The sunlight erupted from the day-star Yinna, striking down from behind a passing cloud, and the fox-man pulled his dark hood further down his muzzle. Maxan had been leaning against this wall for nearly an hour, watching the activity in the square, waiting for his mark to show himself among the crowds that gathered. He scanned the endless lines of potentially afflicted Leorans shuffling their feet toward their daily food ration. He reached in his pocket for the apple he had brought with him from the storeroom before setting out from the guardhouse barracks earlier this morning. He savored the first bite, crisp and juicy.
Foxes were not the tallest of the Leoran species, so Maxan jumped just a little to his right, his hindpaws planting themselves on a stack of empty crates. This was a better vantage point. Foxes were not renowned for their superior vision either, unlike a Corvidian eagle, so gaining this better angle would have to do. His mismatched eyes - one forest green, the other brilliant gold - took in the myriad species gathered in the immense space before him.
This was the busiest part of the Western district of the cross-shaped capital of Leora, the city of Crosswall. This part here, by the central wall, was where the condemned animal-men and animal-women would gather every morning to receive their daily rations, some alone, some with their entire family in tow.
The entire district had become a quarantine zone, as the plague called the Stray seemed to claim more and more citizens of Crosswall over the past year. The seemingly endless lines of Stray (or at least citizens who had been accused of going Astray) terminated at the line of equally endless tables, across which the green-robed initiates of The Mind handed over baskets or sacks filled with ripened fruits, dried cattle meats and berries, nuts, and boiled greens. Since the quarantine began nearly a year ago, this secretive faction - some say cult, Max - had taken charge of the afflicted’s quality of life, ensuring as much as they could that these citizens were fed, cared for, and given a source of activity and entertainment. Rumors abounded that The Mind had found a cure for the Stray, some mental trick or alchemical mixture that soothed the inner beast that raged in a Herbridian’s heart.
Or it’s all just a game, Maxan thought, to win the cult ever more influence over our hearts and minds, ever more quickly than they already have.
It was likely that the very people who received these rations, the poor wretches whose lives were destroyed by showing symptoms of the Stray might have tended to the orchards, farms, and livestock pens just outside the city before being condemned inside this district-sized cage. Whether a lowly dog, skunk, weasel, raccoon, rat, or a high-born deer, panther, or gorilla, this district was packed equally with a diverse variety of species from arguably the most diverse kingdom in all of Herbridia. And they were all equally hungry.
Maxan glanced down at the apple, held in his right paw, which was covered from the top of his shoulder all the way down his arm to the very tip of his claw in a black leather glove. He tossed it across to his left paw, which was covered only by his amber fox fur, and back again, juggling the single fruit, thinking about the injustice on full display before him. He had lost his appetite.
“Still no sign of them,” he muttered, loud enough so only an audience of one, the one within his hood, could hear.
Talking to yourself again? Maxan shook his head. Of course, if they’re starving, why not distract themselves with a card game or a show? He couldn’t stop his sarcastic self from invading his thoughts, drawing his eyes hundreds of yards over and beyond the crowd to the stage The Mind initiates had set up for entertainment. He shook his head a little more.
From this spot against the hardstone wall, which had been built to sever the Western district’s access to the center of the cross, Maxan had been waiting all morning to spot a band of hyenas who an informant had seen entering the city. It was unlikely they would pass on the chance to earn a free meal or two, delivered right to their paws courtesy of The Mind’s initiates. Without better information to go on, this assumption was the best place Maxan had to start.
He already knew how they had entered the city. The Crosswall guard did what it could to seal the gaps in the city’s high walls, but in a place this enormous, filled with hundreds of thousands of Herbridian animal-people encompassing a hundred or more different species of mammal, reptile, bird, and fish, it was impossible to keep all the unwanted elements away. Maxan himself knew of several specific locations in the quarantine zone along the northern wall of this district where he had personally observed smugglers bringing through sackfuls of supplies from outside to feed the hungry Stray. Perhaps pieces of an arsenal as well to feed the growing rebellion in the tribal lands far north of the city. He had done his duty, observing from the shadows and reporting all he had seen, but the overworked city guard was often too late to arrive at the hidden entryways and seal the gaps before the hungry rebels were through with the operation. Food or weapons, it was only a matter of time before they found a new chink in the city’s armor and brought in more.
Most of the time, Maxan was ambivalent toward smugglers. The folk they were supplying were poor, hungry, desperate, and many of them - though labeled as going Astray - did not deserve to be here. Whenever he could confirm from his vantage point atop the crumbling rooftops of this district in the dead of night that the sacks they smuggled were full of food, he was most certainly not in any rush to report the affair. He was glad to think those who starved would eat a better fill the following day.
Confirming weapons, on the other hand, called for immediate action, so Maxan would sprint back to his guardhouse station and tell his hulking rhinoceros captain Chewgar to rouse the soldiers and get moving, no matter the hour. Wherever there are weapons, Maxan thought, there will also be death. The bloody history of this world had already claimed the lives of enough Herbridians.
