Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 10: Lone Wolf [old edition]

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NOTE: This is an old version of Inhuman, which is currently undergoing extensive revisions that include a stylistic overhaul and several chapters’ worth of new content. Stay tuned for the final version, due out whenever I finally slay the procrastination demon that’s taken up residence in my brain. (The bastard.) Meanwhile, please note that the following may not be representative of my current writing skills and is kept here primarily for archival purposes.

Out of options, Sean must go it alone and face a terrible enemy on his own.


— CHAPTER TEN —

Lone Wolf

Sean awoke slowly the next morning, feeling the cobwebs of sleep slowly dissipating as his brain started getting into gear. He kept his eyes closed; he could tell he hadn’t slept for very long as the lack of light and the absence of warmth on his nape and face meant the sun hadn’t yet risen for its morning hello through the window above his cot. He felt strangely edgy, and it took him several moments to remember why. The thought of what lay ahead hit him like a massive weight on the chest and shoulders …

He fidgeted as he felt something, an actual weight against his body. Opening his eyes, he was greeted with the sight of Aki’s beautiful face, her eyes shut peacefully and her warm breath ruffling the tatters of Sean’s torn suit. She was lying next to him on his cot, facing him with her arms up against her chest as she slept deeply. Momentarily forgetting what had happened, Sean quickly glanced around and was relieved to see she still had her clothes on. So they hadn’t done anything inappropriate the previous evening.

As he lay there, gazing benignly upon the gorgeous foxgirl’s resting figure, memory of the previous evening returned to him at last. They had talked at length about Sean’s self-imposed mission the next day until Kira returned from the council, having taken a curiously (and conveniently) long time to reach their hut. Sean had figured she’d wanted to give him and Aki some time alone to sort their dilemma out. She and Sean hadn’t spoken, the vixen’s expression heavy with worry whenever they crossed gazes. They all had gone to bed not much later after their usual bedtime, Sean and Aki lying next to each other on Sean’s cot to talk in private, conferring their fears and feelings in relative intimacy. They had fallen asleep soon afterward, taking solace in their company.

Now, Sean couldn’t look away from that pretty furred face, his eyes taking in every feature, every curve, every strand of fur, from her soft white cheeks to her cutely rounded muzzle, her eyes shifting sporadically beneath her eyelids, her ears giving the occasional little flick. She was so gorgeous … Even with the thought of what lay ahead of him weighing heavy on his mind, he couldn’t help but feel softened at the sight of her, at being close to her. The girl who meant so much to him … the girl who didn’t know …

Absent-mindedly, he brought a hand up and moved to caress her cheek, but he hesitated … he didn’t want to wake her up. He couldn’t. She looked so serene … like an angel.

He kept his gaze upon her for a few more moments, then resignedly tore his eyes away and carefully started pushing himself off the cot, making as sure as he could not to disturb her as he slowly got to his feet. He gazed at her for a moment, his stare focusing upon her fluffy tangerine tail that lied over her legs, then sighed and headed towards the entryway, shooting one last glance around the hut he called home. A moment later, he parted the hastily reattached entrance curtain and disappeared from sight in the dim early morning dawn outside. He didn’t notice Kira’s glittering eyes in the darkness as they followed him out.

Early dawn bathed the silent village in pale misty light and a seasonal cool, the air heavy with early morning humidity and a cold breeze blowing in from the south, where he’d learned the ocean coast lied beyond the horizon. Only a handful of early-birds were heading about, preparing for the day’s routine chores; Sean quietly tried to avoid contact with them as he slipped in between buildings and quickly made his way to the village outskirts, the acres of gentle grassy plain stretching out between the village and the Neyrin.

Confident the dark steely clouds in the sky would hinder sunlight for a while and permit him to make with his business without attracting any unnecessary attention, he quietly waded into the river, the water uncomfortably cold against his flesh and torn suit as he drew closer to the crashed pod. It hadn’t been more than two days since he and Aki had been there last, and yet it was already the longest time they’d ever spent without playing in river. Something about that felt oddly nostalgic to Sean.

He reached the pod and pulled himself on top, then slipped into the hatchway, dropping into the dank and gloomy interior. He turned to the back of the pod where he pulled a wall panel loose, revealing an otherwise concealed compartment next to the door where the umbilical once connecting with the Chartraine had been. The hidden compartment’s contents were just as he’d last left them: three laser rifles, three standard pistols and three survival knives, all lined up against the wall.

Sean grabbed one of the rifles along with a pistol, having decided in advance that he didn’t want to laden himself with heavy equipment for the task. Going in light with only the bare essentials was how his missions had always been executed, anyway. He also took one of the combat knives and slipped the midsized blade into a hidden pocket in the back of his suit. He’d learned the hard way always to keep a blade hidden on him at all times, especially when going into enemy territory. Its uses were unfathomable.

He checked hid equipment to make sure it all was functional; the weapons were waterproof, so there’d be no risk in exposing them to the riverwaters as he made his way back to shore. Confident that he hadn’t forgotten anything, he hitched the rifle over his shoulder, strapped the holstered pistol onto his thigh and sealed the compartment back up before hoisting himself back out through the hatchway.

