The bluegrass changed quickly from a delight to a nightmare. Even following after the Tiger in front of us and with Boss to bully a path through the mess of it, it was still nearly impossible to keep track of where we were. Every inch was fought against, and even three feet ahead the tiger’s stripes were already starting to break up his form so we could hardly see him through the grass.
“What was with the black cat?” I asked.
“That’s a sign of their patron,” Boss muttered. “From the colony that we came from.”
“Shall I say it, so that you don’t mangle it, princess?” the tiger asked.
“I am not a princess,” Boss cut in. “My father is dead. You may call me your Lord, your Ruler, Your Boss!” She growled.
“Long ago, my kind were kept in cages,” The tiger declared, flatly, passing over Boss’s declaration without a word. “We were idle things to be gawked at, to be given food and not given a chance to earn our keep beyond idle playing and days of endless laziness. Once, we were kings, and feared, and then, we were nothing but toys to be pampered and destroyed, made into mockeries of what we once were.” He paused.
I winced for every moment I had ever spent in a zoo.
“They told us it was for our safety, that the reach of man had become such that any of us left in the wild may very well be destroyed for being too good at what we were made for, what we had honed over hundreds of thousands of years of existence!” The tiger growled deep in his throat. “That is the justification we found among the humans, after their fall.”
“Then the bombs fell?” Teri asked. Jay took a step closer and in front of me, putting himself between the enraged beast and myself. Not that the beast would know I was strictly human.
“Then the bombs fell,” The tiger said. “And there was a time of great starving. Fathers devoured their children to try and remain strong, and mothers slaughtered fathers for it until all cages were dark and dim. It was a bad time to be a tiger, or anything that had once been wild. But it was not in vain. Some three weeks after the first bombs hit, in a cage-place not far from here, in a place with many lakes, there was a miracle!”
I wondered exactly what sort of miracle would happen that would make even a tiger religious, and paused, keeping track of the events. This would’ve happened just after the Kindlord had fallen.
“From the great cages that had kept my greatest sires in check there came a rattling. A great rattling, and then a door opened!
And on the other side of that door came a quiet mewl of victory! And my grandest sire, who had starved, and was so reduced that there was only ribs and hardly a scrap of energy in his form, was greeted by the form of a black cat. One of those clever beasts had, before the end, observed how the traitorous humans had locked doors, and remembered how to open them! And by some miracle, had stumbled into the zoo in search of food!
And lo, my grandest sire stared upon the small thing, this pathetic morsel whose fur had once been silky from a thousand pets, who had only hunted for pleasure and sport, who had felt the passage of his masters, not with a grim sense of satisfaction, but with grief and the sting of radiation, and swore that he would keep this small thing safe, so that he would once again fear nothing in this wide world!”
“And did he?” I asked.
“He did! The Tiger roared, proudly. “And thus, even to this day, the Colony is descended from that black cat, that savior who led us firmly towards the mountain of meat! And my grandsire took greedily from it, for this was a fresh kill that had not yet rotted, and to this day, has still not fully rotted!”
“And then you grew big and intelligent?” I asked.
“We did,” The Tiger said, somewhat proudly. “And we swore to protect the smaller ones from this fate. They are innocent of the sin we have draped about ourselves, and they will remain that way.”
Boss snorted. The Tiger whirled around and glared at her. “And what say you, child of wolves?”
“Wolves and dogs,” Boss reminded. “And tigers and lions and everything else. There’s no pride to be had in lineages and ideas of innocence. All that matters is survival. The rest is hobbies.”
“You speak too much,” The Tiger declared. “But alas, the Colony has chosen that you be brought before them. Then they will make their decision.”
The grass continued on and on and on. I thought I would grow tired of the endless hallways and unbroken canopies of the urban jungle, but soon, I craved for that protection from the sun overhead. It beat down like a drill sergeant, shouting out each step I had to take.
The Regent clicked her beak thoughtfully. “So that is your origin.”
