Look out.

New shit's here.

NEW SHIT.

AHHHHHHHHHHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHHAHA

I'm a lot later than I thought I'd be. Writing this has been absolute hell and I've been busy with college stuff. Nonetheless, I'm here with new content, a new beginning.

And I'm really excited to share it with you.

I'm planning that Book 4 will be my longest book in terms of chapter number, but one of my shortest in terms of word count. (That latter claim might be wrong. Nothing ever goes to plan.) This means that chapters will be on average shorter than before, but I'll be able to upload updates (hopefully) faster. I've grown old of insanely long, multi-episodic-like chapters. As I said before, spending multiple weeks on the same chapter can really wear me out. With this new process of writing that I'm hoping to put into place, I'll be able to cover more content in a shorter amount of time, meaning more motivation and less repetitive brainstorming sessions.

The reason why this chapter took a while is because 1) I planned for more stuff to happen and 2) there's a shit ton of exposition which is extremely difficult to write in a natural-sounding way. The chapters that follow this will have less info to cover and fewer scenes that play out, so I'm pretty sure I won't have the super-terrible weeks of writer's block that plagued me while writing this…

But yeah… I'm done with it.

I have a new BETA team, a new home, and a new book to write. I want to thank all of you for not just sticking around for the hiatus, but for sticking around since the very beginning. I'm over halfway done with this series, and I don't plan on quitting anytime soon. It's been an absolutely crazy year-and-a-half. Here's to another many, undetermined amount of months…

Here's to everything, and whatever lies ahead.


The room was still.

I bit my cheeks as I sat, my eyes and ears providing me with only a minuscule amount of information as to where I was. A single light bulb, a table, four jagged walls, eight metal chairs; seven empty. I couldn't count how many times I've looked around; I couldn't recall how many times my lopsided heart pounded; I couldn't remember how often I whipped my head back, staring intently at the single door, anticipating an entrance at even the slightest of noises. My neck ached.

*Scratch *Scratch *Scratch

I blinked my eyes. They were uncomfortably dry. It felt like my body was submerged in syrup, the fatigue of sickness sucking every ounce of energy I had in me. The past day or so has consisted of vomiting and fruitless periods of rest. I had no real grasp of time; morning, evening, and night seemed to blend into one, foul-tasting blur. I hadn't seen the sun in what seemed like days. There were no windows here, wherever here was.

*Scratch *Scratch *Scratch

Despite my ill state, my mind seemed to bounce around with an invigorated energy. My unfailing curiosity was on overdrive, and I ran in mental circles, asking myself the same set of questions over and over again. I had spoken to only two mammals here: the cheetah that delivered my meals and the raccoon who escorted me into this empty room. I couldn't remember what we talked about; hell, I didn't even remember their names. It was upsetting; my brain seemed to starve for knowledge yet recoil at the very act of receiving it. It was my own poor health that kept me from clarity, the only distinguishable feelings that crept through being half-contained awe and overwhelming disorientation.

*Scratch *Scratch …

I looked down, my sight landing on the source of the sound. I'd apparently been scraping the surface of the table with my claws, a small chip in the wood unfurled from where my fingers rested.

I took a deep breath. I needed to ease up.

Squeaking, the chair wobbled beneath me as I laid back. I rubbed my eyes, relaxing my mind as the thoughts floated by.

I saw the trees through closed eyes.

They swayed, dancing in the wind. The refreshing scents of pine drifted around me, enveloping me in a state of complete bliss. I saw the mountains and the hills, their peaks protecting me from detection. An army wanted me dead, but if I couldn't see them, they couldn't see me. Yes. I could see the woods; a protective barrier, an ancient guardian. I could see the cliffs. I could see the farms. I could see the placid lakes and the distant, sun-stroked beaches. They brought a wave of warmth, a comforting blanket around my shuddered shoulders. Out there, I found security. I found hidden houses and secluded secrets. I found everything, all in its right place. I could breathe it all in. I could smell it. I could listen…

But then, I heard screaming.

*Click

My head shot back, cold, crippling reality collapsing in on me. I found myself short of breath, the sight of it sending shockwaves through my mind. It was open.

The door was open.

The seconds seemed to slow as he entered: a jaguar staring down at his clipboard, chewing something, apparently oblivious to my presence. He whistled a careless tune as he entered, letting the door swing slowly to a close behind him. I stared, my breath frozen. My eyes followed him as he sauntered past, making his way down the room towards the other end of the table.

With a relaxed sigh, he plopped into the seat across from me.

I assessed the sight slowly. The jaguar was somewhat short for his species, but his physical appearance was that of strength and brute. He wore a dirt stained shirt covered by a torn, linen jacket. On his head sat a red handkerchief, tied tightly around his forehead. I was caught off guard by his attire — not to mention his seemingly careless attitude —but then again, I had no idea what to expect. His attention remained glued to the papers in his grasp.

We sat together in a temporary silence…

"Damn, kid…"

His raspy accent echoed off the stone walls. The words came with marvel.

They came with a chuckle.

"... You've lost some weight!"

The clipboard was suddenly tossed across the table. I leaned up as it landed, reaching out and sliding the papers closer to my grasp. My eyes crash landed on the paragraphs. It took me a few moments to process it; I'd seen these papers before…

Why did everyone have my criminal records?

I traced over the familiar information, eventually glancing up to the picture at the top corner. The fox stared at the camera with an expressionless stare; his face, neck, and arms a little thicker than mine now. I breathed out slowly, keeping my gaze on the records as the jaguar spoke up again.

"Ya'know, we don't have the best diets out here, but good lord! —You been living on nuts or something?"

He scoffed lightly, speaking with a quiet coarseness.

"Well, then again…"

I looked up to him, watching as he stuck a finger in his mouth to pull something out; mint gum. The jaguar squished it onto the table.

"...You city folks were probably feeding on fish shit and sewage water to begin with…"

The statement ended in a mumble, the visitor now reaching into the pocket of his faded jeans.

"...You wanna cigarette?"

He took out a small, cardboard box, our eyes meeting for the very first time. His slurred slew of sudden actions took me slightly by surprise. I paused, staring blankly at his offering smile. A barrage of conflicting thoughts beat down on me like hail. It took almost an eternity to get the words out.

"... W— … —Where am I?"

My voice was painfully dry, the question tumbling off my lips in a hushed and mushed mumble. The jaguar blinked at the question, shrugging his shoulders and reaching a finger into his box. Pulling out a lighter, he leaned back, continuing to kindle a cigarette of his own.

His response was hesitant.

"... A mountain."

"—What?"

He smirked, humored by my reaction. He took a breath of smoke before answering. A lingering smugness could be traced in his voice.

"You're on a mountain— or… inside a mountain… I guess…"

"What!?"

The jaguar chuckled now, glancing up at the ceiling and smiling merrily. I sighed, perplexed by his strange sense of ease. My curiosity was in flames, and I needed answers. I watched dryly as he returned with a cheeky tone.

