Minotaur Noir by Katherine Luck

KatherineLuck.jpg

The minotaur was female. And she was decidedly dead.

The city streets were slick with rain that had been falling sporadically for hours, the drops hitting the pavement with the sluggish indifference of a washed-up boxer running out the clock so he could throw the match in the eighth round. The storm clouds had finally blown away at the tail-end of twilight, leaving behind a street cleaved by rivulets of rusty water that trickled from the broken gutters of the tall buildings where the humans lived.

The sun had slithered down behind those tall buildings an hour ago, then slipped behind the low stables where the centaurs lived. Now it was dark, which wasn’t a problem. But tonight a full moon was on its way, and that was most definitely a problem.

When a full moon was on its way, so were the Lycaons.

Under the somber sky, two centaurs from the street patrol unit of the city police circled the motionless body. Their hooves made dull, arrhythmic clop-clop-clop sounds on the cracked sidewalk. This low elevation above the street—a concession to the humans of the neighborhood—was a vexing stumbling block that forced the partners to jostle against each other to retain their balance. Their coarse tails, trimmed to police regulation lengths of half a meter, swished nervously as they eyed the dead minotaur.

She was curled up in an asymmetrical ball, like a rough-cut hunk of leather tied in a clumsy knot. Her scraggly brown fur was lumpy with mats and tangles. Swells of dense muscle bulged here and there beneath her blubbery hide. The short horns sprouting from the broad crown of her conical, bovine skull were scarred with nicks and scratches, the tips blunted like worn teeth. Her large eyes were closed, the bristly black lashes stuck together with dried effluvia. Her big body was hunkered up against the chipped bricks of the building, which was prudently locked, barred, and barricaded in anticipation of the arrival of the Lycaons.

“Well. Guess we won’t be hauling her in for being drunk,” said Dosh. “What should we do with her?”

“Leave her for the Lycaons,” said Wick.

“You sure?”

“Less paperwork,” he said, shrugging his broad shoulders.

Wick gave the dark sky a good, long look. Any minute now the moon would slink out from its hiding place. And so would the ravenous wolfmen, who would dispose of the body. Nothing to report come morning—nothing but another pile of sallow minotaur bones picked clean under the full moon. Just like every month.

“Let’s make one last sweep, then get back to the station before—”

He was interrupted by a feeble cry, as lost and faltering as a migrating bird on the wing in the heart of winter.

It came from the dead minotaur.

The centaurs shied back, stumbling off the sidewalk into the street, their steel-shod hooves clipping each other’s fetlocks sharply enough to draw blood. The cry came again: weak, muffled, and infantile.

Wick glanced at his partner, who nodded. He drew in a breath, his chest swelling against his armored vest, and stretched out his front hoof cautiously. He remounted the sidewalk, hesitated, and raked a hand through his blond hair.

Wick glanced at Dosh again. His partner had his back, but he wasn’t making any move to approach the minotaur.

Wick let out a snort of frustration tinged with fear. He gripped his patrol club so tightly the tendons in his hand shone like bleached driftwood in the first ray of moonlight, which pierced the black sky like a darning needle and stabbed the cracked pavement beneath his hooves. He arced his torso down toward the body, ready to rear and canter back if necessary. He reached out his club and jabbed the muscle-plated shoulder of the minotaur.

Her limp arm flopped outward, revealing a tiny baby curled up against her chest. It let out a mewling cry.

“Damn,” he said. “Get the vet.”

The vet arrived just as the moon began to shoot thick beams onto the street with brutal intensity, and just as the Lycaons began howling. The sound of their ululations, inhuman yet not fully animalistic, came from somewhere in the distance. The near-distance.

The vet was a thin human, taller than average; the top of his head almost reached Wick’s withers. His face was without expression, but his eyes ceaselessly scanned the dark recesses between the buildings, searching for hulking outlines ready to seize any warm-blooded thing foolish enough to be out on the night of a full moon with their nimble five-fingered hands, drag it into the shadows, and consume it alive.

