The animal in man, chapter two

 

Windows. Set in wooden window-frames, set in a packed dirt wall.

My den. My… Mother’s den.

And light. Yinna’s light. Through the window. Fading. Golden.

Gold like your damn eye.

A door, also framed by dirt. A slit beneath where the light shone through.

Now I can dream. Has to be a dream.

Because you know all this is gone.

A figure of a fox-woman sat at the table in the center of the den, its back turned to Maxan, himself just a ghost. A disembodied, weightless eye. Just watching.

Mother always looked worried.

And look at you. You didn’t care.

Maxan’s eye saw a fox boy playing with string, some game half-remembered, on the floor not far away.

You should’ve cared.

The golden light in the window and under the door darkened, then diffused as though the world outside was suddenly drowned in water. The light writhed.

It writhed like… like…

Snakes. Black, orange, and red snakes. They slithered in through the slit beneath the door. They poked through the windowpane, melted the glass, left O-shaped holes that steamed. Trails of fire erupted on the floors, the walls, the table, everywhere the snakes’ bodies touched. Within seconds, the den was engulfed in flames.

No. NO! Not this!

The fox woman leapt to her feet, screaming, stamping her hind-paws, slamming her chair upon the snakes. But they slithered up her legs, across her chest, flexing and choking her. And burning. The whole den was ablaze and still the boy played with his string.

You fool! You’ll burn!

Your mother’s dead! Don’t you see!

Run! She died so you could run!

I did. It’s why I’m still here.

 

*****************************

 

“I’m… still here.” Maxan’s lips formed the sound, and the sound roused him. He stirred, his eyes closed, the clawtips of both his paws pressed hard against something solid. He realized he was not pushing against it though. It was pushing against him.

 

The orange firelight of his dream faded, and his eyes fluttered open, taking in the early-evening darkness of the collapsed beast pen. Yinna had passed while he lay unconscious and taken the daylight with her.

Yerda had taken her place. The bright day-star’s dark sister, Herbridia’s moon, dominated the sky overhead. The entire, distant sphere glowed. One could easily discern the dried-blood brown of its surface rock laced with white and gray that could be like snow. But Maxan found his gaze drawn into the colossal, gaping hole known as “Yerda’s Wound.” It was the enormous, dark crater that marred the moon’s perfection, and it could be seen so clearly despite the immeasurable leagues of empty space that separated this world from its moon. The ring of asteroids encircling her, called “Yerda’s Belt,” was also illuminated by her sister’s sunrays as she traveled away.

Maxan never tired of Yerda’s beauty. He never wondered about what had wounded her. To him, there was no value in looking to the past to find where things went wrong, no matter how horrible. One might miss the perfection of the present.

For an instant, Maxan believed that his shadowing of Yacub, his encounter with The Mind, with the strange warriors, the fox-woman, all of it had just been a part of his dream, and that he was, in fact, just staring at the night sky, perched on his favorite spot atop the guardhouse tower, entranced by the turning of the celestial sisters, one light, one dark, sketching away the images on his paper sheafs, to store away and most likely never have anyone to share them with ever again. But no. It had not been a dream. It had been real.

As real as this thing crushing me.

Something tugged at his waist. He tried to kick free of the debris that pinned him, but a spear of pain lanced through the thigh of his right hind leg. He sucked in a sharp breath and lay still.

“Oy! He’s comin’ to. This one’s not dead.”

“Get at his belt, and let’s be off!”

“Hold on. I think I can…” This first voice fell into a fit of grunts, and Maxan felt the weight of the wooden beam pinning his paws lighten with each. He joined in with the effort. Then the heavy wooden plank that had pinned him was up over his head and sliding down the mountain of debris where he found himself laying.

Before his eyes could register a clear outline of his savior - you mean the thief - Maxan felt cold metal against the short fur of his throat.

“I told you. We get the belt off the corpse and we’re off. But no. You got to go waking the dead. Now we’ve got to kill him.”

“Oy, let’s just go. We don’t need the case, we got his sword.”

