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Ouroboros: the Endless Cycle

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Judy had never particularly cared for history when she had been younger. Her tutors in the subject had been more concerned with her ability to remember family lineages and dates than in giving her any real understanding of what had happened. With a few exceptions, such as the story of how the Oveja line had taken over Zootopia and ushered it into a new age of cooperation and peace, history had never been more than a series of dry facts.

But as she and Nick hurried through the ruins of Quimichpatlan Barony, Judy couldn't help but wonder if her teachers had known the awe-inspiring truth of the past and simply hadn't passed it on to her or if they really hadn't cared about anything but those rote facts. Everything they passed seemed to call out for further study, giving hints at the sorts of mammals who had lived and died centuries ago.

They passed buildings that were recognizably restaurants, some with names chiseled into the rock in the Old Tongue that Judy could half-read. They passed countless shops and apartment buildings, some of them bearing the curious impact of an unimaginable alchemy. One building had iridescent stepped cubes bulging tumor-like from its side. Another seemed to have been partially transmuted into sand that piled in drifts around the collapsed wall. Here and there alchemical torches, dim and green with age, provided ghostly illumination beyond what the lantern Nick carried provided, but there were always lurking shadows. Judy got the feeling that the path they were taking hadn't been traveled by looters from the Adventurer's Guild, or even any other mammal in recent history; the ground was thick with undisturbed dust and the air had an unpleasantly musty smell.

After perhaps half an hour they had to go down an alley after the path they were following simply ended in rubble. Before the barony had been destroyed, the alley, the walls of which were covered with illegible graffiti and rude carvings, would have ended at the wall of a building. Instead, however, the titanic forces that had spelled the barony's doom had split the building the wall belonged to in two, and the path directly through a number of building stretched off as far as the lantern light carried.

"It's the right direction," Nick said, and they plunged onward.

It was very strange to be walking through the cross-sections of buildings, many of which seemed to have survived largely intact. It reminded Judy of nothing more than a dollhouse, built without a back wall to allow play. In some places, whatever had split the buildings had also brought debris from upper floors—rusting chairs, broken bits of pottery, assorted pieces of metal—onto the path they walked. Despite that, the way through was still clear enough for them, although a larger mammal might have had a harder time; in some spots there was barely two or three feet of clearance.

Most of the buildings they passed through seemed surprisingly mundane, shops and restaurants and the ruins of apartments. But when they came to one of the last buildings before the path opened back up into one of the cavernous empty spaces that dominated the barony, Judy froze.

There was no question in Judy's mind that it had been a classroom of some sort; there were rows and rows of small metal desks, all facing the same direction. Whatever papers had once been in the room had long since rotted away or crumbled to nothing, but at nearly twenty of the desks were dust-covered bones.

Small bones.

"These were children," Judy said, and she suddenly felt a sickening pull in the pit of her stomach.

Nick came to a stop a step in front of her and lifted the lantern until the class was more or less entirely lit.

Nick nodded. "They were," he said, "If you destroy a barony, it's not just the ones in charge who die."

Judy stared at the nearest skull, which looked as though it had once belonged to an opossum no more than seven or eight years old. The opossum's bones had yellowed and collapsed into a brittle-looking pile, but the teeth in the skull resting atop the desk were still a gleaming pearly white in a grim parody of a smile. It—and all the other piles of bones—had been alive once, and for nothing more than the crime of being born in Quimichpatlan Barony they had died. How many other children had died when King Oveja II ordered the barony razed? How many innocents had lost their lives along with the guilty conspirators?

Or perhaps, a voice that sounded like Nick's whispered in Judy's mind, there never were any conspirators.

"This never should have happened," Judy said, looking out into the ruins of the classroom.

Time had swept away the identities of the dead, but her imagination filled in the gaps. She could picture her own younger siblings fidgeting at the desks, bored with whatever the teacher was explaining, eagerly looking forward to going to play. Judy could imagine clumsily-made drawings tacked onto the walls, done by kits with far more enthusiasm than talent. She could imagine a thousand little stories playing out in the tomb-silent space, everything and more she had ever experienced herself when she had been young.

"We can't change the past," Nick replied simply, and he lowered the lantern.

Perhaps it was her imagination, but Judy thought she heard something wistful in his voice, and she wondered what kinds of regrets he had buried in his heart. "Something like this can't ever happen again," she said firmly.

They had begun to walk again, leaving behind the classroom, and Nick shot her a sidelong glance. "And maybe if the City Guard was all like you, it wouldn't," he said.

Judy frowned, but she couldn't help but think of Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro and the book they had taken from his office. Nick had carefully packed it in his bag, and she wondered at what exactly the sheep had planned. What had he done with the residents of Phoenix?

They walked in silence a while longer, and eventually were no longer walking through buildings. They were in something that looked like it might have been a massive public square centuries ago. The ceiling was barely visible high overhead, which twinkled with the feeble lights of ancient alchemical torches. Massive stalactites, covered with blurred carvings descended from that ceiling, in some places forming enormous columns where they had grown long enough to merge into the floor. Planter beds were neatly arranged around gravel-lined paths, full of the dusty remnants of whatever flowers or shrubs had once been cultivated for public enjoyment deep underground. Unlike any above ground park Judy had ever encountered, the paths that led out of the park were tunnels going through the earth rather than open roads. There were more than a dozen, and all of them quickly became pitch-black where the light didn't reach far enough.

Nick pointed out one tunnel, which looked no different from any of the others. "That one," he said, "It'll take us to the fissure."

His voice was low, and Judy could understand why; the barony had seemed to get darker and darker as they traveled further away from the entrance they had used, and it was easy to imagine all kinds of horrors lurking silently in the hidden corners. "How are you sure?" Judy asked.

"The tunnels down here are all laid out more or less the same," he said with a shrug, "That one goes the right direction, and it'll branch off a few times so even if the main path is blocked we won't have to backtrack too much."

He spoke with perfect confidence, and a question suddenly occurred to Judy that she hadn't even thought to ask. "You've been down here before?"

"When I was younger," he said, with another shrug Judy suspected he meant to be careless but wasn't quite casual enough for that, "I'm sure you can understand why I quit doing it."

Judy nodded. She'd have to remember to ask him about that once they were back above the surface; although she hadn't known him very long she had noted that he very rarely said anything about his past, especially not so directly. "Then let's get out of here as fast as possible," Judy said, and they walked off in the direction Nick had indicated.

The tunnel they had gone down had been carved out of the earth itself, but it wasn't just raw stone. Signs in the Old Tongue—street names, probably—were carved into it where other tunnels branched off, and obvious care had been taken to make it inviting. There were alcoves for alchemical torches every ten feet or so, but none of them actually had torches anymore. When Judy examined one of the gaps more closely, she saw that it looked as though something large and wickedly sharp had pulled the lamp free, and when Nick noticed her looking he quietly said, "I did say there were monsters down here."

It meant that the only light was the lantern that Nick carried, which was enough to light up the entire width of the tunnel but didn't even come close to banishing the shadows in front of and behind them. The light sparkled and reflected off carved panels of cut crystal set into the walls, arranged into abstract mosaics that somehow vaguely reminded Judy of plants and vines. In some places, the little chips of crystal had fallen out of the wall, leaving behind yawning voids. Every now and then, they came across delicate piles of bones that had unmistakably belonged to bats, the distinctively elongated finger bones crumbling into pieces. Otherwise, the tunnel was clear, and it eventually opened up into a wider space.

It might have been another public park like the one that they had left to enter the tunnel, but if it had once had alchemical torches set into the ceiling they had long-since failed. Or been removed by whatever had pulled out the lights in the tunnel, but Judy didn't see any point in dwelling on that. Nick brought the lantern higher, and they carefully set off across the cavernous space. The floor was tiled in interlocking geometric patterns, but it was all that was visible; once they had gone far enough in that she couldn't see the tunnel they had come from Judy knew she'd never find her way back without a light. Judy felt a twinge of envy at Nick's apparently flawless sense of direction even without the sun, stars, or a compass to navigate by, but she pushed it aside. After all, she had the next best thing to having his sense of direction. She had him.

Nick was apparently making an effort to move quietly, and Judy did the same as they slowly crossed the space. Judy kept waiting for a wall to become visible, but one didn't appear, as though they had stumbled across a never-ending plain.

"Nick," something suddenly said in Judy's voice.

Judy froze. She hadn't said anything, but whatever had spoken had perfectly imitated her. "Nick?" Judy asked, "What was that?"

