We had a week of peace, and most everyone got along. Scar was easily the most difficult person left in our wing, but he was only openly hostile if you bothered him. Left alone, he mostly just shot ugly looks at you from across the room. Then again, that might have just been because his scars made it impossible for him to actually smile.
Drum, on the other hand, was the type that sought out conflict. His pack had actually been pleasant for the week he was gone. And they’d been pretty agreeable they week prior to that, I’d also heard, but I’d been in my cell, so I couldn’t actually vouch for that.
When Drum was finally given medical clearance to leave his cell, we couldn’t help but wonder how that was affect his pack and the social climate of all the packs at the Kennel. He didn’t make us wait long to find out.
Drum strolled into the gates, already spitting angry. Unlike my return, he was not greeted by his pack mates. They were not eagerly waiting for his return. He also did not return as a victor but as a disgrace. He entered the halls of his former home after two weeks, finding no one there to greet him.
He had to walk past our room to get to Chahar’s room, and he caught a glimpse of Face sitting among us. His mouth fell open, and vile words failed to come at first. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought, seeing us all in our clean, new clothes, gathered around tables. What a change it must have been, after having lived here for months on end, wearing rags and sleeping on piles of straw or old blankets.
“Just keep him. Worthless anyway.” He finally snorted.
Face looked at us, and we looked back at him. We collectively shrugged, and the five of us went back to talking about a stones game we’d played the day before, ignoring the swearing that slid from Drum’s mouth as he continued up the hall.
It was only a few moments later when we heard a commotion from Chahar’s room. The noise spilled out into the hallway, swearing and lots of shouting echoing for all to hear. It should have been expected, but it was still a surprise somehow.
I scrambled to my feet. I didn’t exactly like Chahar’s guys, but they were actually tolerable without Drum. I had a feeling they might even turn out to be decent, given enough time away from their feisty leader.
“What do you mean I’m not your leader?” Drum screamed, trying to push his way into the room.
Nose and Hound were holding him back. Mongrel wore a triumphant look. “You’ve pushed us around too long, Drum. You can take your place at the bottom of the pack, or you can go sleep in one of the other rooms. Maybe you can start your own new pack? Pack Sefr maybe?”
I blinked in surprise. They were throwing him out? I’d offered to step down, but my pack had kept me on. Chahar was ousting Drum, even threatening to throw him out entirely. This wasn’t the sort of thing that Drum would take lightly.
Tiny muttered something, completely amusement. “Pack Zero, eh?”
“Is that what Sefr means?” I wondered. It was not a word I’d heard before.
“Nothing. Zero.” Killer agreed.
“That’s pretty cold.” Face almost looked sorry for Drum. Almost.
“Who’s going to replace me? You, Mongrel?” Drum laughed haughtily.
Mongrel crossed his arms and lifted his chin proudly. “And what if I am?”
“I could take you apart where you stand.” Drum said threateningly.
“Maybe you could. The difference is that we’re not all fighting each other for your approval any more. Now, the four of us stand together, and the four of us can certainly take you down if Go could do it by himself.”
Drum’s whole body filled with rage. He flashed a look my way, sensing us in the halls, not that half of every pack wasn’t in the halls anyway. “You motherless sons of…”
He never got to finish his insult. Nose and Hound threw him backward into the wall. He rebounded and dropped to his knees. Drum had never been the largest boy, and he’d just recovered from a flogging. Now, that weakness was made apparent. He looked so small huddled behind his dog, who growled defensively.
Before, he’d always stood behind his massive dog and ruled with fear, but he couldn’t just run his mouth and stand behind his dog any longer. His pack wasn’t going to put up with his bullying and abuse.
“Get out, Drum. Stay in your own room. Maybe we’ll let you in tomorrow, if you beg.” Mongrel was a little too smug in his reply, and Drum, beaten or not, had some pride left.
Drum threw himself forward, and Bear followed. Drum tackled Mongrel to the ground and started pounding at his face with his fists while Bear took Mongrel’s mutt in his massive mouth and shook. The brown mutt yelped in pain, and when Bear shook him loose, the smaller dog sailed into the wall.
The remaining members of Chahar fell upon Drum, while the three dogs struggled to put up a fight against Bear. It got ugly. There was a lot of frustration and hate in that group, things that had festered too long. I longed to jump into this, but it was not my place. They needed to work it out.
In a short while, all five of them were beaten and bruised, but none worse than Mongrel’s mutt and Drum. Drum and Bear limped away to an empty room, beaten once more. For once, he was wordless and dead-eyed, except for the look of pure malice he shot my way. I’d been the one to first illustrate his vulnerability, and since then, things had certainly gone from bad to worse for him. Clearly, I was the one he’d blame most for his downfall.
“Welcome back, Drummy!” Tiny taunted as Drum retreated into his new room.
Drum paused to nod at Tiny, laughing hollowly. I shot Tiny a warning look, but the words were already out. Tiny had just made himself a target for all that hate, and he was a lot easier target than I was.
The rest of Chahar gathered in their room to tend to Mongrel’s mutt, who was in a bad way. I knew this wasn’t over. Drum wouldn’t let this be. It was just going to get worse, but I had no idea just how bad it would get.
I’m not sure exactly how he knew, but Drum found me out there by the statue. Maybe someone told him. Maybe he just knew I’d go out there to see his handiwork. It didn’t matter, so long as he was there.
Drum strolled out, hands on his hips and his head thrown back in a haughty laugh. His giant dog came out beside him, carrying itself as all fur and muscle and threats. Pack Chahar filed out behind him, including Face, who had a blackening eye and scratches across his neck; his dog was limping. That only fueled the fires of my anger.
I cast a glance at Dog. He was with me. His eyes were resolute, rings of dark brown fury that were a perfect mirror to my own.
“Clean the statue now.” I ordered, pointing at Drum.
Drum laughed again, looking around at his crew as if he couldn’t believe I’d say such a thing. They all laughed, though their laughs were a forced echo of his.
“This is your one chance to do this without a fight.”
“Who are you going to fight, Go? You and your wild little dog have no chance against us. It’s six against one.”
I didn’t point out that one of theirs was hurt and likely wouldn’t fight me. I didn’t mention that my own pack would probably join me. I didn’t say that Bull, Red, and others might throw in on my side, if things came to it. I kept them all out of this. This was my fight. “I will take those odds. Will you?”
Drum scoffed. “You think that much of yourself, do you, new kid?” He stepped out onto the sand to make a point, clearing the gates and the tunnel that led back to our rooms.
I was done talking. Dog’s hackles raised. He put his head low and emitted a growl. I stepped forward, crouching. My fingers curled into claws, and I bared my teeth. The back of my neck tingled, hair standing up. My vision narrowed and every muscle in my body coiled tightly like a serpent ready to strike.
Drum looked unsure of himself for a moment, but he’d talked himself into this. His dog, Bear, led the way as always, leaving the scared little boy a half-step behind his beast. Still, that beast weighed nearly as much as Dog and I put together.
With a nod, I sent Dog to my left, circling around to the right flank, where Drum stood beside his dog, casting looks back at his pack, wondering why they weren’t exactly jumping in to help out. Had I been able to look at myself, I might not have wondered why.
I didn’t wait. I just struck. Drum had exactly enough time to open his eyes wider in surprise as my fist came sailing in, striking him across his side of the face. He cried out and stumbled back into his dog, who snarled and turned to face me. Except, that’s what Dog was waiting for. He was on Bear’s back in an instant, snapping and snarling as he bit into the thick fur and heavy skin of the larger dog’s neck.
I’d learned that when you faced an opponent that was larger or stronger, you never gave them a chance to counterattack. We never let up, trying to keep Bear from getting a good opportunity to strike. Soon enough, we were a tangle of fists, feet, teeth, snarls, and howls.
I felt claws scratch across my forearm as I delivered a heavy punch to Bear’s flank, staggering him. I rounded to smash my knee into Drum’s gut as he tried to control my other flailing arm, going for some sort of restraint hold on my arm that never came of anything.
Drum vomited up the meal he had been so proud of. His spew of food sailed past my shoulder to land on the dirt. While Drum was doubled over, I jumped onto his dog, tackling his rear legs out from under him.
Dog and I tore at the larger dog. I had a mouth full of fur and blood. I heard howls of pain and snarls like you only heard when dogs were seriously trying to hurt each other. The massive dog yelped and shook us off, trying to get away. Tail between his legs, he rounded on us and backed away, baring his teeth defensively.
I was greeted with a wallop upside the head that sent me staggering. I landed headfirst in the same, feeling grit scrape across my face as the sand entered my eyes, nose, and mouth all at once. Dog howled and attacked someone else. Teeth latched onto my ankle and bit deep.
I clawed the sand from my eyes, wound up, and kicked at the blurry shape with my other foot. I connected with my foot, sensing something give. I’d probably hurt the dog, but I was beyond caring. Spitting sand and blood, I regained my feet and faced off against more of Pack Chahar.
Nose, with his hound, and Mongrel, with his brown mutt, had joined the fight against me. Two more members of Chahar were engaged with what looked to be Legs and Tiny. Blurry as things were, I thought I saw Face standing to the side, apparently trying to stay out of it.
I threw my head back and howled. Dog howled back. I felt a shudder in my arms, and a sharp pain in my fingertips. I glanced down at my fingers, blinking away the sand and dizziness. My fingertips had elongated into sharpened points, human fingernails giving way to canine claws. My mouth, too, ached, and my eyes felt strange.
I did not take the time to revel in the changes. Instead, I shook my head again and took a menacing step toward Nose and Mongrel, whose dogs barked and backed away from me. Gone was the pain in my ankle. Gone was the stinging scrape on my arm. I felt nothing. I felt amazing. I’d never felt so powerful before, and these two were going to feel my wrath. I’d feel my teeth on their throats, my claws in their flesh.
