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Chapter 3

It only occurred to him a few minutes later that he’d inadvertently put himself in even more danger. The fire was now encroaching upon the road itself, turning the asphalt into a viscous black tide. The wall of flame had cut him off from the police for the time being. That was one problem taken care of. Getting to the warehouse was an entirely different beast. He had hope, since what canines lacked in speed and dexterity they more than made up for in teamwork. Tonight, Kendo would lead the UnderDogs – his pack – to safety. 

Dried grass crunched underneath his feet. The sky was a vibrant shade of crimson. No starlight could penetrate the sickening haze. As far as the average joe was concerned, the apocalypse had come to Taramaca. And it wasn’t going to let up. 

“Those pyrotechnics are fucking wack.” Achilles said. 

“The Abyssal always collects his due.” Kendo replied. The others instantly recognised it as the opening lyric to Hellhound, one of their more successful numbers. 

“Are you really sure being holed up in an abandoned building will ensure our safety?”

“At least it’s not out here.”

“There might be flammable goods in there. Or a bunch of nocturnal sickos who decided to make it their hangout.”

“If there’s any problem, I can use scent trails to determine if it’s safe.”

“Good luck. The fire’s likely already masked any animal scents from around the area.”

“If you’d just let me concentrate…” Kendo said. 

Relying on instinct was something he almost never did. City canines were rarely taught how to distinguish species from certain scents – it was primarily a tool for hunting. He’d trained himself how to recognise broad categorisations, like which of the five vertebrate groups an animal belonged to, or their gender. If everything was A-OK, Kendo would find the fresh scent trails of three other mammals outside of the warehouse. 

“Any joy?” Achilles said. 

“The girls…they’re five metres ahead. Wait, no! No, that can’t be right!”

“Someone’s stalking us?”

“There’s…a third scent. Whoever left it was able to fully mask themselves. They were here just a few minutes ago.”

“I don’t think we have a choice anymore. We have to get into the warehouse. Now. For someone who  just found his spark, you’re deliberating too much.”

It was strange he’d even been able to detect the scent in the first place. Masking was a very advanced ability, and not many fully understood how it worked, least of all him. If he got closer, he might be able to discern more information about the mystery animal. Perhaps they’d just done a bad job at covering their scent completely. 

Kendo edged closer to the entrance of the warehouse. In his mind’s eye, the trail stretched from the courtyard into a copse of weathered elms fifty metres away. He rotated his ears in an attempt to hear any telling signs of movement. The fire raged on, coming dangerously close to the edge of the concrete. 

Duality, what’s going on with me? he thought. Why do I find this particular trail so alluring?

Following Achilles, he entered through a dark hallway whose door had been ripped off its hinges. Pieces of crooked wood were littered about the floor. Cobwebs lined the walls and ceilings. Carolie used her phone’s flashlight to illuminate the corridor. She was visibly disturbed at the sight of flaking paint and aged pieces of paper that were taped to what looked like a drawing board.

“Board up the entrance. There’s somebody out there.” Achilles said.

“They’re…fifty…no, sixty…metres distant.” Kendo muttered. 

“Got anything else?” Carolie queried.

“Not really. They did a pretty good job of masking their scent, but I guess this wolf’s nose was a little too good for them.”

“You’re imagining it. I can’t make out any trails here which would make me suspect anything out of the ordinary.” 

“I can make out that they’re definitely some kind of mammal, and are most likely female.”

Kendo focused on the scent alone, turning off all his other senses. A vivid image appeared in his head for just a second – was it a feline? He yelped in surprise. He’d lost his footing. As soon as he was aware of the world around him again, he was on the verge of passing out. 

Sari bent down to caress him. They were all safe, and more importantly, they were all together. Not since the day Taramaca declared its independence had there been such discord in the country. Now, survival was a top priority. The courtyard would surely keep the fire at bay until the emergency services could reach them. After their narrow escape from the TPD, the outcome was uncertain.

“What just happened?” There was relief in Sari’s voice. 

“I had a brief vision. I- I’m sure the trail was left by a feline. That’s what my mind was trying to tell me.”

“Any idea of her species?”

Panthera.” Kendo said. 

“That’s…an interesting answer, to say the least.” Carolie said.

