We threw the doors open with a resounding crash.
Navid stood at the end of the room, standing in front of the throne he’d stolen from his brother. He had an ugly sneer on his face, as if he’d never been so inconvenienced as he was in this moment. After all, we’d ruined all of his plans, and he couldn’t believe we’d gotten this far.
Nokomi strode into the room, ignoring her uncle for the girl in chains upon the chair beside him. It was Nokomi’s older sister, Neema. Her fiancée, Dastan, stood behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders. It was not an affectionate pose. He was there to hold her down.
Along the sides of the room were dozens of soldiers in black armor. Some carried spears, others swords, and a few had crossbows. This was Navid’s kill room. He hadn’t thought we’d make it this far, but he’d been prepared just in case.
Dog sniffed the air, and we smelled irritation, but not fear, at least not from Navid. Neema stunk of despair. The man she’d pledged to marry her had betrayed her, put her in chains, and now served the uncle who’d killed her father. Her eyes were puffy with tears and her lip was split.
“Neema!” Nokomi shouted.
Navid’s lips curled into a smile. “Nokomi! What a pleasant reunion.”
Nokomi clenched her fist around the hilt of her knife. “You’ll pay for this!”
“Will I?” Navid suggested haughtily. “You are greatly outnumbered.”
“Maybe you don’t know how to count.” I suggested. Two or three to one was still fair odds for a force such as ours. I flashed a sharp-toothed grin and yellow-eyed stare at him.
Navid stared at me flatly, taking measure of me and finding me unworthy of notice. “Look at these beasts you travel with, niece.” He frowned in disgust. “It’s appalling. Why don’t you come down here and surrender. Then we can put your rabid pack of puppies down?”
A round of growls and barks quieted him for a moment, if only. Soldiers nervously shifted their stances and their grips on their weapons. Let them sweat, I thought, because nervous soldiers make mistakes, and we were spoiling for a fight. I could feel it in the air, the desire to draw blood. But then I heard movement in the hallways. There were more soldiers coming. He was stalling.
Navid continued once more, hand on his hip and other palm raised as he offered with feigned magnanimousness, “If you let me kill you, maybe your fate won’t be so bad as your sister’s. I can’t promise it. I might go easily on you and make sure you don’t suffer. You’ve caused me far too much pain to live.”
Hearing that, Neema surged against her chains, but Dastan pushed her back down into her seat. As I looked more closely, I realized that she’d been carefully restrained so she couldn’t draw any of her own blood. Even her manacles were padded and lined, so she couldn’t scrape herself on them. Still, she struggled, trying to scream, but a wad of cloth crammed in her mouth and tied around her face made it impossible to even bite her own tongue. What use was heartfire if you couldn’t bleed?
I turned to Mongrel, who still had the bow with him, as well as a handful arrows. “Shoot Princess Neema in the shoulder or the leg with an arrow.”
It was only a whisper, but I saw Nokomi stiffen beside me. She hated what I’d just suggested, but did not stop it from happening. She knew why I wanted her sister bleeding. It was the only way to give her sister a fighting chance.
Mongrel drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and made ready to fire, but Navid’s soldiers closed ranks and covered the front of the room with enough shields to make hitting Neema highly unlikely. I held up my hand to stay his attack. There were not enough arrows left to waste one like this.
“You cannot win, little niece!” Navid taunted. “Your mother is busy dying outside the walls, and you have chosen to die here. None will be left to oppose my rule.”
Nokomi turned to me, her eyes desperately begging for advice. “What do I do?” She whispered.
I held out my clawed hand for her to take. She took it, though I could sense her discomfort at what my hand had become to help her seek her revenge. She knew what I’d given up for her. “We don’t have a choice. We can’t stop here, no matter the cost.” How well I knew the cost…
“Neema might die.” Nokomi had already lost her father and didn’t want to have to bury a sister.
“She would rather die than be a prisoner here.” I answered softly. Dog growled in agreement, eyeing the enemies on the other side of the room.
“Enough talk!” Navid called out, disliking the quiet conversation. “Kill them all and be done with it!”
His soldiers lurched forward to fight at his command. Crossbows twanged as bolts were released to the tune of Neema’s wordless screams from beneath her muzzle.
Nokomi looked sadly at me as she fought the inevitable deaths that had been coming since her father’s betrayal. Her knife sang free of its sheathe, scoring along her forearm and releasing a spray of blood that spread before us like a shield. Her blood burst into flames, turning the crossbow bolts into cinders as they crossed through it.
“Take them apart, dogs!” I bellowed, leading the way.
Dog howled beside me and the pack surged forward like a wave. We hit the soldiers like a hammer upon an anvil. Bones and metal crunched together, and bodies went flying. Scar darted past me, his black dog flashing like inky death through enemy ranks. Dogs howled in excitement and yelped in pain. Men screamed in agony and exultation. This was true battle, all or nothing. Pack Sefr had one more fight in them.
Mongrel stayed near Nokomi, guarding her as well as my back with an arrow at the ready. He put an arrow through the visor of a soldier’s helmet and drew another of his dwindling supply of arrows. I nodded my thanks to him and then smashed my way through another enemy.
My plan to shoot Neema was still in play, but we had to clear a path. Nokomi’s blood-covered arm was outlined in fire, her flesh on fire without being burnt. If Neema’s heartfire didn’t end this, Nokomi’s would.
“Follow me!” I cried, cutting my way through the lines to where Navid waited with a sword drawn.
Dog and I made an impressive wedge, forcing men aside with hammer strikes of our fists and feet. The stink of sweat, blood, and growing fear only served to encourage our ferocity. My claws and teeth scored metal and flesh alike.