The light that the lantern threw off, bright though it was, only formed a little bubble of light around them, illuminating nothing more than the beautiful floor and motes of dust in the air. The voice had come from within that darkness, perhaps a hundred yards from where they were if she was judging the distance from sound alone correctly. "Ehecatls," Nick said, and then before she could ask him what that meant, he added, "They're like flying snakes, if snakes hunted in packs. They don't like light, though, so we'll be fine."

"And they can talk?" Judy asked.

"No more than a bird can. It's just imitation," Nick said, shrugging.

"We'll be fine," a voice came again, speaking in Nick's voice.

To Judy's sensitive ears, it sounded as though the thing—the Ehecatl—had moved between the times it had spoken. Or perhaps there were more than one lurking about. No matter how she strained her eyes, she couldn't see anything. But was it her imagination, or could she hear a rustling papery sound, like the scales of some enormous snake scratching against rock? "We'll be fine," the voice repeated, and then it chuckled, its imitation of Nick still perfect.

Judy shot a quick glance in Nick's direction. His ears were back, his face tense with apparent anxiety, and she reached out to squeeze his paw. "We will be fine," she said, as reassuringly as she could manage.

Nick gave her a shaky grin. "If you say so, Carrots."

They kept walking, and Judy heard that rustling slither again. "We'll be fine, Carrots," Nick's voice called out from the dark, perhaps two hundred yards behind them.

The thing chuckled again in his voice, and Judy could see the fur of Nick's tail frizzing out. She squeezed his paw again. "We've got a light," she said, and Nick nodded.

She could all but see the effort it cost him to push down his worry, and he took a deep, shaky breath.

If the Ehecatls were following them, they did so so quietly that not even Judy's keen ears could hear them, and they didn't speak again. After what felt like hours, but could have only been minutes, the far wall of the cavern came into view. Much like the first park they had passed through, there were a number of tunnels set into the wall, but what was visible in their pool of light didn't look to be in quite so good a shape. The tunnels all had an oddly melted look to them, the stone having flowed and re-hardened. In some of them, thick columns of stone had formed that all but completely blocked them, and others were full of debris. The one Nick picked was reasonably intact, but the delicate little shards of crystal that had once been set into the walls like the last tunnel had pooled on the floor, mixed in with the stone.

As they continued down the tunnel, passing other tunnels that branched off in various states of decay, Judy gradually became aware of the musty odor of the barony becoming stronger. The sickly stench of decay was mixed with something primal and unpleasant she couldn't put into words, something unlike anything she had ever smelled before. After about half an hour of walking, the smell was so bad that Judy almost felt as though she would gag on it, and some part of her mind warned her that whatever had created the stench was something that had once lived and breathed. And, perhaps, still did.

They pressed onward, though, coming to another incredibly dark and massive junction point. When they had crossed about four hundred yards—Judy wasn't sure how close they were to the middle since it was too dark to tell—Nick suddenly threw out his arm. "We need to go back. Now," he said, pulling at her arm.

Judy was about to ask why, but as they spun around she saw that the flame inside the lantern had gone out while the alchemical torch was still providing brilliant light. She remembered his warning about what that meant, that the air was no longer good to breath, and offered no protest. "We can backtrack to the next junction and take the one on the right," he said, "Don't worry, we'll get there."

To Judy, it sounded more like he was trying to convince himself that there was no reason to worry, but she simply nodded. She didn't feel as though she wasn't getting enough air to live on, but then again she had never suffocated. Perhaps it felt normal right up until the point where you keeled over dead. They were keeping a rapid pace, their nails clicking against the warped and wavy stone of the floor, when suddenly it shuddered beneath them. Nick was knocked off his feet, and Judy kept her balance only a moment longer before she joined him on the floor; she could hear the incredible grind of stone against stone coming from far below. Judy had never experienced an earthquake herself, but she wasn't afraid; they just needed to avoid being crushed by falling rocks or swallowed by fissures. A panicked expression had come over Nick's features, though, and Judy called out as reassuringly as she could, "It's just an earthquake, right? There's no reason to panic."

Judy saw Nick open his muzzle to begin saying something, and then the alchemical torch in his lantern suddenly winked out. They were plunged into the most absolute darkness Judy had ever experienced; it was as though she had gone completely blind. "It's a Nopalayotl!" Nick said, his voice suddenly high and shrill, "It must be levels beneath us. We've got to move!"

The shuddering of the earth continued even as Judy staggered to her feet. By the sound of Nick's voice she had found him and pulled him up. "Which way?" she called, shouting to be heard over the crunch of stones beneath them and the more whispery sounds of pebbles that had been shaken loose falling from the ceiling.

"This way!" Nick called, pulling her into a run as he set off.

In the pitch-blackness Judy had no idea if they were heading back the way they had come or not, but it didn't matter. The sense of urgency in Nick's voice was undeniable, and suddenly she wanted nothing more badly than to have light again. Even Nick's superior night vision didn't seem to be helping him in the complete darkness; she could feel him stumbling, pulling at her arm as he tried moving as fast as he could over the uneven and shifting floor.

The alchemical torch wasn't coming back to life, though, and they kept running as fast as they could before Judy's paw was suddenly yanked out of Nick's. "Carrots!" Nick cried out, "Help—"

His voice was suddenly cut off, and she heard a raspy choking sound. "Nick!" Judy yelled, spinning her head as she tried to trace the direction he had been pulled off in, "Where are you?"

"Carrots!" Nick's voice called, coming from a dozen different directions.

The word reverberated and overlapped, the words all sounding exactly like Nick. It could have only been an Ehecatl that had grabbed him, and now the pack of them was preventing her from telling where he really was. Judy dropped her spear and drew her sword; she had no idea how tough the monsters were but wanted her sharpest weapon. She heard something lunge at her, the air ruffling over its feathers, and she stabbed with all the strength she could muster.

The blade suddenly met resistance, and an unearthly piercing wail filled the air as the thing she had stabbed writhed in agony. For an instant she nearly lost her grip on the hilt, but as the monster twisted the keen edge of the blade pulled free of its flesh with almost no resistance. "Nick!" Judy called again.

The cry of "Carrots!" came again from all directions, but Judy heard something else.

Barely audible over the louder cries and the shaking of the earth was a voice nearly too weak and faint to hear. It had spoken a single word: "Judy."

Judy threw herself in that direction, crying wordlessly. She heard something lunge at her nearly too late to act and she swung her sword out. The creature she hit gave out a rasping choke and then there was a muffled thump as it hit the ground. "Nick!" a monster screamed in her own voice.

It was the most nightmarish fight Judy had ever been a part of, totally blind and with the ground shaking around her. She didn't dare think about how to react to the Ehecatls; she couldn't even tell how many there were. She could only strike out when the sussuring of their feathers told her ears they were within striking distance, and she swung her sword with almost no technique. The hilt grew hot and sticky with their blood, but there seemed to be no end to them. "You'll have to kill me!" she roared, "Let go of him!"

It didn't matter that they couldn't understand her; she refused to give up the fight until she won or was dead on the ground. The monsters seemed happy to oblige her, shrieking a horrible mixture of wordless shouts and things she or Nick had said, until suddenly with a popping hiss a light flared into being not even two feet from where she was standing.

Judy got her first glimpse of the Ehecatls and recoiled in revulsion; to say that they were like flying snakes didn't sell the true horror of them. They were perhaps seven or eight feet long, their bodies thicker than her thighs and covered with scaly gray feathers except their heads and dead white bellies. Like snakes, they had no legs, but they had massive feathered wings nearly the size of their entire bodies. The feathers looked almost nothing like a bird's, though; they had a too-perfect geometric appearance to them, more like something drawn with a straight edge than anything the gods had created. Their heads were the worst part of them, massive and wedge-shaped and a horrible mix of parts that didn't go together. The Ehecatls had wickedly curved beaks, like a bird of prey, but with the slithering forked tongue and fangs of a snake in an overly-pink mouth lined with wickedly hooked rasps. The heads were grotesquely scaly, red and almost raw-looking where their feathers didn't grow. A crown of gray and black feathers grew from around the transition point where the scales stopped and the feathers started like a crude imitation of a lion's mane. The eyes were awful; each monster had four, or perhaps two depending on how you counted them. On either side of the monsters' heads two eyes seemed to have partially merged, with two unblinking slit pupils in an immobile bulb of flesh shaped like a fat figure-eight.

Judy saw the light was coming from the gas lamp of Nick's lantern, and Nick himself was buried under a pile of the horrible monsters that seemed to be trying to squeeze the life out of him. At the sudden burst of light the Ehecatls all shrieked as one, rolling their bodies jerkily in agony as their lidless and horrible eyes wept milky white tears.