“It must be the name that big cats are grouped under. It came to me by instinct.”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about, but go and chase your make-believe lion if you must.” The painted dog shrugged and helped him to his feet. 

“Something weird is going on with my body.” Kendo was shaking. Carolie gave him a nonplussed look. 

The summer tour was cancelled. Monsters were real. The TPD was corrupt. He had senses and reflexes beyond that of any normal animal. So many realisations were crossing his psyche. The brief burst of courage that’d allowed him to live through this disaster was gone. Back to being a wimp again. The edges of his muzzle curled up in a sardonic smile.

Led by Carolie, all four UnderDogs made their way to the main storage room. 

Various canned foods and household goods were arranged in an orderly manner on shelves. More papers lay scattered on the floor. Kendo picked one up and scanned it for anything that could give him a clue as to what in the Abyss had happened here. There was no address, just a single date. 

▇▇▇▇▇▇

December 10, 2980

The letter was almost thirty years old. The fact that the sender’s name had been blurred out, however, was by far the most striking part. Ever curious, Kendo read on.

Please deliver the ▇▇▇▇ ▇▇▇▇ to the City Museum as soon as possible. It should be protected under all circumstances. 

It was very succinct, yet brought up more questions than it did answers. He picked up another document, one that was formatted more like a report than a letter.

The ▇▇▇▇ ▇▇▇▇ is able to detect the presence of an ▇▇▇▇▇▇▇▇ and will react accordingly. Direct contact is strongly discouraged.

This was getting stranger by the second. A wave of trepidation spread through him. He dropped both papers and ran towards the others, who were having a gander at the shelves.

“You’ll be glad to know that there are countless bottles of wine here, Kendo – easily enough to knock you out cold.” Sari said. 

“Let’s hoard a few bottles for the nights ahead. Say, you guys haven’t read through the papers on the floor, have you? They’re like something out of a spy flick.”  

Those things?” Sari snickered. “Reading through any of them would bore me to death. They’re most likely just recording the quantities of items stored here.”

“Nah-ah. One of them’s a letter with no sender address, and what’s more is that said sender had their name scribbled out. They requested that something be sent to the City Museum, but I have no way of telling what that something is.”

“You mean to say that this warehouse was in communication with – with the City Museum?” 

“I also found a report talking about how the something reacts to the presence of another something, and how making direct contact with it could potentially be dangerous.”

“Slow down. You’ve lost me already.” 

“We’d better get all the papers together.”

“Have you forgotten that we’re potentially being watched?” Sari’s eyes flared with malice momentarily. “You’re crazy if you think any of this spy-movie bullshit has anything to do with your supposed superpowers. That’s why it’s of such importance to you, right?”

“There’s a reason nobody’s working in this place anymore. It might just be a coincidence-”

“Yes! That’s what it is, just a coincidence. End. Of. Story.”

He detested the thought of potentially growing distant from Sari. Most guys his age had proper girlfriends and a college diploma. Kendo wasn’t particularly well-off in the grand scheme of things. The UnderDogs had little notoriety in other countries, while other rock acts formed around the same time became worldwide sensations. It just didn’t seem fair. Any new music he put out was usually lauded by fans and critics. Those who had formerly lambasted him for not being as good as Andras were gradually getting used to his musical style. 

There were so many things he couldn’t accept about himself. Neither could he make sense of all the complex emotions occupying the vacant spaces of his subconscious. Was he the one who’d really instigated this whole mess with Sari in the first place? It was a strenuous task in itself for him to try and formulate a coherent answer. 

It would be detrimental to simply wait for all of his weaknesses to ebb away. He’d set his mind on a task. When writing music, he made sure that no irrelevant drama got in the way. Getting to the bottom of this would help him understand himself better. 

First, he needed to find more clues about the timeframe. 

Kendo took a moment to check the expiry dates on the canned foods. Among them was a can of SquidBits – a brand that had gone defunct twenty years ago. The date was faded but still legible: 04-08-2980.
As a cub, it’d been his favourite food by far. Naturally, when the news came out about the parent company going under, his parents bought all the SquidBits they could find in supermarkets and stored them in the cellar. Helped by the frigid weather of northern Neia, the cans had lasted them months. Unlike the Arctos family’s cellar, a run-down warehouse was not an optimal place for storing any kind of food. 