The particular band of hyenas that Maxan searched for now ranked among the deadliest things that could possibly sneak into Crosswall. Thankfully, meeting the guard informant yesterday had given Chewgar enough time to put the guard contingent on full alert. And thankfully, hyenas were not so common outside of their native tribal lands to the north. Thankfully they would be easy to spot, of course that was proving itself false just now.
“Sir?” A thin voice broke Maxan’s vigilance. It belonged to a young weasel boy, no more than half of the fox man’s height (without the added elevation of the crates he stood on). Maxan could see the boy’s ribs beneath the shoddy vest he wore, beneath his skin at the spots on his chest where patches of fur had shed. The weasel boy was starving, weak. He blinked large, black eyes at Maxan.
“Did you wait for your rations today?” Maxan asked.
“Yes. But they turned me away. Said I’d try to come through another line already. It wasn’t true.”
Oh, shut up.
Maxan was no stranger to a con, having employed probably over a thousand of his own design during the decade he spent in his former career, before joining the Crosswall Guard. Maybe he’s lying. But this is no con. This is hunger.
“Here,” he said, tossing the weasel boy his once-bitten apple.
The weasel snatched it from the air and set to gnawing its fruit hungrily.
“Where are your parents?”
“Just me and mom left. The Stray took my pop, and he ran off.”
The further west one ventured in this district, the further away from this square at the center where the guards gathered to watch over The Mind’s daily proceedings, the more dangerous and wild, the more certain one would meet with death at the claws and fangs of the Stray. The change was gradual. Early signs of the disease included an eagerness to snarl at even the slightest provocations. A preference to stoop when walking eventually led to crawling on all fours. Losing the capacity for speech to favor guttural growls marked the disease’s full grasp of an afflicted who had completely gone Astray. The boy’s father, apparently, had answered the call of his inner beast and joined in.
“Have you seen any hyenas?” Maxan thought it best not to dwell on the sadness he could see welling up in the emaciated weasel boy, nor the indignance in himself.
“Hyenas? What’s a hyena?”
“You’re from the Denlands?”
The boy nodded, ripping a large bite from the apple too big for his mouth, but forcing his long jaws down upon it all the same.
“Hyenas hail from the golden grassed plains in the north. They’re spotted, their fur sticks out like spikes on their backs. They hunch. Like this. See?”
“Oh! Do they smell bad?”
“Hm, I suppose.”
“They tramped by me and mom last night. On their way west somewhere. Their stink woke me up. And they were laughing.”
That’s them. They are here.
“They weren’t laughing,” said Maxan, “that’s just how hyena-men breathe.”
The boy took another bite, at this point on nothing but the apple core, and he clambered up a second stack of crates besides Maxan’s, although much less gracefully than the fox had. This kid would make a fine Shadow someday. Maxan smiled as he watched the boy scanning the crowd. He did the same.
Five more minutes. If they don’t show, ask the boy exactly where he saw them. Exactly where he and his mother sleep. Then ten minutes, another twenty to sweep the alleys and arteries, then --
“Look, sir! I hear them. Somewhere.”
The weasel’s high-pitched excitement broke Maxan away from his calculations. He pulled his hood back and pricked up his black-tipped ears.
“Do you hear that?”
“Shhh!” Maxan’s shush had sounded harsher than he had intended, but forgivable given that finding these hyenas was more serious than the boy could know. The courtyard was loud. The throngs of species and families were commiserating loudly to pass the interminable time in the ration line. Maxan’s ears twitched, changing their angles, scooping up waves of sound from different locations. He may not have the height of a zebra-man nor the eyes of a hawk, but a fox’s hearing was excellent.
There! Maxan snapped his eyes open and saw five hyena-men standing perhaps fifty yards away near the middle of the bustling square. They stood near a fountain, and Maxan caught the glint of sunlight on the curved daggers they flashed at passersby, who gave up part of their families’ ration basket as a toll just to move along unharmed.
“Bastards,” Maxan said.
Their leader, wrapped in dusty, tattered leather plates bound by twisted metal rings and thick sewing cord, sat on the fountain’s rim gnawing on a cured stick of meat with his grimy, crooked fangs. Yacub, the infamous border raider, captain of this jolly little chuckling company of murderers and thieves.
Maxan rarely wore his official guard’s uniform any more. Too many buckles, too much white, too much weight to effectively carry out his unique duty. But he always carried his badge, a strip of soft leather branded with an X to resemble the sprawling city’s shape. He briefly considered how simple it would be flash it at the guardsmen keeping watch near The Mind’s tables, to point a single claw-tip at the fountain, to apprehend Yacub and his crew, to put an end to their abusing of the already too abused folk in the Western district. But he could already hear the raised voice of Captain Chewgar, and worse, the derision and ridicule of the other guards - no, the “real” guards, Max - if he did not wait the hyena’s game out, follow him, and see the real business that brought him back to the city.
