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  1. Fourteen: Demons’ Blight (Per the advice written by my mother and step-father, I held off on reading her book and what papers they saved for me. Instead, I opened up to the others and tried growing. For the weeks to follow the High Priestess giving me a hint of what this place truly was, I tried connecting to the other cubs. Not right away, however, for they assumed that canines act differently from the felines. The first feline around my age to connect to me, was the one occupying the bed to the left of mine. (This cub, a golden leopard, told me, “My mother died from smoke inhalation taking its toll. My father was killed in action, serving the military. A colleague of his recommended to take me here.” (I replied, “Both my mother and step-father died protecting me from criminals.” I had given the High Priestess all details. Not counting her, this cub is the first I to whom I gave the full story. (The leopard cub, named Kivan, commented, “Suddenly I feel like my story is nothing compared to yours.” (I just wiped my tears before I responded, “I understand that you all feel sympathy fer one another. I know enough to see that as not the proper way of being social.” I look to him, to continue, “I knew another wolf cub back in Highcond. He is dead. I never made another friend.” (Kivan tried to smile, stating, “You have one now.” (I gave smile just as wry, and asked, “So, whot wos yer life like back in… Dahalo…?” I listened with interest to what Kivan had to say.) ----- Barely a breath of rest before boarding the train to Subroot. I napped for a part of the ride in the carriage that provided refreshments, though not meat, of course. When I woke from that nap, I could not help but think that someone watches me right now. I have had that feeling since I entered the station from where I departed. I just know that Lieven will not go down easily. I would not be surprised if he holds grudges. The sunset is not as beautiful here as it is in most places. On the outdoor track, I can see terrible clouds seeming to have come from the smoke from factory chimneys. The clouds with tinges of imperial purple coming from the orange of the setting sun look to me like the smog poisoning the borough infamous for having the most illness cases. It is more than the factories that run from dawn to dusk that make for the diseases. “Joshua Derrickson. Mink. He could be called many things. Broker. Holder. Keeper. My men call him the Warden, for what Giffard pays him to do: storage manager, exclusively for Giffard’s merchandise. With the Lowell House fortunes, a factory was bought out and converted to a storage house. Ever since, there has been a massive cache for the clan’s weapons, drugs, and even victims of his trafficking operation. However, he is not working alone. There are factory owners, a son of a Vezdan and his wife, known to buy the cheapest slaves from Derrickson. That slaver’s name is Aldous Kohut. Go see his son. He will be glad to aid you.” I put the pages back in my suitcase, the paragraphs mentioning those I’ve already killed with wide X’s. It is at one of the townhouses where I have rented a room. I head outside that house, and there it is again: the hint that I have been shadowed. There is a scent that I should know, but it smells like… me! I swiftly turn around, taking someone with me to a gap between two rows of townhouses— And it is the cat from the brothel—or what is left of it—in Manusdale. I scowl at the calico. I tell her bluntly, “You could be in trouble from following the wrong wolf.” “That is why I followed you”, the cat replies. “I know you will be good to me.” She knows who I am. I imply, “You followed me to a train and boarded it, just for me t-protect you.” “Everyone heard that fight in Frances’s office. And you burnt the place down. I just knew that my liberator could also be my protector.” I take my hands off of her. She is helpless. In this cat, I see the same cat that I tried to help. I say plainly, “I cannot help everyone.” I start to walk away, but she grabs my wrist, and begs, “Please. I need someone. I cannot fight for my life like you do.” I look behind, seeing the cat’s eyes now glassy. I object, “I am sorry, June, but I have other business. I owe favours to somebody, even if he says otherwise.” I can just see the pain in her expression even when I walk away, having taken my wrist out of her grip. I end up running, expecting her to not catch up with me easily. Where I run to, is at a pub, which is connected to a long flat that seems abandoned. To indicate otherwise, the outer walls are clean. That house is made completely of bricks and has two metal chimneys, one on each end. The pub is all wood with only a large window on each side as it is on the corner of the block. The metal frame is polished and has the name Knight of Clovich. Upon entering, I find the place to be packed. It looks, sounds, and feels much livelier than the outside. The tables and the bar have all seats occupied. The crowd consists of canines, felines, and a few ursine. At the opposite end of the door, there is a group playing throwing game with a wooden bull head mounted. Adjacent to the doorway is a group deep in a card game. Before the bar is a musical trio: a fiddler, a violinist, and a guitarist. I pass two other groups taking their dice games seriously. I approach the counter of the bar, at the far end. I have to wait a few minutes before the barwoman notes me and comes my way. This barwoman is a Striped Hyaena dressed like a working man, with the addition of an apron. I speak, “Knightsedge is said to be the borough where the best brews are dealt.” The hyaena seems to roll her eyes before states, “Brews are brews. As long as you feel some-ting to give a tingle. I expect y-want a drink.” She knows what I get at, even though she might tire of the codes. I say, “Double shot of Aurus Whiskey.” The hyaena nods and heads to the back, to get a glass. I wait on her, though I need not. She returns in practically a second. Presenting what could be a small bucket with dull-yellow fluid, she leans close to me. She rasps in my ear, “Pray that I do not take out your other eye, Wolf. State your business.” I whisper back, “MacNiadh sends ‘is regards. Specifically for Cecilia Lagorio.” I gulp the contents of the small bucket, which burns only when I swallow it, but still is bitter. Not the worst whiskey I have tasted. The hyaena tells me, standing behind the counter again, “It is on the house. And if y-prefer the brews in Knightsedge, walk there.” She gestures with her head, indicating the direction to go. I tread the floorboards, my footsteps drowned out by the chatter of the other patrons and the possible criminals relying on this particular pub for a resting area. The group playing the throwing game pay me no heed. The hidden door that I take is not to outside, but to the connected house. I hurry inside, but quietly close the door. No one needs to know. Inside is the house is a completely different atmosphere. The floor and walls are all tiled. Against the walls are long tables occupied by machines laying idle. The space of the table next to me is filled by metal boxes; I already know what they contain. The light is dim. A generator in the corner whirs, emitting a pale-blue light and two rods protruding from adjacent sides buzz with electricity. I could only have entered the laboratory of a mad scientist, but it is not. A black cat with glossy fur, clad in a white linen jacket, smoke-grey tweed trousers, a white business shirt and a bright yellow tie bringing out her jade eyes in front of which she has oval spectacles, enters. She speaks, “Jack told me he was sending a wolf. I was-a not told she would have only one eye-a.” I reply, approaching her, “If you knew his best friend, you would know why she wears an eyepatch.” She holds out a hand, saying, “Doctor Cecilia Lagorio.” I shake her hand. She tells me, “Did Jack tell you of recent events ‘ere?” “I wos on other business”, I answer. The black cat leads me to where the metal boxes are. She opens the one to which she is nearest, undoing the latches and lifting the side. The contents are automatic rifles, which show signs of burns. She speaks, “These-a guns were returned to us yesterday by… an unhappy client… He told me that they failed. The guns-a jammed and exploded.” I draw a finger across the row of boxes, asking, “And these ones?” “All returned by the same client.” I look at her intently, asking, “Whot is your real job? Apart from keeping guns stored.” “Medicine is my profession”, she answered bitterly. “Not that it does-a me good. It should make me rich as medicine is taken seriously, but there wos always-a someone to cock up my research. Before that, I wos fired from the hospital under the bollocks excuse about the workplace not meant-a fer women. Really, my male boss wos jealous-a, especially over the surgeons committing to sanitary conditions.” “I still fail to understand”, I tell her as I follow her around the storage space, a few machines having my interest. “I steel work in a hospital as lead-a nurse, petitioning for sanitary conditions, but that is not enough. I turned to Jack fer work. He promised-a to fund medical research at that hospital and a workshop just fer me. In return, he wanted it to be storage-a for ‘is merchandise.” I pick up a board with block fastened by bolts, asking, “And devices such as this?” “Experimental weapons”, she utters bluntly. “I lead a regular team in building items that could be-a useful.” Out of the small devices scattered about, I wonder which ones are components something that could be revolutionary. However, I note the signs of screws being stripped out and signs of burns. I speak, “Recent siege?” The cat expresses stupefaction when asking back, “How d-you know?” I sigh. Without looking back, I explain, “I wos in Agnarge Asylum… I saw Giffard… and his sister… She said that ‘the vigilante’ wos expected ‘ere.” “Quite accurate”, the cat remarks. She approaches me, to stand next to me, and she continues, “Somehow they knew where we were; Derrickson’s men-a stormed on us. They came in, somehow knowing of our experiment, and hurled an explosive. It destroyed our first prototype of that weapon, nigh-complete, and killed two of the technicians.” Another female voice speaks, “And she wos not alone.” I turn around, whispering, “Holly.” There the black-spotted grey cat is, but it is her green eye and blue eye that familiarise me with her. Hearing that, Lagorio speaks, “She told-a me she knows the vigilante.” I approach the spotted cat, but to ask, “What the hell are doing here?” She answers plainly, “First mission.” “But your old addiction”- She interrupts, “Lagorio is testing my restraint.” “But how”- I pause, thinking about the explanation. It could be as simple as the High Priestess knowing my connection, which Holly has asked of her, which has led her here, in this workshop in Subroot. I get a good look at her. She wears a long-sleeve sky-blue business dress with a white vine pattern on the shoulders and the collar unbuttoned. I change the subject. “You must hate being dressed like that.” Holly remarks, “Better than being a whore.” She adds nonchalantly, “I am thankful, though, for you showing me who I truly prefer.” I believe more that I made her desire a woman, which I perfectly understand as one who once had difficulty trusting men. I imply, “You actually insisted upon being ready fer yer first mission as an operative. However, you are not the first woman who was once a prostitute trusted by the High Priestess.” Holly infers, “And she accepted my decision t-join in yer cause. Y-need not be protective of me.” I scowl, confessing, “Hard not to. You are still a cub compared to me.” I turn to Lagorio, who I see fiddling with her bits and bobs. I tell her, “I assume you know of one Aldous Kohut.” “Oll too well-a”, she answers bitterly. Holly weighs in, “I know ‘im now, too. Beastly plonker.” The doctor turns around, the sternness brought out by her glasses. She explains, “An immigrant from the Vezdan Empire. He is wed to another immigrant-a that he met in Tympark, which made-a for the reason he wanted-a no involvement with ‘is father. Only two years ago, he bought a factory that he named-a Coalshand Brewer. Machines are operated by children.” That cannot be the full story, for Jack’s mention of Kohut’s son. I state bluntly, “I want to know if you kin set me up with ‘is son.” “Consider it done”, Lagorio replies. “I can do it now if y-like.” “Please do”, I respond. While the doctor heads to the other chamber of the flat, Holly gets a hold of my arm and asks, “Is that it? You plan to just kill Kohut, and then Derrickson, and go? Whot about the children? And the slaves?” I look away from her, muttering, “They know that the streets are better.” She presses, “That is not whot y-told me before you destroyed The Dented Shield.” “The fact that you made it to the Sanctuary might be a fluke. The last prostitute I tried ter ‘elp killed ‘imself.” She dashes to stand in front of me, staring intently. “Why would this be about David?” I manage to conceal surprise that she knows. She must have read his letter in the news. Who else knows, apart from everyone in Solmil? Holly continues, “That was just bad luck, Death. He did not die because of you.” I retort, “You know, then, that he used opiates and that he had some inner fight on which he gave up.” That is hard to believe now. Holly backs up, looking at me sternly. She speaks, “I wos eleven when I wos sold to the Lowell House. Fer three years, I took abuse while cleaning up after ungrateful sods. I wos fourteen when put to work at The Dented Shield. Not long after, I ‘ad my first, an’ took a beating after refusing ter ‘and over the pay. Over the five years before I met you, I wos used by man after man fer their sexual frustration. Your liberation wos the best thing ter ‘appen t-me.” I slowly shake my head, still believing that it was a fluke. If I try to protect the calico, June, she will only be in more danger. However, something dawns upon me: the crest. I look down at Holly’s right forearm, where the crest has been burnt beyond recognition. Just when my mind is set on finding her before Joshua Derrickson’s men do, Lagorio comes back, announcing, “I got off-a the telephone with Durward. He is willing to talk t-you.” I call as I head out the front door, “Bring ‘im here. I will come back.” Before either cat objects, I am out the front door. By the time I am distant, from the pub and flat, I howl randomly, and Michi glides down toward me. I have him land on my forearm. I tell him, “Mike neko mitsuke. Konohodo!” He caws, already knowing to which calico I refer. He likely still ate Frances whilst her brothel was ablaze. He had to have seen the slaves fleeing. I dash to the house where I am staying, to change into my blue suit and don my mask. I also take my Khopeshes with me. I make short howls, just knowing that my friend can hear me anywhere. Before long, I hear the cawing. There is something about his cawing to resonate me, as if it is a piano note told apart from all other notes. I jog as if chasing smoke. The only way to catch smoke is with a jar, but it still dissipates inside. In this borough, or any borough for the matter, there could be anyone in danger from criminals and diseases. The cawing still gets louder, and I head the direction I hear it. I scale a building in the process of catching up with my guiding friend. I howl again as I jog along a shingle roof, and hear the caw again. Upon spotting my friend, he glides in circles. I howl, “June!” There can be no problem at the moment; all that I smell is the pollution from the factories running day and night. I climb down the townhouse nearest Michi. On the sidewalk, there the calico is. She is blatantly gobsmacked about why someone calls her name. Now, she knows, upon seeing the masked she-wolf. I stride toward her, and place both hands upon her shoulders. I tell her, “I need you to come with me. Now.” She replies hastily, “I trust you.” Ace. She is not afraid of me. However, she is unappreciative of how fast I move, for she cannot keep up. So, we eventually slow to a stride. When entering the brick flat through the front door again, there a black bear and a female grizzly are, to add to Holly and Lagorio. Addressing the black bear—wearing a pale-green work shirt, blue pants with suspenders, and a faded black blazer—I speak, “You must be Durward Kohut.” I bring the calico up to Holly, to whom I whisper, “Is there anything here to distort the crest on her?” “There might be”, she whispers back. She looks at June’s arms, and then turns her around, making June awkward. She quickly leans to me again, to add, “I will take care of it right now.” As hastily, she leads June to the stairs, leading in turn down to the real workshop. I sit down adjacent to the two bears in a wooden chair at the vast table and speak, “I believe you’ve information t-give me.” The black bear asks, “Why is that?” “A white fox with one blue eye knows that I need something in return for doing you a favour.” The black bear scoffs, “You must’ve ‘erd about my father, then.” He pauses, pulling out a book. Upon setting it on the table, he continues, “My father left his home country the Vezdan Empire, expecting a better life. It was not for only the dictatorship, but also to get away from my grandfather.” He pulls out a pair of half-circle spectacles from his blazer, which rests upon his muzzle. “Here are a few notes on my grandfather that my father put in his book. ‘Every day, I was in the middle of an argument between my parents. To decide who has the last word, my mother was the one to persuade and my father was the one to bribe or threaten me.’”—he looked through several pages before reading another entry— “’Working for my father was the worst thing I ever did. I would hear other employees of his call him out on his demeanour, which he would dismiss.’”—Durward flipped several pages again—“’I made countless suggestions on how the workspace could be improved, but he would never listen.’”—he paused again before he spoke another note—“’I tried to get out of my father’s shadow by leaving his business, but he would never accept my resignation. After fifteen years, I made him accept it by clawing his left eye out. However, others would see only my father in me as much as I denounce him.’” Durward looks like he could cry. The female grizzly rubs his back with one hand. I can read the title of that book upside-down: Kogot Kohut, The Warden of My Prison. I understand with his implications. I guess, “You are afraid that you will be like your father, as he is like his.” Durward looks up, his eyes cleared. He speaks, “It is more than that. My grandfather wos a gangster back in the Vezdan Empire. He had an empire of ‘is own: illegal wares. My father became a criminal ‘imself, now relying on cubs to operate the machines at Coalshand Brewer.” There is even more that I have ignored in my rush to make sure that June is safe, for he brings up a large bottle of beer and three small tin cups. Durward continues as he opens the bottle and pours the black liquid into the cups, “There wos a mill in the east side of the borough. After a workers’ uprising, the massive furnace that it was to power oll o’ Subroot wos closed down and disconnected from the power supply. We’ve a new factory fer providing electricity, run by more competent people.” He makes sure that the large bottle is closed tightly before handing me one of the cups, the black liquid smelling worse than horse piss… on a decomposing corpse. “My father used his inheritance from my grandfather to buy the old mill and re-purpose it into his own beer brewery. This is his product.” I reluctantly take the tin cup. The two bears do as well. Almost at the exact-same moment, we gulp from the cups— And it is the absolute most ghastly thing I ever put in my mouth. This is not beer; it is a crime against civilisation. This putrid fluid is worse than bitter; it tastes as if blood and piss were mixed into remnants of burnt paper. Durward states, “I am amazed that you got it down. Only bears can seem to drink it, but not without cringing.” I imply, “This is about more than that Aldous has child slaves.” “He’s bin buyin’ child slaves as they cost the least”, he infers. “Children of those unfortunate enough to be under control of the Lowell House, if not other criminals lookin’ fer servants themselves.” He continues factually, “When my grandfather passed, he left thirty thousand pounds as an inheritance. Half of it went to my father. The other half went to me. And he wos right. My brother wos on the warpath with a divorce at the time and my sister is wasting away at a brothel.” I interrupt, “Where is she?” Knowing to whom I refer, Durward says, “Don’t bother. She is too far gone to be helped.” He continues his story. “My father asked if I wanted to own half a business and I told ‘im, ‘You don’t know how to run a business and I have my own dreams.’ He went on anyway. When he was in debt a year into running his distillery, I learned that my inheritance wos stolen. My father invested my whole inheritance. My money!” He whips out a page, a bank statement as he lays it out to me. “That tells me that my money wos joined with my father’s, but it was not rightfully his.” He snatches up the page, to rip it. “So, this tells me nothing. I could have sued him, but he is broke. He stole both my dreams and my wife’s and has dragged us into a failing business. He treats me like shit and thinks that everything is about him. And my mother is a puppet willing to be on his strings.” Not phased by his outburst, I state, “I can see the only way to end it, and I will do it.” “I cannot promise much in return”, he says, taking his glasses off, and trembling, his mate having an arm over his shoulder. “You can provide me information about Joshua Derrickson.” As Durward cannot seem to find his voice, his mate states, “He can give you the information y-need. Durward and Aldous both know ‘im oll too well.” Addressing the book, I stand up as I think aloud, “Criminals deserve no legacy.” I head down the stairs to the real workshop, and there the cats still are. They seem to have only been talking. I see that the crest on June’s shoulder has been distorted by burning that patch of skin again, this time at the price of fur it seems. I approach the two cats, at one end of the dimly-lit room, where a massive freezer is. The tables are occupied beakers and jars with various contents. The table where the cats are has only the gauze rolls and jars of medicines. I ask Holly, “Are you sure about being a doctor’s assistant?” The grey cat answers, “I think she told you I don’t trust myself to handle the chemicals or compounds. I ‘ave only bin keeping the burned patch cold.” I tell her, “I still think that I did the wrong thing.” Holly objects, “We are but two of several ‘undred slaves. No criminal will miss us. If there is only mention of the house crest, whoever expects a bounty is not told the species or other details.” “Both of you are still very young, and inexperienced with fighting. All the more reason to worry fer you.” Holly takes both my hands, her green eye and blue eye looking into mine. She utters, “I assure you, we will both be oll right ‘ere, Death. Go and do what you do.” She is right: I have people to seek and to kill. I give her a quick kiss on her crown of fur before heading back up the stairs. ----- (Things seemed to look up for me, bar the fact that curiosity still gnawed at me, to read the letters that were left for me. I was able to focus on my studies, and the teachers were very patient with how well I progressed in language. I had learned to read more complex words and was able to get through a book. I participated in class, wanting to show off how well I learned. The change was like night to day. (I sat with my leopard friend along with two other leopards who I had gotten to know well. These leopards were of Dahalan descent, though their names fooled me there. Kivan and his two friends were fine with me joining them. Thanks to the cuisines that were preferred, I had now taken a liking for rice to add to their spiced meat. Kivan commented, “You sounded like you had a lot to say.” (I shrugged. “I guess.” (One of the leopards, Fareed, stated, “I thought you were mute once. Now I know your voice.” (The third, Bilal, jested, “Probably from thinking so much that you burst.” Even I had to laugh. I liked these boys, for making me laugh and smile. I had taken my lessons very seriously, but I also was willing to get to know these cubs. (Now, I was still not as open to these cubs as I had been to Gaston. So, I just listened to the leopards tell each other jokes. Almost immediately when attending the classes, my interest had piqued in the Ancient Dahalan lore. So, that was the topic of my own thoughts as I ate my lunch. Particularly, my interest was in the role of the god of the undead, Kumhep… (My thinking was interrupted when Kivan spoke, “Didn’t you listen, Wolf?” Everyone was aware by then that I claimed to have no name. “Bilal has been telling a funny story.” (I listened to the cub continue, “So, the cicada was still there, on the tree trunk and I seemed to be the only one noticing. My curiosity remained…” He continued with enthusiasm despite the sense of vulgarity. Then again, that was one charm of being a cub.) ----- I meet another delay in beginning the slave liberation. There is another thing that I want to know. For information on criminals, there is no place better than fight clubs. However, that is not the only reason. I enter through a doorway of an ordinary house. The chamber used for all daily purposes and has only wood for the floor and walls is not where the real action happens. It has a short flight of stairs leading down to a place under the noses of many other residents. The sub-surface chamber also has planks for the walls matching the floorboards. The chamber is crowded with various predatory mammals, dressed like the workers that they most likely are. I have to nudge several aside as I make my way to the manager, a dog clad in an average business suit. It might be dusty, but is far from ragged. The dog speaks, “How can I help yeh?” I present him a tenner and tell him, “I wish to partake in a tournament. Ten quid on myself.” He chuckles, “Y-must be daft, especially when ‘aving only one eye.” The dog continues sincerely, “But this is simply out of curiosity.” I still have to wait before a few other fights are finished. In the process of one of them, I see a familiar face: brown muzzle, white ears, and red eyes… I wonder if he has seen me like this and recognises my image. When the first match is to begin, how surprised the crowd and the fighters are that a lady with an eyepatch is in the ring, made crudely of dusty planks. The first two fighters that I have to face are probably considering to get me naked and bonk me. I will let no man take me by force. I hear the bell chime and the two weasels leap upon me. I can easily evade them, but I do not. I let them tackle me to the ground, begetting a few boos from the crowd. I punch the one to the left of me as I expect him to think that he can get away with tearing my eye out. I roll to the side, taking the other weasel with me. I have a hold of his throat as I punch his face repeatedly. Then, the other weasel pounces upon me. After he successfully tackles me, I shove him away. I stand up and then await his next move. He pounces to me again, and I throw a straight jab, which lands hard in his nose. He goes down, bleeding, but none too badly. I care not for breaking a muzzle. Seeing as neither weasel is unable to fight further, the round is over. The manager canine barks, “Will you fight on?” “I will”, I bark back. There are another two fighters to enter the ring, and rather quickly. These ones are a chestnut-hued deer and a rottweiler. Both of them have well-defined muscles. I expect them to not go down easily. Against my expectation to charge, the deer casual strides to me, throwing repeated jabs, which I back up from. Let them think that I am cornered. However, the rottweiler interrupts him, whilst I back up, by sweeping his leg, but he regains his balance easily. He turns around, to kick him in the midsection twice. I do not interrupt in turn. However, I have another idea. Just when the deer faces me again, I drop to one knee— And punch him where it hurts. I punch him twice more in the same area, to maximise the pain. I then swiftly rise, delivering an uppercut, making him stumble backwards. Again, I do not deliver a blow as hard as I can. However, he will be incapacitated. As for the rottweiler, I let him perform a series of jabs and hooks, before I counter. I grab him by an arm and elbow him in the jaw. That blow is followed by a light jab. He can still stand, but his punches become sloppy. I shift sideways until I align myself and the dog with the deer. Then, I use him to charge into the deer, knocking them both down. That causes murmurs among the crowd. The manager dog repeats, “Will you fight on?” “I will”, I bark. That leads to the bell chiming after the two unconscious men are taken out of the ring. The two men to enter for the fight are another deer—this one with slightly-defined muscle—and a raccoon. The two men look at each other before looking at me. I act reckless now, dashing up to the raccoon. I am about to grab him when the deer takes a hold of both my arms. The raccoon then moves to punch my midsection repeatedly. I do not fight back, and I let them think that I go down easily. Releasing me, I prove is a mistake that the deer makes. I grab both his legs and then yank them, making him fall hard. I then focus on the raccoon, who I punch squarely in the muzzle, much to his irritation. He leaps toward me, but I stop him with a slap. That is when a grizzly bear enters the ring. He slowly approaches me, but helps the raccoon up. I can just sense that the deer is right behind me, as I still am on one knee. I roll aside to evade the deer’s downward double fist. I focus on the raccoon again. However, I have to expect the others to move on me. The bear is the one to walk up to me. It is when he just begins his first punch, I dash past him, grabbing the raccoon by the throat. I make sure to deliver light punches to his muzzle to avoid killing him. Believe me, a large mammal can bludgeon a smaller one to death with their fists. When he is down for the count, I can focus on the other two. The deer is the next to get to me, delivering two hooks, followed by a straight kick. I have no time to counter, for the bear relies on his large fists to take me down, but I take that satisfaction from him. I then punch his midsection repeatedly, before I uppercut to his jaw. I never know how much stamina bears have until seeing them fight. Now, I know about this bear. I focus on the deer, to deliver a ruthless barrage of kicks and punches. With him incapacitated, I grab his muzzle with my right hand. I move to the bear, taking as much of his muzzle as I can in my left hand, and slam their heads together. Now, the crowd is not just murmuring as the manager dog poses his question. I hear them chant, “Final round! Final round!” I bark, “I will continue!” However, that decision seems ruinous. It is not for the Shephard, the Bloodhound, or the beefy deer. Joining them is the black wolf with the red eyes. He looks at me curiously, but for the sake of seeing what I can do, he takes on the deer. That leaves me with the two dogs, who have muscles like brutes. How appropriate. I stay where I am as the two dogs spread out. The dogs seem to await my move, having grown aware of my method. For the first time in a while, I am hesitant. These two dogs are the rock and the hard place. I have to choose… And I go with the Shephard. The Bloodhound, as I expect follows. I roll aside, and I give them no time to spread again. I lunge toward them. I jab the Bloodhound in the midsection, then sweep the Shephard, then hook the Bloodhound, then stamp the chest of the Shephard. However, the Shephard recovers. I duck from his punch, leading to an uppercut on the Shephard’s jaw, then a knee in the Bloodhound’s midsection, followed by a straight kick. I get between the dogs, holding their arms, before elbowing their sides. I make them bend over. I grab their necks, to slam their heads together. By that time, the mercenary is just waiting for me. He wants me. What would it mean if I concede? I walk up to him, looking into his blood-red eyes. He has to be here for money. Why other reason is there? I am the one to engage. I throw two jabs, which he blocks effortlessly. I throw two hooks. The first he blocks, but he counters the second by jabbing my midsection. Oddly enough, not as hard as I remember. I kick to his shin, but shows no response. However, he stamps my foot, and then grabs me, to butt my head, his skull blatantly denser than mine. I grab his throat and sweep one leg, bringing him down. Sloppily, I punch at his muzzle repeatedly. He just blocks with his arms. So, I grab his arms. I pull at them as I have my foot on his throat. However, he rolls, taking me with him. I get up— And he punches my muzzle. I just go down. It is simply to avoid wasting energy, I choose to not get up. The voice of the manager speaks, “We seem ter ‘ave a champion.” I see the dog raise the mercenary’s arm, and the crowd boos the mercenary. It is not a complete loss. My winnings are in the form of the wagers made by fighters on themselves and by the audience. However, the manager gets a cut. Even still, I get a right fair amount. Whilst I am still here, I request, “I have a question—not regarding your policy.” “Okay”, the manager replies, observant. “What know you of a badger named Lieven?” The manager dog narrows his eyes at that. I can see his hackles raise as well. “I hear many rumours about that blighter”, he says bitterly. “I’ve seen ‘im come in ‘ere, seeking additional muscle.” “You never interacted with ‘im in any way?” I ask. He explains, “Only to ask fer recommendations. I’ve ‘erd how he treats others. The bugger ‘as a short temper. When he does get angry, he threatens to rip people, but ‘e also gives some ‘ard bludgeons.” “Thank you”, I say plainly. I know that he wants to not talk about that badger. Maybe I just expect him, knowing that the mercenary is here. I depart from the fight club. However, the second I am outside the front door, I hear a gentlemanly voice speak, “I saw more potential in someone that can beat me.” It is the red-eyed black wolf. I ask, “Did you follow me, just to condescend?” “No. Just to try to understand.” He is clearly in no mood to fight right now. “You could ‘ave done worse t-yer opponents there.” I begin walking, but he follows. I ask, “What reason have I fer breaking a worker’s muzzle?” “There are more than workers in the rings; there are muggers and mercs”, the red-eyed wolf explains. “You are not the only one to remember methods, Miss.” And yet, he relies on brute force. “You were holding back.” “I won’t repeat myself”, I say irritably. The mercenary has a hand on my arm, so he can look at me. He says, “I know how people fight. So, why not do worse?” I tell him crossly, “That is not your business. Now, leave me be. I’ve me own business.” He lets go of me. I need not look back, to know that he watches me as I walk off, to the streets.