On the contrary, the wine would be downright delectable. As an adult, he much preferred alcohol and other junk to calamari. It wasn’t a death sentence for canines and other carnivores to veer from the diets their bodies demanded. It was all kinds of taboo to eat another vertebrate, so only invertebrate meat was sold. Since the Convergence, animals had properly adapted to a way of life which their very beings rejected. That didn’t stop freak accidents from happening sometimes. Carnivore or herbivore, everyone had a beast hidden behind their exterior. 

“Kendo?” Carolie said. 

He froze. Only two metres away, the painted dog appeared to be convulsing, her eyes rheumy. She’d purposely distanced herself from Achilles and Sari. She took one cautious step towards Kendo. Both of her arms were dangling at her sides as if all the nerves within them were unresponsive. 

“It’s happening to me.” Her numb hand clasped Kendo’s own.

“Can you sense her too?”

Carolie nodded. “She’s barely seventy metres away from us. Doesn’t seem to want to come any closer. Her scent – I  can feel it like it’s fresh.”

“Your speech is a little stunted. Are you sure-”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“I think all of this is somehow related to…an object that was once stored here. It was delivered to the City Museum thirty years ago, according to a letter I found lying on the floor here.”

“Given that we’ve both been gifted advanced senses, any kind of explanation could suffice. I find it unlikely that its effect could linger for three decades.”

“The date on the letter lines up with the expiry dates of the canned food. This place was abandoned for a reason.”

“In that case, I’ll help you get all the documents together. I- I’m sorry about Sari. She’s prone to drastic mood swings.”

“No need to apologise. I’ll confront her about it some other time, Carolie-”

“The sense of responsibility I have now is unlike anything I’ve experienced, Kendo. I’m responsible for my pack. I’m the alpha. The matriarch.”

“Now that you mention it, my inner wolf was telling me I was top dog too.”

“We have radically different ways of approaching this.” Carolie grinned at him. As the only remaining founding member of the band, she was easily the most matured in terms of personality and musical ability. That didn’t mean she was completely devoid of any sense of humour. 

It took them Duality-knows-how-long to gather together all of the documents in sight.  Achilles was beginning to doze off, slumped against a shelf packed with books. Meanwhile, Sari was reading a copy of The Great Catsby – the novel everyone in Taramaca knew from high school literacy class. 

What was abundantly clear from the compiled papers was that the object had indeed been successfully delivered to the City Museum. More reports speculated on its actual function, which  became increasingly cryptic the longer one read them. Carolie’s attempts to lay out the reports in an organised way didn’t help at all.  Kendo settled on mentally noting down a few crucial extracts, then relaying them to Carolie, who would then write down the key parts on her phone. 

Eventually, they came up with this list:

  1. The object was sent to the City Museum primarily so it could be protected, but the reports also talk about how it urgently needed to be contained. 
  2. Some unobscured sections of text refer to it as “the Seal.” 
  3. Several letters from the City Museum were sent by “E. Orsan”. An internet search leads us to Eran Orsan, the museum’s curator and a leading researcher in evolutionary and palaeo- biology. (Kendo adds, “I’ve seen him on TV. He’s a brown bear who runs a show where he debunks claims made by fundamentalist sects of Dualitism.”)
  4. The Seal is made of an unknown material. Attempts to crack it open with diamond tools were unsuccessful. 
  5. Any details about what happened to animals that come within the Seal’s area of effect are redacted. However, one of the warehouse’s workers died from complications related to the phenomenon. 

“That’s everything.” Carolie said. “We can presume the reason this place was deserted is because of the death associated with the Seal.” 

“You’d think it’d be fully closed off or even demolished by now.” Kendo yawned. 

“Tonight’s events must be some kind of aberration.”

“A what?”

“Something out of the ordinary.”

“Well, no shit. Don’t try and sugarcoat it with fancy words.”

“Kendo, what I mean is that nothing like this has ever happened within the warehouse itself for three decades now. There has to be a trigger somewhere – wait, didn’t one of the first reports you came across mention the Seal reacting to a stimulus?” Carolie’s eyes widened in realisation. 

He nodded. Kendo could finally take some solace in the fact that somewhere out there, the solution to this ordeal had already been figured out. 

If only he could comprehend the repercussions of his actions. 

