Rising from the horizon, the sun chased away the night and gave colour to everything it touched, a clear indication to the city dwellers that it was time to wake up and begin their preparations for the night's festival. They had prepared for days, the children for even longer; after all, it wasn't every day the adults handed out free candy. The children were up with the sun, preparing their costumes for tonight, when spirits of the dead would walk among the living.
Yet some did not see the need to get up at dawn, no matter what the day might bring. Until the light faded from the cracks, they were satisfied with dancing in their dreams. Being nocturnal, they would rather sleep the day away if they could.
Rooster muttered curses under his breath as his ears twitched. The rat thundering down the hall better not be looking for him. He shut his eyes and tried to let sleep drag him under once more.
The heavy weight of the rat stopped outside his door.
“Oh, rats. Great ancestral stars, why me?”
He scurried to open it before the rat could start a fuss and wake all the rodents in the Wall. The rat standing outside his door was a black rat twice Rooster’s size. He himself was just a small yellow mouse—a desert rodent—and it made glaring at her difficult. Instead, his eyes were level with the red band wrapped around the middle of the rat’s body.
He groaned. “Why are you here so early? Don’t you Guards have normal working hours?”
The rat just stared at him. Rooster shook his head. “I should have known your kind doesn’t chat. What did they do to you—cut out your tongue?”
Rooster sighed. “What is it?” In answer, the Guard walked toward the exit. Rooster snapped his teeth. With no other option, he followed.
They left the Crack in the Wall to face a wide street, the dirt packed tightly beneath their paws from years of heavy foot, wagon, and horse traffic. The humans were hanging lanterns by their stalls and bringing out their special goods for the festival. Laughing children weaved through the crowd, leaving smiles on the faces of adults in their wake.
The Guard and Rooster made their way through the street, mostly keeping to the side and clambering over crates and horse stalls when necessary.
They crossed the market circle and clamored over the eaves of more established shops and a few residences. A few streets later, the Guard stopped outside a rat hole to the side of the Guard Station, a large brick building that was home to the main head quarters of all things security on the Enzlan Island. As they made their way through, Rooster observed many other rodents carrying on with their work despite the early hour. “You Guards don’t sleep at all.”
He and the Guard soon left the tunnel to enter one that slanted upwards. They were climbing to the higher levels, to a place Rooster dreaded. The more dangerous the job, the higher the floor. That was the commonly used motto amongst security personnel. Rooster was on the top floor.
“This is the chief’s office. Why did you bring me here?” He looked for the Guard, but she had already disappeared back into the hole. Holding back a sigh, he hopped into the chief's desk. What did the chief of security want from him? He hadn't met the previous chief's replacement yet, and he didn't want to.
Papers fluttered as the doors to the office opened. “I finally meet Rooster in the flesh. Could you tell me, Rooster, why a rodent like you didn’t protest as the Guards brought you here?”
Two humans walked into the office. One of them was quite young while the other, the chief, was a little over middle age. Even so, he was in shape, and his hair was surprisingly dark for someone in charge of the Islands’ security.
Rooster nodded to the chief as the man took his place behind the desk.
The other human had dark blond hair, cut short like most of the people Rooster had met in the School of Security. He was short, but Rooster guessed he was still growing. His face, which was already showing signs of sun burn on the nose, told Rooster the boy probably had a few Ician ancestors in his blood. Since the Islands were the closest of Enzla's territory to Icia, he wasn't surprised to find a boy of mixed heritage.
“Chief! You want me to work with a mouse?” the boy asked.
At those words, Rooster shut down his interest in a new partner, dismissed him from his thoughts, and answered the chief’s question. “I don’t question the Guards too much because I like having my tail where it is: attached to my body.”
The chief chuckled. “They wouldn't have hurt you.” He turned to the young man. “Aizen, take a seat. Rooster is the one you want.”
“A mouse,” Aizen said, emphasizing the word as though Rooster were a germ or a piece of trash.
“Yes, I am a mouse.” Why did he have to be in the same room as this brat, let alone work with him? Rooster paused, let that thought play through his mind. He smirked. “You know what, Chief? I will hear your offer."
As Rooster expected, Aizen's jaw dropped and scrunched his face in panicked outrage. "There was no offer made to you," Aizen protested.
Satisfied he was able to annoy the boy, Rooster continued, “Why, exactly, am I here?”
“We don’t need you!”
“Aizen,” the chief said with disapproval in his eyes. Aizen scowled and sat in one of the empty chairs in front of the chief.
“Chief,” Rooster said, “What's this errand you have for me and this boy? Hopefully it isn't too dangerous, since I won't have the time to babysit him if the errand is as serious as I think.”
Aizen straightened his back and his eyes grew flat. “I was old enough to graduate, so I’m old enough to work.”
“Graduated early, did you?” Rooster murmured. “When? Fifteen? Sixteen?” Considering the amount of baby fat that remained on that face, Rooster thought Aizen was sixteen. Considering the fact that anyone receiving an errand from the chief had to have at least two year of exceptional field experience…
“I graduated when I was fifteen. That was two years ago.”
The chief raised a hand. “Now, now, let’s not judge people, or rodent, by their age or size.”
Rooster acquiesced. He himself wasn’t much older than Aizen, possibly even younger. But after all he had been through, he felt old. “What is it, Chief?”
“Aizen needs to go on an errand for me.”
Great. He could go by himself. Why am I involved? Rooster wanted to ask.
“He needs someone to help him find the information he needs.”
“Get another human.”
“See? I told you mice are useless.” Aizen rolled his eyes. “He’s too scared to risk his tail.”
“So says the boy who can’t find another fur-free being to help him,” Rooster said, for the sole purpose of irritating the boy. It was starting to get fun.
