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51
Round Seven / Interlude: When it All Comes Crashing Down
« Last post by Minerva on November 14, 2017, 05:41:14 PM »
"This is ridiculous."

"Such a great speech and yet Mister Borean still can't handle these trifling pests. And now there's a dead beast too. If he can't put a stop to these beasts, who's to say he can protect us?"

"I don't know, but if Nire can't handle this, well, then maybe... maybe it's time for a new beast to take over."

Booming thunder crashed outside the walls of the Crater, but it did little to deafen Nire Borean's ears to the criticisms of his guests. The lynx sat leaned over in his chair with his paws folded upon the flat of his desk, the words echoing in his head as he waited for word from his guard.

In the corner of the room, Blasio sat in his own chair, nibbling patiently on the ends of a twig, while Commander Nix waited by the door. The pine marten frowned, her claws coiled like serpents around her swordhilt.

Chuckling, Blasio broke the silence. "You're going to frighten Nire like a kit the way you're choking that sword, Maiden," the beaver said with a smirk towards the marteness.

"No harm in staying prepared," Nix said.

"I suppose not." Blasio rolled the twig in his mouth. "Knowing you, though, I'd hardly be surprised if you turned that sword on your master once FTN came knocking on that door."

As the lynx's cold stare fixed upon her, Nix narrowed her glare towards Blasio. "Don't you dare question my loyalty, Timberfell. I'd never ally myself with child murderers." The marteness turned and met Nire's gaze. "You've sent guards to check on the prisoners... and my son?"

Nire only nodded, returning his eyes to the door. A few moments later, somebeast knocked rapidly on the frame, and the lynx's ears perked up. "How many was that? Six?" he asked quickly.

"Yes, sir."

"Open it."

Nix kept her paw ready on her sword hilt as she unlatched the lock on the door and pulled it open. Three guards, a rat, a weasel, and a stoat, strode into the room, the lynx keeping his eyes fixed on each of them as they made their report.

"Master Nire, sir, the stables were in flames before we got there and the boars have all scattered in panic. Some of them are still in the Crater but most of them have fled towards the mountains or into Northvale," the stoat, taking up the front, said.

Nire grimaced. "Has anybeast been hurt?"

"Aye, sir, there were a few guards who-"

"I don't care about the guards!" The room nearly shook from Nire's shout. "Is anybeast from Northvale hurt?"

The stoat tugged at the collar of his uniform. "I- I don't know."

"Don't you think that would be important to find out?" Nire snapped.

The lynx clenched his teeth as he thought of the destruction the escaped boars would cause to the town. No doubt, if he did nothing, then there would be a panic and many innocent beasts would be hurt or killed. Nire scowled and slammed his fist against the flat of the table. He was playing right into FTN's paws, but what choice did he have?

"Organize a party of guards and handlers and go into Northvale. Take as many sleep darts as you possibly can and get those creatures under control before they have the chance to kill somebeast. Do it now."

"Aye, yes, sir." Nix stepped to the side as the stoat saluted and beat an urgent and hasty retreat towards the door.
Nire looked to the other two guards. "And you two. Are the prisoners safe?"

Nix turned her ear to the two guards as they glanced towards one another, then to Nire. "Aye, they're safe."

"But they also weren't there. There's not a trace of any of the young 'uns. They're gone."

"What do you mean, they're gone?" Nire growled. The lynx noticed Blasio shift in his seat, and a light betray itself in Nix's eyes.

"Escaped, sir. Apparently FTN already came and snuck the lot of them out."

"And how do you know that?" Nix said, putting a paw on her swordhilt and narrowing her gaze at the weasel.

The guard turned to the marteness and returned her glare. A moment later a sly smile crept on his snout and he turned back to Nire. "Because... not all of them got away."

Nire folded his paws on his desk. "Go on."

The weasel nudged the rat beside him and the rodent left briefly, returning seconds later shoving a bound pine marten in front of him into the office. Nix's heart skipped a beat as she met the eyes of her son. "Marik? No."

The young marten said nothing to his mother as he willingly walked to the center of the room, keeping his eyes fixed calmly on the lynx in front of him.

"I would have expected your spawn to be smarter than to be a traitor, Nix," Nire said flatly, standing from his chair with a knife in his paw.

"Nire, please," Nix begged. "He's still a child. He's young, he's foolish and gave in to that group's bloody lies."

"And yet, my hostages are still gone!" Nire screamed. He turned to the young marten and stepped towards him with the blade. "Where are they?" he growled.

Marik met the cold eyes of the lynx fearlessly. "Like you said, they're gone. Safe, away from you, where you can't threaten them ever again. Those leashes you once held on their parents, they're gone."

Nire pressed the point of the knife to Marik's neck. "Not all of them." The lynx looked towards Nix.

The marteness looked back to her son, terrified and frozen.  "Mom," Marik said, "you can end this right now. Just draw your sword. He won't do it. He's too much of a coward to bloody his own paws."

As if the words were blade themselves, Nire flinched. He recovered and scowled. "You're not the first to say that, so, perhaps it's time I prove everybeast wrong..." Lunging forward suddenly, Nire dealt the young marten a hefty blow across his snout. Marik's unbalanced footpaws gave way under him and he fell hard to the floor. Nire was already over him, and both marten's screamed as the lynx delivered a hard kick into Marik's crippled back.

Panting, Nire grabbed the sobbing Marik by the scruff and dragged him back to his feet, pressing the knife back to his throat.

"Now, do you think I won't kill him?" he shouted at Nix. "He's right. You can end this now and, if you care about your son at all, you will. You're to remind FTN why you're called the Iron Maiden. Bring me Lady Eve's head."

"Mom," Marik rasped. "Draw your sword... and fight."

But Marik's hope fell as his mother trembled and turned away from him towards the door. "I will. I know whose fault this is," she said. "Nire, I'll bring you more than her head. Just don't hurt him, please."

"Mom, you can't mean..." Marik trailed off, staring dejectedly at the floor. "You're such a coward."

Nix's paw froze on the door handle for a moment, then she turned it and shut the door behind her.

 "The wonderful thing about cowards, Mister Marik," Nire said, "is that they know how to survive." The lynx gestured to the other guards. "Prepare a cell for this traitor. If he escapes, it'll be on your heads, not his." Marik looked to Nire in disbelief.

The guards started forward but Nire stopped them with a raised claw.

"Oh... and if you'd do the same for Blasio Timberfell."

It was the beaver's turn to be surprised. Nearly leaping up from his chair, he raised a brow at the lynx. "What- what are you saying, Nire. What's the meaning of this?" he choked.

"You lied to me," Nire said simply. "You told me FTN planned to kill the children, and yet, now I'm hearing they spirited them away. The Monster wasn't lying was she?"

"Nire, I'd advise you to reconsider," Blasio said. The lynx eyed him with fury as the guards continued to advance on him until, a moment later, the beaver sighed. "I was hoping it wouldn't have to come to this, Nire. Bariston, if you would."

The weasel guard, Bariston, nodded at the beaver. Immediately, he drew his sword and drove it deep into the other guard's back, sputtering a geyser of blood from the wound. In the corner of the room, both Marik and Nire gave startled yells as the guard gurgled in pain before slumping forward lifelessly upon the carpet.

Seconds later, Nire recovered from the shock of the murder he just witnessed and looked towards Blasio in a newfound fear. "You..."

Blasio pulled a fresh twig from the inner pocket of his vest and set it into his mouth. "You should really pay your
beasts better, Nire. Otherwise you may find them on some other beast's payroll."

"What do you want," Nire growled. The lynx pushed Marik away from him to the floor, and brandished his knife defensively in front of him.

"Relax, Nire, you can put that away," the beaver said with a gesture of his paw. "I'm not some FTN beast here to bring justice upon you or any of that nonsense. What I want is simple. I want the Crater."

Despite his fear, Nire couldn’t help but smirk. “And why would I do that?”

“Because, as we speak, all of your slaves and gladiators are mobilizing, readying themselves to hunt you down. And what have you to defend yourself with? A split army- a quarter of which are mine- a mad pine marten, a spider, and a knife. Face it, Nire, you’ve already lost this battle,” Blasio said. The beaver paused before smiling slyly. “Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. You could still win this battle if you wanted to. All it would take is a word.”

Nire stayed dead silent as the beaver continued. “I have a total of five score beasts helping FTN as ‘volunteers.’ At a word from me- and a signature from you- I could very easily have them turn their blades against FTN. It’d be quick, simple. Not a one of them would see it coming, the gullible fools. And, I’m sure that Northvale would celebrate such dangerous terrorists being expunged from their city. I’d take the credit though, of course, and I’m sure the beasts of Northvale would herald me as a bloody hero, heh heh. The beast who succeeded where Nire failed. My pockets would be filled for life.”

“No.”

Blasio stared at the lynx in disbelief. “What? No?”

Nire snorted. “I’d never give away the Crater. Especially not to a passionless beast like you. You’d only hold care for the coin, not the sport. The Crater would crumble with you in the Podium.” The lynx shook his head. “No. I built this place with my own paws. I saw it rise. If it’s to fall, I’ll see that, too, but it won’t be without a fight.”

“Whether you win that fight or not won’t matter, Nire,” the beaver spat. “If you say no, the Crater will crumble regardless. I’ve made sure of that.”

In the corner of the room, Marik looked wide-eyed at the beaver and at Nire. “What’s he talking about?”

Blasio pulled a slip of parchment from the inner pocket of his vest and tossed it lightly at the lynx. Nire caught it with ease and folded it open, his eyes scanning over the words scrawled upon the surface and then the four names and stamps signed at the bottom. “You forged my signature,” he observed, folding the letter closed. “So, that’s your plan? You’ve made a dam ? I assume you were the one who destroyed the pumps then?”

“Of course.”

“Beasts are going to die,” Nire said. “I take it Aroway will take the fault for that?”

“Him and FTN, yes. So filled with rage at the Crater that they purposely rallied Northvale to be their expendables… knowing it would soon collapse. Despicable.” Blasio smirked. “If any of them survive the collapse, it’ll be with nooses around their necks. Especially after everything else they’ve done.”

“Everything you’ve done!” Marik shouted.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Blasio said with a smile at the bound marten. “I was just as panicked as everybeast else. But, in fact, I stayed brave, and I pulled several beasts from the destruction.” He looked back to Nire. “It won’t take me long to rebuild the Crater. And with you and FTN out of the picture, I’m sure I’ll be welcomed as its head.”

Nire flicked the parchment back at the beaver’s feet. “I wish you the best with that, Timberfell,” he scowled. “But, until then, the Crater remains mine, just as it will remain mine when this is over. So, what do you say to that? Do you plan to kill me?

Blasio shook his head and gestured for Bariston to put away his sword. "No. No. In truth, I respect you Nire. What you've built here is truly impressive. I'd have trouble sleeping for the next night or two if I did you in. But that won't stop FTN of course and, by the end of today, I'll be the Lord of the Crater regardless of what you do. Give it some thought. If you reconsider, find me."

Without another word, Blasio left the seething cat alone in his office. The beaver smiled to himself as he strode down the corridors of the Crater, his eyes glinting over the old banners and dusty arches. Everything could use a fresh coat of paint, he knew, but that could wait for later. The Crater was his, now all he needed to do was wait.

52
Round Seven / Choices Made in Mercy
« Last post by Thrayjen on November 13, 2017, 09:09:00 PM »
Thunder roared alongside the deep tolling of the town bell. Every note rolled through Thrayjen’s bones, wailing that Komi had made her choice and Free The North would take its prize through fear and pain.

“Banton’s done it. We need to move.”

Rinam looked up at the rat’s solemn words while Blue, only half listening as she watched the stands hum with activity beneath the defiled banner. Thick smoke wafted into the air, dissipating into a dark sky.

“You’re back?” The ferret frowned. “I told you to go to the infirmary and have what’s left of your face looked at! I’m not sure if the tournament is goin’ to continue today, but they’re callin’ beasts up top to help with the flames, even the ones still bailin’ the flooded tunnels. You better see Poil or your mouse friend before we get grabbed. Let me see that eye again…”

“Blue,” Thrayjen said, gently batting away her paw that reached towards his face. “The stables are on fire. The boars are rampaging throughout Northvale. The banner. It’s the FTN. They’re here to win today. We need to leave the Drag.

Without missing a beat, Blue immediately began towards the door. “The trainin’ yard and archery range are mostly stone and mortar. They should…wait. Wait, ‘Banton’s done it’? What does that mean, what did the Coward do?” Blue’s eyes narrowed at the bloodied rat before her. “The FTN, she’s FTN? Did you know she was goin’ to do somethin’?”

Thrayjen nodded. Blue reached for her shortsword. She hesitated, paw just over the hilt.

“Are you one of them? This whole time…Nire treated you well. I treated you well!”

“I’m not a member of any organized rebellion, Blue. Absolutely not.”

“Why should I believe you?” Blue snapped.

“I don’t approve of their methods,” Thrayjen said flatly. “The Blackwhiskers would, but I don’t. Those boars are horrifying creatures. My father would organize scores of beasts in a single hunting party just for a set of tusks. Anyone who sets them loose upon innocents, no matter their motivations...I can’t stand beside them.”

The ferret stared at the rat for a long moment before thrusting her chin at Rinam.

“And you? You knew?”

“I knew of a choice the Coward could make. I hoped she would choose otherwise.”

Blue’s paw hovered as she thought. Her eyes raced between the two gladiators as she bit her lip.

“I didn’t stop her because I can’t stand for the enslavement Nire imposes, nor the bloodlust he encourages, nor the indifference to violence and murder,” Thrayjen pressed. “We could have changed the town, day by day, ended this differently, but Komi chose. It’s why I didn’t tell her Aldridge is alive.”

Blue’s eyes widened.

“For now,” Thrayjen said firmly, “We need to stay safe while whatever happens...happens.”

“I think I knew,” Blue mumbled, blinking. “Before he...faked his death, Aldridge asked me to do somethin’. His story, about the vole and where he’d been keepin’ her, I knew he was lyin’, aye. I knew it! I confronted him about it.”

The ferret swallowed and looked down. “He didn’t deny anythin’ or make any excuses or lie. Not like you, Thrayjen. He just asked me to choose where I want to stand. You’re askin’ me now, too. I’m not even surprised, when I think about it. He was always a trouble maker.”

She grinned, shaking her head.

“Askin’ me to choose between my life and a rabble of slaves. What would my ol’ Pa say?”

“Asking you to choose between right and wrong, Blue,” Thrayjen replied. “And I think I know what he’d say. Your father fled tyranny to save you; he’d do anything to help his children, and that meant leaving his way of life behind.”

“The stoatess made a choice, and you can as well,” Rinam added. Her eyes flickered outside where Nire had risen from his seat and was delivering an announcement to the spectators. “Now is the time to help save lives instead of taking them for once.”

“What would you have me do, aye?” Blue asked skeptically. “Murder my own peers?”

“Just leave,” Thrayjen said. “Leave, and don’t look back. Like your father. That’s safest.”

The ferret twisted a polished button on her pressed uniform, staring at him with blue eyes. Her claws stilled.

“Aye. But I’m gettin’ my brother first.”

Thrayjen lead them through the hallway, past the dry baths where the sluices no longer pumped water, until they emerged into the Drag.

Shouts were ringing throughout the halls, competing with the ever-ringing bell and the noise of the spectators in the Crater. Bearing collars and blue uniforms alike, beasts ran in every direction, hauling sacks of sand or passing buckets of water from the kitchens up a chain of paws. A cracked wall leaked water, a small trickle flowing hurriedly downwards.

Thrayjen made a path through the bedlam, up the hallway until the hollering was softened by walls and the floor began to slope up.

“What you said about the bowyery was right,” Thrayjen said to Blue as they walked. “It’ll be safe from fire but I must get Foxglove.” The rat looked at Rinam. “The Barrow folk are with the FTN. No doubt they were waiting for something like this to act. The FTN will show their presence again, I’m sure, using the boars and the fire as a distraction to sneak slaves out. Keep a sharp eye for allies and opportunities and we’ll make it out.”

A terrible squealing noise flattened their ears to their heads as loose stones began to shake from powerful vibrations. Ahead of them, where the corridor widened into a split landing, several shrieking beasts turned sharply into the open doorway and heedlessly barreled by. The rat swore under his breath, watching after the fleeing creatures until another squeal snapped his attention away.

