and their black fur could withstand all but the hottest flames.
They were the future, and that meant the future would not be any lesser houndoom but rather Houndoom himself, so he was pleased.
The sound of flapping wings came from above, and the head of each houndour and houndoom went up. There were unwelcome visitors in the trees. It was Murkrow, and five of him at that. It was always bad to see any number of them, and worse to listen.
Houndoom's mate barked twice at the pups and rounded them up. Back inside. Now.
"Kaah! Kaah!" The murkrow laughed at them. If Houndoom didn't respect Celebi so much, he would have torched the branches where they sat. One of his houndour yipped at the trespassers. He was the male pup with the biggest paws, and therefore the likeliest to be the true Houndoom someday. Houndoom took no exception to his behavior, but his mother did and took him in her jaws by the scruff of the neck. As she retreated into the cave, the murkrow began to chatter.
We saw the scene at the farm. You're in for it now!
Ha! The humans won't sit for this anymore! They'll send the Magic Man after you!
When he gets all the stupid walking-monsters, no one will be left to kill our chicks while they're still learning to fly!
And no one will eat too much of the dead and leave so little for us! "Kaah! Kaah! Magic Man!"
The murkrow were using their hideous human-voices again. Houndoom felt he ought to slaughter them for that alone. He showed his fangs. No human stands against me. I am Houndoom.
"Kaah! Kaah!" This one does! He is smart like us and you are stupid! He has tools, he has magic, and you have nothing but your stupid self!
It was the most outrageous insult, especially coming from the likes of them. Houndoom was greater than they were in every way. What murkrow had ever killed a houndoom? He shot flames from his nostrils. Who's stupid?
You are. That was his mate. She came out of the cave again and pressed her luck even further without a shred of hesitation. If you can't stand that they're smarter, go hunt them down one by one and shut them up. I don't care about them, but do not go near this new human. If that means no more chickens, so be it. Hunt us murkrow instead.
The murkrow cackled and cackled. Houndoom is too slow, too stupid, and he's going to get what's coming to him! They flew off into the night, but called out one last taunt with human tongues:
"Kaah! Kaah! Magic Man is coming!"
Houndoom roared at the sky. Murkrow could burn, and so could his mate. No human challenged him.
The farm was quiet this night as well. Quieter in fact, as all the chickens were gone. Houndoom suspected that the humans may have eaten them already just to be safe, but it was possible that the chickens were simply hiding somewhere. It could also be the doing of this 'Magic Man.' All the better if it was. That meant Houndoom could find him and tear his head off. The pups might even like the taste if he could drag some of him back. He leapt the fence, stepped well into the light of the lamps, and sniffed for human.
He found some, and some chicken to go with it. He kept his nose to the ground and followed the scent. It brought him close to one of the human wood-piles that they lived and slept in. The chicken-smell on the ground was suddenly mixed with a similar one above him. That couldn't be right. Chickens couldn't fly. He looked up, and it was difficult to wrap his head around what he saw. The chicken was hanging in midair. Something had it by the neck, but what was it? Some human tool. Something long and tough that they used to hold things. Whatever it was, it ran over a tree branch and back to the ground. But what did it matter when it made things so easy? He could just tear down the chicken and be on his way.
Houndoom stopped himself. This was the Magic Man's doing. The murkrow had said he used tools, so they must have meant this. Even if no tool could ever hope to harm Houndoom, it would be shameful to let the Magic Man get the jump on him. He let the chicken be for now and took up the scent again.
The trail went around a corner. Before he turned it, Houndoom smelled something different and unfamiliar. It was smoky, bitter, and wrong. This was him. He might be no more than ten paces away. Houndoom darted past the corner ready to kill.
The Magic Man was there. He was covered in animal and monster hides, and around his neck there was a ring of teeth. His eyes were sharp above his hunter's smile. But what drew Houndoom's attention the most was the strange, colored stick in his hands. All of this he noticed in the split-second after the Magic Man came into view, and then the human broke the stick in half. It erupted in a flash that left Houndoom blind.