He slowly made his way back to shore, his demeanor considerably slowed now at the realization that he was on the verge of departing for real. He felt somewhat shaken, but this was a feeling he’d grown more than used to over the course of his battle-hardened lifetime; he even came to relish the feel of nerves wracking his body, using it to put himself in the mental state he needed to be at his most efficient.

These thoughts of what lied ahead filled his mind as he made his way around the village outskirts, hugging the treeline in an attempt to stay out of sight in the continuing cloud-induced gloom and heading towards the north-eastern edge of the woods, directly opposite from the Neyrin. He passed by the orchard, hugging the low wall and listening to the myriad of birds creating their usual morning racket in the trees, the occasional disgruntled villager rushing in to disperse them futilely. He passed by the stables where the village’s few feral working animals were housed, most of them still fast asleep, others chewing drowsily at the hay and assorted fruits that adorned the stable floor. He came across the infirmary, passing behind the wooden structure and discerning various low moans and whimpers issuing from inside. Cries of help and suffering from the victims of yesterday’s attack.

They were the reason why Sean was committed to this.

He finally arrived at the point in the treeline where he detected the first hints of the Dark Riders’ trail; being an experienced tracker and considering how he already knew what to look for and where to find it, discerning the trail of broken branches and crushed bushes where the defeated Riders had rushed through in their inglorious defeat less than a day ago was quite easy for him. All he needed to do was follow their trail back to their home … and then work his magic. So to speak.

However, he just stood there, shadows shifting slowly across the ground as the clouds passed by in the skies, letting alternating rays of morning sunlight shine through like pearly drapes. Time went by and still, he did not enter the forest, just staying there like a vigil, not too certain what exactly he was waiting for. This was it. He had to go …

He felt more than he heard someone approaching from behind. Turning around, his expression registered no surprise in seeing Aki walking up to him, slowly ambling through the grassy outskirts until she stopped a few feet away from him. Her eyes were humid and glittering, making their brilliant blue all the more striking, and her air, though stricken and anxious, was one of resolute resignation.

They stared at each other for a few moments, the cool breeze blowing in between them and producing a loud ruckus from the trees, buffeting Sean’s uniform and making Aki’s fur, tail and ears waver lightly. Nothing needed to be said; they were both aware of what needed to be done and aware of each other’s feelings.

‘I’ll be back.’ Sean’s throat was dry as he spoke, doing his best to make his voice reassuring but fearing he couldn’t. ‘I promise …’

She simply gazed at him, blinking once or twice, whether from the wind or to squelch down tears, Sean didn’t know – then suddenly, she started forwards and threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his torso and holding him tightly, her breathing hard and ragged. He quickly returned the embrace, squeezing her caringly and running his fingers through her back-fur.

They broke apart, staring at each other as though riveted to each other’s eyes; then, his face grew harder with resolution and he turned around, striding into the forest, forcing himself not to look back, to keep his eyes on the ground, following the Riders’ trail, doing all he can to resist thinking any more of the poor foxgirl behind him, who stood there silently, staring at him with tears slowly sliding down her cheeks.

*

Aki slowly ambled back into the village, fighting the urge to simply turn back and run into the forest after Sean, or to break down completely. She had woken up just as he was leaving, the soft rustling of the hut’s entryway cloth pulling her from her peaceful sleep as Sean brushed it aside as he exited. Now, she slowly found her way home, keeping her head low and staring at her feet the whole way as to avoid making contact with anyone. She was in no mood to talk to anyone.

She arrived home to find Kira standing about next to her cot and looking lost in thought. She looked up as Aki entered and the two shared a moment’s stare, neither needing to utter a word to understand how the other felt.

Aki couldn’t handle it anymore and her emotions finally overwhelmed her like an overflowing dam; letting loose a heartfelt sob, she went over to her mother who met her halfway, and they embraced tenderly, the daughter seeking comfort in the older vixen, as though seeking answers to her worried questions. Kira had none to give, however, and could merely squeeze her fear-stricken girl in her arms as she rode the waves of her emotions.

‘I-I’m so w-worried,’ she sobbed quietly, her voice muffled in her mother’s furred shoulder. ‘S-so scared …’

‘I know … I know …’ muttered Kira into her desperate daughter’s ear. ‘But there is no-one … who I trust more than Sean to help us … to save this village.’

She placed her hands upon Aki’s shoulders and held her reassuringly, staring her in the eyes with a light of hope twinkling in her own.

‘I … I can’t say I understand why some things happen and others don’t,’ she said hesitantly, ‘but … I do believe that not everything that happens is an accident. Some things are just meant to be. And it’s a blessing that Sean came to us when he did. A blessing for this village … and a blessing for you,’ she added solemnly, examining her daughter with her clear, sharp green eyes. Aki’s eyes widened slightly, still glistening with tears. ‘Sean was meant to come here when he did. He is our protector, he was sent here to save us … and that,’ she added in earnest tones, ‘is why he won’t fail.’

At this, Aki’s eyes seemed to fill with fresh tears, these having little to do with heartache.

‘You really mean that?’ she whispered.

‘Of course I do,’ said Kira. ‘He is here for a reason … it’s clear now … and he’s here for you,’ she said sincerely, the slightest of reassuring smiles forming on her lips. ‘Just have faith in him, my girl. He will be back.’

Aki stared at her mother, her eyes shining with more than just tears, and pulled her into another hug, which the older vixen graciously returned.

‘Now,’ Kira said as they broke apart, ‘I need to go wash up.’ She paused before adding, ‘And, you don’t need to do any chores today. You can stay here, if you want … or go in the river, or in the woods, I know you like to take walks in there …’

Aki nodded, sniffling and wiping her eyes with her hand. ‘Thanks,’ she said softly. Kira nodded and rubbed her cheek one last time in a distinctly motherly manner before heading out the entryway, throwing her daughter one last glance over her shoulder as she left.

Aki stared after her, alone in the cool shade of the hut. She had no intention of hanging around the village, where others would certainly try and speak to her, either to ask about Sean or to try and comfort her, neither of which she was interested in. She briefly thought about heading directly down to the river, or to wander around the forest as her mother had suggested, but the memories of the days spent with Sean doing just those things made them impossible choices.

Come on, she thought to herself, growling lightly and shaking her head to try and clear her mind. He’s not gone. He’ll be back. Just have faith.

But faith without evidence was one thing she’d never been too good with.

Aki sighed and crossed her arms, staring around glumly. She had also never been good at staying in one place with nothing to do for too long. Resigned to avoiding the outdoors for now, she took to pacing around the hut, her feet scraping across the earthy floor, her tail swaying behind her. She stopped near Sean’s cot, eying the soft, slightly crinkled straw mattress where she and he had so recently slept together for the first time … and perhaps only time –

She shook her head roughly, irritated with herself. No! Stop thinking about that! He’ll come back, he always …

Something caught her eye, interrupting her thoughts. Something was protruding slightly out from under Sean’s cot, barely visible in the narrow gap separating the wooden cot base from the floor. Curious, Aki leaned down and fingered at the protuberance, discovering it to be loose on the soil. Tugging at it with her claws, she pulled it out, revealing a very worn-looking pocket-sized book. She instantly recognized it as Sean’s personal journal; she had noticed him scribbling away in that thing every now and again when he was alone or late at night before bed. She had once asked him about it but he’d just flashed a quick smile and evaded her question, telling her it was “just a little personal thing”. She hadn’t asked since, recognizing a private possession when she saw one, but now that she had it in her hands, without Sean there to tell her off … Should she …?

She bit her lip, eying the journal and glancing around warily. She knew she wasn’t supposed to, that whatever Sean wrote in there wasn’t for anyone else, even her … but at the same time, the temptation to catch a clear glimpse into Sean’s mind, to read his history from his own words, to learn more about him than she’d probably ever known, was growing too powerful.

Glancing around again, she found herself beginning to rationalize: it’s not as if he had to know she had read his journal, so what could it hurt? And anyway, what could she read that could be so wrong? She was just honestly curious, that’s all … No harm in that …

Gulping slightly nervously but satisfied in her belief that she wasn’t actually betraying Sean if she wasn’t really hurting him or anything, she sat down on Sean’s cot and flipped through the pages, examining the contents within. Most of it had already been filled in; her English reading and writing skills weren’t exactly great, but with the basics she’d learned during her childhood, along with all that Sean had taught her in the previous months, she had a good enough understanding of the basics to try and manage her way through without too much difficulty. His handwriting was remarkably neat, which only made her task easier; she imagined being a soldier and thus writing reports for his commanders must’ve played a role in his striving for perfect legibility.

She flipped back to the where the first entry began. Finding the date, she recognized the year 2511. 2511 … performing some quick rudimentary mental math, she realized Sean must’ve written this when he was only about seventeen or so. Only about a year older than she was now.

Glancing around one last time, she found the first line and started reading …

*

Broken branches, crushed shrubbery, imprints in the earth and the occasional tinge of dark scarlet every now and again on leaves and trunks; following the Dark Riders’ trail through the woods was even easier than Sean had hoped. Only half-an-hour into the woods and he was already making great progress, silently hurrying along the faint path through the undergrowth. He was now deep enough into the forest so that the sunrays barely broke through the canopy, with just the occasional shivering screen of pearly gold scattered across the greenery, sometimes flickering whenever a forest dweller scampered past. He was moving with military precision, subconsciously tracing every footstep before he took it to ensure he made the least noise possible. He wasn’t keen on any unfriendlies in the vicinity spotting him before he reached his target.

He kept his eyes peeled and his ears trained as he moved, partially to keep his mind clear and free of unhelpful thoughts and memories. Still, he couldn’t help but let the occasional thought pop up … always about Aki. What she was doing, if she was all right, if she was safe –

Of course she’s safe, he thought to himself with an annoyed roll of the eyes. I barely just left.

His conscience still wasn’t entirely satisfied, however, and he found himself reliving that morning, when he’d been lying in his cot with her, their bodies so close, her sweet innocent face as she slept so peacefully. Unbidden images of other things began creeping into his mind: leaning in, stroking those soft cheeks, her arms, her –

Argh!’ Sean yelped in shock and then pain as he found himself sprawled on the forest floor, having tripped over an unseen root.

‘Dammit!’ he growled under his breath, pushing himself angrily back to his feet, replacing his equipment and setting forth once again. He made sure to keep his focus on the task at hand this time as he ran, jumped, ducked and clambered his way through the thick flora.

The sun was at its apex by the time Sean noticed the woods seemed to be thinning slightly. Tree stumps, some new and some old, became more and more common as he progressed, and the ground bore unmistakable marks of being tread more often than elsewhere. Sean slowed his pace to a shuffle, peering through the trees and shrubbery. He noticed the air seemed thicker here, and upon a moment’s reflection, noticed that it was laden with pheromones and musk; the enemy villagers were also obviously in the midst of their heat, same as with his own people. The increasing potency of the scent told him beyond a doubt that he was drawing close.

Finally, turning around a rocky bend to follow the trail, he caught sight of a passage through the treeline, exposing a large clearing in the middle of the forest that held the telltale signs of habitation. He could make out various artificial structures that he realized were low-laying huts and hay-covered mounds, presumably dug-in structures in the ground. A momentary glance picked up several moving figures in the distance, though he was still too distant to tell anything apart with any clarity.

He slowly made his way around an imposing rocky outcrop nearby and carefully climbed to the top, crawling as close as he could to his target and making sure to stay shielded behind the vegetation at all times. His new position turned out to be an excellent vantage point, a dozen feet or so above the ground and directly overlooking the enemy settlement. Cloaked in the shadows, Sean trained his eyes and examined the new locale before him.

It was quite unlike his village in many ways. Whereas his village was out in the open on a plain with its wooden cabins, mud huts and sprawling pathways connecting them all, the Dark Riders’ community seemed to have opted for secrecy in its design, shielded from view on all sides by the thick forests and its earthly structures low on the ground. The huts appeared barely tall enough for an average person to stand comfortably upright in, indicating to Sean that the interiors must’ve been at least partially underground. The village was really rather unremarkable other than that, absent of any uniquely identifying features, other than the basics: a heavily used well in a distant corner, a small space for a handful of feral horses to stretch their legs in, and a slightly more onerous structure near the center of town whose appearance told Sean it must’ve been the town leader’s domain. Anthros were carrying on about their day’s work, their routine much similar to Sean’s people in their mundane nature: small repairs, logging, carting goods from one area to another, etc.

Scrutinizing the area, Sean couldn’t see any sentries or guards in or around the village, or anyone with any weapons at all. So, the Riders were so confident in his people’s cowardice, that they wouldn’t face retribution, that they hadn’t even bothered to post any form of security. Sean smirked slightly; apparently, this wouldn’t be quite as difficult or dangerous as he had feared.

As he surveyed the scene, he began to feel his determination slipping; these villagers appeared so similar to his own people that he almost forgot the reason for which he was even here, the reason for what he was about to do. However, remembering their attack on his own village and people, their slaughtering of innocent males, females and cubs, his friends and neighbors – and their attempted assault on Aki – instantly breathed new anger into the fire burning inside him, focusing him on his task completely. He had no intention of backing down now.

Giving the village one last overview, Sean grabbed his laser rifle and squeezed the grip, his fingers wrapping naturally around the rubber form as though remembering their rightful place. Returning his attention to his target, his keen eyes quickly mapped out the quickest route down through some undergrowth leading down a sharp slope, directly into the sidelines of the village. From then on, it would be a matter of simply showing his brute force and terrorizing these bastards.

Sean closed his eyes for a moment and taking a deep, steadying breath – then rushed to his feet and tore down the side of the outcrop, crashing violently through the bushes as though they weren’t there and holding his rifle high …

It was a wholly surreal experience. The laser rifle did its magic, dispensing bright pulses of energy shot at a delirious rate, creating a terrifying racket for all those caught off-guard. Beams of light cut into everything nearby, the high-powered projectiles of pure energy blasting the structures apart like a hail of miniature bombs, sending clouds of hay and earth flying into the air and setting fire to everything they hit. Flames quickly began spreading through the village, consuming the dry vegetative materials, engulfing huts and creeping along the grass along the paths.

Villagers ran in every direction away from Sean, their terrified cries hanging in the air along with the burgeoning smoke and particles of debris. Unwilling to take lives as much as he could manage it, Sean made sure to aim his shots at their feet and above their heads, sending them scurrying for shelter as beams of energy zipped past them like a demonic light show. They dove into their huts, only to rush out of them again when they went ablaze, stampeding through the paths between structures and crying in horror at this strange devil, the likes of which they’d never seen before.

After a seemingly disproportionate amount of time during which Sean had carved his destructive path halfway through the village towards the center, he finally met some armed resistance. Two enemies rushed out from around corners and charged at him with spears, only to meet an ignominious fate when Sean’s rifle shot them down before they’d even begun approaching him. Another one ran towards him from up ahead, only to be sent sprawling limply to the ground when a laser pulse erupted through his chest. More and more Riders started coming at him, armed only with their pikes; Sean blasted them apart in every direction, spinning like a top to align his shots with their vulnerable bodies. None even got so much as within ten feet from him before hitting the dirt in a mess of blood and charred flesh.

His progress was made surprisingly fast; more and more spear-wielding Riders appeared as the villagers finally started rising their defenses, but the more Sean eliminated them on-sight, the more those remaining seemed to hold back, taking cover and no longer daring to rush him. One threw his spear like a javelin at Sean, who narrowly avoided getting caught in the ribs and instead spun around and blew the offending feline’s chest apart. As he advanced, he made it his solid policy only to open fire at those who threatened or attacked him, deciding only to terrorize the rest without killing them needlessly. His rage didn’t extend to the levels of massacre. His training and battle experience had taught him to keep his head cool and to control his emotions, keeping his anger resolute and burning hotly as a fuel for his rampage without letting it engulf him completely. He had no desire of repeating such an episode.

Soon enough, he had blasted, burned and terrorized his way through the village towards the city center and he finally arrived in the small clearing, somewhat similar to the one back home with its circular perimeter and empty space suited for gatherings. Sean rattled off dozens of shots into the air, sending the predictable panicked masses spreading outwards from this strange aggressor. A few more attackers threw themselves at him, only to meet an impenetrable wall of laser fire.

Glancing around, he noticed the larger wooden hut nearby that he’d spotted from his reconnaissance post before the attack, its walls constructed of carved logs rather than thinner branches and dried earth like the rest of the village was. A large rack of antlers was fixed over the entrance, a clear indication that this was without a doubt the domain of the village’s leader. He started heading towards it –

Something hit him hard from behind, making him stumble forwards; furred arms wrapped around him, attempting to hold him still, and in the corner of his eye he glimpsed another Rider lunging at him, his spear poised –

Reacting instinctively, Sean kicked out like a jackhammer at his would-be captor’s ankle and produced a muffled crunch; the unseen opponent stumbled with a cry of pain, unwittingly placing himself in between Sean and the charging Rider, who was unable to prevent himself from spearing his comrade in the shoulder, eliciting a new choked yell –

Sean grabbed the shaft and kicked its handler in the chest, making him stumble backwards and lose his grip; he ripped the spearhead out of the injured Rider’s shoulder (new yell of pain) and swung it around into his head with a dull thunk, sending the crippled wolf to the ground. He immediately rammed the spearhead into the second enemy’s chest, then kicked him back once more, sending him to the ground on his back where he lay, writhing weakly, blood flowing from his chest and mouth.

A few more Riders were hanging back with their spears raised, unwilling to confront Sean directly; Sean kept his rifle trained on them as he strode towards the leader’s hut and passed through the entrance – but the shadowy, earthly interior was empty. There was a decently large bed in a corner and a desk or two, but there was no sign of a presence.

Sean exited the hut and caught sight of a Rider charging him; he lowered his aim and fired at the attacking rodent’s legs; a flash later and the weasel-type Rider was sprawled on the ground, his spear flying out of his hands as he clutched his shattered leg with a screeching howl.

Waving his cannon around in warning to the others to stay back, Sean went over to the writhing weasel, grabbed him by the neck and lifted the squirming and howling mustelid with one adrenaline-fueled arm, holding him at eye-level.

‘If you wanna live, you’re gonna tell me what I wanna know,’ started Sean in a cold, threatening voice, his left hand holding the weakly squirming male by the neck, the other pointing his rifle directly between the mustelid’s eyes, making the helpless Rider go cross-eyed to keep it in sight.

‘Where is your leader?’ growled Sean, motioning towards the abandoned leader’s hut.

‘I-I-I dunno,’ spluttered the weasel, his ferrety eyes and hesitant air giving away the lie. Sean pressed his rifle’s burning-hot nozzle hard into the weasel’s forehead where it immediately began sizzling and smoking, making the mustelid squirm violently and howl anew. Laser fire could heat the cannon up to several hundred degrees during use, effectively turning the nozzle itself into its own torture device.

‘Don’t lie to me!’ snarled Sean, pulling the nozzle back and keeping the gun trained on the new circle of scorched fur on the weasel’s forehead. ‘Tell me where he is, or I swear to you, I’ll give you more pain than you can imagine!’

‘P-please –’ the Rider gagged, scrabbling powerlessly at Sean’s iron grip.

‘Yeah?’

‘He’s – he’s –’ The weasel gave up trying to speak past Sean’s chokehold and merely stretched an arm, pointing it towards a nearby hut across the path. Sean noticed two armed Riders standing on each side of the entrance, acting as guards.

Sean threw the gasping anthro to the ground where he lay crumpled up, rubbing his burned forehead and taking deep rattling breaths, his tail wrapping around his ruined leg. Sean marched towards the cabin with the two guards, keeping other would-be attackers at bay with menacing swings of his rifle as he approached his new target. The two guards raised their spears, but Sean’s rifle was too fast and they dropped dead in a flurry of light and blood.

The hut was the first one Sean had seen with a door, made from branches tied together; one rifle shot and it was blasted off its hinges in splinters, revealing the interior. There were three occupants: a female ferret cowering against the wall and her two young kits, whom she shielded with her arms protectively. Sean glanced around but couldn’t see anyone else. He pointed his rifle towards the mother, who gave a sharp squeal of terror.

‘Shut up,’ said Sean sharply. ‘Where is your –?’

He never got to finish his question; at that moment, something very hard and very big hit him from behind and he was sent crashing to the ground several feet away, his rifle escaping his grip. Quickly shaking his head clear, he saw a massive creature advancing towards him, its ursine face one of fury as the colossal bear anthro reached for him with his lethal claws –

Sean quickly rolled over, evading the bear’s grasp, seized his rifle and instantly unleashed a flurry of shots, hitting the ursine in its thick legs; a splatter of blood followed by a deafening roar told him he’d hit his mark as the large creature crashed to the ground heavily. Clambering to his feet and still feeling rattled from the blow, Sean examined the massive anthro. There was no mistaking the leader’s identity; he wore a rudimentary cloak around his shoulders with a white ‘S’ painted crudely in its center, the exact same symbol as the one on the Dark Riders’ clothes when they had attacked his village.

Sean walked over and stood beside the imposing bear, watching the powerful beast grunt and whine in pain, clutching his bloodied leg. Slowly, the leader turned to look up at Sean, this strange creature, this human, presiding over him as an executioner with his rifle pointed in his face. The bear’s eyes, dark and beady, told of a creature who tried to make himself menacing whilst suppressing his own fear and pain.

His face hard, Sean reached down with his free hand and grabbed the massive creature’s cloak, yanking him up roughly and pulling him out of the hut into the street outside, the impotent leader forced to crawl along himself to avoid getting choked by his own cloak. Once outside, Sean threw the leader to the ground, watching as the bear gasped, his eyes wide with shock, at the sight of horror that his village had become, now engulfed in flames, the screams of panicked villagers filling the air as they ran blindly whilst trying to avoid the numerous bloody corpses scattered along Sean’s path. Sean couldn’t help but shiver as he noticed how similar the scene was to what his own village had been put through, only the day before.

Except, these people had brought it upon themselves.

Looking around, Sean noticed that many of the villagers had frozen in shock at the sight of their powerful leader lying helplessly on the ground, his leg torn and bloodied, the strange newcomer standing above him with his strange yet deadly weapon aimed down at him, ready to deliver the killing blow at any second. Sean glared the bear hard in the face; the ursine seemed to cower somewhat, perhaps recognizing his aggressor’s utter lack of fear and complete control over his fate.

‘Who are you?’ demanded Sean coldly.

The bear stared up at him for a moment, apparently torn between anger, fear and shock.

‘I am Charak, leader of this village,’ the ursine declared, attempting to make himself sound grand and menacing.

‘Charak,’ repeated Sean grimly. ‘I’m Sean. I’m from that other village. The one you don’t like.’

He had worded this deliberately to gauge the bear’s reaction, and he was not disappointed. The crippled leader scoffed, trying to sound taunting yet failing. Sean retorted with a hard kick in the ribs, eliciting a new groan from the ursine.

‘Yeah, I think you know what I’m talking about,’ he continued. ‘You don’t like them … so that’s why you try so hard to destroy them for no fucking reason at all. My friends –’ he launched another kick in the bear’s ribs, provoking a new grunt and a squirm ‘– my family –’ he stomped down onto the bear’s stomach, making the creature bend up and gasp ‘– my fucking home –’ he threw a kick at Charak’s injured leg, triggering a fresh spasm and roar of pain from the helpless enemy.

Sean leaned over and placed his nozzle right at the tip of the bear’s snout, watching the creature’s eyes zip back and forth between the weapon and Sean himself. They were both breathing heavily, Charak from pain and terror, Sean from the continuing adrenaline rush.

He leaned in and grabbed the hem of Charak’s cloak, raising the bear’s head so that they were only inches apart. ‘Now, you listen, and you listen good,’ he growled. ‘I’m gonna put this as simple as I can. Look around,’ he said, indicating their burning, smoke-logged, corpse-strewn surroundings with his rifle arm. ‘You see this? Believe me, that’s nothing – nothing! – compared to what I’ll put you through if you keep fucking with me and my people. If I ever see you again – if I ever see anyone of you motherfuckers ever again – if you even think about coming to my village again – then believe me … you’re finished. Every last damn one of you, your whole goddamn village, I’ll burn everything to the ground … starting with you.’

He stared the frightened-looking bear hard in the eyes, watching the scared creature stare at him breathlessly, eyes wide with fear. Sean slowly stood up, allowing his rifle to rest along his side on its strap, confident that he wouldn’t need it from now on, though keeping his hand on the grip nonetheless.

‘Do you understand?’ he asked the bear with cold calmness. The bear didn’t react, still trying to bluff his supposed lack of fear. Sean raised his rifle and blasted a crater in the earth right next to the Charak’s head, making him recoil as he was showered in dirt.

Do you understand?’ Sean snarled, his gun at the leader’s face. The bear nodded frantically, pleading with his eyes.

‘Good,’ Sean said simply. The chilling effect of his tone combined with their hellish surroundings only too obvious on the leader and those nearby.

The terrorized anthro ursine simply lied there, staring up at him, his breathing hoarse from his barely suppressed pain. Sean couldn’t tell whether the bear had truly learned his lesson, or whether the only way to end any possibility of future retaliation was to kill him right then and there … but gazing into the ursine’s wide and frantic eyes, he could see that the bear wasn’t about to launch another attack on his village anytime soon.

His job done, Sean turned about, facing the villagers who were half-cowering, half-transfixed at this horribly fascinating sight before them. The combined spectacle of this human, and especially, seeing this human terrorize their great leader so easily, so brutally, had obviously shaken them to their core.

‘Anyone who tries to follow me dies,’ Sean announced loudly, bringing his rifle to his waist and pointing it around and watching the crowd disperse in fear. With that, he started marching towards the village’s exterior, stragglers hurrying out of his way as he passed. Not one of them tried to approach him, which he took as a good indication that his message had been conveyed successfully.

None of them followed him in the slightest as he made his way out of the village, following the trail of bodies and carnage that made up the path he’d taken coming in. He took one last look back at the burning and wretched place as he reached the treeline, hitching his rifle behind his back, and proceeded into the woods, the trees soon swallowing him up and blocking out the flames and cries of the Riders’ wasted lair behind him.

He hated being forced to be the instigator in this particular confrontation; he’d been trained to attack specific targets with the help of his unit or, in rare occasions, proceed alone, but laying waste to an entire enemy base was unlike anything he’d ever even considered doing. He didn’t enjoy initiating the hostilities, but as he knew and felt so well, he’d had no choice.

The more he marched through the woods, the calmer he became as his heart rate descended and the levels of adrenaline in him began to lower. As he slowly returned to normal, he began to feel a wave of purest relief washing over him. He’d done it, he’d won; he’d secured his village’s safety for the times to come. Never again would they have to worry about or fear the menace of the Dark Riders. They were safe.

Sean realized he was actually feeling … pride. For the first time in his life, he was actually satisfied with a battle he’d fought in. This had been nothing like his years fighting in the Corinthean War or the countless minor conflicts in the years that had followed; those battles were always fueled by hate, anger, greed, power and politics. This was wholly different … this time, he hadn’t fought because he’d been ordered to, or because of fear, or retribution (well, mostly).

He’d fought for the safety of his home and those he loved.

The thought of this victory brought a slight smile onto his lips as he trudged through the woods. It was as if a multi-ton weight had been lifted from his shoulders: he was alive, his friends and family were safe, and he was going home.

*

The midday sun shone only intermittently through the barrier of grey clouds that covered the sky, keeping the shadowy interior of the hut pleasantly cool. Aki wasn’t noticing of the weather, though; she was lying on her back in Sean’s cot, staring absently at the ceiling with her arms crossed on her chest, Sean’s journal spread open beneath her hands.

It had taken her the entire morning to read through Sean’s entries, progressing as fast as her basic understanding of written English would allow her as she traveled through Sean’s past, from his early formative years in the Corinthean Military to present times. Even though she had significant problems understanding parts of what Sean had written or meant, the breadth and impact of his experiences gripped her especially hard. Several times she had stopped reading altogether, her mind filling with reconstructions of what she had read: a younger Sean fighting in the War, filled with anxiety, with hatred, with despair; Sean’s mechanical, mirthless, almost soulless, lack of emotions when it was announced that the War had been won; a Sean who remained cold and distant to everyone else except for his closely-kept Phantom Unit comrades, the only people with whom he shared any sort of a connection, a bond forged and strengthened through the years they spent fighting and suffering with each other … A Sean filled with wonder and serenity for the first time in his life as he came across Earth, and the anthros …

And Aki herself …

She hadn’t expected it, but the most difficult parts for her to read, even more than the horrific battles in his past or the suffering he lived through for so long, had been Sean’s numerous mentions of her. She had positively blushed as she came across Sean’s private confessions of his growing feelings for the cute foxgirl; they had basically felt like revelations of a truth she thought had to have been obvious for a long time. As though discovering that someone she had a crush on actually returned her feelings in secret …

She could feel her cheeks starting to burn again in the cool shade. She sighed deeply, bringing the little book up and staring at it as though probing its secrets. She had known Sean for months by now, spending the majority of every day with him, engaging in discussions ranging from humorous to more intimate, sharing their thoughts and their histories, in addition to regular “friend” stuff. After all that time, she had imagined that she’d gotten to know her human friend quite well … even though he was always heavily reticent and guarded when it came to his past. She had known he was a formidable warrior who’d seen many battles and gone through more than his fair share of hardships, but reading about it all firsthand in his journal, getting that unique insight into Sean’s own mind and heart … She felt like she suddenly saw him in a new way, as though a whole new depth to him had been revealed. This sudden increased familiarity left her feeling both newly infatuated and somewhat awkward – she still couldn’t shake the thought that she wasn’t supposed to know any of this and that she shouldn’t have been snooping around in Sean’s private affairs.

‘Hey, sleepyhead,’ came Kira’s voice from the entrance, shaking Aki out of her thoughts. She looked up to find her mother watching her, looking calmly appraising.

‘I wasn’t sleeping,’ said Aki evasively as she sat up on her cot with a groan, her body slightly racked from having lain inactive all day. ‘I was just … um …’

‘Reading?’ noted Kira, glancing at the black journal that Aki failed to dissimulate behind her hands. Aki’s ears lowered slightly and she flushed, wondering if her mother knew about Sean’s journal and that she wasn’t supposed to read it.

‘Sorta …’ she said, not meeting Kira’s eyes. She knew that her mother’s sharp eyes wouldn’t have missed her sudden discomfiture, and indeed, Kira’s stare was a little too intent to come off as casual.

‘Are you all right, dear?’ she said, taking a few steps closer. Aki glanced at her but neglected to answer; instead, she revealed the little journal to Kira, who took it with a curious air.

‘What’s this …?’ she said, examining the unmarked covers before glancing inside. She looked sharply at Aki, her face suddenly sterner.

‘Is this Sean’s journal?’ she questioned. ‘The one he writes things in every now and then? And, if I remember well, the one he doesn’t want you to touch?’

Aki cringed slightly in shame. ‘I’m sorry – I know I shouldn’t –’

‘Don’t apologize to me, Aki,’ said Kira dismissively. ‘It’s Sean’s journal you read when you weren’t supposed to, not mine. Just apologize to him about it when he gets back.’

Aki stared at her, suddenly looking hesitant. Kira looked slightly discomfited, realizing what she’d just mentioned.

Kira handed the journal back to Aki, who slowly took it and stared at the cover, losing herself in her thoughts again. Kira eyed the younger foxgirl thoughtfully, noting her absent expression and the way her ears were hanging and her lips were forming a slight, pensive smile. She was the embodiment of the befuddled and infatuated girl.

Kira breathed deeply, resignedly.

‘You have feelings for him, don’t you?’

Aki’s ears perked and she looked up at her mother, looking like she was trying to register what she’d said.

‘Sean,’ said Kira simply. ‘You like him … more than as a friend, don’t you?’

Aki’s eyes widened in surprise.

‘What? I mean …’

‘Oh, Aki, it’s okay,’ said Kira with a small smile. ‘I may be getting old – well, older than you, anyway – but I can still tell when people like each other. I see how you look at him, how you spend more time with him than you’ve ever spent with Nessi, and all that … It’s pretty obvious, dear.’

Aki stared at her mother, her mouth open slightly as she took these observations in. There was no hiding it after all; if she wasn’t even able to fool her mother, how could she fool herself?

‘… Yeah,’ she finally admitted with a meek little nod, looking down at the journal in her hands, squeezing its cover reflexively. ‘I mean … I dunno … I just … feel like we’re more than friends, somehow. More than … even mates.’

‘Mm-hmm,’ said Kira, still smiling comfortingly as she sat down next to Aki, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulder and pulling her close for a side-hug. ‘You think … maybe … what you’re feeling is what he … he said it was called “love”?’

Aki considered this for a moment. She had told Sean, what now felt like so long ago when he was recovering from crashing the pod into the river, about how anthros only followed their instincts in choosing a mate, that even the closest of mated couples didn’t consider each other to be much more than very good friends, albeit with special “benefits”. But Sean had told her about “love” … something more than even the strongest of friendships … He had failed to describe it; and come to think of it, Aki couldn’t possibly explain in words what it was she was feeling towards Sean … but she knew it was strong …

She nodded quietly, sighing deeply. Kira squeezed her shoulder again, as if to convey her approval. However, Aki still had worries plaguing her mind. If she actually did love Sean, whatever love was … then …

‘But …’ she said slowly, swallowing hard. ‘How do I know … I mean, do you think he – he loves me back?’ she finished uncertainly, almost fearfully, as though worried about what the answer might be.

‘Oh, I’d say he does, sweetie,’ said Kira at once, still smiling. ‘He may be human, but I see how he looks at you, too. I’m very certain of it.’

Aki stared at her mother, meeting the older vixen’s green eyes and seeing nothing but warmth and honesty there. Her eyes grew humid again and a smile slowly began forming on her lips …

However, just when she and her mother leaned in for a heartening hug, a sudden blast of wind blew into the hut, whipping the curtains and kicking up large amounts of loose dirt into the air, forcing the two female foxes to shield their eyes; jumping to their feet, they ran to the entrance and peered outside just as a large shadow covered the area in unnatural darkness, leaving a strange mechanical noise whirring in the air along with a sudden uproar of panicked cries …