A boar, enormous and tusked, barreled past the doorway, his tusks scraping the side of the stone walls. The rat ran forward, ignoring the protests of his companions, and stuck his head past the threshold of the archway to peer with his single usable eye. The boar heard him and tried to turn around, but its frightening tusks trapped it on a single path. It kicked and bucked, squealing in rage and it tossed its body to and fro. A stone hooked, the boar lurched forward, and an entire wall collapsed from the force of the giant animal’s strength.

No longer protected, the destroyed flume that supplied the gladiator baths gushed water that followed the downward slope of the Drag. Thrayjen’s paws flew in all directions as the water rushed by. The boar was also knocked off balance and, startled, took off again in its original direction, snorting.

“As if we didn’t have enough floodin’,” Blue loudly complained as white peaks of water rushed by her knees.

A horrible thought occurred to Thrayjen as he watched the blood run from his fur. The tunnels beneath the Drag had mostly flooded the night previous, and with broken pumps there was only elbow grease and buckets to relieve the water, both of which were being used to extinguish a fire. Barely a soul was left to focus on the dangerously rising flood anymore.

“The lower levels are going to fill up before anybeast can do anything about it. They can only focus on one disaster at a time,” Thrayjen said, turning back the way they had come.

“So? The floodin’ will force beasts out, then!” Blue answered. “End of tournament, chaos everywhere, slaves escapin’...that’s good, right?”

“Not for the beasts trapped in the dungeons.”

“Do you want us to go back?” Rinam asked, water dripping from her whiskers. “We may not get another chance to go forward, if the FTN fails.”

“No.” Thrayjen shook his head. “I’ll go back. You two keep moving.”

“We can help more together,” Rinam said.

“Get out while you can. I’ll be fine,” Thrayjen said. “If the rebellion fails and I’m caught trying to release prisoners, I can convince Nire to spare me. A few ‘my lord’s and he’ll be too happy to believe me.”

“Now’s the time to get your pups!” Blue exclaimed excitedly. “Nobeast will be lookin’, and Marik will keep his mouth shut if I make him, aye. He’s probably movin’ the little ones right now, so who’s goin’ to notice if one or two go missin’ in the fuss.”

A flash of gold. Thrayjen smiled broadly.

“Kentrith Hapley has saved us the trouble.”

“What?!” Blue exclaimed.

“The FTN is using the fire and the boars as a distraction. They’ve smuggled the dibbuns out already.” The rat paused and frowned. “Don’t you think that wouldn’t have been my first worry?”

“It should have been me to help them,” Blue said with a frown.

“Make haste,” Rinam scolded. “I will fetch Foxglove, and we will meet you at the bowyery.”

“If you get a chance to leave the Crater,” Thrayjen warned, “Escape. I’ll find you on the outside.”

The white mouse shook her head. “There is still a fight to be won here.”

“No,” Thrayjen growled at her. “Don’t squander any opportunity that presents itself. Leave. I’ll find you. I will. Blue.” He looked at the trainer. “Make sure she goes with you.”

“Come with us!” Blue insisted. “Why bother with a bunch of prisoners when your pups are out there and I can get you out there too!”

Thrayjen shook his head, stones filling his stomach as he thought about the flooding from the rain, the broken water channels, the impending storm that would surely add to the burgeoning flood.

“Nobody else will care. I can’t pretend to forget there are souls trapped down there.”

“…alright. I won’t let her come runnin’ back when I’m holdin’ a door open for her.” The ferret ignored Rinam’s grunt of dismissal. “Take care of yourself; you’ve got to get back to your pups one of these days, aye.”

“Aye.” A longing smile. A sigh. Thrayjen turned away.

“The grave digger,” Rinam said, catching the rat’s sleeve. “Kadar. Do you recall where he resided in town, where we visited Aldridge’s hollow grave? If we do not meet again inside this wretched place, look for sign of me there.”

She pressed and curled her fingers together and showed him the new sign. “Until another day,” the mouse said. She turned and, together with Blue, disappeared beyond the landing.

Thrayjen made his way back down the Drag, beasts hastily moving out of his way as he swaggered like the fearsome butcher they believed him to be. Nobeast interrupted his purposeful stride, and the black rat moved to lower levels without interruption.

The deeper into the tunnels Thrayjen went, the higher the water levels had risen. Most hallways were flooded up to Thrayjen’s shins while others were completely inaccessible as the sloping ceilings trailed beneath the water line. Several beasts were attempting to bail the water with buckets, but they simply could not carry their liquid cargo up the Drag fast enough. A short stairwell lead up to a hallway that escaped the flood, but it turned sharply and revealed only darkness. The rat tentatively trailed down the dry path, letting his eyes adjust as he tried to keep a steady pace for what seemed like an eternity. Strange echoes haunted the lightless passage and soon became voices.

Thrayjen readied himself to charge as torchlight began to brighten the hall. Amidst jingling metal, the voices quickly became female and silhouettes gave birth to three forms.

“Miss Banton,” Thrayjen greeted the stoat, who brandished a spear beside the Monster of Mossflower and, to his surprise, a small otter Thrayjen recognized from the nursery. The rat tried to smile at the dibbun but her mother’s heated glare made it impossible. The blood soaking Komi’s pelt stifled any further pleasantries.

“Thrayjen,” Komi answered back. “Why are you coming this way?”

The rat raised his empty paws, showing the trio he was unarmed.

“The dungeons are still flooding. It’s getting worse.”

The stoat winced at Thrayjen’s words but the otter deepened her glare.

“Oh?” Minerva asked accusingly. Not headin' down here t' help yer freind Hargorn in his 'duties?' Ye're in for a surprise, mate..."

The hitch in the otter’s voice gave Thrayjen pause enough to consider her torn dress and the bruises on her neck.

“The bowyery is safe, from fire and boars, at least,” Thrayjen replied quietly. “The workshop will give you a place to...hide, if you need it. The only blueback there will be Blue but...you needn’t worry about her.”

"As if I'd believe somebeast of yer reputation, tellin' me somethin's safe! There's likely a score o' Nire's beasts waitin' for us! He'll gut us himself if he gets a chance. Don't turn yer back on him." The otter lowered her own spear, heavy rudder maneuvering her daughter even further behind her.

“Surely I’m as credible as the Monster of Mossflower?” Thrayjen laughed bitterly. “I never cheated, at least. I won’t repeat the things you’ve done in the arena in front of the little one, but we’ve done terrible things here. You and I both, Monster. Komi, too.”

A small sneer flittered across his lips as he glanced at the stoat.

“Her paws certainly look bloodier than mine. I’ve maimed and I’ve killed opponents in the arena to save my own hide. Yet you trust Miss Banton when she released death upon all to further the agenda of chaos. A shame,” Thrayjen continued, frowning deeply at Komi. “But necessary. Terrible deeds indeed, done to survive, done to keep hope alive and give freedom a chance. That’s your daughter, yes?”

“Don’t talk about my daughter,” the otter snapped. And don't ye dare talk about me as if ye know anything about me. I've done everythin' because I had to, not because I enjoyed it, like you, you nasty cur! Killin' beasts and bowin' like yer damn proud of it. I was tryin' t' save my daughter."

“Nire had my children too,” Thrayjen hissed impatiently. “I didn’t want to come here, and I certainly didn’t want to lead a life of death and cruelty again! I did everything to abandon those ways, but I’ll slaughter a thousand beasts before I let that cat harm even a whisker on their noses! Boars, lynx, whoever stands between them and safety!”

His voice had risen to almost a shout in his frustration, but the smallest of sounds stole their attention and calmed the rising heat in Thrayjen’s chest.

“Verna!” the small otter squeaked from behind her mother. “And Helix! You’re their daddy, aren’t you? I remember! Verna cried all night after you visited. I told her it’d be alright…”

“He’s on our side.” Komi stepped forward, reaching to her belt and unclipping a familiar ring of black keys from an even larger one.

“I don’t trust him,” Minerva spat.

“I do,” Komi said simply. “He could have stopped me from setting the fire and releasing the boars. He could have killed me, or raised an alarm. He didn’t.”

As Minerva began to grind her teeth, the rat counted Komi’s keys. Twelve keys for twelve cells; Komi handed him the keys to release the prisoners.

“Where did you get these?” Thrayjen asked, brow furrowed. “Hargorn always keeps these on his belt.”

“That’s a story for another time,” Komi quickly answered, and produced another key from her mysterious prize. “Look up.”

For a moment the rat remained confused. Against Minerva’s protests, the stoat pushed her key into the lock of Thrayjen’s collar and turned it. A click, a clank, and the collar fell to the floor.

An enormous weight lifted from him as he stared down at the open ring.

“Thank you.”

Komi shrugged nonchalantly. “What’s ahead of us that way?”

“Most of the tunnels that way are flooded,” the rat replied. “It’s a bit of a maze, trying to stay dry. There are some beasts trying to haul water the further up the Drag you go, and they’re quite frantic about it so you should make it through without the little one being noticed. The bowyery is safe.” Thrayjen looked at Minerva as he spoke. “It’s double walled, being behind the training yard, so the boars can’t get to it, and it’s mostly brick and mortar so the flames won’t bring it down.”

“Will you go there later?” Komi asked.

“Eventually.” The rat jingled the ring of keys. “First things first.”

Again, Thrayjen debated telling the stoat of Aldridge’s fate, but the memory of the freed boar collapsing a wall calmed the urge. Any life she had with Aldridge was over, and the sudden revival of her past lover likely would not go over as well as it had with Blue.

“The FTN might be comfortable letting chaos reign, but I no longer have the stomach for such.”

Komi smirked at his jab and accepted his extended paw. They shook and moved around each other. Minerva kept her spear trained on the rat but let him pass.

“There’s room at the end of the hall, to the right. It’s the Inquisition Chamber and doesn’t go anywhere else except to Hell’s Gates. The left door is connected to the dungeons.”

With that, the otter picked up her daughter and followed after her stoat companion, a wide-eyed Fable staring over her shoulder at him.

At the end of the passage, ignoring his curiosity to open the door on the right, Thrayjen threw the other door open and leapt down the steps into waist deep water.

Water was steadily trickling from the ceiling like rain, and pouring out from a large crack that came down and ran the length of a wall behind a row of cells. The guards normally present at either end of the hallway had abandoned their post, and a single solitary bucket floated helplessly in the rising water. A leathery wing stretched between bars, reaching desperately for the pail while the helpless creature scrambled for purchase halfway up her cell wall.

“Miss Kali!” Thrayjen sloshed through the water, counting the number of paws that reached out to him along the way. A scant few beasts remained imprisoned in the dungeons, and Thrayjen grimaced as he concluded the rest had been dragged up top for tournament fodder.

Perhaps that was the safer, in the long run, the rat thought.

“THRACKEN!” Kali squealed, joyfully dropping down into the water that flooded her cell. “You’ve come to rescue me! I knew that someone would! I knew that, somewhere out there, there must be someone...who…”

“Stop that,” the rat snapped as the bat began to look like she might sing. The enormous breath she had drawn in filled her cheeks until she slowly, noisily, let it out between pursed lips. Thrayjen stared at her for the entirely too-long minute, his mouth slowly falling open.

“Hi,” Kali finished meekly.

“It’s good to see you, too,” Thrayjen answered softly, and tried several keys on the cell door before it swung open. The bat flung herself towards him, large wings enveloping the taller beast and almost knocking him down into the water. He embraced her, awkwardly slinging her arms around her neck.

“Why are you down here?” Thrayjen asked. Kali frowned at him.

“It was me; I wrecked Nire’s banner. I mistimed my escape and...killed the guard.”

The rat made a sympathetic noise.

“At least you kept your lunch down, though,” Thrayjen joked, earning a half-hearted smile from the bat. Frantic pleading from the other prisoners recalled their focus. The water was rising.

Thrayjen went to each cell, trying every key until one would fit and the lock would click with the beautiful tone of freedom. A hare, a vole, and a rat all gracelessly flung themselves from their prisons as Thrayjen informed them of the Crater’s dire situation.

“That door leads up the Drag. The FTN is here, helping beasts escape in the chaos. Watch out for the boars on the loose, there’s fire up top by the barns, and the lower levels are flooded so keep going up!”

The motley group jumped for the door that would lead them to drier paws, but Thrayjen’s ears flickered and he paused beside Kali before they, too, could flee.

“What is it?” the bat asked anxiously.

“Listen,” the rat ordered, bringing a claw to his lips. Together, they stayed still and squinted through the darkness of the dungeon. Past the single surviving torch, the door to the Fell Wing loomed. Both Thrayjen and Kali shuddered as they made out the sounds of something howling beyond the threshold.

Together they turned away, but the orange glow of the flickering torch reflected off of Kali’s collar and gave the rat pause. The shadow of his collar felt heavy on his neck then, as though it had been freshly clamped around his throat. He thought of the Monster of Mossflower, her torn dress and frightened daughter. He thought of Celine.

“Go on,” Thrayjen ordered Kali, “Follow after the other prisoners. Stick together and get to the bowyery.”

“You can’t be serious!” Kali shrieked over the ever-present sound of streaming water. “Those beasts are horrible! They’ll kill everyone!”

“They deserve a chance at life just as much as we do,” Thrayjen said firmly. “Besides, if you were faced with drowning, would you be in the mood for lunch?”

Kali looked nervously from the Fell Keep to Thrayjen, shaking her head. “Please don’t! Please, please, please! It’s not very nice but please! Aren’t the boars enough?”

The bat cried out one final plea as Thrayjen trudged towards the black doors and pressed his ear to it. The frantic screams of something were immediately beyond the locked barricade. He pulled the keyring to his swollen face and, in the dim light, plucked the largest black key from the ring.

It might not even be the right key, Thrayjen thought, allowing himself a shadow of hope that the Fell Keep was lost. The bat was right to think him mad, that the monsters would rend him to pieces, but he could not bring himself to tear away from his sympathy. The monsters, mere beasts beyond the door, were the same as he. Frightening, deadly, enslaved. Scared.

The lock clicked.

Thrayjen and Kali both started as a door slammed open and, from where the guards should have been keeping watch, a blue-clad fox charged forth with a lute braced above his head. Being up to his waist in water, the screaming tod quickly slipped and fell tail over nose.

“It’s cold! It’s cold!”

Between yelps, Baxter spluttered to the surface and waved his lute about like a club. Sopping wet, the fox finally realized that nobeast was attacking him, nor was he in any imminent danger.

“Where’s Kali?” the bard boldly demanded at Thrayjen.

“You’re too late,” Thrayjen said. He clucked his tongue, unimpressed, and drew the torch from its sconce.

“What?!” the fox barked.

“BAXTER!” Kali hollered as she waded across the dungeon and threw her wings around the fox.

“I came to save you,” the fox said mournfully.

Thrayjen eyed the fox’s lute. “Is that all you brought?”

“My hero!” Kali cooed, regarding the fox with genuine admiration. “Now help me stop Thracken from releasing the monsters.”

“WHAT?!” the fox barked again, watching helplessly as Thrayjen pushed the heavy black door open.

Immediately, Bessie reared up in her swamped cell, four legs planted firmly on the stone wall while her other appendages reached and stretched for purchase against the steel cage. Eerily silent, the spider skittered clumsily across her leaky ceiling until coming to rest in a web-covered corner. Thrayjen raised his torch and stared at her with his good eye, seeing the hundreds of sharp little hairs that rose from her hide, the snapping pincers, and eight beady, black, unblinking eyes that stared straight back at him.

“You’re not that bad,” the rat said, loud enough to be heard over the water that rained down from cracks in the stonework. The spider’s front legs wriggled towards him. “Nooo,” Thrayjen said, his voice gentle. “Don’t know why Aldridge was so frightened of you. You’re a beauty…”

He fiddled with the keys, eyeballing the lock on Bessie’s cage. Bessie rested her legs on the bars.

“They’re too large,” he muttered to himself, then cursed. He approached her cage and quietly tried a key. The spider remained still, but the key did not fit the lock, nor the next key. After each one had been tested, the rat’s shoulders slumped.

“Good riddance!” Baxter said from behind the doorway, and Thrayjen turned to the fox with a snarl.

“Good riddance?! She’ll drown, you savage! She’ll drown for no other reason than Nire stole her from her home just as he did me. She’ll die hopelessly frightened and unknowing why she was subjected to such a fate!”

“B-but...but she’s evil!” Baxter offered, recoiling as the rat shoved his scarred muzzle into his face. “She’s killed dozens!”

“Shall I lock the door after you then?” Thrayjen growled. “Stay here and drown myself? Good riddance, right, fox? Good riddance to the Blackwhiskers!”

The fox winced and bit his lip as he struggled to find a response. He looked from Thrayjen, to Kali, and then finally to Bessie. He stared at her.

Bessie stared back.