It was fairy-light. Houndoom hated fairy-light, and on instinct he reached for the fire deep inside to protect himself from it. He thrashed about, and it was enough to make him forget that he was still in a fight. The reminder came swiftly: something stabbed him in the shoulder. The steel went straight to the bone, and the pain nearly made him drop to the ground. But he was Houndoom, so this wasn't allowed to hurt. He pressed back against the force of the steel and reached for anything he could sink his fangs into. His teeth found hide, and after they pierced through that they found flesh.
The human's steel twisted in Houndoom's shoulder, and the sharp pain forced his mouth open again. Then the steel pulled itself out, and there came the sound of footsteps moving away from him. He opened his eyes again. Everything was dark and blurry, but he could see that the Magic Man had run away. This was how it always was with humans. None of their tricks, tools, or even magic could save them from their own cowardice. Houndoom had only to follow the blood and it would be an easy kill.
He started to run, but he stumbled. His shoulder was defying him. If biting it could make it obey he would have tried, but there was nothing to do but give his leg a moment and then try to ignore the lingering bite of the steel. This pain wasn't nearly enough to stop a monster. Soon he was ready. He took off, but kept himself well below a sprint.
Around two more corners he found the Magic Man again. The human was on his knees. He clutched his arm to slow the bleeding and appeared to be chewing something. Houndoom saw red and allowed fire to course through his gums. He almost wanted to let the man live so that this next bite would torture him forever. Almost. Houndoom charged at his prey with no regard for his own wound. The Magic Man's eyes stayed down the whole while.
Houndoom dove with his jaws open and his fangs hot. He seized thin air. He landed with a stumble where the Magic Man had knelt, but where now there was nothing. That was impossible. Houndoom knew it couldn't be a ghost because ghosts didn't bleed. He sprung to his feet, jerked his head around, and spotted him again. The Magic Man was standing upright fifteen whole paces away and paying no mind to his gaping wound. His eyes were bright but full of clouds.
"Yes. You'll do nicely."
It was infuriating, this atonal, unnatural noise the humans made. Houndoom dug deep into his stomach and brought back hell. He shot a massive column of fire from his mouth at the man's head. But it didn't reach. It stopped in midair and spread out as if he were attacking the curved wall of a cave. When he ran out of flame, the Magic Man was not even singed. Houndoom looked all around for what had gotten in the way. There was nothing.
But then something drew his eyes to the ground. He was surrounded by a trace of white. It was the shape of a full moon and as wide as four of himself. And there was another, smaller moon in the middle of this one, right below his feet. Two more white traces, flat as the horizon, joined them together. They smelled strongly of salt, sulfur, and blood. He stared without knowing what he stared at. Then the moons below began to glow as the Moon above.
Houndoom looked up and saw the Magic Man holding out his good arm. Whatever the human was doing, Houndoom had to kill him before he could do it. He ran forward again, and nearly broke his nose on thick air. That was the only way to describe it, for it was as hard as stone even though he could see right through it. He still understood nothing but that he had to leave these moons and kill this Magic Man. He got up and ran all around, testing everywhere with his horns. But he could not move past the outer moon.
None of this had scared him, not truly—not until the earth began to fall away. The ground inside the glowing moons stayed firm beneath his feet, but everything past that was in retreat. And it grew. Already the space between the outer moon and beyond was a canyon. Houndoom barked at it, and kept barking. Whether to scare it back together or to call for help, any help, he barked. But the canyon grew deeper, and now the grass looked more like distant trees.
A giant's foot stepped into the canyon. Houndoom looked up and saw the outline of the Magic Man's head eclipse half the sky. He stopped barking. He wanted to wake up.
The giant was holding two more moons, one in each of his hands. They moved in closer and began to surround Houndoom left and right. Now they looked less like moons and more like halves of a hollowed apricorn. Before Houndoom could even suspect what was coming, they flew straight at him. There was nowhere to run—they were as wide as the outer moon. Nothing hit him, but the two halves shut together with a noise like thunder and closed out everything else. It was pitch-dark. He was trapped.
Houndoom panicked. He yipped like a frightened pup and tried to break his way out. He battered the nut-wall with everything he had, but nothing gave way. All sense of balance in his head departed, and he hit the ground. His horns hurt.
Something was coming against his nose. It was soft, barely there, like snow. But it was not cold and it did not melt. It was more like a dry mist. He hated it, hated it, hated it and was afraid. He wanted to paw it away from his face, but he couldn't move more than a hair. Lifting his leg was like pushing a boulder. The dry cloud grew thick.
Lights came. Colors came. The close, tight sky was filled with countless red stars, and all around him there drifted formless wisps of violet, brown, and blacker blacks than black. His eyes rolled upward, and he saw the thin crescent of the Moon. With each of his heartbeats it filled out. It was a half-moon, now full, now the opposite half, now the opposite crescent, now new, now the first crescent again. A whole moon had passed before he could even get up. This was no dream. It was the true Moon, and it was outrunning him. It was leaving him in the dust. Something in the air was pulling it onward while he was stuck.
This could be no human trick. The Moon only sped up when Celebi was near. But surely Celebi would never touch a human tool nor help a human magic. That was impossible. So why did these moving colors feel so much like the trees by Celebi's grove when you were falling asleep? Even as everything swayed about him, Houndoom sent out a wakeful thought:
Come out! Come out, you little demon! I'll burn your grass skin and tear your spirit apart with my teeth if you don't stop this!
There was nothing. The Moon spun on and on, and the cloud grew thicker. Houndoom coughed.
Come out! Haven't I been your servant all my life? Haven't I killed any human I found in your woods? And never set flames to your trees even when it would make my hunt easier? So help me! Help me!
The stars pulsed and hurt him more. The Moon turned faster and faster. He could feel the soft dust in his lungs, in his veins, in his eyes, in the walls. Everything slipped out of focus. His jaw hung open. It felt like his horns were shrinking.
Please help. Please help. I'll do anything. I'm yours. I'll do anything. Please help.
The ground dissolved, and he fell toward a bottom that was no longer there. The stars were gone, as were the drifts of color, but the Moon remained. He heard hollow whispers all about, and he knew he wasn't alone. Celebi's shadow was in front of him. But its head hung limp and lifeless. It was wrong. Then the shadow was dispelled, and he saw all of the thing that was not Celebi. There were holes where its eyes should be, and its limbs were not part of its body. They were pieces of wood tied together with spinarak-silk. More strands of the silk held the whole thing up from high above and far away. When they moved, it moved. It stared at him with eyes that were missing.
It was a human tool, a human magic, yet it was doing what only the strongest, subtlest of monsters could do. It crushed the inside of his head and turned the moon. It was beyond him.
The small, weak houndoom despaired.
The houndoom landed in a heap on a pile of dirt. It was too bright out and he had to shut his eyes right away. His head rung as he struggled to get his feet underneath him again. Eventually he did so, but his back ached like it never had before. He whined.
He didn't know this voice.
"Aren't you lucky? You're the first one to stay in there a year and come out again alive."
The houndoom cracked his eyes open again. It was a human who was making those noises. He didn't know what they meant, but they didn't sound like anything bad. He opened his eyes wider, and saw that this human wore teeth around his neck. They looked scary.
The human continued to speak. "Let's do some introductions, then. I'm Kaato, and this is my forest. And you are… hmm. Let's go with 'Fang.' That'll have to do for now."
Kaah-toe? The houndoom couldn't explain it, but that sound meant this human. And 'Fang' meant him. So he must be Fang. Fang slowly brought his head up and waited for Kaato to say something else.
Kaato stood, turned, and snapped his fingers. "Come on." He began to walk away, and Fang followed although his legs were sore. The two of them left the inexplicable pile of dirt behind and went deeper into Kaato's forest.
"I can't tell you how pleased I am about what this means for my theory," said Kaato. "It's been difficult to prove the effects the magic circle has on time and space when the monsters keep dying in the process."