"Ah man… You've got a lot to learn, kid… —Now, are you sure you don't want a cigarette?"

*Click

I perked up. Swiftly, I swung my head toward the door. Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, a small group of predators began filing through the entrance. One by one our gazes met, their faces all showing a similar expression; shared curiosity. They gathered near the door. All of them were here to see me. After a moment, I could see the door shut softly behind them. I counted six mammals…

… but as I looked over them, two stood out to me.

I blinked, clarity sinking in. My breath faltered. My heart leapt.

Tyler and Lupus.

I found myself suddenly on my feet. The reality of it all was inconceivable. It almost didn't feel real. My steps were unstable; I nearly tripped as I got to them. They made it. They were right here. I knew it already, but seeing them… It rang in my head like a bell:

They were alive.

"Holy shit!"

I took Lupus's paw to shake it, but we ended up in an embrace. The two of them chuckled, their voices muffled by the thickness of the wolf's shirt. The size difference between us made the hug slightly awkward, and the entire time I felt like I was about to vomit right on him, but I couldn't care less. I enjoyed every second of it.

"—This— … What— how… —What?"

I was at a loss for words. I backed away from Lupus and quickly wrapped my arms around Tyler. He jolted at the touch, most likely surprised by my tight embrace. He chuckled lightly, patting my back with an awkward smile.

"Ah— Mr. Wilde… Glad to see you're doing better."

His voice was light and nasally. I pulled myself back. I was nearly out of breath, but the words spilled out from me. I couldn't help but grin.

"... I— I- I actually feel like shit right now but oh my god you guys- how- what- w— this is crazy! You guys are actually here! What the hell!"

Lupus crossed his arms, nodding with a satisfied smile. Tyler wore a similar expression, adjusting his glasses with a light breath. Words couldn't quite be said about how we all felt. There was always that constant fear that'd I never be able to see them again, that our efforts were all in vain. It was a nightmare thinking about all the things that could've happened to them, to any of us. I still didn't have a single clue about what was even happening right now, but it didn't matter. We found each other, and from what I could tell, we're safe. It excited every fiber in my body…

And from what I could tell, they felt the same.

Not a second passed before I was approached by another mammal: a tall, lean cougar wearing all white. She extended a paw for me to shake, her voice bright and bubbled with glee.

"Hi! I'm Carly— Carly Shaw… nice to meet you!"

I took her paw, slightly bewildered.

"Oh— uhhh… Yah! …Nice to meet you!"

"Carly here heads the medical department… Very intellectual in the fields of medicine and pharmaceutical research."

Tyler's comment caught me off guard. I turned back with a croaked response.

"—What?"

I wasn't sure if he heard me. Before I knew it, another predator approached me. The arctic fox casually extended her paw with a stiff arm, speaking with a deep, straight-forward voice.

"Uh— Name's Skye… I'm a mechanic— I guess…"

Her demeanor was much calmer than the cougar's. I shook her paw and responded honestly.

"Oh— uh— Nice to meet you too."

Tyler grabbed me by the shoulder. Without hesitation, he brought me over to a skinny, black backed jackal. He grinned a closed smile, adjusting his button down shirt with trembling fingers.

"Nick, I'd like to introduce you to my colleague here, Mr. Blaise Avery: Engineering Expert and Weapons Specialist."

I nodded, watching as the jackal began making signals with his fingers and paws. He ended the sequence by pointing at me, nodding gladly without uttering a word. I directed my question to Tyler.

"Is… is he deaf?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mr. Avery shake his head. Tyler spoke for him.

"Nope, only mute."

"Oh…"

My mind began to backtrack. Bewilderment again taking hold…

"...Now, what— what was that little title you gave him—"

"—ALRIGHTY!"

A lighthearted yell broke through the air, silencing the room almost immediately. We all looked to the jaguar who now stood at the opposite end of the table. He spoke with an authoritative tone.

"... I'm all for socializing, but I am 98% sure that every one of you has somewhere to be in a little bit so let's get going! Come on!"

Without skipping a beat, everybody broke off from the conjugation and began heading towards the single table across the room. I couldn't really process the fast-paced events that were currently unfolding before me, but all I could really do at this point was to just go with it. Shrugging to myself, I followed them, slowly heading over to the chair I originally sat in.

The squeaks and squeals of sliding metal filled up the room gradually as everyone got to their seats. To my left sat Tyler and Lupus, alongside them the mute jackal, Blaise. To my right, Carly and Skye took their seats, placing themselves on either side of…

…Wait a minute.

I caught a contemplative breath, staring over as I took my seat. A short, dark colored wolf sat gloomily with his head down. At first, I thought I had forgotten his name, but after a moment of thought, I realized that I never even got his name. No one introduced me to him. I whispered over to the cougar.

"Hey."

Carly looked over.

"...What's his name?"

The wolf glared up, averting his sluggish attention towards me. She responded briefly:

"Oh, that's Sam."

The wolf raised a droopy arm, giving me a defeated wave before resting his paw back on the table. It was an underwhelming introduction, but before I could say anything else, the jaguar spoke out over everyone.

"Okey dokey fuckfaces!"

I sat back in my seat, staring across at the jaguar. He remained standing behind his chair, his grasp firmly around the backrest. His jaunty demeanor was matched with an equally energetic voice.

"I want to thank all of you for taking some time out of your very busy schedules for today's little… impromptu meeting. Now, to introduce myself to our new guest, my name is Keith Rook— You can call me Mr. Keith or Mr. Rook, or… just Keith… I guess… —I really don't give a sun-stained-shit— Anyways, before we start, I want to first address—"

"—What's that smell?"

The jaguar stopped suddenly, interrupted by the arctic fox. At once, everybody began sniffing the air. Keith paused, eventually snapping the attention back to himself.

"Nothing. It's nothing. Don't interrupt me— Anyways, before we get started here, I'd like to first—"

"—Do you guys smell smoke?"

Skye cut him off again. Once more, everybody began smelling the air, this time agreeing with silent nods. The jaguar sighed heavily, covering his mouth with an annoyed smear…

"Keith, have you been smoking again?"

Carly was the one to ask, her voice like that of a mother scolding her son. Keith remained frozen, eventually breaking off from his train of thought.

"Why is this such a big deal?"

"Because— you always throw your cigarette butts on the floor."

"Oh come on, that doesn't hurt anybody!"

"Yes it does, it puts us all at risk!"

"What risk?"

"A fire risk!"

"A fire risk?"

"Yes! A fire risk! We're all in a mineshaft, if there's a fire here, it'll be almost impossible to get everyone out in time!"

"If there's a fire? How can there even be a—"

"—Woah, woah, woah, guys— hold on…"

The two became quiet, everyone's attention now completely on me…

"...We're in a what?"

The tone of the room began to shift, a sobering seriousness enveloping those at the table. The minutes leading up to now were filled with lighthearted introductions and casual conversation. Now however, an unnamed rhythm was halted. Keith sighed. The unimportant topic was put to rest…

The jaguar clearly had something more important to say.

"The reason why I brought everyone here today, as you all should know— is because of Nick…"

The initial lax of his voice was gone. I glanced from face to face, a hurricane of thoughts resided behind each focused expression. I found myself feeling the same, the initial state of earnesty resurfacing in my mind. Keith continued.

"...We have a lot of shit to cover— and to be totally honest, I don't think we're gonna be able to go over everything right here today…"

He placed his paws on his hips, glaring around the table with a steady gaze.

"...But— Mr. Wilde's probably over here confused out of damn mind and I think… we can at least start…"

Keith's eyes eventually landed on Tyler. The two of them exchanged stares, the jaguar eventually giving a subtle nod. My focus shifted. After a brief second of silence, Tyler cleared his throat…

"The eight of us are currently in the Tamaroa Mineshaft, approximately thirty-seven-hundred feet into the side of a mountain and thirteen miles outside the border of the city-state…"

My eyes widened. We were outside the city-state. Outside the city-state. A burst of excitement exploded in me. I kept quiet with an intrigued ear.

"...This place was founded in 673 when a large coal deposit was located in the area… It was an extensive operation that lasted nearly two decades, however— exploitations were shut down when a rock collapse caved in the entrance, leaving forty-eight dead…"

I inquired.

"Wait— Mammals mined up here?"

He nodded.

"...Historically, yes— mammals had been mining the Northern Ridge for nearly a century, it's part of the reason why the city-state was founded here in the first place… —But— starting in the 200's, the government began moving jobs and placing them inside the border to, you know, control them… Mines opened up south of the mountain range, and eventually, a few years after the collapse, the government was able to pass a bill to finally put an end to operations up here…"

I swallowed the information, taking a moment to think over what he had said. A mineshaft. I was never taught about the city-state's history with the mountains, but based on everything I've seen, it was the most logical answer to where I was. Things were beginning to make sense, but I still couldn't help but ask…

"—But wait, if the mine collapsed… how are we in it right now?"

The inquiry was met with silence. Everybody shifted their stares from my face to Tyler's. He gathered an answer, fixing his glasses.

"Well… the borders were always closed off to the general public, but now, since the area was completely void of activity and had a lot of neat hiding places, it attracted the attention of… uh— well…"

"—CRIMINALS!"

Carly cheered out with an enthusiastic fist pump. Beside her, Skye sighed in annoyance and rested her head back. Tyler stuttered in response.

"Uh, yeah— sure… criminals…"

I chimed in.

"So like… us?"

Tyler snapped back thoughtfully.

"...Well, not exactly… You see, about fourteen years ago, a crime organization mostly consisting of prey wanted to establish a secret hideout somewhere within the Northern Ridge… At this point, crossing the border was nearly impossible, but these guys were determined— after a year or so, they were able to a find a way through…"

I nodded, soaking in the details. The image of Tom and Al appeared in my head. Criminals weren't uncommon apparently outside the city.

"...So, after cutting their ties to society and rounding up a bunch of their contraband serfs, a few of their leaders—"

"—The shitfucks!"

"Yes, Keith, the… shitfucks… they— they packed up a large amount of supplies and snuck everyone past the border… Now, one of these crime bosses—"

"—Mr. Alpha-Shitfuck!"

Keith commented again. Tyler motioned his way and continued.

"Yes, Mr.… —that guy— had a past relative who worked at Tamaroa. He was able to acquire knowledge of where this place was and — assuming that most of the mineshaft was still intact — set out to dig his own entrance from the other side of the mountain."

"—And that we did…"

All heads turned to Keith. He placed his paws on his hips, stepping back and smiling dryly.

"...Those crazy shitfucks got a whole damn operation going! —They got themselves some food, a place to sleep, everything! —Oh! —And you know what they do? They toss us preds a few lanterns and some pick axes saying, 'Go on now, dig! Dig until your spines give out!' —Those greasy motherfuckers didn't break a sweat!"

His isolated rant took me by surprise. My mind was already bogged down by the sheer amount of information being thrown at me, but taking a moment to think about it, I was able to put two and two together…

"Wait… You were one of their serfs?"

Keith sighed, his gaze falling to the floor beneath him. After a pause, he shook his head, speaking with a bitter sneer.

"...It was me and forty-six others… We were collared and chained to each other— The masters had us on fucking strings… Twenty-four hours a day we did nothing but dig. It took us months…"

"—And so what happened then?"

The jaguar hummed, smiling at the thought:

"...We talked… —The other serfs and I, we talked a whole lot— even before we were close to the shaft, we talked… We made a plan…"

A growing sense of pride could be traced through his voice, the memories seeming to replay themselves in his head as he recalled them.

"...It was the night we got to the end… —It's a… a damn long story, but to sum things up… We overthrew them. They killed nearly a quarter of us but we came out on top— We got their food, their weapons, everything!"

I nodded subtly, impressed by what I was hearing. Serfs rarely tried to harm their masters in the city-state, and for good reason; even if predators got away with killing their masters, the military would be on them in a heartbeat. Keith, however, saw an opportunity. Prey outlaws were just that: outside of the law. They had very few connections, and the military wouldn't be protecting them anytime soon. Yes. If serfs overthrew criminals, hardly anyone would bat an eye.

And they did it thirteen miles outside of the city-state.

"And that's how it all came to be…"

Tyler joined back in, talking with a jubilant, satisfied smirk.

"...A small society of predators that no one knows exists, living in a mountain no one can get into…"

I couldn't help but smile. Every circumstance came together perfectly; the criminals, the resources, the location… Even if the government was looking for a bunch of missing serfs, they'd look everywhere south of the border. Hell, a long-abandoned mine that supposedly no one could get into would be the last place they'd try to search.

My mind was opened. With a shocked scoff, I leaned back in my chair, shaking my head as the thoughts bounced around in my mind: a secret, underground society… I was amazed that I could find this place—

Or rather… I was amazed that this place found me.

I asked with a smile:

"How the hell did you find me?"

I glanced around the table. Everybody's gazes gradually floated towards Keith, however, just as he was about to speak, a humored snicker sounded out from my right.

"Feds led us right to you…"

I looked over. Skye was sitting back with her feet crossed on the table, a smug look accompanying her crossed arms. I asked further.

"—What?"

She answered with a collected tone.

"...Every two weeks, a small pack of us make a journey over the border to get stuff and to— you know… keep in touch with what's going on down there…"

Skye raised a finger, motioning towards the mammals across from her.

"...We found Ty and Lupus here at the border during one trip, and then the next, word had gotten around that a fox was wanted by the federal government… Every newspaper, every city, heck— even the TV's had commercials playing about you…"

"—You guys make trips to the city-state?"

"...Sure, but we don't stay long."

I nodded, shifting my mind to what she said afterward. I never really thought about it; being isolated from civilization, I didn't quite know what was happening with the media. It was clear that I was wanted, but knowing that literally every mammal knew my name was an odd thought. It was almost funny.

Skye continued.

"...So we get back here and talk about all that stuff we saw… —We all agree that someone who pisses the government off that much might help us, and once these two start teaching us more about you, we decide to send a special unit out to try and pick you up before the feds do…"

"—And how did that work?"

"...Well, based on what the newspapers said, we were pretty sure you'd end up somewhere near the old Cobden facility… —We send our best guys out there and sure enough, the Feds were thinking the same thing. They had this whole trap setup. All we had to do was camp out just south of the compound and they lead you straight to us…"

"—And you did this without them noticing?"

"...Yep."

I crossed my arms, further impressed by what I was hearing. For mammals to be as successfully covert as they were was bizarre. No, it was absolutely insane. These guys had weapons, medics, everything to keep a society alive and completely under the radar. These guys crossed the border like it was a city street, keeping an eye out on a government that was known for being one step ahead. My smile widened the more I thought. I had to conceal my glee as I spoke.

"How the hell…"

I shook my head, my gaze sliding to the door behind my shoulder. The boiling desire to know more was overflowing. I scoffed.

"...How the fuck are you guys pulling this off?"

A shared contempt could be found behind their silent responses. The conversation was redirected to Keith, the jaguar pulling his arm out and taking a look at his watch. Smirking, he leaned forward and rested his paws on the table, his answer pointed towards everyone.

"Well… I think we were about to wrap this meeting up anyways, so— uhhh… Gunsdon! Give our welcomed guest here a little tour of the place!"

"... And the assignment you gave Blaise and me?"

"—Fuck them!"

Keith nodded, stepping back and announcing in a conclusive tone.

"Everyone's dismissed! Get back to the shit you were doing earlier!"

At that, the congregation dispersed, each member slowly rising to their feet and sliding their chairs beneath the table. I sprung up, my focus flying towards Tyler. The otter whispered something in Lupus's ear, and after a few moments, the two of them broke off, Tyler ending the conversation with a pat on Lupus's shoulder. I went over to join him…

With silent nods, the two of us joined the exiting crowd.


The hallway immediately outside of the room was relatively dark. At first, the clump of bodies before me made it difficult to see, but gradually, as the crowds dispersed, I could slowly start to make out the exact shape of my surroundings.

The corridor went on for quite a while, a single string of lights illuminating it in small, occasional pockets. The stone rock walls gave off a hue of cool blue, doorways and adjoining hallways breaking up the uneven surfaces. I could see a few mammals in the distance. They vanished and appeared from either side, their figures scarcely identifiable. I breathed out, gathering the thoughts as I glared: for an abandoned mineshaft, the place looked surprisingly spacious. But then again, I was a fox. The mine could've felt a bit smaller for anyone larger than a jaguar.

The somewhat familiar voices of those I just met began to fade. Their conversations carried themselves behind hidden hallways, and within a few more moments, the corridor was mostly empty. It was just Tyler and me now.

I felt a paw grab my shoulder.

"Extraordinary, isn't it?"

The words fluttered off his tongue. I nodded, my gaze sliding towards the otter beside me. He stared ahead with an adamant smile.

"... I've been here for two weeks and I still can't believe it sometimes… —Just let me know if you have any questions… I know this might be a lot to take in…"

I agreed silently.

"...Okay, then. Let's get started."

He patted my back. In an instant, we began to walk forward.

"So! —Tamaroa is separated into four different levels… Each floor has a unique set of purposes— and trust me, we use every square inch of this place…"

I hummed, trying to picture the image as he described it.

"...Within the past fifteen years, the mineshaft has nearly doubled in square-footage to accommodate increasing use… Every floor's been expanded and modified for living, doors have been built, beds, furniture… Some rooms even have carpet…"

I bit my lip, glancing around at what he described. The doors and entryways were constructed somewhat shoddily. They rested on squeaky hinges and hung at crooked angles. Nonetheless, I was impressed. The mine was refurbished with makeshift ingenuity. For a place with little to build off of, these guys were doing well.

Tyler continued.

"We use the lighting system that was already installed in the mine— back before Keith and the serfs showed up… It's been expanded to extend into the additions— Same with the ventilation system…"

The two of us stopped at an intersection. To the left, a staircase ascended to a dimly lit hall above. To the right, a similar stairwell sunk down several levels. I could sense activity sounding out from below, a constant collision of faint voices floating slowly up the corridor. I pondered momentarily what was down there…

Tyler took my back and guided me to the left.

"...Technology back in the late 600's wasn't necessarily that impressive, but the systems set in place here are fairly reliable… There have only been a few malfunctions in the past decade…"

The two of us entered the dark stairwell. My thoughts circulated around what he said. A lighting system? Air vents? My house in the city barely had that, yet a group of bandit predators had access to it in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't help but ask.

"—So how does that work?"

"...How does what work?"

"The lights. The ventilation— How did they get it out here?"

Tyler nodded, prepared to answer.

"Well… A few years before Tamaroa first opened, a law was put into place that required mineshafts above a certain size to implement lights and ventilation— Too many miners were getting in accidents and dying from lung disease… —When this place was dug out, they had to put all of this in as well…"

"So you guys just added on to it? You know— to not make it super dark?"

"...Yep."

I responded with a light hum, staring up at the ceiling. It was somewhat dark, but it was pretty easy to see. A small, metal vent ran up near the wall along with a string of wires. I could only assume that these were everywhere.

"—So how is this all powered?"

"Well, that is precisely what I was going to show you."

Tyler and I got up to the top, his paw immediately steering me to the right. We made our way down the short corridor, an open doorway casting light on the floor just ahead of us. I could hear talking within the room, drowned out by the roar of a loud motor…

We entered to the greeting of two, filthy coyotes.

"Afternoon Gunsd'n!"

Their voices were thick with a country accent. I examined them briefly; they both wore gloves and ripped overalls, head to toe in a thin layer of soot. The two of them held shovels at their feet, standing in front of what looked like a large oven. They looked nearly identical.

"Nick, this is Rick and Pat— Rick and Pat, Nick."

"Nice to meet'ya!"

The two of them outstretched their paws simultaneously, both of which were black with dirt. Hesitantly, I reached and shook them. Tyler spoke over the noise of the machinery.

"These two run the generator… The entire mine is supplied electricity through this thing right here…"

"—How does it work?"

One of the coyotes, either Rick or Pat, began explaining.

"Ah— well ya'see, there's eh shit ton of water in this tank 'ere, n' this fire — we throw the coal in teh fire — heats it all up which makes steam, and that stuff spins the fan thingy— n' then— and then the steam goes all the way up to where it's cold and becomes water again, and den that goes back down into teh tank— and the fan thingy— that's what make the power, which powers the vents and the lights!"

"... Oh."

I nodded, scanning over the machine with a confounded stare.

"Where do you get the coal?"

"Wha— We live in a coal mine, silly!"

The coyote motioned off to the side. I followed his finger, my eyes landing on a mountainous pile of coal near the corner of the room. Beside it, a large opening in the wall provided space for an elevator-like machine to transport the fuel up from the lower levels below…

"... Oh."

"Yep. Tamaroa is entirely self-sustaining…"

Tyler said it with an energized pride. Grabbing a hold of my shoulder, he gingerly guided me back to the door.

"...It was good seeing you two."

"Yeah, you too Gunsd'n!"

I waved casually, glaring briefly over my shoulder before turning around heading out of the room. The rumbling of the generator began to die down as we got further, the staircase becoming closer in sight.

"Anyways…"

Tyler quipped.

"...This the fourth floor— You just saw the generator room. Up here is the armory and the way to the new exit… We check those places out later…"

He pointed briefly pointed down the hall before disappearing into the staircase. I hesitated, staring at what appeared to be the armory. The large door was sealed shut. A padlock appeared to be clamped onto the handle, and a sign was posted up above it. The letters were painted in all black, bold letters.

KEEP OUT

OPS ONLY

I stood there for several moments, eventually snapping out of my gaze and glancing down the stairs. Tyler was almost a third of the way down. I ducked into the corridor and staggered down to catch up with him.

"Hey…"

He tilted his head back, looking back at me as I got closer to his side. He remained quiet as began to ask.

"...What was with that sign?"

"—What sign?"

I glanced back briefly as I slowed to meet his speed.

"On the armory door… Who— Who are the… Ops?"

I watched for Tyler's reaction; in a moment, his eyes widened with realization. After taking a second to gather his thoughts, he answered with his explanatory tone.

"Ah, well you see— Tamaroa is divided into three, separate classes of mammal: Commoners, Operatives, and Pitters… Each group contributes to the mine in different ways— Operatives conduct covert missions outside of the mountain, Pitters dig up coal and expand the mine, and Commoners help out with general living conditions… —It's almost like a city… We have civilians, a maintenance crew, and a military…"

I smirked with amazement. The sheer amount of information was a lot to bear, but it only invigorated me to know more. The complexity of this underground civilization continued to satisfy my curiosity. Tyler and I reached the bottom of the stairs, returning to the hallway we first entered. I crossed my arms and looked to him, eager to learn more about this mysterious place…

"...Alright, this is the third floor… to the right is the conference room, and to the left are some dormitories and the medical wing… We can get you a bedroom later today, I'm not sure which ones are available—"

"—Did you say the medical wing?"

"... Yeah."

My eyes locked themselves on the other end of the hallway, my mind suddenly paralyzed by a distinct thought. The medical wing. It was the area I was in when I woke up that first time, the place I resided up until this morning…

No. There was something else. Something more important.

I took a step forwards, the realization hitting me slowly. I could feel myself heat up, a wave of guilt now rising up from my stomach. The thought only crossed my mind now. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it earlier…

Judy.

"—You coming?"

I whipped my head to the side. Tyler had made considerable distance down the stairs and was waiting for me to join him. I was frozen where I stood, my gaze flickering from the stairwell to the hallway…

"Can we go to the medical wing?"

"... Sure… We'll make our way over there on the way back up— I wanna show you Commons first…"

His voice was distant, his tone stale with a usual casualness. I watched as he turned ahead and resumed his descent, leaving me motionless in the hall.

I took a step back, tottering over to the edge of the staircase with my gaze locked on the other end of the corridor. The sudden rush of emotion began to die down, and my leveled mind came to clarity; Judy was safe, and as far as I know, she was most likely in the same, sickly stupor that I was in earlier this morning. No. I didn't need to rush it, as much as I wanted to. I had friends here. I could see her later…

Somewhat reluctantly, I stepped into the stairwell.

The echoes of distant voices began to increase in volume. My thoughts again stimulated, I caught up to Tyler, attempting to push back my initial concerns.

"—So what was this… Commons place you were talking about?"

"The second level of Tamaroa… It's where most of the activity takes place…"

I glared down the corridor. We were slowly approaching a break in the stairwell, most likely the hallway stretching across the second floor. It was almost definitely where the voices were coming from. The conversations became more clear and distinguishable as we got near.

"... Activities? —What kind of stuff goes on down here?"

"—You'd be surprised… When you have this many mammals in an environment like this, you have to keep an organized schedule…"

I hummed, the two of us reaching the final steps of the stairwell. The voices bounced around in vibrant bursts. I found myself inquiring:

"How many mammals live here?"

Tyler smirked, patting my shoulder as we got to the bottom.

"—Take a look for yourself."

We turned the corner, the sight of the second floor coming fully into focus. Unlike the third level, the Commons were full of life. Clothes and blankets were strung out across the ceiling, the cold surfaces of the walls and floor covered by the warmth of fabric. Along with the strand of lightbulbs, the hall and adjoining alcoves were illuminated by oil lamps, flooding the area with soft hues of orange. Predators of all kinds sat and chatted amongst themselves, each of them wearing a similar, scruffy appearance.

The two of us began to walk through.

My gaze shifted from side to side. As we passed by the alcoves, I began to see how the mammals were bunked. Instead of small dormitories, the commoners resided in small, crisscrossing corridors on either side of the hallway. Hammocks were hung along the walls instead of beds, and upturned milk crates were used for storage instead of cabinets. Curtains and quilts were draped to divide the open spaces into rooms. There was very little privacy, but no one in here seemed to care. Predators spoke from one side of the hall to another…

Within the chatter, I could even hear laughter.

"Living accommodations are pretty tight right now… The Pitters have been clearing some space up at the north end of Commons, so we might be able to move some families soon…"

Tyler spoke with a jubilant gate, waving to predators who greeted him from either side. I glared with bewilderment at the faces we passed; curious stares followed me from the occasional observer. My voice was taut with confoundment.

"—So what? —Is this where everyone just… hangs out?"

I looked to Tyler. He gazed ahead.

"...Not always— Right now, everyone's waiting for lunch to be ready…"

Tyler motioned me onward, guiding me out of the corridor and into an open area. We now walked in what appeared to be an intersection of hallways. To the left, another passageway led to more rooms and hallways. To the right however, a doorway opened up into a fairly large room.

My eyes soaked in the surrounding sights, but my brain was elsewhere.

There was a lingering thought, a deep intuition that grew with every arriving bit of information: disbelief, awe. I wouldn't call it doubt, but it was fairly close. Tyler searched for a place to take me to, but I'd seen enough. I needed to speak up.

"...Down there's storage and over here's the cafeteria… I can show you the—"

"—Hold on."

The two of us froze, the momentum of our journey ceasing suddenly. Tyler glanced at me attentively. It took me several moments to figure out what to say…

"... So you guys just— steal shit?"

"Hmm?"

I looked back, pointing towards the corridor of bunks.

"—All that stuff… The curtains, the blankets, the— the— everything. You guys went into the city-state and stole all of that shit? Without getting caught?"

Tyler leaned his head back slowly, taking in my inquiry quietly. Staring over to the hallway, he began to nod his head, answering the question somewhat hesitantly…

"Yes and no…"

"—What?"

He took a deep breath.

"...When Tamaroa was first founded — or, re-founded — getting across the border was easier; much easier, in fact, that the former serfs did it nearly once a week… They had to, I mean, they barely had anything during the first few years…"

Tyler looked back to me, continuing.

"...But, seven years ago, we got a new president… The— agoraphobic wide-eyed bitch as Keith would call him… Ever since he got elected, border security has nearly tripled its yearly budget, and getting across has been getting more and more difficult…"

"—So how do you guys do it?"

He sighed, biting his cheek with an apprehensive look. Crossing his arms, he spoke out with a softer voice.

"...We have an inside source…"

"—A what?"

"...A businessman… He had ties to Keith's masters back when they went off the map… He and the serfs go back a long ways— we do stuff for him and he does stuff for us…"

My eyes widened.

"—Mammals know about this place?"

"Only one… And it's going to stay that way…"

"—Why?"

Tyler smirked.

"...We have him under blackmail."

I opened my mouth to speak, but I had to pause at the prospect. Predators blackmailing prey? It was usually the exact opposite. I shook my head, asking Tyler to clarify.

"What do you mean?"

"...Nearly a decade ago, he first started making deals with the preds here… He wanted them to do some of his dirty work— you know… Assassinating competitors, robbing from businesses, manipulating the stock market… All that fun stuff… —Mr. Suit and Tie thought he'd be able to control Tamaroa by threatening to report them to the authorities, but in the end, that ended up backfiring… One of the former serfs was smart enough to smuggle a video camera into one their meetings, and now, we have recordings of him working with us… If we get caught, he goes down with us…"

I nodded, taking in the information with a developing grasp.

"—So… you guys are just… —cool with each other?"

"It's a… —relatively stable relationship… We happen to have similar goals in life, so… we're mainly indifferent…"

"... Huh."

The two of us began to walk. Tyler snapped back to answering my original question.

"...So the operatives used to steal and dumpster dive in the city-state, which is how we got most of the stuff you see here… Recently though, with the government becoming the way it is now, we've been more or less relying on our contact… —Twice a month, we send operatives down to his residence to get more supplies and more mammals."

"More mammals?"

"Yep… Since the government's having everyone turn in their serfs by the end of the month, our contact's been able to slip into Galena and purchase predators for dirt cheap… Farmers would rather sell their serfs to strangers than give them to the government and get nothing…"

"—Aren't there papers and stuff involved?"

"...If you do it officially, but… Hell— The whole city-state is freaking out right now… From what I hear, it's pretty easy to do that kind of thing under the table…"

"—How many have you gotten from him?"

"...Almost two-thirds of Tamaroa were purchased by him…"

"Really?"

"...Yeah— well… He's gotten us serfs in the past few years, but in the past month or so, they've been flooding in… Twelve serfs now are worth what one serf used to…"

"Damn."

"...Well no, actually— money was never the issue, our contact's stupid rich, it's just really easy to buy them illegally— with the market being flipped on its head and everything…"

"Ah."

"Yah… Ever since predators started going savage, it's been easy to get away with stuff… —Unless you're a wanted criminal, of course— like you… and… like me, I guess…"

I stopped dead in my tracks.

Something in my head clicked, a sudden rush of emotion surfacing in my mind. Memories began to pop up again, recollections revealing themselves in a wave of realization. The burrow. The attacks. The map. That terrifying night at Judy's house. I knew the truth for over a week now, but it was just now appearing in my head. I couldn't believe how forgetful I was, how stupid I was. Tyler faced me with a bewildered look.

He didn't know.

"Holy shit…"

No one knew.

"—What's wrong?"

I took a step back, my breaths becoming increasingly unstable. My voice croaked at the thought of it:

"...I knew…"

"—What?"

I looked to Tyler, the excitement breaking through my tone.

"...I knew— no— no, I know! … I know what's causing predators to go savage!"

"—What!?"

"The vaccines!"

The two of us became quiet, my words hanging in the air with a lingering shock. Tyler stared at me blankly. He blinked with widened eyes…

Suddenly, he took me by the arm and dragged me to the closest door.

We shuffled into the room hastily, my vision blackening as he swiftly shut the door behind us. We scrambled in the dark. I staggered into a shelf as Tyler reached around for the light. The sounds of toppling objects surrounded us. I could see the otter's arm swing upwards.

*Click

A single bulb filled the room with light. We were packed closely together in a small maintenance closet. Tyler's voice cracked, an outburst of emotion breaking through his loud whisper.

"WHAT!?"

"The vaccines they're giving the serfs— The ones that are supposed to prevent them from going savage— THAT'S what's making them go savage! It's the injections!"

"—And what about us!? We weren't serfs!"

"The March Predcheck…"

The three words were all that it took. I could see something click in Tyler's head. He took a step back with a wide gasp.

"Oh— of course!"

He leaned back, resting an arm on the shelf behind him and rubbing his temple. He shook his head, his hushed voice strained with disdain.

"The injections! —God, I checked almost everything! I took water samples, I tested air filtrations, the food! —It was the freaking Predchecks!? How did I not even think of that!? Ugh—I'm such an idiot. An idiot!"

Tyler spastically smacked the side of his head, scolding himself in a rambling of bitter murmurs. I commented with an anxious breath.

"Whatever they're putting in the serums affects mammals differently— some can go savage the same day, others take longer—"

"—How did you find out about this?"

The otter whipped his head around to face me. I quickly recalled.

"...I— … well, I… uh— … look, it's a really long story, but Judy and I—"

"—Who?"

"... The rabbit that was with me."

"... Oh, right— yeah…"

"—We found out that the dates and locations of the attacks match up with where the injections were being given… —The government knows that we know— It's why our bounties are so high— It's why they're busting their asses trying to kill me!"

Tyler nodded, adjusting his glasses with a contemplative sigh. Putting a paw to his chin, he drifted into thought.

"... Does anyone else know?"

"... Yeah— a few criminals we met on the way—"

"—No. Here— did you tell this to anyone else here?"

"—No."

He let out a heavy sigh. Tottering from one leg to the other, Tyler remained deeply engrossed in his thoughts. I wiped my face with an exhausted swipe. It was puzzling trying to rationalize the situation…

"... So what do we do now?"

My eyes landed on Tyler. He halted his anxious pacing, staring with a stagnant gaze towards the floor, scratching his chin with trembling fingers. We were quiet for several moments; the air between us seemed to thicken with every lingering second…

"... Nothing."

I blinked, perplexed.

"—What?"

"We don't tell anyone— anyone at all… We keep this between the two us… We don't—"

"—Why the hell would we do that?"

"—Because…"

Tyler breathed deeply, raising his paws in an explanatory tone.

"...Look— Half of the mammals in Tamaroa arrived here after the attacks started, and— … and if the government started injecting serfs near the end of March, then that means that most of them have that feral stuff in them…"

"—And so they can go savage?"

"...Correct."

I shook my head subtly, unable to understand what he was saying.

"—But why does that matter? Shouldn't everyone think by now that we're all going feral?"

"—That's exactly my point…"

"—What?"

"...Nick, everyone here thinks they're going to go savage at some point— it's the one thing that we can all agree on… —If… if they find out that only HALF of us are gonna die, and the other half won't, that can cause some major issues."

I glanced at the closed door, my focus shifting to the large room of predators down the hall. I could understand Tyler's reasonings; to them, they were all in the same boat. Going savage was something everyone thought about, and if it was revealed to them that a select portion of them couldn't turn feral, then that could really divide relationships. We were in a mineshaft after all, it'd be best if everyone could get along…

…But part of it felt wrong.

"So what, we'll just… not tell anyone?"

"—No, I mean… We'll have to, just… —we have to be careful with how we go about this… emotional instability is not gonna help anyone…"

Tyler nodded unevenly to himself. Speaking with a slightly reassured tone, he placed his paws on my shoulders.

"...I'll talk with Keith— eventually… We all have a lot on our plates, so for now, let's just… —Let's just keep this our little secret—"

*CREEEAAAKKKK

The door flung wide open, The two of us jumping at the sound. My head whipped the side. I glared with widened eyes.

It was Skye, carrying a toolbox…

"Am I interrupting something?"

Tyler and I slowly looked back to each other. It dawned upon me that we were standing in a maintenance closet. It also dawned on me that we were holding onto each other's shoulders. We seemed to realize it at the same time…

"... oH!"

We sprang from each other's grasp, colliding with either end of the claustrophobic closet. Tyler stuttered an awkward laugh.

"No- n- no— No! No— We were… We were actually just leaving!"

"Really?"

"Yep. Yeah— We were… Weren't we, Nick?"

I blinked, turning to face Skye…

"Ye."

The arctic fox appeared to be both unimpressed and utterly confused. Shaking her head, she shrugged with a slow tone.

"Yeaaahh… —I'm not even gonna ask."

Tyler and I chuckled in an attempt to alleviate some of the awkwardness, but after a few seconds, it was obvious that we only made it worse. The three of us stood in silence, the pause lasting a bit longer than it should have…

"We should go now."

"—Yeah, you should."

With a grin, Tyler quickly ushered me out of the closet. The fox smirked as we passed, shaking her head with a roll of the eye. The two of us traded spots with her, Skye reaching for the door knob. I could faintly hear her whisper to herself:

"Pfff… Little secret."

Her bewildered snickers were cut off by the closing of the door…

Tyler tugged on my sleeve.

"I need to talk with someone…"

I looked to him. My focus snapped back to our day's earlier discussions. Befuddled, I rebuked.

"—What… wait— What about the tour?"

"...Screw the tour, just— … I don't know– walk around or something. I've already given you a headache with how much I've told you today…"

Tyler began to step down the hall.

"...We'll keep in touch. If you need me, I'm usually at my office on the third floor— Head up the south staircase, make a right, I'm the second door on the left."

The otter whirled around. Energized by recent revelations, he hastily began to make his way through the corridor. I remained frozen. With no idea what to do, I looked the other direction, only to see that no one else was in the hallway with me.

"—Oh! And Nick…"

I spun back. Tyler had called out from behind. He was walking towards me, glaring around the empty area. With a distance still between us, he stopped, leaned his head forward, and softened his tone.

"Make sure that your friend stays— uhhh… —quiet."

I was almost unsure what he meant at first, but in a moment of clarity, I came to understand. With a heavy head, I nodded slowly, watching as the otter turned back and hurriedly left me on my own.


The winding corridors and dimly lit passageways of Tamaroa didn't make it easy. Every hundred feet there was an adjoining hallway, a dead end, a locked door. I was reminded of the rabbit burrow, except instead of polished curves, the walls were formed from jagged edges of rock. I wandered through the second floor, my journey broken up by periodical conversations with passing strangers. They never lasted long; I'd ask how to get to the third floor, they'd give me directions, and that was that. Sometimes, they'd ask who I was: just someone new, a friend of Tyler's. They'd nod and return to their own business, and I'd return to mine. My thoughts were stuck on someone else anyways…

It wasn't long until I made it to the medical wing.

I had seen it once before, the cleaned, smoothed walls, the bright white lights, the near spotless floors. The north side of the third level was kept in pristine condition. I sauntered through the hall, glancing from side to side, searching for any signs of life. My gaze was met by the passing names of strangers, scribbled onto papers posted on surrounding doors. To no avail, I searched briefly for her name. I couldn't quite make out where our rooms were.

My earnest gate led me to an opening in the middle of the corridor.

I glared over. A lynx sat behind a wooden desk, writing away within a mound of neatly stacked papers. Beside her, a row of folding chairs were set up along the wall, all unoccupied. I was alone, and from what I could tell, there wasn't anyone else to talk to. I approached the counter. Speaking with a soft voice, I inquired, peeking over the edge of the desk.

"... Uhm… —Excuse me?"

The swift scratches of her pen ceased. She glared up, her eyes magnified by a pair of wired glasses.

"...I'm— I'm here to see Judy… —Hopps…"

She remained frozen for a few moments, but in an instant, she set her pen down and hastily reached over the desk. Tugging on a string, she rang a bell, jingling it for a couple seconds before returning to her original position. I glared around, squinting my eyes in the ensuing silence. I wasn't sure what to expect…

"Coming!"

A distant voice called out from behind the wall. I looked over to the open doorway, recognizing the tone almost immediately. An enthusiastic, white-dressed cheetah appeared, her bright eyes glancing from the desk to myself. She analyzed me briefly, speaking with a light chime.

"Oh— Hi Nick! … What seems to be—"

Suddenly swirling back in her swivel chair, the lynx picked up a clipboard and swung it into Carly's line of sight. Glancing down, the cheetah took the papers and read over them. Her optimistic smile began to dim. A hint of concern broke through her softened response…

"... oh…"

Slowly, she set the papers down on the desk. Her gaze locked with mine for a moment, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. What did she know? Did something happen? I felt myself heat up. What happened? Our gaze broke abruptly.

"—Come with me…"

Carly made her way into the hall, passing by me and marching down the corridor. I whipped around, stumbling into a stagger to catch up with her. Before long, we were at an even pace, my eyes glued on the cheetah at my side.

"...They told me what happened…"

"—What? … Who— When—"

"—The operatives who rescued you…"

Carly paused, her buyout words soaked with a sour thought.

"...They told me what happened to you two out in the woods— With the announcements… I listened to the tapes they recorded…"

She shook her head, the mere mention of it seeming to hurt her physically. She reaffirmed.

"...I had to listen to every one of them in order to properly diagnose her…"

"—Diagnose her?"

The two of us came to a stop at one the last doors in the hallway. We stood on either side of it, my attention completely aimed at the cheetah's next words. She hesitated for several moments, staring at the floor as she spoke them…

"Judy's been very… —quiet… since she came here…"

I blinked at the statement, staring over towards the door with searchful eyes.

"...At first, we thought that her body was trying to recover from the Telazol… The two of you were in a sort of— narcosis, just by the extra high dosage you took in that night… We all thought that she'd be responsive by yesterday, but… she hasn't said a word… Not to me, not to my assistants— Not to anyone…"

"...We think she's in shock."

I looked back to her, my eyes widening at the news. The reality of it began to sink in… What happened that night wasn't normal. I could recall it all fondly. Judy was tough, but what we listened to got to her. It broke her down. I was still sore from carrying her.

I stared at the door again, glaring up at the papers posted above. Judy's name and basic info were listed in small paragraphs.

"Can I see her?"

My voice was cold, scratched. A long pause followed. A sluggish tilt of the head could be seen out of the corner of my eye. Carly was more than hesitant, contemplating the question for a long period of time. She sighed, looking up at the papers with a reluctant eye…

"I don't know how she'll react…"

I took a deep breath. The cheetah came to a decision.

"...but I think it could help."

She nodded with a familiar smile. I could go in.

I reached for the door knob, holding my breath and trying to control my racing mind. This was it. Several seconds passed before I could act. I forced myself to twist the knob.

"—Hey…"

Carly stopped me with a whisper.

"...She hasn't eaten any of her meals since she got here… Maybe you can— you know… convince her?"

I nodded, returning my gaze to the door…

I entered as quietly as possible.

The light of the hall spilled into the bedroom as I came in. I eased my way past the door, spinning to the side and shutting it softly behind me. It closed with a soft creak. The flickering flame of a blue bedside candle was the only source of light…

My gaze found its way to trays of food.

There were four of them: wooden, foldable tables that weren't much taller than my waist. On them, plates were cluttered together, each of them containing a small serving of vegetables and bread. Glasses of water were squeezed onto the open spaces.

Nothing had been touched.

I found myself looking up to the bedsheets. A few plates had been set on the covers themselves, probably because they ran out of trays. Beside them, a lump in the blankets rose up from the mattress. It ran the length of the top half of the bed, ending at the layer of pillows near the headboard. It didn't take me long to know what it was.

Judy.

She was on her side, facing towards the wall away from me. I could barely make out her figure underneath the layers of sheets. A pit in my stomach opened up. It looked like she hadn't moved in days…

I glared over. An old, wooden chair was positioned beside the door. Stepping back, I took it by the arm and dragged it over to the bedside table. It creaked and squeaked, sliding to a stop in the candle light. I needed more room. Carefully, I picked up a tray and moved it off to the side, setting it near the wall. I repeated this process with the other three until I could actually get somewhat close to the bed. As silent as possible, I picked up the chair and positioned it beside Judy.

With my gaze fixed on her, I got around the chair, softly taking a seat…

I ducked my head. I sunk into thought.

What the hell am I going to say? Shit— What IS there to say? Should I apologize? Should I make a joke? No— what the fuck— that's an awful idea… Come on, Nick. Think.

"Hi."

It was all I could come up with.

The following seconds were made up of a deafening silence. It spilled into next ten, the next twenty. Every passing moment was like a dagger to my chest. The thickening air made it difficult to breathe; it felt like I could drown from the growing stillness. I sighed, shuddering. My feet shuffled shiftless beneath the chair. I needed to say something else. Anything…

"... Look… —I…"

Struggling to find a way to finish the sentence, I attempted to mentally fill in the blanks. I searched far and wide in my mind, but after several, fruitless efforts, I gave up. If there was anything right to say, I didn't know where it was. I glanced away from the bed. I had to try again…

"... I— uhhh… I came here…"

A distant idea popped in my head. It started as a recollection, a very recent one, but it gathered up in my head. I could hear his voice as if he was specifically instructing me. Yes. I could do what Tyler told me. I could tell her not to talk about the injections…

"...I came here— to tell you that… —that the two of us need to be— … —We need to quiet about…"

"Judy… I don't know what happened… I don't know why they'd do that— I… I don't know why… — … —I've seen some fucked up shit in my life, I mean— we both have, but… I don't know what that was… — … If I could've done anything, if I… If I could've stopped it somehow, I… — … I would've done anything. I would've done anything for you… … … Look, Judy… We're not in danger anymore… We're not being chased— We're not in that fucking city-state anymore… —I don't know what they've been telling you in here, but if you didn't believe any of it, I'm here to tell you that it's true… Everything here is true, everything they've said— all of it… And— … And what I'm about to tell you, what I'm about to say is also true: You. Are. Safe… You are surrounded by mammals who care about you— mammals that will take care of you— and if they don't, then I will. —I'll come in here every day. I'll cook meals for you. I'll be your doctor, your nurse, your whoever— I will do anything… — … —Just, please… Please keep going. Please keep fighting… Please… Don't give up…"

I rose to my feet, shifting the chair backwards and making my way to the door.

*Click

*Thud *Thud

*Click

"How'd it go?"

I looked to Carly, her gaze oblivious.

"... Fine."

"... Ah."

She walked away.

Judy listened to her family get slaughtered.

Innocent rabbits; mothers, siblings, children. They were all taken away from her. Everybody she loved. Everybody she cared about. Gone. No goodbyes. No last words. Just horrified screams. Judy couldn't see them get killed. She didn't see blood. She didn't see their horrified expressions. No. That would've been for the better. The broadcasters knew exactly what they were doing; the imagination was far more effective than an image on a screen.

It didn't matter to them. It never did.

To them, there were only those for them and those against them. There were no neutrals, no third parties. Society was a competition between two, distinct sides. There were friends, and there were enemies. Those who weren't on their side had to be taken out by any means necessary. It didn't matter who got in the way, and it didn't matter who they had to go through. If it benefited them, they'd do anything. They'd kill anyone. They had the power, the freedom…

The control.

All my life, I called several mammals my enemy. I used to think that the police were my enemy. I used to think that bounty hunters were my enemies. I used to think that the entire prey population was my enemy. If someone threatened me or someone I cared about, they were a foe. Plain and simple. Now however, I knew better. I could see past the lies and illusions that mislead me my entire life. Yes. The ones I labeled my enemies were being taken advantage of. Every cop that spit my direction. Every criminal that wronged me. They were being fooled. Pattington, Clyde, The Big Family… They were victims.

We all were.

There were two sides to this fight now. Those who were for me, and those against me. I never wanted it this way, but they were the ones that drew the borders. Yes. It was all very clear now. My enemy was the single source of all suffering, the creator of chaos. It unleashed an inferno within me, a scorching rage. If the government was going to run this world like a game…

Then I was done playing it.


Book 4: The Beholder's Malice