“Aug, fine! Fine! She’s giving me the same look my oldest did right before I left and never returned…”

The fox stuck his paw into a pocket and pulled out a fork, a gnawed on old bone from a past snack, and a spare lute string.

“Will any of this help?”

Thrayjen took the bone, passing Baxter his torch as he did. The fox absently accepted the light, watching Thrayjen snap the bone with his heavy front teeth and gnaw it until the splinters formed a sharpened point.

“Just wait until Kali and I are far away so-OH, COME ON!”

Thrayjen jammed the bone into the lock and wiggled it up, up again, down, down, side to side and again until the lock finally released. Still until then, Bessie stirred from her position and scuttled above the cell door.

“Thracken…” Kali nervously stepped back to join Baxter around the corner.

Thrayjen threw the cage door open, and Bessie burst forward.

The spider tore from her cage, scuttling across the dripping ceiling and slipping several times as she hurriedly crawled through the Fell Glow doorway. Thrayjen heard Kali and Baxter shriek and the spider rushed by, and something heavy fell into the water.

“Kali!” Thrayjen shouted, and sighed in relief as the bat appeared in the doorway.

“I’m okay!” she chirped. “Baxter fell again. Bessie...just...she just left.” Kali paused contemplatively. “Is she going to eat everyone?”

“No,” Thrayjen answered far more confidently than he felt. “She’s like us. She just wants to go home. If she’s left alone, she’ll follow the Drag somewhere drier, and somewhere away from all the chaos. Maybe Mossflower Woods. Maybe Nire will dart her and she’ll be recaptured; he won’t kill her, at least. Either way, she’s better off than in here.”

“What about over there?” Kali pointed to a large iron hatch that resembled a ship porthole. A drizzle of water leaked from the seam where the domed disk closed against the wall; a circular valve sat in the centre of it, tightened to trap the screaming beast beyond. Thrayjen frowned, wondering what kind of creature would be crammed behind the heavy barricade.

Something Nire wanted in the Grand Tournament, no doubt. Why else would it be here and not in one of the pits...

Thrayjen approached the hatch and knocked. The screams suddenly stopped, just as mysteriously resuming as discernable words.

PLEASE! the creature begged. PLEASE, MERCY! HELP! AZALEA IS DROWNING! AZALEA IS DROWNING! AZALEA IS SSSORRY SSSHE ATE THE MARTEN! PLEASSSE!

“It can talk?!” Kali screeched, hopping over to stand beside Thrayjen.

“It’s a ‘she’.”

They shared a brief glance before Thrayjen began to crank the valve and open the hatch.

The hatch opened a crack, water freely poured out from the small escape, and the voice inside became louder. The choking behind the creature’s words became evident as water poured out from behind the hatch, and a long, forked tongue darted from the small opening.

“VULPEZ, SHE’S A SNAKE!” Kali cried, leaping back and knocking Baxter over again.

“Yesss,” Azalea hissed from behind her metal blockade. “Azalea isss Whiptail! Azalea will not bite! Pleassse, pleassSSsse help Azalea!”

“You won’t eat anyone?” Thrayjen asked. “Not like you did that...marten?”

“No!” Azalea shrieked, then gurgled as a rush of water poured past her. “Please! Azalea will be good, she will not resissst anymore!”

“We’re not beasts in blue,” Thrayjen replied, continuing to twist the valve. His paws flew over each other, never stopping even as Azalea’s nostril appeared. “In fact, we’re staging revolution right now. My apologies for the inconvenience…”

“Then Azalea will help! She will desSstroy those who imprisssoned her!”

Thrayjen hauled on the valve several more times and stumbled back as Azalea’s head burst from the tunnel she had been locked in. Her tail pointed upwards with the slope of her prison, and scars ran along her belly.

The snake looked down, head swiveling while part of her body still remained entombed. Her eyes rested on Thrayjen, and she dove forward until they were nose to nose. Her tongue flickered out and brushed against the rat’s face.

“Azalea owess you her life! She will devour those who would ssteal her from her home! She will wring the life from their bodiess! She will-”

“Do no such thing,” Thrayjen said sternly, swatting the snake’s tongue away from his face while his heart fought against his ribs. Azalea recoiled before springing forward. Her jaws opened impossibly wide and fangs longer than Thrayjen was tall flashed before the snake slammed her jaws shut and glared at the rodent. Behind him, Baxter and Kali whimpered.

“She wants to fight for us, let her!’ Kali insisted. “She could be useful!”

“Just leave,” Thrayjen pressed on, forcing himself to stare into each of Azalea’s eyes as she shifted her head to look at him. “Just leave. There’s a battle brewing here, and the chance at freedom is fleeting. You’re big, and scary, and you’ll be targeted by any bluebacks with darts or blade. The FTN, they’ll kill you just for being a snake in the Crater. Get out while you can, Miss Azalea.”

“No, no!” Baxter insisted. “Stay! Stay and eat all the bluebacks you want! It’s a buffet!”

“They’ll be plenty of dead with when the day is done,” the rat said. Azalea snorted but Thrayjen, very slowly, rested a paw on the snake’s snout. “You’ll die if you fight, so don’t fight. There’s flooding, fire, boars on the loose, and slaves are beginning to stir. Nobody will spare you. Nobody will fight for you. Just leave.”

Azalea looked from the stiffly alert rat to the trembling bards behind him. Her tongue flickered out, tasting the damp earth and the smoke and the fear in the air.

“Azalea will go, then,” the snake hissed, and began to slither further out of her tunnel. “Azalea will go and never return. What of you, rat?”

“I’ve got friends to help.”

The rat took a step back, and then another. With a final nod to the whiptail, Thrayjen grabbed Kali by her wing and began to back them out of the room.

“Wait,” Azalea suddenly lunged forward, stopping just short of slamming into the trio. “Azalea has friendss, as well. She can help them.”

~*~

Screams of sheer terror rang systematically throughout the Drag. Horrified beasts wearing blue and collars alike leaped into doorways or pushed each other down stairs, scrambling to flee from the snake that slithered through the Drag. Upon her back, three beasts clutched at her in varying degrees of dread. Thrayjen sat almost comfortably, subtly stroking several of Azalea’s scales as he admired how smooth she felt. Behind him, Baxter clutched at his lute and whimpered, tears staining the fox’s cheeks. At the rear perched Kali, her painted fur running all sorts of drowned colours, screaming and whooping and singing battle songs with exaggerated vibrato.

“It’s just up here,” Thrayjen said, and Azalea slowed. The archery range within sight, Thrayjen slid from the snake’s back and helped a sweating Baxter down.

“Nooooo!” Kali protested when Thrayjen offered her a paw. “Can’t we keep her?”

“No,” Thrayjen sighed. “As much as I’ll regret it later.”

“Azalea will dessstroy those who imprisssoned her?” the snake offered once again.

“The front gates are that way. Just keep heading up in any direction.” Thrayjen pointed further down the hall, unable to stop from smirking as his pulse raced. “They’ll be heavily guarded, but if you move quickly, most beasts will simply scatter. Watch out for the hawk. And the boars. And everyone, really.”

“Azalea will never eat a rat again,” the snake promised, and her body moved forward down the corridor before her head could catch up. ““You have Azalea'sSSs gratitude."

“Aw,” Kali groaned. “I really liked her. She could have given everyone a ride out…”

“Or every blueback and slave would have banded together to kill the ‘monster’,” Thrayjen replied. “This way is better. She stands a chance, and gives us an even better one.”

“What do you mean by that?” Baxter asked, finally coming out of his trembling fit.

Thrayjen barely glanced up as he headed for the archery range and bowyery beyond. “The guards will be preoccupied now with fire, boars, Bessie, and Azalea on the loose. Their spears and their arrows will be looking for other creatures while we find a way out.”

“What do we do now?" Kali asked. Thrayjen pushed the door open and stopped cold in his tracks. The yard was full of frantic beasts. Foxglove stood upon the workshop roof, tossing bows, arrows, and sharpened tools to beasts below as Marigold tended to slaves bearing wounds from boar or from guard. Blue stood, passing out wooden training weapons and arguing with Rinam as they counted beasts and attempted to sort the able-bodied from the meek.

"This is...this is wrong!" Thrayjen growled, glaring across the compound. "They were supposed to leave!"

“What now? What do we do?” Kali asked tentatively, sensing the rat’s rising anger. Thrayjen cursed and began to march across the range.

The bloodied rat must have made a startling sight, for some of the Barrow beasts took an offensive stance as the rat drew nearer. Rinam waited inside the bowyery door, greeting him with a somewhat smug smile.

“You were supposed to leave,” Thrayjen growled at her. The mouse shrugged. A flash of gold at her waist. Her rondel came to paw.

“I am needed here.”

The rat’s jaw dropped as his lip curled. Her stubbornness had dragged Aera into harm’s way, and the rat wanted to scream at the white mouse.

“Look at all these beasts,” Kali breathed in awe, her chest swelling with pride. “And they’re all here, willing to fight for what’s right!”

He remembered the Fell Wing. He remembered Kali begging him not to open the doors, recalled Baxter’s fear as Thrayjen picked the lock to Bessie’s cage. It hadn’t been smart, but it had been the right thing to do. Like Komi and the boars, every beast had a choice to do the right thing and Rinam had made hers.

“Damn you,” Thrayjen grunted, forcing his balled fists into the sign for courage. The mouse raised a brow.

“You’re frightened.”

“For you,” Thrayjen explained. “For Aera, and Miss Blue. For my children, out there somewhere.”

“You’re own life?”

“I rode a snake earlier. I’m feeling rather immortal right now.”

“It was amazing!” Kali exclaimed, and both Rinam and Thrayjen started at the bat’s exuberance. “She was like HISSSS and I was all YEAAAAH and beasts were like WOAH!” She gestured too hard with her wounded wing and winced.

“Can you still fly?” Thrayjen asked urgently as he looked from the hole in Kali’s wing to the smoky sky.

“Maybe...I don’t know yet.”

“Kali, you can get out of the Crater,” Thrayjen said excitedly. “If you stick to the smoke, if you stay low, Thunder won’t notice you. He’ll be too preoccupied finding where the boars have gone off too. The guards up top are minding the fire!, Kali! Kali, you could find Aldridge…”

The rat trailed off, Kali’s eyes widening.

“Aldy...he’s alive?”

“Yes, but it’s a secret,” Thrayjen hissed, hushing her with a quick whistle. “He’s in Northvale. He’s been preparing for this day.”

The bat looked up contemplatively. She gingerly tested her wing, unfurling it again.

“I don’t know how far I can get on this…”

The rat ground his teeth, seething to himself as he mentally measured the hole in Kali’s wing. The bat wouldn’t get far at all before her membrane tore and pain expelled her from the sky.

“It’s alright,” Thrayjen said, nodding rhythmically. “You’re right. You can’t, you’ll cripple yourself.”

“So what do we do?” Kali asked quietly. Thrayjen looked around the archery range, watching carefully as beasts excitedly milled about.

“I’m not sure,” the rat answered. “But I need a cup of tea.”

Blue exclaimed from where she had climbed onto the roof, perching precariously beside Aera. Her blue coat stood out amongst the beasts in collars. Thrayjen frowned, and gestured for the maids to come down.

“There’s always time for tea, Miss Blue. Especially before a fight.”
53
Contest Discussion / Round 7 -- ends at 11:59 PST on 13 November
« Last post by Zevka on November 04, 2017, 07:08:27 AM »
So, it's been pretty chaotic around here lately, but I want to get things rolling again on a more normal schedule. Round 7 will end at the end of the night on 13 November.
54
Contest Discussion / Round Six Voting -- Ends at 11:59 PM PST on 26 October
« Last post by Zevka on October 25, 2017, 03:50:02 AM »
Folks, our next round of voting is finally up and running. Deadline is the end of the night tomorrow night. Sorry this round took so long -- there were some major changes/disruptions to things -- but next round will be shorter.
55
Round Six / Of Cowards and Monsters
« Last post by Minerva on October 24, 2017, 10:09:23 PM »
Old hinges creaked and metal scraped harshly against stone as Hargorn heaved open the door to the Inquisition Chamber. The room before them was shrouded in darkness, and Fable whined and shut her eyes.

"Now, now," Hargorn said, smirking at the young otter with his jagged teeth as he carried her inside, "don't tell me yer 'fraid o' th' dark. Don't'cha worry yer pretty liddle tail, young 'un. Once I've got'cha safe an' snug, I'll turn on some lights fer ya."

Minerva struggled against her chains, biting and snapping at the other guards as they led her in after them and towards a set of manacles bolted on the far wall. The otterwife continued to twist and snarl as they were clasped tightly around her wrists.

"Guard th' door," Hargorn said to the two other beasts. Minerva pulled against her chains desperately as the guards moved to the iron door. Without a glance at the screaming otterwife, they pulled it closed behind them and locked it shut.

In the dark, nobeast could see Minerva's tears, and she slumped to her knees in defeat as she listened to the sounds of her child's sobs piercing the gloom.

Fable couldn't see her, but Minerva still forced a smile on her face as she hung limply forward. "It's gonna be okay, Fable. I promise, it's gonna be okay," she said, but her words only seemed to make the young one worse. She wished she could stroke Fable's head and ease her worries, but she feared that her daughter might never know her touch again.

"Aye, it's gonna be jest okay," Hargorn sneered, his peg-leg tapping against the stone floor as he hobbled through the darkness. "Now, why don' we get some light in 'ere fer ye, liddle un?"

White sparks brought light to the weasel's paws as he struck flint to steel within a hearth and started a small, crackling fire. Instantly, the orange glow pierced the darkness, and Minerva's heart skipped a beat. Hargorn smiled at the otterwife, tossing in several dried logs before grabbing a bellows and pumping it into the blaze.

As the growing flame scattered away the dark, it danced upon the gleaming edges of thin, cruel knives, spiked whips, and heavy bludgeons mounted upon the wall. Seeing the otterwife's expression, Hargorn laid a poker within the flames and hobbled towards her.

He curled a claw under her chin as he eyed the otterwife hungrily. "D' ye like me toys? Nire's a gen'rous beast. He gave 'em all t' me. D' ye wanna know which is me pers'nal fav'rite?" Though every extinct told her not to look, Minerva's eyes followed the weasel's claw as he pointed to a small, curved blade, not unlike a scalpel, at the far right wall nearest to Fable. "I'll tell ya what it's fer." The weasel grinned and raised his paws, and pantomimed pressing the blade against his palm. "Ye see, it cuts nice an' clean under th' pawpad. Ye ever 'ave woodpigeon? 'Tis as easy as sep'ratin' th' meat from th' bone.

"But that's fer later," Hargorn said, turning his good eye towards the sobbing Fable. "I prefer startin' with a more... tradish'nal approach." The weasel's paw moved towards Minerva's neck, and he snatched the hook from around it.

"Give that back," Minerva said weakly, but Hargorn hardly acknowledged her. He twirled the object nonchalantly by the cord as he ambled back to the furnace and pulled the poker from the fire, its end glowing bright and white hot. He started towards Fable.

"Please. Don't," Minerva begged as her daughter whimpered.

Hargorn ignored her. "Ye know. Hammerpaw was a good mate o' mine. I 'member how sometimes me an' 'im used t' sing ol' horde ditties in the Drag t'gether. I'm thinkin' I'll do t' 'er what ye did t' 'im," the weasel said, brandishing the hook and poker. "Don' worry though. She won't bleed fer long. I'll cauterize it." Hargorn turned once more to Minerva, dark shadows dancing within the hollowed socket of his missing eye. "Though, I kin say from exp'rience, that hurts even worse."

The weasel turned back to Fable. The young otter screamed and pulled against her chains as Hargorn stepped towards her. "Now now, hold still, lass." He raised the hook. "It'll be over in jest a tick."

Tears fell from Minerva's eyes as she screamed and pulled against her bonds. "Please! Please don't! I'll do anything!"

A smile crept to the weasel's muzzle, the point of Orran's hook a hair's breadth away from Fable's eye. Hargorn turned towards her, eyeing her like a starving beast. "Anythin', ye say?"

The poker clattered to the floor at Fable's footpaws as Hargorn dropped hold of it and the hook and ambled towards Minerva with a grin on his maw. He knelt down to her level, touching a paw to her cheek in mock tenderness. He spoke, trailing a claw slowly down the length of her body. "See, I was gonna have my fun with ye once I was done anyway, but I don't feel like fightin' ye like I had t' do with that Widow. So, yer not gonna squirm for me, no? Or bite an' snap like that vole friend o' yers did?"

Minerva shook her head numbly.

