Geraden emerged from the swampy undergrowth, covered more in mud than furpaint now. He stumbled on a hollow log, going head over heels, and felt a wispy tingling sensation across his face as he landed on the soft earth. Spitting and pulling thick clumps of spider web off his muzzle, he stood up. An embankment rose in front of him, maybe twenty feet high. He clambered towards it and started climbing, grabbing onto the long grass for support.
He felt a prickling sensation on his neck, and, grimacing, pulled a large spider off his fur. He couldn't see it in the murky gloom, but it felt at least four inches across. He winced as it turned in his paw and bit his thumb, and he flung it down the embankment. Above him, the sound of a passing automobile filled the night air, and headlights briefly illuminated the edge of the swamp. He resumed climbing, struggling for the last few steps, and flopped over the crest. A strip of asphalt lay in front of him, barely visible except for the yellow line down the center.
Geraden was pretty sure he was in the arranged pickup location, but he might have come out of the swamp too far south. With no moon to guide him, he had to rely on memory to navigate through the marshes. He plopped next to the road and took out his flashlight, recovering his breath.
After a few minutes, a pair of headlights became visible around the corner to the north. Geraden waited, watching them intently. They drew closer. Nothing yet... Geraden waited as long as he could, then quickly rolled partway down the embankment, hiding from the oncoming light. As the car passed, he heard that its radio was blaring a Wolf war anthem. Close call. He waited for the car to be well out of sight, then climbed back up.
Shortly, another pair of headlights came around the turn. They advanced for a while, then flicked on and off, on and off. Bingo. Geraden held up the flashlight and returned the signal, and the headlights slowed, then came to a stop on the grass. Geraden ran towards them.
He came to the back of the dingy truck, and banged on the rear door. It opened, and a black Rabbit with tall, proud ears reached a paw out. Geraden took it and climbed in.
"Lord, you stink, Ger."
To the west, Nigosoka burned. The governor was dead, murdered by Prey insurgents, the news reported. The central government had not delivered his replacement yet, and the Resistance saw its opportunity. From workhouses and prisons and meat farms on the outskirts, Prey species broke their bonds and rose like magma. The Sandleford weapons helped, but they were so enraged that they would have fought with their teeth and nails. The settlement fell in the space of a few hours; the Predators never had a chance to organize. One fox, an employee of the local Central Government Office, begged the rebels for mercy. He would join the resistance, he said. He had family in high places. He could provide information. In the end, though, they held a vote, and decided to hang him.
"The attempt at the subjugation of the Southern Prey failed because it was founded on a flawed ideology. We believed them to be less than us. Our greatest astronomers confirmed our beliefs, citing ancient authorities from strange lands who had, supposedly, spoken with Destiny herself. We were the children of the gods, given a privileged position in the chain of existence, if only we would reach out to take it.
"Of course, our surprise when we found out we'd underestimated the Prey seems foolish now. When you convince yourself that a Sentient is not a Sentient, what can you do but underestimate him? The Prey are patient and tolerant, and it took a lot to push them to war. But push them we did, and found them to be too mighty.
"Our error was not simply in military estimation, however. The Ethic of Might was as much a betrayal of the Predators as it was of the Prey. As soon as we convinced ourselves that the Prey were less than us, we were no longer Predators. If they were really as inferior as we thought they were, we would not have been hunters, you see. We would have been farmers at best, and at worst murderous scavengers.
"A Predator does not gather up the inferior in camps and farms and slaughter them wholesale. A Predator does not keep Prey as slaves. A Predator hunts, knowing that either she or the Prey will die, and it could very well be either. A Predator does not make fictions to belittle the Prey. A Predator knows exactly what the Prey is - knows so well that he loves the Prey.
"To truly live by a Predatory code is probably impossible today. After all, it is nothing less than the knowing, honorable embrace of murder. It is the acceptance and elevation of death. It might be self-consistent, and even noble, in the right society, but never in today's. Perhaps that is why we convinced ourselves that a thin construction of lies and hate was the true Predatory code.
"By elevating the low virtues above the higher, we missed the point of even the lower. Not only did we knowingly commit atrocities, the atrocities did not even serve to find us our Predatory destiny. We only belittled ourselves.
"We should have listened to our omegas. They knew. They never bought into our Ethic of Might. They banded together, staged little nonviolent protests, wrote little dissenting tracts. We laughed at them and crushed them along with our food. Now we have the blood of our brothers on our heads, as well as the blood of our neighbors.
"This stain will linger for generations. Our children's children will feel its weight barely less than we do. We must atone. Our children must atone."
Arvetis stopped reading and took his paw off the bottom of the scroll, letting it curl up on itself lightly.
"They're all like that," Chrysos rumbled next to him. The old Wolf tore a bite off the long strip of dark meat in his paw. "Worthless Preyloving propaganda."
"But... I thought you said everything in this library was written by ancient Predators?" Arvetis looked blankly across the wide table in front of them, set with dishes of large hunks of Rabbit meat.
"It was, as far as we can tell. Goes to show you can't ever let your guard down against weakness," Chrysos said, chewing loudly. "Even our ancestors fell to it."
"All of them were like this?" Arvetis's voice was quiet. "Every scroll and book?"
"It's a shame, really. We were going to open a museum. Now it'll all have to be burned. By the way, enjoy your Rabbit while you can. Nigosoka looks likely to stay under enemy control, and they were our primary Prey farming site."
"Excuse me, I've lost my appetite." Arvetis stood, looking queasy, and retreated from the table. On the way out of the dining hall, he nearly ran into General Phylax on his way in.
"Watch where you're going, you lump!" Arvetis stalked off towards his quarters. Phylax watched him go for a moment, then turned back to the table and rolled his eyes.
"What's wrong with him?" Phylax asked Chrysos, sitting down in front of Arvetis's uneaten food.
"I do believe," said Chrysos thoughtfully, tapping his chin, "he's losing his nerve."
"Well? How did it go?" The proud-eared Rabbit started intently at Geraden.
"One moment, Skander, please," Geraden replied, panting and holding up his paws. The truck hit a bump in the road, and its elderly shocks did nothing to prevent Geraden from nearly falling out of his seat. "Do we have any antibiotic?"
"Yes, of course." Skander dug through a small first-aid kit attached to the back of the driver's seat and came out with a small tube and some gauze, handing it to Geraden. "Are you hurt?"
"Just a spider bite." Geraden took a moment to wrap the bite and catch his breath. "It went well. Success on the primary and the secondary."
"Yes! Geraden, this is excellent! If the West Coast Resistance can hold out, and we can keep Agathos here, he's under our thumb! Until we don't want him anymore, of course." Skander drew a finger across his neck grimly. "Hey, what did you find for the secondary?"
Geraden grinned. "I'll wait till we're back to tell everyone. It's good, though, I promise." Skander looked frustrated by that, but he accepted it.
"We've got some news, too," he said.
"Well... we found something. While you were gone." Skander looked like he was considering how to phrase his next statement.
"One of the old collapsed tunnels underneath the warren... we dug it out. Bored, you know, nothing to do until you got back. You wouldn't believe it, but there's a whole cave right under the warren. About twenty feet across. And inside... well... Geraden, we think it's the Touchstone."
Geraden's face remained blank, but one eyebrow slowly raised. "The... Touchstone."
"I'm not crazy, I swear. You can see it when we get back."
"He's not crazy!" the Rabbit in the driver's seat called back to Geraden.
"What, did Gel-Herathin the Great show you where to find it?" Geraden asked sardonically.
"It's not a fairy tale," Skander said. "It's just like in all the old stories. You'll see when we get back."
"I suppose I will," Geraden said, and shrugged.
Arvetis slammed the door to his room and turned the lock. He fumbled around for the lantern switches, cursing. This was worse than earlier. He didn't know if he could control the panic in his chest this time. He made little wheezing sounds, and tears flowed involuntarily down his face. The worst thing was, he didn't really even know why.
How could the entire library be Preyloving? He could maybe understand one voice, a dissenter given a bit of rope to hang himself with, but the entire collection of an ancient Predatory keep? The idea profoundly disturbed him. He needed his diapers.
Arvetis knew he'd been doing this more often, but he justified it by telling himself he'd stop once he got to Los Angeles. He wouldn't need them there. He grabbed the diaper from his closet, unfolded it noisily, and spread it out on the bed. His chest was still hitching. He dropped his pants and sat on the diaper, quickly taping it up, not bothering with powder.
He spread out on the bed, completely still except for his bobbing chest, letting tears run into his pillow. He didn't rub himself - it wasn't sexual this time. He needed something to hold him, to let him be weak for a moment, and the diaper was the best thing he had.
The Secret Police had to be mistaken. There was some kind of misunderstanding here. The library was originally a collection of banned works, or confiscations from prisoners. It had to be. Arvetis needed to study it. He needed to know.
He lay there for about ten minutes, wiping his eyes and slowly recovering his breath. He comforted himself with the thought that understanding was just around the corner. Then, with no footsteps to precede it, there came a sharp rapping on his door.
Arvetis leapt out of bed, cursing under his breath, and threw his pants on. He grabbed a white robe from the wall hook and wrapped it around his upper body. "What?" he called, irritated.
"We need to talk, Arvetis." The oily voice of Chrysos came from the other side of the door.
"It is urgent, sir."
Arvetis sighed, looked down at himself to make sure nothing untoward was visible, and opened the door. "What is it?" he asked the old Wolf in an intentionally polite voice.
"We need to burn the library tonight, sir. Junior officers have been caught smuggling out manuscripts."
"No." Arvetis turned and tried to shut the door, but Chrysos had his boot in it.
"No, we're not burning the library."
"Sir..." Chrysos gave a little chuckle. "I'm not sure I understand. These works are dangerous. They have to be destroyed before they can poison the minds of our men."
"We don't understand it yet," Arvetis replied, flustered.
"Understand what, sir?"
"We don't understand why they exist. Why they're written the way they are. What do they mean? What are we supposed to do with them?"
Chrysos's tone remained even, and his expression unreadable, as he said "We're burning the books tonight."
"What?" Arvetis blinked and shook his head. He was having trouble comprehending what Chrysos had said.
"And General Phylax is taking full, autonomous control of the armed forces. He alone will manage all military operations."
Slowly, comprehension dawned on Arvetis. So this was the form treason would take. Not fracture among the distant UPN nations, but impertinence from his own closest officers. His face began to contort, his lips rising above his teeth. He lunged at Chrysos, wrapping both paws around his neck, digging into the flesh with his claws. "You... insolent... cur!"
As slick as silk, Chrysos slid a paw under Arvetis's arm, reaching up and behind the younger, larger Wolf. Arvetis felt the cold metal point of a knife against the base of his neck. "Careful," Chrysos wheezed. "You're making the same mistake your brother did."
Staring balefully into Chrysos's face, Arvetis loosened his grip slightly. "Good boy," Chrysos said. "Now back into your room." The two of them, entwined in a hateful embrace, stepped slowly back into Arvetis's chambers. "And now, you will let go of my neck, and you will play nice puppy, or every single Predator in this stronghold will know about your naughty little secret by sunup."
Arvetis dropped his paws numbly from Chrysos's neck. Chrysos kept the knife in place a moment longer, but gave a short laugh, and sheathed it. "Don't look so surprised, Arvetis."
"How?" Arvetis asked when he found his voice again. "How do you know?"
"It is my job to know things. Your brother had the same penchant, of course, so it wasn't hard to guess."
This puzzled Arvetis. He could not imagine Aeschros's hulking form in diapers. "He did?"
"Oh, yes. It got quite troublesome by the end." Chrysos was clearly enjoying Arvetis's humiliation.
"Look... it isn't a 'penchant.' I need them."
"I'm sure you think you do. But the Board for the Use and Consumption of Prey Species will, no doubt, disagree with you."
Arvetis blinked, recalculating the situation for just a moment. "What?"
"Those cute little bunny males you bring up here from the slave quarters aren't classified for sexual use. We don't have any sex-classified Prey here. It's bad for the solders' moral fabric." Chrysos emphasized the last two words.
"Yes... yes, I know." Arvetis hunted for words. He had to play this off. Frankly, he didn't care who found out about the Rabbits; it was practically a tradition. Of course Aeschros had indulged in it, as well. Chrysos was showing his old-fashioned sensibilities by thinking this was a point of leverage. But things were getting out of hand, and he needed Chrysos gone immediately. "It was foolish of me. You're right."
"Yes. And the library?"
"Burn it. Don't know what I was thinking."
"And the military operations?"
Arvetis hesitated here. It would actually be a relief to have them off his back, he reflected. He was terrible at them, and he knew it. He also knew, though, that as soon as he gave up all pretense of being a military commander, his days were numbered. Chrysos was smart enough to keep Arvetis around whether he respected him or not. Phylax, on the other hand, would be likely to start getting ideas.
"I'll keep the northern advance. It's inconsequential; you know it. Once the west coast falls, the rest of the country will follow. Phylax can manage the western offensive." Chrysos looked skeptical. "Do you want to make me look weak in front of my first general?" Arvetis asked.
Chrysos nodded. "All right. I'll let you tell him yourself so it seems like your idea. You have one day." The old Wolf turned and walked out of the door, then looked back over his shoulder. "No hard feelings, Sir Agathos."
"You may be smarter than your brother, after all." With that, Chrysos shut the door.