by Epidiah Ravachol
There, in the rain, Sister Buzzard sulked. She watched the strangers dry in her hollow, taunted by the scent of the rabbit they cooked. She knew this would not be meat enough for the four of them, even before they sucked the bones. And yet she waited. She waited because waiting was her talent, one she was born with and one she honed for decades. The rabbits fed themselves by foraging. The strangers fed themselves by hunting. And Sister Buzzard fed herself by waiting.
She knew there were no true divisions among diner, guest, and course. If these four strangers could see her waiting in the dark, they would send swift and angry stones to invite her to the meal, and this was not the fate she would choose this night. So she brooded in private, knowing that it would earn her no bone.
She could have wallowed there in the storm until the dawn cut across the wasted plain. But their laughter grew tedious as the hour grew late. So she stretched her massive wings to the span of human corpse and loped towards the strangers, flashing her throat and belly to the fire just before taking flight, as if to say, “Behold, the meal I deny you even as you deny me yours.”
The storm had driven most of the plain’s denizens into their holes, where they huddled in prayer, imploring their gods not to drown them. Those that remained aboveground cast long and fleeting shadows in the occasional lightning. Shadows that Sister Buzzard could easily see as she rolled along with the thunder. There was yet another stranger far out on the plain, making its way towards the fire set by the others in her hollow.
This could be a meal worth waiting for.
Humans, who tended not to enjoy each other as meat, would on occasion make a gift of one another to Sister Buzzard and her kind. But this was not always the case. And her dignity would not allow another insult like the scent of the rabbit meat. If this was to be the meal she awaited, she would need a more reliable accomplice. So she set out to find Old Lost Cat before this stranger could reach the safety of the others.
Old Lost Cat had no love for the rain. It blinded her nose, dampened her bones and left her with little patience. Sister Buzzard found her soaked beneath a lone, sickly tree that bent in the wind. When the bird alit upon its stoutest branch, Old Lost Cat growled and hissed at her before prowling away.
Sister Buzzard leapt to the ground to follow, and the lioness pounced. With a powerful beat of her massive wings, the bird danced back. A great flurry and caterwaul rose up. Within the breadth of a lightning strike, it seemed as if these two old beasts would set to each other’s throats. Many who nestled now in their tunnels would have rejoiced at the scene.
But the two had long been dinner companions, and while this was no guarantee of Sister Buzzard’s body, it did mean she knew well the cat’s moods. Old Lost Cat was tired and annoyed. The bloodlust was not upon her.
“Dear friend,” Sister Buzzard shouted above the thunder, keeping a wary distance from the circling cat, “how long have we known each other?”
“Since you wandered, wounded, and dazed from the western mountains, and we shared the bear cub you dragged with you.”
“Ever the thief,” Old Lost Cat growled.
“And in all the seasons that have passed, how many times have I led you to a warm and nourishing meal?”
“None. I have always found my own meals. And you have always found mine.”
“Then let me make amends on this miserable night.”
The lioness ceased her circling and lounged in the rain, grooming herself. Encouraged, but still cautious, Sister Buzzard hopped toward her, teasing forth the cat’s attention with her proximity.
“There is a lone human wandering the plains just south of here. A larger meal than most, but one, surely, that has little defense from your mighty fang and claw.”
“I have seen her,” Old Lost Cat said, without interrupting her grooming.
Sister Buzzard cocked her head, peering at Old Lost Cat.
The storm rattled the plain as the bird waited for the cat to prowl and the cat for the bird to hop closer still. This was a long game that both had mastered many times over. But Sister Buzzard knew that while the stranger could navigate by the distant firelight, time was no friends of hers.
“Inscrutable cat! Where is your hunger? If you have seen this stranger, why have you not slain her?”
Satisfied in her victory, Old Lost Cat luxuriously stretched out, as if the sun had sped its way into the night sky and seared the clouds away to provide her with a patch of warm, dry ground to nap upon. “I have seen her and I have caught her strange and sorcerous scent. There are two that reside within that flesh, and neither of them are prey. She is no meal for us.”
“You are no hunter!”
“I am an old hunter. And we do not grow old by ignoring our wits. We must await another meal, dear friend, and I would have us wait together.”
With two mighty beats of her wings, Sister Buzzard threw herself well clear of Old Lost Cat. She held no illusions about their relationship. “We do not grow old by ignoring our wits,” she agreed. “I will, in my way, find us another meal. Though I fear none as bountiful as this.”
“Patience, Sister Buzzard. There is another hunter on the plain tonight and he stalks your human. I caught wind of him to the south of here before the storm came. Wait here with me. We will let them sort out what meal to leave us tonight.”
