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Ouroboros: the Endless Cycle

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Captain Del Mar was the sort of officer Bogo had loathed early in his career. The otter was unambitious, had every law and regulation memorized, and seemingly couldn't make a decision without discussing it first. Age and experience, however, had taught Bogo that while Del Mar would never be his first choice for a partner while walking a beat the otter would be his top pick for an administrative job.

His lack of ambition meant he was satisfied staying at the same posting for years, providing stability and a deep understanding of the role only strengthened by his incredible knowledge and consistent application of the rules. His need for discussion meant his own subordinates felt valued, the civilians felt respected, and the final decision ended up being well thought-out.

Frankly, If Bogo could go back in time he would hit his younger self upside the head for being an impatient and hot-tempered waste of a uniform, but he doubted it would have accomplished much. The arrogance of youth seemed near-universal, and Bogo winced at some of the things he had done. Del Mar might have never taken down a gang, but Bogo doubted he had ever gotten into a fistfight with a fellow officer.

Still, his grudging respect for the otter didn't mean that he had to like him, and as Del Mar led Bogo through the maze of corridors that made up the interior of Tzitz Quit he was glad he didn't have a painful reminder of why. Normally Del Mar was perhaps the most aggressively friendly mammal Bogo had ever met short of Corazón, his interest in others so strong that it seemed as though it had to be fake. Del Mar had a real talent for sounding as if he was genuinely interested in the boring stories and terrible jokes of other mammals, and on every other visit Bogo had made to Tzitz Quit the otter had been rather tiring to deal with for any length of time. Now, however, Del Mar was deadly serious and almost bluntly to the point.

When Bogo had asked Del Mar about what had happened in Phoenix, it had taken the captain only a moment to gather his thoughts before launching into his report without breaking his stride. "Tzitz Quit is the next best thing to having mammals on the ground in the wastelands," Del Mar began, "We have the elevation to keep an eye on the road between the War Gate and Phoenix—and the mammals and equipment to do it day or night."

Bogo nodded, gesturing for Del Mar to go on without further explanation. Bogo knew that among Tzitz Quit's many other purposes—routing water traffic, serving as a marketplace, acting as a City Guard armory and barracks—the primary reason it had been built was as a guard tower. The outpost rose even higher than any point on the nearby War Gate, which Tzitz Quit long predated. When the tower had been built, it had been as one of twelve towers evenly spaced around the Middle Wall. As originally built, the Middle Wall only had three gates in it, equally spaced, and Tzitz Quit had not stood near one of those gates. It had, in fact, been of little importance until King Oveja I—at that time merely General Oveja—had used his alchemists to blow a hole in the Outer Wall and made their way to the Middle Wall, where they again made their own entrance. When the War Gate had been built in the aftermath, Tzitz Quit had eventually gone from one of the least important outposts to the most important, and great care had been taken over the centuries to ensure it lived up to its purpose.

As Bogo knew, one of the ways in which Tzitz Quit had retained relevance as a watch tower was by always using the most advanced possible means of monitoring. The top of the tower had the finest telescopes with the most perfect lenses alchemists could make, and the mammals keeping watch included those with naturally good day and night vision as well as the quauhxicallis needed for even better vision. Del Mar's claim was not, in Bogo's experience, an idle boast; Bogo had fought endless rounds of committee meetings to keep Tzitz Quit's monitoring budget. The ruinous expense of maintaining guard outposts in the wastelands of the Outer Baronies had made those costs at least marginally appealing to the more tight-fisted mammals weighing in on budgets. For a few months, at least, before the arguments started again.

Bogo forced his attention back to Del Mar; the operating budget of the City Guard should have been the furthest thing from his mind.

"There hasn't been much in the way of unusual traffic the past few days," Del Mar said; mercifully Bogo didn't seem to have missed anything while his thoughts briefly wandered, "The usual mix of merchant caravans heading each way. There was a report of a lone alchemist being escorted by a guardsmammal, but Nicholas of the Middle Baronies makes the trip back and forth quite regularly. I've pulled the logs from the War Gate of comings and goings for you, should you wish to inspect them."