Maxan fluttered his eyes against the swirling dust of the debris he and this thief had stirred, and he saw them both more clearly now in Yerda’s moonlight. Two rat-men, although one of them, the younger who crouched closest to Maxan and had been the one to lift the plank, could not have aged much beyond a decade. A rat boy. The other, perhaps five years older, was the one holding Maxan’s own sword against his throat. Neither of them showed any signs of being Stray. No stooping posture, no involuntary snarling of the lips, no slurred speech. More likely these rats had just been Western District rogues all their short lives, and the corrupt guards saw no reason to allow them beyond the central wall when the quarantine was first raised.

They’re trapped here. But they’re surviving.

“Don’t move. Don’t even swallow.”

He’s weighing his options.

No. He’s weighing a lot more than that.

“I could slit your throat, fox,” said Oy.

“You could let me go too.”

Maxan held his paws palm-up. He locked his eyes with Oy’s. The rat-man’s eyes were dry, jaundiced, and streaked with red veins. Within the darkness of Oy’s large pupils, however, Maxan saw the eternal conflict playing out in the rat-man’s mind. Life was a series of choices, many of them small enough, and even more insignificantly so. But some choices were immense. These were doorways that could never be closed once they were opened, and the paths beyond them had to be walked.

Maxan saw that Oy had no doubt by now made a series of bad decisions that had brought him inevitably to this collapsed and ruined beast pen, called by his curiosity and the siren song of opportunity for easy loot. Less symbolically, Oy was called by Feyn’s roar, which had turned the nearby buildings into an avalanche, with what Maxan assumed was his little brother, Olvy, in tow.

Maxan suddenly remembered a doorway he had refused to open, a path he had refused to walk nearly five years ago. The choice he made that night, not so unlike this night, in the alleyway nearby the granary not so far away, led to the path that had eventually brought him here. Maxan had refused to take a life.

He thought now maybe he should say something, to tip the eternal conflict in Oy’s heart in his favor, to help the young rat-man come to the same choice, but he knew it would make no difference. It’s his door. His path.

Be ready, all the same.

While Oy battled with his own sense of morality, Maxan’s peripheral vision was examining the inches that surrounded him, calculating the angle of the debris pile’s decline and the seconds it might take him to roll and slide and be up on his feet despite the throbbing pain in his leg.

But these were thankfully uneccessary.

“Olvy, get that scabbard and let’s be off. There’re Stray about.”

While Olvy obediently unlaced the cords of his swordbelt, Maxan glanced down at his right arm. The leather glove had been torn by a nail or something sharp in the debris. He saw his furless skin, pink and scarred from the fire, and he realized that choices led only to more choices, but there were consequences for everything.

The young rat clutched the prize to his chest and ran the pile of debris and disappeared into the night.

The blade of Maxan’s sword inched away from his neck as Oy carefully stepped back. Maxan thought perhaps he would speak again, some kind of triumphant proclamation, a kick in the face, a warning, or some combination of these, but the rat-man only turned and sped away after his younger brother.

Maxan breathed heavily with exertion as he propped himself up on his elbows. Some splintered board, cracked bricks, and loose nails clinked softly as he clambered down the slope of this mountain of twisted and broken debris that used to be a building. He came to rest on the dirt floor of the pen, the epicenter of the - what was it? A blast?

He scanned his surroundings while he ripped a shred from his recently torn cloak and did what he could to bandage the wound in his thigh. There was no sign that any encounter had taken place. Well, ah, besides the acre of toppled buildings, all of the hawk’s blood - the wolf’s blood too - must have been swept away with the dirt. And no sign of the combatants. Unless they were buried. I doubt it, though. I wasn’t buried. Neither were they. Maxan reasoned that if he and the others had been hurled against the buildings, which were themselves being thrown back by incredible force, then like himself it was unlikely they were buried far beneath the wreckage.

Feyn, out of all the combatants, had clearly been in the least amount of danger. The entire beast pen had collapsed, blown outward from the point where the white wolf had stood, then against, into, and through several of the attached buildings encircling the place. Every semblance of structure had been ripped apart and scattered into unrecognizable mounds of dusty, disjointed materials by what looked like a tornado. The only other thing capable of such pinpointed and instantaneous destruction Maxan had heard of was a meteorite flung from Yerda’s belt, and those were an extreme rarity.

So the Mind’s black robes are real.

