Chapter 1 – A Morning in Pyre

It was the warm sun on his face that awoke Royce from his slumber.

He considered turning over and going back to sleep. But he had a lot to do today, so it was probably best to get started.

Beside him, something shifted. He looked. A female tiger was sharing his bed, her glossy fur gleaming in the daylight.

The memory of the previous night flooded back. Her name was Lily, if he recalled correctly. She had been at the Dragon’s Skull Inn last night when he’d arrived. She’d jumped at the chance to talk to the famous pit-fighter ‘Raging’ Royce Herrick.

She also jumped at the chance to spend a night of passion with him.

He smiled as he climbed out of bed, taking care not to disturb his guest. It’d been a very good night. Lily’s musk still clung to the sheets.

Royce stood and stretched his muscular frame. The tall tiger took a moment to flex his arms and legs, working the stiffness from his limbs.

The stone floor was cool beneath his feet as he walked naked across the bedroom, tail trailing along behind him. Clothing was strewn about, he and Lily hadn’t been too bothered with being tidy last night. Even his sword, still in its scabbard, lay discarded without a second thought.

Stopping at the table in one corner, Royce poured himself a large glass of water from the jug there. He downed it in one gulp. He poured another.

He turned to survey the room as he sipped at his water and found himself looking at his reflection in the large mirror on the opposite wall.

His fur was a bit of a mess, not surprising after his antics in bed the night before. But a quick grooming and that would be sorted out.

While not ordinarily vain, Royce had to admit he had a good body. Big, very muscular and very strong, even for a pit-fighter. But, of course, Vance had the training and combat skills to back up his size and strength. That was why he was so good at what he did for a living.

Having had enough of self-admiration, Royce turned his view away from the mirror. He grabbed the blue velvet robe from its hook on the wall and slipped it on over his bright orange fur and black stripes.

With glass of water in hand, Royce headed for the balcony.

He pushed back the beaded curtain covering the archway at the far end of the room and stepped out onto the wooden balcony built into the wall outside.

It was definitely a bright morning, sunlight washing over him. It was early as well. The sun had barely risen. Already, it was shaping up to be a hot day. Of course, here in the city of Pyre, on the outskirts of the Great Desert, every day was a hot day.

The tiger pit-fighter leaned against the railing and looked down at the sandy street below. Despite the early hour, it was already buzzing with activity.

Various shopkeepers were already opening their shops. Street vendors were setting up their stalls. A few people were going about their business.

All this was overshadowed by the procession making its way along the street. At its head was a panda bear riding a large purple dray lizard. A merchant, and a pretty rich one, judging from his exotic clothing and the quality of his mount. Purple lizards made the best riding beasts, but they were damned expensive.

Behind the panda was a wagon, drawn by a pair of small green-skinned dray lizards, and stacked high with assorted goods. A simply clothed wolf with grey fur drove it.

Following the wagon were four manacled slaves, carrying an assortment of crates and packages, their muscles straining under their respective burdens, fur matted with sweat. There were two lions, a hare and a raccoon.

He found himself staring at those struggling slaves. He felt a pang of discomfort and pulled his gaze away from the street, focusing instead on the buildings around him.

Pyre’s buildings had mainly been built from a combination of sandstone and granite. Many were tall and elegant, with spires of slate topping their roofs. In this part of the city anyway. Out on the outskirts, the buildings were newer, simpler constructions.

“Royce…”

It was Lily calling him from inside. She had a sweet, musical voice. He drank down the last drains of water from his glass and went back inside.

Lily’s lithe form was curled up in bed, the sheets wrapped around her. “Come back to bed, Royce.” She purred. “Let’s continue from where we left off last night.”

It was very tempting, but Royce had things to do. “I’d love to,” he grinned, “but I’ve got a busy day ahead. Feel free to help yourself to something to eat from the kitchen downstairs before you leave.”

Lily looked disappointed. “Will you be at the Dragon’s Skull again tonight?” She asked.

“No.” Royce told her. “I’m in the pits tonight. I’ve got several big fights lined up, plus I’m open to challengers all night.”

“Oh.” Was all the tigress had to say.

“You want to come watch me?” He asked, grooming back his fur in the mirror. “I could easily get you in, free of charge.”

“No. That’s alright.” Lily sighed.

The tiger frowned at her. For a moment, he considered asking her what was wrong, but decided not to. He was wasting too much time already.

