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Proof of Concept - the first chapter!

In case you doubted me :D
Previous draft, some changes pending...

1 - The Hunters
Night shrouded the city of Kairran, capital of the nation of Pytan, and the night moon, Midori, shone pale green in the eastern sky. Yet the city did not sleep.
In many respects it was just waking up. Whether it was the clubs and bars of the bustling “downtown” Khalif Yashem district, the hectic northern dockyards on the banks of the Hutsepth Canal, the ancient palace of Sultan Abdülkadír as he entertained a bevy of foreign dignitaries, or the late night arrivals and departures at Nayhadjin International Airport, life continued much as it did during the day.
Only the farmlands to the south lay quiet as they nestled against the comforting bulk of Kairran’s formidable outer wall.
The mighty bulwark was a true marvel of modern engineering; six meters thick and rising fifteen meters into the sky, it embraced the city in a giant U sixty-five kilometers long.
For decades it had withstood the perils of the wastelands beyond, be they the terrible sandstorms that blasted the dunes, the great sandworms who called the desert home, or the occasional band of lawless nomadic raiders.
Behind these walls the people of Kairran had fallen into the trap of believing they were safe and secure, concerning themselves only with the day-to-day struggle of “civilized” living, blind to the dangers that already lurked within.
Particularly in the Kahmir District.
It sat like a dark blight in Kairran’s northeastern corner, crowded between the markets of the Dahley District and the outer wall.
Here the great bulwark loomed ominous and forbidding and the light of the moon spread deep shadows across the ground.
Kahmir was the poorest of the districts, home to the old, the infirm, and the dregs which had not already been cast out of the city into the harsh desert sands beyond.
Row upon row of crumbling buildings lined its crooked streets. The sandstone and stucco walls, once brightly painted, were now faded to ashen grey and brown and littered with the remnants of old posters and obscene graffiti. Trash and the burned out husks of long dead vehicles, leftovers from a bygone age that even the oldest of its residents no longer remembered, lined cracked streets that seemed to be made of potholes.
Indeed, this seemingly forgotten section of the city looked more like a warzone than the residence of nearly fifteen percent of the city’s population.
However, the battle Kahmir fought tonight was not against a standing army.
A string of grisly murders had been plaguing the population of this pitiful domicile for several weeks. Death was nothing new in this part of the city, but these crimes were of such violence and savagery that many of the inhabitants had moved to the outer edges of the market, as far away as they could get without leaving the city altogether.
There was barely anything left of the victims—if they were found in the first place. All that remained at the scene of an attack was a copious amount of blood spattered everywhere and claw marks on every conceivable surface.
The most curious thing was that the claw marks were both human—that is to say of the genus Homo animalis—and animal; however, no known predator could have made such deep scores.
The killer was also indiscriminant. Mammal, reptile, avian, amphibian, all had fallen victim to the carnage.
The more superstitious residents of the district claimed that no sentient being could commit such terrible acts, rumors began to spread that a Cursed Beast hunted the streets at night.
This night the hunter would become the hunted.
Along the broken rooftops on the far northern edge of the district two anthropoid figures moved.
The first was feline, her muscles toned to athletic perfection by rigorous exercise. What exposed skin she had was protected from the cool air of the late-February evening by a short coat of soft white fur striped in black. The shock of black long-fur between her ears was layered and bobbed short above her neck; only one errant lock swept from right to left across her brow. Try as she did, she was never able to get it to lie straight with the rest of her hair. Small black gauges were set in the lobe of each ear, specifically designed to fit eyewear in lieu of the more common elastic straps or lobe clips; however, she had left the stylish shades that fit them behind this night.
The white tigress’s outfit was almost paramilitary in appearance: a long-sleeved shirt fitted with thick leather pads on the front, back, and arms; a harness of black nylon slung over her shoulders covered with utility pouches; and black denim pants that fit snuggly on her hips, held in place by a thick black leather belt with a gold-plated buckle—a stylized tiger’s face had been embossed on the surface.
Though the material of the shirt appeared to be cotton it was actually a hybrid mesh that served as well as chainmail against most blades.
A large caliber hunting rifle was slung over her left shoulder, the metal painted matte black and the stock fashioned of polished black wood. It was not suppressed, nor did she feel that it needed to be; the customs papers registered it for big-game hunting, and that is exactly what she was going to use it for.
As a backup she carried a large semi-automatic pistol on her left hip and a short-bladed tactical knife strapped to her left ankle.
Most of the sentient inhabitants of Amarthia preferred to go barefoot, the tough pads or scales on the soles of their animal-like feet offered more than enough protection against a variety of surfaces. However, because of all the loose rubble and the danger of broken glass the tigress and her companion wore thick rubber soles that could slip on like a pair of sandals.
Pausing, she turned her deep sapphire eyes northward to the distant lights of the city of Arbai. Across the wide expanse of the Hutsepth Canal the nation of Kirque was also blissfully unaware of the danger that currently threatened its southern neighbor.
The figure who followed her, while roughly the same height, was an entirely different species from the tigress. The long whip-like tail, short blue plume at the crown of her skull, bright green scales and more pronounced claws on hands and feet identified her as a basilisk lizard. Though filed and manicured, her claws could still give her a definite edge in hand-to-hand combat.
Like all reptiles, amphibians, or any other sentient Amarthian who was not a mammal she did not have true mammary glands; her gender was distinguished by the curve of her narrow hips and the subtle build-up of fatty tissue over the pectoral muscles that characterized the “false breasts” that non-mammal females developed.
While her own padded shirt was of similar style to the tigress, it had been augmented by heavier pads on the arms and over it she wore a heavy high-collared flak vest similar to the bomb disposal equipment used by various military forces.
Her hip pouches contained all the tools of her destructive trade: grenades, blasting caps, detonators, and small blocks of what appeared to be clay.
A pump-action pistol-grip shotgun was slung over her right shoulder and a 9mm pistol rested on her right thigh.
Her large bright gold eyes glittered in the pale moonlight as she waited for the scout to continue on. After a moment the tigress gave the “all-clear” and they vaulted over a crumbling partition, dropping onto the roof blow.
The building they settled on was at the head of a narrow lane leading out to a main street, which paralleled the Hutseph Canal. Rusting balconies jutted out into the alley, casting the ground below into even deeper shadow. It was so black beneath them that even with the tigress’s feline night vision it may as well have been a bottomless pit.
The sniper laid down and cradled her weapon easily against her left shoulder, resting the rifle barrel on a lip of broken wall. The basilisk crouched behind her patiently.
After sighting on the intersection of alley and street the tigress pressed the transmit button on the radio clipped on the right side of the harness—it was connected by wire to an elastic earmuff covering her right ear.
“In position,” she said in Locken, which was far from being the local dialect. Her voice was low and husky with the pronounced lazy clip of an East Plains accent, “There’s a hotel right against the water. Would make a prime spot for a nesty. Can’t see much else for all the shit in the way. Not a clean shot.”
The radio crackled in response, “If you see one better, Kitty, by all means move. But I reckon if the roofs are as bodgy as the streets down here that’s easier said than done.”
The speaker’s accent was similar to the sniper’s own, with a bit of added outback roughness that distinguished people born on the West Plains—both provinces were part of the United Plains, many thousands of kilometers to the southeast across the Green Sea. However, the tinny quality of the radio didn’t do justice to the speaker’s true voice. Several blocks away from the sniper it rumbled out of a barrel chest which strained against the seams of his shirt, exaggerating the bulk of the padding even more.
The tiger was two plus meters of corded muscle; his bright orange and black stripes, only just starting to whiten at the edges, acting almost like natural camouflage against the dirty walls of the buildings around him.
As if the leather pads on his shirt were not enough, on his left arm he also wore a medieval looking rerebrace and vambrace of segmented steel plates, heavily scratched and scarred by use.
Over the shirt he wore a many-pocketed vest made out of the tough scales of some unknown creature and a bandolier loaded with heavy caliber bullets for the equally massive revolver strapped to his right hip. The firearm was much newer than the old-fashioned leather holster it rested in. Strapped to his back, within easy reach, was a large curved knife known as a kukri.
In his giant paws was an equally dangerous looking assault weapon. The ammo belt was packed snuggly into the attached box magazine and balanced by a brass catcher on the opposite side. Despite its weight he hefted it easily under his powerful right arm.
He scanned the narrow streets ahead of him through yellow-green eyes shaded by a brown bush hat, the left side pinned up to accommodate the radio receiver muff over his left ear. A short ponytail of greying black long-fur poked out from underneath and bobbed gently back and forth as he moved.
With his free hand he absently fingered the loose necklace of trophies around his neck, two hooked serrated claws and three long jagged teeth strung together on a thin silver chain.
He spoke into his radio, “Watch your step, both of you. That area had the most frequent attacks, and that hotel is smack in the middle of it all. Plus, we still don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Back on the rooftop Kittina Katral frowned as she settled down into her sniper’s perch. Mohan was only looking out for the safety of his team, but somehow he still made her feel like a child. Not that their organization hadn’t fielded family teams before, but in the two years since she had been recruited she still challenged the wisdom of being stuck with her own father.
Slowly she moved the scope around the building fronts two hundred meters away, trying to get a better view of the hotel lobby. The distance was not anywhere near the problem, it was all the clutter.
“You think you can drive it through here?” she asked into the radio, “I’ve only got a narrow window.”
“You’ll make do,” came the reply, “You’re the best shot we’ve got.” Kitty thought the remark patronizing, even if it was true, but said nothing. “Rizzo,” Mohan continued, “go set up your charges.”
“Oui, they’ll be ready in five minutes,” the basilisk said.
Emperatriz Vega went by “Rizzo” for the sake of simplicity. Her mezzo-soprano was roughed by the leathery hiss common to all reptiles, but she also had a heavy Neuf Maris accent that made every short i sound like a long e and her they sounded more like zay. While normally a melodious language, Rizzo somehow always made it sound a little pompous.
She rose from her crouch and said, “Finally something fun to do.”
The radio clicked and Mohan responded, “Right. Remember to keep it neat. That’s plan B.” She sighed in disappointment over the open channel and the radio clicked again, “Rizzo, much as this neighbourhood needs renovating I’d rather not arse this up more than we absolutely need to.”
It wasn’t that Mohan didn’t trust her expertise, it was just that to Rizzo there wasn’t any problem that a judicious use of explosives couldn’t solve.
Rizzo acknowledge and turned to Kitty. “You have my back, non?” she asked.
“Trust me,” the tigress responded without taking her eye from the scope.
The basilisk made her way silently to the floor of the alley, carefully picking and choosing between rusting pipes and rickety balconies for the safest route.
Upon reaching the ground she unslung the shotgun and began searching the shadows with a growing sense of dread.
Their team had been put together specifically for operations like this, but the creature, or creatures, they hunted were wily.
Two agents had been sent in to monitor the area last week, and they had become victims themselves not long after.
Rizzo stopped roughly twenty meters from the intersection at the end of the alley and got to work, extracting several lumps of grey putty from the pouches on her hips. This close to the suspected lair she began to hum nervously and was thankful reptiles didn’t sweat.
“What are you setting up?” Mohan asked over the radio, trying to keep her calm.
“Concussive shaped charges,” she replied, thankful for the distraction, “The overpressure should crush anything in the alley, but leave the buildings intact.” She pounded her fists together for emphasis despite the tiger not being able to see her. “Eh, mostly anyway. Why set up explosives if you don’t wish to use them?”
“We don’t know what type of fiend we’re dealing with yet,” came the reply, “If Kitty can’t bring it down—“
“Fair go,” the sniper cut in, “I’ll bring it down.”
“Not if we’re up against anything larger than a sjörå,” Mohan said shortly, “That .308 packs a punch, sure, but not against armored hides. And we still don’t know how many there are. We need to contain the area, make sure no stragglers get through.
“Rizzo, when you finish up there get up high and spot for Kitty. Without us backing you up I don’t want either of you near the ground in case we really get in the shit.”
There was a brief acknowledgement from both parties and the line clicked off. In the sudden noise gap the annoying background chatter he had been getting sharpened into a constant babbling. Mohan glanced back to examine the source of the voice.
Vincenzo Nieves only averaged a hundred and sixty-five centimeters, but the long ears poking out through the crown of his worn white fedora with its faded black band made him appear much taller. They bobbed and swayed as he hop-stepped along, twitching now and again like electrified antennae.
The jackrabbit had a melodious baritone honeyed by the southern strains of upper-class Banton, far away in the bayous of the West United Kingdoms. Or at least it would be melodious if it was not constantly ringing in the ears of his team mates.
Currently the hare was rambling on about the salad he had had for dinner, “…then they added this cream dressin that was just heaven. Have you ever had a Carver’s salad? They only make it at this café in Clairmont. Imagine a Caesar dressin, but they use blue cheese and capers. Anyway, this, this couldn’t even compare to that! The lettuce leaves were so fresh, they must have been grown in their own garden. Naturally the first thing I noticed was actually the cute leopard servin girl...” He trailed off with a lascivious gleam in his golden brown eyes, but no one was actually listening to him.
Most of his stories tended to end this way, Vince’s appetite for food was rivaled only by his appetite for women. He was not the guy with a girl in every town, he was the guy with a dozen girls in every town. Still, Mohan had to admit that for all his boasting at least he kept the stories relatively clean.
His behavior wasn’t all that surprising really; he was a handsome fellow and kept his blonde long-fur and goatee trimmed short and proper as befitted a southern gentleman.
Despite his behavior he had his own unique code of honor when it came to choosing his conquests, preferring to remain open and honest about his intentions; and he was adamant that his women knew there was nothing to be gained other than the physical pleasures of the evening. He also had a strict policy about not flirting with the people he worked with, much to the disappointment of many young singles back at the Sanctuary.
It was not a lifestyle Mohan—or anyone else on the team for that matter—particularly agreed with, but the fact was many of Vince’s nocturnal liaisons had also proven to be valuable informants; however, those were not the skills Mohan had recruited him for.
Vince was an absolute genius when it came to locks, both electronic and standard, and he kept a set of steel lockpicks pinned to his harness and a canvas tool bag of electronic gizmos at his hip. It was surprising the tools weren’t smashed into silicon powder as the bag bounced around with each energetic step.
On his back the hare carried the main receiver unit for their radio equipment, a bulky box of olive drab metal with a long range antenna folded against the side. It was not only their lifeline to Watch Command back at the Sanctuary, but a scrambler in case anyone tried to listen in on the local coms.
Before he could start up with another story the figure hopping behind the hare tapped the radio box.
“Are you sure these new radios are secure?” the petite female bullfrog asked. Her voice was high and sing-song, with only the slightest trace of the glottal clicks and hums common to all frog speech, but that may have been because it was drowned out by her Bell’s Point, New Port accent, “Ya know I bet dollars to donuts The Golden Eye would love to listen in.”
“Oh, I’m quite sure our opposite numbers would love to know what we’re up to here,” Vince chuckled, “Especially since we hired them out to do PR while we’re visitin. But don’t you fret, darlin, I secured these channels myself.” He pulled at the chaffing strap of the compact submachine gun slung over his shoulder, trying to balance it against all his other equipment. “If you really want to play superspy, Vicki, we could just call you Agent 23 or maybe Sergeant Major. Oh! How about ‘Snaps’? You’re our medic, right? You snap us back together!”
Victoria Littlepond giggled and adjusted the straps on her backpack. She was practically dwarfed by the massive bag, which was marked with a red cross in a white circle and strained at the seams with so much gear it looked like it could quite possibly contain an entire hospital.
Her clothing—already made of the same surprisingly breathable hybrid material—was of a very loose cut that was preferred by many amphibians to protect their moist skin and prevent the cloth from sticking too much. She kept the costume secure around her narrow waist with a broad red plastic belt fastened by a big white circular buckled. Honestly the belt was almost thirty years out of fashion, but she had that youthful flare for anachronistic style that could make practically any combination of clothing look good. Emblazoned on the left breast of her shirt was a red cross just like the one on her pack.
In spite of the danger the team was walking into Vicki carried only a 9mm pistol on her right hip. She rarely used the weapon, she didn’t particularly like guns or violence, but fiends were another matter entirely.
There was an old proverb she had read somewhere: “those who don’t live by the sword can still die by them”. Except replace sword with a ton of razor sharp claws and teeth.
“Snaps, eh?” She pondered the new nickname, her bulbous speckled eyes narrowing comically. “Yeah, I like it.”
“It is quite fitting,” the low cultured voice came from the figure bringing up their rearguard. While not much taller than Vince, minus the ears, the badger was nearly as broad as Mohan. “However, if it is all the same to you I will continue to address you as Victoria. It is much more pleasant to say.”
“Aw, thanks Zed,” the frog said, grinning widely as only she could.
Ezekiel—or Zed as his teammates liked to call him—nodded courteously.
He was the only other team member besides Vicki whose clothing had been redesigned in an entirely unique cut. The shirt was fashioned more like a loose fitting robe—called a thwab—that came down to his knees and was worn commonly throughout the continent of Estan. It was tied around his waist by a sky blue sash and around his neck he wore a checkered scarf of blue and gold. Under the thwab he wore denim pants like his teammates.
His head was almost completely cover by a keffiyeh turban of the same sky blue color as his sash.
The colors stood out against his dark clothes but he wore them with pride because their colors represented his family lineage: the Clan of Nashim in the Tribe of the Brown Paw. While Zed was an agent, he was also a member of the nomadic people known as the Soketh, an enigmatic collection of tribes that called the wastelands their home. However, unlike the wasteland bandits their culture was centered on combing ancient ruins in search of artifacts, which they both sold and preserved.
Two such archaic devices were a part of the badger’s accoutrements: a bracer of finely crafted gold on his left forearm, the raised image of a winged serpent eating its own coiled tail gilded on the outer surface; and a broad-headed tomahawk hanging from an iron hoop on his right hip, its handle engraved with indecipherable script and the stylized figures of many sentient and non-sentient animals.
Despite these ancient accessories he was not without modern equipment and carried an assault rifle in the crook of his right arm.
“Think nothing of it,” the badger said to the frog, “However, I would hate to hear what sort of ghastly nicknames our long-eared friend could come up with for the rest of us.”
“What could I possibly call you except ‘Zed’, Zed?” Vince laughed.
Mohan shook his head but couldn’t suppress a grin. They certainly weren’t acting like a heavily armed group of hunters off to face certain doom. Maybe he should be thankful for that. It was one thing to hunt wild beasts like bahngers or ceravaags; fiends were an entirely different animal. No, strike that they weren’t animals at all; they were honest to God monsters.
He paused at an intersection and mentally checked the map they had all been memorizing for the past several days. They were close now, maybe a block or two away from the hotel.
“Ok, keep it down, everyone,” he said, “We’re getting close to the site of the last attack.”
The huge tiger skirted the burnt out shell of a small car and rounded a corner onto a narrower street. Most of the lights were broken and the moon was too low on the horizon to cast its glow into the lane. There was barely any breeze and the air in the alley was surprisingly stuffy for late February.
Ahead, just where the street made a sharp bend to the right, lay a distant pool of light cast by a lone street lamp. Something lay there propped against the wall.
As they drew closer Mohan snorted as the stench hit his nose; they had found the fiend’s latest victim. He growled deep in his chest.
“Problem, Major General?” Vince asked from behind him, still cheerily playing at giving his comrades code names by rank.
“Shut it, Vince. But yeah, the body’s still here. In all the other reports the victim was never found. Just…pieces.” He turned from the grisly scene and gulped fresh air. “Zed, what do you make of this, mate?”
The badger moved forward and knelt before the corpse, looking more at the spore around it than the body itself. When it came to tracking Mohan always deferred to the badger’s superior skill over his own modest abilities. The tiger was good, especially out in the bush, but the badger had a gift; there was nothing he couldn’t track, in bush or city. If there were any leads to be found at the scene, he would find them.
“The corpse is fresh,” Zed said, “He cannot have been dead more than one hour. Though it is very strange; the blood on this wall is at least two days old—from a different kill entirely—yet the blood spatter on the ground and the tracks surrounding the corpse are fresh. This body was placed here on purpose. It is taunting us.”
“Yeah, anyone else just a might creeped out about how intelligent these things are?” Vince asked looking up at the dark buildings surrounding them as if the creature might drop out of the shadows at any moment. “I mean, it’s almost like they can get in your head and see what you’re thinkin. Anyone know if they’ve ever recorded telepa—”
Mohan clamped a massive paw over his mouth and spoke into his radio, “Kitty, Rizzo, status.”
“All quiet still,” Rizzo reported, her voice much calmer now that she had perched herself on a balcony high above the cloistering shadows below.
Kitty reported the same and Mohan turned to the medic. “What’s your progno, Vicki?”
The bullfrog leaned over the corpse, being careful not to touch it. Her voice was disturbingly matter-of-fact as she delivered her diagnosis, “No spines or barbs, doesn’t look like it used poison. Head is partially severed and the chest torn open from the left clavicle down to the right abdomen. There are three distinct claw marks and a forth lighter tear on the outside, so the paw was likely larger than the torso. Large bite marks on the arms, legs, and part of the internal organs. Not a pretty sight, for sure.”
“Is a mutilated corpse ever a pretty sight?” Kitty’s voice crackled over the radio.
Vicki ignored her and continued, “Whatever it was it was big! He was probably grabbed from behind. See the angle of these anterior lacerations? That indicates—”
Mohan held up a paw to stop her. “I think we get the picture, Vicki,” he said, “Well, no poison rules out a chimera or nagai. The most frequent attacks were near water so we’re probably dealing with an amphibian. What do you think, Zed? Seahagin?”
“I do not believe so,” the badger replied as he studied some nearby markings. “These prints indicate the creature had four legs, not two, and there are no drag marks from a tail. They are also spread far too widely and do not possess the webbing of an aquatic fiend. I would say the scale pattern resembles that of an ahuitzotl, yet it lacks the aforementioned toe webbing. It would also be one of highly unusual size and strength to cause this amount of damage.”
As if on cue an eerie shriek echoed through the streets: a series of heavy coughs punctuated by a keening screech that echoed off the walls around them.
Vince clutched his weapon tighter and stared coolly at the shadows above them. “That was not a weet-zol.”
Mohan hefted his heavy machine gun, his face grim. “No. It’s a tiamat.”
“That fits the damage to the corpse,” Vicki said, “but this far inside city limits? Not to mention half a globe from their normal stomping grounds?” She checked her 9mm, keenly aware how pitiful it would be against the armored scales of a tiamat.
“Maybe our intel on al-Seif selling fiends was right?” Vince suggested.
Mohan frowned at the mention of the name. Jirair al-Seif was just one of Pytan’s major crime lords. Primarily his interests revolved around trading in conventional firearms and gladiators, but rumors were spreading through the underground that he was becoming much more interested in biological weapons.
Their organization feared those weapons might be the monsters they called fiends.
“We don’t know that yet,” Mohan said, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this thing just swam up river and crawled in by the sewers. In either case we can find out for sure after its dead. If it is some of al-Seif’s merchandise he’ll likely have some sort of branding on it and we’ll need to find the lab or stockade where he’s holding them.”
The radio crackled to life. “You heard that, non?” Rizzo asked, trying to mask the nervous click in her voice.
Kitty’s response was far more enthusiastic, “Ace! I was getting bored shitless up here.”
Over the open radio channel they heard the sound of her rifle bolt slamming home.
“Steady on,” he admonished, “Watch your brass.”
“Please, I only checked the breech. I know better than to waste a perfectly good bullet.”
Mohan sighed, “Right. Keep eyes in the back of your head. We’re almost there.”
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