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As fun as his encounter with the fox had been, he needed to focus on the task at hand. Guests had slowly begun streaming out as the night wore on and it wouldn’t be long before everyone made their way home. In the meantime, Dusk needed to prepare to strike as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The raccoon slowly made his way through the crowd, exchanging farewells as he exited the party and made his way out onto the street.
The Paladium shared the block with several other buildings. To its left was the banker’s guild and to the left of the guild was a building which housed several apartments. Dusk made his way down the street and entered the apartment building at the end of the block. He quickly made his way up the stairs, moving as quickly and discretely as possible until he reached the roof.
Looking around the roof of the building, one would think that there was nothing to see besides the view. Dusk approached one corner of the roof.
The corner looked like all the others until one was close enough to realize that there was actually a small canvas propped up in front of the corner, painted with painstaking detail to blend in with the environment where it had been set up. Sitting behind the canvas was Dusk’s pack of equipment and his change of clothes. He removed all the finery he had worn to the party and quickly donned a pitch black cape that fastened in the front. Next he put on his black leather sandals and gloves. Finally, he removed the black eye mask he wore from the pack. It had always seemed ironic to Dusk for him to feel compelled to where such a thing as a raccoon, but the harder it was to recognize him the better.
Dusk occasionally looked in the direction of the Paladium to assess how many guests remained. As he sat on the roof waiting, thoughts of the fox he had met earlier that evening creeped into his head. ‘Where was he from? Why was he at the party? Most frustratingly of all, why couldn’t Dusk stop thinking about him?’ Looking at the star filled sky above helped to clear the raccoon’s mind. ‘Maybe,’ Dusk thought to himself, ‘Maybe I can take a break for a while after this. Maybe I could travel a little and meet fascinating people like the fox . . . Maybe I could find someone to . . . ‘ Dusk shook himself from his reverie and looked once more at the Paladium. The lamps leading up to the entrance of the gallery were being extinguished by the caterers.
Dusk slowly rose from where he had been sitting on the roof and stretched until he could feel the tension in his muscles release. The raccoon secured the bag containing his forgeries onto his back, pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, and stood on the roof’s edge overlooking the bank and the Paladium beyond it. The time had come.
The fox lay low, lurking around every corner as if he were being followed. His golden eyes glowed in the darkness, almost as if to illuminate the path before him. Zylo was known for his keen senses, and ever since the incident with the relics, he only felt more attuned to his inner instincts. With not a single soul in the vicinity, Zylo returned to the gallery for young and aspiring artists. His muscles relaxed as he closed his eyes and allowed the darkness to envelop him. 'Maybe no one is coming...' he thought.
Moments of quiet reflection passed, though they seemed to last forever. The worst that would happen was that he would fall asleep in the gallery and be kicked out in the morning, but he was a little more confident now.
'Maybe I could practice...' The thought came again. He nodded to himself in the darkness, outstretching his left paw. 'Should be easy to focus. Just like before,' the fox closed his eyes. A small orb of light gently flickered at the base of his palm, it grew brighter as Zylo steadied his mind. 'Huh... feels so natural now,' he thought as he opened his eyes to see the ball of energy in his paw. He twirled the orb around his fingers, smiling as he felt a warmth where it danced. Such a strange phenomenon, Zylo still did not know the full potential of his ability. Such things intrigued him, and also frightened him.
Everything in the gallery lay quiet and still. For now.
The next step was a bit more tricky. Dusk moved to the part of the roof closest to the Paladium and removed a length of rope from his cloak with a grappling hook on one end. He spun the hooked end over his head and then flung it at one of the statues adorning the roof of the gallery. The hook thudded against the statue without finding an anchor and fell into the gardens below. Dusk cursed under his breath and reeled the rope back in. Time was of the essence and he could not afford to incur further blunders. Once again, Dusk spun the hook above his head and let it fly to his target. This time the hooked end of the rope made several twists around the arm of the statue he had been aiming for and anchored itself firmly in the marble. Dusk pulled the rope until it was taught and then tied the other end off on the pigeon coop the guild used to house its carrier pigeons.
In his efforts to master the art of rope walking, Dusk had learned that the most important skill one needed to possess to be successful at it was a mastery over the fear of falling. Often when he had practiced the craft over creeks outside the city, he found that it was often his mind that threw his body off balance more so than the act itself. Dusk calmed his breathing and placed on foot onto the rope. He adjusted his foot this way and that until he felt it was in the proper place and then pushed off the rooftop with his other foot. He used his arms to improve his balance and slowly began to cross the gap between the bank and the Paladium. The further out he got the more at ease he felt. His form and balance were perfect tonight and slinking across the rope almost felt as natural as walking on the street.
