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Round One / All We Have Left
« Last post by Kentigern MacRaff on Today at 08:22:16 AM »
"MacRaff!" His name pierced through the indistinct hum of chatter that droned on throughout the tavern. The hour was late, and a myriad of sailors, laborers, and merchants, thirsty from a day's work, gathered inside for a drink. Kentigern scanned the crowd for the source of the call. His eyes settled on a grinning squirrel, moving with ease despite the crowd, making his way across the tavern to where the hare sat. A similar smile slid across Kentigern's features.

"Dunwillie MacDougal, ye auld scoundrel," the hare called back, standing up and crossing the floor to greet his old friend. "It's been a long few seasons since ah last saw ye, has it nae?" When he reached the squirrel, Kentigern reached out a paw and pulled him into a rough embrace.

He had not, in fact, seen Dunwillie MacDougal since he had married Bonnie and hung up his sword. However, despite the time, his friend's features were a familiar sight to Kentigern. His eyes still twinkled with youthful exuberance and his summer coat was no greyer than when Kentigern had seen him last. Kentigern himself could feel his fur failing to regain a little bit of color in the summers as the seasons rolled by. The stress of raising a family, Kentigern had long ago decided, would kill him early. Wee Bonnie and her mother were quite the headstrong pair, and the hare often found himself on the wrong side of many arguments.

Ach, what ah wouldnae give fer the auld days, he thought, remembering the times he shared with Dunwillie and the rest of the Braw Adventurers, roaming across the North freely. He hadn't seen any of the other Wanderers in a long while, either, though.

Dunwillie pulled out of the embrace and held Kentigern at arm's length. "A long few seasons, aye. What? Nae since the battle a' Tanning Ford oot west, or aboot then, aye?"

"Aye," laughed Kentigern. "So 'twas. We showed those vermin how tae fight like true highlanders, when they thought they'd wiped us oot."

"Ach. Those were the days, were they nae?" Dunwillie shook his head. "Us'n the lads. Roamin'. Fightin'. Drinkin'. 'Tis a shame ye had tae settle doon." He paused, and motioned the bartender over. "Two October Ales. Ye drink that'un nooadays, eh? Like a proper Mossflower Laddie."

"Last ah checked, MacDougal, ye drink more o' the stuff than ah dae," Kentigern said.

Dunwillie waved him off. "Everybeast kens ah'll drink more o' any drink than ye, MacRaff."

"Do ah hear a challenge?" The hare raised an eyebrow. Despite his nonchalant bravado, though, Kentigern knew that he would, without a doubt, lose to the squirrel. Dunwillie had often challenged the other Wanderers to drinking contests, but in the ten odd seasons they had spent with the band Kentigern had never seen his friend lose. The hare himself was never one to hold his drink. A few flagons of ale were enough to send him reeling.

"Ye dinnae, but ah wish ye did," Dunwillie said, as the bartender returned with two flagons of ale. "Need ye sober, aye. Sensible." He took a moment to grab his flagon and take a swig. "How is that bonnie lass o' yers, anywhoo, er...?"

"Bonnie," replied Kentigern, sipping his own ale. While attempting to maintain a measured composure in front of his friend, he inwardly cringed when he uttered the name. He had sent his wife a letter as soon as he arrived in Northvale, but she had yet to respond. Kentigern gnawed his lip. When he had left, he thought that by this time she would see at least some merit in his reasoning, but the lack of his response from his usually verbose wife over the last few days was worrisome.

Dunwillie chuckled. "A bonnie lass named Bonnie. Ain't that somethin'?" He took another healthy gulp of ale. "Did ah hear right that ye have a bairn as well?"

"Aye," said Kentigern softly. "Wee Bonnie." In his letter, he had asked Bonnie to give their daughter the gift he had left her— a guide to the herbs of Mossflower. She wanted to become a medic for the Long Patrol, just like her grandmother. It was her birthday soon, and though he wouldn't be there to see it Kentigern longed to see the smile light up her face the way it usually did when she received a gift.

Again, Dunwillie shook his head. "Now ah've heard everythin'. Kent, ah ken yer clan has a tradition o' namin' the first bairn the same as the parent, but that's a mite silly."

"Tradition is tradition," said Kentigern. "Mah family's one of the auldest in the North. We've been uphauldin' our ways since the first snow fell on these lands." He stared wistfully into the distance. "Times are changin', Dun. The North's changin'. This city? This crater? Vulpuz is all o'er it. Nae clan would hae stood fer it in the auld days. Tradition's all the clans hae got left o' the auld North. Tradition an' blood."

He knew that for now, at least, his blood was safe in Mossflower. They lived but a short distance from Redwall Abbey. If there were any trouble, he reassured himself, they could reach the safety of its walls in two nights at most. It did a little to allay his worries, but the thought of his wife and daughter lying amidst the wreckage of their burning house made him hesitate. Maybe, he wondered, it wouldnae be the worst thing if ah went go back.

But he would at least hear Dunwillie out, first. His old friend deserved that much.

The squirrel was now mutely staring into his nearly empty flagon. "Aye. Tradition 'n blood— an' there's little o' the latter that hasnae been spilt. Ye ken what happened to the MacGillies?"

Kentigern nodded grimly. "Castle stairmed by a horde o' madbeasts? Ah ken the rumor o' there bein' a wolf. Heard no beast survived. And auld Laird Abernathy died with nae child. That's two clans that are nae longer, in wee under a season." He frowned, and raised his flagon to his lips.

"Nae. One MacGillie escaped." Dunwillie downed the rest of his drink and motioned the barkeep for another. "Actually, that's why ah asked ye tae travel all this way. Me and mah band were set up in a tavern o'er in Gairkirk, a few days offa Laird MacGillie's castle, and wee Lloyd MacGillie stumbles in all frightened and spewin' somethin' about an army o' crazy beasts. We took him in wi' us, figured we'd take him back tae his parents when we were passin' by. He didnae really talk aboot what happened, but we began tae hear rumors." As the bartender brought another flagon, he fixed Kentigern with a pointed stare. "The details are hazy, but ah ken one thing— the MacGillies were all but wiped out."

"What aboot Alastair? Didnae he settle doon in Mossflower?" asked Kentigern. He had wandered the heath with Alastair MacGillie when they were bairns, and when Kentigern and Dunwillie created their band of warriors the impetuous otter had been the first beast they had asked to join them.

Dunwillie sighed, eyeing his drink. "They were up tae visit fer the auld laird's birthday."

"Ach," said Kentigern. "Ye ken when we were wee lads, startin' the Braw Wanderers? That auld riverdog wouldnae fight a battle wi'oot bein' the first tae holler the auld 'Haway the Braw' an' charge the enemy." Kentigern took a moment to take a long draft of ale. "Ah think he wouldnae leave the fight unless he were the last beast standin'."

"Aye," agreed the squirrel, before raising his glass. "To Alastair— haway the braw."

"Haway the braw." Kentigern echoed the old battlecry of the North. The pair sat solemnly, and despite the din around them their silence lay heavy between them.

The last time Kentigern had seen Alastair, they hadn't parted on the best of terms. After the battle at Tanning Ford, when the hare had decided to hang up his claymore and settle down with Bonnie, the otter had leveled more than a few choice words at his captain. Back then, Kentigern's seething anger at being called a coward led him to refuse to speak to his friend again. Now, though, he regretted not offering the otter an olive branch. Alastair had stuck with him since their youth, and hadn't abandoned him during the disaster at Tanning Ford.

After a time, Dunwillie took a deep breath. "Ah guess that brings me tae what ah need ye fer, Kent. Ye ken how Nire Borean's patrols sweep the Northlands and capture beasts tae fight in his arena, aye? Me and mah band decided tae doo somethin' aboot it. We've been attackin' the patrols as best we can find 'em. But the last attack didnae goo well. They laid a trap fer us. Lloyd got taken. Ah ken he's somewhere in that crater, but ah couldnae tell ye where."

"And where dae ah fit intae all o' this?" asked the hare.

"Lloyd doesnae stand a chance in there, Kent," said Dunwillie. "He's still a wee lad, barely aulder th'n a bairn. He hasnae seen a lot o' action. Ah need a beast tae get him oot."

"An' ye reckon ah'm the beast tae doo that." Kentigern reasoned.

"Nire's beasts ken us all by sight," replied the squirrel. "Ah need a beast ah can trust fer this." Dunwillie held the hare's gaze. "Kent, ah ken ye have a wife, an' a wee bairn, tae. Ah'm nae gonna force ye tae take this responsibility. But this is Alastair's wee brother ah'm speakin' o'. Dinnae we owe it tae the auld riverdog tae rescue Lloyd if we kin?"

Kentigern hesitated. "Ah would, Dun, but like ye said— ah've got a wife, and a bairn. What'll they dae if ah dinnae come back?"

"Kent, ah trust ye wouldnae marry a lass who couldnae take care o' herself," said Dunwillie. "An' this is Nire Borean we're talkin' aboot. Ye think Lloyd can? Ah'd dae it mahself but the guards ken who ah am."

"Ach," Kentigern said, after another brief moment of hesitation. "Ah'll dae it."

"Aye?"

Kentigern nodded. He couldn't leave Alastair's brother to the brutalities of the arena. He owed that much to his old friend. And tae Dunwillie, he thought.

"Ach," smiled Dunwillie, clapping Kentigern on the shoulder. "Ah ken'd ah could count on ye tae not abandon a beast who needed ye."

Kentigern winced, but offered his friend a small smile in return. "Aye. Ah couldnae doo that."

"Ah have tae goo now," continued his old friend, glancing surreptitiously over his shoulder. "Ah dinnae want tae be recognized by Nire's beasts. Meet me here in a week's time, aye?"

"Ah'll be here," replied the hare, as he watched Dunwillie put on a cloak and hurry to the backdoor of the tavern.

"Oi, mate," called the bartender, gesturing toward the numerous flagons of ale around the hare. "Are ye gunna pay fer those?"

"Aye," said Kentigern, absentmindedly staring at the door out of which Dunwillie had left. Tossing a few coins onto the counter, he heaved himself up and followed the squirrel outside.

-

"MacRaff?" Nire Borean lounged indolently across the table across from Kentigern, head cocked and wine glass swirling between wickedly curving claws. The lynx pondered the name, which seemed to hang in emptiness of the large dining hall. "Y'know," he mused, leaning forward with a glint in his eye, "I think I just might be able to work with that." He nodded, fangs curving into a toothy grin. "I can just about see it— 'Beware the Hare!', 'Face the Wrath of MacRaff!'"

"Ah'm nae interested in how ye sell me—" Kentigern began.

Nire waved him off brusquely and continued as though the hare hadn't spoken. "They'll love you, of course. Proper highlander like you? You'll be the hometown favorite." He chuckled. "It's been a while since we've had a clansbeast. They're damn hard to capture alive— if you'll forgive me— and they usually find this sort of work…well, distasteful." He paused, seeming to consider the Highlander for the first time, and fixed the hare with a piercing stare.

Kentigern shrugged. "It's hard tae find a good fight these days. Ah'm a wee bit bored." He gave Nire a nonchalant smile, but inwardly he bristled at the lynx's casual admittance to murdering his fellow Highlanders.  He clenched his paw into a fist under the table, reminding himself that he was here to rescue Alastair's brother and that killing Nire would ruin any chance he had of finding the young otter. "Like ah said, ah'm here tae fight. Ah dinnae care much fer how ye go aboot the rest o' yer business."

Nodding, Nire took a sip of his wine. "Well, you don't have to worry about that. Keep winning fights, and I think we can both make a lot of money. Speaking of that…your contract." The lynx gestured to the piece of paper lying on the table between them. He leaned forward even more. "I think you'll find the compensation for each fight very generous. It's a lot of money…the rest?" He waved indifferently. "Just all of that 'selling' stuff. Don't worry about it. The money's the important part." He offered Kentigern another grin and procured a quill seemingly from nowhere.

"Yer sayin' ah could make ye more'n a wee bit o' money?" asked Kentigern, accepting the pen.

"Oh, much more than a wee bit, my friend." The lynx said this almost absent-mindedly, a satisfied smirk resting across his muzzle. He leaned back in his chair and casually sniffed the wine in his glass. "This damson, by the way, came from the cellars of Redwall itself. I had to go through numerous…hurdles, shall we say, to get it. It's only a few seasons old— Summer of Ceaseless Rain, I do believe— but it's aged remarkably well. How do you like it?"

"Ah'm more of an ale beast mahself, tae be honest," replied Kentigern, beginning to write on the page.

Nire smiled. "Of course." However, his smile fell when he noticed that the hare was writing a substantial amount more than just his signature. The lynx narrowed his eyes. "What…exactly are you doing there?"

"Ach," said Kentigern. "Ah ken ye willnae mind if ah change the contract a wee bit, seein' as how ah'll be makin' ye so much money. Dinnae worry aboot it. The money's the important part, aye?" Kentigern managed to meld his burgeoning smirk into an innocent smile, but inwardly sneered as Nire, suddenly upright, tightened his grip on the wineglass.

"And just what, if I may ask, is this change?" snapped the lynx.

"It ain't anything tae big," replied Kentigern. "Ah'm just nae all that keen on killin' mah fellow woodlanders, is all. Ah simply added a clause that says ah only haftae fight vermin. Ain't got any trouble wi' killin' vermin."

Nire took a deep breath and settled back into his chair with his chin resting on his free paw. His claws tapped shapeless rhythm on the glass in his paw. "No woodlanders?" He gave Kentigern a long look, eyes narrow and unreadable. Kentigern's smile faltered imperceptibly. Briefly, he wondered if Nire would call his bluff.

Finally, the lynx nodded. "No woodlanders. I can do that. Most of our volunteers are vermin, anyway. They tend to gravitate toward this kind of work." The jovial look returned to Nire's face. "Come on. Let's go to the training arena. I want to introduce you to your new partner."

"Partner?" asked Kentigern.

"You know," responded Nire. "The beast you'll be fighting with in the ring."

Kentigern frowned. "Ach, ah dinnae need a partner. Ah—"

"Signed a contract, Mr. MacRaff," Nire interrupted. "And in that contract it very clearly stipulates that I can make you fight however I deem fit, in order to maximize profit or otherwise." The lynx's teeth still stretched into a smile, but now his tongue sidled along the curving fangs hungrily.

"If ye insist," Kentigern relented. "Ah kin fight however."

"Good. Now let's go meet him, shall we?"

-

The journey to the arena's training grounds took longer than Kentigern had expected. Nire decided to give him a personalized tour of the arena, stopping his guards at each doorway to give a detailed explanation as to what happened behind it. Kentigern largely ignored the lynx's speeches, nodding listlessly along to Nire's drone while committing the layout of the arena into his memory. He took a special note of the location of the slave pens— in all likelihood, Lloyd would be somewhere among them, having been captured in battle. The thought of his fellow highlander's freedom being taken from him made Kentigern sick. Marking the heavy iron bars of the door in his mind, he vowed to himself that he would get the otter free as soon as he could.

Finally, they meandered into the training arena. The sandy floor was mostly empty, save for a scattering of beasts hacking away at training dummies. A rat, greater in size than most, stood in front of a shelf full of training weapons. Nire led Kentigern to face him.

"This is Hracken— Hracken the Kraken!" exclaimed Nire, gesturing to the large rat. "Specialist with the trident and net. He'll be your partner in the arena."

The vermin stepped up with a disarming smile and offered Kentigern a paw. "It's ac—"

Kentigern spat on the floor. "Ach, ye ken ah'm nae gonna fight wi' a vermin." He pushed Hracken's outstretched paw out of his way and stalked by him with a glare. He came to a stop in front of Nire. "There's nae a thing ah hate more'n a rat but one, an' that's a fox. Ah said in mah contract—"

"That you wouldn't fight against vermin," Nire interrupted smoothly. "Never did I read something about you fighting with one."

"Ah'll nae doo it," said Kentigern.

"Oh," oozed Nire. "I think you will. I don't think you realize, Mr. MacRaff, but I own you."

"Ah'm nae takin' orders from a damn wildcat," sneered Kentigern.

Nire, fur standing on end at the insult, drew himself up to his full height and looked down upon the defiant hare. "Need I remind you again that you signed a contract," he growled, "and should you violate that contract in any way, such as refuse to fight as I desire, I am legally permitted— no, legally obliged to take your freedom and force you to fight as such." He glowered at Kentigern and leaned down to look him in the eye. "Consider your options carefully, Mr. MacRaff," said the lynx, before spinning on his heel and stalking out of the room. Before he left, he gave one last parting shot. "I'm sure I could find you a collar that fits just right."

Kentigern sputtered, unable to formulate a response. The rat, silent through the exchange, stepped forward apologetically and again offered Kentigern his paw. "So…my name is actually Thrayjen, not Hracken the…Kraken, or whatever. I think Nire may have confused me for a—"

"Ah dinnae care much fer what ye call yerself, rat," Kentigern said, still seething. "Ah willnae fight wi' a vermin." He glared at Thrayjen, who's paw still hung awkwardly in the air.

The rat cleared his throat. "Well, it's been a while since I've wielded a blade, and I'm a little rusty, but I'm still fairly confident if we have a quick spar I can—"

"Ah ain't fightin' wi' ye. Kin ye nae get that through yer skull?" Kentigern said. Nae, ah'll never do it. This beast was a rat. To sully the name of his family's sword by bearing into battle alongside a vermin would be beyond disgraceful. Never had a clansbeast of MacRaff broken bread with such a vile creature. Out of the corner of his eye, a movement caught his attention. Through the open gates of the arena, he saw a young otterpup being pushed along by a limping weasel. Her eyes were wild and wide, and she whimpered as the weasel grabbed her collar and dragged her forward.

After a moment, Kentigern looked away from the terrified young otter, flushed. His anger was futile, he realized. He still had an otter of his own to find, and he wouldn't be doing Lloyd any favors by getting himself thrown in the slaves pens. He glanced back at the doorway, but the dibbun was gone. He replayed the image of her baring her teeth at the weasel, ears pressed flat against her skull. And the collar— He's sick, Kentigern realized. He's keepin' bairns here. Ah'll nae stand fer it. Resolved with new purpose, his eyes hardened. He would find Lloyd, he would find the young otter lass, he would find any other dibbuns and he would get them out of the hellpit in which they were trapped. And then? He would return, galvanize the slaves, and burn the crater to the ground.

But for now, at least, he would have to play the game Nire's way, though the thought of it made his stomach churn. He looked back at Thrayjen, blood boiling despite the rat's friendly demeanor. The highlander's piercing glare forced Thrayjen to shift his feet uncomfortably. As Kentigern eyed the rat standing sheepishly before him, he was not impressed. This vermin was not a fighting beast— his awkward feet and lumbering size would only slow Kentigern down in a fight. Perhaps, though, mused the hare, this wouldn't be the worst thing. Ah'll willnae need tae deal wi' him fer long— he'll most likely be dead after a fight or two.

"Ach, if ah haftae goo intae the ring with ye, ye'd best sit back an' let mah claymore dae all the talkin'." He didn't bother to listen to Thrayjen's response, making sure to shove a shoulder into the rat as he brusquely pushed by him and stormed to the other side of the arena.
2
Round One / The Best-laid Plans
« Last post by Silas Hetherton on July 25, 2017, 07:03:21 PM »
After a long day of pulling weeds, turning soil and planting someone else’s garden, Silas sunk onto the old gray cot the old vixen had provided. Brooms and crates had been pushed aside to make space in the room that was more a closet, but Silas was not bothered. He leaned back with a long sigh, closing his eyes and letting his sore, aching body relax.

A tune sang at the back of his memory as he entered the tiny kitchen of his small farm cottage. The setting sun bathed the room in gold. His wife stood before the open window, half humming and half singing an old lullaby as she scrubbed a kettle and rocked the hanging cradle with her tail. She swayed gently back and forth as Silas reached his paws gently about her waist, leaning his muzzle against her shoulder and adopting the same sway. He could hear her smile break the rhythm, but she quickly recovered, singing to the sleeping babe as they all rocked together:

A breeze from the north is gently blowing;
The brooks from the melt are softly flowing;
Through dark of night the moonbeams are glowing;
Rest now til the morning returnest.

Rest now, rest now, til light is returning,
The dark shall flee when daybreak is near,
Rest now, rest now, til light is returning,
A bright new beginning shall surely appear.

In a moment her warmth was swept from his paws and he woke with a start. Emptiness swathed the rat’s heart in cold and he shivered, noticing at last the chilly draft sifting in through a crack in the wall. He stood and found a rag to press against it, pinning it in place with an old broken shelf. But by the time he fell asleep again, the dream was gone. 

The next morning Silas packed his meager belongings into a sack and headed out. The vixen, grateful for his service, fed him breakfast before he left and presented him a small oat loaf for the road. He thanked her with sincerity, then turned his travel-hardened footpaws north.

Blasio Timberfell’s trail might have been ten years old when Silas began his pursuit, but the crooked merchant made such deep impressions everywhere he stayed that beasts remembered him well. Town by town, beast by beast, Silas had worked his way north, learning more and more about the creature who robbed him of everything. Blasio Timberfell’s ventures were legitimate and well-planned, manipulative and exploitative. Pesky street orphans were rounded up and sold into slavery as a service. Elderly widows were convinced to sign contracts that gave Timberfell access to their wealth and property. And further north, where the beaver started developing his own construction company, trees conveniently fell on the buildings of his competitors, while bribed townsguards shrugged at the ‘natural disasters.’

Silas used the oat loaf to barter his way across a river leading to the next town. The ferrybeast cursed the bridge that Timberfell Construction had built a mile down. The crossing toll was equal to his own so beasts took the bridge rather than wait for the ferry.

“Beasts have no patience. They dunna care that it’s me livelihood. Oh no. They jist keeps feedin’ the glutton,” the otter complained.

“Does he live in Drakefield?” Silas queried, peering up at the otter through squinted eyes.

“Who? Timberfell? Naw. He’s too prominent t’ settle in such a small town, if’n ya catch me drift, ha ha!”

Silas grunted and forced a smile. The answer to Blasio’s whereabouts always seemed to be ‘not here,’ wherever he went. The plain brown rat watched the river otter push against his pole with some effort, steering them around a large snag. Once clear, the boatbeast relaxed again and continued.

“Timberfell himself sits on his fat tail up in Northvale, rakin’ in gold from here t’ Mossflower. They call him a woodlander, but if’n ya ask me he’s just an oversized, bloated r– ” The ferrybeast caught himself and glanced at his passenger, but Silas was too distracted to catch the almost insult. “Rapscallion,” the otter finished.

“Northvale, you say?” Silas braced himself as the boat slid to a stop against a shore of smooth bank mud. The otter hurriedly tied down the ferry, waving at a family of mice who seemed to be considering his boat from the road. Silas hopped down as the ferrybeast fastened a wide, treaded ramp against the edge, upping the appeal of his ride.

“Only one bronze a head! Pups ride free! No wait! No line!” He gestured compellingly but the mice moved on, shaking their heads. The otter cursed under his breath, wiping a paw across his whiskers. He turned back to Silas at last. “Did ya say somethin’?”

The rat considered, then nodded simply. “Thank you.”

--------------------

It took some time, but eventually Silas reached the bustling river port city of Northvale. A thick haze of smoke hung low in the sky above, blending into the clouds until it returned with the rain, leaving a thin black coat of residue on everything. As he walked the busy, dirty streets, Silas was glad to find that here no one looked twice at a rat, though the crowds and noise were intimidating, and there was still obvious division between classes. Rich, well-to-do beasts – both vermin and woodlanders alike, road around in fancy palanquins and wagons, carried along by slaves and servants. He peered hard at every aristocrat, fully expecting to see Blasio, but the effort was in vain. He needed more information.

The rat found some temporary work at an eatery in exchange for food and board. He listened while he scrubbed floors, but the beasts surrounding him chatted mostly about games at an arena called “The Crater.” At first Silas assumed it was some sort of popular boxing ring, but later as he was mopping up a puddle of spilled soup he overheard a customer regaling his companion with details far more gruesome. The rat kept his head down, disturbed that anyone could find amusement in such horror.

Another day Silas was painting shutters and doorways at a tavern and observed a rowdy mixture of weasels, ferrets and rats crowding obsessively around a public ranking board. A messenger arrived to post results from the Crater and the crowd cursed and cheered as names were dropped and repositioned, exchanging varying amounts of coinage. A pair of stoats bought rounds of ale for all their friends while a testy horde rat had to be forcibly removed by the door guard. Silas tried to focus on his work, but it was hard to ignore the tasteless predictions of a nearby weasel and fox. 

“My money’s on the Crane,” said the fox. “He’s gonna soak the sand.”

“Naw, the Crane’s been outta the ring far too long,” the weasel sneered. “Hammerpaw’s gonna cut ‘is bollocks off and feed ‘em to ‘is ‘ead. You wait an’ see.”

“I heard tell they already pitted him against the Direbeast. They say he chopped its legs off one by one til it was hobblin’ around on bloody stumps. Only offed him once he got bored.”

“Yer lyin’, Splitongue. Match like that woulda drawn in the whole town! But enough gossip. ‘Ow many greenpaws ye think Nire’s gonna put down in the next batch? I’ve got five silvers it’ll be eleven.”

“I’ve seen the latest lot. I’m wagering nine.”

Silas finished the door frame, leaving the morbid exchange behind. He wondered at the callous nature of the beasts of Northvale. To them, death was a sport and suffering an entertainment. Blasio Timberfell probably fit right in. 

After that Silas drifted toward the docks where poorer beasts congregated. These had no time for games or gambling away their hard-earned money, and it was a welcome change. He found work unloading roofing materials from a barge and fell easily in step beside a dozen other day laborers.

The rat had nearly lost himself in the peace of humble purpose when a word caused his ear to swivel and he stopped. A mole was talking to another dock worker, complaining about the pompous beaver who kept local masons and carpenters from working the Crater. “Ho aye, ‘e’m be monopoloizin’ the ‘ole Northverl buildin’ industry,” the mole grumbled as he and the other beast added their crates to the wagon. “These days you’m either work furr Timberfell or you’m be foindin’ a new career, ho err.”

Silas’s entire focus snapped to the mole, moving closer until their paths joined. “Heard you talkin’ about that bloatcase, Timberfell,” he baited. “Any idea where he’s hidin’ these days?”

The mole seemed to appreciate the rat’s solidarity, tugging at his pink snout. “Yurr hurr, ‘e be livin’ the ‘oigh loife oop in ‘ee Crater. Oi ‘ear tell ‘e be sittin’ in ‘ee glory box nex’ter Nire ‘imself, e’en.”

Silas sighed. Part of him had hoped to find Blasio in some rich mansion among the haughty aristocrats of Northvale, but he should have known the power-hungry villain would have gnawed his way into the strongest center of influence.

That evening Silas stared out at the giant, circular structure beyond the city’s edge, rimmed with orange sunlight. It rose in a high ring above the ground, though rumor had it the inside was four times as deep. Lights of patrolling guards twinkled and moved both inside and out. The rat lifted his nose, sniffing at the air, then narrowed his eyes. He was so close, he could practically taste the thick, pungent oil that coated Blasio Timberfell’s shiny coat. But he would wait. And he would plan. “Soon,” he reassured himself.

The rat spent the next week odd-jobbing, saving what little he could of his paltry earnings. At dusk he would walk the road outside the crater, scouting for a back door or some other covert entrance, but the gates were always well-guarded, the walls solid stone, and the windows high off the ground. Then one day opportunity came in the form of an offer.

As usual, Silas had gravitated toward garden jobs, and was pruning an ornamental juniper when a hedgehog leading a mixed team of beasts and carts stopped just beyond the fence.

“Be this your work, friend rat?”

“Yes sir.” Silas paused in his trimming.

“Tell me, why did you cut the hedges thinner at the tops?”

Silas shrugged, glancing over at the bushes he’d pruned the day before. “I try to cut ‘em according to the way they grow, sir. Plants always branch out more on top. Figure it’ll keep an even shape longer.”

The hedgehog nodded approvingly. “I like a beast who thinks before he cuts. What would you say to joining my team? Five bronze a day to start.”

The rat considered the juniper thoughtfully. Such pay was better than any he’d found so far, but temporary jobs allowed him to walk away at any given moment without raising suspicion. “Well. Doesn’t feel right leaving a job half done,” he waffled.

“And integrity to bote!” The hedgehog laughed. “I’ll tell you what. If you find you’re interested after wrapping up here, meet me down at the Crater. We’ve contracted a big job and could use the extra paws.”

Silas barely regained his composure in time to nod before the quill-covered beast turned and left.

--------------------

Three weeks later, Silas said goodbye for the last time to the hedgehog and his small gardener workforce. They had finished planting and mulching over fifty vines, following weeks of trellis installation along the Crater walls. The trellises were supposed to be too weak to hold a beast, but Silas had personally bolted one trellis in all the right places, leading just high enough to reach a single window: the window Blasio passed by every evening after the kitchen staff left.

Night after night Silas had observed the patterns of the guards as well as the habits of others. A squirrel from the kitchen regularly dumped her wash basin out the window at the eighth hour. Shortly after that the lamps would be snuffed, and a half hour later Blasio would inevitably appear to help himself to more wine before returning to the adjacent dining hall. Silas couldn’t see him after that, but he could clearly hear the distinctive, robust laugh that distinguished the beaver from all others. The rat ground his teeth and curled his paws into fists every time, fur rising along his spine.

Tonight, he would silence that laughter forever.


Once back at the shed where he stayed, the rat gathered all of his earnings together in one sack and headed for a local weapons shop. A bell tinkled merrily as he stepped through the door and he stared, open-mouthed at the wide array of axes, swords, maces, and crossbows.

“Can I help you?” A voice drew Silas’s attention and he met the masked face of a ferret.

“Yes, sir. I’m looking for a sword.”

“Any particular type?”

“I – no. Not really.” Silas spotted a blade that looked about right and pointed. “How about that one?”

The ferret turned and lifted the sword off its display. “Good choice. Double-edged, single-handed arming sword, weighted toward the handle for improved wieldability.” The ferret demonstrated several fluid, full circle swings. “That’s Ridge Hammerpaw’s weapon of choice, you know.” He tapped the sword importantly. “Twenty silver.”

“T-twenty?” Silas nearly choked on the word. Suddenly his month’s savings seemed inordinately small. “Uh. What can I get for 30 bronze?” He grimaced.

The ferret placed the short-sword back in its place with a frown. “Not much. Maybe a hatchet. Two hewing daggers.” He shrugged.

Silas shook his head, rubbing a paw across his face, then sighed grimly. “Show me the daggers.” The ferret set a pair of knives on the marred, wooden counter. Though small, the blades glinted sharply in the shop’s lamplight. Silas imagined them slitting Blasio’s glutted belly open. “Fine. I’ll take them.”

Back at his shed again, Silas stared at his only other tunic. It was worn and torn in various places, but Jubilee had pulled that thread and nipped those knotted ends. Little Heidi had held that fabric between her paws when he carried her laughing on his back, and his son, Artie, had proudly worn its match in miniature as he trailed after him through the grain fields. So many memories attached to what amounted to an old rag. After tonight, though, it wouldn’t matter. No thing would matter once he balanced the scales of justice and was reunited with his family. Even Jubilee’s letters. He touched a paw tenderly to his chest where they pressed, then began tearing the tunic’s fabric into strips, wrapping his ragged farmer’s clothing tight to his body. He tied both knives in their sheathes to his thighs within easy reach, and practiced drawing them as fast as he could.

Finally, he took a small pot of water and poured it carefully into a bowl of dark, black clay, mixing it into a smooth, wet paste. Then slowly, ceremoniously, he began to spread the substance across his face and body, hiding the faded gray of his clothing and the lightness of his brown fur and pink tail. By the time night fell, he was out the door, vanishing into the shadows of the night.

Outside the Crater, Silas was careful to stay well out of sight until he could predict the movement of the patrol guards down to the second. Once he was sure of his timing, he dashed across the wide, open path and crept up to the wall of the arena where the trellis waited, barely visible in the dim light of a quarter moon. Two sacks of mulch he had left behind earlier provided an easy cover while he waited, heart pounding as an owl wheeled silently overhead.

