“There is something I must tell you before I die, my son. In the corner, there is a loose rock in the wall that can be pulled out to reveal a small niche. In this niche is a tablet, a message from your father for you and I.”
“My father? But … you told me he died!”
“I know, and I am sorry for my deception, Morkri. I had always meant to tell you the truth one day, but I was just so angry with your father for leaving us … and I did not want to lose you or what we have here.”
“Lose me? What do you mean?”
“Your father is the Mouser, and in his message he invites you, his son, to take your rightful place by his side in Mouser Home, ruling over all of the Skavyri.”
“Why in Celeste’s blessed name didn’t you tell me this sooner, mother? How long have you had this letter?”
“I am sorry … sorry …”
Morkri stared down at his mother as she breathed her last, his grief tempered with fury at her lifelong lies. If she had told him about his father sooner, perhaps he could have taken her with him to Mouser Home and perhaps she wouldn’t have died so young from hardship and exposure to the elements. She could have had a better life; they both could.
He thought about what she had said; she had not wanted to lose what they had. He supposed she had been happy with her simple life, hunting and frolicking by day and sleeping in caves by night, and she had not wanted that to change. She had not wanted him to abandon her to find his father. He supposed he could understand the sentiment, but fury still writhed in his gut like a riled snake looking for someone to bite. How could she have lied to him for so long? Finding and reading the clay tablet, etched with words in the Skavyri tongue written with his father’s own claw, only tightened the coils in his belly.
Nevertheless, Morkri reverently dragged his mother’s body out of the cave into the sunlight, where the carrion eaters would find it more easily. The Skavyri were familiar with starvation, since they lived in the near barren mountains north of Al Kutz, and so rather than bury or cremate their dead, they honoured their fellow animals by allowing them to eat the flesh of their dead. Then, if ever the Skavyri ate one of the animals that had dined on their own kind, it completed a morbid but strangely satisfying circle of life.
Morkri stood over his mother’s corpse, the dawn highlighting his tabby fur with gold. She looked small in death, hunched and emaciated, her blue fur patchy and lacklustre, her whiskers and small triangular ears drooping. Her beady eyes stared faraway into the realms beyond. A tear rolled down Morkri’s face at the sight, through his whiskers to drip off his chin.
Blinking his black eyes and sniffling, the young Skavyri said, “May Celeste take your soul along rays of starlight to the Promised Land of Milk and Honey, mother. Be at peace.”
Then, he glared up at the firmament, at Celeste, Goddess of the Sky. “Look after my mother. She may have been a liar, but I loved her.”
He clenched both fists, his claws digging into his pads. His long furry tail twitched and both feet shuffled as he considered his next move. He had nothing left here.
He decided he would go to Mouser Home and find the father who had abandoned him so long ago.
“He’s here, Sthilik! He’s here!”
A tall Skavyri with fur red as rust bustled into the small, stone-walled room.
“Who is here, mother?” asked the room’s resident, a young male Skavyri with a matching coat. The room was entirely spartan save for the mismatched furs on which he lounged, sharpening his iron spear. Flakes of rust drifted down from the spear to the furs like diabolical rain.
“The one we’ve dreaded for so long!” the older female snarled, pacing back and forth. “The son of that whore, Kisha!”
“Isn’t she the one who bore the Mouser’s bastard son years ago?” The whetstone stopped grating against the blade.
“Yes, you idiot, yes! And he is here now! The guard at the gate just brought me word. We don’t have long before the Mouser finds out; I’ve bribed the guards at the gate obviously, but Daprr will catch wind eventually. And if he meets this son of his, who knows what he will do? He could supplant you with the bastard; he could make the bastard his heir! It is a risk we cannot take. You need to round up some warriors loyal to you and deal with this Morkri immediately!”
Sthilik sprang up from the furs, spear in paw. “Understood. He will not make it to the Mouser.”
Morkri had never been to Mouser Home before, and he was stunned by the sight of it. Normally, the Skavyri shunned humans and anything human-related, and yet Mouser Home was clearly an ancient repurposed human temple. Carved into a granite cliff face overlooking a shadowy chasm in the mountains, it was near impossible to find by outsiders. Even birds had a hard time finding the place; Morkri had seen only the occasional eagle and wren on his approach.
The sole path by which Mouser Home could be reached wound around the sheer mountainsides like a snake, less than a foot wide in places, and eventually led up a steep incline along a particular cliff face to the temple, which hung off the escarpment like a barnacle, resting on a narrow ledge and looking impossibly precarious as if it might fall at any time. Yet it had clearly stood for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Morkri’s heart had raced in his breast as he had traversed that crumbling path that morning, but finally at noon, under a blazing sun, he had come face to face with four Skavyri guards at the unbarred grey stone archway leading up to the temple. One guard had run off to tell the Mouser of his presence, and the other three had waved him through, one of them accompanying him. Morkri could not explain it, but the fawn-furred female Skavyri warrior walking next to him gave him jitters, made his hackles rise as if she were a ghost, or a threat. The guards at the gate had taken Morkri’s simple wooden spear, stating that he was not allowed into Mouser Home armed. Now, Morkri felt exposed, vulnerable; like a cat in a wicker bin, he suddenly wanted to claw his way out, but he forced himself to breathe deeply and remain calm. He wanted to meet his father.
The female led him to the first building in the complex; since the temple was built on a narrow ledge, the temple consisted of several buildings stuck together in a row. The Mouser, she told Morkri, was to be found at the rear of the temple, meaning they had to pass through most of it to reach him. Morkri gulped at that.
As soon as they stepped inside the first tenement, their way lit by windows down one side looking out over the cliff edge, he could feel eyes on him. There were Skavyri everywhere, dozens of them, standing or reclining; warriors and cooks and cleaners, all scrutinising him. As did all Skavyri, these disdained clothing of any kind. Conversation halted at the mere sight of Morkri as if he were a pariah. His nape itched like a dagger would soon be stuck in it.
Since caves had been the Skavyri’s natural ancestral home, the temple had been stripped to its bare bones, retaining nothing of the human influence but its skeleton; its walls and ceilings. All the furniture had been tossed out, and furs from various slain animals – from bear to otter – now adorned the floors. He and his guide passed through the first building without incident.
As soon as they entered the second building, barely differentiable from the first on the inside save for its higher, vaulted ceiling, an ochre-furred Skavyri woman whispered in the ear of Morkri’s guide.
His guide turned to him, flashing her sharp canines at him in a terrifying smile that creased the fawn pelage around her face, making her look older, more sinister. Loudly, as if she was not speaking to him at all, she said, “Shenshen has decreed that this Skavyri here must not make it out of this room alive.” Morkri stared at her in uncomprehending horror as she finished, “Whoever kills him will be rewarded!”
Morkri swung his gaze around the room and a shiver coursed up his spine at the sight of almost a score of Skavyri rising to their feet. Some left the room hurriedly through archways that obviously led into rooms that were little more than alcoves, but the majority stayed. Most were not warriors, not armed, and so they grabbed rocks, some disdaining weapons in favour of their sharp claws. As soon as rocks began to pelt him, Morkri knew he was in trouble. He could not stand still and let them bring him down from afar. His guide stepped swiftly away from him, as if hoping she would not have to blood her rusty iron spear.
Snarling, Morkri pounced on her, grabbed her spear and grappled with her, trying to wrench it from her paws. She headbutted him, raked his leg with the claws on her foot-paws and spun him around to shove him hard against the wall. Morkri gasped for air, not having been expecting her to be so fast and vicious. There were few Skavyri unskilled in brawling, however; life in the mountains was hard, and fights broke out often. Morkri had lived with several different clowders with his mother growing up and had quickly developed scrapping skills as he fought with the other youths over food and pride.
He snarled and twisted the weapon out of her hands with his greater strength, and when she tried to grab it again, he rapped her on the forehead with the haft. Her eyes crossed, and she toppled over backwards stiffly, poleaxed. The thump as she hit the cold stone floor was lost amid the sudden hissing choir as the rest of the Skavyri in the room closed in on Morkri. Rocks began to pelt him again, causing fires to flare up in his flesh where he was struck, but he was among the few with a real weapon now. Not only was it a weapon, but it was the finest he had ever wielded. Used to sharpened sticks, he felt like a true warrior holding the decrepit old rusty spear.
Baring his teeth and hissing in return, he barrelled toward the mass of enemy Skavyri, hunched low to avoid the rocks flung at his face. Whirling his spear just before he reached them, he clouted a male on the ear, sending him sprawling, whining, and then he spun the spear to wallop a female in the hip, doubling her over. Twirling the spear, he smacked her on the back, felling her, and then windmilled the spear around him, knocking down several more foes. He was loath to use the sharp end of the spear at first, feeling it would be dishonourable to slay comparatively unarmed enemies, but then he was almost overwhelmed and claws scratched at his face and eyes and ears and arms and he was forced to choose between his own death or theirs. He chose theirs. He stabbed and stabbed and stabbed, and bodies fell, screaming. A path out of the melee opened up, and he took it, spear whirling in a blur, iron tip ripping through flesh, haft bruising left and right.
He felt like he had fallen off a mountain by the time he found an inch of free space, but when he looked behind him, he saw that a trail of furry corpses littered his wake and he felt sick to his stomach, almost forgetting his own wounds. He had not come here to kill anybody. Screeching and hissing, hackles up, the surviving Skavyri closed in on him and he knew a moment’s fear as he faced a foe wielding a spear like his own. His blood was boiling, however, and he batted the other’s weapon aside with lightning speed before sinking his spear into the Skavyri’s belly. Letting out a shocked “Oof!” the enemy spear-wielder collapsed. Morkri yanked his spear free of the body and jabbed its tip into the eye of the next Skavyri to try to claw him; that one died without a sound.
Jabbing until his arm was sore and walloping Skavyri this way and that across the room until his shoulders ached, Morkri was panting heavily by the time he had cleared the room. Blood saturated his tabby fur, further mottling his colouring. The heads of those in the alcoves who had chosen not to fight now peeked out at him curiously, whiskers twitching. The iron scent of blood floated around the building like a spectre, filling Morkri’s nostrils with its sickly sweet scent.
Morkri turned from the non-combatants and strode to the far end of the room, determined to meet his father. Scrambling up a scree slope and over boulders where an archway had collapsed in times long past, the young Skavyri found himself in the next building. Its flat ceiling was holey, so there were puddles in places, glittering, rippling patches of sunlight that added to the illumination provided by the tall, narrow windows. He sighed as he reached flat flagstones once more.
Half a dozen warriors awaited him, spread across the otherwise empty room.
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