“No, you’re not listening to me, we did find something! The location of a lost ancient city, how is that not a huge deal?”
Nick was sitting on an uncomfortably stiff bed mattress, watching Judy as she talked with her producer on the phone. As soon as they had arrived at the motel room, she had called in to give him an update on the expedition and what they had found. Off to the side, Finnick was rifling through a nearby cabinet in search of gods knows what.
The room itself was nothing special, just a pair of beds with dull tan sheets, a couple of cabinets, and a large wooden table with accompanying chairs. Not the most lavish of living places, but it would suit their purposes just fine while they lay low and got ready for the next step in their journey.
As the fox shifted uncomfortably on the beds, it occurred to him how difficult it was going to be to get any real sleep on these mattresses. Not that it mattered much to Nick personally, somebody was going to have to sleep on the floor and he was pretty certain that somebody would be him given how less than pleased both of his partners were with his previous actions. He’d manage well enough though, the motel floor still made for a better resting surface than some of the places he had been forced to sleep over the course of his treasure hunting career, a lot safer too given that he wouldn't have to worry about mammals trying to get the jump on him if this place was indeed as secure as Finnick had claimed.
For now, though, Nick was content enough to just try and garner what he could from the reporter's conversation with the producer, even if all he could make out of the other side of the call was incomprehensible chatter. If nothing else, it made for an interesting little game to pass the time as he tried to what was being discussed through the tone of the chatter and Judy’s reactions.
“Well...we don’t have any actual proof it exists yet...” Judy spoke into the phone. “But we’re certain that’s where Sir Francis Wilde was headed next.”
Even though Nick couldn't tell what the response was, the rising inflection he heard lead him to assume the producer was asking a question.
“The temple?” Judy’s ears wilted a bit and she started to appear more anxious, the producer probably wasn't going to like her answer. “Well, it...uhh...kinda blew up…”
The rabbit winced as the chatter rose in volume and became more furious in tone.
“Well, I wasn’t the one who blew it up!” Judy tried to explain. “That place was littered with unstable centuries old gunpowder, it was a literal powder keg waiting to go off!”
The chatter seemed to die down in volume and tone again with the producer presumably asking a follow-up question.
“The boat?” there was a resurgence in anxiousness on the bunny's face as she prepared to give an answer the producer definitely was not going to like. “Well, it...got shot up...and sank…”
This time Judy physically flinched away from the phone as it practically erupted in furious chatter.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m sure we’re covered for the damage,” Judy said, trying to calm the mammal on the other end down. “That’s what insurance is for, right?”
Given that the response from the producer didn't sound any less furious than before, Nick assumed that wasn't the case. Not really surprising given that most insurance companies didn't really offer plans that covered bullet holes.
“Oh…” the rabbit said in a discouraged tone. Her ears going limp against the back of her head.
Whatever the producer asked next, it seemed to improve Judy's mood, or at least gave her an opportunity to calm him down a bit.
“Oh, the camera? No, don’t worry about the camera, it's....fine...” she said, grabbing the Pandasonic and looking at the dent Finnick had made with it. “Good as new...more or less... and tons of footage to work with, got tons of nice shots of the temple both inside and out!”
The voice on the other end of the phone seemed to calm down a bit as they continued to grill the rabbit for details.
“There’s probably enough for at least three episodes, but how does that-” she was cut off as the producer spoke up again. The next thing they said caused the rabbit's ears to shoot back up in alarm, “What?!?! No, we can’t just cut our losses and leave! Not when we've got a lead on what could be one of the biggest finds of the decade!”
Judging by the annoyed look on the reporter's face, Nick guessed that the producer was unconvinced. “I know we’re over budget, but don’t you get it? This could be the biggest story the Explorer has ever had! A long lost ancient city! Think of all we could learn if we found it! All the lost history we could recover! How is that not worth some extra funding?”
The voice on the other side spoke up again, whatever they said caused Judy’s face to harden with resolve. Nick hadn't known the bunny for long, but he had already seen that look enough times to realize that one way or another, she was going to force that producer to see things her way.
Such a ferocious little bunny, Nick silently observed. And you went and pissed her off. Nicely done, Wilde…
“No! It has to be now! We're not the only ones looking for this place, and from what I’ve seen, the competition has no interest in sharing whatever they find.” The bunny's nose was rapidly twitching in agitation and given the fierce determination on her face, Nick wouldn’t be surprised if that glare of hers ended up burning a hole in the wall. “If we back out and these other guys find it then that window of opportunity is gone forever! Not only do we lose the story, but all the knowledge and history that comes with it! Are you seriously willing to let that all slip away just because we’re a bit over budget?”
There was another response, but it didn’t seem to discourage the rabbit.
“We’re the closest and we have the location, believe me, we’re the best ones for this job. Just give me another shot at this, I promise I won’t let you down.”
The phone erupted in more chatter as the producer made their final decision and Judy nodded along with an occasional response.
"I'll get on it..."
“Goodbye, Mr. Hoolces.”
The rabbit hung up the phone and slumped down in a nearby chair.
“So?” Nick asked, raising an eyebrow expectantly.
“Well, I’m not fired yet…” Judy started.
“Does that mean…”
“Yes, Nick,” Judy sighed. “Looks like my fate is in your paws now…”
“Splendid,” Nick said. “This'll go way better than last time, Fluff. I promise you won't regret it!”
“I sure hope not, I'm putting a lot on the line by vouching for you." Despite how weary she looked, she couldn't help but brighten up now that she had a chance to turn things around. "Despite all of that, the idea of possibly discovering a lost ancient city...this could be a once in a lifetime experience!"
“That's the spirit Fluff, focus on the positives!” Nick hopped off the bed and clapped his paws together. “And with that, I think it’s about time I headed out and picked up the rest of the research. You wait here, I’ll be back-”
"Not so fast," the rabbit interrupted, moving to block his path. "You still owe me some answers. If I'm going to help you, then I need to know what I'm getting into, what I'm really getting into."
"Fair enough," Nick nodded. "Ask away, Fluff."
"Alright, then for starters, just who is this Dante character?" Judy asked. "I need to know what kind of mammal we're dealing with.”
“Dante? Nick hesitated, not entirely eager to discuss the subject. “Well, he’s…”
“A real piece of shit, that’s what.” Finnick cut in, having set himself down in one of the chairs at the table.
“I managed to gather that much on my own, thank you,” Judy said. “I mean what do you know about him? Where does he come from? What exactly does he do? I know you won’t tell me about whatever happened between you two, but I still need to know what to expect from this guy if we run into him again.”
“Alright, then let me start from the beginning," Nick answered. "He's from Zootopia, a self-made mammal, he claims. Technically, he’d be telling the truth, he just won't mention all the shady things he did to get there.”
“And you’re the very definition of an honourable mammal with fine and upstanding morals, right?” Judy rolled her eyes.
“You wound me, Fluff,” Nick feigned offense. “But really, Gramps and I may get our paws dirty on occasion, I mean treasure hunting is hardly the cleanest line of work, but this guy is something else entirely.”
“Well, he was nothing special in his youth,” Nick explained. “Just a child from a working-class family of no real note, but he was a real pro at befriending and manipulating other mammals. When he was a kid, he joined the Junior Explorer's League and befriended a bunch of other prey with very well off parents. Managed to get in nice and cozy with the group from that point onward. When they were old enough for their trust funds to kick in, he convinced them to use their money to partner up with him and put together a ‘salvage’ company.”
“Salvage company?” Judy tilted her head curiously. "He convinced them to go in on him...with a salvage company?"
“Well...that's what it was 'legally speaking,'” Nick tried to clarify. “Their focus was on the ‘acquisition’ of historical artifacts. Didn’t have a very good track record though since many of those artifacts wound up ‘disappearing’ under highly suspect circumstances.”
“Meaning they were stealing and selling them on the black market,” the reporter pieced together.
“Aren't you a sly little bunny, ” Nick smirked. “I knew you were worth keeping around.”
His smirk quickly vanished though as the bunny threw him a harsh glare.
“Don’t take it personally, bunny,” Finnick said, pouring a bottle full of clear liquid into a tumbler glass he held in his paw. “He does think you’re smart, wouldn't have chased you through that stampede of mammals on the street if he didn't. Kid just can't help but come off as an ass in everything he does.”
Wait...this room doesn't have a mini-bar, Nick thought, eyeing Finnick's drink in confusion. Where the hell did he even find that stuff?
The desert fox chugged the liquid contents of the glass down in one gulp, shaking his head with a grunt. “Anyways," he began, continuing the story for Nick, "his friends may have been the ones with the money, but everyone knew Dante was the one pulling the strings. The only one with any drive or clue what he was doing. Liked it that way too, he was good at getting what he wanted from the others while making them think it's what they wanted. Guess that comes with being spoiled brats used to having everything done for them, willing to just go along and let somebody else make all the choices for them while thinking it was somehow their idea."
“It certainly didn't do anything to help them stay alive given how they all disappeared during one of the ‘salvage’ jobs,” Nick commented, “and ownership of the entire company fell to Dante. Ended up with all their money to, funnily enough, was quite a massive stroke of luck.”
“Wait…” Judy paused, her eyes widening in shock. “You’re not suggesting he…”
“The actual details are pretty murky,” Nick explained. “Officially, they’re all listed as 'missing.'”
“And...unofficially?” Judy pressed.
“Well you got to see just what kind of mammal he is, rabbit,” Finnick said, pouring himself another glass from the liquor bottle. “Go ahead, take a wild guess…”
“Cheese and crackers…”
“This guy is bad news, Fluff,” Nick continued. He's ruthless, and paranoid, always has been. But it's only gotten worse since he made his partners disappear. I mean, I always knew he was an asshole, learned that personally, but I figured the stories about him and the things he's done were exaggerated. It wasn't until I started working with him and saw just how he conducts his 'business' that I realized just how spot on those stories really are.”
Nick took a heavy sigh. Talking about Dante always turned out to be such an exhausting affair.
“When I found that hidden research about Henosia, I knew I had to bail before I ended up like the mammals in those stories. Best case scenario, he’d have marooned me on some deserted island in the middle of nowhere. Worst case, I’d be in a two-sizes too small garbage bag at the bottom of the ocean.” A sly grin began to curl up the fox's muzzle, "Of course, I felt that after all the hard work I did for him, it'd be only fair that I get to put that research to good use, but then, I already told you about that part."
Judy pondered Nick’s explanation in silence for a few minutes, the only sounds being the muffled noises of vehicles and mammals outside and the occasional sound of Finnick taking another sip from his drink or a puff from his cigar.
“What about those mammals with him?" Judy asked, finally breaking the silence. "They’re definitely not from Zootopia.”
“You mean is Southern Savannah 'pals?' They’re some private army for hire,” Nick explained. “Very shady bunch, even by the incredibly low standards of mercenaries. What was it they were called again? Shoreline?”
“Coastline,” Finnick repeated. “You met their leader, that hyena that looked like a lion had been using his face as a scratching post, goes by the name of Cackler. He and his crew are a real piece of work, shadier than a Happytown brothel. Got their paws in all kinds of nasty work: coups, ‘enforcement’, assassinations, abduction, ‘acquisition,’ there’s no work too dirty for those guys.”
“In other words, the perfect match for a psycho like Dante," Nick remarked.
“Wait, what kind of mammal goes to a mercenary company for an assassination?” Judy questioned.
“The kind that just wants the job done and ain’t looking to be subtle about it,” Finnick shrugged.
“Guess they’re expanding into treasure hunting now,” Nick noted. “Strange choice...doesn’t exactly fall into their area of expertise, not nearly enough explosions or mammals to shoot.”
"Really?" Finnick asked incredulously. "You're gonna just go ahead and say that last part without even a hint of irony?"
"Hey, you were the one who blew up the temple, remember?" Nick defended.
"Yeah, because I was cleaning up your mess!" Finnick sniped back.
"Well..." the red fox faltered, "I never plan on our jobs going sideways like that. As hard as it is to believe me when I say it, I really would rather our jobs didn't end with mammals shooting at us and shit blowing up... "
"And yet it seems to happen so often when you're around," Finnick rolled his eyes.
"I...guess it's just part of my charm," Nick awkwardly grinned. "Exciting adventure wherever I go...yay..."
"More like a pain in my ass, wherever you go," Finnick grumbled as he took another drink.
“You know, Dante did mention that Cackler and Coastline were in pretty dire straits,” Judy pointed out.
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Finnick said. “Word is Cackler made a number of ‘bad investments’ that ended up costing him more than an arm and a leg. Got Coastline involved in several civil wars that didn’t pan out well. Given the rumors, wouldn’t be surprised if Dante was right about them being in deep shit.”
“Makes sense,” Nick agreed. “Cackler probably hopes this job will be enough to get him and his crew out of the hole they’ve dug themselves in, and then some.”
“They certainly complement each other well if that’s the case,” the reporter agreed. “Dante needs their muscle and Coastline needs his money.”
“And they’re both dead set on finding Henosia.” Nick concluded, “Which means they’ll definitely be looking for us after that little show at the temple, assuming they haven't started already.”
“So just what are we gonna do about that, Kid?” Finnick asked as he topped off another drink.
“As I said back at the docks, we’re gonna need to lay low for a few days and make sure they didn’t pick up our trail,” Nick nodded. “It’s gonna take a while for us get ready anyways since you’ve gotta get our transportation set up. You gonna need to leave the motel for that, Gramps? I need you with Carrots until I can grab the rest of the research we’ve got on Henosia and Sir Francis.”
"I'll need to go out eventually to get it all sorted," Finnick shrugged. "But I've got a few calls to make first, I can sit tight until you get back, won't need to be gone too long to get the rest taken care of."
“Is that when you two will finally tell me about Henosia?” Judy asked. “Because apparently that city is what’s at the center of all this, and if a lot of mammals are willing to kill over it, I need to know why.”
"You mean besides the fact that whoever finds it is probably set for life?" Nick asked rhetorically.
"You already know the answer to that," Judy narrowed her gaze at the fox. "I'm a reporter, details are kinda important..."
“Don't worry, Fluff. I said I'd tell you what I know, and I will,” Nick promised. “It’ll just be way easier once I have all the research for us to look at.”
“Fine, then I’m going with you,” she said.
“I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I'm guessing you have no idea how to spot a tail or move through the city without being noticed," Nick shook his head. "No, you’ll be staying here with Gramps and sitting tight while I gather up everything we need."
“I hate sitting tight...” the reporter grumbled.
“Yeah, that seems pretty obvious,” Nick smirked. “Still, getting bored is a lot better than getting shot or caught and squeezed for info, they do not like to ask nicely. Looking at you, I'd imagine they'd go with clamping a car battery to your ears."
"Okay...point taken," the rabbit conceded, finding the picture Nick had painted quite unsettling.
"Don’t worry, Gramps’ll keep you company until I get back.”
“Speaking of which,” Finnick cut in, hopping off his seat and holding an open paw out to the rabbit. “I’m gonna need your money in order to get things started.”
“Uhhh, how much?” Judy asked, a little taken aback.
“All of it.”
“What? No, I mean how much is it going to-”
“All of it, bunny,” Finnick repeated. “It probably won’t be enough, whatever it is, but it’ll get me started. Then I’ll just have to work my charms to get the rest taken care of.”