Minutes later, as if on cue, the kitchen maid tossed her dishwater out the window. It splashed a stone’s throw from the rat. He waited until the lights dimmed, then listened once more for the footsteps of the patrol guards to pass before making a dash for the trellis and scaling the wooden frame quick as a wink. From the top, Silas leaped for the window ledge, caught it with his paws, and pulled himself up with a straining grunt. He crouched in the hallway, drawing his long, mud-coated tail in behind him as he searched for cover. A dark display case with a broken shield and cleaved skull inside lined the far wall. Silas pressed tight against one side, just out of the light of the closest torch. Now he need only wait.

After a minute he remembered to breathe. His paws grew damp with sweat and his body shook with nerves. He clutched at his chest where the worn letters resided, hearing her voice in the words.

“…There are days I imagine, if fate were a beast, I would kill it for the evil it has bestowed on us. I still wake every night listening for them, aching to hold them close and whisper words of comfort once more. My heart beats hollow, yet my hope remains. One day things will be right again.”

A hearty, coarse laugh echoed through the corridor and Silas stiffened, feeling the fur along his spine rise as before. He stopped trembling and slipped both daggers smoothly into clenched fists. It was time to make things right.

A single shadow danced across the wall and Silas readied himself, tight as a braced spring. The beast appeared and he started to lunge, then froze. This was no beaver. He sunk silently back into the shadows but the freakish creature’s large eyes stared straight at him, seeing him clear as day.

A beat passed.

Then the creature screamed.

Silas leapt forward with a slash but the beast blocked the blow with some sort of club as its unearthly, ear-bleeding screech rose in pitch. Silas attempted to lunge past the beast, but the arms expanded almost supernaturally, blocking the hallway entirely with a membranous flap of dark skin.

“Get out of my way!” Silas sliced at the arm, drawing blood. Another scream and the barrier lifted as the creature rose into the air, kicking him away with both feet. He landed on his back, then scrambled quickly to his feet.

And there was Blasio.

He stood amidst several beasts at the end of the hallway, mouth agape.

Shouts echoed from further down, accompanied by the clanking of armor.

Desperately, the mud-coated rat plunged forward, but a series of smashing blows from above knocked him senseless and a final, painful crack sent him reeling to the floor.

The world spun crazily around him in a kaleidoscope of cloven skulls, winged monsters, and armed guards, yet he could think only one thought:

He had failed.
3
Round One / Redwall Rhapsody
« Last post by Kali on July 25, 2017, 03:48:16 PM »
With a stiff yawn Kali emerged from slumber as light drifted through the barn window. First one wing stretched, then the other, gingerly rolling out a kink in her neck before she descended from the rafters.

The hayloft was as glamorous as it sounded, filled with rusted and dirty belongings the owner had nowhere else to keep. A pleasant aroma of boar drifted up to the top of the loft, assaulting the bat’s sense of smell.

“One of these days I will have to try a bed,” Kali said to the empty room, popping her back, “A big fancy bed with feather pillows.” Smacking dry lips, Kali glanced at an old cracked mirror that had been left to rot along with other relics. She ran a wingtip between her ears to in a futile attempt to subdue her unruly head fur, then shrugged and simply plopped on her hat.

Kali stole a moment to smooth out the fur of her body, running both wings down the sides of her orange chest and making a sour face upon reaching the curve of her stomach. What the city lacked in fresh fruit it more than made up for in sweet desserts, and it was beginning to show on her figure.

“Well, I suppose it could be worse. I could still be showing off my ribs.” she said while grabbing for her tunic. It was a green thing with the sides slashed to accommodate her wings, ending in a V shape between her legs.

And totally unable to fit over her red floppy hat. With a roll of her eyes the bat took off her cap and put on her tunic.

Afterward, Kali used both wing tips to prop up her own smile. “Today is going to be a good day,” Kali said to the mirror. “You are going to do great things today. You are going to land yourself the most amaaaazing job. You are going to find someone who appreciates you for who you are and loves your music and then you will move into a real fancy house. Yes sir-eeee.”

Taking a deep breath Kali began to repeat herself for extra moral support. “Today is -”

In the corner of the mirror, just over her shoulder, Kali caught a glimpse of another beast’s head coming up the ladder to the loft. The eyes of the young rat bulged as much as Kali’s with fright. “Oh, hiiiiiii there! Um, fancy meeting you here?” Kali managed to laugh nervously.

The rat squeaked, falling backward into the barn below before Kali could catch him. She leaped to the side of the loft to make sure he was okay but the rat was already on his feet dashing out the door screaming, “Mum! Dad! There’s a monster in our barn!”

“And on that cue…” Kali turned for her belongings. Thankfully there was not much to toss into her backpack. In went her spare clothes and souvenirs before she grabbed the lute and glided for the door. “Thank you for your hospitality!” She shouted, flying off just as the farmer came rushing out of his house.

Taking to the air Kali soared high above the landscape, catching a thermal on the way to make the journey easier. Woodlands passed below the bat’s shadow. While spring was in the air the mountains in the distant north were still lined with snow. A river ran deep and wide under Kali. They said it ran all the way to the ocean but she only ever followed it as far as Northvale.

It was the largest city for miles in any direction, spilling out along the river like a forest of small houses. One could only appreciate the labor that went into the city’s design when one viewed it from the air.

An endless web of streets made finding new places for construction easy and each path was wide enough to fit two carts side by side. The city was divided into blocks to make it easier to maneuver while making it harder for potential fires to spread too quickly. Ships came and went easily through the neatly arranged docks by the river, dropping off timber and stone and living resources like slaves and livestock.

And all roads led to the Arena; a colossal super structure built into the Crater. Most of the work was done by nature itself, smiting the land long ago when a star fell from the sky. Only the top portion of the arena’s walls could be seen cresting the edge of the Crater.

Kali descended quickly into the heart of the city, landing in a back ally of the town square where she would be out of the way of the crowds.

Kali tossed the backpack to the ground. A moment of searching provided a soft purple sash that she tied around her waist like a belt for her tunic. It may have bound her wings a bit but it kept the bat decent if she decided to hang upside down. Given the type of beasts who frequented this city Kali doubted they would raise an objection, but either way you could not play a lute with your clothes flapping down over your face.

Throwing her backpack back over her shoulder, Kali said, “Great things Kali. You are going to do great things.” Even with her wings constricted to her waist Kali managed to gain enough altitude to glide over the sea of beasts flooding the market place. Most were what the locals called ‘Vermin’. Foxes, stoats, weasels, and rats with the occasional pine marten.

Like Inkpaw.

The baker made a panicked squeak, paws racing to steady his shaking cart. He glanced upward, eyes narrowed at the cheeky smile of the bat perched above him. “Kali, what have I said about clinging to the side of my cart?”

“That you are completely fine with it?” A wry smile appeared on Kali’s lips. She hopped down when the marten gave her a ‘shooing’ motion with his hand.

Kali bounced from paw to paw excitedly as the marten reached into his cart laden with freshly baked goods. Her mouth watered at the sight of so many pastries, deserts, and breads.

“Here you go.” He said, holding a bag in the black furred paw that inspired the name given to him by unimaginative parents. “Paid in full for yesterday.”

Kali’s initial delight was subdued as she hoisted the rather small bag in her wings. “Um, Inkpaw, you aren’t trying to short change me by any chance?”

The marten feigned shock, “Me? The greedy merchant short changing a valued customer? Who would have ever thought?” The beast held up his paws defensively at the look Kali shot him. “Hey, don’t blame me. You know the deal; a scone for every beast you send my way, and yesterday only three beasts told me about you.”

“But I told at least ten beasts about you!” Kali protested with a loud whine, wings clutching the side of the baker’s cart. The marten however only shrugged as if to say, ‘deal with it.’ Kali gave him such a scowl but it was short lived. A pastry in the wing was worth more than two on the cart.

“Anyway, I came by to tell you that I won’t be able to advertise for your bakery today becaaaaause I got ‘this’!” Kali’s grin split her muzzle from ear to ear. Setting the rest of her breakfast on the cart she dug into her backpack to produce a small flyer. The picture on the flyer was buried under wine stains but the Crater was still clear as day.

The marten responded with a raised eyebrow but said nothing.

“It’s a flier.” Kali explained, “Of the arena.” She bounced the paper in her wing tips back and forth, waiting for the marten to share in her glee. “They need a bard.”

This caused the marten to raise the other eyebrow, “You really want a job with the arena?” To which Kali vigorously nodded her head. “You…do know what happens in the arena right, Kali?”

“No holds barred blood sport.” Kali said with wide-eyed optimism. She laughed off the marten’s worried stare, “I’ve played in many a tavern with a fighting pit so I have seen beasts bloodied before. If that is what you are worried about.”

“Riiiight,” He said slowly, “But I thought you already had a job. Working at the, uh…”

“The Gilded Gladiator.” Kali rolled up the wine stained flyer, “We had a disagreement about my artistic expression.”

“Ah, you sang for them,” The marten said as if this explained everything.

“I sang for all of them,” Kali said as if this too explained everything.

“I don’t understand why you don’t just stick with the lute.” The marten gestured with his paw, “You are good at the lute.”

“Because I am also good with my voice.” Kali smiled, “Just because someone doesn’t like a type of pastry you make, does that mean you stop making them?”

The marten thought on this. For about two seconds, “If enough people don’t like them, yes. But not forever.” Tilting her head curiously Kali let Inkpaw explain, “I start out with something they like. And I keep baking the other pastries for myself, perfecting the art until beasts are ready to eat something different.” The marten concluded by turning to another customer while waving her off “I hope it goes well. Just remember to tell everyone about my bakery when you become rich and famous,” he said, voice laden with sarcasm.

“Ha! You bet I will!” Wings out stretched she stepped backwards, “And then I am going to come back and eat all your pastries to my heart’s content. ALL of them!”

Kali was still smiling as she moved away from the market even though inwardly her heart was racing.

Would there be a line? Would they even still be looking for bard at this point? That flyer did look old. Would they even hire her?

Unslinging her lute from over her shoulder Kali began to strum away while walking through the city. The gentle tune helped ease away many of the thoughts troubling her mind, but one chose to remain no matter what she did.

 Until beasts are ready to try something different.

It didn’t take a philosopher to know what the marten was talking about and she couldn’t deny that it made sense. A fact which made Kali strum away at her lute even harder. She certainly would be doing better financially if she just kept her muzzle shut as she played but…

“It’s not about the money.” She said aloud, very much aware of how light her money bag felt inside her backpack. She grimaced, “Ok, maybe it’s a little bit about the money…” She admitted.

Around her the streets became narrower as they branched off from the main road. The further the bat traveled from the marketplace the more the buildings around her turned residential. The houses started small but gradually grew to more extravagant sizes the closer she got to the arena. The wealthier neighborhoods were hidden away behind iron gates, guarded by armed beasts both day and night.

And then there was the arena.

The houses came to an abrupt stop, separated from the arena by a wide cobblestone concourse running around the entirety of the crater’s outer wall and it’s many decorative gardens.

The area was not new to the bat. Although Kali could never afford to enter the arena itself, she had played outside for the crowds it drew.

Those who could afford the fee of selling merchandise here peddled luxuries and souvenirs. More than one stall sold silver replicas of the Arena, others had wood carved figures of Gladiators. It was a mass sea of merchants and customers so thick that Kali could hardly see the arena gates.

“Time to get some altitude on this mess,” thought the bat as she wrapped her lute over her shoulder. She worked her way to the edge of the crowd for more room before spreading her wings and-

THWAP!

Kali turned to the beast right as he let out a bewildered grunt. “Oh I’m so sorry! Did I catch you there?” She used her wings to try and steady the beast even if he probably just wanted to get away from the same leathery limbs that hit him on the nose.

“Ach, dinnae worry aboot it…er…” The hare paused mid-sentence. Kali could see the look in his eye. By now Kali was used to that moment when beasts realized they had no idea what they were looking at. Her head screamed ‘fox’, her body said ‘woodlander’.

In the end, the hare settled on ‘Lass’ and shrugged off her attempts to help him. “It happens.” He chuckled in politeness then leaned forward to grab his fallen feathered cap only to find Kali swiping it off the ground first. “Let me give you a paw with that, seeing as how I knocked it off and all.” She dusted it off despite the hare's protest.

“It's nae a problem Miss, uh—” Kentigern hesitated again.

“Kali. The Amaaaazing Kali.”

“Miss Kali…”

“Amaaaaaaaazing Kali.”

The hare raised an eyebrow, chuckling as he plucked the cap from Kali’s wings. “Yer nae from around here are ye?”

Kali nodded, “You could say that. I’m here to grab a job from the arena!”

With a wry smile the hare replied, “Are ye now? Then ye might wanna trade that lute fer a sword if ye want tae be competing in the games.”

A look of confusion spread across Kali’s face but only for a moment. “Ha! Hardly! I’m a bard, not a barbarian.” This too caused the hare to chuckle.

“Ah, a bard. That explains it. Ah've ken'd more'n a wee number o' bards mahself. An' ye've met one bard, ye've met them all.” Finishing the last adjustment to his cap the kilted hare leaned backwards, crossing his arms as he looked the bat up and down once again. “Where, exactly are ye from then?”

Kali smiled. “You know the edge of the map that says ‘here there be monsters’? That is what we put on our maps for this place.”

“So yer from a ways away. How did ye ever find yerself o'er here?” The bat laughed at the hare’s question before replying,

“Very carefully. Through many ships, a few storms to blow me off course, and one time even on the back of a magical badger riding a rainbow. Although that last one might have had something to do with a bad batch of mangos I picked up in the far east.” Kali said, rubbing her chin with her wing tip.

This elicited a long awkward pause. The hare broke the silence with a loud hearty laugh. “Ach, yer a bard fer sure. Ah'm sure ye'll fit in just fine around here.”

Kali chirped softly, “Thanks! Say, would you like to hear a song of my homeland?” Kali said with barely contained hopefulness.

Stroking the fur about his chin the hare said, “Ah dinnae see why not.”

Letting out a shout of glee Kali unslung her lute. The music started immediately and for a brief instant the street was transported to the deepest parts of the jungle on a far-off island.

One filled with the horrible screech of a dying wolverine.

The music came to an abrupt halt as Kali found a finger pressed against her nose. “On second thought, why dinnae we save the song fer later, eh, lass? We dinnae want tae ruin yer voice before gettin' inside, aye?”

The bat’s ears flattened slightly but she nodded with a smile. “That makes sense.” And so, the lute went back over her shoulder. “It was nice meeting you, uh…”

“MacRaff. Kentigern MacRaff.”

“Thank you for the chat Mr. MacRaff, but destiny awaits.” She said, preparing to take off into the sky.

Realizing what the bat was about to do MacRaff quickly asked, “Er, lassie, should ye nae use the gate?"

 “HA! Nature didn’t give the Amazing Kali wings to use gates!” It would be painfully easy to just hop up and over the wall for the bat. So much so she wondered why she never thought to do this before. Oh, the number of games she could have seen!

Barely a foot above the street Kali saw a dark shadow pass over her. The sight of a hawk patrolling the skies above the arena caused Kali to squeak with terror. The bird flying patrol encompassed every notion of the term ‘bird of prey’; sleek, powerful, and deadly.

“Or you know, waiting in line isn’t so bad.” Kali dropped back down to the street before bidding the strange sounding hare farewell with a wave of her wing. She would have liked to stay and chat but she was eager to put some cover between her and the hawk.

Nothing was going to stop her from reaching her destiny.

 

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU ARE NOT HIRING?!” The bat’s shout echoed down the hallway making the weasel flinch.

“I’m sorry Miss but, we are not hiring for a bard. I’m not sure why you would think…” Kali pointed to the flyer she got from the tavern, letting her fierce batty stare do all the talking for her. “Ah, yes. That. I’m afraid those are a bit out of date. We just hired a bard a week ago and Master Nire won’t be hiring another for a while. I’m sorry for wasting your time but I must get back to my duties.” Making sure Kali’s hopes and dreams were not blocking the door the weasel then locked his office. He nodded politely to Kali while shuffling past her and down the hall.

Kali rested her head against his office door. So..., she thought, Here we are. Again. How many times had she faced rejection? How many taverns, how many Inns, how many lords and ladies did she play her tunes for from here to her homeland? How many times would she face rejection before she got the hint that the universe was trying to send her a message.

There was no hope.

No.” Kali slammed her winged fist against the door. “No! You get your weasely butt back here! I’m not DONE with you.” She pointed and signaled for the beast to come closer. Instead the weasel gulped and sprinted in the opposite direction.

Kali blinked, slapping her forehead. “Brilliant bat, just brilliant! Yes, let’s scare them into hiring you, because that will work so well.” Regardless Kali chased down the weasel. She was riding the high from bouncing back from rock bottom and even if they ended up throwing her out she was going to make sure they threw her out in style.

“Wait! I just want to talk with you! Just hear me out!”

This only made the weasel run faster, blowing past a pair of blue guards around the next corner. “Help me!” he shouted.

The vermin reacted quickly, reaching for their weapons to leap out at the beast chasing after the manager, until they saw what was chasing him. Both guards ducked low as the blurred figure of Kali swooped in over their heads. “You can hire more than one bard! Just let me talk with you!” It took a moment for the guards to gather their wits. Exchanging shocked glances, the pair set off after Kali who was still chasing the poor weasel.

He screamed when a pair of leathery wings enveloped his upper torso. “I’mSoSorryThisWasATerribleIdeaaaaaaaaaa!” Kali shouted as she landed on the weasel’s back, sending him bowling through a pair of spacious double doors. Kali tumbled off him, rolling until her rear ended up over her head. “OwWWwwWWwWWw.” She groaned while sitting up. Her eyes went as wide as saucers when she realized where she was.

The room had wealth written all over it. Tapestries and paintings hung over the walls depicting beasts doing unspeakably horrible things to other beasts in the arena. Things which, by their angry and shocked stares, the beasts in this room are more than willing to do to Kali for interrupting their meal.

There were at least a dozen around a large oak table; each dressed in fine leather or silk. Even the servants wore finer garb than Kali. The only beast who came close to resembling her lack of wealth was the bard in the far corner; the fox’s red fur clashing with his blue outfit.

All of them stared holes through Kali. “Oh…h-hi there.” To her credit Kali did not laugh nervously. Her laughter was well past nervous. If she had a tail it would have curled between her legs twice. “Oh would you look at that. I seem to have gotten lost. I will just be going now.”

“Guards!” As if the weasel had to shout for them. An instant after the guards appeared Kali felt two pairs of paws clamp down on her wings, twisting them painfully behind her.

“That will be enough.” Calmer words had never been said, but they seemed to carry more weight than the loudest shout. The clamor of voices raised across the room fell silent, the grip on Kali’s wings lessened but not enough to escape.

“I am so, so sorry Master. She…”

“I said enough.” The weasel shut his muzzle tight. All eyes turned to the beast who stood up from the table. Kali had never seen a feline so tall. Sleek golden fur ran down the length of the cat’s body that was covered in a fine leather outfit with a blue sash wrapped about his chest. “You know,” the lynx stroked his chin as he looked down upon the beast. “I have had many assassins break into this arena, but never any quite as odd as you.”

Kali squeaked, “A-assassin? Oh! No. I’m actually here looking for…f-for…” her words trailed off.

“For what?” The beast’s sharp command made Kali jump.

“Job! I’m came here looking for a j-job…sir. I’m a bard.” The cat looked up to the weasel, raising an eyebrow.

“It… it’s true. She came here looking for a job. But then she attacked me!”

“What? I did not! Well, it wasn’t…I mean…” Kali whimpered. “I just wanted to talk with you...”

“You call tackling me into Nire’s personal dining room talking?” the weasel sputtered. He paused again as the feline stifled a chuckle.

“Credit where credit is due miss, you have the style of a bard at least. More style than you had when I hired you, Baxter.” He sent a glance at the fox in the back. It was met with narrowed eyes as the beast leaned against the wall, drinking from a goblet of wine.

“It will take more than cheap theatrics to worry me sir.”

With a gesture from the cat the guards let Kali up. Her pack and lute are both removed as she was searched for hidden weapons. She made no protest. She could only focus on her own frantic heart beat resounding in her ears. “I’m sorry about the trouble. Really, I am. I just wanted to talk to someone about getting a job here.”

“You came to the right place then. You can talk to me. You can call me Nire, but what shall I call you?” Nire’s voice was soft, curious. He stepped around the bat slowly, examining Kali from head to toe.

Kali stole a moment to calm herself before replying. She came this far to be a bard, it was time to act like one. “I, Mr. Nire, am the Amaaaazing Kali. Traveling Entertainer and Bard.” Nire reached out, gently taking her offer for a hand shake. Instead he began folding out her wing, flexing it back and forth.

“What…are you?”

“Amazing.” Kali said happily, her reply causing Nire to smile as she gingerly took back control of her wing.

“Well that much is obvious,” Baxter the fox took another swig of wine before gesturing to the bat, “What else can you call a fox spliced together with a rat than simply ‘amaaaazing’.”

Silence filled the room. Nire made no motion to correct the fox for his insult and the beasts at the table wanted to see how this played out.

Regardless if they were hoping for a battle of wits or not, the fox’s insult did nothing to phase the smile of his flying counterpart. “Oh well thank you. It’s nice to be appreciated. You look amazing too! Your outfit is so…floofy.”

The fox raised an eyebrow, “Floofy?”

“Yes, Floofy. You know. Puffy. Poofy. Puffed up. Maybe I should have tried a floofy outfit. Did it help you get the job? Does that really help?” Kali asked in all seriousness.

“Talent got me my job.” The fox growled ever so slightly, “Alas, a job which is now occupied. Isn’t that right, Nire?” Free paw on his hip, Baxter the Bold waited for a reply from Nire that never came. The lynx was enamored by the bat’s strange appearance. “Please Nire, surely you cannot be seriously thinking about hiring this …abomination of nature.”

“Baxter.” Nire said gently, “You should go play for the slaves for tonight. It will give you…perspective on what will happen to you the next time you tell me what I cannot do.” There was a flash in the lynx’s eyes as he turned finally to face Baxter.

Whimpering and ears flat, the fox scurried past the crowd by the door, shooting Kali a spiteful glare before darting from the room. Inwardly Kali felt bad. She didn’t mean to get the fox into trouble. She just…wanted to play for someone.

She didn’t have the luxury to worry about Baxter’s fate for long however. “Now, Miss Kali,” The lynx purred, “It looks like I just sent away the entertainment for the evening. I really do hope you can do something amazing for us, yes?”

Kali got the hint. It was time to put her money where her mouth was and perform. Reaching out to the guard beside her, Kali grabbed her lute, spun it into place…

…and played.

Kali closed her eyes, envisioning the song of her homeland, the one that she used with MacRaff. The world faded away, taking the beasts out of the room and depositing them into the jungle. By far it wasn’t the best song to ever be played. Kali was so nervous she missed a few beats but carried on in hopes that no one would notice. Her wing tips felt sluggish for some reason as butterflies performed combat maneuvers in her stomach. A stomach she suddenly regretted gorging with scones earlier.

But at the end of the day it didn’t matter. She was a bard, no, she was more than that. She was a bat. She was this exotic creature come from lands they never dreamed of, coming to play them music they never imagined hearing.

Her hips began to sway, her head bobbing back and forth in line with the beat. And her muzzle opened to pour out her heart in song.

And then promptly snapped shut.

 All the voices of those who disliked her music came flooding back to memory all at once. Tavern owners, inn keepers, even the Celtic hare MacRaff telling her to rest her voice.

  Kali dear, Kali heard a more prominent voice in her head from the depths of the past, Why don’t you be a doll and stick to the song writing, eh? We will do the singing. We want to get paid tonight.

Kali choked back a tear. Then another voice, more recent appeared, …Until beasts are ready to try something different. With a heavy heart Kali remembered the words of her marten friend, and bit her tongue.

The song continued uninterrupted to its finish.

Glancing about the room as if for the first time Kali felt herself shrink. “Well...” She said timidly. “W-what do you think.”

Leaning backward the feline stared at Kali with unblinking eyes. He looked at the beasts behind him before turning again to Kali. “I think you have a job.”

Another silence followed. For a long tense moment Kali just stared back at Nire…and then slowly fell backward as she fainted.

_____

Kali had surely died and gone to heaven. After a splash of water and many reassurances that she was alright Kali took up the corner in the back. She played her lute to her heart’s content well into the night.

She didn’t let one syllable drop, not one lyric, not one peep, unwilling to disturb the scene as dinner unfolded. Her pride was easier to swallow than she ever realized.

She just played and played and played, enjoying being able to show off her craft without dodging rotten fruit.

“So, another beast joins the family.”

Nire looked over the rim of his goblet to his right. Blasio wasn’t much to look at. Beaver fur would always look scraggly no matter how expensive the beast dressed. “That was quite nice of you. Hiring her even after she broke into the room.” The beaver struggled to lean forward, his rolls of flesh impeding his progress to the endless parade of food that passed across the table before him.

Nire chose not to reply, letting Blasio get to the point.

“You know, she isn’t much to look at but with the right kind of flair she could draw quite a crowd to the arena.”

Nire sighed at the beaver’s statement. “You can’t be serious.”

“What? She’s one of a kind. She’s exotic. Exotic sells.”

“She’s also a BARD.” Nire said flatly, “And a BAT. What kind of fight do you think I will put her in? All she is going to do is stumble around the arena half blind walking into walls. And you KNOW that isn’t funny more than once.”

“Actually, I can see just fine.” Nire and Blasio both turned their heads towards the bat across the room as she played a gentler relaxing tune.

“Still, a bard. She probably doesn’t even know how to fight.”

“Totally true! But I am not above engaging in a game of fist fighting if the need should call for it.” Kali said again, still playing her tune as she glanced about the table. The beaver pointed at her as if to say, ‘See? See!?’

“Blasio,” Nire began, “Believe it or not, I actually enjoy being able to have fine and exotic things all to myself from time to time. Look! I have a bat, that plays music. Music I find rather fun and exciting. I can’t very well show her off if I toss her into the arena to be killed.”

“Also, true! I can’t play music if I’m dead.” Kali managed to get through the next verse before she skipped a beat. “Wait, what?”

“Nothing. Go take your break.”

Kali blinked. In the end, she shrugged. Surely, she had heard wrong. “You’re the boss, sir!” Carrying her lute with her Kali left the room, head held high.

It was all coming together. For once, the universe was smiling upon Kali. Her dreams were within her grasp. She had finally found an audience that loved her. This was truly the happiest day of her life!

Upon exiting the room, something caught her eye. A shadow moved rapidly towards her.

She started to greet the shadow but stopped, catching sight of the beast’s paws. Her eyes widened as she reared backward. She managed to scream before the beast lunged at her, eyes filled with malice, knife aimed for her heart

 

4
Round One / The Second Heartbeat
« Last post by Kentrith Hapley on July 25, 2017, 03:45:14 PM »
It was the most beautiful day the north had seen all summer. The gentle breeze strummed the branches, causing the leaves to shush soothingly, while songbirds darted back and forth across the clearing. As if in deliberate mockery, a beam of sunshine filtered straight to the small cottage in the middle of the clearing. Kentrith stood at the door of the cottage, frozen in place. He raised a paw several times to rap, but couldn’t quite make himself do it. The tranquil, sunshiny day was not helping his mood.

Nothing seemed to help that anymore.

A lark chirping in the branch hanging over his head seemed to urge him on. He glared at the impudent bird, arguing silently with it. “Fine,” he ground out, steeling his nerve. He knocked sharply several times, knowing the occupant would ignore it otherwise.

The door flew open, revealing a stooped fox, with wrinkled clothes and an irritated grimace on his face. Kentrith was shocked at how much older he looked. Spectacles perched on top of the nose, while the muzzle had several wrinkles.

“Who is it?” he asked grumpily. “What do you want?”

Kentrith couldn’t say anything past the lump in his throat. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the crusty creature before him harrumphed and slammed the door.

Naturally, Kentrith thought. Frustration now fueling him, he pounded on the door. “Bothan, you ingrate, let me in!” He almost smacked him in the muzzle when the door whipped open again.

“How do you know my name?” Bothan barked, eyes now narrowed. A knife appeared from somewhere in the severely patched trousers, and was waved haphazardly before Kentrith’s nose. “Who are you?”

“Brother,” Kentrith faltered, clasping his paw over the other’s, stilling the wobbling knife. “Don’t you know me?” He looked down at the dirty clothes he wore, much like the ones he had worn the last time he visited. Perhaps even the same ones. His ears tipped in embarrassment.

Bothan eyed him up and down, squinting. “I don’t…” His ears pinned back as his weak eyes widened. “Kentrith?”

Kentrith half-smiled. “Aye.” He released the other’s paw, stepped back, and waited, dread weighting his limbs.

Bothan huffed. “Well, don’t stand there, get inside.” He backed into the gloomy cottage, waving Kentrith on.

After a moment, Kentrith followed him in.

The cottage had changed even less than his older brother. While dark, it practically repelled dust, lined with spotless shelves holding jars, while twine stretched here and there, holding a forest of drying herbs. Three chairs and a massive wooden table comprised the furniture.A quick peek into the storeroom showed a dessicated wheel of cheese, a small sack of wrinkly potatoes, and a moldy loaf of bread.

At least he’s eating, Kentrith thought wryly. Fresh guilt caused him to swallow, and turn his attention to his brother

Bothan waved him to a chair, then shambled over to the ever-present tea-pot. He didn’t bother asking if Kentrith wanted any, he simply poured water into it and hung it over the fire. He snatched two earthen cups from a cupboard, which held a plate and one more cup. He pulled jars down and tipped the contents into the two cups, and stripped a leaf or two from hanks of dried herbs brushing his ears. Kentrith watched this ritual, and cleared his throat, his attention caught by the last cup. “So…. How is Horath?”

Bothan snorted, his back still turned. “Haven’t heard from him for….” He paused, and Kentrith could hear the frown he must be wearing. “Well, several years, anyway.”

“What happened?”

The herbalist moved the teapot off of the fire, carefully pouring boiling water into each cup. “He wouldn’t tell me much. He stopped by briefly to give me supplies, mentioned that he might be out of touch for a while, and dashed away.” Bothan stirred the cups, sighing. “It was much quicker than his usual visit.”

Kentrith frowned. “I wonder what frightened him so,” he murmured.

Bothan’s snort this time was nearly a guffaw. “Three days later an enraged clan of weasels showed up, demanding his head. Apparently, he had sold them my nerve tea, the one to relax a beast enough to sleep, which I might add they desperately needed, if their agitation was any indication of their normal tendencies.” An amorphous lump of sugar was added to each cup, and stirred in. “He had neglected to ask about sensitivities to certain plants. Their chief expired from lack of air, due to a sensitivity to chamomile.” He turned his head to meet Kentrith’s eyes, a hint of humor in his own. “They were understandably displeased.”

Kentrith laughed out loud. “Of course! He always did take after Mother the most!”

Bothan’s humor vanished, and the spoons were snapped to the table rather forcefully. “At least he didn’t get himself killed,” he ground out.

Kentrith was quiet for a long moment. His anger at their mother had faded long ago. Obviously Bothan’s hadn’t. “Well, perhaps he will be back, after the furor has died down.” He was slightly disappointed, having hoped to see Horath as well.

At last, a steaming, fragrant cup was handed to him, and Bothan grumpily pulled up his own chair. “Drink it,” he ordered. “It will help with the ache in your joints and ear.” His eyes flicked briefly to Kentrith, then away. “Or what’s left of it.”

Shaking his head, Kentrith gulped at the scalding brew. Bothan would get testy if he waited for it to cool. “How did you guess?” Bothan’s gifts with herbs had bordered on the supernatural. After another painful gulp, he added, “Thank you.”

Bothan slumped across from Kentrith, nursing his own cup. “It wasn’t that hard,” he retorted, his voice sharp with disdain. “Missing ear, multiple scars on your arms, I can see where your wrist has been broken at least twice, and your tail had a strip skinned off.”

Kentrith looked behind at the afflicted appendage, then chuckled. “Yes, the fur never did grow back quite right.”

There was silence for several moments, as Kentrith fidgeted, unsure where to go from there. Bothan finally sighed, and said, “It seems to be an age since you visited my little hut, here. Much longer than Horath. How long has it been, exactly?”

“I’m not sure,” Kentrith temporized. After another second, he finally admitted, “Twelve years.”

“Hmph. Not imagining it, then,” was all Bothan said. He heaved a sigh, then looked up. “It took you twelve years to see me, and it’s obvious you’ve been through quite a bit.” His normally dreamy eyes seemed to pierce Kentrith. “Why are you here now?”

Kentrith sighed, then carefully set the cup down on the table next to him. “Can’t I visit my brother?”

Bothan merely raised a skeptical brow. Kentrith snorted, then admitted, “I felt… guilty, about not seeing you for so long.”

“And?”

He glared at Bothan. “I’m not sure I’ll be back,” he ground out. “I might…. I have to try.” He stuttered to a stop, unable to form the words he needed to make his brother understand.

Silence rang through the simple cottage. Bothan placed his cup next to Kentrith’s with deliberation, then stood and started pulling more jars and herbs down.

Kentrith rose slowly, and shuffled over to the table where the pile of ingredients was growing. “What are you doing?” he finally asked.

“Making up a kit,” was the short reply.

“Bothan,” Kentrith pleaded, but his brother interrupted.

“I don’t know where you’ve been for the last several years,” the usually mild-mannered herbalist barked, scraping green bits into his mortar. “I don’t know what struggles you’ve been through, although I’m sure there are more than are evidenced by your scars. But if my little brother is going to face difficulties, then by Hell Gates, he’s going to go prepared!” The emphatic jabs with the pestle stilled. “Then at least you’ll have something to remember me by.”

Kentrith stared at the small cloth sacks that slowly filled with powders, pastes, and vials. “I’ll run out,” he protested, weakly.

Bothan looked up with a small smile. “Then you’ll have to come back and get more.”

He quickly tied up the little sacks and arranged them in a satchel. For several moments, he stared at it, then turned to Kentrith, a strange look on his face. Hesitantly he asked, “What… else would you like me to add?”

********

Kentrith’s path through the city of Northvale was riddled with vendors, milling customers, and memories. Undulating  masses moved around him, flowing with the lifeblood of the river port. His favorite herb shop had been replaced by a clothes merchant (the herbs were never as good as Bothan’s, but had sufficed when the need arose). Curios, keepsakes, and match posters flew off the counter as fast as the shopkeeper slapped them down. The pie hawker seemed older, but just as persistent. He called out as Kentrith passed.

“It’s the Crane! The Crane has returned!”

“Will we see you in the ring again?” called the leather worker, Harbin.

Kentrith merely nodded to both, trying to keep the dread from showing on his face. Every step he took toward the Crater seemed to drag a little more, his stomach sliding closer to his footpaws. The smell of metal, oil, and working beasts swirled in his nostrils, causing his lip to curl, and his ears crept closer to his skull, despite his efforts to seem nonchalant. His first view of the gate to the Crater caused his breathing to stutter, and he came to halt. He stared up at the simple oak portals, trying to get his emotions under control. “You’re stronger than this,” he muttered to himself. “They thought they had broken you. You are not broken. You can do this.”

Slowly, he tamed his rebelling body, taking deep breaths to slow his heart and stop the shaking in his limbs. He forced an uptilt to his mouth, so that he wouldn’t look unhappy, and perked his ears, forcing them to stay upright. Out of habit, he touched the ragged edge of the remnants of his left ear, feeling the hardened tissue where the blade had sliced through, catching as it always did on the gnarl where he’d had to lance it to release the discharge from infection.

Shaking himself out of the reverie, he strode to the bell-pull at the side of the door. A deep, ringing note reverberated through the street around him, and he could feel the curious glances of the other beasts around him. As the doors groaned open, he wondered if those who volunteered were rare or not. There had been more slaves in the ring than free when he had been here last.

Two beasts in blue stood in the now open doorway. They carried spears and identical sneers. The ferret stepped forward and lifted his spear menacingly. “A volunteer, eh?” he grunted, baring his sharp teeth. “Well, you’ve missed the parade!”

Clearing his throat, Kentrith tried, “Been quite a few volunteers?”

The female rat had stepped up, level with her partner. She laughed. “I’ll say,” she grinned. “The fame of this place has been spreading! Many beasts want to test their mettle!”

Kentrith couldn’t argue with that. “I need to speak with Nire,” he interjected, hoping that this painful detour into small talk would be cut off by a change in subject.

The rat only laughed harder. “See Nire? Are you insane?” She bent almost double with hilarity, guffawing in loud brays. Frowning, the ferret pounded her on the back to enable better breathing, and finished for her, “Nire is a very busy, very IMPORTANT beast. He can’t be bothered to see every fighter that walks through the door.”

“Look here!” Kentrith barked, suddenly fed up. He grabbed the spear close to the head, and jerked. When the shocked ferret stumbled closer, Kentrith wrapped his paw in the shirt and yanked him up. The hapless soldier’s footpaws dangled, not quite touching the ground. Kentrith snapped, “I don’t have any patience for your lies. He doesn’t have time, you say? He will make time! You will take me to the lounge, then you will tell Nire that Kentrith Hapley is back.” He pressed his snout against the ferret’s terrified face and snarled, “Need me to repeat anything?”

The ferret shook his head jerkily, and Kentrith dropped him to the dust.

*****

He didn’t have to wait very long. He had barely sat down on one of the padded benches in the front chamber when four soldiers arrived. They were much more alert than the two at the gate had been, and Kentrith didn’t waste time with questions. He hastily joined them, and they slipped into formation as they marched down the passageway, two stationed behind his back. They moved down the hall, their pawsteps brisk and unflinching.

They stopped at a plain wooden door, which one soldier knocked upon. Being told to enter, he opened the door and waved Kentrith in alone.

He glanced around the room. The same shabby rug lay on the floor, if a little shabbier. There were several more paintings on the walls, and smoking torches had been replaced with glass-paned lanterns. Chairs lined the left hand wall, while the massive table in the middle of the room displayed the usual confusion of maps, messages, and advertisements. The window that looked down upon the training grounds had new shutters, of a different design than he remembered, with slats that slanted slightly.

Behind the table, facing the door, stood Nire. He hadn’t changed much, either. A few more gray hairs dotted his muzzle, but his tufted ears still retained their dark-furred edges, and his fur remained as groomed as ever. His clothes were new, with trousers, a clean white shirt with embroidered swords at the cuffs and collar, and a blue vest.

Well, at least his first fight wouldn’t be public.

Nire looked up from the message he had been reading, and smiled slightly, allowing a teasing glimpse of fang. “Kentrith, my old friend. This is certainly a surprise.”

His eyes flicked briefly over Kentrith, taking in his thinner stature, scruffy fur, and worn clothes. Embarrassed, Kentrith clasped his paws behind his back and sternly ordered his footpaws to stay still. Nire smirked again, then continued, “I do believe you swore you would never step footpaw back in the arena, or Northvale for that matter.” He lost the smirk, his amber eyes crystallizing as he examined Kentrith. “What brings you back?” The hint of menace sent a thrill through Kentrith.

He straightened, and cleared his throat. “I…” he coughed, then swallowed, looking down at the floor. Breathing deep, he looked up again, forcing out, “I couldn’t find another place for me.” He twisted his paws behind his back, fidgeting. “This place, this…work, is what I’m good for.” He tilted his head, trying not to tremble. “I missed it.” He kept his breathing even and his gaze pinned on Nire.

The lynx smiled, then dropped the message on the table. He came over, and clapped a paw on Kentrith’s shoulder. “I hoped you would see it that way. You were one of the best, I’ll admit. I can’t wait to see you in action again!” He grinned even wider, and added, “Should we arrange a bout, for old time’s sake? Just to refresh your memory. I have another potential volunteer who should see how it works.”

Kentrith felt his lungs release, and he spread a wide smile over his own muzzle. The relief that flooded him aided in widening the smile he forced. He had never been the best liar. “Of course,” he replied, mentally fortifying himself for the ordeal to come. A match to test his worth as a contestant was no surprise.

Nire clapped his shoulder again, and then made shooing motions at the door. “We’ll discuss your position after the fight. I don’t need another healer,” here he winked, “but I imagine we could use you as a trainer. Many of the slaves will need more instruction.”

As he waved Kentrith out the door, the fox glanced back at him, suddenly nervous. The lynx was still smiling, but there was a hint of suspicion there too. Kentrith would have to watch his step carefully.

His escort waited for him outside the office. They quickly ushered him to the armory and waited impassively while Kentrith searched the wall for the weapon he knew best. He had already secured the other to his right wrist. Spotting it displayed on the wall, he pulled it down, irritation flaring. Kentrith studied the ax he now held in his paws, unchanged since he had thrown it down in the arena that last time. The head, at least, had been ground and polished, with no nick or mar to the bright metal. The haft, however was chipped and dirty, the cord threaded through the end fraying. If he made it out of this fight, he would have to replace it. He shook his head. Had Nire placed it as a trophy to Kentrith’s fighting career? Typical, he thought with a silent sneer.

 The beasts in blue took him to a wicker cage that hung above the arena, and gestured him in. The worn planks that formed the floor of the cage were familiar, and a shudder ran through him as the flood of memories tried to take over. He gripped the ax handle tighter, then grabbed one bar of the cage as it jittered, then began to lower. Creaking ropes lowered the cage, and he was able to peer down at the sands approaching. The arena, the center of his life for six seasons, whether healing it’s victims, or creating them.

A rush of adrenaline was followed by sickening disgust. How could the thought of harming another creature still excite him?

The opposite side of the cage lifted. He stepped onto the sand, skirting humps and drifts until he reached the middle. A wave of noise crested over him, and he knew that, if not full, the stands held several excited spectators. Of course, he thought sourly. Trust Nire to drum up an audience in a matter of moments.

He looked up at the box that hung halfway down the wall, separated from the rest of the seats by intricately carved railings. He could make out several figures standing in the box. One had pointed ears, undoubtedly Nire, and was crowded by several beasts with flashing jewelry and brightly colored clothes. Kentrith's lip curled. Vultures, the lot of them.

He raised his ax in a salute, which was returned by the lynx, then with roaring shouts ringing in his ears, he turned to face the other side of the arena. Another cage was being lowered, this one carrying his opponent. As the door slid up and the hulking beast stepped out, he gulped, then cursed inwardly at Nire.

He had pitted him against Direbeast.

The huge badger snarled menacingly, his crazed, red-tinged eyes pinned on Kentrith. Without a preliminary salute, or any warning, the massive scarred creature charged forward. His steps moved erratically, causing him to weave across the sand. The spear, however, aimed dead for Kentrith’s gut. Quickly, the fox swiped his ax across, knocking the spear to the side. He spun towards the badger’s off hand, ducking to evade a paw-swipe. Skittering back, he scuffed his footpaws in the sand. No pitfalls or abnormalities to trip him yet. Direbeast, unfazed by Kentrith’s dodge, whipped his spear around. He began a series of jabs, aiming for legs, arms, and torso. Kentrith redirected most, blocking with the ax in his left paw. He deflected with his open right.

Kentrith began to panic slightly. It had been at least five years since he had fought anyone. Drawing the pain-crazed monster of the arena first thing did not bode well. He had to end the fight quickly, or he would be worn down.

And stabbed to death. Strong motivation indeed.

Slipping the haft of the ax through his paw until he grasped the end, he grabbed the spear with the other, catching the edge of the blade. Gritting his teeth, he jerked the spear up and toward him. The huge beast was only slightly off balance, but it was enough. Kentrith swung the ax at a footpaw, catching the top of the black-furred appendage.

Direbeast bellowed, and yanked hard at the trapped spear. Kentrith didn’t fight for it, and the badger staggered back. Kentrith moved in grimly, and swept the spear up. Clasping the ax with both paws, he struck for the legs. Once. Twice. The beast was down now, but still snarling, jabbing with the spear. Kentrith hopped over one of the jabs, and swung the ax again, slicing the forearm and severing the main tendon.

Down went the spear, but still Direbeast struggled. It reached for the spear, growling still. The grating rumble was hoarser, but the tone hadn’t changed. It finally clicked.

Horror, indignation, and remorse flooded through him. He felt like spitting, or screaming….

Habit took over. Throwing his arms out, he tilted his head back, a mournful cry bursting out. “Why?!” he wailed, his pitch rising and voice cracking. He snapped his gaze to Nire, narrowing his eyes as the lynx, smirking, made some comments to the older hare standing beside him. He had done this on purpose! Enraged, he swung the ax in a circle and cast it behind him, timing the release so that the blade bit the sand.

Cries of “The Crane! The Crane has returned!” rang in his ears as he stalked over to the creature. It whined and thrashed, still reaching for the fallen weapon. Horror caused his joints to lock, but the paw changed directions, straining for him, and he had to move. Forcing his paws not to shake, he flicked his right wrist. His folding scalpel slid to his paw, and with another snick, he opened it. He knelt by the prone, writhing creature and quickly slid the small blade into his neck.

He heard the roar of the crowd as if from a distance as he stared at the pitiful pile of fur, muscle, and scar tissue. Many of the ridges and rippled skin left from a long ago fire were inflamed, testifying to the agony of the maddened beast. Memories of treating those same scars, of hours spent over salves and teas to ease the great beast’s torment seemed to throb in his very bones, clashing with the tide of adulation from the stands. The throbbing grew stronger, in cadence with his heartbeat.

With gritted teeth, he tamped down on the memories that pulsed in discordance with the cheering crowd, crushing it until the healer was smothered. He could not be a healer now, may never be again.

The Crane had returned.
5
Contest Discussion / Re: Storyteller's Vigil
« Last post by Tooley Bostay on July 25, 2017, 02:16:23 PM »
Madder Barrow

That moment where Aldridge notices all the enemy beasts is awesome. It's just one of those bits in a story that sticks with you - a quintessential moment that showcases a character, how they think, and what they're capable of. Wonderful stuff. I think it would have been a far better punch to have him straight up hit Jossia in the head - not sure why he's only going for an injuring blow - but the irony of him hitting the leg she's using works well enough.

Why the heck did they suddenly attack, though? It's possible I missed something, but it seemed clear that the villagers didn't want to get involved with a fight if all they were going to do was take Komi. So why are they suddenly striking first?

On the one hand, I love your descriptions. Such little touches and word choices bring the moment so much more to life.
Quote
The village of Madder Barrow looked as though it had been spilled onto the land. A hotch-potch of thatched and tiled roofs, bordered by ten strides of lumpy grass, surrounded by thick, old forest.
The "spilled onto the land" is wonderful imagery, but my favorite bit here is actually the "thick, old forest." I've read many a poor man's fantasy novel with trite description, and I'm sick of hearing about verdant forests thick with foliage and blah blah blah. But just one little word - "old" - suddenly gives this place a grounding. A history.

Then there are times where I feel you get a bit too ahead of yourself. Like:
Quote
A grim certainty fell about Aldridge's shoulders - a thick velvet cloak still drenched from the last night's snow.
...eh? Is that just a fancy metaphor? Then what's the snow about? If it's not a metaphor, why the awkward transition just to talk about his cloak?

Quote
We've given them a chance - that's the greatest gift of all.
Well now. I'm sensing an emerging theme to this story as a whole. Especially with Adeen's post prior to this. Dunno if this was planned, but it seems like "chances" are building up to be a unifying thread for all these beasts.

The Adeen bit is... odd. Why isn't she captured/locked up somewhere? She mentions her own punishment, which makes sense, but are captured beasts allowed to walk so freely/talk with other captives? I mean, it's not a bad thing if true, but I'm just confused.

I don't feel like this is "your" post, Aldridge. You follow up Komi's post, sure, and there are those glimmers of your excellent writing, but nothing really major seems to happen in this, in regards to showing off Aldridge's character. For example, you have a fight bust out in the village. We not only just receive a recap of this, rather than experiencing it for ourselves, but Aldridge's activity in the fight is to shoot one person, then immediately hit the ground. And no one in his village died. Beyond simply being taken away, Aldridge hasn't really lost anything yet. So the "moment" of that scene just feels like... I dunno, a shoulder shrug. "Eh, it happened." Seems like an excellent opportunity to have Aldridge rushing about, talking to the inexperienced woodlanders. How he tells a young vole to steady his aim like he taught him to just last week, or makes sure young Aera has enough arrows and isn't wasting them, etc.
He apparently has history with hordes. This was an excellent moment to show us how he puts those experiences into play, albeit in the service of defending his home and family. Instead, we just get a rushed fight that seemingly happens for no reason, and I don't really get to experience anything new about Aldridge.

Love your writing, but this post could have been better. In the future, look for opportunities to showcase Aldridge. Be sure you don't coast along the story, only following up other characters. When you have a post, it's your time to shine, so make it worthwhile. Drive the plot, and if you can't do that, show us why Aldridge is such a great/interesting/fun/deep/[other positive attribute] character.
6
Contest Discussion / Re: Storyteller's Vigil
« Last post by Tooley Bostay on July 25, 2017, 01:31:58 PM »
Play, Minstrel, Play

Oh, joy! A Komi post. Been waitin' fer this one. Glad to see the songs are back. The hard insert of "she sings because it reminds her of happier days" is a little rough, but I'll accept it. It justifies her singing as more than just a gimmick.

Very much appreciate how her encounter with Nire's beasts doesn't end exactly as you'd expect. She actually does get away, and takes a good number of beasts down with her. It's one of those moments where as a reader, you know where this is all going, but the writing is gripping enough to still somehow keep you on your toes. I want Komi to get away, even though I know she won't, ultimately. On the flipside, the random bit of "here, let me tell the audience my history with Jossia"? Bleh. Comes out of nowhere, and while I understand its importance, it should have been saved for a better time where the info wouldn't be so shoved in.

Oh ho ho! And Komi with the tie-in to Aldridge via Aera. I'm a huge Aldridge fan, so already that's a massive plus in my book. Not sure whose idea it was, but big props to whoever proposed it. The back and forth got tiring, though. "Let us help you!" "no" "Please!" "No." "We have a stoat!" "Aldridge yayyy wait no." "But... stoat! Help you! Us!" "NOOO"
Save your bullets. Komi denies their help/snarls at them/complains about them being woodlanders multiple times, and it loses its punch. I go from "wow, these two know each other! How cool!" to "ugh... they're back to the stalemate of her being stubborn for #reasons" very quickly.
Aera and Aldridge as well sound a bit... off, in this post. Too much of a bleeding heart on both of their part? Perhaps a touch melodramatic? Like, with this line:
Quote
“Komi, you are going to have help, because I’m not going to abandon you out here.”
Just feels off. Like it's more of a cliche than a genuine line being spoken by someone to someone else they know very well.

Quote
They sat there, the two of them, almost nose to nose, staring into one another’s eyes, until Komi couldn’t bear it anymore.

Oh just kiss already.

Overall? Fun post with some twisting arcs that keep things interesting. Very excited to see Ald and Komi interact further, but there are some oddities and hiccups throughout the post that hold it back. Too much repetition in some areas, too much time spent on unnecessary scenes in others. But Komi herself is interesting, and that's what matters.
7
Contest Discussion / Re: Storyteller's Vigil
« Last post by Tooley Bostay on July 25, 2017, 11:42:04 AM »
Reviews are a-go! Hurrah!

I mentioned before that these will be first-read impressions, since I can spare nothing more. I should also note that this may include me being a bit more blunt. If I don't like your post, I'm going to say so.

I know that some of the authors who got in may be newer writers. Understand that I will try to be as respectful as possible, and that any and all of my comments are directed at the writing, not the author. I know it's hard to separate yourself from your writing, but in the case of this being a writing competition, it's something you must do as an author when receiving feedback.

If you are a newer author/member of this community, or this is your first Survivor, then my inbox is completely open to you. Shoot me a PM if you have any questions about points I may make, or want a second opinion. Th' woozle is more than happy to oblige. =)


Letters From a Thief

Boooo she did kill Fenton. But yay, because my faith in the author wasn't misplaced, and they're at least diving headfirst into this conflict to present a very compelling story. Enjoyed the scene structure, and the slow reveal of a lot of the details (the carving of the gravestones, how this relates to Adeen wanting to take her life, etc). Canen's intro was a bit weird, took me a while to realize what was going on, since it's several paragraphs before it's clear he's Fenton's father.

Loved the bit with Simondale. Didn't fully get a grasp on his character until that moment. Thought he may just be a jerk hare who's toying with Adeen, but nah, seems like he's actually got a decent heart in him. The bit about the smile not reaching his eyes implies he doesn't much like Adeen, but I think that's what makes the moment all the better--that he's willing to reach out to a beast who he doesn't even fully believe deserves a second chance. Could be reading too much into it, but I liked that part a lot, especially because it keys me in to the fact that Adeen does have a storyarc to explore. There's hope for her yet--if not for redemption of some kind, then at least for her to tell an engaging story.

Take note, Top 10. This is what you want to do. Make it clear from the start that your character will have a story to tell. Something with some meat and meaning to it.



As an aside: time for Tooley to be a bit stern. It's five days until the deadline. First round last two weeks, double the amount of posts. That's 16 more posts to get out by the 30th. Step it up, authors. If you're holding things up, then you need to get it in gear. I'm not pointing at any one of you in particular, since I don't know what's going on behind the scenes, but asking the audience to read 25k+ words in the next five days is ridiculous.
8
Round One / The Monster of Mossflower Woods
« Last post by Minerva on July 25, 2017, 07:35:11 AM »
Alternatively Titled: Culture Shock



"I-Is this the place?"

A chilled spring wind blew through the weasel's fur as he picked at the shiny buttons on his new blue uniform. Looking up, the beast turned his gaze anxiously towards his commander, but the marteness kept her eyes forward and fixed on the line of trees in front of them. From thick ropes on the lower boughs the bodies of four vermin swayed like puppets in the soft breeze, their flesh rent by the claws and teeth of some unholy monster.

"Is that a question?" Metal chains rattled together at the marteness' waist as she turned towards the mass of creatures huddling at the base of the foothill behind her. For once, none of her charges flinched as she drummed her claws against the handle of her whip. Each of them stared past her at the mangled corpses and the forest beyond, whispering tales about the Monster of Mossflower Woods.

Her scouts stood guard over the slaves and the marteness looked towards one she knew to be experienced. "Jenson, you're with me. Bloodfang, you as well. Everybeast else," she said, scanning across the crowd of slaves, "make sure this lot gets fed and keep them in line. We'll be back."

"Commander Nix," the weasel beside her protested. "Ar-Are you sure? You've heard the stories, right?"

Nix's chosen scouts made their way to her side and she glanced towards the greenhorn. "Aye, of course I have. Everybeast has, including Nire. Imagine the crowd this monster will bring." The slaver proceeded past the weasel and beckoned him to follow. "Now come along, rookie. You're with us, too."

The weasel gulped and hesitantly started after her, his paw quivering at his sword hilt. As he trudged forward, his gaze met that of another weasel's, it's eyes missing from its sockets and face twisted in agony. He squeaked and quickly stumbled forward to catch up with his commander. Nix gave him an annoyed look before stepping towards the carcass and inspecting it.

"For a creature with such sharp claws," she said, running one of hers along the beast's wounds. The marteness looked to the cluster of shallow punctures by the beast's neck, "it sure has some tiny teeth." She turned to the rookie beside her.

"Before I was a scout for Nire, do you know what I did?"

"Y-you were in the arena right, ma'am?" he stuttered.

"Aye, and let me tell you the most important lesson I've learned from both jobs. Everyone, whether beast or monster..."

A smile crept to the marten's lips as she fitted a dart into her blowgun.

"...has a weakness."

~~~¿~~~

Winter had given way to spring but the water was still cold to the touch- not that young Fable minded. The otter cub stood up to her knees in the shallows of the stream, watching with wide, mystified eyes as adventurous minnows peeked out from the reeds and swam around her footpaws. Falling through the tall, tall trees above, light danced on the water's surface and shepherded the young one's gaze towards the opposite bank where a single pink flower bloomed.

The minnows scattered as Fable splashed deeper into the stream towards it and dipped below the surface. Arching her back like her mother showed her to do, the young otter then kicked out her footpaws and shot straight like an arrow through the water. She surfaced only a few moments later on the other side and quickly claimed the flower as her own. Fable held it to her chest and admired it as she returned.

It was a water lily, her mummy's favorite. A pretty one too. Only a few nights before, mummy had a sad look on her face, but this would cheer her up.

"Mummy, mummy! Lookit what I found!" Fable called as she splashed back onto the bank. Holding it carefully lest its petals get damaged, she bounded through the brush and back towards the footpath, nearly crying out in surprise when a paw grabbed her by the scruff and pulled her to an abrupt stop.

Minerva held her daughter there for a moment before dropping her back on her footpaws and sighing in relief. "Fable. What have I told ye about runnin' off like that? Ye're s'posed t' stay where I can see ye, remember?" the otterwife chided, her paws resting on her hips. "And ye got int' the stream again too, I see. It's barely spring, lass. One of these days, ye're gonna catch a cold."

Water dripped from the young one's fur as she looked up towards her mother with a mischievous grin. "I'm an odder, an' ye ain't no odder without no wadder," she said, reciting a verse her mother often said.

"Yer a rotter's what'cha are, ye little scoundrel." Minerva grinned and ruffled her daughter's headfur. She looked down at her paws. "And what have ye got right there?"

Fable beamed and held out the flower for her mother to take. "I got ye a wadder lily. This one's pink."

"Oh? Another one?" Minerva chuckled. "I dunno if I can take any more, Fable. I've already got so many."

Her daughter's whiskers drooped. "But... you love wadder lilies."

"Aye, aye. I do, but, maybe... maybe you should have this 'un." The otterwife knelt down and pressed the flower lightly against the young one's chest. "How about this? How about we put it on yer dress like this? That way, whenever I kin see yer smilin' face, I kin see it, too. How does that sound? We could do it together."

The Dibbun paused to consider for only a moment before nodding her head furiously.

Fable rocked on her heels in anticipation as Minerva reached into her apron pocket and produced a thin needle and spool of thread. "Now, now, settle down and hold still," she said as she fit the thread through the eye. When she calmed, Minerva pressed the flower to the lapel of her daughter's dress and sewed the first stitch, making sure it went through both the fabric and sepal, before holding the needle up for the young otter to take. "Yer turn," she said.

Fable's expression twisted in concentration as she took the needle from her mother. "Gently. Carefully. Easy does it." She sewed the second stitch. Together they continued, passing the needle between each other until Minerva was sure it was secured well enough. It likely wouldn't last very long, but it was at least something the otterwife could look for should she wander off again. "There. A pretty flower fer a pretty maid."

The otterwife rose to her footpaws before taking the smaller of two baskets on the ground behind her and pressing its handle into her daughter's paw. "Now, I've a game fer ye. Would ya like t' play?" At the young one's nod Minerva knelt back down to her and put on a roguish smile, continuing only in whispers as if she were telling Fable some grand secret. "If you can get more blueberries in that basket than yer belly, then maybe, just maybe, when we get back t' the farm... we can bake a pie together fer supper. Think ye can manage that fer me?"

"Uh-huh!" Before Minerva could stop her, Fable twisted around and scurried off towards the blueberry bushes down the path, nearly stumbling over her own rudder in excitement.

"Fable, wait! Don't run off! Don't ye want me t' see yer flower?" Minerva called, but the young one was already lost to sight in the clusters of trees and brush. The otterwife sighed and shook her head, listening as her daughter's negligent giggling carried through the woods.

There wasn't any reason to worry, Minerva supposed as she picked up her own basket and followed after her. Most vermin hardly dared step foot into the thick woods surrounding their farm. They saw the bodies that were hung at the edge of the wood and turned tail in the other direction. Even travelers and goodbeasts simply passing through moved with haste, lest they met the Monster of Mossflower Woods. It was all of course just a rumor, but beasts didn't need to know that. So long as it kept the both of them safe, Minerva didn't mind the nickname.

As Minerva continued down the path, she ceased in her tracks suddenly. The forest around her was silent, but while the woods were always quiet, Fable was not, and her giggling stopped. The otter began to run.

"Fable. Fable!" she called as she charged through the brush. In the blur of brown and green there was a flash of pink, and the otterwife stopped and sighed with relief when she saw her daughter standing beside the blueberry bushes. As Minerva approached, she saw that the young otter's head was cocked to the side and she looked towards a cusp of trees. Standing there, was another beast.

Minerva instinctively reached for her sling, cursing when she realized it wasn't at her side. Only a few nights before, the otterwife had dealt with some vermin who were skulking around their farm. Thinking them gone and the woods safe again, she left the weapon at home. However, as she inspected the beast closer, her paw relaxed. It wasn't a vermin, she realized, but a hedgehog.

The beast noticed them from the corner of his eye and turned, looking at the both of them curiously before donning a friendly smile. "Ahoy! Fancy meeting other beasts out here!" the hedgehog called with a wave. At Minerva's silence, he added. "Apologies if I've given you ladies a fright."

The hedgehog stood partly in the brush ahead, and Minerva looked him over as she stepped to Fable's side. The beast was lean for a hedgehog and wore a simple blue jerkin, and he seemed friendly enough. Clearing her throat, the otter replied, "Oh no, sir. Sorry, it just ain't often we see other beasts through here is all. Are ye a trav'ler, Mister...?"

"Ah! Sorry, marm. I forgot my manners. The name's Jenson, and, aye, I'm a traveler of sorts," he answered her, chuckling lightly. Before the otter could say anything else, he continued on. "So you live here then? Must be perilous for you two, what with the Monster and all."

"Aye! We gotta farm-"

The otter quickly clamped her daughter's mouth shut with her paw and cautioned her to stay quiet. Lowering her paw, Minerva turned back towards the stranger. The words still hung in the air and the otterwife had no choice but to finish them. "Aye, we got a farm a little ways north of here. Ye must've missed it. And aye, it's perilous, but the Monster don't bother us so long as we don't bother it. It only goes after bad beasts. Ain't that right, Fable?"

The young one nodded tentatively.

An amused smile came to Jenson's lips. "Well, ain't that convenient!" he said with a hearty chuckle. "Must be nice having a creature like the Monster of Mossflower Woods protecting you. I envy you actually. All I've got is this dagger." From below the brush, the hedgehog drew a blade that Minerva hadn't seen and her paw snapped in front of Fable instinctively. "It's nice and sharp though. Makes sleeping in the cold open all the more safer," Jenson explained. He held the knife straight up, seemingly admiring it as he turned it in his paw. Left then right. Left then right. Minerva watched as light glistened off the blade.

The otterwife took a step back, keeping her eyes on the stranger, and began to guide Fable back with her towards the trees "Aye. Well, if ye're lookin' fer someplace safe, it ain't here. Redwall's back the way ye came."

Jenson put the dagger away and stepped out from the brush, his eyes tracing along the battle scars on the otterwife's paws and arms before finally settling on the shining silver fishhook she wore around her neck. "Oh, no no. I think I already found what I'm looking for."

From the corner of Minerva's vision came another flash of blue.

"Fable. Back to the farm. Now. RUN!" The otterwife turned and shouted to her daughter. The young otter faltered for a moment in confusion before the look on her mother's face caused her to stumble back in fright and flee on all fours towards the trees.

Minerva turned quickly back to the slaver and she gasped when she saw he already drew a weapon, a blowgun, from his belt. Then she realized it wasn't pointed at her. Without a thought, the otter leapt in the way of the dart aimed for her daughter, wincing as it buried itself into her shoulder.

Ba-bum. Her heart beat within her chest only one time before, suddenly, the forest began to tilt and turn around her. The trees grew distant as if they were a mile away and then began to blur. Two Jensons started towards the reeling otterwife, both putting away their blowguns and reaching for the manacles at their waists.

"Seeeeee, what'd Nixxxx teelllll youuuu, rooookieee. Everyyyybeeeeast'ssss got aaa weaknesssssss," the hedgehogs said, their voices slow yet echoing through her ears as her eyelids began to fall shut and she struggled to keep her footing. Turning to the distant woods, they raised their paws and pointed with a claw. "Nowwww gooo findddd the puuuuuppp."

As the order echoed in Minerva's ears, visions of her daughter bound in chains and cowering at the mercy of a cruel beast's whip appeared in her head. The trees grew closer then and the Jensons merged back into one. Her mind buzzed and the world around her still felt as if it were being carried on a ship in stormy waters, but the otterwife shook her head and kept her eyes open.

Jenson turned towards her as Minerva pulled the dart from her shoulder and threw it to the side. "Still awake?" the beast asked. "Come on, marm. Make this easy." The otter ignored him, her gaze darting to the forest floor in search of anything that she could maybe use against him. Finallyl, it settled upon a stone lying on the ground. It was impractical, nearly half the size of her head, but it was something.

"Rookie, get back over here," the hedgehog called. He raised his paw to his mouth and let out a sharp whistle. "She's gonna need another dart I think. Bigger beasts sometimes do. Why don't you do the honors? Get some experience?"

Minerva turned as a weasel in blue appeared from the blur and looked towards her with a frightened grimace. "What's... a hedge'og doin'... workin' with vermin... scum?" the otter rasped out in confusion.

Jenson shrugged. "Got a family to feed."

"Then plant... and grow."

"You've your talents, I've got mine. Besides, planting doesn't pay off the collectors." The hedgehog turned to his companion as the weasel lifted his blowgun to his lips. "Right, it's an easy shot. She ain't even moving."

Minerva once more forced her eyelids open, watching as the coward took aim towards her. His paws shook. Her legs trembled. He took the shot.

The dart whizzed through the air, straight and true, before burying itself in a tree trunk behind the otter. Before the inexperienced weasel could load another dart and correct his mistake, Minerva leapt towards the stone and swung it wildly at Jenson, but the hedgehog jumped out of her reach. She flailed her weapon in front of her to ward the slavers off and stumbled backwards, pressing her back against a tree.    

Minerva cursed as the leaves rustled and a third beast, a fox, appeared from the brush, twirling his blowgun in his paws carelessly. "Oy, is this the beasst?"
 
"Aye, to think the Monster of Mossflower Woods..." Jenson started with a cocky smile, "is just some homely otterwife. She's got fight in her though, I'll give her that. Of course, not much left. Maybe we don't need that second dart after all, rookie."

The otter knew he was right. Her eyelids drooped and she had to shake herself to keep awake. The stone in her paws began to slip, but she tightened her grip, knowing if she dropped it all three of the slavers would be on her in an instant. She had to think of a way out. Minerva's eyes bounced between all of them: the careless fox, the inexperienced weasel, and then the hedgehog and his cocky smile.

Minerva let her legs give out then. Stumbling backwards, she fell against the tree behind her and slid down its trunk to her rump. The otter hung her head, murmuring over and over to herself as she shut her eyelids, and her grip on the stone loosened.

"Hrm... See, sometimes it just takes a bit longer to get through bigger beasts' systems," Jenson said. He stepped forward with the manacles.

"Be careful," the rookie advised.

"Nah, she's out like a babe." Jenson crouched over her and stretched the chains, smiling as a whispering murmur reached his ears. He looked towards the otterwife. "I can't hear you, marm. Speak up." The hedgehog leaned his head closer, listening as the whispers became words.

"Stay awake. Stay awake. Stay awake."

Minerva's eyelids snapped open then and, before Jenson could react, the stone collided with his skull with a resounding crack. The careless fox yelped in surprise and his blowgun spun from his paw to the ground. The otter went for him next. Rising to her footpaws, she rushed forward and charged into the vulpine, pinning him against a tree before she brought the stone crashing down on his head. He fell in a heap and didn't get up.

Minerva panted and turned to the weasel. "You were lookin' fer the Monster of Mossflower Woods, right?" she spat, brandishing the bloodied stone. "You found her."

Before the weasel could draw his dagger, the otter swung her weapon into his side and knocked him to the ground. She stood over him and raised the stone.

"I wouldn't do that..."

Minerva turned towards the sound of the voice and a lump rose in her throat. The world shook and churned around the otter, but one thing was clear: a fourth beast, a hulking marteness, had appeared and stood with a sly smile on her face and a dagger in one paw. In her other, cradled in the crook of her arm, was the still form of an ottermaid with a pink flower sewed to her lapel and a dart in her arm.

"Commander Nix!" the weasel gasped. "S-she killed them!"

"Aye, I see that, rookie, but if she's smart, she won't kill anybeast else," the marten stated in a flat tone. She turned the dagger in her paw, placing its point closer to Fable, and looked towards the panting otterwife. "You wouldn't want this pretty flower to lose a petal now, would you?"

Minerva lowered the stone without a word and let it fall to the ground, glaring coldly at the slaver. At a look from his commander, the weasel squirmed out from under her and panted in relief.

"Aye, I thought not." Nix moved closer, smirking when Minerva's cold stare followed her every step. The marten paused, looking quickly at the bloodied stone and the two dead beasts crumpled on the forest floor. "Hellgates," she said with a surprised smile. "Nire's going to love you."

A gleam caught her attention, and Nix turned her head to the fishhook around the otter's neck. "Oh? What do you have there?"

Nix kept her dagger tucked under Fable's chin as she stepped forward with curiosity. Minerva clenched her teeth as the marteness leaned over to get a better look at the object. "Is this how you did the claws and teeth?" she asked with a smile. "Clever."

Without warning, the marteness reached forward with her dagger paw and ripped the cord from around her neck. Minerva snarled and started forward but Nix backed away, waving her weapon. The otterwife glared at the slaver sullenly and stopped. "Give me that back," she growled.

"No, I don't want you poking anybeast's eyes out. I think I'll hang onto it," Nix said. "Besides, this is your end of the trade."

"Trade?" Minerva asked.

Nix ignored her and turned back to the panting weasel.

"Get her in chains, rookie. We've got a long road ahead of us."

~~~¿~~~

It was only after they had secured a set of manacles around Minerva's wrists that she was given back her daughter to carry. Two thin lines of chains extended from the iron collar forced around the otterwife's neck, the ends of each being held by one of the slavers as they led her through the trees. Holding the end behind her, Nix yanked her back whenever she walked too far forward or her eyes strayed, while the weasel made sure she never lagged behind. Minerva held Fable close, keeping their pace as well as she could lest the two vermin thought it a reason to take or threaten the young one again.

Minerva adjusted the unconscious child in her arms. It had been an hour since they started walking and, while the effects of the dart were beginning to wear off on the otterwife, her daughter still hadn't woken. She clenched her teeth, hating how helpless she was, as she braved a question. "How long will it take fer her t' wake up?"

"Depends on the beast usually," came Nix's answer from behind her. "For larger beasts like you or me, it can take a whole two darts before they keel over, and then they're out for at least a few hours. Stronger beasts can take more though. It took three for me." Minerva looked over her shoulder, confused, but a sharp pull at her neck from the marteness reminded her to keep forward. After a pause, Nix continued. "For smaller beasts- mice, shrews, and the like- one dart is usually all it takes to knock them out cold for most of the day. Should be the same for her."

The forest began to thin as they reached the end of it. Even though Fable was unconscious, Minerva instinctively covered the young one's eyes as they passed by the hanging corpses.

Only a season ago, Minerva had been careless and hung one just too close to their farm and Fable came across it while playing. Her poor daughter came running home wailing and it took hours to finally calm her, and, though she assured her that the Monster of Mossflower Woods protected them from bad beasts, she had become plagued with nightmares all the same.

Minerva hung her head. It was her own carelessness that had given Fable her nightmares when she slept, and now it was carelessness that would make them a reality when she woke.

She paused at the end of the wood for only a moment to gaze at the mountains in the distance and the forests beyond. In the many seasons/years she had lived on her farm, she had never left or had the desire to. They had been safe, secure, and comfortable. But it was then, with the tug of a chain at her neck, that the Monster of Mossflower Woods was pulled forcibly from her home and into the world.

At the base of the foothill, there were a mass of beasts who had been captured before her. Each of them stared at Minerva in confusion as she was led past. Even the beasts in blue who stood guard whispered in disbelief amongst themselves.

"Commander Nix," a rat called, rushing to the marten's side. "Is - Is this the Monster? It can't be. Where's Jenson and Bloodfang?"

"Dead," was all Nix said.

The answer only brought forth more whispers and Minerva stole a glance towards  the mass of slaves. Among them she saw mice, hedgehogs, squirrels, and all manner of other goodbeasts. What confused the otterwife however was that a number of vermin stared back at her as well. A tug brought her back facing forward and she pressed on, confused. Why would vermin slavers capture their own kind?

And why would goodbeasts be helping them? As she walked among the clusters of caravans and wagons, Minerva realized that Jenson wasn't just some wayward soul. Among the beasts standing guard, she counted just as many woodlanders in blue uniforms as vermin. Who were these beasts?

A rush of hot air hit her shoulder and it startled Minerva out from her revelry. She turned and then fell backwards, struggling against the collar and chains and nearly shrieking in terror at the creature that loomed over her and Fable. The beast was larger than a badger, standing on four legs, and with short black fur and a mane that trailed down the length of its broad neck and spine. Dark beady eyes hardly blinked at her as it sniffed at the young otter in her paws with its strange flat nose. A set of long dagger-like teeth protruded from the creature's lower jaw and curled around the outside of its snout, and it snorted as Minerva covered her daughter defensively.

Wuh-psshkkk! Nix cracked her whip. "Back! That young 'un isn't for you." The creature squealed as the marteness cracked her whip again and it retreated back away from Minerva, staring at her before turning and ambling away. Nix panted and looped her weapon back around her belt. "Rookie, get her up."

"What- what was that thing?" Minerva stuttered as the weasel pulled her to her feet.

"It's called a boar. Ferocious like a badger in Bloodwrath and more unpredictable. If you've heard of the seals in the Western Sea, boars are similar. They might not be able to talk like you or I, but they're smart as a whip and very good at remembering faces, so you don't want to tick one off," Nix explained. "Oh, and, before you get the idea, Monster, I'd advise you sit tight and throw away any escape plan you might have. Every last one of these creatures is trained to chase after you should you run, and, let me tell you now, they are faster than you, and, whether they bring you back healthy or in a bloodied heap they've never shown much preference."

"Oy, commander. Maybe we should've brought one with us. She'd've surrendered right then, heh," the weasel joked in front of her.

"Or been slain."

Still trembling from her encounter with the boar, Minerva was led towards a cluster of carts near the center of the camp. "Right, this is good," Nix said, pulling her towards an empty one and motioning for the otter to step into it. An iron spike stuck out from the wooden floor of the cart with a short chain fastened to it. Minerva grimaced as the shackle at the end was secured around her footpaw. A sharp tug at her neck forced her to turn and face her captor.

"Now listen here carefully, Monster. You killed two of our scouts. The beasts in the last town back who did that we had stretched and tied to the top of one of the carts to bake in the sun for the day. No food, no water. It's torture to most beasts," Nix said. "What's torture to me though is a wailing child who can't find their mother. So play nice and keep her quiet, and I'll forgive you this once, otherwise I can always put her up there instead."

Minerva growled. "You vermin are scum."

"I don't know what world you're living in," Nix said with a snort, "but everybeast is scum. You're going to find that out quick in the Crater." Minerva gasped as the collar fell from her neck. The marteness passed it and the chains to the weasel. "Put those back in storage and tell everybeast we're done here. It's time to go home."

The marten strode away then, leaving Minerva alone.       

The otterwife groaned, rubbing at her sore neck. She walked to the center of the cart and leaned down to inspect the spike in the floor. It was firmly nailed down and, no matter how hard she pulled on it or the chain, neither budged. And where would she have gone if it had? If what Nix had said was true, then the boars would be on her the moment she tried to run. And with a child...

Minerva slumped to the floor and held her head low in defeat, tears beginning to trickle down her face. She shook them away quickly. Hope may have been gone for the both of them, but she had to stay strong for Fable's sake. "It's gonna be okay, sweetheart, it's gonna be okay. I won't let nothin' happen t' ye," she rehearsed, stroking her daughter's head and holding her close.

From the edge of her vision, Minerva caught sight of another slave kneeling in the grass near the cart. The beast, a female stoat, stared at her and Fable as if in a trance. "Keep yer eyes t' yerself, vermin," the otter growled at her.

The trance was broken then and the stoat blinked twice before scowling at her and turning away. Minerva glared at her a moment longer before looking back to her daughter.

The cart shifted with a slight weight as another beast climbed within it. It was a vole carrying a quill and bottle of ink in her paws, and wearing a dark linen cloak with intricate golden designs of poppy flowers stitched along its hem that the otterwife couldn't help but admire. Seeing though that she wore no chains, Minerva remembered Jenson and protectively pulled Fable closer.

"Are ye one of them?" she growled.

"I'm not wearing blue, am I?" the vole answered. "No, I'm a prisoner like you. My name is Adeen Tullus.  That marten, Nix, caught sight of my tools, so I'm tasked with taking inventory. It's not so bad, I suppose. It staves off boredom and helps me know my fellow captives. May I know you?"

The otter stared at Adeen suspiciously before sighing. "Minerva," she answered. The vole pulled a scroll from the bandolier she wore and unfurled it, before dipping her quill in ink and beginning to write. Several seconds passed as the scribe scratched her quill against the parchment, dipping its point into her ink well multiple times. More seconds passed, and Minerva spoke. "I'm not really the learned type, but even I know my name don't take that long t' write."

"My apologies. If a beast has a title, I was told to include it as well," Adeen answered.

"A title?"

"Yes. You are the Monster of Mossflower Woods, correct?" she said, more of a statement than a question. The vole continued writing, speaking as she did, "On nights when my twins fussed, it was always tales of the Monster that stilled them." She paused there, staring at her inkwell in silence for a few moments before setting it to the side. "The Monster of Mossflower was the first queen of the forest, before Martin took up the sword, before vermin were vermin and woodlanders were woodlanders. She shared its bounty with nobeast, and decorated her boundaries with fallen poachers. Tired of losing their hunters, the goodbeasts of the plains banded together and took back Mossflower tree by tree. Though defeated, the goodbeasts showed mercy and left her one last grove which she jealously guards. Those who wander near are taken...or worse."

Minerva couldn't help but smile at the sheer enthusiasm in the vole's words.

"But some days, 'days like this one', her hunger for revenge swells, and she searches for naughty pups who stray from their parents. 'So, hold my paw, little ones, and mind your manners, lest the Monster decide to come for you tonight,'" Adeen finished. "That was my version at least. Others had different stories, though I'm sure none ever even considered you were just an otter, and a mother at that."

"Aye, that was the idea. It kept beasts away, kept us safe for a good long time. Until now at least." Minerva looked over the vole and asked a question of her own. "Did these scum take your children as well?"

"No."

"That's good t' hear," Minerva said with a sigh of relief.

"No," the vole said again. "They've passed."

"Oh," the otter said, shamefully looking away. "I didn't realize. I'm... I'm sorry."

"It's fine." Adeen picked up her quill. "May I ask your age?"

"Thirty-two."

"Height?"

"Three taillengths."

"Weight?"

"What sort of slavers need to know my weight?" Minerva asked. Remembering what Nix told her, the otter asked another question. "That marten said we were bein' taken to the Crater? What's the Crater? Who are these beasts? Do ye know?"

"Have you not heard of it?" Adeen wondered. "It's a grisly place- an arena- ran by a beast named Nire Borean. Every season his scouts search for reputable beasts, strong fighters and the like, so that they may be captured and made to fight one another to the death."

Tearing beasts from their lives and homes to fight to the death? What sort of evil beast would do that? Slavery was heinous but Minerva at least understood the purpose. What purpose did this serve?

Minerva asked the question on her mind.

"Entertainment. From Southsward to the Highlands, beasts travel to see the show Nire's 'gladiators' put on. Some to cheer for the winners and champions, others... to watch beasts fall," the vole explained. "The spectacle fills Nire's pockets as his fighters fill graves."

"Fills his pockets with what?"

Adeen looked towards the otter in confusion. "Copper, silver, gold. Money."

Minerva furrowed her brow. "What's money?"

Adeen gave her the same look. "How long have you been in those woods?"

Before the otterwife could answer, a blue-uniformed rat beat on the side of the cart and shouted towards Adeen. "Oy! We're movin', mud mouse! Finish yer bus'ness and report back t' Commander Nix afore I put ye back in chains and drag ye there myself."

The vole turned to Minerva and began to pack away her tools. "I must go. They won't make you walk until the morning so, I'd suggest you try and sleep now before your child wakes. It'll be hard to carry her when she tires if you're just as exhausted."

"Wait!" Minerva called. She held Fable tight to her chest. "And what about her? I can fight. But her? She's hardly more than a babe."

Adeen paused mid pack and visibly gave the matter some thought.

"I don't know. Stay strong and keep her close for now."

Without another word, the vole left her alone.

Minerva slumped back down to the floor of the cart and stroked Fable's head. Cradling the young otter, she remembered just how tired that dart had made her. Adeen was right. She needed to sleep so that she could stay strong.

But despite the fact that her daughter slept now in ignorance to their troubles, Minerva knew as she let her eyelids slip closed that it would be her having nightmares this night.

~~~¿~~~

Fable's eyelids fluttered open when the morning sun was just beginning to crest the horizon. "Good mornin', young 'un. Did ye sleep well?" Minerva stroked her daughter's head as she yawned and looked around her.

"Where are we?" she mumbled, seeing the cart walls.

Minerva felt a light tug at the chain on her leg, turning to see a blue-wearing beast looking at her expectantly. The otterwife looked back at the young otter and smiled. "We're goin' on a little trip."

The weeks following were long and tiring as the slavers led their charges towards the Crater. From dawn to dusk they were forced to walk while scouts, riding on the backs of boars, circled around the procession and kept guard. Minerva did her best to keep Fable calm during the journey, carrying her when she grew tired, playing guessing games, and telling stories. The stoat slave from before sung quietly to herself, and Minerva copied the tunes of her songs, humming them to her daughter and stroking her head in the times it looked like she was about to cry. In the evenings when they were made to stop, she would take the flowers Fable collected during their walking and sew them quickly to her lapel when nobeast was looking.

All the while, the otter's observant gaze passed over every tree and blade of grass as she searched for anything that she could maybe use to help the both of them escape. But with every step, escape grew to be less of a possibility, and eventually the dreaded Crater came into view and the gates were shut behind them.

"...and what a show you're going to give us."

The words of Nire Borean's speech echoed through Minerva's head as she was yanked roughly to the sandy floor of the arena. Hardly a moment after the lynx finished speaking, Nix's guards swept through the crowd of slaves and began forcing collars around the necks of everybeast who didn't have one. The otterwife jumped back to her feet, biting and snapping at the two guards in front of her who had dared pluck the crying Fable from her grasp and were now forcing one of the collars around her neck. Another beast, clutching a length of chain, desperately held Minerva back as she struggled.

Just before the collar was sealed around her daughter's neck, the otter lurched forward and the chain slipped out from her guard's paws. The other two stumbled backwards in surprise as Minerva rushed towards them and swept Fable tightly into her arms. She wiped away the young one's tears and snarled at the both of them. "Keep yer paws away from my daughter, you scum."

Slaves and guards alike stared slack jawed towards the spectacle as another one of the Crater guards took hold of the otter's leash and tried to yank her back, but Minerva dug her heels into the sand and held firm. More guards rushed towards the scene and somebeast tried to call for another to bring a dart, but then a different voice rose out among the crowd and halted everybeast.

"That's enough."

Nire Borean made his way towards the conflict with a strange mixed look of satisfaction and impatience on his face as his eyes darted between the two struggling beasts. The lynx cocked his head towards Minerva, who clenched her teeth at him and held Fable protectively against her chest. He smiled at the young otter before clasping his paws behind his back and looking to the guard.

"Is there a problem here?"

"Sorry, Mr. Borean. Blasted wench ain't lettin' us collar the young 'un," the guard said, nearly stumbling forward as the chain in his paws was yanked hard by the otterwife.

Nire smiled with curiosity. Turning, he scanned through the crowd of beasts until he found a familiar pine marten. "Commander Nix," he called. "If I may ask, who is this 'blasted wench?' Where did you find her?"

"You won't believe this, sir, but that's the 'Monster of Mossflower Woods'," Nix answered, stepping to his side and crossing her arms.

"You can't be serious." Nire's smiled faltered. "Travelers said that those bodies were ravaged by claws and teeth. How am I supposed to sell that this otterwife is the Monster of Mossflower Woods?"

Nix shook her head. "That 'otterwife' is covered in scars and killed two of my best beasts with a bloody rock."

"And why did nobeast shoot her with a dart?"

"They did."

"Oh. Well... that is interesting," Nire said, clutching his chin in thought. The smile returned as the lynx looked towards the struggling otterwife and the crying child in her arms with a gleam in his eye. "Maybe you won't be so hard to sell after all. In fact, I think I came up with the perfect story.

Nire looked to the guard beside him, still clutching the chain. "Hold that. Don't let her run." The lynx plucked the dagger from the beast's belt and pointed its blade towards three random guards. "You, you, and you..." He tested the sharpness of the blade with a claw. "...bring me the cub."

"What?" Minerva muttered. Immediately the otter turned and struggled against the chain, but three other guards quickly grabbed its end and pulled. She tripped to her knees in the sand and scrambled to grab her daughter, holding her close and covering her underneath her body. Another tug from the chain pulled her off and the three guards seized Fable as she screamed and dragged her towards Nire.

"No, no! Please." Minerva could only watch as the lynx took the screaming child and tickled her chin with the point of the knife.

Nire's smile faded once more, and he spoke in a grave tone as he glared at the otterwife. "Imagine if the Monster of Mossflower Woods had her child stolen from her, taken from this world by the edge of a cruel knife when she rebelled against our scouts. She vows revenge against them and the Crater, but is dragged to the very source of her misery to do battle for the beasts she despises. Yes, that'd be a good story, I think."

Fable shut her eyes and wailed as Nire drew the knife blade towards her neck.

"Please! Don't!" Minerva screamed, tears dripping into the sand. "What do ye want?"

Nire tossed the knife to the side. "I want a good show and that requires cooperation." The lynx passed the young otter over to Nix and then leaned to pick up the fallen collar. "Very soon, this arena will be filled with creatures from Northvale and beyond, all of whom have paid me a lot of money to see you and every other beast here. I simply can't afford delays or inconveniences just because some slave doesn't want to wear their collar. No, I need everybeast to be ready to do exactly as I ask, when I ask.

"Like this." Nire tossed the collar into the sand in front of Minerva. "Put that on your daughter. Now."

Minerva hesitantly took the collar and rose to her footpaws. Trudging towards Fable, she knelt to her level before wiping away the young one's tears with her sleeve. She stroked the back of her head tenderly. "I love you. I'm so sorry." With a click, the otterwife snapped the collar tightly around her daughter's neck.

"Good," Nire said. He then addressed one of the guards. "Get the young one back in line."

"What? No!" Minerva shouted, holding her daughter tightly. "She's stayin' with me."

"If she stays with you, she'll be taken to the gladiator pens and will be treated like a gladiator. She'll have to fight in the arena, and something tells me she won't last long," Nire said. "Let her go."

Fable buried her head in her mother's chest. "I don't wanna go."

"I know. I know, but you have to." Minerva held Fable close and hugged her tightly, knowing well that it could be the very last time she did. "Just do as they ask. Don't cause trouble. Everything will be okay, I promise."

Minerva let go then and painful memories stirred within her as Fable was taken away into the crowd, with no way of knowing if she would ever see her again. It was an all too familiar sight and a pit hollowed in the otter's stomach as she remembered that fateful moment. Raising her paw to her neck, she felt an emptiness.

Realizing what it was that was missing, she turned to Nire. "If ye want me t' play yer game. There's somethin' I need."

"And what is that?" Nire asked.

"That marten, Nix, took somethin' of mine. I want it back."

Nire rolled his eyes. "Nix, if you would kindly return her possessions."

The pine marten reached into her pocket and pulled out Minerva's silver fishhook. "It was sharp. She could have taken out somebeast's eye. You're just gonna let her have it?"

"Please. What sort of damage could she do with that? Besides, I'm sure she won't try anything silly like that. Will you?" Nire asked with a chuckle.

Minerva shook her head and snatched the cord away from Nix. She growled at Nire. "If you hurt her-"

"Will you give me a reason to?" Nire warned. "Or will you play your part?"

Minerva was quiet, considering. "And what is my part?"

"You're the Monster of Mossflower Woods. When beasts fill the seats of the Crater, I want you to live up to that name. Give them a show to remember. But most importantly..."

Minerva tied her fishhook tightly around her neck.

"...I want to hear them chant your name."
9
Contest Discussion / Re: Storyteller's Vigil
« Last post by Tooley Bostay on July 24, 2017, 04:04:00 PM »
Quote
I'd love hearing a bit about how you're considering contest entries from here on out.

"Does their character fascinate/interest/hook me? Do I want to read more of their story, or see more of them in the contest? Do I love their interactions with the cast, and want to see more from those bonds/conflicts?" Ultimately, it's that simple. If I like your character, Top 10, then I'm going to want to see them remain in the story. Of course, liking your character doesn't mean that they are a likable character, per say. As I mentioned many times in my reviews, it's more about empathy. If I can empathize with their story and character conflicts.

Everything else is just fluff. How well they play the Survivor "game," how amazing their craft is, etc. If the story isn't there, then it doesn't matter what else is.

Quote
So, what kind of format will you use?

Gut reactions off my first read. I just don't have the time for anything more. Each of those app reviews took 2+ hours to write, and I can't afford that for every single post of the story. Take this as an opportunity to practice making a good first impression with your writing, Top 10, since the vast majority of readers who ever view your work will judge it purely based off that first read.
10
Contest Discussion / Re: Survival Guide IV
« Last post by Matra Hammer on July 24, 2017, 08:02:45 AM »
I promised my voting spread and I'm giving you my voting spread. Not continuously throughout the contest, but from the app phase. Think of this as an after-the-fact category wrap up.

But first, though I'm not discussing or showing my vote throughout the contest, I will reiterate my voting criteria. These are the same guidelines I used for the previous three MOs, and I copied them straight from my old review threads. Follow them if you wish. Use them for a tie breaker if you're stuck one week. Or do your own thing, because there are no rules for voting beyond "one beast one vote," "be honest," and "don't play games."

###

How Does Matra Vote?

The magic of threes has me firm by the haunches. When weighing the success of a contestant there are - gasp - three questions I consider.

1- How strong is the author's writing?

2- How has their character developed?

3- How has the author/character influenced the game?

###

Tah dah. In order of personal importance preference as well.

Now, onto the meat. Looks like I nailed only 4/10. Make of that what you will.

How Did Matra Vote - App Edition

Beast with a Secret

Black Jasmine

An easy choice. I'm not sure there's another app in the entire pool which made me say "Why? Why!?" more than Jasmine. For some this "Why" was one of disgust and fear because they couldn't get beyond the details - a giant point in her favor since the writing invoked feelings. For me, I wanted to know why this thing acted the way it did. Was she even a rat? Was her feasting a choice? Most importantly: what would happen when she's in the arena, a confined space with violent beasts? Wonderful questions the other Secrets only tentatively provoked - Thrayjen's buried thing/past and Nokki's boy's night out.


The Traveler

Diamond

A personal choice for two reasons. 1: I'm an out-and-out sucker for physically strong women - see also my gushing concerning Vanessa Fern in MO1. 2: The other Travelers were beasts talking in a tavern. Hate me as you will, but I will wave the banner of "uninspired" and "a wasted opportunity" until my arms fall off, until the horse is properly composted. 2 aside, Diamond also brought a few emphatic links Jarl and Komi did not deliver. You feel bad for this try hard fox. You want her to succeed. The other two apps were a liar lying and Jane Bond dispatching redshirts.


The Thief

Adeen Pinebarrow

Tooley just about said all I would say in his recent review, forest walk metaphor and everything. Still, this was a much closer vote than I anticipated. Some days I enjoyed Lacey's app more because of the inherent lightness, and the fox's easy going nature would weave well in the arena. Most days Adeen kept the top slot for the writing alone, the weaving of devices and on-point descriptions. The tie breaker for me was when I asked myself "Okay, should you vote on just what's there or what could happen?" I went with what could happen, because Adeen is rife with history, implications, and possibilities. Lacey was just a con artist fighting her conscience.


The Healer

Jasper Hooklaw

Another easy vote for me. Jasper hit all the right buttons. He's a beast with personality, a hint of a backstory, strengths, weaknesses, and a manner worth following into the dark. Plus the scene ran active and gripping. The only part I didn't like about Jasper was the insert "oh, he's good with swords." Kentrith carried a high place in my heart too for the brass alone. A scene right with Nire? Risky, and I'm apt to reward risk even if it's not a 100% payoff. However, Jasper is too complete and too on point. Maeve is interesting but this is Chopped levels of consideration. A few formatting and grounding issues were more than enough to cut her from the running.


Beast with the Gift of Gab

Sly Speakeasy

The first difficult category for me because the knife of consideration cut so very thin between them. At one point I made an excel spreadsheet with a row of "does this app contain backstory/skilled devices/serious errors/etc" and a column for each character. Hoober fell out of the running pretty past because he's a lot like Faye in his "Here I am, I'm doing this, what's going on here, off I go." When caught between a vole with an entertaining progression and only a smidge of a backstory, and a bat of preference and depth hobbled by a slower scene? I ended up picking french fries over the seasoned and oven baked red potato medallions. Tastes might've changed if I'd voted on another day, when I wanted a more satisfying meal.


Beast Driven by Revenge

Tope Benwrath

My least or second-to-least favorite category. A common rat gets interviewed. An angry fox beats in some faces. A stilted stoat explains his game. One in a field, two in a tavern. They each got a coin in their buckets for different reasons - plight of the commoner is nice, I like angry strong women, and weird rituals are wonderful. What settled me on Tope is what settled me on a lot of my votes: the ritual tickled my imagination. How would this system work in an arena? What would Tope do if forced to fill the other bag, of if the bags were taken from him? What happens if he kills a goodbeast BEFORE his system allows him?


Beast Driven by Love

Ander

Wipe the surprise off your face. Blu and Minerva are both characters I resonate with, on the personal and as a writer. Blu deserved all the credit for showing a mother grinding through all the steps of protection and self-preservation in the face of utter hell. Minerva deserved all the applause for implying so much in an app, and keeping my interest, though very little meat appears. What settled me on Ander, who is not as well written as Minerva or as emphatic as Blu? The imagination factor again. I knew off the bat what would happen with Minerva and Blu. They're moms who will do anything. Ander is a wonderful wild card with some harsh lessons to learn.


The Silly Beast

Kali

Kali is not my favorite app of the pool, but she is certainly in the top five. It's been a very long time since an app caught me off guard AND made me laugh out loud. The screeching, the enthusiasm in the face of the obvious, and the personal goal stated from the onset? Excellent. The writing is a little wobbly when compared with her only competition, but in no way did Kali's author get an easy paw into the contest. I genuinely look forward to seeing what this bat will do, in the ways I wanted to see what dbag Ander influence the game.


Beast who Makes Things

Aldridge Moor

Maybe the toughest choice even with the narrowed field. They're both so complete and lovingly crafted. This is the classic Cake or Pie situation. Normally I'd say "who cares, we're eating dessert either way." The Pie of Aldridge is in his risky tense approach, in showing a slice of life over a tense and traumatic moment. The Cake of Strathcomb came in the 100% traditional and subtle-yet-impactful character development. Again, I'm apt to reward risk over anything, and Aldridge's author tried something new (maybe even intentionally) and won my vote for their effort.


The Beast Who May or May Not be Crazy

Leota Nettlekin

My least or second-to-least favorite category. I'm with Tooley's assessment 100% on this one: none of these beasts fit the category. This matters whether you agree or not. In MOs before this issue brought flak on many an app for shoehorning in their category's focus. I see no gray in any of these beasts. A snake is a snake, a cannibal is a cannibal, and a dumb hare is a dumb hare. Whereas Tooley went for the Wild Card of Azalea, I went for the clear display of skill tinged with possibility in Leota. She'd affect change with her age alone. Kentigern is out for blood, plain and simple. Azalea is a snake. Yeah, went for the nuttier nut, because otherwise it's just "the two beasts who're just themselves."
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