“Clever cat,” Sister Buzzard cooed as she hopped further yet, “I shall find your hunter and speak to him myself. In case he is in need of a guide.” She then took flight again, not looking back to see if Old Lost Cat had pounced or not.
The storm lulled. Distant thunder heralded more strong weather to come and a soft rain persisted, but bold stars peered through intermittent breaks in the clouds. The slick plain below shimmered with rippling moonlit pools. Instead of washing the scents from the air, each raindrop kicked up a cacophony of damp odors. It was no time to be a hungry bird.
Sister Buzzard did not find the stalker as easily as she had the woman he stalked. He was tall for a human, but not nearly as tall as the woman. They had the same dark skin, but the woman stood out against the lightning walking with a proud gait. He was splayed out on the wet plain with only a single wide ribbon of purple cloth draped down his back¬¬ — a well-thewed morsel to comfort her on this miserable night.
She circled only momentarily before descending. The storm robbed her of her grace and her hunger robbed her of her caution. In the space of the final heartbeat before her claws dug into the mud, she knew regret. She saw, in a puddle that had collected about his face, the reflection of a single star rippling, not from rain but from the air escaping his nostril.
Too late she began beating her wings to throw herself clear of his reach. He snapped out and seized her by her shoulder. His arms coiled about her body, drew her to his chest, and held her there.
She feared for her life and she feared for her wings. They were one and the same. She let her wings go limp and struck with her beak and talons instead. She would have torn his abdomen open and spilled his hot porridge into the mud to lap up at her leisure after he had bled out, but he was as a serpent, twisting about her with his arms and legs. As they tossed in the mud, he took possession of the leverage and swiftly took possession of her.
But he did not hurt her.
He whispered uncanny syllables that forced their way into her skull. As his embrace held her and struggled to control her movements, his words contended with her panic. In his arms, she learned his strange tongue.
“I seek not to harm you, Sister Buzzard. I have only questions for you.”
She would not answer. He had her pinned to the ground and her eyes wildly drunk in this new and terrifying perspective. She thought of the scurriers and slitherers who saw only this immediate horizon their entire lives until the very moment she plucked them from their tiny world and drew them into the broad, beautiful sky. She began to miss the sky, certain that she would never return.
Knowing that she could not let melancholy edge out her fear, she began thrashing in the mud. He did not tighten his grip, but twisted about to swaddle her in her own wings.
“Do not toy with me,” she squawked, “like Old Lost Cat with her meals!”
“You are no meal to me, Sister Buzzard,” he said, with an unmalicious laugh. “I do not kill for my food.”
After a pause, he added, “Or eat what has been killed.”
“And yet you have the cunning and prowess of one who does. I do not believe I shall trust you, stranger.”
They had rolled over so that Sister Buzzard was atop her assailant, staring into the rain while he lay in the muck. A moonbow faintly arced through the sky above them.
“I am Muaphet. I will not harm you, whether you trust me or not. But I have need of trusting you. So know that I am also Raum and to be Raum is to be death’s own shadow. Wherever I am, you can be certain of a meal.”
“You do not ease my doubts.”
“I have lost my way, Sister Buzzard. I will release you and you will be free to soar and hunt the plain. But if you do not help me find my way, I cannot lead you to a meal.”
His limbs slipped loose and Sister Buzzard threw herself into the sky.
The storm swelled again. An unrestrained wind cut across the flat land. For the sixth time, Sister Buzzard had circled back to watch Muaphet press against the sheets of rain. What little progress he made was in the wrong direction. This would not feed her.
She landed a wary distance from Muaphet and shouted through the downpour. “Why do you seek the woman who is really two?”
Water sprayed from Muaphet’s lips as he laughed, “You know much. More than I expected.”
Flattery had long been her tool against Old Lost Cat, and Sister Buzzard was too suspicious of it to accept it herself. “I know only that you hunt her and that two beings reside within her flesh. All else confounds me.”
“They are Tynru, a devil-swallower, and Vi Lohn, the devil that resides within.”
“I have swallowed many things, but I am still and only Sister Buzzard.”
Muaphet laughed again. There was richness in the laugh that Sister Buzzard savored. It was not the laugh of the jackals whom she had occasion to dine with or the laughter of the four strangers that even now sat warm and dry in her hollow. His laugh was far more gratifying to her ears.
“I know many priests and sages who would disagree with you. But I also know many who would disagree with them.” Muaphet paused in his wanderings to contemplate this as rain ran down his naked pate. “And I may disagree with them all. But a devil-swallower does not swallow a devil as you would a mouse. It is an ordeal of many days and takes months more of preparation.”