  2. Thirteen: The Weight of the World (I was directed to the grand temple, where I marvelled the most out of all buildings in this one massive estate. Where I was brought was before the High Priestess of the sanctuary. I felt no fear, seeing this cat stand in front of me. She knelt to me. She was so beautiful, looking like a snow leopard, but having emerald eyes. (She asked me, “What is your name?” (I hesitated. I didn’t trust her. She was someone who meant no harm, but she was still a stranger. I lied, “I… I have no name…”) (Her eyes did not waver. However, her subordinate, a golden leopard, showed concern, which this cat dismissed. The cat asked, “Did your name die with your family?” (I did have a given name, but I had no knowledge of my surname, and I refused to adopt my step-father’s family name. I looked away. She might have been right to think that who I was, died with my mother and step-father. I changed the subject, stammering, “M-my s-step-father… t-told me t-come here… As if h-he was here, t-too. H-his name was… C-Clement…” (There was silence again, which I welcomed. I tensed when the cat placed a hand upon me. She said, “His death was not your fault.” I swiftly turned around. I could not let her see me cry as I’d done numerous times over that one day. This had all happened so fast. What I wished was that I did not attempt for so long to drive him away. The cat said, “I know it is hard, but dare are others who share your suffering, who can help you through.” I then heard her tell the leopard, “Show her to de cubs’ quarters.” (The leopardess objected, “But High Priestess”- (The cat interrupted, “Please. I wish to not turn away a cub, regardless of genus.” No wolves in this orphanage? Only felines? (I was led by that leopardess, who was clad in an earth-green dress with golden bands and a crest that I couldn’t make out, along a sandy field, to a mosaic stone path that we took, and I found patches of grass along with small plants. I saw a few felines playing, but quickly turned my gaze ahead, not wanting to make eye contact with them. I could hear them following, aware of a newcomer being brought to one of their long wooden constructs. (The inside was filled with cots in simple metal frames. Many other felines rushed inside, and I suddenly became nervous from being around about as many cubs in the entire school where I attended. The leopardess waited until possibly every cub gathered in, which was half of an hour later. My feet were sore now from all that walking and standing. The leopardess announced, “We have a new resident. Please, make her feel welcome. Let her feel like she belongs.” (The leopardess ruffled my crown of fur before heading out of the construct. I still stood at the doorway, hesitant. All these felines from the large to the small. I had never felt so out of place. After the long hesitation, one of the felines spoke, “We still have empty beds. Pick any of them.” So, I did. I went along the space separating the two rows of cots until I found one with a nightstand that had no personal decorations. Fair place to start my life at this new place.) ----- “I’ve done it”, I say on the telephone of the house where I have rented a bedroom. I have not slept since the execution of the sadist, and I am eager to get the news out. “Done whot?” Jack asks, irritable that I have clearly woken him. “Diefenbach will not bother you or your men again”, I specify. “I believe that Giffard and Lieven have found him as literally half the dog he used t-be.” Jack barks, “Diefenbach? Dead? And both Giffard and Lieven were at the asylum?” He continues, “You continue to impress me, Death.” He chuckles. “Ta think yeh’d be mad yerself.” I respond, “I just wanted to tell you before anyone else does. I knew you would be jovial.” “Aye”, Jack says. “I am also joyous that we got ter ‘elp each other. Don’ tell me mercenaries, but yeh’ve done a better job than they ‘ave.” He continues on a different subject. “Whilst I am still on, take a note.” I hastily take a quill, ink, and a sheet. Jack explains, “When you are in Subroot, go to a brick flat. It has two metal chimneys. There, you will find a medical doctor named Cecilia Lagorio. She will give you more detail about your target lingering there. Whether you earn the full rewards from police for the bounty hunts on ‘is men is not me business.” “Cheers, Jack”, I say. I could ask how he knows I’ve been fulfilling bounty hunts, but I see no time. “Yeh’re a good man fer a gangster.” “So I’ve bin told”, he jests. He continues seriously, “I need t-sleep. Happy ‘untin’.” We bid goodbye before I hang up. He is right. It is late. And I also need my sleep. ----- “Frances Derrickson. Mink. Brothel owner. One woman to whose purse Giffard has appealed. She bought from Jade Crown in her first few years working with Giffard before she started buying directly from another dealer in Manusdale where her brothel is. Though less potent than that distributed by the Lowell House, it can still make her slaves tame. My informants have told me that she has begun breeding her slaves, using prostitutes that become worthless to be made little workers for other gangs. If not, those young potential slaves will be made game for the poor. If you intend to burn her brothel down, I recommend wine, if not oil.” That is what Jack has written about my next target. I have a promise to fulfil. I will not go back on it. Early in the day, I sit on the roof of the house where I have rented the bedroom, wearing my blue suit, but not my mask or my eyepatch. My friend perches next to me, looking intently at me, as I take in the look of this borough. This house is one of the few to have two floors. Many townhouses here are flats. I see a factory in the distance, the chimneys already creating a cloud of smoke. The sky is still cloudy, but the rising sun shines. The atmosphere smells of coals and the factory smoke, just overpowering the stench of rotting waste. Keeping my eyes on the sunrise, I say, “I try… I try so hard to ‘elp others… I can protect only myself, but I wish t-protect others from whot could have been my life.” My friend, understanding that, caws once. I look to him in response. Michi has been as close to me as I have been to the High Priestess, her daughter, and Themba. I continue, “You ‘ave led me to oll places I had to go to. You know me so well. You must think something about me.” Michi only cocks his head like a clock’s hand, left and right. I sigh, looking to the sunrise again. A new day is upon me. Another day to fulfil bounty hunts. I need that money. By lunchtime, I have the information on two wanted criminals staying in the borough. The first one that I see to, is a drug-dealing ferret. In apprehending him, I enable a courtesan to rip him off as I bring him to the station house starkers. The second that I apprehend is a cat, telling me to not let prejudice interfere. This cat has been wanted for a long list of assaults, and victims as well as witnesses willing to testify at his trial. This cat does not go down easily. I have to draw my Khopeshes for him. He does not only rely on his nature, but makes him seem to improve, for he has fashioned himself a glove with hooks on the fingers. He pounces me the second time, having donned his glove. This time, I parry with my Khopesh. The number of blades matters not in a fight. However, I have no time to finish my counter, for he pounces backwards, and then springs back to me. The cat swipes at me again, but I repeat the cycle of the parry, only to not finish it. I cannot end this fight holding back. I have a chance. Remember your training. I let him leap at me, and make him miss, awaiting an opening. Upon the next pounce, I seize that moment. I swing both Khopeshes, but not with the inner arcs. The other side of each is blunt enough to knock the wind out of him. I kick him before I loom over him with my right Khopesh to his throat, and growl, “Yield.” Without waiting for an answer, I take the glove off of him, and then use the hilt of my left Khopesh to bludgeon his head, knocking him out. There is a problem that has been with me for the day. I have been feeling warmer than I should have been, especially on this spring day. It seems to not leave me even at the start of the evening. Peculiarly, I feel no inner chills. That rules out the fever from heat or coldness taking its toll. There is only one other thing that could be. Whilst I am in Manusdale, I know one place that I go to, and I can find it without Michi’s guidance. I have let him have the evening off. The Bartlett Marketplace is an open place, but thanks to the industrial workplaces, the booths have metal roofs and podia. The lustre and the rust on the metal of the booths seem to be how they are told apart for those who cannot read. The people shopping or socialising make no big crowd, and I need not look at them, to be aware of their surprise of the vigilante shopping. I look carefully at each podium of the booths, and I find the meat and fish merchants just closing for the night, having earned their wages and having their own dinner to think about. I also seek someone that could be the dealer to see. The dealers that I have already passed are rabbits, squirrels, and foxes. After scanning the two pairs of rows, I realise who I need to see. I turn a heel on the stone ground and stride to a fruit stand watched by an otter, dressed like an aristo, wearing a green suit, white shirt, red tie, and a top hat with a metal band. I comment, “Dressed like that, you attract too much attention.” “Says the lady wearing a mask”, the otter retorts. I’ll give her that. I have to smirk, for it is her voice that has informed me that the otter is female. I clarify, “I address your ability to afford such an attire, for a merchant.” I lean in closer, to better align my gaze with hers. “I am not one to sell myself”, she growls. “I would not question such”, I assure. “I only came ‘ere fer merchandise o’ yers.” The otter comments, “Go ahead.” I get as close I can, kneeling to the counter, and I specify in a low tone, “I seek something in particular: spiced pears, the MacNiadh brand.” The otter grins before she says, “Yeh cannot be the kind to utilise such a tool… But I am glad t-sell.” She then gets down, only her head visible, and then shuffles for something. With a cranking device, she brings up a tray of pear-like devices, and then hops back up to her stand. She asks, “How many would y-like?” As lowly, I answer, “I hope to buy six of them. I ‘ave six hundred fifty pounds fresh off of bounty hunts.” The otter raises a finger, chuckling, and says, “Now I know: Jack ‘as told me of ‘is friend the vigilante.” She continues in an informative tone, “Normally I would charge an ‘undred five pounds each, for they are not so cheap t-make.” I present the thick wad on the counter, and tell her, “You drive an ‘ard bargain.” She gives me six of the bombs, one of which I examine as the otter comments, “Thanks t-you an’ the bounty ‘unts, I kin eat meat tonight. And Jack will be thrilled that you like ‘is pears.” For the shape, the bomb seems large for a pear. I can confirm that they are like the incendiaries that I have utilised, for I remember the components that can be seen. I add, “An’ that I put them to good use.” ----- (My first few nights of sleeping in the dormitory of this orphanage were hard. The cot was much more comfortable than the bed that I had to lay in back in Tolden, but the fact remained that I would never see my mother or step-father again. Even though I could sleep well when giving in to it, I dwelt on my regret of never giving Clement the respect that a father deserved. I had known all along that he was not my real father, but he wanted to be the father that this cub deserved. He wanted to be close to me, for a family is all that we have that can stay with us. And I had taken him for granted all these years. I could only wish that I never ignored him or insulted him. (Whatever school this orphanage had, it was nothing like the school that I went to. The similarity was that I could not connect to these cubs. I stood out among felines. In addition to the rectangular muzzle, I was much taller than the kittens. All these cubs had long stares toward me, but had no malicious intent. There were no lies built upon assumptions about my parents. They had no ill will toward me. Unfortunately, it felt too good to be true; a dream that taunted me about what I wished my life was like. (Every teacher was understanding, but they were worried about me, just like all the other cubs were. Over those first few days, attending classes, the teachers would ask to talk to me after dismissal. They would want to know what was wrong, but I wanted to not say. The other orphans knew the truth, and expressed their worry to the teachers. They would hear me cry at night, and they would see me at the front gate after classes, but I never had any intention to escape. Where would I go now that I lost the only family I knew?) (After a week of living in the orphanage, I began reading my mother’s book, the first page having a warning that everything written was true. Of course, I ignored that and went on. I read all about my mother’s family history, who my grandparents were, and how my grandmother, and then my mother being enslaved to a clan. The heart of that clan was a she-wolf: Lady Rodica Campana. (Just the first few pages of reading and I was filled with so much rage that I screamed and threw the book. It was so disturbing to the other cubs that many of them looked at me with that seemingly perpetual worry. I realised what I did, and I felt like crying, feeling bad about lashing for no reason. I walked up to the opposite side, to pick up the book, and I told the golden leopard at that bed, “Sorry.” (It was to avoid making such a scene again, I chose not to read on. Even still, I wanted to believe that my mother’s story was just that. I had trouble sleeping yet again, and I could only hope to have no nightmare about what my mother went through. I was thankful to have no nightmare already, but I was afraid that the same wolf would see me again.) ----- Oh, how I hate doing this. I am already at the brothel owned by Frances Derrickson. I have located it thanks to my raven friend, who I told to seek the crest with which I have familiarised. A day has gone by since I have obtained Jack’s spiced pears. Because I could only stay awake, I hunted and killed lurking criminals, looting them, as well. Sleep was hard to come by. The first sign was being warmer than normal. Then, there came the tightness in the sensitive area. I cannot deny it: I am in heat. So, I am at the brothel with the crest from the Lowell House: The Ark’s Remains. The name is painted on a gold-tinted plaque accented by the wood, painted red, making up the outer walls. I enter it, seeing it bustling with clientele for drinks, meals, and flirting with scantily-clad females that wanted to be anywhere else. No enemy of mine should know by now who the vigilante is, seeing a black she-wolf in a grey pinstripe suit and having an eyepatch over the right eye. I sit at the bar, which has a polished counter and is tended by three rabbits that look the same for their grey pelts, but I look at each of them, seeing flecks of black on their faces. Only their patterns can tell them apart. In looking around further, I see a litter of rats backed into a corner, having been bound by a single ankle to a pole. No doubt they beg for food. Any of us can eat anything. Those rats could only be four or five years old. One of the grey rabbits comes to me, asking, “Whot service can I provide you?” She sounds both bored and weary. I ask back, “Are any courtesans ‘ere cats?” The rabbit points and I look right. There are three cats, also bound by one leg to a pole. A stoat in a business dress stands by idly. I then ask, “Which one is the youngest?” The rabbit answers, “June. The calico. She’s nineteen.” The calico, wearing a very revealing dress, seems primarily white, with splotches of black and brown on one shoulder, her midsection, her legs, and on the left side of her face. I ask, “How much d-you charge fer a session?” “A hundred quid each.” I head to the first man that I see, a light-grey cat with a white chin, in the middle the of tables, and he has his eyes on the cats as well. I ask him, “How would y-like t-share a session with one o’ them?” He comments, “You love cats.” I do not answer, but he smiles. “Y-might need t-pay me, too.” I scowl, making him laugh. Before he speaks again, I say, “I will cover your fee along with mine.” The light-grey cat raises a hand and objects, “Nay, I couldn’ make you do that.” He stands up and he follows me to the trio. I tell the calico, “I will ‘ave you.” The stoat unlocks the cuff on her ankle, and the cat escorts me and the male after we pay the fee to the stoat. The block of apartments seems to have twice the area of the dining chamber. Where the calico named June leads me and the light-grey stranger is in one hall and to the end of it, apparently favouring a corner apartment. The door of it is not locked. She leads us inside, the walls being covered with checker-pattern wallpaper, the space being occupied by four dressers of the same size and same pattern as each other, and a wide four-poster covered by a golden-orange spread and several sweat-stained pillows. The cat asks, “Who will lead this session?” “Me”, I answer. The light-grey cat comments wryly, “Someone knows whot she wants.” I look to him with a scowl, to say, “You already paid. No turning back. For this, I want both a woman and a man.” The light-grey cat infers, “Of course, your lust.” I assume that he knows why I have approached a stranger and hired a courtesan. We are all quick to undress, the light-grey cat being the most eager. He is naked before I have my slacks off. The calico is slow to join. I can see that she is not up to this, but I hope that she can see it through. The light-grey cat has already been idle on the bed for a few minutes before I am naked. He expresses his eagerness further by aggressively signing for the calico to approach. With all three of us on the bed, the light-grey cat asks, “Know you whot you want?” I tell both cats, “To be sandwiched between you two.” I get June behind me, and I guide her hands to my midsection, but I keep the light-grey cat nudged away, for I want June to enjoy the feel of a wolf’s fur. I feel her shudder, probably from my lifting tail tickling her sensitive area. She massages my midsection with her arms wrapped around me. The light-grey cat realises how much seeing two women engage arouses him, and I see him cup his own bollocks, the barbed head of his bobber slipping out of its sheath. Dark-grey like his nose. The calico moans contently as she begins caressing my hips, and I can see the light-grey cat salivating. The teasing is to end quickly; I sign him to approach, which he gladly does, but I stop him. I nuzzle into his neck, and the surge of warmth drives him to purr. I have my arms around him as I lick his fur, and he slowly lowers his hands from my shoulders to my breasts, which he cups and teases, down to the hardened nipples, which he finds on the first try. Meanwhile, June, pressing against my back, caresses my buttocks and legs, to my joy. She begins licking as far as she can reach to my neck, while the light-grey cat begins grinding against my vulva. The light-grey cat nudges me to lay down, much to the calico’s disappointment. I let him lick my cunt as the calico aligns with me, so she can kiss me. For someone not feeling up to it, something must have driven her. I return the kiss, and she moans from it. I moan as well from my cunt moistening from the stranger’s rough tongue. I can feel the arousal growing, and I can feel myself explode. Even from that, the stranger keeps on licking, moaning from the smell and taste of my juice. There is a short break as I give back. I suck on the stranger’s bobber, making him moan in ecstasy, and I keep going until I can feel his juice in my mouth, which I swallow and lap up until only my saliva is on him. I then have my turn massaging the calico. She is in pure bliss from my warm hands over her shoulders and then on her breasts. I can just tell that the stranger wants to be aroused again, for he watches with expectations. He will be thankful for it. I massage his maleness again, getting it aroused, and then I lap on it, letting it engorge more and more. I grind upon him, making the bed creak. Before long, I can feel him harden. I feel before I get his bobber inside me, and then push with all my might. The bedframe creaks with each thrust to get the stranger inside me. While making that happen, I signal the calico over, to squat over the light-grey cat’s muzzle. Relying on no hands to thrust him inside me, I cup her breasts and kiss her. We exchange kisses again as I grind the meat inside me, getting it in as far as it can. Meanwhile, the light-grey cat laps his tongue on the calico’s cunt. I begin rushing it, for I remind myself to not hold back. I let my juices go. In only seconds, the stranger stops his lapping and shouts, “I’m about to”- I pull away from him right away, getting him right out of me. Then, he shoots streams of his seed. We all pant from the ordeal having taken its toll, and I state, “I had t-do that… I could not take chances…” I at least spent the hormones. I lay down, taking the cats in my arms, letting them rest their heads on my shoulders. All three of us nod off. When I wake up, it is the calico that I look to. I examine her body, which is rather skinny, but her pelt is soft and neat, telling me that she at least can be clean. I look at her arms, which tell me nothing. I roll her over slightly, and there is what I seek: the house crest, burnt into her shoulder. She probably knows that fleeing will get her in trouble. However, that did not stop me from enabling the sex slaves in Sputure to escape their place of oppression. She moans and slowly opens her eyes, stretching. I wish that I could tell her how I intend to enable a coup, but where will that get me? Holly could have died for keeping the extra money that I gave her. These young courtesans could die or be transported to another oppressor before I could ignite the place. “Something bothers yeh”, a voice from my left speaks. I look, to see that the light-grey cat is still there, and that I am not fooled by the weight. I tell him lowly, “You would not understand.” The stranger sits up, telling me, “You empathise with whores. I kin see that.” Why would I not? He continues, “Everything is better than living in a whorehouse, but poverty leads to desperation.” He knows nothing. “I know the meaning of that mark. Be careful who you ‘elp, Lass.” The light-grey cat then stands up from the bed, to retrieve his crumpled work clothes and don them. I focus on the calico again, who has listened to the stranger. She takes in my gaze of worry. She asks, “Whot’s wrong, Ma’am?” I sigh. “I just feel sad fer those forced into servitude.” Knowing that I’ve seen the crest on her, her jade eyes get glassy. She knows more than she leads on, but she could find it too painful to speak of or could be forbidden to say why she’s here. Both cases being the reason is another probability. I lick her nose and slowly sit up, realising how painful it is to end the embrace. I locate the bathhouse myself, wandering the halls naked, and then retrieve my clothes from the apartment. However, when exiting, I flirt with the weasels having the keys to the cuffs binding the cats, rabbits, and rats to the poles. I nick the keys from their pockets, and put each in a different pocket. In exiting the brothel and going for my things, I memorise which position uses which keys. ----- (More days followed of everyone trying to get through to me. The cubs, teachers, and the guards would see me have an outburst. I never laid a hand upon another cub, but I still scared them, and being around me became like walking on glass shards. I tried reading more pages of my mother’s book, but I could not do that without howling in rage and throwing the book. All that I wanted was for those words to be bloody lies. (In a month of living at the orphanage, I was asked to see the High Priestess in the Grand Temple. It was the first time I took in the mosaic stone floor, the pews, the black walls with stained-glass windows, the golden throne at the altar with bush patterns, and the lioness idol statue. The golden throne was occupied by a cat in a white robe with blue sashes. She looked so radiant despite the dim torchlight. I knew to show respect right there and then. My heart sank as I dropped to my knees and faced the floor. (I heard the calm voice speak, “Look up, my child.” I did so tenderly, and I saw the beauty of the cat in the emerald eyes and the silver fur. She stood up and added, “You may stand.” With reluctance caused by fear, I did so slowly. I approached her at the altar, and I saw that she was about as tall as I was at the time. She spoke, “You are troubled by more than the death of your parents.” That fear became sadness. I cried instantly. She quickly put her hand on my shoulder, adding, “You can tell me anything, my child.” (I inhaled lowly before I said lowly, “M-my mother… my mother left me… a book… telling me horrible things…” (“What tings?” she asked. (I hesitated, and spoke, trying to not cry again, “Sh-she… she was… a slave… t-to… to a house… And she was treated horribly!” (She just listened to me cry again, and then waited for the right moment between sobs to say, “Dat is what my… organisation fights against.” I give her a puzzled look. She continues, “I know of de crime in Highcond, in dese times. And you are a victim. You told me your step-father’s name, Clement.” (“You couldn’t have known him.” (She spoke with assurance, “But I did. I remember the names of everyone who has served the organisation, and I was barely of age den. He had worked for my predecessor before I took de mantle. A great agent, never captured.” I could not believe it. The High Priestess added, “I know disbelief when I see it. However, I speak truth. He worked for me for six years before he resigned, saying dat he met someone more important to him.” My mother. “You are not de first orphan to be distraught by such losses. Dat is why de Sanctuary was erected here, over a century ago. Wit time and patience, I assure you, de truth will be believed and you will be strong yourself.” Without a question, I wrapped my arms around the cat, and I could feel at ease from her soft fur.) ----- Upon my return to the brothel, now armed with the incendiaries as well as my blades, I think about my plan for the tenth time. I intend to visit the Madame first, and raid the office of the money that the slaves deserve. I find the office at the back of the building. I find that the mink in the ugly bright-pink business suit is not alone, and the face of her company is all too familiar. I listen carefully as much as the mask muffles sound. The mink speaks, “…a very important meeting.” The badger retorts, “You are in no poseetion to demand such.” The mink growls, “You must understand that I need ‘im to answer me.” Lieven objects, “Claude steel mourns ‘is brother. ‘Ow tink you, he vould like eef you ignored ‘im over grieving your brother?” “He and I have not spoken even when Giffard recruited us both; Joshua means nothing to me.” Cold thing to say. Does Giffard hate his sister? If so, why does he have an incestuous relationship? Frances continues, “Do not change the subject. And whot good have mercenaries done lately? That is why I ‘ave loyal girls. No weasel would betray another weasel.” And yet she hates her brother? Lieven growls back, “You need to tink before you vaste my time, Frances. Do vat you vish vit your slaves, but ze next time you call me ‘ad better be on some-ting less petty.” I can hear footsteps, followed by a wooden door opening and closing. I time the badger, estimating how long he would take to get from Frances’s office to the front door. After that, I back up. I built momentum by sprinting to the window. I managed to shatter the glass and get through. I quickly leap up, to find the mink still there. She picks up a pistol, but I duck and pick up the largest shards in sight. She fires a bullet—Great. Now everyone has been alerted. I still toss the two shards as the distraction. I grab her right arm. With just a yank, I break it, making her squeal. I rely on my stiletto for the death blow. I turn her to face me, so she can see the face of the one to plunge the blade in her throat. I watch the life leave her eyes as she chokes on her own blood. So much for surprise. Her loyal weasels, three stoats and three ferrets, all in business dresses, draw their pistols. Instinctively, I toss the body of their late boss as a distraction. So much for waiting to loot the vault as well. I leap toward them head-on, drawing my Khopeshes as I do so. I thrust both blades to the centre pair, one stoat and one ferret. With little effort needed, I utilise the blade to force the four arms down, so that their bullets miss. I have to focus on one side first. I pick the left side first. I leap and flip over them, using their bodies as support. Upon landing I thrust my Khopeshes into the stoats, and then kneel, using the bodies as shields from the bullets. I am fortunate this time, their ammunition being made for maximum wound effect. When the ferrets have to reload, I get the blades out and leap toward the last two weasels. I slash across their midsections, resulting in a deep cut in each of them, and they fall aside, coughing blood. I slash their throats, to make sure that they do not get up. I rummage through the papers kept in the metal drawers of Frances’s desk, and I obtain the combination to her safe. I get all Frances’s money in an improvised sack from her jacket. I strip her body and toss out the window, saying plainly, “Tameni.” Striding, I head out, and find myself at the bar. I tell the first rabbit, which is surprised by my entrance, “If y-want t-leave ‘ere forever, recommend me a potent wine.” She hesitates, of course. So, I repeat, “What potent wines d-you sell?” The rabbit answers, “We keep an ‘undred bo’-uls of the same brand, most of it alcohol.” “Tell yer partners there to gather oll bottles.” The rabbit does so, telling them that I requested all their wine. Meanwhile, I approach the poles where the young rats are cuffed by the ankle. I take out a tiny key that I can barely hold with a thumb and a single finger. I am right that it opens the cuff on one rat. I move the key to my palm, presenting it. I tell the young rat, “Use this t-free yer siblings. Find yer mother right after and get out of ‘ere.” The young rat complies without hesitation. I rush to the rest of the poles where other young rats and rabbit kittens are cuffed by the ankle. For each of them, I test the keys to free one and give it to that one to free the rest. How Frances intended to sell these youngsters, I want to not know. When I am finished, I find the rabbits there, the bar counter occupied by bottles of red wine of the same brand. I dash up. Checking the label is the first instinct, but I force the cork off the bottle that I pick up, and a quick whiff is enough to assure me. Perfect. I tell the rabbits, “I will need yer ‘elp. This wine will not be used fer a banquet.” I throw the same bottle on the floor, catching the attention of the patrons. I speak up, “I will say this only once: if y-want to live, leave. This place will burn. Do not be expendable in the process.” One dog in the crowd approaches me. I grab his arms before he can reach for a pistol, and then butt his head. I yank his pistol out from behind his blazer, and then kick him away. Unloading the pistol, I add, “Does anybody else challenge?” Other patrons. I count nine of them standing up, pointing their guns at me. I can use one of Jack’s bombs right now, but that would ruin my plan. However, just my luck, the rat pups and rabbit kittens tackle the patrons—dogs and weasels—to the floor, venting their anger and using their energy from being pent-up for so long. The ones not carrying guns run for the front door. Turning back to the barwomen, I speak, “I will need yer ‘elp fer this part. Oll wine—pour it oll over the floor. Leave no floorboard untouched with this wine.” “Even the bathhouse?” the same rabbit I have ordered asks. “Yes”, I answer bluntly. “No part of this place deserves to be undamaged.” The first part of the brothel where I pour the wine is in Frances’s office. I open every door to the apartments where the courtesans lived, ordering their patrons to leave the place naked. More bastards to be humiliated in the process of my quest to destroy Giffard’s clan. The ladies quickly dress and take their patrons’ clothes, money, and weapons with them. It still takes at least an hour, coating the entire wide single-floor construct in wine. The bathhouse is the first place I toss an incendiary, and it causes a roaring fire the second it impacts. I expect its wooden walls to give way. I toss another incendiary in the hall, igniting the trails of wine. I get the rabbits to leave, to give the courtesans waiting, the money that I have taken from Frances’s vault. I toss a third incendiary and the entire dining room is set ablaze. That is not all; I have gathered pages from the office, and I toss them into the dining room, in hopes of helping the process along. Even when the entire brothel has been evacuated, I watch the blaze claim the entire building. The fire safety crew will be too bloody late to do anything about the damage. I see the fire and smoke get through all the windows and doorway, building up to a cloud. As I make sure of the damage, I listen for the wood giving way. In a minute, the first fragile support budges and I hear wood fall. The fire that has engulfed the entire construct is doing its job; it causes more support to break, making more panels fall to the floor. That fire spreads to the fallen planks. I look to the side, sensing that someone is waiting for me. I hear a voice that I recognise call to me, “Look out!” I swiftly turn around, to find the familiar scarred badger lunging toward me. I lunge aside— Only to be scratched at that side, a slit having opened in my coat. I quickly draw my Khopeshes, but I have not enough time to prepare a stance, for he swings his claws at me. I just barely parry the attack, hearing metal hit metal from that… No time to think about that, either. I kick him away, only for him to grab my leg, and he pulls me down. Upon stamping my midsection, he stands over my chest. Only at that moment, I can see that his claws are not natural! He plunges his left hand toward my neck, but I manage to scratch his side with my right Khopesh, slowing his blow. I utilise the blade’s other side to push his arm aside, to swipe at him again. Now, I can get up. I thrust my left Khopesh to his leg, only for him to back up. With the same blade, I swipe upwards as a feint, which he falls for. I then lunge aside, to kick him against the wall of the burning construct, which breaks. I have no time now; I have overstayed my welcome in Manusdale. So, I sheathe my Khopeshes as I run from the sight of the fire. I need not look back, to have an image of the badger taking off his jacket and hurrying after me.
  3. Twelve: To Vanquish Madness Here I am now. Wearing my blue suit and golden mask, I head to the front door of the asylum. Agnarge Asylum was founded by a doctor trying to push health to the mind, named Gottfried Agnarge. He was married to a Symphonian named Melissa. After tragedy in the family brought by murder, he created an asylum for those who are mentally unwell. Upon the building being erected, he named it Carrie Agnarge Asylum For The Mentally Unstable, after his late daughter. Behind the building is a memorial of her. Over the years of examining lunatics that seem impossible to help, he was afraid that he would be driven mad as the murderer that claimed Carrie’s life. He lived in the walls of the asylum for years, relying on the presence of the nurses as well as a journal to keep his sanity in check. The day after his wife’s passing, as if tested to his breaking point, he slit his own throat with a glass shard from a window that he broke. What a sour reputation that this place has built. Gottfried would be stirring in his grave if he knew what his asylum was used for now. It worked so well in its first few years that the borough was named after him after his death, but now this borough has been defiled by the poor who are too far gone to be redeemed. I knock on the door, and I need not wait long for it to be answered. I see a Shorthair calico open the polished wooden door. She seems to be brown with black stripes and a white chin. She wears a wide-skirt sky-blue satin dress with white cuffs and a black collar. She asks, “What business seek you here?” “First”, I answer. “I need to speak with you. I have questions.” “I am busy keeping the inmates in check. I’ve no time to talk.” She is about to close the door, but I stop it with one hand. I press, “This is important. If you despise Diefenbach, yeh’ll ‘ear me out.” The cat lets go of the door. So, I enter. What I enter is something to resemble a mess hall of a mansion. The floor and wall are covered by polished wooden planks. There are two sets of stairs, leading to a part of a hall on the upper level. On each side of the chamber is a single potted tree. I ask the cat, “Are you the lead nurse of this place?” “Aye”, she answers, looking over her shoulder. “Not that it does me any good. Even I am forced t-lick the guards’ boots.” “What is your name?” I ask. She says plainly, “Marianne Benson.” I speak as she leads me to the east wing, “Well, Miss Benson, I am aware of a terrier that was sent ‘ere under false pretences.” She unlocks the wooden door of the carpeted hall, and it leads to an unexpected transition. The walls and floor onward in this narrow hall are covered by grey-blue tiles with glass walls with plastic frames for the openings. I see the spaces behind the glass by various mammals looking depressed or weary. I continue, “I saw rim brought ‘ere by one Garvan Reilly—jailed now—claiming that the terrier’s mind is to undo itself. I followed ‘im ‘ere t-know that.” Benson replies without looking back, “He’s told me that lie more times than you assume. Here, in the low-security wing, is where I keep those to be unfortunate to be brought ‘ere by Reilly and a few other officers from other boroughs.” I inquire, “What can you do about that?” She stops and turns back to me, to tell me, “Nothing. The warden has me handcuffed. It’s hard to prove that these individuals were commissioned as residents by lies. If you ask them all, they’ll tell you the same thing.” I infer, “That they call out a criminal tricking a relative into slavery.” I go into the story of the dog calling out the Tirrell sisters and getting falsely detained by Reilly. “Tha’s whot they tell the nurses”, she answers. “But I told yeh, we kin do nothin’ about it.” Another cat enters, who is a nurse, based on the white apron and white cuffs on her green dress. She rolls a wooden trolley with small trays, using a plastic cover to protect the food from grime and dust. Benson requests to this cat, a Longhair tabby, whose mane is tied, “Would you care to inform our guest whot you are ordered t-do, feeding the patients?” She is afraid, probably from my mask and unmatching eyes, but she speaks, “At best, breakfast for oll patients, regardless of condition, is porridge and berries. At best, lunch is a sandwich with stale bread. Dinner depends on the season. In serving each meal, I need t-give them drugs, regardless of their condition as well. However, I have long since defied the order t-give the drugs to these ‘patients’, for they need it not.” How right she is. There is nothing mentally wrong about these mammals. Benson then states, “Do carry on, dear.” The Longhair does so, hastily. “Whot can yeh tell me of the warden?” I ask. Benson walks with me as I seek the dog and explains, “He gave up long ago on this place. The asylum wos scheduled t-be demolished seven years ago, only for the estate to be bought by an unknown investor. By that time, Diefenbach applied as lead surgeon, and wos not questioned of ‘is background.” I stop at the one cell with the terrier that I saw in Solmil, and he already looks worse for wear, his pelt matted. “My nurses are forced to clean up after his gruesome experiments”, Benson continues. “There ‘ave bin nurses ter ‘ear one word from ‘im and quit. In fact, he is why we are forced t-feed drugs to oll patients. Part of ‘is personal research.” I turn to the calico to state, “I am aware of who funds Diefenbach’s personal research. I ‘ave killed members of ‘is cartel t-get to ‘im. The mad doctor is next.” The calico narrows her eyes before she replies, “I know to whom you refer. When you are done, find me at the high-security cell block. It’s in the south row, upper level.” She dismisses herself, leaving me alone to see the terrier. I look intently to him, calling, “Oi. Whot’s yer name?” The terrier seems as if he has woken from a long sleep and he approaches the glass wall. He says plainly, “Corey…” I tell him, “I listened t-you call out the Tirrell sisters in Solmil. I know whot you told them.” He scoffs, “Lo’ a good it did me.” “Whot happened? How did they trick your sister?” The terrier sighs before going into detail: “Me sister and I were oll we ‘ad as pups. We lived on the streets, doing whot everyone in the Artists’ Land does fer easy money. We were inspired t-be dancers, the moments of us bonding. We’d work freelance, for the theatres did not take us seriously enough to perform, even when we grew up. So, we would sign short-term contracts to make our living. “Then, after a day of performing in Theatre Square, those two damned rabbits approached us. I swore to protect me sister for all these years. That day was over year ago, when they split us up. Me sister wos only fifteen. They presented her with a contract, but not a contract fer me. So, we were at a crossroad. The rabbits claimed that the place of their recommendation wos desperate. It sounded too good to be true, but desperation got the best of us. She signed ‘er life away… Even worse wos that we could not read… “We learnt too late to whom me sister signed her life away. My sister wos forced into labour at a brothel in Manusdale, owned by someone as feculent as those rabbits… And I could not help ‘er. The bitch of a madame is wealthy from being a cartel member…” He looks down, his muzzle looking droopier than it normally is. I inquire, “Know you whot happened t-yer sister?” Corey looks up again, his eyes looking glassy. He continues, “I know that she went through bloody ‘ell. That is all. However, the borough’s police found ‘er body washed up from River Numo, with a fatal dose of opium in her body. Four months after she signed the devil’s contract.” I say plainly, “The Tirrell sisters are dead now. I made a show in Solmil East Theatre their last.” The terrier sighs. “It matters not. Even if you kill the bitch that owned my sister, I will be stuck ‘ere.” “I still plan to kill ‘that bitch’. An’ don’ count on living the rest of yer years in this cell.” I turn away and add, “There will ollways be someone ta take matters in their own hands.” I cannot say much about what I see of the rest of the residents in this hall as I head back to the chamber. I expect that they have been listening and wonder what I mean by my statement. These falsely commissioned patients act as if they can feel only despair. That is what holds them back. If one wants things to be better, they need to stand up straight, with their tails up and their ears forward… But they seem to fail to see that. I know that slaves who have encountered me were on the brink of giving up, if they hadn’t already. I am back in the mess hall when a cat calls to me, “Ma’am?” I look to my left, and there that cat is, another different one. She is a light-grey Shorthair. I approach her as she adds, “Ms. Benson told me to escort you to a certain cell in the high-security wing.” When a few centimetres apart from the light-grey cat, I tell her, “Lead the way, then.” She seems to hunch over, blatantly intimidated by my appearance, not that I blame her. We go up the stairs in the centre of the room, those stairs splitting in two directions. We head to the left, and my boots against the polished floorboards are like a heartbeat. I remember to make my pace even with that of the cat in front of me. As we go along a hall with windows, I tell the cat, “You need not fear me. I attack only those who deserve it.” Without looking back, the light-grey cat replies, “Then I hope you beat that bastard Diefenbach whilst he dissects someone jus’ to satisfy his bloodlust.” In the next hall is the high-security wing. She tells the guard in front of her, a flappy-eared black dog, “She’s Ms. Benson’s guest.” The dog examines me, clearly tempted to use his club on me, but clearly wanting to avoid making a scene, he backs up and moves aside. I have my eyes on him as I cross the doorway, and then head into the hall— Which turns to be terribly drab. The floor is so grimed that I can feel the soles of my boots stick to it. The walls are no better. The tiled half is caked with scum and the stone half is unpainted, nicks and cracks noticeable. I head to where I find the calico. The cells that I pass have the bars like a prison. One that I pass shakes himself, trying to wrest them out of the floor. There are others that I pass, being curled up on their beds, and those pacing in their cells. The cell where I stop, where Benson is, I see a wolf. She states, “You want Giffard. You get Giffard.” I cannot believe it. This is Lord Giffard Lowell? He looks like no threat. There are rumours of him being a hybrid of Canis Lupus Arctos and Canis Lupus Centros. That is shown by his pelt, making him look like a mutt. He wears only his underpants. His pelt is mostly white. His limbs have licks of brown and grey. However, to stand out about him to me is his eyes: his left being bright yellow and his right being sky-blue. ----- (There is one day that I can call my worst day. The day of the worst thing to happen to me. Everything seemed so peaceful… until Clement burst in and slammed the door. He said bluntly, “We need t-leave. Now.” (My mother stood up instantly, leaving me more confounded that I was already. She spoke, “They found us? Tell me it’s bollocks.” (Clement told her, “How they know is not important. Get whot y-kin take.” (I was tempted to empty my small cache, but I still needed answers. What the bloody hell was happening? (Looking out the window, my mother turned to Clement, speaking, “I’m the one they want. Take my daughter and run.” The hell I would go with him. The bastard. My mother continued, “Do as I say fer once, Clement. She needs her father.” (I barked, “No! If I’m going anywhere with anyone, it is you, Mum!” I continued as I gathered what money I gathered along with a few items that I could not part with, “Clement is not my father he never was. I ollways knew that. I’m better with you. I don’ care whot bloody secrets yeh’ve bin keepin’ I ollways saw me getting out of ‘ere with you!” I placed my things in my bag, which I slung over one shoulder. (Clement spoke, “No more time to argue. They’re coming.” My mother grabbed two kitchen knives and dashed out the door before I could rebut. (I couldn’t accept this. I could have gone with my mother, carrying a knife as well, but I had to get away from my step-father first to do so. Instead, I ran to the side, to the room used as a closet, where another window was, where I climbed out before I could be grabbed. I ran as far away as I could from the house.) (In just a few minutes, I had a change of heart upon hearing gunshots ring. I sprinted back to the house, wanting to be with my mother again. I needed her comfort. However, upon returning, I saw the tragedy that had already struck. (My mother put up a fight; I could give her that. The two kitchen knives that she used were decorated with blood already crusting. The three dogs laying on the ground had been sliced and stabbed multiple times, but my mother lay face-down on the ground, the splotch of blood on her back, her eyes open, but she was not breathing. (I followed the instinct to go to Clement. I hated him, but I needed to see if he was all right. I was against the side wall, and I listened to some kind of conversation. I heard Clement speak, “Can you not see that you want to not kill me?” (Another male voice barks, “You know nothing about whot I want, Berk!” I heard thudding, which told me of some kind of fight. (Clement said as they continued their fight, “You are only being used, Giffard. Only your mother wants me dead. Not you.” (The other male objected, “You still took me wife from me.” Wife? What could Clement have done to this individual. I peeked through the other window, where I would when hearing Gaston being beaten. I saw some kind of wolf. He had white fur, but his pelt wasn’t as thick as that of an Arctic Wolf. I saw him brutally attack Clement, which prompted me to get down and hurry away from the house again. I just wished that this was some horrible nightmare. (I realised only when hearing another gunshot, it was no dream. My mother is dead. Even with what danger was still there, I headed inside, relieved that the intruder was gone. I hurried to where Clement was, a bullet in his chest, but he still breathed. (Tears started falling from my eyes when I said, “This cannot be happening.” (“I’m sorry, Love”, Clement rasped. “But it did.” (I made another realisation too late. Clement wanted to be the father I needed, and I tried to drive him away. I whispered, “Don’t go…” (He rasped. “Listen… Listen carefully… I need you t-be strong…” I listened intently. Clement continued, “There is a black… box… under the floorboards… under the table… Take oll its contents with you… Oll of it…” He paused, trying to breathe. He gasped, and then rasped. “Go… go to… V-Ventine… to… Mau-Re… S-Sanctuary… th-they… will ‘elp yeh…” (I didn’t understand why he told me this, but I couldn’t do it right now. I sobbed, trying to hold his heavy body as he tried his best to stay alive. “Clement…”, I sobbed. “I’m sorry…” That was when he went limp. I could have gone after whoever killed my mother