Fang was relieved that Kaato knew his way around these trees. None of them looked familiar to him. As they went on, he started to realize just how dark the woods actually was. Why had it seemed so bright earlier? He didn't care since his head hurt less now. Everything was still a little fuzzy, though. At length they came upon one of those human wood-piles, and Kaato walked inside. It seemed only natural to do likewise, and perhaps find a bare spot to lie down.
The place was filled with odd-smelling plants and strange human tools, but Fang ignored them. He went to a corner, walked in a circle to make sure it was flat, and collapsed.
"Here, let me see your eyes. Open. Open."
Fang opened his left eye, but the right one was too tired. He could see Kaato's face very close.
"I see… How strange. It's definitely a case of overdose, but the contents of one apricorn shouldn't have been enough to affect a monster of your size so drastically…"
There was no meaning of any kind that Fang could glean from this. Was Kaato making those noises solely for his own benefit? It was his right, of course.
Kaato snapped his fingers. "Of course! The powder must maintain its absolute size when it enters the magic sphere. That means I should have measured the potency for a small rat instead of a large monster. That must be what killed all the others."
The human stood up again and went elsewhere. "Try to sleep it off, Fang. We'll get started in the morning. Hmm… I hope it isn't permanent."
Even if it was all nonsense, Fang took away the idea of rest now, somehow. He was inclined to agree with the idea, and in any case his master probably knew best.
Fang knew what the word meant, but not what Kaato had in mind. There were any number of ways to attack a beedrill. How was he supposed to know which one Kaato wanted? So he kept to a defensive posture and hoped that his master would say something else.
The beedrill darted about and rubbed its large stingers together. Fang hated that noise it made and how it tore at the edge of his hearing. He wanted to go back to his spot in Kaato's home and forget about fighting this beedrill. But his opponent had other ideas. It moved in and stabbed at him, and he only barely managed to jump out of the way. He barked at it, but it did not seem impressed.
"Oh, for the love of… It's a bug! Burn it!"
He meant fire. That made sense. Fang didn't know why he hadn't thought of it himself. But even if he had, he wouldn't want to anger his master by using fire unasked. But now it was an order, so he dug into his stomach and brought up a few embers. The beedrill backed off to avoid the small masses of flame.
"I've seen you do more than that! Bigger! Now!"
Wasn't this enough, already? But the master must be right. Fang went deeper and pulled out a proper stream of fire. It engulfed the beedrill and made it squeal in pain. The sound hurt Fang's head. Then his opponent turned tail and flew away. They had won. Fang panted and hoped that for once this would satisfy his master.
Kaato walked over and looked down on him. "This is pathetic. It's been a whole week since you stopped showing symptoms. Where's that ferocity you had last year?" He pointed at his arm just above the elbow. "Remember?"
His master was angry. Why was he so angry? Wasn't Fang doing everything right? He lowered his head and let his tail drop to the ground.
Kaato fumed. He began to pace about, leaving Fang to worry about what mean-sounding noises he would make next. The man said nothing for a long time. He must have taken tens of tens of steps by the time he stopped and said, "I've changed my mind. You're free to go."
Fang didn't know what this meant. But it sounded bad.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Go! I've no use for a monster that's lost its teeth. I'll just have to adjust the dosage and try not to ruin the next one…"
Did he mean leave? By himself? Why?
Kaato began to point and shout. "Move! Now! Get!"
Fang obeyed. He had to obey. He ran away from there. He kept running until he could no longer hear his master's voice, and further still until he had no idea how he would ever find his way home again.
The forest was dark. The trees were strange. He heard noises from every direction, and was so, so afraid. There were monsters about. Would he know what to do if one of them came near? Maybe he could make himself look small, and anything he happened across would ignore him. He couldn't afford to get hurt now, not when he had no bare spot in a home to return to. He just wanted to leave the rest of the world alone, so why wouldn't it leave him alone?