I launched myself into the air, leaping as I’d never been able to before. Had I been in the streets, this sort of jump would have carried me across a wide alley, from one rooftop to another. In the sand, it carried my fist into Nose’s face. It crunched wetly.
My next two steps carried me over to Mongrel. I drove my fist into his chest and then shredded his shirt with my claws. Blood blossomed where my claws crossed. Dog worried at their animals, his ferocity matching my own. It was enough to keep them off my flanks.
Tiny and Legs were holding their own against the long-haired dog from Chahar and his master, as well as the sleek, grey dog that filled out their team. Killer was doing his best to keep Drum’s dog away from me while I finished these two.
Mongrel held up his arms to protect his face, so I clawed the backs of his hands and arms before driving my foot into his middle. He tumbled backward a half-dozen paces, crumpling into the sand. Nose tried to run, but another powerful leap carried me onto his back. I stomped his face into the ground and turned to find Drum.
Drum had finished vomiting and was trying to crawl away. I strode powerfully over to him, hearing voices, but ignoring them. With Dog by my side, I reached down and picked Drum up by the scruff of his neck. Snarling, I regarded his puke-stained face as he babbled and cried into my eyes.
I stared at my reflection in his eyes, seeing yellow. I blinked at that.
My eyes were yellow, and my nose had reshaped into a poor semblance of a dog’s muzzle, betraying sharp teeth beneath my lips, which had split on top, as with a dog’s mouth. I did not recognize myself, but I did not care.
Dog slavered beside me, blood-tinged saliva dripping into the sand. He looked larger and more imposing than I had ever seen. Dog warned Bear not to approach, but the scared beast kept attempting to save his master and get past Killer and his fighting dog.
“Go!” Someone called. I cocked my head to the side, ears twitching.
“Go!” I heard my name once more, but my thoughts were thick.
“Go! That’s enough!” This time I turned my head back toward the north gates. Bull stood there, face a mixture of horror and concern.
“You need to stop this!” It was as close as he would come to pleading.
I was aware of clanking and the raising of the south gate. A troop of auburn-clad guards filed out, led by Green. I threw Drum aside, casting him at the feet of Nokomi’s statue. I kicked him in the ribs and left him in a heap at Nokomi’s feet. Then I walked around the statues to face Green and his guardsmen.
My blood was up. I was not afraid of a man and his six soldiers. My ears pricked at the sounds of crossbows being ratcheted into readiness in the upper gallery, at least a eight of them.
“That will be enough, Go.” Green held out his hand for me to stop, to stop all of this.
“He speaks, finally.” I laughed. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” It was hard to form the words with my mouth. I was not used to talking with such sharp teeth in my mouth and lips formed so strangely.
Green motioned with his hands, and the guards fanned out. A single guard set himself on either side of Green, while a pair slid to both my left and right. The semicircle hedged me in with halberds, sharp spears with glinting axe blades on their lengths.
“You wanted a beast. You treated us like beasts. Now you have one.” I regarded my own hands, disgusted and yet fascinated by what I had become.
“Stop this now and return to yourself.”
“I don’t know how.” I answered. “Maybe I don’t want to.”
That much was true. I’d never felt so powerful. My heart pounded in my chest, and with each hammer of that muscle, I could feel my muscles tense and ready for battle. My senses were stronger than ever before. I could smell the fear on these men. I could smell everything they’d eaten that day. I could smell a wife’s perfume on one of them, a lingering trace on his neck. I could count the pores on Green’s face. I smelled a coming storm in the air, a hint of ozone that spoke of lightning and seasonal rains. I could taste the blood of dog and man on my lips, and I knew the difference.
I felt unstoppable.
“Go!” Bull called once more. “Stop!”
“Yes, listen to your friend. Stop now, and we can get you calmed down and back to yourself. You just need to stop.” Green might have spoken evenly and calmly, but as I tilted my head, I could hear the excitement in his pulse. I could smell the eagerness on his skin. He wanted me to go too far. He wanted to see what I could do.
My thoughts raced. There were so many things I could do. I knew I could get my hands on Green before they put a crossbow bolt in me. I just knew I could clear those steps and snap his neck. They might hit me once or twice, but I also knew I could jump up to the second floor and kill at least half of those men with crossbows before they could reload.
But then what? What would become of me? How would I make it back to Nokomi?
In the space of seconds, I weighed my options. I felt heartbeats coming up beside me. I opened my nostrils… Legs. Killer. Tiny. My pack.
“Go, if you want to do this, we will.” Tiny announced, his pocket-sized pup ready to go to war beside him.
“No, you idiots!” Green hissed. “Stand down! Go back!”
The guards suddenly didn’t look so convinced. Six on one hadn’t seemed so bad. Now it was six on four, with four dogs helping.
Green looked about the say something, when his eyes flashed with rage. More heartbeats were coming up behind me. Face and Red were joining us. Counting dogs, that was twelve of us now, and I was worth nearly as much as all of these men put together.
I smiled at him. “What now, Green?”
