BY RAGNA A. RUTHVEN
Sinda, 6th of Martius, 1970 AA.
Felrum Winterum pushed his hood back, wincing at the bite of the icy trickle that dripped onto his face. The storm showed no sign of abating; it had swept in from the Sea of Mulken, drenching the streets and sending all those with more than a lick of common sense indoors. The rabbit pulled his rain-soaked cloak tighter in a futile effort to ward off the chill as he slipped from shadow to shadow.
Having never placed stock in superstition, a string of ill omens had nonetheless seemed to pepper his every step since he’d set foot in Eirden.
‘Mother’s own rotten fortunes…’ he thought with a quiet sigh.
Crows had crossed overhead on his way to Elfort. In Tirsi, he’d witnessed the full moon in a pond while the skies were thick with clouds. A shock ran up and down his back when he thought over his mission again; each happening and every aspect of it served to disgruntle him further.
‘Got no choice.’
Scowling despite his caution, Felrum glanced about. The district he found himself traversing en route to his destination carried a distinct unpleasant odor that clung to his senses, quickening his pulse and sending a tendril of fear down his spine. Eirden was a predator city—and as a rabbit, he acutely understood the dangers. There were even whispers of foxes in the area. He had heard they considered rabbits a delicacy. Felrum hoped beyond hope they remained oblivious to his visit. Those were the sort of rumors that he was none-too-eager to test.
With a nervous gulp, he resumed his skulking. The Garden of Sancus wasn’t far. Hopefully, he’d get some answers. Stepping off the street, he entered a secluded courtyard. Felrum felt his heart pound; a grizzled, tall, ugly figure stood beside a great gnarled oak tree in the center of the courtyard…
‘Great, just my bloody luck.’ Felrum studied him carefully; he looked like a soldier, and the rabbit could imagine he would be a nasty customer in a fight. The hyena’s ears twitched as he turned to face the rabbit, and a low growl issued from his throat that was felt more than heard.
Felrum flinched at the sound; the hyena was clearly aware of his presence and expressing his displeasure. The rabbit briefly contemplated slipping away and attempting the meeting later, but he dismissed the thought. His contract required him to be here, and the appointed time was quickly approaching; whether he liked it or not, they would have to share the space for a while. The rabbit pulled his hood down tightly, partly to ward off the rain and primarily to shield himself from hidden curious eyes. He rose onto his tiptoes, striving to appear more imposing. Keeping a cautious distance from the hyena, Felrum settled onto a bench near the wall, ready to bolt at any sign of danger. A thousand questions plagued his mind, and the sickening omens he'd felt wouldn’t dissipate. After all, he was in a land of predators.
The buildings around him were cloaked in a mix of shadow and mist, with the occasional flickering light from nearby windows piercing the darkness. The air carried a blend of damp earth, aged wood, and the indescribable scents of a city that seemed more awake at night, its usual hustle subdued and made more foreboding by the storm.
His left ear twitched as a faint click reverberated from the nearby building, accompanied by the hushed shuffle of footsteps; a moment later, a door opened with a soft creak, a shaft of yellow light spilling out into the courtyard, as a diminutive weasel stepped out onto the cobbles and sneezed boisterously. The weasel rubbed his paws together as though seeking warmth in the cold. Felrum studied the mammal and felt the fur on his ears stand up straight. Despite the expensive attire, an embellished doublet with matching breeches, there was something off about his demeanor, something dangerous and repulsive. He gave off the impression of a disheveled creature hastily clad in opulent garments as part of a last-minute hurried production, as if he was playing a role. His beady little eyes glittered with some unknowable malicious intellect.
The weasel sneezed again before turning abruptly to face the hyena.
“Ah, you are all here. Good, good. Forgive me. It’s been a harsh winter,” he spoke with a low phlegmy voice. The hyena snorted dismissively, taking a few steps forward, his paw casually resting on the hilt of his sword.
“Welcome to Eirden, good friends. There is no need for applause. I am Jiremar Solster, the representative of your esteemed employer. I trust that the three of you have received important messages explaining why you are here on his behalf?”
'Three?' Thought Felrum, confusion flitting across his face as he looked around. Something detached itself from the shadows at the weasel’s word, and Felrum stepped back involuntarily as something out of a nightmare stepped into view. Felrum had only heard about crocodiles before staring at this one; the stories hadn’t done them justice. The creature’s long muzzle was full of crooked yellow teeth, giving it the appearance of a macabre smile. Slitted eyes glitter in the light as the reptile sidled closer, claws clicking on the cobblestones.
“Well then, better late than never,” Jiremar muttered, barely containing clear displeasure, “Now, I suppose you all have questions, and as they say in Eirden, time is money, so let us get started, shall we?” Jiremar said with an oily smile as he turned to scrutinize each of them.
Felrum felt as if he was being measured for the block. The weasel chuckled; he cleared his throat and hopped onto one of the bricks, edging around the oak tree. The hyena growled as his eyes darted suspiciously between Felrum, the weasel, and the crocodile, as if trying to decide who was the biggest threat.
“What’s this about? The message said nothing about others. I work alone,” the hyena demanded.
Jiremar looked around and shrugged dismissively.
“We never guaranteed you exclusivity, as we deemed that the needs of your most generous benefactor exceeded what one hired associate could handle, even one with your ah… formidable reputation, hah,” The hyena dismissed the compliment with a derisive snort.
“Based on your ‘mysterious’ benefactors’ reputation, I thought you’d have the coin to hire real professionals. Instead, you bring a rabbit who looks like he should still be suckling at his moms’ tits, and a swamp lizard that looks more dead than alive. I don’t need to tell you that I am in no mood for filthy hucksters?”
Felrum jumped; and felt his ears burn at the insult. Adjusting his hood, he walked towards the weasel, careful to avoid the hyena's gaze; he reached into his cloak and pulled out the scroll containing his contract.
“I-I was hired for a job. You know this person?” Felrum said, his voice soft yet loud enough for the others to hear.
“Of course I know him, he’s your very very esteemed employer, of course, quite generous wouldn’t you agree?” asked Jiremar.
“Very. The sooner I can meet our benefactor the better,” was all he could say. He reached out a gloved hand to the weasel, shaking it firmly. A low rumble caused Felrum to glance over his shoulder. The crocodile who had stood motionless had darted forward. He walked with an odd, lumbering grace; a force of nature rolling across the cobbles, his long tail wagging back and forth behind him, sending up a spray from the cobbles as he moved.
“Brother-where is?—where is my brother, mammals who are?” growled the crocodile, a voice that sounded like crushed stones, his inflection odd and heavily accented.
“They are your friends, of course, for the task; think of them as such,” said Jiremar, stepping back slightly. As the crocodile slammed his tail heavily into the cobbles. The reptile rolled his head to one side, eyes sweeping over Felrum and the hyena.
“Friends. No. Have I—I have no friends. Want brother? No pop-up friends!” he growled, his left claw twitching spasmodically; Jiremar snorted.
“You do now. New friends, a new cheery, happy family. Unlike your brother,” the weasel began, but then quickly caught himself, “I mean… forgive me, I don’t know why I said that; that was in poor taste,” Jiremar hastily apologized, noticing the crocodile’s eyes narrowing into dangerous slits. A thunderous, angry bellow then erupted from the crocodile's maw, the sheer force of it rattling the windows of the nearby buildings.
“How dare you y-ou dare? Azlea. Where? WHERE IS HE!” Growled Zyra as he lumbered towards the weasel, his eyes wide and maw gaping.
"Easy there, scaly! I don't have your brother, but if you lay even one claw on me, I swear you'll never find him!" Jiremar sputtered, rapidly backpedaling from the advancing crocodile. He held his paws out in a placating gesture, trying to diffuse the tension. The crocodile stopped just a few feet away from Jiremar, fixing him with a baleful stare, his head tilted to one side in a menacing manner.
Felrum watched intently as the crocodile seemed to weigh his options, rocking subtly from side to side. A noticeable twitch in the creature's left paw caught the rabbits attention, signaling the crocodile's barely restrained agitation.
“Listen, I will. For now,” he growled, snapping his jaws shut with a resounding clack.
Jiremar hastily retreated towards the hyena, who regarded him with evident contempt.
“I think what the belly dragger means to say is you best start getting to the point if you want to keep your hide intact,” said the hyena, putting out a paw to stop the weasel’s retreat.
“Is that a threat?” Jiremar demanded, attempting to smooth down his waistcoat with an air of dignity.
“More like a warning, runt,” the hyena said, “I’ll go along with whatever game you seem to be playing, but if you’re wasting my time-” the hyena’s arm shot out, grabbing Jiremar’s collar and hoisting him off the ground. After giving him a forceful shake, he growled, “I’ll rip your throat out,” and then unceremoniously dropped the weasel onto the cobblestones. Stepping back under the cover of a nearby tree, the hyena cast an appraising glance over Felrum and the crocodile.
Slowly, Jiremar picked himself up, his glare seething with fury as he futilely tried to brush the mud from his finely tailored clothes. Eventually giving up, he took a deep breath, regaining a semblance of his usual composure.
“Okay, it seems a basic manual on manners might do us all some good. A touch of gratitude wouldn’t hurt either. Fine, let me distill the situation you three are clearly too unappreciative to wrap your heads around,” He then thrust his finger outward, pointing decisively, “You hyena fucked a warwolf and got an entire branch of the league’s army hot on your tail. That lonely scaly over there has a brother who’s gone missing since my last manicure, and our rabbit friend here seeks to get a name pulled from one of the cradle’s deadliest contracts. You all have received assistance to pull you out of this jumble, so perhaps a modicum of respect for the messenger wouldn’t be too much to ask,” Jiremar snarled, revealing a set of needle-sharp teeth.
“Now we all know what you three did to get yourselves into this mess; perhaps you would also like to know how to get yourselves out of it?” he added, glaring at the hyena, who looked back at him unfazed. Felrum shifted nervously; he didn’t enjoy having his secrets exposed, but the weasel may have inadvertently done them a favor by weakening everyone’s position.
“How help? Small mammal dead, smaller mammal deaders, no see point in helping dead mammals,” rumbled the crocodile, his tone tinged with thoughtfulness.
Felrum found himself agreeing silently, ‘Scaly has a point. If I don’t get this contract pulled… well, how long can I hide?’ He shook his head, dispelling the worrisome thought. Success was the only option, and if aiding these two was necessary for his own survival, then so be it.
“Unfortunate as it may be, scaly, you're all in the same boat. If you hope to save yourselves, you'll stick together. Leave now, and you'll likely find yourself adorning the city gates by dawn. And you hyena, our adversaries will ensure your hide and, let's say, ‘personal jewels’, are showcased at the column of New Rushaya as a warning to any lowly creature aspiring to overreach his station within a week. And the rabbit? Run, hide, it won't matter. The blades will catch up, and that will be your end. So, I suggest you all make a decision now. Will you take on the job, or not?” Jiremar declared, pacing and pointing at each of them as he spoke.
“Enough with the threats. Just tell us what your boss wants,” the hyena growled again, clearly unimpressed.
“Thank you, an actually appropriate question,” Jiremar replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
The weasel straightened his back and cleared his throat once more, emphasizing the gravity of what he was about to disclose.
"Your very esteemed employer has a very simple mission. There are three individuals in this city who need to be, let's say, permanently removed," he said, making a throat-slitting gesture. He raised three fingers. "A snow leopard in Korssin Barracks, a corsac fox in Starfall Tavern, and a maned wolf in Raichsfort Castle. Each elimination will resolve one of your respective predicaments," Jiremar explained, rubbing his paws together with a hint of malice.
Vincenn snorted. "Less gloating, more details," he demanded.
“Very well, the snow leopard is female and is currently staying in the Korssin barracks. Just a few blocks from here.” The hyena looked suspiciously at Jiremar, and Felrum had to admit if she was that close, why hadn’t he had her dealt with already?
“What will we be walking into? I assume the barracks will have plenty of guards about,” the hyena inquired.
“No guards, she is fully exposed, just waiting for your knives to penetrate her repeatedly,” The weasel started to choke on his joke, almost coughing, his face contorting as if he was about to sneeze, but he quickly regained his composure. The hyena smirked at that.
“You’re making it sound more fun than it’s likely to be. The barracks are going to be crawling with soldiers. I have no problem offing the cat, but I have no intention of dying just so your boss can get his jollies.”
“Very well, she might have obtained the support of a Rakassar or two to act as her bodyguards, but that is hardly insurmountable,” said Jiremar smoothly.
“Never heard of them. But any soldier with a title is bound to be some sort of big shot,” snarled the hyena as he gestured wildly at Jiremar, who seemed to wilt under his verbal tirade slightly.
Felrum listened to the conversation and felt sick; “Find someone else to be your assassin; I don’t do wetwork unless you can give me a reason why I should kill her,” said Felrum as casually as he could.
“Growing a conscience, are we? Maybe your enemies will be swayed by that cute little face… before they plunge their daggers into you again and again and again; you have fun thinking about that for the rest of your life, rabbit,” the hyena hissed. Felrum opened his mouth to protest, but the hyena cut him off.
“A life is a life, and I’ve taken them for less. If it makes you feel better, I’ll do the killing, and you can keep those little paws clean, bunny boy.”
“Excellent, it is always a pleasure working with professionals,” said the weasel, grinning toothily. Felrum hung his head, a sickly feeling of dread forming in his gut; even if he wasn’t the one to do the deed, he was still complicit in murder… but what option did he have?
“What did she do to deserve this?” Jiremar rolled his eyes in disbelief as he looked at Felrum.
“Isn’t it enough that she angered your benefactor? She is a vile thing that dines on fresh rabbits daily; killing her would be a mercy, I assure you. Actually, let’s just say that of all your targets, they have it coming,” said Jiremar as he pulled out a heavy bag and shook it. The sound of coins clanking loudly together.
“And to help soothe your conscience, we will provide monetary sums after dispatching each of the targets,” he continued.
“The leopard…. what if she knows where brother?” asked the crocodile slowly and carefully, enunciating his words.
“We’ll just interrogate her… thoroughly,” the hyena replied sternly. The crocodile tilted his head, contemplating this, then cracked his maw slightly in what passed for a reptilian smile.
“You can kill them afterward, okay?” said Vincenn. The reptile rolled his head from side-to-side, body swaying ponderously.
“Zyra, name is… Zyra,” the crocodile finally introduced himself.
“Summer Stane, a pleasure to meet you all,” he said, his voice raspy yet soft.
“I’m Alpha-Lieutenant Vincenn, Twelfth Legion’s Fifth Platoon. You two can call me Vincenn,” the hyena stated, then shot a stern look at the weasel, "You, however, will address me as lieutenant."
Jiremar clapped his paws together, his tone dripping with sarcasm. "Isn’t this just precious? All of us getting well acquainted with each other, and… Of course, Lieutenant," He produced a note and a small pen from a nested pocket. Vincenn ignored the weasel's antics, his gaze shifting from Zyra to Felrum, appraising each in turn.
Felrum could feel Vincenn's evaluating eyes on him. The hyena's prowess in combat was unquestionable, but their task required more than brute force; it demanded skill and intelligence. Felrum wondered if Vincenn possessed enough of both to succeed.
"What's your specialty?" Vincenn inquired.
"Bows, slings. I can track almost anything if you give me the time to read the signs. Skilled with blades too—sabers, daggers," Felrum listed, then shrugged.
