Parker’s paws stung with each step. The cold, cold rain had made her pads raw. The earth was not soft anymore. The two-leggeds had turned it to hard rock that tore at her feet as she loped through the forest of metal and cement. A sharp stone caught her in between her toes, stumbling her, but she did not whimper. Her people were all but gone, and such sounds would only attract predators.
The rain seemed to be breaking against the cement in the same way the ocean once broke against the earth, trying to push it back maybe, or perhaps trying to destroy it one drop at a time. She did not know for sure. The rain beings and nimkee birds only brought storms now. She would not have been able to find her way if it wasn’t for her nose, the rain was so thick and violent. The acrid scent of the fire tugged at her nostrils.
The problem, of course, was that the fire hadn’t started yet.
The eldritch ones showed her things, allowed her to walk outside the river the two-leggeds called Time. The flames and smoke that pulled her forward had not sparked yet, but soon they would. She needed to be there when it happened, this she knew as true as the water dripping down her nose.
Her breath made little puffs of smoke as she loped through the thicket of two-legged ruins – great slabs of hardened earth, with curled, metal ribs poking through, tumbled over shelters and great iron hands reaching up for the sky. She did not usually travel this far away from the light of the two-leggeds, so close to the breathing wall that held back the deadlands from the city.
Cresting a pile of rubble and waste, she finally found the source of the phantom fire. Through the veil of water fall, stood a half-collapsed shelter. Its neighbours had long since laid down to die, turning to rot and rats’ nests. The shelter stood alone, the only thing with the will left to defy the hard earth.
Parker lowered her head, listening. Carefully, she stalked closer. Halfway across the clearing, a raccoon popped out of a crevice, chittering and clawing at her in warning. She padded around the four-legged casually, intent on the shelter but not interested in letting this creature think she had been scared by its display. The raccoon ignored her and went back to its crevice.
One male and one female two-legged stood inside the lonely shelter, that much was quite clear to Parker. The rain carried their scent and their voices easily, smearing all the ground with it. She stopped a few paces away from a large opening in the shelter’s wall, watching the two inside.
“This is not the way,” the female barked. Her scent was old, diluted.
“This is the only way,” the male snapped back. He smelled of youth and anger. “Look,” he said, bringing out something from the dark coverings he wore. It smelled of forests long dead. “I have it already.”
“No,” the old one lunged at the male. Her scent became fear.
He pushed her away easily. At this, Parker stood, the tension in the air bristling her fur. But something else was happening. The angry one was speaking in words that turned his scent black, that stung Parker’s ears and made her taste blood. She bore her teeth, pawed at her face – the shelter erupted in red light that sizzled and turned to flame.
The male two-legged was a blur of shadow against the fire. He stumbled and the thing he held flew out of his hands, rolling and toppling through the uneven ground. The nervous raccoon popped out again, vying for the small object that smelled like wood and dirt. As its fingers touched the black box, it let out a hiss and screech that pierced the thunder of the storm and roaring of the blaze.
Parker moved to snatch the object before the angry two-legged could find it, but a new scream halted her. The old one was still in the shelter.
She did not consider the ramifications of it all, the box, the fire – hers was a sacred duty before anything else. She was a protector. Parker leapt into the flames.
The old two-legged was on her side, arms covering her face, her fear colouring the air around her cold despite the flames. She let out another scream as part of the wall collapsed. The fire licked at Parker but her soaked fur kept the flames at bay. She grabbed the old one by the shoulder, her strong jaws biting into flesh and fabric and dragged the two-legged out of the shelter.
By the time she got the old one onto the wet, hard earth, the other two-legged had disappeared into the night along with his strange box.
The old one took her breaths in great gasps, eyes were blinking against the rain and the bright light of the fire. She looked up at Parker.
“You,” she smiled. “I know what you are.”
Parker licked her hand reassuringly.
“You should have left me in there. Only fire can purify a soul like mine.” Pain colored her scent more than fear now, but it did not sound in her voice. “I’m glad though,” she coughed and her whole body thrashed against the cement. “You must find the key. He’ll … eat the city …” The words came out in one last breath, one last puff of air.
The old one’s life left. She was gone. The breathing wall in the distance let out a sigh. The torrents stopped.
Parker turned towards the centre. As the rain abated, the great city came into focus again. Its harsh glow and blinking lights deafening the black night. The structures, with their straight lines and hulking forms rose, past the clouds. The air filled with bright and pungent scents – fear, anger, joy. Overhead, a little metal being the two-leggeds called monitor drone whizzed by, ascending to the steel shelters high above.
Parker pointed her nose towards the hidden moon and howled.