Yacub was well known. Infamous, more like. Raider groups such as his had sprung up in great numbers as the Extermination War drew to a close two decades ago and soldiers whose entire lives were based on armed conflict found it hard to put their weapons down, find mates, and live peaceful lives amongst other species. So they wandered. And they pillaged and cheated and stole from villages and settlements all across Leora, and they did no one any good but themselves.
Yacub had been caught before, twice, but both times he had evaded his long overdue punishments. Maxan did not know for certain, but he suspected that on the first, second, or both occasions, Leoran money had changed paws somehow, jail keys had fallen off their key rings, and jailors’ eyes had conveniently changed the direction of their watch.
“Not this time,” Maxan whispered. He hopped down from his crate, thanked the weasel boy once again - who seemed in finer spirits after the apple - and moved into the crowd, closing in on the hyena pack at the fountain, glimpsing them through the gaps between the bodies of those in line.
Yacub sucked down the rest of the meat and used the pointed stick to pick leftover gristle from his fangs. It did not work so well. He spat, stood up, stretched, chuckled loudly, and said, “Boys, I’m off. Be at the inn when I get back.”
“We should go with you, boss.”
“You want your shot or not? I go it alone, as Principal said.
“Besides,” Yacub went on, patting the naked blade of the scratched and serrated sword belted at his side, “I got a ripper.”
Maxan heard this, and heard the fit of wild chuckling overcome the hyena crew as their boss moved away, toward the western side of the square. He followed.
Maxan was a unique type of city guard. He was a Shadow. While other guards carried a variety of instruments that could bludgeon offenders and criminals into submission before Leoran law, Maxan’s weapons were his eyes and ears. And perhaps your legs. He observed, he listened, and yes he moved swiftly back to report on his findings. Shadowing required stealth and anonymity and speed, so the fox wore clothes of the common people, overlaid with a dark hood that concealed the amber fur of his face as well as his eyes. He felt the edges of his cloak swish about his legs as he kept pace with the hyena, who strutted casually several yards ahead through the busy walkways.
Maxan could have followed Yacub just as easily with his eyes closed. The hyena left a distinct odor that hung in the air, not to mention the ceaseless chuckle that rasped with every one of his breaths. Although much thinner, now that these two moved along the alleyways away from the square, there were still crowds here choking the streets. Some were offering their valuables in trade to anyone passing who might have extra food to spare. And there were some by themselves in doorways, itching at their furry necks and chests incessantly, perhaps trying to contain the feral urges that identified them as late-stage Stray. Maxan passed one of these skulking figures just now, a wolf-man or a dog-man, maybe, in filthy rags.
A pair of brawling boars crashed through a doorway ahead, nearly bowling over Yacub in the process, and tumbled onto the cobbled street. The combatants were massive pillars of corded muscle and bone-hard tusks, their hair stood up like mohawks. Maxan swore they could be brothers. He flinched as he watched them exchange punches and shoves, back and forth across the avenue, slamming each other hard against the walls and shattering window panes.
The majority of onlookers had disbursed, and Maxan stood among those who were enticed by the violence and cheering, hoping to blend with the crowd, though his eyes were still on Yacub. The hyena was the closest to the fray, his hand clutching the “ripper” at his side, and his every breath quickening to high-pitched peals of laughter.
Fights like these were a common occurrence, erupting all across this district - all over the city! - every single day and night, and the amount of coin or value in their argument they fought for seemed to grow more petty each time. These boars look old enough to be ex-soldiers. What else do they know but fighting? Nothing left to fight but what squabbles they make among their own.
Yacub did not engage in these fighters’ activity. The fact he had more pressing matters deeper in the district was both a relief and a worry for Maxan. The hyena moved along the side of the avenue and turned a corner down a side alley.
From this point on, Maxan knew he could not rely on crowds to conceal him. Time to do what you do best, Max.
“Guess so,” he muttered.
He stepped forward, past the cheering line of animal-men (and one female, he saw, but thankfully no cubs) and into the vicinity of the brawling boars. He pulled back his hood, craned his neck skyward, his eyes sweeping over every inch of the dilapidated structures for damaged spots or protruding bricks.
Sixteen seconds before Yacub’s gone. Ten seconds up, four over.
He saw the meaty boar fist swinging for his head from the left. His reflexes sent him ducking and tumbling forward in roll. The blow landed against a wall, taking a few bricks down with it. Maxan was up in a sprint, then leaping sideways, gaining twice his height in a split second and grasping an exposed brick in the stucco wall. Then Maxan hauled himself up, finding a grip beneath his hindpaws, and bursting straight up again into the air, counting Five, Six, Seven, He’s getting away!
Maxan’s bones and his clothes were as light as a Corvidian’s quills, and his taut muscles did not have to work too hard to scramble up the wall. He pulled himself over the edge of the slate-shingled roof. He had no time to care if anyone below had noticed. Doubtful, really, since they were so caught up in the fight.