Still wearing only his robe, Royce grabbed his keys from where they’d been discarded on the floor and left the bedroom.

He made his way downstairs to the kitchen. His two-storey house wasn’t as big or extravagant as the houses of some pit-fighters, but at least he owned it, and still had a lot of money. Being good at what he did paid well.

From the kitchen, he went into the pantry. At the back was a solid locked door behind which lay his water storage tank. In Pyre, water was hard to come by, a valuable commodity. He didn’t want anyone breaking in and stealing his.

He unlocked the door. Taking a large tin jug, he filled it up from the tank. The water level inside was starting to get a little low. He made a mental note to get it refilled soon.

He locked the door behind him. As he was leaving the pantry, he heard a noise. His ears pricked up, listening. It was the door.

Taking a look in the corridor outside the kitchen, he picked up Lily’s distinctive musk in the air. The tigress had just left, without even saying goodbye.

Royce shrugged to himself. Oh well…

The tiger had a quick breakfast of dried lizard meat, then took the jug of water up to his bedroom, where he washed and groomed himself.

Then he got dressed in some simple knee-length shorts, an open shirt and some sandals. After a moments thought, he took his sword as well, slinging it over his shoulder. Given his size, it was unlikely anyone would start trouble with him, but it was best to be prepared.

It was time to get going on the day’s business, so he grabbed his keys and money pouch, hooked them onto his belt and stepped out the front door into the bright sunlight beyond.

He locked his home up behind him and proceeded on his way.

The sandy avenues of the city were getting busier by the minute as Royce wandered the streets toward his destination. It was a shaping up to be a regular day in the city of Pyre.

As was usual, it took barely five minutes before Royce’s fur was dripping with sweat. Normally, he led a nocturnal lifestyle, rarely going out in the day because of the blazing heat.

At the first opportunity, the tiger slipped into a side alley, opting to take a longer route through the back alleys of the city. They were almost completely empty and held a lot of shade.

He knew he was being followed through a combination of instinct and training. As he walked, he pondered how best to handle the situation. It wouldn’t be the first time a couple of thieves had assumed they could handle him.

Royce stopped in his tracks and looked back. The narrow alleyway behind him was, as expected, empty.

“Show yourselves!” The tiger called out, ready for action. “I know you’re there!”

“You’re good, Mr.Herrick.” Said a voice behind him. “Armin and I were being very quiet in our pursuit.”

The pit-fighter spun around, drawing his sword, assuming a fighting stance.

“Hold on, kid.” Said the fur standing before him. “I’m not here to attack you.”

It was a wolf, shorter than Royce, with a lithe, well-built body covered in grey fur. He was heavily dressed, considering the heat, wearing trousers, black leather boots and a blue shirt with short sleeves. A sword hung from his belt. Vance couldn’t help but notice that part of his left ear was missing.

“I’m not a kid.” Royce growled. “Who are you?”

The wolf smiled at him. “Well, you take offence easily.” He said. “I’m Tobias Clandrell. My Comrade over there is Armin Paraz.” He pointed past Royce.

The tiger glanced over his shoulder. A leopard stood there, arms crossed, glaring at him. He was dressed in a similar manner to the wolf, but with a white shirt. Royce looked back at Tobias.

“What do you want?” He asked. He did not relax his grip on his sword, even though he wasn’t worried. He’d be able to handle these two easily, if it came to that.

The wolf shrugged. “For now, just to talk.”

“About what?”

“You.”

Royce shook his head. “You don’t know anything about me.” He put his sword back into its scabbard. His instincts were telling him this wolf and his friend were no significant threat.

“You’d be surprised how much I know.” Tobias grinned.

“I don’t have time for this.” Royce pushed past the wolf to go on his way.

“Why don’t you own any slaves, Mr. Herrick?” The wolf called after him.

The tiger stopped in his tracks and looked back, a shiver shooting up his spine. He had a bad feeling he knew why Tobias asked that question.

“What do you mean?” He asked, neutrally.

“You’re a rich, successful pit-fighter.” Tobias explained. “You can easily afford to own and keep at least one slave to keep your home in order. But you don’t. Why?”

“That is none of your business.” Royce snarled.

“You see,” the wolf went on, “I think it’s more to do with the scar you probably have under your fur on your left shoulder blade.”

The wolf knew. He knew Royce’s secret. The tiger didn’t know how he’d found out, but that didn’t matter now.

“The scar,” Tobias was saying, “from when, as a young cub, you were branded. As a slave.”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” Said Royce, knowingly. “Blackmail.”

The grey-furred wolf laughed out loud at this. “I can see how you’d assume that. Your career would be over if it became known that a large portion of your life was spent as a mere slave. By law, a slave is a slave for life.”

“How did you find out?” The big tiger demanded.

“I have sources, let’s just leave it at that.” Tobias shrugged. “I’ve done my research on you Mr. Herrick. A slave since you were a cub, you eventually found yourself the property of a slave trader, one Calhoun Nomack.”

Now that was a name Royce didn’t like to hear. Ever.

“Mr. Nomack is known to my sources and I.” Tobias continued. “He’s known for being particularly brutal and… extreme with his property. I don’t even want to imagine the kinds of things you must have suffered with him. He seemed quite fond of you, didn’t he? He kept you as his personal slave for many years.”

“That’s enough!” Royce snarled.

“I can understand you not wanting to be reminded.” Tobias said. “But eventually business for Mr. Nomack became so bad he was forced to sell you. I don’t know who to. All I know is that several years later, you turn up more than a hundred miles away here in Pyre, as a pit-fighter with a ton of combat training. Who exactly trained you, Mr. Herrick? They did a very good job, I must say.”

“That is none of your concern.” The tiger said. “Look, what do you want, exactly?” Royce wanted this conversation over and done with. He didn’t like being reminded of his past life.

“I want for you to start thinking.” Tobias said. “About your life and the world around you.”

The large tiger wasn’t too sure how to respond to this. “Is that supposed to be a joke?”

“Not at all.” The wolf’s voice was suddenly serious, his face set. “Think about all you could be doing with your life beyond beating others to a pulp in a pit for money.”

“And I’ll bet you’ve got some suggestions about what I should do with my life…” Said Royce, mockingly.

“Yes. I do.” Said Tobias. “There are many problems in the world that are not going to be solved unless someone does something about them. The slave trade, of which you have personal experience, is just one example.”

“And why should I spend my life trying to solve the problems of the world?” Said Royce.

“I’m not saying you should.” Said Tobias. “I’m just saying it’s something to think about.”

Royce turned his back on the wolf and his companion in disgust. “There’s nothing to think about. The world has problems. That’s not exactly news. Yes, I stay away from the slave trade because of my personal experience, but that’s it. I’m not going to jeopardise the life I’ve built for some ridiculous concept of helping the world.”

“If you say so.” Said Tobias, from behind him. “However, we will be around. In case things change.”

“I don’t care…” Royce growled, turning.

The wolf and the leopard were gone.

I’m not the only one who’s well trained, he thought. He hadn’t heard their departure at all.

A part of him was cursing at himself. He should have killed them both once they revealed what they knew about his past. He had a lot at stake, and those two seemed to be a very strange pair. He couldn’t be sure what they’d do with that knowledge.

He sighed and continued on his way. It couldn’t be helped now, and he had things to do.

* * * * * * * *

From the shadows, a wolf and a leopard watched the tiger go.

“I still don’t understand why we’re taking such an interest in him, sir.” Said the leopard, once Royce was gone. “He hardly seems the right sort for the Brotherhood.”

“Really?” Was the wolf’s only reply.

“Yes!” Said Armin. “He’s stubborn and arrogant and selfish…”

“I will refrain from pointing out how hypocritical that is of you.” Tobias interrupted. “After all, you weren’t much different from Royce Herrick when we first found you.”

“But, sir…”

“You are a prime example that a fur can change, Armin.” Said Tobias.

“But should we really be proceeding like this, captain?” Said the leopard. “We haven’t received word from Central yet about their decision on Herrick.”

The wolf thought about this.

“Lieutenant,” he said, “of the two members of the Brotherhood here right now, who is in command?”

“You are, sir.” Armin answered.

“Exactly.” Said Tobias. “Therefore, it’s up to me what we do until Central gets around to contacting us. And I have decided to proceed. Understood?”

Armin looked downcast. “Yes, sir.”

“Don’t look so down, my friend.” Said Tobias, cheerfully. “Despite your reservations, Royce Herrick will make a fine member of the Brotherhood.”

The wolf shrugged. “He just needs to be guided in the right direction…”

To Be Continued…


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Raging Tiger/Kuman the Barbarian/Mitchell and Michael/Going Under/Beware the Transformer/Servus Inc./Farewell to Free Will

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