Green shook his head and signaled with a hand. I knew that I was his target, so I wanted to move away from my pack. Eight crossbows sang out. I sprang forward and to the side, trying to put my body behind a guard. Bolts whistled past my face and others stabbed into the sand near my feet. Others had better aim. I felt a sting rip through my thigh, I stumbled, but my momentum carried me into the surprised guard. His halberd blade sliced along my ribs, but I drove him to the ground.
Dog harassed the next guard, but was struggling to get past his halberd. Howls and more fighting broke out, but with me down, my fellows were unable or unwilling to push the issue.
I started to pick myself up to move to the next foe, but I felt faint, more than I should have. My vision began to swim even as I listened for the telltale sounds of crossbows being reloaded. I stumbled forward, and, hearing more shouts from my pack, I held up a hand for them to freeze.
I could only remember a few times in my life when I’d ever felt such a sensation before... I’d felt it when I’d been sick as a child and deep in a fever. I’d felt it when I’d arrived here at the Kennel, waking up in a fog. But the first time I really remembered such a sensation was when I’d had my scalp ripped and Nokomi had let her blood mingle with my own.
I don’t know why it was this very moment that I realized how important that moment had been. Nokomi’s blood has mixed with my own. Dog had licked it after, and had in turn licked his own wounds from the desert cat. Our blood had all comingled, the three of us. That’s why we were pack, we three. It was in our blood.
Nokomi. I needed to get back to her. But how? Dying now was not the way.
I staggered away, aware of more shouting and of guards hedging me in with their weapons. They drove me, and I was too delirious to prevent it. Maybe I even let them. The east gate opened behind me. Dog and I were forced into the tunnel that led to the yard.
I vaguely recall being pushed into the yard beyond the short tunnel, beyond the watching eyes of the packs. Then, as I began to collapse, surrounded by guards, I heard the clank and clatter of a cage being opened. Then it all went dark, and I was left dreaming of a smell, the smell of whatever had been on those crossbow bolts and those halberds.
I wished that smell had been Nokomi’s perfume instead.
For the rest of the week, Green shadowed my lessons. What he learned, I could not tell. He seemed most interested in my lessons with Red and Blue. He was only briefly apparent during my lesson with Grey, but he could have been watching longer. I surmised that his interests were more in my martial skills and interactions with other packs, rather than my etiquette.
Green met with each teacher after our lessons for a debriefing. He was even visible once on the walls when we were in the yard, watching the whole lot of us go about our business after eating our morning meals. I doubt he learned much there, as most of us stood around, urinated on bushes, or hunted for stones.
Hunting for the perfect stones had become something of a pastime for many of the boys. At least eight boys now had their own set of four rocks, all marked and decorated for uniqueness. Small games or practice occurred almost nightly now, in preparation for the weekend tournaments. It was certainly taking off.
Twice during the week, Green also toured our north wing. He went room to room, inspecting our living conditions and the ways in which we interacted. He had conversations with two of the boys who were practicing the stone game in an empty room, asking about the rules and the game’s origins. All things seemed to point back to me, but he did not speak to me directly, not even when he found us practicing holds and throws under Bull’s tutelage. He silently watched us practice for the better part of our lesson and then vanished just as silently.
If much seemed to stay the same, in spite of Green’s mysterious presence, other changes were upon us. There was a flurry of activity on the first morning of Panj’s second weekend there. We were released into the gallery for our morning meal, only to find four statues, where before there had only been one. Larger-than-life renditions of the Empress and their two daughters now flanked the Emperor, much like in the portrait we saw each time we went to Blue’s class.
We all stopped and stared, all twenty-some of us. For some of us, like Pack Yek especially, they’d walked into this gallery and looked at one statue for over a year. Then, without warning, there were four. It would take some getting used to.
The Emperor had been rendered as a powerful man with a commanding expression. His hand resting on the hilt of a curved sword belted at his hip. He wore a conical head wrap, much like when I’d met him. They’d done a good job creating his hard expression. He seemed like an imposing man.
The Empress was only up to his shoulder, smaller than him by a head or more. Her hair was swept back into a scarf, and jewels of cut glass had been set into web-like pattern across her hair, so they twinkled even in the morning light. She was pretty, with an open expression to her face and a kindly set to her cheekbones and jawline.
The two daughters were of different sizes, each slightly smaller than their mother. I’d never seen the older sister before, but I assumed it was a faithful recreation, as the Emperor’s and Nokomi’s statues seemed very accurate. The sister had a narrower face than Nokomi, with eyes and a face shape the looked intelligent and thoughtful. She was half a handspan taller than her younger sister, and slimmer of build.
While the other three statues were masterful recreations of their subjects, it was Nokomi’s statue that captured my real attention. It was breathtaking. I felt my forehead burn. Dog emitted a low keening howl beside me, as if he, too, felt the burn in my scalp. I blinked away tears, the fire of my scalp stinging my eyes.
“Nokomi.” I whispered.
There were no explanations to the new additions to our gallery. There was no ceremony to declare their purpose. There were only the four statues and silence. Then there were the guards dumping our food onto the sand, food that no one seemed to have no immediate interest in, which was likely a first.