“It's funny, even after all the times I've seen you in action, I still have a hard time associating you with a word like ‘charm,’ Gramps,” Nick said with a smirk.
“That’s cause you’re an idiot with no style or class,” the smaller fox shot back. “Certainly explains why I get more tail than you.”
“Ouch,” Nick placed a paw over his chest, feigning offense, “that’s a low blow, old timer.”
“Okay, that's enough,” Judy sighed, putting her money in Finnick’s paw. “Just take it, before you start going on about another one of your 'stories.'”
“You say that now, bunny,” Finnick said with a slight grin. “But after a few days cooped up in here, you’ll be dying to listen to my stories. You have no idea how boring laying low can get.”
The desert fox counted the money, pocketing most of it and giving the rest to Nick. “Here, Kid, and that’s all you're getting, you can use whatever you have that passes for 'charm' to take care of the rest.”
“I’m sure I’ll manage just fine,” Nick said as he pocketed the money and headed out the door. “Make sure not to cause too much trouble while I’m gone, you two,” he gave them a mocking wave as the door closed shut behind him.
Eleven Hours Later
Nick was standing outside the scuffed up door to their room. He hadn’t really paid it much attention when they first arrived, but looking at it now, he finally noticed just how crummy the place really was, although those stiff beds were probably what should have tipped him off in the first place. Not that he could really complain, they had paid for safety, not comfort. It wasn't like they'd even be able to enjoy the comforts of a nicer motel room anyways if Dante and his Coastline goons showed up at their doorstep.
It took a bit longer than he would've liked, but thanks to the money he got from Judy and a few called in favours, Nick had finally managed to get a hold of all the research they needed. Now that he was finally back at the motel, he could give the others a proper rundown on Henosia, and then they could start getting ready for the next step of their journey.
The fox took a deep breath, anxious at the thought of stepping through the door. The bunny had not been in the best of moods when they first arrived in the city, although he couldn't really blame her given the fact she was now on Dante and Cackler's shit list because of him.
Let's just hope Gramps managed to lift her mood, being cooped up with her for several days straight is really gonna suck if she's still pissed at me.
He opened the door and stepped through to a sight that he wasn't expecting. Finnick was sitting back in a chair by the table, a drink held in one paw and a cigar in the other, well maybe that part wasn't very surprising. What was surprising though was the sight of Judy sitting across from him, leaning forward in her chair and engrossed in the story he was telling.
“So then I said to her, ‘Well you’d better tickle mine too ‘cause now I gotta catch the damn thing!’”
The doe burst out laughing, her movement causing the chair to fall over backward and send her tumbling along with it. Even after she had hit the floor she was still laughing though, cradling her sides as she rolled back and forth.
Wow, not even a full day and she’s already caved into Gramp's stories, Nick shook his head. Poor bunny never stood a chance.
“Damn, Fluff, you never laughed that hard at any of my jokes,” Nick said, making his presence known to the other two.
“Nobody laughs at your jokes, Kid,” Finnick said as he puffed out a cloud of smoke. “I’m the funny one, remember?”
“Oh yeah, of course, how could I forget with that charming, upbeat personality of yours,” Nick rolled his eyes as he placed the collected research down on the table and offered a paw to the still giggling rabbit on the floor.
“Careful, Fluff, would hate to see a super bunny like you done in by a bad joke of all things. After everything you’ve been through, going out like that would be just insulting.”
Judy finally stopped her fits of giggling and looked up at the fox. There was a brief pause before she took the offered paw. “Thanks…” she said hesitantly as Nick helped her up, some tension still lingering the air, but not nearly to the same degree as earlier that day.
Guess Gramps really did manage to lift her mood after all. I don't think I'll ever understand how the hell that old grump does it.
“You were gone longer than I thought you’d be…” Judy muttered. If Nick didn’t know better, he'd have sworn he heard a hint of worry in her voice.
“Yeah, we thought maybe Dante and his Coastline pals had scooped you up or somethin’,” Finnick said before taking a puff of his cigar.
“Right, cause you two looked so worried when I walked in here,” Nick smirked. “Besides, there’s no way I’d make a dumb mistake like getting caught by those idiots in the middle of a packed city.”
“Right, and I'm guessing letting Dante bug your gear was just all part of your master plan and not a dumb rookie mistake?” Finnick sarcastically snapped back, a smirk curling up his muzzle.
“Yeah, yeah, very funny, Gramps,” Nick deadpanned. "Glad to see you've found your sense of humor again, at least that booze is good for something."
Finnick just shrugged and took a sip from his glass. When the smaller fox didn't say anything else, Nick decided to move on to more pressing matters and turned his attention to the reporter.
“Come on, Carrots," he gestured at the research he'd brought. "You wanted to know about Henosia, well now it’s time for your lesson.”
Judy set her seat back up while Nick pulled up a chair for himself and sat down between her and Finnick.
“Alright Nick,” Judy said as she got comfortable. “Time to see if you really do know what you're talking about or if you're just highly skilled in boasting. Now tell me, what exactly is Henosia?”
“Doubting my credentials, are you, Carrots?” Nick raised an eyebrow. “I'll take that challenge. Let's start with this, what do you know about the history of Zootopia? About how it was founded?”
"What does Zootopia have to-"
"You're the one who's challenging my credibility, so if I'm gonna prove how awesome I am, then I need to know how knowledgable you are," Nick beamed smugly. "Now be a good little bunny and answer the question."
Judy complied, groaning in frustration as she did. “Well...it was said to have been founded around an old watering hole during a terrible drought. All the other sources had dried up and that watering hole was the only viable source of water left. It became the focal point of every tribe in the region, both prey and predator, with violent fights erupting every time any mammal tried to make a move on it. Eventually, it got so bad that an agreement had to be reached or else nobody would survive. That agreement was said to lay the groundwork for the foundations of Zootopia as we know it."
“Good answer, Fluff, I’m almost impressed,” Nick said, proceeding to shake his head. “But no, that’s just a story that got mixed up with the truth. The higher-ups at the time figured it’d make for a good tale about teamwork, cooperation, peaceful coexistence, and all the other crap Zootopia pretends to stand for so they just ran with it and the masses ended up believing it as fact. Pretty easy to do when nine out of every ten mammals in the city are prey, very big on the herd mentality, will agree with just about anybody who sounds like they know what they're talking about, no questions asked.”
“Great, you showed you know something I don't, congratulations," the reporter deadpanned, looking very unimpressed. "What does this have to do with Henosia, exactly?”
“He’s just building up to the point to feed his ego, he’s an ass like that,” Finnick cut in, taking another drag from his cigar. “Speaking of which, stop leading the bunny on and get to the damn point, already, she’s not the only one getting sick of your showboating!”
“Alright, fine, fine,” Nick raised his paws in surrender. “The truth about Zootopia's founding is far more boring than any stories you might've heard. There might’ve actually been a drought at some point, it's debatable, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. Beyond the story they made up, any drought that might've happened wouldn't have had any meaningful impact on the founding of the city. Truth is, the leaders of the various prey and predator tribes realized that co-operating and pooling their resources together was a lot more practical than constantly trying to kill, skin, and eat each other. Also made it a lot easier for them to get rich off the masses, but hey, that's politics for ya. The actual idea for the city, though? That was drawn from a number of different legends, I'm sure you've heard of at least some of them, any adventurer worth their salt has."
“I know there a number of different legends that tell of ancient cities where prey and predator lived together, and it wouldn’t be out of the question to believe that these stories helped inspire the idea of Zootopia as we know it,” Judy explained. “But that’s all they were, stories, there's no real consistency between any of these legends. The stories of how they were founded, the names of the cities, where they were located, what they looked like, these details all vary wildly from one legend to the next. Most historians believe these cities are all just myths purported by various species and the common theme of different species living and working together just stems from the shared desire for a peace that seemed impossible at the time.”
“True, that is a pretty commonly accepted theory. And one that makes a lot of sense in context," Nick accepted. "But I’ve got a better one.”
The fox grabbed one a tome and slammed it down in the middle of the table. It was dull red with a gold border and the outline of a six-petaled flower in the center of the cover.
“What if they weren’t all just different stories?” the treasure hunter proposed. “What if each of these legends is actually recounting the same city, and each species is just remembering it differently? It wouldn’t be that big of a leap in logic, the passage of time does have a tendency to warp how mammals perceive and remember events. Even more so when different species are involved since each can interpret the same historical even in vastly different ways.”
“Henosia…” Judy deduced. “You’re saying that these legends are all different accounts of Henosia.”
“Exactly!” Nick slapped his paw on the table, making the rabbit jump a little. “And I’m willing to bet that’s what our dear old pal Sir Francis was looking for.”
The fox opened up the book, flipping to a page showcasing a wide variety of mammals of differing types and sizes, both prey and predator. They were all standing in unison beneath a banner depicting a white flower with six petals.
“Like in the legends you mentioned,” Nick began to explain, “Henosia was said to be a massive city where species of all types lived together in harmony and worked toward a greater good.” He pointed out the various mammals depicted in the pages, “Big, small, prey, predator, nocturnal, diurnal, it didn’t matter. As long as they had something to offer and played well enough with others, they had a place in the city.”
He was about to flip the page when Judy reached out with a paw and stopped him. “That flower..." she stared at the banner, "I’ve seen something like it before.”
“No kidding, depictions of that flower were everywhere back at the temple,” Nick said. “I'm guessing it was of symbolic importance to the city.”
“No, I mean even before the temple, I’ve seen something similar to that flower before. I was trying to figure it out earlier, but then I got sidetracked when we ran into Dante,” the rabbit's ears started twitching and the sound of her foot tapping against the leg of the chair could be heard as she struggled to recall the memory.
“Oh! I remember now!” Judy excitedly announced, practically jumping in her seat. “ Midnicampus holicithias, that’s what I was thinking of!”
Nick just stared blankly at the rabbit, “Miniholo-what-now?”
“Night Howlers,” Finnick answered. "She's talking about Night Howlers."
“Night Howlers? Why does that name sound so familiar?" Nick thought out loud as he tried to remember where he'd heard that name before. “Wait, aren’t those the flowers that make mammals go berserk if they eat them?”
“What?” Judy asked perplexedly, “No, they’re used by farmers for pest control. My dad plants them in the fields to keep insects away from the crops, I’ve never heard about them driving anybody savage, they aren’t even meant to be eaten.”
“Tell that to Usar and the Icebreakers,” Finnick replied.
“Usar?” Nick inquired, thinking back to the incident Finnick was referring to. “That tiger we worked with on the Nestuka Job? That was the one who went crazy and massacred the client along with most of his own crew during the exchange. You're telling me he was on Night Howlers?”
“You were in the same bar, Kid, did you think he just hated the booze that much?” Finnick sassed. “Some asshole slipped a bunch of Night Howler into his drink, probably was looking to disrupt the deal and figured a rampaging tiger would do the trick.”
“Well if that was the goal then it sure as hell worked, and then some,” Nick shuddered, recalling how smoothly everything had seemed to be going until that tiger had started choking on his drink. It hadn't been the fastest things had gone from calm to complete chaos in the course of his treasure hunting career, but it was definitely up there, probably at least the top three.
“No kidding,” Finnick grumbled. “Nearly froze my tail off trying to get that artifact only to have a tiger nearly take my head off. Didn’t even get paid after all that shit since the damn client went and got himself ripped to shreds.”
“Hey, it wasn't a complete wash, we managed to pawn it for a decent amount,” Nick reminded him. “And given how sideways that whole thing went, I'd say we were lucky enough to escape with our hides intact.”
“I had no idea they could do that...” Judy muttered, briefly paused in shock before shaking her head and bringing the conversation back on track. “But those flowers at the temple and in this book, they remind me of Midnicampus-”
“Yeah...there's no way we're gonna be able to remember that name, Fluff,” Nick interrupted. “Pretty sure Gramps is already getting a headache from trying to remember it," he looked over to see the desert fox scowling at him, "or maybe it's just the cheap cigars."
“Fine, they remind me of Night Howlers." The rabbit took another look at the picture and furrowed her brow, "But I don’t think they’re the same species.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at them,” Judy pointed at the flowers depicted on the banner. “These flowers are white.”
“Night Howlers are dark blue.”
“A related species, maybe?” Nick suggested. "Some sort of genetic off-shoot?"
“Perhaps, but if they are, then they're not anything I’ve ever seen or heard of before,” Judy answered. “And why hold a flower like that in such high regard, anyway?”
“Wouldn’t be the only culture out there that considered a flower like that to be of high status,” Nick explained. “There's a whole bunch of cultures and civilizations that believed night howlers could be used to strengthen their warriors in battle. Wouldn't be wrong, a rampaging lion frothing at the mouth and hell-bent on cutting you down to ribbons makes for a pretty strong rebuttal to most arguments. Some cultures even used them as part of a rite of ascension for selecting new rulers, you manage to eat one without going crazy, then you’re strong enough to rule, that sort of thing.”
"Yeah, those ascension rituals tended to be pretty bloody affairs more often than not," Nick said, looking down at the flower.
Gotta wonder though, what did Henosia use this flower for? Nick pondered to himself before deciding to get on with the history lesson.
"Anyways, let's put a pin in that whole Night Howler thing for later. We can tackle that again after I get you up to speed on Henosia.”
Nick flipped to a drawing of the city that looked similar to the murals they had seen lining the halls of the temple. The city itself was depicted in a display of almost divine radiance with rays of light shining off of it, making it seem less like a city and more like some sort of divine beacon. All along the perimeter of the city were the mysterious white Night Howlers. Like the city, they also seemed to be practically glowing with holy radiance, further supporting Nick's suggestion of the value the city placed on them.
“The city was said to be a paradise where mammals lived in peace and prosperity. I'm always wary of anybody who tries to claim that anything's a paradise, but if the records I've got are any indication, then the city was an economic, social, and cultural powerhouse of the ancient world.”
He flipped to another set of pages, one showing piles of gold and treasure while the other seemed to depict scholarly mammals writing on scrolls or carrying various texts and tomes. “There are stories that the city's vaults contained wealth beyond measure, more than the city could ever hope to spend in a thousand years. It was also said to have some of the most elaborate archives in the world, each supposedly a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom."
"This all sounds amazing," Judy muttered in awe.
"I know, right?" Nick chuckled. "Forget Zootopia, this sounds like the place to be!"
He started flipping pages again, resting on one that was far less flattering in its depiction of the city. The gates were shut and the city was now partially shrouded in darkness. No longer depicted in an aura of radiance, it looked like it was now on the brink of being consumed by encroaching darkness. Groups of mammals were rushing the walls of the city, clawing at them as they tried to force their way inside, others were raising their arms up as if begging to be let in. The next page depicted them slumping away in defeat, the city itself in the background and completely shrouded in shadow.
“But if this job has taught me anything, it’s that nothing lasts forever,” Nick continued. “One day, the city just went silent, no buildup, no conflict, nothing. The gates just closed and all activity in the city stopped, no trace of mammals or anything within the walls. Some mammals tried to get in, they were determined to either figure out what was going on or try to take advantage and loot the place, but the few who did manage to find a way in never came back. Eventually, the rest just gave up and left, and the city soon disappeared entirely, although that may just be an exaggeration and the knowledge of its location was simply lost due to the events that followed shortly afterwards."
