Things had changed. Thorn hadn’t.
He stood tall, proud, and walked around her like a wild beast expecting a fight. Another time, another year, it might’ve worked on her.
Things had changed.
Small was no longer the runt of the pack.
It’d been a cruel joke at first, and then a name she had refused to grow into, and instead, almost through sheer force of will, she now towered over everything else that roamed the endless fields of bluegrass. When she hunted, she thundered across the fields like a wild horse, dipping between the trees and the dense thickets. When she created and cultivated, she no longer needed another set of arms. She could assemble everything herself, great frames of wood carved with her own hands, great decorations hammered into place with stone and chisel.
When she prowled, the wild things of the world knew full and well what she was up to, and would run, screaming. All but the hardiest of bulls respected Small’s reach, and all but the hardiest of bulls had been harassed by her.
But that was mere nature. Small had larger things to worry about.
Rising in the distance, the great mountains of meat sat, quietly steaming from decay and fetid heat. At the far front, across the remnants of an ancient highway that stubbornly avoided destruction, where buildings had once sat before being scavenged by the ones that came later, her brother sat. A crown made of bone straddled his head, all points, and blood slowly drooled down his head. A painful crown for a pain in her ass.
“Small,” Thorn said.
Small didn’t turn to address him, instead, ignoring him entirely. Her eyes were locked on the great glass eye of the mountain, propped up by the spine she knew to be larger than the average pre-war city. On days like this, when her heart pounded and all she wanted to do was rip and tear and finally be free, she thought the eye might be resting on her.
It was bullshit, her kind had been mining through the meat for generations. Nothing could live that long.
“Small,” Thorn repeated.
Small tore her gaze away from the sacred place and back on Thorn. He grew plants in his quiet grove, tucked far away in the distance; a half day’s travel.
If he stuck to that alone, she might’ve liked him.
“How’s the hunt for Father?” Thorn asked. “You stopped sending out updates.”
“He’s gone,” Small said, dismissively. “Same answer I’ll always give.”
“Have you found a body?”
Small’s eyes drifted distantly over Thorn’s head. A flash of something twisted, rotted fur stretched over a skeleton that was neither man nor beast, her father’s indestructible pelt unaffected by time and tide and death.
“No,” Small lied, precisely.
Thorn’s eyes closed. His neck was deliciously close. If only she could reach over.
“Then your banishment continues.” The head of the pack said. Small kept her eyes on the thick of his throat, hungry. The flesh would be sweet.
It’d stink of betrayal.
“Of course it does,” Small said.
“I don’t do this because I hate you,” Thorn said, taking a breath.
Small stood up to her full height, high enough that she towered over top of Thorn. “I’ve seen the end of this, you know,” Small reminded.
“Don’t ask me to entertain your delusions,” Thorn said. “It’ll reflect poorly on me later.”
“Delusions?” Small asked. “I speak of what your pack has wanted since the very beginning. The Great Ending. Where the Hero slays the Villain, and the world is remade in the same fires it died from. The very same stories that have been told again and again.”
“Just stories,” Thorn said.
Small’s eyes flashed in the heat of the noon sun, beating down on the dense thicket they hid themselves inside.
“Stories you paid a heavy price for,” Thorn said. “What were you thinking? You were royalty! You could’ve been at my side, and instead, you traded it away for fancies and shame?”
“Shame?” Small asked. “Shame is being too afraid of the future to listen to the word of god! Shame is pretending you are strong when you are weak. Shame is pretending you are weak when you could be strong, Thorn.”
“Leader,” Thorn corrected. “You can’t call me that, not anymore.”
“Oh? And what does Leader plan to do?” Small asked, cocking her head to the side. Her long tail bristled behind her.
“Stay here,” Leader said. “This is where we were meant to be. The food’s steady, the water’s clean, and this is where all of our creations have always been. Everything that matters has been right here, from the marble rooms to the theatres, the halls of histories and the bone gardens.”
Small bared her teeth. “The world is on fire and you’re going to stay in the trees,” she accused. “You’ll burn here, along with all of your precious things.”
“And we’ll burn doing what we’ve always done,” Leader said. “And I doubt we’ll burn. There’s centuries that we’ve spent here where the worst we’ve dealt with has been border skirmishes with the cats.”
“I knew you were a coward,” Small said. “I didn’t know you’d hide behind tradition.”
“I’m not going to risk our family, our entire way of life, over a few meat visions, Small.”
“Meat visions,” Small snarled. “You all have been listening to meat visions for as long as we’ve been around. It’s only when they tell you to do something different that you ignore them. These meat visions are what’s going to save us. Save all of you bastards.”
“Those meat visions are the same reason why you’re not allowed in this valley,” Leader reminded. “The same rule I’m breaking, just entertaining that for a second you had changed your mind.”
“I saw what I saw,” Small said. “This valley, on fire. The war, on our doorstep.”
“What war?” Leader asked, gesturing behind her. “The forests are empty of your invaders, and the only thing that’s bristling for a fight is you.”
“It’ll come,” Small said. “Or do you suddenly doubt the will of our god blessed mountain? The thing that lets us think in complicated sentences? The very same flesh we draw thoughts and memories from?”
“You know full well that the Beasts who take too much can’t be trusted. And then you did it anyway.”
Small’s eyes closed. She could still feel the eyes of the mountain upon her, the brief buzz in her head a distant annoyance, a distant contrivance against what she really wanted. Blood. It crawled through her like a snake. “You’ll burn.”
“And what am I supposed to do about that?” Leader asked, leaning forward. He didn’t have the height that Small had, but he had the demeanor of someone who was right.
Small was just angry. “Anything. Try and gather another pack. Get something together! Build weapons! Armor! We have all of this information just sitting around.”
“And what do I tell the others?” Leader asked. “That your meat visions are true? That Mother killed Father, and then herself? I’m trying to prevent a slaughter, Small. We may be the guardians of this flesh, but the second we’re gone, they’ll begin gorging again.”
“Better than lying to them about a dead king,” Small said, turning her head to the side. She could still rip out his throat. It might even be better if she did instead of fussing about with his stubbornness. “Better than setting them up like sick bulls.’
“So he’s dead then?” Thorn asked.
“I never found a body,” Small lied.
“You keep saying that,” Thorn said.
“It’s the truth.” Her father’s skin was hardy enough that she could wear it like a cloak, but the rest of him had long been devoured. The fallen one’s essence didn’t like to stay in one place.
There was nothing to drag back to the pack. There was no scrap of meat to go on the pile, there was no marrow in the bones to be made into soup. There was nothing left of him but hollow bones.
And the bones had never held any of the power the even now buzzed under Small’s skin, kept her upright like a tree, strong.
“And I’ll just stay a half leader,” Thorn said. “And you’ll stay an outcast.”
She bared her teeth again, and this time, he bared his back. “Why are you so useless?” Small growled, taking a step towards him.
“Useless?” Thorn asked. “I’m looking at a hunter who can’t find one dead body! Who wants me to believe some delusions she had when she broke the ONE RULE WE HAVE.”
Behind Small, she could feel the mountain calling her again. She could feel the eye trained upon her, the great glass artifice flickering with some inner heat. She could remember the chambers, the endless chambers of the creature’s great heart, where once she’d played, where once she’d been part of a family.
Where they tended the grove, and where they listened to the stories from the great memory boxes, of places far beyond the stars, ancient, dead.
But that was gone.
“Maybe,” Thorn said. “The reason why Father left is standing in front of me.”
Small’s eyes closed. When they opened, a second later, they were bloodshot, and her heart slammed in her chest like a falling tree.
The next instant, her fist had buried itself into Thorn’s face. His eyes snapped open, wide, watery, staring at her. It went from shock, to a slight tinge of fear, to a burning anger, like his very fur had caught alight. The yelp turned into a deep set growl, and he dragged his gnarled paw across his face. There was blood there. There wouldn’t be for long.
“You were the runt,” Thorn said.
“Leader,” Small spat. “I just see another bully. An idiot sitting on his laurels on an inherited position that nobody is willing to challenge you over while the spectre of father watches. Do you think they’ll let you stay in power when they decide he’s dead? Do you really think you’re as great a Beast as he is?”
“I’m better than you by far,” Thorn said. His jaw was already healing. “That’ll have to do.”
Small laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and when the fist came hurtling towards her jaw, she took it across the bone hard enough that her skull rattled. She spat out half a tooth, already feeling the mechanics in her jaw working to roll another into place, and then they were on each other.