Dusk dropped down onto the roof of the gallery and produced another rope from his cloak. He tied this one off to the torso of the same statue he had used to cross from the bank’s roof and then tossed the other end down the skylight in the center of the gallery’s ceiling. Dusk peered over the edge of the hole in the ceiling and saw nothing but darkness below. If there was anyone left in the gallery, they would be hard pressed to detect him.
The raccoon gripped the rope in his gloved hands, took a deep breath, and slowly began the descent down into the gallery. He hovered just above the floor for a few moments, looking about the room before releasing his grip and landing on the ground without a sound.
The fox quietly reached for the curved dagger at his hip, placing it firmly in his hand. 'Apprehend if possible, kill if necessary,' he thought. In his ears he could hear his own heartbeat now.
Dusk paused at the archway that led into the area where Andrea’s collection would be on display for the public to view beginning tomorrow. He peered around the wall and scanned the room carefully. If Andrea was going to pull something, this was the most likely place where Dusk would encounter it. Despite the fact that Dusk had had to become accustomed to living life and doing business in the daytime, he was no less nocturnal than any other raccoon. Even in absolute darkness, his night vision was sharp and had often been the reason he had succeeded on heists in the past.
Within the exhibition hall, Dusk saw only the covered easels in the center of the room along with the other statues and artwork that were on permanent display. On the far side of the room Dusk could make out the archway into the exhibit for young and aspiring artists. Dusk took a couple cautious steps into the room and then quickly spanned the rest of the distance to the easels. It appeared he would be able to pull this off without too much trouble after all.
Zylo had no intention of trying to apprehend his target just yet. A smaller target gave a larger margin for error, and in the dark Zylo did not know just how prepared the thief was. 'Wait until he's out in the open, that will give me a better chance... Can't do anything without my vision,' he thought. Zylo stayed as still as possible, hearing the pawsteps ever closer. By now they were only a room apart.
Dusk removed the pack containing his forgeries and took out one painting at a time. If he was going to fetch a good price for Andrea’s originals at the auction house, he needed to make sure he didn’t damage them now or on his way back to his studio.
His trek through the vast emptiness seemed to last an eternity, until he finally reached the only spot where the thief could have entered. Looking up now, he could see a small skylight protruding from the ceiling. Not much further from the base of the floor hung a bit of rope that traced up to the edge of the skylight. This plan had been a long time coming. 'I guess the only way is up,' Zylo thought. He looked around one last time, making sure he hadn't been detected. Taking a firm grip to make sure the rope was secure, Zylo quickly ascended up the rope.
Once outside, he crouched behind the statue that anchored the rope. It was good to be able to see again. Now he would be able to see just who was so anxious to steal these paintings.
He paused what he was doing and decided to really take a moment to scan his surroundings. As he passed through the different parts of the Paladium, he was greeted by nothing but silence and darkness. Had Andrea simply given up on the idea of catching the notorious art thief? Dusk shook his head. That pompous windbag was far too proud to simply give up on catching someone who had put him through so much and ruined his reputation.
Dusk’s unease gradually turned to disappointment. The gallery was empty. No one was trying to stop him. His ears, which had been perked up with adrenaline, slowly folded themselves down against his head. There was no excitement in this. There was no challenge. The thrill of thwarting Andrea’s attempts to capture him had always been a part of the heists he had pulled in the past, but he had never realized how much he had enjoyed the excitement it brought him. Dusk softly sighed. ‘Might as well finish what I started,’ he thought to himself.
Dusk made his way back to the exhibition hall and slowly exchanged all of the original paintings with his forgeries and placed the originals carefully inside his pack. He placed the covers over the easels which now held his forgeries and then headed to the skylight where his rope still hung. Dusk took one more look around the gallery before grabbing the rope and slowly making his way back up to the roof of the gallery.
Dusk hoisted himself over the edge of the skylight and sat down for a moment beneath the night sky. He did not feel the satisfaction he had hope he would. He did not feel the sense of accomplishment he craved. He just felt . . . empty. The raccoon heaved another long sigh before he stood and began to pull up the rope that he had just ascended.
‘Perhaps I would have been better off getting drinks with that fox,’ he thought to himself.
The raccoon had only begun to pull in his rope, not only that but he seemed somewhat distraught now. Not usually a feeling when completing such a grand heist. Zylo took note of the pack around the Raccoons shoulders. 'Bingo,' he thought as his muscles tensed. The rope had still been secured to the statue, leaving a bit of slack towards the end as the coon retrieved the longer end from the gallery. This gave Zylo an idea.