Dog and I went forward to the statue of our friend, ignoring the other three. Dog sniffed at it, while I placed hands upon it. It was not her, but it was the closest thing we had to her. At some point, I separated from the statue and knelt beside Dog. We waited for the burning in my scalp and our souls to subside.
I was unaware of what others thought of my behavior until I looked up. Everyone was still frozen, watching us. I cast a look around at my fellows. There was no judgement there for the most part, only surprise and confusion. They had no knowledge of my past, none of them except for Bull, and he had a look of concern in his eyes, which kept shifting to the southern side of the gallery. I didn’t need to look over my shoulder to know who was there watching me, studying my reaction.
Shaking my head, I walked away from the statue, forsaking food. Killer grabbed my arm, nodding toward the piles of food that people were now starting toward.
“Eat, if you want. I will have none of it. I will eat like a man, or not at all.”
Killer looked torn between his stomach and his loyalty. He was a creature of habit and routine, as were we all. Legs sighed, and Tiny grumbled, but they followed me back into our wing of the building. Bull and his pack hesitated, many of them already having food in hand. Pack Se followed Panj back into our rooms.
Seeing this, Pack Yek also joined us, leaving only Chahar and Do to fight over the pile of food. Red from Pack Do joined us in our protest, eliciting shouts from Scar, his pack leader. A few moments later, Face also joined us, the boy with the wrinkly dog from Pack Chahar. Drum’s curses and screams made it clear that it was not a move that he approved of.
The members of Pack Yek filed in past our door, each stopping to nod to our group. They were with us, surprisingly. They’d never made any show of solidarity about anything before. They kept to themselves to eat, bathe, and play. They were their own entity, and yet I had their support.
Drum made sure to strut back in after he’d eaten his fill, burping and covered in food stains. “Quite a feast out there today, boys.” He eyed the six of us, Face, Red, and Pack Panj. Packs Yek and Se had gone back to their own rooms.
“If you like being fed like a beast.” Tiny replied snarkily. His little dog snarled at Drum and his oversized dog.
Drum picked at his teeth and laughed. “Don’t think I could eat another bite.”
“Go play in the yard.” Killer said, waving them off.
“Oh, didn’t you know? They didn’t open the yard today. Thanks for that!” Drum shouted.
We all looked at each other in alarm. That had never happened before. No matter how much we ate or how much we’d left before, not that it had ever been much left behind, they had always opened the east gate for us to run in the yard. It was part of the deal, weekend or not.
“I guess that’s what happens when half of you lose your minds, follow this new guy, and scorn our masters’ good will.” Drum shook his head at the lot of us. “Maybe you’ll all be a little smarter tomorrow and let this fool go hungry by himself.”
Killer stood up, ready to fight. Tiny and Legs were up beside him in an instant. I pulled them back down. “It’s not worth it. Let him do it. We’ll see how well that goes.”
Drum laughed again and strolled off, leaning backward to let his full belly show all the more. He let his eyes rest for a long moment on Face, the traitor of his group, and then left. The rest of Chahar followed their leader back to their room.
“You can stay with us, if you want.” I offered. There was the unspoken offer of membership, something that would come with time, if he wanted it.
Face looked me in the eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t like my pack, but it is my pack. It’s been my home for months. We don’t change packs.”
“We don’t skip meals and play games together, either.”
“There is that. Still, I should go deal with them. It won’t be easy.”
“They don’t deserve your loyalty.” Killer commented.
“Maybe not, but I will offer it once more. If they turn me aside, I will be back. It’s not like I’ll have any other options.” He grinned, but it was the expression of a boy that expected trouble and likely pain for his defiance.
“Good luck.” We all wished him. He nodded and departed.
Bull walked into our room next, wearing a serious look. He crossed his arms and regarded me like a disappointed parent might a disobedient child. “You’ve made your next move.”
“It was too early.”
“Was it? Is it ever too early to demand to be treated like a person?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
“Tell me, if were soldiers in the Emperor’s army, would they feed us scraps thrown in the dirt?”
Bull smiled derisively. “Go, it’s not that easy. We are a special case. There is no army like us. Never has a group of Old Blood been incorporated in the forces of the New Blood. We are remnants of an old people. Their ways are not ours, and now they seek to use our gifts to their advantage.”
“I know nothing of that. I just want to be fed food that does not feel and look like garbage thrown aside for a creature. I am a man. I wish to eat like one.”
Just then, someone came running in, shouting, “Chahar ruined all the leftover food! They smashed it into the dirt and covered it in filth!”
Apparently, someone had been hungry enough to check to see what had become of the leftovers. Chahar wasn’t going to let anyone change their minds. If we’d skipped out on food when it was first offered, we didn’t deserve any of it. Chahar had ruined any chance to go back for it later. There would be no eating until the baskets arrived this evening. More shouting erupted in the hallways because of this, arguing broke out, and fighting up and down the halls.
I didn’t feel like a fight just then. It wouldn’t amount to much more than the beatings we gave each other in our classes, and the same feuds would just crop up again later.