“Yes I can!”
“Rooster will serve as another pair of eyes.”
Aizen snorted. “How, with all the cheese and other garbage he must stuff into that snout of his?”
“Just to let you know, I don’t stuff myself with anything. I don’t even like cheese.”
The chief interrupted. “Aizen, you are the one who came to me because you could not find someone suitable to help you. As a last resort, I went through the records in search for someone. I was not expecting anything, but here I found a mouse who had completed the same assessments as you." He continued as Aizen's jaw dropped. "He was in the same program you graduated from last year. Adding to that, he was successful in gaining the highest praise by year’s end.”
Rooster raised his eyes to the chief. “That’s news to me. I didn’t know I left the school with such high honours, since they kicked me out.”
“See? I told you,” Aizen said.
“My source tells me that they did not kick you out, but gave you a year of rest to heal your injury. I see that it has healed nicely.”
Rooster twitched the tip of his tail and wiggled his claws. “Sure.”
“Instead of returning, you dropped the program just before your last year. And now, you are back on the job as a freelancer since you have not completed your education.”
“I suppose,” Rooster muttered.
The chief smiled and turned to Aizen. “Looks like you have a partner,” he said.
Aizen deflated. “Please don’t do this to me…you just assigned me an errand with a mouse!”
“A mouse who spends more time with his nose in a book and on the streets than most. He is not so different from the rodents who work in the Guard.”
Rooster wanted to laugh. How could the chief say that with a straight face, knowing exactly what made him so different from the Guard rats?
Having used up all his arguments, Aizen pointed at Rooster. “What kind of name is Rooster? I can’t call my partner Rooster.”
Oh, not this again, Rooster thought and bit his tongue, preventing himself from defending the name his friends had chosen for him.
“I am not working with a mouse that has a name like Rooster.”
“Well, I’m not working with such an annoying little brat,” Rooster snapped. As fun as it was to annoy Aizen, he had to draw the line somewhere.
The chief closed his eyes. “I hoped I would not need to make this an ultimatum. Aizen: either you accept him as your partner for this errand, or don’t go at all.”
Aizen stewed as he strode down the rows of stalls in the night market, looking for a face painter. He had been so consumed by his thoughts that he didn't remember the date until after he had reached the market, which was usually winding down by sunset. Instead, he find it crowded with people out for the festival.
He finally found a face painter next to a woman selling sweetened apples. He muttered apologies as he pushed through the crowd.
To the artists’ protest, Aizen dipped his fingers into a jar of green paste the woman was using to paint a customer’s face.
“It’s an emergency,” Aizen said and dropped a few coins on the table. As he left the stall, he smeared the paste over his face in a rushed pattern of swirls that started from his temple and looped its way to his jaw. That should be enough to make him invisible to the spirits.
“Hey,” someone called out. Aizen ignored the voice and continued walking, hopefully to a place he wouldn’t be bothered by arrogant children demanding free candy from strangers.
“Aizen!” the same voice shouted again. Aizen halted. He turned to see a young man just a few years older than himself standing a few metres away. Aizen could feel a vein in his forehead pound at the sight of another person who annoyed him.
“What do you want, Jukely?” Aizen asked when the older boy was close enough.
“I thought that I’d just stop you since I’ve never seen you outside on Halloween,” Jukely said with a grin. He replaced the silver mask over his face.
“You won’t see me again.” Aizen turned and continued walking.
“I guess you’re still annoyed at being assigned a non-human partner for your next job!"
"But it’s good for you. I mean, although you did graduate with us, you’re too young for the rest of our class. You should start it easy, right? Boy, I'm glad I have one of the top three graduates as my partner. I suppose I should thank you, since you're the one who requested a change of partners."
Aizen glanced back at Jukely. Was there any point in telling the jerk that the chief himself had been assigning Aizen his errands for the past year? That, while he hadn't been assigned an espionage mission of his own until now, he had fought against Ician operatives to defend and deliver life-altering messages from undercover agents to the chief?
No. Even if he could tell Jukeky, he wouldn't. Why waste his breath on someone he didn't even care about?
Instead, Aizen gave Jukely only a cold smile, nothing that could fuel Jukely's bullying tendencies, but did everything to unsettle the arrogant jerk.
Aizen walked away.
Hiding behind a stack of wooden crates, Rooster finished eating his grape. “So Aizen doesn’t bait easily when it comes down to business. Not bad, I suppose.” He scurried off, ignoring the festivities to make his way home.766Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡWQ8POLM79m
As he was about to push open his door, the portal down the hall opened. Rooster raised his eyes to the heavens and went into his room. That portal opened every Halloween to let through weak and sometimes crazy ghosts who haunted the rats that lived in the Crack in the Wall. They were usually harmless and didn’t worry anyone—the spirits that appeared in Time Portal Square were the ones people should worry about. Past murderers or avengers jumped through that portal, looking for victims to drag into the underworld. Only the masks and face paint the living wore on their faces stopped the spirits. Victims were able to hide in plain sight when they disguises their faces. When the portals first appeared, people tried to wear only costumes, but altered clothing didn’t save those people from being dragged into the portals by evil spirits.766Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ7tXVqTlBL9
Rooster cursed. “I should have checked the clothes!” He had stashed a set of human clothing in an unused stable some ways off but had forgotten to see if they were still there. It was too late now.766Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡYFIyTD07H9
He let out a sigh and prepared for bed, thinking about the new chief. If the chief specifically asked for him, he knew how Rooster was different from the other rodents.
Aizen on the other hand, probably didn’t. What would Aizen's reaction be when he found out the mouse he disapproved of wasn’t really his average mouse?766Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡzankrLhp7lns18.104.22.168da2