The great ship arrived in Lamaar Bay, on the west coast of Teladir. Though Dejja was relieved that the long voyage was over, she looked at the bloody waters of the bay and wrinkled her nose, her long tail lashing back and forth behind her in agitation.
"Not looking forward to the swim?" asked the ursine hybrid beside her. He rubbed his big, calloused hands together, anticipating splashing through the water.
Dejja almost hissed. "No, Josin, I'm not."
"I thought tigers liked swimming," Josin said, sweeping his eyes up and down Dejja's body. He started with her feet, which were covered by black leather boots that were polished to a shine--evidence of the felid hybrid's boredom aboard the ship. He couldn't see her legs beneath the dark cotton of her uniform trousers, but he knew they were covered in striped fur; the two had been in the same squad for almost a year, they had sparred together, and he had seen her in workout clothes and even less. Her arms, however, weren't covered by her uniform--the vest covered her breasts and protected her stomach, but left the rest of her skin and fur exposed to the humid ocean air. Her hands were almost human, but her face was a caricature of normalcy. Her features were elongated, covered in thick fur with orange and black stripes that blended neatly into her hair, which mimicked the pattern.
The tail, of course, was most distinctive. Its movements sped up, the only visible display of Dejja's irritation. Josin's gaze returned to Dejja's golden eyes, with their slitted pupils and too-round socket.
"They do," Dejja said. "I don't."
Josin's lips slid into a grin. "A shame," he said, and hopped over the railing of the ship. He landed in the bay with a loud splash.
An officer's voice rang out, "Damnit, you stupid furry lunk!"
"Sorry, sir!" Josin called back from the same direction. He didn't sound the least bit repentant.
Dejja leaned over the edge of the ship, looking out to see what had happened. Little waves were still rippling away from where the grizzly-man floated near the edge of the sandbar that protected the beach. About five feet to his right, an officer was busily treading water. His hair was soaked with seawater and his face was flushed from anger. Dejja grinned, displaying her elongated canines.
She was too young to remember when Aspalaria had taken control of Lamaar Bay, for which she was grateful; she hated fighting sea battles, and Lamaar had been hotly contested for a number of years, until the Sovereignty had finally pushed the savages back to the middle of the continent. The Sovereignty was winning the war, thanks to the more advanced magic that the Ebon Tower had developed and the superior combat abilities of the hybrids, but the eastward advance was slow; the savages still had fight left in them.
Good, Dejja thought to herself as she marched along the winding highways of Teladir toward the next battlefield. The road was dusty and lacked the uniform grace of her homeland, which had the Arcanists at the front of the column grumbling. Of course, they aren't the ones eating dirt.
The battle for Gripham was anticipated to be long and bloody. The mining camp was crucial to the Aspalarian supply line, but the camp's layout was cramped and close. Strategy and tactics would take a back seat to sheer animal ferocity--something that the hybrids, of course, excelled at.
It was the perfect place to stage a rebellion.
"Do you think we're ready for this?" Josin murmured from his place beside her.
Taking care to keep her voice equally low--not that the high and mighties from the Tower would deign to eavesdrop on mere slaves, else the plot would have been uncovered far earlier--Dejja answered. "It doesn't matter. If it's ever going to work, Gripham is the place for it. They created our parents to be strong and then enslaved them with weakness. We can't let them do the same to us."
"Still," Josin said, ursine features pinched with uncertainty.
"We have to try," Dejja said. "Or else we're just going to keep on being cannon fodder."
The bandits who, according to the Phantoms' reports, inhabited the mineral-rich Grip weren't stupid enough to attack a force the size of the one Dejja travelled with, so they made it to the outskirts of Gripham without incident. The commanders ordered everyone to take battle positions; the hybrid forces stretched out before the mages, standing between them and the Teladiri warriors who had gathered to defend the mining town.
The savages didn't look afraid, but their confidence was a patchwork thing. Not one Teladiri hand wavered on their weapons, but there was a darkness behind each warrior's eyes that made Dejja bare her teeth in anticipation of the carnage to come. Though the savages would not be her target this time, the fear she and her fellows engendered in the enemy was heartening to behold. She flexed her fingers, stretched her knees, trying to stay limber while she waited for the order to attack.
It wouldn't matter who gave it; no matter who attacked first, the defenders or the soldiers of the Sovereignty, that would be her signal. All of the hybrids had agreed; Dejja could feel the anticipation humming in the dirty air. The fierce focus that emanated from the men and women surrounding her bolstered her nerve, and the suppressed violence she sensed made the short, orange-and-black fur on the back of her neck stand on end. The ridge of fur along her backbone strained against the fabric of her ebon-black tunic, but she waited.
The soldier beside her shifted his feet, trying to get a better balance.
"Get 'em!" someone called. Dejja didn't know who and she didn't care, though she stood on the front lines. The backbone of the hybrid formation was the big, burly bears, while the light skirmishers like Dejja and her fellow felids hung on the outskirts where they had more mobility. The flanks were protected by the canines, who had better instincts for understanding the needs of a fighting group.
At the order, Dejja pivoted, turning her back on Gripham. Her neck tingled, and she fought the urge to return her focus to the enemy that training had taught her to fight. She was used to fighting with the bears guarding her back, ready to take up the fight whenever the heavy infantry was called for. She strained her ears for the sound of a Teladiri attack, but the savages were just as stunned as the Arcanists who swiftly became the focus of a generation's worth of rage.
Screams rent the air as the ursine hybrids, the men and women who were supposed to protect the Arcanists from physical attack, leaving them free to create their fireballs and needles of arcane power, fell upon the mages who had created and enslaved their race. The wolf packs boxed them in, flanking them and preventing escape to the east or west, though they could still flee south, along the Teladiri highways.
The felids could have stopped them, but that wasn't their goal. They could have slipped through the fighting, through the ursine ranks and past the skirmishes, to cut off retreat. They could have circled around, using their incredible speed and stamina to avoid the battle and fall upon the enemy--the other races of the Sovereign military--from the rear. It had been discussed--hotly debated, even. Angry voices had demanded the total eradication of the mages and their guards from the Tower, but more cautious minds--minds like Dejja's--had prevailed.
If they were going to make Teladir their new home, enough of them had to survive to make a good go of it. Enough of them had to survive to fight the Teladiri, if the savages wouldn't cooperate with the hybrid dreams--or at least, enough had to survive to cover a retreat from the Teladiri forces. It wasn't tactically or strategically wise to aim at wiping out the entire invasion force.
Besides, what about their mothers and brothers back home in Aspalaria? If the hybrid revolt here in Teladir was too vicious, the reprisals the Sovereignty meted out--and there would be reprisals, a backlash at the very least--might destroy everyone they cared about. Vengeance was fleeting; their goals had to be bigger, or else the bloodshed would be pointless.
Still, Dejja's fingers itched to be stained with Imperial blood, to punish the mages for what they had done to her, her parents, the grandfather who had been driven to madness when his body had been twisted with jaguar traits. Instead, she watched the fight, serving with her fellow felids as the tactical reserve. Their turn to fight would come, if they were needed.
If the savages weren't willing to help them, if they tried to hunt the hybrids down despite the way they had turned upon their masters, if they thought it was all a ruse to plant spies among them, the felids would guard the retreat. So she watched the battle before her, but every other sense she had was focused on the mines to the north.
Finally, the mages broke. It wasn't a retreat, it was a rout--the chain of command had been shattered by the traitorous actions of so much of the army. The army's leaders were in shock; nothing in their plans gave guidance for what to do if the cannon fodder turned. The hybrids had been part of the army for so long that any worries about their reliability had long been forgotten.
Someone would be punished for that, later, when the survivors crawled home to New Caledra.
Dejja couldn't tell what had set off the Imperial flight, but at first, only a few of the humans fought their way free of the battle. Most were Towerguards hauling wounded, high-ranking Arcanists to safety. Then as the cracks at the back of the ranks were revealed, more and more Sovereignty fighters decided to cut their losses. For a moment, there were as many Imperial bodies lying in the forest as there were Imperials still fighting. Then the soldiers seemed to look around and realize that they weren't going to win.
A few hybrids gave chase, fur bloody and faces twisted with battle-rage, before the orders of their superiors broke through the scarlet fever that possessed them. "Hold, damn you! Hold! Let them go. We won!" sergeants shouted, sometimes as they bounded ahead to grab subordinates by the scruff of the neck to haul them back.
The skirmishers turned back to the Teladiri, trusting the bloodied sergeants to keep an eye on their hot-headed soldiers--and the Aspalarian forces, to ensure that they didn't return to Gripham while the hybrids were still trying to negotiate with the Teladiri.
A handful of scouts, their spotted hair streaming out behind them in a proud declaration of their leopard heritage, were dispatched to trail their erstwhile companions, to stand ready to provide warning should someone regroup the warriors into a cohesive fighting force. Without the hybrids, the Arcanists who remained alive wouldn't be much of a threat, even with their Towerguards to stand with then, but it would be a stupid risk to give them the chance to try and be one. The hybrids were all veterans of numerous bloody battles; they weren't stupid.
All of the dumb ones were dead.
Laughter rang out from the gates of Gripham. It was harsh and unpleasant-sounding, with jagged edges and a hint of violence. "Ya'll done doing our job for us, fighting amongst yourselves?"
Dejja stepped forward, breaking rank. Slowly, so that her movements weren't mistakenly taken to be aggressive, she walked halfway to the gates and planted her feet. "We are hybrids; we are not a part of the Sovereignty anymore."
"So we want to talk," she said. "To somebody in charge."
"I'm in charge here."
Dejja smiled, showing teeth. "Do you have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the Paragon Circle?"
There was a hesitation. Dejja's hybrid hearing let her overhear the faint edges of an argument. They're weak. ... just kill them ... killed enough of us ... years.
She tensed, but the order to attack didn't come.
"We can wait for you to find someone who does," Dejja said, and settled in to do just that.