“Go!” Maxan shouted, as if to his own legs, and go they did toward the point where he calculated Yacub was heading.
The rooftops of Crosswall suited a Shadow’s work perfectly. Most of the high-steepled tops of every building, designed to carry rainwater away in channels along their edges, were usually crowned with long wooden beams that were at least two feet wide, ample space for a full-sprinting fox. There were arches and beams that linked the ancient wooden and brick structures to those across the street, and for better or for worse, nearly all of these buildings in the western district had fallen into disrepair, allowing for holes, exposed masonry, and slanted railings everywhere. Everywhere I need them to be, Maxan thought, as he jumped and dashed along the wide top beam.
Anyone else who might try hind-legging their way along the rooftops of Crosswall would be in great danger of breaking their necks. For all other citizens of Crosswall - c’mon, why not the entire Leoran kingdom! - attempting to shadow a target from atop the rooftops was perilous, probably fatal, but as an agile Leoran fox, Maxan had no trouble gliding across them at a rapid pace. One might think he would envy the Corvidians’ gift of flight, but Maxan knew that an elongated wingspan soaring low across the ceiling of the city would draw too much attention, rendering the whole point of his mission moot. Maxan was good at being a shadow because he knew how to move quickly while staying hidden.
He came to the edge of a roof where he believed Yacub would arrive, factoring in the hyena’s pace and the time since he’d turned the corner. He grabbed the upward-jutting post of an unfinished balcony and scanned along the avenue below, and sure enough, the hyena continued his march toward, well, I have no idea.
Yacub was on the move again, and Maxan followed, above and behind, and always out of the hyena’s line of sight. Even though Yacub was an infamous criminal and well known to the city guards, he walked further west without the slightest deviation. Not once did he glance over his shoulder. Perhaps it was the vicious weapon belted to his hip along with the spirit to use it that gave the hyena his confidence.
“Or perhaps he’s just stupid,” Maxan said, crouching a foot from the gap, his angle of vision taking in the entire stretch of street below.
It had been like this for nearly thirty minutes now. Yacub meandering his way west, enhancing his chances of encountering a pack of feral Stray with every step. But the streets were thankfully deserted. So far so good, anyway. I’d say it’s luck, but you know well enough.
“The Stray come out at night. I do know well enough.” Of all the species of all the kingdoms in all the world of Herbridia, Maxan, perhaps, had observed the afflicted the longest and lived to report what he had seen. The packs of animal men that were no longer men but beasts. Their howling and wailing. He shook his head violently, defending against the horrific images that tried to slither into his mind.
While he had carried on the short conversation with himself, Yacub had turned another corner. Maxan wheeled back onto the slope of the roof, then dashed forward and sprang across the ten-foot gap, landing atop the crumbling building on the other side of the street, and within a few swift strides, he was once again over Yacub’s position.
Maxan scanned the city’s skyline to the west. He knew this area well. Too well. Too many bad memories here. No more than half a mile further west, near the outer wall of the Western block of the cross, was the granary where Maxan had spent over a decade of his youth.
“This better not be a homecoming.”
Why? What are you afraid of?
And seeing it all over again.
Maxan regarded the tight leather glove encasing his right arm and paw. He turned it over slowly, then balled his claw into a fist, extinguishing the memory before it could reignite in his mind.
The hyena rounded a corner in the other direction, away from the granary. No more open avenues where that way leads. Dead end. Wherever we are, we’re here.
It had taken the hyena and the shadow the entire morning and part of the afternoon to reach this place. Yinna had already risen to her apex, and now began her fall toward night.
No matter what Yacub’s purpose was in coming this deep into the district, it was clear to Maxan that the hyena would only do so if he was getting something out of it, and getting something out of it meant someone giving him something. And someone doing that means someone’s here.
Maxan slowed his sprint to a quickened creep, ducking from cover to cover, from chimney, to unfinished wall, to wide wooden plank, approaching what he knew would be Yacub’s final destination. The hyena had turned down the only entrance to what was once an open-air corral, which had been the home for burden-beasts used to tend the nearby fields years ago when the lords of the northern district still had the hearts to fund such public projects in parts of the city they had never cared to see.
Maxan peeked over the edge of the chimney where he hid. From beneath his hood, he made out two dark-clad figures pacing the walkway that ringed around the empty pen. One close, and one far across on the opposite roof. Their thick cloaks obscured the features of their species, but they were not large enough to be boars or gorillas.
Or rhinos, probability be praised!
They could be citizens, maybe Stray even, tending to some business, or they could be some of Yacub’s raiders guarding the hideout. They said something about an inn.
This is no inn.
I need to get closer.
He ducked behind the slanting rooftops to his right, moving from one to another only when he knew the figures had their backs turned. The going was difficult. These fellows do their jobs well. They paced back and forth, casting glances this way and that way, allowing Maxan to confirm that the elongated face extending from beneath the hood belonged to a brown, short-furred dog-man.