It was hard to remember where one began and the other ended, and the Mountain called to both of them, a rising force that quivered in her bones and tickled at his, like smoke in their lungs, and then Thorn slammed her against a tree hard enough that air whistled out of her lungs, and Small ducked under the next blow and grabbed his legs and did the same, hurling him back against the great oak.
The bluegrass, thick as legionnaires, rustled behind them and Thorn stopped moving.
Small decked him across the face hard enough that the delicate features of her claws broke and shattered, and then she turned, flicking off bone from her fingertips. Other eyes gleamed in the gloom, looking at the blood smearing her body, and at Thorn, slowly rising back up.
“Traitor,” One said, lazily, like it was her name. And it was one of the few names that stung more than Small, more than the one she’d clung to for years. They were willing to even strip the epithet they’d given the runt.
The fire in her heart spread to her limbs, and she rose to her full height instead of bowing. She stood a full head over all of them, and often even more. In any other line, she’d be honored.
“What is she doing here?” the same Beast asked, looking at Thorn.
“She was just leaving,” Thorn said. “Isn’t that right?”
“I came here to be witnessed,” Small said. “In our legends, we are hunters. We are fighters, great beasts that plied at the end of the world and were rewarded for our service, for our diligence, by the ones who died before us. And now we pretend we honor their memory, their plagues and their petty apocalypses by what, collecting garbage and pretending we know their histories? We’re no better than the birds! We could be strong, we could build something out of ourselves, and what are we doing?”
Small gestured dismissively at the pack, now gathering before the two of them, brother and sister. “We’re hiding like cowards in the grass! We could be kings, and we hide. We’re not even prepared to prepare to fight.”
She felt her new tooth slide into place in her mouth and spat out a clot of blood. This close to the mountain, she could heal, fully, in a matter of minutes from anything minor. One of the few things she regretted about her decision, even if it wasn’t her choice to leave.
“Say your piece and be gone,” Thorn spat. A long claw mark graced his muzzle, refusing to heal until it had filled in. She could still taste his blood from where it had spattered across her teeth.
“I won’t be gone,” Small said. “I’ll be back. And I’ll bring us something that we’ll have to fight. That we’ll have to justify our existence against. I won’t let us be swept away by the next warlord who thunders through with eyes on our mountain. The packs may all disagree, but when I’m back, when I return-”
Small cut herself off for a glorious moment, because she saw an opportunity. A glorious, wonderful opportunity, and she grinned, baring her new teeth as they clicked back into place. “I’ll be Boss! BOSS! Queen of BEASTS! And I shall have you all hunt the greatest prey the world will ever see! The Gods themselves, rising from the ground, will writhe before us in fear and terror!”
“Big words,” Thorn said. But his eyes were locked onto hers. “Boss is your new name? Do you reject the name our family gave you?”
Boss reared up on her hind legs, visions of the future still playing across her head. Visions that had haunted her dreams, slowly dissolving into mush and disarray. The world would end before she had died a natural death.
“I reject your pathetic name and take this one as my own,” Boss snarled. “There’s a world out there, quivering, fear pulsed, and I will drag it back to you all with my own hands. Before it can drag you into its waiting maw.”
“And we’ll welcome you back when there’s a prey mighty enough to justify the flesh you took from the mountain,” Thorn said. “The proper exchange,” He said, his voice low, loathing, angry.
He could never conceive of a flesh that mighty that it could replace what she took.
But she was greater than Thorn now. She was the Boss! She would always be the Boss. And she knew there was something out there that mighty, and mightier still than even that!
It was her name, and none would take it from her. Not while she was listening.
“And where will you go?” Thorn asked. “For this war you want so much?”
“I do not want it,” Boss corrected. “But it will be there, waiting for me. It’ll be there too, if I did not seek it out, and it would take us and kill us all.”
“So what will you do?” Thorn asked. “You’re a single Beast.”
“I am Boss,” Boss declared. “And Boss will never be bested by mortals. Boss will fight the gods themselves, and drag them down to earth. I will return,” and her eyes flashed. “And when I do, it will be with a Warden, and their quarry! The great angels of the old world will rise from the ashes, and we will do battle like the end of days again.”
Who was she trying to convince? She couldn’t say.
Thorn’s eyes softened. “You don’t have to do this.”
But she did.
Boss punched him in the face. He whipped back and slammed into a tree, and then, with the eyes of the pack firmly on her back, she stalked off.
She would make good on her word.