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I did finish on time, and here you see the fruits of my labors. Hope you enjoy! All feedback appreciated.

Running With The Pack: Dawn

It was the last day of winter; campaigning season was about to begin. The captains and the knights marched through the streets, the drummers drummed away. And the ten-year-old golden retriever named Red stood outside his home with a heavy heart and a forced smile.

It was once again the season of war. Once more, the newly heated struggle for control of the Great Western Continent raged between dogs and cats. Once again, the meaningless battles would be fought, and thousands would die in the name of some ancient, long-forgotten feud.

But young Red didn’t care about any of that. His sorrow for the war was of a much more personal nature. It meant that once again, his brother Rudolph would be forced to leave him. Every year Rudolph went, he fought in the wars and battles. Red never knew if any time his brother left might be the last time he saw him.

The procession was heading this way. Rudolph stopped admiring his sword and put it on his belt. His mother shed a final tear, he hugged his family one final time, then joined them. In that moment, Red got the terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach that his brother wasn’t coming back.

Then he awoke, sweaty and rattled. It had only been a dream. No, more than a dream. He was once again reliving his last moments with his brother. Red got out of bed and began to pace up and down his room restlessly. And as he paced, he couldn’t help remembering what had happened just three days after the events of his dream….

Young Red was depressed. Rudolph had gone off to the war, and school had not yet begun to take his mind off things. Unable to find the motivation to do anything, Red moped around the house aimlessly.

Having run out of moping room upstairs, Red decided to come down, where he saw a halfhearted game of Shatruff taking place between his parents. This was odd, since both his parents were quite enthusiastic ordinarily. Yet Red watched as his father made blunders that would have given even him a winning advantage, and his mother didn’t even notice.

Then there was a knock at the door, and Red got the feeling his parents were almost relieved to have their game interrupted. Red’s father got up and answered, then looked at his wife. Red’s father was capable of saying more with his eyes than anyone Red’s mother had ever known, and she immediately understood.

“Red,” she said in that sweet, almost innocent voice that only fools young children, “would you come into the kitchen, please? I need your help with something.” There she occupied young Red in helping her with the dishes, a job which hadn’t seemed nearly so urgent ten minutes ago. Meanwhile, Red’s father talked to a large Dalmatian Red caught a glimpse of before he was taken into the kitchen.

That night, dinner was served surprisingly early, and the whole time, his parents hardly said a word. As they were cleaning the dishes, Red finally worked up the courage to ask his mother what was the matter.

She responded by telling him to sit down, then calling his father into the room. They tried to break it to him gently. “Red,” she began, “Rudolph…isn’t coming home.”

Red remembered few specific events from that time in his life, but he would never forget that day. Ever since then, Red had held a deep and understandable grudge against the cats, though in the back of his mind he sometimes wondered if somewhere, there was a cat just like him, who had lost someone to the war, and hated the dogs.

Whenever these thoughts came up, he discovered some excuse to mentally change the subject, and so he had gone on hating all felids in relative peace for almost five years.

Five years. Whoa. Had it really been that long? Yes, apparently it had. Tomorrow was the fifth anniversary of his brother’s death, and the fire that burned within him against the feline inhabitants of the land east of the Great River shone a little brighter, burnt a little hotter today.

He might have gone on wallowing in his unique blend of hatred and self-pity for hours, but he was interrupted by his mother, who came upstairs as he paced back and forth. The door was open, but she knocked anyway.

Red’s response was mechanical; he spoke seemingly from far away. “Come in.” His mother stepped in, and Red was pulled back to reality. She looked awful; she had obviously been crying, and made only the most nominal attempt to hide it.

Red sat down on the foot of his bed, facing her. “What’s up?” “Cider sent you a message,” she answered. “She wants to know if you want to meet her at the Thirsty General in ten minutes.” Red feigned a sigh. “Shatruff? Now?” His mother gave him a knowing look. Red smiled dryly. “All right,” he said, trying hard not to sound enthusiastic.

Ten minutes later found him sitting at his favorite Shatruff table in a small tavern called the Thirsty General, opposite Cider, his girlfriend of a long time and Shatruff partner of a longer time.

From the side of the table, he picked up the set of pieces and arranged them in his preferred setup. Cider did the same. He noticed the difference in philosophy that her setup showed compared to his.

His setup was aggressive and dynamic, reflecting his fiery approach to the game, though he felt significantly less fiery today. Cider’s approach was more measured, and her style was mostly defensive until her opponent made a mistake.

Thus he placed his powerful Runners in the center, and his tricky Spies off to the sides, while she guarded her center with weak but numerous Footmen, and kept her power pieces on the edge of the board in the opening.

Red smiled as he advanced his Runners and Sleds into the center in the opening. “Now I’ll tell you what you’ve done,” he said. “You’ve left all your power pieces off to the sides. Center control is very important, and now my pieces are going to have too much mobility. You’re as good as lost.”

Cider, however, was used to this kind of banter, and paid him no heed. Her only response was a noncommittal “perhaps” and another move. Red drew a card and looked at it.

Not what he was hoping for, but interesting nonetheless. His best play from this position could only be accomplished if he could get his Sled into the center, where it would put severe pressure on Cider’s alpha. However, every time he got the card that would allow him to move the Sled, which wasn’t often, Cider somehow forced him to discard it, which was incredible, considering she didn’t know till afterward that he had it.

The game progressed back and forth in this manner for a little while. Around the beginning of the middlegame, things started to slow down, and Cider began to strike up a conversation.

*******

Luna moved with silent grace through the moonlit forest. As she approached her target–a herd of gazelles, most sleeping–she accidentally snapped a twig under her foot. Instantly, the hunt was over before it had begun. The waking gazelles were on the move, and the sleeping ones were getting up. She might be able to catch one–she was a tigress, after all–but it didn’t matter. She had failed the excercise her mother set her.

Luna cursed and shook her fist. But she had bigger troubles than the escaping herbivores. From the trees dropped three leopards, who assumed a threatening posture. Luna mentally prepared herself, noting all nearby escape routes, analyzing their movements and positions.

The leopards advanced on her. They looked back and forth at each other and nodded. Luna assumed a fighting stance.

“Well, well,” said the lead leopard, “What have we here?” Then he answered his own question. “Little tigress cub.” He reached out and shoved her. She remained perfectly still, breathing steadily. “Now this, is a prize,” commented one of the leopards. Luna turned to look at him.

“Hey guys, I think she’s getting an attitude!”. They advanced closer, closer…now. Luna exploded.

One leopard was down, but the other three were still coming. Luna leaned back and assumed a defensive stance, stretching her hands out in front of her. As the second leopard charged forward, she popped like a coiled spring, striking time and again, mauling another leopard.

The remaining leopard approached more carefully, giving Luna just enough time to let out her distinctive roar before he covered her mouth with his paw. Now the fight had gone to the ground, and the leopard was on top. He was about her size; she had not yet grown to the great height of an adult tiger. But her roar was more terrifying than her size or skill. Soon, every nearby tiger would come to her aid. Nearby here having the meaning of “within five or ten miles.” But she couldn’t afford to wait passively for that. So she used a patented wrestling move; a secret passed on among tigers for generations. First, she twisted her right wrist and released her paw. Then, she swiped her free paw against the leopard’s face. Taking advantage of his distraction after that, she pulled her hind paws back and kicked.

The leopard rolled backward and landed on his back. Just in time, as it turned out, because another leopard had gotten up and was running towards Luna from behind. She rolled backward, delivering a punishing kick to his face. But as he fell, another leopard rose to his feet. Tigress she might have been, but Luna was badly outnumbered.

The leopards closed in, and Luna offered a final prayer to Rong Ting, patron of young tigresses.

*******

“Cider, I’m not having anything to do with your anti-war group. I can’t believe you can even suggest it, especially now.” He laid down a card and moved a piece angrily. “Red, I’m asking you specifically because of what happened five years ago. Your brother died in this war. How many more must die before you realize it’s meaningless?”

His retort was rote. “My brother was killed by cats. He died fighting for our cause, and his death will not be in vain.” Cider responded with a question, one Red could not answer. “What cause?”

*******

Luna continued to fight, though by now she was getting concerned. Another tiger should have arrived by now, and the leopards were beginning to overpower her. She thought she was finished for sure, when a dark shape hurled itself out of the foliage. Luna couldn’t quite make it out, but it appeared canine.

It hurled itself through the dark night air, and dragged one of the leopards into the bushes, where its death was marked with the distinctive sound of canine teeth tearing out a throat. The other leopards were on their guard now, and turned towards the bush. Out of it, an enormous St. Bernard casually stepped.

Luna was now more terrified than ever. The creature that now faced her was a dog, an ancient enemy of her people. Whatever she might have endured at the hands of those leopards would be nothing compared to the tortures she would face were she brought back to the dogs’ country. Among the felines, horror stories were told of the way dogs treated their prisoners.

And yet, there was something about this particular dog that seemed both noble and heroic, and she could almost trust him. Almost. The leopards now attacked again, but this time their target was the large canine that had just eviscerated their fellow.

Two leopards, however, are rarely a match for a St. Bernard, and he dispatched them quickly. He then turned toward Luna, who shrank back in fear. “Don’t be that way.”, he said, in a tone that invited trust. “If I wanted to hurt you, I could have let the leopards do it.”

“You’re a dog.”, said Luna. “How observant of you.”, responded the canine drily. “No,” continued Luna, “I meant, you’re a dog. Why did you save me?” “There are decent dogs, tigress.” “But why would you risk your life to help your ancient enemy?” The St. Bernard laughed slightly. “First, taking on those three leopards posed no great threat to my life. Second, you’re not my ancient enemy, because I’m part of the Underground.”

*******

A day had passed since Red and Cider had last spoken, at the Thirsty General. Their conversation continued to gnaw at his mind. He sat in his room, doing nothing in particular, but her words kept returning to his mind no matter how hard he tried to avoid thinking about them. Oh, he justified his position; insisted that whatever it was, the cats must have started it. But he had nagging doubts.

He was brought out of this reverie by a noise outside. He opened his window and stuck his head out to see a parade of dog knights in full armor, followed by many soldiers; skirmishers, pikemen, archers, and others. The whole army seemed to be here, which was odd; the war had settled into a kind of stalemate, and though it was campaigning season, there was hardly even a pretense of campaigning.

Then Red saw what the parade was about. In the middle of the line of soldiers were a lion and a dozen House Cats, all marching into the city in chains. Red’s burning hatred of cats flared up again, and he took a certain sadistic pleasure in watching them receive what he considered their just desserts.

Red decided to go outside and join the crowd that had gathered to watch the procession. And as it moved through the town he followed it. Soon the procession had reached the town gaderspott, a large, circular clearing where meetings and town assemblies were held.

Then the cats were marched into the center of the gaderspott, and one of the officers of the army stood up imperiously. He began to act as a judge, calling out: “All rise.” Everyone rose. He then addressed the lion. “State your name.” The mighty beast lifted his head proudly. “I am Amiri Goldmane.” The self-appointed judge continued. “Amiri Goldmane,” he began, “you and the cats that stand with you today are charged with spying, fighting for the felid kingdoms, and sneaking across our borders to engage in a most treacherous form of surprise attack. How do you plead?” Red expected the obvious “not guilty”. Never in all his life had he been led to believe anything other than that the cats were depraved cowards, utter poltroons, and a generally contemptible lot.

He was surprised. Amiri Goldmane proudly affirmed all that he had been accused of, even adding that he’d do it again, though he knew he’d be captured. Our hero now held felids in a little bit less contempt, but he still had murder in his heart. He desperately wanted to see them sentenced. The “judge” appeared to ponder this latest development for a few moments, then declared, “The defendants are hereby found guilty, and sentenced to the Death of Ten Thousand Cuts.”

The Death of Ten Thousand Cuts. Now there was irony. The Death of Ten Thousand cuts was said to be a punishment inflicted by the cats upon their prisoners. Despite the lack of any solid evidence for this(many dogs had been prisoners of the cats, and been released or escaped, but none then living had seen the Death inflicted), Red never doubted it was true. It was what he wanted to believe.

The legend held that the victims would be killed by receiving ten thousand tiny cuts with a sword. Red was surprised his people knew how to go about it, but unwavering in the belief that these cats deserved it. That is, until he actually witnessed it.

*******

Luna looked back at the dog suspiciously. “What’s this ‘Underground’?” “The Underground,” he responded, “is a secret group of cats and dogs, that often operates under the cover of an innocuous anti-war protest group. We seek a lasting peace, not through conquest, but through reconciliation.”

Luna snorted. “Why should we want to be reconciled to you?”. “Think about it,” answered the canine. “Do you even know what the war is about?” There was a short silence, then “Of course you don’t. Nobody does. It’s long-forgotten. Why waste more blood?”

Luna thought for a moment. “All right.”, she conceded. “You make a strong point.” “So you’ll join us?” “I didn’t say that. But, if I were to decide I wanted to…” The St. Bernard anticipated her question. “One of our fronts meets in a tavern called the Rice Grain in town. We almost always have a presence there. Just look for the cats wearing silver spear necklaces, and say Big Bernie sent you. That is, if a tigress like you deigns to come into town and mingle with the lower cats.”

“Big Bernie” winked and turned to go, but it was at that point that an enormous full-grown tigress bounded out of the underbrush, pinning the dog on his back. She looked up at Luna. “This one’s more bold than the rest.” The older tigress lifted a paw to strike down the canine, but hesitated when Luna cried out. “Mother, no!”

Luna’s mother turned her head curiously. “You called for my help, and now you refuse it? There is a canine deep into our side of the River. Why should I not slay it, and speak quickly, child!”

Luna answered her, “I called for your aid, yes, but not because of him. I was accosted by several leopards while hunting. I tried to defend myself, but there was no doubt they had the upper paw. This dog saved me.”

*******

As Red had suspected, his people were inexpert in the technique. The first to receive the punishment was the luckiest, and he died after just one hundred cuts. And so it went on, with the number slowly increasing with each victim, so that it looked as if, when it finally got to Amiri, it might really be ten thousand.

Red would never know. After the second cat’s two hundredth cut, he could stand it no longer. It was at that point he did what he would never forget, an action he would alternately condemn and justify for the rest of his life. He fled. He turned his back on the suffering felids and ran through the deserted streets of his hometown, desperately seeking to escape what he’d seen. But he could neither run nor hide from himself. He wandered aimlessly through the streets for a while.

He must have wandered farther than he knew, for he soon found himself on the outskirts of town, near the house of the sage Andreas. He noticed a lamp in the window. Evidently Andreas had not gone to witness the trial, and the sentence. All the more proof of his wisdom, thought Red bitterly.

Red now felt as confused as a dog can feel, and he paced nervously outside the scholar’s home. One thing he knew: his patriotism had taken a severe blow today. He now doubted whether the Death was ever actually administered by the cats. But it didn’t matter. Even if it was, his people were no better. He wished he knew what had started all this, and began to wonder if Cider might have been right all along.

The second question, he was confident no one could answer for him. But the first, well, perhaps Andreas could shed some light. He walked over to the sage’s door, lifted a paw to knock, then turned away. He couldn’t just show up at the scholar’s house, knock on his door and start pestering him with questions. No, no, that would never do. Yet, the question continued to burn in his mind, and he once again approached the door. Once again, however, social norms intervened, and he turned away unenlightened.

He continued in this thoroughly useless state of indecision for about ten minutes, until the door suddenly opened, revealing a wizened, short, Pekingese who wore a monocle and walked with a golden cane. He addressed himself immediately to Red. “What’s your name, boy?” “Red.” “You’ve been pacing up and down in front of my door for half an hour. What is it you’re looking for?”

Red thought about the question for a moment, then responded “Answers.” “Well, Red,” responded the Pekingese “come in. If there’s an answer for you anywhere, you’ll find it here. This is the most extensive library this side of the northern boundary.”

Red started toward the door hesitantly. “Well? Hurry up, you’re letting cold air in.” So Red stepped in and Andreas shut the door behind him. “That’s better.”, said Andreas. “Now, sit down.”

The room was not particularly large, but Andreas had managed to pack a lot into it anyway. There were bookshelves against every wall, and the large round table on the right side was covered in books, most of them laying open in a rather disorganized fashion. There were two rough wooden chairs at the table, and Red seated himself in the one nearest the door, while Andreas sat down on the opposite side, close to the kitchen. He pulled a tray up onto the table, with two steaming mugs of tea on it. He passed one to Red, who accepted it. “Thank you,” he said. “But how did you know to make two?”

Andreas looked puzzled for a moment, then responded, “Do you think I didn’t know I was going to invite you in before I opened the door? It would be most rude of me to drink without offering some to my guest. Why, the very idea!”

There was silence for a few moments as Andreas closed up and pushed aside his many books. “Now then, on to business. You said you were seeking answers.” “Yes, sir.” “Answers to what?” “Many things, sir. But I suppose the first one is: What started the war?” Andreas was silent for a moment, then with a puzzled expression, walked over to the bookshelf behind the one next to the table, and came back with an enormous pile of volumes and volumes. “History.”, he said simply.

*******

Luna’s mother loosened her grip slightly, still suspicious. “What is your name, canine?” “Some call me Big Bernie.” Luna’s mother brooded for a moment, finally conceding. “All right. You can go.” She stood up, and Big Bernie walked away as calmly as if nothing had happened.

Luna and her mother went home, and for several days not a word passed between them about the events of that night. But Luna kept thinking about the strange dog, and his invitation. She knew, of course, that it could be a trap. But that really didn’t add up. Why would he save her just to trap her? It didn’t make sense.

So finally, one day, she came to her mother, told her everything that had happened, and asked the question that had bothered her ever since “Big Bernie” put it into her mind.

“Why do we fight the dogs?” At first, Luna could not get her mother even to understand the question. To Luna’s mother, nothing could be more self-evident, apparently, than that cats and dogs must forever be at war, till one conquers the other. But Luna didn’t understand.

Finally, her mother could give no better answer than “That’s the way it’s always been.” Luna was not satisfied, and so she determined that she would visit the Rice Grain the next chance she got.

And she did, though she told her mother nothing. Whenever she could get away, Luna was with the Underground, and she soon became an active and indispensable member. They did not always meet in the Rice Grain; for it was impossible to bring dogs there. Often they met in the homes of various members, under a number of pretenses.

Though there was little they could do to truly stop the war, they grew their membership rapidly. Soon the ruling pride was having difficulty finding soldiers due to members of the Underground and their amazing ability to evade the army recruiters. And still Luna’s mother knew nothing of her activities. And so it went on for several weeks.

*******

“And so,” continued Andreas, “in the year 967, the Canid Confederacy united for the first time, and the first explorers began to sail into the South Sea.” They had now been talking for over an hour, and they had gone through about half of the first of Andreas’s books. And here Red felt the need to interject. “That’s all fascinating. But it doesn’t answer my question. “Really? What was your question again?” Red sighed. “What started the war between the cats and the dogs?” “Hmmm.” was the sage’s only response. Then he immediately began to flip through several books simultaneously at a rapid pace. Appearing dissatisfied with their contents, the diminutive scholar then moved at a remarkable speed for one of his advanced age back toward the shelf where he had found the many books he had brought in before.

The sage then commenced rummaging through tome after tome in a bizarre manner. He would grab a book, flip through it, then throw it aside, moving on to another book. Occasionally he would pause to check more thoroughly a volume he considered particularly promising, then it too would he cast aside.

Finally, the sage hobbled back into the room and sat down at the table once more. He looked over at Red, as if begging to be asked what he had found. “Well?” Red inquired. The sage laughed a small laugh, then said, “This is rather embarrassing, but I must admit, the truth is, I don’t know.” “What?” asked Red. “I don’t know.”, repeated the scholar. “I can’t find any record of it. There are a few mentions of histories that may have contained the information, but to the best of my knowledge, all those books were destroyed a century ago when the Royal Library caught fire down in Goldpaw. I just cannot find an answer. It is quite consternating to a scholar with a library the size of my own. It seems like such a simple question, yet for the life of me, I cannot answer it. I’m sorry. My only guess might be that perhaps it’s always been this way. I wish I could be of more help.”

Red was disappointed at the lack of an answer for his question, but he nevertheless remained for some time, at Andreas’s urging, and learned the answers to more questions than he could have thought to ask. But the most important one remained a blank.

Red did not get home till late that night, and had much to think about. He was so preoccupied he hardly noticed his parents’ relieved demands to know where he had been. He thanked them mechanically for the helping of meat they had saved him from dinner, barely tasting anything as he ate it, then went upstairs, where he lay awake for hours, struggling with what he now knew. Or rather, what he didn’t know. Surely it must be absurd to continue in a war for centuries after anyone forgot what caused it. And having witnessed the barbaric actions of his own race toward their prisoners, he was no longer sure his people were in the right when it did start.

So Red’s sleep was fitful, and his dreams unpleasant. And in the morning, when he awoke, he went into the street and summoned a messenger from the other side of the road, a female Dog Fox. Providing her with the standard messenger’s fee of twenty-five silver bones, he told her to take a message to Cider: “I’ve reconsidered. Meet me at the Thirsty General.”

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