Now only about twenty feet away, Zylo decided to finally take his action. He grabbed the opposite end of the rope and gave waited until the coon pulled to give it and extra farcefull tug. As the coons balance shifted backwards, Zylo lept into action. With dagger in right paw, he outstretched his left arm to catch the coon by the waist, easily nestling the weight of the fall. He other paw focused on the straps holding the pack with the goods. A quick flash and the fabric had ben sliced clean off of the coons shoulders, allowing the paintings to gently drop a foot or two onto the roof of the building. Before the coon could even begin to struggle, Zylos arm had already wrapped around the coon and stood him upright. The dagger had found its way to the base of the coon's throat. Zylo could feel their heartbeats pounding in unison now. The fox whispered softly into the coons ear.
"I assume, your evening has been. . . Eventful to say the least?" He questioned, almost chuckling, holding his firm grip on the coon.
Instead of a blade, a well-muscled arm wrapped around Dusk’s waist and within the same breath he felt the weight of the pack he was carrying fall away from his shoulders. A dagger appeared at Dusk’s throat and an imposing figure pressed itself against his back.
As his attacker’s whisper reached his ear, a familiar chill ran down the raccoon’s spine and he knew immediately whose arms he was in. It was in that moment that everything began to make sense. The impromptu party, the stranger among the guests at the party, and the complete lack of security around the collection. A smile formed on Dusk’s lips as his heartbeat began to pick back up and his ears stood at full attention.
Dusk replied, “It was actually quite boring . . . until you showed up.” Dusk knew that the fox had the advantage in close quarters. He had to outweigh Dusk by at least forty pounds and the fox appeared to have been in his fair share of fights. The challenge of taking on a larger opponent was not something Dusk was unfamiliar with as Andrea had hired countless thugs throughout the years. Dusk thought to himself, ‘I simply need to level the playing field.’ Dusk quickly reached into his a cloak and threw a metal sphere to the ground at his feet which shattered on impact. A thick grayish smoke filled the air around them and Dusk made his move.
He bit down hard on the fox’s hand that held the dagger. The fox yelped in pain as the dagger fell from his hand. Dusk broke free, picking up the dagger as he sprinted to where the paintings had fallen. With any luck, they would not have been damaged.
The Cocotte Mountains, Domus.
He saw him there, knelt down, bound, and beaten. Though he could not use his words, Zylo read every moment of the Stallion's pain through his eyes.
"Monte!" He cried out, his eyes became glossy with tears as he realized the situation they had been put in. "Cowards..." He growled lowly to the pair as they drew their weapons. Zylo heard Irik propose the negotiation, but kept his eyes locked with his lover. A knot settled in his stomach as one of the assassins pressed the blade to the stallion's cheek and drew blood. Zylo lurched forward angrily, then settled trying not to instigate bloodloss. "That's enough!" He barked, but the assassins did not even hesitate.
"Hope you're watching closely, pup." the cat seethed. What came next shattered Zylo's reality.
The fox could only watch helplessly as Monte bode farewell with his soft stare, as the life left his body and was thrown to the snow in a pool of blood. The fox's eyes grew wide, not even blinking at the illusion of the daggers. His mind seemed to go blank for a few seconds, there was no shock, no screams, only the image of Monte reaching out to Zylo with a soft gaze. It was as if something inside him had woken at that very instant, he could feel a warmth in his left paw where he held the relic.
'There's no way...' the words kept coming back to him as he slowly came to his feet, walking over to his lover's dead body. He stared down at the massive white stallion, feeling sadness but portraying a blank,dead stare. 'Whats wrong with me... how could I...' he reached out to touch, but stopped midway. He wanted to scream, to cry, and let out his rage. Something was not letting him. After them, go! he heard a voice in his head. The fox looked down at his uneasy paw, his vision began to tunnel slightly and all he could smell was blood. 'After... them...' He repeated.
Zylo nearly collapsed as he began to feel a great rush of adrenaline run through his veins. He placed one paw on Monte's Body, and bowed his head, steadying himself. Something had indeed come over the fox, and the nature of it was brutal. The scent of his targets was now as fresh as day, and he was ready for revenge. When he rose, the foxed leaped into action, bounding after the assassins with unreal speed.
The primal urge to kill was set in Zylo's mind. He caught up to the feline within a matter of seconds. The assassin tried to pick up his pace, but was growing slower while Zylo's speed only increased. He sensed the fear in his target as he closed in, trailing behind only by a few yards. Zylo drew his dagger, keeping his speed up to stay on his target. 'I'll kill you...' his mind seemed to keep saying as he gave one last sprint of energy, jumping and pinning his target to the ground. Before the cat could even begin tor cover, Zylo dug his blade into both legs and both arms, twisting the hilt. He heard his opponent scream wildly as he did so, however it didn't seem to phase him. He pitched over, staring deep into the eyes of the feline. In a low, vicious tone he whispered. "I hope you're watching closely, you wretch,". Zylo stood up and moved back, now possessed by this ravenous form. The relic in his palm glowed as he touch a large boulder near by, the large rock began to hover weightlessly above the snow. The feline struggled, crying out for help. His teammate was being pursued by Nyulotha, and no one was coming to his rescue.
"Please... don't..." The cat writhed hoarsely. Zylo's paw motioned forward, and the boulder followed. His finger motioned to the sky, and the boulder rose up. The cat seemed to struggle even more wildly to move about as his doomed sat suspended in the air. Zylo snapped his fingers, releasing his bind on the boulder. At first there was a scream, then there was silence. 'Nyu... Irik...' , the names of his comrades began to seep into his mind as his rage eased. The fox felt weary now, but he tried to shake it off.
Clarity struck as Zylo looked in the direction of camp, and Zylo's legs immediately retreated to his lover's body.
It took him twice as long to get back to camp, and as he approached he realized his emotions could no longer be contained. "Monte..." He sobbed as he stumbled into the snow next to the lifeless heap. The tears now fell freely, and all his shared memories came flooding back. "MONTE!!!!!!" He cried out, removing the bonds and resting the body in his arms. The body had grown cold.
When Zylo's mind came to, his mind felt more alive than ever before. With his paw still outstretched towards Alessio, Zylo commanded the pack containing the paintings into the air, high enough to be out of reach from any normal bound. His consciousness cleared, and Zylo could feel a tear roll down his cheek as he watched as the agile Raccoon caught himself gracefully to avoid stumbled after missing his mark. This fur, in such a short time, had brought out something in the fox that only one other had ever gotten close to. There was no way he could harm this being.
"Alessio, please. I don't want to fight with you," Zylo called out to the Raccoon, hoping there would be some reasonable way to solve this. All he needed was to know the reason for these actions, that would be enough of a start.
Dusk's eyes settled on the fox. “We’re not fighting . . . yet. But at the moment, you are an obstacle in my way and obstacles,” Dusk threw the dagger into a nearby statue a little above eye level. He sprinted in the statue’s direction and leapt into the air. His foot found the hilt of the dagger, he spun, and using the extra height sprang straight for where the pack hung suspended above the roof, “must be OVERCOME!”
The market streets were quiet, of course this was to be expected as it was beyond midnight now. The array of merchants among their booths had long gone, leaving bare stands along the streets ready for they next day's products. The buildings here were a little taller, but also more makeshift and crowded it seemed. A nearby river connected the market plaza with the court district.
'Its here somewhere...' Zylo thought as he looked down at the address card in his paw. He breathed a sigh of relief as he found the complex that harbored the Raccoon's studio apartment. The building was fairly tall, and Zylo came to realize that the address he was given could only be at the top floor of the complex. No matter, climbing was not too much of an obstacle. Every so calmly, Zylo gripped the ledge of a window and began scaling the side of the building. a matter of moments and he was looking into the artistically inspired room. The window was surprisingly not locked like he had expected, and he was able to roll into the apartment without much mess or struggle.
Now inside his targets home, Zylo took in every detail of his surroundings. He smiled as he chuckled to himself, "Cozy... guess I'll just wait here," as he walked over to a small chair near the dining room table. The coon couldn't be too far away.
Dusk didn’t hear the sounds of a pursuer, but he did not intend to wait around to see if his magic-wielding foxy friend was giving chase. He quickly but carefully maneuvered his way through the gallery garden until he reached the street. He surveyed the activity on the street in both directions and when he was satisfied that the streets were empty he sprinted down the block to the apartment building where he had left his bag. He made his way up to the roof, put the damaged pack with the paintings inside of his larger bag, and then changed into the clothes he had worn to the party.
Dressed as the charming art critic he pretended to be, he made his way back to his studio apartment. As he walked down the city sidewalks thinking about what had just transpired, he couldn’t help but laugh. It was true, the fox had discovered his identity and that he would likely need to be gone by sunrise, but he had never had so much fun. In the thrill of going toe to toe with the fox, he had completely forgotten the reason he even wanted to steal the paintings in the first place. His vendetta seemed so secondary to the other feelings that had flooded his being during the scuffle on the rooftop.
He gazed up at the night sky and took in as much air as his lungs could hold. He felt alive and that was the true thing of value he had stolen from this night.
Dusk slowly made his way up the stairs of his building to his apartment. He likely wouldn’t have a lot of time to rest, but he just wanted to ride this high for a little bit longer before he began to plan his escape. The raccoon opened the door to his apartment and a smile formed on his lips. He had company.
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