As he drew closer, slowly, only moving when out of sight, he saw this dog sentry’s tattered cloak was bulging at a point about his waist. A little too stiff for a tail. About right for a crossbow. Maxan would much prefer this watchmen concealed that type of weapon than a sword or hatchet or flail. He was no stranger to a melee, having been in - and often running away from - several close-quarters scrapes years ago when his occupation fell on the other side of the law. Since joining the Crosswall guard he had honed his skills a bit, but he was far from a master swordsman. He severely disliked armed combat, and he often wished carrying the short sword at his side was not the necessary evil it unfortunately was.
Do all I can to make it not come to blows. He unfastened the clasp that held his sword in place, useful when leaping, tumbling, and running, but quite dangerous when caught in a tussle. Dog men came in all shapes, sizes, species, and demeanors, but nearly all of them were known to be well-rounded fighters, and judging from this one’s stance, Maxan believed he was approaching an ex-soldier whose combat training was probably both more formal and more extensive than his own.
Are these rebels?
No. Dog-men aren’t typical species native to the Tribals.
Who is Yacub meeting then, and what for?
“Let’s find out, shall we?” Maxan whispered.
He picked up a small, flat stone from a pile of split shingles and tested its weight in his paw. Three seconds. No. Five.
The clatter a moment later drew the sentry’s attention away from the fox who sprung into sudden, unseen action, vaulting high across the gap that separated them and planting a powerful hind-legged kick firmly into the back of the dog-man’s turned head. He crumpled and slumped loudly on the planks of the walkway, losing his grip on the crossbow. Maxan unfastened the cord of the dog’s cloak and spun it up and around his own shoulders just as the second figure across the pen turned.
Only five seconds had passed.
Maxan nodded, lifted his gloved right paw, and waved.
“Hello there,” he muttered under his breath. “Nothing suspicious here. Okay to turn around again. That’s right. That’s good. What’s to the east? Go and see.”
Either it was hard to make out the finer details from the distance across the pen, or the other sentry’s eyesight was lacking. Also, a beam that ran around the edge of the walkway was just tall enough to conceal the unconscious mass. Maxan exhaled with relief all the same and turned the dog-man’s body over with the edge of his hind-paw, fore-paw on his short sword’s handle just in case.
He had been wrong about the sentry’s species, perhaps, but was still right in assuming these were not part of the tribal rebellion that Yacub was meeting here today.
Something stuck out from the chest-pocket of this wolf’s leather armor. Maxan could not help but admire the craftsmanship of this protective gear as he stooped down to free the object. He came up clutching a strip of bovine-leather branded with The Mind’s sigil: an open paw, with four small triangles forming a single large triangle.
What in all Chance does a raider want with The Mind?
He cast his eyes upward, as if looking for the answer written on the sky. And he actually found something there.
The Aigaion. The colossal, triangular behemoth that floated aimlessly a mile or more above all of Hebridia was just now drifting into view. The Aigaion was simply a part of this world, coming and going at random for hundreds of years or more (who could say?). It was the very shape The Mind had taken as its sigil. Maxan knew the cult thought of itself as an institution of learning and goodwill, and it believed The Aigaion ever represented the ultimate knowledge just out of reach, as though there were some mysteries no animal-kind was ever meant to grasp.
The Aigaion’s size was literally overwhelming. So massive it was that no matter where one stood on this planet, if he kept his eyes skyward all day he would glimpse the city-sized object overhead at least once. Whether one saw a black mass that slowly crawled across the horizon’s rim, or an overhead shadow that completely snuffed out the light of the day-star for an hour or more, it all depended on chance. Just now it seemed to Maxan that the latter case would be upon him and these sentries and Yacub and the entire population of Crosswall within ten minutes, bringing an early twilight to the city, shrouding its every cobblestone in darkness.
He placed the leather strip with the triangular brand inside the pocket of his own cloak for now, opposite the pocket that held his guard badge. He cut the cord of the wolf’s crossbow, and raised his head to view the second sentry on the other side of the pen, still pacing on the circular walkway.
Twenty feet below, Yacub had finally worked his way through the inner pens and and stalls, his clawed hind-paws leaving dinstinct footprints in the dirt floor as he made his way to the center of the circle.
A figure emerged from a doorway of one of the abandoned buildings opposite where Yacub had entered, materializing from its shadows. This person’s robe was jet-black, pressed, and spotless, with golden thread woven in intricate patterns along every hem. The gold stitched the quad-triangle sigil of The Mind on its hood, which the newcomer now threw back. As he stepped into the light, Maxan saw it was another wolf-man, this one pure snow white, with speckles of gray like meteoric ash raining within a blizzard. Most wolves wore their manes shaggy and wild, but this one’s had been slicked downward, disappearing down the back of his head and shoulders. This one had clearly taken pride in his grooming, but nothing could distract an onlooker from the hideous pink scar that began at the the wolf’s mouth and ended at his left ear, exposing his fangs, freezing his face in a never-ending, grotesque snarl.