When we’d nearly reached the steps, Navid raised his hands and shot a gout of flame at us. Nokomi cried out in warning, throwing herself between us and the fire. The blast caught her across the back, spilling over her shoulder. She grimaced in pain as her cloak caught fire and her hair was singed. She threw the cloak aside, letting it burn on the floor. Then she cast a ball of fire back at her uncle, but a soldier in black armor did for the general what she’d just done for us, intercepting the attack with his own body. He collapsed in a smoldering pile of metal and blackened skin.
Navid lifted his blade then toward Neema’s face. Try as she might, she could not reach the blade with any part of her skin, not with Dastan holding her back, though he strained to do so. His handsome face looked ugly in the heat of battle, and I hated the man for what he was doing to Neema. Neema tried her hardest to draw her own blood, but she could not reach the blade. Tears and sweat dripped down her face, and her eyes bulged from her efforts.
“Neema!” Nokomi cried, throwing another blast of fire, this time at Dastan.
Navid threw his own fire at Nokomi’s, deflecting it away from both Dastan and Neema. The combined fire hit a pillar along the side of the room, sizzling at is ate into the stone.
Dastan went white, looking at the stone that might have just as easily been him. His face flashed with anger, realizing he might well have just died. He drew his hand back and slapped Neema across the face. Her head rocked against the side of the chair, and she slumped down.
“Bastard!” Nokomi growled, beginning to draw more heartfire into her hands.
“I’ll kill you for that.” Mongrel promised, trying to get a clear shot on Neema’s fiancée.
Dog and I were doing our best to keep soldiers back from Nokomi, but we were outnumbered in here, despite doing our best to even the score. Navid was helping his own soldiers by casting fire at our pack, burning both dogs and men alive. Our two forces were so closely entangled that there was no way to only hit our forces without hurting some of his own men, but he didn’t even care if he killed some of his own men, just so long as some of us died.
If we didn’t strike soon, we’d lose. All we’d done would be for nothing.
“Mongrel!” I shouted. “Hit Navid!”
Mongrel snapped off a shot with his bow, but it didn’t have the power he needed behind it, not with such a hurried effort. Navid batted the arrow aside with his sword, laughing as he effortlessly defended himself.
“You’ll have to do better than that!” Navid called down the steps at us.
I smiled. I planned on it. “Again! Left side!”
Navid scowled as Mongrel nocked another arrow and fired. The second arrow was sent astray just as the first had been, but in doing so, Navid’s steps had carried him right in front of Neema.
Dog had been watching Neema closely, and what he saw I also knew. Dog knew that Dastan’s strike had opened up a gash on Neema’s forehead where her face had struck the side of the chair. She wasn’t so stunned as she’d played to be. Instead, she’d hidden her face and waited for the blood to bead up. With her uncle right in front of her, she drew her will into that rivulet of blood and flicked it at him with a sudden jerk of her face.
Navid turned in surprise as Neema’s heartfire scored him across the back like the strike of a fiery whip. Normal fire might not hurt one of the royal family, but heartfire knew friend from foe. Navid let out a cry of pain and turned to stab her with his sword, but that was all the opening Nokomi needed. She threw all of her will into her ball of fire and threw it at his open back.
Once more, a soldier tried to get between her attack and Navid, but Dog pulled him down, ripping his legs out from under him. Nokomi’s aim was true, and the white ball of light burned like the noon sun as it hit Navid square in the back, burning its way through his spine as it burrowed into him.
Navid sagged to the floor, nerveless and dead from the waist down. His sword clattered to the floor and he cried out in agony. Blood and spit bubbled at his mouth and he clawed at the carpeted floor, gasping in pain. His mouth worked like a fish out of water, filling with wordless cries of pain. I doubted he was able to do much more than feel his nerves being seared from the inside out.
At the fall of their master, many of the soldiers backed away from us, dropped their weapons, or backed away from the fight, disengaging when they could. My allies had their blood up though, and many would not stop fighting so easily. I gave a bark, calling them off. Even then, some wanted to press the attack. I let them as they wished, though I had no desire to see any more blood today, save for one man’s.
“Mongrel?” I asked.
“Go?” He turned to me.
“Kill Dastan.” I nodded toward Neema’s traitorous fiancée.
Dastan opened his mouth to protest, but took an arrow in the back of the throat. He crumpled to the floor, dying painfully. I nodded approval to Mongrel, who nodded back.
The dogs surrounded us then, gathering in a circle to watch over Nokomi as she went up the steps and knelt beside her uncle. She crouched triumphantly over his prone form.
“You stupid, stupid man.” She shook her head. “You could have sat at the right hand of greatness, but your greed got the better of you. For what? How many people had to die for your pride?”
Navid shook his head, struggling to breath, but he managed a few words. “What would a girl… who consorts… with animals… know of pride?” He spat out.
Nokomi looked up at me, she looked at Dog, and then she looked around at those who had fought bravely to get her this far. She must have liked what she saw. “They may look like beasts, but they have more honor in them than you, a man of my own family.”
“Time to die, uncle.” She spat on her uncle then and put her knife over his chest. “Remember that traitors don’t reach the afterlife.”
“Emperors do.” Navid glared at her defiantly.
“You were never really the Emperor.” She growled, pushing her knife into her uncle’s chest, sinking it all the way to the floor. “Die, pretender!”
Then, so he couldn’t use his dying blood to kill us all, she crisscrossed her palm with a fresh cut, drawing a fistful of blood that she pressed on his forehead. Her glowing hand melted through his face like candlewax.
With Navid’s ruined body stretched out before us, Dog threw back his head and howled. I joined him. Soon, the others were howling too. Even, I noticed, Nokomi, whose eyes flashed yellow as she joined in.
Her throat produced the most marvelous howl I’d ever heard. I watched her in awe, marveling at her teeth, suddenly sharper than I remembered, and her claw-like fingertips. She was perfect. More than perfect.
It seemed the bond of heartfire and Old Blood went both ways.
We cut our way through the defenses that tried to hold us back from reaching the palace walls. The front gates were the obvious route of attack, since the Emperor had destroyed them when he died, but we knew they would be heavily defended. We went that way anyway, perhaps because it was so obvious, but also because Nokomi had a need to return through the same gates where her father had died.