Miles passed. The day passed. He came to a place where the trees thinned out and the full Moon was visible overhead. He did not howl at it, for he didn't know what it would do to him. Instead he turned his head away and thought about retreating to where the leaves were thick. But there were too many monsters in that direction. He decided that maybe if he stayed away from the thick forest but walked away from the Moon, he might escape both.
So he walked on. The terrain was rough, and his paws didn't like it. He so badly wanted to rest them at his spot in Kaato's home. But that would risk Kaato growing angry. Any number of terrible things could happen if he offended such a powerful human. What if it got him sent back to the small, dark place? It was too hideous to even remember what that meant, so he concentrated on walking and escaping from the Moon.
Something barked. Fang stopped dead in his tracks.
He just managed to look, and standing on top of a boulder was another houndoom, and a big one. Fang didn't know whether to flee now or wait it out. Surely one of his own kind wouldn't see him as any threat? But her eyes were locked with his.
He ran. He couldn't afford to learn what she wanted from him. Her horns were too long. As he passed tree after tree he could hear her chasing him. She was too fast. Then she barked at him again, and it made him jump. He lost his balance and direction, and went head-first into a tree. He fell and rolled to a stop with legs askew. It felt like his skull was going to break apart on the spot. But the pain was nothing next to the fear he felt when he looked up and the houndoom was on top of him.
Fang struggled, yipped, and tried to crawl away, but she pinned him down and just kept barking. It was awful.
Hold still! It's me, damn you!
Fang didn't know who it was. He didn't care who it was. All he wanted to do was stay alive. He showed his teeth even though trying to bite her would be suicide. But before he could blink, she thrust in her head and bit his ear. It hurt, and he stopped moving.
There, you're not a ghost, you're just under a spell! Fight it!
He didn't know anything about spells or fighting them. All he wanted to do was stay alive. His body curled into a ball on its own and began to shake.
The other houndoom's paws came off of him. She backed away several paces, but stopped there. Maybe if Fang stayed as he was, she would leave. That's what he tried, but he heard no footsteps. Time passed on and on, but she was still there watching him.
What god is taunting me? Why would it send back your outside but not your inside?
Go away. I don't understand. Go away.
As if this weren't enough, from above there came the flapping of wings. The other houndoom snarled, and on top of that Fang heard the unbearable laughter of Murkrow, and more than one of him.
"Kaah! Kaah!" Look at this! This is even better than a dead houndoom! Whatever will save your pups if their father is a harmless wreck?
The other houndoom roared. The pups are growing without him, and they'll make you pay for that! I'll have them burn you alive and eat you before you're dead and cooked!
All the murkrow laughed on. Should they ever get the chance, you mean? What will you do if they're as stupid as he was when the Magic Man comes for them?
She kept roaring, and it shook Fang like an earthquake. They know what happened, and they'll be ready! They will be the four strongest monsters in the forest by the time he finds them! They won't be fooled!
The roars and the laughs washed over Fang, and he stayed down. But at some point, the noises didn't feel as scary as they did so crushingly sad. He couldn't grasp it, but he knew there was no protecting those pups. No matter whom they belonged to, no pup deserved what was coming for each and every one of them. The thought tore him apart.
None of these strong monsters knew what they were talking about; some dark thing told him so. He thought of a moon on the ground, of endless falling, of a Celebi with no eyes, no soul. Whether these things were real or only part a nightmare he once had when he was small, he did not know. But there was no question that together they would crush every monster they found, especially the ones who thought themselves too mighty to be taken.
He whimpered. Then the nose of the other houndoom came close to his. She just barely touched him with it, sniffed, and sighed.
…I can take you home. If you can stomach it being my home and not yours, I can take you there.
He whimpered louder still, because he could not believe that this was anything but a trick to make it easier for her to eat him. Why drag his body when she could get him to walk? He would not be fooled. He would let nothing fool him again, neither monster's words nor human's magic.
She kept prodding him, though he never moved. All the while, the murkrow cheered their own downfall:
"Kaah! Kaah! Magic Man is coming!"