“Your kind did not know?” The Tiger asked, surprised.
“You are very much a predator,” The Regent said. “And you had already crushed any corruption in your area.”
“With claw and fang,” The Tiger said, proud. Boss rolled her great many eyes.
“There were many wars fought over it. Most of the records were obliterated for similar reasons to why yours were,” she said. “They were not honorable things. They were rabid things, with diseases that spread from beast to beast without regard. Thus, the troops and clans and prides and endless scattered groups.”
“There’s an honor found only in family,” The Tiger insisted.
“There is no honor except in survival,” Boss repeated. “Honor is a useless term, only barren social capital to enforce contracts to help in survival and petty civilization.”
“You have always been a rotten apple.” The Tiger shook his grand head. “I hope your friends do not think the same way as you. You’re a bad influence.”
I snorted at that.
“Something to say, bird?” The Tiger asked, turning to face me.
“She’s saved my life a dozen times.” I said. His eyes glinted with interest.
“Oh? I didn’t think she cared about anything except her mission,” The Tiger said. “Or is it that you are so much greater than everyone else, god slayer?” The lilt on the title was sarcastic.
“I have and will tear your throat out for speaking like that,” Boss rumbled in warning.
“You could certainly try,” The Tiger said. “I haven’t had a good fight in a long time. But you’ve brought one to us, haven’t you?”
Boss huffed and cracked her neck, one pop of sinnew and joints to one side, and then the other, sounding uncannily like the crack of bone I’d grown used to hearing in the Capital. It sent a shudder down my spine.
“How much farther?” The Regent asked, pleasantly.
“Not far,” The Tiger said, and then took a step to the side. He let out a peculiar noise, and waited, visibly, somewhat tense, until another noise came in the distance. Then he parted the grass one more time, and the land sloped down.
In the valley of an old coal mine, landscape obliterated long ago by the strike of dynamite and the furious hammer of mankind, where the last remnants of millions of years of evolution and the kind lord’s touch had been exposed and devoured with furious aplomb, the village sat. I could smell meat, fresh meat and blood.
In the corner sat a pile of it. Most of the weight were cows, large creatures with their throats torn out, but also before it was an almost as large pile of smaller animals. As we stared from the parted grass from the top of the hill, a small cat dropped a mouse before it and walked down to the center of the vale.
Eyes turned to look up at the Tiger. For a moment, they were friendly. Then Boss slashed her way through the last of the grass and the gazes turned hostile. Cats, large mostly, hopped up from where they lay and approached. Cats, smaller mostly, hid behind them, knowing their place.
It wasn’t long until the full troupe of them stood in front of us, and the Tiger melted over to join their side.
“Where’s your leader?” Boss asked callously, looking down at her claws. I glared at her.
“He’s coming,” The Tiger reported. “If your highness is willing to wait that long.”
“Just for you,” Boss said. “I’ll wait.”
A large cat slunk their way from behind the group. Unlike most of the other large cats, who were a peculiar mixture of tigers, panthers, bobcats and lynxes, this one just appeared to be an overgrown housecat. And unlike the others, this one did not look quite so hostile. But that was not the chief, as he stood at the back away from the others, watching with interest in his gleaming green eyes.
Boss grinned at him and they both looked smug.
But I couldn’t look at him for too long, for the grass parted on the far side of the camp, and carried in the hands of a massive creature of overgrowl tumoristic muscles and claws long enough to threaten god a bull sat, freshly culled. The creature tossed it down onto the pile before bothering to face us, his face broader still than Boss’s entire chest.
This, this was the leader.
There wasn’t even a question of it.
“What,” The creature growled. “Do you think you’re doing here, harlot?” His voice was as deep as the mountain and grated like a boring machine carving coal.
Boss stood up at her full height, eschewing the slight slump that kept the full force of gravity from tearing at her overgrown form and stared at him directly in the eyes. Despite that, there was still a large size difference.
“I’m back,” Boss said, simply. “And I’m here to use your forge.”
“Our forge?” The leader hissed. “We took that from your kind fair and square.”
“Do I look like I give a single damn what you took from my useless oaf of a brother while I was gone?” Boss asked, coolly, calmly. “I have spent the last month in pitched combat with nothing less than the end of the world. I carry with me the death of the god that created these forms. I am no less than your apocalypse given flesh!” She hissed out the last word. “And I demand access to your forge.
“I see nothing but an overgrown whelp,” The leader replied, smoothly. “I remember when that was your name.”
“My name has changed, just like my body,” Boss hissed. “You know full well what my name is now. Use it.”
“What are you supposed to be the Boss of?” The leader asked.
“I am to lead the god-slayer’s assault in the final battle,” Boss said. “I have seen it happen, and so it will happen.”
“That is your claim to fame?” The leader asked, taking a step closer. “A figment of your imagination? A great taste of the fallen one and you pretend that you know figment from fate?”
“What did you see?” Boss asked. “When last you managed to steal a taste of the fallen one?”
The leader closed his eyes. His muscles shifted under his skin like corded worms, and his arms slackened.
“I saw a great burning wrath descend upon the world. A great sorrow unlike anything that has been seen before, and I felt them die, piece by piece, and knew that soon I would follow.” His eyes snapped open. “Many have seen that vision.”
“You felt them die?” I asked before I could think. His eyes snapped over to mine.
“I see you’ve brought the birds with you.” The words came out so dismissively that I snapped my teeth together like I was digging into a raw steak.
“We need your forge,” I said. His eyes turned onto me.
He was the biggest mortal I’d seen. But he was mortal, and I had stared down Bismarck and made my peace with the thought I might die from it. And then I had. I’d faced down Prince, too, and the end of the world, and I’d seen the face of the Bystander, and felt the touch of the Watcher’s desperately searching mind.
Big didn’t scare me anymore. War did.
“And what-” His eyes flickered for a moment, from Boss, to me, and I took a step forward.
“I remember you,” He muttered under his breath. “How is it possible that I remember you? I remember your mind, crawling through the dying wretches like a drowning kitten.” his voice went lower and lower as he muttered until it was hard to parse more than a few words at a time.
Behind him, behind the ranks of the large cats, the smaller cats were coming to investigate. There were hundreds of them, all sinuous strutting and confidence. Whatever hesitation had resided in them had been bred out by thousands of years of the wild and being cared for by intelligence. They did not care that the world was over. They did not care that there had been shouting not too long before, or that there were strangers. They simply moved like silken water, and they were curious.
Soon enough they were at our feet and staring up at us, as if their hundreds of eyes belonged to a single mind. I could not sense if they did or not, but the crows inside of me shifted uncomfortably under the gaze of hundreds of predators.
I remained firm.
The leader’s eyes remained closed, tightly, for a time, and when they opened, they were not on myself, but on Boss instead.
“You wish to use the forge?” he asked, voice low.
“I do,” Boss replied.
“You will use the forge,” he said. “And then you will leave us.”
“Ha! You bow to your terror,” Boss criticized.
“I bow to how annoying it’d be to kill you until you decided to remain dead,” he returned, growling under his throat.
Boss laughed, deep and low, and the leader snarled at her, baring his fangs. I elbowed Boss.
“Perhaps that was the wrong decision-”
“-What of the Colony?” came a voice from the back of the group. The overgrown housecat himself asked, his orange fur brilliant in the light of the sun. “What of their decision?”
“What decision?” The Leader asked. “They feel safe around them, true, but that is an acceptance of their time here. Nothing more, nothing less. We’re to protect them, not bow to them.” A pause. “But,” he said, turning to the group. “My son is right. I should not expose the Colony to petty violence.”
The smallest of the beasts looked annoyed at that, but kept his mouth shut. Boss’s eyes settled on him with no small amount of interest, a smirk on her features as her teeth bared themselves over her lips.