Guess this is what makes them special.

Maxan saw robes the leaf-green color of initiates’ robes everywhere in Crosswall. It seemed their numbers had grown steadily for as long as Maxan could remember, having seen one in one thousand animal-men donning the initiate’s hooded robes when he had first fled to the city over a decade ago, to now spotting them frequently in every crowd throughout every district. These were the cult’s manual laborers, their couriers, their lowest level of recruits.

Actually being welcome through the massive oaken gates of The Mind’s one-hundred-acre campus in the city’s eastern district meant one had graduated to wearing a deep-sea blue robe. These were the Students, and their primary role in The Mind’s organization was to spread the cult’s influence within the walls.

They learned their messages from the extremely rare red-robed Scholars. Most Herbridians, including Maxan, believed this was the utmost echelon of the cult’s ranks, that it was the Scholars who philosophized and orated and archived whatever the latest deep thought was about the world and the animal-man’s place in it.

But some claimed to have glimpsed what they believed were the Mind’s true masters, the Principals in night-black robes. Maxan had not believed it. What, after all, made one Herbridian any better than another? Your ability to think and reason and contribute should not be measured by some colored swath you were allowed to wear. No, were commanded to wear.

As he winced through the pain in his leg and slid down the dusty mound of destruction, Maxan surveyed the carnage once more and thought maybe he was a little wrong. Some of us are better.

“No, Max,” he countered his own thoughts aloud, as he so often did. “Might doesn’t make right. See all this? Feyn - sorry, Principal Feyn - he tried to bury you here. He’s a murderer. As bad as Yacub, if not worse for all I know. To keep whatever the Mind was doing here a secret, he was willing to bury you - bury anyone - here, under all… this.”

How is such destruction possible?

“I don’t know.”

Why are you talking to yourself again?

I don’t know.

Yes you do. Same reason as always. You’re lonely.

“Hey, Max. What’s the first thing you’ll say next time you find another fox? ‘It’s just the light.’” Maxan chided himself, recalling how he’d reacted when the silhouette had him at the mercy of the twin blades pressed to his throat. “Rinnia,” he traced the sound of her name on his breath, remembering how the distressed hawk had screamed it and how the fox-woman had answered. The rest of the moments played again through his mind’s eye, up until the moment he had found one of those doorways and did not hesitate to open it and step through.

“I saved her.”

Did you?

“He flung her own sword at her head!”

You made a choice. You could’ve run. No, in fact, you could’ve followed orders. Observe. Report. Never engage. But you threw those orders away. You leapt in there after her. You sliced that damn wolf’s damn arm wide open!

He shook his head, his loud curses disturbing the stillness of the night. “Oh hell! I said ‘I’m Crosswall Guard! Lay down your arms!’ Quite the valiant warrior!”

A wailing howl sounded in the distance, freezing his blood, rooting him to where he stood. Maxan suddenly remembered exactly where he was. This far west, he should have realized why what must have been an incredibly loud crash had attracted only two rats and not crowds of onlookers. He remembered this part of the district belonged to the Stray.

One by one, more feral throats added their howls to the first. Maxan did not wait until they died down. He sprang into action.

And fell immediately over onto his left knee. His gloved paw instinctively clutched at his bandaged thigh, and he drew it back wet. He could see the red in Yerda’s moonlight.

“They can smell the blood.”

He heard a skittering commotion rising from his left side, nearby what had once been the pen’s entrance where Yacub had first emerged for the meeting. He knew exactly what such a noise belonged to, having witnessed a feral pack of Stray running at full sprint down this district alleyways at night. They were coming for him.

The rooftops!

Despite the searing pain, the adrenaline was already pushing his body ahead of his mind. He ground his fangs together, cinched the makeshift bandage tighter in one balled fist, and limped as fast as he could up the slope of debris toward the nearest building whose roof was still intact. Intact as far as I can tell. No time to reconsider!

The skittering of claws against cobblestones grew closer.

He made it about halfway up the precarious mountain of sharpened nails and splintered wood just as the first Stray crested the slope on the opposite side of the pen. Maxan could not help but turn to see what instrument of death this night had thrown at him next. For the briefest of moments, the beastial wolf-man perched on its mountaintop on all four of its limbs, what once were clothes hanging in tatters about its shoulders, its hot breath puffing in the chill night air. And its eyes, fixated on the fox - its prey - only twenty yards away, glowed the dull white of absorbed and reflected moonlight.

Used up all your luck, Max.

Just have to rely on my speed then.

The Stray wolf charged, and the rest of its pack followed. Maxan did not wait to take a headcount as he burst back into action, scrambling up the twisted heap of fallen building materials toward the edge of the roof that rose six feet over the mountaintop. It was high enough, it had to be. Or else I’m dead.

Five feet. Four, three, one more lunge!

The slathering, guttural groans of the beast-men were just inches behind him, their claws digging into the uneven terrain, dragging themselves up the slope after the fox.

There! Reach for it! No, what’re you --

Instead of grasping what looked like the steady wooden beam rooted deep in the debris pile at the top of the heap, Maxan grabbed the loose one and swung it down behind himself in a wide and wild arc, putting all his strength behind the blow. His calculation proved correct. The solid wood struck hard against the first wolf-man’s skull, who let out a whimper and toppled back onto the next two in his pack. The rest cascaded several more feet down the slope in a writhing mass of furry limbs and snarling, snapping fangs. Maxan had bought himself precious seconds, which he used to rise and stand painfully on the balls of his hind-paws, then leap as high into the air as he could and clutch the overhanging edge of the rooftop, pain in his leg be damned.

He dangled from the edge then hauled all his weight up, over, and onto the rooftop where he lay sprawled, his chest heaving, his amber fur matted in sweat. He stared up through the clear night air straight into Yerda’s Wound. He imagined that other Maxan-voiced fox-man that often invaded his thoughts living on that distant world, and right now staring up from that crater and locking gazes with him. He extended his arm to the sky, and formed a thumbs-up with his paw.

“Told you so!”

Something slammed hard against the wall beneath his rooftop haven, then set to scratching at the wood. Then another impact, and more scratching. The growling resumed, more furious than before. If the wolf-men had not been Stray, if they still had mental faculties, the ability to stand upright, and the desire to see this chase through to a bloody conclusion, then Maxan would surely be dead.

Probably best not to test the Strays’ environmental adaptability.

Agreed.

Once again, the rooftops of Crosswall proved to be Maxan’s truest friends and protectors. He painstakingly rose on his hind-paws and limped away. There would be no more running or climbing for this fox for quite some time, it seemed.

 

*****************************

 

 

The bedroom door crashed open in front of the forceful kick Rinnia gave it. Sarovek could not afford to pay for wasted time with any more drops of her blood. Muttering curses, she heaved the semi-conscious hawk knight (and the heavy plate armor she wore) toward the large bed in the room’s center and gradually let her fall on her back atop the sheets, careful to extend the delicate bones of the hawk’s wings into their matching grooves in the back of her armor.

 

“Saghan!” The house rule was to come and go as silent and still as air through a cracked window (her master’s very own words, in fact), but rules be damned. Rinnia had called her brother’s name a dozen times at the top of her lungs since she first entered the main hall on the floor below. However unlikely it was Saghan would take in the bloody sight of their wounded sister with one of those shrugs Rinnia grew to hate, he would at least have helped to haul the hawk up the staircase to her quarters.

“He’s not here.” She reasoned aloud. So she was not the only one disobeying Master’s rules and orders.

Because bypassing the traps and triggers of the house’s main entryway had proven tedious and time-consuming, Sarovek could not afford her panicking now. She would have to find Saghan’s spare vials of panacea. But first…

“Sarovek, can you hear me?”

“Yes.” The hawk’s eyes remained closed, and her voice was a labored whisper.

“I’m going to get panacea. I want you to focus on unstrapping this bloody, ridiculous armor you insist on wearing until I get back. Can you do that? Hey! That’s right. Here’s the strap. Give me your other talon. Good. Get to work. I’ll be right back.”

The hawk-woman worked the first buckle at her shoulder out of its loop, then slid her talons across her chest to the next.

Satisfied this task could keep her friend in a minimal state of consciousness, Rinnia dashed out of the room and  headed for Saghan’s quarters. The house was immense, being one of the tallest structures in Crosswall’s western district. Some lord’s house who had gone to war to exterminate the insects decades ago. Though expensive beyond measure in Leoran estimation, the cost was negligible for the brotherhood, and offered a secure base of operations whenever affairs brought them to this sprawling city. The traps and false panels they had built into the house had done well to spread the rumor of it being haunted. Neither the Stray nor the desperate had tried to get in during this past year of quarantine.

She arrived at the nondescript wooden panel that served as the secret door to Saghan’s room, recalling how they had once returned here a few years ago and found a severed, rotting calico cat’s tail in this very spot in the hallway, confirming that the traps - most of them - had worked as designed. The intruder had taken her legs with it, as the dried trail of blood indicated, straight out the way he or she had ingressed, but left the tail behind. Rinnia remembered how her brother had picked it up, smirking. “One down, as many as eight left to go.”

Rinnia reached up and touched the low ceiling where the panel ended, pushing the disguised buttons in the correct sequence with the tips of her claws. She heard the snap in the wall behind her, indicating that the hidden scythe blade would not be swiping at her legs, and then she pushed the panel into the hidden passage beyond.

Her brother’s room was impeccably clean, as always. Every book or bauble was arranged in meticulous classifications of use and utility. The blankets and sheets of his bed were smooth and level. The books on chemistry, physics, and thermodynamics were arranged by the color of their leather spines, and the thin sets of swords and daggers displayed on the wall rack followed some perfect calculation Saghan made of their centers of gravity and balance. A few of these blades were missing, as was the finely crafted armor from its stand.

But Rinnia had no time to waste on sorting out the clues of his absence. Saghan was not here, that was all, and she would think on it later. For now the panacea, and her sister Sarovek.

She saw Saghan’s vial satchel hanging from its peg across the room, the line of its hardened-leather top perfectly parallel with the angle of the floor. Rinnia took the most direct course to it, of course, scrambling across her brother's bed, tearing the bag from its peg, and dumping its contents on the rumpled blankets.

“Where are you?” Whether she was asking the vial of crushed pink Drakoran flower buds she frantically searched for among the multicolored pile, or her absent brother, Rinnia did not know. Perhaps both.

And she found the answer to both. She gripped the only remaining pink panacea vial in Saghan’s collection at the same time she noticed all his green vials of bane were missing.

Another clue that would have to wait. She ran back through the corridors and bounded up the staircase quickly (but not so quickly as to step on the eighth and eleventh stair) to Sarovek’s room.

The hawk lay as Rinnia had left her. The fox-woman’s blood-stained cloak - which she had held against Sarovek’s side as she carried her all this way through the Western district’s side alleys, less to staunch the blood and more to prevent the blood from leaving a trail - had fallen away from her side, and red now flowed in rivulets down the shining plate. Her chest, covered as it was by the solid metal armor, gave no indication of rising and falling, but Rinnia could hear the faintest intake and exhalation of breath through the hawk’s beak. Sarovek was alive, but she had lost consciousness during the unfastening of the third buckle just above her waist.

Rinnia frantically finished the job then peeled away the heavy layer. It fell with a clang on the floorboards. Like the blankets on the bed, the quilted padding and white linen beneath the armor were soaked in crimson. Rinnia unsheathed one of her short swords from its scabbard at her lower back and expertly, painstakingly, sliced up the side of this fabric to reveal the numerous leaking wounds the hyena’s hideous weapon had put in the side of her dearest friend.

“Oh sister,” she whispered. She wanted to cry. Yacub’s weapon was not meant to deal death, but pain. Anguish. Suffering. The sole purpose of that sword, if one could even call it that, was to bleed its victims slowly. It was curved like a devil’s smile, with jagged devil teeth that thirsted for blood. She hated it, and she hated him. While she was also trained in killing, she hated herself a little more with every life she ended.

“But I would be happy to rid this world of him,” said Rinnia, as she carefully worked the cork off the small vial of pink powdered panacea. With one arm, she gently rolled Sarovek onto her side and lifted a line of the hawk’s quills to inspect the wound. She counted seven holes, all in a straight line, each the size of her her claw-tip. She tapped the powder out of the vial over each hole, where the medicine sizzled for a few seconds, then cauterized the opening. Within a minute, the wounds in Sarovek’s side were completely closed.