He turned to another page, this one depicted a scene of mass hysteria and chaos. Armies of mammals could be seen clashing with each other as cities burned in the background. Some mammals struggled against one another in bloody combat, be it with swords, claws, fangs, or anything else on paw, while others were cowering, fleeing, or down on their paws and knees begging their gods for mercy.
“There’s a theory that the disappearance of Henosia lead to an event called the Great Collapse. The records reference a number of civilizations that existed at the same time, with Henosia acting as a sort of keystone that kept the other civilizations in line and co-operating with each other, even if the cities themselves were not nearly as inclusive," Nick described. "Once Henosia vanished, all hell broke loose as the other civilizations started to collapse into anarchy. Details are kind of sketchy, but whatever happened, it was sudden, violent, and delivered such a massive shock to mammalkind that by the time the dust had finally settled, all the civilizations had disappeared. After that, most of mammalkind had reverted back to the more primitive practices that embody what we call the stone age: tribes, predation, going savage, making clothes out of the hides of mammals from rival tribes, all that lovely business."
“But what actually happened to Henosia?” Judy asked. “A city doesn't just disappear without a trace, especially one that important. There has to have been something left behind, even with all the destruction caused by this 'collapse.'”
“Nobody knows,” Nick answered. “The records mentioned something about the gods either destroying or concealing Henosia and causing the collapse of the other ancient civilizations as a punishment on mammalkind for turning away from them. Seems with all the cooperation going on, they started to figure they didn't need their gods anymore. I guess that's one way to make sure your children appreciate you though, take away their most treasured city, then plunge their entire society into anarchy and chaos until all that's left are a bunch of primitive tribes running around skewering each other with sharp sticks, eating each other, and bashing each other's brains in with rocks, talk about tough parenting."
"You don't seem like the kind to believe in the gods," Judy doubted.
The fox shrugged, “Nah, don't really believe that, or at least the theory about how 'the gods did it', anyway. Was probably just a convenient excuse to cover up what I imagine was a much more embarrassing and scandalous reason behind the city’s decline and the subsequent 'Great Collapse' that followed. Either way, the end result was the same, the city was forgotten and faded into legend. And eventually, even that legend faded from the collective memories of mammalkind. Most of the records of Henosia and the other civilizations were most likely lost during the chaos brought on by the Great Collapse, and even those that did survive were rejected by most of the archaeological community as fairy tales and nonsense.”
“Only a pawful of records have survived to this day, this book is one of them,” Nick tapped the pages with a digit. “Nowadays, the city is only really remembered through those legends that inspired Zootopia, and even those cities are believed to be myths, so naturally, there are very few out there who've even heard of Henosia, and even less who believe that it's real.”
“Then we'll just have to follow Sir Francis' trail then,” Judy said. “Find the city and then we'll get all the proof we need that it's real!”
“I take it that means you’ll be providing more than just financial assistance, then?”
“Of course, there's no way I'd pass up the opportunity to see this place in person!" Judy said, practically beaming with excitement only for it to quickly vanish as she shot the fox a stern look. "And besides, after all the stunts you've pulled, it's the only way I can be sure you won't just ditch me and try to take it for yourself."
“Ouch,” Nick winced. “That’s harsh...and fair given what’s happened so far…” The fox glanced over at his older partner, “Which means we need to get our transportation sorted out, how's that going, by the way, Gramps?”
“Made a few calls and the money's got me started. Bunny managed to squeeze her producer for some extra so we're moving even faster than I thought," Finnick answered. "Marian should be good to get us there once she’s ready in a few days time."
“Marian?” Judy asked.
“Gramps' one true sweetheart,” Nick smirked. “Don’t worry, you’ll meet her soon enough.”
“I've been thinking though...” Finnick started. “Are we really sure about this? I can get Marian ready soon, but this job is starting to sound way too hot for us.”
“Too hot?" Nick quirked his brow. "What are you getting at?”
“As much as I like the sound of ‘wealth beyond measure,'” Finnick said, “I feel like I need to remind you guys that we're not the only ones looking for this place. If we do this, we don't only have to worry about Dante and Cackler, but also the entire godsdamn army they’ve got backing them up.”
“Okay, so maybe they've got some muscle with them, but they don’t even know where the city is,” Nick countered. “We do, that gives us the upper paw. That army of theirs isn't gonna do them much good if they don't even know where to go.”
“That’s what you thought when you ditched Dante last time,” Finnick pointed out. “How’d that turn out for us, again?”
“Things are different this time.”
“Not nearly different enough, say what you will about that zebra, he’s determined and resourceful,” Finnick countered. “He found us once, what the hell's to stop him from doing it again? And he'll probably have even more of his Coastline pals with him the next time around.”
"Why are you so reluctant all of a sudden? You were the one who was constantly bitching about how we'd better be getting a good payday out of this," Nick pointed out. "We're looking at the ultimate payday once we pull this off!"
"When I say a 'good payday', I mean making enough money to spend the next six months drinking and chasing tail in Bochi," Finnick growled. "Not the kind of shit that some mammals want so bad they'll send an entire godsdamn army after you!"
