Saturday, June 12, 2010

Inhuman | Chapter 9: The Village Council [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.

Sean learns about their new enemy and must decide whether he is willing, or able, to defend his new life.


— CHAPTER NINE —

The Village Council

He could feel her heartbeat in her neck and the tense but relaxing heaving of her chest against his own, her furred arms holding him quite tightly, as though she were afraid that he’d slip away; he held her back just as securely, his blood-stained fingers gently rubbing along her back and stroking through her soft fur, trying to let her know without a spoken word that it was over … He closed his eyes, suddenly feeling very tired as the weight of the day’s events came down upon him; a small lump formed in his throat and his eyes began to grow wet, yet he screwed them up and held Aki tighter, feeling her warm breath on the skin of his neck and the ebbing sting of the cut on his back as they stood there, letting the horror, the terror and the pain of the past hour or so wash over them and slide away like dirt in the rain, just the two of them together …

Ahem.

Sean’s eyes flew open as the world swam back into view; he and Aki broke apart, both determinedly looking way from each other and blushing. Kira stood next to her cot where she had hidden, looking somewhat edgy and eyeing Sean and her daughter guardedly.

A few moments passed as they stood there in awkward silence, listening to the faint sounds of activity coming from the street outside: the pacing and the running, the subdued voices, the gasps … the wails of grief …

‘What … what was that?’ said Sean, half to break the silence. His stare alternated between Aki and Kira, both of them still looking scared, though calmer now. He knew he didn’t have to clarify what he meant.

The two vixens shared a look.

‘I’ll go help the others,’ announced Kira quietly, glancing at Sean forebodingly before quickly heading out the entrance. Sean heard her footsteps abruptly halt as she reached the street, undoubtedly struck by the sight that lay beyond her.

Sean looked back at Aki, who looked uncertain of how to proceed.

‘Aki, who were they? Why …?’ he trailed off, at a loss as to how to word his question.

Aki looked away and slowly ambled towards her cot, her back turned to him.

‘It’s a long story …’ she spoke quietly.

Sean slowly approached her from behind, trying to get a glimpse of her face. He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently and reassuringly. He heard Aki take a deep breath, as though preparing herself.

‘What happened?’ he asked softly.

Another brief moment passed before Aki began.

‘They come from a nearby village,’ she said in a low voice. ‘A … a rival tribe. I think they’re a few hours away through the woods to the east … They’ve been our enemy for as long as anyone can remember. They … they come about once a year or so … they send their – their Dark Riders …’

She went quiet again for a minute. Sean couldn’t help but feel like there was something she wasn’t telling him.

‘But … why?’ he said. ‘What do they have against this village?’

‘Oh … it’s a … a territorial issue,’ she said dolefully. ‘You know how it is. People don’t like having others living too close and all that. Well, their village isn’t all that far away, and I guess they think that our village is just too close to theirs and that we’re, like, stealing part of their side of the river, using their own hunting grounds …’

She made a half-sighing, half-snorting noise. ‘I bet humans aren’t stupid enough to fight between groups just because some of them think the others live too close,’ she said in a slightly sour tone.

It was Sean’s turn to snort. ‘Not exactly,’ he said evasively. ‘We … we aren’t all that better at not fighting each other all the time …’

Aki turned to face him, her fascination in the human world rising again.

‘You fight wars over territory, too?’ she asked. ‘I thought it was just for … um … politics? Or showing who’s bigger and better?’

‘We fight wars for all kinds of reasons,’ Sean said, looking away briefly. ‘Doesn’t have to be a good one. Power, money, territory, justice, religion …’

Re-religin?’ Aki repeated in her characteristic “what-is-that?” tone.

‘Religion,’ Sean corrected automatically before stopping short, realizing the can of worms he’d just opened.

‘Uh … it’s … like, when people believe in something; it’s a sort of – a sort of organized system of beliefs that lots of people follow and stuff … it tells them how to live their lives, what to believe in, whatever – it’s a very long story,’ he finished quickly, hoping to sweep the subject aside until later, if ever. The concept of organized religion was all but dead on New Corinthea; the various faiths had dissolved hundreds of years previously, leaving only various fringe groups of believers dispersed here and there. Sean himself had never adhered to any religion, so explaining such an abstract concept was quite difficult for him to do, and it was a challenge he’d happily forgo.

‘Anyway,’ he said before Aki could ask him any more on the subject, ‘so – so these, this rival tribe of sorts – they attack us, this village, because they think we live too close to their side of the water?’

‘Well, yeah,’ said Aki, her face visibly dropping as they returned to the grim subject of the Dark Riders.

Feeling that she wasn’t about to elaborate, Sean pushed on: ‘And … how long has this been going on for?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said slowly. ‘No-one does, I think … They’ve been fighting us for longer than anyone can remember. Even the elders don’t know how or when it began … I asked,’ she added with a glance at him.

Sean stood in silence for a few moments, staring around vaguely as Aki’s words sunk in.

‘Okay …’ he began slowly, ‘so, what … how do you defend yourselves? How do you fight back?’

Aki stared at him.

