Roedin kept his pace even and his expression blank as he strode down the elevated boardwalk. His eyes darted around taking in every detail of the buildings that lined the canals and sloughs of The Delta. Water swirled below half-rotted wooden planks, the lumber in a constants state of repair from the ever-present humidity. As the sands shifted, the pylons supporting the elevated city above were pushed to an angle. There wasn't a level surface or square corner in the city. Buildings leaned into each other like drunks staggering their way home from the bar.
"Looking to unwind, soldier?" crooned a female Giraffa from the canal. Her legs were so long she was able to walk along channel bottom without the water touching her tiny skirt. Her head came to Roedin's knees and she gave his cloak a light tug. "It's too warm for you to be wearing this."
It was warm in the The Delta though it didn't feel like the promise of spring. It felt stagnant, stale. Like the seasons never changed enough for people to measure any difference. Roedin glanced at the understory dance hall, spying a biodiversity of males and females dancing and gyrating to drums and a string instrument played by a faunid with multiple arms. Clothing optional.
He glanced at the Giraffa female, "Thank you, no." His icy stare had her relinquishing her hold on his cloak without further question.
Roedin left the dance club behind and picked his way around a section of broken boards as he continued through the city. He had slipped to the outskirts, where cheap tents and hovels were hastily thrown together until they were destroyed by another hurricane, then resurrected again. He followed the whispers that leaked out between the boards of the businesses and brothels that made up the city proper.
The fighting pit known as The Benthic was constantly changing locations. Benthic fights took place on the wet sand at the bottom of the bay. But the channels were in a constant state of flux, creating new islands and flooding old ones every month. The pit followed the flow and moved around.
"Dig your way out of this one, animal!" a youngling sneered as he pushed over a stack of crates on to a Sorex faunid. The male crouched and covered his head as the empty crates crashed on top of him. Roedin smelled the tang of blood and hesitated by the alleyway entrance where he observed the pecking order being established.
A group of children were beating up the Sorex. Human children. There only five of them. Four boys, one girl. Maybe ten years old? It was hard to tell as they were malnourished and filthy.
But they were bigger than the faunid. Sorexes were designed for digging; working in the mines and extracting minerals from small spaces. Their males barely stood as tall as Roedin's waist and this male was even shorter. His large hands tried to fend off the punches and kicks delivered from the human children but he was no fighter. It saddened Roedin to see human children behaving this way but it was also fascinating. It was survival of the fittest; eat or be eaten. Humans were smaller, weaker than faunids and sapiens, so these children found a species that was below them on the food chain.
But this attack wasn't survival, it was just mean. Classic bullying behaviour played out on a biological scale. The Sorex didn't have anything the children needed, they were just picking on him for amusement. Probably because they had been beaten and kicked and robbed and now they wanted to pass it along so they wouldn't feel like bottom feeders.
Roedin stepped into the alleyway and cast his shadow over the fight. He spread his wings slightly to add to his already impressive size and the children stopped to see what had blocked out the light. It was all it took to send them running. A larger predator had showed up on the scene.
The Sorex trembled in fear, terrified of Roedin but unwilling to follow the same path as the children. Roedin simply fixed him with a stare, assessing his injuries.
"P-p-please. I have nothing. I'm just a pilings digger. I'm a Water Shrew so I can dig in the wet mud to re-set foundations. It's a simple living. My mate and son work with me. I can give you money—"
"I don't want your money," Roedin growled.
There were no royal guards policing The Delta. Only the hired thugs of one merchant versus another versus crime lords versus body guards versus citizens. Might ruled this shifting city, but no one person could control the ever-changing islands and channels. It was true freedom and true anarchy.
"I'm looking for the Benthic," Roedin stated.
The Sorex's eye grew wide. "It's spring. The meltwaters coming down from the Spinal Mountains washed out the pit last month."
"I'm sure it was rebuilt in a day. Where?"
"Three days. Prime Norto wanted it to last so he rebuilt on further out into the bay."
The Sorex lowered his eyes and checked the alleyway nervously. "Norto cuts out the tongue of those who forget it."
"But he has no magic," Roedin confirmed.
The Sorex shrugged one shoulder. "He lords over people. It doesn't matter how."
Magic, muscle, or money. One could secure power in a variety of ways in The Delta.
"The Benthic now has watertight walls, so when the moon pulls in the tide it won't flood out, but the pit will get cut off from the surrounding boardwalks. Norto has a call out for a sapien who can manipulate glass. He wants to add huge viewing windows and host underwater fights between merpeople. Increase the biodiversity of his clientele."
"You seem to know a lot for 'just a pilings digger'," Roedin observed training his ears for any sound of a trap being laid. A harmless Sorex would be perfect bait.
The faunid straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin in pride. "Sorexes do all the digging around here. Especially for expensive fighting pits."
Roedin nodded in appreciation. It was a lowly job, but the Sorex took pride in his work. Every species had a purpose in the world. Whatever you do, do it well.
"Take care," Roedin offered as he strode out of the alley and back to the crowded boardwalks that made up the streets of The Delta.
He could have flown and saved himself time but picking his way across the rickety bridges and slowed down the day, drew out the hope. While he kept his face blank, his mind raced through the possible scenarios. He pictured her running down the boardwalk and leaping into his arms. Or he finds her inspecting a product at a market stall and taps her on the shoulder so that she spins in surprise and her face lights up with that beautiful smile. Or she is ordering a drink at a bar and he walks in the door and they lock eyes. Or he finds her body floating face down in the canals. Or beaten and starving in a sub-level hovel. Taken advantage for being a weak human, the bottom of the food chain.
Roedin's chest ached and he forced the vision from his mind. It wasn't possible. The whispers had told him of a human fighter making a name for herself in The Benthic fighting pits. Small but quick and swift. Normally he would have dismissed the rumour as nothing more than false hope, but he had no idea where the Culden plantation slaves had fled. They had disappeared into the jungle without a trace. No one from Hidden Valley had shown up as refugees in the cities, but Roedin was glad for that after what had happened in Gallen. The city was locked down, the humans inside trapped or killed. No one knew.
River of Fire, was the name that reached his ears. Because the fighter's red hair. A red-headed woman was fighting in The Delta under the name 'River.' It was almost too much to hope for.
But fighting? Avery wasn't a fighter, she was a thinker. She could defend herself, mostly, and she knew the technique but lacked the drive to become a master warrior. She avoided violence; it brought back too many memories. And she was human, so fragile. How could she hold her own against sapiens or faunids in that pit? It was so impossible Roedin braced himself for disappointment. It was likely some sapien who disguised herself as a human to garner fame for her uniqueness. Surgery to round out her ears and makeup to hide her eyes. The sapien's speed and strength would come as a surprise to her opponent and she would defy the odds, increasing winnings on bets.
The River of Fire was probably not Avery, just a heartbreaking coincidence. Like Aven of Lone Cabin. A misprint. Still he felt something stir down the mating bond. An awakening, a spark. He prayed it wasn't just hope.