“Did you bring it?” His voice was airy and dry. When he spoke, the words came with a rush of air escaping from the open scar.
The hyena’s arched back began heaving upward and downward, letting a faint chuckle escape his lips between words. The matted, spiky hairs along his spine quivered, perhaps with fear, maybe excitement. “Plan’s changed, Principal Feyn, sir. Something happened.”
The white wolf, Feyn - no, Principal Feyn - said nothing, and by his silence, the tough demeanor Yacub tried to put forth was broken in seconds.
“Something happened, I says,” Yacub pleaded. “I told my boys not to handle it. Just leave it be, like you sent word of. But curiosity killed the rat, they says, and some red light washes over us, and Ulbur lost his eye before any of us knows what’s happening, and thanks be I jumped in and grabbed it dashed it against the wall.”
“I mean I dropped it, Principal. And it’s fine. No scratches. Ulbur’s not so fine. Swears he’ll gut whoever stole his eye. Wasn’t me… I think. I can’t remember.”
“Nice story. But you have not answered me.” Feyn’s already low voice fell lower, becoming a rumbling growl. “Do so. Now.”
“It’s not here. I failed you, I know. Just we were sc… I mean, fright… I mean I’m not scared of no one, you know. But I… We lost ourselves in that light, Feyn. And we thought it best to leave it where it lie. On the floor. We voted.”
Feyn kept his withering gaze, made all the more potent by his permanent snarl, leveled at the hyena, and within a few breaths the hyena withered sure enough. Tears welled in Yacub’s eyes and ran down his speckled fur. The spiky hair on his back shivered with every guilty, sorrowful spasm. The sudden, hysterical sobbing mingled with the natural, chuckling gasps for breath was unlike any sound Maxan had ever heard.
“I’m sorry, Principal. Please don’t shut us out.”
Maxan saw everything. He was fascinated by this wolf’s control. Of the situation, and of himself. Although Feyn carried no weapons Maxan could see, it was the way in which the wolf carried himself as he paced about the dirt floor of the pen that carried an invisible danger. The fox knew the only reason the hyena wasn’t dead was because he knew where whatever “it” was that Feyn wanted.
The red light. At an inn. If it was in any other district, that might be enough to go on, but I’m not about to go asking after it out here in the heart of the Stray.
Maxan glanced quickly at the other sentry across the way, who had also stopped pacing to observe his master below. The crossbow was out in both of the sentry’s paws now. Maxan fidgeted with his own, setting the bolt and pulling the mechanism back, just to keep up appearances.
Then he saw it. A slim, dark shape, several yards behind the other sentry, flitting from cover to cover, inching closer to the walkway. “A shadow?” Maxan mouthed the question just loud enough to hear it himself.
No. Can’t be. Chewgar would’ve told me.
A shadow of a different sort then swallowed the entire world in darkness, and he lost track of this newcomer. The Aigaion loomed gigantic overhead. The absence of Yinna’s light crept westward over Crosswall. Ten minutes.
Below, Feyn had halted in his tracks. He closed his eyes and sucked air deeply into his nostrils as the shadow enveloped him. He let out a great exhalation through his mouth, with a slight whistle where he could not close the lips over his fangs. “Aaaah,” he breathed. “My child. My poor, lost child. I know your pain. Your confusion. Tell me, Yacub, do you feel inadequate as you are?”
As gifted a speaker as this Feyn was, he could not swallow the distaste saying this lowly hyena’s name left on his tongue. Maxan heard it. Yacub apparently did not. The hyena fell to his knees.
“Yes, Principal. I do.”
“Every Herbridian has a destiny. Even you. Yours was not death on the field, fighting against the insects. Neither was mine. Tell me, did you know many who the Thraxians claimed?”
“Yes, Feyn. My brothers. Sisters. Pack mates. Mother. Fa--”
“All right. Yes. Enough.” Maxan heard the disdain. Again, Yacub must not have. The hyena seemed entranced by the snowy wolf’s gravely voice. Yacub bowed his head. Feyn continued.
“You survived, as did I, for a greater reason. You lived this long because fate chose you to find the artifact. And bring it here, to me. Tell me, do you seek a greater purpose?” Feyn placed his snow white paw upon the hyena’s shoulder.
“Yes, Principal Feyn. More than anything.”
“Do you renounce your dependence on ignorance? Your lust for cruelty?”
“All I want is to be The Mind’s soldier.”
“The Mind has no need of soldiers, wretch. We are students. We are scholars.”
“Yes. I’ll be one of those.” The sobbing had subsided a little, but the hyena’s feverish chuckling still rattled in his neck.
“Then tell me. Where is the artifact?”
Yeah. Tell him already, so I can get out of here.
Maxan tensed his muscles, ready to sprint, to run back to Chewgar and the guard, to descend in great numbers upon whatever inn Yacub was about to reveal.