The estates along the avenue leading to the gate were shells at best, crumbled pieces of foundation that had bene mostly blown apart in the explosion. The pit in the middle of the road, the epicenter of the explosion, was fused like volcano glass. The heat must have been truly incredible.
Unlike her father’s entourage, we were not so easily taken by surprise. Nasha’s scouting revealed the fighters waiting to ambush us, and we took them by surprise instead. We were merciless, but not without sense. We were not a pack of ravening beasts. The Princess’ Dogs were a weapon, surgical and precise in our violence.
Nokomi paused only briefly at the exact spot where her father had loosed all of his heartfire in one last deadly blast. She looked to me, and I nodded encouragement to her. She took a breath and fixed her eyes on the makeshift gates that had been erected in the weeks since we’d fled the palace.
Heavy timbers had been placed where the gates had been blown apart. While they had not been mudded into place or finished with the tiled roofing to match the rest of the walls, they were sturdy. They may have lacked ornamentation, but they would hold against an army without a battering ram or the ability to leap to the top of the walls.
Still, that would be a costly battle, costing as much in time as in lives. Time was a luxury we did not have. We had to get to Navid quickly, before he could flee. I’d already left a small contingent in the home that Kalb had used to hide Nasha’s existence, on the off chance that Navid tried to slip out the same way we had, though I doubted he would be that obvious.
“It’s time.” I suggested and Dog echoed, our voices still strange in our pointed ears.
Nokomi had been carrying fire in her palm, but had not yet had an occasion to use it. We’d kept her guarded well enough that she’d not had to join the fighting, so she might save her heartfire for situations like this. Our pack could certainly take the walls and bypass the gates, but we might have need of the soldiers we’d lose here.
“My turn.” Nokomi agreed.
She stepped forward to face the gate, keeping just out of range of arrows. Dog and I stood beside her just in case. We would not let a random arrow end our vengeance, not with our goal so near.
Nokomi concentrated her energy and will into the ball of fire that danced on her fingertips, and we watched it grow to burn so brightly that we had to turn our eyes away for fear of going blind. When she’d gathered all the light she needed into the sphere, she wound up and cast it at the gates. That ball of light flew straight and true, flying farther than I would have thought possible to throw such a thing. The globe arced through the air, striking dead center in the middle of the gates.
It hit, splashing like a tomato, and the liquid fire immediately started burning wherever the droplets landed. Even the sand at the base of the gates caught fire. Her blood as good a fuel as any oil, and in moments the entire new gate was on fire. More than that, the fire seemed alive, and it burrowed through the wood where it had struck, sizzling and melting the wood as if it were sugar in hot tea.
Screams erupted from behind the walls, where some must have been too near the fire when it burned through. The fire grew, taking on a life of its own until it had engulfed the entire gate complex. Even from our distance, we could feel the warmth of the fire on our faces.
We had but to wait. And howl.
The pack’s howled for Navid’s blood, growing louder as the fire grew stronger, reaching a crescendo as the gate finally collapsed in on itself, sending up a shower of sparks that danced like fireflies in the rapidly-approaching night.
Nokomi strode toward the fallen gates and parted the sparks with a spreading motion of her hands. I watched in surprise as the fire, even the small pieces of it in the air, obeyed her. It was, after all, a part of her.
Soldiers had arranged themselves in a half ring within the walls, far enough from the fire to not get burned, but close enough to encircle any attackers that dared to enter through the destroyed gates. We heard crossbows being cranked and bowstrings going taut.
“The two open pavilions facing us are loaded with archers and bowmen.” Nasha reported, her eyes out of focus as she saw through Zephyr’s eyes. She looked fiercer than I’d ever seen, with the hot winds from the fire blowing back through her dark hair and her mouth turned upward in a satisfied smile.
“Do we have an archer?” Nokomi asked, looking around at the lot of us.
I looked to Scar, and he quickly located arrows and a bow that had belonged to a waiting assassin that would never pull another bowstring. Among us, Mongrel was the best archer, so he drew an arrow and stood at the ready, awaiting Nokomi’s command.
“See if you can hit each of those towers.” She suggested, reaching out to ignite the arrowhead with the blood on her palm.
She held the arrow until the arrowhead glowed white and the wood it touched sizzled. If there had been an moisture left within the shaft of the arrow, it had just vaporized.
“Don’t let Adish see you doing that.” I remarked.
She grinned at me, her eyes more alive in the light of her heartfire than I’d ever seen them. “How do you think we reforged my father’s sword?”
I blinked at her in surprise. She wasn’t kidding about using her blood in the forge. That gave even more meaning to the blade she carried. She’d spilt her own blood to make it.
Mongrel drew back the bow and loosed the heartfire arrow. It sailed through the sky like a shooting star, piercing the roof of the western pavilion. While Nokomi lit the second arrow, the first one burst into flames on the roof. Under that extreme heat, even the stone roof burned. Hot melted stone rooftiles dripped down onto the archers below as the structure began to go up in earnest. I remembered standing on that pavilion as Navid had made his triumphant return and going down the stairs to meet Legs. Now, it was burning.
The second arrow hit lower, on the observation levels of the eastern pavilion tower. Men tried to splash water on the fire or stamp it out, but this was no ordinary fire, and it blazed far too hot for simple things to put out. This was living fire – it sought destruction and found it.
With the archers disabled and the company of soldiers waiting for our attack thrown into disarray from the sparks floating down at them, our pack surged through the embers of the ruined gate. With powerful strides and leaps to carry us to the enemy, we were on top of them or behind them in mere moments.
The living fire knew who its friends were, curiously floating harmlessly past dog and man alike, while stinging enemy soldiers. It wasn’t even a fair fight. It was butchery.
When we’d cleared the space between the walls and the palace, we continued forward, picking up the pace as we neared our goal. Dogs and boys turned less than human by their changes were leaping over the smaller set of walls that blocked off the courtyard. I took Nokomi in my arms and jumped over the wall, following Dog’s lead.
More soldiers came pouring into those long gardens, the same courtyard where I’d been reunited with Nokomi upon returning to the city. It was a strange homecoming, this time with fire and death instead of joy. But the death brought a different, thrilling sort of joy to Dog and I: the thrill of the hunt. We were hunting down our enemies, our rivals.
Dogs and men launched themselves at the soldiers that burst from between the pillars of the palace. These were Navid’s heavy guards, the best-trained soldiers in his army. They looked like beetles in their dark armor, but it they thought to stop us here, after all we’d gone through to get this far, they didn’t know us.
Dog and I fell upon them like scythes through fields of ripe grains. We reveled in the terror that filled our nostrils. The blood of seasoned soldiers fell thick before our claws, and their flesh parted almost happily beneath our teeth. No sword, steel, armor, or weapon could halt our advance, but there were many soldiers. Our advance was not without cost.
A determined knot of defenders slowly gave ground as we broke into the halls of the palace itself, leaving behind the night air. The cool night was battling with the heat of Nokomi’s fire and losing, just as surely as Navid’s defenders were failing.
I roared and threw myself into the knot of defenders. My landing killed one, whose spine snapped beneath my sudden weight. Dog crashed beside me, and we tore at the soft innards of men from within their own ranks. We found their vital organs, even through their boiled leather and ring mail armor.
I punched one so hard that his helmet folded over on his skull, crushing his head like a ripened melon. Dog’s claws cut through men like scissors, and his maw found openings in armor and shields that ended lives. The two of us stood in a pile of gore, the center of calm in a sea of controlled chaos.
An archer down the hallway tried to put an arrow in my chest, but we batted it aside. When we barked at him, he fled, and the path was clear to the audience room.
Dog and I shook, and blood sheeted off of us as if we’d just taken a bath. Nokomi came to stand beside us, jaw clenched as she tried to ignore the carnage. These men were doing their duty, but so were we.
Nokomi’s hand gleamed as if she wore a glove of fire, and her eyes had a hard set about them. “We’re almost there. Let us finish this.”
I led our company onward until we reached the audience chamber. The last time I’d been here, Emperor Baraz and Kalb had been alive. I halted outside, giving a sniff. I could smell Navid beyond those enameled double doors.
“He’s in there.” I announced, earning a round of growls and snarls from my companions.
“Open it.” Nokomi ordered, drawing herself up in readiness for the fight to come.
I reached out to open the doors. This time there would be no doorman announcing our arrival. This time, fire and death heralded our presence. Navid would have to answer for his crimes.
Messages and preparations had come and gone, and the time for action was upon us. The Lord of the Vultures had gathered his soldiers and had moved to harass Navid’s forces at each entry to the city. They had split into several companies, each of which was turning back merchants who tried to reach the city, choking it slowly. Those who were leaving were allowed to pass, but none were being allowed entry.
It was an unofficial siege, but that wasn’t the point of the Empress’ plan. The forces outside the city could no more take the city than they could starve out the city. It was all a ploy to draw out Navid’s armies, taunting them to force him to acknowledge what was happening.
After weeks of hunting for the escaped members of the royal family, here they were, presenting themselves to him if Navid dared to come out and meet them in battle. Of course, he didn’t come out himself. Instead, he sent out his regiments of soldiers on patrols, but they had little luck finding Tiny’s soldiers. The Lord of Vultures had trained his men well. They knew when to hide, how to vanish, and how to avoid larger forces when they needed to. They were naturals at it, and with the help of Nasha’s falcon, Zephyr, they were all but untraceable.
I watched through a spyglass as yet another of Navid’s patrols went out, knowing that the enemy they sought would melt into the wind like a handful of dust. Short of a horse trampling one the hidden soldiers accidentally, they would not find a single man.
Nasha stood beside me, her eyes focused afar, likely on the same things I was watching with the spyglass. With Zephyr aloft, her farsight was incredibly detailed. She claimed to be able to count flies on a dead animal’s corpse at a distance of a thousand paces. I suspected that she was not exaggerating in the least.
Nokomi watched Kalb’s daughter with morbid interest. She still found the girl strange and a bit scary, but Nasha had that effect on people. Mostly, it was those piercing eyes, and she had more than a little bit of her father’s intimidating presence. He had been known to quiet an entire room with nothing more than a glance, and I had no doubt that she would be his equal someday.
Still, Nokomi had accepted Nasha’s service gratefully, on the condition that she would be free to seek her own fortunes after Navid was dead. That part of the agreement had been added at my suggestion, but Nokomi had not argued it one bit. Perhaps, being another young woman, she understood the need to not be tied to something forever, at least not because of the a parent’s wishes.
“Movement.” Nasha announced, swiveling her head toward the northern city gates.
When the gates opened minutes later, an entire column of soldiers emerged, a larger force than we’d yet seen. The city was not being emptied of its defenses by any means, but it was as close to emptying it as we’d likely get. I looked then to Empress Anahita, who nodded to me. It was as she’d planned. After enough time, Navid would have to send a significant portion of his forces out to deal with the insurgents. This was our chance.
The Empress walked over to us, flanked by Halina, who wore leather armor, a helm, and carried a pair of long knives, one sheathed on each hip. The Empress was similarly geared for battle, but she carried a shield and a spear instead.
The Empress looked to Nokomi, smiled broadly, and threw her arms around her. “We will see each other again, daughter. Go get our family’s kingdom back.”
“I will, mother. Be careful. Let Halina guard your back. She saved me back in the palace, and I know she can do the same for you.” Nokomi said, pulling away reluctantly. She wiped a tear and bit her lip to stop her chin from quivering.