"Nah, 'course not. 'Cause ye know that if ye did, I'd 'ave t' play with all me toys with yer liddle un. But I tell ye what. If ye don't squirm. If ye play along an' do everythin' I tell ye, an' let me have my fun, I'll just slit 'er throat. Quick, simple, an' a whole lot less painful than what I was gonna do t' 'er. How does that sound?"

Minerva looked past him to her daughter, before nodding and letting herself go limp.

"Good lass. Don't worry. I won't hurt ye. I'm gentle by nature."

Hargorn smiled, the claws of one paw curling around the hem of Minerva's dress. The other, around her neck.

Clang! Something heavy slammed against the iron door outside and Minerva gasped as Hargorn's paw came unclenched from around her throat. "Hellgates," he snarled, grabbing a bludgeon from the wall. 

A few moments later, the hinges creaked as the door was pushed open and the carcass of one of the guards fell face first into the room. Komi plucked up the dead beast's spear and stuffed her bloody knife into her belt.

"Komi," Minerva said, relief laced in her voice.

Hargorn snarled and held the bludgeon tightly in his paws. "Well, well, if it ain't the Coward. 'Ere t' try an' save yer liddle friend? I don' know why ye're both'rin', seein' she was spyin' fer Nire. Some friend she is."

"He had my daughter, Komi," Minerva said. "What was I s'posed t' do?"

"I know," Komi said. The stoat glanced only briefly between the otterwife and her daughter, before she saw the burning poker and the weasel's belt on the floor. She narrowed her gaze at Hargorn and then, without a word, turned around.

"Aye! That's right!" Hargorn sneered, grinning at Minerva. "Run away, Coward, this ain't yer fight!"

"Coward?"

Komi pulled the door closed.

"You've mistaken me for someone else."

Komi rushed forward with the spear, swinging wide with the blade and forcing the weasel to jump back. Hargorn's peg-leg skittered on the floor, and he nearly lost his balance. Panting, the slavemaster kept his legs planted as he advanced with his bludgeon. Komi stabbed out at him, but Hargorn batted her weapon aside with surprising ease, countering with a heavy swing that Komi narrowly avoided.

Hargorn smiled as the stoat regained her footing. "Aye, and ye seem t've fergot I used t' be a gladiator, too."

The weasel surprised the stoat again as he swung his weapon with incredible speed, the tip smacking hard against the middle of Komi's spearshaft. The blow was enough to take away Komi's grip on her weapon, and it went skittering across the floor to a stop at Minerva's footpaws.

Komi grabbed her dagger from her belt with her other paw and clenched her teeth. She rushed forward, ducking under one of Hargorn's swings as she slashed out with the weapon. The blade met flesh, and Hargorn screamed as Komi tore it through his side. The stoat wasn't done. Sidestepping another swing, Minerva watched as Komi then ducked low and rushed forward, slamming her whole weight into his chest.

Hargorn's peg-leg gave way under him, and the weasel fell down hard upon the furnace. The slavemaster tried to rise, but Komi was on top of him in an instant. She kicked away his bludgeon.

"No, no, no!" Hargorn yelled as Komi clutched his head tight in her paw and then shoved it directly into the blazing ash and wood. The weasel screamed, bucking against her as the flames licked against the side of his face, but Komi held firm. With her other paw, she raised the dagger.

Hargorn snarled, his paw shooting up and catching Komi's wrist before she could complete the kill. With the fire still licking at his flesh, the weasel pulled her close suddenly, and then slammed his forehead into hers.

Komi gasped and fell off of him onto her back, the knife clattering from her paw and onto the ground next to Hargorn. The weasel stumbled back to his feet, moaning as he clutched at his wounded side with one paw and his scorched face with the other. He stumbled forward, his footpaw brushing against the fallen knife. Slowly a smile curled upon his face and he picked it up.

"Ye... put on a... good show, Coward. I think ye got me." Hargorn removed his paw from his knife wound, and smiled weakly at the blood that covered it. "But I ain't gonna lose...no. Not at all."

The blade shook in his paws as he stepped forward, and Minerva realized that Komi didn't have a weapon. The stoat scowled as Hargorn stepped forward and brandished his knife. Then suddenly he started running, but not at Komi.

Fable screamed as Hargorn charged towards her.

Her daughter's terrified scream spurred life back into Minerva, and the otterwife looked down at the weapon lying by her feet. "Komi! The spear!" Pulling against her chains, she kicked the shaft of the weapon as hard as she could, the force sending it skittering along the floor towards the stoat.

Komi scooped the weapon off the ground.

Hargorn raised his knife.

Fable clenched her eyes shut and screamed.

Blood splattered the walls.

For a moment, there was a deafening silence as Minerva dared open her eyes,  a silence only broken by the sound of a weasel crumpling dead to the floor, a spear in his middle and a bloodied dagger in his paw.

Minerva froze, staring at Fable as she hung limply from her chains, her eyes clenched shut, and a red, shallow gash upon her arm.

Komi sighed and smiled.

The young one opened her eyes, tears welling in them when she saw Hargorn's carcass lying inches from her feet. Looking to her arm, the child watched as threads of blood trickled out of the wound. A moment passed before the dam burst, and she turned to her mother across the room and wailed. "Mummy!"

"Fable!" Minerva cried in relief, pulling against her chains.

Komi plucked the keys from Hargorn's fallen belt, and unlocked the child's manacles. Fable wailed, scurrying past the stoat and burying her face in her mother's dress. Komi freed Minerva from her own chains, and immediately the otterwife fell to her knees. It had been months since they last embraced and so, she wrapped her arms tight around her daughter and pulled her close, sobbing into the young one's head. "See," she wept, stroking the Dibbun's head. "I told ye... everythin' was gonna be okay."

"Mummy, it hurts."

"I know. I know it hurts," Minerva said, letting go of her and looking at the child's bloodied arm. She clasped the young one's paw in her own and smiled reassuringly at her, pointing at the scars that lined her arm. "But, look. Now ye're just like mummy. Ain't that right?"

Fable wiped her eyes and nodded.

"Here, let me take care of it." Minerva tore a long strip from the hem of her dress and wrapped it around her daughter's arm, before tying it tightly. Leaning close, she kissed it and smiled. "There. All better, right?"

Fable nodded.

Komi waited patiently beside them, fitting one of Hargorn's keys into the lock on her collar. The iron came loose, and the stoat sighed in relief as she rubbed at her neck.

Minerva turned towards her, but kept her eyes low, hardly able to look at her friend. "Komi. I... thank ye... for savin' us. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't... I didn't want..."

Komi shook her head. "No. If it had been me and Tavin... I think I would've done the same thing." The stoat passed the keys to Minerva, sighing. "But... we've lost then, right? Nire knows what we're planning. He'll beat us at every step now."

Minerva pulled the collar from around Fable's neck, and met the stoat's crestfallen gaze. "No," she said. "There's still a chance. Nire thought I was lyin'."

"What?"

"Aye. He didn't believe me, and Blasio was there and told 'im somethin' different." Minerva remembered the broken pumps and paused. "But he didn't tell 'im everythin'. I don't know what that beaver's game is, but he's plannin' somethin', Komi, and it isn't good."

Komi could only nod as Minerva grabbed up her fallen fishhook from the floor and wrapped it around her neck. Then she plucked the spear out of Hargorn's body and raised the keys to her collar.

In stories, rain, thunder, lightning, it was all a sign of coming destruction. When the rain first fell over Minerva, she believed that the storm outside was for her, but as thunder boomed outside and echoed through the tunnels of the Crater and the Drag, the otterwife realized that she was wrong. The storm outside wasn't for her. It was for Nire. It was for Blasio. It was for the Crater. And when it was over, when the sun peeked back through the clouds, there would be nothing left standing.

Fable held tight to the hem of Minerva's dress as the otterwife's claws curled around the spearshaft.

And the collar fell from around her neck.
56
Round Six / The Shade of Abandon
« Last post by Kentrith Hapley on October 24, 2017, 09:51:58 PM »
Kentrith watched yet another fight in the shadows, waiting for Komi to finish. Watching her movements, he was unsurprised to note a certain sharpness to her moves. She seemed fiercer, and faster, each swipe with more power behind it, and each dodge from a toad trident seemed more desperate. No wonder, Kentrith thought wryly. It’s only when she’s about to leave that she pulls out her best performance.

The weather couldn’t decide whether to pour the rain or send it driving into every beast’s eyes with a howling wind. Such weather usually made Kentrith miserable with aches, but he was thankful for it today. Getting the kits out would be easier under the cover of the storm.

Cheers erupted from the crowd, as Komi doubled back on one of the natterjacks, neatly inserting the spear blade deep into its neck as if it belonged there. The flabby beast rolled over as its partner croaked in rage and dashed for the stoat. Spear haft tripped toad, toad bowled over, spear struck toad heart. The fight was over just like that, and Kentrith’s fur stood on end. It was time.

As the crowd roared its approval of bloody sport, Kentrith made to turn, aiming for the suite when a still figure caught his eye. In the midst of the milling and cheering crowd, Tavin stood motionless, staring down into the arena. The bundle he had carried up until now was missing, and there was a new glint to the young beast’s eye that frightened Kentrith. Heart pounding in his throat, he surged toward the stoat. What is he doing here? He could be caught! He could get us caught, before I can get the Dibbuns out!

As he pushed through the crowd, he pasted a wide smile on his muzzle, slapping backs and raising a paw in jubilation when urged to join in celebrating. He reached Tavin’s side without him noticing, slung an arm around his neck, and began dragging him in the direction of his tunnel. Tavin jerked against the hold before he saw who was pulling him away.

“Kent,” he began, but Kentrith interrupted with a hiss.

“Not now,” he gritted through his forced smile.

He reached the relative privacy of the passage that lead deeper into the Crater, and swung Tavin around until the young stoat faced him. “What are you doing here?” he whispered harshly, glancing over his shoulder, then Tavin’s to see if they were watched. “You’re supposed to meet us at the kitchen door!”

“I couldn’t wait to see my mother,” Tavin whispered back angrily. “After five years, I have to wait peacefully to be reunited? I don’t think so!”

“You think you won’t be recognized? Or that you won’t be noticed?”

“Isn’t that the point of staging the escape now?”

Kentrith sputtered as a small wave of beasts flowed around them, most likely hunting for snacks to eat during the next fight. After they were alone again, he intoned, “It doesn’t matter why you’re here. You are endangering everything about this mission.” Tavin opened his mouth to protest, but Kentrith wasn’t finished. “So, you will help me. You will assist the escape, and if nothing else has gone wrong… hopefully she will be there to greet us when we get out.”

“Oh, good,” Tavin replied, not even putting up a token of a fight. “Lead the way.”

A sudden screech had them both whirling to face the far wall, where FTN’s banner was drifting down, emblazoned with stark words. Before Kentrith could wonder at the odd phrasing written there, the source of the screech followed the fluttering banner, followed by a sickening crunch.

The next scream was pure rage as Nire went out of his mind.

“We’re late,” Kentrith gasped.

He ran down the passage with Tavin in tow, wondering at the young stoat’s complacency. Slapping footpaws sent them both whirling around, only to be confronted by an irate shrew. She reached to her full height and slapped Tavin on the back of the head. “Ye’re supposed to stick with me!” she spat.

“Blame Kentrith, not me! He dragged me out!”

“Quiet, both of you! Unless you want us to get caught!” Kentrith threw a glare over his shoulder for good measure, then continued on leading them down the familiar passages, heart threatening to pound its way out of his ribcage. “I don’t remember your name,” he growled at the shrew.

“Nerra.”

“Well, I know why this idiot is here. Why are you here, and where did you get the money to pay for entrance?”

There was a bark of laughter. “Some beast has to keep an eye on Crabby here, make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid. ‘Sides, I wasn’t about to let him do anything interesting without me.”

Kentrith gave Tavin a confused look. “Crabby?”

Tavin rolled his eyes. “It was a lobster, not a crab.”

“You didn’t know that.”

“Whatever it was, I saved you from it!”

“And nearly got yerself drowned doing it!”

“Kentrith.”

The group skidded to a halt just out side the wing door. The blue back waiting for them blocked the entrance to the suites, watching them impassively. Kentrith panicked for a moment, then realized that the ferret looked familiar. “You are…” he wheezed out through a tight throat.

“Master Blasio asked me to assist you in your task,” the guard replied in an even tone. “For which you are late. I’m to report on your success.”

Rage washed through Kentrith. “What, he thinks I will be hard pressed to dispatch a few hostages?”

There were twin gasps behind him. The guard ignored them, instead giving Kentrith a piercing stare. “There have been concerns,” he said, his face bland and his voice a monotone.

Kentrith glanced at his companions to see Tavin reaching for something over his back and Nerra with her hand in her vest. Before either of them could draw a weapon, he turned and snarled, “I have enough help, as you can see.”

“One does not refuse Master Blasio.”

Gritting his teeth, Kentrith ground out, “Fine. After you.”

“No, please, lead the way.”

Casting a quelling glance at the beasts behind him, he headed further into the wing of suites, mind scrambling through possibilities. If we kill him, Blasio will know he’s betrayed, but if we leave him alive, the Dibbuns will be in danger. We have to stop him before he enters the room, or the babies will be scarred for life… I can’t kill him in front of them…

The wooden medallion he had received from FTN burned in his mind. No, I am a healer! I’m not a killer anymore!

“Well?” the ferret asked.

Kentrith realized they had reached the door to the nursery, and he had been standing there for some time, wrestling with himself. He turned to the three behind him. The ferret had a raised brow. Tavin kept reaching for his back, but grasping only air and looking disgusted each time. Nerra was trembling, a dagger in her paw. She kept raising and lowering it, and Kentrith realized it was only a matter of time before the ferret saw it.

The guard would raise the alarm, no matter how long he was out. They might not get out in time before they were caught.

Tavin and Nerra were both so young. Tavin had been raised in a horde, and Nerra had been wandering with Guosim her whole life, but he doubted that either of them had taken a life before.

No. That task, if it was a matter of who it would fall to, would always be on the shoulders of the Crane.

“This must be done,” the ferret reiterated, frustration growing.

“Yes,” Kentrith replied woodenly, turning to the ferret. “It must. Let me just ask this.” He took a deep breath, then asked, “Why would you work for a  beast who murders children?”

The ferret’s eyes widened, but Kentrith was on him before he could make a sound. He wrapped one paw around the guard’s muzzle, using his right to stab him in the heart with his ever present scalpel. The beast jerked, whining softly through the clamped jaws. Kentrith eased him to the floor as the struggles weakened. He could feel the glares of his two companions on him, but it was approaching pawsteps that brought his head up. Tegue rounded the corner, and stopped in his tracks at the scene before him. All of them froze for several long moments.

“Nire’s throwing a fit,” Tegue finally said breathlessly. Nerra twitched as he raced toward them, but Tegue only slid up to Kentrith and took hold of the dying ferret’s arms. “Quick, we have to hide him.”

Kentrith couldn’t say anything, but jerked his head to the closet that he had used so long ago with Adeen. Together they dragged the body in, tucking it under some old rugs in an effort to hide it, then exiting the room in a frenzy. Tavin and Nerra said nothing, only standing back as Kentrith turned back to the door.

The portal swung open, revealing Marik in the doorway, a blanket slung around his shoulders like a cape. “It’s about time,” he gasped. When nobody moved, he glanced around, at the blue guard, at the nervous shrew and stunned stoat, and at Kentrith, standing rigid over a small pool of blood. In a much gentler voice, he continued, “We’re ready to go.”

Tegue moved past him, and Marik limped to Kentrith, who stood frozen. He placed a paw on his shoulder. “You can mourn whoever that was later,” he said in a low voice.

“But, I killed…” Kentrith choked out.

The comforting paw patted him twice, and Marik replied, “I know, I know. But we have to get the others out now, before we run out of time.” When Kentrith didn’t reply, Marik placed his other paw on his other shoulder. “Kent,” he said more strongly. “We have a problem.” When the fox finally raised his gaze, he continued, “Guards came and took Fable, not too long ago.” His voice remained steady, but his eyes betrayed his anxiety.

“We can’t wait,” Tegue spoke from behind the twisted marten. He carried a bundle wrapped in a blanket, with spikes poking through the cloth here and there. The oldest rat maid also carried a small bundle, this one with a flat, long tail. Behind them stood several small ghostly figures, shrouded with bedcovers. Marik beckoned the rat maid over, then transferred the small stoat to Kentrith’s arms. “You need to get them out now.”

That drew Kentrith’s attention. He looked at Marik. “You’re coming too,” he half-questioned, reflexively accepting the small burden.

