Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 8: The Dark Riders [old edition]

| »

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.

A new menace arises, forcing Sean to put everything on the line to protect his new life and those in it.


— CHAPTER EIGHT —

The Dark Riders

Sean’s heart was thumping in his ears as he sprinted through the streets and around corners, the injured bodies of the would-be aggressors all but forgotten in that shadowy alleyway behind him. He looked around in all directions, trying to catch a hint of what was happening, or who had yelled, yet the few people in the area were all running for cover, ducking into alleys or making a hurried beeline for their homes, disappearing into the gloom behind their curtains before Sean could get a hold of them. There was an unmistakable aura of tension and fear about them, as though they were running from something – but what?

He was running into an intersection when something large burst out from around the corner, crashing into him before he could avoid it and sending him on his side rather painfully. His head swimming from the impact, he reflexively sprang to his feet and glared upwards at what turned out to be a tall auburn-furred horse-woman who looked as surprised and winded as he was.

‘S-Sean? What’re you doing there?’ she said with a dismayed neigh, looking frantic.

‘What’s going on?’ he demanded urgently.

‘Didn’t you hear? They’re coming!’ the mare cut across him without listening, her voice stricken with fear. She dashed past him and scurried into the nearest hut, vanishing in the darkness behind the curtain. Sean stood there, his mind confused and racing as he watched as more and more anthros started running by, all in the same direction and all looking terrified as they sprang for their homes like mice scurrying from a roaming cat. Sean was particularly struck by the fear and alarm that gripped them; he had never seen them like this before.

As he stood there like a pillar in the middle of a flowing river of frightened villagers, feeling almost stunned as he stared around at the chaos that overtook the community, his ears suddenly perked and he was chilled to the bone as the air suddenly filled with the mounting chorus of commotion and panic: a low, muffled rumble of a stampede reverberating through the ground as a ghastly crescendo of screams arose from somewhere across the village. Alarmed out of his stupefied confusion, he leapt forth, running in the opposite direction as everyone else and fighting the tides of villagers coming from the village center and whatever was going on.

He finally pushed his way through the hectic crowds and emerged into the clearing at the village square, currently overrun with sheer panic and terror. It was hard to make anything out in the chaos; villagers rushed past all around him, running into nearby buildings and dispersing through alleyways as screams and shouts resonated in the air like the wails of banshees. Looking around frantically, he finally caught sight of something unusual – something wrong. Very wrong.

His jaw dropped; his heart momentarily seized.

Demons had descended upon the village. Dark shapes were erupting into view from across town square, flooding in from the streets and quickly dispersing around with alarming speed. They stuck out clear as anything in the bright midday sun: unnaturally tall and dark, the portrait of menacing. Blessed with rapid visual examination skills from his training and experience, Sean could instantly tell just what he was looking at: anthros, clothed in woodsman-style tunics and loincloths that were as black as their fur, rendering it difficult to distinguish between species and individuals. They were coming in on horseback, the distinct rumbling of hooves audible over the cries of the villagers as they rushed to get out of the way, the unlucky ones being trampled like insects. The invaders ran through, wielding long wooden spears that they handled with lethal precision, jabbing at anyone within their reach. In no time at all, they had filled the clearing, running around like bringers of death and creating utter confusion in the already terrorized crowd. As they rode before Sean’s bewildered eyes, he noticed that all had the same marking on their chest: a sort of crude symbol resembling an ‘S’ in strokes of red paint, reminiscent of a serpent.

Sean merely stood there, looking on in mounting horror at the chaos around him. It all flashed before his eyes: villagers being run over by the attacking forces’ steeds, horse-riders crashing through huts and tearing them down as though they were made of straw, the villagers’ terror written plainly on their faces as they ran in every direction like mindless vermin, trying desperately to escape the deadly thrusts of the enemies’ spears as they rode about, indiscriminately killing anyone within reach.

Suddenly, everything flashed and he gasped; for all of a sudden, the mounted attackers had been replaced by armored vehicles, rolling through the streets and chasing after the panicked hordes of civilians who dodged and bolted in every direction, attempting fruitlessly to avoiding being struck by the dazzling array of laser beams that streaked the air like a demented light show, lighting up the crumbling facades of surrounding buildings, shadows dancing like demonic spirits in the light emitted from the many fires that consumed so much of the city, screams of terror ringing in the air, hanging unnaturally long, growing louder and louder –

A white and tangerine-furred face, beautiful and feminine, those large, amazingly blue eyes that glistened brightly as she stared at him, gazing right into his soul …

Aki.