Only after stripping her sister more thoroughly, dressing her in fresh bandages, and administering an intravenous medicine drip (cursing more than once at how hard it was to find a Corvidian’s veins beneath all the feathers!) did Rinnia finally let her sword belt drop to the floor and her exhausted body slump into Sarovek’s favorite cushioned chair. She began piecing together all that had happened today and all that would have to happen tonight.

Saghan was not here. Why? How long had he been gone? Why would he not be here right now as father had ordered? Just thinking of questions would get her no answers. They rushed at her from all angles. She needed to hear them one by one, aloud, though she had tried to break that bad habit.

“Why would he leave?” she said, her eyes fixed at some point on the wall, her thin paws tapping their claw-tips together in a steady beat. She repeated this once more.

And the answer came right away.

“He was shadowing us! He wanted to go, but father would not allow it. Stupid, stupid Saghan! He followed us. He was there. I know it.

“Why didn’t he help us after that damn wolf brought the whole place down on us?

“No. Please don’t let it be true. But it is true. Saghan left us for dead.

“Why?

“Because… Because…”

The realization was horrible, beyond utterance. She did not hate Saghan. As loathsome a creature as he had let himself become, she could not hate him. He was her brother. She pitied him. She knew how much pain he felt whenever control of his own life was stripped away. Like a puppet, whipped with his own strings. And the look in those slitted eyes when it happened belonged not to Saghan, but to the puppeteer.

“No. Saghan would not have left us to die. He would have helped me, helped you, Sarovek, I know it.”

The unconscious hawk-woman said nothing, her chest rising and falling rhythmically, her steady breaths whistling through the slight part in her beak. Rinnia returned to her self-interrogation.

“But that still does not address what… So he lost control. Why and when are not important. But why he left us is. What did he have to do? Where did he have to g--

“NO!” Rinnia sprang to her hind-paws, remembering what Yacub had whimpered to Feyn.

“He overheard the hyena give the wolf the location, where he’s keeping it.”

She belted on her short swords as she sprinted to her own room for a fresh cloak, then to the top floor and the trap door, adding the times in her mind while her body moved automatically. It had taken her nearly one hour to carry her blood-soaked, heavily armored hawk friend over her shoulder back to their house, another half hour to tend to her wounds, and five to think. She accounted for the extra time it would now take her to inquire about such a stupid inn’s name from the locals. To her, it all equaled a high probability Saghan - who was well equipped - would be there already, and  that the stupid fox - the one with the strange eyes who risked his life for her, yet who still stuck his stupid nose into an event of such magnitude he could never possibly comprehend - his chance to survive the encounter was abysmally low.

“So I must act.” Rinnia muttered this, the brotherhood’s third term, as she carefully untethered the shard-bomb device from the latch of the trap door then very uncarefully flung the door open, revealing a clear night sky full of twinkling stars. Yerda, her belt, and her wound dominated the stunning view she did not pause to admire, however.

Rinnia did not necessarily hope the idiot fox had died in Feyn’s force blast, but she did concede the fact it would have been a more merciful fate than the one that surely awaited him at The Auroch’s Haunch. “Stay away, you fool.”

She forgot to reset the booby-trap as she bolted into a sprint across the Crosswall rooftops, faster than she had ever run before.

 

*****************************

 

 

As was his habit, Maxan had been carrying on the conversation with himself for quite a while as he plodded along the rooftop beams and balconies back toward the center of the city, attempting to answer just a single question: What should I do?

 

At this very moment, he could picture the armed and armored guards badgering their captain Chewgar. “The Shadow’s not back,” they would argue. “Caught by the Stray, finally,” they would reason. And no doubt they would add a whispered “what he deserved, the bastard” or two. And Chewgar would smile at these chides in that friendly and gentle way he had, which somehow never ceased to unsettle and terrify his subordinates. (They had all seen what the rhino was capable of.)

At this very moment, if not already, Feyn - the only one from the encounter Maxan was sure had not been buried - would have gone somewhere to nurse the nasty new scar Maxan had carved into his arm. As Maxan knew quite well, and as this night had already reminded him, walking the alleyways and avenues of the Western district at night with an open wound would not attract the helpful sort attention, and he doubted Feyn was much of a climber.