‘Fight back?’ she repeated, failing to hide the incredulity in her tone. ‘How exactly do you think we’re gonna fight back, Sean? We can’t defend our own village, and now, more people are dead and –’

‘But – isn’t there anyone who can fight?’ Sean asked, brow furrowed and desperately trying to find a solution. ‘There has to be someone around here who knows something about these – these Riders, and how to fight them!’

‘There used to be,’ said Aki grimly. Sean stared at her, and her eyes dropped.

‘We used to have fighters,’ she said, her voice soft and sad. ‘We had all kinds of defenders – villagers with a responsibility to protect the village and defend us against attackers, all that. But …’

She sighed. ‘They caught us by surprise one night. We never had a chance. They came from the woods, like today, and – and they just –’

She gave a soft shuddering gasp, her voice growing shaky; Sean noticed her eyes had grown noticeably more humid. He instinctually took a step forth, hooking his arms around her and rubbing her sides comfortingly. She avoided his gaze, fixing her beautiful, watery blue orbs upon his shoulder as though the bloody patch of suit there would give her the fortitude to keep going.

‘Aki, what is it?’ Sean said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

She took a deep shuddering breath, closing her eyes, before going on:

‘It’s been nine years … but I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was seven, I was sleeping when Mom woke me up and told me to hide behind my cot and to stay quiet. I was so scared … I knew what it meant – that they were here. The Riders. It was another attack.’

She sniffed before continuing:

‘We waited for a while, listening to the screams and the fight from outside and hoping nobody would find us … but then, someone did, a big black bull – a Rider. He came in and started coming towards me … but my mother stopped him, trying to distract him, trying to get him to take her instead, to leave me alone. He hit her … hard … and then started grabbing her and – and he grabbed his knife …

‘But then, he came. He jumped onto the big bull’s back, and – I didn’t see what happened next … but the bull was dead on the ground and my mother was safe. She told him she was all right, told him to take care of me instead, and he came to me …’

She sighed and looked up at Sean, her eyes watery but her expression one of determined composure.

‘My father,’ she said. ‘My dad. He tried to comfort me, telling me it would be over soon, that the – the “bad people” would go away now. He told me to keep hiding behind my cot until he came back, until it was safe, and to be quiet … and … he left the hut to keep fighting the Riders …’

She took another deep, shaky breath, haunted by memories her eyes alone could see.

‘I never saw him again,’ she said, her voice and expression carrying nothing but nostalgic sorrow. ‘He died that night, along with all the other fighters in the village. Since then, we’ve been defenseless … at the mercy of whenever they choose to attack … there’s nothing we can do.’

For the first time since Sean had met her, she looked totally lost and hopeless, nothing like the vibrant, carefree and optimistic foxgirl he’d come to know and love. She looked as though she suddenly realized that her whole world had fallen out from under her and that she was unable to hold on any longer.

Without really thinking, Sean again wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into a comforting embrace, listening to her heavy breathing against his neck as they stood there for a while, hugging half for comfort and half out of affection for each other.

After an indeterminate amount of time, they slowly broke apart, Sean’s hand caressing Aki’s cheek absently. Her shimmering eyes were half closed, almost lazily; Sean imagined that she might currently have been purring were she a feline. Seeing her like that, forlorn, scared and taking comfort in his gentle touch, made Sean’s heart flutter momentarily as it struck him just how close they had grown over the past two months.

But, something else was pressing in his mind.

‘It’s not over.’

Aki’s eyes slowly opened at the sound of his quiet yet strained voice. His hand slowly lowered from her face to settle on her shoulder again.

‘What?’ she said uncertainly.

Sean almost felt sorry for what he had to say – for what he knew was to come.

‘They’ll come back. We haven’t got rid of them; they’ll just want revenge. What they saw today – all I’ve done is endanger you more,’ he said gravely. ‘They haven’t seen you fight back in so long, and now, suddenly, their victims decide to – to stand their ground? They’ll see this as a challenge, nothing more. They’re gonna get everything they got … and –’ he swallowed, his throat tight ‘– and they’re gonna run right through this place.’

Aki stared at him with her mouth parted in silent horror.

‘B-but – but how can you be sure? How do you know that?’ she said, an edge of panic in her voice.

Sean shook his head. ‘I got a feeling,’ he said vaguely.

Sean had always known to trust his instincts, which had almost always led him right. He had an almost psychic knack for knowing what his enemy was thinking and what they were going to do next. It’s a talent that had served him exceptionally well during the Corinthean War and afterwards on New Corinthea, keeping both him and his teammates out of trouble and saving their hides from more tight spots than he liked to count. Unfortunately, it had also come to the point where he almost hated being right, as it so often indicated more bad news. Such as now.

Only this time, Sean had a plan.

‘But,’ he said slowly as Aki stared at him in worry, ‘I have an idea. We have the three rifles from the escape pod. We’d both have one and Karnai – he could have the third. We could – we could form a perimeter along the village and keep watch, it would give us a good chance at catching them early. It would give us a chance …’

Aki looked less than convinced at his tentative idea.

‘Sean, I … I really don’t think that’s such a good idea …’ she muttered, looking scared and reticent. ‘There’s too many of them; they’re so fast, we wouldn’t have enough time to see them coming – and –’

‘But we don’t have a choice, Aki,’ Sean cut across her in a tone he tried to make grave yet encouraging. ‘Look, it’s the only chance we’ve got. We gotta do something; I think that with my rifles, we’d have a good chance at stopping them before they even came near the village – we could just scare them off and confuse them –’

‘I … Sean, I dunno …’

‘Aki, listen, we have to do this,’ he said, grabbing her gently by the shoulders, trying to make her see reason, what had to be done. But Aki just avoided his gaze, still looking uncertain and fearful.

‘Sean …’

‘Aki, come on, we don’t have a choice!’ said Sean, his voice rising slightly despite himself. ‘We’re not gonna win if you people don’t stand and fight, if you just – accept defeat! There’s no other way; if you got a better idea –’

‘Sean, please, calm down,’ Aki interrupted, placing her hands on his outstretched arms and sounding upset. Sean stared back at her, his momentary frustration ebbing away as suddenly as it arose, breathing deeply.

‘Sorry,’ he said in admonished tones. He looked Aki in the eye, now feeling remorseful for his mild loss of temper. It was the first time he’d ever raised his voice at her, a fact that made him feel rather guilty.

‘It’s just …’ he said with a heavy sigh, ‘I … I can’t let anything bad happen to this place. This is my home … the only real home I’ve ever had. You all mean so much to me … and …’ he hesitated, staring at Aki and feeling a flush creeping onto his face, ‘you mean so much to me … I just can’t – I mean – I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.’

Aki’s expression softened somewhat, touched at Sean’s words. They stood there in silence, Sean’s hands rubbing Aki’s shoulders tenderly and her own hands rubbing Sean’s arms absently as the moments flowed by. Soon, though, Sean realized he was staring and promptly glanced away, feeling slightly awkward again; Aki diverted her gaze as well and they both blushed slightly, the redness of Aki’s cheeks concealed beneath the white fur.

‘I can help you,’ he said quietly but placatingly, almost pleading for her to accept the truth of what he was saying as he met her eyes once more. ‘I know this. This is what I do – it’s all I’ve ever done. I know what to do, and I know that it could work. Especially with the rifles – they won’t be expecting that, it’ll destroy them. No-one else has to die … I can save this village, Aki –’ he squeezed her shoulders ‘– but only if you do as I say … if you trust me.’

‘I do trust you, Sean,’ she said solemnly, her eyes sparkling in the gloom. ‘I’m just … I’m so scared …’

‘I know, Aki, I know,’ he said gently, rubbing her arms. ‘Maybe …’ he said as a new idea slowly formed in his mind, ‘maybe we wouldn’t have to fight at all … Most of us, I mean. What if –’ he paused, gathering his words, ‘what if we brought the battle to them? They’d never see it coming. We could get a few villagers, just a handful, and we’d have the rifles; we could storm their village and just shoot around, cause some unrest, make them fear us. I’m not talking about killing them all or anything,’ he said with mounting enthusiasm. ‘It would just be a show of force. Show them we won’t be fucked with anymore. That they had better keep their distance.’

Aki only gazed at him, apparently mulling his plan over in her mind. She still looked anxious, but her face seemed to settle somewhat as the realization of their situation and the necessity of Sean’s plan sank in.

‘I’m not sure … I mean …’ she said dispiritedly, ‘I’m so tired of all the fighting … all the violence …’

Sean looked at her empathetically. ‘Sometimes, a little violence is needed to prevent a lot of violence later on,’ he said simply. ‘Sometimes, you need to give it one last fight, so that you never have to fight again.’

Time slowly went by as Aki glanced around the room, her eyes occasionally drifting onto Sean’s face and looking veiled, obviously deep in thought considering what Sean was telling her. Holding her reassuringly, Sean appreciated how hard it must have been for her; Aki’s was a soul entirely devoid of any hint of violence or malice, and the very idea of fighting such a terrible enemy as the Dark Riders obviously troubled her greatly, going against all of her peaceful instincts. However, Sean had a resigned confidence that she would be able to see the truth in what he was saying: that either they fought for their lives, or they would lose them. At least with Sean, they stood a chance at holding their own – a chance at survival.

After a few moments of deliberation, Aki looked at Sean with a resolute air. ‘Okay,’ she said quietly and with a small nod. ‘If … if it’s really the only way … then so be it.’

Sean nodded gravely. ‘It will work, Aki,’ he assured her. He wondered if she could sense the slight lack of certainty in his voice. As much as he knew this was the best approach to take, it wasn’t as though he had deluded himself into thinking it was an easy or risk-free undertaking in any way.

‘But, I’m going to need the help of the villagers,’ he continued. ‘I can’t do this alone. I need you all to do what I tell you. I’d need to …’ he hesitated, ‘I’d need to speak to everyone at once and tell them about the plan. Everyone has to be coordinated on this.’

‘Then, we’ll need to assemble the village council,’ Aki said reflectively.

‘What’s that?’

‘Oh … it’s a council of village elders, those who decide on the course of action that we need to take in times of emergency,’ explained Aki. ‘Usually we don’t really have any leadership, as you know, but sometimes – like now – we would need the village council to decide on what to do next and how to do it. You know, to let people know what’s about to happen. Kovida will be there, of course, along with some of our most trusted elders.’

‘Right,’ said Sean. ‘So, we assemble the council tonight and I – I explain to them my plan?’

‘Yeah,’ said Aki. ‘If you want everyone in on this, you need the council’s blessing.’

Sean nodded. ‘All right, then.’

They stood in silence again, though the air around them now seemed somewhat less thick and constricting now once they had a plan. Aki’s ears twitched and she glanced out the hut entrance, where a sliver of the outside street met their eyes. Even then, Sean could discern shapes and colors on the ground that left little doubt as to what they were.

‘You ready?’ he said to Aki. She nodded somewhat reticently, obviously not needing to ask Sean what he was talking about. Sean no more looked forward to facing whatever was waiting for them out there than she was.

‘Let’s go,’ she said quietly as they slowly started walking out towards the entryway together. They didn’t notice how they were holding hands.

As concerned about his plan and having to speak before the entire village later as he was, those thoughts were quickly driven from Sean’s mind as he and Aki stepped out onto the side of the street, the horror of the aftermath of the battle striking them at once. He heard Aki gasp and give a choked little squeal of horror at his side, her hands flying to her mouth and her eyes wide. Having been part of the battle firsthand, Sean already knew what had been waiting for them once they’d left the hut, but he nonetheless felt rather cold as he surveyed the devastation around them.

The chaos was difficult to describe. Nearly every structure showed some damage, ranging from splintered wood and torn curtains to complete destruction, leaving only piles of rubble where homes and shops once stood. Many of the ruins were still smoldering, the ebbing flames sending large plumes of black smoke billowing into the skies, creating large fluttering shadows on the ground where they blotted out the afternoon sun. The streets were covered with splintered and charred debris of all sorts, from collapsed cabin walls to wrecked carts, though all the scraps of wood, animal hide and metal couldn’t hide the sporadic coating of blood that permeated the very soil itself. Most poignant of all, however, were the many misshapen lumps scattered everywhere in sight, in the streets and beneath the rubble of huts and cabins, their pale loincloths torn and bloodstained, some of them tinted black. Some still had splintered spear-shafts sticking out of various body parts, looking the part of a scene straight out of a horror film. But, this was all too real.

The aura that hung over the village was one of fear, of suffering, of sorrow. People were wandering the streets, looking lost and confused; some were running around, stricken with worry, desperately searching for their friends and loved ones, whilst the wails and cries of many already made known their own losses. Some were checking every body on the ground for signs of life, occasionally finding someone still living and hurriedly hauling them out of sight, presumably to the infirmary. Sean had a fleeting mental image of a pile of bloody, squirming bodies at the doors of the Krypp’s hut, an image he was quick to shake out of his mind’s eye.

He just stood there with Aki at his side, his eyes hard and just barely able to prevent himself from tearing up. This was his home, they were his people … and here they were now, so utterly wretched. Cubs were roaming around, crying for their parents, who in turn were searching for their young ones and calling their names in increasingly anguished tones. Some just stood on the side of the road, looking around aimlessly and overwhelmed at the destruction, while others formed little rescue parties that rushed around from one ruined structure to another, digging through the rubble to rescue those trapped underneath.

Judging from what he could see, Sean estimated that there must’ve been at least a hundred innocent lives lost in the attack, with countless more wounded. There wasn’t a villager alive who didn’t show some sign of injury or whose body wasn’t splattered with blood, their own or someone else’s. He felt Aki’s hand squeeze his own almost painfully as she looked around in abject horror. Sean briefly reflected on however grisly the scene was to him, how much worse it must’ve been for her to experience such a thing, being born and raised with these people. The thought made him squeeze the trembling foxgirl’s hand tighter, reassuringly, as though wordlessly trying to give her strength.

‘Aki! Sean!’ came a familiar female voice from down the road.

Nessi was hobbling up to them, wincing every now and then and clutching her bloodied shoulder with her hand. Her father, Nati, was following her closely, looking around constantly as though intent on preventing any further harm from befalling her daughter.

‘Nessi!’ Aki cried, hurrying forwards to her best friend and quickly pulling her into a hug, careful to avoid contact with the cheetah’s injury. ‘Oh god, sis, are you okay? What happened?’

‘I’m all right, sis,’ assured Nessi in a voice that was half-choked from her emotions and from the tight embrace Aki held her in.

‘Rider caught me as I tried to get outta there, and next thing I know, I – he got me in the shoulder,’ she said once Aki finally let her go, breathing deeply. ‘I was a goner … that is, until Sean showed up,’ she finished with a meaningful glance at Sean, who could see the deep gratitude in the spotted feline’s glittering brown eyes.

‘Wha— Sean?’ Aki said in surprise, looking around at him with her eyes wide. ‘You mean – Sean saved you?’

Sean merely shrugged, unsure what to say, as Nessi answered for him: ‘Yeah, he just came out of nowhere and – and – well, he knocked that Rider out; then he took me into an alley and started taking care of my shoulder and all …’

Aki looked like she didn’t know what more to do other than stare at Sean, beaming and her eyes wide with something akin to admiration, swimming with tears anew. But, before Sean could do anything more than look away noncommittally, he suddenly found himself pulled into some sort of bear-hug as Nati pulled Sean close to him, his yellow-furred head resting against Sean’s shoulder.

‘You saved my daughter,’ said Nati in a constricted voice, failing to suppress a sob. ‘You saved my baby girl. Thank you, Sean.’

Sean just stood there with the cheetah male hugging him tightly, not knowing how to react or what to say. He could feel a strange lump forming in this throat, making it difficult to speak.

‘Uh … thanks, Nati,’ he said awkwardly, flushing slightly and raising his arms as much as he could despite Nati blocking his mobility and giving the relief-wracked father a gentle hug of his own. After a few moments, Nati finally released him, taking a few steps back and gazing at him wordlessly, tears creeping down his cheeks. To Sean’s muted surprise, he felt his own eyes suddenly tear up, forcing him to blink hard several times to keep his vision from swimming out of focus.

As Aki and Nessi started talking about the day’s events in low voices and Nati wiped his tears away, looking embarrassed, staring around at the damaged village and its equally hurt population, it suddenly dawned on Sean just how grave the situation was – not just for what had happened, but especially, what was to come … and what had fallen upon him to do.

*

Mid-fall, day of attack, 2519 – evening

There isn’t much time, so I must be brief. Today, the village was attacked by a group whom the villagers refer to as the Dark Riders. They are apparently fighters from a nearby enemy anthro village with whom this village has apparently been feuding for longer than living memory. They came tinted in black with what appeared to be soot, wielding weapons including long wooden spears and small knives, weapons they handle with obvious skill. The attack was entirely unprovoked, and many villagers died. Over a hundred, out of the just under five hundred living in this village.

We were only able to defeat them once I successfully rallied the villagers and had them fight as a unit, coordinating our attacks and planning our moves to push them out of the village. Many lives were lost and many more were injured, including me (a good slice along the back, the infirmary patched that up nicely and it is expected to heal within the next few days).

Anyway. I can tell from experience that this isn’t over yet, and that these Riders are going to return in force sometime soon, most likely in the next two to three days. Now, Aki was able to assemble a village meeting tonight with the village elders forming this sort of “village council”, and I am to use this as a platform where I’ll announce my plans for our defensive and offensive strategies. I still don’t know how I’ll be able to convince anyone to join me, even with my rifles, and attack the Riders’ village; by all accounts, the villagers’ great fear exceeds their anger or desire for retribution, which is very bad for their survival odds. Which is why I have to do something.

The meeting is now commencing.

Sean clicked his pen shut, stowed it into his worn journal and slipped the little old book into his chest pocket. The fire at the center of the village square was burning grandly, casting hues of gold and red over the villagers assembled there, all seated around on the ground as they would during suppertime. There was no food to be found here, however, and the usual buzz of activity and lively discussion that habitually engulfed them was equally absent, replaced with an edgy silence and the occasional low voices wondering aloud what was going on.

Sean glanced at his side to Aki, who had an air of calm yet nervous determination on her face as she returned his look before indicating back to the front of the assembly. There, in front of the fire, a table of sorts had been set up where five individuals were seated. Wise Kovida was at their center, two other elders flanking him on each side. The village council.

The grizzled old goat was standing, his horned silhouette framed by the fire and making him a formidable sight despite his age. His keen yellow eyes surveyed the expectant villagers as every gaze was in turn fixed upon him. He cleared his throat, looking somber.

‘We are assembled here tonight by special request from Aki Elani,’ he announced. ‘She confided to us elders, and me personally, that we all needed to be present in order to hear what one of us has to say. Something quite important, given the nature of what happened today.’ Several stares swiveled towards Aki and Sean before looking back at Kovida.

‘Sean, this audience is for you,’ Kovida announced, gazing at him before sitting back down with the other elders, all of whom were also eying him closely.

With one last glance at Aki and a squeeze of her hand, Sean got to his feet and stepped forth to claim the position just before the elders’ table, in plain sight of everyone assembled there. Hundreds of pairs of eyes were fixed upon him with utmost interest, making him grow slightly hot under the collar as he always did when came the time for some sort of public speech or performance. However, one quick reassuring smile and nod from Aki, seated at the front lines of the crowd, and he began.

‘Thank you for your time,’ he started. ‘I believe I may have a plan for what to do to protect the village before … before the Dark Riders come back.’

He had worded this carefully and deliberately to gauge the crowd’s reaction. A subtle shiver seemed to course through them and some looked around in restrained alarm.

‘It is my belief that they will return after today’s attack. From what I understand, they’ve never been defeated and driven out before. I’m very certain that we have not heard the last of them. They will come back, in greater numbers and angrier, and unless we do something about it, they will ride straight through this place … and …’

He trailed off as he noticed their fearful stares, figuring it best to drop that particular line of thought.

‘However,’ he continued confidently, ‘we have something that they don’t. They may have strength and speed, but we have the element of surprise. Also, as you know, I still have some weapons from my … original home. They are very powerful and very deadly. Used against the Riders, they will never know what hit them.’

He paused for a moment, trying to parse what to say next.

‘Now, we have superior weapons and we retain the element of the surprise. And as long as we have those, we have control. What I am suggesting is a preemptive strike. We – I mean, a group of us – we go in, we go to their village, and we basically give them a show of force. We show them that we have the better weapons and that we can destroy them if we want. I’m not talking about killing anyone, or even hurting anyone, here –’ he hesitated, the stretched truth of this last statement momentarily hindering his thoughts. ‘All we need to do is to show them who’s in control.’

More nervous silence greeted his words, and he wondered how many were still mulling what he’d just said over in their heads, trying to understand the radical suggestion he was advancing.

‘There’s no need for any more violence,’ he said in a more solemn tone. ‘There’s no need for any more death, or any more pain, for anyone. All we need to do is to let them know that we aren’t gonna take it! We aren’t going to let them hurt us without fighting back, and that all we want is for them to leave – us – alone. If we have to be forceful to make our point … then we have no choice.’

He took a deep breath in preparation for the outcry he was sure was only moments away, and finished:

‘That’s all.’

He returned to his spot at Aki’s side, all too aware of every single pair of eyes in the village being fixed on his figure as he took a seat on the ground. He tried to avoid meeting anyone’s stare, yet couldn’t help but glance back at some of the stunned and worried faces aimed his way. A tense murmur quickly spread through the people assembled there as they all broke into quiet discussion about the risks and dangers of Sean’s plan, reminding Sean quite strongly of Aki’s own original objections and reticence. However, as with her, he was hoping he could convince them of the sense of his proposal.

At their table, the elders were huddled together, speaking in hushed and nervous tones as they went over Sean’s plan, apparently assessing the risks and viability of such an operation. As the minutes went by, agonizingly slowly, more and more of the villagers’ eyes turned to them in waiting for their decision. Sean just sat next to Aki, barely meeting anyone’s gaze, waiting patiently for the village’s unofficial leaders to end their quiet debate. He held Aki’s hand at his side; she squeezed back reassuringly.

Finally, the elders broke apart and regained their normal places, looking grave. Sean stiffened, unsure whether he should expect approval or rejection. Kovida cleared his throat.

‘We have carefully debated your … plan, Sean,’ said the old goat, ‘but we would like some … clarification on certain points before coming to a conclusion.’

‘Understood,’ said Sean with a quick nod.

Kovida took a deep breath, looking quite troubled. ‘I must say, you do seem to know where you are going with this. However, your plan sounds like it would be … extremely difficult to do, even under the best circumstances. You are asking us to gather a group of our people and … send them off to attack the Dark Riders? At their own village, where they will surely be at their strongest and best defended?’

‘I understand how it sounds,’ said Sean placatingly, ‘but the reality is that this will be a minimal risk operation. Not only that, but … this is what I do. This sort of stuff – infiltrating enemy territory, sneaking around and cutting them down from the inside, with only a small team to help me – this is what I’m good at. And, I’ve never failed. Not once. And, I don’t intend to let this become my first.’

A low buzz followed Sean’s words as the elders glanced at Sean and each other. Their faces were still filled with doubt, telling Sean that he still had a ways to go before gaining their support.

‘But,’ said Kovida somewhat hesitantly, ‘wouldn’t it be wiser, more prudent, to at least try to … settle this through negotiations instead?’

Sean stared up at him blankly.

‘Negotiations?’ he repeated, almost incredulously. ‘You – they come here, they ride through your village, they attack and butcher anyone they can find, males, females and cubs, for years and years and all for no reason at all … and you think you can settle this through negotiations?’

A new buzz of whispers and muttering arose. The elders stared at Sean wide-eyed, momentarily looking very much like ignorant children who’d been shown their obvious errors.

‘The time for negotiations is over, sir,’ said Sean calmly, adding that last word in an attempt to show he meant no disrespect. ‘If peaceful talks had worked, they would’ve worked years ago when they, the Dark Riders, first started grudging against this village, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion, here. They don’t want to negotiate. They don’t want to make peace. They’ve made that extremely clear with every innocent one of us that they’ve slain today, and all those other times before. All they want is to fight and to kill. That’s why we have to stop them with force.’

This time, not a whisper arose from the crowd filling the village square, rendering the night dead silent save for the crackling of the fire and the occasional rustling of cloth. Once more, Kovida and the elders merely sat there in silence, looking dumbfounded at Sean’s clarity and straightforwardness. It was obvious that no-one had ever stood up to them before as Sean was doing now, something that left them thoroughly unsettled.

After a few moments of heavy silence, Kovida cleared his throat, almost as though trying to regain his poise. Even before he spoke, Sean noticed with mounting exasperation how he still looked less than convinced; if anything, he looked almost … defiant.

‘But, what is the point in using violence to end violence?’ he announced. ‘If we stoop to their level, how are we any better than they are?’

‘We’re not stooping to their level,’ riposted Sean, a pinch of irritation bleeding into his tone. ‘We aren’t waging war on them, or rolling into their village to wipe them out. All we want is for them to leave us alone and to stop attacking us. As I said before, this would just be a show of force, nothing more. We go in, we scare them, and then we leave. That’s it. Nothing more.’

Kovida again looked put-down, yet he still kept that look of indecisiveness about him, a look mirrored by the other elders. Sean couldn’t believe it; what was their problem? Why were they so fearful, so unwilling to consider his idea and see how simple it was? Why were they acting so cowardly?

Finally, another elder spoke up.

‘What about the people you want to have come with you, Sean?’ said a wizened female rat seated first from the left, her dark beady eyes fixed upon him closely. ‘Where do you plan to get your … your warriors?’

‘I just need a few others, three or four at the most,’ said Sean assertively. ‘I only have three rifles, so we can’t have that many and still … guarantee their safety. Also, the smaller a group we are, the easier it’ll be for us to go in close without being seen.’

‘You know that our people are not trained to fight, yes?’ said the rat elder, sounding stern.

‘Uh – of course –’ began Sean tediously.

‘This plan is too dangerous,’ objected another elder, a brown-spotted hare with drooping ears and saggy jowls from the other end of the table. ‘We do not have enough people who are skilled enough to risk on such a mission.’

‘But we don’t –’ began Sean.

‘Indeed, this is dangerous, too dangerous,’ agreed another elder, an uptight-looking bat at Kovida’s left. ‘If we attempt this and our people are hurt or die, what good will it have done us then?’

‘No, that’s –’ started Sean, now irritated.

‘The chances of success are too small,’ grimly declared the fourth elder, a diminished-looking old bear seated between Kovida and the “not-enough-fighters” hare on the right. ‘We – it’s too dangerous –’

‘Yes, it’s very risky, we could lose everything …’

‘Wait, just listen –’

‘We’ve already lost too many of our own, there’s no point in risking everyone else on such a journey …’

‘Yes, it’s not a good idea …’

‘Even if we made it into the Riders’ village, we’d be attacked instantly …’

‘Yes, indeed …’

Sean sat there, dumbfounded and seething at the elders’ dithering, unrest and anger bubbling up in his stomach as he watched them babble on, searching for excuse after excuse to refuse his plan, the one chance they have at saving the village from the Riders’ oncoming onslaught. Their one chance at survival, and they were ignoring it, throwing it away like insecure dilettantes – like cowards –

‘ENOUGH!’

He’d shouted before he’d realized it, his frustration flashing over in an instant. He was on his feet without noticing he’d gotten up, standing firm before the shocked-looking elders, staring them down unfalteringly, his leadership instincts kicking in at once. Without thinking, he continued, riding a sudden wave of adrenaline.

‘I’ve told you all about my plan and you keep distorting what I say. If you don’t have the balls to fight your enemies, then I’ll do it for you! I am not gonna sit here and let everyone die just because you’re too scared and pathetic to do what needs to be done!’

He glared at them, breathing deeply and his face flushed, yet his mind oddly clear. The silence that had fallen around the village was deafening; the air seemed to buzz from the tension hanging over them following Sean’s outburst, and every pair of eyes was alternating between him and the gobsmacked elders. They’d certainly never had anyone tell them off in such a manner before, and it took them several moments before they could regain some of their previous composure.

‘Be careful, Sean,’ said Kovida tersely, staring at him and looking displeased. ‘We do not appreciate being talked to in such a manner. You cannot be a welcome member in good standing in this village if you go against our wishes.’

The elder’s warning swept through the crowd and seemed to electrify everyone there, bringing about a renewed hum of whispers and mutterings. Sean reflexively looked around, noticing all the surprised and grave faces aimed his way. He, who had become an accepted member of this village, who was welcome with open arms despite – or perhaps in part thanks to – being a human, whom all seemed to look up to, particularly since the events of earlier that day when he had single-handedly orchestrated the village’s liberation.

And now, he who now dared to stand up to their respected and beloved elders, a face-off of ideals and strategy, and openly declared that he would betray their wishes should it come to that – for the sake of the village and his friends and family.

Sean stood where he was, his gaze fixed upon the old goat’s own yellow eyes, not a waver detectable in his demeanor.

‘But I am not one of this village, am I?’ he finally replied in a low voice, indicting himself – his very human and non-anthro self. ‘I’m … I’m merely a visitor. A guest who has been welcome here and who has stayed for a long time … A guest, who is willing to sacrifice far more for this village and people than you are.’

Once more, the elders simply stared at him, along with everyone else, at a complete loss for words.

*

Aki didn’t know what to think as she sat there next to Sean, her paws clenched anxiously in her lap as she stared up at him wide-eyed, her bushy tail giving the occasional twitch as it lay curled around her. She was amazed at how brave he was – no-one had ever corrected the council of elders before, much less spoken down to them as though they were children, as he just had. That he was willing, even rearing, to go it alone and take on the Dark Riders on his own … she couldn’t help but feel astonished and enamored with the heart, loyalty and devotion he was showing. However, she also felt a great fear welling up inside her; the whole point of Sean’s plan, the reason for which this meeting was even called, was so that he would assemble a team and head into the Dark Riders’ lair with others to watch his back. Not alone, unaided by anything but mere skill and luck, a lone wolf who was certain to be killed.

It was all she could do to keep staring at him worriedly from his side as he stared down the village elders, not willing to concede his position in the matter. It was a silent battle of wills, that of the maverick outsider versus the respected elders, and it was anyone’s guess how this evening was going to end.

The council of elders slowly huddled together, glancing at Sean as they conferred about what to do with this troublesome and indomitable human. The minutes passed so very slowly, and even though there was no clue as to how their deliberation would conclude, Aki noticed that Sean looked rather forlorn, as if he could already sense what their final decision would be. So could she; she knew that they couldn’t reasonably banish him from the village despite his headstrongness, especially after having saved their skins in the day’s earlier events; on the other hand, they obviously had little intention of allowing his plan to be carried out. And, especially in her experience as a lifelong villager, she knew that none of the other anthros would dare betray their elders’ ruling, having been brought up to respect and love them – the very existence of the village council was a testament to such.

Finally, after what had felt like an interminable hiatus, the five elders at their table broke apart and regained their original positions, looking solemn and forbidding. Kovida once again stood up at their center and cleared his throat, staring hard at Sean, who didn’t so much as waver.

‘The council has discussed the plan at length, and we have come to our decision.’

He took a deep breath before continuing:

‘The motion is rejected. A team shall not be assembled to be sent to their deaths to the Dark Riders’ midst.’

A collective gasp was heard from the villagers, immediately followed by a renewed buzz of hushed conversation. Aki cringed, feeling as though she’d been hit in the gut. She may have felt that such a refusal to go along with Sean’s plan was coming, but that had not made the event any less of a shocking and miserable blow when it came. She worriedly looked up at Sean, expecting to see him looking angry and grim, or even dejected – but was perplexed nearly out of her wretchedness to see him with quite a calm, unruffled air about him. He didn’t appear angry or miserable at all as he kept his gaze fixed upon the elders; if anything, she thought he looked almost … excited? He wasn’t smiling, but she thought she could sense a very peculiar, very unexpected aura about him – like someone who’d just been issued a challenge they couldn’t resist.

He took a deep breath and sighed.

‘If that’s the case, then I will not ask that anyone accompany me when I leave … tomorrow morning at daybreak. I would also suggest …’ he added as the elders’ eyes went wide once more, ‘that no-one try and stop me.’

He’d added those last words slowly and deliberately, and his tone made it quite clear: he was doing this, whether they liked it or not.

From where he stood, he suddenly turned around, shooting Aki a quick glance – she couldn’t decipher the enigmatic look on his face, as though it were a blend of conflicting emotions – before abruptly turning about and leaving, trudging his way through the crowd of anthros who did their best to scoot out of his way as he passed, their heads following him, all looking equally stunned. The elders, themselves, looked particularly flabbergasted. This was obviously an evening that they were not going to forget anytime soon.

Aki watched as Sean left the village square and departed in the direction of their hut, not once looking back over his shoulder as he left the light of the fire and the darkness of the night cloaked him from sight. Without even thinking about the council anymore, she hurried to her feet and went after him, barely registering Kovida’s call behind her announcing the end of the village meeting and the rest of the villagers slowly getting to their feet and shuffling around, their stares following her out of the clearing and out of sight.

*

Mid-fall, day of attack & village council, 2519 – late night

It’s over. I went before the village council and I pleaded my case, but none of the elders were even willing to so much as understand what I was saying. In the end, as I feared, they refused to support my endeavor, which means that my plan of forming a small unit with other villagers will never happen.

Of course, this says nothing about myself and what I can or cannot do, and I fully intend to go it alone. After all, I’ve dealt with far more difficult circumstances before and have always completed my assignments. I will not let anyone down.

My greatest concern regarding this mission is, of course, Aki. She is extremely worried and followed me after I left, trying for a few moments to get me to reconsider, to think of a better idea, but I know that there is none. She soon stopped, though … Perhaps she understands that she cannot change my mind about this. This is the only shot we’ve got, and if I’m the only one who can do it, so be it.

She also pleaded with me to let her come with me, even if it violates the elders’ wishes; she argued that she was good with the rifles, which I certainly know is true. But I cannot allow her to come along on this operation. Not only would it place her in bad standing with the elders (and possibly, other villagers as well), which is not something I wish to do to her, but the very idea of Aki putting herself in such danger is simply out of the question. This is my mission and my problem, not hers.

I do admit that I am a fair bit apprehensive about what is to come and what will happen once I reach the Dark Riders’ own village. After all, I’ve never truly gone on a mission lone wolf; I’ve always had my comrades with me to watch each other’s backs. But this time, I simply have no choice.

We will see. It’s now time for bed … I must get up early in the morning. Here’s hoping I return to make another entry in this journal.

Sean O’Neil
Lone Wolf, anthro village, Earth