He came to his senses with his heart filling with fear and rage; without taking the time to think, he took off, running around haphazardly, trying to catch any sign of a distinctive red-orange coat in the crowd, or that bushy white-capped tail; bumping into several villagers as they rushed by, blocking his view, he suddenly found himself before one of the horse-riders, its darkly glinting eyes staring down at him as it moved to thrust its spear into Sean’s chest –

Without thinking, Sean quickly spun aside, the sharpened wooden pole missing him by inches – as if in slow motion, his hands and arm found it almost automatically and a single fluid motion wrenched the shaft out of the aggressor’s grip – swinging widely, the lance caught the rider right across the chest and it shattered, sending the attacker falling backwards off his mount and crashing onto the ground in a mangled mess of limbs and cloth –

Sean stepped in and barely glanced at the fallen enemy’s face – it appeared to be a wolf with his fur painted black, yellow eyes staring up at him as though in fear – before he struck the splintered end of the shaft into the downed enemy’s throat, the sharp wood sinking in with a satisfying crunch and splattering blood over the dark fur –

In the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something bearing down upon him; he threw himself out of the way, rolling to his feet as another dark horse-rider rushed past, his swinging spear slicing through the air where he had been less than half-a-second previously –

As he clambered upright, the broken spear still in his hand, he froze at what next caught his eye: a short distance away, a familiar-looking young cheetah was backing away in terror as a horse-mounted attacker rushed towards her; a moment later, the rider skidded to a stop and she was on the ground, shrieking in pain, a lance buried into her shoulder –

Sean threw himself forward as the horse-rider turned around and slowly approached the writhing and helpless cheetah girl; he slid off his steed and reached for the protruding staff of the spear –

But Sean was there first; one powerful running swing and his shaft smashed into the attacker’s face, sending him to the ground with a muffled cry of pain, blood spurting from his broken nose and shattered muzzle; the dark form lay there stilly, whether dead or unconscious Sean didn’t know, as he turned back to the whimpering cheetah, who was trying to crawl away on her back, the pole sticking out from her bloodied shoulder.

‘Nessi … Nessi, stop moving …’ Sean uttered, almost mechanically, as he quickly dropped to her side and held her in his arms, trying to prevent worsening the wound. Looking around, he carefully dragged her back into the mouth of a small back-alley between two wooden cabins, giving them a small measure of shelter from the panic. Positioning himself as to assure a good view of their surroundings in case they were spotted by enemy eyes, Sean examined her shoulder. The point hadn’t made it through, having most likely lodged against bone. No major arteries had been severed – she would likely be dead already if they had – so he figured he should be able to remove it right then and there.

‘Sean – what –’ she strained to speak, her voice faltering between the pain and breathless fear, looking up at him with teary eyes.

‘Nessi, I need you to stay still for me, okay? Don’t move,’ he said as soothingly as he could whilst wrapping his arms around her to make sure she wouldn’t injure herself trying to resist. He carefully gripped the shaft, careful not to shift it; then, suddenly squeezing Nessi tightly, he gave a quick and controlled yank, pulling it straight out as it had went in; Nessi squirmed brusquely and gave a new, very feline roar of pain.

‘There, it’s out,’ Sean said automatically; without consulting her, he quickly tore a large piece of her loincloth off, bunched it up and pressed it into the wound to stifle the blood flow, making her squirm all the more.

‘Nessi, you need to press on this, okay? Here, hold it!’ he said in a tone that he meant to make both gentle and forceful, placing her hand over the cloth and holding it there. He was just looking around in confusion, rage and terror, wondering what to do next or how to help the injured Nessi, when a figure suddenly hurried through the crowd towards them, deftly avoiding a horse-rider as he went. Sean stiffened, quickly reaching for the broken spear resting on the ground nearby, when he caught sight of a yellow, black-spotted coat – another cheetah. Nessi’s father, Nati.

‘Nessi? Nes—? Oh my – Nessi!’ he yelped as he saw his daughter, her side drenched in blood and her face screwed up in pain and soaked in tears. ‘Nessi, you okay? What happened –?’

‘She’s okay, Nati,’ said Sean to the horrified father. ‘She was hit in the shoulder, but she’ll be all right.’ Nati approached, creating a wide berth around the fallen body of the aggressor who had attacked his daughter, who Sean now noticed appeared to be a black pantheress, and crouched down next to Sean, taking Nessi from him and holding her in his arms protectively.

‘You … you saved her,’ he spluttered, teary-eyed as well, alternating between staring worriedly at Nessi, who had now stopped squirming as much and was panting in pain, and looking up at Sean.