They slithered and flapped, squawking and making inarticulate cries of pain as they slipped and flew in hop-skips away. Four or five of them were dead on the ground, spilling slowly growing pools of blood, but Judy only had eyes for Nick. He stirred feebly, clutching at the lantern; Judy saw matches scattered on the ground around him. "Nick!" Judy cried, and ran over to him.

He flopped onto his back and smiled weakly at her. "Told you," he rasped, "As long as we have a light..."

He shuddered and didn't seem to be able to say more. Judy couldn't help herself; it didn't matter that she was splattered with the gore of the monsters she had killed or that she was still holding a sword, she needed to hug him, to be sure that he really was alright. After a moment, he gently returned her embrace, patting her on the back. She didn't want to think about how close he had come to dying, but she couldn't help that either. What if he hadn't been able to light the lantern? What if she hadn't been able to distract some of the monsters? Would she have been overwhelmed herself, and would they have both died beneath Phoenix?

But they hadn't, and she pulled Nick to his feet. The ground was still trembling, although not nearly as badly as it had been, and the alchemical torch in the lantern still stubbornly refused to work.

There was a moment—a perfect, shining moment—when it was just the two of them standing there in their little pool of light looking at each other. It was a moment unlike anything Judy had ever experienced with anyone else; Judy realized that she had never cared about someone in quite the same way. And from the way that Nick looked back at her she thought maybe he was thinking the same thing. "I—" she began, and then she saw that one of the Ethecals on the ground wasn't dead.

Its eyes had been blinded by the blood of its fellows, and there was a horrible wound in its flank, but it lunged at Nick with a savage ferocity. Judy pushed Nick as hard as she could, knocking him to the ground before spinning to face the thing. With a flap of its wings the monster changed course and caught her free arm in its mouth before Judy could bring her sword to bear against its throat.

The sword cut the Ethecal's head off with an amazing cleanness, and while its body slumped twitching to the floor its heavy head was stuck on Judy's arm. She braced the guard of her sabre against its yawning mouth and ripped her arm loose with a cry of pain; it felt as though she had swept it through a pricker bush. The creature's head tumbled to the ground and Judy looked to Nick. "Are you alright?" she asked, her heart pounding in her ears.

Nick stood up, wonder visible in his face even in the dim light of the gas lamp. "You saved me," he said.

"Of course," she said, "I promised I'd make sure you got out."

She was about to continue what she had been about to say when then there was a sudden spasm of pain from her arm. It felt as though it was burning from the inside out and she dropped her sword to clutch at it with her other arm, collapsing to her knees. "Your arm!" Nick said, and his voice was full of horror.

Judy looked down at her injured arm and for an instant didn't recognize it. Two of her fingers were simply gone, and her thumb was hanging on by a thread in a pulped mass of meat. Chunks of flesh had been torn out of her forearm in more than a dozen places, and in a few her skin flapped horribly. There were massive puncture wounds in her arm oozing something that didn't quite look like blood. In the dim light it was nearly black and horribly viscous yet bubbling with foam. Every beat of her heart was suddenly a throbbing burst of pain, and she watched her poisoned blood pulse and seethe with it in perfect harmony. Poison, she thought, and her thought seemed to be coming from miles away, Or is it venom? I never get those right.

"Judy!" Nick said, his voice hoarse.

He had closed the distance between them, kneeling on the ground in front of her as he reached out for her. "S'fine, Nick," she said, trying and failing to bat his paws away.

Her voice sounded weak and unsteady to her ears, almost as though she had drank too much. It was a funny thought, and she could feel her lips twitch in a smile. There was no pain anymore; it was almost as though she was drifting off to sleep. "Leave. You gotta get to..." she continued, but she couldn't focus on what was supposed to come next.

Where was he supposed to go? The answer seemed important, but it drifted away from her like a balloon. Nick's eyes were wide, and she could dimly feel his paws against her back. He was warm and the ground was cold. His eyes were bright and beautiful and she felt as though she should have told him that. There was a lot she wished she could have told him. "Get..." she said, and it was barely more than a mumble.

The colors were fading out of the world, Nick's brilliantly red fur going gray as her vision dimmed.

"Get home," she managed at last.

Nick was saying something—shouting something—but she couldn't make it out. Judy closed her eyes and the darkness swallowed her.