Halina gave Nokomi a fierce hug next, eyeing me over her shoulder, as if to dare me to not protect her with my life. “May your aim be true, Princess. Come back to us after you have taken your revenge. If we don’t meet you in the city after disposing this rabble ourselves.”
Nokomi choked out a laugh while crying in honest now. “May the Gods watch you and keep you safe, Halina. Remember, you don’t have to win out here. Just stay alive.”
Halina and the Empress walked back to where their mounts were being held by Barid and Jahan. They had earned the honor of escorting the two ladies, this far at least. The rest of Adish’s family had stayed back at the camp. Sherine was looking after Shapur for the Empress, as well as her own two younger children. If things went poorly today, Barid and Jahan were to ride back to them and flee the kingdom. Had they meant to join the battle, I doubted that Jahan would have been allowed to come this far.
Barid exchanged some words with Halina, who smiled and offered him a kiss on the cheek before he helped her onto her mount. Jahan said some words of encouragement to the Empress, then blushed and looked at the ground while she mounted. Nokomi grinned at the scene, and I found myself doing the same.
With the Empress mounted up, she started out across the sand to where the rest of her soldiers waited. Tiny’s army had not been the sum of the allies she’d been able to gather. Baraz and Anahita had been beloved by many in the kingdom, and several great houses had pledged many swords to her cause, if not nearly as many as Navid could muster. We also knew that some families would hedge their bets by sending support to both sides. Still, the Empress didn’t have to win outside the city walls, not with what we had planned.
When the Empress had gone and the dust of her force’s passing had drawn the attention of Navid’s army, I looked to Nokomi and Nasha, nodding. “It’s time.”
We hurried down the slope of the dune we had been perched upon to where Scar waited with the force of Old Blood soldiers he’d managed to gather. There were easily thirty of them, and I found several familiar faces among them. It heartened me to go into battle with old friends beside me.
I saw Face, whose dog’s large face was marked with more wrinkles than any other dog I’d even met. He was a solid man, and his dog easily outweighed me. Hair was also there, another boy from the Kennel who’d since grown into a man. His flowing locks were nearly as impressive as his dog’s long, beautiful coat. I saw the fleet-footed Sleek, the second fastest dog and man I’d known, second only to Legs, whose sacrifice still stung my heart. Then there was Mongrel, who, along with his mutt, was not particularly amazing at anything, but excelled at everything. I knew he’d be one of the last to fall if things went the wrong way.
Of the others, many I knew from my time in the army and training at the other schools. The rest I had at least met when they’d gathered at the Kennel. Scar and I had gone over the plan together with them, and they were all in this with me, but they also knew that we were but a small part of the Emperor’s Dogs. Most of what remained of the Emperor’s secret army was inside the city, and they all served the current Emperor, as they had been trained. Like Sardar’s pack, most of the Dogs had followed the throne, not their hearts.
Dog stood at attention beside me, as I looked over the small force. “This is our time.” I told them all. “This is not a time for man or beast, but for something in-between. We alone can serve the Emperor’s memory by returning the throne to its rightful owners.”
“For Princess Nokomi!” Scar shouted.
“For Empress Anahita!” Another shouted.
“Down with the false Emperor!” Someone cried, and this became the battle cry that they all took up.
Nokomi nodded at me and mounted her pony eagerly, with eyes flashing and ready to see justice done. Like her mother and Halina, she was ready for battle. She wore her hair tied back and out of the way, a quilted shirt with leather panels, and her father’s reforged knife at her side.
Her pony was well-chosen, as unshakeable as it was fast. Otherwise, all the barking and howling of dogs would have unnerved the poor animal. That pony kept its cool, even as most of us gave parts of our bodies over to our animal sides, taking on the strength and speed of the dogs that would be at our sides when we entered the city.
Our pack ran as only we could, or so we thought…
Nasha ran beside us, her light footsteps hardly marring the sand upon which she tread. As if lighter than air, she floated from step to step, keeping pace with the dogs as they ran. I could have stood and watched her run, but there was no time for such things.
We stayed in the troughs between dunes and hills, using natural cover where we could. Dusk would be shortly upon us, but we were not waiting for the shadows of night. The Empress might not have that long, though she hoped to use the darkness to escape if she needed to. And, we already knew Navid’s Wolves would find us. We counted on it.
We approached the city on the western side where there was the least amount of city between us and the palace. We didn’t want to have to work our way through half a city of buildings and crisscrossing avenues and open ourselves up to attack from soldiers stationed within the city. No, we wanted a direct and simple route.
When we neared the walls, guards began to take notice of us. Nasha warned us to watch for arrows, but a lucky arrow felled one of ours, injuring his leg too greatly for him to continue one. He snarled and apologized, but other dogs and their companions had already topped the walls and cleared out any further resistance.
“Your fight is over for today. Live to fight again tomorrow.” I said as I knelt beside the wounded soldier. “Get to safety with your dog.”
He growled but did as told, and then the rest of us climbed the walls. Nokomi left her pony then, clinging to my back as I scaled the wall. Her heart hammered against my back, and I grinned, feeling the thrill of the hunt as well. My part would come soon, very soon, if my ears told the truth of it.
When we had all cleared the walls and had moved into the cover of alleys nearby, Nasha’s head cocked to the side and her eyes went out of focus, as if she were not using them.
“Dogs. More of them. Wolf heads on their shoulders.” She pointed in several directions, and then her eyes came back into focus.
“Get Zephyr back here, so he doesn’t take a stray arrow.” I ordered. “They may know to look for him.”
Nasha nodded and went to the edge of the alleyway, where she held out her arm. The bird alighted on her falconer’s glove moments later, arriving almost noiselessly, except for when he opened his wings at the last moment to slow his approach. She grinned at me in the fading light. Her eyes went golden. She was showing off.
I looked to Dog, then. “It’s going to be you and I, here.”
Nokomi’s hand gripped my arm tightly. “Are you sure about this?” Her fingertips traced the scars at the corners of my mouth, where my last great change had ripped my skin as I’d become more dog than human.