Sister Buzzard, who had wandered closer to Muaphet to better hear him, hopped back. “There are none who can wait for a meal as I do!”
“Truly! I meant no offense. But a devil is no meal. It is a burden, like a throne or an oath. Only the very foolish undertake such endeavors impulsively.”
Sister Buzzard took flight once more, calling back, “Your riddles bore me! We will meet again at some future meal!”
It had been a threat, but Muaphet only laughed again. It was still not unpleasant to her, despite her irritation.
Coruscations of lightning stretched out across the sky, turning Sister Buzzard away. She landed further along Muaphet’s path and preened her feathers, awaiting his arrival.
“Ho, Sister Buzzard. Are we to eat now?”
Ignoring his mockery, she asked, “If a devil is not food, why swallow one?”
“This devil is very old and slumbered for many years on a very distant plain. There it would remain, content, were it not for a lord of the humans who, out of idleness, called it to his court and made to keep it as a pet.”
The word “pet” stung Sister Buzzard’s mind. She did not quite understand all that Muaphet was saying, but she had over her many years seen a few creatures domesticated by human hands. Not so long ago, she was confounded by an alien peregrine that stole her kills and brought them to her human mistress. The encounter left Sister Buzzard wounded and wise with fear.
“But as you know, the oldest things are often the cleverest. This devil, pet as it was, found ways to make mischief. Mischief that terrified this lord of humans.
“A devil-swallower was called to court, to swallow the devil and carry it into exile.”
Slowly, without menace, Muaphet had advanced on Sister Buzzard. It was a trick that Old Lost Cat knew, but one that had never worked on the bird before. She found herself peering up at the towering Muaphet and hopping along with him as he continued to trudge in the mud. “I know where this devil-swallower is and I will tell you, if you tell me why you seek her.”
“That is a fair deal. Tell me, Sister Buzzard, what do you know of grudges?”
“If they cannot be eaten, I do not care to know of them.”
“I would wager you have eaten a grudge in your many years. Or at least, a grudge has served you a meal. They are human fevers that make them slay for reasons other than food or defense. Vast and bountiful fields of human corpses have been reaped by grudges and left ripe for your kin.”
Sister Buzzard cawed gleefully. “Why all this talk of devils-who-are-not-meals and pets when you could have spoken of these grudges?”
Muaphet crouched to look Sister Buzzard in her eye, rivers of rain pouring around the dark apples of his cheeks. “Tynru swallowed Vi Lohn and fled the city of the human lord, but the night of their flight, at a banquet that would have made you senseless with jealousy, the human lord’s chimerical brother-in-law was slain, opened by a steely dagger held in the devil-swallower’s hand. Now they are hunted by grudge-seekers.”
Giddy, Sister Buzzard danced about, shaking the rain from her great wings. “Then you have the grudge-fever, Muaphet! You will serve dinner for this old bird! I know where your prey is headed! I know where to find her!”
“You mistake me, sweet Sister Buzzard,” Muaphet laughed, rising from his crouch. “Grudge-seekers do hunt them, but I am not among them. For it could have been either devil or devil-swallower that commanded the knife. I seek to discover which and protect the other from a fate they had not chosen.”
Sister Buzzard loped into the air. “Damn you, Muaphet! Find your own devil-swallower!” And she soared off in search of a grudge-seeker.
A plan startling and elegant began to float above the storm and hunger in Sister Buzzard’s thoughts. She scoured the plan for Old Lost Cat. Perhaps, with the right flattery, the proper appeal to a common interests, she could lead the lioness into Muaphet’s path. There, where writhing flesh met fang and claw, a meal was sure to be born. Regardless of the victor, Sister Buzzard would finally be sated. Some alien thought within her whispered promises of satisfaction beyond a full stomach.
But we she landed before her old friend, she caught Old Lost Cat licking her chops. “Traitor! You have hunted after all! And have you left any for poor Sister Buzzard?”
Old Lost Cat’s lips peeled back in a scarlet grin. “It was no more than a vole. It would have only whetted your appetite and further agitated your impatience.”
The insult drove the plan from Sister Buzzard’s brain as she abandoned flattery and appeals to screech curses upon the cat.
“But dear friend,” Old Lost Cat mocked, “I have found what you seek. Yet another human crawls along the plain tonight. He is riddled with pustules and burns with a fever. He will not last long in this storm and would make a fine meal for a stomach as stout as yours.”
Sister Buzzard laughed at last. “My gratitude, friend,” she shouted as she took to the violent sky. Old Lost Cat would have no part of a diseased corpse. Neither should Sister Buzzard at her age, but she knew now the secret of the grudge-fever. A meal would yet present itself to her if she just waited long enough. And Sister Buzzard knew how to wait.