and step-father, but what he told me sounded more important. (I found the loose floorboards, and then the box. I took that box in my bag, and then went to close Clement’s eyes for the last time. I went back to my mother’s body to close her eyes as well. I didn’t look back at the house. I always hated it.) ----- “This is Giffard Lowell?” I want to not believe it, but I cannot deny it. This is the wolf. As there is no other known wolf with a black pelt and one violet eye, there is no other known wolf with a white pelt and one blue eye. The white wolf approaches the bars, smiling fiendishly. He comments, “I knew you would return. You always do.” His hands are on the bars, acting no differently from the other maniacs in here. To him, I look familiar, but he has never seen me. Benson nudges me to crouch, so she can whisper in my ear. “He’s begun to feel the effects one of his own drugs. He uses a hallucinogenic every day when he’s ‘ere. Based on his memories, every wolf looks the same to ‘im.” That cannot be all, but she blatantly would rather show than tell. I stand up straight, looking into the white wolf’s eyes. I have a chance to end it all now by killing Giffard here. Giffard taunts, “I know whot y-want, Mother. So, try it.” He sees his mother’s face in the place of mine? Is that really how his own hallucinogenic works on him? “You know y-want ter ‘urt me, Mother”, he chuckles. “Lay yer ‘ands upon me.” I have my fists tight, but I do nothing. “D-you not want ter attack yer own son, who you made ‘ate you? I expect no hesitation.” This cannot hurt to be known. I play his game. I draw my left Khopesh and thrust through a gap in the bars, which should have been plunged into his mid-section, but he quickly backs up, chuckling. “So, now y-want t-kill me? Too bad. I may be in a cage, but you haven’t the key.” I sheathe my Khopesh. I am disappointed. Every crime lord has to emit intimidation, but this one does not. I have no time to think on that for long, for another cat calls, “She needs ter ‘ide. Nadine is coming.” Nadine? Before I could ask that of Benson, she drags me by my hand to a different room separate from the cells. Benson slams the door and holds a finger to her mouth. She then whispers, “Just listen.” This room turns out to be for inspection, based on the counter against a wall and another counter with a cushion on the opposite side. I stride past the counter in front of me, and lean against the wall, my left ear bent to the side. I hear Giffard speak, “Nadine! I’ve bin wai’ in’!” “Of course you ‘ave, Big Brother.” I hear a female voice speak. Brother? How could I have missed that Giffard has a sister? I hear the lock and key rattle, followed by the bars sliding. I need to see this. I hurry out of the inspection room, and I see another wolf with a white pelt, wearing a burgundy business dress, in an embrace and kissing Giffard. I stop in shock at this. Giffard, upon breaking the kiss, says, “Business first.” “Lauren and Rhonda are dead”, the she-wolf speaks. “The mercenary Vadimir is still in pursuit of the killer, but our spy might ‘ave failed. He expected our enemy in Subroot by now.” I quickly press myself against the wall where his cell is. Giffard replies, “The spy will tell Lieven when our enemy is there. If Vadimir finds ‘er, I won’t go back on my promise of the bounty.” The she-wolf responds, “But I am sorry to say that three of our allies in police are exposed. Oll in Solmil.” From peeking over the little cover that I have, I see Giffard undo the she-wolf’s dress as he objects, “Let them rot in prison; whot officers we ‘ave are expendable.” I cannot run from the sight of this. Whatever argument the two wolves have becomes irrelevant as they exchange a tongue kiss. The she-wolf is in only a white corset. Just like Giffard having licks of grey and brown along his limbs and sides, the she-wolf has tinges of grey and brown on her back, ears, and tail. I see that as Giffard undoes her corset without turning her around. They move to the bed as the she-wolf just lets the corset fall to the floor. Atop Giffard on the bed, she caresses him up and down his torso. I can see him cup her breasts. Even still, I cannot walk away from the sight of this. Giffard and Nadine exchange tongue kisses again and caress one another. She has her arms on his back as he sits up. She cannot see me, for her back is to me. Nadine then moves to pull his underpants off, revealing Giffard’s arousal. She tosses them aside after freeing his legs of them. I can see Giffard grin at me as Nadine laps her tongue over his bobber and cups his bollocks. Now, I can end my gander here. I dare not see how this hanky panky ends. I just know that Benson catches up with me. I can hear her. She runs to catch up with me, and then jog to keep up with me. Benson says, “Understand why I wanted you t-see that.”- Stopping my stride and turning back, I interrupt, “I understand damn well why.” All these years of preparing to track Giffard, to tear down his criminal empire. Did my intentions bar me from the fact that he has a sister? “How long has Giffard bin comin’ ‘ere?” “Since Diefenbach was hired as lead surgeon. Giffard invested a small fraction, asking only for access to a high-security cell.” She looked as if her emotions were faffed. I inquire, pointing along the corridor, “And is that whot you see Giffard and ‘is sister do?” “The nurses, too, on occasion”, the tabby calico answers. “They also ‘ear the other inmates cheer the two on.” Not just a madhouse; a madhouse not even safe from perverts. I must come back here tonight, to kill Diefenbach, but there is more than that. I tell Benson, “I will need find Diefenbach’s office, if he has one.” The calico nods. “Good. He ‘as other connections that require my attention. I will need see one of ‘is experiments during my search, as well. Since y-know his real boss, you should also be well aware of his drug cartel and trafficking operations.” The calico says, “Follow me again.” This time, she leads me down the damp-looking corridor, to deviate to another, and we stop in front of windows to a chamber with an arch-like series of benches in a box, a tiled floor, and white walls. She states, “He does ‘is experiments every night. Every individual that he tests is kept in the infirmary or operating chamber, both of which are below the ground level. Don’ let ‘im see you when ‘e goes down there.” I better be subtle, then. I have no doubt about Giffard watching Diefenbach perform his “experiments”. I change the subject, asking, “Have you a telephone?” “Yes. In the warden’s office”- I interrupt, “Take me there.” Benson gives me an awkward look before she escorts me to the other wing facing the front fence. There is silence in this corridor. One of the rooms that I pass seems to be a place for the inmates to spend time outside their cells. The owner and warden is there in his office. He is a dog, dressed like a worker. He scratches his quill against paper, not bothering to look up. I hesitate, expecting him to protest about the presence of the vigilante. I pick up the earpiece of the telephone and begin turning the dial. I then turn the crank. He pays no attention to me as I do so. As I wait, he says, “Don’ take too long. The use of that is expensive.” Just a second later, I hear the familiar voice say, “Ahoy.” I answer, “It is me.” The Glashish-accented voice jests, “Well, well, well. Twice over one week. That be more times than Death ‘as called me in a month.” I can just imagine Jack’s toothy grin. “The rumours about the aristo with the dope empire: what can you tell me?” Jack sighs, “Right to it again. Of course. I know of the rumour about his taboo relationship.” I interrupt, “I can confirm that one.” “You be in the madhouse right now?!” Jack then jests, “I did say, yeh’d be mad fer pursuin’ Giffard.” As I do not answer, Jack continues, “Building on that, he was also believed ter ‘ave an unhealthy relationship with ‘is mother.” I would be a numpty to forget so quickly, he thought that I was his mother. “To make ‘im all the more dangerous t-you, he hates women; he disrespects them. As ‘is best-known rival, a few of ‘is old mistresses bought guns from me men; not just those in Knightsedge. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘is one-time whores in Agnarge, Subroot, or Manusdale also bought from me men. Also, if Giffard be in the madhouse right now, Lieven cannot be far.” He continues with grimness, “Please, be careful when yeh get near Lieven. He be a mad wrestler; gave a few o’ me men quite the bea’ in’s ‘imself.” Could Giffard’s right-hand man make Jack afraid of Giffard? “I appreciate this Jack”, I tell him sincerely. “I appreciate yer genuine concern as well. It’s whot makes a good friend.” I can imagine the arctic fox blushing. I would wager that arctic foxes look all the cuter to each other from that. Jack tells me, “Cheers, Death. Yeh be a good friend, too. If I don’ see yeh, I’ll be ‘earing from yeh.” “Right, Jack. You’ll know if I make it. Cheerio.” I hear Jack chuckle as I hang up. ----- (Where can I go now that my mother and step-father are dead? Where Clement told me to go? He provided a map among the several documents. However, the map was of an area of Ventine, which was known for its beaches. The place that was indicated on the map was near one of their beaches. There was money meant to be provided for a train ticket. (I requested a train ticket for the money, and the receptionist did not hesitate to provide me a ticket. I had to take two trains, based on the indications of the tracks, which I was also informed of. This still raised questions about what secrets my mother and step-father had been keeping from me all my life, supposedly to die with them. (After taking the train for hours, just to get to that one destination, I had to be nudged awake by a nice she-wolf in a business dress, to tell me that the train was slowing down. I had lost track of how many hours it had been since I had taken the second train. Per a recommendation, I had eaten prior to the ride. Why was everyone I had to buy from so nice to me? (Summer had barely started the day I had first seen the temples of Mau-Re Sanctuary. I could not trust police to escort me to the train station, let alone that place. I had heeded Clement’s orders, but on my own. I felt very light. How gobsmacked I was when I first saw the outside of the land that had been indicated. Before me was the iron gate. Before that gate was an expanse of sand and rocks as mosaics to form platforms and paths. The temple was high enough to be seen. (I looked to the booth, to find a single cat occupying it. He asks, “Can I help you?” (I can only tell this grown cat what had come upon me. “My mother and step-father are dead”, I began sadly. “I was told that I should come to this place. That you’d help me.” (The grown cat got out of his seat and the booth, to approach me. He knelt down to level his eyes with me. He told me, “All orphans are welcome here. And there are people to help you through your loss.”) ----- The night was dark from the clouds. Rain had begun to pour again. Perfect for this night. No one should see me tonight. However, in heading back to Agnarge Asylum, I wonder if I will leave the borough for Manusdale right away. That wondering ends as fast as it began. I cannot help everyone. I dined with Julian and his friends, having bought fresh items with money from bounties on two dolphins wanted for kidnappings, just for the sake of those cubs. They know my intention. The first reason I came here was to gut spill the mad doctor. Knowing of the bloody mess that was made of the cultists, Julian informed me that the police do not trust the she-wolf with the golden mask. A warrant for an arrest is all the more reason for me to depart when I have finished with Diefenbach. I am at the front gate and fence of the asylum again on the same day. It is ten when I have approached the front. However, it is not through the front door I intend to enter the building. There are open windows. It would make the place cold in the winter, especially for the inmates, but the air would be stale if not for open windows, regardless of the climate. The back of the building is where I enter. I scale the brick wall to the open window on the second level. I climb inside with one leg over the frame, and then the other. I can hear the murmuring of the inmates in this hall. This is the high-security wing, and this is the place that I intended to start at: the examination room. I stay crouched despite what little weight I have. Though dimly, the hall is lit. I peak past the doorway. Where are the guards? And the nurses? To distract me, I approach the cell where I saw Giffard—and it is empty. If not here when affected by his own drug, where could he be? I stand up straight, and face the mad patient who had the perfect view of Giffard’s incestuous act. The dog in a dirty-looking white gown, says, “If y-seek that lucky wolf, yeh’ll find ‘im watchin’ the doctor’s performance.” He chuckles, probably thinking about what I chose not to see Giffard and his sister do. If this dog is both a rapist and a maniac, it is a damn good thing he is locked up. I head along the corridor, hearing the dog beg, “Aw, come on, Love. Jus’ lemme cup yer knockers.” I take the same corridor that I know Benson has used to lead me. I should thank her personally. To my surprise, the guards are absent here. Even in the next short hall, there are none watching. No time for that. I go where the windows are, giving me a view of a performance. I can see one. In the front row of those boxed benches, there the white wolf with the one blue eye is. He sports a white shirt and black jacket with red lapels. To his right is a badger. Not just any ordinary badger; it is the badger with the horizontal scar, and he wears a black suit, which brings out his peculiar red fur accented by the electric lights. There are other spectators that seem not so interested. In the centre is a table occupied by a red fox, which looks young. Watching over him and probing the body through an opening in the chest is a black dog with a brown muzzle and narrow ears, perpetually raised. He wears a white linen jacket over brown trousers, white shirt, and brown tie. He a monocle for his right eye. I need no introduction from him to know who he is. He speaks as he has his probing instrument between the fox’s ribs, “As you can see, zare ees no pain wesponse. I ‘ave pwobed many subjects’ hearts to ‘ave heard ze rate in-quease rapidly fwom vare I stand. However, ze opiate still ‘as effect on ze subject’s body.” He slowly pulls his instrument out, revealing a peculiar blunt hook at the end. He places it on the metal tray where his other instruments are, which shows the restraints on the fox. He is not paralysed. He takes another kind of hooked item, a longer one, which he places in another opening, in the side. “I vill now try ze kidney again.” His back is to me. I see him probe wherever that kidney is, but he seems to find it easily. The fox has no reaction. Now I know what he is doing. The Doberman says, “Ze kidney is supposed to ache from zis, but ze subject does not even flinch fwom ze entry.” How repulsive. I want to see where the rest goes. The time of the organ being probed is short, and he says why: “I cannot take chances vit ze kidney. If I pwovoke an early evacuation of fluids, I cannot verk vit ze odours.” He uses a third instrument on another opening in the chest. Diefenbach speaks, “In order get a reaction ven ze subject cannot feel pain, I must probe ze lungs.” I see a slight movement of his arm, and the Doberman continues, “If I pwobe ze lungs, I can west-wict wespi-wation. By causing pwoblems vit air flow…” He pauses, letting his work speak for itself. I can see it. The fox shakes from trying and failing to breath. I can see his open maw. I cannot determine why this particular fox is being used for testing. The Doberman ends up killing the fox through probing the lung long enough. He must have penetrated it, if not broken its connection. The mad doctor speaks, “Anuzzer vaste of a life. Ze opiate makes zis kill method too easy. If you vant a patient to give zare last verds, zay must feel pain.” I have seen enough now. I must hurry to the basement, knowing that Diefenbach wants another test subject as Giffard and Lieven are watching. This seems to be easier said than done. I find myself going in a circle before I find that the doors to the front main are open. I expect them to be locked at this time of evening. The chamber happens to be filled, but it is near silent. The inmates that I can only assume are under the low security whisper among one another and make short pace courses. All of them are glad in the white gowns, but they seem clean, bar the dusty tint. I note a few guards pacing. For all I know, they could have been alerted by Giffard or Lieven. They could be innocent civilians, as well, but if I see them beat upon a nurse, I will not walk away. I casually walk down the stairs and hurry to the next door, taking me to a corridor. The corridor on this floor leads me from the main chamber to not exactly a cell block, but a sort of resting chamber, based on the two couches, each on a side of a wide plain wooden table. There are also filing cabinets, which is a good place to look. I do so. I take the one in the corner to the door where I entered. After testing the latch of the cabinet’s top drawer, I quickly draw my lockpicks, and the lock easily opens. I look in the same drawer that I tested, only to find nothing of interest. So, I press the lock back, and go to one on the opposite side. I find that the drawers are labelled “Patients”. So, I pick the lock on it, and start going through files from the bottom drawer, expecting those to be the latest. Of the few files that I scan, I find that at least five of the latest residents have one thing in common: they “claim” that their mother or their sister were taken from them by criminals providing false contracts, but also taking advantage of their inability to read. The crowd in the main chamber: could they all be commissioned here by corrupt officers for calling out criminals that took their families…? I sigh at that. I cannot help everyone. Curiosity also gets the best of me. I read into the file kept on Giffard, only to have next to nothing. I read records of when he has taken a cell. Nothing to say about his family. I put that file back where I found it, and close the drawer. I remember to press the lock before I keep looking. I cannot forget what urgency there is. In taking another corridor, I find that a guard stands vigilant in an office. That has nothing of concern. There is no talking from him or any other nearby guard. I make sure to quietly tread the grimed floor as I approach the guard at the end of the corridor that I take. The walls look grey and gloomy from the lack of maintenance. The next guard that I find, a grey terrier, stands at the door of a chamber, and I hastily grab him. I bring my elbow, and then my fist down on the top of his head, which knocks him out. I drag him against the wall of the corridor and take his club. This chamber that I enter looks pale-blue from the electricity coming from the machines. There are a few empty beds. I find complex looking machines, or just one massive machine on the side. On the other side is a long, black table and white cabinets above. Many gears grind to a boiler, keeping coloured fluids hot, but also seeming to charge another machine that two dogs are using on an individual. Only to avoid being seen heading down the stairs at the end of the chamber, I approach them first, to slam their heads against each other. I leave the baton that I took, on the dog that was shocked. Upon reaching the subsurface floor, I see the tiled walls looking beige, as if it is even older. The very second I am off the stairs, the stench of decay fills my nostrils. It is so bad that I cover my nose as I tread the tiled floor, which also feels grimed. I stop at the first turn, listening carefully for footsteps, and there are, though faint. I peek over before running to the next corner. I dash again to a small division of the corridor. Just by peeking, I see that a lift is there. And a guard awaits. However, I have an opportunity to go unnoticed if Diefenbach is to use the lift. Why has he not come down yet? Is he aware of my presence? I still subdue the guard by hitting his head against the wall. I leave the unconscious dog in a bin of laundry. I then go in the chamber outside of which that guard has stood. This chamber could only be an infirmary, but it might also be a prison. The ones occupying the wheeled cots are all starkers, and are bound to them. They are more than aware; they are afraid, from the whimpering and the murmuring. Getting a close look at one, cat that is afraid of me, is skinny enough for the flesh seeming so delicate that the bones could pierce from inside. I wait behind a curtain for the thug blatantly not working here. I quickly draw my left Khopesh, which I used to slash up his back, making him groan in pain. I hastily slash the back of his neck, making him fall. I catch the thug’s limp body, which I drag to the back. As I sheathe my Khopesh, I look through the cabinets and find just what I need. The documents that I scan are not just letters, but the hint of where he gets his subjects. What almost all his late subjects have in common was that he ordered them from someone named Derrickson. In Subroot. He keeps a log of his experiments, going into atrocious detail of each process. I note the chart on the wall, which has my attention. I refer to that chart, which has spots for levels of a body, and I compare it to the organs to which he has referred. His log also includes records of durations. His record of keeping a victim alive whilst inflicting all possible pain is twenty-three hours. With Giffard or Lieven watching—maybe both—the slowest time that he has taken before killing a drugged victim during his probing is five minutes. Not just a sadist. If devil spawns existed, Diefenbach would be one. I pocket Diefenbach’s letters and logbook. I take every page that I can carry, which I put in my pockets. In doing so, I hear the familiar voice say something that I cannot understand, but make out as something impatient and I turn around. There the Doberman is, entering the infirmary. I dash toward him, drawing my Khopeshes and he draws his gun. Instintively, I swipe my left Khopesh upward, slashing his right arm. So, he loses grip of his pistol. He groans, but cannot process the pain before I kick him, backing him against a wall. In a scissor motion, I slash both Khopeshes, which makes him cough blood. In a reverse-scissor motion, I slash him again. I leap backwards before the lower half of his body falls forward. His upper half is already sprawled on the tiled floor, his intestines and kidneys having spilled out. His blood has created a puddle on the tail of his coat. Jack, I hope to be the first to tell you that Diefenbach is dead. ----- I sheathe my Khopeshes, and I hesitate. Where can these innocents go, naked and starving? I wish I could help everyone. I follow the instinct to undo the restraints and guide them from the basement and to the door out of the wing. There are six of them: three cats, two rabbits, and a squirrel. There is no rain right now. So, they need not worry about getting sick. Where I lead them is to a random house, which they gladly take for the night. They are in one of the houses like a partially-muscled skeleton, which sounds empty, for I can hear no one else breathing. To keep these innocents warm, I light the fireplace and leave them all the letters that I have pocketed. I advise them to burn it all. All six of them gather in front of the fireplace with the house’s previous owners’ blankets wrapped around them. Immediately after starting the fire, I open Diefenbach’s journal and toss it in the fire. I tell them, “I have no intention to stay in Agnarge. Not fer another night.” They all look at me with worry. “I’ve my own business. I’ve no more reason to stay now that Diefenbach is dead.” One of the cats, a white shorthair, says, “Is a man named Derrickson part of that? He was the one t-keep us captive and give us to Diefenbach. Drugs, too.” I answer, “I assure you, I will kill him, too.” One of the rabbits asks, “But how will we survive?” The same cat objects, “My friends and I will eat the rats on the street if we have to.” The other rabbit retorts, “Not oll of us eat meat.” Oh, how I hate that I see this as an option. “There’s a white fox named Jack MacNiadh, in Knightsedge. If you work fer ‘im, you kin take yer anger out on thugs working fer ‘is rival.” The second cat, a female ginger cat, asks, “You suggest working against the Lowell House?” The white cat interjects, “It may be our only option.” I tell them, “I could have left you oll behind but I did not. If you were to be taken back to where you were brought, I could not let it be so easy. And I could stay fer longer, but I cannot help everyone.” It hurt even more to say it. I look into the fire, seeing that the pages have blackened and shrivelled. No such monster as Diefenbach deserves a legacy.