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“Zamira, execute protocol as normal.” Once she’d received the go-ahead, she turned down the volume on her earpiece to reduce the chances of her being detected. As a snow leopard, a rare species this side of the continent, she wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. She’d made every effort to conceal her location, even going so far as to mask her scent.

Through the fire she walked, unscathed and graceful. The flames bowed to her will, frozen in abeyance. Duty called her to protect, and so she would answer. Injustice reigned, yet her faith was unshaken. Seeing as the road was largely clear, now was the best opportunity to proceed with the erasure protocol. If it worked out (which she knew it would), then every one of the City’s civilians would have no knowledge of the events that had transpired tonight. She’d deal with her targets later.  Protecting the innocents was always the first priority. 

“Four hostages – uh, no, hostiles en route to your location. Stay alert.” said the voice in her earpiece again, trying and failing to sound professional. 

“Could you provide more details?” Zamira said. 

“Uhh, of course! Two in flight, two on the ground. ETA ten minutes.”

“Understood.” She backed against a tree, mindful of the TPD cars crowding the width of the road. Clouds rolled overhead. A storm was coming – not in the typical sense, she thought. 

She stepped into the smoke. The blaring alarms of fire trucks sounded all around her. A wrecked car stood to her left. It was unusually small compared to the standard industry model. She stopped. The frenzied cries of a mother and child were coming from the vehicle. Though secrecy was paramount, duty demanded that no animal should be left unprotected in times of crisis. 

She grabbed the car’s grille and pulled it away from the blaze. A family of mice was inside, the father critically injured. His head lay on the steering wheel, twisted at an unnatural angle.  

“Get out of your car.” Zamira ordered.

“My husband is-” the mother said.

“Bring him too.”

Both of them heeded her words and ran to the safety of the grasslands. Zamira couldn’t help but wince as the smaller mouse tried everything to wake his father up. 

“What do you want with us?” the mother pleaded. 

“Stay still. I’m going to save your husband. There’s time left.” The snow leopard rested her hand on the father’s forehead. 

His heartbeat returned. His fingers twitched. He gasped as he awoke, hyperventilating. Tears of happiness streamed down his wife’s face. Even a reunion like this did not instill any sentimentality in Zamira. 

“It’s too dangerous to go back to the City on your own. You’re best off seeing the emergency services.” she said to all three of them. 

“You don’t know how much this means to me. Please-”

Zamira didn’t hear the rest of the mother’s sentence. She turned her back to the road and made a break for the City. Soon, all of tonight’s traumatic events would be lost to time. Her targets were waiting, and she wouldn’t let anything else distract her. 

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Rienne and Matador circled each other, their wingbeats a duet signaling death from above. Two hulking canine beasts – erstwhile members of the UnderDogs’ road crew – followed in their shadows. There was no room for order in the mind of a monster, but for all intents and purposes the jackals served as their scouts. Now, Taramaca City was behind them. Their crusade raged onwards, bringing them to the ruined highway. 

There were no animals in sight. It was in the process of being evacuated. Rienne, needless to say, didn’t realise this. To her, any environment was rich with prey. She flew down the moment her echolocation singled out a possible quarry. 

The bat’s four-limbed gait was nothing short of freakish. As the antithesis of nature itself, she was removed from any semblance of her past life.

Poised to strike, she readied the scythe-like claws on the tips of her With no preconception of the enemy she’d set her sights on, she lunged into the smoke. 

Rienne was about to meet her match. 

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Two shadows rushed past Zamira. Before she knew it, she was staring death in the face. The jackal-beasts stood three metres tall at the shoulder. They had yet to get used to their new quadrupedal stance. The brain couldn’t keep up with such a rapid alteration of one’s innate biology, and worse, it could reject the changes entirely and shut the body down. There simply was no natural analogue to it.

Zamira dodged a swipe from one jackal’s front paw. In retaliation, she launched a kick to its gut, deliberately holding back so as not to cause any permanent damage. The canine skidded across the asphalt. The muscles around its forelimbs shrunk and atrophied, rippling to reveal a skeletal frame. Bones cracked and twisted. Blood and other nondescript fluids oozed out from the wounds it’d sustained. 

A veil of light cloaked the monster’s body, shifting in colour like an aurora. Soon afterwards, it dissipated to reveal a regular bipedal jackal. He was barely alive. His transformed body had exerted too much stress for him to handle.

“One hostile has been neutralised.” Zamira said through her earpiece. 

“Good. Continue with the plan. I’ll notify you if the Boss has any other demands.”

“You could at least show him some respect, Eran.” 

“He doesn’t mind.” Eran said. 

She tapped out of the connection. Having someone like Eran as a superior was infuriating to say the least. She disagreed with him on many fundamental issues. He let his status as a celebrity consume his life, and everyone around him tolerated it! And to think that he was one of the most important figures in the Taramacan government…

Zamira defeated the second jackal-beast with a flurry of punches. A red aura flared around her fist as she dealt the deciding blow. She turned away, not wanting to witness the grotesque transformation for a second time. 

Thankfully, both jackals were alive. It only took one touch for them to be restored to a healthy state. She wouldn’t perform the erasure protocol on them yet, as they could provide vital answers.
She didn’t bother calling Eran again. Notifying him about her every move didn’t fit into her definition of duty. It wasn’t mandatory, anyway. 

“Stay put. I want you to tell me where you were at the moment the mutation happened.” She pointed at the jackals. 

“We were in the City.” the first said. 

Where in the City?”

“In a stadium. I don’t know the exact address. Y-you see, we work for the UnderDogs. Please, we’re just roadies.”

UnderDogs?”

“They’re an all-canine metal band based in the City. You have to believe him.” the second jackal said. She put her arms up in a gesture of surrender. 

“Elaborate. Tell me everything you remember.” Zamira hissed. 

“The stadium was attacked by a giant bird. He – it looked like a hawk. It got both of us badly. I don’t remember anything after that.”

“Did you see a vision?”

“Now that you mention it, I do recollect seeing…a savannah, with some dogs running across it. Must’ve been a dying dream. I’ve no idea what my brain was trying to tell me.”

“Thank you. That’s all I need. I’ll call over someone to escort you back to safety.” She meant Eran. It was best for him to give them an extra check-up before going ahead with the erasure. 

Whatever Zamira was about to say next was cut off by claws slashing through her chest. 

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Rienne had landed the first strike. She bared her fangs at the snow leopard, who did not react to any of the pain she was experiencing. 

Matador had split off from her, choosing instead to look for prey in the warehouse. Their jackals were defeated, but they would still complete their ancestors’ obligation. No animals would be spared. 

Rienne was about to brutalise her victim when the feline’s hand let loose a spark of cyan-coloured energy that extended into the clouds above. 

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Lightning lashed the ground. The stream of energy elongated into a spiral that slowly formed serpentine features. Two antlers lined its brow. Its body was covered in white scales accented with a blue underbelly. Though it lacked wings, it was perfectly capable of flight. The creature had four legs ending in bird-like talons. Its roar was high-pitched and abrasive. 

“Tavisin, assist me.” Zamira exclaimed. The bat shrunk away from her, apparently taken by complete surprise. It was good that Eran had arrived in time to take the jackals away. The ensuing fight would be explosive, to put it lightly. Endangering innocents was inexcusable, so she took as many measures as she could to prevent it. 

“Zamira, what do you seek?” Tavisin boomed. He flew down to meet her, his body undulating. The mane of fur covering his neck and back flowed in the wind. 

“Hostiles.” she said. “They’re giving me quite a lot of trouble. Doesn’t a dragon ache for the thrill of the hunt?”

“You are quite correct.” he replied. He lowered his head, allowing Zamira to climb onto his back. He obliged her instruction to attack the bat, who was simultaneously preparing an aerial strike. 

The two monsters clashed, sending violent shudders through the air. The lightning became progressively more intense. A dragon’s presence alone was enough to bend reality itself. Tavi belonged to a species not meant for this world. Despite his immense power, he and the bat were evenly matched. It’d result in a stalemate unless Zamira intervened – and intervene she did. 

A red aura formed around her hands again. This time, she concentrated it into a sphere. She didn’t only excel at physical combat. When it was required, she’d fight using a versatile array of abilities. Through all her years of training, she’d been told the same thing: know your enemy as well as you know yourself. Remaining calculated and calm was always better than rushing gung-ho into a fight. 

“Crimson Deluge!” Zamira said. 

The red tide filled everything in her field of vision. It was one of her favoured techniques, albeit a weakened version of it. It’d surely do the job of reversing the bat’s mutation. 

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Rienne awoke to see the face of a snow leopard staring at her own. She was amazed that she was able to stand, let alone be alive after the harrowing events at the stadium. For a moment, she surveyed her surroundings. She was outside of the City, near some farmlands. Had she really gone this far in such a short time? It was beyond belief. 

“Jeez, what’s going on?” Rienne said. 

“You were cured.” the feline returned. 

“How about being a little more specific? I don’t even know who you are!”

“Zamira Shun-kai. Is that good enough for you?”

“Y-yeah. Just call me Rienne.”

A van was parked at the edge of the highway. The windows at the front were translucent, so whoever was inside couldn’t be identified. It’d been painted black all over, and had no registration plate. Judging by its size, the driver was a large animal of some kind.

The snow leopard gestured towards the van, making Rienne instantly apprehensive. 

“Do I have a choice?” the bat grumbled. 

“In any other circumstances, you would. My superior will explain everything to you once he’s driven you to our base in the City.” Zamira said. 

“Give me some time. Haven’t you forgotten that I nearly died earlier?”

Zamira flashed her a cold glare. “No more words. I can’t afford to risk you exposing our location.”

“Sounds shady.”

“We’re not here to hurt you.” 

A brown bear stepped out of the van. He wore a shirt with a T. rex skull on it, as well as a pair of wide shorts. His pockets were stuffed with various gadgets and equipment. Rienne was sure she’d seen him before – not in the flesh, though. His face was all over the science magazines she often read in her spare time. 

“I’m sorry about Zamira.” He scratched his head. “Nothing I can do to change her.”

“And why should I believe you’ll be any better?” Rienne snapped. 

“I’m Eran Orsan. That’s right, the Eran Orsan. If I were in charge around here, you’d be riding back to the City in a five-star limousine complete with a pool and free champagne.” 

Rienne was speechless. 

“The Boss says I’m too focused on my day job, but fuck it. If I can’t live my life to the fullest, then why bother?” Eran continued. “Anyways, we’d best be off. You won’t be alone, either. We never leave recruits without anyone to keep them company.”

“What the hell are you recruiting me for?” Rienne kept raising her voice. She wasn’t sure if Eran had even noticed it yet. 

“Change of plans.” Zamira interrupted. “I’ve spotted the last hostile. Rienne, stay put.”

“Good luck out there.” Eran said. 

In the distance, Matador descended upon a warehouse. It could only mean one thing: there were  animals inside, and they were in grave danger. Nobody wanted another repeat of the stadium disaster. At least there was now a chance to stop the monster before anyone was killed. Rienne could only hope that Zamira would end the source of her plight once and for all. 

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Kendo couldn’t sleep.

He’d fished out a threadbare mattress from the shelves. He didn’t bother with a blanket. A fur coat did a mighty fine job of keeping you warm. His instinct to hunt prevailed over any need to rest. It wasn’t good for him to give into it. Inwardly, he cursed the Seal and anything to do with it. He wanted his life to be normal again. Why did he have to be the one to get dragged into this? 

A loud boom reverberated throughout the building. It’d come from the roof. Kendo’s first thought was that it must be an aircraft. That hypothesis was called into question when he heard three more booms

They were footsteps. 

His heart raced. He was screwed, big-time. Or this was all a bad dream, and he’d wake up in the bus again by the time morning came. 

Splinters of wood rained down from the ceiling. The framework couldn’t hold much more weight. There was another boom, then a taptaptap. The noises ceased. 

He was safe after all. 

“Carolie, where are you?” Kendo said. 

“Over here. My phone’s dead.” she answered.

“What was that? I swear there were some weird noises coming from the roof.”

The ceiling gave in. Kendo screamed. Cold air rushed through the hole. Shelves listed to the side. Miscellaneous objects spilled out, turning the floor into a bona-fide trash heap. The foundations were crumbling. A noise like thunder cracked the sky. A fleeting shadow passed by, leaving no other traces of its presence. 

“Tavisin! Kill him!” 

Where had that voice come from? It was distinctively feminine, yet also harsh and commanding. And who or what was Tavisin? 

Duality, this night got worse by the minute.  

Kendo needed a reality check. He wanted out of this hellhole. He’d lost track of time entirely. This night would’ve gone in a completely different direction if that elephant cop hadn’t destroyed his phone. She’d destroyed evidence that could prove his innocence.  

His mind flashed back to Madas. Dread welled up from within. Everyone involved with the concert was a suspect, the monster notwithstanding. For some reason, the TPD was trying to cover it up. True, the public would freak out if any of this was on the news. That didn’t explain the TPD’s brutality. 

What did all of this mean? Kendo was at a total loss. Where the Seal came into it, he wasn’t sure. It might just be fabricated. A hoax, or a really strange inside joke between the animals who’d worked here all those eons ago. There were accounts of weaker animals felling larger ones with ease, and scent masking wasn’t always 100% effective. 

Something crashed into the shelves, making another hole in the ceiling. Kendo assumed it to be a snake at first. It was plausible, except for the fact that he’d never seen a snake that was sixty feet long. Trekking through the sea of expired cans, Kendo went to inspect the creature further. Its head was incredibly ornate, its cheeks and neck lined with pale blue fur. A pair of whiskers adorned a mammalian nose. Its eyes, azure like his own, were decidedly ophidian. 

A second monster. Whether it was an enemy or an ally, he needed to steer clear of it. 

“Tavi! Get back up!” 

That voice again. 

Tavisin! You’re stronger than this!”

An animal stood in the midst of the rubble, clad in a pink martial arts uniform. From her body structure alone, Kendo knew she was a feline. A long, bushy tail poked out from her skirt, patterned with blotchy rosettes. Her fur was varying shades of grey and beige. Two yellow eyes stared back at him. 

A snow leopard. Her scent matched his mystery animal perfectly. She’d been lurking in the darkness all this time for a reason he didn’t know, and now he was face-to-face with her. 

“What are you doing here?” she demanded. 

“I can explain.” Kendo said. 

“Like the Abyss you can.”

“What is that thing, anyway?” He pointed at the snake-thing, whom he guessed was Tavisin. 

“Eran, the protocol was unsuccessful.” the snow leopard said. 

“Protocol my ass. Why did you bring a damn dragon here?”

Motherf-.” She bit her lip. 

“Someone’s losing her cool.” Kendo taunted. “The last time I saw a monster, it killed two of my road crew. Then you waltz in, acting like this freak of nature is your friend.”

She grabbed the collar of his shirt. 

“Get. Away. From. Me.” She pronounced each syllable with an air of ferocity. “Tavisin isn’t a friend, but he’s not an enemy. What I’m doing here is none of your fu- none of your damn business. ” 

“Hold on a minute. Did you mention someone called Eran?” The wolf moved closer to her. He spotted a device clipped to her ear, no doubt used for ranged communication. 

“Like I said, you have no involvement in my job. Now go. I don’t want to hurt you, wolf. Don’t tempt me.” 

“Give me a chance.” Kendo shot back. 

“No.” 

Wow. Such a surprising answer.”

“Quit toying with me. Your life’s in danger. I’ve been assigned a target to kill, and he could return at any second.”

“Alright. Let’s get this over with quickly, because it’s a doozy. Do you know what the Seal is? You being in contact with Eran Orsan leads me to believe you’re aware of it too.”

“What Seal? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play dumb. Its influence allowed me to detect your exact position, even while you were masked.” 

“Wolf, you’ve opened the wrong can of worms. I don’t care if it was by accident. You’re only going to cause more harm if you continue living your life as normal.”

“Shit! I thought you didn’t want to hurt me!”

“I don’t. But you and your friends have no choice except coming with me.”

“We’re on tour! Y-you can’t just make a snap decision like that.” Kendo whined. 

“Too late. The TPD are on their way here as we speak. Eran issued me a warning.”

Kendo baulked. It’s my fault. In seeking to save his friends, he’d also given their exact location to the police.

“Jeez, I never think things through. Never.” He wiped away a tear. 

It was over for real. No more UnderDogs. No more touring or music. He was being dragged into a life he didn’t want to lead, by someone he didn’t know. 

“This is temporary, right?” Kendo said. 

“I’m afraid it’s not. Under any other circumstance, I’d wipe your memory. Erasure doesn’t work on anyone granted power by a Seal. Maybe I’m the one who didn’t think this through, wolf.”

“You gotta stop calling me ‘wolf’. My name’s Kendo Arctos.”

“Zamira Shun-kai.” the snow leopard stated. “Don’t try and distract yourself from the issue at hand, Kendo.”

“There’s got to be an alternative. Please.” 

“You’re letting it get to you too much. You’re weak and helpless. When faced with difficulty, you’d rather run away from it.”

“That’s not true. My bandmate Achilles told me I needed to find a spark-”

“A momentary spark. You lack the confidence needed to actually confront your problems head-on…which is why I’m going to help you improve.” A smile graced Zamira’s face. 

•:•.•:•.•:•:•:•:•:•:•:•☾☯☽•:•.•:•.•:•:•:•:•:•:•:•

It’d always been hard for her to feel sorry for others.  Zamira had never known her blood family, and neither had she made any meaningful friendships. Her judgements were absolute. 

Her peers made the common mistake of seeing the weak as a burden. In truth, someone’s strength or lack thereof did nothing to change that they were an individual deserving of a chance to shine. The majority of recruits she and Eran picked out ended up getting rejected with wiped memories to boot. This was the first time she’d ever recruited anyone granted powers from a Seal. She could sense that Kendo had already made use of his abilities, therefore meaning they were much more likely to last.

She lifted Tavi’’s head out of the dust. Specks of blood covered his mane and whiskers. He was half-conscious, having taken a considerable amount of damage during his brief time fighting by her side. In dragon years, he was barely an adult. He had a negative attitude towards training, since it was supposedly in his biology to become stronger as he aged. Zamira had no way of proving that claim. Her best bet was Eran…and he was caught up in a million different things pertaining to his jobs. 

She climbed atop Tavisin’s back and invited the wolf to join her. Understandably, he was sceptical. Every recruit was, at first. 

“How do I know you don’t have any affiliation with the TPD?” he said. For someone who’d never mounted a dragon before, he was doing pretty well. Half of his body was dangling off Tavi’s side. It was remarkable he’d managed to drag himself up there in the first place.

Zamira helped him up, making sure one leg was situated at each side. “My line of work isn’t the TPD’s business.” she informed him. 

“Huh.” Kendo frowned. 

“Then again, I shouldn’t be interfering with them, either.” 

Kendo digressed. “So, where’d Tavi come from?” 

“I don’t know – look, there’s no time for me to explain now.” Zamira shrugged. “He’s about to take off, so you’d better keep it down. He has much disdain for newcomers.”

Walls collapsed around them. Tavi screamed as a shard of wood embedded itself in his neck. He thrashed, clawing at the splinter. Red energy flickered around Zamira’s motionless form. She compressed it into a dagger-like shape with serrated edges. To her, the world was moving in slow motion. Aware that her target had returned, she’d put a plan into action. Tavi, headstrong despite his wounds, rose into the air, allowing her to get a good gauge of where she could aim. 

“It’s time to end this!” she said. “Crimson Thorn!”

The avian beast she’d been hunting since her arrival on the highway burst out of the wreckage. Kendo shouted something unintelligible. She wouldn’t let herself falter now, not when the life of four recruits hung in the balance. Zamira leapt into the air and threw the red projectile directly at the monster’s eye. A mixture of blood and vitreous fluid sprayed outwards as the Crimson Thorn pierced Matador’s brain, extinguishing what little remained of his life and allowing his soul final release from its prison. 

•:•.•:•.•:•:•:•:•:•:•:•☾☯☽•:•.•:•.•:•:•:•:•:•:•:•

Zamira had just killed the creature that attacked the stadium, without even breaking a sweat. Kendo couldn’t express his thanks enough. Even then, the only way she could respond was by flashing him a poker face. He searched around the ruins for his friends, overturning every piece of wood and stone in sight. When he called out their names, he was met with no answers. 

“I’ll find them for you.” Zamira affirmed.  “Kendo, don’t-”

Standing in front of him was a pangolin wearing the characteristic hat of a TPD chief. She held a canister in one hand. Kendo easily dodged a swipe from her claws, using his newfound reflexes to his advantage again. It was only when he read the label on the canister that he realised his mistake: SMOKE GRENADE – DO NOT THROW IN ENCLOSED AREAS. 

“Zamira, she’s got a-”

The pangolin pulled the pin. 

Everything faded to black.

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