Bogo nodded, but he couldn't help but be interested by the way in which Del Mar had phrased his response. "You know this Nicholas?" he asked, and Del Mar nodded in turn.

The otter paused a moment to scratch at the fur atop his head, which was shot through with quite a bit of white, before answering. "Oh yes," he said, "He's something of a fixture on the route. A bit peculiar, considering he's a predator and all, but I've seen for myself that he's either an alchemist or the greatest fraud in all of Zootopia."

"What do you think of him? Could he be involved?"

Del Mar hesitated a moment again before answering, and he scratched at his own head so vigorously that stray clumps of fur stood up awkwardly. "He is the friendly sort," the otter said slowly, "I like to think I have a bit of a skill at connecting with mammals. Get them to open up about themselves, if you know what I mean. And Nicholas seems to have plenty of funny stories, but I have no idea how he turned out to be an alchemist. It's a bit odd, especially if you know other alchemists. You can't get them to shut up about their work and what they've done!"

He flashed a commiserating smile, and Bogo supposed that Del Mar's work probably brought him into closer contact with more members of the Alchemist Guild than his own did; that was certainly something he didn't envy. "They certainly love talking about themselves," Bogo agreed, hoping Del Mar would continue.

A frown suddenly flashed across Del Mar's face. "But if he was plotting something, he's been up to it for years," the otter said, "If he's fooled me, he's fooled dozens of other mammals."

It was the weak point of any conspiracy; hiding something massive was more difficult than most mammals thought. All it took was for someone, just a single mammal, to notice something off and the most elaborate of schemes could crumble. "Please continue," Bogo said.

Del Mar took a moment to pick up the thread of his story again. "Since we lost communication with Phoenix, it's looked, well, abandoned. There are still lights, but none that move or change," he said, "And it almost looks as though there's an army in front of it."

Even a cheap alchemical torch would provide light for decades, so it wasn't surprising that some lights would be unchanged. An army, though, was an entirely different matter. "An army?" Bogo asked sharply.

He had secretly hoped that Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro had been lying in his message, but he couldn't think of a way for the sheep to have assembled an entire army in Phoenix without anyone noticing. Unless, of course, Del Mar was also in on it. "An army," Del Mar said with a nod; if he could tell what Bogo was thinking he certainly didn't show it.

"A big one, too, at least a few thousand mammals. Can't tell you much more than that, what with how far away Phoenix is," Del Mar continued, and Bogo was studying the otter carefully.

He didn't look as though he was lying; he looked worried, in fact. His face was nearly white with age, rugged and careworn beneath his fur, and his concern was obvious. "What's Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro told you?" Bogo asked.

"Not much," Del Mar replied ruefully, "Wouldn't say hardly anything. Doesn't trust me, I think. He just called the mammals he was with 'survivors' and barricaded himself in a room."

"I see," Bogo replied, his voice as neutral as he could make it.

Was Cencerro plotting a scheme or a victim of it? Was Del Mar involved or not? It could have all been an elaborate ruse to throw him on the wrong scent, or everything could be precisely as it appeared. Perhaps Cencerro was just the commander of the military force of a settlement unfortunate enough to be attacked by barbarians. Perhaps Del Mar was just the loyal commander of a watchtower. But then again, perhaps not.

"It looks bad," Del Mar said, so quietly that Bogo almost didn't notice, and then the otter added a bit louder, "If we can't trust each other, we're not really an army anymore, are we?"

Was Del Mar simply voicing his very reasonable concern, or was he probing Bogo for weakness? If it was the latter, Bogo had to admit that he had rarely felt weaker. His neat and orderly world had all been upended, and the pieces seemed to be refusing to go back where they had been. He wondered if the mammals who had fought for the emperor when King Oveja I had established his lineage had felt the same. Being blindsided by something they could have never seen coming, how had they reacted? They had lost, of course, and some part of Bogo couldn't help but wonder if he would too.

But it wouldn't do to tell a subordinate officer his fears, even if he hadn't held vague suspicions about that officer's loyalty. Instead, Bogo simply said, "We're an army until the queen says we're not."

Del Mar nodded vigorously, and Bogo couldn't tell if the look of relief on his face was genuine or simply for his own benefit. They walked in silence the rest of the way to the room that Cencerro had claimed for himself; if there was one thing Tzitz Quit was absolutely not lacking it was space. The hallways were all incredibly wide and tall, stone floors worn almost as smooth as glass from millennia of use, and Bogo wouldn't have been surprised to learn that every room in the watchtower had been repurposed dozens of times each over the ages. The signs of construction and modification were everywhere, from spots in the walls where the ghostly outlines of doors that no longer existed stood to the ever-so-slightly mismatched alchemical torches set into the ceiling. When they did finally stop, it was in front of an unremarkable wooden door, splintering slightly at the bottom; the way Tzitz Quit was laid out it could have just as easily been a broom closet as a ballroom. None of the interior rooms had windows to let in natural lighting, and getting lost seemed more inevitable than possible. "Just through here, sir," Del Mar said, gesturing at the door.

"Thank you, Captain," Bogo replied.

If the otter's eyes hadn't been on him, Bogo might have taken a deep breath to steady himself. He wasn't worried, precisely, or even on the edge of panic. Not that panic was a feeling he was used to; with the exception of the time the midwife had burst into his office, stumbling over her words, while Maria was pregnant he wasn't sure he could name the last time he had felt it. He was concerned, though, and not just about what Diego Cencerro would say. Were his own abilities, with his increasingly wandering attention, up to the task before him?

Bogo repressed a shrug as he pulled the door open. So long as he had the queen's trust, he would do the best he could for as long as he could until he was either dead or dismissed. With that grim thought, he stepped into the room.


The total population of Phoenix was—or rather, had been—about seven thousand mammals according to the last census that Bogo had seen. Seven thousand mammals, ranging in size from shrews and voles to elephants and giraffes, with a diversity of species that rivaled the Inner and Middle Baronies. Seven thousand mammals, each with their own hopes and dreams and fears.

There were fifteen mammals in the room.

They didn't even fill one corner, all of them huddled together silent and wide-eyed as though nothing else existed. All of them, at least, except for Diego Cencerro. While Bogo had only met the sheep a few times, he had made a lasting impression. Part of it was because one of the simple but useful tricks he had learned on the way from ensign to captain general was the value in remembering names and faces. Most of it, though, was because the sheep was always so fastidious about his appearance. Bogo had seen illustrations in City Guard instructional booklets that looked less perfectly put together than the lieutenant colonel usually did.

The sheep standing before him was a mess. His armor was dinged and scraped, his quilted red tunic underneath it torn in places and covered with travel dust. The feathers on his bracelet were broken and filthy, drooping sadly. Cencerro seemed to have lost a chunk of one ear, a filthy blood-soaked bandage doing little to hide the missing wedge, and dried blood was caked into the closely-shaved wool of his neck. Cencerro's eyes were dull and haunted-looking, the flesh underneath them puffy and black. Even his normally pinkish skin, although still visible under his wool, looked gray.

It seemed to take Cencerro visible effort to pull himself up to attention as Bogo entered; even the ram's normally perfect posture wasn't quite up to its usual standard. "I have a report for you, Captain General," Cencerro said, and his voice was raspy and cracked, "There are chairs, if you'd like to sit."

The sheep gestured at a nearby chair; the room he had taken over was evidently a meeting room of some sort—intended for the guilds either too poor or too frugal to build their own hall, most likely—and it was dominated by a massive circular table and an array of chairs in all different sizes to let mammals sit more or less at eye level with each other no matter their species. None of the fourteen survivors Cencerro had brought with him were sitting at the table; all of them, including three members of the Phoenix City Guard who looked even more battered than the ram, were simply sitting on the floor in one corner.