  4. Eleven: Gone Astray I am here again, this time to look for more answers while destroying the clan controlled by Giffard. To the borough of Agnarge. I can smell the pungent odours by the time I exit the coach. Not even the cleanliness inside this station can save anyone from a whiff of rot or decay. I hear groaning from many exiting their coaches as well, hesitant to go on. However, I note others pausing upon reaching the platform. I spot at least two men pointing in my direction, and look the other way to know that they mean me. Bugger. I have been followed by not just one of Leigh-Anne’s friends. I head in the crowd, but I can hear the rapid pattern of footsteps. Based on the brush against my leg, I can tell who it is that follows me. It is a blonde rabbit in a sky-blue house dress. I ask her, “Anyone I should know are here?” The rabbit answers, “No, Ma’am. No fox ‘ad ‘is eyes on you. No spy from Agnarge I recognise, either.” “Good”, I answer. “And well done.” I hear a male voice bark, “Oi. Wolf lady!” I swiftly turn around to the same two men pointing at me. They are both dogs, which wear work clothes, no doubt grocers. I get my answer right away, why they are here now, of all places. “Are you the wolf mentioned in this paper?” I look down, to see the pages in the first dog’s hands, and I can just tell that it’s my interview and David’s letter. I look up, to scowl and ask back, “What matters it to you?” The second dog inquires, “Is this true? Wos that prostitute really a member of that horrendous family?” “Terrecon House? Yes. And I did not share ‘is letter t-be smothered by readers.” The first dog asks, “’Ow much did y-know about ‘im?” “Only what ‘is letter says”, I answer irritably. “And I’ve no time fer this.” I turn around, only to be asked, “Did you love David?” Without looking back, I answer, “I cared about ‘im. That’s oll yeh’ll get.” As I have expected, I see the same rabbit run outside the house of my choice, and I shout, “Oi! Get back ‘ere, li-ul bugga!” I run after her, and I do not reach the peak of my speed. I chase her far from the station, passing townhouses and marketplaces that are worse for wear. I also pass roads that are as dilapidated as those buildings. One of those dirt roads, I cross, still in pursuit, and there I am led. “Yeh’re a good runner”, I tell the rabbit. “Thank you, Ma’am.” I hand her two tenners and a fiver, telling her, “Buy yourself somethin’ fresh.” She nods and thanks me again. I watch her depart, and I feel that sadness again. If only she can stay with me, and return with me to the Mau-Re Sanctuary. I cannot help everyone… “Meinrad Diefenbach. Doberman. The lead surgeon at the infamous Agnarge Asylum. He is a skilled surgeon, but he does more than practise dissection. He is one of the doctors living in Symphon that are adamant about changing the routines to those that are more careful. A few of my men are among those to be tortured by him for his ‘personal research’, but also for information under the orders of Giffard or Lieven. That information was extracted, but those men of mine turned down the offer of a rescue. When promised funds by the Lowell House, but done with Giffard or Lieven watching, Diefenbach made no second thoughts. If you happen to speak to him, tell him MacNiadh sent you.” That dog noted by Jack is my next target. I bless that snow-white fox. I do not believe Jack to hold a grudge, but if he hates the dog for what he is, that is fine by me. I knock on the spruce door of the grey brick building, and the door opens, revealing a grey wolf cub, looking up at me. His amber eyes look sombre. I ask, “May I come in?” Without hesitation, the wolf cub moves aside quietly. I enter, to find a line of beds on the left and a line of tables on the right. At the other end, there is a counter in front of a furnace. The wolf cub asks, “Wh-whot b-brings you ‘ere, M-ma’am?” I turn around, asking back, “A rabbit working for another rabbit named Leigh-Anne led me ‘ere. The name sound familiar to you?” “Y-yes, Ma’am. I kn-know ‘er”, the little wolf answers. “A-and I know M-mister MacNiadh.” I kneel, so I can be more level with the wolf cub. I ask, “What d-yer friends call you?” “J-julian…” “D-you ‘ave other spies ‘ere in Agnarge?” “Y-yes, Ma’am, b-but they are out sc-scouting.” “Whot can y-tell me about the criminal activity?” The cub pauses, looking away. He flinches when I place a hand on his shoulder, and I can feel him tremble. I tell him calmly, “It is all right. I don’ plan ter ‘urt yeh. Just calmly tell me what I need t-know.” The cub pants before he turns to me again, that yellow of his eyes so bright that they could explode. “I’ve seen too much of crime… M-my father was an a-alcoholic… He w-would hurt me and m-my mother… until she t-took a knife… and k-killed ‘im… I wos so afraid of ‘er after… I ran from ‘er… That wos five years ago… Not a day goes by without me seeing someone get mugged or killed.” He takes another long breath, and he does not shake anymore. “I know of many murderers ‘ere in Agnarge, but police don’ believe children. No one listens to children. I can only trust other children working for Mister MacNiadh. It took six of ‘is child informants to convince me to work fer ‘im, too. “Me friends and I ‘ave been shadowing agents working for… Those ones, I consider the worst. We’ve seen them threaten people, and we’ve ‘erd guns fire. It is still difficult for me to watch or listen to. The borough itself is like an overtaken prison. ‘Tis more than the slums littered with murderers and… abusers…” “And what know you of Meinrad Diefenbach?” He looks down sadly, murmuring, “Only whot Mister MacNiadh told me…” He sighs before looking up again, his yellow eyes still looking bright. Julian continues, “A brilliant surgeon, but terribly sadistic. His informants also relayed that he wos threatened t-be deported from ‘is home country Fleisung, but there are rumours that he left because nobody took ‘is research seriously. The warden of Agnarge Asylum did not hesitate to ‘ire ‘im. He still wanted to conduct his research, but they did not fund him either.” I interrupt, “That is where Giffard came in.” I imply, “I assume that you’nd yer friends ‘ave shadowed agents assigned t-protect Diefenbach.” Julian infers, “They seem t-not protect the mad doctor, but there are some terribly aggressive murderers on the Lowell House payroll.” I lower my arm that has been on his shoulder before I inquire, “Keep you any notes on particular criminals?” “Yes, Ma’am.” I watch Julian approach the end where the furnace is, and then to a shelf behind the last bed. I hear him rummage through loose pages. In about a minute, I head to that shelf— But Julian returns to me with a few pages, having turned grey and torn at the edges. I slowly take the pages from his hands presented upward, and he states, “Those are the agents working for Diefenbach. You can find them attacking olmost anyone in the borough.” I am hesitant to pocket these notes. Like the boroughs Sputure, Tolden, and Grauk, this place is littered with criminals. I am here only to kill Diefenbach… is what I want to say. I have my reason to kill him, but I end up tempted by the pain in the eyes of this wolf cub to do something for the young. ----- (I came home to find my mother having worn herself out during lunchtime… if we could afford lunch, which was something that we could not do. I noted that her personal book was out of sight. She was hiding something. (I saw only one thing to do, being hungry. I could have spent what money I had stolen and still had in my makeshift cache, but it I was hesitant. My mother and Clement could be aware that I still stole. So, why did they let me? (I thought with my stomach first. I looked through my own belongings, finding my stack of coins and notes easily, and I slowly took a few notes but several coins. I wanted to get rid of the coins quickly after having obtaining them. I kept the coins in the pocket of my pants. There was no changing that I hated the dresses. I hated handbags as well. (Thankfully, I got out of the house before Clement was to come home during his break from work. Whether the grocers planned to tell my parents upon seeing them that I bought from them by myself, I cared not. However, there was no one to cook for me. The butcher convinced me to not waste the money on what meat I wanted, for he told me that no cubs were allowed in the pubs for the fumes of the tobacco to add to those of the ales that they kept. Who knew that barkeeps cared about a cub’s well-being? (I was disappointed that I had no meat with lunch, and stuck with only a few root vegetables and a roll. Still, the freshness of the vegetables made it fine dining compared to eating those that were already close to mush before being added to a watery broth. (I returned home, but not without a detour to seek someone whose pocket to pick, and managed to get out of their sight before a scene could be made. Even still, I felt something stir within me, and that food was not poisoned in any way. (Upon entering my house again, I didn’t just feel disturbed by my friend having died. I was focused on my mother, who just read one of the few books that she kept. I was sad. I had to steal; I saw no other way. She was right about attracting too much attention, but I was not done with stealing. All that I wanted was to get out of this borough. It was for neither of us. (I joined my mother on her mattress and nestled next to her, saying nothing. I just wanted her to know that her daughter was here. I had a dream of the two of us leaving this place, together.) ----- I am perched on a short beam from a stone railing from what should be a bell tower, but it just part of one of the business townhouses. I do not look down upon the city, for I have my eyes closed, to listen for any kind of activity from the distance. As I wear my golden mask, and therefore my blue suit, I cannot feel the breezes with my face. It is night time when I am perched. I need not open my eyes to be aware that my friend has perched behind me and to the side. He does not caw, for he is aware that I am in thought. I can hear yelling and thumps even when it is night. Everyone thrives at night. The criminals are no exception. They prey upon the unsuspecting. My ears bent to the sides, I can hear fighting. I must return to my first year of having returned to Highcond; I have sworn to never stand by as the rotters have their way with the helpless. I open my eyes, looking over my shoulder, to my friend, whose green eyes shimmer, and I whisper, “Guide me.” The raven caws and flaps his wings, lifting himself from the air and then diving. I watch that dive become a glide, and he keeps going with what momentum he has built. I climb down from the short beam and I drop myself gradually from the bars that I can use as ledges. I hurry along the dirt road, and I manage to catch up with the raven. When I do, he is at a uniform speed, but not with the pique in momentum. I still stride, to keep up with him. Before long, I am near the wooden houses. If they were living bodies, they would be partially-muscled skeletons. I listen carefully, having my eyes closed, and my right ear bends to the side to the sounds of… growling and crying. I am quick to investigate it. I head to one of these houses, just outside a better part of town. This house where I stop has two levels. The planks on the side walls make it look like a filled scaffolding. Just behind where I am, I can hear the crying perfectly. I know the sound all too well, and I can actually smell metal as well as the musk scent of another. I take no chances on this. I leap round the corner, my left Khopesh drawn. Upon the second turn— It is just what I have expected. I see a large dog defiling a cat. Quite cowardly, preying upon smaller mammals. He has a knife to her throat as he has her back pressed against a wall and he is just inside her. As quickly, I slice the side of his midsection, resulting in a gash. With the same Khopesh, I slash up his back, make him yowl—which is quickly silenced by my going for his throat, which I slash, and he tumbles to the ground. The cat scrambles to just push the dog’s knob out of her. She whispers, but then speaks up, “Th-thank you…” I drag the then limp body, which I leave in the middle of the road, for the scavengers to feast upon. I look up to the night sky just a few minutes later, and there my raven friend is, not giving a sign of fatigue. As if he already knows my question, he gives an answer in the form of a course that he sets. I follow him. I jog to keep up with the raven, and it feels like only a short distance where he knows there is something that I refuse to ignore. It is actually in one of the nice parts of the borough, still in its northern region. The criminals that I stumble across, thanks to my friend, are those to give themselves away. I hear only thumping before I even spot their silhouettes. I quickly get closer, crossing the road to another sidewalk, and I can tell by the shadows that they are weasels. I press myself against a wall, raising my hood. I peak from my cover to know that one points a gun at their victims while the other delivers a beating to someone pressed against the wall. They already have a victim on the ground. I already have a strategy. I quickly leap from my cover. Just as I predict, the one with the gun, aims at me. I grab the weasel—which turns out to be a ferret—and use him as a living shield. However, I cannot keep that up for long. When close enough, I toss the ferret toward his friend. They barely meet the ground when I draw my Khopeshes. In the blink of an eye, I stab the two weasels simultaneously, and they stop breathing a second later, but I keep the blades where they are, to make sure that it is no ruse. About a minute passes before I pull my Khopeshes out of the bodies and sheath them. I then check on the cat laying on the ground. I press a finger against his neck, to know that he has only taken too much of a beating. The other cat is quick to pick up what I assume is his brother, though their pelts have different colours. Again, I leave without a second thought. Seeing time for another crime to prevent, I find suspicion from smelling dirt, stone, and fresh blood to add to the musk scents. The ones that I follow are a bear and two canines. I listen to their conversation as I tail them. The bear speaks, “Be patient, chaps. Their sacrifices will be made soon.” One of the canines inquires, “But will they be worth the disappointing sex? I don’ like when they can’t resist.” The other adds, “Neither do I. I wager the same with the dolphins of our circle.” The bear says, “Must I remind yeh whot the spirit says through me? ‘Only the blood of the mortal women ter ‘ave their innocence long-lost and the seeds from men can return me ta th-mortal realm’”- The canines finish in unison, “’And yer unwavering loyalty assures my return ta grace.” Anything but grace. The first time I have listened to this kind of bollocks, was once too many. I could kill these men here and now, but they are more useful to me alive. The bear speaks, “Exactly, me li-ul brothers. I believe this spirit to be of someone to be like a brotha t-me. Not officially uniting with ‘im would be worse than shan. I need yeh both and th-res’ ta stay alert. Seek other young women, for we will perform th-final rites tomorrow night in the place fer all ter ‘ear. Yeh may invite friends outside our circle if yeh wish.” The canine to my right answers, “I will be there, Big Brother. And I will give a pint o’ me own blood if it means an ‘undred orgasms fer me.” I quickly head the opposite way they head, looking back as I do so, and hurry behind a house. I howl, “Michi!” I care not that it alerts those men. In the blink of an eye, there he is, and I hold out my right arm, so he can perch. Looking into his green eyes, I tell him, “Follow that bear and ‘is subordinates to where they reside. Give me their location tomorrow.” I sigh when I see him fly away, for I wish that I have given him the meat of a criminal tonight. I still find someone to kill. Through careful listening as I am just outside of Agnarge Asylum, I find another criminal that deserves death. Just east of the property, to one of the crude houses, I find something I would never ignore. I can see the shadow of someone carrying a limp body. I care not to find out what that figure intends to do with their victim. I just run toward them, both Khopeshes drawn. When I am up close, I make out a white dog in green and brown work clothes carrying another white dog in a blue dress. The white dog drops his victim, to draw his gun— But he is just too late; I perform a scissor motion, and then a reverse-scissor motion, my Khopeshes scraping against each other, leaving a single deep gash in his midsection. I have almost cut him in half, and he falls limp, his eyes still open. I can tell that the female dog still breathes. How this kind of criminal has always disgusted me. Like it has done many times before, my mind goes to the idea that all men in the world think that they can get away with this wretched act. ----- As if he knows when I started and when I finish my breakfast, my raven friend flies in the open window of the apartment I have rented. The apartment is on the second level of the building. I am thankful that this has floorboards, a chair, and a table. The raven looks at me intently, but I head to that same window. Looking out, I see that the day is dreich. It is cloudy enough for me to expect rain. Regardless, I finally dress. I fasten my blue trousers with my sword belt holding my Khopeshes, close my shirt, and don my brown vest and blue tailcoat. I fasten my boots and sheathe my stiletto in the left one. I then don my mask, getting my ears through its slots on the first try. I turn to my raven friend, and plainly say, “Go.” My friend begins flapping his wings and he exits the open window, with me following close behind. I reach the ground in a squat, and my friend is still in my sight. I am still quick to follow him as I break into a jog, and a minute later a sprint. I use the buildings in range for part of this trip, starting with the walls surrounding the grounds of an old castle. I have been here the previous night, I see, not that it matters this second. It is like the battle of two different stones, given the sky today and the buildings of this place. It is as if the sky is the ground of a tundra covered in only rock, and these houses are a cliff in a desert. The cool air also clashes with my body heat, but I dare not stop, for I believe that my friend prefers to make only this one trip. Where I see my friend stop is at one of many places that come off as the slums. The house where he is perched tells me where he has followed that bear, but I look around. The two pairs of houses like partially-muscled skeletons have rope connected to them. They are like their own square. In the centre of the dirt ground is some kind of pond, which I dare not touch, for who knows how many have pissed in it? I look up and left, to where my friend is. It is a start where this cult could be. I climb up the wall of the first house and then leap from its roof to the next, where my friend is still perched. Even now, he is unphased by what noise my boots on shingles make, so close to him. I drop from the edge and swing myself in the open window. The room that I enter has its space taken up only by a large mattress with dirty-looking sheets. There seems to be nothing except a stash of cured meat to add. The stench of someone’s musk is poignant, but not enough to threaten to blind me. There is nothing else but dusty walls—or so I think. The large box in the corner, near the bed, contains no meat. In the box, I find some kind of drug. I know the smell of it all too well; it is opium, preferably morphine. I scowl at how much this bear and his subordinates could be using and how long they have been drugging and raping females. But how can I know if it truly is the same bear that I tailed last night? That answer comes to me when I run my hands along the walls until I find a set of planks that are fresh. It is with my Khopesh, I wring the planks off. I find a stack of notes, which I read. I read the first, to know that the letter is to the one calling himself “Big Brother”. Brother to nobody. The notes that I read through are orders for the opiate and orders for other supplies to carry out his rites. How predictable: a man loyal to some demon relying on criminals. However, where is “the place for all to hear”? My time is running out. I cannot ignore this act of crime. I remember to calm myself and think. There are places in Highcond and other cities given poetic names. Agnarge is no exception. There has to be a place always loud, regardless of the time of day… My eyes open wide at the revelation as I think That’s it! Concert Square, called such for the echoes from just speaking. There is something about the walls of the houses to make voices carry. That is where the cult will be. I can expect them to show up after dinner time. ----- I cannot help but stop at a marketplace where they have tool service. My money is good for such. I utilise a good wheel for sharpening my Khopeshes and my stiletto. The merchant that I pay manages to stay calm. I go another market, particularly to a black-market dealer, asking for a poison. As expected, that dealer has the banes that are the extracted juices of a few of the most toxic flowers. I select that of Monkshood. In the apartment that I rent, I carefully handle the poison with which to lace the blade of my stiletto. I cannot risk lacing my Khopeshes with it. I have to plan this carefully, as well. Even if the rapists do their deed naked, there is still a chance that they are armed. The men that I see with that bear have made their choices. I look to the open window, and in the late afternoon, I see that it has started to rain. Perfect. I can expect darkness tonight. ----- In half an hour of eating my dinner, I head to one of the slums chosen as the ritual grounds, my raven friend having guided me as if he had been there many times before. I am perched on the rooftop of one of the dilapidated houses. There is good space for a crowd to move around in this area. I see a metal can from which I can smell ash. There is no one here. I can only wait and see. And wait I did. When night has fallen, there the bear is, treading the dirt road between the two rows of houses, and it seems that the same two canines with whom I saw him last night accompany him. All three figures each wear a black robe, like monks. One of the canines, who look like brothers, carries two buckets, one of powder. The other carries bundles of incense. They stop where the metal can is, and light a fire. The second the bear takes the bucket in hand and begins drawing a circle with what seems to be pale ash, more men enter this street, clad in a black robe. Not all the men to arrive have brought their latest kidnap victim, but I swear to the High Priestess, those women will be nobody’s rape victim. All the robed canines watch with fervour as the bear draws symbols with the soot, the two canines waving the lit incense. I make out something of two snakes and the shape of a gem. The two canines by the sides of the bear mutter something in a language that might be extinct or made-up; I cannot tell. The young women that have been brought here, tied up and naked, have come to. There are five young women, all cats, and there are eight other men. I scowl at this, baring my teeth. I have the urge to leap down, but I need evidence that these men are indeed rapists. The bear bellows with excitement, “Welcome, Brothers! This night is a special night! Fer this is the time of our final ritual! With yer seeds and the blood of our previous subjects, we shall appease the martyr, a brother that we shall ‘ave the privilege t-call our own!” The canines then bring the other bucket, in which two jars have been contained. Preserved blood and seed. The bear continues as they open the jars, letting their stenches out, “Tonight, we shall perfectly appease the martyr Lenocino!” That name sounds familiar for some reason. “We shall make ‘im proud of all ye who pledge ter ‘im! Hail Lenocino!” “Hail Lenocino!” the dogs all repeat as an echo, no doubt the echoes carrying past the block’s edges. The two canines at the bear’s sides, pour the contents of the jars in the circle that “Big Brother” has created. He bellows something in that indecipherable language, no doubt the bollocks that he claims he has heard from this spectre, as he undoes and tosses his robe behind him and out of the circle, revealing all his fur. The dogs follow him, repeating his speech, taking their robes off in turn, revealing their naked bodies, and I can just hear the muffled cries from these young cats. As the dogs start grinding or wanking, the rain begins as well. I watch them with my teeth clenched and bared, and I growl, tempted to howl, but I am not like that. The last two canines join the group in defiling the women. I breathe deeply, my good hand clenched tightly on the hilt of my Khopesh. After three sharp and deep breaths, I leap from the edge of the roof where I have been perched. As I am airborne, I have drawn my Khopesh. I land hard upon the dog that has just joined in what they think is an orgy. For the good measure, I plunge my Khopesh in his back. It all happens so fast, but I feel like time has slowed down. I let those in front of me see my eyes as I stand up straight. I draw my right Khopesh, and I thrust the blades of each up the other dog close to “Big Brother”, and one grinding against one of the cats, on the cunt. “No!” the bear roars. “This cannot happen!” I drown out his speech as I prepare myself for a blow just coming to me. As if they forget who’s the one with the weapons, the dog making that same cat suck his knob, runs toward me, only to be met by my blades. In a hurry, three of the men shift to take their young victims whereas one is released so that dog can join in the fight. The three dogs come at me at once. I parry the punches from the two at my sides with my Khopeshes and kick the one in front of me. I turn my blades before thrusting them up the same dogs’ chests. With them still impaled in the bodies, I quickly crouch to avoid two punches. I stand up as quickly, having pulled the blades out of the limp dogs— Only for the one in front of me to punch my chest. I have to step back from that, but I am also tempted to kneel. That is how hard his punch is. However, I suppress that pain, so I can swipe at him, performing feints, before I slash his throat. I then catch up with the last three dogs, who are making their victims alternate in sucking the bear’s knob. I approach them, slashing the throats of the first two with each of my Khopeshes. However, the last dog picks up a brick of what I know is their opium, which he has near the cat’s mouth. I already know what he means, for I drop my Khopeshes. The bear, I see, presents something, making the dog drop the drug brick. I utilise that time to its fullest. I pick up my Khopeshes, and then leap toward the dog. I manage to stab him in the lungs. I close my eyes, raising my head, howling with rage. At that second, as if nature is cognizant of my actions, I just know that lightning flashes. I then utilise my Khopeshes to cut the ropes keeping the five cats bound. I lead them to jump away from where the men are, having picked up discarded robes. I tell them sternly, “I know whot y-must feel, but y-must get out of ‘ere. If yeh live with family, let them know whot happened t-you.” My raven friend should be able to guide them. I wonder if it is only to get out of the rain as soon as they can, they begin running, taking the robes along. I turn to the bear, scowling. I sheathe my Khopeshes. He shouts, “Blasphemer. How dare yeh defile the ritual of Lenocino?!” I know what word it resembles. “If there is any defiler, you saw me kill them!” I growl. “Yeh took advantage of delusions ter enable other men t-do it! That blood and seed only add t-yer own foul stench! And yeh turned to other criminals fer this ‘deed’ of yours. You influenced these men t-be blighters upon the city! You only watched me kill them. You bloody coward.” My last statement is with all venom I can muster. He walks toward me, not bothering to pick up his robe, telling me how quickly I have provoked him. I draw my stiletto from my boot. The rain having let up, I am confident that it will not wash much of the poison away. He seems to tower me, this false prophet, but he is not the only bear that I have fought. I quickly kneel down, to deliver a quick slit across his leg. I then leap aside. I take another chance to slit his side. I get behind him, stabbing him, but I quickly take the blade out of the flesh. As I expect, he does not waver. He quickly turns around, and he swings his natural claws at me. I leap backwards, but I meet the wall of the house. The bear gets close to me, grabbing me with both hands, and snapping his jaw at me. I use my right hand to keep his teeth away, but his muzzle is too big for my hand. I manage to swipe upward, missing his throat, but I cut his face. I stab him again, but in the shoulder, making his grip lessen. I still hold his muzzle as I stab him in the side of his neck, but he can still breathe, which I see as I run to make space for myself. However, the bear seems to stagger. It is working. The bear growls, “What magic is this?” “Not magic. Poison.” I can see in his eyes that weariness has just begun to take a hold of him. I could try killing him faster with stabs, but the poison would be less effective if I try to make him bleed out. I can make out the openings in his skin, but the dampness in his fur brought on by the rain washes the blood off. I watch him slowly approach, trying to stay awake. He staggers as I stand there, seeming to have my guard down. He growls, “Yeh’ll suffer, bitch.” I expect better for last words. The bear sways his arms as he still goes at a slow pace. That is when I have an idea. I leap to where I see the dropped drug is and plunge my stiletto into the block of it. I am closer to him now. The bear seems to spin as he moves to meet my gaze. I stab him in the forearm and then his midsection. Now, he feels the effects more. He groans, “Whot is this?” He looks around. Now he shall die with his own poison as well. “Lenocino?” he asks. “Are yehr ‘ere? Lenocino? Whot demons are these?” He suddenly speaks with urgency, “Lenocino, help!” He flails his arms. I get close, and I can counter his swings, before I stab his neck again, this time making him choke. I back up with a leap, thinking, Die, foul bastard. Die. Before long, I see him no longer breathing as he lays on the ground. No more madness from this numpty. ----- Upon waking in the morning, I see the stack of pages as well as a journal that I have lifted from the apartment inhabited by “Big Brother”. No one must follow the delusion of the demon that promises glory. The criminals are like demons; they think that what they do is right, but it gets the best of them… as it almost got the best of me years ago… Criminals can claim that they can do something for someone wanting better, only to betray them. If this deluded bear was a demon, he would have stabbed his loyal puppets in their backs, purely out of his own selfishness. I sit up from the bed. I feel fine; the coldness to come from the rain has not ailed me. I look out the open window, getting the view of a kind of life that many seem to never have. I look to the side, the bearing toward the infamous Agnarge Asylum. That is when solemnity overcomes me. I back from the window, sighing. I have done this kind of thing upon my return to Highcond. I was reckless. I had been so focused on killing other criminals with their own malicious intentions that I had almost forgotten why I had been doing so. All the destitute folk whose blood were tasted by my Khopeshes were only practise. Agnarge was the borough where I had begun turning around the war on crime, but that is not the promise that I had made upon leaving the Sanctuary to return to Highcond. Michi may have promised a feast for other corvids when I killed, but he has not aided me for this long, just for me to slay all the rapists in the city. Where I go is not to the Asylum. Not just yet. I need information, and I have a good drug that can buy it. What is the best place to obtain information on criminals, bar fight clubs? To my contentment, the top of the metal tower seems to be open for fights and bets, for something in the middle of the day. I have been here three years ago, and it seems unchanged, save for maybe the coat of teal paint on the bars and walls. They have only one doorway. I enter there. They do not much on the ground level. It is also known to be a workshop rented by parties. I see that it is busy as well, for I see working cats operate a printing press, which makes noise as it processes. None of the cats seem to mind the unexpected presence of the she-wolf vigilante. They seem to not mind either that I use the lift. All I need do is hold a lever down, and the gears and chains grind. Even still, no one thinks of the irregular. On the top floor, there is a small crowd watching two dogs exchanging sloppy punches, in a wooden circle bordered by a metal bar fence. I watch, but I also look around, my arms folded. I recognise none of the folk here, but it is difficult to validate. These could be workers making bets, to see who would be eating lunch during their breaks. These two dogs stick to only punches and kicks with their fighting until one of them kneels, showing his weariness. The owner steps in to the ring, this man being a ferret in a beige suit—the jacket having been torn and stitched in several places—over a white shirt and blue tie. He raises the arm of the dog still standing, and announces, “We’ve a winner!” I note a few of the watchers collect on their bets along with the winning dog. I stand next to another dog, this one a Bloodhound. I ask him, “D-you see more than workers come here?” “Of course I do”, the Bloodhound answers. He speaks with a Glashish accent. I add, “Whot about mercs?” “Why be this somethin’ of interest to a woman?” he asks back. He clearly has seen mercenary. I present the block of opiate, stating, “I’ve met my share of more than thieves.” Not caring how I got the drug, he says, “I know a few mercs.” I inquire, “What know you of one specific wolf? Black pelt, brown face, white spots an’ stripes, white nose and ears, red eyes.” The Bloodhound says, “I seen ‘im ‘ere before. Almost everyone bets on him winning. He’s well-known to fulfil… illegal contracts…” I persist lowly, “I know that. What else? What know you of ‘is background?” “As much as anyone else”, the Bloodhound snorts. “I know only that it’s his way of living. His name’s Vadimir. Nobody knows ‘is surname or where ‘e’s from. He just out of the blue became part of the criminal underworld, but he’s clearly fought others long b-fore he started ‘is reputation in fight clubs.” I let him have the morphine, to do with as he wishes, and he pockets it as I say plainly, “There is another thing I must ask.” I present a pistol and bullets. “What know you of Meinrad Diefenbach?” “Hell if I know”, he scoffs. “Ask the lead nurse; she knows everything that occurs in the bloody asylum.” I pocket the weapon and bullets as much as I hate to, and say, “You’ve been helpful. Thank you.” Now, I must go to the asylum. There is no avoiding it. I cannot help everyone, but my investigation of the surgeon known to be sadistic may have me helping more than myself.