‘I guess,’ said Sean absently, not sure how to respond. ‘Listen, you have to get her out of here – take her home and hide there, both of you. Close the doors and windows, stay out of sight –’

‘Of course, of course, yes,’ Nati said, and Sean helped him hoist a trembling Nessi onto her wobbly legs, half-carrying her. As they turned to leave, Nessi looked around at Sean, her watery eyes wide and fearful.

‘Sean … find Aki,’ she said in a constricted voice.

Sean merely nodded as she and her father made their way down the alley as quickly as they could. Figuring they’d be okay if they distanced themselves from the horrors at the village center, Sean ducked into another alley, this time with a clear destination in mind. He ran as quickly as his legs could carry him, breezing through anthros and around attackers, not taking the time to fight them and merely ducking away from their spears as he rushed through the village, around buildings and over fences, taking the quickest route he knew home.

Finally, he skidded onto the road leading to their hut, only a few villagers in the area hurrying to find a place to hide out, yet as he ran nearer, he gasped in horror as he witnessed two dark figures ripping back the curtain and stepping in – before screams erupted from inside. Even from several dozen feet down the street, they reached him through the air with bone-chilling clarity: two distinct, shrill, feminine cries of terror.

Cold shivers ran down his spine and his heart hammered like mad in his chest as he sped up still, tearing down the road so fast he was almost flying as he bore down on the hut, sending anyone in his way crashing to the ground. He shot through the torn entryway curtain, the gloom impeding his sight but not enough to hide what he saw next.

He saw it all at once, as though time had stopped: the two dark intruders, their backs turned to him, slowly closing in on the back of the hut; two foxy figures huddled together in a corner, the mother trying to shield her daughter behind her arms, their ears flattened and eyes wide, cowering in fear and completely defenseless; one of the enemies had his arms at his front as though reaching for a knife, but the next moment his dark loincloth slipped down his legs, an evil, lascivious grin upon his muzzle as he stared at Aki, who only squealed in terror upon realizing –

‘NOOO!’ Sean screamed like an animal, louder than he ever thought he could; he threw himself towards them and less than a heartbeat later, before they could do anything more than turn around in surprise, Sean had rammed into the nearest intruder, his momentum sending them crashing into the wall with a horrible thud, the mud structure cracking from the force of the impact –

They both fell to the ground in their disorientation; almost like a ninja, Sean gripped the stunned and struggling black wolf with his arms and legs, using his strength to pin the naturally stronger anthro onto him, and placed an arm around the enemy’s head and started applying pressure to the side; only a few moments of straining later, he felt the would-be rapist’s neck give way with the audible crunch of bones and the figure quickly went limp in his arms.

Throwing the corpse off of him, he sprung to his feet and immediately launched himself at the second intruder, an imposing black fox with a look of pure stupefaction on his face at what had just happened; Sean landed a fierce right hook into the second aggressor’s gut, felling him to the ground with an audible gasp and a whine of pain, a small knife slipping from his fingers and tumbling across the earthy floor –

Sean quickly seized the knife before his opponent’s scrabbling fingers could reach it and in a single swing, he instantly ploughed the short, already bloodstained blade into the back of the black fox’s neck with a slight crackling and a spurt of blood; the enemy gave a brusque spasm, then was still on the floor, blood dripping down his neck.

Not sparing the bastard a second thought, Sean turned to face the two vixens, still cowering low in the corner, staring at Sean and the bodies of the intruders with teary, shaking, petrified faces. Sidestepping the bodies, Sean quickly went over to them and threw his arms around them in an instinctive gesture, embracing the two people who shared his home – and the girl who shared his heart … He felt their arms wrap around him in turn, holding him tightly to them as though he were safety itself, there to protect them from further danger …

However, the mounting sounds of the continuing commotion outside brought him out of his thoughts; the others were still in danger. He separated from Aki and Kira, staring them in their frightened faces, trying to keep his own resolutely composed.

‘What … what the hell’s going on?’ he said urgently. ‘Who are they – these –?’

‘They don’t have a name …’ uttered Aki in a quiet, shaky voice, her eyes fixed upon the body of the first aggressor a few feet to their side. ‘We call them the – the Dark Riders –’

She was cut off and they jumped around as a sudden shout and crash sounded quite nearby; a villager had fallen through the partially torn curtain into the hut and lay writhing feebly on the ground, a spear jutting from his chest. At his side, the Rider who had just slain him noticed Sean and the two vixens at the back of the shadowy hut, gave a grunt and grabbed the yanked the shaft out of the villager as he started towards them –

Snarling like an beast, Sean lunged at the lion and was upon the new intruder before he could even react; almost as if choreographed, Sean grabbed the feline’s wrist, parrying the spear, and quickly followed with a kick to the attacker’s ankle from the side, shattering it and sending the creature tumbling to the ground with a sharp cry of pain, the spear clattering on the ground –

Sean reflexively grabbed the lance and a heartbeat later, he’d brought the tip into the big cat’s throat. A gurgle and spasm a later, hands grasping futilely, and the Rider was still.

Glancing back up at Aki and Kira, who were staring at him and looked as though they were on the edge of pure panic, Sean grabbed the spear from his victim’s throat and approached the two vixens.

‘You two stay here, you got that?’ he demanded in a controlled yet forceful tone. ‘Just hide – behind your cots or something. Stay here, stay out of sight. I’ll go defend the village.’

Aki made to speak up, looking suddenly stricken, but Sean silenced her, grabbing her by the shoulders.

‘No, Aki, I have to go. You stay here – stay safe. Kira, make sure she doesn’t go anywhere!’ he added to the onlooking mother as he quickly got up and headed out the entrance, bloody spear in hand. The back of his mind suddenly flooded with fears of the hut being discovered and its two occupants being attacked in his absence, but he couldn’t just stay there and leave the others to their fates – his friends –

He had barely stepped out of the entrance when something large and very heavy crashed into him, sending him onto his back with it landing on top of him, crushing him under its weight. Shaking his head clear, his gaze was met by the brown beady eyes of a dark bear, who first stared back at him aggressively, before his expression turned into shock.

‘What the –?’ the massive creature muttered hoarsely, staring at Sean as though he were a hallucination and momentarily forgetting about the battle around them. Sean didn’t; with a growl, he rammed his forehead up into the ursine’s face, forcing the heavy creature to recoil with a pained yelp, clutching at his bloodied nose. Sean heaved him off and clambered to his feet, leaving the great black beast groaning on the ground from the pain in his sensitive snout. Casting a quick look around, and at his hut to make sure no other uninvited guests were present, he then took off, swerving to avoid a couple of horse-riders as they charged by, spears slicing through the air inches away from him.

He paused, looking around in every direction, taking into account the confusion, the terror, the chaos that had engulfed the village. It was pure unrestrained mayhem; there was no unison, no organizing or structure; it was a complete free-for-all melee, everyone for themselves. He felt terrible and horribly familiar waves of panic, fear and nausea swell within him as he looked around at the people he had come to love, those who had accepted and embraced him with such joy and sympathy, those who had changed him, healed him …

One thing his gut told him clearly enough was that they weren’t going to make it at this rate. They were all fighting by themselves, uncoordinated and inexperienced, falling one by one as the faster and better-armed Riders cut them down like ragdolls. Sean’s experience immediately kicked in and he knew that they needed cohesion, leadership – someone to rally them together if they were to survive at all. He also instantly recognized that he was the one to do it.

As a plan bubbled in his head, he realized with a pang that he’d been standing on the side of the street for several moments, completely unmoving – and unarmed. Glancing around the ground, he noticed a discarded spear in the middle of the road just a few steps away, yet as he started for it, a Rider suddenly stepped in from the other side, unarmed, making it obvious that the dropped lance was his. They glanced at each other for only a heartbeat, as though daring each other; then Sean leapt in, running as hard as he could towards the weapon lying on the ground as the Rider bore down from the opposite direction –

He heard it before he saw it, and less than a second later he had thrown himself sideways with a strangled yell, tripped over the bloody corpse of a fallen villager and crashed to the ground rather painfully; a horse-rider galloped right through where he’d been just an instant before, his spearhead catching nothing but empty air –

Pushing himself upright and getting his bearings, he saw his rival approaching him ferociously, the spear now in hand and aiming for him –

Sean rolled to the side and the spearhead dug into the ground as the attacker missed –

Still on his back, Sean quickly hooked his feet into the surprised Rider’s legs and gave a sharp twist, sending the Rider to the ground hard – Sean followed with a quick kick to the disoriented enemy’s face, making him roll back in pain – Seam seized the wooden shaft and, jumping to his feet, he instantly plunged the head into the attacker’s neck.

Climbing back to his feet, he saw another Rider approaching an older goat and his kid, both backing up against the wall of a cabin in fear; instinctively, Sean ran forth, swinging his spear widely and crashing it against the back of the attacker’s head; the horse-like Rider fell flat on his face, apparently knocked out.

‘Quick, get inside!’ Sean ordered, grabbing them and ushering them into the cabin’s entrance. ‘Just stay there and hide!’

‘But – Sean!’ the goat-man called as his son disappeared into the cabin’s gloomy interior. Looking at him, Sean recognized him as Huva, a friendly who had once traded meals with Sean at suppertime.