Marik shook his head. “I will wait for Fable here. If we are all gone, the search will be sent sooner, whereas I can stall them if I stay behind.”

“We have to go!” Tegue urged, shifting the prickly bundle.

“Happy,” Marik said gently. “I’ll slow you down.”

Kentrith turned to Tegue desperately, but the rat was already shaking his head. “The shrews won’t know me. You have to accompany us, or it will never work.”

Marik took Kentrith’s shoulders, turned him and pushed him down the hall. “Go.”

Kentrith looked over his shoulder suddenly. “I’m coming back,” he snarled fiercely.

Marik nodded, then turned and hobbled back into the nursery, closing the door behind him.

*******

Kentrith cursed as they froze before another passageway, as a squad clanked by, thankfully without noticing the huddled mass of small beasts and four bigger ones tucked away in shadow. Kentrith tried to fill his frozen lungs again, and swore he would never take part in any sort of escape again. Apparently, the Crane was not up to high tension situations involving children.

There was one hallway left before they could reach the door to the kitchen, then it was a matter of threading through the various tables and stoves without getting little paws burned, and without drawing attention from the kitchen staff, such as it were.  Tavin and Nerra were both now carrying smaller beasts, and the older ones tried their best to chivvy the rest after the adults. Gathering himself again, Kentrith led the little troupe through the door, into a world of steam and spices. Little ears pricked at cheerfully bubbling pots and noses inhaled the perfume of baking bread. Shuffling the toddling babe he held, Kentrith managed to snag the back of two jerkins before the owners could stray too far, and the others followed suit.

Miraculously, they were silent as they tip-pawed through the warm room, all stealing glances and stifling giggles at the snoring cook who held a ladle close to her apron. They reached the far door that led to the kitchen courtyard, where Tavin was supposed to have met them. Shrugging off a thousand what ifs, Kentrith yanked the door open on silent hinges, and they all shuffled out into pouring wet. He quickly shut the door on complaints, hoping the sleeping cook hadn’t heard, then turned to see if there was any help at all.

"Where's Komi?" Tavin bellowed, searching anxiously through the rain.

Kentrith groaned, suddenly panicked at the thought that one more thing had gone wrong. Speaking of wrong.

He turned to the one companion he had not expected. “Why are you here?” he bellowed over sheeting rain.

“You were short of help.” Tegue shrugged. “It’s been needful, to be sure.” He frowned, as if to himself. “Should have been done long ago.”

“It’s not done yet,” Kentrith growled, thinking of the marten he had left behind, but further argument was abandoned as two hooded figures headed toward them. Both had thick tails, one a rudder, the other a scarlet bush. Dia wordlessly took the babe Kentrith carried, which surprised him, but Eve lowered her hood, immediately soaking her immaculately groomed fur. “We’re in trouble,” she barked. “When banner rolled over, a guard was killed. Nire immediately dragged Minerva in for questioning.” She paused, more panicked than Kentrith had ever seen her. “She was spying for him all along!”

Tegue gasped, clutching his burden tighter, then yelping as he was pricked by tiny spines.

Kentrith breathed deeply, using the rhythm of his lungs to sort through emotions. He couldn’t lose composure now.

“It’s Fable,” he said through the numbness creeping over him. “He used her, his greatest weapon, to garner Minerva’s obedience. Without any other family, Fable is her only tie to… well, anything. She would do anything to keep her safe.”

“How can that be?” Eve burst out, her paws clenching. “How could any beast trade so much for…” She broke off.

“Nix killed Marik’s father for it,” Kentrith reminded her. She only pursed her lips, and looked away.

Taking one more cleansing breath, he looked around at the band who had chosen to be here, if for no other reason than it was right. He watched Dia, who cradled the young stoat, who had tucked his paw into his mouth. He had risked everything for her before, and he had risked so much to return here for the other young one who had made such an impact on his life. The reason he had returned, whom he had failed.

There was another baby he had failed as well.

He looked back to Eve. “I need you to take them to the shrews,” he told her, pushing two young ones toward her and adjusting his soaked shirt.

“Kent,” Dia blurted, alarmed, but Kentrith interrupted, “Marik’s still in there. And I will not leave a baby to the torturer. Nire’s promoted Hargorn to that position,” he told the scarred otter. Her ears pinned to her skull, and her muzzled curled in a snarl. She opened her mouth to say something, but Tavin beat her to it.

“I’m going with you,” he stated, retrieving his long bundle from some corner he had tucked it in.

“Not wit’out me, ye ain’t,” Nerra grumbled, pulling two waterproof cloaks from somewhere else. Rather late for that, isn’t it? Kentrith wondered, then shook his head.

“It would be better…” he started, but Tavin pinned him with a glare.

“My mother’s still in there. Also, I’m not leaving you alone.” He breathed deeply, then forced out, “I’ve seen what this place does to you, how it has changed you. I’ll stay by your side, if only to remind you of who you really are.”

Healer, or Crane? He could mean either.

Kentrith grunted, unwilling to argue. “Well, then.” He turned back to the kitchen door, looking much less welcoming than before. “Let us get to it.”
57
Round Six / Running of the Boars
« Last post by Komi Banton on October 18, 2017, 09:06:56 PM »
Komi stumbled out of the arena as the crowd around her continued roaring their approval at “the Coward’s victory.” Two toads lay dead in the sand behind her. The fur on her right side clung damply to her skin with toad’s blood. She handed her spear and shield to the blue-uniformed beast guarding the door and limped past. One toad had gotten a prong of his trident in her thigh. It hurt and oozed, but she didn’t have time to deal with that right now.

Kentrith’s voice echoed in her head. ”Komi, you win that fight, and you get the boars free as soon as it’s over.”

It was over and if things went according to plan, she’d never have to set paw on those sands again. She’d either be free or dead after today. If all worked well, Minerva, Fable, and all the other children would be free, too.

One more time, she allowed herself to wonder if Hapley had told her the truth about Tavin. He could have just had Tavin’s dagger by chance. If he’d been at Redwall, maybe someone had gathered it off the battle field? Maybe he just happened to have it with him from there? Maybe he’d found one that looked similar to hers, though how had he known that Tavin had a dagger just like hers?

The sooner she got out of the Crater, the sooner she’d know the truth.

She passed a trio of slaves under guard. All three carried yokes with buckets full of water from the lower levels that were still flooded from the deluge the night before. Komi’s own neck and shoulders ached from carrying water in the dead of night. She also skirted around the bath house, where the sluice had stopped working as well. Everybeast must take bucket baths, but she didn’t have time for that. Komi would get clean as a free beast. A little blood had never stopped her before.

Even though she’d planned everything, she still felt a sick drop in her stomach as she trotted across the sodden sand of the empty training ground towards Alder’s workshop. She hadn’t been to the bowyery since he’d died. She hadn’t been able to bear it. But today, she didn’t have time to be sentimental. She’d cry later when she was free, or she’d see Aldridge in the Dark Forest if she failed.

She eased the door open and slipped inside. Foxglove was absent. Probably either carrying water or watching the fights. She picked up an empty sack from a basket near the woodpile and hurried to the cupboard where her drum and knife had been hidden.

Blood and rainwater pooled at her feet as she uncovered the drum. She double checked to make sure the drumhead’s ties were loose so it wouldn’t make noise, then she eased her drum into the sack. She slid her dagger in her vanbrace once more. She hurried to another cupboard where Aldridge had kept flint and steel for lighting fires. She put those in the bag, being careful of her drum all the while.

Supplies in paw, she checked carefully for guards or other slaves before slipping out of the room. The crowd roared from the other side of the wall that divided the training area from the center ring. Quickly, Komi began circling the Crater, using all of the nooks and crannies she’d observed as hiding places, back when she’d plotted an escape for herself. The boars’ pen was opposite the bowyery, so it was a long, tense walk. The events in the arena kept eyes and attention inward, and if Komi was noticed, no beast stopped her.

Yet, when she reached the stables, she found a lone guard near the doorway. Keeping well back, she studied him. He stared towards the center of the Crater, where Komi heard the crash of steel on steel.

She circled behind him, going along the wall of the stable, open and unhidden should he turn his head and look the wrong way. She set her sack down on a dry hay bale, every muscle tense as she crept. She drew her dagger. A long scream echoed in the air from the arena and using the sound as cover, Komi leaped. One paw in front clamped down his muzzle. The other dragged the knife across his throat. He threw his body back against hers. Blood sprayed scarlet across the wood and stone near the stable. She allowed his momentum to carry them both back through the doorway. She let his body fall, ignored it as he twitched his life away on the ground. She quickly wiped her dagger on her tunic edge out of habit, slid it back in her vanbrace. She ducked back outside to grab her sack before it got wet, and closed the door.

Komi hadn’t dealt with the boars since they’d been brought to the Crater so many weeks before. The long wooden building that housed them was pleasantly warm after the cold, dreary rain outside. A few of the boars snorted at the smell of the guard’s blood. One butted tusks against the door to his stall. She heard the wood crunch.

She hurried down the length of the stable, scoping it out. Row after row of solid wood stables lined the right side of the room. Quick glances in the small doors on the left revealed rooms of tack for the riders or sacks of feed. At the big double doors on the far end, Komi peeped through a crack in one and saw the back of a blue guard on the opposite side. Beyond him, she saw a street that led away into Northvale. Quietly, she backed away.

A cacophony had been building from the bleachers around the arena. Voices all talked loudly and excitedly. Guards yelled in the upper levels. Whatever else the FTN had planned, it must have started. Time was short. She looked around her, in that large space at the entrance to the stable, and saw a ladder heading up to a second floor.

The floor above the stalls was a dark hayloft, piled high with sweet smelling hay and straw. Komi grinned and hoisted herself the rest of the way through the hole in the floor. She limped to the far end, picked a haystack, and pulled the flint and steel out of the bag. No need for tinder here. This whole room was tinder, waiting to be lit.

She heard the door creak open below and she froze. Waited for the shout of alarm.

The door closed. “You didn’t waste any time,” Thrayjen said softly underneath her.

She didn’t reply, but stayed where she was, completely silent.

“There’s wet, bloody pawprints on the floor,” he said. “The boars are still here, so you must be, too.”

Komi’s nose twitched from the dust in the hayloft, but she still didn’t move.

“The banner’s been unfurled. The rebellion damaged it and Lord Nire is livid. He knows something is going on. Your time is running out.” Thrayjen paused and Komi heard him move, though she still did not.

“Beasts die when chaos reigns, Komi. If you go through with this plan, driving the boars out among the innocent, what will be the cost? But I’ve played the passive side before. I know we can’t do nothing. There can be another way. You don’t have to do this.”

A boar snorted. Outside, the clamor continued.

“Rebellions are bloodier than war,” the rat finally said.

The door to the stable opened and closed and Komi heard no more from Thrayjen.

She whispered, “Sorry, Thrayjen, but the kits are counting on me.” She struck flint to steel, sending a spray of sparks into the hay. The fine, dry stalks caught and began burning, illuminating that corner of the hayloft. Swiftly, Komi moved down a few lengths and did it again, starting another fire.

By the time she’d started four fires, the first was crackling merrily and the boars below were beginning to snort and stamp in their stalls. Komi dropped the flint and steel in her sack and slid down the ladder. Back down the row she ran, wincing at the twinges in her injured leg. A haze of smoke drifted down from the cracks in the hayloft above.

As she ran past it’s stall, the one boar who’d smashed against the door earlier gave a ear splitting squeal and slammed it’s shoulder against the door. Wood splintered and cracked.

“Right, piggy,” Komi said, climbing up onto the unsplintered door of his neighbor. “You first.”

The heavy wooden fronts of the stalls were easily wide enough for Komi to walk across. She held onto the wooden pillar where the front and side walls of the two pens joined and reached over to unlatch the damaged gate. The boar slammed up against it again as she did so and the door crashed open with a splintering crunch. The boar went stamping and bucking into the open corridor, trampling the dead guard as he went. Komi leaned over the opposite side and unlatched his neighbor’s stall. Coughing from the smoke, she worked her way down the long line of stalls as the boars grew more and more agitated.

Those freed in the open floor of the stable jostled each other and stamped near the doorways. They knew where the ways out were, but lacked the paws to undo the latches.

Then she heard shouting from outside, along with cries of, “Fire! Fire!”

The big doors to the stable suddenly swung open. Komi dropped down into an empty stall, hiding behind the wall as the boars made a mad rush out of the smoky stable and into the rain. The guard who’d opened the door screamed as he was trampled.

Komi peered around the edge of the stable, staring at the outside. Freedom, just a short sprint away. There were guards and boars out there, but less guards than inside the Crater. A few steps, and she’d have the Crater behind her, the road before her, and she’d be free.

What about Minerva? And Fable? Kentrith and the kits?

Ash fell around her.

Kali? All the slaves escaping now with the FTN’s help?

Her paws tightened. She remembered Kentrith’s words. ”We’ll all get out together.”

Together.

She left freedom behind and returned to the Crater.

Komi waited until most beasts in blue were running away with buckets, then she darted back out the door she’d come in, eyes streaming from the smoke. She ducked into a small alcove near the stairs to another level of the building, trying to clear her lungs without coughing too loudly.

Kentrith had told her to get to the kitchen entrance when she’d set the boars free. Now Komi just had to do that without drawing attention to her wet, bloody, hay-strewn form. She was just about to start up a flight of stairs when she heard Hargorn’s unmistakable snarl echoing from above. She stayed hidden, then heard the cry of a youngster, followed by Minerva’s voice!

She almost broke cover right then, but then Hargorn and some guards came into view. Hargorn carried Fable, while the guards dragged Minerva behind the weasel. She waited while they passed by, drawing her dagger from her vanbrace.

Hargorn said, “Knew ye was stupid, but tellin' Nire all that useless info about boars an' escapin' slaves?” He spat to one side of the stone floor. “Some spy ye turned out t' be.”

Komi froze, her dagger in her paw. Minerva? A spy?

No! Oh, no, no, no!


She fell back into the shadows once more, unable to breath, tears pricking in her eyes.

I trusted her. I told her everything. All the FTN plans I knew. And she betrayed me. She betrayed us all!

Why?


But even as she wondered that, she knew the answer. She saw it, in the form of a little otter pup, staring tearfully back at her mother.

Then they rounded a corner and were gone, leaving Komi more alone than ever before.
58
Round Six / The Choice
« Last post by Minerva on October 18, 2017, 08:18:26 PM »
Alternatively Titled: Rain



...Sometimes while I've sat here, I've thought about the choices we made together. Even while our crops withered, I remember how hard it was for you to tell Artie that we would have to pull him from school. There were tears in his eyes when you told him, but there was also understanding. He accepted it without a complaint, and put aside his own wants and needs, to help us when we needed it. No doubt, he got that from you. 

Do you remember that day, seasons ago, when Old Clarkson threw out his back? We were struggling then with our own worries, and yet you chose to spend extra hours every day to help him around his own farm. You spared him a few coins, coins we could have used, but you knew he needed more. Sometimes, I worry that you regret that choice, but if we could do it again, I would urge you to make it, again and again.

As we live in such a selfish world, I've thought often about how much you, Artie, and Heidi gave, just as you were giving now, trying to pay our debts. You are so selfless that, truly, I believe if it came to it, you would give your own life for another in need. It's this selflessness that I've always loved about you, Silas, and was what made me feel so privileged to say that I was your wife. I love you. Always.

Yours evermore,
Jubilee.


Like a stray arrow, a drip of rain fell upon the letter in Minerva's paws and stirred fresh life into the long dried ink. Before any of Jubilee Hetherton's final words could bleed, Minerva folded the parchment safely back under her vambrace. She looked to the open roof of the arena where dark storm clouds loomed threateningly above.

As a farmer, rain was a blessing to Minerva. It caused her crops to grow, the flowers to bloom, and gave her an excuse to spend the day happily indoors baking scones with Fable. However, in the stories told to her over the seasons, rain was different. It was ominous. It was a sign of cold, of a hero's misery, and of darkness to come. It was a harbinger in either case, but here, whether it was for good or bad, Minerva didn't know.

"Ooh-ooh, what a terrible day for rain." Lady Eve let out an exaggerated sigh as she took her place in the seat next to Minerva's and adjusted her absurdly, wide-brimmed hat. A vole sitting behind them coughed in annoyance as the hat nearly blocked his view of the arena. When the vixen ignored him, he scowled and stomped towards a different seat with a better view.

Eve waited for the beast to be gone before turning to Minerva and giving her a sly wink. With the two alone, the vixen held her gaze fixed forward on the battle in front of them and spoke quietly in between the crowd's cheers. "Thank you for meeting me here. You look tired. Are you well?"

Minerva nodded. "There was a storm last night. 'Parently the 'pumps' were broken and the whole place was floodin'. Nire had us bailin' out water with buckets. Was that yer doin'?"

"It was Mister Timberfell's idea," Eve explained. "Without those pumps, the sluice can no longer handle the waterflow and the tunnels will flood. That beaver may be a rude scoundrel, but if there's one thing he's good at, it's knowing how places work and what keeps them that way."

"Aye, that seems t' be that 'rude scoundrel's' specialty." Minerva recalled only a week before Silas' death when they first joined FTN, and how he grew enraged at the mere mention of Blasio Timberfell. It was only after she followed the rat and tried to help him, that he told her what the beaver did. Damming up the river so the snow runoff wouldn't come to his farm, then breaking it down once he owned the land himself. Despicable. "Why work with a beast like him?"

"Without him, I don't think we would have gotten this far. He's given us the money, the resources, and even some of the best ideas. Your friend Komi Banton is being tasked with releasing the boars from the Crater. That was his idea too. If she does that, then Nire won't have riders to fend us off with, and many of his forces will be distracted trying to catch them in Northvale," Eve said quietly. "For once, I believe we actually have a chance."

"But in Northvale? Beasts would die," Minerva said. No, Blasio wasn't just helping them. A beast like him didn't help others for free. What was his game?

Lady Eve opened her mouth, but it was Nire's voice that reached Minerva's ears first. “AND hailing from the barbaric kingdom of the Rapscallions, the one they’re all here to wreak their vengeance upon, a chilling nightmare made flesh and blood, the sovereign of suffering...Prince Thrayjen the BLACKWHISKERS!”

Minerva covered her ears from the crowd's roar. Turning her gaze back to the arena, the otterwife watched as the rat, Thrayjen the Blackwhiskers, strode into the arena, a trident in one paw and a net in the other. Opposite of him, was Thrasher, the massive monitor lizard Minerva had seen take on three beasts at once, as well as a wildcat and shrew. The battle began without warning as Thrayjen suddenly hurled his trident through the air and skewered the shrew in his smiling mouth, killing the beast instantly.

From there, Thrayjen entered the fray with the two other combatants. Eventually they grew distracted with each other, and the large rat skulked around and took the wildcat by surprise, slicing her throat open. Thrayjen and Thrasher were more evenly matched, but even as Thrasher's strength seemed to prove more than Thrayjen could match, it was the rat's brutality that brought his opponent's downfall. Thrayjen's jaws closed around the monitor lizard's neck, and then it was over.

Lady Eve covered her eyes from the bloodshed. "Of course, even with this chance, there are still beasts like the Blackwhiskers or Commander Nix. Beasts who want to be here. Beasts who'd rather be selfish monsters than show an ounce of bravery."

"Aye," Minerva said as the guilt weighed heavy in her chest.

Thrayjen took a bow for everybeast before turning to leave the arena, and Nire stepped forward on the podium.

"Friends, neighbors, visitors to our humble Crater. Are you not entertained?!"

Nire let the crowd's roar die down before he continued with a grin on his face. "I'm happy to hear that, but while we set up for the next match I would like to talk about something serious."

Lady Eve raised a brow.

"For seasons, our humble Crater has served at the pleasure of Northvale. It is a partnership that has brought wealth and prosperity to many, many beasts. But, in recent weeks, a rebel faction of our beloved city has struck out against our arena, against the values we hold dear. They would tear down all that we have built! But, are we afraid?"

"No!" the crowd roared.

"We are not afraid! We will not be intimidated, bullied by the few who seek to oppress the many! Not even the
weather can close our doors! To commemorate our solidarity with Northvale I have commissioned a new tapestry for this tournament. Now, our brave gladiators will not only fight for personal honor, but the honor of Northvale itself! We will show those who threaten us that we will not cower against-"

"Oh my goodness!" Eve's eyes suddenly darted upward towards the rafters as a pine marten in blue tumbled down with an earsplitting scream and a dagger in his chest. The beast flailed in midair, before landing with a crack upon the stone podium where Nire stood only a moment before. The lynx stared in shock at the twitching body as the crowd around him screamed.

It was in that moment that the banner unfurled. Like the rain above, it cascaded to the floor revealing the image of Northvale and the Crater, conjoined together as one. But carved into the top were words. It took Minerva a moment to read them, but they soon became clear.

Hope Lives.

The arena was in chaos as Nire screamed along with the crowd, his gaze shooting upwards as he searched desperately for the culprit. He looked through the audience, and Minerva saw that familiar look, that same crazed look in his eyes he had that day in the Hall of Greats. And then those eyes met hers.

And his snarl twisted slowly into a smile.

Nire pointed a claw towards her and raised his voice louder than the din of the crowd. "Guards! Bring me the Monster of Mossflower!"

Eve turned worriedly towards Minerva. "What does he want with you? He couldn't possibly think you had something to do with this?"

"No," Minerva murmured, shaking her head. The otterwife fought back tears as she met the vixen's gaze. "I'm sorry, Lady Eve, but... I'm not as brave as ye think I am."

Lady Eve's eyes grew wide in realization. "You're... No. No no no."

"He has my daughter, Eve. I'm sorry," Minerva said. "Run. While ye can."

Eve shook her head. "I'm not a coward like you."

Minerva tensed as the guards grabbed her and forced her arms roughly behind her back, but she didn't struggle. She cast a glance back to her sponsor, but Eve said nothing as her gladiator was marched away. The otterwife didn't need words though. Like writing on a page, Minerva could read the vixen's disappointment and her hatred by her eyes alone.

And the rain began to pour.

~~~¿~~~

Nire's office was in disarray when Minerva arrived, a stark contrast to the lynx himself. The Lord of the Crater cut an impossibly calm figure as he stood amongst shards of shattered vases, quills and strewn paperwork, and a fallen bookshelf. Slaves hurrying to pick up the mess scurried to leave at a wave from their master's paw as Minerva was pushed roughly into the room.

"Please. Please. There's no need to be so rough with her," Nire said patiently as the guards marched Minerva
towards the center of the room. One of them pulled a chain from his waist, but the lynx shook his head. "No need to chain her either. The Monster of Mossflower is a guest."

The guards released her with a nod and took positions by the door.

Minerva looked back at them for only a moment before turning towards Nire. The lynx absentmindedly plucked a quill off of the floor and dipped it into a jar of ink, not acknowledging the otterwife's presence any further as he scribbled at a stray piece of parchment.

Minerva opened her mouth, but the lynx raised a claw to stop her. "I appreciate your eagerness, but you'll have to
wait. I'm still expecting other guests."

"Other guests?"

The door opened and Hargorn strode into the office with a grin on his face, and leading Fable by the paw.

"Mummy!" the young otter called as she broke from the weasels grip and rushed towards Minerva, but, at a look from Nire, Hargorn intercepted the child by the scruff and pulled her away. Looking towards her mother in confusion, Fable's eyes started to water as she was dragged away from her and towards Nire.

"Hello, young one." Nire patted Fable's head with a smile and a look towards Minerva.

The young otter followed the lynx's gaze and Minerva smiled at her reassuringly. "Don't worry, sweetheart. Everything's okay. Everything's gonna be okay. Just stay quiet."

Fable nodded hesitantly and rubbed her paw across her eyes.

In the weeks since Nire gave her his offer, the idea of simply lying had come to her head on many occasions from herself and others as well. But, standing in front of him now, and watching as he stroked the young one's head, that idea seemed even more impossible. One wrong word, one betraying glance, could end with both of their deaths. She would have to tell the truth. If seeing Fable grow up in a collar meant seeing her grow up at all, then it was the only option.

Minerva opened her mouth just as the door did the same.

The otterwife froze as another one of Nire's guests limped slowly past her and took his place beside the lynx. The beast rolled the aspen stalk in his mouth as he grinned at her through his devilish, buck teeth.

"Ah, is this the Monster of Mossflower?" Blasio Timberfell asked Nire. He chewed his twig in the pause. "I don't believe we've had a proper introduction. I'm Blasio Timberfell. I've seen your work. Truly remarkable. In fact, you did me quite the favor killing the Reaper for me. Some beasts just don't know to respect their betters." The beaver clutched at the bandage on his thigh.

Even without the introduction, the otterwife felt like she had already met the beast many times before. This was the beast who called for her head for daring to survive, doomed a family to rot in prison, and commanded others to send beasts to their graves. And for what? Measly, worthless coins.

But what was he doing here? What game was he playing? Shouldn't he be...

And then realization hit Minerva. Blasio was a member of FTN. He was funding FTN. If she told Nire the truth, she would have to tell him what the beaver was doing, and that he was double crossing him. And what would a beast like Blasio, who held so much influence, do then?

"Oh, is this your daughter?" Blasio said, placing a massive paw on the young one's shoulder. Knowing full well of her plight, the beaver looked towards Minerva and narrowed his gaze ever so slightly. "She's just as pretty as you are, my dear."

Minerva felt faint.

"Right, shall we get to business then?" Nire said, setting aside his scribbles. Looking straight towards Minerva, he continued. "You know why you're here, Monster. Tell me what FTN is planning and who they are. Now."

Minerva hesitated, her eyes moving from Nire, to Blasio, and to Fable. She thought of Nix and Marik, before finally shaking her head. "No. Not until you promise me my freedom..."

"I've already promised-"

"...and my daughter's."

Nire narrowed his gaze. "I don't have time to argue. Fine. Yes. You may both go free, I promise, but you will tell me everything. Now. You will not have another chance."

Minerva thought of Komi, daring enough to wrap a chain around a scorpion. She thought of Kali, brave, innocent Kali who spoke of hope to Nire himself. She thought of Kentrith, who came back to this hellish place to try and put a stop to it. And she thought of Eve, who refused to run even when the odds were stacked against them. She thought of the vixen's words.

"I'm not a coward like you."

She was right. Nobeast was a coward like her.

Minerva spoke.

"FTN is plannin' on releasin' the boars from their pens int' Northvale. They think it'll cause enough chaos that ye'll be forced t' send some of yer beasts t' round 'em up. While yer guards are distracted, a guard named Tegue will unlock the gates of the Drag. Meanwhile, one beast will be tryin' t' sneak the young 'uns out of the Crater, in hopes that with them safe, other beasts like me with children, will be able t' fight without fear of ye hurtin' them. The gladiators will charge t' the third floor of the Crater t' get as many weapons as they possibly can. From there, they'll storm through every ring of the Crater, freein' anybeast with a collar, until they find you. And well... some of the ideas beasts had t' do to you, I don't feel comfortable sayin' next t' my daughter."

And with only a few words, Minerva had doomed any hope of rebellion.

Nire stopped to consider before asking. "And who is their leader?"

Minerva paused, feeling Blasio's gaze hot on her flesh. "Lady Eveneda Persa," she said. "That's all I know. Now, I want t' take my daughter, and I want t' leave this place."

Nire held up a claw. "Not so fast. We're not done yet." Minerva could only stare in confusion as the lynx turned slowly towards Blasio. "And what say you, Mister Timberfell?"

"What?" Minerva said.

Nire rolled his eyes. "Please. You didn't possibly think that you were my only spy, did you? My friend Blasio here had several of his beasts keeping an eye on things for me. So, tell me, Mister Timberfell, if you'd be so kind, is the Monster here telling the truth?"

The room was quiet save for a low rumbling noise, something that took Minerva a few moments to realize was the sound of Blasio's quiet laughter. Only a moment later, the beaver slapped his knee and launched into near hysterics. "Of course not. Lady Eveneda Persa? That ditzy vixen, the leader of FTN? Do you take Nire to be a bloody fool?"

Minerva froze in disbelief as the beaver continued.

"No, she's lying through her teeth," Blasio said. "The real plan is much more heinous. Like the Monster said, they'll be releasing the boars straight into Northvale- that much is true- but it's in the hopes that they can blame it on you. Innocent beasts will die in that stampede, and with you taking the blame, Northvale will turn against you and the Crater."

"That's what everybeast keeps saying. That Northvale will turn against me. We've had accidents before. Nobeast has turned against us yet."

"Perhaps not. But they will when they find out you've killed all the children you were holding hostage. At least that's what FTN is going to have them believe after they do the deed themselves. And if not then, then certainly after beasts in the audience find themselves with daggers in their backs, or poisoned from your food, or fed to your creatures. How will they feel safe if they think you can't handle some measly rebellion? FTN needs numbers to destroy this place. A hundred gladiators is hardly enough and Northvale will supply the beasts they need."

"I see."

It was a lie. All of it... was a lie. And yet, Blasio was playing Nire for a fool, convincing the paranoid lynx of invisible assassins and nonexistent poisons. But while the beaver was simultaneously saving FTN and the revolt, so too was he damning Minerva.

And he knew it. Because as Nire turned away from him, and towards the otterwife, Blasio Timberfell only smiled.

"Guards, if you would please detain the Monster of Mossflower."

Minerva screamed, scratched, and clawed as the guards descended upon her with chains and weapons drawn. She struggled against them. Fable cried. "He's lying to you!" Minerva shouted as a rat pinned her arms behind her back. "I told ye everything!"

"I don't believe you. I believe you're lying, even now," Nire spat. The lynx crossed his arms as he paced around the restrained otterwife. "Do you remember what I said when you first came here? I told you that a good show requires cooperation. And yet, you seemed to have forgotten that, just as you forgot what would happen... if you didn't."

Minerva's eyes grew wide. "Please. No. I'm tellin' the truth."

Nire ignored her plea as he turned to Hargorn. "Hargorn, please take the Monster and her daughter to the Inquisition Chamber. The young one is a distraction, so I want you to kill her and make her watch."

"NO! PLEASE!" Minerva yelled.

The lynx ignored her and continued. "And prolong it. From there, I don't care what you do to her. Have fun, just, please... leave her intact," Nire said, turning his gaze from the smiling weasel to the otterwife. "She has many more battles ahead of her and I'll need her to be able to still hold a spear."

"O' course, sir, it'd be me pers'nal pleasure," Hargorn said with a chuckle. He looked down at the terrified, young otter before grabbing her by the scruff and yanking her into his arms. "Come along, me dear."

"Get yer paws off o' her!" Minerva snarled.

"Shut up!" The butt of a guard's spear cracked hard against the otterwife's skull, and she fell hard onto the floor.

Dazed, Minerva was pulled back to her feet and forced towards the door. She looked behind her. Nire hardly acknowledged her, too busy talking with Blasio and too evil to even care. As the door to the lynx's office was shut behind her and the guards led her through the tunnels, Minerva looked ahead of her into the eyes of her daughter.

Tears fell from Fable's eyes as Minerva smiled at her reassuringly.

"Everything's goin' t' be okay."

"Everything's goin' t' be okay."

But the rain continued to fall.
59
Round Six / Battle Bebop
« Last post by Kali on October 18, 2017, 07:51:34 PM »
"Send a bolt of lightning... very, very frightening to me..." Kali didn't know when she started to sing. Maybe sometime in the night, after she tried to escape from the window slits of the store room. She missed them in the dark, not that it mattered. They were wide enough to allow in light and nothing more.

After that, she tried to force the door open once guards finally ended their watch, but it would not yield to her. Even after she threw herself at it until her shoulder was sore.

"I see a small s-silhouette of a bat,  Scare-a-mooch, Scare-a-mooch, will you do a f-fandango..."

Sleep never came to Kali, not with the sounds of Trent being subjected to the owls grizzly feast filling the store house. Not while Kali knew she would be joining the rat as dessert once she was caught. The thought made Kali wrap her wings even tighter around her body as she hung weakly from the ceiling.

"Nire has a place for me, Nire has a place for meeeeeeeeeee..." Kali did a mock lute solo with her wing tips, "So you think you can stop me and spit in my eyeeeee, so you think you can leave me to dIIIIeeEEee. I just got to get right out of heeereeee..."

The bat sighed, "It will never catch on."

Her ears picked up at the sound of the lock being opened. She gasped, falling from her perch and onto her head. A moment of wing flailing and frantic flapping passed until Kali flung herself behind a rack of rolled up tapestries.

"Did you catch the fight between the rat and the lizard?"

"You mean Blackwhiskers? Nah, I was hauling cargo. Pity, I heard the reptile got a good ol' thrashin. He always looked at us funny, like he was hungry or something, ya know?"

Kali watched from between rolls of fabric as a pair of mice entered the room. Slave beasts. She bit her lower lip as they grabbed the offending banner she had so meticulously defaced. She tried to keep the message near the middle, so that it would not be easily spotted until someone unrolled it.

However, the banner was the least of her concerns. The presence of the slaves meant that her chance for escape had finally come. If she flew fast enough she might be able to clear Northvale before Thunder was unleased upon her.

Assuming that he wasn't already out there, looking for her now. Nire had to have known she was gone...

Kali jumped when she heard the felines voice drift up to the top of the arena.

"Friends, neighbors, visitors to our humble Crater. Are you not entertained?!"

The audience replied with a tremendous shout.

Kali tensed, watching the slaves struggle to carry the heavy banner out the door. Never had overcast skies looked so good to her. She would have to be quick, she would have to be quiet.

"I'm happy to hear that, but while we set up for the next match I would like to talk about something serious."

The bat counted silently as the beasts left the door. They were walking directly away from the door, setting the banner up to be unfurled. She waited until the beasts had their backs turned before dashing for the door. One step, two step, three steps and a hop to gain altitude and Kali was almost free...

Right when the guard came around the corner.

Kali's vision filled with blue as she collided with the pine marten, nearly bowling him over and sending the bat flailing backward. The pine marten, however, wasted no time in raising the alarm.

"Go get help!" the marten hissed to the stunned looking slaves. He hissed the order again to move them into action. "Alarm!"

Kali screamed as the guard rounded on her with his halberd. The pole arm swung faster than she thought a weapon so heavy should. She ducked under the swing, dropping to the floor.

"For seasons, our humble Crater has served at the pleasure of Northvale. It is a partnership that has brought wealth and prosperity to many, many beasts..." the cat continued, unaware about the fight happening above his head.

"Please! Stop!" Kali shouted, but the marten did not listen. He only pressed the attack stabbing forward towards Kali's fat belly.

"But, in recent weeks, a rebel faction of our beloved city has struck out against our arena, against the values we hold dear. They would tear down all that we have built! But, are we afraid?"

She caught the halberd with her wings, directing it to the side and away from her vitals. The blade of the weapon however caught her in the wing, forcing her backwards and pinning her against the tapestries rolled up behind her.

Kali's screams were lost in the shouts of the arena crowd.

"We are not afraid! We will not be intimidated, bullied by the few who seek to oppress the many! Not even the
weather can close our doors!"

The marten drew closer, paw reaching out to grab the bat by the neck. With her free wing, Kali reached for her knife.

The marten let out a yell, stumbling backward and bleeding from his arm. Kali used the distraction to try and free herself, slamming the knife between the axe head and the tapestry, she used the leverage to pry the weapon out.

Kali fell, panting, her wing a flurry of pain.

The sound of a sword being freed from the marten's scabbard made her ears twitch.

"To commemorate our solidarity with Northvale I have commissioned a new tapestry for this tournament."

The sound of metal on metal was familiar to Kali's ears, from training, from watching fights, but never from having to defend herself. The fight was upon Kali even before she knew it. The broad sword seemed to be everywhere with impossible speed. Where it hit caused destruction, chopping tapestries and tools in half as Kali did her best to dodge.

Training came back to her, as meager as it was. The guard raised his sword over his shoulder and she positioned her flimsy dagger to deflect it. The was a spark as the blades connected, the force of the blow throwing Kali to the ground.

"Now, our brave gladiators will not only fight for personal honor, but the honor of Northvale itself!"

The marten chopped downward with the sword, meeting stone where Kali's head was only moments before she rolled out of the way. She gasped as the blade came close enough to her waist to cut her sash as the Marten quickly brought it around.

"We will show those who threaten us that we will not cower against them. It is our turn to strike back!"

With a growl Kali leapt forward, slashing her dagger across the marten's chain mail. She ducked under the counter swing, throwing her shoulder into the marten and forcing him backwards, towards the door. But only succeeded in forcing the beast out of her reach.

He recovered, reading his blade defensively. Hissing, the guard charged once more.

"We will not go quietly! We will not roll over to the will of those who inspire terror and fear upon our people! We will remain strong and united against all enemies of hope and freedom!"

It would be terrible to die here, thought Kali, with the hypocritical speech of Nire being the last thing she had heard. But the pine marten was proving himself just as deadly as Thunder, and her friends were not here to bail her out.

Time seemed to slow down for Kali as the guard charged. Her mind raced for what to do, and in her desperation a single sentence came to mind. It felt like so long ago, that day on the training field.

"If you could put some force behind it, that would definitely take your opponent by surprise.”

Kali's eyes went wide.

Leaping into the air, Kali threw the dagger upward. Wounded wing or not, she turned her flight into a mid-air somersault. She caught the blade with her foot paw, thrusting it forward where the marten was unprepared to defend.

With her full weight behind it, the blade pierced even his chainmail, sinking up to the hilt into his chest.

Shock filled the guards face. He staggered backward, struggling to keep his balance on the slick stone until his ankle caught the banner behind him.

And over the side he went with the banner as it unrolled.

A terrible scream filled the arena until it came to a sudden, horrible stop.

Everything came to a screeching halt for Kali. Her ears fell flat, unneeded in the unearthly silence that followed. Her mouth opened in horror, unable to comprehend the death of the marten.

Without thinking she came to the edge of the arena, peering over to see the beasts body laying broken upon the podium. Another two feet to the right and she would have slain Nire himself.

All eyes turned to the bat and the banner that unrolled below her. It was a truly marvelous creation upon a blue backdrop with white silk thread depicting the town of Northvale itself. The market places, the docks, the sites beasts see when visiting the city, all blended together in a collage leading up to the Arena at the top.

All destroyed by the deep gouges in the banner from top to middle that spelled out the words, 'HOPE LIVES'.

Although tempting to draw a picture Nire being thrown off the Arena walls, Kali's artistic skills were limited to song and dance. At the same time it felt wrong to destroy a creation such as this with vicious words aimed at Nire.

Irony was cruel, she thought, unable to take her eyes off of the slain marten. She was woken up by the shrill screams of a beast in anguish. Not from the audience, but from Nire.

Regarding the scene with horror, Kali had to force herself to move, to back away towards the far edge of the arena. Guards could be seen coming up the stairs in droves from the left and the right, seeking to cut her off.

She looked one way, then another, and finally down to her wing and the great big hole carved out of it. Kali wasn't going to be flying anytime soon.

"Ah... well..."

"... crap."


><><><><><><><><><


The guards couldn't decide how to best shackle a bat, given that manacles were simply useless on a beast lacking paws. In the end they attached a chain to her slave's collar and called it good.

Kali kept her head low as they led her through the offices, leaving a small trail of blood from her still open wound where ever she stepped. She offered no resistance, not even a peep as they brought her into the office level.

A small part of Kali expected to see Kentrith, or even Inkpaw. But no such friendly faces appeared, not even the rat posing as a guard.

Of the Blue Backs who entered the room, only two of them stayed after the doors were shut behind Kali. She found herself in a familiar dining room. It was right on this very spot where Kali, for the first time, preformed for Nire. Where she stopped Silas from murdering the feline.

If only she had not gotten in his way.

Kali did not condone the crimes of Thrayjen, but she couldn't bring herself to judge him for them either. He regretted his actions. But Nire?

What excuse could he give?

"Kali."

The bat's eyes finally picked up enough off the floor to examine the room fully. Another fox stood somewhat awkwardly off to the side of the room. A fox Kali thought she would never see again.

With guards behind her, keeping ahold of the chain attached to her collar, Kali raised an eyebrow. In other circumstances Kali would have joked about Baxter being rather short to be an interrogator.

Tired, wounded and dreadfully hungry, the two bards simply stared at each other in silence.

Baxter spoke first.

"Did the guards do that to you?" Baxter's comment caused Kali to glance at her wing. The gaping hole was a startling sight, and she was trying very, very hard not to contemplate the consequences of such a wound. Would it heal? Would she be able to fly again? Kali simply didn't know.

"BY all that is holy, Kali, what have you gotten yourself into?" the fox sighed, "Look. We don't have much time. Nire only let me in here to talk with you because he's too busy being livid elsewhere. I had to beg even then."

The bat glanced to the floor, ears flat.

"Kali, I told Nire that this had to be a mistake. There is no way you could have killed a guard. You're... YOU for Martin's sake. Please tell me you had nothing to do with this." Baxter laughed. His laughter died off after Kali didn't reply. "Bloody... Kali, how did it come to this? You're a bard. You're not a murder. What ever you are involved in please, just tell Nire a-and maybe he will go easy on you."

The bat gave him an 'oh really?' glare with her eyes. Did the fox forget who he was talking about?

Baxter turned away, rubbing the back of his neck, "I'm sorry I never came to visit. I was... scared, you know. And I... I didn't want to see you get hurt.  And I don't want to see you get hurt now. Please Kali, just cooperate with Nire and he might spare you. Please..."

The fox gave the bat a pleading look.

"I don't want to see you die."

Kali widened her eyes for a moment before finally settling on Baxter's own. There was so much to say, and yet, so little time.

It was then that the door opened.

"N-nire," the fox began.

Nire swept into the room like a typhoon. His usual smile was plastered on his face, but frayed slightly at the edges. "Baxter! Thank you for helping your winged cousin settle in, but I can take it from here." The cat wrapped his arm around Kali, guiding her towards a chair before sitting across the table himself.

"Kaliiiiiii, my cheeky little bat. You have had an... exciting day. Come! Sit! Have an apple."

The fox gave Kali one last worried glance, then walked out the door and leaving Kali to her fate.

The bat did as she was instructed, tenderly sitting down and eyeing the cat warily as he slid a basket of fruit towards her. Her gaze lingered, mouth watering. Part of her knew that she had not eaten since last night, the other part of her knew that this could very well be her last meal.

She shrugged, deciding if it was her last meal then she might as well enjoy it. Grabbing a bushel of grapes with her good wing Kali began to munch away as Nire continued.

"Now, Kali, sweetie, we be both know that you lack the smarts to orchestrate such a fiasco."

Cheeks full of grapes, Kali looked up at Nire's wide Cheshire grin.

"I want to know who helped you out of the arena. I'm going to need their names."

Kali swallowed her grapes. She paused, glancing about the room, and then grabbed an apple.

Nire narrowed his eyes slightly. "Kali. I know you. You do not have a violent bone in your body. You couldn't even kill The Tiger in the arena, and I'm sure you didn't really want to kill that poor marten. Just think about his family! Those poor marten babies watching their papa fall and splatter at my feet. How horrible!" Nire gasped, "Are these terrorists really the kind of beasts you want to be associating with? Putting a humble bard like yourself to such vile acts. If you don't help me put a stop to this, they will only force me to hurt other beasts... is that what you really want?"

The lynx's eyes fell upon the bat, who only gave him an intense stare as she munched away at the apple.

"Right," drumming his claws on the desk, Nire's smile began to falter, "I always liked you, Kali. You always had heart. Reminded me of myself at that age. It's why I spared you from the games." The feline laughed, "What? Did you really think you were in danger? You haven't seen danger. I could have put you up to real warriors, or the owls."

Again the cat received only a silent stare of judgement as Kali worked on her apple.

Drawing a deep breath, Nire calmed himself, "But I am, if nothing else, a forgiving beast. And I will make it worth your while. I can give you back your lute. Restore you to your original job here. Just think, you can live the life you always wanted! Playing your tunes, eating... fruit and... what ever it is bats consider a luxury. The point is, you will never want for anything ever again. Food, clothes, gold. All yours. A beast complains about your singing? Just say the word and I'll have them flayed."

The cat gave Kali time to answer. She let the length of the pause drag out long enough to finish her apple. She held the core off to the side, letting it drop to the floor before reaching for a pear, completely ignoring the cat.

Nire's tail began to twitch and his smile turned feral. "This is kindness, you must realize this, yes?" He stood up, looming over the bat, "I can have you tortured. You won't believe the kinds of things I can get away down in the dungeons, next to the monsters. How long do you think it will take, hmmm? An hour? A day? How long do you think you will hold up after I pluck the wings from your body and feed what's left to Thunder?"

When the bat still refused to respond, the cat screamed, slamming his fist against the table and sending fruit flying in all directions. "I just threatened to kill you, you flying rodent! Do you not care? Answer me!"

"But you wouldn't kill me yourself, would you?"

The cat was taken aback as Kali's eyes met his own. There was something different now, a sharpness behind her gaze that bored through him, "You have beasts to do that for you. Beasts to torture for you, maim for you, even kill for you when you get bored, but you never got your paws dirty, have you? In fact, I wonder if I have killed more beasts than you."

Kali leaned back in her chair, "You are too much of a coward to do anything but hide in the shadows, Nire. You always have been, you always will be. The only thing that makes you dangerous is the control you wield over this town." Her face continued to not display the anger and bitterness that was reflected by Nire. No, Kali looked at him with something much worse.

Pity.

"It must be a horrible feeling, knowing that you are losing control. I wonder, after everyone finds out just how powerless you really are, who will turn on you first? The town, your friends... how long you will last in your own arena after they throw you into it..."

Nire twitched an eye. His face steaming with rage, "Throw this... creature into the dungeons." The guards came, lifting the bat up and escorting her to the door. "You're right, Kali. I CAN have you killed! We will see how brave you are after I throw you to the birds!"

Something crashed against the wall after Kali was lead out of the room.

"Inkpaw..." she said inwardly, "This better be worth it..."
60
Round Six / With Open Eyes
« Last post by Thrayjen on October 18, 2017, 06:17:52 PM »
“Then he just pushed by me, walked right back down the passage and ignored me as I yelled after him. ‘Hope guides us’, tch. If the plan is to close your eyes and hope for the best, it’s not much of a plan.”

Thrayjen blew steam from his tea, sipping gingerly and savoring the sweet taste of the blend he had concocted for Foxglove from Aldridge’s old herbs.

The young mouse sat in Aldridge’s old chair, staring into the fire Thrayjen had built, ignoring her own cup and the flattened sandwiches beside her. Her silence had stretched for hours as Thrayjen visited her, attempting conversation and failing to bring the redness from the mouse’s eyes.

From Adeen’s chair, Rinam looked at the rat seated upon the floor yet still eye level with her. She lifted her tea to her pursed lips.

“A desperate measure from the rebellion. Perhaps closing their eyes and hoping is the best they have.”

“Then they need to wait until they have something better,” Thrayjen grumbled. “I don’t think Komi realized how many are going to die. Or who, for that matter. Boars don’t care if you wear a collar or a blue uniform or nothing at all.”

“I should tell Nire,” Thrayjen said, looking into the flames. “Stop this before it starts.”

“Why?” Foxglove’s head turned enough to let the rat see her confusion. “Even if he believed you...what good would it do?”

“It would save lives,” Thrayjen answered, tilting his head.

“The lives of the beasts who let this all happen,” Foxglove said gloomily.

“And the lives of those who know nothing else.” Rinam looked at Thrayjen as she countered young Aera’s voice. “Like our prince once was, the beasts of Northvale are now. Hungry for carnage and amusement.”

“The boars...they won’t help, Foxglove.” Thrayjen pressed. “Violence leads to more violence. If Nire ever falls, another will be there to pick up the slack. Another and another, until a dynasty is cemented in history. We stick to Aldridge’s ideas. Change the minds of the beasts, and you change their ways. We must give them a chance.”

“They don’t deserve one,” Foxglove mumbled. “Uncle was wrong, and now he’s dead.”

Thrayjen looked to the ceiling and pictured the Barrow marks.

“I didn’t think I deserved a chance. Then Nan offered one to me and I found happiness for the first time in seasons.”

“Nan?”

“Helix and Verna’s grandmother,” Thrayjen explained, nudging Aera’s plate towards her with his tail. The mouse scowled but picked up her sandwich and took a tentative bite. Thrayjen continued, smiling with the small victory.

“I had been running for years, never staying in one place too long. Too worried about beasts recognizing me or my brother’s trackers finding me. Those seasons...they weren’t good to me. When I stumbled across Nan’s little shack, I was so tired, so hungry, I thought I’d die there.”

Thrayjen closed his eyes, imagining the scent of flowers. Thousands of colourful petals and leaves, fields of wild and planted crops littered with broken stone fences. Rain. It had been raining. His paws were filthy, his fur spiked with mud. The oak tree.

He had been digging. Burying. Burying his past. Thrayjen opened his eyes.

“I don’t know why I did it...but I got to the door and I knocked. It didn’t feel right to just push the door open, as abandoned as the place looked. I knocked, and I waited. Poor Nan must have been so frightened, but she opened the door anyways. Always open the door in the rain, she told me afterwards.”

A soft laugh. His smile wavered.

“She took me in without hesitating. Fed me, boiled some water so I could wash, wrapped me in a blanket.” A pleasant warmth, gentle and comforting, wrapped around him. “All while her two grandbabes slept in the corner.”

“You could have slit their throats in the night,” Foxglove whispered with a note of horror.

“Once upon a time, I may have. Nan showed me kindness when I hadn’t experienced any before. She...she let me hold the babies when my cough eased a few days later. She gave the Blackwhiskers a baby to hold. She gave me a baby to hold and trusted me with her.”

Gold glinted as Thrayjen’s mouth parted in a wide grin.

“Little Verna, my Sweetnose, was the most precious thing I had ever seen. Even her wee spikes were soft and delicate. She was so little, she fit in my paw. And she opened her eyes and...and she just smiled at me. No one had ever smiled at me with such blind love. I never wanted to let her go. So I stayed. I never meant to, but Nan was old back then, even, and her palsy was getting worse. She couldn’t tend her fields like she wanted, couldn’t get to market and back on her aching bones, and one day I realized she would die before the children were old enough to fend for themselves. I couldn’t let that happen.”

The rat sipped at his tea, frowning at the tepidness.

“And now I’m here. Still trying to protect them.”

“What happened to Nan?” Foxglove asked. The mouse tightly clutched at the arm of her chair.

“She died. Peacefully, in her sleep. Like she deserved.” Thrayjen sighed quietly. “That was the night the slavers came. I never got to finish her pyre.”

Several salty trails snaked down Foxglove’s cheeks. The mouse eased back into her chair, crossing her arms fussily over her chest before frustration guided her paw to slam down on the chair arm.

“That’s not fair,” she hissed.

“That’s not the point,” Thrayjen gently said. “Nan took me in and trusted me. She didn’t have to. She didn’t know anything about me, but she knew a beast in need when she saw one. She gave me help, and in doing so she gave me a chance at experiencing an actual life outside of fear and anger and evil. It’s what Northvale must be offered.”

“They chose this way of life already,” Aera insisted.

A log tipped over in the hearth. Sparks showered the air, though nobeast moved for a long time to correct the flames.

“Tell me about Celine,” Rinam said.

“No,” Thrayjen whispered.

“Foxglove needs to understand.”

“Understand what? Who’s Celine?”

“Understand that not everybeast deserves a chance,” Rinam answered simply, moving to stoke the fire back to life. “But the good that comes of patience and understanding can defeat the darkness.”

“Oh. Aldridge told me some stories,” Foxglove said with clear disinterest. “I’ve heard of the things you did, back...before Nan, I guess.”

“He kept the worst from you, I’m sure. I still have my secrets.” Thrayjen set his teacup down and crossed his legs. He leaned his paws on his knees, rocking back and forth until Rinam’s stare revealed there would be no escaping her.

“I loved Celine,” Thrayjen started softly. Neither mouse urged him on, even as the minutes went by and Rinam added another log on the flames.

“I loved her. But she didn’t love me.” The rat held young Aera’s gaze, his body beginning to tremble as her white fur gleamed orange. “I didn’t care enough to notice. I did...terrible things to her.”

Thrayjen swallowed and inhaled a long, deep breath.

“We grew up together. She was just a slave, but she was born special. Pink eyes.” The rat’s eyes locked with the Pearl Dawn’s. “White fur. And so she was given to me, a playmate of sorts. Someone I could torment in lieu of the children of noble birth. I wasn’t supposed to take to her so; she was just meant to be a whipping pup, but she didn’t simper to me like the other children. She was brave, and bossy. She feared nothing when she was with me, and we...Well, we were brats. Mostly me. I dragged her around everywhere with me. She used to sleep in my room when we were dibbuns because I couldn’t sleep without her, even after Greyvayyan was born. That habit never changed.”

The memories awoke no gentle laughter nor nostalgic smiles. Instead, a silent tear rolled from his eyes and dripped from his chin.

“As we got older, I…”

A wave of painful regret enveloped Thrayjen. His claws dug into his flesh as he mouthed silent words he had never spoken out loud. His courage abandoned him, leaving him with only the wide and shocked eyes of Foxglove and Rinam’s quiet breathing. He forced himself to keep his eyes open, to push himself. He owed it to Celine.

“I took her as my mistress. She had always been mine, but I wanted more than her company. She f-fought me the first time. I didn’t think anything of it. I made up reasons and justified myself. She was shy, but that would fade. I was her prince, her friend. I loved her. Of course she wanted me. Celine stopped meeting my eyes after that. Started to shy away from me. I thought she was bashful, or modest. Frightened of my brother, maybe, of what he could do. He was the only beast aside from Father I ever yielded to.”

A wince. A slow breath.

“Greyvayyan was always jealous of her. He didn’t want to share me, especially with a slave. But Greyvayyan...when Curathalla died and Greyvayyan became king, he gave me an ultimatum. Leave her be or he’d kill her.”

A bitter snarl formed on Thrayjen’s maw, lips pulling back to reveal teeth and gold.

“I should have listened to him, but I was selfish and didn’t. When he found out I kept carrying on with my lovely Celine…he dragged us both to the High Tower and told me either to push her off or he would.”

The snarl grew fiercer, his words a wild growl.

“What did I know about love…I raised my sword against him. I loved her so much, I raised my sword against my brother and king and Celine laughed. She laughed for the first time in seasons and stepped off the tower.”

Thrayjen’s jaw tightened and snapped shut with a click of teeth. His trembling stilled and he realized at some point he had stood up. The rain outside pounded upon the bowyery roof; the hollow noise echoed in his chest.

“It crushed me. She’d have rather died than live by my side. Every idea about myself, my world, was changed. Greyvayyan kept me close for a while and I did his bidding but I couldn’t stay there. I stole my brother’s sword and fled north. I learned what it was to be hungry, and to fear. I was cast upon the mercy of the world after showing it none and...at the end, there was Nan.”

Thrayjen walked over to the table, pouring himself a fresh cup of tea. He felt oddly tired, as though waking from a restless sleep.

“Do I deserve a second chance, absolutely not. But I was given one anyway. That’s why I’ll do anything to save my little ones; they give me a reason to live. They help me see things clearly.”

The orange flames cast a comforting glow about the workshop and yet nobeast dared breathe a word as the rat gulped his tea. No ease was to be found there amongst the beasts that tried to digest the confession. Thrayjen turned to the mice, their fur and perfect faces golden from the fire. His pounding heart finally settled.

“Think very hard before you condemn a beast, Miss Aera. Remember your uncle’s wisdom. He was...even smarter than any of us realized.”

Thrayjen bid the maids a good night, excusing himself from the bowyery and departing into the storm. He closed the door behind him, making sure the wind didn’t slam it. Heart pounding and bile rising, he clasped his paws behind his back as he walked across the archery range, fighting every fibre of muscle that begged to flee.

The door creaked open again and Rinam trailed after him. He didn’t want to wait for her or face her but the rat’s paws slowed until Thrayjen stopped.

“I hate Aldridge,” Thrayjen started as Rinam caught up. “For leaving us here alone.”

“The darkness of the Crater-”

“Hell’s Gates, I’m struggling too. Alone, now.”

The mouse looked up at him, blinking rain droplets from her lashes. They stared at each other, their fur and clothes limp with water. She tentatively reached for Thrayjen’s paw but the rat withdrew, stepping away from her. Again Rinam reached for his paw, bringing it into hers and demanding the counterpart with a beckoning gesture.

Her paws were warm. He noticed it immediately and couldn’t shake the thought. Her claws guided his into forms and patterns, and every symbol and gesture was revealed. He watched intently, eyes following graceful digits as they composed silent poems.

“Peace, for your mind. Mercy, for your heart. This is ‘courage’....and ‘strength’, for the tournament tomorrow. ‘Love’.”

Rinam stopped, tilting her head up.

“For your children. And ‘forgiveness’.”

Her paws tightened around his.

“It’s for Aldridge.”

“Aldridge?” Thrayjen frowned. Rinam merely smiled and nodded.

“You are so much stronger than you realize. Forgiveness for Aldridge in his time of weakness, for he has never been as strong as you in fighting his evils.”

Somehow, she illuminated the dark courtyard. Thrayjen smiled and held the sign a moment longer.

Thoroughly soaked, they made their way through the Drag and towards the slave’s sleeping areas. Before Hargorn ushered them apart, Rinam perched upon her toes, leaning in and brushing her whiskers against Thrayjen’s scarred cheek.

“I will teach you more when you return from battle. Until then.”

She once again molded their paws into the symbol for strength.

~*~*~

The sunlight was blinding with only wisps of silver clouds to remind anybeast of the previous night’s storm. All roads in Northvale led to the Crater, and the colourful banners that announced the dozens of fighters promised to entertain the throngs of beasts flocking to the greatest show ever.

Vendors sold cartloads of food and trinket. Brewers offered ales and wines. A toy maker’s stall traded in pewter pins and tin figures of the adored gladiators, some boasting moving arms and tails. Scarves and tunics bearing the embroidered sigils of fighters were peddled for outrageous prices. Thousands of paws walked the ground above the Drag, oblivious to the plight of those they so admired.

Beneath the groomed sands and the stadium seats, below the ground where Thunder’s soaring form could not spy, exhausted slaves hustled through the hallways and dashed from room to room. Trainers growled out advice and insight to their charges, fighters donned their armour and smiths added the final edges to ghastly weapons.

Thrayjen sat quietly on a bench, waiting by the gates that would rise up and let him greet his fate. He watched the other fighters, some nervous in their collars while others with naked necks stretched and scrutinized their blades. Blue sat statuesque beside him.

“Now, it’s a free for all, but Nire said each and every one of them jumped at the opportunity for a go at the Blackwhiskers. Remember, Thrasher likes to use his tail. You do too, but he has longer reach, aye. Rosemond likes to keep her distance, so get in close and watch out for her spear. And Kevin...well...You know what he’ll do if he catches you.”

Thrayjen swallowed and nodded.

“If Nire gives you the claws down...kill them first, aye? Don’t make them suffer. When they’re dead, they’re dead, and you can do whatever you want for show, but...don’t forget yourself.”

Thrayjen looked down at his paws, locked and curled to form a symbol for strength.

“Good luck, aye,” Blue said as Nire’s speech above them ended. Thrayjen caught the tightness in her voice and hugged her as they stood. She patted the kraken on his armor for luck.

The lynx had given the tournament a superfluous opening ceremony of speeches, coloured fire, and aerial displays of impressive finesse. The slave that Thunder had feasted upon was jeered by the audience, their paws and throats warming to the day’s spectacle.

Above them, the crowd cheered as Thrayjen’s opponents were announced.

“Have Plockette warm some mead for me, Blue.”

The gate opened.

“AND hailing from the barbaric kingdom of the Rapscallions,” Nire’s voice boomed above the growing cheers, “The one they’re all here to wreak their vengeance upon, a chilling nightmare made flesh and blood, the sovereign of suffering...Prince Thrayjen the BLACKWHISKERS!”

Across from the rat, the mighty scaled lizard called The Thrasher stood, a giant axe clutched in his claws. Further down posed a wildcat in a steel breastplate spinning a spear above her head while brandishing a shield.

Then there was Kevin. A small, sandy coloured shrew with a chainmail shirt that didn’t quite cover his round belly stood a distance away from the larger opponents. Rather than showing off with his dagger, the scarred shrew instead smiled nervously and gave Thrayjen a slight wave with his little paw.

Thrayjen shuddered inwardly, glancing at the shrew’s blood red sigil of grinning teeth.

The crowd’s roar was deafening. Thrayjen’s ears flattened against his head as he strutted into the centre of the sandy field. His skull white kraken hung from flag poles and the sticks brandished by ecstatic fans. The rat blew kisses and waved, spinning in place as though dancing, skipping over his net and avoiding the hissing hooks braided into the cords.

And then he hurled his trident across the arena and into the face of Kevin.

The shrew flew back several feet, half his head gone and rended by the prongs of death.

Collectively, the gladiators heaved a sigh of intense relief.

Thrasher and Rosemond charged forward. Thrayjen, too, was on the move, loping across the field towards his discarded weapon as he kept on the outside of the other two gladiators, all four paws digging into the sand and sending it flying as he ran.

Rosemond’s spear jabbed out, not near enough to strike the rat but enough to cow him from his target. The wildcat had proved the faster sprinter, standing between Thrayjen and his trident. She lunged forward, barely missing Thrayjen as he spun to the side and cracked his net like a whip. The cat hoisted her shield but when the rat pulled down, her shield wrenched with the hooks that snagged it. Rosemond hissed, struggling to tear away, then knocked herself in the face as Thrayjen let the tension go.

Thrasher’s tail caught the rat in the face. The burning pain lanced through Thrayjen’s skull, swelling his eye shut, and he let the net go entirely. Stumbling back, Thrayjen turned his head to see the lizard spin his axe. The rat leapt again, landing hard on his back and scrambling away through the wet sand.

Thrayjen barely managed to get to his feet. Thrasher’s lashing tail and Rosemond’s thrusting spear dogged him from each side, backing the rat up until he sensed the spiked wall behind him. The tail came again, and this time Thrayjen ducked as the whip-like appendage screamed over him. The rat shot forward, hurtling into Thrasher’s stomach and sending them both rolling into the ground. Thrayjen kicked once, twice, then scarpered sideways as Rosemond’s spear stabbed towards him.

Then Thrasher.

The crowd gasped as the lizard took the spear in the shoulder as he sat up. He howled as Rosemond’s paws twisted. Without missing a beat, the wildcat pushed her weight forward against Thrasher’s resisting claws as the lizard tried to push the spear away and out.

By Kevin’s body, Thrayjen tore his trident from the sand and stole up the shrew’s serrated knife. He turned once again and tore through the sand, head cocked to favour his open eye. Thrasher and Rosemond danced, the lizard swinging the cat about as they both gripped opposite ends of the spear. Finally, Rosemond let go as Thrasher gave up and heaved his axe at her. The double-headed blade slammed into Rosemond’s shield, cleaving a gaping hole into the metal that spurted blood from her severed arm.

Shrieking, the wildcat retreated back. Doubled over, she quickly fell, and Thrasher advanced on her from the front as Thrayjen crept into play from the side. Rosemond’s remaining paw suddenly found something in the sand. Without thought or grace, she flung Thrayjen’s net and tangled Thrasher. He flailed, trying to free his axe and his face from the braided cord that imprisoned him, only to further dig the curved hooks into his scales and flesh.

Rosemond laughed wildly, sitting up and reaching for Thrasher’s fallen axe. Thrayjen tipped her head back and sliced her throat open. He held her as she dropped in front of him, gurgling quietly as she pawed at her neck before stilling. Gently, he put her down.

To the crowd’s excited cheers and disappointed shouts, Thrayjen advanced upon Thrasher. The lizard was struggling fruitlessly, every limb save for his threatening tail caught in hook and rope. Dozens of wounds scored into his hide, but Thrasher refused to give up. He saw the rat approach and rolled away, ignoring the hooks that dug deeper into him. A foot came free; his hind claws and teeth immediately began working at the cords.

The volume in the stands grew, and grew, until screams of warning lit a fire of desperate energy and Thrasher ripped the remains of the net from him triumphantly. He looked up in time to see Thrayjen thrust forward with his trident, and skillfully spun out of the way, swatting at the deadly harpoon. Then, as Thrayjen’s arm was forced wide and the rat turned with the force of the hit, Thrasher leapt forward and knocked the rat down.

The weight on top of Thrayjen was crushing. Claws rend his face, teeth snapped at him as he tried to push back, and the lizard’s scales proved impervious to Thrayjen’s nails. He could smell his own blood, taste it in his throat. He grew weak, limp.

The lizard paused, looking at Nire.

The lynx, face disappointed, raised his paw.

Thrayjen shot up, jaws closing around Thrasher’s neck before the lizard could realize what had happened. Scaled muscle bunched and flexed as Thrasher pulled back, dragging the latched rat with him until he dislodged and rolled in the ground, spitting flesh and bile.

Beasts screamed, in delight, in terror. Nire threw his paws up in celebration, teeth bared in a wide smile. When Thrasher lay cold in the sand, fortunes were won and lost, with no sympathies or regard to the beasts who had died.

The Thrasher. Rosemond, the Longclaw. Kevin.

Gasping and panting, Thrayjen spun as he looked around with a single eye. Faces blurred and everything was coloured red, but through the windows in the Drag, Thrayjen could see a bright mouse with curly fur looking on.

The rat turned towards Nire’s high-pitched laughter. Thrayjen bowed, as he usually did, and forced his paws into the form of mercy as he walked back to the gate with twitching whiskers.
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