“I’m not walking away from this Gramps,” Nick stated resolutely. “And if you’re right, then that just means we need to get there sooner rather than later before Dante figures out how to find it on his own.”
Finnick just shook his head and let out an exasperated sigh.
"Kid, can I have a word with you?" The sandy coloured fox glanced over at the bunny, "Alone?"
Both of the foxes looked at Judy who just sat there in awkward silence.
"I'll just be out in the hallway then," the reporter finally said. She hopped off her chair and walked out the door, closing it shut behind her.
Once the rabbit was gone, Finnick chugged the entirety of his drink, slamming the glass down on the table and glaring angrily at Nick. "You're out of your godsdamn mind, you know that, right?"
"That seems a little harsh," Nick said. "You're overreacting, Gramps, we've been through worse than this."
"No we haven't, Kid, nothing like this," Finnick argued. "I mean sure, we've gone up against rival treasure hunting crews and even a few pirate bands that in the past. But those guys barely knew how to even hold a gun, that won't be the case with the likes of Coastline ."
He poured himself another drink and downed the whole thing. Nick had no idea how such a small mammal could hold his liquor like that, that much probably would've been enough to knock him flat at this point, but Finnick looked like he was barely buzzed.
"And now you've got this bunny all wrapped up in this little scheme of yours," the older fox continued, pointing at the door to the hallway. "And she has even less of a clue what she's going up against than you do!"
"She can take care of herself," Nick pointed out. "You saw how she handled those Coastline idiots back at the temple."
"She got lucky, Kid, we all did. How long do you think that'll last?" Finnick challenged. "A good treasure hunter needs to know when to walk away from the table, all that gold and fame ain't gonna be worth shit if you're too dead to enjoy it. Do the smart thing, Nick, it ain't worth your life, or the bunny's."
"So just give up, then? That’s what you’re saying?" Nick shot back. "I’m not just gonna walk away from this, Finn, this isn’t just some simple artifact or payday. This is Henosia we’re talking about, a literal city of legend. This is the sort of opportunity I’ve been waiting my entire life for! I can’t just cut and run now, no matter how dangerous it is. Especially if it means letting that bastard Dante win!"
There was an awkward pause as Nick left that statement hanging. Even when he wasn't in the room, Dante always found a way to make things tense.
"Look, I know it’s just a business to you and that’s fine," Nick assured his partner. "If you want to back out of this then I won't hold it against you, but I’m still going, and you know Judy will as well. Sure, she may have had some first-time jitters after we escaped the temple, but once she cleared her head, it was obvious how badly she wanted this, even if her job didn't depend on it. You saw how determined she was when she convinced her producer to keep this going, or the way her eyes lit up as I described the city, this is probably just as important to her as it is to me."
Finnick just stared at Nick in silence for what felt like an eternity, his face unreadable as he considered his next words. He finally let out an irritated sigh, "I always knew you were gonna get me killed one of these days, Kid..."
The desert fox took a long puff of his cigar before putting it out in his ashtray. "Alright, Nick, you win. If you're set on finding that godsdamn city despite everything, then I guess I'm coming with you."
"So you'll still help me?" Nick asked. "Even after trying so hard to talk me out of it?"
"What kind of stupid question is that?" Finnick scoffed. "Of course I'll help you. I've had your back for nearly twenty years, I'm sure as hell not gonna bail on you now."
"Thanks, Gramps," Nick smiled, he may have been a grumpy old bastard, but Finnick was always there for him when it counted. "You're a good partner, you know that, right?"
"Better than your sorry ass deserves, that's for sure," Finnick grumbled. "If we're actually gonna do this, then you'd better go grab the bunny."
"Can do," Nick started to walk towards the door before looking back at Finnick. "You know she heard all of that, right?"
"Oh yeah," Finnick nodded, flicking one of his ears. "I can hear her pressed up against the door."
"I am not!" the bunny's voice called out from outside. A smug smirk curled onto the muzzles of both of the foxes as they let the awkwardness sink in.
"Uhh...I mean...oh shoot," the muffled voice muttered.
Nick opened the door to a very embarrassed looking bunny, her ears drooped behind her back and her face practically glowing bright pink beneath her fur.
"Don't worry about it, Fluff, I would've probably done the same," Nick chuckled as he followed Judy back to the table and sat down next to her. "But seriously though, this isn't gonna be easy, we're wandering deep into uncharted territory here. Are you sure you're up for it?
"I can take care of myself, Nick," the reporter said firmly. Nick knew how badly she wanted this, there was no way she was going to back out. "Besides, you owe me."
“I suppose I do,” Nick shrugged before grabbing some of the research and passing it to his associates. "Alright then, we've got a few days still before Marian’s ready to take us out. Too risky for any more than one of us to go outside at a time while Dante and Cackler are looking for us, so we might as well spend this time getting as familiar with Henosia and Wilde’s notes as possible.
“Always did have a knack for studying,” Judy beamed with pride.
“Better put to those skills to use then, Carrots,” Nick grinned. “We’ve got the next few days to learn everything there is to know about this place, and then we're off to find the long lost city of Henosia!”
With that, Finnick lit up another cigar as the three of them began pouring over the notes and documents, studying long into the night.