The city skyline and the edge of every misty cloud and every beam and brick of every building glowed in the smoldering orange fire from whatever weak light of the horizons could make its feeble way this far beneath The Aigaion’s belly. Maxan and the rest were gathered here under the giant’s dark center.
The fox’s gaze flashed across the open space just in time to see a dark figure fall in a heap, another dark figure - a smaller, thinner silhouette - stood behind it. The orange light flashed on a naked blade. The silhouette melted into the shadows and was gone.
“Oh shit,” Maxan said.
Yacub was hysterical, wildly sobbing, and laughing, drawing deeper and deeper breaths that could not calm him. He managed, in a moment, to sputter “Can you protect me from him?”
“Tell me where it is, my son, transcend being this loathsome animal inside, and you shall need no protection from anything.” Feyn was visibly agitated. His mouth’s right side curled in a snarl that matched the ruined one. “Nor from him,” he added.
And Yacub broke. He sputtered another few words between fitful sobs and chuckles. Maxan leaned a little closer over the walkway.
“What?” said Feyn.
“The Auroch’s Haunch, Principal. It’s at the Auroch’s Haunch.”
Before Maxan could turn to bolt away, his world was frozen by a shrill scream that echoed from every wall, reverberated from every brick, and shook every grain of dirt of the beast pen’s floor.
Plunging downward from the skies was a Corvidian knight in polished plate armor. Her legs and low-talons led her way, the tips of her giant hawk wings pointed skyward, a long spear gripped in both taloned claws. The bird-woman fell like a meteor, mere feet away from Maxan on the walkway, then flapped her wings outward and down at the last possible instant to break her fall. The blast of air sent Yacub, Feyn, and immense clouds of dirt rolling several yards away. She, however, came to rest gracefully on the dirt floor of the pen.
A crossbow bolt whistled through the air just in front of Maxan’s nose. If he hadn’t been blown a few inches back from the hawk’s blast, the bolt would have speared his skull through his ear.
He snapped his head sideways and saw the thin silhouette toss the spent crossbow aside, then the flash of orange on its two blades, then its swift and silent charge straight at him.
“Oh shit,” he said, again.
The stranger glided so fast, a shadow flowing in shadow, as though its low-paws never touched the woodwork.
Maxan was fast, but not that fast.
What do I--
Before the thought was complete his short sword was out of its scabbard, leaping up in his paw just in time to lock with both of the stranger’s own blades, just in front of his amber-furred muzzle.
The force of her charged rocked Maxan back on his hind-legs, and he nearly stumbled. He pushed hard against the stranger’s short blades, broke free of the melee, and hopped back. The stranger swiped across the air where his belly had been only a second before. The idea of just how close he came to being gutted ran circles in his mind, tipping him off balance, and Maxan tripped over the unconscious sentry and crashed to the walkway.
Without losing a beat, the stranger pounced directly onto Maxan’s belly, knocking the wind from his lungs. It straddled him, both its blades raised to his neck.
“Not like this,” said Maxan. He let go of his shortsword, unsure of what else to do with his paws. He swallowed, feeling the razors’ edges scrape against the amber fur on both sides of his neck.
An explosion of light, Yinna’s light, as the Aigaion lazily floated on its way, as oblivious and uncaring as ever. The day-star seared into both his green and golden eyes, bringing tears of pain.
Oh, c’mon. Crying? That’s how you want to go?
“It’s... just the light.”
Maxan closed his eyes, the outline of the stranger burned dark in his vision.
He heard din of ringing steel and wild, chuckling laughter below them. But louder, more close, he heard a startled female voice say, “You’re a fox?”
Maxan blinked through his tears but could not make out her face, only two large orbs of blue, clearer and calmer than the Peskoran seas.
“Yes?” was all he could muster.
The silhouette hovered, seemed about to speak, but the piercing scream of a hawk overcame everything, even the wailing laughter below.
The blue eyes held Maxan’s gaze a second longer, and then she was off of Maxan at once, leaping from the walkway railing to the dirt floor below.
I’m alive? Must be a dream. A dream.
No time to dream, fool! Get up!
Maxan rolled over. He saw through a crack in the floorboards that the hawk knight was down on her knees, her left talonhand oozing bright red blood along Yacub’s vicious ripper, which had bitten deeply into her side, its teeth punching through her bright armor. The hawk held her spear up, trying to drive its point at Yacub’s snarling face, but the hyena-man held its shaft tightly in his left paw. They were locked. But it was clear that, like her blood, the hawk’s strength would give out far earlier than the hyena’s.
Feyn had been removed from the battle, regaining his footing after the wind blast and ordering Yacub into the fray. So eager to please was Yacub. He stood calmly a few feet away, his snow-white claws outstretched, the black nails rolling up and down. His brow was furrowed in concentration, its ugliness equaling the twisted scar he wore.
As Feyn whispered, as the tips of his claws rolled up and down, the hawk’s head jerked side to side involuntarily. She struggled to keep her focus on the hyena about to end her life.