‘My mate – Salana, she’s a goat – please, find her!’ Huva pleaded, reflexively clutching at the green stone of his mating necklace around his neck. He threw one last stricken look at Sean before following his son into the cabin, disappearing into the shadows.

Taking note of what was going on around him, Sean gripped his lance and immediately ran for the nearest Rider, who was just plunging his own spear into a screaming deer-woman’s leg, slow enough as to appear just to want to torture her –

Sean’s spearhead ripped effortlessly into the aggressor’s abdomen, and as the wounded coyote bent over with a roar of pain, Sean’s shaft slammed into the back of his neck, sending the yote limply to the ground.

He jumped over to the cowering doe’s side, quickly examining the wound – it had struck bone; there was no way she’d be in any condition to walk, even with his aid. Without a word, he heaved her up by the armpits and quickly dragged her to the nearest alleyway, shielding her in the shadows behind a fence.

‘Stay here,’ he said perfunctorily before heading back into the street, where he quickly speared an oncoming lizard Rider as the latter noticed him and the injured doe. The reptile fell without a sound; Sean moved on to the nearest Rider, his spear slashing and gashing with the skill and lethality afforded to him by a lifetime of training and experience.

It was curious; everything seemed to simplify, to dull down, and all feeling or thought simply left Sean’s mind as he fought. It was as though he were regressing, through the years and through space itself, until he was back in the body and mind of his younger self, confronted to the seemingly impossible odds of the Corinthean War. Battle and killing was all he was; trained to perfection and conditioned into cold lethality, he had been raised from the start of his life into being little more than a fighting machine. He was no longer thinking about what he was doing; he could see and think with perfect clarity, his entire being focused on one thing only: wiping out the enemy, protecting his home, and saving his friends and loved ones. Time became immaterial as he struck and dodged, killed and parried, foe after dark foe falling like marionettes with their strings severed as they suffered his fatal wrath. He could see uncertainty, shock – even fear – in the enemies’ eyes as they gathered around this apparition, this demon with a spear, this bringer of death – this human.

It may have been five minutes later or it may have been an hour; all of a sudden, something quite hard and heavy hit him on the back of the head and he temporarily went limp from the shock, falling to the ground in a numb daze. Half-blinded by the pain, he was just able to notice a spear above him, diving downwards –

He quickly rolled out of the way and with an almost automated kick to the Rider’s knee, sent the enemy to the ground in turn –

Getting to his feet as quickly as he could despite the severe throbbing ache at the back of his skull, he grabbed his dropped spear, plunged it almost nonchalantly into the Rider’s gut, barely seeing the creature spasm in agony as his life left him, and glanced around for his next destination; he caught sight of and immediately made his way towards a nearby goat-woman who was backing into a corner created by two adjacent cabins, shielding two cowering little lion cubs behind her as she stared in resolute terror at an imposing boar Rider, the latter closing in on her with naught but cruelty in his dull eyes, his spear dragging along the ground almost indifferently, obviously untroubled by anyone else in the area –

Until Sean rammed into him as hard as he could from behind, driving his spear as deep as he could into the great hog’s back, feeling a satisfying crunch and squish there as the shaft dug in several inches; as the Rider spasmed in silent agony, his voice apparently broken, Sean yanked his spear out with a trail of blood and rammed his foot into the back of the porcine’s knee, causing it to buckle instantly and the great swine to fall on his injured back, gasping in pain with his eyes wide as he lay there, twitching on the ground.

Sean sidestepped the mass of porcine flesh and approached the female goat, backed up against the wall behind her and shielding the terrified and whimpering lion cubs with her arms, looking undecided as to whether Sean would help or hurt her in the confusion.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked at once, checking her and the cubs over for any obvious injuries. She could only nod quickly, breathing hard. A glint at her neck drew Sean’s gaze onto her mating necklace, its beautiful blue gemstone inscribed with an elegant ‘H’.

‘Are – are you Sanala?’ Sean asked. She stared at him with her fearful muddy brown eyes. ‘Salana,’ she corrected in a distinctively caprine voice, nodding in acquiescence again.

‘All right, Salana – Huva asked me to find you, he’s safe, he’s hidden in a cabin over there – hurry, this way –’

‘Wait!’ Salana called before he could lead the way, grabbing Sean’s arm and turning him to face her rather forcefully. ‘My – my son, Suva, is he with Huva?’ she asked almost beggingly, worry in her eyes.

‘Uh – yes, yes, he is,’ assured Sean. ‘Quick, this way!’