And what of Yacub and the hawk? And the fox-woman? Again, assuming they had not been entirely consumed by the churning storm of the district’s former structures, they were no doubt in just as much need of repair. The mysterious and well-armed newcomers at the meeting would not dare try to seek the Auroch’s Haunch with those injuries, expecting to take on or sneak by a wild pack of hyena raiders. Maxan remembered overhearing Yacub’s final orders to them: to meet him back there.

“What a terrible name for an inn,” he muttered.

He came to a stop over a wide avenue and crouched as low as his wounded thigh would allow to scan hundred or more figures that packed into the space below. Most of them huddled in piles against the boarded up shops and houses for warmth, but many still stood in packs around braziers or makeshift fires, conversing or commiserating quietly into the night for companionship. This was what happened when you force an immense portion of a population into an enclosed space, made even more enclosed by the feral threats lurking on all fours only a few blocks further west. Maxan knew already how crammed every interior of every building in the Western district already was, so the figures in the street below had no other choice but to sleep in the open.

There was so much injustice in Crosswall. So much hunger and desperation. All Maxan wanted was to protect those who could not protect themselves, but he was no fighter. Pretty much proved that to yourself again earlier. So perhaps he was no protector like Chewgar or the other guards, but as a shadow he thought of himself as a preventer. If he could prevent the violent elements and instruments from entering this city, then maybe he could prevent an innocent from being harmed.

But all too often, they were harmed anyway. And all too often, the attackers did not even have to be Stray. The idea that a feral, beastial creature had no capacity to think and reason and feel was, to Maxan, just a natural law. But what of Yacub? What of thieves, and murderers, and corrupt guards and nobles and kings? Their hearts were far darker than any Stray’s.

Hatred, disdain, and apathy made them the worst enemy of all.

All of these people could be dead tomorrow. Or tonight.

That’s ridiculous. It would take an army of Stray striking all at once. They can’t be organized. They don’t follow a banner. They’re just… beasts.

Not the Stray. The King himself.

What if the Leoran King suddenly decided that this affliction was incurable? That a Herbridian who had gone Astray could never be found again? What, exactly, was stopping the hands holding the torches from setting the whole Western district on fire?

Maxan knew the answer. He reached into the front pocket of his shirt and found the badge with the triangular sigil. “The Mind,” he answered aloud. Many spoke of how they believed the Mind was working to stimy the spread of whatever made Herbridian species go Astray, but some whispered about how it had been the cult that brought the plague upon Leora and the other kingdoms in the first place, as an experiment or a kind of purge, not as overt as the Thraxian Extermination, but to nonetheless accomplish a similar end. Fewer still, whispering in even quieter tones, had claimed to witness the cult’s armed servants trapping and carting off Stray in the dead of night.

We are not soldiers. We are students. We are scholars.

Maxan heard Principal Feyn’s words again on the wind, and the most obvious question of all came to him with such force that he could not help but stand and speak it aloud despite the throbbing pain in his leg.

“What did he want with Yacub’s red light?”

No. Don’t. I know what you’re thinking.

I’m thinking I have the chance to do something. Right now.

No, Max. Observe, report, never engage.

“What could be so terrible that it would make a bloodthirsty raider like Yacub suddenly see the error of his ways and seek forgiveness? Huh? He was scared of whatever that thing made him do. And Feyn wanted it, enough to kill me, and everyone.”

Maxan’s duty this night was not over yet. There was still more to observe, more questions that he needed to answer. And, even though he had not realized it until now, his hind-legs had already carried him within sight of a swaying wooden sign depicting in flaking gray paint the flank and backside of the most common burden-beast in Leora, the auroch, swishing its tail futilely against the swarm of flies that it attracted. Perhaps it was that other Maxan - that inner voice he spoke quietly with when he needed to reason or search his heart for the right feeling - that had guided him here without his awareness. Maxan allowed a slight smirk to spread on his lips as he leaned over and quickly scanned the facade beneath him for the holds that would enable his descent.

You’re welcome, that other fox thought. Just don’t be an idiot and get us killed.