Despite how long his fall had been, the only thing Nick had broken was his heart.
It was a ridiculously sappy thing to think, the sort of idea he would have scoffed at not too long ago. Heartbreak was something for the fools who opened themselves up too much, who gave someone else too much control over them. Nick had realized, following his first disastrous attempt at a relationship, that to love someone was to give them a terrible power over you. And so he had stayed alone after that, and it had seemed to work well for him. He had managed to drift through life, slowly erasing his debt to Big. With the shrew imprisoned and his daughter safely taking a new identity, the latter thanks to his hard work, Nick should have been freer than he had ever been. But he wasn't.
Because of Judy.
Because of her, jumping into oblivion with nothing more than the hopes of guzzling down enough quauhxicallis to survive the fall went from something he never could have done to something he had to do. Because of her, he couldn't simply run away and wait for the whole mess to be over. Whoever was at the top of the heap running the kingdom didn't really matter to the mammals at the bottom, after all, and Nick had no illusions about where he fit into the hierarchy of things. But because he had fallen for a rabbit, he had no choice.
Somehow, though, as he pulled himself out of the fetid water at the bottom of the crevasse and dragged himself onto the narrow shore, it didn't seem too bad. The task before him still seemed monumentally impossible, of course, but knowing he had to do it made it better. That it was the sort of thing that Judy would appreciate, the sort of thing she would have tried herself if she had been in his position.
Nick fumbled with the clasps of the breastplate he wore and let it fall, not caring what happened to it. He didn't know how Judy managed to walk around with something so constricting and heavy on at almost all times, but he had no intention of doing so any longer than necessary. As it hit the rocky ground with an almost musical clanging noise, however, he immediately regretted his decision; there had been a bat quauhxicalli among the ones he had stolen and it was sickening to have a sound impossibly twist into an image in his mind.
Frankly, he didn't know how the mammals of the City Guard managed to use quauhxicallis long enough to actually do anything without collapsing to their knees. Just staying upright as all the various effects slowly wore off was enough of a challenge that it almost managed to push his other thoughts aside. But he did manage to walk, staggering along the slim and rocky beach as he considered his next move.
Or at least, that's what he tried to do, since his thought irrevocably kept returning to Judy. What was she doing as he stumbled around in the dark? Was Cerdo punishing her for failing to catch him? He could only imagine what she might be suffering at the pig's hooves. Cerdo had demonstrated a truly terrifying amount of control over her, and there was no telling what he was capable of.
Or if it could be undone.
It was the thought that Nick was most desperate to avoid, so it was of course the one that kept returning to the front of his mind. Was Cerdo capable of erasing whatever it was that made Judy herself? Perhaps he could. Perhaps he could turn her into a mindlessly slavish follower who would happily follow his every order. Turn her into someone who would never even consider the possibility that they could be wrong about something, let alone admit it. Or maybe Cerdo would go even further than that. Maybe he could erase all her memories, too, so there'd be nothing to tempt her back toward becoming the bunny she had been. Maybe the next time Nick saw Judy, her face would be a blank mask, without so much as an iota of recognition as she tried to put a sword in his gut. And then, even if the gods smiled on him and he figured out a way to stop Cerdo, maybe she would never recover.
Of course, that assumed that he ever saw her again. It seemed far more likely that he'd simply die alone in the labyrinth of tunnels under Phoenix, and Nick shook his head. Maybe Judy really had rubbed off on him a bit; he was groping for cheery possibilities in sheer defiance of both the situation and his own tendency toward pessimism. There was one thing that he knew for certain, though: unless he did something he really would die alone.
And so Nick continued trudging along the beach, taking inventory of what he knew and what he had. There wasn't much in either category, but he went over both over and over again just to be sure he wasn't missing anything. He knew that Cerdo was, apparently, behind the assassination attempts on the princess and was responsible for whatever had happened in Phoenix. He knew that the pig had mastered some form of mind control using torcs, and Lady Cencerro, Lord Bogo, and Judy were all under his thrall. Whatever Cerdo's next step was, he needed the City Guard to advance into Phoenix.
Beyond that, anything Nick considered was simply conjecture, and so he focused on what else he had. The clothes on his back, including a City Guard tunic that had soaked up water like a sponge and was heavily pulling down on him as it dripped. A single, and rather finely made, sabre. A cheap alchemical torch. One of the letters Bogo had given Judy, which he had managed to snag while stealing Judy's quauhxicallis. And, last but certainly not least, the torc that had been meant for him as part of his forced induction into the City Guard and that would have presumably given Cerdo power over him if he had worn it.
It wasn't much, but it was more than nothing. Nick could cheat and count himself among his assets, and so he decided to do so. If the gods frowned on immodesty they would have smote him years ago anyway, but if his latest set of circumstances was the punishment for his misdeeds then at least they had a sense of humor. Who would have thought that a fox would join the City Guard?
Despite himself, Nick smiled, shaking his head. If nothing else, he was probably setting a record for the shortest career in the City Guard. That he'd end up a member of the organization he had skirted his entire adult life, and would be trying to save the entire kingdom while they hunted him down seemed like it could be a pretty funny joke if he wasn't at the center of it. Perhaps he was being overly self-important by assuming that the City Guard would try hunting him down; maybe Cerdo would be content to assume that either the fall or the monsters at the bottom of the crevasse would take care of him.
And while he was wishing for things, maybe Judy would descend down the pit in a beam of light and tell him that the gods had seen fit to take care of Cerdo and restore her control over her own body. But since that seemed sadly unlikely, Nick kept walking as he thought things through. There were really two potential dangers to him at the moment; a monster or some other artifact of the mammals who had once called the ruins home, or a search party sent by the City Guard.
When he finally came to a side tunnel that led off the beach, Nick began leading a false trail. It was simple, really; he took one step into the passage and then stepped back out, smudging his footprint as he did so to make it look like he had carelessly missed erasing one track. And then he began drawing a simple alchemical array on the ground, which he continued drawing as he kept walking. Once he had gone a good two hundred feet or so, or about the point where he thought even a particularly bright light wouldn't reach, he closed the array and then walked to the middle.
While there, he drew a somewhat more complicated array on the wall of the crevasse, and then after arranging a couple hastily made focuses pushed his talent into both arrays simultaneously. It was the sort of trick that licensed alchemists usually saw as needlessly flashy, the sort of thing an alchemist did to show off. Nick, however, took the far more practical view (as he saw it) that he was saving himself time and effort, and thus he created an overly perfect line of footprints in the dirt at the same time he made a shallow hole in the wall.
Nick considered his work and allowed himself a single satisfied nod. The too-even footprints made the way he had actually gone look like a fake trail, and once he closed the little nook he had made it would be all but impossible to see so long as he was careful. A decent tracker would try following him down the first false lead he had made, and a bad one would follow his footprints until they ended, then turn around until they thought to try the first turn off. That was ignoring the possibility that a good tracker would realize what he had done immediately, but unless they were an alchemist Nick liked his odds of being untouchable once he sealed himself off in a little pocket in the wall.
With that accomplished, and after making a small ventilation hole, Nick set his alchemical torch on the floor and pulled out the letter out, carefully unsealing it. As the neat script on the outside indicated, it was intended for the queen's eyes, and it wasn't nearly as long as Nick had hoped. Still, he read it over and over to make sure he wasn't missing anything, and on the third time through he felt as though he'd be able to recite the words.
I am writing you this letter to explain my actions, should an explanation be necessary. Over the past few months, I have noticed that my ability to concentrate seems to have been diminished, but I deny the possibility that I may be of unsound mind. I am, I assure you, no less capable of critical thought than I have ever been. However, I have noticed a disturbing pattern that I believe required swift and immediate action. My moments of lost focus occur most frequently when I am around Lord Cerdo, particularly in instances where he is alone with me. Although it may sound implausible, I believe that it is possible he has developed some way of influencing my thoughts, and that Lady Cencerro is another victim of his. My evidence of this is, admittedly, slim, but I do distinctly recall him on one occasion commanding me to forget something, and I believe there have been many other such instances. If I am correct, this would therefore be why the investigation into the attempts on the princess's life have made little progress, as Cerdo is able to manipulate what I pay attention to and learn precisely what I am looking at.
My intent, therefore, is to use Commandant Totchli and Captain Nicholas as backup for a confrontation with Cerdo. I believe I can force him into a position in which he will have no means of escape but exerting his control over me, which will be obvious to Totchli and Nicholas and allow them to take action to stop him, even if doing so should require killing me. As neither has been a member of either the City Guard nor involved in affairs in the Inner Baronies, I believe them to be safely outside Cerdo's influence, which must have limits. If he could control anyone, surely he would have no need to attempt his plan. Therefore, I wish it known that if I was correct, and the commandant and captain were not able to non-fatally stop me, they were acting upon my orders and should face no punishment.
If I am entirely wrong, allow me to tender my resignation as being unfit for duty.
Your faithful servant,
Lord Samuel Bogo, Captain General of the City Guard
Nick frowned thoughtfully as he folded up the letter and set it aside. The writing almost didn't sound like Lord Bogo; the buffalo seemed like an entirely different mammal when he wrote than when he spoke. He also hadn't known that the dour captain general actually had more than one name, but Nick set that thought aside as he had the letter. From what he had seen in his own encounter with Cerdo, Bogo hadn't been a raving lunatic as he had apparently feared he might be. But what he had described was almost encouraging, in a way. Bogo had apparently suffered some kind of side effect of being under Cerdo's control, which manifested as a loss of focus. Presumably from Cerdo forcing Bogo to forget things, which might eliminate conversations but couldn't get rid of the time they had taken. Moreover, the technique must not be perfect, as Bogo had clearly noticed that something was wrong and had some kind of memory of what had really happened. The buffalo hadn't seen fit to describe that in much detail, but it was a start.
Still, things would have been much easier for everyone if Bogo had decided to just run Cerdo through with a sword.
That was the sort of thing that Judy would probably find abhorrent and send her into a lecture about the importance of doing investigative work the right way, and Nick allowed himself a small smile. Imagining how Judy would react was almost like having her at his side again, and if he couldn't quite summon what would have surely been her righteous indignation at the idea of slaying a mammal whose guilt was unknown he could at least appreciate that she had been true to her ideals. Unlike some members of the City Guard, who would cheerfully bend the rules as they saw fit to punish a fox whose guilt was unknown but assumed, Judy's devotion to fairness had been unshakable.
Nick corrected his thought; trying not to let the pessimistic view of things overtake him. Bogo hadn't seemingly lost himself entirely, and so Nick decided he had to hope that the same was true for Judy. He'd much prefer if he never had to admit to anyone that he was taking such a foolishly optimistic view, but as a personal thought it helped.
Bogo apparently hadn't known that torcs were Cerdo's means of control, or he never would have attempted his gambit, and Nick wondered how much of that had been controlled by Cerdo himself. Had the pig set things up, or had he simply been improvising? If there was one thing Nick had learned over the course of his life, it was the importance of appearing in control even when you weren't. At his core, Cerdo was running a confidence trick, and Nick knew what he needed to do to put an end to it.
He needed to understand it.
Admittedly, that was simplifying things quite a bit; a plan consisting of "understand your enemy" and "use that knowledge to defeat your enemy" was a bit short on helpful details. Such as, for instance, exactly how he'd stop Cerdo. But Nick moved on to the next stage of understanding Cerdo's plan by pulling the torc that had been meant for him out of his pocket.
As the maker of the finest forged torcs (and that, Nick was confident, was simply a fact and not ego), Nick had to admire the care that had been taken by whoever had made the torc he held in his paws. There was absolutely nothing, at first glance, that would give anyone a reason to suspect it was anything more or less than what it appeared to be. It was a slim and heavy band of gold, the interior covered with a complicated but very familiar alchemy array around a unique serial number. A tiny needle that could fold out of the interior surface would draw the drop of blood necessary to bind the torc to its wearer through blood magic the first time it was put on, and a small incomplete philosopher's stone powered the whole thing.
No matter how carefully Nick examined it, turning the torc this way and that in the light, he didn't see any of the obvious signs of a forged torc that lesser imitations showed. The entire alchemy array seemed completely functional, with none of the dim or bright spots crudely made copies showed. The heft of the thing felt right, and like a proper torc there wasn't a seam, the entire thing looking like it was made out of a single solid piece of metal.
But real torcs, Nick knew, weren't solid. They were made out of several layers, and the outer case was simply fused together with alchemy to prevent tampering. But he knew exactly where the metal would have been joined together on a real torc, and he drew another alchemy array and set the torc inside it. Using his alchemy to understand how an object was made was one of those things that he'd probably never be able to successfully describe to someone who wasn't an alchemist. Or even someone who was an alchemist, as Nick had yet to meet a licensed alchemist he got on with well enough to actually have a conversation. But there was that same familiar sense of understanding in a way that went beyond simply seeing it or feeling it. It wasn't even like that bat quauhxicalli that made sound bend into a sort of sight. It was simply knowing how the torc went together, to be able to imagine it with any of his senses without ever directly interacting with it using any of them.
The interior of the torc, once he understood it, was quite a bit more complicated than a standard torc. A normal torc had two internal layers, all covered with complex alchemical arrays, and then the outer layer with yet another array running along the inner surface. Cerdo's torc had five layers, each as thin as wafers, and the incomplete philosopher's stone at its heart was easily four times the size of the one in a regular torc.
Despite that, though, the exterior case was completely identical to a normal torc in terms of how it went together, and it was the work of a few seconds for Nick to alchemically create seams and split it open. When he did, and the foil-thin interior layers came out, he completely ignored them because of what else was there. If he had thought the gods had a cruel sense of humor before, what spilled out into his paw seemed to prove it even more definitively.
The marble-sized lump at the heart of Cerdo's torc wasn't an incomplete philosopher's stone, as he had thought it was. What Nick held in the palm of one paw and looked down at with open disbelief was what he had spent most of his life trying to learn how to make, what he had scoured countless books for information on and what had gotten him involved in a less-than-legal relationship with Big.
It was a complete philosopher's stone.
It was beautiful, emitting a vibrantly red light that almost seemed to pulse like it had a heartbeat, and Nick could feel the raw power contained within the tiny stone coursing through his fingers. "Well," Nick said to himself, a smile as sly as it had ever been spreading slowly across his face, "This gives me a few more options."
Well, this kind of breaks up the typical alternating pattern of Judy and Bogo chapters, doesn't it? I thought a Nick chapter fit in well at this point; it provides some useful information neither Bogo nor Judy would have, and I thought it was interesting to get into his head at this moment.
This chapter is chapter 52, which actually means a couple things. The first is that, with me sticking to one chapter a week, this story has been going on for an entire year. That's a very long time, and especially for you who have been reading since the beginning, you have my sincere thanks for sticking with it for so long. I do sincerely appreciate your engagement, and I hope you'll continue to be engaged until the story ends!
The other thing that this means, simply by a quirk of timing, is that this chapter update marks my three year anniversary of posting at least one new chapter a week. Overall, from when I started in September of 2016, I've published a total of 168 chapters across 6 different stories. In that time, I've encountered a lot of wonderful people in the Zootopia fandom, and I can honestly say that I'm amazed that so many people have read and enjoyed my work. I really cannot thank you, the reader, enough! I fully intend to keep writing, and I have a lot in progress that I can't speak about too much at this point. However, my intent in publishing fan fiction online is and has always been to get better as a writer, and I think some of my upcoming projects will be exciting examples of me continuing to strive for that kind of improvement.
In any case, I can't wait to show some of those things off and see what people think of them. In the meantime, though, as always you have my thanks for reading! If you're so inclined as to comment, I'd love to know what you thought.