He guided her and the two cubs along the street, careful to try and avoid any fights; halfway to the cabin where Huva and Suva were hiding, another wolf Rider emerged in front of them, holding his lance sideways and preparing to swing mindlessly at Sean –

In a fluid move, Sean grabbed the swung shaft and dislodged it from the attacker’s hand, continuing the rotation and bringing it colliding against the wolf’s side, making him stagger off-balance; a jackhammer-like kick to the dark lupine’s kneecap followed, leaving the Rider rolling around on the ground and howling in pain as he clutched his shattered knee. Sean led the small group the rest of the way to the cabin, finding it quickly and ushering them inside quickly, himself staying outside to keep guard. A sharp exclamation of relief from inside informed him the family had reunited safely.

Looking around, holding his spear at the ready, Sean took note of the current situation. It became apparent that things were only deteriorating; there were noticeably less villagers left standing and fighting than before, which Sean could only hope, however idly, was thanks to more and more of them finding a place to hide … yet, the reality of their horrific situation was only made apparent by the patches of spilt blood that covered the ground, with dozens of cadavers scattered everywhere in sight, some of them dark but the majority of them wearing pale loincloths …

His dark, wet eyes hardened and he forced down a lump in his throat as blinked hard and probed the scene around him. His jaw was clenched and his fists were balled tight enough for his nails to dig into his palms. He’d seen enough. He was not about to let his people succumb to an attack by a bunch of filthy beasts – not when he was there.

At once, he knew what to do. He needed to form a unit.

The thought had barely crossed his mind when he was distracted by the sight of a dark rodent-type Rider soaring at least fifteen feet through the air with a shrill squeal before crashing to the ground nearby in a broken mess of limbs –

He noticed several other Riders, at least five, all circling around a massive buffalo whom Sean instantly recognized as Karnai, one of the village butchers; they were armed and ferocious, but the enemies were proving no match for the seven-foot-tall bovine; they had their spears pointed at him and kept lunging at him, yet he seemed wholly unperturbed by their aggressiveness. As Sean watched, he lashed out with an enormous muscled arm and caught one of the aggressors right in the face, knocking the feline several steps backwards before it crashed to the ground, apparently knocked out. Just then, a dark lizard behind Karnai thrust his spear forth, sinking the tip into the great beast’s side; yet incredibly, Karnai didn’t even flinch as he spun around and, with an angry bellow, drove a massive leg into the reptile’s chest, sending him crashing through the façade of a cabin several feet away in a heap of scales and splintered wood –

Sean rushed forth and swung his shaft into the knees of an unsuspecting Rider, sending the dark equine onto his back with a stunned yelp, followed by a quick jab at the zebra’s neck –

A second Rider ran at him but Sean ducked out of the way and the clumsy attacker tripped over the zebra’s body and fell from his own momentum; a third aggressor spotted Sean and made for him, yet before Sean raised his spear, the third Rider was already crashing to the ground, Karnai’s massive fist successfully having made contact with the side of his head.

‘Sean! You okay?’ the great bovine boomed in his deep voice.

‘I’m fine,’ said Sean, discounting the ebbing ache at the back of his skull from where he’d been hit a short while back and looking the pumped and primed buffalo over; Karnai appeared relatively unharmed and Sean could tell that most of the blood on his flesh wasn’t his own.

‘Sean – we can’t hold out like this much longer!’ said Karnai before taking a new swing at a fresh attacker, creating an audible thunk as his shaft beat into the canine’s face and sending him to the ground almost comically fast.

‘Karnai, listen to me!’ Sean spoke as quickly and urgently as he could. ‘I have a plan: follow me, stay by my side and don’t split up!’

‘What’re you thinking, Sean?’ said Karnai as he lunged after a nervously retreating badger Rider and flung him bodily into the stone wall of a nearby structure with a flat smack.

‘We need to stick together!’ said Sean, glancing at the immobile Rider. ‘We need to form a unit and cover each other’s backs! We’ll never make it separated like –’ he parried a blow with his shaft and smashed his spear into the attacker’s face, felling him instantly ‘– like this!’

‘All right! I’ll follow you!’ said Karnai, throwing another bone-crushing fist into another wolf’s chest, reducing the Rider to a wheezing and spluttering lump on the ground.

Sean turned around without further ado, feeling (and hearing) Karnai’s massive presence by his side as they moved through the street, assailing and eradicating any and all Riders within their reach. Sean made sure to keep an eye on Aki and Kira’s earth hut at all times, ready to sprint at a moment’s notice should any foes try and enter.

Nearby, an iguana villager Sean had come to know as Zina was putting up a valiant fight, swinging a spear widely and keeping a number of Riders at bay, but Sean could tell the lizard was tiring quickly and would soon be overcome.

‘Over here!’ he called to Karnai as he made a run for the besieged Zina; the assailants turned at Sean’s shout yet barely had time to register him before his spear was lodged deep in the gut of a deer. The others made to jump him, yet Karnai was quick to rebuff them; only a few moments later, all four Riders were either dead or unconscious on the ground.

‘Hey, Zina! You all right?’ said Sean, approaching the resilient yet terrified iguana. He looked as though he’d taken a shower of blood and his tough, scaly reptilian skin sported countless cuts and scrapes of varying graveness.

‘I – I think ssso,’ Zina replied in a rather unsteady voice. ‘My – Sssean, you look terrible!’ he added in worried tones, staring at Sean. Sean hadn’t taken notice of his physical appearance in the confusion and the anger, and he found he was smeared in blood all over, his combat suit ripped in several places and his skin showing numerous little cuts.

‘I’ve had worse, Zina,’ he said placatingly – before noticing Zina’s suddenly panicked expression –

‘Sssean, look out –!’

Fire suddenly erupted along Sean’s back, making him cry out in pain and shock; he keeled over, trying to steady himself, and in the confusion that followed, he heard a deep resounding roar that could only have been Karnai’s, followed shortly by a screeching whinny; looking around, he witnessed the enraged buffalo pounding violently into a rapidly dying dark-colored hare, a bloody spear on the ground where the Rider had dropped it and the enemy’s horse running off down the street after its rider had been picked off by Karnai.

‘Oh, no – Sssean –’ Zina hissed fearfully, hurrying around Sean to get a look at his injury.

‘How bad is it?’ said Sean, wincing from the pain; it didn’t feel lethal or particularly crippling, though the pain was another matter.

‘I – I don’t –’ said Zina, sounding at a loss for words. The next moment, Karnai appeared at Zina’s side, glancing at Sean’s wounded back.

‘It doesn’t look too bad, Sean,’ he said quickly but reassuringly. ‘It looks nasty, but it’s just a flesh wound, not very deep.’

The butcher obviously knew a thing or two about anatomy and cutting injuries. Sean stood upright, the gash along his back stinging harshly, though not that it was anything he couldn’t push through. It felt like it extended from his lower waist to his opposite shoulder blade, and at any rate, Sean had certainly suffered much graver injuries in the past and continued fighting nonetheless. The time where he’d had half his arm ripped off by an enemy bomb and yet proceeded to rack up twenty further kills before being pulled out being a good example. Only the miracle of modern Corinthean medicine had allowed for a regeneration of his damaged limb.

‘What’s that you said about looking terrible?’ Sean commented dryly, wincing as he stretched his arms and back to try and get through the sting. He wasn’t sure whether Zina cracked a brief grin or not, but the next moment Karnai jumped forth to take on an approaching Rider, giving Sean enough time to reach for the spear he’d dropped and prepare himself.

‘Zina, I want you to stay with us; we need to stay together and fight together, as a unit,’ Sean detailed in rapid-fire.

‘O-okay,’ the iguana said, looking a bit reassured that Sean was okay, before the three of them hurried towards a nearby group of villagers who were being assaulted on all sides and being pushed into a corner. Sean tapped Zina on his right on the chest and pointed towards the Rider furthest to the right, and indicated to Karnai to attack the two leftmost aggressors, leaving Sean with the two remaining enemies to deal with. Only moments, later, they had made relatively short work of the unsuspecting Riders, dropping upon them like assassins with the element of surprise at their side.

‘Quick, grab their weapons!’ barked Sean commandingly at the scared yet defiant-looking bunch that he, Karnai and Zina had just rescued. He quickly picked up two spears the newly killed Riders had dropped and tossed them into the villagers’ hands, Karnai and Zina doing the same at his side and instructing the villagers to stay and fight with them. Together and with Sean at their lead, the rapidly growing group charged down the blood-and-corpse-strewn street, bearing down upon Riders within their reach and crowding them, reducing even the better-equipped and battle-skilled dark warriors into lifeless bodies one after another.

It was something the anthros had never seen or done before: like an army of its own, the group kept advancing and growing, feeding off the remaining villagers and adding them to their ranks as they fought back against the Dark Riders, spear against spear and will against might. The Riders could scarcely understand what was going on; these villagers had always been inexperienced and helpless, unable to stand and fight for themselves and quick to crumble. And yet, here they were now, forming a tightly packed unit of raging and passionate fighters, coming up against the numbers of armored Riders like a wave that had suddenly turned tidal, pushing them further and further back and slaughtering them one by one. It seemed that every villager that died resulted in two additional Riders being cut down; it got to the point where the Riders, shocked and cowed at this unexpected and harrowing display of unison and coordination, began running back and away from the fiery wrath of the villagers, many of them simply dropping their spears and fleeing out of sight altogether, some getting on their horses that were marauding around town in disarray and making a beeline for the perimeter woods. The villagers fought like demons, animated by a newfound fire that burned through them and turned them into an unstoppable force, defending their village and loved ones.

And at the head of it all, was Sean, shouting orders like a military general and giving directions like a master tactician, getting his “team” of trusting villagers to obey his commands as though he were their unquestioned leader to defend and kill. He was easily the most noticeable of them all: relatively smaller, furless, paler, clad in blue uniform that was completely splattered in blood, and fighting with the skill and energy of a master warrior, sending his spear and his knife slicing and gouging into any and every enemy he could reach, felling them as though his mere touch were lethal.

For the duration of the battle, Sean O’Neil was the leader of the anthro village.

For Sean, it was still mostly a blur, concentrated so intensely on fighting, form and protecting his comrades that he lost virtually all sense of loss or progress. Only when he noticed something different, something strange, did he take notice of what was going on.

The villagers around him, flooding the streets and rushing the few remaining and escaping Riders, were cheering. Triumphantly.

They were winning.

It was only a few minutes later, though it might have been an hour to Sean; all that he noticed was that he was suddenly leading the villagers out of the boundaries of the community, chasing after the handful of surviving Riders as they ran off into the woods in terror, the tables turned against them so spectacularly.

Sean slowed to a halt at the edge of the forest, gazing into the shadows created by the trees at the vague outlines of fleeing enemies as they disappeared from sight. He stood there for a moment or two, slowly coming to a realization of what had just happened, as though his overworked brain had shut itself down for a while.

He was aware of a loud continuous commotion around him; next thing he knew, he was surrounded by a sea of anthros, yelling and screaming and grabbing him; his dazed eyes scanned their faces mechanically and he discerned nothing but pure, boundless and unadulterated joy there, their eyes brimming with tears, jumping like rabid animals and all the while yelling themselves hoarse in victory, none of them the slightest bit coherent to Sean’s ears. Thankfully, they appeared to take notice of the gash across his back and stayed clear of it as they grabbed and embraced him, lauding their hero.

He inwardly knew that he ought to feel happy, relieved, and even victorious; yet, he felt strangely empty, uncertain, as though his heart had stonewalled itself to the deluge of emotions coming at him from all sides. In fact, a moment later, he realized he could only think of one thing in the whole world.

Coming back to his senses, he started moving through the crowd of anthros pressing in around him, forcing his way along as they reached and cheered after him, their acclaim developing into a sort of chant: Sean the Defender, Sean the Defender, Sean the Defender … He grew almost brusque as he fought through the anthros until he finally reached the end of the crowd and arrived at the outskirts of the village. He could see several new villagers coming out of their homes where they’d been hiding, looking around in complete confusion and horror at the sight of all the carnage in the streets. Sean moved through them even as they called at him, ignoring them and hurrying down the path he knew almost subconsciously, taking him where he wanted to be – where he needed to be …

*

All was quiet, and all was still. Crouching in the fetal position behind her sturdy cot and effectively shielding herself from sight from the hut’s entrance, all she could hear was her mother’s shaky and controlled breathing from across their home; all she could see was a square foot of the compact earth beneath her feet, her head in her arms, her eyes fixed straight down. She was focusing all her attention on her hearing, her large foxy ears the only part of her that showed any sign of activity, other than the occasional twitch in her fluffy tail, curled up around her, and her slowly heaving chest.

For a long time, she could not hear anything at all outside; it was as though anyone and anything had left, deserting the village, leaving her and her mother all alone … But then, as incoherent thoughts and fears swam in her mind, she heard something: slight sounds coming from the street outside her home, low voices and erratic footsteps … slow strides, as though the people walking around were relaxed, or cautious, or stunned, or –

Something came running, heading towards their hut; Aki’s ears flattened against her head and she gave the slightest of whimpers, screwing up her face in fear; surely this was it, they’d been found, they couldn’t possibly defend themselves this time – and Sean, Sean was gone, the man who meant so much to her –

‘Aki? Kira!’ came the shout, both worried and asking.

Her ears immediately perked and her whole body bristled – she knew that voice –

Sean!’ she cried out, her voice cracking in desperation and fear; she jumped to her feet and found him already hurrying into the shadowy hut; she leapt towards him and they embraced, her arms wrapped around his back, her claws sinking into his flesh almost painfully out of fright and worry; she could feel a long wet slice in his skin and tried to avoid it as she held him close, her face buried in his shoulder and his head resting against hers, his arms wrapped around her tightly, securely, protectively …

Just by him being there, by him having returned for her (and her mother), for him holding her against him, she instantly knew that it was over … that the attackers were gone … that they were safe.