I nodded. “I must do this, Nokomi. We can’t fight our way past all of his soldiers, let alone these creatures...”
She bowed her head, putting it on my shoulder for a brief moment of comfort amidst all of the anxiety, a moment that was shattered by a howl from down the street. That howl was taken up by another, and soon the whole area was erupting in bestial howls.
“Steady…” Scar murmured to the other soldiers. His own dog waited, bared white teeth shining against his dark coat, legs tensed and ready to spring.
It was a good thing, as a scraping on the roof above us became a dog-like creature hurtling down upon us. Scar tackled the beast as it landed, going after it with his dog at his side. More attackers burst into the alley, and we quickly found ourselves in a snarling pile of limbs and teeth.
Dog and I pummeled one when it got too close to Nokomi, and I saw that she was poised with a knife over her hand. I shook my head at her. “Not yet. You have to save your heartfire for Navid.”
Together, Dog and I fell upon another enemy, scraping and snapping at each other. Mongrel hit the thing from its flank, piling on top of it to seek its throat. Relieved of a foe, I looked to my fellows and shouted more orders.
“Fight out into the street! Make some noise! Draw them all in!” I pushed past them to the center of the street.
Shadows multiplied in the street, becoming dozens of other beasts and men as we battled. Wounded howls and shrieks filled my ears. I saw some of my allies fall, but still we battled on, becoming a knot of fighting around Nasha, whose talon-like fingers were as fast as they were sharp, and Nokomi, who was ever poised to draw her blood to help us, but trusted me enough to hold off.
Then there was a deep bark from down the street, and the fighting lessened. Their dogs and soldiers fell back, surrounding us, but not engaging. They’d left about half of our force standing, with several others crawling to join us, even if they were clearly not going to be able to continue their fight.
Several of my companions were dead in the street, dogs and boys alike. Somehow, they always managed to die near their partners, boys and dogs never far apart, even in death. The sheer waste of talent, of ability, of life… it galled me. It burned at my soul.
With the taste of someone else’s blood on my mouth, I let loose a howl of rage and challenge. Dog snarled one of his own.
“I knew you would come.” Sardar called out to me, stepping past the front lines of his superior force.
My pack flowed to my sides, letting me past them. I spared Nokomi one last glance and stepped forward to meet him.
I looked at the row of faces arrayed against me, dogs and men alike. “You all serve a false emperor, a murderous traitor. Turn and help your Empress regain her rightful place, in the name of Emperor Baraz’s son and true heir, Shapur.”
Sardar shook his head. “Your Empress cannot win. She is as outnumbered outside the walls as you are inside! This beaten force of yours here cannot stand. You have already lost. We will take the princess back as captive, and the Empress’ son will live in exile or be hunted to the ends of the world.”
As he spoke, our enemies drew forward, encouraged by Sardar’s words. Dog growled and stood beside me, refusing to give ground, no matter how close the enemy crept.
“You tried, Go, but you have failed. Surrender now, before any more of those with you have to suffer. They fought and did their duties, as they thought they should. We cannot fault them for their misplaced loyalties, and they will be granted clemency if you surrender.” Sardar tried to appeal to their senses, but dogs are beasts of passion, not sense.
“All or nothing!” Scar shouted in challenge, his scarred face twisting into an angry sneer. He looked at me with hope, and I knew I could not let them down.
“Emperor Navid!” The enemy called back, taunting us with their greater numbers.
“You asked for this…” I warned Sardar.
Sardar shook his head. “We’ve all seen or heard what you can do, Go. Becoming a beast will not let you prevail, not against these numbers. Even the strongest elephant can be pulled down by a pack of lions…”
“But I am not an elephant, and you are not the lions in this story.” I replied.
He may have been the original recruit at the Kennel, the one with the most experience, but he was not the one with the greatest ability. If I’d learned anything from the story of Kalb’s sacrifice, it was that there was always another step farther you could take things, if you were willing to try.
I gave myself over completely, not to the beast within me, but to Dog. And he gave himself to me, heart and mind. The two of us twisted and changed. He became me, and I became him.
My face and body contorted with the changes that pained me to my very core. My legs cracked and my joints changed. My jaws elongated, and my ears stretched skyward. Coarse hair sprouted across my body as my muscles reshaped to fit the new bone structures of something between man and beast.
The beast had been a powerful but nearly mindless creature filled with rage. I was not becoming a mindless beast. I was taking the form of a beast with the mind of a man, and Dog was doing the same beside me. Despite all of the pain, the knowledge that Dog was beside me, fighting the same changes, made it possible. I heard Nokomi cry out, and that was balm to our shared soul, but it could not change what we’d done.
When I looked up with my new eyes, and I saw my enemies looking back at me in an array of fear, fear I saw in shades stripped of most color. I had done something they dared not do. Dog and I had become the same. I glanced to my side, seeing Dog staring back at me with the same face I now wore, only dappled with patches as his face had been as a Dog.
Dog had become half man, and I had become half dog. We were something not Dog or Go, but the best of both.
With an ear-shattering roar more befitting a bear than a dog, we stepped forward on our strange feet, human-like with the claws of a beast.
Sardar regarded us with something between horror and fascination. He stood stock still as we charged, unwilling to challenge what we’d become. Dog and I snapped our jaws in front of his face, snarling and fully willing to rip his face to pieces, even if he didn’t fight back.
One of Navid’s Wolves jumped at my flank, but I turned and tore him to pieces with claws that would have made a lion jealous. Dog kept his jaws at the ready right in front of Sardar, ready to end him without a moment’s hesitation.
“Your emperor is false…” I growled, not recognizing my own voice, mixed as it was with Dog’s. We acted and spoke as one.
Sardar knelt before me then, averting his eyes and going low. His dog hid its tail and rolled belly up. I growled at them, and they flinched away, expecting death but not finding it.
Dog and I let loose another ear-splitting howl.
The larger share of those present, other men and dogs that had been part of the Emperor’s Dogs, froze. Slowly, they all showed ways to demonstrate their submission, by lying down, going belly up, averting their eyes, or whimpering.
The only ones that did not want to give any sign of giving up were the ones who had never served with us, the ones recruited by Navid himself. His wolves would never submit. I could smell it on them, see it in their body language.
“His wolves are false.” Dog and I proclaimed, effectively ordering their deaths.
It was not pretty, seeing dogs turn on each other, but all of those who had served with me before were now mine. By submitting, they had chosen me as their new pack leader. They would not serve Navid again, not while I lived.
Outnumbering Navid’s Wolves some three to one, my dogs slaughtered the wolves in the streets. It became an utter rout, and the streets ran with the blood of man and canine. Dog and I savagely defended our own, killing any of Navid’s creatures that strayed within our range. Scar and Mongrel were a wind of death just beyond my reach, finishing those that dared not challenge me.
When it was over, I looked back to Nokomi and Nasha. Nasha regarded us as we knew she would, with her head tilted and her too-large eyes fixated upon us. It was Nokomi that mattered, and it did not please us to see her watch us with a pained look on her face. She’d known that this wouldn’t be a bloodless effort. She’d even prepared herself to kill her own uncle, but this was more than she’d ever imagined she’d have to witness.
“Go…” She said softly, but I heard it, the pain of loss in her voice. She feared she’d lost us forever.
I reached out through our bond and gave her reassurance. We may have changed, but Dog and I were both still here. Her expression eased a bit, but still looked as one might look upon watching a loved one hurt and suffering.
I didn’t know if there was any going back from what we’d done, but I knew our work wasn’t done. There was still hunting to do, and we could not rest until Navid was dead.
“All or nothing!” Came the cries from the Emperor’s Dogs… no… the Princess’ Dogs now.
I could smell it on them, their need to please me to please her. I didn’t dwell on what that might mean. Instead, I used it. I let them ride their emotions like a wave, using them as a smith might use a hammer, and what a hammer they made!
We charged through the streets, killing our way to the palace. Nokomi followed in our wake, a cupped ball of fire ready on her palm and her father’s reforged knife in her hand, begging for her uncle’s blood.
The nine of us gathered around: the leaders of Yek, Se, Do, and Chahar with all five members of Panj, even if Tiny was in a fitful sleep. Many of the other members of the packs gathered in the hallway to hear. They huddled together quietly to listen, reminding me of a crowd watching a game of stones, only much quieter.
We all looked to the nondescript boy from Yek with a bit of surprise, since they never did much alone. For some reason, he’d been chosen to represent Pack Yek. He introduced himself as Sardar, which was also a surprise. It sounded like a birth name, while we all had nicknames. Most of us shared the nicknames with our dogs, while some of us, like myself, also had names for our dogs. The first pack was different in many ways, but they had been here much longer than any of us.
“We all know why we’re here.” I began. I’d brought all this about, so they would look to me to lead the discussion. “We must decide a fate for Drum and his dog, Bear. Whatever we decide, we must decide together, so that the Emperor and his advisor, who you know as Yellow-Eyes, will agree.”
“You already have a decision made? You’ve decided amongst your pack?” Scar inquired. He spoke slowly, enunciating carefully. With the scars around his mouth, it was difficult for him to speak quickly.
I looked to my fellows, and they nodded to me. I grasped Tiny’s hand as he slept. “Yes. We will demand that Drum is executed for killing our pack member’s dog.”
Scar’s mouth twisted in a wry smile. “I do not like him. I never have. He was insufferable even before you came here. Then you all pushed him to a point where he had no choice. Now he gets to die for it.”
“So you are against us getting our vengeance for L.D.’s murder?” Killer demanded hotly. His body tensed angrily. His dog lifted its head, flashing its large canines.
Scar shook his head and laughed. “No. If he must die, then he must die. I only wanted to lay the blame where it needed to be. You all are not innocent in this, so think upon that before you easily decide to execute someone.”
Legs stood up and pointed a finger at the others. He ignored Scar’s dog baring teeth at his accusing finger. He had something he had to say. “Maybe you all shouldn’t have created such a hostile culture. You had months and years to make this place what you would, and you want to blame us? We’re the victims here. You all created him.”
This incident had certainly given Legs something of a spine. Weeks ago, he’d not have looked any of these boys in the eyes. Now he was berating the whole group. I let him say his piece and kept my expression neutral.
Bull nodded, looking abashed. “It is how they made this place. They demanded that we compete like animals. We could have been building each other up, like brothers. We let this come to this point, and we did nothing to stop it. You are right.”
“So we are all to blame, the instructors, us, and you all.” Scar admitted. Then, almost reluctantly, as if he didn’t know he could trust us, he added, “Even the Emperor is responsible, in his own way.”
“Yes. Let us all share the blame, but Panj will gladly shoulder all of the burden of punishing him.” I declared.
“You will do it yourself?” Sardar asked. The boy with the white dog calmly stroked his dog, as if he were discussing the weather and not the execution of one of our own.
“I will.” I’d already decided this. I owed it to Tiny. I owed it to L.D. Dog was with me on this.
“So it’s decided? Drum is to die? Is there any opposed to murdering one of our own?” Mongrel asked. He certainly had no reason to love Drum. His dog still limped from Bear’s attack. Yet, he still seemed heavy-hearted about the decision.
No one opened their mouth. There were silent headshakes or still expressions, but no one was against it. There were murmurs in the hallway, but no one raised their voice to be heard.
“I have a concern.” Sardar announced. “It is not about Drum. He is mad… brain sick. I do not believe he can be saved. My concern is for his beast. What will you do with Bear? Will you kill him as well?”
No one answered that, not even me. In my mind, Drum was the one who gave the order, but Bear was the one who had murdered L.D. Could we spare the dog that did the deed if we executed the master for ordering the crime?
Sardar smiled sadly. “How will it be for that dog? We may not love Drum, but his dog? Is it Bear’s fault that his master was bred for cruelty?”
“The dog will want to die with his master.” Scar suggested, his dark features doing their best to frown. It was a half-frown at most.
“What can we do with him? Is there any option but putting him down?” I wondered aloud. I was honestly curious.
“I think Scar is right.” Mongrel said. “I felt the pain from my dog, and he was much nearer to death than I’d like to think. He survived, but I know how it would have affected me if he had died. I imagine it is the same way for a dog to lose a master, when you’re one of us.”
“It would be cruel to let him live. He should die with his master.” Scar was adamant about this.
“But what if?” Sardar began.
We all turned to see how that might end. Did he know something we did not?
“Yes?” I prompted, when he didn’t finish that statement.
“Pack Yek has been here longer than any of you, a year longer as a group, but I was the first. I was here before them all.”
Bull looked surprised. This was news to him as well. “You were? How long have you been here?”
“Six years.” Sardar answered.
Silence. We all just looked at each other in wonder. Most of Pack Do, from what little I’d heard before, had only been here a year or two. Pack Yek was supposedly first, but I’d guessed only two to three years at most. Six years was a very long time to be in this place, a lifetime. Dog tensed beside me, as if imagining a lifetime in this place. It was not a pleasant thought.
“It wasn’t always like this.” Sardar explained. “In the beginning, it was only me, and I was treated as a student, a guest even. Then they began to find others. As they did, they built this place up, changing it into this military camp, rather than the school it had once been.”
He paused to pet his dog. “In those early days, it was just me, but they continued to hunt. Yellow-Eyes found more. He brought a girl here and another boy as well.”
“A girl was here?” Scar looked shocked by this idea.
I, too, couldn’t believe it. None of us could. I’d never even heard of a girl with the Old Blood, not that it didn’t make sense. We’d just never seen one. How would that be, though? It was already hard enough with all of us boys, competing and fighting. What would we do if there was a girl to compete for as well? Would she rule us all as we fought for her favor, or would we kill each other to possess her?
Sardar continued his story. “It was just us three for several months, but then there was an accident. Or maybe it wasn’t an accident. No matter the cause, the girl died, leaving her dog behind. The dog was mad with loss. In the manner of beasts, he refused to eat, and was waiting to die.”
“Now I was angry at her death. I blamed the other boy, rightfully so, I believe. In a fit of rage, I attacked him. My dog was killed while I killed the boy.” Sardar looked around at us, letting his story sink in. He flipped over his white dog’s ear, petting the soft, downy fur of the white dog’s ears.
“I felt like I might die. I wanted to, honestly.” Sardar’s faced was shadowed with the painful memories, but that look vanished after a moment, to be replaced with a smile. “This dog also wanted to die, but one day, something changed. I felt the same sort of pain in this dog as I felt inside. We had that pain in common. It was a start. It was what we both needed. We bonded, dog and boy, and we survived.”
We all froze. Never would we have believed that he was on his second dog, that this was a second bond. None of us had even known it was possible. What did that mean for Tiny? Was it possible? The room held their collective breath as we waited for him to continue. Dogs shifted nervously, but the boys remained stone still.
“Without a dog, Tiny will die.” Sardar said definitively. “He will lose the will to survive. Bear will do the same when Drum dies. They could try to bond. Only, I don’t know if they would be a match. I don’t know if they could forgive each other and learn to live together. They may be too different.”
“Or they might be just what each other needs, like with your story.” I offered.
“Maybe.” Sardar smiled softly, rising to his feet. “No matter what, I will support your decision. Pack Yek is behind you completely. But, if you want your friend to survive, I think there is only one possible course of action. It would not be easy, and they would require a long time together, alone and in each other’s company, but they might bond.”
He left without another word, his foster dog at his side. He was living proof that someone could survive losing a dog, but only if there was another one to bond with. Is that would Tiny would want? His hand tightened imperceptibly in mine, as if he’d heard the story and understood. I hoped it was so.
“We are all in agreement then?” I released Tiny’s hand and stood. Dog stood beside me. “Drum is to die. Tiny is to be given a chance to bond with Bear, if they will tolerate the match.”
“Pack Do agrees.” Scar answered quickly.
“Pack Se agrees.” Bull nodded.
“Pack Chahar agrees.” Mongrel said reluctantly. He hated Drum, but he’d known him best. It was hard to say goodbye, but it was what needed to be done.
“Pack Yek’s vote is with me, so we are all in agreement. I will take the news to the Emperor.” I hesitated, knowing this would not be enough. “When this is all done, we need to be done with these packs. They will only cause division. This tragedy could happen again.”
“What do you suggest then?” Scar asked.
“A new pack.” Killer suggested, smiling. He knew where I was going with this, even if I hadn’t discussed it with him.
“I thought you said do away with packs!” Scar protested. He didn’t seem to like the idea of losing his pack, but he had to know that Fire was practically a member of our pack now anyway, reducing his own group to three. That was hardly a pack.
“We are no longer Yek, Do, Se, Chahar, and Panj.” I said the words, smiling at Face, Killer, Legs, and Tiny’s prone form. “From now on, we are all Pack Sefr. We will use the name to honor the sacrifices made today. From now on, all of us are together, or we are nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Bull agreed. “All or nothing.”
“Pack Sefr.” Mongrel declared, effectively abdicating from his very short reign as leader of Chahar. He hadn’t really liked ruling anyway.
Scar looked at us all as if we were crazy, shaking his head. “Pack Sefr it is then.”
Bull stood to bark and bow to me. The others quickly did the same. I heard more barks from the hallway. The observers had agreed, including what was left of Pack Yek.
We would kill one of our own in hopes of healing one of our own. Then we would be whole again, as we had never been before.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs