Two crescent moons hung low above Taramaca City, the light made obsolete by beacon-like skyscrapers that pierced the heavens in their wake. Winds from distant wildernesses swirled in the midnight air. The abundance of parks and grandiose buildings were enough to catch anyone’s eye. Weird and wonderful shops lined high-street alleys. The architecture was highly varied, consisting of both Imperial and modern styles. Thousands of different animal species lived here in relative harmony, something that would have never been thought possible fifty years ago. Truly enigmatic, it was a place where you couldn’t fit in unless you dared to stand out.
Few could say they had travelled throughout the entire metropolis. That included one Kendo Arctos, frontman of the all-canine metal band UnderDogs. At first glance he seemed like an average grey wolf (they were one of the most common species in the country, though he’d never let that define him) but make no mistake, his life was far from normal.
He was all but burned out from the show he’d played earlier. The nationwide tour he embarked on every June always took a heavy toll on him, both physically and mentally. The ride out from a gig could get monotonous, so he made sure to pack more than what was necessary. Just the reassurance that he had stuff to keep him busy was usually enough. He wasn’t the type to get easily bored, anyway.
The street his bus had stopped at was virtually empty, save for his bandmates and a few stray groupies. Leaning against a bench was the painted dog Carolie. She wore a vest and shorts to emphasise her athletic build. Like Kendo, she had a guitar case slung around her back. Briefly glancing at the flickering lamp post, she took a cigarette out of her back pocket and lit it. The smoke pooling around her face made her mottled black and brown fur appear dull and greyed.
“Sheesh, y’know where that smell’s coming from?” Kendo said. A canine’s advanced nose could either be a blessing or a curse. In this case, it was most certainly the latter. It had taken all of his strength to ignore the fetid stench until now.
“It’s stagnant water.” Carolie crossed her legs.
“So the houses are flooded?” The wolf gasped.
“Nothing of the sort. They were specifically designed to accommodate semi-aquatic animals, and have probably been vacant for years by now. It’s incredibly expensive to keep them up, so it’s understandable why someone would want to move out of one.”
The stadium he’d played in the afternoon was a few hundred metres away. Even from here it appeared to dwarf all the buildings around it. The suburban areas of the City were sparsely populated. They continued to languish, as they had been negatively affected by the economic boom at the end of the 30th century. Most of the houses in this neighbourhood were either abandoned or in dire need of refurbishment. He didn’t want to think about how it would be like to live somewhere like this in the slightest.
“I’m amazed they haven’t done anything about the Imperial church back there.” Kendo continued.
Carolie laughed. “If only you knew.”
“What are you talking about? It’s ugly and out of place. Besides, the Imperials are a bunch of stuck-up arseholes.” He looked flustered.
“Yet it’s still a part of our history.”
As much as that fact was true, he couldn’t get himself to accept it. He’d been brought up in a world far removed from Taramaca’s complex and often tumultuous past. Something deep within him told him he’d never experience the true nature of life. He dismissed the thought of it. Wanted to bury it where it couldn’t be found.
“We’re leaving in about two minutes.” Carolie stood up from the bench and gave him a glance as if to say, Don’t be late.
Before making his way to the entrance of the bus, Kendo double-checked the contents of his backpack. A deck of cards. Several bags of popcorn. Tattered old comic books. A portable Z-box console, as well as a new copy of Fursona 5. He’d been looking forward to playing it for ages, and the journey between venues would provide ample opportunities. Many of the roadies shared his passion for pop culture but the other UnderDogs couldn’t give less of a damn. Nevertheless, they too had their own quirks, and he fully respected that.
“That backpack looks hefty. Need some help?”
A slim vixen strode up to him, twirling around two drumsticks in her left hand. Red foxes were a more diminutive species within the canine family, usually working in the fashion industry. Not many were present in the music scene, which made it even more surprising that one was part of the City’s most high-profile rock band. A core part of being in a band was looking past species and any number of other abstract things that could cloud others’ judgement. It was about synergy and togetherness more than anything else.
