Something was slinking around in the street below, keeping to the shadows cast by the rubble in the morning light. It was lean and slinky, built like a greyhound, but was much larger, say, the height of a Great Dane. When it turned its head, the blocky, crested shape of it was visible, backed with two horns. Behind were two other creatures of the same species, one larger, one slightly smaller. The three Earthborn crept along on two-toed feet, looking around distrustfully as they made for a hole in the rubble, like a cave or an entrance to a lair.

With a snarl, a shape lunged from across the street, moving in a blur, and bowled the largest of the three creatures over. The sounds of growling and scuffling echoed between the buildings as the attacker, a different species, muscular with fur down its calves, took the slimmer beast by the throat and pinned it. The victim fought back, kicking viciously, but its airway was being cut off. The smaller beasts threw themselves at the attacker, clawing and ripping, but the attacker threw them off with ease, never releasing its grip. Finally the victim gave a final convulsive thrash, then went limp. The attacker released it, leaving the creature there in a pool of its own blood. The smallest Earthborn let out a whimper.

“They're scuffling,” muttered Athellus. He had his hand pressed against his chin, his voice low. “There’s been outbreaks all morning down here. One woke me up, making this… yipping noise. But this is the first one really close to.”

Dax shuddered. “I suppose we were bound to run into them again sooner or later...”

“Yeah, but they don’t often come out during the day, so I thought we were okay. What’s going on?”

The attacker turned on the smaller creatures, and let out a vicious growl. They backed off, trembling, but to Dax’s surprise they didn’t run away. They stood there, as the creature uttered a stream of sounds, clipped and sharp, that might have been language. Then it returned to the creature it had dispatched, dipped its front claw in the puddle of blood around its throat, and approached the submissives. As the two men watched, it proceeded to mark them with the blood, strange swirling, stripy designs.

“What the heck is it doing?” Athellus wondered, softly.

Dax squinted at them. “Those look familiar.”

“What do?”

“Those markings it’s putting on them. Look, it’s carrying them as well.” The attacker had marks down its back too, but these looked like they had been painted or chalked on, and with a much steadier hand. “You remember that when I first arrived here, a pack of Earthborn tried to eat me? They had those same markings on them, painted on.”

“That’s weird.”

“Ain’t it just.” Dax looked over his shoulder at Kaire, hoping she might have some input, but she was watching the scene below, impassively, as if the two men didn’t exist.

Athellus cocked his head. The attacker below had finished marking the smaller creature and was moving on to the other. “Not only that.”

Dax gave him a quizzical look.

“Earthborn are territorial as hell. If you saw Earthborn with markings on, way back near Ember’s Shrine, why are Earthborn down here marking themselves the same way?”

“Maybe it’s a meme.”

Athellus grinned. “Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it.” He considered the scene below.

“Well, hopefully they’ll get bored soon, so we can go.” Dax leaned against the wall.

“I wonder…”

“Wonder what?”

Athellus was resting by the spy wall now, peering down at the street. “If I can bag that big one, the one drawing on the others.”

“What? Why?”

“I want to know what they’re up to.”

“But –“

“Relax.” Athellus took off his jacket, folded the sleeves, and put it neatly on the ground. “I’ve been hunting Earthborn since I was ten.”

“I thought we were in a hurry.”

“We are. All the more reason to make sure we’re not going to get any unexpected delays.” Athellus was sticking his knife, nestled in its black scabbard, into his belt, and Dax thought: You’re bored. Bored and restless, and Kaire’s put you on edge. You just want to let off some steam.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” said Athellus, now in his undershirt, and slipped away before Dax could say anything else. There was a quiet shuffle of debris as he slid down the other side of the rubble, then silence.

Dax took his place by the spy hole, casting an anxious look at Kaire. She was at a distance, but her ears were keen. She must have heard what they had said but she still made no reaction. She was watching the Earthborn, with an expression he couldn’t quite decipher.

Annoyed, he turned away and peered down through the spy hole. The big Earthborn was still marking the others. Aside from their whimpering, he couldn’t hear a thing. No footsteps, no nothing. There was no sign of Athellus, not even a shadow.

Just what is he planning to do?

The smallest Earthborn let out a yap as the aggressor started smearing blood on it as well, and started wriggling away. The other victim let out a scolding sound and pinned it, as if to say ‘we can’t afford to resist: keep still’. Dax waited, feeling more and more agitated. Unconsciously, his hand closed over the cell phone in his pocket until the plastic case was slick with sweat.

He didn’t realise he had been bracing himself for a gunshot until he heard something else instead: a dull quick thud. The aggressive Earthborn reared up with a piercing howl and dropped on its side, scrabbling and snatching at its hindquarters. The smaller Earthborn fled. Dax stared – the black handle of Athellus’ throwing knife was sticking out of the creature’s thigh muscle. It was a nasty injury, yes, but… the Earthborn seemed to be in utter agony, thrashing back and forth as if electrocuted.

“Look at it.”

Kaire’s eyes were fixed on the writhing creature, her lips drawn back in scorn. “That’s an Earthborn, a sad little scrap of an wiser race, grubbing about in the dirt, without the sense to know how pitiful it is. At least humans have a little dignity, a little pride. Earthborn are beneath contempt.”

Dax studied her, and ventured: “They almost made a mess of me, though. Remember? They’re dangerous in packs.”

Kaire laughed, darkly. “Dangerous in packs?” She settled back. “Those scum have no idea what strength is.”

 “Yo!” Athellus’ voice drifted up from below. “If you’re not too busy, perhaps you wouldn’t mind taking a moment out of your packed schedule to come down here and give me a hand?”

Kaire smiled across at Dax - not a nice smile - then languidly dropped out of the window and landed in the rubble below. Dax picked up Athellus’ jacket, and followed her.

 

 

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