Bogo took the offered seat, but Cencerro remained standing, even though he looked as though anything might make him keel over. Some of Cencerro's slavish devotion to regulation and protocol had remained, then. "Be seated," Bogo ordered, and Cencerro all but collapsed into a chair.

"Your report please," Bogo said nearly the instant the sheep sat; he wasn't entirely unsympathetic to Cencerro's apparent exhaustion, but he was in no mood to wait.

Cencerro licked at his lips, and then his face went oddly still. He still looked tired beyond all imagining, but more like a sculpture than an actual mammal, he was so motionless. At last, he began speaking, his voice nearly perfectly flat and expressionless. "It all began when Ensign Judy of the Totchli Barony escorted the alchemist fox to Phoenix," he said, each word coming out slowly.

"Ensign Totchli then joined the Phoenix City Guard's search for the blood magician we had received word of," Cencerro continued, "I had every qualified mammal scouring the city for the wolf and the tigress. The fox alchemist—Nicholas of the Middle Baronies, that is—had been escorted to Phoenix to put in a bid on a public project. Water purification."

Cencerro's words were clipped and still emotionless, but the sheep had never been particularly expressive. "Finding the blood magicians was our top priority, but I still had a small force responsible for responding to normal crimes. When there was a report of a struggle at a book seller who specialized in tomes on alchemy and blood magic, it seemed possible there might be some connection to the blood magicians we sought. The officers who were first to the scene reported finding the fox covered in blood and the proprietor dead. He was arrested and brought to Phoenix's anti-alchemy cell for questioning. He maintained his innocence, even when I questioned him personally. He was..."

Cencerro's face briefly contorted; it seemed difficult for him to say the next few words. "He might have been telling the truth. It's possible he was framed as a distraction, to make us waste resources trying to find a connection between him and the blood magicians that didn't exist while depriving us of an alchemist who might have helped fend the barbarians off."

Bogo couldn't help but note that not a single one of the fourteen mammals huddled in the corner of the room was a fox or a bunny, and he was curious as to why. "Not even an hour after I questioned him, barbarians came pouring out of the ground. There are dozens of access points into the ruins of Quimichpatlan Barony that we know—that we knew—of, and probably dozens more that we didn't. The City Guard was spread too thin searching. We were caught totally unprepared," Cencerro said.

"They fought under the banner of the Betrayer," Cencerro said, but before he could continue Bogo interrupted for the first time.

"The Betrayer?" Bogo said, "Are you sure?"

"Positive," Cencerro said, nodding.

"It was fighting like I've never seen," Cencerro continued, and his voice sounded as haunting to Bogo's ears as it likely would have sounded had there been any emotion to it, "Torcs in Phoenix don't function, you know. It was a slaughter, thousands of barbarians against us. Killing mammals in the most brutal ways possible, laughing and speaking their strange tongue."

"Did you see the leader of the barbarians?" Bogo asked.

His words sounded surprisingly calm to his own ears. But the cold certainty that Cencerro spoke with, and the confirmation of the existence of an army from Del Mar's observations made it feel oppressively true. Bogo would have to be the first mammal in centuries to fight off invaders from outside Zootopia, and he needed as much information as possible.

Cencerro shook his head. "No. But I did see the two blood magicians we were looking for helping the barbarians. I rallied as many mammals as I could, and we fought our way to the bridge. Master Rogelio—he was Phoenix's lone member of the Alchemist Guild—stayed back with his apprentice to destroy the bridge after as many residents as possible had evacuated."

Cencerro fell silent, and Bogo considered him carefully. Phoenix only had a few hundred members of the City Guard, and it certainly sounded plausible to him that a surprise attack from underground could have been more a slaughter than a battle. That mammals might take advantage of the ruins of the barony Phoenix had been built on top of to get to the settlement certainly made sense; everything Cencerro had said had the ring of truth to it.

And yet, he couldn't help but wonder what the barbarians had been trying to accomplish and how they had come into contact with blood magicians. "What happened to the fox and the bunny?" Bogo asked, instead choosing to go with questions he thought Cencerro was more likely to be able to answer.

"Ensign Totchli volunteered to stay behind and protect Master Rogelio to cover our escape," Cencerro said, "I have to believe she died an honorable death with the other defenders."

It was an unexpectedly charitable sentiment from the notoriously sentiment-free sheep, and Bogo couldn't help but wonder if it was true. It seemed absurd to think that a bunny could be so brave as to stay behind and fight a hopeless battle. Her sacrifice hadn't even saved a dozen civilians, but it was to the highest ideals of the City Guard that she had given her life anyway. Perhaps Bogo had misjudged her.

Or perhaps it had been a ruse, either meant to trick Cencerro or as part of a trick he was in on. That certainly seemed more plausible than for a timid little bunny to have such an outsized devotion to protecting civilians. "I don't know what happened to the fox. He was in an anti-alchemy cell when the attack started, and I didn't see him while we were fighting our way out," Cencerro continued.

That was, to Bogo's mind, significantly more worrisome. The fox had either died an unfortunate death, the victim of circumstance, or he had been involved in the plot and had never been in any danger. It certainly seemed suggestive that the barbarians fought under the Betrayer's banner; could this alchemist be a descendant of that long-dead fox? Then again, perhaps he had been framed for precisely that reason.

Cencerro had provided Bogo with more questions than he had answers, but one thing was absolutely clear: the situation in Phoenix demanded a response. It made Bogo's decision easy to make, whether Cencerro was lying or not. "I brought an army to deal with the problem," Bogo said, "And you're coming with."

Bogo thought Cencerro might have grown grayer under his wool, but the sheep didn't say anything for a long moment. "When do we leave, Captain General?"

Bogo didn't even pause before answering.

"Now."


Author's Notes:

I tried something a bit different with chapter 33; as Judy has venom coursing through her veins and a terrible injury to her arm, the narration is a bit disjointed as she bounces between reality and her imagination. When Nick tells his story, it's not that she's jumped back in time or is otherwise observing what happened; it's all colored by her own memories and knowledge as she imagines it. How accurate all of what she imagines is, therefore, something of an open question.

Chapter 33 does also link back a fair amount to previous chapters. Complete philosopher's stones, which are vividly red in color, have been mentioned a few times previously, as have incomplete philosopher's stones, which are white. However, back in chapter 13 when Nick was treating himself for the black eye Judy gave him in their sparring match, she noted that the bandages he was using glowed with an unusual pink light, which matches the stones he used in chapter 33. For the sake of distinguishing between the various types, in these notes I'll call what Nick's created as imperfect philosopher's stones, which are partway between incomplete and complete ones. As Judy noted in chapter 13, they're more powerful than incomplete stones, capable of much more rapid healing, but in chapter 33 Nick does at least claim that they're not as powerful as complete ones.

That Fermina was, in fact, Big's daughter Fernanda was something that several readers guessed; there are a number of clues pointing toward the connection. Beside the species and accent, Big himself claimed that he didn't know where his daughter was back in chapter 8. Several times now Judy has picked up on signs from Nick that were meant to be indicative of two things: one, that she was getting better at reading him, and two, that he was lying to her about something.

As for this chapter, I don't have too much to add.

"Del Mar" is Spanish for "of the sea," which struck me as an appropriate surname for a sea otter.

Although Bogo doesn't think particularly highly of Judy, their thoughts do sometimes run along similar lines; in chapter 15 Judy's narration also compared Diego Cencerro to an illustration from a City Guard rulebook for how to wear the uniform.

In chapter 13, Judy noted that Phoenix seemed large enough for a few thousand residents her own size before it started getting cramped. This chapter at last reveals a total population number, which I've assumed includes all mammals. Considering how much mammals vary in size, seven thousand residents seemed reasonable; the smaller mammals would occupy very little physical space.

Next week will go back to Nick and Judy; hopefully you still found this chapter entertaining! As always, I'd love to know what you thought!