The silhouette landed in the dirt, tumbled forward, and lashed out with both swords at the wolf.
But Feyn was fast. He dropped his claws and skirted backward in the dust, his black robe trailing shortly after. The two short blades caught the dark fabric and sliced two razor-perfect lines.
Feyn’s attacker did not rest, darting forward immediately to cover the distance and strike again, but the wolf’s claws came up, lunged forward, then swung apart with all his strength as though tearing an invisible paper. The silhouettes’ short swords were torn from her hands and flung like arrows in opposite directions across the pen.
Maxan’s mouth hung agape.
Get up! Go! Get the guard! Get Chewgar!
Maxan was up on his hind-paws. In his mind, he was racing, leaping, sprinting, bounding over rooftops all the way back to the guardhouse. But his body was lagging behind his vision of himself. Without thinking, he stooped and retrieved his short sword. He stepped slowly away, bewildered, interested only in the conversation in his head.
He never even touched her swords...
Maxan found himself turning back to the walkway’s edge and leaning over.
The unexpected disarm must have caught the silhouette by surprise. She had tried to reverse mid-step, but her momentum had already carried her too far forward. Feyn’s snow white claw shot forward and enclosed around her neck, squeezing tightly. Maxan saw her thin arms rise and fall, beating against the wolf’s forearm uselessly. She was fast, but not strong. Not as strong as the wolf.
You mean, oh hell with it.
“Monitor,” said Feyn. “You were so close. Witness now your own death.”
With his other claw, Feyn drew some shape in the air, and the silhouette’s own dagger rose from the dirt several yards away, floated in mid-air, and shot impossibly fast once more, straight at the head of its owner.
But it never arrived.
The white wolf howled in agony as the edge of short sword cut deeply into his forearm, with all the weight and gravity of a falling fox-man behind it. Feyn let go of the silhouette’s neck, and her sword flew by, sticking and wobbling in a wooden beam many feet behind her.
Blood splattered the wolf’s snow white fur. It dripped upon the dirt floor.
The silhouette’s double-bladed attack had already put an end to whatever force Feyn had used to disable the hawk, and now that Yacub was seriously shaken at the sight of his “Principal’s” blood, the Corvidian knight’s strength resurged. She stood her full height, wrenched Yacub’s ripper sword free from her side and his grasp and tossed it aside. She clenched her spear in both hands, and advanced a step into the hyena’s stance, bowling him over onto his back. Yacub’s wild laughter had died to a desperate, shuddering, pleading chuckle.
Feyn backed away from the three other combatants into the center of the pen, leaving behind several spattered lines of his blood. His wail of anguish became a roar of anger.
Maxan clutched the short sword stained with the wolf’s blood. He pointed its tip at Feyn. “Stay away! You will know the city’s justice!” He glanced over his shoulder. The hawk stared at him in some kind of awe, cocking her head, blinking her piercing eyes at him. Even the hyena looked at the fox from where he sprawled on the ground.
The silhouette peeled back her hood, revealing the beautiful head of a fox-woman. She cast the gaze of her twin blue eyes at Maxan.
“Who are you?” was all he could say. Struck dumb as he was by the commotion, by the serenity of those twin blue seas, he realized a moment later he’d emphasized the wrong syllable.
Who are you? Idiot. You mean who are you.
“Shut up. I mean, all of you, silence!”
No one is talking but you.
Maxan swung his head back to Feyn. “I mean, ah, I am Crosswall Guard. You will lay down your arms and come with me to the city-center.”
The raging flame of hate had cooled in Feyn’s eyes. The growl had turned into a kind of raspy laughter. He smiled, but his snarl, of course, remained.
“I think not, boy.”
Feyn raised the claw of his good arm and rolled the tips at Maxan, in similar motions to those he had made at the hawk.
And nothing happened. Maxan felt nothing.
Feyn’s eyes squinted. He extended his arm angrily, reaching for something invisible.
The fox-woman did not wait for Feyn’s new trick, nor did she obey Maxan’s commands. She rushed for her short blade that had buried itself in the wooden beam.
“Wait,” Maxan called after her.
“Enough!” shouted Feyn.
The white wolf inhaled deeply, bringing both claws out wide. Then he clapped them together with all his strength, roaring impossibly loud as he did. When his claws met, the entire world beneath all their hind-legs and talons quaked, throwing the very dust they stood upon into the air. Maxan experienced every vibration in slow-motion, until Feyn’s roar caught up with the drift of time and popped his eardrums, and a blast of force swept it all away.
Everything. Wood and stone, beam and brick, foxes and hawks, shadows and silhouettes. Everything crumbled. Whatever glass remained in the broken windows shattered. The slate roofs of every structure surrounding the pen split and sunk inward, tumbling and toppling the rest of the buildings they covered beneath their weight.
Everything was a raging, violent storm, and somewhere inside it Maxan’s head slammed hard against something. And although the Aigaion had already passed him that day, the whole world turned dark for Maxan once more.