Winter of Man: Part 4 of 6 [Realms of Pugmire]

Pugmire

Pugmire adventuring party by Claudio Pozas

Rex dug Rusty’s grave, panting heavily through the night as he strained against the frozen ground with a shovel Spot had. “Most free dogs own a shovel,” Pan whispered to Yosha as Rex dug. “They have to bury their friends more often than we do.” When he finished, Spot gently put Rusty’s body in the hole, tears in his mismatched eyes. Picassa said a silent prayer as Rex filled the grave back in. Each dog was lost in their own thoughts as Boros and Sunny howled and wept until the sun rose.

Spot eventually broke the silence. “I don’t blame you,” he said. He knelt down and picked up Sunny in his arms, who buried his face into Spot’s shoulder. If Spot felt any discomfort from his injury by carrying the heavy puppy, he didn’t show it. “I blame that tower, and that cat, and this Man-damned winter,” he continued. “They killed my wife, not you.”

Yosha stood next to Spot, and raised her head up high. Her eyes were brimming with tears, but her voice was steady and firm. “I swear on my family’s honor that we will do everything we can to stop this. All of this.” The other dogs nodded in support of the pug’s promise.

The four traveled for another night and day in grim silence. A couple of times Pan tried to talk to Rex, but he ignored the hunter. The wind started to pick up, so they stopped at another cave for shelter. Yosha read her books about towers and cats. Once during the night, Picassa saw more pariahs with large patches of fur missing and malformed limbs, but they didn’t attack. They only chanted about the cat before their words were swallowed by the falling snow.

The next day the wind was even worse. The dogs leaned into the flurry, putting one foot in front of the other as they crunched through the thick snow. After a few hours, they saw the tower ahead of them.

It was taller than many of the buildings in Pugmire, but square and squat, a large box standing on its end. The windows were all dark and broken, like cracked ice over a deep lake. The doors were made of similar glass, framed by old, dented metal. Heavy, twisted braces held small fragments of a blue sign with Man writing, but so much of it was missing that neither Picassa nor Yosha could read it. On the top of the tower, the dogs could just make out large objects that looked like broken bowls pointed to the sky.

“I’ve heard about those,” Yosha said in an awed whisper. “The texts of Man called those ‘satellite dishes’.”

“Man must have been enormous to need dishes of that size,” Rex said.

Yosha started to respond, but Picassa interrupted. “We should make our way to the tower before the wind freezes us solid.” She tried to brush the ice crystals from the fur on her face, but to no avail.

“Agreed,” Pan said, shivering. “I’m happy to die in that tower, as long as it’s warm.”

“What’s moving up in that window?” Rex asked, pointing.

They all looked up. Near the top of the tower, they could just make out a cat leaning out of one of the windows. It had gray fur with dark spots, which complimented the gray winter landscape around them. His eyes were little pinpricks of yellow at that distance, and he wore a uniform of blue and gold, although it was hard for even Pan’s sharp eyes to pick out details. The cat was yelling something, but the fierce winds whipped his words away before they could hear them.

“Well, there’s a cat here. In cat territory. Just like I said,” Pan grumbled as he watched the cat go back into the tower.

Picassa touched her nose in the ancient sign of protection and peace. “I hope he is not attempting to use his necromancy against us,” she said.

Rex drew his sword and pointed at the doors to the tower. “It is more likely he is summoning them.”

From the tower came a dozen creatures. They looked somewhat like dogs, but they were horribly disfigured. They had no fur at all, and their skin was patchy with sores. Many of them had misshapen limbs and paws, twisted like melted wax that had been molded by paw into new shapes. None of them held weapons, but they all snarled and foamed with insane fury. Yosha barked as loud and as hard as she could, their stench overpowering her sensitive nose.

Pan nocked an arrow, and Picassa raised her paws. The air twisted and grew dark for a moment, and one of the creatures clutched at its eyes and fell. “We must make our way to the tower,” she said, panting with effort.

Yosha said, “I can get there.” She dropped to all fours, her books strapped to her back, and she started running as fast as she could to the tower doors.

“No!” Rex screamed. He started running after her, swinging his sword into the stomach of one of the abominations on his right. The creature screamed, while a second one to his left bit hard into his arm. Rex snarled in pain, and an arrow whistled past his ear to sink into the chest of his attacker. Blood splattered over Rex’s fur, and the biter slumped to the ground. The guardian swung his sword up, cleaving into a third creature that was reaching for Yosha.

The young pug ran as hard as she could, ears streaming behind her as she ducked around the falling enemy and ran between the legs of another one. The creature reached down to try and grab the pug, just as another arrow slammed into the top of its head. It toppled, and Yosha yipped as she skipped around the falling corpse before running to the doors.

Up close, the doors looked fragile. The metal frames were rusted, and one door sat crooked in its frame. The glass was dark with a thousand cracks all over it. Some of the cracks were covered in metallic strips, holding the smoky glass together. Yosha could just make out the ancient inscription on the glass: “Public Entrance.” She reached up, and was just able to grab the door handles and push. The doors swung open without a sound.
And she was immediately face-to-face with the gray, spotted cat.

Yosha froze, terrified and unsure what to do. The cat was holding a metal device in his paw—a pistol, according to her studies. She knew she couldn’t outrun it. She closed her eyes, shivering, and waited for the end.

She heard the loudest noise she’d ever heard in her life, and then a thud. She peeked from one eye, and saw a creature lying next to her, a pool of blood spreading from the crater in its forehead. Yosha opened her eyes and yipped again, skittering away from the dead creature.

“Come, young pug,” the cat said in a strange accent, lowering the pistol again. The light of the sun gleamed off the gold brocade on his uniform. “You must come with me into the tower.”

An arrow shattered against the door next to the cat, and Yosha could hear Rex running up behind her. “Get away from her, vile cat!” the guardian roared, sword held high over his head.

“Rex! Heel!” Yosha cried, holding her paws up.

Confused, the guardian stopped, still holding his sword at the ready. “My lady, stand aside so that I can deal with this…this…”

“This…” the cat said, motioning to himself while holding the pistol at the ready, “… is Lord Zola Mau von Korat. And I just saved your young pug’s life.”