  5. Ten: Images (It was late that same evening, having seen what Clement did. When I entered our less than humble home, there I saw my mother and Clement, both at the kitchen table, having blatantly wondered where I could have been for the rest of the day. It was my mother who asked, “All right, Love? Are you hungry?” (I admitted, “I already ate. One o’ my classmates saw me, and pitied me.” It was one of those aggressively nice cats, and she talked her mother into making a ration for me as well. (My mother asked, “Means that, you are open to making another friend?” (I answered as I headed to my mattress, “Not really. I seldom speak to ‘er.” I ended up staring at the wall, just to avoid looking at Clement. (My mother spoke, “You should look at me when you talk to me.” (I don’t turn around or look over my shoulder when I retort, “Sorry, Mum, but I cannot look at…” She knew what I meant. (It was still my mother who pressed. “I assume you have questions about… what you saw…” (I sighed. “How long ‘as this bin happening?” (Pause. “About a year”, my mother answered. “When you were a yearling, Clement was still in business as a… lender of sorts. He invested in businesses and got that money back gradually. He did stop lending, to settle fer an honest job, but people still owed ‘im money, and got aggressive about it.” (I felt like crying again. “What abou’ the… smoll cuts on ‘im almost every week?” (“Fight clubs.” Clement was the one to answer that. “There are workers who are willing to make a minimal bet, and fight anyone, simply to burn off anger. I did it for the money, of course.” I realised then how he was in a good mood despite the minor injuries; he would come home with some meat for my mother to cook. (I finally turned around, and I stood up from the mattress. I said, “I cannot believe you Clement. Oll those lectures about attracting too much attention from committing crimes, but whot about you? Did you not care about the unwanted attention?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “I care not how much gambling you got away with and I care not how much theft you got away with. I always hated you, Clement. I always knew you’re not my father.” (“But I love you and your mother”, Clement interrupted. “There is nothing t-change that.” (I answered, “I know.” I took a long breath, feeling my eyes well up, before I continued, “But it changes nothing about you to me. If you truly love us, you would ‘ave given up on crime when I came along. You have made your last attempt to bring me close t-you. Never say a word t-me again.” I made that last statement with all venom that I could muster.) I wake in the morning in the inn. After stretching and feeling a strain, I check where I still have gauze clinging to me. I see that my wound is not infected. I run a finger over the skin break to know that. However, I realise that the wound is still tender and I note a bit of swelling. I wonder if it is natural of a wound, especially after I had to dig a bullet out. However, that cannot be my concern for the day. After I run a bath to start my day, I head to the butcher shop closest to the inn. Only a few minutes after I had my breakfast, I realise that I know not what to do for the day. My best bet is to eavesdrop again for the time I have to wait for vital information from the child spies. I do just that: I head back to the square where the performers set up their tents for their routine street entertainment. I count the units again, to remember where my targets are, and establish my own spot. As I scale the townhouse, I see that dark clouds slowly move in on the area. Before long, I see the black wolf with white ears and wearing a brown tailcoat, escorting the two rabbits, both of them wearing a suit with the same forest green. I hear the wolf speak, “Here we are.” One of the rabbits comments, “You need not ‘ave escorted us.” The wolf replies, “I wanted you to be on time and actually begin your performance on schedule.” One of the rabbits says—I still cannot tell which— “You need not ‘ave bin so controlling.” The wolf remarks to that, “I better get a pay out of this, regardless of how long I need be your bodyguard.” The same kind of voice says, “Knowing that the vigilante is in town, it cannot be very long.” As before, I see the same officer, who I make out is a badger, goes no further than the distance of three units starting from where the rabbits are. Unlike him, the other officers, same ones from the yesterday, pace the full length of the square. Before long, I hear wings flapping from next to me, and the familiar green-eyed and three-legged raven stands next to me on the same rooftop. I mutter to him, “I know not how long I need stay here, Michi. This will be a long day.” He just cocks his head, staring at me. I ask, “Did you find any other corvids with which you wish t-be familiar?” I pause. “Did you ever wonder if what you do best has a meaning?” He caws, but not loud enough to disturb the silver rabbits below me. The white-eared wolf must think that it’s nothing. I remember the letter that I keep. I remember that it is still in my inner breast pocket. I listen to the rabbits, to know that they have begun their performance. They would go nowhere in the day time. I climb down from the rooftop. ----- I rely on Michi to bring me to the borough’s news publisher. I enter the workshop that takes up the ground level of the townhouse. I hear the printing presses whirring and the gears grinding to each other. I look around, seeing the complex contraptions of metal with rolls, bars, and spindle-like wheels. A white-tailed doe in a greyish white business shirt and black slacks approaches me and asks, “Can I ‘elp yeh with somethin’, Ma’am?” I ask back, “Is the lead editor of Solmil Journal here?” “She is in today.” I look around before requesting, “May I speak to ‘er, please?” The doe leads me to the lead editor’s office. The one taking up the chair at the desk is another doe, also wearing a greyish white business shirt and black slacks. This doe is plump as I can tell by the face looking sort of round. “What brings a wolf with one eye to printing guild?” she inquires. I get right to it, saying, “I want t-know if yeh take freelance.” She chuckles before responding, “Freelance is part of ‘ow the poor get by.” I state, “I’ve a one-time request.” I pull out the letter that I have been keeping. I place it on the desk and add, “I believe, some deserve to know this story.” The doe unfolds the page and reads it. I can make out some kind of sorrow as she reads through the life story of a man that I barely knew. She must feel something for how David’s mother and sister treated him in the past. Her mouth slightly open, I wonder if she wants to cry. She then takes a moment to collect herself. “I would like ter ask questions, so I kin get a story ‘ere.” I do not answer the doe, and yet I slowly sit down in front of the desk. I say, “Tell me what y-want t-know.” ----- Near the hour of five, when everyone packs up, I am on the same roof again to pry, I see the pair of silver rabbits make haste, on which the black wolf comments, “Whot ‘as you two in such an ‘urry?” “Our job”, one of the rabbits answers just as hastily. The wolf presses, “Your roles in that play? But it’s not for three hours.” “We just want time to get into character.” I note a pause before I see the white-eared black wolf get close to them, to say, “I told you, I hate being lied to.” I see the two rabbits looking away from him, avoiding his eyes, probably for their colour and not his possible scowl. “We’ve another duty”, I finally hear one of them answer. “We are on a payroll by the Lowell House. We play tricks on others, to force others into servitude fer them.” “Then you’ll need me”, he replies. “I am still your bodyguard.” Michi is next to me on the rooftop. I tell him, “Michibiku. Follow them. The rabbits might ‘ave their own place fer records, if not other con artists.” That is when I realise, I cannot be everywhere at once. It is during my dinner, a few minutes after six, I hear the familiar sound of rapping on glass. I hastily head to the window and open it, to let the raven in. As I head back to the table, I ask, “Is their hideout near?” The raven caws once. So, I add, “Is the red-eyed black wolf with them?” He caws once again. By eight, the rabbits are in the theatre. By ten thirty, the rabbits will be heading out along with the rest of the audience. That is when I shall strike. However, my business is here is still unfinished after that. ----- (“How much longer d-you intend to ignore me?” Clement told me. He tried for so long to get close to me, no matter how much I’d drive him away. Now, our relationship was nothing. Even on this day, my birthday, which I did not care for, I wanted to be away from him. My emotions still faffed even months after the day I saw Clement be someone completely different from my step-father, who came home from work and tried making a good chin wag. (I just stayed quiet and read what book I had to read for the class. I may have made friends, but they weren’t close enough to being called that. I was too depressed to get close to any of them. Any of them could have been abused by their parents and afraid for their lives, and I wanted to not know. (My mother spoke, “I know you’re mad at him, but y-need to understand”- (I interrupted, “There’s nothing to understand. Clement is a bloody hypocrite. I don’t care that it was out of your love; you want me t-not fight, but Clement fights and steals as much as I do, and you know it.” I had no reason to cry. “I don’t want yer protection anymore. I need to be able to make a living. If I have t-do it through crime, then so be it. We have the nobles looking down on us and making us grovel for no more than ten pence. We have taxes but they don’t. If that doesn’t change, the poor will barely know living.” (My mother sighed. She closed her book as she said, “I have my own secrets, too, which are the same reasons I want you to not commit crimes. But I am not ready to tell you. I just need you to trust me.” (I was not fully convinced, but I did concede. I went up to my mother, to hug her. I chose to get out, to read the book that I was given.) ----- Where I am led by my raven friend is in the eastern area of the borough, one of the constructs near the town square. I head in the backdoor of the flat-roofed and long shelter. It is with my lockpicks, I make the wooden backdoor open. The room that I enter is filthy with rot and decay on the wooden planks making the floor, green splotches decorating it. The space is taken up by only two simple desks, two chairs, and two vaults, all in the centre. Those and the floorboards around it are the only clean space. It is hard to tell what this place was before, let alone what once occupied the place. The vaults are simple ones this time, relying on keys to unlock them. I dash toward the desk to my left, and use my lockpicks on the safe, this one’s lock relying on three pins. I open it after what feels like an hour, and a lot of patience. I find not just money, but also letters from… Agnarge Asylum… I read one, to know that it is written by the lead surgeon, Diefenbach. This one tells me how he appreciates their efforts. I read another, requesting “to do what you do to bring him to the Asylum, so I can experiment”. A third letter that I read informs them of an individual “who is a threat to my biggest payer and I believe that his middlemen would make for good subjects of my personal research. Furthermore, Lord Lowell might need me to get information out of them.” This is it: the evidence that I need. I burn off excitement by flailing my arms before I pocket the few wads of cash, and then approach the second vault. Again, I test my own patience, but I make the lock open, and I find other documents, telling about Giffard’s jobs for the Tirrell sisters as well as recommendations to recruit agents. Based on the number of times he has apparently recommended such, the Tirrell sisters have been adamant against it all this time. I also find birth records, which prove that Rhonda is really the older sister by one year and Lauren is not a twin at all. I pocket a few of the letters for myself. The rest, I plan to give to police. I have my pockets so loaded that I have to head back to the inn. I hang subtlety for this instance, to leave all the stolen cash in my suitcase. As I still have time before the Tirrell sisters’ final show was to end, I choose that moment to bring the information to the station. I head there via carriage. I keep a steady pace when I do so. However, I have to meet a detour. A bullet fires, chipping the side of the carriage. A warning shot? Why bother? I see where that has come from, for a carriage approaches me from the other roadway, and one of the two dogs in the front points a rifle at me. I move fast enough to not have the detail sink in. I jump off at nearly the same time I hear another bullet fire. I draw my Khopeshes as the carriage nears and rams into mine, the horses expressing their irritation at each other, if not the ones holding their reins. I thrust my left Khopesh up the first dog’s chin—the one with the rifle—and use the blade to pull the limp body off. I climb up to the driver, wounding him before he can shoot me with his pistol. Having both blades pressed against that dog’s throat, I bark, “You know what I plan t-do. Who alerted you?” The dog hesitates before he answers, “Lieven…” He then groans at the pain in his arm. I demand, “How knows he of my presence?” “A fox… told him…” As much as I suppress my ire, I slash the dog’s throat, knowing that I have been followed. Still, I sheathe my Khopeshes, and get back on the same carriage that I have taken. Through patience and adjusting, I have the horse resume pulling the carriage. I enter the front door of the station house, and there a secretary awaits. The deer at the wooden desk in the beige chamber looks at me sternly. I place the stack of pages on the counter of his desk, and tell the stag plainly, “Give these to Lieutenant Wickerson. They should interest ‘im.” ----- I have no time now to call Jack about the fox having followed me to Solmil. The show is soon to end. I have taken a right amount of effort to get in from the back, and I take the stairs, which leads me to a corridor. I reluctantly go down it, to know that it leads to the dressing rooms. I head out that corridor, which leads me backstage. I tread carefully to avoid disturbing the grips keeping their eyes on the sandbags and the lights suspended by ropes. In hearing the infamous rabbits, I note that one of them pauses during a line as if she has forgotten it. That is when I begin leaping, but land on only my toes to avoid making noise. When I am away from the stage, I quickly head to a corner, where I can stay with the darkness and wait out my opportunity. As before, the rabbits are given a standing ovation. By the time the audience clears out completely, I get out of my hiding space, but I keep my hood up. This time, I make it to the dressing rooms and open the first door, to know that only the leading male rabbits were there. So, I open the next one, and there my two targets are. Unfortunately, so is their bodyguard, the red-eyed black wolf. He reaches for his pistol— But I grab him, and with another big effort, I throw him against the wall, knocking him down and leaving a pile of clothes on him. As he struggles, I grab each of the two rabbits by their throats. I walk out the corridor and toward the back exit, them struggling and choking all the while. The rabbit in my left hand wears a button-down maroon dress; the rabbit in my right hand wears a forest-green dress with a white stripe down the skirt and having a lace on the chest. I kick the exit door open. The second I cross the threshold, I toss the rabbits at nearly the same time. While they groan and scramble to lift themselves, I draw my Khopeshes. The silver rabbits see me approach them with the blades of the Khopeshes raised behind me. One of the sisters squeals, “Vadimir! Help!” The other limps away, begging, “Get up! I’m not leavin’ without yeh!” I leap toward the one limping. I end up pinning her to the pavement with my boot. I stab her in the back. As for the other sister, she finally gets up, squealing, “No! Lauren!” She is somehow paralysed by the sight of me, if not her fear. This rabbit, apparently Rhonda, hesitates, even when I stand in front of her. I do not toy with my targets, but I have the curiosity to test them, and this is such an occasion. It is my right Khopesh that I thrust into her midsection, and she coughs blood as I plunge the blade further, reaching the plate of her ribcage. I mutter, “Your sister is lucky that her death was not so brutal.” I pull the blade out of her, making her stumble backwards. It is her body that I strip naked, for my friend to feast upon. I turn around— And there the wolf is again, now pointing a pistol at me. In the fraction of a second he pulls the trigger, I leap aside, making him miss. I leap to him again, grabbing his arm— But he turns me around. I elbow him so I can bend his thumb, and he drops the golden-brass pistol. I turn back around, drawing my Khopeshes again. He holds the hilt of his cane, which he pulls, revealing to really be a sabre. I hear a click, and it is hard to notice, but I see a spike at the end of his cane. I lean forward, narrowing my eyes, knowing that he wants a fight, and I cannot run from him. The red-eyed black wolf stares me down before he thrusts his sabre up and down, me blocking each. He then swings his cane on me, and I am not quick to forget the claw of his cane, which I have locked with my left Khopesh. He attempts to wrest my Khopesh from my left hand, but I keep my grip as he pulls, and I have my right Khopesh about to stab him— But he pushes it aside with his sabre. I kick his shin, but he does not even flinch. I butt my head with his, but he turns out to have a skull about as dense as my mask. We continue to pull at each other in hopes of disarming the other, and my paw pads are aching from keeping a tight grip on the hilts of my Khopeshes. So, I sweep with a leg, making him lose his balance. As the black wolf is off-balance, I adjust my blazer and my grips on the hilts. Just when the black wolf seems to still be in the process of recovering, I realise his feint when he blocks a swipe with his cane, and I am as quick to pull my left Khopesh back before he can wrest with it again. He makes a low thrust with his sabre, which then becomes an upward swipe, which I deflect with my Khopesh. I still lift it and use my left as a bar as I do. I perform a feint with my left Khopesh, swiping a downward arc, and then thrust both to my opponent’s chest. The black wolf deflects my attack. He pushes both my blades aside and then thrusts with his sabre. No time to block, I swiftly bend backwards, to make him miss, and then I seem to roll. Upon standing up straight, I spin and swipe, him blocking with his cane. This time, I run my Khopesh down, to get his hand. That has to have made a slit, but he does not lose grip of his cane. With my guard down, he leaps to the side, thrusting to my side with his sabre, but I block it with my right Khopesh. I align with him again, bringing us back to where we started. However, he uses that moment to swing at me with his cane. I back from its path, but he swings it back and I have to no time to block it. The cane hits my neck, stunning me. I leap backwards so I can recover. After doing so, I perform a series of swipes, the first two being feints. My third attack is a scissor motion that he blocks and I scrape against them to take away his chance of wresting with them. I bring my Khopeshes together before swiping an upward arc from leg level and then performing a reverse-scissor motion. This time, from the black wolf catching both my blades, he gives me no chance to get out of his grip. My paw pads hurt again, but I refuse to drop these weapons. These Khopeshes are like a part of me. We both have our arms stretched out and we both have our teeth bared from the intensity. I block his two kicks— To surprise us both, we both lose grip of our weapons. So, we resort to hand-to-hand. I jab with each fist and then kick straight up, which barely taps him. The black wolf punches back, and I realise how hard he can punch when I block the blows. He knees me in the abdomen again, which stuns me enough for him to kick my shin, and then punch my right shoulder, that wound still tender. The black wolf lifts me and gets a tight hold of my throat with just his right hand. I can only barely breathe. He punches me in the side and then above my breast, his knuckles like a hammer. He comments coldly, “I expected better.” Suddenly, I hear cawing. I am suddenly out of the black wolf’s grip and I see why: Michi. He caws incessantly at the wolf, and I am frozen, until the wolf seems to have him away. I quickly retrieve my Khopeshes and run across the road. When I am past another block, I sheathe my Khopeshes and climb the wall of one of the flat-roofed townhouses. I sit down on the roof, panting, now thinking about that fight. Almost instantly I am re-joined by my raven friend, who I look at sombrely. I look away from him in shame, but that shame being of myself. He caws to get my attention. Without looking at him again, I say, “You know why I do this, Michibiku… But you also know that I cannot do it without you.” I sigh before I finally turn back at him and add, “You gave up yer next meal to save me.” He knows also who has trained me in sword fighting. As I follow a code of honour, my shame is for how the fight has ended. He hops to my lap, and I stroke him. I will always be thankful for the corvid’s contribution to my missions. ----- (I did not get home from school without taking one of my regular detours. I found a small amount of money, but it was better than nothing. I headed to my mattress, to place the handful of coins in the box that I’d been using to hide stolen money. I could have still begged for coins on weekends, but that was the level of desperation to which I refused to lower. (My mother seemed to not care, for she was busy with her book, like she normally was, but now more than ever. She did not bother to acknowledge me. If it was over my anger to Clement, she was right. I cared nothing about how sorry he was. He could have a chin wag as long as he wanted to try with me and he could have given me some kind of bung, but I had long since given up on forgiving. (Three hours of silence was broken by the door opening and Clement announcing, “I’m back from work.” He might have been surprised that my mother wasn’t working on dinner, not that I cared. He spoke, “Still up to that book, Malentha?” (She replied, “It is far from complete, and I ‘ave been enduring cramps to finish it.” (There was a moment of silence. “Malentha”, he spoke. (My mother interrupted, “The memories are painful, but I would rather they be learned of all at once.” (There was another moment of silence before Clement responded, “If you’re certain. Jus’ don’t push too hard.” Memories… I had my suspicion from hearing that. Painful memories in a book. Who would deserve to know them other than me?) ----- It is at the time of sunrise, in but a few minutes of waking up. I hear rapping on my door. Having an impression of who is outside my room, I hurry to my suitcase to get a wad of notes. I have to look through them for fivers and tenners. I just have the appropriate few of those notes before I hear rapping again, and call, “Gimme a minute.” I remember to put on the eyepatch, which I placed on the night table. I wrap the bed’s cover around me and drag it as I head to the door to open it. There the landlord is, a coyote in a green work shirt and brown trousers with suspenders. I say, “Here t-collect rent?” “As mandatory for each morning of yer stay”, he replies plainly. I hand him the wad in my left hand. He counts the notes that I hand him, and then hands back the one tenner and three fivers. I have lost track of the regular rent for this inn, but I counted how many of those notes I gathered. The landlord adds, “I was also told by a rabbit kitten t-give yeh this.” He presents the parcel that he came to me with, and its contents are thin. I quietly nod, and the coyote slowly turns, no doubt wondering I am starkers. However, I have other things to do. I relieve myself and then bathe whilst I have the parcel idle at the night table. How soothing the warm water is on my body. I welcome its embrace after I have lathered and rinsed. I have needed this from all the running around, and especially from the fight against that mercenary. That is where my mind wanders: the mercenary. I have always thought of myself as a wolf like no other, having one violet eye, having a black pelt with grey ears, a short grey stripe across the top of my muzzle, a wide stripe encircling my neck, and a small white tuft in the centre of my chest. This black wolf has white ears, brown paws, a white nose, a brown mask of fur, and red eyes. Furthermore, I have seen his tenacity in how he fights and how skilled he is with his weapons as well as his fists. I sigh, questioning my own actions. My fight is not with the mercenary; it has never been with any mercenary, but they die if they get in my way. The only way to end that fight seemed to be to run from it, but I consider it dishonourable. It seems cowardly as well to only back up, but some strategy requires space. I have been slaying criminals with dual Khopeshes for three years; I wonder if the mercenary has been killing people for much longer than that. “Officer Garvan Reilly. 38 years old. 140 centimetres. 