Wick didn’t like the vet. And he definitely didn’t trust him. The vet was a human, after all.

The vet knelt down beside the dead minotaur, one knee resting on the wet pavement. He moved her splayed arm aside and pried the lowing infant from the other. An expression of distaste, involuntary but unabashed, flashed across his face. He held the infant by the scruff of its neck and studied it for a moment.

The baby minotaur’s tiny black hooves clattered together, its limp hind legs dangling from its chunky, furry body. It opened its wide mouth and let out a long, low bawl. Another look of disgust crossed the vet’s face. He held the baby out to Wick.

“Hold this,” he said.

Wick backed away, his callused palms up.

“I’m not touching that thing,” he replied.

The vet thrust the baby at Dosh, who trotted back several paces and shook his head. The vet sighed and reluctantly cradled the baby in his left arm. Swiftly, he worked over the mother with his right hand, probing her body with his rough fingers.

“How’d she die?” Wick demanded.

“Beats me,” the vet replied, sitting back on his heels, the knees of his trousers soaked with rainwater. “There’s no cause of death evident. No wounds. No signs of starvation. Nothing.”

The centaurs eyed one another uneasily. Minotaurs were hardy. They died of hunger, violence, or old age. Infections were nothing to them. They didn’t get sick. They weren’t prey to genetic maladies. And they never, ever simply dropped dead on the street.

Up the empty city block, a bone-rattling howl sounded. Then another and another.

“Time to go,” said Wick. “Put the thing back with the female and hustle to the station before the Lycaons get here.”

The vet glanced at the baby, which was squirming and wailing in the crook of his arm. The expression of disgust yet again registered on his features, and he made a movement to do exactly what Wick ordered. But he hesitated.

“It’s not dead. We should take it with us,” he said.

“Leave it,” said Wick. “The Lycaons’ll get rid of it.”

“Less paperwork,” Dosh agreed.

The vet mulled this over for a moment.

“Yeah,” said the vet. “But...”

“The mother’s dead. This thing’s as good as dead with nobody to take care of it,” Wick insisted. “The merciful thing to do is leave it. The Lycaons’ll clean it up quick and painless.”

The vet gazed first at Wick, then at Dosh, who nodded in response. Minotaurs never accepted outsiders into their herds. Even if they could find a female to pawn the baby off on, she’d kill it on sight.

The vet pursed his lips and drew in a constricted breath, which he slowly let out with a thin, reedy sound that was either a whistle or a sigh. He leaned down and grasped the mother’s left arm. He started to place the baby on the dead minotaur’s shaggy chest.

But again, he hesitated.

“Let it go,” said Wick. “Move! They’re coming.”

Up the block, there echoed three howls, discordant and insistent.

“But he’s not dead,” said the vet.

Suddenly, too abruptly and too soon, grunts and snuffling noises resounded directly behind them—a few meters away at most. The centaurs pressed against the vet, their biceps tensed, their tails swishing in agitation like broom-heads.

“Release the minotaur!” Wick commanded. “Drop it—they’re almost here!”

The Lycaons were on them; they could feel their panting, could smell the shreds of new meat on their dank breath.

“It’s too late! Run for it—we’ll try to hold them off,” Dosh shouted, raising his patrol club as eyes, reflecting pale blue in the moonlight, bobbed into view within arm’s reach.

The vet broke into a sprint and vanished down a nearby alley, in that fleet, monkey-like way of humans.

Wick backed into a defensive position next to Dosh, his sleekly curried shoulder sliding across his partner’s scruffy withers.

“Ready?” said Wick.

He saw the younger centaur nod decisively, but felt his flank quiver nervously against his shoulder.

Wick clamped both hands around his club. He braced his four stout legs and glanced back at the dead minotaur. Her arms were splayed, exposing her barrel-shaped chest.

The baby was nowhere to be seen.

The vet had taken it with him.

The Lycaons fell upon the centaurs, and a fugitive thought rushed through Wick’s brain, then fled from the Lycaon onslaught.

I was right not to trust the vet. He’s human.