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.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs