Author Topic: The Culling  (Read 67 times)

Tooley Bostay

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The Culling
« on: September 19, 2017, 06:33:59 PM »
~~The following post is a collaboration between~~
Ander, Bechtel, Laurence Copeland, and Tope Benwrath

A black flag rustled over the training ground door, the image of three beasts battling in a ring painstakingly sewn onto the fabric. Tope beat his fists against the large, sand-filled bag, doing his best to ignore the reminder of what was coming.

"The Culling," Deputy Wimmick had called it. "Most of you will die tomorrow, so make a good show of it!"

While Captain Whip stood a distance away watching the slaves react to the news, his lieutenants explained the rest of the details:  The slaves would be battling volunteers, the former unarmed and the latter carrying whatever they were comfortable with. Tope's ears perked up as he listened to them explain that if a slave managed to kill a volunteer, they would be automatically saved from the rest of the Culling, and he ignored the bluecoats as they added something about about "the first steps toward fame and glory."

Over the last week, Tope had behaved himself, and had slowly scored a few points for himself, keeping track with the light and dark gray bags of filched cloth he kept under a pile of straw in the Drag. He taught a few beasts how to throw a punch and how to take one, occasionally gave a bit of his meal to some of the other slaves, and kept himself from taking a rock to Whip's face. The rat seemed convinced that Tope would try to escape at any moment, and as much as Tope wanted to explain that his father had never even mentioned the Crater before he died, he doubted the word of a slave counted for much in Whip's eyes.

Still, Tope kept his eyes open during the week, taking note of the few areas he was permitted to visit. He looked at the gaps in some of the walls and other half-finished projects left by construction workers; overworked and inattentive builders who were frustrated with the slaves, the guards, and each other; the ladders and scaffolding that were meticulously removed or guarded every night; and the bluecoats who roamed the halls at all hours of the day and night. With business still to attend to in Northvale, he had to find some way out, but the Crater was being transformed from a prison to a fortress.

Kill a volunteer! The words echoed in his head, another choice for him to make in the coming day.

Tope didn't know any of the volunteers. Tope knew Fate would frown upon him killing most of the slaves, but the volunteers all chose to enter the Arena. To murder unarmed strangers, to take pleasure in the deaths of beasts whose only crime was unfortunate circumstances was monstrous! Surely Fate would not penalize him for sending just one of those creatures to the grave. He would be protecting the slaves! That had to count for something.

Snowflakes melted on Tope's eyelashes and he raised a paw to clear the moisture away. He knew what he had to do, but as he beat against the sand bag, a touch of doubt disturbed his usual calm assurance.

"Oy!" a blue-clad sea otter shouted at him. "Back to the Drag, it's lights out!"

Tope gave the bag one more left hook before he turned toward the guard. Another of Whip's spies, he told himself. They all were. Always around to tell him what to do, where to go, and, if the rat had his way, how to die. Allowing himself to be led away from the training grounds, he acknowledged the possibility that he could be killed the next day.

He would kill, if that kept him alive, but he would not perform. If he was going to die, it would be on his terms.

~ ~ ~

"I have good news and I have bad news. The good news? You're finally in a good enough condition to leave the Curatorial Hall."

Laurence stared at the vixen healer through red-rimmed, feverish eyes. "And the bad news?"

"The bad news? We, um... we think it would be in your best interest to use a walking cane in the coming days."

"A cane. No. No, that's not necessary," said the otter with confidence. He propped himself up and sat at the edge of the bed. Laurence tried to stand up but lances of pain shot up from his knee and forced him to sit. "I don't need it, doctor. Truly."

"Well then. When you change your mind, it'll be right here." The healer placed the cane against the bedpost, and turned away to leave.

"Just a moment more of your time, marm." said Laurence. As the vixen was turning back around he continued, "Tell me, doc. Were they able to find Sondern? weapon, I mean."

"They couldn't find it." She was turned away once more to leave.

Laurence growled. His mustache was furiously twitching as he replied, "You're telling me. That you can't find my weapon. In a small. Circular. Arena?"

"I don't know how. I don't know why. Now can you please let go of my coat so I can get back to my job?" said the vixen indignantly. The otter noticed his fierce grip on the end of her outfit and he released it.

"It's because Nire wants t' reward ye, that's why."

Laurence looked to see Ansley step through the doorway, teeth revealed in a sneer. The stoat's jaw worked furiously on a clump of chewing tobacco, and he took regular pauses to spit.

"What do you mean reward me?"

"Lord Nire insisted once yer weapon was found, that there were... modifications made to it."

Ansley held out a paw to help Laurence out from the bed. The otter placed all his weight on the smaller stoat and the two collapsed to the ground in a heap.

"Use th' blinkin' cane they gave ye, y' moron!" snarled Ansley, shoving the gladiator away from him.

At the insistence of his trainer, Laurence reluctantly reached for the crutch and used it to prop himself back up. He took a few steps with the cane and admitted only to himself that it indeed helped.

Once he felt confident enough to leave, he followed after the bluecoat out from the room and they made their way out the Curatorial Hall. The few windows they passed depicted the same dreary winter landscape of the season, soiling an otherwise perfect sunny afternoon.

"What... 'modifications' did they make to Sondern?" Laurence asked, his chest constricting.

Ansley chuckled, patting his shoulder. "Don't get yerself in such a twirl, mate. Ain't nothin' big, jus' a surprise fer ye." He winked, then continued, "Did ye know, ev'rybeast from here t' the edges o' Northvale has started callin' ye th' Frostfang."

"I know," interrupted Laurence, flinching at the new moniker, "I hate that name."

"Ye should feel honored. It's not often a gladiator is leavin' th' arena fer th' first time an' the crowd is already chantin' their Crater name. Ye inspired them."

Their trekking brought them to the open entrance hall of the Crater. Laurence couldn't help but notice the countless banners hanging against the pillars and from the ceilings depicting three creatures in a circle, locked in combat. Heading in the direction of an increasing cacophony of sounds, he asked, "What is all this? Is there a special Crater event of sorts going on today?"

"Aye. Follow me. I got somethin' that should cheer ye up." His voice had almost been lost in the din of noise. An enormous mass of creatures from all walks of life were packed in the hall, forming something that only halfway resembled a line.

The two were able to cut a swath through the horde of visitors and Ansley only needed to march in front donning his blue coat for the score of sentries to let the pair pass by.

Inside the tunnel it filtered into stairs. Then the arena. And what a spectacle to see! Above Laurence, to his left, and to his right, spectators in their seats. Before him was the snow-covered arena. Seeing the place where he lost Sodern only made him miss the ancient sword that much more.

"What's going on?" asked Laurence as he followed the stoat into a closed-off section of the stands, reserved for other volunteers. As they took their seats, the otter observed a limited number of weapons placed in the center of the arena. Some of them were half-buried into the blanket of snow. "What is all this?"

"It's the Culling, volunteer. Jus' sit back and enjoy the show-"

The booming voice of Nire Borean cut across the bluecoat stoat. "Good afternoon, maidens and gentlebeasts!"

~ ~ ~

Ander's head hurt.

First, he was sleeping--fitfully, but he dreamt of adoring fans and gold and showers of wine. And then suddenly, snapping him out of his rest, he was hauled onto his paws and berated by an officer for not waking up at the order. More precisely, for not being awake enough to hear the order.

He held his paws akimbo and drowned the bluecoats in abhorrent words, but they did not punish him because they told him he would die today.

Ander stood in front of the assembly of new slaves after being marched up to a brilliant golden gate.
The bluecoats didn't open it just yet, and they told the Culling participants to wait and stand still.
The guards gave a monotonous recap of what would be going down, rules and regulations and a final farewell, but once again the words were meaningless and the farewell danced through Ander's tired ears.

"I'm not going to die today," he mused in a slurred whisper to the stoat standing next to him.
"Nobeast's going to be stupid enough to fight each other anyway. I say, the moment we get out there, we turn on them."

Before the one-sided conversation had time to continue, Ander heard commotion from the other side of the gates and noticed that ever-so-hated golden lynx, Nire Borean, addressed the audience.

"Maidens and gentlebeasts! My bluecoats and I have worked very hard to find contestants from every walk of life, and I am more than proud to announce that we have a very special show for you all today.  It is my pleasure to introduce this month's Culling!"

The way he moved was so gallant, so showy, it made Ander drop his sleepiness for full-on envy.
He's showing me up!
The weasel squirmed where he stood and ground his teeth together.
"Forget what I said before. When I get in there, I'll make everybeast drop dead from a mere glimpse of my talent! I am ready!"

The gates swung open.
Ander's heart leapt into his throat.

Nothing in the world could ever make him ready.

~ ~ ~

The arena drummed heavy with the prattle of expectant beasts—an anticipant shudder of a predator before their prone, helpless meal. Beneath the hungry gaze of the audience, Bechtel huddled among the forty gathered slaves. Sobs and growls alike bubbled forth all around him.

“I don’t want to die,” whimpered a volemaid beside Bechtel.

“We’ll make it through this, Ms. Adelaide.” A rat placed a comforting paw on her shoulder.

He stiffened at the motion, but remembered Molly’s words the first day of their training, “Only ten of you will walk out from that arena.”

The iron condemnation shackled around their throats quelled Bechtel’s disgust. Thirty beasts in short time would be dead. He regarded Tope, who wore an indomitable mask as he whispered encouragements to the beasts around him. Then Ander, whose usual flamboyant pomp fell to a primal fear. In a strange way, Bechtel envied the stoat, and understood the weasel.

None of them deserved this.

"Take a good look at your prospective gladiators!" Nire's voice cut loud across the arena. "Not all of these beasts will live to see another hour, but those who are strong, those who are bold and brave, they will deserve the honor of fighting for your cheers in the future!"

As the crowd cheered once more, Bechtel ignored the tyrant's further ramblings to focus on the ten well-armored volunteers pacing at the other end of the arena. Their tails flicked at the blanket of snow atop the sand as they brandished their assortment of weaponry. These were skilled beasts who came here only to kill. Woodlanders and vermin alike.

Winter’s chill fell from his shoulders. The hackles of his neck stood up as he took a preparatory step forwards.

“Stay calm.” Molly’s voice again, spoken this time overtop plates of undercooked potatoes. “The Culling is made to frighten and anger you. Nire has no use for cowards or fools. Everything is designed to weed those beasts out first.”

Bechtel stepped back as five days of aches, pains, and wisdom quickly refreshed in his mind. He remembered her warning to avoid the few weapons set out in the middle of the field—a trap only for stupid beasts. He remembered the dangers of staying too close the edges of the arena, laden with spear-filled trapdoors. He remembered her cautioning him to avoid any rash decisions, to only concentrate on avoiding attention.

Nire’s dulcet proclamations ended. The crowd’s hunger fell to silence. The volunteers stopped pacing. The slaves quivered and quaked. The echoes told Bechtel of the lynx’s claws rapping against an aged warhorn. He tried to stop his own heart from crashing so hard against his chest. All waited for the siren to signal the slaughter.

In a moment, the world shattered.

A horn, blaring out like the dying cry of a mythic beast, then overtaken and swallowed by the thunder of the crowd. A torrent of paws and limbs as the slaves scattered, pushing and shoving until Bechtel struck the cold sands. A cry, a shout, a sound, but none of the echoes returned from the roar of the battlefield. Only blighted eyes and shifting blurs to show him the chaos unfolding.

He searched for Molly’s wisdom in the chaos, but heard nothing over the screams of the slaves. Over the laughter of the volunteers. He huddled to the ground, gasping in too-heavy air. Seconds passed. Maybe minutes. Perhaps hours.

“Hoy!”  Paws gripping at his wings, pulling him upright. “Are ye all right, Woodlander?”

Bechtel blinked at the vague blur of a face staring at him. He tried a click, which reached far enough to speak of the familiar stoat’s features.

Bechtel staggered back from Tope’s grip, breathing hard. Their last encounter still lay fresh in his mind.

“C’mon, lad,” Tope urged, “Get it together! We’ve already lost Fates-knows how many beasts.”

Bechtel’s brow quivered. “W-why are you--?”

“Who bloody cares!” A paw extended out. "Get up, stick with me, and I'll get ye out of 'ere alive!"

Bechtel lost sight of the paw as the din swept the echoes aside once more. He continued to stare as a single thought managed to break through—the tunnels leading to the great, iron door of the arena. Molly, patting his shoulder and offering final words of encouragement. Her final statement.

“You are not alone, Bechtel. Even if they don’t wear the skin and fur you’d expect, you have friends among these walls.”

He heard Tope snort and turn away.

“Wait!” Bechtel shouted, leaping to his feet. “I… I can’t do this on my own, and—“

“All right, all right,” Tope said, grabbing his good wing and pulling him along. “Time's a waistin'!”

~ ~ ~

Tope yanked the wing back, pulling the bat out of the thick of the battle. He couldn't save the volemaid in the gray dress. He couldn't save the weasel with a lazy left eye. The bat would not die as long as he stood on that field.

"Watch my back!" he ordered as he took several steps back to look at the volunteers.

"No!" the bat called back. "Stay in the middle! There are traps near the sides!"

"Aye," Tope replied, grateful for the insight. He briefly wondered how the bat knew before shifting his focus to a pine marten swinging a spiked mace back and forth at the rest of the slaves. Blood speckled the volunteer from head to tail, adding more to his fur as he brought the mace crashing down on a mouse's shoulder. Tope snarled at the delight in the marten's eyes, the grin on the beast's face and the feral shouts of triumph at the violence he caused.

"Look out!" the bat shouted as he pulled Tope back and out of the way of the thrust of a javelin.

The stoat stepped back, pushing his charge back as well, taking a half-second to keep the marten in view. The foxbefore him hid behind a buckler as he thrust his short spear forward in a series of quick jabs, driving the two out of the center of the arena. Tope stepped to the left and the fox shifted, thrusting his spear to keep the two retreating.

"Go for his feet!" Tope shouted, grunting as the spear tip pierced his left arm.

"Al-alright!" Bechtel stepped forward.

Tope saw the fox shift his eyes to the bat for just a moment. Reaching forward, Tope grabbed the tip of the spear with his right paw and pulled forward, feeling the blade cut into his palm as he reached for the shaft with his left. The fox took an involuntary step forward and smashed his buckler into Tope's side. His right paw released the spear and he tried to grab the shield instead, but the blood made it difficult to get a grip. With a growl, he heaved on the spear and pulled the fox off balance. The bat darted forward and wrenched the shield away.

Gasping as Tope kicked him in the gut, the beast released his grip on the spear and fell to the blood-spattered snow. Fear clouded the volunteer's eyes as the two slaves stood over him. Knowing he had a worse beast to deal with, Tope kicked the fox in the head and ran toward where the marten was bludgeoning a squirrelmaid in the leg as she screamed in horror.

"Grab the shield," Tope called to the bat as he snatched the spear from the ground.

"I-I can't," the bat said, wingtips prodding awkwardly at the shield's rim.

Tope gritted his teeth, casting a glance toward where the marten was bludgeoning a screaming squirrelmaid. "Here," he said, rushing over to the bat. Snatching up the shield, he secured the strap around the bat's wingtip, tight enough so that it couldn't be pulled off. "That'll do. Now c'mon!"

Spear in paw, Tope sprinted toward the fray. The marten turned as he saw the stoat bearing down on him, ignoring his former prey. Both raised their weapons as the gap between them closed.

Tope's left arm stung as he lifted the spear, and his hand spasmed as the mace crashed down upon his lighter weapon. Gripping the shaft even more tightly, he jumped back to avoid a backhanded swing. Snarling, he stepped away from another wild swing before leaning forward and thrusting the spear into the volunteer's arm, eliciting a howl that echoed across the battlefield.

As Tope reached to grasp the mace, the marten leaped forward and sunk his teeth into Tope's right shoulder. Simultaneously surprised, disgusted, and in pain, he hesitated for a half-second before taking the marten's throat in his claws and squeezing. Unable to breathe, the beast opened his jaws and pushed against the stoat. Tope pushed, the combined momentum throwing the marten to the ground. He shifted the spear in his paws, and drove the blade into the beast's chest. Pulling the spear out, he tossed it on the ground and picked up the mace.

Ensuring the monster would rise no more, he smashed the spiked mace into the face of the marten, blood splashing both stoat and snow.

Tope ignored the cheers that erupted from the audience and quickly pried the mace free. Turning back toward the bat, he asked, "Did ye finish off the fox?"

Before the bat could reply, a sea otter in a blue coat rushed toward them. Tope raised his weapon to fend him off when he saw a fox and a rat running in his direction as well.

"What's going on?" the bat asked.

Tope stepped in front of the winged beast, determined to keep him alive. A moment later he saw a rope flash in front of his vision and he felt it tighten around his neck. Gasping, he reached up to grab at the rope, but the bluecoats grabbed him by the arms and began to drag him across the snowy field, away from the battle. He thrashed and clawed at the beasts, but the noose stayed tight around his neck.

He caught a glimpse of the bat, staring with fearful eyes as he was taken out of the Arena.

Stay alive, he begged.

You couldn't save them...

Please stay alive.

~ ~ ~

Everybeast here is insane! The world has gone mad!

Ander's mind reeled as he pressed himself flat against the side wall of the arena, chest heaving and ears flicking as he racked his mind for a desperate plan of action.


A sea of fresh rat blood came squirting up in a fountain, peppering his fur.
Cheers rang up from the crowd.

What are they thinking? Why are they actually doing this?!

The weasel forced himself to move sideways, though every hopskipping step was a danger to his entire body. He was pumped so full of adrenaline that his arms and legs felt just as sturdy as noodles.

I think I'm going to be sick!

This was the first time in the vermin's life that he did not want to be the center of attention.

Ander caught a breath, tenderly creeping around the outside circle of the fighting when a burning white glimmer caught his eye.
It made him flinch. It was like sunlight...reflecting off of metal. Sharp metal.

"The weapons!" he gasped, heart thrumming with a new hope. He had focused so much on getting away from the heat of the war that he had forgotten completely about the weapons!

Abandoning plans and sensibility, Ander launched himself headlong into the scrape.
He lashed out to and fro, swatting and kicking his weatherbeaten path through foebeast after foebeast. That was when he noticed that there was another creature heading for the last sword, a vermin like himself.

Ander's heart jumped into his mouth and with it he jumped onto the sword.


"It is mine, mine, mine, all mine!" he cried, raising his voice in raucous joy.

Paws grabbing, he rolled over in the sand and gave the blade a giant smooch right on his reflection, laughing blissfully with tears in his eyes.

When the other creature's shadow neared, the weasel scrabbled to his footpaws.

Oh, no. No, no...

He stared, jaws gaping, into the menacing eyes of a giant fox.
There hung no collar around the canine's neck. The fox was clearly here for the sport, and worst of all, he was armed...with both a cutlass and a club.

Ander gave the air a couple feeble slashes with his sword.
"You, you get back from me, do you hear?" he raised his voice to drown his stammer. "I am the Prince of Weasels! Only a complete idiot would dare lay a claw on me!"

The fox snarled and came raining down on Ander in a hurricane of furious assault.
First, he overpowered him with his own blade and size and sent the weasel smashing down on his back, and then proceeded to go at him with the sword as if he were dicing fish.

Ander screamed. He flicked his wrist in many a frantic attempt to keep the fox's maneuvers from breaking flesh, but they did not always prove profitable.
As soon as he saw his chance, he made a snakelike dive under the fox's legs and jumped up and ran for it again, hugging his newly acquired sword to his chest.

Battling and chaos resumed in his wake.

I think I've lost him.

The weasel panted.
Yes. There are no signs of the dog anywhere.

He slunk up to the wall again, gasping for breath.
Calm down, Ander. You're fine again.

Pawsteps pittered behind him.

The weasel blew out a puff of cold air. He was bleeding from his snout and chest and back, and his coat was ripped and scuffed.
I'm alive. I can mend it.

"Think you can run, hide? Outfox the fox? Gimme your weapon and I may just let you live."

Ander blanched.

Straightening, he drew his sword, locking his defiant brown eyes with the fox's blue ones.
"The only way I will give you this blade is stuck through your ribs, or else you'll have to pry it from my dead, rotting paws!"

Ander leapt, and swords clashed.

~ ~ ~

Dragged by the vest-wearing rogues, Tope fell from the reach of the bat’s echoes, swallowed into the whirling noise that ruled the battlefield. Bechtel fought the tremor of fear that trickled down his spine. Fear at the absence of Tope’s unwavering determination. Fear at the brutality of the stoat’s bludgeoning of the marten.

Bechtel bit at the fear with a snarl, staring down at the marten’s corpse spilled upon the snow. He deserved it. They all deserve it.

He heard approaching footsteps. Before he could speak, something heavy slammed into him and threatened to send him to the ground. His heels dug deep into the sands for purchase as a pair of paws latched around his shield. Hot, frantic breath struck his snout, and a gasp spoke of a wild-eyed, collared hedgehog, face bleeding from a deep wound.

“Give me that!” the hedgehog screamed, pulling at the shield tied to Bechtel’s limb. “I need it more than you!”

The far-larger hedgehog yanked the bat further and further with every tug. “Stop pulling and let me—” The rest of the words caught in Bechtel’s throat before he could even suggest a truce. The echoes told him of the arena walls, nearing by the second.

“W-wait!” Bechtel screamed, struggling to pull himself from the hedgehog’s grasp. “Stop! There are traps near—”

The hedgehog’s heel struck wood with a deafening certainty. Sand sprayed out as the trapdoor flicked open and gravity beckoned them under. Bechtel flapped his free wing, striking the hedgehog’s bloodied snout. A scream followed claws scraping against iron, then the weight fell from Bechtel.

Bechtel shot into the air as he heard the sickening crush of flesh. He gasped at the cold wind, the pain in his wing flaring against the roar of the crowd. He half-glided, half-fell to the sands, crashing onto his side. The rage of the beasts in the Crater surrounded him once more.

He was one of us,
he thought. Just scared, and trying to survive, and I—

Molly’s voice, in the training grounds when he tried to take a breather. “A still beast is a dead beast!”

Bechtel shoved himself to his feet and sent out a series of sharp clicks, running in whatever direction seemed most promising. The echoes didn’t reach far, but they told him enough of the battlefield around him: bodies bloodied and broken upon the sands, pawfuls of survivors still fleeing across the arena, the volunteers prowling towards those who couldn’t run fast enough.

It ends when there are only ten beasts left, Bechtel reminded himself with some measure of disgust. Surely that can’t be much longer…

Bechtel, stop, a weak echo said, fingertips of sound brushing his fur. Look. You know that beast.

Bechtel’s run halted as he heeded the echoes’ call. He recognized the twisted snarl of the fox volunteer from earlier. The blow Tope had given him only seemed to further enrage the beast, and he now directed his ire upon a weasel slave who had somehow come upon a blade.

Bechtel stiffened when he realized the echoes spoke not of the volunteer, but of the slave. Ander’s showy frock lay a crumpled insult to its former mediocrity. Scrapes and cuts scored the weasel’s body, but he was very much alive. And very much in danger.

The volunteer suddenly pounced, and in a quick series of metallic strikes, Ander’s blade struck the sands several feet away. Ander fell upon his rump, clutching his sword paw tightly.

The weasel deserves it.

Bechtel remained still. The fox advanced, grip flexing around the club in his paw.

…but not as much as the other does.

Bechtel sprinted forward over the strewn dead, braced himself for what was surely a foolish decision, and slammed his shoulder into the fox. The volunteer struck the sands in a roll, coming to a stop several feet away.

“On your feet!” Bechtel snapped, holding a wingtip out for Ander.

The weasel swatted it aside. “Fool!” he snarled, pushing himself up. “I had that perfectly under control!”

Heat rose alongside regret in Bechtel’s chest. “I just saved your life!”

“And what about my dignity?” Ander recovered his sword, then swung it in a wide gesture. “Look at it! Tattered ruins, scattered to the wind thanks to you!”

Bechtel sucked in a breath for a sharply-worded reply when a tendril of sound reached him. Not of an echo - or even of footsteps - but words, shouted by the audience.

“Cull! Cull! Cull! Only the strong survive!”

A click told Bechtel of the fox, pacing towards him. Another spoke of four other volunteers closing in on the pair, surrounding them from all sides. His loudest, most shrill click spoke only in whispers of two other volunteers hunting down the renaming, scattered slaves.

“Only ten of you will walk out from that arena.”

“Cull! Cull! Cull! The hour has arrived!

Bechtel stepped back until he pressed against Ander’s back.

“This is all your fault,” the weasel grumbled, resetting his grip on his sword.

“Cull! Cull! Cull! We’ve come to see you die!”

“This makes us even,” Bechtel bit back.

The fox signaled for his fellow volunteers to stop. He spat on his paws, rubbed them together, then hefted his club and stepped towards the pair.

Bechtel’s entire body tensed. He was going to die. He knew there would be no overcoming the fox’s skill, much less the other four encircling them. Not even a year of Molly’s training could have taught him that.

He missed that cottage home languid by the Moss. He missed the gardenias that guided his uneven steps towards the cherry orchard. He missed the parchments, and their stories, and the storyteller whose unassuming face held the wrinkles of many smiles.

He wondered yet once more how it all went so wrong.

I’m sorry, Atrus. I’m sorry about everything.

The fox took another step. Somewhere beyond, a scream, then quickly silenced.

Once more, the world shattered.

The crash of a horn sounded over the arena, and the crowd erupted into wild cheers. Bechtel clutched at his skull and fell to the ground, willing for the pounding in his head to cease.

“Maidens and gentlebeasts!” Nire’s voice pierced out through even the reigning chaos. “I give you: your survivors!”

Bechtel’s head shot up. He tried several clicks against the waves of sound. The images were distorted and half-broken, but he saw the volunteers turning around. Leaving.

He tried again to be sure, and this time saw the fox step closer.

“You got lucky, bat.” The fox chuckled, shouldering his bloodied club. “Next time? There won’t be Nire to save you.”

The fox turned and left, though his words lingered long afterwards. Bechtel sat motionless, save for the clenching of his clawtips into the sand. For the first time, he truly understood that there would be a next time. He understood what it meant to survive.

He and Molly had much training to do.

~ ~ ~

The audience stood up to their footpaws in unison and the clamoring of the crowd rose in cadence. With a huge grin on his face, Ansley clapped his paws together.

Laurence sat rooted in his seat, eyes wide and locked on the bloodletting before him. Pools of blood streamed from the lifeless corpses and coalesced into one at the center of the battlefield. Forty indentured slaves walked in. Only ten walked out.

A flurry of emotions and thoughts danced in Laurence's mind. He acted upon none of them, and his increasing delay only incensed his brittle conscience.

The otter pressed upon the cane and brought himself to his full height. He needed to get away from here. He could not stomach the atrocities any longer.

Laurence moved like a phantom, unseen by the crowd and accompanied by an intense feeling of disorientation. The rippling cheers steadied behind him as the ten surviving slaves were escorted away.

The sunlight from outside faded with every step further into the tunnel, away from the arena. Not a single soul marked the disappearance of the volunteer.

[End of Round One]
« Last Edit: September 20, 2017, 05:29:25 PM by Tooley Bostay »