"When necessary, I do what's needed," He hesitated, unwilling to confess how this detachment made the act of killing more bearable.
As rain pattered around them, a distant hunting bird's call pierced the air. Vincenn's ears perked up, his demeanor shifting to one of alertness.
"I need to take a walk," Vincenn announced abruptly, turning on his heel and striding away.
"H-Hey!" Jiremar sputtered, watching the hyena's retreating form in bewilderment. Felrum eyed the yeen before slipping into the shadows to follow Vincenn, keeping him just within sight.
‘He's moving fast. Must be something urgent,’ Felrum thought as he observed Vincenn’s swift pace.
Vincenn navigated through several streets before reaching a small park, dimly illuminated by a couple of streetlamps. He halted suddenly, then let out a loud, piercing whoop. In response, a falcon swooped down from the night sky, a blur of feathers, and perched atop a lamppost. It peered down at the hyena, who extended his arm. The bird ruffled its feathers, then gracefully descended onto his arm.
Felrum tried to eavesdrop, but the steady drumming of the rain muffled their exchange. The falcon and hyena appeared to be in deep conversation for several minutes. Felrum contemplated the risks of moving closer to overhear them. Just as he began inching forward, the falcon abruptly took flight, soaring into the sky and disappearing among the black clouds.
“You have five seconds to come out rabbit before I gut you like a fish,” said Vincenn menacingly as he turned and looked directly at Felrum. Who swallowed nervously before stepping out of the shadows.
“Curiosity killed the cat, so they say. I expect it does the same thing to rabbits… or crocs,” growled Vincenn, his paw resting on his sword hilt.
“Croc?” Asked Felrum cautiously as the hyena glowered at him for a long moment before responding.
“You’re good at skulking, but the croc is no slouch either. He’s been tailing you,” At Vincenn's words Felrum spun around, scanning the shadows. To his astonishment, he realized Vincenn was correct. Zyra peeled himself from the darkness and approached them, stopping nearby. The only sounds were his slow, reptilian breathing and the steady patter of rain. Vincenn surveyed them again, his expression calculating.
Felrum, taken aback, couldn't hide his surprise. He prided himself on his acute senses, yet he hadn't heard Zyra’s approach. His heart raced, and he felt a twinge of admiration mixed with a newfound wariness. How had such a large creature managed to approach so stealthily? He glanced at Zyra, reassessing the threat he posed.
“Weasel, back inside go, said bring proof for coin, said you are ob… obnoxious bastard- slammed door,” the reptile reported, his face screwed up in concentration.
“Been called worse,” said Vincenn nonchalantly before looking directly at Felrum.
“Look rabbit, I don’t know how it is they do things in the playground you call a state, but I am no playmate and this is not a game. You do what you have to do to survive, same for you scaly. I am here for my own hide, and it’s worth more than both of yours combined,” The hyena started to walk off, but a low growl from the crocodile stopped him.
“E… get… answers together,” rumbled Zyra, and Felrum jumped on the opportunity, they needed the yeen if they were going to pull this off, and he had no desire to work with the crocodile alone, the thing clearly wasn’t right in the head.
“No offense, but we stand a better chance if we work together. I'm certain you're skilled. Can you take on two or three Rakassars in a fight and still take on the leopard?” Piped up Felrum, trying to drive the point home.
“Help… Yena… Yena, help me find… brother,” said Zyra.
Vincenn grumbled something under his breath.
“You do what I say when I say it. We won’t have time for a debate when this kicks off, and if you run, you are on your own... I won’t give a rhino’s ass if you live or die after that. Same for you, scaly.”
Vincenn leaned down and whispered in the rabbit's ear.
“I catch even a whiff of turn coating, and I will eat you alive,” Felrum flinched and nodded vigorously at his understanding. He didn’t doubt for an instant that the hyena was serious.
“Let’s go,” said Vincenn as he led the way down Mardor street towards the barracks in the distance…