The City became a blur around him. Constellations gazed at Kendo through the window. The countryside was already visible along the highway, the road flanked by extravagant motels. If not for the bus, he’d be staying the night in one of them. Not far ahead, a large sign proclaiming “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING TARAMACA CITY! COME BACK SOON!” had been placed adjacent to the farmlands. It was intricately painted with an artistic representation of the Convergence, supposedly the event that united a fragmented animalkind three millennia ago.
Sari was sitting next to him on the table, one of her arms resting idly on his shoulder. She looked practically half-asleep.
“I could really do with a coffee right now, y’know.” the vixen said.
“This late?” Kendo said.
“Us foxes are mostly nocturnal. I need to fix my sleep cycle again.”
“You’re best off just sleeping when it’s dawn. Our next concert isn’t for another three days.”
“Achilles and Carolie think it’s weird, but it’s really just our bodies’ natural rhythm as canines.”
“Nothing beats all-nighters, though.”
“If your next sentence is gonna be about booze, count me out.”
“Damn you!” Kendo’s flippant reaction caught her off-guard. It was pretty obvious she had him beat.
At least it was a thousand times less humiliating than his altercation with Achilles.
“You checked what’s on TV tonight?” Sari said, changing the subject.
“‘Round this time, it’ll be the news, or adbreaks. I’m not wasting my popcorn on that kinda shit.”
“I bet you finish it before the movie starts when you go to the pictures.”
“I’ve heard better roasts from my own grandma.” Kendo sneered.
He picked up the remote lying on the table and turned on the TV. A few seconds of static were followed by an advert for feather shampoo. Three dancing flamingos singing a jingle were badly superimposed on top of a gradient background.
“Who’s been watching the Avian Life Channel?” Kendo gave an incredulous gasp.
“How ‘bout we check out what’s on next, just for shits and giggles?” Sari said.
The next few commercials were similarly low-quality. The first was for a bird-exclusive dating site (that required ID as confirmation of both age and species). Next, an excerpt from the new album by the Night Owls (a three-piece jazz band that neither of them had heard of). Lastly, a shoddy PSA about flying safely (probably the only one that’d actually mean anything in the long run).
Sari’s face lit up as soon as the station break came on, “They’re showing Avian Resurrection next! That’s an all-time classic, Kendo!”
“Classic? Gimme a break! The special effects haven’t aged well at all.”
“It was really good for its time. And you have to admit, the revelation about the guy’s girlfriend being a phoenix was well-executed.”
Kendo pressed a button on the remote and skipped through some of the other channels. The signal wasn’t very good out in the countryside, meaning most of them turned up as a glitchy mess. He stopped on what looked to be a dated horror film about a tiger couple getting haunted by a ghost.
“We’re not watching this schlock. Give me the remote, Kendo.” Sari said without intonation. He did as she asked, and she promptly switched to Taramaca One – arguably the most popular TV channel in the country. Right now, a soap opera was playing, which thankfully only lasted for another three minutes. Quite predictably, it ended on a cliffhanger.
“Sari, I don’t wanna watch the news-”
“It’s just five minutes, you can bear that, right?” The fox cut Kendo off before he spiralled off into a rant.
“Sure.” He rolled his eyes.
“Always awfully patient until a minor inconvenience happens.” Sari cursed under her breath.
The news anchor, a scrawny old gazelle, began by announcing that the Taramacan army had successfully liberated a far-off micronation from Imperial control. There had been minimal casualties, since the coup was a controlled effort and was supervised by a local rebel group that had crucial intel on the layout of the Regent’s residence. It was a small victory in the grand scheme of things, but any blow against the Hallowed Empire was enough to satiate the Taramacan government.
“In other news, what appears to be a terrorist attack has occurred in one of Taramaca City’s many stadiums…” the gazelle continued, maintaining a straight face.
“…two deaths were confirmed at the scene, and word is currently being delivered to the rest of the crew involved with the concert…”
What he said next instantly caught their attention.
“…the UnderDogs are expected to play over ten different venues nationwide across June and July, although it is currently unknown whether this incident will affect their tour…”
It couldn’t be real. Kendo was convinced he was hallucinating at first. He chided himself for leaving his phone in the bunk room. Achilles and Carolie wouldn’t have known either, as they were asleep.
He was hyperventilating. The road crew – his road crew – were likely all injured or possibly dead. He was several miles out from the stadium now. He didn’t know if he could convince the driver to turn around. There was no way of telling if the TPD had caught the culprits yet, or whether they were still out for blood.
The bottom line was that Kendo Arctos had become an apprehensive mess. He rushed to the bunks. He didn’t want to look a second longer at the haunting footage on the television. He could hear police sirens going off all across the road. The thunder of his heartbeat literally took his breath away as he heard his phone ringing. It would be downright cold of him not to answer it.
Carolie bolted awake. She instinctively climbed up to the top bunk and woke up Achilles, who had a similarly shocked reaction to the racket coming from the cop cars.
“Something’s gone wrong.” she said with an air of concern. “Achilles. I’m serious. Sari – Sari’s in the recreation area. She sounds like she’s having a panic attack.”
“Tell the driver to stop at the nearest possible point.” the coyote suggested.
“We’re on a highway. We can’t make any sharp turns.”
Turning his attention away from their impromptu discussion, Kendo picked up his phone. The call was from the merch stall manager, Madas. For a few seconds, all that he could hear was screaming in the background.
“Good Duality, Kendo, are you alright?” Madas said. Unlike the majority of animals working with the band, he wasn’t a canine, but rather an impala.
“M-me? Not exactly. I- I mean, I’m fine physically, if that’s what you’re asking.” the wolf stuttered.
“The stadium was attacked. Two roadies got killed.”
“I saw it on TV. They say terrorists were responsible.”
“Terrorists? It was a monster. A Duality-damned dinosaur. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to call it.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I sent you a video of it, but I gotta hang up now. The TPD want to interview me.”
“Stay safe.” Kendo said before Madas hung up.
For the second time that night, he was crying. Even though there was some solace in the fact that his bandmates were unharmed, he couldn’t ignore that animals – individuals with just as much of a right to life as him – had been mercilessly slain without a second thought. If Madas was telling the truth, he’d be dealing with a callous beast incapable of any thought or rationale. He hoped to the Abyss the TPD had shot it down already.
Growing ever more uneasy, he opened up the messaging app. Sure enough, he’d received a video from Madas.
He pressed play. Within the first second, an indistinct shape rushed past the camera. It took him a while to fully make out what was happening. The “dinosaur” looked more like a giant bird of prey with a blunt snout. It did have a sickle-like “raptor claw” on each foot, so it wasn’t hard to see why one might mistake it for a dinosaur. There were no doubts in his mind that it was real. No amount of perspective or CGI could replicate an animal with such lifelike (albeit erratic) movements.
He paused after seeing it hunch over the dismembered bodies of the roadies. He retched. Swallowed bile. He thought of sending a text back to Madas but changed his mind after hearing Sari’s frightened cries.
The bus banked to the left. Outside, the entire road was a chaotic mess. Vehicles of all kinds were strewn about, turned on their sides from the force of impact. Ambulances had already been called to the scene. The police were armed and ready to take on whoever or whatever had caused the traffic mishap.
Because there was no way this and the stadium fiasco weren’t linked.
The nightmare was only just beginning.
Matador kept a close watch on his quarry. He soared high above the concrete jungle, seeking to use his position to his advantage. Two TPD helicopters were on his trail. They’d made the mistake of getting too close to him, and now they would pay the price. One thought raced through his mind: kill them, no matter what.
A gunshot grazed his wing. Unusually lithe for his size, Matador wheeled around, dragging his raptor’s talon through metal and glass.
“This is the Taramaca Police Department. We demand you to stop, or otherwise-”
The voice turned into a harsh scream. Seconds later, one of the helicopters exploded in a shower of fire and shrapnel.
Rienne heard the blast from nearly a mile away. If the police didn’t stand a chance, then there was no way she and Skalar could defend themselves against Matador. She told the other guards to follow her into a secluded alleyway.
It was too late.
Like his ancestors, Matador had an acute sense of sight.
He’d already spotted them.
Rienne didn’t have any time to scream before she lapsed into unconsciousness.
Time stood still. Rienne was a ghost drifting through the ocean of memory. Her consciousness was falling back through the aeons.
Sometime in the early Cenozoic, a specialised subset of mammals became only the third group of vertebrates to attain the coveted ability of powered flight. They were called bats or chiropterans, and sought to conquer the skies.
At night, they chased insects through the forests, competing with other nocturnal animals for the right to hunt in these untainted lands. As a result, tensions between species rapidly grew. Century-old trees were cut down to build huts and tools. Grasslands were razed away by magi to make living spaces. It soon became clear that there would eventually not be enough food to go around for all of the forest-dwellers. There was not much time left before this wilderness became barren.
The bats formed close-knit tribes, aiming to work toward an altruistic goal. They sent their magi to talk to the owls and timberwolves in hopes of forming a coalition. All three groups agreed to halt the progress of their advancements and protect the forest, although their leaders disagreed on a fundamental level when it came to hunting.
The timberwolves worked in packs.
The owls relied on stealth.
The bats used echolocation.
All of these techniques were unique in their own way. If not for their magi, the three groups would have all perished.
They thought they had discovered magic.
But they had really discovered evolution.
Rienne couldn’t remember how far she’d run. Her sanguine nature was gone, replaced by a nagging feeling of hopelessness. The moons glowered at her. Her fur stood on end. Skalar was nowhere to be seen. She was alone in these empty streets. Fate was cruel. Someday, it would condemn you to die. It’d take your dreams and passions away from you in a matter of minutes.
Pain blossomed throughout her body. There was nothing left to do but despair. The Duality, or perhaps the Abyssal, would be awaiting her soul. The eternal cycle of life was about to be fulfilled once again-
She snapped out of her reverie. The harsh reality of her predicament hit her. She mumbled something incoherent.
Held restrained beneath Matador’s talons, Rienne’s beige pelt was marred by blood and strings of severed viscera. Red clouded her vision. A metallic taste filled her mouth. The membrane of her left wing was badly torn.
There was no heaven here.
Claws dug deeper into her flesh. Her writhing movements ceased, although she was very much alive. At the same time, Rienne lost all sense of self-awareness and sapience. She became primal, unburdened. This was what it meant to be part of animalkind, in the purest way possible. This was what the Convergence had stripped from her and her ancient kin.
Rienne was being born anew, not that she could comprehend it. A change was occurring, one that had remained dormant for millions of years.
Soon, she would fly with Matador. She would make others join her. The only master she obeyed was instinct itself. There was no place in her mind for the Duality or any other insignificant creations of the mortals beneath her.
The beast within her finally awoke.
“ALL OF YOU, GET OUT OF THE BUS!”
Kendo put his phone down and stashed it in his trouser pocket. He usually wasn’t inclined to listen to the police, or any authority at all for that matter.
He walked down the stairs leading to the road outside. He lined up next to the three other UnderDogs, who all appeared equally baffled. The driver and a few roadies were also present. Five police officers stood opposite the group, ready to approach when given the signal. One wrong move here could result in a world of hurt.
Surrounding them was quite possibly the worst traffic jam in history. Alarms sounded from all angles. The highway was cordoned off at several points by the emergency services. Some animals were being pulled from the wrecks of their cars by medevac helicopters. Others were getting manhandled into cop cars, most likely those who’d escalated the carnage by driving recklessly. An all-consuming blaze was devouring the farmlands at one side of the road. The conflagration spread outward from an overturned tanker filled with some sort of flammable liquid.
“Don’t move.” said the officer standing closest to the UnderDogs, an elephant wearing heavy-duty armour. She was easily twice as tall as her colleagues.
“Geez, alright. We didn’t do it, just so you know.” Kendo shot back at her.
“Denial proves nothing. Don’t. Move.”
No wolf could ever face down the largest species of land animal alone and live to tell the tale. The TPD had brought in the best of the best for this occasion, meaning that things had gotten serious.
“I need you to tell me everything you were doing at the stadium before you left.” the elephant told them.
“Listen, I don’t even know who or what attacked the stadium!” Achilles said.
“Terrorists.” She held her head downward as if her tusks were poised to strike the coyote’s neck.
“You’re wrong.” Kendo said. “Officer, I don’t know what kind of stunt you’re trying to pull, but I don’t like it.”
”I see you’ve found your initiative.” Achilles replied.
“Take a look at this video, Officer.” The wolf proffered his phone.
The pachyderm furrowed her brow. Took Kendo’s phone with her trunk. Threw it to the ground. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, she crushed it underneath the immense weight of her foot.
“I’m already well aware of it, Kendo Arctos.”
She slugged a punch to his face. He spat out blood and crumpled to his knees. Sari, Carolie and even Achilles tried to come to his aid, all screaming out his name. Kendo struggled to his feet, only to find out that the muzzle of a gun was point-blank between his eyes. Trying to wrestle it from her grip would be pointless. She’d crush his skull anyway.
“You’re going to be taken into the van. Don’t. Resist.”
He backed away. A bullet scraped his forehead. He put both of his arms up, allowing the elephant and two other officers to search him. They didn’t realise it yet, but there was determination in his eyes.
“KENDO!!” the remaining UnderDogs said in unison.
From one side, he was approached by a rhinoceros officer. He gritted his teeth as another set of hands rummaged through his pockets. He growled, about to make a move. The rhino smirked at him, then slammed him against the tarmac. Kendo winced as one of his ribs cracked. The elephant grabbed him from behind and hoisted him into the air.
The rhino charged at him at full force.
He’d finally found his opening.
He ducked with all the strength he had. The rhino’s horn struck the elephant head-on, immediately knocking her out. She’d tried to empty a magazine into Kendo the moment she realised he was using an underhanded strategy. Her finger was still on the trigger when she was falling.
“What the-” was all the rhino could manage before a storm of bullets tore through his face.
“Everyone, get to the warehouse!” Kendo shouted.
What he’d just done would likely land him on every single watchlist in the country. He hadn’t been the one who hurt either of those officers, though it wouldn’t change the fact that he was a wanted man.
He’d saved his own life, as well as those of his bandmates.
If this was what initiative meant, then so be it.