“Whoa, Sari, I thought you’d have boarded the bus by now!” Kendo said.
“I was waiting for you.” She gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Yeah, about that…”
“You shy little idiot! Do you really have zero confidence when talking to women?”
His and Sari’s relationship was casual at best. Kendo didn’t see any real value in having a girlfriend, what with him being constantly on the move every summer. Trying to convince him to be loyal would be like trying to stop the Duality-damned planet from spinning. Sari usually didn’t mind him spending time with groupies, hell, she even encouraged it at times. He found it hard to tell whether she was having a laugh or being genuinely supportive.
He kissed the fox just below her jawline. She let out a slight whimper and giggled. Backing against the side of the bus, Sari stroked the nape of his neck. She couldn’t stop staring into Kendo’s blue-eyed gaze. Damn it, she was getting ahead of herself. This wasn’t going to last, and she was just as foolish as him for having initiated it.
“Ah, maybe we should wait until we board the bus.” Sari said.
Kendo nodded in agreement. It wasn’t hard to tell that he was equally embarrassed.
“What the Abyssal are you two doing?” Carolie growled, staring down at them from the top of the stairs.
He always valued learning new things about the City, regardless of whether he’d enjoyed it or not. Taramaca was a country of many mysteries. What could be seen on the surface was never the full story. It was easy to forget how much society and animalkind as a whole had changed with the times. In all honesty, Kendo regretted not taking in more of the scenery before he’d boarded his tour bus. Well, whatever, he told himself. At least the bus ride is gonna give me a good glimpse of the city. I’ll be sated even if it’s no sightseeing tour.
Transport services from the City always blew your expectations away. You’d either be met with cleanliness and great hospitality, or cramped and stuffy accommodation. This tour bus was somewhere in-between the two. The recreation area was entirely spotless. Like an amalgamation of a kitchen and a living room, it had everything from TVs and couches to coffee machines and a sink. After a tiring day, it was the perfect place to let off some steam. The same couldn’t be said for the bunks. Clothes belonging to roadies were strewn about the mattresses. Blankets were inside-out. The carpet was liberally decorated with litter and half-eaten donuts. The paisley-patterned wallpaper was torn and frayed in places.
“Man, can’t we just sleep on the couches?” Kendo said. He was sitting on one of the bottom bunks. Facing opposite him was Carolie.
“I’d prefer you did. You and Sari can keep whatever you’re planning to do tonight well away from us.” the painted dog said. “In the meantime, Achilles and I are going to be cleaning out our bunks.”
“Have fun, I guess.”
“Same to you.”
“You two are sorely missing out!” Sari called out from the bunk above Kendo’s. “Ken brought popcorn, and they’re showing late-night runs of old horror movies on TV right now.”
“I don’t give a shit if it’s a Friday night, Sari! You’re not watching any of those films when it’s nearing one in the morning.” Achilles said, standing in the small passageway between the two main compartments. He was the UnderDogs’ bassist, a notoriously foul-mouthed coyote.
“Don’t talk to her like that!” Kendo blurted out.
“If anything happens to this bus tonight, it’s your own fucking fault, Kendo. Do you hear me?” the coyote said.
“Sheesh, what’ve I ever done to you?” The wolf screwed up his muzzle.
Truth be told, Kendo had done a lot to piss him off. Achilles still saw him as the new kid on the block, the one who couldn’t stop being so damn full of himself. Becoming famous came with the side-effect of having just as many detractors as you had fans. Sometimes, even your closest friends and family disapprove of you. His parents had called him crazy the first time he’d told them he wanted to learn how to play guitar. He’d dropped out of high school just to get more time for practice during the week. On the day before he’d moved out, his father had told him, “Your dreams are consuming you, Kendo”. His hope was what drove him through life. He didn’t want to doubt it. He wanted to bury those memories deep and forget about them.
Achilles had never been an optimist. He was a close friend of the UnderDogs’ founding member and original frontman, Andras, who’d retired from the music scene after being diagnosed with depression five years ago. At the time, Kendo was only twenty and already touring clubs across the City as a backing guitarist for several singers. He was often touted as a prodigy for his technical ability and aggressive approach to vocals. To everyone except Achilles, he seemed like the perfect choice for a new frontman after his audition.
“You’ll never be as good as him.” the coyote spat. “You don’t…you don’t understand what Andras went through.”
“Now’s not the time.” Carolie said.
“He’s…he’s a disgrace to our name.”
“It’s been half a decade and you haven’t changed. You haven’t accepted that some things are best left to rest. Andras needed time to himself. Now tell me, how would he feel knowing that his band – his life’s work – is going to fall apart at the seams because of you?” Kendo broke in, trying to hold back tears.
Achilles was speechless.
“I don’t hate you. I never have. And if I ever made you feel unwelcome, I’m sorry. It was never my intention. I’d be damned if I didn’t admit I’ve made my fair share of mistakes too. I need to change as much as you do, but I just – don’t know how I’m gonna do that.”
It took a strong heart to acknowledge one’s flaws. In that moment, it was almost as if Kendo had broken a facade. Such a sudden paradigm shift revealed the side he didn’t want to show to anyone.
“Maybe all it takes is for both of us to be a bit more proactive, Kendo.” Achilles sighed. “The initiative’s within you somewhere. You need to be the spark. You can’t just wait for it to be handed to you on a silver platter.”
The wolf wiped a few tears off his face. Before letting stress overcome him any further, he took off his denim jacket to prevent himself from overheating. The vest underneath was black and emblazoned with the UnderDogs’ logo; it was written in a jaggedy, stylised font with the ‘o’ replaced by a paw print.
“You’re right.” He stood up. It was nearly impossible to hear his words underneath his laboured breaths.
Admitting defeat, Kendo left the bunk room without another word.
The arena was virtually empty save for a few drunks and stragglers. They’d be escorted out soon enough, Rienne thought. Metal concerts often proved too much for a bat’s sensitive hearing, so she made sure to stay away from the main stage before her shift started. That wasn’t to say that the aftermath was any better. She’d certainly give those crazies a piece of her mind if she had the authority. Alas, she was condemned to cleanup duty. She’d been hired so that she could use echolocation to spot things other animals couldn’t, therefore making the job more efficient on the whole. The only others with that kind of ability were dolphins, and it’d be a cold day in hell when any of them came onto land.
In spite of that, she’d been very disadvantaged when she’d started out. Holding a broom was quite awkward when your hands were attached to wings. Luckily, Rienne had been able to order a custom-made “bat broom” that allowed her to sweep up trash while airborne. The only downside was that it’d cut massively into her savings. The pay she got from being a janitor was meagre, hardly enough to put her out of debt. There was also the problem with the apartment she’d rented in the north of the City. Getting from there to the stadium was no problem (she could fly, of course). What was a problem was the rent. Prices were sharply increasing as the years went by, showing no sign of slowing down.
It would be a stretch, and a massive misjudgement, to say that the majority of Taramacans lived stress-free. Schools and universities were overcrowded, failing to accommodate for all the species they housed. Older areas were neglected by local councils and inevitably became derelict. The Dualitist Church was in shambles, still plagued by in-fighting and ideological divisions.
Yet Rienne knew there was hope for her.
She was barely thirty. She had a long life ahead of her. One day, she’d get married and live out the rest of her life in peace and bliss. She’d start a family and see off the next generation, all the while teaching her children how to make the world a better place.
The first step toward that dream was getting a new job. One that was suited to her, and not one that she’d chosen on a whim. Rienne knew that was easier said than done. She’d be careful when choosing the right time to quit and go looking for new employment.
Her shift finished in around an hour. As she’d thought, the remaining concert-goers were being ushered out by security. The stage was being dismantled piece by piece. Everything was going smoothly. For once, Rienne could breathe a sigh of relief and be glad she didn’t get in trouble with her boss.
Speaking of which…where was he? Matador had been replaced by his deputy for the past few days, and had given absolutely zero forewarning about his absence. He’d never been late before, even though he went to church every morning before work.
It wasn’t like him at all.
A security guard approached Rienne as she landed next to the bottom row of seats. He was a heavily-built alligator whose rough skin provided more than enough protection against stragglers. He carried a taser in his left hand. Larger animals wouldn’t be subdued by it, but they’d be fools to try and wrestle with his jaws.
“You seen anything out of the ordinary?” the gator said in a surprisingly laid-back tone.
“Well, apart from the fact that Mat hasn’t bothered to show his ugly mug for a few days, nope.” Rienne said.
“Good. I’m making sure to check everyone here.”
“Wh- what’s the matter? Is there anything wrong?”
“No. I want to make a hundred percent sure that Matador’s just fallen ill.”
“Look, even if he was ill, he’d still be coming here. He’s a hawk, after all. They have a reputation for being punctual.” She paused for a second. “You haven’t thought to try and ask around the church he visits, have you?”
“They’ll have closed up for tonight, so I can’t go asking around just yet. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks, Rennee!”
“My name’s Rienne, you knucklehead!”
“Name’s Skalar. Don’t forget it.” he returned.
His mouth turned upward in a crude facsimile of a smile. Crocodilians were forever cursed to look like they were grumpy, which was definitely not the case for this son of a gun. Rienne didn’t know his name, though he was surely going to become her acquaintance after that exchange. Mat must have informed him of her before, hence why he knew her name – well, a butchered version of it, anyway.
Rienne couldn’t shake the feeling that the winds had changed. A sickly-grey pall of fog obscured both moons. The UnderDogs’ road crew was rushing to finish putting away the stage. Security had finished their job of emptying the seats.
She was being watched.
No, it’s got to be a hunch, she thought. I’m going to return to my apartment and everything will be fine. Deep breaths, Rienne, deep breaths.
A loud shriek sounded all throughout the stadium. Before anyone could think, a dark shape descended upon two members of the road crew. Scissor-like talons were aimed straight for their backs.
“GET AWAY!!” Rienne screamed.
It was too late. Neither she nor any of the security guards could have stopped the grisly aftermath.
The sight of it alone made her nauseous. Both of the victims were young jackals, now lying broken and twisted in a river of their own blood.
Standing over them…was Matador, or at least some kind of monster that had taken his appearance. He was easily five metres tall, with a wingspan over twice that amount. His beak had elongated into a saurian snout, now lined with serrated teeth. He eyed Rienne and the gator guard with an air of curiosity.
Underneath that cruel visage, she knew he had the intent to kill. She’d always been someone who waited to confront her problems. Now wasn’t a time for deliberation.
She had to get out of here.
She had to survive.
“Rienne, come this way!” Skalar said, running toward one of several exits located around the seating complex.
The Matador-thing took off, his body streamlined like a bullet. Rienne ran as fast as her weak-muscled legs could carry her. First, she tried to ascend the stairs normally. It soon became apparent that she wasn’t going to make it unless she flew. Fortunately, bats could spring into flight from anywhere and didn’t require a running start like some species of birds.
“Have you got any guns?” she asked a few surviving security guards.
“I’m afraid we’re not allowed to. The TPD should be here any second.” one of them said.
“They’d better blow that fucker’s brains out. If he has no qualms about being ruthless, it’s only fair we give him the same treatment.” she hissed.
“Now that’s a killer attitude.” Skalar looked in her direction.
The ground shook beneath their feet. Through darkened hallways they ran, until they reached the foyer area. The windows were all smashed. Bricks were strewn everywhere. Now, the serene facade of the moonlit night was all but mocking them.
An ominous breeze flooded the ruins of the stadium.
And Matador’s eyes were still watching them.