60 kilograms. He has been on the police force for nineteen years, all that time in the Solmil jurisdiction. He has been known by other officers to be incompetent and egotistic. He has arrested only a few criminals, those being petty thieves, but he was brutal on them. He favours his baton over the use of his gun. Over the past five years, he has patrolled the Theatre Square, almost as long as the Tirrell sisters have worked for the House of Lowell. “Reilly lives on 59 Alden Street. He has a wife named Moira who stays home most hours of each day. Their life as a couple is unknown, but she always looks angry.” That is what is on the note given to me. I also have an artists’ impression of him. For a picture by a pup or a kitten, the drawing is quite professional. His pelt seems to be primarily brown and he has brown eyes. Finding him during his patrol might be a problem now that the Tirrell sisters are dead. However, my plot for an interrogation is not the only important thing. ----- I enter the house of the Solmil police station. I pass the beige chamber, ignoring the deer calling me to halt, and enter a vaster chamber of desks where officers in uniforms wrote or typed, the electric generator growling in the distance. I walk along in my blue suit with brown vest and wearing my gold mask. When I reach the end of the noise-filled chamber, I am met by one of the station’s lieutenants, his badge indicating such, a black dog. He asks, “Whot’s so important that y-barge in ‘ere?” He sounds nonchalant, as if he has been told that I would do so. I ask back, “Is Wickerson here?” “He’s in. Personal talk?” I answer as nonchalantly as he is, “You could say that.” “Firs’ door from the stairs”, the dog says, pointing up, the start of the unpainted steps in front of me, but with a whitewashed railing. I head up those steps, my boots making deep taps against the wood. I knock on the first door, which has a frosted-glass window, the wood of it being polished. Unlike the other doors, this one has no name. After three sharp knocks, I enter, and there the brown bear is, performing a series of what I assume is meditative exercises. He wears only his black trousers, which are supported only by a belt. His tailcoat is hung on a hook on the wall. He is well aware of my presence, but still keeps up what he does. I close the door, the sound of which is nothing to stun him, it seems. I speak, “I hope this is not the wrong time.” The bear replies monotonously, “I might always be caught at the wrong time. Jus’ tell me what brought yer ‘ere.” I head to the desk, to use the pen and whatever page is close, to write down what I got from the young spy. I speak, “I need y-to meet me outside the following address, assuming yeh’re familiar with it.” The bear finally stops what he does and picks up the page. He says, “Alden Street.” He places the page back on the desk. “Shady figure t-look into?” I answer, “Exactly. There is a corrupt officer”— He interrupts, “Corrupt officer? I doubt I can endorse yeh fer that. Besides, corruption is hard t-fight.” I explain, “I saw this officer travel all the way from Theatre Square to Agnarge Asylum. That is extreme fer ‘andling a peace disturbance. If I can expose ‘im fer crime in the presence of an official, there is a good chance of ‘im facing charges, and maybe further loosen cogs in the machine.” Wickerson sighs. He points when he says, “I may not understand what you’re after, Vigilante, but officers did not earn their badges pickin’ flowers.” He lowers his arm when continuing, “I will need bring the chief and two officers along as well, to carry this out. This needs t-be no folly. If yeh’re wrong, we are oll buggered.” I say, “If I am correct about when a day-patrol officer gets off, meet me opposite that house at seven forty.” “We’ll make that work. You should go now.” I nod and exit the office, leaving the lieutenant to his activity. Before I exit the house, however, I have something important. In the vast work chamber, I head to the telephone in the middle of the wall. I dial the number and turn the lever repeatedly. As I do so, an officer barks, “That’s for police use only!” I reply coolly, “This is important.” I can sense his urge to punch me, but he knows that it would make him look bad. “Ahoy”, the familiar Glashish-accented voice says. “Hello, Jack”, I reply. The arctic fox jests, “So, Death calls to me. Sayin’ it’s someone’s time?” I say, “Please, Jack, I need you to be serious.” “No time t-be craic?” He pauses. “What brought you t-call me?” “I am in Solmil right now.” “Makes sense”, he interrupts. “Marius informed me of ‘ow yer offed Samuels and of ‘is intention t-sell what opium is in the factory as an explosive.” “The Tirrell sisters are dead”, I state. A moment of silence before Jack replies, “So… the actresses workin’ fer Lowell ‘ad their last curtain call… And y-tell me this, why?” I explain, “I am given to understand that the con artists don’t put up a fight. So, they hire mercenaries as protection from whoever wants t-prove their fraudulences or calls them out in public. Lauren and Rhonda were no exception. The wolf that they hired, fought me because of the promise of a good amount of money—but engaged me after I killed them. “I have killed people over the past three years since I returned to Highcond. All of them have been criminals armed with clubs, knives, canes, and guns. Until last night. Lauren and Rhonda are my first unarmed… enemies that I killed. If con artists are more intelligence than muscle, or if they simply got no bottle, that just is.” Another pause. Jack speaks, “Okay, I see what y-mean. I did think that you would kill an unarmed target, seeing as some did not know you were there until their deaths. I still do not know what code of honour you follow, but I know who you are truly after. Whatever happens, happens. If you are disappointed in something, you are. When you reach your true goal, do not think too much on the circumstances leading to it. Whatever happened last night is over.” Move on. Easier said than done. The past is the reason I have been pursuing the clan. I ask, “Jack, how did you first feel when you killed someone?” “Regret”, he answers. “Me first kill in the battlefield was someone about my age, and fer a while, the image of his body haunted me. And me superior told me to move on from it. I realised, ‘tis a matter of them or us. So, I did move on.” “There is one more thing, Jack. Dolan’s spy informed me that she saw someone follow me like she did, probably waiting at the same train station from Ashcrown. A red fox. And I know only a few.” “Curious, indeed”, he mutters. “And I’ve ‘ad t-sort things on my own here at the Queen o’ Clubs fer a week.” “Jack. You’re a good friend”, I tell him lowly. “So are you, Death. Call me if somethin’ out of place involves me.” “Will do. Good-bye fer now.” He bids the same, and I hang up. ----- (Over the two months following my tenth birthday, I would come home to my mother busy on the book that she had been keeping. On this day, she was on the last page, which I could see by only peeking over her shoulder. I read no words that were already down. Instead, I quickly turned my focus on a week-old newspaper, trying to read what was there. I was glad to be done with school, but my reading was still far from perfect. My socialism was still below par. I would only say the casual stuff to other cubs on the grounds of the schoolhouse, but I was nowhere as close to them as I had been to Gaston. (The issue that I read was about a factory with a nasty reputation being bought out within weeks of being shut down. The authorities had finally got off their arses and inspected, to know of cubs working in a hazardous environment and being paid only half of a pound each day. Even now, there was a chance of that building’s doors being permanently closed. I knew how the world of labour worked by then. (Speaking of which, I heard Clement enter, and tried reading another issue on the paper, to avoid looking at him. I heard him say, “All right, Love?” (“I’m all right”, replied. “I’m almost done this.” For some reason, she paused. “But I am trying… to write a proper ending…” (“I understand”, Clement responded. “It needs not be somethin’… Jus’ keep it simple.” I didn’t make out the rest as it was a whisper.) ----- I am at the townhouse as the address that I was given. I hear a caw, which prompts me to look around, examining the rows of townhouses closely and there is no one suspicious in range, but I look carefully at the other row, to make sure that none of those residents watch me. I turn back to the townhouse labelled 59, this having pale-brown bricks, like a few others do, but of different shades. This house has a flat roof of stone and no shingles. It has only one floor. The windows are only glass, no frame except the cement keeping it in place. I walk up to the wooden door, which has no pattern except that it’s planks and has a metal knob. I open it without knocking, and then slowly close it behind me. I am clad in my blue suit, brown vest, and my gold mask. My Khopeshes are on my belt, concealed by the long tail of my blazer, my stiletto on my left boot. The walls of the interior are bricks like the outside and there is little to the imagination. The living space is the first room from the doorway, expanding to the sides. The floor is wooden. On the left is a clean-looking couch, green one-piece cushions over polished oak, and short and thin legs. There are no decorations. Only a rectangular table and a bookcase show life in the place. The only smell that I catch is that of stone. I head slowly past the drab brick walls, and head left, to the bedroom, which seems as desolate. Wardrobes of polished oak and large four-poster bed occupy its space decorated by drab wallpaper. I cannot think about it for long, for I hear the sound of low crunching, which could only be grainy dirt stepped on. I turn around— And there a female badger is, grabbed in the blink of an eye by the arm and me behind her. This badger looks average, having a thin muzzle, the face white, but with black stripes from the eyes. She wears a pink dress with frilly laces at the cuffs and a closed neck. I tell her lowly, “Do not scream. I see no point in harming someone of your stature.” I sense her hesitation. I let go of her arm. She slowly turns around, to see my eyes. I see hers, which are brown. I inquire, “You are Moira Reilly, correct?” She hesitates, letting out only a short breath, before she speaks up, “Correct.” I add, “You are married to Garvan Reilly, correct?” She answers nervously, “C-correct.” I explain, “Your husband has information that I want. I know him to be a police officer, but he went over the line for a supposed arrest. I would hate t-use me blades on you. That is why I need you to co-operate with me on a plan, and he is more useful to me alive.” The badger says, “I care not what he has that you want, if not revenge fer a false arrest. I ‘ave bin ‘is housewife fer the past eight years. My parents betrothed me to the wanker without question.” I cannot help everyone. I tell her, “If you truly loathe ‘im, you will do as I say.” “I hope this is worth the time”, the chief, a taupe grizzly bear, states. “I cannot believe I need take orders from a sword fighter with a mask.” The Solmil police chief, along with two dogs that are officers, and Wickerson are all there, using the house opposite that of Reilly’s to snoop. Wickerson, having heard the bitter statement, replies, “I can assure you, she ‘as not bin wrong. She ‘as fulfilled bounty ‘unts in Sputure, Ashcrown, and now here.” The chief objects, “If she could do oll that, why did she kill those two bunnies?” One of the dogs, who watches through the window, interjects, “One of the officers told me, he heard her say on her telephone call that they had a mercenary.” Wickerson seems to ignore that statement. He says, “She azzer reason t-kill. We knew nothing of their criminal ties until yesterday. I believe that there was no warrant to arrest either of them.” I cannot believe I have to listen to an argument. The bears exchange their objections as time goes on. Eventually, I hear, “Reilly is here!” Pause. “He is entering his house.” I speak, “Give me five minutes with ‘im before you follow.” I leave before anyone can object. I head right in the house, but slowly opening the door. I see him head into the bedroom, the housewife assuming her role quite well. She has her muzzle locked with him as they stand before the bed. She undresses him and caresses him at the same time, managing to keep him distracted. His tunic is on the floor when I am at the threshold of the bedroom. His pistol and baton are on the nightstand. His pants and underwear drop to the floor. She begins stroking his sensitive area as she hands me his pair of handcuffs. I wait a few seconds— Then, I lift his arms, pulling him toward the bed. I quickly fasten the cuffs on both his wrists, its chain behind the pole of the bed. He shouts, “WHOT THE BLOODY ‘ELL IS THIS SHIT?! WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?! WHOT THE FUCK D-YOU WANT?!” I look down upon him as he struggles to pull himself free. I draw my left Khopesh, and have its hook at his chin. That quiets him. I tell him, “Struggle. And you are dead.” The badger spits, “This is a criminal offense, bitch!” “But you cannot arrest me like that, Reilly.” I lower my Khopesh before I add, “What I want is answers.” “A masked housewife interrogatin’ a police officer? You’re off yer rocker!” I kick him where it hurts, making him groan. I tell him, “If you want me to not do that again, watch what y-say.” I still have my Khopesh in hand. “You will give me what I want, regardless.” “GO TA HELL!” he snaps. I kick him there again, making him groan a little louder. “Now do you understand?” I ask. He just snarls and glares at me. “I’ve been told of your reputation as an officer. You come off as incompetent, yet vicious. I know no specifics, but my informant is aware of you giving bea-ins to thieves, using more force than needed.” “Ask any officer; everyone ‘as dirt on someone.” “I am given to understand that you get paid to arrest criminals. It is part of having order in the city. And yet, despite those few arrests, you’ve bin able t-do well fer yerself. You eat enough and you provide well fer a clean house. Someone else pays you.” “Sod off”, he mutters. I turn around before I kick him as hard I can, making him squeal. He pants. I explain, “I saw you at the Theatre Square, and you seemed to stay close to the Tirrell sisters for someone on patrol. Then, even though their bodyguard had ‘im, you stepped in an’ nabbed a dog calling them out on tricking ‘is sister into servitude. Where you took ‘im was not to the police station, but all the way south to the scariest place in oll of Highcond: Agnarge Asylum. You claimed to the cat at its door about ‘is mind.” I pause, seeing him only scowl, but I can sense his urge. I continue, “I know all that because I followed you there.” The badger snarls at that, struggling to get free, but it would still be a while before the chain and cuffs scratch the wood enough to break the pole. I have the tine of the Khopesh just touch his midsection. I ask, “How long ‘ave you bin workin’ fer the Tirrell sisters?” Pause. I repeat, “How- long?” “Ten years!” He admits. What a coward. “They came to me, when they were already con artists, saying that they needed help with harassers. I bin bringin’ those ‘harassers’ to Agnarge Asylum, claiming that they are unstable, over the past five years. It is their boss that pays me. I know only ‘is name, but ‘is men bring me the money. I never seen ‘is face.” He needs not tell me the name of their boss. I sheathe my Khopesh. I admit, “I expected you t-last longer.” The badger looks around, dumbfounded. “That’s it? What plan you t-do with this information? It is only words.” I object, “Think again.” I speak up, not turning, “Is that enough information, Lieutenant Wickerson?” The bear walks in, replying, “Good fer a prosecution.” I pick up the key from the pocket of his discarded pants, which I hand him. “He’s all yours, Payton”, I tell him. The bedroom then becomes crowded, the two dogs entering and having their guns at the ready. Wickerson says as he refastens on of the cuffs, “Garvan Reilly, you are under arrest for corruption.” He exits, needing to crouch to cross the threshold, followed by the two dogs. “Thank you”, Moira says. “You really helped me tonight.” Without looking back, I reply, “You need not repay me. Besides, I see no time to wait on my business.” I am about to leave, but I sigh, and turn around. I ask, “What will you do now that your husband’s prosecution awaits?” “I will need to attend it”, she answers. “But when I know that he is sentenced, I will divorce and move. I always ‘ated this place.” Good idea. I head out of the house, my destination being the workshop. ----- I just had to take a detour, buying a nice slab of meat from a butcher on the way. My money is good with or without my mask on. I expect them to be eating as well, but it is still important. I knock on the front door twice before opening it myself. “Lady Death!” the cubs call with excitement upon my entrance. There they are, eating what dinner they have, their tables arranged for it. I feel so sad for them; I know not whether these cubs eat well and sleep well. I can send them to Mau-Re Sanctuary if I want to, but I cannot watch over them. None of the rabbits are bothered in any way about the foxes and stoats eating meat. The smell of broth is still fresh, its fumes lingering, but at its strongest when nearest the pots, where Leigh-Anne is. She is near the wood oven and a makeshift fire stove, operated by two other rabbits. She asks cheerfully, “Come t-join us, Ma’am?” I am tempted to say no again, but I get to the point instead. “I promised a pay fer yer services. I plan t-leave fer Agnarge tomorrow as my work here is done.” She stops what she does—overseeing the progress of the boiling vegetables and the charring meats—and looks up at me, ears drooping. She whines, “So soon?” “I came here fer only the Tirrell sisters, and I now ‘ave one o’ Giffard’s gears ta take out of ‘is clock.” Leigh-Anne looks down, seeming to be in her own world. She has to be tapped on the shoulder by one of her friends, another golden-brown rabbit, to tell her something, and Leigh-Anne quietly acknowledges. I take a wad of notes from my inner breast pocket and count them, but I look around, to know how many cubs are at those tables right now. I look back at Leigh-Anne, reminding myself, I cannot help everyone. I tell her, handing the wad, “Your informants were of great help.” She accepts the money as I add, “And I am thankful for that.” Leigh-Anne looks up again, asking, “You say you intend t-go to Agnarge?” I nod. She adds, “I should send an informant. Make sure you’re not followed by the same man.” I reach into my other inner breast pocket, for the slab of meat wrapped in paper. I say, “On second thought, I would like to stay fer dinner, assuming you’ve a few roots t-spare.” Leigh-Anne takes the wrapped slab and answers, “We always make sure of that, Ma’am.” The evening and night seem to have gone by so fast after all that I have done here. Apparently, the con artists have become scared, knowing of the three fulfilled bounty hunts and the deaths of the two actresses doubling as Giffard’s agents. I see that on the front page of today’s paper, but I still have my attention on the paper from yesterday, for David’s letter to me being published. That also makes me wonder about that dog named Finnis, how he felt about my promise turning about to be empty. I have made promises before. I have promised to eliminate the crime clan owned by the Lowell House. And I have promised to serve the Mau-Re Foundation, living by its creed. I can only fulfil one promise, just like I have one face that is never seen.
  6. Nine: Costumes (School had been getting no better now that Gaston was out of my life. I had just passed the grade, and now I couldn’t concentrate, knowing that I would never see his face again. I had realised, too late, that I loved him. I was convinced that no one could replace him. The boys in my class may have kept their distance after an outburst that I had about him, but I didn’t want their attention anyway. (When I got home that day, I asked my mother, “Mum? At what ages do wolves get married?” (“Same as other species, Love”, she answered as she wrote in her book. She seemed too preoccupied, but she continued, “Usually one begins to seek a significant other at age twelve or is betrothed at that age. A betrothal could be made years before official marriage. The youngest age when one weds is sixteen.” My mother was shy of being eighteen when I was born, nineteen when she married Clement. (I sat in front of her on the mattress that she and Clement shared, asking, “Will I be pushed to be married one day?” (My mother finally put her book and quill down, to focus on me. “Heavens no! I want you to have a say in who you wed. You are free to love anyone.” (I looked away from her, feeling like I could cry even after so long. My mother still reasoned with me about getting in fights. In fact, she was more afraid for me. She was just good at concealing such. I didn’t want to tell her what I had already told her and what I had been avoiding to tell her. So, I got up and got to my homework. I was already behind on a book made part of the class.) ----- There are only two places to stand out in the borough of Solmil: the train station and the namesake theatre. I eat my dinner in the room that I have for a few days. I can only hope to be here a few days, but I just cannot resist aiding that young rabbit and her young friends… I cannot get the picture of seeing David dead, out of my head. I keep the letter that he has left me before his suicide, wondering what to do with it even now. I eventually am pulled out of my thoughts when I hear the sound of rapping upon glass. There my friend is, outside the window of the room. I approach it to open it, the raven flying away as I do so, but he returns after I lift it. The glass and wood are too heavy for me to keep suspended by hand. I let it fall and bang after the raven enters, and turn to him. He is already perched on the table as I pant from holding that weight. I get back to the table, where the raven rummages through the orts of my dinner before he settles on nipping the roll that I ripped in half for him. The night has already fallen at this time, but he is willing to take flight at this time. In silence, I watch the raven eat up the roll, slowly taking my seat again sceptic about disturbing him. He must always be hungry from flying around so much, day and night. When the roll halves become only crumbs, I tell him, “I cannot assure you meat from my victims tonight, but I assume you have the locations of the wanted criminals.” The raven caws, and I give him a few strokes down his back. He caws again, though not as loudly. So, I head to the window again, to open it, and the three-legged green-eyed raven flaps out. This time, I put the frame down gently, and I catch my breath before I change into my navy-blue suit with brown vest. I don my golden mask and sheath my Khopeshes and stiletto. Where I wander in the streets, I heed the call in the form of my friend cawing, and I head the direction he flies. Having given the locations to Michi and told him to go on ahead of me, has proven its use to me. Of the three criminals that I have told him about, I am surprised, even now, of how good the corvid’s memory is of the descriptions of my targets and where they like to go. When I hear him caw, I am surprised that he has followed one of my targets here: his own house. It is one of the connected uniform houses of bricks and shingles. I look to where he circles, and the house of this target is the reddest one in the line of townhouses. So, I look for an opening as I expect the front door to be locked, and there is one. This opening is a window on the ground floor, which tells me something. I climb the window and quietly land on the wooden floor, making sure that my footsteps make no noise. Based on the lack of light and the silence, I am told that my target is asleep. So, I leap to where the carpet is, and then walk to the stairs, which are carpeted, and slowly, for I cannot be too careful about making a floorboard creak. Upon making it up to the second floor, I see a single dog in the bed, and he seems to be sound asleep. This is definitely one my targets, for only one of three that Wickerson told me about is a canine, specifically a Coish Terrier, and the voluminous brown fur on him is the proof there. If he is an actor as much as the Tirrell sisters, I expect him to be only pretending to sleep and have a gun in his hand under those sheets. I approach slowly, trying to be slow enough to make no tap noise of my boots on the wooden floor. He still seems to be asleep when I reach his bed. To me, there is only one way to gain a sleeping man’s attention. I slowly lift his sheets, to know that he sleeps in a night gown, and I grab him by a shoulder— To throw him out of bed, and he lands facedown on the floor. I hear him groan, and he slowly picks himself up. The Terrier has no time to stand up, for I pick him up and have him face me. “Emlyn Rice”, I said coldly. “There’s a good bounty on you.” I unbutton his gown and yank it down, but he holds it in place. So, I punch him in the muzzle, and he reflexively presses his hands against it. I pull at his arms again, so I can make the gown fall to the floor. Then, I punch him in the gut, making him groan again. I begin forcing him down the stairs. To humiliate him further, I shove him out the open window and climb out after him. I pick him up, and I hear him bark as I seek a carriage, “Wait ‘til the Tirrells ‘ear about this, Bitch! I’ll be back on the street again, yeh’ll see!” “Spare me the duff”, I retort as I shove him. I then quickly take hold of his left wrist and keep my left hand on my left Khopesh. Having my hand like a vice on his wrist, whilst I approach an idle carriage, the dog groans, “You’re hurting me.” I ignore that. He is lucky by how few are out at this time of night. He adds, “Please. I make a living with my hands.” “Writing false contracts”, I growl, whilst shoving him again as we walk. The raven lands on the edge of the carriage and cocks his head as he takes in the sight of me holding a naked dog. All the more convenient, there is no roof for the seats. I let go of the hilt of my Khopesh, so I can strangle the Terrier. When I have him unconscious, I place him in the passengers’ space, making sure that he will not fall out. Then, I take the reins. I say plainly, “Michi. Iko.” The corvid takes flight and I begin to follow him, but order the horse pulling the carriage to take it slow. Then, wanting to catch up with the corvid, I have the horse speed up. I reach the drop-off station, which is just outside the station house, and I find an officer in uniform seem to be awakened by my arrival. He approaches the carriage as I rouse and lift the canine, and he asks, “What business ‘ave you ‘ere?” I speak, presenting the Terrier just regaining consciousness, “I believe your superiors will be interested in this dog.” “Is that… Rice?” Silence. “They’ll be sports about this.” As we await the sergeant of the house, I request, “Make sure that he goes to one Lieutenant Payton Wickerson. He is stationed in Sputure.” The sergeant, just arriving with a pair of manacles, announces, “I’ll be sure ta ring ‘im. If yeh trust Wickerson, he must be a good cop.” “A recent informant”, I answer. I add, to the Terrier, “I wonder what chance yeh’d ‘ave against a bear.” The sergeant, about to bring the starkers Terrier in the station house, calls, “Get this she-wolf ‘er reward.” Only for a short time, I am in the station house, where I am presented a wad of bills adding up to three hundred pounds. The second I am out of there, I am back on the street, having requested Michi to guide me to my next target. It has not been dark long. Where we go next is to the largest marketplace of the borough, which is in its northern section. It is supposed to be closed now that the night has come, and yet the raven tells no lie as I hear him caw and see him circling over the roof of the open-roofed marketplace. I get off the carriage and approach the construct. I decide to scale the wall myself. It is with the claws from my fingers I can hold to the openings between the planks. Upon climbing to the edge, I take a moment to pause, easing on my claws and I repeatedly open and close my hands and I see a small group. Against the wall, I can make out three unconscious figures. Only two other individuals are there. The badger is the wanted criminal, Findley, wanted for kidnapping and providing false contracts. He seems to have black fur and he wears no more than a white work shirt and green slacks with suspenders. He is not alone: whilst he tends to whoever he seems to have tricked now, there is a grey wolf watching. The wolf is clad in a black business suit, and he has a rifle in a holster over his shoulder. The wolf sniffs. As if he has not been alerted by the raven’s caw already, the wolf speaks, “Stay sharp. We are not alone, and it is not the rabbits.” The badger stands up straight, looking around swiftly. “Where could they be?” he asks. “The intruder waits to strike. The rabbits are late.” I crouch near the edge of what roof there is, waiting for the grey wolf to turn away. He has made his choice; he is an obstacle that needs be eliminated. When I see him walk my way, I press my body to the surface and then hastily get up. I then leap off the ledge— The grey wolf swiftly turns around, pulling out his rifle at the same time, and quickly fires. The bullet just scrapes against my shoulder, and I mutter “Shit” from feeling the impact. The mercenary fires again, but when I lift his rifle upward, making my friend caw, flapping his wings about. I knee him in the midsection, deterring him enough for me to draw my left Khopesh. I strike with it at the same time, but he blocks it with his rifle. I keep it pressed aside as I punch him the same area before I draw my right Khopesh, swiping with it, and the grey wolf backs up, giving him aim at point-blank range, but I wrench it again, so I can swipe at him. This time, he blocks the strike. I swipe again and again, him deflecting with little time to parry. I then kick his shin, making him lose balance, but he points his rifle to my chin. I duck the very second the bullet is ejected. I sweep with my leg and then succeed in slashing his chest with both blades. The gashes are enough to incapacitate him. I kick his rifle out of reach, to make sure, and then plunge the blades between his ribs. With that done, the raven caws to me. I turn around, seeing that the badger has run away. I run out the front door of the marketplace, seeing that the badger was far out of range, but Michi caws again. This time, I look up, making out his silhouette in the night, and I sprint as he flies in leading me. In only a few minutes, my chest feeling as if it is ablaze, I find the badger climbing over a metal fence of a flat. I howl, “Kougeki anaguma!” The raven does so, swooping down on him, giving me the time to climb the metal fence and roll upon landing on the dirt and rock, stinging my shoulder as well. I still catch up to the badger, ignoring what pain there is, and turn him around with one hand. I then grab his throat, lifting him from the ground. I can see the fear in his brown eyes, prompting me to comment, “I assume I can expect all con artists to be snivelling cowards.” Through enough choking, the badger’s eyelids go droopy and his head hangs. I ease on my grip as I take him off the estate. I have him hooked to one of the poles of the fence by his shirt before I climb over it myself. I search him when I’m back where the carriage is, which is not so far away. While the badger is unconscious, I strip him after nicking whatever money he has, and I use the suspender bands to tie his wrists behind his back. I first head back to the marketplace, seeing that the badger’s prisoners are still there, bound. It is with my lockpicks, I open the locks keeping the chains on them. The rattling of the chain seems to be enough to stir them. I think, I cannot leave them here. However, before I gather them up, I head to the grey wolf, who lay lifeless. I take his jacket and shirt off him. I inform my raven friend, “You kin indulge on the corpse if you wish. I will find my own way.” The prisoners are all rabbits, but are not much of a hassle for me. When I head to the police station again, the same officer on duty is there. He is surprised that I have returned. He says, “Tell me yeh’re all right.” “I am”, I answer plainly when I present the badger, now fully conscious, and might be even more terrified than he was previously. The lieutenant of the station house meets us, and speaks, “Well, well, well… Findley… I know Wickerson might get a word with yeh, per the lady’s request, but it is I who will make sure yeh make a Hames of defendin’ yerself in court.” He grins at the last statement, showing off his fangs. The black and white collie adds, “I can take ‘im from ‘ere.” I let go of the badger, who suddenly is in the grip of the lieutenant. I am just as quickly presented another three hundred pounds for bringing a criminal to the police alive. I return to the carriage, seeing that the rabbits have come to. I state bluntly, “You fell fer a piece o’ rubbish. The perpetrator is on ‘is way t-prosecution.” The rabbits express their frustration through punching and grunts, clearly knowing others to be victims of that badger. One of them says, “I did not know until seein’ the wolf we were ‘ad.” I advise, “Tell whoever you know, to not be taken by the same lie.” The second rabbit replies, “Thank you.” The three of them leave the carriage and head the same way. I sigh at that, thinking, They must be family. ----- Back at the inn where I stay, I have the lamp active whilst I patch myself up, looking at the mirror in the loo. I wash and disinfect where the bullet went through my shoulder. It has penetrated the flesh, but there is no bone broken or dislocated. Even so, I curse myself for erring like that. Next time, it could break my shoulder, I think. After adding a wide strip of adhesion to a wad of gauze, I work at the blood stain on my shirt, vest, and tailcoat. I am desperate to get that stain out. The cleanser works on my shirt, but my vest and tailcoat end up with an off-colour spot. I sigh, more out of weariness. It is late, and I have worked enough for one night. ----- (When I saw Clement get home right on time for dinner, I saw him a little worse for wear. I had seen him with a gun. This was something to make me suspicious, the beating evident on his face. There were short cuts, which I knew was not nothing; I had seen an abused pup. Unlike all past times when I avoided giving Clement my attention, my narrow eyes were on him most of the time we were at the time over dinner, which was a little better than what we normally had. (My mother spoke, “What’s on your mind?” (I didn’t like speaking to him, but this was one of those rare instances. I asked him, “Where did you get those cuts?” (Clement answered plainly, “It’s nothin’ serious, dear. Y-know that.” (I rebutted, “Bollocks. ‘Tis unspeakable if I get in a fight, but it is okay for you.” (Clement responded, “Fine, I was in a scuffle. ‘Twas me or them, and I won. Not important.” (I turned the tables by asking, “What about the attention?” (“What about it?” Clement asked back. “There are stories everywhere about street brawls and about muggings.” I didn’t like it; I could tell that he hid something. However, I just could not stand how persistent he had been before. I was willing to quit at his game, but I would challenge him again.) ----- I have David’s letter with me for a reason when I head to the hideout for Leigh-Anne’s friends, and upon entering, I see that the place has been made into a workshop of sorts. There the young’uns are, on their own activities. I see a fox kit and two stoats teaching themselves and each other to build—and the smell of sawn wood fills the chamber. What I see them making is beyond me. I see, not far from them, a calico, a tabby, and three rabbits reading together. On the other side, there are other cats and rabbits slowly drawing their own pictures of a tree. I just have to smile at how well they seem to get along Leigh-Anne, wearing her button-down dress, calls, “Vigilante!” I approach the opposite end, where she occupies a table, teaching something to other rabbits, along with squirrels. When I meet Leigh-Anne, she continues, “It is good that you came here; it saves my friends the trouble.” “What trouble?” I inquire. Leigh-Anne answers, “I apologise, Ma’am. I meant to tell you yesterday: there is someone watching you.” I do not answer to that. So, she continues, “I turned out to not be the only one t-follow you. There was some red fox in work clothes on the same train we were on. He followed you to the inn as well, but I lost ‘im when I was there. He must-a known that I wos onto ‘im.” Suspicious, I asked, “What work clothes wore he?” “A white work shirt and brown slacks with suspenders”, she answered. That makes me all the more suspicious. I have spoken to so few red foxes; it can’t be the same one. I tell Leigh-Anne, “I appreciate the warning.” She pipes up, “I must also alert you of someone. There is a badger in a black pinstripe suit in Solmil today. He has a distinguishing scar across his face, below his left eye.” Badger… I think, That must be Lieven. I ask, “Is he accompanying a wolf?” “No, Ma’am”, the rabbit answers awkwardly. She continues seriously, “I know who the badger is; Mr. Dolan told me about ‘im. If he is in public alone, he does not intend to stay long. In fact… he arrived just hours after the fox did…” She adds in a sort of chipper tone, “You should check out the fight clubs. They’re as scattered around the city as places such as this.” I kneel down and place a hand on the rabbit’s shoulder and tell her, “I appreciate this information and the warning, darling. I promise t-pay you a compensation fer yer efforts before I depart from the borough.” Where I head next is for the third con artist on whom there is a bounty. There are apparent warrants for her arrest, but the police seem too incompetent or afraid to bring her in. This con artist is a stoat, having cheated many out of their money. Where I find her is at a very traditional Glashish pub. I see that based on the games played in the middle of the day, and it is just lunchtime. On each side of the pub, a group plays a throwing game, on one of which a wooden bull head is mounted. I already have attention, wearing my blue suit and gold mask, as I seek my target. It is near the middle, a few tables to my right, I find the stoat in a burgundy business suit and dyed red shirt. That is her. She is known to cheat at games, but the warrant of her arrest is for pulling cons of taking people’s “investments”. Those who “harassed” her are dead. A cut of that money is probably what she has paid to contract killers, such as is apparent of the wolf watching over her shoulder. He has a brown pelt, a hole in his right ear and a gap for a scar running along the left side of his muzzle, the whiskers on that side missing. He is clad in a black suit, dusty-looking shirt, and a loose taupe tie. I can just see the muscle underneath that suit and a semi-automatic pistol in his sidearm. I approach the table, the brown wolf glaring at me, but still watching the game like I am. With each roll of the stoat’s dice, she continues getting a four, a five, and a six. All too suspicious. Eventually, one of the men playing against her, a white cat, sweeps the dice across, and I see them with the same numbers as before. The same white cat shouts, “I should-a known. Yeh’re a macer!” The brown wolf comments with obvious apathy, “I assume you’ve a problem with ‘ow the boss plays.” I stand by, curious of how this plays out, but I do have my left hand on the hilt of my left Khopesh. The cat shouts again, “Did y-not just hear me?! This weasel cheats!” I am wrong about the sidearm; the brown wolf pulls out a pistol from his trousers, pointing it at the white cat and replies, “That’s why she brought me.” As a distraction, I pick up one of the tin mugs from the table near me and lob it toward the wall with the wooden bull head, just narrowly missing the dog about to throw the ring. Thinking that the one at the table closest to him did it, he strides up to another dog and punches him in the snout. Through a series of attacks leading to a broken table and a broken stool, the entire pub breaks into a massive brawl. That is enough interruption for the white cat to grab the brown wolf’s arm and lift it up, the gun firing at the ceiling. The brown wolf catches the cat’s punch, and then kicks him. As he follows his boss to the door, I intercept, swinging my Khopesh at the mercenary. I realise something when I do so. There’s no blood from my slash down the back of his blazer. Before I can go for his neck, he turns around, to point his gun at me. With the hook of my right Khopesh, I tear into his arm, which makes him drop his pistol. The second he digs in his sidearm, I thrust my left Khopesh up his chin and he instantly goes limp. When I’m out of the pub filled with chaos, I need not look far for the stoat. She just runs along the sidewalk, forcing others out of her way. In a short run, I catch up with her and grab her by the neck. I lift her from the ground. I tell her, “You pulled yer last con.” She replies, “You’re right, but yeh didn’ guess this, sleeveen.” I understand that the second she pulls out a knife. Expecting that she plans to stab me, I toss her. I see the stoat rolling upon landing on the sidewalk. After that, she is not moving, at all… Upon approaching the stoat in the burgundy suit, I see that she is not breathing. I roll her over— And there the knife is, in her diaphragm, the blood hard to make out. Her unwavering eyes are blank now and her mouth his open. I think, Would she rather have died than face arrest? The least I can do is bring the body to the police. “What a shame”, the station’s lieutenant comments. “The Crown Attorney would-a loved t-prosecute her pretty li-ul arse.” He adds, to the sergeant, “Take ‘er to disposal.” Turning back to me, he hands me a wad, less than the amount for bringing that stoat in alive. He continues, “On a more sports note, Lieutenant Wickerson is in town. He told me men that y-might need help jus’ like we do.” “Let’s not disappoint ‘im”, I reply plainly. ----- Where I go next is not the namesake theatre, but to a fight club, which is in the south section of the borough, the industrial area. I had Michi bring me to one, and this fight club is inside an old storage house, now owned by a smuggling ring. It is evening. I have not yet eaten dinner. I enter the chamber to be welcomed by clamouring voices. I look around, wondering if I can recognise any faces. There is one face with which I am familiar: a bloodhound shirtless under his blazer. I have seen him do a contract for Jack. As I attempt to drown out the clamour of the audience and the thuds of fists and feet making an impact, I scan the faces… I eventually find someone of interest: a badger in a black suit and having a horizontal scar below his left eye. This is Giffard’s right-hand man. I wonder what this badger wants. That thinking is cut short by a man with a Glashish accent speaking, “Oi. Yeh’re blockin’ the view.” I head to a different side of the crude wooden slats making up the fighting ring. Another dog, wearing a ragged-looking blue suit, green vest, and white shirt, goes in the ring, howling, “Who wishes fer another tourney?” The crowd cheers. The dog continues, “Make yer bets now! The fights begin now!” That dog gets out of the ring. Within a minute, three individuals climb over the short wall. This is all planned; it has to be. Standing out among the three figures is a black wolf in grey slacks, and only gauze covering his knuckles unlike the other two fighters wearing the thick gloves. Not any ordinary black wolf. His paws and forearms are brown with a single white stripe at the end of each. His nose and ears are white. Brown fur covers much of his face with three white dots below each eye and white stripes on his chin. Most significant is his eyes, which are red… like blood… I watch him hold his own easily against the two brutish bovines. They could’ve knocked him out using one punch without those thick gloves. He can be a brute himself as I can see a hint of his muscle. He is fast to get to their sides and aim for their snouts, hitting with success. Repeating his plan, he aims for the eyes, and punches one eye on each. The wolf then makes a quick flurry of punches to one bovine’s abdomen before making an uppercut to the chin. As for the other: the wolf used the bovine’s fists to leap up and kick him in the muzzle. With both the bovines stunned, he grabs each of their heads and slams them into each other. Though I hear a lot of murmuring, I also hear booing and accusations. Another two enter the ring, them being stags, complete with their antlers. Both of them instinctively charge at the black wolf and he drops to the ground before they can impale him with their natural weapons. From that, everyone boos. The black wolf sweeps them and they fall to the floor. Both the stags are quick to recover from that. The black wolf then proceeds to stand in front of the one to his left, having them aligned. The stag throws two punches, both blows dodged before the black wolf straight kicks him and then spins to recover from making the move. I notice that the wolf has no footwear when he uses the same stag’s leg to lift himself and knee his chin. The other stag tries to charge him again, but the black wolf drops to the ground again, this time kicking the stag’s leg. The black wolf lifts himself quickly, kicking him in the side, and then grabbing the same leg. I can hear the cracking from him seeming to make it bend, the sound of which is suddenly overpowered by a pained cry. During the cheering and the insults, three fighters enter the ring: a rottweiler, a raccoon, and a dolphin. Unlike the other fighters, the dolphin wears only underwear, giving a hint of a bulge. It is the canine that engages the black wolf first, throwing a combination of punches, the black wolf countering the third. He then counters the uncoordinated attack from the dolphin, which only makes the dolphin angry. He performs two hook punches, which are just as sloppy. The wanker gets punched in the diaphragm, which only cheeses him off more. However, the dolphin is interrupted by the raccoon getting the black wolf from behind and the black wolf gets the sneak off his back, flipping him. The rottweiler kicks the raccoon away, so he can re-engage the black wolf. The rottweiler performs straight jabs, which are blocked, and he then performs a hook, which is more concentrated than the dolphin’s. In ducking from it, the black wolf moves to have his two opponents aligned again. The black wolf lets the rottweiler punch at him, to no avail, and then the rottweiler kicks him—only for the black wolf to grab the dog’s leg. With a growl built to a bark, the black wolf lifts the dog and flips him over the dolphin, knocking them both down. The black wolf barely breathes when four fighters enter: two of them being badgers, one a bear and one a wildcat. The badgers go at the black wolf at once, and he seems disinterested as he turns them and slams their heads against each other. The bear seems nonchalant as the wildcat leaps to the black wolf. He seems to have been caught off-guard as he reflexively blocks with his forearm. The badgers slowly get back up and go to his sides as the black wolf blocks the fast attacks from the feline. He already knows what they plan, for he forces the wildcat to the ground and dashes before the badgers land their strike. He hastily stops in front of the bear, letting him make his move. The bear has gauze over his knuckles and apparently favours punching over utilising his claws. Just when the black wolf seems to be surrounded, he crouches and makes a fast sweep with his leg before landing an uppercut to the bear, followed by a flurry of jabs to his midsection. Somehow already knowing of the strikes, the black wolf counters, grabbing the badgers’ fists and then forcing them to bend forward. He turns around to kick the wildcat, and then focus on the bear again. The black wolf kicks him twice in the midsection before swinging a hook punch to the muzzle. To finish him, the black wolf grabs the bear’s right arm and twists it. I hear both the cracking of bones and the bear’s groan. As for the other three fighters: the black wolf kicks each badger, each one of them at a side. He then kicks the one to his left in the chin, forcing him face-up on the floor. The black wolf leaps from the one on his right and lands his left fist squarely in the wildcat’s snout. The same dog announcing, enters the centre of the ring again, and takes the black wolf’s left arm to raise it. He howls, “Ladies an’ gentlemen! Our! Champion!” That is followed by more cheering and insults. This wolf impresses me, and I do not realise until the tournament is over that I am pressed against the short wall. I lower myself and let go of the edge. I hear chuckling from next to me. A Clachish-accented voice comments, “First time ‘ere, Miss?” I look to the side, seeing that it is an orange tabby. I answer, “It is, actually.” “We don’ see many women watchin’ ‘ere, let alone fightin’.” I ask, “Whot can y-tell me about this place?” “Used t-be some shipment storage, bough’ by a smuggler years ago. Anyone is allowed t-figh’ in th-ring. All figh-ers are manday-id t-beh on themselves.” Curious, I press, “What can y-tell me about the fighters?” “Most of them are just workers needin’ t-blow off some steam, not carin’ whether they win or lose. Of course, we got some muggers as well as mercs wan-n a bi’ o’ the action.” Seeing where the black wolf goes, his white ears standing out, I answer plainly, “I see.” I stride out of the crowd, not taking my eyes of the white ears. Being fast, I catch up to where he has likely left his things. I have my back against the wall separating me from the fighters. I hear a groggy voice speak, “Impressive.” I hear flapping of fabric as the black wolf replies, “Jus’ tell me whot y-want.” The groggy voice says, “I’ve been given verd of a nuisance to… freunde of mein employer. So, I need someone to deal vit it.” “What kind of nuisance?” the Symphonian-accented voice asks. “According to an informant, she is a vulf, using ‘ook-like blades, varing a blue suit. I believe dat zese freunde need protection. A pair of rabbits performing at Solmil East Theatre.” The wolf spits, “You need me as a bodyguard?” “If it is no trouble”, the groggy voice answers. He continues, “I vill avard you vit three tousand pounds if you slay zis vulf. A bonus on whomever t-rettens zem.” Silence. The wolf comments, “You must be desperate.” Pause. “You’ve a deal.” “Sehr gut. Zay avait you just outside.” So, that’s it. A way to seek mercenaries. I watch the black wolf, now wearing a brown tailcoat with black leather shoulders, head to the front door—accompanied by the black-suited badger. ----- (After the many times over the summer when I questioned Clement of why he sounded so weary when getting home and questioned him of whatever scratch was on him, I eventually found out something that didn’t answer, but led to a frightening truth. It was the middle of an August day, the sweltering heat slowly abating over the days. I was out of the slums of the borough, seeking an unsuspecting victim that might be carrying a right amount of gold. (The victim that I chose was a fully-grown hare. I was near his height, which made me think that I had a chance of outrunning him. I stayed close to that hare as I followed— (But I faintly heard something sounding familiar. I stopped in my tracks. I actually wondered which was more important: the money to pinch from an unsuspecting pocket, or a disturbance that needed investigation. I heard the same familiar sound again, and that was when I made up my mind. (I dashed into an alleyway, and the familiar sound became the growled words of a voice that I knew all too well. I slowly moved closer to the corner of the narrow gaps meeting, and I peeked from there, listening. A timid voice coming from a threatened dog said, “Please, I need more time.” (The voice of the man that I hated replied in a growl, “I’ve given yeh too many extensions, Lloyd. Y-know ‘ow much this irritates me.” (“I promised you years ago that I’d repay the debt, but I still can’t. I’ve a pup t-feed.” (The wolf holding him growled, “That is not my problem, Berk. You ‘ave money, and I am done wai-in’ fer it.” (I left the cover, and I got a view to tell me enough: the brown fur on the head and hands, the beige muzzle, and the curious green stripe on his neck. This was him indeed. I just looked in horror and disbelief as the timid dog confessed, “I keep as much as I owe you, on me all the time, and still I hesitate t-let you ‘ave it. I can’t let my pup starve.” He started crying; I could tell. I could also smell the metal of a gun. Its barrel was pressed against the dog’s neck. “I know yeh’re a good man, Clement; you wouldn’t kill an unarmed man who never harmed anyone.” (“If it is the only way”, Clement remarked. (“No”, I whispered. I felt myself choke as I added, “Don’t do it, please.” He actually hesitated. I managed to speak up, “Clement.” (He turned to me, and was suddenly as horrified as I was. I deduced that he tried to give me some kind of explanation. I spoke, now sobbing, “I can’t believe you… I can’t believe my mother ever loved you…” I turned and ran, blinded by tears.) ----- It is that time. After I have eaten my dinner at a pub, I head to the namesake theatre, in the eastern most area of the borough, paying for a seat to watch a play featuring the infamous Tirrell sisters. My seat is in the fifth row on the ground level, and I dare not take off my eyepatch, for it is a full house. I see all the red chairs in my range filling quickly. Based on the chatter that I’ve picked up when entering five minutes before the play is to begin, the theatre’s selling point for this showing is that Lauren and Rhonda each have major roles. They play enemies in this play called “In The Devil’s Arms”. According to the playbill, Lauren plays the cheating wife of a baron and Rhonda plays the wife of the gangster that’s the cheater’s affair. I watch the baroness played by Lauren closely. This rabbit has a silvery-grey pelt, a black nose, and dark-brown eyes. I take in the detail of the gangster’s wife played by Rhonda, closely, as well. She, too, has silver-grey fur, a black nose, and dark-brown eyes. They must pass for identical twins. I watch their scenes with utmost intrigue and listen carefully to their speeches. The story plays out well. It is the roles of the rabbits that I pay most attention to, thinking about the characters’ stories… Is this like the life of a stage performer? I think. I cannot believe my eyes when in the final scenes, the two characters clash. The two rabbits are dressed differently, but they look exactly alike. They also talk alike and sound alike. I am among the many to give a standing ovation at the curtain call. By the time the audience starts to clear out, I stay, hoping to get to the stage. Of course, I make mistakes when approaching the stage, being half-blind. I hurry to the door in the back, leading me to the short and narrow hallway. I go to the end— Only to hear someone bark, “Oi! Yeh’re not allowed back ‘ere!” I cannot engage a fight, not now. I cannot attract unwanted attention when unarmed. I say plainly, “Sorry. My mistake.” I have to wonder, though, if the Tirrell sisters saw me in that short moment. ----- It is just morning when I finally patch the small hole in my tailcoat and vest. However, I need more evidence that just words. That is why I just explore the town square of the borough, which is near the theatre. It is barely after I have eaten my breakfast, and already, I see a few street performers out, just setting up their improvised tents. I offer to help one dancer set up the poles as the skeleton supporting a large ragged cloth with several patches. She thanks me just when the guitarist that’s her partner arrives. I stay where I am, watching the tents get set up and groups talk about their plans or do some last-minute rehearsal. To my outrage, the two rabbits are nowhere in sight. I see all these performers and I see the audiences build up over the hours and still the Tirrell sisters are not there. I have looked around, and there is one tent idle, reserved for the rabbits. It is when I return to the square after I’ve eaten lunch, I see the silver rabbits at their tents. I see now why that badger was at that fight club. The red-eyed, white-nosed black wolf is near, looking stern. He is shirtless under the brown tailcoat and has a cane in hand. He is clearly not interested in what the rabbits have as their act. I look around more, knowing that none of the other performers have someone such as the wolf. That can only mean one thing. I look back, seeing the black wolf still at that tent. I take a long route, getting around the row of houses acting as the border of the square. Counting the units, I scale one of the townhouses, and I am correct on the first assumption on being right above the tent occupied by the Tirrell sisters. They just take a break, and I listen closely to what they have to say. One of the rabbits speaks, “You need t-lighten up.” The black wolf growls, “If you expect me t-play nanny, you should not be late.” One of the rabbits—I cannot tell which—replies, “It is not our fault. We couldn’t resist trickin’ a kid into a contract.” The black wolf snarls, “Tha-ull be the death o’ you.” “Which is why we have you.” I drop myself out of the sight of a pair of officers in uniform, and then peek over, thinking hard, just to keep my ears flat. The officers walk past. I hear the black wolf say, “Be that as it may, I am only in it for the money. What you do for fun is not my business, but I hate being lied to.” I scan the row, seeing the same officer pace on the same side, going only as far as three houses. I note that the rest of the officers go the full row. I have no time to think on suspicion as I hear another voice bark, “You two!” It is not the black wolf’s voice. I see a terrier stride up to the tent, barking, “Lauren and Rhonda! Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!” The black wolf speaks, “What d-you want?” “None of yer damn business, devil!” I can just hear that dog being grabbed. The black wolf snarls, “Say that again, cack.” “This is between me an’ the bitches; I din’ come t-fight someone they got on a leash.” Then, I hear a thud. After a groan, I hear the terrier speak, “You bitches stole my sister from me! You gave ‘er a folly contract and yer friend the cad in Manusdale got ‘er as a fuckin’ sex slave!” The black wolf says, “You still ‘ave t-go through me.” The terrier snarls, “This’s not yer fight! Get the fuck outta my way!” That’s when I see that same officer pacing the short distance, approach the tent. The terrier continues, “You need t-pay fer yer crime, bitches! No!” I see the terrier grabbed by the officer in uniform. Because of the terrier’s resistance, the officer knocks him out with his baton. I have my evidence, but I have no time to get back to the inn for my weapons. Furthermore, the new mystery is more important. I follow the officer carrying the unconscious dog into his carriage, which is parked just outside the square. I am hasty to get on the carriage, and I hold myself against its roof. I realise that I cannot do this for too long. The same officer has the reins and has the horse moving very fast. It is also a long way to wherever he goes, which is not the station, for I already know the route there. My fingers slowly get numb as I cling to the edges and press myself against the roof. I end up relying on my claws when the carriage is apparently out of Solmil and hurries to the bridge across River Numo. From the bridge onward, the speed remains constant as the carriage moves only straight. From the one road following the bridge, I get a glimpse of where we are. I can see the tall chimneys smoking, and of what few individuals I get a good look are weary or flushed. And this officer goes straight through this borough, to one with a small difference. The brick constructs do not fool me. This borough has its slums seeming to blend with the industrial shelters. I eventually let go of the edge, wanting to avoid falling when losing my grip. As I open and close my stiff hands repeatedly, I see the carriage slow to a stop— At the front gates of the worst hospital in Highcond. The carriage is right outside Carrie Agnarge Asylum For The Insane. Dread overcomes me, but I press on. I am behind the officer’s carriage when I see the officer restraining the terrier, having come to and now protesting. I see the front door open to a female cat in a frilly dress. She groans, “Another one already, Officer Reilly?” “He is crazy, darling. A loss turned ‘im.” The terrier barks, “Lies! Don’t believe ‘im!” The cat says, “It’s sadly not my decision.” “His mind could undo itself”, the officer states. “I swear, I will prove otherwise”, the cat replies. The officer chuckles, “Good luck with that, darling.” I can just make out the venom in the uttering of the pet name. Reilly… I hurry away from the property before I can be spotted by him. I call, “Michibiku.” The raven alights upon my shoulder. I tell him, “Get me a route back to Solmil.” ----- I take a carriage back to the Artists’ Land, and where I stop is at Leigh-Anne’s workshop. I go in, and see that the children are in the middle of dinner, telling me how long I had been gone. I approach the young rabbit in the burgundy button-down dress. I tell her bluntly, “I need a favour.” “Okay”, she says awkwardly. “I want to know what you can get on Officer Reilly. I want t-know where ‘e lives and ‘ow he does ‘is job.” “No problem”, Leigh-Anne answers. She then asks, “Care to join us?” “No, thanks. I’ll leave you to your… gathering… You know the inn where I stay. I am in room twenty-one.” The second I am outside again, I groan, rolling my shoulder, wondering if I strained myself on the route to Agnarge Asylum. I sigh as I take a route. More work to follow in destroying the clan.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.”
  10. What brought you to FLO?

    1. Venthas


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

  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.”
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
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