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  1. Eight: The Burdens We Carry (I heeded what my mother and Clement told me. The only thing that I could do was keep on living. Over that summer, I was still isolated all the more, thinking that I could die tomorrow and nobody would care. I felt like only I cared that Gaston had been killed. The only thing that I could do to live as if I were to die tomorrow, was steal. Crime was the only way I and others could manage, though barely. There were still Sundays when Clement would come home, looking injured but, for some reason, content. (So, I kept up with what I did, even though they knew I still stole, more so when I was out of school. One day, I found myself in the worst trouble from picking a pocket. (The clouds covered the sky, but it was the middle of the day, threatening to rain. My target for stealing was another wolf, whose clothes looked as shabby as mine. I had taken to wearing what men wear. Not being able to run in dresses made me hate them. Wearing a work shirt and work pants, I scurried to this wolf in a dusty-looking business suit. I thought that I could get away with the crime. I did not just lift the watch on his belt, but I also picked his left pocket, from which I found a pouch of money. (The second I turned around with my loot, I heard a voice shout from right behind me, “OI!” I ran like hell with the loot in my fists. I barely passed the building we were in front of when I felt a large hand grab me by the shoulder. I could not run anymore as I was forced to turn around. (The wolf, peculiarly looking green, barked, “Thought you could steal from me, didn’t yeh?” He snatched back his watch and then his money. Fear paralysed me. The wolf added, “Lemme show what happens when yeh liff the wrong wolf’s bits an’ bobs.” (Where he took me, managing to hold me with only one hand, was to where he lived, and he didn’t live alone. There were two other wolves, one of them a female, but wearing no more than a corset and she held a cane. It was the female who spoke nonchalantly, “Another troublemaker for us.” (The wolf keeping me in place stated, “I thought that you would like the honour of teaching this one discipline.” (I did not like the way that female wolf looked. Whoever she was, she could have been far from a mother. I tried keeping my feet firm with the ground, but to no avail, for I was lifted again, which had me flail in protest, and still to no avail. (By the time I was in the other male wolf’s arms, I could not dare find out what being smacked with a cane was like. I ended up digging my fangs into that wolf’s right arm, and he yowled in pain, making him lose his grip. Then, I started running again. The other two were quick to catch up with me, I could hear. So, I stopped abruptly in the middle of the road. (They wouldn’t give up. The she-wolf ran my way, carrying her cane, and I led her along the sidewalk. It all happened so fast. That she-wolf with the cane reminded me of Gaston’s father. I ended up jumping to her, and I punched her muzzle repeatedly. The she-wolf barked, “Get this little bitch off me!” (Before long, the wolf that brought me to his family caught up as well, grabbing me by my arms, but I heard a gun shoot. The grip holding me became nothing, and I turned around— (He had been killed. My saviour was none other than Clement. Still pointing his gun, he warned, “Let ‘er alone, bitch.” The she-wolf ran. Suddenly, I became afraid of my step-father. He approached me, and stated, “We’re going ‘ome.”) I explore the storage of the sanctuary. It could be an armoury, my share of it, for that is where I leave souvenirs from my trips. Once I reach my section, memories are brought back. The oldest one of them comes from a particular sword in its sheath. Beneath the black coating is a curved guillotine-like blade. The long hilt has white stripes. I keep that sword on hooks on the wall. In a chest is my clothes as well as a stack of handkerchiefs. Looking in that chest, I wonder what other clothes I could use. I consider taking my violet jacket, which closes completely and has a gold branch-like pattern over the shoulder and back. I think, I’ll get to that later. I then look at a serrated dagger with an ivory hilt, which I have taken from a bloodthirsty killer, and it reminds me of a coward, using his men, cultists, to fend me off. Another treasure that I eye is a silver watch, which has stopped working from its battery running out. In the centre of the watch face is a peridot. This is something that I have considered selling off. Though I despise guns, I keep a bullet, this one Jack has explained to me. It is no ordinary piece of lead; it is made of iron and nickel alloy in a full metal jacket. I still do not understand it, but it sounds like something special as the ammunition has been popular on the black market. To add to these treasures of the past is a barbed whip that has tasted blood of its victims. The whole lash has sharp barbs on two sides that I dare not touch. I place it in the only other container, which has all these memory sources. When I turn around, I find a silver cat. Not just any young cat, but the silver cat with black spots and big emerald eyes, just like her dear mother. She wears a simple beige dress. “Ghaliya”, I whisper. “'Ana saeid liruyatik maratan 'ukhraa, al'ukht alkubraa”, she tells me joyously. I open my arms and she approaches, leaping up to me, so she can hug me. She purrs as I hold her, even when I put her back on the ground. I then reply, “Great to see you, too.” She says, “It was the time Father brought me here.” She speaks with a Symphonian accent like I do, but she has a musical voice like her mother. “Mother has told me where your journey has taken you now.” Eyeing her gold pendant with an emerald, her locket, reminds me of my loyalty to her. I comment, “I still bring money fer the sanctuary, collecting funds by any means.” She cannot possibly understand this. She is only twelve years old. She is all too familiar with crime, poverty, diseases, and death, but she cannot understand what this journey of mine means. “You do what you need to”, she replies. Ghaliya is a kind cat, but she can be too sweet. Maybe she just reminds me too much of her mother. Ghaliya continues, “I know that you obtain your money from killing bad people.” I add, “And now by turning wanted criminals to the police. I still need getting used to that.” I follow Ghaliya out to the field and to where other cubs and pups play. As we watch the few of them tussle, race, or just waffle on whatever, she states, “I know how this country works, Big Sister. I know the conditions of Highcond: the pollution, the wars of the classes, and the corruption. I have believed you to be a solution since I have known you.” Even now, I find it hard to believe that the High Priestess had her daughter after years of running the sanctuary and leading her own sect. I object, “But I am no god. I am not supernatural.” Ghaliya rebuts, “And yet I still see you as gifted, like Mother does.” I cannot fault that. The High Priestess taught me to love again after I convinced myself that I lost it. I know that my journey is not only about me. And I am thankful that Ghaliya reminds me such. I place a hand on her shoulder as she is perched on the fence, and I rub her back, which prompts her to purr again. ----- My recent failure still leaves me sorrowful. I considered calling Jack, to ask him what he knew of the Terrecon house, but I think that I should not be informed. It will only make me feel worse. Instead, I consider something else about David’s letter, but that is to wait. I spend time recuperating in the sanctuary while connecting with Ghaliya as I know which targets I will pursue. On my fourth and final day before my departure for Solmil, I have Ghaliya and the other cubs together, so I can tell them of a story of my favourite god from lore. Ghaliya, like the rest, leans forward with excitement as I speak: “Kumhep has been revered as the judge of the souls. Every soul of those who die is in a void between the mortal realm and the realm of the dead before the heart is weighed with a feather, to determine the purity or impurity of the soul. Kumhep has carried out this duty, passing judgment upon the souls before allowing them to pass to the afterlife. Only he knows what is to happen to the soul before it happens. “After year of being the judge of the souls, Kumhep becomes curious of what has become of the kingdom that he knows in the mortal realm. So, he creates a portal that he passes, bringing him instantly to a desert at night. Where he heads by foot is eastward, where he finds a fair civilisation. “Kumhep watches the sun rise by the time he enters the village. In looking around, being reminded of his past, he realises how much he misses the pleasures of mortals. It is from watching the villagers go about their business he also realises how he stands out, having a completely black pelt and ice-blue eyes. Even the jackal that he is, is taller than average. “Because of what he has been before, he heads to the vegetation of the oasis near the village, a safe haven for vagabond merchants. He observes the farm tasks of a family, tending to a vast herd of goats and even vaster vine field of grapes. He sees that this pair of mates and their siblings get along well during their tasks while their children played. “After a while of watching them from afar, he heads back in the village, where the small markets bustle, and he listens to talk about the vast farm, and the same question echoes from all: how can they still be in one of the smallest oases from having a vast livestock? Kumhep wanted to know the answer himself. Among the items bought by the oldest member of the family from that farm in the afternoon, Kumhep saw that man carrying a large and heavy jug of beer. “To make himself come off as a beaten traveller, he hid away his belt with Khopesh and his shroud. Clad in only his loincloth, he headed to an inn, where he selected the most bloodthirsty brute and engaged him. The leopard that he fights is indeed tough. Though Kumhep could break an entire arm in one pull, he lets the brute win. Kumhep then heads to the farm, claiming to the lady of the house that he has nowhere to go, that he was assaulted and robbed by bandits. The lady of the house lets Kumhep in with open arms, and they have food to spare for Kumhep. “Over a family dinner, Kumhep learns how hard the man and lady of the house, and their six siblings work hard to feed others, but even with what good amount of gold they have earned, they have not enough to take their business to a city, to Kumhep’s suspicion. The four children of the house heads tend to Kumhep, and in the process, explain to him about sharing the dream of being in the city and carrying on a legacy, but their large amounts of earnings seem to disappear. “For the time of Kumhep’s stay, he snoops on the man of the house, who he sees goes out late, and sees him offer gold and beer to travelling bandits. Shortly after watching that horrible scene, Kumhep goes to retrieve his shroud, belt, and Khopesh. However, he still wears only his loincloth on the next day, which he declares to the family is his last. “Late that same night, he learns of the same bandits that he saw, setting a market on fire and slaughtering families. Kumhep reminds himself of his duties, but he slays the bandits. After his action, Kumhep summons the man of the house, to the rocks near the water of the oasis, and the man heeds the call. It is then that he is recognised as the lord of the dead. Kumhep interrogates the man of the house what business he had with the bandits, and attacks him when hearing a lie. The pain is so unbearable that he confesses immediately. The man of the house has been using his family all along. He was once a bandit. After falling for his wife and reuniting with his family, he has been using the family farm to fund the misdeeds of the bandits. Kumhep says to the man of the house, ‘You sold your soul long ago. Your heart is so heavy with sin that it is irredeemable.’ He summons his golden Ankh and it barely touches the man’s head when he cries out in pain. Kumhep stabs him with his Khopesh, so he can claim what is left of his soul. “Kumhep knows that he did justice, but he realises that… he cannot save every innocent, or slay every black heart. He resumes his duty, judging every soul fairly.” The cubs take the story in with sadness and with anger, but are very quick to clamour about what happens next. They want to know the next story about my favourite character of the lore. Ghaliya reasons, “We have already listened to one story tonight and it is late now.” “Pray that my next return is soon”, I speak. “For I intend to speak the story of Kumhep protecting the land of the dead.” Ghaliya replies cheerfully, “I hope to be here then.” There are still cubs claiming that they are not sleepy yet. So, I announce, “You cannot afford to stay awake so late. Your body cannot take it. Believe me, I know.” Ghaliya reasons as well, and they all eventually settle in their beds. Only now, I realise that these cubs sleeping in this kind of construct depresses me. They are all orphans, but I know not whether any of these cubs have seen the inside of a house or have been fortunate enough to remember their parents. Upon exiting the cabin where the cubs sleep, I find Themba awaiting me, and he is shirtless despite the nip in the air. He comments, “You always had a way with cubs.” I reply, “I just happen to have bigger growth spurts than cats. I do not understand, though, why the large felines revered me.” As we walk together to the cabin for security and agents, he responds, “You always had a quality; dat’s all. After oll, I share your belief of wolf having… off-colour eyes to be special in some way.” I state, “Everyone is special in their own way. Every parent thinks that a child is special simply for them being theirs.” “True.” Themba nods. “It just takes perspective.” We enter his cabin when I tell him, “Themba, you were always special to me for your pattern.” “You may still find other special animals along your journey.” That is true. I nod quietly as I head to the bed where my luggage is and I undress, preparing for the night. ----- (“You still fail to understand the rule: do not attract unwanted attention!” my mother scolded. “You could have died today. You could have been defiled.” My mother was both angry and afraid, being informed by Clement of my escapade. “I have tried reasoning with you for so long, and yet you still do not heed the warning.” She paced around the kitchen, Clement trying now to calm her. I could have sworn that I heard her heart racing. When she seemed to regain her composure, she peered to me. “I cannot let you get in trouble”, she said. “Understand that you are all I have. You are forbidden to leave this house tomorrow.” It was all for the best. I was actually afraid to run into another dangerous criminal. (There was a major damper on things over dinner. I did not dare speak to even my mother. She and Clement did not engage in conversation between themselves either. However, it was when turning in, I snapped. I sobbed softly in my ragged pillow that night, fearing encountering another wolf such as him. It only made me wonder horrible things about Clement, to boot.) I examine the picture that I have been keeping, which has been folded twice, and I notice it having faded a little more. I just cannot part with it. This is all I have left to remember my old life, the first wolf to ever love me. That is how I pass much of my time on the train ride to my next destination: the Artists’ Land. Solmil. “Lauren and Rhonda Tirrell. Wild Rabbits. Stage performers. Their profession is in theatre, where they have been lucky enough to demonstrate their talent of acting and dancing. They are as close any pair of sisters. They also take to the streets, and are known all the more for their habit of bragging. Giffard’s friends have them as contacts, tricking people into taking contracts for money they will never see and are the heart of his cartel’s trafficking network. You can find them performing at Solmil East Theatre. Name a play shown there; they have very likely been in it.” I take Jack’s word for it, having read his note several times prior. I am quick to find an inn to my standards after exiting the train station. Shortly after getting settled in a nice inn, which has been made completely of bricks, the rooms having wooden boards and vine-patterned wallpaper to cover the walls, I am too restless to take in the rest of the room. I am fortunate to have found this inn. Everything else around it seems to have more flaws than just a few chips or cracks. I begin my exploration— When I feel a hand graze me and lift off. I dig into my side pocket of my slacks, to realise that I have been robbed. I turn around, finding a rabbit running. I shout, “OI!” I run after the young rabbit, adding, “Gimme back me money!” I continue sprinting, seeming to catch up with the young rabbit, only for her to make a sharp turn. I end up climbing a keg and leaping from beams of the walls of a few constructs to keep up with her. Eventually— I stop in my tracks, my hand upon her shoulder, tightly. I tell the rabbit, “You stole my money. Give it back.” I still have my grip on her as I watch her lift the pouch from under the top of her dress and present it. With my free hand, I take the pouch. I then release her. An instant later, the rabbit turns around. Her pelt seems to completely be completely golden-brown, her eyes dark brown. She wears a maroon dress with black buttons down its top. She says, “My apologies, Ma’am. I thought it was the only way to get your attention.” I follow the rabbit as I reply, “I wouldn’t ‘ave gained attention of others by calling fer you, but ‘twas instinct.” We stop in an opening in a line of buildings. I fold my arms as she tells me, “I was sent ta this borough to contact you. I’m Leigh-Anne Burgess. I work for Mister Dolan.” She is not quite free of my judgment. “Now why would that dog send a young’un?” I query. “I know many other rabbits and young’uns who work for ‘im. I lead ‘is spy network.” I look down sternly, my visible left eye standing out in the darkness like a flame. “Words are not always enough, kitten. Cubs can say anything and whether ‘tis to be believed only seems up to other cubs.” “It is true!” she snapped. “Mister Dolan ordered me to follow you to the train station back in Ashcrown. He told me to expect you here in Solmil as he told me that you next sought the Tirrell sisters.” “And what proof have you that the Tirrell sisters have not ordered you to use me?” She squealed, “Because I despise them!” She paused to take a breath. “I am not the only rabbit from a large family. I am from my parents’ first litter; there were seven of us. My parents fell for the most common lie: taking me under the roof of the Tirrell family. They put me to work along with other kittens, who they were close to breaking if they hadn’t already… Mister Dolan… raided the workshop where we had the tedious task of shelling bullets… and I was among the many that ‘is men saved…” Her eyes well up as she adds, “And he offered me a better life… I did not believe ‘im at first, but I knew ‘twould be better than life in the slums, starving like my siblings, and better than building weapons…” She holds a hand to her nose upon finishing. I place a hand on her shoulder and say, “Now I must apologise fer not trustin’ yeh.” She takes a deep breath and lowers her arm before answering, “Apology accepted, Ma’am.” She continues, “I waited four days for you. Now that you have come, we kin settle this business.” I follow her along the streets of flat-roofed stone buildings along with houses of planks and shingles, its inhabitants having tried too hard to make those houses colourful as paint has been splattered on the walls. All these inhabitants are dressed fairly, and here I am in a business suit, unlike all the other females wearing dresses. Where the rabbit named Leigh-Anne guides me is to a construct that is supposedly desolate, but it clearly has smoke coming out of the one chimney in the flat roof. Upon entering, I see that it looks a lot better inside, for the stone walls have been smoothed and the wooden floor is clean. The rabbit speaks, “’Tis nothing like me spy headquarters in Ashcrown, but this hideout ‘as bin made ‘ome to other kittens on the streets.” “It is brilliant”, I comment. My sight following Leigh-Anne, I speak, “Before I pursue the Tirrell sisters, I plan to fulfil bounty ‘unts. All con artists, based on crimes for which they are wanted.” Leigh-Anne turns around, to say cheerily, “All the more ‘elp, Ma’am. The Artists’ Land is practically an ‘aven fer all the con artists and ‘usslers.” She re-approaches me, to inform me, “You should still stay alert; even me friends know that those deceptive, beastly buggers ‘ave mercenaries fer protection.” “Do the con artists not put up a fight?” I query. “Only if their opponent is an old man needing a cane”, she snorts. I hear a tapping on the window behind me. I tell Leigh-Anne, “Contact me when you’ve suggestions on where to be for the Tirrell sisters.” She answers, “I’ll ‘ave me spies keep in touch.” I head out of the hideout, and upon closing the door behind me, my raven friend greets me, and I have my arm up the second I hear his wings flap. I just stand there, stroking the raven’s head with one finger. I can assure him that he will not leave here without tasting meat of a criminal here.
  2. Seven: The Hunter’s Heart (The day spent at Tenebra Angela Concert Hall was one of the best days of my life. I had the music sink in and hummed what I could remember of what was the symphony written by a man whose personal tragedy was the motivation. Despite the story behind it, and the emotion of the melodies, it was something that I wanted to listen to again. I hummed lowly as I walked with my mother and Clement back to the house. Unlike them, I still wore the decorative mask along the tread back in the slums. (Before long, we were just metres from our house when I caught the stench of blood. It wasn’t just due to a wolf’s keen sense of smell; it was very close. And I dreaded the situation that could have led to blood being spilt. (Instead of our house, I hurried to the house next to it, the one a lot shabbier than ours. I heard my mother call for me, but it was too late. I entered the rotting house, and that was where the odour of blood was the strongest. Inside, I was at the kitchen, the counter broken, its pieces just left on the floor. The stove was rusted. The walls were covered in cobwebs, and I could see the spiders even from the doorway. (I headed past the fragmented counter, and saw the thing to make this the worst day of my life. There on the floor made of only dirt, lay the brown pup that talked to me when nobody else would. He had his eyes open, but he was not breathing as he lay sprawled, blood caking on his fur, staining his shirt. My heart went heavy and I dropped to my knees, suddenly in tears. “No…” That was all I could say. I took off my mask and discarded it before I buried his face into his, the tears falling. (Before long, I raised my head, knowing just who was cruel enough to kill a pup, and he sat on a ragged and dirty couch, seeming lost in a trance, butcher knife in hand. I howled angrily as I ran up to the monster, a dull-brown wolf, wearing only a pair of ragged trousers with suspenders. I yowled when I tackled him, “YOU FUCKIN’ BASTARD!” I began to punch his face repeatedly. “YOU KILLED HIM! YOU FUCKIN’ KILLED GASTON! YOU KILLED MY ONLY FRIEND!” I didn’t even pause as I punched him again and again. I could have attempted to tear his throat out with my fangs, like any wolf would, but I was just so furious that I thought about only causing him pain. (“NO!” I was grabbed from behind by a pair of arms. “Lemme at ‘im! HE’S A FUCKIN’ MONSTER! HE KILLED ‘IS SON! HIS OWN FLESH AN’ BLOOD!” No matter how much I thrashed I was taken out of the house and brought back in ours. Before I knew it, I was in front of my mother, holding my arms against my sides. “I WANNA KILL THAT BASTARD!” (“Listen to me!” my mother howled. I looked into her bright-amber eyes. Sounding calm, she spoke, “There was nothing you could do for the pup. And that wolf could have killed you if he was not like a statue. Please, don’t do anything so reckless. You will have something to make you angry, but you need to control your temper.” (I sobbed again, tears falling down my face like rain. “It’s my fault. He must’ve known that I gave Gaston money fer food… I’d hear the beatings, and I did nothing even then…” (Still holding my arms at my sides, my mother told me, “There was still nothing you could have done. And you did not kill the pup. There is a lot that y-want to do, but you cannot afford to be reckless.” I buried myself in her chest and neck, and it would be a while before that wound would heal.) ----- “Charleston, Ferndale, and Pineton. Hares. Charleston favours the Viria Marketplace, which is outside the borough’s train station. Ferndale likes to frequent near the westside tracks. Pineton stalks outside of the borough’s slums.” That is the note that Dolan has given me. I head back toward the slums after I’ve had my rest at the inn, after I’ve had my breakfast. I have Michi seek out the hare that is my next target. These agents of Samuels, I am certain, would want revenge on who has killed him. So, here I am, seeking the one that may be nearest the factory, now overtaken by Dolan’s men. I tread on the rooftops, looking down from the edges, to seek the one of the hares that have tricked and hurt many parents despite that they had their hands proverbially full. It doesn’t feel long before I hear the familiar caw, and I follow the sound of my friend, who I find making small circles in the air, I follow down, to find a hare, which I can tell by a tall and slender figure despite the business suit, and he stands in pause, disturbed by the sight of a crow circling above him. I climb down the stone construct that was atop, and upon seeing me, the hare reaches beneath his blazer— But Michi dives toward him, not needing to be commanded to distract him, and I run toward the hare. I draw my left Khopesh with my left hand and pin him to the wall with my right hand, keeping his arm against his chest as well, and he struggles as I have my Khopesh pressed against his throat. I tell him coldly, “You must be Samuels’s agent, Pineton.” He doesn’t answer; he just keeps struggling, just to point his pistol at me. I add, “Time you join ‘im.” With that, I slash his throat, and I release my grip on him. The hare stumbles aside, choking. As I make sure that he will not get up, Michi rests upon my shoulder, cawing. I sheathe my Khopesh before I raise my hand and let him peck lightly. I see a moment pass, and I kneel down, to press a finger against his wrist. No pulse. One hare that no one will miss. After a short lunch, in the form of a sardine sandwich, I head to the area of the train tracks. The area is none too shabby, as I observe these houses erected of stone, the small patches of grass being lush, and the sounds of various mammals grunting or groaning are nothing to calm me. However, it is just like every place as I always expect someone to jump me. I remain calm, seeking a hare that should stand out like a single red rose in a bright-green meadow. I slowly climb down from a rooftop of one of the houses making its own residential block. When I reach the ground, I hear Michi caw, circling just above the metal-roofed gazebo in the centre. From behind a tree in one of the corner grass patches, I look carefully to the small shelter, and I find nothing. So, I move to the left, and I find two figures laying down. The figure with the back facing me, is clearly a female, a cat, based on the ears. I get a better look taking a few steps forward, and I finally make out a slender male, one of the hares. Peculiarly, his pelt is completely silvery white. I know that because he and his female companion are completely naked, their clothes scattered, and there are two rabbits at the opening, clearly bodyguards. I approach with a stride, and with one hand, I grab each rabbit by their throats and lift them off the ground. I listen to them choke until they go limp, but I lessen my grip on them. After placing the rabbits back down carefully, I head inside the small shelter, and draw my stiletto. The cat just looks up— When I plunge the stiletto in the hare’s throat, the cat instinctively rolling aside, apparently thinking that she was the target. As I wipe the blood off the stiletto with the discarded shirt, the horrified cat tells me, “Wh-what d-you want?” I look down at her, sheathing my stiletto. “I came here only to kill Ferndale. I suggest you take all his money along with his weapons.” I pause, before correcting myself. “In fact, I order you to. You will need them.” My raven friend alights upon the lifeless hare, but he stares at me instead of beginning his meal. So, I tell him, “I can find my own way to the market. Best you take your meat now.” Understanding that, Michi begins pecking at where I stabbed the hare’s throat. If I am not mistaken, those who live near the Viria Marketplace are those who hear the sounds of the train whistling at the strongest. This is also not so drab, the market. Understandable as buildings in the industrial areas need to be well intact. I enter the market, and I am greeted by fumes with a smell that is anything but pleasant. The walls of beige bricks have been in good care. Rows of canopies as well as stacks of crates and various mammals there to buy their next meals fill the space, and I see limited space. So, I wonder if I can find a single hare by myself. In addition, the voices overlapping are no help in seeking a conversation that sounds like criminal activity. It is not the hanging carcasses that disgust me, but the blood stains that I can make out on the floor of this place. Blood has splotched on the pavement of this market. I walk casually in the long strip that is the Viria Marketplace, looking carefully for something that may lead me to my target. Before long, I have a clue. I find a short crate stack that is labelled “Malleo”. I kneel down and lift a crate. I cannot smell what is inside, but I have another idea: I throw the crate on the ground. On impact, the boards, along with glass that is apparently inside, break. That is when I pick up the pungent odour. That is just what I need. I hurry past, wanting it to not even touch my feet. The time then comes. I hear a voice express outrage. “Who sabotaged me fuckin’ bits an’ bobs?!” I turn around, finding just the animal that I seek: a hare. He is brown like cocoa and wears a blue suit, its hues not unlike mine. He continues to rage about the broken crate and spilt contents as I approach him, harassing a squirrel, who drops his purchases upon being grabbed and squealed at. I draw my Khopesh with my left hand. He barely reacts when I run the blade past him, and all too easily, he goes down from me retracting my arm, running the blade across his throat. The squirrel tries composing himself as he sees the hare stumble, choking. Suddenly, I hear a gun clicking. As if he knows about the mask making for my protection, the barrel is pressed against my back. There are no words from the hare behind me. However, I hear the same squirrel, still there, squeal, and he runs toward the hare. Hearing the thudding as well as wooden boards breaking and no sound of a shot, I turn around to see that he’s managed to tackle the hare to the floor. This hare has cocoa-hued fur and a blue suit as well. I need only step toward the scuffling hare. With the hook of my Khopesh, I gash up his forearm, making him lose grip of his pistol. I seize the chance and slash the hare’s throat. To the panting squirrel, I state, “That was brave of you. Thanks for that.” ----- There is another place that I wanted to go to, and that is where I choose to have my dinner: Bright Nancy’s. Shortly after I finish what they have the luxury of cooking—a chop, boiled potatoes, and green beans—I notice the cat named David on the stage, playing the harpsichord, and he is not alone. There is a female cat at the front of the stage, and she sings: “I was happy here, Unfettered and free, Living a life- of contentment and luxury Licking smooth bones, swigging fine wine A remarkable beast, proud and divine… “She seeks adventure, But she knows it means trouble Nine lives is ace, if you use them wisely Just look at this place, Where the joy ‘as all crumbled Now she is here, To see death with ‘er eyes…” I wonder if she might be referring to me, for this speaks to me in a way. In fact, it reminds me of the life led by the cat I call Pasht. The cat continues singing: “Most learn to read But all fall for lies She wants to live But only for others When I follow her Will I cheer, or will I cry “She needs adventure Though she knows it means trouble Nine lives is ace, if you use them wisely Just look at this place, Where all joy is crumbled Now she has come, To see death and desire…” The cat then repeats a whisper, before she gets back to the tune that I know. “She needs adventure Though she knows it means trouble Nine lives is ace, if you use them wise Just look at this place, Where all joy is crumbled Now she has come, To see death with ‘er eyes…” When the song is brought to an end, I am with the many to applaud the singer as well as the harpsichord player. Heading back with the crowd, David catches sight of the wolf with the eyepatch, and stops to say, “Well, welcome back.” I comment, “What a truthful song.” David replies, “Glad you like. I assume you came for another session with me.” “I did. I hope you’re not too busy serving meals for that.” “I will inform the Madame of it”, he tells me, suddenly not confident in what is to follow. ----- The two of us lay in his bed, spent, as I have made sure. I want something worth remembering of this cat. So, here we are, me holding him in my arms, and I wonder if he likes my caress on his back as he does not purr. I feel something for this cat. I ask him, “Are you happy?” Shifting backwards to look up, he asks back, “Whot?” I repeat, “Are you happy, David?” Looking quizzical, he replies, “I do not understand…” “It is a simple question.” The hesitation to answer, I comprehend. He then says plainly, “Yes.” However, I know the truth. I scowl at him, and that brings something out of him. He adds, “I came to this brothel of all places because I’d nowhere else to go… And it only made me lonely…” Steering off the subject, I inquire, “Does the Madame care how long you are with a client?” “We ‘ave time”, he answers, sounding dejected. “You’re the first man I met who…” I just cannot decide the correct term. “Can you elaborate?” David pushes away, to get up, and reach into the drawer of his nightstand. What he pulls out is a pipe and a clump of a concoction, with which he fills the pipe. Talking through his teeth and taking a flint, he explains, “I’m one of many to smoke after intercourse. I’ve ‘ad only two men court me the time I’ve worked ‘ere.” I hear the scraping of the flint. “You’re right that this place is not utilised for some drug operation, but with my wages I’ve bought drugs fer meself.” I see a puff of smoke, before he turns back around to face me, but does not use the blankets to cover his naked body again. “I’ve ‘ad an ‘abit o’ utilising this when I got sad. I tried thinking of me two past male clients after they’d paid me.” I look down sombrely, realising how deep into the abyss he has fallen. David continued, “I believe this stuff t-be of use to face me demons.” Sitting up as that interests me, I inquire, “What kind of demons?” As a pause, David inhales the fumes from his pipe, and exhales that smoke with a sigh. “I cannot explain… But I have a past, and I ‘ope to face it through this.” “You can’t change the past, Cat. I would know. No matter ‘ow you view yer uses o’ that shit, ‘tis not healthy.” The cat just absently smokes his pipe, and looks ahead, me barely in the corner of his eye. I ask, “Does your boss ‘ave a telephone?” “In her office”, he answers. “But I reckon she’ll mind.” That doesn’t stop me, for I get out of the bed, to get dressed in my grey suit and leave the cat his pay, along with a tip. I have an idea. Knock, knock. I hear a female voice speak, “Enter.” I open the wooden door, seeing a neat office with walls and a floor of polished wood. At the desk, a Shephard in a grey business dress sits and she looks up at me, asking, “What brings you t-me office, Ma’am?” “I wish to use yer telephone.” She scowls at me, but she points to the machine behind her, though I wonder if it is begrudging. Nevertheless, I dial the number of the building that has my interest, and then aggressively turn the crank with my good hand while the earpiece is in my other hand. After turning the crank enough, I move the earpiece to my good hand. A moment later, I hear a man speak, “Ahoy, Sputure Station.” “Lieutenant Wickerson.” “Hang on.” There’s another moment of silence before I hear the baritone voice speak, “Wickerson here.” “’Tis the vigilante”, I whisper. While waiting for an answer, I pull out pages that I keep on me. “Well, that dinna take yeh so long.” “This is business, Lieutenant.” “Typical”, he sighs. “Name your request.” “I want ta know of which criminals there are bounties on in Ashcrown.” “If you could hold again, Miss…” “I do not mind.” While waiting for something, I hold the microphone, and turn to the canine, asking, “Have you a pen to spare?” She opens a drawer, from which she takes a fountain pen, and a small ink pot. I still have to wait on the bear, and the silence is actually comfortable—until the bear tells me, “I’ve the records of wanted criminals.” “Ashcrown.” The bear goes into detail about one criminal big enough to have a bounty for his capture. His name, his species, his image, and where he likes to frequent. I know that he is to be no problem, knowing that he is a drug dealer wanted for peace disturbance as well as frequent assault. After writing the useful detail, I say, “I must add as I may not have another chance: what criminals are wanted on bounties in Solmil?” The bear comments, “The Artists’ Land? Jus’ lemme find the big con artists there.” It is no jest; he tells me about three criminals wanted on scams in that borough, and I write down enough detail about them. I still write about the third criminal as he adds, “Bringing all these felons in alive sounds like a lot of ambition fer someone callin’ ‘erself Death.” “I don’t do it fer you”—I pause before adding in a hushed tone, “I do it fer the reward.” Wickerson responds, “I’m not surprised.” “Well, I should go. Much planning. I may see yehr again.” “I look forward to it, Vigilante.” “Ta-ta.” I then hang up. Awkwardly, I head out, the canine not questioning me about the conversation. ----- Because of the scene that I’ve made at the Viria Marketplace, I find the wanted criminal, an otter, harassing a mouse just outside of the train station, but near the edge of a crevice that was made for the track. My raven friend caws and pretends to be dead, as I order him to. In doing so, one of the friends of that otter is distracted. The other, I slash his throat before he knows that I am there. Michi flies away, for I hear a gun fire, which distracts the otter, and I kick him hard, making him pummel to the pavement. The remaining expendable enemy is also an otter, but I am on him fast, and I stab him in the lungs. The one that is my target, I pick him up by the throat and butt his head against mine, knocking him out before he can fire his pistol. It makes no dent in my mask. When I watch the otter shoved inside the carriage, I call to him, “Tell Wickerson, the vigilante sends her regards.” To my surprise, that baritone voice speaks, “He already knows.” Leave it to that police lieutenant to finish that part of the job. As I watch that carriage head away from the station house, another officer hands me a stack of notes. I count them up, to know that the reward is as said. That officer comments, “One less speck of scum off the streets.” All I hear as an answer to a request that I’ve given bizarrely, is a throaty cackle from the rottweiler. When the laughter dies down, he comments, “D-yeh really think there are no same-sex lovers in the world?” “I met one, actually”, I clarify. “A man. At the borough’s honest brothel.” “Finding one is easy, actually. He’s at this pub right now.” I state bitterly, “I do not believe you.” “Ah, but he is”, Dolan explains. “Quite a few o’ me followers trust me to know of the so-called crime against nature. Finnis. He is a greyhound. One o’ me top lieutenants. Ask him if y-don’t believe me.” I head out of the office, and into the pub’s dining chamber. There, I see standing out among the rest of the canines, a black greyhound, distinguished by his long muzzle making his head look flat, and he wears a tweed suit. I sit down in front of him, saying, “Finnis?” “Here t-say it’s my time?” he asks irritably. I lean forward, to tell him lowly, “Yer boss let me in on your… personal secret.” He scoffs, “The mouth on that dog!” “Simply for his sake, I wish to offer you a parting gift.” “When did you become kind to criminals?” I choose not to answer that. So, he adds, “What is it?” “A cat. At a brothel. I wonder if he would find you attractive.” Another pause. “Bright Nancy’s. One hour. A she-wolf in a grey suit and with an eyepatch will cover it.” ----- I have checked out of the inn where I stayed when I wait outside the brothel with my suitcases, and dressed in my grey pinstripe suit and having my eyepatch on. I eventually see the black greyhound approach me, seeming to grin. He asks, “So, where’s this cat I was told about?” I answer nonchalantly, “Follow me”, and lead him inside, carrying my luggage— And I am intercepted by the female Shephard, who seems like she has been crying. She utters, “Good. David told me to expect you.” I look around, seeing that the dining chamber is empty, and the only sound in the building is from upstairs, which I can hear only faintly, from feet tapping the floorboards to the distinct creaking of beds. The only other individual on this floor was the barwoman. “What’s this about?” I ask the Shephard, looking at her again. “Just follow me”, she answers. I leave my luggage near the bar, knowing that no one will steal it. The greyhound follows as well. Noticing the greyhound, the Shephard asks, “Wait. Whot business has he?” I answer bluntly, “I promised ‘im David. He deserves this urgent information.” The Madame sighs at that, looking even sadder, as if that were not possible, before continuing to guide us. The madame opens the door to David’s apartment— And I see the grey cat lay upon his bed, dressed in a ragged black suit, eyes closed, his left hand on his chest. He is not breathing. I can barely take in the sight, for the greyhound turns me, holding me by a shoulder, and snarls, “What fuckin’ bollocks is this, Munter!?” I reply calmly, “I assure you, I knew nothing of this.” The madame weighs in, “He died just today. This morning, he requested, ‘A black she-wolf with an eyepatch will come. When she does, let her know I expect her.’” She looks to David’s body, continuing solemnly, “I found ‘im like this two hours ago. I wondered why he had not eaten breakfast or was on the floor, and he was already dead.” I wrest the greyhound’s hand off of me, so I can look at the cat. I slowly tread around his bed— On the other side of the bed, I find an open tin box. I kneel, to pick it up, and cringe at the odour from it. “Opium”, I state. I also spot his pipe, the stem and spout broken apart. “I smelt that, too”, the madame replies. “He apparently ate it. All at once.” I look to the greyhound, upon standing up again, and he droops his muzzle as if he wishes to deny the image. I speak, “I deeply apologise, Finnis. If I knew, I would have… At least, let me compensate.” He grumbles, “Keep yer bloody money.” He then storms out. After a long moment of silence, the Shephard, not all curious about the “promise” that I made to the greyhound, explains, “David has been like family to me and the girls. It is why all the girls are in their apartments, and why I plan a funeral right now.” She presents an envelope, adding, “He left this, also telling me to give it to you.” I head to the Shephard, to take the envelope, labelled, “To the black she-wolf with the eyepatch.” I wonder why he wanted me to read whatever his final thoughts were that he wrote on paper. I look back, to the lifeless smoke-grey cat, his eyes closed, never to open again. I look down again, noting some kind of symbol. It is only small shapes. On all sides of what should be a gem, is smaller shapes. I look up, seeing that the madame is still here. I ask, “Are you familiar with this symbol?” “Too familiar”, she replies, irritated. “That is from the crest of the house of Terrecon. Horrible people. He claimed to me to have denounced his family name. Now I know why.” I step forward, to get close to the madame. “Sorry to say, I will not attend the funeral. I have my own business, and I want no more delays.” I head out the door, but look back, adding, “I am sorry for your loss. This saddens me as well, but I see no time to grieve.” With that, I head back downstairs, to retrieve my luggage, and head out of the building’s pub, never to return to this whorehouse. ----- Almost immediately after the southbound train from Knightsedge begins to accelerate, I open the envelope left only for me. I unfold the pages and scan them, to know that David has written front and back. And I know that the ink is fresh just by the smell of it. I get right to reading it. “My name is David Langdon. I write this now as I see my hours numbered. I have met only one individual who may care about my story. It is a luxury that I have bought my own pen, ink, and parchment. I am still saddened by so much of the population not knowing how to read. “Where should I start? My family is really from Knightsedge, one of the revered houses, or so it was centuries ago. I am really the second-born of my family, but I am the only son of Lucia Terrecon. Though my father has a status as high, my mother was insistent upon raising me and my sister in Terrecon Manor, and he agreed. My sister was horrible to me, which she got from my mother. My father was almost never around, leaving only my mother to teach me the duties of the house that was to be led by me one day. As I am left-handed, my mother would discipline me by chaining my left wrist to my bedframe. As I never showed improvement on writing right-handed “like a real person” as she put it, she starved me every day. All that I would get to eat were the scraps of whatever they ate. “To add salt to the wounds, my sister would go berserk every time she looked at me. She would pin me to the floor and punch me until she wore her arms out. She would also rip up my clothes, which got me in more trouble with my mother. She once ripped up a book that I needed to read. All those acts of cruelty were out of envy that she would not have control of the house when she was of age. “School was no better. I was enrolled in the borough’s elite school. The classrooms were the only places I could be myself. Unfortunately, my sociality lacked terribly. For years, I spoke with a stutter and I would hunch over, afraid that others would call me names or crack my fragile bones. For that, I blame Lucia. The worst of the other children to assault me was a girl I met under the wrong circumstances when I was fourteen. Her name was Avery. She would regularly stalk me between classes and after school, to call me names—the worst one being Twee Cack—and to mash my face in mud or anything that could cling to my fur. She was worshipped by other girls for having the quickest wits, whatever her idea of that was. “What crossed the line is the day I my mother announced my betrothal. I was to marry the daughter of her best friend—assuming they are friends. That turned out to be none other than Avery. It was the moment I put my foot down. I shouted, ‘No! I’m not marrying this bitch! I had it with her and I had it with you!’ I broke into a rant. ‘All my life you’ve been controlling me, starving me, cuffing me, and calling me worthless just because I can’t keep up with school and because I’m fuckin’ left-handed!’ As she was about to speak, I added, ‘Not done. Don’t even think about claiming that I’m like the devil because you know it’s a load of bollocks. Maybe you’re so difficult because you’re jealous of father laying with whoever he finds at a bloody brothel, but Sister is difficult because she wants control of the house and you don’t care because you’re a bloody bitch. Well, I am done. I am done with your condescension, I am done with the abuse, I am done with being pushed hard, and unless you can respect what I want, I am done with you!’ “She answered me with a punch in my face. For that, I tackled her to the ground and punched her repeatedly, whilst her ‘friend’ and Avery just stood by. I took whatever things I could, along with as much gold as I could lift from my parents’ bed chamber, and a kitchen knife that I kept under my pillow. I used it to threaten, to keep all those bitches away from me. “Living in the slums was actually the best thing to happen to me. Being destitute and having little to eat was nothing I couldn’t handle. To make a living, I sold my body to strangers, which led to my realisation of my sexuality. Unfortunately, that was when things went downhill. As I sold myself more and more, I became lonelier and lonelier. That was until the day I found myself working at a brothel. “Even still, I was hard to make happy. I never opened up to the women of the brothel where I’ve been living for the past four years. I am only twenty-four years old as I write this. Even though I would interact with the women and slowly became social with them, I haven’t been as happy for as long as I can remember. I believe that as no one can accept a leftie, no one can accept a man who loves men. I do not believe in it, but Lucia, Garret—my father—and my sister Patricia can all rot in hell. Over the time of working at this brothel, I met them again through the use of a hallucinogenic, hoping to face them in that form, but I cannot remember anymore how those fights against those forms end. “To you, my reader: I want you to know that I love you. This has been from the heart. This is who I am. Yet, I plan to part with this world.” ----- Here I am again in Ventine, now to recuperate from my adventure. The serval at the gate is surprised again by my arrival, but lets me through. As I tread the sand-covered landscape, I hear the speech of various voices as well as the sounds of amusement from children playing and the guards grunting as they spar or perform a series of stretches or from weightlifting. It is the grounds frequented by guards, recruits, and operatives that I pass and they all pause—I can tell—from seeing the she-wolf with the violet eye again. When I have my luggage left in the cabin that I can sleep in, I head back into the exercise grounds as I still have time, this whole area covered with sand and taken up by benches with pulleys or weights, wooden tables, and racks of weapons from swords to guns to clubs. I stand out among all these people for how I dress. I wear my grey suit whereas all these men and women are only half-dressed. I find the one that I seek, observing a specific spar between two jackals. The Savannah Wolf wears only black trousers with a sash. When I walk up to him, he tells me, “Your visits should get more frequent, I presume.” I reply, “You are right to.” I watch the spar with him. As I see nothing to talk about, I note that Themba folds his arms and watches sternly, but he knows that there is a reason I am in the sanctuary now. There always is. Upon seeing the fight brought to its end, Themba commands them to do a series of stretches and then get something to eat. Themba then turns to me, telling me, “This is no social call, I presume as well.” I take a long inhale and exhale before I look at him tenderly. I say lowly, “You told me: in this journey of mine, there will be casualties… You were right, Themba…” He shifts to me, to wrap his arms around me. He says, “No battle is without losses on both sides. It is some-ting you cannot control.” I pull away, to look into his eyes, and I respond, “I thought I could make someone having nothing to with my missions happy. But he was miserable, too far gone to be pulled out of the abyss.” To make another point, Themba states, “Dare ‘ave been many instances when I needed to risk a life to take a life. You will find dat as well.” I sigh and turn aside, remembering what happened before I restarted that fight with Samuels before beheading him, but I dare not tell my dear friend about it. I speak, “I have turned to other criminals—those working for Jack—to ‘elp with a child liberation. Surely, you’re no stranger to child labour and slavery.” Themba nods. So, I continue, “It is not just police from whom I require assistance. After all”—I pull out a pouch carrying money—“how else d-you think I get all this money?” Themba objects, “You sound like it’s a bad thing, but I know why you do this.” The pouch in my pocket again, I speak, “I still think that such people deserve to be dead and not having a bloody tombstone.” We start walking together when Themba tells me, “I am familiar with the saying of you Symphonites, and I believe that to be where you are, Sister.” (“Come on, Love. At least a bite”, Clement told me. “You know you need to eat.” After finding Gaston dead, I was so depressed that I hadn’t eaten for two days. It was just as well that I didn’t eat the porridge in front of me. I always hated it, but we had to make do. This time, it wasn’t the taste that prevented me. I sensed Clement next to me. I wasn’t even tempted to get up and walk away from him. He said, “I know you’re sad about that boy, but life goes on. He wouldn’t want you to be this way if he knew.” I still acted as if I was frozen. So, Clement continued, “It is a part of life. You can’t let this get you down. All that you can do is move forward. I know you blame yourself, but it’s that wolf’s fault.” At that moment, I started to cry again. I was too distant from my emotions to cry but I did now. (I asked through my sobs, “Why did he do it?” (Clement rubbed my back, telling me, “That wolf was too far gone. It wos something the life of crime and poverty that changed ‘im if he was not always that way. He must ‘ave been a coward, for only a bloody coward would hurt his own pup… Whotever the reason, he killed ‘is son. The police met ‘im and he admitted to the act. Justice is served. When the authorities are aware of who the killer is, that killer gets arrested and a sentence is passed down. With all that done, they close that case, and move on to the next one.” He still rubbed my back, but I felt no better. (Before long, I heard my mother speak, following the door opening, “Is everything okay?” (I nodded quickly, and my mother quickly came to me, to hug me from behind. I had two people who loved me very much. That is all that a child could have that they ask for.) I am in the Great Temple of Mau-Re, on one knee and facing the floor, awaiting the call of the cat that I hold above all. The familiar voice says, “Rise, my child.” I look up, showing my face. I have my blazer on the bench to my left. “High Priestess”, I say sombrely. “I came to speak of a failure of mine.” She tells me, “You may.” I rise, but I do not stand, out of politeness to have my eyes near-level with her emerald eyes. “I met another cat. He lived and worked at a brothel that was not also home to a drug operation. However, he kept his own, claiming to be how he faces his demons. He was like me, left-handed. He also loved men the way he should have loved women. I wanted to help him… but I was too late… He took his own life…” The High Priestess approached me, clad in her white robes and blue sashes, but also with a pendant on her. She placed her hands upon my shoulders, telling me, “I know what is in your heart, my child. You wish to help others in time of need. What you must remember is that you cannot protect everyone from danger, even their own.” “You are right, High Priestess”, I admit, feeling like I could cry. She takes her hands off of me, and backs up. So, I stand up. She tells me, “De cat named Holly: she told us you sent her. She has been isolated as she was treated for her… addiction, but she has not been well… so I was told, and she cried for hours on end each day, calling for death, which I assume means you…” “I will see her”, I state. “I understand that she has not been de only prostitute addicted to opiates, but treatment will not be enough if you bring more of dem here.” I nod, understanding what she means. Shortly after having dinner with the rest, I unwind at the bathhouse, and place my arms on the edges of the massive tub, just soaking in the hot water, the steam being as relaxing. In minutes, I am joined by a familiar cat. The grey and black cat with a green eye and a blue eye. She is as naked as I am. I comment, “You knew I would come to this place.” “I hoped to see my saviour again”, Holly replies. I lower an arm and tell her, “Come ‘ere.” She shifts near me, and I wrap my arms around her. “You missed me immediately?” “The doctor reckoned that I wanted to die. So, everyone was confused about what I wanted.” I admit sadly, “I tried to help another courtesan, but I failed…” “You shouldn’t give up on that”, Holly whines. “There will always be failures; even I know that.” I then become serious, stating, “You wanted more than to thank me fer yer freedom.” She pulls away, to lift an arm, showing a burn mark on her arm, where I saw the house crest. Now it is burnt out. “I want to repay you, Death, with more than sexual pleasure.” I object lowly, “No, Holly, it is too soon. You might have expertise, but it is too dangerous fer you at this time.” She sighs, looking down. “I must be ahead of meself.” She then moves close to me again, to feel my embrace. “I still wish t-be of assistance. If I am ever deemed fit to join the spy network.” I rub her back, and she starts to purr as I respond, “It is still a goal to enjoy.” My hunt is still ongoing, but for now, giving comfort to someone who’s been helpless is something that I love to do.
  3. Six: Inside the Smoke (I knew just what my mother and Clement would say when I wanted to help Gaston. I was tempted to take the butcher knife and storm in that house, to stab the man attacking him. I was smart enough to know that no pup was to be treated like that. No one would ever lay their hands on a pup in anything but affectionately. (I went the second half of the school day, carrying more coin than I needed. I had become a spy already, and was making more from it in addition to the pickpocketing. All that I wanted was to get out of this place for a better one, but this felt more important. (When walking home from school with Gaston as usual by the end of the day, I presented the stack of coins that I’d been carrying, telling him, “This’s fer you.” (“Really?” he asked, gobsmacked. He suddenly turned grim, adding, “I can’t accept that money.” (“But I insist”, I objected. “I was afraid you were eating less than I do.” (“I appreciate it, but…” It had to have something about the man he called “Papa”. I silently insisted by lifting my arm slightly. So, the pup gave in. Gaston slowly took the coins in hand. (I added, “Please, don’t look back.” I then headed quickly toward my house. We were already a fair distance. Once that was done, I needed something to get that off my mind. The examination was near. So, I asked my mother if she could help me study.) ----- I have barely rested, following the burning of another brothel, another place of oppression. I already keep a souvenir from my escapade in my suitcase, but that is to wait. I regret the choice to not accompany the young cat Holly on the train, but I have put my business first. I still have money to afford to stay in town, but where I go has its slums as much as any place. Again, I can feel the desperation of every living being around me, but I can only heed so many pleas for help, even from the pair of kittens that I pass, begging, “Please, just a few coins. We’re starving.” And this is only in the area of houses made of wooden planks, with only the occasional sign of some beating. According to Jack, Ashcrown is a breeding ground for criminals. The time to see that for myself has come. And there is no better place for proof than in its poorer areas. No one seems to mind the she-wolf with the eyepatch, carrying a suitcase as well as a purse. The beggars are not the only source of noise in the rundown part of town. I hear pairs of strangers arguing about the petty things. I hear threats to beat or maim. I hear harassments about overdue payments, which apparently a landlord takes pleasure in. Not the same landlord, but I ask one, a grey wolf, “Can you point me to an inn?” He answers, “Aye.” Pointing, he continues, “To the east. Place colled Lockhart Pines. It’s also a pub.” “Cheers”, I respond. It cannot be hard to miss if people here can read, as I pay attention to the signs, and before long, I find it. As a building of beige bricks, it is hard to miss among several wooden constructs. However, its sign looks dilapidated, the edges have taken bullets or hammers—maybe both—and one window on the front is broken. I walk inside the inn, finding the wooden walls painted white. A ragged-looking coyote occupies the beaten desk, and asks, “A room, Ma’am?” “Please”, I answer. The coyote, wearing a white shirt, brown slacks, and a green vest, turns away, to take a key, and hands it to me, the number painted on it. He tells me, “We charge three pounds per night. We’ve only one loo and one kitchen.” The mention of the loo reminds of the previous time I’ve bathed. I already give off an odour, but that’s unimportant right now. I thank the coyote and head in the hall next to the desk as the room given to me is on the same floor. The hall is given ridiculously flashy wallpaper, which has no sign of peeling, but many scratches. The room that I am given hasn’t the broken window, as I see, and the room is just enough space for me to eat, this time at a rectangular table, which has some kinds of crust on its counter, the bed having a wooden frame, but no headboard. I sit down, to test its sturdiness, and I am confident that the frame and mattress will support my weight. There is no table next to the bed, but there is a wardrobe standing out among pale-pink walls. “Ross Samuels. Great Gam. He is known as a manufacturer in Giffard’s massive opium cartel. Like the many who run factories, he uses children to do his dirty work. Another big member of Giffard’s inner circle—or should I say two—contact Samuels on when child slaves are open for him. However, he has his own agents to separate children from their parents, mainly rodents. The factory run by Samuels has been masqueraded as a steel mill, and it was that before Giffard bought it. It still has the original name: Malleo and Company.” The note ends with the mention of the owner of one Jack’s pubs. No longer having my eyepatch on and wearing only my white shirt and grey slacks, I open the window, and howl lyrically out, nose pointing to the sky. I need only wait a few seconds before I hear the flapping of a pair of wings, and then I back up. There the raven is, cocking his head, his pale-green eyes glistening in the daylight. “Michibiku”, I whisper to him. ----- Clad in my navy-blue suit, my brown vest, and having my golden mask on, I head to the pub called Knight of Clovich, guided by my raven friend, two rolls and a chop in my hands. I am armed; one cannot be too sure. I get curious looks my way, probably that I look up more than I look ahead. Upon hearing the raven caw, I break into a run, seeing the pub, which is made of wood, having glass windows, and the name is shaped from wood on the green-shingled roof. I enter, getting more of curious looks from others, and I approach the bar counter, asking the bartender, a well-groomed brown rabbit, to have the chop cooked for me along with bell pepper. About fifteen minutes later, I get that meat on a platter and ask for a pint of Kabal Kane Ale, which the barman gladly hands me. After finishing my lunch, I take a look around the place. The pub has the scum of the borough. I recognise an otter wearing glasses, who I know to be a smuggler that I have no qualms with. No one else I recognise, who seek a quarrel with Lady Death. Having paid the barman, I look to the end of the counter, taking interest in a deer scowling at me. I approach him. When only a centimetre away from him, I say, “Tell yer boss, Lady Death wants t-see ‘im.” The deer leans to the side, and then to the other, before scowling at me again, and answering, “Only fer the sake of peace in ‘ere.” He turns around, leading me to the short and narrow hall. He knocks twice on the door, before opening it, not waiting for an answer. I am gobsmacked at the comparison of this office to that of Jack at the Queen o’ Clubs. The floorboards, I can tell, are filthy from gathering dust and scum. The walls are plain, save for a personal liquor cabinet, a safe, and a small bookcase. At the plain desk, is a rottweiler. I can tell by his black fur, his flap-like ears, and his brown chin. This dog is dressed in a blue pinstripe suit over a white work shirt. He grins and stands up, commenting, “Well if it ain’t Lady Death.” I reply, “I can guess where you’ve ‘eard stories about me, but I came t-you only ta talk.” His smile seems to disappear, and he only seems to freeze. He looks down for a moment, and then shoots his muzzle back toward me. He then says, “Leave us.” I hear the stag walk out the door, closing it behind him. He speaks a moment later. “Marius Dolan.” He extends his arm, and pauses. After awkwardly lowering his arm, he adds, “What’re yeh wai-in for? Come over ‘ere.” I reluctantly advance to the desk, but I don’t sit down like he does. Still a little nervous at the sight of me, he asks, “How shall I entertain the self-proclaimed embodiment of death?” I pull out a page, one of the letters that I have, but show the back of it, on which a mark is drawn. I state, “MacNiadh tells me, you’ve information that may help me.” The rottweiler scowls at me, replying, “I know this symbol as well as any shady dealer. It is a crest: the ‘ouse of Lowell.” I say plainly, “Jack thinks that I am mad to pursue Giffard Lowell.” Dolan barks, “He might be right. Anything can cause an outburst from that fiery sod.” I finally sit in the dusty seat of the plain wooden chair, which is surprisingly stable, and request, “Turn the page over.” Dolan reluctantly does so, to know the message that I’ve drawn on the back of. I add, “MacNiadh informed me that you’ve knowledge of one Ross Samuels. Whatever he knows, he’d either no time or space in the notes that he gave me.” I can just tell that his expression goes grim. Dolan gets up slowly from his chair, and heads to his bookcase. He returns to his desk barely two seconds later, sitting down with two long and thin boxes, which he separates. He states, “There is no way one can’t compare an opiate to poison.” He opens the smaller box, and I see what he means, for he reveals a black spider with a red hourglass on its back, and very long legs. Dolan then goes into an explanation. “A long time ago, I was in the subtropics, among… shall we say, aggressive merchants. I saw ra lo’ o’ bloodshed in me time there. I am all too familiar with what the venom from a Black Widow spider can do t-you. There was a breeder interested. So, I bought one o’ them, knowing of its venom. I relied on only ‘er to guard my wares. Eventually, I found a part of culture that I wanted to take ‘ome.” He opens the wider box and lifts the item from it. It looks like a knife, except the blade is angled, and I instinctively look down at the hilt of my left Khopesh. I stand up, drawing from my left scabbard with my left hand, and compare the hooked blade to the bent blade, awestruck. Calm despite my gesture, Dolan states, “It is colled a Kukri.” I sheathe my Khopesh. As I sit down, he adds, “It is either tradition or superstition that when a Kukri is brought to a battlefield, it must taste an enemy’s blood.” “And this one tasted blood?” Setting it on the counter, Dolan returns to explanation. “I was not much of an experienced fighter then. So, I had an idea. I relied on the Black Widows, but not to bite. They all died, except the one I kept with my wares, from someone I paid to extract the venom, and I laced this blade with it.” He taps the hilt at the end of that statement. “Where I was stationed, I supplied gunpowder and bullets, and those people were desperate. So, I did what no one would have guessed: I infiltrated a hideout, and used the venom-laced Kukri to leave cuts in the enemy soldiers, but I repeatedly stabbed the captain. All of them in their sleep. “I heard from informants the day after, that the captain was reported dead, and the soldiers on duty were incapacitated. The men I worked for, seized that chance, and it was a slaughter. I was tempted to throw this Kukri in the sea, but I keep it as a reminder. I had my security spider stuffed when she died, and abandoned the military for Jack.” I take in that story, but only for a moment. “I’m familiar with scorpion venom. I know that their venom can make one ill, cause a searing fever. It is only lethal to the young and the elderly.” “Same with Black Widow venom. It causes illness, but it can cause muscle paralysis, leading to breathing problems.” Dolan places the Kukri and the glass case of the spider back in their boxes and closes them. “As you know that opiates may be effective on pain, they can be terribly addictive if taken more than once.” I state, “Jack told me that Samuels relies on only children for ‘is dirty work.” Dolan folds his arms and explains, “He’s right about that. Workers are easiest to make docile if you’ve children operating the equipment. I believe the stories of all that tedium breaking one’s spirit, and no one takes it harder than children. As you know that vermin ‘ave a nasty ‘abit o’ multiplying, they’re perfect to be made slaves. I’ve seen depression on the faces of parents ‘aving fallen fer lies that the rat pups would never go hungry again.” I interrupt, “And how do you know all this?” “Words of a child”, he answers bluntly. “Children see a lo’ o’ shit. So, it’s ‘ard t-not believe them. I’ve a li-ul rabbit, leadin’ me small network of informants, consisting of other children. They can absorb information like a sponge. And when child slaves are suddenly homeless, they’ve nothin’ t-lose.” I inquire, “What know they of Malleo and Company?” “That the fumes of what they are forced to mix compares to venom. It ‘tames’ them, but I believe that the smoke would cause early death. Because of opium fumes, all that they can do is follow orders, as if they have forgotten even animal instincts.” He looks down sadly as he continues, “The children work the equipment all day, and what food they are given is only scraps of what the guards and their foreman, Samuels, ate that day. Even worse, his agents, very loyal puppets of ‘is, either wrench those children away in front of their parents and others—police unable to keep up—or they deceive the parents into ‘anding their children over, fer money that no one would get.” Noting my scowl and that I fume as I breathe, the rottweiler adds, “It gets worse: they operate even when the sun is down. If yeh don’ believe me, go in after dinner and yeh’ll see.” I start to pace as I speak, “They need be away from the machines and as far away from the factory as possible. But if I make the mixing stop first, the guards will be alerted.” I stop and focus on the dog, the second I hear Dolan’s voice. “The building ‘as three floors, but only one bell, and anyone entering a factory that is no worker or guard is a trespasser. The boilers are ‘ow the fumes carry, the top floor gettin’ the worst of it. The stirring is left to levers an’ labour.” I sigh, but from a thought, which I give Dolan: “I kin spring them from that prison, but where kin they go?” Dolan offers, “Me men will ‘elp yeh. They wait outside the front doors whilst yeh do what yeh go fer.” “So willingly?” I question. “I know as well as you do”, Dolan answers nonchalantly, leaning back. “MacNiadh is Giffard’s best-known, if not greatest, rival. Takin’ out Giffard’s head of opium manufacturing is a win fer me boss.” “Loyal dog, I see”, I quip coldly. And he chuckles at that. Dolan then states, “I’ll send some-a me best brutes an’ gunners t-follow yeh from an ‘ouse beneath the train track in the borough’s easternmost area. That’s one-a the slums.” “You’ll know when I finish”, I tell him plainly. That’s when I head out the door, but when I depart from the pub, where I head is not straight to the factory. ----- In the same nice part of the borough, I find a chapel that I could use for picking up my suit and my weapons, and that’s where I’m changed into my grey pinstripe suit and I have my eyepatch. Through my exploration, I hear a woman shout, “Oi! That’s not yours! Thief!” From round the bend, I see a bulldog running, and right toward me. I follow the instinct to stop him. Upon meeting the bulldog, I punch him squarely in the snout, and he stumbles backwards. I spot a bronze chain carrying a deep-blue stone in a frame of the same bronze, standing out among his dusty-brown suit and no shirt under the jacket. I pick the bauble up, along with a pouch. Another dog, with the same voice that I’ve heard, speaks, “Oh, you stopped ‘im. Thank you.” I gently place the necklace in her hand. That dog is a husky in a striped business dress. She repeats, “Thank you. This is one of me favourites.” I walk by, and I hear a grunt, probably a swift kick from the husky. Where I head next is not so far away, and a reasonable distance from the church. I decide it to be where I satisfy a personal need. My raven friend perches upon my shoulder as I stand outside that building, and I tell him, “Yasumase.” He lifts off again before I even begin walking again. This place has a simple name: Bright Nancy’s. The owner affords the luxury to have the letters as bricks brought together, and painted white. The building itself is not so shabby, either, being built of both bricks and wood. Upon entering, I see that the place is decent, as there is someone practicing a harpsichord on a stage opposite the doorway, a few patrons paying attention to it, many of the tables occupied for this time of day among the wooden walls and floorboards. I head to the bar, which is to the left from entering, greeted by a squirrel looking slender and clad in a blue business dress. She asks kindly, “Can I ‘elp yeh, Ma’am?” I ask back, “Is there anyone available for a private session?” “Just one”, she answers. She points past me. “That cat.” The cat is the one practicing the harpsicord on the stage, and he wears a hemmed work shirt with suspenders for black work pants. His fur is grey. After taking in his appearance, I turn back to the squirrel, commenting, “I did not expect a male courtesan.” “Almost no one does”, she scoffs. She adds, “That’s David. He tries to do a lot here when his day of sex is slow.” I scowl at the vulgarity that I take. I turn to the cat again, before I turn back to the squirrel, telling her, “D-yeh know ‘ow much”- She interrupts, “An ‘undred pounds.” “Let your boss know, I’ll ‘ave ‘im.” The squirrel heads to the far side of the bar, to use some kind of pulley. The owner even had the luxury of gears and chains. I turn around, and the second I do, I see the cat get up from the bench, and he heads toward me. He’s handsome with his yellow-green eyes, his fur neat. I tell him, “I came for a courting session.” He shrugs and answers, “As you wish. Follow me.” I comply, going with him to the hall, which splits, and he takes me to the left side, and then to the end of the line. The cat tells me, “This is my room.” Green and pale-pink wallpaper taking up the walls disgusts me, and makes an awful combination with the burgundy finish on the plain headboard of the bed, which has worn-out blankets and pillows. The wardrobe looks dirty and the plain nightstand has not even candlestick. He then adds, “So, whot does the lady ask of me, David?” I reply, “The lady wishes only for courting followed by a cuddle.” “Yes, Ma’am”, David responds, clearly unenthusiastic about it, and yet he makes himself look eager, based on how fast he takes off his clothes. David is slow with undressing me, taking the time to go back and forth, hanging up my blazer and then my shirt. He doesn’t even give me foreplay when he unfastens my belt and my pants, which he hangs up as well. However, he leaves my corset as a pile on the floor before he guides me to his bed. He then asks, “How d-yeh wish t-proceed?” “Like this”, I answer, moving his hands to my breasts. As I lay on my back, he cups them and plays with them, nuzzling into me, but he’s not purring at all. I lift my head, to see that he’s barely aroused, if at all. All that he does is massage my breasts and his nuzzling ends as he eventually explores my body with his hands. He massages my abdomen and my buttocks, alternating, and grinds against my nether regions. I can feel it; he has a problem doing this, not just because someone of his position does this, many times each day. As much I enjoy the massage with his fingers, I see that it must reach its climax eventually. I “guide” one of his paws to my nether regions. Heeding the silent order, he lifts his hand, and his fingers, then slick, enter me. He explores the inside with his fingers, until he pulls out, and I feel his rough tongue enter me, though I hear him groaning. It puts me off as much as the adrenaline builds. All too soon, his member enters me. I’ve experienced a man in me before, and it has never been like this. He still tries to harden inside me, and I feel my loins burn until I explode on him. That’s when he pulls out. I see that his member is not fully erect and he didn’t have his orgasm. I inquire, “Is there a rule here against releasing yer seed?” The cat answers irritably, “Nay. And I am tryin’.” “Let me ‘elp, then.” Before he can object, I have a paw on his member. He still barely hardens, if at all, as I massage with one hand, but something is wrong still. David has his muzzle pointing upward, his eyes closed as he moans, until I feel my hand warming. I see that David has reached his orgasm, but it’s not the climax that either of us expected. It’s a wonder he’s managed to enable my orgasm. After licking up his seed, I tell him lowly, “Come ‘ere.” I bring David in a cuddle as I requested. Suddenly, he looks as if he could cry from the disappointment, as I see when bringing him in my arms (I’m bigger than him). I then inquire, “So, what was the problem?” “I wasn’t up to it”, he mutters. “No shit”, I comment. “We do a lot that we’re not up to.” David sighs before he looks up and confesses, “I’m never up to sex with women…” He pauses as if he expects a comment, but he then continues, “You’d think that it’s disenchantment from me ‘eart breakin’ one too many times, but the truth is what I am. And there are too few willing to confess it and embrace it. I have long since accepted it, but it didn’t change me life fer the be-ur.” I state, “I’m aware of the brothels with homosexuality as their theme.” David chooses to be snide, his response being, “There’s none of those in Knightsedge or Tolden.” The mention of Knightsedge makes me wonder if that’s where David is from, as I sense an aristocratic tone in his speech. I tell him, “I come to brothels mainly to sate my lust like mos’ do. And I know fer a fact that this is an honest brothel, knowing that it’s not used as a drug cache.” David asks, “What about those that are part of drug operations?” I choose not to answer. So, he adds, “Sorry. I don’ mean t-pry.” He begins to stroke the white tuft below my grey neck, and then stroke through the black fur of my chest. “Prying is an ‘abit of mine, though… If yeh can’t fully satisfy a woman, why d-you still work here?” The cat sighs, “Because I do almost all other menial jobs t-make up fer it. And I wonder if the Madame pities me too much to evict me.” He continues stroking the fur of my chest and abdomen, which feels nice. “What about you? How d-you get by?” “I kill people”, I admit. He breathes, “I may ‘ave guessed.” He looks up at me as he strokes my fur, clearly focused on the patch on my right eye. Eyepatches are for those who have lost an eye, or for former sailors so used to them. “How long have you bin doin’ it?” “Three years”, I answer plainly. That is true. “I’ve killed criminals. More than y-think.” David is quiet, but he still strokes my fur, slowly moving his hand up and down my chest and abdomen, as if he’s curious about what scars I might or might not have. I look down at him, telling him, “I know that you mean well, Cat, but I’ve my own business t-deal with.” I lick his nose and slowly get up from the bed. Not looking back, I ask, “Did your boss afford the luxury of a bathhouse, as well?” “Downstairs”, the cat answers. “I should lead you.” I heed that piece of advice. I take my pants from the hanger in his open wardrobe, so I can leave my money for him on his nightstand. The bathhouse is nicer than the rest of the brothel as the walls are all bricks and cement, and there are several tubs, their faucets attached to the same boiler suspended above, which David turns on for me. He wants to make my time with him worth the charge, for he offers to clean me up, and I don’t refuse the offer. I don’t even know until after he finishes rinsing me off that he’s brought my suit along, including the corset. Upon getting dressed again, I tell the cat, “I like you. I’ll come back fer you.” I hear him sigh as he watches me exit the bathhouse. I plan to see more of the borough before heading the fake mill. ----- (“What is this place?” I asked my mother when we entered the first construct that I’d seen, larger than fifteen houses brought together. (She chuckled, “This is the Tenebra Angela Concert Hall.” She and Clement led me to the stairs covered by red velvet like the rest of the floor from the front gates. Where I am led is to the top, and most distant from the stage. It was made apparent that at this time of year, there were full houses for plays and symphonies. We were here for the latter. (By the time I saw a feline in a black suit, a white vest, a white shirt, and a white bowtie, the crowd quieted. That man waited until everyone was quiet, as if his sternness told them to. I couldn’t thank him enough for making the noise die down. He turned around, opening some kind of book, and the bright-red curtain drew back, revealing an array of felines and canines in suits prepared to play their instruments, as well as a smaller array behind them, in robes that were their uniform. I could hear the tap, before that feline began a series of gestures, and the instruments played as if he controlled the players. That was the first part of this to fascinate me. (I felt as if something triggered inside me. I had my arms propped on the railing as I listened intently to the dramatic overture. No doubt my mother and Clement stayed close, making sure that I wouldn’t fall over. I just stood there, taking in the instruments sounding in unison to create something to pull me in, and I created a moment in my head, the music inspiring my imagination. (Eventually, I sat down as my feet hurt, but I still listened intently, my back arched, my elbows propped on my legs. I still stayed on the balcony during the intermission, and we stayed for the rest of the performance, the symphony ending with melancholy, but it was something that I wanted to remember for years to come.) ----- This factory is as much of a place of oppression as any factory. I have heard of unfair treatment of workers in places such as this, but this may be the worst if it relies only on kidnapped children to make into mindless slaves. It looks as normal as any place of manual labour. The construct stands out among dilapidated houses as this building is of bricks and stone. However, I hesitate to head inside, having been informed of the fumes of the drug carrying, not thinking that the fact is incorrect. I hear someone approach from behind and ask, “Wai-in’ fer some miracle?” I instinctively turn my head, showing my face concealed by my golden mask, and I find various canines in business suits having arrived. “S’ all righ’ if yeh’re nervous, Love”, the same voice adds. I sigh before confessing, “I know me onions about conditions of factories, but not enough.” Another canine tells me, “We’ll be righ’ be-ind you. Yeh need other sets of eyes out ‘ere whilst yeh do yer thing, and a group to escort the children t-safety.” I examine the wall of the main entrance, which is open, before stating plainly, “I’ll improvise a signal fer you to begin your part.” I then head straight to the open entry gate, the lights of its fires and the smoking standing out in the night sky. The sounds of the steam hissing, the gears and chains rattling, and the crackling of the fires were their loudest upon walking inside, and the ground is all rocks and dirt on this level. Two hulking metal contraptions carry up to the building’s third level, and from here as I look up, the fumes are visible. I head to the machine on my left, which has a lot of support from a large cube. It has an open and narrow pipe and a long lever. I see a young rat turn the lever to let out a white gel that fills up a canister below the pipe’s opening. The rat turns the lever back, and the flow stops. Another rat closes the canister and takes it to a crate, needing a ladder to reach the top of it. I approach the rat watching some indicator, telling him when to turn the lever again and whisper, “Oi.” The young rat, startled, turns to me. He looks so fragile at a close range. He wears only ragged slacks, revealing a chest and back with scars as well as his slender figure. He stutters, “Y-y-you… c-can’t… b-be here.” I tell him lowly, “I came to ‘elp. I will tell that to the others above. Jus’ stay calm.” “Aye, miss”, the rat says plainly, as if he’s in a trance unlike the second I captured his attention. My attention is caught a second later— By a full-blown Symphonian-accented female voice speaking, “What’s oll this then?” I swiftly turn around, to a dog in a business suit. I quickly draw my Khopesh with my left hand and the dog shouts, “Intru”-. She’s cut off by the blade slashing her throat as quickly as I draw it. However, I am too late to catch her body. All I can do is drag the limp dog behind the crate, muttering, “Bloody knob head” to myself. I then hurry to other machine releasing the substance, and I tell the two young rats stationed at it, “I’m ‘ere ter ‘elp. Sit tight whilst I inform the others. Be ready to run.” I get only a nod from each of them as an answer. I slowly head to the stairs to the next floor, but slowly and with my eyes closed, to listen for footsteps of others nearby, but it’s hard to make out among the machines’ noises. On this floor, I find more rats, in unison, shovelling coals into a large fire. I’m too late again to avoid more noise as one of the young rats drops her shovel. I dash to hide behind the walls of the furnace. I whisper, “I’m ‘ere ter ‘elp. Jus’ keep doin’ what y-do. Be ready to run when I say.” “And go where?” The same female rat asks me. I whisper, “There is a group outside. They’ll get you far away from ‘ere.” Another Symphonian-accented voice, this one male, barks, “Who said y-kin stop working?” A voice of one of the two male rats begs, “We are trying, sir, but we are exhausted.” The dog says coldly, “That’s not me problem. If I could make yeh sod off, I would.” I hear the dog approach, by hearing him shove the mouse pups aside, and I end quickly draw my Khopesh, and I move to tackle him— But he sees it coming, for he catches my arm. He then shouts, “Intruder! Sound the bell!” Another major cockup on my part. I quickly draw my right Khopesh, and manage to slash him upward from the midsection to the line of his collar bone, managing to stop him from drawing his gun. The second he loses grip of my left arm, I slash his throat with that Khopesh. I then quickly sheathe my blades, to toss the dog in the furnace. I’m too late to do anything about the other guard on this floor, as he has reached the bell, which he madly rings. I still dash toward him, Khopeshes drawn, and I have him pinned to the floor before he can draw his gun. With both Khopeshes, I stab him in the chest. I growl at that everyone is now alert. I still hurry to the other furnace—but there two dogs are, already waiting to find their intruder, and they need not search for long. The pair splits up, and I kneel before I sweep the one just facing me, with my leg, and I slash her throat. The other dog turns out to be a female as well, and she expects a fight, as she dodges a swipe of each of my blades. So, I leap aside and manage to slash her arm, making her lose grip of her gun, but she hastily draws a butcher knife as she backs away from another two swings of my Khopeshes. She then retaliates, dashing to me. Reflexively, I make a scissor motion, my blades gashing her midsection. I leap backwards, to avoid her falling body as well as her knife. I head up the stairs, the only way up— And I am immediately met by gunfire. I do not know how many guns fire at once until I look up while crouching. I can try blocking the volleying bullets with my Khopeshes but that has far too much risk. There are four dogs, including the Great Gam that my target is. My choices of movement are far too limited. And all that the many rat pups and four kittens in rags at the mixers do is watch in horror, as if they expect pain upon hearing bullets fire. I do not know how many bullets these dogs are willing to spend, but all guns simultaneously fire again. All I do is make a motion and they fire again. I leap toward the mixer of the side that I’m on. They open fire on me again, but I hear a Symphonian-accented voice call, “Stop! We can’t risk sullying the machines!” That is my only edge. It buys me a few seconds, for I hear a female bark, “I got ‘er!” I see the female dog, a rottweiler in a suit of disgusting green, leap at me— And I leap in turn, managing to drive my blades in her midsection before she can shoot me, but it drives the rest of the dogs to shoot at me, and I use the limp rottweiler, still having my Khopeshes in her midsection, and the bullets land in her, but the dogs fire at me again and again, making me wonder if any of those bullets can get through her, and kill me. When I finally pull the blades out, I hold both Khopeshes in my right hand, and pick up the female rottweiler’s gun, but to eject its bullets and to throw at the dog on the other side, which he ducks from. On the dog that I approach next, knowing that he needs to reload, I gash across his chest in a reverse-scissor motion, which breaks his ribs. I tackle him down and, with my left Khopesh, I slash up his lower muzzle. There is another rottweiler, who has just reloaded his pistol. Before he can shoot, I use the hook of the blade to slash his forearm, and he drops the pistol. I then drive my Khopeshes in his midsection, getting the hooks on the ends of the blades on the ribs. With that leverage and a force made apparent by a bark, I shove him over the metal railing. When I finally catch up with the Great Gam— He still has people to hide behind, for, to my rage and horror, he stands in front of me, with a skinny cat, whose matted pelt is brown and white with black stripes, and Samuels has his gun’s barrel pressed against the cat’s head. He tells me, “Drop those toys. Or this kitten’s death is on your conscience.” “This is between you and me”, I growl lowly. “Fight me like the man you are.” Samuels objects, “You seem t-forget who’s holding the gun, bitch.” I retort, “I look at a coward using children fer ‘is dirty work. If you really want to kill a kitten, you can, but I came for you. Just. To kill you, Samuels. But if I don’t, you might get a new guard that envies you, and would want to betray you, simply to gain Giffard’s recognition.” “A mind game? I expected better. This’s yer last warning: drop the swords and leave here, or this kitty dies.” “What about the rest of them?” I speak, seeing that the other kitten and the rat pups have moved away from the mixer, and they all start biting and clawing at him, which is enough to distract him, and I shove the tabby past him, barking, “Run!” I then use my Khopesh to push his gun aside, followed by a kick, which makes him drop the pistol. The yellow-eyed grey-furred dog moves his cane to his right hand as he backs from my first slash, and then backs further, to avoid my second. He uses his cane to catch my Khopeshes in my scissor motion. Samuels uses that moment to grab another pistol with his left hand from behind his brown tailcoat, barking, “Nice try, bitch!” That only makes me angry, for I make him turn around as I am not letting him cower behind the mixer. Our positions switch. I perform a series of light swipes as feints, stepping toward him as I do so, and my plan works, but he manages to parry my next strike that should be fatal. Samuels uses his cane to lift my Khopeshes by the hooks. All I need to is lift further, but to no avail. So, I butt his head, my mask being my edge there. I yank his cane down, so I can release my grip, and I continue to step toward him, let him think that I am an amateur with swords as I perform another series of thrusts as feints this time, and I give him no time to counter or aim. When reaching the opening leading to his office, I use a series of slashes. Getting his cane aside with my left Khopesh, I use my right Khopesh to slash his left forearm, making him lose grip of his pistol. Holding both the hilts and Samuels’s jacket, I push him to that open space, where the one window is, but that is not the choice that I stand by. I perform three angled swipes before I kick his midsection. I seize this opportunity. First, in a scissor motion, I gash his throat, but I am not done. With growl built to a bark, I perform a reverse-scissor motion, and the body suddenly is limp. I reflexively leap backwards in time, as the head falls and rolls. I watch the limp body fall forward, almost meeting Samuels’s severed head. The blood begins to drain and pool on the floorboards, and I take a long breath out my nostrils. I head to the office, searching the desk and cabinet until I find what I am looking for: letters from two of Giffard’s ring members. I put those in my inner breast pocket, along with a sample of opiate that I’ve picked up, threatening to burn in a hole. I return to the body of Ross Samuels, to strip it, and cut a circle along his back and ribs. Then, holding it by the arms, I successfully shove it out the window. That done, I pick up his severed head. Everything has gone quiet with the mixers and the boilers now idle. Arm stretched out above the railing, I drop the severed dog head, and I barely hear a thump when it lands. Returning to the ground level, I hear murmuring among a few individuals, and I end up meeting Dolan at the front gate. He says irritably, “I didn’t know yehr ‘ad a knack fer showmanship.” Remaining cool, I ask the rottweiler, “So, where will yeh go in this? Will you claim this factory as your own?” “Maybe”, he answers. “But I know I’m claimin’ the merchandise as my own. After all, opium is a potent explosive.” As if he knows something, he adds, “Don’ worry; we can isolate the children and get them over their possible addiction. After that, they can work fer me. Note this, as well: children make for brilliant informants.” I pull out the sample that I’ve been keeping, and state, “I believe this was made here.” The rottweiler takes it, and then waves for one of his men to bring a case. Another dog hands him a paper parcel, which he opens with his teeth as well as he does to the case. He sniffs the sample, and then the drug in the factory’s case. “They match perfectly”, Dolan states. “You also have Samuels’s agents for whom to account. You can find them anywhere here in Ashcrown.” “Just give me their names and species, and I can locate them.”
  4. What brought you to FLO?

    1. Tianti


      Well...I made it. One good reason to be here I guess?

  5. I don't come here often. I almost forgot about having an account on here. So, I'm slowly posting chapters of my book. deviantART is my vice, but that might change soon. It's changed for the worse.
  6. Five: Loyalties (This was a rare sight. Clement came home one Spring night, looking more tired than normal, but wearing a grin. It wasn’t just Sunday night, when we got to have real meat and decent broth, but there seemed to be more coin leftover than normal. I would know because I have seen them stash coins to save for the rent. This time, we might have been able to cover the rent with a pound leftover. (Dinner on Sunday night was like fine dining compared to the rest of week. I just heard my mother and Clement talk with each other about their workday. I just knew that there was something that they didn’t tell me, but I didn’t bite. What had Clement so happy that day was his business, not mine. (Eventually, Clement asked me, “What about you, Love? What were yehr up ta t-day?” (I just hummed a single syllable. I didn’t want to tell them about that day of me stalking people just to get my mind off the pup next door. I had my own stash as well, still. A big festival was to apparently commence before long, but that did nothing to ease me about my mother and Clement’s strictness.) I have established the chapel as my real hideout. It gives me a sense of peace, being away from such miserable atmosphere. I know that my raven friend likes to lurk where there is death. Given the stench of it, I have wondered if feasting on corpses would make him fat. Just being with him in the chapel is enough for now. A night has past since my arrival in the borough. In the middle of the day, I await someone that I have contacted, and the one person to enter the one construct that has been repaired over the years in this neighbourhood is not some priest. I get a whiff of his scent upon him entering through the large doorway, the knockers on the wooden panels long since taken and have never been replaced, and he smells of soot and paper as well as his own musk. This contact is a hulking brown bear, his nose fuming, and he is clad in a ragged tailcoat that he might be too big for. I step out from the corner where I’ve been standing, and surprise him, saying, “I’m glad we got to meet.” The bear turns around, now looking angry, seeing me in my blue suit, complete with my mask. The bear is shirtless under his coat. He speaks, “You call me station and only say yeh want-a see me in the one good building here. It is simply for the desperate need of ‘elp I don’ point me gun at yeh… Vigilante…” I continue the conversation as if ignoring that comment with venom in his voice. “I’ve bin told yer officers are too shallow ter ‘elp a place such as this.” He snorts, “To put it mildly.” “And what if I bring in criminals that are wanted by the police?” “There be quite a selection o’ wanted criminals spread throughout Highcond. There are warrants for arrests, but not all are met. That’s why we introduce bounty hunts. As we much prefer those specific criminals to stand trial and be issued a sentence, you will get a bigger reward if yeh bring them in alive.” I admit, “Turning someone over alive is not me style, but fer your sake, I’ll do that.” I then inquire, “What would be the reward fer bringin’ your police three drug-dealing rats?” The bear leans forward, to meet my level as he hulks over me, and answers, “If I am correct about the rats to which you refer, you will be given two hundred twenty pounds each, if they are brought in alive and with no fatal wound.” I hold out a hand, saying, “Where’re me manners? I am Lady Death.” The bear snorts a laugh, knowing that it’s not my real name. He accepts the handshake, “Lieutenant Payton Wickerson.” His grip is gentle, probably out of worry that he might break my hand. Upon letting go, he continues, “There is more to worry about, as well.” I ask, “Such as?” Wickerson explains, “There have been stories that are, unfortunately, true, about the worst kind of kills. See, carnivores are more desperate than herbivores when living in a place of such poverty. So, other mammals follow that natural instinct. You will find a few that have eaten more than others. Another stench tha-ull make yer skin crawl is that of those to eat their own kind. If yeh come across them, they are beyond ‘elp.” Scowling, I respond, “I will remain as vigilant as you know I am.” Wickerson states, “Me station is in the southeast corner of the borough, among the pub Thorn and Ivy, and a small marketplace. If yeh visit that pub, don’ order their beer; trust me.” He then stands up straight. He is right to think that our conversation is over. “You kin beh on me t-wait fer you.” I nod. “Until then, Lieutenant.” He walks past me. As I watch him exit, the three-legged raven perches on my shoulder, and I just sense him staring at me intently. ----- Having gone over the notes, I rely on the guidance of the raven. I have scaled a house that seems to have just been moulded hours ago as its roof of mud is still wet. Even treading lightly isn’t enough. I could be heavy enough to make the rooftop give way. Even with what speed I use to run along the rooftops and leap to the next, I remain sceptic that I might even break a hole in one of those made of decaying wood. It is barely lunch time when I follow Michi to where one of my targets frequents. Upon seeing the rat that has been nearest to the chapel, I can’t believe my eyes at how short he is. I keep my distance still, standing behind and looking over the peak of a wooden roof with much of its other side gone, cloth in its place. This rat has dark-grey fur like I know them to have, and he is clad in a work shirt and trousers, and he apparently has two stags to accompany him. Those stags, clad in ragged work clothes, their green jackets having a few popped seams, are my real challenge. I hear one of the merchants, a rabbit, complain, “Iggy, I’ve kittens t-feed.” The rat retorts, “Then let ‘em eat what you have here.” The stags look at that rabbit sternly before following their boss to another stand, where he takes a few other items—probably much riper than they should be when eaten—and I see each stag put a hand on one hip. I whisper, “Michi. To me.” He can hear me from maybe a kilometre away, as demonstrated—I’ve lost count of occurrences at some point—being by my side a second away. I wait for the rat and his company to head to an opening between two shacks before I dash and leap to another house with a lower roof, and then to one of those shacks. Upon landing, I quickly lay myself flat, knowing that they hear the thud. I listen for their footsteps, the tapping of the claws on the rat’s feet and pounding of the four hooves against the hard dirt. I then whisper, “Michi.” I pause before I give him a command: “Kougeki nizumi.” I hear the wings flapping, followed by cawing and the rat shouting, “What the fuck? Get away, load-a fuckin’ muck!” While the rat yells insults at the raven, I stand up, my left Khopesh drawn. I jump down from the shack’s roof, landing on the stag farther from it, forcing him to the ground. He barely has time to react as I slash his throat, and then I swiftly turn around, wresting the other stag’s outstretched arm aside, so I can kick him in the abdomen. I draw my other Khopesh, with which I slash upwards along his chest. With my left, I slash across his abdomen, and he falls coughing blood. I bend over, so I can swiftly turn the rat around, to grab his throat. Lifting him from the ground as he chokes and looks upon me with horror, I tell him coldly, “Unlike cats, I do not toy with my prey.” Whatever he tries to say, he has no chance to, as the lack of oxygen suddenly causes him to pass out. I find an idle horse-drawn cart nearby, and I take that chance. Before completing the assignment, I hastily strip the rat, and use his sleeves to tie his hands behind his back. Then, I lay him in the cart along with his belongings. Finding the station cannot be difficult, especially when I have the aid of Michi. “Impressive”, Wickerson comments upon finding the rat named Iggy brought in, naked and humiliated. I need only knee him in the back, to make him move. He’s then brought in another carriage, this one being made of wood, with holes bored in the back. I inquire, “What happens with him now?” Wickerson answers joyously, “There be a judge and Crown Attorney wai-in fer prosecution. Knowing that he’s guilty of selling illegal wares, he will be in prison.” Another officer in a uniform—blue tunic buttoned up and black pants—this mammal being a terrier, hands me a stack of notes. Wickerson continues, “That’s your pay fer bringin’ ‘im in.” I accept the stack and put it in my inner breast pocket. “I can assure you, Vigilante, that kind of bloke, which deserves t-be imprisoned, will stay in prison fer the duration of ‘is sentence.” If only… ----- After having lunch, in the form of a stuffed-egg sandwich and half of a pint of dreadful ale, I head back out for the next target in range. Referring to the notes, Michi reading over my shoulder, caws and starts flapping his wings, and I instantly take the reins of the same cart that I have “borrowed”, following the unique raven to my next destination. Where I head is no better than the marketplace. Upon finding what kind of place this specific rat frequents, I think, Oh, bugger. He is inside a henhouse, and whether it’s my keen hearing or the thin walls, I can hear squeaking—in pleasure! He’s fucking another rat at the moment, and I just barge in through the front door. There he is thrusting inside another rat, both of them naked, but I can make out the anguished expression on his “whore”. In addition, he has a knife’s edge pressed against the back of her neck. All the more reason to bring him in. This rat pulls out of his victim— But he is not fast enough to get his gun, assuming that it could wound me. I grab his throat, telling him, “I know you work for Jade Crown. And you will miss her drug order.” He passes out before I lift him from the floor of singed wood. I perform a short toss and I then hold him with the same hand by the chest. Eyeing the other rat, who is still distraught, I tell her, “If you testify at his trial, I can protect you.” She barely whispers through her sobs, “Thank you.” “Nate, right?” the police lieutenant says. “You’ve a lot to answer for, carrier.” A cat in uniform escorts the rat to the back room, the temporary cells. As the same officer from before presents me another stack, I ask, “When does his trial happen?” Wickerson answers, “Given the few that we send to court, tomorrow at the earliest.” He then switches to asking, “Why the curiosity?” I respond stiffly, “Crime-ridden borough.” To which Wickerson remarks, “All boroughs of Highcond are crime-ridden. We just ‘ave too few loyal lawr enforcers in this one.” “Then I can be a temporary solution.” ----- Last but not least: the rat named Casey. Where Michi guides me is to a barren place of houses that have been rebuilt. I wonder if anyone desperate actually lives in the places without the roofs or most of the walls. I hear sobbing and grunting almost everywhere in this area. What I have of this Casey is that he harasses those who borrow from him, down to giving beatings to those who don’t even owe him money. That otter has made a list of those who have been whipped or gnawed at by Casey or his other friends. Remembering that list, I catch glimpses of a selection of rabbits and the occasional otter with some kind of scar on them, and I assume that those were the ones to have been the unfortunate victims. And they’re only among many to watch me in fear because of my size, my posture, and my eyes. Unlike the other two, this one is dapper by comparison. I see other rats in suspenders over white work shirts watch in satisfaction as the rat dressed in a chic grey jacket, black slacks, white business shirt, and tan tie—Casey—and he has a leather strip in hand, whipping a naked rabbit, whose fur is the colour of dead grass, tied to an improvised pillar that was once a corner of a house. I approach them head-on with a sprint. In a sudden halt, I extend my arm, my fist landing squarely in the rat’s snout. Upon Casey falling down, the four others pick up their improvised weapons—hammers and wooden planks—and come to me. I am prepared for this. I quickly draw my Khopeshes and drop to one knee. I slash upwards the chests of the first two in range and then sweep one leg to trip the third rat. The fourth rat, I catch his arms with my Khopeshes and slash them. His cry in agony is cut short by me thrusting my left Khopesh in his abdomen. The rat that I tripped recovers in time—for he meets me from behind. I swiftly turn around—but it’s too late, for his plank hits my head. It does no real damage to me, but I make him wish he walked away in his last seconds of living, by slashing his throat, and he stumbles aside, choking. I stand up again, to cut the rope that has bound the rabbit, who thanks me many times before he dashes whilst limping. Casey regains his consciousness, but at the worst time. With my Khopeshes, I cut up his suit and all fabric except his tie falls to the ground. I manage to pin him to the ground so I can sheath my Khopeshes, and then I lift him by a leg. Eyeing the leather strap, I pick it up as well, out of curiosity, and I see that it hasn’t been improvised like other weapons. The sun is still up and it quickly becomes a subject of conversation, the wolf calling herself Death bringing wanted criminals to their station alive. Humiliated, but alive. Whilst an officer takes Casey to greet his partners, Wickerson comments, “Impressive, Death. You fulfilled your promise.” The money is not out of greed. I ask the bear, “Wha-ull ‘appen now that I brought in three of the most wanted rats in Sputure?” “It will make our job in the borough a li-ul easier, fer one”, he answers. “For the favour, I don’t throw you in prison, Vigilante, but I cannot endorse you to everyone.” “Does the station have a phone?” “Aye, but it don’ work well”, he stated matter-of-factly. “So, whatever calls yeh make will need be fast.” “Would there need be a price fer what information I ask of you in the future?” The bear sighs, creating a light wind from his nostrils, before he answers, “Nay. If yer questions be about other wanted blokes, I’ll gladly inform yeh.” “Then this is farewell for now.” I bow before exiting the station, to head back to the chapel. ----- With some of the money that I have earned over the day, I manage to buy the best meat in another rundown marketplace, practically buying the rest of the daily stock hung up by the vendor. It is the same case with the root vegetables that I buy, the notes of quid thrilling the merchants. I have my dinner at the inn, where I celebrate the first half of the victory. By the time I am finished, Michi comes in, having managed to make it through the hole broken in the window. I ask, “Did the rats taste terrible to you?” He caws and nothing more. He still paces around the room. I’ve had to eat on a tray on the bed, the tray now being empty. I then ask, “Would you try a stoat in this borough?” I see him cock his head at that. My attention then turns to the money. I have a plan, but it’s something to cost me. Part of that plan involves the guilty pleasure, but it means finding someone begging for help. (Over just weeks of having my wall down in front of Gaston, I got to know him to be very nice, but overly humble. He had been speaking to me as if he had no one else to talk to. The wolf pup listened to me talk about the times I picked pockets and lifted the occasional item from stores. (Upon the conclusion of the story I told him of the latest time I stole from some bystander, Gaston sounded a short hum as if he had no comment, but thought that I expected one. There was an awkward pause as we walked before he spoke up, “See, I don’t steal. I tried to many times, only to fail.” (I said, “I may make it sound easy from all the times I’ve done it, but what you should think about is whether you kin outrun whom you’ve yer eye on.” (“I run and ‘ide a lot”, Gaston replied. “I jus’… I tire too quickly from running…” I turned to him. The pup looked as if he was ashamed in front of me. Words couldn’t have convinced him that he needn’t have tried to impress me, simply so we would still be friends. I had an idea why, for I heard the occasional yelp at night. (I asked, “Do you ever get enough to eat?” (“Of course not”, he answered bluntly. “If me father and I weren’t so poor, we would be outta this town.” He had me there. (I had to ask. “What about your mother?” (With his sadness now obvious, Gaston said lowly, his head hanging, “She died… My father said that… she died, robbed by someone more desperate than we are fer jus’ some more money.” That made me afraid. I had already been afraid for years of my mother being attacked and killed by the scum of Sputure. As we walked in silence, I wondered if one day I would kill someone, demanding their money if not lifting it. (Those thoughts were interrupted when I entered the house. I saw my mother already home, writing something in a book, which I’d seen her do on numerous occasions. She would write for hours at a time after dinner. This time, she wrote whatever she wanted to before dinner. I then turned as I set down my bag, to the window. I looked at the wall of that ruined house, listening for the barks and the whines.) ----- I head to the place that I need to go to. I know where it is upon hearing the raven caw. This brothel, this place of oppression, The Dented Shield. The name is writ in dark-red paint that had been chipping from a canvas on a wooden board. The rest of the building is of bricks, but the structure looks crooked. I determine up close that the bricks are unevenly spaced and almost all are not laid straight. Inside, the floor and the walls are covered with wooden planks that, though old, do not look at all unsound. Everyone in the dining area, sitting at wooden tables or the bar, look at me curiously before returning to their business. A lady—probably the treasurer—a deer, clad in a dark-purple pinstripe dress with long sleeves and the collar closed, asks, “What can I ‘elp yeh with, Miss?” I answer nonchalantly, “I would like a session with one o’ yer girls. The youngest one of yours.” The doe looks at me with astonishment. “Really?” That’s all that she asks. I lock my gaze with hers, and she steps back, feeling threatened. As quickly, she straightens herself and answers, “As you wish. Wait here, please.” About half of a minute later, as if the universe knows me, the girl that I see the doe escort to me is a cat: ashy grey with black spots, her left eye green and her right eye blue. A cat to remind me of the lady to whom I have pledged loyalty and a cat to empathise with. I admit to the ashy cat, “I like you already. What’s the regular price?” The cat answers, “Fifty quid.” I respond, “Sold.” It is made clear that this cat is new to a female having her for a session as a prostitute. She feels awkward when we are in her apartment, which doesn’t look as appealing as the dining chamber. The wooden boards of the walls have the sign of rot and the bed doesn’t seem stable enough to hold the both of us. She suddenly gets scared, seeing me undress, but reluctantly does the same with me. I take in the details of her small and fragile body, and some kind of mark on her arm catches my attention. However, I take in her shape and her curves. She is beautiful to me, and I hate to see such beauty go to waste. Giving her a tender look, I ask lowly, “May I kiss you?” Still afraid, she nods, and I slowly lock muzzles with her. I can feel her shake as we do, but that tension lessens and she places her arms around me. We go slow, so the cat can match my pace. I pull back, to caress her body, taking every bit in with my hands, especially with her humble breasts. I lead her to the bed, and nudge her to lay down. I keep up with the foreplay, giving her whole body a sensual massage, and I hear pleasured moans escape her muzzle. She ends up returning the favour, trying to mimic what I do, caressing my fur until she gropes my breasts and continues to cup them and toy with them. As she does that, we kiss again, this one being much more passionate. I then move to lick her clitoris, driving her to arch her back as she moans in pleasure. I lap my tongue on and then in her, pleasuring her further. Before long, I have us in a scissor position, and I grind against her until we both have reached our climaxes. “Keep this”, I tell the cat, which is much more than they charge, after ending our naked embrace. “Do not let even the treasurer have it.” She asks, “What are you really here for?” She notes my sudden change in attitude. I ask back, pointing, “What does the mark on your arm mean?” “This?” She holds out her right arm, showing some kind of text character. “It’s from a crest.” I comment, “I saw it outside, next to the place’s name.” “That’s the house that funds the brothel. I am but one of countless girls made whores with this burnt in me.” I remove my eyepatch, revealing my violet eye. “I came to help. You deserve a chance t-live a meaningful life.” I lean in, to whisper to the cat, “I came t-kill yer boss, Crown.” She hisses, forcing me to stand up straight instantly, “Are yeh daft? Crown will not go down easily. And say you do kill ‘er. Where do I go then?” I explain, “I kin get you and the others out. If there is any opium here, I will blow it up inside here. Destroy this place. I kin ensure you to make it to somewhere safe and where you kin ‘ave better work and get off their poison, assuming it’s been used on you.” I proceed to get dressed. When I have my pants on, I tell the cat, “I will come back fer you tonight.” I button up my shirt and jacket, and remember to put my eyepatch on. ----- I have finished my analysis. As the hostess has no concealed weapon under that dress of hers, she is no fighter, but there is still a chance that she can use a gun. I have questioned the barwoman about the drug cache to know that the shipment has arrived this day. However, the news has spread rapidly of Crown’s dealers being in custody. I was at their trials. The kitchen staff don’t give a damn what happens to their boss, let alone the brothel. There are other young ladies selling themselves to strangers, who will, of course, be in the middle of their clients’ sessions. The place has only four guards, all of which carry guns. One of them is Crown’s personal bodyguard. I find my way back with the help of Michi, and his caw upon reaching the brothel, I can tell, spooks a few of the residents I pass by. This time, subtlety is off the table. Crown is pissed, as the barwoman informed me that she harassed the ladies at every given chance. I make myself seem to burst in from the front door of the brothel. I look around the dining room, and spot two of the guards, an otter and another stoat, both of them clad in business suits with ties. I don’t see the third guard or the bodyguard. I spot the barwoman, a grey rabbit in a ragged gown, wink, telling me that she knows. Everyone, including the guards and the hostess, stares at me. I speak up, “To all those who do not work here, I will say this only once: leave if you want to live.” I hear the clicking of a pistol, which is pointed almost straight up to my ribs. It’s the otter threatening me, looking stern. He replies, “It is you who should leave. I know why you’re ‘ere, she-wolf, and you won’ ‘ave it.” I lift my leg swiftly, disorienting the otter enough to drop his pistol. As quickly, I bend toward him, to pick him up, and then I hurl him with one hand toward the stoat. The thrown otter successfully knocks him down. I hear a voice say, “Let’s not get involved.” I hear a few voices comment after, but only a few of those tables empty. I approach the two small predators, drawing my Khopeshes. The otter scrambles to get off his friend, who fumbles with his own gun—but he’s too late to draw it as I stamp his arm to the filthy floor and I thrust my Khopeshes to them almost simultaneously, and they go limp. Turning back, I see that I have convinced the rest of onlookers to leave, for I spot the last few head out the front door. Then, I see another figure come out from the kitchen, accompanying the same doe in the business dress. I sheath my Khopeshes as I watch this man, a greyhound, approach, acting confident in his ragged suit. I go to pick up the limp otter, and I am right that this guard has a gun as well. I toss the body to the dog as a distraction, and the disorientation works, but it works for only a second. He still draws his pistol—a small one at that—and I drop myself backwards the very second his pistol fires. I stand up straight again, and grab his shoulders to headbutt him. That stuns him for enough time for me to draw my left Khopesh, and I make quick work slashing his throat with it. I pick up a wine bottle before heading past the bar, in the hall, where I see a stag awaiting me, and he, too has a gun, but I hope to disorient him by hurling the bottle, which I do, and it gives me the moment that I need, dashing to him. The stag, clad in a black suit, a white shirt, and a wide red tie—his fur is the colour of a branch without bark—does draw his gun, a short-barrelled revolver, but I grab his arm in time. I am given a big challenge now, fighting a stag. He has me with my back pressed against him. I expect him to use his antlers to stab me with the position we are in. I elbow his chest, to no avail. With the trick of twisting his thumb, I manage to wrest the gun out of his hand, and I let the blasted thing fall to the floor. With great effort, I wrest his arms off of me, so I can turn around. I draw my Khopeshes— But the stag rams to me, still hoping to impale with his literal pride. As I have no time to draw the blades again, I let go of the hilts before I kneel and brace, just barely stopping the decorative bones from penetrating my flesh. With another great effort, I lift myself. At the same time I jump up, the stag stands up straight before I can stamp his muzzle. He then draws a cleaver from his belt. His first attack, I block, drawing my left Khopesh in time. I draw my other, and begin my assault on the deer. I perform a basic chain of slashes, and the stag backs away from each, clearly having no experience with swords. His arms are raised, but I realise too late that the guard is a feint, as he stops the blades, which I thrust to his midsection. I manage to deflect his attacks with his cleaver, but I wound him with my right Khopesh, cutting his forearm. I kick him in the midsection before I swing my left Khopesh up his chest, cutting the fabric and drawing blood. He cries out from the pain. With the same blade, I swing downward, opening another wound in his chest, and then I use my right Khopesh to slash across, making him lose his balance as well as his grip of his cleaver. He desperately turns around, to dash for his gun. I slash with both blades along his back in a scissor movement, and then the back of his neck in a reverse-scissor movement. He falls facedown, panting. I sheathe my Khopeshes to pick up his gun, but I use it to club his antlers, and manage to break them both off. I put the antlers in my inner breast pocket as I approach the door of the office, which I kick open. There I see the stoat, barely a metre tall, clad in a disturbingly bright fuchsia business suit, a white shirt, and a sky-blue tie. The taupe-furred stoat jumps at me, and I duck before she can land on me. I turn around to her, and she draws a butcher knife. Crown tries and fails to even poke my legs as I draw my left Khopesh again, and she rants, “I should-a known it was you! The one who turned me dealers to the fuzz! The one who’s been meddling in me affairs! And now the one to turn me girls against me! No one interrupts my operations and gets away with it! You bitches are all the same, want-n revenge an’ killin’ nobodies! That getup o’ yers don’ ‘ide that yeh’re some scared li-ul bitch sold over a debt!” She has more to say, but I kneel down to slash at her, and she bleeds profusely. I tell her coldly, “I don’ care if Jade Crown is not your real name. You will not be worth remembering.” I slash at her again, this time the throat, and she falls over, the life leaving her eyes. I stand up and sheathe my blades before I rummage through papers in the drawers of Crown’s desk. Among the letters that I find, I keep the ones sent from Giffard himself and those from one of the connections that Jack mentioned, Samuels. Those letters, I fold up and pocket, as I have the combination to the vault in the corner, which stands out among the plank-covered walls. I use Crown’s leather bag to hold all the large coins and notes that I drag from the shelves almost altogether. Still, my work is not done. Out in the dining room, I see that the grey rabbit has gobsmacking stacks of boxes professionally aligned, more than enough boxes to cause an explosion. She states as I see her tow more boxes with a rope, “You should have the opium spread out, if y-want a fire.” I set the leather bag on the bar counter. I inform her, “That’s from Crown’s safe. She’s dead.” I note the rabbit’s hesitation, but not for long, as I head up the stairs, and barge into the first apartment. I tell the canine that I see fucking another canine, much younger than him, “Get out. Let ‘er keep yer money. Don’ even get yer clothes. Jus’ go.” That canine proves to be either a coward, or one not knowing how to handle a weapon, which I determine is not in any pockets of his discarded pants or coat. Together, the prostitutes and I force all the other patrons to leave without a thread and their weapons. I get worried when realising that the cat from earlier is not among the escaping sex slaves. I become even more so, when I do find her— On a bed, naked, beaten up, barely breathing, the small cuts on her, untreated. I rub her shoulder, and almost immediately she wakes. Already knowing that it’s me, she shoots herself up, to wrap her arms around me, weeping… I let her get it out, but urgency overcomes me almost immediately, for I push her away, to look at her eyes, and I tell her patiently, “Listen: I know that you need to recover, but I need you out of ‘ere. Crown is dead now. I plan to destroy this place, as well. I want you as far away from this place as possible right away.” She points to her nightstand, to tell me something. I tug at the knob of its door—to no avail. That’s when I notice that the hinge is melted. I push the rotting wooden box away from the wall, to note a loose board, which I yank away, and there it is, the pouch of hers that I’d filled with a hundred fifty pounds. I hand it to her as she scrambles to gather what means something to her. She has already put on her one good dress. The cat tells me as we head to the dining room, “I don’ wanna get out of Sputure without you.” I hand her a folded page, telling her, “This is the route that I recommend. There is a sanctuary of sorts, for people in your position. If you insist, I can escort you to the station, but that’s it.” The cat accepts the page and says, “I’m Holly, by the way. What’s your name?” “You know my name: Lady Death.” Holly wipes her eyes and dashes out the door, joining the prostitutes staying together. While the rabbit begins her aid in pouring the opium over the floor, starting from the hall, I bring the body of Crown, which is now naked, to one of the apartments to toss out the glassless window. I howl, “For you!” The rabbit then waits on me whilst I pour the opium over the floor of the kitchen and leave its door open. Together, the rabbit and I spread the drug over the rest of the dining room. The rabbit has the bag of the stoat’s money when we do so. As I have made sure, I am the last one out. I light a match that I am given and toss it to the opium-soaked floor, and it all seems to burst in flames at once. The fire brought to life roars and crackles. There are then explosions to follow, breaking holes in the corners of the building. Another place of oppression destroyed. I also have a can of the opium in my right breast pocket for later. ----- “Where will you go now that The Dented Shield is uninhabitable?” Holly asks me as we’re at the station, many looking at us curiously. I answer, “My business is far from complete, my next order of which is in the borough Ashcrown.” She looks at me, ready to cry again, and responds, “Please, don’t leave me. I need you.” I place my hands on her shoulders and say, “Be strong. I know you are. There are people who can help you at the sanctuary. Jus’ let them know that the wolf with violet eye sent you, and wants you to get better.” Holly looks down, and I instinctively follow her eyes, to her forearm, which has been bandaged. “There are others with this crest”, she whispers. I cup her chin. I whisper back, “Believe in yourself.” I kiss the top of her head, and she fights back the tears before heading in the open door of the train car. From looking around, there is no shifty figure following her. Furthermore, I would have heard a warning of that as well. I watch the train begin and then accelerate. I watch it go along its track until it’s out of my sight.
  7. Four: Paving the Way Riding a train again, to Ventine, to the one oasis in this country that I know. It’s been considered an oasis for the temples among nature. Based on pictures I’ve seen of oases, this is the odd one out. This time, I intend to stay for longer than I normally do. I wait until I’m at the temples to read the pages that Jack’s contact has given me, threatening to blaze a hole in the inner breast pocket of my light-grey pinstripe blazer. The ride is hours long, more so by the moments when the locomotive has to slow down and then halt, to let others board or get off. I choose to not to get off for something to eat, despite the time I ate breakfast, and I stay on the train. The only times I get up are used for stretching my body. It is almost six o’clock, the start of the evening, when the train reaches the station where I get off. As usual, someone offers to help with my luggage, but I politely turn the offer down. I walk out of the station, and I ride a carriage straight to the temples. Upon reaching the unpainted iron gate and fence, I see the surprise on the serval sitting in the booth, especially when I remove the eyepatch. He speaks, “I hadn’t been informed of your arrival.” “You knew that I’d come back.” “Yes, but not so soon and without a notice.” “You can scold me for that later. I just want in.” The serval knows that I won’t tolerate an argument, especially when I’m hungry at the moment. Now that it’s evening, dinner is being served to everyone. He unlatches the gate, and I push it open myself as I carry my bags. I walk into the sandy field and head to one of the log houses that’s for everyone which I walk right into. I head to one of the unlabelled beds—this house has beds with name plaques on the foot of the beds’ metal frames—next to which I lay down my luggage, and my handbag in the drawer of the simple night table. Then, I head out, back to the sandy field. On the opposite side of the field where I have just been, there is a large construct made of both stone blocks and of wood. That’s where I head next. Inside of that construct is a long space occupied by wooden benches and matching tables. How surprised everyone is by the wooden door opening and finding the she-wolf with the violet eye entering. The walls are planks fitting perfectly together. The long counter having the large porcelain dishes is made of granite. No one objects to me taking a plate and filling it with food. Everyone eventually goes about their own business, talking amongst each other, though probably about me coming back so unexpectedly. My plate is filled with beef, rice, and various sliced and fried vegetables. I see an opening in one of the tables—probably made for me—and it is where Themba and a few felines are seated. I asked, “You mind?” The cheetah is the one to answer, “Go ahead.” I sit down, and I tell Themba, “What’s on yer mind?” The savannah wolf answers, “Jus’ the regular news.” As I get the rice to soak up what juice the beef tenders can produce, I ask, “Is not talking about word from operatives hard fer you?” The wolf sighs, “Very much so”, and then continues with his dinner, like his feline companions. There’s silence among us until he inquires, “So, would this be a social calling?” I look up at Themba, telling him after downing a forkful, “I will be here a while, Themba, and for a reason, but I would like to catch up further with you.” The serval of the group asks, “Were… were y-you ever… together…?” I answer casually, “Nay. I’ve always bin busy and he sees no time fer ladies.” I could swear that what he mutters in his primary language, is “If only I did.” I inform the group, “You don’ wanna know how I… get through me heat.” That’s when I begin indulging on my dinner. That is something ironic about me as I won’t hesitate to destroy another brothel if it means getting further toward my target. However, I must plan for something like that again. I get through my dinner, listening to a casual conversation of Themba and the other felines. When they want me to weigh in, I just answer nonchalantly. Themba knows that I will visit him in his quarters before the other turn in. ----- (At the end of the school day, I was caught up with by another wolf pup, asking, “Fancy a stroll together?” (I scoffed and headed on, straight home, suddenly not feeling up to a deliberate detour. However, the same wolf pup, who I saw had dull-brown fur, beige fur on his chin and neck, and yellow-green eyes. “Come on, yeh could use the company.” (“Yeh’ll jus’ lure me somewhere t-beat me up.” (“No, I won’t!” the pup objected. (“Yeh’ll still lie about me mum”, I growled. (“No, I won’t!” he repeated. It just irritated me. “I just wanna be yer friend!” (I stopped at that, and looked at him sternly. Who would ever be friends with the she-wolf who knew jack shit about her parents? Expecting him to pester me regardless, I sighed, “Fine.” The pup grinned and got next to me. We moved at an equal and consistent pace in the late afternoon in the Spring. I eventually began the conversation as much as I wished to not talk. “So… yeh live ‘round ‘ere?” (“Yes”, he answered casually. “I live in one o’ those worn houses with only three rooms. I share a room with me father.” (I asked, “Have you got a kitchen?” (He answered, “Yes, but not much works. One burner on the stove functions, but the others don’t, and the gas barely works in the oven.” (I responded, “Every dinner I get is cooked on a stove… Where do you read, play, or do yer ‘omework?” (“I don’t read at home. I always ‘ave Dorothy teach me to read. I go to ‘er house over lunch.” (I asked, “Dorothy? Everyone’s favourite cat?” The brown pup nodded. We went into conversation about the teachers and the recent assignments, until he ended up following me all the way to my house. (Upon seeing the shambles that it always was in, the pup spoke, “You live here?” I didn’t even nod. “It’s a palace compared to my house.” I scoffed, taking it just for flattery. “By the way, I’m Gaston.” I didn’t even give him my name. I just walked in my house. (However, I saw him through the side window, approaching a house that was more dilapidated than the one I lived in, dirt filling the holes in the decaying planks. I was surprised my mother asking, “Is there something wrong, Love?” (I turned around, answering, “No. Nothing at all.” Upon walking past my mother, I wipe my eyes threatening to shed a tear.) ----- “Jade Crown. Stoat. Brothel owner, drug marketer, slave trafficker. She thinks she’s untouchable because she has the money and is in a piss-poor borough. Police won’t bother to patrol there because they’re too shallow to help those starving in the streets.” I think, Speak of the devil, reading the notes that Jack’s contact gave me. As if Jack wants me to start there or simply recommends such, that’s the first co-conspirator I read about. I go through the others, each in different boroughs of Highcond—including the heart of the city—but I already think of actually starting my search in Sputure, where this stoat resides, and I look through what’s provided of her role and own operation. I find my friend the raven idle at the open window at the end of the long chamber, where I head. I caress the feathers of his head and run my fingers down his back. He’s quiet as I stroke through his feathers. I then let him nip my knuckle. I tell him, “Go on ahead of me. Head to Sputure. Look for a brothel run by a female stoat, the placed called The Dented Shield. When I’m in the borough, yeh’ll know.” He caws once, before he takes flight. I watch him flap his wings, rise in the air, and glide off, occasionally flapping, until his silhouette fades out my sight. Bless that corvid. I turn around to hearing the door open, and it’s none other than the Savannah Wolf. Themba asks, “How long do you plan to stay here?” “As long as it takes”, I answer. Themba emphasises, “As long as what takes?” “The planning. Everything needs a plan.” Themba objects, “Life is never planned.” I’m not convinced. He continues as he takes off his shirt, to hang up, “It is wise to have a battle plan, but not everything goes that way. You can arrange defence when forces approach but your forces do not hold all throughout the battle.” I watch him pace, now bare-chested, and speak, “I have a way of getting around, a way of analysing, and a way of fighting.” “Even I, chief of security, know that there is more to life than fighting. I know why you do this; you told me. You move abroad only to return and practice on living enemies.” I state, “Highcond is a lawless place.” Themba objects, “So are almost all other places. That’s why we have places such as this. The world has always been a lawless place.” That, I acknowledge, but silently. Themba stops pacing, but gets closer to me. He looks in my eyes. “Sister… if eliminating this clan is the purpose of your life, and if you succeed in that… what will come after that…?” He fears something… He then adds after awkward silence, “At least think about it.” He turns away. I speak, “I am glad ter ‘ave you in my life. Y-know that, right?” Without looking back, he calls, “I very well do.” Sharpening my Khopeshes again, I think about how I would approach my target. I also compare the order of co-conspirators to an order that I make in my head. One of them is in Tolden, and I choose to hold off on that for my own reason. I consider the logic of going in order of geography, and strongly. What to do in each borough, I will just wait and see—if things go according to plan on my missions. As it is late, I turn in for the night, and sleep in the unoccupied bed that I have chosen, as much I honestly consider sleeping in the same bed as Themba. I have known that wolf for years and felt close to him, but there is something within telling me not to have a relationship with him. This becomes one of those nights of me feeling the gnawing inside me, and not because of my body’s messages. ----- I spend four days at the temples in reading over the notes again and again. Though vague, I drill all that knowledge of my targets in my head. Even after managing to memorise all the names and having their drawn impressions sunken in, I still stare at the pages. On the fourth and final day at the compound, I am knelt in front of the lion idol, still wondering what this deity in her tales would say to one seeking vengeance. The only way to get rid of these criminals is to kill them. I know what that clan has done, and killing them seems the only way halt their trafficking operations for good. It is simply because I am done with my knees aching from being pressed against the stone floor I rise to my feet, but still having my eyes on the sculpted lioness. When I turn around—there the High Priestess of the embassy is in the open doorway, clad in her white robe and blue sashes. I am unphased as she has a habit of surprising others. I speak, “You know what I want.” It is no question. The High Priestess replies, “I do. But you still ask yourself why that is.” As if she can read my mind, I do not respond. She continues, “It is still justifiable as you still are loyal to my cause.” “Then you know that dangers of Highcond await me.” I approach her, to bow to her. “When I come back, it will be for the cubs.” Then, I stand up straight again, heading out of the temple with my bags, and then head out of the embassy’s front gate. ----- Another two days later, I get off the train to take me to Sputure, getting off at its first stop in the borough. The station that I exit is but a few kilometres away from the southern edge of the borough. This is definitely a place of poverty; even the train station tells that. The wooden walls of the station and the houses near have taken apparent beatings from fire and explosives outside. I just look around, heading north of the station. The borough itself, upon a few minutes of treading the dirt sidewalk, looks appalling to me, and the air stinks of musk scents, bodily waste, and flesh decay. It’s more than enough to make my sensitive nose scrunch hard. I take about an hour to find an inn. Granted, it’s the first inn of the borough that I see, labelled “Timmins and Co.”, and it’s with peeling paint on wooden planks looking as if they’ve just begun decaying. Upon entering, the inn looks no better than the erratically singed wood outside. At the crude desk made of wood that’s been scratched on the top, sits a brown tabby cat with a slim build. He asks, “Here fer a room?” “Yes”, I answer. “Any available?” “A few”, the cat tells me plainly. “Would any room do?” “Yes”, I answer after a short hesitation. I can’t afford to be picky. The brown cat hands me a key with the number three crudely etched on. He informs me, “All rooms are on the upper floor. We have only one loo, which is in the corner. We charge two pounds per night. Yeh’ll need bring yer own food bought from stores if yeh want yer meals cooked here.” I glare at him with my eyes narrowed. I know what kind of place the borough is. I mutter, “Thank you… You’ll barely hear me…” I slowly walk aside and up the stairs until the cat is out of my sight. I enter the suite, which is drab at best. The wallpaper that decorates the room is mostly gone, torn off, the walls being wood, but the faded-blue paint has been chipping, bits of it peppering the edges of the floorboards placed clunkily. The one window in the room has a hole broken in its glass. The bed has a simple frame made of wood as well, and seems to be the only thing to have no signs of decay, the sheets and pillows looking ragged. I sigh before I place my suitcase in the middle of the near-empty suite. I look around for possible holes in the walls of all sides. When looking and feeling around, I conclude that there are no holes for anyone with curiosity getting the better of them. So, I take off my eyepatch and test the bed with my hand before sitting on the edge of it. I pull the stack of pages out of my inner breast pocket, to set next to me, and then pull out a small piece of canvas from my other one, which has been folded twice. I stare into the picture taking up that canvas, again looking for some kind of guidance. “Giffard…”, I seethe. That name has long since been in my head. I expect him to be no pushover, knowing that talk of him has sent chills down the spine of someone as nonchalant as Seàn MacNiadh. Eventually, hunger gets the better of me. I get more of the lay of the land, going to a butcher shop that the brown tabby recommends. It turns out that it’s the best meat one can get in the borough, and it’s the butcher herself whose word I take for it. Even that shop is not safe from the stenches of contamination and decay. I end up buying several strips from there, because the meat cuts are very thin and beaten, as if they’re the scraps from bones. Just up the street is a pub that Jack has instructed me to go to, and I order for the meat to be cooked and served with a large side of potatoes, or at least the best they have. I also order two rolls, one to save. The barkeep, an otter in a white work shirt, plain suspenders for his black trousers, and having chestnut fur with long and droopy whiskers, brings the meat to me along with two potatoes each cut in half. He asks me then what I want for a drink, and I order a pint of Shrier’s Beer. There’s barely an aroma from the meat and potatoes. The beer is no better. The meat barely has juice for its taste, even though it’s medium rare. As for the beer, it tastes more like grass than it does like distilled grains. The otter returns to me, asking, “Anything else I kin get yeh?” I answer plainly, “How about whiskey? MacEimhin.” The otter nods and quickly heads to get a bottle. He fills the same mug that I’ve emptied of the awful beer, with a splash of the whiskey. The otter states, “You know of the brand. For wealthy people compared to what whiskey is made at home.” “I assume an arctic fox has given it t-yehr as a gift.” The otter narrows his eyes as he glares, and climbs toward me, his elbows on the counter, telling me, “What has Jack sent yeh for?” I answer, “He says you know of a business here. Men working fer one Jade Crown.” I can tell that the otter narrows his eyes further and lowers his brow before he grumbles to me, “I dunno why Jack would inform you of that bitch, ‘cause believe me, yeh don’ wanna cross ‘er. That shor’ an’ cute stature of hers is how she gets yeh.” “If you give me what notes act as leverage, I can lure her outta her brothel, enraged, by making sure her dealers had their last day.” The otter shifts aside along the counter, before shifting back in front of me again, to speak, “If you’re curious about me beers, you’re welcome to see the barrels in the back of the kitchen.” I get that code. I stand up from the wooden stool, surprisingly sturdy as it is, and wait for the otter to be in sight again, and he stands out at the door to the kitchen. I follow him through the way of the scratched wooden door, and along the dirt for the floor of the kitchen with a barely functioning coal oven and the two workers seeming only half-alive, the pungent fumes making me on the verge of coughing upon forcing their way in my nostrils. The otter, with a big effort and both hands, forces a door open. The awful odours of musk and rot are no better in the back room, showing three wooden kegs, one each having a different label crudely painted. Upon me closing the door, the otter speaks, “First, let me introduce meself. I am Conrad.” I meet him up close, and he already settles on another tall stool that’s climbed up, and reply, “Nice t-meet you.” “What’s your name, Lass?” “That’s for you, and even Jack, to find out.” The otter raises a brow and tilts his head. “Whatever you say, Jack’s friend.” I ask nonchalantly, “Now, what would have you so poor that you would stay in the godforsaken place that is Sputure?” Irritated, Conrad ignores that for another question: “What would drive you so mad that you would go after the sex trafficker and drug dealer that people know as Jade Crown?” I answer calmly, “That’s not important.” “Well then”, the otter rasps. He pauses before going on, “What do you expect out of crippling a corrupt businesswoman?” Still cool, I say, “Not cripple; kill. And it is only removing a cog from a clock that needs dismantling.” The otter places his hands atop his head and runs them down his face. He then stares at me intently. “Whatever you expect out of this, I hope it’s worth the effort.” He pauses, expecting me to remark on that. He continues, “She is but one of many cartel members, Crown. Her boss is the one who funded her brothel. She follows his way of moulding children into dolls to do their bidding.” I interrupt, “I already know that part.” The otter continues after a sigh, “Her loyal employees are rats. Of the animals to hold in trafficking, rats are most popular for their small size and their habit of multiplying. Three rats, in particular, are her dealers. For quality shit, they sell at a reasonable price for residents of this borough. I doubt she cares what she causes from this. Crown is the one to point your finger at if someone you know has become destitute, having lost most of their capabilities. She gets her slaves addicted to the shit, as well. So, she can breed slaves from those already taken in. “The rats, her dealers, plan to return soon, to pick up their shares of the shipment at the brothel, The Dented Shield. Their names are Casey, Iggy, and Nate. Surnames are nothing to them. You find them, you get them to the police. Maybe you know where their opium caches would be, but they don’t.” I inquired, “How do you know their names?” The otter sighs before he lowers the straps of his suspenders. He opens and takes off his shirt, his back to me, showing the linear gaps in his fur. Scars. “Those bastards did this to me, when I refused to sell their shit. They did it with just their teeth.” He turns around again, facing me, buttoning his shirt. “You tell me this is personal? I will still feel obligated t-do a favour fer you. I was given notes where the rats hang out whilst in town, awaiting the shipment.” ----- Meeting with that otter has left me with a bad taste in my mouth, both for that lacklustre dinner and what he has shown the drug dealers do to him. As it is now dusk, I perch next to the dull spire of the equally dull chapel, the one building of the borough to stay well intact out of all houses, stores, and pubs making the neighbourhood. Before long, I am met with a caw, and I look up, seeing the curious corvid, feeling content. I call, “Michi!” He comes toward me, now clad in my blue suit, brown vest, white shirt, and golden mask, and perches on my right forearm, his three feet holding tight. I look into his pale-green eyes and caress the feathers of his crown, telling him lowly, “Glad yeh kin survive this hellhole. Although, every day must mean a feast fer you.” I pull out a roll that I have ripped open, from my coat’s side pocket. As I watch him pecking at the bread, I add, “I can assure you: the next time I serve you fresh meat is sooner than you think.”
  8. Three: A Friendly Contract (The day was as foggy as any day in winter is known to be. As predators, we were the lucky ones even when we could not even afford firewood. Even at this time, I stole. We had enough blankets to keep us warm at night. However, there was something else. I had my eyes on the storage of one of those vendors. While the dealer was busy with a patron wearing rags, I hurried to the storage, crouching as I did so, and I opened the door slowly, listening for the possible creak—which didn’t sound—and hurried in. I was right about the storage having coals, for the furnace to keep the place warm, and this store and its living space were owned by a deer. (I lifted two lumps of coal from the sack against the wall, expecting that he wouldn’t miss them. After that, I opened the door again—only to see the grown stag waiting right there. He commented, “Yeh’re not s-posed t-be back ‘ere, Miss.” I bolted right past him and out the door, before he could see what exactly I took. (I tossed the two coals in the fireplace in my house, among charred wood that crumbled partially from those coals landing. Shortly after, I heard Clement speak, “What were yer up ta today?” I just scoffed and headed to my area, which was my bed, and opened my beaded bag—putting the coals in there would’ve been made too obvious—and pulled out a book that I still tried to read. I still tried sounding out the words, and spoke lowly, not wanting to make any kind of contact with Clement. Even when my mother came home after working a longer shift, I was trying to complete my homework. I knew how to read and write at this time, but not well enough. My mother spoke, “Anything important happened today?” (I spoke up, “I feel I haven’t enough time t-learn to read words.” (My mother offered, “You can always ask fer ‘elp. What page d-you need t-be on by now?” I was afraid to tell her. This was one of those peaceful moments. It was something to keep my mind off the cold that I couldn’t endure. Concerned about the possible answer, I heard my mother approach me, and I whispered in her ear, “My class is on chapter seven; I still ‘ave trouble with chapter three.” After dinner, she would get me caught up by a little. The night before, I was stuck on chapter two. It was a night when I would forget how poor we were, and make me a lot less stupid.) How hungry I was after getting off the train back to the wealthiest borough. I was eager with getting a good piece of meat picked for dinner. As usual, I get the suspicious looks from others in the tavern that I choose. I forgo the ale and settle for water, regardless of what the others say about water even in this borough. I don’t stay in the tavern for long, so I can check on the room that I still rented. When I enter room fourteen of that inn, I see that the only change is that the furniture was dusted. I check my suitcase to know that it had remained untouched. There are no new prints on the clips. “Good”, I think. Even still, I choose not to wear what I normally wear with my mask. I look around, checking that the standard cleaning is done. As I think that I deserve it, I hang up my suit and stow the undergarments while water runs in the tub, and I wait until the water is at the level that I prefer. I sigh as the warm water embraces my body, both soothing and stimulating the muscles. Using the soap bar that’s compliments of the house, I lather my body, to get that odour and grime out of my pelt. I work very slowly in lathering, to let the cleanser sink in, and when I coat my entire pelt in the soap, I rub repeatedly to get both the grime and soap out of my pelt, and when all that is done, I just lay in the tub, my head leaning past the rim and my muzzle pointed to the ceiling, also taking in the atmosphere lit only by oil lanterns. This is one of many moments such as this when I am reminded the difference like night and day, having grown up poor as most of the population. Only when robbing those that deserve to be without that money, I could have this: a good meal and a moment to feel fresh. I don’t keep the normal pyjamas: instead I keep a simple gown that I sleep in, without the corset. I go to sleep this night, feeling a longing for more than just the satisfaction of killing or crippling a criminal, or liberating slaves or overworked and underpaid employees. ----- By the hour of twelve the following day, I head out of the inn, having displayed affection to my dear friend the raven. He already knows where I want to go, and he plans to perch at the rooftop of it, watching the aristos clash with the petty thieves. I take the usual route to that destination: one of the biggest pubs of Knightsedge: Queen o’ Clubs. I sense that in proximity of that pub, there would be others waiting to ambush, whether it’s someone working for one of Lucky Jack’s rivals or some common mugger, I intend to show no mercy. Before long, I do encounter interference. I just have to scoff at it, hearing someone run at me from behind. I move my handbag to my right hand, so I can time the mugger— And I turn around swiftly, delivering a hook to the side of his face. It’s a Shepard, clad in a ragged business suit, and a little thin for his breed. I advise, “I’ve no time for some brawl. Walk away whilst you can.” Of course, the Shephard doesn’t heed the advice. He charges at me, and I end up kicking him where it hurts, though it’s not my original aim. It disorients him long enough for me to just turn away from him and proceed with my route. When I am out in public with an eyepatch, others think that I am more vulnerable. A predator to prey on the weak is like a dual-edged sword: there is honour in crippling or killing the weakest member of a group, but others attack a weak animal because it makes them feel better. If a grown man attacks someone much smaller and much weaker, he is a coward. There is only so much that authorities and the leaders can do. All because of oppressive bosses, everyone suffers, and there are but two choices, one of them being smarter than the other. Apart from tripping other bullies and muggers along the way, I make it to the pub without hassle. Upon entering, I see many tables occupied, gangsters and mercenaries being most of the lunch crowd. I approach the red fox waiting next to the bar, and he states, “Jack told me yeh’d come back.” This time, I shove him aside, and head in the narrow hall without looking back, but I know that he almost loses his balance and he pushes a barstool over while saving his own jaw from being fractured. I turn the knob to know that the door is not locked, and push it open, seeing that Jack is at his desk, just reading nonchalantly whilst eating a sandwich—ham and olive from the smell of it. His nonchalance switches to something I do not always see from him. As I rely on my force to close the door—which it does—Jack puts down his open book and stands up quickly. On this day, over his white shirt, he sports a grey vest and dull-yellow tie. As Jack searches the drawers of his desk, he speaks, “I din’ expect yeh t-come back so soon. When yeh told me yeh were out on business, I thought it would take up much more time.” I hold off on replying to him as Jack gets out the pages that he plans to show me. I head to his desk and wait for him. I am tempted to take the untouched half of his sandwich as I haven’t yet eaten lunch, but this is more important. I tell him, “I assume you ran the names.” “Of course not”, Jack replies sarcastically. “Yeh jus’ came t-say ‘hello’ like any friend, Death.” He switches his tone to serious, continuing, “Yeh’ve no idea who yer targets are.” “You’re right”, I respond calmly. “I know only what they’ve done.” He scoffs, “But not enough of it.” “So, what did you get of those names?” “The one to stand out is Giffard Lowell. A wolf.” I scowl at that name. That name is to stand out to me. “If yeh know what he’s done, yeh should know that he’s a trafficker, a racketeer, and murderer. He controls the most dangerous crime clan in all of Symphon, a clan that’s been a business for generations.” We both pause at that. He admits, “Okay, that last part might be an exaggeration, but it is a family business, and only decades ago it became crime-based. It’s how all businesses these days work. D-yeh know how bloody hard it is to get food on the table when yer wages be worth not even shit fer the many hours of each day?” I admit, “All too well, Jack, but I fail to see how this wolf scares you.” “In this profession, Death, I’m a well-known rival of his. Of his many grudges, he despises me fer stealing opium of his and convincing a few of his young fighters to join me cause.” “What else can you tell me about him?” He jests, though angrily, “He kin breathe fire an’ break glass with just a whisper.” Jack then sighs in the form of a blow before he continues, “Giffard is seen often with ‘is right-hand man, a badger named Lieven, who’s from Fleisung, discharged from the military over a terrible fight that crippled his colleagues. There are many rumours about Giffard, and one those, which is confirmed, is that if any word of him gets ‘is attention fer the wrong reason, he orders to have those speculating said rumours crippled or brutally killed. His drug cartel expands all over Highcond, and no doubt all of Symphon. In addition, he funds brothels, corrupting the owners and kidnaps young females to be forced to sell themselves to strangers.” That brings me back to a terrible memory, but back at the oasis, when I opened one of my mother’s letters telling where she was really from, what “family curse” we had, and I wanted to believe it was fictional. “Are yeh listening?” Jack asks. That’s when I realise that I’m clenching so hard that it’s unsettling to the arctic fox. I loosen and speak, “Sorry. I think I missed what yeh said about the brothels.” “Yes, Giffard funds many brothels, preferably in the poor parts of Highcond, a few that ‘ave bin in business fer a while, but mostly those that he leaves to women, whom ‘e manipulates into making greedy. Those brothels are among the many to be part of his cartel. In fact, the owners rely on temptation into getting their slaves addicted, to disable them. And when yeh’re poor, yeh’ve nothin’ t-lose. Seeing as the brothel that yeh destroyed was funded by Giffard, and y-want his connections, yeh must be mad if yeh plan t-piss him off and think yeh kin live ta tell the tale.” I commented, “Death is unfair, but it is sane.” “Makes whatever mission yeh give yerself sound no less like suicide.” Another long pause follows, before Jack states, “Seein’ as yeh’re so certain, I’ve a few targets that kin lead yeh t-yer goal, but that leads t-yer side of the deal.” “I haven’t forgotten, Jack. What favour have you in mind?” “Someone be right ta think that capturing a smuggler group of mine would piss me off. Over a week ago, the men I hired ta smuggle me guns out to Tympark, I was told by an informant, disappeared, the ship still being idle at Port Morwen. Find me smugglers and escort them to the ship so they may complete their mission.” He adds as a jest, “Yeh don’ be mad fer doin’ that.” “As you wish, Jack”, I answer contently. ----- Where I am headed is still in the borough of Knightsedge. Port Morwen is straight east of the city’s House of Commons, that port leading into River Numo. Upon changing from my suite in the inn, I head directly to that pier, cutting through the road along the way, leading many to howl or hiss at me, calling me a “dumb bitch” or criticising my sight. Even wondering why I wear a mask does not stop them from having an outburst. Jack has also told me where I can find his smugglers’ contact, and the names of those smugglers. I sit upon a bench in a park, looking to the centred gazebo from the distance. Aware of others being near, I speak up, “In Plakrit, whiskey is a staple drink.” Silence. Just when I think that no one has an answer, I hear a female voice speak, “And you like ale better?” That makes me content. “Let us oll just agree that wine is the best.” That drives the others around me away. Next to me, a red vixen, clad in a green jacket, black pants, and a white work shirt, seats herself. “Of oll the predators in Highcond, Lucky Jack sends someone dressed like an office worker.” I get straight to the point, stating stiffly, “Lucky Jack informed Lady Death that you know where his smugglers are: a raccoon named Kendra Barton, and her partners Matthew and Cyrus. I assume it was you to tell him that they never shipped out.” I sense the vixen turn her head, replying, “I am. Name’s Blythe.” “Lady Death.” “I picked up on their course shortly after sending Jack the message. The smugglers were kidnapped by street gangsters.” Petty lowlifes. I couldn’t believe it. “They’ve bin ‘oldin’ them fer ransom, demanding money from Jack, but he told his dealers to not approach them, with or without money.” I turn to finally look at the vixen, and I inquire curiously, “How much they demanding?” “Ten thousand quid.” I scoff, “They can’t be serious. Even in the wealthiest section of the city, that price is ridiculous.” “His informants and I have confirmed that the gangsters hold the smugglers in the top floor of an apartment building. It has the grey Talbot sign facing the popular Gala Park.” The not-so-clever name for Saint Alicia Acre, where many aristos are known for hosting ceremonial parties, still open to only those invited. “You’ve me gratitude, Blythe. Jack won’t regret this request of ‘is.” I then stand up, adjusting my tailcoat to conceal the belts and hilts that were visible since I sat down. I lift a small one-horse carriage from the side of the road and whip with the reins. With that, I go along the road, but wait for others to cross when I need to, as tempted as I am to just keep the horse galloping. I still hear others shout about my driving, bumping to carriages’ sides as well as startling other horses with the interruptions. I see the park, and finding the Talbot sign is easy as it stands out among the brass making up the roof. I dismount from the carriage and head to that building. I know that going in through the front door is too obvious. I hear the caw of my raven friend and look up at the edge of the roof where he’s perched. In seeing him, he seems to hint at something as he turns to face the back of the building. I dash to the other side of the street, and I see that the windows on that side of the top floor are all boarded up. I scowl at that. I focus on the raven again for something that he can tell me. He caws again, hinting at the open window on the third floor (of four). Without caring who might be watching, I proceed to climb the window frames of the first floor, and make my way up by leaps. Upon entering the apartment through the open window, I hear a baritone male voice bark, “Whot the bloody ‘ell”- I cut that dog off by grabbing his muzzle and holding a finger to mine. I look around and find the stairs, which I approach— But I hear the clicking of a pistol and turn around to see the same dog, a Field Spaniel, pointing that pistol seeming to be made of gold at me. I turn away from him again, putting my hands up. He commands, “Move away from there.” I do so, and reproach, but only two steps upon him barking, “Stop.” He chooses to come to me. Before he reaches under my tailcoat, I crouch and punch him in the midsection, before I draw my stiletto, and I stab him in the side of his neck. Though I might be too late too, I hold his muzzle again, and I muffle the sound of him choking. I then let go of the hilt so I can get the pistol out of his hand. I then lay him down. Whilst I am there, I check his dresser and nightstand, and I find a fair amount of money to lift. Then, I head to the stairs, going up slowly. For a wolf, I have learnt to tread lightly. While still on the stairs, I look around, seeing that the apartment is bare. Scratch marks decorate almost all the wooden planks making up the walls. Only mattresses and a dresser take up the floors, and there are staples for manacles and chains, where the three smugglers are, which I can tell as one bound is a grey raccoon. The weasels holding these smugglers are dressed the same as the dog that I just killed to keep him from killing me. There are five weasels, all of them clad in a burgundy jacket and black slacks. All of them pacing about. I hear one speak, “Why can’t we jus’ kill ‘em? It’s bin a bloody week!” Another replies, “Because we want the money.” The first weasel objects, “How long bifor we lose more than we make?” A third voice rebuts, “Don’ be ridiculous. Their boss should be desperate by now.” The first weasel screeches, “What makes yeh think that?” A fourth voice suggests, “We’ve not ‘erd from ‘im.” The second weasel says, “Would demanding more make yer ‘appy?” The fifth weasel answers, “If that’d make everyone happy, we could. If their boss wanted a rescue mission, he would’ve planned it by now. He must be a radge if he hasn’t.” That provokes me. I head to the top of the stairs— And I leap to the first weasel in sight, tackling him to the ground, and then I draw my left Khopesh to stab in his back. I hear one shout, “Shit!” I draw my right Khopesh as I dash in the middle of the foursome. I kick the one to my left, swinging my right Khopesh upward, tearing that weasel’s shirt and flesh. I dash toward the two still standing and force their arms aside as they have their pistols out but pull my Khopeshes and then slash their throats. The one bleeding profusely from his chest, I hear panting and I see him point a pistol at me, but his arm shakes. I slash sideways along his midsection. The bound raccoon I see using her legs to keep her captor pinned, but the second he shoves her off and gets up, I slash with both my blades upwards, tearing into his jacket, shirt, and flesh. I then slash downward, gashing him further. He stumbles from the pain. I tear into his midsection in a reverse scissor motion. His spine remains intact, which has kept me from cutting the slender figure in half. The raccoon, who wears only a corset, speaks, “Did Lucky Jack send yeh?” Her partners are a lynx and a stag, whose antlers have been reduced. As I check the pockets of the weasels’ pockets for keys and money, I answer, “He did. I’m doin’ this as a favour in exchange fer somethin’ I want. Yeh must be Kendra.” “Aye”, the raccoon answers. She then asks back, “And who’re you?” I don’t answer until I’ve looted all five bodies, when I turn around, showing my orange eye and violet eye. “Death.” I then head to the mattresses, where the smugglers are bound against the wall. I undo the manacles on Kendra first, and then free the lynx and then the deer. They, too, are in only their underpants. While they rush to the dresser, and are apparently lucky to find clothes in it, I undress the body that I almost sliced in half, and bring it a floor below, so I can get the body out the open window. Upon it landing, I call, “Fer you, dear friend.” The raccoon, now wearing a white work shirt, an open vest, and black work trousers, stares at me in place, only to brush the subject of wonder off, and I climb out the same open window, down the wall. Already, my raven friend has his beak deep in the weasel’s flesh, probably ravaging the liver. I hurry to the other side of the building, where I end up meeting the trio of smugglers. I meet them along the sidewalk, stating, “You may require additional muscle for protection.” Kendra replies, “Regardless, we’ve an impatient pilot idle at the port.” I follow the raccoon and her friends from behind, relying on my hearing for any sounds of guns clicking. They break in a sprint along the pavement, and I understand why. It’s better that I don’t shove others aside. I catch up with them only seconds later. When barely a metre behind the trio, I slow to a jog. As I remain a fair distance behind, I flex my ears and look around, expecting some kind of threat in the form of some kind of other gangsters aware right away of the smugglers having been sprung. Thankfully, I meet no form of trouble. Even in this wealthy section of Highcond, I expect to find a mugger, but this is not the area for some criminals to reside. Before long, we make it to Port Morwen, and there’s a distinguished steamboat with two platforms on tow, each of them occupied by containers covered by tarp. Kendra calls to her partners, “Each of you, take a raft.” A doe emerges from the side of the towboat, shouting, “It’s about bloody time you’re here! You owe me a lot for the wait!” Kendra calls back, “Then start the engine.” I ask the raccoon curiously, “Plan to smuggle again after reporting to Jack?” She asks back, “What d-you think, Death?” As the towboat begins, I tell the raccoon, “Good luck, then.” I then turn away. I close my eyes, awaiting the inevitability of any possible disaster. As I don’t trust my eyes, I rely on only my hearing. Only a few seconds later, I hear the click of a gun, followed by a grunt of someone being shoved aside, and I open my eyes, seeing a rifle in the hands of a fuzzy terrier, now at the edge of the dock. I leap toward him, and tackle him to the ground. The rifle fires as I do so, but it has to be too late for him to fire. I look up at the towboat and its rafts to know that they’re still connected and the smugglers are still alive. I pull out my stiletto— And the dog uses his arms to keep me from stabbing him. I bite into his forearm, making him lose his grip, and I manage to plunge the stiletto into his jugular. As he chokes, I hold his muzzle, to muffle the sound. Upon seeing the dog go limp, I wipe my stiletto with his shirt and stand up as I sheath it. I then dash the way the boat heads, expecting more trouble for them, but I don’t see it at all. I make it to the south edge of the borough, to know that the lynx and deer are untouched, none of the rafts detached. I sigh contently at that, knowing that Jack has a deal soon to be successful. Upon turning around, I see someone I’m familiar with, having seen often at Jack’s pub. It’s a handsome golden leopard, clad in brown slacks, and a red tailcoat open, revealing his bare white-furred chest. He comments, “You run as if on fire.” His accent is rather curious, as his voice sounds groggy and baritone. I reply, “You followed me for a reason.” “Precisely”, the leopard responds. He reaches in his inner breast pocket, and pulls out a folded parcel. I take it, to know that its contents are thick. “I was told to give those to you, knowing that the boat has departed safely.” I smile. “Well, then, if you don’t mind, tell Jack that I am thankful and that he can see me off if he wishes as I will depart tomorrow. I’m staying at the Hazel and Company Inn.” “Will do”, the leopard says contently, and he’s on his merry way. ----- (Running. That’s all that I’ve been taught to do. I did it most in the winter, picking pockets, and now that it was summer, I didn’t do as much, but I still had the habit. My mother and step-father experienced the peak of brutality from their work. My step-father was given a harder time as he was turned down for a higher position at the factory where he worked, and I wondered if it was just the fact that he was a wolf. I know that because I still heard him talking to my mother. As for my mother, she worked at a factory as well, and she seemed to experience it worse. I don’t know. (When home at the end of day, I had already spent the money that I looted from others. I had long since learned to never steal from those I can’t outrun. Most of that coin, I gave to other pups. Unlike other pups, I never resorted to begging. I had seen wolf pups do it, and I believed that wolves shouldn’t be made the targets of humiliation. So, I kept on looting. (I had a copy of that day’s paper, and asked for my mother to teach me how to read. As I’d read only books of fiction that the school wanted me to, I would turn to the paper. My mother couldn’t read perfectly, knowing the times I heard her struggle on something. So, she would get better like I would. As we waited on the usual dinner—vegetables in weak broth and a side of stale bread—she let me know what had been happening in the city. (I asked, “So, what does it mean to impeach a council member?” (My mother answered, “In that particular story: it means that the council holds them responsible for an action that is not toler- acceptable… There is a questioning, and if he’s guilty, he loses his position. That’s a part of politics.” (Concerned, I asked, “Does that mean, we can’t trust the government?” (My mother sighed, “There are good people in this world, Sweetheart, but there are also bad people, and they would do anything to get their way.” That reminded me of a time I had a fit over a night a year earlier when we went hungry. She continued, “But if you want to know, I don’t trust the council of the borough to do anything about the living conditions or about the crime here. We shouldn’t have to always rely on those in power, either, as there are choices that we must make for ourselves.” It still wouldn’t be the last time I picked pockets.) ----- At that well-known inn of Knightsedge, I had a good sleep during my stay, and I had just enough money to cover the nights along with the use of their water. Until I am to find more loot, I am practically broke again, but that’s not enough to have me in a foul mood. The second I walk out the inn’s front door— There the arctic fox stands, on the sidewalk, clad in a navy-blue tailcoat and matching slacks, and a grey vest over a white shirt and yellow necktie. I can’t help but grin at how much he cares about me, and he grins back at me. He remarks, “Leavin’ so soon, Death?” “Business as usual, Jack”, I reply. Advancing, but not too close to make me uncomfortable, Jack asks, “How long d-yeh reckon yeh’ll be away from Knightsedge this time?” I answer, “Too long. But I both want and need this.” Jack speaks earnestly, “Yeh deserve t-know: almost no borough is a nice place. Knightsedge has the least known crime.” I interrupt, “I’m no stranger to crime; I’m from Tolden.” “It’s still very dangerous. Subroot is home to many illnesses, as if it’s the origin of them, from the common cold to the sexual-based infections. I needn’t remind yer of Grauk. Ashcrown is like the start of a gangster’s career. Sputure may be even worse than Tolden, being a mass graveyard fer constructs as well as the poor. I’m sure yeh read in the papers about Agnarge. An’ don’ get me started on Crowsridge”- I cut him off there, stating, “I can handle myself, Jack.” The arctic fox sighs before getting our sights aligned—I’m wearing my eyepatch—and says tenderly, “Everyone needs help sometimes, Lass. Maybe even the embodiment of death.” I still appreciate his concern, though I never show it. I say sincerely, “I will come back. Mebbe I kin play Écarté with you-n yer friends?” Jack chuckles, “I might challenge yeh to Toad in the Hole instead.” I hug him for a moment before stating, “You kin bet on that. ‘Till then.” With that, I turn and head to an idle carriage.
  9. Two: Catching Up (My life seemed to have no meaning. We were poor. We couldn’t get enough food. I was lucky to be in a school that could teach girls, but that was where most of our money went. My mother told me, “Why do you keep getting in fights at school?” Normally, I would have aches and bruises at the end of the day, but that day, I had a small cut on the side of my muzzle, to which my mother tended. (I answered bluntly, “I had to, Mum. It was the only way to make William stop telling ‘is friends lies about me.” (“What kinds of lies?” My mother asked after wiping where she applied antibiotic. (I told her, “He told the boys today that I live in a whorehouse and about you being a drunkard.” (My mother inquired, “Is this the same boy who ‘lied’ that you carried some fatal disease last week?” (I answered, “Aye.” That was all. (My mother objected, “Be that as it may, y-need t-stop fighting the other children. We can’t afford attracting the wrong attention.” That was one of the many things that I heard from my mother repeatedly. She was always worried about something happening when I came home from school at the end of the day. And that was only one of few arguments that my step-father didn’t interject in. (When my step-father returned home for the evening, we had dinner. He was tired when coming home. He always smelled like fire and charcoal when entering our small flat. We had so little space. We were lucky as well to have a kitchen and a living room. Beds were a luxury to us as well. My mother and step-father shared a bed on one far side of the living room, and I would sleep in the other. In the centre was a ragged couch and wooden table where we ate our dinner. (That dinner, for which we had vegetable soup made with weak broth and stale bread, my step-father pressed questions like he always would, trying to make conversation, but I chose not to answer any of them. We were never communicative, him and me. As much as he’d press questions, I would either ignore him or mumble something without repeating myself. (I had always known that Clement was not my real father, because I was told so when I was learning to talk. From the start, we were never close because of that. I had a problem with loving Clement, having made up a logic that a step-father could not love as much a real father could.) ----- That cesspit is not to be the last one I enter. I have been in others, but the poverty-stricken borough that is Grauk is worse than the others I’ve seen. I know the city of Highcond like the back of my paw. I take a ride on a train from a fairly distant neighbouring borough Solmil, where I stayed for a night, to my next destination. As I await that, I take the time to read the letters that I have lifted. All of them have been sent to the owner of the brothel. The subjects of those messages are about opportunities of who they could take as their newest whores and about money. The owner and guards earned their fair share while the one in higher has been given a good cut of profits from over at least the past year. Upon the sight of a sign on the track, I fold and tuck the letters in the inner breast pocket of my pinstripe jacket, and place my paws on my lap. I wear a brown pinstripe suit over a white shirt. I brace myself as the train slows and then screeches to its halt. I stand up, and the doe that’s been in the seat next to me, asks, “Can I help you with your bag?” I answer plainly, “No thanks. I can manage.” I wear a patch over my right eye, but I can time everything with my good hearing. I pick up my case from the space above, and go in with the crowd in exiting the train carriage. It is minutes away from being precisely midday, which gives me time to run errands. I especially can afford lunch with the money that I’ve taken from those not deserving. The borough of Knightsedge is every poor being’s dream, but only supposedly a safe haven from the dwellers of the criminal underworld. Even this place is not safe either from the serious pollution of both the air and the water. In fact, I know no better place to have lunch than in all of Knightsedge. I walk all the way from the station, taking in the supposedly bright and cheerful atmosphere that was offered in the foggy city on this Spring day. However, I am in a good mood myself, for I got what I wanted on my birthday. I am twenty-seven years old. I pass the impressive constructs of bricks and metal, treading the sidewalk. Every building is red, beige, and grey with the cement, bricks, and metal, but the streets are anything but drab to me. The first place I stop since exiting the train station, is an inn. A plain inn, but shows class in the paintings and vases to occupy the walls and the wooden counters. I tell the receptionist, “I want a room. Any open?” Taking that for rudeness, this receptionist, a white and black spotted rabbit, answers, “We do. Worry not.” He then asks back, “Any preferences?” “Only the amount of space for one.” Without speaking, the rabbit turns back, and takes a key from the shelf, to hand to me, and informs me, “The wider rooms are on the upper floor. You’ll like that one.” He points to the disc to which the key is linked, showing the number fourteen. I thank him and head up the stairs, to the door numbered fourteen, and the key fits the lock on the door. I open and cross the threshold, to see the bed right next to it, decorated with frilly sheets and pillows, the frame metal and having an abstract carving of the same metal for a headboard. The walls are covered by leaf-pattern wallpaper. There is a good amount of space to walk around, and a wooden table with good a good amount space for both eating and studying. I set my suitcase on the bed, and the first thing to see is my navy-blue jacket, the matching pants, and my tan vest. I plan to keep those in my suitcase. The other shirts and suits that I might need if there’s to be a problem, I hang in the closet behind a hinged sliding door. I then have a short look in the loo, and it has a polished porcelain toilet, a polished sink and counter, and a porcelain tub just as polished as if it’s new. Content with such, I lay one of the oil lanterns in the centre of the table. I have no intention to rest at the moment. ----- I give myself a further tour of the borough, spotting shops as well as pubs that I don’t remember seeing. I don’t bother to ask for or lift a carriage as I head a little further east. I spot a patch of green where other socialise as well as crowds around some street performance. The butcher shop that I enter is one of my usual places to vacate. The butcher that I approach is the same old lynx in a work shirt and work pants, with a white apron that looks fresh. As if he’s thrilled to see the one-eyed black she-wolf again for the first time in a month, he asks, “Here fer yer usual, Ma’am?” My usual is the chicken breast. I answer, “Nay, I’ll change it up a bit. I would like a buffalo chop.” “Daring, eh?” the butcher comments. He charges me a fair twelve pounds for it, and I hope it’s worth the price. The animal could have still bleated a few minutes earlier. That’s when I head to the pub that I call my favourite: Queen o’ Clubs, the sign of which seems to be an intricate painting on a canvas. I just have to smile at that, the owner being sort of an egotist. Upon entering the dark wooden chamber that is the atmosphere, I see the faces familiar of me as they are of the criminal underworld: the mercenary the Demon, a black rabbit, tall for her species, who likes to wear a red suit with a cravat, and I know wields a scythe; the smugglers the cats, the orange tabby calling herself Ruby, the earthly-hued tabby with green eyes calling herself Jade, and the white cat with blue eyes calling herself Sapphire; and drug cartel members, a husky, a terrier, and a silver fox. Those are just few of the many criminals that I have read about and might have hurt in their businesses. I approach the bar, taking a seat. As if anticipating it, the bar lady, a grey striped hyaena, meets me where I sit. She speaks, “Good to see you, Lady Wolf.” I haven’t told her my name in all the time of being a usual patron. I reply, “Good t-see yeh, too, Faraji. Holding up well, I see.” “Thanks to this place”, she responded jovially. “I assume you were on business.” “Always.” “So what meat have you that you would like cooked?” I reveal the slab of meat, answering, “Buffalo chop this time. Does the cook know how to make a dish with it?” “She can sear any-ting. She can spice it, and likes to add mushrooms, carrots, and rice.” I tell the hyaena, “I’d like that. And to drink, the Kabal Kane Ale.” Faraji answers contently, “As you wish, Ma’am.” She takes the slab of meat to the kitchen, to relay the order. Today, I dine as the aristos. Around twenty minutes later, I am served the platter of the meat, rice, carrot slices, and diced mushrooms. Normally, I would turn down a meat made with a spice, but it does have a nice taste. I don’t even realise how hungry I am until I indulge on the dish. With the plate then left with orts and the metal mug then empty, my hunger is sated for the time being. I look around for a moment, before I approach the side of the bar. The hyaena answers to my raised hand, where I pay her, and I tell the red fox in front of me, “Tell MacNiadh, Lady Death is here. Now.” The red fox chuckles, “No need for aggression. He would be delighted t-see yeh.” I am still stern, but I know that he’s right. I follow the red fox in a white work shirt and brown work pants with suspenders along a narrow hall, and I have a stiletto with me just in case. At the door, the fox says, “After you.” I expect a trick from him. I object, “No. After you.” I press the end of my stiletto against his side and add, “I insist.” The red fox knocks quickly before opening. Just when I am greeted by the light through the side window, a familiar Glashish-accented voice speaks, “Bones, I thought yeh had”- he stops at that when he sees my face. At the desk of the neat and sophisticated office sits an arctic fox, my dear friend Seàn MacNiadh (prefers to be called Jack), who has two features to distinguish him from the rest of the arctic foxes: a patch over where his left eye should be, the two straps of it around his left ear; and a thick crown dyed bright green. With him is a brown tabby cat in a business dress, her neck and feet concealed. Jack stands up from his chair, smiling gleefully and speaking, “As I live an’ breathe! Best o’ the day t-yeh, Lass!” Though I do not show such, I am glad to see him as well. I tell him, “I may have caught you at a bad time, Jack, but this is one of our unscheduled meetings.” Jack tells the cat, “Hope yeh don’t mind, but friends catching up.” The cat replies, “No worries. You did give me whot I wos sent for.” Jack then tells the red fox, “Bones, stack for ‘er.” I pressed my stiletto against the red fox again—but what he pulled out was indeed a stack, of notes. So, I sheathed the stiletto. As if he’s aware of something, Jack adds, “And make sure she gives dear Faraji a good tip.” The red fox then states, “Nice t-meet yeh, she-wolf”, before he walks out. The wall behind Jack and one side wall were each occupied by a wide bookcase, the shelves filled with hardcover books. Above and to the side of the bookcase behind Jack, a blue and orange banner is hung and above the mantle a musket idles on hooks. There is a green mat taking up most of the counter of his desk. To my right, there is a window. Jack wears a white business shirt, black business pants, a black vest, and a narrow green tie. His white pelt voluminous, I can never tell whether he’s slim or chubby. His one eye is a nice sky blue. He and I are best friends. With the privacy given to us, I smile at him as he approaches me eagerly, and we give each other a big hug. “Keepin’ the good faith?” Jack asks. I answer, “Quite well.” As if it’s perfectly timed, we hear tapping against the glass of the window once we stop hugging. I take the liberty of heading to it, to open it. The raven flies off as the window opens outward, but he comes back, entering the opening and landing on the desk, but gives his wings another flap. As I have promised the raven, I pull out a roll from my handbag. I rip the roll in half before setting it down on the desk. He then proceeds to peck repeatedly at the piece of bread. Jack asks curiously, “When did he last ‘ave meat?” I answer matter-of-factly, “I saw rim eat meat two nights ago. Freshly-killed weasel.” “What was he killed for?” Jack inquires. So nosy of him. “Just for being in the way”, I respond. Jack comments, “By that logic, I should use a carriage to run over everyone in the way.” He changes the subject, saying, “You can take that eyepatch off since I know yeh’ve both eyes.” Jack is one of few to know that secret. “If it’s all the same, I’m leaving it on.” My turn to give a question. I asked, “How well d-you know the trafficking cartels?” Getting a small measure of tobacco in his pipe, Jack comments, “Right to it, I see.” He then gets a flint, to strike. “I know mostly me rivals in dealing weapons, fer buyin’ from the same manufacturers I do. I’ve seen me contacts having taken beat-ns fer me bein’ their patron.” He continues through his teeth, still trying to light his tobacco, “But they don’ be intimidated.” In succeeding in lighting his tobacco, he lowers his flint and heads to the open window, hoping to not disturb my other friend with the smell. After taking a long puff to blow out, he states seriously, “I know why you be here, Death.” “Indeed”, I respond. “This is the reason, Jack.” Upon the pause, Jack turns around, seeing the stack of papers. I set them on the desk, continuing, “I picked these up from Grauk. A brothel called Mudbath. It’s charred rubble now.” Jack turns to the window, to blow another puff of smoke, before reproaching the desk, seething, “You mean ta tell me: yeh burnt down that death sentence of a whorehouse in one of the worst cesspools of Highcond?” He paused a beat before continuing, “Me contacts from Tolden, Lonecore, and Agnarge told me of the borough’s town criers ‘avin’ a field day yesterday over a brothel destroyed. They didn’t leave out the fact that many males ran home naked. Now I know why.” He jests, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a crier happened t-know if at least one got arrested for indecency.” Watching the raven still working at the roll, which is in pieces, I state, “Then you know why I brought these letters to you.” Jack responds, “It will still take a while. I don’t know slave traffickers as well as I know arms or drug dealers.” I comment, “You might still. They had a stash of opium, which I used to start that fire, along with those spiced pears. I sold what opium the bartender offered to give away.” “Oh, how effective were the spiced pears?” Jack asks curiously. “Instantaneous fire. Good distractions as well. Whilst on that subject, anyone else in range that sells pears?” He knows what I mean. “Yeh kin always find me casual dealers lurkin’ the docks of here, Tolden, and Subroot. But since it be pears to interest yeh, go visit the Bartlett Marketplace in Manusdale.” “I’ll bear that in mind.” I changed the subject back. “However long you take with the names mentioned in those letters, I will come back. I’ve other business as well. You give me the information to give me a connection, I’ll do a favour for you.” Jack bares his teeth as a grin, answering, “It’ll be done, Lass. Sure yeh don’ wanna stay fer a drink?” “A pint of ale’s enough fer one day t-me”, I tell him politely. Jack nods and responds, “Suit yerself. I assume yeh need the telephone before yeh go.” “Of course. Thank you.” I head to the opposite end, to a small stand where Jack’s telephone is. I can only guess where he got that. I turn the wheel on it, listening to the droning of the dial, having already picked up the earpiece. A lot of beeping follows from the completion of the number, and I hear a deep voice speak, “Ahoy.” I state, “This is the she-wolf loyal to the High Priestess.” “I need a name”, he responds irritably. “I am the wolf with the violet eye.” There is a pause before I hear the deep voice speak, “So, you choose now to use this form of communication. What business have you?” “Just inform security and the High Priestess that the wolf with the violet eye will be there tomorrow evening.” It is still a long way away. “As you wish, Lass.” “Farewell fer now.” The receiver bids the same and we hang up. Turning back around and reproaching Jack’s desk, and seeing him in his chair, pipe in hand, glass of whiskey in front of him, I tell him, “I appreciate these small talks of ours, Jack, but I must tend ta that other business.” Jack comments, “Who doesn’t?” I sweep the crumbs around the crow off the counter and in my paw, and then point to the window in front of him. I look to Jack again, saying, “You’ve my word I’ll come back shortly.” The arctic fox raises his glass, grinning, and answers, “Til then.” He gulps on his whiskey and just rasps the second I’m at the door of his office. ----- I spend a night at the inn where I have a room. The dinner that I eat is as good as the lunch that I’ve eaten at Jack’s pub. My dinner is a steak with the sides of turnips and potatoes, which moisten in the juice of the meat. For my plan of my other visit, I count up what remains of my take of the sold goods and stolen deposit, so I can divide the money rounded to the nearest decimal. What I choose to keep for myself, after paying the inn’s bill, I’m to have no more than forty pounds, as this is a luxurious place. I inform the receptionist that I would be gone all day. As long I have the key to the room, I’m to still get charged for the nights even when I’m not sleeping in that bed. I still wear my eyepatch along with my grey pinstripe suit, the buttons fastened, and I keep only my pouches and leather handbag when taking the train right after having breakfast. Chances are that my raven friend makes it to my destination before the train does, not just with the regular stops at the stations to follow. (Against my mother and step-father’s wishes, I did take a detour getting home from school. It wasn’t my first time taking a detour; nor was it the first time doing this particular. I stole. We have no choice, given this oppression by the aristos taking advantage of our weaknesses and what we don’t know. Even in a poor area, we still had the occasional privileged ones, and those were like my meat. I picked a pocket of one who was a gentleman compared to the rest of us. In running from him, I emptied his pouch of coins and dropped the pouch, filling my pockets with the coins. Even with the heavy jingling, I managed to outrun him, probably for that I’m a wolf and he was one of those esteemed cats. I didn’t underestimate his speed, and found a hiding spot when I got tired. (After the ordeal, I returned to my horrible house, where my mother already awaited me. She asked, “What took you so long?” I didn’t answer. Coming off as overprotective to me, she added, “What did I tell about taking detours?” She hated when I came home late. Just ten minutes after I was supposed to be back from school at the end of the day was late to her. I looked away from my mother, hating that question. (I mumbled something before my mother told me to speak up. I asked back, “What if I was in a fight, and I had no choice?” (She said plainly, “Running from them is the best way to end them, if your opponent is bigger and stronger than you. Only cowards pick the small and frail.” (Looking to my mother again, I retorted, “Then let me fight! Make me better at it than I already am!” (My mother spoke, “You’re not meant to fight. We must be better than the rest.” (“How? We haven’t as much money as others.” Even a pup knows that there are problems with this city. Called Highcond. The “high” in it is the towers. (My mother asked, “You stole again, didn’t you?” (I barked, “I have to, Mum! It’s a matter of them or us!” (My mother objected, “I keep telling you, don’t. You can’t afford the unwanted attention.” (“What unwanted attention? You keep telling me that, but you don’t elaborate.” That was when my mother looked down in shame. I didn’t know what made her so ashamed then. I then asked, “If I am not ready now, when am I ready?” (That was when Clement entered, saying plainly, “I’m back.” Noting our expressions, he asked, “What’s wrong?” (My mother answered, “My daughter stole again.” (Clement scoffed before speaking, “I’m with yer Mum on this. Yeh just ‘ave ta trust ‘er.” (I told him, without looking at him, “You’ve no say.” (My mother objected, “But I do? Please, for the sake of all of us, stop stealing from one who might have a load of money.” I emptied my pocket of the coins, placing them on the kitchen table, before storming to the back of the house. They knew that I picked pockets for them, but still they wanted me to not do it. I didn’t pick another pocket for a few weeks, but I still found the opportunity to do so.) I spend that ride on the train looking back to that time I had with my family before finding this place, far south of Highcond. This is where I gained friends, albeit reluctant ones at that. This is where I have learnt to read and write, as well as various arts and some interesting history. To me, the institution that’s my destination, is home. I spend many hours heading far out of town, and the one time I’m off is when I find a tavern for dinner. I miss the one that I’ve been on, but I do find another that I can board later, though in a different heading. The sun is setting by the time I head to the institution, but I still expect greetings. The city that I have come to, Ventine, is where I grew up, and only partially beyond the estate of the institution. Where I have a stranger drive me with a carriage is at its primary gates. In front of the unpainted iron fence, I find a serval, who’s apparently tired as it’s the end of the day. The second I see him approach me, I remove and pocket my eyepatch, revealing my irregular and distinguishing feature. He says plainly, “You’re late for your appointment. I hear the guards were eager fer your arrival.” I remark, “Let’s not keep them waiting further.” To answer that, the serval presses on the lever, to unlatch the gate, and I push it. The fence has an opening until I push it again, and then the serval releases the lever, latching the gate. The bars are narrowly spaced, so that the only living things to enter are the vermin. The field that I tread upon entering is desert-like, having mostly sand, but the occasional shrub was around. Aware of someone entering, many of the guards eagerly check out who or what. How surprised those still in full or half armour were to find the she-wolf with the violet eye having returned to this place. This place is like a city of its own, the log constructs taking up the spaces like hand-crafted cabins, but stretched like a street. Among those guards are not just felines, but also canines, as if my residence long since inspired opening jobs and residence to them. To stand out in the group watching me is the few felines saying with excitement, “It’s Big Sister!”, “Big Sister’s back!”, or “Big Sister’s home!” Just hearing that even now fills my heart with warmth. I stop for one watching me, to give him a big hug. That one in particular is a wolf like I, though nothing like wolves of this country. He’s slender, but as tall as I am and has partially-defined muscles, which I can tell as he wears no shirt, even when this evening air is cold. He has a white chest and chin, but still has a stripe along his upper chest as brown as the rest of his fur, except for his white and black tail. His nose is black, his eyes brown as well, but brighter. He wears black leather pants and none of his armour. Once the embrace ends, the wolf comments, “It’s been too long, Sister.” “I know, Themba”, I reply. He then states, “If only you were here two days ago, I could have requested a cake made for you.” I sidestep with, “I still received a good birthday present.” To that, Themba chuckles. He then says, “Well, come say hello to the cubs.” I head to the house far from the cabins making for the security’s quarters. Along the way, I query, “Anything yeh’ve bin up ta?” Themba says, “I still work to prove my skills even with what control I have of the guards.” “But you earnt yer position.” “The High Priestess sees something in me that she admires; I give credit to ‘er for that. But I feel like I haven’t had enough training.” “Don’t we all?” I’m willing to admit to having room for improvement myself. “You think your friend the arctic fox was underqualified for such an esteemed position. Why shouldn’t I think the same of myself?” He does pause, but I don’t answer as he doesn’t expect one. “Something takes years of experience. An early promotion over being short on staff is not the best choice.” Confused, I ask, “You didn’t lose guards or agents, did yeh?” “Of course we have, Sister. It is expected as the agents are sent on dangerous missions.” The conversation has to await its finish as we reach the white stone house with glass windows. It has a bell tower with stained glass, making it seem like a crudely-built chapel. Themba is the one to push the large wooden doors open, showing a very familiar space to me. There were two neat rows of beds on simple metal frames, the sheets plain, and almost all of them are occupied by various felines as well as canines. The cubs show their excitement, scrambling toward where Themba and I are, exclaiming, “It’s her!”, “It’s the Big Sister!”, “She’s back!”, and “Big Sister!” They begin to fight to make sure they get to hug me. I try to make myself heard among the arguing and grunting, speaking, “Don’t shove. Everyone gets a hug from me.” I nudge the nearest ones away, so I can get down on one knee, and I give them an embrace, three or four at a time. I don’t rule out how the cubs know of how I treated the others when I was their age, but I go with it. With each and every one of them getting my affection, I stand up. By that time, Themba is away, probably at the grand temple. I speak, “Sorry to say I have no items t-give yeh.” As if they didn’t hear that, the cubs’ voices overlap, asking, “What bad guys did you beat up?”, “Did you get in a big bar fight?”, “Who did you free from oppression?”, and “Did you make any of those bad guys cry?” Those are only a few that I make out. I answer casually, “I have faced and slain many since my last visit. I have crippled operations and humiliated gangs.” That makes the cubs cheer, and I smile, lost with words. One significant question is from a silver fox: “Can yeh show yer swords this time?” I answer to that. “Not this time. And they’re called Khopeshes.” The silver fox moans in disappointment. “I just came to let you know that I haven’t forgotten this place, and I will always do what I can t-keep it in business.” A lioness cub asks, “Can you stay to tell a story?” It is late for them, and they like stories as much as any young animal. I know that the High Priestess does not mind me taking a few minutes to give a short story to them. I wait for all the cubs to get together on two beds, as if they needed listen closely. Many sit on the edge of one bed whereas others make space to invite me to the other, and I sit down, the ones occupying being around me. Only a select few manage to nestle to my sides. Just admiring the energy of theirs, I look around contently. Then, I begin: “Everyone knows of the Underworld ruler Kumhep, but not everyone knows of his past life. Kumhep had everything that one could ask for: a loving wife, thriving livestock, and his contribution to society. For all the work of his grain harvesting, his fruit growth, and the comfort for his goats, he was thankful for but one man: his brother, Sehmi.” I go into the story of how the brother is betrayed by Kumhep’s wife, which drives Kumhep to kill him, but Sehmi resurrects and lives in self-exile until he becomes a loyal servant to an esteemed king, and then his advisor. How the wife catches up with Sehmi and kills him two other times, until the wife dies giving birth to a reincarnation. How Kumhep realises that death is part of the balance, and becomes the judge for all dying souls alongside the soul of a king that dies centuries earlier, who creates the realm for souls of the dead to reside. I finish with: “And the first dying soul the Kumhep judges for which kind of afterlife is deserved, is that of the king to whom Sehmi had pledged, a king who reigned honourably.” The same lioness cub to make the general request, speaks, “What can Kumhep do when he reigns the Underworld?” “His own heart and soul are so powerful that he has bound them to the realm. This grants him the power to bind all souls of evil to the darkness, which he manipulates.” A leopard nestled to my left, requests, “Tell us the first time Kumhep steps out in the mortal realm.” I chuckle at that, before I state, “Sorry, Lad. I promised to tell only one story.” The sky has almost gone completely dark by the time I’m finished the story. Though they would refuse to say so, a few show signs of weariness. I stand up slowly, making the cubs scramble from me. I hear the groan as they prepare to turn in for the night. As I feel compelled to, I stay to make sure that they all occupy their beds. When I see all of them make themselves comfortable for the night, I announce contently, “Sweet dreams.” That’s when I head out of the living quarters and back to the sand and stones. I pass an area of stones held together by cement and head left, to a real pavement which is cut off by a wooden border in the ground. My destination in particular is a large dark-grey structure kept simple, but with the intricate details of stained-glass windows like the churches in the cities, and the heads at the corners each being that of one animal. On the front of this temple are a lion and a jackal. On the back are a hyaena and a crocodile. The pair of large wooden doors dyed red have not lost their brightness. I turn the one knob on the door that opens inwards, and the hinges creak as I enter the torchlit atmosphere. The altar is occupied by an intricate golden throne with patterns of bushes on each side. The mosaic rock floor is occupied by six wooden pews. Only one idol sculpture is inside, and it is that of a lioness in a robe, made black like the wall as if it were carved into that stone. It even has the pattern of a headdress and necklaces. At the altar is one person, a cat. Someone who means a lot to me. This cat is like no other to me. She has bright silver fur, short black stripes on the crown of her head, and on her cheeks, her eyes bright green and seeming perpetually wide. She is clad in a long-sleeved and loose-fitting robe, concealing whatever tunic and trousers she has underneath, a blue sash as a belt, another blue sash over her shoulder and across, and a bone necklace. Upon reaching the altar, I get down on one knee and bend over, facing the floor. “Rise, my child”, the silver cat tells me, as if she starts a song. How I love that musical voice of hers. I face her again, humble as I can be, but expressing my love, and announced, “I missed you, High Priestess, mother to all.” I am still knelt down, given her position. As a cat, she is much shorter than me, but her metaphorical heart could take up all space of the temple. Upon leaving the embrace, I stand up, needing to look down at her now, but she is held in much higher honour than mine. “Let us sit”, she says calmly. “You can tell me all about your adventure in de concrete jungle.” She loves nature so much that this place is near a good 35 square kilometres of greenery. We seat in the front bench, where I begin to explain—with “It has been done.” I pause. She knows what I have been after. “That place of oppression is gone. The owner and guards are all dead, the slaves liberated. I know who controlled it. All I need know now is how else to get to him. It made so much of a headline that it was all over the news. There will be many after me, of course.” I pull out a pouch, which I present to the High Priestess. “This is fer you. It is not much, but I always wish to aid your cause.” She sounds nonchalant, replying, “I still appreciate your kindness, my child.” I lean forward, asking, “In a time of need, what would Pasht—the Pasht from the ancient lore—do? What would she do when overwhelmed by enemies, without relying on divine magic?” Understanding my worry, she explains, “Strength and strategy are two sides of the same coin. If numerous enemies make sure you cannot stand, they cannot do so forever. Your recovery must be accounted for, if you wish to settle de score. If a fight ending with your loss is a mistake from which you can learn, Pasht would continue to fight with honour. If your survival depends on lower numbers, Pasht would show no mercy. Traps for graverobbers are tests that can be taken only once.” I nod. “I am wary of me surroundings and I do fight as if me life depends on it. Is that all I can do?” “We cannot see the future or read minds. All warriors rely on their own skill.” “You are right, as always, High Priestess.” “I do not fault you fer dis path you take. I hear how de population struggles as well as my agents know.” “’Tis like a world of the wild: a matter of you or them.” She adds with obvious encouragement, “And together we persevere.” She takes my hands in hers, small as they are, those hands having influenced me to handle others with care, and adds, “I do not fault, either, for why you come back. You owe me for nothing, my child.” “You and almost everyone here is like me family, High Priestess. I would protect you, your followers, and the cubs until the end.” “Whatever business you may have, go to it. You need not worry about me, for this place is safe.” “I will still see you and the others again. You will know from an unexpected telephone contact. This is farewell, for now.” I stand up, but not without bowing to her esteem, and then head out. On my way out, I end up meeting my wolf friend Themba, walking with me to the gate. “Already seein’ yer way out?” Themba speaks. I reply, “I could wait until morning, but it would make no difference.” “Perhaps you could reconsider”, he suggests. “I did not come here to spend the night; even the High Priestess knows.” “Then why did you bring your Khopeshes?” Themba inquires. He is right to. My visit is not for a fight; not even a spar. I state, “Yeh make a valid argument.” He bares his teeth as a grin and quietly motions for me to follow him. Where he guides me first is the dojo, where I rely on their grinding wheel, to sharpen my blades, and check thrice before I confirm the sharpness. I have learned to rely on the edge as well as the whole blade when choosing two Khopeshes as my primary weapon. Some people rely on the blade itself more than the edge. With a dull edge, one can’t even cut meat for their meal without ripping it. Themba has been my close friend since he was taken in, and trained to be a guard. We are so close that I sleep in his bed, cuddling as if we are lovers, though we are not. Only when the sun rises, I take my breakfast and eat along the ride to the train of the station that I ride back to Knightsedge.
  10. One: Last Will “To my dear Daughter, “This message means that I am dead. I know you will open this when you are not ready. It seemed that way when we stopped speaking to one another for good, but I never gave up on our relationship. I truly loved your mother, and I wanted to love you”- I fasten my belt and sheathe my two blades in the scabbard on each side. - “which is why I must request one thing of you despite your unreasonable hatred. I regret that our relationship was like that. I wanted to be close to you, and this is to tell you how much I care. I care about many that I have come to know, and regret what I failed of those that are dead.”- I fasten the laces of my boots and make as good of a bow in the knot that I can, and on the first try, the laces are secure enough to keep my boots in place. -“What I ask of you is what many with fiancées, wives, sisters, or daughters wanted, but never did. My best friends had loved ones lost to the clan that once had your mother as a slave.”- I don my jacket, each arm placed through each sleeve, and look down to make sure that my hilts are concealed. I also make sure that I have the devices on which I rely in the pockets, and that they do nothing unless I trigger them. - “There is a brothel called Mudbath, which is funded, and therefore controlled, by that same clan, east of Highcond, a terrible town called Grauk, one of many bordering north of River Numo. It is a base of many syndicates and clans. Enter one of their pubs or one of their brothels; there is a chance you will not depart alive.”- I secure my golden mask, my pointed ears fitting through the slots, braced over my muzzle, and I can see through the openings for the eyes. - “I wish for you, the daughter that I never gave up on, for your mother if not for me, to do what all those female slaves’ families wish they did years ago”- I look in my hand mirror to know that the mask is fitted perfectly. My reflection shows the confidence that I have in this mission. I lowered the hand mirror to raise the hood of my jacket, and climb out the window of the house where I’d broken in, in preparation, and I follow a familiar and abnormal crow. - “Burn the brothel to the ground.” ----- Nine in the evening, the sun just setting upon the territory of filth and living scum, stenches of blight filling the atmosphere. Every house is made of wood, and many having decayed after so long, and decaying further. No gaslights are to be found in this area, which is why animals such as myself have to rely on our natural night vision, and it still gets darker with each second now. I walk casually along the road of only dirt, expecting someone to interfere in my mission. I then begin to stride on the path, as if someone pulls me toward my destination, but I fight the instinct to go running. Only once, I meet an interruption, in the form of a Shephard, whom I gave an uppercut to his jaw before he can finish his remark about finding an elegant she-wolf in a place like this. I walk past him and he doesn’t bother to catch up with me. It is dark now, no way of seeing in this area except with night vision. Just when the sun has completely set, I see the large sign: “Mudbath”. I hear the caw of a raven, the same raven that I have followed, to navigate the area. I head to its back, and climb up what dried dirt the wall was made of, I can maintain a grip of as I do so. I force the window that I approach open, the one nearest me, and climb inside the room— To find a naked brown wolf about to get inside a fragile-looking multicolour cat, who is as naked. Out of the surprise followed by the irritation, the brown wolf heads to the moldy dresser, where he has left his holster, along with his pistol. Before he reaches his pistol, I unsheathe one of my curved and hooked blades with my left hand, and the hook-like end is pressed below his jaw. He is lucky that I am not here to kill him. “Step back”, I command, and he does so, my blade still pressed against him. I then sheathe my blade, which confuses him, once I’m between him and the dresser. That confusion of his ends as I perform a left hook to the side of his face, which knocks him out. I then tell the young female cat—who I assume is only seventeen— “Get off the bed.” She does so right away. I take the mattress from the filthy wooden frame and drop it out the window. The cat watches me just drag the unconscious wolf to the opening as well, and dropping out the window as well. As I hope, he lands on the mattress. Turning back around, I inform the cat, who’s still naked and as fearful as she is befuddled, “I am here to help.” I approach her and hold her shoulders, instructing, “I need you to be strong. For yer friends. I plan t-destroy this place. Yeh must stay on this floor ter ‘elp yer friends. Make all the patrons leave, and without their clothes or their coin. Tell the other girls ta take the money fer themselves. And their weapons, if their clients have any.” The cat asks, “Wha’ ull yeh do?” “Kill the guards and the owner. Rob the office. Then burn this place down.” “You’re daft”, the cat comments. I let go of her, and respond, “No. I do this because it is the right thing to do. You can’t be the only one who hates being here. You will know when the guards are dead and the patrons are away. When I am done with them, you leave. Then, I will set the building on fire.” The cat seems like she could cry, but she nods rapidly, and begins to put on her ragged gown, likely her best one. She then takes the gun and pouch that have been left by her client. She explains, “I dunno how you know about the guards, but don’ underestimate them. One in particular living here: the owner agreed with the condition that the regular session with one of us be his pay; he’s the strongest and most intimidating. The barwoman, Viola, can help you if you’re serious about burning the place down. She knows where the opium is kept; you can cover the floor with it, but don’t start the fire until you’re outside, too.” I have already been killing others. I kill the wrongdoers and rob every one of them because it is right, but I don’t turn down contract kills either. I head in the hall that’s barely lit by candles in clouded glass, and down the wooden staircase with only one turn, the foot of which leads to the bar counter. The bar woman is a grey cat that looks blue, even having blue eyes, clad in a sleeveless dress with a closed collar. Just the bar counter and round tables taking up this part of the building has a difference between the top floor like night and day. The floor is only dirt. The chatter dies down from the odd appearance of myself. Having gained everyone’s attention, I announce, “I will say this only once to the patrons: get out. Things will get bloody.” The patrons just laugh at that. I signal the barwoman over, and whisper to her, “If you want to be anywhere but here, you will help me.” She nods. “One of the girls tells me you can get me opium to light on fire.” That widens her pupils. I add, “I am dead serious. You want to leave this place, no? See your family again?” She gathers herself before I hear a groggy whisper from the bluish-grey cat, “I will help you.” She then heads to the back. Focusing on the crowd again, I announce, “I will give you all a chance, but only one chance. The girls will be given the money that they deserve and you will let them walk out of here, to never come back.” After much hesitation, one guard approaches me, a Greyhound, slender as normal of his kind, clad in a brown business jacket with flashy epaulets over a white shirt and narrow beige tie. He asks, “What if we deny your demand?” I answer coldly, “Then I will kill you all myself, and set this building on fire. Your boss will be among the dead as well.” Another dog, this one a Shephard, but with grey fur and as slender as her subordinate, seeming to have flat chest, says irritably, “Tell that to me face, yeh bitch.” She approaches as well, warning, “Yeh’re not the first meddler in me business. It seems we need make an example of whoever else thinks they can come in here and”- I interrupt her with a punch to the nose, prompting the Greyhound to pull out a pistol, but as quickly I unsheathe one of my Khopesh with my left paw, I drive it in his midsection before he can pull the trigger, and I drive the blade straight up, making sure that he’s dead, before I let the then limp body fall down. The grey Shephard barks, “Ge’ ‘er, fools!” She then dashes away, expecting one of the guards to kill me. I pull out one of the devices from my jacket, press the button, and toss it. Where it lands, a table bursts into flames. I toss another and make another table become an improvised brazier. That brings enough chaos for patrons to start running. Enough of a distraction for me to get close to the guards that rely on guns. I meet the centre of the dining area, where I unsheathe my other Khopesh and use each on the two guards near me, making an upward gash on their chests. I turn to another guard, this one a stoat, but I don’t miss, slashing both Khopesh downward, but only coming out as impalements and he dies instantly. The next guards that I turn to, each rely on guns as well, and I slash across their midsections. After that short time, the fires on the tables dim until they’re only embers losing their light. I duck quickly, just hearing two simultaneous gunshots. I jump atop a table and jump from it with a backflip, and then spread my arms like wings, tearing the weasels’ jackets, and then I send the blades to a space between their ribs, killing them. “So, it’s up to me”, I hear a gentlemanly voice state nonchalantly. I turn to where I hear it, seeing a dolphin, wearing only underwear, showing off all the muscle in his legs, arms, chest, abdomen, and back. He has a lot of muscle for a dolphin for sure, and holds a two-headed axe as if it’s nothing. “Those men are nothing. You face the enforcer.” I make him prove that he is the strongest. Based on that he has no belt with holster or a sidearm, he doesn’t care for guns. I thrust my dual Khopesh, still having the hilts on the pinky side of my hands. He dodges before swinging downward, and then upward, and I back away from both cleaves. I utilise the scissor technique, but the lock doesn’t last long, as he shifts his axe toward me. I let go, and back away. I let him cleave at me thrice before I use the hooks of my blades to shift the axe up, and then kick his midsection. I leap toward him, managing to cut his shoulder, which makes him angry. Though reckless, he still has the potential to split me open with his axe. The dolphin swipes sideways twice, before cleaving downward, and I choose to leap aside, as that’s my best chance of surviving. Turning, I cut his side. Even responding to that attack, he backs from the thrust of my other blade. The dolphin growls, and it’s no pleasant sound. He performs a barrage of sideways cleaves until he backs me in a corner, and I crouch swiftly before he can deliver a fatal blow. After I get behind him, having slid between his legs, I manage to slash his throat with both blades in a reverse-scissor motion. He chokes on his blood as he stumbles to the side. I look around, making sure that everyone I have slashed at is dead. Within seconds of the chaos dying, many females of a short variation of canines and felines walk down the stairs, fully dressed, walking down the stairs. I announce, “Get as far away from here as you can. Stop for no one. This borough’s not fer any-a you.” Those courtesans, having packed up what they could, head out the front door. That was just the select few not currently occupied. “Madame”, a voice called, and I looked to the bar, seeing the bluish-grey cat, having fulfilled my request. I asked, approaching the counter, “How flammable is that?” The deep female voice stated, “Sold as drug and explosive.” I then asked, “Which way is the office?” She points behind me, and I note the opening in the wall. Looking back, I told the bluish-grey cat, “Get your own things as well, along with what you think you deserve. The others are busy fighting their clients.” I head to the opening in the mud-moulded wall, which has a short line leading to a closed door. I have a hunch that a gun awaits me on the other side of that door. So, I think on a quick battle plan. I stand to the side before I slowly turn the knob and open it slightly before letting go, letting the door just open. I take out one of my incendiaries and press its button. I don’t toss it too far, so I can create a burst of fire on the floor. I seize that chance, turning to enter the office, which is like the difference between night and day even with what little the dim light shows. The Shephard has a pistol out, just like I predict. While she is disoriented, I charge into her, my elbow hitting her abdomen. I quickly grab her arm, so I can yank the pistol out of her hand and toss it out of her reach. She pulls out a knife, and in reaction, I pull out the Khopesh from my left scabbard, which I use to slash her right arm, making her lose grip of the knife as well. I then back her against a wall, the tine of the Khopesh pressed into the board. I speak sternly, “Money. Where is it?” The Shephard hesitates. So, I rotate the Khopesh so that the blade’s edge is against her throat. Without raising my voice, I press, “Tell me where the money is.” “I know… I know yeh’ll kill me anyway… And there will be others after you fer this.” “Nothing new”, I comment. “Is there a safe?” I get a hint that was the answer. “Combination?” I press the edge a little harder. “Three dials… You will find it… In the desk…” She is right about one thing: I slash her throat with my Khopesh and release her, letting her limp body fall, still against the wall. I look through the drawer of the crude desk, finding letters and records of transactions. It’s not long before I find the combination: 738. I also take letters to fold up and store in my inner breast pocket. I finally open the safe, revealing the stacks of bills and coins. I haul it all into the pub of the place and lay it all on the bar counter. While doing so, many males run down the stairs, naked, and out the door, them being a short variety of species. The reason for them to be at a brothel is not my business. The bluish-grey cat takes a sack from the bar for later to split. I take a reasonable amount in the bills and coins before she gets it all. That’s when the rest of the courtesans, now having packed up and are ready for the reason I’m here, meet. I tell them, “Everyone except Viola, get out of here now. Stay close together. You get to split the money from the vault once Viola catches up. She’ll help me with the opium.” They all hesitate. So, I add, “Do what I say.” That’s when they head to the front door as well. Per my… command, Viola pours the oiled drug over the floor as I do, after she has her belongings, along with two wine bottles next to the doorway. We even pour the substance over the corpses of the guards, except for one of two weasels that I’d killed. All the tables and chairs are pushed on their sides in the process. I strip the corpse and then bring it out, naked, with me. Before she departs for good, the bluish-grey cat asks me, “Where can I go from here?” “To something more of your liking”, I answer. She heads out slowly, before striding in the street, leaving one of the canisters for me, probably to further express gratitude. At the open doorway, I toss my last incendiary with my eyes closed, and the fire begins. I watch the fire grow instantaneously, the licks dancing madly. The pub takes all the damage, I know, but I make sure that the place is destroyed beyond repair. As I watch the rage grow, the raven that I’ve followed joins me, but alights upon the weasel and begins pecking at the open wound. He has no problem getting the gash to reopen, and I just smile at that moment of him enjoying feasting upon the flesh. I look to the burning building again. Thanks to the opium to soak the walls, the dirt gives way. The supports crumble until the walls begin to give and thus the collapse of the construct. With the holes to be torn, the walls end up tearing, and I dash away, making sure that none, if not the least, of the dust gets on my suit. The dust clears, and I work to burn the building further. As a last resort, I pull out a pair of flints and scrape them together repeatedly for a spark until I get a spark, which ignites the oil from the dim lamps, and another fire, though small, begins. Now walking off, seeing the first part of my mission complete, I call to the crow, still indulging on the weasel’s flesh, “Whenever you’re ready.”
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