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Chapter 66. Brand New Day
by Antonio

-This appeared as a moral dilemma
Cause at first it was weird though I swore to eliminate
The worst of the plague that devoured humanity
Its true I was vague on the How
so how can it be that you have shown me the light?-

Chaos. Disorder. Entropy. He recalled an instructor of his lecturing him on the nature of the universe, how everything in nature sought to defy order. If what was erupting around him then was not proof of that, than Antonio could not imagine what was.

By the time the front door splintered, he was already well inside of the house, shielded from view on one side by an undulating mass of fur, screams and horrified faces, blocked on the other side by solid wood. Silisk and Zula were gone. A cold sensation he could not adequately describe gripped him before melting away, replaced by urgency.

He needed to get to higher ground; the stairs would slow anybeast attempting to pursue him. Buffeted this way and that like a pebble in a warm, fearful sea, the stoat barely made it to the banister before the Feldoh's Heirs were but yards away. Antonio raced to the head of the stair, arriving on the landing just as the woodlanders reached the base. He soon found that he was not the only one to think to take cover on the second floor; two rats pushed past him hauling a heavy dresser which soon went crashing down the stairs, more than likely killing all of the pursuing woodlanders. In the least, it blocked the stairs, preventing anybeast from following them. Were his head clearer at the time, Antonio would have thanked the two rats.

Instead, he made his way past them, his attention focused on the window. Breaking the glass, and saying a silent apology for ruining the one symmetrical thing in the house, he was able to make his way quickly out onto the landing where he could sit out the remainder of the fray. Time alone with only the muffled sounds of battle behind him gave Antonio a moment to breathe, to think.

Zula and Silisk were gone, more than likely. They had either been crushed by the stampede for the exits or else captured, provided the Feldoh's Heir's were taking captives. That marked four of his own now dead, not to mention the hare…

It was best not to mention. That track of thought was becoming tiresome and worn. Yet, his mind continued to coast back towards it, pulled in magnetically. All that he could do to break free from that path was to set his mind to other things. He should regroup his resources, rally any still alive and try for either an escape or a counter attack. Antonio mentally girded himself for the task. His body, however, ceased to respond, even as the two rats who saved his life came bounding out of the window, dashing off onto far away roof tops. Only when the last death rattle echoed was he able to move his body.

By the sound of things, the Oasis was now abandoned. Mostly abandoned, a small rattling corrected him. A peak over the edge of the roof told him that the Feldoh's Heir's had not quite finished with the area. Another glance inside told him that they had left a small team behind, probably for scouting purposes. Antonio grasped his paw, stretching out his wrist before moving on to the other. Finished, he placed a paw on the hilt of his saber. Now was an ample opportunity to vent some pent up frustration.

***
Remarkable, how quiet the city was after all of that commotion. Antonio had wondered if perhaps it had been there the entire time, if his company had always prevented him from taking notice of it. Mired in the comfortable simplicity of the silence, the stoat supposed this might explain why warlords took it upon themselves to ransack and ruin. The battles were as noisy as doom, but afterwards there was nothing but silence. A shame that same could not be said for the inside of Antonio's head.

Then, as was want to happen, something had to ruin the quiet. Somewhere nearby, a beast was trying to walk stealthily, trying to do so being their major downfall. When sneaking about, you do not try to be quiet – you simply are quiet.

A ready paw immediately darted to his saber just as the stoat pressed himself against a wall, peering carefully out from his cover to see who was trying to sneak about. His grip relented instantly. When the stoat did move away from his cover, he kept up a cautious step, not so much to escape notice as it was to avoid getting too close to the very unkept and ragged excuse for a muslid.

"Pray, what is it that brings you to this part of town?" asked the stoat as he rounded the corner, coming up right behind the beast in question.

What indeed? he wondered. What the beast was carrying did not suggest a simple stroll, nor a calm escape. Slumped over his back were the very tattered and mutilated remains of another beast. It, or possibly she, used to be young, more than likely a squirrel although there was barely any telling from the current condition.

Having a light snack? he absently thought, remembering tales of cannibalistic vermin. He immediately scolded his morbidity. What his mind's eye visualized could not be un-seen. Quite in fact, it unearthed a visual image of something Antonio would rather have left buried.

The stoat – Scarnose, he remembered his name being, owing to the large scar on his nose…redundant, and mundane – jumped and turned about quickly at Antonio's question, brandishing a knife in his direction. The creature calmed as soon as he recognized Antonio.

"You're that stoat git, aren'tche?"

"A stoat I am, but I would advise you not to call me a…git," he spat, the word so vile-tasting on his tongue he had to get it off as soon as possible. "Especially when I am holding a weapon with a longer range than yours and most especially when you are both burdened by the weight of a carcass as well as holding your knife like a complete imbecile. I ask again, why are you here?"

The "imbecile" remark seemed to have struck a cord. Sad that this beast did not know his place. Yet, after a few moments deliberation, he spoke.

"Part of a plan th' boss has. Beat up this liddle squirrel lass real good. Then, we're gonna leave her in the middle of the town for those Felder's Heir's or summat to see, make 'em think th' Red Dusk did 'er in."

Antonio took a breath. He put extra time and care into the next set of words he chose.

"A most…cunning plan. I will admit, I would not have expected such a plot to come from such a place. Would you be able to tell me where the kind Sheriff is currently?"

***
How the mighty had fallen. In any other scenario, this sentence would have been apt. When it came to Brull, however, Antonio supposed he should have expected as much. Brutalizing a bystander in order to further his own goals was apparently not below the Sheriff, along with of general disregard for the dead, poor grooming and improper grammar. At the risk of off-setting them, Antonio clenched his teeth hard. When he found Brull…he was not yet sure what he would do, but he knew it would be painful, slow, and involve very many a pointy object lodged in very many a sensitive area.

Antonio neared the area where that scar-nosed monstrosity said Brull would be. The rat was nowhere to be found. The stoat began checking more unconventional areas for the rat to be hiding. He went so far as to visually scour the roof tops for sight of him. Not the slightest speck nor splotch of filth from the nuisance rodent. He must have been elsewhere.

The stoat did not have to search far before he found something of interest. Just at the end of an alleyway, a large, rat-like body was being dumped into a dumpster by a familiar looking fox. A poetic ending for the rat, Antonio supposed, but then he should still go and inspect the scene. Brull might not be dead. Antonio had yet to determine if that was a good thing. Still, he had to be sure, if for no other reason than to sate his curiosity. Furthermore, that an ally of Brull's would suddenly betray his leader could spell trouble for Antonio and whatever remained of the survivors of the attack on the Oasis.

"You there," said Antonio, drawing his saber.

The fox flinched, staring at him before running away down the alley. As well he should against an opponent like Antonio. But the stoat wasn't about to let him get away.

He chased the fox a short distance before finding him at a dead end. For once, fate turned a leaf.

"As I was saying," started, Antonio as he drew steel once more. "What were you doing with Mister Brull's corpse?"

The fox laughed. "Corpse? Aye, that's what he'd be if I'd had my way. The boss, though, he was thinking different. He had more of a 'take the Brandy and run" strategy in mind."

The stoat rolled his eyes. So Brull was alive after all. One more loose end to remove.

"Might I ask your motivation in betraying Brull?"

The fox sighed "No, you may not."

"Very well," Antonio pointed the blade level with the fox's throat. The beast stood a flick of the wrist from death. "I demand that you tell me why you betrayed Brull."

"How can I betray a beast I wasn't working for in the first place?"

Harsh vibration coursed through the blade as the fox parried his weapon out of the way with his knife. In the midst of recovering, Antonio nearly suffered a slash to his face while the fox charged and raked the knife at his head. Quick reflexes saved him; just as he caught the first glimpse of the fox's movement, the stoat crouched down and rolled backwards from his thigh to his shoulder, coming up quickly on his footpaws two feet away from the fox.

The opponents circled. Antonio feinted left. The fox took the bate, making as if to block, leaving him open for the strike to his left thigh. Antonio quickly regained his stance, leveling his now bloodied blade at the fox's head.

"I'll ask politely once before scoring your eyes from your head as a warning; who do you work for?"

The fox looked up at him, a complete lack of fear in his expression. Quite in fact, he looked amused.

Before Antonio could react, the fox seized his blade with his bare paws and jabbed at his face with his knife's handle. A dull, resounding ache pumped through his jaw as his saber was knocked away and the fox perched atop him, blade raised.

The stoat moved his head out of the way just before the moment of impact, the blade burying itself into the ground just next to his ear. Antonio seized his attacker's wrists, holding the fox's paws on the weapon while he head-butt against the beast's strong, thick skull. In retrospect, it was not as clever a move as first thought. Regardless, he finished with a knee to the fox's chest before shoving the heavy body off of him and rolling away.

When he was finally able to get to his feet, the fox just disappeared from view.

"Wise choice!" Antonio called after him.

He sheathed his saber and turned on his heel in one smooth movement. Nearby, the stoat spied a grimy shop window. After cleaning the surface, he made sure that his collar was tucked and that his whiskers, uneven though they may be, were as orderly as possible. His next objective was Brull.

Rancid stink greeted his nostrils as he pushed the heavy lid open. In the dark, he could still make out the rise and fall of the rat's chest, proving the fox truthful. The stoat paused, debating the merit of his planned actions. It had to be done, he reasoned. Antonio reared back, taking in a final breath of fresh air before leaning over into the dumpster to drag Brull out.

The rat awoke sputtering and wide eyed, staring up at the stoat who had poured water onto him. After blinking a bit, he seemed to finally recognize Antonio.

"Oh, goody. Because getting laid out and thrown in a dumpster wasn't nearly enough to royally piss me off, now Tony's here. Fan-bloody-tastic."

"You can be assured that the feeling is mutual. There are many things I would have preferred to do today. Pulling an ungrateful rodent from a pile of filth and reviving him was not among them."

Gone was the false courtesy he had given the rat before. Antonio let his words seethe with his true feelings for Brull.

"Stick up yer bum get lodged a little deeper since the last time we met, Tony?"

He ignored the rat's rebuke. "Open warfare is one thing, killing another, but to involve an innocent in your struggles? To brutalize a civilian to further your goals? Even after knowing what you were capable of, that still surprises me."

Brull's confused face soon burst into a bemused expression. "Really, now, Lord Antonio's taking time out of his busy schedule full of grammar lessons and etiquette critiques to give me a morality speech? You know, you're the last beast I expected it from, prude that you are. How many different pieces was that hare in when you finished with him?"

"That hare was a soldier. He was prepared to die. He was far from being an innocent."

The way the rat shook his smug, fat head made Antonio want to break it open.

"Not the way I heard it. Poor blighter kept screaming about how he didn't know anything and had nothin' t'do with killin' your girlfiend. We could hear him from all the way down the hall."

Steel scraped against scabbard.

"On your feet."

Antonio could hear Brull mutter something as he obeyed the command at sword point. The rat either said it so quietly as to be unintelligible or else Antonio had blocked it from his mind. When Brull was standing, Antonio took a few steps back from the rat, sword still held in an offensive position. He sheathed the weapon, casting it aside. The stoat brought up his fists.

"We settle this like gentlemen."

Brull suggested Antonio do something that was altogether not fit to repeat.

"Would you rather I draw steel once more?"

Brull ceased to protest. Antonio dropped into a fighting stance when Brull brought his foot slamming into Antonio's gut. He had barely enough time to tense his muscles to shield himself from the impact before the rat followed with a cross punch, the move deflected just in time by his forearm. Following the flow of the block, Antonio countered with a left hook and was rewarded by dull, cold pain as his knuckles made contact. He followed up with a few more punches to the face, a few making contact but only two of them actually hitting their mark as apposed to a forearm or a shoulder.

At some point, Antonio got too close. Brull seized the opportunity by driving his elbow into The stoat's stomach. His eyes throbbing from the impact, the stoat grabbed the rat by the forearm and held the limb into his chest, preventing him from getting free. He countered by elbowing into the rat's head once, twice, thrice, nearly four times before the rat sent him stumbling back with a punch to his nose.

Antonio regained his composure in time to see Brull dash off to the side of the alley, picking up the saber. As he attempted to draw, the stoat ran toward him, driving his shoulder into the rat, throwing the rat into the hard brick wall. The saber flew into the air and landed at the far end of the alley.

The fight continued many blows further, with neither side in a clear lead. They were evenly matched in ferocity as well as battle scars. At the end, Antonio braced himself on a nearby dumpster while Brull slumped against the opposite wall.

"You are more skilled than I had anticipated, I will concede that," said Antonio, gingerly touching a blackened eye

"You hit like a girl, but damned if it doesn't hurt anyway," managed Brull, speaking with a split lip as he did. "Now that we're finished," added the rat just after he spat some blood onto the pavement, "What's got your tail in such a twist anyways?"

Antonio's face became sullen.

"The squirrelmaid."

"Who?"

"The one whose corpse you mangled."

"Wager y'bumped into Scarnose on the way here." He didn't immediately continue, although Antonio supposed it had more to do with Brull making sure all of his teeth were in place – Antonio himself had counted them twenty-three times now and was counting them again to make it an even twenty-four – and less to do with any guilt or grief the rat might have had for his actions. "That is to get some in-fighting going. That way, we won't have to do all of the work.

Antonio's voice and expression remained as blank as the city streets. "She had nothing to do with this battle. She was innocent."

Brull looked at Antonio sternly but not without humor, like a schoolmaster confronted with an annoying yet amusing student. "All that princely knowledge in your head an' you can't work out how this works. This is war, 'Tonio. Everyone, whether they had anything to do with it or not, is fair gain. Anything is fair gain. You want to get off of this rock alive, and believe me, I could care less if you do or don't, you have to remember that."

Antonio closed his eyes. He let his mind wander for a good while before opening his mouth again.

"I should go find the Brandy now. You did a good enough job having it stolen."

The rat barked a harsh laugh. "Are you daft? Pretty Ears might have some of the Brandy, but I'm not stupid enough to keep all of it in one place."

From his pocket the rat drew a flask. At first, Brull made no move, to resist or give Antonio anything. The stoat was about to threaten the rat with another brawl when he did something unexpected. Without an extra word he handed it to him.

" 'S a weight off my shoulders, nothing more," he said once the stoat had concealed the flask on his person. "An' don't tell anybeast that I did that."

Antonio smiled. Brull cringed in response.

"You can rest assured that no one will know."

And if all goes well, then no one will know that I have it or what I have planned.

Antonio gave the stoat a short bow before turning on his heel. "It has been a pleasure, Mister Brull."

"It's been a pleasure beating your face in. Now sod off."

The stoat made his way to the end of the alley. The stark sky above parted just a bit, a canyon of light embedded in the grey mountains. Antonio had been walking through the dark for so long, not without a plan but without the drive to carry it out. Ironic, then, that the drive he needed to do what was necessary would come from such a source. Brull had been able to push past all of the chaos and continue though with his own plans. Why could not a much more refined beast do the same?

If all goes well, then no one will know what I have planned until it is too late.