The Illusion of Choice

Chapter Seventeen: The Illusion of Choice

Maxan fell hard on his rump against the latticed metal walkway. He did his best to roll backward with the force of the impact, but achieved only an awkward flop, ending with his snout and stomach pressed to the walkway, staring into a thousand feet of empty air and the lake below. He struggled through the searing pain in his back to rise, then froze in place when he saw who had dragged him down from the window.

You!” It wasn’t the sound of pleasant surprise; it was an angry accusation. “You!

Rinnia held her paws out in a gesture of surrender. She wore the same flame-damaged garb as the night in the Denland station, and spots of fur on her muzzle had been singed to down red splotches of skin. Her eyes were as blue as he remembered, and there was a sincere plea in them now. “Maxan, please. We don’t have time.”

Time?!” He pulled himself up against the metal railing and balled his fists, calculating how best to sweep her over the edge into oblivion.

Rinnia recognized the meaning in his stance. “I’m not your enemy. You have to trust me.”

“Why-- How?! How can I trust you?”

“Who else is left?” She took a step forward, her paws still out. She wanted to scream in his face how they would be here in seconds, how they would sever his fool head from his body and salvage what they needed from his skull if he didn’t do what she said right now. Instead, she swallowed, took another step, and simply said, “You saved me. I know that now. And I’m here to save you.”

Her paws wrapped around his, and she felt the tension leave his fists. Their faces were so close. “Please,” she whispered.

Maxan relented.

Rinnia took his paw in hers and led him at a sprint down the length of the walkway and around the corner. The roof of the castle’s lower, foundational tier sloped downward, thirty feet below. Just beyond its edge, the metal girders and spires of the station rose skyward. At that level, hundreds of feet further, the rail bridge spanned the open space from the station into the cliff.

But Rinnia didn’t have time to explain their route. “We have to jump,” was all she said, swinging her hind legs over the railing and bracing herself for the fall.

“Wait! Wait!” Maxan said, shaking his head. He wasn’t going anywhere if she didn’t prove, here and now, who she really was to him. “What happened to the foxes?” His claws shot out and gripped the clasp her cloak, drawing her eyes closer to his. “Tell me, Rinnia!”

“He killed them. All of them. Looking for you.

She knew. She knew all along.

Why didn’t you tell me?

“I’m sorry,” she said before he could ask. Suddenly, her gaze snapped over Maxan’s shoulder, and she gripped his paw with both of hers and forced his claws open, making it appear as though he had shoved her over.

Maxan leaned over the railing, watching her slam against the rooftop hard enough to crack the tiles, then roll painfully down the slope. He twisted back toward the corner they had turned and saw them coming. A line of thin, hooded shapes, drawing thin swords from their backs, running silently straight for him. Without thinking, he leapt after her. His impact was more graceful, perhaps, but no less painful as he tumbled over and over again, his body a whirlwind of his cloak and bushy tail, drawn by gravity to the bottom edge and over its side, colliding with the graystone floor below.

“Uhhhh,” he groaned, pushing himself up, feeling the fresh scrapes and bruises on every point of his body. Rinnia leaned against a wall, similarly battered, clutching one of her swords. The other sword laid on the floor between them.

“Take it,” she said, “and chase me. Now!”

He did as he was told, scooping up the weapon as he followed her down a flight of metal stairs that had been riveted into the graystone. Rinnia ran as fast as she could, and Maxan put everything he had into his legs to keep up. When one twisting path terminated at an arched doorway cut into the castle, or a rising tower of welded metal beams, or some kind of machine with jumbles of wires and cables sprouting at every angle, she would turn and bound into the air onto the next open pathway, sailing across wide gaps. And Maxan matched her lead, feeling the rising heat from the metalworks of the factory below. One false step, and either of the foxes would have plummeted to his or her death.

Maxan stole a look over his shoulder, once they had landed on a long and narrow path, and he saw the assassins gliding fluidly over the edges of the walkways, one to another, like black raindrops. Once again, after all these years, he was the little fox boy in the forest. He was the living coward, watching them come from the dark to set his world aflame. Once again, he searched for a way out, and he knew his only escape was Rinnia.

Rinnia’s final leap took her onto the rails. Her hind paws came down on the metal beams and she tumbled into a roll to regain her balance. Every muscle in her abdomen, her thighs, her hips was wrapped in searing fire, but she pulled herself up and and ran on. In the pads of her paws, she felt the vibration on the beam and knew without needing to look that Maxan had landed behind her. They had made it. She ran a few hundred feet onward, then slowed, then stopped in the very center of the bridge. She turned to face him, raising her one remaining short sword.

“Cut me,” she told him.


Cut me!!

Rinnia charged Maxan, bringing her blade out and across at his throat, his own blade rose to meet it, sending it off to the side. She could have spun with it and struck again, but she gave him the chance to retaliate.

He didn’t take it.

“Dammit!” She spat, stabbing out at his shoulder, again locking blades, again being turned away. Behind him, the assassins were already on the bridge. “There’s no time! Cut me!”

Maxan saw them too. He understood, and he finally obeyed, striking at her shoulder, beating through her half-hearted defense, severing the fabric of her cloak, and slicing the fur and skin beneath it.

Rinnia shrieked in pain. She spun away from the wound, twisted into a crouch, and slammed her heel powerfully into Maxan’s gut, sending him flying out over the edge into a free fall.

Had the wind not been entirely knocked out of him, Maxan would have screamed as gravity took hold. The only sound was the wind rushing in his ears. His claws  scratched by instinct, searching for some surface he could hold onto, but finding nothing. Rinnia’s blade dropped from his grip. He crashed legs-first into the frigid, dark lake, then scrambled against the current to the surface. He came up gasping, flailing about wildly. High above, he caught sight of several black shapes along the bridge, looking down at him.

Something plunked into the water nearby. Then another plunk, closer. The onlookers were throwing things at him. Spears, he realized. Harpoons! He spun wildly about, looking out across a thousand feet of open water.

Nowhere to go!

Nowhere but…

Something from the depths wound tightly around his ankle, and dragged him down into the crushing dark.