“Aaaah, hey, hey, outta the way!”
Dirt and garbage flew through the air as a young woman sprinted forward. She tried to keep her eyes on the smaller figure running away from her, but he blended too well with the crowded, clamoring street. The morning chill pricked at her freezing skin as she ran. “Watch it Syra! What’re you doing?!” someone yelled at her.
“Sorry!” she yelled back.
Syra had no time to explain. The farther her target got, the worse it was for her. These winding and twisting streets were always crowded. The second she lost him, he’d have gotten away for sure. With a grunt, she pushed her legs some more, and charged forward, fully forgoing any consequence of barreling into someone.
The rancid smell of the streets got stronger as she moved faster. She usually wouldn’t think anything of it, but the way her nose crinkled and her throat clogged up told her that something was off.
Marks, she thought. He’s got a trap.
They made their way through the complex streets until they reached a dead end. The girl panted, hands on her knees, and sweat dripping down her back. “I-I got you!” she said through bated breath. “Torin! Give back Ms. Tiera’s apples, right now!”
“Shut up!” The hunched, sniveling rat sneered. Scrambling through the belt wrapped around his thin-haired coat, he pulled out a jagged knife. “She had it coming, putting them on display like that every day.”
“You should’ve bought them fair and square like everyone else.”
“No chance in hell I could afford that.”
“Then… Then you could’ve asked!”
The rat man scoffed. “You’re too young, Skinless.” He put two long fingers to his snout and whistled. Following the call, other Rat figures surrounded her. Three stood on the roofs surrounding them, and a couple of them blocked the entrance to the alley. “I thought you would’ve known how things work down here, but I guess I expected too much from something like you.”
The rats closed closer on her. She grit her teeth and put her fists up. “I can take you in a fight. But put the apples down before we start.”
“Argh, enough! Get her, folks.”
The rats on the roofs leaped down. The rats behind her ran for her. And the one in front–Torin–grinned.
“Gotcha!” she yelled. She flexed her legs and like a bolt of lightning she dashed straight for Torin.
With a wide swing, she punched the Rat straight through his teeth.
He collapsed backwards, and the rats around her stood stunned. She grabbed the bag of apples on the ground and grinned at her would-be assailants.
But they soon got over their shock and stalked towards her, knives in hand.
Syra stepped backwards, and only then did she realize that she backed herself against the wall.
“Oh, crap,” she said.
Something grabbed her ankles. She jumped in surprise. The apples fell out of the bag and smashed against the ground. “Stupid Skinless. Get her you Disgraces!” Torin commanded as he tightened his grip on her leg.
“Alright, enough!” a light-hearted voice yelled.
Before the rats had a chance to turn around, the dirt beneath their feet seemingly disappeared, and they fell straight into the newly created hole.
They recovered from their surprise and tried to crawl out of it, but the dirt sunk deeper into the ground.
“Lias!” Syra cheered.
The tall, orange monkey stood at the edge of the hole and sighed. He gave Syra a tired glance, but she kept smiling.
“Bloody Peacekeepers!” Torin yelled as he sprung up and shoved Syra out of the way. He scrambled to the closest building and scaled its rickety walls.
He almost made it to the top before a burly rhinoceros grabbed the rat’s neck and held him in midair.
“Aah, it was Torin this time,” his deep voice rumbled. “Pretty sure your leader told you to lay low, but I guess your people wouldn’t even think to follow rules.”
“Shut your mouth,” Torin managed to squeak.
The rhino simply nodded. He tossed Torin to the side on the roof and put his foot down on his torso. “Culprit apprehended. Are you sure you got everyone down there Lias?”
“Yep, got ‘em, Marn.” Lias stepped around the hole to the beaming Syra. He brought his fist down on her head and softly pounded her. “So why’d you chase after him?”
“I saw him steal the apples.”
“Right, gotcha,” Lias said with quick nods. He held his left arm out, and his forearm began to glow. The shimmering lights slowly formed into four stars stretched in a line on his fur. “You see that?”
“Oh!” Syra shouted. “You got promoted! Congrats!”
“Thanks. But what does this mean, young Syra?”
“That you’re a Peacekeeper,” she said.
“Good, right. Now, tell me, do you have these on your arm?”
“Then whyyy do you keep going around stealing our jobs?!” he said, pulling her in and strangling her. “How many times you gotta do that?”
But Syra only laughed, not even bothered by him yanking her around. “You weren’t there, and I wasn’t just gonna watch them steal in front of me! Maybe you should be faster next time.”
“Lias, give it up and get up here,” Marn called from above.
Lias groaned. “Fine, fine, we’ll talk about this later.” Still grasping her tight, he formed a circle with his index finger and thumb. He brought it low to the ground and the earth shifted beneath their feet. When he raised his hand, the ground followed his movements and lifted them straight into the air.
They now stood adjacent to the roof, and Syra wrangled herself out of Lias’ grip and stumbled next to Marn. Marn towered over her, his chiseled, gray muscles practically bulging out of his tunic.
“Good work Syra,” he said.
She saluted him. “You, too, Mr. Marn.”
Lias finally crossed over onto the roof, and with a snap, the cylinder of dirt shrank back to where it came from. He circled around Syra and Marn and knelt down so he was face-to-face with the thieving rat. “Alright, Torin. It’s the usual: Pay up the shia, or get sent to Sa’ir. Up to you.”
“Screw you, you monkey! Send me to those Knives and every Disgraceful in town will hunt you down.”
“Hunt us down?” Lias mocked. “Okay, to Sa’ir it is.”
Marn reached down and grabbed the scruff of Torin’s fur. “We’ll make sure to have a good discussion with your peoples’ leader, as well. Olfo’s sure to understand that he wouldn’t want to be made an enemy of everyone in the Lower Moon.”
“Good luck Torin! Sa’ir can be really scary, especially when it comes to you guys.”
“A-Alright! Fine! Fine! You want the money, then let me go!” Torin squirmed.
Marn did as the rat asked, but the three of them surrounded him and made sure he couldn’t slip past them. Lias in particular held his hand up, pieces of dirt sticking to his palm. Torin dug around his satchel, flinging pieces of junk around. Eventually he scrounged up three filthy copper shia.
“So you could afford them.” Syra crossed her arms and glared at him.
“I had better things to spend it on,” he said.
Lias and Marn glanced at each other and nodded. “Alright. You’re free. If we catch you doing stuff like this again within the next three days, it’s straight to Sa’ir and the Knives with you, got it?” Marn said. They eased up and gave him some space.
Torin spat at the ground. “Stupid Peacekeepers. Things were just fine when you weren’t around. Stop pretending like you’re working in the Higher Sun.” He gave Syra one final venomous look before he sprinted away across the rooftops, disappearing into the horizon.
“So how’d you rank up Lias?” Syra asked. After they had brought the other rats up from the ground and watched them run away, the three of them had descended from the fragile rooftops and now walked along the quieter streets. Lias kicked around some ragged clothes tossed on the road. “You were stuck on three stars for so long.”
“Eh, it builds up eventually. I managed to stop one of those Higher Sun guards from getting roughened up by some Disgracefuls. Guess they were feeling charitable and told the League to boost my score.”
“That’s… surprising. Usually they wouldn’t even bother with us!” Syra said.
“Yep. But hey, you’re not gonna catch me giving up a promotion.”
They turned on the next corner and found themselves in the main street thoroughfare. She had been sprinting through this area not long ago, but only now could she properly take in the sight around her. Well, whatever sight she could possibly gain from it.
The street was tight and cramped, with makeshift stalls made of loose wooden boards and pebbles lining the sides. The crooked and dark buildings behind them seemed as if they would fall apart at any minute, but yet they stood tall. The people down here may have differed in shapes and sizes, but they all shared the fact that they were covered in rags
“Outta the way, Halfy,” a tall wolf growled as he trudged past them.
“S-Sorry,” Syra said as she stepped back. The wolf scoffed as it continued onwards.
“Haven’t seen that one before,” Lias said softly. “Another wolf down here, huh?”
Marn stayed quiet. “Let’s hurry and get back to the League,” he said.
They walked at a steady pace down the street. Syra tip-toed around a pile of feces near her. Lias and Marn greeted people as they passed by, and stared down anyone who looked like they wanted to start a fight. The heckling by the vendors grew louder as they continued on. Syra wrinkled her nose as the stench of the street got denser. She could never get used to that familiar smell.
Soon, the sun had vanished as they got closer to the League building. Syra glanced up. Her heart ached as her eyes laid on the massive wall stretching as far as she could see–the hallmark of the Lower Moon’s oppression–standing in the distance.
They soon arrived at the Peacekeeper building. It sat a fair distance away from the other streets and buildings. It tilted ever so slightly, leaving the walls and roof a bit crooked. Lias marched right in, but Marn had to duck and squeeze his way through the door. Syra followed after them, smiling.
“I still can’t believe they allowed us to build one here,” she said, admiring the decorations around her.
It was a simple building, constructed of loose boards and a roof made of tightly-woven straw. There was but a single desk for a receptionist, and a board with stacks of paper tacked onto it. Lias and Marn took a seat at the long table sitting not too far away from the receptionist desk.
“It’s a shame they didn’t account for my species,” Marn commented.
“W-Well, y’know. We don’t get too many of the bigger guys down here.”
“It’s no issue, Syra,” he said. “So long as I can work, I’m satisfied.”
“Oh, good, you’re back,” an impatient voice groaned. Stepping through the door behind the desk came a slouched rabbit. The glasses plopped atop her nose were cracked and crooked, yet it seemed it didn’t bother her at all. “Hurry and give me the details, then get your butts out working again. I don’t know what’s going on, but the Gaeans out there are particularly restless today.”
“Not even a minute to spare, Trys?” Lias whined.
Trys slammed her glasses down on the table. “Of course not! Jan and Erin are out there still working, which means it’s only you two left. Look at the board! It’s not even noon! Now, as I said, hurry up.”
Lias let out a remarkable groan as Marn stood from the table, the horn at the tip of his head barely scratching the top of the ceiling.
Syra listened in as the three of them talked about what had just happened in the alleyways. Every word that came out of their mouths set her heart aflame. The way they stood at the desks, communicating with the receptionist, and eventually took on a new job at the request board fueled her desires even more. Lias and Marn spoke with each other about their gear and necessities and anything else they might need.
Before they walked out, Marn approached her.
“Here,” Marn held his edged hooves out and dropped the three copper shia into her hands. “You know what to do with these.”
Syra nodded. “Gotcha.”
“Good. We’ll see you later.” The two left the building and headed out to do their work.
She still stood there, seesawing back and forth on her toes.
“And?” Trys said impatiently.
“Well, y’know,” she said, tiptoeing to the desk. “You just said you’re low on workers right now, sooo.”
“No.” Trys put her paw down. “I’ve said it once and I’ll keep saying it. We’re not at liberty here to appoint new Peacekeepers. Especially not in the Lower Moon.”
“Aw, but c’mon! I’ve worked hard! I helped Lias and Marn get a hold of a couple Disgracefuls. That’s gotta count, right?”
“Oh, you have been a serious boon for us, especially when you dig your nose into things you shouldn’t.”
“Then why not?”
“It’s simple. The Higher Sun won’t let us. That should answer your question.”
Syra clenched her fists. No matter what she was going to say, she’d be shot down.
“Besides,” Trys’ voice grew softer. “You don’t have to be a Peacekeeper to help, right? You’ve been doing just fine on your own.”
“But it’s-” Syra raised her voice, then backed down. Her heart sank to her stomach. “No, it’s fine. I get it.”
“I would love to have you on the team. But the circumstances around us right now aren’t exactly the best. So chin up, okay? Hopefully one day those snobs up there have a change of heart.”
Syra walked out of the building, and put a hand over her heart. They’ve gotta change their minds someday, she thought. She balled her hand into a fist. I’ll never give my dream up. She looked up to the sky. I swear I’ll become a Peacekeeper just like you mom.
Clutching the coins in her hands, she resolved herself once more and made her way to the old lady’s apple stall.
“Lady Eirallys,” a woman’s soft voice called from beyond the door.
“Enter,” the girl said as she put her pen down on her desk.
A wolf Gaean dressed cleanly in a servant uniform entered the room and bowed deeply. “Lord Asiril and the Six Elders have called for your presence.”
Heaving a sigh, the redheaded girl took off her glasses and set them down. “Must I dress appropriately for the council?”
“They deemed the call to be urgent. No such formalities are necessary.”
“Perfect,” Eirallys said with a grin. “I shall be out soon. Thank you Ren.”
“Of course, my Lady.” The woman bowed again and exited the room.
Eirallys had never been particularly interested in the dresses she’d been forced to wear over the years. It didn’t help that she was the only one who appeared different from the other noble children—instead of fur or feathers she had smooth, tanned skin. Instead of a colored coat of a particular species, she had her thick tail sprouting behind her and sharp curved horns atop her head. People had often equated her to a Human in the past–a Skinless.
Her tail wagged back and forth as she dressed herself in something proper, rather than the pajamas she wore a couple of minutes ago.
Now dressed in a white blouse and skirt, she nodded to herself and made her way to the Government Arena.
She left her room and made her way down the ornate and marbled hallways. Passing by the ivory columns that support the floors above, she found herself before a great opening. She took one breath and stepped forward.
Before her was a wide and open circular area stretching far beyond her.
“My Daughter.” A voice unlike any other spoke so softly, yet carried a weight greater than it sounded. At the very end of the ring sat a red-scaled dragon perched atop a thick branch. “Thank you for heeding our call.”
“Lady Eirallys,” a man and woman said at the same time.
To either side of the dragon rested six great wooden chairs standing atop intricately chiseled blocks of stone. Each pedestal descended in height from the previous. Sitting in the two tallest chairs were the ones who called her name. To the left stood a massive Eagle, claws on the back of his seat. To the right was a towering, confident Tigress.
Following from there were a bear and buffalo on the left, and a panther and a wolf on the right. Despite their titles, these Gaeans were all fairly young, at least in their appearance. The Dragon before her was the only one worthy of truly being named an Elder.
“Father. Elders. I answer your summons,” Eirallys bowed.
“As per your request, we shall announce our request as bluntly as possible,” the Tigress said, standing from her seat. “The situation in Ginen city has escalated and the political rivalry in the Higher Sun has reached a tipping point. The Governor of the Tree has proposed a peace conference. Both sides have agreed. They intend to compromise and tone down their enmity until a proper solution can be settled here in the capital.”
‘Proper solution’, huh? Yeah, right, Eirallys thought. You can’t even make peace with each other when it comes to our country as a whole.
“And as such,” the Tigress continued, “the Higher Sun’s governor Porus Pilfir has requested someone of high standing bear witness to such an event.”
Eirallys blinked. She knew what that implied.
“You are asking me to fly to the West and watch politicians in Ginen sign a treaty. Is that correct?”
“It is, my Lady,” the Tigress said.
“You are asking me to step away from our capital, in these times, to be a spectator?”
“Such is the request.”
“Pray tell why none of the Elders can perform this task?” She eyed the other Gaeans with a murderous look.
And yet, none of them answered.
“We are simply too preoccupied with the Brothers and the Claws escalating their conflict,” the Tigress said. “Surely my Lady can entrust these to us. Such a request should be easy for you, would it not?”
Eirallys’s blood boiled at her words. This Elder. This mere tiger is speaking to the only daughter of the ancient dragon as if she were a child. Fiery cinders sparked in Eirallys’ palms.
“Rionne, you’ve said your piece,” the Dragon warned.
“Yes, Lord Asiril,” Rionne said as she bowed, her animosity disappearing without a trace.
The Dragon craned its long neck and gestured to the Eagle, who then nodded.
“In any case, as Rionne said, we Elders have our own duties to attend to. I am aware that your ladyship has been working hard to find a solution to our current predicament, so I suggest that this trip act as a vacation of sorts.” The Eagle’s voice was smooth and pleasing to the ears. “We assure you that while we Elders have our differences, we will ensure that things do not escalate.”
She would not believe them. She couldn’t.
She didn’t work so hard to maintain balance if they were capable of such a thing. The trade deals she’s maintained, the conferences she was in charge of, the conflicts she’d prevented–all of it would have been useless if they were such astounding politicians.
Every fiber in her being told her to refuse. But as she looked around, a majority of them had expectant eyes. As if it were obvious that she would accept. Only the eagle and the tigress were different.
It was as if they willed it.
As if they knew she didn’t have a choice.
The power she wielded was certainly great as the child of Asiril, the Guardian presiding over Condol’ Shi. But compared to the Elder Seats? She was equal to one. She was not equal to all.
If such was the case, she had to grit her teeth and bare it.
She calmed her breath and nodded.
“If that is the case… then I shall accept your request.”