I walked off. Dog trailed behind me. I walked with a purpose. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to see the ruined and soiled food, but there was nowhere else to go to be alone with my thoughts, so I went to the gallery.
Immediately upon walking out into the gallery, my eyes went to the statues. They dominated the plain room, with nothing but walls, pillars, and sand to look at otherwise, but my eyes went to Nokomi’s statue almost instinctively anyway. What I saw left me dismayed.
Food had been smeared across Nokomi’s face. Tomato or some other red fruit had been smeared across her fine features. Even worse, urine stains streaked down her statue, discoloring it from the knees down in several places. From where I stood, with nostrils flared, I recognized one scent immediately as Drum’s, but apparently several dogs and other boys, likely the whole of Pack Chahar had relieved themselves upon her statue.
The smell of dung wafted my way as well. The food had been gathered into a pile in the sand and feces were piled upon the mound. The whole gallery smelled of waste and disrespect, and my forehead burned horribly.
These acts would not go unpunished.
Our next breakfast was much the same as the day before, a fight with the others for our meal. This time, we knew what to expect, and we came out a little bit better off than we had our first time around. Dog and I also helped gather food, mostly by running interference for Tiny and his little partner. Killer, as the day before, guarded our food.
Legs struggled after his initial plunder, because speed only works for the first strike. After that, he lacked the initiative and aggressive nature it would have taken to push through to get more. He apologized, but it wasn’t necessary, as he still managed to get the nicest piece of meat in our haul. Additionally, Tiny had been far more effective, mostly because Drum and Bear were stalking Dog and I, leaving some of Chahar’s potential haul vulnerable.
We ate in silence, not relishing the food, but certainly not wasting it. After what we’d eaten the night before, we certainly weren’t going to attack sandy piles of food with a whole lot of gusto. No, I ate somewhat more carefully, dusting off the food and eating around smashed spots. Looking around, I saw the others were doing the same. I suppose we’d become something of food snobs after a single basket of nice food.
“This is a strange place.” I whispered conspiratorially to my pack. They all looked up to listen, waiting for me to go on. “One moment, they encourage us to act like animals. The next, we’re treated like people.”
“Which one are we supposed to be?” Tiny wondered aloud, touching on something we all felt.
“Like both.” Killer suggested. “The Emperor will have need for men who can be both.” Red had said as much, and Killer’s words made it seem all that much truer.
We were let out through the east gate to wander the yards and stretch our legs. I mulled over what we’d experienced and couldn’t find any flaw to his thinking. It was a strange path we walked, straddling the line between beast and man, the best of both words wrapped in a dangerous package.
Dog and I ran a bit, alternating it with walking. We kept to ourselves, stretching our legs and letting our food digest. I wanted my food to be settled before our next class. It would be either Blue or Grey today, and Blue seemed more likely, as we would have it more often than Grey.
Dog and I had always run a lot in the alleys. Even though we’d only been here for two days, we both missed it. You did that sort of a thing, dodging through narrow passages and avoiding detection or capture. Despite surviving by taking things from other people, I’d never thought of myself as a thief. We’d just been hungry. Dog and I had needed something that other people had plenty of. Even the best thieves couldn’t always get away clean. When we grabbed something from a market stall or an open window, we were seen sometimes, and we’d have to run away. Hearts hammering in our chests, it was almost like a game, one where getting caught might result in losing a hand or getting thrown into jail. Running in the yard gave us a little of that sense of freedom, even if it was quite limited, and if it lacked the thrill of the escape.
Dog and I had lived for years by ourselves. We’d always been able to come and go as we pleased. There had been no place we couldn’t go if we put our minds to it. Now, we came and went as they told us, on a schedule set by men we didn’t know.
When we were summoned back inside by the bells, we lined up once more in front of our instructors. This time, we were called forward to stand beside Blue, who held up the symbol for our pack. Once more, we were paired up with Chahar. That didn’t bode well. Surely they’d want revenge for yesterday. Although, truth be told, other than the initial bout between Drum and I, it had mostly gone their way. We’d all tried to give as well as we’d been given, but I was sure we had a larger share of bruises and scrapes than they did. Chahar had more training than, and it showed. We certainly had a lot of catching up to do.
Packs Do and Yek were lined up with Red today, and Pack Se was lined up with Grey. The members of Pack Se seemed pleased by this. Perhaps we’d have something to look forward to with Grey’s lessons? I couldn’t recall how Pack Yek had looked after our lessons yesterday, having been too exhausted to care, so I didn’t remember if they’d returned to their room as exhausted as we had been. That would have to wait and see. Perhaps tomorrow, we’d learn.
Blue led us into the same hallway as yesterday, only we were the next large room over. I expected to find another room with weapons on one side and fighting circles on the floor, but was confronted with an entirely different room. It was not at all what I expected, but it seemed as if it might just be a good thing.
We were staring at a maze of passages, all made from movable walls too tall to see over. Because many of them had been closed off overhead as well, the passages between them were often dark, and we could not see past the first bend down any of the three routes offered.
“As servants of your Emperor, you will be asked to perform many tasks. Some will be difficult. Some will be routine. Today’s task is to search for a handkerchief.”
“A handkerchief?” Drum scoffed.
Blue’s sharp gaze swiveled his way, and he quickly looked at his feet. “It is not your place to question what is asked of you. If the Emperor gives you a seemingly strange order, it is still to be followed, as you may not understand the importance of what is being asked of you. After all, you are his dogs, and he is your master.”
“What does the handkerchief look like?” Tiny, standing beside me, asked.
Blue’s face shifted into a mysterious smile. “That, is a good question.” Even if it had been a good question, it was a question he refused to answer.
He chose three of us seemingly at random, making each student first bark and bow to the portrait of the Emperor that hung over the doorway. Only, this portrait also included other faces. The Emperor was at the front and center of the portrait, dominating the frame. A dark-haired and beautiful woman, likely his mate, stood behind and to the left of him, and two younger girls filled the portrait’s right side. One of those girls I recognized immediately as Nokomi, while the other was similar and yet different, likely an older sister.
“As the Emperor wills.” Blue announced, sending Legs and two members of Pack Chahar into the maze, one at each entry point. Legs cast us a forlorn look, and then vanished into the wooden passageways as he’d been directed.
The rest of us waited, standing there and listening to the noises of dogs and boys as they progressed through the maze. This room was somewhat wider than the one we’d trained in the previous day, although the ceiling was of the same height and it appeared to be about the same depth.
Once or twice, we heard baying, as one of the hounds from Pack Chahar seemed to have scented something. Occasionally, we’d hear scratching or some sort of scuffling about. Then we heard a yelp, and some grunts of pain and struggle.
“What’s in there?” I asked our instructor.
He smiled and shrugged. “It will be different for each group. Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
We waited, watching and listening. After an unknown amount of time, a time that seemed close to an eternity, a red flag on a long pole waved from the back end of the room. This seemed like the signal for the next batch of us to enter the maze, but Blue held us back with outstretched hands. Anxious to see who was next, we waited for him to make his choices.
Instead, we heard clanking, grinding, and shifting inside the maze. Once or twice we saw flashes of auburn. Were there guards inside the maze? What purpose did they have? Would we have to fight them? Were they moving the obstacles? I’d have to wait to see. I could do nothing else.
A green flag waved from the back of the room, and Blue finally chose three more of us, again seemingly at random. Tiny was chosen, along with a long-haired dog from Chahar and a small, brown mongrel from Chahar.
This round went much like the last, except we heard snarling and L.D.’s excited yips at one point. After several minutes, the red flag waved again. Once more, the maze shifted around. This time, a few of the closer walls moved. I could see the tops of the obstacles being readjusted.
Killer and I were all that was left of Panj. From Chahar, there were also two members left: Drum and another boy with a shaved head and a wrinkly, short-haired dog that seemed little more than a pup. Both the wrinkly dog and the boy had a kindly look about them.
When the green flag flew, I fully expected Killer to be sent in with the boy, and then Drum and I would get paired up once again. Instead, Blue indicated that I was to be sent in alone.
I sent a questioning look at Blue, but his expression was unreadable. He said nothing, except, “You’d better go quickly.”
Killer gave me a reassuring nod, and I did not wait any longer. I had three choices of paths, so I took the one that looked, at least from the start, to be the least straight-forward route. Sometimes, I’d learned, going the hardest-looking route was actually the easiest. I hoped it was true this time, too.
Dog and I sprang forward, darting into the course. We opened our noses as we ran, taking in the scents and odors. We smelled wood and the chemicals that had been used to treat the panels that boxed us in. The scents of the dogs and boys that had passed this way before also filled our nostrils. Still, there was a hint of something very faint in the air, something familiar.
The passage ahead narrowed, closed off from the ceiling and the floor. Only a small crawlspace existed. Dog and I negotiated that easily enough, having been squeezing through small spaces for years. A large animal like Drum’s dog wouldn’t fit through.
The passage forked. We went straight instead of heading in the direction I knew the flags were. The far end of the room was where the flags were being waved, but I didn’t want to get out of the maze. No, I needed to find something, so Dog and I let our noses lead the way.
Up ahead I heard the whispers of feet on packed clay. Dog looked at me and I looked back. We both smelled a trap. Grinning at each other, we tiptoed forward warily, only to find the walls starting to collapse around us. Dropping low, we crawled as the obstacles crumbled above us, leaving us barely enough room to move beneath them.
Clear of the collapsing walls, we continued after the scent, which grew stronger as we moved deeper into the maze. Dog’s led the way, so it was his paw that caught on a string that ran across the passage floor; flares burst afire around us, and the flashing brightness made our pupils contract. I shielded my eyes and untangled Dog’s paw, pushing forward once more.
From the entry, I heard movement. A deep growl filled the room, and a whoop of glee I knew came from Drum. I’d known him all of two days, and I recognized his voice easily. What was this? In other places, I also heard movement.
Now, Blue’s words made sense. Dog and I were being chased. Not only did we have to find the handkerchief, but we also had to do so before we were caught by the last three participants. Blue’s words echoed in my ears: “Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
Well, Dog and I weren’t going to let those challenges get the better of us. We pushed forward into a series of darker passages, covered overhead with musty-smelling, heavy fabric to cut the light down to almost nothing, all the while messing with our senses of smell. Dog and I were no strangers to mildew and rot. Like a sweet undertone, I could still sense the scent we’d been hunting.
The bright flares from before made it hard to see. Our eyes had not adjusted back to the darkness, but our ears were still sharp, and we heard someone rapidly approaching, although the echoes made it hard to tell from where they were coming. Unexpectedly, the young boy and his wrinkly dog burst out from an unseen side passage and came upon us. Much like Red’s class from the day before, we were forced into grappling combat. I was larger than him, and probably stronger, but he’d gotten the jump on me. He had me pinned against the wall, while his dog tried to subdue my Dog.
As we fought, breathing heavily and shoving each other back and forth into the walls, I heard Drum and Bear cursing back the way we’d come from. Had he gotten stuck in the narrow passage? Killer would be closing in, too, and that was one fight I dared not participate in. I knew I’d lose.
I stuck my leg out behind the boy’s foot and gave him a heavy shove. He stumbled backward into the wall and ended up in a pile on top of his own dog. The boy groaned as his head bounced off the wall. Dog snarled in their faces and we bolted further down the passage. Time was running out.
Abandoning caution, we threw ourselves headlong down the passages, darting right, going straight at a fork, and vaulting over a series of uneven crates that shifted as we climbed over them. Up ahead, I saw auburn. Dog yipped excitedly. The smell was stronger than ever. It was floral, delicate, and intensely familiar.
Three guards stood around someone on the floor, someone kneeling. My heart thundered wildly, my eyes opening to their fullest. The smell, the dark hair, and the white dress. Could it be?
The guards rounded on us. They stood in a four-way intersection, facing outward in a triangle formation, surrounding the girl that was kneeling between them. Dog’s round ears perked as the girl turned our way. We saw a flutter of a colored handkerchief in her hand, but we could not see her face.
“Nokomi!” I shouted, darting in, Dog beside me.
Just days ago, we’d lived through this. We’d been separated from Nokomi by guards. Kalb had separated us, and now we’d get her back. This time, we’d not be kept apart. The guards wore padded armor and warded us off with blunted spears and wooden swords, but they might as well have been fully armored and using metal weapons for all we cared.
We fell upon the guards with a fury I’d never felt before. We’d always fought to survive before, never to protect, never to rescue a friend. It was an alien feeling, and yet a good one.
Dog was not much heavier than myself, but he was a jumper. He threw himself at the right guard’s face. Instinct dictated that the man would cover up to protect his face and throat. That gave me an opening. The middle guard, who’d thought I was going to attack him, found himself without a target. Instead, I went after the right guard as well, knocking his legs out from underneath him.
Snarling, I stomped heavily on the man’s chest and latched myself on the next man’s legs, biting and snarling as Dog backed me up. I felt a blow on my shoulders, but shook it off, biting harder as the guardsman screamed and struck at my head and tried to shake me off.
With a shove, I threw the man into the walls. The temporary structure collapsed, leaving him in a pile, covered by wooden planks. A scream filled my ears.
Dog and I threw ourselves at the last guard. He deflected my attack with his staff, shouldering me into a wall. When he brought his staff back around too slowly, Dog latched himself on the man’s arm and took him to the ground. I recovered quickly, shaking off my daze, and pounced on the man, pummeling his face.
More screams, from Nokomi. We turned to her, expecting to find one or more of the guards recovered enough to threaten her once more, something we would not allow. We’d kill them all if need be. Bloodthirst - it was a new feeling for me.
Instead, we found a stranger’s face staring at us with a look of terror upon it. Dark-haired and dressed in white this girl might be, but it was not Nokomi. It was even the same scent upon her handkerchief. Dog trotted over and sniffed at her, but he knew the truth. His head swiveled my way and his ears drooped in a very human look of disappointment.
Drum and Bear stood at the end of one passage, some ten paces away. The look he gave us frightened me. Even Bear, massive though he was, didn’t want anything to do with us right now. I could smell fear on them both.
The guards started to recover, but they were all bleeding and bruised in one way or another, and they made no move to stop us from taking the handkerchief from the girl. She shied away from us, flinching back as we took it. She, too, feared that we might hurt her, as if we would turn upon her and devour her like wild beasts.
We exited the maze then, walking right past Killer and his dog. He and his dog looked at us differently, too, but it was not fear we saw and smelled on them. It was satisfaction. It was loyalty. It was servitude. Had our portrait been upon that wall above the entry, I had no doubt he would have barked and bowed to us at that moment.
The rest of packs Panj and Chahar waited for us outside the maze. A pair of guards in auburn looked at us with pale faces as we exited. I didn’t need a looking glass to know that we had blood on our faces.
They waved the last red flag of the day.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs